Monday, December 31, 2012

2012 Year in Review: Tent revival

The year proved to be a camping bonanza after a lengthy period without sleeping under the stars. Our Mountain Hardwear tent literally fell apart at the seams in Michigan so we bought a Big Agnes four-person tent, complete with a "garage" vestibule that makes it look like a nylon igloo. Eager to use the new tent and spurred by the fun of the Michigan trip, we embarked on two fall one-nighters--the first to Apple River Canyon State Park and the second to Marengo Ridge.

Apple River Canyon is a series of bluffs and odd formations on a small tributary of the Mississippi River in Northwest Illinois. It's part of the namesake Driftless Area and offers a number of short hiking options. We dodged remnants of a recent hurricane and managed to get to the campground dry. Temperatures were comfortable in the 60s. Highlights included a Tennessee warbler in our campsite, a nice fall migrant to discover. We also had an apple tree in our site, complete with ripe apples, and were able to munch on a few. We took one hike, to Tower Rock, a pinnacle several stories up from the valley floor. We then had lunch in Savanna, Ill., where we watched barges on the Mississippi. We drove through Upper Mississippi NWR to Lock and Dam 13, typically a mecca for bald eagles, but not in the summer apparently. We did see lots of wood ducks and great egrets in the refuge.

Our final trip of the season was to Marengo Ridge, a McHenry County Conservation District site about 60 miles from Chicago. The campgound is perched atop a moraine with a nice view of the surrounding countryside and the Kishwaukee River Valley. We had a private site as the campground was only half full. It's really a terrific locale so close to Chicago. We again enjoyed staking the Big Agnes and managed to stay warm on a cold night in the 30s. The evening highlight was a great horned owl hooting, a nice addition to my 2012 Illinois list. We stopped at the Illinois Railway Museum on the way back the next day. We rode on a vintage Chicago streetcar; overall the museum was a lot of fun--it's massive and there's a lot there we didn't see. Our five nights camping in 2012, most since 2009, were fantastic.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

2012 Year in Review: Rainbow warriors

In August we enjoyed some relief from the Midwestern heat by traveling to Hawaii. We stayed in West Maui, between Kaanapali and Kapalua. Maui is basically made up of two massive volcanic mountains protruding from the Pacific. The mountainside near our condo was shrouded in clouds, often with rainbows, too. We had great views of Lanai and Molokai from our complex's beach. Truthfully, West Maui is more developed than I would prefer, but we were near some spectacular natural areas, as seen above along the Kahekili Highway. We were able to do some paddleboarding, golfing and snorkeling, and we made a trip to Iao Needle, a rock formation near Kahului.

Birds were plentiful. We went to Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge, where we saw the rare Hawaiian stilt, wandering tattler, Pacific golden plover and a few more. I recorded a lifer tropicbird along the Kahekili Highway.

Hawaii is an amazing place, and I wish we had more time for hiking in some of the mountain areas or a trip to Molokini Crater. The other islands look very interesting, too. 

Friday, December 28, 2012

2012 Year in Review: Hot stuff

There was a lot to be nervous about heading into our trip to Van Buren State Park in Southwest Michigan in July. It would be the first camping trip in about two years, and we had a toddler in tow. It was a record summer for heat, and the forecast for our trip was daunting--multiple days in the mid-90s. 

We had booked our three-night trip months in advance. Van Buren is a popular spot--just two hours from Chicago in the popular Harbor Country of Southwest Michigan. So it wasn't a surprise that the campground was full. Our spot was on the fringe of the campground and didn't offer much in the way of shade. We set up our tent at the edge of a forest and nabbed some shade for the morning hours. The friends we were meeting there had a nice corner spot that largely was forested--we spent much of our time at their site.

The highlight of Van Buren is the beach, which is wide and sandy, at the foot of a steep dune. The water felt great every time we went in. My friend Cub parked a lawn chair in a small pop-up shelter. From the water, he appeared to be a light-beer-swilling monarch, overseeing his sandy realm from his beach hut.

