Lincoln Road Journal, One Year in the Backyard, part 4
Tuesday, February 9, 2010
The dark shapes of the bedded down deer were hard to distinguish in the pre-dawn.
Yet as I strained to peer into the darkness from the kitchen window I knew the dark blotch under the stand of pines wasn't a bush -- none are there. I surmised the deer were bedded down again.
I poured coffee, went about my morning routine of showering, dressing and preparing a breakfast. Every five minutes or so, I'd check on the deer. As the dawn moved in and the darkness slowly lessened, I was able to make out a second shape against a row of trees.
Later a third shape emerged. All were still. But as the light increased, so did the awareness of the awakening deer. Each had its head up surveying the scene. The noises from the house caught and maintained their attention. I turned off all unnecessary lights to see them better and to make it less likely they'd see me at the windows checking on them.
I continued preparing for work, trying to ignore the camera on a tripod nearby. I wanted more light. Could I outwait the deer?
They had many advantages, not the least of which was I was due at work and they weren't.
As the clock moved toward 7:45 a.m. and the light picked up more, I moved the camera into position. In the few seconds it took to move it from one room to another, the deer stood up.
I thought about not shooting. Deer standing in poor light do not necessarily make a good photograph. But the light snow that had started falling was dusting the back of the deer, and that intrigued me.
I adjusted camera settings and focused just in case.
At that moment the doe walked over to a younger deer and began nuzzling and licking the snow off the deer. I fired off several photos, pleased to capture this motherly moment I hadn't seen in the woods before.
The mother licked the youngster's face, seemed to work over an ear thoroughly and for a moment, nuzzled and knocked snow off a shoulder. The younger deer stood there, at times returning the nuzzling, other times, just waiting.
Then as quickly as they started, the slowly moved off into the swamp. There I saw other deer rising from their rest.
I arrived late for work for a second straight day. Watching the deer's morning ritual proved too tempting to ignore.
Monday, February 8, 2010
For mid-winter, the weather has been very mellow. That seems to be rubbing off on the animals in and around the yard.
When making my morning coffee today, I looked out the kitchen window as is my habit. I try to see what the world outside might have in store for the day. For most of winter, it's dark and basically I check to see if there's new, significant snowfall, or frigid enough temperatures to frost the windows. I generally can tell if it's clear out. If it's calm. If it's windy, snowing or foggy.
That's about the entirety of information most winter morning before work window checks provide. It's just too dark to see much else.
Well, each day daylight is growing by about two minutes. Since the winter solstice that means about an 90 or more minutes more of daylight is included each day.
So today on my second look out the window I noticed the dark lumps on the ground near the edge of the swamp woods. At first I saw two lumps. A bit to the east under some pine, another dark form rested. Three deer were sleeping in the yard.
I'd seen signs of their choosing the spot to rest earlier in the winter, but they didn't come back until last night. Sunday in the swamp I noticed a bedding area at the east end of the property. Skiing on the neighbor's property to the east I'd come across another bedding area within a 500 feet of the property.
But this morning was the first time I'd spied the deer asleep as the day broke. Needless to say, they delayed my departure to work. I'm not sure the publisher was happy with my reason for being a bit late, but the newsroom understood.
I watched and photographed the deer. As the light increased, they stirred, began grooming themselves. Eventually, one stood up. The other two did within moments. They looked as weary-eyed as me on any given morning. Eventually all three rose, butt end first and slowly wandered into the swamp, out of sight, 15 minutes before sunrise.
Later, at lunch, it was the squirrels turn to nap in the sun. About a dozen scurried about the yard scavenging seed from beneath the feeders. But two, after eating their fill, climbed a seated area atop a stairway I built a few years ago to make it easier to reach the lower level of the yard. There the two squirrels spread out in the sun and snoozed.
They only awoke when another squirrel got too close. Once chased away, they went back to their nap in the warmth of the sun, despite the temperature being only about 30 degrees F. The sun's rays are gaining in heat.
A red squirrel -- usually a creature of seemingly perpetual motion, a roadrunner of the squirrel family, darting here and there at high speeds, didn't nap, but settled down in the branches of the maple, also seemingly enjoying the warmth of the sun.
The evening brought a return of cardinals to the feeder. I hadn't seen any there in weeks.
Skiing in the woods, I noticed how the squirrels were foraging in the rings adjacent to tree trunks where the heat of the sun has caused the snow to melt leaving bare ground for an inch or two around each tree. In many places fragments of acorn shells and meat littered the edge of the ring. It was clear squirrels are using these small bare areas to find acorns that have been buried by snow since late fall.
For mid-winter, the warmth of the sun and the lack of snow has eased life for the deer, squirrels, birds and other creatures that eke out a living in the midst of sometimes severe conditions.
This year, they look well fed. They look content. Winter isn't over by a long shot, perhaps, but this break has allowed animals to find plenty of food and take it easy for a couple weeks now.
A snowstorm is predicted to hit in the coming days. Life may become tougher again for the creatures of the woods. But today might have seemed like a restful holiday to the animals, a day to rest and nap and await the return of spring.
Sunday, February 7, 2010
The snow in the yard is deeper than at Barothy, but the base is just as hard. The inch of soft snow on top is a mass or tracks. Deer tracks. Squirrel tracks. Chipmunk tracks. Bird tracks. People tracks. Raccoon tracks. The animals are on the move.
Down at the swamp raccoons and deer are crossing the creek and the muck holes with abandon. Their tracks in the snow there are often ringed with mud from their crossings. The banks of the creek are losing their snow covering, especially on the south facing, northern bank, but also near where groundwater is oozing or flowing to the surface.
It's very pretty in many places, despite the tracks.
This evening, just before dark, six or seven deer moved into the yard. For the first 10-15 minutes they browsed trees and brush near the swamp and in the woods. Then, once dusk seriously set in, they moved to the feeders and tight to the house where acorns from fall are again starting to show through in the bare ground under the deck or at edges of the house.
I turned off all the lights and watched the deer. Eventually some moved to the edge of the house. I stood on one side of the window, and deer nosed for acorns under the deck or next to the window less than three feet away. As long as I made no noise or sudden moves, they didn't notice me. Too bad it was getting so dark, it was hard to make out details of their actions.
We watched for another 15 minutes as they fanned out along three sides of the house, oblivious of us inside in the dark watching them. Eventually, though I had to get on with other business. As soon as light flooded out, the deer left and headed back into the woods.
These deer look well nourished. This winter, so far, hasn't been too tough on them.
In the countryside where farm fields are starting to show through snow, one can see large groups of deer starting to gather. In some fields it will be normal to see upwards of 100 or more deer gathered. This will go on until probably May when fresh, green vegetation grows and there's plenty to eat everywhere.
In the coming weeks, I expect the deer will be regular visitors here and to the fields. Winter isn't over, but spring is nearing.
Barothy Lodge and the Pere Marquette River
Saturday, February 6, 2010
Spent much of the weekend with friends at nearby Barothy Lodge on the Pere Marquette River, a national scenic river renowned for its trout fishery. The lodge -- really a resort with many lodges -- is about 20 miles from Ludington by highway, probably double that or more in meandering river miles since the P.M. -- as the Pere Marquette is known -- empties into Lake Michigan at Ludington. The Ludington harbor is the mouth of the P.M.
The river is running fast and cold now. We saw no boats of fishermen this weekend, though the river is fished year round as long as it doesn't ice over. It isn't at Barothy. Ice was limited to the very edge of some of the banks and the dunker ice hanging to limbs and branches of trees fallen into the river. The ice, just above the water's surface, grows as the water ripples over the ice bobbing in and out of the river. They make many fantastic shapes that in the abundant sunshine capture light like glass orbs do. Clear skies, cold temperatures and snow that has been heavily tracked by the animals hunting and happening by the lodge grounds that are adjacent in areas to Manistee National Forest lands made for good hiking. I skied one trail but the hills are almost impossible to safely ski. There's little snow here 20 miles east of the lake, and what there is is mostly frozen hard as a rock. It offers little control going up or down hills, but made for fast skiing on the flatter portions of the trail. A nice weekend at a nice lodge with good people on the banks of the P.M.
Shades of gray
Friday, February 5, 2010
A slight warming has caused some melting today. The hard crust of snow is a bit weaker, softer. One can step through the crust and into the snow below, something which hasn't happened in recent days.
And it's many shades of gray out.
The fungi on the birch tree intrigued me for its fresh look, as if it escaped the deep freeze. It also was a symbol of the day -- shades of gray on white bark streaked with lines of black.
Let's see what Saturday brings.
A tiny killer
February 4, 2010
"Beeches are handsome deciduous trees with short-stemmed, prominently veined elliptical leaves that have wide-spaced marginal teeth."
The Golden field guide is accurate, but doesn’t do justice to the beauty of the American beech. Beech helps identify the type of forests here, just south of the 45th parallel in Michigan. This is an area commonly described as having an "oak, beech, maple" forest mixed with white pine and other conifers.
