Lincoln Road Journal, one year in the backyard, part 5
Monday, March 14, 2010
Road trips are great things, but the most recent one made me miss something I had hoped to observe: winter melting into spring. In the 10 days we were gone, most of the snow has melted. A few plants are pushing through the thawing ground. The creek is running root beer-red with tannins released from the swamps in the swelling water from the snowmelt. Instead of seeing the somewhat gradual change, by missing nine days, one sees a radical change. Spring is here. Ding-dong the winter is dead.
Despite my love of winter, I'm as thrilled with the warm sunshine as anyone. Signs of the long winter are everywhere -- from the still deep piles of snow in certain areas -- to snow mold all over the upper back yard.
Broken twigs, deer poop, and other litter hidden for months within or by the winter snow, is now exposed. The yard needs a good cleaning. Today, we only lightly touched a few of the worse areas.
Soon the spring rains should come. They will do what a person can't. They will wash away the detritus of winter, awaken the earth and make it green.
But I won't rush it for now. It's enough to marvel at seeing earth again.
Saturday, March 6
The day began cold, frosty but sunny. The snow, softened by Friday’s sun had refrozen and was bright, white with the morning sun.
It was to be a travel day for us, south to southern Illinois to meet a daughter and son-in-law. Birds were singing as we packed. Sunglasses were required. The birdfeeders filled, house shutdown, the Saturday morning Ludington Daily News grabbed out of the delivery tube, and off we went.
The creep of the coming of spring was easy to see heading south. Even on the U.S. 31 freeway heading south out of Ludington, it wasn’t long before farm fields popped through the snow cover. South-facing hillsides, east and west facing highway banks that captured sun, were brown with the grasses left over from the previous fall.
Winter is losing its grip.
By the time we hit the Indiana-Michigan state line there was little snow on the ground. I-94 and I-80 west were ribbons of pavement through dusty brown fields in need of a rain to freshen them up.
Turning south in Illinois on highway 55, was a drive through farm fields awaiting the spring rains, some drying and the return of farm plows and planters. In some places combines sat near fields of corn not harvested before winter.
The only snow were remnant drifts at the edge of ditches, like left over frosting from a birthday cake consumed except for crumbs.
Friday, March 5, 2010
Another clear, cold morning followed by a sunny day and a crisp, clear night with a sky full of stars.
Frost left patterns on windshields this morning. We've had surprisingly little frost this winter -- too dry and too much snow, I'd suspect. If the air is too low in humidity, the dew point isn't reached and there's no frost.
But now there's melting each day putting moisture into the air. As the temperature drops below freezing one can see the frost settling in. Even the snow refreezes with fresh crystals at the surface that had been melted. The snow cover glistens when light strikes it on such nights.
As I wandered about this evening seeking a different photo, I was struck how the sun is setting farther to the north already. There's more warmth in the color of the setting sun, too. There's more orange and yellows and reds making for a softer glow than purpled sunset of mid-winter.
The warmer rays highlight color in the trees, colors that have been easy to ignore on the short days of winter when grays take hold. The different barks' different hues are more apparent. The oaks are a bit redder. One tree had a greenish cast to its upper limbs mixing in the canopy of mostly leafless branches.
Icicles are reappearing but the days are so warm they aren't growing much. They're mainly a conduit for melt water to fall to the ground.
But March is well under way and the change of season is in full gear. It's definitely still winter, but it's a winter that's downshifting towards spring, and on a frosty morning, that's crystal clear.
On a roll
Thursday, February 4, 2010
Another nice day, sunny, above freezing -- but not much. The snow is turning icy, and not just on the surface. I tried to make a snowball this evening. It was coarse, grainy pebbles of ice that mostly disintegrated before hitting the tree I was using as a spring training target.
The ice on the driveway is rotting, too. Little capillaries of flowing water throb and trickle beneath the surface. You can trace movement by the air bubbles, sort of like the air bubble in a construction level.
Today's picture was a gimme. I looked outside and saw the sun rising, grabbed the camera and sought a subject. The beech leaves caught my eye immediately. I've been trying to get them in special light for weeks. Here it is.
The sun rising earlier is a welcome treat. It's nice not getting ready for the day in near-total darkness. It's nice driving to work as the sun rises over the tree line. It's nice looking at South Bayou of Hamlin, Lincoln Lake, Lake Michigan and Pere Marquette in early morning light -- some days just before or as the sun rises, some days after its been up for a few minutes.
This third straight day cerulean blue sky is making people smile. People are walking without coats. Girls are wearing short skirts. Sunglasses are a must. Bicyclists are out. Skateboarders, too.
Here in the yard, the deer have disappeared again. The birds are a bit light, too. There is increasing amounts of south-facing banks breaking free of the snow. Maybe there's food enough without the trip to the feeders.
Tonight there's no moon yet. It's a black, clear sky. The Big Dipper is standing vertical in the east-north-east sky -- kind of like a child's butterfly nest poised to capture a prize.
The prize the past few days has been the clear skies, sunny days and somewhat mild temperatures during the day. It drops below freezing every night so the snow pack in the woods and the ice pack on area lakes, while receding, are doing so slowly.
