Tag: Birds

Monday Miscellany: Nature on the Move

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Magee Marsh, a prime stopover for migrating birds, located on the southern shore of Lake Erie. The boardwalk extends over almost seven acres and provides eye level viewing for some spectacular birds!

I’m afraid my blog has been distressingly free of any new content for — my heavens! — can it be a week now?  Say it ain’t so, Joe!  Well, it does happen, especially when we get just a teeny bit preoccupied, which does make all those good intentions fly right out the window!  The distraction last week was SPRING!  And not just toasty weather, nice new green leaves and flowers, but SPRING Migration!  This may not mean much to all you normal people out there, but for birders (even for halfway, fairly frivolous birder types such as myself) spring migration is a very big deal indeed, especially if you live in a northern location where for the rest of the year the birding can be rather dull.

Migration’s most fundamental attraction is simply visual — birds are beautiful to look at, especially during the spring when they’re wearing nice new feathers and bright colors.  The reason is obvious; they’ll soon be staring in their own version of “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” as they’re migrating to summer mating and nesting areas.  There’s also the simple fact that there are birds to look at, after a long winter during which there are few to be seen.  During migration you not only see more birds, but you also have the chance to see bird species that are passing through your area as they travel to their summer home somewhere else.  Spotting a species that you don’t normally see, or that you see only rarely, is like winning a lottery prize, albeit a non-material one.

There’s a more serious note, at least for me, however, that underlies the visual beauty and the enjoyment of being out of doors and that’s an almost mystical sense of how various creatures and processes make up the great web of life.  Did you know that a North American warbler, for example a Blackpoll, weighs less than a ballpoint pen and is only about 5 inches (15 cm) long?  Yet in the fall that tiny thing (and keep in mind that a Blackpoll is one of the larger warbler species) flies over 1800 miles non-stop, crossing parts of the the Atlantic Ocean to reach its wintering grounds.  The journey is so tough that the bird’s body starts to literally consume itself, feeding off muscle and even organs that the bird doesn’t need as it flies, such as its digestive system (remember the warbler’s not eating after it launches itself over open water).  Warblers and other song birds can only sustain their flights for so long; for them it’s literally reach ground before their bodies consume themselves or die.  And, of course, many of them do.  A storm; unusual weather patterns; a strong wind from the wrong direction; a housing development where a feeding stop used to be; gulls or migrating raptors looking for a snack and … well … you get the idea.  The individual bird perishes, but the species goes on, at least until we finish paving the world over with concrete.  When I see a migrating warbler I sometimes think of the moment when that warbler reaches the Atlantic, or the Gulf of Mexico or Lake Erie and, without knowing the outcome, strikes out into the unknown, simply hoping to reach a good spot on the other side of those vast and terrifying depths.  If that isn’t a metaphor for human existence, I don’t know what is.

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A Blackpoll Warbler at close range during spring migration.  This particular Blackpoll has stopped to feed and rest before the next leg of its journey over Lake Erie, one of the Great Lakes. The Blackpoll began its spring trip in South America; if it’s lucky, it will reach northern Canada or Alaska, where it will breed and raise young.  While fairly common, Blackpolls (like nearly every other bird species) are rapidly declining in number.

Well, enough of the heavy stuff!  One more factoid and I’ll shut up and let you enjoy photos.  Did you know that birds, like airplanes, follow regular travel routes?  These “flyways” usually occur along coastlines, rivers and mountains; if a species is lucky some nice nature group, like the Audubon Society, will have located a refuge providing food and a rest stop along its travel route.  (The Audubon Society has a great website showing flyways for several common North American species).

I spent my week of non-blogging (and rather limited reading, I must admit) at Magee Marsh, a nature refuge on the southern shore of Lake Erie, one of the five Great Lakes along the northern United States (four of the Great Lakes form part of the border between the U.S. and Canada).

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Although it’s not on a flyway, Magee Marsh is a critical stopping point for migrants that come to Lake Erie and need food and rest before they’re strong enough to attempt a crossing.  Essentially the Marsh, which is one of Lake Erie’s last bits of undeveloped wetland, is a giant bird hotel that provides shelter, food and water for the birds, and a boardwalk trail for the birders.  Both groups appear happy with the arrangement.

Here are some of the things I saw at Magee Marsh last week:

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A Blackburnian Warbler.  It’s not difficult to see why one of the old fieldguides refers to it as “flame throat.”
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A Canada Warbler, an enormous favorite with just about everyone.
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A Bay-breasted Warbler.  They’re even prettier when you can see one at a different angle.
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A head-on view of a Northern Parula.  It looks pretty fierce from this angle, but no need to worry — it weighs less than an ounce (28 grams).

