Hopping the pond …

Our stay in the States was both enjoyable and interesting. A very big thanks to the people who welcomed us into their homes and showered us with kindness and hospitality. But the time had come to move on, this time to the UK to visit my oldest friend in all the world, my birth twin.

We were born on the very same day, in London, must have been more than twenty years ago. She likes to remind me that I should respect my elders and of course she is my senior by a couple of hours.

We flew the Atlantic United, wipe the smirk off your face. That joke is ancient and no longer amusing. They have taken the art of miniaturisation to new heights providing the world’s smallest in-flight entertainment screens. At least they didn’t drag us screaming from our seats.

“After our team looked for volunteers, one customer refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily and law enforcement was asked to come to the gate. We apologise for the overbook situation. Further details on the removed customer should be directed to authorities,” the spokesman said.                news.com

The quote is irresistible for two reasons. It provides a whole new meaning to the word voluntary. Then apologises, not for dragging the poor bastard trying to get home for work off the plane, but for the overbooking. At the beginning of our stay we cleared customs in LA then flew United to Chicago then again to Jacksonville. Overbooking is clearly a practice they have no intention of giving up, they were calling for volunteers to give up their seats almost from the moment we arrived at the gates.

Contemplation, Seneca style, is very comforting before and during air travel. It can even prepare you for Heathrow.

And then the undergound to Leytonstone. A young man gave up his seat for Gayle. That wasn’t the only revelation. There were people on hand to help you work out how to get to your destination and what’s more you could pay with money, or the local version of dedicated transport card or just tap on and off with your regular credit card. Melbourne could learn a lot.

The locals practise their own form of contemplation as they travel whilst staring at United sized screens which they hold in front of their faces in total silence.

The London correspondent picked us up at Leytonstone Station and whisked us home in time for breakfast. Ahh, London …

Not Really Sparrows …

I prepared for my American trip by flicking through the National Geographic Society’s Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2nd edition 1987, a wonderful book in its day but superseded by The Sibley Guide to Birds which I’m saving up for.

As I browsed I came across the New World Sparrows and thought to myself “I’m going to have trouble with these”. In 1987 the index contained 35 sparrows, one of which is the good old House Sparrow described in Wikipedia as …

a symbol of lust, sexual potency, commonness, and vulgarity.

Fortunately for the remaining 34 are not they are not tainted by close association. The House Sparrow is the lustworthy centerfold of the Passeridae whilst the New World Sparrows are in the family Emberizidae, the Buntings and New World Sparrows, members of the nine primaried oscines along with the wonderful warblers though, sadly, nowhere nearly as exciting. They tend to live on the ground and most are nicely disguised for life in dry grass.

Things have changed over the years. In Audubon’s day you went bird watching with a fowling-piece and came back with creatures you could stuff or draw …

In 1987 you took your binoculars, now you need a genetics laboratory, the advent of DNA studies has tossed the taxonomy of birds into total chaos. Audubon’s Foxcoloured Sparrow of 1831 was the Fox Sparrow in 1987 and is now four separate species according to the Handbook of the Birds of the World. Things did not get easier and plumages vary from individual to individual.

There is a site on the web that is of some use to the beginner, or visiting expert (the same thing) Birdzilla. It offers a key based on three field marks

  • Is the breast streaked or clear?
  • Does the bird have wing bars ?
  • Is there an eye ring?

Based on these you can get in the ballpark where the remainder of your observations will nail your bird. Maybe. Bear in mind though that wing bars and eye rings vary with the freshness of the plumage and the angle of the light.

So here we go …

Streaks – yes, eye ring – yes, wing bar – faint at best. Note the yellow supercilium. Oh dear, the key ain’t working. It’s a Savannah Sparrow. That eye ring is leading us towards Vesper Sparrow – saved by the yellow.

The eye ring won’t get us this time …

because the Song Sparrow is included in the eye ring positive and negative groups. It’s the other details that get us home, central spot in the breast, grey above and below the eye.

