Summer is finally taking hold. Many of the flowers, butterflies and other insects are late this year, but they’re slowly appearing. Warm days allowed fledglings to emerge from their nests and use their tiny wings to pursue their parents into the fields and marshes, begging to be fed. Many of the young birds look a bit shaky out on their own. Parent birds whisk back and forth, beaks lined with seed or bearing a drooping caterpillar. Wildflowers, long buried under invasive shrubs that were removed last fall, are emerging from the seed bank in all their glory. A time of renewal for sure!
So join me on a virtual circuit of Bear Creek Nature Park – from the meadows, to the pond, through the woods to the marsh and back to monitor the bird boxes. I’m happy to have you along!
Fledglings Venture Forth into Sunny Meadows
As I began my walk, rambling along the path through the eastern meadow, I was suddenly aware of lots of movement and noisy chattering in the bushes and small trees. Little fledglings were perching there, occasionally fluttering and calling, reminding their busy parents to bring them a meal. A little Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) struggled up onto a branch near an adult who took off immediately to look for food, leaving the youngster looking just a bit insecure!
Another youngster perched on a branch seemed on high alert as it looked out on the meadow. The striped feathers and the fact that adult Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia) were nearby makes me think that it’s their fledgling.
On a birding walk a week earlier, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Stewardship Manager, heard the high, wheezy call of the small Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea). Looking up we spotted a tiny nest near the top of a walnut tree. Two adult gnatcatchers were industriously taking turns bringing food to their young. The left photo shows what we could see of the nest and the parent bird from below, though the group did catch a glimpse at one point of a fluttering wing as a nestling leaned out to get the goodies. I’ve included an earlier photo of an adult Gnatcatcher as it forages. (Click to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Dragonflies and Damselflies Hover and Dart in the Meadows
Dragonflies maneuver across the meadows, moving up, down and forward, in their search for unwary insects or possible mates. The broken wood of the mowed invasive shrubs makes a handy resting place for them. A juvenile male Common Whitetail dragonfly (Libellula lydia) rested quite near a more adult one, perhaps learning the ropes? The white patches at the bottom of the hind wings are field marks for the juvenile. When mature, the whole abdomen is covered in a dusty white, referred to as “prunescence.”
The male Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly (Erythemis simplicicollis) also found the woody shards a great place to lie in wait. Though the female is bright green all over, the male’s colors transition from a green face, to a blue-green thorax and a slaty blue abdomen. Quite a handsome fellow!
Lots of orange dragonflies cling to stalks in the meadow grass. They belong to the genus Sumpetrum, but knowledgeable folk in the Facebook group “Odonata of the Eastern United States” inform me that you can only determine the species of orange dragonflies if you have one in hand with a magnifying glass! And of course, I’m never in a summer meadow, it seems, without seeing the striking Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa).
Damselflies seem more likely to prefer shady areas. But I do occasionally see them in tall meadow grass. Here’s a male Emerald Spreadwing Damselfly (Lestes dryas) I saw when wading through deep grass one warm afternoon. Like dragonflies, they consume a lot of mosquitoes, which pleases me and you too, I bet.
The Seed Bank Awakens as Restoration Begins
Perhaps the biggest thrill for me in the meadows this week, though, was the reappearance of long lost wildflowers. Evidently, beneath those invasive shrubs in the meadows near the pond, seeds and small plants of native wildflowers had been waiting for maybe decades while the fields were covered either with grazing fodder for cattle or abandoned to non-native plants. Now the sun and rain have reached the earth over them again and they are making a comeback!
Out in the meadow west of the pond, large patches of Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) have emerged where previously we only saw a single plant here or there. And as you’ll see further down in the blog, the Monarch butterflies are already finding them.
A spectacular wildflower blooming this year is one neither Ben nor I have ever seen before in Bear Creek Nature Park – the Michigan Lily (Lilium michiganense) – not to be confused with the non-native tiger lilies or the much less glamorous Orange Daylily (Hemerocallis fulva) which originated in Asia. I’d only seen this striking native with its cup of curved petals, arching stem and showy stigma near the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail. But this beauty at Bear Creek waited patiently. Once warmth and moisture reached it, up it came just west of the Center Pond. Michigan lilies can be tempting to hummingbirds and many butterflies. I saw one other bud, so I’m hoping for more!
