Monday, December 31, 2007

Angry spelunker

It's not often you come across a hilarious birding skit online, but Coudal did. This clip is well worth four minutes of your time. Click here:

Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Owl frenzy

There's no doubt I've become something of a solitary birder. But I couldn't have added two life-list birds today without the help of other people.

As a teen and pre-teen, I birded as part of a group each spring. In college, I nearly stopped formally birding altogether (though one really can't stop birding, probably a topic for a future post). After college, I resumed birding, especially on solo early-morning walks in a place called the Pony Pasture in Richmond, Va. Since then, I've typically birded alone or with one other person. I do check the birding message boards and occasionally ask questions of other birders when I encounter them. A little bit of information can make a huge difference. As posted here previously, the Internet has sent me directly to unusual birds before and makes it easy to bag new species. Admittedly, I do like the solitude and discovering birds on my own though, too.

Today I went to Montrose Point. The northern saw-whet owl, above, and long-eared owl are fairly common winter visitors here but elusive to those who don't know precisely where to look. I knew that they had been seen in the area recently, but previously I have never sighted them on my own. Just after biking up to the sanctuary, I caught two birders in conversation and asked if I could join them to find the owls. We first saw the saw-whet, a sparrow-sized owl buried in a tangle of small trees and brush. Then we moved on to the long-ear, in a similar position about a hundred yards away. The saw-whet was clearly sleeping, but the long-ear was alert and mechanically twisting his head back and forth. (I always think of the robotic owl from "Clash of the Titans" when I see owls move.) They both were very tame, and I took a few pictures; there are more posted on flickr. Finally, to top it off, I later saw a short-eared owl fly over the pier at the end of the point and out high over the lake--apparently headed for a distant shore. Quite a few owls about on this bright, crisp morning!

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Skyline limit

Thank you to Chicagoist, which posted a driftless area photo yesterday.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Dim bottles

I would like to give a nod to the International Dark Sky Association, as featured in the Tribune recently. What an important cause this is, for so many reasons.

Also, read about the dangers of Nalgene bottles here. I'm not sure what we'd do without them.

Sweatshirt wisdom

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Corvid return

Observations from Southeast Michigan, Larry King style (note use of ellipses)...what if I didn't check weather forecasts at all for a couple weeks? Could I survive? Would I have packed the appropriate clothing for the wild temperature swings of the past few days?...The crows returned to the tree in front of our neighbors' house on Friday night. Loyal readers will recall these crows began sleeping in this tree last winter. Now, they're back and the number of corvids is up to four...A cooper's hawk has spent the past couple weeks near my workplace on the Southwest Side of Chicago...I saw a black squirrel today in Grosse Pointe Farms, Mich., another record to add to the nationwide matrix I'm developing...A December thaw sent temperatures soaring to over 50 as far north as the Adirondacks. Why don't people remember drastic snow melts as much as dramatic snowstorms?...ESPN2 showed Jeff Foxworthy kill a dall sheep on the tundra this morning.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Nimrod farewell

"Nimrod Nation" concluded its run on Sundance Channel last night, and Monday night TV viewing will be far less interesting because of it. Thankfully, there is plenty more content on the Sundance Channel Web site. I'm not sure if I should give away the ending or not so I won't mention how the basketball team does. I will say that Brian Aimsback, the junior guard of Native American descent, emerges as perhaps the most interesting person of all those chronicled.

One of the most memorable lines comes from an area man who lives with his family in a house without siding. In the last scene, he is tapping maples for syrup--all this man does throughout the series is hunt, skin game and slaughter animals (there is a bio and more about him on the Sundance site). Anyway, his youngest son says "We shouldn't cut down all the trees because we need them to breathe." The man replies: "That's right; we need them for oxygen. But don't be a treehugger. We don't want to save every tree because that's not good forestry."

Owl invasion

Thank you to Chicagoist, which not only shared a photo of a long-eared owl in the South Loop but also a comprehensive roundup of local owl news from 1894. While the first post stated the bird in the photo was a great horned owl, a commenter correctly identified it as a long-ear. I have such limited experience with owls; I couldn't have made that distinction.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Downy grasspecker

A Christmas tree search today took us to DeKalb County, about 60 miles west of Chicago. This is a land of rolling farms, fencerows and long views of corn stubble. It was a snowy day, and the snow really started coming down hard about the time we went to the Applebee's in DeKalb for an early-bird special dinner.

We stopped at Prairie Kame Forest Preserve and Lone Grove Forest Preserve on the way to Camelot Tree Farm. A kame is a hill-like glacial formation caused by meltwater 14,000 years ago. We nearly drove past Prairie Kame before realizing that the small hill was the destination. This is a scenic area of the un-McMansioned portion of Kane County.

We also made a detour to Shabbona Lake State Recreation Area. From what we could see through the snowflakes, this looks like a promising place for future visits in the proper season. The bird sightings of the day were two groups of horned larks, but what really was memorable was the odd downy woodpecker working on a low bush next to a creek. There are pictures of the downy and more at the driftless area flickr site.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Otter hysteria

Chicagoist reported a bombshell today: river otters reside in almost all watersheds in Cook County. The riverine rodents even live in downtown Chicago, according to a biologist. I know coyotes live in the city and this town is dirty with raccoons (pun intended), but otters! Wow. I've only seen one otter in my life and it was scampering along a reservoir in southeastern Illinois, near Effingham. They are much larger than one would expect; more seal-like than rat-like really.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Mighty hunters

There are a lot of things I like about rural life, but I'll never be able to slaughter a pig. That is one of the conclusions I made from tonight's episode of "Nimrod Nation." The season has moved swiftly, and Watersmeet has already clinched the conference title and won a playoff game. Brian Aimsback, the quiet junior, is beginning to think about his future and has an awkward conversation with a prospective college coach. Sadly, he goes scoreless with the coach in attendance at the playoff game. One man attends his daughter's figure skating performance in Eagle River, Wis. It also seems that the coach's son has skipped out on the Drama Club while the coach (who doubles as principal) encourages the team to miss drama practice--all to the drama teacher's chagrin. Finally, the students' profane language has become a source of entertainment. Whether ice fishing, hunting, shooting, drinking, these kids like to swear--a lot.

Weird world

A few months from now, I hope to be posting about an adventure to the Bahamian island of Eleuthera. Meantime, an array of 1,000- to 4,200-year-old fossils were found in a "blue hole" on the island of Abaco. The bones included a terrestrial crocodile and a variety of other animals including humans. The article describes blue holes as a type of cavern or sink hole. On Eleuthera, Jacques Cousteau dove at its famous "Ocean Hole."

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Petrel dilemma

The New York Times published an editorial about the latest dire warning on endangered bird species. Thank you, NYT.

Sad Suriname

I highly recommend a visit to The Onion's Atlas of Planet Earth. Check out the description of Suriname. Sorry, Suriname. (Hat tip: Chicagoist)

Digital underground

I'm rather obsessed with the Weather Underground Web site since being re-introduced to it recently. The site organizes weather data better than other weather Web sites like The Weather Channel's site (, Accuweather and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Because of a massive network of local weather observers, it also provides more localized data. For example, right now the temperature at 'Uptown' is 34.5 degrees according to Underground. When I enter '60640' into a Gold search, the temperature is stated as 30 degrees. is using data from either Midway Airport or O'Hare Airport. Both are several miles from here and farther inland. Weather Underground's data is coming from someone near the intersection of Lawrence and Sheridan.

Previously, I would visit each of the aforementioned sites for different purposes. NOAA's to check out the Illinois roundup, Accuweather's for the past 24 hours' temps and for current conditions and forecasts. Weather Underground includes all of this information on one page, including the daily extremes for the entire state.

I didn't realize it until recently, but Weather Underground was the weather Web site I checked in the mid-1990s on a text-based Internet browser. It started at the University of Michigan and now is its own company. It's a true Web pioneer that has not gone the way of Netscape or usenets!

Monday, November 26, 2007

Nimrod beauty

The Sundance Channel began airing an eight-part documentary called "Nimrod Nation" tonight. The series chronicles the 2005-2006 boys basketball season in Watersmeet, Mich., home of the Nimrods (a biblical term for a hunter). The connection to this blog is tenuous--we camped last Memorial Day weekend about an hour from Watersmeet, which is in the rugged Ottawa National Forest and 375 miles north of Chicago.

