Becoming

Monarch caterpillar on his hatch day! One-eighth of an inch long.

Monarch caterpillar on his hatch day! One-eighth of an inch long.

Did you miss me? I didn’t intend to be away from the blog for this long, but my big move to Ohio has been all-consuming for the past couple of months. I’m happy to say that I am settled in my new home now–more or less–and have already finished the first two weeks at my new job.

Although my house is all unpacked and functional, my brain hasn’t quite made the transition. I’m still struggling to adjust to my new environment. I had been referring to this move as a sort of homecoming, a return to the state where I grew up and lived most of my adult life before moving to Michigan 15 years ago. But my childhood “home” part of Ohio was in the southeastern part of the state, in the Appalachian foothills. My adult life was spent in Columbus. And the area of Michigan I lived in was highly-populated and also very hilly. Now I live in northwestern Ohio, smack dab in the middle of farm country, and I have to say that it is sort of freaking me out.

Monarch caterpillar - also in my kitchen

Same Monarch caterpillar getting bigger

I’m surprised at how much I feel almost like I’ve moved to another country, or at least thousands of miles away. I’m a “big city” person. But now I live in a small town surrounded by fields of corn and soybeans and lots (I mean lots) of freight train activity. It might sound silly to someone who has lived in this environment their whole life, but for me it’s so strange to hear train whistles in the middle of the night, and to have to stop for trains on a regular basis as I drive to work. For the first few days I thought it was sort of cool. But the novelty of it wore off fast on the first night I was kept awake by train whistles every thirty minutes. (One night I was up at 3 am using Google to read about why trains are allowed to blow those *#^! horns so much while people are sleeping.) But I’ve adapted to the trains now and only occasionally get woken up by them.

But aside from the trains, it’s hard not to dwell on what I’m missing, those conveniences of city life like choice in restaurants and shopping. I’m starting to accept that I’ll have to drive 45 minutes to Sandusky or Toledo for my favorite stores. Locally I have no choice other than WalMart. I’ll get used to it but this is a major adjustment for me. Maybe it sounds like whining but I don’t care. I’ve done more than my share of major life adjustments in the past year and it’s all been emotionally exhausting — my painful divorce, leaving my beautiful home on 2 acres of woods, losing both of my cats, and my kayak, not to mention leaving all of my Michigan friends and my favorite parks. And I’m not done yet. Now I’m going back to work after 15 years out of the work force. It makes me tired just thinking about all I’ve been through lately.

I don’t think anything other than my amazing new job could have convinced me to make yet another major transition at this point in my life. There’s so much that is “foreign” to me here, from the vast flatness of the land to the rural lifestyle. Almost daily I find myself having a moment where I feel a little bit panicked about whether I’ll be happy here. I just have to have confidence that those feelings will go away as I start finding my way around better and integrating into the community, but it’s very disconcerting at this point.

Fear and anxiety many times indicates that we are moving in a positive direction, out of the safe confines of our comfort zone, and in the direction of our true purpose.  ~Charles Glassman

I should mention that the pictures in this post are from my new adventure of raising Monarch butterflies in my home. (See, it’s not all doom and gloom, LOL.) I’ve learned a lot about the life cycle of these fascinating insects. I’ve learned to identify the various types of milkweed they need to survive. I’ve planted milkweed in my yard. I’ve watched them go from tiny little egg to tiny little caterpillar, to slightly bigger caterpillar, to big fat caterpillar, and then to chrysalis. I have an aquarium on my kitchen table that is home to two chrysalises and one tiny caterpillar right now. Later this week I expect that both of the Monarchs will emerge from their beautiful green pods and spread their fresh and untested wings for the first time.

Monarch chrysalis day 2

Monarch butterfly in its chrysalis — in my kitchen

I’ll take each one outside and release it into the sky. These butterflies, who were eggs just a couple weeks ago, will fly to Mexico for the winter. Nobody gives them a user manual or a map, they just have to figure it all out on their own. I wonder what it’s like to be a caterpillar, crawling around eating milkweed leaves one day, and then to wake up a few weeks later with wings. Can you imagine how cool that must be?

In a way, I can see my own journey as a metamorphosis too. The nine months I spent in my transitional apartment were my caterpillar stage, where I was focused on “feeding,” taking care of myself so I would have the strength for what was to come. My big move for this job has been the chrysalis stage, where major changes are taking place inside, hidden from view by anyone else but intensely felt by me.

What’s to come is the most exciting and amazing part of all, where the beautiful butterfly emerges with the courage and strength to go to unfamiliar places. That part is supposed to be the reward for all the hard work and sacrifice of the other stages. I can’t wait for that part! Stay tuned….

