THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: The Drama of Drought and Downpours

Western Slope BC August
Goldenrod gilds the Old Fields of Bear Creek in late August.
Cam walking into BC
Blog posts and photos by Cam Mannino

Late summer is always a time of transitions, but this year was particularly dramatic. Bear Creek’s meadows baked for weeks under a blazing sun. The marsh dried completely, stranding an over-heated young  snapper that struggled through a tangled mat of exposed vegetation. Heat finished off blossoms as some wildflowers began to seed earlier than usual. And then in mid-August, the rains came – downpours, thunderstorms and off-and-on showers. You could almost hear the gulping of plants and trees swallowing the moisture through their roots. Snappers again cruised just below the shallow waters of the marsh. Life rallied.  As always, nature just coped and moved on.

Life in the Hot Sun of the Old Fields

The Old Field on the western edge of Bear Creek is quieter now. Mating season has ended (except for the Goldfinches), so birdsong has diminished. But one hot, sticky morning, an Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) threw back his head and let loose his double-phrased song from the highest branch of a tree – a favorite perch for male Buntings.

Indigo Bunting singing BC
An Indigo Bunting releases its song from the tallest branch of a tree on the Western Slope.

An Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) seemed to be listening to its neighbor as it rested between forays over the baking meadows, trying  to snatch a few unsuspecting insects.

Phoebe BC
Nearby, an Eastern Phoebe listened as the Indigo Bunting sang.

A juvenile Yellow-bellied Flycatcher (Empidonax flaviventris) posed quietly among the branches of smaller trees on the Western Slope. Expert birder, Ruth Glass, tells me that this little bird probably arrived from Canada or northern Michigan and is now migrating down to the Caribbean. Quite an adventure for a small bird!

Eastern Wood-peewee
A juvenile Yellow-bellied Flycatcher near the Western Slope.

Near the moist bottom of the slope one steamy morning, I spotted a lump on a leaf.  A newly metamorphosed Gray Tree Frog (Hyla versicolor) was sleeping on a Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). I’m afraid I woke it with my camera. The U of M’s Bio-kids website says they are “almost always bright green right after metamorphosis [from tadpole stage] and they stay this way for some time before taking on their adult coloration.” These frogs can sleep in the open during the day, using their camouflage to protect themselves; they don’t dehydrate quickly like other frogs. Isn’t it just the best little creature?

Gray treefrog baby BC
A newly metamorphosed baby Gray Tree Frog on a milkweed leaf

While birds foraged from the trees, the insects below braved the blazing sun  to look for their own sustenance. In the grass on the Western Slope, a Common Buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia) seemed to searching the bottom of grass stems. I’ve read that they sip nectar but often look for fluids in moist earth. Perhaps it was hoping for dew on a hot morning in August.

Common Buckeye butterfly-2
A Common Buckeye butterfly perhaps searching for moisture in the grass on the Western Slope.

Higher up on the western path, where the land was drier, beetles probed blossoms looking for food. On the left, a non-native Seven-spotted Ladybug (Coccinella setempunctata) searched diligently for aphids, a favorite food. In fact, these beetles were brought here to combat aphids, but as a result, they’ve outcompeted our native ladybugs whose numbers have declined. On the right, a Soldier Beetle (family Cantharidae) may also be pursuing aphids, though it also eats pollen and nectar. (Hover cursor for captions; click on photo to enlarge.)

In the trees near the top of the Western Slope, a sparrow fluffed its feathers in thin shade. It’s hard to identify juvenile sparrows but with its pink feet and bill, I’m guessing this is a juvenile Field Sparrow who hasn’t yet reached full adult plumage when it will have a more distinct eye ring and a clear breast.

Field Sparrow BC
A Field Sparrow has a pink bill and pink feet so I’m guessing this is a juvenile whose breast plumage is still changing.

