A Short Excursion into the Rich Diversity of Blue Heron Environmental Area

Blue Heron Environmental Area on Rochester Road is a place I’ve rarely visited. This special natural area was  purchased years ago by our Parks and Recreation Commission to protect a Great Blue Heron rookery that has since moved on.  The township has begun planning for the area’s future use, but for now it’s preserved as a beautiful green space with a large arc of wetland curving through a high-quality lowland forest. The fields outside the forest are planted by a local farmer which helps prevent the spread of invasive shrubs until future plans come to fruition.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

Until recently, I had only been in this forest to pull garlic mustard during spring volunteer workdays. But in early June, I was able to join our township Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide and his stewardship specialist, Grant VanderLaan, for a short exploration while they there were clearing invasive plants. What a great opportunity to share some of the special flowers, vivid dragonflies, and elder trees that inhabit this moist, shady world!

Escorted Along the Fields by a Fleet of Dragonflies!

While skirting the farm field near Rochester Road, I noticed a sunlit meadow to my right that was splashed with blossoms of native Daisy Fleabane (Erigeron annuus).

The sturdy, daisy-like faces of native Daisy Fleabane dotted a restored field at Blue Heron.

All along the field edges, dragonflies were patrolling, and occasionally dueling over, their territories. Blue Heron Environmental Area is ideal for these aerial wizards. In the open areas, they can scoop up mosquitoes, flies, midges or even moths and damselflies out of the air, while attracting a mate with their speed and skill. And once they do mate, the forest wetlands provide an ideal spot for depositing their eggs. Since walking humans stir up a lot of insects, they were also happy to accompany me along the field edge to harvest whatever I stirred out of the grass.

The Widow Skimmer female below (Libellula luctuosa) looks very like the male, except that her abdomen is black and gold while his is gray-blue. The male also has white patches beyond the dark brown ones on each wing. Widow Skimmers find shelter at night by hanging underneath overhanging leaves.

Widow skimmer female or juvenile 2 BHEA
The offspring of this  female Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa) will resemble her closely, but with male juveniles,  the gold stripe on its abdomen will gradually fade to gray-blue.

Eastern Pondhawks (Erythemis simplicicollis) are fierce predators. They have long spines on their legs for grasping prey, which includes any insect their size or smaller – occasionally even other Eastern Pondhawks! These dragonflies are more likely than others to follow along as you walk in order to feast on swarms of insects. Eastern Pondhawks are “dimorphic,” meaning the male and female look very different as you can see below.

During maturation, this male Eastern Pondhawk’s abdomen slowly turned to blue-gray starting at the tip of his abdomen and ending at his thorax. This guy looks ready to take me on!

According to Dragonflies of the North Woods by Kurt Mead, female Eastern Pondhawks can mate multiple times in a day. Perhaps the female’s bright green color and striped abdomen, so different from the male’s, makes her more visible to possible suitors.

A female Eastern Pondhawk can lay up 2100 eggs per day. She releases them into the water by dipping her abdomen into the water in short intervals.

The Twelve-spotted Skimmer (Libellula pulchella) is a favorite of mine not only because of the alternating stripes on its wings, but because of the way it hunts. It sallies forth from a perch to snag its prey, and then frequently returns to the same perch repeatedly – giving amateurs like me multiple chances for a decent photo! All dragonflies are a challenge to photograph in flight, but particularly Twelve-spotteds since they fly in bursts of speed and can reverse direction in a flash.

The male Twelve-spotted Skimmer sometimes hovers over the female during egg-laying to prevent other males from harassing or mating with her.

The Common Whitetail (Plathemis lydia) below could be a female, but is more likely a juvenile, since they’re the ones that tend to head for fields and open areas, leaving the water behind once they emerge from their larval stage. Their appearance is not only identical to the adult female; it also closely resembles the female Twelve-spotted Skimmer. The only difference is that the yellowish-white stripes of the female/juvenile Whitetail form a jagged line down the sides of the abdomen (see below), while the side stripes of the female Twelve-spotted form a neat straight line. So needless to say, I always need a photo to decide which one I saw when a female of either species appears.

A juvenile Common Whitetail is more likely to be found at a field edge than the adult female, though both look exactly alike during early maturation.

I came across two other interesting insects at the edge of the fields. Noticing delicate movement at my feet, I finally spotted a strange creature that is completely harmless to us humans, but quite a predator! A Hangingfly (genus Bittacus) does just as its name implies; it dangles beneath leaves by its looong front legs which have claspers to grasp leaves or stems for support. It uses its other four legs to snag any unwary insect passersby. It looks a bit like a Crane Fly but isn’t related.

A Hangingfly hopes to snag unsuspecting insects as it dangles from under a leaf.

And a Six-spotted Tiger Beetle (Cicindela sexguttata) showed up right where they always are – in a bright spot at the edge of a field or forest, its stiff, iridescent green wings shining in the sunlight.

A Six-spotted Tiger Beetle paused in a sunlit spot on an old log at the edge of a field.

Something New:  Restoring a Forest

A field now cleared of invasive shrubs that will eventually be restored to the forest it once was.

Have a look at the photo of the cleared, green field above.  Until two years ago, it was choked with Autumn Olive and Glossy Buckthorn, invasive non-native shrubs that quickly take over abandoned farm fields. A forestry mower took them down in the winter and the area was soon sown with native grasses and wildflowers. The stewardship summer crew treated the invasive shrub regrowth the following summer.

Often stewardship work in our township begins with this clearing process as the first step in turning a field back into a native prairie or savanna- but not so at Blue Heron.  When I visited, Ben showed me that the cleared field in the photo had originally been part of an earlier forest.

As you enter the woods, you can see a demarcation where younger, smaller trees give way to taller, thicker, older ones.  It’s likely that decades ago, the older trees,  many of which lean eastward,  had been reaching for sun at the edge of a farmed field . The bigger trees to the right in the photo probably grew back after the forest was originally cleared for farming in the 19th century. The smaller trees to the left probably sprouted after part of the field was no longer farmed in the second half of the twentieth century.

Older, larger trees on. the right were once leaning into the sun at the edge of the field when it was farmed years ago. Smaller trees beyond started growing when part of the farm field was abandoned many years later.

Stewardship plans include eventually planting native oaks in the open, cleared meadow  in order to restore more of the native trees that thrived here before farming began. I’d love to be around to see the restoration of a forest!

The Rich Diversity of a Lowland Forest

Blue Heron Environmental Area is a high-quality lowland forest with a curving arc of wetlands.

I’ve only explored a small section of the current woods at Blue Heron Environmental Area, but I’m already wowed. In the sources I used to research the plants I saw here, I  came across phrases like, “found only in high-quality wetlands,” or “found in high quality woodlands.” Because much of the forest has been undisturbed for a long time, Blue Heron provides high-quality examples of both.

Moist Forest Flora – and Some Rare Beauties!

As I stepped with Ben into the older forest, the shade deepened. Ben kindly took me to see a unique orchid. It seems that at one time, this natural area hosted two kinds of Ladyslippers. The more common, and still lovely Small-flowered Yellow Ladyslipper (Cypripedium parviflorum var. makasin) peeks out of the greenery beneath the tall trees. I love how the dark sepals form the purplish ribbons of the lady’s slipper.

The sepals of the Small-flowered Yellow Ladyslipper that once enclosed its bud look like the ribbons that wound around a lady’s leg to secure her shoe in ages past.

But there was once another orchid here which Ben and Grant haven’t yet spotted, the  rarer White Ladyslipper (Cypripedium candidum)Here’s a photo of one from iNaturalist.org taken by photographer Erin Faulkner. Note that the sepal “ribbons” are green with faint flecks of purple rather than the dark purple and bright yellow sepals of the Yellow Ladyslipper above.

Ben thinks the rare White Ladyslipper must have cross-pollinated with the Yellow Ladyslipper to create a hybrid at Blue Heron. Photo by Erin Faulkner (CC BY-NC)

Ben presumes that White Ladyslippers once grew in this natural area because here and there today grows a hybrid between these two native orchids. The hybrid wildflower at Blue Heron has the white “slipper” of the White Ladyslipper but the purple, sepal “ribbons” of the Yellow Ladyslipper. The two native Ladyslippers must have cross-pollinated and produced this special hybrid that Grant found. I’m so glad that I got to see several of them and am able to share one with you!

