Let’s Get You Aired Out!

I wonder if the snow loves the trees and fields, that it kisses them so gently. ~Lewis Carroll

Icicles on my sunroom…pretty…for a short time.

Today was the first in a welcome string of warm days that will help melt the massive amount of snow that has accumulated here over the past two weeks. In fact, the forecast predicts that our temperature will climb above freezing every day for the next two weeks. I could jump for joy!

Some people love snow. I’m not one of them. Sure, I can appreciate the beauty of a fresh snow and the purifying feeling of breathing cold winter air. But I can do that for one or two days and then I’m done for the year. Once the pristine white snow has transformed into dirty ice chunks, I’m so over it.

One of the prairies at Wildwood Metropark, under a cerulean February sky

But despite those feelings, in most winters I manage to get myself outside regularly for birding or walking in the woods. Not so much this year. I partly blame my new jigsaw puzzle obsession, but I’ve settled into a routine of keeping myself busy indoors and not even thinking about venturing outside. But that’s not good for my physical or mental health, so I’m very grateful for this warmup. Today I skipped out early on a Zoom meeting so I could get myself out into the sunshine for a much-needed walk. As an old friend told me once, “Let’s get you aired out!”

I headed a couple miles down the road to my nearest metropark, Wildwood Preserve. This popular Toledo park has many miles of hiking and biking trails. It can get crowded on nice days like today, so I headed into the woods where I knew the trails would still be snow-covered and that would discourage most walkers. And aside from an immortal 20-something who went fearlessly jogging past me in the uneven snow, there was hardly anyone out there. And I had a wonderful time. I walked slowly and stopped often to look for barred owls and pileated woodpeckers. Both of these species nest in this park, so there’s a decent chance of running into them if you spend enough time to listen and look.

I didn’t find either of them today, but I found evidence of the pileated woodpeckers. These freshly-excavated holes appear to be slightly squarish, one of the signatures of a pileated woodpecker. Just a short distance past that first tree, I found some older holes that were definitely made by this species.

Freshly-excavated woodpecker feeding holes
Older pileated woodpecker holes — note the distinctly rectangular shape

In case you’re not familiar with this bird, it’s the largest woodpecker we have in this part of the world, measuring about 16-19″ long. It’s always a treat to see them, or even to hear their distinctive calls echoing through the woods.

This photo is a good comparison of the size of a pileated woodpecker to the white-breasted nuthatch on the other side of the tree. (Taken in my yard in 2014)

Although the pileateds were elusive today, I watched this much smaller female red-bellied woodpecker foraging up and down a tree snag. She was thorough in her inspection of every branch before flying off to try another.

Female red-bellied woodpecker possibly listening to the cawing of some crows nearby

There’s one particular section of this woodland trail that I especially like. As I come around a bend in the path, there’s a nice memorial bench on the right, and a deep ravine on the left. I often sit there just to listen to the rhythms of the woods — branches squeaking as they rub up against each other, tufted titmice calling out ‘peter-peter-peter!,’ and the water gurgling through the ravine.

I do like how shadows are longer at noon in the winter.

Long shadows just after noon today, due to the low angle of the sun in winter.

I came upon this scene, which I imagined to be fluffy snow cushions on tree stump chairs–perhaps in preparation for a meeting of the Woodland Critter Council?

And then a slightly odder sight…

The aftermath of a Saturday night Blue Jay kegger?

And you know I can’t finish without mentioning my first insect sighting of the new year — winter crane flies were out and about too.

My guess is winter crane fly, perhaps genus Trichocera

I’m glad I was able to motivate myself to get outside to enjoy this day. Even though I say I don’t like winter or snow, if I just give it a chance, there’s always something out there to appreciate. If you’re like me, I encourage you to give winter a chance too! #GetOutside #FindingTheJoy

And before I go, I’ll share this video from our Toledo Naturalists’ Association program this week. In 2014 I spent a week birding in Panama, and it was such a great experience that I invited the tour company to do a program for us. I thought it would be a great way to escape the snowy Ohio winter and pretend we were in the warmth of Central America looking at beautiful birds. So we took a one-hour virtual trip to Panama. During the past year I’ve had to overcome my strong reluctance to appear on camera, but I’ve come to terms with it now and think I did just fine. I hope you enjoy it. (Just pretend you don’t notice my pandemic non-haircut, LOL.)

