Monday, September 28, 2015

Bats, Spiders and Snakes - Oh My!

They creep and crawl! They slither and slide! They swoop and dive! It's the creatures that own the night and fill our slumber with the things of nightmares. Peruse the shelves of any Halloween department this month and you will be provided ample opportunity to adorn your home in terrifying paper and plastic versions of these haunting critters.

Wait, wait, wait...

What about a world infested with mice, mosquitoes and other insects? There are an estimated 10 quintillion (that's 1 followed by 19 zeros) individual insects roaming this planet at any given time. This number represents nearly 80% of the world's species. According to Encyclopedia Smithsonian, there are more than 200 million insects per human on Earth. And nearly 21 million homes in the U.S. are invaded each year by the pitter-patter of scampering mouse feet.  Enter in bats, spiders and even snakes. Unhuggable as they are, these animals actually provide a significant ecological benefit to the environment - and us! - by keeping these already mind boggling numbers in balance. Imagine what a truly creepy world it would be without the crawling, slithering, swooping ones to keep those numbers in check!
Courtesy of

Bats have the tendency to conjure up images of blood sucking, rabies infested flying rodents that blindly dip and dive and otherwise wreck havoc on your late night backyard festivities. Myth surrounds this animal so let's start by separating a few facts from fiction for bats and other creepy crawlers.

While rabies is most notorious in bats, the prevalence is relatively low. While caution should always be exercised, instant condemnation of these critters goes undeserved in the vast majority of situations. According to the World Health Organization, 99% of human cases are caused by domestic dog bites.
While animals such as bats do in fact carry diseases such as rabies, the chances of contracting such an illness is low with 1-3 cases reported from a variety of animal bites each year in the United States. Less than one-half of one percent of bats carry rabies. Death by mosquito, on the other hand, occurs in nearly 1 million people each year. In fact, mosquitoes are touted as the most deadly creature to mankind as carries of disease. And the average bat consumes 3,000 insects in one night!

Bats also have a bad rap for attraction to people's hair. Could this be due to their blindness? We have all heard the "blind as a bat" simile and while bats do have poor eyesight, they are not blind. Bats "see" with their ears through the use of echolocation. Using high-pitched sound waves directed out ahead of them, bats utilize the echoes that bounce of objects and relay back sight information. So when it appears that bats may be swooping down at your head looking for a place to nest, what a bat is most likely interested in are the insects flying around those lovely locks of hair!

The average spider consumes 2,000 insects each year (National Geographic). There are about 3,000 different kinds of spiders in the United States. Most species are harmless and rarely bite people. All spiders are venomous, but only a few have strong enough fangs and powerful enough venom to harm humans. A spider’s venom helps them kill or subdue their prey. Some people may be allergic to spider venom but only a few species of spiders are known to produce bites that are harmful to humans. That venom helps spiders consume nearly 2,000 insects per year.

 Even snakes help to control pest populations, especially common snakes here in Iowa. Non-constricting, non-venomous snakes will typically make a meal out of insects and small rodents. Garter snakes are the most common genus of snakes in North America, living in grasslands, woodlands, marshes and your backyard or garden. These little guys are doing your yard some good by eating a variety of critters including insects, mice and voles. Other species such as bullsnakes specifically require larger prey and are quite beneficial in controlling the damaging effects of rodent overpopulation.

So the next time you come across one of these critters, avoid the urge to swat, stomp, or otherwise smoosh out of existence one of nature's most effective (and free!) forms of pest control!

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Branch Out into the Hidden World of Trees

Oak Grove at Fort Des Moines Park

Q. What do pears, car wax, and anticancer treatments have in common?  
A. Trees - they all come from trees!

Thousands of products and goods we use every day begin as trees growing right outside our door. Totaling 25% of all living plants, trees are estimated to include 100,000 species! These 100,000 species also provide habitat and food sources for wildlife, comfort and aesthetically pleasing additions to our landscape. But the inherent value of a tree is not in the products we derive from them nor the beauty they provide. The value is in the behind-the-scenes things unfolding the moment roots take hold and a seedling bursts forth from the soil.

