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Recent entries


Through the Lens

Rend Lake Resort

Mon, September 23, 2019

Yesterday was a typical late September pre-dawn visit to Wayne Fitzgerrell SRA.  “Fitz” as we local like to call the park is favorite spot of mine – even more so this time of year as the leaves start turn, the fall bite on Rend starts to heat up and the deer and turkey start to show us what lies ahead for hunting in just a couple of weeks.

The early morning anglers were putting in at Sailboat Harbor – likely to look for crappie or catfish along “the rocks” of the IL State Route 154 bridge and causeway.

I had to wait a few minutes to turn into the park – several pickup trucks with dog boxes and beagles headed to the Goshen Trail Beagle Club event had the right of way.  Just on eo the many sporting dog events frequently held at Fitz.

I was scurrying just a bit – one eye on the sky and trying to calculate just how many minutes I would have of the pinks and oranges that were coloring up the eastern horizon. The smell of wood smoke from early breakfast campfires wafted out of the campgrounds. Young and still too nosy for their own good deer scampered around the edges of fields and across the road.  A flock of turkeys meandered across the road – quite unconcerned that they were costing me those precious few minutes that we photographers have to work with at sunrise and sunset.

As I rounded the bend to Hickman’s Point ramp – I couldn’t have been happier. Great sky, and two pleasant gentlemen and couple of boats at the well-maintained docks just added extra interest to the typical morning scene at Fitz.

As I sized up and shot frame after frame following the change in the quality and amount of light, I couldn’t help but be a little sad. Despite the flurry of early morning activity in the park – looking across the water at the now shuttered and empty resort, conference center, boatel and cabins – I was stuck by the emptiness of that portion of the park. When it was still open and operating it would be bustling at dawn – filled with field trailers, anglers, those just enjoying the beauty that is sunrise at Fitz. Wildlife watchers, walkers, folks heading out for a day on the water or the bike trail; all enjoying the special moments of early morning, eager to get the day of activities at Fitz underway.

Yesterday morning it was silent, empty and quiet. A blue heron and white egret having a little territorial tiff and a lone bald eagle circling were the only sign of activity.
As quick as it started, the sunrise photo op ended so I decided to drive around to the abandoned resort area and see what I could see.

The first thing I noticed was the lack of general care. Peeling paint, untrimmed weeds, even the barricades blocking the entrances looked sad and abandoned.  I did have to smile a little – the wildlife seemed quite unfazed by the neglect – perhaps even a little happy about it. A family of fat racoons waddled away from a couple of overturned trash cans at the hotel, along with a happy go lucky skunk trundling around grabbing grubs.  Two turkeys seemed fascinated by their reflections in the patio doors strutting and gobbling and I can only guess trying to figure why that other turkey just wasn’t responding like they expected.  Fat fox squirrels chased and rambled around the roof lines and disappeared into a few spots around the roof edges. As I drove over to the one famous Flagship boatel to see how things were looking – I noted a several groundhogs happily plundering the landscaping and then they quickly disappeared under the foundation edges when I got too close for comfort. There were at least a few trucks and boat trailers in the weedy parking lot – a sure sign that boat ramp there was indeed still being utilized.

Still in all it was sad sight. I remember they hey days when any other Sunday morning would have found the joint just a jumping with activity.  Slowly the sadness I felt began to smolder into anger.

It will soon be three YEARS since the facility abruptly closed following the 2016 Directors Hunt that was held there.  At the time of the abrupt and sudden closure DNR cited multiple factors – “IDNR has several concerns about the condition of the buildings at the Rend Lake Resort and Conference Center.  Mold, peeling paint, and other potential health and safety related discoveries led the Department to have safety concerns for visitors to the resort…The lease termination follows a notice from IDNR to Rend Lake Resort, Inc. last month that the firm was delinquent in rent and related lease payments totaling more than $205,000.  The IDNR is also of the understanding that the operator owes $14,000 in real estate taxes, $21,000 in utility payments, and $47,000 in hotel operator’s taxes.” Said IDNR in press release announcing the closure.

