What I Did on My Summer Vacation 2013 (The Oakland Cottage B&B)

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Oakland Cottage Asheville, NC

Oakland Cottage
Asheville, NC

The Oakland Cottage in Asheville, North Carolina is where we stayed for our first three nights of our vacation. It is managed and run by Jim and Mary. We were greeted warmly – like old friends. I knew immediately that we were going to enjoy our stay. The Oakland Cottage was built in the same timeframe as Biltmore House. It is said that one of the architects from Biltmore designed Oakland Cottage. I really appreciated all the craftsman-style architectural details and the beautiful antique appointments.

Lobby and Hall Toward Rooms

Lobby and Hall Toward Rooms

The building was used as a tuberculosis sanitarium for African Americans during the 1940s. Although there have been some changes to layout (our room was probably partially a porch in earlier years), the amazing floors and woodwork are all original. Today, Oakland Cottage is a lovely, accommodating B&B that I would gladly visit again and again.


Our Room was the Garden Room (Room 5). It’s a spacious room with a huge, king-sized bed. There is also a daybed/trundle. The bathroom sports a jetted tub with a great shower.

Garden Room (#5) Oakland Cottage

Garden Room (#5)
Oakland Cottage

Dressing Area Room #5 – Oakland Cottage

Through the sliding door is a small balcony with a small table and two chairs that overlooks the garden.

View of Garden From Room #5 - Oakland Cottage

View of Garden
From Room #5 – Oakland Cottage

Pretty Visitor to The Garden
Oakland Cottage

As I mentioned in an earlier post (and which will probably be a recurring theme), it rained much of the time while we vacationed. I have to say that the rain actually was welcomed in our room as we could open the sliding door a crack and listen to the rain fall through the night. So very soothing and restful. Another huge bonus was being awakened by the singing of a Carolina Wren (how very appropriate, I thought). I have to say, too, that the bed was amazing. It was so comfortable and the pillows…well, they were the best ever. I must remember to ask where those can be purchased.


Open the Slider & Listen to the Rain/Birds

Open the Slider & Listen to the Rain/Birds

Prior to breakfast, we all gathered in the appropriately-named “Gathering Room” for coffee or tea which was served from a beautiful antique table. This was also where we met several of the other guests who were visiting at the same time. Every one of us seemed to be thoroughly enjoying ourselves, and I didn’t hear a single complaint.

The Gathering Room Oakland Cottage

The Gathering Room
Oakland Cottage

Coffee Before Breakfast Oakland Cottage

Coffee Before Breakfast
Oakland Cottage

Coffee/Tea Station Oakland Cottage

Having our dear friends, Gloria and Eric, with us was wonderful. We had so much to catch up on. We continued our conversation over an excellent breakfast served buffet style in the comfortable dining room. I must say that the food was very, very good and exactly what we needed to get our day of discovering Asheville started.


Breakfast Buffet Table

Breakfast Buffet Table


Breakfasting Area

Breakfasting Area

The front porch is another favorite spot. What a comfortable place it is to unwind after a day of exploring, or just sit, read and relax. 

Relaxing on the Front Porch Oakland Cottage

Relaxing on the Front Porch
Oakland Cottage

If you have an opportunity to visit Asheville, North Carolina, I highly recommend that you plan to stay at the Oakland Cottage. It’s convenient, unusually well-priced, and so comfortable, you may not want to leave. I know that we will be back.


Up Next: The Folk Art Center & The Grove Park Inn


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Than THESE in the Bush

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For the past several years, one of the main items on my “bucket list” has been to attend one of the Michigan Audubon trips to Sault Saint Marie, Michigan in the winter. We had signed up a number of times, but something had always come up to keep us from going on the trip. I was determined that this winter, we were going to make the trip and see some terrific birds.


