For My daughter’s Good Friend


Old man, generous with his good advice,

He likes to share the wisdom of his years.

But if you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it twice.

You just don’t need to listen to his fears.


You know he knows his time is in the past.

His choice is should he putt or use a wedge.

While what you pick right now is what will last.

Look out!  You stand upon “A Razor’s Edge”.


You pick your school, your goal, your god, your mate.

You buy a house, submit to a career.

While in a few short years, you seal your fate,

Your future boss – he won’t commit one year.


Oh yes, you play the game and you might lose.

Take heart.  This is the time you get to choose.


Snowy Egret, near Cook’s Beach, NJ


6/2 – Late for the Party

This was weird.  My family went to the Jersey shore today, but we went to different beaches.  I dropped Chris, Kathryn, and Rachel off in Avalon at the public beach at the end of Avalon Drive.  They joined an impressively numerous group of fellow sun-bathers in search of the perfect tan, without burning of course.  Right now they are using SPF 15 and SPF 8 but by July they’ll move down to SPF 4.  I went to Reeds Beach.  I use SPF 50. 

      Reeds Beach is twelve miles directly west of Avalon on the Delaware Bay.  It is a beach with a narrow strip of sand and a long pier.  It’s one of the more popular places to view the shorebird migration, but I was in the very tail end of it.  I didn’t expect to see much.  At Reeds Beach  I saw a lot of gulls – Black-headed (black head, orange beak), Herring, and a huge Great Black-backed Gull.  That big gull was bigger than the Double-breasted Cormorants that he was sitting with.  That makes him about four inches taller than expected.  Proportionately that is a major difference.  There were thirty plus cormorants, some starlings, a few Common Grackles, some Boat-tailed Grackles, and a sparrow with white wing bars that doesn’t exist, according to my field guide.  Along Beach Drive, there were several martin houses packed with nesting martins, so I stopped to take their family photo.   Behind the martin houses, on a platform sitting on some posts, there was an Osprey nest with a chubby, young bird waiting for another meal.  He looked about ready to be kicked out of the nest.  It is none of my business, and I’m not trying to interfere, but it seems to me that some of these modern day parents seem to be coddling their chicks to the point of turning them into emotional cripples.   I’m just saying!

      I could see a lot of activity farther south, too far even for the birding scope, so I went back to Route 47 and drove a little further south.  I turned right at the next promising road.  It had a sign for Cook’s Beach or the road was named Cook’s Beach Road.  Anyway the beach it ended at is named Cook’s Beach.  The last few hundred yards were a single lane, and along that stretch is a marshy area that on this day had some Snowy Egrets.  After I stopped in the tiny lot at the end of the road (parking wasn’t actually necessary), a gentleman wearing a “Conserve Wildlife NJ” hat and a badge handed me two pamphlets and greeted me with a pleasant reminder to be sensitive to the shorebirds.  He was a volunteer shorebird steward.  The other people that I’ve mentioned so far on other birding trips have been private citizens, out for a pleasant day of birding, so to respect their privacy and because I’m too lazy to get them to sign permission forms, I have not mentioned their last names.  But the shorebird steward was acting in a very public capacity and wearing a nametag, so I think it is okay to identify him.  His name is Jim May.  He is one of the finest people that I’ve met. 

      We talked for a half-hour or longer, first about shore birds, but then about other things.  The previous day, at this beach, he had helped in the banding and had banded 150 birds.  He wasn’t bragging.  He was pleased that the guy he called the “real” expert, named Clay, had let him help.  I’m sure Clay would not have let just anyone help, so Jim must know what he’s doing around birds.  Jim told me that the birds were starting to do a little better.  The Red Knots had been down to 15,000 from a high of 150,000.  This year the count had ticked up to 25,000.  New Jersey had banned dredging and severely restricted the Horseshoe Crab killing.  Delaware had also limited the killing and restricted dredging to areas in the north of the bay where there are no crabs.  Also taking females has been restricted and the conch and eel fisherman are now required to use bait bags, which results in them using less bait. 

      There are labs that collect horseshoe crab blood because it contains a clotting agent that reacts to dangerous gram-negative bacteria.  The agent is called LAL and is used to test for bacterial contamination in drugs and vaccines.  Jim told me that the labs have to return the crabs to the beaches where they were found, but since all the labs doing this are out-of-state, the mortality rate is pretty high.  He said that the published mortality rate is 15%, but the real rate might be 50%.  I suggested making it illegal to transport the crabs out-of-state, which would force the labs to set up their work in New Jersey – more jobs for New Jersey.  He thought that was an excellent idea and plans to present it to the state government commission on jobs. 

      Say what?  Who was I talking to?  I may have some of the details wrong, but he’s an engineer, is associated with a major university, active in the state conservation movement, active in his church, a host of music parties in his home, and an awesomely smart guy.  Continuing to talk about birds, he thought that it will take more time for the crabs to come back in sufficient numbers.  He thought that the reason that the birds are starting to do better is because there is a slowing down of the habitat destruction.  Since I hadn’t seen a Red Knot, Jim showed me a life-size wooden statue of a Red Knot that he had in his car.  A good friend had made it for Jim.  It was a beautiful work of art that looked like a decoy for hunters, which reminded me to mention something that Scott W put in “Living on the Wind”.

      Scott noticed that the Horseshoe Crab population didn’t crash until 1950 and the reported numbers of crabs taken in the 1800’s indicate a large bounty of crabs remained on the bay.  However, no naturalists reported any large number of shorebirds on the bay in the 1800s.  There are a few reports of shorebirds in the thousands, but nothing in the tens or hundreds of thousands.  It is inconceivable that these respected naturalists could have missed an event like what was happening in the 1970s and 1980s.   So why were there so few birds on the Delaware Bay in the 1800s?  The answer is market hunting.  (F17.)  Gunners were killing birds by the millions.  When this practice was made illegal in 1916, bird populations started to rebound.  By today’s standards, the slaughter was horrific.  Today, anyone coming home with a bag of Robins to cook would be thought to be very strange, and maybe insane. Anyone who shot 800,000 shore birds in his lifetime would now be considered to be a kind of eco-terrorist.  But that’s an estimate for the number of birds single gunners were killing back-in-the-day that I saw posted on a sign in one of the Delaware NWRs.  In the 1800s it was not considered wrong to slaughter wild birds, just like in the 1900s it wasn’t considered wrong  to slaughter fish and other sea creatures – except for whales; killing whales became “wrong” in that century.  Now, slaughtering marine creatures is not only “wrong”, it is just plain stupid (although unfortunately, still legal).  Scott W pointed out in 1999 that the crab killing industry was an $850,000 business.  That is 42 jobs at $20,000 per year.  Contrast that to birding which back then was a ten million dollar a year business.  It is much, much bigger now.   The hotels in southern New Jersey can charge in season rates and require a minimum two night stay right up until November.  That is from people coming to look at birds.  It doesn’t count the huge sport fishing industry that is being threatened by the depredations of the floundering commercial fishing industry that has depleted the fisheries (I couldn’t resist the chance to throw in the “floundering” pun.   Sorry).  As fertilizer or bait or even as a source of the LAL agent, these animals are worth pennies.  As the keystone species for a natural system that provides entertainment for nature tourists (like me and you), these crabs are worth tens of millions of dollars to the economies of New Jersey and Delaware.  It is good business to view wildlife as wild life and not as a source of products.  Market hunting of fish and other marine animals needs to be stopped, just like we stopped market hunting of birds one hundred years ago.  Everyone will win, even the 42 crab killers, who will find that they will have a better selection of jobs to choose from in an expanded local economy.

      So you get an idea that Jim and I got along well and had a good talk.  After I said my good-bye, I stopped at the spot where I had seen a Snowy Egret on the way in.  Now there were eight egrets and six black birds with long curved bills.  I guessed, “Black Ibis”, which isn’t actually a real bird.  I was pretty close, though.  I used my blurry pictures to make the identification later.  They were actually a very dark maroon color and are called Glossy Ibis.  They range all year along the entire eastern coastline, but this is the first time that I’ve seen them.  Possibly it may have something to do with actually looking at them.

      At the next beach south, I finally got really lucky.  That beach is called Kimball’s Beach.  All the New Jersey beaches along the bay are roped off from May 7 to June 7.  To view the birds, you need to stay in a small area around the parking lots.  From this spot, on a sandbar south of me, I could see thousands of small birds.  I set up my scope to see what they were.  It felt good to see a bunch of shore birds.  Then I glanced north.  On a much closer sandbar, I could see another large group of birds.  I turned my scope on them and saw Sanderlings and with them bigger black and orange birds.  I went back to the car and got the bird guide.  They were Ruddy Turnstones!  Hooray!  These sandpipers and the turnstones were two of the major migrants.  Even though they were at the far reach of my scope, I tried digiscoping them.  Surprisingly the pictures came out well enough to clearly identify both species.  It was too bad that they weren’t any Red Knots.  I carefully scanned the flock of birds and at the point of the sandbar farther out into the bay, I saw four plump grey-backed birds with reddish orange breasts – Red Knots!  I digiscoped them too, and those pictures came out – not well enough to enter in a photo contest or put into a book, but clear enough to support a definite id.  Along with the Red Knots there were 300 to 500 Sanderlings and 500 to 1000 Ruddy Turnstones on the sandbar.  In the picture with the Red Knots, there was one plump, white-breasted bird with a small white head.  I don’t think that it was a gull, but I still can’t identify it.

