Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Not All at the Feeders are Feathered

Last week my new friends at work decided to put a set of bird feeders up outside "my" window, which faces a small man-made pond. It didn't take long for the birds to find the feast, but they aren't the only ones.

The fox squirrels put on a good show yesterday. Carrie had hung some peanut butter and seed coated pine cones in the tree, and they are irresistible to squirrels.

Round and round we go.

Until the competition shows up. The original squirrel decided jumping from the branch was the greater part of valor,

leaving the spoils to the challenger, who bit the cone loose and ran off with it sticking out of his mouth like a giant cigar.

This afternoon, however, as Carrie and I were sorting through some old exhibit files, I looked up and saw something even more exciting. "There's a 'possum at the feeders," said I.

We both ran for our cameras, for opossums are not really diurnal animals. They prefer the extra cover a little darkness provides. But not this one, apparently. Not only was it not night, it wasn't even overcast! I guess some tasty sunflower seeds are good at any time of day. Just look at those stuffed cheeks:

Even the most devout disliker of opossums has got to admit that there are times they are just plain cute.

I have a little past history with opossums. My first experience was with a couple rehabbed baby 'possums. The rehabber had brought them to the property to return them to the wild and I tagged along. They were small, but full of teeth in those mouths that open abnormally wide. Opossums have the greatest number of teeth of any mammal, so it is very impressive when they open wide to scare off predators. Marylou tried to get them to cling to a tree, so they'd be safe after we left, but they insisted on being uncooperative. So, we left them on the ground, "playing dead."

Opossums don't really "play dead." It turns out that they actually faint - a physiological response to stress. Of course, it doesn't always work to the animals' advantage - note the number of 'possums permanently sleeping on roads.

Later in my career, I got some good hands on experience with a large opossum that was part of the education collection at the zoo where I worked. She mostly just wanted to sleep, so she was very docile.

Back to our friend at the bird feeders, who was totally focused on food. That is until Carrie tried to sneak up on it for a better shot. She went out the side door and peeked around the corner of the building. The little 'possum stopped munching and froze. It's little nose lifted, sniffing the air in her general direction.

Finally her presence became just too much, and the 'possum beat a slow retreat.

It obviously did not want to go wading back through that cold snow. Opossums are simply not designed for cold weather. Their naked feet, tails and ears can take a real beating in the winter, freezing, turning black, and falling off. Frostbite is a serious reality for these funny-looking marsupials.

Once in the snow, however, the 'possum picked up speed and disappeared under the pond's little deck.

Since both of us are avid trackers, Carrie and I went out to get a good look at the footprints left behind. Opossums have funny feet, with "thumbs" sticking out the side, distinguishing them from any other track in the woods (or fields).

There were enough tracks out there to suggest this was not the first trip this 'possum has made to the feeders. We expect to see it out there again.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Waterloo Recreation Area

After checking out the house, I wanted to take Toby on a hike in the Waterloo Recreation Area. I followed the signs to the Gerald E. Eddy Discovery Center. There are several trails to choose from, including this set:

With the weather starting to look iffy, I decided to opt for a shorter hike: 1.3 miles on the Oak Woods Trail (the yellow one below).

It started off much like the MacCready Reserve trail we did yesterday.

Remember the poison ivy I got into this summer? That was all plants on the ground, but here we have the other form: the hairy vine that likes to climb trees. Most folks know the rhyme "Leaflets three, let it be," but not too many know the second part: "Hairy rope, don't be a dope." Yes, you can "get poison ivy" from the vine just as easily as you can from the leaves.

The trail follows the top of a glacial moraine downhill, passing a small pond. Then it loops around and finds itself on another ridge, overlooking Mill Lake. The lakes here in southern Michigan were formed by melting chunks of glaciers over 10,000 years ago.

This woody gall stuck out like a sore thumb. Kind of reminds me of the cottonwood galls the kids from Johnsburg Central School and I explored last year.

And these wonderful three-part seeds are new, too. Remind me of beechnuts, but of course they are not beechnuts. I'll have to look them up in my book of pods, which is at work. Update: I believe this is wild yam (Dioscorea villosa), which is a native (!) vine that is full of medicinal virtues. I did a paper years ago about natural birth controls, and wild yam, found in South America, was one of those plants (a phytoprogesterone). I wonder if this wild yam is related - perhaps distantly. Whether it is or not, it is a cool plant with nifty fruiting bodies visible in the winter landscape.

And I have a whole new batch of trees whose bark I now must learn. I could confidently walk through the Adirondacks and know most of the trees by their bark, but the habitats here are just different enough to be strangers to me.

A bench near the terminus of the trail overlooks Mill Lake.

As we wound up our walk around the Discovery Center, we came to one of at least three "rock gardens." It seems that some special rocks were brought here and put on display. Each batch has its own descriptive sign.

