Sunday, August 23, 2015

A cautionary tail....

This tweet posted by DePaul professor Liam Heneghan stirred up some old memories: 

When I was a little kid, maybe 5-7 years old, I received a copy of the book The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin as a gift. The book was also accompanied by a little toy plastic squirrel, that was covered with fake fuzz to make it seem more realistic. I've read a lot of books, and forgotten many of them. However, Liam's tweet reminded me of how unsettling the owl character was to me in that story. 

It must be so, because after a half a century I can still recall (paraphrasing the character Quint in Jaws) the "cold dead eyes" of Old Brown. This owl had the all-black eyes that many species possess, and I think Beatrix Potter did well to cast and illustrate the malevolent target of Nutkin's teasing. Ultimately, the teasing goes too far, and Old Brown has had quite enough. He pins Nutkin on his back, threatening to open him up the way a fisherman would gut a bluegill.  Old Brown gazes at Nutkin with a sad, almost benevolent gaze:  
This is going to hurt me more than it is you....

Anyway, Nutkin survives this encounter and lives to see another day, less the better part of his tail. My exchange with Liam got me thinking about this book, and the message it sends to a young reader: Listen junior, don't jack around with authority too much, or there will be severe consequences.... Nutkin - now with only half a tail - is now clearly marked amongst his squirrel peers. But how? As a bad seed, battle scarred, or as merely unlucky? Don't you secretly wonder if he remained a smart ass?  

For the life of me, I cannot recall who gave me this gift when I was a boy. I think it may have been from one of our neighbors, but I can't be sure. In hindsight, it's tempting to wonder if I was being sent a message: Be a good boy David, or the man will cut you, and scar you!  And you have to admit, there is some truth in that message. Life, and nature has boundaries. Liam is currently working on a book about kid's books, and our folklore is full of examples of what can befall one when those boundaries are crossed - or if those silly kids wander too deep into the forest.

Be careful out there. Stay on the trail, and don't mess around with the owls!

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Phantom's field

Phantom Prairie, Cook County IL :: 2015

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Milkweed, along the rails ...

Common milkweed. Cook County, IL :: 2015

The secret of the seal, under the trees...

One of the reasons that I love the work I do is that the natural world offers an unending capacity for surprise. Even in this corner of the world that is seemingly more pavement than greenery there are remarkable organisms - hanging on by a thread.  On a job site I recently came across a plant I had never seen in the field before: Golden Seal.

Golden Seal (Hydrastis canadensis)

I guess I shouldn't be surprised that I have not seen this before, as it has apparently been over-harvested for it's purported value in folk medicine. This little stand of plants was growing quite happily on private land - where there is an owner that is committed to restoring this area and removing invasive species.

Locally, the Plants of Concern project has Golden Seal listed on it's roster of plants that are being monitored.  One of the keys to future preservation of such plants is secrecy. It's not far-fetched to imagine that if this plant were on public land it would be gone by now. As it is today, on private property, under the care of a concerned homeowner - these plants have a fighting chance.

It's worth noting also that these plants were seen in an area that had a fair number of invasive plants in their vicinity. At the first glance, it was a landscape that wouldn't normally appear to hold such surprises. As always, tread carefully and keep those eyes open!

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Thanks, Mister Hess...

Over the course of the past month I have been monitoring birds in and around two roadside hedgerows in Cook County. I was doing this for my most recent master's course, but going out and counting birds in your neighborhood is a pursuit that I would recommend to anyone. These ideas seem to start out simply enough, but before you know it counting birds in old hedgerows may lead to some interesting places.

As I was tracking down articles about such topics, I came across an article from over 100 years ago that intrigued me. In 1910, Isaac Hess wrote an article that appeared in The Auk, titled "One Hundred Breeding Birds of an Illinois Ten-Mile Radius."  Hess was from the town of Philo,Illinois - in Champaign, County.  Hess was a merchant by trade, but a naturalist at heart. In this article, Hess summarized some 12 years worth of remarkable field observations taken within the confined radius of his homestead.

For my purposes, I was initially seeking out local references about birds and hedgerows - but ultimately, I was captivated by this glimpse of a landscape from a century ago. I loved reading Hess' writing - a style that was clear and uncomplicated. His local landmarks were groves of trees and local watercourses - geographical thinking that is virtually extinct in this Age of Mapquest. I have to wonder what, if anything, remains of these wooded parcels that he'd named.

And then, of course, are the birds. I hope you take some time to read his accounts, but here is one example that caught my eye:

27. Antrostomus vodiferus. WHIP-POOR-WILL.- Common summer resident. Arrives April 25 to May 1. Found only in the upland woods after their arrival from the south. Here they stay but a few days, leaving for the low damp woods for nesting. I have succeeded in finding but one set of eggs. This was a set of two taken May 16, 1901. A great deal has been written about this bird's night notes and the number of times they are repeated. At midnight on a moon-light night in May, 1905, I counted 175 repetitions of "whip-poor-will" before a pause was taken.  

No one writes (in scientific journals, certainly) about Whip-poor-wills calling in the moonlight any more. Hess wrote in a language of a different time that describes a bird that - one hundred years later - seems to be declining in numbers. Anyway, thanks, Mr. Hess, for committing to paper and ink years worth of field work that shows us modern folk what once was. If you were here today, you'd see that a great deal has changed.  Nevertheless, some of us are still out there poking around the field margins, following in those large footsteps of yours.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Hedgerow gap...

Just putting the finishing touches on a new paper about hedgerows and birds.... 

Cook County, IL :: June, 2015

Scenes from Indiana Dunes

Here's some shots from last week's visit to Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore

 Dawn near Chellberg Farm

 Elderberries and rain clouds...

 Sundew at Pinhook Bog

 Royal fern at Pinhook Bog

 Lunch on the trail  : )

 Grass Pink orchid

 West Beach

Hairy Puccoon

No Sharks!

As seen in the field....Pollinators in the city...

Right across a busy road: a native perennial flower (purple coneflower) that drew in a native pollinator (Red Admiral). It can be done - even in a city!   

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Hedgerow Infographic....

An excellent hedgerow infographic from University of California Cooperative Extension: