Stony Creek Ravine: Insects! The Good, the Not-all-Bad, and the Really Ugly

Stony Creek running fast and furious through the ravine after the many rain storms.

I’m sure you must have noticed. Insects are having a fabulous summer. Ticks are poised at the edge of tall grass, their back feet planted, their front ones waving about, trying to hitch a ride on anything that passes. Mosquitoes are reproducing like mad in any of the available standing water left by the repeated deluges that we’re experiencing. It’s not a pretty picture for us humans! But it can be, if I look more closely.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

This last few weeks I’ve explored the small, older section of Stony Creek Raving Nature Park, the western trail from Knob Creek Drive on West Gunn that leads to the Ravine itself. Armed with Deet, I wanted to see if I could find some beautiful, or at least interesting insects that would give me a break from the not-so-lovable ones! So here’s what I found, for better and for worse…

The Trail Begins in Sunny Meadows Filled with Wildflowers

The Meadow is lavender with Bee Balm blossoms and complemented by dashes of orange from Butterfly Milkweed.

Mottled sunlight slips over your shoulders when you first enter this area of the park. On one of my many visits between the downpours, I saw a flash of orange among the shadows which turned out to be the Gray Comma (Polygonia progne). It looks very much like the autumn coloring of the Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma); since it’s summer, it had to be the Gray Comma. These butterflies emerge from within logs or from under tree bark in April and mate. This Gray Comma would be the offspring of those that overwinter. It will produce a generation which will fly in August or September and hibernate to start the cycle again.

The Meadow Trail: Butterflies, Dragonflies and Rolling Meadows of Wildflowers

Foraging Butterflies

Once out in the open meadows, I paused to appreciate the frenetic flight of the Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele). It dashed across the field, landing for a few seconds, then fluttering off again just above the flowers. Their caterpillars have a fondness for Common Blue Violets (Viola sororia), so they will occasionally appear on lawns. In our parks, they prefer native Wild Bergamot/Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa), thistles and milkweed, according to the Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels.

The Great Spangled Fritillary gets its name from the shine of the large silver spots on its hind wings. Here it’s sipping from Butterfly Milkweed.

Aren’t you always happy to see Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus)? The one my photographer friend Paul and I saw in the meadow arrived from somewhere between Mexico and Michigan, wherever its forebears stopped to lay eggs. With luck, this one will help set in motion the “super generation” of Monarchs; they make the whole 3,000 mile journey to Mexico where they overwinter. For lots more details on Monarchs, check out the blog that features them.

Paul and I hoped this Monarch would lay eggs for us on this Butterfly Milkweed. No luck that day. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle.

Territorial Dragonflies

Dragonflies patrol over the meadows as well, zinging here and there in an effort to establish territory and find a mate. The striking male Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) with a green face zipped by me, but it was the juvenile Dasher who settled on a stick. It has the coloring of a female, but a much slimmer body than an adult. The female Dasher lays her eggs by flying over still water and repeatedly dipping her ovipositor into the surface to release her eggs.

Another denizen of the fields, the Halloween Pennant dragonfly (Celithemis eponina) foraged with a bouncy flight. These small dragonflies stay aloft more easily on windy days than other dragonflies and can even fly in light rain, shaking the water off their wings in flight. This one insisted on looking straight at me until it zoomed away. Luckily you can still see its vivid coloring and the huge compound eyes on either side of its head (with nearly 30,000 lenses). Two of its three simple eyes shine above; they’re believed to improve its navigation in changing light and also may help stabilize them as they speedily change course above the greenery.

The brown wing patches on the Halloween Pennant’s wings are thought by some to shade its body on hot days.

Two other dragonflies kept me company on the meadow. A juvenile male Common Whitetail (Plathemis lydia) followed me along the path, evidently hoping I’d stir up some insects that it could snatch from the air. And several Widow Skimmers (Libellula luctuosa) bobbed among the grasses on every trip to the park. The clear tips of their seem to disappear at a distance, but the dark patches near the abdomen are visible, so I sometimes mistake them for a large black fly until I get closer.

Pollinating and Nectaring Bees

Of course, bees forage busily along the path as well. Dr. Gary Parsons, from the Entomology Department at Michigan State University, identified this little native bee nuzzling a Rough-Fruited Cinquefoil blossom (Potentilla recta) as a female Leafcutter Bee (genus Megachile.) The clue he gave me is that a leafcutter has stiff hairs (scopa) covering the underside of its abdomen and that’s where it carries its pollen. In the photo on the right, the one flying away with its bright yellow underside was evidently a dead giveaway.

Paul snapped a fine shot of one of our native Bumblebees (genus Bombus), oblivious of a Bull Thistle’s (Cirsium vulgare) thorns below as it gathers nectar from the blossom.

A native bumblebee feeding on nectar from a Bull Thistle blossom. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle

Colorful Long-legged Flies

Along with the butterflies, dragonflies and an occasional damselfly (more about them later), an assortment of metallic flies dotted the leaves along the trail, but not your plain old black house flies! Dr. Gary Parsons tells me that they are from the family Dolichopodidae, also known as Long-legged flies. These common tiny insects perch in bright sunlight waiting for smaller, unsuspecting insects to cruise by. I like their diminutive size, the way they stand so elegantly on those long legs – and they come in an assortment of colors as you’ll see below!

The Plants that Feed and Shelter Them All

Now of course, what sustains all these creatures are the native plants that serve as host plants for their offspring, i.e., larvae/caterpillars. Here a Common Pug caterpillar (Eupithecia miserulata) is foraging on the petals of a Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta). Dr. Parsons reminded me that petals are actually just modified leaves so caterpillars can feed on them, but since they disappear quickly, leaves are the staple of a caterpillar’s diet.

A Common Pug caterpillar foraging on a Black-eyed Susan blossom

The beauty of native plants is that they can be both decorative and productive, providing lots of sustenance for the insects that are an essential ingredient of the entire food web. So here’s is just a sampling of the myriad of native wildflowers and grasses along the meadow trail.