But the beech here are in peril. About 10 years ago Michigan State University Extension verified what a friend had noted and told them: a new disease had reached our woods: beech bark disease (BBD).
One might wonder how what starts as a small splotch of white that looks like the careless overspray from a can of white spray paint can threaten, much less kill a 60 to 100 foot tall beech?
Like many things causing havoc in the natural systems and especially the Great Lakes region, BBD is not native. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment (MDNRE), http://www.michigan.gov/dnr/0,1607,7-153-10366_46403_46404-210259--,00.html, reports it was first discovered in North America in 1890 in Nova Scotia and was brought to this continent from Europe. In the ensuing decades it began killing beeches in the forests of the Maritime Provinces on down into Maine.
First seen in the Midwest in 2000, the disease is now common in nearby Ludington State Park and is increasingly seen along the Michigan shoreline of Lake Michigan near the park. I've watched its progression here, steadily moving east and north, carried by the wind, birds, insects and people transporting firewood -- the likely source of its arrival in Michigan first at the popular camping destination state parks of Ludington and in the Upper Peninsula Tahquemenon Falls. The MDNRE says it progresses about six miles a year -- pretty fast for something that supposedly is “immobile.”
What causes BBD?
It's literally a one-two punch disease. The white spray one first sees is what is called the scale insect. As it grows and multiplies on the smooth, gray-barked trunk of trees many think look like the legs of elephants, the white fuzz increases until sometimes the trunk is almost all white. Then the Nectria fungus invades the tree through the voids caused by the scale insect. Nectria kills the areas of the tree it invades making beech susceptible to a condition known as beech snap. In wind storms, in particular, what look like healthy beech can literally snap at the weak spot and the tree falls. It's becoming a real problem in Ludington and many homeowners are removing infested trees. Down the road a couple miles a few years ago all got a lesson why that's a good idea when two large beeches snapped in a windstorm and crushed the small house they landed on. The house has never been rebuilt. I'm watching some of the beech left which are ready to go at any time. And so are other beech in the neighborhood.
At Ludington State Park beech were mature and magnificent. Some still are. Many have fallen in the past 10 years, at times cleaning out whole stands. Many others are diseased and its just a matter of time. Ludington State Park and Tahquemenon State Park have been studied since the disease was discovered there. At Ludington, researchers have found some beech -- 1 to 3 percent -- that are resistant to the beech scale. This gives hope that not all beech will be wiped out and that from the remnants, a BBD-resistant American beech will some day fill the woods. I'm not likely to live to see them attain the grandeur of the ones dying.
Here on Lincoln Road, we have a few beech. Unfortunately when we moved here no one knew about BBD. A friend, Dave, a former extension agent and one of my best sources for knowledge of the bugs of the woods here, had suspicions and was reporting those suspicions to the agency he then worked for. But they hadn't confirmed his suspicions until after I moved a load of downed beech to the yard for firewood. It was one of the first loads of wood I had gleaned after moving in to the house in 1999.
Once it was announced BBD had been identified, I went to check the wood stacked not long before that. As luck would have it, it had the white fuzzy scale insect. I couldn't be so lucky with a lottery ticket. Dave told me the best thing to do would be to burn the wood over the winter. It was too late not to bring it there. I'd already done that.
Only in the past 18 months have I seen any signs of BBD on the few beeches in the yard. Its arrival seems more in keeping with the spread of the disease eastward from the park, just a few miles to the west.
Now in most woods in the area, if there's beech, there's BBD. Knowing it's already here means I may haul and burn diseased beech with no fear of causing it to spread. (The MDNRE recommends not moving wood from diseased beech from July through November.) It's great firewood.
But it's a sad fate for one of my favorite species of trees in the woods, killed by an immobile pest and a fungus -- the ultimate tiny killer.
Wednesday, February 3, 2010
For a few moments this afternoon a breeze gusted through knocking fresh-fallen snow off trees, but mostly this afternoon and evening have been still, clear and bright.
Evenings like these in February are among the finest of winter. Conditions feel moderate after some of the more brisk stuff of earlier winter. The light adds a sense of warmth. With another dusting of fresh snow, the whites are whiter -- the landscape bleached by light and snow.
Bu there's no getting around it's still midwinter. Nothing is growing. Little is changing. The same birds that were here three weeks ago are here today, though strangely in fewer numbers. My theory is the lack of heavy, new snow is providing them with other opportunities.
The squirrels return daily in large numbers. The woods are locked in frozen snow. One can see where squirrels and deer dig to find acorns. Sunflower seed and corn at and below the feeder are easier the squirrels know.
The quiet in the woods during twilight was such that the skis seemed to scream as I went through the woods. To appreciate the quiet I had to stop and quiet myself. Little could be heard other than dogs to the north, west and south. All were at least a quarter mile away but their noise carried easily in the still air.
Skiing was again fine. I could get used to this quiet and this light.
It's like living in a Christmas card scene. Only it's better because it's real.
Now you see it, now ...
Monday, February 1, 2010
Little did I know as I worked this morning to photograph images of the setting moon in the rare seconds it broke free of clouds obscuring the western horizon, that all day long I'd be tested on how quickly could I respond?
The moon was going down about 7:30-7:40 this morning, as down brightened the eastern sky. From my vantage in the yard, I didn't have a clear shot. I'd have to shoot through the limbs of trees, a power line, clouds and more. When I settled on including the power line and power pole in the photo since it kind of looked like the moon was trying to jump rope,
I patiently tried to make a good image. I never quite captured what I wanted.
At lunch , several crows flew off from the yard as I arrived home. I haven't been able to photograph any so far, and it wasn't going to happen today.
After getting the mail and marveling over the amount of tracks left by squirrels, I looked toward the bird feeders. There a bizarre patch of red caught my attention. It was the head of a pilleated woodpecker, an infrequent visitor to the yard I've been hoping would return.
It played hide and seek with me staying on the north side of the big oak by the feeders, at times just sticking its head -- with all its "hair" extended --- out from behind the oak.
I composed a shot and pressed the shutter -- drats! The battery was dead. I never let that happen. Until that moment. I quickly change batteries, recompose and fire, but the bird is flying away.
Next I noticed a deer at the edge of the woods. It was walking toward the eastern swamp and disappeared before I could focus and shoot.
Later, in the afternoon, a sundog appeared over Lake Michigan. But it was gone by the time I made it home, five minutes after seeing it.
In essence the story of my day was now you see it, now you don't.
Better luck tomorrow, eh?
Groundhog day musings
Tuesday, February 2, 2010
Punxsutawney Phil apparently saw his shadow in Pennsylvania at sunrise this morning supposedly meaning six more weeks of winter weather.
I'd figure that's a safe bet, despite the fact no groundhog was going to see his shadow here at sunrise. It's been a mix of clouds and sun, with temperatures in the mid-20s and little wind. An inch of fresh snow has made everything look fresh and turned the hardpack snow left behind by the thaw and freeze suitable again for cross-country skiing.
Tonight, after bringing a fifth load of freshly cut maple from a friend's house near work to my woodpiles for burning next winter, I put on skis and headed out into the woods to test the snow and my recently injured back. The nurse practitioner probably wouldn't have looked too kindly on either hauling five pickup truck loads of wood or skiing so soon after deeply bruising it in a fall last Wednesday, but it felt fine and it was time to test it.
Skiing was absolutely wonderful on the fresh snow. One could go anywhere on the crust. Control was great. Speed was exceptional, a perfect set of conditions for Nordic skiing in the woods of Michigan.
Tonight, a haze seems to have settled on the woods. Stars are now starting to shine through. My brother called from Petoskey, north of here 90 or so miles to say a good display of northern lights could be seen there. Here, so far, the haze has obscured clear viewing of the sky. It makes for a strange quality to the light that would mask anything but a very strong display of aurora borealis. As the night progresses, it seems as if the sky is clearing. Maybe there's a chance still to see the lights tonight. That would be great.
The quality of light this evening also caught my eye. It was soft and seemed to "dry" out colors in dusky, pale sort of way. It was quite interesting and had me playing with white balance controls on the camera to capture the correct look.
Earlier in the day, crows and blue jays made a racket in the quiet woods at lunch. It was enjoyable to listen to, though not melodic. Squirrels again crowded the feeders and nearby trees.
Deer have taken to walking along the creek. They have created several paths there which obviously are used daily.
So life goes on no matter what the weather-forecasting groundhog of Pennsylvania predicts. And while many groaned at the thought of six more weeks of winter, to me it seemed but a short while. In each of the past two winters, I was able to bridge the season change by skiing and kayaking on the same day by mid-March.
Six weeks? It will be gone in a flash.
