Thursday, October 23, 2014

Blue Goose ~ Day 144

October 20, 2014 ~ Iowa City, IA to Stuart, IA

Coralville which was just west of Iowa City had a convenient Starbucks, so I stopped for a couple of hours before driving to Neal Smith NWR.

The mission of the [Neal Smith] Refuge is to actively protect, restore, reconstruct and manage the diverse native ecosystems of tallgrass prairie, oak savanna, and sedge meadow. These were the native habitats existing on the Refuge’s 5600 acres prior to Euro-American settlement. 
The staff works at these goals using the historical land practices of fire and grazing buffalo, along with replanting native grasses and flowers and removing invasive species. Neal Smith has an impressive Prairie Learning Center. As I drove into the parking lot, sparrows were feeding on the tall grasses along the edges. When they landed on a stem, it would bend over, but the birds hung on, swinging gently as they fed.
Neal Smith NWR - IA

It was nearly closing time, so I walked quickly through the exhibits and then drove refuge roads,  seeing elk but no buffalo. The sun was low, lighting the golden, brown and rust-colored grasses.

The great old Eastern Cottonwoods in the bottomlands had summer green or fall yellow leaves in nearly equal parts. All was peaceful on this late afternoon. The prairies were a lovely messy tangle of dozens of species, always full of light and subtle colors.
Elk on Neal Smith NWR - IA

I slept in a truck stop near Stuart, an I80 exit, behind one-half of a double-wide trailer whose driver had also stopped for the night. The other half was in another spot, along with the accompanying vehicles announcing "Extra Wide Load." The Interstate truck stops are busy but preferable to Walmart lots, partly because I can usually find a place that is not overly lit up. Sometimes I can almost read without an LED light in the Walmart lots. And the people are travelers like me, going places, coming from places, just wanting a safe and free spot for the night.

Blue Goose ~ Day 143

October 19, 2014 ~ Sun Prairie, WI to Iowa City, IA

Since I was having trouble uploading photos to my laptop using a cable, I bought a card reader in Walmart so I could upload that way if necessary but then also found a Best Buy in Madison where I spent 90 minutes with the Geek Squad guy and the camera guy, neither of whom could figure out why my cable / camera wasn't working. The camera was still under warranty and the best they could offer was to send it back to Canon. It would be gone for 2-4 weeks which was not acceptable. I did discover that the memory card didn't need a reader and plugs right into the Mac...which I did, and the photos downloaded perfectly. Such is the elegance of Apple computers.

As I was leaving Best Buy, a dad with two small kids (about 4 and 5 years old) were coming in, and I heard him say: "Please, please gentlemen, do not touch anything."

I then returned the card reader to Walmart and was on my way, driving in sunshine through Iowa most of the afternoon, up and down a scenic landscape of long open hills. I have always like this state. It seems benign, prosperous and self-contained. Many of the fields had dried corn stalks and huge farm machines moved slowly in the fields. The distant farmhouses on the hills were generous and tidy with large hardwoods or evergreens in the yards. For awhile at least, I was leaving the busy roads behind. The horrible smell of CAFOs did occasionally disturb this bucolic drive, but only for a minute or two.

Using Priceline, I reserved what I thought was a good deal in downtown Iowa City, but I had to pay to park and had a light supper that was truly awful. The soup I ordered was shrimp and white bean. The broth was water-based with cayenne to spice it up. The shrimp were the little canned circular ones that look like grubs; the white beans looked like large chickpeas. There was probably a stray diced veggie in this mix which mostly settled in the bottom. The Caesar salad nearly overflowed the large deep cereal-type bowl in which it was served and consisted of big chunks of iceberg lettuce, large croutons and some shaved strips of hard cheese. It was impossible to cut the lettuce without stuff spilling out on the table. But the wine was delicious. When asked the next day "How was your stay?" I mentioned the horrible food and was offered a free breakfast which I declined as I was checking out.  (This is so whiny and trivial, I know....)

But the bed was heavenly...

(I had emailed a college roommate who lives here but never heard back from her.  I know she isn't an avid social media participant or perhaps she was out of town. I drove by her house the next morning on my way out of town. It was lovely (as I figured it would be) with political signs in the front yard, a stained glass piece in the front door and many bird feeders in an established neighborhood defined on three sides by a large bend in the Iowa River. )

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Blue Goose ~ Day 142

October 18, 2014 ~ Beaver Dam, WI to Sun Prairie, WI

There was supposed to be a Bird Hike at 10:00 at Horicon but no one showed, so I drove the auto route again, photographing ducks and grebes. The sky was dramatic with alternating sun and clouds.
Pintail at Horicon NWR - WI

It was Ding Darling day at the Visitor Center and I stayed for a couple of hours, mostly to hear a Power Point presentation by Tim Eisele.