The Forest Trail Above the Ravine: Damselflies, Abundant Moths and One Useful but Really Ugly Fly

The dappled forest above Stony Creek Ravine

Under the Forest Canopy, Beauties and the Beast

The forest at Stony Creek Ravine Park is a different world when it comes to insects. At the edge, where the forest meets the sunshine, butterflies seem to dominate. Both of the ones I saw imitate the dappled light of the forest with brown wings marked with white spots in lovely patterns. The Little Wood Satyr (Megisto cymela) is the smaller of the two. Notice how the design on the underside of the wings is a bit more complex. Some sources suggest that the eyespots distract predators from attacking vital body parts. Butterflies can survive with ragged wing edges but an attack on the head is instantly fatal. I thought perhaps the larger spots on these forest edge species also provide more camouflage when the butterfly lands in dappled light. No one seems to be sure exactly how their patterns function.

The larger Northern Pearly-eye (Enodia anthedon) spends more time in the woods itself, especially near moist areas. It feeds on tree sap, rotting fruit, fungi and even dung – not a picky eater, evidently, eh? You’ll often see its head slanted downward on a tree trunk. Quite the set of spectacles on those buggy eyes and the orange and black antennae are very fancy!

The Northern Pearly-eye in its characteristic upside down position

Deeper in the shade of the forest, though, tiny moths flourish. The oaks in our forests and lawns act as host plants for the largest variety of insect caterpillars of any tree in North America, according to Dr. Doug Tallamy, a professor of entomology and author of The Nature of Oaks. Some moth larvae pupate on the tree, some burrow into the soil below but many just pupate within the leaf litter and then emerge in warm weather. So as I walked down through the woods at Stony Creek Ravine, huge clouds of tiny, triangular, leaf litter moths floated up at my feet. Almost every one immediately scuttled back under the leaves. But a gray one, that I believe is a Speckled Renia moth (Renia adspergillus), paused on a patch of bright green moss. So exciting for me see one as more than a flutter at my feet!

This Speckled Renia moth landed briefly on the edge of bright green moss before scooting back under the leaf litter!

Actually that short pause may not have been a good move for the Speckled Renia. Nearby, I saw the “not-so-bad” but “very ugly” insect of the blog title. Robber Flies (family Asilidae) are aggressive predators, and like the “bad guys” for whom they are named, they generally ambush other insects, including their own kind, from a hiding place. I saw two different insects meet their demise in the grip of a Robber Fly.

Robber flies don’t bother humans unless you’re handling one; I’d avoid that unless you’re doing research. And they are simply providing the service predators provide: keeping the numbers of their prey at a balanced level within their habitat. If you see one in your garden, ignore it; it will probably eliminate many pests for you. At a wetland, I met one up close and personal and really, that is one ugly bug!

The bristles on the head of the Robber Fly protect its face when its wrestling with its larger, struggling prey like bees, grasshoppers or dragonflies!

Deeper in the forest, I watched a black and white blur move toward a log. As I stepped forward, it suddenly transformed into just a fleck of something lying on a log. I thought perhaps my eyes had deceived me and it was just a bit of falling detritus. But I decided to ask Dr. Parsons if I’d really seen a living, moving creature. On the left below is the pointy fleck I saw, on the right the closeup I sent to Dr. Parsons.

Dr. Parsons let me know I wasn’t crazy. The tiny moth’s larvae is part of a large insect family, the Tortricidae, commonly known as Leaf Rollers. The caterpillars in this family eat and pupate in a carefully rolled leaf, hence the name. Dr. Parsons surmises that the adult moth above is most likely a Banded Olethreutes (Olethreutes fasciatana). Many members of this family specialize in fruit trees and their caterpillars are considered pests. This one’s offspring feeds on Wild Black Cherry (Prunus serotina), but they’re not considered particularly harmful. Some experts think this camouflage is an attempt to simulate an unpalatable bird dropping. If I hadn’t seen this tiny moth moving, I’d never have noticed it, so I guess the trick works!

Dancing Damselflies Seek the Spotlight in the Creek

But enough of Robber flies and bird droppings! Let’s move on down to the West Branch of Stony Creek itself to enjoy instead the mating ceremonies of elegant Damselflies!

Stony Creek in late June flowing slowly around rocks and under sticks in late June.

I paused near a wooded wetland to witness what appeared to be a pair of damselflies courting. The male Ebony Jewelwing (Calopteryx maculata) landed first and fluttered about from twig to twig, keeping his iridescent colors flashing in the sun. The elegant brown female appeared and began what looked very much like flirting, flying close to him, then landing farther away with her abdomen cocked at an angle. Perhaps she was ready to mate, but the male hesitated. According to Robert DuBois, author of Damselflies of Minnesota, Wisconsin & Michigan, he may have had good reason; females can mate 4 or 5 times each day, rarely with the same male! Anyway, I gave them some privacy and headed toward the creek to see how other males were faring.

In late June, Stony Creek meandered its way around the rocks and sticks protruding from the slowly moving water. A group of Ebony Jewelwing males held a competition there for the sunniest spot on a prominent stick in the creek while waiting for females to show up. One male posed on the stick and began to display. Displays of his impressive wings can be intended to ward off competitors and may also interest females in the surrounding greenery. Periodically, he launched gracefully off his stick and zipped off to confront other males trying to oust him from the spotlight. A series of a scrambles with a group of competitors ensued for about 10 minutes. The University of Wisconsin Field Station’s “Bug Lady,” says that male Jewelwings compete by bumping into each other until one flies off. That’s certainly what occurred at Stony Creek Ravine as the originally male settled back on his stick after each skirmish.

If the male is successful, he’ll grab onto the female’s abdomen with his pincers and the two of them, locked together, will fly to a nearby perch. If she is ready to participate, she bends her abdomen upward and the partners form a heart-shaped “mating wheel.” Benoit Renaud, a generous photographer at iNaturalist.org got a wonderful photo of two doing just that! Thank you, Benoit!