Friday, January 29 - Sunday January 31, 2010
Much of the past three days has been spent in Grand Rapids. It's Michigan's second largest city and the largest here on the western side of the state. As cities go it's a fine place. Lots to do with museums, theater, music, food and night spots.
The weekend was a mix of work to attend the Michigan Press Association annual conference and a get-away once the conference ended at noon Saturday. We visited with friends saw a spectacular Cirque Dreams "Illumination" shopped and relaxed.
In many ways it was a fine weekend.
But I'm finding I get antsy shopping or just hanging out. Frankly, I'd rather be outside. And this weekend was cold, but clear. A good weekend for a Michigan January with lots of sunshine, a full moon that wasn't hidden and no precipitation.
Sometime Sunday the thrill of the urban experience had gone and I just wanted to go home, do my chores and watch the sunset or the moon rise.
I settled for the latter as it tried to peak out between a growing sky of clouds.
Chores, by definition, are work. But there's a certain beat of life in them, too. Chores change with the season. Winter chores here involve bringing wood in for the wood stove, feeding birds, clearing snow and keeping warm --though the latter is not a chore as much as a strategy to not let winter get you down.
Tonight, doing the chores in the clear, cold air watching the play in the eastern sky of clouds and moonlight was far more intriguing, captivating and life enhancing than shopping at the mall or discount store. To me, shopping is a chore to be avoided. A necessary task, but not something very recreational.
Realizing the stores were crowded with people shopping as a way to get out of the house on a cold day, I felt lucky that on most Sundays, I just head out to a nearby park or the yard to escape the house and beat any winter blues or cabin fever that might come calling.
Perhaps the weekend wasn't wasted. It reminded me anew of why I live where I do. We don't have the stores and entertainment of the big city, but it's nearness to nature and wealth of outdoors opportunities more than makes up for that.
Comments 2 comments
A creek with no name
Thursday, January 28, 2010
Many places experience extreme shifts in weather. Michigan is no different. Here along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan -- the western shoreline of the land mass known as the Lower Peninsula -- the lake moderates our weather as well as makes weather. Because the lake is still mostly unfrozen this year, it slightly warms the Alberta Clippers rushing in from Canada. As the air passes over the lake, it absorbs the relative warmth of the open water that to remain unfrozen has to be above freezing, 32 degrees F. When the air mass hits the shoreline whatever heat it has picked up starts to dissipate and within 20 to 30 miles of the shoreline our neighbors inland don't share in that moderating factor.
Still when a mass of Arctic cold air descends upon the mitten of Michigan, the lakes can only warm it so much. Today such an arctic freeze has chilled even the shoreline. Officially, at Mason County Airport, our thermometer has been stuck at 10 degrees since 5:30 this morning. It has just not warmed up, even a degree which is pretty unusual. There's a fair breeze, 7 mph at least with gusts today up to 30 mph, according to the National Weather Service, http://www.crh.noaa.gov/grr/. That wind would create a wind chill of -4 to -12. For a handy wind chill conversion chart and wind chill calculator, visit, http://www.nws.noaa.gov/om/windchill/
I don't worry too much about wind chill most of the time. It's overly hyped in the media. But when the thermometer drops below 0 degrees F and you experience strong winds, then it becomes more serious.
Tonight, I donned insulated ski pants, long johns, a good warmer sweater, my Carhartt's hooded coat, a thermal hat and work gloves to scout for photographs. Having injured my back in a fall on a snowy stairway in town yesterday, I walked gingerly atop the frozen snow that had about an inch of new powder on it. Man, I wanted to ski, but the nurse practitioner who saw me in my doctor's absence told me to stay off skis for a while. That was hard to do tonight.
The cold air stung the face a bit, but in my winter-loving mind it was a pleasant feeling. It wasn't enough to cause any harm if you were properly dressed as I was. But, kind of like a hot sunny day says summer, this cold with a bite said winter.
We've had a fairly mild winter. There was a lot of snow in December and early January, but it didn't get that cold. This represents the coldest weather of the year for us.
At the creek, totally open and clear of ice this weekend, this evening showed a different story. In the newly widened area just upstream from The Big Ugly culvert, the creek's surface is nearly half covered with thin ice. Light snow covers it like powder sugar on a doughnut, only prettier and less filling. The open water looks as black as obsidian, but it's really totally clear and it's the black marl-like deposits on the creek bottom that is mostly black. With the fresh snow on the ice, it makes for an extreme contrast of nearly pure white shapes atop a deep black medium.
Tracks show the deer have been active at the creek, crossing it regularly. I flushed a half-dozen mourning doves that were hunkered down in the swamp adjacent to the creek. My theory is they stay close to the open water and gain some heat.
I smiled, too, as I thought how different the creek can on any given day. "Listening Point" is a Sigurd F. Olson story which gives name to one of his books and part of his philosophy on engaging nature. In it Olson writes of the "bare spit of rock" in his beloved Quetico-Superior country that is now the Boundary Waters canoe area at the Minnesota-Canada border, "Each time I have gone there I have found something new which has opened up great realms of thought and interest. For me it has been a point of discovery, and, like all points of departure, has assumed a meaning far beyond the ordinary."
My little creek of uncertain name is not a point of physical departure. From our yard it flows into The Big Ugly and eventually into the Middle Bayou of nearby Hamlin Lake. But it's not navigable -- I know, I've tried. Olson's Listening Point represented where he entered the great wilderness of northern Canada on the watery trail of the voyageurs who trapped beaver and explored the North in times before.
But my creek, humble as it is, can speak in many ways about the health of the natural world here. And, when I or others slow to listen to its soft song, it too can be a place of departure, if only in one's soul. Whether listening to water gurgle during spring melt, watching a water strider on a lazy summer day, being mesmerized as it carry its cargo of fallen leaves in all their Technicolor glory in autumn, or even the surpising smell of its muck that tells of the cycle of decay and rebirth that can linger on an ice-building day in winter, there are lessons to learn, and quiet to hear if one takes the time.
At least that's what I heard this evening, in the Arctic chill photographing the new ice forming on the blackboard of the cold, flowing water in a creek with no name.
Sigurd F. Olson
Wednesday, January 27, 2010
When we moved to Lincoln Road 11 years ago, in addition to three children and a cat, my wife and I counted a beagle, Simon, as a member of the family.
Being the only other male in the household, Simon and I bonded and he was my companion for many a hike or ski in the woods and forests around home and throughout Michigan. He was getting toward his senior years when we moved here, and after the first year where he'd tear out into the woods on the scent of raccoons, possum and the rare rabbit (rabbit are common closer to the lakeshore, but not here in the woods), he became quite mellow. Sure, he scatter squirrels and, with the cat, together they'd hunt chipmunks in the wood piles. Simon would bark and lunge at whatever opening he'd last seen a chipmunk dart into. Cotton, the cat, would quietly and patiently wait on the opposite side of the pile. The chipmunks invariably would exit on the side the cat was waiting, frightened by the beagle's baying and barking. Cotton would capture the unfortunate chipmunk and start to trot off. Cotton was the brains of the outfit, knowingly waiting. Simon provided the noise and bluster to drive the chipmunk out -- and always seemed quite upset that cat would get the prey, not him. Sometimes he'd grab the chipmunk from the cat, shake it violently, killing it quickly. Then he'd drop it and walk off with what looked to us -- and I try not to personify animals -- pride in his kill.
Cotton would be disgusted. She enjoys playing with -- torturing, in some ways -- her catches. Simon's execution of the chipmunk was comparatively humane.
It was a lesson of the pecking order of the animal world, and chipmunks, often find themselves in the role of prey. Hawks, owls, bobcats, foxes, coyotes all frequent our woods and all probably would kill a chipmunk given the opportunity.
The reason I thought of this today is the photo of the gnawed ends of deer bones. I placed them there maybe four or five years ago. Simon had either found a dead deer or a pile of remains in the woods somewhere on the neighbor's property. I never located it. Simon would sneak off when hungry and eat at the carcass, sometimes dragging home a leg or large bone he wanted to savor. Beagles are wonderful dogs, but their eating habits can be disgusting.
I couldn't bury or hide such treasures from him. But I found just placing them off the ground a few feet in such a location as the crook of tree, he'd leave them alone. So these two bones were lower legs and once had hooves at the ends.
I've watched them for years because mice, squirrels, chipmunks and probably porcupines will eat such bones and deer antlers. For all the deer in the woods, I've only found a couple of antlers ever, and both of them had been chewed on when I found them in the winter. Most antler drops are likely eaten the same winter.
But these two bones were left alone for years.
Today I noticed the tell-tale chew marks on what was left of them. All the bone that had protruded for years was now gone. Something had found them and found them to their liking.
Not far away another relic sat exposed to the weather. The remains of a web of a bagworm colony clung to a chokecherry sapling. In spring it was a much larger web and it crawled with the worms, first inside of it, then as they set out in search of leaves to consume, all over it. Last spring and summer experienced a large population of the worms. Their webs were seemingly everywhere one looked, especially in chokecherry that is abundant here.