It's still winter. It's still very beautiful, but the anticipation of spring rises like the sap in the maples -- and just as sweet.
Wednesday, March 3, 2010
The brilliant light of Tuesday returned all day today, But such is my lot that aside from a gorgeous drive along Lake Michigan on the "back road" route from Pentwater, I had time to enjoy little of it. For this was a busy and productive day at work, topped off with an interesting interview of a friend I hadn't seen in a long while. Gordon lives on a hill overlooking Pentwater Lake. As we talked about matters large and small, personal and macro-world in scope, the sun gleamed in through the windows, bounced off the partial sheet of ice covering most of Pentwater Lake with the open water showing black.
I spied an eagle winging by and told Gordon of parking in front of his house last fall to watch an eagle. He said he sees it daily, as he does a hawk that hunts his birdfeeder. He's comfortable with the multi-level food chain feeder. He feeds the little birds, and in the process feeds a hawk who hunts the birds that gathers there. The hawk is going to eat somewhere; Gordon has just made it more convenient.
We talked at length and then I headed home along the lake. Gorgeous. I'm lucky my work involves such a commute on some days.
At home, it struck me again that because the yard sits in a bowl, we lose the sun early. The sun set in the yard a good 3o minutes before it set on the horizon. Add to that the thick woods we're surrounded by, and my photography time is further diminished by the very qualities that make it appealing to photograph.
About midnight last night, I went outside and shot the moon. It's already distorted and flattened on one side like an under filled basketball. And this moon, what some Indian tribes of the region call the sap moon because it is the month of maple sap collecting, hung so low in the southern sky it never got above the tree line and it didn't brighten the yard much.
In the stillness of the night, though, it and the stars were a beautiful sight, too, only dark.
Another busy day tomorrow. Until then.
Tuesday, March 2, 2010
From sunrise to sunset the sun dominated today.
It made for a brilliant blue sky. On the snow it made for brilliant white, difficult to look at without sunglasses. On the driveway it reflected off the iced-tracks from vehicles. On trees it enhanced the green that has been present but mostly subdued all winter. On a crow, it made its black feathers gleam, a polished coal against the blue of the sky.
An evening ski on crusted snow wasn't easy. It was just soft enough that at inopportune times a ski would partially bust through the snow. That's like putting a brake on at random moments.
Sucking in the crisp air, watching the play of the rays of the setting sun on the trees and clouds above made the 30 minute foray worth it, despite the difficulties.
How many more ski outings will I get this winter? Not many, I'd guess.
But today that didn't matter. I was reveling in the sun, blinded almost by its brilliance.
In like a lamb
Monday, March 1, 2010
The sailor's saw, "red sky in morning, sailors take warning" today could only have truth in the winds on Lake Michigan which would have made for choppy sailing, though not quite to whitecap proportions.
When I noticed the red dawn I also saw a chipmunk sitting quietly looking toward the east. I have no idea what was going through its mind. Was it enjoying the sunrise? Watching for predators? The first awake from the chipmunk condo that is the rotting tree stump pockmarked with burrow holes near the propane tank?
But it sat and looked. I scurried about seeking boots and the camera gear, but in the two minutes it took to get everything ready and get outside, the color had seeped from the sky.
The commotion I made heading outdoors sent the chipmunk into hiding. Back inside, preparing to leave for work, I did one last check of the east-facing picture window. There sitting serenely again while looking eastward was the same chipmunk.
I brought the camera gear in, focused, adjusted setting and fired off a couple frames before the chipmunk noticed and scurried away again.
By noon the sky was a brilliant blue. High clouds were thin and wispy and pushing toward the south, southeast. About halfway between that layer and the ground, a few clouds motored toward the north, pushed by a different wind at a different altitude. At the ground, the wind swirled a bit, but mostly was out of the north.
The sun, however, is packing more heat. While the wind was biting, the sun was melting snow and warming whatever it struck.
There's still a lot of snow on the ground. I may yet ski tonight if the moon rises high enough, bright enough , early enough but that's getting iffy.
March arrived like a lamb -- but not a totally mild one. In a few short weeks we'll see if leaves like a Lion. Until then, one has to enjoy the lengthening, warming days.
Sunday, February 28, 2010
A little fresh snow overnight. Flurries off an on today, mostly lake effect. Temperatures just above freezing.
The snow pack is the consistency of an ice slushy. Cold and icy, but weak. I walked the creek and swamp this afternoon. The mildness of the weather emboldened me just to put on boots and jeans. I skipped the snow pants, long johns and snowshoes.
I was comfortable enough though jeans don't protect the tops of boots from snow the way snow pants or Carhartt bibs do. And without snowshoes, I sunk to knee-depth and more in the snow on the swampy banks of the creek. The warm groundwater oozing out beneath the snow ate away the base of the snow. The top is soft from the mild temperatures and intermittent sun. Every so often a seemingly innocent step would result in a quick trip into the snow -- snow that inevitably entered the boots where it melted and slowly turned my once warm, dry feet into coolish, wet ones.
At the creek one could hear spring. Its song was in the steady dripping of melting snow falling into the creek. The little rivulets of water were difficult to find, often under overhanging snow. The banks on the south side of the creek are showing dead grass and muck. The snow is quickly melting away. The deer have established well-worn trails and spots where they repeatedly cross the creek.
