Summer’s slow demise in late August/early September urged me to acknowledge the need for letting go. Tiny warblers seem to suddenly disappear as they head south. Canada geese begin their practice runs, forming loose “V’s” while trumpeting across the sky. Hummingbirds feed ravenously at any available nectar, gaining 25-40% of their body weight before the long journey to Mexico. Some fledglings still flutter, cry and pursue their parents for a meal; others hone their newly acquired foraging skills. Spiraling through the trees, they seek out the feast of eggs or caterpillars that the pollinators left behind. The meadows quiet down as molting birds hide their bare heads in the greenery hoping to be unseen. Wasps buzz above our outdoor meals, struggling to supplement diminished sources of food.
I spent quiet hours at the newer, eastern section of Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park during these waning days of summer. Come join me in the thinning sunlight and share the ebullience of young birds, the sprays of grasshoppers beneath my feet, and the persistence of butterflies on late summer blossoms that are hallmarks of this transitional season of the year.
Birds, Experienced and Not-so-experienced, Forage and Flutter
I spent my days at Stony Creek Ravine exploring the open fields visible from the top of the Outlook Hill in the eastern section of the park. Much of this area is fenced in to protect small shrubs and trees planted in the re-emerging wetlands. Thousands of native plants were sown there when the old drainage tiles from previous owners were broken to allow water to flow again to the surface. In the spring, pools form and migrating waterbirds glide in for a bit of R&R.
Right now, though, the fenced-in sections are moist but little standing water remains after a hot summer. Social birds flock to the fences to chatter together. Solitary birds, some unusual ones this season, forage within the fence boundaries. Other just need a place to periodically perch while scouting for seeds among the tall grass and flowers within or around the fencing. My photographer friend, Bob Bonin, generously shared some of his excellent photos of birds he came across while patiently waiting near the fence line. It was the right place to be, as you’ll see below!
Young Fledglings Practice Their Foraging, Flying and Landing Skills
One of my mornings at Stony Creek Ravine was in the company of Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide’s Wednesday bird walks. As we entered the park, we spotted several young Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) whisking in and out of the shrubbery, bits of blue on their wings shining in the sunlight. Three of them spent a remarkable amount of time exploring a hole in a distant snag. We wondered if, being cavity nesters, they were just curious about holes in general or if this hole might have been the one from which they fledged only weeks before.
On another visit, an adult Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) regally surveyed the area from the tallest branch of a bare tree. Perhaps the adult I saw (below left) was keeping its eye out for its offspring, a juvenile that Bob Bonin saw a few days earlier (below right.) Both birds will shortly be heading to forests in South America where they will feast on fruit during the winter. [Click on photos to enlarge.]
Bob also spotted a female Orchard Oriole (Icterus spurius) and perhaps one of her offspring. Like their bright orange relatives, the Baltimore Oriole, these birds build pouch-like nests. They breed in our parks each year but are less noticeable to most of us. The male is a dark russet orange and black and the female is yellow. Orchard Orioles depart for their overwintering grounds earlier than many other birds, so by now they’re on their way to Central America.
I fell instantly in love with this little puffball. Local bird expert, Allen Chartier, tells me it’s a juvenile Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia). This young bird can relax a bit longer than the distance migrators. Song Sparrows travel around just enough during the winter to keep themselves out of the worst of Michigan’s cold season.
A few other small birds appeared for me along the fence line. A little Eastern Wood-Pewee (Contopus virens) sings one of the most recognizable calls of a summer day– the rising “Pee – weeeee?” that sounds like an oft-repeated question. Birdsong beginners, like me, appreciate a song that identifies this little flycatcher who can be difficult to spot otherwise. Bob Bonin spotted a little Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina) who’ll be heading off to Florida before long. And he also saw a young Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) with its telltale pink/orange beak and feet.
Breeding Season Over, Adult Summer Visitors Relax Before Migration
My friend Bob brings patience as well as skill to his photography. He caught sight of two birds at the park that people rarely see and waited until he got the shot he wanted. One was a “leucistic” Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis) which means that it had partial pigmentation loss. Unlike the complete loss of pigmentation of albinos which also causes white, pink or red eyes, leucistic animals have partial pigmentation loss and their eyes are dark. Bob also waited over two hours for a closeup of another unusual bird, a Sedge Wren (Cistothorus stellaris) as it foraged for spiders and insects down in the dense grass, sedges and small shrubs within the fence. This is ideal habitat for Sedge Wrens, but since they are unpredictable nomads, we can’t count on seeing them every year.
Stony Creek Ravine hosts some more common summer residents as well – and we’re always glad to see them as well.
The plaintive cry of a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) fell from the trees around a marshy area filled with sedges (genus Carex), ancient, grass-like plants that thrive in moist ground. When it suddenly appeared overhead, I caught it twice with my camera, once like a magnificent arrow streaking across the sky, and once in mid-scream from a prey’s eye view. Glad I’m too big to be carried away for dinner!
Down Below, Butterflies, Bees and Late-Season Grasshoppers Harvested the Last of Summer’s Bounty
One of late summer’s most glamorous residents appeared in August, the glorious Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes), North America’s biggest butterfly. If you’d like to attract some to your garden, two of its favorite native plants are Rose/Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) and all of the goldenrods, both of which bloom in late summer and early fall If you can also tolerate thistles, they seem to favor them quite a lot more than we do!
At first glance, it’s easy to confuse the black and gold-spotted dorsal ( upper) sides of the Giant Swallowtail and the Eastern Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes,) especially if they’re flying. But compare the ventral (lower) side of the wings. The underside of the Giant Swallowtail’s wings are yellow and the Eastern Black’s (below) are black. I was lucky to see both feeding at thistles during my visits to Stony Creek Ravine.
Smaller butterflies and moths float and flutter in the grass as well, of course – and one well-fed caterpillar just chews its way along.
As regular readers know, I’m intrigued by insects of many kinds and want to convince all comers to just enjoy them. So here are some of my other favorites during late summer at Stony Creek Ravine.
Hardy Native Wildflowers Mix with Plentiful Non-natives until Restoration Advances.
Though the fields in the eastern section of the park have been cleared of many non-native shrubs, native wildflowers are not plentiful yet in the fields at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park. The long stretch of native wetland Black-eyed Susans in the photo above is a glorious exception. Restoration of a healthy habitat with more diversity has begun with seed planting at this large park, but it will take several years to come to fruition. So I have to smile seeing sturdy native blooms holding their own amidst the non-native plants on the Outlook Hill, in the surrounding fields and near the wetlands. Here are some of the other stalwart native competitors declaring their presence at this amazing 268 acre park.
One native plant that’s rampant at the park this year may not please everyone – Common Ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia.) So if you suffer from hay fever, now is not a good time for your visit! Please remember, though, ragweed pollen is dispersed by the wind; that’s why it ends up in noses. So please don’t blame your sneezing on innocent goldenrods that bloom at much the same time. Their pollen is heavy and falls right to the ground, far from sensitive noses!
Oh! And One Creepy Fungus that I Just Have to Share!
One of the benefits of being in a birding group is having more eyes and ears seeking out interesting details in the landscape, plus access to other people’s areas of expertise. For example, the energetic, hardworking summer natural areas stewardship technicains each year provide me, at least, with younger eyes and ears, youthful enthusiasm and a knowledge base more updated than mine!
