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.