Category Archives: Travel

Eagles Over Monroe 2017

Bald eagle flies from nest. By U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Northeast Region [CC BY 2.0

Bloomington, IN–Temperatures in the 20s and low 30s didn’t deter more than 200 people from attending the 17th annual Eagles Over Monroe weekend at Monroe Lake this year. The event, sponsored by Indiana’s Department of Natural Resources, brought ornithologists, biologists, dedicated bird watchers, kids, parents, grandparents, and outdoors enthusiasts to learn about eagles in the area.

Talon of a Great Horned Owl.

Patrick Haulter was holding up a Great Horned Owl’s talon, saying he had been twirling it in his fingers once when it punched a hole in his finger. “Still sharp twenty years later,” he said. Haulter, interpretive naturalist at Brown County State park, entertained and informed the audience in his talk about behavior and anatomy of birds of prey.

“Life for the raptor is tough,” he said. “They’re highly adapted to what they do, but not to us.” He  described the crop, where a bird stores food for later “kind of like my beard does.”

The high-tech tools, such as satellite and radio-telemetry, as well as the low-tech ones like banding and wing tags are some of the ways scientists follow the movements of birds. Dr. Brian Washburn, a research wildlife biologist with the USDA Wildlife Service National Wildlife Research Center described how he goes about his work, which tools he chooses, and how he works with other scientists to learn about bird movements, habitat management, and interaction with humans. Washburn depends on people to call about birds they see tagged or find lost equipment. “Goose neck collars are really easy to read,” he said. “Wing tags can be really helpful to figure out who’s who.” Each band has a unique 9-digit code, but they are hard to read at a distance, even with a spotting scope. Eagles require a special band that is riveted on “because they’re so good at popping them off.”

Working with birds of prey can be dangerous, even when a handler wears leather gloves and jacket, eye protection, and limits their interaction to a half and hour. Washburn showed a photo of himself with hands bandaged from an encounter with a bird being banded. “The Cooper’s Hawk is like holding a running chain saw,” he said. “And if an eagle clamps down, it will not let go.”

Cost of the more high-tech tracking devices deter scientists from attaching them to all birds, and the transmitters are often just lost. “Sometimes we get them back, like when a Canada Goose walks in front of a car,” he said.

Will Schaust, assistant manager of Eagle Creek Ornithology Center talked about a variety of birding apps. Once, while walking with family on a hike, a cardinal landed in a maple tree ahead of the group. He was very excited to tell the kids that this was the state bird, how it was also the state bird for six other states, and more. When he asked them if they knew what the bright red cardinal was, they replied, “Mr. Will, it’s an Angry Bird!”

Since technology is enmeshed in our lives, we may as well take advantage of it when we can, he said. Schaust then demonstrated several of his favorite apps that help in bird identification.

  • The Sibley eGuide to Birds has the largest variety of calls–some five to seven for each bird–and can be worth the $20 if you want to id them by their calls.
  • Birdsnap an app for iPhone or on your computer, uses real photos of birds, it’s free, and you can take a picture and id a bird. But storage for large files can be a problem.
  • Merlin Bird ID, which is free from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology provides five questions to narrow down a bird by size, location, color, and more.
  • The Warbler Guide, for $13, offers 58 species of warblers from any angle. “I can spin that bird like a bad 90s DJ,” he quipped while rotating the bird photo.
  • eBird, also from the Cornell Lab, is free, and can help birders search for hot spots and keep checklists.
  • The Audubon Bird Guide apps range from .99 cents to $8, but it covers the entire country.

As 130 people “ate like raptors” dining on fish, venison, and turkey soup at Saturday’s Lunch with the Eagles, the Indiana Raptor Center falconers brought out several live raptors who had been rescued. Center director of education Laura Edmunds and described their characteristics. Attendees saw a kestrel, barn owl, two peregrine falcons, a bald eagle, and a golden eagle. “There’s something special about birds of prey,” Edmunds says. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and I still can’t say what. I don’t have a tattoo yet, but one day I’m gonna take the dive and maybe get a golden eagle right here,” she says pointing to her shoulder.

