Saturday, May 11, 2013

At Your Doorstep: Finding Nature in Unexpected Places

A break at a rest area on I-57 revealed a hidden sanctuary.

Always in my front seat during road trips!
On a drive back to Chicago from Alabama, I stopped at a rest area in Southern Illinois to stretch and pick up some caffeine.  The stop turned out to be way more rejuvenating than expected after I found a hiking trail behind the rest area.  Though it was only a short walk from the busy highway, the wetland was bursting with bright spring leaves and the songs of countless birds in the greenery.  

Grassland and agricultural fields
surrounded the wetland preserve.
Being amply prepared with a field guide and my binoculars (which are never far from hand), I was promptly able to spot lots of birds, including an Eastern Meadowlark, singing rambunctiously, and a Northern Flicker, busily pecking at the skeleton of a tree.  Returning to my car, I felt refreshed, and reminded myself that nature is all around us, and that some of the most beautiful gems are located just out of sight, but always right within reach.


Forrest Cortes
For Tomorrow

Turn up the volume on your computer and enjoy the clip of this wetland:

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Year of The Bird(ing)

Tips and tricks for aspiring birders

by Forrest Cortes, Director, For Tomorrow

Midway through 2012 I started to get into birding.  Growing up, I always had a small pair of binoculars on hand during hiking and camping trips, and I enjoyed naming backyard birds, but never realized that I could make a hobby out of just looking at birds.  But many of my colleagues bird, and the enthusiasm of my ornithology professor was contagious so I gave birding a shot.  I was instantly hooked and decided seek out as many species as possible before the year was up (see my list below).  The best part about birding is that it can be as casual, or invested as you like; from identifying birds while walking the dog to driving across the country to witness tens of thousands of hawks funnel through Hawk Mountain Pennsylvania during their southbound migration.

My 2012 Bird List
In just half a year, between classes and work, I was able to see nearly
100 different species of birds.
After some online research and asking around for expert advice, I discovered that there are only two items that a birder really needs: The Sibley Guide to Birds and a pair of binoculars.  Choosing any piece of scientific equipment can be a daunting task, but selecting a pair of binoculars need not be.  Perhaps most confusing is the set of numbers in the binocular description (ex. 7x35 or 8x40).  The first number in the set is the magnification/power of the lens.  The general consensus seems to be that a pair with 7x-8x magnification works best for birding.  It's important to remember that higher magnification (above 8x) isn't always better; as you increase magnification you sacrifice image stability and, field of view (narrower image makes it harder to locate and follow a bird). The second number in the set is the size of the objective lens.  A larger objective lens lets in more light (a good thing) but contributes significantly to the overall weight of the binoculars.  I purchased the Nikon Action 7x35 Ultra-wide Binocular and really love this model so far.  I would recommend this model or a similar mid-sized model because it's relatively lightweight and affordable without compromising quality and it offers a good balance between magnification and stability.  Avoid "zoom" binoculars at all costs and only purchase "compact" models if those are the only options within your price range...You get what you pay for!

Blue heron atop a tree near the
Chicago lakefront.
A flock of cedar waxwings feeds on
juniper berries in Southern Wisconsin.
Once you have your equipment, there is not much else to birding but getting out and enjoying the experience.  One thing that I've learned from this past half-year is that you need only switch from one habitat to another to see a completely new array of birds.  Birds are bursting with variation so a day trip from a nearby woodland to a marshland or lakefront across the city can potentially unveil as many different species as a transition from one state to another.  

Season and weather can have a profound impact on bird presence in an area.  Be aware of seasonal species range (found in your handy bird guide or online), migration patterns, and local weather to maximize your birding success.  As a colleague is always quick to remind me, some of the best birding tips are often the simple ones that we forget; for example, remember to dress for the weather, to read the instruction booklet that comes with the binoculars, and to wear the strap of the binoculars "purse-style"over one shoulder rather than around your neck or not at all (I still catch myself forgetting this one).  Another tip (especially if you are heading out to locate a specific species) is to learn bird songs and calls.  Cornell's ornithology lab has a great online tool and app with bird calls and songs:  Based on call identification, my ornithology class was once able to sniff out two species of marshland wrens that are notoriously difficult to locate using sight alone                       

Black-crowned night heron stands near its nest.
Green heron waits for aquatic prey at the edge of a pond.
Birding is a great hobby that can be as nonchalant or strictly scientific as you want.  If nothing else, it's a great excuse to be outside and get in touch with nature.  Being prepared will help you make the most of your experience... Now stop reading and get outside!

Additional Reading:
-Cornell Lab of Ornithology's All About Birds: Online Bird Guide:
-More on choosing the right binoculars:

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Batty Misconceptions

Bats have been a staple of horror movies and cultural legends for decades, and somewhere along the way, these animals earned a reputation that they didn't quite deserve.  Bat behavioral ecologist Julia Kilgour sees more in bats than most people.  Bats were the focus of her master's degree at University of Regina and she has a specialty in urban-wildlife conflicts.  Kilgour understands that many people hold pre-conceived notions of these animals, but knows that many of these are simply not true, "Not only do bats represent a quarter of all mammal species, and are found all over the world, but they are also very misunderstood. Unfortunately there are so many myths about bats that people don't know how great and beneficial they are!" In this article, we will address some of these batty myths and hopefully encourage our fellow humans to live in harmony with our truly miraculous, furry, flying neighbors.

