All posts by Cam Mannino

Gallagher Creek Park: A Time of Transitions Created by Caring Humans and by Nature Itself

Little, busy Gallagher Creek Park has gone through some big changes in the last few years.  The Oakland Township Parks and Recreation Commission made a commitment to provide this densely populated area of the township with a playground for children. And they made it happen very quickly!  Meanwhile,  Dr. Ben VanderWeide, the township Stewardship Manager, set in motion a plan to eliminate large stands of non-native shrubs and begin restoring the fields that surround the new playground.  This spring, he and his crew spent long hours creating and planting an extensive set of native gardens.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

So I’ve enjoyed several happy outings at this little green park from late April to late June, observing both the exciting changes initiated by human effort and nature’s annual, sometimes less noticed,  transition from spring to summer. Glad you’re here to share both of them with me.

 

 

The People Factor:  From an Old Farm Field to a Playground Surrounded by Beauty

In the spring of 2015, the restoration of native habitat at Gallagher Creek began with a prescribed burn handled by contractors and supervised by Dr. Ben. Having done a plant survey, he had found many native plants struggling to grow amongst invasives. So in 2015, before the Parks Commission began to consider playground plans, Ben set about removing large stands of aggressive shrubs from the eastern sections of  Gallagher Creek. In the early winter of 2016, he was able to begin planting native seed, using budgeted Land Preservation millage funds and a prairie restoration grant from the US Fish and Wildlife Service – Partners for Fish and Wildlife program. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

From 2016 to 2019, the Parks and Recreation Commissioners and Director Mindy Milos-Dale set about making the playground area a priority project. A professional architect from Professional Engineering Associates (PEA) worked with the Parks Commission and staff to develop a design for the playground, picnic pavilion, and paths that would harmonize with the natural environment. The Township Board’s Safety Paths and Trails Committee worked with dedication to complete the northern paved trail along Silverbell Road that leads into the park and LJ Construction did an excellent job of putting it all together. Now it’s  easier and safer for families to reach Gallagher Creek Park from surrounding neighborhoods. And the stewardship crew, volunteers of all ages, and Dr. Ben set out to surround the playground with an educational garden that can familiarize both children and their parents with lovely plants that are native to our area.

Stewardship crew and volunteers planting at the Gallagher Creek

All of the work came to fruition this May when the park was dedicated and the gardens completed.

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Nature Begins its Transition at Gallagher Creek

The paths that lead out of the native gardens create a transition from the playground to the natural areas that surround the slides and swings. Right now, the only trail beyond the playground leads to a platform near the creek, but more are planned. So knees cocked high, I waded through the carpet of tall grass and flowers, exploring, watching a wet, cold, spring make the transformation into early summer.

A Cold, Wet Spring at Gallagher Creek: Wildflowers Emerge, the Birds are Fewer than Previous Years, and Insects Not Yet Active

Gallagher Creek ran over its banks after the heavy rains in May

May was wet! Gallagher Creek, normally shallow and wandering slowly through tall grass, flooded over into pools beneath the sheltering willows. Instead of whispering, it burbled along it path toward Paint Creek. The cool temperatures and moisture were perfect for some plants.

The most spectacular spring wildflower was the Yellow Lady Slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum) tucked in near the old stump left of the platform at the creek.  The long purple ribbons on these yellow dancing shoes suit this wildflower’s name just perfectly!

Yellow Ladyslipper, a native wildflower, near the platform by the creek

Mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum) erupted from the soil in time to live up to their name, too. They formed a circular carpet out in the eastern field, where Ben had cleared a dense stand of shrubs in a previous year. Mayapples are more commonly seen in wooded areas but this colony of them seems quite happy to be surrounded by tall grass.

A circular carpet of May Apples thriving in the middle of the eastern field at Gallagher Creek

Their modest little flowers, which emerge from little “green apple” buds, droop shyly beneath the leaves.

The Mayapple’s flower is hidden beneath its umbrella-like leaves.

Wild Strawberry flowers (Fragaria virginiana) lay hidden in the grass all over the park. Their berries will provide a tasty  treat for all kinds of animals who always get to these berries before I do!

Wild Strawberry flowers are almost constantly underfoot in the natural areas of Gallagher Creek Park in May.

