Saturday, December 31, 2011


I had been kind of on the fence about Zoo Atlanta because I've heard some bad things about it, but I thought it was great! I mean, sure, there were some old and run-down areas, but it appears they have done major renovations of most of the aging zoo. I'm guessing the haters are jealous of all their giant pandas. It was a perfect zoo day- just warm enough that all the animals were outside, but cool enough that they were all active. The pandas had just been fed and all four that were on display were eating and moving around. The year-old baby was bouncing all over the place and cute as can be! We watched the pandas for a long time. Other highlights were two young kangaroos boxing and some very interactive ground hornbills that kept trying to present us with chunks of mulch. They were adorable! We spent a few enjoyable hours and saw everything. It was a nice, compact zoo with lots of impressive animals.

We headed out of town and followed my MapQuest directions to Hiwassee Wildlife Preserve. Except my directions took us to the WRONG Hiwassee area and some extremely nice girl at the only tiny store in the tiny town of (I think) Reliance, helped me google the proper directions and helped us out of a beautiful mountain area by the beautiful Hiwassee River. While I was in her store, some men drove up with a gigantic feral hog they had just shot strapped to the back of their truck. They told me about what a problem hogs are in that area and it was sort of surreal. Anyway, if I hadn't been so eager to see my cranes I could have stayed in this area and hiked and birded the river. It was gorgeous! Unfortunately, we had about an hour trip ahead of us and the sun was going down way too quickly. This time the directions were perfect and we made it to the cranes with plenty of light.

As usual, this prime wintering area for sandhill cranes was nothing like I imagined. It just looked like a not huge, not small lake area on a small river, surrounded by fields and trees. There was nothing too amazing about it, but there were thousands upon thousands of sandhill cranes. They were flying and calling to each other. They were just standing there. They were in the water and on the land. There were so many that even Gene and the kids were impressed! There were probably 20 other birders there and I think I was the only one who just wanted to see the huge numbers of sandhills. They were all hoping to spot the Asian crane or whoopers. I would have liked to have seen both, but was very satisfied with just the sandhills. We stayed about an hour and then drove on to Chattanooga for the night.

The kids swam for an hour and a half while Gene and I took turns watching them. We finally found a hotel with both a pool AND queen sized comfortable beds! The places we've stayed the past two nights have had full sized lumpy beds, so the good old Hampton has been luxurious! We're planning to do one of the touristy things in Chattanooga today and then possibly drive all the way home. We'll see how we feel. I think a lot of touristy things are closed tomorrow so we might not have a lot of options for things to do. I'd love to go to one of the state parks in southern Illinois and hike and bird, but I'm guessing I'm the only one who wants to do that :) We'll see... Oh, and the kids want to stay up until midnight tonight and celebrate the new year. I'm pretty sure the only way I will accomplish that is if we're driving, lol.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Aquarium Fun

We dropped Duncan at the vet's office to board as soon as they opened at 8am Wednesday morning and then hit the road. My, oh my, Illinois is a long state! We stopped for photos with the giant Superman statue in Metropolis and I was a bit disappointed that he was wearing a Santa hat since it's AFTER Christmas, but I guess we'll remember the time of year. We hit a bag of garbage on the highway and had to stop to remove it from under the car. The kids found that minor inconvenience hilarious and really, it was. We didn't stop again until we were deep in the mountains and we stopped to eat and pick up a couple of things at Walmart. We then drove on to a suburb of Atlanta and stopped for the night. It was a long day of driving, but the kids did great and everyone was happy to be getting away.