So the key has to be used with caution and it’s no use here either because it only works for adult birds and this one is a juvenile …

Field Sparrow (juv)

There is no alternative to practise and critical analysis. I got all these wrong but my friend who has had the practice sorted me out. If you disagree please tell me  why and I’ll take it up with him!

Mackinac …

As a child growing up in London I had a penpal from Detroit. Not long after the Mackinac Bridge was completed he sent me a photograph. It took a while but now I’ve seen it for myself. So Denis Cadaret, formerly of Hunt Club Drive, if you’re out there … Hi.

Mackinac Bridge

Along with the photo came instructions on pronunciation. It rhymes with awe which it generates as well. The first Europeans in the region wrote down the native name for the area. Since the Europeans in question were French they put a letter on the end that they had no intention of pronouncing.

The bridge is 26,372 feet long, almost precisely 5 miles (8 km). It is currently the fifth longest suspension bridge in the world. The span between the main towers is 26,372 feet (1,158 m). The total weight of the bridge is 1,024,500 tons (929,410,766 kg). Clearance for shipping in the centre is 155 feet (47 m). The bridge was opened in 1957, the 150 millionth vehicle crossed the bridge on September 6, 2009. These and many more fascinating facts can be found on the Mackinac Bridge Authority’s website and don’t forget the rivets all 4,851,700 of them.

The bridge crosses the Mackinac Straits, Lake Michigan is to the west, Lake Huron to the east. The City of St. Ignace is at the northern end, the Village of Mackinaw City at the southern end. Yes that’s right, it’s Mackinac everything except the city which is written as it’s spoken, and yes, the city is in fact a village as provided for by the General Law Village Act, Public Act No. 3, of 1895, as amended.

From Mackinaw City you can take a ferry to Mackinac Island, a very pleasant place to visit. There are no motor driven vehicles on the island (except for emergency vehicles that are kept out of sight except during emergencies). It is home to the greatest concentration of fudge outlets in the universe as well as a fair bit of history. And eminently photogenic.

This is the view that awaits as you pull into the dock …

Mackinac Island

Why not take a carriage?

Mackinac Island
Mackinac Island
The Grand Hotel

The Grand opened in 1887. It provided the location for the 1980 film Somewhere in Time.

There is an arch on the island that makes it into everything written about the place so for the sake of completeness here it is …

Arch Rock

As you leave you have the bridge out in front of you or you can look over your shoulder take a last look at the Grand Hotel.

farewell to the Grand Hotel

Michigan …

We bypassed Detroit and headed north up the peninsula. Population density fell away as we went, northern Michigan has some of the least populated areas in the eastern half of the US and some absolutely gorgeous forests.

Our destination was Boyne City where we would be staying with very generous friends for a few days. En route we stopped at Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge. This is open to the public from June to October from an hour before sunrise until sunset. It’s a one way six and a half mile drive (10.4 km) mostly along an embankment giving good views over fields and wetlands. Views of the wildlife tend to be quite distant but it’s a good place to make the acquaintance of a few ducks, Sandhill Crane and Bald Eagle. Well worth putting on your travel plans next time you’re passing through Saginaw County.

Boyne City sits at the end of the north arm of Lake Charlevois an off shoot of Lake Michigan. We would get a cruise on both in our host’s very nice 40 footer. We also got to explore some nearby state forests and the Darnton Family Nature Preserve. Some of the highlights …

Green Heron
Common Merganser
Eastern Chipmunk
Red Squirrel

Eastern Grey Squirrels were also quite common, a good proportion of them were black in colour, the melanistic form.

The American Sparrows are nearly as much fun as the Warblers. I might have to revisit them. One to keep you going …

Savannah Sparrow

The Warblers …

Specifically the New World Warblers of the family Parulidae, if it’s opera singers you’re after you should head <HERE>.