Ebony Jewelwing damselflies in a heart-shaped mating wheel. Photo by Benoit Renaud (CC BY)

After mating, the male releases her and together they fly off to find rushes, sedges, moss or floating plant material. The female then bends her abdomen downward, slits a hole in the plant with her sharp ovipositor and lays her eggs. The male stands guard to protect her from males who might try to abscond with her and remove his sperm before she lays the eggs. Evidently, despite that heart-shaped wheel, damselfly mating is not a particularly romantic process. But it’s kept these graceful insects on the wing for thousands of years, so we won’t argue with it, right?

A week or so after I took my damselfly photos, the July deluge poured down on us. The once placid creek rushed through the ravine, flowing over the rocks and sticks in the damselflies’ courting arena. According to the “Bug Lady,” the Ebony Jewelwings like plants in a “moderate current” in which to lay their eggs. So I’m assuming there was a bit of a hiatus in their mating ceremonies this year!

After a series of heavy rains, Stony Creek rushed over rocks and sticks in a sparkling flood.

And Then The Fireflies Arrived…

A firefly beetle in India. Photo by Ashwin Viswanathan (CC BY) at inaturalist.org

I learned this week that fireflies sparkle at twilight in moderate or tropical zones all over the world. I love knowing that. Imagine! As the earth spins away from the sun each day, these tiny Firefly beetles (family Lampyridae) dance across landscapes, delighting humans around the globe!

The males of our local beetle, the Common Eastern Firefly (Photinus pyralis) dance in a “J” formation, flashing their signal as they swing upward. A chemical reaction in the cells at the tips of their abdomens creates the bioluminescence that delights us. And with luck, a female in the area sends a coded signal back in just 1-2 seconds and they find each other.

The incredible variety of insects around (and often in) our home serves many purposes. The possum near our shed eats all the ticks it can find each summer. Bats, birds, and even the ugly Robber Flies, gobble up mosquitos by the millions. Bees pollinate our garden, wildflowers and nearby farmers’ crops. The beating wings of thousands of flying insects lure migrators back to our yard each spring. Here are a few of the most interesting ones we saw just this week.

Recognizing all the services that insects provide, I avoid wide-spectrum “bug killers” and instead try to utilize long sleeves, high socks and strategically applied Deet or Permethrin to repel them when outside. Despite all of that, like you, I swat flies and mosquitoes, flick insects off exposed skin and get snarky when insects slips inside the house.

But then at our darkened windows on these steamy, rain-soaked evenings, I pause to enjoy the tiny fireworks of a glowing beetle dancing in the tall grass at the edge of the field. And I’m lifted out of my grousing about bugs and rainy weather. Night after sticky night, the flash of the firefly reminds me that some insects are magical and that all of them play a crucial role in keeping life humming on this gorgeous little planet.

Charles Ilsley Park: A-Flutter with Wings of All Sizes

Text and Photos
by Cam Mannino

At the end of May, spring migration wound down and the breeding season heated up. The migrators and the year-round avian residents of our parks busily set about nesting and tending their newly hatched young. Their bright wings flashed color into the pale spring sunlight, much to the delight of hikers like me and my new photographer friend, Paul Birtwhistle.

Meanwhile, in the meadows, the tiny wings of small butterflies and moths fluttered at my feet and in the tall grass at the trail edge. The wings of ant-sized solitary bees beat almost invisibly as they probed blossoms for nectar. It seemed the whole park vibrated with wings!

So come hang out with Paul and I as we wandered the meadows, wood edges and forested wetlands of Charles Ilsley Park, enjoying the company of winged creatures.

Summer’s Yearly Visitors Offer Song, Color – and New Life! – to Park Visitors

Our Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben Vanderweide (far right) joins a birding group from Seven Ponds Nature Center in watching a migrating Blue-headed Vireo at Charles Ilsley Nature Park.

In May and early June, birdsong filters down through the fresh green leaves as birds arrive from wintering in warmer climes to enjoy the bounteous feast of insects provided by a Michigan spring. Migrators journeying farther north may pause to forage and rest like the Blue-Headed Vireo (Vireo solitarius) spotted high in the treetops by the birders pictured above.

A Blue-Headed Vireo (Vireo solitarius). Photo by willemspan at iNaturalist.org (CC BY)

But many birds settle here for the summer, making the most of the abundant food and shelter our parks provide. Some sweep insects out of the air. Others pluck them off bark or probe for them in the ground. While Paul and I didn’t manage a joint trek through Charles Ilsley Park, we both saw a similar rainbow of birds singing to declare their territory or carrying off caterpillars to feed mates on the nest or newly hatched nestlings.

Birds In or Around the Tall Grass of the Prairies

My visits to Charles Ilsley Park usually begin by walking along the entrance path while monitoring some of the township’s nest boxes. Two other trained volunteers and I keep records of the first egg laid, the hatch and fledge dates and any issues that develop around the nest, like predators (House Sparrows, for example). We submit the data to Cornell University’s NestWatch site as part of a citizen science project.

This year three different species have settled in the boxes that I monitor. Eastern Bluebird babies (Sialia sialis) have broken naked from their shells, begged for food and ultimately found their way into the big wide world. [Click on photos to enlarge.]

Paul and I were both lucky enough to see the adults working to make this happen. It looks like the female of both of these pairs was delivering food for her young while the male stood watch.

A House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) in one of my boxes laid her eggs in a very tidy circle. Wrens fill their boxes almost to the top with twigs, topping them off with just enough grass and feathers to cushion their young. Somehow, the female makes her way into that tight spot to incubate her tiny eggs. I imagine the crowded box discourages predators from entering. By the way, this is an extreme closeup; the wren’s eggs are just a bit larger than a dime!

House Wren eggs laid in a neat circle within a nestbox crammed with twigs and topped with grass and feathers.

Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) take up residence in our boxes as well. After building a nest of dry grass, they collect feathers, almost always white ones, to create a soft covering for the eggs. It’s amazing how many white feathers they find; I’ve read, though, that they sometimes snitch them from other Tree Swallows! Paul got a lovely photo of a male perched like a pasha on another dry Evening Primrose stalk. These striking birds glide above the meadow grass, beaks agape, collecting insects as small as gnats and as big as dragonflies.