      There was a couple on the beach looking at the birds in the distance with binoculars.  I asked them if they wanted to see the Red Knots through the birding scope.  You bet, they did.  They were from Lancaster and have a vacation home nearby.  They have been coming here for years, but had not seen the Red Knot yet.  They seemed as pleased to see these four birds as I was.  We chatted for a while and they told me that the beach a few feet in front of us had been so thick with birds on the previous day that you couldn’t see the sand. So I was one day late for the party, but I’m very glad that I wasn’t a no-show.

A very nice diner:  Coming home from the shore on Sunday evenings can sometimes mean long lines for traffic.  We waited it out by getting dinner at a diner along Route 47.  The food was tasty and even I had to admit that I needed a box for leftovers.  That is almost as rare as seeing an Audubon’s Oriole in Pennsylvania.  Maurice River Diner, Leesburg, New Jersey.


2013 - Changing too fast to pick out a day – more thoughts on evolution

This week I got a new laptop at work.  I had to take the back off it to install some additional memory cards, but since my machine was a different make and model than what my teammates had, it wasn’t obvious to any of us how to remove the back without breaking it.  No problem.  I just searched the make and model and “install memory” on Google and a YouTube video popped up showing someone doing this exact task on this exact machine.  A few days later, while installing a piece of software that I required, but that was incompatible with the new operating system on my laptop, I got really stuck.  After some slightly more intense searching on the Internet, again I found someone who freely provided a very exact, very intricate, and very correct solution to my problem.  This kind of experience is very common now.  Very smart people freely give away their extremely valuable intellectual property to perfect strangers, to people who very likely are employees of their competitors.  People my age, who have been brought up as capitalists, and have been taught that competitions have winners and losers, and who have trained rigorously to be winners… well, we don’t understand freeware.  We are glad it exists.  We use it.  Sometimes we contribute to it.  But deep down, we don’t think it should work.  We can see from experience that it does work; that the users of freeware are getting their problems solved; and that the producers of freeware are somehow getting rich.  We sort of get an application like Pandora that allows you to listen to music on the internet for free and reads your interests to produce music stations that play one song that you love after another.  We are thinking that research grants, government subsidies, voluntary user fees, or low key, subtle advertising result in a revenue stream.  Since the inventors get rich off popular apps, there must be a conventional fee for service process in play.  Maybe there is.  But when you post answers to problems that you solved, how do you get paid for that?  That’s what guys my age are thinking.  And also we are thinking, if I am your competitor, you just helped my company to beat yours.  Why would you do that?  But guys and gals thirty and younger don’t think freeware is strange.  They don’t think that posting their intellectual property on the internet is strange.  I think that this difference in approach in interaction with one another is a major change in our species and will lead to phenomenal changes in our culture.     

      To see how this works, consider the YouTube video that Mike told me about called “how to start a movement” narrated by Derek Sivers.  (F18.)  You can find it by searching for “how to start a movement” – Duh.  The video shows a shirtless guy at a concert dancing by himself.  In less than a minute, a second guy joins him – the first follower.  The original lone dancer embraces the first follower as an equal and has himself become a leader.  Almost immediately a third guy jumps in and the movement has started.  Within a few seconds more, the passive and hesitant watchers are hurrying to join the movement.  In less than three minutes, a single wild and crazy dancer has started a large and inclusive dance movement.  There are two critical events in the process:  first, an originator has the courage to stand up in a crowd and be the lone wild and crazy guy proposing his idea; second, the first follower has the courage to join the movement and is welcomed by the originator.

      Mike patterns his behavior at his major corporation on the basis of this video.  Not surprisingly, he is often in conflict with some members of his company.  Also, not surprisingly (at least to him, but not to all members of his teams), this approach has been wildly successful.  Mike found that initially some of his older peers and supervisors only taught him enough about the work processes so that they seemed to be helping him.  They expected Mike to stay quietly in his first-line manager position and wait politely for his turn to grab at the brass ring.  Instead, Mike opened up the available manuals, studied them, taught himself how to do undocumented processes, then documented them, and freely provided his work products to his personal chief competitors – the other first-line managers in his company.  When you put it this way, do you see why this approach works?  Whether you are the originator, the first follower, or joining in later, it is always the movement that matters.  No one is asking “how am I going to get paid?”  Everyone gets to join as an equal.   Everyone profits.

      Well maybe not everyone.  Look at the record industry.  Before music sharing on the internet became popular, distribution of music was completely controlled by the major recording companies.  An artist’s main goal was to get signed by a major label.  The record execs picked the losers by not signing them and were assured that the winners would be among their chosen few.  The first major artists to say “the hell with that” was the Grateful Dead.  They said “shove it” to the record companies, gave their music away for free to their fans, and started a major movement that detractors called a “cult following”.  Decades later Cold Play released a new album on the Internet and asked their fans to send them whatever they thought the album was worth.  Although the subsequent revenue stream was much smaller than the conventional record selling process, their profit was much larger.  Today record companies are reeling, more artists than ever get listened to and make money off their music (mostly through concert revenue), and even major stars like Taylor Swift still make ungodly amounts of cash.

      As another example, look at the publishing industry.  Previously authors had to market their finished work to publishers and hope that some industry insider would like their work.  Sometimes even blockbuster books like “Dune” took years to find a publisher.  I’m certain that many wonderful books died unprinted.  Now anyone who can write and type can put their book in the Kindle format and submit it as an e-book.  If no one buys it, so be it.  If people like it, the author makes lots more than he did under contract to old-style publishers.  So a guy like me is motivated to write a first book, knowing that he can get it out into the public space, not caring about pleasing some exec who has the power to shut him out.  If he gets a hundred readers, that is great.  If he gets even more, that is also good.  What is important is that he is free to concentrate on writing what he cares about and in producing a document that he is proud of.   The old-style publishers are reeling.  Newspapers are being replaced by bloggers.  Car salesmen are being replaced by Car Sense.  Old-style stores are being challenged by online distributors.  And old-style managers are being obsoleted by employees who lead themselves and jump in to be the first follower or the second, and who join a movement because they want to.

      This isn’t about socialism versus capitalism.  It’s not about conservative versus liberal.  It’s not about strong central government versus libertarianism.  It is definitely not about smarty pants radio talk show hosts or TV talking heads blathering on about how smart they are.  Young people are not listening and don’t care about these mouthpieces or these ideas.  It is all about the movements.  I don’t know how this behavior will shape our culture, but I will probably guess at it anyway over the next few months.  These are not big institutional movements like Christianity or Islam.  These movements are spontaneous, free, decentralized, burgeoning, and disappearing.  People comfortable living in this kind of world will be able to tap into enormous sources of power and wealth.  They will all win.  While government is busy rooting around in the lives of the governed to thwart malcontents who don’t like government, a whole structure is growing outside of government that is already the driver of our society.  You can’t tell me that this is not evolution or that we aren’t changing as a species.  At least some people are evolving.  You can see their work on YouTube.


6/8 – Stroud Preserve – early morning

There is a short trail near the entrance that winds along the creek and through some open fields.  We guessed that there would be a lot of activity near this path first thing in the morning, so we got to Stroud by 6:45.  There were some nice birds to see, so it was worth the effort.

      Of course, the Red-winged Blackbirds and sparrows dominated, but we also saw a few warblers.  We saw a Common Yellowthroat and several Yellow Warblers.  We saw a yellow colored warbler with grey-blue wings, which was a Blue-winged Warbler.  We saw another one of those on the inside of the refuge near a marshy area.  In some trees along the same marshy spot, we saw a whole family of Baltimore Orioles.


6/12 – Tyler Arboretum bird walk

I was disappointed to have missed so many spring mornings with this birding group.  They are an amazing collection of very nice people with an awesome knowledge of nature.  As it turns out, they have not been seeing the usual number of spring warblers this year.  They aren’t sure why, but there has been a very obvious drop off in warbler numbers this year in southeast PA.  But even though we only spotted a single warbler on the walk, we more than made up for it with some very nice bird sightings.

      First, my new “life” birds:

      House Wren -   a tiny brown bird who has been flitting across my walks all winter and spring.  Today he finally stayed still, out in the open, long enough for Sue (the walk leader) to explain his field marks and tell about House Wrens on her property. 

      Field Sparrow – pink bill.

      Eastern Wood Pewee – This small gray flycatcher would have been hard to tell apart from the other flycatchers, even with his wing bars, but his song is distinctive that it is comical.  He sings his name over and over, really loud, “Pee wee.  Pee wee.  Pee wee.”  We spent ten minutes looking for him while he sang.  Finally he flew out on a branch over the trail and told us his name another thirty or forty times.

