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09 October 2005
Birding on borrowed time

SH MarshB, Dylan and I headed for nearby Sleepy Hollow State Park late this afternoon to squeeze in a short birding trip. Well, perhaps I shouldn't describe it has having been squeezed in since we finished a significant portion of the return trip to the car in the dark. It wasn't exactly squeezed in, it ran over.

This state park is close by and we visit it frequently during the summer for brief warmwater fishing outings. We take our canoe or kayaks and fishing rods and can fit in a rewarding paddle or fishing trip at the end of a day of lawn mowing or gardening. The park includes a large, 400-acre, man-made lake that hosts good populations of largemouth bass, perch, pike, muskies and bluegill and also is a temporary stopping place for migratory bird life in the spring and fall. It's a great area for summer and winter resident birds too. Brochures for the 2500-acre park list more than 200 total species. This time, we left the fishing gear behind and chose to hike a short trail we've never been on before and were happy with our choice. The path was well-worn and wound through open grassy areas, dense hardwood and pine stands, dense stands of shrubs, and lowland marshy areas. The path also meandered up and down a topographical range not always encountered on central Michigan trails.

Wild grapesWe noticed a lot of bird activity right away after hitting the trail - lots of bird chatter and scurrying among the shrubs. The trail here is wide enough for two, but lined with dense woody shrubs, so finding and identifying the birds was a challenge. The low angle of the setting sun added to the difficulty. Dylan found the action exciting too, poking his head into the shrubbery occasionally. We quickly identified sparrow friends back from their northern summer homes - both the tan and white versions of the white-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) and a few white-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) too. We spotted quite a few birds that were too quick for us to get our binoculars on. In the more open areas, we saw small groups of Canada geese (Branta canadensis) and Wood ducks (Aix sponsa) flying overhead.

Pin cherries?Bird ID was hard enough that I focused instead on searching for berries and fruits that remained to feed the migratory and winter-resident populations. Nuthatch had a recent post on some of these in her neck of the woods; perhaps that's what caused me to think of it. I found lots of big, juicy wild grapes (Vitis riparia), the white berries of the Gray Dogwood (Cornus racemosa), and abundant red berries of the invasive Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata). There were lots of pine cones of various varieties, walnuts of some sort, apples and other crabappley fruits to feed the winter birds and mammals.

Oops, better hurry!Dylan and I snuck down a high ridge to the marshy edge of some open water and flushed an American woodcock (Scolopax minor) just a few feet in front of us. We got a good look at his colorul brown plumage and long bill as he flew off low and fast. We enjoyed their courtship rituals in the fields adjacent to our house earlier this spring. We also flushed a small White-tailed deer and a group of Wood ducks roosting on the ground a bit further up the trail. I'd hoped to spy on some migratory waterfowl on the water, but saw none.

We finished our hike rather quickly since we weren't sure of the distance back to the car. Having never hiked this path before, we misunderestimated the time we needed to complete the loop and ended up walking back along the road, in the chilly dark. Poor planning, but a good outing nonetheless.

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