Extreme Birding: One Tree Limit

I ran away today. The road commission was out on our dirt & gravel road doing their never-ending maintenance, assailing my morning with the loud and incessant sounds of backup beepers and grinding truck engines. So I packed up my laptop and some books for writing inspiration and headed to the park, hoping to find a quiet spot for an afternoon of writing. Here’s how it went:

View of the lake from my picnic table writing desk
View of the lake from my picnic table writing desk

It’s a cool, sunny day, about 70 degrees with a brisk breeze that results in me being bombarded with a hail of cotton puffs from the cottonwood trees. I settle myself at a picnic table a couple hundred yards uphill from the lake, and get busy typing. Of course I’m immediately distracted by the birds, but I remind myself that I will not be birding today. I’m here for writing. But I still have my binoculars (“bins” in birderspeak) and 300mm lens, just in case something incredible happens by.

Chipping Sparrow singing (click to enlarge)
Chipping Sparrow singing (click to enlarge)

Just to get warmed up, the first couple paragraphs I type are about the birds I’m hearing and seeing. In particular, a chipping sparrow is singing constantly from the inner branches of the tree right in front of me. He even dropped down to the ground a couple times to nibble on a caterpillar or other delicious tidbit.

I finally put down the bins and resume writing, chastising myself for my lack of focus. I make some good progress in the next hour, stopping periodically to look at the birds. Suddenly it dawns on me that I could write about the experience of birding in a single tree. That seemed an intriguing idea, so that’s what I’m doing. Pretty clever, huh? I’m writing, but I’m also birding. Two birds with one stone, so to speak.

Our tree for today's "Single Tree Birding" experiment, a pretty black locust
Our tree for today’s “Single Tree Birding” experiment, a pretty black locust

Before I tell you about the other birds, let me introduce our tree for the day. This is a 30-foot-tall black locust tree located on the edge of a parking lot. At least I think that’s what it is, after perusing two tree field guides. Other trees nearby include cottonwoods, various evergreens, oaks, elms, and many more I don’t know how to identify (yet). There’s a large lawn area too.

The little chipping sparrow appeared to “own” this tree, as he sang from it for the entire three hours I was there, entertaining me with his pretty little song.

Eastern Kingbird, scouting for flying insects
Eastern Kingbird, scouting for flying insects

At one point I think I see a kingbird fly into the back side of the tree, but can’t confirm it. But 15 minutes later he pops into view on a branch right in front of me, posing nicely for his photo. I later watch him launching flycatching forays from the highest branches of the tree, grabbing insects midair. The kingbird is a member of the flycatcher family, birds that grab insects on the wing, often coming back to land again and again on the same branch. I’m always delighted to see this feat of timing and speed, not to mention eyesight. I can’t even see the insects they’re grabbing.

I open a document of notes I took at a writing workshop recently. I read some of them. I look back up to try to see the chipping sparrow (because now that I know what I’m writing about, I realize that a photo of him would be a nice addition). As I look up, I see a bluebird fly out of the tree with a caterpillar in its mouth. He flies overhead and goes into a tree behind me, where I soon see his mate as well. No matter how many times I see a bluebird, it always makes me smile because I think of the “Bluebird of Happiness.”

Cottonwood seed puffs and some leaves from the locust tree
Cottonwood seed puffs and some leaves from the locust tree

Back to my notes. The writing workshop was led by Dr. J. Drew Lanham, a professor at Clemson University. This was my first time being taught by him, and I came out of that workshop with some notes that I know I’ll refer to many times in my future writing efforts. One of my favorites of his ideas was to pick up a leaf nearby when you see a special bird, and insert it into your field guide to remind you of how you felt and what you saw at that moment. So I stopped in my writing to bend down and gather up some of the cottonwood seedpuffs that were coating the grass.

Now the breeze slows down and the air feels warmer. A robin starts singing loudly behind me. I can hear a blue-gray gnatcatcher in another tree nearby, and now goldfinches have gathered in the interior of our locust tree, softly chattering among themselves. A flicker announces his presence with his boisterous calls. And still the chipping sparrow sings every five or ten seconds. Does he sing for the pleasure of it, or to get a mate, or to protect his territory? Possibly a bit of all those, I think.