This was my favorite rock. About the size of a large footstool, it is simply amazingly round. The signs says it is a "Sedimentary rock, CONCRETION from Alpena."

This one looks like it has a growth or scar on it. The sign says "Metamorphic rock, META-BASALT - The white lines you see are fractures fill by the igneous rock called APLITE. Glacial runoff eroded away the softer basalt while leaving the harder quartz-rich dikes intact."

Due to the holiday weekend, the Discovery Center was closed. I peeked in through the front doors, though, and it looks like it is worth a visit some time when they are open.

Slightly chilled by now, I was glad to be in the car and turned up the heat. The drive back to Jackson was uneventful, although hazy snow filled the sky.

Tonight the stars were out when Toby and I went for our walk; the weather gurus predict at least partial sun for the next few days. I may have to take my camera for another walk.

Another "Wow" Nature Moment

One of the blogs I follow is Cabinet of Curiosities, which is written in England. Lots of great stuff from that island across the sea. This morning, Phil posted a phenomenal chase - nature red in tooth and claw, as they say.

If you are curious, go here and take a gander for yourself. Weasel vs. rabbit. I'll tell you now,though, that the rabbit does not survive. It's not gory or anything, but some folks don't like to witness death.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The MacCready Reserve

What better way to spend a holiday than to go for a hike with your best pal? So, I bundled up the hound and we drove to nearby MacCready Reserve, a 408 acre parcel belonging to Michigan State University. There are six and a half miles of trails here, for walking, skiing, snowshoeing, and most importantly, dogs are welcome (on a leash, and please clean up after them).

This colorful boulder was at the edge of the parking area. Could it be an example of the state rock, known as Petoskey Stone?

We decided to do the Yellow Trail, 1.4 miles of moderate terrain. This is also called the Dynamic Forest Trail, although I'm not quite sure why.

It starts of quite level and moseys through some open woodland.

As we swung around a curve that ran near the road, we encountered our first hill. A series of gentle rolls took us up on a ridge.

I'm not sure what this plant is, but there was a fair bit of it along the trail. It has a hollow stem, and always forks into a perfect "Y" at the top.

The dried remains of its flowers (or fruits, which really are the same thing), intrigued me. I'll have to get out the field guides and see what I can find under winter vegetation.

A side trail led down a steep hill to a fen. This sign describes the fen ecosystems pretty well. While fens were few and far between in NY, and few people knew what you were talking about if you mentioned a fen, here they seem to be quite common.

And here it is, the fen:

There were lots of oaks. Apparently at one point in time, oak savannahs were common in southern Michigan. Today only a few remnants remain. I plan to visit them and do a bit of research into these nifty ecosystems.

Anyway, where there are oaks,

there are acorns, and where there are acorns,

there are deer. Deer are quite plentiful here. As in QUITE PLENTIFUL. I'd say we are practically over run with deer. And this little reserve certainly has its share, as evidenced by the numerous scrapes we passed today, where they were pawing up the snow and leaves in search of acorns, a winter staple for deer and turkeys alike.

I found this cute little nest just off the trail. Gnatcatcher? Time to break out the nest ID book, too.

Wouldn't this be lovely in a fog?

An hour and a half later Toby and I were headed back home. Passed this small herd of highland cattle along the way. They completely ignored us until someone started to bark (and it wasn't me).

And now we are home. I've refilled the birdfeeder, hung the Christmas suet, watched a neighborhood cat skulk around the house, and it is time to tackle the Room o' Boxes. There are items I need to find and I have a whole day (well, half a day now) to sort through them. Hopefully I'll succeed and not have to sort again tomorrow.

First New Wildlife

New birds, yes, I expected those. But new wildlife? Eh - not so much. Sure, there are reports of badgers in the area, but I suspect they will be my Michigan equivalent of the moose - my Moby Dick.

So, imagine my surprise to learn that there are new squirrels to meet and learn about! I mean...SQUIRRELS!

I submit for your consideration new squirrel number one: the fox squirrel.

This very handsome and rather chubby rodent is ubiquitous around these parts. For someone used to seeing red squirrels (we have them, too), the fox squirrel is a veritable giant. I'd even be willing to say that it puts grey squirrels to shame size-wise (although I have seen some very portly greys in my days, too). In fact, the fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) is listed as the largest tree squirrel native to North America. I believe it.

Besides its impressive size, what stands out about this robust animal (it can exceed two pounds) is its orange underpinnings. Just take a look at that brilliant belly!

And that impressive tail!

Able to leap small canyons in a single bound (15 feet horizontally), these rodents are zippy companions to my little neighborhood here. They clamber up trees and utility poles with equal ease, and trot along utility cables without batting an eye - something that any self-respecting squirrel should be able to do.

And even though several raptors and other predators happily add fox squirrels to their menu options, these mammals can live impressively long lives. I read that females can hang in there for over twelve years, while most males are lucky to see eight (must be all that territorial fighting takes its toll).

