Category Archives: wildlife

Good Tidings & Nature’s Peace in California

DSCF1980“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into the trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.” – John Muir

These words caught my eye as I flipped through the map and information packet for Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park last week. I’d been in San Jose for a work event. When I booked everything just a week prior, it had been snowing in Chicago – again – so I’d tacked on a couple of extra days to go exploring and exhale after a rough few weeks.

After posing the question on Facebook about the best way to “get some nature” while in the area, a friend had replied, ” Do you want mountains and trees or coast?” I love that California offers an “all of the above” option and picked Pacific Grove on Monterey Bay as my home base.

I found a charming, tiny hotel just a long block from the beach and the historic Point Pinos Lighthouse (the oldest continuously functioning lighthouse on the West Coast).2013-04-04 15.47.12

The weather was perfect – hoodie weather, in the upper 50s/low 60s. Warm enough to sleep with the windows open, listening to the roar of the ocean and wakening to the screech of seagulls.

My hotel was 2.5 miles west of Cannery Row, so I decided to walk the beach to get there, stopping to marvel at the shore, the rocks, the pink and pervasive iceplant. At one point, a small crowd was peering through binoculars into a fenced off section at 20-25 seals, with their pups. “Just born last week,” a volunteer said with a touch of maternal pride, showing me where to look to see a baby riding its mother’s back in the surf.



I ate fish tacos and drank local beer, people watching and decompressing. I wrote a lot. I read even more. And Friday morning, after a foggy walk along the beach and lighthouse, I headed down California 1 to Big Sur.

I’d always assumed Big Sur was a singular place, not realizing it’s a chain of 9 state parks stretching along 90 miles of coastline. So I picked John Pfeiffer State Park as my focus. The hour drive south was fascinating, as the scenery quickly changed from seaside plain to rolling, cow-populated verdant hills to fog-shrouded rocky cliffs – and back again. I watched my car’s temperature gauge fluctuate – and felt my ears pop – as I wound up and down. At one point, the road was closed to a single lane for construction, and I waited patiently at the very top of a mountain, thoroughly enmeshed in a gray cloud, as vultures circled just a few feet away. I chatted with the construction worker holding a STOP sign. He said he had never realized how large the scavengers are until he started working on the mountain. They easily had a wingspan of 6+ feet. As I drove throughout the area, you could often see them circling overhead, gliding effortlessly as they scan for dinner.

Redwood at Big Sur

Redwood at Big Sur

At Pfeiffer, I spent several hours wandering steeper trails than my norm, but they were very doable in sneakers. Trails were well-marked, but quiet. While I passed other hikers every few minutes, I was mostly alone with my thoughts and woodpeckers, rustling squirrels and the gobble of wild turkeys. After awhile, I slowed my pace, inhaling the aroma of fresh leaves and moss and the salty moistness that comes with ocean proximity. I passed several varieties of unfamiliar wildflowers, each with their own heady scent and splash of color against the green. And I tried to wrap my arms around redwoods, tourist-style, stunned at their sheer size and scale. From the forest floor, you couldn’t see the tree tops. It was only after hiking up and around for several minutes that you cleared the trees and were thrust into brilliant sunlight and marvelous vistas.

View from Nepenthe

View from Nepenthe

When I returned to the car, hungry but thoroughly satiated, I drove a few miles south to the recommended Nepenthe for lunch. I had a front-row view of the mountains and coast, and time stood still as I lazily sipped a beer and devoured a burger and salad. I didn’t want to leave, and lingered on the patio a while, breathing the sea air and taking photos.

But I headed north again, experiencing a completely different drive now that the fog had lifted and the sun was out. I stopped in Carmel to see the Mission, tiptoeing around a wedding party to snap a few pictures. Then I drove back across the peninsula to Monterey and the wharf, with barking sea lions and overpriced fudge. A bit down the beach, a small crowd watched a sick sea lion sprawled on the rocks. The Marine Mammal Center had dispatched a team that assessed and rescued the sea lion, taking her to their veterinary hospital for diagnosis and treatment.

Black tailed coastal deer by the Pinos Point Lighthouse

Black tailed coastal deer by the Pinos Point Lighthouse

Too quickly, the day came to a close, and I headed to the beach by my hotel, the western-most point on the peninsula, and settled onto the rocks to watch the sun drop into the Pacific. The waves crashed against the rocks as day yielded to night, with a very brief pink interlude.

