Friday, December 31, 2010

Ice shelves

A few days ago, the coldest temperature in the Lower 48 was recorded just 179 miles west of Chicago when Dubuque, Iowa, registered a minus-9 reading. Today's weather has been much different--as of this typing its 57 degrees. The above photo was taken this afternoon as rain fell along the Lake Michigan shore. There's still a nice ice crust several feet thick along the water.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Ice world

I'm way overdue in posting this. The historic storm that hit the Midwest about two weeks ago left its mark along the southern tier of the Great Lakes. I was driving to work, south on Lake Shore Drive the Monday after the storm. Traffic was slowing on both sides between North Avenue Beach and Oak Street Beach, and I wasn't sure why. Then I saw that two of the northbound lanes were closed, inundated with ice from Lake Michigan. Maybe once before have I seen spray from the lake hit the road, but clearly it had swept right onto the road. The chain link fence that separates LSD from the bike path and the breakwall was obliterated by the waves and ice. There were icicles on the top of the fence remnants that were pointing due west, at a crazy 90 degree angle.

Farther south along Lake Michigan, 30-foot waves struck the Indiana Dunes. Where it was once possible to stroll along a broad beach, there are now 12-foot high sand cliffs between the water and the upper beach. Also, the storm entombed Cleveland's West Pierhead Lighthouse in ice as massive waves struck along Lake Erie. It looks sorta like Superman's Arctic retreat. Incredible!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Legendary conference

I'm going to be honest: the Big Ten's new division names, Legends and Leaders, are lacking. So I have a proposal for the divisions of the 12-school conference and the names. The Driftless Area and the Glaciated Region. The Driftless Area would be comprised of schools whose home states touch unglaciated sections of the Midwest (not literally all touching the actual Driftless Area, but similar geological areas). So the Driftless Area would include Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio State and Wisconsin. Indiana and Ohio State qualify for their unglaciated southern sections. And the Glaciated Region would include Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska, Northwestern, Penn State and Purdue. I'm throwing Northwestern in the Glaciated Region since Evanston is glaciated (though sections of Illinois are unglaciated).

My other thought was, and I'm not sure if Big Ten officials considered this, was the Yellow-headed Blackbird and Black-throated Blue Warbler divisions. The Yellow-headed Blackbird's range is concentrated over the western part of Big Ten territory, and the Black-throated Blue Warbler covers eastern areas. Alas, we'll settle for Legends and Leaders, even if these names when taken together evoke the title of a self-help book, or perhaps a motivational speakers convention.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Weather variety

We've made it something of a tradition to drive to Camelot Tree Farm near DeKalb for a Christmas tree every December. It's usually nice and snowy for our ride, and yesterday was (mostly) no exception. There was plenty of snow on the ground as we strapped on the sprout and took to the rolling terrain of DeKalb County. We hewed a 6-foot cannon fir as a strong wind blew and drizzle began to fall. By the time we left, a nice fog had rolled in, obscuring the views of the backroads of DeKalb.

We also typically do a little car birding in the vicinity. With limited visibility, it wasn't a great day for espying avian species, but we did record a few horned larks and a female lapland longspur on a dirt road. Another part of our tradition is stopping at Two Brothers Brewery, just north of I-88 in Warrenville. By this time, a snow-eating rain was steadily falling. We enjoyed the special Heavy-Handed IPA and a Long Haul Ale with our lunch--and took a growler for the road.

The continued rain made for a damp tree when we returned home, but it did pretty well overall and now graces our living room. And snow began falling again just in time for decorating last night.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Tall trees

Yesterday we enjoyed another short but greatly satisfying hike in Ohio, this time at Goll Woods in Northwest Ohio. Goll Woods is the least disturbed woodland in the area and includes some of the tallest trees in Ohio. It's rather surprising to discover this place amid the pancake-flat agricultural fields of this part of Ohio. But the Great Black Swamp used to be located here, along with many habitat types and many deciduous trees. Thankfully the Goll family protected these big woods in the 19th century.

We hiked the one-mile bur oak trail from the east parking area. The 200 to 400-year-old oaks themselves were spectacular--stretching more than 120 feet into the sky. We saw several birds--both kinglets among the highlights, including a golden-crowned kinglet that landed just a few feet away. But the faunal highlight had to be the squirrels. We saw and heard red squirrels soon after arriving on the trail, then we saw a fox squirrel. Next we saw a black squirrel. For a moment I believed we recorded a rare sciurid sampler, but I'm pretty sure it was a black form of a fox squirrel--not a gray squirrel. Still, this area likely falls into the section of the country that includes these three tree squirrels.

All in all, another unexpected gem, which is the best kind of gem there is.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Winter walk

Yesterday we discovered a gem of a natural area close to where I spent my childhood in Northeast Ohio. Cleveland Metroparks' North Chagrin Reservation straddles the escarpment that delineates Ohio's Lake Plains region and the Glaciated Allegheny Plateau. I've visited the park many times before, but until yesterday hadn't been to the 1-mile White Pines Loop trail. The trail splinters from a busy parking lot called Strawberry Lane. It was cold and windy yesterday, 29 degrees as we left the parking lot. It was pleasant, though, with puffy clouds and some blue sky. The trail winds along a lobe of a ridge that is surrounded by steep ravines on three sides. The ridge is dotted with hemlocks and beeches. And white pines--about 15 that are the only virgin stand in the area, perhaps protected by the rugged terrain. The pines reach 140-feet in height. To complete the wintry tableau, chickadees, titmice and white-breasted nuthatches were hanging around the trail. (Note: the photo above is of the nearby Chagrin River Valley. The headwaters of some tributaries are very close to the White Pines Loop.)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Mighty Fitz

Today is the 35th anniversary of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. The legendary ship sank on a trip from Superior, Wis., to Zug Island, Mich. (and eventually Cleveland). I am commemorating the event again by sipping a snifter of brandy and turning up the gas fireplace extra high tonight, even as we have unseasonably warm temperatures. I am adding to the tradition by playing the song in full on the guitar, capo on the second fret.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Yawning void

For whatever reason, I've historically spent little time at Montrose Point in November. So it was nice to get out today and explore at this time of year. One of the first things we noticed was that, like on our block, there's a surprising amount of greenery around. Many trees and shrubs have green leaves even though it's the first week of November.

The prairie at Montrose continues to be bursting at the seams like never before--the grasses and forbs and other plants are incredibly tall and dense, overrunning trails in places. The dunes are always changing, and this was evident again today. The tallest of the dunes continues to get taller. There are more grasses than ever--marram grass, and I believe little bluestem. There are dense stands of equisetum in one of the swales. And the cottonwoods and willows appear to have grown. Not to mention the black oaks that were planted last year.

