THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: A Huge Hawk, a Rare Flock, and Birds Color the Changing Landscape

Eastern field and walnut lane late fall
Eastern Old Field looking toward the bare Walnut Lane and a late afternoon November sky

Warm days don’t seem appropriate to November, but we’re happy to have them when the Old Fields darken to russet and the architecture of the trees reappears. The landscape deepens as we can see far into the underbrush to places hidden by summer foliage. The slopes and hollows of the woods are more defined as the understory thins.

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

The skies become even more dramatic in the slanting light of late fall when the vivid shades of autumn fade – or maybe we just notice them more. It’s all about noticing, isn’t it?  I wasn’t sure I’d see enough to share this week.  How wrong I was!

Birds Hold Center Stage: A Bold Raptor, Shy Visitors, and Busy Residents

An impressive Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) warmed herself in thin morning sunlight erect in a bare tree near the Center Pond on our Wednesday Bird Walk. (Female Red-tails are larger than males and this was a big hawk!) She may, as Cornell suggests, have been waiting for the air to warm, because soon she was “climbing a thermal updraft into the sky.”   Off she went, probably searching for mice, voles or other small mammals to shore her up against the cold to come.  Red-tails tend to stay with their mates until one of them dies, but they must be loners outside the mating season.  It’s rare in my experience to see more than one at a time. We saw this one from behind at first; look at that red-tail! (Click on photos to enlarge them.)

Red-tailed hawk tail from back
The red tail of the Red-tailed Hawk

And then she turned around to survey her domain!

Red tailed Hawk
A large Red-tailed Hawk, probably a female, surveys her domain.

When I arrived on Wednesday, Ben and the birders were watching five  Rusty Blackbirds (Euphagus carolinus) at the Playground Pond.  I hadn’t seen one in weeks and thought their migration was over.  These secretive, shy birds spend most of their time in the shadows at the edges of wetlands, flipping over leaves to look for tiny invertebrates.  They land in trees only to pause a second before diving down into the underbrush and skulking along among wet, black mud and leaves.  Unable to get a good shot on Wednesday, I lucked out on Friday when I came upon a whole flock (10 or more?) in the wetland below the benches on the southern hill.

rusty blackbird female closeup
A female Rusty Blackbird posed for a few seconds on a branch in the wetland below the southern hill.

Cornell says the population of these  birds has “plunged an estimated 85-99 percent over the past forty years and scientists are completely puzzled as to what is the cause.”  One theory is that they find fewer wetlands so I’m glad we have several in Oakland Township that they can poke about in before heading south.

rusty blackbird2
A male Rusty Blackbird hiding in low bushes in a wetland last Thursday

On the same day (Thursday), a male Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) searched for a crack in tree bark in which to store what appeared to be a piece of nut.

red-bellied woodpecker with nut
A male Red-bellied Woodpecker looking for a crack in tree bark for storing his piece of (most likely) hickory nut.

Shagbark Hickory nuts

It could well have been a Shagbark hickory nut since there are lots of them still on the trees, which is where Red-bellies prefer to find their nuts, though they’ll take them off the ground if necessary.

Since the nut photo doesn’t show the plumage, here’s a fall picture from a previous year of a male Red-belly.  You can tell males from females by the fact that the red back of the head extends all the way to the bill in males but stops at the top of the head in females.

Red belly male in tree2
A male Red-bellied Woodpecker has red extending from the nape of its neck to its bill, while red on the female goes only from its nape to the top of its head.

Nearby a year ’round resident, the White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) repeatedly made its loud, nasal “nyah” call (Cornell calls it a “yank call”)as it probed right-side-up and upside-down around a branch.  A very distinctive call!  Listen to the “Eastern Call” at this Cornell Lab link.  You’ll probably recognize that you’ve heard it before!

White-breasted nuthatch
A White-breasted Nuthatch made its  “nyah” call repeatedly as it probed about on a branch.

Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata) were in a scrappy mood this week, which isn’t unusual for Blue Jays.  I saw two repeatedly giving each other a hard time on the western slope earlier in the week.

Blue jays playing
Two Blue Jays playing or fighting, not sure which, on the western slope.

A migrating Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca), with its large vivid body, smaller round head and long tail, visited the park again this week on its way south. I thought at first it was a Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) from its vivid color but Ben had it right.  A handsome sparrow! We did see a Hermit Thrush but I didn’t manage to get a good photo this week.

 

Fox sparrow morning light
The Fox Sparrow’s color clearly gave this migrant its common name.

The Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) seem much more secretive this time of year.  I’ve seen both the male and female slipping silently from limb to limb down under the Button Bush in the wetland north of the playground – a great contrast to their exuberant singing from the tops of trees and bushes during spring and summer months.

Cardinal male in swamp
This male Northern Cardinal might be a bit disturbed by the presence of us birders, since his crest is slightly raised.

More Tree Sparrows (Spizella arborea) are arriving by the day from their summer homes on the tundra.  I saw only one near the marsh nearest to Snell Road but I heard what sounded like several in the dense underbrush nearby.

Tree sparrow
Tree Sparrows continue arriving from the arctic to spend the winter here.