Saturday morning, I rose to the squawking of seagulls and jetlag. I pulled a hoodie over my pajamas, slipped on my shoes, and walked back to the beach. Overnight, the waves had grown taller and more intense, and I sat on the rocks and wrote a while, pausing to scan the horizon. Eventually I closed my notebook and returned to reality, grabbing a scone on my way.


Two days solo was perfect. I was reluctant to leave the waves and the fresh air, and I could have easily spent a couple more days exploring. But it was time to go home. Plus, I know that spring will bring greenery to Elgin soon enough. Even if snow is forecast for Friday.

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Low-Hanging Fruit

This is not a metaphor. It’s literally a post about the dearth of low-hanging fruit in my backyard. Sorry if you were looking for something deeper. (But yesterday I did wax on about celebrations and birthdays and milestones and fireworks.)

Anyway, the mulberry tree in my backyard has been the source of some consternation over the years. For the first three or four summers, I grumbled about the neighbors’ stupid tree that dropped berries all over the yard. It shaded the yard so nothing would grow, and the berries made a mess. The birds eat the berries, and then leave streaks of vibrant purple poo down the side of my white house. While mowing the lawn, my legs get stained Grimace-purple, and once the berries start rotting, a stench like stale alcohol dampens the air.

And then in late fall, the tree drops all its leaves in about 36 hours, typically the week after the city ends its free leaf pickup for the year.

The tree is wrapped around wires, so I called ComEd at one point, who came out and said that the affected wires are actually phone lines. I called AT&T, who said that until the tree caused a service disruption, they wouldn’t touch it.

When I rebuilt the fence two years ago, I discovered that the mulberry tree was actually on my side of the property line. I rejoiced, because I had always thought it was the (indifferent, bad) absentee landlord’s tree. And then I discovered removing a tree is very, very pricey, especially when involving utility lines and a tight space wedged between two garages. So my good neighbor brought over his chainsaw and helped remove the worst offending branches that stretched into my yard.

The mess of berries has been reduced, and my backyard has enough light for a feeble attempt at a garden, though I have learned that 3-4 hours of sunlight isn’t enough for most crops.

The irony of the whole situation is that I had never eaten a mulberry. I had once stepped out of the shower and seen a neighbor’s kid up in the tree with a bucket, right at my eye level, but I was so bitter at the tree that I assumed the fruit must also be bitter.

The other night, I finally tried a couple mulberries off a tree elsewhere in the city. They’re pretty damn good. Sweet, juicy and worth the stained fingers. All this time, I’ve had a bumper crop right in my own backyard.

So yesterday evening, while lounging in the yard with a book, I decided I should try to harvest some of my own berries. And I promptly realized that there is no low-hanging fruit – all the low branches were removed by my overzealous efforts. To reach berries, I need to either climb the tree or a ladder to the garage roof (where the raccoons spend their nights, fighting and pooping).

You can see the sprouts of non-berry-bearing leaves protruding from where a giant limb was removed.

Or I can just pick them up from the ground, as I did, carefully stepping to minimize the purple stains on my bare feet.

Once I settled back into my chair to read, the squirrels helped, running through the tree, shaking berries loose.

But beware the perils of cutting away low-hanging fruit.

The Stuff of Nightmares

I got home late last night and dumped my stuff in the hall. I had been following the Blackhawks’ Game 7 via Twitter and wanted to watch the final period live. As usual, I walked through the mostly dark house to grab some water in the kitchen.

When I walked back through the dining room (the center of my main floor – you have to walk through it to get to any other room), I finally turned on the light. And then I saw the cat puke.

It wasn’t a huge deal, as the cat does occasionally hairball, especially as she sheds her winter coat. And she has a knack for doing so on the dining room rug, just inches from the much-easier-to-clean hardwood.

I grabbed a couple paper towels and the pet stain spray, knelt down, and recoiled in horror.

There were scores – nay, HUNDREDS – of ants crawling in the puke pile. Beyond the pile, the conga line of ants extended at least 3 or 4 feet into my home office.

I had seen a couple scout ants over the weekend and made a mental note to put down traps and shake some of the powder outside, if it ever stops raining. (I’ve been down this road before.) But this meant war.

