Monday, April 30, 2007

April 30, 2007

This space first mentioned the Seven Wonders of Illinois back in February. Today, the winners, as chosen by public vote, were announced.

I love this Chicago Tribune excerpt, which basically sums up the views of

But Jan Kostner of the State Bureau of Tourism said it's not fair to compare Illinois with states that offer oceanfronts or mountain vistas.

"Our parks are different and unique to our land and our terrain," she said.

I've created my own list, heavily slanted toward natural wonders.

Winner: Wrigley Field
Comment: Where's Sears Tower? Millennium Park?

driftless area's choice: Lake Michigan
Comment: Sure, it also could be the choice for Chicagoland, but we don't think of Zion's lakefront when we think of Lake Michigan.

Winner: The Baha'i House of Worship
Comment: Solid choice.

driftless area's choice: Illinois Beach State Park
Comment: Rare habitat along one of the least disturbed sections of Lake Michigan's Illinois shore. And I still haven't been there yet.

Winner: Starved Rock State Park
Comment: Hard to dispute despite the crowds.

driftless area's choice: The wintering bald eagles on the Mississippi
Comment: I don't know of anywhere else in the Lower 48 that one can see 300 eagles at once.

Winner: Black Hawk State Historic Site
Comment: I don't know much about this site, but it does have quite a bit of nature as well as history.

driftless area's choice: Black Hawk State Historic Site
Comment: I'll go with the consensus for an unfamiliar area of the state.

Winner: Allerton Park and Retreat Center
Comment: Estate with gardens and forest near Champaign sounds quite interesting.

driftless area's choice: Middle Fork of Vermilion River
Comment: Allerton was an upset winner over Lincoln-Springfield stuff. I'll take it a step further with a national scenic river flowing through steep hills. Sand Ridge State Forest in the mix, too.

Winner: Rend Lake
Comment: This has to be the most bizarre choice of all--a reservoir along an interstate.

driftless area's choice: Garden of the Gods
Comment: Rock formations in Shawnee National Forest edge cypress swamps of Cache River State Natural Area.

Winner: Meeting of the Great Rivers Scenic Byway
Comment: Confluence of Mississippi, Illinois and Missouri Rivers offers recreation and scenery. What no East St. Louis riverboat casino? Damn.

driftless area's choice: Meeting of the Great Rivers Scenic Byway
Comment: Local choice edges sympathy for the archaeology of Cahokia.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

April 29, 2007

Chimney swifts have arrived in Uptown today! A group of four birders, at Montrose Point yesterday, saw a total of 31 species on a beautiful day. It's great to see that the dune protection area has been expanded by the park district. The dunes and accompanying plants have taken over even more of the east end of Montrose Beach.

The ideal spring weather has me yearning for a camping trip. I'll take anything at this point. Even a car camping trip to a smelly, overcrowded, noisy park with all the charm of a parking lot. OK, maybe it's not that bad, but the next Camp Chicago entry could be from a nearby car campground.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

April 26, 2007

I've been scouring the Internet since word arrived earlier this week that evidence of an ancient rainforest is present in Illinois. A study published in the May issue of the journal Geology reports that fossils from one of the planet's first rainforests are present in an Illinois coal mine. Most news reports failed to mention the exact location, but the Web site reports that it is near Danville, Ill. This is not far from Forest Glen Preserve, one of the top hiking locales in central Illinois and the Camp Chicago area. In fact, you can see the entrance to a hundred-year-old "cat" mine at the preserve. A cat mine is a single-person mine dug by homesteaders in the area.

The rainforest existed 300 million years ago in the Upper Carboniferous, or Pennsylvanian, time period. Illinois then was part of the Laurussia land mass, and much closer to present-day Africa,
which was part of Godwanaland. It was around this time, give a million years or so, that the Appalachian Mountains were formed when Laurussia and Godwanaland collided. Some of the best-known fossils from this period are from Mazon Creek, in northeast Illinois. There were a lot of fish back then, but the only terrestrial animals of the Pennsylvanian included the branchiosaurus, or gill lizard, a tiny amphibian. Dinosaurs didn't appear until the Triassic period, 213 million years ago. Australopithecines, precursors to Homo sapiens sapiens, didn't appear until 4 million years ago.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

April 24, 2007

I saw a bumper sticker today that read "Be the person that your dog thinks you are." I try to be the person the neighborhood gray squirrels think I am.

