March 23: In shaded areas of the pond, the ice remained thick and huge cracks form where its expanding and contracting from the daily temperature shifts from above to below freezing happen. This boardwalk pier near the cemetery stands firm so the 6″ thick ice fractures to release the powerful forces within it.
Hmmm. An empty pint bottle was discarded near a muskrat burrow by Stillwater Bay at the Brighton millpond. I can’t say I blame the little furry critters. They’ve endured a long winter living on tough cattail stems and water lily roots instead of green plants. Since muskrats don’t have pockets, they can’t carry credit cards. Maybe some human enablers buy for them.
The surface of the Brighton millpond has an uneven lunar landscape quality to it now. There are circles of raised ice and snow scattered around areas that are lightly rippled. Some parts of the pond had open water a week ago but it has frozen again and those areas are smooth as glass. Golden afternoon light reflects off of the smoothed areas while the blue sky tints snow covered stretches.
I saw a bonded pair of mallards on the far edge of the shore ice as I walked past. They jumped into the water and paddled toward me so I stopped to wait for them. I thought it was the pair I mentioned were honeymooning at that location last week. As they waddled toward me, I was checking the hen’s feet to verify her identify by her injured left foot. It wasn’t her. Then I heard a familiar squawk only one duck on the pond has. It was Frick with her new beau!
She has selected a handsome fellow with beautiful conformation and bright plumage. As a chivalrous suitor, the drake stood by while she ate. Drakes stand guard but rarely eat while courting. It’s probably an evolutionary strategy to guarantee the hen has the nutrition she needs for egg production. It’s in the drake’s self interest to have his mate produce healthy ducklings.
Last year, Frick hatched five babies on June 21st, but none survived. As a first time mom, I don’t think Frick had the skills she needed to protect them from predators. Maybe she’ll do better this year. Since she’s bonded early, I expect ducklings at least a month earlier this year. Frick has had a colorful life since she was dumped at the pond by her previous owner. You can find out more in a series of posts spanning the past two years.
Above, the leaf looks like it is lying on the surface of the millpond, but when seen from an oblique angle (left), you can how it has sunk more than an inch and a half below its original position. Click to enlarge the image to see the striations in the ice that record the progress the leaf has made over many days like tree rings record the year-to-year growth.
Another oak leaf that was under the thin shoreline ice melted the ice above it as the sun provided just enough radiant heat (below). Ice beyond its edge didn’t benefit from the sun’s energy so they shape of the leaf is retained.
I’ve been yammering about the ice melting on the Brighton millpond for about seven weeks now. In all of that time, it’s only retreated 100 feet at the south end where there is the most human activity. The north end has the most open water for the ducks, King Arthur, and the returning geese, but the center portion is still iced shore-to-shore. In some areas it remains 4-6″ thick because of the Arctic blast we had this past week. In reality, this year’s transition from winter to spring is probably typical for our region. We forget from year to year and, like small children waiting for Christmas, spring seems to take forever to arrive. Woody, Michigan’s official groundhog prognosticator, has apologized for her flawed prediction of an early spring. We’re giving lots of thought on whether we’ll accept it.
The muskrat that visits the Main Street area of the millpond made his nightly visit before dark Friday, something he’s been doing a lot lately. The sky was blue, the air cold, and he seemed quite relaxed dog-paddling from shore to the edge of the ice looking for things to fill his belly before the light of day faded. Note how his fur is almost the exact color of the reflections of the surrounding trees in the ripples. This makes him a less likely target for predators. A peregrine falcon was seen in the area this past week. They are known to kill pigeons and ducks by knocking them out of the air with a blow inflicted at break-neck speed, but I imagine they might find a muskrat a delicious meal, too, if it was found on the edge of the pond ice munching on vegetation. Hawks, snapping turtles, and large owls are more typical muskrat foes in this region, however.
I saw Tux take a jab at another drake last night and it warmed by heart. The other male was surprised by the move (above) which my camera’s shutter was too slow to catch. While school children are taught that bullying is a sin worse than eating red meat, in the animal world it’s a part of daily life. Animals that succeed know how to broadcast their potential strength and it gets them food, territory and mates. I hope Tux learns to bully enough to get the things he needs to lead a full life at the pond. Go, Tux, go!
In 2011, President Obama told Congress to “Eat your peas.” Congress listened to him just as well as Tux (above) listened to me last night. Tux isn’t thriving. While it might be the cold weather bothering him since he’s only 8 months old, I sense it’s a pecking order problem. He’s “low duck” and the other ones pick on him. He’s also passive in disposition because he’s the offspring of two domestic ducks.
A couple of duck keepers told me the birds love peas so I thought I’d see if Tux would enjoy some. He seems to have trouble swallowing the dry duck chow. I thought the wet peas might slide down a little easier. He didn’t cooperate. I put peas in front of him that were sprinkled with duck chow. He gobbled down the chow, but if he ate any peas, it was by accident. In summer, ducks live on green vegetation. I reasoned peas would be snarfed down as a great winter treat. One duck keeper said it takes a while for ducks to accept changes in foods so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by their lack of enthusiasm. Fortunately, a bonded pair enjoyed them and chased away other ducks so they could grab more for themselves (right).