Jay Norwood Darling (he was born in Norwood, Michigan) was a cartoonist for the Des Moines Register by profession and was responsible for the Duck Stamp program which began in 1934. The monies generated by annual duck stamp sales fund much of wetland projects on the refuges and are required for duck hunting. The stamps currently cost $15. There is a contest each year to choose a painting for the stamp. Mr. Eisele had judged the contest one year, along with four others, who had to pick a winner from over 500 entries. The USFWS chooses five waterfowl species each year and the artists need to work with one of them.

Fortunately, the sale of stamps is not restricted to hunters. Anyone can purchase the stamp, which can be used as an annual "season pass" to national wildlife refuges charging entrance fees. Conservationists buy the stamp because they know that 98 cents of every dollar invested in the stamp permanently conserves wildlife habitat for future generations; a small investment will bring you and your family long-term returns. Philatelists purchase the stamp as a collectible—a $1 stamp purchased in 1934 may bring as much as $750 for a stamp in mint condition today.

There are also Junior Duck Stamp contests now in every state, and the current winners are exhibited on various refuges.

I tried to find a place to download my photos while I waited but had problems.

So, while I hadn't thought I would be interested in a presentation of "Gardening with Native Species," I sat in on the last half and wished I had heard the whole thing. The presenter, Mike Yanney, works at Johnson' s Nursery in Menominee Falls, Wisconsin and owns an JN Plant Selections, "offshoot" company. He was a lighthearted, knowledgable speaker, showing slides of native trees and bushes as he spoke, with delightful and curious facts about most of them. He obviously loves his work, reminding me of the presenter at Lostwood NWR last June who talked about mud puppies. For sure, the right person can make anything interesting. His slides weren't especially crisp or clear, and he spoke in an unassuming manner, but he had a way of communicating that grew on me as he talked about Chinkapin Oaks, Bur Oaks, Leatherwood trees....and many other species. Unfortunately, I missed the flower portion of his talk.

It was now sunny but chilly. I drove to Sun Prairie, WI, where I found a Starbucks and tried to figure out the problem with my photos not downloading (didn't) before I drove in the dark to a Walmart. I woke up at 0345 because I was cold (it was 30 degrees) and I had to pee. I figured this was the third nadir-night of the trip, but 3 of 142 isn't bad...only a 2% rate.

Wilson's Snipe at Horicon NWR - WI

Sun Prairie is a dozen miles NE of Madison with upscale neighborhoods and shopping malls in various stages of construction.

Blue Goose ~ Day 141

October 17, 2014 ~ Marquette, MI to Beaver Dam, WI

The weather had not cleared in the morning, and it continued to drizzle most of the day as I drove south from Marquette on Highway 35, a road never taken before. In only a dozen miles, I suddenly arrived at the open pit Empire iron ore mine which was HUGE. The Upper Peninsula has three iron ranges which have provided jobs for thousands and iron for all of us, but open pit mining is incredibly ugly:

Standing on the edge of Empire Mine is like looking into an amphitheater far too big for any performance.  It’s a mile wide and a mile across.  1200 feet deep.  

The concerns about heavy and toxic metal contamination (mercury and selenium at this site), the nearly irremediable disruption of the land, the high use of water and diesel (trucks can use 1000 gallons a day) and air quality accompany this type of mining. The Empire and the equally large and adjacent Tilden mines are owned by Cliffs Natural Resources, an interesting name, the "Natural" part apparently added later. Check out the images at:

 In 1844, government surveyors were exploring rugged, lake-filled terrain near Negaunee, Michigan, when they noticed their compasses swung erratically in certain areas. It did not take long to determine why: ancientPrecambrian rock layers in the area were laced with bands of iron ore. The surveyors had discovered the Marquette Iron Range (called the Negaunee Iron Formation by geologists), and the area would eventually become one of the most productive sources of iron in the United States.
Within a few years, several companies were competing to mine, ship, and process the magnetite and hematite ore in the area, which was so abundant and accessible that chunks could be pulled off the surface and shipped directly to steel mills with little or no processing. But by the 1950s, most of the easily accessible ore with high concentrations of iron was gone, and mining companies had to dig much deeper and develop new techniques to extract and concentrate iron from lower-grade ore. 
Today, mine operators in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula are generally after taconite, a low-grade ore that was once considered waste rock. To make it usable, mining companies blast it into small pieces with explosives, grind it into powder with powerful machinery, and then use magnets or flotation techniques to separate the iron minerals out from the surrounding rock. Iron-rich powder is then mixed with water and clay into a slurry that is shaped into pellets, heated, dried, and shipped to steel mills. The pulverized waste rock—known as tailings—is loaded into water-filled retention basins, where it eventually settles to the bottom and re-enters the rock cycle.