 

 

 

Posted in Happiness and Gratitude, Insects | Tagged , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Things That Float & Things That Fly

While millions of my fellow Americans spent their time blowing things up this weekend (Happy Birthday, America!), I spent the first two days of the long holiday weekend indoors getting started with packing for my upcoming move to Ohio. Such drudgery for a beautiful weekend, right? But never fear, I managed to get outside today for some much-needed nature therapy.

Crooked Lake boat launchWhen I moved out of the house last fall I wasn’t able to take my beloved kayak with me, so when Eric asked if I wanted to go out on the water today it took me about one-half of a second to say yes. So this morning we headed to Independence Oaks County Park and launched our boats into Crooked Lake. This is a great lake because there’s no beach (thus no beach noise), and because there’s always a lot of wildlife to see there. And today was wonderfully quiet. I guess most people were still recuperating from July 4 festivities, because we had the place virtually to ourselves. There were a couple guys fishing from rowboats but nobody else on the entire 68 acres until we passed two other kayaks as we were paddling back to the ramp three hours later. A perfect little slice of heaven on a Sunday morning.

Eric watching a  Great Egret hunting along the banks

Eric watching a Great Egret hunting along the banks

Blue Dasher with water mites

Blue Dasher with water mites

I continued my attempts to get good photos of dragonflies and damselflies, and ended up with a few good ones. This male Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) is one of my favorite dragons. Something about the combination of the powdery blue abdomen and the gorgeous blue-green color of the eyes, contrasted with the brown and yellow pattern on the thorax. Just pleasing to my eye, I guess. And when I got the picture up on the computer, I was immediately curious about those little red spots under the thorax. I discovered that they’re water mites, tiny parasites that attach to the dragonfly while it’s still a nymph living under the water. I found a very interesting blog post (by Jim Johnson) that explains more about the relationship between the dragonflies and the mites, so if you want to know more, click over here.

And then there was this lovely Slaty Skimmer (Libellula incesta). I think this is the first time I’ve photographed and identified this species. There were quite a few of them engaged in aerial combat with each other.

Slaty Skimmer

Slaty Skimmer

Did you know that dragonflies can fly at speeds up to 20 miles per hour? They can fly forward, backward, and hover like a helicopter. But despite their speed and acrobatic maneuvering skills, they’re no match for Eastern Kingbirds, who like to eat them. Today I watched the parents of a brood of kingbird fledglings working overtime grabbing dragonflies one after the other in mid-air all around me as I sat in my kayak amidst a floating “meadow” of water lilies.

Kingbird with dragonfly

Kingbird with dragonfly

The picture above was taken by Eric a couple years ago. Here’s a shot from today, minus the meal:

Parent kingbird with two hungry fledglings

Parent kingbird with two hungry fledglings

It might sound strange, but I absolutely love the “snap” and “crunch” sounds when a hungry kingbird or Cedar Waxwing snatches a dragonfly out of the air. When I first started spending a lot of time watching animals, I realized that I was going to have to learn not to get upset about one animal eating another. And most of the time I handle it pretty well. Especially when the death of the prey animal is quick, as is the case with insects eaten by birds. If you’re a prey animal and you have to die, then faster is better, right?

But the times when I’m witness to the less-swift death of an animal are much harder to deal with. As was the case a couple weeks ago when I happened upon a Northern Ribbon Snake chasing a little frog, when I had to listen to the screams of the frog after the snake caught it. I had no idea a frog could make sounds like that. It was very distressing to me at the time, but also exciting to see a part of nature I’d never seen before. I’ll bet you’re glad I didn’t get pictures of that encounter, aren’t you?

Here’s another cool behavior I got to photograph today:

Bluets in mating tandem

Bluets in mating tandem

Another pair of bluets, on my arm!

Another pair of bluets, on my arm!

These are bluets, a very common type of damselfly but one I can’t identify down to any one species. They’re all such similar combinations of blue and black that my eyes just glaze over when I flip through the bluet section of my field guide. But that’s okay with me. What’s interesting in this picture is that the two at the top are locked in a tandem, which means that the male is grasping the female behind the head. This is part of their mating process, but it’s uncertain whether they’ve already mated or are preparing to mate. The male will often continue to hold on to the female after mating to prevent other males from getting to her and removing their sperm (yep, they can do that). And if I’m understanding what I see here, there does appear to be another male very interested in this particular lady. So Bachelor #1 seems to be wise to hold on for a while longer.

Eastern Kingbird parent taking a break

Eastern Kingbird parent taking a break

Today was a lovely, relaxing day–exactly what I needed to energize me for the coming week of packing and attending to the many tedious details of moving. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to write much here until I get settled, but I look forward to showing you the natural beauty that abounds in the marshes of northwest Ohio…very soon!

