1.  "Michigan State Parks Centennial" (5/24/19)  
2.  "Planets on Parade" (3/26/20)
3.  "Eastern Meadowlark" (4/2/20)
4.  "Lee A. Tregurtha and WW II" (4/9/20)
5.  "Pheasant Hunting Initiative in Sanilac County" (10/3/19)
6.  "'Christmas Bells' and the Poet" (12/25/19)
7.  "In Search of the Snowy Owl" (1/9/20)
8.  "Meadow Vole aka 'Field Mouse'" (3/19/20)

from THE MINDEN CITY HERALD -  3/26/20
The slogan for the Michigan State Parks Centennial is "Look Back, Give Forward." Michigan residents are encouraged to make a $100 donation to the state parks for 100 years of service. 
Jupiter rises about 4:30 a.m. along the ecliptic line (path of the sun, moon, and planets as seen from Earth) followed by Mars and Saturn.  The predawn alignment from earlier this week is pictured in an update from Earth Sky News (www.EarthSky.org.

This year, the State Parks of Michigan are celebrating their 100th birthday.  It all began on May 12, 1919, when the Legislature passed Public Act 218 and thereby created the Michigan State Park Commission.  Its primary task was to acquire new recreational land for a burgeoning car-tourism industry.    When Henry Ford made it possible for ordinary citizens to “hit the road,” the Michigan legislature recognized the need for more public space, where citizens and visitors to the state could enjoy Michigan’s pristine outdoor attractions.   A century later, the Wolverine State boasts 103 state parks, covering more than 300,000 acres and attracting over 28 million visitors annually.

Actually, Michigan’s first state park dates back to 1885, when the federal government transferred old Fort Michilimackinac (on the south shore of the Straits of Mackinac) and parts of Mackinac Island to state control.   With the transfer of this previously held federal land, Michigan became one of the first states in the nation to establish a state park.

However, it was not until the next century that a statewide system of public recreational lands began to take shape.   In the early 1900s, Michigan’s population was exploding, and the automobile industry made the citizens of the state increasingly mobile.  Urban dwellers drove into the country to enjoy Michigan’s lakes, forests, and rivers; but there were few public destinations and many “Private Property” signs to keep the new travelers at bay.

Then a century ago, the Legislature passed Public Act 218 and started Michigan down the road to one of the finest park systems in the country.

Many of Michigan’s first state parks were acquired through land donations from wealthy private citizens and philanthropists.   In 1922, the Board of Directors of the Dodge Brothers automobile company donated ten park sites to the state (over 600 acres) in Livingston, Monroe, and Oakland counties in memory of their founders, John F. and Horace E. Dodge.
Sadly, both of these automobile pioneers died of influenza within months of each other during a deadly flu pandemic.   John Dodge was 55 years old when he succumbed on January 14, 1920; Horace was 52 at the time of his death, December 10, 1920.

In accepting the Board’s gift on behalf of the state of Michigan, Governor Alexander J. Groesbeck (30th governor, 1921 -1927) said this of the Dodge brothers:

“Beginning in a small way, they had a large share in the development of the great automobile industry in Michigan.   This state is fast becoming the summer playground of the people of the central west, and the automobile is the main factor in this development.  John and Horace Dodge foresaw this condition, and I am sure, if they could express themselves today, the present action of your board of directors would receive their hardy approval….I agree with you that the recreational needs, particularly of our urban dwellers, are largely met by the establishment of such parks as this fine gift of Dodge Brothers Inc. has made possible.”

In northern Michigan, lumber companies donated large tracts of cutover land to the state for park development, and cities and counties followed suit, hoping thereby to attract the ever-increasing tourist population.   Some properties were added to the park system through foreclosure for delinquent taxes, and in a few cases desirable land was purchased outright.

In 1922, the state park system was placed under the control of the newly created Department of Conservation (now the Department of Natural Resources).   P.J. Hoffmaster was the first superintendent of Michigan’s state parks (1922-1934).  He was a man of vision and tireless enthusiasm. His strong policies and principles helped make the state park system what it is today.

In 1934, Hoffmaster became the director of the Department of Conservation and served in that capacity until his sudden death in 1951.  He is sometimes called the “founder of Michigan State Parks.”  In his public statements, Hoffmaster clearly articulated the dilemma facing Michigan in the 1920s:

“The appearance of ‘No Trespassing’ and ‘Private Property, Keep Out’ signs has been a growing one, all tending toward an approaching era of exclusion of the great mass of our residents and visitors from wonderful recreational advantages offered by the state.  Through this, if nothing else, has come the setting aside of tracts of land and water by the people for the use and enjoyment of all.”

Hoffmaster not only oversaw the development of new parks, but he also enlisted the aid 
of E. Genevieve Gillette (1898 -1986) to actively search the state for locations with park potential.  Gillette was the state’s first female landscape architect, and she worked tirelessly to expand and develop the park system.   She located and raised funds for some of Michigan’s most iconic state parks: Hartwick Pines, Wilderness, and Porcupine Mountains. She also founded the Michigan Parks Association and served as its president.

