Sunday, February 27, 2011

Cedar Waxwings

Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) live in Michigan year-round, with both migratory and resident populations, but I don't see them as often as I would like. Their elegant gray plumage brightened by red wingtips and yellow-tipped tailfeathers is very attractive. A flock of them enlivened Kalamazoo College's campus this week.

University of Michigan has more information on cedar waxwings.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Kalamazoo on Ice

Sunday night's ice storm transformed Kalamazoo into a glossy winter wonderland. Every twig, bud, pine needle, and seedhead was encased in ice. Fantastically beautiful in places.

Of course, the ice covered roads, making travel dangerous. The storm also knocked down powerlines throughout the area. A couple of days without heat or lights makes you appreciate how much we depend on the grid. Our power was restored after 60 hours.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

River Oaks County Park (Winter)

When I went skiing at Prairie View Park I bought a season pass good at all Kalamazoo County Parks. Their website said nearby River Oaks County Park had 4 miles of groomed cross-country ski trails, so I decided to visit. (I went on a really cold afternoon before last week's thaw.)

At River Oaks, I didn't see any evidence of a groomed trail. I didn't even see tracks from previous skiers. I don't know if there had been a policy change, restrictions because of the oil spill, equipment problems, budget cuts, or some other issue. Except for the plowed driveway and parking lot, it was hard to see evidence of any park use.

The snow did show tracks of squirrels, wild turkey, deer, and other wildlife and the views of frozen Morrow Lake were memorable. The unbroken snow was decent for skiing. At the western end of the park, past all the soccer fields, I did find traces of another skier and following those tracks through the woods was much faster than breaking trail. The trail I was on followed the edge of the park property, passing behind Bell's Comstock brewery.

While it wasn't what I'd expected, it still made a nice winter outing.

River Oaks County Park
9202 East Michigan Avenue (M-96)
Galesburg, MI 49053

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Audubon Field Guide to Florida

National Audubon Society Field Guide to Florida
by Peter Alden, Rick Cech, Gil Nelson

Florida's flora and fauna are so different from Michigan's that I regularly see unfamiliar birds, trees, and wildflowers. Several years ago I bought this compact field guide for my occasional visits to the state.

It's an excellent book that provides brief descriptions and glossy photos of over 1000 living things in Florida, from Longleaf Pines (Pinus palustris) to Moon Jellyfish (Aurelia aurita) to Brown Pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) and American Alligators (Alligator mississippiensis).

An introductory section gives an overview of Florida's topography & geology, its major habitats, and the night skies. Then comes the heart of the book, almost 300 pages devoted to individual species. The book concludes with a section on Florida's Parks and Preserves that describes dozens of sites in each region of Florida, with color photos and regional maps.

I recommend this guide highly.

Available fromAmazon and other booksellers.

This post is part of a series on Florida's Gulf Coast

Friday, February 18, 2011


The White Ibis (Eudocimus albus) has a very distinct curved bill. Whenever I see them I feel I'm in an exotic landscape, even if they're just flying over a Walgreens.

Ibises use their curved beaks to dig crustaceans, insects, and other small animals from under the mud.

This post is part of a series on Florida's Gulf Coast

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Myakka River State Park

Myakka River State Park, southeast of Sarasota, is one of Florida's largest state parks with an interesting mix of forest draped with Spanish moss, marshes full of wading birds, and open water.

There are nearly 40 miles of trails in the park, the longest ones open to overnight backpacking. One short nature trail leads through the trees and palmettos to a Canopy walk, a wooden bridge suspended 25 feet high that lets you see the ferns and epiphytes growing on the branches of mature oak trees. The suspension bridge leads to a tall tower, with an observation deck above the tree tops.

A concession area on Lake Myakka, an impoundment of the Myakka River, offers a snack bar, gift shop, picnic area and boat tours of the lake. They also rent canoes and kayaks. I've enjoyed seeing anhingas drying their wings at the lake's edge and alligators are even more impressive from a kayak.

Myakka River was selected for National Geographic's Guide to US State Parks. Floridian Nature also has information on the park.

Myakka River State Park
9 miles east of I-75 at
13208 State Road 72
Sarasota, FL USA 34241

This post is part of a series on Florida's Gulf Coast


For some reason, Anhingas (Anhinga anhinga) are one of my favorite Florida birds. While they don't have the colorful feathers of the Roseate Spoonbill or the elegance of a Snowy Egret, their strangeness appeals to me. Anhingas are fish-eating birds and excellent swimmers. Their long snake-like neck lets them snap up their prey. Apparently they are graceful fliers, but I typically see them at water's edge with wings spread to dry their waterlogged feathers. I've only seen them underwater a couple of times but their quickness in the water impressed me.