Let me tell you a little about winter in Michigan. If you follow my blog, you know that this has been an extraordinarily cold and snowy winter. We’ve had temperatures below zero degrees Fahrenheit on multiple occasions. While this is definitely not preferred weather for the human species, it’s perfect for some of the boreal species of birds. These birds are at home in the very far north of Canada and Alaska. This year, nothing was going to stop us – and it didn’t.

Snowy Rid

Snowy Ride

We left Friday morning for Sault Saint Marie “the Soo.” There were several snow squalls along the way, but it made for a picturesque, albeit a bit dodgy, ride. I was glad that my Michigan-born husband was behind the wheel.

The BIG Bridge

The BIG Bridge

The ride across the Mackinac Straits over the big bridge was uneventful (thank goodness). The huge chunks of ice attest to the temperatures we’ve seen this winter. I have, however, seen old photos where the Straits have completely frozen and people have been able to walk from Mackinaw Island right to the mainland.

Talk about ICE

Talk about ICE

The Audubon trip started the next morning with us all meeting at the local McDonalds. The weather was quite cold (in the single digits – Fahrenheit – and low 10s), but it was gorgeously clear and sunny. As we spent most of the time in the car, the cold and wind only got to us when we got out to scan for birds or to set up scopes and get our binoculars on some pretty darned spectacular birds. Let me explain here that most of these birds are rare for our part of the country. Most of our targets were boreal species which rarely venture out of the heavily forested, far northern part of Canada.

Pine Grosbeaks!

Pine Grosbeaks!


Pine Grosbeaks!

Pine Grosbeaks!

One of our first stops was at feeders at a Michigan State University station. Here is where I first saw the Pine Grosbeaks that I had so dearly hoped to see. There weren’t just one or two birds – there were lots of them. The males are a gorgeous bright red with gray wings. These birds are regularly seen in the UP, but these were my first ever. They are quite confiding, and had little worry about so many humans standing around. (Our group was comprised of approximately 15 birders and Skye – our guide extraordinaire.)



Other birds that rarely venture into the Lower Peninsula are Redpolls. We were lucky enough to see several flocks of Common Redpolls, and more than a few Hoary Redpolls thrown into the mix.



The real focus of the trip, though, was owls. There had been several Snowy Owls reported as well as Northern Hawk Owl and the ever-elusive Great Gray Owl.


There was a lot of driving involved in our “owl-prowl.” We covered lots of territory without seeing any owls at all. I have to say that I was surprised at how many ravens we saw. Ravens are not at all common in the Lower Peninsula so seeing those was a treat. We also got the rare opportunity to see a dark-phase, Rough-Legged Hawk. What a beautiful bird! It was almost solid black except for a band of white through its wings.

Great Gray Owl (thanks to Jeromy Hakyl)

Great Gray Owl (thanks to Jeremy Halka)

We did finally luck out in that another birder who was reporting in on the internet found the Great Gray Owl. We made a hasty caravan back to the area in which it had been seen. Fortunately, the reporting birder was still in the area and told us exactly where to look. Sure enough! There he was – sitting comfortably in a tree not more than 40 feet from us. As mentioned earlier, there are some birds which are not around humans very much, so they do not fear us. Great Gray Owls fall into that category. As you can see in these spectacular photos, we didn’t perturb the bird at all. Let me mention right here that these photos were actually taken on cellphones. Yes, I’m serious. A terrific young student named Jeremy Halka (who was fighting a terrible cold but still came out) patiently focused cellphone cameras over and over to get us these terrific shots. He had figured out how to use the camera on a cellphone to take photos through our spotting scopes. This brings bird photography to a completely new level for most of us.

Great Gray Owl (gorgeous photography by Jeremy Halka)

Great Gray Owl (gorgeous photography by Jeremy Halka)

After we had all spent many cold minutes observing and photographing the Great Gray, he flew off to hunt for his next snack. We all piled happily into our vehicles and the caravan was off again. This time, we were heading back to the area we had hastily left in search of the Great Gray Owl. We hoped against hope that the Northern Hawk Owl that had been seen in the area was still there. It was!


