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.