Snow, ice, sleet, rain – all the elements of Michigan’s traditional “January thaw.” Sigh…Gray skies day after day make me crave color! On multiple jaunts at Draper Twin Lake Park – some icy, some muddy – I sought it out.
As usual, the mushrooms provided a surprising splash of color here and there. Birds in varying shades of red relieved winter’s gray. And changing ice designs added a bit of artistry to every visit. Hey, we take what we can get in beauty at this time of year, right?
Along the Path to the Eastern Marsh: Red Birds, Yellow Mushrooms and Blue Shadows
A Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) drummed noisily on a telephone pole on the eastern side of the park. Let’s hope this male had a cozy hole to spend the winter night; the starlings, twittering in a thicket nearby, are known for absconding with holes created by Red-Bellies. This guy’s red cap glowed against a gray sky – a good omen for someone questing for color on a dark day!
On the way to the marsh, a chorus of House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) chirped from the shrubbery. These gregarious birds with their rosy males added both color and the friendly sound of their “chatting” to the gray quiet. House Finches pause to busily crush the seeds they find with quick bites, making them easier to spot and photograph.
A male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) added a gorgeous dash of scarlet as he darted among the shrubs along the marsh edge at the bottom of the trail.
While at the marsh, I was surprised to hear what I think was the call of a Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) in the distance. The birders saw one at Charles Ilsley Park the previous week but I’ve never seen one in the middle of winter. If you listen to the “Rolling rattle call” at this Cornell Lab link, you’ll hear what I heard far away on a wintry day. Here’s a flicker I saw in early spring last year.
Out on the ice, a graceful swoop of marsh sedges turned blue and silver in the shadows.
On a log near the marsh, a bright patch of yellow polypore/shelf mushrooms glowed under the edge of a log. One of the reasons I love wetlands is that summer and winter, they reward any hiker with colorful birds and mushrooms.
Out on Draper’s Northern Prairie
The Prairie Restoration on the northeastern part of the park looked very different than it did when the trees glowed with autumn color. (Click on images to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
But birds were there too. Flocks of modestly dressed winter visitors – Dark-Eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) and American Tree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea) – hopped down from small bare trees and bushes, chattering away as they foraged on the ground.
That bit of leaf in the Junco’s beak may be result of flipping things over to look for seeds. The seeds of two native wildflowers left in the field looked as though they may have provided some sustenance. The seed pod of Wild Senna (Senna hebecarpa) on the left below and the dried inflorescence of a late-flowering Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) on the right are both native plants sown in 2015 by Ben VanderWeide, our Stewardship Manager, to restore the prairie, using a grant from the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Over the crest of a slope on the rolling prairie, a slow, lumbering Possum (Didelphis virginiana) nosed its way along the edge of the field. It appeared to be searching for seeds or earthworms on the wet earth exposed by the thaw. Possums don’t hibernate and are generally nocturnal, but there it was in morning light. Possums feign death (“playing possum”) when extremely frightened – but they’ll fight first – so be wary of their sharp teeth. North America’s only marsupial, possums raise their infants in the female’s pouch for about two and a half months. Later, the babies, up to 13 of them, can be seen draped over their mother’s back as she goes about her business.
In a tree at the edge of the prairie one morning, a lone Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) blended its soft pinks with the gentle shades of the winter landscape.
Along the Western Path to Draper Lake
The western path was a bright glare of ice on my first January trip to the pond. At the edge of the parking lot, a dead branch still sported orange polypore/shelf mushrooms, just as it did in the fall. Amazing how hardy these fungi are in cold weather!
A stick covered in a mosaic of green and blue lichen and a nearby patch of leafy (foliose) lichen caught my eye. Lichen are intriguing, because they are a “composite organism” made up of algae and/or cyanobacteria living among filaments of a fungus in a symbiotic relationship. The fungus provides protection for the algae and gathers moisture and nutrients. The algae uses those nutrients and energy from the sun, and through photosynthesis produces food (carbohydrates) for both itself and the fungus. These ancient organisms occur from alpine regions to sea level in all kinds of shapes (morphologies). The more delicate forms of lichens are very sensitive to air pollution (bio-indicators), which is why you will only find flatter forms that colonize rocks and branches in areas with more air pollution. In areas with cleaner air you’ll find more delicate, branching lichens. I’m just glad they gave me some varying shades of green and blue on a wintry day.
Near the pond during a bird walk, a bright yellow mushroom beckoned in the distance. How’s this for a bit of sunshine on a moist winter morning? I’m no expert at mushrooms, as readers know. To me, it looks like kernels of corn. But I think this one’s common name is “Witches’ Butter,” Dacrymyces palmata (Fungi get more imaginative names than plants do…). Any mycologists out there who can verify that for me?
Lovely russet patterns formed on the path, made from White Pine needles (Pinus strobus) and a variety of leaves embedded in ice near the lake.
A strange ice sculpture took shape along the floating deck at the lake. I dubbed it the “Sunny Side Up” formation when I first saw it on an icy day. When I came back with the birders 10 days later, the surface ice had melted down, leaving the “yolk” standing in 3-D surrounded by icy ridges where the outline of the “egg white” once was. Wonder what created this interesting bulge in the ice?
Twice I came across ice fishermen out on the lake. On the first visit, a man was unloading his sled full of equipment way off in the distance on the far side of the lake, while skaters glided about in the winter sunshine.
Three days after these skating scenes, the melt had begun and the rains came. The surface of the lake turned from white to gray, with inches of water standing on ice.
I saw (but didn’t photograph for some reason!) two fisherman walking out into that sloshing mess, confident about the ice underneath. A strange sight! It looked like two men walking on water!
The last day I visited the park with the birders, the ice had developed a crackled surface. Quite a wonderful abstract design, but not one that would encourage venturing out onto the ice!
Later that week as the snow began to fall again, a Tufted Titmouse paused for a few moments in a nearby bush. One of these little birds fooled the experienced birders in our Wednesday bird group by seeming to mimic the “cheer” call of a Carolina Wren. According to the Sibley Guides website, Titmice have a wide variety of songs so maybe this is one of them. Quite a performance, anyway.
Beauty Reveals Itself When We Seek for It
On my way home from Draper Twin Lake Park one morning, I stopped to admire a “modern art” ice shape in a pond at the corner of Buell and Lake George Roads. It could almost have been a composition by Matisse or maybe Paul Klee. For much of my life, I missed the details as I hiked through a landscape. The camera encouraged me to look more closely. Now nature gifts me with surprises – the quizzical tilt of a dragonfly’s head, the spiral of seeds in a flower head and this winter, odd ice designs and strokes of color within winter’s gray and white world.
But a camera isn’t necessary. An observant pair of curious eyes is all we really need to notice the beauty that might otherwise be missed, especially in a January thaw.
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; 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).