Posted in Birds, Insects, Kayaking | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

Anticipation = Happiness

The white ones are Duchess de Nemours peonies. I don't remember the name of the pink ones.

The white ones are Duchess de Nemours peonies.

I’ve noticed that some of the things we treasure most are those that we have to wait for the longest and those that are gone quickly. I’m thinking of things like blazing fall foliage or colorful migrating songbirds.  While anticipation of something special can be difficult to endure, it also makes the thing itself even more special when it finally arrives. I’ve come to realize that having something to look forward to is a key ingredient in a happy life. There have been times when I noticed that I had nothing on my calendar that I was excited about, and that’s an uncomfortable feeling. Lately I’m trying to be conscious of that fact so that I make sure to always have something to look forward to, whether it’s some milestone in the natural world or some kind of social event with friends.

Duchesse de Nemours Peonies at my former home

Duchess de Nemours Peonies at my former home

A few years ago I planted several Duchess de Nemours peonies outside my kitchen window in memory of my grandma, and their brief bloom time became something I eagerly awaited.  I began thinking about those flowers the moment the ground was free of snow each year, when their bloom was still months away. In May I watched anxiously as the plants began to pop up out of the ground. Then I watched impatiently throughout the month as the plants got bigger and bigger, and then the big buds swelled day by day. Then, finally, the flowers burst open in early June, flinging their heady aroma into the air.

But the peony treasure only lasts a short time before those fragrant petals fall to the ground, leaving me to enjoy them only in memory until next year. So I take every opportunity to stick my nose in them while they’re here, even collecting the fallen petals to pile in small dishes around the house for a while longer.

Collage of tinted peoniesBesides the peonies being in bloom, I’ve got some other amazing things happening in my life right now. I’m anticipating a move to a beautiful little house, a relocation back to Ohio, and a job that is so incredibly perfect for me that I keep thinking I’m going to wake up and find out I’ve been dreaming. Even though sometimes I didn’t believe it would be worth it to go through all the pain of the past nine months, it turns out that it was. I feel proud of myself for doing all the work to get my head on straight and to begin healing from the divorce. I feel stronger emotionally than I’ve felt for a very long time, and I know I’m on the right path, finally. Life is good.

I’m so grateful to all of you who have supported me in my darker times, and I can’t wait to share more details with you over the coming months as I transition to life in my new home — where there will be peonies!

Expressing my happiness with magnetic poetry

Expressing my happiness with magnetic poetry

Posted in Happiness and Gratitude | 8 Comments

The Woodstock of Birding

Red morph Eastern Screech-owl

Red morph Eastern Screech-owl

I finally feel capable of attempting to write about my experience at this year’s Biggest Week in American Birding (BW), my fifth consecutive year of attending. I hope to convey why this festival is the highlight of the year for me and so many of my nature-loving friends. Ready? Okay, let’s do this.

Oh, first I should tell you about this little Screech-owl. Maumee Bay State Park is the festival headquarters for the BW, and they have a 2-mile long boardwalk through a marsh beside the lodge. This owl roosted near the boardwalk every day, allowing lots of birders to enjoy unobstructed views. After the challenge of trying to see and photograph fast-moving little warblers high in the trees, an owl is a welcome change of pace. I saw this bird on three separate days. On one of those days I’d been standing outside the marsh alone before an event, looking for warblers, when I struck up a conversation with another birder who came along. It turned out she was relatively new to the world of birding, and had never seen a screech-owl before. So I took her into the marsh to see this one, and we enjoyed seeing some warblers while we were in there too.

Me, Kim Kaufman, Drew Lanham, and Kenn Kaufman

Me, Kim Kaufman, Drew Lanham, and Kenn Kaufman

Which brings me to one of the best parts of this festival: Everyone is so friendly and enthusiastic. It’s easy to be happy when everyone around you is in love with birds and nature. I imagine it’s what Woodstock would have been like — peace, love, and lots of hugs. (Well, like Woodstock if you subtracted the pharmaceuticals and added in lots of birds.) For the past several weeks my Facebook feed has been full of dozens of pictures of friends hugging each other with big goofy smiles on their faces. It’s only now starting to slow down, almost two weeks after the event ended. I’ve never been any place else in the world that made me feel like this, and that’s probably why I shed some tears every year on the last day of this festival, when I have to get in my car and head home. I just don’t want to leave that place.