A Familiar Place in the Off Season

This is the time of year when I start to grow impatient with the absence of the insects that occupy my interest in warmer seasons. Sometimes in winter I go to my favorite insect-hunting places and mope around dreaming of that day in the spring when I’ll see my first insect of the year and life will be exciting again.

That’s how I ended up at Wiregrass Metropark today. You may remember that this is the place where I spend a lot of time monitoring dragonflies in the summer. (You can read more about that and see pictures of this place in summer, here.) Today it was only 30 degrees, but I wanted to get some much-needed exercise, so I did three fast laps of the 0.6-mile trail that circles the lake. Well, two fast laps and one slightly slower one with a few stops to take photos. I consider that a good enough winter exercise day, don’t you?

Branches that protrude from the water are favorite perching spots for damselflies in the summer.

The lake is almost completely frozen. I stood staring down through the ice thinking about the dragonfly nymphs that will emerge from the water a few months from now to delight children and adults alike. I can’t wait.

But in the meantime, I thought it would be fun to share some winter photos of the park. And I’ll take this opportunity to share the news that Metroparks Toledo was recently given the 2020 National Gold Medal Award for excellence in parks and recreation management, the most prestigious honor in the parks and recreation industry. When I was deciding where to move during a transitional time in my life a few years ago, the metropark system in Toledo was what convinced me that I could have a great quality of life here. And as I expected, the parks have become a central part of my life. I have to stop myself right now, because I could start going on and on about the different parks and what I love about each one of them. I want to focus on Wiregrass today.

Here’s part of the trail that loops around the lake. My ode monitoring route divides the loop trail into 4 quadrants, and I count everything flying over the lake and across the trail for 12 meters from the lake edge. This portion of the trail is bordered with wildflower meadows containing native plants like boneset, black-eyed susans, cardinal flower, liatris, goldenrods, asters, and much more.

The fluffy seed heads of tall thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana)

There are five fishing platforms built along the west edge of the lake, and a kayak launch and fishing pier on the east side near the parking lot.

This is the smallest of the five fishing platforms. The water should be up to the base of the rocks.
The kayak launch/fishing pier are on the left of this photo.

Last summer’s drought lowered the water level so much that the exposed sandy bottom seemed like a 10-foot wide beach. This made it harder for me to find some of the damselflies, because they like to rest on the vegetation that emerges from the water near the shoreline, but most of that vegetation was absent last summer. I’m really hoping for a wetter spring to bring that water level back up this year. But that larger expanse of sand was prime hunting ground for tiger beetles last summer, and I had fun watching them run-stop-run as they chased their prey.

The south end of the lake is marked with signs that prohibit shoreline access, in an attempt to preserve habitat for the wildlife and rare plants that live here. Most people respect those rules, but one day I had to chase out some teenagers who took their horses in the lake in the protected area. It was all I could do to keep my cool while I tried to educate them about the damage those hooves were doing to the lake edges. They exited the lake but I heard them mocking me as they rode away, and I found out later that these particular kids have been an ongoing problem at Wiregrass. I’m just a volunteer, but I’m very protective of this particular property and don’t hesitate to call the park rangers when I see flagrant rule violations that are damaging the trails or habitats.

This end of the lake is where I find most of the dragonflies and damselflies each summer, probably because it’s the most open part of the shoreline. The north and west sides of the lake have dense tree and shrub growth between the trail and the lake edge, so I’m limited to finding odes resting on the woody vegetation. I’ve enjoyed seeing which species tend to spend time in the different habitats and microclimates around the lake.

Virginia mountain mint seed heads in winter — they still smell great!

For such a small park, Wiregrass Metropark seems to successfully cater to a variety of user groups. In addition to the walking trail, kayak launch, and fishing platforms, there are three primitive campgrounds tucked in the woods surrounding the lake. The paths to the campgrounds are lined with beautiful trillium flowers in early spring.

A primitive campground near the lake
Interesting patterns on the lake ice

The drupes of staghorn sumac feed the birds all winter long.

