Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Fish fight

View Lost Peninsula, Michigan in a larger map
The Buckeyes and Wolverines have hated each other for a while. I just finished reading a book called "The Toledo War" that chronicles the border dispute between the states in the mid-1830s. The dispute was mostly resolved when Ohio was given Toledo--and the pivotal Maumee River port and basin--and Michigan was given the consolation prize of most of the Upper Peninsula. Michigan and Ohio also squabbled over the Lost Peninsula, which extends north from Ohio into Lake Erie. Michigan wound up with part of the peninsula, even though it's only accessible by driving through Ohio.

Now, Midwestern states are fighting again. Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio have sued Illinois, reviving the century-old dispute over the reversal of the Chicago River. The other states want the Land of Lincoln to close the locks to Lake Michigan and take steps to mitigate flooding of the Des Plaines River and the Sanitary and Ship Canal. Why? Because of the Asian carp's inexorable flow north from the Mississippi River Valley. Still, it's interesting that the Land of 10,000 Lakes is involved. The carp already resides in the state's Mississippi River waters. And some reports suggest the carp can't survive in the cold of Lake Superior, Minnie's only Great Lakes shoreline.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Mind bender

Hellbender. Uttering the name conjures images of Mad Max or that pin-headed movie character. Actually, a hellbender is a type of giant salamander that inhabits remotes streams of the Appalachians. Someone pulled a similar creature out of Lake Michigan near Navy Pier not so long ago. At first, it was called a hellbender. It was later corrected--it's actually a mudpuppy or water dog. They reside on the bottom of lakes and streams throughout the Midwest.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Jolly time

Scenes from a Christmas tree search in DeKalb County. We did some casual birding on country roads on the way back and saw a northern harrier (hovering over a corn field), a flock of snow buntings and lots of horned larks and red-tailed hawks. And we stopped at Two Brothers Brewery for lunch in Warrenville.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Fried squirrel

I'm taking a break from the Asian carp story to get back to the basics. A squirrel left 9,000 people without power in a Cleveland suburb the other day.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Sanitation day

Michigan is set to file a lawsuit to close canal locks leading to Lake Michigan in hopes of stopping the Asian carp. The suit would dredge up (pun intended) complaints from the 1920s. Wikipedia has a nice summary of the Sanitary and Ship Canal (Sanitary goes before the Ship, unlike several of my earlier posts), the lovely waterway created by a turn-of-the-century engineering marvel that reversed the flow of Chicago's rivers toward the Mississippi basin.

Friday, December 4, 2009

One fish

I often have lines from 1980s movies running through my head. My inner monologue attempts to make sense of the world through movies like "One Crazy Summer" and "Hoosiers." So when news came across that only one Asian carp turned up when the Ship and Sanitary Canal was poisoned yesterday, a movie quote popped into my head.

In "Major League," Bob Uecker plays broadcaster Harry Doyle. When Doyle looks at the box score of another Indians' loss, he exclaims, "One hit? All we got was one goddamn hit?"

So here goes: One fish? All we got was one goddamn fish?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

More carping

Was linking the St. Lawrence watershed with the Mississippi River watershed more than 100 years ago a mistake? Was it worth it to reverse the flow of the Chicago River and connect it to canals that emptied into the Illinois River and ultimately the Mighty Miss? Was all that barge traffic that important, even as trains, trucks and planes have mostly made water transport obsolete? These are the questions worth asking as officials dump Rotenone into a canal near Lockport, Ill., as evidence shows the Asian carp may be way beyond the area that is now being poisoned. All that 19th century engineering could have effects from here to Buffalo, N.Y., and beyond. As one online commenter said earlier today, this is the most underreported Chicago story of 2009.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Hawk watch

Red-tailed hawks are everywhere right now. Today, I saw two--one in a stand of poplars amid an industrial area of the Southwest Side and another in a small tree between I-90 and a little apartment complex near Park Ridge. We saw dozens along I-94 during the weekend, between here and the western suburbs of Detroit. One was pulling at the remains of some type of prey along the berm of U.S. 23 on Friday morning, in plain view. Most every white spot in a tree or clump in a shrub turned out to be a hawk this weekend.

Something fishy

It doesn't take a geographer, or even a biologist, to tell you that the handling of the Asian carp invasion has been weird. Dale Bowman of the Sun-Times agrees in his latest column. He documents a number of catches in Chicago lagoons that show that the carp already has been present in town since perhaps 2003. A glance at a map shows that there were a lot of holes (e.g. interconnected waterways) in the Army Corps' plan to deter the fish. The new plan to poison a section of the Ship and Sanitary Canal, days after evidence of the carp was found on the Calumet River, a different waterway altogether, reinforces the idea that this is a big boondoggle. The carp continue to outpace us, and it's only the Great Lakes that are at stake.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Fish story

Scientists have found evidence that the Asian carp is now above the electric barrier on the Sanitary and Ship Canal and within a few miles of the Great Lakes. There's just one lock in their way on the Calumet River, which connects to the Mississippi River watershed through a web of other waterways.

Until Friday, it was thought that the carp were in the Des Plaines River, which runs side-by-side with the canal that ultimately leads to Lake Michigan. To reach the Great Lakes, it would have taken a flood or a fish flopping three miles down Devon Ave. to the North Branch of the Chicago River. Now, it's known that the carp hopped the electric barrier on the canal. Life finds a way.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Flipping out

Flip City in Shelby, Mich., is by far the best disc golf course I've ever played. Located on the edge of Manistee National Forest about 40 miles north of Muskegon, Flip City was created by disc golfers for disc golfers--it's a players course. The fairways are wide (see above), perhaps half of the 24 holes are from elevated tees and the course is very well marked. Flip City is located on private property, an old farm dotted with hills and trees. It was founded in 1980. We played with a friendly regular there who helped advise on shot choices and works with the course founder and property owner. It's quite an out-of-the-way place, but if ever in the area again I will be headed to Flip City.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Small pond

This is a view of a little pothole lake along the North Country Trail, somewhere during Day 1 of the trip to the Manistee.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Forest approach

Today was another great day for a hike, although a bit cooler than yesterday. The temperature was about 36 when we set out from the swampy campsite. We donned blaze orange and did in fact see several hunters. Most had driven in close to their treestands and blinds. We were in a national forest--not a wilderness--so there were many roads into the area. In an article in the Detroit Free Press yesterday, a Frenchman who happened to be hunting in Michigan said: "It's very different here. You don't walk much." True, but staying near your car also makes it easier to haul the deer out.

We did see two deer and also a flock of trumpeter swans, high high above us. We also saw a small black creature that may have been a mink or something like it. It was a bit longer of a hike than Saturday and we ended up doing about 12 miles total.

More to come soon including photos and a report from the epic disc golf course, Flip City.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Swamp things

Right now, we're in a swamp. We're surrounded on three sides by standing water in a makeshift campsite. There also are a few cedars and birches with lots of oaks. It's cloudy at the moment after a beautiful sunny warm November day.

Today's adventure began at the Nichols Lake trailhead in the Manistee National Forest, near Big Rapids, Mich. The hike skirted several small, secluded lakes amid rolling topography. The lakes may be glacial potholes, and there were several other small ponds and marshes among the hills.

We have about four more miles to go tomorrow. We'll be walking out as 750,000 Michiganders take to the woods for the opening of firearm deer season.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Ore loads

Some interesting news items coming across the driftless area wire this evening.

I was 21 days old when the Edmund Fitzgerald disappeared in Lake Superior on Nov. 10, 1975. My hometown newspaper at the time placed a six-column headline across the top of Page 1.

A St. Ignace, Mich., man walked across the Upper Peninsula, hunting and gathering his way for 517 miles. Incredible!

