CURRENTLY IN THE ARCHIVES:  "Forget-Me-Nots" (6/1/17); "Venus - The Morning Star" (6/8/17); "Mastodons in the Thumb" (11/10/16); "Black-billed Cuckoo (7/13/17);  "Lost in Missouri and Daniel Boone" (4/13/17); "Fireflies, aka Lightning Bugs" (7/20/17)

from THE MINDEN CITY HERALD - June 8, 2017
The Daniel J. Morrell sank off the tip of the Thumb on November 29, 1966.

It is hard to imagine that mastodons once roamed the fields and forests of the Thumb.  The thought of these prehistoric elephants living and dying in an area we now call home seems strange and farfetched.  Even when the fossilized bones and teeth of one of these extinct giants are discovered in a swamp or farm field, the mind has trouble connecting them with modern reality.  But mastodons were here. About that, there is no dispute.

Last month in neighboring Tuscola County, researchers from the University of Michigan recovered the bones of an almost complete Ice Age mastodon.  It happened during a four-day dig at the Fowler Center for Outdoor Learning near Mayville.  About 60 to 70 percent 
of the creature’s skeleton was found, including the skull and almost 75 bones.  The tusks and the lower jaw, however, were not located.

Over the years, about 300 mastodons have been discovered in Michigan, but fewer than ten have been as complete as the one 
found in Tuscola County.  Now called the Fowler Center Mastodon, the young male was about 30 years old at the time of his death, an estimate based on the condition of his molars.  The mastodon probably lived between 11,000 and 13,000 years ago.

David Fisher, a paleontology professor from the University of Michigan and one of the experts present at the dig, summed up 
the significance of the discovery:

“This is the most complete Michigan mastodon skeleton in many decades. The last time a mastodon this complete was found in Michigan was the 1940s.  That was the Owosso mastodon, a mature female skeleton mounted at the U-M Museum of Natural History.  
As I recall, she was about 80 percent complete.”

According to researchers at the site, the bones show signs that 
they may have been butchered and processed by early human hunters.  Some of them were still articulated (in the same relative position to each other as when the animal was alive), and they appeared to have been stored in separate piles, perhaps at the bottom of an ancient pond, used as a type of primitive refrigeration.

 The fine-grained, silty deposits in which the bones were found also suggest storage under water.  Sometimes, early hunters used the cold, low-oxygen environment of a pond-bottom to preserve excess meat for future use.

It was clear to the researchers that the mastodon carcass had not been left to the elements or picked apart by animal scavengers.  
The bones were not scattered around the site in random fashion, 
but rather grouped together.  Fisher is almost certain that early hunters butchered the carcass after killing the mastodon or coming across its dead body: “I would say it is roughly 80 percent likely that humans were involved and responsible….”

The recently recovered mastodon has been donated to the U of M Museum of Paleontology, where the bones will be cleaned and 
further analyzed.  Researchers will examine them carefully for 
cut marks and other signs of human butchery.  They will also use radiocarbon dating to determine the age of the specimen and carefully examine the roots of its wisdom teeth for clues to the season in which it died. 

The story of the Fowler Center Mastodon began two years ago 
when a local farmer discovered a large bone sticking out of a 
stream bank in Tuscola County.  Water and erosion had brought 
to light a fossilized skeleton, which had been hidden in the ground for 10,000 years.  Now, scientists and researchers will examine the bones to learn more about how this young mastodon lived and died. 

For residents of the Thumb, however, it is still difficult to imagine a prehistoric elephant “in the backyard.”


Notes: In 2002, the mastodon ("Mammut americanum") became the official state fossil of Michigan.  A geology instructor at Washtenaw Community College in Ann Arbor, David P. Thomas, Sr., spearheaded the drive for legislative action.  The new state fossil calls attention to Michigan’s Ice Age history.

Michigan also lays claim to the longest and most intact trail of mastodon footprints ever discovered.  It is located near Ann Arbor and consists of about 30 footprints.

Scientists believe mastodons originated in Africa about 35 million years ago and entered North America 20 million years later.  They became extinct about 10,000 years ago.

In addition to mastodon fossils, the bones of wooly mammoths have also been found in Michigan, but at fewer sites (about 30).