In late July, while walking up the path to the ravine, Emma Campbell, one of this summer’s technicians, stopped to comment on a spiky bump in the trail that most of us stepped around, assuming that it was just a sharp piece of root. But Emma carefully broke off one small portion and finding it white inside, correctly identified as a fungus spookily called Dead Man’s Fingers (Xylaria polymorpha). Evidently it’s a common fungus that grows from rotting wood; as you can see below, this one emerged around the remains of a stump. What a Halloween-ish discovery! Thank you, Emma! Wish I could have creeped out some friends with this one when I was a kid!
The “Oohs” and the “Ughs” of Nature’s Impulse to Keep Fostering Life
Unless you are a hopeless romantic, every close observer of the natural world knows that nature is not all “sweetness and light.” The lives around us in nature can be both big and beautiful like the Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) or small and homely like the Fall Webworm (Hyphantria cunea). It can be full of tenderness, like birds tirelessly feeding their young or ruthless in its need to survive, like a hawk tearing the flesh of its prey. It can be inspiring like a flight of fall geese or macabre like the Dead Man’s Fingers fungus. But whatever qualities it has for us humans, nature itself doesn’t judge and never despairs. Against all odds, nature just proceeds eon after eon in service of sustaining life, whatever that takes. The “nature of nature,” as it were, is to adapt, survive and assure the existence of the next generation.
We humans, as just another species, would do well to take a lesson from the creatures and plants that surround us. We cannot afford to despair as our behavior changes the climate, threatening life on this special blue planet. Generations could stretch on into the future indefinitely if we would do as all other creatures have evolved to do – adapt, change, survive and above all, work hard to ensure that long after we’re gone, life continues on a healthier path than we’re on right now. If we do, our grandchildren and their descendants will honor our efforts and that honor will be well deserved. Let’s not disappoint them.
Ah, the excitement of meeting interesting and beautiful strangers, eh? After all, it’s the premise of so many stories from childhood on – that moment when you’re surprised and delighted by a face you’ve never seen before. Novelists and script writers have thrived on it for centuries, it seems.
As many of you know, I’m new to the presence of native wildflowers in the landscape. Since I started volunteering with Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township stewardship manager, he’s introduced me to a bevy of native blooms emerging beneath my feet that I was completely unaware of, despite years of being an outdoor enthusiast. So when Ben kindly alerted me to some unusual wildflowers that he’d spotted at the Paint Creek Heritage Area – Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail this July, I set out to find these inhabitants of the township that I’d never met before.
[Please note: As you’ll see below, the Wet Prairie is a very special and fragile place, so you’ll find it has no trails. It is technically best described as a wet-mesic prairie, according to the classification from Michigan Natural Features Inventory. Ben and his crew go there to perform important restoration work. I’m allowed to go there periodically with permission from Ben in order to bring some of the beauty of this unusual habitat to our residents in a way that doesn’t injure this special natural area. So please observe it only from the trail.]
Why Our Wet Prairie is Wet, Unlike Your Stereotypical Prairie
I don’t know about you, but in the past, I’d always envisioned prairies being like the ones in the Laura Ingalls Wilder books or western movies – big flat, dry, sunny places out west somewhere. But early on in one of Ben’s workshops, I learned that our area of Michigan was covered with oak savanna and prairie before European colonization. In that era, Paint Creek meandered in a curving flow through what is now woods and fields that surround the Wet Prairie. Periodic fires – both natural ones and ones set by indigenous people – kept the Wet Prairie free of shrubs and trees, making it a moist but sunny spot. Perhaps some of my new floral acquaintances this July first settled in then.
In the late 19th century, a railroad company moved Paint Creek east to its current position along the trail. Sparks from the trains continued to cause repeated wildfires along the track near the Wet Prairie which not only knocked back large vegetation but also favored native plants that had adapted to fire over the centuries. Shortly after the railroad arrived, an ambitious local resident began mining gravel from the current site of the Wet Prairie and loading it on train cars to sell in Detroit. Though the creek wasn’t feeding the prairie any longer, the land removal meant that the water table, with its rich collection of minerals, was left very near the surface. As a result, native wildflowers that require mineral-rich moisture could find a comfortable home there, and must have been abundant enough to establish in the newly exposed area.
In recent years, Ben and his stewardship crews have removed many invasive shrubs and trees that encroached on the prairie when the railroad was abandoned and eventually replaced by the Paint Creek Trail. Many of the special plants here have also benefited from the crew’s periodic prescribed burns over several years which eliminate a layer of dead thatch and allow open areas for native seedlings adapted to fire to take root. As a result of that stewardship work and perhaps the abundantly rainy spring this year followed by weeks of sunlight, some wildflowers that I hadn’t met before appeared in the Wet Prairie. I was delighted to meet them. Hope you will be, too.
The Beautiful Strangers that I First Met This Summer
The first two plants below have a special designation at the University of Michigan’s Michigan Flora website. About 45 years ago, botanists and ecologists created a system for rating the faithfulness of individual native species to high-quality natural communities that retain some of the native flora found in early surveys done circa 1800. Native plants are given a score between 1 and 10, 10 being the best for indicating a habitat that is very special. Non-native plants have no score. Native plants adapted to human or natural disturbance and found just about everywhere, like boxelder, score a zero on what’s called the “Coefficient of Conservatism,” or C value. Species that are found almost always in high-quality natural communities have a high C value (greater than 7).
False Asphodel and Prairie Loosestrife in the Wet Prairie are scored a perfect 10. The presence of these native wildflowers, and others with high C values indicates that the Wet Prairie is a rare remnant high-quality natural area. This natural area hosts some of the plants that likely bloomed more widely throughout southeast Michigan before agriculture, industry, logging, and mining arrived in the early 19th century. Nature fostered a rich diversity of plants then which included these wildflowers. So the Wet Prairie producing two flowers that are rated at 10 on the scale this year is impressive! And as you’ll see below, three others are scored at 8 as well. Their appearance is a strong indicator that restoration is working in Oakland Township.
If Ben and I had seen False Asphodel (Triantha glutinosa) earlier in the season, it might have appeared to have reddish tips like the photo on left by Nate Martineau at inaturalist.org. When we saw it, however, a hot July had changed them to brown. Now in August, the sepals have folded up over the developing fruit capsule which turns red as the tiny seeds inside mature. This little wildflower feeds a wide variety of bees, wasps and butterflies. It grows largely in high quality areas all over the country and can form colonies; I hope it forms one in the Wet Prairie!
I originally identified the nodding yellow flowers in the photo below as native Fringed Loosestrife (Lysimachia ciliata), which I’d seen at the Wet Prairie before. But the centers of the Wet Prairie blossoms weren’t red like the ones with which I was familiar. (I didn’t notice until later that the leaves were radically different as well!) Ben later explained that the new ones were native Prairie Loosestrife (Lysimachia quadriflora) which prefers moist prairies and fens rich with chalky, calcium-rich soils, making it an ideal native resident in our Wet Prairie. This wildflower also scores a 10 in the Conservatism scale for being an indicator of ancient habitat here. The restoration work of the stewardship team over the last several years seems to have been rewarded this year!
Ben helped me locate native Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia) at the Wet Prairie. I’d only seen the nursery version (cultivar) which popped up once in the woods at my home. This delicate native beauty likes full sunlight. It may have bloomed at the Wet Prairie this year after shade trees at the prairie edge were thinned in recent years. Lots of native and non-native bees draw nectar from Harebells.
