Are They Here Yet? Huh, huh? Are They Here Yet?

Girl with binoculars
(Photo by Johan Koolwaaij via Flickr Creative Commons license)

Yes, it’s that time again, when those of us in northern latitudes start thinking about the return of our songbird friends. After a long and difficult winter, it’s time to lift our eyes skyward in search of things with wings. It’s time to start watching the eBird maps to see where our favorite migrants are each week, and try to predict when they’ll be passing through. It’s time to celebrate the return of spring and look forward to many hours spent hunting for our favorite birds in the woods, marshes, and grasslands. Yes, the days are filled with anticipation.

eBird map showing locations of Black-and-White Warblers as of March 19, 2014
eBird map showing locations of Black-and-White Warblers as of March 19, 2014
Black-and-White Warbler (by Jason Weckstein via Flickr Creative Commons license)
Black-and-White Warbler (Photo by Jason Weckstein via Flickr Creative Commons license)

This map shows where the Black and White Warblers are as of today…see, they’re already up to North Carolina! These striking birds spend the winter in Mexico, Central America and South America, with some of them only going as far south as Southern Texas or Florida. But they are definitely on the move now, and I’ll be checking eBird often now to watch the progression of those little orange markers on the map, which should pop up in Michigan in only four short weeks.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is also helping whip us all into a frenzy of excitement with their annual March Migration Madness brackets, where you can vote your favorite birds up in the rankings each week. I just voted for the Painted Bunting over the Bullock’s Oriole, basing my vote purely on the joyful colors of the bunting (I pick my basketball teams by the colors of their outfits too, by the way).

Today we're voting on the Tweet Sixteen...come and play with us (It's more fun than basketball!)
Today we’re voting on the Tweet Sixteen…come and play with us (It’s more fun than basketball!) (Photo by Melissa James via Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

It occurs to me that the Cornell Lab is a serious enabler. But in this sense, that’s a very good thing.

Photo via Max_Rae via Flickr Creative Commons license
Is that a bird over there? Is it? I think it is!                                                              (Photo by Max_Rae via Flickr Creative Commons license)

If you’re curious (or obsessed) and want to find out where and when the birds will be in your area, you can read the forecasts on Cornell’s Birdcast site. 

Since I’ll be so focused on birds for the next couple of months, I’d be thrilled to answer any of your bird-related questions if you want to send them to me. Heck, I’ll do that anytime. I’m no expert, but I sure know where to find answers. I’m trained as a librarian–so I’ve got killer research skills–and I know quite a few bird experts too. Just leave me a comment or use the “Contact Me” tab at the top of the page. I guess I’m an enabler too. 😉

Wherever you’re reading this from, I hope you find time to get out in nature this spring. And don’t forget to look up in the trees occasionally — you never know what might turn up during migration!

In Search of Spring

Red-winged Blackbird
Red-winged Blackbird (this pic is from last April)

Last Friday I started hearing people saying they had seen their first Red-winged Blackbirds of the season, and I thought it might help me deal with this agonizingly long and harsh winter if I could see my first one too. So I hopped in the car and drove a few miles to Holland Ponds, a place I often see those joyful harbingers of spring.

It was a beautiful day, with the temperature in the low 40s. Compared to the frigid temps we’ve been dealing with for months, it felt absolutely tropical. I was in heaven as I walked slowly down the path, gleefully stepping in the mud puddles that had replaced the treacherous, slippery surface that challenged me when I’d visited a few weeks earlier. I turned my face to the sun and inhaled fresh air deep into my lungs. I could feel my body beginning to heal from the months of being cooped up indoors. On my first few walks every spring I always feel like a kid being let out for recess, running and jumping for joy.

Path at Holland Ponds

Ducks at Holland Ponds
Ducks at Holland Ponds

The small pond was still mostly frozen, but several dozen Mallards swam in a small open water area, accompanied by two Ring-necked Ducks. I remember this same flock composition at this location from last year — just a couple Ring-necks with the other ducks. Interesting. There were no signs of kingfishers yet, but I know they’ll be here soon. I saw three bluebirds singing from perches high atop the tallest trees, flashing their brilliant blue wings as they jockeyed with one another for the best spots.

I headed out the trail toward the woods, hoping the path to the river was passable. Along the way I spotted a Turkey Vulture coming toward me. I quickly swung my camera up and started shooting as it flew in ever-tightening circles directly above me, coming lower and lower. For a few seconds I found myself holding my breath as I wondered if it was actually coming FOR me.

Turkey Vulture checking me out
Turkey Vulture checking me out

After he decided I was a bit too fresh for his taste, he moved along and I continued toward the woods. The path through the woods wasn’t cleared, but it wasn’t too difficult to navigate. I spent some time scanning the trees for owls, and then went down the steep, icy stairs, anxious to see how much of the river was thawed.

