Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Trumpeter Cygnet - Journey's End at Wolf Lake Fish Hatchery

As forecast, October has been a crazy month for us, so far, and I haven't been anywhere near Wolf Lake Fish Hatchery since we ended our fall walks there on October 3. However, some folks who do get out there every once in a while drop me an occasional email that keeps me in the loop about what is going on out there. The last couple of days, however, the news coming from the hatchery, via Carol Beurkens-Borden, was sad. She walks there almost daily with her dogs, and she wrote yesterday to tell me that the Trumpeter cygnet was sitting on the trail near one of the ponds, and didn't look well at all. She notified the visitor center staff, and, apparently, they were attempting to get help for the sick swan. By the time a wild bird shows signs of illness, however, its condition is usually extremely critical. This certainly applied to the young swan, as Carol found today when she walked that it had died.

We don't often get the chance to see more than the most fleeting moments of a wild animal's life. Getting to see the same individual repeatedly, to watch it almost from hatching, observe how the parents cared for it, and how its behavior changed as it grew almost to full size, is a special, rare opportunity. And to know, not only how the journey began, but how it ended, is even rarer. Most wild things live their lives unknown and unobserved. The Trumpeter cygnet's life was followed eagerly by folks from all over southwest Michigan, and it and its parents probably deserve some kind of recognition as the most photographed individual Trumpeter Swans in Michigan, if not the Midwest. It is easy to slip into our human value system, and say that it wasn't fair that the baby bird we watched grow up didn't survive into independent adulthood. It is easy to say that the parents deserved a better outcome for all their hard work and devotion. But nature has no concept of fairness or fairy tale endings. The vast majority of young things do not survive to their first birthday. It is so sad that the little gray cygnet we all enjoyed so much was a member of that majority. But I feel so fortunate and privileged that I was able to witness the family's story unfold. And I wish the cygnet peace, and better luck the next time around.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Wolf Lake Fish Hatchery Never Disappoints

Be sure to check near the end of the post for future information on the Hatchery walks! : )

A nice group of folks from all over southwest Michigan met at Wolf Lake Fish Hatchery today to enjoy the lovely day. We had fun puzzling over the plumages of fall Mallards and Wood Ducks. The Trumpeter Swans cooperatively showed off their growing cygnet. And the Common Gallinule family was in their usual location. I even managed to get some recognizable pictures this week.

The gallinule chicks can hardly be called juveniles anymore. Immature sounds better!

The single Trumpeter cygnet is thriving on all the TLC it gets from the folks.

Once again, Cedar Waxwings were everywhere, as well as Barn Swallows and a few Chimney Swifts. A male Belted Kingfisher stopped rattling around long enough for us to get some nice scope views. We worked hard over a nondescript sparrow in the grass, finally pretty much deciding it was a juvenile Swamp Sparrow. All in all, the birding is more challenging as the birds have mostly stopped singing and are concentrating on getting ready for the coming migration. And when we do find them, they are often in what the field guides call "confusing fall" plumages. Well, this is the perfect time to get out in the field and get unconfused. Join us on one of the many outings scheduled in various Southwest Michigan localities over the next few weeks. For complete information on  upcoming BBC events look here. Wolf Lake Fish Hatchery walks will continue on Wednesdays at 9am, weather permitting, but the last one will be the first Wednesday in October. They may start up again in November depending on the weather. I will post to BBCchat if/when that happens. Until then, hope to see you in the field. Bird on!


Star, the Basset puppy, recharges her batteries while Mom writes.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Dog Days of Summer, Van Buren County Style, Part II

Checking for more turtles!

Today Storm joined me for a walk on the trails at Wolf Lake Fish Hatchery. Storm is our ten year old male Landseer Newfoundland. As he left answers to the p-mail he read on the bushes and posts, I remembered that it really is a lot more fun to walk Shine, most of the time. But after a few minutes, I reminded him that all those obedience titles before and after his name should be good for something in everyday life. Being the good-natured dog he is, he settled in to walk with me.

