Woodland birds offer mosiac of color, sound

JOHN PEPIN

“Kodachrome, they give us those nice, bright colors, they give us the greens of summer, makes you think all the world’s a sunny day.” — Paul Simon

In the whole big bulging box of Crayola colors out there to see this time of year, the greens and blues are particularly prominent, cresting at their peak.

The bright green bracken ferns are fanned out and standing tall, shading blueberry plants soon to bloom and fruit. A collection of ferns types — including those bent down and brown — protect white clumps of craggy and fragile reindeer moss and the nests of tiny birds, like hermit thrushes.

Out fishing recently, I leaned against a group of alder trees to steady my footing, flushing a hermit thrush up from the undergrowth.

These birds are one of the most familiar to those tramping around the northern hardwood forests, because of their haunting flute-like songs that are heard especially in the hours of early evening.

Bluebirds and robins are cousins of hermit thrushes, all identified as part of the family of thrushes. The hermit thrush is somewhat drab in appearance, with a cinnamon-colored tail.

It was this tail I caught sight of as the hermit thrush flying up out of the low brush flew to a waiting alder branch nearby, such a tiny bird for the tremendous sound it can produce.

I remember several years ago, fishing along the banks of a cold Alger County stream, hearing an astounding performance by a half dozen male hermit thrushes. Their sound, which seemed to go on forever, was augmented in fine fashion by the songs of another thrush called a veery.

A veery song bubbles out usually in four brief phrases, performed together in a short sequence, to produce a sound that may be best described as a “downward spiral.”

Still another thrush, the Swainson’s thrush, sings in ascending notes that sound like the spiral sound in reverse.

Breasts of hermit thrushes are white-to-buff-colored, with varying degrees of brownish-black spotting. The somewhat confusing thrushes can be separated and identified, partially by the presence, absence or extent of buffy to white eye rings.

The wood thrush has the most amount of spotting on its chest and is the easiest to identify. Its song is by far the most intricate, with the males making sounds that are truly indescribable.

The hermit thrush I flushed from the base of the alder trees, sat close by before dropping down and then disappearing into the brush. I turned and glanced down between the tree trunks and saw a small nest woven from grass, with an opening measuring about 2 inches across.

In the palm of the nest were four blue-green-colored eggs. They were roughly the same color as robin’s eggs. I would return a week later to find three of the eggs had hatched, with two live baby thrushes in the nest. One was missing. The fourth blue egg remained, with an egg tooth crack in it at the top.

The stream that rolled by, just a few feet away from the nest, looked blue too, reflecting the summer skies above.

Trout were hungry on that day. Exquisite blue sapphire circles, covered with glowing red spots, popped up from the wet skin on the sides of this beautiful specimen of Michigan’s state fish.

Farther downstream, from the grass growing thick along the riverbank, up into the cedar trees that stood thick, a spectrum of green — forest and olive to seafoam, Kelly and lime — had the forest cloaked in emerald.

The light and the fresh green foliage played tricks with my eyes, like I was looking through an old-time accountant’s green visor.

Glancing down past a tumbling rapid, where trout swirled beneath the churning waters, I could see more places where gigantic trees had been crippled and fell during last winter’s tremendous ice storms.

This area was home, at one time, to several state forest campgrounds that were spaced out up and down along the riverbank. None remain today, but the places where these rustic camping sites stood remain open to dispersed camping.

In the last few days, snapping turtles have made their presence known, both by leaving evidence of their nest digging in the center or sides of gravel roadways and paths, and by appearing themselves in the short and slender grasses at the sides of the roads.

I approached one that had stopped at the side of a gravel road in Schoolcraft County. He or she moved away in a scruff, with me following, snapping pictures. We lost sight of each other at the water’s edge when the turtle slowly submerged out of sight into the murky, shallow water.

A belted kingfisher chattered loudly as it flew by. These striking bank-nesting birds, with ruffled crowns and long bills, sport feathered coats of bright blue and white. Like some male phalaropes – which are a sandpiper styled water bird – belted kingfisher females are more brightly-colored than the males.

The difference is striking. Females have a thick rusty band of orange coloring splashed across their breast.

As the road continued to wind through the trees and around the water’s edges a pair of sandhill cranes walked down the gravelly stretch ahead.

These ancient-sounding cranes, with their sides colored rusty orange similar to the female kingfisher’s breast stripe, also possess a coloration curiosity.

When cranes from the Upper Peninsula fly to Florida for the wintertime, they molt their feathers. This gives adults a fresh, bright and new coloration of gray to model on their return to this region each spring.

After they arrive, to help protect their young from predators in the marshes where they nest on the ground, the cranes “paint” or “stain” themselves with mud. This gives the cranes a reddish or rusted appearance.

When I was a kid, sandhill cranes were very rare in this part of the world. I saw a flock of 18 out off a dirt road in Marquette County with my parents. When I moved back from California years later, the cranes had increased their range distribution dramatically.

Surveys by the International Crane Foundation — headquartered in Baraboo, Wisconsin — showed crane populations had dispersed into the U.P. from Wisconsin. Today, sandhill cranes are common sights along highways, in farmer’s fields, meadows and other grasslands, as well as marginal habitat along forest edges.

The russet red of the cranes’ feather colors, and red facial skin, contrasted beautifully with more green grasses and blue waters held within an early summer’s wetland pond.

Purple irises were growing up from the marsh, standing a foot or so above the tops of the grass that grew out of a stagnant pool. These were glorious colors to behold, these greens and blues and russets among the woods and waters.

Meanwhile, nature’s clock continues to tick at an alarming rate, with Fourth of July just around the corner. Many folks in this area mark that holiday as midsummer, with the season already sliding down swiftly toward the autumn after that.

Hopefully, I’ll be able to catch a good deal more sunshine, and blue and green days with fish on the line and the warm wind in my face before autumn arrives, with her cold and drizzly tales to tell.

I still don’t think I’ve completely shed my coat of shivers from last winter yet.

I am in no hurry for fall to bring me a fresh, wet coat to slip into. Tick tock, tick tock, the days we have left to dance under the summer sun are indeed numbered.

Editor’s note: John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula. Send correspondence to pepinj@michigan.gov or 1990 U.S. 41 South, Marquette, MI 49855.