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Outdoors Column | Les Winkeler: Thanks to nature's features

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I will get up on Christmas morning with no expectations.

There is nothing Santa could carry on his sleigh that can surpass the wondrous things nature has bestowed upon me in the last 12 months. That’s why I have never published a Christmas “want” list. This is the time for thanks:

  • I am eternally grateful for the song of the white-throated sparrow. This tiny little bird has a song that cuts through the cacophony of nature’s early morning serenade. The notes are crisp, clear, light-hearted.

It’s impossible to ascribe a meaning or motive to the song, but it seems to tell me “This is going to be a beautiful day.”

  • 2021 was an irruptive year for evening grosbeaks. Hundreds of these spectacular black and yellow birds spent the winter months in Southern Illinois last year.

I had seen one evening grosbeak years ago while on vacation in Minnesota. This year, thanks to friends like Cathy DeNeal and Lennie Kaylor, who had them in their yards most of the winter, I was able to see them up close and personal on a number of occasions.

We really take too much of nature’s beauty for granted.

  • I’m thankful that some normalcy has returned to our lives. COVID-19 remains a danger to us all, but the availability of vaccines made it safe to enjoy nature with friends once again. If there is anything better than marveling at nature’s beauty, it is experiencing that awe with someone else.
  • There is a “purple mountain’s majesty” moment I experienced while visiting Great Smoky Mountain National Park this year that is indelibly etched into my psyche.

We were driving through the Smokies at sunset, enroute to Cherokee, North Carolina. After we topped one of the highest parts of the park and began the descent into Cherokee, the sun popped through the cloud cover and illuminated the lower slopes.

Just a sliver of the sun remained above the horizon, illuminating the hills and mountains from below. The angle of the sun and the cloud cover combined to paint the mountains with a purplish cast.

In that moment “America the Beautiful” came alive for me as it never had before in my 60+ years on this earth.

  • One of my favorite moments of the year occurred late this spring as I pulled into Sahara Woods State Fish and Wildlife Area. I had spotted a couple does while turning into the park, and pulled off the road to get a better look.

While parking the car I noticed another animal on the ground right in front of me. Originally, it appeared to be a fawn, but when it stood up I found myself gazing at the biggest bobcat I’d ever seen. Of course, the camera was in the back seat.

The bobcat stood there for a few fleeting moments before disappearing into a clump of trees. Then, the critter did the unthinkable – it provided an encore. It emerged from the far side of the trees and stood in the road for several moments before disappearing for good.

  • Sahara Woods was the sight of another amazing wildlife encounter.

While kayaking the small lake with my wife, we spotted a mink on the bank. We watched it enter the water, swim across our path before taking refuge in a stand of phragmites.

We returned with friends several nights later. After regaling our friends about the mink encounter, we proceeded to the same location. Alas, there was no mink. However, a beaver soon made his presence known.

The beaver swam with us for the next 45 minutes. At one point he got so close to one of the kayaks my friend had to lift his paddle out of the water to let the beaver swim past.

  • These were some of the most special moments of the last 12 months, but every opportunity to visit nature is to be treasured. Best wishes for a Merry Christmas and a 2022 full of natural adventures.

LES WINKELER is the outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at, on Twitter @LesWinkeler.


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