Spring, Lincoln Road Journal, One year in the backyard
Out like a lovable lamb
Wednesday, March 31, 2010
A warm and pleasant end to March today brought. Temperatures peaked in the 60s. That combined with warm sunshine melted almost all the remaining snow in the yard. By Thursday afternoon, all the snow in the yard will be gone.
The greening of spring is one warm rain away, though that's nowhere in sight yet.
In the woods, the brittle and brown beech leaves from last year still cling to branches, but they're hold is week. A slight tug dislodges them now. A blast of wind sometimes does the same. The beech are preparing for spring. The oaks have lost all their old leaves. A few caps of old acorns still can be seen in the tops of the trees and there's yet no sign of the oaks budding. But the tips of the maple trees are now all red. The buds are coming on. Maple syrup season in these parts are over, and it wasn't a great year because it warmed too quickly.
We're being warned not to trim red oaks for the next few months. Oak wilt is moving through the woods of northern Michigan. My neighbor lost several red oaks to the disease that's spread by small bugs that transfer sap from one red oak to another. To make matters worse, the disease also can spread through the roots. One can try expensive sprays and trench around each oak to make sure the roots of one three don't touch the roots of another. But that or chemical treatments are very expensive and would leave the yard a mass of trenches.
In some forests of northern Michigan the chosen solution is to log the red oaks as the only cost-effective solution to try to slow the spread of oak wilt.
For now, I'm going to let nature take its course. We've lost a little oak or two to the disease, but I'm hoping it skips our part of the woods. That may prove to be wishful thinking.
The song of robins now fills the evening air before dusk. Cardinals sometimes join in. Both are a treat to listen to.
My wife reported seeing a flock of dark-eyed juncos in the yard today. According to her records they usually show up in early April. They're only a day early.
I listened also to the trees swaying. Is it only my imagination or now that it is warmer and the sap is running, are they more limber, like a ballerina in her prime, able to move this way and that gracefully? Half-frozen and lacking sap in the cold winter months, they seemed to clatter into one another with all the grace of a stiff, old man doing the twist.
And in the woods I stumbled across a wintergreen plant still bearing its single, cheery, Christmas-red fruit. It was as bright as a red neon light amidst the dull browns of dead leaves on the floor of the woods. Wintergreen often keep a berry year round. I should try crushing the leaves of a wintergreen plant -- we have them by the score in the woods. They give off that wintergreen aroma. Just another thing to like as the transitional month of March comes to an end. April, come she will
Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Another cool, dry day with light breezes. The leaf litter left over from last fall is now as dry as it was when the leaves fell from the tree. Moisture from 70+ inches of snow plus rain over winter has mostly moved into the ground, run off into the creek or evaporated from the leaves into the atmosphere.
The leaves on the ground truly are tinder dry. A careless match, cigarette, flame or spark could set the woods on fire faster than you can shout, "get the hose." Most of northern Michigan is under a do not burn advisory. There are more grass and woods fires in the area daily.
Such conditions are part of the reason I rake leaves early in the month. There's little fuel right around the house now, minimizing the chance we'd do something stupid in the driveway or at the grill that could cause a fire to race into and through the woods.
Fire experts recommend brush be cleared from around houses in the woods such as ours to improve the chance of the house withstanding a wildfire. It's a real concern at times such as these. Someone's carelessness with a ground fire or a trash fire could burn acres and structures in the way.
Late this evening clouds moved in for a while, the wind dropped, the air warmed and one could feel moisture, spring moisture that hints of rain. But the clouds passed and the clear, cool and dry conditions resumed.
Crocus continue to bloom around the yard and at the edge of the woods. Purples, yellows, whites. They are welcome splotches of brightness in a brown-hued woods.
I spent a bit of time this afternoon picking apart a paper wasp nest removed from the shed. About the size of a basketball, only squashed a bit, the intricate layers of comb structures, some with young wasps that didn't make it. It's quite a marvel of engineering, efficiency and cramped quarters. It was attached to the interior side of a door into the rafter area of the shed. On the exterior of the door hangs my basketball hoop. Somehow this summer I didn't use it much. Was that ever lucky.
Tonight the moon will bring in the last day of March. It partially lived up to its windy reputation. It sure didn't bring any moisture. We'll need April showers for sure this spring. Not only will the flowers depend upon it, but morel mushrooms tend to better with moisture. The morel season is approaching.
Monday, March 29, 2010
The first full moon of spring is rising as I write this. Now its muted by low-lying haze and clouds on the horizon. It has yet to break the tree line. Once it does that, it should be a bright night, with long shadows in the woods.