 

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A Magnolia Warbler; many of these turn up regularly during spring migration.

Over 300 different bird species pass through Magee Marsh each year.  Although warblers are certainly the main attraction, many other wonderful things also rely on the Marsh to survive during spring migration:

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A Rose-breasted Grosbeak.  It’s not a warbler but I don’t mind, do you?
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An American Woodcock.  This photo doesn’t really convey the beauty of the bird’s subtle colors and patterns.
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American Bald Eagles are some of Magee Marsh’s permanent residents; in spring you can usually see at least one nesting pair.

For a wildlife refuge, Magee Marsh is easily accessible from several midwestern cities, including Cleveland, Toledo and Detroit.  It’s easy to stay in one of several small towns withing driving distance.  I usually pick Port Clinton, a small town that’s primarily centered on sport fishing (it styles itself “the Walleye capital of the World” and who’s to say it isn’t?).  Port Clinton has a sprinkling of older houses and an impressive array of yachts; it also doesn’t really come alive until late May, after spring migration is over and birds and birders have left.

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Port Clinton was founded in the 1840s and grew slowly; it’s still pretty small.  This is one of its relatively rare older buildings.
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A glimpse of one of Port Clinton’s wharves.  The summer sports fisherman aren’t here yet.
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And what’s an outing of any kind without an end of the day stop at an Irish pub?  McCarthy’s is conveniently located across from a popular wharf.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Birding, not blogging ……. but still reading!

The blog has been a little, ahem, “bare” of new content this past week, primarily because I’ve gotten away for a few days pursuing one of  my secondary hobbies — looking at nature, particularly birds.  Although I’m very much a couch potato type, there are times when I just have to get outdoors and breathe air that’s been neither recyled, reheated or artificially cooled.  Aside from providing sheer relaxation, the natural world serves a number of functions for me; first and foremost, I’m very much a part of the 19th century school that views nature as a manifestation or expression of the sublime and that sees spirituality in nature’s workings.  On a different level, the inter-relationships of the natural world — the ways in which the web of life binds plants, animals, birds, and insects into a functioning ecological system — can be incredibly interesting from a purely cerebral point of view.  The more I learn about one little piece of nature (say, a new bird species or some strange plant) the more I become interested in the parts that connect to it.  Moreover, there’s the added attraction of learning, if only a little bit (there’s usually not time for learning much beyond the birds) about the history and culture of whatever place I happen to go for my nature/bird viewing.  And, last but certainly not least  — nature activities can just be plain fun!  Anyway, my “nature place” this time around was Jamaica, an island of bays, coves and mountains:

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My nature viewing was primarily around the Montego Bay area ……

Unless you share my hobby you’re probably unaware that Jamaica has over 300 different species of birds, including 28 endemics, i.e., birds that naturally occur nowhere else in the world besides Jamaica!  If you’re a birder, you go to Jamaica primarily for the endemics, such as this one:

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One of my favorite endemics, a streamertail hummingbird

And — you take this book, which you’ve hopefully studied before hand (I hadn’t!):

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The “bible” for any birding trip to Jamaica!

Remember my comment about finding the sublime in nature?

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The hills at sunrise — birds get up early and birders get up earlier!

 

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More of the sublime ….

Now — for the “reading” part of my post.  Because I’m talking Jamaica, I have to mention one of my very favorite writers, the immensely talented Marlon James.  Has anyone read his Booker prize winner from a few years ago, A Brief History of Seven Killings?  I think it’s one of the most powerful novels written by anyone in at least the last decade.  A native of Kingston, James has set many of his novels on the island.

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Marlon James, one of Jamaica’s great authors

I can’t wait (but I’ll have to!) to read one of James’ earlier works, set in the British ruled Jamaica of the 19th century, when most of the island’s inhabitants were enslaved:

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For the historically minded, there’s a fabulous nonfiction account of the history and culture of Jamaica and the other islands of the Carribbean basin.  To my shame, I”ve never read my copy (which I’ve had for years) but — it’s on my TBR list for next year!

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As for my other reading, when I wasn’t watching birds:

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I finished this one ….  remember Mr. Rochester’s first wife? She was from Jamaica!

 

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I also finished this one (an indulgent choice, but a great airport read).  I may review it later…

 

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….and I’m well into this one, but probably won’t have my assignments caught up for my Monday class!

Finally (because I really, really, really have to get back to Great Expectations), remember what I said at the outset, about the fun aspect of nature activities?

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Jamaican food is GOOD! Particularly when consumed on a porch next to the ocean ….