If you need any excuse to get outside on these beautiful fall days, check out this hibernation-themed nature scavenger hunt! Our recreation staff worked with Oakland County Parks to bring you this scavenger hunt. Go explore the parks!
On this self-led Nature Scavenger Hunt in Oakland Township Parks, investigate and learn how animals prepare for winter and survive the cold. Riddles and clues will lead you around Oakland Township Parks to explore, crack codes, piece together puzzles, and solve the mystery of how animals survive the cold! After completing the nature adventure, participants will submit their answers and be entered in a drawing to win a special reward!
A kaleidoscope of dancing butterflies grabbed my attention time and again as I visited Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park in August. Oh, yes, fledgling birds also whisked about in the dense greenery, accompanied by adult supervision, learning to feed or begging to be fed. And patches of glorious orange or blue flowers emerged among the tall grass.
But it was the butterflies that stole the show for me as they hovered, floated, sailed and finally settled on blossoms or perched on a leaf along the trail. On glamorous wings – or sometimes tattered ones – they danced summer to a glorious finale. Come see.
The “Corps de Butterflies,” Costumed in a Rainbow of Colors, Take the Stage
Every year now I wait for the late summer arrival of the Giant Swallowtails (Papilio cresphonte), the largest butterflies in North America (6-7 inch wingspan!). This prima ballerina of the butterfly corps used to only breed in the south. Many researchers seem to think that most Giant Swallowtails still migrate south in the autumn. However, as the climate has warmed and prevented September frosts, they have expanded their range, establishing some small populations in lower Michigan. Whether they are breeding in our area or just nectaring before heading back south, I’m always glad to see them.
Several butterflies showed up on summer’s stage with torn wings. I’ve wondered if that could be a result of being blown into harm’s way by the winds that accompany summer thunderstorms. Or perhaps the late bloom of goldenrods this year meant that butterflies fed more on prickly thistles. The ragged Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) below seemed to be feeding and flying reasonably well, despite its ravaged wings. I hope it had already mated since shape is important in butterfly courtship!
Most Eastern Tiger Swallowtails took the stage in August dressed in their best. Notice the long hairs on the abdomen of the one below. I learned recently that the scales on a butterfly’s wings are actually flattened hairs. According to a study by Judith H. Myers at the University of British Columbia, it’s possible that the long hairs, sometimes called “scent scales,” are used to spread pheromones in flight during the breeding season. The pheromone receptors that pick up scent are located in both male and female antennae, though scent is less important than color, shape and movement when most butterflies are courting .
Another butterfly “long hair” comes in a tiny package, the Common Checkered-Skipper (Pyrgus communis). My husband spotted this tiny male whose wingspan is only about .75 to 1.25 inches. We’ve probably missed it before because it’s so small and looks nondescript when fluttering erratically along the path. But when it stops, wow! Its thorax is dark blue-gray and the males are not only fuzzy like most skippers; they have long bluish “hairs.” A handsome little guy! Evidently the female’s thorax is a much less glamorous dark brown. According to the Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels, this tiny butterfly is most common in the central and southern states but regularly expands its range and is seen in our region in late summer and fall.
I was delighted to finally see a restless Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele) as it fluttered from sunlight to shade and back again along the entrance path. What a costume! The dorsal (upper) side of its wings is patterned in orange and black, but its ventral side flashes with silver spangles! The females lays eggs even into September. Their caterpillars overwinter and start eating violet leaves in the spring, according to the Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide.
A SpicebushSwallowtail (Papilio troilus) added its dark beauty to the butterfly ballet. It’s very tricky to discern the differences between dark swallowtails. If you need help like I do, I recommend the website at this link which compares the female Black Swallowtail, the black morph of the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, the Spicebush Swallowtail and the Pipevine Swallowtail. Whew! It always takes me a while to puzzle them out! I also get help from the good folks at the Michigan Lepidoptera Facebook group.
I finally got a look at how the little Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos) came by its name. If you look closely at the lower edge of the hindwing, there’s a tiny whitish crescent shape in one of the boxes there. In the photo below, I brightened the spot and created a small red marker so you could see it, too. It’s a subtle field mark, for sure!
And here’s how the Pearl Crescent appears from above. You’ll see these little butterflies on any walk you take in our parks from June to October. I like knowing its name; it makes a walk more companionable somehow.
Of course it’s the season for Monarchs (Danaus plexippus) and though they seem less plentiful this year than last, a goodly number still stroke a few wingbeats and glide over the fields. Here’s a sampling of three at Stony Creek Ravine Park – a male settling along the path, one in flight toward a withering Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare) and what I think was a female on Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]
Another set of dancing wings joined the choreography. With a zing, a dive and a pause in mid-air (à la Baryshnikov), a fierce and glorious dancer, the Green-striped Darner (Aeshna verticalis) came on the scene. Darners are big, more than 2.5 inches long, with bulky thoraxes and long abdomens. Add the helmet-like appearance of their giant eyes which meet at the top of their heads, plus their ability to hover, and in flight they have a remarkable resemblance to a tiny helicopter! These skillful predators feed on all kinds of insects, even meadowhawk dragonflies and damselflies. The northern fields were a-buzz with them at the park last week!
Of course, many other insects – bees, small butterflies, and smaller dragonflies – fed and bred in Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park in August. Here are a few more modest members of the winged corps.
While following the Spicebush Swallowtail, I glanced down at some movement in the grass and found a tiny grasshopper. A wary, or perhaps inquisitive, nymph of what may have been a Red-legged Grasshopper (Melanoplus femurrubrum) peered at me through two blades of grass! My expert resource person, Dr. Gary Parsons of the Michigan State University’s Entomology Department informed me that not only are the nymphs of this genus very similar, but within each species the nymphs have many variations of color and pattern. Nymphs don’t have fully-formed wings, so it will have to save its balletic leaps for a bit later in the summer finale.
Once it saw my camera, it twitched around the side of the grass stem and dangled there for a few minutes by its front legs. At first, the move made it difficult for me to find the nymph among the grass stems. I wondered if this was a camouflage technique; it did resemble a dangling wilted leaf as my eyes searched the ground. But eventually it must have decided I was not a threat and hopped back on the stem. A lovely few moments with a young creature.
A tiny Wood Frog (Rana sylvaticus), barely visible under a leaf, also missed the whole dance above as it made its way to high ground. As the nights cool, Wood Frogs look for leaf litter where they can produce inner anti-freeze and hibernate, frozen solid, until spring.
Oh, Yes, Birds too!
My walks in our parks so often provide serendipitous moments for me. I’d been craning my neck to watch Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) swooping overhead, trailing their long, forked tails and wished aloud that one would perch for a photo. Just then, as my husband and I rounded a curve at the bottom of the Lookout Hill, we were gifted with this wonderful sight!