Even after Hoffmaster’s unexpected death in 1951, Gillette continued to champion the state park system.   When she died in 1986, The Detroit Free Press described her as “a saving angel to Michigan’s natural beauty.”

Ten years before her death, Michigan Governor William Milliken dedicated the E. Genevieve Gillette Visitor Center in tribute to her service and contributions to the state.   It seems fitting that this nature center is located in the P.J. Hoffmaster State Park in Muskegon County.   The two friends, who worked so vigorously to develop the state park system, are now honored together at the same location, an iconic Michigan state park famous for its sand dunes and extensive Lake Michigan shoreline.

The 100 year history of Michigan’s state parks is replete with countless stories of people 
and places that are now part of its lore and legend.  This centennial year is a good time to look back on the development of our state park system….from its earliest acquisitions to 
its more recent additions.

In February 2014, Belle Isle in the Detroit River became Michigan’s 102nd state park, and recently Watkins Lake State Park and County Preserve in Washtenaw County was added as park number 103.

Happy 100th Birthday, Michigan State Parks!


Notes: For more information on the history of Michigan State Parks, visit the Department of Natural Resources website at www.michigan.gov/stateparks100.  


The rooster pheasant close-up on this year's Michigan Hunting Digest  calls attention to the DNR's new pheasant release program for the 2019 - 2020 hunting seasons.  

The cover of the 2019 Michigan Hunting Digest features the head of a rooster pheasant in a close-up side-profile.   The colorful “ringneck” seems to be eyeballing sportsmen and saying, “I’m back!”   At least, that is the subtle message the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) would like to convey to small game hunters across the state.

In an attempt to restore and revitalize pheasant hunting in Michigan, the DNR is conducting a limited pheasant release during the 2019 and 2020 hunting seasons.   For several years, pheasant hunters in the state lobbied Michigan lawmakers to support a release program; and in 2018, the Legislature responded by passing Public Act 618, which appropriated $260,000 dollars from the general fund for the two year initiative.   The actual release of the birds will be handled by the Michigan Association of Game Breeders and Hunting Preserves, whose members are currently raising the pheasants.

The 2019 Hunting Digest describes the procedure that will be followed:
“Association members will be releasing the birds on a weekly basis at the designated game areas.  Rooster pheasants will be released outside legal shooting hours beginning on October 19, 2019 [the day before the pheasant opener in Zone 3, which includes the Thumb], and ending November 10, 2019, for the October/November release period.   For the December release period, birds will be released beginning after legal shooting hours on November 30, 2019 [last day of the firearm deer season] and ending December 27, 2019.” (p. 55)

The pheasant releases will take place in eleven state game areas in the southern part of the state, including the Minden City State Game Area in Sanilac County. According to Holly Vaughn, DNR Wildlife Communications Coordinator, a total of 5,600 roosters will be released overall, or about 500 birds per site.

The Hunting Digest lists the state game areas (SGA) chosen for this year’s release:

Bay County: Pinconning SGA
Cass County: Crane Pond SGA
Clinton County: Rose Lake SGA
Lapeer County: Lapeer SGA
Monroe County: Erie and Pointe Mouillee SGAs
Saginaw County: Crow Island SGA
Sanilac County: Minden City SGA
St. Clair County: St. Johns Marsh SGA
St. Joseph County: Leidy Lake SGA
Van Buren County: Cornish SGA

At each location, pheasants will be released in areas where there is suitable habitat and cover.   As a general rule, “ringnecks” prefer wild, open land - large weedy fields interspersed with shrubs and brushy cover.   Old cutdown cornfields, abandoned orchards, and thick, overgrown “soil bank” or “set-aside” fields are also ideal pheasant habitat.

Since much of the Minden City State Game Area is peat bog and wooded marshland, the pheasant release in Sanilac County will probably take place on the so-called “Mullet Muck Farm,” an 857 acre parcel of land on the eastern edge of the state game area between Palms Road and Mills Road.

Originally developed to maximize habitat for wetland-dependent species, the Mullet Muck Farm is currently being managed for ring-necked pheasants, at least according to “Objective E” in the 2012 “Minden City State Game Area Master Plan”:

“Objective E: Initiate treatments designed to improve PHEASANT HABITAT on the Mullet Muck Farm portion of the game area on a minimum of 80 acres annually.”

The master plan calls for actions to improve the grassland habitat and to prevent the invasion of woody vegetation and exotic plants like phragmites.  
Since the DNR has made pheasant habitat a priority on the Mullet Muck Farm, it seems like the obvious place for an effective and successful pheasant release in 2019.