And Nau is back with a popup store in New York.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Good ship

A memorial service is scheduled for River Rouge, Mich., on Tuesday for the 34th anniversary of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Many of the 29 men who died were Midwesterners, lots from Indiana and Ohio in fact. The storm on Lake Superior--a gale of November--that took the freighter was as strong as a Category 1 hurricane. So pour some brandy and raise a glass on Tuesday for the legend that lives on from the Chippewa on down.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

October fest

Some recent photos from Minnesota, Ohio and Illinois (above) are here.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Brazil's cat

Cougar sightings are popping up all over the place in the Midwest, the latest in Brazil, Ind. A hunter took a cellphone photo of what appears to be a mountain lion dashing through the woods. One theory is that it escaped from a nearby rescue center a few years ago. Brazil is in west-central Indiana, not far from Terre Haute.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Good morning

Today began as a perfect fall morning. Temperature was about 38 when I arrived at Montrose Point at 7:45.

I tallied 33 species including a first--black-bellied plover. There were two immatures on the beach, sifting through big piles of green seaweed. I had seen the species before, but only in breeding plumage in Eleuthera. The plovers are the biggest in North America, according to All About Birds. They're listed as "common" in the Peterson guide, but I'd describe them as "local" for the Great Lakes in fall.

I stayed as far away from them as I could, but one plover definitely was alert to my presence. It puffed up into a ball, dropped to the ground and glared at me. It was almost unsettling the way it kept its eyes on me. And it looked strangely like a hawk when it did this; maybe it's some kind of defense mechanism.

Other highlights were both kinglet species, part of a nice fall/winter flock of creepers, chickadees, nuthatches (including red-breasted--a nice find for the lakefront) and winter wren.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Sigging water

Life can't be too bad when one of your concerns is which steel water bottle to choose. Even more insane is the selection of water bottle accessories that exists--straps and pouches and all sorts of lids.

Today I received a $47 gift certificate from Sigg for the .6L and 1L bottles that we returned because they're lined with BPA. I'm torn as to weather to cash them in for new bottles. After all, the company wasn't forthcoming at first about BPA in its bottles. Now, we'll continue to carry around the Sigg brand.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Starling attack

Ah, starlings. The cuckoo of the city. The myna of metropolitan areas. Residents of the Bridgeport neighborhood are tired of the autumn flocks of starlings. As much as I admire the Bridgeporters' "Roman candles" approach, this could be a job for the starling whisperer of Decatur.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Big river

View Larger Map
Today featured a 135-mile ride through the Driftless Area, from Saint Paul, Minn., to Dakota, Minn. Here the Mississippi River winds between 500-foot tall bluffs at places like tiny John Latsch State Park. U.S. Highway 61 skirts Lake Pepin, which is the widest part of the Mississippi River. The terrain was really stunning and dwarfs that along the river in Northwest Illinois.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

White stuff

Today dawned frigid here in the Twin Cities, with about a half-inch of snow covering cars and grassy areas. It's just 38 right now, with a stiff breeze. About 200 miles away, in Park Rapids, it's only 29 at the moment. Today's statewide low of 17 (17 on Oct. 10!) was recorded in Granite Falls and Benson, both about 120 miles away from here. We're so far north and west here (South Dakota's only four hours away) that the cold air seeping down from Western Canada, along the Rockies and south into the Great Plains meanders over here, too. The leaves are still green on most trees and we have odd sights like healthy hastas covered in the white stuff.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Autumn update

Snow was in the forecast for this weekend, but the predictions have since changed. There's still some freezing precipitation on the western edge (in Iowa) of a big rain system that's pushing through right now. The weather's been very fall-like for a couple weeks now, and some leaves are definitely changing--still a lot of green, though. Some areas of Minnesota are already at peak color.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Dunes revisited

Last year, I posted about Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore's strict alcohol policy ($5,000 fine for even possessing it). The policy affects the lovely walk-in sites at Dunewood Campground and lowered the campchicago.net rating to just two campfires.

The park recently released a survey indicating that 97 percent of visitors are happy with the site including 92 percent who think the campgrounds and picnic areas are very good to good. I, of course, think it is an incredible place. But it's such a shame that even a beer in your cooler is considered a scourge that must be stopped. The full results of the survey can be found here.

Olympic flameout

It was a shock that Chicago was eliminated so quickly from the 2016 bidding yesterday. The voting process is so fluky, though, that some odd places can wind up hosting Olympics (Apologies to anyone from Georgia, but Atlanta!?!). It was interesting to think about where the events would have been held--tennis at about 3600 North Lake Shore Drive, mountain biking in the Palos Preserves, yachting on Lake Michigan. This post on Gapers Block sort of sums up my ambivalent feelings about the whole thing.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Some pig

For a while, several years ago, I was moderately addicted to outdoors television shows. These were of the variety shown late at night on the old Outdoor Life Network or early mornings on ESPN. A personal favorite was Fish'n Canada, hosted by Reno and Angelo Viola. Believe it or not, Fish'n Canada is still on the air although the episodes I watched were filmed in approximately 1985.

For some reason, several old sports stars hosted these types of shows. Larry Csonka. Dick Butkus. Even Bob Knight--before he capped a friend with birdshot. It was Butkus who introduced me to wild boar hunting. I learned that boars were not shot with guns or crossbows, but rather they were surrounded and wrestled into submission. I think a knife may also be involved, but TV omitted this part of the process. This must have been at least a decade ago because even No. 51 was running after the pig.

This is all an excuse for pointing out that there is a population of feral pigs in western Wisconsin and they may have crossed the border into Minnesota, near Red Wing.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Leafing pages

It feels like fall here today, and so I took a spin around the Web to check out fall foliage. Tourism Web sites are full of pages devoted to changing leaves. Michigan has its requisite page, just a few clicks from those annoying Tim Allen-narrated Pure Michigan ads.

Indiana has a number of leaf cams throughout the state. I learned, though, that these are particularly ineffective at conveying the Hoosier State's beauty in the nighttime hours.

Like a lot of things in Wisconsin, the state's fall foliage site is rather nifty.

The Eastern Region of the U.S. Forest Service has a fall foliage site, but only a few forest units have updated their reports. Superior National Forest gets the award for best update, including a small image gallery.

Pleasant peninsula

The U.S. Senate passed an important piece of legislation last week. The bill addresses invasive species, pollution and wetland expansion in the Great Lakes. It also protects areas near the Sturgeon Gorge, above, in the Upper Peninsula. Supporters are still hopeful that the bill will be fully funded at $475 million.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Stink raiser

In case you woke up this morning wondering if a skunk can get stuck in a mayonnaise jar, the answer is 'yes.' The Chicago Tribune reported yesterday that animal control officers had freed a skunk that had gotten its head stuck in a jar of mayo. The officer used a systematic approach when avoiding the skunk's spray--he "ran like heck."

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Sphagnum blog

In a frenzy of mid-September boredom, I updated the blogroll on the left side of driftless area recently. A quick rundown of some of the additions:

Birds and Blooms. Find a picture of a child sleeping in a wagon AND a way to get designs for a cowboy boot birdhouse.

Midwest HazeCam. This provides some neat pictures, but such a depressing name. Can't we call it Midwest FunCam or something?

Moosejaw Madness. The bizarre ramblings of the most well-written outfitter in the universe.

Prairie State Outdoors.
It's a bit hunting and fishing focused, but still a good barometer of what's going on in the great state of Illinois.

Stray Casts. Only one paper in town still has an outdoors writer, and it's the Chicago Sun-Times' Dale Bowman.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Carp time

In news of the inevitable, Asian carp are now just a mile from the electric barrier in the Ship and Sanitary Canal and north of the barrier but within the parallel Des Plaines River (not in the Lake Michigan watershed). The Army Corps acknowledges that a good rain could send the river over its banks and into the canal, spilling a few carp along the way.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Bottle brush

Before 1994 or so, the only water bottles I owned were discount store-types. The kind that inserted into a bicycle holder or were given away as promotional items. Then I got to college and everyone was sipping from these hard plastic things called "Nalgenes."

