Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Cheery- Voiced GPS Can Kill You

I am clueless when it comes to high tech gadgets and I am not sure it will change much in 2010. Just before heading off to Mt Kilimanjaro in October I purchased a high tech Suunto Watch with all the bells and whistles to track my movements and altititude and weather: Couldn't figure it out and so I left that pricey device  home. Strapped on my $35 analog Timex Expedition watch that told time only and I was good to go and made the summit. Give me a compass any day over a GPS unit and I feel safe and within my comfort zone.  I'll watch the sun's position, look for trail signs and when bush whacking have a landmark in sight and listen to the water, wind and ravens. But I'll confess: GPS is here to stay and can and does save lives and certainly adds comfort and safety and ease to those who know how to use their device and - this is important - know when to check a map.  Safe to say some of you will use your first GPS unit in 2010. Don't let it kill you as it almost did to a couple in eastern Oregon last week.  The vacationers programmed their unit to take them the shortest route through an isolated high desert/mountain area: and that it did, GPS unit said 40 miles in 30 minutes. However the cheerful voice sent them down an unmaintained, backcountry Forest Service Road ---where they became stuck in snow. Rescue came three days later.  Lesson to be learned : Use your GPS but always carry a map in the car to check the route--first--and to serve as a backup. And when hiking, bring a trail map and compass. Happy New Year and good trails to you. Shortest routes are not always the best choices.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Keep Your Carrots Indoors in 2010!

Michigan has its share of predators: bears, wolves (in the U.P), fox and coyotes all roam our Great Lake State.  And in the closing months of 2009 the Michigan DNR confirmed what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been saying for some time; cougars, call them mountain lions or pumas or panther if you wish; its all the same creature, but this secretive big cat is found in Michigan. (Warning signs are posted at  our Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore )  Perhaps they have been here all along, perhaps not: that matter is in dispute and not relevant to the cougar that ran the media - or at least one TV station crew  (Fox 2 News) in Orion Township a few weeks ago.  I have absolutly no idea what the original spotter saw that evening when she looked out and saw a mountain lion. I wasn't there. But the next night the TV crew breathlessly shared the really big mountain lion tracks in her suburban back yard.  The evidence was a straight line of  four big "toe marks" with several feet between each "foot print".  But there was a huge problem that  raised the eyebrows of naturalists and produced chuckles. There were no pad prints in the fluffy snow and even if a cougar could walk in a perfectly straight line like a drunk successfully straight-lining it for a police officer, it can not walk on its tip toes.  Yet the news crew and neighboorhood continued with  predator hype and the internet came alive with cougar tales in suburbia.   A close examination of the tracks exposed the obvious-- and you better start  keeping your carrots indooors at night folks!  A nature wise second grader would spill the beans, "Those are tracks of a bunny rabbit hopping." And yes they were. When rabbits hop, the rear feet land a bit in front  of the front feet creating that pattern of toe marks.    With the hot air balloon of that cryptic cougar sighting deflated as quickly as the infamous balloon boy saga, I thought back to a great quote from sociobiologist E. O. Wilson: "We're not just afraid of predators. We're transfixed by them, prone to weave stories and fables and chatter endlessly about them, because fascination creates prepardness and preparedness, survival.  In a deeply tribal sense, we love our monsters."   We love them so much that in suburbia a line of rabbit tracks  in backyard snow can morph into cougar "evidence", a monster in our mind --- and it runs on the evening news.  As for cougars, they have the freedom of will to wander where their spirit leads them while trying their best to avoid us, but Lake Orion is not their home turf. 

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Turkey Equation

The arrival of winter has changed the equation when it comes to wildlife, survival, and at times the sharing of trails.   And so is the case with one of the tough feathered guys of Oakland County: the wild turkey.  With temperatures plummeting and snow on the way the boundaries that once divided disappear.  All that really matters now is adapting to survive.  Turkey flocks are now all-inclusive; hens, woods-wise Toms, first winter birds and immature jakes (young  males) strut the woods together.  Most of the times they will hear or see you before you notice  them—but not always.  Practice patience and observation –talk less, listen more and the pre-winter days on less traveled trails are an excellent time to observe these wild and wary woodland birds.   They are often spotted near the edges of the trails, or even on the trails, pecking at acorns, old fallen apples, low hanging berries and whatever else means survival. 

That makes sense; the trails that make our treks through the woods easier do the same for the turkeys. 
Come dusk, they "vanish" in a roar of wing beats; for unlike their morbidly obese artificially fattened flabby lily white domesticated cousins that are too fat to even mate, the wild ones are powerful flyers and retire to upper tree limbs.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Great Blue Herons - Adapting For Survival

Ask any child why birds fly south for the winter and if it's not answered with the old joke, "It's too far to walk!" followed by a chorus of giggles, the likely second choice - favored by many adults as well - is that it's too cold. Look at your bird feeder as flurries fall and you know in a flap of a feather that answer doesn't hold true.  Birds are generally well insulated with under layers of downy feathers and moisture shielding flight feathers. But when the food source is gone the birds must depart too.  Hummingbirds seek out nectar, swallows consume mosquitoes and vultures want fresh – unfrozen - carrion. Those bird species and many others departed a month ago. The seed eaters (chickadees, sparrows) and meat hunters (owls, woodpeckers) tend to stay put. And that brings us to the great blue heron.  These colony nesting majestic slate-gray wading birds with six-foot wing spans, hunters of fish and frogs, should have departed to warmer waters. Most did. But not all. Great blue are highly adaptable and more than a few stay in northern climates all winter, finding waters that don't freeze and/or switching to a diet of small land mammals such as voles. On a recent excursion to the Drayton Plains Nature Center I came upon a solitary great blue heron as still as a statue at the edge of a slowly flowing channel of the Clinton River.  With its reflection shimmering in the chilly waters it waited for movement of a small fish. And if  a fresh fish fillet did not come to be, a patient stalk on shore for a meaty meadow vole was most likely in store  With fingers numbing I snapped a few pictures and left this prehistoric looking bird to perfect its adapting for survival techniques. For me: home to hot coffee. My way of adapting to a chilly morning with winter at the door.