One year in the backyard, part 3
Wednesday, January 6, 2009
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.
Whitish on white
Tuesday, January 5, 2010
If one wants to see how "white" their white cat is or isn't, leave the cat outside on a day like today with fresh, clean snow everywhere.
Our white cat, Cotton -- a daughter's pet left behind when she went to college and then married and moved to Colorado -- proved the test subject today.
And she didn't fare too bad today. Her white is a little dingier, it has more pink spots and is scragglier than snow, but she must be doing a good job keeping clean since she didn't stick out like a dirty sock.
Some years when I run the test she has seemed to be have a dirty yellow cast compared to the snow.
She's getting on in age, but today while nosing around the exterior of the house she likely was the top predator -- aside from me -- in the yard at the time.
She likes to hunt chipmunks. We try to discourage her from preying on birds, though there's no denying she kills some. She's not a bad mouser. And, in summer, she likes attacking hopping insects.
But she also has lost her love of the cold and scooted back in minutes after going outdoors.
I let her out in part because at noon the yard was strangely empty of any bird life, or life at all. I saw few birds and they only stayed for a moment.
Did they find better feed? Had a hawk hunted the feeders scaring the birds away?
I can't say.
Tonight, with no visible moon, it was dark though a bit of light bounced around due to all the snow. I snowshoed a path around the yard, enjoying the quiet, the feeling of warmth from the exercise, and the muted sounds of the snowshoe not quite crunching the snow.
The snow that was falling intermittently was made of pellets. They clattered through the old, hanging oak and beech leaves.
I also brought a few days worth of wood in to feed the wood stove. I'm deep into the January pile. I'm not sure it will last all month, though there's plenty available for this year and on into next winter.
And,, strangely enough, though winter is only two weeks old, there's a sense that we're progressing through it nicely, tested by snow, but keeping on. One day in a couple, a few or a handful of weeks we'll leave the cat out and realize she looks whiter than the snow that stubbornly will be sticking around. That will be a sign of approaching spring.
Monday, January 4, 2010
I watched snow blow off the roof during lunch today. Sheets of white crystals being whisked skyward, tumbled and set free after spending a while at rest upon the growing mass of snow on the roof.
The normal birds were at the backyard feeder: the flock of finches, black-capped chickadees, mourning doves, more-than-a-few blue jays, a woodpecker.
Blue jays seemed to dominate the feeder in the side yard. Sometimes dark-eyed juncos can be found there in good numbers, too. But today one lone male sat in the pine next to the feeder watching and waiting. For what, only he knows. I watched him from my reading room and he watched me. He didn’t like if I moved too close to the window or if he saw me point the camera his way.
He sat fairly quietly but always at attention, turning his head to and fro, sometimes hopping to a different branch, almost always deep in the tree near the trunk. I couldn’t get a totally unobstructed view of him.
Often the juncos will feed on the ground or deck below the finch feeders amidst the finches waiting to get to the feeder.
But this lone male just sat today.
A member of the sparrow family, juncos are a snowbird of Michigan arriving as winter nears, hanging out throughout the winter then often moving north with spring.
Our juncos follow that pattern. They’re arrival is as sure of a sign of winter coming as frost or snow.
We have snow plenty now. It’s about knee-deep compressed. The birds are hitting the feeders heavily when weather permits. Filling the feeders is a daily chore, but one I don’t mind. It makes sure I get outside, often at night, to inhale the cold air, admire the night sky or feel the sting of cold or the moisture of fresh snow on my face.
Feeding birds ultimately is something we do for ourselves; the birds would move on and find food on their own if we didn’t provide it. We feed them because it is enjoyable to watch them – even when they’re just in a tree sitting pretty.
Sunday, January 3, 2010
Upon arriving home in Ludington, we found more than a foot of fresh snow on the yard. The snowblower came out before unloading the truck to make the latter job easier. Thankfully a neighbor had plowed the driveway so we could easily drive to the house.
Roads nearby are drifting and school for Monday has already been canceled throughout the county. Here, I waded through deep snow to refill the bird feeders, retrieve mail, and so forth. Gusty breezes made snowblowing interesting -- a wrong turn with the chute meant a face full of snow.
Reports say the area has received about 20 inches of lake effect snow since Thursday evening.
In fact, it's snowier here than most anyplace we saw this weekend -- though back in the forest we in the U.P. snow was about the same.
It's winter in Michigan and it seems we're destined for another snowy winter.
January 1-3, 2010
Out of town for a few days. Headed north to Paradise in the Upper Peninsula for skiing and a family gathering. Temperatures on Saturday never rose above 4-5 degrees with fairly significant winds along the Lake Superior shoreline. Friday and Sunday were comparatively milder, in the teens.
Ice fringes Whitefish Bay and the Lake Superior shoreline, but mostly the lake remains open.
I shot a lot of photos Sunday at Whitefish Point, and will share some later. Saturday morning I mainly shot along the Tahquemenon River.
New Year's Eve
Thursday, December 31, 2009
The lake effect machine is kicking into high gear with up to eight inches of new snow predicted in the next couple days. It's snowed off and on all day today. There'll be no chance to enjoy the blue moon in Ludington tonight.
The birds continue to add the most color and life to the yard. The flock of finches are still with us. Mourning doves are starting to congregate during the day in the maple tree near the feeders, but still not in the numbers of some years.
So 2009 will end on wintry note. No complaints here.
It will mean a good start to outdoor activity in 2010.
Happy New Year.
Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Living on the lee shore of Lake Michigan from the prevailing westerly winds, one learns about "lake effect snow."
Each of the Great Lakes is large enough to not only affect the climate near the shoreline, but also the weather. The Great Lakes each act like giant radiators holding warmth in fall and winter far longer than the air which can blow in from Canada or the Arctic beyond quickly bringing freezing temperatures. In spring and summer, they remain colder than the air and cool the shoreline.
In winter, especially early winter before the lake cools and sometimes freezes or partially freezes, the cold dry air passing over any of the Great Lakes draws some warmth and moisture from the warmer, open water below. When that slightly warmed, slightly moister air hits the land mass it quickly cools to the temperature of the entire air mass, and, in the process sometimes sheds moisture. If the temperatures are above freezing this could come in the form of rain. Now, in winter, it most often comes in the form of snow.
In northern Michigan, weather forecasts spend a lot of time expounding when and where "lake effect" may fall. There are certain areas that receive more than others because they geographically are situated in a way that seems to meld all the various elements into favorable lake effect conditions.
Perhaps Buffalo, N.Y. is the most widely recognized recipient of lake effect, thanks mainly to network television news coverage out of New York City. But all around the lakes there are other, less well known locales, where substantial lake effect snow is a reality, often welcomed by winter sports and outdoor enthusiasts, cursed by less hardy souls.
Here in Ludington, if the winds are out of the due west the lake effect snow tends to fall inland to the east of us. One can surmise the smaller fetch of open water -- Ludington sits at about the narrowest east-west width of Lake Michigan -- may diminish lake effect snow when winds are out of the west. I've always thought, too, when the wind is due west, it takes a few miles of going over land sometimes for the moisture to be forced out. Thus Scottville, Walhalla or Baldwin to the east may be blessed with a substantial snow when in Ludington, only flurries fall.
Ludington State Park hugs the Lake Michigan shoreline. At more than 5,000 acres of dunes, forest, beach and waterfront that dips out into the lake at Big Sable Point, it's often surprising how many snowstorms seem to miss it. Or, because this can be one of the windiest places on Lake Michigan, maybe the snow is blown away. One can see coffee-and-cream swirls of sand and snow marbled drifts like a chocolate and vanilla soft serve ice cream twist. Even when its snowing, the wind can move the sand, too.
But let the wind come out of the due north and sometimes Ludington State Park and the greater Ludington area gets hammered with lake effect. The band of snow can be quite narrow, when measured east to west, but it corresponds to the wind blowing down across a longer fetch of the lake than when it comes out of the due west. The National Weather Service also said the same can be true with a south wind. My limited experience seems to say the due north winds produce more notable lake effect -- but sometimes winds here can be screwy and their direction not as straightforward as it would seem.
Lake effect is on my mind today, because two to three inches of lake effect snow has covered the yard. The snow comes and goes, sometimes falling hard with enough velocity and substance to clatter through the woods as it falls. Sometimes, the snow stops, the clouds thin, visibility increases even if the moon is hidden by the clouds.
This evening's lake effect has fine, compact crystals of snow. There's none of the big, fluffy crystals that seem like an elementary school art class project. This is snow with substance. In the distance toward Lake Michigan, one can hear the din of the lake and the wind there, even here a mile or more inland. The interaction of cold winds and warmer water produce the snow.
The forecast for the next few days calls for more lake effect.
I love it. It keeps the world looking fresh and bright. It's fun to play in. It provides moisture to the Earth, the rivers, the swamps, the lakes that could mean a healthy spring. The lake effect that falls here, ends up back in Lake Michigan after the snowmelt. It's nature's recycling, reusing, rejuvenating cycle.
And currently it threatens to be something else: nature's natural White Out that could cover over the sky with lake effect clouds blotting out the New Year's Eve blue moon.
Here's hoping for a few breaks in the cloud to enjoy the blue moon.
Blue moon nears
Tuesday, December 29, 2009
Bright sun, a blue sky and white snow made for a beautiful day. Since the snow was fresh and mostly unmarked, it had that fresh, clean look that belies it's winter.
In addition to strong shadows and the icicles that have grown in number and size, I was taken by the undulations of the snow-covered ground and the debris that has fallen from the treetops. Acorn caps without the fruit rested atop the snow in several areas. Monday's winds proved too much for them to hang on any longer.
Delicate tracks of the finches and juncos are etched in some areas. Squirrels stuck to their paths in the new, soft snow. Iridescent clouds wafted by in the early afternoon. By evening a nearly-full moon was up in the eastern sky before sunset. As it becomes full December 31 it will be a blue moon -- the second full moon in the same calendar month, in this case December. After dusk, I skied the woods in the moonlight that cast long shadows over the snow-covered terrain. Visibility was good enough in the moonlight to pick up faint hints of my tracks of a week ago, tracks mostly obliterated by the recent snow. At such times it is like skiing through an elven world of clear, cold and bright light. It's cheery in its own way though it lack ability to make much color other than a bluish-white light.
After dinner I took the camera and tripod down to the creek to shoot some time exposures of the swamp in moonlight. It's still. Light clouds float by the sun gaining an iridescent halo in different shapes as the clouds pass by.
I'm always surprised I don't encounter nocturnal animals at that time -- deer, raccoon, possum, skunks, owls or others. But then again, for them this is the brightest nights of the month and they probably hear, see or smell me coming from a long ways away.
So I enjoy the quiet, the light, the clouds passing by. It's good to do that once or more in a blue moon.
Monday, December 28, 2009
A brisk wind today blew snow in great blasts of powder. The bite of the wind made one want to hurry.
