Sunday, December 28, 2008

Subtle enjoyment

At first glance, the trip from Cleveland to Chicago via I-90 might be considered a boring one. I beg to differ. Here is the trip in six segments.

Cleveland -- It was 36.1 degrees and windy when we departed from the east suburbs of Cleveland today. There was a Wind Advisory in effect, and indeed the wind was blowing. Aberrant 60-degree temperatures from the day before had cleared the last of the snow in the area. Even the little piles in shopping centers and along highway medians were gone. The grass was surprisingly green. I recorded a red-tailed hawk in the woods of Bratenahl, just north of I-90.

Firelands -- The Firelands are a section just west of Cleveland, mostly in places like Erie County. Cleveland's root date to the time of the colony of Connecticut and the Western Reserve of the tiny state, which once extended in a narrow swath all the way from the Atlantic Ocean to the shores of Lake Erie. Along the Firelands, we dropped off the Allegheny Plateau to flatter land. We traversed deep ravines along the Vermillion, Huron and Black Rivers.

Black Swamp -- Most of northwestern Ohio was once a vast, post-glacial swamp known as the Black Swamp. Settlers drained the swamps for farmland soon after arriving in the 19th Century. There are still a few remnants of the swamp, and on a post-thaw day like this many of the rivers overflowed their banks. In Williams County, in extreme northwestern Ohio, there was more snow on the ground than at any other point on today's trip. North-facing slopes held snow, as did a few woodlands.

Michiana -- A region that includes the South Bend-Mishawaka-Elkhart trifecta, Michiana is a land of rivers and creeks and farms and lake-effect snow. It also is home to the RV Hall of Fame, a tantalizing roadside attraction in Elkhart. A couple more red-tails were recorded here, and at least one accipter sat on a fencepost. There was some ice on the agricultural ponds, but mostly it had melted in the big thaw of the past few days.

Dune Country -- Gas-a-roo is a formerly independent gas station on Calumet Avenue in Hammond, Ind., that is now owned by Valero. It's a great place to fuel up on the way back from Ohio or the Dune Country. Here we discovered that the massive snow melt had also occurred in the Chicago region.

Chicago -- Our city was icebound when we left on Wednesday. There's nary a trace of snow now, except a few black piles of a snow-like substance along a few highway medians. This now is the wettest year in recorded Chicago history--for the second time this year the Des Plaines River is flooding.

The final tally: seven red-tails, three accipters (sharp-shinned hawks or cooper's hawks), at least four dozen white-tailed deer, acres of flooded farmland and a winter jaunt across a lovely landscape.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Cold facts

I've been a little obsessed with the weather lately. Today is no exception: the temperature right now in Uptown is -0.9 degrees (or degree?). It's bright and sunny and absolutely frigid. I decided to hop around Weather Underground a little and discovered that it's a relatively balmy 17.9 degrees in Christmas, Mich. Christmas is on the northern edge of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and we camped there last May. So 300 or so miles north of here it's actually "warmer." I also checked International Falls, Minn., typically a really cold place, and it's actually "warmer" there, too, at 1.2 degrees (really just across the Ontario border in Fort Frances according to Weather Underground). I'm hoping to actually get outside and ski or something one of these days and have a more active driftless area post.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Snow patrol

More wintertime observations...after the last post, the aborted bike ride, the temperature dropped 45 degrees in under 12 hours and more than 30 degrees in less than six hours. Monday dawned at 5 degrees above zero!

We had a snowfall of about 4 inches on Tuesday that snarled the evening rush hour. Tonight, we're expecting a big winter storm. The forecasts have varied a bit, but at least 6 inches are expected overnight with as many 12 inches at the Wisconsin line. We're under a winter storm warning right now. It's been a snowy December.

I've noticed that the snow sort of insulates sound a little bit and makes everything echo-y on our block. Noise travels farther in extreme cold, and when it's super-cold and clear you can hear the Red Line train all the way from our house (no way you'd hear this in summer). You also can hear cars on Lake Shore Drive more clearly. What really strikes me are the airplanes that fly west over Lawrence Avenue on their way to O'Hare. When it's frigid, they sound like they're just a few foot over the rooftops.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Reindeer game

Caribou in Ontario? Yeah, maybe in Moose Factory. Nope, right on the north shore of Lake Superior, a half-day's ride from Michigan. On islands that were formed by extraterrestrial forces, no less.

Backpacker Magazine recently featured the native caribou population on Lake Superior's Slate Islands. The big ungulates crossed over to the islands on icy Lake Superior years ago. The 200 or so reindeer there now have no natural predators and enjoy a peaceful existence in a provincial park.

The Slate Islands were formed by a meteorite likely 450 million years ago. The islands are the central uplift from the collision. Impact may have taken place during the Orodovician period. Favorite Orodovician fauna: the arandaspis, a type of jawless fish.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Windy city

It's mild in Chicago today--temperatures in the mid-40s and overcast. It was a winter opportunity for a bike ride.

I extracted the bike from the basement and hopped on in the alley. The first few pedals came easily, and I felt like I glided onto Clarendon Avenue. Once on the lakefront path, I continued dancing on the pedals. My chain ring ticked over like a metronome as I sailed northward.

I began to recalibrate my winter workout plan. As long as the paths were free of ice and snow, I could bike all season long. No need to spend hours in a claustrophobic gym. I reached the turnaround at the north end of the path.

Here, the metronome stopped, the idyll ended and a ferocious blast of wind sent me careening to one side of the path. I continued to plow forward, for a time riding on a spongy path that only made the thigh-burn more painful. I finally made it to pavement near Foster Avenue. The wind gusts continued furiously. They would abate to about 15 mph on occasion, and I would surge momentarily. Making it to Lawrence Avenue was like climbing Mont Ventoux.

I turned west on Lawrence and an explosion of wind from the south sent me toward the curb. I tacked into the wind all the way to the relative shelter of the Lake Shore Drive viaduct.

I returned home just 30 minutes later, warmer, wiser.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Snow watch

I had a whole post prepared in my head yesterday about how Chicago winters are mostly frigid with just a trace of snow on the ground. Then a low pressure system brought about 2 inches of snow overnight and temperatures rose to 31 degrees. Yesterday, the daytime high struggled to reach 18 and we saw lows in the morning of 10 above. There was just a trace of snow on the ground--grass readily visible in the park along Lake Shore Drive. So often, especially early in the season, we have an expected snowfall on the lakefront that mostly results in rain. This is because of the lake's relatively warm temperature. I will update with a post the next time the ground is bare and the temps are in single digits.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Reverse Jubilee

The State of Illinois has moved forward with the closing of seven state parks and 12 state historic sites. Hennepin Canal, Gebhard Woods, Channahon and Kickapoo State Parks will remain open. Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn sent an e-mail to constituents summarizing the closings. The cost-cutting is sparing the paltry sum of $2 million from the state budget.

Among the locations shuttered since yesterday are Carl Sandburg's birthplace in Galesburg. Other notables include lovely Lowden State Park and its nearby sibling, Castle Rock State Park. Both offer hiking opportunities in the upland woods of the Rock River Valley. Also closing: Jubilee State Historic Site, which sits within Jubilee College State Park (to my knowledge the state park is remaining open). The significance? Jubilee College was founded by Philander Chase, who also founded Kenyon College. Jubilee College, one of the first in Illinois, has been closed since Abraham Lincoln's presidency.

Arbor day

A few images from the Bird Hills area...

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Bird Hills

Yesterday was a perfect late fall day for a hike in Ann Arbor, Mich.--temps in the low 40s and clear. We walked about 3 or 4 miles through three contiguous parks that snake along the Huron River. First, Kuebler-Langford Nature Area, then Bird Hills Nature Area and then Barton Nature Area. The path began on a long uphill that afforded views of the Huron River Valley. It worked its way down to the other side of the divide before climbing again to a narrow ridge in Bird Hills. The trail stayed atop the ridgeline for quite a ways before dropping down next to the river. The Barton Nature Area offered views of Barton Pond, a reservoir behind a dam on the river--hence the swans on the list below. The amble continued through a prairie before returning to Kuebler-Langford on Huron River Drive. Sixteen bird species in all:

1. Northern Cardinal
2. Blue Jay
3. Red-bellied Woodpecker
4. Mallard
5. Mute Swan
6. Canada Goose
7. American Crow
8. Downy Woodpecker
9. Hairy Woodpecker
10. White-breasted Nuthatch
11. Tufted Titmouse
12. Black-capped Chickadee
13. Cooper's Hawk
14. American Tree Sparrow
15. Tundra Swan
16. Rock Dove

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Animal farm

A story in this week's Sports Illustrated discusses the decline of hunting and ties it to the surge in animal populations. It uses the example of a man in Canada who was killed by a pack of wolves in 2005; no human had been killed by a wolf in at least 100 years, according to the report. The article indicates that as herbivores spread (deer, for example), predators will spread also--hence coyotes on Sunset Boulevard and in Chicago's Loop, and a cougar on the North Side of Chicago for that matter. Even the black bear on the golf course in Colorado is part of the phenomenon.

As noted previously in this blog, Americans are generally spending much less time outdoors. As sprawl encroaches on habitat, more animals will become comfortable raiding Dumpsters and bird feeders. And the few people who still venture outside might be more susceptible to scary animal encounters.

(I happened upon an alley rabbit in our patio the other evening, for example.)

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Autumn swim

On Sept. 20, 2008, I went for a comfortable autumn swim at Castle Rock Lake, near Necedah, Wis. That swim, with a young larva, came just 31 days before a low temperature of 19 degrees at the same site and about 50 days before a low of 13 degrees above zero. In Chicago, the seasonal change has also been precipitous. We went from a high of 70 on Nov. 5 to a high of 30 16 days later on Nov. 21. It snowed on Nov. 9 here and a few times since.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Dune jaunt

Twenty-four bird species on a cursory dune ramble last Sunday. Temperatures were in the 30s with flurries and sleet. Snow buntings were the highlight--two groups of 10 along the beach. The sparrow-like birds arrived from their breeding range on the tundra and are possibilities throughout winter along Lake Michigan beaches and inland farm fields. Stops at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore included Miller Woods, Cowles Bog and Mount Baldy.

Monday, November 10, 2008

"The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald"
by Gordon Lightfoot

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy.

With a load of iron ore - 26,000 tons more
Than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty
That good ship and true was a bone to be chewed
When the gales of November came early

The ship was the pride of the American side
Coming back from some mill in Wisconson
As the big freighters go it was bigger than most
With a crew and the Captain well seasoned.

Concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms
When they left fully loaded for Cleveland
And later that night when the ships bell rang
Could it be the North Wind they'd been feeling.

The wind in the wires made a tattletale sound
And a wave broke over the railing
And every man knew, as the Captain did, too,
T'was the witch of November come stealing.

The dawn came late and the breakfast had to wait
When the gales of November came slashing
When afternoon came it was freezing rain
In the face of a hurricane West Wind

When supper time came the old cook came on deck
Saying fellows it's too rough to feed ya
At 7PM a main hatchway caved in
He said fellas it's been good to know ya.

The Captain wired in he had water coming in
And the good ship and crew was in peril
And later that night when his lights went out of sight
Came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Does anyone know where the love of God goes
When the words turn the minutes to hours
The searchers all say they'd have made Whitefish Bay
If they'd fifteen more miles behind her.

They might have split up or they might have capsized
They may have broke deep and took water
And all that remains is the faces and the names
Of the wives and the sons and the daughters.

Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings
In the ruins of her ice water mansion
Old Michigan steams like a young man's dreams,
The islands and bays are for sportsmen.

And farther below Lake Ontario
Takes in what Lake Erie can send her
And the iron boats go as the mariners all know
With the gales of November remembered.

In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed
In the Maritime Sailors' Cathedral
The church bell chimed, 'til it rang 29 times
For each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald.

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee
Superior, they say, never gives up her dead
When the gales of November come early.

Today is the 33rd anniversary of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Locations throughout the Great Lakes are marking the anniversary, including along the North Shore of Lake Superior in Minnesota and in Toledo, Ohio. I plan to fill a snifter with brandy, light a candle and listen to Gordon Lightfoot's masterpiece. I hope you'll join me.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Park statement

An article by the Chicago Tribune's Barbara Brotman is both a reminder that several beautiful state parks in Illinois are slated to close Nov. 30 and a paean to the aforementioned parks. You can review my thoughts on several of these parks at Sign the petition from Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn here.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Counting crows

The results of the 37th Annual Illinois Spring Bird Count arrived in the mail recently, and I'm increasingly enjoying the arrival of this and the Christmas Bird Count results. It must be the intersection of birding and geography that is so appealing. Anyway, here are some highlights:

--Holding the No. 1 spot for the millionth year in a row (10,000th?) is red-winged blackbird. Mind you, this survey takes place in May.

--The top 20 includes birds like indigo bunting (12th) and tree swallow (13th) but not american crow (25th).

--DeKalb County, just west of the Chicago area, recorded the most eastern screech-owls, 13.

--Iroquois County, 60 miles due south of Chicago and a strange mosaic of prairie, farmland, sand, savanna and woodlands, recorded the most brown creepers (12).

--The most red-winged blackbirds were found in McHenry County, northwest of Chicago (4,421 of 61,289 statewide). It's funny because you can see just about 61, 289 red-wings on any ride through the Midwest in May or June, I swear.

I could parse this data forever.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Owl loss

I have been out of touch with Illinois Birders Exchanging Thoughts lately. Then I saw this story on the Trib Web site about the unfortunate demise of a burrowing owl, here in Uptown no less.

Cold facts

A belated post acknowledging that we saw our first snowflakes of the year here on Monday, Oct. 27. The highs on Monday were wintry mid-40s. We have a couple goals this cold season: to cross country ski whenever possible and to go for winter hikes when there isn't enough snow to ski. I also am hoping to latch on to a Christmas Bird Count somewhere. I'm not sure winter camping is in order, but it's not out of the question.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Red final

A few final comments from Day 3, back along the rocks at Red Creek.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Treading softly

More navel gazing here. Video from moments before getting turned around on the squishy footing. Are these narrators on message or what!?

Sod approach

The first glimpse of a sod, midday during Day 2.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

UFO encounter

Sitting by the fire on the first night. The light you see at the end is me walking around with my headlamp.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Camp view

A view of the first night's campsite.

Creek ford

A stop on the trail on Day 1.

Rhododendron tunnel

This is the first of a series of videos from the Dolly Sods trip. Of course, the YouTube compression takes from the quality, but hopefully these are interesting still.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Autumn wonders

View from camp along Red Creek. More photos here.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Bogged down

It was about 4 p.m. Saturday when we got lost. "Lost" might be overstating it a bit, but we were no longer on a trail and not entirely certain of our position. We had been hiking the Big Stonecoal Run trail when we came to a mile-long "sod," what they call the boggy, heath-like high plateaus in this section of West Virginia. Here a path had been stomped out in the tall grass of the sod. The path, though, was on the spongiest ground we had yet experienced. We followed it a while until it came to Big Stonecoal Run itself, a lazy creek flowing atop the plateau. Here there was little evidence of a path, only dense underbrush and the sand and rocks of the creek.

We began looking for a footprint or any sign of the direction we needed to go. There was a deer print and a coyote print, but nothing human. The GPS indicated we were on the same side of the creek as the trail, the one we had lost and needed to find again. A quick foray into the dense woods and brush near the creek yielded nothing but even spongier sods. It was on toward 5 now, the sun still warming the vast, grassy plateau. One more crash through a stand of conifers, following the GPS' wayward directions, and still no sign of the trail. It was disconcerting, but we had our packs and water and so would have been OK for the night. And we knew we needed to follow the creek downstream if nothing else.

Across the creek, over a dense logjam, the grass appeared matted and something like a trail was discernible. The trail took us up a slight rise, and on the other side we found a well-used campsite. Steppingstones crossed to the other side of the creek. Moments later we heard the sounds of voices and relocated the trail. Whew.


Dolly Sods Wilderness is a land of steep ravines, waterfalls, dense woodlands and--oddly enough--bogs. Imagine the wooded slopes of the Allegheny Mountains and the Monongahela National Forest. Then picture a secret wilderness, a surreal slice of Canada, draped across flat mountaintops--those are the spruce-and-cranberry laden sods.