Turkey Vulture flyover
Turkey Vulture flyover

I stand up to stretch and see a turkey vulture soaring over our tree.  As I sit down, some blue jays and crows are having an argument in the trees behind me. Two cowbirds land beneath the tree and walk around poking around in the grass.

A chickadee is singing his sad-sounding two-note call in a nearby tree. The breeze has brought a sweet smell now, from some plant I can’t see around me and can’t identify from the scent. But trust me, it’s lovely. I can’t inhale deeply enough. Maybe honeysuckle?

Down near the lake there are red-winged blackbirds calling occasionally. They seem to have already settled down from the noisy and aggressive early part of breeding season. A couple geese land in the lake as a red-bellied woodpecker makes a brief stop in our tree.

I keep writing. I make good progress, ending up with two draft articles for future use.

Taking a break from eating to sing again
Taking a break from eating to sing again

Then I hear a catbird softly mewing behind me. I play a catbird song on my Audubon bird app and he responds by singing back to me for twenty seconds or so. (I try to be judicious in my use of bird calls so as not to cause distress to the birds, but I thought in this situation it was ok to play it one time.)

Chipping Sparrow with leaf
Chipping Sparrow with green  caterpillar

So to summarize, I saw the following birds in this single locust tree during my three hour writing session: Chipping Sparrow, Eastern Kingbird, Eastern Bluebirds, American Goldfinches, and Red-bellied Woodpecker.  This unassuming tree managed to feed or shelter at least five species of birds this afternoon, not to mention all the work it did to capture carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen to make our planet healthier. A tree is a special thing. (And this “one-tree birding” idea is fun and I might just try it again soon.)

And, just because I’m compelled to record all the birds, here are the others who didn’t actually visit our tree: Northern Flicker, American Crow, Blue Jay, Red-winged Blackbirds, Canada Geese, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Turkey Vulture, American Robin, Gray Catbird, and Black-capped Chickadee.

The sparrow is finally quiet and I find that I feel lonely without his pretty serenade to inspire me. I hope he’s taking a well-deserved nap up there in the cool interior of that lovely tree. I’m heading home, rejuvenated and relaxed, happy that I can share this peaceful afternoon with all of you.

Maybe a change of scenery and some fresh air would do you good too. Why not try it and find out? And don’t forget to hug a tree while you’re out there. 🙂

Zygodactyl Feet? Who Me?

And now for the woodpecker action I promised in an earlier post….

Hairy Woodpecker stashing nut in old Pileated hole
Hairy Woodpecker stashing nut in old Pileated hole
Hairy woodpecker
The red on the back of the head tells us this is a male Hairy Woodpecker.

The other day, I looked out the kitchen window and saw a Hairy Woodpecker stashing peanuts in some holes drilled in a sassafras tree by a Pileated Woodpecker a couple years ago.

Red-bellied Woodpecker (female) after she bumped the Hairy off her spot!
Red-bellied Woodpecker (female) after she bumped the Hairy off her spot!

And as if that wasn’t cute enough, a moment later he was bumped off his spot by a female Red-bellied Woodpecker, who proceeded to stash her own peanut in the same hole (or maybe she was taking his out). It happened so fast that if I’d blinked I would have thought the Hairy had magically turned into a Red-bellied. I’ve seen the Red-bellies do that same move before — back in January as I was watching my first ever Fox Sparrow on the ground below our feeders, suddenly a Red-belly landed practically on top of him. I think they’ve got a bit of an aggressive streak, or else they just don’t watch where they’re going very carefully!

Zygodactyl toe blog sidebarAs fun as it was to see the interaction of the Hairy and Red-belly, I got to see a much rarer interaction a few days later at the same tree.

A hard-working female Pileated Woodpecker
A hard-working female Pileated Woodpecker (a male would have a red moustache stripe rather than black)

As I walked out the driveway to get the mail one afternoon, I spotted a Pileated Woodpecker in the woods across the road. Excited at the possibility that it would come over to our yard, I ran inside to get my binoculars and camera. When I came back the bird was nowhere in sight. Disappointed, I went back inside, but stationed myself at the kitchen windows so I could keep an eye out in case he/she came back.