Dozens of Barn Swallows lined up on the fence with others perching on stalks in the tall plants within the fence line. What a surprise! According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab, older siblings from earlier Barn Swallow broods often assist their parents in feeding the later broods of nestlings. The parents sometimes even get help from unrelated juvenile barn swallows. On the other hand, unmated barn swallows occasionally attack the young of a mated pair in hope of mating with the female! Nature in all species, I expect, has its good instincts and its bad ones.
One morning when I arrived, a large Pokeweed plant along the entrance path near Snell Road was aflutter with juvenile Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum). I could hear their high, piercing calls, but it took a while until one of the youngsters settled on a tree branch nearby for its portrait. Only the mask and the yellow tip of its tail identified it for me, because of its mottled breast and gray overall appearance.
A watchful older Waxwing perched in a nearby tree keeping an eye on the rowdy juveniles enjoying the Pokeweed berries and each other’s company. This one appears to be a first year waxwing because its upper wing is solid gray-brown and is missing its red dot; perhaps it has begun the annual molt because its mask and crest look incomplete. Its disgruntled look made me smile, thinking maybe babysitting juveniles was not its favorite assignment!
An Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) sitting nearby looked over at the hubbub but generally ignored the Waxwings. Since Kingbirds are insectivores during the summers here, there was no need to compete for the Pokeweed berries. In the winter, however, when they fly all the way to the Amazon, they join a variety of flocks and eat only fruit.
At the top of the Lookout Hill, a pair of House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus)- either females or juveniles which look just like their moms – were avidly scraping insects or insect eggs off the stems and leaves of a tree that clearly had already hosted a lot of caterpillars or other small bugs. The leaves were riddled with holes! I’m guessing that House Finches learn at a young age that leaves with holes mean FOOD!
Nearby a juvenile Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus) looked a bit forlorn after it settled in a tree on the Lookout Hill. I didn’t identify this little bird as a Grosbeak until local birder extraordinaire Ruth Glass helped me out. Grosbeaks are now starting their migration to the Caribbean, so I hope this little male will soon be ready to take on his long flight across the country and the ocean beyond.
Our stewardship manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, mowed a path from the bottom of the Lookout Hill, going west, south, and then west again to connect to the older section of the park where the West Branch of Stony Creek runs through a beautiful ravine. As I approached the woods over the ravine, I kept hearing a plaintive Eastern Wood-Pewee (Contopus virens) in the woods but never got to see it. But I did see this little flycatcher, the Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) perching on a bare branch looking a bit rumpled. I wondered if it was a juvenile, though I can’t tell from its plumage.
On a cool morning on my last trip to the park, a molting European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) appeared to be warming its breast high in a bare snag along the entrance trail. During the summer breeding season, these non-native birds are dressed in sleek black with iridescent blue-green overlays. Their beaks turn yellow then, too. But now, as fall arrives, they change into their winter garb. Their beaks turn dark and the feathers on their backs and breasts become covered with white spots. This one was already well along in the process.
And Last But Certainly Not Least, the Trees and Plants that Make It All Possible!
Clearly, butterflies and birds grace our parks because these natural areas are rich in nutritious native food and abundant shelter for both adults and their young – the fledglings and the caterpillars. So let’s spend the last few minutes with perhaps an under-appreciated but vital element of any habitat – the native plants and trees that provide nesting space, nectar, pollen, seeds, nuts and most importantly, oxygen for all creatures – including us!
Begin by looking at that glorious patch of rare, native Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia fulgida) pictured above. These are not the ordinary Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) which gardeners sometimes choose as annuals, or the native, but short-lived Rudbeckia hirtas that thrive in so many habits, including dry prairies. These bright yellow flowers at Stony Creek Ravine Park are a separate species of wildflower that prefers wetlands and is a long-lived perennial. They’re also the species used to create many varieties of cultivars used in landscaping. I’m so glad Ben shared his photo and his enthusiasm on finding these special plants – and for the photo. I was unaware that a wetland “Susan” even existed!
Ben also discovered a lovely patch of Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) growing near the edge of the woods in the north area of the park. It too is a lovely wetland plant and often hosts our native, long-tongued Bumblebees. Though I’ve seen small patches and single stems of these blue flowers in other parks, Ben’s discovery is the biggest patch I’ve seen.
A patch of Great Blue Lobelia which loves “wet feet” like many of the loveliest wildflowers here. Photo by Ben VanderWeide
A closeup of the bell-shaped blossoms of Great Blue Lobelia
Several fields in this new section of the park are under cultivation by a local farmer until the park restoration can begin more fully there. At the edge of one of them is a lovely stand of bright pink Swamp/Rose Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata). These wetland milkweeds host Monarch butterflies, of course, as well as swallowtails, some frittilaries, native bees and skippers. But, good news, deer don’t eat milkweeds! So if you have a moist garden, give these some thought.
I love Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) for its upright purple plumes, but it is also remarkably productive in the food web. Its nectar provides nutrition for a wide variety of native bees, small butterflies and moths. According to the Illinois Wildflowers website, the seeds also provide nutrition for many birds, including Cardinals, Swamp Sparrows, Field Sparrows, Song Sparrows and our winter visitor, the Dark-eyed Junco. Beauty for the eye and utility for the food web – a great combination!
Oh, and remember those young Cedar Waxwings jostling around in the greenery? What attracted them most were Pokeweed berries (Phytolacca americana). Lots of other birds love them as well, including Cardinals, the Gray Catbird and the Brown Thrasher. The fruits, which are green now, turn dark purple when mature. On those pink stalks, the plants look as though they should be somewhere in the tropics! Mammals however, like we humans and our pets, should not partake of any part of this toxic plant. It looks luscious but it has evolved to be eaten by birds and not by any members of mammalia, our class of animals – which is frustrating because the fruits looks so tempting!
Here’s a quick tour of some of the other native wildflowers sprinkled throughout the meadows at Stony Creek Ravine providing sustenance to wildlife.
And Now, A Few of the Mighty Trees at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park!
Though the fields of Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park are alive with pollinators, blossoms and birds, the lush woods that embrace them are equally impressive. In the park’s far western section, the West Branch of Stony Creek shines silver as it runs through the steep terrain of the heavily treed ravine for which the park is named. Along its slopes and on the trail high above the creek, many species of trees compete for sunlight while sharing nutrient resources through the fungal networks underground.
One tree I look for every time I visit the ravine section of the park is a lovely American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) just over the edge of the slope near the end of the ravine trail. Its satin-like bark makes me wish I could reach out and touch it. According to the University of Michigan’s Michigan Flora website, a non-native scale insect (Cryptococcus fagisuga) can leave wounds in its bark that make them vulnerable to a deadly fungus (Nectria coccinea) which causes Beech Bark Disease, only recently discovered in Michigan. We need to protect these glorious native trees which provide so much food for wildlife and so much beauty for us.