The Warblers have something for everyone. For the bird watcher they are very close to addictive. For the taxonomist they provide a lesson in total chaos and for the superstitious their entry in The Handbook of the Birds of the World Vol 15 starts on page 666. Scary.

Authors have written books on them, dozens of books. Mt favorite is The Warbler Guide by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle. No voyage to the New World should sail without it. On the journey it will serve as ballast, once landed it will serve as a deterrent to theft … no one will steal your suitcase with a copy inside, they won’t be able to lift it.

Currently the Americas are home to 116 species, at other times the family has been submerged in a much larger family, the Coerebidae, or itself enlarged, or reduced, or in the immortal words of the HBW …

… which had contained, among others, the Neotropical honeycreepers, and placed the Conebills (Conirostrum) and the Bananaquit with the New World Warblers and …

If you’d just hold my beer for a moment there will be a new arrangement by the time you give it back. The one thing that does remain certain is that they are not closely related to the Old World Warblers or the Australian Warblers.

Identification is a challenge not made any easier by their frenetic activity, their changes in plumage through the seasons and their habit of taunting you from high in the canopy. I managed to capture a few presentable images which I offer here along with my suggestion as to identification. Should it be the case that you disagree please state your case for an alternative ID in the comments.

Cape May Warbler
Tennessee Warbler

One particularly confusing duo comprises the Blackpoll and Bay-breasted Warblers. The spring males are easily distinguished but in fall plumage things become challenging. Some folks simply record them as Baypolls. A very useful article by Tom Schultz can be found on ebird.

There is a little ochre on the flanks and the legs are black which indicates that this is Bay-breasted (against that is the streaking on the breast which points to Blackpoll but the ochre shows well in other photos and clinches it for me).

Bay-breasted Warbler

For some really stunning Warbler photos you should head to Glenn Bartley’s site <HERE>.

Maumee Bay …

Australia’s national parks are actually managed by the states with grant money from the commonwealth. In Victoria a State Park has exactly the same level of protection as a National Park and is governed by the National Parks Act.

In the USA National Parks are Federal affairs while State Parks are run quite independently by the States. American State parks are quite different from Victorian State Parks. You are likely to find a golf course and tennis courts, you can take your dog, there is likely to be a full service camp ground and there may even be a nice hotel.

Maumee Bay boasts all of the above, although the dog can’t stay in the hotel (but there are dog-friendly cabins – prior notification required).

Natural values aren’t totally neglected. There is a boardwalk through marsh and woodland. It extends for a couple of miles and is an excellent way to work up an appetite for breakfast.

White-tailed Deer

Here’s the front end of an Eastern Fox Squirrel …

Eastern Fox Squirrel

… although it’s the rear end that earned it its name.

A night walk is sure to turn up a Racoon or three and there are Muskrat present as well.

When the sun is a bit higher turtles might sit out to enjoy the warmth.

Midland Painted Turtle

There is plenty of bird activity. Red-winged Blackbirds are abundant, woodpeckers are plentiful, there is the odd sparrow. This Heron was intent on finding its breakfast and took no notice of me at all …

Great Blue Heron

Erie Shore …

Magee Marsh and the surrounding region offer a mix of habitat that is attractive to birds and other wildlife. Throw in the fall migration and the chances are good that a bird watcher from another continent is going to have a very frustrating time trying to identify lots of half seen, hyperactive, totally uncooperative little brown jobs. It’s so much fun.

There’s only one road into Magee Marsh, pity about the spelling, so navigation is pretty easy. The first obvious land mark is the visitor centre. It’s an attractive building set behind a small lake. Adjacent to it is a trail that takes a loop through the woods around some more water ways. The visitor centre didn’t open during the three days we were there and the nature trail desperately needed some pruning. The area wasn’t getting the love it deserved.

Continuing on that single road the woods give way to genuine marsh some of which has been mowed for the benefit of Sandhill Cranes.

Sandhill Cranes

And leads to an extensive parking area on the lake shore. Back from the shore there is a boardwalk through the woods again. This is in good condition. So, excellent access, shore birds on the shore, long-legged birds in the marsh, swimming birds on the water and bewilderment on the board walk.

