As the township birding group departed Cranberry Lake Park last week, the bugling call of Tundra Swans (Cygnus columbianus) filtered down through the frosty air. Looking up, Ben drew our attention to a huge V-shaped flock of striking black and white birds arrowing across the cold November sky. Gifted local photographer Bob Bonin quickly captured this very special sighting .
The Tundra Swans are so-named because they spend the summer on their breeding grounds above the tree line on the Arctic Circle. On river deltas, near large bodies of water, they build their nests on the chilly ridges formed by the thawing and freezing soil. During the 24 hour sun of an arctic summer, they feed themselves and their young on the lichens, mosses, and grasses of upland or wet meadow tundra. When the long dark of a far north winter started to set in, the swans we saw began their journey south. They passed over our area along their route, likely on their way to the eastern coast of the United States for the winter months.
But another much more modest arctic migrator arrived in the last month – the American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea). (Many thanks again to Bob Bonin for sharing his photos!)
This brown and gray sparrow with a black spot on its breast also raises its young on the arctic tundra. After the male has attracted a mate by singing from the stunted, shrub-like trees of the Arctic, the pair construct a nest of white ptarmigan feathers right on the tundra itself. During the Arctic’s long summer days, they feast and feed their young on insects. But here these modest brown birds, who have traveled so far to spend the winter with us, become vegetarians, peacefully searching out seed in the snow beneath our feeders. (Despite their name, Tree Sparrows spend most of their time on the ground or in shrubs.)
So while we humans may grouse about cold winter days, birds from the arctic must find our area quite balmy. High above, magnificent Tundra Swans wing their way to America’s east coast, bugling cheerfully along the way. And humble Tree Sparrows, leaving behind a dark, frigid arctic winter, treat the blizzards of a Michigan winter like a Florida vacation! Everything, as they say, is relative.
Most of us assume that tadpoles are a wriggling sign of spring and summer. But wait – last weekend, tons of little creatures were wriggling just below the surface of a large wetland at Charles Ilsley Park. My husband guessed tadpoles, but I thought, “Naah, tadpoles hatch only in the spring or summer!” Next morning, Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide was kind enough to net some of the squirming critters from among the fallen leaves floating on the water.
And despite the unlikely season, they turned out to be tadpoles, most likely Green Frog tadpoles due to their long, spotted, doubled-finned tails. It turns out that larger frogs – American Bullfrogs (Rana catesbeiana), Green Frogs(Rana clamitans) and Northern Leopard Frogs (Rana pipiens) – can take up to 2-3 years to reach adult size. So some of their young can still be in the tadpole stage when chilly nights grow long and leaves turn gold and crimson. These little tadpoles were preparing to slow their metabolism way down in order to hibernate underwater.
Frogs, though, don’t hibernate like turtles, by digging down into the mud at the bottom of ponds. They’d suffocate if they did. Like adult frogs, tadpoles can breathe through their skin when completely submerged in oxygenated water. According to Scientific American, to keep water against their skin over the winter, they lie on top of the mud or only partially buried. Tadpoles have more surface area per volume than adult frogs do, so they can actually gather oxygen from the water more efficiently in the cold, motionless water.
Ben scooped out a tadpole and I took a quick series of photos of it wriggling in a plastic specimen box. As a result, it’s possible to see a bit of how a tadpole moves itself forward by thrashing its double finned tail. So meet the tadpoles that taught me that autumn does not just mean long, cold nights, a cascade of brightly colored leaves and gray skies. It can also mean, of all things, tadpoles!
Cranberry Lake Park, with its varied habitats, gives an autumn visitor lots of possibilities. In October, the lake hosts huge bobbing rafts of water birds, feeding and resting on their way south. The grassy trails lead you to expansive meadows covered now by the soft gray of seeding goldenrod, where migratory birds converse in the bushes while harvesting seed. Or you can choose the shady Hickory Lane to the west or the dappled light of the maple forest to the north if you’re in the mood for a woodland walk.
My visits were scattered throughout the month – unusually warm days early on, a sunset hike one breezy evening, and finally a cold, rainy morning right before first frost. Each time I rediscovered how sensibly nature prepares for a winter rest and a bountiful spring.
Cranberry Lake Itself – A Thwarted Kingfisher, a Remarkable Grebe, and Diving Ducks of All Kinds
Cranberry Lake welcomes all kinds of water birds as they begin their long journeys to southern climes. One cold, wet morning, I watched a bird hovering vertically high above the water, head down, scanning the surface below. Suddenly, it gave a loud rattling cry and headed for a leafless tree near the shore. An agitated male Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) shouted its noisy call from a bare limb. Perhaps he was put out by not spotting prey from that perch either!
A small Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) flew in to probe the edge of a mud flat, landing near a Canada Goose (Branta canadensis). Quite an odd couple!
Killdeer are wading birds, being Plovers, but I’ve most often seen them in barren fields, either scurrying along scaring up insects or keening in flight to distract predators. This one, though, looked right at home as it probed the mud for insect larvae or other aquatic prey before beginning migration.
Far out on the lake, a huge mixed flock of migrating ducks and other water birds, well over 200 of them, floated on the surface, foraged for food, or slept and preened on the mud flats in the shallower parts of the lake.
