To my brother Benjamin and me, it’s not summer without Farm Camp. Run by Connie, a teacher at my former middle school, and her husband David, Farm Camp is a small, outdoors-oriented, all-ages camp that runs throughout the first half of summer. Connie and David, accompanied by two horses, a dozen chickens, four cats, and an energetic German Shepherd named Zinny, run the camp from their small farm about twenty-five minutes west of my hometown, Ann Arbor, Michigan. This is truly rural Michigan, with sparsely populated farms and patches of woodland. We city people, united by our interest in nature and willingness to sacrifice electronics for the day, inevitably return back year after year. About thirty to forty participants show up per year.
My favorite part of Farm Camp, however, is the nature/bird hikes. Farm Camp is adjacent to Sharon Short Hills Preserve, a recently-designated public park of over one hundred acres. In 2012, Benjamin and I started making lists of the birds we saw on our hikes. We ended up with 64 species at Farm Camp that summer and 39 on our best hike. What really stuck with me, though, was how excited the younger campers became about the birds. Benjamin and I came up with two primary goals for the summer of 2013: bird Farm Camp hard (we were at 75 species for the patch list and wanted 100), and work on spreading our interest in birds and conservation.
We didn’t go on a hike on the first day of Farm Camp, but we got a chance to familiarize ourselves with the territory. All the usual suspects were present: countless Field Sparrows sang from the nearby farmland, and hummingbirds visited the gardens. Much to our surprise, we heard a Willow Flycatcher sneeze Fitz-BEW right by the barn – a bird new to the Farm Camp checklist. Connie informed us that this was a regular sound on the farm in summer; she had always wondered what it was, and we had somehow overlooked it before. The Willow Flycatchers turned out to be nesting on the property. This was a promising start to the summer!
The next day, we arranged a nature hike. Connie was the navigator, Benjamin and I were the resident ornithologists, and our friend Ben specialized in the non-bird animals. We summoned six eager hikers, some as young as seven and eight. Clearly, we had not been birding in the right areas of Sharon Short Hills because surprises lurked around every corner, leaving me much more the giddy kid than the composed leader.
We started by counting the Barn Swallows that nest in the barn, and came up with thirty-nine – a new high count. We then moved into some oak savannah habitat, where the more common birds cooperated and raised up the group’s energy level. Particularly popular was a male Indigo Bunting, who perched right in the sunlight and elicited many oohs and aahs. Before exiting this habitat, however, Benjamin heard a Brown Thrasher instants before I noticed a Yellow-billed Cuckoo flying down the path. The hikers soon picked up on a rule: the more ridiculous our reaction, the rarer the bird.
One ridiculous reaction came when we spotted the first Red-headed Woodpecker of Sharon Short Hills. I got particularly excited – not only because Red-headed Woodpeckers are awesome, but also because I see them as symbols of a healthy Midwestern ecosystem. At this point, the hikers were more comfortable asking questions and one girl pointed out a large nest, wondering what it was. Ben, Benjamin and I examined the it more closely. It was definitely a raptor nest, but what kind? We decided it was probably a Cooper’s Hawk. Excited she’d found something interesting, the girl remained inquisitive. “What are those brown birds over there?” she asked, pointing.
I raised my binoculars and saw a plump bird – brown above, white below, spots across the chest … could it be our number-one life nemesis? It was – Wood Thrush! Yes, my nemesis bird was a Wood Thrush. No, I don’t really know how I’d gone five years without seeing one, but I couldn’t have been happier that Farm Camp was the place I got my first view. We dissolved into high-fives and triumphant whoops.
Around this time, I realized that we were on track to beat our record for most species in one hike at Farm Camp – thirty-nine. I introduced this competitive aspect to the hikers and some of them energetically began trying to identify every bird in the hopes that it might be new for the list. I was partially afraid of instilling a lister attitude in the hikers, but at the same time, I noticed that by taking a closer look at some of the common birds, they started to recognize these birds more quickly. We tied the record with Downy Woodpecker, and finally, a singing Eastern Towhee put us over the top. We ended the hike with forty-six species, shattering the record.
Most of the hikers grew very enthusiastic and I noticed an increase in their identification skills through even that one hike. One boy, who was about nine, got very excited as each bird went by and he called them correctly more and more frequently. A few kids also picked up on vocalizations and by the end of the first hike they were able to identify the song of the abundant Eastern Wood-Pewees just as quickly as I could. We took a hike break on Wednesday, but still got to enjoy a show-off male Rose-breasted Grosbeak who took a liking to the backyard feeder.
