Sunday, September 27, 2009

Wild and Woolly Times

Why did the Woolly Bear cross the road? The short answer's "time."

The Woolly Bear in question, by the way, is the caterpillar of a Tiger Moth called the Isabella Tiger Moth (Pyrrharctia isabella), an orange-pinkish medium sized adult moth. The hairy road-crossing caterpillar is typically black on both ends with a broad orangish band in the middle.This particular caterpillar has been known since Colonial times as the "Woolly Bear." This caterpillar is often seen crossing roads and paths on warm days in late fall. According to superstition, the amount of black in the caterpillar's bristle coating forecasts the severity of the coming winter, providing it with another AKA of "The Weather Worm." Actually, the coloration indicates how near the caterpillar is to full growth before autumn weather stimulates it to seek a winter shelter. I found this particular one attempting to traverse a busy highway in northwestern Wisconsin after my wife Nola, pointed it out. We were both riding bicycles from the Willow River State Park to the nearby parking lot which served as a staging area for vehicles and those humans interested in seeing the beautiful water falls. I (of course) stopped right then and there to snap this picture. As I saw the long journey that this particular caterpillar had just completed across the expansive asphalt surface, and the terrific dangers it had just endured; I was impressed. I wondered to myself; what could possibly be that special on THIS side of the road for this stalwart insect, that did not exist on the other?

To answer this probing question we must first look at what is known by the scientists. Since I am not one by title, I did what any one of you would do in my shoes; I Googled. Since there are a few gazillion places where bits of information exists, I thought I might compile most of it on this blog entry once and for all. Here is what I discovered from experts on the question that was "bugging" me in a few poignant bullet points:
  • Woolly Bear Caterpillars are present in the spring and from late summer to late fall.
  • They produce one to two generations per year.
  • The second generation is the one noticed in late fall when the woolly bears are crossing the roads, usually in great haste as if they have someplace special to go. In fact, they are only scurrying to find a sheltered location under dead plant debris, etc., where they will spend the winter as a larva. In the spring, they will feed briefly before changing into a cocoon and eventually a moth. Eggs laid by the female moths start the cycle over again.
  • Tiger moth caterpillars of the Arctiidae family, often called woollybears, are covered entirely with dense clusters of tubercles from which arise short tufts of hairs or long hair "pencils" of varying colors.
  • The hairs on these caterpillars can be irritating when handled by individuals with sensitive skin.
  • Host plants are mainly weeds and other non-crop plants such as dandelion, dock, aster, goldenrod, plantain and some grasses.
  • The banded woolly bear is found throughout the U.S., Mexico, and southern Canada but not the rest of the world.
  • Vermilion, Ohio (west of Cleveland) holds an annual Woolly Bear Festival — claimed to be the largest one-day festival in Ohio. Festivities include a parade, woolly bear races and an “official” analysis of the woolly bears and forecast for the coming winter.

So basically what I found out from my perusing told me what people "think" is the reason for their suicidal autumnal crossings: hibernation. Yeah, okay...whatever...I'd prefer to invent some other important reason that they do it. For if they are the important prognosticator of all things winter, must they not be involved with a much more scientific bit of meteorological research involving road crossings? Why just crawl from one side to the other, risking everything in the process just to take a long winter nap, when we all depend on them so heavily for a peek at our climatological future? I suppose I'll never know will I? Nevertheless, one day I will venture to Ohio to bond with others in search of the greater meaning of the wily woollie's wayward wanderings; if not for answers, for a great party for absolutely no scientific reason. Why? Because that's what we humans do. We look for happy distractions in a world filled with too much sadness. We seek comraderie when we feel lonely, and we celebrate anything; even the width of the orangish fibers on a bug if it will keep us from seeing just how long winters in the midwest can be. We look to the Woolly Bear in the fall and the Groundhog in the spring to help make sense of it all.

Perhaps we all just wish, hope and we dream of crossing the roads of life safely to a better place and greener grass, on the other side.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Peninsula State Park - 100 Years and "Counting"

A birder's paradise awaits you in Door County, Wisconsin...