After studying the photo magnified, Ben guessed that most of the birds were Ring-necked Ducks (Aythya collaris) which are diving ducks. Unlike mallards and other dabbling ducks who simply tip upside down to feed, diving ducks have legs set far back on their bodies. As a result, they need to run across water, wings flapping, to get into the air and are awkward on land – but they dive, feed and swim underwater with ease!
(Since most of the Cranberry Lake flock was far from shore, the closeup photos of diving ducks below are all from inaturalist.org photographers. My thanks to all of them and to Creative Commons where they license their work.)
Two other diving ducks that Ben thinks may have been in this flock include Redhead (Aythya americana) which are so social that they’re also referred to as “rafting ducks” and Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis). According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab, Lesser Scaup chicks “are capable of diving under water on their hatching day, but they are too buoyant to stay under for more than just a moment. By the time they are 5 to 7 weeks old they are able to…swim underwater for 15-18 meters (50-60 ft).” Here’s a wonderful closeup of a Redhead by photographer lonnyholmes and a Lesser Scaup photo by photographer Paul Sullivan. (Hover cursor for captions; click on photos to enlarge.)
Far out in the lake, through my binoculars, I also spotted Bufflehead, another diving duck, on their way from the boreal forests of Canada and Alaska, where according to Cornell, they “nest almost exclusively in holes excavated by Northern Flickers and, on occasion, by Pileated Woodpeckers.” Unfortunately the male and three female/juvenile Bufflehead that I saw at were too far for my longest lens to reach clearly. So on the left is my distance photo from Cranberry Lake (click to enlarge) and on the right is a closeup from a photographer at inaturalist.org who uses the name dlbowls showing the male’s dark head iridescent in the sunlight.
Feeding alone on a rainy morning, the solitary Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) dove repeatedly into the gray surface of the lake. Modest brown this time of year, these grebes bills turn white with a neat black band in breeding season. Pied-billed Grebes control their buoyancy by trapping water in their feathers. According to Cornell Lab, this allows them to escape danger by doing what children might call “belly smackers” – “plunging with head and tail raised above the belly, making a splash. They can also dive head first, or simply sink quietly out of view, leaving no trace. Parents dive with young clamped under their wings … These grebes often avoid danger by submerging, crocodile-style, with just the eyes and nostrils above the surface.”
The little grebe at Cranberry Lake gave me a brief demonstration of the submerging tactic – first trapping water in its feathers , then settling back down on the water, and finally beginning to submerge like a little submarine. What a trick! I’m very taken with this little bird. (Use pause button for captions.)
Wide, Sunny Meadows Surrounded by Autumn Color
On the trails that lead toward the meadows, small brown birds dash from bush to bush or dart down into the grass. Some are tiny migrators who might appear modest and plain until you see them through binoculars or a camera lens. Chubby White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis), with their yellow “lores” and striped heads, hung out in small flocks, keeping in contact with soft seep calls.
Another brown migrant paused in the bushes along the trail from the lake – the Hermit Thrush (Catharusguttatus). These normally solitary birds are often quite secretive – hence the name, perhaps? They’re well-dressed hermits, though, with their chocolate back, spotted breast and white eye ring. And during migration, they do sometimes forage with or near other small birds.
The Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) is silent now, no longer burbling its song from high in a bush as it did this spring and summer. In fact, this one glowered from the bare branches, seeming a bit put-out by my presence. Or maybe it’s just irritable about having to migrate, though it will only travel a short distance to the south.
At the edge of a small meadow, a year-round resident, the American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) pecked delicately at the seeds of Common Evening-Primrose (Oenothera biennis) that nicely complemented its muted gold.
And another year ’rounder, the Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) stared from the drooping vines of Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), an aggressive, invasive plant that strangles, shades out and topples trees. Two trees along the trail had fallen recently due to masses of this vine in their canopies. Those orange and red fall fruits are disastrously appealing to birds, who spread their seeds far and wide.
On my early October visits, insects were still very much in evidence. One warm October afternoon, a busy group of adult and juvenile Large Milkweed Bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus) fed eagerly on the seeds of Common Milkweed (Ascelpias syriaca) in a southern meadow. The large beetles below are adults accompanied by the mostly red juveniles. They eat milkweed seeds by injecting saliva through the seed’s surface which liquifies it so it can be sucked through their straw-like rostrums. Milkweeds produce lots of seeds, so luckily these beetles, though destructive to individual pods, don’t really do a lot of damage in a season. And they are kind of jazzy looking, don’t you think?
Red-legged Grasshoppers (Melanoplus femurrubrum) mate in the autumn and lay their eggs in the earth. The eggs won’t finish developing until spring, when the first nymphs emerge. They’ll molt 5-7 times during the summer before they are fully adult, like this pair on a grassy trail.
As October moved on, the goldenrods – Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) and late blooming Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) – began to seed, casting a silver-brown patina over the meadows.
Despite the cooler days, the small Autumn Meadowhawk(Sympetrum vicinum) still glided along the meadow paths, stopping on a fallen Canada Goldenrod stem to warm its wings in the autumn sunlight. The yellow-orange blush on the wings near the thorax is a distinguishing field mark. Autumn Meadowhawks fly later than most other species in our area, but are usually gone by early November, having laid their eggs along the lake’s shoreline.
The Hickory Lane and Wooded Wetlands – Filtered Light, Foraging Nut Eaters, a Frog and Puffballs
Woodland walks are magical in the early morning or just before sunset. The light filters down through a golden shimmer of falling leaves and sometimes sets a crimson leaf aglow.
