My adventures in the woods, streams, rivers, fields, and lakes of Michigan

Christmas day hike with Mike

A few days ago, my friend Mike contacted me to ask what I was doing for Christmas, and I replied that I would probably be going hiking. He asked if he could join me, and I told him that I would pick him up Christmas morning, and so I did. In the same time frame, Mike made a comment about one of the photos I posted on Facebook of a green heron, and I told him that we wouldn’t see one of them on Christmas, but that I could almost guarantee that we would see an eagle.

It’s nice having a good vehicle again and to be able to make the offer to drive. Our first stop was at P. J. Hoffmaster State Park for a nice hike along the beach of Lake Michigan. I parked at the visitor center towards the south end of the park, we were the only ones there, although we did see a few cars parked at the beach road entrance of the park. We got our packs on and set off.

It was cloudy (of course it was, this is Michigan in the winter, it’s ALWAYS cloudy) and not a great day for photography. We did see many deer tracks down on the beach, far more than I have ever seen before, but no deer, and other than one unidentified duck that flew off well out of camera range, just a few herring gulls made an appearance. Since it has been a while since I’ve shot any flying birds, I snapped a few photos of one of the gulls just for practice.

Herring gull in flight

Herring gull in flight

Herring gull in flight

Herring gull in flight

Herring gull in flight

Herring gull in flight

Herring gull in flight

Herring gull in flight

We walked north up the beach all the way to where Little Black Creek empties into Lake Michigan. One thing that always amazes me is how much the wind and water of both the creek and lake can move so much sand around in such a short time. The last time I was there, just over a year ago, the creek had created a pleasant little lagoon just inland of its mouth. I scaled the small dune from where I had photographed the lagoon before, but it was gone. In its place was a ten to fifteen foot high sand dune with dune grass growing from it. And it had been such a pretty place to photograph, oh well, it may return someday.

We poked around the creek a little, then cut through the camping area, which is closed for the winter, and started back towards the visitors center via the park road at first, then by trail for the last half of that leg. We saw a few woodpeckers, mostly downy and red-bellied, but one hairy woodpecker as well as the normal Michigan tweety birds.

When we arrived back at the visitor center, we had covered a little over five miles, but I hadn’t found an eagle for Mike yet. He’s originally from the east side of the state, and only somewhat familiar with the west side, so I decided to show him Lake Harbor Park in Norton Shores, a suburb of Muskegon. That park is just a few miles north of Hoffmaster State Park, so hitting both parks in one day is no problem.

Lake Harbor Park would be my favorite place to go along Lake Michigan, if it were larger. It has the nicest forest of any of the parks along the lake in lower Michigan in my opinion, and is located so as to have frontage on Mona Lake, the channel to Lake Michigan, and a little over a half mile of frontage on Lake Michigan. However, at 189 acres, there’s not much room to roam.

We didn’t bother with our packs, we walked from where Mona Lake enters the channel to Lake Michigan, along the channel towards the big lake. There’s often an assortment of waterfowl present, but on this day, there were only a few mallards and this odd duck.

A mallard/American black duck hybrid

A mallard/American black duck hybrid

A mallard/American black duck hybrid

A mallard/American black duck hybrid

Those photos aren’t very good, I didn’t put much thought or effort into them. It was so cloudy that I didn’t think that I would have trouble with reflected light from the water and sand, I was wrong. I knew it seemed too easy.

Mike and I walked along the channel, talking about the kayaking possibilities there from that park, then I paused to shoot a few mallards flying past, without much success.

Male mallard in flight

Male mallard in flight

Female mallard in flight

Female mallard in flight

About then, Mike pointed out to me a huge, and I mean huge, flock of birds flying south out over Lake Michigan, just above the horizon.

Hard to see, but a huge flock of waterfowl headed south

Hard to see, but a huge flock of waterfowl headed south

I could tell from the way they flapped their wings that they were waterfowl, what species, I have no idea.

Huge flock of waterfowl headed south

Huge flock of waterfowl headed south

The birds are hard to see in the photos, they look like little more than black specks, but there were thousands of them. The flock was several miles long, I have never seen so many birds in one flock migrating like that. I don’t know if they were staying just in sight of land, or if they were that far out over the lake to get into the sunshine at the edge of the lake effect clouds.

Those two photos also well illustrate the lake effect clouds, you can see that off to the west, there is a partly cloudy sky with some sunshine. But, as you get closer to the shore of Lake Michigan, the lake effect is well and truly taking hold, leaving us under dense cloud cover.

The lake effect is cold winter air passing over the relatively warm water of any of the Great Lakes. The air near the surface picks up moisture from the waters of the lake, and rises from the increase in temperature. When the warmer, moisture laden air rises and mixes with colder air aloft, the moisture condenses into clouds. It’s similar to the way the weather is in Seattle, Washington, always cloudy with many days of light precipitation, only we get snow while Seattle gets famously gets rain.

On the beach, I took this shot.

Lake Michigan

Lake Michigan

You can click on any photo twice to see a larger version, that last one doesn’t look nearly as good cut down in size as I had hoped. (hint, hint)

On our way back to the vehicle, I stopped to show Mike the remains of some of the buildings there that at one time had been part of a luxury resort that had burned down. Then, this came flying along.

Bald eagle in flight

Bald eagle in flight

Bald eagle in flight

Bald eagle in flight

It was a bald eagle on its way to do some fishing out over Lake Michigan, so I had indeed found an eagle for Mike. There was a problem however, the eagle zoomed past us so quickly, that while Mike had seen it fly past, he hadn’t been able to see that it was an eagle. He asked me how I had been able to identify it as an eagle so quickly, and I told him that I had caught a glimpse of white from the eagle’s head and tail, and that since I’m outdoors everyday, I get more practice than most people. I should have added that it was also from the set of the eagle’s wings and the way it flew. Anyway, I had to try to scout up another eagle, hoping that the next one would stick around longer.

We drove around Muskegon Lake to the north side, where the state park is located, I showed Mike the nest that a pair of eagles has been using the last few years, but there were no eagles to be found in the area. It was an unusual day, for I see eagles quite often flying over Mona Lake, Lake Michigan, or Muskegon Lake, and the land in between. Often, there is an eagle perched in a large dead tree on the west side of Muskegon Lake to look for fish, but it wasn’t to be seen while we were there. Other that quick zoom by, no eagles.

As a last resort, I decided to swing past the Muskegon County wastewater treatment plant on our way back towards Grand Rapids hoping to get Mike a better view of an eagle. We hadn’t seen much wildlife of any type close up, other than the gulls and mallards, and I was hoping to do better at the treatment facility. Yes, and no, there was a huge flock of northern shoveler ducks in one of the first ponds we came to, but the bad lighting of the day meant that these were the best shots I got of them.

Northern shovelers

Northern shovelers

Northern shovelers

Northern shovelers

Male northern shoveler

Male northern shoveler

Male northern shoveler

Male northern shoveler

I hate Michigan winters, not because of the cold or snow, but because it clouds up here in November, and remains cloudy until March. Peaks of the sun are rare, and sunny days are even more rare. I’d like to be able to shoot photos at an ISO of less than 800 and with a shutter speed higher than 1/160 of a second. I had a good camera support for the shoveler photos, but just the little wavelets caused enough motion so the photos are less than I would like them to be.

Anyway, not far from the first pond I spotted a shape in a tree that I pointed out to Mike as looking like it could be an eagle. Sure enough, as we approached, it flew off carrying a fish or something in its talons, looking for a peaceful place to finish its supper. It was a tough fight, but I won, I did find an eagle for Mike. I didn’t get any photos of that one, although we saw it flying around the area several times, like almost everything else this day, it was shy and stayed in the distance. It was just one of those days when most of the wildlife seems to disappear from the face of the earth, it happens.

Even though we never had the chance to get up close and personal with any wildlife, all in all, it was an excellent day. It’s been a while since Mike and I got together, what with everything going on in his life, and everything going on in my life this last year. It was nice to have a few hours to get caught up again, Mike is a great guy. He may not be the nature lover that I am, but he respects that about me, so it works well when we do kayak or hike together, much better than some of the people who profess to be nature lovers. That wasn’t meant to imply that Mike doesn’t love nature, it’s more that he’s a city boy at heart. He loves living right in the heart of downtown, hanging out to do some people watching, and I respect that about him. I guess that’s what it’s all about, respecting the differences between each other.

That’s it for this one, thanks for stopping by!

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6 responses

  1. A wonderful post, Jerry. Again, it is always great to read about someone’s adventures, in the areas that I used to roam.

    December 26, 2012 at 12:42 pm

    • Thanks Bob, but I’m not sure that you’d recognize Muskegon any longer. It has changed a lot in just the past ten years, the old heavy industry is on its way out, and the city is becoming touristy, with a lot of restorations and rebuilding of some older buildings, and many new buildings taking the place of the old abandoned factories. The papermill is going to be torn down if they can ever agree on what to replace it with, and the B. C. Cobb powerplant is scheduled to be closed as well.

      December 26, 2012 at 3:05 pm

  2. Northern Narratives

    I better not tell you my ISO because you might cry. Let’s just say I never use 800. I love the photos of the black ducks because their “toes” are in the sand and that reminds me of walking barefoot on a sand beach in the summer 🙂

    December 26, 2012 at 3:20 pm

    • Thanks, but you wouldn’t have wanted to be barefoot that day, it was around 30 degrees when I shot that photo.

      December 27, 2012 at 10:13 am

  3. Nice trip Jerry. I think the shots of the flying female mallard and seagulls are excellent. I’m glad that you had a friend to share your Christmas hike with! That was the one day this year that I didn’t get out and hike.

    December 26, 2012 at 5:59 pm

    • Thanks Allen!

      December 27, 2012 at 10:12 am