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

More signs of spring, before the blast

During the last week of January, the long-range weather forecasts for February were calling for much above average temperatures for the entire month. Once again, the meteorologists have let me down. It has been slightly above average here for the first week of February, but the forecast for this upcoming week is for us to return to the deep freeze for as long as the forecasts go out. With the cold will come another week of lake effect snow, just as the last of the snow that we got earlier is about melted away.

I suppose that’s not all bad, I’ll put in more hours at work to help pay for my new Forester when it arrives in March. Also, the new run that I started at work last month has me going east towards Detroit, and away from the lake effect snow bands, whereas before, I was running through the worst of the lake effect snow every night whenever it fell.

I’m just now beginning to get excited about getting a new car, the decision not to keep my current Forester was not easy. I love it, and there’s really no compelling reason for me to get rid of it. But, having an even newer and nicer one will be good, and I’ll get Subaru’s three-year road service plan for free for a little extra added piece of mind.

But, to keep the mileage down on my current car, I’ve stayed home this weekend. Well, that and the weather forecast called for clouds all day on both of my days off. That forecast was wrong, again, it was actually quite nice on Sunday, as you will see later. Anyway, when I go to turn in my current Forester, I should be right about at the mileage limit that my lease called for, so I shouldn’t have to pay any extra on that account. Also coming into play in my decision to stay home was that I was rather bored during my last two trips to the Muskegon area. Other than mallards…

Male mallard

Male mallard

…I didn’t get any good photos. It’s funny how that worked out, when I had poor light, I saw a few of the species of birds that I’d love to catch in good light, such as this rough-legged hawk…

Rough-legged hawk in flight

Rough-legged hawk in flight

…and this merlin…

Merlin

Merlin

…but the early morning light was so poor that those photos were the best I could do.

I also saw a red-tailed hawk arguing with a bald eagle about who was going to use the pylon for a power line as their hunting spot for the morning…

Bald eagle and red-tailed hawk

Bald eagle and red-tailed hawk

…but they were so far away that the photo of them is junk. I did set out on foot to get closer to them, but by that time, the eagle had convinced the hawk to move on…

Juvenile bald eagle

Juvenile bald eagle

…and the eagle flew off while I was looking at a few ducks in the other direction, so I missed the eagle taking off, not that any photos that I would have shot would have been good in such low light as there was then.

I spent some time at the Muskegon Lake Nature Preserve shooting photos of the birds there, the only photos worth sharing from there are these, for a got a fair shot of a hairy woodpecker.

Male Hairy woodpecker

Male Hairy woodpecker

Hairy woodpeckers are declining in numbers, no one knows for sure why that is. They used to be very common, but it’s becoming rare to see one, unfortunately. They look identical to a downy woodpecker, except the bills of a hairy woodpecker is longer, here’s a downy to show the difference…

Male downy woodpecker

Male downy woodpecker

…here’s the hairy again…

Male Hairy woodpecker

Male Hairy woodpecker

…and the downy.

Male downy woodpecker

Male downy woodpecker

What doesn’t show up well in photos is that the hairy woodpeckers are considerably larger than the downy woodpeckers are, other than the length of their bill, they look almost identical.

Back to what I was saying, all day long I had crappy light, until I stopped at the Bear Lake Channel to shoot the mallards. Then, a hole in the clouds opened up, and I got more chances to shoot the perfect shot of a mallard, which I missed again. I got to the Muskegon Lake channel, not only had the hole in the clouds closed, but fog had set in, so the only photos that I’ll use from then are these of a pair of long-tailed ducks that I found.

Male long-tailed duck

Male long-tailed duck

And, the only reason that I’m posting these is because I may not get any more photos of them this winter…

Female long-tailed duck

Female long-tailed duck

…because of how little ice there is on Lake Michigan, and because I may not make it back to Muskegon before this species of duck heads back to the north for the summer.