      Eastern Towhee – Again we heard this bird sing out his name many times before we saw him.  He is a little smaller than a Robin, mostly black, with a white belly and red sides.  He has a long black tail with a little white on it.

      Indigo Bunting - He looks like an all blue finch.  It’s a vibrant, electric blue.  It is the bird that a movie producer would pick to play the part of the magical bird in the Forest Lothlorien.  Or if you saw it in a commercial for soap on your HD TV, you would say, “That isn’t a real bird!”  But he is real, and we saw four of them at Tyler Arboretum this morning.

      Here’s the remaining bird list for the walk.  These are the ones that I saw.  The other walkers saw more, including some orioles and some hawks:  Kingbird, Waxwing, Robin, Catbird, Mockingbird, Crow, Starling, Chimney Swift, Barn Swallow, Tree Swallow, Song Sparrow, Blue Jay, Wood Thrush, Ovenbird (only heard him), Common Yellowthroat (the only warbler that we saw) , Chipping Sparrow, Goldfinch, and Cardinal.

      We also saw a Box Turtle.  Don’t touch these guys, if you see one.  They are easily confused and you could disorient him and send him off very slowly in the wrong direction.

      I asked Tom Reeves (I’m including his last name because I’m repeating what he told me in his official capacity as one of the name-tag wearing volunteer walk leaders.  Also, I’m proud to have met this fine gentleman who knows so much about nature and is willing to share his knowledge) about the unusual bird that Mike and I saw in Georgia – the big white bird with a long egret neck and a black and white pattern on the underside of its wings.  Tom told me that sometimes birds get blown off course and show up on an unexpected continent.  Tom told me about when he saw an African Reef Heron in Nantucket in the late 1980s.  Its most common color is grey, otherwise it looks like a small egret.   Considering our bird to be something off course, Tom continued, with less than 900 species of birds in America and over 9000 species found worldwide, there are a lot of birds that it might have been.

      I met another dedicated nature lover on this walk, John Wenderoth, Leader of the volunteer group at Tyler that is participating in the American Chestnut Tree project.   The goal of the project is to produce an American Chestnut Tree that is resistant to the Chestnut Blight, a disease that wiped out the dominant forest tree in Eastern America.  The technique is to cross American Chestnuts with blight resistant Chinese Chestnuts.  Then from the results of this cross, choose trees that are drought resistant and exhibiting many characteristics of the native American Chestnut, and cross those with 100% American Chestnuts.  Doing this repeatedly it is hoped that blight resistant trees can be produced that are 90% or more American Chestnut.  Hopefully, sometime in the future, “Under a spreading Chestnut tree…” and “Chestnuts roasting o’er an open fire…” won’t just be words in a poem or a song.  I’m going to try to get on the volunteer list.  Stay tuned to see if my good intentions meet up with any action.  In late June, the volunteers are doing controlled pollination, which is the heart of the backcross breeding program.  They are also planting F1 seedlings (first generation) in Tyler’s American orchard.  I’m hoping to join them in the fall when we will be harvesting nuts to ship to Penn State for cold storage.


House Wren, Exton Park, PA


6/12 again – noon at Exton Park

On the way back from Tyler Arboretum, I was thinking about how the low number of warblers there and wondering what was happening at Exton Park warbler-wise.  I stopped and was pleasantly surprised to find six or seven pretty Yellow Warblers poking their heads out of the low branches of trees.  I got familiar enough with their song, so that I could hear a dozen more as I walked the Inner Loop around the pond.  I also got some photos of a House Wren climbing along a branch of a tree and occasionally stopping to look into the camera.  I saw a large family of Purple Finches; the colors on the adults were very sharp; the reds, blacks, and whites all neatly defined.  There was a Baltimore Oriole and lots of Red-winged Blackbirds and flycatchers.  On the way out, I saw a tiny bright red bird being chased by an equally tiny yellow bird.  The red bird escaped and the yellow bird flew back to a bush on the edge of the trail and puffed himself up, bobbing up and down.  The message was clear.  The yellow bird, a Yellow Warbler, was the boss and the red bird, probably a House Finch, better stay away from this particular bush – or else!


Still 6/12 – in the evening at Stroud

We saw a Meadowlark in better lighting.  Several Red-winged Blackbirds chased the slightly larger Meadowlark out of an area that was mostly bushes and into a large tree where he perched and seemed to be waiting for the other birds to leave him alone.  Its back and sides were clearly marked white and black or very dark brown.  The black markings on its chest were clearly visible, but its chest and throat looked dingy white, instead of yellow.   That may have been the way the light was hitting the bird, or it may have been that I was hoping really badly to see a meadowlark and letting my wishful thinking influence the id.  I had expected to see a few of these signature birds at Stroud this year, but maybe for this year I may have to be content with just two poorly lit and iffy sightings.

      But the Bobolinks at Stroud balanced off that disappointment.  Up on the big hill, Chris got to within ten feet of one of them and took a series of still photos and our first video.   Their black bodies and unusual white capped heads and necks look especially beautiful when surrounded by a field of small purple flowers and tall swaying grass.


6/13 – end of spring for me in PA

I tried to go to the Exton Park walk this morning, but it rained.   I did find out while waiting at the trailhead that the other walkers considered the spring only so-so for warblers.  They had seen a Yellow Rail, which is a sparrow-sized secretive marsh bird.  It’s back is yellow with blue stripes and its sides are black striped.  Here’s what the Audubon Field Guide that I got in 1990 says about this bird:  “All rails are secretive, but none more than this tiny bird.  It is also rare, and many veteran bird-watchers have never seen one.”  It goes on for a whole paragraph about how hard it is to see this bird and consequentially how dumb I have been for sleeping in on Thursdays.  So this is it for my spring in Chester County.  By the time we get back from our trip to Michigan, it will be July and the summer will be going strong.



Third week of June – planning a trip to the Great Lakes region

Chris is getting a new dog.  She decided that she wanted a cross between a pure-bred Airedale and a pure-bred Standard Poodle.  This designer dog cross is called an Air-doodle.   Chris found a breeder who had a litter of these puppies available the week after Chris’ school nurse job let her out for the summer.   So the timing was right, the breeding excellent, and the cost reasonable.  The dog being in Michigan was a detail.   We decided to go pick out our dog in person, bird/vacation for a week in Michigan and then pick her up when the puppy was ready to leave her mother.

      On the internet, I found lots of promising birding sites along Lake Erie and Lake Michigan.  If you go to the Great Lakes Region in the springtime, there are excellent trips that go to a different excellent birding location every day for two weeks.  In the early spring, a huge migration funnels through White Fish Point in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  There is a narrow piece of land where Lake Michigan, Huron and Superior come close together.  Birds can get into Canada by flying through this strip, avoiding flying over a giant body of water.  Our trip was already too late to catch the “big event”, but as I learned this year at Middle Creek and Cook’s Beach, go anyway.  It will probably beat hanging out in the backyard.

      We decided to stop first at Presque Isle on Lake Erie in the northwest corner of PA.   Then we will drive to central Michigan to pick out our dog.  After that, we will head up into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, until we can cycle back through to actually pick up the dog.  Rachel is going with us to help us with the driving.  Chris can’t wait to see her new dog.   I’m hoping to see a Sandhill Crane.





Yellow Warbler, Presque Isle State Park, PA


6/21 to 6/23 – Presque Isle

Anyone who has YWP or suffers from TCBFS should not take the Gull Point Trail at Presque Isle State Park.  YWP is a TLA (three letter acronym) for Yellow Warbler Phobia, which probably seems improbable to you.  But imagine taking a picture of one of these little guys from about eight feet away with 1084 dpi resolution and then displaying the picture on your 55 inch High Definition television.  Then also imagine that a preschooler was in the room and saw the bird displayed bigger than he is.  What would the preschooler think?  He’d probably wonder if the bird would tear him into pieces before eating him or just swallow him whole.  After that experience, he probably would come down with a serious case of YWP.

      Something similar happened to me when I was learning to read.  I came across a full page picture of a horrible creature that the book said was common in the state where I was living.  It was something called a “Musquatch”, which was my phonetic pronunciation of the unusual name of the creature.   Of course that night I had a nightmare about “musquatches” and didn’t calm down until I showed my dad the picture in the book.  He explained that it was a picture of a mosquito blown up many times larger than real.  That was a difficult concept for a five-year-old, but eventually I got it.  I went back to bed with the lights on.  I think that I still have a touch of Mosquito Phobia.  On our first attempt to walk Gull Point Trail, mosquitoes actually chased us back to the car.  The same thing happened to us on a trail called Sidewalk Trail that cuts across the peninsula.  Even though we sprayed ourselves with bug repellant, the mosquitoes didn’t stay off for very long.  We saw a pair of Eastern Towhees and the female was scratching in the brush and leaves for five minutes while Chris tried to get her picture.  Maybe the bird was getting a kickback from the mosquitoes to keep the humans standing still.  We saw beaver houses along the trail and a Great Blue Heron perching on her nest at the peak of a tree.  But every time I put my hands up to take a picture, a mosquito bit me.