Northern Hawk Owl (Jeremy Halka)

Northern Hawk Owl (Jeremy Halka)

Perched in the very top of a pine tree, our sharp-eyed leader found the Northern Hawk Owl surveying the snow-covered farm land around it. Another amazingly beautiful bird. I understand completely how this bird was named. He does look like a hawk and an owl, combined.

Hawk Owl

Northern Hawk Owl (Photo by Jeremy Halka)

Once again, we were able to get some terrific photos thanks to Jeremy and his patience.


By this time, it’s getting to be late afternoon, and we are all pretty tired from fighting the cold. Our last destination was an area where Snowy Owls were commonly seen. I have to say, THIS was the bird that I’d been most hoping to get a good look at. I’d been looking forward to this for so long. The Great Gray was such a surprise, I had no long-term expectations. The Snowy, on the other hand, well I knew chances were good.

A little aside here… Jim and I had actually seen a Snowy Owl before, so it wasn’t a “life bird.” However, the only looks we’d ever had were through a spotting scope of an owl sitting down in a field several hundred yards away. It was also cold and very windy that day and there was snow-shimmer. Yes, we saw the top of the owl’s head and its feathers moving, but hardly the kind of observation we longed for. We had also gotten in the car and driven miles and miles on many occasions to try to see Snowy Owls that had been reported. Every time, we were unsuccessful (skunked in fishing/birding terms).

First Time to REALLY see a Snowy Owl!

First Time to REALLY see a Snowy Owl!

I can’t truly explain the absolute joy I felt when we stopped at our first sighting of a gorgeous Snowy Owl (either female or juvenile due to the dark spots – an adult, male Snowy is almost completely white). Let’s just say I’m not sure the car had come to a complete stop and the door remained wide open. Oh my GOODNESS!!!! What an amazingly beautiful bird! We had hit the owl “trifecta!” As we left this owl (I believe all but a very few of us had been able to get good looks at Snowy Owls before), we were blessed to see three more in rapid succession. I begged a stop at the second one as I had not been able to get a good photo of the first. The group was very considerate and we piled out, once again, to observe yet another juvenile or female owl.


Snowy Owl (photo by Jeremy Halka)

After leaving that owl and seeing the other two flying and at some distance, we called it a day. The cold and the exhilaration had taken it out of all of us. We caravanned back to the McDonalds and made plans to meet up again the next morning at 7.

Yep! That's MINUS 24 Fahrenheit! (-31 Celsius)

Yep! That’s MINUS 24 Fahrenheit! (-31 Celsius)

Sunday morning dawned clear, bright, and exceedingly cold. As most of the group were planning to head back “down state – home” later in the day, there were a larger number of cars in our caravan. Instead of driving this time, though, we rode with Sault Saint Marie resident, Doris. We were so grateful to her for driving in such inhospitable weather. It definitely was the coldest I’d ever been in. Yes, it was 24 BELOW zero Fahrenheit! I had to laugh when I found out that Doris grew up in Florida just like I did. What were two southern girls doing in -24F with snow up to our derrieres? Birding! That’s what we were doing. Must be some form of “sickness.”


Our first stop brought us a tree full of Sharp-tailed Grouse. The snow was so deep that they weren’t dancing on their lek.

Tree Full of Sharp-Tailed Grouse

Tree Full of Sharp-Tailed Grouse

How deep was the snow? It was so deep that the cattle could have easily stepped over their fencing. They were standing on top of it as it had gotten so packed down that they weren’t sinking in. I’ve never seen anything like it. I have to say, that the snowmobilers were having fabulous weather for their races, but I don’t think any of us were properly dressed for the extremes we encountered.


After leaving the grouse, we headed back to an area where Boreal Chickadee had been reported. If you read my blogs about our trip to the UP this summer, you know that we had looked all over to hopefully find Boreal Chickadee and Gray Jay. For the first time on the trip, we didn’t see the bird we hoped to see. There were lots and lots of Black-capped Chickadees, but no Boreal Chickadees.


