Draper Twin Lake Park (Eastern Portion): A Rainbow of Butterflies, Fledglings Foraging and a Golden Prairie

The Northern Prairie on the east side of Draper Twin Lake Park in July

In June, the prairie pictured above at Draper Twin Lake Park was a sea of white Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) and Ox-eye Daisies (Leucanthemum vulgaris) dotted with golden Sand Coreopsis (Coreopsis lancelolata). Today, as you can see, it is carpeted in the bright yellow of Gray-headed Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata). Such a remarkable transformation in only one month! (You’ll want to park near the small garage at 1181 Inwood Road to visit the east side of Draper Twin Lake Park.)

Text and photos by
Cam Mannino

Last week Ben VanderWeide, our township’s Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, had to mow large sections of the golden prairie to prevent seed production in the invasive and aggressive Spotted Knapweed (Centaurea stoebe). We hope the mowing will reduce knapweed abundance and give native plants a competitive edge as they continue to fill in throughout the field. The prairie, though, is still a beautiful sight since it signals the return to our parks of graceful native wildflowers and grasses that sway in a summer breeze.

Native Canada Wild Rye nods and sways within the gold of the Draper prairie.

Native Wildflowers Invite An Abundance of Butterflies

The more our prairies are restored, the more they attract a whole panoply of colorful butterflies. Giant Swallowtails (Papilio cresphontes) seem to be everywhere this summer. It may be that our hot July has encouraged more of them than usual to migrate up from the south to breed. And once they arrive, our prairies provide generously for them. This huge butterfly flutters constantly while feeding, though it floats elegantly between flowers, beating its wings briefly and then gliding along.

The Giant Swallowtail flutters constantly while feeding though it is an elegant flyer.

An Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) swooped out of a patch of Plumeless Thistle (Carduus acanthoides) and soared across the prairie.  I believe the blue spots at the bottom of the wings mean it was a female. I never noticed before that they have such a fancy striped body!

An Eastern Tiger Swallowtail female exits from a stand of Field Thistle.

Red-spotted Purples (Limenitis arthemis) love open areas on forest edges, which makes the prairie at Draper Twin Lake Park a perfect habitat. Their blue/black appearance makes them easy to confuse with Black or Spicebush Swallowtail butterflies. The big difference is that all Swallowtails are so called because of the characteristic drooping points at the bottom of the hind wings. Red-spotted Purples have scalloped hind wings but no “swallowtails.” (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

A small Viceroy (Limenitis archippus) butterfly landed on a Queen Anne’s Lace flower (Daucus carota) in front of the birding group.  Mike Kent, a fellow birder, slowly and gently extended his finger and this little one climbed right on. A few moments after this photo, it started “tasting” his skin with its long proboscis! Quite a magical moment!

A Viceroy butterfly climbs onto a birder’s finger from a nearby bloom.

A few smaller butterflies and other flying insects are fluttering across the prairie this summer. The Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma) is an early spring arrival and looks a bit battered by now.

An Eastern Comma that looks a bit battered!

The tiny white Carrot Seed Moth (Sitochroa palealis) is a non-native from Europe who, consequently, sips on many non-native European plants like Queen Anne’s Lace or here on non-native Spotted Knapweed. Thanks to Dwayne Badgero on the Butterflying Michigan Facebook page for identifying this one for me.

The Carrot Seed Moth is a non-native who feeds largely, though not exclusively, on non-native plants like the spotted knapweed shown here.

I saw the lovely American Copper (Lycaena phlaeas) on the Draper prairie earlier in the season, but never got a shot.  The photo below is one I took at Cranberry Lake Park.

I saw an American Copper on the prairie, but this photo was taken at Cranberry Lake.

This juvenile male Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa) has a faint white band on its wing which will get bolder as it matures. Also, its abdomen will slowly develop a white covering. The adult females have no white band and keep the darker abdomen with the golden stripes.

The juvenile male Widow Skimmer has a faint white wing band that will be more noticeable when it matures.

Carolina Locust (Dissosteira carolina) used its stiff wings to fly up onto a Gray-headed Coneflower as the birders walked by.

A Carolina Locust grasps a Gray-headed Coneflower.

Hard-working Bird Parents are Busy Feeding the Young

On entering the eastern side of Draper Twin Lake Park last Sunday, my husband and I heard a clamor in a snag (standing dead tree) on the eastern edge of the field. A large band of Barn Swallow youngsters (Hirundo rustica) were hanging out together, a few still being quickly fed by their parents.  Stokes’ Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol. 2) explains. “Often groups of juveniles from first broods gather into flocks and feed and perch together.” We counted over 20 in or near the snag at the same time. Later that same week, Ben reported having 50 or more Barn Swallows flying right next to him and his mower as he worked on the prairie. Very social birds! Young Barn Swallows have shorter, rounder tails, rather than the longer, deeply forked ones of their parents. (Use pause button if time is needed for captions.)