The word "mastodon" is derived from the Greek word for “breast” 
or “nipple” and the word for “tooth.”  Literally, it means “nipple-tooth.” Mastodons had teeth with nipple-shaped cusps, which were well-suited for chewing up twigs, leaves, and small branches in a forest environment. They were browsers, and their teeth were very different from the flat, grater-like enamel plates of mammoths and modern-day elephants (grazers), whose molars are designed for grinding up tough grasses on the open, treeless plains.  

After other trees have lost their leaves, yellow-gold tamaracks provide a touch of color along roads in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.  
The mastodon is a prehistoric relative of the modern elephant.  It became extinct in North America about 10,000 years ago.
Two prehistoric elephants and their modern-day relative (middle) with a size comparison to a human being.

           from THE MINDEN CITY HERALD - APRIL 13, 2017
On a recent trip to Oklahoma City to see my sister, I took a wrong turn in St. Louis, Missouri, and got lost.   Technically, I knew where I was, but not how to get where I wanted to be.   The traffic was heavy, and I was headed west on I-70 instead of south and west on I-44.   Eventually, I drove out of the city, took an easy on-off exit, and called my brother-in-law for directions.

I told him that I definitely was not retracing my steps back toward St. Louis, so he suggested I continue west on I-70 and then take County Road 47 south to I-44.  It sounded like a plan!

After I got off the expressway on 47, I enjoyed a leisurely drive through the Missouri countryside.   I was happy that I was no longer “lost” and that I was once again on my way to Oklahoma City. 

Just after I drove through the small town of Marthasville, I passed a country road and a sign which read, “Daniel Boone Monument.”   I did not have time to stop and did not know if I should, so I continued south for about two miles before turning around and going back to investigate.   The sign on the opposite side of the road was more explicit: “Daniel Boone Grave and Monument.”

I turned east on Boone Monument Road and drove to a small rural cemetery on the top of a low hill.   I walked up the steps and found myself at the grave of Daniel Boone, one of the greatest frontiersmen in the history of the country.  I knew that in old age he had crossed the Mississippi River in his quest for “elbow room” and that he died in Missouri, but I was astonished that I had accidentally stumbled across his grave. It was pure serendipity!

Daniel Boone was the ultimate woodsman, pioneer, and explorer - the quintessential American frontiersman.   Born into a Quaker family in Pennsylvania in 1734, young Boone grew up on the edge of the wilderness.   He was given his first rifle at age twelve and taught how to use it by local hunters and the Lenape Indians, who lived in close proximity to the tolerant, peace-loving Quakers.

At age sixteen, Boone moved with his family to the Yadkin River Valley, a backwoods region of western North Carolina.   He served as a wagoner for the British army in the French and Indian War (1754-1763) and narrowly escaped death at the Battle of Monogahela (1755).   While serving in the war, he met a fellow wagoner and fur trader John Findley, who first told him about the wonders of “Kaintuck,” and about the unspoiled wilderness beyond the mountains.

Returning from the war in 1756, Boone married a neighbor girl, Rebecca Bryan, and together they had ten children.  In the beginning, he supported his young family by trapping and hunting.  Each autumn, he was gone for several months at a time on what he called “long hunts.”  These excursions in search of deer skins, furs, and pelts took him farther and farther west.

In the fall of 1767, Boone entered Kentucky for the first time during one of 
his extended hunting trips.   He continued to explore the region for the next several years.   In 1769, he went to Kentucky on a “long hunt” which lasted two years.   Then in 1773, he decided to settle in the region he had been exploring, so he packed up his family and headed for the so-called “dark 
and bloody ground” with a group of about fifty pioneers.   However, the expedition turned back after two young boys were captured by Delaware 
and Shawnee warriors and gruesomely tortured to death.   Boone’s son James was one of the unfortunate victims. 

Two years later with the Indian menace lessened, Boone and about thirty axmen blazed a trail into Kentucky through the Cumberland Gap in the Appalachian Mountains.   The “Wilderness Road” led to a new settlement 
on the Kentucky River named “Boonesborough.”  Boone brought his family to the town named in his honor on September 8, 1775.

Boone’s exploits in Kentucky during the Revolutionary War (1775-1881) 
and his struggles with the Shawnee chief Blackfish are legendary.  His adventures define what it meant to be a woodsman on the American frontier.

