Photos of the Week: Prepping for Change – the Fall Molt

An unidentified feather found in an earlier autumn. Anyone have a guess as to which bird? Perhaps a Downy Woodpecker? Mourning Dove? Flicker?  I’m stumped.

Maybe you’ve noticed individual feathers showing up in a nearby pond or on your lawn. Or you’ve noticed that birds and birdsong both seem a bit scarce right now. Or the birds you do see look just a bit scruffy. Well, don’t worry too much. It’s likely that nothing’s gone wrong for your avian neighbors. It’s just that lots of birds molt in late summer.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

That slightly disheveled bird you saw is probably an adult replacing frayed and worn feathers before the rigors of winter or before its fall migration. Once breeding is over, and while there’s still plenty of food to nourish them, birds systematically shed some of their feathers, replacing them before shedding others. Feathers account for 4-12% of body weight so it takes a lot of food energy to replace them! The foraging male Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) below with its feathers a bit askew is probably close to completing his molt. He will need to build up his reserves before beginning his journey to southern Ohio or points farther south.

A male Eastern Towhee almost finished with his fall molt and his foraging to restore his energy reserves.

So how does molting work? It turns out that feathers are made of keratin like our hair or fingernails, so feathers can’t repair themselves. The rigors of the breeding season can take quite a toll on feathers. Think of it  – all that to-ing and fro-ing from the nest or tree cavity, the scrabbling that occurs around an adult bird’s head as the young compete to be fed, plunging into the grass to snatch bugs, and riding down stalks to gather seeds on a windy day.  The feathers of an adult bird take quite a beating!  (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

When I saw this male Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) a week or so ago, I wondered if he was just beginning his complete molt into the dappled blue and brown plumage that he wears during the winter.

A male Indigo Bunting looking more than a bit disheveled may be heading into his complete fall molt into brown plumage dappled in blue.

The molting process begins with the bird shedding a few feathers. In their place,  “pin feathers” emerge quickly. These pin feathers are supplied with blood for growth and look like the rigid shaft of adult feathers. As they lengthen, the blood stays in the lower ends and the tips slowly encase the feathers in a waxy coating. So when you see birds preening during a molt, they are very likely pulling off that coating, allowing the adult feathers to unfurl.

The Great Egret (Ardea alba) below seems to have shed a few feathers, since some were stuck to the branches behind it and some lay below on the trunk of the snag. Perhaps it’s unfurling new feathers, or it could just be going after some persistent feather mites.

A Great Egret preening. Is it molting or just getting rid of some feather mites? I’m not sure.

I’ve read that pin feathers are more sensitive than adult feathers. I wonder if that’s why we often see birds preening so vigorously before migration. Maybe preening feels something like scratching your head when it itches!  According to Cornell’s comprehensive “Birds of North America” subscription website, Egrets molt “some to most” of their body feathers when they’re in “northern non-breeding grounds.” Since egrets nest in only a few areas in Michigan, most of Michigan is a non-breeding area suitable for molting. Maybe that’s why this Egret was preening almost continually, including stretching up its leg to scratch its cheek!

A Great Egret who could be scratching at an itchy pin feather.

Molting happens on different schedules for different bird species. Some have one molt per year, some molt into breeding colors in the spring and molt again in the fall, and some do partial molts,  head and back feathers first and tail and wing feathers later. With experience the age and sex of many birds can be identified using their plumage.

In early summer after breeding, Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) have an extra molt, a partial one. The males molt into “eclipse plumage, ” a drab plumage that makes the males look more like the brown females, though males still retain the red eye, red upper beak and double white stripe which females don’t have. Evidently male ducks do this to get the protection of being much less conspicuous during summer months. Here’s a photo of a male Wood Duck in eclipse plumage by iNaturalist photographer Heather  Pickard.

