Something To Look Forward To

something-to-look-forward-to-594x800Have you ever been in a rut? You know what I mean, those times when you realize that all you’ve been doing is living life on autopilot, just going through the motions of everyday life. You wake up, go to work, come home tired, eat, fall into bed, and repeat that, day after day, with very little variation in the routine.

That’s where I found myself a couple months ago–deep in a rut. I’d realized that I had nothing coming up on my calendar that I could look forward to, nothing that I was excited about, nothing that represented a change from my routine. Life was so boring.

So I decided that I would make an effort to plan more activities that would put a spark back into my life, like visiting new places, meeting new people, and doing things I’ve never done before.

One evening I was standing in the kitchen and I impulsively wrote this note on my refrigerator: “Something to look forward to…”  And having that message on my fridge where I see it every day has motivated me to start making plans. The biggest and most exciting of these plans is my upcoming birding trip to Costa Rica with a friend, but while I anxiously await that one, I’ve been doing some more exploring of places closer to home.

staircase-in-woods-looking-down-594x800One of the places I discovered recently is Steyer Nature Preserve, a great park along the Sandusky River near Tiffin, Ohio. It consists of 141 acres with four miles of trails that wind around wildflower meadows and crisscross steep ravines. I’ve written before about how I enjoy places with even the slightest elevation changes, something that’s rather rare in northwest Ohio’s farm country.

This park is part of the Seneca County Park District, and they’ve done a really nice job of building bridges and staircases to facilitate access to the trails through the steep ravines. And they’ve included lots of interpretive signs as well, identifying various tree species and giving background on the history of the land.

steyer-sign-collage

I learned names of some trees that I’d never heard of before, like  hophornbeam and pignut hickory. And there are two trees on this property that are nearly 300 years old.

bur-oak-collage

I sat on the bench near this Bur Oak for quite some time, contemplating some of the events it had survived in its 292 years. How often do you get the chance to touch something that has been alive for centuries? And yes, I’ll admit that I hugged this amazing tree. And then I photographed this Eastern Comma butterfly that had paused to rest on its trunk:

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Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma)

I found this huge spiderweb in the woods — it was probably 18 inches across. Did you know that the design of a spiderweb can give you hints as to the type of spider that made it? This one is typical of those constructed by members of the orbweaver family.

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bridge-and-stairs-at-steyer-nature-preserve-800x594As I walked toward that old Bur Oak on my way back to the car, a Bald Eagle flew out of the top of it. He’d probably been surveying the river below for fish. I watched him fly across the cow pasture and land near another Baldie on the far side.

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The Sandusky River at Steyer Nature Preserve
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This frog jumped into the water as I approached the river — he thinks I can’t see him.

I’m so glad I got myself motivated to go out for that walk. Discovering this wonderful spot definitely helped lift me out of my rut, giving me motivation to keep looking for more new places to explore close to home!

Cannibal Encounter at Creek Bend Farm

Meadow at Creek Bend Farm - early fall (800x533)
Meadow path at Creek Bend Farm
Silver-spotted Skipper on thistle (800x741)
Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus)

Here in northwest Ohio we’re enjoying some very comfortable fall-like weather lately. After spending most of the summer with temperatures in the 80s and 90s, I’m very grateful for this change that makes me want to be outside all the time. I’ve been riding my bike a couple times a week, and going for more nature walks too. Today I had a bit of a false start when I drove an hour to one of the Toledo metroparks and hardly found any wildlife activity at all. Very few birds or butterflies, and far too many people. (I should have expected the people on this holiday weekend…oops.)

So after putting in a good effort for about 90 minutes, I headed back toward home feeling a bit frustrated. Then I decided to stop at Creek Bend Farm, a place that’s become one of my favorite local birding spots in the year since I moved here. I walked out through the meadow, moving slowly to lessen the chances of scaring off any interesting insects or birds.

Cabbage White - Pieris rapae (800x759)
Cabbage White butterfly (Pieris rapae)

I saw quite a few dragonflies but none of them landed anywhere so I couldn’t get photos. The butterflies were more cooperative though, and I saw a Silver-spotted Skipper, some Pearl Crescents, lots of Cabbage Whites and Sulphurs, and a nice Viceroy. And I think I saw a Monarch too, but it was too fast for me to confirm that.