Since that fateful day in 2016 multiple requests for proposals have been issued by IDNR – each one announced with fanfare and alluding to the fact the resort would be open, up and running very soon.  Each time, no bids have been received. Each subsequent RFP has seen a little more in the way of incentives. Prospective vendors cited the high cost of mold remediation – so IDNR poured thousands upon thousands of dollar in mold remediation – nope that wasn’t enough, still no vendors. The next RFP saw a 1 million incentive added – nope still no takers. The most recent RFP (that is currently on its third extension and still no takers) increased the dollar incentives to 1.5 million total and gave prospective vendors the option to take on only a portion of the resort – such as the Marina, or the bar/restraunts instead of the resort as whole. Still as of today, with an October 3rd deadline looming, there have been no bids received.

There has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth, there have been some good ideas and concentrated efforts on the part of local tourism officials and politicians to bring in vendors but nothing that has resulted in any meaningful progress.
So, there it sits, continuing to deteriorate. So much so that one of the boatels has required demolition already. The specter of the recently burned Eagle Creek debacle hangs in the air and makes me wonder – Will Rend Lake Resort ultimately go the route of Eagle Creek?

Will it continue to sit empty and uncared for until it’s simply no longer feasible to re-open? I hope not, I sincerely hope not but I can’t seem to put my finger on anything that IDNR is really doing to remedy the situation.  I understand that in the current lean financial times it hardly makes sense to pour money into closed facility for maintenance and upkeep but on the other hand just allowing it fall into ruin doesn’t seem sensible either. Should IDNR perhaps explore operating the resort on its own while continuing to search for an adequate vendor or vendors to operate the facility?

Essentially, it’s time for IDNR to either fish or cut bait. Either renovate, open it, and make it the once vital region economic engine that the resort once was or give up now and just remove it all and redevelop that area of Wayne Fitzgerrell SRA. Reopen the ramps and docks that are closed – and just realize that the glory days for a resort at Rend Lake are over.


New Study Finds U.S. and Canada Have Lost More Than One In Four Birds in the Past 50 Years

Thu, September 19, 2019

A study published today in the journal Science reveals that since 1970, bird populations in the United States and Canada have declined by 29 percent, or almost 3 billion birds, signaling a widespread ecological crisis. The results show tremendous losses across diverse groups of birds and habitats — from iconic songsters such as meadowlarks to long-distance migrants such as swallows and backyard birds including sparrows.

“Multiple, independent lines of evidence show a massive reduction in the abundance of birds,” said Ken Rosenberg, the study’s lead author and a senior scientist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and American Bird Conservancy. “We expected to see continuing declines of threatened species. But for the first time, the results also showed pervasive losses among common birds across all habitats, including backyard birds.”

The study notes that birds are indicators of environmental health, signaling that natural systems across the U.S. and Canada are now being so severely impacted by human activities that they no longer support the same robust wildlife populations.

The findings show that of nearly 3 billion birds lost, 90 percent belong to 12 bird families, including sparrows, warblers, finches, and swallows — common, widespread species that play influential roles in food webs and ecosystem functioning, from seed dispersal to pest control.

Among the steep declines noted:

Grassland birds are especially hard hit, with a 53-percent reduction in population — more than 720 million birds — since 1970.

Shorebirds, most of which frequent sensitive coastal habitats, were already at dangerously low numbers and have lost more than one-third of their population.

The volume of spring migration, measured by radar in the night skies, has dropped by 14 percent in just the past decade.

“These data are consistent with what we’re seeing elsewhere with other taxa showing massive declines, including insects and amphibians,” said coauthor Peter Marra, senior scientist emeritus and former head of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and now director of the Georgetown Environment Initiative at Georgetown University. “It’s imperative to address immediate and ongoing threats, both because the domino effects can lead to the decay of ecosystems that humans depend on for our own health and livelihoods — and because people all over the world cherish birds in their own right. Can you imagine a world without birdsong?”

Evidence for the declines emerged from detection of migratory birds in the air from 143 NEXRAD weather radar stations across the continent in a period spanning over 10 years, as well as from nearly 50 years of data collected through multiple monitoring efforts on the ground.