My BW schedule crumpled after a long weekThis is a picture of my pre-festival tentative itinerary, which I drafted just so I would have an idea of what I “might” be doing each day–workshops I hoped to attend, friends I hoped to meet up with, and places I wanted to go birding. You can tell that many changes were made to it, right? Wow, that was crazy. For someone who normally lives a pretty quiet life, those ten days really wore me out. But in a good way. :)

Sunrise over Maumee Bay State Park golf course - showing fog on dunes (1024x598)

Sunrise at Maumee Bay State Park

There’s a great memory to go with this sunrise picture. I arrived at Maumee Bay Lodge early one morning to pick up a friend for a leisurely morning of photography at Magee Marsh. As I proceeded up the long drive to the lodge, the sun was just peeking over the hills of the golf course, illuminating the foggy landscape. As birders do, I slowed the car and put my window down, just in case I could hear any birds. And instantly I heard the song of an Eastern Meadowlark from somewhere out in the haze. Excited, I snapped a couple pics with my phone, and then quickly went ahead to pick up my friend Drew, wanting to share this beautiful moment with him. He barely had a chance to get in the car and I took off again, knowing that the sunrise would happen very quickly, and wanting to make sure he got a chance to see it.

He had his camera ready and jumped out of the car when I got to just the right spot. We both heard the meadowlark singing, and I slowly rolled the car along as Drew jogged down the road, taking photos at various vantage points. I hope I keep this special memory for a long time. I have to confess that, as a night owl, I haven’t seen all that many sunrises in my life. But this experience makes me want to start going to bed earlier so I can start seeing more of that beautiful part of the day!

So there were sunrises…and sunsets….

Lake Erie sunset

Lake Erie sunset

Field trips…

Field trip at Magee Marsh  - May 12, 2015 - Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle

Birders at Magee Marsh

…and I feel like I’m forgetting something. Oh! The birds! Do you want to see some birds?

American Golden Plover

American Golden Plover

I normally only see plovers in distant flocks requiring the use of a spotting scope, so I was thrilled when I happened upon this single bird along the auto route through Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge. I was able to stop the car and verrry slowly stick the camera out the window to get this shot. Such a beautiful shorebird!

Cape May Warbler

Cape May Warbler

Warbling Vireo

Warbling Vireo

Chestnut-sided Warbler

Chestnut-sided Warbler

This next bird was another special moment. I’d arranged to meet two of my friends at Magee Marsh late in the afternoon on a cold and windy day. It was the only time the three of us could be together, and we only managed to spend a couple hours together, but it was wonderful. Because of the less-than-favorable weather, there weren’t too many people out birding that afternoon, so we had lots of room to stroll slowly, chatting and watching birds.

Northern Parula

Northern Parula

Me, Kelly, and Janet at Magee Marsh on the day we saw the Northern Parula

Me, Kelly, and Janet at Magee Marsh on the day we saw the Northern Parula

It seemed that most of the birds were staying up higher in the trees this year than in past years, and so it was a real treat when this Northern Parula came down low beside the boardwalk. And not only did he come down lower, but he sat still and preened for a couple minutes, allowing all three of us to snap dozens of photos of him at close range. It was the best view I’d ever had of this pretty species, and being able to share it with two special friends made it that much better.

I think this might be getting too long already, but if you’re still here I might as well tell you one more story from this day.  And I so wish I’d taken a picture to go along with it. When I was in Texas last November for the Rio Grande Birding Festival, I had a conversation with a couple of Texans when they asked me about the Biggest Week t-shirt I was wearing. I told them all about it and gave them my blog address so they could come here to read more. I didn’t think too much more about that conversation and went about my business. So when a woman walked up to me on the Magee Marsh boardwalk and said, “Kim?”, I didn’t realize who it was. It turned out to be Pam and John, the people I had talked to in Texas! They told me that they had come to Ohio because of how enthusiastic I had been when I told them about this festival, and that they were having the time of their lives. I was so blown away I could hardly form complete sentences. By now you’ll expect that I shed a few tears. Again. I was already having a great day, but they put the icing on that sucker right then, let me tell you. I’ll never forget how I felt at that moment. So proud of our festival and so happy that they were enjoying themselves on their first trip to Ohio.

My sister and I at Magee Marsh

My sister and I at Magee Marsh

And I ran into Pam and John again a few days later when I was at Magee Marsh with my sister, and they were still having fun!  As for my sister, well, I didn’t manage to turn her into a birder, but at least she got to see this place and why it means so much to me.

I didn’t go on many field trips, but I took two writing workshops that were very inspiring. One was about how to write about conservation issues in a way that motivates people to take action, and the other was a poetry workshop.

