We may be at a tipping point
Spring came early to southern Michigan this year so on Good Friday, my wife Anne and I put our kayaks in the Huron River and set out to document the effects of global climate change on the wildlife of our area. What we found was both stunning and shocking.
All photos by Anne C. Savage (except this one of her.)
Please visit her website Anne Savage Photography and her Flickr page (click any photo).
Please do not use photos without permission.
As we started our journey, we knew something was different. Never before had we been able to don shorts and t-shirts and paddle this early in the season. And we were not the only ones enjoying the disrupted climate.
These are Map Turtles (Graptemys). They emerge in the spring after several months of hibernation deep in the mud of the river bottom. But this year, the have emerged much earlier than normal. And, if you ask me, they seemed a little “friskier” than usual, too.
But the turtles weren’t the only animals out and about earlier than normal. For example, this Canada Goose was one of several dozen we saw during our float trip, mostly in pairs looking for nesting places. This one is clearly disoriented by the shortened winter season, seeming to ask the proverbial question: “WTF?”
During the float we were treated to the mating displays of several Red-tailed Hawks. During their courtship, the hawks will ascend to tremendous heights then swoop down in power dives to impress their potential mates. We saw this group of three throughout our trip as they swooped and dived and screamed to each other. Clearly unprepared for such early courtship displays, if you look closely you’ll see the female has not yet put on her make-up.
But these fauna sightings were just a warm-up for the shocking sight we were about to see. As we floated down the river, enjoying the multitude of woodland creatures, we saw a bit of color. Just a suggestion. Was that a bit of pink under the brush at the side of the river? Could that be…no, it was just too far-fetched to believe.
But, sure enough, as we came around a sweeping bend in the Huron, there in front of us were four of the most beautiful Peeps® we had ever seen.
Normally restricted to far more southern climates, the dramatic swing in our Michigan climate was drawing these intriguing animals farther and farther north.
Known for their gregarious nature and lack of fear around humans, the Peeps® let us get very close. In the picture below, you can see the characteristic brown eye of the Southern Pink Peep®.
A sighting like this is indescribably rare. Research has shown that not only are Peeps® not cold-resistant, they can, in fact, be devastated by cold temperatures.
While Southern Pinks are rare enough, what we saw next was almost too outlandish to be believed. But, there in front of use, defying all common wisdom and science, was a pair of American Green Peeps®, preparing their spring nest.
The more-colorful Peep® on the left is the male.
Breeding Greens in Michigan? This discovery was simply too much for us to conceive of. It was truly fortunate that Anne had brought her photographic equipment because when we revealed this discovery to the ornithological world, proof would be demanded.
Rocked by this revelation, we pulled our boats over to the side of the river to collect our wits. But our wit-collecting was short-lived because there on the bank of the river was perhaps one of the rarest sights in the birding world: co-mingling of not two but three species of Peeps®.
It’s hard to accurately describe just how unusual this is. Even in their traditional spring geographical range, Pink, Green and Yellow Peeps® are almost never seen together. In fact, they are known to display shocking levels of violence toward each other in defense of their territory. But on this day, in this place, before us were three species of Peeps® clustered together, almost as if they were fused into one long string of Peeps®.
Not wishing to upset the four of them, we resumed our paddle down the Huron. We were now very quiet, hoping not to disturb the rare animals that were seemingly all around us. Sure enough, several minutes later, we saw another collection of Peeps®.
These Peeps® were basking on a log, absorbing the warm sunlight that helps to infuse them with their brilliant colors.
A bit further we saw this family of Yellow Wood Peeps® that have taken over a Wood Duck box.
The mother and father Peeps® are outside of the box encouraging the Baby Peep® to take the plunge by leaping into the water. This process can take several hours so we paddled on.
By now both Anne and I were nearly overcome by what we had seen. Never before had anyone documented breeding pairs of Peeps® this far north. The co-mingling of the various Peep® species was equally shocking. But what happened next, well, let’s just say that naturalists and wildlife photographers literally live for moments like this. As we were floating quietly, keeping as silent as possible, four Peeps® flew in and landed on the front of my kayak!
Anne quickly snapped this photo as I struggled to keep my composure. Although I had heard that Peeps® were fearless around humans, I had never come across any account of an encounter quite like this. But these Peeps® seemed not only to be unafraid. They seemed…well…curious. As we drifted down the river on this beautiful spring day, the Peeps® toddled around on the front of my kayak, making their odd little Peep® sounds as if they were as interested in us as we were about them them!
At one point, the four of them took to the air only to land on Anne’s kayak. Slowly and cautiously, they crept up to the edge of her kayak’s opening and peered at Anne as she snapped this last picture.
And then, with a final “peep!”, the four of them lifted into the sky and flew away.
Happy Easter, everyone.