I find these mining issues fascinating when considering the lives of workers and their families, possible alternatives to this kind of mining, the products that use iron and corporations that own the mines. Of course there are not easy answers, and constant monitoring to ensure that the owners do whatever possible to mitigate the harmful effects is the often thankless job of environmentalists and conscientious politicians. Fair or not, I always think of this as a Republican / Democratic divide.

Empire and Tilden are one end of a natural landscape spectrum and the next several hours were the other end as I drove through thousands upon thousands of yellowing larches, the only deciduous conifer, with needles grow in small tufts on the branches. This species predominated but there were also spruce and cedar, maple and birch. Again, even on a gray and gloomy day, the trees gave me a sense of contentment.

Larches along Highway 35 in the UP - MI
Always checking out houses as I drive, there was an attractive one in the small town of Gwinn, appealing as it was on the main street with a lovely boulevard. But Gwinn is hundreds of miles from anyone I know....

The road eventually ran along the shore of Lake Michigan with modest homes and an occasional small park. It passed Arthur Bay which did not seem any different from the shores to the north or south in that there was no discernible "bay" that I could see. I like this area; it had little loud tourist distractions.
Lake Michigan north of Green Bay - MI

On down into Wisconsin and around Green Bay to Horicon Marsh, another refuge I was seeing for the second time. I drove the auto route in late afternoon...with sun and cloud combinations highlighting the beauty of an autumnal marsh. I think of these days as pre-Thanksgiving weather, very evocative...the transition between hot summer and cold winter.

I stayed in Beaver Dam in a motel with VERY unstable Internet. When I complained (I was trying to work), the girl at the desk acknowledged that, "They know about this; it's been a couple of days and they are working on it at the other end...." End of discussion....

Dinner was spaghetti in a nearby restaurant, a Garrison Keillor set piece on this Friday evening.

Horicon NWR - WI

Monday, October 20, 2014

Blue Goose ~ Day 140

October 16, 2014 ~ West Branch, MI to Marquette, MI

Goodbye to summer and warmth. I needed to rearrange things in my van so I don't freeze at night and instead of sleeping ON the sleeping bag, I now crawl into it and add blankets on top. Sort of OK...

West Branch seems to be a gateway for Up North, and a gift shop attached to a restaurant where I ate a pretty dismal breakfast (a huge plate of mostly fatty chunks of corned beef and a few fried onions and peppers under two pallid eggs) had a large selection of touristy tchotchkes, many with the theme of drunken women ("Boozie Floozie"), along with black bears, the Great Lakes, hunting, cabins....

I75 up to the bridge was stunning with color, even under cloudy skies. Yellows and oranges predominated, but there were occasional brilliant reds, lime greens and all the browns and chestnuts of the oaks. Certainly the vistas rivaled those anywhere in New England and with way less traffic.
Along I75 near the Big Mac Bridge - MI

Particularly lovely were the bright yellow leaves of the quaking aspens moving in the slightest breeze, a silent tingling, and Maria's favorite tree.

I crossed the bridge and headed west along Lake Michigan, which was very calm today, and drove the auto route at Seney NWR. I had been here in June, and knew how lovely it is, so did a fall reprise...driving very slowly through seven miles of marsh and color, under grey skies with a modest number of waterfowl moving about. It was like a new cover of Gray's Sporting Journal as I rounded every curve, revealing another marsh or pool. Yellow leaves were floating down even without much of a breeze. Somewhat surprisingly, there were more vehicles today than on my summer visit.
Seney NWR - MI

I continued north from Seney and then west to Marquette along the shore of Lake Superior and through the Hiawatha National Forest. There was intermittent drizzle all the way which didn't diminish the wild beauty of this part of Michigan.

I was actually taking a long route to Iowa through the Upper Peninsula, but I just could not start out again and navigate the heavy traffic near Chicago. I realize I am traffic-phobic.

I stopped at one of the only Starbucks in the UP (the only one?) and sat two feet from a couple of students who were studying viruses and whose vocabulary brought me back to my days in the lab. Of course, with Ebola constantly in the news, they were having immediate knowledge of the power of a virus.

Speaking of Ebola...I am just now beginning to hear questions about how long this virus can live outside of the human (like on a hard surface, for instance), or how EXACTLY is it transmitted (like must one have an open skin lesion or breathe in viral particles or what exactly?)  and it is true that a person is not able to transmit the virus if he/she has no symptoms? and how soon after a fever begins is an infected person contagious? I read that even the scientists really don't know enough (at this point) about Ebola. And there are the heart-rending stories and photos from western Africa that contrast with the real-time situation in the US (hysteria), which is probably making me dis-believe in politics and politicians more than any other issue - the fact that these men and women can use Ebola to further their chances of getting elected (re-elected). Supposedly intelligent folks....Republicans and Democrats. We are a nation of science naysayers.

