Well, we’re at the tail end of summer. The signs are there. The small yellow leaflets of Black Walnut trees are littering the path. (I always think black walnuts are sleepy trees – the first to lose their leaves in the autumn, the last to wake in the spring.) Frogs skitter across the mud at the pond, but frog song is almost gone – only an occasional croak.
Families of Canada Geese are flying again after their molt, their honking bringing a bit of the wild to our ears. Some cat-tails still wear their brown velvet, but others are seeding into white fluff. And fruit eaters, like the Cedar Waxwing, are in their glory, sampling berry-like fruits all over the park! Come savor the slightly wistful sweetness of late summer as Bear Creek gets ready for autumn.
Berries (or rather “drupes”) and the Birds that Appreciate Them!
Fruiting continues apace and this week I noticed what we commonly call “berries.” Dr. Ben VanderWeide, OT’s Stewardship Manager, informs me that “berry” is a term that refers to a specific type of fruit in botany. The botanists’ general term for fruits we would normally call “berries” is “fleshy fruits.” Many of our invasive bushes, for example, have fruits called “drupes” that are constructed like a plum or peach – thin skin, fleshy layer and then a pit that holds the seed. In botanical terms, a grape for example, is a real “berry” because the seeds are within its soft skin and flesh without a pit. Being a logophile, I’m quite taken with these new terms.
Anyway, the birds have noticed these fruits on the bushes as well! One of my favorite fruit-eating birds is the Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) and it seems as though almost every bush and vine in Bear Creek is bearing fruit for the gregarious Waxwing right now!
You may remember that I discovered a female Waxwing on her nest and later her nestling in late July. Cedar Waxwings, very social birds, are flocking wherever their favorite fruits are available. Bring your binoculars to the park because these birds are spectacular in close-up! The red tip at the edge of their wing is what gave them the name “waxwing” since it looks like it’s dipped in red wax. And I love the yellow tip on its tail and its pale yellow belly!
Cedar Waxwings like the native Gray Dogwood’s (Cornus foemina) interesting white “drupes” on their bright red stalks.
Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) eat Gray Dogwood fruits as well. You may notice you’re not seeing or hearing as much from the Cardinals lately. They molt in late summer/early fall. I saw this poor fellow during the molt a few years ago. What a look for such a glamorous bird!
A highly invasive shrub, Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata), that is aggressively displacing native plants all over Michigan, is in Bear Creek, too. Unfortunately, the birds eat its attractive red drupes, which of course is how it spreads!
Over in the woods near the marsh, our native wildflower, Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), has exchanged Jack and his pulpit for a bright red stem of berry-like fruit. Mature Jack-in-the-Pulpits have male and female parts on the same plant, like native Common Cat-tails do, in order to produce this scarlet fruit.
Though toxic to humans, livestock and pets, some birds and animals eat these fruits, including the Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo). Turkeys have recovered from severe population declines in the first half of the 20th century. According to the Cornell Lab, turkeys were brought north from Mexico in the 1500’s, but turkey fossils have been found in North America “dating from more than 5 million years ago.” Here couple of males are eating during the winter near our home.
The Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks (Pheucticus ludovicianus) are finishing their molt and sampling the fruits of Bear Creek as well. The males’ plumage now looks very different from the striking black and white and rose pink bib of their courting colors. Here’s an adult male with his winter plumage. You might see him high in the trees near the marsh where he can be spotted in the spring in his breeding colors.
One of the fruits preferred by Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks is the native bush, Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis), which produces these beautiful drupes. You can see them just north of the parking lot.
This week I heard another bird that eats Elderberry. Wednesday Ben and his birding friends helped me identify a song near the marsh below the hilltop benches. They told me I’d heard a Warbling Vireo (Vireo gilvus) but that it was doubtful I would get to see it. Evidently, one may hear vireos, but it’s rare to see one. They were right on both counts. So here is its photo at the Cornell Lab and here is its lovely warbling song at Bear Creek this week, with a buzzing backup band of grasshoppers and katydids! (Remember to turn up your volume and click on the arrow.)
Another aggressive invasive has taken over large sections of the north side of Bear Creek. Here are drupes of Glossy Buckthorn (Frangula alnus) which turn from red to black as they mature. You can see why birds find them appealing and consequently spread this invasive shrub everywhere!
Birds Who Appreciate Late Summer Insects (Good for them!)
We all have just a bit too much attention from insects in late summer. Beetles munch on our gardens, spiders spin webs in every quiet corner, Yellow Jacket wasps dive bomb our outdoor lunches and mosquitoes can be a plague at night. But some Bear Creek birds are doing their best to help us out.
This week, Ben and his frequent birding companions, Mark and Akiko, spotted a female American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla). I didn’t see one, but here’s a link to a photo at Cornell Lab. These little guys eat fruit in the winter too, but they eat more insects (including wasps) than any other warbler. According to Cornell, they flash those jazzy feathers as a way to startle their prey out into the open. Very clever use of their Halloween colors, eh? I’ll be on the lookout for this little bird!
The Redstart evidently competes with the Least Flycatcher (Empidonax minimus) for the same prey, those abundant bugs. But the modest flycatcher with his gray and white feathers must have to work harder since he can’t flash those Redstart colors. This one was low in the bushes across the pond this week.
Ben frequently sees another insect lover, Chimney Swifts (Chaetura pelagica) in Bear Creek and he and his birders spotted them this week. They continually elude me. Another social bird like the Waxwings, Chimney Swifts spend almost the whole day in the air, feeding on insects. They can’t perch like other birds; they have to hold onto a vertical surface! Here’s a link at Cornell Lab. Meanwhile, I’ll keep looking!
Early Morning Spider “Lace”
Meanwhile, down among the Goldenrod and Queen Anne’s Lace, the spiders are weaving webs of all kinds. Their lacy creations sparkle in morning light after a rain, or when there’s heavy dew. All of the webs pictured here, but one, graced the western slope path between 8 and 9 in the morning this week. (I’ve used the website of the University of Kentucky Etymology department for general identification purposes.)
First, here’s a group of webs, which include two webs of Orb Weaver Spiders (Aranaidae), who make the classic wheel-shaped spider web – and re-make them every morning (!) – and Sheet-weaving Spiders, who make a cup-shaped web with a sheet below through which they pull their prey. Notice all the superstructure of lines!
Here’s a look at this week’s web of an Orb-weaving spider. The spider is hanging head down which is typical for this family of spiders. These webs are spun afresh each morning, but this one seems to have suffered a tear.
Here, if you look closely are two webs probably made by Bowl and Doily Spiders (Frontinella pyramitela) who are members of the Sheet-weaving Spider family (Linyphiidae). The bowls are above and the sheets or “doilies” are just below each one.
And here’s a favorite photo of an Orb Weaver web after rain in Bear Creek a few years ago. Some mornings’ webs are particularly lovely, so let me know if you see a beauty!
The heat can make it feel like summer but tell-tale signs of autumn remind us to savor the color, hum and occasional birdsong of late summer mornings. Enjoy the last sweet dregs of summer!
*Footnote: My sources for information, as well as Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991). The viceroy butterfly is not a Batesian mimic; 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; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for beetle info http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info, and invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman.