Friday, February 29, 2008

White stuff

Area meteorologists said last night's snowfall was Chicago's 35th snow event this winter. It also was the 35th time it snowed in Chicago this winter.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Paper champion

Sometimes subscribing to a traditional newspaper seems like a waste of natural resources what with all the trees, fossil fuels and emissions involved. But Slate suggests that the environmental impact of online newspapers is nearly the same as hard copy newspapers.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Netting birds

Child porn. MySpace predators. And now this: Internet birding. An article in the most recent edition of Birding is called "Birding and the Dark Side." The article discusses the perils of online information about birding. The Internet has changed the way people bird, but also has led to the proliferation of misinformation. It also has made "experts" of people who have only birded a few years but run out to see every rare bird that is reported. These people have seen snowy plovers before ever recording a house sparrow.

Before the Internet, birders called their local Rare Bird Alert telephone number and a taped message would play with a list of that week's interesting birds. Locations were spread by word of mouth or maybe a printed newsletter. The article suggests advanced birders kindly question outlandish reports. From my experience with the local message board, these sorts of questions don't go over well with the novices. It also suggests you don't have to post every single one of your intriguing sightings, and that alone may prevent a lot of the vitriol.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Silver city

Pictures in front of the Cloud Gate sculpture in Millenium Park are something of a cliche now, but I thought this photo from a couple weeks back was definitely worth sharing.

Glacial pace

Thanks to one of the correspondents for this story from Minnesota about how young people are not heading outdoors much. Someone calls state parks "boring" in the story. Not a term I think of often when outdoors. Even the most abysmal parks I've been to have been anything but boring. Sad.

The Chicago Tribune reported that a puma was seen in southern Wisconsin, about 150 miles from here. (I prefer "puma" to cougar or mountain lion for no real good reason.) Seems that the big cats are moving eastward from the Black Hills and elsewhere. It makes sense considering deer are as common as passenger pigeons used to be.

Finally, NPR featured a mildly funny but interesting piece about honey locusts. Seems the common yard tree developed its thorns to protect against Ice Age beasts such as mastodons. Chicago has thousands of honey locusts, by the way, so it's fun to pretend we're residing in a Pleistocene landscape with megafauna roaming around.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Acronym issues

Today's weather called for a high of 9 and clouds. The temperature actually surged to 18, and it was sunny. The heat wave deceived me a bit. I spent about an hour and a half outside today, and 18 is damn cold.

The update to this story is that I've enjoyed MooseJaw more lately, especially online. Uncle Dan's is now in Lakeview, and Acronym is coming to Lincoln Park.

November 22, 2006 -- City dwellers in Chicago face a scarcity of outdoors-y retailers and outfitters. Flagstaff, Boulder, Asheville this is not. Chicago outposts include a Patagonia store, Erehwon Mountain Outfitters, Uncle Dan's and MooseJaw. That may seem like a lot, but the market has turned over in the past five years. Patagonia is new, and Erehwon has moved around and shuttered other stores. Perhaps Erehwon comes closest to fulfilling all of my expectations of an outfitter. Uncle Dan's and MooseJaw are nice but small. Patagonia is really a clothing shop for middle-aged men more than an outfitter.

There's a national chain, let's call it Acronym, that does have a location near the city but disappoints every time I visit. I like Acronym in general and prefer to spend there because it offers cash back on every purchase (I signed up for this program in late 2005). But this location is so abysmal that I can't stomach making the 30-minute ride again. The store is housed in an aging shopping center that also includes Jewel, Books-A-Million, Jo-Ann Fabrics and a Secretary of State's Office. Acronym is in a low-slung space without much character. This location doesn't carry a complete line of Acronym equipment as I discovered when I asked about cross country skis. Sadly, Acronym is going to push me even farther away soon--the inner-ring location is closing in a few months and moving to Northbrook, on the Cook County-Lake County border.

More to come in future months on the results of a full year of purchasing at Acronym.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Humphreys Peak

Below is the first of the "Best Of" series. This was a difficult choice. Some of my favorite posts were about the Beastie Boys, the Cleveland Indians, the Tour de France and "Nimrod Nation." I've decided to exclude those, but I have to say that writing about those topics did come easily. Still, not central to the driftless area's focus.