Herring Gull

The Warblers are one particular group of American birds that offer excitement and challenge to all. They are migratory, so no matter where you live in the US you are likely to have some pass through your neighbourhood twice a year and if you’re lucky there will be a few that spend a whole season with you. There is a little book by Chris G Early that has advice for the beginner – start with the spring males. Cool, it’s autumn, I’ll come back next spring.

Well no, I’ll put the camera to good use and email the photos to my good friend from St Simon’s Island who is currently living in a motor home in Virginia. It’ll help to keep his mind off what hurricane Irma is doing to his house.

Heading west along the Erie shore the next birding spot is Ottawa National Wildlife refuge, this is more open habitat mainly in the form of shallow ponds.

Trumpeter Swan

Further west there is Metzger Marsh, then Maumee Bay State Park and if you keep going a little further there is Pearson Metropark which is mainly forest. Plenty to keep the visitor entertained.

Ohio …

The impressive skyline of Cincinnati welcomed us to the midwest.

You will recall that our departure from Florida coincided with the evacuation brought about by Irma’s impending visit. We were four days on the road. On this fourth day the proportion of Florida number plates finally tailed off. We hadn’t done justice to the states we’d passed through but it was our intention to spend the next few days on the shores of Lake Erie. It was time to get off the Interstate and hit the back roads of Ohio.

Our first stop was Fort Loramie.

It’s a pretty country town. Its heyday was back in the late 1800’s as a canal town. The Miami and Erie Canal made it possible to navigate from the Ohio River at Cincinnati to Lake Erie at Toledo. Almost 250 miles (400km) long, it boasted 19 aqueducts and 106 locks. Loramie is situated at its highest point 512 feet (156m) above the Ohio River. It was open end to end from 1827 until the new fangled railway put it out of business in the early 1900’s.

The Ohio countryside is fairly flat, open agricultural land dotted with big barns that hint at severe winters.

We stopped for a little birding at nearby Lake Loramie. Bird watchers do tend to be somewhat obsessive and Gayle is no exception. Tattooed down her side are the names of all the birds that she has seen and I have not. In Georgia she caught up with the Black-and-white Warbler and I did not. Fortunately we hadn’t passed a tattoo parlour en route.

The fall migration was just getting underway. At the lake we caught up with a few warblers including this little guy. It’s not a prizewinning photo but gee it was a sweet moment …

Black-and-white Warbler

Our destination that day was Maumee Bay State Park. Where there is an almost luxurious hotel conveniently close to the world famous birding spot, Magee Marsh.

Kentucky …

The geography of the Commonwealth of Kentucky is very straight forward, in the east you have part of the very beautiful Appalachian mountains, the rest is a horse paddock.

The place is blessed with lots of navigable waterways, bourbon distilleries, some coal mines and any number of fried chickens. The grass is much the colour of Marge Simpson’s hair.

Natural attractions include Mammoth Cave and Cumberland Gap …

See what rubbish you get when there’s no saxophone in the band.

The I-75 is a very efficient way of getting through Kentucky without seeing very much. We did make one stop at Wildcat Camp.

Kentucky is in the most northerly band of southern states. When the Confederacy left the Union Kentucky was divided on which way to go. After a few shenanigans it decided that neutrality would suit it just fine. The protagonists soon put an end to that ambition. One of the early battles of the American Civil War was fought at Wildcat in Laurel County, north Kentucky, on October 21, 1861.

Prior battles had not gone well for the Union, for example at the first Battle of Bull Run Union casualties were 460 killed, 1,124 wounded, and 1,312 missing or captured. This one was a very welcome victory albeit on a very small scale. Confederate losses were 11 killed and 42 wounded or missing., almost exactly double Union losses.

Today you can take a very pleasant walk through the woods up to Round Hill where the remains of the earthworks can still be seen.