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.

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