I couldn’t believe my luck when she did come into the yard less than 20 minutes later! And even more interesting, she went right to those same sassafras trees (we have five of them side by side in that part of the yard). She began chipping away at the bark in several different spots at first, then settled on one spot and really got busy. But the resident Red-bellied Woodpeckers apparently didn’t want her here, and they tried to chase her away. They were unsuccessful and gave up after a few minutes, leaving her to spend the next 45 minutes drilling a hole big enough to put her entire head inside the tree.

Red-bellied woodpecker and Pileated woodpecker -- look at the size difference!
Red-bellied woodpecker and Pileated woodpecker — look at the size difference!

But I got a great photo with both woodpecker species in the same frame, showing the big size difference. Usually the Red-bellied Woodpeckers are one of the largest birds in our yard, but this one looks so tiny next to the Pileated, doesn’t he?

I was thrilled to be able to watch her for so long, and after she finished drilling that large hole she flew across the road and was gone. I was hoping maybe she was going to make a nest hole, but I think this was just a hunt for ants inside the tree. Since these big birds have territories from 150-200 acres in size, our property is just a small portion of their home base. I guess that’s why we’ve only seen two of them in the past several years here.

Pileated Woodpecker holes from previous years (533x800)
Older holes
Pileated Woodpecker holes in sassafras tree (533x800)
New holes

I went out to check out the holes after she left. These two shots show the holes dug in previous years compared to the new ones; see how the exposed inner bark is brown on the new ones?  

And here’s a video of her as she worked, accompanied by some light classical music that was playing on my tv.  (It’s a good thing woodpeckers have reinforced skulls or they’d need a steady supply of aspirin, wouldn’t they?)

There IS Life After Death

Have you given much thought to your life after you die? I’m not thinking of any type of spiritual existence, but rather about how your body becomes part of the earth, one way or another.

Cemetery sign with toxic waste warning (800x533)As uncomfortable as it might be to think about it this way, conventional cemeteries are really toxic waste dumps. Think about it. Your body is pumped full of embalming fluid (formaldehyde and other chemicals) to preserve it long enough for funeral home viewing, then placed in clothing (often synthetics that take a long time to biodegrade), then placed in a wood coffin that’s been treated with chemical sealants and contains metal hardware. Sometimes the coffin is placed inside a steel or concrete vault, then the whole bundle of poison is buried six feet under and covered with turf grass that’s kept alive for all eternity by chemical pesticides and fertilizers. I don’t know about you, but I sure as heck don’t want MY final act to be one that poisons the earth like that.

Smokestacks for blogFor the past decade or so I’ve been convinced that I wanted to be cremated when I die. Cremation is actually fairly common in this country; about 42% of all Americans are cremated at death (per 2011 statistics from the Cremation Society of Great Britain). Cremation  seemed much more environmentally friendly than the other available methods, at least at first glance. You simply get reduced to a pile of ashes that can be scattered at sea or in a special wilderness place, or just buried in an urn.  But then I started thinking about the air pollution generated by the cremation process; specifically there are concerns about the mercury vapors from dental fillings. I don’t have any mercury in my fillings, but even so, I’m unhappy with the pollution aspects. So I started looking into other options, and I think I may have found the perfect choice for me.

But before I tell you about that, I found one other interesting option for people who still want to be cremated. It’s the “Bios Urn,” a biodegradable urn that contains your ashes and a single tree seed. The idea is that you help fertilize a tree, which then grows and
stands as a living legacy to your life. That sounds pretty good, but I’d be worried that someone would cut me down for firewood. Wouldn’t that be ironic if I chose not to be cremated and then I grew into a tree that someone burned in their fireplace? Funny.

Walking trail at Foxfield Preserve.
Walking trail at Foxfield Preserve. Photo used with permission.

