Nature Photo Journal

Just wanted to share a few photos from our nature walks this weekend. Winter hasn’t released its grip on us entirely yet, but things are getting better. And a bit of fresh air and exercise always helps improve my mood, giving me a boost of endorphins in my winter-addled brain.

We saw some ducks on the pond and watched a male Belted Kingfisher flying from perch to perch, watching for a chance to swoop down and grab a meal.

Four species of ducks here, coexisting peacefully.
Four species of ducks here, coexisting peacefully (at least at the moment).
Kingfishers are Eric's favorite bird, so it's always fun to find one of them.
Kingfishers are Eric’s favorite bird, so it’s always fun to find one of them.
Male and female Ring-necked Ducks, just chillin' in the pond.
Male and female Ring-necked Ducks, just chillin’ in the pond.

We walked along the river banks, enjoying the now free-flowing water. This part of the river is very curvy, so the current is fast. There are beautiful sycamore trees here, displaying their mottled gray and brown bark and their pointy seed pods.

Sycamore bark and seed pods. I loved the heart shaped section of bark.
Sycamore bark and seed pods. I loved the heart shaped section of bark.
Sycamore seed pods decorating the tree.
Sycamore seed pods decorating the tree.
Those ducks are too far away for a good shot!
Those ducks are too far away for a good shot!

I almost walked right past these leaf cookie cutouts in the snow — aren’t they interesting?

Leaves making cookie cutter shapes in snow as they melt (2) (800x556)
I’m guessing that the dark color of the leaves absorbs more of the sun’s heat, melting the snow below the leaf faster and letting it sink down.
Oak leaves making cookie cutter shapes in the snow
Oak leaves making cookie cutter shapes in the snow

I’m trying to remember to take wider landscape shots occasionally instead of always zooming in really close, so here are some views of the scenery.

Landscapes at Stony Creek in early spring (6) (800x600)

Clinton River -- no more ice!!
Clinton River — no more ice!!
Can you see the guy fishing and his black dog on the bank?
Stony Creek lake, still about 75% ice-covered.
Stony Creek lake, still about 75% ice-covered.

Back at home I went into the woods to see if there were any signs of growth under the snow. I found 2″ shoots of daffodils and 3″ skunk cabbages. And then I found this half of a seed pod or maybe a nut shell — I have no idea what it is. Can anyone help me with an ID on this?

What is this? It's about an inch and a half long (this is a front and back view of the same half shell).
What is this? It’s about an inch and a half long (this is a front and back view of the same half shell).

Oh, and I finally was able to trudge through the remaining snow in the yard (about 6 or 7 inches) to remove the red bows I’d tied on some fir trees back in December. Up until now, access to our yard has been blocked by 4-foot-high hills of snow that the plow guy had pushed off the driveway. But enough has melted in the past few days that I was able to get up there easily enough. It felt great to pull off those faded symbols of winter, sort of like saying, “Ok winter, off you go now. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out!”

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.

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.

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. 🙂