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Whipping Willow Tree

 

Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

We have a favorite willow tree at the intersection of US 131 and I-96. As one exits from east I-96 to enter north US 131, a weeping willow lives in the cloverleaf. Three decades ago, I saw what looked like a chicken in the tree. I could not safely take an extended look to determine what was in the tree. It was winter and it seemed extremely odd for a dark brown chicken to be in a tree along the highway.

I watched on future passages when I used the off ramp. It turned out to be a dark phase of the Rough-legged Hawk that was using the willow as a favorite perch for hunting. I told my naturalist friend, Greg Swanson, about the “chicken in a tree.” We laughed and he said he knew the bird. He had seen it during previous winters. This bird had found a good winter hunting location and it returned winter after winter.

When human “snowbirds” head to Florida or Arizona for the winter, many arctic birds come to this balmy winter feeding area in Michigan to escape the barren arctic where finding food is a winter challenge. Our family enjoyed looking for what I originally thought was a chicken a tree. It helped us remember to look for interesting animals wherever we drove. After thirty plus years, we still talk about the bird but it has not been seen in decades. It likely died sometime in the 1990’s.

The weeping willow tree also experienced life challenges. Julianne, our youngest daughter, called it a whipping willow. What fun! Ever since, the family refers to it as a “Whipping Willow.” It has become a family friend.

One day when we were circling around the tree on the off the ramp, we were dismayed to see the tree had been blown down and was laying on the ground. Fortunately, a portion of the trunk was still attached to the base and the tree refused to die. It sprouted vertical stems along the prostrate trunk. Before the new leaves expand, you can see the old trunk on the ground and several large stems growing upward.

Once leaves grow and obscure view of the stems, one would not recognize its hard life recovery from being blown down. Neither can one see into the past to witness a “chicken in a tree.” We each need to aware of our surroundings and make family discoveries as we travel together.

For thirty years, the dark phase Rough-legged Hawk and the “Whipping Willow” have given us joy and family moment connections with nature niches. We have many moments to reminisce. Such moments strengthen family relationships. We all love each other and the natural world helps us maintain that love in a simple way.

Experiencing the outdoors does not need to be an elaborately planned outing. Take notice of things natural to enjoy and share with parents, spouses, kids, grandkids, and friends.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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