I corralled the cat and locked her safely into the upstairs portion of the house. Then I went to work, killing the conga line mid-step and scrubbing away all the evidence. I sprayed a bit between the back door and its storm door, and as soon as it stops raining and dries out, I’ll go hunt for a hill in the backyard.

But when I laid down to sleep, I kept picturing the swarm, pulsing and undulating across my dining room. Shudder. I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about it.

This morning, there was no evidence of the ants. I’m pretty good about keeping food wrapped up, and they seem to mostly ignore the cat food. Hopefully with some vigilance and the right outdoor chemicals, there won’t be a repeat.

Dog Chase

I had planned out my very first seven-mile run for Sunday morning. As usual, I dawdled getting ready to run, despite waking up before my alarm. I ate some toast and flipped through the Sunday papers as I listened to the steady tick-tick of the clock in the quiet house.

Finally, at 8:15 I laced up my shoes and left. It was a beautiful sunny morning, cool but not cold. I was very comfortable in capris and a short-sleeved tee. I started along my route through my neighborhood, the streets familiar from countless strolls, bike rides and shorter runs. Leaves crunched beneath my feet (already?!?) and I passed a few solo Sunday morning walkers, out with their dogs.

I followed Highland Avenue west, past the construction and the gorgeous Painted Ladies, beyond where the sidewalk ended and a man in a motorized wheelchair sped along on the gravel shoulder, smoking a cigarette I was desperate to get around.

I turned south onto Lyle, into a neighborhood I knew only vaguely, filled with homes built in the 7os and 80s, and then onto Lin-Lor, wondering where the name came from.

And as I turned onto Jane Street, I noticed a dog by my side. I don’t know where she came from. I looked around for an open garage, someone out for a walk or on a front porch, but everything was perfectly, serenely quiet, with no signs of life anywhere. I stopped and looked at the dog, saying, “Go home! Go back home!” with shooing motions in the direction I had come. The dog looked at me quizzically, but patiently. It seemed friendly, but it also looked like a pit bull, and I didn’t want to encourage it or anger it.

After a minute, I decided that maybe if I just resumed my run and ignored her, she would get bored or distracted by a squirrel. So I did, for about a block, but she stayed with me, stride for stride. I stopped again, again saying, “Go home!” and shooing her with my hands, but instead she jumped up on me in a very playful manner. I tried walking a block, with no luck, then running again, but she stayed right with me.

And so we continued, crossing major streets, passing into my own neighborhood, where I hoped I could find someone – anyone! – to help me figure out what to do. At every corner, I’d stop again and try to shoo her home. I tried cutting through yards and taking quick corners to lose her, but nothing worked. She remained right by my side, keeping my pace no matter if I sped up or slowed down.

I’ve been chased by dogs before while running, but never more than three or four house lengths before they either see something more interesting or get called back by their owners.

If I had my phone on me, I would have called the police non-emergency number. We’ve had several problems with loose dogs lately, and the police have begun cracking down and fining the owners (when they can be found). This dog had no collar or tags, so I decided that by re-routing myself onto a more major street, I would hopefully encounter a police car on patrol.

Finally, at Gertrude and Walnut, I was able to flag a passing squad car. The officer rolled down his window and I explained the situation. “Open the back door,” he said, “and see if she’ll hop in.” Without hesitation, she did just that, and the well-prepared officer pulled out a dog treat which she eagerly took. He radioed in the information, hoping to match it against a report of a missing dog. He was very surprised by how far she had traveled – when I got home and tracked it, she was with me a full 2.1 miles.

I wasn’t ever afraid, but rather more annoyed (that my until-then awesome run was screwed up) and concerned for the dog. I didn’t want her to get hit by a car, or encounter another, less-friendly dog, and I was worried she was straying far from home.  But wouldn’t a good owner at least have a collar on her?

The officer said they’d take her downtown to see if she had a microchip, and if not, she would go to a local shelter.

I later called my sister – a dog lover and veterinary technician – and asked what you should do if a dog starts chasing you. “Stop,” she said, “so they don’t think you’re playing, and so they don’t have that hunting instinct to follow.” She also said they can sense fear, which I knew, and is why I tried to remain calm and not panic.

Overall, it was very odd, both in distance and how it started. She was actually a pretty good running companion for awhile. I just hope she finds her way home.

