Stony Creek Ravine: Insects! The Good, the Not-all-Bad, and the Really Ugly

Stony Creek running fast and furious through the ravine after the many rain storms.

I’m sure you must have noticed. Insects are having a fabulous summer. Ticks are poised at the edge of tall grass, their back feet planted, their front ones waving about, trying to hitch a ride on anything that passes. Mosquitoes are reproducing like mad in any of the available standing water left by the repeated deluges that we’re experiencing. It’s not a pretty picture for us humans! But it can be, if I look more closely.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

This last few weeks I’ve explored the small, older section of Stony Creek Raving Nature Park, the western trail from Knob Creek Drive on West Gunn that leads to the Ravine itself. Armed with Deet, I wanted to see if I could find some beautiful, or at least interesting insects that would give me a break from the not-so-lovable ones! So here’s what I found, for better and for worse…

The Trail Begins in Sunny Meadows Filled with Wildflowers

The Meadow is lavender with Bee Balm blossoms and complemented by dashes of orange from Butterfly Milkweed.

Mottled sunlight slips over your shoulders when you first enter this area of the park. On one of my many visits between the downpours, I saw a flash of orange among the shadows which turned out to be the Gray Comma (Polygonia progne). It looks very much like the autumn coloring of the Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma); since it’s summer, it had to be the Gray Comma. These butterflies emerge from within logs or from under tree bark in April and mate. This Gray Comma would be the offspring of those that overwinter. It will produce a generation which will fly in August or September and hibernate to start the cycle again.

The Meadow Trail: Butterflies, Dragonflies and Rolling Meadows of Wildflowers

Foraging Butterflies

Once out in the open meadows, I paused to appreciate the frenetic flight of the Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele). It dashed across the field, landing for a few seconds, then fluttering off again just above the flowers. Their caterpillars have a fondness for Common Blue Violets (Viola sororia), so they will occasionally appear on lawns. In our parks, they prefer native Wild Bergamot/Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa), thistles and milkweed, according to the Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels.

The Great Spangled Fritillary gets its name from the shine of the large silver spots on its hind wings. Here it’s sipping from Butterfly Milkweed.

Aren’t you always happy to see Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus)? The one my photographer friend Paul and I saw in the meadow arrived from somewhere between Mexico and Michigan, wherever its forebears stopped to lay eggs. With luck, this one will help set in motion the “super generation” of Monarchs; they make the whole 3,000 mile journey to Mexico where they overwinter. For lots more details on Monarchs, check out the blog that features them.

Paul and I hoped this Monarch would lay eggs for us on this Butterfly Milkweed. No luck that day. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle.

Territorial Dragonflies

Dragonflies patrol over the meadows as well, zinging here and there in an effort to establish territory and find a mate. The striking male Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) with a green face zipped by me, but it was the juvenile Dasher who settled on a stick. It has the coloring of a female, but a much slimmer body than an adult. The female Dasher lays her eggs by flying over still water and repeatedly dipping her ovipositor into the surface to release her eggs.

Another denizen of the fields, the Halloween Pennant dragonfly (Celithemis eponina) foraged with a bouncy flight. These small dragonflies stay aloft more easily on windy days than other dragonflies and can even fly in light rain, shaking the water off their wings in flight. This one insisted on looking straight at me until it zoomed away. Luckily you can still see its vivid coloring and the huge compound eyes on either side of its head (with nearly 30,000 lenses). Two of its three simple eyes shine above; they’re believed to improve its navigation in changing light and also may help stabilize them as they speedily change course above the greenery.

The brown wing patches on the Halloween Pennant’s wings are thought by some to shade its body on hot days.

Two other dragonflies kept me company on the meadow. A juvenile male Common Whitetail (Plathemis lydia) followed me along the path, evidently hoping I’d stir up some insects that it could snatch from the air. And several Widow Skimmers (Libellula luctuosa) bobbed among the grasses on every trip to the park. The clear tips of their seem to disappear at a distance, but the dark patches near the abdomen are visible, so I sometimes mistake them for a large black fly until I get closer.

Pollinating and Nectaring Bees

Of course, bees forage busily along the path as well. Dr. Gary Parsons, from the Entomology Department at Michigan State University, identified this little native bee nuzzling a Rough-Fruited Cinquefoil blossom (Potentilla recta) as a female Leafcutter Bee (genus Megachile.) The clue he gave me is that a leafcutter has stiff hairs (scopa) covering the underside of its abdomen and that’s where it carries its pollen. In the photo on the right, the one flying away with its bright yellow underside was evidently a dead giveaway.

Paul snapped a fine shot of one of our native Bumblebees (genus Bombus), oblivious of a Bull Thistle’s (Cirsium vulgare) thorns below as it gathers nectar from the blossom.

A native bumblebee feeding on nectar from a Bull Thistle blossom. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle

Colorful Long-legged Flies

Along with the butterflies, dragonflies and an occasional damselfly (more about them later), an assortment of metallic flies dotted the leaves along the trail, but not your plain old black house flies! Dr. Gary Parsons tells me that they are from the family Dolichopodidae, also known as Long-legged flies. These common tiny insects perch in bright sunlight waiting for smaller, unsuspecting insects to cruise by. I like their diminutive size, the way they stand so elegantly on those long legs – and they come in an assortment of colors as you’ll see below!

The Plants that Feed and Shelter Them All

Now of course, what sustains all these creatures are the native plants that serve as host plants for their offspring, i.e., larvae/caterpillars. Here a Common Pug caterpillar (Eupithecia miserulata) is foraging on the petals of a Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta). Dr. Parsons reminded me that petals are actually just modified leaves so caterpillars can feed on them, but since they disappear quickly, leaves are the staple of a caterpillar’s diet.