That was the trip. We ended up where we began – the McDonalds. We said our good-byes and went our separate ways. It was a terrific trip! We met lots of terrific people, learned a lot about the Soo, and saw fantastic birds.


Up Next: Not in Forty Years…


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WIDMSV – Munising: Miners’ Castle and Shipwreck Tour

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WIDMSV? What I Did on My Summer Vacation!



After the long, hot and ambitious day we had on Day 2 of our vacation (Birding, Big Bay, and Gwinn), one would think we would just sit back and relax. Not a chance! Hey, we only get to do this once a year – if we’re lucky. After another blueberry breakfast (Finnish pancakes with blueberry sauce and blueberry buckle; but, still, no meat), off to Munising we went.

One of the Formations
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore


Munising is east of Marquette and is famous for its Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore (http://www.nps.gov/piro/index.htm). A few years ago, we went on a Pictured Rocks cruise. I have to say that this is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. The water in Lake Superior is so clear that it is possible to see as far down as 100 feet in some places. The national lakeshore has been scrupulously kept pristine and, for that, we should all be grateful. No t-shirt shops or hot dog stands mar the incredible natural beauty. If we had more time available, we’d absolutely go on that cruise again.

Great Lakes
Superior – darker color


For all y’all who have never actually seen the Great Lakes, I have to give you some information about Lake Superior. Before I saw the Great Lakes for the first time, I had no point of reference. My idea of a big lake is Lanier in Georgia. I grew up in Florida, so had always heard about Lake Okeechobee. I did actually drive around part of Okeechobee, but you don’t get visuals like you do the Great Lakes. The only thing I can equate looking out on one of the Great Lakes – especially Superior – is looking at the Gulf of Mexico or the ocean. You absolutely can NOT see the other side. They are so vast! Nothing really could prepare me for experiencing the Great Lakes and I am still stunned every time I see them.

Lake Superior
(NASA photo from Space)


For some terrific facts on Lake Superior, I’m attaching the following link: http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/superior/superiorfacts.html


Some of my favorite points from this website are:


  • Lake Superior is, by surface area, the world’s largest freshwater lake.
  • The surface area of Lake Superior (31,700 square miles or 82,170 square kilometers) is greater than the combined areas of Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Hampshire.
  • The Lake Superior shoreline, if straightened out, could connect Duluth and the Bahama Islands.
  • Lake Superior contains as much water as all the other Great Lakes combined, even throwing in two extra Lake Eries.
  • Lake Superior contains 10% of all the earth’s fresh surface water.
  • There is enough water in Lake Superior (3,000,000,000,000,000 — or 3 quadrillion — gallons) to flood all of North and South America to a depth of one foot.
  • The deepest point in Lake Superior (about 40 miles north of Munising, Michigan) is 1,300 feet (400 meters) below the surface.

    Miner’s Castle


We had made reservations to take a shipwreck tour, but arrived too early. We decided to take a side-trip to Miner’s Castle. We’d seen the formation from the Pictured Rocks Tour, but it is also accessible from the land side. While Jim walked out to get a closer look, I stayed around the parking lot because it was full of American Redstarts. I tried to be as unobtrusive as possible and it sure paid off as I watched a female American Redstart gleaning bugs and take them into her nest. That was a first for me. I also got a charge out of watching her mate chase off every other bird who dared to come into their domain.

Lake Superior
Miner’s Castle in foreground


As I was watching the birds, a family (mom, dad and young son) came up and asked if I was birding. When I assured them that I was and that I didn’t at all mind answering questions (if I was able), they told me that they were from California and that their son was very interested in birds. I showed him the area to watch and he was thrilled to watch the female redstart going in and out of her hidden nest. Those moments, watching young people react to birds, are the best!