The big soft-shelled turtle was sunning itself again today. It uses one of the big logs in the small pond immediately south of the viewing platform. If you walk up quietly, as I did today, it might not spook. We ran across another big turtle on the back side of the big pond. Storm was highly intrigued by the big snapper we found sunning itself on the shoulder of the trail. I was relieved to find that I'm younger than I thought, or maybe we're both just equally old, because I was able to drag Storm back before the snapper latched on to him. It had a couple of good chances to get him, but was actually pretty mellow for a snapper. It didn't even hiss much.

After a refreshing stop to soak his paws in the pond, we made our way back to the car. Storm gathered in a few new fans around the visitor's center and parking lot. He loves people and it shows. After we shared a bottle of water, he surprised me by being able to leap lightly back into the car, since often after a walk he needs a boost.We headed home happy that we made the most of this beautiful day, in this amazing place.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Dog Days of Summer, Van Buren County Style

The rain the other morning left this field of asparagus plants looking like a family reunion for Cousin It and his relatives.

Shine, the Whippetish girl, and I spent a pleasant hour wandering the trails at Wolf Lake Fish Hatchery today.

The birds were definitely in late summer mode, meaning they were pretty quiet, but there were still interesting things to see. A couple dozen Cedar Waxwings were pretending to be swallows, zipping around over the ponds flycatching. Actual swallow numbers were sparse, with only Tree Swallow and Barn Swallow represented. I counted at least 5 Pied-billed Grebes with striped faces, meaning they were young of the year. I saw at least three Belted Kingfishers, a Great Blue Heron, a Green Heron, and two Double-crested Cormorants out on the big pond. Waterfowl were represented by one Canada Goose, one Trumpeter Swan, and one Wood Duck. Towhees, Catbirds, Cardinals, Song Sparrows, Common Yellowthroat and Yellow Warbler were skulking in the willows.

Lots of turtles were around. A Painted Turtle was walking one of the trails with us. I spotted a few other Painted and an enormous Blanding's Turtle, but they were all pretty skittish and hard to photograph. I did get this picture of an absolutely huge softshell turtle. I think it was the first one I have seen at the hatchery. You can get an idea of size by comparing to the adult Painted Turtle on the log in front of the softshell.

And another shot.

I will be resuming regular walks at the Hatchery next week. If you'd like to join me, meet at the WLFH parking lot at 9AM on next Wednesday. Restrooms on site should be available. We'll walk the trails and meet for refreshments at That Coffee Place in Paw Paw afterward, if anyone is interested. Note the day change. I have another commitment on Mondays now that makes it necessary to make this switch. Hope to see you there!

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Sad Day in This Amazing Place

Today is a life review day. We're sitting with our old Golden Retriever, Molly, watching her draw her last breaths. The end is coming, we know that, but we aren't going to stretch out her life to the last miserable second. That's why, in a little while, she is going on her last car ride. In the meantime, the family gathers around her. Shine, the little rescue Whippet mix, who loves Molly more than she loves anyone else in the family, cuddles close. When Molly tries to get up and stumble around the house, Shine is right at her side. Some of the cats are stopping by for a rub and a sniff. We rub her ears and pet her soft gray-golden fur.

We don't really know for sure how old Molly is. She came to us from a rescue group as a middle-aged dog who had outlived her previous owner. That was in 2006. We are so happy to have shared her life for the last seven years, even though it cost us many loaves of bread until she finally trained us to put it away where she couldn't get it! She is remarkable for her unfailing resilience and joyfulness. Even as she started to lose her memory and become increasingly confused, until the last few days she would still have moments where you could see her old self light up her eyes, and she would give the joyful leap in the air that meant she was happy to join you in whatever you were doing. She was Shine's anchor as the little puppy from the hoard tried to figure out how to live with people. Several of the cats think nothing of using her for a pillow. When Bob was taking his first shaky walks as he recovered from his car accident, Molly was by his side. She is the embodiment of everything that is wonderful about her breed, and we have been so lucky to have her.

We love you, Molly B. 

