I heard on the news tonight that Traverse City is twenty-two inches above the norm in snowfall this winter. I bet much of it fell the first two weeks of April.
Thursday, April 12, 2018
I’d headed out for an afternoon photo shoot, but my heart wasn’t in it. Truth be told, I was sick of the snow and taking pictures of it. I was fortunate, however, as good luck jerked me out of my bad attitude.
I was on the last leg of my journey, when I spied them. A pair of Sandhill Cranes was standing with their backs to me in a field that had cornstalk remnants poking through the deep snow. I noticed their hind feathers were rusty in color, indicating they’d been preening with mud stained with iron oxide.
They turned and slowly began walking towards the south. I noticed the great size differential between the male and female; they typically mate for life. And then something magical began to happen.
The cranes moved close together and their feathers began to ruffle. I’d seen this once before and knew they were beginning a pair bonding dance.
Pair bonding is part of the courtship dancing skills that Sandhill Cranes go through. The dancing facilitates strong committed pair bonds, but also allows them to assess the status of one another throughout their long lives, sometimes two decades or longer. When I’d seen pair bonding at another time, the cranes weren’t this close. I wondered if they were actually mating.
Then the birds started to dance more separately. The female appeared more subdued while the male continued to fluff his feathers and move around.
He put on quite a show, extending his plumage in several directions. What a magnificent dancer he was! Cranes get lots of practice dancing. While much of the dancing is related to courting, sometimes spontaneous dancing displays occur for no apparent reason. Parents also educate their chicks in pair bonding, dancing with them for the entire first year of their lives.
Once the dance was over, both cranes stood there, opened their bills, and vocalized with their trumpeting call. It was clear what their exuberance was about and it made me laugh out loud.
The cranes next started an elaborate, contortionist preening. Maybe they’d shaken loose feathers with their dancing and needed to get things back in order. Preening is a regular part of bird health.
The cranes finished their preening and walked off to the north. After a while, they stopped. The male was watchful while the female dug into the snow. I don’t know if she was gathering food or putting together a nest. Regardless, my time with the cranes had completely driven away my grumpiness. Being out in nature can do that, you know.
Thursday, April 5, 2018
Thursday, March 29, 2018
The temperature reached 50 degrees earlier this week. Finally!! I decided to take a drive in the countryside to see what was happening.
Farmland ponds were beginning to thaw and this one was full of gulls in constant motion. Their squawking filled the evening air.
This Ring-billed Gull appeared to be leading the chorus. While this gull often lives year-round in the Great Lakes region, its location in the pond made me wonder if it’d been migrating from a warmer climate. You know, one of those snow bird types who are returning home from a warm winter away.
On the next corner was another pond with mallards busy eating vegetation off the bottom. I also saw a Red-winged Blackbird perched on the top of a spent cattail. It was singing its distinctive trill. I’d never watched this breed execute its vocalization, but each time it did, it puffed out its body and expanded its wings. How much energy it expended!
Off in the distance, I could see a huge flock of something in the sky. My heart quickened, but as the mass came closer, I could see it was (just) geese.
Truth be told, I’d been looking for another critter, and I found it in one of the most unlikely places. As I passed by Hency Marsh, I saw it. A Sandhill Crane standing in the snow. It wasn’t moving at all and it made me wonder if it was stuck or frozen in space. Or maybe, it wasn’t moving because I was there so I drove off to give it a chance to do it’s own thing.
As I rounded the corner, I came upon two more cranes, this time in a setting more natural to them. What graceful birds they are as they moved nearly in tandem through the field. The cranes were not happy with my presence, however, and quickly turned their backs to me and continued the walk in a different direction, bugling their discontent the whole time.
With sunset approaching, I wanted to return to the marsh to check on the crane I’d imagined was stuck in the snow. When I returned, the crane was gone so I felt relieved. I was just about to leave when my eye caught movement in the red vegetation. Camouflage artist! With its red eye and crest, the crane blended in perfectly.
Thursday, March 22, 2018
I’ve been awaiting their arrival for weeks. I’d heard that sometime during late winter, Cedar Waxwings would arrive and feast on the Mountain Ash berries in my backyard.
Now, there’s more to the story. These berries have spent months fermenting over the winter. Rumors have it that the birds get inebriated on the berries and display erratic, drunken behaviors.
I heard them before I saw them. The air was filled with the high-pitched calls of Cedar Waxwings. Since there were so many of them, I knew something was happening even from inside my home.
The Cedar Waxwing is a striking bird. Red-brown body. Buff under parts. Yellow-tipped tail. But it’s the black mask outlined in white that’s the hallmark of this bird.
Cedar Waxwings also have a crested or plumed head; some crests are larger than others. This well-fed waxwing has a very prominent crest. Also notice the red, wax-like tips on bird’s secondary feathers, which help sustain the bird in the air and give it lift. The red wax-like tips are where these birds get their names.
Waxwings are voracious eaters. They swoop onto the tree as a group, chow on the berries, and then fly back to the stand of evergreens at the back of my yard. This behavior has gone on for this whole week.
I was amazed at the acrobatics the Waxwings went through to get at the fruit. Some even hung upside down like trapeze artists.
The Waxwings weren’t the only birds eyeing the action. This Robin looked like it was ready to partake in the fruit feast too.
I was right on that call as it jumped over to another branch and quickly went bottom up as it nibbled away on the berries.
It was great fun watching the Cedar Waxwings enjoy the berries. And it didn’t appear that any of them got “drunk” over the fermented fruits. But at week's end, the Mountain Ash was completely stripped of its berries.