One of the first posts on the old Camp Chicago journal was about the city's efforts to control gulls at Chicago Park District beaches. According to experts, gulls are responsible for the many summer swim bans each year. They congregate at beaches to gobble up handouts and litter. Then their excrement taints the water near the shore with bacteria. A year ago, a potential solution was sending dogs to the beach each day to bark at the gulls. This would have been a catastrophe for sensitive areas like Montrose Beach, where rare shorebirds can be found during part of the year. The city is now considering using corn oil on gull eggs to control the population, the Chicago Tribune reported today.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

April 22, 2007

Countering yesterday's comments about the spring cold in Chicago, today's weather has been balmy and I showed up at Montrose wearing one too many layers. We tallied 29 bird species plus two eastern cottontails and a raccoon. Highlights included the first ovenbird of the season, first blue-gray gnatcatcher and two eastern meadowlarks in the dune area.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

April 21, 2007

The weather in Chicago really does seem fascinating, especially at this time of year. Every town seems to feel it has the most fickle weather--living in Richmond, Va., the meteorologists claimed the combo of the mountains and ocean made the weather there unique. Of course, weather everywhere is unique. Everywhere, it seems, people use the phrase "if you don't like the weather in [insert city name], just wait five minutes and it'll change."

On Tuesday, while positioned at my cubicle, I checked the current weather on the Chicago Tribune Web site. The temperature in north suburban Libertyville was 43 degrees. At Midway, a few miles from my cubicle, the temperature was 70. I later learned this wasn't a misprint. There was a 40-degree temperature gradient in the Chicago area. In the South Suburbs, temperatures topped 80 degrees for a time. This was due to a backdoor cold front.

These sort of temperature differentials are common here in spring. Many days, O'Hare Airport and points inland will reach 70 degrees but it will be 50 here along the shores of Lake Michigan. According to meteorologist Tom Skilling, chilly winds blow off the lake 42 percent of the time in April. The lake remains cold well into spring. Right now, water temperature is 37 degrees (coldest on this date in four years according to Skilling). The lake's thermal inertia keeps shoreline areas chilly much of the time well into May and even June. On some spring days, we are one of the coldest places in the Lower 48. Tomorrow, I hope to bird at Montrose Point, which is surrounded on three sides by Lake Michigan. Only on the warmest spring days do Southwest winds overcome the cold there, and tomorrow warmth is forecast.

The lake, though, makes up for it in fall. The same inertia ensures the growing season along the lake lasts into November. There's an incredible graphic the Tribune occasionally publishes that shows the contours of the growing season from the lake inland. There's a variance of nearly a week for every mile moving west from the lake.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

April 15, 2007

Finally back with some reports from the Camp Chicago area. Sometimes even a short experience in the wilds of the Midwest can be memorable. We were in between engagements in suburban Milwaukee yesterday afternoon and stopped by Warnimont Park in the city of Cudahy. (Pronounced cud-a-HAY). This is a greenspace along Lake Michigan that we discovered on the map. The park's wooded bluffs afford a stunning view of Lake Michigan. Framed by evergreens, with the blue lake in the background, one overlook resembled northern Michigan. In less than a half-hour we saw and heard the following birds: brown creeper, downy woodpecker, yellow-bellied sapsucker, black-capped chickadee, northern cardinal, dark-eyed junco, american crow, ruby-crowned kinglet, northern flicker, chipping sparrow, brown-headed cowbird.

Today in Chicago, a bike journey along the glistening lake yielded the following, including my first wood warbler of the season: horned grebe, common merganser, ring-billed gull, ruby-crowned kinglet, yellow-rumped warbler, song sparrow, swamp sparrow, red-winged blackbird, european starling, house sparrow, eastern towhee, rock dove, canada goose, mallard, a red metal tricycle, brown thrasher, american robin, northern cardinal, common grackle.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Monday, April 9, 2007

April 9, 2007

There's a chicken sleeping quite contentedly right next to the bathroom stall. Maybe it's King Jaguar Paw's revenge or someone's revenge--or it's just an average perturbation of my Gringo stomach. Toilet: surprisingly clean for this tiny store at 7,000 feet. Too much to pass up with a 3.5-mile hike ahead. Last lavatory stop before the lava.

Volcan Pacaya is one of 30 volcanoes in Guatemala. It's not one of the tallest, but it is one of the most active. It's early Saturday morning, and we're 25 kilometers south of Antigua. The trip required a dicey 1.5-hour van ride with 13 other tourists from Antigua. We're in a micron-sized village just outside the entrance to Parque Nacional Pacaya.

Our group included Germans, Mexicans and Americans. We trudged the1.75 miles or so uphill through a forest to the lava fields. We didn't see much in the way of wildlife, but there are"wildcats" here, according to Carlos, our guide--also wild boars, coyotes, squirrels and jackrabbits. By mid-morning we came across the first signs of the active volcano--a long pile of hardened volcanic rock that descended from the top of the mountain. We could see the smoke coming from the top of the volcano all morning, and now we could see two distinct orange-red ribbons spilling from a point near the top of the volcano. We walked across green fields, skirting another mountain that was shrouded in clouds. We began climbing over the fields of volcanic rock--much of it only ossified for the past six months or so. Scrambling over the rocks was precarious, but the odd shapes and formations offered surprising traction. Forget using it for handholds though--even the most benign touch of the hand left a scratch. Ascending one ridge, we finally felt the heat from the lava above and it was obvious some of the rock at our feet only recently cooled--some was still smoking. One of our German companions compared the terrain to that of Mordor, the dwelling place of Sauron in Tolkien's Middle-earth. We proceeded to a point where we could see lava belching up from the ground, occasionally sending rock tumbling down. We all took pictures at this point, about 30 yards from molten lava, before heading back.