But on the edge of the roofline, a crop of icicles was growing by noon, one drip at a time.
They kind of echoed the shape of the dark woods in the distance. These long, grayish clear stalactites of frozen water growing from the melt water of the roof snow dripping down, coating the icicle like melted wax makes a candle grow, slowly but surely. The icicle is fat were its base attaches to the roof and tapers to a point where melt water still drips off, slowly, one drop at a time, each time leaving a little more ice in its wake.
Not only do the icicles echo the woods, they refract the black trees in the daggers of clear, frozen water growing downward, ruled by gravity and chemistry.
Who in the north as a child hasn't broken off a clear specimen and licked it like nature's original Popsicle?
What northern boy hasn't broken off icicles for "sword" fights with friends? Who hasn't launched one like a javelin to admire their flight?
They're a winter treat. I delicacy for the eyes as they glisten in the light. They're fodder for imagination. They're shards of water frozen in mid-air, a testament to the effects of hot and cold because heat and cold are both needed simultaneously to make icicles.
Track in the snow
Sunday, December 27, 2009
We arrived home from a drive across the state after visiting family in Lenawee County on the border of Michigan and Ohio with a stop in East Lansing. Snow started falling by mid-afternoon in Lenawee County, in the far southeast corner of the state, meaning it had likely been snowing in Ludington to the west for some time.
And surely driving wasn't the best. Often we followed the cleared two tracks of traffic on the slushy and sometimes mostly snow-covered pavement. But when we hit the west side of the state at Muskegon and headed north, the snow had slowed and the pavement was mostly clear -- though the plowed snow piled off the pavement attested to a substantial snowfall since our departure the day before.
Back in Ludington, the fluffy snow softly sculpted what had been just 36 hours earlier an icy landscape.
As we turned onto Lincoln Road heading for the house, the scene before us was as magically Christmas as in any warm and fuzzy Christmas animation or painting.
Turning into our drive we saw but one set of tracks: A lone deer had walked part way up the drive, got to the top, made a circle and looped back out of the drive. It was the only visible track in the five inches or snow of snow that had fallen while we were away.
Such a lone track, seemingly meandering, often makes me wonder what was on the deer's mind: Was it hungry? Hoping the drive was plowed for an easy walk across the yard? Did something spook it below? The meandering track suggested instead, an unhurried, relaxed deer wandering with no particular place to go.
I shot a few photos of the yard lighted by the red glow of Christmas lights. Then I cleared the drive, erasing the lone deer track circle from the landscape. The deer's wandering were not now to be traced by its tracks in the drive. It's purpose was it's own once again.
The birds were absent much of yesterday. Was it the rain? The commotion? The mildness?
They're back this morning as a wintry day dawned. An inch of fresh snow is covering a frozen pack of what was slushy snow yesterday. It's a picture-perfect day, the kind that many wish to awake to on Christmas morning. It's just a day late.
Better late than never.
Friday, December 26, 2009
The ice storm came, coated the world at midnight. As I walked down a hill to shoot Christmas lights around 12:30 a.m. today, with every step I broke through the crust sending shards of icy snow clattering down the small slope ahead of me.
There wasn't any celestial light; it was all blocked by the rain clouds. The photo I had envisioned didn't happen.
But it was oddly mild out and where Christmas lights reflected on the snow, somewhat pretty.
By 9 a.m. the temperature was above freezing and the trees are dripping. Periods of rain, brief flashes of brighter sky and a brisk at times breeze make this not the picture perfect Christmas in the north.
Bu the birds like it. They're back at the feeder by the score. Today is an important day for birders for the Christmas bird count throughout the land. It's one of the ways one learns about the populations and health of bird species in the area. This morning, we've had the finches by the score, chickadees, nut hatches, downy and red-bellied woodpeckers, titmice, mourning doves and dark-eyed juncos so far.
Enjoy your Christmas. Get outside for a while and enjoy the gifts of nature.
Thursday, December 24, 2009
A thin coating of ice covered the cars in the drive today and hard -surfaced objects not covered with snow.
The areas covered by snow absorbed the overnight rain and froze more as part of the crust of the snow than as an ice covering.
Another batch of ice is predicted for tonight. It's supposed to start soon.
The day, however, was mild and mellow.
The back-yard feeders attracted scores of birds. By 1:30 p.m. they had emptied three feeders filled the night before. Mostly they're finches. We've long enjoyed large flocks of finches, but not on this level for days on end. They toss aside as many seeds as they eat.
I sat in a portable blind and watched and photographed them for a while. They settle in and select seed with care, sticking their entire head into the openings. The seeds are almost as big as their beaks.
The details of their feathers up close are intricate.
When they leave en masse, though little individually, they make quite a noise.
Oddly, the chickadees seemed more tentative about me in the blind than did the finches. A woodpecker checked in for awhile. Nuthatches came by, too.
It was quite a gathering of feathered friends for an afternoon before a holiday -- and part two of a storm.
9:45 p.m. -- It's been raining for several hours now -- and the temperature is 28 degrees F. Ice is building. It's a shiny world out there. We'll see what the rest of the night brings.
The price of laziness
Wednesday, December 23, 2009
When I left for work this morning the dawn was breaking in the woods. I shot a quick grab shot, but it was a scene and composition I've shot already and I didn't use a tripod. I figured it was insurance. If all else failed I had a so-so image. It could only get better, right? A friend called and we went to lunch, ending my plan to shoot at noon. By the time I got home it was after 5 p.m. Light was failing. Dusk was rapidly approaching.