I succumbed to the inevitable and got my first Nalgene soon thereafter, a cheapy one from the Campmor catalog. From there, I went on a Nalgene rampage. Soon enough we probably had a dozen of them, many brightly hued and in all shapes and sizes.

Then whispers about BPA kept floating around and somewhere about 2005 I got a metal Sigg bottle. Whew, what did we do before Nalgene and Sigg? Before the time when sipping a sports bottle at work just seemed weird.

So we accumulated a Sigg collection, too. A couple different shapes and sizes, smug in our progression from the Nalgene tyranny. Then this article came out.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Swimming lessons

I was discussing my favorite swimming holes with a group of people recently and many of them laughed, perhaps thinking I fancied myself a Slovenian Huck Finn. The top five swimming locations:

1. Krause Springs; Spicewood, Texas. An oasis in the Hill Country. A deep, spring-fed pool surrounded by bluffs and lush vegetation.
2. West Clear Creek; Camp Verde, Ariz. A 20-foot plunge into a relatively small pool.
3. Lake Michigan. My annual swim this year was nice and cold for mid-summer. I prefer Foster Beach or Osterman Beach.
4. Judge Lake (pictured); Noelville, Ont. There's an 8-foot leap off of granite that is ideal.
5. Ocean Hole; Eleuthera, Bahamas. Gigantic inland lake. Cousteau dove here.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Austin's powers

Central Texas is a land of rolling hills, karst topography and juniper forests. The Edwards Plateau west of Austin features endless tablelands interspersed with emerald-blue rivers and spring-fed swimming holes. The area includes a nice diversity of bird life, including Texas specialties like the black-crested titmouse.

This past weekend, we spent some time in Pedernales Falls State Park. We stumbled across a "bird blind," which lived up to its billing. There we saw a ladder-backed woodpecker (to add to the life list) and a Bewick's wren (also a new one for me). It was punishingly hot--upper 90s, but we made the short walk from the car to the falls overlook, mostly dry this time of year (above).

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Nau again

Regular readers of this space may recall posts about the eco-friendly outdoor clothing retailer Nau (pronounced "now"), which had one of its four stores in Chicago. Last we checked, Nau had called it quits last May, the Halsted store long since shuttered. Nau's fashions were always a little funny, I compared them to Star Wars cantina gear here. The shorts I bought there were a hybrid of coach's shorts and culottes.

So much to my surprise, I received an e-mail from Nau on Wednesday. It starts:

It's been a while, so we thought we'd reach out. We're writing old friends to see what's new, fill you in on our latest, and welcome you back into the fold. So welcome back.
So in other words, we're back and selling $225 hoodies. Nau gear is stocked in existing outfitters, places like Uncle Dan's here in the Chicago area.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Ravine music

It's a cool, cool summer. It doesn't take a parody of a Bananarama lyric to remind us that it's been chilly in Chicago almost all summer. Two nights ago, we went to a show at Ravinia, and most people were dressed for a Bears game. If only the wine and cheese were replaced with Jim Beam and Johnsonvilles. It's sort of like camping, except without tents and with things like coffee tables (no joke).

Ravinia is named for the dozens of ravines that run perpendicular to Lake Michigan from Winnetka to North Chicago. Here, a moraine crosses the Lake Michigan shore and leaves a terrain of dramatic bluffs and watercourses lined with northern species like juniper and paper birch. Openlands is creating a preserve a little north of Ravinia that will be spectacular. Part of it opens in fall.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Dune acres

A pair of piping plovers nested this year along the Illinois shore of Lake Michigan. I had a chance to see a few shorebirds close to home this past weekend--sanderling, least sandpiper and semipalmated plover. More photos of a trip to the park here.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Electric carp

The dreaded asian carp is closing in on the Great Lakes, reports the Detroit Free Press and Chicago Sun-Times. They're now just a few miles from leaping from the Mississippi River watershed, southwest of Chicago, and into the St. Lawrence watershed. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has turned up the power on an electric barrier in the Sanitary and Ship Canal. I fear the barrier isn't going to be able to hold these voracious eaters back forever. In the words of Dr. Ian Malcolm, Jeff Goldblum's character in "Jurassic Park," "Life... finds a way."

Bird brains

Birds are smart--and not just because we saw four common nighthawks flying over U.S. Cellular Field at the Sox game last night, wisely taking advantage of the bugs and stadium lights. I've been thinking about this lately, and a couple recent articles back it up. Thanks to one of the correspondents. Corvidae are particularly smart. They have big brains and can use tools.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Tracking narwhals

I really haven't posted about narwhals enough lately, so I thought I'd share this link. NPR is airing another story today, I believe, about the search for the unicorns of the sea.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

KletterRest-ed development

A few weeks ago, I found a sealed copy of Backpacker Magazine's 1998 Gear Guide. I've held onto it for a while, relishing the moment when I could break open this time capsule of recent history. Today, I opened it and gave it a quick read. Aside from ads for old models of Honda Accord and Mazda trucks, things haven't changed much since 1998. Still, I found a handful of items worth sharing.

-URLs. Many listed in ads and stories include the "http://" prefix. I couldn't recall if all companies had Web sites in 1998, but apparently they did. The dot-com bust would happen a year or so later. Backpacker's Web site was www.bpbasecamp.com; this was the era of unnecessarily long and confusing URLs, back when ESPN was www.ESPNsportszone.com.

-Compasses. There are a lot of ads for them. While leafing through, I was wondering if GPS existed in anything resembling its current form. Then I did find a couple ads for Garmin and Magellan. But in case you want a 1998 compass, check into Suunto and Silva brands: they seem to have made a lot of them, and they look quite nice.

-Backpacks. There's a section where many of the new backpacks look like my 1997 Lowe Alpine Australis backpack.

-Brands. They haven't changed all that much. No Arc'teryx or Cloudveil, but a lot of Eureka.

-The KletterRest. Crazy Creek, the makers of the ubiquitous camp chairs, once made a chair that doubles as a backpack. There's an ad that says "The Chair that thinks it's a Backpack that thinks it's a Chair." A quick check online seems to indicate the KletterRest went the way of the great auk.

-PBS videotapes. The pre-DVD media was available for the show "Anyplace Wild."

In sum, 1998 was a simpler time. One in which a compass and a backpack/chair made a lot of sense. Doesn't sound too bad to me.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Squirrel tale

A few weeks back, we were sleeping just after dawn when we were awakened by a loud pop. The sound was immediately followed by our Dumpster loudly slamming shut. The pop sounded something like a gunshot or firecracker. Weird things happen in alleys, we thought, and maybe it was just one of those Uptown mornings.

Later that week, a squirrel was discovered dead in the Dumpster. The squirrel's presence seemed unrelated--could someone really have shot it, scooped it up and immediately thrown it into the Dumpster? And why?

Two days ago, we unraveled the mystery. Our neighbor Jason had been walking across the alley to his car. He heard the pop and turned. He watched a squirrel get electrocuted on a power line, fall and land on top of the Dumpster.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Water world

Great Lakes water levels are rising again. Water levels have been really low during the past several years, but cold, snowy winters are leading to higher water. At Montrose Beach, the boat launch is quite a ways inland now, and it's basically turned into a walkway to the dog beach. Thanks to one of the correspondents for this story.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Happy trails

Despite the grousing here, the trip last week was a good one. Note: We didn't actually see any ruffed grouse despite the previous statement.

--The temperatures in July were some of the mildest in the Midwest on record. The trend continued throughout the trip.
--It's amazing how remote a place can be even in one of the more populous states in the union. We didn't see a single person on the trail.
--We traversed several back roads and Forest Service haul roads yet it was pleasant (above).
--There was much evidence of past habitation along the trail, but it was nice in a strange way. Abandoned buildings, oil and gas wells, even old televisions and refrigerators. You can barely make out a vacant schoolhouse in the photo above.
--The region is known for its pottery, including McCoy. My boots still are caked with red clay from the trip.
--To the best of my knowledge, we survived the trip without a single tick or spider bite.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Fallen timbers

An update: the last seven miles on Monday were very difficult, sort of like the Ohio equivalent of the Himalayas. The biggest problem on the backpacking trip was that the big 15-mile loop had not been maintained at all this year (and maybe not for a few years). The inner 5-mile loop was cleared and made for easy trekking. But the outer loop was overgrown and clogged with treefalls--it was basically a game trail. By about Mile 10 on Monday, I was really tired of the downed trees. Every extra step, every maneuver over a log, duck under branches, dodging of thorns, took a huge effort. On two of the worst tangles, we were forced to take off our packs and crawl.

