Archive for February 2013

WINTER PREDATORS OF THE SAMISH FLATS

February 22, 2013

Short-eared Owl Perched in a Shrub in the Samish FlatsShort-eared Owl taking a close look at the photographer

The deltas and estuaries of Puget Sound are not a good place to be a mouse in winter. On a recent trip to the Samish Flats, located on the northern shores of Puget Sound, we observed hundreds of avian predators, including Bald Eagles, Northern Harriers, Red-tailed Hawks, Rough-legged Hawks, Short-eared Owls, and a single Northern Shrike.

We drove through the Skagit Flats and Samish Flats for an entire winter afternoon, enjoying the sight of over a thousand Snow Geese and hundreds of Trumpeter Swans: both cheery white against the muddy farm fields. There were also a lot of ducks, including Northern Pintails and both American Wigeons and fifteen Eurasian Wigeons.

Red-tailed Hawk in Samish Flats of Washington StateRed-tailed Hawk up close and personal

What we really wanted to see were Short-eared Owls, and we had heard that a great spot to see them was on Department of Fish & Wildlife land known to birders as the West 90. We arrived at about 3:00 p.m., and hiked out to a location where people had recently seen the owls.

We quickly spotted some owls, then spent the next two hours observing and photographing the owls as they hunted the fields, sometimes encountering and skirmishing with the Northern Harriers who hunt in much the same way. It was thrilling!

Short-eared Owl in Flight while Hunting in Samish Flats

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Short-eared Owl in Flight while Hunting in Samish FlatsShort-eared Owls in flight while hunting, reminding us of butterflies with their erratic flight patterns over the fields

Short-eared Owls fly erratically, quickly changing course to drop on a vole; the flight reminds me somehow of a huge butterfly. Like many owls, they are certainly wary of humans, but we were able to get reasonably close to them without causing a panic attack. I think they view us as less of a threat than Bald Eagles and Great Horned Owls.

It was a cloudy day for photography, but I often find that the pale winter sky on a cloudy day makes a wonderful background for my bird photographs.

As the afternoon wore on, twilight approached and it became too dark for exposures of moving birds. We left the owls to their hunting, and came away thrilled with the experience.

Short-eared Owl Perched in a Shrub in the Samish Flats

Short-eared Owl Perched in a Shrub in the Samish FlatsShort-eared Owls will perch on shrubs between flights

Northern Shrike in Samish Flats Area of Puget Sound

Northern Shrike in Samish Flats Area of Puget SoundA young Northern Shrike was a surprise visitor to the West 90; shrikes are known as “butcher birds” for their habit of impaling mice on thorns–storing them for later use. We have observed that behavior along the northern shore of Lake Ontario, where the shrikes used hawthorn trees as their gruesome storage facility.

Short-eared Owl and Northern Harrier Skirmishing in Samish FlatsSometimes the Short-eared Owls and Northern Harriers–who appear to occupy a similar ecological niche in winter–don’t play nice

Red-tailed Hawk in Samish Flats of Washington StateRed-tailed Hawk

Murmuration of a Flock of Small Birds in the Samish FlatsAt twilight, a flock of small birds rose in an ever-changing three-dimensional natural sculpture known as a murmuration

The Seattle Audubon Society has a web site that tells more about the Samish Flats, as well as bird species found around Washington. Go to: BirdWeb.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask me to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date) 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.

BRIDGES OVER TROUBLED WATERS: With a Dollop of Heavy Crude

February 20, 2013

Charlotte Highway Bridge in Historic Bridge Park, Calhoun CountyThe Charlotte Highway Bridge, built in 1886, is  now located in Historic Bridge Park near Battle Creek, Michigan

While I was young, my family had a cabin in northern Michigan that we would drive up to on weekends throughout much of the year. We knew we were getting close when our Chevy station wagon crossed the Muskegon River over a rusty steel truss bridge near the village of Hersey. The backwater pool under the bridge, with its sandy river bottom, became our favorite swimming hole and canoe launch point. While swimming there, local teenagers would sometimes climb to the top of the spidery bridge and launch themselves like bad boy Olympic high divers down to the river far below. It was a center of the community in summer.