Ecosystem services are those services/processes either directly or indirectly provided to humans by the natural environment at no cost. Categories of ecosystem services are generally broken down into 5 categories:

1) Production of Goods
Trees: fuels, food, medicines, waxes, timber

2) Regeneration Services
Trees: air purification

3) Stabilizing Services
Trees: reduce water runoff

4) Life Fullfillment
Trees: beauty, recreation, spiritual inspiration

5) Preservation of Options
Trees: future supply of goods, services and discoveries for the future

We are all directly provided for in the Production department. We can look throughout our home, school or workplace to see how vital trees are in our day-to-day lives. But what about the other categories that we may not automatically take into consideration?

Let's take a closer look outside our front window at what is going on within a tree. The air around us is purified by trees through absorption of certain gases and pollutants. The cool thing about trees and other green plants is the process of photosynthesis -  trees take up carbon dioxide as a necessary part of making their own sugars for food/energy and, in the process, release oxygen as a byproduct for us to breathe. Bonus - carbon dioxide is one of the 6 culprits responsible for accelerated climate change. One tree can absorb nearly 48 pounds of carbon dioxide each year; and a 40 year old tree has sequestered, or put into long term storage, nearly 1 ton of the stuff...for free!

Trees also can help stabilize the microclimate of your property. Shade provided by trees helps lower the temperature, especially in urban areas. These front lawn inhabitants help to slow down water evaporation from the ground which also helps in temperature regulation. Even the climate inside our homes can benefit from trees. Costs associated with air-conditioning and heating are reduced by up to 40% when shade trees are planted within 30 feet of homes or other buildings! Conifer windbreaks along the north and west sides of your property also help to reduce overall energy costs.

In Iowa, we hear quite a bit about water quality and soil vitality. What do trees have to do with this?! Trees filter water pollutants, slow runoff and help control stormwater in towns and cities. The hardy root system of trees also help to anchor in soil, preventing erosion while maintaining the integrity of and replenishing Iowa's precious topsoil layer - a vital resource we are losing at a conservative rate of 5 tons per acre per year on crop fields.

Plant some shade today!

So let's do our part from home by preserving the ground on which we live! Residential customers of MidAmerican Energy Company can reduce future energy use, landscape their homes and green up their communities this fall through the Plant Some Shade® program. Plant Some Shade enables MidAmerican Energy’s residential customers to purchase up to two landscaping trees for $30 each. Trees are sold on a preordered, first-come, first-served basis. Pick up will be available on October 10th from 8:30 - 11:00 a.m. in the south parking lot of the Hoover State Office Building.  For ordering information, click here

Available trees. Click on tree names to find out more about a species.
(Dimensions below indicate size at maturity)

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Summer Countdown: Top 10 Things to Do in Your County Parks

The days are muggier and buggier as the smell of fried food on a stick fills the air. This can only mean one thing in Iowa - the beginning of the end of yet another short but sweet midwest summer and the start of pencils, papers and the eruption of cheers from your local high school stadium. But before that glorious taste of freedom comes to seasonal halt, give the kiddos one last hurrah with a local vacation - a county park staycation!

Polk County Conservation is home to more than 14,000 acres spread out across 20 parks, trails and wildlife areas chock full of adventure as summer winds down. Let's take a quick tour of all the fun to be had just waiting around the corner! In no particular order, here is our top 10:

Oxbows at Chichaqua Bottoms Greenbelt

10) Canoe at Chichaqua
The old oxbow river channels of the Skunk River provide ample opportunity to explore the natural world at Chichaqua Bottoms Greenbelt. Wildlife species such as river otters, great blue herons, beavers, wood ducks and painted turtles are just a few of the animals that can be seen while canoeing these backwaters. And Chichaqua has canoes for rent right on site! Cost is $8 per hour; paddles and life jackets are provided. Reservations can be made in advance by calling 515-249-5925 or on-site on a first-come, first-serve basis.