The snow fleas were thick, too, this afternoon. I doubled back on my own trail seeking a break from plunging through the snow. Not more than 10 or 15 minutes had passed since when I first left tracks in the snow. The snow fleas had moved into the depressions in large numbers in that short of time.
Oddly, the creek is one of the first places showing signs of spring. Yet, its north banks and the banks to the terrace to the north of the creek will likely hold some snow longer than the rest of the yard. Winter and spring vie for the upper hand here well into March.
Elsewhere, other signs are appearing. Ice is leaving Ludington harbor. The channel on Lincoln River is reappearing, too. More animals are about -- skunks, possum and tonight a raccoon waddled off into the woods when I got home.
And tonight, a near-full moon is partially obscured by clouds. It's a watery gauze over the spotlight of the moon. It's not enough to block out its light. One can see several hundred feet into the woods with ease, but it's a muted, diffused light. Soft and surreal.
Thus ends February, the last month that is solely in the grasp of a winter that's reluctantly giving way to spring.
Saturday, February 26, 2010
The word "variable" comes to mind today. One minute it's wintry, blowing snow, gray and seemingly cold. A few minutes later the sun is shining, the wind is calm and birds descend upon the feeders. We've probably had another inch of snow today on top of an inch or two overnight, but much if it melts as it lands today since the air is in the mid-30s.
A short ski around the woods was faster and better than I expected it to be. The snow easily compacts. It's perfect for making snowballs. Back at the little common area of the subdivision to the north, on our side of the creek -- a wild area I helped convince the developer leave alone -- tracks of a fox or a bobcat meander throughout the woods, searching under trees and brush. It was very active this morning or late last night. And rarely did it cut a straight line, often making figure 8s or loopity-loops. No sign it found a meal, though.
We awoke simultaneously with five deer. They were bedded beneath the hemlocks at the north edge of the yard where it falls of f to the swamp and the creek. The hung tight to the edge all morning, at times browsing on the trees, often just standing and watching.
While few birds ventured out Friday, today they came in great numbers, in great frequency and in great varieties. Just like the weather, making for a variable kind of day.
Friday fall out
February 26, 2010
Strong winds have littered the snow with leaves stripped from oaks, needles ripped from white pines, pieces of bark blown off tree trunks, branches and at least one tree just into the woods.
It's kept the animals hunkered down and has humans shivering at the thought of being outside -- despite temperatures hovering around the freezing mark.
The highest gust recorded at Mason County Airport so far today has been 38 mph around 4:30 p.m. I was in the back yard about that time when a gust came through whipping trees into frenzy, blowing snow off trees and the ground and into the air for a brief whiteout.
I have new telephoto lens, a Tamron 200-500, that I hoped to test today but the conditions were just to rugged to take a new piece of equipment out. The blowing snow was gritty and felt like sand blowing along a Great Lakes beach. If you've ever experienced that you'll probably remember you had the beach mostly to yourself because it drives most people out of the path of the sandblasting.
But I did test it through the window on the only bird I saw at the feeder all afternoon. A lone nuthatch came. Pecked at the suet for a bit, but mostly sat on the lee side of the feeder using it as a windbreak. I'm pleased with the photo in terms of what the lens promises when I take it out and put it to use. And I was cheered by the nuthatch. Sometimes, like it, I've been the sole "bird" out in a park, or a trail in bad conditions.
During this evening's short ski in the woods there were no squirrel tracks, only deer tracks from the night before filling in now with blowing snow and the litter I described.
In the driveway there was a curiosity -- a line of oak leaves caught in the snow in an upright position by the wind. I'm not sure I've seen that before. It looked like the work of little children. But the kids are grown and moved out. This was the work of the wind and chance.
And maybe a sign cabin fever is approaching if I find a smile in such a strange little bit of nothing.
A snowy surprise
Wednesday, February 24, 2010
We awoke this morning to a surprising and heavy lake effect snow. Overnight 8-to11 inches of new snow fell, mostly right tight to the lakeshore. Inland 10 miles only an inch or two of snow fell.
The yard was a fairy tale world in the early light. Everything was covered with light, fluffy snow. Any hint of a breeze would send it crashing to the ground.
I spent 30 minutes clearing snow from the drive so we could get out. A quick shower, a bite to eat, and a few quick "grab frames" later, I was off to work. At noon, I decided to check out the eagles gathering over carrion in a farm field east of here. Upon arrival, a snow squall obscured the woods where some might be in trees. I saw two places were eagles were on the ground working over or guarding their meal. I watched for five or so minutes, but the snow wasn't letting up. On the way back, I encountered Todd Reed, a photographer friend, shooting a run-down abandoned farm house. We chatted for awhile. He, too, had just came from the eagle spot.
By 2 p.m. when I stopped at the house to pick up some books, the snow -- so light and fluffy in the morning -- was wet and settling in. Birds gathered in the trees but the feeders were mostly empty and I didn't have time to wade through the wet snow to fill them.
By 6:30 p.m. when I returned home, a breeze had picked up. Between the above freezing temperatures and the wind, the fairy tale world of early morning was just a snow-covered yard again -- something we've been living with for months now.