Footbridge to the river
Footbridge to the river
Partially thawed Clinton River
Partially thawed Clinton River

I was happy to see some water moving in the Clinton River, but it still had a good amount of ice on it. I spent some time walking along the banks enjoying the peace and quiet, then headed back up the hill, pausing to search for the source of some loud drumming on a distant tree. I thought it must be a Pileated Woodpecker but couldn’t confirm that.

Early spring sun in the late afternoon
Early spring sun in the late afternoon
My late afternoon shadow looks like I'm walking on stilts
My late afternoon shadow looks like I’m walking on stilts

This is my favorite time of year for walking in the woods because there aren’t too many other people out there yet. The only time I don’t have to fear being a woman alone in the woods is when it’s too cold for the bad guys to be out there. In warmer weather I always have to be on alert for someone who might have bad intentions, but when it’s cold I can really relax and enjoy the silence of the woods and the singing of the birds. It’s a sad reality in our society that a woman just can’t go hiking as easily or spontaneously as a man can; we have to be afraid. Even on this day there was a man who kept walking back and forth near me, seeming to pay too much attention to me. I headed into the really muddy section of the trail to get away from him, because he was only wearing sneakers and couldn’t follow me there.

Frozen marsh
Frozen marsh

There’s a large heron rookery in the trees to the right of the marsh in this photo (you can’t see it here though). I scanned the nests with my binoculars in case any of the herons had shown up yet, but didn’t see anyone on the nests. Quite a few of the nests at this rookery were destroyed last year when the trees started crumbling below their weight, so I’m curious to see how much of the colony comes back this year.

The obligatory "muddy boots" picture from my first spring hike
The obligatory “muddy boots” picture from my first spring hike

It’s sort of becoming a habit to take a photo of my muddy boots when I go on these spring hikes. I think I like to have proof that I’m no longer the prissy girl who didn’t like to get dirty. My boots are an important sign of personal growth!

By the way, I didn’t find my Red-winged Blackbird that day, but I saw one a couple days later when Eric and I went to see Snowy Owls in Lenawee County (at the Michigan/Ohio border). The birding community has had a wonderful time this year enjoying the historic number of Snowies that came south for the winter, but they are starting to move back to their Arctic home now. I only saw four of them this year, and had been hoping to see one in flight instead of just sitting still. My wish came true finally, and I was able to cature a couple photos of this beautiful owl as he glided only inches above the snowy field, his 5-foot wingspan controlled with the precision of a fighter plane. It’s a bittersweet feeling now, knowing that they’re leaving. I’ve loved knowing that these magnificent birds from a far-off place were here, near my home, all winter long; but I know they need to go back home now. Safe travels, my friends.

Snowy-Owl-in-flight-v4-w-sig Snowy-Owl-in-flight-v2-w-sig

Arigato, Mr. Fukumura

By some quirk of fate, our cable provider recently gave us access to the English version of NHK, Japan’s public television network. I was overjoyed when I stumbled upon the channel a couple weeks ago, and I’m hoping it’s not just NHK screenshot 2a short-term teaser to get us to upgrade our cable package. (By the way, right now NHK is doing a series of reports marking the third anniversary of the Tohoku earthquake, the one that resulted in the partial meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor. That earthquake killed 18,000 people and I was sad to learn that there are 2,600 people still listed as missing.)

You may wonder why I’m so excited about getting news from Japan. There are several reasons, but the primary one is a very personal connection: I lived in Tokyo for five years, from 1985 to 1990. My first husband was a journalist, employed by the Pacific Stars and Stripes, the news organization for the U.S. Military. He was a civilian employee, and we lived right in the center of Tokyo, immersed in Japanese daily life. I was 24 years old and very naive when I arrived there. As a young newlywed left alone all day in a country so different from my own, I suffered intense culture shock as I struggled to adapt. There was no email back then, so my two options for reaching my support network in the States were via snail-mail letter or $2-a-minute phone calls. I was a rowboat with one oar, adrift in a sea of kanji, yen, and tofu.

After settling in for a few months, I finally got a job in a German consulting firm’s marketing department. A year later I found myself searching for another job where I wouldn’t be just the token American that they used to convince clients they were a “truly international” company. I ended up selling Japanese and English language courses to corporations in the Tokyo metro area. And that’s where I met Mr. Fukumura.

Mr. Fukumura with me and a couple friends, on a trip to Aoshima Island on Kyushu (Feb. 1990)
Mr. Fukumura with me and a couple friends, on a trip to Aoshima Island on Kyushu (1990)

He was the office manager in charge of supervising us, the foreign sales staff in the company. (The Japanese staff worked in a separate division for some reason.) Part of Fukumura-san’s job description included helping us find our way around Tokyo, a city notorious for not using street names. The blocks in each ward are numbered, so addresses are a series of numbers like this: 4-1-33 Koyama, Meguro-ku, Tokyo 104. (If you’re interested, here’s the Wikipedia explanation of it.) And lest we forget, this was back in the days before the Internet and smartphones with GPS, so we really had to get good directions from the nearest train station before heading out on our sales calls. Luckily I’m pretty good at finding my way around, so I did fine with that.