“Citizen-science participants contributed critical scientific data to show the international scale of losses of birds,” said coauthor John Sauer of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). “Our results also provide insights into actions we can take to reverse the declines.” The analysis included citizen-science data from the North American Breeding Bird Survey coordinated by the USGS and the Canadian Wildlife Service — the main sources of long-term, large-scale population data for North American birds — the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, and Manomet’s International Shorebird Survey.

Although the study did not analyze the causes of declines, it noted that the steep drop in North American birds parallels the losses of birds elsewhere in the world, suggesting multiple interacting causes that reduce breeding success and increase mortality. It noted that the largest factor driving these declines is likely the widespread loss and degradation of habitat, especially due to agricultural intensification and urbanization.

Other studies have documented mortality from predation by free-roaming domestic cats; collisions with glass, buildings, and other structures; and pervasive use of pesticides associated with widespread declines in insects, an essential food source for birds. Climate change is expected to compound these challenges by altering habitats and threatening plant communities that birds need to survive. More research is needed to pinpoint primary causes for declines in individual species.

“The story is not over,” said coauthor Michael Parr, president of American Bird Conservancy. “There are so many ways to help save birds. Some require policy decisions such as strengthening the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. We can also work to ban harmful pesticides and properly fund effective bird conservation programs. Each of us can make a difference with everyday actions that together can save the lives of millions of birds — actions like making windows safer for birds, keeping cats indoors, and protecting habitat.”

The study also documents a few promising rebounds resulting from galvanized human efforts. Waterfowl (ducks, geese, and swans) have made a remarkable recovery over the past 50 years, made possible by investments in conservation by hunters and billions of dollars of government funding for wetland protection and restoration. Raptors such as the Bald Eagle have also made spectacular comebacks since the 1970s, after the harmful pesticide DDT was banned and recovery efforts through endangered species legislation in the U.S. and Canada provided critical protection.

“It’s a wake-up call that we’ve lost more than a quarter of our birds in the U.S. and Canada,” said coauthor Adam Smith from Environment and Climate Change Canada. “But the crisis reaches far beyond our individual borders. Many of the birds that breed in Canadian backyards migrate through or spend the winter in the U.S. and places farther south — from Mexico and the Caribbean to Central and South America. What our birds need now is an historic, hemispheric effort that unites people and organizations with one common goal: bringing our birds back.”


Making Squirrels Great Again

Thu, August 01, 2019

Let’s face it squirrel hunting – that long held traditional way to build hunters and woodsmen has fallen from grace.

R3 and hunter recruitment programs bypass the lowly squirrel in favor of focusing on large game, turkey, waterfowl, and in the process miss out on the critical foundation building that squirrel hunting provides not just young hunters but any new hunter.

Squirrels are not glamorous. There aren’t Squirrel Pro Staff positions. No Squirrels Unlimited conservation groups. Squirrels and squirrel hunting seem to have lost its “cool” factor. Folks don’t seem to see three or four squirrels on your belt or in your vest as the same quality “trophy” as a big buck, a tom with a full fan, strap full of greenheads. The squirrel has been relegated to lowly little rodent “tree rat” status, and that’s extremely sad. 

Generations of us began our lifelong love of hunting and being afield as wee little ones tagging along with grown-ups or the “big kids” roaming and learning about the forest, it’s inhabitants, how to read sign, how to be safe, how to feel successful in bringing home supper all from squirrel hunting. How many of us can remember the excitement of saving all our squirrel tails to send in to Mepps in exchange for that little bit of extra money? How many of us remember just how proud we were that Mom fixed a great supper of squirrel, biscuits, gravy, and sliced fresh from the garden tomatoes all because we were able to bring home that meat?

Squirrel hunting sets the stage not just for children, but for any new hunter to develop strong hunting and woodmanship skills.  Hunting requires a basic skill set: patience, persistence, self-discipline, camouflage and stealth. The ability to read and understand the signs of your quarry, the ability to read and understand the rest of the landscape around you.  Whether it’s a 200-inch buck or 2-pound red squirrel, the basic skill set needed is the same.