The preview of the series was promising, and tonight's segments delivered nicely. Nothing ever could match "Hoop Dreams," but "Nimrod Nation" is definitely better than "Go Tigers," a documentary about football in Massillon, Ohio. One documentary that rivals "Hoop Dreams" is the PBS-produced "Country Boys," which follows the lives of two teens in eastern Kentucky during several years. There isn't a sports angle in "Country Boys," but it too traces the travails of young people in rural or low-income settings.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Bird report

Highlights from driving to Livonia, Mich., and back to Chicago during the past several days. Three sandhill cranes flying over I-94 west of Ann Arbor on Friday; a great blue heron flying over snowy Benton Harbor, Mich.; at least three cooper's hawks including one on the campus of the College for Creative Studies in Detroit; at least two american kestrels; nearly two dozen mute swans including several at Wolf Lake along the Indiana-Illinois border; and several dozen red-tailed hawks all over the place.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Current unpleasantness

Two local stories lately seemed like driftless area fodder. First, some residents in Antioch, near the Illinois-Wisconsin border, are against a shopping center that will skirt the shores of a glacial lake. The shopping complex would sit beside Little Silver Lake, formed when glaciers receded thousands of years ago. Antioch is in the growing exurban section of Chicagoland, where undeveloped stretches of prairie and forest are being plowed under for McMansions and malls.

Second, a 29-year-old Illinois man was killed in Wisconsin while deer hunting. The cause was an accidental discharge while tracking a wounded deer. Also in that story is an account of a grandfather shooting a grandson after mistaking him for a deer. Grim stories for sure, but the dangers of hunting are always so scary. It is an endeavor where things can go horribly awry very quickly. There is no such thing as a minor hunting accident.

After these two anecdotes, a few positives to be thankful for: today's dusting of snow on the North Side of Chicago, the downy woodpecker I heard in our alley today and the golden maples leaves strewn all over our street in recent days.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Squirrel rampage

Squirrels really did go on a rampage in the North Woods on Monday. First, a squirrel in beautiful Ashland, Wis., close to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, was zapped by an electrical transformer--causing a power outage. Then, a squirrel in bucolic Ironwood, Mich., not far from Porcupine Mountains State Wilderness Area, took out power for more than 1,000 people. Now, I once worked with a man named Dane who claimed that he was late punching in because squirrels had chewed through the power lines outside of his house (thus causing an outage that silenced his alarm clock). I still don't believe him.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Treacherous treadmill

Yesterday marked a milestone in my knee rehab as I ran on a treadmill for the first time. There was something "Rocky IV" about it, I'm proud to say. But it was more akin to the first time Borat Sagdiyev steps on a treadmill in Da Ali G Show than Ivan Drago in the Soviet Union.

There has been a lot of local nature news of late. An aberrant green-breasted mango, a type of hummingbird, that appeared in Beloit, Wis., has been trapped and transported to the Brookfield Zoo. There also was a national story about a guy who shot a cat that was stalking a piping plover in Texas.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Fake lake

November has become something of a fallow period at the driftless area. I did hear a white-throated sparrow at Halas Hall today, however. Here is some writing from 2006.

Artifical lakes are like non-alcoholic beer. Like many state parks in Illinois, Moraine View State Recreation Area has a large artificial lake. These dam-fed waters might be fun for some, but they only remind me that I'm in Central Illinois next to a fake lake. Moraine View actually has a nice walk-in loop in a woodlot next to the lake, though I fear it would be overcrowded in summer. The signs admonishing campers that "coolers will be searched" spoiled the wilderness experience even more for me. Still, the surrounding pancake-flat backroads of McLean County are laden with raptors and other birds in winter.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

'Polling place

I went to Montrose Point this morning with a very specific goal. There had been reports this week of common redpolls in the dune area. Redpolls are small finches of boreal and taiga regions that occasionally make it south to places like Illinois. To put it in perspective, just two redpolls were seen in all of Illinois during last year's Christmas Bird Count.

I was in the dune area just after dawn. I made one circuit through the dunes and then stood sentry on the fishhook pier overlooking the site. A couple other birders walked below and then circled toward the beach. Eventually, they flushed two sparrow-sized birds. The birds flew right at me, fluttered upward about 20 feet over my head and landed beside a big puddle about 20 yards away. Sure enough, two common redpolls, even more stunning in person than in a bird guide. These red-capped, rose-tinged birds would look great on someone's Christmas cards. Another new one for the life list.

Early reports indicate this could be a good year for irruptions of winter finches. There was an amazing flock of american goldfinches (goldfinches are not winter finches, fyi) feeding in the central meadow at Montrose this morning. There was an unusual song mixed in with the goldfinches, and it turned out it was a winter finch: a purple finch (I confirmed this through a recording on All About Birds when I got home). There were just 97 purple finches seen in Illinois' CBC last year.

All told, 25 species this morning, which is pretty good for this time of year at Montrose.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Leaf garrote

I've been waiting all autumn for this, and Wednesday it finally came. It's the annual fall foliage disappointment article. Usually these articles come before the peak colors and say that this year will be a disappointing year for fall color due to not enough rain, too much rain, too much heat and too much cold. This time, the Tribune printed the disappointment story after the peak fall color season.

Now, I've been in Chicago all the way through autumn, and I have seen quite a bit of fall color. It's not the New England countryside, but the reds in the maples have blazed nicely. I'm guessing the yearly disappointments are because of the embellishments of state tourism photos and a mistaken nostalgia for the years of our childhoods when the colors were really vibrant. Sort of how everyone remembers winters with eight-foot snow drifts from their youth. And how it used to be a lot colder. And how it's been a lot milder in recent years. OK, well, maybe that is actually true.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Counting crows

Yesterday I received in the mail the National Audubon Society's summary of last year's Christmas Bird Count. It's a bound magazine-style publication with a vermilion flycatcher on the front cover. I participated in last year's count and so was one of more than 1,000 individuals who counted 3.75 million of 168 species reported in the great state of Illinois.

The publication is full of fascinating information. Like the high snow goose county count in Illinois was Union County with 8,000. Or that only 13 pine siskins were found on six different counts. Or that only 210 red-breasted nuthatches were tallied statewide (this is why I am so excited when I see one at a feeder in Minnesota or Michigan). Or the one pine grosbeak statewide, at Forest Glen Preserve.

Birders are known for meticulous list-making, and the Christmas Bird Count summary doesn't disappoint. One section is called "Summary of Highest Counts of Individuals for the United States." There are lots of California, Arizona, Texas, Hawaii, Alaska and Florida listings. The amazing ones include the eight northern goshawks at a dam in North Dakota, the 147 pileated woodpeckers at Fort Belvoir, Va., and the 89,000 american crows at Middle Fork River Valley, Ill. (Illinois!)

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Writing headlock

The driftless area has not been so fertile lately, so here is a lost file from the Guatemala trip in April...

Kids everywhere--even those residing high on the slopes of Volcan Pacaya--had pro wrestling T-shirts. They featured the stars of the "sport." The Undertaker, John Cena, Rey Mysterio. Most featured the emblem "WWF," which hasn't been used for some years since World Wildlife Fund sued the World Wrestling Federation. (The wrestlers then went to World Wrestling Entertainment.) I suppose these shirts are not licensed merchandise.

This raises a number of questions: 1) Is wrestling this popular in Guatemala? 2) How did this pirated merchandise proliferate? 3) Did all of these kids persuade their parents to buy these shirts? Way up on Pacaya, the same child asking us for a pop was wearing a John Cena T-shirt.

An aside, Rayovac logos are everywhere in these tiny villages. Do multinational battery companies really have a marketing strategy for towns 7,000-feet up in the highlands?

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Wild ride

Last night, we saw "Into the Wild," Sean Penn's big-screen version of the Jon Krakauer book. This story is something of a contemporary outdoor classic that was first excerpted in Outside magazine. I have mixed feelings about Krakauer, though I've read three of his books. I just saw a special about Krakauer and Penn on the Sundance Channel the other night, and Krakauer said something that bothered me, along the lines of "I'd rather be dead that working a 9-to-5 job." That comment would be OK from an idealistic 20-year-old but I don't need to hear it from a 53-year-old who obviously has been very fortunate in his writing career.

