Category: Allegan Forest
This spring has been a cool one. Here we are, late in the month, and the furnace still rumbles to life every morning. Frost settles onto the grass and rooftops at night. It melts once touched by sunlight, but tenaciously hangs on to north facing hillsides, or in the shadows of large trees.
Despite the cool weather, the season advances. Dot tailed whitefaces are now abundant in the Allegan State Game Area. Last Thursday I visited my favorite pond. For a change, I parked on the south end of the pond and hiked a bit through s scruffy stand of white pines. I came up on the south shore of the pond, rounded the west side, and worked the usual sandy fields on the north.
Dot tails were pretty much everywhere. The even flitted around the pine trees. On the savanna there were often 4 or five n a square yard – perching low on grass stalks or just landing on the sandy soil. A few green darners buzzed around in the air, and I spotted one or two damselflies around the pond.
It won’t be long till the meadowhawks and pennants appear – though the patch of raspberry bushes where they usually first make their first appearance is now several feet under water. Well, they’ll show up somewhere.
As May progresses, I lose interest in the woodland wildflowers and find myself drawn to the oak savanna. I don’t know why.
This dry and barren place comes to life more slowly than the fertile lowland forests. Maybe it is the sight of the first spring dragonflies on the wing. Maybe it is the fading redbud and the fresh dogwood. Maybe it is the weird creature – coyote? fox? dog? - that charges across my path as I wander into the woods…
But the Allegan forest still calls. Some days I just drive around in my car, listening to the radio, bumping along two tracks till they end with barriers made out of tree stumps, torn out of the ground, roots and all.
The lupine is blooming now. It started last week, it’s probably peaking now, and in a few weeks will pass.
I trudged around the woods today, toting the trusty Pentax LX packed will Rollei IR 400 film, hoping to get the IR effect in a few shots. The weather did not cooperate as a dense bank of clouds rolled in shortly after I started shooting. No matter – I shot the film and then turned my attention to the lupine.
I’ve shot this wildflower before, and have found the leaves and foliage to be as interesting as the flowers. But I never studied the immature flowers – the nascent buds building up strength, waiting to open. There’s always something thing new, waiting to be seen.
The Rollie film is hanging in my shower as I type - drying. Maybe something for a future post…
West Michigan is finally awaking from its winter slumber. In the last week or so the trees have leafed out, the grass has greened, and perennials are shooting up out of the ground.
The arrival of dragonflies is another sure sign that spring has taken hold. Green Darners are the first to arrive in mid April. The early arrivals are migrants from parts south. It takes several more weeks for the waters in the area to warm up enough to support the dragonfly nymphs, and for those nymphs to actually transform into the winged adults.
Locally, the Dot Tailed Whiteface is one of the first dragonflies to complete this process. Last Monday I was happy to see the first few adults flying over the dry grass of still brown fields.
The dot tails that I encountered last Monday all had the sheen on their wings that tells you they are newly emerged. Their coloration is in the immature form – they will lose most of the yellow and turn to black, except for the dot on their abdomen and their white faces. True to their nature, the dot tails clung to vegetation very low to the ground, making photos a bit difficult. But their arrival is welcome, and means it won’t be long before Calico Pennants, Spangled Skimmers, and other dragons abound.
Another year in all the millions of years that these creatures have graced the Earth….
A few days ago I wandered into the Allegan Forest. I was greeted with washed out roads, flooded ponds, and swollen creeks and drains. But walking through the sandy pine barrens I was also greeted by …
These harmless little snakes don’t grow over a few feet long. They are quick and agile, eating primarily amphibians and fish. I ran into the first one along the edge of a pine forest. I had to press the camera into the sandy soil to get a low angle shot of the serpent, but the subject was very cooperative and just watched me as I crawled on my stomach on the ground next to it. (I guess we had something in common.)
Later in the day, as I wandered out of the pine forest that borders the pond that used to be a marsh, a much larger garter snake slipped through the field, making its way through the dried grass. It was much more energetic than the first snake – perhaps because it was basking in full sun. It mugged for the camera briefly, and then glided away to the pond’s edge.
The sound of a Tom Turkey drumming can really take you by surprise. It is deep, really deep. At first it sounds like it is coming from within your own head, but then you realize this is an external sound. It starts out slow and then ratchets up to a faster pace, accelerating until it stops.
Wandering into the Ottawa Marsh last week, the sound of a drumming Tom was one of the first to meet my ears. This lucky Tom was close to the staging area, and so most everyone out for a spring turkey hunt had probably passed him by, heading deeper into the woods.
The drumming of the turkey got me thinking of the wonderful sounds of the forest, field, or marsh. As I wandered through the fields around the Ottawa Marsh, I tuned into the rich animal sounds all around me. Lying on the ground to take this shot of a Spring Beauty wildflower, I listened in to the calls of various frogs in the nearby marsh, the “huff huff!” of deer hanging out nearby, and the myriad overlapping calls of cardinals, robins, and song sparrows. Somewhere in the mix the “Woo-hala-woo-hala-woo-hala!” of sandhill cranes danced on my ears.
