Lost Lake Nature Park: In Autumn, It’s the Little Things

Autumn color edges Lost Lake on a crisp fall day

Autumn begins to pare nature down to a few essentials. Earlier, cold nights and warm days provided a riot of color which has now begun to mellow into golds and russets.  Glamorous flowers subside in the chill, and butterflies have either departed or completed their brief lives. Bird song is replaced by chitters and calls, except for the call-and-response bugling of  geese and sandhill cranes as they wheel and soar high above us, heeding the siren call of the south.

So I always imagine that making discoveries to share with you will be more difficult in fall and winter. And to some extent that’s true. But what’s really required is that I pay more attention to the little surprises that nature always has in store. What’s moving in the leaves beneath that tree? What’s that peeping I hear in the reeds? What tiny saplings emerged this summer that I’d missed in the hubbub of a summer day?

So please join me for a relatively short, virtual hike around this fifty-eight acre park. Maybe you’ll be as intrigued as I was by the variety of its habitats and by the “little things” that went unnoticed until autumn began its work.

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It’s Called Lost Lake, so Let’s Begin at the Dock

A Great Blue Heron winging its way across Lost Lake

As I approached the lake on my first visit, I looked up between the autumn treetops to see the graceful silhouette of a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias). Between the slow, powerful beats of its magnificent wings, it glided swiftly through the thin, blue air. These stately birds will travel just far enough in the fall to find open water where they can feed. I just learned that they have special photoreceptors in their eyes that allow them to feed at night as well as in daylight. Wouldn’t it be magical to see one fishing in the moonlight?

But down on the surface of the lake, only one calm, female duck cruised the chilly water. I wondered why she was alone – no mate yet? But she seemed quite serene as she silently surveyed her surroundings.  

A solitary female Mallard seemed to enjoy being the only bird on the lake.

She wasn’t alone for long though. Behind me the raucous honking of a flock of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) broke the silence that she and I enjoyed. About thirty of them appeared from behind me and circled the pond, constantly announcing their arrival. At one point, they flew right above me so that I could hear the snap of the joints in those powerful wings and the air pouring through them. They descended to the surface and formed a long, single-file line on the far edge of the pond and went completely silent. Peace descended again around the pond.

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At the east edge of the lake, a solitary goose kept company with two small companions – a pair of Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus). You may have to look carefully for the second one; it’s near the goose’s tail feathers with its back turned away from the camera.  

A Canada Goose rests while two little Killdeer forage in the mud nearby.

I say “kept company,” because though the killdeer lifted their angled wings to fly off to other muddy edges, for some reason, they kept returning to their very calm, large companion. I imagine some particularly yummy food source lay buried in the mud there  – maybe snails, aquatic insect larvae, or even the odd crayfish. But the harmony between the species was a peaceful sight.

Later I saw the Killdeer foraging on a mud flat on the north side of the lake with a small, brown and white bird with yellow legs. When I researched at home and then consulted expert birder, Ruth Glass, she confirmed that I’d seen a Least Sandpiper (Calidris minutilla) and she added that seeing them at this time of year was “a rarity.” How exciting! This sandpiper searches out much the same food as the Killdeer, though with its sloping beak, it can probe a bit deeper in the mud. Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds website informs me that they “probe damp mud for buried prey, using the surface tension of the water to transport the item quickly from their bill tips to their mouths.” Neat trick! Here’s my somewhat blurry photo of the two smaller birds; my lens didn’t quite reach two small birds on the north shore of the pond. So I hunted up a better photo of the Least Sandpiper taken by jmaley at inaturalist.org.[Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

Another little Sandpiper – perhaps the same one –  also showed up near two huge Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis), but I didn’t get a decent photo before it flew. The two big cranes preened and foraged on the east edge of the lake. Both the little Sandpiper and the Cranes will soon migrate south, the Sandhills to Florida or the Southwest and the Sandpipers to the gulf states. I’m glad I got to enjoy a rare sighting of the sandpiper and to bid farewell to all of these water birds before they started their long journeys. 

Two Sandhill Cranes at the lake edge

On an almost spring-like morning a week or so ago, as the sun glittered on the water, I watched a Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) make a bee-line across the lake. The wake it created with its head made it seem that it was pushing a splash of sunlight. This furry little rug of a creature was using its webbed feet and side-swishing tail to propel itself speedily across the lake!

A muskrat creating a wake as it quickly crossed Lost Lake

I followed it until it dove with a small splash and finally discerned on the west side of the lake, a large, well-camouflaged lodge at the water’s edge piled with the stems and leaves of Fragrant Water Lily ( Nymphea odorataand other aquatic plant material. The entrance to its spacious home is underwater with an entrance way that slopes upward to keep the living quarters dry.  When I looked around to see if I could tell the direction from which it had come, I noticed the beginnings of a small feeding platform. During the long winter months, the muskrat, breathing slowly, will periodically cruise under the ice, taking the food it can find – mostly plant material – up into the fresh air for a meal and a bit more oxygen. It had deposited a freshly harvested lily pad on it when I arrived the next morning.

But it was the tiny creatures around the pond that surprised and delighted me most.  On one warmish fall day, I kept hearing an odd twittering croaking coming from the reeds on the east side of the pond. What was that? Small birds? No sign of a flock. Crickets? Maybe, but it seemed very fast for crickets. It sounded a bit like frogs, but it had been so cold at night. Why would frogs be singing in the autumn?  

The next day, I made it a point to explore the east edge of the lake, edging as close as I could to it from Lost Lake Trail, where I hoped to find a clue to the mystery chorus.    

The southeast end of Lost Lake from the dock.

The scarlet berries of Michigan Holly/Winterberry (Ilex verticillata), a wetland shrub, would no doubt be feeding birds and perhaps other animals during the winter months, while propagating itself around Lost Lake. This cheerful, native holly loses its leaves but keeps its bright red drupes (a fruit with one seed or pit) well into the snowy winter months. If you have a wet spot on your property, you might think about this native ornamental beauty!

Michigan Holly is a native bush that is reportedly easy to grow with few diseases or pests.

Walking through dry leaves near the lake, something tiny jumped near my feet. I stopped and took a long look and finally tracked down a very tiny (maybe 1-2 inch?), very pale frog clinging to a stick at the foot of a tree. I was totally mystified – a tiny frog in the autumn? And when I got home and looked at the photo more closely, I was astonished to seed the “x” markings on its back –  a Spring Peeper (Pseudacris crucifer)???!

A Spring Peeper appeared in the woods at Lost Lake, an odd sight in the autumn.

After a bit of online research, I found the website of the Orianne Society in Vermont whose mission is to help preserve habitat for amphibians and reptiles. Generally, Peepers quiet down once their mating season concludes in late spring. But evidently on cool, wet fall days, spring peepers are known to call and the reason isn’t entirely clear. But one hypothesis is that by late August, peepers are almost fully mature. But they will soon begin to shut down their metabolism to survive the winter, freezing almost solid, protected by internal anti-freeze. So the theory is that on warmish days, they may try out their spring songs out of an abundance of hormones. What a surprise!

However, the chorus by the lake didn’t sound a bit like a chorus of spring peepers; it was much too fast and not melodius. My best guess now is an unseen twittering flock of crickets or small birds that just stayed down in the tall aquatic vegetation at the lake’s edge. I never saw a flock of birds emerge and eventually the chorus went silent. So the mystery continues.

I went back to the dock, curious if there were any other frogs that I’d missed there. As I scanned with the binoculars, I suddenly noticed a small upright form near the edge of the dock. Another frog – but not a peeper! I approached stealthily with my camera, pausing periodically, moving very slowly. Eventually I got close enough to see a distinguishing field mark – a thin ridge of skin running from the back of the eye and curving around the tympanum, the frog’s round eardrum. My best guess is that this little frog was an immature female because her throat was white rather than yellow and she was very small. It can take up to three years for a bullfrog to mature. I hope this silent little one found her way back onto the muddy bottom of the lake before the night temperatures dropped again.

An immature female Bullfrog sitting quietly near the lake edge on a warmish fall day

A mowed area surrounded by trees and wetland just west of the lake hosts a shining stand of Yellow Birch trees (Betula alleghaniensis). I love to see them on a sunny afternoon because their bronze bark shines silver in the sunlight and forms lovely curls and frills like other birches. Yellow birches are one of the tallest of their kind.This particular one had a definite list to the east, probably caused by wind and the moist soil it prefers. If you love birches and have moist soil, this glamorous bark adds some serious pizzazz to the landscape!

Into the Forest With a Different Pair of Eyes

A wise pair of “eyes” peered out from a fallen log among the leaves.

A huge smile and a little “Oh!” accompanied my discovery of this log in the forest at Lost Lake.  I’d been thinking about my need to pay attention, to look closely at this moist, wooded habitat because I remembered that small, special moments can occur in nature once autumn arrives.  And suddenly, these seemingly ancient, Yoda-like eyes were staring at me from a fallen log! I love that it also appears to be winking!