There wasn't a whole lot of bird activity, save for a flock of goldfinches looking more like grayfinches at this time of year. And a group of herring gulls and ring-billed gulls, including the first-year ring-bill pictured with its tongue out. There are a few other pictures here.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Cyclone wars

Thankfully we have survived the Great Lakes Cyclone. The wind has been blowing steadily from the west for more than 36 hours. We did set a record for barometric pressure at O'Hare. The skies have been bizarre--and beautiful--as evidenced by this photo from the ride home yesterday. It's strange in that this storm hasn't been accompanied by much precipitation.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Reversing course

Like the Chicago River in 1900, the blog is changing direction. Rather than being a remora to asian carp and other stories, the blog will include more first-person accounts of the natural world and occasional speed research like the pitcher plant post. This might mean fewer posts overall, but more original content. So we say goodbye to the carp by posting photos of the Chicago River lock at Lake Michigan, from an architectural river tour this summer, a lock that is literally in the middle of the issue. And we brace tonight for a storm that is on par with the one that sank the Edmund Fitzgerald in 1975.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Starting pitcher

We saw a pitcher plant when we were at Volo Bog two weeks ago. They were right along the boardwalk in the middle of the bog, where the water/soil/peat is too acidic for most plants. I did a little research and it turns out New World pitcher plants are members of the Sarracenia genus. They are made of rolled leaves rather than leaf tendrils like the Nepenthes pitcher plants. The pitcher plants we saw presumably were Sarracenia purpurea, one of eight North American species. All of the other species are in the Southeast, but purpurea extends north and west into Canada. We are at the southern extent of its range. It's fun to imagine Volo Bog as a tiny bit of taiga in Illinois.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Bog blog

Volo Bog is a relic of the Ice Age about 50 miles northwest of Chicago. A massive chunk of ice was stranded here ages ago and left behind the makings of a rare ecosystem. We visited yesterday on a warm, sunny fall day.

The 1,000 acre park includes much more than the bog habitat--prairie, upland forest, savanna to name a few. The open water of this quaking bog, which makes it so unique, is roughly the center of many concentric rings of differing habitat. Around the half-acre of open water is a dense stand of tamarack that includes sphagnum moss and carnivorous pitcher plants. We walked a 2.75-mile loop trail and a half-mile boardwalk that leads to the circle of open water.

The wildlife highlight was a glimpse of a great horned owl, in broad daylight, flying up from the trail about 100 yards from us. We also saw two sandhill cranes very close to the boardwalk and great egrets, green-winged teal and mute swans.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Seeking birdies

I've written before about how golf courses are good spots to espy wildlife. Yesterday was a glorious day in Chicago, sunny with temperatures in the upper 70s. I was fortunate to play a late afternoon round at Marovitz Golf Course, the historic Waveland Avenue course. It may be one of the most unique courses in the country, fitting snugly into the space between Lake Michigan and Lake Shore Drive at about 3600 North. Many of the holes offer stunning backdrops of high-rises and historic buildings and of course Lake Michigan. All the better with leaves turning orange and purple and red.

It's also a great spot to encounter the natural world--I've seen a fox on the course as well as lots of birds. My favorite spot is the pond on the sixth hole (above). There I've seen beavers and sandpipers and night-herons. Yesterday, a great blue heron. Until this year, there was wonderful tangle of woods between the pond and Montrose Harbor (roughly where the green isthmus appears above). It was a place where the golf course dumped tree stumps and logs and was generally left alone. New management, I believe, carved a little road into the area and took out all the undergrowth and trees. It was a great migrant trap, and I enjoyed hanging out here peering into the grove from the other side of the golf course fence.

Still, the golf course itself nearly matches Montrose Point, about a quarter-mile away from the sixth hole, in terms of birding possibilities. Yesterday I saw my first dark-eyed juncos of the season, as well as brown creepers, fox sparrows, kinglets and hermit thrushes. The sixth hole, though, now has a better view of the harbor.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Sliding island

There was some confusion last week when it was reported that an island in Wisconsin's Chippewa River broke off and came to a rest beside a bridge. It turns out the island didn't move, even though several people called a television station in Eau Claire. Given that we've seen lakes disappear in Wisconsin (near the Dells a couple years back) and dams burst in Iowa (this year), all sorts of geographical weirdness seem possible in the Upper Midwest. But I'm pretty sure an island couldn't just float away. Chicagoist posted about the story.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Strange combinations

Like many other birders, I mostly show up during spring migration. The charismatic avifauna of April and May are the allure. Fall migration, on the other hand, is mostly as boring as a nondescript sparrow. It's the Little Brown Job, if you will, of bird seasonality. Fall warblers are just not as colorful.

So I'm still learning things about fall migration. Yesterday, we had a nice view of several golden-crowned kinglets, a swainson's thrush and a black-throated green warbler in crab apple trees near our house. This morning, several more golden-crowned kinglets at Montrose Point. It's funny because last spring I recorded only ruby-crowned kinglets, not a single golden-crowned. So if this is a plague of golden-crowned kinglets, that's just fine by me.

What's strange is the timing of bird species in fall. This morning, there were reports of Baird's sandpiper, lapland longspur and horned lark on the beach at Montrose. And yet I also saw an eastern phoebe today, a warbler yesterday and a chimney swift a few days ago. These species would be less likely, in total, to occur together in spring. The longspurs and larks are typically winter species at Montrose that leave by March--before most phoebes arrive, before the kinglets, swifts and warblers arrive for sure.

Fall migration also seems to take place in reverse order of spring migration. So the last species to arrive in spring are generally the first to leave in fall. Sandpipers always seem to be on the move, passing through around May on their way to the Arctic and leaving by mid- to late summer.

I could probably clear all this up by talking to a veteran birder, but it's fun to discover on your own!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Free falling

In the jungles of parenthood, it's easy to let a few days (weeks?) slip past without keeping ye olde blog up to date. But since the last post, there's been some big news and I've enjoyed some outdoors experiences. Not to mention we ventured 13 days into meteorological fall--always a milestone worth noting.

First, of course, hizzoner, Da Mare himself, Richard M. Daley announced he would not run for re-election. A few days later he said that he would like to re-reverse the Chicago River.

Fall has been great so far--mild temperatures without much rain. Saturday we entered a sort of early fall rapture at sunset. We made our way to the end of the fishhook pier at Montrose Point (the closest thing to being in the middle of the lake without being on a boat). The sky was full of puffy clouds and there was an incredible alpenglow (is alpenglow ever not incredible?) that bathed the whole city in orange. The skyline in the distance looked like Cloud City, the beautiful capital of the Nooyd System. A single spotted sandpiper in nonbreeding plumage escorted us down the pier, teetering on the edge of the cement revetment.

There's been a definite change in the types and numbers of birds around, too. This morning, I saw at least three dozen mourning doves perched on the same set of power lines on the Southwest Side. I saw several common nighthawks fly over our building one evening last week (a new bird for the yard list). And warblers are around, too, in their dusky fall plumage.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Circular logic

So I’ve decided to write a summary of the trip in the style of Steve Rushin , who recently returned to Sports Illustrated with a new online column called Rushin Lit.

We spent most of our time on our vacation on 343-acre Bass Lake, near Traverse City, Mich. The simple names of places in Northern Michigan reflect the region’s past. Bass Lake, Long Lake, Loon Lake, Pine River. The loggers and trappers who settled the area didn’t have the time or inclination to come up with fancy names. So there are a few repeats. One wonders how many Bass Lakes or Pike Lakes or Lost Lakes there are in the Great Lakes State. We capped our trip by camping at the cleverly named Lake Michigan Campground. Not to be confused with the Lake Michigan Campground we camped at 12 years ago 220 miles away near St. Ignace. Fittingly, the fish caught at Bass Lake were fine largemouth bass specimens.

It’s easy to imagine Paul Bunyan when you’re in a place like Manistee, Mich., above. The tall trees, the high skies, the deep blue lakes would seem to suit the legendary lumberjack. So it’s no surprise that the tallest man in history, Robert Wadlow, died at the National Forest Festival in Manistee 70 years ago. James Earl Jones, a man known for playing another large figure—Darth Vader—started his acting career in Manistee’s Ramsdell Theatre.