But the half moon was up in the east sky which was still quite blue. It made for a nice photo. Later, after another of finishing the snow clearing job, I snow shoed to the creek and made a few more photos. Shooting with a tripod in 18-20 inches of snow while wearing snowshoes isn't that easy -- especially not for a 6'-2" guy. The tripod sinks through the snow at least a foot. I have to try to bend over avoiding the tripod's legs with my traditional snowshoes. When shooting the moon, I have to kneel in the snow, and scrunch beneath the camera and look up -- it's more difficult than it sounds.
But it was beautiful out. The half-moon cast decent shadows. I spooked a deer out of a bed it made by the creek. I never saw the deer, but the bed was fresh. The tracks looked as if it fled across the creek.
With luck, maybe I'll get a ski in tomorrow. This lake effect feels like a spring snow. It's settling down fast and in many places, it's melted already. In the woods, resting atop a foot of old snow, it's not melting, but it is compressing. Here today, gone tomorrow? Not likely, but at this point in winter, not impossible.
One tough day
Thursday, February 25, 2010
Winds are blowing strong tonight. The temperature's about 25F. Following a week of mild temperatures and little wind, this makes for brisk and chilly day. Raw. Cold. It's chased people inside.
The deer didn't visit this evening, but that could also have been because of our activities outside. Or it could have been because the wind was strong enough they were settling in.
Lighting was tough, too. A flat grayness muted the yard.
For weeks I've looked at my wood hauling trailer and thought it might be time to replace it. The thought crossed my mind that I could offer a trailer full of snow for sale, both for one low price. The right marketer at the right time might make it work.
Instead I took a quick photo of it. And the clothes line rope hanging from an oak in the side yard added the only color I noticed today. It seems forever ago since we used it.
We're entering the last weekend of February. A saying I read last night in an old almanac noted that when there's a lot of snow in February, summer will be long and nice. On a tough day like this one, that sounds real good.
Of snow and mewing squirrels
Tuesday, February 23, 2010
The snow started falling at noon. Light. Steady. Softly.
One could see the individual designs of snowflakes that came to rest on stairs and the deck. Intriguing shapes, different sizes, but all white and fresh.
Seeking inspiration I moved a camera on a tripod onto the back patio. I wasn't certain what to photograph. Then I heard mewing like a cat, only different. Up in branches of a small maple cluster, a gray squirrel hunkered against a trunk, faced south and every 10-20 seconds mewed. It was a strange sound, but one that got an answer from another squirrel back in the woods. The squirrel I was watching looked to be at rest.
Suddenly some rapid chattering came from the stairway leading to a lower level in the yard. I built the stairs seven or eight years ago. My mother-in-law was visiting a lot then and she found it difficult to walk down the slopes between the levels. So the stairs were built and she and others gained easier access to below. Joan enjoyed our yard, telling others we lived in a park. Not quite, but close.
I use the stairs, too. But mainly it's a squirrel freeway. There almost always running, up or down the stairs, climbing atop the rails, or scurrying below the steps. Chipmunks like them, too. And some birds find the rails to their liking.
This noon, the chattering came from a red squirrel that eyed me and kept up a steady stream of scolding. Light snow was falling and it was a fairly peaceful setting, considering the squirrel was giving me heck.
Once it left a pair of grays arrived. Later a darker color gray sat before raiding the feeders.
The snow came and went, but never amounted to anything.
The squirrels came and went, too. The mewing ones were gone by the time I returned home late this afternoon. Only the one darker gray remained. He had somehow gotten onto the feeders on the pole and was gorging himself on feed.
I eventually shushed him along. But not before I enjoyed his antics. Such is fun on a late winter afternoon.
Monday, February 22, 2010
The drip, drip, drip coming from beneath the parked Focus told the weather story of the day here. While a winter blanketed southern Michigan with another 8-10 inches of snow, the thaw was on in full swing here.
The inch of snow that fell overnight was reduced to a quarter of that depth by late afternoon and had been turned into white slush. Wherever a drop of water dripped from a tree or a wire, it left little pockmarks in the slushy snow. The surface took on a lunar appearance with the craters being created by water drops, not asteroids, meteorites or space dust.
The melting snow slid off the parked Focus Sunday, leaving a clean, shiny hood. This afternoon, it became a burgundy mirror reflecting the bare trees above. Kind of startling in the near-blood red expanse.
For the animals, it's a time of seeking food. The deer have been frequenting the yard after dusk. They were back tonight.
At work today I received a call about another gathering: a woman reported seeing more than 20 bald eagles in a field in Custer, 10 miles east of here. I couldn't run out to check it out, but I sent my outdoors writer and later a photographer. They confirmed the gathering and reported seeing 15 eagles, some mature, some appearing to be battling with one another and they suspected there was a deer carcass that was serving to draw the mass gathering. I'll know more in the morning when we talk. But it illustrates a reality of late winter in snow country. Where there is food, there are animals to eat it. A squirrel spent a lot of energy trying to dig an acorn out of a parking spot at the top of the driveway hill. The acorn was encased in ice. It scraped and clawed until it broke the shell of what now must represent the needed food to get through the next few weeks.