But Mr. Fukumura went above and beyond his official job description many times. He was such a kind man, tolerant of many things from the foreign staff he managed. Most of us were young and ignorant, but he always treated us with respect. My colleagues were from many countries: India, China, Thailand, the U.K., Australia, France, Algeria, Iran, and Ethiopia, among others. I learned a lot from my interactions with my coworkers of various nationalities, and began to see my own country through new eyes.

But Mr. Fukumura earned a spot deep in my heart when he held my hand as I had to navigate the Japanese court system when my marriage fell apart after little more than two years. I had married too quickly and too young, and moved 6,500 miles away from friends and family, with a husband who worked among other Americans in a gated office complex while I was left to find my way alone in a culture where I couldn’t even read the names of products in the grocery store. (Ask me how frustrating it is to put “sugar” in your tea and find out it’s salt…I had no way to know the difference when I was buying it in the supermarket.)

Fukumura-san with his ever-present smile at an office party not long before I left Japan in 1990.
Fukumura-san with his ever-present smile (2nd from right) at an office party not long before I left Japan in 1990. (I’m 3rd from the left.)

Anyway, Fukumura-san not only went to court with me and translated my divorce documents, he made countless calls trying to find a landlord willing to have a foreigner as a tenant. He went with me to meet the landlord, who wanted to have a look at me to make his final decision as to whether I would be a suitable tenant. Even though I had been in Japan for a couple years at that point, I hadn’t become comfortable enough with the language for certain types of important conversations, so his help was invaluable to me.

Those first few months after my divorce are a blur now, but I remember I was terrified and excited at the same time. Now I would be on my own in Tokyo at age 26. Everything turned out great eventually, and I’m so glad I resisted my initial impulse to run home to my parents and cry about things. The next three years were some of the best of my entire life, filled with parties, travel, and interesting friends. And Mr. Fukumura remained my safety line through it all. He was like a favorite uncle, reassuring and reliable and always looking out for my best interests.

Ice skating with friends in Tokyo, in early 1988.
Ice skating with friends in Tokyo, in early 1988. When you get to know people from other nations (like China and Thailand, represented in this photo), your view of the world is changed forever.

He once told me that Americans had been kind to his daughter who lived in California, and that was part of his motivation to help foreigners in his own country. That convinced me that the world would be a better place if we all had the chance to know people from other countries, because those personal relationships and experiences teach you to think twice before resorting to stereotypes to describe entire nationalities. If I were to make a list of the most important learning experiences a person could have in their life, it would definitely include living in a different culture, even if only for a few months.

When it came time for me to leave Japan after five years, Fukumura-san gave me a photo of Mt. Fuji that he had taken on one of his trips to that revered Japanese mountain. Every time I look at it I smile and think of how one man’s kindness was largely responsible for allowing me to have such wonderful experiences in Japan.

Fukumura-san showing his professional photography techniques
Fukumura-san showing his professional photography techniques

He was about 65 when I left, so he would be around 89 now. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s still living an active life — he was very fit and loved to be outdoors, whether it was swimming or hiking or just walking. And that’s the way I will always think of him: healthy and smiling.

If you’re out there, Akira Fukumura, I hope you know how important you were to this young American girl so far from home. I hope I was gracious enough to tell you this back then, but just in case I didn’t, I want to say it now: Thank you, my friend.

Insane Winter Birding

This weekend we drove up to Sault Ste. Marie (“the Soo”) in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (U.P.) for a group birding event with a guide from Michigan Audubon. If you had told me five years ago that I would (a) pay money and (b) willingly (c) drive north (d) in February (e) in Michigan (f) to see birds….I would have said you were nuts. As it turns out, I might be the one who’s nuts, because that’s exactly what we did this weekend.

Red-breasted Nuthatch posing for me in bright sunlight on Sunday morning.
Red-breasted Nuthatch posing in bright sunlight on Sunday morning.

We signed up for this a couple months ago, before we knew what an extremely cold and snowy winter we were going to have. And when it’s cold in southeast Michigan, it’s really cold in the Soo, a 5-hour drive toward the north pole.  We started birding on Saturday morning when the temps were well below zero, and I don’t think the temperature got above 10°F the entire weekend. I’ve never been so cold in my life!

Despite the difficult conditions, other birders had found some great birds in the area recently, so I had high hopes before we drove up there. Some of the birds I was hoping for were Great Gray Owl, Northern Shrike (which is becoming my nemesis bird), Evening Grosbeak, and Gray Jay.

Getting an early start.
Getting an early start.

