Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Motley Chanteuses and Nanokames

Spring is stuttering and stumbling in slowly, like a drunk after last call having some trouble getting the key in the front door.  I've been there myself, but I always managed to get through the door, and so will spring.

The return of migratory bird species is among the first signs of the impending warm-up.  I was greeted by my first rather frozen looking robin of the season a few days before St. Patrick's Day this year.  The earliest ones always look a little indignant to me when the weather turns back to snow and cold -- as do the rest of us, I guess.

I look forward most to the brightly adorned, wee warblers that will soon make their way through.  These are some of the most musically gifted songbirds we get around here, crooners every one.  They flit and sing from understory to canopy and most everywhere in between, bright little harbingers of spring.  For years I've intended to finally learn how to identify them each by their individual song, but here we sit on the cusp of yet another migratory warbler concert, and I remain wholly unable to distinguish between Yellow-throated, Chestnut-sided, and Blackburnian solely by their teeny chirps and whistles.  Not to mention the near-countless others.  Somehow I'm fully capable of digesting four straight hours of Game of Thrones in preparation for the upcoming season, but I can't get around to learning warbler songs.  That pretty much exemplifies how priorities can sometimes run askew.

The Sandhill Cranes have returned as well, though they've remained hidden from view, betrayed only by their prehistoric clattering calls as they traverse the sky.  Grackles and geese too, the vernal parade begins anew.

Even the birds who never parted for warmer climes are more active now.  There are a couple of male cardinals, for instance, who now pose and posture in front of the single, demure female resident seemingly all day long.  I believe the trio consists of a mated pair and an interloper.  When the uninvited suitor arrives on the scene, the mated male will crouch forward on his branch and spread his wings low and wide to ward off the hopeful bachelor, looking for all the world like he's bowing in some imperial court.  He chases the intruder off time and again, but the unwed male is relentless in his attempts to woo the female away.  Like bar time again.

Nuthatches creep and hop improbably upside down on hardwood trunks.  For such a small bird they certainly do carry on with those surprisingly strident yank yanks!  Last year a pair nested right outside the dining room window in a natural cavity, where I witnessed for the first time their so-called "sweeping" behavior.  According to my extensive research (I clicked on two Google results), Nuthatches will find a particularly stinky bug or other wisp of debris, hold it in their bill, and "sweep" their doorstep with it in order to mask their own scent from predators like squirrels and raccoons.  I knew nothing of any of that until I watched it happen one evening last year, stuffing a Reuben into my gob.

Trickle inspection can be even more gratifying with a partner
I'm a longtime proponent of trickle gazing, and there have been plenty of opportunities for that in recent days.  After the third coldest winter in local history, the snow pack is finally giving in to sun, and everything is a glorious, gooey mess on the ground.  The standard gravel driveway glaciation has retreated in the form of perfectly delightful rills and tiny streams at all sides.

And while I playfully choose to employ the term "glaciation" to denote that the driveway was covered with receding sheets of ice, it's not without a purpose here.  As I was enjoying the last of the ice retreat and cogitating on all things kettle and moraine one warm evening, I noticed a natural phenomenon, writ infinitesimal, coming to fruition directly from the pages of my Earth Science textbooks of yore.  I'd venture it's exceedingly rare to happen upon a demonstration of fluvial glacial geoformation happening right before your eyes, but that is precisely what took place, albeit it on a minuscule scale.

Dundee Mountain, a moulin kame, from afar
Dundee Mountain, though perhaps a bit enthusiastically monikered, rests comfortably nestled in the Northern Kettle Moraine State Forest not far from here.  More of a conical hill than a mountain, it's nothing more than a pile of glacial till.  A kame, by name and definition.

A kame is a type of hill left behind by a glacier, put plainly.  Sometimes they are irregularly shaped, but to my mind, the most iconic among them are the blatantly conical examples.  Sand and gravel are deposited by a meltwater river in a depression on the top of a retreating glacier.  With further regression of the glacier those materials are deposited in a pile on the ground surface.  Boom.  Kame.

In the case of our vastly smaller example, the depressions atop the driveway "glacier" in question were formed by dark spots under the ice (last year's plantain and lambsquaters, specifically) causing it to melt faster in those areas.

Snow melt runs across and down the driveway in this area, and often forms a surface better suited to hockey than driving, but that's the way it's gonna be until somebody regrades that entire section of driveway and yard.  When the melt happens with enough vigor, the runoff carries with it some of the sand and gravel hurled up into the adjacent snowbanks by the plow.

And when the ice is finally all gone we're left with little piles of sand and gravel, formerly retained in their weedy depressions, deposited onto the surface of the driveway.  When the vegetation that caused the depressions and holes in the first place rots away, we will be left with what, in fact, will be teensy-weensy little kames.  Nano-kames perched atop the very Kettle Range that was formed in antiquity by a glacier which shares a name with our state.  That's some heady Hakuna matata, circle of life shit if you think about it too much.  Especially while standing in the driveway drinking a beer on a gorgeous late winter evening.

I've dubbed this miniature glacial formation The Bucket-head NanoKame Field after the bucket-head dog who kept stepping on them while I was trying to take the picture.  They probably won't last through the April storms, but as long as they do remain I'll be reminded of the immensity and tiny detail of the natural world every time I walk by.

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