A Common Pug caterpillar foraging on a Black-eyed Susan blossom

The beauty of native plants is that they can be both decorative and productive, providing lots of sustenance for the insects that are an essential ingredient of the entire food web. So here’s is just a sampling of the myriad of native wildflowers and grasses along the meadow trail.

The Forest Trail Above the Ravine: Damselflies, Abundant Moths and One Useful but Really Ugly Fly

The dappled forest above Stony Creek Ravine

Under the Forest Canopy, Beauties and the Beast

The forest at Stony Creek Ravine Park is a different world when it comes to insects. At the edge, where the forest meets the sunshine, butterflies seem to dominate. Both of the ones I saw imitate the dappled light of the forest with brown wings marked with white spots in lovely patterns. The Little Wood Satyr (Megisto cymela) is the smaller of the two. Notice how the design on the underside of the wings is a bit more complex. Some sources suggest that the eyespots distract predators from attacking vital body parts. Butterflies can survive with ragged wing edges but an attack on the head is instantly fatal. I thought perhaps the larger spots on these forest edge species also provide more camouflage when the butterfly lands in dappled light. No one seems to be sure exactly how their patterns function.

The larger Northern Pearly-eye (Enodia anthedon) spends more time in the woods itself, especially near moist areas. It feeds on tree sap, rotting fruit, fungi and even dung – not a picky eater, evidently, eh? You’ll often see its head slanted downward on a tree trunk. Quite the set of spectacles on those buggy eyes and the orange and black antennae are very fancy!

The Northern Pearly-eye in its characteristic upside down position

Deeper in the shade of the forest, though, tiny moths flourish. The oaks in our forests and lawns act as host plants for the largest variety of insect caterpillars of any tree in North America, according to Dr. Doug Tallamy, a professor of entomology and author of The Nature of Oaks. Some moth larvae pupate on the tree, some burrow into the soil below but many just pupate within the leaf litter and then emerge in warm weather. So as I walked down through the woods at Stony Creek Ravine, huge clouds of tiny, triangular, leaf litter moths floated up at my feet. Almost every one immediately scuttled back under the leaves. But a gray one, that I believe is a Speckled Renia moth (Renia adspergillus), paused on a patch of bright green moss. So exciting for me see one as more than a flutter at my feet!

This Speckled Renia moth landed briefly on the edge of bright green moss before scooting back under the leaf litter!

Actually that short pause may not have been a good move for the Speckled Renia. Nearby, I saw the “not-so-bad” but “very ugly” insect of the blog title. Robber Flies (family Asilidae) are aggressive predators, and like the “bad guys” for whom they are named, they generally ambush other insects, including their own kind, from a hiding place. I saw two different insects meet their demise in the grip of a Robber Fly.

Robber flies don’t bother humans unless you’re handling one; I’d avoid that unless you’re doing research. And they are simply providing the service predators provide: keeping the numbers of their prey at a balanced level within their habitat. If you see one in your garden, ignore it; it will probably eliminate many pests for you. At a wetland, I met one up close and personal and really, that is one ugly bug!

The bristles on the head of the Robber Fly protect its face when its wrestling with its larger, struggling prey like bees, grasshoppers or dragonflies!

Deeper in the forest, I watched a black and white blur move toward a log. As I stepped forward, it suddenly transformed into just a fleck of something lying on a log. I thought perhaps my eyes had deceived me and it was just a bit of falling detritus. But I decided to ask Dr. Parsons if I’d really seen a living, moving creature. On the left below is the pointy fleck I saw, on the right the closeup I sent to Dr. Parsons.

Dr. Parsons let me know I wasn’t crazy. The tiny moth’s larvae is part of a large insect family, the Tortricidae, commonly known as Leaf Rollers. The caterpillars in this family eat and pupate in a carefully rolled leaf, hence the name. Dr. Parsons surmises that the adult moth above is most likely a Banded Olethreutes (Olethreutes fasciatana). Many members of this family specialize in fruit trees and their caterpillars are considered pests. This one’s offspring feeds on Wild Black Cherry (Prunus serotina), but they’re not considered particularly harmful. Some experts think this camouflage is an attempt to simulate an unpalatable bird dropping. If I hadn’t seen this tiny moth moving, I’d never have noticed it, so I guess the trick works!

Dancing Damselflies Seek the Spotlight in the Creek

But enough of Robber flies and bird droppings! Let’s move on down to the West Branch of Stony Creek itself to enjoy instead the mating ceremonies of elegant Damselflies!

Stony Creek in late June flowing slowly around rocks and under sticks in late June.

I paused near a wooded wetland to witness what appeared to be a pair of damselflies courting. The male Ebony Jewelwing (Calopteryx maculata) landed first and fluttered about from twig to twig, keeping his iridescent colors flashing in the sun. The elegant brown female appeared and began what looked very much like flirting, flying close to him, then landing farther away with her abdomen cocked at an angle. Perhaps she was ready to mate, but the male hesitated. According to Robert DuBois, author of Damselflies of Minnesota, Wisconsin & Michigan, he may have had good reason; females can mate 4 or 5 times each day, rarely with the same male! Anyway, I gave them some privacy and headed toward the creek to see how other males were faring.

In late June, Stony Creek meandered its way around the rocks and sticks protruding from the slowly moving water. A group of Ebony Jewelwing males held a competition there for the sunniest spot on a prominent stick in the creek while waiting for females to show up. One male posed on the stick and began to display. Displays of his impressive wings can be intended to ward off competitors and may also interest females in the surrounding greenery. Periodically, he launched gracefully off his stick and zipped off to confront other males trying to oust him from the spotlight. A series of a scrambles with a group of competitors ensued for about 10 minutes. The University of Wisconsin Field Station’s “Bug Lady,” says that male Jewelwings compete by bumping into each other until one flies off. That’s certainly what occurred at Stony Creek Ravine as the originally male settled back on his stick after each skirmish.