As the thaw continues, more animal carcasses will be exposed for the scavengers. More acorns will be exposed for the squirrels and deer. More grass and vegetation will reemerge and those deer and creatures that made it through the depth of winter can find the nourishment they seek and live to see spring arrive in its fullness.
Easy does it
Sunday, February 21, 2010
A much warmer day that broke with a powdery hue to the sky matching the fresh powder snow that lightly covered the existing snow. There was little direct sun early, and next to none as the afternoon took hold. The stillness and quiet of Saturday continued throughout the day. The loudest sound, aside from cars on the roads and mechanical tools from neighbors not far away, was bird song. Jays were particularly vocal early. A female goldfinch is noticeably gaining the yellow of her summer color back. Cardinals are around a bit more and the crows keep circling the yard, but staying away when they see me outside.
Feeders were empty this morning. "Deer" birds I suspect finished off the remaining feed overnight. I found two fresh beds under the hemlocks at the edge of the swamp this morning when I skied. This evening, five deer returned to scavenge under the feeders. They were a bit friskier, fighting a bit with one kicking at another, and the largest doe head butting another deer, eventually chasing all to the hemlocks but her. Brenda turned on a light and that spooked the doe which ran off. The others then returned to scavenge seed from the ground. They also have been pawing up acorns from beneath the hemlocks where the snow is not deep.
Temperatures climbed above 40F early this afternoon. The snow became heavy and wet. The tips of the branches of the maple trees are noticeably reddening, too. Winter officially ends in a month, but like all the seasons in this part of Michigan, it's likely we'll start having more days like the coming season more frequently in the transition weeks now approaching. And, it's likely, winter won't go away without a reminder that it's still in-season. That's life in Michigan. It's fine by me.
Saturday, February 20, 2010
A perfect late winter's day. Cold in the morning. Clear. Calm. Colors were vibrant. Birds were singing and calling. And as the sun rose higher in the sky, it brought warming temperatures. Frost delicately fringed any little twig sticking out of the creek
By 1 p.m., after a fine ski at Ludington State Park in which I encountered an eagle and a barred owl, I came home to find snow fleas in the snow along the driveway. They were out in force at the park. These were the first I'd seen at home. I noticed they at times slip between crystals of snow. Other times I watched as they scrunched up their bodies and propelled themselves up and over. They're intriguing to watch.
Nor were they alone. I encountered at least two other insects stirring in temperatures that by mid-afternoon approached 40F. In the calm sunshine, that felt like spring.
Friday, February 19, 2010
A beautiful day -- all of its light hours spent at work so I only saw the yard in the early morning dawn and the late dusk as night settled in.
Such days are a bit frustrating, but duty does call. When I left for work I figured it was a cinch to be home by 6:30 p.m. to get some sort of shooting in the light. Wrong.
So I played with the night sky, enjoying the stars and the crescent moon. A dinner out, a movie at home and then about midnight I went outside to look at the night sky. Dark, crisp, star-filled and as I looked out the front porch to the south I noticed what appeared to be a wisp of a cloud overhead -- only it had no substance. I went back in and went to the patio looking north. A greenish glow hung near the horizon and one shaft of brighter are went to the center of the sky from that spot. It was the northern light, but barely. I watched for about 30 minutes. The light got brighter, dimmer and a few times began to shimmer in the eerie way of the aurora borealis. But there was no intensity, no real show. Just a hint that the aurora was active.
In the pictures you'll note how blue the early night sky is in the 7:30 p.m. exposure. If you look closely at the later exposure, you'll notice a greenish cast and a brighter area near the horizon where there's only forests. That brightness is the hint of the aurora. Here's hoping for stronger shows in the nights to come.
Blinded by the light
Thursday, February 18, 2010
The dawn arrived with pink and orange cream cheese clouds floating on a field of blue. The light promised potential for a nice, colorful day. The TV weatherman forecast clouds by noon, and the sun being lost behind them. He was wrong. Some clouds arrived, but the sun brightened the day and now, a waxing quarter moon lowering to the west, ringed with a rainbow-like halo, still brings light to the sky.
With the fresh, white snow still looking picture perfect and mostly untouched, it was brilliant at times, blindingly bright today. Got to love it.
In addition to more reports of robins returning, I had two friends report a creature of another sort in abundance: snow fleas, aka, spring tails.
A friend down the road called at work to inquire about them, saying there were so many in his side yard they were turning splotches of the snow black.
Snow fleas, an arthropod called Collembola, aren't fleas at all but they hop like them. They're a creature that lives on the organic decay of the forest floor, fungi and other such materials of which there is an abundance in Michigan woods. They are unique in that the mature in winter. Most often I encounter them on days such as today, with the temperature around freezing, the snow's surface slightly slushy. They're numbers are astounding at such times. They'll often congregate in depressions in the snow such as left by a foot print or tracks of skis. It can look like a box of pepper was spilled --except the pepper is hopping. This species -- one of two -- Hypogastrura nivicola Fitch and is sooty or gunpowder (dull) black.
