Last week, I shared some lovable creatures – a raccoon kit, a baby chipmunk, the majestic yellow swallowtail, the iridescent Tree Swallow.
This week, I thought we might explore the creatures and plants in the park that perhaps aren’t so lovable at first glance – but who make their own contributions to the rich diversity of Bear Creek Nature Park.
Unglamorous Birds that are Useful, Super Smart or Misunderstood
Well, of course, probably the homeliest bird in Bear Creek is the Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) with its bare, scrawny red head and hunched posture when perching.
Old westerns and horror stories taught us to see them as harbingers of death, circling ominously in the sky. Actually though, in flight Turkey Vultures are majestic and impressive. They ride the thermals rising from the warming earth, their wings teetering right and left, with very few wingbeats. They’re often mistaken for hawks or eagles from a distance, but vultures hold their wings high in a “V” when seen straight on and the undersides of their flight feathers are paler than the rest of their dark brown bodies so the light shining through them forms what appears from below to be a pale band at the edge of each wing.
Vultures are the reliable leaders of the clean-up crew in the park, because they, unlike many birds, have a keen sense of smell and detect carrion (dead animals) even under the tree canopy. With their strong, sharp beaks, they clean up carcasses one strong bite at a time. Their bare heads mean nothing nasty gets caught in feathers and their immune system keeps them safe even from botulism, anthrax, cholera and salmonella! If vultures didn’t scavenge, we’d be surrounded by the nasty sight and smell of lots of dead animals. So say something nice about vultures next time people bad-mouth them, OK?
The American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) is another under-appreciated bird that many people fear. Like vultures, crows do eat carrion but it’s only part of their diet. They eat seeds, fruit, some small animals and, unhappily, occasionally the eggs or even young of other birds. But crows are also the geniuses of the bird world, outstripped only by their cousins in the Corvid family, the ravens. Crows have huge brains with a brain/body quotient approaching that of some apes! They use and even make tools. They are mischievous – snitching food from river otters while other crows distract it or hauling a fisherman’s line out of the ice by pulling it up with its beak, stepping on it and hauling again in order to eat the bait (or if lucky, the fish!) on the hook and then letting the line slide innocently back through the hole. They mimic both other birds and humans. A famous naturalist, Jean Craighead George tells how a crow outside her back door used to raid picnic tables in the neighborhood and one morning greeted her with “Hiya, Babe!” Children might enjoy Jean’s book A Tarantula in My Purse about her adventures with crows and other creatures or her award-winning novel of a boy learning to survive in the woods, called My Side of the Mountain.
Crows are very social birds. Their young don’t breed until they are two and the groups of crows you see in summer are usually family groups with youngsters staying with their parents for 4 or more years. These younger crows guard and sometimes help build the nest and even occasionally feed the nestlings! We should all have such helpful offspring!
The Brown-Headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater) is perhaps the most difficult bird to like. The female does not build nests, but lays its eggs in other birds’ nests. This sneaky trick is often played on much smaller birds, who have more difficulty pushing out the cowbird’s eggs. The trick doesn’t always work. Bigger birds may shove the eggs out and smaller birds destroy the cowbirds’ eggs or ignore them, building a second nest on top of the first in which to lay their eggs. But once in the park, I saw a tiny sparrow stuffing food into the mouth of a baby cowbird, oblivious to the size difference – or maybe just a generous foster parent? To add injury to insult, female cowbirds lay eggs in huge quantities – 30 or 40 a season – in order to be sure some grow to maturity.
Now why would a bird do this? One theory that seems plausible is that since we know cowbirds originated in the Western states, they presumably followed buffalo and later cattle herds, eating the insects stirred up by the animals. That constant movement made it impossible to stay in one place, build a nest and raise young. So by laying their eggs in other birds’ nests, their young survived and reproduced. When our area was settled and cleared, cowbirds moved East and like other invasive species, they created havoc among the creatures whose land they invaded. So I forgive the cowbird who can’t help the adaptation it found for passing on its genes. But I still don’t love them.
And then there’s the not-so-beloved plant – Duckweed.
Poor old duckweed is often mistaken for “pond scum” or “algae.” Some believe it’s a sign of polluted water. But it’s actually a family of flowering plants that live in still water and sometimes along the edges of streams. Let’s look at the three water plants growing in the center pond, one of which is duckweed. (My thanks to Maryann Whitman for her help in identification!)
