Squirrel wasn’t going to let the red-tailed hawk perched on the stump keep it from a snack.
Christmas present for birders from the feeders at Sapsucker Woods (Cornell). The pileated woodpecker to your right (middle feeder on the post) is the male.
June 27, 2022
Nearly five minutes of tranquility (with traffic) along Fleming Creek in Parker Mill County Park, with guest appearances by an eastern comma and some barely discernible ebony jewelwings.
Sometimes on Saturday mornings I check out the Sapsucker Woods Pond webcam from Cornell. Today it was especially worth it for this very hungry female pileated woodpecker.
December 8, 2019, at Indiana Dunes State Park Nature Center
While at the Indiana Dunes State Park Nature Center watching birds and gray and red squirrels (no chipmunks this time), I noticed a melanistic gray squirrel coming in. In all my years in Hyde Park (40!!! Eek!), I’ve seen only one, in Jackson Park between 56th and 57th Streets. On a visit to my late aunt in NW Washington, D.C., I’d seen several in the neighborhood. According to Wikipedia, there’s a reason for that:
Eighteen Canadian black squirrels were released at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., near the beginning of the 20th century during President Theodore Roosevelt’s administration. Since their introduction, the population of black squirrels in and near Washington has slowly but steadily increased, and black squirrels now account for up to half of the squirrel population in certain locations, such as the grounds of the Washington National Cathedral.
Wikipedia mentions them in the Quad Cities area of Illinois:
Black squirrels are well established in the Quad Cities area along the Iowa-Illinois boundary. According to one story, recounted in the book The Palmers, they were first introduced on the Rock Island Arsenal Island. Some of them then escaped by jumping across ice floes on the Mississippi River when it was frozen, and thus populated other areas in Rock Island.
I hadn’t seen one at Indiana Dunes or Indiana before. This one looked lighter and more grizzled than other melanistic gray squirrels I’ve seen pictured, so it may have had one copy of a mutant gene vs. two.
Gray squirrels have two copies of a normal pigment gene and black squirrels have either one or two copies of a mutant pigment gene. If a black squirrel has two copies of the mutant gene it will be jet black. If it has one copy of a mutant gene and one normal gene it will be brown-black. In areas with high concentrations of black squirrels, litters of mixed-color individuals are common.
To me, this is the most interesting part of the Wikipedia entry:
The black subgroup seems to have been predominant throughout North America prior to the arrival of Europeans in the 16th century, when America’s old growth forests were still abundant and thick. The black squirrel’s dark color helped with better concealment from its natural predators (owls and hawks) in these very dense and shaded old growth forests. As time passed, extensive deforestation and the hunting of squirrels for their meat and pelts led to biological advantages for gray colored individuals; their light-gray color became advantageous in their newly changed habitat. Today, the black subgroup is particularly abundant in the northern part of the eastern gray squirrel’s range. This is due to two main factors. Firstly, black squirrels have a considerably higher cold tolerance than that of gray squirrels. Secondly, because the northern forests are denser and thus darker, the black squirrel enjoys the advantage of better concealment when viewed from above within this dimly lit habitat.
And after a healthy meal of seeds, it returned to the Indiana Dunes woods whence it came.
This morning at South Shore Drive and 56th Street I heard the autumn crows cawing in fine form. As I turned onto the sidewalk along the park, something flew up in front of me; my impression was of a mourning dove, although I hadn’t picked up the characteristic whrrrr! of its takeoff. When I looked up, I was surprised to see that what I’d flushed was a small hawk.
I’ve heard of hawks in Jackson Park/Wooded Isle, but have not seen one except perhaps high in the sky. Here was one perched in the tree in front of me, so of course I couldn’t find the iPhone in my bag as I searched frantically and wished for a better camera (and that I weren’t on the way to work). As I hunted, I couldn’t tell if the bird had flown off or was still there looking at me quizzically. Finally, I dug out the iPhone, input the code, launched the camera application, and took the best photo I could with what I had.
The hawk flew to the ground. Irrationally, I thought it might be injured as it hopped awkwardly around, so I walked toward it, then it took refuge on a lower branch of a bush. Probably feeling threatened by my persistent interest, it flew off. When last I saw it, it was skimming the grass, then soaring high overhead. I still wondered if it had a leg injury — another one of my impressions, like that of a mourning dove.