Viceroy Butterfly (800x533)
Viceroy butterfly (Limenitus archippus) 

There was a big flock of Tree Swallows moving over the meadow, and a couple times the flock came down low and swarmed all around me. It was a glorious experience!  I took a short video of the wildflowers blowing in the breeze — I think this will help you imagine what it felt like out there today:

Oh, so you’re probably curious about my cannibal encounter, aren’t you? Okay, so the meadow paths eventually wrap around and intersect the path that borders the creek. This is the path I was walking on:

Path at Creek Bend Farm with coneflowers (800x533)

Soon after I turned onto the creek path, I heard the unmistakable buzz and squeak of a hummingbird. I turned around just in time to see this little one fly into a tree and begin a preening session.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird v2
Ruby-throated Hummingbird

I’m assuming this is a female, but it could be a young male. (At this time of year it’s hard to differentiate the two because the juvenile male won’t have his red throat yet.) I always get a thrill when I see a hummer out in “the wild” like this, away from a feeder. So I watched her for a few minutes, snapping photos as best I could manage through the leaves. I thought you might like to see this one because it shows her using her foot to scratch her throat, in a way that reminds me of how cats and dogs do it. I hope you can see it here…the photo isn’t the greatest.

Ruby-throated hummingbird preening with foot

Ruby-throated hummingbird v3

I started to move on down the path but only got three steps away from the hummingbird’s location when I heard another loud buzzing. I looked up and saw a large insect land in a tree beside me. My first impression was that it was a cicada.

Robber fly - maybe Red-footed Cannibal fly - see closeup (800x666)

But as I grabbed my binoculars for a closer look, I saw that it was one of the coolest insects ever, a Red-footed Cannibal Fly. And it had a victim already clasped in its legs, a large bee. It had already begun injecting enzymes into the bee to liquify the insides so they could be sucked out. Sounds appetizing, doesn’t it?

Robber Fly - maybe Red-footed Cannibal fly v2 - see close up (800x610)

This is a type of Robber Fly in the genus Promachus. I’m not positive of the species, but it has red legs so that seems like it fits the Red-footed Cannibal Fly (Promachus rufipes). I was so excited to see this, but I had a heck of a time trying to get a photo in the depths of shade under the tree. Then the fly moved to another branch with better light and I got this one that shows more detail of this creature’s interesting body.

Robber Fly - maybe Red-footed Cannibal Fly - promachus genus (800x547)

My first encounter with this fascinating insect was at Blue Heron Reserve last fall, where I took this photo of two of them resting on a boardwalk:

Red-footed Cannibal Fly - 2 of them (800x535)

They’re a couple of inches long and very intimidating. Especially if you’re a smaller insect! And I discovered that these predators have been known to prey on…wait for it….hummingbirds! So I guess the little hummer in the next tree was very lucky this hungry killer had already found a victim.

Okay, this has been long already, but I don’t want to leave you with visions of gut-sucking cannibals, so here are some pretty dogwood berries. I hope that makes up for it. 🙂

Either Gray Dogwood or Red Osier Dogwood
Dogwood berries

Opening My Mind

Don’t you agree that being open-minded is a worthy goal in life? Have you ever had a sudden realization that you aren’t as open-minded as you’d always thought you were? It’s easy to look at other people and judge them for their prejudices, but it’s very disorienting when you’re confronted with the realization that you have your own biases and prejudices that have been nestled snugly in your brain for years. Most of the time those biases seem harmless, but I’ve learned that they can actually prevent you from experiencing some amazing things.

As I go through the process of adjusting to life in the farm country of northwestern Ohio, I’ve discovered some things about myself that I’m not too proud of. But thankfully I’ve also discovered that I’m not too old to change nor too proud to admit that I’ve been wrong.

Gull taking off from water
Gull taking off from water

During the first couple of weeks here, I found myself complaining about a lot of things. The frequent nighttime train whistles. The lack of shopping choices. The fact that I have to actually use a human teller to deposit a check at my credit union instead of being able to use the ATM. And on and on. I was focused on my prejudgment that everything and everyone in these small towns was “backward” and “behind the times.” And with those thoughts in my head, I was unhappy. Of course I was. Because your thoughts determine your emotions.

I was getting disgusted with my negative attitudes and worried that I was offending my new friends with my complaints, and so I did some soul searching to remember why I came here. And slowly, as I began to go about my daily life, I noticed a shift in my thinking. At first I’d sat up at night timing the trains so I could complain about how often they woke me up. Then one day I caught myself listening to the faint sound of one of those whistles and smiling. I realized that that sound had become part of the soundtrack of my daily life, and that I actually liked it.