Anyway, a brief review of the movie. (If you don't know the story, there's a synopsis here.) I enjoyed most the vivid characters McCandless meets along the way. A lot of the people and places were very authentic, and in many cases real people rather than actors were included. The aging hippies in California, the South Dakota farmer and the Salton Sea retiree all were realistic--though I struggled most to accept the goateed Vince Vaughn as the farmer. It's a tribute to Krakauer's reporting that he pieced this story together and tracked down all these people. I also appreciated the attention to detail: filming around the same abandoned bus where McCandless stayed in Alaska, using early 1990s fashion and lots of pay phones and letters. This is a maddening and tragic story along the lines of "Grizzly Man." Interesting that both took place in Alaska, and I think there's a line in the book from a resident Alaskan who comments on the random people that the state attracts.

Shifting sands

This morning marked several milestones. I biked to Montrose Point; it was the first time I've biked (for real) since I had surgery. It also was the first time I had been to Montrose Point in many months. Next, I added species No. 300 to my North America (United States and Canada) life list. Finally, the frost today may have been the first of the season at the lakefront (see photo).

Montrose and the Magic Hedge Sanctuary are always changing, in part because of the active restoration efforts but also because of natural shifts in the fluid environment along the lake. Montrose Beach Dunes, a state-protected area, has literally doubled in size in the past year. What started as a neglected pile of sand a decade ago has become a complex dune habitat that continues to grow. Here nature has taken over a disturbed habitat and expanded its reach onto a formerly groomed public beach. Thanks to a few volunteers, more acreage is protected and native plantings are recreating the ancient dune habitat that once existed along the southwestern shore of Lake Michigan.

Snow buntings had avoided my life list until today. They're fairly common in Illinois in the nonbreeding season. The only "all-white songbird" breeds in the high Arctic. Today I saw two snow buntings along the new breakwall at Montrose Point. Their bright white wing patches make them unmistakable. (A note on the life list: I exclude species I've seen in the Bahamas, Central America and Europe.)

The mercury today dipped to 37 degrees. Frosts usually reach the lakefront up to three weeks later than areas 30 miles inland. A nice return to normalcy during a too-hot autumn.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Wandering tattlers

I've shared observations on this before, but the Chicago Tribune has now written a story about the birders and naked men at Montrose Point. The story shed more light on the phenomenon than any before. When I told a friend once about the nomadic men of Montrose, he said "I bet there are a lot of minivans there." The Trib story would seem to confirm this (anyone not getting the implication of the 'minivan' reference, let me know).

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Autumn idyll

Notes from a week spent mostly indoors. Saw an alley rabbit hop across Clarendon Avenue tonight. Saw a group of dark-eyed juncos feeding outside the WGN studios Monday. A palm warbler was in a tree on the workplace grounds Saturday. The sunset Tuesday night was spectacular. Altocumulus stratiformis clouds were bathed in alpenglow for at least an hour. I love autumn.

Elsewhere, Openlands' future preserve along Illinois' Lake Michigan shore is making headway. This will be one of the few public access points for Illinois' morainal ravines that skirt Lake Michigan.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Wilderness starved

When I moved to Chicago, co-workers who knew of my outdoor enthusiasm would ask if I had been to Starved Rock State Park. These queries were well-intended, but for a long time we eschewed the big-name park for places like Mississippi Palisades, Apple River Canyon and White Pines Forest. I have mixed feelings about Starved Rock, but since I just went there I will accentuate the positive.

The great thing about Starved Rock is that it makes the outdoors accessible for people who might not otherwise go for a walk in the woods. Most of the trails are readily passable, and there is no admission fee. The park's magnificent cedar-lined bluffs and sandstone canyons are a short walk from most anywhere in the park. It's an easy day trip from the Chicago area, about 90 minutes one way. The view from the patio at the lodge is stunning. There aren't many places in Illinois where you can sit on a bluff and have a burger and a beer.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Minnesota view

I never did share any pictures of Minnesota. This is what Minnesota looks like. At least the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge. There are more photos here.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Mango madness

A hummingbird from the tropics has made its way to Beloit, Wis. A green-breasted mango has been spotted in a yard there. The mango's typical range is Central and South America.

One baseball-related comment: Why does Fox keep saying the Indians are underdogs even though they finished with the same regular-season record as Boston?

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Squirrel wars

It's rare that a major newspaper devotes many column inches to squirrels. But the New York Times did last weekend. In a lengthy piece in its Sunday magazine, the Times featured the gray squirrel problem in Britain. American gray squirrels, the very species that resides just outside our front door right here in Uptown, were introduced to England many years ago. The squirrels have begun to overrun the native (and beloved) red squirrels of the British Isles.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Major league

A running diary of Game 4 of the American League Division Series...

6:38 - A late start to the diary, but it's OK as Grady Sizemore has just stepped in...and hits a long home run to center field! It feels like the first part of Game 3. Uh oh.

6:44 - Eric Wedge's new beard isn't looking that good.

6:45 - Play-by-play man Chip Caray uses the phrase "dulcet tones."

6:49 - Jhonny Peralta drives in former Ranger Travis Hafner! 2-0 Tribe.

6:55 - Good. Franklin Gutierrez is in right field again tonight. I don't care what Caray said in Game 3. Starting Trot Nixon was a bad idea.

6:59 - Former Ranger Alex Rodriguez stands in with two runners on. And strikes out.

7:03 - Former Ranger Kenny Lofton makes a nice catch for the third out.

7:09 - The Indians' Kelly Shoppach is a good No. 2 catcher. He's bunting here with two on and nobody out. The umps call a hit by pitch on a bunt attempt! Bases loaded.

7:14 - Yankees starter Chien Ming Wang is removed after just one inning. Before the game, I told anyone who would listen--OK, one person--that Wang was inexperienced in the postseason despite his 19 wins this year.

7:17 - Mike Mussina comes in for the Yankees. His best days may be behind him.

7:19 - Mussina induces a double play but the Tribe adds a run.

7:22 - Poised rookie Asdrubal Cabrera adds an RBI single! 4-0!

7:26 - I appreciate Caray's neutrality. ESPN Radio's Jon Miller gushes all over the Yankees at every opportunity.

7:31 - Who would have thought the Indians would make it this far without Keith Foulke, Andy Marte, Cliff Lee and Jeremy Sowers. All were key parts of the preseason roster.

7:40 - New York mounts a rally, but crafty veteran Paul Byrd gets Melky Cabrera to pop out.

7:45 - Yankees catch a break when umpire Bruce Froemming misses a checked swing call. Bases loaded, one out.

7:47 - Johnny Damon pops out for out No. 2. Whew.

7:48 - Crap. Infield hit scores a run.

7:52 - Byrd escapes, yielding just one run.

7:55 - I'm eating an apple that was grown at Carpenter St. Croix Valley Nature Center in Hastings, Minn.

8:04 - Mussina looks good in the third inning.

8:07 - Byrd strikes out A-Rod looking. Nice.

8:16 - Shoppach hits a ground-rule double.

8:16 - Yanks coach Ron Guidry leads the American League in best-groomed mustache.

8:23 - The fundamentally sound Asdrubal Cabrera lays down a perfect sacrifice. Hafner is walked to load the bases.

8:27 - Two-run single by Victor Martinez! 6-1!

8:29 - A lot of Yankees fans got the memo tonight to wear light blue shirts.

8:41 - Caray calls Paul Byrd "dazzling." This has been a quiet dazzling.

8:47 - A-Rod records a rare postseason hit.

8:49 - Byrd through five complete!

8:53 - Indians catch a break on a Grady Sizemore infield hit.

8:57 - Caray just called Melky Cabrera "The Melk-man." Meantime, Mussina departs.

9:03 - Arli$$ is in the house.

9:07 - Robinson Cano hits a solo home run. Damn.

9:10 - I didn't need this Jon Bongiovi interview.

9:16 - Darn. Yankees start a rally against Rafael Perez with one down in the sixth.

9:20 - Perez jams Derek Jeter and gets a double play!