I slept well cocooned in my car while the windows misted from the drizzle. But I have not mentally prepared for the fewer hours of  daylight. Like, what am I going to do when it gets dark at 5 pm and stays dark until 8 am?

Seney NWR - MI

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Blue Goose ~ Day 139

October 15, 2014 ~ Holland, MI to West Branch, MI

After several days of sleeping in comfortable beds, I (somewhat reluctantly) resumed my Blue Goose Adventure. I had coffee with Dave and then looked at a house near Kollen Park that I saw on Craig's List, but it was 100 years old (for one thing) and now was not the day to impulsively buy a home.

I finally got going early afternoon and drove across the state to Shiawassee NWR just south of Saginaw. It was a stunningly beautiful refuge...perhaps in part because of the time of year and time of day, but the variety of habitat certainly attracted birds. I saw American Widgeons and Gadwalls and Trumpeter Swans; a juvenile Common Gallinule; a dozen Pied-billed Grebes; an immature Bald Eagle and Red-tailed Hawk...more ducks, geese, egrets, gulls...a Great Blue Heron, blackbirds, sparrows. The weather was unsettled with heavy dark grey clouds and I moved through the refuge in intermittent light rain, but then the sky began to clear in the west. The sun lit the marsh in the east and a rainbow appeared.

Wood Duck pair at Shiawassee NWR - MI
The auto route was six miles, mostly on the levees and over a couple of spillways, with many opportunities for seeing and photographing birds. Four rivers (Tittabawassee, Shiawassee, Cass and Flint) meet in this area, historically known as The Flats, so there is a lot of water, and thus, an abundance of waterfowl habitat. I love these refuges which are relatively close to big cities and which are havens for wildlife and those humans who need a respite from urban life. No telephone poles and no overhead wires; no billboards; no houses or barns; no pavement, and the occasional vehicle is either a USFWS truck or another birdwatcher / photographer.

Just watching the Common Gallinule poking along the edge of the cattails for several minutes, the swans flying low with their long white outstretched necks and the many grebes and widgeons made this a great stop as I get back into it all....especially since I haven't been on too many refuges thus far with many birds. The trees in the wet and flooded woods had brilliant fall foliage. Even the grasses and reeds were often golden.
Shiawassee NWR - MI

Maria always wanted to get to Shiawassee We actually had plans the spring she died, but she just was too sick and none of us this was a tribute trip also...dear Maria, who would have reveled in this beautiful place.

I figured I could get to West Branch by dark which I did (barely) and ate for $11 at a Ponderosa, which had a buffet with just about every kind of comfort food I've ever eaten. I had chicken noodle soup, meatloaf, cheesy potatoes, green beans, baked beans, carrot cake and a brownie. Too much food but fairly tasty. I wish I could have ignored the incredibly obese woman at the next table. I heard on the radio today that 66% of Michiganders are overweight and 33% are obese and that Michigan ranks #6 in obesity in the nation.

The adjacent Walmart parking lot had no trees. I changed places about five times before finally settling in. I woke up at 3:30 and read for a awhile but soon went back to sleep. When I woke the next morning, a large RV had pulled in close to me sometime in the middle of the night.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Blue Goose ~ Day 126 - 138

October 3 to 14, 2014 ~ Indiana and Michigan

Another respite with family...


- guided sparrow hike on a windy morning with DHC
- Rick's Boathouse luncheon at Eagle Creek
- stunning fall foliage everywhere
- walking with Tino who likes me (finally.....)
- preview of wedding site at Ft. Harrison

October Birding Hike - Indianapolis

- Holland State Park
- Dave and Ellen's lovely home (3 nights)
- Tony's cottage on the shore of Lake Michigan
- geocaching adventures with Ess, Eunice and DHC in the dunes and woods and mucky swamps, avoiding thorny brush and maneuvering through cattails and on lovely wooded trails with many successes and one grand failure
- Eunice as head chef producing delicious meals
- extended family on Saturday
- knitting, reading, talking, hiking, music by DHC and Eunice
- Art and Wine (which didn't happen but maybe next year)
- chopping for Autumn Vegetable Soup (which Eunice calls Gypsy Soup)
- lazy coffee mornings
- Boatwerks dinner on Black Lake
- truly, truly exquisite weather for three days in a row
- sleeping in moonlight
- remembering Maria

- Tesla's 2-year-old birthday
- sweet smiling Duncan
- chattering red-haired Joey and his Thomas toys
- four generations