Leaving the lake behind and starting down the woodland trail beyond the caretaker’s house at Lost Lake always feels like I’m moving into another world. On the left the forest sweeps upward into a rolling landscape.

The forest at Lost Lake stands on rolling slopes that rise to the sledding hill.

On the right as you walk farther in, the land continues downward to a moist wetland area full of mosses and mystery.

The forest trail slopes down toward a moist wetland area.

The trees within the moist lower area of the forest grip the wet soil with roots that grow above the ground. Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township stewardship manager, told me that these “buttressed roots” probably provide extra support in the soft soil. I also read that in poor soils, they can provide a wider area for seeking nutrients, though that may not be an issue in this forest at Lost Lake Nature Park.  

Buttressed roots provide the trees in the wetland area with more support and more nutrients.

What’s especially enchanting in this forest are the mossy gardens that form over the tops of these buttressed roots. Moss, ferns, leaves and some small plants have created a plush cushion surrounding this maple tree.  

Moss forms a plump cushion over the buttressed roots of this tree.

Intermediate Wood Ferns (Dryopteris intermedia) are tucked close to the trunks of several trees in this part of the woods. This fern glows emerald green for most of the winter in the moist shade of this part of the forest. It spreads by spores like other ferns, but doesn’t spread easily, so it could be successful in a continually moist shade garden, I imagine.  

Intermediate Wood Fern loves the moist shade of the wetland area and will stay green throughout the winter.

By looking carefully downward as I walked, I spotted several tiny saplings emerging from the fallen leaves. In the lowland area, the moist soil suited a tiny Swamp Oak (Quercus bicolor), whose four leaves had gathered all the sun available in the forest shade. It’s got a long way to go before reaching the 40-60 feet possible for this species of oak.  

A Swamp White Oak sprouting in the moist shade of the lowland forest area

The steep slopes of the Lost Lake forest create a lot of fallen logs. Without the distractions of flowers, insects and birds calls, I focus on them more in the autumn. Besides the peering knothole eyes above, I noticed an aging log with the bark peeled back to reveal its reddish brown sapwood which carried water and nutrients up to the treetops or down to the roots when the tree was alive.   

Under the bark of a log, the sapwood of the tree glows rich red-brown in the forest shade.

And of course, mushrooms are at work recycling the nutrients of  fallen trees back into the soil. The cold nights have done in most of them, but I appreciated the ruffly edges and autumn tones  of these aging Turkey-tail Mushrooms (Trametes versicolor).

Turkey Tail mushrooms decorate a fallen log in the moist areas of the Lost Lake forest.

A Quick Trip to a Possible Future

Oakland Township Parks and Recreation also has a small piece of property across Turtle Creek Lane, a private road on the west edge of the park.  I walked north up the lane a  short distance and found the “Park Property” sign to be sure I wasn’t on private land.  Native Huckleberry colonies (Gaylussacia baccata) flourish in the dappled shade of this more open woods. As a shrub, Huckleberry produces black berries and its leaves turn lovely shades of red in the fall.

A native Huckleberry colony on park property across the road.

I walked up into that lovely wood and headed north a short distance to the edge of the marsh.  In the distance, a stand of yellowing trees interspersed with green conifers towered over the spongy soft earth of a huge, circular bog. 

A marsh west of Lost Lake Park with a bog in the distance.

The Michigan Natural Features Inventory defines a bog as a”a nutrient-poor peatland characterized by acidic, saturated peat and the prevalence of sphagnum mosses and ericaceous [acid-loving] shrubs.” Often bogs are the remains of glacial lakes that formed and then drained away as the 2 mile thick ice sheet withdrew from Michigan about 10,000 years ago. In fact, Lost Lake itself is a “kettle lake” that formed from a melting block of glacial ice. This marsh and bog are part of a spectacular piece of land that the Parks Commission hopes to purchase in the future if we are fortunate enough to receive a matching grant from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund. Keep your fingers crossed, please!

Standing at south edge of the marsh, I could see the yellowing needles of Tamarack trees (Larix laricina) and their bog-loving companions, Black Spruce (Picea mariana). Here’s a closer look:

The Tamaracks’ needles turn yellow and drop in the fall. The spruces stay green.

Despite being conifers, the Tamarack’s needles turn yellow and drop in the autumn leaving them bare during the winter like other deciduous trees. The spruces earn the name “evergreen,” by regularly shedding only their older needles as newer needles take their place. Both of these species thrive in very cold temperatures with soil that is acidic and continually wet.  According to Wikipedia, Tamaracks, for example, tolerate temperatures as low as -85 degrees Fahrenheit! Black Spruces prosper in the snowy boreal forests of Canada and the Arctic. But here they are in Oakland Township, remnants of the Ice Age!

Back to the Park, a Climb Up the Hill and Down

Looking down the sledding hill at Lost Lake Nature Park

Returning to Lost Lake Nature Park, I started up the forest trail that leads to the top of the sledding hill. On the way up, I passed small patches of Blue Wood/Heart-leaved Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium), one of the late season asters that appears in August and lasts into October and can fit itself into a wide variety of habitats. It was accompanied by one of my favorite grasses, Bottlebrush Grass (Elymus hystrix) whose seeds are carried on the wind by arrow-shaped “awns.” Nearby, lichen and mosses made a mosaic of green on a large rock. I begin to crave color as autumn and winter move on.   

Near the hilltop, I met up with a tiny cricket pausing on a fallen Sassafras leaf. I thought perhaps it was a Tinkling Ground Cricket (Allonemobius tinnulus) because they live in wooded areas and sing in the fall – and don’t you love the name? But when I contacted Dr. Parsons of the Michigan State University Entomology  Department, he informed me that five crickets in the genus Allonemobius live in our county and sing in the fall, but, as is often the case with insects, he couldn’t really make a firm identification from the photo. He could assure me, though, after listening to a short recording I made by the lake, that neither of these crickets were in the unseen chorus. So that mystery remains a mystery. But I was pleased to meet this little creature and watch it slip under a leaf as I walked on.

A cricket on the forest trail, sitting on a sassafras leaf.

Just over the east edge of the sledding hill, a group of young Sassafras saplings (Sassafras albidum) wobbled in the wind, their tiny trunks supporting large leaves. I always admire nature’s strategy of equipping saplings with huge leaves for gathering in the sun. The roots of Sassafras were once used to make root beer, though now the root bark is considered a carcinogen. But you can still get a whiff of root beer from the stem of a freshly cut leaf or twig. Sassafras trees are often identified by their three-lobed, “mitten-shaped” leaves, but actually unlobed, two-lobed and three-lobed leaves often appear on the same tree. Here are the trembling Sassafras saplings and an unlobed Sassafras leaf bejeweled after a rain.

I decided to skirt around the rim of trees that surrounds the sledding hill rather than plunging straight down. And I was happy I did when I came across this tiny Eastern White Pine sapling (Pinus strobus) thrusting its way through the leaf litter. This little native pine is another fine example of how autumn causes me to look more carefully and be delightfully surprised. I have a soft spot for White Pines, the tallest conifers in Michigan,  with their blue-green, silky needles  and I doubt I would have noticed this tiny tree in the color and bustle of the spring and summer. 

A tiny Eastern White Pine sapling emerging from the leaf litter

When I reached my car to return home, there in a White Oak (Quercus alba) by the parking lot hung a giant abandoned residence, the nest of  some sort of  Yellow Jacket Wasp (genus Dolichovespula or Vespula), possibly the Bald-faced Hornet (Dolichovespula maculata), which is actually a species of Yellow Jacket, not a true hornet (genus Vespa). These social insects make nests above and below ground out of chewed wood pulp. The colony dies in the fall, except for the fertile queens that overwinter in tree bark or leaf litter and start a new nest each spring. The gratuitous beauty of these nests constructed by small insects never fails to inspire awe in me. How do they sculpt it using only tiny legs and mouths? I headed home happy to have seen one more small miracle.

A wasp or bald-faced hornet’s nest in a Bur Oak tree at Lost Lake.

In Autumn, Little Things Mean A Lot

Lily Pads floating over fall reflections in Lost Lake

See what I mean about autumn giving emphasis to the small, the unnoticed? Because this more austere season gets down to essentials, I’m pushed to pay closer attention. And when I do, wow, there’s a rare sighting of small brown bird with yellow legs, a miniature pine, a pair of ancient eyes peering from a log or a pale spring peeper scrambling among the fallen leaves. In the warm seasons, I might have missed these little surprises and I’m very thankful that I didn’t.  And I’m especially grateful that I get to share them with you, too. Thanks for joining me.

The road home from Lost Lake in mid October.

The Wet Prairie: Unusual Fall Blooms Host A Variety of Guests

I’m always cautious when I  write about the wildflowers at the Wet Prairie along the Paint Creek Trail between Gallagher and Silver Bell Roads.  Many of  the wildflowers here are very fragile and quite unusual, so this natural area needs to be treated very carefully.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

Because I’d like to help residents understand just how special the Wet Prairie is, I’m occasionally allowed to take a very careful and slow walk with my camera. Here’s the beauty – and the fascinating strangeness –  I came across on two short trips there last month.