Thankfully, it was relatively mild (low 80s) and rain-free. The cold beverage at the end of the trail was worth the wait, as was the clandestine shower at the nearest state park campground. I'm looking forward to some time here in the park in Chicago and future backpack trips on short, wide trails.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

White pines

Memories can be distorted. Eleven years ago, the Wildcat Hollow Trail seemed a cakewalk. All flat ridgetops and broad-trailed lowlands. Today, a struggle through brambles and thick undergrowth. The trail, lightly trod, was wrought with treefalls and thickets. We made it 8 or so miles in six hours and thankfully located a brilliant campsite amid white pines at about 1,000 feet.

The avian highlight was a white-eyed vireo near a series of natural gas wells. Right now, we're oddly hearing bullfrogs in an old pond nearby. We've also seen and heard towhees, pileated woodpecker and turkeys. We also just observed either a meteorite or a low-flying satellite. Weird. There's a crescent moon rising and the air is coolish. Tomorrow, 7 miles more.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Rain forest

Rain has shifted our plans today. With more storms on the way, we've set up a crude shelter that's supported by two trekking poles. I've seen some good birds during the breaks in the precipitation. I watched a hooded warbler eat a long worm in the ravine adjacent to our site. Not sure what to do the rest of the day but play cards and read. Not too bad really.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Rotten wood

My first impressions of this trip aren't so positive. We're 30 miles south of Zanesville, Ohio, near Burr Oak State Park. Upon asking for wood at the camp store, we were directed to a wormy, rotten old pile for our 3.00 bundle. Thank you very much. That's what we will cook on tonight.

The SE Ohio topography of rolling hills and woods is nice, tho. Tomorrow should bring some adventure and the next day we start a backpacking trip. Temps are stunningly comfortable for this part of the country.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Good walk

Few development projects can top golf courses for environmental disruption. Bulldozers, turf grass, fertilizer and lawn mowers don't do much for Mother Earth. Still, they harbor a surprising variety of wildlife. I've seen everything from foxes to kingbirds to muskrats on golf courses.

Yesterday, River Oaks Golf Course harbored a handful of great blue herons. Also, killdeer, indigo bunting and lots of barn swallows--maybe THE golf course bird of the Midwest. Today, gnatcatchers and catbirds at Robert Black on the Far North Side (the same place wher I once saw a squirrel eating a dead flicker). Golf courses are altered states for sure, but it's great fun to wildlife watch while hitting the links.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Bivy thoughts

News from the current interglacial. Backpacker Magazine has some expanded online offerings, and hence the new link to the Daily Dirt blog on the left. There also is an Ask the Expert section with "medicine man" Buck Tilton, who answers questions like 'What are the chances of a rattlesnake crawling into your bivy?' (Answer: Very slim.)

Also, somewhere in my Internet wanderings this week I came across the landform of a monadnock or inselberg. I love obscure landforms. My favorite monadnock is the granite dome of Stone Mountain, Ga., which features the largest bas-relief in the world. The top of the dome includes rock pools that harbor a rare form of clam shrimp and used to have a now extinct fairy shrimp.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Crazy train

This actual video of Mother Nature is better than any computer animation created by Hollywood for this summer's blockbusters. And it took place just 75 miles northwest of Chicago. A tornado cut a swath from Poplar Grove, Ill., to Harvard, Ill., on Jan. 9, 2008. Funny thing is I don't even remember hearing about this twister. Yes, it is unusual to have a tornado in January, too.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Camp conclusion

The weekend ended with 33 bird species including a few gems from suburban camp. We also visited Rouge River Bird Observatory at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and added to our tally. Some of the highlights from suburban camp were a ruby-throated hummingbird, a family of baltimore orioles, a red-eyed vireo and a turkey vulture. We took a very buggy walk in the 290-acre natural area that circles Fairlane Lake, right, and skirts the Rouge River. The trails traverse woodlands, old fields and swamps. Highlights there were a blue-headed vireo (singing), great crested flycatcher (also singing) and blue-gray gnatcatcher. We also encountered six raccoon kits cowering in a small tree.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Suburban camp

My first camping experiences were in suburban backyards. I don't think I've ever been more nervous camping than when we set up our little dome tent in the backyard on a warm summer night. Loud insects would buzz all night--cicadas I think--taunting my fear and sleeplessness and muffling the sounds of potential intruders. I felt so exposed out in that backyard.

Last night, I camped in a suburban backyard in Livonia, Mich., a well-glaciated pancake-flat land among the branches of the River Rouge. Here wide subdivisions occupy former farmlands. The yard is blanketed by herbs, native plants, stunningly bright flowers and seedums.

The camping experience was far less scary than when I was 11. I'll admit: it didn't have the same allure as camping in a wilderness area, but the temperatures in the low 60s were quite comfortable for sleeping. We did hear our share of natural sounds. A small waterfall tumbling into a decorative pond, a red squirrel chattering and a chickadee calling. We also heard the din of cars from I-96, neighboring dogs barking and a few late-night fireworks. In the morning a young robin landed about three feet from the tent door, unaware we were watching a few feet away. Tonight, another evening in the suburban wilderness.

(Livonia took its name from Dutch settlers coming from New York. Fun fact: I played against Livonia, N.Y., in high school baseball.)

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Cruel summer

This is turning into the year without a summer. We've had just one week's worth of 85-degree-plus temperatures and three 90-plus days. I'm not complaining--it's 65 right now and quite pleasant.

I had heard that Boston and New York were having mild summers and I did a quick check of the numbers. Quite mild indeed. Boston has had two days over 80--83 on June 7 and 84 on June 26, and 16 days of highs in the 60s during June. More than half the month with mid-spring high temperatures. New York City had five days in June with highs in the 60s and no day warmer than 83.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Digging canals

The Washington neighborhood of Georgetown is a colonial outpost on the slopes of the Piedmont, near the intersection of Rock Creek and the Potomac River. Rock Creek flows from the uplands of Montgomery County and all the way through the District before meeting up with the Potomac near Watergate. Along the way, it passes the magnolia-choked hills of Georgetown. Here, catbirds and mockingbirds find sanctuary from the metropolis. Just a couple blocks south of busy M Street is the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal, a narrow waterway, right, that parallels the Potomac. There was once a plan for the C&O to link the Potomac and Ohio watersheds, but the railroad beat the canal to it in the 1850s. The canal's old-fashioned locks still work, and tour boats ply the waters.

Down south

By now, you've most likely heard about the bizarre twist in the already bizarre story of South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford. He wasn't on the Appalachian Trail but in South America, where he has a ladyfriend. So forget about the idea that he's just an outdoors-y type hoping to get away from it all.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Wild governor

News came across yesterday that the governor of South Carolina had disappeared for several days. His wife didn't know where he went or his staff. Where was he? Hiking the Appalachian Trail naturally. He finally checked in today. He said he left to "write something." And some of us manage to write in offices!

Really though, who's to question the need to run off to the AT? Or to write something in the woods? Way to go, Gov. Sanford.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Burn on

Summer is finally here and temps are in the 80s, though our astronomical spring will go down as the wettest in history.

Thanks to the correspondents for keeping me up on the latest nature news. The New York Times printed a story about the rebirth of the Cuyahoga River, which flows from the uplands east of Cleveland and makes a large arc before emptying into Lake Erie downtown. To quote a favorite sportscaster of mine, how do you put out a fire on a river? With wood?