She says you can tell what type of bird a falconer uses by what car the falconer drives. If they

Falconer from Indiana Raptor Center holds a red-tailed hawk.

have a small Kestrel, they might drive a Mini-Cooper. Those who fly Red-Tailed Hawks drive pick-up trucks. But the ones that fly Peregrine Falcons need a bid vehicle like a Navigator. “If you lose a Peregrine Falcon, a bad day means driving 80 miles to get it. If they fly a Cooper’s Hawk, though, they might not have a car at all, they might drive a scooter.”

After lunch, everyone ran to their cars to stop at designated driving spots to see if they could spy the eagles. Experienced birders with scopes were at each stop. While we toured several places, the closest we could get was a bald eagle way across the lake, maybe a mile away. It looked like a white dot in the trees. Not a satisfying ending to our Saturday, though the talks were informative.

Sunday morning came cloudy and cold. We bundled up for the one-hour hike out to the original hacking tower for the eagles. When eagles first learn to fly–or hack–they develop a bond to the location. Eagles return to their hacking site to build their own nests as parents, when they’re about 4-5 years old. The hacking tower built in 1985 on the North Fork of Stillwater Marsh on Lake Monroe accommodated 5-6 week old eaglets brought from Wisconsin and the Tongass National Forest in Alaska. Using two locations and the average eaglet hacking at 13 weeks, the program could hosted two hacking groups per year through 1989. By then, eagles were coming back to Lake Monroe to nest, and the program was deemed a success.

We stumbled over brush and sticks, following a road that was slowly reverting back to the woods. While walking between the hacking tower and a nearby tower that the biologists used to watch the fledglings, we saw a big black nest across the water. This time is was much closer and easier to see with the naked eye. Suddenly, an eagle swooped in, gliding into the nest. Binoculars rose up to all eyes in unison, and ooos and ahs rang out. At last, our eagle was sighted. What a magnificent ending to a weekend devoted to these magnificent birds, home at last.

Eagle about to land in his nest. CC.

 

 

 

 

An Owl Prowl and Eagle Update at Lake Monroe

Special feathers enable owls, like this barred owl, to fly silently. Creative Commons CC0

Bloomington, IN–Clouds obscured the stars Friday night as I walked into Fourwinds Resort on Monroe Lake, but not enough to hide a Great Blue Heron flying overhead, its long legs stretched out behind. A good sign that birds were active for the 17th annual Eagles Over Monroe, a winter event where ornithologists, state naturalists, and other birding experts share tips and knowledge about eagles in the area.

The weekend offered hikes and eagle watching drives, close-up encounters with birds of prey, and first-person stories from wildlife biologists who had worked to help build a bald eagle population.

But first, we needed to get signed up for the evening’s owl prowl by lantern light, as well as register for a hike to a former eagle hacking (where they learn to fly) site for Sunday morning.

About twenty of us gathered at 6:30 p.m. to pick up tiny battery-operated lanterns and head out with our guide, Will Schaust of the Eagle Creek Ornithology Center. We pulled up hoods against the wind as we walked over to a stand of trees at the edge of the parking lot. Here Schaust described the types of owls common to Indiana, how they hunt at night, and played used a birding app to demonstrate their calls.

“Sounds like a horse on helium, doesn’t it?” he said, playing the Barred Owl call. We also listed to an Eastern Screech Owl call and a Great Horned Owl, “like the big owl that suddenly swoops into you in a horror movie.”

While alternating between calls, Schaust told us to look in the trees for owls, because they fly silently, the stealth pilots of the birds of prey world. Seeing and hearing little other than the recorded calls, we hiked into the woods as Schaust played the barred owl call again. Suddenly, several owls called at once. Was it a new recording, or did we actually hear owls in the wild? It was the latter, he confirmed, rather like a “bunch of buddies getting together and laughing nervously. Heh, heh, heh.”

Our owl prowl successful, we headed in from the wind and cold and back to the hotel. We were just in time to hear Rex Watters, Monroe Lake’s wildlife biologist, talk about recent sightings of eagles that were part of the reintroduction program.

