Lincoln Road Journal, One year in the yard, June, 2010
A little surprise
Tuesday, June 15, 2010
Under graying skies, the yard today looked uneventful, unchanging. The vetch is still flowering. Bees are still feeding there. The milkweed is growing tall and healthy gaining flower pods not quite ready to bloom. Coreopsis is in bloom in the garden turning their yellow faces toward the sun as it moves across the sky.
I made several OK pictures and took stock of where I'm at on this, the final day of the 10th month of this year-long exercise in learning to see what is in my yard.
I've known for a couple weeks the doe I've been seeing acts as if it has a fawn nearby. I've watched it stomp its foot in warning. I've heard it frequently rasping out a hoarse warning generally heard in spring when fawns are near.
The doe has walked and ran off, but never far in the past few weeks.
Today I realized I still haven't seen a fawn in the yard, though I saw one south on Lincoln Road last week.
Tonight as the gray skies opened and began a light shower that would grow into a steady rain late in the evening, I looked out the patio door and saw the doe at the top of a small path leading out of the swamp. She was all eyes and ears, looking and listening, paying particular attention to the house. I told my wife and Brenda went to the kitchen window and said she saw two more deer running by the creek. Strange, I thought, this doe's been mostly on her own. But for years, we had a trio of deer visit frequently. I returned to watching the doe. She slowly walked into the yard. I changed lens on the camera to put on a fast Nikon 2.8, 200 mm that for years has been my go-to lens for low-light wildlife photography. I made one exposure, checked it out and looked back. The two other deer appeared -- a pair of spotted fawns, playful and full of energy bounding this way and that, not standing still.
The lighting was terrible and even from 150 feet the deer heard and didn't like the sound of my camera making an image. After a few moments they bounded off to the woods to the east.
As quick as they arrived, they left.
I'm fairly certain I'll see them again, hopefully with better lighting.
Still. their unsurprising surprise appearance made us humans in the house smile.
Who wouldn't like watching a pair of fawns cavort through their backyard?
On the road
Saturday, Sunday June 12-13, 2010
Spent the weekend in suburban Detroit melting while repairing a sidewalk for my mother in heat of around 90 degrees and humid conditions. It was hot, hot, hot and muggy. Coming home Sunday night, the weather cooled as I went North and West. At the Mason County line I photographed clouds in the sky. 12 miles and 15 minutes later I was in the driveway. As I stood there unpacking and talking to my wife, I heard the hoarse alert of a doe in the woods to the south. It was my wild welcome home.
Flowers in the swamp
Monday, June 14, 2010
I freed a mayflay this evening from a screen door this evening. Shot what I believe is robber fly on host earlier in the afternoon and discovered the wild iris I'd been watching in the swampy, had bloomed in my absence. They made for a few flowers of purple amidst a sea of green leaves. It was a pleasant and fleeting surprise.
Friday, June 11, 2010
A day that threatened rain off and on didn't provide much unique for the photographer in me. But again, the lesson of slowing down, letting nature come to me on its terms rather than me forcing myself to find it in a few minutes, newspaper-deadline style, paid off.
Moments before I gave up on anything unique and after working hard to get a usable and mildly interesting photos of maple leaves already changing color due to stress, I saw a dark creature fly to a fern. Quickly I knew I'd found my photo subject: a blue darner had caught my eye, the first I'd seen this year.
Quiet, heavy and dark
Thursday, June 10, 2010
Not much yard time today. A storm was moving in by the time I arrived home this evening. Darkness moved in early bringing that heavy feel that sometimes accompanies low pressure systems.
Not much was moving in the woods. I found a few bees in the roadside vetch. The monarch caterpillar is getting fat on milkweed. A few mosquitoes buzzed around. Few birds were to be seen or heard.
Just before sunset -- if you could see it -- I was down at the creek and a pair of cardinals landed nearby singing their evening song. It was too dark for a photo but I enjoyed listening to them.
The deer was nowhere to be seen or heard today.
Just a quiet evening before a rain shower.