On the day the Wednesday bird group visited the park, Ben pointed out a huge Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa) next to the trail. This huge tree has merged three very large trunks. Each on their own would constitute a mighty oak!
Bur Oaks make what the Michigan Flora website calls “mossy cup” acorns. This tree may live for many years to come. Not terribly shade tolerant, it is exposed to sunlight on the edge of the woods near the trail and the long wetland along the entrance trail probably provides the amount of moisture it prefers. Ah, the stories this old tree could tell!
On the tree line between the northern restoration section and the western meadows is an old White Oak (Quercus alba) that demonstrates how location effects the growth of trees. In the open sunlight, surrounded by little competition, the oak has basked in sunlight for many years and spread it branches out instead of up, into a lush, wide crown. What a sight!
In the forest to the north last fall, Ben and I visited a huge Wild Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) that used its energy to grow tall, reaching up into the sunlight. Maybe that’s why its lovely yellow flowers only bloom high in the crown. Here’s the photo of it that I posted previously in the blog – just another example of the trees waiting to be explored in the forests beyond the fields.
The Legacy Within Us
I recently enjoyed an On Being Podcast interview with naturalist and environmental journalist, Michael McCarthy. He shared an insight from evolutionary psychology, namely that for 50,000 generations we humans were simply part of nature. For all that time, before we settled down to farm, we experienced all the challenges other creatures face in trying to survive in nature. Or as he put it “we were wildlife, if you like.” As a result, McCarthy contends, even now what we experienced, what we learned during those millennia is still in us, still making us feel at home in the natural world.
Maybe that explains why so many of us experience peace when we’re in places like Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park. On some level, we’re at home in natural areas in a way that even our cozy firesides cannot quite duplicate. Standing on the Lookout Hill at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park, I look out across moist wetlands and meadows to the encircling wood and just let go, become part of the scenery, embedded in its beauty. The swallows dip and rise, the butterflies float from stem to stem, the woods stands dark and mysterious, the creek at the western edge sings its songs over the rocks – and I’m just part of it all.
I imagine it’s that kinship with nature that motivates you and I to learn about and care for our badly damaged world. And it’s probably that kinship which pushes us out the door and into a park on a cold fall morning or just before dark on a summer night to once more savor our connection to the natural world. Michael McCarthy put it like this: “… there is a legacy deep within us, a legacy of instinct, a legacy of inherited feelings, which may lie very deep in the tissues…we might have left the natural world, most of us, but the natural world has not left us.”
And what a blessing that is! Our task, our calling now is to continue restoring and preserving the natural world for our children and grandchildren. By honoring that legacy within, we can hope to insure that future generations will also be able to breathe deep and feel the freedom and peace that nature so generously provides to us.
Bear Creek Nature Park is the Oakland Township Park I know best. I’ve walked there with my husband Reg for almost thirty years and brought some sort of camera with me for the last thirteen of them. As the winter ebbs each year, we watch for the appearance of the first narrow leaves of Spring Beauty or Blood Root under certain trees. Each May, we check out a huge hole in a particular oak, hoping for a glimpse of this year’s raccoon kits scrambling up and down within in the trunk. My husband has an eagle eye for the slowly moving hulk of snapping turtles gliding across the surface of the marsh and we both listen each summer for the banjo-like strum of the Green Frog’s song at the Center Pond.
But after all these years, we can still be fascinated by something we’ve never seen before, as you’ll see in the life-or-death drama of two determined foes fighting for life on the western slope last week. It’s a fresh experience to watch a trio of Eastern Bluebird fledglings sorting out their relationships in the Eastern Meadow. Amid all the comforts of the turning seasons with their eternal cycles of emerging, blossoming and subsiding, we can still be amazed by the persistence of life. Let me show you what I mean.
High Drama on the Western Slope
My husband and I headed for the western slope one perfect summer day and came upon two small creatures in a life-or-death contest. My husband spotted a large, yellowish/white caterpillar with five spiky, black hairs chewing avidly on a Box Elder leaf (Acer negundo). I learned later from Dr. Gary Parsons, Collection Manager and Bug House Director at Michigan State University’s Etymology Department, that it was the larva of an American Dagger Moth (Acronicta americana). When we stopped to look more closely, we saw a large, exotic-looking insect hovering nearby. Oh boy, I recognized this determined female.
It was an Ichneumon Wasp (family Ichneumonidae), a creature that preys on caterpillars in order to plant its eggs in or on them. When the eggs hatch, the unfortunate victim provides a plentiful source of food for the Ichneumon Wasp’s young!
This female kept her long abdomen with its ovipositor curled upward like a scorpion as she maneuvered near her target. The caterpillar clearly sensed the danger of her presence because it began to rear back its head along its body, thrashing forward each time the insect approached. The wasp first hid under a nearby leaf and then leapt forth, for all the world like a silent movie villain!
The battle went on and on in the bright sunlight. The wasp repeatedly attempted to gain purchase on the caterpillar, but its bristled body and its constant thrashing made depositing the wasp’s eggs extremely difficult.
They were worthy opponents. We waited a long time but the battle continued to rage – the caterpillar eating the leaf between attacks to keep its energy up and the wasp trying desperately to deposit its eggs on a nourishing food source. Eventually, we left them both to their fate and walked on into the morning.
It was a peaceful change of scene to see male and female Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) settling on plants nearby. I hope they mated and laid eggs earlier since they were landing on Common Milkweed (Asclepia syriaca) that weren’t young and tender, but too dry and tough to provide much nutrition for their offspring. Perhaps they were some of the first Monarchs to start migrating south to Mexico. [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]
This female Monarch may be resting before the long journey to Mexico.
The bumps on the hingwing veins mean this is a male Monarch.
In early August, we saw a female Monarch fluttering among fresh Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) in the meadow west of the Center Pond. Monarch caterpillars specialize; they only eat milkweed leaves. Perhaps this one’s young are currently nibbling their way along the leaves of this plant, intending to molt, pupate and emerge before the migration.
Just a short way along the Western Slope trail, a slightly worn Viceroy Butterfly (Limenitis archippus) settled on Queen Anne’s Lace. Viceroys look very much like Monarchs and recent research indicates that both species use their color to advertise that they are unpalatable to predators. However they can be distinguished from Monarchs by the thin, black lines across the veins of the hind wings. Often, too, they tend to flutter more frequently than Monarchs which beat their wings quickly and then coast for a few moments in flight.
Viceroys have another defense against predators like the Ichneumon Wasp. Their caterpillars look like bird droppings! Here’s a photo of one shared by a photographer who uses the name jdfish1 at inaturalist.org. What a strategy this butterfly evolved for protecting its young!