Day One began hiking about three miles up Red Creek Canyon. The weather was perfect and remained so all weekend--70s for the highs and 40s for the lows. The trail was lined by massive rhododendrons, 20-feet tall in places. The rhods, in some areas forming a tunnel around the trail, were omnipresent along the wooded slopes on this trip. The first night also called for a dip in frigid Red Creek, a broad, boulder-strewn stream.

Day Two, before getting lost, called for a long uphill to the sods. The trail was steep and rocky. It was a relief to reach the boggy, 3,500-foot-high plateau, but even here the ankle-breaking rocks persisted. The aforementioned sod detour derailed our camping plans a bit. We had to high-tail it to get to a real campsite before dark. The result was an 11-mile day on Saturday, and we actually ended up closer to the car than where we began (if that makes any sense). The 15-mile loop was complete when we hiked out on Sunday morning.

Appendix: 2008 has been the Year of the Merlin. After observing a nesting pair at Bay Furnace Campground along the shores of Lake Superior in May, I spotted a merlin while we were lost in the sods. It spooked a group of robins, nuthatches and chickadees.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Dominion approach

Tomorrow I depart for Richmond, Va., for a trip into the wild. Once in Richmond, it's off to Bear Creek Lake State Park. The park is a favored car camping destination amid the rolling forests of the Piedmont in Cumberland County. Next, it's a few hours north and west to Dolly Sods Wilderness near Red Creek, W.Va. This is a rare boggy area on a high-elevation plateau (~4,000') where the environment has more in common with Canada than the rest of West Virginia.

In preparing for the journey, I went to Acronym yesterday. Among the notable purchases were trekking poles and gaiters. The trekking poles are not just old walking sticks that you find on the ground. These are made of space age material and even have shock absorbers. The gaiters are rather like nylon spats. They hopefully will protect against water, nettles, thorns and ticks. More to report later from the Old Dominion!

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Spying avifauna

Today I learned something random: that James Bond is named after a birder. Several years ago, I bought "The Birds of the West Indies" for use in The Bahamas. I always noticed that the author's name was James Bond. Turns out that author Ian Fleming had an estate in Jamaica and was an avid birder. He owned a copy of the book and hence 007's name.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Monotonous repetition

How many times can I create a "welcome fall" post? Several, apparently. The northern tier of Illinois was dotted with lows in the lower 30s last night--presumably the first frost in the Land of Lincoln since last May. The temperature hit 32 in Rochelle and Freeport, and it was 33 as near as Joliet. The lake-warmed low here in Uptown was 46.9, but at O'Hare the mercury dipped to 44. Today is a picture-perfect fall day, sunny with an expected high of 61. Welcome, fall!

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Bike talk

I had a chance to ride some mountain bike trails last weekend. I'm not sure what to make of this experience. One of my first impressions was that visibility was challenging. We rode through the sun-dappled woods of the Northwest Suburbs in the late morning hours, and it was hard to see very far down the trail. Also, I was incredibly gunshy, perhaps because of my knee injury but also for fear of a broken bone. The person I was with leapt big logs with ease. I slowed and walked my bike over them. Careering through the woods on a bike was fun, but I found it to be too fast to actually observe nature in any way. That's what I like about walking through the woods.

Sweet water

Amid all of the unpleasantness out East during the past couple weeks, the House approved a critical piece of legislation. The Great Lakes Compact prohibits diversion of water outside of the lakes' basin. The House passed this essential legislation 390-25. Chicago, in case you're wondering, is still considered part of the Great Lakes Basin even though when I do the dishes the water eventually flows toward the Mississippi River and the Gulf. Historically, before the reversal of the Chicago River, our water drained to the Great Lakes. Thankfully we still have an exemption and can partake in the sweet water of Lake Michigan.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Crisp air

Today was the sort of crisp gray day that is a reminder of the change of the seasons. You could hear call notes from a migratory bird (white-throated sparrow?) here in Uptown today. A downy woodpecker announced its presence. And a brown creeper was seen in the tree outside our front window. It's shaping up to be an autumn-like week with nighttime temperatures perhaps dipping into the 40s.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Crane technique

There are several dozen sandhill cranes somewhere in this photo, I swear. One of the few nature photos I took up in the Sand County/Necedah area. This is from an observation platform at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Sand County

Juneau County, Wis., is a land of bizarre glacial formations, towering pines and oaks, big lakes and sandy soils. This is Aldo Leopold country, and one can see why the author of the classic "Sand County Almanac" found it so appealing. In fact, some sections of the pine-and-oak openings actually resemble the high plateaulands of the Southwest that Leopold also celebrated.

There are no shortage of recreation options in this section of central Wisconsin, as more than 75 percent of Juneau County is made up of public land. We came for the Whooping Crane Festival in Necedah and to camp at Buckhorn State Park, which turned out to be a gem. Our site was on the shores of Castle Rock Lake, the fourth-largest inland lake in Wisconsin and a part of the Wisconsin River Flowage.

The festival included a bus tour of nearby Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, home to several dozen reintroduced whoopers. We did in fact see four of the extremely scarce cranes and now can add them to our life lists. we also saw trumpeter swans, a harrier and dozens of sandhill cranes in the refuge. In all, we tallied 41 species for the trip including an osprey and a bald eagle from our campsite.

Just four hours from Chicago, this is definitely an area to return to--wild enough to harbor wolf packs and black bears.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Gas avoidance

A constant tension exists in the driftless area between the desire to visit natural areas that are farther afield and the need to protect the environment from unnecessary carbon-orgy trips. My story for a local magazine offers ideas for finding nature without a long car trip.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Pictured kayaking

From the driftless area archives, previously unpublished, a 13-second video of our trip to Pictured Rocks this past spring.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Great flood

It has been raining in Chicago for close to 48 hours straight. First, a plume of rain extending from here to Wichita continually spun showers into the Chicago area for most of yesterday. The result was more than 6.6 inches of rain at O'Hare, a new single-day record. The highway to O'Hare, I-190, was closed yesterday and the Edens Expressway was closed. The Water Reclamation District opened the sluice gates along the North Shore Channel, Chicago Harbor and the Calumet River, releasing the waterways into Lake Michigan.

Today, conditions have worsened. Flooding has caused an evacuation in the Northwest Side along the Chicago River. Best I can tell, every waterway around here has flooded--the Fox River, the Des Plaines River, DuPage River, Salt Creek, Calumet River, Thorn Creek. The Flood of 2008 will be one to remember.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Desert defiles

To some, Edward Abbey is the Thoreau of the West. I just completed Abbey's "Desert Solitaire," in which the author spends a summer as a ranger at Arches National Monument in the 1960s. Abbey is a true iconoclast--he's also something of an eco-terrorist if you read "Monkey Wrench Gang." "Desert Solitaire" is full of funny asides and incredible descriptions of the desert. One of Abbey's philosophies that I take away is his view of National Park use. He thinks all parks should be protected from vehicle traffic and lightly managed. Instead, he believes, a vast conspiracy has encouraged the use of gas-guzzling cars all across our parks. Abbey's preference would be to keep the parks vehicle-free and force all motorists to park and then shuttle-bus or bike into the parks. There are a number of great Abbey quotes, but I pulled this one off of Wikipedia, and I think it captures the sentiments of his books:

"The most common form of terrorism in the U.S.A. is that carried on by bulldozers and chain saws."

Monday, September 8, 2008

False fall?