The other new squirrel I can't wait to see is the thirteen-lined ground squirrel. I'll have to wait until spring, however, for these fellows are tucked away below ground for the winter.

Friday, December 24, 2010

It Will Leave You in Awe

How lucky the narrator is:

The spectacular beauty of this phenomenon is almost beyond words. And to think, we used to have equally spectacular displays in this country up until a hundred or a hundred and fifty years ago, with passenger pigeons and Carolina parakeets.

I've seen similar displays with crows (at least I think they were crows, but it's very possible they were also starlings), but never on the scale shown here.

Happy Holidays!

Again, it's not quite "nature," but these are the views around my new neighborhood tonight, Christmas Eve.

Giant lights in a yard.

Sure, it may all be a huge waste of electricity, and it adds to the carbon load in our atmosphere, but you've got to admit...all those lights sure do look festive.

Happy Holidays!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Christmas Bird Count

'Tis the season for the annual Christmas Bird Count, which happens all over the country, and probably in Canada, too. Birders of all stripes go out and see how many birds of all species they can find. Over the years this annual event has yielded some interesting data on bird population trends across North America (most of them not good).

I joined two folks from the Dahlem Center, plus the wife of one of them, for a day of birding, mostly from the car. Now, you might think this is a pretty cozy way to go birding, and some might even think it's cheating, but let me tell you, we were colder in the car than we were when we did a hike into the woods to look for woodpeckers!

Y'see, when birding from the car, one really must roll down the windows for a better view (especially when the windows are tinted). Add to this a winter day where the temp is hovering around 23*F, and top it off with a rather brisk wind. Result? Brrrr. I finally scared up a blanket from the back of the car, though, and soon warmed up (next year I'll wear my THICK long-johns!). A warm lunch at mid-day also helped.

Despite the very seasonal weather, a good time was had by all. While most of the birds we saw are fairly common here, I was tickled to see so many cardinals, a few titmice, and even a kestrel or two - birds I rarely saw in the central Adirondacks. We had turkeys, purple and house finches, goldfinches, mourning doves, blue jays galore, bluebirds (!), juncos a-plenty, chickadees, a few white-breasted nuthatches, possibly some snow buntings, house sparrows, tree sparrows, cedar waxwings, red-tailed hawks, a rough-legged hawk (my first), downy woodpeckers, hairy woodpeckers, two pileated woodpeckers, several red-bellied woodpeckers, and a half-dozen or so red-headed woodpeckers (also a life bird for me).

We also saw one small and somewhat frost-bitten opossum trundling across the snow at the road's edge. Poor thing!

While we didn't really drive all that far from our "base," we put nearly 40 miles on the car! We spent our time in and around the Waterloo area, a very scenic spot where old farmland has reverted to woods, much of it oaks. We passed several streams, all frozen over, and at one we saw two great blue herons (apparently they didn't get the memo to fly south for the winter).

Met some more wonderful people, made friends with a terrific dog (Lucy), and didn't get a single photo of any of it because I left the camera home!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

I'm Here

Moving Day has come and gone. We loaded the U-haul on Friday, and headed out.

Saturday's weather was fine, but that night The Storm that nailed the upper midwest arrived. When we left Toledo Sunday morning, it was raining. By the time we reached Michigan, it was snowing. The roads were not great by the time we got to Jackson.

We arrived at The House (which I think is technically a summer cottage - more on that later) before noon and began unloading. A new neighbor showed up about mid-afternoon and lent a very welcome hand. Monday morning more bodies were here to help shift the remaining boxes and furniture.

Most of the stuff will remain in the boxes, but I started unpacking the essentials last night, like the kitchen.

I have since noticed that it is indeed rather chilly in here. I'm used to having my heat at 58*F "back home," but some how 58*F seems an awful lot colder here. Hm. AH! Must be the windows. Yes, they are single pane windows, and there is ice on the inside. Hm. Single paned windows, no basement, suspect must be this was built to be a three-season abode.

Oh, well, one can live almost anywhere for a year...and a lot of people around the world have it a lot worse.

Anywho, this morning the sun is out again. Toby and I cruised the neighborhood, and here are some shots for you to enjoy.

Just outside the back door.

The canoe made is safely.

The "famous" view of the lake (Vandercook lake) - a big selling point
for the realtors who handle this property.

View of the neighborhood.

A new neighbor.

Just up the street. A far cry from Newcomb, NY, eh?

Heading back into the lake community.

Note the raised hackles. Toby was being barked at by
a very enthusiastic border collie.

Ah, the lake once more. Apparently the Grand River has it's start here.

And back at The Cottage.

The wind is now blowing and the chill emanating from the windows is telling me I really MUST go in search of some insulated shades. Maybe I'll get some plastic to cover the windows, too.