The last two winters were so cold for so long that most of Lake Michigan was covered with ice, so the ducks wintering here were forced into huge flocks in any open water that they could find. That was lucky for me, since I was able to see and photograph well most of the species of ducks that do winter here. With our topsy-turvy weather this winter, the ducks are able to spread out more, and if we do get the early spring that I’m hoping for, the ducks will be gone soon.

Actually, our weather this winter has all the critters confused. We had two very cold weeks in January, then, it began to warm up, to the point that some caterpillars…

Unidentified caterpillar

Unidentified caterpillar

…came out of hibernation…

Woolybear caterpillar

Woolybear caterpillar

…and I found them crawling on the last of snow that remained, as you can see.

We even had thunderstorms and set a daily record for rainfall last week, even though there was still snow on the ground. Now that almost all the snow is gone…

Cloudscape at Creekside Park

Cloudscape at Creekside Park

…and there’s just a little ice left in places…

Ice still life 1

Ice on the small creek near home

…so I thought that I would try to get creative…

JVIS4269

Ice still life in color

…and shoot a few more artistic shots.

Ice still life B&W

Ice still life B&W

I also thought that it would be a good time to try some of the type of photos that I worked on inside while the weather was very cold. To refresh your memory, I was practicing getting near macro photos that have some depth and dimension to them, rather than having my photos look flat like this one….

Unidentified lichens

Unidentified lichens

…or this one.

Unidentified lichens

Unidentified lichens

In my defense, I couldn’t get into a position to use a wider lens and get very close to those. But, I could with these British soldier lichens.

British soldier lichens

British soldier lichens

I consider that one a failure, as were most of the attempts that I made on Saturday. I did much better shooting photos of pine sap on the trunks of the white pine trees on that day.

Dried pine sap 1

Dried pine sap 1

I should have brought the macro lens with me, for as I was shooting this one…

Dried pine sap 2

Dried pine sap 2

…I noticed a clear, tube-shaped object vibrating in the wind under the top layer of dried sap, so I got as close as I could for this one…

Dried pine sap and unidentified clear tube

Dried pine sap and unidentified clear tube

…still, I have not idea what the tube-shaped object is. It can’t be dried pine sap in any form, for I could see it moving in the wind. In fact, I had to shoot several photos to catch the tube not moving in the wind, and blurry because of that. Another of nature’s mysteries.

I shot those last few with the 15-85 mm lens with the shortest of the three extension tubes (12 mm) behind it to provide near macro capabilities from that lens at the shorter focal lengths. It’s no coincidence that the photos of the pine sap were the last ones that I shot using that set-up, it took me a while to learn how to use it for various subjects, rather than when I was testing it inside. You have to zoom in and out to focus, rather than using the focusing control, other than for fine tuning the focus. On Sunday, I tried again, with some better results.

Lichen covered fence post

Lichen covered fence post

I did get the result that I was looking for in that photo, it does have a sense of depth, and, everything that I wanted sharp in the frame is sharp. I can see that using the short extension tube behind the wider angle lens has some possibilities, I need to play around with it a lot more though to really get the hang of it. I also used that set-up for these next two, although I didn’t really need to. Ice is flat, and I was going for a different look for these photos anyway.

Ice still life 1

Ice still life 1

 

Ice still life 2

Ice still life 2

I hate to brag, but having two camera bodies is a wonderful thing. While I was using the 60D and the wide-angle macro set-up on it, this guy shocked me by flying over me!

Turkey vulture in flight

Turkey vulture in flight

So I grabbed the 7D with the 300 mm lens and 1.4 X extender to catch the earliest photo of a turkey vulture that I can recall. That has to be another sign that spring can’t be that far away now, as they don’t usually return here until the end of February, beginning of March. The turkey vulture is an even better indicator of spring than what robins…

American Robin

American Robin

…and cedar waxwings are….

Cedar waxwing

Cedar waxwing

…because it’s not unusual for those two species to show up early for spring, no matter how bad the weather is.

