Last Friday, I drove 31 miles southwest of Alma to hike on a few of the Kenneth J. Lehman Nature Trails on the campus of Montcalm Community College. The early morning weather was mostly sunny with a temperature of 54 degrees and a steady easterly breeze. Leaving the car parked at a cul-de-sac on the north end of the campus, I followed the grassy, Tree Swallow Loop trail north through a meadow area that was being overrun with invasive Autumn Olive shrubs. Continuing north, I came to the edge of South Twin Lake where I was greeted by a noisy pair of Canada Geese while spotting a clump of Bottlebrush Sedge. Turning west on the Wood Duck Trail, I noticed several patches of Cinnamon Fern fiddleheads. While fiddleheads of some species are edible including Bracken, Lady and Ostrich Ferns, this one is not. Continuing west while being serenaded by a Common Yellowthroat, I came upon some large and colorful Pheasant Back Mushrooms. While edible this time of year, they are not high on the mushroom hunter’s list. Further ahead, I spotted my first May Apple blossom of the season as well as a patch of Woodland Violets. Turning North, I picked up the White Pine Trail where I came upon the fresh carcass of a Red-bellied Woodpecker. Observing its colorful plumage, reminded me why many people mistakenly identify this bird as a Red-Headed Woodpecker. With no evidence of predation, the cause of this bird’s death was not apparent. Turning around, I retraced my steps eastward and picked up the Tree Swallow Loop again where I was able to see a perching, Ebony Jewel-wing damselfly. Nearby, I stooped to observe workers of an ant colony scurrying among the leaf litter. Continuing on the trail as it turned south, I noticed a Shagbark Hickory tree with new leaves emerging while still displaying some female flowers. As the trail looped back to the west, I paused to listen to the melodic song of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, a fitting finale to the hike. Finally, I made it back to the car and headed home.
Last Sunday, I traveled 19 miles northwest of Alma to hike once again in the 13-acre, Sponseller Preserve, another property owned by the Chippewa Watershed Conservancy. The early morning weather was sunny with a temperature of 48 degrees and no wind. Leaving the car parked along side of E. Deerfield Rd., I proceeded south across a rustic bridge over a narrow stream called Johnson Creek. After snaking through the preserve, this scenic waterway flows due north about 2 miles before it empties into the Chippewa River at Meridian Park. Following a muddy game trail, I spotted some colorful wildflowers in bloom including: Marsh Marigold, Beardtongue and Trillium. In several places, the ground was blanketed with dainty Forget-me-nots. According to German folklore, the name of this flower is based on a tale of two lovers walking along the Danube River seeing the bright blue blossoms. The man retrieved the flowers for the woman, but was swept away by the river as he pleaded with her not to forget him. Whether the story is true or not, it’s certainly made the flower a lasting symbol of remembrance. Nearby, I paused to observe the gentle flow of the creek and listen to a Chipping Sparrow, a Cardinal as well as a noisy Mallard flying overhead. Continuing south, I noticed a patch of May apple as well as a small grove of the apple trees beginning to bud out. As the path turned east into an old cedar swamp, I spotted some Horsetail along with lots of Lady Ferns with their unusual red stems. Just ahead, I paused to hear a singing Red-eyed Vireo perched somewhere up in the partially open canopy. Eventually, I turned around, retraced my steps back toward the car where I paused to watch the morning sun bounce off the gently flowing creek. Also, I observed lots of Skunk Cabbage as well as a patch of blossoming Periwinkle. Finally, I made it back to the car and headed home.