On a warm walk in early October, the bright yellow caterpillar of a Spotted Tussock Moth (Lophocampa maculata) caught my eye within the dry leaves on the Hickory Lane. Such a fancy caterpillar! Research in Caterpillars of Eastern North America seems to indicate that it’s the middle instar of the Spotted Tussock moth because in earlier stages, the end sections of this yellow caterpillar are completely black – but I’m open to correction by more knowledgeable readers!
An Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus) on the Hickory Lane basked in the sunset, perhaps resting from a long day of ferrying nuts in its cheeks to stock its underground burrow. It won’t hibernate, but when it wakes periodically from its winter torpor, it will need a little sustenance before snoozing again.
A Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) dashed quickly up a tree on the Hickory Lane (in this case, it’s the black morph). And nearby, an American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) did the same. I wondered if they had enjoyed some of the hickory nuts that were neatly opened on a fallen log not too far away.
Almost invariably, curious deer emerge at the edge of the woods, and they too are putting on weight for winter. They eat lots of nuts, including plenty of acorns, this time of year. Their love of acorns in the fall and saplings during the winter can make it harder for our oak forests to regenerate. This doe looks like she’s definitely eaten her share and is ready for cold days ahead!
In a pond hidden in the trees, a Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) had built a roomy “push-up” den in which it can eat above the water line. Muskrats don’t hibernate, but spend the winter cruising very slowly beneath the ice. What appears to be a hole is probably just plant matter or mud, since muskrats generally enter their push-up dens from under the water through a tunnel that leads up to a cavity at the center. According to Wikipedia, “In snowy areas, they keep the openings to their push-ups closed by plugging them with vegetation, which they replace every day.”
Near that woodland pond in late October, a tiny masked Wood Frog (Rana sylvatica) literally sat “like a bump on a log,” staring off into the distance, partially lit by the green light of a leaf. Wood Frogs love forested wetlands like this during the summer. But this little frog may be preparing for winter. It will move upland, away from the water, burrow under leaves or a log. Then most of the water in its body will freeze solid, and its breathing and heartbeats will stop! But it will thaw in the spring and go right back to the pond to mate. Hope this little one finds a cozy spot before long.
On a fallen long nearby, my husband and I came across a colony of Puffball Mushrooms (division Basidiomycota) just as we did last year. These stalkless mushrooms would disperse spores on their own, of course, but I asked my husband to poke a couple in order to catch the brownish cloud of spores escaping through their tiny apertures. Wikipedia says falling raindrops disperse puffball spores in a similar way.
On my last visit just before first frost, under moist trees in these wooded wetlands, the Sensitive Ferns’ green, leafy, sterile fronds (Onoclea sensibilis) were already withering in the dropping temperatures. But the separate fertile fronds, covered in brown beads called “sori” that contain next year’s spores, stood erect in the grass beneath the trees.
Quietly Prepping for Winter and Another Spring
Cranberry Lake Park, like all of nature, provides testimony every autumn that the year is not “dying” as is so often said of this season. On the contrary. At every turn in the trails, nature is sensibly preparing for winter and sowing for spring. Yes, plants wither – but their seeds, stems, and roots wait within the soil for warm spring light. Gray-brown bracken will eventually fall, nourishing the soil in which those seeds can grow. Bright leaves fade and fall, of course, but only because trees are in “dormancy,” resting, slowing their metabolism, preserving themselves for next spring’s surge of growth. Some insects migrate, others winter-over under bark or within plants, while still others perish, leaving behind eggs which bide their time beneath the earth. Birds fly south, frogs burrow under logs, and animals of all sorts settle into winter quarters. Nature doesn’t resist change. It simply adapts to it, with every intention of burgeoning forth with gusto in the spring. We humans probably do best when we follow nature’s lead by just letting nature take its course – preparing for longer nights and colder days, while confidently sowing seeds – both literally and metaphorically – for a future spring.
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner; inaturalist.org;Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela;Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels, and others as cited in the text.
Every Wednesday morning the Oakland Township Birders gather at a township park for our weekly bird walk. Chickadees, Cardinals, Tufted Titmice, and Song Sparrows regularly greet us with their songs and antics, while Black-billed Cuckoos, Green Herons, and warblers are a special treat.
During the spring and fall we pay special attention to the birds using our parks as they move between their seasonal homes further north and south. On our walk at Draper Twin Lake Park this week we got great looks at a Hermit Thrush foraging quietly on juniper berries. Check out these great pictures that Bob Bonin captured on Wednesday.
Nearby, White-Throated Sparrows bounced around in the thick brush, occasionally popping up to show off their clean white bibs and the splashes of yellow in front of their eyes.
Before I started learning about birds a few years ago, I didn’t even know these species existed. But now I look forward to seeing these old friends each spring and fall, messengers of the changing season.
We tend to think of autumn as colored leaves and crisp air. But the prairies and meadows of the township parks celebrate fall with flowers. Many asters love cooler weather and right now the restored prairies of Charles Ilsley Park are dressed in white wildflowers, dotted with splashes of gold. Butterflies and bees still flutter and hum among the blossoms and grasshoppers still spring like popcorn out of the grass as you walk. Birds, including occasional summer visitors headed south, eat the plants’ berries and seeds or snag a few insects from bare soil or tree limbs. The frantic growth of summer is indeed ebbing, but the park still bustles with life as it awaits the first frost.
