Ecotherapy in Barry County

Just look at this and imagine breathing fresh air and hearing birds sing as the sun shines on your face —

Searching for Dickcissel
Searching for Dickcissel

Now that’s a good dose of nature therapy. We just spent a few days on the west side of the state at a Michigan Audubon event called “Cerulean Warbler Weekend” (CWW). It’s an annual festival celebrating this beautiful (and declining) warbler species.  In contrast to the very big festival we’ve been attending in Ohio every May, CWW was small and intimate. We liked it very much — the people were friendly, the scenery was idyllic, and the birding was rewarding.

Field where we saw a distant Henslow's Sparrow through the scope
Field where we saw a distant Henslow’s Sparrow through the scope

The event was based at Michigan Audubon’s Otis Farm Bird Sanctuary, just outside of the small town of Hastings. One of our hikes was a tour around the sanctuary with the resident manager, Tom Funke. Tom’s passion for this property was evident as he explained how and why he had used specific management techniques in certain parts of the sanctuary to tweak the habitat for wildlife. He knew every type of tree, grass, and wildflower we saw, and patiently answered lots of questions from the enthusiastic birders on our hike. I was very impressed with him and the entire Otis Sanctuary. Otis Sanctuary - Cerulean Warbler Weekend (4) (800x479)

Me on the trail at Otis Farm
Me on the trail at Otis Farm

We also went on carpooling and bus field trips around Barry County, searching for warblers, flycatchers, and sparrows, among many other species. We had the extreme pleasure of being led by naturalist Greg Nelson on two of the trips. He took great pains to make sure everyone in the group got to see the birds they were most interested in, and it was clear that he knew this area and its birds very well. He had a very effective technique for teaching us to recognize the calls and songs of the various birds when the woods were just an overwhelming chorus of so many species at once. He’d have us stand quietly listening, and when he heard the target bird’s song, he’d raise his finger up in the air so we’d know that was the one we were trying to see. I really liked that method. Often on these group bird outings there are so many people talking to each other that it’s hard to hear the birds, so I appreciated those times when he asked everyone to stand quietly and listen together.

Blurry Dickcissel singing
Dickcissel singing

Thanks to Greg’s skill and knowledge, I added Acadian and Alder Flycatchers to my life list, as well as Yellow-throated Vireo. We saw Dickcissels, which I thought were new birds for me too, but when I got home and checked my list I saw they were already on it. Then I remembered that I’d added them when I heard them singing last year in a field near home. But since I’d never laid eyes on one of them, I’d considered them a “BVD bird” — better view desired. And I certainly got my “better view” of them this time, although my pictures don’t seem that great. I had perfect views of two singing Dickcissels through Greg’s spotting scope, on a roadside somewhere in Barry County.

Birders on the move!
Birders on the move!

Cerulean Blues book coverThe keynote speaker at this event was Katie Fallon, author of “Cerulean Blues: A Personal Search for a Vanishing Songbird.” I got a chance to chat with Katie before her first talk on Friday and asked her to sign my copy of her book, which she graciously did. Although I had almost finished reading her book, I still enjoyed hearing her talk about the problems being caused for this tiny warbler by the mountaintop mining practices in West Virginia and the rest of Appalachia. The bird isn’t officially listed as “endangered” yet, but it may well be on the path to that sad status very soon if we can’t find ways to re-create suitable habitat for it.

Kim and Katie looking for Ceruleans
Katie Fallon and I getting a bad case of “Warbler Neck”

I was thrilled when Katie joined our field trip the next morning to look for Ceruleans around Barry County. We carpooled to several locations and found the birds singing easily, but were unable to see them. These small birds spend their time at the very tops of the tree canopy, frustrating birders everywhere. But on our last stop of the morning, after explaining why it’s important not to overuse playback, Greg allowed someone to play the Cerulean song from their bird app. I was glad that he refrained from using playback of songs for most of the morning, trying to get us a view without disturbing the birds. But when he finally relented and agreed to do it once, that was the magic trick — the singing male suddenly zipped back and forth across the road over our heads, coming down a little bit lower in the trees to investigate the song of a “competing male.” I think the bird was still at least 30 feet above us when I snapped these photos. Thanks to Greg and Katie’s combined efforts, I got this life warbler that had eluded me for years. I think it was a life bird for several other people on  the trip because I had lots of requests for copies of my pics.  To make things simpler, I told them I would put the pics here on the blog so they could download them for their own memories of this exciting sighting.