The first day of pheasant season (Sunday, October 20) is less than three weeks away, and for many of the state’s die-hard pheasant hunters, the scheduled releases will mean a better-than-average year.   However, no one believes that the DNR’s Pheasant Hunting Initiative will affect the state’s overall pheasant population.  Nor will it ever restore the “glory days,” of the 1940s and 1950s, when the Thumb area was the “pheasant capitol of Michigan.”  However, the planned releases are certainly a step in the right direction.


Notes: The Hunting Digest also refers to “One-time Recruitment Events” – two other pheasant releases in 2019, especially designed for young hunters. These releases and mentored hunts will take place on November 2, 2019, at the Allegan State Game Area in Allegan County and on December 14, 2019, at the Shiawassee State Game Area, St. Charles, Michigan.  Registration and additional details are available on the DNR website (www.Michigan.gov/Hunting).

A Base License, which all Michigan hunters are required to buy, also serves as a small game hunting license in the state.  However, a pheasant endorsement must be added to the base license in order to hunt pheasants. The pheasant endorsement is FREE.

The Hunting Digest explains the rule:
“Pheasant hunters will need a free pheasant/sharp-tailed grouse endorsement on their hunting license.   Anyone hunting pheasants will need this endorsement except those hunting pheasant only on hunting preserves” (p. 55).

The Michigan Hunting Digest is available from all license dealers, or it can be downloaded online (www.Michigan.gov/DNRDigests).
from THE MINDEN CITY HERALD (12/25/19)

On Christmas Day in 1863, the celebrated American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem called “Christmas Bells.”  His words were later immortalized in the popular Christmas carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”

At the time, the Civil War between the North and the South was raging, and the year 1863 had seen some of the bloodiest fighting of the conflict.  The three-day Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania and the surrender of Vicksburg on the Mississippi River had tipped the balance in favor of the Union, but the war was far from over.

That Christmas, Longfellow was despondent.   Two years earlier in 1861, he had lost his wife Frances in a tragic accident at their home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Her dress had caught on fire while she was putting sealing wax on an envelope.  Frances was severely burned and died the next morning, leaving behind five young children.

In an attempt to save his wife, Longfellow tried to smother the flames and suffered burns on his hands and face.  He was too sick to attend her funeral, and for the rest of his life, he wore a beard to cover the scars on his face.

Christmas had never been the same for Longfellow after the death of his wife.   The first Christmas after the accident, he wrote: “How inexpressively sad are all holidays.”   On Christmas Day 1862, he penned a similar lament in his journal: “‘A Merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.”

In 1863, Christmas rolled around again, and another sad event marred the holiday for Longfellow.   His oldest son Charles had enlisted in the Union army against his father’s wishes and had been severely wounded in a recent battle in Virginia.  Longfellow brought him home to Cambridge and began the long process of trying to nurse his son back to health.

As he sat in his house on Christmas morning in 1863, Longfellow heard the church bells ringing throughout the city.   He thought of the joyous message of the angel, delivered at the birth of Christ so many centuries earlier: “Peace on earth, good-will to men.”   And yet, he was not at peace, nor was his country.

To the despondent Longfellow, the Christmas bells sounded hollow and false.   The bloody Civil War hung like a dark cloud over the nation, and his own son was now one of the casualties of the ongoing strife.   Longfellow wondered if the Christmas message, which had been proclaimed for hundreds of years, was just a pious cliché.   He questioned whether there ever would be “Peace on earth, good will to men.”

With these gloomy thoughts in mind, he sat down and wrote the poem “Christmas Bells”:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play, 
And wild and sweet 
The words repeat 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

And thought how, as the day had come, 
The belfries of all Christendom 
Had rolled along 
The unbroken song 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

Till, ringing, singing on its way, 
The world revolved from night to day, 
A voice, a chime, 
A chant sublime 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

Then from each black, accursed mouth 
The cannon thundered in the South, 
And with the sound 
The carols drowned 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

It was as if an earthquake rent 
The hearth-stones of a continent, 
And made forlorn 
The households born 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

And in despair I bowed my head; 
"There is no peace on earth," I said; 
“For hate is strong, 
And mocks the song 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!" 

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: 
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; 
The Wrong shall fail, 
The Right prevail, 
With peace on earth, good-will to men."

Longfellow had no way of knowing that the words he wrote that day would be immortalized in a Christmas carol and sung at holiday celebrations around the world.

In 1872, the English organist John Baptiste Calkin set Longfellow’s poem to music.   He fitted the words into an earlier melody and turned the new song into a processional.  Because two of the middle verses referred specifically to the American Civil War, he left them out.   The new composition took its title from the first line of the poem: “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”

In the middle of the twentieth century, American songwriter Johnny Marks, who specialized in Christmas carols and wrote “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” came out with his arrangement of the song.  Bing Crosby recorded it on October 3, 1956.  “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” was released as a single, and it reached No. 55 in the Music Vendor survey.  Since then, the Marks’ version of the song has been recorded over 60 times, and sales have exceeded 5 million copies.