This post is part of a series on Florida's Gulf Coast

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Great White Egret

Great Egrets (Ardea alba) are one of the most visible birds in Florida. They're big, nearly as big as Michigan's Blue Herons (which also live in Florida.) Their brilliant white feathers stand out from the green reeds and grasses making them very easy to spot, even at 70 mph on the Interstate.

I think of them as tropical birds, but apparently they are widely distributed throughout the world, even occasionally in Michigan and Wisconsin.

This post is part of a series on Florida's Gulf Coast

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Corkscrew Swamp

Corkscrew Swamp is an Audubon Society sanctuary about 25 miles northeast of Naples that protects 11,000 acres of Florida hardwood swamp, including a large group of old-growth Bald Cypress. The preserve is a major nesting area for the endangered Wood Stork.

A 2.25 mile boardwalk provides an easy walk through an interesting habitat that would otherwise be inaccessible. The woods are so unlike the Midwest, full of strangler figs, wild hibiscus, and cypress knees (not to mention alligators). I was lucky enough to see a rare Ghost Orchid on one visit.

A visitor center provides exhibits on the fauna and flora of the swamp, a bookstore, and knowledgeable rangers. A variety of guided nature walks begin at the visitor center.

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary

375 Sanctuary Road West
Naples, FL 34120


This post is part of a series on Florida's Gulf Coast

Wood Stork

Wood storks (Mycteria americana) are an endangered species in the U.S. Their population crashed in 1978 presumably because of disruption of their wetland habitat. (So their history is different from some Florida wading birds whose populations plummeted nearly 100 years earlier during the plume-hunting era.) Wood storks received federal protection in 1984 and since then their numbers have increased. (See a 1997 review by the Fish & Wildlife Service pdf.) At the end of 2010, Federal wildlife managers were reviewing its status and were considering a change from "endangered" to "threatened".

Like herons and egrets, these long-legged,long-necked birds, eat fish, frogs, and other aquatic life. They are, however, the only true stork in the United States.

This post is part of a series on Florida's Gulf Coast

Monday, February 14, 2011

Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge

Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island is a mecca for birdwatching and bird photography. The preserve protects the bays, bayous, mangroves and shoreline of the northern half of the island. Conditions vary with the tides-- what appears to be a lake with a handful of birds flying overhead will be revealed, a couple of hours later, as a mudflat filled with hundreds of wading birds.

The birds are easily seen from from the 5 mile Wildlife Drive which is open to cars and bikes, or you can ride the tram. The Indigo trail is available for long walks along the dikes and the Calusa trail is a short boardwalk on an ancient Native American shell mound. An observation tower about halfway through the drive gives a bird's eye view. Kayak rental in adjoining Tarpon Bay looks like a fantastic way to visit the refuge if you have time.

Beyond the abundant birdlife, I've seen alligators, raccoons, and a snake slowly swallowing a rat. They say there are manatees in Tarpon Bay, but I haven't seen them.

The visitor center has wildlife exhibits and a bookstore run by the Ding Darling Society. The rangers at the visitor center can recommend the best times and places to see wildlife in the refuge. It's good to plan some flexibility into a visit because of the tidal variation.

You can download a map of Ding Darling & Sanibel Island (pdf map) from the FWS. Floridian Nature has information on wading birds and water birds.

J. N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge
1 Wildlife Drive
Sanibel, FL 33957

Closed Fridays

This post is part of a series on Florida's Gulf Coast

Roseate Spoonbill

Roseate Spoonbills (Ajaia ajaja) may be one of Florida's most beautiful and most bizarre-looking birds. Their bright pink plumage is strikingly attractive and draws the eye from a distance. At the same time, their bald heads and large spoon-shaped bills appear unnatural. Spoonbills feed by swinging their bills through shallow water. When they feel a small fish, crustacean, or aquatic insect their bill snaps shut.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Roseate Spoonbills were nearly extirpated in the U.S. by plume hunters, who sold their feathers to the fashion industry. Florida restricted plume hunting in 1891 and 1910, but illegal hunting continued; a New York law outlawing the sale of feathers apparently had a bigger impact. Their population recovered gradually as habitats were protected and other state and federal laws took effect. No longer endangered, they remain sensitive to habitat changes and it remains a "species of special concern".

This post is part of a series on Florida's Gulf Coast

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Florida's Gulf Coast

In the middle of a Michigan winter, many people dream of escaping to warmer climes. While I'm staying in Kalamazoo, this week's posts will take a virtual vacation on Florida's Gulf Coast, a traditional destination for snowbirds.

