Mother Nature has been fickle this past week with a predictable mix of frost, snow and a few beautiful blue sky days followed by downbursts of sleet that created icy roads, felled trees and closed roads and schools. I look at the rapidly changing weather patterns as a solid confirmation of spring being just over the horizon. I’m just not sure how far away that horizon may be, and this cardinal and red-winged blackbird may wonder the same now that a winter storm warning of heavy wet snow for Southeast Michigan has been issued for this first Friday of March.
Other signs of the seasonal transition include increased wild turkey activity in my woods as they trot up to my bird feeders to scrounge for an easy meal. The feeders also lured in a Cooper’s hawk that often perches near the bird feeders, waiting for dinner to fly in. Songbird feathers under the feeder let me know the hawk had success, a reminder that bird feeders change wildlife patterns, especially in the waning days of winter. I suspect the Cooper’s hawk, a fast flying bird-hunting accipiter, will stay around where dinner is easy to find.
A Red fox, a raccoon and deer frequently travel my driveway, sometimes just minutes apart during the night. I know that since they often activate a motion-activated camera that ‘monitors’ my driveway. They all have the same destination, the feeders. Bird feeders can alter nature’s way and create unnatural gatherings. Mine has lured at least one coyote; most likely to hunt mice and rabbits under the feeders.
An eastern gray squirrel is very much aware of my activity and knows the sound of the garage door opening, and the location where my feed cans are stored. That squirrel feasts on ears of corn I leave out for deer at night, a somewhat risky behavior for the squirrel with red-tailed hawks in the area. Raccoons also scrounge for spillage and at least one red fox hunts rabbits and mice that visit this focal point of activity.
Great horned owls are hooting more at night, reminding me their breeding season is full speed ahead, regardless of the weather. All these signs remind me that nature’s calendar is right on schedule even if some species don’t follow the behavior patterns we expect them to follow, especially robins.
Our quintessential early bird of spring, the American Robin is being seen more often and that’s where this tale of the count down to the official start of spring, March 20, really begins. We all grew up knowing that the presence of worm-slurping robins confirmed the arrival of spring. That almost romantic myth is less than accurate.
Many robins stay all winter in our county. They find plenty to eat and simply change their diet from juicy worms to dried berries and fruits. Last week, I was doing what I often do to ‘re-charge’ and went on a brisk hike around Crooked Lake at Independence Oaks County Park. I passed by a family that had paused trailside to watch robins feast on berries; oriental bittersweet fruits to be precise. I was pleased to hear the parents explain to their children that robins eat more than worms. Dad turned towards me, and perhaps noticing my cap with the words, “Oakland County” asked me if the robins have been at the park all year. We chatted for a few minutes, and I let him know that many robins stay and some migrate, but his question made me wonder if I am seeing the same robins year-round at the park.
After returning home I sent my robin question on to Logan Clark, a savvy National Park Service biologist who I had the pleasure of working with a few summers ago on Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore’s South Manitou Island. His response answered my question, but also left a bit of wiggle room for interpretation. Here’s what he wrote. “A long-debated topic among birders, the robins you see in winter are not necessarily the same individual you see in summer. They could be from North Dakota or the Yukon or perhaps even Ohio. More studies are needed to answer this. I personally think most robins make some sort of major migration for winter and that movement is largely southbound. But I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if some were found moving laterally or even northbound for winter. They are an extremely generalist species and I’d wager that some have been wintering in places like the UP long before Europeans ever set foot there.”
I also mentioned to Logan that I’ve been seeing raccoon tracks recently which is not unusual since this is their mating season. He graciously sent me his video from the day before; a raccoon checking out a hollow in a tree that will in all likelihood be a den.
His comments also had me thinking about phenology, defined as a branch of science dealing with the relationship between climate and the periodic biological phenomena (such as bird migration or plants flowering). Before I ramble further I will acknowledge that I am constantly distracted in the most pleasant way by the natural world around me. That fact has made me a follower of phenology for as long as I can remember, from a time way before I knew what that word meant; a time when I still ran barefoot holding up my shorts in the rural hills of Connecticut. I was probably about two or three years old back then.
More than a few years have passed since those carefree days. I don’t keep an official record of my findings but am mindful of my surroundings and am appreciative of the ordinary as I work to refine “the art of seeing.” Although there has been little snow this season, I take pleasure in noting wildlife tracks, especially when they give life to an unseen story; although sometimes the snow story is open to interpretation. I was hiking a lesser-travelled trail a few weeks ago and encountered fresh coyote and turkey tracks. The length of the stride and a bit of disturbed snow told me they were moving at a fast pace. My first assumption was that the coyote with its nose to the ground was in a hot pursuit of a trotting turkey. My assumption was quickly proved wrong when I noticed that some of the turkey tracks were on top of the coyote tracks. If only the turkey knew he was following a significant predator it might have veered off the trail.
I followed the tracks for a few hundred feet before the coyote tracks left the trail and headed over a small bluff that partially hid a beaver lodge. The tracks then went over that snow-capped lodge and followed the shoreline of the lake. I’d like to think the coyote went to the top of lodge to survey the scene and perhaps it, like me, was just looking about and waiting for spring.
Jonathan Schechter is the nature education writer for Oakland County Government and blogs about nature’s way on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.