A male Wood Duck in eclipse plumage, looking a lot like a female Wood Duck. Photo by Heather Pickard  (CC BY-NC)

Like many ducks, Wood Ducks choose mates in the fall, overwinter with them and then mate in the spring. Of course the males want to look their most dazzling before courting! So they change into their breeding colors from mid-summer to early autumn, instead of in the spring like many birds. It’s a complete molt, meaning every feather is replaced, which renders them flightless for about three weeks. The female’s appearance stays the same with her new feathers. But the male recreates his elegant breeding plumage, including the iridescent green crest sloping down the back of his neck. Below are two males in a wetland near Lost Lake Nature Park two weeks ago who look like they’re about halfway between eclipse plumage and their glamorous breeding colors.

Birds don’t fight change. They simply do what’s required as the light informs them that the days are getting shorter. They molt. So when I go look for my jacket or warmer socks on a cool autumn day, I’m just part of the same process, I guess. And since my adjustment seems much less arduous than that of our feathered friends, I’ll try not to grouse about it!

[Footnote:  Information on molting was gleaned from Stokes' Guides to Bird Behavior by Charles Stokes (Volumes 1-3), this link at Wikipedia, Cornell Ornithology Lab's  subscription website www.birdsna.org. and this link at Cornell Ornithology.]

PHOTOS OF THE WEEK: Amazing Migrators on the Move!

Monarch butterflies at Tawas Point State Park last weekend. Photo by Nancy Isken

Well, they’re off!  When the wind sails in from the north, it’s a signal to all kinds of creatures: “Time to go!” So they take wing singly and in large flocks, letting the flow of cool air support them, carrying them quickly onward as they beat wings of all sizes to make their way to warmer climes.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

And of course,  it’s not just birds. Above you can see our friend Nancy Isken’s photo of  Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus) last week resting at Tawas Point State Park before crossing Saginaw Bay. They were beginning their long journey to Mexico where they will spend the winter. In the spring, these Monarchs will make the first leg of the journey back north, stopping in warm areas like Texas to produce a new crop of butterflies who continue heading north. These new generations will fly only a few hundred miles, stop and reproduce, completing their whole life cycle in only  5-7 weeks. So it takes several generations to complete the trip  back to Michigan each summer. Sarina Jepson of the Xerces Society, which is focused on invertebrate conservation, says in a fine National Geographic article, “…when fall rolls around again, a special ‘super generation’ of monarchs that can live up to eight months will make use of air currents to wing all the way back to Mexico—a seemingly impossible feat for such a delicate-looking insect.” Imagine that!  So the Monarch butterflies born here In Oakland Township each summer can potentially live for 8 months instead of 5-7 weeks and fly 3,000 miles instead of a few hundred. We are living among  real, live superheroes!

A female Green Darner on the Wet Prairie along the Paint Creek Trail

And Monarchs aren’t the only insects that migrate. Green Darner Dragonflies (Anax junius) (also tracked by the  Xerces Society) travel down to Texas and Mexico as well. For dragonflies, it also takes many generations of reproduction before their trip is completed, though their migration is less well understood. But again, like the Monarch generations that arrive here each summer, the dragonfly offspring seem to know how to find their way in the right direction. Citizen science and research is helping explore dragonfly migration. But for now, I love a good nature mystery, don’t you?

Painted Lady butterflies (Vanessa cardui) make multiple generation migrations all over the world. But they migrate erratically. Some years they migrate and some years they don’t. And the direction and route can vary widely. Some experts speculate that their migration routes may be affected by dramatic changes in weather and climate – another nature mystery yet to be solved.

A Painted Lady sipping nectar during migration

At this time of year, the night sky begins to fill with thousands, even millions, of birds riding the wind south in the darkness, navigating by the stars or the setting sun, or by sensing the earth’s magnetic field. Some may navigate by landmarks or simply remembering good feeding grounds. And amazingly, most juvenile migrating birds, like those insects hatching during migration,  somehow know how to find their way without any help from adults! Cornell’s BirdCast website is a great way to watch the flow of birds across the United States day by day throughout the fall.