At the end of the entrance trail, beyond the nest boxes, I’m greeted by restored prairies rolling off in all directions. In May, Ben brought in a contractor to do a major prescribed burn in Charles Ilsley Park. The low flames moved across the east and north prairies, even taking in the forests around them as part of the planned burn.

The Eastern Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park four days after the prescribed burn.

It was a dramatic sight in the first few weeks to see the blackened land begin to flourish again. The burn replenishes the soil with nutrients held in the dry plants, and the blackened surface and warmth of the fire provides a longer growing season for many native plants. Many non-native plants can be thwarted by periodic fire, unlike our fire-adapted native species.

Ilsley’s Eastern Prairie three weeks after the prescribed burn.

At the entrance to the eastern prairie, an up-and-down two note call issued from the small copse of trees. Wow! I was lucky enough to see a Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus) at close range. Usually I only hear vireos because they tend to stay high in the crowns of trees. What a delight to watch this one hop about in small trees long enough to get a quick photo!

One of my favorite migrators spends the winter among the colorful birds of South American forests. Dressed elegantly in black and white with its upright posture and white tail band, the Eastern Kingbird paused for Paul while surveying its territory. Kingbirds can be aggressive toward birds near their nests, even large ones flying high overhead.

An Eastern Kingbird can be spotted at a distance by its upright posture and white tail band. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle

An assortment of summer sparrows make the most of our restored prairies. Once I began to pay attention to their varied songs and patterns in brown, black and white, they added interesting detail to my hikes. Ben VanderWeide, Oakland Township’s Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, helpfully compares the song of the Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) to the sound of a bouncing ping-pong ball. It starts with slow, sharp bursts that rapidly accelerate into a series of quick, rat-a-tat-tat notes. The melodies of the Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) can vary but are usually characterized by a couple of quick notes followed by a short melody that ends in either a trill or a buzz. For me, the songs of these two birds are the soundtracks of summer in all of our parks.

Birds in the Treetops and Forested Wetlands of Ilsley’s Western Trails
The western woods at Charles Ilsley Park features vernal pools like this and a long, mysterious marsh.

A large wetland runs along the northern edge of the park’s western section. It lies beyond the moist forest that edges the trail and may be missed by some hikers. Luckily, Paul willingly went off trail to get closer to the green surface of the long marsh which is covered with plants that are often mistaken for algae. Common Duckweed (Lemna minor) in my photo below is the small, leaved plant that floats on the water and Water Meal (Wolffia columbiana) is the tiny plant between the Duckweed which can multiply to form a dense mat on the water surface, as it does right now at Ilsley’s western marsh.

The larger leaves are Duckweed and the smaller are Water Meal which has created a thick green mat on the surface of the long western marsh at Charles Ilsley Park.

Evidently, a male Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) found it quite a suitable surface for exploring! I wonder if its nest is high in the trees nearby? Wood Ducks are perching ducks that use the hooks on their webbed feet to negotiate tree bark. According to the Cornell All About Birds website, their ducklings can fall fifty feet from their nest into the greenery below without injury.

A male Wood Duck calmly makes his way through the Water Meal plants on the surface of the park’s western wetland. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle

Two adult Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) and their four goslings demonstrated the appeal of a nice lunch of Water Meal and Duckweed.

Exploring in the west of the park, Paul spotted the impressive Great Crested Flycatcher (Myiarchus crinitus). Inspired by his success, I spotted it later too, but it was rapidly hawking insects out of a high tree at the time. According to Cornell’s All About Birds website, this bird spends almost all of its time seeking insects high in the canopy or scooping them out of the air. Sometimes, Cornell says, it may even “crash into foliage in pursuit of leaf-crawling prey”! I want to learn their rising two note call so I can see their chocolate wings and lemon breasts more often!

The Great Crested Flycatcher’s yellow breast should make it easier to spot from below as it hunts high in the tree canopy. I’m still learning to spot it, though!

On the May bird walk at Charles Ilsley Park, several brightly colored migrators decorated the treetops along the western trail. All of the colorful characters in the slideshow below can breed in our area. So during late June and early July, keep yours eyes open for the nests or fledglings of this avian rainbow when hiking in shrubby areas or at the forest edge!

Pollinators’ Danced at My Feet, Fluttering Their Small Wings Along the Grassy Trails

Since Paul kindly agreed to look upward and outward for birds, I felt free to gaze down into the grass along the trails, looking for the tiny butterflies and moths that often appear before larger insects. On the bird walk, a member spotted the small Eight-Spotted Forester Moth (Alypia octomaculata) that sports puffs of orange hair on its front and middle legs. As the Missouri Department of Conservation points out, it can easily be mistaken for a butterfly: it eats nectar, flies in the daylight and its antennae thicken at the end somewhat like butterfly attennae. This one appeared in its favorite habitat, the place where the field meets the forest. The adult moth feeds in the sunshine, then lays its eggs in the shady woods on grapevines or Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), the host plants its caterpillar loves to eat.

The Eight-Spotted Forester Moth lays its eggs and pupates in the forest, but the adults feed in the sunshine at the forest edge.

The birding group also watched a tattered Mourning Cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa) feed on invasive Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata.) It looks as though overwintering in a log or under tree bark took its toll on this one! Nearby, we spotted a strangely still Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes). The Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels informed me that their host plant is Common Prickly-Ash (Zanthoxylum americanum), a small, thorny tree on which the female can detect a citrus scent with her antennae. I wonder if this Giant Swallowtail was drying its wings after having recently emerged from its chrysalis on a nearby tree.

A few days after seeing the Eight-spotted Forester Moth, I found a very similar small moth at my feet on the trail. It too was tiny and black with white spots, but its orange patches were on the surface of its forewings. With help from the passionate moth lovers at the “Moths of Eastern North America” Facebook page, I learned its name. This thumb-sized, diurnal insect, called the White-spotted Sable Moth (Anania funebris), is referred to as “holarctic,” because it inhabits the majority of continents on the northern half of the planet! This particular Sable Moth seemed to be exclusively feeding off the clover blossoms on the trail, one after another. Though this moth must be quite abundant, I’d never noticed one before.