 When the war ended, Boone was elected to the Virginia State Assembly and represented Bourbon County in Richmond since Kentucky was still the westernmost county of Virginia.  He also worked as surveyor, horse trader, tavern keeper, and land speculator.

As the years passed, Boone was plagued by legal and financial setbacks, especially after Kentucky was admitted to the Union in 1792 and his land holdings were questioned.   In 1799 at the age of 65, he decided to make a fresh start.   He headed west again and moved his extended family across the Mississippi River into Spanish Louisiana (land which President Thomas Jefferson would later acquire from France in 1803).  Boone settled in what 
is now St. Charles County, Missouri.   The Spanish welcomed the famous woodsman and gave him legal and military authority to administer his district.

Boone spent the last twenty-one years of his life in Missouri, enjoying the company of his children and grandchildren and basking in his fame as a famous American frontiersman.  He continued to hunt, trap, and explore 
well into his eighties.

On September 26, 1820, Daniel Boone died in Missouri at the home of his 
son Nathan.  He was just shy of his 86th birthday.  The old hunter was laid 
to rest next to his wife Rebecca, who had died in 1813.  Both were buried on a small hill overlooking the Tuque River on a farm owned by their daughter Jemima and her husband, Flanders Callaway.   Today, the Daniel Boone Monument marks their original graves. 

In retrospect, I only found this iconic location because I got lost in 
St. Louis.   I certainly would not have come across Daniel Boone’s grave 
if I had followed the correct route through the city.  I have to say I am glad it happened. Maybe being lost has its advantages.

Someone once asked Daniel Boone if he ever got lost out in the wilderness. His reply was: “I can’t say I was ever lost, but I was once bewildered for about three days.”

After my experience in St. Louis, I think I know what he meant!


Notes: The original bronze plaque on the Daniel Boone Monument was 
stolen by a vandal in 2008 and melted down for scrap.  Black granite was used in the replacement to prevent it from happening again.  The inscription on the new plaque reads:

OCTOBER 22, 1734
SEPTEMBER 26, 1820
DIED MARCH 18, 1813

As the inscription indicates, Daniel Boone and his wife Rebecca made 
“one final move” in 1845; and this time the direction was east, not west.   
A delegation from Kentucky dug up what remained of the bodies after twenty-five years and moved some of the bones to a new cemetery in the state capitol.   A large monument in Frankfort marks their final resting place.

However, some claim that Boone’s body, or at least part of it, never left Missouri.   According to the legend, Boone’s grave had not been properly marked when he was buried in the little cemetery on his daughter’s farm; 
and as a result, the men from Kentucky dug up the wrong body and took someone else’s bones back to Frankfort.

In any case, I doubt that Daniel Boone would have approved of his new 
burial site in a crowded cemetery in the east.   After all, he spent his whole life “westering” and looking for “elbow room.”    The humble graveyard in Missouri seems like a more fitting resting place for a frontiersman and explorer whose eyes were constantly trained on the western horizon.

However, in Kentucky’s defense, Boone also once said: “Heaven must be 
a Kentucky kind of place.”

In the early 1800’s, James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851) wrote five novels about the American frontier, including The Last of the Mohicans (1826) and The Deerslayer (1841).   Collectively, they are known as the Leatherstocking Tales. The fictional hero of these books, Nathaniel (Natty) Bumppo, resembled Daniel Boone in his exploits and attitudes.  
Even their names are similar.  Like Boone, Natty Bumppo also moved across the Mississippi River to escape the encroachments of civilization and died 
on the western frontier.   The death of the Leatherstocking is the described 
in Cooper’s 1827 novel, The Prairie.

In the 20th century, Johnny Cash’s song “Road to Kaintuck” tells the story
 of pioneers heading west to Kentucky on the Wilderness Road.   It recounts the tragic death of Daniel Boone’s son James in 1773.   The song, written by June Carter, was featured in Bitter Tears, Cash’s 1964 album which laments the plight of Native Americans and their unfair treatment by the U.S. government.