Where Gallagher Creek had flooded , it had left standing water far out in the eastern field. And some little rivulets flow the other way, toward the creek from the marsh near Silverbell Road. So I was glad I had waterproof hiking shoes. All along the creek in May,  golden splashes of Swamp Buttercup (Ranunculus hispidus) shone like little suns from the wet grass. I’ve never seen as many here as I’ve seen this year.

Swamp Buttercup created golden swathes among the wet grass near Gallagher Creek.

When Ben cleared the shrubs, he saved a lovely Nannyberry bush (Viburnum lentago) that can now stand out in the landscape. According to the website Illinoiswildflowers.info, this graceful native shrub or small tree later produces juicy, sweet, purplish fruits that many birds love, including Ruffed Grouse, Northern Bobwhite, Ring-necked Pheasant, Northern Flicker, Gray Catbird, American Robin, Hermit Thrush, Eastern Bluebird, Cedar Waxwing, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and Purple Finch. It’s also a popular nesting shrub for birds. Sounds like a good one for my yard!

Native Nannyberry produces lovely panicles of creamy flowers and then purplish fruits that the birds love. It’s a nesting shrub for many birds as well.

Oak trees are “monoecious,” meaning they have both male and female flowers on the same tree. The male flowers look like little bright green balls on the long, elegant catkins and the female flowers, which become the acorns, are inconspicuous little blossoms on the same branch. The female flowers are pollinated by the wind, which means a lot of us around here are sneezing in May! And once the male flowers open and shed their pollen, they fall to the ground. Here are the male flowers on an oak at Gallagher Creek Park (maybe black oak, Quercus velutina).

The male flowers on the oak catkins have opened and are releasing their pollen to the wind in hopes that the pollen will find a female flower.

Just a couple of birds kept me company at Gallagher Creek Park in late April and May.  I mentioned in the blog earlier this month that a birder friend sent me a photo of a  Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) standing over her eggs in the shallow nest she’d scraped in the bare earth. The eggs, however, disappeared without my birder friend or me ever spotting the fledglings. Killdeer nests are awfully vulnerable to snakes, raccoons, coyotes and of course, careless humans! But I’ve learned that the adults can lead newborns to safer territory with water and food on the day they hatch from their eggs. They’re born ready to go. So maybe there are fledglings somewhere on the property being cared for by the male while the female starts a new nest. I hope so.

A killdeer standing over her eggs at Gallagher Creek Park early in the spring. (Photo by a birder friend who wishes to be remain anonymous)

Last year, the air over the park was filled with swooping and diving Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor). This year, I’ve only seen one or two. It may be that the busy playground has encouraged them to settle elsewhere. Here’s a photo of one high in a tree at Gallagher Creek Park about two years ago, and one on the wing, scooping insects out of the air in the wetland area on the far side of the creek as I’ve seen them doing this year.

 

As Summer Tentatively Arrived More Birds and Lots of Crazy Insects!

Getting to Know a Killdeer, plus Other Avian Visitors

In June, I thought perhaps I was repeatedly seeing  the Killdeer that my birding friend had introduced me to in late April. By June 1, the adult Killdeer had abandoned its first nest and seemed to be striking up a friendship with a local American Robin (Turdus migratorius). The killdeer appears to be the female, since the only other adult killdeer around is usually flying in circles making its piercing territorial call which is the male’s way of protecting his mate’s territory.  (No wonder the second part of the Killdeer’s scientific name is “vociferous”!)  The Robin may have been a female as well, since its head is not as dark as most males. On that June 1 afternoon, these two birds of different species hung out together  in a native bed near the pavilion that hadn’t yet been planted. It was surprising to me that the two of them seemed so relaxed in each other’s presence – especially since killdeer are usually quite excitable. I liked to imagine that perhaps the smaller bird found the Robin’s stolid presence reassuring – or maybe that they were silently commiserating over the difficulties of nesting and raising young!

A week later on June 8, the Killdeer was bobbing along among the newly planted garden where it had visited with the Robin, calling now and then.

The Killdeer explored the plants in the native garden where it had kept company with the Robin a week earlier.

Six days later on June 14, Ben texted that he’d just seen another killdeer nest with four eggs in it. When I went on my own, I couldn’t find it; their nests are notorious for being well camouflaged!  A day later, sharp-eyed Ben texted again to say he’d seen a hatchling coming out one of the eggs! And he sent me this wonderful photo!  Be sure to notice the long beak on this youngster.

