In Search of Spring

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

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

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

Path at Holland Ponds

Ducks at Holland Ponds
Ducks at Holland Ponds

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

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

Turkey Vulture checking me out
Turkey Vulture checking me out

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

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

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

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

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

Frozen marsh
Frozen marsh

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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