Light and mystery
Wednesday, June 9, 2010
The light about 7 p.m. was stunning. Strongly lit from the west, it cast bright light into the swamp. The woods was mostly in shadows. Being a photographer and a desk-bound officer work, I sought the light.
I looked closely for the resident deer or ducks. I saw neither. Once at the creek, I heard the deer crashing away. It was 50 feet away and I saw it hightail it out of the swamp. How did I miss it before?
The lighting was perfect but I couldn't find a subject. Next to the old minnow pond, the grass is now tall. Duckweed covers most of the pond's surface. I figured maybe I could find a frog. And with a step closer one unseen frog launched out of the grass into the water, kicked once and cane to rest looking to the west with one eye, it seemed, planted on me.
But it paid me little to no mind from what I could tell.
The lighting was good but tricky. The dark bottom of the swamp made for a blackish background flecked with green petals of duckweed highlighted by the lowering sun which cast beams directly upon it. The frog was resting in the duckweed, wet and likewise a mix of bright green and spots of dark.
The frog, I believe it to be a leopard frog, patiently outwitted my interest in shooting it. When I left it was still resting quietly in the water.
A walk through the backyard to where I thought the deer bolted to caused me again to spook it out of cover that hid it from my view until I was within 5o feet once again. This time it stood and watched me. I ignored it for quite a while, then slowly walked to where I could get a better image. The deer watched me when it wasn't feeding on vegetation in the woods.
This deer has a curious white mark on its nose. I've been seeing it for days,
I made a dozen or so images of it before I walked away after about 10 minutes of watching it.
I left when the deer bounded another 20 feet further into the woods. It was still in sight, but it wasn't close.
The third picture today offers a clue. My wife told me she heard a ruckus in the yard when she got out of bed this morning.
By the time she could find her glasses and take a look, the sounds had moved on. But a pile of feathers showed a blue jay had probably met its demise.
But what attacked it?
I don't know. It's a mystery for now, though I'm thinking it might be the work of a hawk.
The edge of the road
Tuesday, June 8, 2010
The roadside and little garden at the end of the driveway provide fertile for photography today.
We had seen a monarch butterfly caterpillar eating the leaves of a milkweed Monday evening late.
It was too dark then for good photography, so I checked out the area today.
The caterpillar was still there, still munching on the leaves of a smallish milkweed mixed in with flowers. They're unmistakable with a banded body and their association with milkweed, their sources of nourishment. Last year I only found one monarch caterpillar. Some years we have many. The milkweed is abundant, healthy and large this year. But as I searched the many plants, almost all showed no signs of being eaten at yet and only the one solo caterpillar was to be found. The spring is yet young.
As I scoured the milkweed and roadside vetch and weeds, I was startled by a yellow spot on the white flower of a white campion. When I investigated more closely the yellow spot was a crab-like spider with red markings on its body and large front legs arrayed like a crab. It allowed me to get close to photograph it, though a couple of times it moved a bit. I noticed other spiders, less colorful, nearby. And a honeybee kept checking me out, too. I don't mind bees, but I don't like them hovering around my arms and heads when working because it's easy to accidentally excite them into action.
This one eventually left me alone.
The goldenrod spider I was photographing also is called the flower spider. I'm not sure if it's because it sits on a flower awaiting its prey -- smaller pests -- or if it's because it looks a bit like the petal of a yellow flower upon first glance.
It's considered non-harmful to humans and aids in eliminating bad bugs from the garden. I left it alone, impressed by its vibrant color.
A few minutes later in my car heading out of the driveway I had to hit the brakes. Their at the edge of the road coming up the drive were two baby raccoons.
Yes they were cute. They were kind of fumbling over each other in a manner one was suggesting the other should go first while the other thought, no, you should go first. I got out and made a few photographs. They didn't like that and started back across the road. No cars were in sight so I herded them across, leaving them resting in the high grass.
I'm sure they'll be back. And as cute as they were -- one could be forgiven for wanting to make a pet of a baby raccoon -- you have to remember they'll grow up and the cuteness is displaced. Besides, it's a wild animal and it's best left on its own to survive or to meet another end.
