What a crazy February and March, eh? Snow, ice – and then suddenly mud, warm sunlight, even a butterfly! – then icy winds again. Such schizophrenic weather complicates life in the natural world. A snake basks in the sun one day and a few days later, returning sandhill cranes peck along the surface of thin ice. Ducks leave wing prints and webbed feet tracks on a snowy pond and a few days later, a female crayfish emerges with eggs under her tail. Never a dull moment in the parks! Meanwhile I set off to track the meandering course of Bear Creek itself.
Early February – A Normal Winter for the Birds
American Robins (Turdus migratorius), despite their association with spring, know how to cope with cold days: find dried fruits on old vines, turn your dark red breast to any sunlight available and plump up your feathers to create some down insulation.
The Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) on the western slope found sun at the very top of a tree and decided to try out his mating call on an icy morning. “Peter, Peter, Peter,” he trilled, despite the snow below.
A small flock of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) passed contact calls back and forth in the small trees and shrubs. The male below probably spent this odd winter at Bear Creek and appears to be just fine.
Nearby, a small bird busily wound its way up a tree, poking at the bark every few seconds and moving on. That upward spiral was a clue. It was a Brown Creeper (Certhia americana), a funny little bird with a small head and a long sharp beak good for winkling out bugs and larvae from tree bark. If you look carefully in my hastily shot photo, you can see its right eye and curving black beak.
The longer days brought a warm weather migrant to the marsh, the Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia). It probed the grassy clumps protruding from the ice, looking for tidbits – seeds, perhaps? This sparrow’s cheerful mating song will burble forth all over the park when real spring arrives.
Then, Suddenly, Spring, Off and On
Somewhere near the middle of February the temperature rose, the ice began to melt, and the snow turned to mud. Humans, that most adaptable of creatures, came out to enjoy a respite from winter cold. And so did some other animals who may have been fooled into emerging a bit early!
This Eastern Comma Butterfly (Polygonia comma) probably spent the winter as an adult under the bark of a log or in a hollow tree. It’s common to see them alone in a sunny spot in early spring – but not usually in February! I hope this one went back to its winter digs as the temperature dropped!
Further along, an Eastern Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) basked in the sunlight on the trail before slipping off into the grass.
On another warm-ish day, the birding group came upon 30-40 talkative year ’round residents, Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum), flitting from tree to tree and whistling in their thin, high voices. Cornell Lab recently posted that scientists are exploring the idea that the waxwings with the most red waxy dots on their wing tips are the most mature adult birds and the most likely to be successful at mating.
The birding group was greeted by the waving claws of a small, but assertive female crayfish sitting in a puddle on the trail near the pond. Under her tail, she carried quite a load of eggs. Michigan has eight native species of crayfish, and one aggressive, invasive one, called the Rusty Crayfish. This one could be the invasive because according to U-M’s Biokids site, they take an aggressive claws-up stance to fight off predators (as she did when we approached) and she also had smudge-like spots on the back of her carapace. But crayfish are difficult creatures to positively identify, so for now, we’ll just say she’s a crayfish. If her eggs hatch despite the cold that returned the following day, she will carry her young through several molts, until they fall off and start life on their own. Thanks to Ben for his great photo.
A Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) floated above her reflection in the Center Pond. Some of the birders wondered if it could be classified as the subspecies of Lesser Canada Goose, since its neck is shorter than most Canada Geese. But since its body and beak are large, it’s hard to say. It may just be normal variation – or maybe it had a Lesser Goose or Cackling Goose relative (Branta hutchinsii) in its past!
In the unseasonal warmth, a native Hazelnut bush (Corylus americana) extended its long male catkins that will fertilize the tiny female flowers on the twigs when they emerge later. The little flowers eventually produce clusters of nuts. The farmer who lived on Bear Creek during the Depression and WWII gathered these nuts as a boy, as reported in an earlier blog.
Winter Returns, Sigh…
The marsh froze over again – thinner ice that water birds could peck through to forage in the water below. One morning in a cold wind, a pair of Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) poked about on the ice near Gunn Road, stalking back and forth on their knobby legs. They didn’t seem to be finding much to eat.
At the Center Pond, it looked as though some ducks had walked on the ice and then taken off, leaving some decorative webbed foot tracks and wing prints in the snow.
The next morning, the sun broke through and thinned the ice. A male Canada Goose found a break in it and stuck his head down, looking for food. Brrr…glad they have plenty of fat and keep their layers of feathers well-oiled by preening from an oil gland at the tip of their tail like other water birds.
On the western slope, a male Eastern Bluebird repeatedly swooped down into the grass and back up into a nearby bush, evidently finding some seed he liked on a cold morning.
And along the upper part of the Walnut Lane, tracks revealed the path of what might have been a Coyote (Canis latrans) from the size of these canid tracks. Like the fox, when they trot, they place the back foot where the front was – hence the single tracks. Wish I could see this animal in the park. Its scat is everywhere! We can be assured, I think, that this animal does just fine no matter what the weather!
Tracking the Meandering Path of Bear Creek Itself
Occasionally a park visitor asks me why the park is called Bear Creek. Well, I don’t know why the creek was called “bear” because there are no bears. At one time, the marsh was reportedly called “Bare Marsh” because of the many dead trees standing in the water years ago. But some people ask because they haven’t noticed the little creek and its meandering path that eventually reaches Paint Creek. I never paid much attention to it myself once it left the Center Pond boardwalk. But in February, I decided to follow it.
It begins, I believe, in a spring that I saw years ago during a drought that dried up the pond. All that was left was a wet spot at the west end of the pond, with water seeping eastward in a feeble stream. In a normal year, when the water is high, a small creek flows out under the boardwalk at the pond’s eastern end.
From there, it runs east through the woods, enters Bear Marsh and picks up ground water. In the photo below, it exits the marsh running north out of the culvert under Gunn Road.
The little creek then takes a left hand turn, flowing back west. In the woods somewhere, it evidently takes another left, bending south until it crosses under Gunn Road again right across from Pine Needle Trail, near Collins Road.
It wends it way south behind various houses, appearing again at a culvert under the aptly named, Bear Creek Court off Collins Road.
Just north of Oak Hill , near the entrance to the Township Hall, the creek crosses under Collins Road.
It flows along a ditch on the western side of Collins Road and curves behind the Paint Creek Methodist Church and the Lyon Gear factory,
At that point, the creek takes a dive under ground, crossing Orion Road and appearing again at what appears to be its final destination, flowing out of a culvert as it joins Paint Creek behind the Cider Mill parking lot.
A Creek with a Past Flows Toward Its Future
It’s wonderful to think of the hundreds, perhaps thousands of spring mornings during which this little creek has wended its way from a modest pond in a field off Snell Road to merge at last with Paint Creek. Long may it meander across the landscape. If we are careful stewards of the natural beauty granted to us, then for generations to come, the bluebirds will still forage in the meadows on azure wings, the coyotes will still trot up the lane on a winter night, and the butterflies will still slip out of tree bark into the sunshine. My thanks to all of those whose efforts and resources make that future possible!
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)and websites linked in the text.