Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Wings and Springs

Getaways can be nice.  Sure, some couples board their private plane and head off to the lands of the rich and famous. Natalie and I are neither rich nor famous but we still enjoy a getaway now and then.  Instead of a jet or yacht, the more or less trusty Chevy Cruze does nicely.

While we have had the opportunity to sneak out for a few days a time, this past weekend limited us to only two days.  So where can you go in two days?  Paris? London? Instanbul?

How about Oscoda.

Well, okay, no. We didn't leave the comfort of home for a small town next to an abandoned Air Force base on the Michigan shore of Lake Huron.  It was more about needing a base of operations for a brief birding adventure.

One of the leading locations in Michigan during the month of May (a fantastic month for birding) is an innocent little spit of land sticking out in the lake - Tawas Point State Park.  With a drive-time exceeding three hours, an out-and-back day of birding seemed a bit long. We thought local lodging would be a better tactic (and more fun!).

While the birding at Tawas Point was certainly enjoyable, we had no intention of spending two days there.  The place is just not that big and the subtle but stiff winds from the north acted like a blocker to the northbound birds.  Realizing we were just minutes away from one of the rarest birds in the world, we opted to head inland.

The Kirtland's Warbler is just so odd.  With such picky nesting requirements (including Jack Pine trees between 5 and 16 feet tall), the bird's population is, as you would expect, small.  Critically endangered, in fact.  The 2011 survey turned up over 2000 singing males (a far cry, believe it or not, from the 167 birds in the 1987 survey).  Vast tracts of land are cut, burned adn replanted ensure that this bird will always have Jack Pines at the appropriate height.

While we did heard the birds at sunset (and saw a few the following morning), it was not the memorable moment of the evening.  

As we stood on the edges of burned fields and scattered trees (somewhat reminding me of the African plains at sunset), the sounds of multiple trucks roaring the distance gathered our attention.  There is really no other way to describe it.  But we knew it couldn't be trucks, as the roads were sandy and trucks don't fly.  After a few minutes, it was discovered that we were hearing (and soon seeing) the courtship flight of the Common NighthawkSure, I had seen this behavior before, but it was one bird a few years ago and it just didn't click as to what we were seeing,er....hearing...

No, they are not hawks.  They are Goatsuckers. No, they don't suck goats either (though folks used to believe that!).  In short, they eat bugs.  Tremendous amounts, in fact.

During the spring courtship, the males, normally flying high and calling, suddenly fold their wings. Like a stone, they drop.  With only feet to spare, they open their wings and pull out of the dive. The force of the air rushing over their wings and through the flight feathers creates the most peculiar roaring sound.  Check out the video here.   

Astonished, Natalie and I more or less forgot about the world's rarest warbler and enjoyed the nighthawk show.  Our guess would be at least 10 birds in the area. Some we simply never saw, but we could certainly hear them - a solid testament to the distances this odd sound could carry.

Heading west from Oscoda, the River Road National Scenic Byway is another must.  As one heads out of town, its hard to imagine the area as the original forests that once grew there; everything now is second-growth.   

Before you shake your head at the "horror" of it all, understand those original woods basically built the country, right?  That old building that I am looking to preserve and/or re-use could have timbers that came from this region.  

So, lets think about those lumbermen. Hard, deadly work.  Low pay.  Crappy food.  Wouldn't it be nice to have decent water running through your camp?  

Not far outside of Oscoda, a vertical descent of almost 200 feet along the south shore of the Au Sable River takes you to the Iargo Springs.  (Keep in mind that is an "I", not a "L". Its a font thing.  It's pronounced "eye-ARE-go".)

Stories from centuries past have the Native Americans of the region assembling here. As Europeans moved in to the region, they used it, as well.  The lumberman certainly used it, but with the decline in the lumbering trade, it more or less turned over to a tourist stop...

...and for good reason.

I'll be honest. I was impressed.  Lets face it - places like this are often over-sold in an attempt to make a less than appealing feature neat. How many times have people gone somewhere with grand visions in their head only to be tremendously disappointed?  It won't happen here.  With boardwalks and viewing platforms, one can  easily traverse the springs assuming you can managed the 250+ steps heading down (and, of course, back up again!). 

Certainly, the springs aren't big.  Logs built by the CCC provide little waterfalls not much bigger than three feet (Niagara Falls, they are not!) , but the feel is impressive as these little seeps are scattered across the area.  The weather was pleasant but we can easily imagine the area being much cooler on a hot day given the temps of the frigid water.

The trip was quite fun overall.  I haven't run the totals yet.  The oddest bird was the Northern Mockingbird at Tawas Point (only about 200 miles from where he should be!).  We had a few average beers at Wiltse's Brew Pub and Family Restaurant. Hikes here. Hikes there.  It was hard to believe we crammed it into just a two day period.

But for the sure, the take away for us both will be the roaring wings and seeping springs. 

