OUT AND ABOUT IN OAKLAND: Shifting Toward Winter at Cranberry Lake Park

Flock geese flying CL
Flock of geese flying south from Cranberry Lake Park

What a difference a month makes!  I began a series of visits to Cranberry Lake Park on September 24 and ended on October 25.  I wanted to watch the park change as fall moved toward winter. It’s as if the color slowly leaves the flowers and grasses in the earth, flows up into the trees and then disappears into the black and white of winter. So this time I’m sharing a transition –  who and what is coming and going at this changeable time of year.

Late September:  Flowers Change to Fruit and Seeds

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The meadow at Cranberry Lake in late September

In late September, the meadow was  still green, but splashed with the gold of Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa). A sweeping curve of this beautiful native plant swept around the large thicket of shrubs in the center of the meadow. It was easy to imagine the path of last summer’s winds as it carried the seeds that created this graceful shape.

Showy Goldenrod 2 CL
Perhaps last summer’s winds carried the seeds that created this curving swath of Showy Goldenrod in the meadow.

And a few other flowers hung on in September.  Individual stems of Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis) glowed gold among the greenery and a few hardy, flat-topped Yarrow stalks (Achillea millefolium) thrust their way above the browning Canada Goldenrod. Late-blooming Sweet Everlasting (Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium) – which some call Cudweed! – appeared as well, its tightly furled white buds just beginning to open in the cool autumn air. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

Wild Grapes, also known as River Bank Grapes (Vitis riparia), hung in clusters on almost bare branches offering a  treat for migrating and resident birds – and a few of us humans as well! A few weeks later they had either fallen to the ground or been eaten right off the vine.

In September, the Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) leaves changed from green to scarlet and the upright plumes of deep red fruits began to form.  One morning, a flock of Black-Capped Chickadees bounced among the branches, foraging either for fruits or the occasional bug. Perhaps they were the ones who stripped the fruit from some of the plumes. Sumac fruits are eaten by many game and songbirds, though normally they’re not a first choice this time of year.

Over the next few weeks, the Goldenrods began to brown and go to seed. Showy Goldenrod seems to start seeding from the top down, week by week. And eventually that golden curve of Showy Goldenrod had turned a seed-rich, but not very attractive, brown.

The golden swath of Showy Goldenrod turns to a brown, seed rich patch.
The golden swath of Showy Goldenrod turns to a brown, seed-rich patch.

And despite not being a first choice fruit, the Staghorn Sumac’s seeds had either been eaten on the plant or fallen on the ground to be found by ground feeders.

Staghorn Sumac no seeds
Staghorn Sumacs’ plumes of seed disappeared in mid-October, either eaten by birds or dropped to the ground.

Talk about cool seeds! Looks at these elaborate seed pods of Dogbane/Indian Hemp (Apocynum cannabinum)! Dogbane is related to milkweeds, and like milkweeds the seeds with tufts of hair help the plant float on the breeze to new places. On the left is this red-stemmed, white-blossomed plant in June and on the center and right, the unbelievably long, angular seed pods this week.

Of course,  some seeds are actually a HUGE problem. In autumn, the invasive, tree-killing vine, Oriental/Asian Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), produces its seductively beautiful yellow and red fruits. This vine encircles the trunks of trees while climbing for the sun. In doing so, it can choke the life out of a tree. If it gets to the top, it can kill the tree by shading it out and/or by making it top heavy and more likely to fall in storms. Unfortunately, hungry birds eat the berries and spread Bittersweet readily through their droppings. PLEASE DON’T PICK THIS VINE OR MAKE WREATHS FROM IT , ETC. Contact the Parks Department if you want some strategies for getting rid of this beautiful “bad guy”!

Asian Bittersweet CL
A beautiful but deadly plant that kills trees by choking them, shading them out or making them topple in storms. PLEASE DON’T PICK ORIENTAL BITTERSWEET!

By late October, the meadow at Cranberry Creek had turned November brown as plants continued to produce seeds.

Field at Cranberry Late Oct
The meadow at Cranberry Lake had turned an autumnal brown by the end of October.