If the male is successful, he’ll grab onto the female’s abdomen with his pincers and the two of them, locked together, will fly to a nearby perch. If she is ready to participate, she bends her abdomen upward and the partners form a heart-shaped “mating wheel.” Benoit Renaud, a generous photographer at iNaturalist.org got a wonderful photo of two doing just that! Thank you, Benoit!

Ebony Jewelwing damselflies in a heart-shaped mating wheel. Photo by Benoit Renaud (CC BY)

After mating, the male releases her and together they fly off to find rushes, sedges, moss or floating plant material. The female then bends her abdomen downward, slits a hole in the plant with her sharp ovipositor and lays her eggs. The male stands guard to protect her from males who might try to abscond with her and remove his sperm before she lays the eggs. Evidently, despite that heart-shaped wheel, damselfly mating is not a particularly romantic process. But it’s kept these graceful insects on the wing for thousands of years, so we won’t argue with it, right?

A week or so after I took my damselfly photos, the July deluge poured down on us. The once placid creek rushed through the ravine, flowing over the rocks and sticks in the damselflies’ courting arena. According to the “Bug Lady,” the Ebony Jewelwings like plants in a “moderate current” in which to lay their eggs. So I’m assuming there was a bit of a hiatus in their mating ceremonies this year!

After a series of heavy rains, Stony Creek rushed over rocks and sticks in a sparkling flood.

And Then The Fireflies Arrived…

A firefly beetle in India. Photo by Ashwin Viswanathan (CC BY) at inaturalist.org

I learned this week that fireflies sparkle at twilight in moderate or tropical zones all over the world. I love knowing that. Imagine! As the earth spins away from the sun each day, these tiny Firefly beetles (family Lampyridae) dance across landscapes, delighting humans around the globe!

The males of our local beetle, the Common Eastern Firefly (Photinus pyralis) dance in a “J” formation, flashing their signal as they swing upward. A chemical reaction in the cells at the tips of their abdomens creates the bioluminescence that delights us. And with luck, a female in the area sends a coded signal back in just 1-2 seconds and they find each other.

The incredible variety of insects around (and often in) our home serves many purposes. The possum near our shed eats all the ticks it can find each summer. Bats, birds, and even the ugly Robber Flies, gobble up mosquitos by the millions. Bees pollinate our garden, wildflowers and nearby farmers’ crops. The beating wings of thousands of flying insects lure migrators back to our yard each spring. Here are a few of the most interesting ones we saw just this week.

Recognizing all the services that insects provide, I avoid wide-spectrum “bug killers” and instead try to utilize long sleeves, high socks and strategically applied Deet or Permethrin to repel them when outside. Despite all of that, like you, I swat flies and mosquitoes, flick insects off exposed skin and get snarky when insects slips inside the house.

But then at our darkened windows on these steamy, rain-soaked evenings, I pause to enjoy the tiny fireworks of a glowing beetle dancing in the tall grass at the edge of the field. And I’m lifted out of my grousing about bugs and rainy weather. Night after sticky night, the flash of the firefly reminds me that some insects are magical and that all of them play a crucial role in keeping life humming on this gorgeous little planet.

Growing With the Seasons: Learning on Site

This post was written by Stewardship Technician Max Dunn

I am now more than halfway through my seasonal internship as a stewardship technician with Oakland Township Parks and Recreation. My work season is ending about 6 weeks earlier than the rest of the crew since I am heading back to college at the end of August. Although I haven’t been here long, I’ve learned and experienced more at this job than my past three combined. I am now able to confidently maneuver a truck and trailer, identify and treat multiple invasive species, input data into Geographic Information System’s (GIS), and most fun of all, experience beloved native plants in their natural habitats.   

Truck & Trailer Experience

In 2017 I purchased a 1997 Plymouth Breeze and have been driving it daily ever since. This small, easily maneuverable car stands 4.5 feet tall, a dwarf to the stewardship crews truck; a large-and-in-charge GMC 2500 standard 8 foot bed, often pulling a trailer. Driving a rig of this size and length may be common place for some of you, but it was very new to me. We first practiced in an open field to get comfortable then worked up to main roads. Before getting behind the wheel for the first time, thoughts of doubt and insecurity arose in my head. An occurrence that often accompanies me when learning new things. However, this time I realized my degrading thoughts and switched my outlook to one of confidence. This allowed me to be the controller instead of the controlled and made space for a present and enjoyable learning experience.

Backing up the trailer proved to be the hardest task for me since small trailers are very touch sensitive to your driving. It’s a great test of patience and focus and I have come to enjoy the sharp mental state it puts me in. Just remember, when you turn left, the trailer goes right. Unless it’s at too much of an angle, then it goes left. Also, this is an extension of your truck, so allow more space for clearance.

Although pulling a trailer can be a challenge, it is essential for our work. It’s equipped with a 130-gallon water tank, water pump, and heavy duty hose which supplies readily available water for prescribed burns and herbicide application. It requires a great amount of trust from Oakland Township to put this equipment into the hands of myself and the other stewardship technicians and I am grateful they have. I have gained numerous skills from this task alone which will stick with me well into the future.

Geographic Information System

GIS is an acronym for Geographic Information System, a mapping system that captures, stores, and displays data related to specific positions on Earth’s surface. The stewardship crew and I use an app on our phones called ESRI FieldMaps to document locations of invasive species and herbicide application out in the field. With each location, we input additional information such as plant density, herbicide concentration, and weather for that day.