Anything that reaches the grand old age of 100, gets my respect. To have existed for a continuous century is quite an accomplishment in today's "throw-away" world. Peninsula State Park, located in Fish Creek, WI (County of Door) is celebrating a significant birthday (all year) with various activities surrounding its centennial. You can purchase all kinds of neato-cool merchandise too if you are the type of person who is predisposed to the "shopping gene." I personally am a hat and tee shirt (hoarder) "collector" and am not afraid to admit to this teensy bit of self-indulgence. Heck, I truly do "wear" the things I purchase too, so...( I pathetically justifying my OCD behavior here?) Anyway, there's all sorts of...ahh...ways to "support" their cause HERE if you are so inclined.

The family recently took its annual vacation to this favorite destination; utilizing two vehicles (one pulling the Jayco) to accommodate for all the necessary creature comforts which six people would require for the four days we would be camped there. Were there "extra" items brought along which would not be used? Sure there always are, however if there's "room" in the vehicles...what the heck...throw them in too. Bicycles, lawn-chairs, beach towels, blow-up rafts, tarps, coolers, grills, you name it...stow it in. Don't forget the ladder-golf (AKA: testicle toss, Bola, Polish golf, hillbilly horseshoes, etc.) either, as we planned to have intense on site competition. You don't know about "TT?" Well, it's just about the most revolutionary campground activity since the deadly beloved steel-tipped lawn "Jart" was banned by the "safety nannies" in the 80s. There is truly no replacement "danger factor" offered by this new creative game, but playing it still offers the stalwart camper many of the same ingredients for some lively fun: competition, chance, hilarity, and one hand free for an "adult beverage." There's even a few serious tournaments across the country dedicated to it's play. I would hazard a guess that one day, any potential patron of any camping facility in America would be carefully screened upon check-in, to ensure that said plastic paragon of entertainment, was a part of their larder before being granted entry. (No, just kidding, but you sure see a lot of these set-ups as you drive the posted 10 MPH through the many circles of campsites.) It sure as heck-fire beats "Cornhole" as the best form of entertainment introduced to the camper in many years. Enough of that! How the heck did I get off on THAT tangent anyway? (..., it's easy are easily might as well add ADHD to your OCD profile while you're at it).

Packing up the necessary "birding gear" the first full morning, I sidled my leg over the bar on the Giant (my "comfort bike") and headed out of Welckers Point Campground just as the sun was getting going for the day. I pedaled onto the scenic Sunset Trail heading towards the Eagle Bluff lighthouse in hopes of seeing wild turkeys. Upon bicycling the relative short distance to the lighthouse drive, I was treated to a group of three splendid Toms walking and pecking their way along just off the pavement. (Video below) I stood quietly watching (and filming) in the cool Lake Michigan morning breeze as they moved off into the woods. It always amazes me each time I see them in the wild of the Park; their long black beards blowing in the wind as they look for acorns and other favorite foodstuffs that litter the forest floor. They are so doggone big (and probably tasty) to see they take flight is another head-shaker. You just don't figure them to be able to do it, for as much time as they spend on the ground walking from place to place. Of the 59 total bird species I have seen while in the park, they are among the most interesting to watch. White pelicans were seen in the various bays and flying overhead throughout this particular visit. A few warblers also made an appearance: Black-throated greens, American redstarts, and Ovenbirds among them. Don't forget to visit the 1904 Blossomberg Cemetary too. There are many species of birds to be seen on and around the ancient tombstones. I saw many, many immature Robins basking in the dappled sunlight, and "washing-up" in a handy water-filled dirt depression. Plus, reading the markers is truly educational too.
So dear reader, my (can't miss) prescription for a wonderfully relaxing, and entertaining way to spend some quality family-time, and recharge from your busy schedules is to pack up the Woody with the kitchen sink, and head to north eastern Wisconsin's "thumb." P.S...and don't forget to pack your TT too...remember, that day is coming and where you read about it first.

Happy [100th] Birthday Peninsula State Park: from the Birdstud and (all) his readers

Now...Gobble-up this Birdstud Original Video!!

