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Christopher Smith: Travel reminds us how good we have it | News

It’s 60 degrees on the deck overlooking the marina, and I’m curious how the rest of northern Michigan is spending spring break. If it’s like most folks of the winter woods, you’re south … way south, with your feet in the sand and a cool beverage in one (or both) hands.

The Smith clan opted for a middle-of-the-country venture, predicated by the longevity of the other three fraternity members and one Labrador to be in the same vehicle without someone going ballistic. For yours truly driving alone on a hunting or fishing adventure, I just put it on auto pilot and can drive to the North Slope of Alaska without a snooze, if necessary.

While we like the beach gig as much as the next sunburned Yankee, we also enjoy the wildlife, so the Good Wife booked us a condo on Chincoteague Island, Virginia, which is attached to one dandy national wildlife refuge. Many species frequent the area, such as egrets, herons, gulls, plovers, and — thankfully to this waterfowl hunter — scads off ducks and geese, But the place also provides rent-free housing to a neat critter called the Chincoteague Pony.

Split between the Assateague herd on the Assateague Island National Lakeshore in Maryland and the Chincoteague herd in Virginia’s Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, these ponies eat a low-nutrion, salty diet primarily of cordgrass, requiring a lot of water, a combination which gives them their short, bloated look. At first glance, they appear like any other horse, but closer inspection through binoculars or a decent camera shows what a neat animal they really are, and well worth putting off Margaritaville for another year to go see.

While biking and hiking through the refuge, I rekindled a favorite hobby: hunting with a camera. We sportsmen and women like to get close to what we’re chasing, and sometimes that’s easier when not immersed in the stress and excitement of trying to pull the trigger. A necessary part of my job given the detailed paintings I like to depict, it’s a great excuse to roam the trails looking for whatever is willing to be seen. Birds are my favorite, especially species not normally seen in northern Michigan, like great egrets, laughing gulls, and semi-palmated plovers (a cousin to our prized piping plovers of the Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore).

Bringing this whole schpeel full circle, it’s special areas, like the Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore, and myriad national and state forests, state parks, and inland lakes that truly make our neck of the woods unique. Sometimes it’s necessary to visit another ecosystem in order to remember the diversity in our own backyard.

I recall some of my college wildlife courses where we had the distinct pleasure of banding birds, both around here and in the Upper Peninsula. Setting up mist nets in woodland trails and along migratory shorelines in April and May, we’d capture, band, and release everything in the book. One particular banding trip on South Manitou Island, a migrational stopover for thousands of tired birds traversing Lake Michigan, netted over 70 different species, from the smallest ruby-throated hummingbird to raptors like sharp-shinned and red-tailed hawks. And all those species are migrating through as you read this.

So travel south, if you must. Rid your selves of winter’s icy grip for a week, but don’t for one second admit there’s a better place to live, especially for those with the outdoors coursing through their veins. Our fishing and hunting is world class. The avian migration, from songbirds to waterfowl to birds of prey, is second to none. The lakes and rivers teem with resident and migratory species, and the woods overflow with deer, bears, turkeys, and small game. Grab a pair of binoculars, a camera, lace up your boots, point the truck in any direction, and just GO.


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