Monday, January 3, 2022

A REALLY Big Year, Full Circle

As the days of December swept by it seemed less and less likely that I would add any new birds to my Michigan Big Year (you can see my list of birds, many with photos, here). I had recorded 317 species, a number that I could not have imagined I'd reach a year ago when I began this journey--I was hoping I would get to 300! 

In addition to doing a Big Year I had also signed up for the 100 Mile Challenge on the North Country Trail, something I had done twice previously. As a section of the trail is 15 minutes from our house, hiking 100 miles should not be difficult--even at one mile a day one would hike 365 miles. But as November slipped by I'd only hiked 40 miles on the NCT (though had gotten many more schlepping my optics around chasing birds) and didn't give finishing much thought until mid-December when I started seeing others getting their patches and deciding I wanted mine too. That meant hiking 60 miles in two weeks.

With the holidays coming and my rededication to hiking I did not see that I'd be able to pull off any long-distance bird chases. Plus, I was already slipping into my old way of thinking, not wanting to chase birds I'd already seen in another place and time. I passed on chasing a Little Gull that was in Monroe County as I'd already seen one in Michigan a couple years ago. I also passed on kittiwakes and a Northern Gannet, even though they both would have been new Michigan birds. I just didn't have it in me, and I was eager to move on to my next adventure.

But a report on the 29th of a Northern Hawk Owl in Chippewa County in the eastern U.P. gave me pause. I was feeling a bit sentimental about the year and how amazing it had been. It was also kinda of a crappy day, being the 3rd anniversary of my father's death, who had been here with me on hospice care, as well as having found out that Birdwatcher's Digest was closing immediately, a magazine that I had just done a cover for and with whom we have a trip planned (and a lot of money invested) in March to Costa Rica. I'd already seen a hawk owl in Michigan--we'd made an overnight trip to Marquette back in the winter of 2020 to see one. But I'd not gotten great looks at the bird and was not happy with the photos either, and I really wanted to see this species again. This bird was apparently right by a road and giving very good looks.

Looking at my schedule I didn't see how I could do it. I had one day--the next day, the 30th--to finish my 100 miles on the NCT as I had my last of three Christmas Bird Counts to do on the 31st. Finishing the NCT challenge was something I had really devoted myself to since the 13th, hiking over 50 miles in that time, leaving me with about seven to go. Also, I didn't need the bird for any list. While adding to my Big Year number would be nice, it wasn't going to get me back into second place or reach some other milestone number. I could go see it after the new year to get better photos but even that seemed frivolous. Going to see the owl now meant not getting to 100 miles on the NCT--or so I thought.

Then it dawned on me. The NCT crosses the Mackinaw Bridge into the U.P., winding through St. Ignace along the water before crossing under I-75 and heading north and west. If I went to see the owl I would be going right past it--or over it.

I opened Google Maps and put in the location of the owl--four hours to get there. By all accounts the bird seemed to be on territory, the homeowner saying the bird had been there at least a week before a birder discovered it, so it seemed like as sure of a thing as I could hope for.

I started doing the math. I walk at about 2 mph (most people do) so seven miles would take about 3.5 hours. Sunset it just after 5:00 pm, so to give myself ample time to complete the hike I'd need to be on the trail by noon. There was a trailhead at Castle Rock, right off I-75, about 35 minutes from where the owl was. If I left by 6:00 am, got up there by 10:30, that would give me an hour to see the owl.

I knew it was a risk--what if the bird didn't show? What if it did but stayed back away from the road? It would mean I'd driven four hours and made a day trip to the U.P. to hike seven miles. But as my excitement began to rise thinking about closing out the year and two big challenges in such a dramatic fashion I knew I had to do it.

I got in touch with Terry Grabill to see if he was going up. He was already on the road, heading to Sault Saint Marie for the night in order to be on location first thing. I had met Terry January 3rd, 2021, the day I'd decided to attempt the Big Year. We passed each other on a quiet, snow-covered road near the Walkinshaw Wetlands, and found out we each had the same goal. We ended up watching Short-eared Owls together. This meeting would spark a friendly competition and is part of the reason we both did so well (he finished first with 323 species). He said he would let me know in the morning if/when he saw the owl.

I'd set an alarm for 5:00 am but woke at 4:30, so I got up and out a half hour early. It was chilly and I passed through areas that were in the single digits. The waning crescent moon glowed in the east as dawn seeped into the sky. 

From a rest area somewhere on I-75

The miles ticked by, the day brightened, and by the time I crossed the bridge the sun was over the horizon and shining down the Straits.

No-look shots from the bridge of the rising sun. Not too shabby!

The Mighty Mac, for the umpteenth time last year. I spent a lot of time in the U.P. and that
is not a bad thing!

Terry had messaged me to say the owl was still present, but by the time I got there he was off looking for a Gyrfalcon and the owl was not in sight. One other birder was there and he left me to watch while he drove some nearby roads. He returned about the time several other birders showed up and before long the stretch of road was lined with five or six cars. I positioned myself where I had a clear view of the area where the bird had been hanging out. 