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Two larger fledglings appeared on the trail between the marsh and parking area. They hopped along the edge, pecking at the earth in a desultory fashion, but repeatedly stared up longingly into the trees. We didn’t recognize them at first. Then my husband noticed a sharp clicking in the trees and we suddenly spotted an adult Brown Thrasher (Toxostoma rufum) moving stealthily through leafy branches overhead. Aha! These were two juvenile Thrashers out practicing their foraging skills! The telltale field marks are the light colored heads, scalloped backs and gray (rather than yellow) eyes.

Brown Thrasher adults are notoriously hard to see. On Sunday, the adult stayed hidden in tangled bushes, vines and leafy branches, as Thrashers most often do. But after a frustrating few minutes, the annoyed adult emerged and demonstrated his displeasure at our proximity to its young with a yellow-eyed glare and a wild tail display!

The adult Brown Thrasher show his irritation at our presence with a fantastic tail display.

In spring, high in the treetops, Brown Thrasher males sing their wildly variable song, made by mimicking Flickers, the Tufted Titmouse, the Cardinal and others. And that click we heard overhead on Sunday was an alarm/warning call that both Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Stokes’ Guide describe as sounding like a smacking kiss! And it does! Listen to both the creative chaos of the song and smack! call at this Cornell link.

Restoring Our Natural Heritage in So Many Ways

Donna Perkins, a birder and one of our volunteer nest box monitors, waist deep in goldenrod on a summer morning.

The hard work of Ben VanderWeide and his crew in clearing, seeding and tending the natural areas of our township is paying off magnificently. Just as expected, the wildflowers and grasses flourish when given the opportunity. And as they return to their former glory, back come the butterflies, the grasshoppers, the dragonflies, and the bees. And after them, we hope, may come more of the prairie birds that used to live with us, like the Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna), Henslow’s Sparrow (Ammodramus henslowii), and perhaps even the long absent Northern Bob-White (Colinus virginianus). Already less common prairie birds, like the Savannah Sparrow  (Passerculus sandwichensis) which I saw earlier this summer at Draper Twin Lake Park, are looking for mates as they ride the stems of prairie plants.

Ben’s stewardship program is also helping to restore bird populations and providing citizen science data by setting up nesting boxes in two parks and along the Paint Creek trail. The volunteers who monitor these boxes watched multiple broods of Eastern Bluebirds, Tree Swallows, House Wrens and Black-capped Chickadees go from egg to fledgling just this year.

Birders on a Wednesday morning in July at Draper Twin Lake Park.

And let’s not forget us humans. We’re also out in the our parks more these days! As Ben, his crew and volunteers restore our colorful prairies, people come out to enjoy the natural areas that township residents have been committed to preserving and protecting for many years. Our birding group has grown consistently year by year, exploring and recording bird sightings for Cornell’s eBird citizen science program even on the coldest winter, the rainiest spring and the warmest summer mornings. The schedule is under “Events” at the top of the page. Please come join us! Ben will even lend you binoculars. We’re restoring ourselves as well while we preserve, protect, and delight in our small green corner of the world.

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: inaturalist.org; Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels, A Guide to Bird Behavior Vols.1-3 by Donald W and Lillian Q.Stokes, and others as cited in the text.

Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park: Busy, Sunlit Meadows and Moist, Mysterious Shade

The west branch of Stony Creek runs through a steep ravine visible. You can see the creek from the trail that runs along a ridge high above the creek.

If you’d like a short, quiet walk all alone (I do occasionally), consider wandering for an hour or so in Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park. This 60 acre park is a bit  farther off the beaten path than our other township parks; I seldom see another hiker when I’m there. For now, it’s only accessible from a single parking space at the end of Knob Creek Trail which is off of East Buell Road. It’s an in-and-out trail (no loop) that begins in sloping, glacial meadows. Follow the trail into an oak forest overlooking a deep ravine in which Stony Creek burbles and flows around fallen trees and rocks far below. The Parks Commission has been awarded a matching grant from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund to join this little park to 208 spectacular acres along Snell Road. But for now, it’s a quiet little getaway.

Exiting a small woods at the start, the trail winds up through sunny meadows to the dark oak forest.

Sunny Meadows:  Illusive Birds and a Big, Beautiful Butterfly!

The meadows along the first part of the trail are alive with morning birdsong – but seeing the birds is a bit tricky, especially in July. Many adults are hidden high in leafy branches and the recently fledged young huddle deep in the lower greenery, staying out of sight as they wait to be fed. My first sighting was a small flock of tiny brown birds moving quickly back and forth between a leafy bush and a small, dense tree. Suddenly I became aware that my camera and I were being scolded by an annoyed adult House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) perched behind me. (For a perfect replication of its chatter, listen to the second “Calls Northern” recording at this Cornell Lab link.)

An adult wren scolds its young into hiding and scolds me as well!