According Michigan State University Extension, "Their black color allows them to absorb heat from the sun. They congregate in great numbers on sunny days to feed on microscopic algae, bacteria, and fungi on the surface of the snow and to complete mating. As the trees absorb heat and the snow melts away from the base of the trees, the snow fleas move down this pathway to the leaf litter and deposit their egg load."
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources describes snow fleas as being about 1/8 inch (2mm) long. They catapult themselves to get around. "Two 'tails' on their back end are tucked up underneath their belly, held in place by tiny 'hooks.' When the springtail wants to move, they just release the spring-loaded 'tails,' called furcula, which hit the snow and send them flying into the air. Since snow fleas can't control their flight or direction, they frequently land in the same spot or only a few inches away," according to the WNDR.
When hundreds of them are hopping around on the snow surface, it's a bit startling at first. Then it's fascinating or comical.
Snow fleas tend to worry people. In fact, the Web has no shortage of companies offering ways to kill them. To my knowledge, that's an irrational response. Any chemical put down would do more harm than the mob of spring tails gathering for an afternoon.
The first friend to call wanted to be assured, it seemed, they'd cause no grief. The name snow flea does conjure up worries to those who have dealt with infestation of real fleas. In these sandy soil areas of Michigan, fleas can present a problem.
But not snow fleas. They have found their own niche, one that has them showing up on warmish winter days to feed. The rest of the year they reside under the leaf litter or on water. I've not noticed them then, only seeing them in winter.
You might wonder by what magic can a tiny bug survive in mid-winter when hardier creatures face potential death in the cold. You're not alone in wondering about that.
A biochemist, Dr. Peter Davies of Queens College in Toronto, with the help of Dr. Laurie Graham, is credited for isolating the antifreeze-like protein that allows springtails to operate during a northern winter.
The protein is rich in an amino acid called glycine, which prevents ice crystals from forming in a springtail's system.
These little creatures have fascinated naturalists in the north for centuries. Maybe that's a sign of how long winters can be. Their appearance often means winter is waning.
A snild kind of day
Wednesday, February 17. 2010
The snows of Tuesday gave way to mild weather today. Growing up in suburban Detroit, we used to watch had a gimmick -- well, several -- in which he'd combine weather words when weather was mixed to create a word for the day. Today, was both snowy in the sense all that dropped before still colors the world and mild as temperatures rose above freezing. So snowy and mild, Sonny Elliot might say, makes for a snild day. Earlier it was looking like it would be snoggy -- snowy and foggy -- but the fog never developed. But it is mild.
Yesterday's fine snow is already getting slushy. Mild temperatures are forecast for the coming days. It's almost maple sap collection kind of weather -- above freezing during the day, below freezing at night. But, it might not get warm enough to get the sap running. Soon, though.
I've little to say about the yard today. I wasn't home long enough to enjoy it. I was intrigued by the mourning dove tracks on the patio beneath the deck. The dove might have been first attracted to fallen Niger seed from the finch feeder, but it paced up and down along the bare ground and barely snow-covered ground adjacent to the house. It seemed to be checking out the litter where the ground isn't snow covered.
And the grayness today did what the grayness can do in Michigan as winter drags on. It drained the light from the world. Strangely, the mild temperatures coupled with air saturated with moisture on one hand feels kind of mild, but it also makes for a damp rawness not felt on a day 10-degrees colder.
I best get used to the change, though. It's more likely the coming weeks will be featuring milder weather than the freeze we experienced for the past few weeks. Robins are being reported around town. Though they never really leave completely, the fact I heard two reports today suggests some migrants are moving back in. The maple sap will run soon and local sugar bush operations will begin their harvest. The snow will melt. The creeks and rivers will rise. Birds will find mates and nests. And soon enough it will be morel mushroom season.
All those thoughts from a Sonny Elliot kind of day, a day he might call snild.
The second half starts with snow
Tuesday, February 16, 2010
Lake effect snow fell off and on overnight and throughout the day. Inland a ways, the ground only received a dusting. Here a mile from Lake Michigan, we must be approaching the six-inch mark. It's still snowing. The wind is picking up. It's a true winter's day.
After lunch I moseyed down to the creek just to look about in the fresh snow. It's quite pretty. The dark channel of the creek contrasts starkly with the white, new snow. At times, the snow would fall fast and furious, little streaks of white.
I don't quite understand the theory, but they say there is only so much fresh water in the world; that it is a finite amount. It would seem to me, more freshwater could circulate if ocean water evaporation increased causing more rain. But, I digress. In essence we are constantly recycling fresh water whether or not we realize it.
Lake effect snow in Michigan is drawn from the Great Lakes and deposited mostly near the shoreline or a limited number of miles inland. In spring, it will melt and begin its journey back to the Great Lakes either through surface water -- the creek, to Hamlin Lake, to Sable River and out into Lake Michigan; soak back into ground water; or evaporate and eventually precipitate out again eventually as rain, snow, frost or dew. The water molecules in the snow that is covering the yard today maybe two days was in liquid form touching a Great Lakes salmon, or being tossed into the air by a wave crashing on ice. Maybe last summer it lapped my feet as I walked barefoot along the Ludington State Park Lake Michigan beach. It might have passed beneath the hull of my kayak, or dripped down the paddle wetting my arm. Maybe a child carried it in a bucket to pour into the moat of a sandcastle before the waves washed the beach, erasing any traces of the summer's day diversion. Maybe the molecules passed through the gills of a fish carrying oxygen to it.