Thirty to forty minutes after I arrived, one of the birders shouted that he had it. I looked where he was pointing and saw the owl perched near the top of an aspen. I just got a glimpse--enough to count it for my Big Year--before it flew towards the woods. I hopped in my car and moved closer to the action.

As I was parking I could see the group looking up into a spruce. I hurried as quickly as I dared in my clunky winter boots on the icy road and got there in time to get some shots of it perched and preening. 

Northern Hawk Owl sitting pretty, barely bending the
spruce branch. So much of the bulk of these birds is feathers. 


Then the owl took off to the south, flying first to a utility pole next to the homeowner's poultry pen (wherein chickens, Guinea fowl and a couple emu were housed) and then flew south again to the next pole. Everyone else hopping in their cars and driving down the road, a few of them pulling up right next to the owl. This got my hackles up a bit, so I walked down but stayed back, positioning myself between where the owl was perched and the abandoned house and fallen-down barn across the street where it seemed to like hanging out. With as active as the bird had been, and now with a phalanx of birders chasing it, I figured it wouldn't be long before it flew again, and I was right.

Dropping off the pole the owl flew within 30 feet of me on it's way to a pole behind the house. I did my best to keep the bird in the frame, trusting the camera to do it's job.

The owl seemed content on its perch behind the house so the others began to leave. As I made my way back to my car I noticed Terry's orange Subaru coming down the road. I smiled and pointed towards the bird. He pulled up and got out, and we stood on the side of the road chatting a while, talking about the year we'd had and how it seemed so weird that it was almost over. I would have loved to have hung out, maybe get lunch somewhere and share stories, but I still had business to attend to, so I got myself on the road and made it to the trailhead before noon.

I changed out of my heavy winter clothes for lighter hiking gear and put my microspikes on my boots to help with the snow (only about 3-4 inches but enough to mess with my footing). I had boots on the trail after a quick lunch in the car.

It had snowed the day before, then it either warmed up and melted the surface just a bit or there was some freezing rain because everything had the thinnest crust of ice on it. The snow had stuck to everything and it looked like a winter wonderland.

I hiked to the north and west, away from the section that's on a rail trail. It would be easy hiking but in winter it is also a snowmobile trail, and I detest snowmobiles, so I took the harder route in favor of peace and quiet--and I'm so glad I did.

There were multiple sets of footprints at the beginning, but within a half mile all but one set split off, and those tracks were both coming and going, meaning I'd likely be alone on the trail. 

The forests in the U.P. are different than those here at home. The forests in our area are generally mixed hardwood/coniferous, dominated by oaks but also containing red and white pine, hemlock, aspen, maple, and some beech and birch. But in the southern U.P. you're on the edge of the boreal forest, and the make up is different. There's still red and white pine, but the aspen, hemlock, beech and birch are more dominant, oaks are replaced by black spruce and balsam fir, and while still a mixed forest it's decidedly conifer-based.

The terrain rolled and I passed through wooded uplands and along boggy lowlands. A light snow began to fall, hardly a flurry but enough to add to the scene. I heard White-winged Crossbills in the spruce but they would scatter before I got a glimpse. About a mile from the trailhead the other tracks stopped and turned around, and I was left with fresh, unbroken snow.

With the human and dog tracks gone other things began to stand out. I could see a lot of snowshoe hare tracks, most of which were on top of that thin crust of ice, their impressions fresh yet barely visible in the dusting of snow on top.

Grouse tracks crisscrossed the trail too. Some were deep, made the day before when the snow was wet, and some clearly from that morning, also striding across that thin layer of ice. 

I don't know how long I'd been sharing the trail with a new set of tracks, but I realized at some point that there was another set of footprints. I stopped and looked down in amazement. No human made these--they were clearly canine. But these were not fox tracks. Not coyote, either. 

I bent down for a closer look, holding my hand beside one, and my hand and the track were nearly the same size.

This was the track of a wolf.

Nearly as big as my hand!

I will admit I found the idea of sharing the trail with a large predator a little...concerning. I know wolf attacks are rare, but being alone certainly makes me more of a target than if I were in a group--more of a target for anyone, really. I knew a healthy wolf would not be a threat, but if it were hungry, injured, starving...?

A stride of over two feet, another indication that this is a wolf track.

The tracks were going in the opposite direction, coming toward me down the trail, and were clearly from the day before based on how much snow was in the ones out in the open. I decided I was probably safe and pressed on.

Another half mile or more in, the tracks changed. I looked down and realized that, in addition to the single set heading southeast, there was now a pair headed northwest, and they were pretty fresh--no snow piled in these tracks!

I stopped again and pondered. Lone wolf, old tacks, no problem. Two wolves, laying tracks within the past 12 hours? The past six? Two? That really gave me pause. There was clearly plenty of prey around considering how many hare and grouse tracks I'd seen, along with the occasional deer. And, again, I know wolf attacks on humans are virtually unheard of, though certainly not impossible. What to do?