One difference from the full winter moons is the lack of snow cover. Last night, when the moon was almost completely full, I was at first surprised at how dark it was. Duh! There was no snow to reflect the moonlight. Instead of the woods glowing with light bouncing off the snow, it was darker. The brown leaves and grasses absorb far more light, thus dimming down the power of the full moon compared to a snowy night.
Still it's beautiful and I'll check it out later.
This evening I photographed common birds. The mourning dove was far less easily spooked the most of its flock that would take flight if I opened a door of the house. The sole dove I photographed this evening kept watch of me, but allowed me to shoot for five minutes before taking flight. Many birds don't like it when they notice I point a camera their way. This one tolerated it, but took notice at the clicking of the shutter.
A ladderback woodpecker wasn't so cooperative taking flight upon hearing the first click.
A pair of cardinals came in late, about sunset, when the light in the yard already was failing. The woods filtered the strength from the late evening sun beams. A pair of cardinals have been here all winter but visited only rarely. Now they're back each morning and evening, very early and very late respectively.
And later a robin -- so common it's Michigan's state bird -- worked the edge of the yard, under the hemlock boughs. Once another robin attacked it briefly. It must have invaded a territory where it wasn't wanted.
For now is the nesting and mating season and the birds are kind of flighty with one another.
There was nothing unusual today. It was a typical early spring day in the yard, cold, clear and uneventful.
It has me waiting for the moon to be high in the sky.
Spring is arriving.
Sunday, March 28, 2010
The temperature stood at freezing -- 32 degrees F -- when I put the kayak on the truck and headed for the Lincoln River near Ludington. It's perhaps the humblest and least used of area rivers, small until it broadens into Lincoln Lake.
Here on the west coast of Michigan, the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, most rivers have sand bottoms and enter Lake Michigan through some sort of breach in the dunes that line the shoreline like a sand wall. For thousands of years of westerly winds have piled sand into dunes. This past decade of low water gave an opportunity for dune building again and new smallish dunes formed just inland on newly bared beach as the lakes receded. This past year water started rising again, chewing into the new dunes. What's important to know is this process over the centuries has choked off rivers causing lakes to form. Lincoln Lake is one such drowned river mouth lake. From the lake to Lake Michigan is but a short, 10-20 minute paddle, depending on diversions for photos or sightseeing. Today deer, a cardinal and ducks at times slowed my progress to the "Big Lake" -- the local name for Lake Michigan. There I leisurely paddled and trolled seeking to catch a brown trout. I only had one hit and missed the fish, but it was such a pleasant way to spend 90 minutes, I really didn't mind.
Back home a couple hours later, the thermometer had already warmed to 50 degrees. The sun has much warmth in it now. If its sunny and clear the sun will warm you if you can stay out of the wind which grew in strength as the day progressed.
The yard was fairly quiet. Not much was going on. I photographed some still life scenes of old leaves in light, of a funky old stump and raccoon tracks at the creek. I felt pretty good about the shots.
Then I checked out the water strider hole where I saw the chickadees working the day before. The chickadees were again working on the dead tree trunk that tilts over the creek. The little pair of birds were working on the exact same spot on the tree. Saturday I only watched from one spot. Today I worked around to the west side of the tree and discovered the birds were excavating a nest cavity. They'd been busy. The cavity was now large enough for one bird to almost disappear within the tree. It would peck away at the rotting wood sending little woodchips tumbling into the creek every couple seconds. At times, it would turn its head around and look at me, but then it would return to work. I watched for a few minutes, then slowly backed off. With luck, they'll succeed in establishing the nest and a family. It seems an awfully exposed spot and they aren't trying to hard to hide. I can only hope no predator raids their home. Time will tell.
Elsewhere, the crocus have bloomed. They're the first flower of the year. Daffodils and tulips are shooting up, but as is normal the crocus is the first in bloom. Many more crocus will bloom in the coming days. It's nice to see vivid color again.
The patches of snow continue to melt. They won't make it through next week.
The cat now joins me outside. I'm not sure I want her with me when I'm stalking birds and chipmunks, but while I photographed flowers and cleaned the garage -- the mundane must be done, too -- I'm fine with her out either following me around, of finding a place to nap. In fact her napping in a garden box and on the front porch inspired me to take a short nap outside, too.
Yes, the sun is getting warmer.
Saturday, March 27, 2010
A cool day with light clouds much of the late morning and afternoon left on feeling mellow in the subdued light.
Before the clouds moved in I checked out the creek in search of who knows what. The neighborhood hawk hunted just out of sight. I could hear him, but he kept the edge of the canopy between him and me.