No doubt its chatter also served as a warning to the fledglings to hide. But eventually a curious fledgling popped into the open and had a look around. It looked like a plush toy with tiny wings! (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

Far out in the meadow in a tall, bare tree against a gray sky, the Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) threw back his head and sang. He abbreviated his spring song from “Drink your Teeeeeea” to simply “Your Teeeeea.” Just a reminder to other towhees, I imagine, that he was on his territory.

An Eastern Towhee belts out his song high in a bare tree above the meadow.

Wherever Bee-balm (Monarda fistulosa) and Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) grace a meadow, it seems the butterflies gather to sip their nectar.

In the same meadow in which it appeared last year, the Giant Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio cresphontes) floated above the flowers. The largest butterfly species in Canada or the United States (4-6 inch wingspread!), the Giant Swallowtail can beat its wings once and sail on gracefully for a long distance. However, it flutters constantly as it feeds, rather than landing to sip at blossoms. These swallowtails migrate like Monarch butterflies do – going south each winter. The females are larger than the males, so the one below must be a female. Perhaps her wings against the Queen Anne’s Lace give you a sense of how large – and how striking – she is!   

Male and female Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus) are choosing both mates and tasty flowers as they dip and rise among the Bee-balm at Stony Creek.  The male has a slight bulge in one vein of each hindwing.  The female doesn’t.

A female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) soared high overhead, landing in a Wild Black Cherry tree  (Prunus serotina), a host plant on which her caterpillars can feed. She may have landed to lay her eggs on a leaf or she could be displaying her beauty and availability against the green leaves  for any interested mate. Tiger Swallowtails in our area mate once or twice each summer and their pupae overwinter in their chrysalises until next spring.

A female Tiger Swallowtail lands on a Wild Black Cherry tree that could act as a host plant for her caterpillars.

Far below, deep in the grass, a Cabbage Butterfly (Pieris rapae) landed on a grass stem. For the first time, I noticed the delicate architecture of the underside of its wings – and its long elegant antennae. Males have only a single spot on the fore and hind wing, so I think this is a male.

A Cabbage butterfly displays the intricate architecture on the ventral (lower) side of its forewing.

A curious predator, a female Common Whitetail Dragonfly (Plathemis lydia), watched me from a grass stem with great interest. Humans, after all, are so good at stirring up prey – easy pickings!  Love that face!

A female Common Whitetail dragonfly looks eagerly for prey stirred up by my passage.

The Moist Woods:  A Fungus Fatale, a Pretty but Perilous Plant and A Mysterious Song in the Trees

Water Hemlock where the forest ends at the bottom of Stony Creek Ravine

Entering the cooler shade of the oak forest at Stony Creek Ravine, you begin to feel the moisture rising from the creek as it tumbles along far below. On my first park visit, it had rained the previous day so the ground seemed to exhale moisture as well. A perfect environment for mushrooms – and some very interesting ones! [Caution:  Please Never Eat a Wild Mushroom Unless a Trained Person Identifies It Definitively for You.  I Am Not a Trained Person.}

I first came across some fungi fatale – Amanita mushrooms (family Amanitaceae). Though squirrels nibble on them, they are highly toxic to humans. They are sometimes (not always!) recognizable by little warts on their surface and a collar that forms on the stem. Here are two just beginning to emerge from the soil on the path and a lovely mature white one, slipping out of a crack in the earth.

A maturing toxic Amanita mushroom

Small red mushrooms appeared along the woodland trail as well. Joshua Aaron on the  “Mushroom Identification” Facebook page identified these as members of a large worldwide genus of red mushrooms called Russula. Some are toxic, some not, so again caution is required.  Clearly some creatures gave these a nibble and decided to leave the rest.

Both Amanita and Russula mushrooms are fruiting bodies of those fabulous mycorrhizal fungi which help the trees reach and process nutrients from the soil while the tree feeds them its sugars created by photosynthesis. Helping a healthy forest along is another good reason to let them stay where they are and reproduce!

It turns out that a nearby plant, Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora),  which appears to be a mushroom, isn’t one. It’s more unusual –  a parasitic plant. Indian Pipes have no chlorophyll to use in photosynthesis like green plants do. Instead they tap into fungi, like Russula mushrooms, beneath the soil, feeding on the same sugars that the trees share with the fungi. It’s not too different from the way we tap maples for their sweet sap, is it?

Indian Pipe is a parasitic plant that feeds off fungi beneath the soil.

Nearby grew what folks at the Facebook page identified as Chanterelle mushrooms (genus Chantarellus), which, assuming that’s correct, would make them edible. I left them to disperse their spores undisturbed in the interests of both safety and respecting the natural state of our parks. One had fallen over so I got a good look at its fake gills, which are one of the signs of Chanterelles.

A Chanterelle mushroom with its fake gills on the stalk.

A couple of Bolete mushrooms had emerged among the oak leaves along the trail. These mushrooms (family Boletaceae) have pores below their caps instead of gills. They also belong to  a big mushroom group that includes both inedible and edible ones. Porcini mushrooms, for example, are boletes.