A killdeer fledgling emerging from its egg. Photo by Dr. Ben VanderWeide

My husband and I hurried to the park. At first we only saw the female doing a distraction maneuver near the nest location that Ben had described. She huddled down in the grass and stretched her wings up vertically, spread her tail and fluttered, trying to draw our attention. Killdeer females do this when possible predators approach their young. They want predators to think they are starting a new nest. “Don’t look there! Look over here!”

A female killdeer from behind pretending that she is creating a new nest to distract me from her fledgling young.

This time we saw the baby bird, probably just half an hour out of its egg. We wanted to keep our distance to avoid any further distress for either the fledgling or its mother so no photo. But while we watched, this tiny bird struggled to its feet for a few seconds, then flopped on the ground and fluttered forward a little on its tiny wings. By a few repetitions of this arduous process, it got away from the exposed nest, the eggs and the hot sun and hid under some grass. What a little survivor! We walked away.

That evening, I learned the following  from A Guide to Bird Behavior, Vol. II by Donald W. and Lillian Q. Stokes: “Once the chicks have hatched, the parents lead them gradually to areas with abundant food and some coverOn the first day, the chicks may move up to 120 feet from the nests…Brooding [covering the bird with adult’s body] by one or both parents occurs frequently during the first few days and, of course, during the nights.”  I felt reassured, though I’ve not seen the fledgling since it hatched. Here’s a little Killdeer in a photo taken by iNaturalist.org photographer, Steven Mlodinow. Definitely “aaawww” worthy, I’d say.  Hope someday I get to see one on its feet like this!

Killdeer Fledgling by Steven Mlodinow (CC BY-NC) at iNaturalist.org

The Robin, by the way, may have been staring toward the pavilion because she was contemplating a nest there. Ben reported two adult Robins calmly ignoring humans below as they zipped back and forth bringing food to their young in the rafters of the pavilion. When I visited on June 14, I saw two Robin hatchlings who still needed to grow into their beaks a bit before leaving the nest.  Unlike hatchling Killdeers who leave the nest within minutes,  the Robin nestlings can spend almost two weeks in their nest.

Two young Robins with just their beaks showing in the pavilion at Gallagher Creek.

On each visit over the six weeks, I kept hearing the “witchedy, witchedy” calls of the tiny, masked Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas). Each time, though, the calls seemed to be coming from the wetland on the far side of the creek. But last week, on June 19, I finally spotted one high atop a snag near the marsh along Silverbell Road.

A Common Yellowthroat perched on the top of a tall stump near the marsh.

On that last visit, I also heard a Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) trilling its melody and finally spotted it high on a bare limb.  It looked as though it were studying the marsh for insects before singing another “verse.”

The Song Sparrow studying the insects in the Gallagher Creek Marsh.

A few minutes later, I looked up from a flower to see a Great Egret (Ardea alba) soaring away from the creek and across the marsh. It was gone before I could raise the camera to my eye. So here’s a flying Egret photo taken at Bear Creek marsh a few years ago with a possible mate in the distance.  I hope the flying egret nests near Gallagher Creek this year.

A Great Egret taking flight at Bear Creek marsh  a few years ago – with perhaps a mate in the distance?

Gallagher Creek’s Wild and Weird June Insects

The natural areas at Gallagher Creek Park bloomed with a few more wildflowers in June. And that prompted visits by a variety of insects. Some I wrote about last week when I reported on native pollinators – bumblebees, sweat bees, leafcutter bees and hoverflies. This week get ready for some hair-raising stories! These insects are colorful and fascinating but come with some pretty fierce behavior!

Thanks to very kind assistance from Dr. Gary Parsons, an entomologist from Michigan State University, I now know that an insect I saw last week is a female Feather-legged Fly, specifically Trichopoda pennipes. These insects mimic wasps.  With their feathery jodpurs, they  sip on nectar, spreading some pollen as they buzz from flower to flower. Their genus also has the unpleasant distinction of laying its eggs in or on other insects. Once they hatch they eat the host! Yuck. According to Dr. Parsons, though, they may play a role in controlling an invasive stink bug because of their parasitic habits. Great looking little critter with a grim reproductive strategy, eh?  (Note the two tiny Hoverflies (genus Syrphidae) mating on these Yarrow blossoms in the background.)

A feather-legged fly which mimics a wasp, pollinates as it sips nectar from flower to flower.

