For the third time in so many years, I had the opportunity to hitch a helicopter ride as part of an aerial survey of the lower Huron-Clinton Metroparks. We were looking for deer and, without getting into any particulars, we found ‘em. But we saw lots of other things along the way and these other things are probably more noteworthy as subject fillers for this blog. There was a hefty coyote, a graceful Red Fox, and a dozens of terrified Fox Squirrels, for starters. The coyote was on the move and ducked into shelter long before I could take a photo of it. The fox provided us with only a passing glance and the squirrels, well, the squirrels showed an unusually high amount of anxiety – especially given that our copter was several hundred feet over their heads. Yet, their bounding forms could be seen at nearly every turn in every woodlot as if we were roaring through the very trees themselves. Only the two flocks of Wild Turkeys that we spooked at Lower Huron Metropark matched the fleeing terror of the squirrels.
I was especially interested in the high view over Lake Erie Metropark because it is “my” park (actually, I am only part owner behind a whole slew of deer and nervous squirrels). As if on cue, a soaring Cooper’s hawk crossed before us just as we entered the park’s air space. The bird was at our level, or more properly, we were at her’s. She calmly descended to the earth world and angled down to perch on a large cottonwood tree 200 feet below.
Dozens of Great Blue Herons flushed from their willow perches close to the hawk’s landing site at the north end of the one of the park lagoons (see above). From above, these large birds certainly earn their name. Their slatey gray-blue backs show up well against the snow covered ice below. I counted about fifteen individuals in this flock. These gangly fish-eaters are a regular part of the winter bird population here along the shoreline as long as there is open water available. Several Bald Eagles surveyed the open shoreline waters as well (see here). These birds, apparently keen on maintaining their dignity, did not flush when the copter passed overhead. On this day they simply glanced up before lowering their gaze back to the water surface. I would guess that they were looking for panicky squirrels attempting to make the swim for Canada, but that would only be a guess on my part.
I would be remiss not to at least mention a few deer related sightings. Our flight occurred at mid-morning, and most of the deer were bedded down in heavy cover. On many occasions the creatures stuck tight to their forms as we made our initial pass and then jumped to their feet as we circled back around (see below the pair bouncing up onto their feet). Few of them actually looked up – the rotor noise alone was enough to prompt them into action. In the absence of the actual deer themselves, there was always plenty of deer evidence on the landscape. Sleeping forms (see here the 5-6 dark oval-shaped patches in the thicket) and feeding patches (see here) were everywhere.
Although deer tracks were the most abundant non-human sign, plenty of other animal tracks were in evidence. One view (shown below and here) revealed an interesting set of prints on the shelf ice. A week’s worth of coyote tracks can be seen as linear traces in the snow along with the regular jumping track of a non-panicked Fox Squirrel near the cat-tail edge. The rambling track originating from the lower left is that of a Canada Goose. You can see where the honker ambled up to a point, turned sharply to the right, and then launched into a take-off run. The paired tracks get farther and farther apart until disappearing altogether as the bird achieved flight.
Perhaps the most startling sight on this particular flight were the multiple beds of Phragmites reed in the park. In places, these reed patches stretched like dirty brown shag carpeting over some of the lagoons. Ten years ago these same lagoons were vast cat-tail marshes, but they have been replaced by these nasty invaders. Reed beds are bad enough when viewed at ground level, but from above their sheer density is dishearteningly apparent. The photo (see below) shows a solid patch that was probably 5 acres in extent. Only the occasional deer path weaving through the mat of dead vegetation allowed any opportunity to judge some scale.
By far the most intriguing sight was a nice overhead look at one of our local Great-horned Owl nests (see below and here). Her platform is an old Red-tailed Hawk located on a lofty Bur oak tree located about mid-park. Believe it or not, this bird has been dutifully sitting on her eggs since the end of January. This means that she has sheltered her charges through all that this past February has thrown at her. It takes about 33 days to incubate the eggs and it is very likely that the first chick had already hatched beneath her, but she was not about to reveal any of her secrets. This bird gave us the stink eye as we hovered past.
I passed over an old friend of mine as we concluded the survey and headed north from the owl nest. A giant Cottonwood, once the sole master of former pastureland, poked its familiar form above the tree-tops (see beginning photo). This tree, decrepit and shedding when viewed a ground level, looked rather noble from on high. Beyond it, a wash of rouge branches marked a patch of Red Maple trees. These trees were in the process of swelling their buds with flowing sap and preparing to present the season’s first crop of flowers. Though our flight was a winter event it ended on an early spring note.