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Entries in wildlife (60)


County Parks Tour (Fox Science Preserve)

It has been warm but dark and stormy around here as of late. We've visited a couple of our favorite county parks, sites that we were already familiar with, to fill out the site records for our summer tour project, but only today did we finally visit another park that was completely new to us. Fox Science Preserve is county park land on the site of an old gravel pit. The pit was used to mine gravel for the creation of I94 over fifty years ago, then the family that owned the land closed it to mining and gave the space over to the park system.

The park is starkly different from those that we usually visit. Having been a gravel pit, it is a low, open valley surrounded by wooded hills. In my mind, the terrain is reminiscent of the southwest—a vast rocky landscape dotted with scrubby bushes—only it also has low lying wet areas. Because it was mined for gravel, the area boasts large rock that were uncovered, and a unique look at the geological underlayer, and the park system has used this to its benefit. Instead of the usual meandering hiking trails intended to keep visitors in specific areas, the entire floor of the valley seems open to exploration, and signs describing and explaining the topography and its geologic significance are located throughout. Apparently it is commonly used by local schools for field trips, although I don't remember having ever been here before myself.

We had a really great morning together here. It was cool and overcast when we started out, but sunny and warming as we left. Though the park trails only measure about .8 miles, we spent over two hours exploring everything there was to see, and looking closely for bird and animal sightings. We saw over thirty species of bird, including the Belted Kingfisher and the Northern Flicker, a wide variety of insects, and evidence of mammals, as well: a good haul for such a small area! I was surprised by how much we enjoyed the park, and because it is so close to home, I imagine we'll be back to enjoy walks together when we are short on time but longing for a little quiet space in nature.

Spider web in deer track

Igneous rock

Metamorphic rock

Sedimentary rock

Field Sparrow

Song Sparrow

Eastern Bluebird, female

Golden-backed Snipe Fly

Red-winged Blackbirds, female


This week's favorite hiking moments

It was a rainy week, and a little chilly again, too, but we had some good birding opportunities anyhow, like watching the swallows play over the lake at Dolph. We captured four different species on our camera card (can't say film anymore, eh?) to positively ID at home; the tree and barn swallows are easy to ID in the field, but the other two we weren't sure about. On another walk through the same park, we got within three yards or so of a Great Blue Heron fishing in the pond area. We also saw a bit of the fuzzier side of nature this week.

Northern Rough-winged Swallow (brown above with brown shading below)

Bank Swallow (brown above, white below with a brown ring, or "nacklace", around the neck)

Barn Swallow (blue above, peach/brown chest and chin, white belly)

Tree Swallow (blue above, white below)

Eastern Kingbird (not a Swallow, but he looks like he's wearing a funny hat here)

Eastern Cottontail

Great Blue Heron

American Redstart, female

Snapping Turtle (in the parking lot)

Robin, after a bath


Science in the field

Two more hikes for us this far. This is our new science plan for the next season or two. And there's a science behind that decision, too. I have weekly calendars to keep our school journey on track. I actually started using them about five years ago when we were just getting started with the Five in a Row plan. At the time they were more about art projects than schooling, but they grew and changed quite a bit through the months, and then the years, going from a list of possible craft projects, to a list of books to read and chores to get done, and ultimately to a pretty detailed list of the homschooling things we tackled during a day.

I use the calendar not only for keeping track of where we are going what we plan to do in a week, but also as a means of recording what we have done. On the back side of every calendar I keep a sort of daily journal, tracking the amount of time we spend on subjects, the total amount of time we spent schooling during the week, and even the overall attitude we both have about them.

My initial goal in keeping the calendar and journal was to have, should Michigan homeschoolers ever be held accountable, a record of time spent on school and its subjects. But the calendar had a secondary, unforseen but fortuitous, benefit as well. Having all those details about time spent and, especially, our tempers and focus during that time, gave me a larger perspective that has been very, very helpful in tracking our study trends.

And spring, year after year, has been a terrible time for us to keep to a regular homeschool schedule.