“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” had one more revival.  In 2008, the Christian music group Casting Crowns recorded a new, updated version of the song.  It was featured on their album “Peace on Earth,” and it shot up to Number 1 on the Christian hit list.    Their version does not follow the traditional melody, and Longfellow’s words are rearranged and added to. However, the spirit of the inspirational Christmas carol remains the same.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow died in 1882 at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.   He was 75 years old and famous.  His legendary poetic career produced countless American classics like The Song of Hiawatha, “The Courtship of Miles Standish,” “The Village Blacksmith,” and “Paul Revere’s Ride.”  However, perhaps none of his lyrics is repeated as often as the lines from his poem “Christmas Bells.”  Every year versions of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” are sung and broadcast throughout the world. The song has become part of the modern Christmas tradition.

Longfellow’s anti-war poem began in sadness and despair, but ended on an optimistic note: “The wrong shall fail / The right prevail.” Many still believe in the ultimate triumph of good over evil.   They hope that eventually the angel’s message of “Peace on earth, good-will to men” can be realized.   Then at last, the Christmas bells will ring out around the world and celebrate a dream fulfilled.

Merry Christmas!

A winter scene in front of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's house in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  It was here that he wrote "Christmas Bells" (1863) and other famous poems while teaching at nearby Harvard College.
Snowy Owl #1 (left) and Snowy Owl #2 (right).  Both have heavy dark markings and look like juvenile birds.  A female snowy owl also has dark streaks and spots, but not as heavy and pronounced 

Last Friday about noon, I saw my first snowy owl of 2020.   The large white Arctic visitor to the Thumb was perched on a power pole along a country road northwest of Harbor Beach.   At the time, I was not looking for owls or expecting to see one.  I knew that snowy owls had been reported in the area earlier in the winter, but I had not seen one yet.

As I drove along, I watched the power poles in the distance, something I do at this time of the year, perhaps unconsciously.  About a quarter mile ahead, I noticed an out-of-place white object 
at the top of one of them: it was my first snowy owl of the year.

I wanted to get a picture of the owl, but it was on the passenger side of the car.  Because of the upward angle, it would have been difficult to photograph the owl without getting out of the vehicle and possibly spooking it.  So I drove by as if I did not see it.   At the next intersection, I turned around and came back with my telephoto lens sticking out of the car window.

As a general rule, snowy owls are quite tame and usually ignore human activity.   Their existence in the far North makes them unacquainted with the dangers that men can pose, and they are usually more curious than afraid.

Needless to say, snowy owls are completely protected and cannot be harmed or harassed in any way.  Even a close approach by curious onlookers is discouraged by some wildlife experts.  They believe that invading an owl’s space could put stress on a bird, which might already be weakened by cold, hunger, or parasites.   Making an owl fly repeatedly causes it to waste precious energy and could put its survival at risk.

I took several pictures of the snowy owl at long range, just in case; and then I drove up closer to the power pole and snapped a few more.   The owl seemed unconcerned; it ignored me and kept swiveling its head around, surveying the winter landscape.  Occasionally it looked down at what 
it must have considered a rather strange object.   My first snowy owl of 2020 was still sitting on the power pole as I drove away.

The next afternoon, I wondered if I could find a snowy owl in the area if I actually went out looking for one.  About 3:00 P.M., I left the house and began my search.

I drove some of my favorite “snowy owl roads” and checked the tops of power poles along the way: Helena Road, Ruth Road, and Parisville Road.  I also scanned some of the bare brown fields along the highways, looking for an out-of-place white object.

I drove over thirty miles and saw nothing.   As it started to get dark, I headed home.  Since I was several miles west of Parisville, I decided to take a gravel road through the Verona State Game Area on my way back north.   I considered my “search for the snowy owl” officially over.

But then I saw another one!

It was perched on a transistor at the top of a power pole, close to the road and right out in the open.  Again, the owl was on the passenger side of the car, and so I followed the same procedure as before.

Each owl has its own personality, and this one seemed very distant and aloof.   It totally ignored me, even when I drove the car up close to the pole.   It kept its yellow eyes focused on the surrounding fields and only occasionally glanced in my direction.   Eventually, the owl looked down for a few seconds, and I got the pictures I wanted.

As I drove away, I could see the owl in the rearview mirror, still sitting high up on the pole. Suddenly the title for this article popped into my head: “In Search of the Snowy Owl.”

I realized, however, that technically my “search” was a failure.   I came up empty on all the 
“snowy owl roads” I had driven earlier in the afternoon.   Turning down this particular road and locating a second snowy owl was pure serendipity, proof positive that these Arctic visitors to 
the Thumb are “where you find them.”


Notes: I posted the picture of my first snowy owl on Facebook and got several comments, including one from a serious birder about a sighting just east of Minden City:

“Check out the Ruth Rd./Bay City-Forestville Rd. area. I had one there last Sunday 
(December 29, 2019).”

Both snowy owls that I saw last week were heavily streaked with black markings.  According to the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, “Dark bars and spots are heavier on females, heaviest on immatures; old males may be pure white.”