Female Redstart


Off to the docks we went. We have been so lucky, and our luck held! Both times we have planned and gone on boat rides on Superior, it’s been flat calm. I know y’all read my posts about The Edmund Fitzgerald (right?). Superior can be one angry, scary gal when she wants to be. For us, she’s been quite the lady.


We got down to the dock and boarded our glass-bottomed boat (http://shipwrecktours.com/) to three shipwrecks – the Bermuda, the Herman H. Hettler, and a French, Scow-Schooner that is, at present, un-identified (although it may be more than 400 years old, having been used in the fur trade) We also got the opportunity to go past the East Channel Lighthouse, both on the way out and back. The boat was quite full, but the tour operators were professional and made certain that everyone got an opportunity to see each of the shipwrecks. I knew that the waters of Superior were clean and clear, but this trip really brought that fact home. Although some of the ships were in 20+ feet of water, it was really easy to see the wreckage and make out boards, planks, fixtures (including a captain’s bathtub), passageways, and wheels.

Wreck of the Herman H. Hettler


I’m glad that we took the trip! It was definitely worth the time. If, however, you are only able to take one trip from Munising (either Pictured Rocks or Shipwreck), I’d strongly suggest that you opt for the Pictured Rocks cruise. As I said before, I’d definitely do that again!

Wreckage of the Bermuda


Anchor of Herman H. Hettler

East Channel Lighthouse


Up Next: WIDMSV – Munising: Muldoon’s & Open Wings; Marquette: Irish Rover


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Looking forward to “seeing” you here on Colmel’s Blog!

Farmers’ Markets (Howell)

I previously wrote, farmers’ markets are a way of life in our part of Michigan. Most run from May through the beginning of October. There are a few (e.g., Ann Arbor) that have winter markets, but those will be the subject of a later blog (or two).


Livingston Cty Court House

 Where the Ann Arbor market is covered and in a dedicated area, the Howell Farmers’ market (held on Sundays) is held on the streets around the courthouse (Howell is the county-seat for Livingston County, MI).

Dog-friendly! LOVE IT!

The Howell farmers’ market is much smaller than the Brighton or the Ann Arbor markets – which can be a good thing. It’s a very laid back, family- and pet-friendly venue.

There are wonderful stands with people selling eggs from their own free-range chickens and excellent baked goods (Czech bakery and Polish bakery – YUMMMM)! You can find home-made soaps, sauces, maple syrup and other maple products. The variety is surprising considering the smaller size of the market.

Flower Sellers

Due to our late spring (cold weather and very wet conditions into June), the vegetables haven’t really started to mature. The early season crops (garlic, radishes, onions, early beans, blueberries, raspberries, some cherries) are starting to show up. The flower-sellers are having a good year with lots of potted plants starting to be at their best now.

Later in the summer (within the next three or four weeks), there will be wonderful ‘maters, peaches, apples, sweet corn, and a great variety of other veggies and fruit. (I’ll discuss Michigan produce versus that from other states in a later blog. You may be surprised – I was!)

The craftspeople are also on hand. On any given Sunday,  you can find beautiful, hand-turned wooden bowls, wooden toys, hand-crafted jewelry, and many different varieties of clothing. There is usually a gentleman who sharpens knives. Frequently, there are people selling interesting yard-art.

Jim & Friend

You just never know what you’ll see. It’s so much fun! The people-watching is sometimes the best part! Just take a look at the photo. That’s Jim with a Pink Cockatoo (aka Major Mitchell’s/ Leadbeater’s). The owner was walking down the street with the bird on his arm. Being bird-lovers, we naturally stopped to see the bird. Recognizing fans, the gentleman just stuck the bird on Jim’s arm. Must say the bird loves to show off. Just look at the raised crest and wings!

This is why I enjoy the Howell market so much! It’s so relaxed and there’s always something new to enjoy. The sellers are all neighbors and they seem to be enjoying themselves as much as the rest of us. It’s like a friendly, neighborly get-together where you can, incidentally, buy some really good stuff!