The Detroit Free Press posted an article more than a week ago about the return of Kirtland's warblers to the northern part of Lower Michigan. The rare birds have jumped in numbers tenfold in about 20 years.

Last, some Chicagoans are pushing for the conversion of an old railroad right-of-way into a park that would stretch westward from about 1800 North near the North Branch of the river. New York did something similar just recently in the Meatpacking District.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Urban wildlife

We've reported on Chicago's coyotes and even mountain lions in the past, but NPR broadcast a story that provides more detail on coyotes in particular. I've seen a couple coyotes in Chicago and in recent years the "prairie wolves" have made waves when one walked into a sandwich shop in the Loop. An Ohio State professor reports that a whopping 2,000 coyotes live in Chicago. They help control the canada goose population and can cover a range of 50 square miles in just one evening.

Hello larid

A flock of ring-billed gulls has become a regular presence in the outfield at Cleveland Indians' games at Progressive Field. It's been a little strange, but it wasn't a big deal until a gull factored into the Tribe's win on Thursday. A base hit to center deflected off a gull and past the Royals' center fielder. The hit came with a runner on second in a tie game and scored the winning run in the ninth. The Indians are now looking at ways to chase off the larids. Here in Chicago, we used border collies for a while at some of the beaches. It didn't last. Maybe the Indians call in the mysterious Starling Whisperer of Decatur.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Squirrel return

A fox squirrel terrorized the Detroit Tigers and Boston Red Sox tonight in Comerica Park, stopping action a few times. The brazen sciurid charged across the outfield and along the warning track at one point. It then eluded a group of hapless groundskeepers. For a time, it was resting on top of the outfield fence. It lounged like some do in our maples here with limbs splayed and body flush with branch. According to this account, the squirrel eventually was captured in Boston's dugout.

Vicious cycle

Thanks to one of the correspondents for this link to a blog post from a Giro d'Italia rider. Wow, 6,450 calories in one day. I felt really tired just reading this. The Giro went to Russian rider Denis Menchov.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Spring farewell

This is now the wettest spring at Midway Airport since 1928. It really has been damp and cool here for days on end. Admittedly, I prefer it cooler most any time of year, and this May has delivered. Especially here on the lakefront, where our microclimate has kept it far cooler than inland for days on end. Today I wore a fuzzy to work, for example, even though it was over 60 near the salt mines.
The down comforter is still on the bed, though the heat hasn't kicked on but once all month, I believe.

The beaches are now open in Chicago, and meteorological summer begins on June 1. Not really sure why the beaches are open as the water won't be swim-able for another few weeks. But each year they open up the beaches way early, and people flock there to revel in the 60-degree temperatures.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Camp Chicago

I've made some updates to campchicago.net, the Web site that started my foray into Web development and blogging back in 2005. There's no doubt I haven't been camping that much in the campchicago.net area (within four hours or so from Chicago by car) in recent years, and the ratings and discussion pages reflect that. Still, campchicago.net ranks high in search engines for "camping" and "Chicago" (imagine that). I've gotten a couple inquiries via e-mail from time to time, too.

The site now has updates from driftless area via FeedBurner. It also has a few more articles in the "Other Stuff" section.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Sand apes

Yesterday we participated in a habitat restoration at Montrose Point Dunes, helping plant 12 black oaks. Planting trees isn't typical for these sorts of things (usually they involve pulling invasives, applying pesticides and spreading seeds), but it will push forward the amazing succession already going on at the dunes. Habitat restoration is important, I think, but also unusual when put in historical context. I tried to come up with a way to convey this, so here goes:

The hominids that crossed the great ocean were a curious, destructive, industrious bunch. They came to a new land and quickly spread out, usurping everything in their way, pushing out the hominids that called the place home. The aggressive hominids found a place at the south end of a lake as a big as an inland sea, not far from a big, muddy river that stretched all the way to an actual ocean. They built a city made of wood and it all burned down. They built a new city and discovered a new way of building--straight up into the sky. They built these tall buildings over and over.

The prairies and swamps and dunes and savannas that lined the shore of the big lake soon were paved over. Streets crisscrossed the area by the lake. And when there wasn't any empty shoreline left, the hominids built a new shoreline, that jutted out into the lake in places. They needed a sandy beach to rest on. The prairies and swamps and dunes and savannas were gone.

Many years later, the hominids forgot about one section of sand. A few cottonwoods sprang up. A green plant called sea rocket took hold. A tenacious species known as marram grass began to carpet the sand. And a few low dunes rose from the ground. The hominids began to tend to the dunes, grasses and trees. They weeded the dunes and picked up trash. They fenced the dunes from dogs and volleyballs and boaters. Finally, they planted 12 young black oaks, so that the shoreline could look more like it did when the aggressive hominids set foot in the area.

Certainly an oversimplification, but maybe at least hope for the future. If we hominids keep on this path maybe more wild places like Montrose Point Dunes will spring up.

(I stole the photo of the red fox at the dunes from another site. Though I have had great views of Vulpes vulpes this spring.)

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Omnibus oddity

The credit card bill signed into law by President Obama includes a provision for gun-toting in national parks. First, I'm surprised that guns were banned altogether in the parks anyway but I suppose people who carry firearms everywhere were well aware of this. Check your guns in Cody, Wyo., or somewhere, when you're taking the RV to Yellowstone. Second, I find it interesting that a former park super is fearful that campground arguments will escalate to gunfights. Why are there so many arguments in campgrounds? A reflection of the number of arguments in society? The stress of putting up a tent or selecting a campsite? I was in a city park today and didn't see a single argument--this in a reportedly violent urban center. So get out your AK-47s, load them in the F-150, and head to a national park. You can polish your bullets there, change your cartridges and everything. Sounds like a great way to enjoy the nation's splendor.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Temperature rising

I can handle the 80-plus temperatures we're seeing right now in Chicago. It's a little early, but I can at least accept it. But 97 in Minneapolis? It's just wrong. At least there was cold air lurking elsewhere in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. There was a 55-degree temperature gradient between the Cities and Duluth, which was a refreshing 42. That's more like it.

Hazardous park

Broken concrete, glass, brick and metal pipes? Sounds a lot like my front yard. But seriously, those are just a few of the hazards at Miller Meadow Forest Preserve in West Suburban Maywood. The Tribune featured the site today. Any time something known as a "biosolid" is being washed into a river, you know the conditions are bad.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Golden morning

Today was one of those days at Montrose that makes all the cold, empty days of February and March worth it. Forty-seven species including 16 warbler species along with some notable misses--no swainson's thrush, rose-breasted grosbeak, black-and-white warbler or warbling vireo to name a few. Not even a european starling, actually.

The birds must have been riding the front that led to storms much of the day. The morning was just dry enough to offer a few hours of great birding. One of the highlights was a golden-winged warbler, which according to my records is now species No. 321 on my North America list.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Lakeside report

We've seen a little bit of wildlife around West Lakeside Place lately. Last night, a rabbit graced the vacant lot behind our building. It casually munched on a piece of grass while we watched from the alley. There is a pair of house finches that have set up shop in the second floor of our neighbors' porch. I'm worried we're watching a tragedy unfold--someone will notice the nest and get rid of it. I like the finches though I understand the need to clear the deck of droppings and nest detritus. These birds are more interesting than house sparrows, especially the bright red plumage of the male house finch. They also have a sweet song.

The only other sighting of note from home is that the chimney swifts have returned. It was Thursday, May 7, that they made their first appearance. Haven't really heard them since so not sure if these were migrants or what. There were a lot of barn swallows on the golf course yesterday, though. I will try to slip out pre-work tomorrow for a birding session at Montrose (yippee!).

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Spring tidings

In the past week or so, I've spent several hours birding at Montrose Point and other nearby areas. Many new species are making their first spring appearances this far north. Among the highlights this morning were Empidonax flycatchers. Yesterday, rose-breasted grosbeak and baltimore oriole. Also, cape may warbler and nashville warbler.