Restoration of a Special Place Yields Special Flowers

Butterfly milkweed seeding with Smooth Blue Aster and Gray Goldenrod in bloom.

Restoration of this 10-acre natural area by Dr. Ben VanderWeide and his Parks and Recreation stewardship crew has worked wonders over the years.  Years ago when I first saw the little flower with the exotic name, Grass-of-Parnassus (Parnassia glauca), one blossom stood alone on the prairie. I loved it the moment it caught my eye. This year the prairie was covered with these striped beauties, the most I’ve ever seen!

Grass-of-Parnassus has grown increasingly abundant at the Wet Prairie with restoration continuing there.

According to the Illinois wildflower site (a favorite of mine), Grass-of-Parnassus loves moisture and chalky (calcareous) soil,  but doesn’t like a lot of competition from other plants. A high water table keeps this prairie wet for a good portion of the year. In some places, the unusual soil prevents water from draining away, pooling in the spring and drying out in summer sun. Occasional use of prescribed fire suits many of the  plants that grow here. They’re fire-adapted after growing for millennia in landscapes that burned frequently, not to mention fires in the last few hundred years started by lightning or by the trains that passed on the nearby railroad. Ben and his crew have consistently removed invasive shrubs and encroaching trees to keep the area open and sunny. Grass-of-Parnassus, no doubt a long-time denizen of the Wet Prairie, celebrated all of these unusual conditions and the restoration work this summer with an abundant bloom!

The prairie also hosts another airy fall wildflower that prefers little competition. Flowering Spurge (Euphorbia corollata) grows along the drier areas near the trail. A wide variety of native bees and butterflies find their way to its bright white showy bracts, which are modified leaves like the red bracts of poinsettias.  The white bracts of flowering spurge highlight the yellow flowers at the center. I love their simplicity; they remind of the flowers I drew as a child. Their leaves are safe from deer browsing because they contain a toxic white latex.

Flowering Spurge avoids competition and can tolerate the dryness near the trail.

Flowering Spurge is monoecious, which means separate male and female flowers are produced on the same plant.  Once pollinators do their work, the fertile female flowers are replaced by a capsule with a seed in each of its three chambers which appear right at the center of the female flowers! Below is a closeup look at their bulbous seed pods which will eventually eject the seeds when they’re mature.

Seed capsules forming on Flowering Spurge.

Tucked down among the grasses, Cylindrical Blazing-star (Liatris cylindracea) makes itself known through the whirling effect of its purple blossoms.  Each flower head is crowded with 15-20 individual tube-shaped flowers. A two-part curving “style,” emerges from each one. The style is the slender stalk that connects the stigma, the surface on which the pollen lands,  to the ovary below in the blossom. These lovely wildflowers last  about a month in late summer/early fall and tend to appear singly like many of the flowers on the Wet Prairie, preferring little competition. The name Blazing Star seems particularly appropriate in this wildflower, since the styles spin out from each flower like the stars in a Van Gogh painting.

Our long-tongued native Bumblebees can easily pollinate Cylindrical Blazing-star’s crowded flower heads.

Shrubby Cinquefoil (Dasiphora fruticosa) thrives in the moist, chalky soil of the Wet Prairie. A small, woody bush, only 1.5 to 3 feet tall, it attracts native bees, honeybees and a variety of other flying insects to its bright yellow flowers during the summer and early fall. It also benefits from being of little interest to deer.

A small bush, Shrubby Cinquefoil provides nourishment to a big variety of insects.

On the early September walk, I explored the wetter areas at the back of the prairie and came across an elegant stem of Turtlehead (Chelone glabra) with a haze of dusty lavender Joe Pye (Eutrochium maculatum) dancing in the distance. The turtlehead’s two-lipped flower performs two functions: the top lip  forms a protective hood for the flower’s stamen and pistils and the the lower serves as a landing pad for foraging insects. Like many of our native plants, it protects itself from deer – in this case by having bitter leaves.

Turtlehead blooms first at the bottom of its florescence.

On the far back slopes of the prairie, a Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) made a swirling explosion of seeds, each attached to its silky white parachute. What a delicate abstract design with its central slender pod shape!

Butterfly Milkweed going to seed in a spectacular fashion!

Early in September,  I spotted a yellow wildflower growing on the steep bank above Paint Creek across the trail from the Wet Prairie.  It turned out to be  a wildflower I rarely see, Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia), a very tall (3-8 feet) plant that often finds a home on river banks or near wetlands. Their sunbursts of raggedy yellow flowers contain a rim of “ray florets” that look like petals but are each a separate fertile flower and a disc floret filled with individual tubular flowers that together create a pin-cushion effect at the center. (Petals, as opposed to “ray florets,” are actually non-fertile modified leaf-like structures.)

Wingstem is a tall wildflower that loves river banks like the one across from the Wet Prairie.

Two stalks of a modest wildflower that  I’d never seen before stood alone above the creek. Ben identified it as White Lettuce (Prenanthes alba). The drooping blossoms are cross-pollinated by those  masterful native pollinators, the bumblebees  (genus Bombus) seeking nectar with their long tongues. I watched as two of them foraged busily, the one on the left probing for nectar vertically within the blossom, just the lower tip of its body showing, and the one on the right with a yellow “pollen basket” on its back leg.

Bumblebees buzzing quietly as they seek out the nectar of White Lettuce.

Nearby a non-native Japanese Beetle (Popillia japonica) explored the abundance of the tiny disk florets that make up a Snakeroot flowerhead (Ageratina altissima). These wildflowers thrive in disturbed soil, especially at the edges or openings of woodlands.  They spread quickly both by rhizomes  (underground stems) and by achenes lofted to new locations by small tufts of  white hair called pappus. I look forward to them, because they are often the last wildflower to bloom in the fall.

Early settlers thought this Snakeroot was good for snake bites. On the contrary, its roots and leaves are toxic to both cattle and humans!

When I arrived later in September, the Grass-of-Parnassus was fading. But the Wet Prairie was dotted with Smooth Blue Asters (Symphyotrichum laeve) – small, erect sprays of lavender sprinkled generously across the landscape. According to the Illinois Wildflowers site, this seemingly delicate wildflower is a major food source for pollinators, including at least six species of native bees, honeybees and as you’ll soon see below, butterflies. Tree Sparrows, Wild Turkeys, Ruffed Grouse and White-footed mice enjoy the seeds and the caterpillars of several moths browse on their leaves. A small plant with a big benefit to wildlife!

Smooth Blue Asters dot the prairie in the fall providing abundant food sources for wildlife.

Within the exclusion fence at the back of the prairie, New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) tossed and nodded their purple flowers in the autumn breeze. New England Asters rely on non-native honeybees, native bumblebees and other long-tongued bees to pollinate them. The short-tongued bees and hover/syrphid flies visit to collect pollen, but are generally too smooth-bodied to be effective pollinators. This aster also hosts the caterpillars of many species of moths, which feed on the leaves. Those caterpillars can provide important nutrition for adult birds and their nestlings. For those reasons and their sheer beauty, I was happy to see these purple wildflowers with their golden centers dipping and rising in the late afternoon sunlight.

New England Aster provides its pollen and leaves to insects as well as leaves that their young can eat and grow to maturity.

As September progressed, I counted on finding two favorite wildflowers on the Wet Prairie and was not disappointed. Where water seeps to the surface on the south side of the prairie, Bottle Gentians (Gentiana andrewsii) produce their strange indigo blossoms that never open.  These large bud-like flowers wait instead for the big, bustling bumblebees to force their way inside looking for nectar and pollen. Once within, the bees produce a high-pitched buzz with their flight muscles, using their legs and mouth parts to direct the vibration toward the pollen-laden anthers inside. The pollen explodes into the air within the enclosed Bottle Gentian, clinging to the bumblebee’s fuzzy bodies. Have a look and listen to this short video  of a bumblebee” buzz pollinating” some  poppies. What a clever way for the bumblebee to collect pollen and for the Bottle Gentian to be pollinated!

Bottle Gentian flowers never open and bumblebees have to force their way inside!

Another deep blue Gentian is unfurling the artfully fringed and overlapping lobes of its blossom in the short grass of the prairie. The Fringed Gentian (Gentianopsis crinita), like the Grass-of-Parnassus, thrives in the chalky (calcareous), generally moist soil of the Wet Prairie. Several species of bumblebees frequent these gentians and once fertilized, it forms pods filled with tiny seeds that are carried away by either wind or water. Can you believe that blue?

Fringed Gentian’s four-lobed blossoms spout like small purple fountains from the grass of the Wet Prairie

Beautiful Autumn Blossoms Get Plenty of Visitors

In general terms, a host plant is one that provides food and shelter for other species – in the case of wildflowers, either nectar or pollen for adult insects, or leaves and stems for their caterpillar young. Native plants are particularly effective hosts. In the autumn, the special flowers of the Wet Prairie are providing a last minute meal for bees, beetles, wasps, butterflies and other insects by day and moths by night, including one rare one! So it’s not surprising that on my two short visits, I saw a variety of “guests” drop in for a visit.