For months the webs have been vacant, yet several, in various stages of deterioration can be seen in the woods, despite months of wind, rain, snow, sun and freezing and thawing.
So today these relics caught my eye. Signs of earlier seasons now gone in the woods off Lincoln Road.
Tuesday, January 26, 2010
One of the realities of this exercise of trying to make a photo a day in the yard is the reality I must balance it with my real job -- a job that can keep me away from the yard from sun-up to sun-down, especially in winter.
In recent weeks, I've done a lot of my work during my lunch hour. I'm thinking what might make a photo as I drive home. Sometimes the lighting is such, I know what I want to shoot. Other times, the subject just presents itself as I walk the cleared paths and drive. Therein is another problem. There's been enough snow this winter, I can't take the time to put on snowshoes and roam the yard at lunch; that just takes too long. So often, I'm seeking from an old snowshoe path, a shoveled path, or off the driveway. I have to save the rest of the yard for days when there is more time to dress for the weather and put on snowshoes to handle the snow.
Today, time was extremely short. I couldn't identify a subject as I drove home. The light was kind of flat, which limits possibilities, and the walk to retrieve mail didn't present an idea of an opportunity.
So as I stood at the kitchen window eating a hastily made sandwich, I looked at the yard. Squirrels were starting to gather. Maybe, I thought, they'd be an opportunity. Then, out of seemingly nowhere, about six male tufted titmice arrived and swooped to the feeder.
Seeing a tufted titmouse isn't unusual; they're a common visitor to the feeders. To see a half-dozen males at once, however, isn't a daily occurrence here.
I grabbed the camera, put on a 200 mm lens, an extender, and tried to capture the action from inside. I don't like shooting through the window, but sometimes it must be done. The titmice hung around until a woodpecker arrived and pushed them out. They hung out in the maple tree nearby for a while, then left.
In a way we all had lunch together, separately, and quickly.
Some days are like that.
Monday, January 25, 2010
To walk up the drive over the hill this evening is to risk one's life and limb. It's a mixture of textured ice and black ice -- the kind that can remove all friction between feet and earth and send one tumbling to the ground. If one's pride alone gets hurt in such a tumble, no harm is done. Too often, though, serious injury can result.
I questioned the wisdom of walking the drive this evening when I attempted to take a step into the middle of it two-thirds of the way to the crown of the slight hill.
There was nothing to hold my foot in place. As soon as I put any weight on it, it started to slide downhill.
So I stood there doing some bizarre winter dance -- tap, tap, tap with one foot -- while the other tried to keep in contract with the edge of a snow bank to act as a brake.
The absurdity and peril of the situation struck me as I pushed off the braking foot and hop-scotched in a manner to the other side, momentarily sliding down the hill in the process.
Why did the photographer cross the road?
To get to the other side.
Not a good reason for not a good move.
The rain-softened ice and puddled water has refrozen, slicker than ever. I should have strapped ice cleats on to my boots. If new snow doesn't fall tonight, that may be part of the outdoors wardrobe Tuesday.
Down at the creek, the water was higher. The ice shelves either melted or were swept away by the rain water and snowmelt.
In th swamp I was taken by a shape in the ice. It looked ghostlike -- a soul frozen in place while trying to break free of the earth and soar.
As winter progresses cabin fever can set in, and such forms could take on sinister -- or comical -- meanings as the winter-weary person looks to while away the days until warmth returns.
I'm not there yet. I'm hoping enough snow falls to make skiing and snowshoeing comfortable.
My cure when I feel myself slipping into cabin fever, is to get out and enjoy the winter and the world.
There's almost always something to study, to observe, or to enjoy. In the sky, in the woods, in the creek or trapped in ice in the swamp -- the ghost of the Lincoln River lagoon.
Sunday, January 24, 2010
Light rain and temperatures above 40 did what an army of snow couldn't: It reduced our big feather tick of a comforter of snow, to a dense, heavy but much thinner blanket of wet, debris-littered snow. The mixture of rain and melt meant we had puddles of standing water and rivulets of running water.
I welcome such developments in March. In January, I accept it, but know it only means the next round of cold and snow will seem more bitter and biting because of this false spring known as the January thaw. And I enjoy winter. For those who don't the coming cold and snow will be even worse.
Tonight, driving by the lakes, still frozen but now with a surface of trapped water, I hoped the freeze would come quickly and initially with little wind or snow. It would be best if the lakes refroze with glassy, hard ice before snows return. One could enjoy skating on them then. Lake skating is such a different experience than indoor rink skating. When conditions are right one can skate for miles on some of our lakes. Or, one can create a pond a play hockey. My fingers are crossed for this to happen. Then the thaw would have provided a recreational service as well as shrink mounds of snow.
If beavers are the civil engineers of the natural world, we northern humans who live in areas where the snow and ice create their own dams that turn normally well-drained areas into little lakes on days such as this, play civilian Corps of Engineers workers.
But instead of building dams such as beavers do, we're chipping ice ditches to create channels to allow ponded water to drain off before it refreezes some place where it isn't wanted.
Today's pond was two inches deep where I park my truck. I don't want that spot to become a skating rink and, after finally freeing the compact car from the snow and ice grip on its not-so-good tires Saturday, I didn't want to risk a hard freeze that lock it or the truck to the ground with solid ice.
So I channeled through the ice build up using a spud designed for chipping out holes for ice fishing. It made quick work of the first inch or so of soft ice. Below that the ice was still solid since the ground is frozen solid. That took more chipping. But eventually the water began trickling out, then flowing out, and for a while racing out. Until slush buildup slowed it again.
Tonight the puddle that was larger than my truck was now down to a 3 by 3 area that won't present serious problems if it freezes.
Litter from months of bark and branches falling out of trees only to be hidden by snow now peppers the yard.
And the moss and lichens on the trees turned bright shades of green with rain and moist air.
I encountered at least one bug outside on a wall. (Saturday, a spider was moving about under some wood I moved in the woodpile.)
Walking is treacherous on the water-covered ice. The skis will sit now until the snow dries and firms a bit -- and hopefully a few inches of new snow comes to give the needed control.
But for today, our precipitation was in the form of rain and some of our snow melted into liquid water. That's the January thaw. Here today. Gone tomorrow?
Mellow and mild
Saturday, January 23, 2010
Rain is predicted for tonight, and the mildness of the day would say that is possible. Late in the day a brisk wind kicked up from the east. Could be the predicted rain cycling in on.
My goal for the day was to beat the rain. I photographed early, concerned light would fail as the day progressed. By late in the afternoon the grayness seemed to deepen, but by then I was ice fishing on Hamlin Lake, my back to the wind and eyes to the west.
Worried what the rain would mean to the hard pack, almost iced snow in walkways and on my path from the woodpiles to the basement door where I load in the wood for the stove, I decided to make sure I had at least a 3-4 day supply in the basement. Cold is supposed to follow the rain, and that, in turn is predicted to be followed by snow. Snow would mean traction again -- if there's an inch or more. So I wanted enough wood down below not to have to deal with the rain or ice the following day.
That, in turn, got me thinking. I've been pulling wood out from beneath an overhang on my outbuilding much of December and all of this month. That left it two-thirds empty. So, the prospect of an inch of rain on a load of drying oak sitting in the open next to the nearly empty covered area, motivated me to split and stack a couple weeks worth so it further season and stay dry when needed later in the winter.
Many around here feel as if winter is over. We've not had any snow for more than a week -- after having snow daily for weeks. The sun was up all of Friday. Today from noon until dark, we were above freezing. I split wood in shirtsleeves, kept warm by the exertion.
You know it's mid-winter when the temperature reaches 36 or 37 degrees and you feel it's warm enough to shed your coat. It happens every year though. This is as mild as it's been for awhile.
As I pulled wood from the one pile to split and restack, the missing wood left behind an arch of snow that was once on it. Melting had broken the seal between the wood and the snow. So when I removed the wood, the snow remained.
Down at the creek, the ice shelves I photographed exhibit that same bit of suspended existence. They formed on cold days and nights when the creek was flowing a bit higher. As the water subsided, the ice remained suspended above it.
Such little ice shelved always have intrigued the photographer within me. They are like little worlds onto themselves.
The time I spent outside added up: photography; wood splitting, stacking and lugging; ice fishing; more splitting and stacking; a cross-country ski through the neighboring woods. I figure I spent 6 hours outside today, and never felt cold.
But it's taken it's toll and the yawns are increasingly hard to stifle.
Time to snooze. Will I wake up to rain? Or could we get lucky and might that system miss us?
Tomorrow we'll know.
Too much office time
Friday, January 22, 2010
I'll keep this as brief as the time I was able to spend in the yard today.
A nearly 12-hour work day meant, all the promise of enjoying a beautiful day outdoors promised by the early light this morning, never bore fruit. Work got in the way.