The highlight of the past week was Sunday when a lark sparrow was in the dunal area near the lake. Never seen one of them before. They are quite striking, and Peterson describes their head pattern as "quail-like."

Restorationists plan to plant black oaks on the dunes three Saturdays from now. It's going to make quite an impact. I'm a little surprised in succession terms--after all the only trees there now are cottonwoods--but it's an exciting development and I'm sure it's been well-researched.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Birding secrecy

There's a secret place not far from here that is an absolute migrant trap. I've mentioned it in this blog before, but I'd rather not reveal its name again. Everyone knows that I bird at the Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary (The Magic Hedge) a lot. It's near there but it's not a place that many birders frequent. Only in the height of spring migration, and even then it's secluded.

Last Saturday, we recorded 50 species at Montrose Point and the Jarvis Bird Sanctuary, a woodlot at about 3600 North along the lakefront. There's a swampy pond at Jarvis, and that's where we saw an american bittern. It even did the thing where it points its bill in the air so that it blends in with cattails. At the secret place, we added nearly 10 species to the day's list ranging from spotted sandpipers to northern waterthrushes to yellow-rumped warblers and an early yellow warbler. I plan to go back again this weekend.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Endless bummer

The weather has rather sucked here for more than a month. It's really been dismal, especially here just a quarter-mile from the lake. A quick check of the weather records shows that we've had but one 60, last Saturday, since St. Patrick's Day. I can tell you the few perennials in our front yard are way behind years past and that there was a chance of snow a couple nights ago. Don't believe what you see in the news: those readings are for O'Hare Airport. Here it's 20 degrees colder when inland it's balmy. This weekend, though, southern winds will overwhelm the lake breeze and we will see 80s. Crazy, but about time.

In other news, I watched an american crow drink out of a discarded cola can today.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Aggressive blackbirds

It's really been a late spring. Not much is flowering at all. Hardly anything is leafed out. It's been dismal for weeks. Today, though is a warm, sunny day.

The Magic Hedge Sanctuary was abuzz with activity, mostly in the form of red-winged blackbirds and common grackles. They were exhibiting a lot of breeding behavior, and, while they didn't attack me, they were comfortable flying a bit too close. There was a lot of strutting around and dancing for the ladies; aggressive puffing up in tops of trees; and general machismo. I don't know why male red-wings think displaying their bright red epaulets to me is intimidating. It's not. You're a 9-inch long bird, and landing on the grass next to me isn't that scary. Even a Turdus migratorius (american robin) made a run at me. It was a tough crowd down at the park today.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Pacific overlook

The view from Highway 1 north of Jenner, Calif. More photos here.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Endor journey

Regular readers will know that two years ago we visited Tikal in Guatemala. Tikal also is known as the location for the scenes from Planet Yavin in "Star Wars." It was where the secret rebel base was located toward the end of the film. This time, we were in the redwood forest, also known as the location for the scenes from the forest moon of Endor in "Return of the Jedi." It was where the Ewoks ambushed the Empire and the rebels blew up the second Death Star's shield generator. I love it when this blog gets nerdy!

Our trip was broken up into three sections: San Francisco; wine country and the coast just north of the Bay; and the far north near Eureka and Redwoods National Park. San Francisco was great--we had a chance to ride the cable cars a lot and saw most of the sights. We visited two tiny, hillside parks in the Russian Hill neighborhood that were incredible--Macondray Lane and Ina Coolbrith Park. Both were super-steep and had awesome gardens and views of the Bay. We saw lots of hummingbirds and other songbirds.

We stopped off at Muir Woods on the way north to Guerneville, a small town in the Russian River Valley region. We took the coast highway, Route 1, from San Francisco all the way there--we ultimately took 1 all the way from SF to Leggett, where it meets the Redwood Highway north of Mendocino. Muir Woods offered our first glimpse at coast redwoods, and the 2-mile hike we took was relatively uneventful. Highway 1 wound above the Pacific almost the whole way to Jenner and the turn-off to Guerneville. The highway was windy all the way to Leggett really. It took at least a couple hours to cover the 50 or so miles to Jenner, but the views were incredible--high, rugged cliffs above the ocean, prairies and chaparral, deep river valleys and gulches and lots of turkey vultures. TVs were everywhere; they really were the bird of the trip.

Like other rivers in the area, the Russian originates in the wine country. Here vineyards criss-cross high hills. The emerald-green river then descends through redwoods for about 10 miles until it reaches the sea.

The next day we drove back to Highway 1 and snaked north toward the tiny town of Elk. Most of the localities in the area were lumbering towns with a few boutiques and galleries. Some looked like the community John Rambo terrorized in "First Blood." There were more towns like this to come.

We drove into the Anderson Valley at Elk and visited our first winery near Philo. We later camped amid the giant trees at Navarro Redwoods State Park. Next day we continued our winding way north to Mendocino, the most developed, er, expensive of the towns along the way. The views of the ocean were great and we were greeted by a belted kingfisher that had set up a burrow on one of the off-shore islands. We also saw our first pelagic cormorants and pigeon guillemots here.

From Mendocino, the rode ascended much higher coastal mountains until we got to kitschy Leggett. We made the requisite $5 drive through a redwood and proceeded north on the Redwood Highway toward Eureka. It was getting dark by the time we found a campsite at Big Lagoon County Park.

It rained all night that night, and the forecast called for more, but we pushed ahead with plans to visit Redwoods National Park that day. By this time, the terrain (and weather) was very Pacific Northwest and I kept thinking we were in Oregon for some reason. After a long ride on a dirt road, I strapped on my sandals and plodded through a downpour to Fern Canyon. I was hoping to see a water ouzel (aka american dipper) and never did, but the skinny canyon was nice, though. I did record a pair of varied thrushes along the way. The brightly colored thrushes are birds that I had always seen in the bird book but never in person so it was quite a thrill (the photo via the link doesn't do the thrush justice).

A pair of rangers had suggested we head to the mouth of the Klamath River to see seals and possibly whales. There had been reports of 300-plus harbor seals there. We arrived at an overlook, and it had finally stopped raining. We scanned the waters but didn't see much but thousands of cormorants. There was another overlook, even closer to the ocean but about a half-mile down and we headed that way. From there, we still couldn't see any seals or whales. Finally, a small black thing bobbing near a rock turned out to be a harbor seal playing in the surf. Then Kristin, checking every bunch of bubbles in the vicinity, saw the back of a gray whale. And soon we saw another. A couple times we got views of their tails and snouts and many views of their blowholes exhaling. We later saw many more seals bobbing where the river met the sea.

We got back to the campground and discovered our tent and sleeping bags absolutely soaked. Somehow, the sun was making a weak appearance to the west so we began airing out all of our stuff and switched campsites to higher ground. We made it through the night quite dry.

The last full day we drove back to Guerneville and stayed in the same inn we had four days before. We also hit one more winery. We made it back to San Francisco in plenty of time for our flight, returning our Dodge Caliber and passing the Cow Palace along the way.

In all, 15 new bird species, many miles of winding roads and an introduction to many interesting places. Photos to come...please excuse the somewhat rambling post as there's no other way to summarize so much!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Redwood adventure

We're back from a great trip to San Francisco and the North Coast of California. Highlights included: two nights in SF on Nob Hill, two nights in the Russian River Valley and three nights camping--one in Navarro Redwoods State Park and two in a Humboldt County park campground at Big Lagoon. There were lots of new bird sightings as well as whale and seal sightings. We made it as far north as the mouth of the Klamath River, about 20 miles south of Oregon. More details and photos to come.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Bird state

A report came across a few weeks back that really didn't get much local attention--and Columbia Journalism Review backs up that statement. State of the Birds was largely ignored by the media, or at least the Yahoo News-reading masses. And we live in an area with a number of affected species like cerulean warblers, piping plovers and Henslow's sparrows. It's interesting to think back to my youth about the birds that don't seem quite as common (of course distorted by memory and nostalgia). Those that I always think of are tufted titmouse, purple finch and willow flycatcher.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Dance results

My WeatherDance brackets are looking a little beat up now. Three of my Final Four teams are still alive, though. My worst pick yet was projecting Kansas as being warmer than Dayton on Sunday, March 22. It wasn't even close: it was 28 in Dayton and 48 in Lawrence, Kan.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Getting wilder

An additional wilderness area likely has been created in the Midwest. A land management bill passed the House yesterday and now has been sent to President Obama's desk. It includes a provision to create several new wilderness areas including one in Michigan's Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore (above). Official wilderness areas ban motorized equipment, are largely roadless and prohibit oil and gas drilling. In other words, they're perfect.