Monday, May 18, 2015

Passerine Pics

For those of you who have no idea how birding works, spring migration is generally the event most folks look forward to.  With thousands millions of song birds (scientifically known as Passerines) winging their way north in their fancy breeding colors, folks like Natalie and I hit the woods and fields looking for that next bird.  

For me, as of late, I have been enjoying photography. If you have been visiting this blog as of late, you already know this, right?  

So, I thought I would share some pics from recent days outside. 

This dashing fellow is the American Redstart.  After flying in from northern South America, they are looking to establish territories like all the other migrants.   These guys, however, do it with a twist. They are known to have two females in two different territories.  You could think of as a dude with two wives (neither of whom who knew the other existed) living on two different sides of a small town.  Oh, what would the neighbors think.... 

The Red-eyed Vireo really does have red eyes. They just don't show up well in this photo.  In any case, their claim to fame is their non-stop singing.  One fellow in the 1950's recorded a Red-eyed Vireo singing his short song over 22,000 times in a 14-hour period.  My head hurts just thinking about it...

Fortunately for photographers, the Black-throated Green Warbler has the nice habit of feeding low in the trees. This matches their tendency to nest low, as well.

Tree Swallows have to be one of the most eye-catching birds out there.  If you catch of glimpse of them in sunlight, the structure of the feather reflects light not unlike that rainbow sheen coming from the oil drop on your driveway.  When the light goes away, so does the color.  Amazing. 

With today being the 18th of May, there is a solid 10 days of migration left. In fact, there is a few more as some birds are still moving through the region in the opening days of June. Unfortunately, the trees will be leafed out.  

We'll do the best we can. Maybe I'll have a few more pics to share in a few days....

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

See You Later

So, the title of this post is "See You Later."  You're probably thinking I'm done with this blog as my writings have lightened up a bit as of late from grad school, right?

Well, no, I'm not done.  In an odd sort of way, I'm bidding farewell....

The bird above is a Tundra Swan.  The shape of the black bill and the yellow spot at its base rule out the Trumpeter Swan (the lookalike cousin from the American West) and the Mute Swan (hopefully eradicated from the state with high velocity lead injections in the future). 

I snapped this picture in early March.  (I had hoped to post it here shortly after I took it,  but I never really had the time to do it.)  With waterproof gear and those little pocket warmer thing-a-ma-bobs, I slowly moved  out on to the Trenton Channel where this bird was sitting on the ice. I estimate that I crawled on my belly at least 200 feet out from the shore.  I needed to move slow as I did not want to disturb him.

The previous paragraph is largely a crock.  Yeah, I took the picture in March. That's about it....

In truth, the bird was hanging out in Elizabeth Park in Trenton. The waterfowl there were, well,....tame largely from all of the public feedings. Well, okay, they were not completely tame, but they certainly were not as edgy as their wild counterparts.  Once I sat on the shore, they settled in and didn't seem to mind me.  

His name might tell you a bit about him.  "Tundra" is a reference to the breeding grounds.  If you're thinking Trenton and Tundra are about 1,918 miles apart, you would be right, give or take a few hundred miles.  I can assure you this bird is long gone as I type here tonight on a beautiful late April evening.  Assuming he is alive (you never know), he is en route to the polar regions.  Hell, he might already be there.

So, will I see him again?

Yeah, quite possibly.

Knowing how migration can sometimes work, it is very possible that this very bird will hang out at Elizabeth Park again this coming winter. Or he could hang with thousands of his buddies a few miles south of Trenton in the open water of the Detroit River. In any case, we can be hope he will be winging his way into the region by Halloween.

But lets not get ahead of ourselves.  I'm not looking to the fall yet.  After all, we have not even hit the month of May!  That's the month birders dream about in these parts.  Gillions of little songbirds of just about every conceivable color will be heading north right through our parks and neighborhoods.  Many would argue that it is the single best month for birding.  Natalie and I are looking forward to it.

That said, autumn will eventually get here.  That's a fact.  

As for my Tundra Swan buddy?  Perhaps I'll be seeing him later....

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Stars On Stage (x2)

Wikipedia defines a star as a celebrity who is well-known for his or her leading roles in motion pictures.  It also defines a star as a luminous sphere of plasma held together by its own gravity. How cool is it that I got to experience a bit of both a few weekends ago.

No, I'm not a star.  But, I got to experience what stars sometimes experience.....

No. Cripe. I didn't experience a brainwashing,  a complete facial reconstruction, or discover piles of blow in the dressing room.  

Let me explain. 

As a part of my ongoing graduate studies in Historic Preservation, I took a class in Historic Preservation and Tourism in Traverse City.   In the end, a significant portion of the class involved the development of a tour for the downtown area highlighting historic structures.  Courtesy of  Dr. Ligibel, the course's professor, we secured the ultimate behind-the-scenes look at a Traverse City gem: the City Opera House.