July 26, 2006 -- I hiked up a 12,600' peak last weekend, but I'm struggling to decide how to write about it. Humphreys Peak, the highest point in Arizona, was the location. The views were amazing (pictures here), but I suppose the tundra during the final few hundred feet may have been the most memorable part of it. The only plants I saw were lichens, the rare San Francisco groundsel, a perennial alpine plant with yellow and purple flowers, and another striking yellow-flowered plant. It was chilly (~50s), but there wasn't snow on the ground. There were a few birds around, even at the highest part of the peak. Dark-eyed juncos (gray-headed form) and american pipits (only breeding location in Arizona) were about. There were a few chipmunks, fatter than our eastern variety, but I don't think they were marmot or pika species. At the Agassiz Saddle, a broad-tailed hummingbird, perhaps attracted by a bright yellow stuff sack, stopped and hovered for a moment just inches from me. The mountain really is part of a volcano. It is crowned with rock fields resembling the Hollywood take on Mars.

I went from 550' in Chicago to 12,600' in Arizona in 14 hours (with of course, a near 40,000' plane ride in
between). The altitude caused quite a headache that lasted hours later. Advil finally proved to be the solution. It was difficult to focus on anything but getting up and down the mountain. We had a pre-dawn start that ensured we were off the mountain before the threat of afternoon thunderstorms, but we did take many breaks. It seemed like hundreds of people still were going up the mountain as we returned to the trailhead. From Flagstaff below we later saw the peak engulfed by a storm. For some, the journey didn't require the specialized gear we lugged to the top. One gentleman walked up in brand-new white sneakers, shorts, and a Polo shirt, clutching a plastic bottle of spring water. I wonder how they coped with the storm on those exposed rocks. We met several Flagstaffers on the mountain, and they were all very affable, urging us to go to the microbrew fest later that day.

Next stop was West Clear Creek Wilderness and an evening camped next to two swimming holes. We were now at about 4,500' and it was perhaps 100 degrees when we arrived. The spot was a little partied out, but the swimming was ideal. In one spot, there is a 25' bluff to plummet off of. Pancho Doll's swimming hole Web guide includes information on Fat Bradley and Bullpen, which has the big jump. I slept in a hammock strung between a sycamore and a small abert's squirrelbut sturdy cedar that night. Hammock sleeping, when possible, can be ideal. No doubt it's more comfortable than the ground.

The journey culminated with a ride on the Mogollon Rim Road, which skirts the edge of the 5,000' high escarpment that bisects Arizona. This is ponderosa pine forest country with vistas of canyons and valleys below. Among fauna was abert's squirrel, the tufted-ear creature pictured at right.

The final stop was Tempe and the Valley of the Sun, 115 degrees and I still can't understand why they put a city there.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

February rain

The high today hit 50 at O'Hare though the temperature has since plummeted to 38. Snow was forecast, but so far we have only seen rain. It's only 26 in Galena, west of here, and we will be seeing some of the same cold tonight. The melting left a watery mess all over town.

There was some coverage today in the local media about the ongoing flood recovery efforts in Pontiac and Watseka. The freeze-thaw cycle has limited access to damaged buildings.

Thank you to everyone who voted in the first anniversary poll. There should be some greatest hits posted here soon.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Endless winter

We're on the verge of a big thaw after a hard freeze that has lasted about two weeks. A lot of rain is supposed to fall tomorrow, followed by a bit of snow and then more cold. All those rivers that flooded in January and have been icebound since then could be due for another flood.

I found that I'm not the only one dwelling on the weather. Chicagoist also has been talking a lot of cold and explained the city's 2-inch snow parking ban.

Sometimes the cold and gloom seem hopeless. It's hard to imagine that it well ever be hot again, but by July it will be hard to imagine that it will ever be frigid again. Today was a balmy 32 degrees, and it felt like it spring should be nearing. Then I checked the date and it was still mid-February.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Ice reception

This winter is shaping up as the gloomiest in Chicago's weather records. We finally did break our week-long run without sunshine (the sun came out Friday), but the current percentage of possible sun is by far the lowest ever since Dec. 1. Temperatures dipped below zero the past two nights following a wet snowfall last week. Everything here is iced over. The sidewalks that skirt the vacant building and vacant lot on our block are perfect for ice skates and would serve well as hockey rinks. Our alley is basically a 4 x 4 path with deep ruts through a thick layer of permafrost.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Anniversary survey

I'm not sure if this site has enough traffic for this, but I have posted a survey in honor of the first anniversary of the driftless area blog. Click a choice in the upper left corner of this page to participate. I wanted to do something special to mark one year, and I will post about whatever is chosen by site visitors. (It's been three years since started, incidentally.)

If nothing else, blogging is an exercise in navel gazing and these self-centered questions reflect that. So thanks for indulging me!

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Gore-y carbon

I hadn't seen "An Inconvenient Truth" until last night, and, admittedly, I only saw the first hour of it. Al Gore, in a Carl Sagan-like slide show, meticulously and straightforwardly proves that global warming is real. Everything is described in simple terms. And the pictures of Mount Kilimanjaro and Alpine glaciers are enough to make you question your carbon footprint.