This job introduced me to the hands-on aspect of GIS. I was familiarized with with these systems last spring in an agriculture class at Michigan State University and it was a great overview. But I have found that subjects like this are best learned from hands-on experience. Within the first three days on the job we were getting oriented and comfortable with the Field Maps app. It was early in the garlic mustard season, so documenting plant locations in the field was our orientation task (and what a great one to use since it is so prevalent!). It initially seemed like so much information needed to be included with the garlic mustard location. I was slightly concerned that I would miss out on something valuable and began to ask myself, “How do I properly estimate a plants density and how do I draw a polygon of the area we surveyed? More importantly, how do I remember the area I surveyed?” These all turned out to be useless concerns since the app is quite user-friendly.

Swallow-wort is an invasive plant that is related to milkweeds. It makes seeds attached to fluffy parachutes, so it can spread long distances to new areas.

I have really enjoyed scanning our parks for invasive plants like swallow-wort, and recording their locations and plant densities into the GIS. It is interesting to find a large, dense “mother” patch, then locate all the stragglers in an area. Once all the points are plotted, a rough dispersal outline is created which shows how far offspring of that colony spread. These dispersal outlines then provide valuable information for future stewardship crews because we can compare dispersal outlines throughout time and see how the plants respond to our treatments. If they are effective, the outlines will shrink in size.

Using this app consistently on the job site has taught me how to properly record data and take time to complete tasks that remove me from “actual field work.” My past three jobs were strictly manual labor so if I wasn’t working with my body, it was viewed as a waste of time. It took around a month at this job to break down that ideology and I have gotten much better at taking the time to input data.

Wildflowers at Gallagher Creek Park

One of the most enjoyable new experiences on the job has been finding mature, native plants in their natural habitats. It provides insight into how naturally occurring plants compare to landscaped ones in size, spread, and structure. Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea), for example, seems to be pretty adaptable. I have seen them in wetland areas with dappled light, semi-dry areas with full sun, and in landscaped beds. Furthermore, they can be quite small and slender in the wild when competing with other plants, but can be very full and wide in landscaped areas; give them space and they will grow! These differences were witnessed in May at the native plant beds of Gallagher Creek Park. 

Golden Alexanders in the native plant landscaping beds at Gallagher Creek Park. Photo by Ben VanderWeide.

Gallagher Creek Park on Silverbell Road, just east of Adams Road is probably best known for the playground. However, it also houses some amazing plants such as Wild Lupine (Lupinus perennis) and Yellow Lady Slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum).

The day before we went to weed the native plant beds around the playground in May, our Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide let us know that Yellow Lady Slippers would most likely be flowering in the park. When we got to a garden bed near the suspected area, we took a quick intermission from weeding and began our search. Early on, I stumbled across a beautiful wild lupine, the first one I have ever seen uncultivated and growing naturally. Their loose flower clusters and unique foliage are quite striking!

As I was framing a picture of it, I noticed a helical blade of grass twisting its way into the frame and took it as a foreshadow of a Yellow Lady Slipper sighting. I thought this because the grass perfectly mimicked the helically-twisted sepals of a Yellow Lady Slipper. After admiring the lupine and golden grass blade, we continued our search, and as foretold, stumbled upon a colony of Yellow Lady Slippers! Partially bloomed flowers resembled Corinthian helmets, while the fully mature looked like sunbathing aliens. It was interesting to see how small they were in real life and appreciate their complexity up close. That was truly a day to remember.

Spending time on job sites is something I look forward to. I have realized that as I experience something new, I also learn more about myself. I now tackle new task with confidence and take breaks from manual labor in order to do activities like data entry that have delayed returns. It has been great to grow alongside the abundant wildlife each workday, and I am amazed at how much I have experienced on the job. I am curious to look back in 5 weeks and see what else I’ve learned!

This Week in Stewardship: Nest Box Monitoring and Our Citizen Scientists

If you frequent our Oakland Township parks, you might notice bird nest boxes in a few parks. Several times a week, a group of volunteers monitors these boxes for our Natural Areas Stewardship program using the protocols from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology NestWatch effort. This program’s aim is to study the trends and conditions of the breeding bird populations across the United States. These trends can help show the results of climate change, loss of habitat, and effects of invasive species.

The Nest Watch Program

The NestWatch program is not just confined to organizations like Oakland Township Parks or research groups – it can also be done in your own backyard with little to no equipment necessary! If you simply have the NestWatch app, you can observe nests found in your own backyard. Data from one nest in your backyard might seem insignificant. However if done correctly, consistently, and combined with the many observations of other citizen scientists, your nest data can be of great use. If you would like more information as to how to monitor in your own backyard, click the link below: https://nestwatch.org/about/overview/. Nests can be in nest boxes, like ours, but you can also monitor open cup nests, nests in natural tree cavities, or any other nests you find.

Alex installs a new nest box at Bear Creek Nature Park in 2019. Photo by Ben VanderWeide.

Currently we have boxes in Bear Creek Nature Park, Charles Ilsley Park, Draper Twin Lake Park, and along the Paint Creek Trail. We only install boxes when we know that we’ll have volunteers to check and maintain them. Nest boxes that aren’t maintained can be traps where birds are more easily taken by predators, or they can be breeding sites for invasive birds like House Sparrows and European Starlings. We chose nest box locations after deciding which native birds we wanted our boxes to benefit. For example, an Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) requires open space to nest, while a Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) prefers woodlots or forests. We are mostly working to benefit Eastern Bluebirds and Tree Swallows, so we placed nearly all of our nest boxes in open fields. The boxes are paired up to help bluebirds and swallows fend off nest predators and invasive species.

Paired nest boxes at Bear Creek Nature Park. Photo by Cam Mannino.