Built in 1891, it is a must on any historic tour of Traverse City. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972 and is one of six historically intact Victorian opera houses in Michigan. 

The barrel vault ceiling and walls accommodate fresco paintings, gold leaf accents and Victorian styling. Names of notable Victorian performers are found painted on the ceiling domes, including Edwin Booth, brother of, yeah....that guy. The City Opera House had removable seats allowing the auditorium to double as a banquet hall or dance floor. This is unique among large opera houses in Michigan. 

By 1930, after decades of parties, plays and other festivities, the City Opera House was leased by local movie theatre owners then closed. This was potentially done as a maneuver to limit intra-city competition with their other theatres. The structure remained officially closed until 1985. In the end, while a bit shrewd,  and perhaps a bit cunning, from a business standpoint, it may have saved the building from decades of abuse from general use. 

In 1978, the City Opera House Heritage Committee formed with the intention of raising funds to bring the structure back to life. In 1980, the sole donated the building to the people of Traverse City. Quinn Evans Architects was secured to rehabilitate the building at a cost of $8,5000,000. 

Rehabilitation was extensive but in no way compromised the original feel of the 1892 building. An amazing combination of subtle modern influences have been blended with late 19th century d├ęcor. Air conditioning, state of the art lighting, full kitchen features and multiple elevators for the handicapped do not interfere with Victorian influences, including stained glass windows.

All told, the City Opera House is an outstanding example of historic preservation. Not only does it have a significant history with the city, but it is shows all the indications expected for successful heritage tourism: authenticity, ambiance, amenities, affordability, and access.  If you get a chance to check this place, do it.

On the other hand, there are those plasma balls (not to be confused with speedballs used by those other stars...).  These are the ones in the sky that folks have been pondering for as long as there have been people to ponder things.  Sadly for those of us in this current age who reside in large metropolitan areas, light pollution is a nightmare. So many folks in these areas are just not treated to the show mother nature puts on every night in rural areas. With that, I certainly try to never miss a moment when I can see the stars in their glory...on stage, if you will....

As fate would have it, Traverse City is small enough where light pollution is a fraction of what it is here in Metro Detroit. After a horribly botched attempt at astrophotography in Arizona a few years ago, I figured it was time to try again. I though the Campbell-DeYoung Farmhouse (from my field school last year) would be a great place for Take 2.  With my camera, tripod and all the needed gear in tow, I gave it a whirl. 

Sadly, in my original images, the composition totally sucked. Bad.  From my angle, the bush in the front yard next to the house seemed to magically grow to be as big as the house itself.  I figured a viewer wouldn't know if the subject was the sky, the house, or the bush - it was that awful.  With the sun now gone and stars popping out left and right, I had to totally re-tool in the dark. That is generally frowned on in this type of photography as you can't see what the hell you doing. Sure, you can have a headlamp (which I did, of course) but it is just not the same.

Finally, with my viewing partner getting cold, tired and itching to leave (I won't mention names but it rhymes with "Natalie" ) we cut loose. But, not before I gave it one more go.

I'll take it. I'll be the first to tell you it has problems, but I'm pretty pleased for the most part.  With Orion shining bright right of center, and the barn nicely lit (by a passing car!), I figure I can try and tweak it a bit more for a better looking sky.  For whatever reason, it looks tad better on my computer than it does here on Blogger, but whatever.  

With my appetite now whet for more astrophotography, I'm eager to see what I can do next.  I've already called DTE Energy to see if they can kill all power to Detroit upon my request.  In fact, I know I guy who works for them. Maybe he can flip a switch or something.  I'll keep you posted. 

There you have it.  A weekend with a stage for stars and some stars on stage. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Old Lady Dumped Me

Yes, you read that right.

The old lady dumped me.

No, not Natalie.  (I can't stand it when husbands call their wife "an old lady". In fact, I hate it).

It was Lady Justice.  

Yup. Dumped.  

As you may recall, I was selected for potential jury duty.  Yesterday was the day.  Sadly, I was not selected but I can tell you it was an experience.

First, based on the process of selecting the jury, they give you some insight as to the nature of the case.  Attempted murder.  Boy, I can tell you that would have been somethin'.  Doctors testimonies.  Firearms experts.  Tons of witnesses.  I would have been digging that all the way.  That is so up my alley.  

I also got a pretty impressive look at how the jury thing is really done.  The next time someone tells me the jury selection process is crooked and unfair, I can tell them this: one woman was excused during the questioning when it was discovered that she barely understood English. If you want a fair trial, do you want someone like that determining your future?  Yeah, I didn't think so.

It was scheduled to last 2-3 days plus deliberations.  That may have jammed up my plans a bit, but I was prepared to do it for the greater good.  

In any case, I am off the hook for a full year.  Even though I was not seated, I was a part of the process and therefore did my civil duty.  

Maybe next time.