The water of the creek is clearing, losing its red-tannin stain. The swamps have been draining for weeks, but without rain and with almost all the snow melted, there is little water beyond its normal capacity.
In the warm sunshine the water striders mate, seek mates and try to find food. But there's not a lot of insect life yet. It was interesting watching individual striders check out each piece of grass, twig or other vegetative matter that floated by. I hadn't observed that before, but maybe I wasn't looking close enough. Water striders feed on the life juices of insects they find on the water's surface. They literally suck the life out of them.
That they were trying to mate, I surmised a few days ago witnessing a violent encounter that researchers say is prelude to strider mating. A male must subdue a female, and apparently, it's a battle that includes brute power, much hopping, skipping and eventually domination and coaxing for the copulation to begin. Researchers say the little bugs, once engaged, can copulate for hours. Well, I didn't watch the coupled pair but for a few minutes, until a movement of mine spooked them and they flitted off across the creek while still copulating.
As I waited -- fruitlessly it turns out -- for the bashful hawk, a pair of chickadees alighted on a branch a few feet from me. They took turns clinging to the top of a rotting tree covered with fungi. There they pecked at the tree like woodpeckers obviously finding something they enjoyed eating.
This evening a red squirrel found something it enjoyed, too. The first, heavy, wet and deep snow of the year broke quite a few branches of trees that didn't prove strong enough to bear the heavy load. The maple near the birdfeeder had a moderate size limb split along its center, parallel to the ground. The limb didn't fall and I wondered what would happen this spring. Part of me wanted to trim it off to make it easier for the tree to scab over the wound. But it's a branch the birds use constantly as a perching area while waiting to go to the feeder or to consume the seed they brought back from the feeder.
This evening, I watched as the red squirrel climbed all around the lowest part of the wound. There sap dripped down, staining the trunk below for five or six feet. The squirrel obviously was enjoying the sap, working at it for five minutes or so until it was spooked away. Perhaps red squirrels have a sweet tooth.
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Freezin' on a Friday
Friday, March 26, 2010
The deep cold moderated some today, but there was still plenty of chill in the air. That, in turn, put spring on ice for the day, with little change noticed.
The light was bright and clear, as it can only be when it is crisp and cold and there's no moisture or dust in the air. It's strong lighting.
Area lakes were void of fishermen. The cold kept them off the water. With so much of the snow melted and no rain in more than a week, conditions are dry. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment has quit issuing burning permits and is urging all not to burn outdoors.
In Mason County the first grass fire of the season ignited this afternoon east and south of here. In neighboring Lake County, five or six grass fires were reported in one day earlier this week. We went from snow on the ground to near flooding conditions to near drought in a few quick weeks. No significant rain is in the forecast. More grass fires are inevitable. The cold, dry wind sucks whatever moisture it finds at the surface of the ground. There is still higher-than-average water in nearby swamps. Our swamp is still soggy. But the duff and dried grass and sticks atop it are tinder dry.
If we don't get rain and the cold hangs on, we might make it into April with patches of remnant snow on the ground. A warm rain or a few warm, sunny days would wipe out what snow that is left, but there's an outside chance some will make it through next week.
This evening I put the skis away, pulled out the hammock, some summer, big lake fishing gear and am preparing for the transition now beginning. There's still wood to cut, split and stack, more cleaning and organizing to be done, but tonight makes for a good night to enjoy the fire in the woodstove. A freezin' Friday is perfect for that.
Thursday, March 25, 2010
Brrr. Freezing, windy weather returned today. A cold front with arctic chill descended upon Michigan and Lincoln Road pushed by winds gusting up to 31 mph.
Last year's dead leaves were blowing around. A few of the beech leaves still clinging to the trees, brown and wafer thin, were blown free. Crocus and daffodil continue to emerge from the ground, but face an uncertain night with temperatures plunging way below freezing and possibly into the mid-teens.
At the creek, the water striders found cover. Leaves blown from the dry floor of the woods are sailing down the creek, piling up at some oxbows and next to obstructions. The cold, clear sunlight couldn't bring warmth this evening.
And now, nearing midnight, a half-moon casts a pale light through the woods, hiding some stores, but bright ones glisten through the clear light. The fire is on, so is the furnace. It's a night to crawl deep beneath the covers. The chill is on.
Week of the water strider
Wednesday, March 25, 2010
Cooler, less brilliant and a reminder that winter is only a few days past, this day was cold, in part because hazy clouds diminished the sunlight, making it duller and stealing warmth before it reached the ground.