Our group of about 15 people met at 7am on Saturday to carpool. The temp was below zero when we started — I think it was minus 13°F. We took another couple in our car and our caravan of four cars hit the roads of Chippewa County. Our guide was Skye Haas, a very experienced birder who knows all the best places to find birds in the U.P.

Bald Eagle
Bald Eagle looking down on the ducks in a small section of the river with open water — maybe looking for lunch?
Sharp-tailed Grouse
Sharp-tailed Grouse

I’ll spare you a play-by-play description of the places we went, but just know that we probably drove 150 miles on Saturday looking for birds. And it was the hardest birding I’ve ever done. Imagine freezing your butt off (and that’s while you’re IN the car), driving around farm country for hours and hours, with everyone in each car scanning every tree and snow-covered field, hoping against hope for something, anything, to be alive and moving out there.

We started the day with a stop at the feeders at Dunbar Park, where we saw lots of Purple Finches, a really great species to start the day with. A Bald Eagle flyover was fun too, and it proved to be the first of many Baldies we’d see on the trip. In fact, at one point we were standing along the river at the Sugar Island Ferry landing watching the awesome Red-necked Grebe, and Skye said in an offhand manner, “Oh yeah, if you’re interested there are some Bald Eagles in the trees down there.” If you’re interested?!  And sure enough, there were five Bald Eagles perched in the trees on the bank a couple hundred yards away from us. I loved that. We also saw a lot of them mixed in with crows, ravens, and Herring Gulls at a local landfill we visited in the afternoon.

Young girl in pink preparing to take the plunge
Young girl in pink preparing to take the plunge
Same girl after her dip. Notice Fred Flintstone waiting his turn.
Same girl after her dip. Notice Fred Flintstone waiting his turn. (Click the picture to get a better view of her shocked face.)

While we were at the Sugar Island Ferry landing we noticed a crowd of people about a hundred yards away. We turned our binoculars and cameras on them to see what they were doing, and believe it or not, they were jumping in the water. Yes, it turned out to be an annual fundraiser for Special Olympics called the Polar Plunge, where people dress up and jump in the icy water. I had to take a few pictures of these insane courageous people. That craziness is not for me….no sirree!

One thing that surprised me, on my first ever trip to the U.P. in wintertime, was how many people were out and about in the cold. There were crowds of snowmobilers in every restaurant, and some restaurants even had lines to get seated. I guess life can’t just stop when it gets cold, but it still amazes me that so many people (including us!) were out playing in that weather.

We checked another section of the river and found a flock of Common Goldeneye feeding on open water.
We checked another section of the river and found a flock of Common Goldeneye feeding on open water.
Common Goldeneye male flying low over the river.
Common Goldeneye male flying low over the river.

On Sunday morning we were delayed when Skye’s car got a flat tire before our 7:30 rendezvous. He insisted we go off and try to find some birds on our own while he waited for AAA to get him back on the road, so that’s what we did. And in two hours we found nothing but two Mourning Doves, a Downy Woodpecker, and some crows. Luckily he was able to rejoin us about 9:30 and we headed off to the west to bird at Hulbert Bog. Which turned out to be where I saw my favorite birds of the weekend.

Some of our group looking for birds at Hulbert Bog.
Some of our group looking for birds at Hulbert Bog.
My first ever Gray Jay!
My first ever Gray Jay!

It was a beautiful sunny day with the temperature up to about 8°F in the late morning. Skye had put out some bird seed and suet ahead of time, so we saw a lot of chickadees taking advantage of that easy food source. That’s also where we saw the Red-breasted Nuthatch pictured above. And when Skye played an audio recording of the Gray Jay calls, we were thrilled that three of those adorable birds came in to investigate. Gray Jays are known to be very unafraid of humans, and I wished we’d had some seed to offer them from our hands. But they gave us some good close looks before taking off into the forest.

Alternate view of the Gray Jay. A friend said he looks like he's dancing and I said he's copying me while I do my "Lifer Dance"!
Alternate view of the Gray Jay

Then we drove back down the road to a house with some feeders that are known to attract Evening Grosbeaks. We stood in the road and heard them chattering, but couldn’t find any of them. After we’d been waiting for about 15 minutes, another caravan of birders pulled up behind us, and then another couple of cars behind them. It was starting to get uncomfortably noisy for me, with people chattering and crunching the snow as they walked up and down the road, making it really hard to hear the birds. And even worse, they told us they’d found a Boreal Owl in one of the spots we’d been the day before. A Boreal Owl is very rare for that location. They’re usually found only in Canada/Alaska and the mountains of the western US.

Anyway, this was to be our last stop on the tour, so our group slowly intermingled with the other birders and people started saying their goodbyes and driving off. Just before we left though, I noticed that a small group had gathered down the road and it appeared that they had spotted something up in the trees. I quickly went down there and got a few seconds to see the most beautiful bright yellow Evening Grosbeak! I wasn’t fast enough with my camera and only got him in the corner of the photo as he flew into the woods, but I had a good look at him through my binoculars. He was stunning. A perfect bird to see on a cold winter day, he cheered me up instantly. Now I’m eager to find more Evening Grosbeaks so I can have a better look. What a gorgeous bird he was. My gosh.