      TCBFS is Trouble Counting Beyond Fifty Syndrome.  I went back to the Gull Point Trail on Saturday morning while Rachel and Chris went for a bike ride.  This time I thoroughly sprayed myself with insect repellent, so the bugs left me alone.  There were Yellow Warblers everywhere.  It wasn’t just that I saw more than fifty Yellow Warblers on this one trail.  These birds were all over the park and kept buzzing by over the road and on every trail.  There were a few other partly yellow warblers too.  I saw two Pine Warblers and Chris, Rachel, and I found a Common Yellow-throat, but almost all of the little yellow birds flying around the park were Yellow Warblers, either adult males, adult females, or juveniles. 

      There were so many of these beautiful creatures and they were so aggressively protecting their territories that I was able to get a whole series of warbler pictures.  Several of them came out really good, showing the bird in a natural setting and clearly showing the bird’s field marks, including the fine red streaks on the male bird’s breast.  The photos all show an excited bird, perching about ten feet off the ground, facing the camera, with lots of expression.  If sound was attached and you could speak warbler, you would hear, “Get out of here!  This is my bush!  No, I am not protecting a nest!  What made you think that?  I just don’t like you!  In fact, I’m going to rip your throat out because I think you are a flaming #!%# and that you x?#& to your ##xy!#.  Yeah!  You heard me!”

      Along the same trail, I also got pictures of Kingbirds, flycatchers, a Mourning Dove, and a Flicker.  There were also Downy Woodpeckers, lots of Gray Catbirds and Robins and Sparrows.  My goal on Saturday morning was to get to the edge of the nesting area and see if I could see any unusual birds along that.  After a forty-five minute walk in some intense heat, I got to the closed off nesting grounds that I had seen marked off on the site map.  I knew I was there because there was a piece of string stretched around it.  Also there were a few signs asking people to stay out.  There were Kingbirds, Catbirds, Mourning Doves, and Warblers flying around the edges, tempting me to duck under the string and peek through to see what treasures were hidden beyond the bushes.  Of course I stuck to the approved trail.  It made me think how effective a piece of string and the honor system work together to regulate human behavior.  Take down the string and the clearly defined boundary goes away.  It seems okay to take a step off the path to see around a bush.  Then maybe another step or two or three is probably okay.  Right?  Also take away the honor system and install a police presence to enforce the behavior and it becomes a cat and mouse game to outwit the authorities.  The moral restraint sometimes goes away.  Instead a cost benefit calculation takes over.  Is the potential cost of breaking the rule, measured against the risk of getting caught, worth the benefit.  The original good intention of the rule is ignored.  Speeding is dangerous and risks lives.  Insurance fraud is stealing.  Fishing without a license depletes our fish resources without helping to pay for restocking.  My opinion is that most people avoid these infractions only to the extent that they fear getting caught, not because they consider the activities immoral or unethical or wrong.  The types of people who show up in churches don’t steal from the collection plate.  Likewise, the people who walk to the end of Gulf Point Trail only need a piece of string stretched between some sticks to keep them out of a nesting ground.  There was a lesson here with implications beyond birding, but it was just too hot to think any harder on it.

      The trail led around the closed off area and ended at a one story observation platform.  The area was so flat that a five foot platform was all you needed to see as far as your binoculars could reach.  There were numerous pairs of Killdeer protecting their nests and a few Semipalmated Plovers doing the same.   There were some Black Ducks flying off quickly and lots of Ring-billed Gulls hanging out on the shore of Lake Erie and also along the edge of a shallow pond a little bit inland from the lake.  There were some gull-like birds flying over the pond and dropping down quickly to splash down for a fish.  I thought this was a good time to see if I could take a picture of a bird in flight with my little camera.  Yeah, I could.  I was surprised at how many of them came out in focus.  After a little while, I realized that the birds that I was photographing were not gulls.  They were mostly white with grey backs and black wing tips.  They had black caps and long very dark red bills.  When they stopped fishing and joined the gulls on the shore, I got out the field guide to confirm that they were Caspian Terns.  These are very similar to the Royal Terns that Mike and I saw in Georgia.  They are a little bigger and the main field mark to distinguish between them is the red bill versus an orange bill.  Also the range is important.  It is not likely to see Royal Terns off the sea coast.

      There was another bird that caught my eye among the flock of gulls.  It’s like a game of “Where’s Waldo?”.  You look at a complex scene and pick out the figure that looks different.  The little guy that I had noticed had an entirely white head.  He was half the size of the Ring-bills and looked kind of round and clearly different.  I took his picture and tried to identify him later.  Little Gull is not all white-headed.  Ross’s Gull is a possibility, but he would be far out of his expected range.  I would guess Gull-billed Tern, but that bird doesn’t mix with other terns that much.  On the other hand, he likes mud flats.  Maybe that is the bird.

Restaurant:  On Friday night, we ate at a nice restaurant and got fresh perch dinners.  They were decent, but at the prices we paid, I wasn’t that impressed.  However, when I finished my Saturday morning hike and Chris and Rachel finished their bike ride, we got together for lunch at Stevo’s and I was impressed.  We got meat ball subs that were big and tasty on good bread and loaded with cheese and sauce, just like I like them.  Stevo’s is just outside the park at 35 Peninsula Drive, Erie, PA.  814-835-3400.



 Painted Turtle laying her eggs at Presque Isle, PA


Presque Isle State Park

The park is a 3200 acre peninsula that stretches out into Lake Erie.  There is a road into the park that circles out around the edge of the shoreline.  At the outer end of it is a one-way circle.  There are ten beaches with parking lots and lifeguards.  Although this is a major birding destination, especially during the spring migration, this park is a heavily used summer vacation spot.  Just outside the state park, there is a very active water park that is jam packed, except on Mondays, when it’s closed.  There are a lot of swimmers and picnickers enjoying the public beaches.  The bike paths follow the road and are full of bikers and roller-bladers.  It sounds like a hectic place and it is, but it is a really nice park.  They don’t spray for mosquitoes or ticks, so only the birders hike down the trails in the center or down Gull Point Trail to the far tip of the peninsula.  You can be totally alone with nature, if that’s what you are after.  If you are uncomfortable sharing your nature fix with nearby summer tourists, you have to come off season.  Since the major birding happens here in spring and fall, that would work out.


Sunday afternoon

It was hot.   We were full from lunch.  We went to Beach #10 and took naps.  Then we jumped in the lake and took a long soak in the cool water.  I bet that our body temperatures dropped ten degrees.  Is that medically possible without going into a coma?  It doesn’t matter.  It felt good.


Sunday Evening – Dead Pond Trail and Sidewalk Trail

Fortified by a big helping of protein and our afternoon naps and lots of bug spray, we were ready for some serious evening walks.  We started off on a trail that cuts clear across the peninsula with the oxymoronic name of Sidewalk Trail, which was actually a concrete sidewalk starting and ending in wilderness.  It had forest to the east and marsh, ponds, and beaver lodges on the west.  Maybe at one time there were homes and gardens along this walk, but not anymore.  Maybe the park managers built it just for the birders.  More likely than that is that the beavers built it themselves. 

      Near the trailhead we saw a large Painted Turtle laying her eggs.  We took pictures from a distance, making sure to stay far enough away from the hole so that we would not leave any of our scent nearby.  A park ranger had told us that human scent could help the raccoons to locate the turtle eggs.

      Of course our first bird on the trail was a yellow-colored warbler, but for a change it was a Common Yellowthroat.  The next few bushes had Yellow Warblers.  Then we saw a group of orioles and a whole flock of waxwings.  I tried to convince myself that the waxwings were American Pipits, but Chris and the camera kept me anchored to reality.  They were waxwings.  I was walking first and saw a flash of red in the bush overhanging the trail.  He stayed still long enough for me to get my binoculars focused on him, black head, black back, red on the sides of his belly, a little white on his wings, black beak.  He was robin-sized and trilling prettily.  He was probably the same Eastern Towhee that we saw at this spot on Friday evening.  Again, his mate was on the ground to the left of the trail.  Where her mate was black, she was rusty brown.  Where he was red, she was orange.  She was looking for grubs in the leaves and making a lot of noise.  Chris tried for ten minutes to get her picture, while she rustled around in the leaves, totally oblivious towards us.  Although we could see her clearly, our camera wasn’t fast enough to catch her.  We got lots of pictures of leaves and a few pictures with pieces of a bird.  Still, it was fun watching her behavior.