When I arrived home about 7:30 p.m., the moon has almost directly overhead. And while it offered light to the outdoors enough to create shadows, it was very dark, indeed.
But I'll count as a blessing seeing the moon and the stars and enjoying through the one newsroom window at work, a fine sunset in the distance over unseen Lake Michigan.
Rain is predicted for late Saturday and Sunday. It's one of those Michigan tricks: a beautiful week followed by a wet weekend.
Kind of like a lot of our summers -- all the more reason not to have too many work days like today's.
All things bright and...
Thursday, January 21, 2010
This January thaw hasn't been much of a thaw -- and I'm OK with that. The high temperature again peaked at about 33 degrees. Very little melting occurred. It seems like snow and ice, where they are shrinking, are disappearing rather than melting. Most bare spots in the yard are dry. Even the snow, as it ices over from the bright sun, is dry, meaning it's not slushy. The low this morning was around 10 degrees F, meaning ice built on local lakes, snow and ice in the yard refroze.
This evening, after shooting the crescent moon high overhead before sunset, and photographing skim ice in the creek, I skied the woods and property lines to the east. There's enough crust my skis rarely sunk more than an inch into the foot or more of snow still blanketing the woods. But it was slower going than I thought it'd be. The snow, while not slushy on top, and not sticky, was just crunchy and giving enough to brake the skis a bit. It was like driving a car with an emergency brake on. I kind of lurched through the woods, working harder than I thought it would. There was enough speed going down hills -- in fact care was needed to make sure there was room enough on hills easy to ski in soft snow to turn or stop on the faster, harder snow.
The woods is full of deer sign -- a bedding area, trails, scrapes where they dug for acorns. They must still be pretty nocturnal, because I don't see them, though several deer paths led right through our lower yard. There were squirrel tracks and a meandering set of what I believe are fox tracks, checking out thickets and potential hiding places for smaller animals. Fox and coyote are common here, but seeing them is still a treat. The tracks tell me that chance is still present.
Overnight the stars were bright in the dark sky. The moon is set by 11 p.m., probably earlier. The dark sky, free of moisture, lets the starlight shine clearly.
There's not much wind, so I spent time looking at the Big Dipper and other constellations. For years, I nightly checked the sky hoping to see northern lights. Often I was rewarded. But we're in a quiet time for the lights here. I've only seen a few small shows in the past year -- none of the gaudy brilliance to make me run for the camera.
But I keep looking. There are rewards enough in soaking in the starry stream of the
Wednesday, January 21, 2010
That the days are getting longer is easy to see. Tonight the sky in the west was tinged with the crimson reds of a sunset and light clouds. It was almost 6 p.m. Leaving for work, there is a hint of light in the east by 7:45 a.m.
Gotta love it.
I split wood after work to enjoy the last half hour of sunlight. Crisp, cold, clear it would have been a fine evening for skiing, but a flu or cold bug I can't shake, plus lack of sleep after two nights of attending hours long public meetings on an offshore wind farm proposal here, left my energy sapped. Skiing on the icy crust requires full concentration since stopping and turning isn't easy. I didn't have that sharpness tonight. Maybe tomorrow.
But I enjoyed the sunset. Twice cars on Lincoln Road honked as they passed by. They didn't see me. I suspect the neighborhood deer were on the road. Last night they left fresh tracks that took off in a run when between my coming home at 5:30 and leaving again for the meeting at 6:15. Tonight, I was outside and that probably kept them out of the yard. The sound of the wedge splitting the wood resounded in the quiet.
I don't do much hand-splitting. Most of the time I use an elderly friend's homemade splitter that has few decades of use on it. It's basic, but effective.
I was working tonight on a pile of oak, beach and ash from the neighbor's woods that I gathered in late fall. Dennis cut the trees in spring. Some of the wood he cut into firewood size. Some of the oak was long dead. I moved and piled it just before the snow arrived. The first of the pieces are burning in the wood stove now, and seem plenty seasoned.
The beauty of hand splitting wood is in figuring out the grain so that the wedge splits through it with ease. With a piece of gnarly oak, that rarely happens and sometimes I'll just toss those in a pile for the mechanical splitter to deal with.
Properly sized up, though, one can split a load of wood for a day or two in 15 minutes or so. It's great exercise after a day in the office. I've been known to personalize a piece of wood before slamming the wedge in. If somebody really frustrated or infuriated me during the day, it's a harmless form of release.
One warms quickly splitting while sucking in the fresh air. Skiing is more fun, but tonight splitting wood fit the bill.
Tuesday, January 19, 2010
One could walk fairly easily on the yard and around the yard today, thanks to a crust on the snow that mostly supported my weight. At times like this -- especially if another inch or two of fresh snow falls -- skiing can be a joy.
But I had no time for that. So I walked the yard, enjoying the snowscapes that are evolving as the snow melts, compacts and refreezes. It reminds of the Cappadocia region of Turkey, an area of white stone smoothed and worked by the wind like wood is turned in a lathe. Only this is more temporary and could change by tomorrow.
Inset in the snow are leaves that have melted down due to collecting the solar heat of the sun. They, in essence, burn their shape into the snow. Several were inset a quarter to a half-inch in the snow, framed at the edges by iced crystals in the snow with a pattern cut out in the shape of the leaf.
Birds discovered berries that have survived so far on a maple leaf virburnum. The evidence was in the wine-colored stained snow beneath the shrub.
At the creek, blue skies reflected on the water and grasses again show at the edges, thanks again to solar energy and the heat of the water flowing by.
Last night in bed I was bitten by a mosquito. Where did that come from? It was 20-25 degrees outside? I swatted another one in the house tonight.
Undoubtedly there are the most micro of microclimates at the edges of the open water in the swamp where the black ooze of the muck warms far more than the ambient temperature of the air. But mosquitoes in January in Michigan? Didn't seem possible, but there they were.
Tonight I walked the drive to the newspaper tube to get out today's Ludington Daily News. The drive is hard ice tonight. It's slippery and one had to step carefully to find softer snow edges or frosty parts of the drive with enough bite to prevent slipping.
The January thaw is supposed to continue, but today it made more crust than mush in the snow-covered yard.
Good day, sunshine
Monday, January 18, 2010
Dawn was brightening the eastern horizon as I left for work this morning before 8 a.m. Being clear, the light flowed around the trees like colored water around flat twigs on a piece of watercolor paper.
It was a promise the sun would shine after being hidden by haze for a few days. Heading south to Ludington, I could see the shroud of fog hanging over the Pere Marquette Lake and Ludington harbor of Lake Michigan. I pass three lakes on my way to work in a short 10 minute drive. First is the South Bayou of Hamlin Lake and some days my first detour is the bayou sits to the east of the road and the sunrises can be phenomenal on what is a small and humble body of water. But the sun can make it into a scene of glory in the morning. Today, it was too early and though light, it was very subdued. A lone ice fisherman using a Coleman-type lantern did add an element of photo interest.
Down the way on M-116 one crosses a causeway at Lincoln Lake and a bridge over Lincoln River. Other days this is the detour spot. It's bigger than the bayou, but often overlooked amidst the wealth of water we have here. In the mornings, though, it too can by celestial in light. It often is home to waterfowl, sometimes eagles, sometimes fishermen or kayakers adding other elements of interest. But it was early as I crossed the Lincoln Lake bridge, too.
The third lake is the Stearns Park beach of Lake Michigan. In summer, it's jammed with families and sunbathers and picnickers. In winter, it's lined with snow fence and drifts of snow and sand, a cold and imposing spot -- but one that offers nationally acclaimed views of some of the best sunsets you'll ever see. In mornings, since the lake lies to the west of the road, it's light is more subtle a beauty that isn't as boisterous as in the evening.
But today the shroud of fog over Pere Marquette Lake -- one block south of my usual route to work -- beckoned me for the detour. I photographed the 400-plus foot carferry SS Badger at its dock with an eerie pre-sunrise light filtering through a very light fog.
Then it was off to work. Heading home at lunch, the bright sun warmed snow melting it. The surface was becoming crusty with ice -- ice that reflected a cold, bright light.
And icicles were reappearing along the roof line as the sun warmed the snow on the roof, melting it until it hit the cold air at the eaves where the sun's warmth was no longer being held.
The birds and squirrels were out, too, seeming to enjoy the sun.
I shot my photos, retraced my route to town past a bright white South Bayou, and approaching Lincoln Lake I saw that a cloud was about to envelope Ludington. At Lincoln Lake the light was diminished. A mile later at Lake Michigan, the world was cloudy and gray. It stayed that way for the rest of the day.
The ? days of winter
Sunday, January 17, 2010
If mid-July to mid-August represent the dog days of summer, from now through July must have its own designation. At the lakeshore, it might be the gull days since they sit languidly, pointed into the wind, riding chunks of ice on the slushy shore of Lake Michigan.
