Outdoors North: It’s due time to ramble and explore

John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources

“And I was born a rambling,’ gamblin’ man.” – Bob Seger

The recent nights, though still chilly by sleeping outside measures, have been increasingly warmer, like the days.

Therefore, stepping outside the front or back door after dark has gone from hearing virtually nothing to discovering – night by night – an increasing number of voices in the after-dark choir.

With warming temperatures, wood frogs and spring peepers began their singing from the woodlands and wetlands. The frog choirs will continue to increase by species, volume level and number as it gets warmer into summertime.

During the past week, common loons have returned to the lake and begun their nighttime haunting tremolo calls that echo throughout the entire surrounding landscape.

These birds of ancient origin are one of my favorite bird species and seeing or hearing that they have returned from southern U.S. coastal regions for another year on the lake is one of the best parts of my springtime.

A barred owl was singing out along the lakeshore last night. I called back. He didn’t come any closer, but he did want to continue to talk. We did that for a little bit.

In the moments before darkness fell, I was able to hear ruffed grouse drumming in the northern hardwoods and mixed woods. I heard a “swamp angel” or hermit thrush, singing his clear and flutelike soloing.

The thrushes are very enjoyable to experience. Once they are first heard in the springtime, their songs will continue days and evenings to the end of summertime. The haunting, yet melodic, songs of the hermit thrushes are my wife’s favorite.

Eastern phoebes or robins have started to build a nest on a nesting platform I built and installed under the eave of our garage last summer. However, after a couple of days, it doesn’t appear to me that the gathering and weaving of dried grasses into a viable nest has continued.

I wonder whether something happened to the birds, whether they are focused on other activities or have indeed abandoned the nest site. If they’ve done that, I wonder why. I have noticed that the rising sun does strike the platform directly for several minutes before a shaded nesting site is provided for the rest of the day.

I have a trio of bat houses that I will also be putting up in the next few days, hoping to attract an increased number of bats to the environs near the house. Three summers ago, I didn’t see any bats all summer long. Two years ago, I saw a single, lone bat. Last summer, I saw three at once.

The toll taken on our Michigan bat population, especially little brown bats, has been devastating, with losses ranging to north of 90%. In many cases, the numbers of bats in this region will likely never return to previous levels during the rest of my lifetime.

I whistled for a northern saw-whet owl that had been hanging around for a few weeks. After several attempts, nothing of the tell-tale beeping – like that of a back-up alarm on a heavy equipment vehicle – was heard in response.

I kept up for a minute or so more. I was met with a long, single-noted type of winnowing call that emanated from the trees up the road and down along the shore of the lake. To me, it was more reminiscent of a screech owl’s whinny, but I’d bet this was the saw-whet owl.

The stars have been clear to see over at least some of the past few nights. Seeing the stars makes me feel comforted for some reason. On this night, it seemed as though it had been a very long time since I had really seen them.

After trying, but hearing no more owl responses, I decided to go back in the house. As I was closing the door, a few Canada geese started up a honking quartet from the reticent ice floes on the lake.

A good number of ducks have also begun rafting on the water. There have been mostly buffleheads, hooded and common mergansers and, of course, a few mallards.

These green-headed drakes and their light brown hens have already staked out nesting territories and sites to lay their broods. They have been present, sitting close together, on tufts of dead marsh grasses in wetland areas.

A couple days ago, I took a nice morning drive across portions of four counties. I passed still present piles of diminishing snow, ice on lake surfaces, but mostly, browned and downed leaves and grasses across everywhere.

Also prominent on my drive were substantial numbers of trees fallen, broken and split at the hands of winter’s wilds. The blow downs were significant and widespread.

On a bush at the edge of an open farmer’s field, a gorgeous male northern harrier surveyed the scene with a keen eye. There were a fair number of wild turkeys, including a couple that had been struck by passing vehicles.

At one point, I stopped to get out of the car for a bush call. The road ahead and behind me was empty and quiet. The morning sunshine bathed me in its light, warming me with its radiant heat.

The creeks and streams in this area were mostly within their banks. Some sported dirty water likely from mud still suspended in the water column after recent spring snowmelt and rainfall events. There were others with higher waters producing rushing rapids and more powerful than usual waterfalls.

Turkey vultures are back from migration in good numbers now. More and more species are trickling in daily as the spring nesting season is ramping up.

At the edge of a woodland, I tested out a birdsong application I recently downloaded to my DNR phone free from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology’s “All About Birds” website. The application allows the user to record bird sounds from a good-sized adjacent area.

As the songs of birds are recorded, images pop up showing the species detected by the application. The recordings made to the phone can then be uploaded to a database that helps increase sound files available to the Cornell lab.

On my first try with this tool, I discovered singing yellow-rumped warblers, blue jays and ruby-crowned kinglets. It’s a fun little gadget – one of the first things I can say I might actually use a cellphone for.

I stopped to take some pictures of an old camp that had collapsed into ruin. I have taken many such photos over the past few years in hopes of one day producing a photo exhibit or essay showing the decay and ruin of past promise in the region.

The subjects range from old barns and houses to dilapidated motels, gas stations, restaurants and railroad facilities.

One of the strange things about this camp that had caved into itself was the new “private property” sign tacked to a tree between the structure and the roadway. I reasoned that sign was likely put up as liability protection to keep away those who might decide to explore the ruins and get hurt in the process.

When I visit these places, I always wonder who once occupied them, what were they all about and what happened that caused these buildings to become abandoned. These must all somehow be tales of broken hearts, disappointments and worse.

Saying good-bye, even to houses, camps, businesses and more, is not often easy. I still have the house keys to a house I owned for a few years on the shoreline of the big lake. A divorce ultimately forced me to abandon the home.

It wasn’t easy, and on some level, I haven’t let go of the house yet.

Forming attachments, grabbing ahold, letting go, breaking free, turning your back and walking away toward more relationships, jobs, houses, apartments, backyards and front lawns.

What does it really all mean, and why do we feel compelled to keep doing it? What are searching for that could drive us that hard for these things? I am unclear as to whether, in the end, it is all worth it.

But I do know that springtime is worth waiting through the wintertime for. It has remained hard to believe that the days just keep getting warmer and that no more snow will likely be forecasted for several months.

This is the time that many people, like the animals and birds, crawl out of their winter homes and dens, or fly back from warmer locales, and step outdoors to smell the air, see the shimmering lakes and enjoy the long-lasting days.

It’s time to ramble and explore.

EDITOR’S NOTE: 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.


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