9:23 - Kyle Farnsworth comes in for the Yanks, and it appears he's wearing reading glasses.

9:42 - Pace of game stalls even more. Perez starts seventh by striking out Bobby Abreu.

9:45 - A-Rod cuts the lead to three.

9:53 - Perez is looking wild. I'm feeling nervous.

9:54 - Cano grounds out to first to end the seventh.

10:00 - Shoppach hits his second double of the game.

10:02 - Yankees decide to leave Jose Veras in the game. Maybe not. Here comes Mariano Rivera.

10:22 - Rafael Betancourt sets down Yanks 1-2-3 in eighth while I do knee exercises.

10:24 - Doesn't it seem like Joe Torre has been depressed for the past three years or so?

10:24 - Nice. TBS plays the theme from "Major League" while showing Indians highlights.

10:27 - Craig Sager reports that the Indians' wives are keeping away from their husbands.

10:33 - Joe Borowski was considered the big weakness for the Tribe before the series. Here he comes.

10:34 - Jeter pops out.

10:36 - Abreu homer. 6-4. Here comes A-Rod.

10:39 - A-Rod F-9.

10:40 - Posada misses a home run by a few feet.

10:41 - Posada strikes out swinging. The Indians win it, oh my god the Indians win it! They're celebrating tonight from the Appalachian foothills to the Lake Erie islands to the high ground east of Cleveland.

Climate change

First it was a 75-degree January day in New York City (restaurants were serving food outside for lunch and everything). Next a week of 90-degree temperatures in Northern Ontario. Then an 88-degree October day in Minnesota. And a super-hot Chicago Marathon that had to be cancelled. For a long time, I had been in denial that global warming was happening right around us. I'm not anymore. Despite the melting of Arctic ice and Antarctic ice shelves and the disappearance of glaciers in the Alps and snow on Kilimanjaro, I thought it would take a while for global warming to strike the middle latitudes. Now I've seen enough. And it feels horrible, kinda like the apocalypse. It's 84 in Chicago right now.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Gnat attack

Blogging live from Saint Paul, Minn. We're just blocks from the Mississippi River, which winds its way through the Twin Cities. The day began at the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, just a short drive from here. This is a land of rich bottomland forest and high bluffs. Highlights from a walk on a hot day included two bald eagles. One was flying with a duck in its talons. There also were hundreds of american coots and a pocket of warblers, some of which appeared to be yellow-rumped warblers. Warblers in fall are drably colored and notoriously difficult to identify.

I've been asked to offer opinions on the Cleveland Indians' baseball games against the New York Yankees. I will give the people what they want. There will be more to come, especially if the Tribe makes it to the American League Championship Series.

Before the series, I thought to myself: the Yankees have an unbelievable lineup, but the Indians have better pitchers. Then I thought of the simple axiom that good pitching beats good hitting. That's when I decided the Tribe would win the series. I also looked at the teams' entire rosters. The Yankees field a fantasy-quality offensive lineup, but their pitchers are either very old or very young and inexperienced. They have big names like Mussina, Clemens and Pettitte, but not much substance.

Typical Midwesterner that I am, I soon became enraged by the East Coast bias I perceived regarding the Yankees. All of the pre-series (and season-long) focus was on the Yankees and their running mates the Boston Red Sox. Young Yankees like Joba Chamberlain and Shelly Duncan had already become ESPN-generated household names. The Indians' phenoms, Fausto Carmona and Asdrubal Cabrera, both of whom had far, far superior seasons, were completely off ESPN's map. So when a swarm of midges caused the Yankees to wilt yesterday I had little sympathy. I think it was a back-breaker. Good bye, Yankees.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Hat tip

I could go on and on until the break of dawn writing about the Beastie Boys' show. The all Beastie Boys blog Mic to Mic has posted the video I took at the start of "Egg Raid on Mojo" (scroll to 9/27 post). I really have to recommend the "Butterfish" video posted on that blog.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Egg raid

A leftover from the Beastie Boys' show. The "twirl" Adrock references was done by the woman standing next to me.

Pastoral homecoming

OK, so we weren't just in Central Ohio to watch the squirrels. We also visited our alma mater, Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. We were there for "Homecoming," which is hilarious because literally ones of people came to The Hill for the event. Ohio Wesleyan defeated the Lords 35-27 in the football game. I have posted photos, including several from the idyllic Brown Family Environmental Center, on my flickr site.

Also, Chicago Wilderness Magazine has recently published stories about stargazing and marram grass.

Beautiful Ohio

Yahoo's home page includes a list of top searches. Miraculously, "Squirrels" came in at No. 9 yesterday.

This weekend I verified that red squirrels inhabit central Ohio as well as gray squirrels. We camped at a private campground outside of Mount Vernon, Ohio. This is a land of rolling hills, deciduous forests and cropland that is bisected by the Kokosing River Valley. Camping is becoming expensive. Rustic Knolls Campground charged a total of $84 for a two-night stay for four people. That's $21 per person per night. The owner cited the fact that we had two tents, a reasoning I've never heard before. Thankfully, we had a large grove mostly to ourselves.

There are a few differences between private and public campgrounds. Drinking is usually OK at a private campground. I've witnessed sketchy behavior in both private and public settings. At Rustic Knolls, dozens of semi-permanent trailers are the lifeblood of the business. There is a community there, including a hog roast on Saturday night in the rec hall. Massive pickup trucks line the lanes of the trailer park. It's not a bad spot to spend summers and weekends, but I wouldn't want to stare at RVs all day. That isn't camping.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Gala event

A very special performance took place tonight in the Camp Chicago area. The Beastie Boys played a Gala Event at the Riviera Theatre in Uptown. My quick analysis is that the Beastie Boys have parlayed a really stupid album from the mid-1980s ("Licensed to Ill") into a platform for some great music and a lot of fun. They actually still seem to like each other and their audience. The brilliant New York trio opened the show up to cameras and camcorders. I have a lot of footage and photos besides this one.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Uptown scene

Video is definitely still a new frontier for this blog. A digital camera video plus YouTube compression leaves a lot of detail out of the above (warning: 1 minute, 47 second video).

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Weekend rambles

There are some new photos posted at from travels around Chicago the past two weekends.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Roasted bunting

I didn't know until today that songbird eating was a tradition in France. It's illegal, but many still eat roasted ortolan. This bunting species breeds in Europe and migrates to Africa in the winter. It's best eaten whole: bill, bones, feet and all.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Motorboat terror

My biggest fear when camping isn't bears, squirrels or wolves. It's people. One or two rivercombers can ruin even the prettiest night under the stars. And the isolation of camping makes these encounters all the more terrifying. These drillrods ruined lots of family vacations in the Boundary Waters.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Window birding

I don't have much to report, but it does seem like birds are on the move. The New York Times wrote a nice story about fall migration season. Yesterday, I counted eight species from my cubicle window: common grackle, american kestrel, red-tailed hawk, american crow, rock dove, mourning dove, european starling and ring-billed gull. It doesn't sound like much, but it was quite a day. And when I wasn't gazing out the window, I got a whole lot of work done, too.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Blue harbor

The early meteorological autumn chill has continued in recent days. This morning, Freeport, Ill., on the edge of the Driftless Area, registered a 32-degree reading. According to, this breaks the previous record of 38. It was just 42 at O'Hare this morning and 36 at Aurora. Madison, Wis., and Fond du Lac, Wis., reached 33 degrees for overnight lows, and Champaign, Ill., chilled to 37 degrees (accuweather lists the record as 40). The crisp air has made for near unlimited visibility. The colors were particularly vibrant at Montrose Harbor today (above).

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Autumn declared

Is it fall? Yes. And no. Is it still summer? Yes. And no. Meteorological fall began on Sept. 1, according to WGN-TV meteorologist Tom Skilling. Astronomical fall usually begins around Sept. 21. This morning it was 44 degrees in Peoria, Ill., for example, which is fall-like. I believe in the meteorological seasons rather than the astronomical seasons for Midwestern climes.