The Old Mission Peninsula is a skinny strip of land that juts into Grand Traverse Bay. The vineyards and orchards make it feel like somewhere in Europe, like the Istrian peninsula of Slovenia and Croatia. Istria, too, just happens to touch the 45th parallel, halfway between the Equator and the North Pole. The Sacha Baron Cohen character Borat would be proud of the Eastern European connection, especially since Kazakhstan also straddles the 45th parallel.

Members of the short-lived 19th century Free Soil Party were more tolerant than Borat in many respects. They were strongly anti-slavery for moral and economic reasons. The short-lived (1848-1854) political party grew into the Republican Party, which sprouted in the Midwest and Northeast. Freesoil, Mich., is just a few miles away from Manistee and about 150 miles north of Paw Paw, the seat of Van Buren County. The Free Soil Party’s first presidential nominee: Martin Van Buren.

Traverse City was founded where the Boardman River empties into Grand Traverse Bay and Lake Michigan. A sawmill there drew commerce to the town. We happened to see a muskrat, a rodent sawmill of sorts, swimming in the river as we crossed near downtown. Captain Boardman, the river’s namesake, brings us full circle. He was from the Chicago area, in Naperville.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Night owl

Well, never did get to live blog from our trip to the north, but here’s a recap.

Taking a five-month-old camping is counter to my outdoor philosophy while being exactly what I wanted to do more than anything else. It’s a strange situation, a little bit heart-wrenching, but not unlike many of the paradoxical experiences of these first five months. Quiet and privacy are the central tenets of my camping beliefs, and a hatchling threatened both while ratcheting up the potential for embarrassment-- and worse ruining the experience of fellow outdoor enthusiasts. Further, camping was something more for the parents than the tyke, who would be taken out of her routine while not yet truly enjoying the wonders of nature.

So summarizing this one-night camping trip is all very complicated.

One thing that I can aver is that where we camped was beautiful. We staked our tent in the Hemlock Loop of the Lake Michigan Recreation Area in the Manistee National Forest. The setting is standard car camping, but in a mixed deciduous-conifer woodland in the shadow of a tall forested dune on Lake Michigan. The beach (above) is a short walk from camp and leads to the Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness, the only wilderness in Lower Michigan. We were about 10 miles north of Ludington, Mich., and four hours from Chicago.

We also can state that the weather was beautiful. It was sunny with puffy clouds with a high of about 70. We needed long-sleeved shirts in the evening, and overnight and morning were downright cold.

Mostly, the camping was as expected—we tended to our owlet just as we would at home. We built a fire, laid out a blanket, had a couple beers and did all the things that one would do while camping. The hatchling made a few noises, but nothing ear-splitting and likely barely audible from even the nearest campsite. But nightfall soon came along with the harrowing prospect of getting the little one to sleep.

We had to act quickly for fear of over-tiring so we all went to bed at about 9. I was hoping we could build a feeble bridge to morning by getting a few hours of sleep at a time. If it meant getting up for good in the gray light of 6 a.m. so be it. I was also prepared to spend the overnight hours pacing and rocking outside the tent.

All in all, sleeping went well. There were more feedings than usual, lots of careful tossing and turning and one of the sleeping pads deflated. I woke at about 7:30, removed the nestling from the nest, made some coffee and restarted the fire. The girl was talking quite a bit in the morning, but hopefully not so much as to disrupt any people who were sleeping in.

The camping ethos has certainly changed a bit, but it can be done. Hopefully it gets easier from here. Er, I think.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Northern clime

Headed to a more hospitable climate in coming days. And it may include a first camping trip with our minnow. Stay tuned for live blogs!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Bucket contents

The Tribune featured a story on the perils of dumping bait in yesterday's paper. This ties in to the previous post about the carp found in Lake Calumet. I was confused when it was reported that the 34-inch carp arrived in a bait bucket. It would have arrived when it was a minnow, as minnow buckets can include many varieties of fish, and someone could have dumped it in Lake Calumet. The story also notes there are ritual carp releases ("buy a carp, free a carp") that may account for the fish in urban park lagoons. So I'll be sure when I go to Michigan this weekend that I won't bring bait buckets full of Illinois minnows. It's kind of like moving firewood around the Midwest that may have emerald ash-borer. Purchase your bait locally and then use it locally.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Fish hoax

I'm a little tardy in reporting that the asian carp found in Lake Calumet in June may have been placed there. This report says it may have been a part of a bait-bucket transfer or a ritual release. I don't know about you, but my bait buckets don't usually include 34-inch fish. I would have noticed the 3-footer among all the minnows. Anyway, maybe it's just me. I'm tempted to believe this was a hoax perpetrated by people who despise the reversal of the Chicago (and Calumet) River and along with it the influx of asian carp. But to date, that has not been determined to be the case.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Great swim

Yesterday I went for my annual swim in Lake Michigan. It was a clear, sunny day, and the temperature was 82 degrees when I entered the water. Humidity was a comfortable 52 percent, and the winds were light. The water temperature was only 71 degrees so it was quite a shock as I waded in at Foster Beach. Because of consistent southwest winds this summer, upwelling has brought cold water from the deep of Lake Michigan to Chicago's beaches.

As the icy water lapped at my thighs, I began to think there was no way I could submerge myself. Then I reminded myself that this was still August in Chicago and perhaps the only chance to enjoy our Great Lake. And that at certain points in my life I cracked ice to go swimming.

I decided to go for a dolphin dive rather than a Nestea plunge. It was wonderful. I did a few breaststroke circles in the shallows before returning to the beach.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Yellow river

Many of you have read about my observations of squirrels. We've seen squirrels slurping from plastic cheese cups. Squirrels getting zapped by power lines. And squirrels eating dead flickers. But perhaps nothing tops what happened today.

A squirrel nearly, ahem, peed on me.

I was standing in front of our building, under one of the two norway maples out front. I heard something dripping on the curb, about five feet in front of me and the nestling strapped to my chest. It was not a rainy day so it wasn't wind blowing raindrops off the trees. I wasn't close enough to a building for it to be an air conditioner. No one was watering in the vicinity. So it could only be one thing--the only arboreal mammals in the neighborhood. Indeed, there was a gray squirrel draped over a branch about 20 feet up. And then it was all over within about 10 seconds.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Camping tips

I've always been a fan of Campmor, the New Jersey purveyor of camping gear. I like how its gear is affordably priced, presented without any frills in its small-format, two-color catalogs. All of the catalog items are depicted as sketches, which seems like an amazing feat. Even the Wall Street Journal doesn't draw all its pictures any more.

But I've been following Campmor on Twitter, and I am thoroughly confused. The past few days they have been posting camping tips. These are either the worst camping tips in the world or someone with a very dry sense of humor is tweeting for them.

Here's an example from today:

Hiking Tip # 9. Think before you step. A mesmerized hiker may be staring at local wildlife, & trip over a tree root causing serious injury.

And another from today:

Hiking Tip # 14. Avoid sunburn. Wear head and arm coverings in sunny or high altitude areas, and use sunblock.

There are a few legitimate ones, like this one from July 26:

Camping Tip # 9. Bring a piece of outdoor carpet to place in front of your tent to reduce the amount of dirt tracked in.

But for every one like that there's something like this:

Camping Tip # 1. Arrive at your campsite in the daylight. This will give you a chance to get your tent & camp site set up.