Gore's attention to detail and enthusiasm for science is inspiring. I'm borrowing this from something I read recently, but when you think about what he's done since 2000 (Nobel Peace prize, Academy Award) versus what our actual president has done there's no question who has had the more positive impact on the world and left a prouder legacy.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Pothole navigation

The winter havoc continues. Potholes have been a problem for a while now--especially on the stretch of Lake Shore Drive I navigate on my way to work. People were losing tires to the chuckholes today. If that weren't enough, slushy streets are now delivering electric shocks to people. And southern Wisconsin saw a scary 19-mile long backup on I-90 that left drivers stranded for hours. That story and some nice pictures from northern Ohio here.

Finally, Chicagoist, out of character, gushed about this horrible behemoth-gas-guzzler at the Chicago auto show. It's not even the 4 mpg that bothers me most, but the congestion-causing, accident-inducing insanity of this waste of space. And, yes, I like Alton Brown about 1 million times more.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Squirrel defamation

The driftless area correspondents have been active lately in tipping me off to stories. First, one about a plague of botulism that is killing waterfowl in the Great Lakes. Invasive mussels and gobies have been a scourge for loons and other ducks.

Second, a story about the little-known Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. I haven't had a chance to explore this area, but it seems enticing. I have seen a bald eagle perched off I-75.

Last, a story about five things about squirrels. Most interesting here is that there is a Squirrel Defamation League, sort of an anti-driftless area. The SDL is currently in an uproar about a squirrel that attacked a 3-year-old in Florida.

Drago's lament

Today's storm has been something of a dud. The transition to snow started much later than expected, at about 11 a.m., and the total accumulation must be about 4 inches in the city. It's still snowing, but it's expected to taper within the hour. I have to say I enjoy sitting at my desk watching these storms blow in.

I haven't mentioned my knee lately, but I've moved on to the Ivan Drago phase of my rehabilitation--lots of treadmill running--no steroids though. Almost every day that I've walked to the gym in the past month has been snowy, rainy or frigid.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Slushy accumulation

The current area severe weather alerts span flood warnings, flood advisories, flood watches and winter storm warnings and winter weather advisories. The effects of that thaw I blogged about in early January are still with us while a snowstorm--the biggest one yet, according to meteorologist Tom Skilling--is about to hit. It's 34.5 degrees in Uptown right now with something called light rain snow coming down, according to Weather Underground. Skilling is calling for up to 14 inches of snow in some areas overnight and into tomorrow.

Yesterday, an inpenetrable fog hovered over the city and cancelled almost every flight out of Midway Airport. Today's rain has eroded the 10 inches of snow that fell in the city on Friday. The Tribune's Weather page, always interesting, includes some interesting information today. Here are some of the wacky weather highlights:

-Yesterday's fog included visibilities of 1/16 of a mile and ceilings of 100 feet.
-February's opening days in Chicago have seen a total of 11 minutes of sunlight.
-We have seen just 21 percent of possible sunlight this winter (normal is 43 percent).
-The forecast high in Indianapolis today, 150 miles south, was 60.
-Only five seasons historically have been snowier than this one to date.
-Many communities are running low on road salt, and salt barges on the Illinois River are stuck in pack ice near Peoria.

The forecast in Nassau, The Bahamas, today was 80 and partly cloudy.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Striking reptiles

Yesterday, we traveled about 30 miles north to Lake Forest and Middlefork Savanna. I had heard of this Lake County Forest Preserve site before and had never made the trip. We trudged about 1.1 miles through snow, twice crossing the Middle Fork of the North Branch of the Chicago River (right). We saw four rough-legged hawks on the journey. Two of the hawks were dark morphs and two were light morphs. The dark morphs have a striking dark brown and white pattern on the wings. These birds travel from the tundra to our area each winter, and it's easy to picture them soaring over the tundra on a snowbound day like yesterday. They get the name 'rough-legged' because they are one of the few raptor species that have feathered legs.

Perhaps what we will most remember from the trip happened at the very end. There were a few nondescript buildings near the parking lot. We did notice three large wire enclosures that hosted what appeared to be injured raptors. As we approached them (harris' hawk, red-tailed hawk, great horned owl), a woman feeding the birds invited us inside to the lightly advertised Wildlife Center. It just so happened those buildings hosted one of the country's largest collections of venomous snakes. We suddenly were given a personal tour of the center. We saw dozens of reptiles-everything from toads, salamanders and frogs to iguanas, geckos and turtles. Who knew Lake Forest was home to such a place. Some areas of Lake County are home to the endangered blanding's turtle and massassauga rattlesnake, FYI, and the center included a baby blanding's.