Even though the water is just above freezing at the Brighton millpond, some plant life still grows on the bottom. I’ve see King Arthur tail-up throughout the winter as he grabs them and brings them to the surface. Last year, just a week after the ice cleared, I photographed a muskrat swimming to his burrow with a mouthful of very green plants. Still, I think the King has tired of the pond fare. For the past week, he’s been climbing the pond embankment to join the ducks when I feed them. Once he arrives, the ducks give him plenty of space so he doesn’t nip at them (above).
Mute swans can be very aggressive especially when protecting their young. King Arthur puts his energy into chasing Canada geese instead of people. He won’t let them nest at the north end of the pond. He warns me with a hiss if I get too close photographing his cygnets. I don’t push boundaries, and other park visitors give him their respect, too. There may not be any cygnets this summer. Arthur’s mate vanished last fall.
He recognizes me and many other regulars in the park. As with the ducks, I move slowly when I’m around him so he trusts me. I never approach him; I let him decide if he wants to come close. Wildfowl view moving toward them as an aggressive act especially in a public park where some people chase them. They are more likely to approach you if you stand still and make no quick movements. On this day, Arthur tried to teach me a dance step which involved a clockwise spin on the right foot (right). Since he only pantomimes instructions (being a mute swan), I couldn’t learn the footwork. I’m sure it’s a ballet move from Swan Lake.
Muskrats are like people. They like pretzels, too! A few days ago, I posted photos of a pushy muskrat from the north end of the Brighton millpond. I mentioned another muskrat in that feature that lives at the south end near Main Street. This is him.
His typical routine is to come to the Main Street area where all of the people congregate around dusk from his burrow north of the Tridge. Lately, however, his food resources are scarce enough that he shows up during broad daylight. He’s become habituated to humans and isn’t as skittish as most muskrats. He realizes that most of them are harmless and might bring him bread, popcorn, or in this case, pretzels. None of these foods are particularly good for him, but like humans, he likes them.
He’s a two-fisted eater. His well-clawed fingers wrap around this food as he gnaws one end of it. During the summer, he’s happiest eating nutritious green plants, but during winter months, he chomps on roots and even twigs. Nine-five percent of his diet is vegetarian, but he tosses in an occasional insect, worm or other small creature. If you’re coming to the pond, you might want to bring a carrot or other vegetable so, if you make his acquaintance, you’ll be able to become his BFF until the treats you bring him are gone. But please don’t leave mounds of table scraps at the pond. They’ll eventually rot and attract less savory characters.
February 15: These oak leaves spent their winter suspended in a slab of suspended bubbles. Both of these shots look like I took them in daylight, but they were taken at night. My camera’s flash bounces from bubble to bubble scattering the light rays in all directions and thereby evenly illuminate the close ups.
March 5: As the pond ice broke from the edges, the entire sheet lifted its edge above the surface of the water. The jagged edge became beaded by the splashes caused by the ducks so it caught the late afternoon light and bounced it in all directions. Note how the bright blue sky is reflected in the water, but under the edge, the clear ice blocks the color so the shadow areas are almost monochromatic and look like something I might create in Photoshop.
March 6: While most of the ducks are still trying to select the perfect mate for the nesting season, some have already made their choices. This pair is honeymooning behind the Brighton Area Fire Department’s Station #31.
The hen is an old friend of mine. Following a nasty bite from a turtle last August, we had several chats over duck chow. She developed an infection and lost a portion of her center toe on her left foot as well as some of her webbing. But she’s in great shape now and has found an attentive drake to spend time with before she finds a hidden spot to nest for 28 days.
She’ll probably be one of the first hens to hatch a clutch of eggs and, because she trusts me, I’ll bet you’ll see close ups of her ducklings right here in early May. Stay tuned.
A friend of mine is a former trapper along the Huron River. He told me he once caught more than 850 muskrats in one season a few decades ago. He lives about a half mile from the Brighton millpond and reports seeing a large coyote trotting toward the millpond in the evenings. I haven’t heard any reports of a coyote spotted at the pond but I’ve seen canine tracks in the snow along the shore that are obviously not leashed dogs. It’s possible some park visitors allow their animals to run free on the ice, but it’s also possible we have a coyote looking for a muskrat or wildfowl meal.
I can identify many millpond ducks by their markings or behaviors, but I’m unsure of this hen’s history. Plumage can change with each molt. She may be Valiant since she hasn’t been seen for months or she might be Blonde Bombshell #2. Until I have time to review photos to determine her heritage, I shall call her Angel.
Within the past few weeks, she’s started to remain with the domestic ducks near Main Street. She’s sizing up the drakes as possible mates hoping one will surrender to her charms. Since Buda seems smitten with Mrs PomPom, he’s allowing the other three drakes in his group to pursue Angel’s affection. Dexter and Buddy admire her beauty (below left). Later, Dexter and Beauregard escort the young damsel around the pond (below right) while Buda watches.