Next thing you know, Campmor will tell us that the sun is hot, the sky is blue and water is wet. Oh wait they actually revealed that the sun is hot in tip #14. The only thing I can figure is that these are intended for beginning campers or children. And that some are meant to be a little funny.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Midwest crude

Just as a little good news is coming out of the Gulf, finally, there is an oil spill right here in the heart of the Midwest, in the Camp Chicago area. There are some really sad pictures today from Marshall, Mich., depicting the fallout from a burst pipeline near the Kalamazoo River. The river flows all the way to Saugatuck, Mich., where it empties into Lake Michigan, but that's beyond the point. There's some serious degradation of a stream under way right in the middle of the Lower Peninsula. Let's hope this story receives more attention and steps are taken to contain and clean up the spill.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Beached carp

Chicagoist picked up on the closed beaches yesterday, and a savvy reader pointed out that the situation could literally open the floodgates to the asian carp. The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District opened the sluice gates at Wilmette, Chicago and the Calumet River early Saturday morning, sending rain-swelled waters into Lake Michigan and potentially riling carp haters from here to Hamtramck.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Bad water

I was rebuffed in my attempt at my annual swim in Lake Michigan. Heavy rainfalls from the past few days caused the city to open the Chicago River locks and send our sewage overflow into the lake. So today's beautiful blue waters were actually not that pristine, and all city beaches were closed. And St. Louis gets a reprieve from the sewage flowing southwest out of Chicago.

Humidity humility

Today dawned cool with a magical light breeze from the north. It's been a hot summer, and mostly we've been scurrying to and from our air conditioned vehicles, homes and workplaces. We've had the most 90s in July since 1987. Today promises to be a delight, and I may even work in my annual swim in Lake Michigan.

The forecasts have called for lower humidities today, though the humidity at Montrose Point right now is 100 percent. I've noticed this often is the case with a lake breeze. I don't really care--the temp is a refreshing 67.5 degrees, a merciful departure from the heat.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Drifting away

This has been quite a fallow period for the driftless area blog. I'm still hoping to post on occasion. The Contador-Schleck battle in the Tour is reason enough alone (if you're a sports fan, tune in tomorrow at 6:30 a.m. EDT). I've taken to Twitter: create a login and follow me @bobdolgan. Much easier to keep up-to-date and I can span about a zillion topics at once.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Long ride

The Taste of Chicago is the last place where you would actually want to consume food. Huge crowds. Miles of pavement. Barrels of garbage. Searing heat. Ring-billed gulls circling you're every move. I've long held the view that it's best to stay away.

Yesterday, though, I decided that if I can't beat 'em, join 'em. I targeted two vendors--Vermillion, for its mango-cumin fries, and Pegasus, for its loukaneko Greek sausages. The fries did not disappoint, a wonderful blend of tangy and spicy. The sausages were good, too, served on a buttery pita.

The 8-mile bike ride to the Taste was mostly uneventful. I tacked all the way there in a 15 to 25 mph wind from the southwest. There were thousands of people on the lakefront, many who disregarded the bike path and focused on sauntering, standing and wandering. Thankfully, nary an accident was to be found.

The ride back wasn't as smooth. Navy Pier was closed (because of the fireworks?) so I had to take a bizarre route north. I was south of the Chicago River and needed to get over it. The problem was I was the path was at ground (river) level (most all the streets in this area are one or two stories up). I biked west along the river, discovering some beautiful quiet spots I never saw before--even a riverside wine bar--a reminder that getting lost can be a good thing. I plowed through the crowds and finally got to Columbus Drive. It was two stories above me, accessed by a metal spiral staircase. I decided to forge on to Michigan and the stairway there. I biked under Michigan Avenue on a catwalk over the Chicago River and discovered a wide balustraded cement staircase. I slung the bike over my shoulder and proceeded up to Michigan.

From there, I walked the bike--no way I'm biking on taxi-laden Michigan--all the way to Huron or thereabouts. I got on the bike and pedaled toward the lake, free of the bulk of fireworks traffic. Somewhere near Chicago Avenue and the lake, I took a tunnel under Lake Shore Drive to the lakefront path. Again, slinging the bike over the shoulder and proceeding down steps.

People were starting to gather all along the lakefront at this point, but few were biking north. I made great time with the tailwind. Near Irving Park Road, I began encountering people walking to the Montrose fireworks display. I was hoping I could still see the display, but time was running out. The plan was to watch from friends' 22nd floor apartment in Edgewater.

I got on the bus at Sheridan and Lawrence and within about 15 minutes made it to the apartment building. It was raining a little, but not enough to stop the show. I made it to the 22nd floor and saw not one but all three fireworks displays! And I even had enough time to drink a beer.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Bicycle kicks

There's been a strange energy all day in Uptown as we prepare to host one of three lakefront fireworks displays. The lakefront parking lots have been jammed since 9 a.m. Organizers have actually moved the fireworks launching area nearer to the Montrose Dunes preserve. The dunes themselves will have additional temporary fencing and an army of security, volunteers and lifeguards.

I'm biking right into the maelstrom this afternoon. I'll be leaving one sea of humanity for another--the last day of the Taste of Chicago. Then I'll dodge another mass of people, for the Navy Pier fireworks display, only to encounter the first mass again as I approach Montrose. Good times! It should make for compelling reading later.

Friday, July 2, 2010

New watersheds

A new front has opened in the fight to stop the asian carp's encroachment on the Great Lakes. The ugly bottom-feeders have now reached Huntington, Ind., via the Wabash River (and Ohio and Mississippi watersheds). Huntington is a few miles from Fort Wayne, and there are ditches and waterways that connect it to the Maumee River, which feeds into Lake Erie. (If Chicago has to re-reverse the river, Fort Wayne should have to fill in those ditches, I say!) Another report says the carp has moved up the Ohio River as far as Indiana, but that no breeding records exist for the Ohio stretch. Phew. Moving farther up the Ohio would tap into another set of waterways that would draw it closer to the Great Lakes.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Hilly Ohio

There's a special place about 18 miles east of Cleveland. A place with great views of the city's skyline and Lake Erie. A low mountain amid the uplands of the western flank of the Allegheny Plateau. A place where dark-eyed juncos, winter wrens and black-throated blue warblers breed at the periphery of their range--perhaps the only place in Ohio like it. It's Gildersleeve Mountain, and the latest addition to the blogroll is the From Gildersleeve blog.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Bearing point

Black bears are advancing into southern Wisconsin, according to the Wisconsin DNR and a post on the Stray Casts blog. A bear was photographed near Madison, and several sightings have been recorded recently in the southern part of the state. This raises the rare prospect of bear sightings in northern Illinois. The nearest established population of bears, in my analysis, would be near Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, 230 miles away. It's a tough call, though, with populations about 250 miles away near Cadillac, Mich., and a similar distance away in northeast Wisconsin.

One of the commenters in the above link references a bear sighting in Bureau County, Ill., about 100 miles west. I did a quick search of area bear sightings and found that a lot of people feel the local DNRs are covering up the number of bears, cougars and wolves in the Midwest. Take this forum, for instance. It would have you believe Vigo County, Ind., is home to scads of black panthers.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Carp discovery

The local media is reporting that the first asian carp has been found in a Chicago waterway. A commercial angler landed a 19-pound carp in Lake Calumet, a few miles downstream from Lake Michigan. This follows the recent fish kill on the Calumet River that didn't find any carp, and the kill a few months ago on a canal near Joliet that found one of the bottom-feeding exotics. Just to recap, there long have already been reports of the carp in inland Chicago parks. The carp already likely has infiltrated northeast Illinois via the Des Plaines River system, which flows all the way to southeast Wisconsin and is barely separated from the Chicago River (and the Great Lakes). Carp DNA already has been found in the Calumet and Lake Michigan.

