This Week at Bear Creek celebrated its first birthday this week. We’ve come full circle on the calendar exploring together what’s blooming, singing, buzzing and trotting through the park. I’ve had such a great time watching, asking questions of Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Stewardship Manager, reading your comments and pouring over books and blogs to research these pieces. I hope it has brought you some surprises and fresh insights, too. I’ve proposed to Ben that we widen the lens a bit this year and rather than focusing on one park, I’ll explore other parks in the township in a series we’re calling “Out and About in Oakland Township.” So watch for that coming soon!
But for now, let’s explore what’s been happening in Bear Creek for the last couple of weeks while I was reporting on Bear Creek history. Spring arrived, retreated and struggled to make a comeback, no doubt confusing the first migrating birds (one new to me!), singing frogs and emerging insects. A successful prescribed burn lit the Old Fields, returning nutrients to the earth and warming the soil with black ash. It also provided some pretty nice hunting for birds of prey, including a second bird I’d never seen before.
A Tentative Start to Spring: The Birds
Before we watch the migrators, here’s our old friend, the Black- capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) doing something fun. I learned a while ago that this little native can excavate holes in dead trees and/or trees with softer bark. And one cold morning, near the marsh closest to Snell Road, I spotted one doing just that. Notice the wood shavings on its head in the left photo and on its beak in the right photo. It was dropping the shavings on the ground as it worked diligently. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Back to spring arrivals. The Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia) returned, some practicing parts of their spring song, but mostly just searching in the wetlands and brush for something to eat!
One warm morning, an American Woodcock (Scolopax minor) shot out from under my feet and two days later I saw one probing with its long beak among thick vines and brambles at the edge of the wetland below the benches on the south hill. I’d never seen one in Bear Creek before! This oddly shaped bird, with its squared-off head and widely spaced eyes, stayed just out of sight in the underbrush. I’ll spare you my attempt at a photo. Here’s a much better one of the Woodcock from Cornell Lab! I hope to see this interesting bird doing its “cool aerial mating dance,” as Ben calls it, at a stewardship birding event he’s planned for Cranberry Lake on Earth Day, April 22 at 7:30 pm (Mark your calendars!).
A flock of migrators, the Grackles (Quiscalus quiscula), with their light eyes and iridescent coats, seem to have taken over the marsh just north of the playground. Their calls, akin to the sound of a rusty gate, scrape the air as these large birds begin establishing territories.
They share some wetlands with another summer visitor, the Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), who trills a sharp call while showing off his epaulets. Since the females hadn’t arrived last week, this guy seemed more focused on food one cold morning.
The Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis)are performing their spring duets, since both the male and female trill a large variety of songs. Here’s a male near the marsh and then a recording of his lovely song which he began a few minutes later. (Be sure to increase your volume.)
And of course, I couldn’t resist a pair of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis).
The Frog Serenade Begins
The spring frogs have thawed out after being frozen all winter. They are singing with abandon in every wet spot in the park, trying to attract their mates. During the day, we’re likely to hear either the Wood Frog (Lithobates sylvaticus) or the Western Chorus Frog (Pseudacris triseriata) or both. In this short sound recording, the high pitched continuous singing is the song of the Western Chorus Frog and the lower, almost conversational croaking is the song of the Wood Frogs.
Wood Frogs like to float in the water and sing, so look for concentric circles on the surface and you’ll often see the 2 – 2.5 inch male croaking. This one floated in the marsh west of the Snell entrance.
The Western Chorus Frog is smaller, only 1 – 1.5 inches, but it has a mighty bubble at its throat as it sings. I caught this one in mid-croak a year ago.
The water is deep at the Center Pond, so Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta)have emerged from winter torpor under the mud to share whatever bits of logs are available in order to bask in the thin sunlight. I’m waiting to see how many hatchlings survived the winter in their shared nests!
Plants Sprouting, A Risk-taking Caterpillar and a Very Tiny Spider!
