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!