Friday, January 31, 2014

And now you see it.

It's hard to believe that I almost neglected to mention a big moment from last weekend's foray out to the Illinois and Vermillion River valleys.  On the drive back I saw - or rather, I think I saw - what was maybe a Snowy owl.  Many of you know of my not-quite-obsession to see one of these birds.  Over the past few years I have taken a couple road trips in the hopes of spotting one - but to no avail.  The fact that I'm not jumping on the road scouring the state for every other report qualifies me as not-quite-obsessed.  But still.

Long story short, I conferred with a local birder more knowledgeable than I who pretty much verified that my alleged sighting  (of a big white bird, with traces of black, flying away over the tundra from I-80, seen with one eye while the other was on the snow covered road, at 60 mph) probably couldn't have been anything but a Snowy.  So, I don't count it as a sighting - I figure that time will come someday, and I'm happy enough to know that I had a good shot.

It's often times just a blur....

This whole near-miss experience reminded me again how many times over the years I've had to train my eyes to see new things in the natural world.  It's not always as easy at it seems.  Another of my favorite birds that I am a little obsessed about is the Scarlet Tanager.  Now here is a bird that is about as colorful as any in the world yet they're elusive to me.  My eyes are in training for this creature.

One of my favorite now-you-see-it moments happened a few years back. A handful of us were being led to see some White-fringed orchids in a local prairie that was being restored.  Our leader led us almost toe to toe with the plants, and - no kidding - it took us all about half a minute before we saw them:

I would have felt foolish except that the others in our little group were botanists with way more field experience than I. There's no shame here, it sometimes just takes time to see something new - even if it is an orchid that is waist high screaming "look at me!"

Last summer I saw my very first Bob-o-links. Now that my mind's eye is a little bit sharper I won't just pass by every other blackbird in the field and assume it's another Red-wing out there. This ID business is a fun, but it's often tricky. We're often forced to tease out greens out of greens in the summer, tans out of tans in the fall.  I'm just happy to say that I may finally be a bit more adept at teasing out whites out of whites in the winter.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Snow Birds and Ice Canyons

Who could have known that the past couple of days were to have been among the more pleasant in the month of January?  It's a testament to the stubborn winter of 2013-14 when temperatures in the 20's seem downright pleasant. We made the most of the opportunity to visit the areas around Starved Rock SP. Not only did we see dozens of Bald eagles enjoying their winter home but we saw some amazing ice formations in the canyons of Starved Rock and Matthiessen SP.  And we were not alone! There were hundreds of people who were drawn outdoors by the star power of the Bald eagles, young and old alike. I'd say that it's a real sign of hope when that many people defy the weather to take in the natural wonders of our State.  

 Council Overlook - Starved Rock SP

  Ottawa Canyon - Starved Rock SP

  Ottawa Canyon - Starved Rock SP

  Ottawa Canyon - Starved Rock SP

 Starved Rock SP

     Matthiessen SP

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Cold enough for you? Hope so!

Now that our new friend  - the Polar Vortex - is leaving town there may be a tiny bit of good news that this severe cold snap delivered. This recent article explains how extreme cold temperatures may kill off emerald ash borer larvaeThis story resonated with me as it mentions a paper by DeSantis et al. that I'd reviewed last November for a report I prepared.

On the bright side this shows that native ashes may persist at the northern edge of their range. On the other hand, I'm not sure how much good this will do for those of us living south of the Twin Cities. The mortality for EAB larvae seems to really kick in at -20F which in isn't that common around here. And such temperatures in the Midwest may be even less frequent in the years to come as a result of climate changes.    

So, even if it is cold outside it will warm my heart to see a truly natural control mechanism - potentially - for the EAB. It will be interesting to see how this all plays out in the years to come.

Friday, January 03, 2014

Speed The Plow

The snowstorm just ended last night, leaving in it’s wake around of a foot of snow. As storms go this is an above average total but it will not burn into our collective memories.  Surprisingly, it was somewhat historic in it’s duration. On the radio today they said it snowed steadily for 48 hours which hasn’t been seen for something like thirty years. Weather usually comes and goes pretty quickly here in the middle of the continent where we are used to watching fronts approach us from distant locales such as Alberta, New Mexico, and the Gulf coast.

I can vouch for this duration in a more tangible way than usual, as I was out helping a buddy of mine plow for the past couple nights. I estimate that I have plowed snow for somewhere between 15 to 20 winters. Snow removal is one of those tasks that can be a love-hate sort of endeavor. It can be fun, and it can be exhausting. Making a little extra money doesn’t hurt, but there is visible wear and tear on people and machines. If you are a results-driven sort of person snow removal can be very gratifying.  But if you like your work to have a beginning, a middle, and an end - you might seek other employment after a 48 hour three storm bout.

When I get called out I am assigned the task of clearing a non-descript one story industrial/office building that couldn’t be more anonymous. It’s one of those buildings that you drive past on the way to somewhere else, the type of something you’d fly over as you descend into any airport, anywhere. I clear the place out with a bobcat fitted out with a plow blade. It’s a nice machine. It is heated, enclosed, and much better than the some of  the machines and trucks I have used in the past. It is a good machine for working around a light industrial property as there are a lot of nooks and crannies to work around. In this case that means dumpsters by service entrances and parked cars and trucks - some of which appear to not moved since last winter.

Welcome to the glamorous world of snow removal!