When I came to the two large trees, full of butterflies, bees and flies; I heard the buzzing whir of the bees and, more sweetly, the soft “thuddy-thud-thud” of Mourning Cloaks as they hovered over the trees exuding sap.
Down there in the marsh, I didn’t hear any traffic noises – the highway is far enough away, and you’re low enough below the roads, so automotive noise doesn’t reach you.
I did hear the steady pop-pop-pop of shotguns discharging. It reminded me the sounds of fireworks in small county displays. You sit out on a hill surrounded by cornfields or vineyards, and the fireworks start out slowly – one dull thud after another – until they reach a crescendo of steady thuds.
And then they fade away…
After a long, cold, Michigan winter, three consecutive days of sunshine and warm temperatures is almost too much. After visiting some of the wildflower patches in Cass and Berrien Counties earlier in the week, I decided to see what was happening up in the Allegan Forest.
As I’ve mentioned, the Allegan State Game Area (as it is also called) is not the richest place for wildflowers. The forest here was clear cut over a century ago, after which the land was farmed. Many areas were subsequently re-forested, and some of these have been clear cut since and are now in yet another cycle of re-growth. While prairie wildflowers – both native and non – abound in many of the open fields, the woodland wildflowers can be hard to come by.
My plan was to visit the Ottawa Marsh. This unit of the Allegan Forest serves as both a bird sanctuary and waterfowl hunting area. It is not entirely marsh, but is rather a patchwork of marshy wetlands and open fields. In past years I’ve found scattered patches of wildflowers around the marsh. This is one of the few places where I’ve found white trout lily – which is not a rare plant but, locally, is much less common than the yellow variety.
It was still pretty early in the season to find many wildflowers in the marsh. I forget that counties just 60 or 70 miles to the south can be as much as two or three weeks ahead of the slightly cooler locations to the north. I wandered around the fields and fringes of the far eastern end of the marsh… Aside from a few patches of Spring Beauty, the occasional Wild Blue Phlox, and one or two blooming Trout Lilies (the yellow variety), encounters with wildflowers were rare.
The most interesting thing of the day was encountering two large trees, both of which were exuding sweet spring sap from cracks in their bark. I don’t know what kind of trees they were. They were not the familiar suspects – maples, oak, poplar. The bark was light tan colored, lumpy, cracked, and slightly shaggy. I consulted my filed guides but they are all keyed to identifying trees by their leave – which won’t appear for several days at least.
I also don’t know if the leaking sap was a natural event, or if these trees were somehow distressed. Whatever it may be, the sap had attracted throngs of insects, including several Mourning Cloak and Eastern Comma butterflies. These butterflies overwinter in adult form, and so are among the first butterflies to appear on warm spring days. They no doubt really appreciated the free meal of tree sap.
The weather has turned again – and the next several days will be cold, damp, with a rain snow mix predicted. But if those butterflies survived the whole of winter under a flap of tree bark, or in some other nook or cranny, they’ll no doubt sit out the next few cool days, ready to enjoy spring when it finally emerges again.
There are few places more compelling than a green woods on a sunny day. The sunlight dances through the leaves. It is filtered and rarified, and splashes on the ground most wondrously. Some splashes of light are big enough to stand in, others are so small a fly can barely warm itself in the healing rays. But in the woods at Noon all the myriad rays of the sun come together like a symphony, playing visual music on the forest floor.
Noon is a good time of day. Shadows are short, light is long – though the day is half passed it feels early and it seems as if anything can be accomplished before the light fades.
But then, noon is the bane of photographers. The light is too harsh. No good work can be done at noon – go home, work in the darkroom, watch HBO, call your agent – do anything but try to photograph at noon.
Serious photographers creep through the twilight hours when the light is weak – we call it “sweet” - it has character and complexity. Like rodents at silflay we roll in dewy grass – not really wet, but certainly not dry. Somewhere in between in all regards, we find magic in ambivalence and vagary…
Well, I like Noon. Demanding, uncompromising, brutal Noon. Contrast is outrageous – the distinction between dark and light is never clearer than at Noon. Come Noon, the world is a clean and well lit place.
And so, a couple of years ago - which would be 2007 - I devoted a lot of time and effort to shooting in the Allegan Forest is the hard light of midday. I wanted to explore the relationship between light and dark, I wanted see the forest as it stood at Noon.
Since my interest was only in the play of light and shadow, I decided to do this work with black and white film . I didn’t want color to, um… color my perspective. Having several hundred rolls of B&W film moldering in my freezer made that decision easy. And so, full of hope, I wandered in the no-man’s land that has swallowed many a photographer – the world at Noon.
I shot and scanned over 1,000 frames that summer, all in the name of this project. I spent hours down in the basement by the concrete laundry sink, developing rolls of 35mm film. I learned a bit about different films and developers – Efke, Plus-X, Delta 100, Rodinal, HC110, D76, D19, Microdol-X. It took months, well into the dark days of November, before all the rolls were scanned and could be evaluated…
By then, I had lost interest. It really was an idiotic idea and I should have spent my time doing something useful - like shooting dragonflies or bees. Disinterested, I was drawn to distractions and the work from that summer was left behind.