The hybrid Ladyslipper at Blue Heron has the white “slipper” of the White Ladyslipper and purple sepal “ribbons” of the Yellow Ladyslipper.

Also enjoying the beautiful forest floor, I noticed little yellow pom-poms on a stem growing in the mottled shade of a long, arcing marsh. Ben identified it as Tufted Loosestrife (Lysimachia thrysiflora), a species of Loosestrife I’d never seen before. Its clusters of tiny blossoms, called “racemes,” emerge from the middle axils of the long, graceful leaves like tiny fireworks. It’s described by a useful wildflower website, Illinois Wildflowers, as “found in higher quality wetlands.”

The yellow racemes (clusters of separate flowers) of Tufted Loosestrife catch the light and shine in the shade at the marsh’s edge.

Large areas near the marsh were carpeted with a calf-high plant I’d never before noticed on my hikes –  Richweed (Collinsonia canadensis). This member of the mint family produces a plume or spike of tiny yellow flowers in mid-summer, adding a spark of color to the dense shade when little else is in flower. Since I saw only its leaves, here’s a photo of the plant blooming by inaturalist photographer Sirruba.

Richweed, a native wildflower that creates colonies through its underground stems, called rhizomes. Photo by Sirruba (CC BY-NC)

Ferns Waving from the Forest Floor

The feathery fronds of a glorious variety of ferns sway above the ground near the marsh at Blue Heron Environmental Area. Ben  identified two for me and I spotted an old favorite as well. The Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum pedatum) is described by Illinois Wildflowers as “found in higher quality woodlands where the original ground flora is largely intact.” I saw its fan-shaped fronds spiraling out of the ground quite near the center of the marsh’s arc. It carries its spores in narrow bands on the underside of the leaflets near the tip. Each leaflet on the frond folds down slightly to partially cover the sporangia, the structures that carry the spores. They will eventually break open and release the spores to the wind.

Maidenhair Fern enjoys the humid shade of Blue Heron.

The Royal Fern (Osmunda regalis) produces a glorious, rising plume of infertile fronds that catch the sunlight and feed the plant through photosynthesis. The shorter, straight fertile fronds are thinner and produce yellow bead-like spores. The draining of wetlands around the world has had a big impact on Royal Ferns, so I’m happy to have seen so many here!

A Royal Fern near the marsh rises like a large, green bouquet rising from the moist forest floor.

All over the woodland grows an old friend, the Sensitive Fern, reportedly so-named because its fertile fronds wither at the first frost and arrive after the last frost. Its green, infertile fronds with their jagged edges feed the roots while the smaller fertile fronds eventually produce shiny, brown, bead-like sporangia that last through the winter before breaking open to release the spores. Sensitive ferns also reproduce by underground stems called rhizomes.

A Sensitive Fern unfurling its infertile, photosynthesizing fronds at Blue Heron. The infertile fronds produce brown beads  that carry the spores through the winter to be released the following spring.

Wet Woods Extras

High Bush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum), an unusual native plant that I’ve only seen before at Cranberry Lake Park, huddled under the shade of a willow on a hummock in  the marsh. When I got closer with my camera, I could see fruit just beginning to form. Native mining bees and bumblebees or non-native honeybees must have found the little white nodding blossoms and pollinated them as they foraged. Some lucky bird or mammal has a treat coming!

The petals of Highbush Blueberry blossoms have dropped and the fruit is forming.

Near the Blueberry bush, in a wet crevice of a moss-covered hummock, I spotted a tiny Wood Frog (Lithobates sylvaticus).  It must have hatched this spring from eggs quickly laid in a vernal pool back in March. Less than 2 inches long, it floated in the shallow water or rested on the moist mud as it explored its shady grotto.

A tiny Wood Frog in the moist mud within a hummock near the marsh
Healthy Little Saplings, a Majestic Beech and Some Colorful “Hangers On”

Among the mixture of maples and oaks, some trees that I see less often have also found a suitable habitat in the forest at Blue Heron. Ben told me of a large Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) farther back in the woods that I’d missed. But I did see this little sapling of one springing up from the moist earth. I love how tiny saplings create such large leaves to capture as much sunlight as possible. Let’s hope it escapes the attention of foraging deer!

A tiny Tulip Tree will have to survive foraging deer to reach its adult size.

I did find an impressive American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) reaching up to the sunlight with its smooth, gray bark. Wildlife love the plentiful beechnuts that this tree will send rattling to the earth. And according to the Trees of Michigan Field Guide by Stan Tekiela, the seedlings and saplings that manage to take root can survive in the shade for years waiting for other trees to fall, giving them the sunlight and space they need. I’m hoping for a grove of Beeches – a new favorite of mine.

A huge American Beech made its way up into the sunlight in the forest at Blue Heron.

A tiny Swamp Oak (Quercus bicolor) must have begun its upward journey from the forest floor when the acorns dropped last fall. Swamp Oak acorns usually come in pairs and sprout shortly after falling, according to Stan Tekiela. If one survives hungry birds and animals, it grows more quickly than most oaks. And it could live for up to 300 years,  according to Wikipedia. Good luck, little oak!

Leaves of Swamp Oaks are dark green above and lighter below – hence its species name, “bicolor.”

What first appeared to be some sort of fungus had sprung up around a large fallen oak in the woods.  But it wasn’t a fungus; it was a parasitic plant commonly called Cancer Root or Bear Corn (Conopholis americana). It’s an underground plant that consequently can’t photosynthesize sunlight. Instead it feeds off the roots of woody plants, especially oaks and beeches. This interesting pinecone shape is the flowering stem of the underground plant which grows on the roots about four years before producing these flowers that can grow as high as 8 inches. I’m continually amazed by the variety of ways that nature has found to sustain life.

Cancer root or Bear corn draws its sustenance from the roots of trees since the plant is underground and can’t photosynthesize. These are its flowers.

Imagining Blue Heron’s Past, Protecting It Today and Restoring It For the Future

A section of the long crescent of marsh at Blue Heron Environmental Area.

The distant past of this striking lowland forest can only be imagined. Before farming began here in the 1800’s, an old growth forest probably stretched out from its present site across where Rochester Road is now and beyond. Gray wolves probably roamed the area, keeping a healthy deer population in check. Those White Ladyslippers may have bloomed in profusion in an open wet meadow pocket, since non-native plants had not yet been introduced to the ecosystem.

Today Blue Heron is a special natural area preserved by the Parks and Recreation Commission and the residents who support our parks. The old growth forest is gone, but large trees from the 19th century still stand tall among the wetlands shading a forest floor full of native plants. Thanks to our stewardship program, garlic mustard and other invasive trees, flowers and shrubs – some brought early on by European settlers, others unwittingly planted in our gardens or along our streets – are being removed from our parks and controlled in a variety of ways,  including prescribed burns. As a result, our heritage of native plants can begin to reassert itself, providing a healthier, more productive habitat for native wildlife.

And for those of us who want to pass that heritage on to future generations, we can dream of young children wandering among tall oaks and waving native grasses that were restored to Blue Heron Environmental Area by people in our time who valued the gifts of the natural world. What a legacy, eh?

Cranberry Lake Park: Spring Music in the Wetlands

In spring, nature generously replenishes the multitude of Cranberry Lake Park’s wetlands. Besides the lake itself, shady woodland ponds and pools glitter through the trees along nearly every trail at Cranberry. All of which makes me happy, because being near water is the surest way to find wildlife and interesting plants.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

I seek out wet places whenever I go visit our parks since so much goes on around wetlands. Right now, ferns unfurl and spring wildflowers emerge on the sunny or shady edges of trails. Birds sing and chatter from within or just outside of the wetlands, as they forage, perform for mates, challenge others for territory or simply celebrate the sun after a cold rainy night. Throughout the park on three spring mornings, glorious music kept me company as nature’s virtuosos joined in a  spring chorus.

An Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) found this insect larva where a wetland meets the eastern meadow at Cranberry Lake Park

After serious downpours, though,  it helps to know the trails well enough to avoid being confronted by a calf-deep small pond! Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Stewardship Manager, has kindly created a map of my meanderings at Cranberry Lake Park. This route generally can be done with dry or at least only moderately damp feet. So daub on a bit of bug repellent and don some waterproof footwear as we head out to the sights and the special spring sounds of rain-soaked Cranberry Lake Park.