Last Wednesday, I traveled 22 miles southeast of Alma to the village of Maple Rapids to hike in part of Clinton County’s Maple River State Game Area. The early morning weather was partly sunny with a temperature of 68 degrees and a gentle westerly wind. Leaving my car parked at the dead end of W. Maple Rapids Rd., I followed a dirt road back to the southeast where I noticed a patch of blossoming Wood Anemones just off the trail. On the other side of the trail, I spotted a few Purple Cress blossoms. Continuing southeast, I came to the edge of the placid Maple River and paused as the slow moving current flowed east to west. The muddy shore displayed deer and fox tracks as well as Crayfish chimneys. Hopping through the brush nearby was a White-crowned Sparrow. Just ahead, I veered south off the trail into an open field where I paused by a vernal pond to hear the chorus frogs sing their mating song while a male Redwing Blackbird perched on an old stump. Gazing toward the woods, I could see the Honey Suckle beginning to leaf out in the understory while on the ground nearby, dandelions were beginning to flower. Back on the road, I was amazed by the number of large Ash trees that were dead or dying from the Emerald Ash Borer. After approaching one of these trees and removing some of the bark, I could see the serpentine galleries made by EAB larvae including some packed with dried frass (excrement). With so many trees dying and falling, this wooded area will look quite different five years from now. Far ahead, I watched a family of deer cross the road. Turning around, I retraced my steps back to the car and beyond into another wooded area where I paused to hear a serenading Tufted Titmouse. On the ground, I spotted several acorn caps from Bur Oak trees with their distinctive burs, a well as a few Woodland Violets beginning to display their blossoms and raccoon scat. Also, hanging out over the river, I noticed a maple tree sprouting new leaves. Finally, I returned to the car and headed home.
Last Saturday, I joined a small group of Chippewa Watershed Conservancy members to hike in the 78-acre, Sylvan Solace, another one of their preserves. The early morning weather was clear with a temperature of 43 degrees and a brisk wind from the northwest. From the parking area off W. Pickard Rd., we headed due south through a coniferous corridor of White, Jack and Scotch Pines as well as Blue and Norway Spruce. Along the way, I spotted a Chipping Sparrow perched high in one of the trees, singing loudly. Also, we came upon a large colony of Allegany Mound Ants that were just beginning to warm up and move around. Arriving at a clearing, I paused to look at and listen to a Rose-breasted Grosbeak perched high overhead. Turning west, I followed my shadow past stands of mature Big-tooth Aspen trees on our left. We continued on the trail as it turned south into a mature forest of hardwoods where the leaf litter showed mostly oaks as well as pile of feathers from a recent predator-prey incident. Just off the trail, we came upon a White Birch snag covered with a shelf fungus called Tinder Conk. As the name implies, they can be removed and used for catching sparks and creating smoldering coals. Continuing west, we came to a high bank overlooking the Chippewa River and spotted a Painted Turtle basking on a log as well as a breeding pair of Mallards swimming near the far shore. Climbing down the bank past some Pin Cushion Moss, we came to the river’s edge and paused to take in this peaceful riparian landscape. Nearby, we observed parts of a deer carcass. Back up the bank, we continued following the trail south and then east toward the rising sun where we paused to hear a distant Pileated Woodpecker. Nearby, we came upon one of many snags that had been recently shredded by one of these birds. Finally, we followed the trail as it turned back to the north and back to our cars.
Last Friday, I stayed close to home and hiked again in Alma’s 50-acre, Conservation Park. The midday weather was sunny with a temperature of 41 degrees and a gentle breeze out of the northwest. From the parking lot, I followed a paved path west where I could see the Pine River on my right while on my left, remaining snow-cover from last weeks snow/ice storm. On the riverbank, I could barely make out a Song Sparrow perched in a leafless Dogwood shrub (can you find it?). Overhead, I observed the exposed, sac-like nest of a Baltimore oriole left over from last year. Continuing west, I paused on one of the decks where I spotted a Double-crested Cormorant perched on a log far out in the river. The noticeable crests on the head are a sign that it’s a breeding adult. Further ahead, I saw a perching male Goldfinch with it muted spring plumage that will soon turn golden yellow. Next, I turned south on a dirt road and passed the pump house where I watched a Fox Squirrel searching for its buried cache as well as a pair of Canada Geese taking off from one of the vernal ponds. Turning east and following the paved road a short distance, I stopped at the Eyer Bird Observation Hut where I could see a Dark-eyed Junco on one of the feeders. Nearby, high in a leafless Walnut Tree, I observed a perching male Cardinal calling for a mate. After turning around and retracing my steps back to the west, I proceeded south to the Girl Scout Cabin where a major remodeling project is taking place. Just east of the cabin, I paused by another vernal pond to listen to a very loud amphibian chorus of Spring Peepers and Wood Frogs. Following the trail as it curved east, I got a good look at a perching Red Squirrel and paused again at yet another vernal pond to hear the squeals of a Wood Duck along with the calls of Chorus Frogs. Continuing east, I entered the shade of a coniferous forest where I approached a curious deer. Next, I followed the trail as it curved north past mature Red, White and Jack Pine as well as White and Norway spruce. Finally, the trailed ended back at my car.
