Friday, March 30, 2007

March 30, 2007

Imagine a plague of gray squirrels descending on a community. The trees are brimming with rodents. There are 30,000 of them for every square mile. They swim through lakes and rivers, scramble across prairies and trot along fences.

The squirrel frenzy is not just a fantasy of the Camp Chicago journal. This actually happened in Racine, Wis., during three years in the mid-1800s.

"A Natural History of the Chicago Region," the terrific tome by Joel Greenberg, details these "mass movements of tremendous proportions." One observer described the horde:

"Near Racine, they were observed passing southward in very large numbers for two weeks, at the end of September and the beginning of October; and it was a month before all had passed. They moved along rather leisurely, stopping to feed in the fields, and upon the abundant nuts and acorns of the forests. So far had they departed from their accustomed habits that they were seen on the prairie, four or five miles from any timber; but even there, as usual, they disliked to travel on the ground, and ran along the fences wherever it was possible."

No one knows what caused these "crazed exoduses." Some believe it was because of acorn shortages. Others suggest overpopulation and disease.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

March 28, 2007

This blog previously has bemoaned the disappearance of the tricycle. Kids nowadays are introduced immediately to tiny bicycles with training wheels. I spent the first six to seven years of my life riding a tricycle. The two- and three-year-olds of 2007 would bike circles around me as I struggled with a tricycle, Big Wheel or some such contraption right through Kindergarten. I recently came across some promising news for tricyclists. First, in Cleveland I saw at least two toddlers riding tricycles. One was a true trike: red and metal with lots of sharp edges. The other was the kind where an adult can maintain control by holding onto an extended handle on the rear of the tricycle. Then I saw this Chicago Tribune picture of Sen. Barack Obama, presidential candidate and all-around good guy.

In other news, I am enjoying "A Natural History of the Chicago Region," by Joel Greenberg. I've always heard that Chicago has an incredible range of biodiversity. I kind of always thought this was a bit of propaganda by local conservationists. Perhaps a way to kid ourselves into thinking these flatlands are really spectacular places. Even the most boring Illinois state parks claim to have some kind of amazing natural feature. This book, though, has convinced me otherwise. There is some amazing stuff around Chicago. There is an island in the Kankakee River, for example, that harbors the entire population of a species of mallow. Its closest relative is only found in the mountains of western Virginia.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

March 25, 2007

Blogging live and direct today from the Cleveland area. Here we are on the western fringe of the Appalachian Plateau. This is a land of rolling hills, beech-maple-hickory-hemlock forests and fast-moving rivers that spill down from the uplands of the St. Lawrence River-Ohio River divide and into Lake Erie.

After two dreary days, today dawned bright and crisp. Last night's chorus of spring peepers was replaced by a medley of avifauna. Grackles, red-winged blackbirds, red-bellied woodpeckers, blue jays, cardinals, song sparrows, flickers and canada geese were just a few of the species seen and heard.

The temperature right now at nearby Cuyahoga County Airport is 54 degrees. Looking out at the homestead's woodlot, there are blooming snow drops and emerging daffodils along the edges. The greening grass along the woods contrasts nicely with the brown and gray tones of the trees and leafy forest floor.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

March 21, 2007

It was November and a windy storm was blowing in from the Atlantic. We were staying on a narrow spit of land, essentially a barrier island, between the ocean and the sound. No snow in Southeastern Virginia in November, but we are just a few feet from the fickle North Atlantic. The sand is blowing sideways, like a white-out in winter. Stakes were useless as we set up our tents. We had to half bury them in sand and load them with gear to keep from blowing away. Cars buzzed by on the beach--this serves as an informal road from Sandbridge, Va., to points south in North Carolina. We were given reflectors to mark our tents. There was just a tiny bit of light left when an apparition emerged from the storm. A child in Cub Scout gear wandered into camp. He had been separated from his group. He stayed with us until we flagged down a ranger on the beach/road. All this comes to mind after hearing the story of the missing scout in western North Carolina.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

March 20, 2007

The Wisconsin Dells are a series of rock formations, bluffs and gorges along the Wisconsin River in the central portion of the Badger State. Like the formations at Starved Rock in Illinois, these outcrops were formed during a cataclysmic Pleistocene flood. This in fact is the driftless zone of Wisconsin. The association of the word "dell" is somewhat peculiar: Webster's defines it as "a small, secluded valley or glen."

