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.

Forest Bathing: No Soap Needed

Most of us cleanse our bodies on a daily basis, but have you ever given much thought to cleansing your mind and spirit as well? I’m not referring to traditional religious practice, although that may serve a similar purpose for some people. I’m talking about shinrinyoku — forest bathing.

Walking in the Michigan winter woods
A winter walk in the woods

In 1982 this term was coined by the Japanese government to describe the practice of walking in the woods for refreshment and escape from the hustle and bustle of urban environments. They recognized the health benefits of being immersed in nature and encouraged people to spend quiet time among the trees as often as possible to reduce stress levels. Scientists in Japan are conducting a range of ongoing studies measuring the physiological effects of various elements of the natural world, trying to quantify exactly how our bodies respond to nature. But even without knowing their results, I think we all know how good we feel when we get away from our desks and the concrete jungle, even if only for a short walk on our lunch hour.

Scientists here in the U.S. are also trying to establish objectively measurable evidence of the health benefits of nature. For example, a study at the University of Illinois came to some interesting conclusions:

Access to nature and green environments yields better cognitive functioning, more self-discipline and impulse control, and greater mental health overall.

Less access to nature is linked to exacerbated attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder symptoms, higher rates of anxiety disorders, and higher rates of clinical depression.

The article goes on to explain that green spaces have more than just psychological benefits; they also have proven physical effects like helping you to recover quicker after surgery, improving your immune function, and even improving “functional living skills” among older people. In fact, I just read an article in the new issue of Birds & Blooms magazine that touts the benefits of “healing gardens” for dementia patients. Apparently these gardens are becoming more common at hospitals, senior centers, and even schools. I’m very encouraged by this, and I’ll have more to say about healing gardens in an upcoming post.

The scientists might need more evidence to satisfy them, but this is more than enough to convince me that I’ve named my blog appropriately: Nature [really] is my Therapy.

Gardiner River in Yellowstone National Park
Gardiner River in Yellowstone National Park

By the way, if you live in a location with lots of snow and bare trees right now (like I do), don’t despair; you can still get the benefits of “green”space without waiting for things outside to come back to life in a few months. All you need to do is decorate your home and office with pictures of flowers, gardens, rivers, or landscapes; then when you need a break, just gaze upon those peaceful images and feel your blood pressure go down, your breathing slow, your mood lift. If you’re skeptical that this works, try it. You’ll see.

Below are some photos of beautiful things I found because I was out looking for birds — I hope they make you happy too.

Looking up at birds is great, but looking at the ground can be rewarding too.
Looking up at birds is great, but looking at the ground can be rewarding too.
A carpet of woodland daffodils
A carpet of woodland daffodils
Beautiful ice formations on the melting Clinton River
Beautiful ice formations on the melting Clinton River
Just look at the intricate beauty of those wings! Imagine what it's like in his world....
Just look at the intricate beauty of those wings! Imagine what it’s like in his world….

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Sources for those of you who want to read more:

Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine: Trends in research related to “Shinrin-yoku” (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing) in Japan (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2793347/?tool=pubmed)

Science Daily: Green Environments Essential for Human Health, Research Shows (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/04/110419151438.htm)

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.

Merlin

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!