A bolete mushroom with pores beneath its cap rather than gills.

Walking along the ridge above the creek, I could hear a lone bird singing in the canopy of the oak forest – but it made no appearance.  I recorded its incessantly repeated song which reminded Ben and I of the rising and falling song of the Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus) – but we’re not sure. Anyone able to give us a more confident identification? (Turn up your volume; it sings about three times.) [Second Edit:  Ruth Glass, local birder extraordinaire, now says definitively that this is the song of a Scarlet Tanager.  So I’ve again replaced the photo to show you a Scarlet Tanager. Thank you once again Ruth Glass!]

Although its song accompanied me for over an hour, the bird never emerged from the leafy treetops. So here’s what I missed – a photo of a Scarlet Tanager that I took at Bear Creek.

The Scarlet Tanager that I evidently heard but didn’t see. This is a photo from Bear Creek in previous years.

A plaintive song haunted the shady forest one morning – the questioning call of the Eastern Wood-Pewee. I could see this small bird in the high branches of a distant tree, but as soon as I moved closer, it moved farther off. So here’s a photo I took of one at Bear Creek Nature Park a couple years ago.

The Eastern Wood-Pewee sounds like it’s asking a question: “Pee-weeeeee?”

What seemed to be a juvenile Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolorhung from a vertically suspended branch in the forest. Its forehead patch (between the eyes)  was gray rather than black (hard to see in the photo) and its buff sides were less pronounced – field marks of a fledgling according to Stokes’ Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.2). With its crest a bit ruffled, it looked as though it was not quite sure what to do next.

A young Tufted Titmouse considers its next move at the edge of the woods.

On one warm morning, I noticed two Mourning Cloak Butterflies (Nymphalis antiopa) dancing through the green dimness of the woods. Last fall, Morning Cloaks went into hibernation within hollow logs or under loose bark. There they freeze nearly solid during the winter, their cells protected by self-produced anti-freeze. Very early in the spring, often before the snow melts, they emerge, looking pretty ragged. They mate and reproduce so that by mid-summer, their young emerge. I’m guessing that’s why the ones I saw at Stony Creek Ravine appeared to have just wriggled out of their chrysalises. They were near perfect specimens. One landed, wings open, on a fallen log.

A fresh-from-the-chrysalis Mourning Cloak butterfly on a fallen log.

The other folded its wings, showing the underside  which closely resembles the tree bark under which they hide in the winter, camouflaging them with protective coloration. Quite a difference from the dorsal (upper) side of those wings, eh?

The underside of the wings of the Mourning Cloak provide great camouflage against tree bark.

Native grasses and plants thrive in the light, drier shade along the edge of the forest. I’m particularly fond of the arrow-like spikelets of Bottlebrush Grass (Elymus hystrix). Carrying their seeds inside, the spikelets eventually shoot along on the wind and then pierce the ground, giving the seeds a chance to spread and then be neatly planted.

Bottlebrush Grass has spikelets neatly arranged along its stem, giving the impression of a bottle brush.

Native Heal-all (Prunella vulgaris) is everywhere in shady areas. Some still believe it has medicinal value. I  like it for two reasons – the way its purple flowers protrude from its barrel-shaped calyx and the fact that when a raindrop hits the plant, the calyx flexes and flings out the seed.  I hope to see that someday!

Each little flower of Heal-all makes four tiny seeds that are flung away from the plant when hit by a raindrop.

Where the forest ends and the wetlands begin at the bottom of the ravine, a flower fatale flourishes – Water Hemlock (g. Circuta). Every part of this plant is toxic to humans and other mammals (but as I’ve said before, who would eat it?) – so avoid the fate of Socrates and just admire its big, umbrella-shaped blossoms nodding in the breeze. Many insects, however, feed on Water Hemlock, and it hosts the caterpillars of Black Swallowtail butterflies!

Water Hemlock grows in the ravine with big umbrella-shaped blossoms. While toxic to mammals, this plants helps us enjoy more Black Swallowtail butterflies!

An iridescent cloud of male and female Ebony Jewelwing Damselflies (Calopteryx maculata) darted in and out of the shadows near the creek. These predators of many species are also the prey of many. So thank goodness these beautiful creatures lay lots of eggs!

Nearby in patches of sunlight grew golden stands of a lovely wetland flower called Fringed Loosestrife (Lysimachia ciliata). This native wildflower modestly bows its blossoms toward the wet soil waiting for a Melittid bee to come along. These native bees specialize on this flower, feeding its oils and pollens to its larvae. Fringed Loosestrife can also spread by rhizomes beneath the soil.

Fringed Loosestrife loves “wet feet” and partial shade. It blooms in sunnier patches near the edge of Stony Creek.