Here and there I spotted stalks of Pale Spiked Lobelia (Lobelia spicata). This lovely, but short-lived wildflower requires full sun, but needed those days of spring rain we had in May to keep its seedlings alive. According to a website I find useful, illinoiswildflowers.info, this lobelia attracts a whole host of native bees, including miner bees, little carpenter bees, mason bees, leaf-cutting bees, plus butterflies and other pollinators. What a contribution this plant is making!
Northern Bedstraw (Galium boreale) likes the partial shade at the edge of the prairie. It spreads by rhizomes, underground stems beneath the soil. According to the website of Friends of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden in Minnesota, indigenous peoples used the roots to create red and yellow dyes and later, settlers used its fragrant, dried foliage to stuff pillows and mattresses.
Ben spotted a tiny flower that I was unable to find during my visit, native Whorled Milkwort (Polygala verticillata). Its central spike is only about 3/4 inches tall and it’s surrounded by tiny flowers that never fully open but have pink stamens protruding from the blossoms. I’m so glad Ben got a photo; I’ll look for it again next summer.
Glamorous Acquaintances That I Catch a Glimpse of Now and Then
Each year the Michigan Lily (Lilium michiganense) produces more of its dramatic, nodding blooms in various restored areas of the township. Please don’t confuse it with any other orange lily! It is distinguished by its downward facing blossom consisting of 6 six spotted petals/tepals curving dramatically upward, and a cascade of 6 stamens with dark anthers (the male flower parts) and a long pistil (the female part). Michigan Lily has whorled leaves, while the non-native tiger lily used in landscaping has alternate leaves that often have purple-brown bulblets where leaves meet the stem. Monarchs (Danaus plexippus), Great Spangled Fritillaries (Speyeria cybele) and even Spicebush Swallowtail butterflies sip nectar from our dramatic Michigan lilies!
Showy Tick-trefoil (Desmodium canadense) emerges in mid-summer and lasts about 3 weeks. Its shapely pink-lavender blossoms don’t provide nectar, but the pollen is sought after by many pollinators and the leaves provide food for the caterpillars of two lovely, small butterflies – the Eastern Tailed Blue (Everes comyntas)and Gray Hairstreak (Strymon melinus) – among others.
Shrubby Cinquefoil (Dasiphora fruticosa),a member of Rose family, may not initially look as elegant as some of the other native flowers in the prairie, but it boasts a Conservatism Coefficient of 8, which means that it’s another strong indicator that that Wet Prairie is a high-quality natural area. Like false asphodel and prairie loosestrife, shrubby cinquefoil prefers to grow in areas with calcium and magnesium-rich groundwater or soil.
Elegant and Important Old Friends that Arrive in Late Summer and Fall
I look for these wildflowers each year on the Wet Prairie and last shared them in detail in a Wet Prairie blog from October of 2020. Look at the link for more information about these very special plants. Two of them, Grass of Parnassus and Fringed Gentian score an 8 on the Conservatism Coefficient scale, like the Shrubby Cinquefoil – more evidence of a high quality area with wildflowers that thrived in this area for centuries.
More Old Friends and Some of their Insect Partners and Visitors
Here’s a slideshow of native plants I’ve loved in the Wet Prairie over the years and some of the insects partners that frequent them.
The Delights of Discovery
I’m always beset with a marvelous sense of discovery the first time I’m introduced to an unusual plant like False Asphodel or a fascinating specimen like the Great Golden Digger Wasp. And once I see them, I want to learn what a new friend of mine referred to as their “stories,” e.g., their contributions to sustaining life in a particular habitat, their mating rituals, their migration patterns or overwintering sites, and on and on.
Of course, like most of you kind readers, I can’t possibly remember every detail shared here. But it’s satisfying to have recorded and shared that they live here with us. I want to be ever more aware of how we humans are just one species embedded in nature’s huge, intricate design that sustains us.
I’m glad you’re here to share these experiences with me. Together we can keep working to restore what humans have – often unwittingly – disrupted, damaged or even destroyed on this little blue planet. Perhaps our growing curiosity, sense of wonder and respect for nature’s brilliance will inspire us and our descendants to live a bit more modestly among our wild brethren. We can always hope, right?
This summer, like the last, the western section of Watershed Ridge Park hums to the vibration of small winged creatures. So just as I did last summer, I headed first for the small restored wetland at the foot of a sloping field on the park’s western edge, because I knew it would be alive with fierce and fabulous dragonflies and their diminutive relations, the damselflies. As you’ll see, I was not disappointed!
But this summer, our Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, has cut some temporary trails into the dense greenery north of the fields in order to allow his crew to take on the task of taming a major invasion of non-native pest plants like Oriental Bittersweet vine, Autumn Olive, Privet and more. For now, these rough, bush-hogged trails allow me much easier access to the woods and the prairie at the heart of this part of the park. So I invite you to join me as I wade through moist meadows, pick my way carefully between wooded wetlands and stumble along the trail’s stubble to explore what warm summer mornings offer in the west of Watershed Ridge.
A Wetland Habitat Always Means Life!
I love how the trail that leads west from the parking lot passes high above the wetlands below, then curves gracefully through the hedgerow separating two fields – the one on the right still agricultural, the one on the left planted with native seed this spring.
At the foot of the green field, lies the newly restored wetland picture above. It’s just a humble, muddy little pool surrounded by native and non-native plants. The community includes non-native Cattails and Eurasian Great Hairy Willow-herb (Epilobium hirsutum , but also clusters of native plants like glorious Blue Vervain(Verbena hastata), tough little Bulrush (Scirpus atrovirens), and the wonderful spiky blooms of HopSedge (Carex lupulina), member of an ancient genus. Sprigs of native pink Creeping Smartweed (Persicaria longiseta) poke out of the former farm field surrounding the wetland. According to Dr. Gary Parsons at Michigan State University’s Bug House, that suits the tiny Lucerne Moth (Nomophila nearctica) since its caterpillars feed avidly on it – as well as on non-native alfalfa and clover.
I waded into a small meadow behind the wetland to the west, filled with native Daisy Fleabane (Erigeron annuus) and a variety of soft grasses. Its proximity to the water and its gently swaying stems make it a good place to look for the “dragons and damsels.”
When I first arrived in late June, dragonflies were racing around the pond and the surrounding meadow, either in pairs, or singly, in a mad dash to mate and feed. These colorful, fierce predators with their spiked legs and powerful jaws spend their extended youth underwater. They live below the water surface, first as eggs and then as gilled nymphs, crawling or swimming around to feed on everything around them. They grow by molting into larger nymphs. The process can repeat for as little as four months to an average of one to three years! Finally they attach with their claws to an upright surface – stem, rock, bridge – and a full-fledged dragonfly extracts itself from the skin of the last nymph. The thorax emerges first, then the head and legs. Once the legs harden, the new dragonfly arches backward, thrusting the entire abdomen out of its casing. The wings fill with fluid and this creature with gills transforms into an air breather. Imagine, what it must be like to emerge from a dark pond into the bright sunlight and suddenly be able to breathe air – and fly! No wonder they frequently look so frantically excited!
