Wednesday, August 22, 2007

June 8, 2007

It’s a regular biology lab around here.

Last week Addy ran in from her swingset with an inchworm on her arm. Last night she chased the fattest toad I have ever seen under our deck. But there’s more.

Last week we took a trip to Sunrise Lake, a county park and our favorite swimming hole. Addy likes to jump from the big rock — about diving board height — into the shallow water. Dori likes to throw fists full of sand. Bob and I like that it’s quiet and we are usually the only ones there. We all enjoy watching the baby bluegills swim around our feet. Every time we try to catch them, and every time we fail. It seems like it should be so easy.

But on the ride home, we spotted a painted turtle in the road. I pointed it out so Bob could swerve and spare its life. We decided to stop and investigate (possibly inspired by reading my copy of Carschooling by Diane Flynn Keith) and ended up bringing the poor sucker home. Addy named him Joseph. It’s an appropriate name because as an Eastern painted, he wears a coat of many colors. She only chose it because I thought the name Dori would be redundant. Joseph now lives in the fish tank we freecycled. While we have managed to kill many a fish and even snails over the years, Joseph is still alive. He eats earthworms.

Joseph joined the two goldfish in our garden pond for a quick dip while we set up the tank. We started the season with six fish, but four floated in May. We buy the 15-centers at Meijer, so high mortality is expected.

We get plenty of birds at the garden pond. They like to perch on the edge of the big pot we turned into a fountain and take a drink. We usually see robins and blue jays.

Then there are the starlings. Starlings are a noisy, messy species introduced from Europe. After we had our new roof put on, a pair introduced themselves to a little spot where a section of roof overhangs another section. They built a nest last year and are back again this year. I can hear them the loudest when using the throne in our master bedroom. The babies’ chirping is kind of cute, so they have been allowed to stay.

Every night this time of year, we hear lots of chirping in the sky overhead. About 500 chimney swifts live in the chimney of the old hospital next door. At dusk they all come in over the course of about half an hour, devouring insects as they go. It’s fun to stand outside from about 8:30 p.m. til pitch dark and watch them dive bomb and shoot into the chimney. It’s a little itchy, though, because they don’t get all the mosquitoes.

We have also been observing woodpeckers lately. Right now there’s a flicker on the maple tree in front of our house. We camped one night at Rose Lake this weekend and watched a downy as I set up the tent and Bob and Addy worked on starting the fire. A couple weeks ago we woke every morning to the loud sound of a woodpecker east of our house. We dropped everything and took a walk one afternoon when we heard it again and found a hole 2 feet high and a foot deep into the side of a red maple a block away. We haven’t seen the bird, but surely it was a pileated. I had only seen one pileated before (they’re as big as a crow and have the Woody Woodpecker red crest) and that one was on a residential street near Ferris (Lukie’s college). Then this week, I spotted one on a stump near the side of US-10 just outside of town. We stopped and rolled the windows down to hear it peck away for awhile. Could it be the same one that drilled into our neighbor’s maple?

We accompanied Bob to Big Rapids for his church council executive meeting on Tuesday. We stopped for ice cream afterward where Addy and a little girl watched some sort of green caterpillar crawl up Addy’s arm. Once it reached her neck (sorry, a little gross to me) I offered that we could take it home. She put it in a jar with a twig and some leaves. I figured it would die. This morning when we came down for breakfast she couldn’t find it. Dead, I assumed. Nope. It had spun a cocoon under a leaf. Addy is looking forward to a moth emerging. We’ll see. Another cool site: What is this caterpillar?

So with our pool still empty (except for some dark water and aquatic insects in the deep end), yesterday I suggested a trip to Cadillac to run some errands and then swim in Lake Cadillac. I was hot from planting annuals out front and the girls are always game to get wet. By the time Bob got home from work, we loaded up the car, then ran all our errands, it was 7 p.m. and it got mighty windy and a little cloudy at the beach. Since it was also hot, it seemed like one of those tornado’s-a-brewin’ days. Some drops of warm rain fell and I was about to rush Addy out of the water, but Bob reminded me that as long as she didn’t mind the light rain and there was no lightning, we were fine. The rain stopped, but the waves were choppy from the wind. Bob, Dori and I waded in the water while Addy swam.

I turned toward the shore and noticed a big dark spot in the water. I asked Bob to check it out. I didn’t remember a huge rock at this beach, and if a big log were rolling around in the water I thought we should remove it for the kids’ safety. He waded over and stared at it awhile before declaring, “It’s a school of fish!” I didn’t think it was possible. It was almost a solid mass, about 5 feet long and 2 feet deep and wide. The edges were wavy, so it was surely a huge mess of seaweed. But nope. We saw a very big fish swimming around the mass in circles. It was at least two feet long, nice and broad. Finally convinced that this could possibly be fish, I called Addy over. Bob went to the van to get Addy’s butterfly net (left from the trip to Sunrise Lake the previous week) as Jaws swam around our feet and the school of little fish. We followed the mass and when he came back he scooped the net into the edge of it. He dipped out two dozen little fish. I estimate there were 10,000 in the school.

We slid them into a travel mug (which will never hold my drink again) and drove home. Half are living with Joseph the turtle and half are in the garden pond. If they live, they’ll probably eat the two remaining goldfish. Thanks to a very cool University of Wisconsin fish identification database,, we found out they are bowfin. Our estimate of thousands of babies was confirmed by what we read online. Up to three females lay their eggs in a mud nest. The male bowfin stays near, swimming around them as eggs and for a few weeks after they hatch. They’re an ancient species from prehistory and have an unusual bladder used for breathing.

We wonder if the odd weather and the big waves brought them to the shore of Lake Cadillac. It was among the coolest things I have ever seen in my life. And yes, we realize a DNR officer would not be thrilled to hear what we’re keeping in our tank and pond.

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