CLP_Update2017_BlogHike
Spring 2020 hike at Cranberry Lake Park. You can also explore this park on our interactive park map at https://bit.ly/3g0GaRs.

Heading North Accompanied by Bird Song

The north trail from the farm site strewn with apple blossom petals

Seeing that the water on the short trail out of the parking lot was ankle-deep and impassible, I headed across the cut grass toward the red-and-white chicken coop that is part of historic Cranberry Lake Farm. I turned onto the trail that looked as if a wedding had just ended, as it was strewn with fallen apple petals. High overhead, the sweet, whistling song of a male Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) celebrated the blue sky morning with a joyful noise!

A male Baltimore Oriole greeting the morning with his high, flute-like song.

Across the way, a bit further on, I paused to listen to a male Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia) repeating his quick “sweet, sweet, I’m a little sweet” song. He was deep in the greenery so I waited and watched. Finally I resorted to playing the warbler’s song on Merlin, Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s very useful bird ID app. I don’t use it often to flush out birds because it can stress them. So I played it only once. And out popped the Yellow Warbler to check out the competition.

A Yellow Warbler male pops out of the greenery.

He hopped about a bit for a minute or two and then went back into the greenery and continued to sing. I was relieved that he seemed to have decided that the bird on the app was no match for him!

Tracking West Across a Meadow

I turned left at the round turkey brooder building and headed back west toward the Shagbark Hickory Lane.  Oops – the trail was flooded here too, but luckily, the maintenance crew had set up a boardwalk along the edge which, though a bit askew, provided relatively dry footing.

Along the east-west trail nearest to the farm, a wooden platform provides dry footing after a night of rain.

As I walked into the meadow, I noticed a large insect bumbling about among the dandelions on the trail. I’m so glad I stopped for a closer look! A Snowberry Clearwing Moth (Hemaris diffinis) trundled its hefty body from one dandelion to the next. The non-native dandelions provided the nectar that morning, though I’ve seen Clearwings (there are two kinds around here) most often on native Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa) when it blooms later in the summer. These moths, which look so much like bumblebees, fly during the day, but if they find a good nectar source, they can forage in the evening as well. So check out bumblebees on your flowers and see if you can spot one of these moths!

A Snowberry Clearwing Moth can easily be mistaken for an oversized bumblebee! 
The Snowberry Clearwing Moth sipping nectar from a dandelion.

Dandelions were also being visited by a green florescent native bee. I’ve learned not to attempt identification of native bees. According to Doug Parsons, director of the MSU Bug House, you really have to be an expert who has both the insect and a magnifying glass in hand to positively identify them.But I do love to look for these small, solitary, native bees!

A native bee making the most of early season dandelions.

Wild bees hadn’t yet discovered the modest wildflowers of Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) when I saw these tiny blossoms down among the tall grasses of the meadow.  I imagine hover flies and bees will show up once a few more flowers emerge. If the plant is fertilized, it will set a tiny fruit which no doubt some bird or animal will get to before I do!

Wild Strawberries in the south meadow at Cranberry Lake Park

A Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) chatted its conversational song in the bushes at the back of the meadow. Catbirds held their loud “conversations” all over the park one morning, combining whistles, squeaks and bits of other birds’ songs. Finally this one emerged into a Wild Cherry tree (Prunus serotina) where I took a quick shot before he sailed back into the shrubbery to sing some more.

A Gray Catbird sang its long song full of trills, chirps, whistles and such from among the blossoms of a Wild Cherry tree in the meadow.

The vigorous breezes of a beautiful spring morning drowned out my recording of this male. But a Catbird I heard last year at Bear Creek Nature Park’s Center Pond will give you a feel for the long, complicated phrasing of its song. On this recording, Green Frogs (Rana clamitans) provide backup percussion from the water below!

By now regular readers know that I’m quite fond of the Eastern Towhee (Dumetella carolinensis) –  probably because its song was one of the first ones I learned to recognize.   A male perched in a small tree invited a nearby female to appreciate his rendition of  “Drink your teaaaaa.” She listened politely nearby. I was surprised to learn from Donald W. Stokes’ A Guide to Bird Behavior, Vol.2 that Towhees make their nests on the ground like many sparrows. Once the nest is built, both adults become more secretive. The male stays away until the eggs hatch. At that point, he returns to feed both his mate and the young and continues helping the female with caring for the young from then on. So look for them in spring before they start nesting! [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

A Trip Down Hickory Lane

An old farm lane lined with Shagbark Hickories runs near the western boundary of the park.

A wonderful row of Shagbark Hickories (Carya ovata) line the western edge of the park. I love strolling along this dappled lane. The ground is  mostly firm underfoot and birds dart back and forth across the trail, forage along its edges and sing from the wetlands and fields off either side. Each spring I try to resist taking another photo of the large, almost rococo design of the Shagbark’s leaf buds. I failed to resist again this year.

The elegant design of an opening Shagbark Hickory leaf bud.

Ahead of me, I saw a Gray Catbird shoot across the trail and disappear. But as I got closer, I had the chance to watch it balancing on a twig over a large puddle to forage repeatedly for some kind of insects or larvae in the water. Once it had gathered a number of whatever it was, it jumped in for quick dip, ruffled its feathers and took off again.

A Gray Catbird foraging for insects or insect larvae in a large puddle next to the Hickory Lane.

Wild Geranium blossoms (Geranium maculatum) added dashes of lavender along the shady lane – some still in perfect form, others having served as a meal for the larvae of some hungry insect. A little damage to a blossom or leaf can mean a well-fed caterpillar to nourish a hungry baby bird. So holes here and there on plants are fine with me!

Two other native wildflowers graced the shade of the Hickory Lane. A cold snap had just ended, so the Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) looked a bit beyond its peak bloomBut the buds of Solomon Seal (Polygonatum biflorum) had just formed beneath its leaves when I lifted its stem for a peek.

An adult Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus) zipped across the path and froze when it saw me. I snapped my photo of the crouching little critter and waited. It dashed off and disappeared down a hole.

An adult chipmunk who’d taken its  young out on a foraging expedition.

Just as I lowered my camera, three baby chipmunks came tumbling onto the path, jostling each other as they raced after their parent and dove down the same hole. I wish I’d been fast enough to get you a photo of the babies, but alas, no. But I’ll include below one of my favorite baby chipmunk photos taken at home a few years ago.

A baby chipmunk about the size of the three I saw dash into a hole on the Hickory Lane at Cranberry Lake Park

Several metallic green Six-spotted Tiger Beetles (Cicindela sexguttata) darted down onto the path under the hickories. They can commonly be found in patches of sunlight at the edge of wooded areas. Despite their ferocious name and appearance, they don’t bite humans unless we handle them, and even then it’s an unnoticeably mild pinch, according to Wikipedia. Small caterpillars, ants and spiders, though, find them ferocious predators!

The Six-spotted Tiger Beetle is iridescent green with six white spots around the bottom edge of its abdomen.

On the Trail to the Lake Accompanied By Birdsong and an Amphibian Chorus

In the center of the park, several trails converge in a small meadow.  The one that heads out from the Hickory Lane and east to the lake was my choice. In the short video below taken on a glorious May morning, I spun around slowly where the trails converge, trying to record the bright blue sky, the fresh greenery and the birdsong soundtrack that was making me smile.

The background music was partially provided by a robust male Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus) singing his lyrical song that is similar to the Robin, but a bit sweeter. I wondered if he was establishing territory because I’d seen an older male singing nearby a few days before. I’m betting that the younger male’s elegant pink ascot and vocal ability won him the territory and a mate – unless experience counts with Grosbeak females. The older male looked like he’d seen a few seasons, but he was a vigorous singer as well!  [Correction!  The bird on the right is actually a male juvenile who has not yet finished molting into fully adult male plumage!  The telling field mark is the white eyeline and white feathers at the neck.   And the one the left is in his second or older year!   Thanks to Ruth Glass, local birding authority, who set me straight on this!   I’m learning all the time from readers of the blog!]