Breeding bird activity was in full swing, so we took another long hike on Thursday. This time we had hardly gotten a quarter of a mile before our first exciting species: two Grasshopper Sparrows. They darted around the tallgrass prairie for a few minutes before one finally perched. Everybody got a look, but most were more interested in the nearby Indigo Buntings and Common Yellowthroats, who were incredibly charismatic. Even the far-away colorful birds wowed the hikers, which is when I realized that binoculars are often unnecessary for kids, who tend to have good vision.
We descended into deciduous woodland, where a Yellow-throated Vireo – a long-time nemesis that was all of a sudden very common – began singing. Tuesday’s Veeries and Yellow-billed Cuckoos also reappeared and I was delighted to learn that the hikers remembered these birds from the previous hike. A couple even commented on the similarities or differences of the habitats compared to where we saw these birds on Tuesday.
A male Wood Duck and Baltimore Oriole were highlights, as were several Turkey Vultures we found sunning themselves along the road. We were constantly seeing Turkey Vultures soaring overhead but this was the first time we got a good look at the perched birds so we stayed with them for a while. “Look at its head!” exclaimed one girl. Someone asked what the species tally was, and I realized we were at forty-five – one fewer than on Tuesday! Once again, we set out to break the record. Forty-six – a singing Warbling Vireo. Finally, a female House Finch put us at forty-seven, and we celebrated once again.
The summer of 2013 definitely had a bigger nature vibe than in years past at Farm Camp. The hikes drew larger crowds but even the non-hikers would regularly ask identification questions. Connie initiated several “nature scavenger hunts,” in which the whole camp split into groups to find all of the groups of plants and animals on the list, such as any invasive species or seed-eating species.
There were also several high-action birding experiences. One morning, a couple of campers told me they had seen a large black bird with white wing patches fly by. Benjamin, Ben, and I immediately shot to our feet and ran around the house just in time to see a Pileated Woodpecker disappear into the woods. Everyone was entertained, though not all for the same reasons. My favorite story, however, took place when a few of us noticed a flock of crows freaking out over the evergreen woodlands. I threw on my jeans and hiking boots to investigate; one of my friends, who didn’t normally come on the hikes, followed. I started walking to the woodlands, but after hearing what totally sounded like an owl call, broke into an all-out sprint. The woods were dense, so I literally leapt over logs and swung around trees to follow the faster crows. Finally, we burst out of the woods, right behind the crows, and my suspicions were confirmed: they were attacking an owl. Not just any owl – a Barred Owl! My friend asked, “Is birding always like this?” I think I said yes.
Still, most of the best experiences came from the hikes. We embarked on at least ten hikes that summer, and even as the birdsong gradually died down, the hikes painted a picture of the expected birds of southeastern Michigan. The hikers were able to learn these birds and to appreciate the more unexpected treats that occasionally showed up, like Acadian Flycatcher, Orchard Oriole, and Virginia Rail. We tried to teach about more than birds, too. Ben found some interesting mammals, like a Least Weasel, and an insect expert named Tim taught everybody about butterflies, moths, and dragonflies. It was thrilling to see the strides in both knowledge and appreciation of nature the hikers made throughout the summer.
Perhaps the best hike experience came on the last one. We took a leisurely walk and brought the dog, Zinny. Sometimes, Connie would show everybody Zinny’s excellent tracking skills; several campers would run across a field and hide and once they were out of sight, she released Zinny, who would typically find the kids in under thirty seconds. Connie suggested we put Zinny on this hike and I volunteered as one of the four hiders. As we created our track, we ran down a hill where the grass went up to my waist. Suddenly, two Wild Turkeys – an adult and a juvenile – burst into the air. Each human and bird screeched. We stumbled, trying to slow our run, when two Ruffed Grouse popped up and followed the turkeys! They were followed by another three Ruffed Grouse, then another two, and finally one last straggler, making eight in all! Before I stopped shouting, two more turkeys rounded out the pack. The gamebirds all dropped in the grass across the field as we staggered back up the hill, discombobulated. Apparently the view of our encounter with the grouse and turkeys was priceless, and everyone was laughing. All in all, it was an excellent end to an excellent summer of nature.