But emergence is a dangerous time. According to Dragonflies of the Northern Woods by Kurt Mead, while they are emerging and before they can fly, up to 90% of these “teneral” or newly-hatched dragonflies are consumed by birds and sometimes by ants or spiders. In our northern climate, adult dragonflies may live from just a week to at most a couple of months. During their brief life in the air, they must latch onto a mate and produce eggs for the following year. So the priority is to mate quickly. Local naturalist Allen Chartier and the Facebook group, “Odonata of the Eastern United States,” both identified the dragonfly below with its shiny wings as the teneral male of some species of Meadowhawk dragonfly (genus Sympetrum.) His species won’t be clear until he fully matures. Isn’t he handsome? I watched him flutter a short distance to this grass stem, so he’s already on his way to maturity. I wish him well.
Early Arrivals: Dragonflies that Appear in late May
Some dragonflies appear during the last week of May and so have an early jump on pairing up. When I arrived at the park in late June, some of these early males either stuck close to a nearby female, or rushed around, perhaps demonstrating their finer qualities to eligible females. And of course they were busy foraging for other insects.
Common Whitetails (Plathemis lydia) call our parks home every summer. The two below were definitely visiting the wetland with serious intentions. Whitetail males will patrol a pond trying to chase off competitors and if the female on the right has chosen our small pond, the guy on the left is likely to mate with her. He was busy discouraging another male when I saw him. The female can lay up to 1,000 eggs per day and may mate every day or two according tomy dragonfly guide book. No wonder the Common Whitetail is so common!
The other common early dragonfly is the Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa.) The male’s distinguishing feature are the dark wing patches next to his thorax and abdomen and white patches farther out on his wings. The female only has the dark patches near the body, plus yellow stripes down the sides of the abdomen. They lay eggs singly when alone, but the male “hover-guards” her in crowded ponds to, as the guidebook so circumspectly phrases it, “protect his ‘genetic investment.'” Had to smile when I read that….
I also saw three early dragonflies that were either “wallflowers” thus far – or I just missed seeing their mates in all the activity! They’re a colorful bunch.
Later Arrivals: Dragonflies that Show Up the Second Week in June
When I arrived on June 28, I only saw singletons among these later dragonflies that had probably appeared at the wetland a couple of weeks earlier. Perhaps they needed a bit more time to find a mate? Who knows? But I was glad to see them in any case.
The “Damsels” of Watershed Ridge, 2022
Damselflies share the order Odonata with dragonflies, but look and behave a bit differently. Unlike dragonflies, damselflies are generally smaller, less muscular and appear more delicate – hence their name which means “young mistress” in French. But they too are effective predators. They have large compound eyes like their relatives, but have “only” five to ten thousand individual lenses in them versus the maximum of 30,000 for a dragonfly. While the dragonfly’s eyes take up most of their head, damselflies’ eyes are placed at either side of the head, often giving them a hammerhead shark appearance. Dragonflies spend time high in the air and settle with their wings open. Damselflies spend more time at knee height among grasses and often fold their wings when they’ve landed.
Like dragonflies, damselflies spend a long youth underwater. In a vernal pool monitoring event in 2016, we happened to temporarily scoop one up with a couple of fingernail clams and a water beetle. They’re not quite as glamorous as they look when their adults, eh?
So here’s the selection of damselflies I encountered at the newly restored wetland on a summer morning. Many thanks again to Allen Chartier for help with the identifications.
And Now, a Quick Trip Down a Woodland Path
On every one of my five trips to Watershed Ridge Park in late June and July, I was welcomed to the temporary woodland trail by the bright, paired phrases of the Indigo Bunting’s song. His favored perch was high in a tree or snag near the trail’s eastern entrance. What a gift! Have a listen at this link. (Though their songs vary by location, the second song listed at the link is very similar to the male’s song at Watershed Ridge.) I never got an ideal shot of him, so here’s another one I took in 2019 that shows you the male’s dark wing and his two-tone beak!
The fluttering of two butterflies on both sides of the trail caught my eye. Woodland butterflies don’t sip nectar from flowers, since most woodland flowers finish once the canopy leafs out – and forest edges are the niche these butterflies fill. Instead, they seek out a generally unappealing diet (for humans) of tree sap, fermenting or rotten fruit and dung which supplies sodium, nitrogen and other nutrients. They lay their eggs on woodland grasses that their caterpillars can digest. The larger one (1.75-2.5″) with more spots, the Northern Pearly-eye (Enodia anthedon) moves about erratically even on overcast days and can fly late into the evening, according to Jaret C. Daniels’ guide, Butterflies of Michigan. The smaller one on the right below with about a one inch wingspan is the Little Wood Satyr (Megisto cymela) which often bobs at my feet at the edge of wooded trails.
Because of the dense foliage, I heard birds more than saw them. My handy Merlin app from Cornell University’s Ornithology Lab identified a sharp two-note song from deep in the woods as that of the Yellow-throated Vireo (Vireo flavirons). At Cornell’s allaboutbirds.org site, I discovered that these vireos like to stay in the interior of the canopy in deciduous woodlands, picking insects off branches. I waited several minutes but the vireo seemed content to stay right where it was. Here’s a shot of one by a generous iNaturalist photographer, Ken Butler.
A Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) kept its back to me amid the branches of a tree off the trail. I think it was female because I got a quick flash of its head when it landed and noticed that it had no black “mustache” mark near its bill. But it could have been either a female or the gray head of a juvenile. Once more I waited, hoping it would move so I could get a better look. But the best I got was a glance over its shoulder as if to inquire why I was still there. That look prompted me to give up and move on.
Monet in the Meadow: A Colorful Field a-Flutter with Wings
The temporary trail made it infinitely easier for me to get to one of my favorite spots at Watershed Ridge Park. This meadow slopes down to a large marsh that currently can be glimpsed between the trees from the trail at the bottom of the meadow.
At each visit, my camera and I were teased by a fast-moving Great Spangled Fritillary butterfly (Speyeria cybele) that never landed along the trail without suddenly disappearing down into tall grass. On my fourth visit, I donned my anti-tick outfit – socks over shoes, long sleeves, white clothing, a dose of Deet, etc. – and set off determined to see it land. I suspected that my quarry would eventually settle on one of the most nectar-rich flowers currently blooming, Butterfly Milkweed(Asclepias tuberosa.) But the largest patches were far away from the trail.
I waded into the waist-high grass. And there it was, its proboscis sunk in one of the bright orange blossoms on its composite flowerhead. Milkweed is one of its favorites, along with Bergamot/Bee Balm and thistles. This one may be the female since the base of her wings seemed dark on the upper (dorsal) side, but I can’t tell for sure. If it is a female, she may not lay her eggs until August and may still be whisking around the meadow in September.
Another reward for being lured into the deep grass was a selection of almost inconspicuous butterflies. I’m learning to watch for these tiny wings in the meadows. They’re so wonderfully varied and have unusual colors and patterns when I can get close. But they can be a bit skittish in front of the camera!
The Chickweed Geometer (Haematopis grataria) has a wingspan of only 3/4 of inch or so and flies during the day, unlike most moths. Its caterpillar is the famous inchworm. I didn’t realize it was yellow with pink stripes and dots until my long lens caught it in the meadow! Dr. Parsons told me that its wonderful feathery antennae indicate that it’s a male; the females’, he said, were “thread-like.”
I hope you can see the delicate black pattern at the edge of this very tiny creature which is another member of the Geometridae family. Dr. Parsons at Michigan State University identified it as the Large Lace Border Moth (Scopula limboundata). Large, I thought? Its wingspan is only an inch wide, but evidently there is a Smaller Lace Border moth in Eurasia, that is even a little bit smaller! The black design along the creamy edge of its wings does create the illusion of lace, doesn’t it? Such an elegant, delicate little moth!