Ultimately my desire to not head back and walk with the snowmobiles was greater than my trepidation, so I kept going. But as I walked I tried not to step in their tracks--it felt disrespectful somehow, almost sacrilegious, because while I was a bit nervous I was so excited to be in the company of wolves.

A narrative began running in my head of the naysayers, because part of me was not completely convinced by what I was seeing. No doubt some would claim this was just a coyote. How would I refute that? The size of the track, the length of the gait, the depth of the print indicating a heavy animal...?

As I'm thinking this I came upon a small spruce next to the trail surrounded by prints. I noticed urine on the snow and thought, "huh, that's not very high up for an animal as big as a wolf," and then I saw a few drops of blood. I realized this isn't the male marking his territory, this is the female, and she's in estrous. This means these two wolves are likely an alpha pair. 

Urine with just a bit of blood below; a female in heat.

Still chewing on this bit of new information I came across another sign, and any doubt about whether these are really wolf tracks is blown away. There on the trail is the long scrape a canine makes after they deficate, like a dog kicking up grass in the yard, and next to it is a HUGE pile of scat. Now maybe if coyotes got to the size of wolves their poop would be that big, but I am utterly convinced now that these really are wolves. Short of seeing the actual wolf I have all the proof I need. 

Pictures of poop because how often does one get to see wolf poop?!

I continue on, following the tracks that followed the trail deeper into the woods. The trail had been heading steadily north towards the edge of a ridge, and I could see the valley through the trees. But as the trail turned to the west, the pair of tracks kept going straight, over the hill and down the slope. The other, older set of tracks, the first one I'd found which had been mostly obscured by the newer tracks, were evident again, continuing on to my left. Within 20 feet they also disappeared down the slope (although when they'd been made the wolf was coming up the hill, not going down), and I was once again left with fresh, unbroken snow.

"Two roads diverged in a yellow wood and sorry I could not travel both."
Robert Frost

Looking into the valley

Partly because of my dawdling to take pictures and bird watch and partly because of the snow (which makes footing a bit tricky and slows my pace) I wasn't making good time. I'd only gone about 2.5 miles and it was past 1:30 already. I decided to hike until 2:00 then turn around. Two hours out and two hours back would normally net me about eight miles, but I'd be happy with six.

But as I pressed on that little voice in my head told me I should just turn back. I argued with it for a while but reminded myself that it somehow knows things I don't (which has been borne out with some bad experiences) so I decided to turn around and head back.

The snow began to increase from a few flakes drifting about to something more substantial. I stopped several times to take it all in--the silence, the smell of spruce and fir, the snow like fairy dust. It was such a change of pace from hiking downstate, and I was warm and comfortable, that I wished I didn't have to leave. It all felt utterly magical.

As I neared the end the snow stopped and the clouds broke some, giving views of blue sky and a few quick peeks of sun.

Back at the car, after logging just under six miles, I decided that was close enough. I knew I'd have boots on the trail for a short hike the next day for my local Christmas Bird Count, and with the variances of the different tracking apps I concluded that I was close enough to 100 miles to call it good, and vowed in 2022 that I would not wait until the literal last minute to finish. (I am thinking about hiking/backpacking the NCT through the entirety of the Manistee National Forest, so that would get me to my goal.)

My drive home was uneventful. The sun peeped through the clouds as I passed back over the bridge, bringing the day full circle. The drive gave me time to reflect on not just the day but the whole year. What an amazing experience it's been, testing my resolve, by birding skills, and my competitive nature. It reinforced for me that while I like to do well, I don't have to be first--that I need more balance than that. I'm happy to have finished in the top five--and I have a screen shot of the eBird standings to prove that, for just a couple days in June, I was on the top of the heap. That's good enough for me.

I also realized that the year had ended almost exactly as it started, standing in the snow, chatting with Terry and watching owls. I didn't know him before January 3rd, 2021, and our chance meeting on a lonely country road on a dim afternoon in winter at the start of both our Big Year attempts kicked off a friendly competition that pushed both of us to achieve more than we thought we would. For it to end with us together again, purely by chance, nearly a year later, talking about birds and reflecting on what we'd accomplished, was some sort of kismet.

Neither of us realized it at that moment, and honestly I think that's best. There were no celebratory selfies, no high fives, just talk of birds, a bit of joy at ending the journey with such a great species, and a shared sense of accomplishment and a bit of relief that it was over. The significance of moments like these are often only seen in hindsight, leaving the moment itself pure in its ignorance of the significance of it. We can look back at all of it and marvel at what we've done, the friends we've made, and how each of our journeys really did come full circle.

MBY bird #36) Short-eared Owl, January 3, 2021

MBY bird #318) Northern Hawk Owl, December 30, 2021

1 comment:

  1. Congratulations Marie. Thank you for sharing your Big Year and all the great photos.