A White-spotted Sable Moth seemed to be exclusively interested in clover blossoms on the low grass of the trail.

During several different visits, I noticed other small butterflies and moths that kept me company along the trails. The two tiny “tails” at the edge of the hindwings give the Eastern Tailed Blue its name. The Pearl Crescent is named for a small white shape on the underside of its hindwing. The caterpillar of the Peck’s Skipper chews on turf grasses but seems harmless among the wild grasses of our parks.

On my last visit, a dramatic Red-spotted Purple butterfly (Limentitis arthemis astyanax) glided by as I entered the park. I sometimes still mistake them for Spicebush Swallowtails (Papilio troilus troilus) because of the blue, iridescent blush on the top (dorsal) side of their hindwings and the orange spots on the ventral (lower) side of their hindwings. But the Purples have no “tails” and the orange spots beneath form a single line on the hindwings instead of the double line of the Spicebush Swallowtails, as you can see below.

The Beautiful and the Less So: Justifying (Maybe?) My Fascination with Less Likable Creatures

Dr. Doug Parsons, director of Michigan State University’s Bug House, helped me identify a couple of tiny insects that intrigued me. I’d watched what I thought were tiny wasps on almost every dandelion on the trail through the park’s Central Prairie. Dr. Parsons explained that these were not wasps, but Cuckoo Bees (genus Nomada).

Dr. Parsons wrote that this solitary bee “sneaks into the ground nest of the host bee,” most often a Mining Bee (g. Andrena), and “lays her eggs in the cells that the host bee has stocked with pollen for her own larva.” Since Mining Bees never return to the nest after stocking them, the Cuckoo bee’s egg hatches into a larva undisturbed, kills the host’s egg or larva and feeds on the stored pollen. The official term for a creature which does this is a “nest kryptoparasite,” a suitably creepy word for such behavior! Birds in the Cuckoo family do the same, laying their eggs in the nests of other birds – hence the name Cuckoo Bee. This native bee resembles a wasp in part because it has very little hair on its body. Dr. Parsons explained that bees are often fuzzy in order to collect sticky pollen. Since the Mining Bee collects the pollen that feeds the Cuckoo Bee’s young, this sneaky interloper doesn’t require the other bee’s hairier surface. Ah, another fine example of evolution working its magic.

The Cuckcoo Bee lays its eggs in the pollen-stocked nest of other solitary bees, eliminating the need for pollen-collecting hairs on its body.

Last week, I also observed a nondescript, brownish moth fly onto a grass stem, fold itself up and almost disappear. It was quite a challenge to locate it in my camera’s viewfinder! Dr. Parsons confirmed that this little moth is the Eastern Grass Veneer (Crambus laqueatellus). Evidently, some folks refer to these members of Crambidae family as “snout moths” because their long mouth structures resemble pointed noses. Dr. Parsons told me they can be “serious pests in lawns and golf courses” because their caterpillars eat turf grass roots. He isn’t sure, though, that they cause problems in our parks where their larvae may consume a variety of grasses. For me, its disappearing act, pointed “snout” and racing-striped wings were just odd enough to make it a fascinating find.

The Grass Veneer Moth is perching vertically on a small grass blade, its wings folded and its long “snout,” (which is really part of its mouth) pointing straight up. And look at that weird white eye! A delightfully odd little moth with its brown racing stripe, don’t you agree? OK, maybe not…

I’m sure that I puzzle some of you by including unglamorous, fiercely predatory or even destructive creatures in these nature blogs. Sometimes it puzzles me too that I want to explore them. But I guess for me, all of these creatures – from the Cuckoo Bee to the glorious Great Crested Flycatcher – play an essential role in the great drama of nature. By learning a name for these fellow players and the roles they perform on our shared stage, the whole spectacle and my role in it become clearer for me, more coherent – which in these chaotic times is a pretty good feeling! It’s my role – our role perhaps – to honor and respect nature in all its complexity during an era in which too many dishonor the natural world, ignore it or take it for granted. I know you, like me, care enough to watch, learn and share what you learn with others when you can. And that encourages me. Thanks for being here.

Bear Creek Nature Park: Spring Arrives on a Wing and a Song

I dropped in on Bear Creek Nature Park multiple times in April and early May, watching nature’s slow-but-steady journey into spring. After a difficult year, seeing nature renew itself felt especially reassuring – a useful antidote to the leftover doldrums of 2020.

Text and photos by Cam Mannino

This week along with my own photos, I’ll be including many by other residents who generously agreed to share their amazing photography. Regular blog readers will remember Bob and Joan Bonin who have previously lent me their amazing photos. And recently, I made a new photographer acquaintance, Paul Birtwhistle, who explores our parks with his camera and his peaceful dog Stanley. All three of these local photographers are blessed with eagle eyes and exceptional photographic skills as you’ll see below. I thank them all for their willingness to let me share their finds with all of you. Believe me, you’re in for a treat!

Nature Begins to Stir in the Cool Gray of Early April

The bare-bones beauty of Bear Creek’s Center Pond in early April

It seems that each year as I enter the park in early spring, the first song that falls from the canopy is that of the Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia.) Their song, which can vary a bit geographically, most often starts with a few short notes, followed by a melodious trill and finishes off with a buzz. A streaky, little brown male with the typical spot on his breast perched at the top of a tree, threw back his head and belted out his song to woo any willing female within range. This year’s vocalist was much too far away for a decent photo, but here’s one from an earlier spring at Bear Creek Nature Park.

Song Sparrows learn their songs from males in the area in which they’re born, so their song versions vary in different locations.

During the bird walk in the first week of April, Ben spotted a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) posing right at the tip of a snag near the park entrance. It was so high that it only made a silhouette against a gray spring sky, but I tried to take a photo anyway. I love that big red crest! These woodpeckers make their rectangular nest holes high in either snags or live trees in the spring and then make lower ones in the fall as shelter from winter winds. I’m going to keep an eye on that snag!