Michigan pols are already reacting to the latest carp news, and this likely will revive the topic since the Supreme Court declined to hear the case few months ago.

Elsewhere, U.S. Senate candidate Alexi Giannoulias believes that the Chicago River should be re-reversed. So now one of our greatest engineering marvels has become a campaign issue. Maybe we can go back to the old Chicago portage that Marquette and Jolliet used to get from Lake Michigan to the Illinois River. I stick by my previous post that we need to keep the current system, in part because sending sewage toward St. Louis is as Chicago as it gets. The Ward Room blog comes out in favor of the re-reversal, agreeing with most environmentalists.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Reserving judgment

Illinois state parks are finally tapping into the power of the information superhighway. As of July, you can reserve your campsite online.

I checked my records, and it's been almost five years since I've camped in an Illinois state park. This follows a camping-mad time of 13 state park trips in four years. The change in direction is somewhat intentional since so many sites lack the privacy and beauty required by the lofty standards. The focus has shifted to National Forest sites and primo destinations.

This may be the summer to explore a return to the convenient Illinois state park experience. Certainly, more fodder is needed for the blog and Camp Chicago!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Mundane settings

I haven't really done anything that extreme in the outdoors. I once was a subscriber to Outside Magazine for a while, but my endeavors wilt when compared to what most of the people featured in that publication do. I've topped out on Class II rapids. I've peaked at 12,000 feet. I've probably hiked, at most, 12 miles in one day. I'm really just a world-class car camper.

A couple recent events serve as reminders that Mother Nature can have an impact even in mundane settings. The deadly floods in the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas are beyond the scariest thing a camper could ever imagine. The Little Missouri River rose a horrifying 20 feet in four hours, overnight no less--the timing couldn't have been worse for the people in the Albert Pike Campground. The destruction is reminiscent of the flood that struck Nelson County, Va., also overnight, in 1969 due to Hurricane Camille.

A few years ago, we hiked to Volcan Pacaya, near Guatemala City, Guatemala. It isn't quite a mundane setting--we walked very close to bubbling lava--but it certainly was a fairly typical tourist trek at the time. Last month, Pacaya began spewing significant lava and ash for the first time in almost two decades. It rained ash all the way to Guatemala City, where it piled up in the streets. An AP story reports that the lava continues to flow, and tourists are wandering perilously close. It notes that even in quieter times guidebooks warn about the hike to Pacaya.

The lesson in all of this? Stay close to home. The most extreme thing I did today was clip a few herbs from the back balcony.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Fireworks display

A roundup of recent news of interest:

The search for the asian carp continues. There was another fish kill, this time a few miles from Lake Michigan on the Little Calumet River, not far from the area pictured above. Thankfully, no fish were found. The outcome will lead to a re-examining of the whole situation.

Advocates for the sensitive Montrose Beach Dunes sanctuary are concerned about the city's plan to move a portion of the Independence Day fireworks display to Foster Beach. I've read some comments on message boards suggesting the city surround the dunes with security guards. Fat chance.

Driftless area is as pro-Midwest as any blog out there, and the Big Ten conference is like the force--it binds us together. The Tribune's Steve Chapman summarizes our sentiments toward Big Ten expansion by making a solid geographical argument.

"If your students can harvest oysters without leaving the state, you are not a Big Ten school. If they can leave class and be standing in a cornfield within 20 minutes, you are."

Monday, May 31, 2010

Extreme southwest

Southwest Michigan is a land of tall sand dunes, wetlands, deciduous woods, cropland and quaint small towns. We spent Saturday and Sunday in the vicinity, first at the little town of Buchanan, Mich. Buchanan has only one stoplight and a handful of galleries and consignment shops (SL Consignment is our favorite). There's a fast-moving stream that actually flows under the main street and into a pond near the one stoplight. We were in town for the Un-Sanctioned event. Nearby Fernwood Botanical Garden was a highlight, and we could have spent a lot more time there--wild fields, woods, an arboretum and ravines leading to the St. Joseph River.

We never really left the extreme southwestern corner of the state, spending all of our time in Berrien County and venturing only as far north as Bridgman and as east as Niles. Perhaps the No. 1 natural highlight was Warren Woods (pictured), one of the last virgin stands of forest in the Midwest. The avian highlight may have been a late-season canada warbler (or nester?) in the ravine along the Galien River.

We took the Red Arrow Highway south from Bridgman to New Buffalo, passing many art galleries, cafes and shops. New Buffalo is a little Mackinaw City-like, but the many eateries and shops and views of the deep blue water of Lake Michigan were great. With the temps in the 80s and lots of beach-goers, it really felt like summer.

We wrapped up the journey by taking Route 12 west through Indiana Dune country and into the Southeast Side of Chicago. We stopped at a favorite oasis, Miller Woods in Gary. It's a small refuge that is mostly a well-preserved oak savanna, carpeted with ferns and wildflowers.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Rodent fun

I'm a sucker for a squirrel-at-a-baseball-game video. It turns out that Target Field also had a kestrel hanging out on a foul pole recently, too.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Arboreal varmints

This post is long overdue, but I recently stumbled across a squirrel study that is right in my wheelhouse. Project Squirrel has been taking place for the past several years right here in Chicago. It encourages people from across the country to submit their squirrel observations. In particular, it focuses on the Chicago area's big three of fox, gray and red squirrels. (Recall driftless area's "Kankakee trio," recording all three in one day January 2009.) The observations are interesting as you dig deeper into the Project Squirrel Web site. The project studies questions like: Why do gray squirrels dominate college campuses? Why do fox squirrels reign in suburban areas? Can the species co-exist? It's great to see others getting squirrelly.

Park potential

The Chicago Tribune featured Chicago's "underbirded" parks this past week. The Chicago Ornithological Society's annual underbirded parks trip is this weekend. I am certainly one of the underbirders as I've focused on the popular Montrose location. There are some great parks in the interior of the city that can be tapped for birding, especially this time of year.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Virus definitions

West Nile Virus was sort of the asian carp of the early 2000s--a developing environmental story that received a lot of coverage in the Chicago area while inciting a mild panic. The virus sadly did lead to a few human deaths as well as the deaths of many corvids and a few smaller birds like titmice, too. Well, the virus is back for the summer of 2010, though one assumes it's not as prevalent as it was around the turn of the century. (This reminds me of a funny story a former co-worker would tell. That an elderly neighbor often expressed fears of the "Niles West" Virus, confusing the virus' name with the Skokie high school.)

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Going yard

The past two weeks have seen an explosion of sorts on our yard list. We've added five species since May 2, and the tally now is at 31 species all-time (since our 2006 move). The latest additions are gray catbird, american goldfinch, ovenbird, veery and house wren. The veery, which possesses my favorite song in the avian world, pleases me the most.