In the yard it might be the dove days. They, too, sit around in trees and just chill. Not much is moving. It's gray and quiet. It's a stillness that amplifies all the noise of the world. Cars can be heard coming down the road from half mile or more, building in noise until they shoot by the yard.
Neighborhood dogs barking raise a bit of racket. I hear a few kids playing. That's a good sound. I hear a parent urging a young child inside who wanted to stay out and play. I was rooting for the kid.
I hear snowmobiles in the distance. Life in northern Michigan.
I sit in a blind hoping birds visit the feeders. They don't.
I hear crows in the distance. Here birdie, birdie. They don't come.
I hear doves in the swamp. Here birdie, birdie. Eventually a few come.
They hang in a tree, uncertain it seems of the blind. They stare at it. I'm not moving or making noise. But they come no closer. As the light fades, first one flies off. Then the other two.
I'm left alone in the blind on a gray evening in the quiet of my backyard listening to cars rush by, watching the gray deepen as the dew point is reached and a hint of fog, mixed near the blind from smoke from the woodstove, descends like a ghostly gauze.
In essence, I'm sitting and waiting like the gulls on the ice boats in the slush of the lake or the doves in the branches of a tree. Waiting ... but for what?
Cheaper by the dozen?
Saturday, January 16, 2010
Awaking late this morning after working at the paper into the A.M., upon looking out into the yard I was greeted by 12 to 15 squirrels jostling for position on the bed of spilled seed beneath the feeders.
For weeks snow fell so regularly that any spilled seed was quickly covered in snow. The thaw of the past few days -- which paused today as the sun never cut through the gray haze and the thermometer barely broke reached the freezing mark -- exposed a bed of black oil sunflower seeds the messy finches knocked out of the feeder but didn't eat.
This smorgasbord of seed attracted the feeding frenzy by the herd (?) of squirrels. It was difficult getting an accurate count because they'd dip down beneath the terraced soil leading to the lower yard. And they didn't sit still. These were fast-food squirrels, eating, moving, jumping, darting, but rarely sitting still. They kept it up until late morning.
The finches arrived as did the other small birds such as nuthatches and chickadees and they had their own swirling, darting mass feeding frenzy. About noon the mourning doves moved in. But they mainly sat in the maple tree next to the feeders. I counted 36 at one point. Three dozen isn't a record. One year more than 50 sat in the tree during a light falling of snow and after about 30 minutes all had a light covering of snow on them. I've been waiting for that to happen this winter, but so far when the birds are there, the snow isn't. And when the snow is the doves, haven't been.
As I photographed them through a patio door from inside, knowing I had no chance of sneaking up on them outside, I was surprised by how closely some kept on an eye on me even inside. On several occasions, a bird would stare directly at me, cock its head this way, that way, and so on for more than a minute. It could see a shape in the window, but with no light behind me, my movements, as careful as they were, were masked by the shadows of the room.
After 20 or 30 minutes of watching and making images of the doves, I went out the front door of the house. That noise -- on the other side of the house from the feeder -- was all it took for the doves to take flight to the swamp where they spend much of their time in trees, or down by the open water.
I pondered over why on this day did the squirrels, finches and doves arrive by the literal dozen.
The still mild weather, even if not warm, must be the cause.
A piece of paradise, by comparison
Friday, January 15, 2010
The pictures of devastation and horror that is the tragedy of the Haitian earthquake aftermath are a chilling reminder of the forces of nature hidden mostly from our view. Our sense of time and place is on a different scale than the world operates. We look for change by the day, week, month or year -- or sometimes hours and minutes. The world operates on geologic time. Forces build within the earth's crust for centuries. Then, as this week in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, the cause a fault line to slip and change the world for those residing in the locale.
Here in Ludington, earthquakes are a rare event, indeed.
Michigan, according to the U.S. Geologic Survey, http://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/states/michigan/history.php,
has recorded earthquakes from 1811-12 on, generally tremors resulting from shifts elsewhere. Though from 1872-1883 some moderate earthquakes were centered in Michigan. The Keewenaw Peninsula in Michigan's Upper Peninsula experienced what the USGS terms "unusual occurrences" were recorded, both involving reported explosions and shocks felt throughout the peninsula that juts into western Lake Superior.
Chimneys and plaster in buildings throughout southern Michigan as far north as Muskegon -- 60 miles south of here -- were damaged in an Aug. 9, 1947 quake.
One I remember as a child occurred Nov. 9, 1968 in Illinois but was felt through 23 state including southern Michigan where I was raised.
At the Center for Earthquake Research and Information (CERI) site of recent quakes for the Central United States, http://folkworm.ceri.memphis.edu/recenteqs/Quakes/quakes.big.html, a listing contains more than 30 reported quakes of magnitude 3 or larger since July, 2009 including two today (one 3.8, another 4.) in Arcadia, OK and one there yesterday.
So quakes happen, but most of us aren't affected and most are mild, notable mostly in the location that experienced it.
Today in the woods off Lincoln Road, nothing shook, other than rattling beech leaves when a hint of a breeze momentarily stirred. It was quiet, peaceful and a monotone of grays -- no real bright whites, no deep, obsidian blacks.
I snowshoed the upper yard, taken again by lichen and moss on trees. A blue jay heckled me from a far, but a contractor replacing an inefficient and now broken window, kept the birds away.
It was a scene as restful as the images coming out of Haiti are painful.
A lot people don't like snow and cold. Looking at the devastation in Haiti, my chunk of this plant, socked in with snow and experience the traditional January thaw, seemed like paradise in comparison.
Thursday, January 14, 2010
Drip. Drip. Drip.
It's the sound of today along with, splash, splash, squish.
The wintry conditions have given way for now to a January thaw. Snow is quickly compacting.
The icicles that dangled from the eaves fell today. They lie in pile of snow, slush and wet ice crystals behind bushes in front of the house. The driveway hard pack is turning soft. The swamp is releasing the smells of decay from the moist zone beneath the snow. Wherever water oozes, sits or flows, the snow is darkening, melting giving way to black holes -- a microcosm of glacial melt, kind of.
The deer have rediscovered the back yard making their rounds at night of the edges of the yard, the ground beneath the feeder, and the hillside.
Snowshoeing still is now the easiest way to walk through the yard, swamp and woods. The webbed shoes hold one above the wet, dense snow that would give way beneath a boot.
Fog is predicted. The warm air passing over snow and still frozen ground -- the frost arises overnight and makes the drives and bare spots bright with crystals by morning -- creates the fog. There wasn't much tonight, but perhaps tomorrow.
In the meantime, I can stand on the porch and hear little stirring. But the snow above sings the song of the January thaw, one-two--three-drip, one-two-three-drip, one-two-three drip.
Wednesday, January 13, 2010
The temperature hung around freezing today. A predicted thaw should take real hold tomorrow. Today, the 32-ish degree temperatures meant roads reappeared as brine poured on in the cold spell now worked. It meant the many inches of fluffy snow is settling quickly -- not melting, just compacting under its own weight as it softens and slumps.
It means dirt, sand and blackened and crusty snow hidden by fresh snow will reappear.
In the yard, it means the packed snow is quickly getting slippery in the drive and paths. Beneath the bird feeders, the sloppiness of the birds becomes apparent as fallen seed and discarded sunflower shells blacken the ground.
I've been studying the wood piles now that its mid-January. This is when you know if you have put up enough to make it through the winter heating season. We have plenty and have stacked already a good start on the 2010-11 winter. That's fine by me. I'd like to get a full year ahead, and with more than five trees cut in fall or to be cut by spring already offered to me if I'll collect the wood, this could be the year I get a full year ahead of the collecting curve. It's a lot of work, but the reward is on dark nights like tonight when one can keep tossing wood on the fire to add cheer in addition to warmth. On such a night, having plenty of split, seasoned wood is a luxury to indulge in.
One of the curious things I saw today in the yard took place above me. A male red-bellied woodpecker landed in an oak I was walking beneath. It was soon joined by another male, quickly leading to a mini-confrontation before one bird left. From below, the red spot on their belly that gives them their name is easier to spot. I haven't seen a lot of red-bellieds at the feeder this year, so this proved a treat on a day where not much was happening when home.
If the thermometer nears 40, as predicted, tomorrow. A lot could quickly happen. The icicles will either grow or fall. More vegetation will reemerge. The creek should rise, though it's difficult to tell anymore now that it has been "improved." And bugs will reappear. I'm always amazed at how quickly bugs reappear once the temperature goes above freezing.
They say the only thing that stays the same is that things will change.
The change could come with the thaw once it arrives.
Birds of a feather
Tuesday, January 12, 2010
Checking on the mail at lunch I was greeted by a raucous chorus of mixed calls from crows and blue jays. They were bunched up in an avian confab at the top of some oaks at the edge of Lincoln Road a couple hundred feet south of the drive. It didn't seem as if they were fighting, but they might have been jawing at each other.