Icy reception

Great Lakes ice cover is diminishing during the past 30 years or so, according to a report in the Cleveland Plain Dealer that also was picked up by The Associated Press. Scientists say less ice is a result of global climate change and also regional forces--some years are icier than others. I don't see the comments section on the PD story now, but when it was live it was incredible how many people uniformly said the story was a bunch of palaver--an Al Gore-derived scam by a group of shady scientists. That anyone who believed this was being duped.

I'm not sure why the commenters think they know more about ice than ice research climatologists.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Warming trends

Twenty-six of 32 after the first round of WeatherDance. California vs. mid-Atlantic school matchups have been confounding. I missed on UCLA versus Virginia Commonwealth (based in Richmond) as VCU was actually warmer. But I picked Maryland over Cal, and Cal was warmer. Someone has all 32 right already in the Dance.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Bracket weather

Based on my WeatherDance Final Four, this is an exercise in moderation. I winnowed away schools located in areas of extreme temperatures (Arizona and North Dakota State quickly were eliminated) while keeping schools in nondescript climates. My Final Four is West Virginia, East Tennessee State, Chattanooga and North Carolina (which likely will be in the real Final Four). I have East Tennessee State topping the Tar Heels in the final--a preposterous outcome on the basketball court, of course, but not impossible in the wacky world of WeatherDance.

Dance card

Few people would pick No. 16 seed Chattanooga over Connecticut in the NCAA men's basketball tournament, but I plan to do so in my WeatherDance bracket.

WeatherDance combines the best of March Madness with the madness of March weather. Winners are determined not on the court but based on warmer weather at campuses on game day. Hence Chattanooga a likely lock over Connecticut. It'll be interesting to watch for upsets. Will a weird heat wave actually lead Boston College to victory over Southern California? Is Akron actually warmer in March than Spokane, Wash., and Gonzaga? Follow the action at WeatherDance.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Spring fever

And some still say climate change is an illusion. It's 59.5 degrees right now, chives are already sprouting out of one of our pots and rivers are approaching flood stage. Consecutive 65-degree temperatures hit last Thursday and Friday, which has only ever happened in March in the past 35 years--basically never before we went crazy with fossil fuel consumption. We do get a reprieve from spring tonight when temperatures plunge way below freezing. Highs in the upper 20s tomorrow!

Another sign of the disturbingly early spring: I heard a killdeer today outside my place of employment.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Iced over

Last May, I marveled at the ice we saw on one of the Pictured Rocks during Memorial Day weekend. The guide on our sea kayaking trip told us that one Memorial Day several years ago, he had to pick a route through ice floes to get anywhere--there was that much ice still on the lake. In May. Amazing!

Well, this might again be one of those icy Mays along Superior's shore. The big-shining-water is almost completely covered in ice, as evidenced by this incredible satellite photo.

Hog wild

The animal kingdom has gone crazy in the past few days. Another mountain lion is skulking around Wisconsin. One correction to the story, though: the Milton, Wis., cougar wound up on the North Side of the City of Chicago and not in a suburb.

Second, canada geese are now flocking to the old site of the Cabrini Green apartments in Chicago. Some local kids have sadly set some of the canadas on fire.

Third, feral pot-bellied pigs are on the loose in west-central Minnesota.

And for those scoring at home, at least two crows continue to roost outside our front window each evening.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Loyalty unrewarded

I received notice of my dividend today from outdoor outfitter Acronym. It's a whopping $3.91. I'm not sure why it's so low as I recall spending quite a few bucks at Acronym during 2008. At least more than a yield of $3.91. I'm not sure if I should even bother redeeming the dividend. It could maybe get me a carabiner or a Powerbar. Perhaps a box of waterproof matches or lantern mantles. If you have thoughts on how I should spend the $3.91, please leave a comment.

This is actually the second in a string of woes I've had with outdoor retailer loyalty programs. Another outfitter, let's call it Ungulate Mandible, is screwing over its customers by keeping it's rewards site "downsville" for months on end. I could have cashed in an Ungulate Mandible hoody by now, but instead I'm sitting on a ton of points hoping the business doesn't fold. Can't imagine outfitters and their mostly superfluous wares selling much these days.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Sinking coyote

An odd story from the Chicago lakefront today. A coyote was stranded on the ice out in Lake Michigan. Thinking it was a person or pet, someone called for rescue help. Then the helicopter hovered over, messed up the ice and sent the coyote into the lake. The rescue was abandoned when it was realized it was a wild animal. The story has received 88 comments at the time of this writing, including one from someone who concocted a whole Wile E. Coyote back story.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Subliminal spring

There is hope: today is the second day of meteorological spring (it's 21.6 degrees right now). Sandhill cranes are moving into northern sections of Illinois (winter finches are still hanging around). February wasn't even that snowy (we had a couple inches of lake-effect snow to welcome March last night). In places like New York City, there are bulbs pushing up out of the ground (there's about six inches of snow there right now). The Cubs and White Sox have kicked off exhibition play (there's a whole lot of ice on Lake Michigan still). The average high at this time of year is a balmy 45 (that's still way too cold to fire up the grill). I haven't worn my winter boots in a couple weeks (I'll be wearing gloves on my way to work until May). Highs may reach 60 later this week (it will definitely be cold again for a long time after that).

(Winter really isn't over yet.)

RZA ornithology

Winged Migration meets Straight Outta Compton? Pure bliss.

Although, the sight of a blue jay so close to a cardinal is scandalous.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Speaking Piedmontese

The trip to the Piedmont offered a glimpse of things to come--daffodils in bloom, cherry trees flowering and wild onion sprouting from turf lawns. Birds were amazingly plentiful the entire trip. The long city winter can make it feel like the days of 40-plus species are eons away, but not in the Richmond area. We recorded pileated woodpeckers in two separate locations, especially a treat because pileateds have mostly been extirpated from Chicagoland. A trip to Maymont yielded several species including a bald eagle soaring over the James River Valley. The weather was milder than here, though still chilly at times. It even snowed for a short time Sunday afternoon, a rarity for Central Virginia. The final trip tally was 42 species and one great wedding.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Rolling South

Today, we depart Chicago for the Piedmont region of Virginia. The temperature is 11.1 degrees here right now, and it's 45 in Richmond so we're edging closer to spring.

The Piedmont is characterized by low rolling hills, dense woods and bright red clay soil. We'll be spending some time in Powhatan County, which was founded in 1777. Piedmont loosely translates to foothill in French and you can see why just west of Powhatan. There are stunning views of the Blue Ridge Mountains from U.S. Route 60 in Cumberland and Buckingham counties.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Rodent chips

Back in 1997, I landed in Manchester, England, and hopped on a train toward Sheffield. It seemed like a bag of potato chips, or "crisps," in British terms, would be the perfect salve for jet lag. Only seeking the finest in British cuisine, I opted for a bag of beef-flavored crisps from the refreshment cart. Soon after arriving in Sheffield, I fell into a deep sleep. I awoke still tasting the delicious flavor of beefy crisps many hours later.