Cerulean Warbler, June 7, 2014, Barry County, Michigan
Cerulean Warbler, June 7, 2014, Barry County, Michigan
The easiest way to know it's a Cerulean: that black necklace.
The easiest way to know it’s a Cerulean: that black necklace.

And something very inspiring happened while we were looking at the Dickcissels along that dusty road. Often when you’re in a rural location, you’ll be approached by passing motorists wanting to know what you’re all looking at. As we were lined up to the side of the road with several spotting scopes on tripods and a bunch of people with binoculars looking out into a seemingly empty field, a man in a pickup truck pulled up alongside and asked what we were doing.

And this is where the enthusiasm of my fellow birders always delights me: You’d think we were small children, the way we all crowded around his truck excitedly telling him the name of the bird and encouraging him to get out and take a look at it. Even men in their 60s and 70s were urging him to come take a look. And wouldn’t you know, he was interested and got out of his truck to take a look through the spotting scope. He stepped back and asked the name of the bird again. Dickcissel? Yep. He looked again and looked up with a huge smile on his face and said something like, “Well, I’ll be darned.” And then one of the birders stepped up to him to show him the photo of the bird in a field guide. He spent another minute or two chatting with us about where we were all from and then another vehicle came along and he had to move his truck. But he thanked us and drove off smiling in wonderment that a beautiful bird like that was right here, in a field he usually didn’t even glance at.

And that, my friends, is how you start winning people over to Team Conservation.  It’s all about the sharing — sharing the beauty of these birds and their songs, sharing our enthusiasm and love for them, and sharing the knowledge of how humans can unwittingly hurt their chances of survival. Once people have an awareness of the amazing birds that live among us, I think they’ll be more likely to help protect them. At least that’s how it happened to me.  🙂 Enjoy a few more pictures from this peaceful and educational weekend, below.

Song Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Eric looking over the meadow at Otis Farm
Eric looking over the meadow at Otis Farm
Me with one of many snapping turtles we found on roads around the county
Me with one of many snapping turtles we found on roads around the county
Katie and me
Katie and me
Broad-winged Hawk - captive bird from rehab center
Broad-winged Hawk – captive bird from rehab center

Cerulean Warbler Weekend - Eric 024 (800x600) Dragonfly

Ah, Back in the Saddle Again

Well, I should say “Back in the Kayak Again.” I eagerly anticipate our maiden voyage each year, that day when we load our boats on top of the car and head out to one of our local lakes for some relaxation on the water. We took our first trip of 2014 last weekend and — surprisingly — managed to get out again this weekend. I was a bit disappointed last summer that we only got our kayaks wet two or three times, so we’re starting this year off with a renewed burst of enthusiasm.

Kayaking on Big Seven Lake
On Big Seven Lake

When we got our boats a few years ago I added a section in our “outdoor notebook” to record what we liked and didn’t like about each lake we visited. My entries go something like this:

Nice clean lake with interesting marshy coves to explore. No motorboats so very relaxing. Negatives: beach noise (in season) and few shady banks for breaks. Looks like it will be gorgeous in October too.

Sometimes I’ll add notes about the bird species we’ve seen there. These notes come in handy when we’re trying to decide where to go and all the lakes seem to run together in our minds.