The Butterfly Guests and the Young of a Very Unusual Moth

The Orange Sulphur flies low, skimming over the tops of flowers, as this one did on my first visit.

As I mentioned earlier, butterflies seem to find plenty of nectar on the Wet Prairie’s Smooth Blue Asters.  I saw a Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele) restlessly flitting about the field on both visits, but luckily, on the second visit, one settled down for a sip on a Smooth Blue Aster. These small flowers must pack a lot of sugary punch on a cool day! Here’s a close look at this fritillary’s strange spotted eyes and its long proboscis probing the flower for nectar.

A Great Spangled Fritillary sipping from a Smooth Blue Aster

On my second visit, an Orange Sulphur (Colias eurytheme) also rose and sank repeatedly as it flitted above the greenery.  At one point, it headed straight for a Smooth Blue Aster, its proboscis curled in flight.

An Orange Sulphur on its way to sample the Smooth Blue Aster on the Wet Prairie.

Once it landed, the proboscis extended and acted as a straw to extract the sugary nectar from the disc floret at the center of the aster. The field mark for the Orange Sulphur is that orange blush on the  upper (dorsal) surface of the wing, though the female’s is a bit paler. The male has a wide brown band at the wing edge whereas the female’s brown band is punctuated by white spots. Glad this one finally stopping scurrying around the prairie and settled in for a late afternoon drink.

An Orange Sulphur settles in for a meal on the Smooth Blue Aster

The male Eastern Tailed Blue butterfly (Cupido comyntas) looks like a small  chip of blue sky bobbing along in short flights over the grass in the Wet Prairie. (The female’s wings are brown on the upper side.) The Eastern Tailed Blue normally closes its wings when stopping to feed or rest, showing only the gray undersides of its wings, featuring two orange spots and a tiny “tail” on each hindwing. Fortunately, it occasionally stops with its wings slightly open to bask in warm sunlight, like the one below. That sunlight felt soothing to both of us on a cool fall afternoon.

The Eastern Tailed Blue butterfly has a tiny tail at the bottom of its hindwing.

Out in the wet areas where the Bottle Gentian blooms, my husband spotted a male Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) far back in the greenery. When I reached him, his immobility surprised me; I was able to get remarkably close. I noticed he was periodically pulsing his wings which looked fresh and flawless. My guess is that this fellow was  one of the “super generation” of Monarchs that had just emerged from his chrysalis. Once his wings were fully functional, he would fly off to feed before beginning his long journey to Mexico. Isn’t he a beauty? I wished him well.

A newly emerged male Monarch Butterfly pulsing his absolutely perfect, undamaged wings.

A nearby Joe Pye blossom hosted the ubiquitous Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus). Its long tongue allows it to feed on many different wildflowers. Notice the hooked antennae, a field mark for all skippers. I come upon these sturdy little Silver-spotted butterflies quite often on my walks. Maybe you do, too?

A Silver-spotted Skipper drops in for a drink on Joe Pye blooms.

I’m always attracted by the bright orange blossoms of Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), and noticed a strange quivering on the leaves of one at the edge of the trail. The cause turned out to be the avid chewing of the chubby orange and black caterpillar of  the Unexpected Tiger Moth (Cycnia inopinatus). An intriguing name, eh? It certainly was unexpected for me! The Michigan Lepidoptera Facebook group identified it for me, and I confirmed their information with the huge caterpillar compendium, Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner.

The caterpillar of a moth that is ranked as “uncommon” to “rare,” the Unexpected Tiger Moth, munched on it host plant, Butterfly Milkweed, in the Wet Prairie.

After a couple hours of research, I finally found a comprehensive article on the website of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, Eastern Region. This moth is  described as “uncommon to rare and local throughout its range” due largely to habitat loss.   Our caterpillar hatched in the right area, since the adult moth seeks out high quality barrens or grasslands full of butterfly or whorled milkweed.

Adult Unexpected Tiger Moths (see the iNaturalist photo below) hatch, mate and lay eggs in 2-3 weeks, never bothering to eat during their brief lifetimes. The ones that emerge in the spring produce the August brood, which probably explains the presence of the caterpillar I saw. It will eat and then transform into a pupa whose loose cocoon will fall into the leaf litter to overwinter until spring.  So we’ll just have to hope that the orange and black caterpillar above ate enough to mature and survive the winter, so that next spring a rare moth emerges and finds a mate along the trail.  [Photo below by Chrissy McClarren and Andy Reago at iNaturalist.org]

The rare  Unexpected Tiger Moth will only travel short distances in its 2-3 week lifespan.  Photo by Chrissy McClarren and Andy Reago (CC BY-NC)

Other Insect Visitors, including a Cannibal!

An Eastern Yellow Jacket Wasp (Vespula maculifrons) seeks out nectar but doesn’t provide much pollination because its smooth body doesn’t  transport pollen to other blossoms.

I came across a trio of insects that had landed on a Stiff Goldenrod (Solidago rigida), a wonderful plant with its upright posture and filigree of fuzzy, soft green leaves hugging the stem. On the left, a jazzily striped Locust Borer Beetle (Megacyllene robiniae) fed on the goldenrod’s pollen. If it’s a mated female, she will later scurry along the bark of non-native Black Locust trees (Robinia pseudoacacia) looking for a wound in which to lay her eggs. On the right side of the plant, two Soldier Beetles (family Cantharidae) found one cluster of  yellow blossoms to be the perfect spot for quiet mating. Nice to know that one of my favorite goldenrods is such a generous host!

A Stiff Goldenrod hosts both mating soldier beetles and a foraging Locust Borer beetle

Out in the shorter grasses of the prairie, however, lurked a predator with cannibal instincts. Fortunately, it was only about 2.5 to 3.5 inches long! We spotted a non-native European Praying Mantis (Mantis religiosa) who was busily eating what appeared to another of its kind. (There are no native praying mantises in Michigan.) If you look carefully in the photo below,  you can see a long, angled brown and green leg very much like its own bending up from the green abdomen that the mantis holds between its spiked, raptor-like legs. I know, the photo’s a bit grim, but there’s no malice here. It’s just dinnertime on the prairie for a hungry insect trying to survive in its habitat. I think it’s important to keep reminding myself of that – and you too maybe?

Praying Mantis are non-native in Michigan and catch only live, preferably moving, prey, including their own kind.

I can’t confidently determine the gender of this mantis,  but females are usually larger than males with bigger eyes, so my guess is that this is a male. Now, you may know that female praying mantises are notorious for consuming their partners after mating. Actually, about 70% of the males are crafty enough to avoid becoming a quick, nourishing meal for their mates. But it turns out that mantises prey on each other even in the nymph stages, scuttling away from each other after hatching in order to survive! No doubt that’s one reason that I’ve always seen only one Praying Mantis at a time!

Filling the “Swamp” or Valuing Water and Wetlands

Beyond a sea of goldenrod, a wetland fringed with Joe Pye and cat-tails can be seen behind the woods along the trail to the Wet Prairie.

One afternoon, standing knee deep in grass and flowers, I remembered that I grew up in a time when wetlands were scorned as nasty “swamps”,  damp places “infested” with bugs, places that should be dried out in order to become “more productive.” Hence the common metaphor these days, “drain the swamp.”

Unproductive?  Ugly? There I was standing in the Wet Prairie among a colorful panoply of native wildflowers and grasses, all beautiful, some very special, even rare – and each of them serving their unusual habitat in so many complex ways. All day and all night  from spring to fall, butterflies, beetles, bees, moths and other insects find their way to the wildflowers and grasses of the Wet Prairie to find sustenance and shelter for themselves and their young. Animals seek the wetland nearby and spring pools on the prairie for drinking and bathing. And below the surface, the roots of wetland plants are cleaning the water which permeates the water table to later quench the thirst of humans who don’t always appreciate the services wetlands provide.

“Swamp” is actually a botanical term that technically means a wetland dominated by trees and shrubs.  But for some these days, it’s still a pejorative for those “nasty” wetlands of my youth. I protest! And I celebrate the restoration work that will keep the Wet Prairie blooming, beautiful, and yes, “productive” for its insect guests and for future hikers of the Paint Creek Trail.

Go Exploring! Hibernation-Adaptation Nature Scavenger Hunt

If you need any excuse to get outside on these beautiful fall days, check out this hibernation-themed nature scavenger hunt! Our recreation staff worked with Oakland County Parks to bring you this scavenger hunt. Go explore the parks!

On this self-led Nature Scavenger Hunt in Oakland Township Parks, investigate and learn how animals prepare for winter and survive the cold. Riddles and clues will lead you around Oakland Township Parks to explore, crack codes, piece together puzzles, and solve the mystery of how animals survive the cold! After completing the nature adventure, participants will submit their answers and be entered in a drawing to win a special reward!