Our usual schedule includes reading, researching, and writing, but in the spring we both struggle to sit long enough to do any of these things. Looking back at my notes ("no focus today!", "sooo grouchy about math!") this was obvious. So this year we formulated a new plan. Beginning with the warming of the earth, we are leaving behind our science books (never text books, always living learning books, but still books), and are entering the field to learn about the earth from the earth. We are still keeping to our other subjects, but on a diminshed schedule, allowing us to really focus on that outdoor science stuff right now: at least two hikes a week, more when we can. During this time we are keeping track of the progression of the spring awakening by visiting our favorite preserve weekly. And we are going to record the species we find during the bird migration. We are relating all of it to species identification, adaptations and evolution, the geology of the earth, and the general science of life. Biology, from several different aspects.

It's an exciting new project for us, and it's off to a great start.

This week, back at the Scio Woods Preserve, the frogs were much quieter, but the birds were much more active. We took a packed lunch and ate it at the pond with a Great Blue Heron, a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk, and a Belted Kingfisher. Later, we saw just about every woodpecker imaginable in our area, and noted an increased number of insects, which coincided with an increased number of snakes and butterflies. We also discussed the difficulty of identifying species in the field. In fact, with better pictures this week we were able to re-ID a species we saw first last week, but blurry pictures of other species provided a different kind of challenge.

My favorite part, though, as much as I love all the birds and the quiet of the woods, was the time spent visiting with my growing son. Sure, we visit all the time—discussion is a big part of our homeschooling plan—but this was a different kind of conversing, a sort of sharing of ideas and excitement, and that added a special warmth to the already bright spring day.

These are actually pictures from both of our mid-week hike days so far, including Scio Woods Preserve on April 14, and Dolph Nature Area and DeVine Nature Preserve on April 15.

Red-tailed Hawk, juvenile

Great Blue Heron

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

American Robin

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker talking to a Downey Woodpecker

Mourning Cloak

April 15, Dolph Nature Area

Common Garter, red morph

Turkey Vulture

Gray Squirrel, black morph

Red-winged Blackbird (in a not so graceful position)

Beaver evidence!

Eastern Phoebe

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

And how about some ID challenges? Not all of the bird pictures I post are in great focus. Have you ever tried to catch a moving target with a long range telephoto lens? To catch some of the birds, the extra zoom is necessary, but with the lens fully extended every shake of the camera shows, and the birds don't hold still long. So sometimes a blury shot is the best we can do, but usually it's better than nothing, even if it's truly a blury mess. We spotted a bird this weekend that I was sure was a unique sparrow, one I've seen at the same park in the past. The size was about right, and the basic color was the same, but once I got the extremely blury photo in front of me, a distinction appeared—instead of a small yellow stripe on either side of his head, this bird's entire top head was yellow. Putting together what we knew we had seen with the blury photo and a migration pattern timetable, we identified our mystery bird as a Golden-crowned Kinglet. So a blury photo is better than no photo at all.

Here are some "outtakes" that we worked with this week:

Here is our Golden-crowned Kinglet. It is one of several blury shots of this little guy that helped us figure him out.

This Belted Kingfisher is pretty easy to identify here, but still not the best species picture we could ask for.

Without both a front and a side shot this handsome fella is hard to ID. Last week all we had was a shot of his back and we named him a Veery, but with this blury yet convincing full frontal, we've decided he's either a Wood Thrush or Hermit Thrush.


Good morning hike

It was our first family hike of the season, because it was our first weekend hike of the season. Calvin and I really like the quiet of the parks during a spring weekday. We run into other hikers on occasion, but usually it's just the two of us and the wildlife. But Jon really likes joining us, too. He's in it for the turtles mostly, and the fuzzy critters, but we're all improving at identifying bird calls, too.

This weekend we took advantage of the prettiest Saturday yet with an early hike (not too early, since it still gets pretty chilly at night) all three of us together. The day started out overcast, but the sun started peeking out early and eventually joined us full time. We found lots of signs of spring in that brilliant green color that will soon flush all our fields and lawns. We found snakes, and for the first time turtles. The squirrels are ubiquitous, of course, and those fluffy little cottontails. And, amongst our usual feathered friends, we spotted a winter visitor migrating through.

Eastern Phoebe (or possibly a Least Flycatcher?)

Northern Cardinal male

Northern Cardinal female

Canada Goose

Red Squirrel

Song Sparrow

Eastern Cottontail

American Robin

Unidentified fuzzy buzzing thing

Painted Turtle


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