Tag Archives: warblers

YELLOWTHROATS AND AGATES

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Common Yellowthroat—male

IN MAY Gail and I like to go to the eastern Upper Peninsula to watch birds. We do a sort of Grand Tour, from Mackinac State Park to the Seney Wildlife Refuge to Whitefish Point. Whitefish Point is a funnel for migrants, and on some days you can see hundreds of raptors soaring in “kettles” as they wait for a south wind to carry them across the lake to Canada. Sometimes a dozen kettles will be in the sky at once, each speckled with a hundred or more slowly wheeling broad-wings, sharpshins, kestrels, and others. In ponds and wetlands are ducks and geese, and occasionally yellowlegs, bitterns, rails, and other shy water birds. And the trees can be dripping with warblers.

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Broad-winged Hawks Kettling. Photo by Steve Baker for the Mackinac Straits Raptor Watch

We’re solid intermediate birders but we’ll probably never be experts because of our attention-span problem. We can’t pass a river without wanting to canoe it or fish it. We can’t drive through an aspen woods without stopping to search for morels. If we’re in the mood for chaos and artifice, the casinos draw us in. And every rocky beach beckons with the promise of agates.

One of our favorite agate beaches is at the end of a long, fairly treacherous trail that appears on no maps. Last year when we were there Superior was in a rare mood: calm and steel-gray to the horizon, with small waves lapping the shore. We had found a few small agates in the gravel when, from a thicket of osiers at the top the beach, came a distinctive call—“Wickity wickity wickity.” We were baffled for a moment, then it came to us: the common yellowthroat, a warbler I’ve always thought was not in the least common.

Farther down the shore we discovered half a dozen logs stranded on the beach. They were large—sixteen feet long and two feet in diameter—and worn smooth and bleached nearly white by water and weather. The ends of the logs were stamped with marks to identify the companies that owned them. Most of them were imprinted with the letters “OK.” The others were simple heart shapes.

I remembered meeting a man once on the north shore of Superior who had worked as the skipper of a tugboat that hauled similar logs across Superior. He said the logs were gathered into booms the size of football fields, and his job was to push them across the lake to the sawmills in Sault Ste Marie. He told a story about getting caught in a storm that shoved his tug backward across the lake until the boom broke up against the Michigan shore. Stray logs sometimes drift in the lake for years, he said. Eventually they sink or wash up on beaches.

It was impossible to tell if the logs Gail and I found on the beach that day had been floating in the lake for a year or a decade. Maybe they had been lost from one of those massive booms. I imagined the storm that could shove a tugboat backwards against its thrust and bust chains and scatter logs across a hundred miles of water. If you’ve seen a Lake Superior storm you’ll have no doubt who wins such a contest. Tugs are powerful machines, but the smart money is on Superior.

 

(Originally published in Michigan Blue Magazine.)

 

OCTOBER FIELD NOTES

Barred Owl

Barred Owl

Up before dawn this morning full of plans, oh I am industrious, I am such a hard worker, I will never die. Stepped outside to see what kind of day it would be and across the darkness heard a barred owl call from the spruce trees beyond the old barn. That cool hollow inquiry, “Who, who, who cooks for you?” ending in a raspy churl. That same call sounded through the spruce forests 10,000 years ago. Nothing we’ve done since then can match it.

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Still cutting and splitting firewood to get ready for winter. I’m a wood-chopping son of a bitch. It’s satisfying in all the important ways. Cleaving a log and seeing the bright inside exposed. Smelling the scent of fresh-cut maple. Watching the stack rise slowly toward the sky. When it gets high enough I’ll climb it to the moon and plant tomatoes and beans in that fluffy dust.

One reason I like cutting wood is because it makes me feel like my youthful self. For a few years long ago, in my 20s, I cut and sold cordwood to earn extra money for my young family. I could swing a hammer for eight or ten hours every day, go home, kiss my wife and baby, grab a quick dinner, and drive to the woods with Craig and cut firewood until dark. We stacked the wood in our yard and sold it for $40 a rick. Now I feel as strong and useful as I did all those years ago. I feel exactly the same. Except after three hours of wood-cutting I need a shower and a nap. I wake up with aching muscles, but I’m happy.

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One of the Dennis woodpiles

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Most years in October there are a few days when warblers pause in our yard before continuing south for the winter. Flitting about in our cedars, maples, and walnuts will be yellow-rump, palm, pine, yellow, black-and-white, common yellow-throat, and occasionally Canada, magnolia, chestnut-sided, Wilson’s, and other less common species. But we missed them this year. Why? Probably because we were too busy or too inattentive.

But a few days ago I caught a glimpse of an unfamiliar small bird flitting among the branches of the tree debris that remains piled next to the garage where it fell during the July windstorm that everyone around here is still talking about. The bird was quick and in constant motion, like a warbler, but its color was unusual, a rich dark brown, and it remained close to the ground, like only a few warblers will. Then I saw the tail: cocked upright and stubby. And I noticed lines of fine dark banding on its wings, tail, and flanks. And I knew. A winter wren. The first I’ve seen in our yard in the 24 years we’ve lived here. I hurried inside for my binoculars and spent ten minutes standing at the door watching the shy and busy wren picking bugs off pine and cedar branches. Winter wrens are not particularly rare, so I don’t know why I’ve never seen one in our yard. Probably I’ve just missed them. But seeing one that day, in that place, made me feel honored. We were visited by an honored guest. I opened my arms in welcome and the busy little gentleman ignored me absolutely, as he should.

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Winter Wren