      We also tried another trail called Dead Pond Trail.  Along that we saw more Common Yellowthroats, Yellow Warblers, orioles, and waxwings, and a Chipping Sparrow.  The single sparrow made us realize that we had not seen many sparrows in the park.  We saw an Eastern Wood Phoebe and some other flycatchers.  On the way out, we snuck up quietly to the spot where we had seen orioles, hoping to see them again.  They were gone, but two well-fed Wild Turkeys trotted up the trail ahead of us.  The bug spray was starting to wear off, so we beat it back to the car.  Back at the hotel, we cooled off in the pool, heated back up in the sauna, and then slept soundly in our pleasantly air-conditioned room.


Monday – last hike at Presque Isle

I decided to take one more stroll down Sidewalk Trail to see if we could see the beaver.  No such luck on the beavers, but we did scare up an interesting bird with a fat body and a long straight bill.  The bird was a little longer than a robin, but much heavier and rounder.  As it flew away, I only saw its back which was brown and very heavily striped.  I was thinking, American Woodcock.  A few steps past the long-billed bird spot, we found Mrs. Towhee again.  This time, we took as long as we needed to get a picture.  Chris got two shots showing the Towhee feeding in the leaves.  In one picture, you can see that she has a white grub in her beak.  We walked on and continued to not see any beaver for a half-mile, then returned back towards the car.  At the same spot where we had scared up the long-billed bird, we saw him again.  This time he strutted along the trail towards us, showing us his front.  His breast was dark brown and almost as heavily striped as his back.  So it wasn’t a woodcock, which has a pale orange breast.  It was a Common Snipe.  That’s a bird that is not particularly uncommon, as his name suggests, but is somewhat uncommon to actually see.  It is a solitary and secretive bird that likes damp and muddy places, especially the edges of shallow ponds, where it can duck quickly into the tall grass when a noisy birder gets close.  So that was the end of our Presque Isle adventure.  By 9:00 AM, we were on our way to south central Michigan.


female Eastern Towhee, Presque Isle, PA, June 2013


Cedar Waxwing, Presque Isle, PA, June 2013


Monday Afternoon – we meet Beans

J. R. Tolkien said, through one of his characters, probably Bilbo, that really bad times frequently make for a good story but really good times are told quickly.  There isn’t much to say.  There is no drama; everything is pleasant; the day passes peacefully.  That was the kind of day we had going to meet our new dog in Greeneville, Michigan.

      Rachel and Chris drove, while I sat in the back and provided commentary that they ignored.  We passed the Cleveland Indians baseball stadium.  It has big happy Indian faces on its walls.  Of course they are politically incorrect, but still it is a cool thing for a baseball fan to see.  Rachel was driving when we passed two big white birds in a cornfield.  My quest in Michigan was to see a Sandhill Crane.  I had no idea what a Sandhill Crane looked like, so potentially these were my target birds.  Think about that for a second – 1500 miles round trip, hoping to see a special bird, no idea what it looks like!  And then the driver wouldn’t stop to check it out!  Except for a really rare color morph, Sandhill Cranes are not white.  The birds were probably Great Egrets, but that’s not the point.  The point is that Rachel and Chris would not stop the car!  How could they betray me like this?  Apparently it was pretty easy, because they kept right on chatting pleasantly while I anguished in the back seat.  They’ll deny it, but I’m pretty sure I heard a female voice whisper, “He’ll get over it.”

      We spent an hour playing with Beans and her siblings.  “Beans” is the name that Rachel picked out for the puppy, overruling Chris’ choice of “Millie” and my choice of “Shadow”.  The point of spending a week in Michigan was to personally pick out our dog from the litter, but then be available to take her home when she was ready to leave her mother.  There were six males and two females, but even though the males were wonderfully handsome, cute, and playful, my wife and daughter ignored the male dogs like they were men in the back seat of a car wanting to stop and look at birds in a field.  The two canine females, on the other hand, were quite sufficient to keep the two human females enthralled.  Beans was the alpha dog in the litter – first to do everything, bravest, a little bigger.  She was perfectly formed, with the straight front and strong front legs of her Airedale father.   She had the great, non-shedding curly hair of her Poodle mother.   She pranced, strutted, and pounced.  She was curious and intelligent.  Although she was affectionate, she wasn’t clingy.  Chris’ only concern was that maybe she was too independent and too spirited.  Her sister was also a wonderful dog – smaller, much more people-oriented, not as bold, a middle-of-a-very-good-pack kind of dog.  Both dogs promised to be excellent pets.  I was drawn to Beans; so was Rachel.  I think Chris was right there with us and after a surprisingly short time, Chris made her choice.  So Beans got her Golden Ticket punched.

      That’s it.  We still had an hour drive to the nearest hotel.  We were relatively close to Battlecreek, Michigan.  You might have seen that address on the back of a cereal box.  The landscape was flat farm fields in every direction, as far as you could see.  I don’t know what crop was growing, possibly soy, but I could see that it was the same plant for miles.  There were not many birds evident.  The miles of mono-culture plant life would pretty much guarantee that for long stretches in the year, there would not be much useful food.  That night we stayed across the street from Central Michigan University.  Chris and I took a stroll around the campus and toured the parts of the athletic center that were open.  Since the college roots are with the Ojibwa branch of the Chippewa Indians, the athletic center had displays of Chippewa artifacts and many photos of the Chippewa people.  Their faces weren’t big and round and smiley like the faces on the Cleveland Indians stadium.  These faces were serious and solid.  There is one photo from the early 1900s that shows a whole village of Chippewa standing together.  It is more than four feet long and shows more than a hundred Chippewa – men, women, kids – some in formal suits, many in dungarees, a few in traditional Indian clothes.  Only a few of the moms had big toothy smiles.  Some of the dads had their hands on their son’s shoulder.  The group looked poor in a monetary sense, but rich in pride and in belonging to each other.  If you are ever in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, stop and check out this photograph.  You’ll see what I mean.


Tuesday – Upper Peninsula, Michigan

Michigan is huge.  On its western border is Lake Michigan, a distance of 360 miles.  At its southeastern corner is Lake Erie and Detroit.  Part of its eastern border is Lake Huron.  Near the north end of the state, the northern tip of Lake Michigan and the northwestern tip of Lake Huron are almost joined by the eastern tip of Lake Superior.  So birds (and humans) moving through the region towards Canada are funneled through a narrow strip of land that connects lower Michigan with its Upper Peninsula.  If it were a state by itself, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula would be a state twice the size of New Jersey.  But whereas New Jersey has close to 9 million people and over 1100 people per square mile, the UP has 300,000 people at 19 people per square mile (thank you, Wikipedia).  From Mount Pleasant to Mackinac Bridge, the landscape is mostly forest with many small lakes used for vacation homes.  The bridge connects the lower part of the state with the UP.  Just across the bridge is the small city of St. Ignace.  To the east is Lake Huron and to the west is Lake Michigan.  From Mackinaw city, you can catch a ferry ride to the quaint and picturesque Mackinaw Island.  We skipped that.  We did stop at the info center and got maps and info from the enthusiastic and helpful staff.  We split a Pastie, which is a potato and beef filled food baked in a flaky crust.  At a scenic overlook on the Lake Michigan northern shore, we saw gulls and an eagle.  Unfortunately, a few miles farther along the highway, the view became scene-ick.  Fog rolled in and we couldn’t see anything – no birds, no trees, just fog.  I admit that I was starting to get a little worried.  It had been a very long drive up to this point, and we knew that we had already missed the major spring migration, when this area is one of the great birding spots worldwide.  What I was starting to suspect was that we not only missed the party, but we also missed the after party.  Even after the fog cleared, we still didn’t spot many birds along the highway.   We saw a few Ravens, bigger than crows with much thicker bills.    We got to Seney NWR at about 3:00 PM and turned right into the refuge.  We stretched our legs, got a site map from the Visitor Center, coated ourselves with bug spray, and headed down the Wildlife Drive.  That’s an auto tour of about 7 miles around the largest impoundment on the refuge.  It was a birder’s delight.



Trumpeter Swans, Seney NWR, Michigan, June, 2013




Trumpeter Swans

I would like to be profound, truly I would.  I would like to write sentences like “… fill in a nice Weidensaul quote here …”  (F19.)  But even when confronted with something truly remarkable, I seem to be able to focus on the trivial and the absurd.  After all, there is a lot of that going around.  A good example was the first bird that we saw on the Wildlife Drive, a Ring-necked Duck.  We saw this very striking bird on our visit to the Middle Creek WMA, so he was easy to identify.  When I reminded Chris that the field mark was a white ring on the tip of its bill, she made a “tcch!” noise.  Chris and I can actually have arguments without even saying a word.  I can enter a room in an offensive manner, and she can make a noise – like “hmmph!”  I then will give a surprised look, to which she might respond with a slight sneer.  Then I might throw my hands up in the air in exasperation, and she might then turn her head away.  While I stomp out of the room, she gets in the last sound by slamming a cupboard or dropping a book.  I’ve lost the argument and still don’t know what offensive thing that I did.  But I know what the “tcch!” means.  It means “typical birder nonsense, calling a bird with a ring on its bill a Ring-necked Duck.  And calling a yellow bird a Goldfinch or a red bird a Purple Finch.  Calling birds that live outdoors House Finches, House Wrens, and House Sparrows.  Calling a bird with a faint tinge of pink on its belly, a Red-bellied Woodpecker!”  I started to wonder, if you slap a woodpecker on the stomach a few times, would that give it a Pink Belly?  (Disclaimer:  I never actually tried this.  No birds have been injured in the production of this book.)  I then thought, is a condor a gate in a prison?  Would a woodpecker be a good thing or would it just be really awkward?  I had just started to think that Wood Thrushes are not made of wood and that Red Knots are not made of string, when I drove around a little bend and saw, in a little cove just a little off shore from the road, a big white beautiful swan.