Begin your quest by registering with Oakland Township Parks and Recreation: https://oaklandtownship.recdesk.com/Community/Home.

Clues will be displayed from September 18-27 throughout Oakland Township Parks.
The Nature Scavenger Hunt is free and open to anyone, but you must register to
obtain the first clue!

Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park: BUTTERFLIES! Oh, and Birds and Blossoms, too…

The Northern Wetland Meadow at Stony Creek Ravine Park has no shallow pools now, but is lush with plant life.

A kaleidoscope of dancing butterflies grabbed my attention time and again as I visited Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park in August.  Oh, yes, fledgling birds also whisked about in the dense greenery, accompanied by adult supervision, learning to feed or begging to be fed. And patches of glorious orange or blue flowers emerged among the tall grass.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

But it was the butterflies that stole the show for me as they hovered, floated, sailed and finally settled on blossoms or perched on a leaf along the trail. On glamorous wings – or sometimes tattered ones –  they danced summer to a glorious finale. Come see.

The “Corps de Butterflies,” Costumed in a Rainbow of Colors, Take the Stage

Bands of colorful vegetation in the moist, northern restoration meadow attract skimming swallows, darting dragonflies and floating butterflies

Every year now I wait for the late summer arrival of the Giant Swallowtails (Papilio cresphonte), the largest butterflies in North America (6-7 inch wingspan!). This prima ballerina of the butterfly corps  used to only breed in the south. Many researchers seem to think that most Giant Swallowtails still migrate south in the autumn. However, as the climate has warmed and prevented September frosts, they have expanded their range, establishing some small populations in lower Michigan. Whether they are breeding in our area or just nectaring before heading back south, I’m always glad to see them.

A Giant Swallowtail is the lead dancer in August.

Several butterflies showed up on summer’s stage with torn wings. I’ve wondered if that could be a result of being blown into harm’s way by the winds that accompany summer thunderstorms. Or perhaps the late bloom of goldenrods this year meant that butterflies fed more on prickly thistles. The ragged Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) below seemed to be feeding and flying reasonably well, despite its ravaged wings. I hope it had already mated since shape is important in butterfly courtship!

A badly damaged Eastern Tiger Swallowtail seemed to be feeding naturally on thistle.

Most Eastern Tiger Swallowtails  took the stage in August dressed in their best. Notice the long hairs on the abdomen of the one below. I learned recently that the scales on a butterfly’s wings are actually flattened hairs.  According to a study by Judith H. Myers at the University of British Columbia, it’s possible that the long hairs, sometimes called “scent scales,”  are used to spread pheromones in flight during the breeding season. The pheromone receptors that pick up scent are located in both male and female antennae, though scent is less important than color, shape and movement when most butterflies are courting .

This Eastern Tiger Swallowtail has long hair on its abdomen which may help distribute pheromones when attracting a mate.

Another butterfly “long hair” comes in a tiny package, the Common Checkered-Skipper (Pyrgus communis). My husband spotted this tiny male whose wingspan is only about .75 to 1.25 inches. We’ve probably missed it before because it’s so small and looks nondescript when fluttering erratically along the path. But when it stops, wow! Its thorax is dark blue-gray and the males are not only fuzzy like most skippers; they have long bluish “hairs.” A handsome little guy! Evidently the female’s thorax is a much less glamorous dark brown. According to the Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels, this tiny butterfly is  most common in the central and southern states but regularly  expands its range and is seen in our region in late summer and fall.

This male Common Checkered-skipper has long scent scales that look like hair.

I was delighted to finally see a restless Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele) as it fluttered from sunlight to shade and back again along the entrance path. What a costume! The dorsal (upper) side of its wings is patterned in orange and black, but its ventral side flashes with silver spangles! The females lays eggs even into September. Their caterpillars overwinter and start eating violet leaves in the spring, according to the Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide.  

The Great Spangled Fritillary appears in July, but lays its eggs in September.

Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus) added its dark beauty to the butterfly ballet. It’s very tricky to discern the differences between dark swallowtails. If you need help like I do, I recommend the website at this link which compares the female Black Swallowtail, the black morph of the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, the Spicebush Swallowtail and the Pipevine Swallowtail. Whew! It always takes me a while to puzzle them out! I also get help from the good folks at the Michigan Lepidoptera Facebook group.

The Spicebush Swallowtail has a blush of blue on its hindwings.

The ventral (lower) side of the Spicebush’s wings have two rows of orange spots like the Black Swallowtail, except that one spot on the inner arc is replaced by another blush of blue.

I finally got a look at how the little Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos) came by its name. If you look closely at the lower edge of the hindwing, there’s a tiny whitish crescent shape in one of the boxes there. In the photo below, I brightened the spot and created a small red marker so you could see it, too. It’s a subtle field mark, for sure!

The red marker shows the white crescent for which the Pearl Crescent is named.

And here’s how the Pearl Crescent appears from above. You’ll see these little butterflies on any walk you take in our parks from June to October. I like knowing its name; it makes a walk more companionable somehow.

The tiny Pearl Crescent skips along the paths in our parks all summer long.

Of course it’s the season for Monarchs (Danaus plexippus) and though they seem less plentiful this year than last, a goodly number still stroke a few wingbeats and glide over the fields. Here’s a sampling of three at Stony Creek Ravine Park – a male settling along the path, one in flight toward a withering Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare) and what I think was a female on Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

Another set of dancing wings joined the choreography.  With a zing, a dive and a pause in mid-air (à la Baryshnikov), a fierce and glorious dancer,  the Green-striped Darner (Aeshna verticalis) came on the scene. Darners are big, more than 2.5 inches long,  with bulky thoraxes and long abdomens. Add the helmet-like appearance of their giant eyes which meet at the top of their heads, plus their ability to hover,  and in flight they have a remarkable resemblance to a tiny helicopter! These skillful predators feed on all kinds of insects, even meadowhawk dragonflies and damselflies. The northern fields were a-buzz with them at the park last week!

A Green-striped Darner patrolled along the path as we walked north at the park.

Of course, many other insects – bees, small butterflies, and smaller dragonflies – fed and bred in Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park in August. Here are a few more modest members of the winged corps.

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While following the Spicebush Swallowtail, I glanced down at some movement in the grass and found a tiny grasshopper. A wary, or perhaps inquisitive, nymph of what may have been a Red-legged Grasshopper (Melanoplus femurrubrum) peered at me through two blades of grass! My expert resource person, Dr. Gary Parsons of the Michigan State University’s Entomology Department informed me that not only are the nymphs of this genus very similar,  but within each species the nymphs have many variations of color and pattern. Nymphs don’t have fully-formed wings,  so it will have to save its balletic leaps for a bit later in the summer finale.

This  nymph, possibly of a Red-legged Grasshopper, looked straight at me as if to say, “Verrrry interesting!”

Once it saw my camera, it twitched around the side of the grass stem and dangled there for a few minutes by its front legs. At first, the move made it difficult for me to find the nymph among the grass stems. I wondered if this was a camouflage technique; it did resemble a dangling wilted leaf as my eyes searched the ground. But eventually it must have decided I was not a threat and hopped back on the stem. A lovely few moments with a young creature.

A tiny Wood Frog (Rana sylvaticus), barely visible under a leaf, also missed the whole dance above as it made its way to high ground. As the nights cool, Wood Frogs look for leaf litter where they can produce inner anti-freeze and hibernate, frozen solid, until spring.

A tiny Wood Frog, perhaps an inch long, tried to blend into the brown grasses on the trail, keeping perfectly still.

Oh, Yes, Birds too!

My walks in our parks so often provide serendipitous moments for me. I’d been craning my neck to watch Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) swooping overhead, trailing their long, forked tails and wished aloud that one would perch for a photo. Just then, as my husband and I rounded a curve at the bottom of the Lookout Hill, we were gifted with this wonderful sight!

A selection of about 25-30 Barn Swallows perching on the fence around the southern restoration area below the Lookout Hill.

Dozens of Barn Swallows lined up on the fence with others perching on stalks in the tall plants within the fence line. What a surprise!  According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab, older siblings from earlier Barn Swallow broods often assist their parents in feeding the later broods of nestlings. The parents sometimes even get help from unrelated juvenile barn swallows. On the other hand, unmated barn swallows occasionally attack the young of a mated pair in hope of mating with the female! Nature in all species, I expect, has its good instincts and its bad ones.

One morning when I arrived, a large Pokeweed plant along the entrance path near Snell Road was aflutter with juvenile Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum). I could hear their high, piercing calls, but it took a while until one of the youngsters settled on a tree branch nearby for its portrait. Only the mask and the yellow tip of its tail identified it for me, because of its mottled breast and gray overall appearance.

A juvenile Cedar Waxwing can be identified from its mask and the yellow bar at the end of its tail.

