Monday, January 16, 2012

Crossbills vs. Hemlock

With some unseasonably warm weather lingering (but predicted to end), I headed out on a January morning to Hartwick Pines State Park. This is a real gem in Michigan's park system. It would be amazing in any state! Harboring some of the Midwest's last virgin White Pines, Hartwick Pines straddles what I like to call the Grayling Line. There's an imaginary line that goes through east-to-west through the town of Grayling, Michigan that unofficially marks the southern boundary of the "North". South of this line, you will rarely find boreal species of birds - or anything for that matter. Look at range maps for plants, birds, insects, reptiles, etc. in the Great Lakes region and you'll see an astounding number of organisms that call the Grayling Line either the northern or southern extreme of their range.

Thus, I like to bird here. In the summer, some of the northern birds common in the far north will nest this far south. And in the winter, you can have an experience like I had this week.

I was strolling along, enjoying the smell of a grove of Eastern Hemlocks. (This is also the line where hemlocks start becoming scarce, although you can find them much farther south in Michigan, they are far less common. Luckily the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid hasn't gotten here...yet.)

While watching a Red-breasted Nuthatch bouncing on a log, I heard a flutter of many wings and some frenzied flight calls just before the hemlock above my head burst into movement. Every branch was swinging and hemlock cone refuse was raining on me. The tree I was standing under was suddenly being brutalized by a flock of White-winged Crossbills.

Crossbills are fascinating birds. Their bills are indeed crossed, so that it appears they have a deformity that would make feeding problematic if not impossible. It turns out that bill adaptation is ideal to give the bird leverage to pry open conifer cones to extract it's favorite food, seeds. I'd seen Red Crossbills (Loxia curvirostra) on Lopez Island in Washington, but all my looks at White-winged Crossbills (Loxia leucoptera) had been poor. A fleeting glimpse of a flock here and there. On this blessed morning, I got all I wanted and more.

You can see how it got the crossbill well as the white-winged part.

White-winged Crossbills strongly prefer hemlock and spruce trees for foraging. If you live up north, and there's a good cone crop on some local trees, stake it out and treat yourself to a crossbill feeding frenzy.

This one was reaching for a cone. I love the coloring of the breast.

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Love of Moss - Part 1

I took a stroll in the woods last week on a rainy day in December. I didn't expect to see many birds or bees. I certainly wasn't expecting any flowers, and it was midday, so I expected the beavers would all be sleeping. I'm happy to report that my expectations were met - I saw nothing. At least that's what I fear many people would say had they taken the same walk. I'm a bit atypical, so I ended up staying out far longer than I expected. I was moss-watching.

Moss is some of the easiest wildlife to observe. This patch didn't even try to get away from me.

I've always loved moss. Perhaps it's because its physiology is so primitive, being based on a design about half a billion years old. Maybe it's because its texture and colors are a study in greens beyond the works of any human artist. Or, most likely, it's because you can find a hundred dramatic examples of moss in a few acres of woods on a rainy December day in northern Michigan when not much else is going on.

This stump appears to be being consumed by moss.

A fallen log enshrouded with moss, as is its stump. How many times was this scene repeated  in just a few acres?


This moss (Hypnum sp. ?) is exploding out of a hole in the log.

Here's some lichens joining the moss. Probably Cladonia sp.

Cladonia macilenta. A lichen called "Lipstick Powderhorn" by some.

Cladonia macilenta again.

You'll notice I don't even attempt to identify the moss and lichens in many of these pictures, while in others I make only a guess. Does this mean I don't know what I'm talking about? Yes. Yes, it does. I'll talk a little about moss identification in the next installment. It's a horror story.

All photos here were taken by me near Big Bear Lake in Otsego County, Michigan.