Note: Click here for a map of the park to help in visualizing the various trails and prairies described.
Entering Along the “Great White Way”
Walking along the mowed trail into Charles Ilsley Park before the latest heat wave, a nodding crowd of graceful Panicled Asters (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum) stood on either side, like a crowd at a procession. Occasionally, a spray of New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) added a little royal purple to the view.
Just before sunset one afternoon, several migrating Palm Warblers (Setophaga palmarum) flitted among the branches of a tree along this trail. This little bird was probably on its way from Canada to Florida or the Caribbean. Let’s hope it finds its favorite foods and perches after the terrible storms there this fall!
Among some bare branches, a couple of Mourning Doves gave me a closer look.
And below, a female Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) drilled a dead branch for insects, looking for a snack before retiring for the night.
A quick movement out of the grass onto a nearby tree turned out to be a Katydid (family Tettigoniidae) moving slowly along the trunk with its ungainly legs. Katydids are generally nocturnal and sing at night. I’m guessing this one’s a female because of what appears to be a sickle-shaped ovipositor for laying eggs. Aren’t her antennae amazing? Grasshoppers have short antennae, but katydid antennae are extravagantly long.
The Central Meadow Will Soon Become a Prairie
Don’t be dismayed by the browned surface in the central area of the park. Like the other three sections already restored (east, north and west), the invasive shrubs and non-native plants have now been removed from this area. This fall, matted grass and leftover branches will be removed and the central area will be planted with native wildflower seed. Just as in the other three prairies, it will take 3-5 years for the native plants to fully bloom because as drought-adapted wildflowers, they need time to put down long roots before putting energy into flowering. But even now, life goes on in this brown landscape.
Blue is the first spark of color you’ll see in the restoration area – because the Eastern Bluebirds are everywhere! Many of them are using their former nesting boxes for perches as they fly down and forage in the soil and whatever grass remains.
Blackened stems, dead grass and bare soil make a perfect landscape for Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) who prefer to nest and forage on open ground. They are known to nest on rooftops, golf courses, even parking lots! They scuttle up and down the restoration field at Ilsley, making periodic quick stops to see if they’ve scared up anything to eat. In autumn, Killdeer gather in small groups (I saw five ) as they migrate as far as Central and South America for the winter, though many choose southern Florida as well.
When Killdeer fly, they make a keening call and the feathers on their rumps, just above their tails, flash orange in the sunlight. Look for two flying Killdeer in this quick shot.
Another ground forager is still here but will also join small groups for migration. Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus ) love ants, so they too are quite happy to forage in the newly re-sprouting grass or on the bare soil in this area of the park. You’ll often see 3 or 4 together on the ground.
A Carolina Locust (Dissosteira carolina) flew up from bare earth as I approached the far end of the restoration area. I’ve never been able to catch a photo of one flying; they’re just too quick for me! So on the left is my photo of the locust on the ground, but on the right is a photo by Joshua G Smith at inaturalist.org who shows us its wing by gently holding the insect. You can see why these grasshoppers are often mistaken for butterflies when taking their short flights! (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
At the far end of the restoration area are a few bushes that form a line across the bottom of the north prairie. On all four trips to the park, an EasternPhoebe (Sayornis phoebe) rested in the low branches of a tree there – a perfect perch for a flycatcher who actually prefers ground foraging to catching flies!
With all those birds around, this immature Northern Brown Snake (Storeria dekayi) had better be careful! These harmless, little snakes (they don’t bite!) are born with a white “collar” around their necks and are either brown or gray. As they mature, the collar disappears and the head is darker. So I’m guessing this one is a juvenile on its way to getting rid of that collar!
Lots of Life on Three Prairies – East, North and West!
We’re gifted currently with three prairie plantings at Ilsley in various stages of restoration. The eastern and northern prairies are now in their second summer, the western prairie is in its first. All of them host a wide variety of wildflowers, butterflies, bees and birds.
Calico Asters (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum) have turned the eastern prairie white this fall. The northern prairie, full of invasive thistles last year, is now covered with Brown-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia triloba), a species of Rudbeckia that I just learned about this year! The western prairie is cloaked in white Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota) at the south end, and golden with Black-Eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) at the north end. Natives like Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and some Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) have returned to sway in the breeze above the eastern and northern prairies, which now have mowed trails. The western prairie trail grew over during the summer, but the soft plants make it easy walking. We’re on our way to 50 acres of prairie in this park! (Click on pause button for captions.)
Insects on the Prairies
Both Bumblebees (genus Bombus) and European Honey Bees (Apis mellifera) buzz quickly over the native blossoms, making the most of late fall nectar. One late afternoon, native bumblebees were driving honey bees off of some flowers with a quick dart toward them, while on other blossoms, honey bees were hassling butterflies.
Eventually, however, peace was restored and each found their own blossom on the Calico Asters.
At mid-summer, the prairies were full of large butterflies – Monarchs and three kinds of Swallowtails. This month, though most of the larger ones are missing; only a few tardy Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) sip at blossoms. The unseasonably warm weather may have prompted them to tarry a bit longer than other Monarchs who began moving in September. We hope they make it to Mexico before the cold sets in!