Monday, July 15, 2013

Blueberry Time

Last year’s blueberry harvest was pretty much nonexistent in Van Buren County. In fact, fruit in general was an almost total loss due to the drought. I have more of a personal connection to the blueberries, however, since my stepson has about 25 acres of them just down the road from where we live. He has worked hard on his blueberries the last few years. There were about 3 acres of them on the farm when he bought it, and he has singlehandedly planted the rest. About three years ago he put in a pond. As it turns out, it was in the nick of time, because if it hadn’t been for the pond, he would have lost all the baby plants that he worked so hard to get in the ground. As it was, he filled his water tanks from the pond and watered the young plants about every other day throughout the drought. Some blueberry farmers in our area wound up plowing all their blueberry plants under when they died, but almost all of Bob’s managed to pull through. 

Fast forward to 2013.

Some of the young blueberry plants

Maybe I'll check out the blueberries.

Poor blueberry bushes! They can't straighten up.

Here, I will help you!

      Godzilla makes sure the deer don't get too many blueberries. He is happy to work for biscuits and ear rubs.

     The blueberry patch is full of birds. Cedar Waxwings, Robins, Thrashers, Catbirds, Common Yellowthroats, Towhees and more are constantly present this time of year. I'm surprised they can get off the ground, the way they are stuffing themselves. Of course, I'm no one to talk. An awful lot of blueberries don't make it into the bucket. It's my duty to quality test them. It's a tough job. But some sacrifices must be made for the privilege of living here, in this amazing place.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Cygnet Sign

One of the highlights of the spring bird walks at Wolf Lake Fish Hatchery was always a check on the breeding progress of the resident Trumpeter Swans. When we rolled up the sidewalks on the bird walks for a while at the end of May, the female swan was still on the nest, the outcome uncertain. A little way into June, even spotting her on the nest became impossible, as the cattails got so thick she was concealed from sight. The last time I walked there, about a week ago, I didn't see either swan. So I was relieved today to spot both of them on the pond as soon as I could see the pond. And when I got close enough, this is what I saw.

Both parents watch for danger to their single cygnet

        It was great fun to see the parents stir up the bottom with their feet to bring small food items to the surface for the little one to eat. I actually have some video of that, but upload times are gruesome on our connection for video.
        The few remaining Canada goslings are starting to look more like grown-ups.  The adults have all molted their primaries, so they are as flightless as their offspring.

Note the lack of primaries on these birds.

On alert!

     Although still downy, the facial pattern of an adult is starting to emerge on the two month old gosling above.


     On the home front, I came home the other afternoon, and spotted these guys in our walnut orchard.

Look closely for fawn number two on the left.

I think fawn number two is practicing fawn yoga here.
      On this last day of spring, my wish for you is that you find all the wonders that summer has to offer in your own amazing places!

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Over Turned Stones, or Something Like That

      I'll explain that post title in a minute, but first, the report and some pics from the BBC outing to Tiscornia and the Whirlpool World HQ grounds. It was our final Tiscornia outing of the spring season, when heat and bugs are usually making us look forward to a break. This year, we looked like we were dressed for the first outings, not the last outing of the year. Mittens, winter hats, and layers yet again. Sigh. We'd better keep an eye on the warbler migration points this summer. If it ever warms up we might still get those warbler fallouts we've been missing all spring!
     Today numbers were low, except for swallows, but we had some high quality bird encounters. Kip found a breeding plumage Franklin Gull on the water on the Silver Beach side of the jetty. A breeding plumage Common Tern and a first year Forster's Tern were with the Caspian Terns on the beach, and gave us great opportunities to compare the differences in structure between these two similar species. (Hint: Forster's have longer legs and bigger bills, in addition to silvery upper wing surfaces, and a whiter breast.)
     Running up and down the beach, sometimes with a little encouragement from a certain human bird dog, were two breeding plumage Ruddy Turnstones, a Semipalmated Sandpiper, and a breeding plumage Dunlin.
One of two Ruddy Turnstones at Tiscornia

     Eventually, the birds felt comfortable enough with us that they relaxed and took turns bathing in the surf.
Ruddy Turnstones, Semipalmated Sandpiper, and Dunlin tidy up.

