Thursday, July 19, 2012

Boring Annotated List for Historical Purposes

My apologies for such a dreary post--just a list--but perhaps in a few years this inventory will provide a few minutes of diversion. This is the list of birds that my girlfriend Alison and I observed on our float down the Manistee River from the Deward area to No. 19 Rd near Mesick from July 4-7, 2012. 

Canada Goose—small numbers, mostly in scattered family groups incapacitated by molt. One such group that I splashed with my paddle scrambled up the bank in panic, including one bird that flapped and flopped and fell backwards.
Wood Duck—seen daily, but very sparsely. Probably fewer than 15 for the entire float.
Mallard—common. Many family groups, ranging from fully grown “ducklings” to very young, recently hatched broods.
Hooded Merganser—not seen until the second day of the trip, but after that very common on the lower part of the river (past Sharon Bridge).
Common Merganser—few; about a dozen total
Horned Grebe—surely the most unexpected bird of the float, a singleton paddling around the river several miles upstream from the CCC bridge. A Horned Grebe on such a small shallow river would be unusual at any season, but this species is unprecedented in this part of the world in the middle of the summer. It was in full alternate plumage and appeared to be in good health.

Great Blue Heron—surprisingly scarce, only three or four.
Green Heron—a handful (half a dozen?) scattered along the entire length of the river. Most of them demonstrated their well-deserved nickname “Fly-up-the-Creek” by flushing ahead of the canoe many times before finally turning around.
Turkey Vulture—two or three
Osprey—one, on the final day of the float
Bald Eagle—five, all adults. On the second day, I chucked a rubber duckie that I had found in some jetsam at a perched bird, much to its indignation.
Sharp-shinned Hawk—one bombed across the river on our second day
Red-shouldered Hawk—a few (5) heard calling from along the river
Broad-winged Hawk—half a dozen or so
Spotted Sandpiper—common. We spotted three young families near the end of our float on the third day. We paused for the first family and captured one of the very young chicks running around at the edge of the river.

Solitary Sandpiper--one, an early migrant, flushed from a mudbank on our second day.
American Woodcock—two. Oddly, one was still displaying at the CCC campground. One flew by our canoe at dusk in the last mile or two of the last day.
Herring Gull—Alison saw one; I remain skeptical
Mourning Dove—No comment
Yellow-billed Cuckoo—one, on the last day.
Black-billed Cuckoo—one calling in the middle of the night at the CCC campground.
Great Horned Owl—a fledgling begging around midnight on the first day (i.e., night) of the float near the headwaters.
Barred Owl—three families, the first one seen and photographed shortly downstream from the CCC campground on the second day.