On to the Pond: A Stealthy Fisher and I Share Strategies
As I turned down the path that leads to the Center Pond, I was confronted by a wriggling, bristly caterpillar who appeared to be suspended in mid-air right in front of me. The Hickory Tussock Moth (Lophocampa caryae), like the Dagger Moth caterpillar, is covered with bristly hairs that can cause a skin rash if you pick either of them up. Since it pupates in leaf litter after eating on leaves, it was wriggling out an almost invisible string in order to carefully lower itself to the ground. It didn’t look fully grown to me because it hadn’t developed the long black hairs front and back of later instars. I wished it well and passed on.
But after a few steps, I stopped again. A young Green Heron (Butorides virescens) sat preening in a branch near the dock.
I love watching these birds fish, so I approached very cautiously, repeatedly taking a few slow-motion steps each time the heron looked out toward the pond and then pausing when it looked even slightly in my direction. After checking out its feathers, it flew down to stand in the water, stretching out its long neck. It didn’t stay there long; Green Herons often prefer to hunt from a perch rather than wade like the Great Blue Herons, for example.
I continued to stealthily approach each time the heron’s focus turned out toward the pond. And suddenly, it flew to the dock and began to hunt in earnest. I As I watched it verrrry sloooowly step down to the edge of the dock and stretch out its neck to search for prey, a huge smile spread across my face. I almost laughed aloud. I thought, “You and I, Green Heron, have developed the same strategy, except I want a photo and you want a meal!”
It didn’t score a meal that time. It gave up and flew to the other side of the pond. Here’s what it was probably looking for, but couldn’t quite reach – a Green Frog (Rana clamitans) immersed in duckweed, who lived to mate another day.
When I reached the deck, a family of three small Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) with an adult female were feeding off the bright green Common Duckweed (Lemna minor) on the far side of the pond. Three other young wood ducks cruised around by themselves, far from the others.
I’d seen this same grouping at the bird walk a couple of days earlier. This time though, the female spotted me in the distance and disappeared into the vines at the far edge of the pond. When she returned, she appeared to have summoned the male who’d been hiding because he clearly was molting. His gorgeous iridescent green crest and curvy “duck tail” were being replaced by more sedate non-breeding plumage. He and the female quickly stood guard over their family group as if to put me on notice!
The other three ducklings came a bit closer to the others, but again seemed to be happy on their own. I wondered if they were from her first brood, since Wood Ducks can breed twice in a summer, though the minimum number in a Wood Duck clutch is usually six. So maybe she just had three slightly more independent offspring and three who needed more protection? No way of knowing.
The male Wood Duck eventually decided I was not a threat and disappeared back into the tangle of vines to work a bit more on his molting process.
My husband and I watched an Eastern Wood-pewee (Contopus virens) sally forth from the shrubbery to hawk for insects. But as soon as it returned to the dead vines at the pond edge, it almost disappeared from view. See how quickly you can spot it here:
As I left the pond, walking along the eastern boardwalk, I heard the “miaou” call of a Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis). One of the birders had pointed out a catbird there earlier in the week and I’d taken a quick photo. But I told the others that I’d always wanted a good photo of the rusty undertail coverts of these birds and I’d never gotten one. Well, two days later, I heard the “miaou” again, and there it was obliging me by showing the part of its anatomy that I’d read about but never caught in a photo.
In the meadow west of the Center Pond, the Wednesday birding group also spotted a male Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) dropping down into the grass to feed and then quickly rising again to the nearest branch. I got a quick photo then to share with you, but didn’t see the bird again during the week. Keep an eye out when you’re there. He’s a beautiful eye-full, even when looking a bit bedraggled either from parenting duties or perhaps the beginning of his molt.
Out on Bear Marsh with Snappers!
In the woods on the way to the marsh, a movement at our feet caught our attention. A tiny American Toad (Anaxyrus americanus) about 3/4 of an inch long, hopped onto some leaves and froze, hoping perhaps to blend into the background and escape notice; camouflage is a basic survival strategy for toads. Though they breed in shallow water, they spend most of their time on land. I love this little toad’s chubby legs. Small as he is, he’s off into the larger world to feed and if lucky enough to survive, produce another generation of toads.
Along the way, some small white mushrooms stood tall along a seam in a log. Crown-tipped Coral mushrooms (Clavicorona pyxidata) are aptly named. They do resemble undersea corals and their tips are recessed and surrounded by little points. They grow only on dead wood, especially hardwood that has lost its bark. So they are helping to recycle the forest for us and creating this odd, but lovely life form in the process.
A couple of striking insects also appeared as we passed through the wood toward the marsh. A Northern Pearly Eye butterfly (Enodia anthedon) landed in a bare spot on the trail, sunlight shining through its wings. This butterfly doesn’t feed on flowers, but on tree sap, rotting fruit, decaying vegetation, even carrion – transforming death back into life. The life cycle of butterflies is full of amazing transformations, so why not one more?
Dr. Gary Parsons of MSU also helped me identify this cartoonishly cute, metallic native bee near the marsh as being from the family Halictidae. They are commonly called SweatBees, the ones that are attracted to your perspiration. But this tiny one was sipping from the drying blossoms of a native wildflower called Jumpseed (Persicaria virginiana), so called because according to Michigan Flora, if the plant is disturbed, it can propel mature seed about 9 feet, a nifty means of dispersal!
At least six Common Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina) moved slowly through the water at Bear Creek Marsh, their shells looking like moving clumps of mud. Snappers are generally shy and harmless except when bothered on land. Their plastron (the lower shell) is small, leaving parts of its body exposed and vulnerable. They can’t completely disappear inside their shell and be safe like many turtles. So on land, their only protection is flinging out their very long necks and biting. Snappers clean our lakes and marshes of bacteria much like vultures clean our land, by consuming underwater carrion, but unlike vultures they also forage for live prey and aquatic vegetation.
The edge of the dock at the northern entrance to the marsh is blooming with Arrowhead (Sagittaria latifolia), a lovely aquatic plant that produces white flowers sprouting from both sides of a stalk or “raceme”- and the large, vivid arrow-shaped leaves are almost more beautiful than the flowers! Dragonflies cling to them like bright baubles. What a sight on a summer morning!
Male flowers sprout above female ones on the stalks of Arrowhead.
A female or juvenile Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa)
Male Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis)
The Eastern Meadow: Young Birds Out on Their Own..Sort Of
The Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) is just getting ready to turn the meadow gold. A male American Goldfinch (Spinus tristus) stood on a thistle and happily tore off some of the Goldenrod buds, possibly to feed either his mate or young. Goldfinches don’t start breeding until late summer when the thistles provide down for nests and seeds for growing broods.
Once he looked up and saw my camera, he gave me a wary glance but went right back to foraging.
Joe Pye (Eutrochium maculatum) blooms in soft patches of bright pink blossoms with purple stems along the eastern trail. There’s just enough moisture to keep their “feet wet,” and the Bumblebees (genus Bombus) hum contentedly as they search for nectar from both the buds and the shaggy, open blooms.