Most hens are actively courting drakes by bobbing their heads and clucking now. Angel hasn’t singled out her special choice yet but will probably select another large domestic since ducks tend to gravitate toward others of the same size. Beauregard and Buddy certainly find her actions alluring (below left). Angel (below right) is a hybrid mix of two domestic breeds, Buff Orpington and Pekin.
MooseTracks, a member of the Dam Tribe, is rarely demonstrative but also shows interest in Angel. I have a hunch, by mid-summer, Angel will be a member of the Buda Bunch because of the attention she’s getting from all of the drakes in that sub-flock (below center and right).
SweetPea, the only dark billed white duck on the millpond, reviews the troops and evaluates their potential as the father of her first clutch of 2013 eggs (below). She’s running late. In 2012, she was nesting by late February in the first of five nests and 43 eggs for the season. None hatched because she loses interest in incubating the eggs. The drakes pictured below are all members of SweetPea’s sub-flock, the Dam Tribe. Left to right, they are Duke, Fred, Desi, and MooseTracks.
Since Fred and Desi (White and Fawn Indian Runners) became members of the Dam Tribe last year, they are SweetPea’s primary suitors (below). MooseTracks has lost interest in her charms since they’ve known each other for 7-8 years. He chases away drakes from other sub-flocks, but doesn’t waste his time courting her. Instead, he takes excursions to distribute his genes through quick encounters with willing and unwilling hens. Tux is one of his progeny from last summer. Duke, a Rouen duck, is a passive gent who rarely demonstrates much interest in SweetPea, but once in a while he tires of the antics of the Indian Runners and reminds them he is bigger and more powerful (bottom) in chest-to-chest shoving matches.
SweetPea bobs her head and clucks at each drake (above left) in what can only be described as indiscriminate, hormonally driven overtures. Since she’s ecumenical, she doesn’t restrict her gestures to her own tribe. While she has some choice in the matter, she isn’t totally in control. About a third of all duck matings are forced. Drakes from the Buda Bunch will pay her visits throughout spring and summer.
I make light about SweetPea’s romantic life at the pond because it’s fun to write, but it points to a serious problem: an unnatural male-to-female ratio. One drake is enough for 3-10 hens, but the millpond has a disastrous ratio of four domestic drakes per hen. The shortage of females puts extreme mating pressure on them. Last summer, two domestics died and Mrs PomPom was severely injured. Why does this happen? In the mass production of domestic ducks and chickens, females have more value. Male chicks are sometimes tossed into grinders shortly after birth to become fertilizer or sold as pets. Cute little ducklings impulsively purchased by uneducated consumers end up being discarded at the pond. Having more hens would lessen mating stress considerably but it’s unlikely to happen.
Trumpeting all of the way, Sandhills cranes flew over the millpond on their way from their daytime search for food to their unknown nighttime roosting location. They returned to the area for their breeding season within the past two weeks. How wish I didn’t have my camera stashed under two zippered sweaters when they arrived. I probably would have had time to focus the camera and change the other settings before they roared past me.
Ah, the starlings have returned. A bonded pair perches high as the setting sun reflects in the eye of the male. You can thank Shakespeare and Eugene Schieffelin for their U.S. presence along with 200 million of their relatives. Note how the tree buds have swollen as they wait for warmer days to unfurl their leaves and develop their seeds. It’s still a month away but reassuring to see the first signs of a change in seasons.
Ducks on the pond are batting their eyes at each other as they seek suitable partners. Drakes spar to establish dominance for first dibs on hens. The first raccoon of the season scouted thinning ice last evening looking for something to enlarge his healthy, though lean, frame.
Spring is in the hearts, but not in the air. Yet.
The angle of the sun still doesn’t provide much warmth at the end of the day here in Michigan, but it’s a welcome visitor. Wish it would stick around and melt the pond ice. It’s helping, but I want to see more effort on its part so I can ditch my thick winter coat seen here on the boardwalk near Stillwater Grill.
Days above freezing opens a slice of flowing water near the north end of the pond. It doesn’t extend the entire half-mile length of the pond yet, but it soon will. It’s difficult for us (park visitors and resident critters) to be patient. The flowing water provides the millpond muskrats with a fresh choice of snacks. Bits of vegetation are caught on the edge of the ice as they flow downstream. As the sun sets, the rodents can be seen along the edge of the ice dining on whatever the current has brought to them (above).
The above picture is for my Australian friend who doesn’t live where ice forms on ponds. I want her to see how one can judge the thickness of ice by looking for vertical fractures like the one shown here that arcs across the image. While it would be easier to see if the ice wasn’t pebbled , it’s still possible to tell the ice is about six inches thick in this shaded area. In other places, it’s wafer thin. Its thickness is determined by speed of the water flowing under it, exposure to sun, depth, and the activity of waterfowl and muskrats.
As the ice deteriorates, impurities within it determine the rate just as much as the amount of sun it receives and the temperature of days and nights. At right, ice directly below a millpond boardwalk begins to show signs of its demise and the monochrome patterns are often interesting and painterly.