Near a wetland on the north side of the lake trail, I heard a quick song that I didn’t recognize. Ah! I spotted a small, bright yellow bird with a black mask and a fancy black necklace – the Magnolia Warbler (Setophaga magnolia). I actually heard two of these warblers on the way to the lake, but only one stopped hopping from limb to limb long enough to show me how beautiful he was. He’ll nest farther north in dense forests of spruce or hemlock.

The Magnolia Warbler actually nests in conifers and spends winters in the American south.

Deep within the shrubbery of every  moist area along this trail, I could hear the “witchedy witchedy” call of the Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas), but I have yet to see one this spring! I waited, watched, but no luck. I’m sure I’ll catch sight of one before long since Yellowthroats raise their young here. But for now here’s an earlier photo of another lovely masked bandit. I think he throws his head back farther than any other bird that I’ve seen – and his whole body vibrates with the song!

A Common Yellowthroat singing “witchedy, witchedy, witchedy” from a shrub near a wetland.

Warblers are challenging subjects for us amateur photographers. They’re tiny, they rarely stop to pose and they arrive when the trees are leafing out! So I was happy to catch a quick photo of a Black-and-white Warbler (Mniotilta varia) as he busily spiraled around a trunk near the lake. It’s easy to mistake this little bird for a White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) or even a Brown Creeper (Certhia americana) as they circumnavigate trees. Theoretically, this little warbler breeds here, but I’ve only managed to spot one during spring migrations.

A Black-and-white Warbler spirals around a tree searching for insects with its slightly curved beak.

As I approached the lake, I heard an amazing chorus of amphibians singing.  It wasn’t any frog song that I recognized,  so I was puzzled. Eventually, a herpetology authority, David Mifsud of the Michigan Herp Atlas, helped me out. I hadn’t recognized the mating calls of the American Toad (Anaxyrus americanus)!

American toads were chorusing their mating song in Cranberry Lake.

I come across single toads in the park periodically, as I did with the Toad above last year at Bear Creek Nature Park. But I’d never before been in the audience as they sing for the females! The water out at the edge of the lake was rippling with their activity. Straining for a sighting, all I could see was a periodic flash of what appeared to be white skin thrust out of the water. I still don’t know if I was seeing toads mating or a fish catching a mouthful of courting toad!

The song was mesmerizing as one toad started the swelling sound, followed by others, until the trills died down. And then after a brief pause,  another round began. It reminded me of the buzz of cicadas on a summer day. Listen!

In the shade at the edge of the lake,  some Ostrich Ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) emerged from the moist earth and were unfolding from their parchment-like covers.  Ferns seem almost other-worldly to me, since,  like mosses, they are ancient. Fossil forms of early ferns appeared on earth almost 400 million years ago, long before dinosaurs roamed the earth about 200 million years later! Look at the brown cauls that cover the Ostrich Fern before it opens and then its unfurling green stem with a deep U-shaped groove, a hallmark of this native fern.

Ostrich Ferns unwrap from their brown coverings as they emerge.

You can see why they are also called “Fiddlehead Ferns,” can’t you? And here were a few a bit farther along in their growth. When the sun shines on their unfurling fronds, they just glow!

One Last Encouraging Song to Carry Home

A wet, somewhat battered Northern Cardinal singing with abandon

Since I knew the alternate trails would be too wet to traverse, I re-traced my steps back up the trail, down the Hickory Lane and out to the road. When I entered the parking lot, I was greeted by the cheerful whistle and “cheerups” of a Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) who’d seen better days. After some rainy, cold nights and perhaps an itchy case of mites, he seemed to be having the avian equivalent of a tough day. Despite that, his song was as upbeat and vigorous as ever. I listen entranced and never thought to record him, but luckily I had recorded another male singing the Cardinal’s ebullient spring song back in April.

I stood quietly and just listened to him for a few minutes before I left. And in these difficult days when grief, fear, and anger move in waves across our world, a battered bird still sang. It felt like a model I should try to follow. No matter what life throws at you, that scarlet messenger seemed to say, sing on! I mean to try. I hope you do, too.

Birds, Butterflies, A Few Blossoms and Basking Turtles: Circling the Eastern Side of Draper Twin Lake Park

Looking from the south side of Draper marsh toward the northern prairie.

The eastern side of Draper Twin Lake Park grows more inviting every year. Some of the former farm fields there had been abandoned for decades when Oakland Township Parks and Recreation acquired the property in 2005. Dense thickets of invasive shrubs crowded the shores of the marsh and began to spread within what had been a rolling prairie and oak savanna landscape in the centuries before European settlement.

But restoration is slowly changing this somewhat scruffy park back to its former beauty.  After forestry mowing, the trail by the marsh, once choked with stands of non-native shrubs, now provides open vistas.

The trail on the west side of the floating marsh is now cleared of invasive shrubs so that a stand of native White Pines (Pinus strobus) and other trees can be appreciated.

The dark water of the marsh sparkles between the scrim of trees and shrubs that surround its shores. The roots of grasses and shrubs form a floating mat at the heart of the marsh, creating nest sites for birds large and small. Migrating birds flit through the trees at the marsh edge singing spring songs. Some settle in to mate, nest and raise young; others simply forage, rest and move on.

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Photos and text by Cam Mannino

On warm days in the northern prairie, tiny spring butterflies dart and dance within the dry stalks of last year’s prairie wildflowers and grasses, while the shimmering blue wings of Tree Swallows soar and dip above them. By mid-summer, fresh prairie grasses will sway above fields mixed with the bright colors of native wildflowers and big beautiful butterflies. But even a cool spring day can be beguiling.

So just for a few minutes, escape with me. Muster your imagination as we explore Draper Twin Lake Park together. Listen to a brisk breeze hushing in your ears and feel warm sun on your shoulders as I take a turn around the marsh and then circle the field on the prairie trail loop on a bright spring morning.

In the  Spring, the Marsh is the Place to See and Be Seen!

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My Draper Twin Lake Park hiking route

Wetlands mean wildlife in every one of our parks. After parking at the building at 1181 Inwood Road, I headed left, leaving the path to enter the trees that shelter the south edge of the floating mat marsh, pictured at the top of the blog.

The clarion “wika wika” call of Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus) throbbed overhead as these elegant woodpeckers whisked back and forth in the treetops, competing for mates and territory. This mustached male and his mate will spend the summer with us, nesting in a tree cavity, but foraging on the ground, unlike other woodpeckers; ants are a favored meal for flickers.

A male Northern Flicker challenging other males with his “wika wika” call

A pudgy, green-gray bird hopped about within a tangle of vines, repeatedly flicking its wings and only pausing for a few seconds each time it jumped to a new twig. The male Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) was enjoying a bit of R&R before flying north, possibly as far as Hudson’s Bay. Imagine! On those tiny wings! There its mate can lay 5-12 eggs in a 4 inch nest woven with grasses, feathers, moss, cocoon or spider silk and lined with finer grass and fur. Never underestimate the little Kinglet!

My photo was a bit blurred by movement in a heavy wind, but bird enthusiasts and excellent photographers, Bob Bonin and his wife Joan, also visited Draper in the last two weeks. In fact, we chatted from a safe social distance when we came across each other at the park.  They generously offered to share some of the photos they took at Draper. So here’s Bob’s rare shot of an excited little male with his crown raised! Thanks for the loan, Bob!

An excited male Ruby-crowned Kinglet with his crest raised – a rare sight to see with this busy little bird. Photo by Bob Bonin with permission.

Joan shared two other migrating birds she saw on the east side of Draper. The Black-throated Green Warbler (Setophaga virens) sports such dramatic plumage! It has two versions of its song that has a lot of buzz and a smaller bit of  “tweet” in it. One song is directed at competing males and the other is used to attract females. Find an explanation of both, a video and some recordings here at Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website.

The Black-throated Green Warbler doesn’t come to feeders and breeds a bit farther north of us and farther into Canada. So it’s a treat to see one! Photo by Joan Bonin.

Joan also provided us with a lovely photo of a Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) at Draper. Cornell Lab reports that this modest little milk chocolate bird with the spotted breast utilizes “foot quivers,” when foraging, shaking its feet in the grass to stir up insects. I will watch for that the next time I see one!