This was my fifth year attending the Biggest Week, and it was the best yet. I didn’t attend parties or hang out with a big group of friends this time, but mostly either birded by myelf or with one or two other people at a time. And that gave me more chances to have some really great conversations in the way I relate best to people, one on one. I was able to make some meaningful new friendships and cement some I’d made in previous years. And I even managed to get a few new birds for my life list:

My seven life birds at Biggest Week 2015

From my eBird life list

 

Kentucky Warbler, one of my most-wanted warblers in the past few years -- finally!

Kentucky Warbler, one of my most-wanted warblers in the past few years — finally!

I’ll continue adding more photos to my Flickr photostream, so hop over there occasionally if you want to see more.

Just writing this has put a big smile on my face, as all the memories come flooding back. I hope I’ve been able to give you a sense of the magic of spring migration in northwest Ohio. If you have even the slightest curiosity about what it’s all about, I urge you to come to the Biggest Week next year. It might just change your life too!

Great Blue Heron seen from the kitchen window of my rented cottage on Lake Erie

Great Blue Heron seen from the kitchen window of my rented cottage on Lake Erie

Posted in Biggest Week in American Birding | Tagged , , , , , , | 11 Comments

You mean THAT’S gotta fit in HERE?

You may remember my teaser photo of this Great Blue Heron eating a fish a couple weeks ago, where I showed you the close-up view of the fish’s eye as it entered the mouth of the heron. This one:

Great Blue Heron with big fish in mouth - part of series w sig

Well here’s a series of pics showing the process of catching the fish and managing to get it down the throat. I’m always amazed at how deftly they manage to handle a slippery fish with no hands. Enjoy! (I’m making some assumptions about behavior here, so keep that in mind as you read my notes.)

Great Blue Heron eating big fish (1)

So he grabs the fish and pulls it out of the water, immediately turning to the shore so it won’t be able to swim away if he drops it. (Click on any picture to see it larger, and I apologize that these pics aren’t very sharp — I had to crop them all.)

Great Blue Heron eating big fish (9)

Great Blue Heron eating big fish (13)

It’s still alive at this point, so I think he’s laying it down so he can deliver the killing blow.

Great Blue Heron eating big fish (17)

Yep, that ought to do it. But, hmm, now it’s got dirt all over it. What to do, what to do?

Great Blue Heron eating big fish (22)

Oh, I know…I’ll wash it off. (It could also be that he needs it to be wet to facilitate swallowing. I’m not sure how important it is to “wash” it.)

Dipping it back in the water

Dipping it back in the water

Getting it turned around...

Getting it turned around…

Ok, getting close...

Ok, getting close…

Oh yeah, here we go...

Oh yeah, here we go…

Going down the hatch

Going down the hatch

I always think it’s so cool how you can see the outline of the entire fish in the heron’s throat! I don’t know much about fish, but I think this might be a white bass…I looked in my new Kaufman Field Guide to Nature of the Midwest and that was the closest match I could find there, based on the broken stripes on its sides and the shape of the fins.

Going down the hatch

Going down the hatch

Great Blue Heron eating big fish (59)

I learned something really interesting about the Great Blue Heron today. Not only do they eat fish, but also sometimes amphibians, reptiles, and small mammals. And, here’s the cool part: They expel pellets of indigestible mammal hair, just like owls do! Did you know that? Apparently they can digest the bones, unlike owls, who expel bones in their pellets along with hair. I only learned a couple years ago that these pellets are expelled through the mouth rather than the other end of the body. I guess I never really thought about it much, until the day I saw a captive Northern Saw-whet Owl regurgitate a pellet right in front of me at an Audubon event. Fascinating stuff, isn’t it?

Great Blue Heron eating big fish (66)

Fish? What fish?

Fish? What fish?

Posted in Birds | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

Intimacy in the Parking Lot

Killdeer in gravel parking lot

Killdeer in gravel parking lot

I got home yesterday afternoon and am probably going to need a couple days to recuperate from all the excitement at the Biggest Week in American Birding. This year’s festival was the best yet, and I have lots of photos to share with you all. But for today I just have a sequence from an intimate moment in the lives of two Killdeer.

Near Magee Marsh, there’s an ice cream shop with a big gravel parking lot in which Killdeer often dig their little “rock nests.” Early in the week I had a great time watching some recently-hatched babies running around the edges of this lot under the watchful eyes of their parents.

Little puffballs -- Recently-hatched Killdeer babies running around!

Little puffballs — Recently-hatched Killdeer babies running around!

Unfortunately, nesting in parking lots has its hazards, and I saw one of the parents of this brood get run over by a car just a few minutes after this photo was taken. It brought me to tears. These birds aren’t always noticeable, and I imagine many of them lose their lives like this. I think all four of the babies ran to safety though. I didn’t see them anywhere in the area in the days following that, so have convinced myself they’re okay with the remaining  parent.

