Ecotherapy in Barry County

Just look at this and imagine breathing fresh air and hearing birds sing as the sun shines on your face —

Searching for Dickcissel
Searching for Dickcissel

Now that’s a good dose of nature therapy. We just spent a few days on the west side of the state at a Michigan Audubon event called “Cerulean Warbler Weekend” (CWW). It’s an annual festival celebrating this beautiful (and declining) warbler species.  In contrast to the very big festival we’ve been attending in Ohio every May, CWW was small and intimate. We liked it very much — the people were friendly, the scenery was idyllic, and the birding was rewarding.

Field where we saw a distant Henslow's Sparrow through the scope
Field where we saw a distant Henslow’s Sparrow through the scope

The event was based at Michigan Audubon’s Otis Farm Bird Sanctuary, just outside of the small town of Hastings. One of our hikes was a tour around the sanctuary with the resident manager, Tom Funke. Tom’s passion for this property was evident as he explained how and why he had used specific management techniques in certain parts of the sanctuary to tweak the habitat for wildlife. He knew every type of tree, grass, and wildflower we saw, and patiently answered lots of questions from the enthusiastic birders on our hike. I was very impressed with him and the entire Otis Sanctuary. Otis Sanctuary - Cerulean Warbler Weekend (4) (800x479)

Me on the trail at Otis Farm
Me on the trail at Otis Farm

We also went on carpooling and bus field trips around Barry County, searching for warblers, flycatchers, and sparrows, among many other species. We had the extreme pleasure of being led by naturalist Greg Nelson on two of the trips. He took great pains to make sure everyone in the group got to see the birds they were most interested in, and it was clear that he knew this area and its birds very well. He had a very effective technique for teaching us to recognize the calls and songs of the various birds when the woods were just an overwhelming chorus of so many species at once. He’d have us stand quietly listening, and when he heard the target bird’s song, he’d raise his finger up in the air so we’d know that was the one we were trying to see. I really liked that method. Often on these group bird outings there are so many people talking to each other that it’s hard to hear the birds, so I appreciated those times when he asked everyone to stand quietly and listen together.

Blurry Dickcissel singing
Dickcissel singing

Thanks to Greg’s skill and knowledge, I added Acadian and Alder Flycatchers to my life list, as well as Yellow-throated Vireo. We saw Dickcissels, which I thought were new birds for me too, but when I got home and checked my list I saw they were already on it. Then I remembered that I’d added them when I heard them singing last year in a field near home. But since I’d never laid eyes on one of them, I’d considered them a “BVD bird” — better view desired. And I certainly got my “better view” of them this time, although my pictures don’t seem that great. I had perfect views of two singing Dickcissels through Greg’s spotting scope, on a roadside somewhere in Barry County.

Birders on the move!
Birders on the move!

Cerulean Blues book coverThe keynote speaker at this event was Katie Fallon, author of “Cerulean Blues: A Personal Search for a Vanishing Songbird.” I got a chance to chat with Katie before her first talk on Friday and asked her to sign my copy of her book, which she graciously did. Although I had almost finished reading her book, I still enjoyed hearing her talk about the problems being caused for this tiny warbler by the mountaintop mining practices in West Virginia and the rest of Appalachia. The bird isn’t officially listed as “endangered” yet, but it may well be on the path to that sad status very soon if we can’t find ways to re-create suitable habitat for it.

Kim and Katie looking for Ceruleans
Katie Fallon and I getting a bad case of “Warbler Neck”

I was thrilled when Katie joined our field trip the next morning to look for Ceruleans around Barry County. We carpooled to several locations and found the birds singing easily, but were unable to see them. These small birds spend their time at the very tops of the tree canopy, frustrating birders everywhere. But on our last stop of the morning, after explaining why it’s important not to overuse playback, Greg allowed someone to play the Cerulean song from their bird app. I was glad that he refrained from using playback of songs for most of the morning, trying to get us a view without disturbing the birds. But when he finally relented and agreed to do it once, that was the magic trick — the singing male suddenly zipped back and forth across the road over our heads, coming down a little bit lower in the trees to investigate the song of a “competing male.” I think the bird was still at least 30 feet above us when I snapped these photos. Thanks to Greg and Katie’s combined efforts, I got this life warbler that had eluded me for years. I think it was a life bird for several other people on  the trip because I had lots of requests for copies of my pics.  To make things simpler, I told them I would put the pics here on the blog so they could download them for their own memories of this exciting sighting.

Cerulean Warbler, June 7, 2014, Barry County, Michigan
Cerulean Warbler, June 7, 2014, Barry County, Michigan
The easiest way to know it's a Cerulean: that black necklace.
The easiest way to know it’s a Cerulean: that black necklace.

And something very inspiring happened while we were looking at the Dickcissels along that dusty road. Often when you’re in a rural location, you’ll be approached by passing motorists wanting to know what you’re all looking at. As we were lined up to the side of the road with several spotting scopes on tripods and a bunch of people with binoculars looking out into a seemingly empty field, a man in a pickup truck pulled up alongside and asked what we were doing.