The heat persisted for two days. Amazingly, a weak cold front moved through, accompanied by morning thunderstorms. It cooled everything just enough and we had a wonderfully cool morning to sleep in, and yes the toddler slept in, too. Even when the seams broke on our tent, we stayed dry.

All in all, it was a great trip. We explored the town of South Haven and drove past a number of u-pick blueberry farms. We got to know the scenic Blue Star Highway that runs along the coast north of Benton Harbor. The trip proved that it's worth going even in the worst weather conditions.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

2012 Year in Review: Good coppice

In 14 years of going to the island of Eleuthera, I've always been as intrigued by the interior of the island as much as the famed beaches. The seashore is a lot of fun, for a number of reasons, but the scrubby interior has a great deal of interesting flora and fauna, too. So it was exciting to learn during our spring trip this year that the Leon Levy Native Plant Preserve recently opened within minutes of the home base of North Palmetto Point. The preserve, part of the Bahamas National Trust, features lengthy trails through the native coppice forest as well as mangrove wetlands and a medicinal plant garden. The highlight is a hand-constructed tower atop a hill that offers amazing views of the Eleuthera's interior and of the Atlantic Ocean. We saw several bird species on a steamy day including migrants like northern parula and northern waterthrush. The preserve is the only national park on Eleuthera, and a lot of planning and resources have gone into it. It's a great addition to a special island.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Good year

After nearly a year off, I'm back and ready to post on the blog occasionally. Driftless Area is now password-protected, too.

A few weeks ago, we finally saw the movie The Big Year on DVD. It's probably the most prominent movie ever made about birding. It's certainly the most expensive, reportedly costing $40 million to make. 

The Big Year features an all-star cast: Owen Wilson, Steve Martin and Jack Black. In seeing the trailers, I feared that the movie would strive to make fun of birders--an easy target to be sure. With a few small exceptions, that was not the case at all. In fact, the movie took care to portray birding accurately and kindly. That may have been why the movie was a big failure at the box office, grossing less than $10 million in the United States. 

Casting Wilson as a cocky, world-renowned birder was pure brilliance. Martin and Black were both subdued and likable as they chased Wilson around the country trying to keep up with his North American big year. The bit players were good, too, including Rashida Jones as Black's love interest and Brian Dennehy as Black's curmudgeonly father.

I remember some birders being dismayed when The Big Year came out. But it really does mostly get it right, any quibbles are nitpicks at best (would a whistling-duck really hang out at the top of a mountain?). I highly recommend The Big Year!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Western phoebe

I spent some time last week in San Jose, Calif. I went for a morning walk around the center of the city--the ninth-largest city in the United States. San Jose sits in a valley just south of the San Francisco Bay. The Guadelupe River flows through the center of town and is flanked by a recreational trail. The river is really no more than a creek in a little ravine lined with sycamores and other riparian trees. It was there, in the shadow of the headquarters of Adobe (above), that I saw my lifer black phoebe. The bird isn't uncommon in its range along the West Coast. Like the eastern phoebe, it spends time near bridges and branches hanging over streams.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Winter recess

While the hills never rise to more than about 1,100 feet, southern Ohio is quite rugged. The southeast quarter of Ohio is a sea of steep ridges and deep valleys. In a few hidden, idyllic spots there are high-walled gorges and waterfalls. Rarer are recess caves, huge sandstone overhangs carved by erosional forces. In winter, the area is made all the more spectacular by a coating of snow and massive ice formations. The flora is that of a much more northerly place, in some places hemlock-laden ravines stranded by the last glaciation. Above is Cedar Falls, the 50-foot high waterfall on Queer Creek, part of Hocking Hills State Park. A few miles away is Old Man's Cave, the largest recess cave in Ohio (top). The area has many hiking, backpacking and camping options. I recommend it in the off-season, when the crowds are away and temperatures are a bit cooler.