      At Middle Creek we saw a flock of five or six dozen Tundra Swans, and the elegant bird before us looked just like them, only twice the size.  Despite my poor research prior to the trip, I had seen a few pictures on-line from other birders’ trips to Michigan and one couple had posted a nice picture of two Trumpeter swans on a northwestern Michigan Lake.  The picture was serene, but the write up was excited, so I suspected that I was seeing something special.  I calmly snapped off a few pictures, congratulating myself on my professional demeanor.  The bird bobbed for food a few times and then floated around the bend in the shore, his neck up – tall, curved, and graceful. 

      We followed.  As we rounded the bend and got a view of the whole impoundment, I lost my professional demeanor.  Two trumpeters were floating together a little farther away and next to them a huge bird was sleeping, his head and neck tucked under a wing, a big white ball floating on the surface.  Out in the middle of the lake, a pair of swans swam out from the edge of a small island, followed by their cygnets.  All along the island, other adults were swimming.  On the open water, dozens of young adult swans swam in groups of three to a dozen.  I made a quick count of eighty birds and found out the next day that my count was way below the official count of 156.     

      For the next two hours we drove slowly around the lake, stopping frequently to watch and photograph different groups of majestic Trumpeters.  I have read that their calls can be really loud, but on this day they were subdued, honking pleasantly to one another.  We spotted four different mated pairs with broods of four to six duck-sized, grey babies.  There was no doubt that the kids were well protected, as both mom and dad stayed very close at all times.  The rest of the adult birds were obviously in their friend groups, staying together and occasionally mixing with one of the other groups.  The flock was spread out over the very large impoundment and was not at all crowded.  Every so often, one of the big birds would tip up to get some roots or plants under the surface.  His big butt would poke up from the surface, dispelling the otherwise graceful image created by his swimming and stretching.

      These are the heaviest birds in North America, and as big as a condor.  They are the largest water fowl anywhere.  They can weigh thirty-five pounds and have an eight foot wing span.  That’s the same wing span as a condor has.  To get an idea how big that is, imagine that a Trumpeter Swan is with you in a ten foot wide room (like I’m in now).  You could walk around and stretch easily, but the swan would only have barely enough room to stretch her wings.  To be nice, I suggest that you move out some of the furniture.

      Tundra Swans are much smaller than Trumpeters, but otherwise look pretty much the same.  The bills are black with a possible difference being a slight band of color on the Trumpeters.  The other swan in North America is invasive.  It’s the Mute Swan, almost as big as the Trumpeter, but easy to identify because of its orange bill.

      I enjoyed my afternoon with the swans, not realizing how unique this experience was.  I later found out that these birds had been hunted almost to extinction during the 1800s.  In 1935, it was thought that a flock of 65 birds in Yellowstone Park were the only surviving remnants of a population that had formerly ranged from Canada throughout the West and mid-West, down into the southern states.  Later, in the 1950s a large flock of trumpeters was found surviving in a remote part of Alaska.  With the banning of hunting most birds in 1918 and with attempts to propagate the Yellowstone flock, the swans started to come back.  By 1970, the count was 3500, most of them in Alaska.  The counts are available at a number of web sites, but briefly they are:  1975 – 5,000; 1985 – 10,000; 1995 – 19,000; 2005 – 36,000; 2010 – 53,000.  There have been successful attempts to reestablish these birds in many western and Midwestern states.  One of the very successful programs has been in Michigan.  The goal was to establish a flock of 400 Trumpeters and that goal has been achieved or is close to being achieved.  A big part of that happened at Seney NWR and was floating on the impoundment in front of me.



Trumpeter Swans, Seney NWR, Michigan


Seney National Wildlife Refuge

Here’s the Cliff Note’s version of the history of the refuge.  In the late 1800s the logging companies made it to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, cutting Red Pine, Eastern White Pine, northern hardwoods, and conifers.  The loggers clear cut the region.  Farmers were lured to the devastated land by extravagant promises of productive soil and bountiful crops.  The farmers moved in and drained the wetlands, but soon found that the soil was actually mostly sand.  So the farmers went bankrupt and left.  Adding to the destruction were fires that were intentionally set to help clear the land for farming.  The fires not only burned up the brush and the top layer of peat, but also billions of seeds that could have started the reforestation.  Even after a hundred years, the abandoned land is still scarred from a relatively brief period of exploitation.

      In 1934, the Seney area was accepted as a National Wildlife Refuge and the Civilian Conservation Corps began a system of dikes, ditches, and roads to develop the site for migrating water fowl.  Duck and goose numbers were never impressive, but eventually the site became important habitat for loons and Trumpeter Swans.

      Currently Seney NWR is over 95,000 acres of diverse wildlife habitats divided into three areas.  The eastern portion is devoted to conservation and has over 5000 acres of man-made pools.  These are the loon and swan habitat.  Restoration activity is being done in the center portion of the refuge to remove the structures put in place by the farmers, leaving the land as open fields and pine forests.  The western portion is a wilderness area that includes Strangamoor Bog, open for day use only and difficult to access.

      The U. S. Fish and Wildlife pamphlets suggest bird watching, biking, hiking, fishing, and cross-country skiing.  We didn’t bring our bikes, but on our next trip I’d like to try biking into the back-country on the dirt roads.


Pine Ridge Trail – Tuesday evening

After checking into the only motel in Seney (Fox River Motel is modest, but very clean and comfortable, also a price performer.  906-499-3332) and eating dinner at the only restaurant in Seney (dinner was good), we headed back to the refuge for an evening hike.  The Visitor Center was already closed when we got back, and we had the only car in the lot.  We took a stroll down the 1.5 mile Pine Ridge Nature Trail loop that starts and ends at the Visitor Center.  We saw:  a flicker, a female Red-breasted Merganser with her brood, deer, a Black Duck, a Great Blue Heron, and another Family of Trumpeter Swans.  We also saw Cedar Waxwings, Canada Geese, Kingbirds, Robins, sparrows that we couldn’t id (LeConte’s Sparrows had been spotted there this week), grackles, and crows, Common Loons, Red-winged Blackbirds, and Boreal Chickadees.  The chickadees were very similar to Black-capped, but their caps were dark brown and their breasts and bellies were a lighter brown.  The caps weren’t distinctive, but the color on their undersides was clearly darker than on the Black-capped.  Around the Visitor Center, there were some glossy colored blackbirds that I thought were small Grackles.  That didn’t seem right, and the long tail and strutting posture of a grackle also seemed to be missing.  The bill was also wrong.  Grackle has a heavy bill, which can hook down a little.  These birds had smaller, straight bills.  So these birds were very poor at being Grackles.  I was pleased to find them in the Sibley Field Guide – Brewer’s Blackbird.  Looking at its expected range, I can see why I didn’t know the bird.  Its summer range is from Michigan to the west and north.  In winters in the southwest and Mexico, and doesn’t intentionally visit Pennsylvania at all.  The Rusty Blackbirds that we saw in South Carolina are not as glossy and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan would be just outside its summer range.

      Along a part of the trail that went along an impoundment, we sat on a bench for a while to watch a Trumpeter Swan family.  Then Rachel started taking pictures of wildflowers.  The crazy thing about her pictures was that they were so bright, colorful, and perfect that they didn’t look real, which of course makes no sense.  I walked a little ahead and we got a lesson about light and shadow.  The water was on the right side of the path with the sun very low behind the lake.  To the left was a big marsh.  As I approached the marsh, a Great Blue Heron flew up, obviously spooked.  I was still very far away and I was sure that I had not made any noise.  So I searched the marshland very carefully to see what had spooked the heron.  As Rachel walked up to join me, I saw her shadow extend way out into the center of the marsh and stalk menacingly across the land.  So probably what had scared the heron was my shadow as it moved across the marsh.  With the sun directly behind us, we were casting hundred foot long shadows.

      Rachel thought she saw something and hurried ahead to check it out.  Fifty yards ahead, she stopped and waved to me, then pointed emphatically out into the lake.  Near the swans, the head of a beaver was moving quickly through the water.  He turned and started to swim towards the shore and directly towards me.  Luckily I had the camera and took some far away shots of the beaver and swans and close ups of the beaver as it swam right up to me and then turned along the shore to disappear in the brush along the bank right near where I was standing.  That was cool.