And this is where the enthusiasm of my fellow birders always delights me: You’d think we were small children, the way we all crowded around his truck excitedly telling him the name of the bird and encouraging him to get out and take a look at it. Even men in their 60s and 70s were urging him to come take a look. And wouldn’t you know, he was interested and got out of his truck to take a look through the spotting scope. He stepped back and asked the name of the bird again. Dickcissel? Yep. He looked again and looked up with a huge smile on his face and said something like, “Well, I’ll be darned.” And then one of the birders stepped up to him to show him the photo of the bird in a field guide. He spent another minute or two chatting with us about where we were all from and then another vehicle came along and he had to move his truck. But he thanked us and drove off smiling in wonderment that a beautiful bird like that was right here, in a field he usually didn’t even glance at.

And that, my friends, is how you start winning people over to Team Conservation.  It’s all about the sharing — sharing the beauty of these birds and their songs, sharing our enthusiasm and love for them, and sharing the knowledge of how humans can unwittingly hurt their chances of survival. Once people have an awareness of the amazing birds that live among us, I think they’ll be more likely to help protect them. At least that’s how it happened to me.  🙂 Enjoy a few more pictures from this peaceful and educational weekend, below.

Song Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Eric looking over the meadow at Otis Farm
Eric looking over the meadow at Otis Farm
Me with one of many snapping turtles we found on roads around the county
Me with one of many snapping turtles we found on roads around the county
Katie and me
Katie and me
Broad-winged Hawk - captive bird from rehab center
Broad-winged Hawk – captive bird from rehab center

Cerulean Warbler Weekend - Eric 024 (800x600) Dragonfly

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 Change.org. 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 Change.org. 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

Nature, Red in Tooth and Claw

Yesterday morning we woke up to find the yard covered with a light dusting of snow, our first real snow of this season. And it was very cold too, giving us our first taste of the bitterness that often comes with a Michigan winter. We were taking it easy, curled up in blankets, drinking tea and watching a documentary about JFK. As usual, I glanced out the window occasionally to watch the birds in the yard. My favorite birds, the Cedar Waxwings, had just arrived to partake of some red berries on a shrub just outside the window. They come in small flocks a couple times every fall until they finish off all the fruit. Here are a couple pictures I’d taken of them a few days earlier (through the window, so not the greatest quality photos):

Cedar Waxwings feasting on berries in our yard
Cedar Waxwings feasting on berries in our yard

Cedar Waxwing with red berry in open mouth - a bit blurry (800x574) Cedar Waxwing with red berry in beak - good one (800x641) Cedar Waxwing with red berry in beak - head on view (640x511)

Owl and titmouse (640x582)
See the Tufted Titmouse behind him?

I had a wonderful time watching them feast that day. But things were different yesterday. After noting their arrival, I’d turned my attention back to the documentary on tv. A few minutes later I realized that I was distracted by a lot of chattering in the trees. I saw some chickadees and titmice flitting around and shouting alarm calls. We muted the tv to listen to them, and immediately saw an Eastern Screech-owl sitting on a branch about 8 feet outside our window, looking right at us!

It’s not often we get to see owls in daytime, so we were both very excited. But as I crept closer to the window I noticed something hanging below the owl. I knew it had to be a bird, and I assumed it was one of the chickadees or titmice. But no, it was a Cedar Waxwing, still fluttering its wings as it died in the clutches of the owl’s talons.

screech-owl with cedar waxwing prey (571x800) w sig

I’m squeamish about seeing animals die–even when I know it’s the way of nature–so I looked away for a half minute until the waxwing stopped moving. Then I was able to be awed at the beauty of the owl, and amazed that he’d caught a bird as large as this one. He sat there for about ten minutes and then flew off into the woods with his catch. I imagine that will keep him satisfied for a good long while.

I’ve been told that the chickadee early warning system is a good way to find an owl, and now I’ve seen it for myself. Often if the little birds spot an owl roosting in a tree they’ll raise a ruckus, either in an attempt to chase it away or just to warn everyone. It seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? You’d think a little bird would just want to take off and get far away from a predator like that, but these little guys were getting in his face and really giving him a hard time.

It’s always preferable to see owls in the wild if possible, but at two recent Audubon events I’ve had a chance to see some captive owls up close, and they are amazing and beautiful birds. All of these owls have some sort of injury or other problem that makes it impossible for them to survive in the wild, so they are permanent residents at nature centers where they’re used for educational programs (like coming to Audubon meetings). Here’s Circe, a Great Horned Owl that lives at the Howell Nature Center:

Circie the Great Horned Owl from Howell Nature Center (4) (800x762) w sig
Circe is more than twenty years old, can you believe that? And here’s a Short-eared Owl whose name I’ve forgotten, also from the Howell Nature Center:

Short-eared Owl (9) (800x642) w sig

A Barred Owl from the Leslie Nature Center:

Barred Owl from Leslie Nature Center - Copy (640x480)

Talons on a Barred Owl
The business end of a Barred Owl — talons to be respected

You may have seen Barred Owls in the news lately in connection with the plight of the threatened Northern Spotted Owl in the Pacific Northwest. Environmentalists have waged a controversial fight to save the Spotted Owl’s territory from loggers for many years, only to have it now face a threat from the larger and more aggressive Barred Owls, which have expanded into the same territories. The government now plans to kill thousands of Barred Owls to save the Spotted Owls. Hmm, when do we decide it’s “worth it” to kill one species to save another? Some people believe we should make every effort to prevent every single species from going extinct, while others think we should let nature take its course. I find myself always coming down on the side of saving a species, especially if human activities are the cause of its troubles. But in a case like this when it’s not entirely clear yet how and why the two owl species are interacting, I have more trouble siding with those who want to start shooting Barred Owls. But clearly these are ethical muddy waters.