A variety of smaller butterflies, some as small as your thumbnail, move restlessly among the blossoms on all three prairies. The Painted Lady butterfly(Vanessa cardui) is only 1.5-2.0 inches. It migrates some years and not others, but often winters in Mexico like the Monarchs. Its caterpillars eat thistle foliage and the adult butterflies love thistle nectar. This one was sipping daintily along with two other Painted Ladies on non-native Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare) on the northern prairie.
The other small butterflies seemed endlessly restless, doing much more flying right now than eating. I managed to photograph three – but the tiny Grizzled Skipper (Pyrgus centaureae) eluded me, so I’ve borrowed a photo from inaturalist.org with the permission of the photographer, Marian Zöller.
Birds Enjoying the Prairies
Birds of all sizes frequent these prairies during the year. Many of them, like the Tree Swallows, have already begun their fall migration. But one evening at the far end of the eastern prairie, a solitary Sandhill Crane (Antigone canadensis) foraged, probably for just-hatched Red-legged Grasshopper nymphs(Melanoplus femurrubrum) that sprang in hundreds from the grass. Suddenly, it lifted into the air. I wonder if it, too, is beginning its migration to Florida or the Caribbean? I’m afraid I was too taken with its size, beauty and the snap of its huge wings to set my exposure accurately, but it was a lovely sight just before dark.
In an old apple tree on the edge of the western prairie, a flock of pale House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus)pecked happily at the aging fruit. Usually House Finch males are much darker red, but the intensity of the color is determined by what they eat while molting. I have a feeling these were eating apples (or the bugs within them) instead of bright red berries!
And a first for me in Oakland Township! Last Sunday, a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)spiraled high into the air over the western prairie, riding upward on a rising current of warm air. What a very special moment to see this powerful bird peacefully enjoying the heat of the prairie on a quiet Sunday afternoon.
The View from the Oldest Trees
Two huge oaks trees seem to anchor the past firmly in the present at Charles Ilsley Park. One stands at the south end of the center area that’s being restored and the other stands at the east end of the eastern prairie. The size of these old oaks with their huge trunks and spreading crowns means they’ve been here for hundreds of years, standing watch over the land. Pausing under the eastern prairie tree one afternoon, I took a photo of that tree’s “view” of the restored prairie.
It pleased me to imagine that maybe that tree is “looking out on” on a prairie that’s beginning to look a bit like the one it “saw” when it was young so many years ago. And as we watched the bald eagle float above the western prairie, I wondered if it was seeing what its eagle ancestors saw from high in the sky long ago. Humans are such forward-looking creatures, always planning and moving toward the future. It’s a marvel that here in our township, and in other townships around the country, we’ve chosen to set aside areas like Ilsley where the history of our land and its native creatures can be preserved. The trees, wildflowers, birds and butterflies – all of it connects us firmly to our past – and if we continue to be good stewards, will sustain and delight us for years to come as we move into the future.
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: butterfliesathome.com;Pollinators of Native Plants by Heather Holm; Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3; inaturalist.org;Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela;Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels and others as cited in the text.
One hot fall morning, a male Red-bellied Woodpecker “kwirred” cheerfully as it hopped among drooping vines, plucking fall fruits along the Paint Creek Trail north of Silver Bell Road. Down near the ground, beneath the towering stalks of Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans) on the Wet Prairie, native wildflowers bloomed, often unseen. This special prairie is “wet” because the soil just below the surface doesn’t allow water to penetrate. That leads to very wet conditions in the spring, but droughty soil in the heat of summer. It’s a “prairie” because prairie plants, which are adapted to fire, thrived here despite repeated wildfires over the years caused by the railroad. As a result, an unusual mix of autumn wildflowers, in exotic shapes and vivid colors, flourishes on our Wet Prairie.
Human memory is a funny thing. We like to create our own versions of events in our minds, so when I need to track progress over time, I know that it’s important to have a separate, objective record. We regularly use photo monitoring to document changes in the natural communities in our parks. Most of the photo monitoring points were established in 2011, so we have about 7 years of photographic records. Not a long record, but long enough to see big changes in areas where we are doing active land management.
Check out this series of pictures from Gallagher Creek Park. These photos illustrate the growth of Phragmites patches until they were treated in 2014. We have done follow-up treatment every year. When I check each Phragmites patch before treatment, I am a little frustrated when I see Phragmites resprouts. But these photos remind me how far we’ve come. We plan to wrap up Phragmites treatment in our parks next week, so expect to see (or not see) smaller Phragmites patches in the future!
Photo Point GCP03: Looking west on Silver Bell Road
The large willow tree on the left side is a good reference point.
Lost Lake Nature Park, a small 58 acre park probably best known for its sledding hills, hums with life in every season. Right now, fishers of all sorts – birds, animals and humans – are testing their skills against the fish in its 8-acre kettle lake. In the meadow that slopes upward along the sledding hill, dragonflies bask on dried flower heads in early fall sun while a crane fly dances over the soil, laying her eggs among tall native grasses and bright wildflowers. And deep in the woods that cover the slopes, an old tree stump sustains a vivid collection of life. On every short trip this month, Lost Lake sent me home with a little something special.