Evening Grosbeak -- I wish I'd been able to get a better pic of him...he was beautiful!
Evening Grosbeak — I wish I’d been able to get a better pic of him…he was beautiful!

I added four birds to my lifelist on this trip: Sharp-tailed Grouse, Red-necked Grebe, Gray Jay, and Evening Grosbeak. My total species list was 27 birds. If we hadn’t left the group 2 hours early on Saturday we would have seen Northern Shrike and Ruffed Grouse too. The four of us in our car were so completely exhausted by 4 pm on Saturday that we wimped out and went to take a much-needed nap before dinner. As we were driving away from the group we knew that they’d find something really good after we were gone. That’s what always happens, isn’t it?

Searching for the Great Gray Owl near sunrise on Saturday. No luck.
Searching for the Great Gray Owl near sunrise on Saturday. No luck.

So to summarize, I’ve never been so cold or so tired in my life. But I’m glad I went on this trip, if only to see what it was like up there in winter. I made some new friends, heard some good birding stories, and got lots of fresh air. Would I take this trip again? Not sure right now, but that’s probably because the memory of the cold is still so fresh in my mind. By next November I’ll probably forget the worst of it and who knows, I might do it again. Maybe.

A Bird in the Hand…

On Friday we finally–FINALLY–had temperatures above freezing, so I decided to take advantage of the heat wave and go try my hand at hand-feeding the birds at Kensington Metropark. This park is well-known around here for its brave feeder birds, but since it’s all the way on the other side of the metro area, 45 miles from me, I’ve never made the trek over there. But thanks to a bad case of cabin fever, my desperation drove me to jump in the car and head over. I texted my friend Janet and suggested she meet me there and I’m so glad she was able to come, because we spent a very enjoyable 90 minutes taking pictures of each other with birds on our heads and in our hands.

A Black-capped Chickadee eats seed from my hat!
A Black-capped Chickadee eats seed from my hat! (Photo by Janet Hug)

I’m still amazed at the thrill I got the moment the first chickadee landed on my bare hand. Its sharp little claws gripped the tips of my fingers, it looked up at my face as if to make sure it was safe, then grabbed a seed and flew to a nearby tree to crack it open. In the next 15 minutes dozens of birds came down and took seeds from my outstretched hand. At one point I had three birds on my hand at once, so I decided to put some more seed on my head so they could spread out a little bit. Immediately I felt them landing on top of my hat, their wings stirring the air beside my head as they landed and took off again with their bounty.

Taking pictures of each other with birds on our heads was such fun! (Photo copyright Janet M. Hug)
Taking pictures of each other with birds on our heads was such fun! (Photo by Janet Hug)
Janet feeding a Chickadee.
Janet feeding a chickadee.
Tufted Titmouse
Tufted Titmouse (Photo by Janet Hug)

I cannot believe I let so many years go by without having this magical experience! Often here at home our chickadees will chatter at me as I refill the feeders, sometimes even buzzing my head as they land on a feeder beside me as I’m filling the next one. I’ve tried many times to get them to eat from my hand, but always ended up frustrated when they were too timid. But the Kensington birds had no hesitation at all. I had Black-capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, White-breasted Nuthatches, and–get ready for this–a Downy Woodpecker, all eating from my hand and head. Here’s a video of the Downy Woodpecker on my hand:

And here’s a longer video of the titmice and chickadees:

I already knew that birds weighed very little, but if I hadn’t felt the claws of those chickadees on my fingers, I wouldn’t even have known they were there. It gives the phrase “light as a feather” a whole new meaning for me. What precious little creatures they are! A chickadee weighs less than a half ounce. That’s less than 14 paper clips, or a half of a slice of bread. Heck, you could afford to mail two chickadees for a first class postage stamp (not that I’m suggesting you do that, of course).

Hey Janet, what's that on your head?
Hey Janet, what’s that on your head?

Along with the birds eating from our hands, we were lucky enough to see a Field Sparrow that has been hanging around there, very unusual for this time of year. We also saw a Song Sparrow, lots of Blue Jays, Cardinals, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers, and even some Wild Turkeys trotting along the snowy path through the woods. And this is funny: Just before we got in our cars to leave, I’d mentioned my recent sightings of a Pileated Woodpecker in my yard, and said how I wished I could predict its visits so I could share it with our friend Dr. Bob, who is very eager to see one of those large woodpeckers. We said our goodbyes and I left as Janet was loading her camera gear into her car. If I’d only stayed a bit longer I would have seen the Pileated Woodpecker that flew right over her head in the parking lot, can you believe that?