Remember all those bright little warblers, unusual sparrows and other small birds that sailed up here on a south wind in May?  Well, most of them have now finished breeding farther north and are beginning to make their way back to more warmth and sunshine. They’ve molted out of their bright breeding feathers so they’re a little less colorful now and their routes vary a bit depending on available food and weather. But keep a look out for these little travelers starting now.  Here are a few from the autumn of previous years:

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If you’re thinking you’d like to see some bird migrations in BIG numbers, you might check out the Hawk Fest featuring hawks, eagles, falcons and owls at Lake Erie Metropark on September 15 and 16. Or if you love our Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis), consider a trip to the Audubon Society’s  Cranefest at Big Marsh Lake in Bellevue, Michigan (near Battle Creek) on October 13 and 14.

A large flock of migrating Tundra Swans called over Cranberry Lake Park. (Photo by Bon Bonin)

Of course, if you want to stay close to home, you’ll be warmly welcomed at our Oakland Township Wednesday morning bird walks.  The walks rotate through our township parks each month and in September and October, they start at 8 a.m.  The schedule is available year ’round if you click on the drop-down menu above  for “Stewardship Events.”  We’re a friendly group with some experienced birders who are glad to help beginners see their first migrators.  Bring your binoculars or borrow a set from Ben, our Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, who leads the walks.

So yes, summer is waning.  But I can’t help feeling celebratory as autumn air turns crisp and the skies fill with winged creatures.  I recommend looking upward this fall and  perhaps wishing  “Bon Voyage!”, to our migrators who provide such beauty and mystery as they find their paths through the air.

Watershed Ridge Park: A Knee-Deep Immersion in Nature

The knee-deep flowers and grasses of a meadow at Watershed Ridge

Watershed Ridge Park offers an adventurous, challenging hike on a hot summer day. No trails exist yet to lead you through Watershed, since it’s not yet developed. But you can park by the evergreen trees just east of the maintenance shed and explore from there (approximately 1664 W. Buell Rd). This park is named for a watershed boundary, a high point within the park, that causes precipitation to flow in two directions, ultimately feeding both Paint Creek and Stony Creek. The diversity of habitats is remarkable. Large areas of the park have agricultural fields that are tilled and planted by a local farmer, which helps keep invasive plants out until the area can be restored to natural habitat.

Text and photos by Cam Mannino

But once I step out of the farm fields, the magic begins! A forest with vernal pools, a bright meadow, a boggy swamp shaded by trees, a seasonal stream, and a hidden marsh surrounded by a nearly impenetrable circle of native shrubs. So feel free to join me as I walk through some of this  wild and wonderful park on a hot summer day.

The Forest and Its Wetlands

I started down the edge of the farmer’s field to the west of the maintenance shed, walking carefully so as not to damage the Fogler’s soybeans. The field was dotted with wildflowers, like Pale-leaved Sunflowers (Helianthus strumosus) which attracted the attention of the Red-spotted Purple (Limenitis arthemis),  a butterfly that seems to be plentiful this year!

Pale-leaved Sunflowers shine in the shade under the trees that line the farmer’s field.
A Red-spotted Purple butterfly rests in the cool shade near the sunflowers.

Once I entered the cooler woods on the north edge of the field, I began to see blue-green wetlands shining in the dim, dappled light.

Blue-green wetlands glow in the distance as you enter the forest.

Oh yes, mosquitoes buzzed, but I patted on more insect repellent and headed for the water, because I knew that’s where I’d see the most wildlife. And sure enough, as I settled on a log near the water, a rustle behind me turned out to be a young White-tailed deer buck (Odocoileus virginianus) peering curiously at me from behind the greenery.

A young buck stares intently at me from the greenery near a wooded wetland in the forest.

I could hear an Eastern Wood-Pewee singing plaintively in the distance, a nice soundtrack for my entrance into a mysterious forest. A plop! at my feet made me aware of a young Green Frog (Rana clamitans), covered in Duckweed (genus Lemno), who’d been basking on a log just moments before.

A young Green Frog cools down among the Duckweed in a shady wetland.

Far out in the water, two Twelve-spotted Skimmer dragonflies (Libellula pulchellachased each other around a fallen willow until one finally settled for a moment. It was too far away for a good shot, so here’s my photo of a male in Bear Creek marsh several years ago.

