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

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Blue Goose ~ Day 125

October 2, 2014 ~ Seymour, IN to Columbus, IN

Muscatatuck NWR was five miles away and I wanted to finally get to a refuge early in the morning for once instead of mid afternoon, the hottest part of the day, the quietest for birds. 

First though, I had an early pre-sunrise breakfast at Burger King and watched CNN, a nice change from FOX which is usually the choice in public places in the Midwest (or sports). I listened to the latest on Ebola in Texas, wondering how a nurse (or anyone in that first ER visit) could have neglected to recognize that a sick person, recently from Liberia, might not warrant suspicion of Ebola. Like not rocket science here....

I loved Muscatatuck. It will be on my list of top ten favorite refuge, for now at least. I did get there early and spent four hours on an auto route, working hard for, but eventually seeing, 26 species of birds. There was no wind, it was just warm enough and the road went through a variety of habitats.
Muscatatuck NWR - IN

A few other cars came by; one couple was out with a long-lens camera, photographing Red-headed Woodpeckers and whatever else showed up. I stopped also, and it turned out to be a very birdy spot as all sorts of passerines showed up, which are birds with the following characteristics: 


  • Small to medium body size.
  • Relatively vocal, including different calls and often elaborate songs.
  • Altricial chicks that need extensive parent care after hatching.
  • Relatively bright colors or distinct markings.
  • Unwebbed toes and feet.
  • The most prominent characteristic of passerine birds, however, is the anisodactyl arrangement of toes. These birds have four toes, three facing forward and one backward, which allows the bird to easily cling to both horizontal and nearly vertical perches, including branches and tree trunks. These birds also have an adaptation in their legs that gives them extra strength for perching, and in fact, the relaxed position of their feet and talons is to be clenched securely, so the birds are able to perch easily even when sleeping.

Cool word, altricial: Humans are considered secondarily altricial...

I walked the mile-long Turkey Trail through the woods, saw a Wood Thrush and twice just missed getting hit on the head by falling black walnuts, which are greenish and nearly the size of a baseball and which were dropping constantly all through these woods.  As were leaves...gently wafting down, often getting caught on branches on their way, and teasing as the movement mimicked a bird flit.
Cardinal at Muscatatuck NWR - IN

A small group of Killdeer on a mud flat with two Canada geese; several Eastern Phoebes, with yellowish bellies this time of year; many Carolina Chickadees....warblers and woodpeckers...ducks in the distance on the bright-green algae-covered impoundments.
Muscatatuck NWR - IN

The Visitor Center had hundreds of nature books, several very active bird-feeders, and interesting, informative, modern exhibits. Muscatatuck was all a refuge can be for visitors, and I appreciated the work that is required to create and maintain the roads, trails, lookouts and boardwalks.

By mid afternoon, I headed north on I65 to Columbus, not far from Indianapolis, and found a Starbucks...and here I am, ready to read for awhile, find the nearby Walmart and then (maybe) organize the inside of my van.

There were ponds behind the usual businesses (Menards, Walmart, several fast food restaurants, gas stations) and beyond those were fields of dried corn stalks. It was peaceful except for nearly constant skeins of Canada geese flying very low and loudly just over my head, but the sound of birds is welcome when the auditory alternative is traffic. And the skies of autumn are often pearly grey with subtle pastel colors in the early evenings on warm days.

I went to about four fast food restaurants, eating something at each one, trying to find something satisfying...and failed. The last one was a Culver's where I wanted an old-fashioned chocolate malted which they assured me they made...but it was totally not....

I think this particular stretch of Indian Summer is about to end but it's been wonderful!

Muscatatuck NWR - IN

Blue Goose ~ Day 124

October 1, 2014 ~ Jasper, IN to Seymour, IN

The first of October and the beginning of the second trimester of this adventure. There is an end in sight, which is how I've been feeling lately. However, it is actually OK for several reasons. I now know that a car is no substitute for a home. I am learning again the importance of social connections - friends and family. I am really missing western Michigan and life near the Lake.

I woke up feeing like I was in a corral of white semis because I sort of was.

A McDonald's across the parking lot was open although in the midst of major remodeling. Still, their WiFi worked. (This apparently is not a part of the country where coffee shops of any kind are felt to be necessary.) A large table of locals sat around most of the time I was there, retired men and women, getting a social fix, giving me surreptitious glances.