There are increasing signs of spring though. Crocus are almost ready to bloom. Other plants are pushing through the ground. Rain is a possibility by weekend. And the snow is quickly disappearing. The few patches left shrunk by 50 percent since Monday, with the rate of melting increasing each day. The ground is dry, though, so the melting snow is absorbed immediately.
Brenda and I visited the creek this evening. Again, the water striders captivated me.
These tiny creatures will be in and on the creek until late fall. Again I had no intention of photographing them this evening. But as I watched them scooting about, I was intrigued by the size of the wake made in proportion to their wild rice on legs body.
Perfect circles of ripples flowed away from the pond skippers when they moved. Their legs have tiny hairs that capture air helping keep them riding on the top of the water, sort of like a person running over the surface of a an air-filled jumping game at a circus. Water tension holds them above the surface. They communicate through the vibrations and ripples they make on the water.
This evening a pair of pond skimmers came together and frenzied the water. Was it a territorial fight? an attempt to win a mate? Either scenario is possible, from the research I've done this evening. If it was the latter, the male left unfulfilled since copulation can be an hours long event. This skirmish was but a few seconds long.
The event's violence was surprising. These two little pond skippers were going at it, roughening the water with splashes and wild ripples.
As suddenly as it started it was over. As I searched reference materials on water striders I was surprised by just how much research has been done on them. I'm not sure I was surprised by this. There's little that hasn't been studied by somebody.
This week, it appears I'm studying water striders.
Tuesday, March 23, 2010
The weather is spoiling us. Another, sunny mild day.
The chipmunks are going nuts. Every time I leave the house I encounter some. They're entertaining to watch as the zip here, zag there, stop, chatter, and zig-zag somewhere else. There burrows are well defined and basically are all around the house. The big new burrow I found in the woods to the west of the house last fall is in use, too.
As long as they stay out of my garage and house, I accept them as part of life in the woods. So far this spring, none have tried to enter the garage. Maybe none will this year.
These are little ones, perhaps slimmed down from winter, or perhaps recently born. They put up with me at a distance. But if I point a camera at them or approach them they skitter off.
The squirrels that so filled the yard this winter have went back to the woods. I rarely see more than a couple at a time now -- a more normal number than the dozen or more that hung around when snow was deep.
Many a homeowner develops a real loathing for chipmunks. They can be destructive. They do like to burrow in the yard. They do like to eat tulip bulbs and some other flower bulbs. They leave daffodils alone, though. Mixing some daffodils in with other bulbs can reduce the carnage a hungry chipmunk can cause to a flower bed.
At the creek, I was struck by the blue sky reflecting in the swamp. There are little pockets of surface water standing amidst the black muck of decaying leaves. A few leaves are sitting dry atop the brew. It's kind of nasty in a good, decomposing sort of way. So the pretty blue sky coloring the otherwise deep black pockets of water is startling and unexpected.
On the creek, a fallen tree and a sand bar created a little rapids. Just a few small riffles and some troubled water downstream from it for a couple feet. But brought in close in the late afternoon sun, the camera makes it appear like a large body of active water. Alas, it's only the creek.
This evening I felt the need to see a bigger scene so I headed to Lake Michigan at Ludington State Park for sunset. There, a large sun dropped below the horizon reflecting on the outlet of the Big Sable River. It was a scene as grand as some in my yard are small.
But both have beauty, both speak of the world around us, both have merit.
The big stuff generally attracts the attention, but there can be big rewards, too, in the little things.
Song of spring
Monday, March 22, 2010
Another beautiful spring day. In addition to the blue skies, temperatures about 50, and a March breeze, singing of birds was more notable than ever this year. I listened to the song of a cardinal for 15 to 20 minutes this evening while working in the back yard. Earlier, while making photographs along the creek, titmice were singing and mourning doves were cooing.
While scanning the trees trying to locate the birds singing, I noticed the catkins of a poplar tree bursting from buds at the top of the tree high above the creek. These are the first bursts of spring I've seen from trees in the yard.
On the ground more and more plants are turning green, despite snow piles still lingering in some areas.
I finished for now the spring cleaning of the yard. I'm sure there will be another round in a few weeks, but at least the fallen branches, clumps of left-over leaves, bits of bark and pile of deer poop are mostly cleared away. The cleared portion of the yard looks like a yard again.
And all the while I could hear birds -- woodpeckers, the cardinals, doves and others singing, clattering on trees and flitting about.
We're a good warm rain away from spring bursting forth in all its glory, but the stage is being set.
