Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A winter's day at Lincoln Park Zoo


On Wednesday, January 26, I met JT at Lincoln Park Zoo, which is small enough to be a great place to spend time in the winter. Dressing appropriately is the toughest part. If you dress too warmly, you’ll overheat in the efficiently heated buildings. If you dress too lightly, you’ll find that the walk between buildings is longer than you remember.

With few people about, the zoo is yours to savor at your own speed on a January weekday. For the animals, the quiet and the dearth of peering primate faces must seem like a vacation away from the madding crowd, a time to rest and relax before more spring fever and weather draws out the mobs.

On this day, many of the herps were front and center in their exhibits, as were the birds. Even the sometimes elusive sand cat was out of hiding, so comfortable in the relative quiet of the house that it was giving itself a top-to-tail cleaning in cat fashion. In the Ecosystem, the spectacled caiman basked under his heat lamp.

The primary objective of the visit was out of sight when we arrived at the Brach Primate House, and we were sure we wouldn’t see it. But, just as we’d given up, Burma the white-cheeked gibbon made a brief appearance, her infant clinging to her. She looked out for a moment, then sank into a depression in the back of the exhibit, from where only her shoulders and face were visible, the little one hidden below. Caruso, neglected as new fathers often are, played to his audience of three, first to me, then to a younger, thinner woman. Typical male! We did get a glimpse of the wee gibbon, with its pink face and large, fuzzy (not furry) head, but Burma didn’t hang around long enough for a photo.

After watching a cinereous vulture drive off a flock of starlings and overstaying our welcome in the McCormick Bird House (zoo buildings close early in winter), we headed across the street to R.J. Grunts, just in time to beat the crowd and to get a brown cow and a trio of tuna melts. Mmmm, mmmm, good—comfort food to warm up with.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Eagle Watch Weekend at Starved Rock

We arrived at around 10:45 a.m. on Saturday at Starved Rock Lodge—just in time to get tickets for the 4:00 p.m. World Bird Sanctuary program. The great hall was packed, and the tickets for the three earlier programs had already been claimed. My gut feeling that we needed to arrive early proved to be correct for a change.

We spent some time checking out the exhibitors, from Audubon to the Prairie Rivers Network, which J. joined. I spent most of the time speaking with a representative of the Wildlife Prairie State Park near Peoria, which I had visited in the early 1990s as a Lincoln Park Zoo docent. The female black bear, whose claws had been extracted by a private "owner," is still there, with an offspring and a different male. The male we had seen died from intestinal blockage after ingesting a ball that a thoughtless visitor had thrown into the exhibit. This ignorant person probably never knew the consequences of his or her action. I wonder quite a bit about this kind of things—how often it happens that we do something seemingly harmless that results in grave consequences, to which we remain forever oblivious.

After some trouble finding the woman selling rides on the trolley, we took "Rita" to the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center, where I could almost swear Audubon had stocked the water with fish. More likely, the eagles were especially hungry after a windy, frigid Friday, with a wind chill factor of nearly minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit. When we arrived in the early afternoon, more than a dozen were flying over the water, while another two dozen plus looked on from the trees. This frenzy of activity lasted for a long time, until shortly before we left at around 3:00 p.m. The crowds seemed thrilled, although I didn't observe any catches and wonder sometimes how those birds survive.

We made it back to the lodge in time to get middle center seats for the World Bird Sanctuary program, which featured a Harris hawk, bateleur eagle, Eurasian eagle owl, eastern screech owl, American kestrel, barn owl, and bald eagle. The handlers flew the Harris hawk and eagle owl, and maybe one other, fist to fist. Even while snapping photos incessantly, J. was among those who ducked every time the birds made a pass above us, as though (1) the bird might not see us and hit us and (2) the bird's touch with its flight feathers might cause pain and suffering. The eagle owl swooped especially close—and looked especially soft. As long as I didn't have a toupee to get knocked off, I wasn't about to duck.

At the end, they brought out a raven to collect to donations. If you handed him $5 or more, he "billed" you a Wild Bird Sanctuary medallion. His large bill and quick, aggressive movements made several people, including the children, withdraw their vulnerable hands quickly as he snatched the money, again more an instinctive reaction than a rational fear. I was amused to note that he'd been trained to show his handler the money before he dropped it into the box so she would know whether to give him a medallion to present to the giver. Teamwork!

This time, we took the canyon road, Illinois 71, to Ottawa. This way winds along the Illinois River and Starved Rock canyons, and we saw only a few cars in the darkness for the next several miles. And so to Bianchi's again for pizza and pop—an easier meal than fish from cold water.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Bald eagles on Martin Luther King Day

While J. and I didn’t set out as early as I wanted to (by three hours), we had more time than eagles at Starved Rock. The ice chunks had shrunk or melted, so the eagles had spread out along the river again, with only eight or so visible at any time.

