A Kensington Metropark Adventure

Until last week more than a year had gone by since my last hiking adventure at 4,481-acre Kensington Metropark. Kensington is one of 13 Metroparks in Livingston, Macomb, Washtenaw, Wayne and Oakland counties managed by Huron-Clinton Metroparks, our regional park agency. Those parks cover almost 25,000 acres of land and according to the Metroparks website, they serve over 7.3 million visitors a year. As for the name Huron-Clinton, that’s because our Metroparks are along the Huron and Clinton Rivers.

Last week, I went to Kensington twice, and I’m very glad I did. I spent a few hours meandering the trails, including looping around Kent Lake three times in two days. I walked around the lake once by myself, once with a few members of a hiking group and one final loop accompanied by a pair of sandhill cranes that tagged along for a few hundred yards without a doubt hoping for a handout. At one point the cranes took the lead in hiking. It was almost their way of saying, “Follow us!”   

Although it was enjoyable talking with the hiking group members, they seemed more interested in just hiking, and I was far more interested in pursuing my incurable addiction of nature-embracing — walking slowly, stopping often, and looking and listening to whatever nature’s way has to say.

If you visit Kensington, remember feeding sandhill cranes is not allowed even if they follow you almost “begging” for a handout. However, you may hand-feed songbirds, and I too indulged in that passion. I’ve noticed during my visits to Kensington in all seasons of the year that Black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice and white-breasted nuthatches are the most common species that will land on an outstretched hand that’s holding seeds. Sometimes it takes a bit of patience, but if you walk slowly and hold your arm straight out with seeds in your upturned palm, they will find you. Give it a try!

The birds near the nature center, and along much of the trail that starts near the nature center, are very much acclimated to a near-constant human presence. I will go as far as to say they expect to see humans with palms upholding seeds. It’s really fun to watch young children feeding birds for the first time and to see the joy and excitement they express when a bird lands in their hand and they can feel its tiny feet and toes. I love that feeling as well. Here’s a video of a male downy woodpecker that landed on my hand for a treat, followed instantly by a tufted titmouse.

If you stay fairly still at a likely spot, and that’s most anywhere near the nature center, songbirds will find you quickly. It may take a few minutes if you are the only person there, but the feeling when one lands on the edge of your palm for the first time is amazing. For almost all the birds that partake in a hand-out feast, it’s a touch-and-go landing. That means grabbing a seed in a lightning-fast fashion and then flying to a nearby shrub for casual dining.    

I noticed downy woodpeckers seemed to loiter longer than other species, and I have no idea why. If you decide to indulge in this memorable and fun method of feeding birds, keep in mind that sunflower seeds and shelled peanuts are the favored foods of the birds of Kensington. Have your camera, or your companion’s camera ready. The birds swoop in quickly and then fly off to nearby shrubs or overhead tree limbs to enjoy their feast.  

During my hike, I passed by a mom with two young children on their first visit to Kensington. I try not to eavesdrop on people, but one of the kids was loudly saying, “I wish we had birdseed too. I want to feed them.” I gave them one of my Ziplock bags with seeds, and they were beyond happy. Moments afterward, I paused in my birding adventure to capture an image of a gentleman photographing a chickadee in his hand. I hope this image inspires you to try the same! It’s easy, and people of all ages take pleasure in the endeavor. Just stay very still and wait, but you must do it in a habitat where you find chickadees; and luckily for you, that’s almost everywhere along the trail that starts at the nature center.

With migration in full swing, waterfowl are abundant this time of the year with ducks of many species on the lake, some I could identify, some I could not. I encountered several active birders with telescopes and cameras with very large telephoto lenses who were very happy with their sightings and adding to their “life lists” of bird species they had seen. Next time I will bring my binoculars. I watched Trumpeter Swans coming in for a landing and had a moment of drama as well when a Bald Eagle flew low over the lake sending ducks of numerous species scattering. Most of the duck species I could not identify, but I was excited to watch the abundance of waterfowll species that use Kent Lake as a rest and refueling stop during migration.

I was thrilled to watch a male Wood Duck still sporting its eye-catching plumage paddling along the shoreline. It ignored my presence as I stood motionless on a boardwalk that is part of the trail, which is a site that photographers favor because you can shoot down toward the birds. After my birds in the hand adventure concluded and I finished hiking the entire shoreline of Kent Lake, I headed to a hilly lesser- traveled section of the park near the lake.  

I intentionally wandered away from the few other hikers I saw and began exploring the wooded glacially sculpted hills along a narrow primitive trail. I made a mental note to return in spring to search for woodland wildflowers along that trail.

When hiking, I rarely look straight ahead, but find myself always scanning the sides of the trails to see what I might find. On this trek, I noticed slight movement barely 50 feet away and was suddenly looking at a handsome 10-point buck that was staring back at me. I kept talking softly to him and slowly raised my camera. The buck just watched me and seemingly posed for photos wrapping up a very good day indeed on the wilder side of Oakland County.

Jonathan Schechter is the nature education writer for Oakland County Government and blogs about nature’s way on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.

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