Hermit Thrushes breed north of us where its flute-like call is more likely to be heard. Photo by Joan Bonin.

A pair of Palm Warblers (Setophaga palmarum) skittered around me within the low bushes at the marsh. Traveling from the Caribbean to Canada, they were hungry. Their tails wagged up and down as they grazed along the ground for insects. This one thought it might have spotted something interesting in the crevices of tree bark. Note the brown crown, yellow eyeline, throat and the yellow under its tail.

According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, ninety-eight percent of all Palm Warblers and thousands of other species breed in the boreal forests of northern Canada, an essential ecosystem!

Looking north, I spotted something large in the trees at the far north end of the marsh. For the second time this spring, I got a distant look at a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) surveying the landscape. I’m so used to seeing these birds wading at the edges of ponds. It always delights me to see them perching high up in a tree, though I know their big, flat nests are always situated at the top of high trees in their rookeries.

A Great Blue Heron looking out from the treetops at the far north end of Draper’s floating mat marsh.

As I moved to the west side of the marsh, I looked up into the frothy blossoms of one of my favorite native trees, the Serviceberry (Amelanchier interior).

The rippling petals of a Serviceberry in a spring wind.

This tree with its plumes of white blossoms in the early spring offers a native alternative to the non-native Callery/Bradford Pear trees (Pyrus calleryana) that flower at the same time. If shopping malls and housing developments bloomed with this native beauty each spring, the fields of our natural areas would not be invaded by groves of the invasive pears. We can hope for a change as the value of native plants is better understood by more landscapers.  Several stately serviceberry trees dot the early spring landscape at Draper Twin Lake Park. Aren’t these clouds of dancing white lovely in the sparseness of the spring landscape?

A native Serviceberry tree makes a perfect replacement for the invasive, non-native Callery/Bradford Pear.

In a shadowy pool beneath low branches on the west shore of the floating mat marsh, some movement caught my eye. A Swamp Sparrow (Melospiza georgiana) dipped its head into the water while balancing on stick, probably plucking insect larvae or small invertebrates  out of the dark water. Fortunately this sparrow is equipped with long legs for wading and doesn’t mind the cold water, if this sopping-wet bird is any indication!

This swamp sparrow stuck its head under water while fishing for insect larvae or tiny invertebrates.

Out at the edge of the floating mat, a pair of Midland Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta marginata) warmed their shells in faint spring sunlight. Perhaps these two will mate or perhaps they’re just basking together. These two larger turtles could be quite old; Midland Painted Turtles sometimes live over 50 years!

Our Midland Painted Turtles can mate in the spring or fall.

The “boing!” call of a Green Frog (Lithobates climatans) surprised me, so I approached to search the water until I spotted this one. Since the round ear drum or tympanum is about same size as its eye, this is a female Green frog. She may have jumped the gun a bit with the changeable spring weather. Normally, Green Frogs don’t wake from their winter somnolence until the temperature reaches 50 degrees and they don’t mate until the weather is consistently warm. So this female may need to bide her time even though there was a male singing somewhere nearby.

The skin of Green Frogs darkens on cold days so they can soak up more sun.

Back out along the trail on the west side of the marsh, I met a turtle with a ferocious visage, a snout for snorkeling air from under water and an intimidating set of claws! Here’s the steely glare of this master predator, the Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina).

This Snapper must have emerged from the mud before heading out to look for companionship.

I’m kidding really. Yes, it did look fierce, but I was being stared down by a small Snapper maybe 8 inches long who probably was just curious.

This small snapper may not yet be mature enough to mate.

I have no idea of its age or what it was doing on trail. According to Wikipedia, a snapper can take 15-20 years to reach sexual maturity and mating is usually done while tumbling about in the  water. So unless this one is older than it looks and was looking for a place to lay eggs, it may have just decided to go on walkabout. Snappers sometimes move great distances to find less crowded habitat, as well as to lay eggs. After all, that carapace, an extremely long neck, powerful jaws and claws are pretty good protection for an adventurous young snapper.

As I stood at the north end of the floating mat marsh, a Green Heron (Butorides virescens) flew swiftly back and forth across the pond. Its yellowish-orange feet trailed behind its bulky body as it landed in the vegetation around the shore. Luckily, Joan later spotted one out in the open in the southeast section of the marsh. One way to spot this colorful bird is to listen for its distinctive “skeow” call;  listen here under the first “calls” recording. That’s the Green Heron sound with which I’m most familiar.

A Green Heron at Draper Twin Lake Park. Photo by Joan Bonin.

Her husband, Bob, saw a bird that I’d never come across before – and neither had Bob.  The Northern Waterthrush (Parkesia noveboracensis) loves wetlands and according to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, will even settle for a puddle if it’s near cover. It was migrating through on its way from the Caribbean to its breeding grounds in northern Canada. Bob went back to look for it again the next day, but it never appeared. I feel lucky that it “popped out of cover,” as Bob put it, at just the right moment for him to take his photo!

A rare photo of a Northern Waterthrush at Draper Twin Lake Park taken by Bob Bonin.

When I reached the southeast corner myself, a pair of Sandhill Cranes, heads down, were calmly feeding on the floating mat, looking up once a while, and then back to feeding again

This pair of Sandhill Cranes might consider the floating mat a good place for a nest since the marsh creates a kind of moat! Sandhills have nested here before.

As my camera zoomed in on that startling orange eye beneath the crimson cap on one of these huge birds, I hoped that they would choose to nest there as Sandhills did a few years ago. I’d love to see a “colt,” as their fledglings are called, join its parents at the Draper marsh.

A closer look at one of the Sandhill Cranes

That southeast corner of the marsh is full of turtles. I know that Blanding’s Turtles (Emydoidea blandingii) live at Draper Twin Lake Park because I once helped one across the road outside of the park and Donna, the Draper bluebird monitor, has seen them, too. Last week, I thought I saw their slightly domed shells deep in the grass at the southeast corner of the marsh, but they never raised their heads. But Joan Bonin and her very long lens caught this wonderful closeup of one! Thank you, Joan!

Joan Bonin’s wonderful photo caught the yellow throat perfectly, the distinctive field mark of the Blanding’s Turtle.

As I was looking for the Blanding’s turtle,  I noticed a dark lump laying in the water behind a mud flat in the marsh. Could it be? Was that a neck stretched out to gather some sun? I think what I saw was a large Snapper, its neck partially extended along the mud flat, camouflaged as just another black lump in the landscape. Look for its pointed head and eye to the right in the grass. That looks like a large snapper to me!

A large snapper masquerading as just another lump of mud in the Draper Marsh.

Some small upland birds share the southeast corner with turtles and herons. One dark, windy day, my husband and I caught sight of a Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata) and identified it from its characteristic yellow patch above the tail. It appeared to be the more modestly dressed female. Here are the photos I got from a distance 10 days ago and a much better one from 2015.

On a snag near the edge of the trees, a House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) ignored me completely while he belted out his wonderful, bubbling trill. According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, their sharp, fizzy song sallies forth from Canada, through the West Indies, all the way to the tip of South America.

A House Wren, beak wide-open in full song.

The distinctively sweet “tweeting” of an American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) caused me to look up at this little splash of bright sunlight on a cloudy day. The males have donned their brightest colors and execute their rolling flight all over Draper.

A male American Goldfinch posed quite calmly near the southeast edge of the marsh.

On to the North Prairie!

Volunteer Donna Perkins has already found bluebird eggs in two of her boxes within the prairie!

Volunteer nest box monitors like Donna Perkins above are citizen scientists who are gathering data on which birds nest in the boxes, how many eggs they lay, how many days pass before hatching and fledging and how many little birds successfully leave the nest. Donna found six Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) eggs in two of her boxes. And along the prairie’s edge, male and female bluebirds surveyed the area, keeping an eye on their nests.

Don’t worry if you find a nest with eggs in your yard with no adult around. Birds take time off to forage and if scared off of their nest, will usually return. But most often, once the last egg has been laid, the adult will start incubating them most of the day, which helps ensure that they all hatch at the same time, making it easier to care for them.

Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) move into our township nest boxes as well. Usually, Eastern Bluebirds and Tree Swallows will live in a neighborly way when their boxes are near each other, though occasionally there’s competition for a preferred box. Neither species, however, will tolerate another member of their own species moving nearby. So right now, the Tree Swallows are beginning to construct their nests with a mixture of grasses carefully lined with feathers. What a sight to see these shining blue beauties swooping over the field, periodically opening their beaks to snag passing insects. Joan Bonin got a fabulous shot of two of them in flight over the Draper prairie – an exciting and rare shot! Congratulations and thanks to Joan for sharing it.

Tree Swallows in flight above the Draper prairie. Photo by Joan Bonin.

A clear song rippled out from the tree line to our right. So loud! What was that? We finally located the rear end of a male Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) facing out of the park to the east. In the distance, we could hear his competitor singing as well.  Establishing territory is serious business, so our Towhee in the park never budged an inch, though we waited for almost 20 minutes, listening but frustrated that he kept his back turned. So the photo below was taken last year at Draper. This year’s towhee sang his “drink your teeeeeea” song much more slowly than usual, so it took longer to identify it. Maybe the song had more emphasis that way for the male in the distance!

An Eastern Towhee singing from a snag at Draper in 2019.

We came across, though, a sad sight on the prairie – an injured Nashville Warbler (Leiothlypis ruficapilla) feeding on a path but unable to take flight. It appeared right in front of us and at first I thought it had an injured wing. But when it turned its head, its eye was swollen shut. When I asked local birding expert, Ruth Glass, she said that it had probably hit its head on a window. When that happens, the brain can swell and they lose their ability to orient themselves. It was foraging on the ground and fluttered off into the tall grass. I include this just to ask that you do what you can to prevent such window collisions. Here’s a link from Cornell to get you started.

On a happier note, some small spring butterflies floated and fluttered near the prairie trails. I always wonder what criteria make them settle on one stem rather than another; much of their frantic fluttering seems aimless, but I doubt that it really is. I clearly don’t see what they do!

An orange flash in the grass made me think I was seeing my first Pearl Crescent, a common sight on summer days in our parks. But this mid-sized butterfly was an Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma). The upper (dorsal) side of both its forewings and hindwings are tawny orange with black spots. It was born last fall and is referred to as the “winter form”; it overwintered as an adult and will now mate and lay eggs. The caterpillars from those eggs will hatch around the Summer Solstice (June 21) and the offspring from that generation (referred to as the “summer form”) will still have orange forewings, but their hindwings will be much darker than this one.

An Eastern Comma sipping on an open dandelion bloom. It wintered over and will now seek a mate!

But look at the underside of this butterfly’s wings! The winter form Eastern Comma spends the cold months under tree bark or inside logs; that mottled brown design does a nice job of camouflage while they are hibernating, I would imagine.

The pattern on the underside of the Eastern Comma’s wings camouflages it during hibernation under tree bark.

A female Cabbage Butterfly (Pieris rapae) paused to sip at a dandelion, just as the Eastern Comma did. One good reason not to remove dandelions from your lawn in early spring is that native bees and butterflies benefit from the nectar of this non-native flower when few other blossoms are available. Male Cabbage Butterflies have one spot on their forewings; females have two.

A female Cabbage Butterfly benefits from the presence of dandelions.

A flash of lavender blue appeared in the grass – a Spring Azure (Celastrina ladon)! This little insect is only as big as your thumbnail. Its host plants (the ones on which it will lay eggs) include Wild Cherry, Flowering Dogwood, Gray Dogwood and Blueberries. This one didn’t stop long enough for anything but a photo of a blurry smudge of blue. So here’s the best photo I’ve ever gotten of one – only because it made the rare move of posing for a moment! If you see a blue blur flying by during July through September, that’s the Summer Azure (Celastrina neglecta), a different species.

The blue open wings of the tiny Spring Azure butterfly in a photo from 2015.

A surprise on the prairie was a Carolina Locust (Dissosteira carolina). I’ve never seen one this early in the year! Could it have rushed the season like the Green Frog? Usually the nymphs arrive when the weather is much warmer and this one appeared to have its wings which would indicate that it’s an adult. So I’m puzzled. Normally I would send this photo  to Dr. Gary Parsons, an insect specialist as Michigan State University – but I believe the university is closed during the pandemic. So if any reader has more information than I, please leave a comment to that effect. I love its beady eyes, but wonder if it survived the cold nights that followed.

The nymph of a Carolina Locust that hatched a bit earlier than it probably should have.

Restoring Complex, Nourishing, Chaotic Beauty

Draper Marsh, looking south toward Inwood Road

Farm fields can be so lovely in spring – neat rows of green as far as the eye can see taking the shape of a field’s rolling contours. But as I’ve watched the stewardship crew recreate the natural landscapes in our parks, I’ve come to love even more the glorious chaos of wild natural areas. Here at the eastern section of Draper Twin Lake Park, the fields of last year’s stalks once again host nesting Bluebirds and Tree Swallows, looking like shining bits of sky taking up residence in our midst. Turtles safely sally forth from the marsh mud to mate and warm their chilled shells in the pale spring sunlight. The dark water around the floating marsh hosts frogs, several jousting Red-winged Blackbird couples, and those ancient and elegant cranes. Weary avian travelers find respite, nourishment and for some, a place to raise their young. As years of invasive overgrowth are cleared, the old farm fields bloom with a rich array of native trees, grasses and wildflowers. Once again the marsh and the prairies take up their ancient role of providing shelter and nourishment to a whole and healthy community of wildness.  During this difficult time, restoration comforts and delights me – and many of you, too, I believe, since new visitors have recently explored our parks. Thanks for accompanying me, even at such a great social distance.

A Bevy of Migrators Discover the New Wetlands at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park

Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) are a common sight this spring at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park

While I spent late March and early April scouting out Watershed Ridge Park, the migrating birds –  and ducks especially – discovered the sparkling new wetlands at the 208 acre expansion of Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park. As part of this park’s restoration, the tiles that had drained the field while under agriculture were broken. Water began to naturally rise to the surface, recreating the wetlands that once acted as a refuge for wildlife. (For a brief description of this process, see an earlier blog on this park.) So this spring, weary migrators of all kinds began making the most of this new place to rest and forage. Some will spend the summer here raising young. Others relax for a few days and then head north on a strong south wind.

So this blog will be a bit different than others. Thanks to Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Stewardship Manager and Ruth Glass, a local expert birder of many years, I received a copious list of the ducks and other migrators that the two of them have already seen at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park this spring before I made my visits there. Though they watch and appreciate birds, they rarely take photos of them.

Some photos and all text
by Cam Mannino

A fine local photographer, Joan Bonin, who frequents this park occasionally, was kind enough to share some of her impressive photos with me. And I’ve supplemented my recent photos and hers with photos from the generous photographers at iNaturalist.org. So now, thanks to all of those helpers, I can share some of the wild life that’s visiting our newest natural area. The number of beautiful migrators and year ’round birds spotted at this park is dazzling.

[A note:  Visiting this new section of Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park is difficult right now, because there’s no parking lot and not much in the way of trails, just tire tracks encircling the fenced enclosure that contains the wetlands within the conservation easement held by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE, formerly DEQ.) But the Parks and Recreation Commission hopes to have a parking lot and some trails mowed by this summer. Meanwhile, consider exploring the original 60 acres that features the ravine itself and is accessible at the end of Knob Creek Drive. And if you visit the east expansion, please stay back from the wetlands so that you don’t flush the migrating waterfowl and shorebirds. We’ll let you know when this larger part of park is ready for prime time!]

Restore the Wetlands and They Will Come!

One of the large ponds that formed last autumn at Stony Creek Ravine when the drainage tiles installed years ago were crushed and the water rose again naturally.

It gladdens my heart to know that weary migrating ducks and shorebirds are gliding down from pale, spring skies to settle on these pools. Here are a few that Ben, Joan and Ruth saw. What a collection of special ducks!

American Wigeons floating in a restored wetland at Stony Creek Ravine Park.