Up Next: When the Blues are a GOOD thing

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Drawing a Crowd (The Wonder of a White-eared)

In August of 2005, we had a completely unexpected guest. Not only was this guest unexpected at our house, it’s exceeding rare anywhere in the entire United States. This story has been written up in several places, but maybe you haven’t heard it. If you have, please feel free to check out one of my other posts. The rest of y’all…here goes.

On the afternoon of 18 August 2005, I was checking feeders – both seed and nectar – in our front yard. As I passed one of the nectar feeders, I noticed a very unusual hummingbird. It immediately struck me that this gave all appearances of a White-eared Hummingbird.

We had made trips to Southeast Arizonato observe non-Ruby-throated hummingbirds. Even there, we had not seen a White-eared Hummingbird, so I thought I was seeing things when one was right in front of me, at a feeder in my yard. I ran into the house and told Jim that I thought there was a White-eared Hummingbird at our feeder. Of course, he was certain that I’d lost my mind. We grabbed our binoculars and walked out the front door to our porch.


Very soon thereafter, the bird returned to the feeder which was no more than 10 feet away. The bird perched on the feeder and fed leisurely. At this point, Jim was also sure that this was absolutely not a Ruby-throated Hummingbird. We called a close friend and avid birder (John) who lives within a few minute drive. We also called Allen Chartier. (You may remember his name from an earlier post about banding. He’s the local bander and true hummingbird expert.) John arrived quite quickly and was also fairly certain that the bird was, indeed, a White-eared Hummingbird. John had his camera and video equipment, so he started taking photos and filming the bird. We got Allen on the telephone and described fieldmarks and behaviors. Not being in the yard to see the bird, Allen was, understandably, reluctant to rule out other possibilities. John also put out calls to several other birders who would be interested in seeing this unusual bird.


At this point, a couple of other local birders were watching the bird as we put out a rapid email on listservs that we had an unusual bird in our yard and that all birders who wished to come were welcome.

The bird remained and actively fed until nightfall. Everyone left with promises to return early the next morning. John went home and sent quicktime video and downloaded photos to Allen. After watching the video and seeing the photographs, Allen was also convinced that the bird was a White-eared Hummingbird. The news quickly got out to birders and the next day (August 19), we hosted close to 200 birders at varying times. Many had cameras and video equipment. The bird started feeding just at dawn and remained in the vicinity all day. Every individual who came to see the bird on the 19th was lucky enough to get some very good looks.

On the morning of Saturday, August 20, a few very early birders were able to see the bird at dawn when it fed very actively. Unfortunately, a large thunder/rain storm rolled into the area which lasted for a couple of hours. The White-eared did not reappear after the storm even though many people waited for several hours in hopes that it would reappear.

It was a wonderful experience hosting such a rare bird. It seemed like great irony that we had attempted to see White-eared in Arizona – to no avail – only to have one grace our yard in Michigan. We found out later that there had only been one confirmed sighting east of the Mississippi River which was in Biloxi, MS after a hurricane. The furthest north one had ever been confirmed was in Colorado. We’ll never know how on earth this one bird got so lost. Even more remarkable to me was that she (it’s thought that it was a female) showed up in a place where she would be recognized.

We had a wonderful time meeting so many really wonderful people who came to see the bird from all over the country. There were people from as far away as New York state and Minnesota. We tried to have everyone sign a guest list. Everyone was respectful of the neighbors (parking so as not to block any access), our property, and the boundaries set to avoid frightening the bird away. Our neighbor children even set up a lemonade stand! It was a true party atmosphere in a hushed kind of way. I brought out lawn chairs so that those who might not be able to stand for long periods of  time could see this wrong-way bird.

I doubt we’ll ever have another rarity. If we do, you can bet your boots I’ll make the same calls and get the word out. It’s the kind of “party” I love to host.

Up Next:  Howell Farmers’ Market

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