Field Sparrow, an unusual winter visitor in our area
Field Sparrow, an unusual winter visitor in our area

I am so grateful to have had this amazing experience. It was exhilarating, but at the same time it also gave me such a sense of peace. And I really really really needed that. Now I’m feeling better about making it through this difficult winter. But I wouldn’t be surprised if I need another dose of ecotherapy at Kensington Metropark in the very near future.

Jane Goodall Knows

Like many people who care about social and environmental issues, I sometimes get discouraged. Can I really make a difference? What impact can I have by writing a letter to my representative, or signing a petition? Petitions are a dime a dozen nowadays anyway, right? Don’t you ever wonder if they really have any impact? I do. Or, I should say, I did.

Two weeks ago I got involved in an effort to stop the airport in Grand Rapids from shooting Snowy Owls. Very personally involved. And I think the experience has changed me forever.

Snowy Owl petition screenshot for blog
This is a screenshot of the petition on The photo was provided by Charles Owens.

If you’ve read my blog for any period of time, you know how much I care about protecting birds and their habitats. So when someone in a birding group found out that the airport was killing the owls instead of the more humane method of trapping and relocating them, birders were up in arms. And something clicked in me right then — I decided to start a petition on I’d seen how fast a similar petition had gotten results when JFK airport was caught shooting the owls in December (story here), so I decided to try and harness the passion of all my birding friends to see if we could do the same here in Michigan.

And boy, did we. My petition quickly got 2,000 signatures (and would have 3,500 in a couple more days). Lots of people started sending emails to the airport and the local media in Grand Rapids. Links to the petition were spread throughout social media so fast I couldn’t keep up with them all. Within 24 hours we’d been joined by some “big guns” — Black Swamp Bird Observatory and the American Bird Conservancy. Michigan Audubon also helped spread the word. While those more-experienced leaders continued their attempts to speak with airport officials, I focused on putting news updates on the petition site and encouraged people to keep sharing the link.

Anyway, to make a long story short (too late?), the media picked up the story and aired it on the evening news right after the MLK holiday weekend. I was thrilled to see that my petition was mentioned in every story done in the next few days. (Although, thankfully for an introvert like me, the media didn’t contact me or mention my name — whew!) I’m generally more comfortable as a behind-the-scenes type of person, but I’m really glad I stepped up this time and put myself out there, even if it was just as a petition author. Because when we were successful in getting the airport to increase their efforts to trap-and-relocate, I felt a personal victory and a newfound sense of power. Don’t misunderstand, I don’t mean that I was responsible for the success of this campaign. No, there were lots of people involved in making this happen. What I mean is that I saw, very clearly and up close, that a petition and social media can make a difference.

I was blown away at how easy it was to spread the word about this petition. I’ve purposely kept a short “friend list” on social media, so I knew I personally couldn’t reach that many people. But it didn’t matter because my short friend list includes people who have very big networks, so all I had to do was ask them to mention the campaign and it took off like wildfire. I was gobsmacked by the whole thing (just wanted to use that word today).

One of the best things about the whole episode was seeing this photo of the first Snowy Owl the airport trapped after this story broke:

Photo by Gerald R. Ford International Airport. Used with permission.
Photo by Gerald R. Ford International Airport. Used with permission.

In the photo is Aaron Bowden, a licensed bander with the USDA, who manages the whole trapping and relocating process. I think it’s safe to say that our campaign saved the life of this beautiful owl. And I hope the airport continues its stepped-up efforts to trap the birds for the next two months until they head back north to their relatively peaceful home — the one that doesn’t have airplanes and cars and people everywhere.

I was reading “The Ten Trusts” the other day (a fabulous book, by the way) and in it Jane Goodall said:

The Tenth, and final, Trust is, perhaps, the most important of all. It reminds us that every action we take to make the world a better place is important and worthwhile, no matter how small. Because there are millions of others like us, and as long as each of us does our bit, the cumulative result will be massive change for the good.

That was reassuring to me, because if anyone understands the power of individual action, it’s Jane Goodall. And the way I see it, what’s the point of being on this planet if I can’t be bothered to do my part to protect what’s left of the natural world?

Use what talents you possess; the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best. ~Henry van Dyke

26 Letters

{ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z }

There’s a lot of power in those 26 simple symbols. That small set of letters is our entire tool kit for communicating with one another in the English language. Every word we write or speak is formed from nothing more than these few building blocks arranged in various ways: letters into words, words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs. Endless combinations to express innumerable thoughts and ideas. The U.S. Constitution. War and Peace. The Bible. Your grandmother’s love letters. The owner’s manual for your car. The script of the latest blockbuster movie. It’s really remarkable when you stop to think about it.

Kindle keyboard (1024x683)With these 26 letters we can convey our feelings upon witnessing something wondrous like the birth of a baby, or something horrific like a car crash. We can give names to each other as well as to every species of plant and animal on the planet. We can tell bedtime stories to our children.