As I reached the mailbox, the crows took off heading south and a squadron of blue jays screamed across Lincoln into the woods at the south side of the yard.
It was fairly mild at noon, with little wind and temperatures in the high 20s. Birds were quite active. Down below the deck I noticed the patio, dusted only lightly with blown snow, was tracked up. Many finch tracks. Probably some junco. And the dominant track at one edge were those of the jays. All are down below cleaning up seed dropped by the finches that feed on Niger seed above. A second feeder has a mix of seeds, including corn, sunflowers, millet and a bit of niger seed. The mix does seem to bring more birds, such as the jays.
Late this evening, just before a ski through the woods at dusk, the mourning doves gathered below the feeder and in the oaks in the lower yard beyond. There were dozens of them. Most quietly sat on bare branches looking like targets for some old shooting game. I'm amazed at how wary these birds are -- perhaps in their blood they sense they could be targets again, but for a law in Michigan prohibiting dove hunting.
I remember a couple years ago, finding a dove executed by a sharp-shinned hawk at a feeder on the deck. The dove had a single rivulet of blood from a head wound. The sharp-shinned lay nearby, dead too. It had slammed into the glass patio door undoubtedly at some insane speed since its attack, execution of the dove and its own untimely death happened in a space of a few feet and matter of a second. I heard the thud against the window. I saw a wire deer -- the one in the photo today buried under a snow drift -- beheaded in the violence of the episode. Next I saw the dove, then the hawk. I was awed by its precision and beauty, saddened by its death at my door. I wrapped the hawk’s body and took it to the naturalist at Ludington State Park who froze it for possible inclusion in displays. I'm a board member of Friends of Ludington State Park and for many years we’ve paid for the taxidermy on such specimens that were found dead. Many mounts populated the park's visitor center where park guests could see up close the species that call the park home. Last winter snow collapsed a roof at the center. Now the mounts are in storage.
This is a long way of saying, even if humans in Michigan aren't hunting doves, other creatures are.
Today the birds seemed to travel and gather in flocks. Is it a sign of the moderating weather? A thaw is in the forecast for the coming days, maybe weeks. It's a bit early for my taste, but there's nothing one can do but take what winter gives us.
Evening fell with highlighted colors in the clouds. It was after 6 p.m. before it got dark, and it didn't get very dark until after 6:30 p.m. The days are lengthening. We're approaching mid-winter and the January thaw. In fact, it might be as cold in Florida today as it is here. I won't bet our snowbirds will flock back to Michigan soon, though.
Monday, January 11, 2010
A book I'm reading was on my mind today as I walked between the now-more than knee-deep banks of snow along the driveway and paths I keep clear of snow. One not only has to get in and out of the driveway and the house, but keeping clear a path to the wood piles by the outbuilding is necessary to feed the basement wood stove. We have one emergency parking spot at the top of the small hill in the driveway that from now through the end of the spring thaw is critical to keep clear. Sooner or later the hill will turn into a skating rink. Driving up it isn't easy, and for some vehicles with poor tires, going up will prove impossible. And what goes up must go down and stopping isn't so good sometimes either. Thus, I keep the hilltop spot clear, better safe than stuck or unable to stop, depending if you're trying to go up or down.
What I was really thinking about beyond the predicted thaw later this week was a chapter I read in a new University of Michigan Press book, "The Changing Environment of Northern Michigan," edited by Knute J. Nadelhoffer, Alan J. Hogg, Jr., and Brian A. Hazlett.
It's a collection of reports on "A Century of Science and Nature at the University of Michigan Biological Station" at Douglas Lake near Petoskey.
As often is the case, such scholarly books make me feel a bit overwhelmed, lacking in any depth of knowledge, and totally in awe of the natural world outside my -- and your -- doors.
In particular I marveled at the simple mosses and lichen that most of us hardly see at all, and, if we do notice, we assume something's amiss because there's moss in a yard or lichens on a tree or rock.
The chapter by James P. Bennett providing an overview of lichens, which he defines as "small, interesting plantlike organisms that consist of a fungus (chap. 6) and an alga (chap. 8) living together symbiotically. They occur almost everywhere ...," got my attention.
For the next six pages plus a paragraph he provides an overview of common lichens in Michigan, which is home to about 800 species of lichen. 800? Wow. Think about that. Eight hundred species of a type of organism most of us never even take a second look at. Yet there's a whole science to it, and biologists have spent careers specializing in the study of lichens.
The reason I couldn't get it out of my head Monday, is when I looked to the yard, just about every oak tree there and in the woods in sight, had lichens on their bark. It's mid-winter, we crossed the 50-inch mark for total snowfall so far this season today. The world is mostly white, gray or black -- except the lichens on the trees show several shades of pale green, yellow-green and blue-green. The only other greens are from the conifers.
I struggle to learn bird species and tree species and plant species. And then I find out there 800 types of lichens in Michigan, about half of which are in lower Michigan.
The next chapter, Mosses of Northern Michigan by William R. Buck further deflates any sense that I'm beginning to "know" this thing called the natural world. There are about 430 known species of moss in Michigan. I'd need another life to learn all them. I know beneath all that snow is a green carpet of moss that I call my yard. To me it is moss -- plain and simple. Which of the 430 species, I couldn't tell you. But I'll find out this spring when the snow melts at the upper and lower yard regain their mossy green carpet that passes for my "lawn."
The rest of this evening I spent replacing a gear shaft on my snowblower, and then an hour or more clearing the latest lake-effect snow.
But I know I'm not alone when I'm out there. Lichens all around me. And moss is beneath the snow, just waiting for the moisture contained within the nearly three feet of white crystals to be released when the air warms.
I'll have to get more acquainted when Spring comes.
Wind out of the west
Sunday, January 10, 2010
There was a hint of a red sky at dawn this morning. Shortly after 8 it bloomed into a sky with red-hued clouds in the south east. It didn't last long. I tried to hurry a shot, but nothing good came of it.
The adage, "red sky in morning, sailors take warning" came to mind.
Saturday would be hard to duplicate. Sunday started out fine. What would it hold?
For one thing, a brisk wind came up by mid-morning and grew throughout the day. There was no precipitation, but by afternoon a sailor on Lake Michigan would have had his hands full as the like was riled up in mess of whitecaps with wind blowing the froth off of them.
Here in the yard, the noise of the wind in the woods is the most notable sign. We're in slight hollow and the worst of the wind, especially if out of the west, slides across the tops of the trees, but doesn't hit with full force normally here at ground level.
So it was the noise of the wind, and the clatter of the brittle beech leaves still clinging on to some branches that one mostly heard.
There was still plenty of sun, still a lot of blue skies, though clouds did build all day.
The birds were up early. These days the mourning doves are the first at the feeder. I haven't seen the cardinals in weeks. Often, when here, they'd feed early and late. Now that's the doves' domain.
The finches still dominate the population. Today, a crow checked out the yard repeatedly. They're smart birds, watchful and interesting to watch and listen to. This one mostly hung out above the swamp, at least once coming to the feeder, before retreating. I couldn't tell if it took any food. Last spring the crows were common guests. I'm betting this one will be back and he/she won't be alone.
I thought for sure this would be the day the icicles fell. Sunny, windy and the darn things are getting big as the snow above slumps further off the roof. I debated knocking them down. One if it fell freakishly right (wrong?) could hit a window. I'm not sure which would prove the stronger, the ice or the pane of glass. I hope I don't find out.
This afternoon skiing at Ludington State Park I got off the maintained ski trail and skied along my favorite trail at the 5,000 acre park on Lake Michigan. The Ridge Trail follows the spine of a sand dune ridge in the woods for miles. It offers good views of the adjoining swales and interdunal valleys. Years ago a microburst with straight line winds hit a few of those low valleys just right flattening most of the trees in a tangle of timber that suggested violence more akin to that of a large bomb. I've often wondered how much power it took to pummel what had been a heavily wooded valley, mostly protected from the worst of winds, into a mass of fallen trees, twisted limbs, and newly opened space. For years, it was difficult to walk through. Time heals such wounds and today those spots are curious and large openings in the woods. Small white pines are starting to reclaim it for the world of trees, even as the largest logs still rot in place. What had looked like slender specimens of beech and oak are starting to grow and mature, undoubtedly growing more fully by taking advantage of the sunlight they didn't get before. I always look for animals from the Ridge Trail. I've seen deer, porcupine, fox, eagles, squirrels, barred owls, pileated woodpeckers over the years. Today, all I saw was a red-headed woodpecker. I haven't seen any in the yard for more than a year, so I was glad to see this specimen. It clung to a tree using the trunk as a windbreak, it seemed. It just sat there. It didn't check for food, it didn't fly off. It just sat as if thankful the tree was blocking the wind.