I grabbed the same camera without the tripod, and started composing and shooting knowing I was pushing a variety of limits, and thus compromising quality. But I was feeling lazy, confident in my hand-held abilities after nearly 30 years of news photography and wanting to milk what little light there was without wasting a second of it -- there were so few to use.
I shot for about 15 minutes. I composed a variety of scenes, the level of light being the dominant limiting factor. When I went inside I knew I had an image or two.
But cutting corners -- for reasons good or lame -- comes at a cost. The quality of the photos suffered. Lesson relearned: If you think you're cutting a corner, you probably are and it will utlimately show.
Around the yard I was struck by how beaten up the snow is. Squirrel, deer, bird and other tracks have turned the once pristine what landscape into one as pockmarked as the moon. One can tell where the mice are living and coming and goiong from. The same is true for chipmunks and for finding what trees are squirrel highways. The deer are beginning to make their own trails. And they are using them more frequently.
Mourning doves are increasingly congregating in the swamp, but they fly off as I get near. They don't wait around much.
And did the birds eat today. They easily consumed three gallons of sunflower seeds., emptying the two smallest feeders and nearly emptying three others. Do they sense the storm approaching? Freezing rain and worse is expcted over the next 48 hours. Can't say I'm looking forward to freezing rain; it can be pretty, but it can be dangerous, too.
The crisp air and sky of last night has been replaced with one more laden with hints of moisture. The moon, so clear last night, was shrouded with a halo that changed in intensity and duration, depending on the density of the thin clouds forming and passing in front of it.
The crisp shadows of last night are less defined and deep tonight.
We'll see what morning brings.
Day and night
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
As dark as Monday was, today was bright and sunny. It's as if even the earth and the celestial skies celebrated passing of the winter solstice.
The sun cast long shadows in the yard, intersecting with the ski trail I've been working on. Over the years I've learned how to gain the most downward slope out of the little yard. It's actually a fine chunk of Earth for skiing. From the upper yard to the creek takes several small slopes. Add in a few curves and a few large oaks on the route and one has the ingredients for an enjoyable, if short, place for an after-work ski. I tend to save it for days I can't get out on the trails at Ludington State Park or in the nearby Manistee National Forest. This evening was an example. After work I had to go to the store for a couple items. By the time I got home it was dark. The moon was hanging in the south sky already, edging from the midpoint to the west. So after making a handful of images, I put away the camera and slapped on the skis for a 30-minute tour through the yard and the woods of my neighbors. I don't ski his woods during deer season, and I mostly stick to its northern property line shared with the subdivision that is north of me.
Tonight, I realized the small moon was still bright enough for a ski. Skiing under moonlight through a field or a woods is an awesome way to spend part of an evening or night. You can see for a quarter mile or more, once your eyes get used to the light. Moon shadows are everywhere. And, when the moon is full, fresh snow such as dusted the snow pack today will glisten in a way one might think only artists, Hollywood or God could dream up.
The air was brisk, but not cold. There was no wind. Skiing was good. It felt fine to be alive in northern Michigan in winter. Those who don't enjoy winter, just don't engage it on its terms. Once one does with respect -- dresses right, know ones limits, takes appropriate care -- winter can be a blast.
Why mope around inside fretting that it's cold outside, when by engaging the outdoors one can find the rewards it offers?
Nights like tonight, crystal clear with a brilliant moon and glistening stars, are God's gift to those who venture out, the yang to yesterday's gloomy ying.
Today was as different as yesterday as night is from day, and both day and night had a special light this day.
Winter solstice, 2009
Monday, December 21, 2009
The winter solstice -- when the sun is the greatest distance from the equator, and in the Northern Hemisphere when it is shining directly over the Tropic of Capricorn -- occurred at 12:47 p.m. EST today.
I was in the swamp framing a photo of four birch at the east end of my property that have intrigued me for months. I've shot them several times, but have yet to truly feature them. I didn't intend to feature them when I went outside at 12:30 to prepare for a picture at the moment of the winter solstice. But I just couldn't get moved by the scenes in the upper yard. That's when I remembered the four birch in the swamp. I had wanted not to shoot the swamp for solstice, but in my mind I could see a photo.
As I tromped down through the yard scattering birds, the light snow that was falling picked up in intensity.
By the time I had set up the tripod, composed the photo and began to shoot it was 12:47 p.m. I'd like to say the photos you see were taken precisely at the moment of the solstice, but they all were made in the minutes following it. I just didn't nail the exposure and composition in time to capture what I wanted. And, in the end, the scene of the snow falling has the birch in them, but they're in such soft focus they're almost invisible.
The winter solstice is the shortest day of the year as far as light goes. It is the longest night of the year and that was clear early this afternoon. After making the photos and doing some chores and a short solstice ski in the yard and nearby woods, I headed to town around 3 p.m. Cars already had on their headlights, and while not required, the lights did cut into the gloom. At a store downtown, a merchant confided he didn't particularly like life here in winter because it's dark so much. I suggested one gets more light by getting out in the outdoors, even in the late afternoon, and that in a few weeks it will become increasingly brighter later.
I try not to dwell on the darkness. We officially turned the corner toward longer and more light today.
There was beauty in the swamp. There was even a strange, northern beauty in the low light of late afternoon. There was a blueness to the gray that had nothing to do with the blue of clear skies. It seemed more due to what little light there was bouncing off the snow. Thank God there is snow cover. That magnifies what little light there is by bouncing it around. When there is no snow cover this time of year, it really is thick with darkness that seems to almost drown one in blackness. The snow that so many don't like, brightens this part of Michigan on this light-challenged day.