The ducks floating inside the conservation easement in the photo above are American Wigeons (Mareca americana). Wigeons are dabbling ducks, as are all the ducks seen at the huge new expanse of Stony Creek Ravine this spring. I imagine that ducks must be able to gauge water depth from the air since we’ve yet to see any diving ducks, which require deeper water. Dabblers tip up, tails in the air, to forage beneath the water for grasses, mollusks, small crustaceans and insects. Unlike diving ducks, dabblers have legs positioned forward, which allows them to waddle and forage on the muddy edge and sometimes on dry land. The legs of diving ducks are positioned farther back on their bodies to provide more thrust for diving,  which means that walking on land is awkward at best for them.

American Wigeons have a short bill so they can pick grains off terrestrial plants as well as aquatic ones. Here’s a closeup shot from BJ Stacey at iNaturalist. Pretty jazzy green eye patch, eh? And I like the white bill and crown, which the Cornell Lab of Ornithology says is where they got the nickname “baldpate.” Hope I can remember that for ID purposes!

American Wigeons are dabbling ducks that can eat both under water and on land. Photo by BJ Stacey (CC BY-NC)

Ben alerted me to the presence of Green-winged Teal (Anas crecca) in the newly restored wetlands, but though I’ve visited the park several times, I’ve missed them! The bills of Green-winged Teals are edged with comb-like structures called lamellae. By dipping their beaks in the water or wet mud, they can strain out tadpoles, mollusks, crustaceans and such. Both Ben and Ruth spotted 14-16 of these small ducks in the easement ponds at various times this April.

Green-winged Teal strain food through comb-like structures on their bills. Photo by Philip Mark Osso (CC BY-NC) .  

It’s not surprising that a duck with the Latin genus name “Spatula” has a huge spoon-shaped bill! Look at the size of that bill on the Northern Shoveler (Spatula clypeata) below! They feed by swinging it from side to side in shallow water to sieve out creatures from the shallows. The male’s bill is black and the female’s orange. These migrators don’t stick around Michigan for the summer. Maps at the Cornell Lab show them heading northwest to breed in western Canada and Alaska or northeast to breed as far north as Maine or New Brunswick. Northern Shovelers may move south for the winter, but prefer cooler summers when raising young.

The Northern Shoveler is identified by its large spoon-shaped bill. Photo by Chris Butler at iNaturalist.org (CC BY-NC)

Blue-winged Teal (Anas discors) are tiny ducks that make long migrations.  Cornell Lab of Ornithology says they spend the winter either in the Caribbean, a likely destination for our Michigan population, or Central and South America for western populations. They usually arrive late in the spring and leave in early fall; Ruth saw some in mid-April at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park. Blue-winged Teal breed and rear their young in Michigan summers. The male’s white “paint stripe” behind the bill will be a field mark I’ll look for in the future, as well as sky-blue wing patches beneath their wings when they rise into the air. (Photo by Jaden at iNaturalist.org)

A tiny, long distance traveler, the Blue-winged Teal can breed in Michigan. Photo by Jaden at iNaturalist.org (CC BY-NC)

Champion bird spotter Ruth Glass also saw Gadwall (Mareca strepera) and American Black Ducks (Anas rubripes) among the flotillas at Stony Creek Ravine. Gadwall may escape notice from a distance, mistaken for your average brown female duck. But look at the beautifully intricate patterning on its breast and flank in the photo below! Cornell Lab reports that these sweet-looking ducks occasionally “snatch food from diving ducks as they surface.” Sneaky little ducks! They’ll head to northern Canada to breed. Glad they took some R&R with us!

The delicate pattern of its feathers sets the Gadwall apart from other ducks . Photo by Greg Lasley (CC BY-NC)

One of the ducks that Ruth Glass saw was not a migrator American Black Ducks  (Anas rubripes), according to the Cornell Lab, live here year ’round, but they are shy ducks and often mistaken for female mallards. They actually hybridize with Mallards so some have green patches on their heads. Hope I recognize them if I see some this summer!

American Black Ducks are often seen in the company of Mallards and are mistaken for mallard females. Photo by Joanne Redwood (CC BY-NC) at iNaturalist.org

Ruth and Ben finally spotted some shore birds in the conservation easement wetlands as well. Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes) love flooded fields so the shallow ponds are perfect for them. The feathers of  this shorebird were fashionable in the 19th century so their numbers declined. They  rebounded when hunting them was outlawed in the US and Canada in the early 20th century. Sadly though, they are in decline again because of the disappearance of wetlands. So hooray for Oakland Township’s Land Preservation Fund and the Natural Resources Trust Fund for enabling Parks and Recreation to acquire and protect this habitat that is so important to these birds!

Though tolerant of other shorebirds during migration, Lesser Yellowlegs fiercely defend their nests in northern Canada. (Photo by jdmanthey CC BY-NC)

Cornell Lab says that the Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca) is known for its strident alarm calls and will perch high in trees to keep a sharp eye out for nest predators. They migrate from Central America or the Caribbean to the boreal wetlands of northern Canada in order to breed. Its beak looks about as long as its legs! Other field marks include a longer, slightly upturned bill for foraging in deeper water and barring on the flanks that go much farther toward the tail. Pretty subtle differences, aren’t they?

The Greater Yellowlegs has a much longer bill than the Lesser Yellowlegs and wades into deeper water. (Photo by jdelaneynp CC BY-NC)

After having failed to see these two Yellowlegs several times at the park, I finally saw a lone one stalking around one of the shallow ponds near Snell Road and took a long distance shot through the fence. Ben and Ruth both guess that it’s a Greater Yellowlegs.  It’s easier to judge the two types of Yellowlegs when they are wading around together and the differences in their bill size, barring on their flanks and overall body bulk are more apparent.

A Yellowlegs foraging in a shallow wetland at Stony Creek Ravine.

And of course, the nattily-dressed Killdeer, a plover who likes a bit of mud at its feet, has taken up residence within the wetlands as well. Since these birds simply scratch out a depression in the soil to lay their eggs, the sparsely vegetated soil of the wetlands provides great habitat. I took this photo between the fence wires and the Killdeer with its large orange eyes paid me no mind.

Killdeers may be happy to nest  inside the protection of the  conservation fence near the water.

Ruth Glass’ Rare Sighting

Ruth Glass reported a rare bird in Stony Creek Ravine Park this spring – the Krider’s Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis kriderii). Some experts consider it a sub-species of the Red-tailed Hawk; the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and other experts identify it as a color morph of that more common hawk. Whatever, it is rare to see a Krider’s this far east in the United States! Ruth described its normal territory for me. “Krider’s breed on the northern Great Plains of Alaska and northwestern Canada, and winter on the southern Great Plains south to the Gulf Coast, and east into the Mississippi River Valley.” She observed it through her scope for part of an afternoon, but hasn’t seen it since, as it no doubt headed north. What a magnificent and lucky sighting! Here’s a closeup of a Krider’s by an iNaturalist photographer; Ruth said that it’s in very much the same pose and background as the one she saw.

A Krider’s Red-Tailed Hawk showed up for Ruth Glass at the park. A rare sight this far east! (Photo by Mark Greene at iNaturalist.org (CC BY-NC)

I saw two of our more common Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) riding a thermal high in the air on a sunny morning at the park. Bathed in the bright sunlight, one of them flew to the field where I was walking and  hung overhead, as if it were scoping me out. Glad I’m not a mouse or a chipmunk! Note its brown belly-band and brown head, unlike the Krider’s Red-tailed Hawk above.

“Snow Birds” of the Fields Also Find Their Way Here.

Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park also hosts a wide variety of upland birds which, like human “snow birds,” leave us behind in the autumn and return each spring. Ruth spotted a pair of  American Kestrels (Falco sparverius) hunting from atop the fence posts at the park. One afternoon, a monumental chase occurred in which one kestrel grabbed a vole in its talons and the other screamed as it chased its compatriot over the fields trying to snatch it away. Wish I had seen that. Glad Ruth did!

The American Kestrel is our country’s smallest falcon. Photo by Pablo H. Capovilla at iNaturalist.org (CC BY-NC)

The Brown Thrasher (Toxostoma rufum) also dropped in at Stony Creek Ravine Park.  Ruth loves these birds as much as I do. As she says, “They are such a fun bird! As a close cousin of the Mockingbird, the strangest noises come out of them, including: cell phone beeps and rings, car alarms, sirens, scolding noises, many other birds’ songs, etc.” She took a lovely photo of one through her scope at Stony Creek Ravine Park.