The meteorological seasons begin on Sept. 1, Dec. 1, March 1 and June 1. Of course, it can be hot here in early September and frigid in early March. And brisk in early June. Still, most of us think of June as a summery month and December as a wintry one. Our climate just doesn't quite align with the solstices and equinoxes.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Nuthatch horn

Today was fall-like. Temperatures just barely reached 70, and it was gloomy all day with drizzle. The chillier weather brought a few birds along with it. I saw an immature cooper's hawk outside the office. I may have heard the tin horn call of a red-breasted nuthatch along our Uptown street. If so, this would be a personal first nuthatch for our neighborhood.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Beard update

I'm still clean shaven, but I have made some Rocky-like strides this week. The latest is that I can fully pedal a bicycle now. Actual bike riding on the street is going to have to wait for a while, though, as the new ligament is still in a delicate phase.

Chicago aerials

Lupe Fiasco's video for the skateboard anthem "Kick, Push" has some great Chicago scenery in it. This song is so great I just had to post this.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

River roadkill

While BP is in the news for its refinery waste in Whiting, Ind., Ohio saw a strange form of environment tampering recently. A construction company inexplicably dredged an 8,700-foot stretch of the Chagrin River, a State Scenic River that runs into Lake Erie from the uplands east of Cleveland. The river is home to a rare variety of brook trout.

Also, a driftless area correspondent reports that St. Paul, Minn., is home to red squirrels. (Best I can tell, St. Paul is not actually in the Driftless Area. This is instead referencing someone who reads the blog.) In addition, roadkill observations indicate that fox squirrels do reside in Williams County, Ohio, in the extreme northwest corner of the state.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Forest clubbing

Forest City Yacht Club is a place where you can see a polka band one moment and a sleek cigarette boat (not pictured) the next. We spent the day as guests at the club, which served as a vantage point for the Cleveland Air Show, not to mention double-crested cormorants and a great blue heron. Cleveland's nickname of the Forest City has roots that extend to Alexis de Tocqueville.

Butterfly effect

I don't know much about butterflies, but I sure have seen a lot of monarch butterflies around in Chicago and Cleveland during the past week. A quick check of Wikipedia seems to indicate they are migrating to their wintering grounds in Mexico.

Other recent wildlife highlights: two coyotes lounging in the grass along Lake Shore Drive just south of McCormick Place; a broad-winged hawk at my friend's house in Avon Lake, Ohio; red-tailed hawk, fox squirrel, turkey vulture and most notably yellow-billed cuckoo here at the homestead.

Texas-wide web

Picture it, a dew-laden morning in August 2004. It's the River Ridge trail in Central Illinois. It's steamy, but not especially hot--in the 70s. There are a ton of trees down from a recent storm. Spiders, and their webs, are everywhere. With every few sweaty steps, a run-in with an annoying web that has been spun across the trail. Now there's a giant spider web in a Texas park that could make for a very uncomfortable hike.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Beard training

I wish I could say rehabbing my knee was as exciting as when Rocky went to train in Siberia. But so far I haven't chopped any wood, climbed any snow-capped peaks or grown a beard. Instead, it's all lunges and leg raises. Sixteen days after surgery and I still can't complete a full revolution on a stationery bicycle. I can pedal about halfway before having to stop and go backward the other direction and repeating this over and over for about 10 minutes. A complete revolution will be a big accomplishment.

The Labor Day weekend will be spent in Northeast Ohio. The Cleveland Plain Dealer has an excellent regular birding column. Here is the latest story, this about a few area hotspots including a place I journal-ed about last year.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Squirrel network

My second ongoing project involves--you guessed it--squirrels. I've formalized what I've been informally tracking for a while now: which areas have eastern fox squirrels, eastern gray squirrels or both. I received an e-mail from a correspondent mentioning that gray squirrels are prevalent in St. Paul, Minn. I now have information on 13 localities regarding the fox vs. gray conundrum. (Limited to eastern North America since these squirrels largely reside--and overlap--here.) A few areas, such as Southeast Michigan enjoy the great squirrel triumvirate of fox squirrel, gray squirrel and red squirrel. Wow.

Still, it's not really clear why grays dominate some areas and foxes in others. "A Field Guide to Mammals" suggests that fox squirrels reside in wooded areas with large clearings and gray squirrels in hardwood forests and river bottoms. Neither description accounts for the urban and suburban squirrels. One of my early conclusions is that only gray squirrels live in intensely urban areas. If I'm wrong, let me know. Further input from other areas would be much appreciated. The fox squirrel, right, can be distinguished from the gray squirrel by its larger size (like a small house cat) and golden-tinged tail and underparts.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Loon problem

Blogging live from the scene of ferocious storms that included 70 mph wind gusts on Chicago's North Side on Thursday. Uptown weathered the storms OK though there are many downed trees in the park. The suburbs fared worse, and flooding persists in many areas.

While recuperating, I've had time to develop two new projects. I'll detail the first in this post. Movies often use bird songs to add a sonic backdrop to natural scenes. Most of these songs are canned, and most get the birds way wrong. Two recently viewed movies illustrate this problem. First, "Bourne Identity" includes a scene where Jason Bourne hides out at a farm in winter in central France. The call of an eastern wood-pewee accompanies the pastoral scene. Impossible. A) Eastern wood-pewees breed in eastern North America and winter in northern South America; B) In the case it was a European pewee flycatcher species can subsist in a wintry climate.

In "Dirty Dancing" Baby confronts her angry father who is seated on a porch overlooking a lake in the Catskills during summer. A common loon emits a single, haunting wail. Again, impossible. A) Common loons do breed in Upstate New York, but only much farther north; B) "Dirty Dancing" was filmed in Virginia and North Carolina which only adds to the fact that this was a taped loon call.

Finally, an ode to a movie that gets it right. "On Golden Pond" includes actual common loons--footage and calls--throughout the movie, which takes place in New Hampshire in summer.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Porch time

They alight early, effortless wingbeats sending them soaring toward the Lake Michigan shore. It's morning at the Wilson Avenue Crib, a structure in the middle of the lake three miles east of Chicago. Thousands of ring-billed gulls and double-crested cormorants are awakening as the first hint of dawn arrives from the east. For the gulls, a long day of scavenging in city gutters, vacant lots and ballfields lies ahead. Tonight I sat on the back porch watching the gulls circle Uptown for one last time before gliding back towards the crib.

We also spotted one of the black squirrels (we suspect there are more than one of them) carrying a hot dog bun in its mouth.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Head nod

Sometimes there is news from the driftless area, meaning this blog, and other times there really is news from the driftless area, the unglaciated region 125 miles west northwest of Chicago. A Wisconsin man in a mental institute wants part of the driftless area to become a national park.

Thank you to one of this blog's most ardent readers (correspondents?) for submitting this link. Maybe one day I can offer simple "hat tips" in the way Andrew Sullivan does, for example, to the DailyKos or Huffington Post.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Grackle time

Since my last post, I've had surgery on the anterior cruciate ligament in my left knee. I received cadaver tissue to replace the ligament I ruptured playing basketball in May. I haven't been doing much of anything since the surgery. I have seen the black squirrel out our front window. Yesterday, I saw two common grackles in one of the maples in front of our house--it doesn't sound like much but I've found grackles uncommon in Chicago's North Side neighborhoods. In recovery, my primary goals are to return to backpacking, cycling and cross country skiing. A reasonable goal, I hope, is to bike again before the snow flies.

Meantime, a couple notes from the driftless area. Previously, I've written about my love-hate relationship with an outfitter called Acronym. After leaving Niles for Northbrook this year, Acronym reportedly is planning a location in the Lincoln Park neighborhood.

In other news, Sean Penn is directing the movie version of the Jon Krakauer book "Into the Wild." The story chronicles the post-college wanderings of Chris McCandless, a 1990 Emory University graduate who abandons his possessions and winds up living in an old school bus in the Alaskan bush. Outside Magazine has a bunch of information on the production, due out next month.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Apple corps

The Tribune printed a story about Apple River Canyon State Park, a personal favorite that in part inspired the name of this blog. I prefer the park in winter and have found myself sitting on top of the bluffs and odd rock formations on bitterly cold days. Also, the same author, perhaps a competitor to the driftless cartel, wrote a story about state parks in a neighborhood weekly called Chicago Journal.