Charlotte Highway Bridge in Historic Bridge Park, Calhoun County

Charlotte Highway Bridge in Historic Bridge Park, Calhoun County

Charlotte Highway Bridge in Historic Bridge Park, Calhoun CountyMore views of the beautiful Charlotte Highway Bridge

Alas, the old steel bridge was replaced several decades ago by a concrete structure that is undoubtedly stronger and wider and safer than the original bridge–but has none of the charm and grace of the older structure. This has been the story across America, as bridges over troubled waters run into trouble themselves, and are replaced with more mundane structures.

Dixon's Bridge in Historic Bridge Park, Calhoun County, MIDixon’s Bridge, built in 1891 by the Michigan Central Railroad, is a semicircular stone arch bridge; Norfolk Southern and Amtrack trains pass overhead

One man saw the disappearance of iron and steel truss bridges as a sad Michigan and American trend, and he had the vision to create something truly unique. Dennis Randolph, Managing Director (at the time) of the Calhoun County Road Commission, assembled a team of staff and volunteers to move five bridges from various parts of Michigan to a small park along the Kalamazoo River near Battle Creek. In a few short years, the bridges were brought in and lovingly restored by Vern Mesler and many other dedicated workers.

The park became Historic Bridge Park, and I was thrilled to walk through the park when it first opened. The old iron and steel bridges were elegant and beautiful in their engineering, and the restoration appeared to be impeccable. I know of nowhere else in America that has an outdoor bridge collection, and I applaud the people who made this possible.

Entrance Sign for Historic Bridge Park in Calhoun County, MIEntrance sign for Historic Bridge Park

Gale Road Bridge in Historic Bridge Park, Calhoun County, MIToday the Gale Road Bridge crosses Dickinson Creek, which flows into the Kalamazoo River

Alas, on July 25 & 26, 2010, a 30″ diameter pipeline carrying diluted heavy crude oil from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, burst near Marshall, Michigan, close to Historic Bridge Park. Before the leak was discovered and the flow stopped, 819,000 gallons of dark crude spilled into Talmadge Creek, then flowed into the Kalamazoo River, contaminating birds and fish and the whole riverbed for several miles. Enbridge Energy, the company responsible for the spill, spent two years cleaning up the oil spill with crews and equipment working full time to restore the damaged section of the Kalamazoo River. Historic Bridge Park was necessarily closed to public use for nearly two years.

Part of the cost of cleanup and mitigation for Enbridge was to provide improved facilities at Historic Bridge Park. With these funds, new restroom and canoe launch facilities were provided, and the park got an endowment to help with future maintenance. Historic Bridge Park reopened in 2012, and it is now more beautiful than ever.

Gale Road Bridge in Historic Bridge Park, Calhoun County, MIThe Gale Road Bridge originally spanned the Grand River in Ingham County, Michigan, from the time it was built in 1897

Bridges at Historic Bridge Park in Calhoun County near Battle CrSix bridges in close proximity make Historic Bridge Park an outdoor museum

When I was in Historic Bridge Park, I noticed blue paint slashes on some of the trees. These are markers for a long distance hiking route: the North Country Trail. If I was of a mind to, I could shoulder a backpack and hike this trail south into Ohio, then east into Pennsylvania and on into Upstate New York, taking my last step in some of my favorite mountains: the Adirondacks.

Alternatively, I could hike the other way out of the park and head to Michigan’s “up north,” eventually crossing the Mackinaw Bridge, walking through the vast north woods of the Upper Peninsula, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, then ending up in the sea of grass of the North Dakota prairie.

Alas, I cannot do either, as it is time to leave Battle Creek and fly back to Washington State, crossing the snowy winter landscape at 35,000.’

Limestone Steps in Historic Bridge Park in Calhoun County, MIBeautiful limestone steps ascend the hill so visitors can cross the Charlotte Highway Bridge on foot

Dixon's Bridge in Historic Bridge Park, Calhoun County, MIDixon’s Bridge passes under the route of the Norfolk Southern tracks

Kalamazoo River in Historic Bridge Park in Calhoun County, MIThe beautiful Kalamazoo River, where it flows past the park

For specific information about the bridges in the park, go to Historic Bridges.

For information about the Enbridge Energy oil spill, go to Kalamazoo River Oil Spill.

The visionary engineer behind Historic Bridge Park, Dennis Randolph, is also a prolific administrator and author. He has written a good book about community engineering: Civil Engineering for the Community.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask me to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date) 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.