A watchful older Waxwing perched in a nearby tree keeping an eye on the rowdy juveniles enjoying the Pokeweed berries and each other’s company. This one appears to be a first year waxwing because its upper wing is solid gray-brown and is missing its red dot; perhaps it has begun the annual molt because its mask and crest look incomplete. Its disgruntled look made me smile, thinking maybe babysitting juveniles was not its favorite assignment!

An older Cedar Waxwing keeps an eye on a troupe of rowdy youngsters.

An Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) sitting nearby looked over at the hubbub but generally ignored the Waxwings. Since Kingbirds are insectivores during the summers here, there was no need to compete for the Pokeweed berries. In the winter, however, when they fly all the way to the Amazon, they join a variety of flocks and eat only fruit.

An Eastern Kingbird watching the young Waxwings.

At the top of the Lookout Hill, a pair of House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus)- either females or juveniles which look just like their moms – were avidly scraping insects or insect eggs off the stems and leaves of a tree that clearly had already hosted a lot of caterpillars or other small bugs. The leaves were riddled with holes! I’m guessing that House Finches learn at a young age that leaves with holes mean FOOD!

These House Finches seemed to be making most of an insect-scavenged tree at the top of the Lookout Hill.

Nearby a juvenile Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus) looked a bit forlorn after it settled in a tree on the Lookout Hill. I didn’t identify this little bird as a Grosbeak until local birder extraordinaire Ruth Glass helped me out. Grosbeaks are now starting their migration to the Caribbean, so I hope this little male will soon be ready to take on his long flight across the country and the ocean beyond.

A juvenile Rose-breasted Grosbeak might mature a bit more before it begins its long migration to the Caribbean.

Our stewardship manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, mowed a path from the bottom of the Lookout Hill, going west, south, and then west again to connect to the older section of the park where the West Branch of Stony Creek runs through a beautiful ravine. As I approached the woods over the ravine, I kept hearing a plaintive Eastern Wood-Pewee (Contopus virens) in the woods but never got to see it. But I did see this little flycatcher, the Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) perching on a bare branch looking a bit rumpled. I wondered if it was a juvenile, though I can’t tell from its plumage.

An Eastern Phoebe looking a bit ruffled along the trail from the new section into the older ravine section of Stony Creek Ravine Park.

On a cool morning on my last trip to the park, a molting European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) appeared to be warming its breast high in a bare snag along the entrance trail. During the summer breeding season, these non-native birds are dressed in sleek black with iridescent blue-green overlays. Their beaks turn yellow then, too. But now, as fall arrives, they change into their winter garb. Their beaks turn dark and the feathers on their backs and breasts become covered with white spots. This one was already well along in the process.

This European Starling is in the process of molting to its spotted winter feathers and dark beak.

And Last But Certainly Not Least, the Trees and Plants that Make It All Possible!

Native Black-eyed Susans growing in a wet spot at Stony Creek Ravine Park.  Photo by Ben VanderWeide

Clearly, butterflies and birds grace our parks because these natural areas are rich in nutritious native food and abundant shelter for both adults and their young – the fledglings and the caterpillars. So let’s spend the last few minutes with perhaps an under-appreciated but vital element of any habitat – the native plants and trees that provide nesting space, nectar, pollen, seeds, nuts and most importantly, oxygen for all creatures – including us!

Wildflowers First

Begin by looking at that glorious patch of rare, native Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia fulgida) pictured above. These are not the ordinary Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) which gardeners  sometimes choose as annuals, or the native, but short-lived Rudbeckia hirtas that thrive in so many habits, including dry prairies. These bright yellow flowers at Stony Creek Ravine Park are a separate species of wildflower that prefers wetlands and is a long-lived perennial. They’re also the species used to create many varieties of cultivars used in landscaping. I’m so glad Ben shared his photo and his enthusiasm on finding these special plants – and for the photo. I was unaware that a wetland “Susan” even existed!

Ben also discovered a lovely patch of Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) growing near the edge of the woods in the north area of the park.  It too is a lovely wetland plant and often hosts our native, long-tongued Bumblebees. Though I’ve seen small patches and single stems of these blue flowers in other parks, Ben’s discovery is the biggest patch I’ve seen.

Several fields in this new section of the park are under cultivation by a local farmer until the park restoration can begin more fully there. At the edge of one of them is a lovely stand of bright pink Swamp/Rose Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata). These wetland milkweeds host Monarch butterflies, of course, as well as swallowtails, some frittilaries, native bees and skippers. But, good news, deer don’t eat milkweeds!  So if you have a moist garden, give these some thought.

I love Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) for its upright purple plumes, but it is also remarkably productive in the food web. Its nectar provides nutrition for a wide variety of native bees, small butterflies and moths. According to the Illinois Wildflowers website, the seeds also provide nutrition for many birds, including Cardinals, Swamp Sparrows, Field Sparrows, Song Sparrows and our winter visitor, the Dark-eyed Junco. Beauty for the eye and utility for the food web – a great combination!

Blue Vervain’s plume provides lots of sustenance to birds and pollinators.

Oh, and remember those young Cedar Waxwings jostling around in the greenery? What attracted them most were Pokeweed berries (Phytolacca americana). Lots of other birds love them as well, including Cardinals, the Gray Catbird and the Brown Thrasher. The fruits,  which are green now,  turn dark purple when mature. On those pink stalks, the plants look as though they should be somewhere in the tropics! Mammals however, like we humans and our pets,  should not partake of any part of this toxic plant. It looks luscious but it has evolved to be eaten by birds and not by any members of mammalia, our class of animals – which is frustrating because the fruits looks so tempting!

Here’s a quick tour of some of the other native wildflowers sprinkled throughout the meadows at Stony Creek Ravine providing sustenance to wildlife.

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And Now, A Few of the Mighty Trees at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park!

The Ravine and the West Branch of Stony Creek, for which the park is named

Though the fields of Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park are alive with pollinators, blossoms and birds, the lush woods that embrace them are equally impressive. In the park’s far western section, the West Branch of Stony Creek shines silver as it runs through the steep terrain of the heavily treed ravine for which the park is named. Along  its slopes and on the trail high above the creek, many species of trees  compete for sunlight while sharing nutrient resources through the fungal networks underground.

Some trees go to great lengths to reach the sunlight along the trail above the ravine.

One tree I look for every time I visit the ravine section of the park is a lovely American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) just over the edge of the slope near the end of the ravine trail.  Its satin-like bark makes me wish I could reach out and touch it.  According to the University of Michigan’s Michigan Flora website, a non-native scale insect (Cryptococcus fagisuga) can leave wounds in its bark that make them vulnerable to a deadly fungus (Nectria coccinea) which causes Beech Bark Disease, only recently discovered in Michigan. We need to protect these glorious native trees which provide so much food for wildlife and so much beauty for us.

A large beech tree stands precariously over the edge of the Stony Creek Ravine.

On the day the Wednesday bird group visited the park, Ben pointed out a huge Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa) next to the trail. This huge tree has merged three very large trunks. Each on their own would constitute a mighty oak!

The empty “mossy cup acorn” of a Bur Oak.

Bur Oaks make what the Michigan Flora website calls “mossy cup” acorns. This tree may live for many years to come. Not terribly shade tolerant, it is exposed to sunlight on the edge of  the woods near the trail and the long wetland along the entrance trail probably provides the amount of moisture it prefers. Ah, the stories this old tree could tell!

An old Bur Oak south of the trail that leads to the Ravine.

On the tree line between the northern restoration section and the western meadows is an old White Oak (Quercus alba) that demonstrates how location effects the growth of trees. In the open sunlight, surrounded by little competition, the oak has basked in sunlight for many years and spread it branches out instead of up, into a lush, wide crown. What a sight!

An old White Oak spreads out in the uninterrupted sunlight next to the north restoration area.

In the forest to the north last fall, Ben and I visited a huge Wild Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) that used its energy to grow tall, reaching up into the sunlight. Maybe that’s why its lovely yellow flowers only bloom high in the crown. Here’s the photo of it that I posted previously in the blog – just another example of the trees waiting to be explored in the forests beyond the fields.

A Tulip Tree growing tall to reach the sun in the shady northern forest at Stony Creek Ravine Park.

The Legacy Within Us

My husband at dusk just being with nature

I recently enjoyed an On Being Podcast interview with naturalist and environmental journalist, Michael McCarthy. He shared an insight from evolutionary psychology, namely that for 50,000 generations we humans were simply part of nature. For all that time, before we settled down to farm, we experienced all the challenges other creatures face in trying to survive in nature. Or as he put it “we were wildlife, if you like.” As a result, McCarthy contends, even now what we experienced, what we learned during those millennia is still in us, still making us feel at home in the natural world.

Maybe that explains why so many of us experience peace when we’re in places like Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park. On some level, we’re at home in natural areas in a way that even our cozy firesides cannot quite duplicate. Standing on the Lookout Hill at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park, I look out across moist wetlands and meadows to the encircling wood and just let go, become part of the scenery, embedded in its beauty. The swallows dip and rise, the butterflies float from stem to stem, the woods stands dark and mysterious, the creek at the western edge sings its songs over the rocks – and I’m just part of it all.

