Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Longest Shortest Month

This winter can end anytime. I pretty much always hate February and find it the longest, most disagreeable month, but February 2014 wins for worst ever. I actually got used to the bitter cold. It was amazing how the first day of sub-zero temps literally took my breath away and forced me to wear many layers and toe warmers. By the 20th day I was only wearing gloves if I was driving the Gator a long distance or shoveling snow. Ah, shoveling snow... It seemed like nearly every day I was shoveling out barn doors and gates, shoveling walking paths to buildings and water spigots, shoveling clean eating areas for animals and even shoveling pee paths for my dogs at home. Ah, water spigots... I can't even count all of the times my water was frozen in certain areas and I had to tote dozens of 5 gallon buckets from other areas. How many days I was unable to hose a particular barn because the water line was frozen, how many days the wallabies had to stay inside due to snow that would either cover them or go up to their necks. It's just been a long and frustrating time for everyone as well as for most of the zoo animals.

One good thing about February is that I usually have time I have to take off work. We get time-and-a-half "E-time" rather than paid overtime. We also have to work 365 days a year, so unless I specifically ask for Christmas or Labor Day off, I work. I am still given X number of paid holidays off each year, but I work most of them. That time also transitions to E-time so I end up with a lot of extra time off. By union contract, we have to have our E-time down to 80 hours by a certain date or they have to pay us, so the keepers end up with tons of time off during February and March. My February time off was requested well in advance, but it couldn't possibly have been better timing. I was getting so stir crazy and cabin fever-y that I'm sure I was awful to be around.

The weekend of Valentine's Day, I was supposed to take Kaylin and her friend Kira to St. Louis for my cousin's baby's birthday party (as well as a weekend of fun), but the predicted 1-2 inches of snow turned into a blizzard that canceled our trip. The girls were extremely disappointed and angry with me, but they couldn't possibly have understood how much I needed that time as well. We will reschedule sometime soon, but it won't be the same. Another weather-related annoyance is that all of my regular birding areas are closed due to deep snow nobody is bothering to plow. Even simple places like the park at the end of my street where Logan and I go owling and the marina across from the park are inaccessible due to deep snow. My feet just aren't good enough to go hiking in deep snow (I can't wear boots, or if I do absolutely have to wear them, I have to save that short time for work when I have no choice) so I have been staying home. The snow is getting so old and boring that even the kids don't play in it anymore. Even the young neighbor boys are opting to stay inside playing video games. I am not made for staying home! I'm going crazy!

I finally did get a little adventure. I took off last Wednesday through this Tuesday to burn some E-time. Logan and I have been wanting to go back to Duluth, MN, ever since our trip 2 years ago. Two years ago was that weird non-winter where the temps around here seemed to hover around 45F and we got almost no snow. I knew Duluth was a big gamble this year, but I had been watching extended forecasts and was optimistic we'd be able to pull it off. It was going to be COLD, but we were used to that and there was hardly any snow in the forecast. We decided to leave Wednesday after school to avoid Thursday's predicted thunderstorms in Illinois. I checked the Duluth forecast right before we left home at 3pm. It said 1-2 inches of snow for Thursday. Pffff, that's probably not even a light dusting for Duluth! By the time we arrive that will be gone and there was no more snow predicted through Sunday. By the time we stopped for the night at a hotel near Wisconsin Dells, the Duluth forecast had changed to 9 inches of snow Thursday, with gusty winds Friday. Hmmm, the places we were planning to go were very rural and not likely to be well-plowed, if plowed at all. I drive a tiny Toyota, not a four wheel drive monster truck. I told Logan we'd wait and see what the forecast was in the morning, but we would probably need to come up with a Plan B. By morning, the Duluth forecast had changed to 15-18 inches. Uhhh... I looked at weather.com on Friday or Saturday and Superior, Wisconsin, which is on the other side of a bridge from Duluth, was listed as number 1 for most snowfall from that storm at 18 inches. It was definitely good that we didn't go!