So my choice is a natural burial. In a natural burial your body isn’t pumped full of chemicals. There’s no lacquered wood or steel coffin being placed into the soil to poison it further. What happens instead is that your body is placed in a simple cloth shroud (or sometimes a biodegradable pine coffin) and placed directly into the soil to decompose naturally. It gives me a feeling of deep peace to think that my body will fertilize the soil, and perhaps feed earthworms or insects, which will in turn become food for the birds I love so much. It might even be possible that a molecule from my body will one day fly across a meadow in the body of a beautiful Northern Cardinal or Red-winged Blackbird. How can you top that? (Of course my sister doesn’t like the idea, and says I’d probably poop on her car…funny girl.)

Gravesite at Foxfield Preserve, overlooking a natural meadow.
Gravesite at Foxfield Preserve, overlooking a natural meadow. Photo used with permission.

There are some great places being established as natural burial cemeteries, and I hope more will pop up as this idea gains support. There’s an interesting one in Northern Ohio called Foxfield Preserve, a lovely-looking nature preserve cemetery owned by the Wilderness Center. Take a look at their video here and see if it doesn’t seem pretty amazing. And even closer to me is The Preserve on Lake Maceday, the first natural burial cemetery in the Detroit metro area. I think I’ll make a point to go birding in one of these places this summer to get a better feel for what they’re like.

So what do you think about this whole idea of natural burials? Do you think it’s important or not? Would you consider it for yourself or your loved ones?

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Resources for further reading — I haven’t read any of these books yet, but offer them here as possible starting points for those who want to read more.

Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death, by Joshua Slocum and Lisa Carlson

Going Out Green: One Man’s Adventure Planning His Own Burial, by Bob Butz

Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial, by Mark Harris

List of Natural Burial Preserves in US – some of their websites have good information too.

Cranes to my Left, Cranes to my Right

Sandhill Crane in flightWe’ve all seen those wildlife documentaries where they show thousands of animals gathered in one spot; the one most people think of is the incredible migration of the wildebeests in Africa, right? Thousands and thousands of them running across the plains…it’s hard to imagine what it would be like to be there to see something like that in person, but we just know it would be amazing.

Well, last Friday night, we got to experience something every bit as amazing as that, and only two hours from home. It was the annual gathering of the Sandhill Cranes in southwestern Michigan as they prepare for their southward migration. We’d been watching the daily count tallies from Baker Sanctuary in anticipation of our trip, and when the number hit 3,800 cranes a few days earlier, I started to get very excited. Heck, look how excited I got about our close encounter with just two of them last summer.

We had tickets to a special dinner event that night (more about that shortly), so we decided to go to the sanctuary beforehand to watch the evening fly-in. (Cranes come in to the marsh each evening before dusk to roost, then leave again in the morning.) We got there at 5 pm and I was very surprised to see at least a thousand cranes already populating the marsh. I couldn’t even begin to count all of them, but I’m sure there were more than a couple thousand by the time we left around 6:30. They were a hundred yards away from the closest viewing areas, so I was disappointed not to be able to get close-up photos. But I took a few shots of the large groupings anyway, and shot the smaller groups as they flew over our heads on their way down into the marsh.

The beauty of these large and majestic birds is part of the reason this is fun to watch, but the sounds are even better, in my opinion. The cranes call while flying and after landing, and the entire marsh resonated with their prehistoric-sounding trumpets. If I had to choose only to see or to hear these birds, I’d definitely choose to hear them! Here’s a link where you can listen to their calls. Doesn’t that send shivers down your spine? It does for me. Just imagine a bunch of birds with a wingspan of 5 to 7 feet flying overhead and making that gurgling sound…it’s one of the most entertaining bird spectacles I’ve ever seen. I tried to take some video to share with you, but the audio was cluttered with some irritating people talking loudly about what they had for dinner, or something equally distracting. (And don’t even get me started on the people who came out to a nature sanctuary and smoked cigarettes the whole time….omg!) Luckily there are plenty of videos on YouTube already — just search for Sandhill Cranes and you’ll get a bunch of choices to watch.

Cranes in formation

I’m so glad we watched the cranes on Friday night, because Saturday turned out to be such a cold and rainy day that we decided not to spend the day waiting for the evening fly-in the second time.

Just a small portion of the crowded marsh as the sun started to lower in the sky
Landing gear down….