Common Nighthawk—a few heard at dusk most days. A large group seen flycatching high over the river in the late afternoon of the second day.
Eastern Whip-poor-will—heard every night, with impressive numbers (at least a dozen) heard in the few miles we floated on the first night. We even spotlighted one perched in a pine at the river’s edge.
Ruby-throated Hummingbird—only a few.
Belted Kingfisher—extremely common. At least seventy or eighty seen over the course of the trip. We noted several nests farther down on the last two days of the float in the high sandy banks in that area.
Red-headed Woodpecker—Alison saw one during our dinner break on the second day; several miles later we both heard one.
Red-bellied Woodpecker—two or three in the last quarter of the trip.
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker—abundant. At evening on the second day, we saw one perched on a telephone pole drumming on a metal casing, seeming to gloat over its superior volume.
Downy Woodpecker—uh-huh
Hairy Woodpecker—yeah
Northern Flicker—common
Pileated Woodpecker—surprisingly scarce; only a couple heard during the entire trip
Eastern Wood-Pewee—very common
Least Flycatcher—a single singing bird just downstream from the CCC bridge
Eastern Phoebe—modest numbers, particularly around bridges and cabins
Great Crested Flycatcher—fairly common; perhaps 10 or 12 a day.
Eastern Kingbird—small numbers. Most numerous on the first day.
Yellow-throated Vireo—a single singing bird on the second day.
Blue-headed Vireo—singing birds were fairly common, particularly around Red Pine plantations
Red-eyed Vireo—irritatingly abundant
Blue Jay--common 
American Crow—just a couple heard low down on the last day
Common Raven—heard every day, but sparsely enough that every single one was enjoyed and appreciated.
Northern Rough-winged Swallow—small numbers in the last quarter of the float where there were sandy banks for them to nest in.
Tree Swallow—only a few, nearly all in the upper reaches of the float.
Black-capped Chickadee--around
Tufted Titmouse—one or two pretty far downstream on the second day in an area with lots of deciduous trees.
Red-breasted Nuthatch—common wherever there were conifers (i.e., most of the float)
White-breasted Nuthatch—present the whole way
Brown Creeper—scattered small numbers (perhaps 10 total), particularly in areas with lots of spruce
House Wren—mostly limited to areas that had lots of cabins
Winter Wren—we heard singing birds every day, but in small numbers—perhaps twenty total?
Golden-crowned Kinglet—a few
Eastern Bluebird—one or two in the upper reaches
Veery—two singing birds
Hermit Thrush—common
Wood Thrush—just a couple
American Robin--everywhere
Gray Catbird—not everywhere; only two for the whole float
Brown Thrasher—one chipping fella on the morning of the third day
European Starling—a flyover flock of about fifty birds late in the evening on the second day ruined our fantasy that we would go the entire trip without seeing any.
Cedar Waxwing--lots
Louisiana Waterthrush—a chipping bird far downstream on the third day was almost surely this species judging from the habitat.
Northern Waterthrush—about two singing birds mid-way through the float
Black-and-white Warbler—scattered singing birds along the whole float; perhaps 8 or 9 total?
Nashville Warbler—very common, particularly in the upper reaches of the river.
Mourning Warbler—fairly common, particularly in the lower reaches of the river; we heard probably fifteen on the third day.
Common Yellowthroat--common
American Redstart—common on the second and third days of the float
Cape May Warbler—three singing males; two in the upper reaches on the first day (Kalkaska County) and one near the end of the float (Wexford County)
Northern Parula—one singing bird on the second day
Blackburnian Warbler—three or four singing birds, mostly in the upper reaches.
Pine Warbler—abundant wherever pines were, which was along most of the float

Yellow-rumped Warbler—common; several dozen total
Black-throated Green Warbler—very common, though oddly we heard none north of M-72.
Canada Warbler—just one or two singing birds
Chipping Sparrow—we had two subspecies of Chipping Sparrows…cabin lawn Chipping Sparrows, and Red Pine plantation Chipping Sparrows
Field Sparrow—two singing birds
Song Sparrow—everywhere, kinda
Lincoln’s Sparrow—only one, a singing bird in a boggy area north of M-72
Swamp Sparrow—small numbers of singing birds in marshy areas
White-throated Sparrow—lots of peabodiers, mostly in boggy areas (e.g., between 612 and M-72)
Dark-eyed Junco—a few here and there
Scarlet Tanager—very common in the last third or so of the float. Prior to that, very sparse.
Northern Cardinal—small numbers (about five) near the end of the float
Rose-breasted Grosbeak—surprisingly uncommon, at least in comparison with the Ausable…maybe ten or a dozen a day
Indigo Bunting--yuppp
Red-winged Blackbird— common around marshy areas…otherwise, not common
Common Grackle—abundant on the first day (especially north of M-72), but very few/none seen later
Brown-headed Cowbird--some
Baltimore Oriole—here and there
Purple Finch—small numbers (20 total), including birds visiting cabin feeders
Pine Siskin—one or two flyovers heard
American Goldfinch—very common
Evening Grosbeak—small numbers (8ish?)

Monday, July 16, 2012

130 Miles of Peanut Butter


Like so many adventures, this one was prefaced by a lesser escapade. It was a lovely warm May afternoon, and Alison and I were on a casual float down the Au Sable River. We were having such a blast that, together, simultaneously, we formulated a scheme to canoe the Au Sable River from Grayling to Lake Huron.

While roaring down the road in the pickup belonging to Kevin, the Jack Pine savage from whom we had borrowed the canoe, we described our plan, to which Kevin shook his head and boomed, “Oh, no, no, you don’t want to do that. Too many dams! You want to float the Manistee!” He slapped his knee and laughed his jovial guffaw that is impossible to impersonate or even describe, apart from the fact that it is fatally infectious. We wheezed and chortled and tried not to choke on the musty aroma of Kevin’s kleptomaniac Golden Retriever that saturates the truck’s interior.

So it was that nearly two months later in the middle of the night Alison and I found ourselves wresting an old barge of a canoe off the roof of my Taurus, which was dwarfed by the craft that would bear us one hundred and thirty miles from the Manistee’s headwaters to Mesick.