American Goldfinches mate in August, much later than other birds. On one hot visit,  a female repeatedly rode drying blossoms of Queen Anne’s Lace down to the ground to forage for seeds, perhaps to feed her young –  or her hard-working self! Unlike many seed-eating birds, the Goldfinches don’t switch to bugs when breeding. They are strictly vegetarian.

Goldfinch riding Queen Anne's Lace
A female Goldfinch repeatedly rode a Queen Anne’s Lace to the ground to harvest its seeds.

Nestlings of other birds are transforming into curious fledglings. One afternoon, a young, female Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) perched high in a snag (standing dead tree), her spotted breast only halfway transformed into adult plumage.

Bluebird juvenile molting BC
A young female Bluebird molts the speckled breast feathers of a fledgling into adult plumage.

Wildflowers felt the impact of the fierce sunlight. A Jewel Weed blossom near the pond dried in the heat, while others took its place in the dappled shade.  And up on the top of the southern hill, the Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) dropped their petals and began the seeding process in the dry heat.

Sturdy Prairie Dock blossoms, looking like little suns themselves,  began to dry out as well as they towered over the wilting Coneflowers.

Prairie Dock in BC Native Garden
Native Prairie Dock seems to mimic the bright sun it prefers.

A female Black Swallowtail hovered just off the sun-drenched Eastern Path, looking restlessly for just the right blossom. Folding its dark wings may help it cope with the sun’s heat.

Black Swallowtail female
A female Black Swallowtail butterfly off the edge of the Eastern Path

Patrolling for food, a Ruby Meadowhawk dragonfly rested momentarily  on a leaf, its clear wings shimmering in the hot sunlight.

Ruby Meadowhawk BC
A Ruby Meadowhawk paused on a leaf while patrolling the fields for smaller insects

The northeastern edge of the Old Fields evidently stayed moist despite the  heat and several “wet-footed” plants took full advantage of the bright sunlight.  Joe-Pye (Eutrochium maculatum) spread its dusty pink blooms out across the field instead of appearing as widely distributed single plants as it often does here.

Joe Pye Eastern Path
Joe-Pye flourishes off the Eastern Path.

Other native wetland plants fringed the same area.  The trio below includes bright pink Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) with its green stems, Joe-Pye with dusty pink blossoms and purple stems and Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) with its white blossoms and leathery leaves. 

Swamp Milkweed Boneset Cat-tails BC
A fringe of native flowers edges the wetland off the Eastern Path

Below center, the native Bumblebee (genus Bombus) sips nectar from the Swamp Milkweed with its long tongue and on the left, is a closer look at Boneset. Odd name, eh?  Evidently early herbalists noticed the way the stem seemed to rise right through the clinging leaves reminding them of a splint around a bone. So its leaves were wrapped with bandages around broken bones. Native Flowering Spurge (Euphorbia corollata) on the right also thrives here as it does in various spots along the Paint Creek Trail.

Sheltering in the Shade

Near the wood edges, I found mammals and insects enjoying the shade.  Following a shining strand hanging before our eyes, my husband and I discovered a very tiny white spider escaping the bright sunlight on the underside of a leaf. I tried but couldn’t identify it, despite that wonderful design on its abdomen. We wondered if that brown ball was an egg sack. Anyone know this tiny creature’s name?

White spider under leaf
A tiny white spider, unidentified, sought the shade on the underside of a leaf next to what may be an egg sack.

And, as usual, damselflies moved in and out of the shade at the edge of the Oak-Hickory forest. I’m guessing,  based on its bright blue head, striped thorax, and very pale abdomen, that this one may be a female Bluet (genus  Enallagma) or a recently hatched one. But since there are at least 17 species of Bluets in the Midwest, I’m not sure which one this is. Again, I’m open to your ideas.

damselfly
Probably a species of the Bluet Damselfly pausing in the shade at the edge of the woods.

A White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) sat calmly on the shady site of a dried vernal pool, while her fawn dutifully hurried off into the bushes as I paused for the photo.

Deer in dry vernal pool BC
A doe whose fawn hurried off into the bushes when I appeared with my camera.

