Our warm winter continues. Early last week, spring-like warmth and sun melted the snow, turning the fields and woods brown again. Though the ice in small ponds and pools softened, most of it remained. So as I walked the central and northern parts of the park, wetlands shone among the trees. The one in the photo above, just below the southern hill, is a maze of green in the summer, but in winter, its architecture appears – brushed with the soft red of Red Twig Dogwood (Cornus sericea),and punctuated by drooping balls of Button Bush (Cephalanthus occidentalis).
The warmth brought muskrats out into the sunlight and seemed to make the birds giddy. I saw multiple flocks this week calling and moving restlessly in the bare trees. It sounded as though some males were even practicing bits of their courting songs. Short fluting notes sounded here and there – not just calls, this week, but also little musical phrases. A mud-luscious week for mid-winter.
Flocking Birds Hoping for Spring
So many birds this week! They flew up out of bushes or bounced on bare limbs among the treetops. This gorgeous male House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) rested in the Box- Elders (Acer negundo) near his mate on the trail just north of the playground. Box-elders are a disturbance-loving member of the Maple trees, providing some food and cover for winter birds in many of our old farm fields.
I think I caught this female House Finch just as she bit down on a seed so it’s not her most flattering portrait!
Male House Finches were making lots of noise in the Eastern Old Field and they seemed to be keeping company with a male Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis)!
Bluebirds appeared all over the southern part of the park this week. Here’s a quick shot of a male who repeatedly darted down to the ground apparently finding seeds in the dry grass of the Eastern Path.
The lady Bluebirds were in evidence, too, of course. Here’s a female unfortunately feeding on the irresistibly bright red berries of Asian Bittersweet, an invasive vine that kills many of our trees and bushes. The female Bluebird, as you can see, has more subdued coloring with a gray head. But she’s a beauty, too.
On the far western side of the park this week, a flock of American Robins (Turdus migratorius) clucked to each other while a few tried out some spring notes as well. They were feeding off Box-Elders just like the finches.
American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) often give a contact call as they fly, a lovely sound on a winter morning (listen to the second “Call” recording on this Cornell Lab link). Their small bodies, not as bright now as in the spring, pump up and down in flight as they beat their barred wings. Those wings, the clear breast, a conical bill and forked tails help identify Goldfinches when they’re dressed in drab winter garb – and half in shadow like this one!
If you hear a swoosh of wings and a high whistling sound, look for the Mourning Doves (Zenaida macroura). These birds with the gentle expressions can fly very fast, and their wings make that high whistle as they take off. Their mournful cooing is often mistaken for the sound of an owl. Mourning Doves are the most hunted species in North America but not currently in Michigan, according to the DNR.
Since it’s winter, flocks of Dark-eyed Juncos, who spend summers in the far north, are now feeding in the grass in groups as well.
Only the woodpeckers seemed to be singletons this week. A quick, soft tapping alerted me to this male Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) drilling upside down on a branch. Oddly, he stayed in that position to preen for a few minutes as well, so there must have something quite tasty under that stretch of bark!
Muskrats Above the Ice!
It must be such a treat for the Muskrats (Ondatra zibethicus) to be able to come up into the sunshine after weeks spent under the ice or inside their feeding platforms. These mammals don’t hibernate in winter so feeding and getting oxygen is a challenge when trapped in the dark of the icy marsh. Check out the blog from December 14 for more info on the muskrat’s quite amazing survival strategies. One late afternoon this week, way off at the eastern edge of the marsh, the ice had melted. From the platform I saw 3 members of a muskrat family swimming and eating there. My long lens didn’t quite reach them, but here is the largest of them, feeding.
Vernal Pools Appear After the Melt
Whenever snow melts, winter or spring, or when rain falls, water runs off into low-lying areas. This creates a wetland with no fish, which is an ideal breeding ground for frogs, for example, whose eggs would be eaten by fish and whose young grow quickly before the pools dry up in warm weather. I’ve seen ducks mating in these more private pools as well. Normally in the winter, these pools disappear to the eye. Either their white snow cover blends into the white landscape around them or without snow, they blend into the dark floor of the forest.
But this week, when the snow suddenly melted in the woods, the partially melted ice left in these pools suddenly shown through the dimness. Quite a pretty sight, really.
Here is a vernal pool near the west arm of the Big Northern Loop as it looked when dry in late summer and as it looked this week (Hover cursor over photos for captions).
For me, vernal pools are kind of magical, appearing and disappearing, and yet so important to certain creatures like wood frogs, toads and salamanders, not to mention insects and plants. Here is the vernal pool near Gunn Road dry in early fall and then filled with wood frogs as it was last spring.
I’m continually delighted by how much life and beauty greets me on any walk at Bear Creek – even in the winter! Consider donning your most mud-tolerant shoes/boots to discover at least a bit of it when you can. You’ll come home with your cheeks pink, your lungs full of fresh air, your muscles worked and all kinds of new experiences to nourish your mind and imagination. Never fails for me.
Footnote: My sources for information 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 America Online; Audubon.org, Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, Trees in My Forest by Bernd Heinrich, Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, Savannah River Ecology Lab (Univ of Georgia), Tortoise Trust website www.tortoisetrust.org, An Orchard Invisible:A Natural History of Seeds by Jonathan Silvertown and other sites as cited in the text.