Speaking of Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), the fields at Gallagher are filled with this well-known native plant – and insects are making the most of them! Below, a potential victim of the Feather-legged Fly has come up with a snazzy defense. An insect group called Froghoppers (superfamily Cercopoidea) has a nymph stage that we commonly call Spittlebugs. To protect itself from predators, the nymph pierces the plant stem, feeds on its sap (doing no serious harm) and then excretes a bitter-tasting foam around itself. That keeps the nymph moist, insulates it from cold, and hides it from view  so it can safely metamorphose within its bubbles. This spittlebug seems to have found an exceptionally safe spot beneath an umbrella of Yarrow buds.

The foam of a Spittlebug or Froghopper nymph protects it from view of predators.

Yarrow also hosted a very impressive arachnid.  The long legs stretching down this stalk belong to a Daddylonglegs, also known as a Harvestman (order Opiliones).  Unlike other arachnids, their body segments (cephalothorax and abdomen) are fused together and they have two tiny eyes on top of their heads instead of up to eight for spiders. Quite a specimen, isn’t it?

A daddylonglegs or harvestman waiting for prey on a budding Yarrow.

A lovely plant with the oddly descriptive name of Hairy Beard-tongue (Penstemon hirsutus) played host to an Eastern Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa virginica ) this week. Unlike the Bumblebee which it resembles, it doesn’t have a long tongue to reach into these delicate lavender tubes for nectar. Sometimes the Carpenter Bee has to slit the petals open to reach the pollen in narrow blossoms. I wonder if that’s why this bee solved the problem by choosing  the smaller, shallower flowers?

An Eastern Carpenter Bee probes the tubular blossoms of Hairy Beard-tongue.

An Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly (Erythemis simplicollis) rested among the greenery in the eastern meadow. According to the “Bug Lady” at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee Field Station, the white tip of her abdomen means she’s a female and they can lay up to 900 eggs per day!  Most of the eggs and larvae, of course, will get eaten by fish and frogs.  Dragonflies are flying predators. By snagging other insects from the air, they keep the habitat in balance. And they are such flying aces!

A female Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly may lay as many as 900 eggs a day in the wetlands at Gallagher Creek.

We need a relief from cool but strange insects, right?  So let’s end with a second, closer look at Gallagher’s butterflies, some of which were featured in a slideshow last week.  Here’s another look at the gorgeous Red-spotted Purple buttefly (Limenitis arthemis astyanax), this time with the upper (dorsal) view and the equally dramatic lower (ventral) view.

The spectacular Red-spotted Purple (Limenitis arthemis), the dorsal view
The lower (ventral) side of the Red-spotted Purple’s wings

And here’s the tiny Pearl Crescent, this time with its fuzzy face peering over the edge of a leaf as it flitted about the eastern meadow. The matching orange tips on its striped antennae are nice touches,  aren’t they?

The tiny Pearl Crescent with its fuzzy face peering over th edge of a leaf.

The Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus) is named after the silver patch on the underside of its wings. Its caterpillars protect themselves from predators by creating a leaf shelter by cutting a flap off the edge of a leaf, folding it over and than fastening it shut with silk!

Gallagher Creek Park’s Colorful Future

Non-native Ox-eye Daisies always burst forth in June as they have at Gallagher Creek Park.

Gallagher Creek Park already greets the eye with brightly colored playground equipment and the bright little faces of the children who come each day to enjoy  it. And out in the meadow, both native and non-native wildflowers add their beauty to a park visit.

Imagine the color and variety that will greet us when the native gardens come to full bloom in two or three years! Those sturdy native prairie plants in the playground gardens will eventually survive bright sunlight and droughts without much watering because they take the time to grow long roots before fully blooming. Here’s a slideshow of some of those plants as they’ll look when full grown.   Maybe they’ll set us dreaming about our own gardens!

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Bees and “Wannabees”: Native Pollinators Tend Early Summer Blooms

European Honey Bee on Goldenrod, summer of 2015

When most of us think of pollinators, the European Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) comes to mind first – and with good reason. These hive bees work industriously in agricultural fields and orchards. And we benefit from the fruits, vegetables and of course flowers they visit.  According to MSU Extension, though, they are active in temperatures above 60 °F and prefer clear, sunny, placid weather. In case you haven’t noticed (or don’t live in Michigan), that’s not yet our weather here this year.

Luckily, native bees and hoverflies come to our rescue, and the rescue of countless wildflowers. Bumblebees (genus Bombus), our chunky native bees, only require temperatures above 50° and will fly in wet, dark and windy weather – the kind we’re living with this year! And along side them are other native bees and the ever-present hoverflies who look like bees but aren’t. So let’s see who’s out and about in our parks pollinating plants on these cool, damp days of early summer.