And an Eastern Cottontail paused in a shady spot along a trail one hot morning as well.

Eastern cottontail rabbit bc
An Eastern Cottontail rests in a shady spot on a hot morning.

And Then the Rains Came…

What a relief when heavy rain came to refill the wetlands and ponds at Bear Creek Park! After watching  that young Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) struggling through vegetation in the dry marsh, it was a relief to see two Snappers feeding and cruising just below the surface in the cooling water provided by the rain.

 

The bright sun and rain caused Common Duckweed (Lemna minor) and Water Meal (genus Wolffia) – often mistaken for heavy algae – to form thicker mats across wetlands around the park. At the Playground Pond, I heard a plop! one afternoon and saw just the head of a Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) moving through the juicy green surface. Luckily, its ears close when it enters the water! When swimming, it uses its tail to propel itself with the help of its webbed back feet.

muskrat at playground pond
A muskrat keeping its head above the thick mat of duckweed in the Playground Pond.

Once the Muskrat dove, I noticed other denizens of the Pond nicely camouflaged in duckweed and water meal as well.  Here are two turtles and a frog on a log decked out in greenery.

2 turtles and frog playground pond
Two turtles and a frog covered in duckweed after the rains came

Quivering in the duckweed near the boardwalk made me look down to see a whole collection of small Green Frogs (Rana clamitans). Each of those individual spots on the leg  of the frog below is a water meal plant! Ducks do love this plant, by the way.  Sometimes they just dip their bills in and move along, scooping it up.

Green Frog Playground Pond_
A Green Frog in the Playground Pond covered with Duckweed – not algae.

In the wetland just north of the Playground Pond, a particularly beautiful native plant is blooming in the moist shade, Cardinal Flower or Red Lobelia (Lobelia cardinalis). Last week when I took an out-of-town friend to the park and left my camera at home,  we watched a Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) sipping at a tall stalk of this scarlet beauty. I came back for its photo the following day – but no Hummingbird then, I’m sorry to say!

Cardinal flower single
Hummingbirds can be seen feeding at Cardinal Flower in the wetland just north of the playground.

We also spotted two Barn Swallows  perched quietly in nearby trees. No camera again! The next day, they were swooping madly across the meadows, their bills open, enjoying the swarms of insects that had hatched after the rain. One perched for a moment in a snag over the wetland and I got this quick photo of it from below.

Barn Swallow BC
A Barn Swallow resting between swoops over the open fields to eat insects hatched after the rain

As the water rose in the Center Pond, tiny  Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta) appeared on nearly every log. Here’s a silver-dollar-sized one trundling along as it explores its world like any youngster.

baby painted turtle
A silver-dollar-sized Painted Turtle strikes out on its own after the rain.

This week, a Green Heron (Butorides virescens) dropped into the bushes at the western edge of the pond. It kept a close eye on the water, when it wasn’t actively preening with its long, extendable neck. Green Herons are expert hunters of both fish and frogs.  I wondered if the absence of July’s huge number of green frogs was attributable to the drought or this multi-colored fisher. (My apologies for the slightly pixelated photos caused by aggressive cropping so we could see it up close.)

Yes, it’s been a hot, sticky and then rainy summer. But we’re all in this together – animals, birds and plants. The natural world provided a gentle reminder that change, even dramatic change, is an inherent part of being alive. Summer may be waning now but the beauty around us isn’t. Surprises await our arrival every day, no matter what the weather.

 P.S.  More Native Beauties Blooming along the Paint Creek Trail!

The trick about blogging during the summer is that so much happens all over the township, all at once!  Keep an eye out for these special native wildflowers blooming for just a short time in the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail. The shallow water table in this meadow provides a perfect spot for these fire-adapted beauties. The field is dotted with the purple fireworks of Cylindrical Blazing Star (Liatris cylindracea), the striped elegance of Grass of Parnassus (Parnassia glauca) and the delicate, spotted petals of Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum). Don’t miss them!

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.
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