The Eastern Tailed-blue butterfly (Cupido comyntas) looks like a blue or brown blur when its flying and I often initially think it’s a Summer Azure (Celastrina neglecta). But once it settles, the tiny little “tails” at the bottom of its wing remind of its name. Its size varies from just under an inch to just over. The male’s upper wings are generally blue, but the female’s can vary from light blue to brown or dark gray. I’m quite sure this was a brown female, but she refused to open her wings far enough for a shot. So I’ve added photos of a brown female and a blue male from previous years so perhaps you can enjoy naming this lovely little butterfly if you come across it in your garden or field. (Click on photos to see the detail.)
The Northern Broken-Dash Skipper butterfly (Wallengrenia egeremet) looked large at 1-1.5 inches after all the tiny butterflies and moths and it’s certainly less glamorous. But I’m glad to know its name and maybe we can love it because its caterpillar eats a species of crabgrass? This female may be about to lay eggs!
My walk into the deep grass also afforded me a little insect drama taking place on two pink blossoms of native Pasture/Carolina Rose (Rosa carolina). A group of Longhorn Flower Beetles (family Cerambycidae, subfamily Lepturinae) were competing in a frenzy of activity – some were feeding, others appeared to be trying to mate. Most of my photos were blurry because of their frantic jostling which was continuous and involved 5 or 6 individuals. But Dr. Parsons could identify two species in the photo below. The ones on the left and in the middle are generally known as Banded Longhorn Beetles (Typocrus velutinus). The skinny one on the right evidently has no common name, but its scientific name is Strangalia acuminata, which ominously translates from Latin as “pointed stranglers” if the Latin Google translation is correct! I, however, didn’t witness any such nefarious behavior.
I could hear a Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) singing his “Witchedy witchedy” melody near the big marsh but as usual, he never came into the open. But I did see a young Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) exploring a branch with great curiosity.
Into the Pathless Woods on My Way Home
At the top of the meadow, one of the mowed trails dead-ends at the north edge of a moist woodland. The undergrowth is sparse here. My eyes take a minute to adjust to the dim light. I unfailingly find this woods delightfully spooky, full of greenish light, moss, and unidentified scurryings. Two sizable wetlands anchor the area, one covered in glowing green aquatic plants and the other full of fallen trees, both alive with frogs and turtles now.
The “green pond” above is always home to frogs and turtles. What I love is how the sunlight above the water is washed green, as if I’d put a green filter on my camera. It always feel mysterious and quiet, hidden away in the trees. Other years I’ve spotted Leopard frogs here, but on this visit, I only saw small Green Frogs (Lithobates clamitans). They’re often mistaken for Bullfrogs, but they’re smaller and have two ridges that run down either side of their back from behind their eyes. The “guh-loop,” plucked- banjo-string sound of its calls during the mating season is absent now. A young male posed on a moss covered log sinking slowly into the water. The circle behind his eye vibrates, functioning like an ear drum. If it’s smaller or the same size as her eye (as in the photo below), she’s a female; if it’s larger, he’s a male.
Farther away in the green pond, a Midland Painted Turtle (Chrysemys pictamarginata) had emerged from the pond onto a fallen log, its shell decorated with bits of duckweed – a common fashion statement for turtles.
Nearby, a pure white Shelf Mushroom (genus Polyporus) glowed in the dim light. It’s the reproductive part of a fungus living within the decaying log, doing its work of slowly recycling the carbon within the rotting wood.
As I moved toward the second wetland, a movement caught the corner of my eye, but I couldn’t quite see what it was. I approached a tree nearby and finally spotted a Northern Pearly-Eye butterfly camouflaged against the bark. I don’t often see them this far into the woods.
The water in the second wetland is more open and fallen logs surround the edges. I find Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus) in large numbers here in the spring, but on a July day, the amphibious inhabitants were a bit different.
As I approached the wetland, something jumped beside my shoe – which made me jump! I thought I might have stepped on a creature. Luckily, I hadn’t. It was a small American Toad (Anaxyrus americanus) which froze in place. It may have hatched in this forest pond and is now moving upland to feed. If it survives being bite-size, it’ll be able to breed in a couple of years. I wish I’d been there earlier in the year to hear the fast, vibrating call of a mating toad. Have a listen at this link provided by the Macauley Library which has a fine collection of animal sounds. (Be patient; it takes a few moments of listening to hear the toad!)
As I stepped between the muddy logs to reach the pond, a loud spattering of splashes told me I’d scared off a whole passel of small frogs. I waited in the shadows, seeing only concentric circles where they’d hit the water. At last, I spotted one on a log and was pleased to see it was a juvenile American Bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus), a species I don’t see as often as others, for some reason. It takes about two or three years for a bullfrog to mature enough to breed and I’m guessing this one has at least another year, maybe two, before she’ll arrive at a mating site to choose from a group of chorusing males. Notice that she has just a short ridge near her eye that encompasses her tympanum, not the long ridges that extend down the body of the Green Frog. Her typanum is about the size of her eye; the male’s would be larger than his eye.
As I left the forest and emerged into the sunny farm field beyond, I heard the cry of a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) and watched as a male Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) took on the job of keeping it far from his nest and young. He repeatedly dropped over the hawk’s back and gave it a quick peck before wheeling away. The hawk stayed in the area and the blackbird kept up his attack as I headed for the parking lot.
This July, It Was the Little Things…
Usually on a July walk, I’m looking for birds or their rambunctious fledglings. And I do delight in them during the weekly Oakland Township bird walks. But this month, I felt the need to look for even smaller winged beings, curious to see old acquaintances and eager to meet new ones. And luckily, Watershed Ridge Park shared lots of them once I started looking. Oh, a few birds flew or sang in the depths of the hedgerows and beyond the forested trails. But the moist meadows with their wetlands drew me and I waded in to explore the smallest of fluttering wings.
And I’m so glad I did. Getting close to a pastel Geometer moth to discover its feathery antennae, admiring a freshly hatched dragonfly settling after testing out his shiny new wings or grinning at the frantic scrambling of beetles on a pair of pale pink roses – those were the joys of July for me. I hope a taste of that joy reached you, too. Look for the little ones. You won’t be sorry.
As bright green leaves emerge each May, stewardship in our parks kicks into high gear. During the last two years, our township stewardship manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide restored two wetlands with help from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and our township stewardship crew and volunteers restored a fragile woodland with a lot of muscle power and hard work.
In the last few weeks, work has moved forward, which will bring even more life and beauty to these three natural areas. And the changes wrought have already encouraged surprising new visitors and a renaissance of sorts. Come see….
At Blue Heron Environmental Area, A Rare Visitor and A First Sowing of Wild Seed
On May 4, as I passed Blue Heron on my way to monitor bluebird boxes, I saw Ben in the north field with my gifted photographer friends, Bob and Joan Bonin. Hmm… A few minutes later, I received a quick text from Ben that they suspected they were looking at a Willet, a bird I’d never heard of! Well, monitoring completed, I made a beeline to Blue Heron and yes indeed, it was a Willet (Tringa semipalmata), a shore bird rarely seen in Michigan. Be sure to click on the photos below to enlarge them so you can appreciate the detail the Bonins achieved!