I made the mistake of not checking the weather forecast, too, so I was surprised when a few flurries in Homewood and Tinley Park had into turned into more serious snow by the time we arrived in Utica. As we watched the eagles and a few of their flights from the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center, visibility decreased, then the temperature rose and the snow turned to rain with perhaps a bit of sleet. A good number of people stopped by, although most took a quick look and left as soon as they realized they were being pelted with cold snow, rain, and ice bits. One younger man complimented J. on his camera lens. Mildly disappointed by the low eagle turnout and activity, both fellows’ interest picked up again when I pointed to a juvenile that was passing directly overhead, not very high. “That wingspan is amazing,” the other man said with wonder. According to the center’s graphics, a bald eagle wingspan rivals a tall man’s height—6’6”. I await the moment an eagle shows a sense of humor by dropping a load while everyone is looking straight up.

After a short visit, we crossed the bridge and had lunch at the Starved Rock Visitor Center, which was very quiet, with few cars in the parking lot and more employees and volunteers than visitors. By now, the parking lot, walkways, and steps were treacherously slick, and I’d noticed from the other side that no one was up on Starved Rock. J. asked me if I wanted to try it, but with the cold, rain, ice, and lack of Yaktrax (we both forgot ours), I passed. As it turned out, it was difficult enough to cross the picnic area, where the rain didn’t deter juncos, chickadees, nuthatches, and red-headed and downy woodpeckers from feasting at their fenced feeders.

On this side, the best view was of a solitary eagle on a nearer tree. A solitary, soaked, bedraggled bird. I took several photos and video of his persistent attempts to preen himself in the continuous drizzle. By now, the breeze had died down, and my fingers ached only mildly with the cold.

We watched for a while as the late afternoon became gloomier and gloomier. The eagles seemed frozen, and even the earlier frenzy of flying gulls had thinned out to only a few dozen. We both decided to skip a visit to the Lodge up the narrow, hilly, twisty, icy road.

Not that I80 was smooth sailing—or rather it was. J. felt the slick spots before I did, but if the truckers speeding by at 70mph noticed them, thy weren’t deterred. A few miles along, we spotted flares and reflectors on the right shoulder behind a cab and trailer at an awkward angle of 30 degrees to each other, the load off the hitch. I can’t imagine how that happened in those conditions.

We detoured to LaGrange for dinner at Prasino (“green” in Greek), which I highly recommend. Vegan, vegetarian, and organic fare, great service, and decor made of wood reclaimed from Sportsman’s Park make it a delightful experience all around.

Except for one or two important details, life is almost good.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Last weekend's eagles, and a digression on graffiti art

Even with the previous week’s low bald eagle count and the inactivity of the few birds we saw, J. wanted to try again. On Saturday the 8th we set out for Starved Rock from Homewood after an extended Caribou visit.

On the way we stopped at a rest area, where J. talked to a woman who told him she was driving from Pennsylvania to Alaska. That’s a long haul through northern Canada. I wonder how long the trip will take at a moderately leisurely pace and how she can afford the time and money, although I am beginning to realize these things are possible for those who can both dream and plan.

We detoured at the Ottawa exit to check out Marcia’s Bed and Breakfast, where you can spend the night in a dressed-up grain bin. We overshot the address and ended up by Hank’s Farm Restaurant, another landmark surrounded by fields. Here J. happily snapped photos of a little flock of domesticated turkeys, a couple of black-faced sheep, and a swan in the water. He needs a pet or a farm; I’m not sure which.

We arrived at around 3:00 p.m.—enough time to freeze in the biting wind. But the cold made this a more productive trip. This time, a dozen bald eagles perched in the favored tree, while at least a dozen others were clustered in a few other trees on the east side of Plum Island. Others appeared, and for most of the afternoon we watched at least one or two soaring around the dam, skimming the water, and making passes at unseen (by us) fish. Once or twice I thought I may have spotted a catch, but I couldn’t be sure. Something excited them enough to ignite a tussle, during which eagles aiming for the same spot (fish) thrust their talons toward each other. They may perch in clusters, but they’re neither social nor collaborative. They’re hungry and competitive, needing to keep their avian engines stoked to stay warm.