The last week of March thick frost covered all of last year’s plants at Bear Creek, including a Goldenrod Ball Gall missing its larval inhabitant and one of last year’s Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota) dried blossoms.
But the sun came out and this year’s plants began to emerge. Each spring I look for the first fascinating but homely Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) around the marsh at the western entrance to the Oak-Hickory forest. And there it was, nosing its way out of the mud.
Nearby, on the path behind the Center Pond, a minuscule spider worked diligently on its web strung between two branches of native Pussy Willow (Salix discolor). And some sort of caterpillar appeared as well, which might be that of the striking Virginia Ctenucha Moth. The caterpillars of this moth feed on grasses and sedges and are often found in open fields in early spring and fall.
Over near Snell Road, I spotted some lovely catkins and Ben tells me I’ve found Hazelnut (Corylus americana), a plant that George Comps harvested for nuts when he lived on this piece of land in the 1940’s. The long yellow ones are male flowers and if you look closely, you’ll see small red ones that are female – both on the same plant.
Up in the new native bed near the pavilion, transplanted last fall from a generous donor, the lovely little Sharp-lobed Hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba) bloomed quietly one warm morning.
Prescribed Burn: A Boost for Native Plants
Last week Dr. Ben, township staff and 6 volunteers conducted a prescribed burn down the center of the southern part of Bear Creek, to the left and right of the Walnut Lane. Many native plants in our area are adapted to fire from natural sources and thousands of years of clearing and fertilizing with fire by local Native American communities. In fact, many native plants form buds underground that allow them to sprout vigorously after fire. Non-native plants and invasives may or may not be fire-adapted, so periodic burning can be a setback for them.
Fire also returns to the earth the nutrients in dead material from the previous year and provides a black ash surface that absorbs heat from the sun (solar radiation), giving plants a longer growing season.
Dr. Ben serves as “fire boss” for our crew and trained these volunteers during the winter. It was wonderful to see them do such a careful, well-coordinated burn, while saving the township the cost of hiring a burn crew. Thank you to volunteers Steve Powell, David Lazar, Antonio Xeira, Dioniza Toth-Reinalt, Heidi Paterson, and Jim Lloyd, plus Township staff member Jeff Johnson, and of course Dr. Ben for a stewardship job well done!
About that Hawk and its Fellow Hunter…
Avian hunters were super appreciative of the burn! A large Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) perched calmly on a limb as the smoke floated up from the fires below. As Ben pointed out, she knew it would make finding her prey so much easier!
A female American Kestrel (Falco sparvarius) found a mole after the fire and took it up into a tree on the eastern edge of the Old Field. Kestrels are the smallest North American falcons and are declining in some of their range due partly to predation by hawks and even crows – so it’s great to see one at Bear Creek. Kestrels are known to cache some of their food, but after the winter months, this one seemed very determined to have a meal! (Thanks to Ben for ID of this bird and the caterpillar above!)
From One Spring to the Next
So thank you for circling the year with me at Bear Creek. It’s difficult to choose favorite moments because every season has its joys. I know I’ll remember the bulge of the Chorus Frog’s throat in early spring, the head of a Cedar Waxwing protruding from her nest in early summer, two baby wrens taking a dust bath on the Walnut Lane, the Western Slope covered with Monarch butterflies hanging from purple New England Asters in autumn, and learning how muskrats cruise under winter ice and frogs freeze solid before resurrecting in the spring. If you have favorite moments, photos, new realizations, I’d love to hear about them in the comments below.
But let’s be off to another year! We’ll keep periodically visiting Bear Creek, of course, but also venture out to Lost Lake Nature Park, Cranberry Lake Park, Draper Twin Lake Park, Charles Ilsley Park, Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park, Blue Heron Environmental Area, Gallagher Creek Park, Marsh View Park, and the Paint Creek Trail to see all the diversity our green gem of a township has to offer! Now I’m off to see if I can find some warblers…
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; The Ecology of Plants by Gurevitch, Scheiner and Fox; other sites as cited in the text.