In my experience most of the really good hunters and woodsmen that I have come to know all started their time afield trundling along as a wee little one hunting squirrels. That basic foundation of gun safety, stealth, reading the surroundings, was all built in a hot, buggy, late summer woods.

I say – let’s make squirrel hunting great again! I say let’s go back to building those lifelong foundations of hunting and woodmanship skills by making an individual commitment to taking our youngsters and new hunters squirrel hunting this season.  You just might realize how much you miss those long-ago days when you traversed the woods chasing Mr. Bushy Tail.

I spoke with Dwayne Durr, a certified hunter safety instructor along with Jill Fox, a Mom who gets her youngster outside at every chance about why squirrel hunting works especially well for the young and new hunters. Both were in agreement on the key reasons:

1. Chance for success is high. We know that if youngsters are not successful harvesting game, seeing game, interacting with game the odds of them wanting to stick with it are just about zip. Squirrels are plentiful. While there is the learning curve of proper shot placement, the opportunity for available shots that lead to success is high. Because the chance for success is high it helps to build confidence and gives young ones the chance to proudly bring home supper for the family.

2. There are more opportunities for squirrel hunting. There are no Quality Squirrel Management Areas. No special fees, tags, permits, lotteries or drawings to hunt squirrels. They are found here there and yon. There’s not a packed parking lot at the local SFWA with squirrel hunters all vying for just the right spot. Any reasonably managed piece of public can and will produce squirrels. Landowners who would never grant permission to someone to hunt deer, turkey, or waterfowl on their property often will allow a squirrel hunter to make the occasional foray through the woodlot or along the fence row.  Especially if the little bushy tails have been sneaking into mama’s garden from the fence row wrecking the tomatoes and stealing all her pears.

3. More tolerable weather.
Yes, it can be darned hot, humid and buggy. However, hunting early in the day or on towards evening goes a long way to solve those issues. It’s hard to keep a young one interested in the outdoors or hunting if they are freezing cold and miserable or bundled up to the Michelin Man degree of roundness and can’t move. Done squirrel hunting for the morning? What the heck throw in a quick, barefoot, rolled up pant leg, wade in a creek for cooling off and just a little more fun in the woods before heading home.

4. Low entry investment. It doesn’t cost half the family coffers to get a young one set up to squirrel hunt. Study boots/shoes, lightweight pants and shirt (worn thin hand me down camo works even better as it’s cooler) a hat, a can of bug spray and you are set. The ability to use a lower cost entry level firearms like a .22 or a youth model shotgun also helps to decrease the entry cost.

5. The environment is vibrant and full of interesting things. Because of the timing of squirrel season, the woods are vibrant, rich, full of all sorts of things kids find downright cool. Snakes, spiders, birds, other small game, baby animals out learning their place in the world. Frogs, crawdads, mushrooms. Lots of things that can be incorporated into fun learning. If interest in squirrels alone begins to wane a little, there’s something new and cool to check out just around the corner in the trail.  It’s much easier to keep a child interested when there’s plenty going on around them than when just sitting endlessly waiting on one deer to walk by, or a flock of ducks to make an entrance. This same vibrant living landscape makes for great opportunities to learn tree, plant, mushroom identification and makes it easier than in a empty desolate winter hunting environment.

6. Squirrel hunting is forgiving. It’s okay to miss the shot. There will be an opportunity again shortly.  It’s okay to get a little loud and rambunctious and scare off the squirrels.  They are squirrels for heaven’s sake. They will return, it’s not a 200-inch buck that you just blew into the next county for next three days.  You can hike along for a little ways and find another tree to sit under and poof there they will be all over again. It’s okay to lose focus on the quarry while intimately examining a spider building a web or a mother bird feeding a nest of babies, or any number of things that present themselves along the trip. There simply is not as much pressure, not as tight time constraints, not as much impetus to be selective and get a “trophy”.  Squirrel hunting lets kids be kids in the outdoors while still learning and building that love of being afield and becoming proficient in their safety habits and skills. Squirrel hunting is what teaches youngsters that hunting is not all just killing. It’s about the total experience of being immersed in the outdoors, having fun and spending time with those we love.

Let’s get those kids and new hunters out there this squirrel season, and start making squirrel hunting great again!