I didn't see the actual dells in person this past weekend, but I was in the vicinity. Wisconsin Dells must be the most popular tourist attraction in the Midwest, and the glacial features started it all. I would like to say the Dells draw millions of fans of interglacial science to central Wisconsin each year, but this is not the case. The communities of Wisconsin Dells and Lake Delton are lined with roadside attractions: indoor waterparks, curiosities and dinner theaters. With T-shirts shops and honky-tonk reigning, the bluffs are an afterthought. Oddly, the waterpark names call to mind nature and wild places: Kalahari, Noah's Ark, Wilderness Resort, Great Wolf Lodge, Grizzly Jack's. We stayed at one of them.

I could write a book-length social commentary about the Dells, but that is outside of the imaginary bounds of this site. I will say this: where did all the tattoos come from? I feel as though I've been living in isolation for most of my life.

CORRECTION: Grizzly Jack's is in Utica, Ill., near Starved Rock. I intended to include it to show that Starved Rock is becoming the next Midwestern glacial formation to attract waterparks.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

March 14, 2007

The balmy weather yesterday sent scores of bicyclists, walkers, joggers and in-line skaters to the lakefront path. There were no tricyclists, though, as tricycles have apparently gone the way of the great auk. Instead, helmeted youngsters road tiny bicycles with permanent training wheels. These wayward youths overran one section of the path, forcing us Bob Roll wannabes to make a daring pass in the oncoming lane.

Today, the weather has returned to normal for March. The temperatures still would make Antarctica envious.

A quick look at local state park news finds that one Wisconsin writer is accusing Illinois of stealing the "seven wonders" idea from America's Dairyland. The Fond du Lac Reporter writer shared this salvo aimed at the Prairie State:

"I couldn't resist," a friend said, in an e-mail. "I went to the site today and nominated 'The last toll booth before you get to Wisconsin' (aka heaven to Illinois eyes!)."

I later discovered this stunning item from the Waukegan News-Sun. Contrary to my assumptions, Illinois rates highly when it comes to state parks:

The state ranks in the top 4 in the country for number of lodges, cabins, and primitive campsites. The 482,000 acres of land ranks sixth in the country in total acreage and attendance ranks in the top five in the country.

It must be noted, though, that natural areas in more wild states are largely federal areas. Illinois has a lot of islands of state land amid seas of private acreage. Also, I'd like to see what counts as a "primitive campsite." They must use a loose definition of the term.

Finally, Hoosiers and Buckeyes are having an emerald ash borer border war, according to the Richmond (Ind.) Palladium-Item.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

March 11, 2007

Subtle signs of spring on a sunny day in the 40s: common grackles sighted in the park; red-winged blackbirds singing; a house finch whistling in the alley. This fleeting glimpse of the vernal season passes for a beautiful day with joggers, cyclists and walkers aplenty. There are still piles of unmelted snow, but the end of winter is in sight.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

March 10, 2007

The Chicago Tribune's Outdoor Advisor recently printed a list of the hidden gems in the Chicago area, as chosen by area nature enthusiasts. Unfortunately, I haven't been to any of these places. Camping and the desire to get well away from the city has drawn me to areas farther afield. One in particular caught my eye:

Bluff Spring Fen Nature Preserve, southeast of Elgin at the south edge of Bluff City Cemetery: "It's a rare calcareous fen-water seeps through the dolomite rock and it turns everything alkaline. It's really a beautiful place, and it changes week to week. There are brooks there, with a little charming stream, and rare fish and rare butterflies." -Joseph Rakoczy, a supervising civil engineer with the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago

In my brief experience writing outdoors stories for a newspaper, a reader wrote a letter to me after I detailed the Saint Mary's Wilderness in Virginia. The complaint was that I had spoiled a quiet place by publicizing it in the paper. I disagree because the chances hordes are going to overrun an area 100 miles away are unlikely. Out of the sliver of the populace who read the article, only an even slimmer percentage would actually take action. Something to ponder, though, while writing about natural areas.

In other news, a crow remarkably returned last night to roost outside our window. It's been a couple months, at least, since seeing one.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

March 7, 2007

I received my dividend summary in the mail this week from the major outdoor retailer I call Acronym. This is a follow up on a November post about the challenges of finding gear in Chicago.

Here is an excerpt from the post:

I like Acronym in general and prefer to spend there because it offers cash back on every purchase (I signed up for this program in late 2005). But this location is so abysmal that I can't stomach making the 30-minute ride again.

