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.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Short Loins: "The Crick"

The crick is high out back.  That's how one properly pronounces the word "creek" around here, by the way.  If an otherwise upstanding and well-adjusted looking person pronounces it to rhyme with "sleek," beware.  They might be from Minnesota... or worse.  Yikes.

We've recently enjoyed a tantalizing respite from lingering winter gloom -- it even got above freezing a couple times.  The melt started.  The creek swelled and went muddy.  It's high and robust still, with that cold steel cast a stream will sometimes take from a distance when it's newly invigorated and ripping through.  Not yet out if it's banks, the big runoff was cut short by a dip back down below the freezing mark, and it crested well below flooding.  Last year it topped its banks and filled a couple acres of low forest almost overnight, but it appears we'll avoid that this year.  Unless, of course, April becomes a month-long deluge as it sometimes does.  We're back to grey sub-freezing temps and gentle flurries for the moment.  All the mud is refrozen, winter refusing to let go for just a bit longer.

It's just a small farm country creek back there, fed by one spring at the head and a couple feeder trickles between here and there.  Down here in the lower wooded stretches it's warm and meandering before it goes through town and dumps into the big lake.  It's wide enough in a couple outside bends that wood duck pairs and singles will sometimes spend the night in fall.  I can hear their sharp, raspy zeep zeep whistles at dusk, and occasionally catch a bit of that brilliant drake plumage in the binoculars when the leaves start to fall.  There are no trout -- no game fish at all barring the occasional wayward spring walleye who made a bad turn somewhere in his spawning run.

When the water returns to summer levels you can cross in the riffles without getting your calves wet.  You can also go down there and catch creek chubs till you tire of it on, well... basically anything small enough.  The males turn rosy orange and get little bumps on their heads while spawning.  When you're twelve you call those bumps "horns," and giggle.  Then they're horny fish, and that's resoundingly hilarious because it's true.

The one time the creek is absolutely full of writhing life is during the the spring sucker run.  They pack in the riffles and runs, splashing up nearly out of the water when you approach the bank too loudly.  One could mosey down there with a net, and fill buckets with suckers sometime around the start of May.  I haven't done that yet, and I probably won't any time soon.  Firstly, I'd have to check the regs to see if it's still legal to dip suckers.  Nextly, I'd have to want to eat smoked suckers.

A long time ago, when we were much more malleable, Roadkill and I rafted this very water (though in a section farther upstream) during the spring runoff.  "Rafted" is a generous term, in this instance.  The raft was a flimsy purple and yellow toy, hastily purchased months before from a beachfront shop in Tampa Bay through the generosity of my father.

We were both broke college kids, which led to one of the exchanges with Dad that I hold fondly nearest my heart to this day.

Standing on the beach in Tampa, "Dad... um, I need some more cash."

"What for?"

"A prank.  Something kinda... mildly not legal."

Eyeing Road and I with equal parts suspicion and amusement, "Will a hundred cover it?"

The remainder of that story will have to remain a mystery unless you get me drunk around a campfire someday, but I will say that it involved covering the gaudy raft in black garbage bags and duct tape to remain unnoticed under the cover of darkness, a nighttime aquatic assault on municipal infrastructure, and narrowly avoiding the sweep of a bow-mounted search light while paddling like hell just like in a prison break movie.

So we were feeling pretty invincible the day we decided to run this creek in the midst of a full spring tempest in that raft, little more than a beach toy.  Road spent his youth in a small town, kicking at the dirt and playing in the mud just as I had, but he'd not spent nearly as much time in canoes, kayaks and rafts as I.

Naturally, that meant he took the bow of the raft, and I manned the stern.  I would've suggested this set-up in any case as the more experience paddler generally takes the back seat to do the steering around strainers and not drowning everyone part, but I don't mean to imply that I didn't have a good idea what was going to happen.  Or that I "forgot" to mention it to Road before we got started.

We put in up near the county road, and were almost immediately swept away in the high water.  There were standing waves and holes and pillows just like the Ocoee and Nolichucky runs of my youth, and we had a time of it keeping our nearly shapeless raft out of trouble with plastic toy paddles, but seldom have I had more fun.

