Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

March 3, 2009

First Up, First Down

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:14 pm

I’ve always considered it the saddest of sights. A late winter Woodchuck laying dead on the asphalt seems to serve as an example of just how unfair nature can be . There is no rule stating that Nature must meet our human standards of fairness, but still. There is some tragic irony involved when an animal has to go through all the rigors and self discipline of hibernation – not eating or going to the bathroom for four months – only to be creamed by a passing car as it emerges from the den. To just up chuck and die like that is harsh even by nature’s rigid code. I know many of you out there would not think to shed a tear for such a destructive creature, but perhaps you can put down your coffee for a moment of reflection? O.K., how about just not laughing…that’ll do.

I encountered this roadkill chuck on a country road last week.  It was on Feb. 26, as a matter of fact, and it was my first woodchuck of the season. Apart from being dead, he looked good. The winter sleep apparently demanded little of his reserves and it emerged well fortified for the tough spring ahead.  Still enveloped in the cobwebs of hibernation, this beast was slow to cross the road and probably never knew what hit him. Why, a month earlier, while in the coma like state of deep slumber, he could have been hit by the same car and he never would have known he was dead! As it was, he might have barely registered a “What the…” expression before being sent into eternal slumber.

A late February rising date isn’t unusual among groundhogs. They are usually compelled, however, to return to their dens for a few more weeks until the real spring arrives. A friend of mine reported seeing a live woodchuck out and about on the very same day, so it seems last Thursday was a Groundhog Day of sorts. I marked on the calendar -“one chuck up, one down” on this day. This sighting is one of many records to begin my spring phenology.

Phenology, keeping track of natural and cyclic events, is a year-round thing but it is an especially vibrant way to record the transition of winter into spring. The first woodchuck sighting – alive or dead – is always a good one since these critters at least make an attempt to “leave” during the winter. They travel no more than a few feet underground but physiologically they venture into “la la land”  and back. The arrival of migrant birds provides another great source of phenological fare in which the new arrivals travel great distances.  I can cite the Sandhill Cranes and the Red-winged Blackbirds as the latest arrivals.

I spotted a trio of Sandhill Cranes at Kensington Metropark on the same day as the before mentioned chuck met his maker (or was it his dis-maker?). As it turned out, these birds (see below and here) were the first 2009 arrivals recorded for the park and were fresh off the flyway at 8:45 in the morning. Most of the local cranes fly down to east central Florida for the winter – a journey of around 1,000 miles. Their return trip usually finds the first birds back on home turf around the middle to end of February. These individuals were slightly late if  judged by previous years, but not by much.

The male Red-winged Blackbirds have been trickling in since mid-February. They are starting to stake out their territories along  the cold marshes of Lake Erie by proclaiming their preferences from atop the bordering trees. These places are still locked in the icy grip of winter, but the gurgling call of this species guarantees that things will change in a month. Never-the-less their proclamations still seem a trifle hesitant (see here ) as if showing some doubt that the time is really right. When calling, the males frequently stop to look around and listen for other males in order to confirm that they are not the only ones in on the joke – if there is one.

It’s difficult to say where these hopeful birds came from. There are always a few Red-wings that stay the winter, but research indicates that most of the migrants spend the winters in the region arcing from North Carolina to Louisiana. They shift around quite a bit over this range like restless vacationers during this time. Their winter calendar, unlike ours,  runs out around February 20th and they pack it in for the breeding grounds.  The females hang out in the sunny south a bit longer before venturing north.

In this day and age, there are ample resources for the naturalist to keep up on the northward migration of birds like the Red-winged Blackbird. One great resource is a site called the Journey North, which you can check out at( Take a look at the linked page and you’ll see a few dots in Michigan where the presence of the blackbirds were recorded a few weeks ago.

All of these virtual dots on the website require a set of real eyes to back them up, so it’s your turn to start keeping your eyes and ears open.   With the first vanguard entering the state it’s time to stop complaining about winter and smell the roadkill. We’ve turned the corner. There is no site to track emerging woodchucks, by the way. If there were, the dots it would likely line up very well with the roads on the map.

1 Comment »

  1. The only thing I hate more than a live groundhog is a dead one. I ight fantasize about them being hit by a car, but it’s another thing to see it, or worse, be the one to do it. I just hate road kill. I drove down to Hudson yesterday for a talk at the Thompson house… the drive was pleasant and non-trafficy, but there was SO MUCH road kill (large and tiny carcasses) along US-12 and 127 that I was getting depressed.

    Comment by Monica — March 8, 2009 @ 3:43 pm

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