A male Twelve-spotted Skimmer settles on a stalk in a marsh.

The forest wetlands were a busy location for courting that afternoon. A pair of Emerald Spreadwing damselflies (Lestes elatus) had evidently mated just before I arrived. Below you can see the female grasping the stem, her abdomen curled inward, preparing to lay eggs on a plant, while the male above keeps a wary eye for predators or other males.

The female Emerald Spreadwing Damselfly curls her abdomen to lay eggs on a plant while the male guards her from above.

It was hard to see how glamorous these Emerald Spreadwings are in the dim light, so I was pleased when a male landed in the sunlight nearby.

A male Emerald Spreadwing stops in the sunlight for a moment.

One of the stumps in the wetland was decorated with the wheel-shaped web of an Orb Weaver Spider (family Araneidae). It glowed in a ray of sunlight. According to Wikipedia, “Many orb-weavers build a new web each day. Most orb-weavers tend to be active during the evening hours; they hide for most of the day. Generally, towards evening, the spider will consume the old web, rest for approximately an hour, then spin a new web in the same general location.” Very tidy, eh? That might explain why I never saw the spider and there was virtually no detritus in the web. I’m not sure what to think about the extensive web on the stump below. A practice run?

The wheel-like web of an Orb Weaver spider

At the water’s edge, three “conks” of  Shelf/Polypore fungi shone white against the tracks in the wood, maybe the feeding galleries of emerald ash borer larvae .

Three shelf fungi “conks) on a log traced by a tunneling bark beetle.

Near another shady vernal pool wetland, I spotted a tiny Wood Frog (Rana sylvatica) gazing toward the water from a small piece of wood. Perhaps it was a fond last look since this little creature will soon move uphill a bit from the forest pool in which it hatched. Finding a place to hibernate under the leaf litter, it will freeze solid until spring. No heartbeat, no breathing, no movement. This seeming miracle is made possible by a glucose anti-freeze of sorts produced by its liver. As regular readers of the blog know, this strategy for survival never fails to astonish me.

Perhaps  this  tiny Wood Frog is contemplating its winter hibernation when it will freeze solid.

As I neared the edge of the woods, where it opens to the meadow, familiar plants were there to greet me.  I could have wished for less attention from Enchanter’s Nightshade, (Circaea canadensis) which at this time of the year is producing seed within burr-like fruits. Looking high into the trees, I strayed into a large patch and my socks were covered. For the rest of my walk, I became a transportation vehicle for Enchanter’s Nightshade fruits!

Enchanter’s Nightshade lies in wait for passersby to carry its seeds away to new locations.  My socks, for example, make a fine carrying device.

Another forest edge plant, Jumpseed (Persicaria virginiana), spreads its seed in a different way. Once the seed is mature, any disturbance can send its seeds flying up to three yards!

Once Jumpseed (pink flowers) produces mature seeds, bumping into the plants will propel the seeds up to 3 yards away.

Another native wildflower that hugs the forest edge, Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), is called Spotted Touch-Me-Not for the same reason. Its mature seeds also spring forth from the fruits when they are disturbed.

Jewelweed also throws out its seed when touched, earning its other name, Spotted Touch-me-not.

The Meadow that Slopes Down to the Marsh

The meadow that slopes down to a marsh at Watershed Ridge

Walking out into the hot, moist meadow, I found myself knee deep in dense grasses and flowers. The sunlit field was slashed with long dark shadows from the forest as I waded through the dense growth underfoot.  All around me, dragonflies patrolled the flower tops, since the presence of a meadow in which to show off their colors and flying skills and a nearby marsh full of vegetation is their perfect habitat for mating and laying eggs. Widow Skimmers and Meadowhawks (genus Sympetrum) were everywhere. [I suspect the Meadowhawks were Ruby Meadowhawks (Sympetrum rubicundulum) but I’ve learned they can be confused with others unless you capture them and look closely – which I’m not at all interested in doing!)