[A Disclaimer: I’m a learner when it comes to insect identification, but I’ve done my best to figure out what I’m seeing. Let me know in comments if you think I’ve erred. And if you’d like more detailed info, check out my two main sources: a fine book by Heather Holm entitled Pollinators of Native Plants and this excellent web article by Jason Gibbs from MSU Dept. of Etymology.]

Native Bees Happily Take on the Job of Spring Pollination

Female bees of all species carry most of the load when it comes to pollination, because they feed pollen to themselves and their young. Some species stash it on hairs or in pollen baskets on their hind legs. Others let it spread thickly across the stiff hairs of their abdomen. Wasps, like Yellow Jackets or Hornets, can look like bees but they don’t collect or eat pollen. (They are predators who keep insect numbers in check, including some garden pests.) So if you see lots of yellow or orange pollen on the leg or abdomen of an insect, it’s a bee! Where are these bees finding pollen now?

Native Wild Lupine (Lupine perennis) rises elegantly within the restored prairie at Charles Ilsley Park in early June. Look for them near the observation deck at Gallagher Creek Park as well. They are a popular stop on the pollen route for our native bees right now.

Lupines at Charles Ilsley Park where prairies are being restored

A Metallic Green Sweat Bee (genus Agapostemon) found the Lupine blossoms irresistible. These very small bees are solitary; they don’t live in hives. Instead, they make tunnels in bare soil and tend their young alone. Sweat bees are occasionally attracted to human sweat on hot, dry days but their sting is not as severe as a bee or wasp. They are normally docile while foraging but can be aggressive if you get near their nests. But please don’t use pesticides on them. These little bees do a lot of pollinating! Creating a spot of bare soil on your property away from your garden and house where they can nest will make both you and them feel safer.

A metalic green sweat bee finds its way into a lupine blossom.

One cool afternoon, I watched a couple of sweat bees make the proverbial “beeline”  for the native Daisy Fleabane (Erigeron annuus), a close relative of asters and daisies, but a different genus. These tiny, sun-faced flowers are one of the first blooms to emerge in spring and they last all summer. So it seems that the two sweat bees heading in from the right on the photo below know a reliable source of nectar and pollen when they see one!

Two metallic green sweat bees heading for a tiny Daisy Fleabane.

A native Bumblebee (genus Bombus) used its long tongue to reach inside the lavender lips of the Lupine blossoms at Gallagher Creek Park and then flew off with its pollen load tucked neatly into the pollen sacks on its legs. According to author Heather Holm, bumblebees sometimes use a technique called “buzz pollination” in which they release pollen from tight places by clinging onto a plant’s anthers (the tip of the male stamen that holds the pollen) and activating their flight muscles, making a buzz. Poof! Out comes the pollen. Neat trick. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

 

Carpenter Bees (genus Xylocopa) shape their nests by patiently shaving off wood bit by bit to make perfectly round holes, usually on the underside of branches, or at our house, under deck railings! They lay their eggs inside, sealing each egg in separately with neat plugs of pollen to keep the young larvae fed. Later, the young bees will overwinter in these nests to emerge for mating the following spring. Here’s what I’m quite sure is an Eastern Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa virginica) nuzzling a Blackberry blossom (Rubus allegheniensis). It looks a lot like a native Bumblebee, but its abdomen is shiny black instead of fuzzy and it has a dot in the center of its yellow thorax.

A Carpenter Bee collects pollen or nectar from a blackberry blossom.

The blackberry bush also hosted another bee. I believe it’s a Masked/Cellophane Bee (genus Hylaeus).  These solitary bees are the only ones that transport pollen in a crop like some birds do with seed.  These bees use exisiting cavities in wood for nesting, and wrap their larvae in a thin membrane that evidently gave them the name “cellophane bees” – and they also have white patches on their heads, hence the “masked” name.

A masked/cellophane bee carries pollen in its crop.

Native Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea), an early summer flower, attracted the attention of another native pollinator, the solitary Leafcutter Bee (genus Megachilidae). They can be very active within blossoms, making what some sources describe as a “swimming motion.” Evidently, that also releases  a lot of pollen that they carry on stiff hairs on their abdomen. Their nests are built vertically in hollow plant stems or other natural cavities. They neatly cut and then chew bits of leaves to line each cell. Entomologists suppose that the leaves may preserve the moisture in the pollen plug at the end of each cell, so it will last until the larvae hatches to eat it. The larvae then pupates, emerges for a short life of a few weeks and starts the cycle again.

