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In Search Of Sexy Dragon Flies, Glad-Handling Penguins

Baby stink bugs. Jealous giraffes. Opportunistic baboons. Seamstress crab spiders. Slipper-shaped orchids. Cypress-studded swamps.

In more than 30 years of observing, recording and photographing insect, plant and animal life across the globe, Michael Jeffords and Susan Post have seen it all—or nearly.

The married team chronicles some of their most memorable close-up experiences with fascinating creatures in a new book of photos and essays called "Curious Encounters with the Natural World: From Grumpy Spiders to Hidden Tigers."  

Jeffords and Post, who are both insect experts and field biologists, retired a few years ago from the Illinois Natural History Survey in Champaign. They haven't been sitting quietly at home. Their quest to observe the natural world has taken them from the southern tip of Africa to the Australian outback to the far edges of North and South America.

Keith Barnes
Susan Post and Michael Jeffords have spent more than 30 years documenting disappearing insects, animals, plants and flowers.

Still, they say, some of their fondest memories arise from their myriad travels through their home state of Illinois, which offers a panoply of landscapes and natural life.

"Illinois is an incredibly long state. In far southern Illinois we have the swamps much like Louisiana and if you go up to northern Illinois, to Lake County and Jo Davies County, you will find bogs and plants more familiar with cold areas," Post said on GLT's Sound Ideas.

"So you have this huge melting pot of organisms, plants and animals that you can look for. Illinois has over 54,000 species and over a 100 different communities or habitats."

About half the book contains photos and essays on encounters with wildlife and plant life here in Illinois, including microscopic red mites, sweat-sucking hackberry butterflies, eye-popping orchids and droves of dancing Asian carp along the Illinois River.

The pair often don't set out looking for anything specific. They simply keep their senses on alert and stop and observe when something catches their attention.

"Illinois has over 54,000 species and over a 100 different communities or habitats."

"Sue and I were both trained classically as biologists. Observation was a big part of it," Jeffords said. "And also we're collectors of objects. We live in a house most people would call a cabin of curiosities because it has what we think is so much interesting stuff in it."

Post carries a three by five notebook wherever she goes. "When I teach classes about nature journaling or observation, I always say write down where you are, write down the date and just look. Start listing the things you are seeing and pretty soon after you start listing them, you start looking closer. That just leads to more questions and more discovery."

As entomologists, both are often attracted to what is small or nearly hidden, they said. Plants are also a special fascination.

The two spent their honeymoon in search of rare orchids throughout Illinois. They found orange-fringed orchids in a place they call "Mr. Jackman's Bog" near Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. They discovered pink lady slipper-shaped orchids in a spot near Petoskey, Michigan they dubbed "Grandma's Bog."

"Sadly, both of those places are no longer here," Post said. "Mr. Jackman's Bog" has been taken over by the Dunes national park and is off limit to visitors except with a guide. "Grandma's Bog" was sold to developers.

Disappearing natural areas and threatened species are recurring themes in Jeffords' and Post's work.

The natural world, "is declining everywhere," Jeffords said.  "There is no place that is better than it used to be. Plant life, animal life, you name it, it's all on a downward slope. It's getting lower, like a voice going away."

Jeffords said the couple's goal is to document as much as possible, and make their observations and photographs available to the public. "If they (the public) don't see it, it doesn't exist. And if it doesn't exist, they don't care," Jeffords said.

Post said a good way to become more aware of the natural world is to join a local group such as the Illinois Master Naturalists or Master Gardeners, programs sponsored by the McLean County Extension office of the University of Illinois.

There are also many nature preserves in and around McLean County, Post said, including Sugar Grove Nature Center, the Parklands Nature Preserves, and Fugate Woods in Livingston County.

The duo said their excursions across the globe and their close encounters with wildlife have taught them that all of creation life is linked. 

"This is the only planet in the universe we know actually has life on it. So we see (wildlife and plant life) as a a continuum of ourselves," Jeffords said.

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