Some of the many Caspian Terns we saw this spring at Tiscornia

       When we were finished at Tiscornia, we moved inland for some land birding. At the Whirlpool HQ, there were still several Red-breasted Nuthatches, lots of Northern Rough-winged Swallows, and a couple of Willow Flycatchers.  We were also entertained by some hungry Eastern Kingbirds, who actively fed in the grass without paying much attention to us. Orioles and Warbling Vireos were in the trees around the pond, and our attempts to track down an elusive Willow Flycatcher in the parking lot turned into some really nice looks at a Gray-cheeked Thrush. I don't know about the other members of our group, but I drove home a little sad that the season is drawing to a close, but happy, as always, to have shared it with friends.


        Well, back to the title. Just a reminder before I start. 

Ruddy Turnstone

      My dad has been gone for a long time - he died in 1983, but part of his sometimes strange legacy is that I think of him every time I see a Ruddy Turnstone, or for that matter, any species of Tern. He was alternately mystified by, irritated by, or (rarely) proud of, my devotion to birding. On a good day, he wasn't above teasing me about it. One day, he very seriously asked me if I had read in the newspaper about the terrible tragedy at a seabird breeding colony in Florida.  When I asked him what happened, he told me that a group of fishermen, believing the seabirds competed with their fishing, had staged a raid on the colony and thrown rocks at the nesting seabirds. His timing was perfect, honed by thirty years of life as a standup comic. Just as I was about to explode with outrage, he delivered the punch line deadpan. "Their motto was, 'Leave no tern unstoned.'"  

Bird on.

All photos by Dixie Burkhart

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Shorebird Bonanza and Hawk of the Night

Look for the Dowitchers just behind and to the right of the goose.
     Today was a very productive day for me, birding in Van Buren County. The flooded field on 38th Avenue, about 2 miles east of 46th Street, repaid all my careful checking in spades today with a shorebird bonanza. The three Short-billed Dowitchers I reported this morning multiplied to at least 15 by this evening. There were 8 to 10 Semipalmated Plovers, 12 or more Lesser Yellowlegs, a couple of Spotted Sandpipers, 6 or 8 Least Sandpipers, around ten Solitary Sandpipers, Green-winged Teal, Sandhill Cranes, Wood Ducks, and a lone Savannah Sparrow running around with the Least Sandpipers and looking very odd!
One of a few Semipalmated Sandpipers
Solitary Sandpiper looks for supper.

     I also stopped by Wolf Lake Fish Hatchery briefly today. A Green Heron flushed from one of the first ponds and offered nice looks. A Willow Flycatcher was singing from the edge of the same pond. The Common Goldeneye male still lingers, and pops up on ebird as rare at this date.
     Brigg's Pond has also picked up a few shorebirds, solitary and least, as far as I could see, but there is quite a bit of grass on the sandbar to conceal them.
      The Common Nighthawk peenting overhead in the yard this evening added species number 107 to my yard list and is number 198 for Van Buren County. The dowitcher was number 197 for the county, so all in all, a pretty productive day. Best wishes to all for a terrific birdathon and for the remainder of the spring birding season!
Some of the fifteen short-billed dowitchers present this evening.

FYI - This Monday's walk at Wolf Lake Fish Hatchery will be at the usual time - 9 am. However, there will be no walk the following Monday, which is Memorial Day.

Monday, May 13, 2013

A Report from Wolf Lake Fish Hatchery

      Six BBC'ers once again donned their winter gear to bird Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery in Van Buren County. Temperatures hovered around the freezing mark, but the sky was clear and the ponds were like glass.  Many swallows working the ponds gave us terrific opportunities in perfect light to compare field marks of five species. The Trumpeter Swans were on nest duty. Sheryl's sharp eyes picked out an Indigo Bunting in a treetop, although it wasn't the most cooperative bird. With a little patience, we had better luck with a male Bay-breasted Warbler in the woods. Eventually, he came out in the open and gave us all some pretty nice looks.

Lisa and Barb check out some swallows.