All hail meteorological fall! It is 54.9 degrees right now in Uptown with a steady rain. Just 200 miles north, in Green Bay, it is a crisp 50 degrees for the Packers' contest with the Minnesota Vikings. The forecast through the rest of the week is in the 60s and 70s. Let's hope it stays this way right into October and November, though if history is a guide it won't--we'll have at least one more heat wave, I suspect, in coming weeks. For now, though, it is September and it is feeling like fall.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Weather pattern

Just as meteorological fall began, we saw the hottest temperatures at Midway Airport in 761 days yesterday (95 degrees). Today, though, it was much cooler and it's 68 degrees here right now. Tomorrow, with hurricane remnants moving in, the forecast high is 67. It truly was fall-like here, with a thick overcast over a choppy grayish lake today.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Park farewells

In stunning news, Illinois' governor has announced that nearly two dozen state parks and historic sites will close this fall. One Republican, though, said the announcement may be an effort to reach accord on a new state budget. Still, surprising news. Among the potential casualties are several that have been featured on If only the state had listened to one of my first posts on the old journal two years ago. Fewer staff and amenities would actually improve the visitor experience as the parks are allowed to return to nature.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Feeling August

August. A fine month, but something of a barren time when it comes to the outdoors and wildlife watching at this latitude. Breeding season is largely over, so many birds are less active. I was in the North Woods a few days ago and barely heard a song or a call at all. A few are starting to migrate--shorebirds have been reported at Montrose Beach, for example. Except for this mild year, the weather is typically very warm and humid and not comfortable for spending much time outside. I'm mostly looking forward to fall trips--crisp days with puffy white clouds.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Interdunal agriculture

Marijuana plants have been discovered in teetotaling Indiana Dunes, and I am enjoying the irony. In fact, I wish I had sown a few seeds there myself. Regulars may recall that we were at the Dunes earlier this year only to discover an overzealous alcohol ban. The campground's rating went from four campfires to a lowly two campfires. Now, "wild" marijuana plants have been found in the park. Officials are asking for help finding the plants and have set up a hotline for anyone who sees one. I'm guessing a lot of people would be happy to help track down the pot plants just in time for harvest.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Legendary laker

Somewhere in all of us, we wish we were plying the Great Lakes on a freighter (OK, maybe just me). Imagine a lot of days on frigid open waters, evenings in rough-and-tumble port towns. Romantic moments along rocky coastlines and rugged landings along rusty breakwalls. Distant lighthouses the only sign of society whilst navigating November storms.

This brings me to the Gordon Lightfoot classic "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald." Where has this song been hiding all these years? Yesterday, the 6-minute epic came on a classic rock station here in town. There are so many great lyrics in the song, but here are some favorites:

Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings
in the rooms of her ice-water mansion.
Old Michigan steams like a young man's dreams;
the islands and bays are for sportsmen.
And farther below Lake Ontario
takes in what Lake Erie can send her,
And the iron boats go as the mariners all know
with the Gales of November remembered.

I didn't know that the Dandy Warhols, a brilliant American rock band, covered the Lightfoot epic.

Additionally, the Chicago Tribune featured an editorial on the importance of the lakes today.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Summer splendor

What a lovely summer this has been in Chicago! Our cold winter and cool spring have transitioned into a mild summer. We have only a couple 90s and lots of 70s. Right now, it's 69.8 degrees in Uptown. WGN-TV meteorologist Tom Skilling had a nice note in the paper about the mild summer the other day, but I can't seem to find it. I know he pointed out that the North Woods locations like Antigo, Wis., had dipped into the lower 40s recently. Ah, the North Woods. Here is a link to Skilling's blog anyway. It's a pretty typical item about a not-so-true weather belief.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Constant flashes

One week ago tonight, a vicious line of thunderstorms hit the Chicago area. Straight-line winds took off roofs from Elmhurst to Elgin. A tornado struck Griffith, Ind. Here in Uptown, lightning flashed in the sky near constantly for most of the night. In fact, we had half our year's allotment of lightning during this single episode, according to this story.

Elsewhere, the Detroit Free Press reports that "Michigan has it all." Indeed, what a state, and still so much to explore.

Finally, a man and his son set out to trace Marquette and Jolliet's route from St. Ignace, Mich., down the Mississippi River watershed. Sounds like quite a trip. Canoeing the open water of the Great Lakes, though, wouldn't be for me.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Parsimonious approach

The Chicago Tribune reported recently that Illinois' state parks are falling into disrepair. Sadly, Illinois' Department of Natural Resources already lagged behind many other states in my opinion. Three-foot-high, unmown grass doesn't bother me that much. I'm more fixated on the alcohol ban and the lack of privacy at most of the campgrounds. But it's unfortunate that Illinois' natural wonders won't have the accompanying camps they deserve any time soon.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Storm surge

During the past three years, we have seen tornadic weather in Chicago during the months of August and September. Back in September 2006, reports indicated a tornado was seen in the Humboldt Park neighborhood and that it was headed toward Uptown. The warning siren went off--some say for the only time in Chicago history--and we waited out the storm in the basement with neighbors. A tornado really never hit ground in Chicago, but still a scary experience. Ironically, we camped later that night at Blue Mounds State Park in Dane County, Wis.

Last year, a huge thunderstorm hit Chicago on an August afternoon. There was more than 12 inches of water on Lake Shore Drive in sections. Several of the willows that line Lincoln Park were taken out by straight line winds. There was severe tree and structural damage in Lakeview. I rode up on a sidewalk to clear the flooded Wilson Avenue viaduct.

Last night, the tornado siren by the neighborhood gas station sounded for the second time in three years. We scurried to the basement with a radio and Blackberry (love the radar on the Blackberry). There was a tornado warning for central Cook County, and a tornado was seen near Elmhurst. It was projected to sweep through Chicago, and ultimately Montrose Harbor. A sheet of wind blew through somewhere near 8:15, and we lost power for about an hour. At 8:30, the tornado warning expired. Reading reports today, I don't think a tornado ever touched ground. I do know that thousands were still without power today. Another wild August storm in Chicago.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Bird bonanza

Birds seen on Day 2 of Lollapalooza: barn swallow, american crow, rock dove, chimney swift (one lonely soul flying over the maelstrom of Rage Against the Machine), ring-billed gull. More Lolla views here.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Virginia splendor

Bear Creek Lake State Park is nestled in the rolling terrain of Cumberland County, Va. Just over one hour from Richmond, the park is a treasure amid a dense forest near the foothills of the Appalachians. This also is near the site of a memorable canoe capsize in the Willis' River. I lost a cellphone and a camera in that one.

Thanks to one of the correspondents for the tip on this nice story in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Full disclosure: the author used to be in a fantasy league with me.

Bear crawl

A black bear wandered out of the Rockies and onto the course at the U.S. Senior Open on Friday. News reports state that the bear departed the course through a drainpipe. I'm still trying to figure out how a beast of this size could squeeze into a drainpipe. Also, the reports use the verb "crawled" in describing its exit. Do four-legged mammals really crawl? Maybe like when Templeton slinked around the fairgrounds in "Charlotte's Web?"

Friday, August 1, 2008

Water table

The driftless area has been a dark place lately. In recent years, weird stuff seems to happen in northern Wisconsin (within several dozen miles of some great campsites). This time a man began shooting at a group of kids swimming in the Menominee River.

At Lollapalooza in Grant Park today, birds included one rock dove, four american crows and one ring-billed gull. People far outnumbered Aves.

Last, in what really is more important news than anything today, the Phoenix Spacecraft confirmed water on Mars.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Algae attack

The Chicago Tribune reported today that algae has bloomed out of control on the bottom of Lake Michigan in the past three years, largely due to exotic zebra and quagga mussels. It's sad to hear that the whole native food chain is being altered and that the lake bottom is no longer all boulders and gravel but instead cloaked in algae.

Park place

Trees can be a camper's worst nightmare. A storm blew through Northwestern Illinois recently and killed a child sleeping in a tent at a private campground. Scary stuff.

And one state park is the first in Michigan with green restrooms. The shower building at Grand Haven State Park was replaced in an eco-friendly fashion.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Continental drift

A few of you may have noticed the debate raging here about the direction of this blog. I have come to a solution. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the patternless area.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Tower view

I took a few pictures in an industrial area on the way from work this past week. There are a couple more on flickr.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Fashionable male

A not anywhere near live blog of the replay of the 17th Stage of the Tour de France. Today's stage is up legendary L'Alpe d'Huez. The blog includes bonus coverage of tonight's episode of "Project Runway."

7:54 p.m. -- My viewing begins with a pleasant surprise. Commentator Phil Liggett is interviewing Garmin-Chipotle's team director. I hadn't heard Liggett or Paul Sherwen much in primetime this year.

7:55 -- Now Craig Hummer takes over the announcing duties. He is Mario Mendoza to Liggett's Babe Ruth.

7:56 -- Commentator Bob Roll makes a simile involving a snow leopard.

