Monday, June 27, 2011

Bears Out There

Folks in my neck of the woods are all a-twitter these days. Seems that there has been a confirmed sighting of a black bear just seven or eight miles south of us. Some hikers at the metro park saw a bear one morning. Later in the day a couple near the park saw a bear in their back yard and called 911. Several days later some folks actually got photos of the bear, presumably a cub, something the "officials" just can't refute.

I feel vindicated by this information. Why? Well, five years ago, in October 2006, I was hiking in the Brighton Recreation Area, a 4,900 acre park that has 13 lakes and miles of hiking, biking and equestrian trails. This land, while not actually connected, is very near the 11,000 acre Pinckney Rec Area, which is connected by a trail to the 21,000 acre Waterloo Rec Area.

I was on a section of trail in the Brighton Rec Area that is for hiking only when I came across this in the middle of the path:

Now that's a big pile of poo. While I was merely a budding artist/naturalist at the time (still am, really) I knew that this was not made by a dog. Not only was it huge (my lens cap is two inches across) it was full of undigested apple peels. There are no horses allowed on this trail (and indeed no hoof prints) and canines are mainly carnivores. This was made by a large animal that is primarily vegetarian.

About a hundred feet farther down the trail I saw this:

The first thing I did was look around, because I was now even more certain that a bear had passed through there. I took several shots of the tracks, then backtracked to look for others, but I could not find any that were more defined, although I did find more tracks.

I showed these photos to several people, one of whom is a biologist. None of them thought it was a bear. The biologist, when she saw them, studied them for quite some time then asked if a bear had ever been seen in the area. I said not to my knowledge, so she said then it probably wasn't a bear. !?!?!

There are certainly a lot of dogs on the trail, and there are coyote too. But the size of this track, along with the configuration of the toes, all pointed to a black bear.

Let's take a look at some other tracks.

The year before Lisa and I had been up in the northern Lower Peninsula, in the Clear Lake State Park area, looking for elk. Driving the back roads after a rain I spotted tracks in the soft mud along the edge. I hopped out and took some pictures of these gorgeous black bear prints. If I'd had plaster I would have cast them.

Note how the toes of the front foot, which is in the top left corner, are all above the pad. Bears have five toes on the front and the back but you can only see four--the rear foot overlaps the front slightly, obscuring the fifth toe of the front foot.

Here is an illustration of a black bear's front paw:

Here is a canine print, this one of a wolf that we saw up in Ontario last year:

Here is an illustration of a wolf track:

All canines have a similar look. The configuration of the foot is totally different from that of a bear. The middle two toes are way out front, giving the track a more circular appearance.

Now look again at the track from Brighton, where I've highlighted the shape.

Unfortunately when I took this shot I did not know, and did not notice, that the rear paw overlaps the front, but luckily I got it in the shot by accident. There's no doubt in my mind that this is not a canine track. Not even a St. Bernard would make a track like that.

So after drawing on this image I got an idea to overlay the Brighton track on top of the Clear Lake track. Holy Cow!

So there is little doubt in my mind that what I photographed in the Brighton Rec Area five years ago were bear tracks and scat. The confirmed sighting only validates it for me. Reports state that it was a cub. If there's a cub, then there's a sow. And if there is a sow making cubs, she can't do it without a boar, so I guess there are at least three bears out there.

None of this surprises me. For as built up as it is in southeast Michigan we do have a lot of undeveloped state land. Add to that the MetroParks system and all of the ranches, crop land and marshes we have here, I am surprised we have not had a confirmed sighting earlier. A bear--or many bears--could live here quite comfortably and never be seen if they were careful.

Let's hope that people here in southern Michigan will not overreact and panic. Let's hope that folks here will welcome the return of the black bear, a big furry omnivore who is not a threat to us as long as we act with common sense and educate ourselves about bears. I for one am thrilled. I only wish I'd seen the creature who made this track five years ago.

Perhaps I will yet.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

A New Resident

It appears we have a new resident at our place.

The white-tail doe was back again yesterday, slurping up mulberries. Good for her, I hate to see them go to waste.

She is not wholly comfortable. The kitchen window was open and certain sounds made her jumpy. Here Lisa was spraying a pan with cooking spray--heaven knows what she thought the sound was but she didn't like it. The doe wandered off towards the garden but came right back when she decided there was no threat.

Such a pretty, innocent-looking face.

Hey! Don't eat the tree, for cryin' out loud!!

She also noshed on my petunias and munched a bunch of leaves off the black-eyed Susans. Time to get the soap and mesh bags, I guess.

The chickens were out for their evening free-range time, and Sister Joan wandered up to the doe, eating mulberries (which by the way seem to give chickens very loose stools). The two animals eyed each other but apparently decided neither was a threat. Ah, peace and harmony in the back yard.

Louis watched the big brown dog with the pointy ears for a while too.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


We had a visitor to the mulberry tree this morning.