My last day in Ohio was really hot, so I stopped back over there to get an ice cream cone. As I sat in my car eating it, I noticed two adult Killdeer sitting on the edge of the lot, about two feet apart. Occasionally one of them, presumably the female, got up and worked on a little indentation she was forming in the gravel. She would pull a rock to the side and then squat down in it and wiggle around, using her body to shape it better.

Using her body to shape the nest.

Using her body to shape the nest, or maybe also trying to attract the male?


After watching them for a few minutes and seeing them settle down again, I laid my car seat back and closed my eyes for a short nap. But a short time later I heard them making some agitated noises, so sat up and got to see this:

Hmm, what's going on here? Need a closer look....

Hmm, what’s going on here? Need a closer look….

Balancing act, trying to find the right position…

Killdeer mating sequence 4

Ah, I think they’ve got it now…

Killdeer mating sequence 6

Killdeer mating sequence 7

And the slightly-ungraceful dismount:

Killdeer mating sequence dismount

Nobody saw that, right?

Okay, back to your business, nothing to see here.

Okay, back to your business, nothing to see here.

So if all goes well there will be more little puffballs running around that parking lot soon! Next time I plan to show you the rest of the photo series of that Great Blue Heron eating a fish (see the preview in my previous post). And, of course, there will be warbler photos…stay tuned!

Posted in Biggest Week in American Birding, Birds, Nesting | Tagged , | 6 Comments

Here’s lookin’ at you, kid

Great Blue Heron with big fish in mouth - part of series w sig
I’m seeing lots of amazing things at the Biggest Week in American Birding, but can only show you this for now. I took a series of photos of this Great Blue Heron as he caught and ate a huge fish. I’ll post the entire series later, but thought this particular shot was so interesting because of the proximity of the eyes of both predator and prey.

Three days into the festival and seven more to go. It’s already exhausting, but it will all be over far too soon!

Posted in Biggest Week in American Birding | Tagged , , , | 9 Comments

I’ve Got Swamp Fever

Metzger Marsh

Metzger Marsh

In the early 1800s, a large part of northwestern Ohio was an impenetrable swamp, inhabited only by a small number of Indians and a few hardy settlers. Somewhere along the way this 12-county area became known as the Great Black Swamp, known for its mosquitoes and a dreaded summertime disease called swamp fever. By mid-century it had mostly been drained and turned into farmland though, and all that remains of it now are the marshes of Lucas and Ottawa counties: Magee Marsh, Metzger Marsh, and Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge.

If the Great Black Swamp was still in existence today it probably would be a nature preserve and wildlife refuge similar to the Everglades in Florida. (– Jim Mollenkopf, in his book The Great Black Swamp)

Yellow Warbler at Magee Marsh on May 2, 2015

Yellow Warbler at Magee Marsh on May 2, 2015

Thankfully, I’ve got the 21st century form of swamp fever. The primary symptom is an insatiable desire to roam the marshes, woodlands, and meadows, watching hundreds of species of birds migrating through. The fever also causes a person to become blinded to virtually everything else for weeks at a time: household chores are ignored, as are friends and family–unless those friends and family are also afflicted with the fever. Everyone knows the fever is much more fun when you can share it with others.

Those who suffer from the modern version of swamp fever recognize fellow sufferers by their attire, which looks like this:

My t-shirts for the 2015 Biggest Week in American Birding!

My t-shirts for the 2015 Biggest Week in American Birding!

I’m actually deliriously happy to have this particular affliction. I just wish it could last a while longer.

Great Egret hunting in the marsh

Great Egret hunting in the marsh

The photos shared here were taken in the marshes of northwest Ohio in the past couple of weeks. On Friday I’ll be heading back down there for 10 glorious days in the “Warbler Capital of the World.” I’ll be doing some volunteer work for the Biggest Week in American Birding, catching up with friends from across the country, and trying to see as many beautiful birds as I can in this all-too-brief period of time.

All aboard the BSBO birding express!

All aboard the BSBO birding express!

Did you notice my cute little BSBO hat? (BSBO stands for Black Swamp Bird Observatory — aren’t you glad you know where their name came from now?) I usually hate wearing hats, so I was thrilled to find this new style in their gift shop yesterday. I think it looks like a conductor’s hat instead of a baseball cap. And within 15 minutes of putting it on, a total stranger yelled across the parking lot at Magee Marsh to tell me he liked my hat…proof that it’s a keeper.