Thursday morning we got to the Georgia Aquarium right after opening. We walked right up to the ticket window and then headed directly to the whale shark viewing tube. We had the whole area practically to ourselves! The kids were blown away by the huge whale sharks and manta rays! Usually, one of our big favorites at aquariums is sawfish. The sawfish were all over the tunnel area, but we hardly noticed them with four huge whale sharks swimming just feet from us. We then beat the crowds to the beluga viewing area and got lots of fun interaction. I love the rare opportunity to see an octopus, but usually they are crammed into a corner or rock and you can just see a small part of them OR the tank is so dimly lit you only see a silhouette. The octopus was moving all over its well-lit tank. The sea otters had just been fed and were very active. The rays in the touch tank WANTED my kids to pet them. The dolphin show was a little silly with singing and pointless drama, but the parts that contained actual dolphins were incredible! The place was packed by the time we left, but it was a fantastic experience. I bet I've taken the kids to at least 40-50 different zoos and aquariums and this was easily their favorite.

We then headed across the park to the World of Coca-Cola. The kids were really looking forward to this place. It was early afternoon and BUSY. They have three areas to slow crowd flow before allowing you into the main museum area, but we still waited at least 30 minutes in line for the uber-cheesy vault tour to see the safe where the secret formula is stored. It was so dumb :) We then went through a couple of memorabilia areas, an area that showed old television commercials and a bumpy "4D" movie that was pretty fun. The bottling plant tour (they give you a souvenir bottle of Coke when you leave) was really cool. Finally, we got to the tasting area, with 60 different flavors of Coke products from around the world. It was fantastic! The special flavor was gingerbread Coke which was delicious. We then tried sips of dozens of crazy flavors from around the world. Everything from watermelon to apple to vegetable soda. The Asian flavors were our favorites and the European our least favorite. We all had to retry the infamous and disgusting Beverly of Epcot fame. It's Italian and one of the worst drinks I've tasted. The tasting area was by far the best part of the tour and while very fun, I don't know if I'd go back to the World of Coke. I'm glad we did it once.

Logan has decided that he hates elevators and urban areas, so we headed to the suburbs to find a hotel for the night. We stopped at a huge shopping mall with a Lego store. The mall reminded me of a combo between Woodfield and Gurnee Mills malls near Chicago. However, instead of being at all uppity and high class, it was filled with weird mall things from the past. They had one of those virtual reality box rides that were popular in the 80s and a big section of shiatsu massage chairs from the 90s. It was like having the store selection of a nice urban mall in the building of the Pekin mall. I normally only tolerate malls if they have Lego stores, but I enjoyed this one very much. We found a Drury Inn with an indoor/outdoor pool and the kids are in heaven. I would totally book it for another night, but I think we're going to head back to Tennessee after we go to Zoo Atlanta today.

The place I'm planning to go to see the huge sandhill crane migration is all over the internet because an Asian hooded crane that is NEVER seen in the United States has been spotted. It is such big news that it was actually #3 in the top ten searches on Yahoo yesterday. Birders from 32 states have gone to this place in hopes of seeing the rare crane. I'm a bit bummed because I was assuming I'd have the place to myself. Oh well... We can't have everything :) Otherwise, the trip is going great and we're having a blast!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Vacation time!

I'm on vacation, I'm on vacation! (Sing along and do a little dance.) I'm up bright and early doing laundry and finishing packing. We're heading to Atlanta in a few hours. We plan to go to the aquarium and the Coke museum for sure, possibly the zoo and a Lego store, and on the way home stop at a wildlife refuge in Tennessee that is the winter home to tens of thousands of sandhill cranes. I'm excited about getting away for a few days and then still having several days off at home. Yay!

The long Christmas weekend turned out pretty great. The kids spent lots of time playing with their cousins and had a blast. Gene's family gathering was a little disappointing because that's usually the only time they get to play with their cousins on that side of the family and they were with their dad. Logan was happy to watch the Bears/Packers game with the men and Kaylin, Jeff and I put together a puzzle Kaylin received as a gift, so we had fun anyway. Monday night we took Kaylin's cotton candy maker to Grandma K's. It was a big hit and hilarious to be in the middle of 10 kids scrambling to make their preferred flavor. I think I made cotton candy non-stop for close to an hour and watched the little wisps of candy float through the air onto Grandma's hanging lamp. I probably spent 10 minutes cleaning that lamp when the candy making was finally over :) I'm still shocked at what a good toy the cotton candy maker turned out to be! Usually those types of toys are complete junk, but this one actually works.