Brown Thrashers are great imitators of noises as well as other birds’ songs. Photo by Ruth Glass with permission

Ruth can identify minor differences between sparrows – and their songs! This month at Stony Creek Ravine, she came across two that are rare sightings for me. I’ve never identified the Vesper Sparrow (Pooecetes gramineus). Though it can be heard in the early morning, its name refers to its evensong at twilight. Looking through binoculars, the field marks for this little sparrow are a thin eye ring and a tiny chocolate-colored patch at the top of its wing.

The Vesper Sparrow sings even as it gets dark, hence its lovely name. Photo by Bryan Box (CC BY-NC)

The Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis) loves grassy meadows, the denser the better; they build their nests on the ground amid deep thatch left by last year’s stems. I wonder if the one Ruth saw a few weeks ago will nest at Stony Creek Ravine; a lot of the land was cleared to create the conservation area. According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Savannah Sparrows are very common – but I’ve only seen this striped sparrow with the yellow patch around its eye twice. Here’s my photo from Draper Twin Lake Park in 2018.

A field mark for the Savannah Sparrow is the yellow patch in front of the eye.

One Sunday afternoon, my husband and I watched the flight of a returning Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) who settled onto a tree limb. Herons normally nest in rookeries so I’ve no idea where this one will settle into its communal nursery. I was just glad that it had a good long look at Stony Creek Ravine from its perch at the edge of the trees north of the wetland enclosure. Amazing how such a large bird can look so tiny against that lovely dark woods!

A Great Blue Heron perched in a tree beyond the north edge of the conservation easement  

Ruth arrived high on the Outlook Point between the restored wetlands at dusk to see the mating flight of the American Woodcock (Scolopax minor). She tells me she’s seen three of these “timberdoodles!” I finally got a good look at one last year when Ben held his annual Earth Day Woodcock event, sadly cancelled this year due to the need for social distancing. At dusk, this oddly-shaped bird makes a buzzing beep, sounding  a bit like the cartoon Road Runner. Then it sails high up in the darkening sky, spirals down and lands right where it took off. Quite a courtship ritual! I’ve scared them up right from under my feet at least three times in various parks, but with no chance for a photo. Fortunately iNaturalist photographer Ty Smith was luckier than I was.

Woodcocks are known for their dramatic spiral mating dance performed high in the sky at dusk. (Photo by Ty Smith (CC BY-NC)

My trips to Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park this month have given me a chance to welcome back a couple of my favorite sparrows. The Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) with its pinkish beak and feet showed up for me about 10 days ago. The males sing their bouncing ball song all over the park right now. Maybe the shy, quiet one that my camera caught (left below)was a female. The male Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) tirelessly repeated his courting song that ends in a quick buzz or trill. And as always, he accommodated me by sitting on a perch in the open and ignoring my presence completely. [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

Here’s just a sampling of the variety of birds that the four of us – Ben, Ruth, Joan and I – have enjoyed in Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park this month. Such abundance –  and I’m sure we’ve not yet seen all there is to see!

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With Apologies to John Donne: No Creature is an Island…

Old Oak at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park

I must admit that at first it felt a bit odd using so many photos by other people in this blog. Usually the observations and photos are mostly mine. But it’s occurred to me that it’s somehow fitting to be supported by others’ efforts in this season and during this hair-raising global pandemic. In early spring, the bird world is busy with all kinds of cooperation. Migrating birds often travel in large flocks for safety and to find the habitats they need. Mating birds work cooperatively in building and protecting nests. And in the human sphere, we’ve become conscious during the virus outbreak of how much we depend on the assistance of others – all the workers in hospitals, grocery stores, police and fire departments, pharmacies, research labs as well as teachers,  journalists and parents working from home. So perhaps it’s appropriate that the observant eyes and photography skills of others are central in this week’s blog. My thanks to Ruth Glass, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, Joan Bonin and all the generous photographers who share their work on iNaturalist. And my gratitude, too, to the Oakland Township Parks and Recreation Commissioners and staff who worked for years to preserve this special natural area for the benefit of all of us – and more importantly for the wildlife and plant life that sustain us every day in so many ways.

And now to John Donne’s meditation on community written in 17th century England, another time and place of plagues:

“No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.”

2019 Natural Areas Stewardship Annual Report

What can we say? With your continued support we continued to care for the land and water in our township parks. You can read the summary below and the linked report, but to really see what we did in 2019, here are a few spots to put on your hike list for this spring and summer:

  • Bear Creek Nature Parkwe cleared dense stands of invasive shrubs north of the center pond, and along Bear Marsh.
  • Charles Ilsley Park – the prairies continue to look good, and the new connector trail on the west side winds through meadows, past ponds, and through peaceful woodland.
  • Draper Twin Lake Park – the planted prairie in the northeast corner is looking good after its fourth growing season, and forestry mowing has knocked back invasive shrubs around the kettle wetland just to the south of the prairie.
  • Gallagher Creek Park – we installed a big native plant landscaping area around the new playground.
  • Stony Creek Ravine Nature Parkwe added 208 acres to the original 60 acres. Wetland restorations are already in full swing, with plans in motion to plant the farm fields to native wildflowers, grasses, and sedges in the next 3-5 years.

Check out the highlights of the year below, or read the full 2019 Annual Stewardship Report. (Click link to view). The table of contents in the PDF is hyperlinked to help you navigate the report.

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A beautiful fall day in the wooded wetland near Cranberry Lake.

Volunteer Program

Volunteers contributed 1284 hours in 2019! Volunteer workdays focused on garlic mustard (May), invasive shrub control (July to November), and seed collecting (October). Volunteers also monitored nest boxes at Bear Creek Nature Park, Draper Twin Lake Park, Charles Ilsley Park, and the Paint Creek Trail; monitored vernal pools at Bear Creek Nature Park; and monitored water quality at Lost Lake and Twin Lake. We had fun at summer and winter potlucks!

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Alex installs a new nest box at Bear Creek Nature Park

We continued the nest box monitoring program, expanding to Bear Creek Nature Park with six new boxes. We added predator guard to all the boxes. Thanks to our volunteers who monitor the next boxes using the Cornell Lab of Ornithology NestWatch protocols!

Stewardship Blog

The stewardship blog continued to thrive, with regular posts from Cam Mannino. The seasonal technicians also wrote weekly posts about recent stewardship work. We published 47 posts (+2 from 2018) and had 8378 visitors (+2145), with 14,776 page views (+3032).

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Education Events

Stewardship talks included presentations on New Zealand Mud Snails, monarch butterfly ecology and conservation, coyotes, and bird nest box monitoring. We enjoyed a pleasant April evening at our annual Woodcock Watch at Bear Creek Nature Park. We also held weekly bird walks every Wednesday morning.

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Dr. Nate Haan from Michigan State University talks about Monarch butterfly ecology and conservation.

Phragmites Outreach Program

We continued the Phragmites Outreach Program to help township residents get Phragmites treated on their property. We received about 31 requests for no-obligation cost estimates, and treated about 26 properties with a contractor, PLM Lake and Land Management.

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Phragmites does not recognize property boundaries! Catch your Phragmites while it is small and easy to control for the best results.

Stewardship Staff

Alex Roland graduated from Michigan State University in May 2018 with a degree in environmental biology/zoology. In 2018 she completed an internship with the Student Conservation Association in Idaho doing backcountry conservation work, and she previously served as a Stewardship Coordinator Intern for the Thumb Land Conservancy. Grant Vander Laan graduated from Calvin College in 2019 with a bachelor’s degree in biology. He previously worked as a land management fellow for Pierce Cedar Creek Institute and as an Ecosystem Preserve Steward for Calvin College.  Marisa Kaddis has been a life-long resident of Oakland County and had just completed her first year of study in Natural Resources Management at Grand Valley State University. Marisa’s dream is to study tropical rainforest ecology and endangered species restoration.

Alyssa Winters (Radzwion) continued as the Stewardship Specialist until August, when she took a full-time position with the Blue Water Conservation District. Grant Vander Laan applied for the Stewardship Specialist position, was offered the job, and accepted the position to continue his work in October.

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The 2019 Natural Areas Stewardship Staff (L-R): Ben, Alyssa, Marisa, Grant, and Alex

All of our annual reports can be found on the About page.