The highlight of the run featured Road's world-class cussing talent, repeatedly rendered in the highest volumes humanly possible every time we bashed against a midstream rock.  There was little protection for him, kneeling in the front of our tiny craft never intended for this sort of use -- a few mils of vinyl between the repeated high speed collisions of patella with Ordovician dolomite.  His howling epithets were drowned out only by my laughter, and that raft was sinking fast by our journey's end.

We soon exited river right, fully drenched and shivering, but we were young and laughing and alive.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Short Loins: Red Squirrels Can't Walk

It's true.

Or maybe it isn't, but it seems like it.  Even at their most languid pace (if there exists such a thing in the red squirrel world) they don't walk very often.  They bound.  Grey squirrels will walk, especially under the bird feeders where they have little reason to move more than a foot at a time, but their diminutive crimson cousins almost always leap from start to finish, the length of their leaps being the only variance used to regulate their speed, which is most often frantic.

I know this because since moving to the country I've become an expert squirrel watcher.  You heard me.  If squirrel watching were an Olympic event, I would've been on the podium in Sochi.  There were squirrels when I lived in the city, of course, but not in these numbers.  Or at least not able to be viewed as a single scurry in these numbers. (Yes, I just Googled the proper collective noun for a group of squirrels)  I now live where there are a baker's dozen mature shagbark hickories in the yard, more in the woods, and the squirrels are surprisingly numerous.

And there remain hundreds of unfallen nuts on the trees yet
 2012 was an off year for hickory nuts here, probably due to the spring drought which hit particularly hard in this part of the state.  There were a few laying about, but almost not enough to bother with.  Last fall, however, we had a bumper crop.  Falling hickory nuts pinged of the steel roof of the pole barn with enough frequency and volume to keep me awake at night, like an especially percussive drippy faucet.  Driving down the driveway sounded like popping bubble wrap.  I picked up forty gallons of nuts, and failed to make a dent in the overall crop.

These nuts have been featured on the plate so often and in so many ways this winter, that frankly, I'm running out of ideas short of the classic brownies.  I recently chopped some up in the food processor with a handful of kale, and sauteed that up with caramelized sweet onion and apple.  I still don't know what you'd call that concoction, but it was downright fantastic on a pork chop.  Whatever the cheffy name be.

And the squirrels came from everywhere.  On a warm day this fall and winter, precious few as they were, it was not uncommon to see more than a dozen squirrels out there harvesting -- one or more for every tree, cumulatively.  Where the plow had pushed snow partially across the yard under the hickory trees nearest the house, in preparation for yet another potential blizzard, a perfect sheet of ice formed over the dormant grass.  I especially enjoyed watching the squirrels dig and pry there, slipping and flopping over as they worked.  When one of them did gain a single edge on a nut frozen to the ground, they'd poke and pry, chew and fight, sometimes even chattering in frustration, until they got the nut free.  That perfect rink of ice was soon pocked full of squirrel diggings so that it resembled a miniature minefield.

I'm comforted by that.  Let them grow Carya-fat and content that they will fill my stew pot from the neighboring woods all the more, come fall.

Surely at this juncture you've noticed that we're trying something a bit different with the above.  No sweeping panoramas of the hunting and fishing world, no waxing pansophic on the wonders of the natural universe and pike slime.  The muse has been away for quite some time now -- I heard she's vacationing in Aruba.

That's all well and good for her, but in her absence and in order to try to establish some more consistent posting around here, I'm going to be trying out a bi-weekly (ish?) format of shorter posts concerning the changing flora and fauna around here as spring comes alive.  I shall endeavor to come up with an appropriately snazzy and droll title for these mini posts as a group, like "Weekly Wildlife Journal" or "The Nature Report" or "Shit I Saw in the Yard While Waiting for the Dog to Pee" so that you may differentiate them from my regular, more sporadic stories when you see them linked on Twitfacetube, or however you usually find yourself here.

Fear not, gentle reader.  My normal, over-palaverous and wandering ramblings will still be featured here, as often as they come to me.  As soon as she gets back from Aruba.  Better bring me a t-shirt too.

Thank you for guinea pigging with me, voluntarily or not.  

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