A Pileated Woodpecker poses against the gray of a cold, early April morning.

This Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) looked a bit chilly as it huddled against a bare branch while searching for frozen caterpillars or insect eggs.

A Downy Woodpecker felt as chilly as I did on a cold April morning.

On the way down the Walnut Lane toward the Center Pond, I spotted a Hazelnut Bush (Corylus americana) in bloom. The golden catkins are male flowers. The slightest breeze sends their pollen wafting over the tiny, pink female flowers that barely peek out from the end of the twigs. I’ll be curious to see if it produces any hazelnuts on its thin branches. [Click on photos to enlarge.]

The chuckling of Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus) in a vernal pool invariably greets me as I step into the woods in early April. These little frogs float on the surface, occasionally kicking their legs to move about as they call for a mate. Consequently, they’re much easier to spot than the tinier chorus frogs who lurk under the edges of logs or aquatic plants. After having frozen and thawed unharmed throughout the winter, these masked frogs move toward the pools in early spring. Vernal pools dry up in the summer, which means Wood Frogs can lay their eggs without fish making a meal of them. This time, a log seemed to provide a handy place for the frogs to rest between unsuccessful bouts of floating and chirping; I sympathized as a former wallflower myself!

A pair of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) cruised the far end of the vernal pool. At one point, the slightly larger male performed some amazing preening moves. Or maybe he was posing in an attempt to flirt. If so, his partner doesn’t seem too impressed.

It’s hard to tell whether the male Canada Goose is preening or flirting. The female doesn’t seem interested in either case.

On the way back from the Wednesday bird walk at Bear Creek in early May, my photographer friend, Bob Bonin, got a wonderful shot of a Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) excavating a promising nest hole. Look at that beak full of wood! Chickadees are cavity nesters and will create a nest in soft wood if they can’t find an existing hole that suits them.

A Black-capped Chickadee can create its own nest hole in soft wood if it can’t find a suitable exisiting cavity. Photo by Bob Bonin

Birds and Blossoms as the Woods Turn Green in Late April

Spring turned from brown to green in the second half of April. Unseen in the night sky, millions of birds rode the wind north and some eventually drifted down into Bear Creek Nature Park. Many came here planning to raise young in the park. For others, it was simply a rest stop on their journey farther north.

The Avian Summer Residents

My new photographer friend, Paul Birtwhistle, got an amazing shot of a rarely seen visitor, the American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus). While Paul and his dog sat quietly on the far north dock of Bear Creek marsh, the Bittern stepped quietly out of the reeds near the shore. Bitterns can breed in Michigan so we can hope this one chooses our marsh. If so, perhaps one day we will hear their booming call that sounds like a low “gulp” coming through the cattails and reeds. Cornell Ornithology’s All About Birds website says that when this birds sees a possible threat, it may choose to assume its concealment pose, its neck elongated and its bill tilted toward the sky. Sometimes it even sways, trying to blend its striped body into the moving reeds. Cornell says the posture is so ingrained that they sometimes do it even when in the open as it was in our marsh. I’m glad Paul had this exciting moment and shared it with us.

Paul also saw a Sandhill Crane (Antigone canadensis) at the marsh and a male Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) cruising in a woodland marsh on the southwestern side of the forest. These birds both tend to spend the summer here to mate and raise their young. The Sandhills toss plant material into a mound, then form a neat cup in the center lined with twigs. Wood Ducks look for cavities high in the trees near water, using the hooks at the back of their feet to navigate on the tree bark. What great guests to host for the summer!

Every year we also act as hosts for the Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) in the nest boxes built by birder Tom Korb and installed by the Stewardship Crew. These iridescent avian acrobats will soar above our fields all summer, gathering insects in their open beaks. But in late April, they are busy within our boxes creating nests out of dry grass and lining them with white feathers. Paul caught a pair claiming a nest box on April 27.

A pair of Tree Swallows on a township bird box at Bear Creek Nature Park. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle

In a tree near the nest boxes, a male Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) surveyed the territory. He appeared to be keeping an eye on his mate as she gathered grass for her nest. Bluebirds will nest in boxes near our Tree Swallows from time to time, but they won’t tolerate another bluebird pair close by. Their sky blue eggs take twelve to fourteen days to hatch. A team of trained volunteers coordinated by our township Stewardship Specialist, Grant VanderLaan, monitor the nest boxes in several parks from first egg laid until the young fledge. The data are provided to Cornell University’s NestWatch program, a citizen science project. Some bluebirds stay with us all year ’round and others seek us out as the weather warms.

A male Bluebird surveys the area near the nest boxes at Bear Creek Nature Park.

On April 24, Paul Birtwhistle spent a long time at the Center Pond listening to the kwirr call of the Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) before being able to spot it. At last, he caught sight of the red crown and nape of a male’s head peeking out from a hole on the underside of a branch on the huge White Oak at the pond’s edge. Years ago near the Bear Creek marsh, I’d seen one of these woodpeckers sticking its head out of a horizontal, upside-down nest hole in an oak branch. It seems that these male woodpeckers excavate several nest holes in hope of giving their mate a choice.

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker excavating a possible nest hole to please its mate. Note the wood chips on his red crown. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle

According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab’s All About Birds website, one of the Red-belly’s options for nest hole placement is dead limbs in a live tree, which is exactly where this bird ended up. The holes are about 9-13 inches deep (or maybe horizontal in this case?) and the circular living space is roughly 3.5 by 5.5 inches. Pretty snug fit, I would think! Once the female has chosen her preferred hole, she lays her eggs on a bed of wood chips left from the excavation accomplished by both mates. Sometimes, the pair drill holes along the branch outside the nest hole to warn off other birds, a kind of “We claim this spot!” message. I hope this hole by the pond was chosen by the female.