Around the Lake: Fishers, Flowers and Frogs
On each of my visits, GreenHerons (Butorides virescens) foraged and flew at Lost Lake. On my first visit, a young Green Heronstood at the corner of the dock, surveying the eastern pond in the late afternoon sun. The telltale field marks are the streaked side of its head and breast, its greenish yellow legs and its smaller size. Two adult Green Herons flew overhead, giving their distinctive alarm flight call (at this Cornell link under “advertising call”) and later I saw them more closely in a wetland down the road. The adults are a bit more glamorous than their young, I’d say.
On my second visit, the herons were only visible through binoculars on the far side of the lake. But the third time, I was rewarded. A very young green heron, about half the size of an adult, landed in the pond, flew to a mud flat fairly near the dock and began to fish. I watched this skillful youngster successfully snag a meal twice, and then watched as it struggled to swallow its trophies, as you’ll see in the slideshow below. (Use pause button to read longer captions.)
On my last visit, a small green heron again appeared, perhaps the same one, this time flying above the head of a fishing Great Egret (Ardea alba).
The egret was also a successful fisher, though swallowing took no apparent effort for this elegant bird with a long graceful neck. (Click to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
As I was leaving the deck one afternoon, I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. As I turned, an American Mink (Neovison vison)paused at the end of the dock before slipping away into the tall grass. I’d never been that close to a mink before. Quite exciting! Mink always live near water and do lots of fishing, eating crayfish, frogs, and fish as well as rodents and occasionally birds or their eggs. A mink coat, with its dark sheen of guard hairs, looks best on this little creature, I think. Since the mink moved too quickly for a photo, I’ve borrowed one from a gifted and generous photographer at iNaturalist who uses the name DigiBirdTrek.
On two afternoons over Labor Day weekend, human fishers showed up at Lost Lake as well – a threesome one day and a young couple another. Not sure if they were as successful as the green heron!
With all those fishers, it’s not surprising that this tiny green frog squeaked and leapt into the pond as I walked off the dock one afternoon. It may have been a young Bull Frog (Lithobates catesbeianus), since it has a fold around the tympanum rather than a ridge running back from the eye, which would indicate a Green Frog(Lithobates clamitans). Small bullfrogs are also more prone to squeaking when alarmed; I’ve never heard a squeak from a small green frog.I’m open to correction, though, since we can see so little of this small frog.
Admittedly, the pond is not at its best right now in terms of flowers. Many of the water lilies closest to the shore have withered into a brown mass and the brown leaves of some Pickerel Weed (Pontederia cordata) stalks protrude from the water near the shore. But in the distance, the water lilies float on a bed of green (see above) and in some places, the lovely lavender plumes of the pickerel weed still stand tall with their huge, graceful leaves. Along the shore, the sunny ball-shaped heads of Sneezeweed(Helenium autumnale) nod in the breeze near the delicate purple chevrons of Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica).
Down the road, at the same wetland where I saw the mature Green Heron, an elusive family of Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) caught my eye. On each trip, I’d notice a threesome of young ducks being shepherded by the male parent. This dad wanted nothing to do with me and quickly herded his family around a bend, or behind greenery at the edge of the water. But one day I was able to catch two fairly good shots of dad and his three offspring.
Into the Woods: A Blackened Stump with Vivid Life and Some Clever Seeds
The path into the woods starts at the end of the driveway that runs in front of the caretaker’s home, and you’re welcome to use it. It’s a short, uphill path that is quite steep at the end and then runs quickly downward as you descend the sledding hill. The forest floor is deep green and beautifully dappled by sunlight.
On the dry, wooded hillsides, some native grasses and wildflowers are beginning to create and disperse seed. The long graceful pods of Sicklepod (Boechera canadensis), a native member of the mustard family, crack open when dry, releasing a long line of seeds to the wind. Jumpseed (Persicaria virginiana), another native, is appropriately named; according to the Minnesota wildflower site, its seed “jumps off the stem at the slightest touch,” sometimes as much as 10-13 feet. Cluster-leaved Tick-trefoil (Hylodesmum glutinosum) makes cool fruits called loments that have little pods with one seed each that travel by sticking to anything that comes close. And an old fave, Bottlebrush Grass (Elymus hystrix), sends its seeds flying on arrow-shaped “awns” that can actually stick upright in the earth when they land. Plant evolution has produced some very creative ways to spread seed!
At the bottom of the hill, in the deeper shade of a wetland, I discovered an old black stump that hosted a variety of brightly colored life. According to Peter Wohlleben, author of The Hidden Life of Trees, the insect and fungal life of felled stumps and logs help the forest by breaking down the nutrients held in the trees’ wood for hundreds of years. The process of decomposition can take as long as the life of the tree – in the case of oaks, up to 300 years! And eventually those released nutrients feed the tree’s offspring and other trees and plants. Well, this old tree stump, a White Pine (Pinus strobus), was busy doing just that. Its surface presented all kinds of colorful life that was busy working to break down its nutrients or using it for shelter.
What originally caught my eye was a group of tiny, deep orange/red mushrooms. I couldn’t determine the species of these mushrooms, though they could be an early stage of the Jack-o’Lantern mushrooms (Omphalotus olearius)featured recently at Bear Creek. A few minutes later a second spot of red caught my eye. A group of Harvesters (order Opiliones, suborder Eupnoi), which are arachnids, but not spiders, scrambled around the inside of the stump. The one below came festooned with tiny bright red mites! And then I spotted a ruby red ant, whose species I was unable to discern. And a lovely patch of green and orange moss with its sporophytes tipped with the capsules that contain its spores graced the flat top surface like a miniature forest. Quite a colorful bunch of creatures, bryophytes (mosses), and fungi working and living on this old stump!