      The Pine Ridge Trail had one more pleasant treat for us.  On the little pond closest to the Visitor Center, there was a Lesser Scaup.  I know that even experts might sometimes have a hard time distinguishing this bird from a Ring-necked Duck.  The back of the Ring-necked is black and the white side has a spur.  Also the Upper Peninsula is in the summer range of the Ring-necked, while both the Lesser and Greater Scaup have migrated through to Canada by now.  I thought the back looked whitish/grey and the bill was not ringed.  So I’m thinking a tardy Scaup, but a poorly lit Ring-necked is also a possibility.

      The light was the final surprise.  The sun was down and it was almost dark.  It was ten o’clock at night, and we could still see pretty clearly.  It gets dark late in summer in the north.


Beaver, Seney NWR, Michigan, June 2013


 Seney NWR, Michigan


 Seney NWR, Michigan




Wednesday morning – Manistique River

The people at Northland Outfitters in Germfask understand suburban adventurers.  For most of us, the best recipe is a taste of the unknown, a cup of infrequently trodden path, several ounces of a unique and always changing environment, and mix with a good map.  Throw in good weather and assure us that the trip isn’t really dangerous and then we’ll do it!  You can put us in a canoe and push us off into a river and be reasonably assured that we will show up at the end of the day somewhere downstream.

      The Manistique River meanders through the southeast portion of the refuge.  It is joined from the north by Gray’s Creek, Pine Creek, Sand Creek, Drigg’s River, Delta Creek, and Marsh Creek which together water the entire massive preserve.  Looking at a map of the watershed, and seeing how long it took to view the impoundments around the Visitor Center, you get an appreciation for the incredible scale of the Seney NWR and the vision and scope of the planners.  The relatively small area around the Visitor Center is still very large and contains some of the wonderful nature that people very much want to see.  If you discount the fifteen hour drive from Exton, the resource planners made a very wonderful part of the refuge easily accessible to people and still preserved a vast area as a relatively human-free wilderness.  Looking at the map, I can see the next canoe trip that I want to do.  It’s the Drigg’s River that completely cuts through the refuge on the center/north boundary and flows into the Manistique near the southeast border.  I don’t know if that’s a do-able trip, but if it is, it has got to be fantastic, judging by our experience on the Manistique.

      Rachel had her own kayak, while Chris and I shared a canoe.  I sat in the front and did nothing, while Chris paddled our boat.  I probably will need to add “wilderness river guide” to her list of side-kick duties.  At the start, we saw some of the ubiquitous birds, like Cardinals, Robins, and sparrows.  There were some Ravens, perching and croaking from the high branches along the banks.  We saw a crow-sized hawk flash across the water ahead of us.  He or she gave us a very good look at his/her back and wings.  The very wide tail had three narrow white bands, separating four wide black bands.  The wings were relatively short and wide, mostly black and patterned throughout with white spots.  The wing tips were feathered like a Black Vulture and the shoulders and head were a deep orangey red.  It was a Red-shouldered Hawk.  The hawk landed hard in the brush on the river bank, then flew downstream and out of sight.  I couldn’t tell if the hunt had been successful.  She could have been after  chipmunks, frogs, or lizards that were common along the river.

      For an hour or more, we didn’t see a lot of birds, although the brush and trees around us were full of bird sounds.  I’m pretty sure that the birds were very aware of the two boats and patiently waited for us to float by before going back to the business of catching bugs, which were plentiful.  We had gotten good advice on what to apply for mosquitoes and what to use for biting flies, including the tiny Black Flies and the big and nasty Deer Flies.  For mosquitoes we had Deet-free Lemon Eucalyptus Repel.  For mosquitoes and ticks, while wearing expensive gear, we had Gear Smart Repel.  For mosquitoes, ticks, and Black Flies, we used Deep Woods Off.  Today because the Black Fly outbreak was done and the big flies were numerous, we pulled out the Deet-free All Terrain Herbal Armor Natural Insect Repellant.  The locals know what works in their area and thankfully this stuff kept off the flies.  Even one Deer Fly bite is painful.  I can’t imagine how NOT FUN it would be to be bitten for hours!

      I spotted a sandpiper on a sandbar up ahead of us and whispered to Chris to try to guide the canoe towards it while I took its picture.  She positioned us perfectly for a few shots and then guided the canoe quietly onto the sand.  She really does have a lot of talents!  The sandpiper did not fly off and strutted back and forth across its territory less than twenty feet from me.  He was a Spotted Sandpiper in full breeding plumage.  His breast and throat were white and darkly and extravagantly spotted.  His back was brown and marked with less dramatic spots, giving him an intricate, textured appearance.  Black and white eye lines accentuated his piercing eyes and made his relatively long orange bill seem even longer.  He pranced; he strutted; he posed and stared me down.  I took his picture.  I’m proud of these shots; they capture a truly remarkable bird.  It may have been five minutes before I noticed what he was protecting.  There was a female and babies moving in the brush behind the sand bar.  We gently pushed off the sand and continued down the river, leaving him to rule his domain.

      While I was watching Rachel play with a purple and green dragonfly that she had named “Bacon”, Chris spotted a Red-eyed Vireo – green back, white breast, grey cap, with a white eye line, a little bigger than the warblers we saw at Presque Isle.  We floated past a Merganser with babies.  She ignored us.  On a straight, open stretch of the river, a Bald Eagle flew upstream straight at us.  He was the biggest eagle we had seen with startling white head and tail.  His body was deep, pure black and the sun sparkled on his feathers.  He passed so low over the canoe that we could hear his wing beats – woosh, woosh, woosh.  We saw him, or a different eagle, eight times as we paddled downstream.  It’s possible that the same eagle kept circling behind us and then back ahead of us, but why would an eagle do that?  Looking at the birds, I think there were at least three different eagles on the stream. 

      The young man who picked us up at the pull-out point is a poet.  He is a romantic in the tradition of the long dead paschal and romantic poets.  He let me read a sonnet that he had written, a beautiful and loving poem to his wife.  Many of the most interesting creatures that you meet on a nature trip turn out to be humans.  Go figure!


Spotted Sandpiper, Manistique River, Michigan


Wednesday evening – Seney NWR Wildlife Tour

This regularly scheduled tour leaves at seven, but we got there early in order to get a seat on the bus.  Our tour was the first time this season that the bus was full.  The overflow participants follow in their own vehicles after first washing them to protect against spreading invasives into the back roads of the refuge.  It is a small bus and has the flavor of one of those vehicles that go into remote areas on wildlife shows on cable.  Yes, I really am that shallow.  I loved it!

      The tour leaders were two interns who did a fantastic job.  The info I put into my history of the refuge came directly from their introductory talk.  They covered a number of nature topics that were not about birds – beavers, whom we spotted several times; conservation; water impoundments; butterflies.  At some preplanned spots, like the spot where you can see an Osprey nest, we got out of the bus to check out the site.  Whenever something interesting presented itself, we stopped.  For example, in an open field across from the road along the pool full of Trumpeters, there were two Sandhill Cranes.  The interns made the driver stop the bus so that I could get pictures, but we didn’t get out of the vehicle to see the birds.  The only riders on the bus who hadn’t already seen cranes were Rachel, Chris, and me.  But still, the cranes were noteworthy and everyone agreed that they were glad that Chris and Rachel were off the hook for not stopping to identify the big birds in the south central Michigan field.

      Most of the tour participants had something to contribute about the cranes.  A man in a Muir Woods tee shirt (Muir Woods is a stand of Redwoods north of San Francisco) told us that the birds are a remarkably ancient species and that a ten million year old skeleton shows that the species has remained pretty much the same over that long period.  Another lady commented on their numbers.  The largest subspecies are Greater Sandhill Cranes and these were hunted almost to extinction by 1940.  Today they have bounced back to almost 100,000.  Together with the less numerous southern subspecies and the approximately 400,000 Lesser Sandhills, the Sandhill Cranes are the most numerous cranes on the planet.  The four foot tall birds that we were looking at were Greater Sandhills.  The smaller Lesser Sandhills breed in the artic.

      Chris commented that their bodies were a reddish brown and that, when their heads are down in the grass, it would be easy to mistake them for deer.  That’s absolutely true.  One of the interns pointed out that the color is from the iron rich mud in the region.  The birds “preen” it into their feathers.  Right after molting in the fall, the birds at Seney are grey and in other regions, they can be grey all year.

      That was a nice lead in to talking about the reddish tint on the big birds on the other side of the road.  The necks of the Trumpeter Swans are all stained rusty red from feeding in the iron rich mud.  One of the interns (I think her name is Dawn.  If I have that wrong, I apologize.  She is a very sharp young woman and she is looking forward to a great career in biology and environmental science) gave us the status of the swan population at Seney.  All the swans are Trumpeters.  The number that she quoted of 156 is mostly made up from “teenagers”, young adults that haven’t mated yet.  The big pool on our right is only big enough for four mated pairs at one time, so to be able to pair up, the rest of the population needs either to wait or to leave.  Trumpeters can live up to thirty years and after the first year have a very low mortality rate.  Some birds are twenty before they mate for the first time, although they could mate as early as age three.  Also, since this is a transplanted population, these birds don’t really migrate.  They move south until they find open water, which in winter is the mouth of the Manistique River.