But all the pictures today were made within 20 feet of one another. That's pretty good diversity for such a small, mostly domesticated area of the yard at the edge of a public road.
Monday, June 7, 2010
At noon today I arrived home to find a Canadian tiger swallowtail working the flowers in a garden. It would land on a flower, sit quietly then flit off to another flower.
I was certain it was a swallowtail, but it's more dicey trying to determine if it's a Canadian tiger swallowtail or an eastern tiger swallowtail.
The Canadian tiger swallowtail is smaller and this is more likely its home range. However, the eastern tiger swallowtail sits quietly as the specimen I observed did and this would be at or just above its northern extreme of range.
Guidebooks say in such cases it's quite difficult to differentiate. The best clue to telling them apart was that the Canadian tiger swallowtail has a more continuous submarginal band of yellow on its ventral forewing. I couldn't be certain from that clue.
Nevertheless, they're close cousins and we have more of the trees the Canadian tiger swallowtail prefers including chokecherry, quaking aspen and poplar.
That evening, I decided to stalk the swamp and see what I could find. The lighting was good. The air clear, the wind out of the west. I stopped before entering the swamp and set up the camera changing to an 80-200 mmm zoom and presetting exposures so they'd be close.
A few steps later and I saw a doe grazing on the greenery of the swamp 100 feet away. I froze. The doe didn't notice me. For the next five minutes she grazed, walked slowly through the boggy eastern edge of the old minnow pond and slowly but consistently walked towards me.
I froze other than to focus, adjust settings and fire the shutter.
The doe had probably come 25 closer to me before she noticed me. At first she looked quizzically, then returned to eating. The second look was a bit longer and she only thought about returning to eating.
When she noticed my hand turn the camera to the vertical position she snorted and glared right at me. I was busted,.
She stood tall and stared intently my way, her nose working. The wind wasn't quite carrying my scent there but she increasingly acted as if she knew a human could be a threat.
Slowly, deliberately she raised one leg, then stomped it into the ground making a dull thump of a sound that was followed by a hoarse cry and snort.
After a coupe more stomps and snorts, she turned to the east and bounded off. I heard her snorting several minutes after she left. She hadn't gone far. Her actions struck me as a warning, probably to her fawn. Otherwise, she'd have bolted and run without the stomping.
It was getting dark in the woods by 9 p.m. I coaxed my wife into a ride to Lake Michigan a few miles by car away. (Maybe a mile for a bird flying direct.)
We were rewarded by a fine sunset we watched from the beach at Ludington State Park. Several clusters of campers took it in.
There was plenty to share, including an unusual angel wing shaped cloud that broke up shortly after the sun fell below the horizon. For the next several weeks, I find it best to venture to the lakeshore when the light drops in the yard. There, free of the woods, the sun will stay out an extra 45 minutes and often a fine sunset or twilight afterglow is the reward for the visit.
The deer don't mind I leave, either.
Surprise in the creek
Saturday, June 5, 2010
A beautiful morning, I decided to try the creek to see if I could spot either the fawn I know must be around or the ducks I've been scaring off without getting a photo.
One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over repeatedly and getting the same results but persisting in the hopes the results might come out differently.
With that in mind, I decided to go to the east side of the property where the creek is wilder and the path less used. It seems the ducks and deer keep watch of the main path and always see me before I see them, fleeing before I'm able to photograph them. These, it is clear, are wild deer and ducks. Not semi-tame park or suburban deer and ducks who view humans as food providers. No, these creatures view humans as predators, to be feared.
So I quietly meandered my way to the east side of the property. I scanned the creek and adjoining lowlands but saw nothing. I slid, walked down the small hill and took up a station at the edge of the property. There I watched the play of light on the clear water running by. I listened to sounds, hoping to hear the crack of a branch under a deer's foot or the snort of a deer communicating with its fawn.
Well, the deer were no where to be seen. Nor were the pair of mallards.
