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!