This Week at Bear Creek: Summer’s Door Opens – Baby Animals and Lots More Butterflies

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino
Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

June is the start of summer for me.  (I don’t wait for the equinox.) Courtship is complete and birds are nesting.  Young animals born in the early weeks of spring are old enough to begin exploring on their own.  And butterflies either arrive from far-flung locales or begin to emerge from their chrysalises or from under the bark in which they have overwintered.  Tadpoles wriggle in every pond and spring green slowly turns deeper and more lush.  Let’s open the door to the summer months at Bear Creek.


Raccoon peaking from White Oak
Raccoon peeking out from a tall tree in the western woods.

The Raccoon’s (Procyon lotor) offspring, known as “kits,”   are evidently living at a new address.  My reliable sources tell me the hole in the tree on the western side of the woods doesn’t show much activity.  However, ’tis the season for raccoon kits so they are out there somewhere!  Here’s a curious raccoon kit peeking out at me two years ago from the big hole while his siblings entertained themselves by climbing up inside the tree and sliding back down.

Raccoons are extremely clever animals.  In captivity, they can quickly learn how to open complicated latches and then “remember the solution to the task for up to three years.” (Wikipedia)  To see raccoons in the woods, it’s essential to be as quiet as possible because they have outstanding hearing.  They can hear earthworms moving underground!  With their hyper-sensitive front paws, they eat a wide range of foods – bird eggs, amphibians, fish, insects, human garbage (unfortunately) and in the fall before hibernation, acorns and walnuts.  Last year we saw an albino raccoon in the big hole so keep an eye out!

The Eastern Chipmunks (Tamias striatus) will have given birth to their first litter of four or five babies who spent about 6 weeks in the burrow under ground and now hang out with their parents for two weeks before heading off on their own.

baby chipmunk
Baby chipmunks spend 6 weeks in the burrow, two weeks outside with adults and then they’re on their own.

The adults will have another litter in the early autumn.  Like rabbits, chipmunks are an important source of food for many animals, hence the need for many offspring.  They themselves will eat bird’s eggs, small frogs, insects, worms, as well as all kinds of nuts and seeds.  We’ll talk more about them in the fall as they stuff their cheek pouches to prepare for hibernation.

adult chipmunk
Chipmunks have two litters, spring and fall, of four or five offspring each time.

Ben’s seen two wonderful birds in the park in the last few weeks, residents that will stay all summer.

catbird
The catbird does “miaow” but he also sings a complicated song composed of mimicked bits of other birdsong.

Male Gray Catbirds (Dumetella carolinensis) offer beginning “birders”  the easiest call to remember; they actually make a very distinctive “miaou” just like a small cat when courting or feeling threatened by predators.  Once you hear the mew, look in a nearby thicket for a sleek gray bird with a black cap, because catbirds generally fly low and perch in shrubs or small trees.  While establishing his territory, however, the male perches at the top of a small tree or bush (the proverbial “catbird seat”) and sings a fabulous, complicated song, stringing together mimicked song fragments of other birds’ songs. To me, it always sounds like an overheard conversation:  “No, really?” “Yes, it’s true!”  “Well, I never!”  Click on the Typical Voice link about halfway down the page on the left at this link and give it a listen.

The other beautiful bird that Ben saw is the Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor).  One of the great avian acrobats, these iridescent blue and black swallows swoop and glide over the meadows and marshes, literally swallowing insects on the fly.

Swallow flying
Tree swallows scoop up insects on the fly as they soar above the fields and marsh.

Tree swallows make nests in natural cavities or woodpecker holes in dead trees or human-provided nesting boxes, which become important as we humans cut down dead trees.  Interestingly, they line their nests with the feathers of other birds, i.e.,  they literally “feather their nests!”  Swallows compete for feathers and may snitch from other swallows or try to catch one in mid-air if it’s dropped by a careless swallow.

two swallows on house 2
A rare opportunity to see 2 tree swallows at rest on a nesting box at 7 Ponds Nature Center.

And Here Come the Butterflies! 

The number of  butterflies fluttering across the old farm field next to the eastern path increases all the time. The gorgeous Yellow Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus), also known as the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, was in the US in 1587 when it was the first drawn by a member of Sir Walter Raleigh’s third expedition to Virginia.  You can see why it caught his eye.  The male is always yellow with four tiger stripes.

Yellow swallowtail butterfly closeup on bull thistle
The male swallowtail is always yellow with 4 black tiger stripes.

The females look similar but have showy iridescent blue spots at the bottom of their hindwings. Look carefully and you’ll see them from below here.

female swallowtail
Look carefully and you’ll see the showy blue spots at the bottom of the female Yellow Swallowtail’s hindwing.

Or the female can take a black form (or morph) and then you can really see the blue spots.

black morph female swallowtail
The female Yellow Swallowtail sometimes takes on a black form, or morph.

I always thought these were Black Swallowtails, but they are a completely different butterfly!

This immigrant from the southern US is the Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta), a medium-sized butterfly with wonderfully bright colors.

Red Admiral2
The Red Admiral has striking colors on the dorsal (upper) side of his wings.

But  look how well it camouflages itself when it settles down to eat!

red admiral camouflage
The underside (ventral) of the Red Admiral’s wings provides excellent camouflage when it lights to eat or rest.

Two related but smaller, more modest butterflies have also just emerged from their chrysalises.  The Cabbage White (Pieris rapae) does love cabbage but also loves purple, blue and yellow flowers.  The males have one black spot on their wings and the females have two.  Here’s a group of males sipping at a moist spot on the path behind the center pond in order to replace the nutrients they pass to the female when they mate.

cabbage butterfly
Male cabbage butterflies sip nutrients from moist earth to nourish themselves after mating.

The cabbage butterfly’s relatives in the Pieridae family, the yellow Common or Clouded Sulphur (Colias philodice) like clover and other flowers of the legume family.

Sulphur
Sulphurs are yellow relatives of the Cabbage Butterflies and emerge from their chrysalises at about the same time.

And last, the tiny Pearl Cresent (Phyciodes tharos) with only about a 1.5 inch wingspan, who uses asters as host plants for its caterpillars.

Gorgon checkerspot
The Pearl Crescent is tiny, about 1.5 inches, and uses asters as host plants for its caterpillars..

 COMING ATTRACTIONS

– The tadpoles of the Green Frog (Lithobates clamitans) are now roiling the usually calm waters of the pond next to the playground and other ponds and pools in the park.

green frog tadpole
The tadpole of the Green Frog is roiling  waters all over the park at the moment.

A few adult Green Frogs are around, but wait for the chorus to begin!  They sound like a whole bunch of individual banjo strings being plucked at once!  

Green frog
The Green Frog’s voice sounds like a plucked banjo string.

– The female Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) are nesting comfortably, many of them on top of old muskrat “push-ups” which muskrats build from mud and vegetation to protect themselves and their young.  (By building push-ups and eating vegetation, muskrats keep open water for aquatic birds.) The two species seem to co-exist quite nicely.    So, goslings should be making an appearance any day now, if they haven’t already!

Goose nest high and dry
Geese keep high and dry by nesting on the tops of “push-ups” made by muskrats out of mud and vegetation.

Please share your discoveries in the comments section below and help me enrich the picture of summer’s grand opening  at Bear Creek Nature Park.

*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; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; 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

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