But a couple of chickadees flew between the woods and a rotting tree at the creek's edge. There, they'd duck to where I couldn't see them. Do something and leave, only to return again in a few minutes. Do they have nest in the tree? It's much like the creekside tree they built a nest in at the other end of the property, but abandoned soon after completion. My guess was if I could get a look at the tree from the north, I'd see a hole and maybe a baby chickadee. But I heard nothing, other than a splashing in the creek upstream from a bush obscuring the noisemaker. Eventually I glimpsed a robin bathing/splashing in the creek. It kept up its noisy bathing for several minutes.
A cardinal landed in the shade of a thicket of small trees across the creek. It's splotch of red stood out in a world of green and dank, wet black creekside muck.
I enjoyed the quiet of my little spot, listening to birds and humans in the distance. The humans were so close -- 500 or 600 feet away -- but oblivious of me, standing like a tree at the edge of the easily ignored creek, listening to the creek and the birds that ignored them in turn.
I started slowly walking downstream, following the creek. I saw a flash of green in the creek. I knew it was sunlight on the male mallard's head. It might as well have been a bright neon light. Simultaneously to me spotting the mallard, the mallard spotted or sensed me, and it turned toward downstream and without haste moved away from me. But the cover was so thick I couldn't make a decent photo.
Since it didn't seem too alarmed, I decided to sit tight and see if it and its mate paddled back. I'd focus on an opening in the stream and be prepared.
After about five minutes of this I heard the ducks raise an alarm. They were near the other path, but I couldn't see them or anyone approaching. Obviously something was frightening them.
I resisted the urge to go in search of the answer.
My reward came swimming up the stream a few minutes later. I could hardly believe my eyes: it was a mature river otter. It was swimming quickly right at me. Again the thicket that obstructed the ducks made it difficult to photograph the otter whose fur was almost the color of the creek bottom. The dappled lighting kept changing quickly, adding to the difficulty. Focusing was difficult, too. I had the wrong lens on -- a 500 mm good for some subjects, but not a fast-moving dark object in a dark creek full of shadows and dappled, broken light.
One part of my mind was trying to take care of all the photographic calculations needed to get an image; the other part was trying to live in the moment and watch this magnificent visitor as he or she swam right at me. Would it swim by or would it notice me?
About 6 or 7 feet away it saw me. Without a change in speed, any sign or alarm or distress, it did an about-face and headed back downstream at the same speed. It's wake in the small creek looked large. I watched it swim around a bend until I didn't see it any more. For another five minutes I stood there, thrilled by the visitor that I associate with the free waters of the north.
Friends who live at the outlet of the creek on the Middle Bayou of Hamlin Lake a quarter-to-a-half mile away by land and several times that much by the meandering path of the creek, have watched otters at their shoreline before. Had this one swam that far upstream?
Apparently adults can be solitary creatures if there are no young to raise. Strong swimmers, that mile of creek wouldn't pose any real challenge to an otter. I wondered if there were young waiting nearby. I had hoped I'd see young following behind. A family of otters playing in the water makes for entertaining viewing.
Maybe another day.
In the meantime, I can't answer who was the more surprised party by the meeting on the creek: the otter or me.
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After the rain
Sunday, June 6, 2010
Timing matters in this project. Good photo subjects depend on the right weather, the right light, the right time of day and being in the right place at the right time with the right lens on and the camera set to the right exposure and f-stop. Having a good composition can be a bonus, though I'm usually at least trying to make sure everything in a frame matters.
This morning, I went out too late, with too little time to wander, with too little light to make scenes pop, and I didn't seem to pick the right place or be there at the right time.
No animals were about. I noticed only a few birds. The light was flat. The creek, so engaging on Saturday, was a tougher shoot this morning.
Finally I succumbed to walking through the culvert I call The Big Ugly just to see if that would lend to a good photo.
Looking back from beneath the middle of Lincoln Road above me I noticed the greenness of the woods following an overnight soft rain of 3/4s of an inch.
I also noticed the little island of sand formed on the bottom of the culvert. The road project of 2009 hasn't entirely healed and sand continues to erode into the creek when it rains. That's where the island came from. My footprints already were filled with water that was capturing the morning light and reflecting it a bright grayish white on this dark morning.