Tall Meadow Rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum) and Fringed Loosestrife (Lysimachia ciliata) have staged a comeback, too. A Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) at the edge of the path had produced its bright green berries on a wide spadix. The berries will turn a brilliant red in the fall. Who knows what else will emerge over the summer and fall?
Butterflies Arrive – but Not Enough for Me, Yet!
As the mid-summer wildflowers finally begin to bloom, the butterflies are begging to appear. Sun-loving Butterfly Milkweed hosted a Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) last week. Since this is a female Monarch, we can hope that it will lays its eggs either on the leaves of this milkweed or on one of the many Common Milkweeds in the eastern meadow.
A Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus) took a while to show me the bright white spot on the lower (ventral) side of its hind wing. It looks quite different when the “silver spot” is out of sight!
A very tired, worn, Black Swallowtail sat quietly on the path one afternoon. According to Wikipedia, Black Swallowtails are generally longer-lived than other butterflies, unless subjected to bad weather or deprived of food. We’ve had pretty wild weather and the flowers are behind schedule, so perhaps that took its toll on this unfortunate female.
The Little Wood Satyr (Papilio polyxenes), though, seemed be just fine as it danced along in its bouncing flight from shade into the sun and back again.
On to the Pond and Its Frog Song
A few blossoms of White Water Crowfoot (Ranunculus longirostris) still peek from the background of abundant Duckweed (Lemna minor) at the Center Pond. The Northern Green Frogs (Rana clamitans) sprawl comfortably among it, floating at the surface and croaking in their banjo voices to attract mates. Since males have a tympanum (circular hearing device near the eye) bigger than their eyes and a yellow throat, this one staring at me intently was definitely a male.
Frog “talk” this July:
I smiled at this small Midland Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta marginata) who seemed to be listening to the frogs right along with me. But more likely, it was just basking in the warm sunlight after a cold spring, and trying to ignore the frog voices. It’s decorated nicely with bits of Duckweed.
Into the Woods
The woods on the east side of the park let in so much more light now that the invasive shrubs have been removed! I keep hoping I’ll see more woodland wildflowers because of it. But deer are plentiful at Bear Creek so that’s a slim hope; they love to eat native plants and young saplings. But a couple of woodland flowers escaped their notice, probably because both of them are a bit fuzzy, which puts deer off: Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea canadensis) and Panicled Tick Trefoil (Desmodium paniculatum). Both thrive in the dappled sunlight of the woods so perhaps I will see them spread as sunlight reaches more of the forest floor.
Unfortunately for humans, native Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) is more abundant in the woods and everywhere else this year. But if you stay on the paths, you’ll be just fine. Look for a three leaved plant on which the center leaf has two “thumbs” but the right and left leaves have only one “thumb” – or look for a vine with that leaf arrangement and reddish “feet” clinging to the bark. Poison ivy isn’t poisonous for animals, though. It produces green berries that turn white in the fall just at the time when other berries are disappearing. So migrating birds gobble them up, enjoying a boost of energy and protein before heading south. Northern Flickers, Bobwhite Quail, Eastern Phoebes, Cedar Waxwings, Woodpeckers, Tufted Titmice, and American Robins all readily eat Poison Ivy berries. Raccoons and deer can eat the whole plant – and they’re welcome to them, as far as I’m concerned.
I followed the song of an Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) high in the treetops as I entered the woods. I paused, listened, moved a little – no luck at seeing him in the high treetops. After about 10 minutes of following him from one tree to the next, I gave up and moved on. Luckily, the following week ,the birding group spotted one in the open at Cranberry Lake Park, so at least I can show you a somewhat fuzzy photo of “the one who got away.”
A Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) sang one of its summer songs repeatedly, but it was also hidden in the leafy branches. It’s a classic, summer moment when this unmistakable, ebullient call reverberates from the treetops!
Damselflies love the “spotlight effect” they get from the filtered light in the forest. I came upon a female Ebony Jewelwing (Calopteryx maculata) who seemed to be trying to seduce an oddly unmotivated male. Each posed on a sunlight leaf, but she would periodically fly briefly onto his leaf, making him jump off for a few moments. Perhaps she hoped to be pursued, but it was not happening while I was there. I’m afraid I caught her at an indiscreet moment when she paused to poop a few moments later….