Well, I better get packin'. Hooray!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Merry Christmas

It's 5pm on Friday and I'm still in my pajamas. It's my normal day off, but Gene and the kids are all off too. We opened Christmas presents this morning and have spent the day playing new video games, playing with toys and just lounging around. Kaylin got a cotton candy machine that makes cotton candy from hard candy. We've tried different varieties of Lifesavers as well as peppermints and spearmint. Surprisingly, the mint varieties are subtle and delicious and the Lifesavers are a little too sweet. It's a really fun toy and I can't wait to try butterscotch and rootbeer sometime.

Despite my not so subtle hints that "I" am Santa, my kids refuse to stop believing in the fat elf. I really don't think they are messing with me, but who knows? This year we found a good deal on an XBox with Kinect video game bundle and that's what Santa brought for the whole family. He didn't bring anything for the kids individually, but they were very impressed with their big haul.

I used to stress over the kids getting up and finding me in the living room filling stockings, but now I put wrapping paper over their doors and the hallway entrance and they can't see me. Then they get to bust through the paper to get to their presents. Fun times. Gene and I don't usually do big gifts for each other, but we try to get something silly the other person will actually like. This year I got Gene a toaster that burns the White Sox logo onto the toast and he got me an Angry Birds pig stocking cap with a tassel on top. I think we were both pretty happy. I know I was!

I really need to go grocery shopping, but I keep reading facebook posts from people who spent an hour in line for a gallon of milk. No thanks! I think I'll stay in my pajamas and try to go early tomorrow morning. I'm off tomorrow (as usual) and then have to work Sunday and Monday before getting the next 12 days off. I can't wait to be on vacation!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Christmas Bird Count

I should probably fact check before I start writing, but I don't feel like it. Anyway, on Saturday I participated in the 120th(ish) Audubon Christmas Bird Count. These counts are done all over the country (I know of 4 separate counts in my general area- areas don't overlap) and then the numbers are tallied to get a good idea of the overall bird populations. Basically, you count and classify every bird you see from your recorded starting time to recorded ending time. Peoria is divided into 7 areas that cover a 15 mile radius from the center of town. Only two of the areas were actually in the city and the rest were in surrounding towns and rural areas. The area I counted was bordered by War Memorial Drive on the south, the river on the east, Route 6 on the west and near Dunlap on the north. We spent a lot of time hiking Forest Park Nature Center and also made several stops at golf courses, Detweiller Park, Rock Island Trail, schools, driving through neighborhoods, etc. We also made several stops along the river, but our stretch of river is wide and open and not much of a bird sanctuary. We saw several bald eagles, but only three ducks, a few gulls and a lone Canada goose.

We started out at the Forest Park Nature Center parking lot at 5:45am. The idea was to play owl calls and try to attract owls to the lighted parking lot where we could actually see them. Unfortunately, there was so much traffic noise it didn't work. We moved on to Detweiller Park and tried the same thing. We attracted one barred owl that we actually saw. We tried for great horned owls at the Mt. Hawley golf course, but they had delivery trucks and a very loud garbage truck and we got no results. Oh well, even one owl is pretty cool!

By this time it was starting to get light so we stopped at Panera for breakfast while we waited for the birds to come out. We then started counting every bird we saw. I was terrified I wouldn't be able to identify half the birds, but I was wrong. We didn't see one bird I couldn't ID. It seems our winter selection of birds in town is not that diverse. Our highest numbers went to chickadees, juncos, ring-billed gulls, starlings and rock pigeons. We saw dozens of downy and red-bellied woodpeckers, along with dozens of nuthatches and house sparrows. There were some cardinals and goldfinches scattered in, but even hiking miles through FPNC, we didn't see a huge diversity of sparrows. Probably our highlight was a huge group of 61 turkeys. That was pretty fun to watch!