During the breeding season volunteers visit the nest boxes about two times per week. At each visit they check to see if a nest box is being used. If in use, they document the bird species, number of eggs, number of young, and other relevant details. The volunteers also maintain the nest boxes during the summer and clean out the boxes in the winter to prepare for new inhabitants the following year.

Donna and Louise – Citizen Scientists at Draper Twin Lake Park

We are only able to perform this monitoring program because of the amazing volunteers, our citizen scientists. We just wanted to give a big thank you to all of our volunteers as they devote several hours, numerous times a week to this project. Without their hard work and dedication to monitoring these boxes, we would not be able to contribute to the NestWatch program.

While all of the volunteers are amazing and we appreciate every last one of them, we wanted to spotlight two particular volunteers, Donna and Louise. They have been monitoring nest boxes at Draper Twin Lake Park since we began the program in 2018. I recently had the opportunity to join Donna on her monitoring trip out to Draper Twin Lake Park. She describes her time nest box monitoring as time well spent. She wants to spend her days doing something of quality and continuing to learn. That drive for more knowledge is what pushed Donna to volunteer with us. One of her favorite moments is when the young leave the nest, as she can now watch them grow and mature into adults. When I asked if she had any tips for people who were considering monitoring nests or setting up boxes of their own, her advice was to be courageous and most importantly be respectful. The data collection is secondary to what is actually happening in the nest.

Another great volunteer I wanted to highlight is Donna’s partner volunteer at Draper Twin Lake Park, Louise. She started monitoring with us because she wanted to help out our stewardship department however she could. Before monitoring with us, she already had two years of experience doing this in her backyard, where she grew particularly attached to barn swallows. Despite the time commitment, she has continued to monitor at Draper because she loves doing it and loves to see the prairie change throughout the season. She takes notes on the different things she sees, and uses the information learned to help restore her own personal property.

One of Louise’s favorite moments, besides working with Donna, happened one day when she was walking with her husband, Jim at Draper. They saw a pair of sandhill cranes with juveniles poking their heads out of the grass in the northeast prairie planting. When I asked Louise if she had any tips for new monitors, she advised people to take full advantage of all of the great resources that Cornell Lab of Ornithology has to offer. She also encouraged folks to talk to other birders, who generously pass along good insights and knowledge. Donna and Louise’s heart for nature, and dedication to observing what is happening in it, makes them the ideal volunteers! We would like to thank them and the rest of our citizen scientists who monitor for us each year!

Nest boxes nestled in prairie. Photo by Cam Mannino.

Want to Help?

If you want to learn more about the NestWatch program, click the link below and click the LEARN tab (https://nestwatch.org/). If you are interested in monitoring with Oakland Township Parks next season, or just want to learn more about our program, please email Grant Vander Laan (gvanderlaan@oaklandtownship.org).

Charles Ilsley Park: A-Flutter with Wings of All Sizes

Text and Photos
by Cam Mannino

At the end of May, spring migration wound down and the breeding season heated up. The migrators and the year-round avian residents of our parks busily set about nesting and tending their newly hatched young. Their bright wings flashed color into the pale spring sunlight, much to the delight of hikers like me and my new photographer friend, Paul Birtwhistle.

Meanwhile, in the meadows, the tiny wings of small butterflies and moths fluttered at my feet and in the tall grass at the trail edge. The wings of ant-sized solitary bees beat almost invisibly as they probed blossoms for nectar. It seemed the whole park vibrated with wings!

So come hang out with Paul and I as we wandered the meadows, wood edges and forested wetlands of Charles Ilsley Park, enjoying the company of winged creatures.

Summer’s Yearly Visitors Offer Song, Color – and New Life! – to Park Visitors

Our Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben Vanderweide (far right) joins a birding group from Seven Ponds Nature Center in watching a migrating Blue-headed Vireo at Charles Ilsley Nature Park.

In May and early June, birdsong filters down through the fresh green leaves as birds arrive from wintering in warmer climes to enjoy the bounteous feast of insects provided by a Michigan spring. Migrators journeying farther north may pause to forage and rest like the Blue-Headed Vireo (Vireo solitarius) spotted high in the treetops by the birders pictured above.

A Blue-Headed Vireo (Vireo solitarius). Photo by willemspan at iNaturalist.org (CC BY)

But many birds settle here for the summer, making the most of the abundant food and shelter our parks provide. Some sweep insects out of the air. Others pluck them off bark or probe for them in the ground. While Paul and I didn’t manage a joint trek through Charles Ilsley Park, we both saw a similar rainbow of birds singing to declare their territory or carrying off caterpillars to feed mates on the nest or newly hatched nestlings.

Birds In or Around the Tall Grass of the Prairies

My visits to Charles Ilsley Park usually begin by walking along the entrance path while monitoring some of the township’s nest boxes. Two other trained volunteers and I keep records of the first egg laid, the hatch and fledge dates and any issues that develop around the nest, like predators (House Sparrows, for example). We submit the data to Cornell University’s NestWatch site as part of a citizen science project.

This year three different species have settled in the boxes that I monitor. Eastern Bluebird babies (Sialia sialis) have broken naked from their shells, begged for food and ultimately found their way into the big wide world. [Click on photos to enlarge.]

Paul and I were both lucky enough to see the adults working to make this happen. It looks like the female of both of these pairs was delivering food for her young while the male stood watch.

A House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) in one of my boxes laid her eggs in a very tidy circle. Wrens fill their boxes almost to the top with twigs, topping them off with just enough grass and feathers to cushion their young. Somehow, the female makes her way into that tight spot to incubate her tiny eggs. I imagine the crowded box discourages predators from entering. By the way, this is an extreme closeup; the wren’s eggs are just a bit larger than a dime!

House Wren eggs laid in a neat circle within a nestbox crammed with twigs and topped with grass and feathers.

Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) take up residence in our boxes as well. After building a nest of dry grass, they collect feathers, almost always white ones, to create a soft covering for the eggs. It’s amazing how many white feathers they find; I’ve read, though, that they sometimes snitch them from other Tree Swallows! Paul got a lovely photo of a male perched like a pasha on another dry Evening Primrose stalk. These striking birds glide above the meadow grass, beaks agape, collecting insects as small as gnats and as big as dragonflies.

At the end of the entrance trail, beyond the nest boxes, I’m greeted by restored prairies rolling off in all directions. In May, Ben brought in a contractor to do a major prescribed burn in Charles Ilsley Park. The low flames moved across the east and north prairies, even taking in the forests around them as part of the planned burn.

The Eastern Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park four days after the prescribed burn.

It was a dramatic sight in the first few weeks to see the blackened land begin to flourish again. The burn replenishes the soil with nutrients held in the dry plants, and the blackened surface and warmth of the fire provides a longer growing season for many native plants. Many non-native plants can be thwarted by periodic fire, unlike our fire-adapted native species.

Ilsley’s Eastern Prairie three weeks after the prescribed burn.

At the entrance to the eastern prairie, an up-and-down two note call issued from the small copse of trees. Wow! I was lucky enough to see a Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus) at close range. Usually I only hear vireos because they tend to stay high in the crowns of trees. What a delight to watch this one hop about in small trees long enough to get a quick photo!

One of my favorite migrators spends the winter among the colorful birds of South American forests. Dressed elegantly in black and white with its upright posture and white tail band, the Eastern Kingbird paused for Paul while surveying its territory. Kingbirds can be aggressive toward birds near their nests, even large ones flying high overhead.

An Eastern Kingbird can be spotted at a distance by its upright posture and white tail band. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle

An assortment of summer sparrows make the most of our restored prairies. Once I began to pay attention to their varied songs and patterns in brown, black and white, they added interesting detail to my hikes. Ben VanderWeide, Oakland Township’s Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, helpfully compares the song of the Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) to the sound of a bouncing ping-pong ball. It starts with slow, sharp bursts that rapidly accelerate into a series of quick, rat-a-tat-tat notes. The melodies of the Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) can vary but are usually characterized by a couple of quick notes followed by a short melody that ends in either a trill or a buzz. For me, the songs of these two birds are the soundtracks of summer in all of our parks.

Birds in the Treetops and Forested Wetlands of Ilsley’s Western Trails
The western woods at Charles Ilsley Park features vernal pools like this and a long, mysterious marsh.

A large wetland runs along the northern edge of the park’s western section. It lies beyond the moist forest that edges the trail and may be missed by some hikers. Luckily, Paul willingly went off trail to get closer to the green surface of the long marsh which is covered with plants that are often mistaken for algae. Common Duckweed (Lemna minor) in my photo below is the small, leaved plant that floats on the water and Water Meal (Wolffia columbiana) is the tiny plant between the Duckweed which can multiply to form a dense mat on the water surface, as it does right now at Ilsley’s western marsh.

The larger leaves are Duckweed and the smaller are Water Meal which has created a thick green mat on the surface of the long western marsh at Charles Ilsley Park.

Evidently, a male Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) found it quite a suitable surface for exploring! I wonder if its nest is high in the trees nearby? Wood Ducks are perching ducks that use the hooks on their webbed feet to negotiate tree bark. According to the Cornell All About Birds website, their ducklings can fall fifty feet from their nest into the greenery below without injury.

A male Wood Duck calmly makes his way through the Water Meal plants on the surface of the park’s western wetland. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle

Two adult Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) and their four goslings demonstrated the appeal of a nice lunch of Water Meal and Duckweed.

Exploring in the west of the park, Paul spotted the impressive Great Crested Flycatcher (Myiarchus crinitus). Inspired by his success, I spotted it later too, but it was rapidly hawking insects out of a high tree at the time. According to Cornell’s All About Birds website, this bird spends almost all of its time seeking insects high in the canopy or scooping them out of the air. Sometimes, Cornell says, it may even “crash into foliage in pursuit of leaf-crawling prey”! I want to learn their rising two note call so I can see their chocolate wings and lemon breasts more often!

The Great Crested Flycatcher’s yellow breast should make it easier to spot from below as it hunts high in the tree canopy. I’m still learning to spot it, though!

On the May bird walk at Charles Ilsley Park, several brightly colored migrators decorated the treetops along the western trail. All of the colorful characters in the slideshow below can breed in our area. So during late June and early July, keep yours eyes open for the nests or fledglings of this avian rainbow when hiking in shrubby areas or at the forest edge!

Pollinators’ Danced at My Feet, Fluttering Their Small Wings Along the Grassy Trails

Since Paul kindly agreed to look upward and outward for birds, I felt free to gaze down into the grass along the trails, looking for the tiny butterflies and moths that often appear before larger insects. On the bird walk, a member spotted the small Eight-Spotted Forester Moth (Alypia octomaculata) that sports puffs of orange hair on its front and middle legs. As the Missouri Department of Conservation points out, it can easily be mistaken for a butterfly: it eats nectar, flies in the daylight and its antennae thicken at the end somewhat like butterfly attennae. This one appeared in its favorite habitat, the place where the field meets the forest. The adult moth feeds in the sunshine, then lays its eggs in the shady woods on grapevines or Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), the host plants its caterpillar loves to eat.

The Eight-Spotted Forester Moth lays its eggs and pupates in the forest, but the adults feed in the sunshine at the forest edge.

The birding group also watched a tattered Mourning Cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa) feed on invasive Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata.) It looks as though overwintering in a log or under tree bark took its toll on this one! Nearby, we spotted a strangely still Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes). The Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels informed me that their host plant is Common Prickly-Ash (Zanthoxylum americanum), a small, thorny tree on which the female can detect a citrus scent with her antennae. I wonder if this Giant Swallowtail was drying its wings after having recently emerged from its chrysalis on a nearby tree.