Many people say that they have never seen a snowy owl.  Chances are they have driven by one without noticing it.  If you want to see a snowy owl, glance at the tops of power poles as you 
drive along.  Also watch for out-of-place white objects in the fields near the road. Sooner or later, you will see one.

Here is some proof that if you are looking for snowy owls, you will find them:

On December 17, 2019, birders participating in the Huron County Christmas Bird Count recorded two snowy owls during their annual bird census.   More recently, Tuscola County birders topped that number and tallied an amazing twelve snowy owls on January 4, 2020, during the Tuscola County Christmas Bird Count.
Skywatchers in the state are excited about what is being called “Planet Palooza,” a spectacular gathering of three “naked-eye planets” in the predawn sky.   Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn rise in the southeast about three hours before sunup and are visible until they fade in the morning brightness. 

At the beginning of March, these three planets formed an evenly spaced, downward pointing line.  Jupiter shone brightly in the center with Saturn to the east and reddish Mars to the west.  Later in the month, Mars moved closer to Jupiter, circled below it, and began forming a second line.  Currently, the “Red Planet” holds the middle position in the new configuration and is now approaching Saturn.   On the last day of March, the two planets will be close together and almost vertical, with Mars just below Saturn.

Of course, the planets are millions of miles away from each other and from us.   They only SEEM to “line up” when viewed from our earthbound perspective.   We are 93 million miles from the sun while on average, Jupiter is 483 million miles away.   The distance between Jupiter and Mars, its closest neighbor, is 341 million miles.   Saturn is even farther, 403 million miles from Jupiter and 886 million miles from the sun.   All three planets are on the move, traveling with us in separate orbits around the sun.

As we gaze at Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn in the predawn sky, we are looking at a mysterious alignment of faraway worlds.   It is worth getting up early to see this “Planetary Parade,” which passes by us in silent beauty and cold indifference.


Notes: If you are not an “early bird” but would like to see one of the 
“naked-eye planets,” Venus is visible in the west at night, rising about 
9:00 p.m.  When Venus appears at sunset, it is called the “evening star” (“morning star” when seen before dawn).   It is the brightest object in the night sky after the moon.   Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn will also be visible at night later this year.

Additional information about the three planets from the GOLDEN GUIDE (Stars: A Guide to the Constellations, Sun, Moon, Planets, and Other Features of the Heavens):

“JUPITER is the largest planet….it takes 12 of our years to orbit the sun….Jupiter rotates in less than 10 hours, the fastest of any planet.”

“MARS circles our sky in just under two years as it revolves around the sun in some 687 days.”

“SATURN is the most distant of the planets visible to the unaided eye, although it takes a telescope to see the famous rings.   [It orbits] the sun every 29 years….”

To keep track of the planets and other celestial events, visit Earth Sky News (www.EarthSky.org) and sign up for their daily email update.

Each month, Schock McCoy Productions lists the “naked-eye planets” visible in the morning and evening sky.  There is also a link to Abrams Planetarium at MSU in Lansing.   They publish a monthly “Sky Calendar,” which is available for $12 a year.   You can start a subscription at any time, online or by mail.

Over a half-century ago in what now seems like a faraway world, eastern meadowlarks 
were common in the Thumb.   They sang their flute-like songs from wooden fence posts 
and nested in grasslands and hayfields.  They were at home on the small family farms, which dotted the landscape; and each spring their early return to the area signaled the 
start of another growing season. 

But the small farms, fence lines, and pasture fields are gone; and so are the meadowlarks. Now in the spring, they are most often seen in migration as they fly north over miles and miles of tilled fields, corn stubble, and winter wheat.

The North American Breeding Bird Survey claims that the meadowlark population in the 
U.S. fell by 3% per year from 1966 to 2015, resulting in a cumulative decline of 89%.   The steep drop in bird numbers is largely blamed on disappearing habitat.  As crop farming expanded and grassy fields disappeared, meadowlark numbers plummeted.

Now and then, however, an eastern meadowlark can still be found in farm country.  Last month, I spotted what I assumed was a spring migrant on the edge of a county road south 
of Harbor Beach.  As I drove up, it flew off and landed in a nearby field.  I stopped and snapped a few pictures at long range from the car window, using a 500mm telephoto lens.

I was lucky because the meadowlark was facing me in the short grass and the brilliance 
of its yellow breast was on full display.   I remember taking time to adjust the lens, half expecting the bird to fly.  Some guide books describe the meadowlark as “shy and usually unapproachable,” so I was surprised when it stayed put.

Strange as it may seem, eastern meadowlarks are members of the Icteridae family, which includes bobolinks, orioles, red-winged blackbirds, yellow-headed blackbirds, and the more common grackle and cowbird.  (The Latin word Icteridae means “jaundiced ones” - many 
of the species have prominent YELLOW feathers.)   In earlier times, meadowlarks were sometimes called “meadow starlings.” In his famous volume, The Birds of America, John James Audubon titled his painting, “Meadow Starling or Meadow Lark.”

The Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America describes the eastern meadowlark as “a chunky, brown, starling-shaped bird” and lists its habitat as 
“open fields and pastures, meadows, prairies, and marsh edges.” The Guide also points 
out several important field marks:

“When flushed, shows conspicuous white sides on short tail.   Several shallow, snappy wingbeats alternate with short glides…. When bird perches on a post, chest shows bright yellow crossed by black V.  Walking, it flicks its tail open and shut.”

The Complete Field Guide to American Wildlife expands on the meadowlark’s characteristics:

“DESCRIPTION: Plump, bill rather long; tail short, wide, rounded.  Wide black stripes on 
the crown; white cheeks, brown upper parts, streaked sides; white outer tail feathers…”

“HABITS: …sings from tree or fence post, early spring to late fall.  Flight quail-like (rapid wingbeats, then a glide), usually low over a field, frequently sailing with wings outstretched and pointed slightly down; silhouette in flight looks like a starling.  Gathers in small flocks 
in winter, migrates at night….”

The Peterson Guide also gives a detailed description of the eastern meadowlark’s song 
and call:

“VOICE: Song composed of two clear, slurred whistles, musical and pulled out, tee-yah, 
tee-yair (last note slurred and descending).   Call a rasping or buzzy dzrrt; also a guttural chatter.”

Henry David Thoreau, the naturalist of Walden Pond fame, said that the meadowlark’s 
song sounded to him like, Spring-o’-the-YEar.  That rendition seems especially appropriate because the meadowlark is a true harbinger of spring, often arriving on its breeding 
grounds before the winter snow has melted.

In the United States, there are two meadowlark species: the eastern meadowlark and the western meadowlark.  Their plumages are almost identical, and the only sure way to tell them apart is by their songs.

In Michigan, the eastern meadowlark is the predominant species, but sometimes the 
western variety can also be found in the state.

ONCE UPON A TIME, the eastern meadowlark was common in the fields and farms of 
the Thumb.  It was perhaps the best known songbird of the rural countryside - its familiar flute-like notes were part of the landscape.

But, that was in the “old days” before modern agriculture plowed down the grasslands 
and silenced the “song of the lark.”  Today, a quieter, less colorful world is the legacy of progress. 


Notes: The bobolink is another songbird in the Icteridae family, whose numbers have 
been drastically reduced by the loss of grassland habitat.  According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, the U.S. bobolink population has decreased by 2% per year from 
1966 to 2015, with a cumulative decline of 65%.  Once common in the Thumb, bobolinks have all but disappeared from farm country.

My “borrowed” phrase, “song of the lark” (last paragraph), has an interesting history.  
In 1884, the French artist Julius Breton (1827-1906) painted a canvas that he called 
“The Song of the Lark.”   It pictured a young peasant girl, walking barefoot through the 
fields at sunrise, with a small scythe in her hand and a harvest sack wrapped around her waist.  She seems to be listening to a lark, singing in the early morning light.  However, the “lark” of Breton’s painting referred to the European skylark, not to the meadowlark of the New World.  The original artwork can be found at the Chicago Art Institute in Chicago, Illinois.

In 1915, the American author Willa Cather published her third novel, The Song of the Lark.   
It tells the story of a small-town Colorado girl, who goes to Chicago to study music and 
later becomes a world-famous opera singer.  While studying in the Windy City, she visits 
the art museum and is impressed by the Breton painting.

In her novel, Cather mentions the “larks,” a reference to the western meadowlark, famous for its melodious song. 

As an aside, six states claim the western meadowlark as their state bird: Kansas, Montana, Nebraska (where Cather grew up), North Dakota, Oregon, and Wyoming. 
A migrating eastern meadowlark with its brilliant yellow breast and black "V" poses for a picture last month in Michigan's Thumb.

I do not remember hearing the word “vole” when I was young.   I was always told that the little mouse-like animal with the chunky body and short round snout was a “field mouse.”   Like much of the “information” we are given as children, the name has stuck with me ever since.

Now, however, I know that a vole is not a mouse.  In fact, these small rodents are more closely related to lemmings and hamsters.  In his Mammals of Michigan Field Guide, Stan Tekiela lists four voles which can be found in the state: 1. meadow vole; 2. woodland vole; 3. prairie vole; 4. southern red-backed vole.  The most common of the four is the meadow vole, the “field mouse” of my younger days.

Tekiela describes the meadow vole in close-up detail: “Overall dark gray with rusty red highlights and peppered with black.  Gray chest and belly.  Short round snout.  Ears short 
but visible.  Tail is dark above, light below.”  He also adds an interesting aside: “Sometimes mistakenly called Meadow Mouse or Field Mouse, but this is not a mouse and does not enter homes like mice.”