The Turkeys of Eagle Bluff Lighthouse

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Wood Ducks and the BRAINDEAD

Admittedly, I don't go birding for exercise...

So there I was standing on the winding dirt path, amongst the native grasses that lined the river bank, quietly watching a group of ducks. I had driven the WPT to one of my favorite spots along the Menomonee River after work, trying to beat the declining sunlight to its inevitable daily conclusion. Bird watching in the afternoon is particularly recharging to me after a long day at the grind of my basement (no-windows) desk job. Reaching into the club cab back seat, I don my drab green birding vest, strap on the Bushnells, fasten the camo fanny pack containing my field guides around my waist, and grab my digital Fuji; heading for the solace of the awaiting riverside. I have done this same drill dozens of times before. It soothes me and allows me a chance to walk silently listening, watching, and thinking...only to have to dodge them when they appear out of no where!

Would someone please explain this to me...seriously. If you are reading this and can help my wee brain with a modicum of understanding, I may be able to drop it, but until that cogent moment, forget it...the gloves are OFF! I have taken to referring to these individuals as: Bicycle Riding Animal Irritating Nature Disrupting Environmental Assault Demons or (in simpler terms) The B.R.A.I.N.D.E.A.D. If you knew me (and reading this blog over time, you'll get a pretty good idea) you'd know that I am far from a left-leaning environmentalist who believes that the only rights to the planet belong to anything that does not have opposable thumbs, walks upright on two feet, and owns an IPod. But 'Cmon people...did someone close all the streets, sidewalks and the motocross tracks!? I have no idea where the bizarre and hugely annoying (sport, hobby), whatever the hell activity (involving ramming your two-wheeler through, around, over and under the tranquil, peaceful paths in the woods) came from, but I know this; I am not a fan. There are basically two types of individuals that I have witnessed engaging in this activity; the "Upscale" and the "Lowscale" riders. The thing that they have in common are the fact that they are both B.R.A.I.N.D.E.A.D. and need to find somewhere else to eliminate built-up testosterone. I suggest making love. It's fun, provides physical activity and it's far less annoying to those who choose to also coexist simultaneously in their same general vicinity.

Back to the ducks...I am standing still and soundlessly on the edge of the river side trail, watching the ducks when behind me the squeal of hand breaks and a soft curse draws my attention away. "Watch out!" calls the first man to the one behind. I glance backward and see that two "Upscale" riders, gaily festooned in their garishly colored, sponsor emblazoned, spandex have come to a sudden halt mere feet from my exposed ankles. The first of the B.R.A.I.N.D.E.A.D. breathlessly asks, "Whaddaya see?" "Wood ducks," I respond, pointing. "No..." immediately replies the Upscaler (as if he was some kind of instant Google-fairy dropping in to correct the hapless idiot with the binoculars, with his infinite wisdom.) Plus, he says it like there's nothing special about a Mallard. I say, "Not there," (pointing to the dozen Mallards he thinks I am seeing) "There." I point to the three ducks on the left who are obviously NOT Mallards, and are now (with all this pointless interruption) swiftly vacating the area. He says nothing (as if he was never there) and navigates around me and away into the brush. I snap a photo cause I am speechless once more, and want to share how utterly ridiculous this seems with you, the readers of this blog. You decide for yourself, and remember I asked for help here...if you "get" this behavior, feel free to set me straight. I'll try...really. (Oh, and the "Lowscale" version of the B.R.A.I.N.D.E.A.D. just don't wear the foolishly colored costumes as they crash, slam, and bludgeon there way through my peaceful woods.)
I'll also bet that they completely missed the Whitetail deer standing there, quietly munching on some grass...pity...I didn't.

...say cheese!

Monday, September 14, 2009

...and THAT'S why it's called "Birding."

...nowwwwwwww, I get it...

As the old rusted-out mini van passed by "the WPT" (White Pickup Truck) the driver (and front passenger of said van), slowed so that I could get a long look at them, and their antics...