If you turn up your volume, perhaps you can hear the babble of Stony Creek as it finds it way over stones in the ravine. Such a soothing sound. But you don’t need to traverse the steep sides of the ravine and get wet feet. You can simply rest on the high ridge where the trail ends and watch the water sparkle as the creek rounds a graceful curve right below you. Combined with the birdsong in the treetops, the whispering of summer leaves, and the flutter of butterfly wings, you should walk back out of this little park feeling a bit more mellow than when you walked in.

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: inaturalist.org; Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels, A Guide to Bird Behavior Vols.1-3 by Donald W and Lillian Q.Stokes, and others as cited in the text.

Photos of the Week: Hungry Fledglings and Prairies Bursting with Color

Mid-summer on the Eastern Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park

The north and east prairies at Charles Ilsley Park get more glorious each summer as restoration brings the return of colorful wildflowers blooming again in their native soil. Great sweeps of Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) stare  up into the blue sky surrounded by the tousled, lavender blossoms of Bee-balm (Monarda fistulosa) and flat, compact cushions of white Yarrow (Achillea millefolium).

Sweeps of Black-eyed Susans intermingle with Bee Balm and Yarrow on the Eastern Prairie

 Tall Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) sway in even the slightest breeze.

Yellow Coneflowers tower over the carpet of color on the Eastern Prairie at Ilsley.

The peaceful  beauty of these undulating prairies on a summer afternoon is mesmerizing. The nodding dance of flowers and the flutter of butterflies among them soothe the spirit much like the sight and sound of a peaceful ocean –  but with such a variety of color and movement! Wonderful!

Last Sunday along the entrance trail, young Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) perched high on a dead branch, waiting to be fed. They begged in the usual fledgling fashion, fluttering their small wings rapidly and calling. Finally, a parent arrived (lower left in the photo below), settled and seemed to be considering which to feed first.

Then the adult swooped out across the meadow, gathering insects in its open beak. It returned and managed a short mid-air pause, beating its wings vigorously as it speedily popped food into one of the open beaks.

Then off went mom or dad again to scoop up more bugs! Such a challenging job to feed all four of those hungry youngsters! (One is behind the lowest branch.)

In the center of the park, where restoration planting happened just weeks ago, the melt ponds are drying up, leaving a strange, foamy surface. Water is so crucial for wildlife that it’s always a reliable spot to find something interesting.

A slim bird that I believe was a young Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus), with its naturally worried look, poked along the edge of the pond.  The Stokes’ Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol 2) describes juvenile Killdeer as “very similar to adults except that their upper feathers are margined with lighter edges, their dark neck bands are narrower and often gray or brown instead of black.” I think this one fits that description. Do you agree? Once the young are ready to be on their own, their parents breed again. But the male keeps an eye on the youngsters from the first brood from a distance, while the female incubates the new eggs.

A young Killdeer was not quite as adept at finding food yet. Its parent may feed it as evening comes on.

Two fledgling Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis), with just a touch of blue on their wings,  watched the killdeer from a small, bare tree nearby. No foraging for them right then. Perhaps they were hoping a parent would come to stuff their beaks like the swallows, but at the moment, no such luck. Like the Killdeer adults, their busy parents may also be encouraging their first brood to feed on their own while the adults start a second. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

Some adult birds hung out near the pond as well. A Green Heron (Butorides virescens) was so intent on feeding that it flew toward us to find some open water.

This heron was a skilled fisher! It found a bounty of food in the drying pond. Watch below as it stalks and then catches what appears to be a crayfish nymph. (Use the pause button if you need more time for captions.)

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The fiercely territorial Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) looked remarkably unruffled by the other species exploring the resources of the pond below. And nearby in a tree at the edge of the center field, an adult Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) looked as though it must have been preening vigorously since its feather were very ruffled! Drat those feather mites!

Summer turned into an unusually busy time for me this year. So I relish escaping into our parks, where I can watch young birds learn the ropes of feeding, or just quietly enjoy the way Yellow Coneflowers sway above a multi-colored prairie. I recommend it to you as a peaceful alternative to a day at the beach.

Bear Creek Park: Eggs to Fledglings, Caterpillars to Butteflies, Everything Just Keeps Growing!

 

Spiderwort, a native wildflower, blooms in profusion even in the garden at the center of the parking lot at Bear Creek Nature Park!

June is an easy month to love. In the early weeks, May’s buds transformed into blooms. Turtles and dragonflies emerged from the ponds. Butterfly and grasshopper eggs hatched into caterpillars and tiny nymphs. May migrators and some year-round birds completed their nests and were busily laying eggs.

Cam at Tree Swallow nest box. Photo by V. Morganti

And then came really warm days – or even some very hot days this year! –  and by the end of the month, life had quickly moved on. The spring blooms produced their seeds and subsided as the summer flowers began to emerge. Bees buzz along the trails. Dragonflies dominate the open meadows and wetlands. Damselflies, like colorful, winged sticks, pause briefly by the pond and other strange flying creatures hunt in the shade. The fledglings emerge from nests, awkward and downy, begging to be fed by exhausted parents. So much to see that I find myself rushing from park to park, trying not to miss anything! So here’s just a selection of what came my way at Bear Creek Nature Park during the first month of summer.