It was an uneventful day. I drove north and east to Seymour, passing through the Indiana city of West Baden / French Lick. I would occasionally hear the name, so when I saw it on the map, I headed there as it was on my general route. Once in town, I drove by a gigantic hotel/spa/casino, the French Lick Springs Hotel with 443 rooms and then the adjacent West Baden Springs Hotel with 243 rooms. People are drawn to the area for the mineral / medicinal waters, to play golf or gamble, eat and shop, horseback ride, attend conferences..... Rooms begin at about $200 (with taxes) for one king bed. This venue is an interesting phenomenon, given its location, with its European opulence.

At one time, there was a French fur trading post and a salt lick here; thus, the name.

What I did in French Lick was get a smoothie and chili dog at Dairy Queen before driving on through the corn fields and small towns and over parts of a large reservoir, Patoka Lake, but a lake with dead trees poking through the water in the far reaches. For me, these are not real lakes.

Pumpkins, tied-up corn stalks and Halloween decorations on many lawns, in the warm sun on this first afternoon in October.

Patoka Lake - IN

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Blue Goose ~ Day 123

September 30, 2014 ~ Miamisburg, OH to Jasper, IN

This incredible Indian Summer is following me wherever I go! Today was again like a summer day with the visuals of autumn: corn and the other field crops drying, leaves changing from greens and browns to the colors of fruit (persimmon, citrus, pomegranate, apples, pears, cranberry, grape), farm stands, school buses....

There is usually dew on my van windows now since the sun rises later every morning.

I was in three states today while I traveled to Patoka River NWR in SW Indiana: Ohio, over the river into Kentucky and then back over the river into Indiana, the river being the great Ohio. I am continually amazed by the engineering and construction of the often elegant and impressive bridges, not only over rivers but also over basins, sounds, swamps, marshes, canyons and lakes wherever I  go.

What an adventure for those who travel by water, for pleasure or for work. Remember, Dave, that guy we heard at Herrick who went down the Yellowstone and Missouri in a canoe? or William Least Heat Moon's River Horse or Jonathan Raban's Old Glory? People do this, and while I won't, I can at least imagine it. Look at a map of the rivers in the US, many of which are no longer wild and freely flowing but are manipulated and controlled by dams and locks, which surely complicates these river trips.

The Grand River is the largest river in Michigan at 252 miles and some of the cities along its route have removed dams; others are considering it, but there is controversy about the removal of the Sixth Street Dam in Grand Rapids with concerns for an endangered mussel, for further invasion of the lamprey eel and for possible loss of a prime fishery. This dam is one of over 2500 dams on Michigan rivers alone.

It's all about the water....

I traveled on interstates for several hours until the last 50 miles when I needed a break from the monotony and took lesser roads to Patoka, passing through small towns, the Hoosier National Forest, winding over hill and dale. It's a pleasant, very Midwestern landscape, a la Garrison Keillor, not ethnically diverse, with tidy homes and large, neatly mowed lawns and farms and churches and small towns, and polite people, gregarious with their own kind.

Patoka River National Wildlife Refuge and Management Area is an interesting and unique refuge due to a complicated policy in place which allows coal mining within its "acquisition boundary," meaning all the land designated for eventual inclusion in the refuge. Since surface mining is not allowed on a NWR, much of the proposed refuge is currently the Wildlife Management (WM) part of the refuge because surface mining IS allowed on this type of land. Perhaps that is why it was not as easy to find, or why the woman in the refuge office in the town of Oakland City was monosyllabic and not as forthcoming as I've come to expect from most employees / volunteers. She had a surgical mask hanging around her neck; perhaps she had a cold. The front reception area was cramped, but I heard guys laughing and talking in the back offices. In fairness, a variety of rather generic printed free material was available for visitors, including one on the Ivory-billed Woodpecker from 2009.

I took a map which showed a complex mix of private land, WM land, NWR, the Patoka River, oxbows, swamps, marshes, woods and fields criss-crossed by county and state roads. I came upon trailheads but only by accident. The map was marginal and not easy to read. I could have asked more questions but usually can usually figure out what I need to know on my own or from explicit maps.