     There were quite a few pairs of Canada Geese with downy young.

     And it wasn't just about the birds. 
This bullfrog didn't seem to mind our attention.

Neither did this female Tree Swallow at the nestbox

     When  we were finished at the fish hatchery, we took to the cars and the back roads. The flooded field on 38th Avenue was occupied by three Solitary Sandpipers, although the Blue-winged Teal I had spotted earlier didn't wait around for the group. The special treat of the day was probably when a wary pair of Sandhill Cranes emerged from cover followed by two very small downy red chicks. The chicks' antics kept us enthralled, although, unfortunately, most of us missed the moment when the chicks faced off and did a baby version of the crane dance, stretching up tall and bouncing while waving their stubby red wings! 
     We finished our day with a visit with the Prothonotary Warblers on 44th Avenue, and spent a few minutes communing with the peaceful spirit of the Paw Paw River. I reflect on the day as I walk the dogs for their last outing. The sun is sinking, a Wood Thrush is singing in the woods behind the house, and I once again realize how lucky I am to live in this amazing place.



     Please feel free to join us for a morning of good birding and good company next Monday, May 20, at 9am. Meet in the parking lot at Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery near Mattawan, Michigan.  Hope to see you then!                              

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Swallow Extravaganza at Maple Lake

I was going to drive by Maple Lake today, because all the waterfowl have been gone, and, frankly, it just hasn't been that interesting. As I tried to drive by, however, I was forced to put on the brakes to avoid running over hundreds of swallows that coursed back and forth low over the roadway, some passing from lake to lake, and some trying to land on the roadway! I turned around, went back to the boat launch area, and found literally thousands of swallows flitting over the surface of the water, or high in the air, or landing on the ground around the edge of the lake. I have no idea what caused this behavior, unless it had something to do with the unseasonable cold temperatures. I have seen large flocks of swallows here before, but this was several orders of magnitude beyond what I have ever seen. Barn Swallows predominated by a wide margin, but there were also quite a few Tree Swallows, and every once in a while a single of another species would flit into my binoc field. Pretty soon, I had all the regularly occurring Michigan swallow to my credit, and a wildlife experience that will stay with me for a long, long time. Photos can't give any idea of what I was seeing, but here are a couple. I have some video that turned out pretty well, but I will have to wait until I can get to a faster connection before I try to upload that.

A tiny fraction of the many swallows present today.

Multiply this by "as far as the eye can see" and triple it for the density of the flock that was coursing low over the lake.

         The flooded field on 38th Avenue, 1.5 miles east of 46th Street is still providing promising habitat for shorebirds. There weren't any there today, but it is still worth checking if you are in the area. Today the only birds of interest there were a couple of latish male Green-winged Teal.

         If you would like to join me for a morning walk at Wolf Lake Fish Hatchery, and a road trip to try for some grassland birds, as well as a visit with the Prothonotary Warblers of 44th Avenue, meet me in the parking lot at Wolf Lake Fish Hatchery at 9am 5/13/2013. (Monday). 

Friday, May 10, 2013

Whooping Crane 14-12 AKA Lily

     In 2000, various crane conservation partners collaborated on developing a program to establish an second wild-living freely breeding Whooping Crane flock in North America, breeding in Wisconsin and wintering in Florida. For more information on the successes and failures of this project, go here.
      For our purposes, suffice it to say, that as a result of the ultralight and direct release programs associated with this project, it seems that stray Whooping Cranes can turn up just about anywhere. Quite a few wind up in Michigan. Currently, crane 14-12 has been gracing the Farm Unit in Allegan with his presence since April 30. Although this crane is a male, the fourteenth hatched in 2012, he was given the name Lily. Go to the link for more information about him. I was lucky enough to spot him today.
     Lily was captive bred and raised then released as part of the Direct Autumn Release cohort for 2012. 