England is now combining two of my passions: crisps and squirrels. According to a report, the Brits are fashioning squirrel-flavored crisps.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Blago's nature

There have been some interesting blog-worthy developments lately that I haven't had time to post. First, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources has a new chief. He replaces a stooge appointed by our former governor. The good news is that the new IDNR guy is actually well-versed in things like environmental education. And he comes from Mattoon (pronounced MA-toon). The IDNR plans to open the state parks Gov. Blagojevich had closed and will tap into millions of dollars in federal funding.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Kankakee trio

Today may have been a historic day for the driftless area blog. We located fox, gray and red squirrels together, just 60 miles south of Chicago. This left us all "smiles"--see above photo.

Red squirrels are only found in a few spots in Illinois, and today we were near one of their known locations. Kankakee River State Park skirts both banks of the river for several miles west of Kankakee. The day began with a walk onto an ice-crusted multipurpose path that ran under Warner Bridge Road. Soon we saw the silhouette of a small squirrel. Then the distinct trill of the red squirrel, the typical vocalization heard in the North Woods and only a few points south. Gray squirrels were plentiful, and we soon added a fox squirrel to the list. The Flux Capacitor, the Wonder Twins, the Ghostbusters' phasers--nothing can compare to the rare convergence of these three species.

To update on the note below, the Kankakee was overflowing its banks but not quite flooding. I suspect this will come soon, though. There was an ice shelf that extended onto adjoining picnic grounds in places. All in all, we hiked about 6 miles, including above a gorge that follows Rock Creek. More photos are here.

Finally, I ask visitors to leave a comment for what we should call this squirrel trifecta. A triple crown? A hat trick? Three the hard way?

Thaw cawing

This post is part of my effort to acknowledge thaws as much as big storms.

There's a blue sky in Uptown right now with temperatures at 45.9 degrees. The birds are singing, the crows are cawing; I think I even heard a house finch this morning. Yesterday, there was a nice temperature gradient across Illinois. The statewide high, in Quincy, was 64. The statewide low was 6, recorded at Rochelle and the DuPage County airport.

The massive snow banks on our street are finally melting. I haven't noticed any flood watches yet, but I may be crossing the Kankakee River later today and can provide a first-hand report.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Hello starling

European starlings are probably my favorite of the invasive troika that dominates Chicago (starlings, house sparrows and rock doves) and most urban areas in the United States. Their calls are more interesting than those of sparrows and pigeons, and the glossy plumage and bright yellow bills of mature adults can be quite striking in high breeding season.

Starlings are related to mynas, which are often kept as cage birds. I imagine that if we caught one of the starlings in our alley and put it in a cage, it would eventually learn to imitate our speech--much like mynas do. For now, we'll settle for their bizarre repertoire of squeaks, whirrs and gurgles in our alley.

Anyhow, it was raining dead starlings in New Jersey recently. The biblical deluge was caused by a pesticide at a nearby farm. The birds then drifted to a suburban area and died, best I can tell. Thanks to a driftless area correspondent for this story.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

New year

We rang in the Year of the Ox today on Argyle Street. The Hip Sing Association put on its annual Lunar New Year parade. The route ran east on Argyle to Sheridan, where it then went south to Ainslie, then west to Broadway and back to Argyle. There are more pictures here.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Old condor

I don't think I knew until yesterday that birds can live to be more than 40 years old. A prolific California condor, though, will turn 43 this year.

Further, California condors may be the most amazing birds in North America--9-foot wingspan, bizarre appearance, awesome canyon-riddled habitat. Thankfully, condors were saved when only nine were left in the wild in the late 1980s. Now there are 322 total, wild and captive. It's nice to picture them soaring over the chaparral somewhere way out West.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Ski trip

Moraine Hills State Park, near McHenry, Ill., is one of my favorite places in the Chicago area. A mosaic of prairie, marsh and oak savanna, the park is reminiscent of places a bit farther north in Wisconsin. There's no camping there, but the park has a nice multipurpose trail that makes a perfect figure-eight for biking, walking or cross country skiing. The terrain is just right for cross country skiing. It's a little bit of a ride (it can be an hour without traffic) for a winter-time day trip, but it's well worth it.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Fickle mercury

I have a feature on my Weather.com Gold account that shows temperatures and weather at 10 favorite cities on one screen. This has been an interesting week on the "My Cities" page. For example, I keep tabs on Dubuque, Iowa, in the heart of the Driftless Area. I also keep up with the weather in Governor's Harbour on the island of Eleuthera in The Bahamas. Yesterday morning, it was 28 degrees below zero in Dubuque. It was 100 degrees warmer, 72, on the idyllic Out Island of Eleuthera at the same time.

There were some jaw-dropping lows recorded in the Chicago area yesterday morning. It's hard to fathom 30 degrees below zero, but that's what the temperature in Joliet was during the a.m. commute. About 90 miles west of Chicago, in Rochelle, a temperature of 36 below was recorded, though from an unofficial location. So the all-time low of minus-36 at Congerville, near Peoria, stands from many years ago.

As my friend who went to college in Grand Forks, N.D., points out, at some point it's just cold. The difference between 10 degrees below and 30 degrees below is pointless. It's just cold. You scamper from building to car and hope your battery isn't dead. (My car battery, by the way, is actually dead as I write this.)

Regular driftless area readers are well-represented on "My Cities." Here is the list: Chicago, Richmond, Va., Sudbury, Ont., Dubuque, Iowa, Baldwin, Mich., Governor's Harbour, Mountain, Wis., Livonia, Mich., Willoughby Hills, Ohio, Saint Paul, Minn., and Amesbury, Mass.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Dear Chicago

Dear Chicago Weather,

I'm sorry. I'm sorry for all the posts about how Your winters are cold, gray-brown affairs without any charm. I'm sorry for suggesting that our position on Lake Michigan inhibits snow (two significant lake effect events this week). I'm sorry for saying that it's always bitterly cold here with exposed grass in the park. I'm sorry for thinking about how the frequent thaws simply expose the litter and fast-food offal beside the street.

You have proved me wrong this winter. We've already reached our average seasonal snowfall total at O'Hare. I've cross country skied twice--including at Camp Sagawau near Lemont--and likely will ski again this weekend. Temperatures have been really cold. Our heating bills have skyrocketed. Our pipes have frozen.

Please, Chicago Weather, continue to send low pressure systems into the area. Cold air masses that skirt Gulf moisture and dump snow on us. And Panhandle Hooks that rear up from the Southern Plains and feed snowstorms that span from here to Wichita. Please keep the rain-snow line somewhere near Watseka, and send those northeast winds down along the 300-mile fetch of Lake Michigan.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Squirrel roundup

It's been a long fallow period for squirrel news. Then last week came and squirrel updates were all over the place. First, the New York Times covered the ongoing conflict between red squirrels and non-native gray squirrels in Britain and that the Brits are now dining on the indomitable grays. The European red squirrel, by the way, has ear tufts like the Abert's squirrel of the American Southwest.

Then a report came across of an acorn shortage in Illinois and Indiana that is affecting the squirrel population. Local squirrels are behaving even more brazenly than before, this from a genus that produced a creature that once slurped from a disposed cheese cup in my front yard.

Finally, in other wildlife news, a black bear has been seen in northwestern Illinois, the heart of the driftless area, at least a couple hundred miles from where it should be in Wisconsin.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Snowy day

It's snowed a lot here this week! It's been snowing most of the past 24 hours, and I'm guessing we have about 10 inches or so.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Hailing comet

The Chicago Tribune is citing a report that it was a massive collision with a comet that killed off the megafauna of the end of the last glacial period, 13,000 years ago. The event took place not far from Chicago.

The theory has its skeptics, including me. (I've missed 10 years of scholarly study, but why not jump into the conversation?) If I recall my Pleistocene college courses correctly, the glaciers had been surging forward and back for eons when they all receded about the same time as the supposed comet. Because of the current interglacial, the megafauna were wiped out. What exactly caused the interglacial, I'm not sure--maybe that's where the comet comes in.

My favorite Pleistocene mammal: the auroch, which persisted in Europe until the 17th century.