I was heading east on Burleigh Street when I noticed that a vehicle was behind me, following me for several stoplights. I could discern that there were two young Americans of African descent in the front seat, and...wait a minute...they were both displaying their middle fingers towards the back of my truck, and to my rear view mirror! "Hmmmpf," I thought. "What in the world did I do to cause that?" I pondered. Did I somehow cut the guy off? Was I driving too slowly? Could it be a (blue-state, liberal reaction to) the McCain/Palin bumper stickers? "Whatever..." I mused, shaking my head and focused my attention towards the front windshield of the WPT once more. My son in the front seat asked, "what's going on Dad?" I responded, "Heck, I don't know, the guy behind me just flipped me off for some reason!" Noticing that the mini-van had now pulled out from behind and had drawn even with me, I looked in its direction. Out of the open window of the van came a head and arm with the same middle digit erect, but the head wore a smile big enough to cause even the maddest of hatters to take notice. "What the hell?" I blurted. These two dudes were grinning broadly and both giving me the 4-gun salute at the same time. Driving side by side for a couple of blocks , they soon pulled away leaving me puzzling about their motives....then it dawned on me and I began to laugh. Hard. I turned to my son and said, "I get's really funny too!" You see I had placed self-adhesive letters on the tailgate to trumpet my love for all things avian, by proudly proclaiming the ultimate of corny phrases, "FYI: I Brake for Birds!" The minivan's occupants were waiting to see If I'd indeed brake for their "birds!" I giggled about that all the way home.

Moments such as those always come with an "ah-hah" associated with them, do they not? Like when the other day, I realized why it's far more appropriate to refer to the observation of feathered fauna as "Bird-ing" Vs. "Bird-watching." It was so simple when I made that discovery for myself that I almost missed it. You see, it was on a bicycle ride along the Interurban Trail in Ozaukee County, WI. that it clicked. My wife and I were riding the trail that winds its way in and out of the quaint (tourist-friendly) cities of Cedarburg and Grafton. I had not taken a thing "bird-related" that day but knew I would be in amongst the wooded byways regardless. The trails were paved and were wonderfully diverse, however the more rapid pace of our ride would not have allowed for the leisurely stroll associated with my typical bird watching activity. The birds were still there...I could only "hear" them as I pedaled along. Wait! That was the moment of clarity. Sure, the majority of birders relied upon their eyes and binoculars most of the time, but what about their "other" senses? As it dawned upon me that I was still "birding" even while bicycling along at a pretty good clip, I began to tick off the species I heard while on the trail; chickadee, downy, robin, blue jay, cat bird, flicker...the list grew and grew while I added mile after mile.

"Bird-ing" Vs. "Bird-watching." Simple, uncomplicated, no additional equipment necessary...easy. I love that!

Friday, September 4, 2009

Back to School Checklist

Okay Little Johnnie, let's go over your back to school list...

Pens?, (check) pencils?, (check) notebooks?, (check) Chicarrones? (huh?)...

Yes, it's true Mom's and Dad's, your little urchin's back to school list is not complete without 'em! At least that's what Walgreen's in Wauwatosa, WI would have you believe.

I was picking up a prescription when the sign near the checkout gave me pause. I began to doubt my child's readiness for his return to our educational system...what kind of parent was I? Sure I had secured the usual tools of the freshman-year trade, but (my goodness) how could I have been so ignorantly uninformed! How fortunate that I caught this egregious faux pas early in the new school year. I hoped that I was not already too late to save my son from the embarrassment of that crucial moment when all the "other" (better parentally prepared) students reached into their backpacks for their supply of flavored pork rinds, crinkling the cellophane bags in dutiful response to a sudden teacher request, only to find that I had not taken care of his utterly horrifying! Not any sir! I have seen the display and the light...time to buy...and at such a wonderful Walgreensie value too if I buy in bulk.

Thanks Walgreen's you have saved me and my student from unbearable ridicule and I owe you a debt that words alone cannot repay. Let the new year begin now, knowing I have dodged the proverbial bullet and saved face...whew...that was close!