Monday, March 24, 2014

Missed Opportunities

One of the most fortunate things about living in Chicago and being a regular bicycle commuter is that my daily ride takes me along the shores of Lake Michigan. As someone who dearly loves open spaces and nature, living in Chicago can be soul-crushing at times. However, my daily ride to work is along what locals call the Lakefront Path. My daily route is a winding double-track multi-user path that is closed to motorized vehicles except for police and emergency and the occasional park district maintenance truck or gas-powered golf cart. The path is about as pastoral as bike riding can get within the city. My route winds 11.5 miles one way along a path that meanders back and forth alongside the shore of one of the largest bodies of fresh water in the world. Much of the path is lined with trees and open grassy fields dotted with playgrounds and marinas.

In recent years I've watched as the city has begun converting wide open grassy expanses alongside the path back to restored habitats that closely resemble the prairies that existed along these shores back before the growth and development of the city forever altered the shoreline into industrial space and manicured parkland. When I first started riding the Lakefront Path (LFP) over 12 years ago, the entire space was formerly turf grass fields dotted with the occasional tree. Since 2009 the city has begun restoring several areas between McCormick Place to the north and 35th Street to the south to resemble the original prairie plant community by seeding them with various native prairie plants. As part of those prairie restorations, the city has also converted over a pair of lengthy sections of land as wildlife corridors, both along the lakefront and on the opposite, western side of the Lakeshore Drive highway that serves as a major north-south artery for the city. Unfortunately, precious little information exists on official city websites regarding the Burnham Centennial Prairie and Wildlife Corridors, however Indiana University has an excellent pdf file available online that describes the early stages of the prairie restoration, here: Burnham Centennial Prairie.

With such an oasis of natural plant communities attracting various birds and other wildlife, the stage is set for many of my commutes to include exciting encounters the likes of which I would never experience were I to drive to work everyday. Years ago, before I started commuting by bicycle I would drive to work along Lakeshore Drive. I could see these restored prairies and other pastoral areas a few hundred feet away, mostly oblivious to the growing rich diversity of wildlife just outside my car windows. A little over two years of bike commuting along the LFP under my belt, I've somewhat come to expect the occasional interesting wildlife encounter. 

So, as I was biking to work one morning a couple weeks back, I was approaching the southern end of the wildlife corridor and prairie restoration area as it begins near 35th street. As I rounded a curve in the path that we cyclists call "The Mini Point," in deference to the larger Promontory Point that is found further south at 55th Street, I spied a canine trotting along the open grassy field just south of the beginning of the newly established Wildlife Corridor.

I instantly realized the canine was in fact a coyote, and a radio-collared one at that! Chicago has a large resident population of coyotes that have been under study for several years now. You can read more about the extensive research project on Chicago's urban coyote population at the Cook County, Illinois, Coyote Project. I've seen coyotes on my commute before. Once I saw a coyote running along the southwest side of the McCormick Place convention center in the evening, while another time I heard one in the morning, howling in response to hearing an ambulance siren. A few seconds later I saw the coyote trotting along through a strip of green parkland next to Soldier Field, home of the Chicago Bears. 

Back in the present though, I was less than prepared to document my most recent coyote sighting. Alas, as I fumbled with my cell phone camera, quickly shucking off my gloves I became more dismayed, knowing I was missing out on a potentially great photo. A cell phone camera is a very poor substitute for a digital SLR camera when it comes to recording images of wildlife, as I have learned on more than one occasion. As the cell phone camera pathetically fought to focus on the rapidly dwindling coyote, I switched from zoom back to wide angle, hoping to at least maybe catch an image of the animal as it trotted off into the distance, and knowing that no amount of post-processing in an image editing program was going to save this terrible quality photo. 

Aaannnd, there! Almost dead center in the the frame. Yes, that barely visible black speck is in fact the southbound end of a northbound radio-collared coyote. Elated that I had seen one of the animals from the study, I was also  irritated that yet again I had lost the opportunity to record the moment for posterity with a high quality photographic image. This wasn't the first time I'd had such a missed opportunity. 