And here's a bit of trivia for you from Infoplease.com: "The sun appears at its lowest point in the sky, and its noontime elevation appears to be the same for several days before and after the solstice. Hence the origin of the word solstice, which comes from Latin solstitium, from sol, = sun and -stitium, = a stoppage.
Following the winter solstice, the days begin to grow longer and the nights shorter."
Now that's something to brighten your day -- or night.
Who put the dimmer on?
Sunday, December 20, 2009
The winter solstice comes Monday. It will be the shortest day of the year, in terms of daylight. Today I tried hard to get us used to that idea. It was no day to be selling sunglasses.
It wasn't a bad day; on the contrary. I skied the yard and found the conditions to be the best yet this year -- fast, with control and very comfortable in the high 20s with no wind. Almost ideal -- except it was another gray scale day with the scale very small. It never got bright, but even now near midnight without moon, it's not really black, either. It's just kind of the absence of light rather than dark.
And it was a flat light, with few highlights, no sparkles in the snow. Everything was kind of mushy whitish or mushy darkish. The day lacked visual contrast.
And it was quiet. I can't remember so many quiet days in a row. Last winter was one storm after another. We've not had many storms so far this almost-winter season.
The main colors are provided by the beech leaves that are hanging on. They are in a variety of browns, from desert khaki tan to rich burnt umber shades of brown and orange. They seem almost fluorescent in the gray world.
I did a fair bit of walking and looking today without anything striking me as particularly photogenic. If I hadn't set a goal of at least a photo a day, I would never have taken the camera outside today, at least not in the yard.
Even the birds fed early and mostly disappeared. Few were to be seen in the afternoon.
I've never subscribed to the poetic notion that winter means dead. I still don't; the signs of life are seen in the tracks in the snow. They're heard in the noise of birds in the woods and swamps. But a day like today does let one understand how a person might conclude it's a time of death. Not much was going on.
The solstice comes early Monday afternoon. Winter will officially arrive. But the good news is on what will be the shortest day of the year in terms of light, the length of daylight starts increasing. It won't be noticeable much for a few weeks, but surely it will begin happening. Then, one day in mid-January, the realization will arise that it's after 5 p.m. and the sun's just going down. That's the start of the return of the sun king.
Comments 4 comments
Saturday, December 19, 2009
Predicted snow never came. The temperature hovered around freezing. Clouds muted the light, but there was enough for subtle shadows that seemed to enhance patterns and painted the world in tones of black and white.
The deer have begun moving freely again through the yard. Overnight tracks appeared in several areas. Hunting has all but stopped, though technically it continues through the end of the month.
The deer are using at times my trails, probably they're just a bit easier to walk on than the crunchy 7 or 8 inches of compressed snow left from last week's storms. The deer are mainly moving at night, it seems. Of course there's far more night than day right now.
And the birds are visiting the feeders by the scores At times several dozen or more will be working on the feeders or the ground below. The trees are full of birds awaiting their chance to ferry away a sunflower seed. The winter solstice is but two days away.
Halo, contrail and frost at the creek
Friday, December 19, 2009
The sun starred in the yard today. Looking up at noon a halo was easily seen around the sun, though in the yard one had look through the trees to see it. I went out and stood at the western edge of Lincoln Road and shot this photo. Six-sided ice crystals in the thin, cirrus clouds create the common affect.
This one didn't last long. Within 15 minutes of my spotting it initially, it was gone. Be careful when looking at halos. I did something not recommended and didn't block the sun before looking and shooting.
A few minutes later a jet sped by from the east to the west directly overhead. It's not a route I've noticed jets use often. I hadn't thought about it until tonight, but I rarely see jets pass overhead here. At the lake, looking west, the contrails left by the exhaust of the jet engines, often form somewhat predictable patterns in summer, suggesting by their predictability that they are regular routes.
The contrail was shot not long after the halo, but the sky directly above the yard was mostly free of any type of clouds. The contrails became the short-lived cloud in the field of blue.
The sky encouraged me to go down to the creek in case there was a cool reflection. Instead I found large flakes of frost jutting from leaves in the creek. It was cold over night, perfect for the frost forming in the waterway litter. But it made for such nice looking natural litter.
Listening Point: Lincoln Road Journal, the new name
Listening Point: Lincoln Road Journal, the new name
Thursday, December 17, 2009
I've been thinking about the name of this project almost from the moment I hit the save button and created One Year In the Backyard. It's bothered me in several ways. First, I'm covering far more than my backyard. Two, it sounds like a in-home prison sentence meted out by a judge. And third, it has all the ring of a lead pipe on an unbaked loaf of bread.
It dawned on me recently, it's really a subtitle. Thus, a new name, though it might be a while before it morphs onto the site. The project, as I've come to refer to this, will now formally be called Listening Point: Lincoln Road Journal, One Year in the Backyard.
That, of course, could change, too. That's one thing about this electronic stuff. One can tweak on the fly.
Moving on ...
It was a sunny, cold day. But the light made the fresh lake effect snow of Wednesday sparkle and glisten. The effect is as eye-catching to me as any jewelry. In fact, it's more priceless. It's free to any who open their eyes, look and savor. And it's fleeting. It changes with the light, with wind, with a change of temperature.
In the light snow on top of the crust of last week's snow, tracks are giving away the activities of the woods' creatures still here and active as winter arrives.