 Photos by Dixie Burkhart

       I took these pictures from about a quarter mile away through the windshield of my car, and have seriously magnified them, losing resolution.  The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership requests that if you see a Whooping Crane, do not approach closer than 200 yards on foot or 100 yards in a vehicle. They have worked very hard to keep the cranes wild, as their wariness helps them to survive. I would also ask that you be sensitive to the crane's or any other wild bird's behavior, and back off if you see they are becoming  uncomfortable. That said, if he is around, you shouldn't have any trouble spotting this magnificent bird. He is blazingly white. Good luck if you go!

Til next time.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Solitary Sandpiper Shares

          Last Monday, this Solitary Sandpiper obliged us with the chance to observe it at pretty close range for as long as we wanted. While we oooed and ahhhed, swapped scopes and binocs and cameras, it went on feeding in the little stream of running water it had found. We were very interested to watch as it quivered it's foot in the water to stir up the bottom, then ate what floated to the top. Such fun to watch!

     This male Northern Cardinal, on the other hand. was scope viewing only, as he perched high in a tree, and sang loudly. 

     And when we didn't have birds to entertain us, we had flowers, turtles and frogs. 
Blanding's Turtle, a Michigan species of special concern.
        Although I took this photo of the Blanding's a few years back at the hatchery, we have seen quite a few there in recent days.
Bullfrog at Wolf Lake Fish Hatchery

      As always, we will be exploring the hatchery next Monday at 9am. Hope to see you there!

All photos on this blog are taken by me, Dixie Burkhart, unless otherwise noted. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Baby Geese

  It is always reassuring to me to see the first baby geese of spring. It is as though the coming of the first downy yellow fluff balls is somehow a sentinel event that validates my trust that, yes, spring is really here, and that we really are coming to the end of the grey, icy days.  When this goose first started incubating her perfect oval eggs in the cattails, she had ice on her back more often than not, but she was hard-wired to know that this is the time, and this is the place.  Mostly, the Earth rewards her offspring for going with their gut impulses, so much so, that it doesn't even need to be a conscious choice. If left alone, natural systems follow their seasonal pulses, and maintain themselves pretty well. I wonder why, when we gained our special capacity for self-awareness, we lost our ability to listen to the heart beat of the Earth, and to be a functioning, balanced participant in those natural systems.  

Monday, April 22, 2013

Wolf Lake Fish Hatchery Catch-up, Past Two Days. Also, Cornfield Swans

Wow, what a spectacularly beautiful day it was today!  Didn't even need any birds, it just felt great to be outside. But we did have birds! And we had birds yesterday. Yesterday, I was ostensibly at the hatchery to walk one of our dogs. Here she is, Miss Shine, wondering how many more times I am going to stop to look at BIRDS!

Maybe if I stare down the trail, she'll take a hint.

     And, one more, because I can, and she's cute!

I think there are some birds over there you haven't stared at yet!

        Swallows were everywhere yesterday. They covered the ground, the cattails, the trees. These are all Tree Swallows, I believe, but there were also Barn, Bank, and Northern Rough-winged Swallows.  

     Today swallow numbers were off by about 90 percent over yesterday. There were still quite a few around, Tree, Barn, and NRW, but we did not see any Bank Swallows today. We did get great looks at a cooperative Sora from the viewing platform, and we heard Sora call repeatedly throughout our visit.

     And, last but not least, over the past few weeks I have mentioned a few times the Trumpeter Swans standing in the cornfield at M43 and 40th Street in Van Buren County. Most of the time they were on the other side of a row of trees, or traffic or weather made it not very smart to try to stop for a photo. Then they disappeared for a week, and I figured my opportunity had passed. But this morning, there they were, almost on the corner, very close, and with no shrubbery between us.  They were close enough that even Bob, my allegedly non-birding husband, saw and remarked on them when he went by a little while later.


     So, what do you think? Ebird lists Trumpeter Swans as rare, and requests additional details for all sightings. I don't think it really applies to the WLFH swans, who have been extremely comfortable there for quite a few years now. But what about these guys, standing on a corner like they're counting cars?  Hmm.

And, one more, the Wolf Lake Trumpeters regard me curiously.

Please note, starting next week, the hatchery walk will start at 9:00 AM, since we are moving into landbird mode. Thanks! Bird on!