In 1985, Watters was part of a plan to reintroduce bald eagles to Indiana at Monroe Lake. None had been born in the wild in Indiana since 1897. The goal, he said, was to get 20 nests in the state by 2020. Today, there are more than 200 nests in Indiana, and an average of 12-14 in the Monroe Lake area alone.

Recent sightings include C-14, so named for the band on its leg that was attached at Monroe Lake in 1987, making it 30 years old this year. Though wild eagles can be up to 50 years old, C-14’s age is not unusual. But half of all wild eagles born do not live past the first year and nearly 80% do not make it to five years old. Understandably, the eagle watching community cheered about the discovery of C-14.

Lantern lit for an owl prowl at Monroe Lake

If you’re interested in taking an owl prowl, there is another hike by candlelight at Monroe Lake coming Feb. 7.

First Day Hiking in Indiana

The start of a “First Day Hike” at Spring Mill State Park.

Mitchell, IN–While late night revelers from New Year’s celebrations were sleeping in, many early risers headed to Indiana State Parks on January 1, 2017 to participate in an annual “First Day Hike.” Across the state, parks welcomed visitors to a guided hike, led by a park naturalist. At Spring Mill State Park, wildlife naturalist Wyatt Williams led a group of adults, children, and one small leashed dog on a challenging 2.5-mile hike through the park’s major highlights.

Evidence of a beaver gnawing on a tree

The hike began at 10 a.m. with an easy trek along Spring Mill Lake, created by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s. Williams stopped to point out evidence of beavers, which had gnawed a sizable portion of a big tree, and lopped off many smaller saplings. Williams said there were also a noticeable number of river otters in the park, a result of a reintroduction program begun in 1995 after the otters were wiped out by 1942.

First we stopped at a worn monument to Alexander Wilson. Wilson, called “Father of American Ornithology” by George Ord, preceded John Audubon in cataloging American birds. The monument was carved 150 years ago by George Donaldson, who owned the property of Spring Mill State Park, and unfortuantely very little remains of the likeness carved in the stone. A short walk past the monument, Williams stood in a small area of the creek marked by small stone rectangles.

Remains of Carl Eigenmann’s fish ponds

These were fish ponds created by Carl Eigenmann, an Indiana University ichthyologist from the late 1800s and early 1900s who explored Donaldson Cave and studied the blind fish there.

As a karst landscape, the park features caves and eroded limestone topography. Our trek led us right to one of the more well-known features, Donaldson Cave. It was too wet and we did not have time to explore the interior, but it is open to visitors at various times in the year. Instead, we headed up a cough-inducing set of stairs towards Hamer Cemetery. The trail followed a ridge that led to former quick lime kilns and an overlook of the 1800s Pioneer Village, before heading down past the village and up another hill to complete the loop to the Nature Center. The last owner of the village–Jonathan Turley–acquired it in the late 1880s from the Hamers. On our hike, we were stopped by a couple who wanted to know what our group was. They were relatives of the Turleys, on an annual genealogy hike.

Past the village, Williams pointed out black walnut, persimmon, and sycamore trees along the route, which could be identified by their distinctive bark (for example, the persimmon bark is very “pebble-y” and seeds were scattered around it.)

Hot chocolate and coffee supplied by the Spring Mill Inn greeted the returning hikers. Even better than the champaign toast for a happy, healthy new year.

View of a ridge at Spring Mill State Park.

 

 

Laurie’s Six Best Bakeries in Chicagoland

cannoliChicago, IL—It is pretty audacious for anyone to define the best six bakeries in a metro area this size. But after sampling so many bakeries, I’ve come back to a select few over and over. From south to north, each of these have specialties you won’t want to miss.