A Winter Lodge and Abandoned and Fiercely Defended Nests

Two weeks ago I saw a Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) diving in the Center Pond and then appearing briefly as it swam quickly into the shadows near the eastern shore.  It looks as though it’s been making modifications to its lodge on the southern shore, as the sturdy heap of pond mud and dead plant material appears to have grown higher and darker recently.  Muskrats don’t hibernate but are trapped under ice for months at a time.  How do they breathe, find food and keep warm for all that time?  We’ll explore those questions later  – during a snowy winter week at Bear Creek.

Muskrat den2
There seem to be recent additions of mud and plant material on the muskrat’s lodge at the Center Pond.

Also at the eastern end of the pond, the beautiful wasp or hornet’s nest swaying at the tip of a slender limb, is fraying at the edges from wind and rain.  The colony’s founding queen, workers, males and unfertilized queens have all died by now and all that’s left of that huge colony are the fertile queens who mated this fall.  Back in August and September, they put on weight, being fed by the workers.  Now they are snugged up for the winter under bark, leaf litter, logs or stumps near the pond where they’ll emerge and start new colonies next spring. And that amazing piece of insect architecture will slowly unravel.

wasp nest in autumn
A hornet or wasp nest frays at the edges while the only survivors, the fertile queens, hide in nearby nooks and crannies ’til spring.

On the eastern path, a tidy little nest, most likely that of the American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) , sits securely attached to three branches of a small tree.  It seems destined to survive the winter, though bird nests are rarely re-used.  Goldfinches like to nest in small trees and shrubs in open fields.  According to Cornell Lab, “…the nest is an open cup of rootlets and plant fibers lined with plant down, often woven so tightly that it can hold water. The female lashes the foundation to supporting branches using spider silk, and makes a downy lining often using the fluffy “pappus” material taken from the same types of seedheads that goldfinches so commonly feed on.”  That aptly describes this little nest both inside and out! (Rest your cursor on double photos to see captions.)

I got another ferocious scolding from an aggressive little American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) this week, who was probably defending itself and its stockpile of nuts, seeds and mushrooms cached nearby.  During the winter, they generally live inside logs, stumps or in woodpecker holes, popping out around midday to dig into their food stores cached nearby.  Speedy little rodents, Red Squirrels can reach 14mph over a short distance when excited!  I told Ben and the birders that if this one had been about 10 times bigger, I’d have taken off running.  Look at that fierce little face!

Aggressive red squirrel
An American Red Squirrel fiercely warns me to get away from its winter hole in a nearby tree or log –  or perhaps its winter food cache stored nearby.

Wildflowers: Then and Now

Native wildflowers are almost gone, having produced seed for next year and along the way, fed the honey bees and native bumble bees, caterpillars, birds, even some of the animals in Bear Creek.

Up by the benches on the south hill of the park, the gigantic leaves of Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) curl around the bare stalks of these giant wildflowers that grew from 3 to 10 feet high this summer!  Prairie Dock nectar fed native bumblebees and perhaps the occasional hummingbird, while goldfinches snacked on the seeds.  Now their huge brown leaves curl, reminding me of the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland.

Across the way, the Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) that turned their faces to the sun a few months ago show only those rich brown centers now.  Lots of bees and other insects enjoy this native wildflower during the summer.

Meadowsweet (Spirea alba) still sports its red stalk, but the white plumes have fruited into brown seeds for next year.  Bees of all kinds fed on the nectar of this lovely plant all summer.  Rabbits probably nibbled on the lower leaves while deer sometimes consume the upper ones.  Meadowsweet also feeds a variety of native moths, some of which, of course, are consumed by birds.

Native plants like these are an important source of nourishment for the birds, bugs and other creatures of Bear Creek.  That’s one reason we try to foster them.

Leaf Patterns

The Pin Oak leaves were bright red and green as they encircled the playground a week or so ago.  Suddenly this week, they turned brown but held on.

Pin Oaks Playground Fall
Pin Oaks that were bright green and red last week have quickly turned brown, but held on.

A week ago, the Red Maple (Acer rubrum) near the shed blazed a brilliant red but it appears from the pattern of its now-fallen leaves,  that a gust of south wind brought most of them down at once .

Bur oak shedding leaves
From the pattern on the ground, the Red Maple appears to have lost most of its leaves to the warm south wind this week.

Down at the center pond, the giant White Oak (Quercus alba) shed its leaves this week, creating a mosaic in the water nearby.

white oak at center pond
One of the biggest White Oaks in the park, the one near the Center Pond, shed its leaves this week.
White oak leaves in the pond
A White Oak leaf pattern in the Center Pond.

So despite the fact that November’s fading light cues birds to move on, flowers to wither and leaves to fall, Bear Creek is still a place of beauty and surprise.  November cues us too – to don heavier jackets, maybe a raincoat, some days a hat and gloves – to come take part in the changing of seasons.

Gray dogwood red against yellow leaves
The red tips (pedicles) of Gray Dogwood that are left now that the white fruit (drupes) have fallen or been eaten by birds.
*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);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 insect info http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info; invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman; experienced birder Ruth Glass, bird walk leader at Stoney Creek Metro Park for bird identification;Birds of North American Online; Audubon.org
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