It’s funny, I’m rather proud of these next two photos, even though they aren’t of anything special, just goldenrod galls. However, I did put a good deal of effort into making these the best that they could be artistically, since the subject isn’t that interesting to most people. Here’s the first, which shows a tiny hole in the gall.

Goldenrod gall

Goldenrod gall showing the exit tunnel

The galls are formed when the female goldenrod gall fly lays eggs in the stem of a goldenrod rod plant. In about 10 days the eggs hatch and the larva burrows down into the plant stem. The larva’s chewing and the action of its saliva, which is thought to mimic plant hormones, results in the production of the galls which provide the larva with both food and protection. There they feed and grow, passing through 2 larval stages. The 3rd stage larva reaches its full size by late summer; this is the stage that will over-winter and is freeze tolerant. One of the last things the larva does is to excavate the exit tunnel that it will use to escape from the gall as an adult fly the following spring. The larva scrapes out a tunnel from its central chamber right to the edge of the outer wall of the gall, leaving only the plant epidermis (skin-like layer) remaining. It doesn’t eat the material it scrapes out, which accounts for the debris usually found within the central chamber of the gall.

However, some species of birds, woodpeckers and chickadees particularly, have learned that there’s a tasty morsel inside the galls, so often you’ll see galls that look like this.

Goldenrod galls that have been opened by a bird

Goldenrod galls that have been opened by a bird

You can see that a bird had enlarged the exit tunnel that the larva had made in the fall by pecking at the gall to get to the larva inside. I did my best to capture the colors and swirls of the galls, as I find them pretty in a way when viewed up close.

It isn’t only birds that feed on the larva of the goldenrod gall fly, some other insects do also. In the top photo, I see holes smaller than the exit tunnel that the larva made. It could be that a parasitic wasp or other insect laid its eggs in the gall, and the larva from the other insect ate the goldenrod gall fly larva before the birds found it, which is why the exit tunnel hasn’t been enlarged by a bird. If I can see the smaller holes, the birds can as well and they may have learned to avoid galls with them.

It just so happens that I have three bad photos that I shot last fall of a downy woodpecker pecking away at a goldenrod gall. I should have deleted these because of the poor quality, but for some reason I didn’t.

Downy woodpecker pecking a goldenrod gall

Downy woodpecker pecking a goldenrod gall

 

Downy woodpecker pecking a goldenrod gall

Downy woodpecker pecking a goldenrod gall

 

Downy woodpecker pecking a goldenrod gall

Downy woodpecker pecking a goldenrod gall

To make up for those three, here’s a few better photos, starting with a dark-eyed junco preening after its bath.

Dark-eyed junco

Dark-eyed junco

 

Dark-eyed junco

Dark-eyed junco

In the same tangle of grape vines was this male cardinal eating the shriveled remains of the few grapes left there.

Male northern cardinal eating grapes in the winter

Male northern cardinal eating grapes in the winter

Pickings were slim, I believe that the cardinal was also eating the seeds from the grapes.

Male northern cardinal eating grapes in the winter

Male northern cardinal eating grapes in the winter

Well, that about wraps this one up. It’s Monday afternoon, and I’m a bit bummed out. I went for a walk this morning, when I left my apartment, there was a large hole in the clouds to the southwest for the rising sun to pass through. By the time that I got to the top of the hill where I enter Creekside Park, a few clouds had formed within the hole, but I still thought that I’d see some sun, nope.

Angry clouds on my almost sunny day

Angry clouds on my almost sunny day

The hole in the clouds filled in rapidly after that, and I spent most of my time outside in a gloomy mood to match what the sky had become. Shortly after I returned home, the sun broke through the clouds again, and it’s been mostly sunny since then. Isn’t that the way it goes?

The most recent weather forecasts are calling for the coldest temperatures of this winter for next weekend, I hope that they are wrong, but I doubt it. If it does get down below 0 F here (-18 C), I’m going to hibernate the weekend away. The good news is that after that, it’s supposed to begin warming up again.

I really shouldn’t complain about the weather too much, it’s been much milder here than either of the past two winters when we set records for how cold it was and/or how much snow fell. But, with the slightly milder winter this year has come even more clouds than we typically have. We’ve had just four sunny days since Christmas, other than gaps in the lake effect clouds for a few minutes at a time, like when I shot the mallard photo at the beginning of this post. That’s what really gets to me, the endless cloud cover for days on end, I doubt if we’ll see any sunshine at all this coming week.

Well, the signs of spring are still coming, it won’t be that long until I start seeing another returning species of bird on an almost daily basis for a while, and just a few short months until I can shoot photos like this one again.

Moth mullien

Moth mullein

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

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26 responses

  1. I loved the angry clouds and your artistic shots. Lots of good bird pictures too especially the long tailed duck.

    February 9, 2016 at 4:07 am

    • Thank you very much Susan! I wish that there had be a flock of the long-tailed ducks as in past years, they have an odd call that’s one of my favorites to hear.

      February 9, 2016 at 4:00 pm

  2. Nice shots of the woodpeckers!

    February 9, 2016 at 7:36 am

    • Thank you very much Bob!

      February 9, 2016 at 4:01 pm

  3. Amazing photos again…all of them!

    February 9, 2016 at 9:33 am

    • Thank you very much!

      February 9, 2016 at 4:01 pm

  4. Sorry to hear that you’re headed back into the deep freeze. But those little breaks of nice weather always give me hope that spring can’t be unbearably far away.

    The goldenrod galls were interesting. I’ll be checking for rxit holes next time I see some.

    And finally – caterpillars in winter??? Never heard of such a thing!

    Take care, Jerry.

    February 9, 2016 at 9:50 am

    • Thank you very much Judy! Nature always bears a close up look, it’s amazing what you can learn. Bu,t, I guess that the caterpillars haven’t learned to avoid snow. 😉

      February 9, 2016 at 4:03 pm

  5. More birds. : )
    Can’t wait to notice the returning of some migratory birds like starlings and white storks.
    I like photos of Dark-eyed junco and male northern cardinals.

    February 9, 2016 at 12:09 pm

    • Thank you very much Cornell! We do have starlings, but they aren’t native here, so I seldom photograph them. There are no white storks around here, but I’ll try to find a few egrets when they return.

      February 9, 2016 at 4:04 pm

  6. You’re not having much luck with the weather but you still produced an interesting and pleasing gallery of shots. I actually got the impression that one woodpecker was much smaller than the other species from your pics so they must give some sense of scale. 🙂 My favourite shot this time is the icy stream weaving through the pale brown bare trees. It’s a lovely composition and the soft colours very appealing. The abstract ice shots are attractive and of course I love lichen. I hadn’t thought about how flat my shots are. I don’t really notice that. I just want to share the patterns really. I will have to have a look at that aspect next time. Galls are very interesting and we can get some massive ones in our gum trees here. I like how delicate and sharp your shot is. Good luck with the new vehicle. My little sedan is twenty years old on and on its last legs so I’ve been hesitant to take it on long trips. I’ve been treating it like a little baby. I’ve never actually had a brand new one but I imagine having a proper warranty would give a lot of peace of mind! A 4WD would be very handy here as often the best places for wildlife involve some “interesting” roads. 🙂

    February 9, 2016 at 1:31 pm

    • Thank you very much Jane! I have to remember that people in other places don’t see the same things that I do here. Just as many of your photos are of things that I consider to be exotic, I suppose most of the photos that I post of things around here are exotic to people in other parts of the world. Even snow, I believe that you had to travel a ways to see snow for the first time, here, we have it in abundance. It isn’t that unusual for a few insects to be fooled when the snow is almost all gone, and we have a few warm days. I don’t know if they return to their winter spots before the next snowfall or not, but the species as a whole survives.

      I’ve loved both of the Subarus that I’ve had, they’re safe, reliable, last forever, and have great all wheel drive to get me where I need to go. But, because they last forever, they hold their value very well, so used ones cost almost as much as a new one.

      February 10, 2016 at 10:28 am

  7. You sure keep finding or encountering more birds than I can! I should try harder and should get out of the car. By the way I used to own a 2004 Forester until last year. It was still running well, but I wanted something newer for last year’s road trip and got an Outback.

    February 9, 2016 at 3:36 pm

    • Thank you very much! To find the songbirds, you have to get right in the brush with them and wait for one to perch in a spot that makes for a good photo. Subarus are legendary for lasting a long time, I’ve had two and loved them both.

      February 9, 2016 at 11:39 pm

  8. What an excellent set of pictures. You see so much more than the average wanderer that it is always a treat to go out with you. I hope the snow doesn’t stay too long and that your drives keep you away from the worst of it.

    February 9, 2016 at 3:53 pm

    • Thank you very much Tom! It helps that I’ve been blessed with excellent eyesight that makes it possible to spot the things that I do.

      February 9, 2016 at 11:41 pm

  9. I’m glad you explained the bill difference on those woodpeckers. Now I know what to look for. It’s also great that you saw that one on the goldenrod gall. I’ve known that they pecked them but I’ve never seen one actually doing it.
    Pretty odd seeing caterpillars on snow. I’ve seen a few insects but no caterpillars.
    I think the second unidentified lichen is a common greenshield lichen (Flavoparmelia caperata.)
    I wonder if the clear tube shaped object stuck in the pinesap could have been the tip of a bird feather.
    I like that shot of the double goldenrod gall. It’s an artistic shot!

    February 9, 2016 at 5:42 pm

    • Thank you very much Allen! In photos, the best way to tell the difference between the woodpeckers is the bill length. But in real life, the hairy woodpecker is almost as large as a blue jay, while the downy woodpecker is about the size of a bluebird, so it’s easier to tell them apart. I lucked out with the photo of the woodpecker and the gall, it was a misty morning, and as you can imagine, something as large as the woodpecker on the goldenrod meant that they were moving around a lot, which is why the photos aren’t as sharp as I wish.

      I thought about grabbing whatever the tube was and pulling to see if I could remove it, or peeling back the dried sap, but I think that you hit upon the answer, a bird’s feather.

      February 9, 2016 at 11:53 pm

  10. I really enjoyed this post as there was such a variety of shots. Your bird photographs are always so good – I like the dark-eyed junco shots – and I was surprised to see the caterpillars on snow! The moth mullein picture is beautiful!

    February 9, 2016 at 7:26 pm

    • Thank you very much Clare! Nature is amazing in what it presents to us if we take the time to look.

      February 9, 2016 at 11:46 pm

      • Very true 🙂

        February 11, 2016 at 5:14 pm

  11. A beautiful winter series, Jerry. The green head on that mallard is so iridescent! I still love the cardinals, even more so since we don’t have them here. I miss them.

    February 11, 2016 at 7:39 pm

    • Thank you Lavinia!

      February 11, 2016 at 11:39 pm

  12. Jerry, so many awesome shots even on a poor light day! I really love the iced creek capture, really draws you in and down the creek, a simple shot but beautiful! I got tickled on your happiness on having your two cameras with you. Today I took both of mine to got wide shots and zoom as well. Kills the shoulder and back on several mile hike, lol, but it was worth it, I loved my scenery shots today and I have to have my zoom for the birds! Keeps us ready for anything! 🙂

    February 12, 2016 at 9:49 pm

    • Thank you very much Donna!Carrying a lot of photo gear does wear on a person’s body, but the images we get that way are food for the soul, which kind of makes up for the weariness.

      February 12, 2016 at 11:27 pm

      • 🙂

        February 12, 2016 at 11:58 pm