It was nice to spend some time exploring this familiar place in the off season. I definitely prefer it when there are more visible signs of plant and insect life, but it was nice to not have to share the park with other humans for a change. I saw a couple other people in the distance but didn’t cross paths with anyone, so it was peaceful and quite relaxing.

I find it interesting that we sometimes feel sad that we can’t be with other people, and other times we’re glad nobody else is around. I guess it often comes down to whether or not we have a choice in the matter, right? As with many things in life, if you have control over your situation, it’s easier to accept than if it’s forced upon you. Ah, we’re quite complicated creatures, aren’t we?

Have a great week, and I hope you get out in nature for some fresh air!

This Too Shall Pass

Rattlesnake master with snow - B&W
Rattlesnake master in my garden today

Well, I sure wasn’t ready for this yet! We got our first snow of the season yesterday, and it wasn’t just a teaser, it was a smack-you-in-the-face-wake-up-call. Of course I’m being dramatic (it’s only four inches), but I really dread the cold sloppiness of a northwest Ohio winter.  I cleaned my gutters twice last week because they were jammed with leaves from my prolific maple trees, and today I shoveled snow. Most years we have time to get through fall before winter comes lumbering into our lives like the proverbial bull in a china shop. It feels unsettling to have a significant snow this early. There’s supposed to be a rhythm to the seasons, gosh darn it, with time to make the mental adjustment to the next one.

Rudbeckia with snow - blog
Rudbeckia with a snow toboggan

I complain mightily now, but I know in a few weeks I’ll be resigned to it and will be able to find enjoyment in (some aspects of) winter.  This morning after I shoveled the driveway, I begrudgingly trudged around the backyard with my phone, taking photos of the native plants in their winter hats and coats.

I remember a day about a decade ago when I went for a walk in the woods one winter and had a sort of awakening, because I’d never done that before. It seems unbelievable to me now, but before that day, I had never gone outside in winter for the sole purpose of taking a walk. Sure, I’d gone sledding or birding, but never just walking and paying attention to the details.  I found interesting ice formations on a creek, wind patterns in the snow, and the stunning sight of bluebirds in the black-white-gray woods. I felt I’d discovered an exciting new world, and now I treasure winter walks.

Fire in woodstove - blog
My favorite spot on a cold day – my Happy Chair

I must admit, though, that one of the best parts of a winter walk is coming back to the warmth of the house and curling up with a blanket and hot cup of tea.

As I write this, the sun is shining brightly, already starting its job as Melter-in-Chief.  I’m grateful for that today; it helps me see the beauty of the snow and not dwell (too much) on the long, dark months ahead. Sophie is making the most of her favorite sunspot, blissfully unaware of the cold on the other side of those windows.  I envy animals sometimes for their ability to live in the moment, without worrying about the future.

Sophie in sunspot - blog
Sophie napping in her favorite sunspot

WInd patterns in the snow - blog

When I started writing this, it was intended to be a sort of venting of my begrudging acceptance of winter. But as I’ve been writing and thinking about it, I’m reminded that we only appreciate the warmth because we know the cold.  We appreciate the flowers and insects in summer because of their absence in winter. And, truth be told, I wouldn’t like to live anywhere that didn’t have the dramatic seasonal changes that we have here. Change is what makes things interesting.

Spring tree birds avatar - blogI doubt I’ll ever be converted to one of those people who love winter, but I can tolerate it, and sometimes even appreciate it. Well…as long as I know there’s another spring at the end of it.

Before I go, here’s a short video I just took looking out my kitchen window, showing leaves falling on fresh snow. That’s just not right, LOL.

Focus on Yard Birds

When I started birdwatching, my photos were almost exclusively shots of birds on feeders in my yard. When I began to venture out for birding at places away from home, I gradually got better at taking photos of birds in the wild. I have a strong preference for the latter type of photography, showing them in more natural settings.