Katri Studtmann, one of the stewardship summer technicians, gave me a heads-up to look for a Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) that she’d seen at the Center Pond. Of course, the Kingfisher saw me first as I came to the end of the Walnut Lane and took off. I saw her dive into the water at the far end of the pond, but she came up empty. Females, by the way, have one blue and one chestnut brown stripe on their breasts while the males have only the blue stripe.

A female Belted Kingfisher dipped into the Center Pond with a splash but missed her prey.

In a grassy spot, Paul watched two Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus) do a ritualistic dance with their beaks. At first, I thought it was a mating dance – but these are two female Flickers! After reading a bit, I learned that flickers sometimes do this ritual to protect either their mate or their nesting territory. I’m guessing these two are having a quiet, non-violent disagreement about boundaries. Thanks to Paul for getting several shots so we can appreciate their dance moves!

Of course many more birds arrived at Bear Creek Nature Park last month than Paul, Bob, Joan or I happened to see, successfully record or share. But using the Cornell eBird lists created by participants on the April and early May bird walks, here’s another quick slide show of birds you might see or hear at our parks now if your binoculars can find them among the spring greenery! (The photos here are from previous years by me and others.)

All Eyes on the Warblers in May! Some Stay and Some are Just Passing Through

The big warbler migration began here in late-April with hearing or seeing the Blue-winged Warbler and the Palm Warbler. During the May bird walks at both Bear Creek Nature Park and Cranberry Lake Park, we saw many more of these tiny long-distance travelers. So keep your eyes open for small, colorful birds flitting about in trees or diving in and out of shrubs. You don’t want to miss these beauties who often arrive in the morning after riding a strong south wind during the previous night. Some choose to spend the summer here raising young. But others you’ll see below are only here for a few days as they rest up before heading north.

Under a Greening Canopy, Spring Blossoms Emerge in the Woods

As migrating birds arrive, the woodland plants seem to magically appear as the soil warms under the spare canopy of spring. Always the first to arrive are the spring ephemerals, like Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica). This spring ephemeral blooms very early to catch the sun while the trees are bare, then quickly subsides as the shade increases above it. Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) does the same, but uses its leaf cupped below the blossom to preserve some warmth on cool spring days. Bloodroot leaves remain for some time after the petals of the flower have fallen.

In late April and early May, May Apples (Podophyllum peltatum) begin to form colonies under large trees and produce their shy flowers beneath the leaves. Jack-in-the-pulpits (Arisaema triphyllum) unfold in the woodland shade.

Delicate Wood Anemone blossoms (Anemone quinquefolia) nod above their frail stems in the moist shade near vernal pools. Nearby red sporophytes rise from green gametophyte moss. When mature, the sporophyte moss will release the spores which will disperse to start new gametophyte moss colonies.

And at the forest edge of the big loop, the white blossoms of American Dogwood (Cornus florida) turn their faces upward to the sun.

Each oval Dogwood bud faces upward during the winter, so the blossoms do the same as they emerge in the spring.

Resilience, Adaptation – and Song!

In April, I stood by a vernal pool listening to the chuckling song of Wood Frogs who had frozen and thawed repeatedly during a Michigan winter. This week I paused to enjoy the rippling melody of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak that rode the wind through the night to end up singing at the edge of a greening field. Life presents all of us mortal creatures with harrowing challenges. And still the wild ones sing, the leaves thrust through tough bark, and fragile flowers open their beauty to feed the world around them.

As part of the natural world, we too have faced repeated challenges to our survival, especially in the last fifteen months, haven’t we? Most of us have learned that we are more resilient than we knew. Like the little frogs, we have adapted to repeated and sudden changes. Like the birds, by moving on through the darkness we’ve reached the light of another spring. Like the plants, we struggled to bloom where we were planted, accepting limitations but still able to share what beauty we could muster with those around us who needed our nourishment. Despite the losses we’ve had and those we know will eventually come to all of us, let’s follow nature’s example and celebrate the fact that we’re here right now. Let’s belt out our own songs to a blue spring sky and relish being alive.

Footnote: Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park’s Golden Haze

In mid-April, I got a tip from Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township’s Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, that he’d come across a yellow haze floating above the ground in the woods at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park. Ben identified it as a large colony of Spicebush (Lindera bezoin), the biggest number of these shrubs together that he had ever seen. That was enough enticement for me to don my hiking shoes and head out the door!

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

Ben gave me rough directions – head west into the woods from the north fenced wetland until you come to several vernal pools where the land begins to rise. No trails exist in that very wet woods, so I hopped over rivulets, climbed over logs, skirted small vernal pools and finally saw a yellow band of light in the distance. Once I got closer, I was enchanted. A wide arc of soft yellow floated and nodded against a cold, gray sky, like a gentle golden light in a dim room.

I’d seen photos of Spicebush flowers but never seen them myself. As I came closer to the bushes, I realized that thousands of tiny yellow puffball blossoms along hundreds of Spicebush branches were the source of the golden cloud.

Thousands of tiny, yellow, Spicebush blossoms created the golden haze in the woods at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park.

Of course, I had to learn more about this native shrub! Those tiny yellow blossoms, looking much like well-buttered popcorn, evidently smell sweet. Drat! I’d neglected to sniff them! And when crushed, their scent is described as aromatic and spicy, hence its name. In moist understory, they most often multiply from their roots as they did in this location, forming large colonies.

Before I ever saw this native shrub, I had seen a creature which counts on it to raise its young – the Spicebush Swallowtail Butterfly (Papilio troilus). This dark swallowtail can be mistaken for the Eastern Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) or the Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor). The field marks that identify them for me are the blue blush on the top (dorsal) side of the hind wings and a double row of orange spots on the hind wings’ lower (ventral) side. According to Wikipedia, the males do a lively courtship dance for the females which I’d dearly love to witness! Maybe I’ll catch the performance here when the weather warms up.

Female Spicebush Butterflies are wildly attracted to Spicebush and lay their eggs on the leaves more often than on other shrubs. Once hatched, a small, brown first instar is protected from predators by closely resembling bird droppings! The tiny caterpillar chews into the leaf, settles on its midrib,and exudes some silk. As the silk dries, it curls the leaf around the caterpillar, providing daytime protection; the caterpillar exits its tubular abode to eat, but only at night.