Guatemala is an incredible place, and we only saw a small part of it. We tallied at least 50 bird species and likely saw or heard many more than that. Identifying certain birds was near impossible--there are 60 possible hummingbird species alone and we only were sure enough to identify one species.

Another, final, leftover from Tikal. Walking up the pyramids and temples there was more harrowing than any climb this Midwesterner has attempted before. At left is recently excavated Temple V. (An aside: the number of in situ ruins at Tikal probably easily exceeds the number of excavated ruins. Temple III is still buried in jungle, with just the roof-comb sticking out of what looks like a small hill.) You can barely make out the people sitting at the top of the steps in the picture. To get to that point, you essentially have to climb a 15-story ladder. Sitting on the narrow ledge at the top--no handholds, railings--made me want to climb right back down. But it wasn't just the big temples that were scary. Some smaller structures (~50 feet high) had very steep steps. You could climb right up with no problem, but getting back down required some sort of shimmying ass-scramble. (The more nimble bounded down without a touch of the hand.) The views from the top, though, were worth the effort.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

April 5, 2007

Blogging from an elevation of 4,860 feet in the colonial city of Antigua, Guatemala. Weather here has been in the 70s and mostly cloudy. The clouds have almost completely obscured Agua, the 10,000-foot volcanic peak that looms over the town. We´re hoping to climb one of the other volcanoes nearby (with a guide) on Saturday. The main purpose of the visit, though, is to experience the lush colors of Semana Santa and to see the many 16th century sights here.

We came here from Panajachel, a community high in the mountains beside Lago de Atitlan. Three huge volcanoes surround the lake, which was formed 80,000 years ago in a cataclysmic eruption. Panajachel, though, largely is a tourist town, and our actual interaction with the natural world was limited. The scenic ride to and from Panajachel was along twisting mountain roads alongside pine forests and steep gorges.

A few leftovers from Tikal: we saw a fox one evening on the trail to the Gran Plaza. We also saw a tiny bird called a tody-flycatcher; it´s actually smaller than a hummingbird. There´s a species of rail in the Mayan reservoir there (gray-necked wood-rail) that is quite gregarious, unlike the rails in the United States (even accepting handouts). A pair of stunning massena (slaty-tailed) trogons capped another great day on Monday. They were perched on the back of the Siete Templos complex. This is as close as we´ll come to seeing a quetzal, the extremely rare bird that is Guatemala´s national emblem and a relative of trogons.

Hope to report more before we depart Sunday!

Monday, April 2, 2007

April 2, 2007

The Peten region of Guatemala is a vast lowland forest adjacent to Mexico and Belize. Midday temperatures approach 90. There's a nice breeze in the open areas of Tikal, the nearby ancient Maya temple complex. Skies are blue with white puffy clouds.

We are in the middle of the jungle, in Parque Nacional de Tikal. We've seen red-lored parrots, keel-billed toucans, montezuma oropendolas and the great cassowary. (I recommend a Google image search to check out some of these birds.) We've taken to calling the flamboyant oropendolas "crazybirds" for their boisterous, strange noises and their big nests right in the middle of Tikal's Gran Plaza. There also are a lot of familiar species here including magnolia warblers, belted kingfishers and little blue herons.

Toward sunset yesterday, we noticed a couple of people looking up at a tree in the Mundo Perdido (Lost World) section. There was loud rustling in the branches above. A four-foot-tall spider monkey was thrashing around up there. We soon noticed at least six, high in the ceiba and other trees above us. We were soon the only people in the area. The monkeys put on a show unlike anything at the zoo. They were completely insane--leaping from tree to tree, impossible distances grasping at a branch at the last moment with a paw, foot, prehensile tail.

At one point, they started squawking and right out of "Wild Kingdom" a hawk swooped in and nicked one good. It let out a painful whimper that left even the most stoic fellow primate sympathetic. Another hawk swooped in, but this time the monkey was ready and avoided the attack.

Black vultures are like crows here. They beg from visitors at the Gran Plaza. At least a dozen are roosting in a big tree outside our room as I write this. Black vultures are common in the southern United States--but their behavior here is surprising. Still, the image of them perched high on 1,500-year-old ruins is quite dramatic. It's these little discoveries that may be the best part of the adventure so far.