Sunday, January 29, 2012

Dark-eyed junco

Juncos Junco hyemalis are one of the birds that migrate to Michigan for the winter. They spend summer feeding and breeding in Canada. Some juncos are found as far south as Florida and Northern Mexico. In Kalamazoo, they are a consistent winter presence.

Juncos are members of the sparrow family. There are a number of different colorations for the Dark-eyed Junco, distinct enough that they were previously classified as separate species. Our local variation is known as the Slate-colored Junco or the Northern Slate-backed Junco. Informally, they're called snowbirds.

Juncos will readily come to bird feeders but they prefer to eat from tray feeders or seeds on the ground.

photo by Maria Stull Jan 28, 2012

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Ski Russ Forest

Russ Forest is one of my favorite spots for spring wildflowers but I hadn't visited it in the winter. Last weekend, before the snow melted, we skied its trails.

This park makes an ideal outing for the beginning cross-country skier. It offers a substantial outing (over 4 miles of trails) without any difficult terrain. The trails are wide, well-marked, and easy to follow. I'm not sure why loop 3 was designated "intermediate" on their maps, since it seemed perfectly level and easily negotiable. The biggest "hill" was the gentle slope to the bridge over Dowagiac Creek.

Russ Forest is less than an hour's drive from Kalamazoo. Only a few visitors had made the trip since the last snowfall, so over half of the distance we were able to ski unbroken snow. While no wildflowers are visible in January, the big tulip poplars are still there, as are the large beech trees marred by pocketknives.

Fred Russ Forest County Park
Marcellus Highway, eight miles east of Dowagiac
(269) 445-8611 Office

Fred Russ Research Forest (MSU)
20673 Marcellus Highway
Decatur, MI 49045

Directions to Fred Russ Forest
From US-131 -- Just north of Three Rivers turn west on M-216 (Marcellus highway). Proceed 18 miles, traveling through Marcellus, to the research station office located on the left side. Travel another 1/4 mile to the roadside park entrance.

From I-94 -- Take the Paw Paw M-40 exit (exit 60). Travel south on M-40 through Lawton to Marcellus Highway. Turn west and travel approximately 5 miles to the research station office on the left side. Travel another 1/4 mile to the roadside park entrance.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Predator on campus

On Friday afternoon, I was chatting with a friend in his office while college life went on outside his window: students walking across the upper quad, squirrels bounding across the snow. Suddenly, a dark shape streaked past the oak trees and crashed into a squirrel. A red-tailed hawk had found its dinner. I'd never seen a hawk at Kalamazoo College so it was a real surprise. I'm sure it was a bigger surprise to the student who was standing about 10 feet away when it happened.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Screech Owl

Eastern Screech Owls (Otus asio) are common in Michigan, but I'm not sure I've ever seen one in the wild. Like the other owls of Michigan, Screech Owls are nocturnal, making them more difficult to observe. I'm more likely to hear owls than see them.

Screech Owls are much smaller than Michigan's other owls. They are predators, with a diet of rodents, small birds, and large insects.

The bird pictured here is used in educational programs at the Kalamazoo Nature Center.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Ski West Lake

Kalamazoo's inconsistent winter means cross-country skiers need to take advantage of the snow when it does arrive. That often means fitting skiing into a work day, so it's nice to find spots for a short jaunt in town. West Lake Nature Preserve in Portage isn't a big ski destination, but it does have a nice loop path through the woods. It's a good place for beginners since it's a short trail with no hills, only a few gentle grades.

For skiers looking for a longer outing, West Lake park is just across Westnedge Avenue from Bishops Bog which connects to Schrier Park. These parks combine to form the South Central Portage Greenway and offer about 5 miles of trails.

West Lake's trails get a lot of use from non-skiers, so it's best to go shortly after a winter storm while the snow is fresh. If the snow is deep enough, you can ski the boardwalk to the preserve's bog and the overlook of West Lake.

West Lake Nature Preserve
9001 S. Westnedge
Portage, Michigan

parking is off South Shore Drive.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

It's All About the Bike

It's All About the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels
by Robert Penn

While not a guidebook and not related to Kalamazoo, I couldn't resist mentioning this book on bicycles. Nominally, it's about the author's quest for a custom-built bike. He travels from Wales to workshops and factories around Europe and the United States to observe and report on the manufacturing process of the components-- Brooks saddle, Cinelli handlebars, Campagnolo gears, Chris King headset-- that will complete his bike.