I did, though, find a few shy Smooth Asters (Symphyotrichum laeve) tucked beneath overhanging foliage, braving the cold with the last of its lavender blossoms.

Last of smooth asters CL
A small sprig of Smooth Asters braved the cold nights beneath the shelter of overhanging plants.

During  October: A Feast for Migrating Birds!

It’s hard for us to watch the palette of spring and summer fade – but birds? They love it! Warblers and other small visitors who spent their summer raising young in the cool northern reaches of Canada sailed into the park and found a feast! As did our year ’round resident birds.

One of my favorite partakers of fruits and seeds is the tiny Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) who’s found its way here from around Hudson Bay in Canada – or even farther north. I seem to always miss seeing the ruby crown which the male shows when he’s excited. I guess the birds I’m seeing are either females or males that are just too calm!

Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-Crowned Kinglets arrived in October to feed and rest on their way south from northern Canada.

One afternoon at Cranberry Lake, the park was filled with White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis). They whisked in and out of shrubs while dashing down into the grass in search of seeds. This one paused just long enough for me to see its yellow lores, the spots at the corner of its eyes. It may have arrived from the UP or the tip of the mitten on its way to points south – not quite as arduous a trip as some migrators have.

White-throated Sparrow 3 CL
White-throated Sparrows have a shorter migration from northern Michigan to just southern Ohio.

This “first winter” White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys) was probably born this summer. It will take on adult coloring when it molts next spring into its bright black and white crown that now is brown and gray. This one was feeding avidly on goldenrod seed during its journey from northern Canada to somewhere south of Michigan.

White-crowned Sparrow 1st winter eating
A “first winter” White-crowned Sparrow enjoying some goldenrod seeds after a long  flight from northern Canada.

One morning, far up the path in the shadow of trees, a small Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) landed quickly, picked up a bug or fallen fruit from the grass, and took off.  No photo. But here’s one from a previous year with its chocolate brown back and breast smudges. Too bad the Hermit Thrush doesn’t court its mate here, because its song has 3 different phrases with a pause between each. You can hear two versions of it here.

Hermit Thrush
The Hermit Thrush, with its chocolate brown back and smudges on its breast, picked up a few bugs or some  fruit on its way south.

Our birding group saw other migratory birds enjoying the rest and sustenance provided by Cranberry Lake Park, but through our binoculars. They were too far away or too restless for me to capture them with the camera. The little Nashville Warbler (Oreothlypis ruficapilla) is making its way from Canada’s far north  to Mexico or Central America. The Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum) stopped by on its journey from Canada to Florida or the Caribbean. And the Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata) has a comparatively short migration from northern Michigan or Canada to just south of Michigan. So as in all of our parks, Cranberry Lake offers much needed R&R for these small seasonal visitors.

During the bird walk, a Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus) swooped into the Hickory Lane on the west side of the park, perhaps chasing a songbird. It flew straight in front of us and quickly disappeared – we think without snagging the bird. Pretty exciting! Sharp-shinned Hawks are smaller and seen less often than the similar Cooper’s Hawk. They usually appear only during migration, so it’s probably headed south by now.  Here’s a link to a photo at Cornell Lab.

A summer resident, the Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) called “chewink!” from the edge of the woods one birdwalk morning. When Ben imitated his call,  the male Towhee darted into a nearby bush, intending, I assume,  to check out the competition. Here’s a photo of one from last spring.  (Let’s just say my photo luck was not with me on that bird walk!)

Towhee Draper Pond2
An Eastern Towhee chipped from the forest edge at the end of the bird walk.

So though we miss the flowers, they have done their work. They attracted the right pollinators which helped create the very seeds that feed tired and hungry migrating birds – as well as having provided bees with the makings for the honey that will feed them through the winter, too. As a compensation, color comes to us once more as the trees begin to turn.

Late October:  Winter Resident from the Far North Arrives – and Color Fills the Trees

Just this week, an American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea) may have flown into Cranberry Lake Park  from the edge of the Arctic tundra! This sparrow, with a spot in the middle of its gray chest and a two-tone bill, loves cold weather. During the summer, Tree Sparrows make elegant nests of ptarmigan feathers right on the ground in the Arctic in order to raise their young. Evidently for a Tree Sparrow, spending the winter in  Michigan  is like going to Florida! Below is the first one I’ve seen this year.