“We're goin' west to Kaintuck, down the road to Moccasin Gap
Down the wilderness road, down the dug road, the old reedy creek road
The road down troublesome, the road through Moccasin Gap

Well, it's a hot day in '73 and this is my wife and my kid with me
Daniel Boone lost his boy the other day
Young Jim Boone's dead, now twenty miles away

Well, if you love your wife and love your baby, man
You better turn that wagon back as soon as you can
Every Injun in them hills has gone berserk
And you never gonna make it to Kaintuck
Ah, I bet I'm gonna make it to Kaintuck

I'm goin' west to Kaintuck, down the road to Moccasin Gap
Down the wilderness road, down the dug road, the old reedy creek road
The road down troublesome, the road through Moccasin Gap.”

The Daniel Boone Monument near Marthasville, Missouri, marks the spot where Daniel and his wife Rebecca were originally buried.  The black granite plaque is a replacement for the original bronze 
version, which was stolen by a vandal in 2008 and melted down for scrap.
          "Fireflies, aka
          Lightning Bugs"
            Scroll down!

Forget-me-nots are a familiar sight in the Thumb as spring fades and summer approaches.   Often found growing wild at the edge of woodlots and along roadsides, the tiny sky-blue flowers are also a popular cultivated species, frequently planted in rock gardens and flower beds.   Some gardeners use 
them as ground cover or as a colorful blue border around other perennials.

Perhaps no other wildflower has a more evocative name.  The forget-me-not seems to plead for remembrance and gives quiet voice to one of the most universal themes of human existence – the desire never to be forgotten…
in life and love. 

Since medieval times, the small blue flower has appeared in countless tales and legends as a symbol of friendship and enduring love.   Many stories explain the origin of the flower’s unusual name.  Some linguists claim that the word “forget-me-not” first appeared in a German folktale in the fourteenth century.

According to the story, an armor-clad knight was walking along the Rhine River with a beautiful maiden at his side.  It was springtime, and love was in the air.
The knight noticed some small blue flowers growing on the edge of a steep 
bank and decided to pick them for his lady.   He reached down and got the flowers, but his foot slipped and he fell into the powerful, swift-flowing stream.   The weight of his armor dragged him down, but before he disappeared under the water, he threw the freshly-picked bouquet to his lovely companion and shouted, “Forget me not!”  The distraught maiden repeated his final words so often that eventually they were used to name the delicate sky-blue flowers that he had picked for her. 

Of course, the lovelorn German knight did not resort to English for his final words, and his watery plea eventually became the word “Vergissmeinnicht.”   “Forget-me-not” was “calqued” or translated literally from that German expression and became the flower’s English name.

Another myth about the origin of the forget-me-not comes from a fanciful Greek creation story.  It seems that Zeus had almost finished giving the newly created flowers their colors when a small, over-looked bloom softly whispered, “Forget me not.”  The sympathetic god looked around, but unfortunately there was only 
a small amount of light blue tint left.  He quickly bestowed the unused color on the tiny flower and then named it with the same words used in its humble plea.

Myths and legends aside, the forget-me-not is a member of the borage family.   
Its Latin name Myosotis means “mouse’s ear,” a reference to its small hairy leaves.

In the beginning, most species of Myosotis originated in western Eurasia and New Zealand, with a small number of varieties growing in North America, South America, and Papua New Guinea.   Eventually, however, human activity spread the small blue flowers around the world, and now many non-native species flourish outside their place of origin.

There are currently seventy-four recognized species of Myosotis in the world, including six Michigan varieties:  Myosotis sylvatica (Garden Forget-me-not); Myosotis scorpioides (True Forget-me-not); Myosotis laxa (Smaller Forget-me-not); Myosotis arvensis (Field Forget-me-not); Myosotis stricta (Strict Forget-me-not); and Myosotis discolor (Changing Forget-me-not). Needless to say, most people are unable to recognize the various species, but enjoy them just the same. 

In the nineteenth century, the famous Transcendentalist philosopher Henry 
David Thoreau of Walden Pond fame often wrote about wild flowers, and he 
was especially fond of a native species of Myosotis

“The mouse-ear forget-me-not, Myosotis laxa, has now extended its racemes 
very much, and hangs over the edge of the brook. It is one of the most interesting minute flowers. It is the more beautiful for being small and unpretending; even flowers must be modest.”

Another northern species (Myosotis alpestris) is the state flower of Alaska.  
It began as the official symbol of the Grand Igloo, an organization of pioneer settlers who arrived in Alaska before 1900.   In 1912, Alaska became a U.S. Territory; five years later on April 28, 1917, the governor signed a bill which 
made the forget-me-not the official territorial flower.