A Common Wood Nymph (Ceryonis pegala) butterfly bobbed along pausing periodically in the deep grass. I mistook it at first for the Little Wood Satyr because they look similar. But the Wood Nymph is almost twice as big and frequents grassy fields while Wood Satyrs prefer shady woods or wood edges. The Wood Nymph also appears a bit later in the summer than the Wood Satyr. Glad my source, Butterflies of Michigan by Jaret C. Daniels set me straight!
When I first saw three fledgling Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) near the top of the trail, they were all sitting on a sign together. But as I approached, two of them rose into the air and began mock fighting, banging into each other, flying away, settling for a moment, and then mock fighting again. They were too quick for me to snap a photo. Meanwhile the third little bluebird went off on its own, first looking about and then pecking quietly in the grass as it had no doubt seen its parents do.
Eventually it flew to a bare tree far off in the field and calmly surveyed the whole field. The blue on its wing tips and tail feathers was much more apparent in the full morning sunlight.
The two more social siblings finally settled next to each other on the edge of a sign. After all that mock fighting, they snuggled up against each other – though I wonder if an ornithologist would tell me that the play fighting was dominance behavior and the positioning of the one fledgling’s head over the neck of the other meant that they had settled the pecking order between them.
I later spotted two fledgling Bluebirds next to a male adult in a tree along the Walnut Lane. I wondered if the two fledglings were the scrappy pair who rested on the sign. All three seemed to be focused on the field. Maybe they were looking for the solitary fledgling who preferred to be off on its own. It was fun to imagine family dynamics among bluebirds.
What I think was a small Amber Snail (family Succinea) left a shining trail behind it on a milkweed leaf as I left the Eastern Meadow. Amber snails are described as land snails but they also live in moist environments. I was a bit surprised to see one out in the sunshine when we’ve had such blistering hot days this summer!
At the curve of the path that leads to the Walnut Lane, a busy adult Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea) did its best to keep up with a very flighty fledgling that begged insistently as it bounced from branch to branch. As you can see from the slight blur in its photo below, I had some trouble keeping up with the youngster myself! Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Stewardship Manager, showed me a Gnatcatcher nest that fell near his home. So imagine how tiny that fledgling had to be at birth to fit in that lovely nest with possibly as many as four other hatchlings! Look for the white eye ring and the white feathers on either side of the dark tail feathers to identify these active little birds.
The frenetic Gnatcatcher fledgling waiting to be fed.
A lovely Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher nest found by Dr. Ben
A Short Trip Through More Summer Blooms
I couldn’t detail all the wildflowers and grasses that I enjoyed at Bear Creek Nature Park in the last week, so take a short stroll through the rest of them here. Their color adds so much joy to a summer walk!
Life Calls Us Out to Explore
Reg and I met twenty-month-old Henry trotting along the path west of the Center Pond as his parents took a rest on a nearby bench. He looked content to just keep moving up the trail, seeing what he could see. It was clear he was happy to be there. Henry reminded me of the third Bluebird fledgling that I described earlier – happy to be off on his own, exploring the big beautiful world that he’s just beginning to understand.
What’s so great is that Henry’s experience is accessible to all of us, no matter our age. If we get out in the natural world with our curiosity and eyes wide open, we can’t help being surprised and delighted by it all – even two small insects determined to fight the other off to pass on their DNA to a new generation. Bird parents exhaust themselves caring for their young. Wildflowers fight their way up out of hard soil to bud, bloom and send their seeds forth into the world. Butterflies, turtles, even fungi recycle death back into life. Life in all its multifaceted glory keeps struggling to persist. And it’s our responsibility as stewards of this glory to keep working hard to make that possible. Here in Oakland Township, the residents have made a commitment to support that call to stewardship – and even in the midst of a tough 2020, I think that’s something to celebrate. Bet you do, too.
On June 10, a powerful windstorm with 90 mph winds flattened half of a small woods along our driveway, dropped and split trees around our yard and dramatically thinned and damaged the larger forest canopy that surrounds our house. As soon as that massive fist of wind plowed its way north, the heat descended, staying around 90 degrees for two weeks or so. As a result, my forays into Charles Ilsley Park to monitor nest boxes became my only opportunity to see nature largely unscathed.
Twice each week, I hike out to see if eggs in the nest boxes have hatched, if nestlings are becoming feathered, if fledglings have ventured forth into the big world outside. So in this blog, I’ll share in one virtual hike what I saw at Charles Ilsley Park before the windstorm and during my semi-weekly monitoring walks. Glad you’re accompanying me.
On the Path Heading In
Local birder extraordinaire, Ruth Glass, alerted my photographer friends Joan and Bob Bonin and me to the presence of a Yellow-throated Vireo nest (Vireo flavifrons) near the parking lot. I searched the branches on two different trips and never spotted it. But luckily, Bob got a great photo of this lovely migrator on its nest. The nest is such an art piece, as you’ll see below. It’s usually made of bits of bark, grasses, dry leaves; this one is decorated with lichen as well – and all nicely packaged with spider silk! The males and females of this vireo look alike (monomorphic) and both genders incubate the young. Ruth reported that she saw the female in the nest being serenaded by the male nearby. But I have no way of knowing which gender Bob saw for this photo. Sigh…wish I could have seen this bird in its nest – but I’m so glad Ruth and the Bonins did!
An Eastern Wood-Pewee (Contopus virens) landed in the big oaks along the entrance trail. It appeared to have a bit of nesting material in its beak – probably a piece of lichen. According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, this little flycatcher’s “lichen-covered nest is so inconspicuous that it often looks like a knot on a branch.”
The Central Prairie – Flowers Blooming and Boxes Filled with Baby Birds
Blooms, Butterflies and Beetles
On my early visits, purple spires of Wild Lupine (Lupinus perennis) peeked out of the grass here and there in the central and western prairie. Lupine once established can tolerate intense sun and dry soil, so it does well in prairies. When I came back later in June with the birding group, some of the lupines had made fuzzy seed pods that I’d never noticed before!
By the time the pods had formed on the lupine, a summer bloom, Lance-leaf Coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata) had emerged in the central prairie. Coreopsis bursts forth in golden composite blooms. The sunshine-yellow, ragged “petals” are really ray florets that surround the tiny disc florets at the flower’s center. These florets are tiny individual flowers, part of the plant’s reproductive structure.
According to one of my fave wildflower websites, Illinois Wildflowers, it also provides both nectar and pollen to a wide variety of floral visitors – lots of native bee species as well as beetles, and butterflies. One of the birders spotted a Baltimore Checkerspot (Euphydryas phaeton) sipping nectar avidly from a Coreopsis. Unlike most butterflies, its caterpillar overwinters. According to Wikipedia, in late summer or fall, the caterpillar stops eating, spins out some silk and wraps itself in a pre-hibernation web on a plant. Before winter begins, it will exit the web, and spend the cold months hibernating in dead grass or leaf litter until pupating in the spring.
A couple mid-summer wildflowers appeared later in June. Hairy Beard-tongue (Penstemon hirsutus) produces tiny hairs on every surface – leaves, stems, even petals. Clearly this wildflower knows how to protect itself from predators who don’t like a mouthful of fuzz! And blazing orange Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) is thrusting its way up through the tall grass and daisies as well – a food source for the Monarch caterpillar. [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]
In deep grass at the edge of the trail, a buttery yellow flutter caught my eye. It was a diurnal (daytime) moth with feathery antennae. Knowledgeable folks on the “Butterflying Michigan” Facebook page helped me identify it as a member of the genus Xanthotype. It’s evidently either a Crocus Geometer or a False Crocus Geometer, but I was also informed that a definitive species identification between the two would require examining their genitalia! Uh, no.
Native bees foraged on flowers in the central prairie too. I’ve learned that it’s nigh on to impossible to identify the species of a native bee from a photograph so I won’t try. But I do love to see these solitary bees at home in our parks, especially a flashy metallic green one like this bee on the non-native Ox-eye Daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare).
Following the path around the Center Prairie in early June, I found one of the small ponds swirling with busy Whirligig Beetles (family Gyrinidae).
These gregarious beetles are beautifully adapted for survival. They row around in circles on the surface with their middle and back legs, probably looking for mates or prey, but also making it tough for would-be predators to catch one! They can also swim underwater if necessary because they trap an air bubble under their stiff wing covers (or “elytra”). They constantly produce a waxy substance that keeps them buoyant and makes them slippery to predators. In fact, males have sticky front legs so the female doesn’t slip from their grasp while mating! Add to that, their split eyes that can see both above and below the water and their ability to fly and it’s clear that whirligig beetles have evolved for survival in pretty sophisticated ways. Here’s a little of the stir they were creating at Ilsley.
Neonatal Care in the Central Prairie
The nest boxes in the Central Prairie are busy places in June. Birds industriously construct nests inside, lay their eggs, feed their nestling at a relentless pace and eventually frenetically feed the begging fledglings when they emerge. This year the boxes that I’m monitoring sheltered Eastern Bluebirds, Tree Swallows and a House Wren. Luckily, all the birds that I monitor this year lived harmoniously, though the Tree Swallows gave me friendly reminders of their presence by swooping right over my head while I checked their boxes. Here’s a Tree Swallow adult (Tachycineta bicolor) giving me the once over as I passed near its box.
Tree Swallow eggs are small, pure white and sit daintily in their grassy nests lined with white feathers. After the writhing, pink hatchlings emerge, it takes about a week for them to begin to develop dark feathers beneath their pink skin, as you can see below. I assume that the white edges on their beaks help adults aim their beaks accurately as they feed each of them in the dark of a nest box or tree cavity.
Here’s a lovely lady Eastern Bluebird (Sialiasialis) taking a break from incubation on a nest box in the central prairie.
Bluebird eggs are usually pale blue and the nest is constructed of grass and sometimes pine needles. Here are some nestlings in a pile in one of my bluebird boxes almost ready to become fledglings. It’s pretty crowded in there with six of them! These little ones napping in a heap are about 6 days from entering the big, bright world outside.
A Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) paused on a twig with food for its young. Song Sparrows can nest on the ground or as high as 15 feet up in a shrub. I wondered if this one was waiting for me to move along before darting to its nest hidden somewhere in the vicinity. Wish I could see those nestlings!
A Battle for a Nest Box in the Western Prairie
Things were not so peaceful in the western prairie. During a birding walk in June, we witnessed a daring feat of courage. For some reason, four adult Tree Swallows attempted to drive a male Eastern Bluebird (and probably the female inside) out of a nest box. We watched the aerial acrobatics of the iridescent blue swallows as they repeatedly dove at the harried male Bluebird who defended the box. The persistent swallows even clipped him with their wings occasionally as he ducked and snapped at them. Here are a series of stills as the battle raged.
The bluebird stayed right where he was and Tom from our birding group reported finding bluebird eggs inside the next day. Though Bluebirds will not tolerate another bluebird close by, they generally ignore the swallows and vice versa. But not this time. Hooray for the brave little bluebird!
A Side Trip to the Eastern Prairie in Search of A Tiny Bird
By traveling around the west prairie and back through the north one, we reach the central prairie trail again which takes us to eastern prairie. I love this rolling landscape full of dancing native grasses and wildflowers. But I only got there once in early June before the windstorm struck. What prompted me was the alert from Ruth Glass who, along with seeing the Yellow-throated Vireo, had also seen the nest of a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea) in a Box Elder there. When I reached the right tree, I stood for several minutes scrutinizing it without seeing the tiny nest. But suddenly a Gnatcatcher flew in with food in its beak – and I could see it! My photos were just so-so, but again my photographer buddies, the Bonins, came through. Joan got a beautiful photo of the nest with an adult Gnatcatcher sitting inside so I can share this little beauty with you. Again, the nest is decorated with lichens which not only are beautiful but scientists believe have anti-microbial properties that fend off infections, like mosses do.
Near the wetland on the south side of the prairie, a Common Yellowthroat burbled his “witchedy witchedy” song, declaring his territory to ward off other males. According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “Each male normally has only one mate in his territory during a breeding season. However, a female’s mating calls often attract other males, and she may mate with them behind her mate’s back.” I believe the female’s “ready to mate” call, a fast series of chips, is the second “call” (as opposed to “song”) listed at this Cornell link. What scamps, those females! But these little birds are contending with predation from carnivorous birds like Merlins and Shrikes and sometimes have to cope with Brown-headed Cowbirds dropping eggs in their nests. Increasing the genetic diversity of their offspring may help the species adjust to the perils of their habitat, or help that female ensure some of her young survive.
On the Way Back: An Uncrowned King and a Vigorous Bath
Along the trail back to the parking lot, an elegant Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) with a white tip on its tail, broad shoulders and a rounded crown perched near the tree line. The Kingbird’s crown, I’ve learned, hides a bright red/orange patch at its center which can be raised in a threat gesture just before dive-bombing any intruder in its territory, even Crows, Red-tailed Hawks or Great Blue Herons flying overhead! Its feistiness and that crown evidently earned it the name Kingbird. I’ve never seen that scarlet crown; I even searched for a photo of it on iNaturalist.org to no avail. But if you want to see a Kingbird’s crown when it’s really riled up, page down a short way at this link from McGill Bird Observatory! The Kingbird that I saw at Ilsley was considerably more mellow.
As I crested a slope on the way back to the car, I paused at a distance to watch a Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) take a dust bath. In a soft patch of dry earth, the bird performed a series of fast gyrations while beating its wings at high speed. When I developed the series of photos, I realized that in its frenzy, this male had exposed his belly by rolling onto his back! I’m guessing he had been plagued by mites and was determined to get rid of them! Here’s the sequence of moves that he made:
Nature Knitting My Raveled Sleeve Once More…
Shakespeare said that it was sleep that “knits the raveled sleeve of care” – and Will was right, of course. But nature is a gifted knitter of cares for me as well. The leafy landscape at home that has soothed me for more than a quarter century is drastically changed – large sections of it simply absent, twisted, broken, split, dying.
But despite nature’s power to destroy, it still acts as a balm through it all. When a pair of Carolina Wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) disappeared from our yard after the windstorm, I could visit the nest boxes at Charles Ilsley Park to to see pink hatchlings just out of their shells and know life would go on. In Ilsley’s western prairie, the bluebird stood his ground and started his family. The whirligigs danced and dove; blooms rose from the earth and turned their many colored faces to the sun. While sitting at my back door disconsolate, staring at a huge pile of broken tree limbs, two Baltimore Orioles alighted and quickly mated as if to say, “We lost our nestlings in the storm, but here we are, starting again.” And at home, the Carolina Wrens returned four days after the destruction, the male singing his three phrase song as loudly and ebulliently as ever. So through all the craziness of this plague year, I was blessed with short interludes to breathe in the beauty and resilient energy of life despite the chaos around us. And for that I’m very grateful.
Blue Heron Environmental Area on Rochester Road is a place I’ve rarely visited. This special natural area was purchased years ago by our Parks and Recreation Commission to protect a Great Blue Heron rookery that has since moved on. The township has begun planning for the area’s future use, but for now it’s preserved as a beautiful green space with a large arc of wetland curving through a high-quality lowland forest. The fields outside the forest are planted by a local farmer which helps prevent the spread of invasive shrubs until future plans come to fruition.
Until recently, I had only been in this forest to pull garlic mustard during spring volunteer workdays. But in early June, I was able to join our township Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide and his stewardship specialist, Grant VanderLaan, for a short exploration while they there were clearing invasive plants. What a great opportunity to share some of the special flowers, vivid dragonflies, and elder trees that inhabit this moist, shady world!
Escorted Along the Fields by a Fleet of Dragonflies!
While skirting the farm field near Rochester Road, I noticed a sunlit meadow to my right that was splashed with blossoms of native Daisy Fleabane (Erigeron annuus).
All along the field edges, dragonflies were patrolling, and occasionally dueling over, their territories. Blue Heron Environmental Area is ideal for these aerial wizards. In the open areas, they can scoop up mosquitoes, flies, midges or even moths and damselflies out of the air, while attracting a mate with their speed and skill. And once they do mate, the forest wetlands provide an ideal spot for depositing their eggs. Since walking humans stir up a lot of insects, they were also happy to accompany me along the field edge to harvest whatever I stirred out of the grass.
The Widow Skimmer female below (Libellula luctuosa) looks very like the male, except that her abdomen is black and gold while his is gray-blue. The male also has white patches beyond the dark brown ones on each wing. Widow Skimmers find shelter at night by hanging underneath overhanging leaves.
Eastern Pondhawks (Erythemis simplicicollis) are fierce predators. They have long spines on their legs for grasping prey, which includes any insect their size or smaller – occasionally even other Eastern Pondhawks! These dragonflies are more likely than others to follow along as you walk in order to feast on swarms of insects. Eastern Pondhawks are “dimorphic,” meaning the male and female look very different as you can see below.
According to Dragonflies of the North Woodsby Kurt Mead, female Eastern Pondhawks can mate multiple times in a day. Perhaps the female’s bright green color and striped abdomen, so different from the male’s, makes her more visible to possible suitors.
The Twelve-spottedSkimmer (Libellula pulchella) is a favorite of mine not only because of the alternating stripes on its wings, but because of the way it hunts. It sallies forth from a perch to snag its prey, and then frequently returns to the same perch repeatedly – giving amateurs like me multiple chances for a decent photo! All dragonflies are a challenge to photograph in flight, but particularly Twelve-spotteds since they fly in bursts of speed and can reverse direction in a flash.
The Common Whitetail (Plathemis lydia) below could be a female, but is more likely a juvenile, since they’re the ones that tend to head for fields and open areas, leaving the water behind once they emerge from their larval stage. Their appearance is not only identical to the adult female; it also closely resembles the female Twelve-spotted Skimmer. The only difference is that the yellowish-white stripes of the female/juvenile Whitetail form a jagged line down the sides of the abdomen (see below), while the side stripes of the female Twelve-spotted form a neat straight line. So needless to say, I always need a photo to decide which one I saw when a female of either species appears.
I came across two other interesting insects at the edge of the fields. Noticing delicate movement at my feet, I finally spotted a strange creature that is completely harmless to us humans, but quite a predator! A Hangingfly (genus Bittacus) does just as its name implies; it dangles beneath leaves by its looong front legs which have claspers to grasp leaves or stems for support. It uses its other four legs to snag any unwary insect passersby. It looks a bit like a Crane Fly but isn’t related.
And a Six-spotted Tiger Beetle (Cicindela sexguttata) showed up right where they always are – in a bright spot at the edge of a field or forest, its stiff, iridescent green wings shining in the sunlight.
Something New: Restoring a Forest
Have a look at the photo of the cleared, green field above. Until two years ago, it was choked with Autumn Olive and Glossy Buckthorn, invasive non-native shrubs that quickly take over abandoned farm fields. A forestry mower took them down in the winter and the area was soon sown with native grasses and wildflowers. The stewardship summer crew treated the invasive shrub regrowth the following summer.
Often stewardship work in our township begins with this clearing process as the first step in turning a field back into a native prairie or savanna- but not so at Blue Heron. When I visited, Ben showed me that the cleared field in the photo had originally been part of an earlier forest.
As you enter the woods, you can see a demarcation where younger, smaller trees give way to taller, thicker, older ones. It’s likely that decades ago, the older trees, many of which lean eastward, had been reaching for sun at the edge of a farmed field . The bigger trees to the right in the photo probably grew back after the forest was originally cleared for farming in the 19th century. The smaller trees to the left probably sprouted after part of the field was no longer farmed in the second half of the twentieth century.
Stewardship plans include eventually planting native oaks in the open, cleared meadow in order to restore more of the native trees that thrived here before farming began. I’d love to be around to see the restoration of a forest!
The Rich Diversity of a Lowland Forest
I’ve only explored a small section of the current woods at Blue Heron Environmental Area, but I’m already wowed. In the sources I used to research the plants I saw here, I came across phrases like, “found only in high-quality wetlands,” or “found in high quality woodlands.” Because much of the forest has been undisturbed for a long time, Blue Heron provides high-quality examples of both.
Moist Forest Flora – and Some Rare Beauties!
As I stepped with Ben into the older forest, the shade deepened. Ben kindly took me to see a unique orchid. It seems that at one time, this natural area hosted two kinds of Ladyslippers. The more common, and still lovely Small-flowered Yellow Ladyslipper (Cypripedium parviflorum var. makasin) peeks out of the greenery beneath the tall trees. I love how the dark sepals form the purplish ribbons of the lady’s slipper.
But there was once another orchid here which Ben and Grant haven’t yet spotted, the rarer White Ladyslipper (Cypripedium candidum). Here’s a photo of one from iNaturalist.org taken by photographer Erin Faulkner. Note that the sepal “ribbons” are green with faint flecks of purple rather than the dark purple and bright yellow sepals of the Yellow Ladyslipper above.
Ben presumes that White Ladyslippers once grew in this natural area because here and there today grows a hybrid between these two native orchids. The hybrid wildflower at Blue Heron has the white “slipper” of the White Ladyslipper but the purple, sepal “ribbons” of the Yellow Ladyslipper. The two native Ladyslippers must have cross-pollinated and produced this special hybrid that Grant found. I’m so glad that I got to see several of them and am able to share one with you!
Also enjoying the beautiful forest floor, I noticed little yellow pom-poms on a stem growing in the mottled shade of a long, arcing marsh. Ben identified it as Tufted Loosestrife (Lysimachia thrysiflora), a species of Loosestrife I’d never seen before. Its clusters of tiny blossoms, called “racemes,” emerge from the middle axils of the long, graceful leaves like tiny fireworks. It’s described by a useful wildflower website, Illinois Wildflowers, as “found in higher quality wetlands.”
Large areas near the marsh were carpeted with a calf-high plant I’d never before noticed on my hikes – Richweed (Collinsonia canadensis). This member of the mint family produces a plume or spike of tiny yellow flowers in mid-summer, adding a spark of color to the dense shade when little else is in flower. Since I saw only its leaves, here’s a photo of the plant blooming by inaturalist photographer Sirruba.
Ferns Waving from the Forest Floor
The feathery fronds of a glorious variety of ferns sway above the ground near the marsh at Blue Heron Environmental Area. Ben identified two for me and I spotted an old favorite as well. The Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum pedatum) is described by Illinois Wildflowers as “found in higher quality woodlands where the original ground flora is largely intact.” I saw its fan-shaped fronds spiraling out of the ground quite near the center of the marsh’s arc. It carries its spores in narrow bands on the underside of the leaflets near the tip. Each leaflet on the frond folds down slightly to partially cover the sporangia, the structures that carry the spores. They will eventually break open and release the spores to the wind.
The Royal Fern (Osmunda regalis) produces a glorious, rising plume of infertile fronds that catch the sunlight and feed the plant through photosynthesis. The shorter, straight fertile fronds are thinner and produce yellow bead-like spores. The draining of wetlands around the world has had a big impact on Royal Ferns, so I’m happy to have seen so many here!
All over the woodland grows an old friend, the Sensitive Fern, reportedly so-named because its fertile fronds wither at the first frost and arrive after the last frost. Its green, infertile fronds with their jagged edges feed the roots while the smaller fertile fronds eventually produce shiny, brown, bead-like sporangia that last through the winter before breaking open to release the spores. Sensitive ferns also reproduce by underground stems called rhizomes.
Wet Woods Extras
A High Bush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum), an unusual native plant that I’ve only seen before at Cranberry Lake Park, huddled under the shade of a willow on a hummock in the marsh. When I got closer with my camera, I could see fruit just beginning to form. Native mining bees and bumblebees or non-native honeybees must have found the little white nodding blossoms and pollinated them as they foraged. Some lucky bird or mammal has a treat coming!
Near the Blueberry bush, in a wet crevice of a moss-covered hummock, I spotted a tiny Wood Frog (Lithobates sylvaticus). It must have hatched this spring from eggs quickly laid in a vernal pool back in March. Less than 2 inches long, it floated in the shallow water or rested on the moist mud as it explored its shady grotto.
Healthy Little Saplings, a Majestic Beech and Some Colorful “Hangers On”
Among the mixture of maples and oaks, some trees that I see less often have also found a suitable habitat in the forest at Blue Heron. Ben told me of a large Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) farther back in the woods that I’d missed. But I did see this little sapling of one springing up from the moist earth. I love how tiny saplings create such large leaves to capture as much sunlight as possible. Let’s hope it escapes the attention of foraging deer!
I did find an impressive American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) reaching up to the sunlight with its smooth, gray bark. Wildlife love the plentiful beechnuts that this tree will send rattling to the earth. And according to the Trees of Michigan Field Guide by Stan Tekiela, the seedlings and saplings that manage to take root can survive in the shade for years waiting for other trees to fall, giving them the sunlight and space they need. I’m hoping for a grove of Beeches – a new favorite of mine.
A tiny Swamp Oak (Quercus bicolor) must have begun its upward journey from the forest floor when the acorns dropped last fall. Swamp Oak acorns usually come in pairs and sprout shortly after falling, according to Stan Tekiela. If one survives hungry birds and animals, it grows more quickly than most oaks. And it could live for up to 300 years, according to Wikipedia. Good luck, little oak!
What first appeared to be some sort of fungus had sprung up around a large fallen oak in the woods. But it wasn’t a fungus; it was a parasitic plant commonly called Cancer Root or Bear Corn (Conopholis americana). It’s an underground plant that consequently can’t photosynthesize sunlight. Instead it feeds off the roots of woody plants, especially oaks and beeches. This interesting pinecone shape is the flowering stem of the underground plant which grows on the roots about four years before producing these flowers that can grow as high as 8 inches. I’m continually amazed by the variety of ways that nature has found to sustain life.
Imagining Blue Heron’s Past, Protecting It Today and Restoring It For the Future
The distant past of this striking lowland forest can only be imagined. Before farming began here in the 1800’s, an old growth forest probably stretched out from its present site across where Rochester Road is now and beyond. Gray wolves probably roamed the area, keeping a healthy deer population in check. Those White Ladyslippers may have bloomed in profusion in an open wet meadow pocket, since non-native plants had not yet been introduced to the ecosystem.
Today Blue Heron is a special natural area preserved by the Parks and Recreation Commission and the residents who support our parks. The old growth forest is gone, but large trees from the 19th century still stand tall among the wetlands shading a forest floor full of native plants. Thanks to our stewardship program, garlic mustard and other invasive trees, flowers and shrubs – some brought early on by European settlers, others unwittingly planted in our gardens or along our streets – are being removed from our parks and controlled in a variety of ways, including prescribed burns. As a result, our heritage of native plants can begin to reassert itself, providing a healthier, more productive habitat for native wildlife.
And for those of us who want to pass that heritage on to future generations, we can dream of young children wandering among tall oaks and waving native grasses that were restored to Blue Heron Environmental Area by people in our time who valued the gifts of the natural world. What a legacy, eh?