We need no more than these 26 letters to explain why the leaves turn those brilliant colors in the fall, where birds go when they migrate, or how a caterpillar becomes a butterfly. These same letters can be combined to form something as important as your birth certificate or as mundane as a grocery list.

We educate, entertain, compliment, insult, soothe, incite, encourage, and irritate each other with words made from this very small group of symbols. Think about some historic inspirational speeches: Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” or John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address (“Ask not what your country can do for you…”). Combinations of these twenty-six letters, that’s all.

There’s such power in language, whether it’s written or spoken. Because of our mastery of language, our species has been able to dominate the world. We’ve done good things with this power. And we’ve done bad things. I often wonder what the other animals would say to us if they could use our language. I’m sure they would teach us some valuable lessons.

I believe we have an obligation to use this powerful gift to make the world a better place for all of us, not just those like ourselves. I’m saddened when I see words used to tear down or belittle other people. So much potential is wasted by those words, so much unnecessary hurt inflicted. On the other hand, when I hear language used to uplift and encourage people, my heart smiles with hope. I push aside my doubts about the future, cast off the weight of my fears, and am inspired to try harder to be a part of the solution.

If you ask me, these 26 letters have the power to save us all.

Yank Yank!

The Nuthatch Patrol are sounding their “yank yank!” alarm as I trudge through the silent woodland, knee-deep in drifts of heavy, wet snow. Red-bellied woodpeckers bicker high up in the naked oak tree. A lone gull flies overhead, like a ghost in the gray sky.

As I write this we’re in the middle of The Big One. Not since the Blizzard of ’78 have I heard so much talk about a few inches of snow. Well, ok, it’s more than that. I think we’ve added seven or eight inches today, making the snow almost a foot deep on our deck. It’s been snowing continuously for 22 hours now. And the difficulties of all this snow will be compounded by some Arctic temperatures in the next few days. Our forecast for tomorrow says the high will be 11F and the low will be -16F. Then Tuesday the high will be 4 and the low -16 again. Those temperatures worry me more than the deep snow we’ve got on the ground.

That's me exploring the fresh snow this morning. Pointing at--what else?--a bird.
That’s me exploring the fresh snow this morning. Pointing at–what else?–a bird.

So I took advantage of the relative warmth of today’s 30F temperature and spent some time wandering around in our woods taking photos and pumping some fresh air through my lungs in preparation for a few days of being cooped up indoors. As much as I dislike winter, I do enjoy the first day of a new snow. I think the thick snow acts as an insulation against sound, allowing a rare opportunity to stand in my yard and hear….silence. Such bliss. And I love the fresh white snow blanketing every branch of every tree, turning them into exquisite winter sculptures.

Snow-covered bittersweet berries
Snow-covered bittersweet berries

Whenever fresh snow covers the ground we see a higher level of activity at our feeders. I went out first thing this morning to scatter some extra seed piles for the Juncos and Mourning Doves who feed on the ground. The nonstop snow has covered them up quickly, so I went back out there a couple times to uncover them. I’m concerned about the little birds surviving the coming brutal cold without enough energy. I’m always awed at how such tiny creatures manage to live through bad weather, over and over again. Well, I know many of them don’t make it when the weather turns nasty, but many more do. And unlike us, they can’t fill their cupboards with food and then sit in a warm house sipping hot chocolate and watching the snow fall. They have to be on the move constantly, back and forth from feeders to the shelter of inner tree branches, grabbing bits of nutrition, seed by seed, all day long. Think about that. It’s a lot of work just to stay alive.Male Cardinal in snow (1024x731)

I’m glad there are still some berries on the trees. The goldfinches were getting their fill of these red berries this afternoon.

Goldfinch eating red berries in snowstorm (1024x684)

Here are a few more photos I took on my walk around our yard and woods this morning.

Grandaddy spruce tree and baby Korean Fir beside our driveway
Grandaddy spruce tree and baby Korean Fir beside our driveway
Our deck
Our deck

Deck railing and snowy woods (1024x683)

Looking down our slippery road that, for once, is quiet.
Looking down our slippery road that, for once, is quiet.

Red bow and snow-covered birdhouse (709x1024)It’s dark now and we’re hunkered down waiting for the cold winds to come in overnight. I’m hoping the power manages to stay on for the duration, but we’re prepared in case it doesn’t. And I also hope our snowplow guy shows up tomorrow. Stay warm everyone.

Winter Birding in Michigan

I’ve never liked winter very much. Sure, the first snow of the season is pretty, but after a couple days the charm fades away and it turns dirty and slushy. And all the leaves are gone on the trees, making our home less hidden from the busy road. And it’s so cold. No thanks.