Fly free, friend.
I didn’t follow the renovation of the oceanarium, so I didn’t know anything about it. In some ways, I still don’t, because we didn’t walk around it afterward. Much of the work, however, seems to have been focused on making Fantasea possible vs. making wholesale changes to the visible and/or aqueous parts of the exhibit — at least, from what I could see from my seat next to the new railings between seating sections.
When Ken Ramirez joined Shedd in the late 1980s as assistant curator of marine mammals and training (he’s now vice president of collections and training), he said that the Shedd would never put on marine mammal shows (implication: like SeaWorld), only educational presentations highlighting the whales’ and dolphins’ natural behaviors, performed on cue. I’m sure I’m not making that up because I seem to recall talking about it with several docents at Lincoln Park Zoo. We even may have discussed it with Ramirez himself when he served as a guest dinner speaker at the 1993 AZAD conference we hosted. I saw the presentation a few times and noticed, or think I noticed, that music and a little showmanship crept in over time, but it remained primarily educational and plain.
Never say never, however.
Now it’s definitely a show. A show complete with video, music, costumes, staging, lighting, and props. All that is missing are dialogue, plot, and curtain-call roses for the female lead, a young girl selected from the audience (possibly a privileged person’s daughter, pre-selected and rehearsed, judging from her, shall we say, flair for the dramatic). I’m getting ahead of myself, however.
As we sat and waited for what our rear ends told us was a very long time, a lot of important-looking people wandered into the other seating section — the aquarium’s board of trustees, which was holding a meeting afterward. I asked my friend how I can get a seat on the board; it looked like a good way to prop up my sagging confidence. She told me to have and donate lots and lots of money. It’s that simple. That’s really too bad, though — don’t my lots and lots of wisdom, insight, and vision compensate for my lack of funds and connections? Anyway, seated in front of the VIPs were “special guests,” a couple of elementary school classes.
We were shown some videos, one highlighting Shedd’s history. Perhaps an older native Chicagoan might have recognized some of the people pictured (who, in their day, probably had and donated lots and lots of money). My friend disliked the music, which managed to combine a New Age sound with a funereal rhythm, all cranked painfully loud.
The next video captured everyone’s attention, showing the beluga whales’ return trip from Mystic, Connecticut, on a FedEx cargo plane. Placed into slings, lifted by crane onto a truck and then presumably onto the plane, flown, and trucked again like so much freight, reassured by their handlers, and finally released into their pool, the belugas surely wondered what they had done to deserve this and when the nightmare would be over. I may be anthropomorphizing, but I can imagine only that these intelligent and emotional animals must find being packaged and transported bewildering and stressful, even if they have experienced it before. This video was so touching that some audience members seemed to shed a few tears. Not me, of course.
An introductory video excited us, especially when we saw the red-tailed hawks.
A staffer came out to introduce the preview, warning us that Fantasea is a work in progress and that the animals may choose not to perform their natural behaviors on cue. Like actors (and co-workers), even trained animals may not feel like co-operating. At this point, the young girl lead was selected from the board’s side of the audience and given a giant glowing Fantasea logo necklace.
Let the Fantasea begin.
The cast of Fantasea characters includes a sea lion, a rockhopper and a mini-flock of Magellanic penguins, beluga whales, two red-tailed hawks, and the stars of the finale, the showy and popular Pacific white-sided dolphins. The supporting cast consisted of humans dressed to resemble, in a stylized sense, their animal counterparts. Ahead of the hawks, a feathered human “flew” in along a ceiling track; before another act (the dolphins? Now I can’t recall), three people sporting bowlers and umbrellas dropped in via trapeze swing contraptions. Between acts, video showed strangely dressed people swimming and ambulating through surreal, almost psychedelic environments, while the girl lead turned on her necklace and apparently directed the action with a little help from the spirit guides.
As for the animals, the sea lion performed some imitative flipper waving, but, as my friend dryly observed, his best trick seemed to be swallowing prodigious quantities of fish. It’s all positive.