One thing I learned and was very surprised about is how rare red-headed woodpeckers and flickers have become. As a child watching feeder birds, those were the only woodpeckers I knew. Red-headed woodpeckers made a nest in the wooden paneling right at the head of my bed and then had a bunch of noisy babies. I'm pretty sure they used that nest at least two years. I saw red-headed woodpeckers all the time. Flickers, too! During the count we were specifically watching for these guys (along with pileated) and didn't see ANY.

All told, we were out birding for 9 1/2 hours. It was a long day, but very fun and I learned a lot. I will try to do the Peoria count every year. This year was excellent because it was relatively warm- never below the upper 20s and up to nearly 40F by the time we quit. I was still so cold when I got home I didn't think I'd ever get warm. Last year was 10F and I can't imagine doing what we did in those conditions!

Friday, December 16, 2011


This week was nuts! I'm a big fan of coming home after work, showering and plunking myself into my chair to hang out with my kids, pets, husband and computer. This week I had meetings or activities every night. The two highlights were Kaylin's winter band concert and my work Christmas party.

Kaylin's concert was Tuesday night. It was rainy and I was cold and wet from work and forced to rush home and shower, change and eat as fast as possible. Logan was a complete disaster, whining and making excuses about why he shouldn't have to go. I believe in family support. I mean, how many baseball games did Kaylin attend? It's not like she loved them! I told him he could take his DS game and that Grandpa and Grandma would be there. He had worked himself into a frenzy when he offered me $20 to stay home. This is the kid who NEVER spends any of his money. Ever. At this point he had made way too much of a jerk of himself to take it back. HA! I was going to teach him a hard lesson. I accepted the money and he went to his room, stunned.

We went to the concert, laughing all the way about Logan's bad move and how we bet he never would have thought I'd take his beloved money. Then the concert started... The three levels of band played. The band director went on and on about some new piano thing the PTO bought and then had two kids play very long demos to show how wonderful it is. Then the choir performed with much more talk about the new piano that had some other name and is extremely wonderful and loved and the best PTO purchase in the history of the world. Wow, this concert is getting long! Time for the four levels of orchestra. I don't think the director talked about the new piano, but his accent was so thick I'm not positive what he talked about. He talked and talked and talked and then individually tuned each student's instrument. Then he talked between each of the songs and retuned instruments and took as long as band, new piano demos and choir combined! After a long day of physical labor and being on my feet, two hours glued to a bleacher bench was torture. I felt like every muscle in my body was tensing and I had to keep standing and stretching. The concert finally ended and I'm a little surprised the orchestra director wasn't attacked! I have never heard such rumblings of discontent from an audience of proud family members. The kids all were wonderful and did a great job, but it was the worst concert ever!

We arrived home to a happy boy cuddled in Gene's chair with the dog, watching his favorite show, Storm Trackers. I admitted to myself that NO lesson had been learned and that the $20 was probably the best money Logan had ever spent. I donated the money to a good cause and life goes on. Now I just wonder if I can pay Kaylin $20 to get out of her spring concert?

Thursday night was my work Christmas party. It was another night of rushing home to shower and change to try to get there by 6pm. The party location was right up the street from the zoo so I had hoped to just go straight from work, but I helped with a vet procedure that left me covered in feces so showering/clothing change were not optional. It absolutely amazes me how much our staff has grown in the past few years since the Africa area opened. Including significant others, I bet there were around 40 people there. Colleen, Roz and I sang my stupid Christmas song and then we had our annual white elephant gift exchange. We play that you can choose a new gift or steal an opened one, with two steals before the item is out of play. I drew number 3 which is sort of a bummer because even if there's anything worth stealing, it will likely get stolen again. I unwrapped a John Wayne DVD and figured Gene would probably like it. Later, someone unwrapped a boxed set of Pez presidents. I was shocked because I never even knew it existed. Man, I wanted those Pez. They were immediately stolen once. A few more people took their turn and then my boss stole the John Wayne DVD, leaving me open to make the final steal on the Pez dispensers. Thanks, Boss! It's a set of the first five presidents and is really cool. I usually end up with some hideous doll or figurine (or a whole bunch of them) that make their way to Goodwill. The party itself was fun enough but walking out with a set of Pez presidents made it even better!