8:00 -- A quick check of Runway, which is recapping last week's episode and Jerry's hideous outfit.

8:07 -- The model elimination process on Runway seems arbitrary and unfair.

8:10 -- Keith looks a bit like the lead singer of Suicidal Tendencies.

8:11 -- Back to the Tour, an interview with Christian Vande Velde who hails from suburban Chicago. He was a General Classification contender until yesterday. He keeps a great diary that sometimes appears in the Tribune, but I can't seem to locate it online.

8:14 -- Helicopter shots show the incredible vistas--lakes, waterfalls, peaks--of the Alps.

8:18 -- Back to Runway, where Stella explains her project while aiming to erase memories of last week's garbage bags.

8:21 -- Tim Gunn uses the phrase "hot mess" in a nod to last season's champ, Christian Siriano.

8:28 -- At the Tour, Peter Velits is alone leading the stage with two groups of chasers following. The Peloton is 1 minute, 45 seconds behind. The GC contenders are in Chase 2.

8:30 -- I read a profile of Tour leader Frank Schleck a couple years ago. He seems like a good guy and he's from Luxembourg.

8:36 -- Andy Schleck, Frank's younger brother, was second in this year's Giro d'Italia and is having a great Tour. Veteran rider Stuart O'Grady says Andy will be an all-time great.

8:40 -- Back on Runway, Leanne takes her creepiness to a whole 'nother level when guest judge Natalie Portman is introduced.

8:46 -- Nina Garcia provides this blast to Wesley: "Shiny, tight and short is the quickest way to look cheap." And I just realized that Wesley has been wearing white shorts this whole time.

8:52 -- In France, Jerome Pineau has joined Velits on the lead, and they approach the base of L'Alpe. The first group of chasers is approaching.

8:54 -- 13.8 kilometers to the summit of the famed mountain.

8:55 -- Velits has cracked.

8:56 -- GC contender Carlos Sastre attacks with Denis Menchov right behind.

8:57 -- In New York, Suede has won the challenge.

8:58 -- Wesley is eliminated and Leanne somehow goes on to sew another day.

8:59 -- In the Alps, Menchov is in difficulty with 12.2 kilometers to go.

9:02 -- I love the chalk messages on the Tour's roads. The group just rolled over 'ANDY' and 'FRANK.'

9:08 -- Bernhard Kohl, who is in second in the Tour and leading King of the Mountains, is fading. Only to quickly bounce back.

9:10 -- Sastre is 48 seconds ahead of the yellow jersey group.

9:16 -- Sastre is the "virtual" leader of the Tour right now, says Roll.

9:20 -- If I were a spectator at the Tour, I don't think I'd run beside the riders and pour water on them. But that's just me.

9:29 -- Andy Schleck and Vladimir Efimkin attack. Sastre has extended his lead to 2 minutes, 5 seconds.

9:38 -- Phil Liggett takes over the call with about a mile to go. And Sammy Sanchez, the Basque rider, is on the attack.

9:42 -- Sastre captures the stage and the yellow jersey.

9:44 -- The GC contenders finish 2:14 behind. The Tour will be decided during the Stage 19 individual time trial, and Australia's Cadel Evans (1:34 back) appears to be the favorite.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Owlet watch

Thank you to the correspondents for this find. Screech owls are nesting in New York's Central Park. The New York Times chronicles nighttime nature outings in the park. Sounds like fun.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Martin frenzy

A plague of purple martins is afflicting Richmond, Va. The big swallows are at times beloved and hated in the old capital of the Confederacy. Now, the city is planning a festival to celebrate them.

What strikes me about this is that, to me, this isn't typical purple martin habitat. Usually they reside near golf courses, farms, airports or other open spaces--this is quite an urban area. Open enough, though, that a red-tailed hawk was present to feast on the martins, according to the story.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Dope tour

I haven't quite devoted as much time as I would like to watching this year's Tour de France. And sometimes I question why I even bother with this dopefest. Today, a two-time stage winner in this year's Tour, Ricardo Ricco, was disqualified along with the Saunier Duval team because Ricco tested positive for the blood enhancer EPO. Paul Sherwen makes nice use of the word "prat" to describe Ricco.

Oh, and I posted the three-point stance photo.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Three-point stance

In case you woke up this morning thinking 'does Williams County, Ohio, have red squirrels?' the answer is that it does. Williams County, the most northwestern of all 88 counties in Ohio, has red squirrels and fox squirrels. These were among the many discoveries on our recent trip east to Ohio and Indiana. Our trip list totaled 55+ species with the last species tallied when a black-crowned night-heron flew over the Indiana Toll Road yesterday evening near Gary. There are a few photos now posted on the driftless area Flickr site (I spared you the photo of me in a three-point stance over Indiana, Ohio and Michigan).

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Great lake

Great story in the Plain Dealer today by D'Arcy Egan. It highlights the reasons why Lake Erie is the most important Great Lake.

Lake Superior has 50 percent of the water mass of the Great Lakes and 2 percent of the fish. Lake Erie has 2 percent of the water mass and 50 percent of the fish.

Full disclosure: the expert quoted in this story is the uncle of one of my best friends.

Hills sadness

There's a sadness in seeing a towering hickory on the edge of a freshly graded development. Such sights are common here on the edge of the Allegheny Plateau. Northeast Ohio once was mostly upland forest--beech, hickory, maple, oak, hemlock. The few areas that weren't cleared for farming in the first part of the 19th century are being claimed by development in many areas. Now the shagbarks are exposed. Skinny, swaying trees, most without any branches at all until two or three stories up.

Elsewhere in Willoughby Hills, a sighting of a northern mockingbird. The harbinger of global warming was seen at Airport Greens Golf Course. Also, the plague of eastern kingbirds this summer continues. Several seen at the golf course.

Friday, July 11, 2008

State straddle

The past few days have been a tale of Northeasts--northeastern Illinois, northeastern Indiana and northeastern Ohio. We departed Wednesday from Chicago and arrived at Pokagon State Park, in Indiana, later that night. The campground has a lot of potential--wooded sites, nice online reservation system--but was a bit disappointing. As the problem has been in the past, raccoons and other varmints were lurking in the woods around the sites. They were ready to pounce at the slightest sign of humans. In our case, no food out at all and yet they were creeping up on us.

Also, maybe I haven't camped in the lower Midwest in midsummer for a while, but there were a ton of bugs around. A plague of daddy longlegs descended on our tent, and the mosquitoes were fierce in the morning. Our tent was set up on a hardpan dirt surface that made sleeping incredibly uncomfortable. Anyway, we'll probably stay in the nearby Potawatomi Lodge next time around.

It was a perfect summer morning amid the glacial lakes, marshes and woodlands of the region. We meandered a bit by car and found the point where Indiana, Michigan and Ohio come together. Representative really of nothing, though there was a stone marker signifying the convergence of the boundaries. It took a three-point stance to straddle all of them at once.

All told--40 plus bird species already and should be more to follow.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Good morning

The Tour de France started today, and I'm here with a somewhat live blog of the action...

7:30 a.m. - Versus begins the telecast with a dramatic narrator describing the geological forces that shaped the Alps.

7:34 - Ah, Phil Liggett, Paul Sherwen and Bob Roll make their first appearance.

7:36 - A lengthy conversation about doping. The past two Tours have been ravaged by drugs. Team Astana, including new signee and 2007 Tour winner Alberto Contador, already has been banned this year for past transgressions.

7:44 - Top sprinter Tom Boonen has been barred from the tour for using a "social" drug: cocaine.

7:47 - Predictions for Stage 1. Sherwen: Oscar Freire. Liggett: Thor Hushovd. Roll: Fabian Cancellara. Craig Hummer (I miss Al Trautwig): Riccardo Ricco(?).

7:50 - The last time the race ended in Plumelec, in 1997, the winner was Erik Zabel. Zabel is in the Peloton today, too.

7:56 - There are two American teams in the Tour for the first time: Garmin-Chipotle and Team Columbia.

8:00 - We join the stage in progress and there's been a crash near a feeding station. A Cofidis rider went down in the Peloton. He has to abandon just 55 miles into the Tour.