Apple croissant1. Medici, 1327 E. 57th, Hyde Park. A 50-year-old institution in the University of Chicago neighborhood of Hyde Park, Medici is known for its restaurant’s pizza and for its famous guests, the Obama family. But come to the bakery and order the buttery, flaky apple croissants that come loaded with thick slices of real apples, and are not too sweet or gooey. Just croissant, generous pieces of apples, and lightly sweet taste.

biscotti2. Scafuri Bakery, 1337 West Taylor, Little Italy. Taylor Street has loads of great Italian restaurants, and good bakeries, too. But Scafuri has the best biscotti of them all. The biscotti de notte, stuffed with hazelnuts and just the right crunch for dipping into your latte, is breakfast perfection. The plain almond biscotti are also top notch, made by baking just once, not twice.

3. Roeser’s Bakery, 3216 W. North, Humbolt Park. Originally a German neighborhood, Humbolt Park is now home to Puerto Rican families, but Rosiers stays true to its German roots. Great linzer tortes at Christmas, pączkis on Fat Thursday, and cakes of all sorts all year round. German chocolate cake, anyone?

4. Kaufman’s Bakery and Delicatessen, 4905 Dempster, Skokie. All sorts of rugulah cookies, cinnamon bobke, and other treats, including some amazing lox. Just don’t walk out without getting a walnut-raisin pumpernickle bread. No need for butter, it’s so sweet and tasty.

bagel and roll5. Once Upon A Bagel, 1888 First, Highland Park. The assortment of skinny bagels will astound you. Yes, get your everything bagel fix here at half the calories. And the challah rolls are perfect for a small Shabbat dinner for two. Once Upon A Bagel has other locations, and delicious meals, but that’s another story.

 

wedding cookies6. Tina’s Italian Cafe and Bake Shop, 1501 Washington, Gurnee. The crowds often flow out the door here, and for good reason. This is the genuine article. Italian wedding cookies, tiramisu, and delicious homemade breads compete with homemade Italian meals for space in your tummy. Save room for the cannoli, though.

 

 

 

 

Having a Chicago Field (Museum) Day

The great hall of the Field Museum

The Stanley Field Hall of the Field Museum

Chicago, IL–The wealth of museums in Chicago make it difficult to decide which to explore first. One of the original city museums, the Field Museum of Natural History, founded right after the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in one of the fair buildings. It was later moved to its current site at 1400 S. Lake Shore Drive. The Field Museum is one of the largest natural history museums in the world, making it a multi-day destination.

20140419_112411Most visitors are attracted in the main hall to Sue, at 42-feet-long and 13 feet high, the most complete and best-preserved Tyrannosaurus rex fossil. It’s only 67 million years old!

Be sure to check out Sue’s enormous actual fossil head upstairs in a glass case, which couldn’t be put on the model downstairs due to its 600-pound weight.

Dioramas in the Hall of Mammals feature taxidermied animals in their natural habitat. The Field’s first taxidermist, Carl Akeley, revolutionized the art of preserving animals in natural poses. The elephants in the main hall are his work, as well as the famed man-eating lions of Tsavo, a pride of lions that ate 35 people in Kenya, stopping construction in 1898 of a railroad project over the Tsavo River. Chicago’s WGN TV featured the dioramas and their continued effect on education this video.

Lovers of gems and minerals will want to check out the Grainger Hall of Gems, highlighted by a Louis Comfort Tiffany stained glass window. The hall was renovated in 2009 and features 600 gems: diamonds, rubies, emeralds, opals and others from around the world, as well as 150 pieces of jewelry.

Open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., the Field Museum’s basic admission is $18 for adults, $13 for children ages 3-11.

Of course, for Chicagoans, the Field is a source of pride, especially during playoff season. In late April and early May, a dinosaur displays his Blackhawks pride. 20140419_120238

 

Chicago’s Ferrara Bakery: Original Italian Pasticceria

Outside Ferrara

Chicago, IL–Back in the 60s and 70s, you wouldn’t want to come as far as 2210 W. Taylor St., where Ferrara Bakery  is located. But that was then and this is now. The ever-westward march of the University of Illinois at Chicago and medical campuses have made the west edges of Taylor Street a safer place again.

The downside to this delightful bakery, established in 1908, are those pesky “pay to park” meters in front. If you come on Sunday (hours 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.) the parking is free, however, and you can stock up on biscotti, fresh cannoli, and Italian cookies– even frozen soups and lasagna. But lunch is not served on Sundays. You’ll just have to come back on another day for the inventive salads and sandwiches, including their own handmade pastrami.