A poem was written for the occasion by Esther Birdsall Darling, an Alaskan pioneer and author:

“So in thinking for an emblem
For this Empire of the North
We will choose this azure flower
That the golden days bring forth,
For we want men to remember
That Alaska came to stay
Though she slept unknown for ages
And awakened in a day.
So although they say we’re living
In a land that God forgot,
We’ll recall Alaska to them
With our blue Forget-me-not.”

After the bill was signed by the territorial governor of Alaska and the 
forget-me-not was officially recognized, another short poem mysteriously appeared.  It was written in the margin of the legislation by an anonymous 
poet, someone who evidently had a great appreciation for the old Grand Igloo pioneers and their love of the forget-me-not:

“A little flower blossoms forth 
On every hill and dale,
The emblem of the Pioneers
Upon the rugged trail;
The Pioneers have asked it
And we could deny them not;
So the emblem of Alaska
Is the blue Forget-me-not.”

Ten years later (1927), a contest was held in Alaska to design a territorial flag 
for the future state.   A thirteen-year-old Aleut boy from Seward named Benny Benson submitted the winning entry.   It featured the North Star and the Big Dipper on a field of blue. The young boy explained the logic behind the design which beat out 700 other entries:

“The blue field is for the Alaska sky and the Forget-me-not, an Alaskan flower. The North Star is for the future state of Alaska, the most northerly in the Union. The Dipper is for the Great Bear – symbolizing strength.”

When Alaska was finally admitted to the Union in 1959 as the forty-ninth state, 
the old territorial banner became the state flag and the forget-me-not was formally adopted as the official state flower.

In the Thumb, forget-me-nots are easy to grow and do not require a lot of attention.   Once established, they will reseed themselves and bloom again 
each spring.   No wild land or flower garden is complete without them. Their annual message, like their name and appearance, is simple, clear, and beautiful: FORGET-ME-NOT! 


The Latin name of the forget-me-not (Myosotis) is derived from a Greek word meaning
 "mouse's ear."  It refers to the small hairy leaves of the strikingly beautiful spring wildflower.

Venus is brighter than any other star or planet in the night sky.   Only 
the moon outshines it.  Because of its prominence, Venus has been an object of human interest since prehistoric times.  Some ancient cultures regarded the bright planet as divine.

Ancient Greek astronomers did not understand that Venus traveled 
in-and-out of view in its orbit around the sun, so when they saw it at 
night, they named it “Hesperus” (Evening Star) and called it “Phosphorus” (Morning Star) when it appeared before dawn.   Only much later did stargazers realize that the Morning Star and the Evening Star were one 
and the same.   For the Greeks, moving celestial objects like Venus were planetes or “wanderers.”  Our word “planet” is derived from their notion of “wandering stars.”

Because it was the brightest of the five known planets, Roman astronomers named it “Venus” in honor of their goddess of love and beauty.  It is the only planet in the solar system with a female name. 

Venus is the second planet from the sun and the one nearest to Earth.  
It is sometimes referred to as Earth’s “twin” or “sister planet” because 
of similarities in size, mass, gravity, and composition.  With a diameter 
of 7,514 miles, Venus is slightly smaller than Earth (7,918 miles).

Venus is dotted with thousands of volcanoes, some of which are still active.  Mountain ranges cover about a third of the planet, and one mountain in particular reaches a height of 36,000 feet (considerably 
higher than Mount Everest).

Although they are called “twins,” the surface conditions on Venus are much different from those on Earth.   Venus is surrounded by dense, opaque clouds of carbon dioxide, which trap the sun’s heat and raise 
the surface temperature to over 850 degrees Fahrenheit.  Because of this exaggerated “greenhouse effect,” the temperatures on the “sister planet” are even hotter than those on Mercury, which is much closer to the sun.  
An astronomer once said that the intense heat, swirling clouds, and desolate landscape make Venus the closest thing to Hell in the solar system.   However, when men look up at the night sky and see Venus shining brightly among the stars, they think only of celestial light and heavenly beauty.

It takes Venus 225 earth days to complete one revolution around the sun.   Like the Earth, Venus also rotates on its axis as it moves in its solar orbit.   However, it is in “slow motion” - one complete rotation every 243 days. 