Early to Mid-June:  Brave Beginnings

The Bear Creek Wetlands in Early June

So much happens near the wetlands as summer begins. Two nests graced either side of the viewing deck at the Center Pond. On the west side, high above the water, a Baltimore Oriole’s (Icterus galbula) carefully woven sack swayed with every breeze, rocking either the female brooding her eggs or a cuddle of nestlings with every breeze. While we birders watched one Wednesday morning, the female arrived at the nest and disappeared into it, followed by the attentive male. This lovely photo of the male arriving at the nest was taken by Ewa Mutzenmore, a member of our group.

The male Baltimore Oriole arrives at the nest. Photo by E. Mutzenmore of the birding group.

He gave us the eye as he leaned in to feed either his brooding mate or perhaps their nestlings.

The male Oriole keeping an eye on the camera.

And then, tail up, evidently unfazed, he proceeded to stuff foraged insects into a waiting beak below.

Tail up, the male oriole feeds his nestlings or his mate who arrived before him.

Ewa, whose Oriole photo is above, mentioned having seen a very large Northern Water Snake  (Nerodia sipedon) swimming away at the pond when she was there last and suddenly Ben VanderWeide, our Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, spotted it! Its long, thick body was wound around the branches of a willow bush just west of the dock. Though not venomous, I wouldn’t advise picking one up or harassing it; it will bite and spray you with musk to defend itself. Unfortunately, Ewa and I both could only come up with a photo of parts of its winding body; it just didn’t move a muscle. But here’s a link where you can see a photo of its dark brown head. The birds are evidently safe from it, though fish,frogs, and salamanders better beware!

The body of a large, but non-venomous, Northern Water Snake wound into a bush limb near the Center Pond.

As I approached the pond on a later afternoon, another impressive predator rose like a submarine from the silvery pond.  A large Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) up-periscoped to check me out.  Isn’t their snout a curious shape?  It’s more important to be cautious around Snappers when they’re on land than in the water, because they do bite if threatened and have extremely long necks. And generally, they’re on land to lay eggs.

The head of a female Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) popped out of the bushes for a look around before she winged down and disappeared into her nest in a small tree just east of the dock. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

 

Over in the playground pond, a tiny (about silver-dollar-sized!) Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta) climbed onto a log for probably one of its first basks in a spot of sunlight.

A silver-dollar-sized Painted Turtle learns the fine art of sun basking.

As I approached the dock one cloudy day, a lone male Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) stood forlornly gazing out at the water from a floating log, not a mate in sight.  When he heard my approach, his beautiful head twisted toward me with a  stare that implied he’d prefer to be alone. Then he dropped into the water and glided away.

A lone, male Mallard notices me with some misgivings about my presence.

When he departed, a much tinier male landed on the dock, the Dot-tailed Whiteface Dragonfly (Leucorrhinia intacta), whose name says it all!  I get a huge kick out of his Mickey Mouse-style face.

A male Dot-tailed Whiteface looks for prey or a mate at the edge of the Center Pond dock.

At Draper Twin Lake Park a few weeks ago, I’d seen the female Dot-tailed Whiteface, who is more elegant, if less amusing.

A female Dot-tailed Whiteface dragonfly near the marsh at Draper Twin Lake park.

And one Sunday morning, while scanning Bear Creek marsh, I heard the unmistakable whinnying call of a Sora (Porzana carolina), a bird that tends to be heard and not seen. This secretive bird is evidently abundant according to Cornell Ornithology Lab, but likes to stay hidden deep in the cattails and reeds. Looking at this photo by inaturalist.org photographer by Mike Baird, you’d never guess that such a chunky bird with stubby wings had migrated here from Central or South America! And check out those feet!

A Sora as photographed by a gifted and generous photographer on iNaturalist.org, Mike Baird. (CC BY)

Several strangely beautiful insects shelter or hunt in shady spots near wetlands, too.

A male Orchard Oriole (Icterus spurius) appeared for the birders at the top of the southern hill away from the wetlands, though they sometime nest along the edges of marshes and rivers. This poor fellow seemed wildly distracted by some itchy insect, probably Feather Mites (super family Analgoidea) which often infest nests in early summer. He just barely stopped preening for a moment! As a victim of biting midges in spring, I could sympathize!

Sun and Shade Meant Blooms, Juicy Leaves – and More Insects!

Closeup of a tiny Monarch Butterfly caterpillar munching on a leaf of Common Milkweed.

The birders saw four Monarch Butterfly caterpillars (Danaus plexippus)  – one of them above – munching contentedly on leaves of  Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). It’s wonderful to know that natural areas management of our parks makes them places where milkweed gets ever more plentiful – and that, as a result,  migrating monarchs find their way here to lay their eggs  for the next generation.