8:02 - T-Mobile no longer is fielding a team in the Tour. This is the team, once known as Team Telekom, that had given us the likes of Jan Ullrich and Andreas Kloeden. They were like the Cobra Kai of cycling. They'll be missed.

8:08 - There's an early breakaway. I've never neard of these guys other than Thomas Voeckler. They have a 4 minute, 11 second advantage.

8:12 - Liquigas again is fielding a team. I will look up what Liquigas does before the end of the stage.

8:23 - The crashed rider is diagnosed with a broken wrist. Cyclists break wrists and collarbones like we get paper cuts.

8:33 - There's a guy playing bagpipes next to the road.

8:34 - A check of Wimbledon -- Serena Williams leads Venus Williams by a break, first set. NBC doesn't bother with last names in its score box.

8:50 - Sprinter Alessandro Petacchi is barred this year for too much nasal spray, says Liggett. Cycling is bizarre.

8:54 - Another crash and a Liggett-ism. Frank Schleck, a "pre-race fancied rider," is part of the crash.

8:59 - Back to NBC, where Venus has now won a break to tie the set.

9:05 - Venus wins the first set, 7-5.

9:10 - The Peloton has cut the lead to 2:29 behind the eight-rider breakaway. Twenty-five miles to go.

9:17 - Peloton is 1:28 back as a Cofidis rider goes on the attack. And now another attack. The group accelerates and decelerates. Sherwen says this will only help the Peloton catch them.

9:21 - Lilian Jegou and David de la Fuente do break away and there are six chasers 49 seconds behind them. About 20 miles to go.

9:27 - Sherwen says the chasers are only "prolonging the agony" now and the Peloton catching them is inevitable.

9:35 - Jegou and De la Fuente trade slipstreams. I love cycling etiquette. And now they chat a bit. Sherwen says most riders speak French.

9:36 - A crash in the Peloton. And one rider comes up with his rear wheel in hand. The Pelton continues its merciless push forward.

9:44 - The Peloton is only one minute behind the leaders. Ten miles to go. The leaders are trying to stay away and at least wear the yellow jersey for a day.

9:45 - A few hundred miles north, in England, Serena and Venus both hold serve, 3-3, second set.

9:51 - Peloton just 18 seconds behind the lead duo. Ten kilometers to go.

9:56 - Another crash, this time on a narrow climb. Another wrist injury perhaps.

10:00 - The Peloton churning forward now with three kilometers to go. Team Columbia at the front.

10:02 - There's a narrow stone bridge that everyone is worried about. Peloton makes it across intact.

10:02 - Erik Zabel, 1997 stage winner here, is near the front!

10:03 - And a rider attacks. Team Gerolsteiner reels him in and sends its own rider out.

10:04 - Now the attacks are coming from everywhere.

10:05 - And "fancied rider" Alejandro Valverde has some burst in his legs -- and takes the stage.

10:07 - Back to NBC, and Venus has won her fifth title at Wimbledon.

FYI, Liquigas is a gas product distributor in Italy.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Cold July

There's no doubt I am partial to cooler weather--especially when it is supposed to be much warmer. That's why I was so pleased with our trip to the Chicago fireworks display last night. We took to our bikes and made the five-mile or so journey to the downtown area. We decided to take the less-traveled back side of Navy Pier to its eastern terminus. The result was a lightly crowded area of a hardy folk--it had to be less than 60 degrees and there was a consistent wind whipping in from the northeast (traversing hundreds of miles of icy Lake Michigan water).

An article in the Tribune today bemoans the cold temperatures beach-goers will encounter this Independence Day. I have gone swimming in the lake this year, and it takes some elan to get into this water. I first stepped in and nearly sprinted out. Then I saw a group of four-year-olds splashing around and figured if they could do it, I could. Well worth it when air temparatures are hot, but not this weekend.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Jarring news

A study published in the journal Science details avian evolution and may change the way birds are classified. The study, conducted by the Field Museum here in Chicago, shows that nightjars and hummingbirds have a lot in common and grebes and loons--often thought to be related--don't have much in common. Here is a paragraph from an online report:

"Similarly, distinctive lifestyles (such as nocturnal, raptorial and pelagic, i.e., living on the ocean or open seas) evolved several times. For example, contrary to conventional thinking, colorful, daytime hummingbirds evolved from drab nocturnal nightjars; falcons are not closely related to hawks and eagles; and tropicbirds (white, swift-flying ocean birds) are not closely related to pelicans and other waterbirds."

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Summer evening

I went to a friend's new apartment yesterday for the first time. The view from his apartment is unlike any in the city. He lives on the second floor of a multi-unit building, but not a large building--one that's about twice the size of where I live. It's at the eastern end of a dead end street in the Rogers Park neighborhood. His living room offers an incredible view of Lake Michigan, which laps at a breakwall just 20 yards away. His porch offers a 180-degree view of the lake and nearby Leone Beach, which is essentially the north end of Loyola Park. He took a risk on a poorly maintained unit and stretched his resources for the rent and the view.

I really hadn't ever spent an evening sitting right next to Lake Michigan in Chicago. It felt like we were hanging out at a weekend home--maybe on the opposite side of Lake Michigan near Saugatuck or something. There was a lot to see there--the lifeguards rowing in after a day at various North Side outposts, kids playing basketball in the park, a guy swimming off the breakwall, the pilings from an ancient pier, lightning flashing over the lake to the north. I saw a few things I had never seen in Chicago before. Two shooting stars. Constellations Cassiopeia and Cepheus. A moth the size of a kinglet. We also saw a killdeer and heard a common nighthawk. It was the kind of experience that had me longing for more interaction with nature here in town--or at least a few more summer evenings on Andy's porch.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Gym friends

Until my knee injury, I hadn't really spent much time in gyms. I've spent time in high school gyms and college gyms, but not weight rooms or health club-type places. And certainly not in a mostly public weight room on the North Side of Chicago.

I've come to find that blocking out distractions at the gym is near as difficult as the feats of strength and tests of endurance we undertake. In order to summarize the madness, I've broken the "gym people" into five broad categories.

THE NARRATOR--This person likes to loudly detail all of his or her actions in the gym. "Let's see if I can do 150 on the bench this week" or "maybe next time I'll do the leg presses" or "wow, I'm sore." It's best to avoid eye contact with this person. Actually, it's best to avoid eye contact with most everyone at the gym.

THE TV ADDICT--This person turns up the volume on the one crappy gym TV so that it can be heard over the whirr of the treadmills and ellipticals. Usually he or she prefers a show like "American Idol" or "Deal or No Deal."

THE WEAKLING--These people put way more weight on the machine than they should. They can do one or two reps of 400 pounds but then the whole rack comes crashing down for everyone to hear when there joints give out.

THE SPEEDSTER--This person doesn't really do a complete curl, leg press, bench or anything. They fly through every set in a really half-ass way, mostly achieving nothing.

THE FRIENDS--These people actually have a loud conversation across the gym, yukking it up while "American Idol" blares on the television. Believe me, when you are on the treadmill at Mile 1.5 (hey, I'm still rehabbing) and your thoracic diaphragm is about to explode, these are the last people you want around.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Kingbird mania

Are there more eastern kingbirds than usual here in the Midwest this summer? I'm not sure, but I have seen a lot in the past week or so. The flycatchers were present at Montrose Harbor last Saturday, at Marovitz Golf Course Sunday, near Skokie Lagoons on the bus ride to Minnesota yesterday and at several points in Wisconsin on said bus ride. This is a common sentiment among birders: is such and such bird around more this year. But right now, I'm thinking that about the pugnacious eastern kingbird which is adroit at mobbing raptors three times its size.

On another note, I passed over the bloated Crawfish and Rock Rivers on I-94 in southeastern Wisconsin yesterday. Both were lapping at the underside of the interstate bridge. I'm not sure what else to say about the great Midwestern floods of 2008 other than to build on high ground and not in floodplains--stating the obvious I suppose.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Bird concentration

It was almost hard to concentrate on golf on Sunday at Marovitz Golf Course, located at 3800 North along Lake Shore Drive. A storm cleared just as we hit the first tee, and the weather wound up being ideal. On the second hole, a red fox, chased by two or three american crows, sprinted across the fairway. Many birders speak of seeing this fox(es?), and I have seen it once before at Jarvis Bird Sanctuary, about a half-mile away.