Unlike the Earth, which rotates counterclockwise from west to east, 
Venus turns clockwise on its axis.   It slowly rotates from east to west 
or retrograde to its counterclockwise orbit around the sun.   On Venus, 
the sun appears to rise in the west at dawn and set in the east at nightfall; that is, if the sun could actually be seen through the thick, heavy clouds which smother the planet.

Because of its nearness to Earth, Venus was the first planet visited by a spacecraft.   In 1962, Mariner II passed within 21,600 miles of Venus, and the Russian Venera 7 successfully landed on its surface in 1970.

At present, Venus can be seen in the eastern sky just before dawn, and it will continue to shine there during the upcoming summer months.   If you want to see the Morning Star, get up an hour before sunrise, walk outside, and look east.   The same bright “wandering star,” which illumined the skies over ancient Babylon, Egypt, Greece, and Rome, will be there – ageless and unchanged, still silently captivating the imagination of all 
who look up in wonder and awe.


Notes: On Monday, June 19, 2017 (in the east one hour before sunrise), Venus will be located below and left of the waning moon.   On Tuesday, June 20, Venus and the moon will be closer together and almost directly across from each other. On Wednesday, June 21, Venus will be above the old moon and slightly to the right.   The New Moon will occur on Friday, June 23, at 10:31 p.m. EDT - the first easy sighting of the New Moon will be 40 minutes after sunset on Sunday, June 25, in the WNW near the horizon. 

 – taken from the “Abrams Planetarium Sky Calendar June 2017”

Michigan State University publishes the “Abrams Planetarium Sky Calendar” in monthly installments during the year.  It is available by subscription and contains information about solar events and a map 
of the visible stars and planets for each month.  The cost is $12 per year, and you can start a subscription at any time.   Send a check or money order for $12 to: Sky Calendar, Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University, 755 Science Rd., East Lansing, MI 48824, or apply online at www.abramsplanetarium.org/SkyCalendar.

Schock McCoy Productions features monthly information from the 
“Sky Calendar” on the homepage (e.g. “June Sky”) as well as a link 
to the Abrams Planetarium website.
Except for the moon, Venus is the brightest object in the night sky.  Barren, hot, and inhospitable, it is surrounded by clouds of carbon dioxide and very different from the water-covered, life-giving earth.

Last Thursday, a picture on Facebook caught my attention.  It was a close-up of a black-billed cuckoo, held by the legs and sporting a newly attached metal leg band.  Owl banders at Whitefish Point Bird Observatory in the Upper Peninsula had accidentally caught a cuckoo in their nets during the night.  Before releasing it, they took a picture and posted it on Facebook at 6:18 a.m. on July 6.

Their comment explained what happened:

“Along with 14 Northern Saw-whet Owls and a Long-eared Owl, we also banded this Black-billed Cuckoo last night.   It is very unusual for us to catch any birds other than owls during the summer nights and cuckoos are uncommon at the Point, so it is surprising that this is the second time we have banded one during a summer season.”

I shared their post on the Schock McCoy Productions Facebook page and added my 
own comment: “A very elusive bird, also found in the Thumb.” 

There are three species of cuckoos in North America: the black-billed cuckoo, the 
yellow-billed cuckoo, and the mangrove cuckoo.   Of the three, the mangrove cuckoo 
has the most restricted range – it is limited to the mangrove swamps of southern Florida.
Both black-billed and yellow-billed cuckoos can be found in Michigan during the summer nesting season, but the black-billed is the more northerly species.

None of the three cuckoos is easy to spot, at least according to the description in the Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America:

“Typical North American Cuckoos are slender, long-tailed birds. Secretive, more often heard than seen, they move about through heavy foliage of trees, feeding on hairy caterpillars and other insects.”

The Sibley Guide to Birds refers to them as “inconspicuous” and uses the word “furtively” to describe their secretive movements in trees and bushes.   It is no wonder that the average bird watcher seldom sees them. 

While driving in the Thumb this summer, I saw at least one black-billed cuckoo flying across the road.  With its olive-brown color above and white below, its slim profile, long tail, and brown wings, it is hard to mistake it for any other bird.  (Yellow-billed cuckoos have rusty-red wings, which are obvious in flight.)