However, since I’ve got feeders out in my yard this winter, I’m finding it hard to resist making images of the birds who visit for much-needed nourishment in the frigid, snow-covered landscape. Just as they’re taking advantage of an easy meal, I’m taking advantage of a convenient way to capture their pictures. A few days ago I set up my tripod in the kitchen, with the camera pointing out through two panes of not-really-clean glass toward the feeders. And even though I knew these photos wouldn’t be of the highest quality, I shot them anyway.

carolina wren on suet w sig
Carolina wren

Why? Because mixed in with the hordes of house sparrows (see my previous post for more about that), there are some more interesting visitors, like this Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus). This guy is a special feeder visitor because he would normally prefer to be poking around the underbrush gathering insects or berries; only about 5% of a Carolina wren’s diet is made up of seeds. In times of heavy snow cover, like we have now, a supply of suet or peanuts can make a huge difference in the survival of this particular species.

This wren sometimes sits on my brush pile and sings his loud and cheerful song before making brief forays to the suet cylinder. He’s been here for the past two weeks, and I hope he stays for a while longer. I checked my records, and I’ve had this species in my yard for at least six months of the year, in all four seasons.

carolina wren on suet cropped w sig
Photogenic Carolina wren, watching me watching him

The other species that I really enjoy is the red-breasted nuthatch (Sitta canadensis). This species is only here in the winter, and there have been two of them here now since November. They’re known to prefer conifers, so I think they’re enjoying my two large cedar trees. In fact, I often see them drop down from a cedar to the feeder (haha, it rhymes). I really love their faces, with the black line running through the eye.

red-breasted nuthatch on suet cylinder w sig

Even though I’m enchanted by the more unusual visitors, I never want to overlook the beauty of “the regulars” in my yard. Downy woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens) are very common and frequent patrons of the suet cakes.

downy woodpecker on suet w sig
Male downy woodpecker (note the red spot on the back of his head)

white-breasted nuthatch on tree w sig
Windblown white-breasted nuthatch in his classic pose

White-breasted nuthatches (Sitta carolinensis), who are year-round residents in my yard, are significantly larger than their red-breasted cousins above. They make dozens of trips to the feeders daily, flying off with their bounty and often stashing it under the bark of one of the maple trees. They have a loud, nasal call that sounds like “yank yank!”

I’m still hoping for some evening grosbeaks to show up; they’ve moved farther south than usual this winter in search of food. I’ve got black oil sunflower seeds out there just for them, so if they happen to pass through the neighborhood they might be lured down for a nice easy meal. Fingers crossed!

Oh, and let’s not forget this guy. European starlings sometimes show up in large flocks to mob the feeders, outnumbering even the house sparrows. The history of the starling in America parallels that of the house sparrow. But that’s a story for another time. For now, just admire his onyx majesty, the way he wants you to.

starling on feeder w sig

 

 

H2O on My Mind…and My Floor

Leaf macro with water droplets and pointy edges.jpg
Water. It sustains life. Literally, we cannot live without it. It’s precious.

Grackle splashing water for blog w sig
Common grackle in my birdbath

But it can also be a real pain in the backside, especially in the winter. In the past several weeks, during a period of very cold temperatures, water has caused me some big headaches.

One day in December I heard water dripping in my furnace closet (which is in the main hallway of the house). I opened the door to find a puddle below the condensate pump, which had backed up because its drain pipe had frozen solid.

A few weeks later, I woke up one morning to find that I had no water in the house. My pipes had frozen.

Then just the other day, when we had a couple days of warm weather that melted all the snow on my roof, I found water all over the kitchen counter. This is the exact location of a roof leak that I’ve had repaired twice already.

So whether the water is where it shouldn’t be, or it isn’t where it should be, it’s a problem. But most of the time, when this life-giving element is where we want or need  or expect it to be, we take it for granted, don’t we?

Since water has been so much on my mind lately, I went out the other day hoping to find some interesting ice formations on the river in my neighborhood metropark.

Ice formations on river for blog - Wildwood (2)

Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. This is another paradox: What is soft is strong. — Lao-Tzu

A few years ago I found some more interesting formations. Sometimes I can’t figure out how the ice ends up in certain shapes.

Ice formations on rive

Ice formations on river

And then there were these bi-level ice shelves attached to tree trunks. I’m assuming these formed when the water levels changed.

Ice shelves on trees along Ottawa River at Wildwood - blog

Even though water can be beautiful in the winter, I’ll sure be glad when all the ice and snow are gone in a few months and the water flows freely again.

water drops on leaf v2 reduced w sig.jpg

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!”

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.