Winter so far

The winter has been very mild so far, with little snow and midday temperatures no lower than -5 °C (23 °F) or so. My memories from last year are filled with ankle-deep blankets of snow lingering for days at -15 °C (5 °F). Going through older blog entries, I can see we had those conditions (and worse), but not until February. The first two weeks after my arrival on January 3rd, 2011, were not much more wintery than the weather right now.

Of course, that’s not to say it isn’t winter, and nature has responded in her usual way of bare trees and birds migrating to warmer climes. Melissa and I put up a bird feeder outside the living room window, and the birds that haven’t left are making good use of it—especially when it snows. There’s a flock of sparrows spending the nights in a cedar bush next to the house and every morning they head over to the feeder for breakfast. The record so far is nine sparrows sitting down at once, accompanied by much squeaking and wing-flapping. Sparrows may look cute, but they’re quite vicious: they keep trying to push each other off, sometimes flying up from a little distance and knocking another, sometimes pecking at one another with their little beaks.

Other visitors to the feeder include a couple of chickadees and five or six cardinals (three male, two or three female) and, rather surprisingly, a hairy woodpecker (haarspecht). The hairy is a medium-sized woodpecker, growing to about 25 cm or 10 in. The feeder is shaped like a tube and is maybe 40 cm (16 in) tall, so the hairy woodpecker pretty much dwarfed the thing and was unable to get much out of it. It sat on the feeder for a while, undecisive, before flying off again. We haven’t seen it since, but we liked it so much that we’re going to put up a larger feeder to try and attract more of its kind.

Speaking of woodpeckers, I went out for a walk yesterday at Parker Mill Park (just east of AA) and spotted a red-bellied woodpecker (roodbuikspecht):

Red-bellied woodpecker

Let me take this opportunity to point out that bird names, in my opinion at least, do not always make sense. The red-bellied’s belly isn’t really red, nor is the hairy’s plumage in any way hairy. If an ornithologist or other expert happens to read this, feel free to enlighten me.

Click here for some more recent bird pictures…

Signs of spring

Winter isn’t over yet, but signs of its impending end are getting stronger. It’s no longer 0 °F or -20 °C at night—it’s only 15 °F or -10 °C. Five- and ten-inch snow storms have made way for two-inch storms mixed with an inch of rain. And birds that spent the winter down south are migrating back to their breeding grounds up north. Some of them stop over in Michigan for a day or two, where the ice on lakes and rivers is just melting. The opening waters also draw birds that live here year round out of hiding. It made Ann Arbor’s Geddes Pond a rewarding place to visit with my camera yesterday.

Close-up of a trumpeter swan.
Close-up of a trumpeter swan.

Click here to see more pictures…

Bike blues

Trek FX 7.2Although public transport within Ann Arbor is quite alright for getting to and from the university on weekdays, it isn’t of much use for anything during the weekend, when the buses in my neighborhood run only once an hour. So, in spite of the snow and cold outside, I’ve gone shopping for a bike. I happen to live close to Wheels in Motion, one of Ann Arbor’s better bike shops, and the folks there were very helpful in finding me the right bike. They were also very patient and forgiving of my lack of American cycling vocabulary. It happened twice that they suggested a type of bike or piece of equipment to which I responded enthusiastically, only to realize when they showed the bike or item in question that it was something different than what I had thought. (Similar moments have occurred in other shops. For all my fluency in scientific and everyday English, it’s interesting to discover how many words I don’t know in other areas of the language.) Still, it didn’t take too long to settle down on the FX 7.2 by Trek. It’s a fitness bike, or at least so I’m told. Whatever its designation, it looks to serve me well on my daily commute to campus, as well as on the occasional 20- or 30-mile ride.

I picked up the bike Thursday evening. On Saturday, despite the freezing cold, I went ahead and biked to campus for the first time. First, though, I went for a short warm-up run to the grocery store. An elderly man there remarked it was quite cold for cycling, recalling he’d never ridden below 18 °F (-8 °C). I had just faced something like 5 °F (-15 °C), with wind chill in the negative F, so I beat him by a fair margin.

The three-mile ride to campus was not too bad as far as the cold went. In fact, there was one nasty hill that had me sweating as on a summer’s day by the time I reached the top. The downhill return would have been fun if the road surface were in better condition. As it was, it was something of a challenge to dodge cracks, potholes and patches of ice at 20 mph on an unfamiliar bike, with a freezing wind battering my eyes to tears.

Yesterday morning, with the temperature up to 11 °F (-12 °C), I took a slightly different route to avoid that hill and also to avoid the moderately heavy traffic on Saturday’s route. The attempt was successfull on both counts, although the quieter roads do mean poorer road conditions now that there’s been some snowfall again. The additional twisting and turning also increases the likelihood of me getting lost, especially cycling home in the dark — which didn’t take long to actually happen. I added an extra mile and a half to yesterday’s homeward journey by missing a turn and not recognizing an intersection later on where I could have fixed my initial mistake with minimal damage. I suppose it’s a good way to get to know the city a bit, but I’d rather do that in warmer weather. Note for tonight: check the map extra carefully before heading home.

Storm in Arizona

Following a beautiful morning in Austin, TX (sunny, 20+ °C), I flew into a major storm in Phoenix, AZ. For a while, it actually looked like I wasn’t flying into Phoenix at all, given the weather conditions. But we did, so I got to experience what it feels to land in 25 mph crosswinds, with gusts up to 35 mph. Not too much fun, I’ll tell you.

From the airport to the hotel, I shared a shuttle with two guys whose flights out of Phoenix got cancelled. Indeed, inbound and outbound flights got cancelled all over the board. Mine was one of the few that still got in this afternoon. The shuttle driver had been watching incoming flights for a while, and had seen many aborted landings. Made me feel good that we touched down on the first attempt.

I’m in my hotel now, comfortably sheltered against the wind and rain, and watching the news on tv. They’re calling it the storm of the century; given that it’s the worst storm since at least 1993, that moniker is correct, albeit a tad premature. Phoenix is getting record amounts of rain, apparently the most in a single day since people started keeping track. Further north, the city of Flagstaff is getting a foot or two of snow. Elsewhere, the abundant precipitation is causing floods, and that’s expected to get worse over the next few days.

I was going to go on a bus tour to the Grand Canyon tomorrow, but it’s exceedingly unlikely that that will still happen. Authorities are strongly advising people not to travel. If the tour company decides to go on with the tour, I’ll assume it’s safe enough and I’ll go. If they cancel, I guess I’ll be stuck in my hotel for a day.