I tried a mix of the Italian specialty cookies, including frosted cucidadi, a fig-filled confection that should never be used in the same breath as fig newtons. The vanilla almond raisin biscotti are divine, as is the lemon-custard-filled pasticiotto.pasticiottoFerrara is a familiar name to Chicagoans, as the bakery’s founder, Salvatore Ferrara and his brothers-in-law established the Ferrara Pan Candy Company in nearby Forest Park. They make Lemonheads, Atomic Fireballs, and other delicious treats, which are also for sale at the bakery. It’s a double unique Chicago experience!Candy at Ferrara

Counter at Ferrera Bakery

Rebuilding Chicago’s Wells Street Bridge

Wells Street Bridge rebuilding

Wells Street Bridge rebuilding

Chicago, IL–By the time the summer visitors arrive, work on the Wells Street Bridge over the Chicago River will be history. The bridge carries the city’s famous El trains over the river to and from the Loop, road traffic over it, foot traffic alongside. And of course ferry and other river traffic flows beneath it. For those of us who have watched this fascinating rebuilding, it’s a feat of engineering.

New sections were built offsite, then floated on huge platforms to the old bridge. The original 1922 sections were cut away in two phases, and the final new section is being installed now. While Wells Street Bridge construction is not as famous  as the 1883 Brooklyn Bridge, it evokes similar reactions of amazement from passersby.

Next time you’re in the city, you might want to take a moment to reflect on the amazing architecture over the river as well as alongside it.

Cut off old section of Wells Street bridge.

Cut off old section of Wells Street bridge.

Opportunity Knocks at openhousechicago2012

A view of the old Sears Tower from the original Sears Tower

La Casita de don Pedro

St. Adalbert’s in Pilsen

Chicago, IL--This weekend’s openhousechicago was a rare chance to see the original Sears Tower of Homan Square in Lawndale, a peek into the dusty projector room at a former vaudeville and movie house in Pilsen, and Jens Jensen’s office in Humboldt Park, among 150 sites open and free to the public. You just had to show up.

Even spitting rain wouldn’t deter me from heading to Homan Square, and take a tour of the yet-to-be-restored brick tower landmark at 900 S. Homan Ave. From the 14th floor, I could easily see the second Sears Tower (now Willis Tower), site of my first job out of college. Across the street, students offered guided tours of Power House High, in a building that once housed the power generators for the Sears campus. The school preserved a few of the ash ovens and conveyer belts that men worked in front of, as the enormous chimney burned coal to fire the plant.

From Lawndale, it was a short drive to Pilsen and home to Apollo 2000 Theater at 2875 W. Cermak Road. The Mexican community hosts lavish parties in the former vaudeville and movie house, but a tight stairway up to the projector room shows a world left behind–large projectors still sitting, empty film cannisters and boxes marked “trailer” sit waiting for the last picture show. Los Corrales, a restaurant next door to the theater, made a great lunch stop with reasonably priced food and excellent service.

St. Adalbert’s Church, 1650 W. 17th St., an Italian Renaissance style church originally built for the Poles who once lived in Pilsen, still offers a mass in Polish. Polish words are inscribed above the magnificent white marble altar. But Mexican families were there with babies on this weekend, as well as tourists like me taking photos of the artwork and the replica of Michelangelo’s Pieta.

Heading northwest, the next stop was La Casita de don Pedro at 2625 W. Division. It’s a traditional Puerto Rican home with tin roof and front porch, and local residents gather for drumming workshops. The courtyard statue of Don Pedro Albizu Campos, honors the Puerto Rican who fought for independence and died shortly after release from a U.S. federal prison. Farther west, Humboldt Park’s restored 1896 stables building at 3015 W. Division, is home to the Institute of Puerto Rican Arts & Culture. The former office of famed landscape architect Jens Jensen is still being restored, but the panoramic views from the semi-circle shaped room span the park and even over to his former home, a greystone across the street.