Last Thursday, I traveled 16 miles southwest of Alma into Montcalm County to hike once again in the one-acre, Lake Steven Preserve, the smallest of the Chippewa Watershed Conservancy’s 22 preserves. The mid afternoon weather was sunny with a temperature of 64 degrees and a strong wind from the west. Leaving the car parked off Birch Dr., on the west side of 20-acre, Lake Steven, I crossed the road and paused to scan the entire preserve that was dominated by medium-size deciduous trees including several White Birch. With no path to follow, I entered the woods and began noticing signs of new plant life emerging from the leaf litter including: Sphagnum Moss, Liverwort and Wild Strawberry. Suddenly, one of two frantic-flying American Woodcock took off from the ground and headed west. Moving east, I came to open water and realized the property abuts up to a wide outlet channel of the lake, not the lake proper. Looking around, I spotted a Canada goose defending a nearby nest and a couple of painted turtles basking on a log. After turning north along the channel bank, I was drawn inland by a familiar sign of spring, a chorus of Spring Peepers. Often heard but seldom seen, these tiny frogs spend the winter burrowed under logs and leaves while surviving the freezing temperatures by producing an anti-freeze like substance in their tissues. In early spring they thaw out and migrate to vernal ponds where they breed and sing. After breeding they disperse again to surrounding woodlands and swampy areas leading solitary lives. Turning around, I retraced my steps south along the channel bank where I noticed some old Beaver stumps. Continuing south, I flushed out a Great Blue Heron and its white counterpart, a Great Egret. While the Heron will most likely remain in the area to breed, the Egret will migrate south or the east coast to breed. After passing a large White Oak tree that still retained its leaves, I returned to the car and headed home.
Last Friday, I stayed close to home and hiked once again at the 90-acre Forest Hill Nature. The early morning weather started out partly cloudy with a temperature of 32 degrees and a stiff northwesterly wind. Parking the car at the dead end of Adams road next to the Brady Cemetery, I followed the snow-covered trail west and then north to the top of Reflection Hill. After glancing down at Grebe Pond, I continued around the hilltop to observe a flooded Mallard Marsh where a pair of noisy geese caught my attention. Continuing around to the west, I descended the hill and followed my shadow along the trail where I both heard and spotted male Redwing Blackbirds as they began staking out their nesting territory. Nearby, I spotted the fuzzy male catkins on branches of a Pussy Willow tree as well as a single male Bufflehead swimming along the far end of Willow Wallow. This colorful waterfowl will be leaving soon for its summer breeding grounds in northern Canada or Alaska. Just ahead, I turned left and began to circle Succession Field where I was pleased to observe a few Field Sparrows fluttering through the leafless underbrush. Even though these birds are common residents during much of the year, once the underbrush leafs out, they are difficult to see. Turning west, I followed the path through Birch Row and then took a left into South Woods where I noticed some fresh squirrel tracks on my way to the edge of Swanson Swamp, pausing to take in this remote, scenic wetlands. Leaving South Woods, I made my way around to North Woods where a chorus of birds and gently falling snowflakes greeted me. Following the trail east, I paused to observe this peaceful vernal pond landscape. Just as I exited the woods and headed east, along came a snow squall. Picking up my pace, I managed to make out a few fading Pheasant tracks on the trail. Moving quickly past Mallard Marsh, I climbed up Energy Hill, passed the classroom building and paused briefly at the north shore of swollen Grebe Pond. While making my way south through Native Grassland, the sky began to clear and the sun broke through again. Finally, I returned to the car and headed home.
The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day.
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You're one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
a cloud come over the sunlit arch,
And wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you're two months back in the middle of March.