Finally, diapered animals (recall the kangaroo wandering Wisconsin not long ago) have become a primary focus of this blog. Here is another story from the land of cheese.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Morning adventure

Photos from a journey 60 miles south of Chicago on the border of Kankakee and Iroquois Counties:

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Good latitude

A few final thoughts from Canada. First, this snapping turtle, right, and its friends repeatedly attacked our stringers of largemouth bass. Second, I was reflecting today on the uniqueness of the place. It's on a latitude parallel to northern Michigan and northern Wisconsin but it still is quite different. More northerly feeling, somehow. Blueberry bushes are everywhere; they practically cover the island we camped on. My ideal camping experience strives to replicate the Canada experience. It mostly falls short, but my goal continues to be to find places like this stateside. Nicolet National Forest comes close.

On Monday, I arrived at the Southwest Side cubicle mine and was granted a seat next to a large window. This is the first time in my career I've had a window seat. Today I saw a monarch butterfly.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Tree envy

Driftless area regulars, all five of you, know that ancient forests are a regular topic here. Word came across today that an 8 million-year-old forest was discovered in Hungary. Illinois' ancient forests, nearly 300 million years older, make Hungary's look like a bunch of scrawny saplings.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Camping perils

A first attempt at video for driftless area. The YouTube process took away a lot of the resolution of the original. Also, this was filmed before a swarm of deer flies mauled my feet.

Wilderness spoiled?

Back in the beautiful basin of ancient Lake Chicago with further details of the Canada trip. The bird species tally was 43. I added two birds to my life list: olive-sided flycatcher and black-backed woodpecker.

I've been seeking the olive-sided flycatcher for a while now. They are uncommon and reside in the north woods, but they are often seen in Chicago during spring migration. I identified it by its distinctive "quick three beers" call.

I've been in black-backed woodpecker territory before but never had seen one. The Peterson guide describes them as "scarce." I saw the woodpecker land in a tree in the island across from where we were camping. Its call was a cuckoo-like "chuk," which is unlike any of the other potential woodpeckers of the area. I immediately ruled out downy, hairy, red-bellied and yellow-bellied sapsucker. When I saw it fly, I was pretty sure it was either a black-backed woodpecker or the more northerly american three-toed woodpecker. A little research confirmed it was the former.

Birds I should have added to the life list included the boreal owl and boreal chickadee. I'm near certain I heard them both but didn't realize it at the time.

Meantime, one of the unfortunate developments of the trip was the realization that a secluded lake adjacent to where we were camped is increasingly being utilized by anglers. The lake heretofore had only been accessible by a 2.5-mile boat ride and .3-mile portage. A new road has eased ORV access to the marsh at the south end of the lake. We fished the lake four times and didn't see anyone, but we met someone who fished it on one of the days we weren't there. In general, there was more traffic in the area as commercial interests and more vacationers have begun to seep in.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Aberrant conditions

The Canada trip was the hottest and buggiest in my experience there. It's a tribute to the wondrous beauty of the place (and that I needed a vacation!) that these factors were easy to overcome. Temperatures climbed above 90 degrees, and heat advisories were issued in the Sudbury, Ontario, area. Mosquitoes, deer flies, horseflies and no-see-ums were among the insects that feasted on us. The bugs took a particular liking to me, and I wasn't flattered. Swimming in the tannin-tinged waters of Judge Lake became our respite.

The woods and lakes were teeming with so much life; I kept thinking about the book White-Out, which is a paean to the fertility of Antarctica. I'm back on the Allegheny Plateau now, and I hope to provide a detailed trip account soon. I should have at least two new bird species to add to the life list.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Brazen farmers

Officials on Monday discovered three football fields of pot growing in a single forest preserve--within the limits of Cook County! As incredible as this is, marijuana was grown throughout several forest preserves and the growers were living alongside them. I admit it, I've thought about camping on park district land as a literary experiment. But to live there and cultivate there is absurd.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Tour cracks

All hell has broken loose in the Tour today, and it'll be a wonder if the race is actually completed. Another team left, this time Cofidis, and the race leader, Michael Rasmussen, has been removed.

Meantime, as I prepare to head to Canada, Ontario residents are concerned about the perils of backyard wildlife.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Borat's lament

World cycling suffered another blow today when star rider Alexandre Vinokourov tested positive for a blood transfusion at the Tour de France--this after winning yesterday's stage and Saturday's stage. Meantime, he strangely finished 29 minutes off the pace on Sunday. The positive test took out the rest of the Astana Team as well, including fifth-place rider and former podium finisher Andreas Kloeden.

The Astana Web site bears a startling resemblance to Borat's Web site. Both are from Kazakhstan.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Yahoo sciurus

I was asked offline what I would call my squirrel research vehicle a la Darwin's HMS Beagle (see previous post). I'm thinking it would be the Rodentia. What I don't know is what this vehicle would look like. Perhaps it would involve a crane that brings the passenger into the treetops.

Also, today, another coyote ran wild in Lincoln Park (I suppose all coyotes run wild, actually).

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Rubber rodent

On Friday, I drive to Cleveland for the start of what promises to be a memorable outdoors adventure. Saturday morning, two of us will depart for the French River region of Ontario, about 10 hours north of Cleveland. (Two more adventurers will join us Monday.) Our destination is a series of glacier-carved lakes that are surrounded by dense woodlands. There really isn't a park here, but this is lightly used public land and access is free. It's easy to find nice camp spots on beds of moss that cover massive, flat slabs of granite.

The main activity will be fishing, with some canoeing as well. Fishing is sort of an ancillary enjoyment for me; I'll enjoy swimming, birding, paddling, stargazing and relaxing just as much. And, from what locals say, the real fishing is about three hours north of here. Mostly we will be fishing for bass and pike. The preferred method is to throw weedless, topwater lures into beds of lily pads. The moss mouse, above, is one of the favored lures. It can be reeled across lily pads without getting snagged and is particularly appealing to largemouth bass. We also will fish off points, jetties, shoals and drop-offs in hopes of landing smallmouth bass, perch and maybe even a pickerel. We do occasionally eat our catch, but mostly throw the fish back.

I'd like to blog live from one of the small towns in the vicinity. It's been five years since I've been to this place so it'll be interesting to see if any public Internet connections have been established. More updates to come!

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Fashion off-sets

Today, we made another pilgrimage--this one to uber-hip enviro-conscious outfitter Nau. A lot of the clothes at Nau are made from a space-age material that comes from recycled plastic bottles. Some of the fashions are almost too cutting edge (I felt like one of the Griswolds after their Rome shopping binge). The jackets look something like Han Solo's in "Empire Strikes Back."

Still, I admire the sustainability ethos. Nau stocks a limited supply of clothing in-store and encourages customers to try on clothes, order in the store and have garments shipped to their homes (shipping is free and you get 10 percent off on the purchase). Five percent of profits are donated to nonprofit organizations, many of them local. Nau has only four locations, and Chicago's is in Lincoln Park.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Bass pilgrimage

Last weekend, we visited Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World in Bolingbrook. (I'm preparing for a fishing trip to Canada in the next couple weeks. More on this later.) This hunting and fishing emporium is a destination for anyone who's ever thrown a line in a farm pond or anyone seeking a vest with deer on it. Walking through the doors is a bit like walking into an amusement park that has taxidermy everywhere. There were some fierce fox squirrels on display. For fishing equipment, this was well worth the trip.

Also, news came across this week that a kangaroo in a diaper was hopping across Wisconsin.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Disc paean

During certain times of year, Chicago enjoys long stretches of perfect weather. Days where it's comfortable to do most anything outside. Today was one of those days.

We traveled to the West Park disc golf course near Joliet, in the village of Rockdale (village motto: "Harmony & Industry"). One frustrating aspect of Chicago is the lack of disc golf courses. There are a few, mainly on the outskirts of the metropolitan area. There are a lot of nine-hole courses which don't merit the lengthy ride, and, sadly, there is just one course within city limits.

Disc golf has enjoyed a quiet explosion in popularity in recent years; there are far more courses than there used to be. It still is largely an underground sport, though. It gets no television coverage even while ESPN and Versus broadcast much less interesting fodder on a daily basis. There is something about the "underground" nature of it that is appealing. Finding the courses can be challenging (go to for the national directory) and once one has found a course it can be difficult to figure out where the holes are. Many of the courses are in under-utilized parks. It seems a few dedicated individuals maintain them on a voluntary basis.

