Monday, May 31, 2010

Appleton Cranes

Each year, when spring starts seeping in around the edges of winter, we listen for the call of the sandhill cranes. A sure harbinger of warmer weather, their raucous calls lift our spirits and get us thinking about putting in the garden and getting the kayaks out. Each year we swear we'll get the 'yaks out as soon as the ice is off the lake. Each year we don't make it out until late May. Either it's too cold, or too windy, or we're too know the story.

We finally got out on the water for the first time on May 28, a beautiful, blue-sky day with little wind. Our favorite lake is Appleton, a small, marly lake in the Brighton Recreation Area that has some pretty good fishing, lots of birds, and motor restrictions--a good lake for kayaks. It also has a group of sandhill cranes that spends each night along its shores, apparently non-breeding adults who leave the lake early in the morning to feed in nearby fields and return in the evening to preen and sleep.

It is amazing to me that they seem to come in about the same time before sunset everyday--in August it's around 7pm, in late May it's closer to 7:30. They tend to land in the same part of the lake every time, unless someone is fishing too near. I was not in the best position to catch the first large flock coming in over the lake, but I got a few shots as they flew past me.

I paddled over to the shore to watch and photograph them as they went about their business.

As I watched the first group, several more flew in. Watching them prepare to land is one of the most entertaining things I've ever seen. They stop flapping and cup their wings, bringing their legs forward in anticipation of hitting the water. They look like puppets on strings, guided from above.

Touch down!

Then another group approached from the southeast,

and flew right over my head, on their way to another part of the lake.

I paddled over to were the other group had landed, out of the bright sun, hoping for some good shots.

Some tried to settle in for the night, preening, scratching,


But there's always a trouble maker, one bird who can't settle in and goes about chasing the others around. Don't know if this is a territorial thing, or dominance, or perhaps someone got too close his girl. Whatever the case, there was much jumping and shouting. The bird in front was the boss of this group, it seemed, running the others off.

After the offender was chased away, he'd put his head down low, back arched and neck curved, in a final warning.

He stood out from the others, bold, watching me closely for some time.

After much shooting, using a camera card that I still had images on from Shiawassee, I found that my card was full. I sat drifting, deleting frames, watching the cranes out of the corner of my eye. Tempers would flare, and I'd bring the camera up and shoot, filling the card again.

It's good to know that the cranes will be there every night, putting on their show, so I can go back with an empty camera card!

The Matrix, anyone?

Not everyone was into the drama of the evening. Some just wanted to go to bed.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Finishing Shiawassee

Flush with the thrill of the chickadee encounter, we moved on down the trail, coming to a tangle of downed trees and grape vine, and my keen eye (*snicker*) spotted some movement among the vines--a brown creeper!!

I have only seen one on two occasions, first on a walk in Huron Hills Metropark just down the road from my house, and once this past winter in the trees next to my studio. That time I had been out filling up feeders and again caught movement on a tree trunk about 15 feet away. I froze instantly and saw a creeper working its way down the rotting wood of a dead slippery elm. Within moments it flew closer, landing on a black cherry not four feet in front of me. I watched it for a minute or so before it flew away, then I ran to the house to tell the girls.

They can be very difficult to see thanks to their camouflage coloring and markings. I know this one isn't particularly clear, but you can imagine how on a rough-barked tree this bird would virtually disappear.

Eventually the path left the riverbank and turned back into the woods. It occurred to me after a bit that we were walking on a raised bed, not unlike the dikes in Florida in the Maritime Hammock Sanctuary. I looked along both sides of the trail and could see in places that it had probably been dredged at some point, although I imagine the area had been previously swampy, like in this photo.

Then Lisa picked up a funny looking rock and we gathered round to examine it. Huh. Looks a bit like coal. Oh hey, that's right, I remember reading that the area had been mined for coal decades ago! What we were walking on was probably an old rail bed that was used to get the coal to a barge waiting on the river.

This deer and its partner where checking us out from across the swamp. A bit rough looking, I assume it's shedding its winter coat.

I was disappointed at the number and density of invasive plants in this wildlife "refuge"--it was thick with barberry, glossy buckthorn and garlic mustard to name a few. But in spite of that we came across a decent variety of wildflowers, including the densest concentration of wild ginger any of us has ever seen.

Lots of wild geranium...

and Jack-in-the-pulpit too.

Nearing the end of the trail we spotted this eastern phoebe near a marsh, watching us closely.

Finally, as we neared the parking lot, we came to a small flock of cedar waxwings feasting in...well, I'm not sure what this is. It could be glossy buckthorn--the berries they were eating had to be from last year as no plants had produced yet. This of course is how this plant gets spread all over the place--birds eat the berries and then poop out the seeds. Sigh.

Here is a shot of the backside of a waxwing. Shows off the yellow tips on the tail and the red adornments on the ends of some of the wing feathers--breeding plumage that will be lost when the birds moult in the fall.

We got back to the RV--remember the RV?--and were famished, not having packed any snacks and too little water. Our hikes always take longer than we think they ought to considering the distance we travel, and this was a warmer day than most we'd had up to this point in late April. We sat and had lunch then headed on home.

