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Sports editor

Les Winkeler is sports editor and outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan.

As Christmas 2018 approaches it’s time to reflect on the wonderful gifts I’ve already received.

Loop Road: My wife and I discovered this treasure in the Everglades quite by accident.

We went to a visitor center hoping to book an excursion, only to learn it was unavailable that day. Fortunately, we overheard another conversation in which a visitor center staff member suggested a trek to Loop Road to another family.

We made a follow up inquiry and decided to roll the dice. For the record, the dice came up sixes.

We spent more than six hours on the 25-mile stretch of back country road. The amount of wildlife we saw was incredible. The proximity of the wildlife was startling. What’s more, the traffic was minimal.

It was the highlight of an amazing trip.

River Semester: I got to spend several hours with a group of about 20 students from Augsburg University in Minnesota. The students were spending the entire semester traveling the Mississippi River in canoes.

Flood conditions forced them to spend more than a week off the river. On one of their side trips they visited Carbondale.

It was so refreshing, recharging and life-affirming to experience the enthusiasm of these young men and women. Their interests were varied, but all shared a deep concern for the health of the Mississippi and our planet in general.

After talking, listening and laughing with them, I felt as if the next generation will take the mantle of stewardship more seriously than mine.

As an added bonus, the group serenaded me with a John Prine song during their visit.

Painted bunting: For the past 15 years or so I have retreated to Florida immediately after the basketball season for much needed R & R.

On each of those trips, I’ve made it a point to locate a painted bunting. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the bird, think of a sparrow that landed on an artist’s palette and rolled through the paint for 15 minutes.

It’s almost as if the bird’s feathers are tie-dyed.

This was the year I won the painted bunting lottery. We visited the Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary near Tampa where the bird is spotted on a daily basis during the spring. Still, it played hard to get.

We hung around until closing time when four of the brilliantly-colored males showed up at once.

If I close my eyes …

Southern Illinois: I know, it’s fashionable to bash the state. And, I hear all the complaints – Southern Illinois is dying, there is nothing to do here.

I see it differently – it is a gift that keeps giving.

In the past year, I saw a snowy owl in Gallatin County and whooping cranes in Saline County. Driving through Randolph County one cold afternoon I spotted a barred owl sitting on a branch hanging over a county road. The unflappable owl allowed me to photograph it for 15 minutes.

One morning while picking up the morning paper I noticed my neighbor’s holly bush shaking visibly. There were about 100 cedar waxwings feeding voraciously on the red berries. While walking Beau one morning I spotted a sharp-shinned hawk sitting atop a neighbor’s tree enjoying a starling for breakfast.

There was the eagle-watching excursion to Alton, a white-winged scoter sighting in Muddy and a morning spent watching otters frolic in a pond near Mermet Lake.

How, or why, would I ask for anymore?

Merry Christmas everyone!

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LES WINKELER is the outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at les.winkeler@thesouthern.com, or call 618-351-5088 / On Twitter @LesWinkeler.

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