In June, I heard a black-billed cuckoo calling far back in the woods.  Its repetitive and monotonous song is relatively easy to recognize because it is so different from other bird sounds usually heard in the Thumb.   The Kaufman Field Guide describes it as a “fast series of short hollow notes, cucucu, cucucucu, etc.”

Black-billed cuckoos are usually only vocal during the mating season, sometimes singing at night.   Afterwards, they return to their silent life, skulking about in the dense vegetation or sitting motionless on a branch for short periods of time.

I don’t ever recall getting a good view of a black-billed cuckoo near my home in Sand Beach Township; that is, until after I saw the picture on Facebook and posted my comment about how elusive they can be.

The very next day, I took a walk in the subdivision in the late afternoon.   As I walked along a wooded section of the road, I noticed some movement in the thick brush.   Suddenly, a long-tailed, olive-brown bird popped up and perched in a small tree.   It 
was a black-billed cuckoo, sitting there in plain sight!

I did not need binoculars.  Its slim profile and long tail were in full view, and I could see its black, slightly decurved bill with my naked eye.  From time to time, I even caught a glimpse of its red orbital eye-ring. I was that close!

The black-billed cuckoo seemed to be posing for a picture.  The only problem was I had forgotten my iPhone!   I knew that I had left it behind when I started down the driveway, but I did not go back to get it. Big mistake!

I watched the black-billed cuckoo for about two minutes.  I even moved closer with a 
few slow-motion steps.  The bird seemed unconcerned and continued to sit there motionless in typical cuckoo fashion.  At one point, I saw a flash of wings and what I thought was a long tail moving about in the understory.   I assumed that its mate was also present.  Then, as suddenly as it had appeared, the black-billed cuckoo flew off 
into the thick brush and was gone.

My encounter with this elusive bird so soon after I saw the Facebook posting was a strange coincidence.  I did not get a picture, but my initial disappointment faded when 
I reminded myself that sometimes cameras can be a distraction during an unexpected wildlife encounter.   You can miss a lot fussing with an iPhone and trying to get a good shot.  This time, I was simply able to watch and enjoy.

I have no photo to share on Facebook - only my memory of an obliging black-billed cuckoo, posing for what might have been a “perfect picture.”


Notes: Black-billed cuckoos eat large quantities of destructive caterpillars shunned 
by most other birds, including tent caterpillars, fall webworms, and the larva of gypsy moths.  For this reason, they are very beneficial to forests, farms, and orchards.

The black-billed cuckoo is a long-distance migrant, flying to South America in the fall.  
It is rarely seen during migration because of its silent and secret nature, but it is sometimes heard calling at night as it migrates north in the spring. 

Black-bill cuckoos were formerly much more common in North America.   The Cornell Lab of Ornithology states that “Black-billed Cuckoo populations declined by almost 3% per year in some parts of North America, resulting in a cumulative loss of about 66% between 1966 and 2015, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey.”  The usual culprits blamed for the decline are habitat loss and pesticides. 

To learn more about the summer owl banding program at Whitefish Point Bird Observatory, visit their website at: www.wpbo.org.   Whitefish Point Bird Observatory 
is also on Facebook.

Owl banders Chris Neri and Nova Mackentley, both accomplished wildlife photographers, live near Whitefish Point and own Night Flight Images.   They market their photos at shows and online.   You can contact them and view their work at www.nightflightimages.com.  (I have often shared their pictures on the SMP Facebook page.) 
A black-billed cuckoo was caught and banded at Whitefish Point Bird Observatory in the U.P. 
during the summer banding program.  The picture was posted on Facebook on July 6.

It is a good year for fireflies.  Also known as lightning bugs, their increased numbers have been making news in states like Kentucky, Virginia, and South Carolina.  Recently, ABC News aired a short video of these iconic summer insects lighting up the night sky in Pennsylvania, where the firefly is the state insect.   The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, usually ground zero for firefly displays, did not live up to expectations in 2017; but maybe areas in the Thumb are taking up the slack.   For example, there have been reports of a large number of fireflies in Minden City.   Two posts on Facebook by longtime village resident Kathryn Lautner are typical of what is happening in the area:

July 10 – “Must be the year of lightning bugs.  Seem to be out in full force tonight. Pretty to watch.”