A week or so later I visited their website,, and found that they have a list of bird sightings that is just amazing. Again, we were there about a week too early to really see a huge variety of birds, and I would guess that many of the sightings were near the marsh, not the river and woods. Oh well, someday we'll figure out how to plan our travel times better!

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Effervescent Chickadee

I apologise for it taking me a month to post about a two day trip, but my show schedule really kicked my butt this past month. I had two of my biggest shows of the season back to back and I've been busting my tail prepping for them. So bear with me--there will be one more post after this and then I'll be caught up.

After leaving the bluebird behind we caught sight of yet another snake. There were literally everywhere, warming themselves along the open edges of the trail. They'd shoot off into the taller grasses as we approached, but this one didn't escape far enough to avoid having its picture taken--a common garter snake.

The girls were chit chatting behind me while I photographed the snake. Then out of the corner of my eye I saw a bird fly into the bushes in front of us. I shushed them and we all stood still. Oh, a little chickadee!

We stood still and quiet, and eventually the small bird made its way to a branch on the edge of the shrub, right in front of me, and proceeded to check me out.

I wish I'd been able to shift just a bit to get rid of that twig in front of the bird, but I was afraid to move too much. It is not often you have a bird station itself five feet from your lens!

This is without question one of my favorite birds. They're cute, gregarious, and they stay with us all year long, a quality I really appreciate. In January they start singing their "spring's coming" song and even though we're buried under snow and ice I feel my heart lift in response.

What a wonderful moment to have this sprightly bird sit still before us. Bird photography can be so difficult because they rarely sit still long enough to even focus on them, much less get off a decent shot. This was quite a treat.

And then, just to show how relaxed it was, it started preening and stretching its wings. I was so excited I couldn't hold the camera still!

After several minutes the chickadee flew off, leaving me breathless and excited--to have such a close encounter is a thrill, and I knew I had some great new subject matter for a new--or several new--pieces.


Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Artwork--White-breasted Nuthatch

After a spectacular show in Indianapolis I have been working my tail off to get some new pieces done. I am hoping for two before my show this weekend in East Lansing, but I may not get there. We'll see.

I have gobs and oodles of images of birds--some from my backyard, some from up north, many from Florida. It is difficult to choose which ones to do first. I picked the white-breasted nuthatch because it's one of my favorites and because I thought I could do this particular piece fairly quickly. I have others of this bird I want to do but they'll have to wait until I am not so crunched for time!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Uneasy Neighbors

As the trail at the Shiawassee NRW finally reached the Titabawassee River we saw swallows swooping and swerving over the water. Down along the river bank path we came across some bluebird boxes, complete with bluebirds.

Upon the neighboring box sat a tree swallow.

Tree swallows are known for taking over bluebird boxes, and, along with starlings and house sparrows, have earned a bad reputation for doing so. I never really understood this, as tree swallows are a native like the bluebird, (unlike the house sparrow and starling, both of which came from Europe), and seem to me to be equally deserving of nesting sites.

These two are checking the place out.

I have seen other birds, cardinals for instance, that will feed each other I would guess as part of a mating ritual. I have only seen the male feeding the female, as if to say, "look at what a good father I can be!" as it is after all the female who chooses with whom to mate. At first I thought that is what was going on here, but now that I look more closely at these photos it looks like a male above and the female below, so I don't really know what is going on here. Perhaps they aren't even mates.

I was curious about this nesting competition with bluebirds and the anger some people feel towards the three swallows, so I did a little research about it. Turns out there are plenty of others who don't quite understand the vitriol some reserve for the tree swallow, and feel it is ill placed. Bluebird numbers are quite healthy, and yes it is thanks in part to the folks who put up bluebird boxes all over the Eastern US. But historically (and we're talking pre-European settlers) much of the east was not great habitat for the bluebird. It was densely forested, and the bluebird needs open land in order to hunt for it's prey. Numbers soared in the 1800's as we cleared the land for farms, but then fell thanks to the introduction of the house sparrow and the starling. Numbers declined further with the use of pesticides that killed off the bluebird's main food source.

But now, estimates put bluebird numbers on par with tree swallows. After watching the swallows scooping up bugs over the river I would be more than happy to have them nesting in boxes at my house! However, as one who is trying in vain to establish native vegetation on my property only to have it munched down to the ground by white-tail deer, I understand the frustration one can feel when they have a certain goal in mind but are thwarted again and again by Nature, who generally has a plan all its own--or no plan at all.

But don't worry too much about the bluebirds. They can fend for themselves.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

As promised I have a chicken update for you. It is really astonishing how quickly they grow, and how much they change in appearance from chick to adult. I will have to post some before and after pics once they get all of their feathers in.

Here's Lucy,



and Ethel.

Marianne and Lucy play tug-o-war over a worm Lori dug out of the garden.

The girls love the sun and the warm brick outside the back door. The sun, along with dust baths, helps keep mites and parasites at bay. They lay down on one side and lift the opposite wing up to get the sun underneath. It's amazing to me that they know to do these things without an adult chicken around to teach them. It is purely instinct.

Mmmm, nap time.

Next: back to Shiawassee