A female Widow Skimmer displays against a grass stem.
A female Meadowhawk in bright sunlight cools herself by positioning her wings and abdomen.
A male Meadowhawk nearer the marsh spreads his wings to attract a mate.

Tiny butterflies fluttered through the flower stems adding their bit of color to scene. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

As I struggled down toward the marsh, lifting my knees high to get through the lush tangle of stems, I begin to notice the plants near the marsh that love having “wet feet.” Mine, actually, were getting a bit wet, too!

Hearing sharp chipping calls behind me, I turned around to find an adult Song Sparrow  (Melospiza melodia) warning its offspring to stay out of sight. This may be a female since they often begin their molt later than males do. The youngster stayed out of sight within a nearby bush.

The adult Song Sparrow warned its youngster to stay hidden with a chipping call.

Adult birds can be a bit scarce in late July and August because many are molting a whole new set of feathers. They’re generally not a pretty sight in the process, I can tell you! They’re not hiding out of vanity, of course; they’re just more vulnerable as wing feathers are replaced. I could hear the “witchety, witchety” call of the Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas)beyond the wall of native Gray Dogwood (Cornus foemina) which prevented me from seeing into the marsh. And a Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) “miaowed” from the Dogwood as well, making only a brief appearance. So I took the bird photos below in other parks at other times.

Ben’s Balancing Act in a Shady Swamp

Swamps are generally defined by ecologists as a forested wetland. Watershed Ridge Park has a beauty.  Ben VanderWeide, our township’s Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, put on his waders one afternoon and went to explore this habitat at Watershed Ridge while working on a plant inventory of the park. What an adventure! The water may look shallow, Ben told me later, but the muck beneath it can be very, very deep! To explore the swamp, Ben tested each step and only went into the water once he found firm footing. Otherwise, he stepped or jumped from one hummock to another. Some of the hummocks were made by  “windthrows,”  fallen trees uprooted by the wind which had become covered by vegetation. Others were made by stumps of trees that had probably been felled years ago and were now overgrown with plant material.

While moving from hummock to hummock, Ben spotted some interesting and unusual native plants. How about Duck Potato (Sagittaria latifolia), also known as Common Arrowhead? I know I’d never heard of that one before! Ducks and other creatures love to eat its submerged tubers which store nutrients for the flower’s regrowth and/or reproduction.  And since, we humans love our favorite tuber – potatoes –  why not the name Duck Potato?

Duck Potato, so named because ducks and others eat their submerged tubers.

Ben found another unusual little beauty in the swamp, a Wild Calla (Calla palustris). Wild Calla is the only species in the genus Calla which is within the family Araceae. That family includes what are commonly called Calla Lilies (though they aren’t true lilies or in the Calla genus) and our old friend Jack-in-the-pulpit. It appears that the Wild Calla in Ben’s photo below had already been pollinated because, like Jack-in-the-Pulpit, the flowers are disappearing, replaced by green, berry-like fruits that will turn red in the autumn. Such a find!

A Wild Calla whose flowers have already been fertilized .  The resulting green fruits will turn red in the autumn.

Ben also spotted a sedge that he’d never seen in our parks before. Sedges (plants in the family Cyperaceae) are a big family of plants that look like grasses or reeds, but have triangular-shaped stems instead of flat ones. Papyrus and Water Chestnuts are in the same family. What I enjoy about sedges is that they often have such interesting spikes, like the one Ben found, Tuckerman’s Sedge (Carex tuckermanii). It also appears to have finished flowering and started producing fruits.

Tuckerman’s Sedge, a grass-like plant in the Watershed swamp

Along with these rewarding finds in the Watershed swamp, Ben was treated to a snack of High-bush Blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum) as he balanced precariously on top of those floating hummocks!

Ben was also rewarded with High-bush Blueberries as he explored the swamp.

His treat was only fair, really, since he had to carefully avoid the abundant Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) scattered through the swamp. While he came home with a small Poison Sumac rash, it was a small price to pay for discovering cool, new plants and wild blueberries as far as Ben was concerned. Poison Sumac takes the form of a shrub or small tree and  grows only  in very wet places like swamps and bogs. My thanks to Ben for exploring this Watershed habitat. I don’t think I’ll be pulling on my waders anytime soon…but I’m very glad he did!

Poison Sumac, photo by Mawkaroni at iNaturalist.org (CC BY-NC)

When sufficient rain falls, a small stream flows out of Watershed’s swamp and finds its way through the woods westward,  eventually feeding the marsh I spoke of earlier at the foot of the big meadow. It’s not an impressive stream, but it feeds the plants in the marsh, which brings the insects, which feed the birds…you get the idea. Nature depends on connections like that.

A small seasonal stream flows westward from the swamp to the marsh at the foot of the big meadow.

Time to Head Home

By now, my damp feet, my tired knees and my socks decorated with Enchanter’s Nightshade made me aware that it was time to leave.  So I trudged back up the meadow, through the dim woods where the Pee-wee still asked its question,  “Pee-weee?”, along the Fogler’s soy beans and across the lawn to the cornfield beyond the shed.  There a group of young Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) hung out on the cornstalks, moving restlessly like a bunch of rowdy teenagers, while their weary elders probably went on molting while hidden in the bushes and fields nearby.

The cornfield became a gathering place for young Red-winged Blackbirds.

I was standing next to a large tree stump when a juvenile House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) popped out of the vines that covered it.  This young bird  was a bit older than the plush-looking little Wren I’d seen at Stony Creek Ravine a few weeks ago.  But it was clear that the Watershed wren had still not quite grown into its beak. Surprised at how close I was, it hopped nervously for a moment, looked away, looked back – and popped back into the leafy cover. Caution won out over curiosity.

My Watershed adventure complete, I headed home, content that I’d experienced the natural world in the same way I’d relished it as a child growing up on Lake George Road. Yes, my arm had a few itchy spots here and there, my tired knees felt wobbly and water squished in my shoes –   but I’d meandered on paths of my own making,  out of sight of other humans, a quiet part of something wild and much older than I – and yet close enough to the kitchen at home that I’d be there in time for dinner. Thanks for coming along.

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.

 

Photos of the Week: The Teenage Trials of a Juvenile Hawk…and Me

A brown/gray tail with stripes is a field mark for juvenile Red-tailed Hawks. This one is on an electrical tower in a field near our home.

Readers of this blog know, I hope, that I love wild creatures of all kinds. But I will admit that in August, young Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) try my patience!

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

Almost every year, a mated pair of  Red-tails successfully raise one carefully tended youngster in the woods across the field from our home. According to the Stokes’ Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol. III), Red-tailed Hawk mates are good partners, each taking turns on the nest for the month-long incubation period. Then they spend another month feeding the nestlings, first tearing off bits of prey to feed the young directly, and later dropping off food for the young to eat on their own. (I have yet to see the nesting behavior because it seems to take place in a woods on private property nearby).

Even a couple weeks after fledgling, the adult hawks will bring food to the young who will continue begging with their “Kloo-eek” calls. But inevitably the time finally arrives when the youngster must hunt on its own. And it seems to take a while for young hawks to accept this reality. (Ring bells with any human young you know, dear reader?)

The young Red-tail calls repeatedly to be fed – but its parents now have stopped feeding so that it will hunt on its own.

That’s when we’re treated to about a month of plaintive piercing calls coming from the electrical towers in the field next to us. I’ve counted. We hear 3-5 calls about every 15-30 seconds for hours each day! (Turn your volume up – but be prepared!)

The adults do not appear or respond.  They either believe in tough love or don’t respond because they are finishing their yearly molt – probably both. As the Stokes so calmly describe it, “If red-tails have nested anywhere near your home, this constant calling of the young can be quite tiresome.” Ummm…yeah. But we grin and bear it, knowing that this striking raptor is an important – and beautiful – part of nature’s balance. And within a few weeks, thank goodness, it will fly off, seeking its own little corner of the world.

By September, the juvenile will accept its need to feed itself and fly off to find its own territory.

 

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.