There’s a Mouse in My… Air Conditioning?

The last month or so, during an unusually hot August, my car’s air conditioning has been acting funny. It still gets cold, but when I turn the fan up, it makes a horrible rattling noise.

And there’s a smell, kind of like a wet dog.

It wasn’t urgent enough to act on right away, as I don’t drive a lot (a tank of gas typically lasts 3-4 weeks) and besides, my first car didn’t have AC, so I can suck it up and sweat a bit.

But I had to make some repairs to the emissions system (thanks, State of Illinois!) and was at the mechanic’s anyway, so I had them take a look at it. I dropped the car off, walked home, and buried myself in work.

A couple hours later, the mechanic called with a diagnosis. “Miss, you have a nicotine-addicted rodent living in your garage,” he said with a bit of a chuckle. Apparently, mice living in my garage had been building a nest in the car’s blower vent, using the cigarette butts left over from my ex’s habit.

“You’re lucky,” the mechanic continued, “we occasionally find dead mice in these vents. And that REALLY stinks.”

Two hundred bucks later, the problem was fixed, replaced with the faint hint of citrus. The mechanic advised me to put down traps and mothballs to curb the mouse problem.

I knew about the mice in the garage. I’ve seen them darting by late at night, startled by the headlights, and they ate through most of a bag of grass seed. But for the most part, I’ve left them alone, reasoning that if they’re looking for shelter, I’d rather cede the garage to them than let them find their way into the house.

Apparently I was wrong. I let them live, and how did they thank me? By burrowing in my car?

It’s on, mice. You’ve been warned.

Thank you, Circle of Life

Around noon yesterday, I spied a squirrel lying on the garage roof. Later in the afternoon, he was still there, in the exact same strange, awkward position – sprawled out flat, not moving. Mid-day, I wondered if he was resting, but by evening, I assumed he was dead.

When Don got home, it was already dark, so I told him that the next time we were both home in daylight hours (umm…. Thursday? Maybe Friday?), we would have to go get the thing off the roof. This would involve the ladder (fun!) and shovel. That shovel – which came with the house – has done its fair share of animal removal duties, including Gus the Groundhog and the presumably rabid (or just plain batty) squirrel that spent an entire day twitching itself ten feet across the driveway, driving the cat nutty.

But this morning, in daylight, the squirrel is gone. I’ll bet our friendly neighborhood raccoons took care of it for us. Thanks, guys! You’re finally good for something besides scaring the bejeezus out of us when we deign to enter the backyard in the evenings.

Update: Don says that he actually heard the raccoons fighting it out over the squirrel carcass. Yum.


For the second season in a row, a whole colony of ants has appeared. I first noticed a few scouts in the kitchen, and now I’ve got a half dozen parading along the back of the counter at any given time.

Once again, the source is likely the giant ant hill in the middle of the back yard, about 18″ in diameter. We killed it last year with a shaker can of anthill-specific chemicals and a good drowning. But now it’s back.

How are the ants making it to the house? Do they have an intricate subterranean interstate system spanning the 20 feet from the anthill onramp to my kitchen? (Don’t answer that.) If so, does destroying the anthill leave those tunnels intact? Or are they quick to rebuild, with thousands – or millions – of workers at their disposal?

A coworker recommended gasoline and a blowtorch to take out the hill once and for all. But I think I’ll stick with my non-inferno-causing chemicals for now.

Inside, I completely scrubbed the inside of the affected cabinets, housing the caramelized Coke-encrusted recycling bin and laid fresh ant traps (specifically for “little black ants”) throughout the cabinets and underneath the fridge. I also put one on the counter where I keep seeing them – and watched in amazement as five ants did about-faces to trek towards their deaths. I also noticed a tiny gap in the caulk around the window above the sink that seems to serve as their portal. I’ll be tackling that this weekend.

But for now… I’m going to go kill more ants along the Little Black Ant Death March trail.

RIP, Gus

Saturday afternoon, I was out in the front yard weeding the flowerbeds, and I saw all the neighborhood kids congregating across the street, in the vacant lot where the hill drops down. “It’s a beaver! A beaver!” they kept shouting excitedly. I knew it had to be my old quasi-nemisis, Gus the Groundhog.