One of our favorite smaller lakes is Lake Sixteen in Orion Oaks County Park. It’s only 90 acres, so we can easily explore the entire perimeter in a slow-paced morning. I think we might approach a kayak outing differently than people who aren’t birders though. When I see other people heading out on the lake, it seems they generally head straight for open water. We, on the other hand, tend to stay on the edges so we can scan the trees and shrubs for bird activity. This edge-exploration pattern also makes it easy to take breaks under the shade of overhanging trees when the sun starts to feel too hot.

View of Lake Sixteen from boat launch
View of Lake Sixteen from boat launch

So on our morning on Lake Sixteen we had the lake virtually to ourselves; I think we saw two other kayakers and one guy fishing in a rowboat. There were two pairs of nesting Mute Swans that we made sure to give a wide berth as we headed back into a small hidden cove. A couple years ago I’d seen my first Marsh Wren nests there, and I hoped to see another one. My wish came true a dozen times over as we were surrounded by the songs of the little birds. Over here, over there, behind you, there’s another one!

They can be very hard to see and even harder to photograph because they move so quickly in and out of the vegetation. But being down low in a kayak is a bit of an advantage because you can slowly drift closer as you watch for movement down inside the grasses. I managed to get this short video (47 seconds) showing one of them gathering fluff from a cattail and taking it into the nest. The first part of the video is a wide shot showing the nest on the right side of the screen. Then I zoom in on the bird so you can see him/her singing and plucking fluff from the cattail. You’ll hear quite a few other species of birds singing in this video, but the Marsh Wren is the one that sounds like a little sewing machine…you’ll know it when you hear it:

Yesterday’s outing was on Big Seven Lake at the aptly-named Seven Lakes State Park in Holly, Michigan. This lake is 175 acres, so it’s almost twice the size of Lake Sixteen. There’s a beach on this one though and sometimes it can detract from our enjoyment of the lake. But despite it being a beautiful day, there were only a handful of people at the beach.  When we launched around 9:30 there was nobody else on the lake, the sun was shining, and a light breeze was blowing. As soon as we hit the water I heard the very distinctive song of a Veery from the woods to our right. Here’s a link so you can hear what a Veery sounds like and see some photos. What a special way to start the day!

Kim taking photos in kayak by Eric (800x600)
Eric’s shot of me taking bird photos

After enjoying the Veery’s beautiful song for a few minutes we moved on. Very quickly we found catbirds, kingbirds, and lots of other lovely birds. Eric and I don’t stay together once we get out on a lake, so he went off to do his thing and I spent some time sitting in a cove listening to the various singing birds and trying to see as many as I could. I was thrilled to find a Willow Flycatcher, a bird I’ve only recently learned to identify from its songs and calls. Soon after that I spied a pretty male Rose-breasted Grosbeak and several Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers buzzing around near the water.

After a while I went to the far side of the lake and watched a muskrat swimming around and lots of huge carp splashing as they spawned in the shallow water at the edges of the lake. Then I heard a Red-tailed Hawk calling and looked up to see him soaring in big circles over the woods, with a very persistent Red-winged Blackbird repeatedly dive-bombing him. These photos show the size difference in the two birds — those blackbirds have no fear though. (I should say that I think this is an immature Red-tailed Hawk, but I’d love to be corrected if you know I’ve got it wrong.)Red-winged blackbird attacking RTHA v3 (800x732)

Red-winged Blackbird attacking RTHA (800x699)
Red-winged blackbird attacking RTHA (2) (800x739) Red-winged BL attacking RTHA v4 (800x725)

My best photo opportunity of the day happened just as I was getting ready to put my camera away and paddle back to the boat launch. A Great Blue Heron suddenly appeared around a bend and flew at eye-level beside me. I grabbed the camera and started shooting as he passed and went behind me. Considering that I didn’t have time to check my camera settings, I’m pretty happy with this one. The photo might not be perfect, but the memory of that special moment is!

Grace in motion!
Grace in motion!
Heading home after a day on the water
Heading home after a day on the water

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!”

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.

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.

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.

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…)