      On the tour we saw the Ring-necked Duck and Canadian Geese in the same spots that we had seen them on Tuesday.  We stopped for Trumpeters, an Osprey, a Bald Eagle, and two birds that were life birds for a few of the birders on the tour.  One small group had not yet seen a Wood Duck.  Another small group had not previously seen a Common Tern.  I was in both groups.

      Some of the Wood Ducks were males in full breeding plumage.  These birds are so uniquely shaped and so beautifully colored that it is hard to believe that they are real.  The distinctive drooping crest is emerald green.  Its bill is multicolored, blue, yellow, and orange.  Its face is mostly black which nicely offsets an H-shaped white pattern on its throat and neck and also accentuates the orange eye ring.  Its body is red in the front, merging into a blue back.  The bright yellow side is sharply set off from the rest of the plumage and the tail is a more modestly colored brown.  Did I see all that on the birds at Seney?  Yep.  One of my fellow tour participants had the bird neatly centered in his birding scope and shared it with all of us.  If we had taken a vote right at that point for the most popular member of the tour, he would have won easily.

        The Common Terns were flying, and if I hadn’t been with experts, I would not have known what to look for to identify them.  The orange bills and black caps and their general shape and the location we were in, narrowed the id down to Forster’s Tern or Common Tern.  Size was no help, since there were just a few birds flying solo.  What did help was the gray underside of their bodies and a dark edge on their wing tips.


Sandhill Cranes, Seney NWR, Michigan, June 2013


Trumpeter Swan, Seney NWR, Michigan, June, 2013


Thursday – Painted Pictures Rock National Lakeshore

Rachel had put in some hard hours being with hard-core birders.  She liked the canoe/kayak trip the best.  Since I had seen cranes on Wednesday, Rachel got to pick our activity for the last full day in the UP.  She picked Painted Pictures Rock National Lakeshore Park on Lake Superior.  We drove an hour west and a little north to get to the small city of Munising, where we boarded a two-level cruise ship for a four hour trip down the southern coast of the lake.  At this point, the coastline is eighty-five foot cliffs that have been “painted” in fantastic patterns by the minerals in the groundwater flowing over the cliffs from above.  The cliffs are lined with many shades of green, blue, red, orange, black, yellow, white, silver, gold, …  The vistas are stunning and frequently change after a big storm.  With some imagination, sometimes faces and other shapes seem to be painted on the cliffs.  At some spots, wave erosion has created outcroppings of rock to form giant sculptures in the shape of Indian chief heads, bridal suites, and smuggler coves.  It is a beautiful display and Rachel took a boatload of pictures.  Hers were just as beautiful as the ones in the books for sale in the gift shops back in town.  Someday in my education as a naturalist, I might be able to tell you how this part of the lake got formed and about the geography of Lake Superior and all about the rocks around the lake and beneath it.  Right now, I can only contribute that Lake Superior is big – the third largest lake in the world.  The five Great Lakes together hold one-sixth of the world’s fresh water.  Finally, the cliffs of Painted Pictures Rock Lakeshore are quite beautiful.

Restaurant:  I haven’t done this for quite a bit, but some of the people that we talked to on the boat trip suggested Brownstone Inn in Au Train.  It is actually about a half hour drive west of Munising, on the side of the road away from the lake.  We tried whitefish again and it was presented well and was delicious.  I like whitefish okay, but I can’t say it is my favorite.  Still the meal was very good and the setting was very picturesque.  


Painted Pictures Rock, Michigan, June 2013



Rachel on Lake Superior, Michigan, June, 2013


Thursday Evening along Highway 28

      “Look.  Sandhill Cranes.  On the right.”

      “Stop.  Please stop.”

       “But you already saw Sandhill Cranes.”

      “I want to see these Sandhill Cranes.”

      Chris stopped.  There were five of the big birds on the railroad tracks along where highway 28 borders Seney NWR.  Three flew off right away.  I don’t think we spooked them; they were just ready to leave on their own.  The other two birds were hunting along the train tracks.  Suddenly these two started screaming in loud violent squawks, but not in my direction.  They were looking up in the sky and off to their left.  Completely freaked out, the two cranes spread their six-and-a-half foot wing span and lifted off over our car.  Flying so close, the size of the birds was surprising.  A four foot tall, ten pound bird is big.  Most creatures on the planet are smaller.  The takeoff seemed ponderous, but after a few beats of those huge , the cranes were powerful and elegant in flight.   



Sandhill Cranes, outside of Seney NWR, Michigan, June, 2013


      Immediately, we saw what had chased off the two cranes.  Two other cranes flew in and took their spot.  These two birds stalked along the railroad tracks hunting.  One of them caught a snake and ate it.  They were identical except the male was a few inches taller and bigger in the body than the female.  They had bright red crests, long sharp gray bills, and piercing wild eyes.  Their necks and bellies were gray and their sides and backs a fawn color.  Next to my car on the shoulder of the road, I was thirty to fifty feet away, which was far enough that they paid me no attention at all.  These birds strutted along the tracks with the confidence of creatures that have no natural enemies.  I took pictures until my camera ran out of charge.  The birds were still walking along the tracks when we drove away.  The two birds are the ones on the banner above the chapter links.


Sandhill Crane, near Seney NWR, Michigan


What we didn’t do on Friday

I lobbied hard to drive to White Fish Point to see if we could see warblers there.  During the peak migration, hawks, shorebirds, warblers, and waterfowl stream through this narrow strip of land by the thousands.  In late June, that action would be long over.   Still I was curious to see the location.  But Chris and Rachel had been good traveling companions and we had a long trip home, so I relented.  We left early in the morning and stopped for a few hours in Mackinaw City.  As we crossed over the bridge into lower Michigan, Chris was driving.  I asked Rachel whether she thought it was a good idea to wear your seat belt when crossing a long bridge like this one.  Either way that she answered, I was ready with a response.  Without seatbelts, there is the advantage of your body being thrown clear of the accident and thus more easily identifiable.  With seatbelts, there is a better chance of surviving the initial impact, but still there is a concern about not being able to get it off in time to avoid drowning.  Rachel never got to respond because Chris cut us off immediately with a very assertive, “You stop that!”   So I’m not sure that I’ll ever get another good chance to use this killer material.



Picking up Beans

We picked up Beans at 9:30 AM on Saturday.  While Janet Cook was giving Chris some last minute help on the dog’s care, feeding, and grooming, I got to meet and chat with her husband.  He is a minister, a farmer, and a father of eight kids.  Somehow he is calm and relaxed.  He was happy about our sightings of the cranes and swans.  They get both in their county.  Sometimes the swans take over a farm pond and are so aggressively territorial that the kids on the farm can’t swim in their own pond.  Sometimes the cranes do so much damage to a farmer’s crops that the farmers are licensed to shoot nuisance birds.  Both of us agreed that it is sad to kill a marvelous bird like a crane, but excellent that they have become numerous enough to qualify as a nuisance.  While we chatted, beautiful classical piano music came from the house.  One of the Cook’s daughters was practicing.  Her teacher is her older brother.

Restaurant in central Michigan:  Sorry, I can’t help with that.  But I can give you the number of an excellent dog breeder.  It is 989-307-0924.


Birds I saw on the way home

Northern shore of Lake Michigan:

·         A flock of 20 Red-breasted Mergansers on some rocks off shore.

·         In a bush just inland from the beach, a tiny sparrow that I think is a juvenile Lincoln’s Sparrow.  It seemed a little rounder and more coarsely streaked than a juvenile Song Sparrow.  I think that this is a reasonable best guess, considering the location.  Maybe the pictures will help.

At a McDonalds off Route 96 in central east Michigan

·         In a stand of pine, an intricately patterned bird with a black throat, sparrow-sized, yellow on his face, grey bill.   This would be a Dickcissel, except that all the pictures that I took of this really cool bird show beautiful and sharply focused pictures of pine branches.  Chris said that I was acting stranger than usual while I was photographing the tree branches, almost like I was in a trance.  I expect that the combination of sun, heat, excessive application of insect repellant, lots of driving, not enough sleep, relief from time pressures once we picked up the dog, long term fatigue from a major work deadline that hit just before the trip, and possible infection from tick bites, may have been factors in my behavior.  In July, all three of us were diagnosed and treated for Lyme Disease, which we could have picked up in Pennsylvania or Michigan.  Now that I write all that down, I would only be surprised if I was NOT acting like a zombie.

·         House Sparrows – only two of my tree branches pictures had birds in them. They were House Sparrows


Pine branches and phantom Dickcissel ??!!??, Michigan, Pa, June, 2013


Mergansers, Lake Michigan, June, 2013