Leaving the park along M-116 which runs along the lake through dunes, sand and snow swirled. The wind off the lake was fierce, blowing mocha-colored drifts of mixed sand and snow across the two lanes of pavement. Whitecaps crashed on sandbars. The sun glinted to the west when it broke out of the clouds. If you want to know wind chill, walk a Great Lakes beach in the face of such a wind on a 20-degree day. It will test your mettle, for sure.
Back home, the noise of the wind still was the main sign that the adage had been correct. It was no day for sailing on the lake. But there was still a degree of light at 6 p.m., here on the western edge of the Eastern Time Zone. Maybe the wind blew it there.
Saturday, January 9, 2010
Today is about as good as it gets in winter, and that's pretty good.
Clear skies, 20 degrees F, no wind, knee-deep snow. It was perfect for just about any outdoor winter activity you could dream of.
From the sunrise to the sunset, it was a fine day. I snowshoed and photographed the creek this morning. The warmish looking light rays masked the fact the temperature than was in the teens.
It was still out. Birds were singing, not a spring song, but far more than I've heard all winter.
At the creek, the clear water and blackish bottom made for fine reflections. The snow-covered tangle trees and limbs in the creek were turned into lumpy sculptures of snow atop the black obsidian of the flowing water. And color, ever so subtle, was warmed by the slanting rays of the light.
There are no signs of deer. I'm not sure where they have gone. I do notice some tracks between our property and the Gensons to the south, on their side of the line, but even those are few.
I expected to hear hawks hunting, but didn't in the yard.
Shortly afternoon we snowshoed at the Mason County Campground, closed for winter. It's south of Ludington near the pumped storage power plant and I don't recall ever having gone through it, especially not on foot. With the start of the year came a new role for me as a member of the county's parks commission. I want to see public access to rivers expanded and more public sites developed in the center of the county since there is little public access to our great streams such as the Pere Marquette River and the lesser known Lincoln, Sable and Pentwater Rivers. I've been warned many on the commission think the campground is the main role of their work. I thought it was time to see it for myself.
It's a nice site, wooded and rich in hemlock, beech, oak and maple. There we saw deer. A small herd seems to be camping there since people aren't. There we heard and saw a hawk hunting. And I saw something I don't recall seeing before: Icicles hanging from branches of the hemlock. My wife asked if they were sap icicles -- those I've seen in spring when the sap runs and freezes overnight. No, these were just icicles dripping off melting snow piled high on boughs.
Later, a visit to Lake Michigan showed dramatically how the lake makes its own weather sometimes. Large clouds hung on the lake -- lake effect snow clouds that on this still day didn't come on shore.
Pere Marquette Lake had ice fishermen watching tip-ups for pike. Shanties dotted it, Lincoln and Hamlin lakes. Back at home, I lugged firewood to the basement for the wood stove, filled bird feeders and watched the clouds turn colors as the sun set.
What did we accomplish today? Nothing and everything. We soaked up sun, stomped through snowy woods, and mentally recharged in case the clouds close in again.
In short, for a winter day, it was pretty much perfection.
Hanging in there
Friday, January 8, 2010
Darkness had already consumed the light I sought for photography by the time I arrived home this evening. A tiny hint of inky bluish tint remained in the cloudy sky making me think of seeking a tree with interesting limbs to shoot using a long exposure. Could I make a composition look different from other similar shots taken when I arrived home too late for "normal" photography?
As I stepped out onto the front porch, icicles glimmering in the low light of white Christmas lights caught my eye. Quite a collections is hanging from the eaves of the house, far more than is typical here.
They make fine photo subjects, so I fired away. I was feeling good about the results when I turned to reposition my camera while standing under the eaves. Wooomph! My head and camera were baptized in snow and falling daggers of ice.
First I checked my head. No cuts, no blood, no problem.
The camera was partially packed in snow that stuck to it. Photo shoot over. Time to take it inside and dry it out.
This evening, as I thought about icicles, I came across stories of fatalities from people being struck by falling icicles in Russia. And if they don't kill you, they could give you a good cut -- or maybe even like a Red Ryder bb gun worried about in a certain Christmas movie, they could put your eye out, kid.
Yet, icicles are beautiful to look at. They form much like stalactites do in caves. Dripping water, generally from snow melted from above by the sun or heat leaking through a roof, works down the growing icicle and a little of water freezes as it drops further into the colder areas of air below the heat source. It's just physics. No magic involved.
There are some specimens on houses and buildings in the neighborhood in excess of 6 or 7 feet long right now. I wouldn't want to be hit by one of those monsters.
The temptation to become a child again and suck on an icicle like a Popsicle in summer remains, though I know there's no guarantee there's not something in the ice more than just pure water. Too many birds, too many autos, homes, wood burners and more putting emissions into the air. Just what flavor is that Icicle, really?
Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced new smog levels that would put Mason County where I live out of compliance. There are a couple of problems with the situation. The smog is mostly drifting across Lake Michigan from the urban areas of Milwaukee, Wis., or Chicago, Ill.
In other words, we're downwind and they're peeing in our air before it floats over to us. Our emissions here are not the problem, but drift brings others' dirty emissions to us.
That's a sobering thought.
In "Cold, Clear, and Deadly," (MSU Press, 2007), Melvin J. Visser presents a sound case for that kind of airborne drift and transmission carrying toxic materials from all over the globe to be deposited in places as pristine as the Arctic where persistent toxin quickly bioaccumulate in mammals. Eskimos, in villages still following the traditional lifestyle, rely heavily on marine mammals in their diets and thus have been ingesting toxins at rates far above what their bodies could handle. In essence, their food was making them sick,, thank to chemicals drifting in from afar and entering the food chain. It wasn't always that way.
Could that pretty icicle, crystal clear, hanging from the front porch of my home in the woods be harboring a toxin that's drifted in from Milwaukee or Chicago or Gary, Indiana?
Even in the midst of the beauty and quiet of a rural Michigan winter, the nagging concerns of modern life arise.
Snow is as white as white can be -- but is it pure?
An icicle is as clear as clear can be -- but is it made of truly clean water?
Tough questions that hang around -- like the icicles off the eaves of my house.
Just add color
Thursday, January 7, 2010
Another fine winter's day near Lake Michigan. Lake-effect snow clouds again keep the skies gray. Another inch or more of fresh, white snow falls intermittently. Everything has a light layer of new snow on it. More of the same is expected for the next couple days.
At work, many people are beginning to talk of light deprevation. A couple women said they thought they hit the tanning booth for some artificial sunlight. I countered it would be healthier to go for a walk, a snowshoe or a ski. They gave me the are-you-out-of-your-mind look.
But I took my advice, leaving work early to get home find a suitable photographic subject and in the hopes of visiting nearby Ludington State Park to ski the Logging Trail, a loop of several miles length that park workers maintain as a ski trail, setting a track that can make for good skiing. It did tonight.
But before hitting the ski trails, I pondered what my photo might be for the day. There's a certain sameness to these wintry days of light snow, cloudy skies and sub-freezing temperatures. One of the lessons of this project so far has been there are many times when nature hits a groove and a sameness envelops the yard. It can be in the midst of a summer heat wave, a spring rain, a cold, windy spell in autumn, or in the midst of a streak of winter.
The difference with the winter sameness is the lack of light, lack of color, lack of variety of living things about. Mostly, birds, squirrels and deer are about. I'd not be surprised to encounter possum, raccoons or skunks, either. I'd be glad to see a fox or a coyote. The same could be said for the owls that I know are around, but rarely encounter.
But most days now my choice of photo subjects are a bit constrained by low light, lack of time, deep snow and that sameness, that grayness, that lack of color that is a frequent reality of mid-winter in Michigan.
Don't get me wrong, the shades of gray can be captivating in their own way, but color is at a premium, and when a winter photographer finds it, it feels good.
Thus today's theme is found color. Most of it is man-made color, accented by white snow. A car, a truck, a snow shovel provided the color. One moss-covered oak did, too,
It's mid-winter, sometimes you just have to add color.
Wednesday, January 6, 2010
By winter standards, this was a nice day. Temperatures hovered just below freezing. Once in a while the sun broke through overcast skies. At other times snow fell, sometimes heavily.
Piles of snow are everywhere, whether moved by wind or by shovels, plows or snow blowers.
The birds have been less abundant. I can't say why.
Squirrels are tracking the fresh snow.
They kind of bound more than run or walk. They're tracks during the day pool shadows, making for grayer indentations delineating their ways of traversing the yard.
Work kept me late into the evening. It was too dark to start a ski and I was tired. I know skiing would energize me and chase away the weariness to a degree, but this evening weariness is going to win out.
Like the snow, I'm going to sit like a lump, a pile of potential deepening with each snowfall as winter progresses.
More by this Author
The scene in the front yard off the porch at 7:30 a.m. Off the back deck. The snow came from the east, as seen by the snow-plastered side of the trees. Most weather and snow here comes out of the due west. The storm...