The slight current will erase those footprints, if it hasn't already. There are no signs of the otters' passing by on Saturday, though I'd be surprised if one couldn't trace its path via the sediments it brushed aside in its travels.
Late this afternoon the sun broke out and the deep green of the overcast morning took on more brilliant hues. We were hosting dinner guests and thus couldn't wander.
Maybe I was missing the deer, the ducks or even the otter.
If so, they need the creek bottom, too.
Friday, June 4, 2010
A light rain fell as I wandered about the yard this afternoon. The humid air, the light rain made for a green world where textures of leaves were highlighted by light collecting on their wet surfaces.
I was taken in particular by a petals of a flower that had fallen and been glued to the surface of a hosta leaf. The purple flowers and bright green leaf were a colorful combination.
Down at the creek I heard the deer before I saw them. First they stepped on a stick, breaking it with a report so loud I wondered if a person was down there. Then, a few moments later I heard a doe snorting, warning another doe of my presence. I'm guessing there's a fawn nearby, but I've not seen it in the yard. I did see one crossing Lincoln Road to the south earlier this week.
In time I'll see it, if it's here.
At the creek humidity was 100 percent. My breath came out in clouds of steam despite the temperature being in the mid- to upper-60s.
Colors were vibrant. A fallen maple bridging the creek was sprouting new leaves, brilliant red amongst the green and black world of the creek bottom.
Frogs were at the swamp hole that used to be a minnow holding pond. The old dam and a few pieces of the sluice system used to impound water in the hole remain, though I'd never get permission to place boards in the dam and again reflood what once was used to hold minnows to supply bait shops throughout the Hamlin Lake area and Ludington.
The frogs disappeared beneath round flecks of duckweed.
Twice I encountered a small moth. It surprised me that it would be flying about in the misty conditions. It appears to be a forage looper moth (Caernurgina erectea). Gypsy moth caterpillars are growing in abundance.
Each of these living things have a different texture to their surface, from the delicate moth, to the hairy caterpillar to the shimmering, vinyl like wet surface of the hosta.
On a rainy day, studying such minutia is a way to pass the time and appreciate another aspect of the world around us.
Of mayflies and fishermen
Thursday, June 3, 2010
Early this morning I noticed a mayfly clinging to the screen on a patio door. To many, it's a curious insect that, when in great quantities, can seem a nuisance.
But to trout, and those who go in search of catching trout, big trout, a mayfly hatch is almost a religious experience.
Trout anglers call it the hex hatch after the genus of the Hexagenia mayfly. The females of the species will drop to water's surface to deposit eggs. To trout, it is like manna falling from heaven and they go on a feed throwing some caution to the wind as they slurp up the falling "spinners."
There are no trout in our creek that I know of. There's hardly a minnow, though occasionally I've captured a few. I've always thought there should be more mayflies, more minnows, more small fish since the creek feeds into Hamlin Lake and maybe even a brook trout in deeper pools of the cold, quick creek.
But what I think should be and is are often quite different.
The mayfly today was a solo visitor. It was gone by this afternoon. I did no fishing.
But I was glad to see it. Mayfly are also a sign of good water quality. Their presence means the water is clean. So that, too, is a good sign.
Of jumping squirrels and difficult to identify birds
Wednesday, June 2, 2010
Groggy on a gray morning, I sat on the deck sipping coffee about 6:45 a.m. I should have been getting ready for work but I just needed down time. Six hours of sleep hadn't recharged me. I sat, sipped and was entranced by the quiet of the morning and the traffic -- of squirrels in their wooden highway in the tree canopy.
Lincoln Road had an occasional car pass by as I sat, but the squirrels were deep into their morning rush hour jumping from one branch to another, sometimes dipping and swaying on a thin branch, other times moving briskly across a limb of substance or up and down the on-off ramps: the tree trunks.
Few were moving on the ground. They used the trees and the canopy as their network of roads this morning.