Willets generally winter along the east and west coast of North America, the Caribbean islands, and the north coasts of South America. The eastern subspecies breeds during the summer farther up the northeast coast. The western birds breed out in the high plains area of the western U.S. and Canada. Our Willet had lighter colored feathers, so it appears to be a “western” bird. So it’s a mystery how this bird found its way to Blue Heron, but we are so glad it did! Evidently it needed some R&R after its wanderings and stopped by to rest on the shore of this blue oasis. The marshy edges of the new wetland were rich with food. Bob caught the moments when the Willet extracted a worm and when it latched onto what appears to be an insect larva from the water. Restoration of this wetland two years ago provided this wayward Willet with a safe haven. Ah, the rewards of good stewardship!
A few days later, the US Fish and Wildlife Service folks arrived to seed the north end of the field at Blue Heron. (The south end will still be farmed for now.) Native grass and wildflower seed sprayed from waggling, vibrating tubes at the back of the small tractor and a drag behind covered them with just a thin layer of dirt. The seeding happened a bit later than the stewardship crew had planned due to a busy season for USFWS. But Ben still hopes to see some new growth this summer. Native seed can take 3-5 years to reach full bloom.
Other Water Birds Dropped Down to the Pond for a Visit this Year
Last spring, the early arrival migrators were Black Ducks and the Greater Yellowlegs. Along with the Willet, other water birds arrived during this spring’s visits: a Solitary Sandpiper (Tringa solitaria) poked about in the shallows during the seed planting before continuing its journey to Canada. And a female Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus), who likely lives in the area year ’round, lifted off from the pond as I skirted the shore.
Reliable Wetland Summer Residents
A few other creatures shared Blue Heron with me this spring – the ones that tend to show up since Ben restored the wetland. Slideshow below:
Watershed Ridge Park Receives its Blanket of Native Seed as Summer Residents Arrive
The little USFWS tractor also tracked across the sloping landscapes of the two north fields of Watershed Ridge Park, depositing native wildflower and grass seed. Once the seeds germinate and begin growing, they should help prevent erosion into the newly restored wetlands – as well as adding a lot of beauty for us visitors! The following day Ben did some hand sowing of wetland seed and came across a lovely surprise at the edge of a wetland!
My favorite surprise during my visits was a glorious male Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) high in a tree near the parking lot. His more modestly dressed mate poked about a snag nearby, but flew away as I slowly turned to take her portrait. Wood Ducks can nest as far as 50 feet up in trees and have hooks at the back of their webbed feet to navigate up in the canopy.
I think Mrs. Wood Duck probably decided that the snag was not close enough to a wetland, since she prefers a location in a tree near a wetland. Ideally, there her young can make a soft landing in deep leaves when they jump from the nest and then trundle after her into a nearby pond – with only the help of their mother’s encouraging quacking! I’ve included below the photo of a female Wood Duck that I saw at Bear Creek Nature Park a few years ago. If you can spot her on the limb, you’ll notice her subtle attire.
Migrators at Watershed Ridge Park Find A Stopping-off Site or a Nesting Spot Near the Wetlands
Besides the Grackle, other migrators peeked from hedgerows or sang in tangled greenery near the restored wetlands. Slideshow below.
At the Wet Prairie an Open Canopy Creates Ideal Habitat for Two Special Visitors
Please Note: No trails exist in the Paint Creek Heritage Area – Wet Prairie, but you can enjoy the wildflowers from the Paint Creek Trail, which runs along its entire eastern edge. In this sensitive natural area most stewardship work must be accomplished by hand to carefully preserve the unusual prairie and wetlands. So please, enjoy these special natural areas from the trail. I’ll give you a closer look at them below or feel free to search for other posts about the Wet Prairie on this website.
Birds often choose very specific habitats for breeding and foraging. For example, Cornell University’s ornithology website, allaboutbirds.org, identifies some of the most popular breeding habitats for species like the Red-Headed Woodpecker that seek out “deciduous woodlands with oak or beech, groves of deador dying trees, river bottoms, burned areas, recent clearings…” How lucky, then, that the open, moist woodlands near the Wet Prairie (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) turn out to be just such a habitat.
Though oaks stand tall in this forest, the canopy was thinned over the years by non-native infestations of Emerald Ash Borer and Dutch Elm disease that left dying trees and snags (standing dead trees). In this habitat, sunlight slips between the trees, dappling the earth below where woodland flowers and small native trees like oaks can thrive in the partial shade .
This open woodland also features the very “river bottoms” mentioned by Cornell. The original bed of Paint Creek (before the railroad moved it east into a straight channel) – filled now by snow melt, rainwater and rising ground water – still winds its moist path across the forest floor. In May, it flourished with Marsh Marigolds!
And even the required “burned areas” and “recent clearings” that Cornell lists exist here! In fall of 2020 and the following winter, the stewardship team worked long, hard hours to clear a dense jungle of invasive shrubs and vines in the forest near the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail. Non-native shrubs like Privet, Common Buckthorn, Glossy Buckthorn, Autumn Olive, Multiflora Rose, and Oriental Bittersweet vine were hand cut and huge piles of them were safely burned atop the winter snow.
Two Visitors Came to Check Out this “Open Woods” Habitat
And guess what? All of those conditions that Cornell mentioned did indeed attract a Red-headed Woodpecker to our open woods this spring! In late May, this bird’s call and drilling attracted the gaze of Lisa, a volunteer pulling invasive Garlic Mustard with Ben and the summer stewardship technicians. Listen to the third call at this link to hear what the crew heard.
At first glance, she thought she was seeing the much more common male Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) with its brilliant red crest and nape (On left below). But no, the busy bird drilling a hole in a snag was indeed a Red-Headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus!) Check out the differences.
According to Cornell’s Birds of the World migration maps , Red-headed Woodpeckers are more likely to be passing through our area to breed farther north in the top half of Michigan’s “mitten.” But some do nest here and we may have seen one that will finish its hole and raise a family near the Wet Prairie! Fingers crossed!
During my visit, another bird that seeks out open woodlands, the Great Crested Flycatcher (Myiarchus crinitus), landed in a tree near the woodpecker and was spotted by Camryn, our sharp-eyed summer technician. Luckily it paused for a look around. It’s also a cavity nester so let’s hope it decides to raise young here as well.
These fairly common flycatchers, with their distinctive “wee-eep” and vibrating “burrrr” calls, love to hawk insects from high in the canopy, making them hard to see. So what a treat to see one at the tip of a snag! It didn’t sing or call for us, but the sight of its chocolate brown head and back and that lemon yellow breast, plus the sighting of the Red-headed Woodpecker, definitely made my rush down to the trail worth the effort! Thanks to Lisa for spotting the woodpecker and to Camryn for spotting the flycatcher and taking me near the location for both!
Native Wildflowers Stage a Comeback after Invasive Shrub Clearing
This May, spring’s rain and pale sunlight once again reached native wildflowers that had been buried under the tangle of non-natives for many long years. And like a miracle, they emerged in the forest’s dappled light and bloomed! Whenever this happens after clearing or prescribed burns, it fills me with delight. Some already existed as single blooms and now spread in glorious profusion, like the Golden Ragwort above. Others may not have been seen here for years. Here’s a sampling of the plants that waited so long for their days in the sun.
Restorations Require Death – and then, New Life!
