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.