A man dressed in a penguin-style wet suit appeared, carrying a rockhopper under his arm. When he discovered the Magellanic flock of three or four in a box on wheels, he pointed them out dramatically to his rockhopper companion, who seemed nonplussed. The Magellanic penguins proved difficult to entice out of their box (I suspect penguins are like flamingos — if you can persuade one to move, the rest will follow). The man set the rockhopper down, leaving the bird to hop up our aisle to the amazement and delight of the crowd (especially those close enough to touch it). I can’t remember much else other than the man retrieving and tucking the rockhopper under his arm again.
The belugas performed much as they have in the past, perhaps a little closer to the audience and a little more flair in the cues from the trainers.
After the flight of the human hawk, a woman dressed in a quasi-Robin Hood outfit appeared with a red-tailed hawk on her fist. The hawk flew from the seating side to the opposite island. A similarly dressed man appeared with a second hawk for the audience to see more closely, but his hawk was having none of it, bating and falling off the glove repeatedly.
The show wrapped up with the Pacific white-sided dolphins, who, like the whales, spyhopped, flopped, leaped, and flapped their way to an ovation, the most enthusiastic of the evening.
The girl returned the glowing necklace with more dumb show, and so Fantasea ended.
Afterward, the hawk handler told us the birds are blind in one eye — that’s why they’re nonreleasable — while we commented on the difficulty of indoor flight for even a fully sighted raptor. To a couple of our questions she responded that certain ideas didn’t fit into the “story line.” Here she lost me.
The concept behind Fantasea is to connect the visitors to the animals. We guessed that the trainers and others, like the flying human, filled the role of spirit or animal guides, although I’m not sure that most, or many, average visitors would catch onto that — it wasn’t clear.
My opinion of Fantasea is colored by my childhood and my experience. I wasn’t raised on the Disney diet, and I didn’t learn to anthropomorphize animals. They weren’t furry variations on humans; they were more interesting to me for the things that made them different from humans and each other, such as their adaptations, behavior, and interrelationships. A cat was more than cute and cuddly; it was an effective hunter, capable of strength and speed. In every house cat I see shades of lions and tigers. What I do not see is a singing and dancing Disney character or even Sylvester the Cat. My experience as a zoo docent reinforced my perceptions. That’s why I see Fantasea from a different perspective than the Chicago Tribune critic, who praised its “thrilling moments and truly eye-popping production values.” I’m quite sure most of the audience would agree with this assessment, not mine.
From my skewed viewpoint, the show seemed lacking in a few areas. For example:
Story line. Aside from the girl running from point to point with her periodically glowing Fantasea necklace and meeting the guides and animals, there was no story line. The connections that are supposed to be at the heart of Fantasea made little emotional impact; there were no “ahhh” moments that I noticed, except perhaps a bit of surprise when the rockhopper hopped up the rocky steps. In addition, the red-tailed hawks didn’t fit the program. In nature, these animals would not be found together, but at least the sea lion, whales, penguins, and dolphins share aquatic environments and adaptations. While the red-tailed hawk may be found in coastal areas, it’s not an emblematic water raptor in the same way the osprey or even bald eagle is. The one’s short flight and the other’s brief appearance seemed tacked on; they didn’t seems to be an integral part of the barely discernible story line.
Animals. How can a show that features six species be said to be short on animals? With the backdrop, bright lights, garish video, blaring music, kitschy costumes, props, girl guide with glowing necklace, and human shenanigans, the animals got quite lost in all that sensory overload. The focus is on them such a short time and is disrupted by so many human interactions that they become almost ancillary to their own show.
Education. With the emphasis on “connection,” little in the show provides education or even an attempt at it. To me it seems connections are made and formed with species that we understand, respect, and relate to on some level. All this requires some knowledge acquired through education. At the end of Fantasea, I knew no more about why should I want or feel connection with the sea lion, penguins, belugas, hawks, or dolphins than I had before. Not even the simple point that we all depend on clean water was made. You might learn more at — dare I say it? — SeaWorld.
Shedd has more than SeaWorld to compete with — nonstop action movies with sophisticated animation that makes anything possible, games, virtual reality, facebook, texting — our attention spans seem shorter and more easily diverted than ever. As long as we don’t love simple pleasures anymore and need constant and greater stimulation, a mere educational animal presentation doesn’t cut it. That’s a shame, because all the video, music, lights, and staging detract from the heart and soul of the show and from what’s important — the animals.