Whereas at first I’d whined about having to drive 40 minutes to a larger town for more shopping choices, it only took two trips there to make me realize that it really wasn’t that big of a deal to make that trip a couple times a month. In fact, now it’s become almost a special occasion to go to the “big city” (Sandusky, Ohio) for a shopping excursion. Things that were taken for granted as everyday conveniences before have become something to look forward to and appreciate.

Geese in v formation
Canada Geese in V formation

And my opinions about the starkness of the flat landscape have changed too. The wide open land might not be as interesting as the rolling hills I’m used to, but it sure provides lots of opportunities to enjoy and photograph stunning sunsets. And even though I was well aware of the abundance of wildlife habitat here, I was surprised to find myself weeping the other day as I drove past a marsh and watched egrets and a Bald Eagle flying across the road in front of me. There’s incredible beauty here every day. Lots of it.

Sunset at the reservoir
Sunset at the local reservoir

As someone who has always been a city person, I’m stunned at how fast my attitudes have turned around. I’m a bit ashamed about my assumptions that life here would be “not as good as” my life in the city. Every day I find something new to learn about — “Why haven’t they harvested those soybeans yet? They look like they’re dying…” or, “I heard someone mention putting tiles in a field…what does that mean?” — and so on. I’m beginning to see the world differently. I’m surrounded by co-workers and friends who are happy to answer my questions. My life is enriched when I’m able to learn something new, so this completely new environment is fascinating to me.

And speaking of friends…you know, I’m getting choked up now just thinking about this. I had a dozen or so budding friendships with local people before I moved down here, and those friendships have now solidified through birding walks and various other get-togethers. In the past couple of months I’ve experienced so much sincere kindness that it sort of blows my mind. There’s something special about the people here.  And they make me feel special too. I don’t feel alone anymore. It’s like an entire community has wrapped its arms around me and absorbed me into its big warm heart.

Sunset at the reservoir with fisherman
A fisherman at the reservoir as the day ends

I had a small housewarming party last weekend for a few of my local friends and co-workers who wanted to see my new house. I had been putting it off because I hadn’t done all the painting I wanted to do, and I didn’t have all the rooms furnished yet. And I worried that I would be judged. (Ironic, isn’t it?) But my gosh, when I looked around my house filled with friends that afternoon, my heart swelled with happiness. Just seeing that they would all take the time to drive down here and spend time in my home with me…I know that might not be such a big deal to many people, but it was very big for me. It made me feel accepted on a whole new level. It made me feel more confident that I was going to be alright in my new life here. My house became a home that day. A real home filled with love and friendship–and even a couple of caterpillars!

Great Blue Heron and nuclear power plant - smaller file
What do you focus on, the nuclear power plant or the lovely heron?

This whole idea that your thoughts determine how you experience life is a powerful thing. By consciously letting go of your preconceptions and biases you can open your mind and heart to a whole new world. And I’m living proof that it works.

Full-Frame Warbler Action on the Boardwalk!

I didn’t expect to be posting already on our first day at the Biggest Week in American Birding but we had such an extraordinary experience in only 90 minutes on the Magee Marsh boardwalk this afternoon that I just had to share with you. Mostly pictures, few words, because we have to be on a bus at 6:00 am tomorrow for an all-day field trip.

Since we only had a short time to bird this afternoon, we only managed to get halfway across the boardwalk before we had to turn back. But oh my gosh did we get a show! The warblers were coming down so close to us that I couldn’t even get pictures of them because my camera won’t focus that close.  For example, this Prothonotary Warbler was within arm’s reach of us for so long that I almost didn’t manage to get a picture of him, but when I did, just look at this beauty, filling the frame of the camera:

Prothonotary Warbler, only a couple feet away!
Prothonotary Warbler, only a couple feet away!

Most of my bird pictures have to be cropped down, but not that baby! Immediately after we saw him, we got good looks at this Ovenbird:

Ovenbird
Ovenbird

Next up was this stunning Black-and-white Warbler:

Black-and-white Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler

We saw quite a few Black-throated Green Warblers, and I got my first ever look at one of them from up on the observation tower, so I could see his gorgeous yellow-green back.

Black-throated Green Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler seen from above -- isn't he gorgeous?
Black-throated Green Warbler seen from above — isn’t he gorgeous?
A very photogenic Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
A very photogenic Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

We’re in our room at the Maumee Bay Lodge now watching a beautiful sunset over Lake Erie, winding down from the excitement of the first day, eagerly looking forward to tomorrow. It’s going to rain on us but somehow knowing that these amazing birds are still here makes that all right.

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…)