I must admit we take liberties with the list, but with only a 50' x 20' front yard and a 30' x 15' rear patio we need liberties. So any bird we hear from the house, yard or environs is added to the list, regardless if it's singing across the street. Any bird we see from the property counts (i.e. a great blue heron flying in the distance, viewed from our back porch--which has happened). My favorite yard sighting ever: an american woodcock in the yard two doors down.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Gulf debacle

I'm back in action, and I must begin with the environmental disaster taking place in the Gulf of Mexico. I love how the news reports are all worried about the first oiled birds turning up on shore. What about the billions of gallons of seawater, and accompanying wildlife, already tainted? Appalling. Surely, though, it would be agonizing to live on the Gulf right now, awaiting further environmental calamity. As the oil continues to flow, the news coverage has ebbed and flowed, to the point where it's easy to sometimes forget how horrible this is. And it is horrible. Hopefully this stymies further off-shore drilling, which seemed dubious anyway given all the progress made toward renewable energy. This post is for all birds that use Dauphin Island and other areas down South as stopovers.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Carp supreme

I'm a couple days late in reporting that the Supreme Court will not reopen the Chicago River case or hear the asian carp case. So now we turn to all sorts of potential policy or legal challenges. But it's a small victory for those of us who think the river should keep flowing away from here.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

First hiker

President Obama and the First Lady went hiking along the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina this weekend. It was the first time a sitting president visited the Parkway. It’s so great that they would choose to go for a hike as a way to relax. But it raises a number of questions.

-Who’s the fixer who goes to Asheville and sets this up? How do you choose which trail to go on? The Asheville paper says the President and First Lady picked out the trail. But I doubt Mr. Obama is poring over topo maps in the Oval Office. Nonetheless, it sounded like a pretty spot and the hour length was appropriate. Sad to say, but an hour is about right for the Commander-in-Chief. He has enough to do, and unknowingly winding up on a 10-mile death march would especially be a disaster for the leader of the free world.

-What if you just happened to go on a hike and you ran into the President? How shocking would this be? You see a couple people coming your way and you realize that it’s Mr. and Mrs. Obama. According to USA Today, this actually happened to an elderly woman along the way.

-How does the Secret Service secure the trail? Do they have camo business suits? Do they have snipers in every treetop? And if a bear attacked, would the Secret Service just shoot it dead?

-What if the President got lost? That would be the story of the century.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Icterid paradise

A flock of red-winged blackbirds sparked a conversation on the Uptown Update blog recently. Approximately 150 red-wings appeared in Uptown in early April, according to the UU post. We’ve very rarely seen red-winged blackbirds on our block, but we did record our first of the season March 7 at Montrose Point (I also saw one at Calumet Park in January).

Several commenters noted that they had been attacked by red-wings. Attacks seem to happen quite frequently on the Chicago lakefront. (Time magazine covered this in 2008.) This is the time of year when nesting red-wings and grackles take over Montrose Point, posturing, puffing, posing and generally intimidating passersby.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Canal pride

The asian carp still is in the news. In its latest screed against Chicago’s position, the Detroit Free Press questions Illinois researchers’ conclusion that the economic impact of closing the locks to Lake Michigan would be $4.7 billion. The Freep says the tally is computed over 20 years, and that half of the dollars actually would be spent on flood prevention. For the Free Press, the value of the Great Lakes fishing industry is $6 billion. And messing with that fishery is a lifetime proposition. We’ve yet to hear from SCOTUS on the request to reopen the 100-year-old case of Chicago’s diversion of water away from Lake Michigan.

Sending sewage down the Mississippi is as much a Chicago tradition as Paczki Day or “dibs” after a snowstorm. We take a lot of pride in the reversal of the Chicago River. We used early 20th century equipment to dig a canal over the Valparaiso Moraine and raise the Chicago River level above Lake Michigan. This way our filth doesn’t fester right in front of us in Lake Michigan.

Reversing the river is an engineering marvel, and one that could only take place in the City That Works. We may have created a pipeline for exotics into the Great Lakes. But there are so many other ways they can get in, besides the canals. The zebra mussel and round goby came in through ships’ ballasts. And we already know carp have made it into Chicago Park District ponds. I think we should be concerned with our Great Lakes fishery, but the Chicago canal system is here to stay.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Natural haven

The Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge is a step closer to reality. A feasibility study has been approved for the refuge, which would be the closest one to Chicago (Horicon Marsh and Upper Mississippi NWRs are both about 150 miles from Chicago). The new refuge would encompass several tracts of prairie, savanna and wetland straddling the Illinois-Wisconsin border about 90 miles northwest of Chicago. The area is home to rare birds, fish, plants and mussels.

There’s a very extensive viability study by The Trust for Public Lands and Openlands, with great photos, available here. The feasibility study signals the refuge is still a couple years away. There’s hope since the federal government is hoping to open more urban refuges, according to information on the Friends of Hackmatack Web site.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Woodpecker picture

Last night, I saw the mockumentary, "Woodpecker," a straight-to-DVD film about the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker in Arkansas. The film chronicles "Johnny," a part-time house painter and birder from Oregon, who travels to Arkansas to find the legendary ivory-bill. His traveling companion is "Wes," a young man who is silent and expressionless throughout the entire movie. The lead portrayals are so deadpan (think Borat or Bruno) that I didn't realize it was a mockumentary until embarrassingly late in the film.

The movie focuses on Johnny and Wes' time in the cypress swamp, searching for the bird. They also interact with a number of actual townspeople and a faux sheriff and ranger. A few real experts appear in the film, including David Sibley, who is skeptical of the ivory-bill rediscovery. I wouldn't say the movie was a laugh riot, but there are definitely some funny parts.

Some are angry at the portrayal of birders, but I think the anger is misplaced. It would have been easy to make fun of birders and their many quirks. Instead they created characters so absurd that they went beyond satire. Clearly, the filmmakers know something about birding, too.

As for the actual status of the ivory-billed woodpecker, there haven't been any confirmed sightings since the exciting rediscovery of 2004. By now, the flood of searchers in Arkansas surely would have found something to confirm the sighting. Even the best birders can get caught up in the excitement of a rarity. It's the same impulse I have each time I try to turn a common goldeneye into a barrow's goldeneye or a dark-eyed junco into an oregon junco.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Smelt belt

At this time of year in Chicago, it's not uncommon to see men and women in Carhartt coveralls huddled around barrel fires. And not just under the El tracks near Wilson.

It's smelt season, which means that anglers trek to the lakefront harbors for evening fishing. Smelt, introduced in the 20th century, spawn on the southeast shores of Lake Michigan each spring. The smelt harvest used to be a much bigger event--now even one or two fish in the net is considered a success.

On Saturday evening, several groups of anglers had set up shop at Montrose Harbor. Many prepared as if tailgating for a football game--lawn chairs, grills, picnic tables and portable plastic-sided outhouses. Anglers rig up contraptions--some lashed to their cars--that help to lower, or dip, nets into the water. They use a pulley system to bring the nets up and the little silver fish on shore.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Wild farewell

Chicago Wilderness Magazine officially has ceased publication. The executive director of the Chicago Wilderness coalition made the announcement in an e-mail yesterday. The quarterly had amazing photography and well-written stories, and it will be missed. (I'm a little biased. Here's a link to my contribution to the final issue.)

Chicago Wilderness highlighted the beauty of a region that lacks the overt natural charms of many metropolitan areas. We don't have mountains. We don't have large natural areas near the city. But Chicago Wilderness showed that there are plenty of idyllic locales close to home. In fact, we have richer biodiversity than most big cities--maybe the richest. Before Friday's announcement, Chicago Wilderness had been on hiatus since its final issue last summer.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Fished out

There has been an explosion in asian carp coverage during the past few days. The Chicago Reader features an entire "asian carp issue." Chefs try their hands at preparing carp--the "eat 'em all" solution--without much success. I was surfing the World Wide Web and found a USGS report from 2000. It was a simpler time then. The carp had only just reached the Illinois River Valley.