Such are the thoughts that crossed my mind down at the creek. The scene of serenity doesn't hint at the water molecules other existence.
Maybe I just wanted to think about summer and the activities that await its return.
This evening I skied in the woods. It was tougher going. The new snow meant I had to break trail, slowing me down -- and I'm no longer a fast skier in the best of conditions. Still, I enjoyed the half hour. The cold air feels good on the face and in the lungs. The body and the mind enjoys the physicality of the effort required. And the silence is almost always comforting.
Before I left for the ski, I watched a deer in the yard. It thought of checking out the bird feeders but it couldn't bring itself to pass close enough to the house to do so. As I watched, the furnace in the house kicked on. That slight noise spooked the deer. Its tracks showed it cut south across the side yard, the driveway, the south yard and toward the neighbor's to the south.
The neighbor told me Sunday the road commission collected a dead deer from the edge of the yard next to the new guardrail installed on Lincoln Road. Car-deer accidents are common here. Was it one of the two deer from the pictures last week? It seems likely. The deer today was on its own. Most deer this time of year here have been traveling with at least one other deer.
But the vehicles fly down Lincoln Road, many exceeding the posted 55 miles per hour speed limit. Deer may cause damage to a car in a collision, but generally they pay for it with their life. Perhaps that's why this deer was so wary. It wanted badly to check below the feeders to search for something to eat -- but it wasn't willing to ignore an unknown sound from the house.
Lack of such caution could cost it its life. It lives another day, a winter's day, the first day of the second half of this year-long journal.
Monday, February 15, 2010
Crows greeted me at lunch, this time not scattering as fast or as far. I listened and watched as the cawed from the tops of trees above the driveway and at the edge of the woods. My arrival had disturbed them. They had been closer to the ground, nearer the backyard. I listened and watched for a few minutes, even as the snow began to fall, at times heavily.
Again, the creatures at the feeder were dominated by mourning doves, squirrels, a red-bellied woodpecker that disappeared as soon as I got the camera ready, a downy woodpecker and an assortment of chickadees, titmice and nuthatches.
But, mainly at noon the doves ruled the feeder. They sat, at times four at once, on the platform feeder. Others spread out and worked the ground beneath the feeders. And while I might wish for a more exotic visitor -- like the pileated woodpecker -- I've come to realize there are rhythms to nature even in the backyard. In the past couple days, the doves are the predominant visitor. Even the deer have backed off.
This evening I cross-country skied through the neighboring woods. Conditions are again excellent. The fresh snow is a bit coarse, almost pellets rather than flakes. Skis glide over and through it easily. One has control, good glide and good kick.
The snow pellets make more noise falling. One can hear them clatter through the branches of the leafless trees. It's kind of a luxurious snow, a welcoming snow that's hiding all the cocoa pebble-like droppings of the deer, the mess left behind by squirrels and again making the woods white and fresh-looking.
At lunch, I realized how long it has been since I'd watched a heavy snow fall in the yard. It seemed almost like the first snow of the season -- mainly because I wasn't home when the last heavy snow fell.
Others might be tired of it, but I'm increasingly OK with whatever weather arrives. I think to the Mark Twain observation -- everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it -- and the wisdom of that, meaning we can't do anything about it, makes me smile and persevere. Tomorrow, I hope to hit the trails at Ludington State Park. I've done a lot of 20-30 minute skis in the woods here, but I'm ready for a longer ski.
And the conditions are good. My skis are ready.
Love doves, oh deer!
Sunday, February 14, 2010
There is no Valentine's Day celebration in nature. But doves did greet me this morning when I looked outside. The mourning doves were resting in the maple tree near the feeders. A strange thought occurred to me: Just how many birds have landed and sat upon the branches of that maple? The fact it is near the feeder makes it more appealing to the avian visitors. It's a busy place, often with many types of birds sitting on its branches.
But the doves had squatters' rights early, sitting on the branches closest the feeder. Strangely, few flew to the feeder. Though they often are on the ground at first light. Maybe they had their fill already.
When I was filling the feeders later in the morning black-capped chickadees surrounded me. They have kept their distance most of this winter. Some winters, though, I could count on their company as I put seed in the feeder. Today, as soon as I got to the feeder they did, too. Some buzzed in and out quickly. One sat on a crossbar chirping at me. Chickadees are social and curious and can be tempted to feed out of one's hand, though I've not done that believing its best to let wild creatures not get too friendly with any human, less they get double-crossed.
But their visit and the chirping of the one as I filled feeders, made me smile.
As I walked toward the creek on the east side of the yard this morning, I had the camera on a tripod in my hand, pointing at the ground when I realized the deer were bedded down in the swamp next to the creek. There was at least one on each side of the creek. By the time I put the camera in position, focused and metered, the deer were up staring at me from behind some hemlock and pine. They didn't stay for long; they just kind of disappeared across the creek and up a hill vanishing before my eyes.