Nearby, the tiniest of Black-legged Grasshopper nymphs (Melanoplus femurnigrumsat quietly enough that I could a good look at this little one, less than a half inch long! It’ll probably molt 4 more times before it reaches adulthood.  Pretty special eyes, eh?

A tiny grasshopper nymph watches the lens carefully as I take a closeup.

Twelve-spotted Skimmer (Libellula pulchella) found a budding stem to be the perfect place to pause and scan us birders and the prey we might have stirred up as we walked among the plants in the parking circle.

A Twelve-spotted dragonfly pauses in the garden at the center of the parking lot.

In the native gardens near the parking lot and along the Walnut Lane in the center of the park, early June brought colorful blossoms and the seeds of early spring flowers that  were already maturing their seeds for next year’s crop inside their fruits. Such a variety of colors and shapes! (Use pause button for time to read captions.)

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A Late June Visit To See What Had Changed

Wow!  The shy flowers of late spring and early summer had been replaced by the big, bold native milkweeds. Monarch caterpillars seem to have finished munching on Common Milkweed leaves and spun their chrysalises; some have yet to emerge and some may already be flying. Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) is ready to host any number of butterflies this summer. If you’re looking for color in your garden, Butterfly Milkweed’s a nice native choice because it remains an attractive bunch instead of spreading like Common Milkweed – and pollinators find milkweeds irresistible!

Mites must still be giving birds a hard time, though.  This itchy little Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea) preened just as insistently as the poor Orchard Oriole earlier in the month! This gnatcatcher is small, only a bit larger than a hummingbird and smaller than a wren and can be identified by its white-edged tail. According to Cornell Lab, they sometimes build up to seven nests in a season because they frequently give up a nest due to mites, predators and problems with Cowbirds and others that lay eggs in their nests. Hope this little one persists despite all those tribulations!

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On the western slope, an adult Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) and its fledgling paused in a bush. The adult looked around checking for trouble, then hopped onto the ground, looking for seeds or insects to feed the youngster. The youngster hopped clumsily in the bush, waiting for its parent return, which fortunately resulted in something to eat!

The American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) wait until late June or July to begin their families. They will use the fluffy pappus from thistles and other plants to line their nest and they feed on the thistle’s seeds, a favorite food. It looked as though this couple was already making the most of these Field Thistles (Cirsium arvense) that are just getting started.

This pair of American Goldfinches is just beginning its breeding season.

A bit later in the Eastern Meadow, a Halloween Pennant Dragonfly (Celithemis eponina) was coping with a stiff breeze by holding tight and adjusting its wing positions to stay aloft.  This one could be looking for a mate; maybe that’s why it was working so hard to stay visible on a bare perch above the wildflowers.  Once it finds a mate, they’ll both head to the nearest wetland where the female will dip her abdomen into the water, leaving eggs behind.

A Halloween Pennant Dragonfly adjusting its wings in a brisk wind

The Black-legged grasshopper nymphs had changed a bit when I made my last visit. This one now had a bit more black-legged-ness! I assume it had gone through its second molt. I didn’t take a closeup of this one so you could see how tiny these nymphs really are.

The wetlands, as usual, were full of life too. A juvenile Green Frog (Rana clamitans) had left  its youth as a tadpole behind and was sitting waiting for the nearest flying insect at the Playground Pond. The green dots are Water Meal (g. Wolffia) which covers the playground pond along with spots of Common Duckweed (Lemna minor) – aptly named since ducks do scoop up both plants and make a meal out of them!

Nearby, a tiny Amber Snail (G. Succinea) snacked delicately on the seeds of Orchard Grass (Dactylis glomerata). I wonder if those black spots on the blossoms are places where the snail has secreted extra slime to stay attached while eating?

An Amber Snail munches on seeds of Orchard Grass.

While monitoring a vernal pool at Bear Creek, the crew brought up a tiny Crayfish (family Cambaridae). It was too tiny to determine a species but it certainly had all of the equipment it needed for surviving in its underwater world.  Crayfish molt six to ten times in their first year, so this one has a long way to go before adulthood!

A tiny crayfish from a vernal pool. It will molt 6-10 times in its first year.

It was the Best of Times, It was the Worst of Times…

A bumblebee head down in an unusual white blossom of Common Milkweed

Summer is glorious, right?  Who could argue with that?  All the blossoms, birds, whispering leaves and yellow sunlight pouring over it all.  Or as the poet,  e.e. cummings so ebulliently put it, “the leaping greenly spirits of trees/and a blue true dream of sky; and …everything/which is natural which is infinite which is yes.”