My vole lives under a brush pile in the wooded lot next to my house.   I only saw it twice this winter.   The first time was in early January when it suddenly appeared in the open, scurried around in the snow, and then quickly darted back to the safety of the brush pile.   It came out several times, but I was unable to get my camera focused on this furry little speedster.

I was impressed by the vole’s quick movements and its continuous “in-and-out” strategy. Tekiela explains the rather obvious reason for its speed, erratic motion, and herky-jerky behavior:

“This species is preyed upon by many larger animals and birds when the population is abundant.”

Owls, hawks, shrikes, snakes, coyotes, foxes, bobcats, raccoons, weasels, skunks, and badgers are just some of the predators that will make a quick meal of this small rodent.  
Many also fall victim to prowling domestic cats.

Last month, I saw the vole once again.  This time, it left the protection of the brush pile and scurried over to some recycled Christmas trees, which I had put under my feeder as extra protection for the birds.   At short intervals, it cautiously emerged from the evergreens, ate 
a few sunflower seeds or hulls, and then quickly darted back under the branches.

This time, I was able to snap a few quick pictures through the window in the early morning light.

I am glad that this harmless little creature has found a home under the brush pile, where its secret life continues uninterrupted.   Seeing the vole this winter reminded me of my younger days, when I called it a “field mouse” (a name I still prefer) and happily believed what I was told. 


Notes: The Kaufman Field Guide to Mammals of North America lists twenty-six different vole species, many of which are found only in the western parts of the United States and Canada.  
The Field Guide also gives some interesting information about the meadow vole, aka “field mouse” or “meadow mouse”:

“Abundant in fields and grasslands over much of the continent. Famed as ‘the world’s most prolific mammal,’ with females able to give birth to a new litter every three weeks; not surprisingly, it has frequent population cycles, peaking and crashing every two to five years, and affecting the populations of many predators that rely on it.”

In the first chapter of A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold mentions a vole, which he came across near “the Shack” during a January thaw.   He had been following a skunk track in the snow and wondering about its movements when he encountered the furry little rodent.   Even though he was a professional forester and naturalist, Leopold calls it a “meadow mouse” in his essay.   Evidently, he preferred the more colorful, colloquial name; or perhaps he too remembered what he was taught in his younger days:

“A MEADOW MOUSE, startled by my approach, darts damply across the skunk track.   Why 
is he abroad in the daylight?  Probably because he feels grieved about the thaw.   Today his maze of secret tunnels, laboriously chewed through the matted grass under the snow, are tunnels no more, but only paths exposed to public view and ridicule.”  
A meadow vole, aka "field mouse," eats sunflower seeds and hulls under a feeder on a February morning.
Last week, I walked down to the beach before dawn for an unobstructed view of the planets.  I had written about the current three-planet alignment a couple weeks ago, and I wanted to check their latest positions. As I got closer to Lake Huron, I heard the distant rumble of diesel engines in the predawn darkness. Even though the sound was faint, I knew what it was - a freighter was passing by on the lake, perhaps making her first run of the spring season.

Standing on the shore, I looked up at Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars, lined up and shining brightly in the southeast.  I also watched a freighter with her running lights on sail up the lake.  The ship was several miles offshore and silhouetted against a reddish morning sky, streaked with horizontal bands of black and crimson.  The only sounds were the gentle lap of waves and the quiet hum of diesel engines.

I watched the distant freighter as she slowly came even with me and then continued north toward Harbor Beach.   Later, I learned that the vessel was five miles offshore when she passed the iconic Harbor Beach lighthouse.

I am always looking for something to write about, and so when I returned home, I started to think about the freighter, outlined against the morning sky.  The first thing I did was check a website called BoatNerd.com, which tracks commercial vessels sailing on the Great Lakes. The BoatNerd map clearly indicated that the ship I had been watching off Sand Beach Township was the ore carrier Lee A. Tregurtha.

Of course, the next logical step was to find out more about the freighter.   As soon as I started investigating, I knew I had a topic for this week’s paper.

The Lee A. Tregurtha is one of the oldest freighters on the Great Lakes.   Her long and colorful history is full of transformations and change.   Currently owned by the Interstate Steamship Company, the ship was originally a 501-foot oil tanker, built in Maryland by the Bethlehem Shipbuilding and Drydock Company.  She was launched on June 25, 1942.   At the time, World War II was raging, and the oil tanker was quickly acquired by the U.S. Navy and put into service for the war effort.   Named the USS Chiwawa (after a river in Washington State), the ship saw action in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Seventy-five years ago, the USS Chiwawa was anchored in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945, when the Japanese officially surrendered at the end of WW II.   The ceremony took place aboard the USS Missouri, thus ending the most destructive war in human history, a conflict that saw the first use of nuclear weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  To this day, the ship still displays her battle ribbons on the forward cabin, reminders of her service during the dark days of WW II. 