I also wondered about the animals, especially the rockhopper penguin. I’ve read that Antarctic penguin species (compared to their temperate climate counterparts, like the Magellanic penguins) do not fare well in temperatures that are even moderately too warm, becoming prone to disease and death, yet here is an Antarctic species paraded in air that’s at least 10 to 15 degrees warmer than its optimum range. It wasn’t until I’d slept on it, though, that I realized what bothered me more — that the rockhopper was treated like a prop. To me, this sends the wrong message; to form a connection with wild animals, we first must respect what they are, which is neither stage prop nor pet. Rockhoppers aren’t objects to be tucked under the arm and carried about like a clutch purse. The thought of it disturbed me even in my sleep.
For all my hand wringing, however, supplemented by that of my friend, perhaps the best commentary came from a little boy I’d noticed early in the evening because he was wearing a St. Thomas the Apostle School t-shirt. After the show, his mother encouraged him to go talk to the trainers. Ignoring her, he spread his arms wide and ran away up the steps, saying, “I want to fly like a hawk.”
For at least that brief moment, he’d made a connection.
Spring never arrived, and summer blew in like a defective furnace that never shuts off. Last Friday when I left work, the temperature was 87ºF, and the humidity 96 percent. It’s like the tropics, but without the charm of exotic birds and monkeys, unless you count Hyde Park’s monk parakeets (which, by the way, I haven’t seen in a while). Here by the lakefront, the temperature was lower and less likely to induce a coma, at least in me.
J. was visiting relatives in Oklahoma, but that didn’t deter me from taking a cab to Ogilvie Transportation Center and a train to Braeside, then walking to Ravinia for A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor. Although Keillor hasn’t slowed down that I’ve noticed, I didn’t want to miss the opportunity as there’s no way to know how much longer he’ll want to travel and do live shows — or will be able to. Life presents us with many surprises, not all of them in the plus column.
I found a spot near the walk that looked like it would remain reasonably shaded for most of the afternoon (it did, except for one 10- to 20-minute lapse when the sun started to beat my brain and I moved a few feet over).
After getting comfortable and breaking out cheese and crackers, I noticed something I thought was new — video screens on both sides of the stage, like those I’d seen a Sting concert years ago in Grant Park. Ravinia has succumbed to the call of the YouTube video age, where you pay lots of money to go to a concert and watch it on TV. My blanket happened to be positioned so that I could see both screens, although at a distance. Is there not a little irony in going to listen to a live radio show and finding that even those who paid Pavilion prices are seeing it up close and personal, with a teeny Garrison and guests on stage and a giant Garrison and guests looming to the left and right?
It was a good show, although I found the increased visibility of security unsettling. Three to five security men were always in view in my little area, which made me nervous about inadvertently doing anything I didn’t see anyone else doing. One of the men spoke to a woman because one foot of her chair was partly off the grass and onto the walkway. There’s something about that kind of strict enforcement of “The Rules” that disturbs me.
The crowd struck me as a younger than I remember or expected. There seemed to be fewer elderly, more people with children, and more young couples. That there are people under 40 who listen to a radio show that’s hardly cutting edge and only mildly cynical in this Age of Cyncism is amazing — people can and do turn off their computers and games and home theaters for a warm summer evening under the clear blue skies of June.
After standing in line a short time, I had to forego the post-show book signing because I didn’t want to miss the 7:38 p.m. train that arrived closer to 7:52. J., who was home from the airport by then, offered to pick me up at Ogilvie — which proved to be tricky when he forgot his mobile phone. I had no way to tell him the train was late, and he had no way to tell me where he was. Fate can be kind as well as cruel or petty, so we found each other outside the station just as both of us were thinking of giving up.
Sunday I had an arranged outing to the zoo with JT. The skies and forecast were just iffy enough to deter the crowds. Many people were probably indulging in Father’s Day activities (as a docent, I’d noticed that the zoo is a popular destination for Mother’s Day, even when Mother is more than 80 years old and openly wants nothing more than to stop walking and to sit down for a long breather). Not surprisingly, a date at the zoo seems to be less popular for fathers than, say, an afternoon on a golf course or a few days in Argentina.