On the beautiful fifth tee, which is right next to the blue waters of Lake Michigan, a northern mockingbird was flitting between a thicket and the rough before the fairway. While range maps indicate the "american nightingale" lives throughout the Lower 48, it still is an oddity to see one north of the Butternut region of Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. Mockingbirds, of course, are really common in the South, but growing up near Cleveland, I remember seeing only one. Now, they are fairly common there. Some would say this is a harbinger of climate change. Other observations at the course included black-crowned night-heron, chestnut-sided warbler and warbling vireo. No sign of the beavers on the sixth hole pond.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Fairway find

Wildlife observations on a summery eastern kingbird, a somewhat unexpected sight on the lakefront, swooped in low over a field near Montrose Harbor during the 23rd Annual Hunger Walk. Robert Black Golf Course, in the Rogers Park community, was draped with eastern gray squirrels (this is where I once saw a squirrel eating a dead northern flicker). A cooper's hawk flew low over the third fairway, no doubt attracted by the squirrel horde.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Safe Sabula

I don't really have much to add on the Midwestern floods or even the horrifying tornado that plowed through a Scout camp in the Loess Hills of western Iowa. I was in Cedar Rapids last spring; it seemed like a decent community with a quaint downtown--all underwater now and there may be more water coming. Closer to home, Lake County, Ill., has been declared a disaster area. In Davenport, Iowa, the problem was less the Mississippi than small creeks. I checked in on Sabula, Iowa, a tiny community wedged onto an island in the Mississippi near Illinois. No word of flooding in town, but officials were considering closing the Sabula-Savanna bridge that also was closed during the floods of 1993.

Yard count

This week, I added a species to my list of "yard birds," which includes any bird seen from our property. A great blue heron flew over, heading northwest from the direction of the lake. The list since we moved here in 2006 has reached 23 species (our previous list was in the upper 30s). We don't get quite as many passerine migrants here. My theories are that we have a much smaller front yard with less cover and that perhaps our east-west orientation doesn't attract as many north-south migrants along the lakefront (no science to this, just a theory). The list is funny: I have peregrine falcon and american woodcock but no common grackle or red-winged blackbird.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Artificial waters

I'm not sure where to begin with the news that Lake Delton, near the Wisconsin Dells, disappeared during the past few days. This is a land of natural wonders that sadly now is marked by artifice in the form of indoor waterslides. It ultimately was the natural world that removed one of the area tourist attractions. A cruel irony to be sure.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but Lake Delton is not the place where amphibious vehicles show visitors around (?).

I've never been a fan of large reservoirs. Other than providing a lot of Depression-era jobs, they lack the character of natural bodies of waters. Give me a slough or a bog any day over a massive lake in a place like Kentucky that shouldn't have lakes.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Seiche alert

The wacky weather continues (though isn't it always wacky to some extent?). A tornado cut a long swath through Will County and southern Cook County yesterday, overturning cars on I-57 and leaving damage in a few neighborhoods along the way. The Tribune indicates this was one really long-lived tornado, from Odell, Ill., to Lansing, Ill., in Cook County, though much of yesterday afternoon multiple tornadoes were being referenced during the tumult.

Right now there is a seiche warning in effect for the lakefront in Chicago: Statement as of 3:52 PM CDT on June 08, 2008
... Lakeshore Flood Warning in effect until 9 PM CDT thisevening... The National Weather Service in Chicago has issued a Lakeshore Flood Warning... also known as a seiche warning... which is in effect until 9 PM CDT this evening. A 2 foot drop in lake water near Chicago this afternoon indicatesthat a seiche is in progress across Southern Lake Michigan. This is a very dangerous situation for waders along the Chicago Lakeshore. Water levels may fluctuate rapidly... takingunsuspecting waders out to more open waters. A Lakeshore Flood Warning means that flooding is occurring orimminent along the lake. Residents on or near the shore in thewarned area should be alert for rising water... and take appropriate action to protect life and property. Evacuate docks... piers... and breakwalls now.

A seiche (pronounced saysh) is sort of a non-tidal wave...and a type of cuttlefish.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Puffin's song

An editorial in The Guardian praises the puffin, which is facing a decline in Britain. The piece mentions the puffin's chainsaw call, which I think sounds more like a cow mooing.

Puffins, at just 12 inches, about the size of a blue jay, fall into the category of birds "that you'd think would be bigger." Bird guides have a way of distorting size and so when you see birds in the wild they often are much smaller than what you have imagined for years and years. Some examples include all sandpipers (many are the size of sparrows), most owls, empidonax flycatchers and rails.

Puffins, by the way, are a member of the Auk Family (Alcidae), which includes some really interesting seabirds like razorbills and murres. It also includes the dovekie, which is only 7.5-9 inches and breeds on seacliffs in Greenland. Peterson describes the dovekie as "chubby and seemingly neckless."

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Foggy shores

Lakeshore weather was in evidence yesterday. When I departed work on the Southwest Side, it was sunny and warm, about 75 degrees according to the records I can find. The high in that part of town was 82. Approaching downtown, rafts of fog were blowing in from the lake and the temperature plummeted. A bit of research shows it was 59 at 6:30 p.m. yesterday along the lakefront. From a foggy locale like McCormick Place, at the juncture of I-55 and Lake Shore Drive, the distance to the relative warmth and summery weather was just 6.5 miles. Two seasons in a few minutes and the dramatic lake microclimate continues. Those of us living near the lake, especially on an east-west street like ours, may not have to turn on our air conditioning yet when an expected heat wave hits in coming days. I'm hoping we can rely on what's left of the spring chill that is lingering in our house.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Wandering ungulate

There was a post on Illinois Birders Exchanging Thoughts this week about a deer at Montrose Point. Definitely an unusual sighting for the lakefront, but really not all that surprising. One cougar already was in town this year, beavers reside at the nearby golf course pond, coyotes arae known to reside in the park, a fox lives near the point and of course many birds do, too. But it's still hard to picture the deer getting to the lakefront from the nearest deer havens, which are well inland.

Today, a deer was seen in a small garden in the Northwest Side community of Logan Square (video above). Is it the same deer that was at Montrose?

(Note to Tribune Web staff: your embed code is near as long as the Bible.)

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Ramp-ant beauty

More observations and reflections from the UP trip...we tallied 70 bird species including american white pelicans soaring over Route 41 in northeast Wisconsin...I was hoping for a more remote campground, but Bay Furnace was fine. It's right off a state highway, but the views were so nice it was easy to forget that. The privacy wasn't exceptional, but it was good enough. We gathered enough collateral material on the trip that now we know where the other good spots are. Across the highway, Christmas, Mich., had the requisite Christmas gift shops, but some had fallen into disrepair--as evidenced by a giant headless Mrs. Claus...A NASCAR race was really popular in the steakhouse there and in the campground. Radios blared the call all night. It shows how far Indy racing has fallen that this was the marquee event on the day of the Indy 500...Our kayak outfitter, Northern Waters, was great. Our trip was unfortunately shortened because of a seasick member of our group, but I learned a lot and felt that we were all prepared for the experience. My rudder was jammed at one point and taking me out to sea and our guide, Carl, calmly paddled over, reached into the kayak and fixed the problem...Seney National Wildlife Refuge really is a pestilential, malarial place. As one would expect of a huge swamp in the middle of the UP in May, it's super-buggy. I don't think an extended visit there is really possible this time of year...I was fighting a cold during most of the UP trip, but it was easy to forget. The forest floor above the Pictured Rocks was carpeted with ramps and wildflowers. Warblers were calling everywhere.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Pictured swans

Kayaking under a cavern in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. More photos are now available.

Swan refuge

Today was rather like the first few chapters of "Trumpet of the Swan." Seney National Wildlife Refuge is a natural wonderland of bogs and swamps in the middle of the UP. Trumpeter swans, unlike anywhere else east of the Rockies, are everywhere here--we saw 48 on one pool alone. Other sightings included an osprey, on nest, ruffed grouse, common loons and pine siskin.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

May ice

Kayaking in Lake Superior, we had a stunning realization. The rock wall above us wasn't draped with quartzite, but with ice. Our guide spoke of a Memorial Day a few years back with ice floes on the lake.