I imagine it’s that kinship with nature that motivates you and I to learn about and care for our badly damaged world. And it’s probably that kinship which pushes us out the door and into a park on a cold fall morning or just before dark on a summer night to once more savor our connection to the natural world. Michael McCarthy put it like this: “… there is a legacy deep within us, a legacy of instinct, a legacy of inherited feelings, which may lie very deep in the tissues…we might have left the natural world, most of us, but the natural world has not left us.”

And what a blessing that is! Our task, our calling now is to continue restoring and preserving the natural world for our children and grandchildren. By honoring that legacy within, we can hope to insure that future generations will also be able to breathe deep and feel the freedom and peace that nature so generously provides to us.

Bear Creek Nature Park: Life-or-Death Drama…but Always the Persistence of Life

View through the woods to a wetland at Bear Creek

Bear Creek Nature Park is the Oakland Township Park I know best. I’ve walked there with my husband Reg for almost thirty years and brought some sort of camera with me for the last thirteen of them. As the winter ebbs each year, we watch for the appearance of the first narrow leaves of Spring Beauty or Blood Root under certain trees. Each May, we check out a huge hole in a particular oak, hoping for a glimpse of this year’s raccoon kits scrambling up and down within in the trunk. My husband has an eagle eye for the slowly moving hulk of snapping turtles gliding across the surface of the marsh and we both listen each summer for the banjo-like strum of the Green Frog’s song at the Center Pond.

But after all these years, we can still be fascinated by something we’ve never seen before, as you’ll see in the life-or-death drama of two determined foes fighting for life on the western slope last week. It’s a fresh experience to watch a trio of Eastern Bluebird fledglings sorting out their relationships in the Eastern Meadow. Amid all the comforts of the turning seasons with their eternal cycles of emerging, blossoming and subsiding, we can still be amazed by the persistence of life. Let me show you what I mean.

High Drama on the Western Slope

The Western Slope at Bear Creek Nature Park, August 2019

My husband and I headed for the western slope one perfect summer day and came upon two small creatures in a life-or-death contest. My husband spotted a large, yellowish/white  caterpillar with five spiky, black  hairs chewing avidly on a Box Elder leaf (Acer negundo). I learned later from Dr. Gary Parsons, Collection Manager and Bug House Director at Michigan State University’s Etymology Department, that it was the larva of an American Dagger Moth (Acronicta americana). When we stopped to look more closely, we saw a large, exotic-looking insect hovering nearby. Oh boy, I recognized this determined female.

An Ichneumon Wasp hovering near an American Dagger Moth caterpillar

It was an Ichneumon Wasp (family Ichneumonidae), a creature that preys on caterpillars in order to plant its eggs in or on them. When the eggs hatch, the unfortunate victim provides a plentiful source of food for the Ichneumon Wasp’s young!

This female kept her long abdomen with its ovipositor curled upward like a scorpion as she maneuvered near her target. The caterpillar clearly sensed the danger of her presence because it began to rear back its head along its body, thrashing forward each time the insect approached. The wasp first hid under a nearby leaf and then leapt forth, for all the world like a silent movie villain!

The Ichneumon Wasp appears from behind a leaf as the caterpillar begins to thrash to keep it off.

The battle went on and on in the bright sunlight. The wasp repeatedly attempted to gain  purchase on the caterpillar, but its bristled body and its constant thrashing made depositing the wasp’s eggs extremely difficult.

The Ichneumon Wasp tries to land on the caterpillar but the caterpillars bristles and its thrashing are quite a defense!

They were worthy opponents. We waited a long time but the battle continued to rage – the caterpillar eating the leaf between attacks to keep its energy up and the wasp trying desperately to deposit its eggs on a nourishing food source. Eventually, we left them both to their fate and walked on into the morning.

It was a peaceful change of scene to see male and female Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) settling on plants nearby. I hope they mated and laid eggs earlier since they were landing on Common Milkweed (Asclepia syriaca) that weren’t young and tender, but too dry and tough to provide much nutrition for their offspring. Perhaps they were some of the first Monarchs to start migrating south to Mexico. [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

In early August, we saw a female Monarch fluttering among fresh Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) in the meadow west of the Center Pond. Monarch caterpillars specialize; they only eat milkweed leaves. Perhaps this one’s young are currently nibbling their way along the leaves of this plant, intending to molt, pupate and emerge before the migration.

On August 1, we spotted a female Monarch fluttering among Butterfly Milkweed, perhaps eating, perhaps stopping to lay her eggs.  

Just a short way along the Western Slope trail, a slightly worn Viceroy Butterfly (Limenitis archippus) settled on Queen Anne’s Lace. Viceroys look very much like Monarchs and recent research indicates that both species use their color to advertise that they are unpalatable to predators. However they can be distinguished from Monarchs by the thin, black lines across the veins of the hind wings. Often, too, they tend to flutter more frequently than Monarchs which beat their wings quickly and then coast for a few moments in flight.

The black lines on its hind wings distinguish the  Viceroy Butterfly  from the Monarch.

Viceroys have another defense against predators like the Ichneumon Wasp. Their caterpillars look like bird droppings! Here’s a photo of one shared by a photographer who uses the name jdfish1 at inaturalist.org. What a strategy this butterfly evolved for protecting its young!

The Viceroy’s caterpillar looks so much like a bird dropping that predators may not even notice it.

On to the Pond:  A Stealthy Fisher and I Share Strategies

A native Michigan Lily (Lillium michiganense) blooming in a moist area just west of the Center Pond in early August

As I turned down the path that leads to the Center Pond, I was confronted by a wriggling, bristly caterpillar who appeared to be suspended in mid-air right in front of me. The Hickory Tussock Moth (Lophocampa caryae), like the Dagger Moth caterpillar, is covered with bristly hairs that can cause a skin rash if you pick either of them up. Since it pupates in leaf litter after eating on leaves, it was wriggling out an almost invisible string in order to carefully lower itself to the ground. It didn’t look fully grown to me because it hadn’t developed the long black hairs front and back of later instars. I wished it well and passed on.

A Hickory Tussock Moth in mid-air while lowering itself to the ground.

But after a few steps, I stopped again. A young Green Heron (Butorides virescens) sat preening in a branch near the dock.

A juvenile Green Heron preening in the sunlight.

I love watching these birds fish, so I approached very cautiously, repeatedly taking a few slow-motion steps each time the heron looked out toward the pond and then pausing when it looked even slightly in my direction. After checking out its feathers, it flew down to stand in the water, stretching out its long neck. It didn’t stay there long; Green Herons often prefer to hunt from a perch rather than wade like the Great Blue Herons, for example.

A juvenile heron stretches it neck after landing in the water.

I continued to stealthily approach each time the heron’s focus turned out toward the pond.  And suddenly, it flew to the dock and began to hunt in earnest. I As I watched it verrrry sloooowly step down to the edge of the dock and stretch out its neck to search for prey, a huge smile spread across my face. I almost laughed aloud. I thought, “You and I, Green Heron, have developed the same strategy, except I want a photo and you want a meal!”

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It didn’t score a meal that time. It gave up and flew to the other side of the pond. Here’s what it was probably looking for, but couldn’t quite reach – a Green Frog (Rana clamitans) immersed in duckweed, who lived to mate another day.

A Green Frog enjoying the cool duckweed and warm sun at the Center Pond.

When I reached the deck, a family of three small Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) with an adult female were feeding off the bright green Common Duckweed (Lemna minor) on the far side of the pond. Three other young wood ducks cruised around by themselves, far from the others.

I’d seen this same grouping at the bird walk a couple of days earlier. This time though, the female spotted me in the distance and disappeared into the vines at the far edge of the pond.   When she returned, she appeared to have summoned the male who’d been hiding  because he clearly was molting. His gorgeous iridescent green crest and curvy “duck tail” were being replaced by more sedate non-breeding plumage. He and the female quickly stood guard over their family group as if to put me on notice!

The male Wood Duck came out of the vines despite being in molt when summoned by the female to defend the young from that strange person with the camera on the deck.

The other three ducklings came a bit closer to the others, but again seemed to be happy on their own. I wondered if they were from her first brood, since Wood Ducks can breed twice in a summer, though the minimum number in a Wood Duck clutch is usually six. So maybe she just had three slightly more independent offspring and three who needed more protection? No way of knowing.

The male Wood Duck eventually decided I was not a threat and disappeared back into the tangle of vines to work a bit more on his molting process.

The male Wood Duck pulling on feathers during his molt.

My husband and I watched an Eastern Wood-pewee  (Contopus virens) sally forth from the shrubbery to hawk for insects. But as soon as it returned to the dead vines at the pond edge, it almost disappeared from view. See how quickly you can spot it here:

A camouflaged Wood-Pewee disappears into the landscape while foraging at the pond.