It looked kind of fun. One has to marvel at their ability to hang on and ride a skimpy branch down before grapping another one. Often they leaped from one tree to another. It put a smile on my face before the grind of a day in the newsroom.
This evening a different show captivated me. I heard a bird song that was unfamiliar to me. I had heard it the evening before but was unable to locate the bird. This time the song was close , right outside the patio porch.
It took a while but finally I isolated the bird and caught a fleeting glimpse of something larger than a sparrow but a dunnish brown in color in the flat light of an overcast evening..
I fixed the 500 mm lens to the camera, placed the unit on a monopod and stepped outside onto the patio, freezing as soon as I did.
The bird took flight at the movement, but only went to the next tree. Did I see yellow?
Yes, it turns out I did. The more I listened the more I was convinced it was a warbler, but of what sort?
I made a few photographs but the deep overcast evening dulled colors and took snap out of the images.
The bird flew off to the creek. I heard others answering its call with similar calls. It wasn't alone.
I waited awhile before slowly moving to the creek. At least two, maybe three birds, were calling, at times sounding like a referees long trill of a one-note whistle.
I stood still, prepared the camera. A woodpecker came into view and made a picture to check the settings.
Soon I was rewarded for my stealth, patience and preparation. The bird landed on a bare branch between me and the creek.
I made several images and noted there was yellow, it had stripes on its wings, a brownish head with a bit of mask going through its black eyes. The bird flew off to the top of nearby trees.
Little did I know the fun was only beginning.
This evening my wife and I spent way too long consulting field guides, DVDs, and web sites trying to nail down the bird's identity. Nothing fit conclusively or perfectly.
But we narrowed our guess down to two possibilities, both of birds at home in the area, and sharing many physical and behavioral characteristics: a yellow pine warbler or a warbling vireo. They're very similar. Both are birds of the canopy, and my birds flitted to the top of the canopy of mixed hardwood and pine. The pine warbler prefers tall pines, of which we have more than a few mixed in with the mature oaks and maples preferred by the warbling vireo. Their songs struck my untrained ear as too similar to differentiate, though on one recording I think I leaned toward the warbling vireo call being closer.
I'll be asking friends to look at this one. Maybe I'm close, or maybe I'm not.
Once again, I'm humbled by the variety and specificity of the natural world around. A bird is but a little thing, but each species adds to the richness that is the natural world, there for us to appreciate whether we notice it or not.
P.S.: A wonderful web resource is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology site, http://www.allaboutbirds.org
Check it out. It’s better than many of the other resources one might buy. It’s easy to use and at your fingertips on the web.
The woods strikes back
Tuesday, June 1, 2010
I enjoy the woods I live in. It does have its drawbacks, such as many leaves to rake in fall, at times an abundance of bugs, and other times poor electronics reception.
But this weekend the woods turned on me. I didn't realize it until this afternoon when I headed back to work after a short stroll to the creek. I hardly noticed the deer fly that bit me, chasing it away when I felt the sting of the bite.
But once in the car I noticed a large welt forming on my forehead. The mark of the bite. It grew and I wondered if it was some sort of a spider bite or if I was reacting in a way I hadn't before.
Then I thought of my arms. One elbow is speckled with a rash that at first I thought was a mosquito bite from a Friday afternoon sortie into the creek area. Bugs attacked me but I ignored it until I realized these "bites" on my arms and one on my leg really itched. I stuck after bite lotion on them and it helped a bit, but only for a few moments. It wasn't until Saturday when I realized the "bites" were spreading that I understood I had mixed up with something poisonous on the walk. Likely it was a poison ivy encounter, though the rash doesn't seem quite right and we've not noticed much, if any, in the yard before.
Then Monday night upon arriving home an allergy to the pollen in the air took my breath away, it seemed. I realized I had had a similar reaction Friday when leaving.
So over the weekend I'd lost breath to "hay fever" of the woods type, gotten into something poisonous that left a rash on two arms and a leg, and had suffered a deer fly bite that left a quarter-sized welt on my head.
I love my yard, but these past few days have been trying. I never expected it to bite me.
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