Finding My Way Back to Nature

A friendly Sandhill Crane looking for handouts
A friendly Sandhill Crane looking for handouts

Although I don’t have time to write much lately, I wanted to share a few recent photos and just celebrate the fact that I made it through the holidays. As I mentioned in my last post, I’d been feeling homesick for Michigan, missing some friends, and hadn’t been spending enough time in nature. Happily, I finally decided to stop feeling sorry for myself and be proactive about doing the things that make me happy.

Quality time with my sweet friend Janet
Quality time with my sweet friend Janet

During our holiday break from work I managed to go visit a friend in Michigan, and that was incredibly soul-healing. We walked in the woods and had time to get caught up on each others’ lives. Just what I needed.

Making friends with the resident Sandhill Crane family at Kensington Metropark.
Making friends with the resident Sandhill Crane family at Kensington Metropark.

And I’ve been making more of an effort to get outside, even when the weather is bad. Just after Christmas we had a couple days of heavy rain that raised the level of the river near my house and turned it into raging white-water for over a week. Here’s a short video I took while standing on the bridge:

The river is normally very shallow and slow-moving at this spot, so this was quite the change. The wind on that bridge was bone-chillingly cold that day, but I couldn’t resist standing there for a couple minutes to watch the power of the water rushing below my feet.

This past weekend I went for a walk at Blue Heron Reserve (one of my new favorite places) and had a wonderful experience with Bald Eagles. There wasn’t much bird activity at ground level that day other than a large, twittering flock of American Tree Sparrows feeding in the meadow grasses. But I was thrilled to look up in the sky and see FIVE Bald Eagles soaring in wide circles. They were mostly up high and off in the distance, but I watched them for a good 45 minutes as they moved around over the nearby fields and marshes.

The chase is on....
The chase is on….

At one point I watched as one of the eagles appeared to be chasing another one, getting closer and closer. I wondered if this might be a male and female and if I might get a chance to see them do the spectacular courtship ritual where they lock talons in mid-air and fall toward the ground, releasing (hopefully) before they hit the ground. I took these shots as one bird reached out and attempted to grab the other one, but they didn’t make contact this time. There was a lot of vocalization happening though, which added another level of drama to the whole experience. I’m grateful that these beautiful birds are so easy to see in my new home area of northwestern Ohio.

Reaching out...but no luck this time!
Reaching out…but no luck this time!
Close encounter!
Close encounter!

I’m feeling better about everything now than I was a few weeks ago, and I’m learning to be grateful — really grateful — for my wonderful friends who let me lean on them when I need to, and who remind me of the healing power of being out in nature. You may wonder how I could forget that, considering the name of my blog is “Nature is my Therapy.” But we all lose our way from time to time, and I guess that’s what happened to me in recent months. I’m finding my way back, though, slowly but surely.

Nature Lovers Are Some of the Best People

Last night I joined some new friends for an evening of watching Bald Eagles and Osprey at Stony Creek park.  Both species have nests with one nestling each right now, and the nests can be seen from the same spot, making it easy to keep an eye on any action at either one.

I’m going to show you a few pics, but I have to say that I didn’t get many great ones, despite using my biggest lens and tripod (400mm with 1.4 extender). I have a lot of difficulty getting my manual focus right with the big lens, so I’m often disappointed with the results, even after sharpening in Photoshop. I guess the conditions were challenging though, with the nests being so far away (200 yards), so maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on my photographer self. The one below was by far my best photo of the evening, one of the adult osprey flying over us on the way back to the nest with some soft bedding material (at least that’s what we presume it would use the grasses for).

Osprey carrying bedding material to nest
Osprey carrying bedding material to nest © Kim C. Smith

That’s pretty neat, isn’t it? At one point the Osprey flew over our heads from the nest, heading directly toward the Bald Eagle nest. We all held our breath as we watched, wondering if the adult eagles would come after him. I grabbed my camera off the tripod just in case there was going to be some drama, but nothing happened. The Osprey continued on to a nearby pond and came back a few minutes later with the grasses trailing from his talons. The Osprey nest is on a cell tower, a common place for large birds of prey to nest in urban areas. It’s always amazing to me that the birds use this particular nest location, because it’s directly adjacent to a busy shooting club with frequent gunshots ringing out. I get more annoyed by the gunshots than they do, apparently.

We were hoping to see the eaglet taking some practice flights, but she stayed firmly perched in the nest all evening, occasionally stretching her wings and giving us renewed hope for a practice flight. One of the parents was in the nest with her at the beginning of the evening, but later moved to a nearby tree to rest. The other parent was in another tree as well. Here’s an article about the eagle nest in a local paper if you’d like to read more about it.

Osprey on cell tower v2
Osprey on cell tower

Of course while we were all chatting during the evening, I was also keeping my eyes and ears open for other birds. We were beside a large pond and marsh, so naturally there were lots of Red-winged Blackbirds around. I was happy to hear the near-constant songs of Marsh Wrens too, although I never managed to see one of them. Here’s the list of species I reported to eBird last night:

15 species +2 other taxa
duck sp.  1
Turkey Vulture  2
Osprey  3
Bald Eagle  3
Sandhill Crane  2
Empidonax sp.  1
Eastern Phoebe  1
Great Crested Flycatcher  1
Marsh Wren  2     (heard them calling in response to each other)
American Robin  1
Gray Catbird  1
Common Yellowthroat  1
Yellow Warbler  4
Indigo Bunting  1
Red-winged Blackbird  X
Baltimore Oriole  1
American Goldfinch  3

It’s unusual for me to go on a nature outing with other people who aren’t birders, so this was a nice change. For once I got to be the person who identified the birds before everyone else! I got to show people Yellow Warblers and a Common Yellowthroat, but most of the other small birds I saw while other people were talking and I didn’t want to interrupt them. I had to keep telling myself that not everyone cares to know the identity of every single bird that flies by like I do. (I think I have OBD — obsessive birding disorder.)

