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.

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

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.

“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 🙂

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!

Probably an Eastern Forktail
One of the emerald dragonflies – 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

A Week in the North Woods – Part One

View of the lake from our dock

We spent last week in a secluded cabin on a small lake in the deep woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Sounds good already, doesn’t it? Wait till I tell you more….

The cabin was on 28 private acres, with a 60-acre lake just steps from the front door. We took our kayaks with us and enjoyed them on the beautiful lake every day. Well, except for the one time it rained all day. Other than that, we were lucky with weather and got to go for three nice hikes during the week.  (I admit there was one unpleasant part of the vacation though: the mosquitoes. Oh man, I couldn’t step outside unless I was coated from head to toe with repellent. Those buggers are vicious! I’m home now, but my arms and legs are covered with bites. Phooey on them.)

There was fishing from the dock….
…and fishing from the kayak.

We both agreed that this was THE quietest place we’d ever been before. I think there was only one time we heard a jet ski from a neighboring lake, but otherwise it was extremely quiet. One night I even got out of bed to make sure I’d left the window open because I couldn’t hear any noise at all! That’s a very odd feeling for someone who’s used to hearing traffic outside her door all day every day. But I could definitely get used to it.

Au Sable Lighthouse

So where did we hike, you ask? We drove about 30 miles east of Munising and walked a mile and a half to the Au Sable Lighthouse. Not only is this cool because it’s the most inaccessible lighthouse on the US mainland, but as you walk along the shore of Lake Superior you pass the wrecks of several ships from the early 1900s. The lighthouse opened in 1874, but I guess this area was still too treacherous for some vessels. I’ll talk more about our bird sightings later, but on this hike we were thrilled to have a Bald Eagle fly right over our heads. It was our only sighting of our national symbol on this trip.

Shipwreck on shore of Lake Superior

Our second hike was in Seney National Wildlife Refuge, a real jewel of the National Wildlife Refuge System if you ask me. We first did a 1.5 mile hike around a nature trail loop, where we saw a gigantic nest in a treetop. We thought it might be Bald Eagles, but couldn’t tell with out binoculars. When we got back to the nature center we found that they had a scope set up on it (duh) and it was an Osprey nest. We saw one parent and one youngster in the nest, and we think we saw another adult along our walk but couldn’t be sure of what it was. Wish I’d been able to get a picture of it because this was our first ever Osprey sighting. Gorgeous birds.

After that we killed time for a few hours, hoping to do the 7-mile driving tour nearer to evening hours so we’d have a better chance of seeing bird activity. We ended up starting the drive around 5:30 because we just couldn’t wait any longer. It’s a one-way only driving route with a speed limit of about 15 or 20 mph that passes between a whole system of marshes and woods. At the beginning we had our windows down but quickly had to put them up because of the swarms of black flies attacking the car. It felt like we were in a Hitchcock movie, with dozens of flies just hanging on the outside of the car trying to figure out how to get to us. Ick.  But after we made that adjustment, and despite the heat of the day, we saw Common Loons, a Red-breasted Merganser, lots and lots of Trumpeter Swans, lots of Eastern Kingbirds, an Ovenbird, Canada Geese, a Belted Kingfisher, Ring-billed Gulls (of course), a Great Blue Heron, lots of ravens, goldfinches, and some other warbler that we couldn’t identify — looked like a possible Redstart or Blackburnian. Oh, also this Merlin, another first for both of us.


I’ll talk about our third hike and put up some of the other bird pics in Part Two of the story…stay tuned.

By the way, right now there’s a flock of House Finches at our feeders, with several males and about 3 times as many females. One of the males is a very bright red — just beautiful!

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…)