Tree sparrow
A tree sparrow rests in a bush.

A flock of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) did a lot to brighten up the browning of the meadow last week. Most Bluebirds migrate south, but a few actually stay with us all winter, either in family groups or small flocks, as long as there are seeds and berries available. I couldn’t resist taking more than one photo. Their splashes of azure in the field were really cheering on a gray fall day.

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A male Eastern Bluebird in the meadow at Cranberry Lake
Two Bluebirds CL
A male and female Eastern Bluebird shared a bush in the meadow.
3 bluebirds in bush
Three bluebirds decorating a bare bush in the meadow

Color, of course, is the glory of a Michigan autumn. On September 24, the Hickory Lane still looked green and lush. By October 11, the colors had changed to gold and orange.   And on October 24,  a single glowing Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) at the south end of the lane was still shining in the sunlight after most of the other hickory trees began to turn brown.

The maple family contributes lavishly to the beauty of autumn.  On the path to the lake,  a striking leaf from a Red Maple (Acer rubrum) featured some colorful geometry. And nearby, the deeply lobed greenish-white underside of a pale yellow leaf from a Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) created some contrast. At the lake’s edge, oak and maple leaves formed a scarf of fall color floating on the surface. 

The lake again was filled with migrating ducks and water birds – all much too far out for any kind of shot. Female Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa), Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) and Mute Swans (Cygnus olor) were among the throng. Here are photos of those birds from  locations where I can get closer to them!

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Two female Wood Ducks were preparing for migration at Cranberry Lake this week. This one cruised the Playground Pond at Bear Creek earlier this year.
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Mallards, seen here at Bear Creek, gathered with other ducks and water birds at Cranberry Lake this week.
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Two Mute Swans floated in Cranberry Lake this week. This shot was taken a few years ago in a Canadian river where I could get closer.

But there were also  Pied-Billed Grebes (Podilymbus podiceps),  and American Black Ducks (Anas rubripes)on Cranberry Lake.  Please click on these red Cornell Lab links if you’d like to see them up close. Let’s hope a viewing deck gets built on Cranberry Lake in the next few years so all of us can get a closer look in person at the water birds that flock to the lake in spring and fall to socialize and feed.

A Different Kind of Transition in the North of the Park

North path new CL
The greatly improved path entering the woods off of 32 Mile Road.

Finally, a wonderful transition is being finished on the trail at the north end of the park. The Parks and Recreation maintenance staff has spent long hours this summer improving the trail from 32 Mile Road into the park.  Instead of an oft-flooded, muddy track, they have laid down a solid surface with periodic drainage pipes running beneath it to keep the new trail from flooding.  You certainly can feel the difference underfoot!  And I imagine equestrians, as well as hikers, will appreciate the improvement. Thanks to Maintenance Foreman Doug Caruso and Maintenance Technician Jeff Johnson for a hard job that, when completed,  should be a great improvement for the park!

Autumn:  Harvest Time for All of Us!

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Black-capped Chickadee breaking open a seed.

So, just as we humans harvest crops before the snow falls, birds and animals harvest the wild “crops” of the fields – seeds and fruits. Some of them, like Black-Capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus), both eat and store them, tucking the seeds into bark where they will find them when snow blankets the meadow. Others, like the Palm Warbler, use them to fuel their flight to warmer climes. Winter residents, like the Tree Sparrow,  will probe the brown goldenrod  for seeds all winter – as well as flocking at your feeder. So when the color drains away, when the leaves are wet and brown underfoot, it may be a comfort to think of the bounty that surrounds us in those dry, drab plants. The brown and gray seeds nourish all kinds of creatures, and guarantee next summer’s bounty of plants. Those dry leaves underfoot dropped when they completed their work of sending sugars to the trees’ roots, ready to fuel next year’s growth. Seeds and falling leaves really are another reason to be thankful as November arrives. Maybe nature deserves a rest after a job well done!

*Footnote:  My sources for information, as well as Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: 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, http://www.illinoiswildflowers.info and invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman.
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