Red-winged Blackbird harassing Sandhill Crane
Red-winged Blackbird harassing Sandhill Crane

One of the most interesting things was a Red-winged Blackbird harassing two Sandhill Cranes on the far side of the pond. At first we could barely see the cranes’ heads poking out of the vegetation, and could see the blackbirds dive-bombing them repeatedly. I imagine the cranes were too close to a nest. I’ve seen quite a few instances of Red-winged Blackbirds violently attacking other birds this spring; they’re extremely protective of their territories and won’t hesitate to buzz a curious human either.

Sandhill Crane with Blackbird on its butt (blurry, again)The cranes slowly worked their way down into the pond, emerging from the vegetation so we got beautiful full-body views of them in the evening sun. And as you can see in the picture here, one of the blackbirds wasn’t finished with guard duty. It was basically riding on the crane’s backside as he walked through the water. The blackbird would flutter up and come back down, and I couldn’t tell if it was actually pecking the crane. But then it just sat down and the crane didn’t seem to mind it hanging on like that. Such an odd behavior. It reminded me of birds that eat insects off of elephants or bison — a tiny bird on a larger animal.

Bald Eagle on bare branchAs the sun got closer to the horizon I started to get chilly, so left the remaining three people in our group and and headed back to my car. On the way back I looked back toward the eagle nest from another vantage point and spotted the other adult sitting on a branch out in the open. I think a Bald Eagle looks majestic no matter how blurry the photo….

I’m really glad I went on this outing despite not knowing anyone beforehand.  Everyone was so nice and it was very low-key, just a group of nature lovers sharing time together at the end of the day. The scenery was beautiful, everyone had something interesting to contribute to the conversation, and the birds were singing and flying all around.  We talked about bugs. We talked about wildflowers. We talked about photography. Now that’s my idea of a great night out!

Cranes to my Left, Cranes to my Right

Sandhill Crane in flightWe’ve all seen those wildlife documentaries where they show thousands of animals gathered in one spot; the one most people think of is the incredible migration of the wildebeests in Africa, right? Thousands and thousands of them running across the plains…it’s hard to imagine what it would be like to be there to see something like that in person, but we just know it would be amazing.

Well, last Friday night, we got to experience something every bit as amazing as that, and only two hours from home. It was the annual gathering of the Sandhill Cranes in southwestern Michigan as they prepare for their southward migration. We’d been watching the daily count tallies from Baker Sanctuary in anticipation of our trip, and when the number hit 3,800 cranes a few days earlier, I started to get very excited. Heck, look how excited I got about our close encounter with just two of them last summer.

We had tickets to a special dinner event that night (more about that shortly), so we decided to go to the sanctuary beforehand to watch the evening fly-in. (Cranes come in to the marsh each evening before dusk to roost, then leave again in the morning.) We got there at 5 pm and I was very surprised to see at least a thousand cranes already populating the marsh. I couldn’t even begin to count all of them, but I’m sure there were more than a couple thousand by the time we left around 6:30. They were a hundred yards away from the closest viewing areas, so I was disappointed not to be able to get close-up photos. But I took a few shots of the large groupings anyway, and shot the smaller groups as they flew over our heads on their way down into the marsh.

The beauty of these large and majestic birds is part of the reason this is fun to watch, but the sounds are even better, in my opinion. The cranes call while flying and after landing, and the entire marsh resonated with their prehistoric-sounding trumpets. If I had to choose only to see or to hear these birds, I’d definitely choose to hear them! Here’s a link where you can listen to their calls. Doesn’t that send shivers down your spine? It does for me. Just imagine a bunch of birds with a wingspan of 5 to 7 feet flying overhead and making that gurgling sound…it’s one of the most entertaining bird spectacles I’ve ever seen. I tried to take some video to share with you, but the audio was cluttered with some irritating people talking loudly about what they had for dinner, or something equally distracting. (And don’t even get me started on the people who came out to a nature sanctuary and smoked cigarettes the whole time….omg!) Luckily there are plenty of videos on YouTube already — just search for Sandhill Cranes and you’ll get a bunch of choices to watch.

Cranes in formation

I’m so glad we watched the cranes on Friday night, because Saturday turned out to be such a cold and rainy day that we decided not to spend the day waiting for the evening fly-in the second time.

Just a small portion of the crowded marsh as the sun started to lower in the sky
Landing gear down….

Just about the only time these birds don’t seem majestic is when they prepare for landing, letting those long, gangly legs droop down below them. It always makes me laugh.

Bald Eagle (click to enlarge)
Pileated Woodpecker! (click to enlarge)

And lest I forget, there were other great birds in the area that night too. We watched two Bald Eagles soaring around a few times, and got to witness a beautiful Northern Harrier soaring low over the marsh hunting for his dinner. There were bunches of Robins, of course, and a few small songbirds that we didn’t pay much attention to. But I kept taking pictures of anything that flew past, even if I didn’t know what it was at the time. Imagine my surprise when I got the photos uploaded and discovered that I’d shot a Pileated Woodpecker flying past! This is a great bird that I don’t get to see often enough. And I also found a life bird in one of the photos — a Ring-necked Pheasant was perched on a dead tree way back in the marsh. I’ve become used to using the computer to zoom in on trees looking for little birds, but this one was so obvious I wondered how I hadn’t noticed it when I was scanning the marsh with my binoculars. What a fun 24 hours this was!