Just about the only time these birds don’t seem majestic is when they prepare for landing, letting those long, gangly legs droop down below them. It always makes me laugh.

Bald Eagle (click to enlarge)
Pileated Woodpecker! (click to enlarge)

And lest I forget, there were other great birds in the area that night too. We watched two Bald Eagles soaring around a few times, and got to witness a beautiful Northern Harrier soaring low over the marsh hunting for his dinner. There were bunches of Robins, of course, and a few small songbirds that we didn’t pay much attention to. But I kept taking pictures of anything that flew past, even if I didn’t know what it was at the time. Imagine my surprise when I got the photos uploaded and discovered that I’d shot a Pileated Woodpecker flying past! This is a great bird that I don’t get to see often enough. And I also found a life bird in one of the photos — a Ring-necked Pheasant was perched on a dead tree way back in the marsh. I’ve become used to using the computer to zoom in on trees looking for little birds, but this one was so obvious I wondered how I hadn’t noticed it when I was scanning the marsh with my binoculars. What a fun 24 hours this was!

A Week in the North Woods, Part Two

Ok, here’s the rest of the story about our vacation in Michigan’ s U.P.  I’m going to share more about our bird sightings here and show you pictures, most of which are blurry and/or distant shots, but exciting nontheless. (That reminds me, time to get that 400mm lens….)

Our last hike of the week was the Au Train Songbird Trail. It’s a 3-mile loop through heavy woods south of Au Train. We heard lots of birds but honestly, every time I stopped to look through my binoculars or try to take a picture, the mosquitoes absolutely mobbed me. That was frustrating because we really wanted to find out what those birds were! We were able to identify the waxwings and chickadees by their calls, but not much else.

This first picture has a great story to go with it. One evening I was sitting in my kayak on our little lake, concentrating on taking pictures of a beaver. It was so quiet. And suddenly there was a screeching overhead. Startled, I looked up just in time to see this Sandhill Crane fly over me, barely 10-15 feet above! (That’s why the pic isn’t in focus — it was focused for the beaver!) The other of the pair remained on the near side of the lake, and they called back and forth to each other for about a minute, so loudly that my husband came out of the cabin to see what was going on. Their calls remind me of those velociraptors in Jurassic Park –– very prehistoric-sounding. It was so freakin’ awesome! Ok, so here’s the resulting picture:

Sandhill Crane

This experience was so great that we’ve decided to go to Crane Fest in October. They say they counted over 6,000 cranes there during last year’s migration. That’s got to be a fabulous thing to see.

We also saw our first ever Red-breasted Nuthatch on this trip. Very nice surprise.

Here’s a gallery of some dragonflies and more birds from the week. (Click on pix to enlarge.) Enjoy!

Green-eyed damselfly, species unknown
Green-eyed dragonfly — almost in focus!
Cedar Waxwing, aka Batman Bird
Belted Kingfisher
Solitary Sandpiper

And finally, one of the gorgeous sunsets we had at Cranberry Lake.

Sunset on Cranberry Lake

The Enthusiasm of the Newly Converted

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, near Munising

I know I’m not the first person in the history of the planet to be an enthusiastic convert to a new idea or attitude, but it feels weird. Almost disingenuous. Here’s what I mean:

Almost eleven years ago when we first moved to Michigan from our longtime home state of Ohio, I wasn’t particularly thrilled, to be honest.  Not only did it mean I’d have to finish my Master’s degree at a new school (and lose credits for transferring), but I also had to leave my fabulous job at the Columbus Metropolitan Library, rated one of the best libraries in the country. I’d been working there for less than a year at the time, so I was heartbroken. Otherwise, much of my disdain for the state of Michigan came from my Buckeye blood and loyalty to my alma mater, I admit. We Buckeyes sing songs about the “…whole state of Michigan…”, if you know what I mean. So basically, my opinion of the state was based on complete ignorance.