All I know is that the idea of any species being eradicated from the Earth because of human activity makes me deeply sad in a way that’s hard to express. Sure, most of us will never see a Northern Spotted Owl or a Barred Owl anyway, but does that mean it’s ok for either of them to disappear forever? I hope not.

“Pure” Michigan? Not Quite.

Helium-filled balloon with ribbons tangled in the lake
Helium-filled balloon with ribbons tangled in the lake

Remember my post about picking up balloons in the lake at Bald Mountain a few weeks ago? I’ve picked up more than a few since that day. So you’ll understand why I was discouraged today when I found out about a big festival in the city right next to us that will include a mass balloon release this week. That’s right, Sterling Heights, Michigan, apparently does this every year at their Sterlingfest event. They send a large number of latex balloons into the environment, less than ten miles from beautiful Lake Huron.

Of all the states that have laws against balloon releases, you’d think the state with a motto of “Pure Michigan” would be one of them. But no. And that’s really too bad. A balloon release isn’t good anywhere, but so close to a large waterway seems to be one of the worst possible places to do this.  Along with lots of other people who have joined the effort to stop this event, I’ve spent some time today sending emails and calling the various entities associated with the balloon release, asking them to cancel what amounts to a mass littering event. And I’ve got more calls to make tomorrow. I feel discouraged because it’s such short notice. I don’t think they’ll respond to the public outcry this year, but I have lots of hope that this will raise their awareness level enough that they’ll plan something else for next year’s festival.

And after watching the promotional video on the Sterlingfest website, I can tell that this is a fantastic community event, just the kind I love to attend. Art, music, food…fun for the whole family. It’s just too bad it has to be marred by that balloon release.

The organizers keep deleting all the comments on their Facebook page, even though the comments are (were) overwhelmingly polite in tone. So I wanted to write about it here in hopes that people will find this blog post when they search the web for “Sterlingfest” or “balloon release.” It might not help stop it this year, but this post will be sitting out here in the ethernet to be found later, so it’s worth a few minutes to write this.

Another one of the ways used to encourage change in a situation like this is to contact the corporate sponsors of the relevant event. Often the sponsors’ names are printed on the balloons as a marketing tactic. Seems clever, but I don’t think the corporations have yet realized what happens when their “branded trash” washes up on lake or river shores far from home. Take a look at the Wall of Shame at BalloonsBlow. I’d hate to see any local businesses show up on that page. Nobody needs that kind of publicity!

So I’ve also been sending messages to the sponsors listed on the festival website. Believe it or not, one of the sponsors of the event is Waste Management, a local trash and recycling company. That, boys and girls, is the definition of irony. I have yet to get connected to a live person on any of my calls though, so I don’t have any firsthand knowledge of how the message is being received. I’ve seen some of my friends on FB reporting that the City Manager seems receptive, so that’s very good.

Photo by Jerry Downs, licensed via Creative Commons
Photo by Jerry Downs, licensed via Creative Commons

But in the midst of all my frustration over this event, I have to keep reminding myself that only a couple years ago I was ignorant of the issues with these balloon releases too. So acting holier-than-thou isn’t a morally honest way to teach other people about the issue. They just haven’t thought about it yet, that’s all. We have to be calm and logical when we explain the reasons this is a bad idea: it pollutes the land and water; animals often eat the balloons or become entangled in the ribbons, resulting in slow and painful death; helium is a resource in short supply and needed for lots more important uses than this, etc…..see the BalloonsBlow website for the whole story. I believe that if we just keep speaking up, people will eventually realize that they don’t want to be part of something that’s really no different than buying a box of balloons and dumping them in the street in front of your house. It’s littering, end of story. No matter how pretty the balloons look as they float up into the sky, they still pollute the environment and kill wildlife. People are generally shocked when they find out that these balloons sometimes travel hundreds of miles from the launch sites. I think of it as throwing your trash in someone else’s back yard. Sure, they’ll decompose….eventually. But before they decompose, they’re litter, plain and simple. Just because you don’t have to see it on the ground doesn’t mean it isn’t trash.

Ok, I think I’ve said what I needed to on this issue. So now that I’ve had my say about balloons, I can get back to watching the baby robins in our nest. They’re very active now! We’ve got our spotting scope set up in the kitchen so we can watch their little fuzzy heads pop up when mommy and daddy arrive to feed them. I’m trying to get some more pictures to share with you too, so stay tuned!

P.S. If you want to help convince Sterling Heights of the error of their ways, you can send a polite email to them at cityhall@sterling-heights.net. 🙂