The main activity buzzing in one corner of this property is the manufacture of pizza type products. I have no knowledge of the quality of said products, but I can tell you that it is nearly a 24/7 operation in there. As such, this is the corner of the property that gets first attention once I roll off the trailer. I’ll make a few laps around this area, making parking available for the workers that roll in around 4 AM. The roads out there may be crappy but there is some small joy in creating a safe harbor for their arrival at work. The creation of pizza type products will go on if I have anything to do with it. 

I’m not going to try and kid you about the beauty of snow falling at such moments. Honestly, I’m generally too busy to notice. If there isn’t a ton of snow, I want to get this site cleared up in under five hours. This is about the average, and it doesn’t leave a lot of time for meditative Zen snow moments. There is, however, a great deal of opportunity to focus on repetition. My mantra could be: Move the snow, put it there… Move the snow, put it there. I do however try to take in the beauty of the winter on the way home. This week I noticed hundreds of Canada geese hunkered down in fields of corn stubble waiting out the weather. At one stoplight I saw a hornet’s nest way up in a treetop. Now visibly exposed in the branches devoid of leaves it sported a merry new cap of snow.  

If I’m done early, I might help out on some other sites. In his roster my friend has industrial sites, a strip mall, residences, and a couple of churches that he plows. In the middle of the night most of these sites seem unoccupied, but one of the churches also doubles as a homeless shelter. I have to say that it is a more gratifying to work knowing that the benefit is a little more real to actual people - like the folks showing up to make pizza things before sunrise.

On New Years Day, mid-storm, E and I recalled that this winter had thus far  reminded us of winters from our childhoods. They were snowy and cold. One could ice skate outdoors. Such winters made one pine for spring, which I‘m already finding myself doing, and January isn‘t even a week old. I try not to dip too deeply into the well of nostalgia, but they now give names to winter storms, which I think is a little bit silly. This one was christened “Hercules.” Really, has anyone ever heard of a Greek snowstorm? I rest my case.  

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Return of the Oak King

A selection of oak photos taken yesterday on a misty afternoon on the winter solstice at Crabtree Nature Center:

Crabtree Nature Center, Cook County IL :: 2013   

Saturday, December 21, 2013


During my last course I wrote a paper on ash tree genetics and resistance to Emerald ash borer. (Don't get your hopes up. North American species don't appear to be very resistant).  While I was looking through assorted scientific papers I came across the term Yggdrasil - which is a name from Norse mythology for a giant world tree. By all accounts Yggdrasil was an ash tree!

  The Ash Yggdrasil by Friedrich Wilhelm Heine (1886)

I really wanted to work old Yggy into my paper, but I couldn't find a proper way to do it. I have been thinking about this mythological ash tree ever since then. Here on Earth a variety of ash tree species populate the entire northern hemisphere, and it happens that European ashes (Fraxinus excelsior) are also vulnerable to a serious invasive fungus species, ash dieback. Between these assorted pathogens ash trees globally are truly a genus that is on the ropes.

Yggdrasil (possibly) occupying a Viking age tapestry

It seems to me that in our culture if we associate any mythological meaning to any tree it's oaks, or maybe maples, that immediately jump to mind. Around these parts White ashes are valued for their fall color, but otherwise these trees were seen as solid, utilitarian native citizens - but that's about it. Not very mythological as trees go! Seeing how ashes were once elevated to such a status was a surprise to me.

Ash tree. Cook County IL :: 2013

Today my solstice hike led me out to the edge of Phantom Prairie at Crabtree Nature Center where I saw this ash tree hanging on - for now.  Along the trail through the woods I spotted some canoe paddle shaped ash seeds here and there. Once a very common sight these too will be soon be rare. Only time will tell if North American ashes have any natural resistance to Emerald ash borer and it will be interesting to see what trees will fill ultimately fill the environmental voids left by infested ash trees.  

 Ash seeds.

Perhaps we should get a good look at our local ash trees while they're still here. They're rapidly on their way to folkloric, if not mythological status.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Back to School #5 - Old Dog, New Collages

Another term has come and gone, and soon old man 2013 will make way for the new baby of 2014.  I don't need to wait for the future to recall that this was a year where the old dog learned some new tricks.  It has been fun, even if it is sometimes a little schizophrenic to bounce between the largely online worlds as a student and a course developer.

Ah yes, 2013 was the year of course development.  These efforts, much like the sand in 2013's hourglass, are soon coming to an end.  Course development isn't so much about writing as it is about putting together a collage. This must be why I took to it. I have been making collages since I was about 5 years old, and there is something very satisfying about assembling disparate pieces into a cohesive something. Of course, the proof will be in the pudding, and it will be interesting to see what the students of the future will take away from this.  On the whole it was great fun, and I'm proud of the work I did. I wouldn't mind being a student in one of those courses myself.

Speaking of being a student I completed one more installment towards my masters degree.  The course was about evolution, and I really enjoyed it.  Who wouldn't enjoy it when you get to hold forth on topics such as ash tree genetics and Kaibab squirrels?  I guess it is a good sign when just as the class is coming to an end I wished that it would keep going on. The last two courses have left me with that feeling. But tougher times await, and the old dog will have to keep learning new tricks in 2014.  Woof!

The best fun of all is seeing that all of this work is connected, and practical. There's no ivory towers here. I have included family, friends and co-workers in these efforts - to help make better connections and ultimately work towards a better environment.