And more poetic:

July 14 - “Hey…. Anyone out there who is interested, the lightning bugs are 
out in full force again tonight.  So pretty, as they dance through the dark.”

Before I saw Kathryn’s posts, I was planning on writing about lightning bugs because their numbers seem to be up in Sand Beach Township as well. 

Fireflies or lightning bugs are neither “flies” nor “bugs.”  They are actually winged beetles belonging to the family Lampyridae (from the Greek word for “bright”).  They use bioluminescence during their mating ritual to pair up in the dark.   The chemical reaction in their lower abdomens produces a “cold light,” which not only alerts prospective mates but also warns enemies of their toxic nature.  Fireflies are distasteful to predators and can even be poisonous.  They are one insect that bats will not eat.

Mating fireflies are most active in the twilight and predawn.   The females, which usually do not fly, perch on vegetation a little above the ground and respond with light signals to the glimmering males flying above.

Male fireflies emit short flashes of light and use their well-developed eyes to find the females signaling from below.  The length and duration of the flashes as well as the pauses in between are critical to the male’s aerial display.   Females will only respond to a specific pattern from males of their own species.

After mating, the female lays her eggs just below the surface of the ground.   When the eggs hatch in three or four weeks, the young larvae begin to feed on snails, slugs, and worms as summer merges into fall.  

After spending one or two years underground, the larvae eventually pupate and then emerge as the familiar firefly or lightning bug that brightens up the summer nights.

Firefly larvae also use bioluminescence to warn predators of their poisonous, unpalatable taste.   The term “glowworm” is sometimes used to describe them although it more generally applies to certain wingless fireflies, which glow 
rather than flash.

Fireflies are far less common than they were years ago.  The decline in their numbers is often blamed on loss of habitat, pesticides, and the use of artificial light, which can interfere with their mating process.   The “proverbial deck” seems to be stacked against them, and that is why the current increase in 
firefly numbers is both noticeable and noteworthy.

No one believes that fireflies will ever again be as widespread as they once were, and we can only imagine how their vast numbers lit up the dark fields and forests of the Thumb centuries ago.  But even in diminished numbers, fireflies can still produce magic and wonder in young and old alike.  They are synonymous with the perfect summer night and a reminder of the unspoiled beauty of the natural world, which is slowly disappearing.


Notes: The most common firefly in North America is Photinus pyralis, also known as the common eastern firefly or the Big Dipper firefly.   It is about one half inch in length and produces a yellow-green light.   The male of this species flashes a single time during an upward movement that looks like the letter “J.”   The female answers from the ground with a single stationary flash.

Some species of fireflies blink on-and-off in unison and synchronize their flashes.   In North America, there is only one synchronous firefly, Photinus carolinus.  A great place to see the mating ritual of this unusual species is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee.   Park rangers conduct firefly tours for visitors from across the country.   Shuttle buses provide access to the viewing area, and passes for the “Firefly Event” are awarded through a free lottery system.

There are over 150 species of fireflies in North America and 2,000 worldwide.   Some species glow rather than flash, and some do not flash at all but use pheromones to attract a mate.

The American Heritage Dictionary explains how the words “firefly” and “lightning bug” are used in the United States:

“Regional Note: Although firefly remains the literary and formal word, lightning bug is the term used by the majority of Americans for the slow-moving flying insect that flashes in the dark.   Nearly 80 percent of those interviewed for the Dictionary of American Regional English volunteered lightning bug, while not quite 30 percent said firefly (including those who said both).  Only in the northernmost states, especially New England, and along the Pacific coast, 
does firefly hold its own with lightning bug.”

The celebrated poet of New England Robert Frost (1874 – 1963) wrote a short poem about fireflies for his fifth book of poetry, West-Running Brook (1928).   “Fireflies in the Garden” is a whimsical six-line poem, which compares fireflies with the stars above.  It also hints at the difference between the vastness of eternal things and the diminutive nature of human endeavor. 


Here come real stars to fill the upper skies,
And here on earth come emulating flies,
That though they never equal stars in size,
(And they were never really stars at heart)
Achieve at times a very star-like start.
Only, of course, they can’t sustain the part.

The most common firefly in North America is Photinus pyralis, also called the Big Dipper firefly.  The male of the species flies in a  "J"-shaped pattern and flashes its light on the upswing to the female in the vegetation below.