In the past, on my bike commute alone (excluding hiking and boating trips), I'd seen a Snowy Owl and had only a crappy 1 megapixel cell phone camera to document this somewhat rare winter sighting. This was followed a few months later by another bird incident where I was left with only similarly lousy phone camera to document a Cooper's Hawk eating a freshly-caught squirrel on an ornamental stone railing along the east side of the Field Museum one afternoon. Another morning, as I rode north of Navy Pier I was delighted to see that what I had thought was a trash bag on the path in front of me, was in fact a Peregrine Falcon "mantling" the pigeon it had just killed. The bird took to the air with it's breakfast before I had hardly come to terms with realizing it was a bird.  Let alone one of the most impressive raptors one can see in and around the city.

In yet another instance of adding insult to injury I missed the chance to capture an aborted hunt by another Cooper's Hawk. One morning as I was biking the last few hundred feet to my workplace I startled, or rather foiled this poor hawk as it made a go at a Grey Squirrel that had just shot across my path. The squirrel narrowly missing being run over by my bicycle and I was rewarded with a brief glimpse of majestically fanned out wings as the Cooper's Hawk pulled up short from its dive to avoid being hit by the big human doofus on the bike who had just cost it breakfast. In all fairness, that last wildlife encounter could've only been captured had I been wearing a helmet cam, as the action happened far too quickly for still photography.

After having observed the radio-collared coyote and failing to capture even a mediocre image, I resolved that I was done with missed opportunities. A month ago, I indulged a little by spending some of our tax refund money to purchase a camera lens that would be versatile enough to allow me to photograph everything from panoramic landscapes to zooming in on far off wildlife. The used lens, which I picked up from KEH Camera was a Tamron 18-270/3.5-6.3 Di II VC PZD. All of that translates into lens that is capable of allowing the photographer to shoot a wide variety of subjects without needing to carry several lenses. The lens was thoroughly reviewed on While the lens has several compromises, I think it will serve admirably, allowing me to pack my Nikon D200 with only a single lens making my various trips easy to document with a minimum of gear to transport. Carrying fewer lenses means less weight on the bike while less switching of lenses in the field means less chance to get dust inside the camera body on the sensor.

I resolved to always carry my camera on the bike so that if at all possible, I'll be ready and able to capture rare wildlife images as they present themselves. I've also started carrying my Nikon binoculars as well, since I am biking through one of the best migratory bird hotspots. Sure it's a bit more weight to lug around, but no more missed opportunities.

Monday, January 13, 2014

What Would Jeff Corwin Do?

"What would Jeff Corwin Do?" 

That five letter question has become a mantra around our house over last few years. It all started back in November of 2006. The girlfriend of a friend was attending Northwestern University at the time and we were told there would be a free talk being given on campus by none other than former Animal Planet television show host and wildlife conservationist, Jeff Corwin. For those of you who may not know him, Jeff Corwin was the host of a popular program on the Animal Planet network, titled The Jeff Corwin Experience, which ran from 2001 to 2003. Later on Animal Planet Corwin would go on to host another program in 2005 called, Corwin's Quest. Corwin became known for his engaging manner and good looks, after all he was voted one of People Magazines 50 Most Beautiful People in 2002. It was Corwin's infectious enthusiasm for wildlife, that made his programs such a big hit amongst viewers during the early days of Animal Planet.

Excited to see Jeff Corwin speak live, we headed up to Evanston, Illinois to Northwestern University. After struggling with traffic and finding a place to park, we found ourselves sneaking into the auditorium about 15 minutes after Corwin had taken the stage. Fortunately for us, he was only just getting warmed up. What was to follow over the next hour or so was a talk that would come to change our lives in ways we never could have imagined at the time. It's easy for people to talk sometimes about how a book has changed their lives, or how a single event has made a lasting impact. I'd never really felt that I'd ever experienced any one thing that had that effect on me before. It wasn't until months later that we found Corwin's words had had a lasting impact on us.