But all that changed when I discovered the thrill of winter birding. Early winter is a time for taking my spotting scope out to Lake St. Clair or Lake Huron to scan the migrating ducks that sometimes float on the lakes in rafts of thousands at a time. It took me several years to get motivated to go looking for ducks, and a couple more years to commit to it after I found out how brutally cold the winds can be on the shores of the Great Lakes in January and February. I had no idea that icicles could hang from my nostrils. Seriously.

The trick is to look for the unusual one that's sometimes mixed in there.
The trick is to look for the unusual one that’s sometimes mixed in there.

But now I’m prepared for the weather–stocked up on long johns, hats, mittens, and wool socks–and I enjoy the challenge of learning to identify the ducks. I’m even getting pretty good at it (except for the Greater and Lesser Scaup that still give me fits). I’m still not too keen on learning the complexities of gull identification, but the ducks are much easier.

It may sound crazy if you’ve never done it, but it’s surprising how invigorating and refreshing it can be to brace yourself against those cold Canadian winds.

A mixed flock of Horned Larks and Snow Buntings
A mixed flock of Horned Larks and Snow Buntings

And then there are the songbirds that come for the winter. The first to show up at our feeders are the lively flocks of Dark-eyed Juncos, like the one I showed you in last week’s Wordless Wednesday photo. But other birds feed in winter flocks in farm fields and along country roads, like the American Tree Sparrows, Snow Buntings, and Horned Larks. (Actually the Horned Larks are here year-round in Michigan, but they feed in big flocks with the buntings and sparrows in wintertime.) I just found my first Lapland Longspurs today, mixed in with one of these flocks feeding on a snowy road east of Ann Arbor. I wish I’d gotten a photo of them.

I was also surprised to find a lone Rusty Blackbird in that flock, standing a couple inches taller than everyone else. I had to use my amateur Photoshop skills to selectively lighten up the bird in this photo; I have a lot of trouble trying to photograph birds on snow.

Rusty Blackbird from Superior Twp, Michigan, December 18, 2013
Rusty Blackbird from Superior Twp, Michigan, December 18, 2013

The pièce de resistance of today’s birds is, of course, the coveted Snowy Owl:

Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus)
Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus)

That photo was taken with a 400mm lens from a distance of more than a hundred yards. I was driving around the service roads at the Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti, where Snowies have been hanging around lately. I had never been there before and didn’t know exactly where to look, and the way I found this owl was amazing. I’d stopped behind a car that had paused to watch a flock of Snow Buntings on the road. I couldn’t see the birds from my vantage point, but I didn’t want to drive past them and ruin their viewing experience, so I was using the time to look around me at the barren fields and roadways. There was a tall snow-covered hill on my left, probably 50 or 60 feet high. As I scanned the top of the ridge, something caught my eye. I’d been fooled several times already on this outing by big chunks of snow in cornfields, but something about this one made me pull up my binoculars. And I couldn’t believe my eyes — a Snowy Owl, sitting in plain view on the top of the hill! Well, actually he was very-well camouflaged, as you can see in this uncropped photo:

Well-camouflaged Snowy Owl
Well-camouflaged Snowy Owl

I jumped out of the car to set up my spotting scope for a better view. And since there were other birders driving around the airport on this same quest, it didn’t take long before someone else pulled up behind me to see what I’d found. I was jumping up and down and giggling, amazed that I’d found a Snowy Owl all by myself! I was like a kid who thought she deserved a gold star from the teacher. It’s one thing to read emails about an exact location where people are watching an owl and go there to have a look; it’s another thing entirely to stumble upon one before anyone else has spotted it. I’m still on a high from it as I write this, hours later.

If I had to guess, I’d say this is a juvenile male. They say most of the owls who come this far south in winter are the juveniles. And while adult male Snowy Owls are almost pure white, the females and juvenile males have the brown flecks you see on this owl. But because he seems to have the beginnings of a pure white bib, I’d guess this is a young male. I’ll never know for sure, and it doesn’t really matter, but it’s nice to say “him” or “her” instead of “it.”

Now I can relax, I’ve seen my Snowy for the year. I try not to be competitive about my bird list, but it’s hard not to want to chase down one of these when the talk on birding lists is so focused on these fascinating owls every. single. day. I just want to share in the fun, that’s all.  If you’re curious about these visitors from the Arctic, I highly recommend “Magic of the Snowy Owl,” an hour-long documentary about how they survive in that frigid climate.

After a day like today I’m reminded, once again, of the impact birds have had on me. They have completely changed my outlook on life. Just as my discovery of the spring warbler migration blew my mind, now my enjoyment of ducks and other winter birds has made the depths of winter tolerable for me. I’m convinced that the birds are the reason I haven’t suffered from Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.) in two years; I’m getting more fresh air and natural Vitamin D because I go out looking for birds. They bring wonder and joy to my world, and for that I’ll be forever grateful to those little feathered creatures.

Have a happy and safe holiday season, everyone. See you in 2014.