Saturday I'm participating in the Christmas Bird Count. I'm meeting my team at Forest Park Nature Center at 5:45am and have no idea what to expect. We cover a predetermined area, but I don't know exactly what the area is or if we count from dawn til dusk or for a few hours or what. I'm really excited because we're going early to look for owls. My favorite!

Speaking of owls, I was driving to the zoo dump the other afternoon around 4pm. It was getting dark and I was looking for birds. I had just thought "It's a good time to look for owls" when a barred owl swooped in front of me and landed on a tree. I watched it for a minute before it moved on. Very cool! I've also had a bald eagle perched in a tree right outside my building several times this week. I've seen plenty of eagles flying over the zoo and park, but have never seen one perched in a tree right off the main path.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A Long December

Well, I've been out of the cast for a week and my foot is doing much better. I think the cast was messing up my ankle/leg/knees/back so much that I couldn't tell where the pain was coming from. I told the doc I couldn't take it anymore and he picked up the battered boot that's been repadded and had a piece of craft foam as a toe guard and said "Maybe you need a new cast." I can only imagine the look on my face because he quickly decided to wrap my foot with a bandage and try that instead. He also pressed on my injured tendon and said it wasn't nearly as bad as I thought it was. I worked 4 days in the bandage with my regular work boots and most of my other pain went away. My ankle is still a bit weak, but when I returned to the doctor on Monday he was shocked at how much better I was. He admitted that he in no way thought the bandage would work. I asked about unloading a hay truck and he looked at me like I was completely insane and said "No." I don't know what will happen with my foot- if it will get better or if my tendon will one day just snap when I walk up one step. The doc couldn't give me any feedback either way. He just said something stupid like "I don't know how you can love that job." Well buddy, I don't know how you can work with smelly, nasty feet all day!

The kitten spent most of the first week the Christmas tree was up climbing the tree and removing the ornaments. She still plays in it sometimes, but most of the novelty is gone. All of the "good" ornaments are clustered in a tiny area at the very top and most of the rest of the ornaments are on the ground. It's not worth replacing them over and over, but I can't bring myself to put them away. Duncan has chewed up a couple of wooden ornaments but has otherwise left the tree alone. Tiger would love to climb the tree but he's too fat.

Today is my one month mark since quitting diet soda. I do miss it a lot, but I'm not really craving it. I mean, I WANT it, but I don't think about it or have to occupy myself with other things to try to put it out of my mind. I miss the taste and the fizz. Plain tea and water just don't match soda. My diet is going okay, but I still can't exercise outside of work so the weight is coming off slowly. I haven't eaten meat in a month, but I can't keep vegan. It's nearly impossible to not have SOME dairy or eggs in things. I'm trying to avoid cheese unless I eat out, but avoiding animal products altogether is too hard when I lack the political drive and self-righteousness one needs for this kind of diet.

The kids are crazy with excitement for Christmas and a break from school. I have 12 days off starting the Tuesday after Christmas and we're planning to go somewhere fun. Atlanta is a major finalist because both Kaylin and Logan want to go to the aquarium to see whale sharks. They also want to go to the Coke museum to try all the different flavors. If we go there I think I'll have to end my soda ban for a day. They also want to go to St. Louis to City Museum. I guess we'll see what the weather's like and how we feel. We have a TON of stuff to do around the house so maybe a shorter trip would be better.