Hungry ourselves, after stopping at a spot on Dee Bennett Road for a different perspective of the island in the dimming light, we returned to Ottawa and found Bianchi’s Pizza, where they ring up your payment on an old-fashioned, golden-hued cash register with flat, round mechanical (not mechanical) keys and a crank on the side. Cash only. Those whose memories date back to the 1960s and before can picture these vintage pieces, still shiny and still in working order. Cha-ching!

As there were so many eagles on Saturday, J. wanted to return on Sunday. In Utica, we drove up what in Illinois passes for a hill, which took us along a road with a mix of new and old and large and small houses, some set well back from the road. Tractors were parked in a few of the driveways.

Back at the bottom of the hill in Utica, we found way blocked by a stopped freight train. The closest escape route was marked “NO TRESPASSING.” The train seemed to be short, so we settled in to wait as it started up, advanced a few feet, stopped, started up again, advanced a few more feet, repeat. A worker walked up and down the right of way.

We amused ourselves by discussing the copious amounts of rust and graffiti on the cars in front of us and along the rest of the train that we could see, including a sketch, in just about the right shade of blue, of a half gallon skim milk carton—likely the work of bored teenagers, not gangs. They may even like to imagine their efforts as a traveling art show, passing cars at crossings in big cities and far-off places.

This makes me think that we should try to channel the energy behind what we consider to be acts of vandalism into creating something useful or beautiful. If so many adolescents love to draw, paint, and tag, and to seek attention, then bring arts education back to schools. If retirement communities host art shows, why don’t more schools? Give these kids engaging training in the principles and techniques of art so they can see their own improvement and a space, physical and/or digital, in which to share their creations. They may learn something useful, they would have done something society encourages them to feel good about, and they can get the attention they crave (don’t adults remember those cravings?). Maybe then we could praise these kids for their accomplishments instead of excoriating them for their delinquencies. I”m sure this has been done—why not everywhere? Easy? No. Worthwhile? Yes. Easier than whining and fretting about the future of the world in their hands.

Having escaped Utica, we stopped briefly at the same precarious tilted parking area we’d checked out the day before, this time parking the car at an angle that would have made even a Batman villain dizzy. Two and then four eagles took flight. Even more exciting, we saw a swan take off gracefully from the water. That’s a lot of bird to get airborne. It almost made the eagles look like tiny passerines.

Rumors of the eagle’s increased presence must have gotten out because more people stopped at the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center, usually with a camera, binoculars, or both. At times two dozen eagles perched in the favored tree, with a few small cluster in satellite trees on the east side. The sun was behind clouds and the air was calm, making it easier to watch the western sky over Starved Rock without being blinded or frozen.

At first they seemed content to stay in the trees, but as the afternoon wore on more and more took flight over the water toward the dam Although most made passes at the river, again I didn’t see any catches. What I found fascinating was the aggressiveness of the juveniles, who were the most persistent in their attempts and the most assertive in their defense of their areas, driving off other juveniles and adults alike. Driven by hunger, they may not be as wise about conserving their energy for the best opportunities as the mature birds. I imagined how difficult it must be to latch onto a fish at the surface of a flowing, ice-cold river.

After an hour and a half or so, and during a break in activity, we crossed to the Starved Rock side to watch the dark eagle shapes against the darkening sky.

We returned to Ottawa, this time following Route 6 instead of I80. This is a dark, quiet country road intersecting flat, treeless fields edged by a sprinkling of lonely houses and outbuildings. It’s hard to conceive how only a couple of miles away arose the cliffs and canyons of Starved Rock along the river and environs. They’re worlds apart.

Our first choice, the Bee Hive diner, was closed, so we settled for Monte’s Riverside Inn on the Fox River, where blocks of ice have jammed the open water. Once again, I thought of the men of the Edmund Fitzgerald, who must have known the ship was sinking and realized with horror that they could not avoid the cold, eternal embrace of the greatest of the Great Lakes.

Photo: Plum Island from below Starved Rock.

Dream: In my father's garden

I was at a performance or award ceremony in what I perceived to be my father’s garden. All around me were trees, flowers, and grasses, and I felt supremely happy.

I went for a walk, and as I strolled about I noticed the landscape changing. Space was shrinking, and the trees, flowers, and grasses were being replaced by stones, walls, and other hard, colorless barriers. My formerly idyllic universe was changing, shrinking, and hardening, even as I walked through it. I felt as though I could panic at any moment when I realized the alterations were permanent and irrevocable. I couldn’t breathe.