Double-crested Cormorant at Magee Marsh

Double-crested Cormorant at Magee Marsh

Palm Warbler at Magee Marsh, May 2, 2015

Palm Warbler at Magee Marsh, May 2, 2015

Prothonotary Warbler at Magee Marsh, May 2, 2015

Prothonotary Warbler at Magee Marsh, May 2, 2015

Black-throated Green Warbler at Magee Marsh, May 2, 2015

Black-throated Green Warbler at Magee Marsh, May 2, 2015

John Burroughs sign at Magee Marsh (2)

Yes, this.

I hope you enjoyed these photos, and I also hope I’ll have many more to share with you very soon. Even if you’re not lucky enough to live near the Great Black Swamp, make sure you still keep your eyes peeled in your neighborhood–you never know who might use your yard as a migration rest stop!

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The Trickle Before the Flood

Black-throated Green Warbler (from last year)

Black-throated Green Warbler (from last year)

Well, the first few warbler species have started showing up in southeast Michigan this month. So far we have Yellow-rumped, Pine, Black-throated Green, Palm, Yellow, and Yellow-throated Warblers, as well as Common Yellowthroats. That might look like a lot for mid-April, but these species aren’t here in large numbers yet, just a few here and there. But the rest of them are definitely on their way. Soon, my pretties, very soon!

Reading all the reports of warblers on the various online birding groups has motivated me to get busy reviewing warbler songs using the Larkwire game. Every year I hope to improve my ability to identify the birds by their songs. I haven’t been too successful with it though. I think that’s because they’re only around for a few weeks each year and my brain just can’t seem to retain what I learn in my brief pre-migration cram sessions. And there are just so many species to learn–we have something like 40 warbler species that migrate through the eastern half of the country.

Warbler Guide book cover for websiteThis year I’m adding another tool to my arsenal: I’m using the book “The Warbler Guide,” which uses sonogram images of warbler songs to–supposedly–make it easier to distinguish the confusingly-similar songs. I’m especially eager to experiment with the techniques in this book since I’m going to be birding with the authors during The Biggest Week in American Birding. Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle are leading two of the “Birding with the Stars” walks at Magee Marsh, and I’ll be the volunteer host assisting them on one of their walks. (See, there are some sweeeeet perks to being a volunteer!) And I love the fact that Tom and Scott are donating 100% of the proceeds from their two walks to the Ohio Young Birders Club. That’s true generosity of spirit, if you ask me.

These weeks leading up to my annual visit to the Lake Erie shoreline are always hard to endure. Not only is my excitement getting boosted by the daily bird sightings, but preparations for the festival are in high gear now as we count down the last 17 days.

Biggest Week T-shirt for 2015

Biggest Week T-shirt for 2015

The new festival t-shirt design was just revealed this weekend. Created by Paul Riss (of Punk Rock Big Year fame), this one is already a big hit with everyone who has seen it.

And even more exciting, there’s now a smartphone app created just for the Biggest Week (the first time a birding festival has had its own app…very cool). I got my free copy from BirdsEye on the day it was released, and set it up to link with my eBird account. So now when I launch the app, it uses GPS to tell me instantly if there are birds nearby that I haven’t yet seen. It shows my “life list” as well as a list of all the species that have been seen by other people in whatever location I happen to be in at the moment.

BirdsEye screenshotAs you can see in this screenshot from my phone, I still haven’t managed to see the Connecticut and Kentucky Warblers (nor the Prairie Warbler, which isn’t shown on this screen). So only three more warblers to go and I will have seen all of the eastern species at least once. The Connecticut is one of the hardest ones for anyone to see because they skulk around deep in the underbrush, taunting us, defying us to find them. I’m sure I’ll eventually see one though. I’m in no hurry. I like the idea of always having more birds to see for the first time anyway. The anticipation is almost as good as the moment you finally get to see the bird. Almost.

Blackburnian Warbler, one of my favorites

Blackburnian Warbler, one of my favorites

 

And the anticipation of being back in the midst of all those amazing birds is almost too much to take. This year I’ll be on my own for the first time, but I’m okay with that. I’m hoping to connect with a few special friends for quiet walks on the beach (…and in the woods and marshes). And for those times I feel the need to be with other people, it’ll be easy to mingle with a few hundred of my fellow birders on the Magee Marsh boardwalk. I don’t like to be in crowds all the time, but even an introvert like me can appreciate the fun of being surrounded by other people who love the birds as much as I do. Some of my favorite memories are from times on the Magee Marsh boardwalk when a group of total strangers shared smiles while watching a bright yellow or orange bird hopping from leaf to leaf just inches away, in total disregard of us. Those are the moments when I feel the real magic of birds, and I remember why this place is so special to so many people. I just cannot wait!

 

 

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Zugunruhe: Do You Feel It?