One of the odd aspects of stewardship work is that it involves removing living plants so that others, plants that nourish our local food web, re-emerge and thrive. But it’s occurred to me lately that gardeners have experienced this dilemma for centuries. Gardens require the removal of plants and grasses that infiltrate the borders. Sometimes even beloved but too exuberant flowers need to be thinned for their own health and the health of plants around them.
So inevitably, restorations mean eliminating aggressive, invasive non-native plants and trees that, if left in place, would eventually blanket a whole prairie or forest. Our stewardship crew spends days and weeks clearing invasive, non-native plants brought to America for their beauty or usefulness by settlers, landscapers and gardeners or as unseen hitchhikers in overseas shipments. Without the competition, predators and soil conditions of their Eurasian habitats, they can quickly smother, shade out, or choke off native plants.
The importance of native plants can’t be overemphasized. Because they evolved and thrived here for aeons, they can survive droughts, freezing temperatures, even fire. In fact many native plants require freezing winters or periodic fire to germinate! But they have no defenses against the rapid spread of non-native plants, because they’ve only been living with them for decades or perhaps hundreds of years, rather than thousands of years. Adaptation and evolution are very slow processes.
When native wildflowers and trees flourish, so does all other life around them. Native bees and butterflies can be attracted to non-native blooms, but their caterpillars can’t feed or develop normally on them. The leaves of native plants provide rich nutrition for caterpillars, the little creatures that nourish nearly every baby and adult bird we see. Later in the year, the berries of native plants provide migrators and winter birds with much more energy and nutrition than berries from non-native plants. Nature worked out an interlocking system of sustenance and shelter for life that we humans have altered dramatically over long years.
So what a delight it was to see that funny little tractor shaking out native seed at Watershed Ridge Park and Blue Heron Environmental Area! Or Ben and his crew hand spreading native seed collected right here in the township. Or even watching the removal of invasive thickets one year – and the next, seeing the plants nature intended rising from the soil after having waited decades to feel the rain, the sun, and the wind once again! I hope it’s not impious to describe those moments as little miracles, little resurrections – because that’s how they feel to me. I hope they lift your spirits as they did for me.
For years, I watched little brown birds fuss around our bird feeders and thought “sparrows.” And that was that. It hadn’t occurred to me that those little brown bodies deserved more attention; I thought I’d identified them.
But eventually, with the help of a good set of binoculars and the birding walks led by our Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, I realized I was surrounded by many different little sparrows, each with its own distinctive body style, spring song and feather pattern. So these days, I delight in their differences! Please come meet these little brown characters you may have missed. Perhaps you’ll enjoy knowing them as much as I do.
[Note: I will generally be describing the male’s appearance here as it’s usually a male you will hear singing. Females of some species do sing, but more commonly males are the troubadours. Be aware, too that in many bird species, the female’s appearance may differ somewhat from the male’s. Check your friendly local guidebook for more details. And be sure to click on the green links below to hear all these sparrows’ unique songs!]
One Year ‘Round Resident and One That Only Appears to Stick Around
Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)
In Michigan, Song Sparrows have dark streaks below their white throats and most often the streaks merge into a central spot. Their long tails are another good field mark. But Song Sparrows from other regions will vary in size and coloration.
Spring in our parks burbles with the songs of male Song Sparrows. They perch in small trees or sturdy flower stalks, throw back their heads and let loose with their cheery song. The melody begins with a few, fast single notes, then changes to a quick trill and frequently ends with a short buzz. Males learn their song from males around them when they’re young and according to Cornell’s All About Birds website, the female Song Sparrow “is attracted not just to the song itself, but to how well it reflects the ability of the male to learn.” Females seem to prefer mates whose songs have more learned components and who accurately perform them! Quite the music critics, eh? In the avian world, I’m guessing that’s a good indicator of a bright, reliable mate, though I prefer improvisation myself….
Song Sparrows appear to be in southeast Michigan most of the year – but looks can be deceiving. Cornell University’s subscription website, Birds of the World, indicates that song sparrow flocks usually contain both residents and a few migrators. Research indicates that the ones we see in the summer move a little farther south during cold spells, but return on warmer days. The ones that breed farther north in Canada, however, skip past Michigan in the autumn and go straight to warmer climes for the winter. Researchers call this “leap frog migration.”
Swamp Sparrow (Melospiza georgiana)
Swamp Sparrows spend summer days in wet meadows and cattail marshes, using their long legs to poke about in shallow water. Their earth-toned bodies with bold black stripes on their backs make them elusive to the eye in shadowy marshlands.
Like Song Sparrows, Swamp Sparrows breed here and appear to overwinter as well – but perhaps we again are mistaken! In this case, some researchers believe that our summer swamp sparrows do migrate south in each fall but are replaced by overwintering ones that bred farther north – a pattern other birds, like some American Robins, may follow as well. In any case, they are scarce around here in the cold months.
The Swamp Sparrow’s song is really more like a slowed-down trill of notes all on the same pitch. This repetitive, staccato series of notes is not melodious really, but it does carry quite clearly from the edges of a spring wetland. Since most birds don’t sing much out of breeding season, it pays to stop, listen and look near the water’s edge right now if you want to spot this secretive bird.
Though Cornell University Ornithology Lab designates both the Song Sparrow and Swamp Sparrow as present in southeast Michigan in the winter, they aren’t abundant until warm weather arrives. So consider yourself lucky if you see them in the cold months!
Sparrows That Breed Here, But Migrate South in Autumn
Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla)
The Field Sparrow sports a pinkish-orange beak and matching feet, along with a neat white eye ring – quite a distinctive outfit for this small brown bird. Its breast can be beige or gray with a rusty blush hear the throat.
It’s often tough to see Field Sparrows during spring and summer. They tend to stay down in the greenery looking for typical sparrow food – seeds, caterpillars or adult insects. But luckily, despite their elusiveness, their catchy song flows up out of deep meadow grass repeatedly until they are mated. Ben compares their song to the sound of a ping-pong ball dropping – several separate notes at first which quickly accelerate into a rapid series as the tone descends. You’ll hear it everywhere in grassy fields right now.
Birds of the World indicates that when temperatures drop below 20 °F, almost all Field Sparrows – with the exception of a few hardy individuals – move south like human “snow birds.”
Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina)
The little Chipping Sparrow‘s rufous cap, black eye-line and beak make a snappy outfit with its crisp light breast and brown wings. Both sexes look alike and make a bright spot in the greenery on a dark day.
The Chipping Sparrow doesn’t quite sing. Its song is a long, fast series of… well… tiny chips – 55 on average in 3.6 seconds! That series of identical sounds ends up sounding more like a mechanical ticking than a song. But hey, he’s a good-looking bird and evidently the ladies like it!
Chipping Sparrows arrive from Florida and the Caribbean in early April and depart by late October. They’re actually found in suburbs more than in rural areas because they prefer open grassy areas near shrubs and evergreens. But we often see them in our parks too. In the wild, they typically nest in a small tree or shrub but keep an eye on your hanging basket at home. They just might be in there, too!
Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus)
The Eastern Towhee is a sparrow with a difference! Towhees eschew their relatives’ earth-toned garb and go for a bit more drama! Their outfit includes a black head, upper chest and wings, a bold side band of chestnut brown and a white breast – topped off with a pair of devilish red eyes! Whoo! So much for the common assumption that all sparrows look alike, eh?
And as if that weren’t enough, the male Towhee’s courting song is a quick, jazzy rendition of ” Drink your teaaaaa!” What a guy!
