Chicago outdoors, COVID-19: Three activities—sky dancing, sheds, morels—with social distancing built in

Watching woodcocks sky dance, looking for shed antlers and searching for morel mushrooms are three timely outdoors activities with built-in social distancing.

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Mike Ocho found this shed, well skull and antlers of an eight-point. while fishing a Forest Preserves of Cook County lake. Provided photo

Mike Ocho found this shed, well skull and antlers of an eight-point. while fishing a Forest Preserves of Cook County lake.

Provided

Ten deer bounded over the gravel road as we walked in.

I took it as a good sign.

A few days earlier Kyle Danhausen noted woodcock when going around the family farm. He knew I had missed a scheduled walk—a causality of COVID-19—to watch male woodcocks sky dance. So he invited me out.

I’ve seen woodcocks sky dance on organized walks. So far I haven’t spotted a sky dance on my own. Danhausen has seen plenty of woodcocks, but never a sky dance.

Walking in, we jumped mallards and wood ducks. Red-winged blackbirds trilled.

“I don’t know if we will see one, but it is just good to be out of the house,” Danhausen said.

Bingo.

With the stay-at-home edict, there’s time to hone a new skill outdoors: see woodcocks sky dance, find shed antlers or forage for morel mushrooms.

The time to see woodcocks sky dance is the end of March into April.

As Danhausen and I waited on darkness, birds raised a racket, nothing compared to the fuss spring frogs made in a fluddle.

We moved to another spot, from antsiness and to warm from the stiff north wind. We thought we heard peents, but it was hard to tell over the frogs.

American Bird Conservancy has a YouTube video with good audio of a peent.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology gives this description, “Displaying males give a repeated, buzzy, nasal peent while on the ground between flights. In the air, a displaying male chirps melodically for as long as 15 seconds as he zigzags downward from the apex of his display flight.”

Naturalist Aldo Leopold eloquently describes it in “Sky Dance” in “A Sand County Almanac.” You have the time, look it up, it’s the best description.

Antsiness drove us to a wood point with marshy land spread in three directions. This time, there was no question. First one peented to the west, then another to the northwest. We peered into the gloaming hoping to catch one spiraling skyward. No such luck. I suspect the stiff north wind kept them bound to the damp earth.

Darkness settled.

If you’re trying to find male woodcocks peenting and doing the sky dance, this kind of habitat is a good starting point. Credit: Dale Bowman

If you’re trying to find male woodcocks peenting and doing the sky dance, this kind of habitat is a good starting point.

Dale Bowman

* * *

Before and during the stay-at-home edict, I wandered my favorite spot for shed antlers around a forest preserve and a golf course.

White-tailed bucks drop their antlers each winter, peaking in February. But you can find sheds into April. Shed hunting is a way to check on deer, but also a grand excuse to get out and wander.

Like Mike Ocho emailed me this week, “I’m an avid outdoorsman and fisherman. During these rough times, like most others, I’ve been trying to occupy my time and have been doing that outdoors. While fishing the other day, I came across this on the shoreline of a lake in a Cook County forest preserve: an eight-point buck. Just thought I’d share with you. It’s a cool find.”

Got that right.

It’s fine to look for sheds or morel mushrooms in forest preserves, it is not legal to remove them. That’s also true for most park districts, too. And obviously for natural areas. It is legal at most other state sites or with permission on private land. Remember all Illinois Department of Natural Resources sites remain under a closure.

Jeff Norris taught me to hunt sheds on a farm with big bucks: look for bedding areas or where they have to jump a fence, ditch or path. The true test of his teaching came when I found my first shed on my own, where a thick branch leaned over a deer trail.

Good boots are a must for shed hunting.

* * *

Foraging for morels is a rite of spring with much mystique accrued to it and much literature spawned. The Illinois Morel Mushrooms Facebook group has more than 53,000 members. On their progression map, finds have been made as far north as central Illinois.

Good eyes and patience are a must. My eyes suck. So I do better on the yellow morels. My surest date has been May 5, occasionally I find some in late April. Starting tips are to look around shedding old or dying elms or a prescribed burn a year later.

As much as I enjoy hunting morels, I enjoy cooking them more. A spring feast is fresh morels sauteed with garlic in butter or olive oil, salted, then plated with a buttered hunk of long bread and a glass of basic red wine.

You have the time. Read up, then give it a shot. Social distancing is built in to morel hunting. You want your secret spot to stay your secret.

Foraging for morels is something you can get better at. For instance, I found my largest morel mushroom just last May. Credit: Dale Bowman

Foraging for morels is something you can get better at. For instance, I found my largest morel mushroom just last May.

Dale Bowman

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