I spent $386.63 at Acronym in 2006, my first full year as a member. It cost $15 to become a lifetime member. My major purchases in 2006 were a pair of Merrell light hikers and an REI running jacket. My dividend came to $20.19. I also received a 20 percent off coupon good through April 1. REI is the nation's largest consumer cooperative. I'm not entirely sure what this means. It's not a nonprofit, but it doesn't have shareholders either. There is more detail here.

I like the co-op idea, but I'm a little disappointed in the dividend. Nearly half of my purchases ($161.68) were deemed 'nondivendable.' Sale items fall into this category, and I must have picked up a few along the way. Acronym also attempts to entice you into signing up for the Acronym Visa card. Non-Acronym card usage actually results in a 2 percent lesser rate for qualifying purchases. The general rate is 10 percent on eligible cash purchases.

Fortunately, the coupon and dividend certificate are redeemable online. I'm guessing I've made my final trip to the Niles Acronym location. It's moving to Northbrook in a few months.

Also, this is a fun time of year on the Illinois birding message board (IBET). Earlier this week, someone mentioned that woodcocks are displaying in southern Illinois. There have been almost daily updates on red-winged blackbird flocks moving north. Birders in the Chicago area have been reporting sandhill crane flyovers. A hermit thrush was seen as far north as Kankakee. There also was a report of snow drops flowering in the Jarvis Sanctuary in Lincoln Park. There's a coating of snow on the ground, but signs of spring are emerging.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

March 4, 2007

I added a black-headed gull to my life list yesterday at Montrose Harbor. Reports surfaced mid-week that the gull had appeared at Montrose, mixed in with a flock of resident ring-billed gulls. Black-headed gulls are common in Europe and only recently began breeding in Newfoundland and the maritime provinces of Canada. There are only a half-dozen records in Illinois.

This is an instance where the Internet really has changed the way people communicate. In the past, only word of mouth or the Rare Bird Alert hotline would have lured birders to the harbor. Within hours of the sighting, it was posted on the Illinois birding message board and people were heading to Uptown. I hoped it would be around when I had a chance to get to the lake. I drove up to the harbor yesterday and immediately saw three people huddled around a spotting scope. The scope had the gull in its sights. I took a quick look before they departed. Finding the bird without assistance would have been near impossible as it was amid dozens of other gulls. I stayed a while before the gull flew away. Another birder approached, seeking the gull. I had the sad duty of informing him it had flown away minutes before. The gull is still there today, though, as I saw birders gathered again along the harbor.

Friday, March 2, 2007

March 2, 2007

The rest of the seven wonders of Uptown. I'll be composing a real, less silly list soon.

The Death Star--Not a fully operational battle station but a modern, black steel-and-glass residential tower that looms over the Far North Side of Chicago. The Death Star, nicknamed by a former colleague, is actually located in Edgewater but is visible from seemingly everywhere, including our own abode and even Indiana Dunes (no joke, with binoculars).

Essanay Studios--Uptown was once an entertainment mecca, and Essanay Studios produced many famous silent films. The building and sign still exist, but St. Augustine College now utilizes the space.

Majestic for Men--This establishment at the corner of Leland and Broadway sells men's dress clothes. The window display features monochromatic hat-suit-shoe combinations including colors like electric blue and neon purple.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

March 1, 2007

Ah, meteorological spring is here! Today's weather was a battle between winter and spring. The day started coated in ice and then became very rainy. Now it's quite mild (~40s) but snow is forecast for tomorrow.

On to the first four wonders of Uptown:
The vacant lot behind our house--This remarkable area harbors a population of alley rabbits. They survive on the scraps of our Dumpsters and the litter that is blown into this fenced-in lot. On occasion, a large truck pulls into the lot and drills into the earth. Sometimes other sketchy trucks park here. Rumor has it a building is going in eventually.
The interesection of Lawrence and Sheridan--A mecca for pigeons and pigeon-lovers, this corner is one of the most vibrant in Uptown. There's S&L Pantry which offers photocopies for just seven cents, and J.J. Pepper's which charges $16.99 for a 12-pack of Tecate.
Montrose Point--This triangular piece of landfill is home to a sledding hill, a harbor, dunes and some of the best birding in the Midwest.
The Romanian communist party headquarters building--Its 1960s socialist-totalitarian facade has come down, but it still is an Uptown landmark. The headquarters is adjacent to the Riviera Theater and now is being renovated. Who knew there was brick under there?!