Thursday, December 16, 2010

Don't let cold weather keep you off the trails

Don't let cold weather keep you off the trails

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Winter arrived with such force this month it feels as though we’ve spun forward right into January. Such a transition brings on a lot of changes in the natural world, so I headed out to the Homer Lake Forest Preserve one day last week to investigate, and see if I could get some photographs.

As I left the U of I campus I spied a red-tailed hawk atop a power pole on Windsor Road, and was reminded what an excellent time of year it is for raptor watching. Winter brings us an influx of hunting birds from the north, and the lines of sight are wide open so you can see birds of prey from a long way off, even in urban and forested areas.

Driving east through farm country, I slowed now and then to look at flocks of smaller birds along the roadside where the snowplow had exposed patches of gravel and soil. I saw only common birds, juncos and horned larks, but at this time of year arctic-breeding birds such as snow buntings and Lapland longspurs are not uncommon in the fields of east central Illinois.

Stopping at the north end of Homer Lake to check ice conditions, I was reminded that birds aren’t the only things that become especially visible in winter. In plain view there hung a Baltimore oriole nest that would have been entirely obscured by leaves in summer when it was occupied. In a nearby tree, a bulky gray hornet's nest is equally plain to see.

At the Champaign County Forest Preserve District’s Environmental Education Center, I stopped to ask for tips from the friendly, knowledgeable staff. They suggested that people take advantage of the snow to investigate tracks and other evidence of animal activity, or to get kids out on the sledding hill. “And remind people,“ they added with emphasis, “dress for the weather!”

I set out on the Flicker Woods Trail, happy to hear ahead of me the calling of a pair of pileated woodpeckers. They’re crow-sized, black birds with sturdy, chisel-shaped bills and brilliant red crests, wonderful targets for a guy out with his camera. Each time I closed in on them, however, they moved away another fifty yards into the woods.

In a mature stand of oaks and hickories, I changed tactics, and hid myself in the shadow of a large tree to see if they’d come back. Soon they did, announced by an emphatic knocking as they whacked away at dead wood in search of beetles and ants. If only they would have come around a little farther, I wouldn’t have had to photograph them against the bright sky.

Tracks along a bluff overlooking the Salt Fork River showed a coyote had traveled the path ahead of me. I paused where he had stopped to dig under the trunk of a fallen tree. Leaf litter and soil were strewn atop the snow, but whether or not he had caught a meal I couldn’t tell. Following his track took me down through a dry ravine and into the river bottom, where I lost him among the maze of deer trails.

Too soon, it was time to head back, but as I made for the wide path that would take me to the car, I was arrested by a frantic scrambling in the brush ahead. It was the coyote, driven from his sheltered spot under a log by my approach. I was ready with my camera, and took advantage of his curiosity to get a shot—he just couldn’t’ run off without a look back to see who had disturbed his rest.