The Gulf Coast, for some reason, seems to attract Midwesterners while Florida's Atlantic Coast draws more New Yorkers & Easterners. I'm not sure why this is. Transportation routes could explain it since I-75 runs from Detroit to Tampa & Fort Myers while I-95 connects Boston/NYC to Miami. Before the Interstates, US-41 and US-1 made similar connections. Perhaps its origins are even earlier, going back to the days of the competing railroads of Henry Plant (through Tampa) and Henry Flagler (from St Augustine to the Florida Keys.) Or it could be a network effect: destinations based on friends' & family's prior visits. I'm not sure if anyone has applied the theory of migration networks to Florida tourism.

If you do get the opportunity to visit Florida, I'd encourage you to look beyond the tourist beaches and see some of the many natural areas of the state. These posts highlight some Florida places & wildlife that I've enjoyed seeing.

Florida posts:
Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge
Corkscrew Swamp
Myakka River State Park
Roseate Spoonbill
Audubon Field Guide to Florida
Wood Stork
Great White Egret

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Prairie View County Park (Winter)

The dog park seemed to be the most popular attraction at Prairie View Park last weekend. A few people were on the sled hill and there were people ice fishing on Hogset and Gourdneck Lakes, but the majority of park visitors were playing with their pets in the fenced dog area. (Dog park pdf)

I went for the cross-country skiing and was the only one on the trail. The park offers a 2-mile-long groomed loop. Near the park entrance, the trail is level, passing open fields and playgrounds. The back section, closer to the lakes, is more rolling with some woods and short hills. A couple of laps made a nice outing.

Prairie View Park is only a couple of miles south of Portage's Schrier Park, but it feels removed from suburbia because of the neighboring farms and game area. See the park map (pdf) for directions.

It looks very different in the summer; see my previous post.

Prairie View County Park
899 East "U" Avenue
Vicksburg, MI

Admission $5 or
Annual pass $25

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Sledding Kalamazoo

Last week's big snow refreshed Kalamazoo's sled hills, which had been looking pretty worn from use. Two snow days gave kids plenty of time on the hills.

Popular sled hills in Kalamazoo
1. Milham Park Golf Course
Lovers Lane north of Kilgore

2. Woods Lake Elementary School
Oakland Drive at Whites Road

3. Hillside Middle School
1941 Alamo Ave.

4. Maple Street Magnet Middle School
922 W Maple St

5. Oakland Drive Park
7550 Oakland Dr

6. Kindleberger Park
Park Drive just off Riverview Drive

See also:

Discover Kalamazoo's list of Kalamazoo's Best Sledding Hills

mLive's map of Sled hills of Southwest Michigan.

Echo Valley is a commercial hill, northeast of Kalamazoo, with toboggan runs and a tubing hill. (The admission fee includes sled/tube use.)

Kalamazoo library's history of the Kalamazoo Sled Company

Sledding Beyond Kalamazoo:
a forum with Michigan Sled Riding Locations

Guide to the Ann Arbor area's best sledding hills

Best Sledding Hills In Detroit

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Michigan Trail Atlas

Michigan Trail Atlas : the Guide to Cross Country Skiing and Hiking Trails
by Dennis R. Hansen with Danforth Holley.

This ambitious guidebook attempts a comprehensive list of trails in Michigan and succeeds in finding several hundred of them. The state is divided into four regions: Southern Lower Peninsula, Northern Lower Peninsula, Eastern Upper Peninsula, and Western Upper Peninsula. The book lists 106 trails in the Southern Lower Peninsula alone. Directions, a sketch map, and a brief description are provided for each trail. The book concludes with a section on cross-country ski technique, reflecting its origins as a ski guide.

Trails near Kalamazoo
1. Kal-Haven Trail
2. Prairie View Park
3. Coldbrook County Park
4. Fort Custer Recreation Area
5. Kellogg Forest
6. Allegan State Game Area
7. Yankee Spring Recreation Area

Trails in Southwest Michigan
1. Russ Forest Park
2. Dr. T.K. Lawless Park
3. Madeline Bertrand County Park
4. St Patrick's County Park (IN)
5. Love Creek County Park and Nature Center
6. Grand Mere State Park
7. Tabor Hill Vineyard
8. Warren Woods State Park
9. Warren Dunes State Park

My library had this older version of the guide. A 2002 edition added mountain biking to the title and covers more trails. I couldn't find it from the major online retailers but it may be available directly from the author.