A lovely white-tail doe was picking the berries out of the grass, not 30 feet from the house.

I took a few shots through the closed window and screen, then tried to quietly open both. She was having none of it, and walked calmly from the back yard.

This may be the same doe that Lisa and I saw last week out on the trail. She stood her ground on the side of the hill, stamping her foot and snorting at us. Then she walked down the hill, across the lane and into the brush. We looked but did not see a fawn.

I wish she would eat all of that invasive crown vetch but no, she prefers the native plants too--like the purple coneflower out of my garden and the wood anemone along the trail. She sure is pretty, though.

Lori and I are heading up to Traverse City today to meet with folks at the Boardman River Nature Center to talk murals. We are excited about working with them and for the opportunity to put our artwork in their facility. Hoping to get a bit of hiking and bike riding in while we're up there.

Have a wonderful Summer Solstice!

Monday, June 20, 2011

The mulberries are ripe.

The tree in the back yard hangs heavy with the fruits. Our wet and cool spring has made for a lot of happy trees, and they all seem to be producing prodigious blooms this year--cherry, crabapple, serviceberry. This red mulberry should be full of birds.

But the birds have been unusually quiet this year, and already the berries are littering the ground. I've seen a handful of robins and a small group of Cedar Waxwings the other day, but other than that there's been little activity.

It has seemed to me all spring that there are fewer birds this year than in the past. The mornings are strangely quiet. We did finally have our House Wren show up, and I thought he and his lady were going to nest in the house on my studio, but I am not sure that they have indeed nested.

We do seem to have a plethora of Common Grackles this year. Their numbers have increased over the past few years, perhaps due to the fact that I put seed out. Now that the mulberry is in full fruit I will cut back on what I put out and make the birds go eat some free food.

This grackle, down in the lane in front of the house, was being harassed by three young ones, who chased it around in circles.

Bring them up here to the mulberry tree, Dad!

Last night as I was coming out of my studio I noticed an odd shape on the wall hanging by the door. I stopped to get a better look. There, perched on the lip of the sun, was a tree frog. I ran to the house for my camera.

Frog got your tongue?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Artwork--"Kiss the Sky"

It was not my intention to get this piece done this week but it has been quiet around here for once and I found myself out in the studio more than usual. I realized yesterday that I was going to be able to finish it, and I'm happy that I'll have it for my show this weekend in East Grand Rapids.

"Kiss the Sky", approx. 16" x 6", framed to 20" x 10"

"Kiss the Sky" is a portrait of a Peregrine Falcon. This particular bird is a member of a falconry club (I am sorry but I don't remember their name) who usually have birds at CraneFest in October. I was really taken with this bird, and was thrilled when he dropped his wings down, almost as if mantling. From this angle I imagine him flying, hence the title.

When I was in the Porcupine Mountains in the U.P. of Michigan in 2008 I watched a Peregrine chase a small bird in off the water. I was sitting on a rock on the shore just after sunrise, eating a bowl of oatmeal, when I saw these two specs coming toward me. When I realized what I was watching my jaw dropped, my spoon suspended half way to my mouth.

This exhausted song bird (I never did see what species) was fluttering towards shore like a wounded bat, and the falcon was just behind it. The falcon rose up above its prey 15 or 20 feet, then swooped down at it. The little bird jigged just in the nick of time. This was repeated two more times as the birds neared shore, the whole thing seeming to play out in slow motion. Finally they reached shore and the worn out passerine made it safely into a shrub. The falcon found a perch nearby and sat for five minutes or so before flying off down the shore.

I have no idea where they came from or how long the chase lasted but it was spectacular to watch. It is seared into my memory perhaps because I did not have my camera with me, and so I sat and watched and soaked it in. I was glad to get such wonderful shots of this bird to work from, and honor that memory.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Artwork Page

Hi all. Just wanted to let you know I've added a page to my blog. It's called "History of Me"--check it out there in the list of pages to your right. It's a history of my art, from First Grade to the present. It's kind of funny and I think you'll really enjoy it, so take a minute to take a look.

And thanks so much for reading my blog and taking this journey with me. It means a lot to be able to share all of it with you.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Indigo Bunting

Now that I'm done with the Tawas Point Birding Festival I can get back to real-time blogging. Lisa, Lori and I paid a visit last week to the Brighton Rec Area to pull garlic mustard. The DNR's Stewardship program has workdays on the weekends where a group will get together, lead by the program's coordinator Laurel Malvitz, and do all sorts of habitat restoration. But thanks to our schedule (arts shows and markets on the weekends) we are rarely able to make it to these. So we try to get out and do some work mid-week.

We were working an area around a prairie that the state has been working hard to restore. Here we are working our way up the slope of a ravine.

Lisa with a handful of garlic mustard.

Where the trail cuts through the prairie we paused and listened and watched. I was curious to see who was hanging around this open space. To my delight we found not one but three male Indigo Buntings, rotating from tree to shrub to snag, singing and singing.

