It pays to look carefully as you stroll along the paths of Bear Creek. Small creatures are sometimes the most amazing.
Though a friend on Gunn Road tells me she sees them in the woods behind her house, I’ve only seen the Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea) once in Bear Creek, near the northern entrance to the marsh – but it was worth waiting for! Fresh from the northwestern edge of South America, they move high in the trees and are usually difficult to see, the female especially as she’s olive above, yellow below, matching the spring leaves. This one’s special talent is just being gorgeous! Keep a sharp eye out and let me know if you see one!
The House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) makes Oakland Township part of its huge range; this small vocalist sings for folks from Northern Canada to the tip of South America. Cornell Lab says this tiny bird weighs about the same as two quarters. Despite its small size the house wren competes fiercely with bigger birds for a preferred spot, sometimes evicting others from nests they are already using. But they also accommodate themselves to mailboxes, old boots, wren birdhouses or any nook or cranny. Look for “Typical Voice” on the left of this link to hear his famous song:
Here’s another wee beauty , the Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia), a summer visitor to Oakland Township that Ben saw in the park last week.
This tiny bird sings a great little song that birders often hear as “Sweet, sweet, I’m a little sweet.” That’s how I spotted this little male. Yellow warblers like wet places so look for this little guy near the center pond or listen for him in the bushes near the marsh. Here’s a link to his song. See what you think he’s saying. We’ll discuss Brown-Headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater) another time, but they lay their eggs in other birds’ nests, particularly smaller birds like the Yellow Warbler. Even if the warbler recognizes the interloper egg in its nest, the bird’s too small to push the egg out, so it usually just builds a nest on top of the original one, lays its eggs and ignores the cowbird’s. Pretty nifty solution, though it’s a good thing bird’s don’t have much sense of smell, eh? I’ve never seen such a nest, but I’d love to!
American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) live with us all year, though there may be some slight shift in populations from north to south during the winter. The bright yellow of the males is a sure sign of spring, and during the Goldfinches’ second molt in late fall, the male’s return to the olive-yellow of the female presages the coming of winter. Goldfinches, one of the strictest vegetarians of the bird world, eat only seeds unless a hapless bug happens to fly into their beak during flight! While other birds are busy courting in the spring, they establish territories and wait to breed until late summer when the thistle seed they love is plentiful. They make tiny nests (3″ across x 2.5″ high) woven together with spider silk and lined with thistle down. Sounds pretty cozy. Here’s a link to their cheerful song. This finch pair (note the different plumage) seems to have had a tiff:
Ah, and then buzz, whirr, click, the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) zooms into the park during the first two weeks of May.
Though this photo taken in the rain dims him a bit, in bright sunlight the sparkling iridescence of the male’s green head and deep ruby throat dazzles the eye and his ability to fly in any direction, even backwards, beating his wings 53 times/second is really impressive. He weighs only 1/10th of an ounce and has to eat 50 times his weight in nectar daily! The plainer green females arrive later, build their half dollar-sized nests and do all the care and feeding of the young. Hummingbirds are not common in Bear Creek but Ben saw one last week, actually sitting quietly like my rainy day one.
Speaking of small talented critters, look closely at the surface of calm water anywhere in the park right now and you will see Water Striders (Gerridae). They are unique in the insect world for their ability to walk on water! Their specially adapted legs are covered with thousands of hairs that repel water, help them distribute their weight and trap air to bring the strider to the surface if dunked. The middle legs row and the back legs steer and they can really scoot across the water!
One more interesting little insect, the Six-Spotted Tiger Beetle (Cicindela sexguttata), flits along paths near the woods through the park now. Probably his fierce name comes from the fact that the larvae burrow into the ground when they hatch where they lay in wait. When a spider or insect happens by, they spring out and attack – much like a tiger pouncing on prey. Someone with a fine imagination named this little guy!
Our native Violets peek out here and there. Aren’t they lovely with the stripes on their petals and that beard at the center? I think these are Common Blue Violets (Viola sororia) but don’t hold me to it, since there are 28 species of violets in Michigan, according to the University of Michigan Herbarium.
The Wild Strawberries (Fragaria virginiana) are in full bloom and they are everywhere! Just think, every one of those flowers is a potential berry! A feast for wildlife since they’ll probably eat them all before they are ripe enough for humans!
The May Apples (Podophyllum peltatum) are now producing their shy buds, those inedible “apples”after which they are named. Some are blooming too, in their shy way, bowing humbly beneath the leaves. Here are a bud and a blossom.
Reliable sources (Ben and my husband Reg) tell me the carpet of Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum) has finally arrived and indeed is even more beautiful after the prescribed burn! Geraniums are blooming in areas we’ve never seen them before! Here’s Ben’s photo from Monday, the 18th.
And just to give small talented mammals some due, the American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) occasionally leaves a legacy to its offspring! You’ll hear these squirrels, the smallest in the park, chattering at you as you emerge from the trees on the path from the Snell parking lot. They are very intense about their territory and you are passing through it, for heaven’s sake! They are feisty, speedy and spend part of every day creating middens, places where they store seeds and other goodies. If food is scarce, females will evidently “bequeath” one to their young, that is, give up the midden and part of her territory to her offspring. Nice little inheritance!
Watch for the somewhat elusive Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa)! They are in the park now, but by mid-June, there will be ducklings! And what ducklings they are! Wood ducks nest in holes in trees as tall as 60 feet. When the ducklings are two days old, mom leaves the nest, flies down to the water and calls her young. One by one they screw their courage to the sticking point and launch themselves into the air. Their wings are too small for flight, but they are so light they bounce on the leaf litter below. Once they are all out of the nest, they go to mom and begin to swim. Now that’s quite a gift. For a one minute video of this feat, check out this link from the PBS program, Nature. It’s just wonderful, truly. Here’s a female and a couple of ducklings in the center pond at a bit of a distance last June.
And watch for the dragonflies and damsel flies! They are just beginning to swoop and dive around the ponds and in sunny spots near the woods, but there will be all kinds of them as June and July come on.
Quick Review: Spotted Again this Week!
- One Snapping Turtle in the pond near the playground, and 3 in the marsh on Sunday the 17th!
- A Rose-Breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus) singing in the trees near the northern entrance to the marsh also on Sunday.
- A Baltimore Oriole at the center pond again this year.
Spring is so full of change and energy that it’s a great time to explore Bear Creek Nature Park. As usual, let me know if you see anything we haven’t, or if you’ve also seen and enjoyed the ones we post here – and where you saw them.
*Quick footnote: My sources for information, as well as Dr. Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: 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.