A few days after seeing the Eight-spotted Forester Moth, I found a very similar small moth at my feet on the trail. It too was tiny and black with white spots, but its orange patches were on the surface of its forewings. With help from the passionate moth lovers at the “Moths of Eastern North America” Facebook page, I learned its name. This thumb-sized, diurnal insect, called the White-spotted Sable Moth (Anania funebris), is referred to as “holarctic,” because it inhabits the majority of continents on the northern half of the planet! This particular Sable Moth seemed to be exclusively feeding off the clover blossoms on the trail, one after another. Though this moth must be quite abundant, I’d never noticed one before.

A White-spotted Sable Moth seemed to be exclusively interested in clover blossoms on the low grass of the trail.

During several different visits, I noticed other small butterflies and moths that kept me company along the trails. The two tiny “tails” at the edge of the hindwings give the Eastern Tailed Blue its name. The Pearl Crescent is named for a small white shape on the underside of its hindwing. The caterpillar of the Peck’s Skipper chews on turf grasses but seems harmless among the wild grasses of our parks.

On my last visit, a dramatic Red-spotted Purple butterfly (Limentitis arthemis astyanax) glided by as I entered the park. I sometimes still mistake them for Spicebush Swallowtails (Papilio troilus troilus) because of the blue, iridescent blush on the top (dorsal) side of their hindwings and the orange spots on the ventral (lower) side of their hindwings. But the Purples have no “tails” and the orange spots beneath form a single line on the hindwings instead of the double line of the Spicebush Swallowtails, as you can see below.

The Beautiful and the Less So: Justifying (Maybe?) My Fascination with Less Likable Creatures

Dr. Doug Parsons, director of Michigan State University’s Bug House, helped me identify a couple of tiny insects that intrigued me. I’d watched what I thought were tiny wasps on almost every dandelion on the trail through the park’s Central Prairie. Dr. Parsons explained that these were not wasps, but Cuckoo Bees (genus Nomada).

Dr. Parsons wrote that this solitary bee “sneaks into the ground nest of the host bee,” most often a Mining Bee (g. Andrena), and “lays her eggs in the cells that the host bee has stocked with pollen for her own larva.” Since Mining Bees never return to the nest after stocking them, the Cuckoo bee’s egg hatches into a larva undisturbed, kills the host’s egg or larva and feeds on the stored pollen. The official term for a creature which does this is a “nest kryptoparasite,” a suitably creepy word for such behavior! Birds in the Cuckoo family do the same, laying their eggs in the nests of other birds – hence the name Cuckoo Bee. This native bee resembles a wasp in part because it has very little hair on its body. Dr. Parsons explained that bees are often fuzzy in order to collect sticky pollen. Since the Mining Bee collects the pollen that feeds the Cuckoo Bee’s young, this sneaky interloper doesn’t require the other bee’s hairier surface. Ah, another fine example of evolution working its magic.

The Cuckcoo Bee lays its eggs in the pollen-stocked nest of other solitary bees, eliminating the need for pollen-collecting hairs on its body.

Last week, I also observed a nondescript, brownish moth fly onto a grass stem, fold itself up and almost disappear. It was quite a challenge to locate it in my camera’s viewfinder! Dr. Parsons confirmed that this little moth is the Eastern Grass Veneer (Crambus laqueatellus). Evidently, some folks refer to these members of Crambidae family as “snout moths” because their long mouth structures resemble pointed noses. Dr. Parsons told me they can be “serious pests in lawns and golf courses” because their caterpillars eat turf grass roots. He isn’t sure, though, that they cause problems in our parks where their larvae may consume a variety of grasses. For me, its disappearing act, pointed “snout” and racing-striped wings were just odd enough to make it a fascinating find.

The Grass Veneer Moth is perching vertically on a small grass blade, its wings folded and its long “snout,” (which is really part of its mouth) pointing straight up. And look at that weird white eye! A delightfully odd little moth with its brown racing stripe, don’t you agree? OK, maybe not…

I’m sure that I puzzle some of you by including unglamorous, fiercely predatory or even destructive creatures in these nature blogs. Sometimes it puzzles me too that I want to explore them. But I guess for me, all of these creatures – from the Cuckoo Bee to the glorious Great Crested Flycatcher – play an essential role in the great drama of nature. By learning a name for these fellow players and the roles they perform on our shared stage, the whole spectacle and my role in it become clearer for me, more coherent – which in these chaotic times is a pretty good feeling! It’s my role – our role perhaps – to honor and respect nature in all its complexity during an era in which too many dishonor the natural world, ignore it or take it for granted. I know you, like me, care enough to watch, learn and share what you learn with others when you can. And that encourages me. Thanks for being here.

Summer Resident Birds in Oakland Township

This post was written by Katri Studtmann, Land Stewardship Technician.

As winter turned to spring and the days got longer and warmer, I started to get excited because I knew our summer residents were on their way back from their southern wintering grounds. As their sweet songs rang again in my neighborhood, I knew spring was on its way. Where I grew up in Minnesota, the first birds back that I typically noticed were the American Robin and the Red-winged Blackbird. Every spring, my family has a contest on who will see the first robin. There are rules to this contest, of course, you must either have photo proof of the robin or someone must be able to vouch that you saw it, otherwise it does not count. My dad took the title this year, spotting and sending a picture of a robin on February 27th. Here in warmer climate of Oakland Township in southeast Michigan, American Robins are year-round residents.