9) Fishing
The summer heat may stifle action a bit out on the water but with a little background knowledge, fishing will be just as fun as late spring, early summer! And let's get back to basics. Rig up a simple cane pole and head out to the ponds at Thomas Mitchell, Yellow Banks and Fort Des Moines Parks. Crappie and bluegills on the end of a hook, worm and bobber presentation will provide hours of panfishing fun! Without reels and casting, cane poles eliminate numerous snags and snares inevitable with young kids. You can really keep it simple with a traditional cane pole or purchase a fiberglass collapsible pole - perhaps easier to transport than a 6-14 foot wooden or bamboo pole! Click here for more cane pole information.
Creek walk at Thomas Mitchell Park 

8) Creek Walks
To seriously beat the heat means diving in first! Wading through Camp Creek at Thomas Mitchell park fits the bill on a sweltering August afternoon. Limestone steps installed throughout the waterway improve recreational access to the water for both children and adults alike. Other hotspots to get your feet wet include Mally's Park in Berwick and Paw Creek at Jester Park (accessible via the Hickory Ridge Trail).

7) Natural Playscape and Wildlife Viewing
Constructed from natural materials such as boulders, earth mounds, and water features, this innovative play area encourages imaginative natural play while avoiding plastics, metals, concrete and instruction. Sneaking in a little education is easy with the bison and elk exhibit nearby complete with an accessible observation deck, educational displays, spotting scopes, high quality art components and inviting view.

6) Remember those cane poles?  
Discovery Pond across from the Jester Park cabins is the perfect spot for beginning anglers. A hiking trail also surrounds the pond.

5) Birding
Don't miss the biannual migration of the American white pelican. These magnificent birds are beginning to arrive at Saylorville Lake from the northern U.S. and Canada in preparation for the fall migration. Saylorville serves as one of the largest resting spots stateside for one of the largest birds in North America. Look for the most impressive gatherings towards the end of August. By late September-early October most of the pelicans will have flown south to the Gulf Coast for the winter months.  

American white pelican
There are also two bird blinds for park users to take advantage of; one at Jester Park near Shelter #6 and one at Chichaqua just west of the Longhouse. Bird blinds are great places to observe birds. Inside the blind, you can take a seat and watch birds in their natural setting. Bird feeders are filled regularly to attract birds to the immediate area.

Chichaqua Bottoms Greenbelt is designated as a Bird Conservation Area by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and an Important Bird Area by the Audubon Society. The recently constructed wildlife viewing platform is a prime location for viewing many species of birds from meadowlarks to sandhill cranes. This platform area has spotting scopes installed and is easily accessible from Highway 65. Click here to download a brochure about this Bird Conservation Area which includes a field guide checklist.

4) Horseback Riding
Jester Park has even more to offer! Saddle up for adventure with the Jester Park Equestrian Center! Trail, wagon and pony rides are available all month long. Contact JPEC at 515-999-2818 to schedule your ride today! 

3) Golf
Situated within the beautiful Granger countryside, the Jester Park Golf Course is one of the premiere courses in Polk County. Players of all skill levels can try their luck at the 18-Hole Championship Course, 9-Hole Par 3 Course (also perfect for beginners and junior golfers), or Driving Range. The Jester Park Golf Course is accessible from NW 121st Street, just west of the Jester Park entrance. Go online to for more information.

Biking on the Chichaqua Valley Trail
2) Paved Trails
How about a ride or walk along the Chichaqua Valley Trail? With a recent addition of 6.25 miles of trail from the city limits of Bondurant stretching to NE 29th St. where the trail crosses beneath I-80, this Polk County and Bondurant project allows trail users to ride from Des Moines to Baxter via the Chichaqua Valley Trail. Load up the family for an afternoon of fun along this trail!

 1) Soft Trails
Soft, natural trails are also a big ticket for enjoying nature at a slower pace. Take a leisurely stroll amongst the shade and shadows created by a thick canopy of greenery overhead throughout our parks. Beautiful oak and hickory trees in Jester Park and Brown's Woods provide the perfect opportunity to cool down while taking in natural surroundings. The Savanna Trail at Yellow Banks park is home to some very old residents. This trail guides you past some of the last remaining savanna oak trees in Polk County - some are estimated to be more than 250 years old! Additional hiking trails within the park lead to overlooks of the river valley, a Native American burial mound, and a unique backpacking camping area.

Summer fun is right outside your front door right here in Polk County - no (major) travel required!