While many animals managed to elude us, including the red wolves and beavers at the Children’s Zoo, others were less reclusive. We came upon 15-year-old African lion Adelor in the classic “hairball hurl” pose, compulsively licking his chops. Sure enough, after a few minutes he upchucked a yellow stream onto a rock not far from one of the females, who later moved away (wouldn’t you?). Adelor wandered over to the northeast corner, assumed the classic “dump” position, did so, then headed to the middle, where he plopped, slung an enormous paw over a rock, and fell asleep. Give or take a few hundred pounds and shades of irritability, he’s the very picture of your domestic tabby. Writ large.
At the bird house, the tawny frogmouths resembled wizened wise men in their sleep. I couldn’t tell if the one on the higher perch were looking at me through his narrowed eyelids. Their soft, gray owlishness gives me a “peaceful, easy feeling.”
I watched as one of three laughing kookaburra young dangled a dead mouse from its bill, perhaps confused as to why the kill had been so easy. After dispatching the mouse, it landed aggressively almost on top of its sibling, who protested. They dueled with their bills, both chortling quietly, as a disinterested parent maintained a dignified distance.
Three gray trumpeter cygnets dutifully followed their parents, the Caribbean flamingos displayed, a stork took a break from delivering babies to tend halfheartedly to a nest it hadn’t started, a sand cat prowled its expanded domain, and a young François langur raced relentlessly after its tolerant family members. On the wild side, half-grown rabbits seemed to be everywhere. Right before we left, one rustled in the vegetation behind our bench, snipping it off efficiently with its teeth and seeming to inhale it.
Just as long as it stays away from the lions, tigers, and bears.
What a glorious weekend — sunny and in the 60s and 70s. Late Saturday morning I made my usual trek to Bonjour to find the annual used book sale had broken out. There was no outdoor seating left, so I bypassed Bonjour and went to the hardware store and Treasure Island, but didn’t have time to look at books. J. suggested that he pick me up at the shopping center later, so I arrived a few minutes early and hurriedly selected a couple of books — The World of the Victorians: An Anthology of Poetry and Prose ed. by E. D. H. Johnson and Memoirs of a Medieval Woman: The Life and Times of Margery Kempe by Louise Collis.
J. and I headed to the Chicago Botanic Garden at around 3 p.m. The trees are perhaps not quite at peak color, but I’m not sure that we can count on sunny, shirt-sleeve weather for much longer.
After visiting the gift shop (a must for J.), we found the orchid show and sale in the Regenstein Center. Brutally, I dissuaded J. from buying any orchids by telling him they require a special environment and care. I don’t think they’re easy to maintain, and I don’t like to see him disappointed when his plants succumb. He settled for taking many photos of the show plants as well as a couple in front of the plants. One orchid in particular appealed to me — the bloom was a cream color with green stripes. J. was amazed by the diversity, but I’m not sure he understood why I said orchids can be very sexual in addition to showy. I chose to leave that a mystery.
We walked through the Krasberg Rose Garden, which is a sad shadow of what it had been two or three weeks ago. J. still found roses to admire among the survivors, and I spotted one or two bumble- and honeybees among the flowers — how different from a couple of months ago, when the flowers at the Morton Arboretum were loaded with pollen-laden bees.
Unusually for me, I miss summer already.
As we walked toward the Waterfall Garden (one of my favorite features), I noticed a man with a camera pointed toward an island and followed his gaze. A little blue heron was standing erect at the water’s edge, senses focused on securing a fish or frog. To its left, a black bird was walking around, probably having just come out of the water. Something about it made me think of an anhinga — perhaps it looked unusually wet or waterlogged. I was thrilled when it hopped onto the rock, turned its back to the sun, and spread its wings. The only place I’d seen an anhinga was at our community in Lantana, Florida. Of course, in this area, it would be a species of cormorant, which I’d never seen.
While Canada geese flew over, trumpeter swans floated across the distant water, and J. happily drained his battery and filled his card with photos and videos, a man asked me what everyone was looking at. It’s possible some people were simply enjoying the vista, one of the best at the garden and currently very colorful. I pointed out the two birds, explaining as much as I could recall of their habits (I was still thinking of an anhinga, although I was sure that was wrong). He chatted effortlessly for quite a while until, aware of time passing, I pushed J. toward the waterfall, and the man’s own companion joined him. Again I found myself wondering why I could not attract such attention when I was young, when it could have increased my social circle and my now perpetually low confidence level.