But I wonder sometimes if migrating birds, for example, might grouse a bit about cummings’ enthusiasm and ours. Summer is a busy, hard-working time for birds! I’ve become so aware of this by monitoring bluebirds this summer and it’s true of all birds, really. First there are courtship rituals that can involve singing constantly for hours. A diminutive House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) or the Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus) may sing their territorial/courting songs a hundred, even a thousand times in a day! Nest-making often involves long days or even a solid week of gathering material and then weaving, or scraping, or even digging a safe place for their eggs. And once eggs hatch, their young sit begging in the nest and later from every branch, crying “MORE FOOD!” Imagine having young every summer, frequently multiple broods of young,  and working constantly to be sure at least some of them survive despite predators of all kinds – plus coping with those miserable feather mites!

And yet, thank goodness, they return to us each year to go through it all because the show must go on! The genes must be passed to a new generation! I’ve come to admire the sheer tenacity of nature in facing the vicissitudes of life without homes in which to retreat at night or when the weather is harsh. Learning more about the threats and difficulties that birds overcome, I’m doubly pleased to see them with their breasts turned to the sun on a cool morning, or to hear their quiet evensong calls around me as the sky grows dark. They seem to still be able to pause now and then from all the hubbub of their lives and just “be” for a few moments. I take that as a lesson for my busy life – and probably yours too.

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: inaturalist.org;Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela;Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels,  A Guide to Bird Behavior Vols.1-3 by Donald W and Lillian Q.Stokes, the passionate enthusiasts at the Facebook groups Odonata of the Eastern U.S.and Butterflying Michigan plus others as cited in the text. e.e.cummings poem "I thank You God for most this amazing" in 100 Selected Poems pub. by Grove Press

Photos of the Week: Welcoming Fledglings Into the World

This year eight volunteers are monitoring nest boxes at Draper Twin Lake Park, Charles Ilsley Park and along the Paint Creek Trail in Oakland Township. We keep track of when the nest is built, the date of the first egg laid, the hatching date and if possible, the fledgling date when the little Eastern Bluebirds, Tree Swallows, House Wrens or Chickadees exit the nest and come out into the big world.

Cam at nest box. Photo by V. Morganti

We report our data to NestWatch, a citizen scientist project of the Cornell University Ornithology Lab.

Well, the excitement has peaked in the last two weeks as fledglings begin to  screw their courage to the sticking point, leap out of their dark, cozy nests and take to the air. Two weeks ago, I was lucky enough to see a tiny Eastern Bluebird (Sialis sialis) launch itself out of the nest box that I’m monitoring near my house and caught the moment with my camera as well. (Use the pause button if you need more time for captions.)

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And now many of us volunteers and members of the birding group feel like we’re in a nursery, because we’re surrounded by baby birds! Unlike the young bluebird,  Tree Swallow fledglings (Tachycineta bicolor) “are strong fliers as soon as they leave the nest,” according to the Stokes’ Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.1). This one at Charles Ilsley Park seemed to emerge from its nest fully ready to fly. Perhaps that is necessary since swallows feed on the wing. But the adults will help feed  their fledglings for the first two or three days.  (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)[Edit:  I’ve deleted the two closeups of the fledgling because from photos others took, I’m not sure it was the fledgling. My apologies.]

Two adult Tree Swallows and a fledgling clinging to the hole.

In the eastern prairie at Charles Ilsley Park, a Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) flitted about among the Foxglove Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis). Its slim shape and erratic display behavior made me think it might be a juvenile, too. A larger Field Sparrow (probably a male) sat calmly nearby with a grasshopper nymph in its beak. But when I returned the next day, the slim Field Sparrow again flitted distractedly about in the same location and again was accompanied by another Field Sparrow. My former experience with Field Sparrows had been that they often are elusive and dive into the grass at a moment’s notice. But I’ve learned that in the early spring, Field Sparrows nest on the ground if they have enough cover, which this beautiful prairie now provides. I’m wondering if these two were mates who were trying to distract me from a nest hidden among the flower stems. Since there are low bushes nearby, however, the nest could have been along the tree line since these sparrows make nests in low bushes later in the season.

 

Back at my home, a clutch of Eastern Phoebe fledglings (Sayornis phoebe) appeared in a low bush at dusk. They’d evidently left the nest under the eaves of the nearby shed very recently and a harried adult was busy trying to feed them. Luckily, both Phoebe parents share this exhausting task. One of the fledglings, as you’ll see below, was smaller and a loner. Perhaps that’s not surprising since Cornell says the Phoebe “is a loner, rarely coming in contact with other phoebes.” It may just have been the last to fledge and is still adjusting to the being out of the nest – or perhaps it’s the “runt of the litter.” But its noisier siblings probably had a lot more luck getting fed that night!

The three noisier Phoebe siblings looking like a singing act as they beg to be fed.
The adult Eastern Phoebe arrives to feed the young. The loner on the left may have fledged last.
A Phoebe fledgling sits quietly on its own.

Many birds have more than one brood in a summer – so be on the lookout! Your yard may be hosting hard-working parent birds and their rambunctious, noisy, begging youngsters! Our parks certainly are!