I decided to return the following morning, and I set my stool under a big maple tree across the trail from a snag that seemed to be a favorite perching point so I could get some pics of this gorgeous bird. We see them at our place only once a year, I guess as they're passing through, so I was thrilled with the opportunity to get to spend more time with them.

They did not disappoint!

This Goldfinch wanted in on the action too!

I sat for about 45 minutes, watching and listening, surprisingly unbothered by mosquitoes. What a treat!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Grasslands and More

Saturday dawned wet and windy. I drove down to the hotel to meet the car pool group for the grasslands birding tour. I had run into a couple of friends at the dinner the previous night, Kathleen and Hartley. Kathleen is a biologist and works for Oakland County Parks and knows a great deal about birds. Since I have a conversion van that seats something like 57 people I invited them to ride along with me. That morning I ran into two ladies in the hotel lobby I had met on day one (Karen and Mary? again it has been too long and I have forgotten their names!) who joined us on the trip.

We met up with our guide, a first-timer named Matt, and we caravaned out to the old air force base in Oscoda. He proved to be quite adept at finding and identifying birds, especially by the their song. During the 20 minute trip Kathleen read to us about all the birds we could potentially see at the airport grassland--larks and sparrows of various kinds, Bobolinks and the elusive Upland Sandpiper. We were all a-twitter by the time we got to the airbase, excited by the prospects of what we might see.

We parked on an old concrete slab near the tarmac and poured out of our cars. It was 45 degrees, drizzling, with a wind from the north east at 25 mph. I could think of worse conditions to be birding in, but would be hard pressed to do so. Even so our enthusiasm wasn't dampened. Matt began briefing us on the birds that might be seen and then stopped and said, "I hear a Savannah Sparrow over there somewhere" and pointed to his left. All I could hear was the wind-driven rain against my slicker so I took his word for it.

As usual the group shuffled off one way and I went another. I guess I am just not one to follow the crowd. I saw two brown dots off at some distance moving through the green grass, which at this time was only about four inches tall. My camera was in the van so I got my glasses on the birds--through my binoculars they just looked like bigger brown lumps. So I said, again to no one in particular, "There are a couple of birds out there." The group came running. "Where? Where?!?" "There, just forward from that utility pole." The glasses and scopes went up, and after some careful consideration Matt announced "Upland Sandpipers!!" The group was elated. I looked again. Yep, brown lumps, but I was willing to take Matt's word for it, and made a mental note to check them off my list.

We moved a ways down a dirt path then stopped again. This time I got my camera out, and crouched in the lee of the van. Someone pointed out a pair of Bobolinks in the grass--this was the best I could do. There was also a Meadowlark on the fence but it was even farther away so I didn't bother with a photo.

As we watched the Bobolinks some else pointed out Horned Larks at the edge of the road. This was another new bird for me, and one that I had really hoped to see. I think its horns were plastered to its head by the rain, but here it is. Never did turn and face the camera.

I did eventually see the Savannah Sparrow, perched on a twig along the other fence row. Another new bird! Very similar to the White-throated but paler and with a longer yellow eyebrow. I noticed many of the grassland birds had yellow on them. Hmmm.....

We eventually bailed on the open fields in favor of a more sheltered area. Near the air base was a marsh that had only recently been opened to the public. This was the first place on this trip where I felt like I was up north--boggy with birch trees, black spruce and bearberry, I took a moment here to soak it in.

A pair of Trumpeter Swans glided across the water. They moved with such ease and speed it seemed as if they were being pulled across the water by strings.

I guess we were boring them....

After the grasslands tour Kathleen, Hartley and I stopped at a Mexican restaurant for lunch, then decided to skip the presentations that day and head back to the campground and hike the point. We parked near the lighthouse and picked up the trail head. A volunteer maintains an oriole feeding station near the trail head and the place was filthy with them. The two ladies who had ridden with us that morning had pulled into the lot five minutes before us and said they had been watching an Orchard Oriole from their car but it had just flown away. Darn it! I did get some nice poses from the Baltimore Orioles, though.

Not too long into the hike we saw the Ring-necked Pheasant cock that I had heard on previous jaunts. He hurried along the other arm of the trail.

The weather was still pretty nasty, and we talked about turning around and heading back, but I was determined to walk the loop. I'm glad I did. Just around the corner was a Swainson's Thrush, another first. Cute little bird with long legs and a buffy face, he did not seem too bothered by us.

Around another bend and this Blue-gray Gnatcatcher posed prettily among some branches.

But the most exciting moment for me came out on the point. The trail was turning to head back but a short off-shoot went out towards the water. I followed its call. There among the grasses was a female American Redstart, hunting bugs in the rain.

I followed her, trying to keep her in focus as she hopped and fluttered. Finally she landed on this branch and flashed her tail feathers at me.

The end!