As March turned to April and April turned to May, I started to notice more and more of our summer residents showing up. Many migratory birds have spectacular and vibrant breeding plumage, so it’s fun to spot these beautiful balls of color shining in the trees. Spring is one of my favorite times to bird because the trees are not quite leafed out, so the birds are easier to see. Also, with the rapid influx of migratory birds, you are never sure what you will come across on your outdoor adventure.

Migration Mysteries

The past month has been particularly fun in the parks of Oakland Township for birding since May is typically peak bird migration season. When you take a second to watch and listen, you can notice birds you have never seen before. But why do birds migrate, and where do they spend winters? These are great questions that previously puzzled many people, but with extensive research on migratory birds, we have started to learn their secrets.

Male and female bluebirds standing guard over their nest box. If you look closely, you can see the female has some food for her chicks in her beak. In Oakland Township Eastern Bluebirds are year-round residents. Picture by Cam Mannino.

Some birds like the American Crow, Blue Jay, American Robin, Eastern Bluebird, and Northern Cardinal stick around Michigan all year long, but other birds travel great distances every spring and fall. In North America, there are over 650 species of breeding birds, and of those over half will migrate! Scientists have a few theories on why some birds migrate and some do not. The two main reasons birds will migrate are for food and nesting spots. As it becomes spring in Michigan, millions of bugs start to hatch – a fantastic food for many birds. Many migrant birds are insectivores (eat insects as a primary food source), so with the high influx of insects hatching in northern areas, this is inviting for many birds to make the trek north.

If the migrants stayed south in the tropics, there would be more competition for resources with the native tropical birds, making it harder to raise their chicks. Scientists theorized that many birds head north to breed because the more moderate temperatures make it easier to hatch their delicate eggs and rear chicks. Also, the longer days in the north give birds more time to feed their young every day. Then in the fall, when the days get shorter and colder and resources start to diminish, migratory birds make the trek back south for the winter.

Common Yellowthroat perching momentarily in a tree. Warblers are often difficult to spot because they don’t sit still long enough to get a good look at them. Picture by Cam Mannino.

Of the birds that migrate, there are short-distance, medium-distance, and long-distance migrants. Some examples of short-distance migrants are Chipping Sparrow, Eastern Towhee, American Woodcock, and Red-winged Blackbirds. They are usually the first birds back in the spring since they are only migrating a state or two south. In Minnesota, most American Robins migrate a little way south, but in southern Michigan, many Robins stick around all winter.

Some medium-distance migrants include the Green Heron, Great Egret, and Gray Catbird. These birds typically migrate south but just barely. They overwinter anywhere from Virginia to the southern U.S. Long-distance migrants are the truly impressive migratory birds because many of them flying to Central or South America every year.

Some long-distance migrants include the Tree Swallow, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Scarlet Tanager, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Wood Thrush, Orchard Oriole, Common Yellowthroat, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Eastern Kingbird, and Yellow Warbler. During the spring migration, there are some birds you may see for only a few days or weeks. These birds are migrating further north than Michigan to breed and are only stopping over for a few days on their journey north. This makes them especially a treat to see since the window to spot them is very small. Some migratory birds that stopped through Oakland Township this spring include the Blue-headed Vireo, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Palm Warbler, and White-crowned Sparrow. There are also some birds that winter in Michigan and then migrate further north to breed. A couple of examples of birds that winter in Michigan includes the American Tree Sparrow and the Dark-eyed Junco.

A White-crowned Sparrow at Charles Ilsley Park. Taken by Cam Mannino in May 2017.

Special Birds of Interest

A couple birds in particular that have fascinated me this spring are the Rose-breasted Grosbeak and the Eastern Wood-Pewee. I spotted my first Rose-breasted Grosbeak this spring around May 14th. We were doing a prescribed burn along the Paint Creek Trail, and my job for the first part of the burn was to stand on the trail and inform people about what was happening. As I was standing, I noticed a bird singing a sweet, complicated song. I started trying to dial in where it was coming from, then noticed the bright red chest of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak sitting in a tree not too far from me. I played his song on my Merlin bird app, and suddenly, he swooped in above my head and landed on a branch near me. I continued playing his song, and he swooped me a couple of more times. It was so cool to watch! Eventually, I stopped bothering him, and he flew away to sing his sweet song elsewhere in the woods.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak flying off of a branch and over my head.

About two weeks ago, I started hearing the unmistakable song of the Eastern Wood-Pewee in Charles Ilsley Park. My favorite part of the Pewee song is how they sing their name, “pe-weee, pe-weee.” They are tricky birds to spot with their gray-brown color. A few days later, I was at Lost Lake Nature Park and finally spotted one singing his song high on a branch. I watched him for a while, singing his little heart out high in a tree. Both the Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Eastern Wood-Pewee migrate from Central or South America or the Caribbean every year to raise their chicks in the north.

Discovering the World of Birds

The next time you are walking about in one of the parks, take a moment to watch and listen to the birds singing in the trees. You might see one of our summer residents that are only here for a few months. And if you are lucky, you might even spot a bird migrating through to its nesting location further north, or to wintering grounds further south.

If you are new to birding, you have several options to become more comfortable spotting and identifying the birds you see. One great option is to come to our bird walks every Wednesday morning. Another is to find a friend who knows their Michigan birds well. I find the best way to learn how to identify birds is to go with someone who is experienced in birding. If you don’t have any friends that are adept at birding, there are some great resources to help you determine what birds you are observing. A simple field guide is always helpful, but I enjoy using bird apps like the Merlin bird app. With this app, you can look at birds that are likely in your area, pictures of the birds, and hear what sounds they commonly make. Hopefully, the next time you are in one of Oakland Township’s parks, you will see a bird you have not seen before!

Wednesday Bird Walk Link: https://oaklandnaturalareas.com/volunteer-calendar/birding-walks/