I first met Gus shortly after I moved in. This big, furry brown thing was hanging out in the side yard, attracting Collette’s glare. Since then, I’ve seen him several times, always puttering around. I’ve almost hit him a few times at night, turning into the dark driveway.

I never had any real reason to dislike Gus, but I worried about him digging into the garage. My neighbor said the groundhogs must have a den in the side of the hill.

But Saturday, Gus met his fate on the side of the road. Don shooed away the kids and shoveled the roadkill into the woods.

Or maybe it wasn’t Gus. We’ll never know.


We’ve got swarms of some strange, tan flying bug hanging out by the front door. They’re clearly drawn by the (timer-fueled) porchlights, but they’ve multiplied exponentially and are now a verifiable swarm. Every night they appear in droves so thick that the door and the windows on either side look like something out of a movie. Collette is enthralled, watching them flit around silently, trying to avoid the spiderwebs. She has caught and eaten several – I suppose the extra protein won’t hurt her.

We sprayed the front door area with bug spray (of the general “flying bug” variety), leaving piles of tiny bodies on the front steps. The next night, though, the horde returned, barely fazed. For the most part, they stay outside, but occasionally they seem to slip in, and there’s a cobweb between the front door and its storm door that I clear out every morning.

Meanwhile, the wasp infestation continues. After knocking down three or four small nests, we kept noticing wasps buzzing around the driveway and yard, so we knew there had to be another nest somewhere. Indeed, I stumbled across a giant one on Sunday while washing windows. I got to the outside of the office window – the one that lacks a screen and hence hasn’t been open this year – and was about to spray with the Windex when I stopped dead in my tracks. There was a huge, baseball-sized nest, teeming with white eggs ready to hatch and swarming with at least a dozen wasps. I quickly decided to wait until dusk and spray with wasp killer rather than Windex. Monday, there were several wasp corpses on the window sill but some were still buzzing around, and Don watched (from inside) larva crawling from one of the egg pods. I sprayed again Monday evening, and may do so again Tuesday before knocking it down with a broom and running like hell.

Ah, the joys of critters who can hurt you!

Fresh cut grass

I woke up to a beautiful day. A bit chilly, but finally – it was sunny and clear enough for my inaugural lawn mow!

The grass had mostly dried out by the time I got to it, but it was so long that my manual mower (no engine or emissions for me!) definitely struggled. I had forgotten what great exercise lawnmowing is – I felt it in my legs and shoulders.

Once I finished the mowing part, I realized just how long the grass had gotten when I saw how much longer the remaining edges appeared! We’re talking code-violation length – six inches, easy.

I pulled out my evil weedwhacker/trimmer and crossed my fingers. Last spring, the ten-year-old model I had stolen from my dad died, so I went to Lowe’s and bought the cheapest model I could get – an electric powered string trimmer similar to the one I had killed. It worked well for a couple months, but by August, it had evolved into a petulant brat – constantly ripping through string, randomly unspooling, and essentially being a pain in the ass. Today was awful – I’d get no more than ten feet before it needed to be respooled. I don’t know if I’m doing something wrong or if it would have been worth it to pay a bit more. Or maybe it just needs a new spool?

Either way, the yard looks pretty darn good, if I do say so myself – much neater and cleaner than when I woke up this morning. With the rows of tulips, daffodils, and petunias, the flag, and the green-green grass, all set against the white house, it looks like summer.

Then I moved to the backyard to visit my anthills. I sprinkled my death powder liberally, then watered them down as instructed. A couple hours later, I inspected them again – no movement could be perceived. I will keep a cautiously optimistic eye on the hills this week. Hopefully the nuclear option will be successful.

I also spent a couple hours washing windows and continuing the screen-storm window swap. I have learned the very hard way that my infatuation with removable caulk was slightly misplaced. While it worked well as far as insulating against wind, it has proved very, very difficult to remove without damaging the windows. The living room window, already in poor shape, took some real abuse while trying to remove it following at least two solid hours of work. The other wooden windows – back hallway and upstairs hall – were slow-going. I did find that the guest room – with its relatively freshly (semi-glass) paint was a tad easier, where as the older, matte paint on other windows was more stubborn. Mostly down, just one to go – the bathroom. And that window has no remaining sash cords or pulleys anyway, so it’s pretty much moot.