One photo today shows the tell-tale pattern of a squirrel traversing the yard. They kind of hop as much as run, it seems, leaving a cluster of four paws -- two small in front and to the inside, and two larger prints to the back and outside of the cluster. They go between trees, wood piles, holes into the snow.
On the driveway a lone deer's tracks could be seen. The deer walked down to the road. I didn't find where it entered the drive; time was short today for me to search for such clues.
A few heads of flowers, brown and dead, still rise above the snow-covered garden. A few months ago I was watching the wolf spider and her brood in its burrow in the garden. Today, the spot is just a sculpted, organic expanse of snow with the garden below given away by those dead flower heads.
Autumn olive berries are hanging in there, contrasting with the snow and blue sky.
Like the berries, I'll hang in there, too, hoping to share half the color to these cold months produce that few pay attention to, caught up in feeling the chill, not seeing the small signs of life and splotches of color.
A squirrelly day shopping
December 16, 2009
Sometimes I think the animals have it better than we humans.
Today started crisp and cold and it stayed that way. Tonight as I write just before midnight, the thermometer sits at 10 degrees F. It's very still out. Wispy clouds gauze over some of the stars which, in the cold, always seem more intensely bright against the seemingly blacker emptiness of the moonless night sky.
Nothing is stirring. I filled the bird feeders. These days the birds go through about 2 gallons of black oil sunflower seed a day. They spill a lot of it. That, in turn draws squirrels. This morning when we arose -- kind of late since neither of us worked, there were about a dozen squirrels jockeying for position to feed on the ground below the feeders. Most hovered right below. One found where I spilled a half-cup of feed when I slipped on an small slope the night before. It hunkered there all the time I watched claiming its prize that the others never located.
Sometimes one squirrel or another would try to rearrange the feeding order and they'd all go scurrying about, a frenzy of furry tails frantically unfurled skyward. One black squirrel attempted several times to jump up on the PVC pipe that serves as a post for the feeders. I had read somewhere that 4-inch PVC pipe is such a dimension and slipperiness that squirrels can't climb up it. It's been up maybe seven years, and , if cleaned and waxed with car wax a couple times a year, I can attest to its ability to frustrate squirrels for the most part.
Once it gets dirty, and the squirrel jumping on it today, starts the process from the ground up, it eventually gets a tad tacky and the squirrels then can get traction and eventually some can climb up the post.
But not yet. Today the pole won.
The squirrels -- or deer -- scuffed around under pine at the edge of the back yard either early in the morning or overnight. It looks like a deer dig from the house. I didn't get a chance to get a close enough look to see the tell-tale tracks leading to or from the spot. It's in an area where I raked the acorns. Eventually deer find the ragged rows of the remains of fall.
But the squirrels seemed a theme for the day. My wife dragged me to the mall in Muskegon for the annual Christmas shopping pilgrimage. I went nuts. People act not that much different than the squirrels. We gather in one store or another searching for bargains and, when a real deal is found, we sometimes have to ward others off to get the nut before they do.
So today, in honor of shopping and thus not being able to ski, snowshoe, hike or just mosey around the yard at leisure, I offer the squirrel, the mascot of the shopper in search of that special nut.
A break in the clouds
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
A cold front moved in overnight bringing freezing temperatures, light snow and a steady wind that pushed clouds and created breaks through which at times heavenly light streamed down. In the yard, the light beams would break through intermittently and almost act as a spotlight turning snow into a blanket of light-catching crystals, casting long shadows and at times adding iridescence to the edges of some of clouds near the sun.
More about those later. The light highlighted the tracks of my snowshoes. I didn't know if I needed them today, but chose to play it safe rather than to punch through the crusty old snow. Besides, it helps set up a path that can last all winter.
Down at the creek, it was reflecting robin's egg blue sky and cotton white clouds, though the wind rippled the water's surface. The water is running clear, free of sediment. In fact, it looks as if upstream from The Big Ugly, the current is beginning to carry away the sediments dropped in the fall. Once again, spots of sandy bottom show through.
I was quite entranced by the motion of the water this morning. I watched little ripples caused by mostly unseen obstructions, twigs probably not as bid as pencil. Yet they were enough to create round fans of ripples in black and white.
Later in the day, I cross-country skied at Ludington State Park. I always enjoy time out in the 5,000 acre mix of sand dunes, forested ridges and swamps bisected by Hamlin Lake and Big Sable River that runs from Hamlin to Lake Michigan.
There were a lot of sign of deer activity. They've been working hard digging acorns. At home, in my yard, the only deer track I found today was at the extreme southeastern corner. It appears the deer are cutting across from the creek to my neighbor's compost pile along that line. Or maybe they just like to go close to his garden.
In the park, acorns are providing some of the food for the deer.
After skiing I stopped at Lake Michigan. I figured the broken, tattered masses of clouds I'd been watching all day might make for a good scene over the lake. I wasn't disappointed.
The openings allowed for rays of light to radiate down to the lake's frothy surface. These are called crepuscular rays and they look truly heavenly. Often, in winter at least, when crepuscular rays are present another phenomenon can be seen: iridescent clouds. The iridescence generally shows up near the edges of the openings of the clouds on either side of the sun. Be careful, looking directly at the sun can harm your eyes. I've probably toasted mine over the years photographing various sunny scenes. I put a polarizer on my lens to make the iridescence stand out just a bit more. It's like a little rainbow coloring at the edges of some clouds the sunlight is streaming through.
In addition to the normal pinks and yellows, today there was a blue I hadn't seen before, and later, the water of Lake Michigan took on that color for a few moments.