The Natural Resources Defense Council noodles on the issue without much resolution. The bottom line, to me, is that the fish is known to be in the Des Plaines River, which originates all the way in Wisconsin. It's basically in Lake Michigan. Closing the locks won't save the lakes now. So what do we do?

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Wolf watch

A wolf recently was photographed 90 miles west of here, near Oregon, Ill. Wolf sightings in Illinois have been on the uptick. The wolves wander south from Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

In other wolf news, only the second documented killing of a human in North America occurred in Alaska last week. Strangely, the other wolf death took place just five years ago when a geological engineering student was killed in Saskatchewan. Scary stuff.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Polar plunge

Sixty-two degrees to 42 degrees in 90 minutes!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Temperature madness

It's been relatively mild this March, although cooler lakeside per usual in the spring. The next few days will demonstrate the awesome weather spectrum March has to offer, just in time for the arrival of astronomical spring. The temperature is expected to plunge from 70 tomorrow to the 30s Saturday, with snow. Unfortunately, this means the good birding days are taking place midweek and the weekend birding days will be less than ideal weather-wise. Still, I'm birding vicariously through the Illinois Birders Exchanging Thoughts Yahoo! Group. The latest reports indicate tree swallows as far north as Grundy County. Also, there are a few more signs of spring around including daffodil sprouts.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Terrible tributaries

New York City's waterways have made headlines lately. First, Brooklyn's Gowanus Canal was named a Superfund site, meaning it will receive a federal cleanup. The New York Times posted a photo gallery of reader-submitted canal pictures.

Then, dolphins were seen in the East River and Newtown Creek, a creek near Long Island City that makes Gowanus Canal look as clean as an alpine spring. One commenter indicates whales have turned up in the Gowanus before, too. And recently a seal showed up in Staten Island.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Finding refuge

The Chicago area may be getting a new National Wildlife Refuge, and for the first time I've seen a name proposed. The Hackmatack NWR would span the Illinois-Wisconsin border, in McHenry County in Illinois and Walworth County in Wisconsin. Openlands reports that Sen. Dick Durbin is soliciting support for the designation. There are some amazing wild lands in that area so let's hope they get the protection they deserve.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Vernal journal

Spring hasn't really "sprung" here. Maybe inched a bit forward, but not sprung. The days are getting longer. The sunlight is shifting a little bit, sending more rays down our street in the morning. I saw a european starling hanging around a nesting site yesterday. The house sparrows seem to be chirping a little bit more loudly. There are reports of woodcocks as far north as DuPage County. And sandhill cranes and red-winged blackbirds are in the area, too.

It seemed like everyone was outside today, relishing the mere 45 degree temperatures. The sun seems to be especially bright, but after weeks of overcast that is to be expected. We're in our seventh-longest historical stretch without a 50-degree temperature (last one was Dec. 1). But we are indeed in meteorological spring, which started on March 1.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Bjorn again

Ole Einar Bjorndahlen is an incredible biathlete, but is “Bjorndahlen” simply the verb form of former great Bjorn Daehle?....The United States winning all those medals in Nordic combined is about the equivalent of Team USA winning the soccer World Cup. Amazing….Yes, the Winter Olympics now have too many sports. They are being X-Games-ified. At least we’re spared ski ballet…Lindsey Vonn has won just two career medals to Julia Mancuso’s three, yet has received so much more hype…Riding in a bobsled (or “bobsleigh” as it’s officially called) is scary enough, but careening in a bobsleigh upside down is beyond terrifying…If snow isn’t really a requirement to host a Winter Games, let’s bring them to Chicago. Maybe mountains don’t have to be a requirement either….I never thought I’d say this, but Cris Collinsworth has become a favorite sports announcer. Great voice, blunt, smart. I miss Jim Lampley at these Games, though.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Effective lake

There's nothing like a good old-fashioned lake effect snow squall. There's a thick band of snow blowing in off Lake Michigan right now, moving northeast to southwest. We only get one or two of these a season here on the west side of Lake Michigan (unlike our fortunate counterparts on the other side of the lake). Everything outside is shrouded in white right now, and an inch or two can pile up in a matter of minutes.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Lake walk

I started today by walking directly to Lake Michigan, near where Lawrence Avenue meets the northern extremity of Montrose Beach. I think it’s safe to say the weather was raw—cold and damp with some fog. The shoreline in this area is a concrete revetment with an iron breakwall. It’s nondescript but offers a sort of emptiness that’s pleasing on a winter day. There were big ice formations along the beach but the water was mostly ice-free. There were actually a fair number of people around—walking their dogs, jogging and biking.

I saw a handful of female common goldeneyes along the breakwall. A group of about a dozen flew over from the west and then north and out of sight. There’s a point where the shoreline bends west, on the latitude of Foster Avenue. There’s a small concrete pier there with a light tower. There I found more common goldeneyes—male and female—and a few lesser scaup. At least I think they were lesser scaup, but it’s always hard to identify them from greater scaup. There were at least two mature males, immature two males and two females. They were plunging under the water and surfacing with morsels of something (mollusks?).

I’ve seen goldeneyes do a few display maneuvers this winter, and indeed one male was doing something like a torpedo race along the surface of the water. It would stick its neck out, chin to the water, and paddle forward before plunging. Usually I see them throw their heads back, bill pointed to the sky. I continued the walk west and circled back south along Marine Drive.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Attack weather

Since I last posted, I paid a visit to the "best location in the nation," the city named by Forbes as having the worst winter weather in the country. As if to confirm Forbes' list, it snowed each of the days we were in Cleveland.

The other reason for this post is an incredible set of photos from right here in the Prairie State. In a "Wild America" sort of montage, a golden eagle attacked a white-tailed deer at Nachusa Grasslands, about 90 miles west of here. Amazing!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Tectonic tonic

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The alarm had just gone off, and I was lying awake at 3:59 a.m. when I felt a rumbling that rattled our whole building. It felt unusual so I had the thought that it might be an earthquake. Then I remembered that we were to have a lot of snow overnight and so I figured it was a snowplow going down the street. I was hoping it was an earthquake because I slept right through our last quake in 2008.

Sure enough, I heard on the radio that it was an earthquake, and it was centered near Gilberts, Ill., west of Chicago. It registered only 3.9 on the Richter scale. Most of the seismic activity around here is located about 300 miles south of Chicago, so it was unusual to have an epicenter in Chicagoland. A quick, unscientific check of fault maps doesn't seem to show even a little one near Gilberts (between the Wisconsin Arch and the "Des Plaines" item on the fault map).

The Haiti earthquake had just reminded me of the New Madrid (pronounced MA-drid) seismic zone along the Mississippi River. We have earthquake insurance on our building, for example, and it's because of New Madrid that we do--and justifiably so. A massive temblor struck the area in 1812 and rang church bells as far away as Boston and changed the course of the Mississippi River. The fault, the Reelfoot Rift, was formed on Rodinia, a supercontinent that encompassed the Earth's entire landmass 750 million years ago (note for future fantasy basketball team names: Rodinia Globetrotters).

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Super day

Highlights from the past two mornings of birding included lots of goldeneyes, mergansers, buffleheads and redheads.