Down the Hill to the Meadow – Basking Dragonflies, A Dancing Crane Fly, Wildflowers and Native Grasses
Wildflowers are still blooming in glorious color on the steep sledding hill, the small meadow below it and a short distance from the pond. A few Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) hang on nearby, their drooping petals still golden in early autumn light, along with some Smooth Asters with their dark red or yellow centers (Symphyotrichum laeve). Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) and Grass-leaved Goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia), both late summer/autumn wildflowers, are being visited by native bumblebees. Pale/Thin-leaved Sunflowers (Helianthus strumosus), that love the forest edge, shine bright under the trees as you approach the wood. An Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis), with its four-parted stigma forming the characteristic x-shape, stands alone at the edge of the parking lot. Near the entrance to the woods, the slender pods of Poke Milkweed (Asclepias exaltata), a milkweed of shady savannas, will eventually dry and break open to release their seeds to the wind. Among the flowers, native grasses sway, like Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) which is now flowering and Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans) which has started to form its seeds.
Among these grasses, a group of Autumn Dragonflies (Sympetrum vicinum) rested on dried flower heads, needing a bit more sun on cool days. This species has a little cloud of yellow near the base of the hindwing. They hatch out in August and September, providing more late summer color. Mature males are the easiest to spot with their red abdomen. Juvenile males (in closeup below) have a yellow thorax and a yellowish brown abdomen, according to Wikipedia. And the females (second and fourth from the left in the photo at the far right below) have a brown thorax and a brownish/red abdomen. I find it hard to distinguish between females and juvenile males in Autumn dragonflies, so feel free to correct me!
One of the oddest sights at Lost Lake occurred on my last visit. I saw something with very long legs dancing vertically, up and down, above small holes in the earth between the grass stems. Eventually, after developing and cropping a lot of photos and doing online research, it became clear that I’d been seeing a Tiger Crane Fly (Tipula dorsalis) laying her eggs in the soil. Taking photos of a crane fly rapidly jumping up and down is a bit challenging, but if you look closely, I hope you can see her curving, vertical body as she pokes the needle-sharp ovipositor at the end of her abdomen into the soil. Her narrow wings and very long legs were splayed in every direction as she danced from one hole to another, laying potentially hundreds of eggs. Click this link from bugguide.net for a much better photo than mine!
By the way, crane flies are gangly, harmless creatures who can’t bite or sting humans or animals as the unrelated mosquitoes do. Crane flies live only 10-15 days and drink nectar, if they eat all (some don’t!). The only damage they do is in their larval form, when the caterpillars, called “leatherjackets,” do eat some turf grasses and agricultural plants.
The Persistence of Life
Despite the ravages of early September – hurricanes one after another, wildfires, earthquakes – here in the protected natural areas of Oakland Township, life persists. The young green heron successfully fishes its food from among the water lilies. In forest shade, the flowers and grasses produce seed, relying on another spring to foster the next generation. A crane fly dances above the earth, seeing to it that their offspring still float over the grass stalks when summer comes again. And what about us? Well, of course, we’re members too in that community of life on earth. I like the thought that as you and I foster and nourish that community, we’re doing our part to see that life persists on this little blue planet.
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben;butterfliesathome.com;Pollinators of Native Plants by Heather Holm; Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3; Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela;Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels and others as cited in the text.
When I walk outside in the morning, I feel a chill in the air that wasn’t there a few weeks ago. The days are getting shorter, and somehow it’s already September. Where did the summer go?
After hot summer days, I always look forward to the mild temperatures, fragrant cider, and just-barely-changing leaves of early fall. Even without these cues, wildflowers would announce the changing season if I’d just woken from a long summer nap. The timing of flowering can tell us where we are in the annual orbit around our star. By comparing the timing of flowering and other natural events from year to year, a science called phenology, we can learn how plants and animals respond to changes in their environment. Pretty cool!
I found some outstanding wildflowers this week while checking on the progress of our habitat restoration projects at Gallagher Creek Park and Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park. Check out these photos to see how nature announces fall, then go find some wildflowers in real life! It’s going to be a beautiful weekend.
Late summer wildflowers nodded and swayed in the meadows, woods, wetlands and native gardens at Bear Creek this August. Monarch butterflies paused on the blossoms, competing mostly with industrious native bumblebees. And all over the park, young birds were feeding on their own – or in a few cases, still getting fed by doting adults. In the center pond, a tiny creature foraged in disguise!
So take a wander along the trails, as goldenrod transforms the park from green to gold, and enjoy the bright beauty of summer’s last hurrah!
Like Some Human Youngsters, A Few Avian “Adolescents” Stick Close to Mom or Dad
A young Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannustyrannus) hid in a shrub in the eastern meadow, insisting loudly about being fed. No parental response was forthcoming from the adult on a shrub some distance away. So eventually, the youngster ventured out into the field, looking about with curiosity. Seemingly satisfied with this move toward independence, the adult flew in to feed the youngster. And then they shared the bush a while until the adult flew farther off again. (Click on slideshow’s pause button for captions.)