The later instars use much more dramatic mimicry to avoid predators like birds, dragonflies and spiders. These larger caterpillars turn green and orange and have a design on their thorax that makes them look something like a snake. To add to the effect they have an osmeterium, a structure on the first sections of the thorax that they can raise to look like the forked tongue of a snake! (Check out the link!) They then move to the lower branches of the Spicebush to spin a silk pupa.

Many thanks to the inaturalist.org photographers below who shared their photos, since I’ve yet to spot a Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar. These butterflies generally produce three generations each year, so I’ll be looking for them along with the dancing males!

On my way into and out of the woods, I came across a wonderful collection of early spring woodland wildflowers. Many of our forest wildflowers have been decimated by White-tailed Deer(Odocoileus virginianus), so seeing large patches of Spring Beauty, sunshine spots of Marsh Marigolds and other native flowers sent me home with a smile.

When I returned to the woods ten days later, the golden haze had disappeared and the glorious Spicebush colony had become just another green-leaved denizen of the woods. But soon the first butterflies will appear. They’ll flutter and forage in the woods and the fields beyond. And we can hope that they’ll leave behind some young to keep the life cycle going. I’m cheered on a gray spring day that this native shrub thrives at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park, and that its golden haze will host its namesake butterflies for years to come.

Footnote: Hepatica Makes Its Seasonal Debut at Lost Lake Nature Park

Once in a while, I come across something that I’d love to share but that doesn’t call for a longer blog. So I decided to try out shorter pieces that I’m calling “Footnotes,” i.e. a little extra nature information that might intrigue or delight you as it did me. Here’s a discovery Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, shared with me in the last ten days.

Text and photos by Cam Mannino

Native “spring ephemerals” are wildflowers that surge up out of the earth in early spring before the trees leaf out so they can capture as much sunlight as possible. On April 13, at Ben’s prompting, I hiked to the crest of the sledding hill at Lost Lake Nature Park to see one of my favorite ephemerals festooning the landscape with dashes of lavender blue. Hepatica blossoms (Hepatica americana) don’t last long and the snow this week may have shortened their season. But I wanted you to know about them so we can all look for them again next spring.

Hepatica americana emerges in early spring to take advantage of the sun before the trees leaf out.

Fortunately, some species of native bees emerge from their winter nooks and crannies at the same time as the ephemerals and buzz directly to their favorite wildflowers. As they forage for nectar, their bodies become dusted with yellow pollen. Once they mate, they stash some of that sticky, nutritious food in their nest to feed the next generation of native solitary bees. Despite their short adult lives – most live only 4-6 weeks above ground – these native bees do a fine job of pollinating as they rush from blossom to blossom, shedding bits of pollen as they go. Nice reciprocal relationship evolution came up with, eh?

A Small Carpenter Bee exploring the possibilities of a Hepatica blossom.

The little bee above is a solitary bee from the genus Ceratina called the Small Carpenter Bee. Solitary bees are not aggressive, because unlike European Honeybees (Apis mellifera), they don’t need to defend a colony filled with honey, workers, larvae and a queen. So our native bees rarely sting and provide crucial pollination services for native plants like Hepatica.

In our region, these native bees usually produce only one generation. Adult solitary bees emerge from last year’s nest and once mated, the female buzzes the area seeking a pithy, upright stem from one of last summer’s perennials. They chew the pith from the center of the stem and use it to make separate cells within the stem, provisioning each with a pollen packet to feed the larvae once the eggs hatch. If such stems aren’t available close by, they may excavate small cavities in rotting wood. I’ve learned lately that those of us who value native plants and bees should leave hollow, dry, sturdy stems standing after the flowers die back. If we cut off about one-third of the stem and leave the rest, we’re creating nesting material for next spring’s hatch of harmless and very beneficial native bees!

This larger Carpenter Bee has a shiny abdomen instead of a fuzzy one like the Bumblebee, which it closely resembles.

Despite its name, the larger Carpenter Bee above (genus Xylocopa) is not a relative of either the Small Carpenter Bee (genus Ceratina) or the Bumblebee (genus Bombus) which it resembles. The shiny and hairless abdomen of a Carpenter bee lacks the stiff hair and fuzzy appearance of a Bumblebee’s abdomen. A Bumblebee flicks out its very long tongue to reach into deeper flowers. But a Carpenter Bee’s shorter mouth parts make it a very effective pollinator for open-faced, shallow flowers like Hepatica. Like most of our native bees, the Carpenter Bee rarely stings. The males will occasionally buzz around us while looking for a mate but have no stingers. The females only sting if handled or hassled. But Carpenter Bees can present us humans with a different challenge.

These bees nest by drilling neat round holes on the undersides of wood – like a limb or the cedar railings on our deck, I’m sorry to say! Once inside, they excavate a tunnel which runs with the wood grain and then construct separate chambers stocked with pollen for each egg they lay. Woodpeckers eat Carpenter Bees (ouch!). According to Wikipedia, if Bluejays (Cyanocitta cristata) detect the sounds of bee larvae within the wood, they may further excavate the bee’s neatly drilled hole in their search for another snack – doing more damage than the bee did! We’ll try to encourage our Carpenter female to move her linear nursery to the plethora of trees in our woods. I’ve read that she may object to the scent of citrus oil so we may spray some beneath our railings this spring. Wish us luck. I think we’ll need it. If it doesn’t work, oh well. Killing native pollinators isn’t an option for us. So I imagine that we’ll fill the holes beneath the railings once the young have left and go on with our lives.

So that’s the first “Footnote.” I hope you enjoyed this inaugural foray into a new format. Many thanks to Dr. Gary Parsons, Collection Manager and Bug House Director at the Entomology Department at Michigan State University for helping me again with bee identification. Please watch for these shorter pieces sprinkled between the longer blogs throughout the year. I’m sure Ben and I will come across many more small wonders to share!