Environmental Almanac: Some good reasons to head outside

Environmental Almanac: Some good reasons to head outside

At this time in February, I have to remind myself of two things: Winter doesn't last forever, and there are outdoor activities to enjoy even while it remains.

You might scarcely believe it, but great horned owls in our area are already sitting on eggs. This timing enables their young, which will hatch later this month or early in March, to fledge when the young of mammals they prey on become abundant, and it gives them extra time to mature before next winter.

Northern cardinals and Carolina wrens are both singing with a bit of gusto now, and I've heard house finches tuning up in recent days as well. They're going to be ready for spring come what may.

Within the next few weeks, some of our early bird migrants will also be returning. Keep an eye on places where cattails grow for the year's first red-winged blackbirds, the true harbingers of spring in east central Illinois.

Birders who are itching for activity have some good opportunities this month. The Great Backyard Bird Count, sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, runs from Feb. 16-19. This event encourages people to record their observations of birds over the four-day period according to a simple set of guidelines and then submit them via the Web.

You can participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count at home or in the company of other people. The Champaign County Audubon Society will be counting birds at the Anita Purves Nature Center in Urbana from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, with guided hikes at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.

If you're feeling more adventurous, you might also be interested in an Owl Prowl, an evening program led by educators with the Champaign County Forest Preserve District that includes a chance to see wild owls. One is taking place this Friday at the Homer Lake Interpretive Center, and another will be offered at the Middle Fork River Activity Center on Feb. 23.

Absent truly unusual weather, the next four weeks will see the ice that still covers our ponds and wetlands retreat. As it does, amphibians will congregate to breed — more salamanders, toads and frogs than you would ever imagine if you've not gone out on a rainy March night to see and hear for yourself. Think of it, wood frogs, chorus frogs and spring peepers, which may be partly frozen in the mud now, will be singing their hearts out before you know it.

Whether or not the current thaw continues, the first flower of spring, skunk cabbage, will emerge in woodland seeps by the end of the month, thanks to its capacity to generate heat and grow through frozen soil. Few people will go out of their way to see it, but doesn't it do you good just to know that something will be growing soon?

Speaking of growing, if you've got gardening on your mind and you're keen to provide habitat for birds and other creatures in your yard, you can learn how through a presentation hosted by the Champaign County Audubon Society, "Gardening for Wildlife." This discussion will be led by Audubon board president Sara Johnson and take place from 7 to 9 p.m. on Feb. 21 at the Urbana Free Library. All are welcome at this free event.

Rob Kanter is a lecturer and academic adviser with the UI School of Earth, Society and Environment. You can reach him via email at rkanter@illinois.edu. Environmental Almanac can also be heard on WILL-AM 580 at 4:45 and 6:45 p.m. Thursdays.

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