Check out the patternless area for a live blog of Super Bowl XLIV, beginning at about 5 p.m. Central time.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Woodchuck holiday

It was an eventful Groundhog Day. The excitement started a few days ago when the Tribune printed a story that drew attention to Groundhog Day opposition--the holiday cruelly interrupts groundhog hibernation. Then this morning came and Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow and predicted six more weeks of winter (the guy in the video looks a lot like the guy from the movie "Groundhog Day," played by Bill Murray's brother). In the Poconos, a Phil impostor--and there are a lot of phony G-hog Day celebrations--was to be yanked from its burrow only to be discovered in permanent hibernation.

The New York Times posted an appreciation of the movie "Groundhog Day," which was fun. I forgot how perfect it was that Phil Connors was a local weatherman who hated the holiday--the biggest weather holiday of the year. Phil? Kind of like the groundhog.

Lastly, a tribute to Primus' "Groundhog Day."

Poured me out a bowl-a corn chex.
Closest thing I could find to apple pie.
Lingerin’ taste of toothpaste
Made the milk go down a bit funny.
But you know, them chex they do satisfy.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Park place

The Chicago Tribune has been good to state parks in the Camp Chicago area in recent days. First, a story about a hike at Kankakee River State Park. We recorded a "sciurid sampler," all three local squirrel species in one day, at the park about one year ago. Today the Tribune featured Maquoketa Caves State Park in Iowa, a place where we camped several years ago.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Ice birding

I'm not proud to admit this, but I don't know anything about gulls. Last weekend, a 12-year-old took a glance at a gull and pronounced it a glaucous gull, a visitor from the Arctic. I can hardly tell a herring gull from a ring-billed gull.

I've done relatively little winter birding, having focused mostly on spring migration and its showy warblers. But perhaps winter is the best time to go birding, especially here in Chicago. The lakefront feels wilder, with its bizarre icy formations and frigid winds. It's absolutely quiet along the lake now, nothing but ice cracking and the wind's howl. In other seasons, there is plenty of human activity to remind you that you're in a big city.

So this morning I began an exercise in improving my winter birding skills. Montrose Point was mostly icebound, but there were a few pockets of water harboring diving ducks and gulls. I saw a huge flock of gulls (mostly ring-billed with a few herring), common mergansers, one male red-breasted merganser, common goldeneyes and buffleheads. The above photo shows buffleheads, the male red-breasted merganser and common goldeneyes, near the fishhook pier at Montrose.

The positive side of winter birding is that there are fewer geographical possibilities so the list of birds is substantially narrowed. And the Great Lakes are filled with wintering gulls and ducks, so it's a great opportunity to live near Lake Michigan. The winter tallies aren't gaudy--just 11 species today--but satisfying nonetheless.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Calumet flyway

Birders frequent some strange places. Dumps, wastewater discharges, landfills and water treatment plants are just a few of the places where we like to look for birds. (In fact, an article about birders at New York's Freshkills Landfill appeared in today's New York Times.) That's why I found myself in a litter-strewn industrial area along the Calumet River yesterday (above), observing gulls and mergansers. There's something about being in such obscure places that is strangely appealing. Our vantage point was where Stony Island Blvd., a single lane stretch of asphalt at that point, dead-ends into the river.

A Chicago Ornithological Society field trip took us to several points along Chicago's lakefront. It was a cold, rainy, windy day yet there was much avian activity. It wasn't a prolific day for species--I saw 31--but there were hundreds and probably thousands of ducks and gulls in the southern end of Lake Michigan. Highlights included a glaucous gull, four great black-backed gulls and two types of scoter. At Hammond Marina, we saw a pair of peregrine falcons fly right past Horseshoe Casino. Along the Calumet, we missed the uncommon birds by one day--an iceland gull and a northern shrike were seen near there the day before. Still, great fun on a damp winter day.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Pure bologna

The Detroit Free Press is clamoring for more "Pure Michigan" ads. These are the pretty billboards and the Tim Allen-narrated radio commercials that air a lot in Chicago. They were ubiquitous last summer and fall, and now Michigan has trimmed its PR budget. Right now, I can't even picture myself standing on the first tee with my eyes watering (as the Michigan ads suggest a golf course there will make you do).

When I moved to Chicago, I took a good look at a Rand McNally road atlas to figure out where to go on vacation. One thing I noticed is that Michigan is about an hour-and-a-half away. Wisconsin is about an hour away. Indiana, even closer. Not to mention Illinois. So these were all options.

I looked closer and saw that there were many parks, beaches and other points of interest. There was no shortage of places to visit, and I still feel that way now. My point is that I don't need the host of "Tool Time" to read frothy prose to get me to go somewhere. Michigan has many wonders, and I know it's not too far away. So the advice from this potential visitor: save your money, Michigan.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Gill talk

Two pieces of asian carp news today. First, the U.S. Supreme Court won't hear the suit brought by Michigan and other states against Illinois. The court thinks it's up to the Army Corps of Engineers to open and close Lake Michigan locks. So this is a victory for the shipping interests that want the locks open.

Then startling news came across that the Army Corps has found asian carp DNA in Lake Michigan. That would mean the carp already is in Lake Michigan. The fish kill from a few weeks back took place miles away, in the Sanitary and Ship Canal. How does one find DNA in the water, by the way? I'm guessing it's not with a magnifying glass and a kitchen sieve.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Bag dad

They’re the windsocks in the willows. The pennants in the pines. The streamers in the sycamores. It’s around this time of year that plastic bags in trees seem to be everywhere in Chicago. As I write this, I can see three plastic bags billowing beautifully in the breeze. After a long winter (or two or three) of being battered in the trees by cold and snow and ice and rain, the bags are often in tatters, shredded plastic clinging to a few small limbs. It’s a tribute to the brute force of Chicago winds that the bags ever do disappear from the trees.

Tonight, though, I did something barbaric—and incredibly satisfying. There was a plastic bag in our neighbors’ elm, in plain view of our bay window. I went to the basement and got our tree trimmer, an extendable pole with a serrated blade and a snipper on the end. I got most of the bag off with a few lashes of the blade. The rest of the bag—a little stub made up of the handles—was knotted around a branch. I cut the whole branch, tugging on the cord that operates the spring-loaded snipper. I reeled in the branch and the bag remnants like Babe Winkelman reels in fish. The remains are photographed above.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Executive branch

The asian carp now is part of national conversation. President Obama is siding with Illinois in the carp conflict, and Ohio, Michigan and other states are not pleased about it. Closing the locks on the Illinois canal system would block commerce on the waterways--lots of the road salt in the Chicago area comes in on barges from the Mississippi River Valley. The U.S. Supreme Court may take up the carp case as soon as Friday.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Coastal storm

There's a low pressure system spinning in the Atlantic today. It's sending a light, fine snow into coastal Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine. There was a stiff wind in our face--and stinging snowflakes--when we walked toward the mouth of the Merrimack River at Newburyport, Mass, this morning. The Atlantic was stirred up, and visibility was low. The wide expanse of grasses, sand and driftwood was empty except for a couple other hearty walkers.

We drove inland toward the marshy Joppa Flats refuge, where about three dozen mallards were huddled on the ice. We continued to a lookout point along the south side of the river closer to the center of Newburyport. About a dozen buffleheads dove between ice floes as they moved east on the river. Then a common loon surfaced nearby before swimming and diving in the direction of the ocean. Other birds seen included a northern harrier and great black-backed gull. Lots more snow expected today in bucolic New England!