Along the shore of Lake Michigan

For the first few years after we got here I still had some resistance to immersing myself into the Michigan way of life, always feeling more at home in Ohio. I still identified myself as “an Ohioan living in Michigan.” It felt somehow untrue to say I was a Michigander (or Michiganian, if you prefer, but they both sound weird).  And when I would listen to conversations among my native Michigan friends, or hear other Michiganders talking, I never really “got” why they seemed to be so proud of their state. I mean, it has Detroit, for crying out loud. We all know what the rest of the world thinks of that beleaguered city — and I was no different. At first.

After a few years I finally accepted that this was now “home,” but it wasn’t until we took our first vacation “up north” that I understood the awesome-ness of Michigan. (“Up North” means the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in local parlance. See, they even have their own language here!) It took us eight years to get around to taking that long drive up I-75, but it changed my feelings about Michigan permanently. I noticed that I started answering that traveler’s question — “where are you from?” — differently. I was no longer the Ohioan living in Michigan. I was just “from Michigan.” Not only was it simpler, but it felt ok.

The Mackinac Bridge, gateway to the UP

And more recently I find myself wanting to tell people the good things about Michigan, to stand up for it when I hear negative comments. (Don’t even get me started about Detroit….)  When I sign up for a new website, I often choose user names like “MichiganKim”, making my state of residence part of my online identity. Is that weird? I know I’ll never be a “true” Michigander, but sometimes I feel like I’m an ambassador teaching other people about the mitten state. Not that Ohio isn’t great too, but up here we’re surrounded by more lakes than you can shake a stick at, as well as fabulous parks, hiking & biking trails, and four — count ’em — four Great Lakes. Our lives have been changed a great deal by the easy access to all this nature, and I’d be very disappointed if we had to move away now. (Well, unless we were going to Hawaii or Alaska….just sayin.)

Along the way I found myself subscribing to some fabulous blogs that celebrate Michigan. There’s Michigan in Pictures, and Michigan Architecture, as well as the travel-related sites Pure Michigan Connect and Absolute Michigan. And speaking of travel, when you read this, we’ll be enjoying our vacation Up North once again. We’re taking our kayaks with us, and will be hiking and birdwatching too. I’m sure the time will go by too quickly, but I look forward to sharing some of the natural beauty of Michigan with you when I get back. (Keep your fingers crossed that we get to see a Bald Eagle…)

Wildflowers I Have Known

Garlic Mustard from our woods

After mowing our lawn today I needed to escape from the heat, so I took a stroll through the woods to see which of our wildflowers were blooming. I didn’t know what the garlic mustard was until I came back in the house and looked it up in one of my wildflower books (see the end of this post for the books), but there’s a ton of it. Apparently it’s a horribly invasive plant from Europe, so I’ll be pulling it all.

May Apples, also blooming soon!

I knew to expect the May Apples because I had discovered them a couple years ago. They’re not blooming yet but I have a picture of their flowers from last year. Since the flowers hang beneath the big green umbrella of leaves, I pulled one out of the ground so I could get a better shot of the bloom.

Creamy white flower hidden under the big umbrella of leaves

I’ve read that later in the summer this flower turns into a yellow “apple” berry — I’ll have to make sure to look under the leaves in August this year. According to “The Secrets of Wildflowers” by Jack Sanders, these May Apples were highly prized by native Americans, who used them for insecticides. Sadly, sometimes they were also used to commit suicide (the plant is poisonous — which probably explains why it survives right beside one of our heavily-used deer paths).  May Apple extracts are also being used now in the treatment of various cancers because they can block the division of diseased cells — now that’s a valuable plant.

I also found a huge patch of Lilies of the Valley that I don’t remember seeing before — what a nice surprise (pictures below). I think I need to explore our woods more often; I wonder how many cool things I’ve been missing out there? Even though we only have 2 acres of woods, we’ve never been to the far side of our property because the woods are so hard to get through. One day a few years ago I planned to walk all the way back, but when a dog started barking on the outer edge of the woods I high-tailed it back to the house. I guess I still have a bit of my childhood fear of dogs lurking around — I’d thought that was long gone.

Make sure to scroll down for the rest of the pictures!

Lily of the Valley, blooming soon!
Big patch of Lilies of the Valley
Field Guide to Wildflowers – Eastern Region
I love this book’s stories about wildflowers.