West Park dates to 1979 and has easy-to-follow holes that are well-marked. There are several elevation changes as it skirts small ravines and a creek. The signature shot is on the 16th hole (pictured). The tee is about 30 feet above the basket, and there's a narrow chute that clears a series of copses on the embankment. The basket is denoted by the white arrow. I threw a laser-beam drive that was heading toward the basket before hitting a tree. Still, it was an easy two-putt for par, and I had a shot at birdie.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Rodentine interloper

This black morph gray squirrel has infiltrated the ranks of the typical gray squirrels in our neighborhood. The grays seemed to be approaching it with caution a few days ago. If other career opportunities fail, I plan to study the squirrels of Uptown like Darwin studied finches.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Wisconsin drift

If there's one universal truth it's that Southwestern Wisconsin is not Patagonia. But it is quite a scenic getaway. The above photo was taken at Nelson Dewey State Park on the banks of the Mississippi River. This is, in fact, the driftless area of Wisconsin.

Disc golf is something that hasn't previously been mentioned on this blog, though it's a passion of this blog. The disc golf course at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville incorporates the undulating terrain of the driftless area alongside a college campus. The layout includes several signature shots across broad expanses and down steep hills.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Steady mobbing

An aggressive red-winged blackbird has made it into print locally and on the local airwaves. Male red-wings will attack any creature that comes close to their nests. A classic roadside sight in summer is of red-wings mobbing a red-tailed hawk, a David-versus-Goliath battle that the red-wings always win. I've heard of lakefront red-wings mobbing people, too, including a close relative of mine while jogging. Being pecked on the dome isn't the way to enjoy Chicago's summer!

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Urban wildlife

A member of the species Rattus norvegicus is pictured here (click to enlarge). This is in our next-door neighbors' yard. Ugh.

Gull talk

The aforementioned Honda Element ad featuring a great black-backed gull is available here. Found it in Backpacker Magazine. Enjoy.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Punctured tires

Not to be a conduit for the Tribune's Web site, but I thought this story about the upcoming Tour de France was worth a link. I too didn't understand the Tour at first and then later was intoxicated by it. Tour de France, I can't quit you.

Seeing scarlet

It's not often you're disappointed to see a scarlet tanager, but today I was. Just a little bit.

I woke at dawn and drove to Iroquois County State Wildlife Area and the adjoining Hooper Branch Savanna Nature Preserve. I was looking for a nearby escape and hoping to see a breeding summer tanager at Hooper Branch. The ride to these places passes through the backroads of Kankakee County. Here ancient sand dunes stretch to Indiana. Much of the area has remained wooded or savanna-ed rather than cropland. Pembroke Township is a particularly fruitful birding area. The first notable sighting of the day was a northern bobwhite standing in the middle of a country road. I later heard the bobwhite's cheerful call several times from the road. The pavement begins to splinter into sandy, unpaved lanes in the southeastern part of the county. It definitely feels a lot farther than one hour south of the Loop.

Hooper Branch Savanna is located off one of these remote dirt roads. It took me about one hour to walk the loop trail at the savanna. I saw a lot of red-headed woodpeckers and blue jays. I also scared the crap out of an adult deer and a particularly miniscule fawn. I learned that deer do indeed have vocal chords, as the adult let out a couple of raspy barks as it bolted. Then, I had just passed a big oak when I heard commotion behind me, and a barred owl rose from its perch and made a beeline northeast. I had walked right under it without noticing it. In a previous post I mentioned that the tufted titmouse in particular seems less common. I was waiting near the car, hoping for a glimpse of a tanager, when I heard a titmouse for the first time in a long time.

As for the tanager, I heard a member of Family Thraupidae calling and did find the singer high in an oak. I looked hard at a bright red belly, hoping that the bird wouldn't have black wings (summer tanagers are uniformly scarlet). I caught a glimpse of black on the side. The bird eventually turned around, and it was unmistakably a male scarlet tanager with its jet-black wings.

I drove west toward Kankakee, scanning the roadside along the way. A grasshopper sparrow was singing in one overgrown area along with a few dickcissels. Also saw a covey of quail chicks next to a cornfield. In addition, the number of birds on electrical wires was overwhelming. It actually looked like the "Roadside Silhouettes" page of the Peterson guide, which shows about 20 different species on the same wire.

Next stop was Kankakee River State Park. I hadn't been before but wanted to scope it out for and future camping potential. In a quick drive-by, it appeared as a fairly typical Illinois state park: ballfields, pavilions, short trails. It's very wooded, and there are some modest bluffs along the river. The camping area I saw seemed OK: also wooded and fairly secluded. There is a full evaluation of the Potawatomi Campground here.

The final tally was 52 species. The final stop of the day was the Blain's Farm and Fleet in Bourbonnais.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Ursine horror

I'm still in shock about this. I never worked with her, but I heard the news today directly from the Tribune reporter. It's not often someone says to you someone was "mauled by a bear in Romania." I'll be vigilant the next time I'm in bear country.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Camper dilemma

I debated going camping tomorrow night, but here's why I'm not. First, I would need to pack everything in the car tomorrow morning and leave directly from work. A late arrival seems meaningless. And if the campground is full and it's late, I may be driving around the cornfields looking for a place to sleep. Second, by the time I get up and pack up my gear it could be sunrise or later. I'd miss prime birding hours. I've made up my mind to stay the night at home and rise pre-dawn Saturday for my own personal breeding bird survey.

Also, one of the seven wonders of Uptown was featured in the Chicago Tribune today. Learn more about the tunnels underneath the Green Mill on There's also a nice video and photo gallery available. And mentions of Suicidal Tendencies AND the Beastie Boys in the story!

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

New path

One of the challenging aspects of hiking and biking in the Chicago area is that most of the trails are linear. Loop trails, common in more wild areas, are hard to find. Out-and-backs, point-to-points-call them what you will-just aren't as fun as loop trails, which allow for new discoveries along the entire route. That's why I like the River Ridge trail in Vermilion County so much, for example.

The Chicago Tribune printed an insightful story Sunday on a similar issue involving bike paths around Chicago and its suburbs. There are many paths, which is great, but most also have annoying dead ends and cutoffs. The good news is that local governments and organizations are working to link up these trails.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Elusive moose

New Hampshire is a land of high mountains, cool montane forests, big wildlife and Bode Miller. It's like taking the North Woods of the Upper Midwest and adding 4,000-foot peaks, lots of granite and even more moose. The first 'moose crossing' signs appear just over the border from Massachusetts. We didn't see any of the big ungulates in the White Mountains, but we did see three bears--one on the side of Cannon Mountain and two (mother and cub) near the side of the road on the way down from the mountain. This is a place where the white-throated sparrow trades in its "Pure, sweet, Canada, Canada, Canada" song for the more appropriate stateside paraphrasing of "Old Tom Peabody, Peabody, Peabody."

We did see a signed poster from Bode in the Cannon Mountain visitor center. He signed it 'Keep your eyes on me.'

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Crab problem

I've referred to Outside Magazine a few times on this blog in the past. Overall, I enjoy the magazine and think that it often reflects my interests in the outdoors. I do, though, tire of its focus on subjects including fitness, which it features seemingly every issue. I understand why fitness is important to endeavors including surfing, climbing and cycling, but I don't find it interesting reading. Also, much of the gear it features is way beyond anything a moderate-income individual could afford. Anyway, there was an interesting story, "Castaway," recently about a guy who decides to strand himself on a remote island near Panama. Outside's Web site features video from the adventure. Check out Episode 3, which is hilarious. I've been eaten alive by mosquitoes, so I can relate to the sand flies to some degree. Yet this guy doesn't even have bug spray. The video also reconfirms my fear of crabs. I was once in the Bahamas when crabs were EVERYWHERE. Thousands were crawling over nearly ever surface imaginable. I went to bed one night and woke from a nightmare shouting "There are crabs...on the walls." Thank you, Thayer, for showing that I'm not the only one.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Fecund wasteland

The weather was beautiful today, and I decided to take a lunchtime walk around the workplace. As previously stated, this is an industrial section of Chicago's Southwest Side. It's largely concrete, tractor-trailers, invasives and litter. Still, birding is fruitful. We're not far from the Chicago Sanitary Drainage & Ship Canal and accompanying greenways. Not long ago, I saw five great egrets flying in formation over the Pulaski exit ramp on I-55. Today, eight species including: american goldfinch, american kestrel, american robin, cedar waxwing, european starling, house sparrow, ring-billed gull and rock dove.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Melancholy rainbow

The following items range from the absurd to the horrifying. First the horror: a boy was dragged from his tent and killed by a black bear yesterday in Utah. Could there be anything more frightening in the wilderness? This reminds me of the brilliant, terrifying and maddening documentary "Grizzly Man" from a few years ago.