The tiny aquatic buttercup, White Water Crowfoot (Ranunculus aquatilis), is much prettier when it’s blooming – as it is now – than when the blossoms die and leave just a mass of brown strings on the surface. The clumps of plump green ovals with red spots are Greater Duckweed (Spirodela polyrhiza) which has tiny air pockets that keep it afloat. Believe it or not, the tiny green grains in between these plants are the smallest flowering plants in the world! They are Common Water Meal (Wolffia columbiana) and I’ve never seen their blooms since they are 1/100th of an inch wide! These plants provide lots of food for animals, fish and amphibians. In fact, I imagine Duckweed got its name because I’ve seen ducks swimming along the pond near the playground with their beaks open on the surface scooping up Duckweed as they go. So perhaps we can give it some respect, though I agree that I prefer the aesthetics of clear water. Here’s a muskrat, though, that seems content to be surrounded by it!
And Now Let’s Get Back to Easier-on-the-Eye Species!
The Eastern Kingbird, (Tyrannus tyrannus) just back from wintering in the Amazon (!), has an erect posture which makes him easily identifiable. His head is darker gray than his body and his long tail is tipped with white. Despite their distinguished appearance, Eastern Kingbirds are very aggressive with bigger birds, like crows, hawks, owls and blue jays. If an intruder flies over them, even 100 feet up, they fly up and dive bomb it from above. During these flights, they sometimes reveal a red, orange or yellow crown which is usually concealed under their dark grey feathers. Though they eat small insects on the wing, they prefer large ones that they take up into a tree, beat against a branch and eat whole! They don’t call them Kingbirds for nothing! Did you notice their Latin name above?
If the vulture is the homeliest bird in the park, certainly the Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) can compete for the prettiest. These small thrushes, the male with a royal blue back and brick red breast patch and the female in more subtle hues, grace our park year ’round.
Bluebirds swoop down to pick up insects which they can spot 60 feet or more away. Their numbers dropped in th early 20th century when introduced species like the European Starling and the House Sparrow took over old woodpecker holes in dead trees, making the Bluebirds’ preferred nesting spots harder to find. Campaigns to place bluebird nesting boxes saved the bluebird. Here’s one checking out a possible hole for suitability.
For some strange reason, someone named this beautiful butterfly, the Red-Spotted Purple (Limenitis arthemis) although its most distinguishing feature is iridescent blue hindwings that flash in the sunlight. The apex of the forewings does have tiny red spots on black but often the tips of the forewings just look brushed with a russet orange. This early butterfly, like others, samples tree sap, rotting fruit, even dung and carrion but unlike the Cabbage White or Mourning Cloak, it also sips flower nectar.
Dragonflies, one of the beautiful predators in Bear Creek, are zooming over the ponds right now. The Common Whitetail (Plathemis lydia) is best seen at noon when it’s most active. You’ll see mostly males with their wide, flat blue-white tails and a large amber stripe in the middle of each wing. The females with dark abdomens only visit the water for short periods. Males perch in the same place each day and protect their territory by chasing off other males. You can sometimes hear the clatter of clashing wings as the Whitetails bump into intruders from underneath as they fly over.
The Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa), like other dragonflies, overwinters in the water as nymphs, molting up to 10 times until they crawl out of the water, find a plant stem, and shed their last exoskeleton, emerging as adult dragonflies. They fly off to eat other insects for 2 or 3 weeks. You can watch their huge eyes turn as they track their prey before taking off and their acrobatic flying is just incredible. They will also accompany you along a path, hoping you will stir up some tasty insects. Nice to be escorted through the fields by a dragonfly!
A lovely native flower should be blooming now in the garden near the shed. This Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) looks almost exotic enough to be found in the tropics! And hummingbirds love its red color and long yellow stamen.
Now every nook and cranny is sporting some pretty little Daisy Fleabane (Erigeron species). You’ll come across a lot of wildflower names with “bane” in them, which I’ve heard simply means that the people who named them thought they repelled or poisoned something – in this case “fleas” so I imagine they might have been mixed into straw mattresses. But that’s just a guess.
A snapping turtle was spotted in the pond near the playground again this week. This might be the week to see one laying eggs since I saw this one on June 1 a few years ago. Wouldn’t it be great to see a baby snapper?
Huge green leaves are appearing west of the benches at the top of the hill on the southern side of the park. In a few weeks, one of the tallest native flowers in the park will bloom, the sunny yellow Prairie Dock on with its lo-o-o-o-ng stalk and lovely big buds.
Last week I mentioned seeing an “albino raccoon” in the big hole in the tree on the western path through the woods. I’m informed by my stepson, Glenn, that that is a “blond raccoon” or some people call them a “cinnamon raccoon.” They are light brown and beige, rather than gray and black like most raccoons. Evidently they have different “morphs” as I mentioned last week with the female swallowtail butterfly. I stand corrected! Anyway, Reg spotted the blond raccoon last Sunday in the same tree in the same big hole! Keep a lookout! Here’s his quick photo of a bit of its fur showing as it slept on Sunday afternoon.
So I hope the vultures didn’t scare you off ! And that you’ll share in the comments section some of your Bear Creek Nature Park finds and favorites.
*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