We climbed to the top of the waterfall, whose roar found competition in the late afternoon air; the strains of “As Time Goes By” played on a piano wafted up from a wedding party in the English Walled Garden.
At the top, we saw a woman in a wheelchair, which made me curious; often I had wondered if there were disabled access to the waterfall. As we walked behind it, I saw a sign, which we followed to another garden I’d wanted to see — the Dwarf Conifer Garden. The disabled have access to the waterfall via a path up its slope.
In this garden, there are tiny conifers growing even between the stair steps. When I saw a larch, I couldn’t help saying in significant tones, “The larch. The larch” (Monty Python). Just beyond was an incredible weeping Norway spruce. “Look,” I said, “it’s pining for the fjords.” Did I really say that? Several times?
This took us to what I think is the English Oak Meadow, which was also on my wish list — it’s on what passes for a “hillside” in this part of Illinois. While we were taking photos of each other and not understanding the temperamental vagaries of the cameras flash (now it does, now it doesn’t), a couple came along, and the man offered to take a photo of us together. He snapped several and pointed out that they were off center “to add tension.” I favor the more artistic approach, although I’m not sure I’d call it “tension.” I’ve found that it can be difficult to get even people who should know better not to center either photography or art.
By now the sun was low, so after J. took a brief detour through a wedding party’s reception area to get photos from the water’s edge and I used their candlelit bathroom, we found the Buehler Enabling Garden that I had enjoyed so much last month. Alas, the goldfinches and hummingbirds are gone, and to my surprise the garden had been entirely replanted. I’m not sure that anything was left of the summer flora and foliage. The autumn twilight suited the new look.
Both of us loved the garden’s mischievous fountains. Sometimes they bubble deceptively sedately; sometimes each of the outlets shoots up a jet of water in an offbeat rhythm of varying pattern. We pictured someone leaning over one of the fountains in its quietly bubbling phase only to be caught unawares as it changes mode and shoots a jet of water into the face. I was tempted to try it.
After a last look at the Heritage Garden, we left as darkness was settling in and, after a few detours, official and otherwise, found Blind Faith Café in Evanston, a vegetarian restaurant we both love for the food and ambiance. During the wait J. sniffed out merchandise (T-shirts), and I decided not to leave without a piece each of vegan chocolate cake, chocolate peanut butter cake, and pumpkin pie. J. couldn’t resist some side dishes, quiche, and muffins, and the owner bestowed a sixth T-shirt on him.
At my place, I found the Antiques Roadshow on demand, which was guaranteed to keep J. happy. In this edition, taped in Salt Lake City, Utah, a man who had indulged in a blond wood Fender guitar for $300 in 1961 discovered it is valued now at $50,000 to $60,000. The real winner of the night, however, was a woman who brought in her great-grandfather’s personal memorabilia. He’d been a Mormon blacksmith, wine merchant, and actor who had known and corresponded with Brigham Young. His archive of letters, photos, paintings, etc., was estimated to have a value of $150,000 to $200,000. The woman reeled at the revelation. I always wonder if the person will sell for the money or hold onto it for sentimental reasons or in the hopes that it will appreciate even more. I know I’d invest in a fireproof, climate-controlled safe and an insurance policy.
This morning, I sat inside Bonjour (someone in front of me took the last outdoor table, alas) and listened to a conversation among an elderly man and woman and a young man. They moved from talking about political gaffes and the media, going back to John Adams, to discussing Netflix and the switch to digital TV. A typical Sunday morning conversation in Hyde Park.
Today the books have been marked down, and I bought five hard covers (Mary Queen of Scots by Antonia Fraser; Masterpieces of Fantasy and Enchantment compiled by David G. Hartwell; H.M.S. Bounty: A True Account of the Famous Mutiny by Alexander Mckee; The World’s Best Poems ed. by Mark Van Doren and Garibaldi M. Lapolla, apparently printed in 1935 and with a faint old book odor; and Portrait of a Man with Red Hair: A Romantic Macabre by Hugh Walpole, apparently dating from 1925 and smelling strongly of mildew) for $3.75. They, and the rest of the formidable collection, should keep me occupied for several lifetimes. I suppose it is only when you have reached my age that you realize how short life is and how quickly it is getting shorter.