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Spring hike 4/6

Thanks to our island vacation, we did miss out on one week of woods observation. I had intended to get us out the Wednesday after our return, but I think I already mentioned our slow return to normal. Plus, after a few days in the warming Caribbean sun, the thought of hiking in upper 30/low 40 degree weather wasn't appealing. So we missed last week. That means that we don't know exactly when the biggest change we noted in the woods took place, but the moment we stepped out of the car, the change was obvious.

Spring peepers.

The wood was suddenly noisy, alive with the mating calls of frogs. We learned something today, though. There are lots of different frogs sharing those spring waters, and while the Spring Peepers are noisy, it's really the Western Chorus Frog that is the loudest of the loud. My personal favorite was the Wood Frog; he has a funny little low chuckle that made us both laugh.

Frogs galore were not the only unique views we got today. We saw two different pairs of snakes mating. That's a sight I have never seen before. And a whole slew of Mourning Cloaks, the earliest butterflies of the season. Moss and other plants are beginning to green up, and the birds are in an interesting state of transition: we saw several year-round species, of course, but also one winter visitor who must have been on his way out, and one summer denizen just back from warmer climes.

Plus raccoon paw prints.

by Calvin

all those ripples are frogs, and then some

Wood Frog (by Calvin)

Wood Frog

Wood Frogs

frog eggs

Western Chorus Frog

Western Chorus Frog

by Calvin


Brown Creeper

Common Garter Snakes mating

Common Garter Snake

Raccoon print


The first hike of spring

It's getting to be that time of year when this blog will start to resemble a birding guide. I just looked back through some of our more recent exploits/posts and realized that pretty much all of them were outside (finally!) and bird related. Other bits and pieces of nature will edge in as they appear, too, but right now the only real signs of life out there are the birds flitting through the still leafless trees.

Spring is a great time for birding, especially here in Michigan. It's this time of year that the birds are giving up their winter habits and are getting frantic about territory, nests, and mates. For some species that means long migrations, and over the next couple of months we'll be seeing birds return to our area from their winter homes, and we'll also get our one chance to see all those species who are just passing through on their trips farther north.

Back in January Calvin and I started a new species list, keeping track of "first sightings of the year" by date. So far our list includes only 18 species, but it's growing more rapidly now. Just this weekend we were able to add the return of Killdeer and Sandhill Cranes to our neighborhood.

And, inadvertently, we added another tradition or routine to our busy lives. Over the past week, with the return of our neighborhood path thanks to melting temperatures, we were getting out almost every day for short walks—short because we were fighting off colds. But this weekend we were feeling more sprightly, and we resolved to visit one of our favorite hiking spots for the first time this year. The morning was dreary and dull, but the minute we got in the car the sun came out as if to give us further encouragement. The air was still chilly and there were still patches of snow and ice. The forest seemed largely to be still asleep, but as we walked we started to notice just a few signs of life: that patch over there was little greener than its drab surroundings, and the grass at the river's edge was already perking up. And if the tulips that are just pushing their way up in our front yard weren't evidence enough, the frenetic bird activity deep in the woods was definitely another sure sign. Such a cacophony, such a fluttering, such a frenzy. We didn't add any species to our list, but we had such a great time looking for life that we decided to come back next week to look for progress.

And then we realized that we had taken our first trip back into those woods on the first Saturday of spring, just one day after the equinox. That settled it. This will be our new science and nature project for the year: we will visit these woods once a week for the next year, charting her changes. It's a rather large undertaking, but what a great plan it is, and what a splendid accomplishment it would be. It's spring, after all! Time to think big!

Redbellied Woodpecker

Looking for green

The bluebird of happiness looks kind of grouchy

Here we decided the deer have been having forest tea parties. "Clean cups, clean cups, move down, move down, move down!"

Tufted Titmouse


Camping 2014

There are few places I love as much as my home state. It has its ups and downs, and of course there are lots of great places to visit in the country and the wider world, but here we are surrounded by a simple, quiet, understated beauty that cannot be matched. Water, water everywhere; soft, white, sandy beaches; majestic trees. The wildlife is plentiful and mainly friendly (as our new neighbors who came from Alabama like to put it, there really isn't much here that can kill you). Brilliant sun in the summers, sparkling snow, when we're lucky, in the winters. The Pure Michigan campaign, now in its eighth year, really nailed it on the head. I'm sure there are plenty of people itching to get out of dodge, but we truly love our home, and we do our best every year—especially every summer—to take advantage of the beauty around us, and not take it for granted.

Last weekend was our annual camping trip with our good friends who have a daughter exactly two days older than Calvin. We started this tradition when the kiddos were just 3. That first year we packed up all our gear (which thankfully was limited at the time) and drove to a site less than an hour away, figuring that if the trip was a complete bust we could still make it home in time for some decent sleep. But it was a big hit—really big—and in the years since we've upped our game to a five hour drive and four nights away.