Randy wild hares closed an airport runway in Milan, Italy. (One account described them as mating.)

Last, a rainbow over Uptown. Two black-crowned night-herons, a rare treat in our neighborhood, had just flown Southeast toward the lake in the same direction of the 'bow.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Declining numbers

The National Audubon Society released a report Thursday called "Common Birds in Decline." Some of the species -- bobolink, whip-poor-will, henslow's sparrow -- don't come as such a surprise. The study covers a 40-year period, and birders for a while now have found these species elusive.

What may be more surprising are birds on the list including eastern meadowlarks, horned larks and field sparrows. I only have 20 years or so of data to go by, but I have found these birds fairly common in the right habitat. There must have been many, many more back in the day. Also interesting are the birds that have increased their populations in Illinois. (Here's a story about the situation in Wisconsin.) These really don't come as a surprise to me. While I grew up in a different part of the Midwest, I can't recall species such as wild turkeys, turkey vultures and red-tailed hawks as being as common as they are now.

Anecdotally, a few breeding birds that are now less common in my view in the Midwest: tufted titmouse, house finch, pileated woodpecker.

More common: american kestrel, mute swan, northern mockingbird, baltimore oriole, cedar waxwing.

Here's a nice line from the Wisconsin State Journal. For me, southern Ohio is a whip-poor-will mecca:

In fact, imagining a summer evening in the fields and forests of Southwestern Wisconsin without the call of the whip-poor-will is akin to thinking of the forest-bound lakes of the North Woods without the wail of the loon.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Safe amusement

In trolling for Illinois state park news, I came across this press release from the Illinois Department of Labor concerning amusement park safety. A serious subject for sure, but the release leaves room for a lot of witty asides. (Tip: "Follow all instructions given to you by the ride operator." Aside: "But it's hard to understand carnies.") Anyway, I've been fortunate enough to have spent many weekends near the Ohio River town of New Matamoras, Ohio. There carnival rides are folded up and stored in every alley, vacant lot and backyard. It's hard to imagine intense oversight, but apparently someone is out there inspecting these contraptions. Thankfully.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Backcountry glamour

I don't know if camping is cool or not. The crowds at Midwest campgrounds resemble the Brady Bunch more than a bunch of hipsters. Anyway, camping is cool now in Britain. "Glamping" involves sleeping in floral-printed tents with well-catered feasts and little actual interaction with nature. More cashmere than fleece. I read a first-person account in Outside, but also found a mention from Seattle. I've eaten organic food while camping including olives from the olive bar at Whole Foods. I've also brought along a bottle of prosecco. But I draw the line at Persian rugs.

Also, no cicadas yet in Uptown.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Talking tanager?

A knee problem has limited the scope of driftless area lately. This is when I need fantasy birding. I do check the posts on the IBET message board. A summer tanager is nesting at Hooper Branch Savanna State Nature Preserve in Iroquois County. Hope to make it down there some time. This is one of the few places in Illinois where red squirrels reside.

Meantime, catching up on reading and noticed funny ads from the Honda Element. I've uploaded one to flickr. (Click the image to enlarge.) There's one that's funnier and it involved a great black-backed gull, but I couldn't seem to find it. There are television ads available online, too, but I think the print ads are funnier. They remind me of the comic strip "Red Meat."

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Australian animals

News hit the wires yesterday that a kangaroo was sighted in central Indiana. Sadly, the marsupial died because of the tranquilizer dart used for its capture. One observer had mistaken it for a 'huge rabbit.' I'm not sure whether this is funny or disturbing.

When I was in college in central Ohio, I saw an emu ambling through campus. Now, it was in the middle of a rigorous round of frisbee golf so I may have been imagining things. However, it turned out there was a nearby emu farm that had lost one of the flightless birds.

Also, no cicadas yet in Uptown.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Cenozoic celebration

The Western Allegheny plateau was the setting for my younger years. This is a glaciated zone and not a driftless area, in fact. Yesterday, the mighty musketeers of the Cuyahoga, the Cleveland Cavaliers, won the Eastern Conference title. It might not sound like much, but Cleveland's last major sports championship was in 1964. Any signs of life from a Cleveland franchise are to be wildly celebrated.

Also, no cicadas yet in Uptown.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Cicada redemption

Still no cicadas here in Uptown, but apparently they're all over suburban Chicago. After complaining about the cicada hysteria in an earlier post, I sat mesmerized while a co-worker described their emergence in suburban Brookfield. The buzzing is deafening, and their carcasses have carpeted the ground. View the Tribune's cicada sighting map here.

CORRECTION: Ivan Basso has not admitted to doping, contrary to a previous driftless area post. Here is a quote from Basso, via The Associated Press:

"I have admitted attempted doping only. I've never taken any doping substance nor undergone any illegal blood transfusions."

Basso said he intended to participate in the Spanish doping ring busted by Operation Puerto, going so far as storing bags of blood, but never did.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Porcupine damage

Nicolet National Forest is a land of aspen-birch-maple-fir woods, glacial lakes, beaver dam wetlands and cold, fast flowing streams. This recreational wonderland is about a five- to six-hour ride due north of Chicago. It's one of those places that you're shocked is not overrun by Illinois Flatlanders or cheeseheads from the southern portion of Wisconsin. I'm hoping the tens of readers of this blog don't all sprint there.

Highlights of the ride up included an american white pelican soaring over the I-43 bridge in Green Bay and a male northern harrier gliding across US 141 north of Titletown. We pulled into Lost Lake campground in the late afternoon on Saturday. Of 20 sites or so at the campground, only about two-thirds were taken. We chose a site on a slight rise that offered a good deal of privacy. Trillium carpeted the forest floor in much of the Nicolet, including the area right around our site. (I've uploaded a few photos from the trip. Trillium was not camera shy.) The campground is in the middle of an aspen-maple forest. It doesn't offer direct views of the lake, but the shore is readily accessible.

Expensive fossil fuel prices be damned, we decided we wanted to see Lake Superior on Sunday. We drove an hour to the town of L'Anse, where the nearest arm of the lake comes in east of the Keweenau Peninsula. A bank temperature gauge gave the Fahrenheit reading as 54, but with a stiff wind blowing the wind chill must have been in the 30s. This didn't stop intrepid Yoopers from wandering along the shore in shorts and setting up a picnic in the town pavilion.

We stopped off at Canyon Falls on the way back toward Wisconsin. Here the rushing Sturgeon River plummets about 30 feet in a narrow gorge. I don't think pictures or a written description can really capture how green and lush the vegetation was throughout the trip. The Sturgeon Gorge was especially impressive after a rain shower.

The skies finally cleared when we settled in at camp yesterday evening. The last bit of sunset had disappeared when we heard a steady rustling in the underbrush. The noise was approaching our site. Flashlight beam showed a rotund gray animal moving steadily past the site. If it was a raccoon, it was shocking how little interest it had in us and our food. Two outhouses are just about 30 yards away, and soon we hear a steady scratching at the rear of the men's latrine. The flashlight revealed not a raccoon but a porcupine. Having never seen one before, at first glance I thought it was an incredibly mangy, weird raccoon. But it would occasionally flare the quills on its back. (We thought porkies could shoot quills but later learned this is not true.) It had a long neck and a thick, furry tail. The porcupine continued gnawing on the wood of the outhouse wall for at least an hour--apparently eating wood is part of its diet. In the morning, we saw that a large patch of siding in the shape of Australia had been removed.