The towhee nests here with his mate who is beautifully dressed with a chocolate brown head, throat and back with a swoosh of chestnut brown above her white breast. They arrive in late March and leave in late October to overwinter in southern Ohio or points even further south. So glad they summer with us here!
Fancy Sparrows that are Just Passing Through…
Some sparrows just make a stopover here in the spring on their way to breed farther north and then pass through again in the fall when migrating to their wintering grounds. They are remarkably different than most of our other sparrows.
White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys)
The White-crowned Sparrow‘s crown is slightly peaked most of the time and boldly striped in black and white which makes identifying it much easier. The rest of its head is gray as is its breast and its wings are striped in brown and white. Quite an elegant bird!
In spring, the White-crowned Sparrows stop by in our parks are on their way much farther north. They prefer to breed in extremely cool summers. They arrive here from the very southern edge of Michigan or points further south, but are on their way to the northern tier of Quebec, or in Labrador! They don’t seem to sing often in our area, but according to Birds of the World, they do sing year ’round. Their song, learned from neighboring birds when they’re young, starts with an introductory whistle, followed by a tumbling assortment of more whistles and ends with buzz or trill. I’d love to hear that song in the wilds of northern Canada!
White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)
The White-throated Sparrow can be confused with the White-Crowned because its head is also boldly striped. But its head is also flatter and the telltale field marks area, those bright yellow “lores,” the spots in front of its eyes and a bright white patch beneath its beak. And isn’t that scalloped gray breast fancy?
The White-throated Sparrow doesn’t find southeastern Michigan a suitable place to raise young either. But it doesn’t venture as far afield. Some of them breed in the top half of Michigan’s “mitten” and in the Upper Peninsula. Others move farther up into Canada. It’s worth learning their plaintive song if you’re spending the summer in upper Michigan. Ornithologists have described the series of two slow descending notes plus a trill as “Poor Mr. Peabody, Peabody Peabody” or perhaps “Oh sweet Canada, Canada, Canada.” I’ll leave it for you to decide.
Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca)
Another unusually fancy sparrow, the Fox Sparrow also passes through our area twice each year. This sparrow is large and plump. Its head and neck are mottled in gray, but its spectacular breast is streaked with rusty-red chevrons and is finished off with a rusty-red back and tail.
This colorful sparrow stops by between mid-March and late April. Like the White-crowned Sparrow, it prefers to breed in very cool locations and is on its way north to the shore of Hudson’s Bay in Northern Canada. We’re less likely to hear the males’ song while they’re migrating. But give a listen to this glorious burbling song of our local subspecies, the Red Fox Sparrow, at this Cornell link near the bottom of the list below the video. At their breeding grounds, the males evidently sing their hearts out. According to Cornell Ornithology, “During summer they sing vigorously at any time from before dawn until long after dark, in fair weather or foul.” Fox Sparrows generally stop back here on their way south between early October and mid-November. Their two-footed, backward “chicken scratching” under your feeder may be a clue to its identity in the early spring and late fall.
Sparrows That Love a Michigan Winter!
Two sparrows come to us only during the winter. Like the Fox and White-crowned Sparrows above, they prefer to breed breeding in the sub-arctic Canadian north. But unlike those sparrows, they can appreciate a Michigan winter and rather than passing on to warmer climes, they spend the winter with us.
American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea)
I look forward every year to the arrival of the American Tree Sparrows. They come in small flocks, twittering companionably as they forage. European settlers gave them their name because they associated them with the Eurasian Tree Sparrow of their home countries which does nest in trees. Our American ones, though, look different and spend most of their time on the ground. The field marks for this plump sparrow are its two-toned beak (black on top, yellow below), its rusty cap and eye line and that single spot at the top of its clear, gray breast.
They breed and raise their young right on the scrubby surface of the tundra up in the Yukon, northern Manitoba or on the western shore of Hudson’s Bay, making nests ringed with white Ptarmigan feathers. In that frigid habitat, the male sings a song that few of us will ever hear. But when they arrive in our area in early October (or later for ones going a bit further south), they chat in groups, throwing “teedle-eets” back and forth. (Look for the calls at the link.) When spring weather turns warm, usually by mid-April, they yearn for some really cold weather and head north to breed. Most of them have migrated by now, but watch for their arrival next fall.
Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis)
Like the Towhee, Dark-eyed Juncos are sparrows that forego brown feathers for a different look – classic black and white with a soft pink beak. I added the blurry photo on the right, taken in a snowstorm, to show its best field mark in flight – a bright white feather on either side of the tail.
The song of the Dark-eyed Junco is a rapid-fire trill on the same note, a song very much like the Chipping Sparrow’s, but a bit more musical. In winter, I usually hear them just chipping quietly within their flock.
Like Tree Sparrows, Juncos also breed in Canada’s frigid north and migrate here in the fall to enjoy a comparatively balmy (!!!) Michigan winter. They appear in our parks in early October but don’t gather in large numbers until mid-November. They often leave in spring later than the Tree Sparrows, but are generally gone by late April. I love to see them under our feeder after a snowstorm, their black bodies creating calligraphy on the snow surface.
But One Invasive, Non-native Sparrow Causes Problems for Other Birds
House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)
You’ll recognize the non-native male House Sparrow by the black patch under his black bill and the black band at the top of its breast. We used to call it the English Sparrow, though its actually native to most of Europe (except Italy), Asia and north Africa.
I often hear them chattering in downtown settings, see them scavenging under outdoor tables and building messy nests on commercial signs. House Sparrows are beloved in Europe but present real challenges for our native birds. They frequently invade the nests of other birds – like Eastern Bluebirds and Tree Swallows – destroying eggs, and harming or even decapitating nestlings. The havoc they can create is not a pretty sight. So please do what you can not to feed or shelter these birds though they are usually very difficult to displace. I imagine these birds had predators who kept them in check in their native lands, but they’ve become a widespread and problematic species here in America.
A Fondness for the “Insignificant”
“Nature has introduced great variety into the landscape, but man has displayed a passion for simplifying it. Thus he undoes the built-in checks and balances by which nature holds the species within bounds.” From Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, 1962
Rachel Carson speaks so simply and beautifully about the need to restore native habitat for wildlife – even little brown sparrows. When they, like other birds, consume caterpillars and adult insects or devour and disperse seeds and berries, they are functioning as part of the “checks and balances” that maintain the delicate web of interrelationships that supports the natural world.
But what’s equally important to me is Rachel Carson’s mention of nature’s “great variety.” Nature didn’t gift us with just one generic “sparrow.” Even in our small township, we have multiple sparrows. The slideshow just above features sparrows less commonly seen in our township parks, but demonstrates the rich diversity of sparrows in Michigan. Each one offers different music to our ears, different patterns and colors to our eyes, and different dancing in the air above our landscape. Nature thrives through diversity and we get the benefit of endless variety.
I love learning about supposedly “insignificant” creatures. I long to know the names and lives of weird little insects that hum and buzz in a meadow, zing through a forest or tunnel beneath the surface. I hope to learn the songs of small birds like the sparrows and the calls of big ones like the Sandhill Cranes. I aspire to using the names of more native plants as each takes its place in the sunlight or shade of a summer’s day and feeds the world around it. I think many of you share that same delight in the seemingly insignificant strands of nature’s intricate matrix. So I hope that here you’ve met a few new sparrows that you’d like to know better. Thanks for being here with me.