We feel like regulars now at our favorite campground. This is drive up camping (not like our backpacking trip last year), and our favorite two sites have a lake view and easy access to the beach, the water pump, and the bathroom without being right in the middle of camp traffic. They also come with a resident Thirteen Lined Ground Squirrel. During the day we watch him scurry around, scoping out our contributions to his layout, at dusk we sit around the campfire waiting for the bats emerge, and in the cool mornings we lean back in our chairs and sip hot coffee while listening to the loons.

In all these years, this was our first trip that was less than ideal weather-wise. We arrived Friday afternoon, a day ahead of our companions, and enjoyed a beautiful evening on the lake after setting up camp. The rain storms held off until about four in the morning, when wind, thunder, and a driving rain woke us in the hours before dawn. Or the wake up call might have been the campers in the tent behind us who were screaming, and giggling, at finding themselves in a not-so-weather-proof tent.

By the time we got up in the morning the rain had passed, leaving cool, damp air and a chilly wind behind. While our neighbors went about stuffing all their possessions into garbage bags in preparation for a trip to the laundromat, we had coffee and cereal and planned a morning hike. Jon discovered a point labeled Mt. Nebo on the trail map, and that's where we headed because...well...because Mt. Nebo. The four mile hike was wonderful. Possibly my favorite part of the whole trip. We found birds, toads, frogs, bugs, and mosquitoes, and the cooler air was perfect for the exercise. Back at camp we fired up the stove for a sausage and pancakes lunch and watched the sun burn off the remaining mist and clouds. By the time our friends arrived the air was warm enough to play a bit on the beach before assembling chicken fajita foil packets to cook around the fire.

Our second night was much quieter, and our second full day more eventful, our friends having arrived. Since it was still too chilly for swimming (a situation that remained in effect the whole trip), we instead went into town for putt putt golf, ice cream, and sweat shirt shopping (the funny thing about kids is that they outgrow their warm clothes every year). Back at camp—sand play on a sunny beach followed by dinner. One of the ways that I can tell we've improved our camping skills over the years is our culinary prowess at the campfire. Dinner number two for us was corn and steak.

On Monday we ate cold breakfasts, packed lunches, and headed over the bridge into the U.P. to see the Soo Locks up close. We were fortunate enough to see an osprey, too, and on the way home we stopped at Castle Rock—our tourist trap for the year. Back at camp it was still too chilly for the beach, so we spent more time with ice cream in town and outfit each of us with new shirts (why should the kids have all the fun!) before heading back. When we got back our tent neighbors were packing up and heading out. The forecast was promising heavy rain and storms in the middle of the night and on into the next morning. Since it was our last night, we decided to the same—the air wasn't getting any warmer, and the idea of having to pack up in a pouring rain was less than desirable. So we started a fire with our remaining wood and packed up while the kids played, then ate one final meal and roasted one final dessert. And would you believe it, the rain started just as we climbed into our cars to head south.

So we spent our final night of the trip in a Holiday Inn Express, and our final morning swimming in their pool instead of the lake, but at least we got some swimming in.

And because we had extra time on our final day—no packing up to do and we were already part way home—Jon and Calvin and I decided to make the most of our trip home and visit a zoo we'd never seen. Scattered storms blanketed most of the state, and we were driving in and out of rain the whole way, but when we got to Potter Park Zoo (in Lansing), the radar said we had about 20 minutes before the next storm hit. It's a small zoo, and we made a dash around all of the outdoor exhibits, then broke out our ponchos to go from building to building, taking in the indoor exhibits. It worked out perfectly, even if we were a little wet, but we'll have to go back sometime because we never did get to see the baby moose, our main reason for stopping.

Now we're home, and with rain still dotting the landscape in unpredictable patterns, all our camping gear is spread out in the garage, waiting for a dry enough day that we can set it up and clean it out well for the year. It's slowly dissipating, but it makes the garage and laundry room smell like camp—wood smoke and pine—making me already eager for next year.


Back to nature — our finds this week in the great outdoors

We watched an Eastern Kingbird feeding babies.

We found several wood frogs on a hike

We discussed wild flowers with a county parks naturalist

And Calvin practiced his photography: photograph by Calvin

Photograph by Calvin

Photograph by Calvin

Photograph by Calvin


The spaces between

Life is punctuated by routine.

Invariably we start the day with breakfast and an adios to Jon on his way to work. Our morning is about table work—the school lessons that we actually sit down and do, like math, spelling, grammar, geography, etc. (and not all homeschoolers do this, by the way, but my kid happens to like the predictability of it). And we squeak in piano, and some time to read, or build, or play. Then there's lunch, and a chance to get outside if the weather is good, or play games, watch videos, read, sing, build, what have you, in the afternoon. Then Jon comes home and we soak up our time with him before going to bed and starting all over again the next day.

This is our routine. It is the punctuation that keeps us on track, and punctuation is good because it keeps you on track. It's also good because it helps you tell or read the story with enough predictability that you can enjoy the unpredictable—the story that happens in the spaces between, like a surprise afternoon in the middle of a work week when our whole family gets to drop what we're doing and head to the park to enjoy the weather together. We like together.

Life happens in the spaces between.

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