The Wisconsin Dells area was predicted to have freezing rain in the morning followed by regular rain the rest of the day and maybe an inch of snow at night. I figured we'd stick around the area Thursday and Thursday night and come up with a Plan B of maybe heading toward Lake Michigan in search of snowy owls. I checked Expedia for good hotel rates for Wis Dells and found one of the major waterpark resorts for only $99. I booked it, but check-in time wasn't until 4pm and it was only 8am. Even Logan's favorite arcade/amusement center didn't open until 11am. We decided to see how the roads were and if they were good enough, head up to Necedah National Wildlife Refuge. The roads turned out to be dry and fine. There were so many local school closings and delays I had been worried, but even the extremely rural back roads to the NWR were no problem. I didn't even have ice on my car windows! We hiked around the visitor center at Necedah and then went inside to watch the bird feeders for a while. We were the only visitors on this cold Thursday morning, and the ladies working the desk were very attentive to our needs. I told them we had been headed to Duluth to go birding, but were stopped by the blizzard and were looking for somewhere to find snowy owls instead. One of them got very excited and told me about a prairie chicken conservation area about 45 miles away that was also a straight shot back to the Dells. She said she had seen a snowy owl there last weekend and that we had a good chance of finding prairie chickens. Whoa! Cool! She assured us there would be tons of other birders in the area and all we'd have to do is stop when we saw cars. Huh huh. I guess she wasn't thinking that it wasn't the weekend. We passed exactly one other car the entire 2-3 hours we were there and I think it was a resident rather than a birder.

Anyway, this place turned out to be miles and miles of grassy snow-covered fields. We slowly drove and drove and drove, scanning the fields for prairie chickens and snowy owls. We found lots of snow buntings and even a dead sheep on the side of the road, but no chickens or owls. I was about to give up in boredom, when suddenly Logan spotted an owl on the ground out in the middle of a field. I have no idea how he saw it, but the kid IS amazing at spotting owls! We stopped and got out and watched it for a long time. We eventually got back in the car and drove on, only to find a second, much closer owl about 50 yards up the street. It was sooooooooo cool! Fueled by our excitement, we did another hour of field scanning, but found no more owls and no chickens. We did see two northern shrikes, so that was exciting, too. We were finally so hungry we had to head back to civilization. Oh, and it never rained one drop until ~3pm when it rained lightly for a while.

I had no idea where to find our resort, but the route we took from the grasslands to the Dells conveniently took us straight there. It was a happy surprise! They allowed us to check in an hour early and rather than swimming or going to the arcade immediately, Logan just wanted me to upload the snowy owl pics to facebook. Friday turned out to be extremely windy. Extreme wind usually equals poor birding, so we opted to spend the day in the Dells having fun. Plus, we already found our owls so there was no pressing need to go to (ugh) Milwaukee to possibly find more. We stayed at the resort and played at the waterpark until around 2pm. I don't think I mentioned before, but we stayed at Chula Vista and it was very nice. I'd like to go back in the summer when everything is open. The indoor waterpark had some great fun slides, as well as a water coaster, a lazy river, several kiddie areas and a huge hot tub. I'm usually not the biggest fan of swimming, but this place was fun! They had a tube slide with a "toilet bowl" spinner that was so much fun I actually went on it 4 times. I also tried the water coaster, mat slide and body slide and spent a fair amount of time in the hot tub where I found a jet that perfectly hit my bad calf/ankle. We moved on to Knuckleheads, Logan's favorite indoor arcade/amusement center and played lots of games and won some crappy ticket redemption prizes. I also won two balls from a skill crane. Oh, yeah! We stopped at the Cheese Store on our way out of town and then had to decide what we were going to do the rest of our trip.

I thought maybe Logan would want to head on home and make his flag football game on Saturday. He did not. It was super windy and driving on the highway was a bit scary. We ended up driving a little past Rockford and staying in Rochelle, Illinois. Saturday morning we headed to Starved Rock. We checked out the dam visitor's center across from the park, but the water was open so there weren't too many eagles.The water was really high and there was lots of mud, so we didn't go hiking. We took the long way home and drove the Illinois River Scenic Byway on the west side of the river, stopping where we might see birds. The bridge in Henry was our best stop, with eagles soaring right over our heads and geese flocking in from all directions. We had a fun trip, but as always, it was good to get home to Gene and Kaylin and the pets. I spent Sunday and Monday both taking care of business and relaxing. I took the girls to the giant flea market on Sunday where we bought nothing, but had a good time. Today I have a lunch meeting with the woman who used to do the Audubon newsletter. I am a bit frightened to learn how much work the newsletter will involve. I'm pretty sure it's a lot. I'm heading back to work tomorrow just in time for negative temperatures once again, but at least I only have a 2 day work week. This long, long shortest month is almost over!