Less than a year after the surrender, the Chiwawa was decommissioned on May 6, 1946.  
She was sold to Cities Service Oil Company in 1947, and used to shuttle petroleum products up and down the eastern seaboard.

Eventually, the tanker was purchased by Cleveland-Cliffs Steamship Company in the winter of 1959-60, and converted to a bulk ore carrier.   Her midsection was lengthened and her hull was widened and deepened.   The bow and stern were cut away, and the old midbody was scrapped.   A longer center section, built in West Germany, was towed across the ocean and used in the “remake.”  The Navy ship that once sailed the oceans in WW II was transformed into an ore carrier, designed to ply the waters of the Great Lakes.

The “new” vessel was renamed the Walter A. Sterling in honor of the company’s chairman, and at the time, she was the largest and longest ship in their fleet, 730 feet long and 75 feet wide with a carrying capacity of 22,500 tons.

In 1976, the Walter A. Sterling underwent another significant modification.  Her midsection was lengthened by an additional 96 feet, giving her an overall length of 826 feet.   This extension made the Sterling the largest steam-powered ore carrier in the entire Great Lakes with a capacity of 30,592 tons.

Two years later, more changes were made when the freighter was converted to a self-unloader.   A 250-foot discharge boom was mounted on the stern; it enabled the ship to unload dry bulk cargo without assistance from shore-side equipment or personnel. However, the makeover reduced the ore carrier’s capacity to 29,000 tons.

In 1984, the Walter A. Sterling was sold to the Rouge Steel Company, a subsidiary of Ford Motor Company. She was renamed the William Clay Ford II and added to the company’s fleet of ore carriers.

Five years later, the ship changed hands again when Rouge Steel decided to liquidate the “Ford Fleet.” In 1989, the Interlake Steamship Company of Middleburg Heights, Ohio, purchased the freighter, and once again, she was renamed.  The ship was now called the Lee A. Tregurtha, a name which honored the wife of Paul R. Tregurtha, owner of the company. At the time, the ship continued to be the largest steam-powered vessel on the Great Lakes.

In the twenty-first century, the Lee A. Tregurtha was converted from steam to diesel.   Two powerful 4,020–horsepower diesel engines were installed in the ship in 2006, replacing the original steam plant, which had powered the ship since 1942.   One final change occurred in 2016, when exhaust-gas scrubbers were added to the diesel engines in order to meet new environmental regulations. 

Today, after almost 60 years of service as an ore carrier, the 78-year-old ship, continues to sail the waters of the Great Lakes.   The Interstate Steamship Company is rightly proud of this historic vessel, and their website pays tribute to her storied past:

 “…[the] Lee A. Tregurtha has a long and distinguished history since her construction as a World War II tanker.  One of the most altered vessels on the Great Lakes, she also boasts two battle stars for WW II service as the Chiwawa….[She] served on both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans during the war and was present in Tokyo Bay during the September 2, 1945, surrender ceremony.”

I am glad that I walked down to the beach last week to look at the planets. I did not know 
it at the time, but the distant freighter I watched in the predawn darkness played an important role in WW II… and also gave me something interesting to write about in 2020.


Notes: The flagship of the Interlake Steamship Company is the Paul R. Tregurtha, the longest ship on the Great Lakes.  At 1,013.5 feet, she is the reigning “Queen of the Lakes.”
The Interlake Steamship Company is on Facebook, and their website address is:

While at the lake, I took a picture of the Lee A. Tregurtha with my iPhone camera. It is 
posted on my Facebook page (John H. McCoy) and can be found there.   You can also view the unedited photo on my website, Schock McCoy Productions (bottom of the Homepage).

After reading about the USS Chiwawa and the surrender of the Japanese on September 2, 1945, I was reminded that the 75th anniversary of several other WW II events will soon be in the news.   Some of them are listed below:

1. Battle of Berlin (final battle in Europe) – April 16 to May 2, 1945
2. Adolf Hitler commits suicide – April 30, 1945
3. German High Command surrenders – May 7, 1945
4. V-E Day (Victory in Europe Day) – Allies accept the unconditional surrender of the Nazis -      May 8, 1945
5. U.S drops atomic bomb on Hiroshima – August 6, 1945
6. U.S. drops atomic bomb on Nagasaki – August 9, 1945
7. V-J Day (Victory over Japan Day) - Japan surrenders - August 15, 1945
The iPhone camera photo of the Lee A. Tregurtha on Lake Huron,posted to Facebook (John H. McCoy), April 3, 2020. The picture is unedited
The LEE A. TREGURTHA is one of the oldest ships on the Great Lakes, beginning as a Navy oil tanker in WW II and later converted into a freighter and ore carrier.
from Facebook: 
"The LEE A. TREGURTHA upbound at dawn off Sand Beach Township. The ship (tanker) was in Tokyo Bay 75 years ago (Sept. 2, 1945) for the surrender of the Japanese at the end of WW II. After being decommissioned and sold, she was rebuilt and refitted for commercial use on the Great Lakes."