Alas, in the woods, it's difficult to see such things. The lakeshore provides a better viewing platform. Fortunately, it's just a few minutes away from my little backyard
Monday, December 14, 2009
Another gray day. Misty at times, but not enough to develop a real mood other than pensive and quiet.
It sat at above freezing almost all day. Moisture hung in the air. A couple weeks ago 35 degrees and wet would have felt bone-chilling cold. Today it felt mild. I finished cutting some wood collected a few weeks ago and stacked that not knowing how many more mild days like today we'll enjoy.
That's one way you know it's Michigan in winter. People enjoy 35 degrees, gray and drizzly damp. I'd just as soon have it be 10 degrees colder with flurries, but I have no say in the matter.
One odd thing happened while cutting wood in a pile near the propane tank. As I pulled out a long limb that needed to be cut into firewood length, and began cutting, a large mouse exited the pile, climbed the oak tree that serves as one support for the pile, turned and stared at me. It was as if it was asking what did I think I was doing ruining his nest? It stayed on the lee side of the trunk from me while I cut. When I last saw it, the mouse was still clinging to the trunk at about eye height. I was a mess of mushy snow, sawdust and dirt, so I didn't go into the house in search of the camera. I just enjoyed the sight.
One of the realities of wood piles is they attract mice, chipmunks, spiders, various insects and other surprises. I always wear leather gloves when stacking or removing wood from a wood pile. It protects against spider bites and other unpleasantries.
I also rarely stack any wood next to the house, though sometimes I will in late November or early December knowing I'll burn it within a few weeks. Any longer, and you're begging to have a varmint problem too close to your house.
Photographically, I had an image in mind that I was going to seek out. But I chanced to get in my pickup truck in search of something and was caught by the look o f the woods to the south through the drop-covered windshield. One thing led to another, and I spent most of my photo shooting time in the truck of the car parked next to it trying to capture the image of the woods inverted in drops on the window. I like the results. Enjoy.
Drained of color
Sunday, December 13, 2009
Clouds moved in last evening and have grown thicker until they have blocked any sight of open sky. That means no views of the meteor shower peaking tonight. Such is life in temperate Michigan. The clouds and mild temperatures coupled with an eerie calm suggest some weather soon to arrive.
The toughest part of mid-December through mid-January are gray days like today that never really seem to reach daylight brightness. It's as if a dimmer turned down the light.
And, without strong sunlight, what color is left outside drains away, drowned in shades of gray. It's even tough to find real whites or true, deep blacks, everything seems masked in gray.
So I searched for a splotches of color. A lone beech life emerging from the snow added some yellows. The remaining autumn olive berries still are red, though more of a brick red than the bright red of summer. Moss and fungus on oak trees provide a surprising amount of green on such days. The greens of pine boughs seem dark. One branch of what I'm going to call a picker bush for lack of better description sported a few green leaves flying like a flag above the snow refusing just yet to surrender. And wintergreen lived up to its name in an opening beneath snow-covered pine boughs.
The snow has become very wet and heavy in the above-freezing temperatures. I didn't try to ski or snowshoe today, though snowshoeing would have been fine and would have packed down a trail.
By 5:30 p.m. it was dark. Eight days to the winter solstice. Then slowly days add more time of sunlight -- though if the cloud cover is thick, it will be difficult to notice for a while.
A super day
Saturday, December 12, 2009
After watching a movie last night I went outside about 1 a.m. to see if I could spot some early Geminid Meteor Shower specimens.
After about 5 to 10 minutes of shuffling around trying to get the best view of the sky in my tree-covered back yard, I finally saw quite a bright meteor streak across the center of the sky toward the southwest. A moment or two late another one paralleled that track, also bright. When, in another minute, I saw a third one, I headed in to get dressed for the cold and grab camera, tripod and cable release.
I've succeeded previously in photographing meteors, mostly by accident. I would try to do so on purpose.
For the next half hour I again moved around the driveway trying to find the most open spot and locate the path the meteors would take. Before I was ready, one streaked to the west on a similar, though less southerly pass.
In that half hour I'd only see one more that I knew was a meteor. A phantom streak at the edge of my vision could have been a meteor, or it might have been a reflection in my glasses. I couldn't say for sure.
There was no moon, no lights on in or on the house, and only a few cars. I listened to the honking and murmurs of snow geese, I presume, on Hamlin Lake. When they overnight on open water in winter or early spring, their sound carries that mile.
It was still. There were few other sounds and it was dark, making the stars seem brighter and more plentiful than often encountered. There were little clusters here and there I'd never noticed before, but considering the thousands of stars visible last night, that wasn't surprising.
Only once did a meteor streak across the sky while I had the shutter open for exposures that ranged between 25 seconds and probably two minutes, though I lost count. But that meteor didn't show. It must have been out of the field of vision of the lens.
When I gave up, I was only slightly disappointed. I'd see a half-dozen meteors, enjoyed a brilliant sky and listened to a quiet world. Not bad for 1 a.m. in the woods of mid-Michigan.
This morning I rose before sunrise when I saw a colorful dawn out my window. I grabbed a coat, pushed some insulated boots on my bare feet and went outside in my pajamas. They hasty dressing didn't help. The color was gone, though a golden-yellow hue warmed the scene.
Later in the morning, properly dressed, coffeed-up and with snowshoes on, I hiked the creek. Winter along the creek is often suprisingly gorgeous. There are different ice and crystal formations. The water looks thick, oozing with a viscous elasticity. It's as if it's maple syrup flowing, and if interrupted and slowed too much, it will congeal, freeze and become a solid.