Provisions for trip had to satisfy two criteria: cost and packability. Student budgets cannot accommodate frills; we sought cheap, high-calorie food that wouldn’t spoil (we had neither cooler nor stove). At the beginning of the trip, I made an inventory of our supplies:

  • Peanut butter
  • Nutella
  • Cashews
  • Raisins
  • Apples
  • Granola
  • Hershey’s dark chocolate kisses
  • Tortillas
  • Michigan cherries (3 pounds)

On the second night, however, we were so tired that we crashed before properly securing our food. At four-thirty in the morning we awoke to the terrible sounds of rummaging and ripping plastic. Fortunately, the tortillas were the only item that the coons pilfered (though they did try to roll the peanut butter jar off into the woods), so we jokingly dined on seven-course meals the rest of the trip:

“What’s the first course?”
“Raisins—wait, no, we need to break up all the nuts. Cashews.”

We would munch on handfuls on cashews, then chew on raisins, then dip our fingers into the peanut butter and nutella, crunch through an apple, lap grains of granola from our cupped hands, and finally finish up with a dessert of dark chocolate. For every meal we would switch up the order of the courses to fool our palates and avoid dietary boredom.


Alison recently became the proud new parent of a pump-system water filter. Her central duty of the trip (oh yeah, other than steering the canoe…) was to pump our water. Within minutes, cool water traveled from the river down the esophagus. Near the end of the float, when the river became murky from accumulating silt and junk, pumping the water was a greater workout than paddling the canoe. Neither of us was stricken with giardia, so the contraption did its job.


A river, particularly one like the Manistee with abundant deep pools, is a good place to be on ninety-degree day. We paddled all day, striving to cover dozens of miles every day, but that did not prevent us from making frequent swimming stops—and by “frequent”, I mean four or five dips per afternoon. The most memorable hole was shaded by an overhanging Basswood that we could clamber up and leap from to bombard the water fifteen feet below.


It was late afternoon, our minds fixated on dinner and a restful campsite, when suddenly Alison cried, “There goes a Green Snake across the river!” Sure enough, ahead the snake wriggled across the river like a swimming cattail leaf. We dug in our paddles to intercept it. The snake was aimed for a large cedar overhanging the river; we “landed” (or rather, crashed) into the cedar just before the snake reached it. The serpent hesitated, debating whether to turn around or make a bolt for the cedar. In this moment of indecision, I bailed, expecting the river to be easily waded. Instead, I sank into neck-deep water. Half-swimming, half-running, I made a lunge for the reptile. My right hand brushed against it; I locked my fingers, bellowed “GOT IT!”, and fell backwards into the water. It was my first Green Snake. We caressed it for several minutes before releasing it into the cedar, which it climbed with remarkable agility for a creature lacking limbs. 


Ambitious mileage is not conducive to dragonfly hunting, but during our few brief stops we managed to find several species of river odes. 

I think this is a Cobra Clubtail (Gomphus vastus).

The Dragonhunter (Hagenius brevistylus), the biggest, baddest, and burliest of all the clubtails. This monster patrols the river, abdomen kinked, and exudes the cockiness of a totalitarian dictator, striking fear into the thoraxes of the lesser dragonflies.

On the opposite side of the spectrum lies the delicate and comely Violet Dancer (Argia fumipennis).

Clubtails and their kin can be infuriatingly difficult to observe and capture as they perpetually patrol an inch above the river's surface. I took many a futile swing. Finally, this Boreal Snaketail (Ophiogomphus colubrinus) was foolish enough to alight on my wrist. I trapped him by hand, but even when I released him, he was reluctant to leave.


We somehow underestimated the mileage to our take-out spot on the final day of the float, and as the evening progressed, so did our anxiety as bend after bend failed to reveal our end point. The shadows grew long, fused, and the sun slipped away; as the light faded we dug harder and harder with our paddles, reaching forward and leaning back with every stroke. The canoe streaked forward with impressive velocity. It was getting dark; Alison urgently wanted to get back, but I didn't want to capsize in the dark and drown. As the colors faded into grays and blacks, we paused to discuss stopping for the night--but just then, a parked car appeared behind some bushes, and then we realized that the outhouse looked familiar, and finally behind another bush we spotted Alison's car. Relieved, we ran the canoe aground on the boat ramp, tottered out, and hugged each other with shaking arms. We had made it--barely!