It's hard to put into words what we saw today, but of course I'll try. Emerald waters, multi-hued sheer rock walls, sea caves, waterfalls plunging over stories of rock.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Blue water

There's no doubt that this trip is perpetuating the world demand for petroleum, but the scenery so far has been worth it. In Munising right now, camped in nearby Christmas right on Lake Superior. There's a merlin in our campground, and they sell sake at the local supermarket.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Late spring

Blogging live from Green Bay, Wis., where summer still seems a long way off. Most deciduous trees still don't have leaves (though it's quite balmy tonight and probably over 50). We're headed even farther north tomorrow--to Munising, Mich., and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Hope to have a chance to blog from there.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Field glasses

Today, after 18 years of using the same field glasses, I received a new pair of binoculars in the mail. The new nocs have an 8x objective lens and 42 mm field of view. I can already tell that the binoculars will improve my birding--images are incredibly crisp, the 8x42 setup allows for much more light and detail in dim conditions and the field of view is bigger than what I had before.

Also, the Lower 48 low for yesterday was 23 degrees in Tomahawk, Wis., about 325 miles north of here. There's a chance I could be reporting from a similar latitude this weekend. More to come...

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Getting birdy

Today was one of those days for warblers at Montrose Point that is hard to top most anywhere in North America. We had 56 total species, and 18 species of warblers alone. And missed a few, too, according to Internet reports. The american redstarts and magnolia warblers really put on a show; they were everywhere flitting about just a few feet away at eye level. There weren't any especially rare birds at Montrose today, but species like wilson's warbler--typically elusive--were everywhere. We had several close-up glimpses of black-and-white warblers moving up and down tree trunks like nuthatches do. The weather today is impeccable, 69 and sunny right now. We're still about one week behind in terms of migration, but this is worth the wait.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Morning walk

I wish I started every day at a bird sanctuary. Yesterday, a pre-work trip to Montrose Point yielded 47 species in just about an hour. Highlights were 11 warbler species, four shorebirds (spotted sandpiper, dunlin, least sandpiper, semipalmated plover), and one confusing female orchard oriole.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Species bias

The New York Times printed an article about "biobigotry," the negative feelings one generates toward certain animal species. The author cites brown-headed cowbirds as a bird she dislikes for its malicious parasitic nesting. The article discusses how we anthropomorphize the characteristics of animals, e.g., calling squirrels gluttonous. Non-native species are also victims of biobigotry. House sparrows, rock doves and european starlings are good examples.

I try not to do this too much, but I do have blind spots. I sometimes dislike the invasives that rule our city, I say things like "the crows are having a convention" when they are cawing a lot, and enjoy seeing an underdog red-winged blackbird mob a red-tailed hawk. The implication for habitat restoration is interesting, too, as these endeavors are centered on removing non-native plants--serious biobigotry perhaps.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Goodbye Nau

Word came across today that Nau, the eco-friendly clothing retailer, is going out of business. There's a statement on Nau's Web site about the decision.

Chicago was home to one of Nau's four stores, and the store already appears to be closed. Nau donated $200,000-plus to charitable causes in its brief existence and gave customers a choice of social services, environmental and other causes to choose from on every purchase. It also used sustainable practices on everything from the way the clothes were made to how they were shipped. It only stocked a few items in stores in hopes of mitigating the environmental costs of shipping tons of merchandise around the country (customers were encouraged to have items shipped to their homes).

I'll miss Nau, even if some of the fashions looked kind of like Greedo's outfit in the first Star Wars movie.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Pond rodents

I had a moment of uncertainty yesterday when I saw that someone had mentioned online that they saw a muskrat at the golf course pond. But I checked some online information and consulted a guide to mammals, and I'm certain that the massive rodent I saw out of the water was a beaver. Somebody at the pond this morning said they had seen a beaver, too.

It was fairly quiet at Montrose today, but I totaled 35 species. There was a yellow-crowned night-heron at the pond. This is a rare sighting for Chicago as we are at the northern extreme of its range.

Elsewhere, in North Suburban Vernon Hills, a chimney caught fire because of a bird nest. No one can seem to figure out what kind of birds built the nest. I have a guess.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Avian day

Observations from a day driving around Cook County...the morning started with a common yellowthroat in our next-door neighbors' front yard...the great blue herons are back on their nests at Busse Woods, where you can see a rookery from I-90...I saw three turkey vultures soaring low over Paul Douglas Forest Preserve...The Cook County Forest Preserve sites in the Northwest Suburbs are a new frontier for me. There is also an extensive swampy area at Arthur Janura Preserve that looks promising...I saw an american kestrel dive onto something right off I-90...a pair of mute swans have taken up at an office park pond just north of I-90 near Schaumburg...three white-tailed deer were sitting in a highway easement just east of O'Hare...I heard a white-crowned sparrow call outside a church in the East Garfield Park neighborhood on the city's West the same church, house sparrows were clinging to the building's stone walls. I don't know why they do this...

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Weather delay

Northern Minnesota was raked with snow a couple times in April. One unfortunate consequence was a mass die-off of songbirds. Warblers, kinglets, swallows and bluebirds didn't have insects to eat because of the white stuff. Let's hope these species recover swiftly.

Here in Chicago, spring still appears to be running behind because of the frigid winter we had. Our front-yard bulbs and ferns are not near as tall as they were this time last year.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Uptown rodents

I wish I had my camera. That was my first thought when I saw two beavers this evening less than a half-mile from our home in Uptown.

I was able to get some evening birding in today. The conditions were pleasant: mid 60s and clear and I found 39 species in a limited timeframe. I took a quick detour on the way home to a small, kidney-shaped pond that serves as a water hazard at Marovitz Golf Course. There is a tangled, fenced area with a bunch of downed willows that is usually good for a few spring migrants. Peering through the fence, I noticed a round form on a big log about 10 yards away. I assumed it was a stump until I saw it's paws, whiskers and matted fur (pelt?). The big rodent froze for a while, gripping a willow shoot. Then it proceeded to munch on the shoot in a fashion similar to a yard mulcher. A second beaver was in the water swimming away from shore. Meanwhile, there were two golfers finishing the hole about 100 yards away. The perching beaver continued to gnaw on limbs, this as golfers and joggers and cyclists passed within view.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Cougar weather

First, the Tribune is reporting that the North Side cougar traces its ancestry to the Black Hills of South Dakota. This was the same cat that was in southern Wisconsin a few months back.

Second, I couldn't let April end without one last post about the weather. The low of 31 yesterday at O'Hare tied a record, and the high of 44 was extremely rare. On Monday, snow fell in much of the area. We may have seen the last freeze of the season. According to meteorologist Tom Skilling, a "heavy frost" has never struck the lakefront beyond May 14. Seven to 15 miles inland, the corresponding date is May 29.

Dunes drinking

I have to preface this post by saying I'm not an alcoholic and I (mostly) don't need alcohol to have fun.

Our visit to Indiana Dunes was tainted by a new ban on alcohol in Dunewood Campground. Not just consumption of alcohol or possession of alcohol, but all alcohol. Like $5,000-fine-and-possible-imprisonment alcohol. (The rule was enacted in February 2006.)

I love Indiana Dunes. Our camping trip there was very nice--few people, secluded site, crisp air, good scenery. But it was hard to relax knowing the bottle of wine and 22 ouncer of beer we had could send us to jail. Now, I've camped and drank in many places where there was an alcohol ban. Typically, I shrug this off as a nuisance and then quietly will have a few. Not here. Besides dozens of scary signs, a fellow camper told us that he and his party were thoroughly searched the last time he was there. This isn't relaxation in the woods. This is like entering the Green Zone.

I would argue it's un-American to outlaw drinking in a campground. Nipping from a flask on a brisk night by a campfire is everyone's right. Clearly there is no harm in this.

Indiana Dunes should focus on important rules regarding quiet hours and take the lead from progressive camping locales like Wisconsin and Quebec. Twenty-four hour quiet hours should be established, and you should not be able to hear other campers from your site at any time. All music should only be played through headsets.

We didn't get "caught" drinking, but the spectre of the possibility made it hard to relax. We should have probably left when we saw the first sign. Now we know not to come back. ratings will be adjusted accordingly.