The light was superb. The air warming on a hint of a south breeze. I made many scores of images, wondering if I'd capture the magic in the light, the air and the creek.
I'm not sure I did, but like the meteor-hunting session, I didn't care that much. I was richer for trying. Much richer.
That freezing feeling
Friday, December 11, 2009
The temperature is rising as the day progresses. It started at 12 degrees -- pretty cold this close to Lake Michigan, this early in the season. The lake, which is still free of ice, acts as a giant radiator in winter warming the air that passes over it. Thus, near shore for a few miles inland, the air in winter is warmer than away from the lake. Big Rapids, about 60 miles inland from here, had a low of 10 and it stayed several degrees cooler there today than it did here. As I write this around 7 p.m. we have reached our warmest temperature of the day so far -- 19 degrees.
The inland lakes are sporting new ice, at least partially, and very thin.
We're hearing about wind chill again, though frankly it feels cold enough that one hardly cares. But we've had gusty winds so the wind chill has to be near zero or below.
But wind shifts to the south tomorrow and a slight warming trend is expected. I'd just as soon it stay cold. The sooner one gets used to it, the better it is all winter.
Plus, I did get the skis out Thursday and spent an hour on the Logging Trail at Ludington State Park. The first ski is always a mix of enjoyment -- and realization that I'm not in as good of physical condition as I'd like. Most years I do a lot of fall hiking in the park to break in my body to climbing hills and extended time moving. That didn't happen this year.
But it is only early December. Technically it's still fall, though today only the calendar believes that.
The cold, partially clear skies made for some brilliant lighting today. Alas, I was trying to leave work when the late afternoon sun highlighted the clouds in a magical, brilliant way. By the time I reached home, the magic was spent.
But the clarity of the air and sky even makes the stars seem brighter. Night sky watchers should keep an eye out for meteors in the next few evenings. The Longway Planetarium in Michigan sent out a notice that the Geminid meteor shower should be at its peak this Sunday night. The best viewing times are, of course, after midnight until about 5 a.m. But, they suggest looking toward the constellation Gemini from where the debris trail that creates the meteor seem to be coming from, though that's not the case.
"Some astronomers are theorizing that the Geminids will become the best meteor shower of the year. The Perseids in August seem to be diminishing, while we are starting to get into the denser part of the stream of debris that causes the Geminids," the planetarium reports. Some astronomers, the report continues, are predicting up to three meteors a minute.
It also adds this advice, "While you are out, early in the evening look for very bright Jupiter in the southern part of the sky and after midnight look for reddish Mars rising in the east-north east."
And remember, in Michigan and other cold places at this time of year, dress warm, if you're going to lie down to look up, by all means put a sleeping bag or something between you and the snow and the cold ground. Turn off your exterior lights so you're night vision isn't compromised and enjoy the show. Popcorn's OK, too.
I'll try to check it out tonight, in the hopes that the show could start early. Let you know what I find tomorrow.
In the meantime, I'll through more wood on the fire, keep warm and ward off the chill on this freezin' Friday night in late fall.
Blizzard? Not so bad
(This is the start of the third part of this project. Please also look at Parts 1 and 2.)
Thursday, December 10, 2009
As far as a blizzard goes, this wasn't much and the National Weather Service has canceled the warning for our area, though has kept it in place for this afternoon for south of here.
It just seemed like a good winter storm to me -- temperature in the teens, some snow and wind that gusted only to a max of 32 mph. Not that unusual, in my experience.
But the season has changed. It's solid winter out there with more than a foot of snow on the ground. I snowshoed this morning along the creek and in places there it drifted to knee deep. It's a great time to walk the creek. The clear water looks black against the snow. Obstructions that a week ago looked just messy, now pile snow in Dali-esque pillows of snow -- like sculpted marshmallows suspended over the water on toothpicks of branches.
Not much sign of four-footed wildlife moving. No deer tracks. Only one set of squirrel tracks -- and last week there were as many as a dozen under the feeds at one frolicsome time.
But the birds are out en masse. I watched and photographed them from about 10 feet away for 30 minutes. They got mostly used to me, as long as I didn't move too fast or make too much noise. It was interesting in the finches tended to alight on a small beech tree still holding brassy-browned leaves. The chickadees preferred low-hanging branches of the oak near me. The dark-eyed juncos hung around the edge of the house behind me. The cardinal came through a few times, but didn't stay long. I'm sure it didn't like me that close. Red-bellied woodpeckers careened through but didn't stop, again, I'm sure I was too close. Only one mourning dove came by for a few moments. One winter a flock of about four dozen roosted in the tree next to the feeds during a snowfall on a calm afternoon, They never moved. As the day went on snow lightly piled on their backs.
One intriguing thing this morning was watching a finch eat snow. There was no mistaking it. After it had visited the feeder, it alighted on a branch with a blob of snow resting precariously on the slender piece of living, but dormant, wood. And it started eating the snow. It open its beak, stick in the snow, close the beak and repeat. Hadn't seen that before.
That, of course, is a reward -- however small one might think -- of slowing down, waiting for the natural world to accept or ignore you, and thus, get to see it up close.
Hope to get the skis out yet today. Now on to a few duties first.
More by this Author
A doe licks the face of a young deer, snow still on its back, just up from its bed this morning. Tree mourning doves share a branch in a maple tree. Tuesday, February 9, 2010 The dark shapes of the bedded...
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...