A woodland moth slept soundly on a leaf at the edge of the woods one afternoon. The caterpillar of the White Slant-line Moth (Tetracis cachexiata) feeds on all kinds of native trees, so it’s a common moth in woods and forests all over Canada and the US. I love the simple design of its bright white wings and subtle yellow stripe.
As I walked off the path in the woods to follow the Towhee, clouds of what I think were Hangingflies (genus Bittacidae) rose from the greenery under my feet. These harmless creatures are a relative of the also harmless Scorpion Fly (family Panorpidae) I saw last year at Bear Creek, named for the upward curve of the male’s abdomen. Both belong to the order Mecoptera. But the delicate legs of Hangingflies cannot support their body weight! So instead they hang by their front legs beneath leaves and capture aphids, moths and other passing insects with their long back legs! Nature always finds a solution. I felt lucky to find one suspended in a spot of sunlight beneath a grass stem.
Bear Creek Marsh – Wet, Green and Full of Life
The native Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) has round, green buds just waiting to burst into balls of white blossoms in the summer heat. It lines one half of the southern platform overlooking the Bear Creek Marsh.
Here’s what each of those buds will look like shortly!
At the northern platform, my husband spotted an adult Green Heron (Butorides virescens) standing among the cat-tails and rushes across from the deck. It probably had been probing the mud for food. According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab, it has a wide ranging diet – from frogs to fish, snails, insects – even rodents! This one took off and landed high in a tree overlooking the marsh. I just learned from Cornell that Green Herons actually nest in a large fork in a shrub or tree with overhanging limbs to hide the nest from predators like snakes, crows or grackles. I’d love to see the nest or young of this handsome bird!
As usual in the summer, we looked for slow-moving mounds of mud or moss in the water, a sure sign of Common Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina). We eventually saw four, a large one and 3 smaller ones. It helped when the big one raised its head on that long neck. The snappers weren’t much interested in each other at the moment and spent a lot of time munching on fresh underwater plants.
Of course, Red-winged Blackbirds dotted the marsh as well, clinging onto cat-tail stems and trilling. On my first visit, a female scolded me continually while I sat on the bench. Eventually, I realized that her nest was nearby when a male appeared with a worm or caterpillar in his beak. He quickly dropped into the grasses near the water to feed his young.
A week later, I saw a Red-winged fledgling watching a male pick apart a cat-tail for seeds. The little one tried to do the same but with little success since its cat-tail head had already been mostly eaten. Later the small bird landed on a cat-tail in the distance where the male obligingly stuffed some seeds into its beak, thank goodness!
Down below the platform, the American Bur-reed was in all stages of blooming – from buds to blossoms to fruits. Marsh plants clean our waterways by storing nitrogen and phosphorus that would otherwise starve the water of oxygen. And Bur-reed is one of the most effective marsh plants, storing four times more than some other aquatic plants. Plants like Bur-reed are one of the reasons conservationists value wetlands so highly!
As I headed back to the parking lot, I walked back along the boardwalk by the playground pond and noticed a sleepy, nocturnal Gray Tree Frog ( Hyla versicolor) resting peacefully on a lower railing.
Stewardship Fosters Nature Here – and Far Beyond the Township
Thanks for taking a virtual hike through Bear Creek with me. I find it heartening that the stewardship crew and Dr. Ben are restoring habitat and fostering the wildlife in this park with all of its natural variety. The invasive shrubs are removed and the seed bank brings back native flowers. The native flowers bloom and butterflies and other insects thrive by feeding at them. The nestlings are fed with the insects’ caterpillars and venture out of their nests and nest boxes to soar over the meadows. In the fall, some of them will travel great distances, bringing their beauty and their role in maintaining healthy habitats to places as far away as South America.
The humble bur-reed is allowed to flourish in the marsh. Because it cleans the water as it stores nutrients in its stems and leaves, Bear Creek’s water is healthier as it flows out of the marsh, eventually reaching Paint Creek. And the fish and other aquatic creatures and plants there benefit from cleaner water – and on it flows into the intricate, inter-locking systems of the natural world.
Stewardship is a lot of hard work but the reward is that it makes a difference not just in our township, but far beyond. Wherever the creek’s water flows, wherever native seeds are carried by creatures, wind or water, wherever migrating birds and butterflies travel, a little bit of our township’s stewardship work has played its part in preserving our natural heritage.