Also in the 219-acre Humboldt Park: the Refectory and Boat House at 1440 N. Humboldt Drive, a Prairie-style building on the National Register of Historic Places  overlooking a lake, and well as the Humboldt Park Field House at 1440 N. Sacramento, featuring two gyms and a ballroom, flanked by marble columns.

North and east of Humboldt Park, Uptown hosted a number of venues, but time was running short. I ended my tour of the day at Agudas Achim North Shore Congregation at 5029 N. Kenmore Ave.. The last extant cathedral-style synagogue in the city, closed since 2008, reopened for this event. Climbing the old marble stairs to the sanctuary, where a glittering Italian mosaic ark stood, as rain dripped through the ceiling and left puddles on the floor. Rotting sills leaked air and light around the stained glass windows. Pigeons perched on the women’s balcony. Agudas Achim, an Orthodox congregation that serves an immigrant population in the nearby neighborhood, still hopes to save the building.

So many sites and so little time. Next year, I’ll be starting my tours of openhousechicago a little earlier.

Apollo 2000 Theater projection room

Agudas Achim North Shore Congregation’s mosaic ark

 

Spa Time at West Baden Springs, Indiana

Sprudel Bath at Spa at West Baden Springs

West Baden Springs, IN–The Sprudel Bath at the Spa at West Baden Springs takes you back to historic beginnings of the hotel. Here you can partake of the healing waters, filled with 22 minerals that give off hydrogen sulphide and carbon dioxide gas. The nose may wrinkle at this old-fashioned odorous soak, but oh, it is soothing. And it couldn’t be presented more beautifully in a private bathing room in the 14,000 sq. ft. spa. At $45 for a 25-minute soak, it’s one of the less-expensive treatments, and still includes time in the relaxation room and sauna. The mineral waters are reputed to relieve stress and pain, and I have to say I emerged a little shaky in the legs. Check out the crusty minerals–calcium carbonate, calcium sulphate, magnesium sulphate, among others–on the cold water tap. And if you’re tempted to sip a cup, just know that it does affect the digestion. “Pluto water” from the springs was once bottled and sold under the tagline, “When nature won’t, Pluto will.” 

Racine, America’s Kringle Capital

Racine, WI–An hour north of Chicago, 30 miles south of Milwaukee, Racine includes rolling farmland, a harbor on Lake Michigan, and lots of kringles. Due to the many Danish settlers here, the pastry made from 32 layers of flaky dough that’s hand-shaped became a popular item in local bakeries. Today you’ll find it comes topped with pecans (hands-down the most popular), or filled with fruit like Michigan cherries or blueberries, and of course, chocolate varieties. Though they’re known as a Christmas specialty, they are made year round here.  A video shows the process in super-speed.

I checked out two of the four main bakeries in Racine. First stop was at the original kringle bakery, Larsen’s in downtown at 3311 Washington Ave.. The bakery’s quite basic, and the folks quite friendly.  Kringles come packed in a box so they don’t get squished on the ride home. We chose strawberry-mango and pecan, but the flavors ranged from orange dreamsicle to chocolate filled. Kringle rating: outstanding.

Next, I went upscale to O & H Danish Bakery and  the Danish Uncle Marketplace at 4006 Durand Ave. They offered a large selection of flavors, and the place was bustling with people buying kringles and other baked goods. If you’re looking to shop a bit for home decor along with your baked goods, this is your place. O&H Bakery also offers kringles for sale in the Petro Truck Stop right off 94, but really, that’s cheating. You really need to venture into Racine for a real kringle.

Kringles cost about $8.50 each in Racine bakeries, and online range from $19-35 each.

There are other Racine bakeries offering kringles, and many of the suburbs around Racine sell them. Here are two other Racine outlets to try and enjoy:

Lehmann’s Bakery lays claim as the oldest continuously operating bakery in Racine, at 4900 Spring St.. They roll and fold the dough into 140 layers.

Bendtsen’s Bakery and Cafe at 3200 Washington Ave., draws coffee drinkers and pastry tasters every morning.