Two groups of Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) were escorting their young around the Center Pond. In one group, two males and a female floated along with a small juvenile. The males are now in their late summer “eclipse plumage” which makes them look very much like the females – except that the males have yellow bills, while females’ bills are orange and black. The males will change back to their glamorous, iridescent green head feathers later in the fall when Mallards choose their mates for next spring. I guess these two males on the right were sticking close to this female just in case she made an early decision!
Nearby, a female Mallard escorted her four youngsters with no male attention at all.
A male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)seemed remarkably calm at my approach as he concentrated on gathering seeds in his beak. Usually they dash off at the first sight of me when they’re on the ground. He wasn’t crushing the seeds, so I assume he had a nest nearby since cardinals can have up to four broods in a season. That’s a lot of parenting in just a few months.
A male American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) plucked buds from native Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) which is just beginning to bloom.He may have been feeding his young as well, since this is the nesting season for goldfinches.
While Adults Molt, Young Birds Forage on Their Own
Many bird species molt from mid-August until mid-September, including Field Sparrows, Downy Woodpeckers, House Wrens and many others. The Eastern Kingbird, featured feeding its young above, doesn’t molt until it reaches its winter territory in South America. It’s occurred to me that since birds go into hiding during the molt, perhaps their young have to be a bit more independent sooner than other birds. Just a guess. In any case, a lot of young birds are out and about, clumsily trying to forage on their own.
I saw what I think is an adult Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) just beginning its molt. The bird’s feathers looked oddly fluffed out and it was picking at its breast in a persistent way. It might be a male since they molt a bit earlier than females. Below, a group of young song sparrows hopped along the trail, seeing what they could find in the grass before flying up into small trees nearby. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Downy Woodpecker adults(Picoides pubescens)are molting now too. The Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol II) says “[Downy] Fledglings in general can be told from adults by the clearly new, white feathers on their breast. Adult have gone in and out of the nest hole hundreds of times by this stage and look very worn, with bits of black showing through their white breast feathers.” The feathers on the young female I saw looked wonderfully fresh as it tried to drill into a branch, so I’m guessing it’s a foraging juvenile.
Down at the Center Pond, a Green Heron rested calmly on a log. Since spring, I’ve repeatedly seen a Green Heron in that very place, so I’m thinking it’s a mature bird. Cornell contends that Green Herons are sometimes found in colonies. But I’ve never seen more than one of these solitary birds at a time.
Two other solitary birds could have been adults or juveniles. It’s hard to distinguish with the House Wren and the Black-capped Chickadee once they’re out on their own. The House Wren may have been a youngster since it was clearly curious, but the Chickadee appeared to be a sophisticated contortionist as it probed a stick for insects.
Glorious Wildflower Color, Exuberant Vines and a Few Pretty-but-Toxic fruits in the Woods and Shady Wetlands
Though wildflowers are not generally as numerous on the shady paths of Bear Creek, you don’t want to miss them. So keep an eye out for their exotic shapes and vivid colors shining out of the greenery as you make your way, especially near wetlands. I just learned from Wikipedia that the Jack-o’lantern mushrooms(Omphalotusolearius) below are even bio-luminescent and their gills glow faintly green in the dark when they’re fresh! Hence the name, eh?
Native Wildflowers and Grasses Bask in the Sunlight of the Meadows and Native Gardens
In the native gardens, the center of the parking lot, and scattered across the sunny meadows, native wildflowers bloom among the Canada Goldenrod and the Queen Anne’s lace. The monarchs seem to be enjoying them. A female sipped nectar from the Purple Coneflower and a male spread his beautiful wings on the Joe-Pye. (The field marks for males are bulges in the veins on their hind wings.) Here’s a sampling:
A Quarter-sized Creature Dons a Bubble Disguise
One cloudy afternoon, my husband spotted a very small clump of bubbles, green Water Meal (Wolffia coumbiana) and Duckweed (Lemna minor) moving slowly around the water of the center pond near the dock.
At first only the yellow/green striped head of a tiny Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta)peeked out of the bubbly mass.
At last, we could see this tiny creature – a turtle about the size of a quarter – who’d found a nifty disguise to wear while munching on the Water Meal and Duckweed greenery that covers the pond. I’m betting on this little one to survive to adulthood!
Perhaps when this baby gets a little bigger, it can join the Painted Turtles who hang out on this log at the east end of the pond almost every warm day. Last Saturday, this group seemed to be doing a slow motion version of the Hokey-Pokey (“You put your left leg in, you put your left leg out”), except for that one member who is not quite with the program!
The Delight is the Details
Meadows like the one shown above on the western slope are an eye-full on a summer day. The sweeps of green, yellow and white against a blue sky soothe the spirit like a cool hand on a fevered brow. Soak it in. You can feel yourself unwinding. Then look a little closer. So much of the delight in nature comes from noticing small things – like the turtle in its bubble disguise, the scarlet cardinal flower shining in a shady wetland, or a parent bird feeding its young on a leafy branch. Like any great work of art, there’s always more to see in nature’s landscapes than what comes quickly to the eye. So perhaps spend a few quiet minutes looking down into the water or into the tall grass. Scan the treetops through your binoculars. The smallest discovery can add just a little more joy to a walk in the park.
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: butterfliesathome.com;Pollinators of Native Plants by Heather Holm; Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3; Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; other sites as cited in the text.