Over the next hour or so, Corwin regaled the audience with stories of life behind the scenes of his show, The Jeff Corwin Experience. He talked animatedly with the same enthusiasm and sense of humor he brought to his show. Whether he was talking about the possibility of being stomped to death by a forest elephant,

or looking frantically around in tall grass for a venomous snake while remaining totally still.

As the talk turned from the light-hearted fare of television programming, Corwin began to describe how he himself, had begun to take a more critical look at his place in the world and ultimately his own impact on the environment. For the duration of the rest of the talk, he spoke about things individual people could do to affect real changes on the environment. I'd had a seminar class in college titled something like, "Studies in Ecology: Problems in the Environment," or something like that.

The gist of the seminar course was how much of what we do as humans in a developed world is unsustainable in the long run. From our reliance on massive monoculture food crops to the worlds ballooning population, it became obvious that as we begin to exceed the carrying capacity of the planet we also continue to promote many unsustainable practices. Everything from how we treat produce to withstand lengthy trips to market to the bottled water we drink and the over-packaged products we buy were discussed. Corwin spoke of many of these issues facing our growing population, echoing many of the concepts I learned years earlier in that college class but had all but forgotten or chose to ignore.

At the time, my opinion of Jeff Corwin was largely based on his work as a television personality for a wildlife show. I knew that he had a bachelors degree in biology and anthropology and that he also had a masters degree in wildlife and fisheries conservation. I mostly remember Corwin's show being mostly based on observing wildlife and as I recall there was little talk of conservation of species or what we as the viewers could do to help with conservation efforts ourselves. However, during the talk Corwin made good as a conservationist and began to explain how individual people could make choices that could indeed affect the environment positively. I don't know what it was exactly, but something about Corwin's talk clicked. What he said, meshed with what I'd learned a few years earlier. Maybe I was more in a frame of mind to begin embracing how to live a more sustainable existence with a lower impact on the environment.

One thing in particular from that talk has stuck with me all these years. Corwin spoke about recycling and reducing our reliance on packaged foods as one of the easiest ways of lessening our impact on the environment. When packing a lunch, he told how he would reuse ziplock baggies by washing them out until they literally fell apart at the seams. Until then, even though we recycled our glass and plastic, we routinely threw away things such as ziplock baggies that had only been used once. Cardboard boxes that contained our cereal or crackers were crushed and thrown in the trash when empty, rather than being recycled. The simple comment that really brought the message home was Corwin's take on how we need to think more about almost everything we do and what impact it will have on our environment.

The example he used was one of a granola bar. I'm paraphrasing, as I remember what he said all these years ago but it went something like this:

"So, take a granola bar. For the 200 or so calories that you get, this little bit of energy that maybe lasts you two or three hours, you now have this mylar plastic wrapper that you'll just throw away. For that small amount of calories and little bit of energy, you have this wrapper that will persist in a land fill for the next 1000 years, not to mention all of the energy that was used to produce it and ship it to you."

Every now and then someone asks you if someone has changed your life, or a book you've read has changed your life. I've never really felt that anything like that had happened to me. I'd never really read many books that I felt changed my life or gave me a new outlook. The same went for people I'd met. I'd never felt as if I'd met anyone who I could go back to and say, "Hey, yeah! My interaction with that person changed my life!" I didn't realize it at the time because it seemed like such a small thing, but with that one simple, real world example, Jeff Corwin planted a seed that would grow and continue to influence my decisions to this day.

We still struggle to reduce our packaging, but we have shifted to eating more meals made from scratch, getting away from the excessive and wasteful packaging of much of what is available in grocery stores today. In a continuing effort to reduce our impact and live more sustainably, we now recycle every imaginable thing that comes into our house, even the foil and plastic containers our take-out food comes in. If it can be recycled, it goes into bags to be taken to our single-sort recycling bins provided by our waste haulers.