I found myself in a cave, clinging to a 160-foot smooth wooden pole that was larger at the top, like a baseball bat. I didn’t know how I could have gotten up there, but I told a man across the way that I could slide down. He advised strongly against this plan, but I let myself go just as I woke up.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Space vs. Face

In “Hot Social Networking Site Cools as Facebook Grows” by Tim Arango, Erin Polley captures MySpace’s decline:
“To me, it was kind of a precursor to how Facebook is now, where everyone is on it, and it’s almost a necessity,” said Ms. Polley, who added that she had not logged on to MySpace in years because it became “amateurish” and “boorish” and too focused on celebrities and music.

“Every time I logged on it was just messages from bands I barely heard of,” she said. “Facebook allows you to actually connect with real people, rather than bands or celebrities.”
The corollary is that, because MySpace site is klunky, slow to load, and focused on promoting minor musicians that few young people and fewer older people know, there just aren’t that many people I know on MySpace to “friend.” Many who began on MySpace gravitated to Facebook, where the focus is on a clean interface and shared status updates, photos, videos, and links—the very things people might discuss if they were face to face. Even my favorite musicians moved over to Facebook, which now faces the challenge of staying ahead of its base without mucking up its interface. Facebook does show periodic signs of trying to alienate its users through functionality and design changes and alterations to privacy settings, nearly all of which seem to upset a large number of users who prefer consistency and seamlessness. Those who don’t learn from the competitor’s past are just as doomed.

It’s easy to forget early starter classmates.com, which still charges an annual fee just so you can see who signed your guest book and have access to other weakly implemented features that Facebook offers freely. How that model survives and how long it will continue to do so is a mystery to me—more of my classmates are on Facebook than ever signed onto Classmates, paid or unpaid. Not that Classmates has been bad for me—I’ve reconnected with a few people through it. But that’s the key—only a few, and we quickly took the conversation off Classmates and its awful interface.

As for the unknown person (possibly not a classmate) who recently signed my guestbook—find me on Facebook.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Bringing in the new year

For New Year’s Eve, J. and I took a quick spin around Wonderland Express at the Chicago Botanic Garden. I appreciated that Soldier Field is depicted in its original glory minus the glass bowl addition and the segregation of the hoi polloi from the affluent. While looking over the exhibit, I realized again that I’ve never visited the Newberry Library—a lack to be filled.

The plan was for a vegan dinner at Jacky’s on Prairie, per the emailed invitation, but I didn’t realize that there would be a carnivore version, too. I thought the fishy stuff in J.’s bouillabaisse looked, well, too fishy. Neither of us is a vegan, and the food was good, so we savored each meaty/creamy course with confusion but without complaint. I did, anyway.

On Saturday, we had fun shopping at Petsmart and Whole Foods—at least I did. While I’m not in the market for a cat (I have one, thank you, a biter), I like checking out Petsmart’s adoption area. On this day there were two black and white cats, a male and female. If I had been looking, the female might have gone home with me. Alas, there were no dog classes in session, but a cat was scratching in the window of the hotel and several leashed dogs were getting a tour of the store. I made friends (I think) with a conure, who let no comment of mine go unanswered. I wonder if the store encourages people to buy birds like conures in pairs. If they’re bonded and get along well, is it heart-wrenching to the birds if one leaves for a new home without the other(s)?

On Sunday, I met J. in Homewood for a trip to the Starved Rock area. First stop: the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center, where we learned the bald eagles had spread out along the river as they didn’t need to cluster near the dam’s open water. Throughout the day, one or two remained perched in the trees on Plum Island, and one flew directly overhead at one point. I spotted several in flight, always in the opposite direction from that in which J.’s camera was pointed.

Late in the afternoon, we crossed to the Starved Rock side. On the way, an eagle flew in front of us, an unidentified object dangling from its talons. Fish entrails?

It was too close to sunset to ascend to Starved Rock, so we observed the eagles from the area near the Visitor Center. A couple came by, and the man showed us a spectacular close-up he’d taken with what looked like a 50mm lens. He said he’d “snuck up” on the bird. Somewhere a bald eagle with acute senses of sight and hearing is chortling at the human who thinks he “snuck up” on it.

I had spent some time looking at the graphics inside the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center and realized why the dam looks different—the Tainter gates seem to be in a different position. Driving down Dee Bennett Road, we’d noticed that the river had risen to embrace the lower tree trunks. I can only imagine the water flow in the canyons, although those east of Wildcat were closed for hunting.

This time, no barges came through. Later, on the return trip after dinner, we saw a bright light down the river. I began to think of all the hard and dangerous but interesting jobs I might have tried if I had known about them and had not craved security. I can only imagine the tales a tugboat operator on the Illinois and greater Mississippi waterways might pick up and embellish along the way, stories more compelling and exciting than any day-to-day corporate office drama, the concept of which now seems like a 1980s relic.