While we humans marked Valentine's Day, the birds and deer enjoyed a mild, mid-winter, mid-February day that topped out at about 32 degrees, with little wind. Skiing in the adjacent woods this evening was good. And grilling pork chops for a nice dinner with my wife was completed as darkness fell around 7 p.m.
Winter's days are numbered now in these parts. It could hang on for weeks more -- or it could change quickly. The next day we humans mark is St. Patrick's Day, March 17. For the past two winters that also marked my fist kayaking on open rivers and last skiing in my woods as I picked a way through the snow and increasingly open ground.
Spring is not far away.
Saturday, February 13, 2010
The sun never broke through the clouds today. It was another day of shades of gray. Over the lake, clouds hung a deep, steely gray. Elsewhere the grays were lighter. In Manistee at the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians Snowsnake competition, it was gray that sucked light and color from the scene. Youths and adults took turns sending their homemade wooden snowsnakes down a track akin to mini-bobsled run. The goal was to see how far one could make the snowsnakes slide. The longest run while I watched was about 180 feet.
Later, looking over the Sable River inlet to Upper Hamlin Lake off Nurnberg Road in the Manistee National Forest, the sky lightened and more whites could be noticed. The mute swans and the flock of bufflehead ducks in the channel of open water at the edge of the lake's ice sheet that extends for miles, matched the whites, grays and blacks of the scene.
Back in the yard in the afternoon, color was muted. Birds were nervous, easily frightened away. So were the squirrels. Not much happened while I was out and about. One loan titmouse hunkered down in the tree to outwait me. The chickadees and nuthatches fled to the trees at the swamp. This single titmouse just waited, only once or twice flying down to the feeder to retrieve a seed. She'd bang it on a branch in the tree, presumably to help crack it open so she could get at the eat inside.
The other birds stayed away until I was inside. It was that kind of day ... a day where uncertainty hung in the air, in the clouds and the shades of gray --sometimes growing intensity, sometimes waning as a sameness of a lengthening winter settled on the yard and the psyche.
Fringed in light
Friday, February 12, 2010
The sun was bright today. The sky was a mix of clouds and blue.
The deer bedded down just outside our bedroom window, though they spooked and left almost as soon as I began moving around getting ready for work around 6:30-6:45 a.m. When I turned on a light, the one closest to the house immediately got up. By the time I reached the kitchen and looked out, it was moving out quickly, the other deer rising from their spots around the yard and joining the exodus.
This afternoon the clouds captivated me. From about 3 until 6 p.m., there were a steady stream of clouds ringed in iridescence -- the effect of the sun's rays passing through the ice crystals at their edges and creating the rainbow, mother of pearl, effect.
I can't remember seeing it so clearly from the yard before. Often, I've noticed the effect skiing on the dunes of Ludington State Park, but this time it was quite clear here in the yard.
Also quite clear in the yard is not just deer are on the move these days. Squirrels, raccoons, mice and other tracks are everywhere. The creatures are stirring with the increasing light.
"It's a cure"
Thursday, February 11, 2010
Spent the morning at University of Michigan Hospital where five years ago, and a few weeks, some of the most harrowing days of my life were spent as my wife underwent surgeries and radiation treatments for a cancer.
Today, we returned to see her doctors and were pleased when Dr. Marentette, who led the team, said "Everything looks good. It's a cure."
In a world where we -- and probably you -- know so many people who have fought cancer only to succumb to the disease, those three words were the best three words we've heard in a long time. We count our blessings and think and pray for family and friends now on their own journeys in dealing with cancer.
By the time we got back to Ludington tonight, it was late. There was no light. Clouds block any chance at seeing stars. It would be pitch black except the new snow is so white it is reflecting and thus amplifying what little light is there.
We started a fire in the wood stove. It's crackling and heat is welcome an every night of winter. Tonight, though it kind of reflects our mood over the news that the doctors believe Brenda's journey with this cancer has reached a successful conclusion with a future free of that cancer.
And, of course, the adage of wood stoves is they heat you several times over: when you cut the wood, when split and stack the wood, and finally when you burn it for heat. It's a very accurate observation, and now it's time to enjoy that third type of heat -- warmth from wood that carries with it memories of an afternoon outdoors collecting it. That was a year ago. Now it's seasoned.
And so are we seasoned by life's curves. Today the seasoning is a sweet one -- "It's a cure."
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Wednesday, February 10, 2010
About four inches of snow fell overnight. Add a little wind, and it was as if Mother Nature's Etch-A-Sketch had been shaken and new clear board of white awaited the world.
The deer weren't in the yard this morning. It will be interesting to see if they return to bed here any time soon, or if it was just a chance that brought them to the yard for two nights.
When I arrived home at lunch, crows scattered. They're much more shy than I'd realized. Whenever I go outside or arrive home and they're in the yard, they quickly scatter to the woods or across Lincoln Road. I can hear them, see them from afar, but they've not let me get close enough yet for a good photo. Crows are intelligent. They make a racket. I like having them around.
This evening we had to travel downstate to Ann Arbor and as we headed south out of town looking west toward Lake Michigan at sunset, the sky turned a bright, crimson red and the clouds were edged in crimson light. I'd like to have been at the lakeshore. At such times, the beauty can be breathtaking. It was pretty good from the road, but a front row seat on the beach would have been awesome.
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