Zugunruhe. Do you feel it too? It means “migratory restlessness,” and it’s normally used to describe the behavior of birds and other migratory species as they prepare for their long journeys in spring and fall. (It’s pronounced “zoo gen ROO ha” — or at least that’s as close as I’ll ever get to pronouncing a German word correctly.)

Humans are obviously not migratory species, but as a birder, I experience something similar to Zugunruhe each spring as I anticipate the arrival of the birds from their southern wintering grounds. I get antsy if I have to spend too much time indoors, unable to be out searching the skies and the trees for the first signs of birds returning from the south. Along with thousands of other birders, I begin reading the weekly “Birdcasts” from Cornell Lab of Ornithology (here), and watching radar images of birds taking to the skies each night across the continent. This image is from last night:

Bird radar April 1 2015

The blue circles are flocks of birds lifting off to head north. Isn’t that the coolest thing you’ve ever seen? If you’d like to read more about using radar to see birds, David La Puma has a great explanation on his Woodcreeper blog, here. And if you want to check the radar yourself, go here around dusk and keep refreshing your screen to watch in real time as the birds lift off. Just remember to watch for the “blue donuts.”

Some of the migrants have already started to arrive here in Michigan — the Red-winged Blackbirds, Killdeer, Turkey Vultures, and even the Tree Swallows. In a few short weeks we’ll begin finding the first warblers, signaling that it’s time for me to migrate to the southern shore of Lake Erie to witness the amazing congregation of my beautiful avian friends at Magee Marsh. (By the way, if you’re planning to attend the Biggest Week in American Birding this year, you should know that we’ve sold out virtually every space in all of the field trips already, but there are still spaces available in the educational workshops and presentations each day. And you can walk the Magee Marsh boardwalk for free, so if you’re ready for your world to change forever, come and see what all the fuss is about. You’ve got to do this at least once in your life!)

I want to share a bit of migration trivia with you today, to remind us all of the enormity of what these birds do twice each year. It’s mind-blowing when you think about it.

Migration Mania Trivia

    • The longest known bird migration is by the Arctic Tern, which can travel up to 25,000 miles per year in its two migrations. It flies from the Artic to the Antarctic and back, crossing the entire planet each year!

      Arctic Tern (Photo by Lindsay Robinson via Flickr Creative Commons)

      Arctic Tern (Photo by Lindsay Robinson via Flickr Creative Commons)

    • Some individuals of the tiny Blackpoll Warbler species, who weigh only half an ounce, fly a 1600-mile nonstop journey across the Atlantic Ocean from eastern Canada to South America. See, I told you this would blow your mind! You can read the fascinating details of the newly-published study here. (Hint: They put light-sensing backpacks on the birds to determine their flight paths.)
Blackpoll Warbler by Kenneth Cole Schneider (via Creative Commons license on Flickr)

Blackpoll Warbler by Kenneth Cole Schneider (via Creative Commons license on Flickr)

  • Before embarking on their journeys, birds experience hyperphagia, a period of nonstop eating designed to put on body weight. Some birds actually double their weight before the trip and burn off all the excess fat before finally arriving on their breeding grounds, exhausted and starving.

  • Raptors, swallows, and waterfowl migrate during the day. Songbirds generally migrate at night. This may be because they need the daytime to feed and replenish their energy; conveniently, it may also help them avoid many predators–like raptors–who migrate during the day.

  • Monarch butterfly chrysallis (Mission, Texas, November 2014)

    Monarch butterfly chrysallis  (Mission, TX, 11/2014)

    Birds aren’t the only animals that still migrate–whales also migrate twice each year. And many insects migrate as well; the best-known insect migration is that of the monarch butterfly. But the monarchs that winter in the mountains of Mexico will not make the journey more than once. On their way north in the spring, the females stop to lay eggs on milkweed plants as they travel. Some of the adults will make it all the way north, but most will die along the way. The next generation emerges from their eggs and continues northward. When you see a monarch with tattered wings early in the season, that’s probably one that wintered in Mexico. The newest generation will have fresh, untorn wings. According to MonarchWatch.org, summer generations only live two to five weeks; the last generation of the summer is the one that migrates to Mexico, and that generation can live for eight or nine months.

  • Elk in Yellowstone National Park

    Elk in Yellowstone National Park

    Some large land mammals still migrate in Africa, but the only remaining one I know of in North America is the elk. Many thousands of them migrate each year in and around Yellowstone National Park. Most other land mammal migrations on this continent have been disrupted by the ever-expanding human population and our need for homes and roads.

I hope you learned something from this, as I did while writing it for you. Now get outside and tune in to the wonders of bird migration! See you on the trails….

 

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