Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The First Signs of Spring

Despite a prolonged power struggle, it seems that spring is finally beginning to win out over winter here in Michigan. Vernal pools are thawing, frogs are calling, and some snakes are beginning to emerge to soak up their first sun rays of the season. This past weekend I was able to get out and search for some early spring herps and wasn't disappointed. On Friday night, I went out to search some vernal pools in southeast Michigan. I elected not to drive up to Macomb County to join Jason Folt and Chris Boguslawski due to lack of ideal conditions, plus because I was feeling a little lazy. They had fairly similar success, which you can read about on Jason's blog. I arrived to a mostly thawed pool which has produced tigers in the past, and quickly noticed my target swimming about near the edge and was able to apprehend it for a few photos.

Eastern Tiger Salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum), Washtenaw County, MI
A handsome male, which was less than cooperative for photos (I had almost forgotten how little these guys like to sit still). I released him back to the pool and moved on. Light rain was falling and temps were in the high 30s, marginal conditions for salamander movement at best. But as I was driving through some rural land, I noticed a riggling shape in the road, it turned out to be my second tiger of the night.

Eastern Tiger Salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum), Jackson County, MI

Shortly after photographing the second tiger, the precipitation turned from rain to sleet, and then to snow. This brought a cold night of salamandering to an end, but I was decently happened with getting a few tigers. Temperatures for Saturday and Sunday were supposed to rise to the mid 50s, so Chris and I decided to spot hop on Sunday to look for snakes. We began at a spot that I had seen a fairly interesting snake on Saturday. We saw a few garter snakes, but struck out on our target, so we moved on and headed out to some state land in hopes of seeing a blue racer. We flipped some boards and walked some nice habitat, but only turned up a few more garters and a nice little brown snake, much to Chris's joy. We ended up returning to our first location and gave it a last second try. We looked carefully in shrubby swamp and eventually I spotted the telltale pattern of our target serpent.

Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake (Sistrurus catenatus catenatus), Southeast Michigan
I've always associated the onset of spring with the emergence of this species here in southeast Michigan. Though warm, sunny days in the 60s and 70s are considered to be ideal conditions for this species to emerge, I've found them in much colder temps early and late in the season. The rising water table due to snow melt and thawing seems to be the catalyst which gets these guys up in the spring because of their utilization of crayfish burrows as hibernacula. It was nice way to finish up the first weekend this year which actually felt like spring. Things should really get moving here in the next week or two, both on the herp and bird front. Until next time, happy spring!

Saturday, March 22, 2014

March Mixed Bag

The month of March is always intriguing here in Michigan. There's always bursts of spring weather followed by returning cold and snow. Freeze, thaw. Rinse and repeat. Following a winter of record snowfall and record breaking cold, its going to take time for the winter weather to finally loosen its grip. Most of the snow on the ground melted two weeks ago following a strike of fifty degree days, but was then followed by a winter storm which dropped 7-10 inches of heavy wet snow across much of the state. The remaining snow and cold has kept a lot of arctic bird species here longer than expected.

Long-tailed Duck (Clangula hyemalis), Washtenaw County, MI
Snowy Owls (Bubo scandiacus), Isabella & Midland Counties, MI
Though the winter weather continues to linger, there have been some glimmers of hope that warmth will soon be on its way. Chris Boguslawski and I decided to try and get out on the evening of March 21st in hopes of seeing some early bird salamanders in the mid 30 degree rain. We arrived to snow covered woods and mostly frozen vernal pools and felt a little discouraged. But as we were moving around the edge of the pool, my headlamp caught this blue-spotted thing in the leaf litter near a mammal burrow. It was a pleasant surprise and the only salamander we saw the entire night.

Unisexual Hybrid Salamander (Ambystoma ssp.), Washtenaw County, MI
It's an encouraging sign that spring is on its way, even though it will probably be a week or two until the salamanders begin to emerge at full strength. It also means that the arctic birds will soon be on their way back to the tundra. Sad to see the snowies go, but glad to see the sallies emerge.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Lifer Red-necked Grebe

I've recently began to compile a life list for birds, much like I have one for herps. Today I got a a lifer Red-necked Grebe. This bird breeds in the Arctic and winters along the coasts of the lower 48. Occasionally they show up during migration in Michigan. Pretty cool little bird!

Red-necked Grebe (Podiceps grisegena), Dixboro Dam, Washtenaw County, MI

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Wall Worthy

Despite single digit temperatures and gusting winds of 35-40 mph, I got out for about an hour on Wednesday afternoon. There was so much blowing snow that I almost didn't see this snowy owl sitting right off the edge of the road. I pulled off and managed to get this photo just as the owl took off. By far my favorite photo from this winter, this one may end up on a wall.

Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus), Coe Township, MI

Owling with Dad

Though my dad and I had gotten out owling once or twice over the holidays, we had only seen the birds from several hundred yards away. He had mentioned me that he would like to get out and get some closer shots of them, especially because he had just picked up his new toy, a Canon 300mm f/4 IS telephoto lens. So we decided to give it a shot this past weekend and roll north to the wind turbine region of mid-Michigan. On our way northward we swung through Maple River SGA to see if any snowies were still hanging around. I had seen one previously on February 3rd sleeping atop a barn in the early morning. We managed to see a few Northern Harriers, a Northern Shrike, some Snow Buntings, and hoards of Horned Larks. We continued to press north in Gratiot County and eventually hit some back roads in the vast expanse of wind turbines. We made a pass down a road where I had seen two snowies a few weeks earlier and came up empty, but as we turned around and headed back out the way we came in, I noticed a white blob sitting atop a telephone pole. Sure enough, it was a snowy.

Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) N Blair Road, Gratiot County, MI
This sleepy owl simply turned his head and gave us a squinting look. We shot a few quick photos of him and then moved on. We drove a little further north into Isabella County to an area where I had previously seen good numbers of owls. Around 4:30 PM, we turned down a road and noticed an owl sitting atop a bare pole. We got out of the car and fired away, getting much better photos of this owl than the one we had seen earlier.

Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus), Summerton Road, Rosebush, MI
The owl didn't seem to mind us at all until something distance caught its attention and it flew off into the adjacent agricultural field. We drove a little further east and saw one last owl just before sunset from about 200 yards away in an open field and called it a day. My dad was thrilled with the photos he got of the owl, and the trip was considered a success. It was a great way to spend a Saturday, and I hope we can do more photography stuff like this in the future.