Food for thought: Pulitzer Prize winning natural history writer Edwin Way Teale wrote "North With Spring chronicling his chase of the arrival of spring across the eastern seaboard of the U.S. He chased the season from Florida to Maine. He observes springs moves north at a rate of 15 miles per day. Thus, spring could be in full bloom in the deep south, while being weeks away from full bloom in a northern place such as Michigan. Nevertheless, its steady movement north at a clip of 15 miles per day is a nice notion to consider. Does it make rest stops? Does it seek souvenirs? Does it follow a AAA Trip-Tick or Map Quest its route?
One thing is for sure, we all await its arrival and will note and celebrate it when it lands on the 15 miles segment we call home.
For now, I hear its approach in the song of the birds. They're singing a song of spring. It sure sounds good.
Sunday, March 21, 2010
A frosty morning was followed by a day of sunshine and little signs of the arrival of spring.
Birds are singing again. They're heard more than they're seen. I brought in three feeders from the backyard to be cleaned and at least a couple of them to be put away until next winter. The birds are fending for themselves. Little insects, worms and other food sources are easy to find again.
On the ground, the acorn that survived winter, and most of them that did, are beginning to swell and cracks are forming at their pointed end. A few in moist leaves are already pushing through tendrils of new life seeking soil in attempt to become a mighty oak. So very few will succeed. But for now, most are trying, swelling in the warmth, moisture and sunshine of early spring.
At the creek the water striders flit across the water in afternoon light. Their long, thin legs hold their grain-like body above the water. Shadows from where their legs, bent to be parallel to the surface of the creek touch the water make dark, round blobs below the water.
Whitened, dried oak leaves float down the red water of the creek, little sailboats from a season past.
Shoots of daffodils are poking through the ground now. Soon, their yellow heads will nod above the duff of the woods floor.
These are just a few of the little signs of a big change -- winter's passing and spring's arrival.
March 20, 2010
Spring arrived at 1:32 p.m. today in west Michigan. It was cold, though, in the 30s. Coming across the state after spending time with family these last few days for the funeral of our mother, snow was falling and, between Lansing and Grand Rapids, it was accumulating. The closer we got to the Lake Michigan shoreline, the more the snow dropped off. Heading north out of Muskegon, the snow stopped and there was no sign of fresh snow by the time we arrived in Ludington.
The yard-- we've seen so little of it these past two weeks -- is brown, dormant and still home to a few patches of receding snow.
Lighting was flat so I headed to the creek where the water can add some pizzazz even on a dull afternoon.
The creek was lower than on Monday when we returned home between vacation and heading to metro Detroit for the funeral and to spend time with family. The creek still is running tannin-stained red tea in color. But the volume has subsided. A small cedar tumbled at the creek's edge. It fell in the direction the current goes, probably pushed over by high water and wind. The ground is so soft it doesn't provide much of an anchor. The piece of cut wood that has been stuck in the creek for the first seven months of the project moved since Monday. Combined with the knocked over white cedar, I can only presume water levels rose while we were gone. A mass of branches and grasses show a new flood mark near the creek.
Peeling bark from a birch near the creek flapped in the wind. The outer bark peels away to reveal the new, living layer of bark beneath. This is common in birch. Most of the old bark that still clung to the tree was on its south side. Perhaps the north winds of winter, blasting snow as they often do, first peeled the bark on the tree's other faces.
Upstream, a face of a different sort startled me. I came upon an area where a fallen log -- small, only three or four inches in diameter, has fallen across the creek and is half-submerged all the way across. It acts as a strainer capturing floating materials and bubbles creating a mass of foam that is shaped by the currents.
From one vantage point, the accumulated scum gives the appearance of a man's face. At least, I see a face in the shape it creates.
More importantly, the scum shows one way nature clarifies water as it moves downstream. In this case, the junk accumulates in the little bubbles held back by the log. The currents push the scum toward the bank where it sticks to the earth. The water on the downstream side of the log is clear, its surface free of debris.
Likewise the yard and nature help clear my head. This has been a difficult week. The loss of my mother was unexpected. She died in her sleep, peacefully, a book at her side.
Spending time in nature has always been a way I have dealt with the death of others, too. One can see that life carries on and that in death, something else is either born or nurtured to a life of its own. It doesn't make the loss of a mother any less keen, but it's a reminder death is natural; it is a fate all of us will encounter some day.
Now that spring has arrived its spirit of rebirth and renewal will be more welcome than ever.
I'll miss you mom. Your spirit will be in the north woods and the Lake Superior shoreline. I'll see you in ripples of sand on Whitefish Bay and in the whitecaps that can fleck its surface. And I'll see you in the wildflowers soon to burst forth.
Spring arrived this year when for me and my family, it will
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