"The torch snapped alight again. We flipped our visors down. Jason picked up a fresh filler rod and the flame roared into action on the seat cluster. He worked methodically round the weld, turning the jig, flipping the cable of the torch from beneath his feet, holding the flame steady at the exact distance from the weld. Ten minutes later, the seat stays were on. The torch went out. Jason pulled off his mask and stepped back, inviting me forward with one arm, like a midwife in a maternity ward introducing an overawed father to his child. The frame of my dream bike-- the diamond soul--- was finished."

"He dropped the spokes one by one through the holes in the flanges of the front hub. Periodically, he gathered all the spokes from one side of the hub together and swept them to the side, like someone tying their hair back. When he'd lined up the label on the hub with the label on the rim-- a nice touch-- he placed the first spoke through the hole on the rim next to the valve and secured it with a blue nipple. All the other nipples would be silver: the blue one was a visual aide, and Gravy's signature. Then he went round the rim once, placing a spoke through every third hole. He flipped the wheel over and laced a second set. Within minutes, the pattern of the wheel began to emerge."

If his visits to these builders are the skeleton of the book, its meat is a wide-spanning history of the bicycle. The time span is wide: from the invention of the first wheeled vehicle in ancient Mesopotamia to the development of the mountain bike in Northern California. Along the way, the reader learns of velocipedes, high-wheelers, the origins of bike racing, Reynolds double-butted tubes, and the connection between bike manufacturing and the development of both automobiles and airplanes.

"By the end of the decade, the bicycle had become a utilitarian form of transport for millions-- the people's nag. For the first time in history, the working class became mobile. As they could now commute, crowded tenements emptied, suburbs expanded and the geography of cities changed. In the countryside, the bicycle helped widen the gene pool: birth records in Britain from the 1890s show how local surnames began to appear far away from the rural locality with which they had been strongly associated for centuries. Everywhere, the bicycle was a catalyst for the campaigns to improve roads, literally paving the way for the motor car."

If you like bikes, I highly recommend this book.

Available from Amazon, other booksellers, and libraries.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Oak Openings

In 1848, James Fenimore Cooper, the author famous for the Last of the Mohicans, published a novel set in Kalamazoo titled Oak Openings. Set in 1812, it describes west Michigan before European settlement:
The woods around were the then unpeopled forest of Michigan ; and the small winding reach of placid water that was just visible in the distance, was an elbow of the Kalamazoo, a beautiful little river that flows westward, emptying its tribute into the vast expanse of Lake Michigan. Now, this river has already become known, by its villages and farms, and railroads and mills; but then, not a dwelling of more pretension than the wigwam of the Indian, or an occasional shanty of some white adventurer, had ever been seen on its banks. In that day, the whole of that fine peninsula, with the exception of a narrow belt of country along the Detroit River, which was settled by the French as far back as near the close of the seventeenth century, was literally a wilderness. If a white man found his way into it, it was as an Indian trader, a hunter, or an adventurer-in some other of the pursuits connected with border life and the habits of the savages.

The title, Oak Openings, refers to the landscape, an ecosystem now called an Oak Savannah. Cooper describes it:

The trees, with very few exceptions, were what is called the "burr-oak," a small variety of a very extensive genus; and the spaces between them, always irregular, and often of singular beauty, have obtained the name of "openings;" the two terms combined giving their appellation to this particular species of native forest, under the name of "Oak Openings."

The story itself is about the adventures of Ben Boden, a "bee-hunter," on the Michigan frontier during the War of 1812. The prose is very different from a modern novel.

The text is in the public domain, so it is available free online from Google books or Project Gutenberg. Amazon will sell you a Kindle version or a print copy.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Rough-legged Hawk

While many birds leave Michigan for the winter, the Rough-legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus) migrates to this area from Canada's far north.

This hawk had been injured and is unable to survive in the wild. It's one of the stars of the Kalamazoo Nature Center's education programs.

Sunday, January 1, 2012