Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Heron Gets Its Perch

Memorial Day weekend finally saw us out on the water for our first paddle of the year. Our friend Karin had come down from Traverse City, and I have found that having a guest is a great way to put the breaks on the daily routine and get us out of the house. She brought her kayak along, and we were lucky to have a spectacular day Sunday to get out on the water--warm, filtered sun, little wind.

I had decided to try out a new lake, one down in the Pinckney State Rec Area. South Lake is a place I where I have worked with a DNR volunteer crew doing invasive species removal. The north side of the lake is a fen, a globally rare ecosystem where groundwater wells up through limestone, causing the water to be alkaline. (You can read more about fens here.) Because of the pH, fens support very specific plants that don't grow anywhere else.

We paddled around and down to the far south end of the lake, where the few houses were situated. I could hear common yellowthroat warblers singing everywhere, but only caught a few glimpses. We watched a huge red-tailed hawk and an osprey, and were scolded by scored of red-winged blackbirds. I generally lagged behind, stopping to watch birds, hoping for some good shots.

A small creek led to Snyder Lake, a much smaller lake but one with near vertical drop offs 10 to 15 feet from shore. It was pretty amazing--on one side of my canoe I could see bottom a foot or less deep, on the other, blackness. Some fellows at the boat launch said it was about a 30 foot drop. That doesn't sound like a lot but that's a three story building!

I poked around for a while, and when I finally caught up to the girls a great blue heron took off from somewhere farther down the shore and flew past.

We'd been out for over two hours and backs and butts were getting tired. The girls had started paddling back but again I lagged behind. Then I saw the heron on the far side of this little lake, stalking prey. I paddled over but just missed getting shots of it catching and eating a small fish. But the bird continued to hunt, so I got as close as I dared, parked myself up wind so if the breeze came up I'd still be close, and waited.

The heron walked along slowly, watching...

...then it crouched down and tilted its head towards the water.

Then this happened: (remember, you can click this image to see a slideshow/full sized images)


Friday, May 24, 2013

Nesting Green Herons! (Well, Almost....)

Let me start by saying that we don't have a drop of water on our property. You can't tell from the aereal photo below but we are on the south slope of a fairly steep hill, and it's very sandy and dry. We are in glacial moraine country here, and it's very sandy and hilly across the area, with lots of bottom-land marshes and ponds. Our house is a walk-out on the south side, and we actually have to walk UP five steps to get into our basement, while the back is at normal basement depth. The crest of the hill runs along the back line of our five acres. The property is a mix of mature pines and hardwoods, mostly black cherry, with some open meadows that we are trying to restore. All that, but no water.

Our five acres showing property boundary, heron nest location and nearby wetlands.

So I can assure you that it came as quite a surprise when we discovered a pair of green herons checking our place out. In the top right corner of our property, right below the nest site, we have a trail cam, pointed down a path that leads in from our neighbor's property. We have been dumping juicing pulp there for some time to draw the critters in.

I had gone out on the morning of May 2nd to replace the camera card, and heard rustlings in the pines overhead. I looked but didn't see anything. That same evening I went back out to pull a patch of garlic mustard that had appeared under an old apple tree that's right next to these pines. I heard more rustling but still didn't see anything. After a few minutes though I heard a raspy alarm call directly overhead and looked up in time to see two birds, clearly small herons, flying overhead. I ran back to the house to get my camera and tell Lori.

After searching phone apps and various websites we finally decided they were green herons. I was flaberghasted. This is a bird I have seen only twice, and here they were, checking out our property! I finally spotted one, up in a tree across our road, next to the gas pipeline easement that cuts through a marsh nearby.

Well I'll be! Green herons!

It's mate appeared and they both flew off down the easement. After waiting for what seemed like forever the pair finally flew by again, although I was of course by that time examining the bluebird houses. Lori saw them coming, though, and I managed to get a few shots, this being the best.

Flying back towards our property and the pine grove.

It took several days but I was finally able to find their nest, a small jumble of sticks out on a branch sticking into the space in the middle of this grove of pines about 15 feet above the ground. Knowing where to look I could just make her out, sillhoetted against the morning sky.

I see you up there!

We thought it a bit odd that they would nest so far from water, so we did a bit of research and found this, from

"Nesting: The green heron nests singly or in colonies. Although it generally prefers for its nesting locality a region close to the water, it may choose dry woods or an orchard in the midst of cultivated ground. The height of the nest is also very variable, and although most nests are placed from 10 to 20 feet from the ground, they may be found in the tops of high trees, or, on the other hand, on low bushes or even on the ground."

There are three old apple trees on this part of our property, one of which is very near, and the grove of pines is next to an open area on our neighbor's property, so I guess that explains it! 

We thought that we had lost them over Mother's Day weekend. Lisa and I were up in Tawas City birding, while Lori stayed home. Apparently our neighbor's to the north had a shoot-a-thon on Saturday, or were setting of fireworks, or both, most of the day and into the night. Sunday brought cold rain and wind, and Sunday night we had a hard freeze that damaged our oaks, walnuts, hickories, and the mulberry. Even the grape vines and sumac froze, and we will likely not see any fruit from any of these trees this year. 

Anyway, we checked on the nest Sunday night and Monday but didn't see any sign of the birds. But by Wednesday last week I thought I saw a dark shape back atop the nest, and tiptoed underneath to take a peek. Standing by the trail cam I could just make out a beak, smother and pointier than the sticks of the nest. Looking closer I could see her white-streaked breast and bulbous eyes looking down at me. Perhaps they hadn't laid eggs yet and were just now starting to nest, or perhaps she had never left and was so hunkered down we couldn't see her. In any case we were thrilled that it looked like we would have fuzzy baby herons to coo over.

I never got a shot of her from below--I really didn't want to disturb them.

We set up a spotting scope in a place where we could keep an eye on the nest but hopefully not disturb them. Through the scope I could see the colors of her head and her bright yellow eye, watching me as I watched her.
The problem, however, is that we had a bunch of critters habituated to coming to this very spot looking for goodies, including grey fox, opossum and racoons. We had stopped putting food out, of course, but I am sure they still came around, hopeful. 

This past Sunday night, sometime around midnight, we woke to a screeching ruckus somewhere nearby. Lori thought it was probably a rabbit meeting its demise, but when I checked on the nest Monday morning it was empty. I suspect racoons, which have been something of a menace around here lately, got at the herons. I looked for feathers or eggshells but found neither, so I have no way of knowing if she was on eggs or not. I assume she got away unscathed. I've been checking daily since then but the herons have not returned. Probably they've gone to look for a quieter neighborhood.

Empty nest, just a dark jumble of sticks in the branches of the pine tree.

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!

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Busy, Busy House Wren

There is much activity around our house these days, and it's not just of the human kind. Gardening, landscaping, general after-winter clean up and the start of the art fair season have got us hopping. But the birds are busy too, staking their claim to tree and nest box. Among the most vocal of these is the house wren. The name-sake of my blog, (although my header shows a Carolina wren), I adore this little bird. It's a good thing, because we have three of them staking claims over three of our five nest boxes.

Walking the dogs the other day I came across a male who had a female visitor checking out his digs. He flew in with twigs while she chattered and hopped around. I went back out with my camera a short while later but she was gone, leaving him to sing and dash about from branch to branch. He eventually settled down with an ant snack.

House wren with ant.

I  moved around to the front of the house where another wren was busy stocking his next box with twigs.

He was tireless, bringing stick after stick and shoving them into the opening.

He seems to have a bit of an issue with spacial relations....

I was impressed with his energy.

I sat and watched him for 10 minutes or so, then went back to work myself.