Patoka is a work in progress. All of the refuges are, but this one has the added sensitive issues of prospective private sellers' surface mining "rights" and the fact that strip mining coal is the epitome of an extractive activity...not exactly in the same class as fishing or hunting. On the other hand, by having a refuge here, the coal mining activity is, no doubt, closely watched and deleterious environmental effects mitigated.

I spent two hours, moving slowly on gravel roads in and out of the refuge, as the parts are not contiguous, through a riverine habitat of oxbows, swamps, marshes and hardwoods. Leaves slowly drifted down in the afternoon sun. I would hear trains (presumably carrying coal) and crossed double tracks at least five times but didn't see any strip mining activity.
Patoka River NWR - IN

I stayed in Jasper in a Walmart lot situated above the highway under a nice maple tree, along with half a dozen semis. The noise as they come and go awakens me slightly but doesn't keep me awake. I do admit, though, this nightly ritual is losing its initial feeling of adventure.

I ate at an Applebee's and have been doing that only because I am finding it more and more difficult to even go into a Walmart lately. The restaurant bathrooms allow me to brush my teeth in relative privacy. I need two minutes of not sharing a bathroom to do this, which almost never happens in Walmart but almost always does in one of these generic restaurants. So, I can maintain dental hygiene for only $20-$25.

Finished reading The Boys in the Boat....a good story by a gifted writer.

Close up of waders in the swamp from photo above in Patoka River NWR - IN

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Blue Goose ~ Day 122

September 29, 2014 ~ Jeffersonville, OH to Miamisburg, OH

In my map box, I had an Ohio Prairie pamphlet. These are the tallgrass prairies here in the Midwest with several areas in southwestern Ohio. I used to think of prairies as mostly a monoculture of waving grasses but:


Tallgrass prairies are an extremely complicated web of life. At first sight, one sees a landscape dominated by grasses. Eighty percent of the foliage is indeed made up of grasses, from 40 to 60 different species. The other 20% of the primary vegetation is made up of over 300 species of forbs or flowers. The prairie also has over 100 species of lichens and liverworts as well as numerous species of woody trees and shrubs along creeks and protected areas. 

Historically, periodic fires and grazing (buffalo) helped maintain these landscapes, but the plow changed that. Wikipedia states that "99% of the original tallgrass prairie is now farmland." Of course the birds and mammals dependent on them disappeared also. Today, remnants are found in old cemeteries, railroad rights-of-way, on high bluffs above rivers. And there are the restoration projects.

Possum Creek MetroPark is one of the places where tallgrass prairies are being restored. I wandered about several habitats in this peaceful park, trying to imagine a tallgrass prairie to the horizon. This time of year, it is a melange of drying flora, including autumn wildflowers, not brushy or woodsy or impenetrable but still dense with plants 6-8 feet in height and home for an insect orchestra. The bugs were much fewer in the woods. Instead, dry and crinkled leaves dropped continuously - a leaf rain - making a crackling sound as they landed. I stood with my eyes closed and that was all I heard, other than an occasional buzz or a very sporadic bird call...a relatively uncommon wood-music.

It was 85 degrees, not humid, sunny, with few other park visitors. Many of these preserved places have educational and/or historical information at the trailheads. I came on two old rusted streetcar frames back in the woods, leftover from the days when a WWI veteran bought the land and created a grand park for the people.


Argonne Forest Park was founded in 1930 by Daytonian Null Hodapp, who returned from WWI and had a successful career as a judge in the area. Null purchased nearly 400 acres of wooded land along Germantown Pike and named the property Argonne Forest Park in honor of the Unit he served in during the war. Development of the park began with the construction of a veteran’s clubhouse. Behind the clubhouse, to the south, was a carnival-like midway. Development of the clubhouse area was followed by other additions. These included a swimming hole and diving platform, baseball diamond, shooting range, dance hall, pony and horse tracks, and a figure-eight auto race track.

Possum Creek MetroPark - OH (near Dayton) 

I am a reluctant historian but keep coming on fascinating vignettes, like this one but go right on by thousands of others. Wherever I travel in this country, here are the back stories...

Indecisive about my immediate next NWR, I found a Starbucks, then very unexceptional Mexican food and finally a Walmart.