There have been other things we've read, programs that we've watched on television since then that have continued to influence our outlook and our drive for sustainability in our lives. However, it's that talk by Jeff Corwin all those years ago that seems to have made the initial connection. Call it an epiphany, or the proverbial light bulb going off over ones head, or whatever. Today virtually every consumptive activity we perform is influenced to some degree by the thought processes now irrevocably altered by that one talk. I no longer buy imported beer, preferring to purchase craft brewed beer made here in the states, rather than shoulder the carbon footprint associated with beer that has to be shipped thousands of miles before it arrives at the store.

We buy our cat food from producers based here in the U.S. rather than factories that produce food in Thailand and ship it halfway around the world. We rarely drive our car anymore, going to the grocery store by foot or by bicycle, and if we do use the car we try to run as many errands as possible to make the usage of fuel the most economical. We've begun to look at electronic subscriptions to our favorite magazines to help further lower our carbon footprint and reduce the amount of material we recycle. We read Michael Pollan's thought provoking book, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto which in turn has inspired us to try to eat healthier and more sustainably. When produce starts to go out of season and the labels begin showing that it comes from farther and farther away, we stop buying certain things. During the winter we'd rather buy more expensive apples that are cold-stored by local growers than pay for cheaper apples shipped from  somewhere like New Zealand or Chile.

From that initial talk we jokingly developed this mantra of, "What would Jeff Corwin do?" Every now and then, we have to remind ourselves of the mantra. Sometimes it just seems easier to throw out a jar rather than rinse and scrub it out, but our environmental consciences get the better of us. We still struggle with some things. My addiction to granola bars keeps me throwing away those persistent wrappers, but I've taken steps towards learning how to make my own granola, thus getting the mylar monkey off my back. We're slowly getting better. It's an ongoing process. We still need to remind each other to recycle things, or maybe not buy a certain product due to concerns about packaging or sourcing. We remind ourselves to try to live more in harmony with our environment, and to try to minimize our impact on it. To this day, all these years later we still ask each other, "What would Jeff Corwin do?" Well, he'd wash that foil take-out container and put it in the recycle bin. That's what Jeff Corwin would do.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Musings on a new blog

I've started a few blogs in my time. You can read their content here,  I Only Went Out For A Walk, and here, Velo Celt. All along, I've been interested in writing about a variety of subjects, but have never hit upon how I wanted to approach it. Lately I'd been thinking about how to reinvent my blogs so that I could write about a much wider variety of topics while still appealing to the audience that I'd begun to cultivate. I realized that a common thread ran through much of what I was interested in and much of what I wanted to write about. At heart I'm a conservationist. The Oxford English Dictionary defines conservationist as:


a person who advocates or acts for the protection and preservation of the environment and wildlife.

I've come to realize that much of what I want to write about relates in some way to living my life as a conservationist. I commute to work by bicycle not only to save money, but more as a means of lessening my impact on the environment. This conservationist's view has come to extend from everything from recycling virtually all packaging materials that come into our house, to thinking about ways that we can lessen our carbon foot print. I've always  had a love of the natural world, and in recent years a burgeoning desire to live a simpler life more attuned to nature, and by "attuned" I mean the definition that equates with "harmonious." Living a life more in harmony with nature.

This new blog I hope will better reflect my varied interests and will show how so much of what I do and what I am interested in has a basis in living my life as a conservationist. I hope to convey through engaging writing and photography a little of the wonder I have for our natural world. Along the way there will be pieces about wildlife, camping trips, bicycling, recycling, permaculture, how to live sustainably within a big city, and many other subjects I hope will be thought provoking and maybe sometimes even inspiring. Join me on a journey as I explore what it means to me, to be a conservationist in the 21st century.