As I left the pond, walking along the eastern boardwalk, I heard the “miaou” call of a Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis). One of the birders had pointed out a catbird there earlier in the week and I’d taken a quick photo. But I told the others that I’d always wanted a good photo of the rusty undertail coverts of these birds and I’d never gotten one. Well, two days later, I heard the “miaou”  again, and there it was obliging me  by showing the part of its anatomy that I’d read about but never caught in a photo.

In the meadow west of the Center Pond, the Wednesday birding group also spotted a male Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) dropping down into the grass to feed and then quickly rising again to the nearest branch. I got a quick photo then to share with you, but didn’t see the bird again during the week. Keep an eye out when you’re there. He’s a beautiful eye-full, even when looking a bit bedraggled either from parenting duties or perhaps the beginning of his molt.

An Indigo Bunting foraged in the meadow west of the Center Pond.

Out on Bear Marsh with Snappers!

Bear Creek Marsh on a breezy summer day

In the woods on the way to the marsh, a movement at our feet caught our attention. A tiny American Toad (Anaxyrus americanus) about 3/4 of an inch long, hopped onto some leaves and froze, hoping perhaps to blend into the background and escape notice; camouflage is a basic survival strategy for toads. Though they breed in shallow water,  they spend most of their time on land. I love this little toad’s chubby legs. Small as he is, he’s off into the larger world to feed and if lucky enough to survive, produce another generation of toads.

A tiny American Toad. Juveniles like this are more active during the day than adult toads.

Along the way, some small white mushrooms stood tall along a seam in a log. Crown-tipped Coral mushrooms (Clavicorona pyxidata) are aptly named. They do resemble undersea corals and their tips are recessed and surrounded by little points. They grow only on dead wood, especially hardwood that has lost its bark. So they are helping to recycle the forest for us and creating this odd, but lovely life form in the process.

This Crown-tipped Coral mushroom is probably at bit past its prime since it’s no longer white. Or it may just not have gotten enough sunlight.

A couple of striking insects also appeared as we passed through the wood toward the marsh. A Northern Pearly Eye butterfly (Enodia anthedon) landed in a bare spot on the trail, sunlight shining through its wings. This butterfly doesn’t feed on flowers, but on tree sap, rotting fruit, decaying vegetation, even carrion – transforming death back into life. The life cycle of butterflies is full of amazing transformations, so why not one more?

The Northern Pearly Eye frequents shady wooded areas unlike many other butterflies.

Dr. Gary Parsons of MSU also helped me identify this cartoonishly cute, metallic native bee near the marsh as being from the family Halictidae. They are commonly called Sweat Bees, the ones that are attracted to your perspiration. But this tiny one was sipping from the drying blossoms of a native wildflower called Jumpseed  (Persicaria virginiana), so called because according to Michigan Flora,  if the plant is disturbed, it can propel mature seed about 9 feet, a nifty means of dispersal!

A native, solitary bee from the family Halictidae sips nectar from native Jumpseed.

At  least six Common Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina) moved slowly through the water at Bear Creek Marsh, their shells looking like moving clumps of mud. Snappers are generally shy and harmless except when bothered on land. Their plastron (the lower shell) is  small, leaving parts of its body exposed and vulnerable. They can’t completely disappear inside their shell and be safe like many turtles. So on land, their only protection is flinging out their very long necks and biting. Snappers clean our lakes and marshes of bacteria much like vultures clean our land, by consuming underwater carrion, but unlike vultures they also forage for live prey and aquatic vegetation.

A large adult snapper gliding  slowly through the water at Bear Creek marsh.

The edge of the dock at the northern entrance to the marsh is blooming with Arrowhead (Sagittaria latifolia), a lovely aquatic plant that produces white flowers sprouting from both sides of a stalk or “raceme”- and the large, vivid arrow-shaped leaves are almost more beautiful than the flowers! Dragonflies cling to them like bright baubles. What a sight on a summer morning!

The Eastern Meadow: Young Birds Out on Their Own..Sort Of

The Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) is just getting ready to turn the meadow gold. A male American Goldfinch (Spinus tristus) stood on a thistle and happily tore off some of the Goldenrod buds, possibly to feed either his mate or young. Goldfinches don’t start breeding until late summer when the thistles provide down for nests and seeds for growing broods.

A male Goldfinch stands on a thistle while feed on Goldenrod buds

Once he looked up and saw my camera, he gave me a wary glance but went right back to foraging.

A male Goldfinch giving me and my camera careful consideration before returning to eating or gathering seeds.

Joe Pye (Eutrochium maculatum) blooms in soft patches of bright pink blossoms with purple stems along the eastern trail. There’s just enough moisture to keep their “feet wet,” and the Bumblebees (genus Bombus) hum contentedly as they search for nectar from both the buds and the shaggy, open blooms.

A Bumblebee sips on Joe Pye buds

A bumblebee moves delicately through Joe Pye blossoms

A Common Wood Nymph (Ceryonis pegala) butterfly bobbed along pausing periodically in the deep grass. I mistook it at first for the Little Wood Satyr because they look similar. But the Wood Nymph is almost twice as big and frequents grassy fields while Wood Satyrs prefer shady woods or wood edges. The Wood Nymph also appears a bit later in the summer than the Wood Satyr.  Glad my source, Butterflies of Michigan by Jaret C. Daniels set me straight!

The Common Wood Nymph likes sunshine and is twice the size of the Little Wood Satyr.

When I first saw three fledgling Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) near the top of the trail, they were all sitting on a sign together. But as I approached,  two of them rose into the air and began mock fighting, banging into each other, flying away, settling for a moment, and then mock fighting again. They were too quick for me to snap a photo. Meanwhile the third little bluebird went off on its own, first looking about and then pecking quietly in the grass as it had no doubt seen its parents do.

A solitary little Bluebird fledgling left its siblings to forage in the grass.

Eventually it flew to a bare tree far off in the field and calmly surveyed the whole field. The blue on its wing tips and tail feathers was much more apparent in the full morning sunlight.

The blue tail feathers of the solitary fledgling Bluebird shone in the light.

The two more social siblings finally settled next to each other on the edge of a sign. After all that mock fighting, they snuggled up against each other – though I wonder if an ornithologist would tell me that the play fighting was dominance behavior and the positioning of the one fledgling’s head over the neck of the other meant that they had settled the pecking order between them.

Two bluebird fledglings settle together after play fighting over the field.

I later spotted two fledgling Bluebirds next to a male adult in a tree along the Walnut Lane. I wondered if the two fledglings were the scrappy pair who rested on the sign. All three seemed to be focused on the field. Maybe they were looking for the solitary fledgling who preferred to be off on its own. It was fun to imagine family dynamics among bluebirds.

An adult male Bluebird with two fledglings in a tree along the Walnut Lane.

What I think was a small Amber Snail (family Succinea) left a shining trail behind it on a milkweed leaf as I left the Eastern Meadow. Amber snails are described as land snails but they also live in moist environments. I was a bit surprised to see one out in the sunshine when we’ve had such blistering hot days this summer!

An Amber snail explores the possibility of a Common Milkweed leaf.

At the curve of the path that leads to the Walnut Lane, a busy adult Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher  (Polioptila caerulea) did its best to keep up with a very flighty fledgling that begged insistently as it bounced from branch to branch. As you can see from the slight blur in its photo below, I had some trouble keeping up with the youngster myself! Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Stewardship Manager, showed me a Gnatcatcher nest that fell near his home. So imagine how tiny that fledgling had to be at birth to fit in that lovely nest with possibly  as many as four other hatchlings! Look for the white eye ring and the white feathers on either side of  the dark tail feathers to identify these active little birds.

Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher foraging to feed its active fledgling.

A Short Trip Through More Summer Blooms

A glorious abundance of Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) below the boardwalk north of the playground.

I couldn’t detail all the wildflowers and grasses that I enjoyed at Bear Creek Nature Park in the last week, so take a short stroll through the rest of them here. Their color adds so much joy to a summer walk!

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Life Calls Us Out to Explore

Little Henry explores Bear Creek Nature Park

Reg and I met twenty-month-old Henry trotting along the path west of the Center Pond as his parents took a rest on a nearby bench. He looked content to just keep moving up the trail, seeing what he could see. It was clear he was happy to be there. Henry reminded me of the third Bluebird fledgling that I described earlier – happy to be off on his own, exploring the big beautiful world that he’s just beginning to understand.

What’s so great is that Henry’s experience is accessible to all of us, no matter our age. If we get out in the natural world with our curiosity and eyes wide open, we can’t help being surprised and delighted by it all – even two small insects determined to fight the other off to pass on their DNA to a new generation. Bird parents exhaust themselves caring for their young. Wildflowers fight their way up out of hard soil to bud, bloom and send their seeds forth into the world. Butterflies, turtles, even fungi recycle death back into life. Life in all its multifaceted glory keeps struggling to persist. And it’s our responsibility as stewards of this glory to keep working hard to make that possible. Here in Oakland Township, the residents have made a commitment to support that call to stewardship – and even in the midst of a tough 2020, I think that’s something to celebrate. Bet you do, too.