Bats aren't scary or mean animals:
Bats are common near human 

settlements, but are very misunderstood.

Many bats are highly social animals that live in family groups called colonies.  Like most wild animals, they prefer to avoid humans; we're bigger, and more of a threat to them than they are to us.  

Bats aren't bloodsucking monsters:
Most bats don't feed on blood.  In fact, there are only three species of vampire bat; that's less than .03% of all known bat species!

Out of all their relatives, vampire bats often have the worst reputation. While these bats do feed off blood to survive, they are small animals and the average vampire bat only consumes 1 tablespoon of blood per feeding!  These species represent some of the most social bats . Vampire bats have even been documented feeding sick and elderly members of their colonies!

DIY: Bat House

Difficulty: Moderate/Difficult     Cost: Moderate     Best time to build:  Spring/Summer/Fall

During Halloween season, there are a lot of paper and plastic bats hanging around! And after our celebrations are over, bats will still be hanging around and looking for a place to hibernate in the winter and rear their young in the summer. Our little friends have been depicted as scary vampires for years, but in truth, most bats eat insects, like mosquitoes, while others eat fruit and nectar from plants. Bats are widely distributed throughout the world and are an important part of most ecosystems. 

Why a build a Bat House?
Unfortunately, in the northeastern regions of North America, bats are suffering from White Nose Syndrome, an infection named for the white fungus that grows on the muzzles and wings of bats during hibernation. White Nose Syndrome has been associated with the death of millions of bats since its identification in 2006. Not much is known about the syndrome, but some bats have shown an adaptation to roost alone, preventing the spread of the disease.

Building a bat house is a good way to support populations in your area, whether or not White Nose Syndrome has reached your state.  Especially because deforestation has destroyed many tree trunk roosting sites for bats.  Bats need narrow roosting space to raise their young, and this season, we can give back to our ecosystem by providing our furry little neighbors with a place to live. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Vote This November, Vote For Tomorrow

In a democratic system, one of the most potent tools at a citizen's disposal is his or her vote.  Election time is our chance to push the country in the right direction and make sure that our concerns are addressed.  The upcoming presidential election is no exception.  This November, we will make a decision about the future of our nation's environment.  By choosing a presidential candidate who makes the environment a priority, we are telling the government that we value our natural resources and will fully support a candidate who stands to protect these resources. 

While you cannot run a country solely on an environmental platform, you cannot ensure the sustainable health of a country without a strong environmental platform based on scientific fact.  Statements made by Mitt Romney illustrate a disconnect between the candidate and the scientific community.  His failure to acknowledge current scientific consensus puts him at odds to create an effective environmental policy that will safeguard our nation’s natural resources and ensure a healthy future for our country.  His running mate, Paul Ryan has demonstrated a similar distain for environmental protection in his voting record throughout his time in congress.  Add in the Republican campaign’s blind allegiance to coal energy, and it is clear that the election of Romney and Ryan into the executive office would not bode well for the environment.

The Obama/Biden campaign has not only shown a dedication to voting to protect the environment, but has also demonstrated a leadership role in initiating efforts aimed at the wise-use of natural resources and protection of threatened species.  The democratic candidates are proven leaders in all five of the categories listed in our election guide and have continually made environmental protection a priority.  As such, President Obama and Vice President Biden have received endorsement for reelection by numerous environmental groups including: Sierra Club, League of Conservation Voters, Environment America, and Clean Water Action Fund.

Come November, I will cast my vote keeping the countless vanishing species, shrinking expanses of wilderness, and increasingly volatile climate in mind.  And I encourage the educated, environmentally conscious voter to do the same, because it is our job to vote For Tomorrow.

Forrest Cortes

For Tomorrow

Monday, October 1, 2012

2012 Election Guide

The Environmentally Conscious Voter's Guide to the 2012 Presidential Election

A strong environmental platform that protects fragile ecosystems, promotes the wise use of our natural resources, and shifts our energy consumption toward renewable sources is paramount to the continued health and prosperity of our nation.  As voters in a democratic country, we have a duty to vote for the candidates who will fight to protect our environment and keep these issues at the forefront of their agenda. This guide evaluates the republican and democratic presidential campaigns in five main categories based on past voting history and statements made by the candidates on those subjects.  The following information was obtained from past political records (courtesy of, verbal and written statements by the candidates, and the campaign pages of the candidates.  The candidates are compared within each category listed below.


Climate Change and Environmental Pollution


“I am uncertain how much of the [global] warming, however, is attributable to man and how much is attributable to factors out of our control. I do not support radical feel-good policies like a unilateral U.S. cap-and-trade mandate. Such policies would have little effect on climate but could cripple economic growth with devastating results for people across the planet.” 
No Apology by Mitt Romney p. 227
Romney plans to loosen greenhouse gas regulations by excluding carbon dioxide emissions from the scope of the Clean Air Act

✓ "My plan will continue to reduce the carbon pollution that is heating our planet, because climate change is not a hoax. More droughts and floods and wildfires are not a joke. They are a threat to our children's future." 
–Obama, Democratic National Convention nomination acceptance speech September 6, 2012
✓ Obama co-sponsored the Boxer-Sanders Global Warming Pollution Reduction Act, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and provide a plan to reach target greenhouse gas reductions
✓ Biden co-sponsored the Boxer-Sanders Global Warming Pollution Reduction Act, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and provide a plan to reach target greenhouse gas reductions