Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Fenner Nature Center

All winter long I've been receiving eBird emails listing species I have not reported seeing in Michigan. (If you are a birder and you don't participate in eBird, you should.) Fenner Nature Center in Lansing came up over and over again. One of the reasons is a Townsend's solitaire had been hanging out at the feeders there most of the winter. A bird native to the Western U.S., this bird was apparently injured, missing a leg. No idea if that contributed in some way to it's being so far from home. At any rate we had wanted to get out there to see it (a nice life list addition) but never made it.

As the weather has warmed up and spring had exploded in Southeast Michigan, Lori and I have made more of an effort to get away from our computers and drawing tables and get outside. I decided Fenner sounded like a good place to go to explore something new.

I am somewhat wary of nature centers. My experience is the facilities are often old, out-dated and filled with mildewy taxidermy that looks like it came out of great-grandpa's attic. The grounds are usually not much better, little more than overgrown city parks--the "nature" part being that they are not maintained like a park, but left to "grow wild".

Unfortunately, Fenner is exactly that. At 134 acres, it's small, but manages to cram a lot of diverse habitat in to that space. There are several ponds, second or third (or fourth?) growth forest and a meadow. But none of it is quality habitat. The woods were filled with garlic mustard, the extent of which I have never seen before, except in photographs showing severe infestations. The trees are choked by Oriental bittersweet, another nasty invasive, and in the meadow I saw only two native plants. In their defense these places are usually underfunded, and if they don't have a strong volunteer group they are limited in what maintenance and restoration work they can do.

That said, there were some interesting birds on the property, so we did our best to overlook the shortcomings of the place and focus on the wildlife. At the nature center building we checked out the dry-erase board listing recent wildlife sitings and saw a pair of wood ducks had been seen on the Woodland Pond, so we headed back that way. I have never gotten a shot of a male in breeding plumage, and I would love to do a wood duck piece.

As we walked around the pond to the far observation deck the ducks flew in and landed on the water. Bad timing, as it turned out, since they are skittish birds and the slightest movement sends them into a panic. I got a few images of the male, which I guess I can at least use for composition, but would need other images for detail.

Male wood duck. I think they are one of the prettiest birds out there.

We managed to make our way to a nearby bench without scaring them, but they had moved to the far side of the pond behind some grasses and deadfall, which made them hard to see.

Female wood duck on some dry grass. The pond held a nest box but we didn't see them go near it.

We sat on the bench for a while, then I moved over to the observation deck. I hoped I could avoid scaring them but I had hardly walked around the corner before they flew away. I sat and watched an Eastern phoebe instead, who may have been building a nest under the deck.

Eastern phoebe. Looks like it might have a bit of spider web in its beak.

We have a very small, short window to watch for migrating warblers in the tree tops before the trees leaf out, so we spent a lot of time scanning the canopy. I spotted this blackburnian warbler when I was watching a pair of Northern cardinals. I only got a few shots of this gorgeous bird, which, believe it or not, are better than the ones I had before!

Male blackburnian warbler. I had one heck of a stiff neck by the end of the day.

Lori spotted three deer who bedded down in a patch of garlic mustard under a honeysuckle, another invasive plant. With the deer around any native vegetation doesn't stand a chance.

Very un-afraid white-tailed deer.

The highlight of the day came in the meadow, where we saw lots of tree swallows. These birds get a bad rap for competing with bluebird for nest boxes, but in reality their numbers are about the same, and I suspect tree swallows, who feed on the wing, eat more of the insects that pester us than bluebirds do.

A pair had staked a claim to a nest box, but it seems the second nest box was put too close to the first (only about 20 feet away) and every time another swallow flew by one of this pair would fly over to the other box, then back again. Going to be hard to be a successful breeding pair when you're guarding two boxes.

Tree swallows. They were so intent on guarding this box that I was able to walk out there and sit very close.

I find them to be striking birds.

Keeping an eye to the sky.

Here one of the birds has gone to the other nest box.

The pair were constantly on the move, taking to the air and returning over and over again.

On the way back to the car we passed another pond, where this painted turtle was hauling itself out of the water and into the warm sun. I hear ya, buddy--we are all craving that sunshine!

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