Here in the digital lab I have almost 2.5 terabytes of images sitting in an array of hard drives - photos from the last 5 years or so. I guess that eighty percent of them have never really been looked at. The “Light and Shadow” project, as I call it, is probably the biggest chunk of unfinished work in the tub, and so I think I’ll start to look it over.
Wow – what a long winded intro to this humble photo –
Just a gate, a trail, and a bit of sun splashing on foliage. Sun on leaves to the left curls around, sun to the right glimmers on the path that circumvents a feeble barrier. Three trees plop dead center in the frame with sun lit foliage beaming in the background.
Yah – I couldn’t take a decent photo to save my life.
This was shot on Efke R100, #25 red filter, developed in Rodinal 1:50. The base of that film clears to be as clean as a window pane, and with the Rodinal it produces a tonality that, close up, looks like charcoal sketched on paper.
I never really know when I’ve learned something. I plan to work with these photos to see what lessons might be there. At the end of the day, I don’t think I accomplished anything tangible with this project. None of the photos will be marketable, none will be in calendars or books, none will even spark interest here.
But when I shot those photos I was where I was meant to be. I felt it at the time. I relish it in memory. Who could ask for more from a handful of days?
Woodland wildflowers have carved out a tenuous environmental niche for themselves. They spend most of their time dormant, or nearly dormant, under the forest floor. For a few short and cool weeks in early spring, before the forest canopy leafs out, they soak up the rays of the sun and gather most of the energy that they’ll use for the remainder of the year.
Someone once told me that trout Lilies send up a few leafs every spring for several years, and only then have stored away enough energy to send forth a flower. Nonetheless, an undisturbed forest can be literally carpeted with spring wildflowers during those few short weeks – a testament to the success that these plants can enjoy.
It’s logical to assume that if the land is disturbed, these wildflowers will be eradicated form the area, or at least severely compromised. Places like the Dowagiac Woods, which is one of the very few areas in Michigan to have never been logged, are rich in these spring wildflowers. On the other hand, the vast wooded areas of the Allegan Forest, which were originally clear-cut to provide wood to rebuild Chicago after the great fire, and then were devoted to farming in many areas, have few spring flowers.
Nonetheless, there are a few places in Allegan where hepatica not only bloom, but are really quite abundant. One is off 125th Ave. near the river, where there is a steep, south facing bluff which sprouts lots of Blue Hepatica in the spring.
It’s a nice site and there’s a blocked off roadway cut into the side of the hill, which makes for easy access. You can wander along the roadway and slowly descend from the top of the bluff to the banks of the Kalamazoo River. Hepatica is abundant above, below, and even on the roadway. But as soon as the river takes a bend to the north, and the side of the bluff faces west, hepatica is hard to find.
Maybe the favorable micro-climate on the south side of the hill promotes the growth of these flowers. But in this one spot, at least, the hepatica abound.
I often write about a particular seasonal marsh located in the Allegan Forest. In the summer months the marsh is home many dragonflies, frogs, and other small creatures. In addition, it’s not uncommon to find a few deer along its edge, or running through it, on a summer day.
For me, it’s also one of those places I just enjoy visiting. Going there is like hanging out with an old friend – never mind that I first found the place just five years ago. So imagine my surprise when I stopped by today, just to say hello, and found that the seasonal marsh was now… a pond!
It’s hard to believe that just a few years ago I would walk across the marsh, the tall grass reaching chest high. I used to talk about the “heart of the marsh” – a small area just a few hundred square feet in size that would remain wet year round, while the rest receded and dried up during the summer months.
I guess the last few years have been pretty wet, and things must have reached a tipping point. Last fall the water level was high, but grasses still waved several feet in the air above the surface of the water. By winter a solid sheet of ice covered the marsh. Now that it has thawed, the marsh is a pond of open water.
But just as a point of reference, here’s the same marsh/pond as of last November:
I wonder when fish will appear.
Certain dragonflies – like the Spatterdock Darner – thrive in fishless ponds. If the water levels stay this high I guess it’s only a matter of time until bluegills and minnows appear.
In the meantime, frogs were abundant, judging from their croaking. This field is always full of blue jays, and they gave me a raucous welcome (or scolding) as I wandered around. There was even a good sized
eastern box Blanding’s Turtle, sunning itself by the edge of this new pond.
There are few places I’d rather be than on the Oak Savanna when the coreopsis is blooming. For a few days, maybe even a week, the sandy barrens seem to be adorned with gold.
Those June days seem far off, sitting here on a cold, damp, March 31 – but they will be here before you know it.
This is another shot from the archives, taken last June. Im not entirely sure why I passed it by while editing photos last summer. I am sure that a the time this immature Blue Dasher dragonfly was, metaphorically, sitting in butter.