A Leafcutter Bee searches for both nectar and pollen on a Golden Alexanders blossom

And then there are the “Wannabees”

I love Jason Gibb’s term “wannabees” for the ubiquitous Hoverflies – also called flower flies – members of the genus Taxomerus (family Syrphidae).  Hoverflies visit flowers frequently and are commonly mistaken for bees. Many of them mimic bees and wasps, being patterned in white, black and  yellow (or orange). But they differ from bees in one important way; hoverflies do not have stingers. They just want their predators to think they do! They feed on both pollen and nectar. Though hoverflies don’t carry as much pollen on their smooth bodies as bees do on their fuzzy ones, they may make up for that by visiting flowers more often. As a result, they are considered the second most effective plant pollinators. Another great benefit of hoverflies is that their larvae eat aphids like crazy, much like ladybugs do. So they can keep plants healthy as well as do some pollinating.

Drama Unfolds on Daisy Fleabanes!

It’s not a surprise that the nodding stalks of Daisy Fleabane (Erigeron annuus) show up in every field in the spring. Hoverflies move constantly from one to the next since not many different wildflowers bloom in this cold spring! As they land, of course, they drop pollen on the waiting stigmas of the flower, just what’s needed to produce more Daisy Fleabane. From my observation, the flowers in bright sunlight get more attention from hoverflies than those in the shade. Perhaps they see in ultraviolet like bees and the flowers look much more inviting in the sunshine?

But more than just pollination is taking place on those sunny little blooms! It turns out that a Daisy Fleabane can be a stage for high drama – birth and death among the petals! One tiny fleabane flower featured the mating of two hoverflies while a third ignored them in its avid search for a good meal. The dispassionate female seems to be casually having a snack as well.

Two hoverflies mated on a Daisy Fleabane while one ignored them in the interest of finding nectar or pollen

And on another Fleabane blossom, an ambush!  I’ve just learned about Crab Spiders (genus Thomisidae). These crafty arachnids don’t spin webs. They simply sit on or just under the edges of flowers waiting to grab unwary insects. Those long curved front legs do look a bit crab-like!

A crab spider sitting on a fleabane blossom hoping, no doubt, to snag a careless insect.

The Bluebottle Fly (genus Calliphora) in the photo below seems to have been oblivious to a crab spider until it was grabbed around the middle by one of the long legs of its hidden predator. Those big fly eyes look vaguely shocked, don’t they? The hoverfly on the blossom above  seems unconcerned, its head deep in the pollen. And what I think is the green sweatbee flying in may choose to do the same on a different bloom. I doubt they stayed around long enough to be a second and third meal for the spider!

A crab spider under the edge of a fleabane has grabbed a fly for lunch, while an uninterested hoverfly eats nearby. And what I think is  another green sweat bee speeds in on the right.

What about the Butterflies?

Well, butterflies are arriving, or hatching or coming out from under bark after overwintering. But not many are present yet. And let’s face it; the flowers available now are not especially tempting when compared to the variety and plentitude of summer. So the butterflies that appear in the parks make do with other food sources – sweet tree sap, rotting fruits from last fall, carrion, even occasionally the nutrition left in animal scat! Here’s  a selection of the butterflies I’ve seen so far and not one of them was pollinating a flower! (Click on photos to enlarge; use pause button for captions.)

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I’ve also seen three different Monarchs but they didn’t stop to have photos taken. And the very tiny White-striped Black moth (Trichodezia albovittata) is a first sighting ever for me. Its miniscule black and white wings flutter so fast that when flying, it looks like a blurry signal of dots and dashes! I was so happy when it paused for a few moments!

Native Plants + Native Insects = Caterpillars + More Well-fed Bird Hatchlings

Two-day-old Eastern Bluebird hatchlings (Sialis sialis)

You’ve probably noticed that I’ve used the word “larvae” several times in this piece. The common term for these squiggly young is “caterpillar.” Caterpillars (as I’ve mentioned before) are the preferred food that birds stuff down the tender throats of their hatchlings. They are great baby food for birds, full of protein and fat and easy to swallow.

So let’s be glad that our native insects are out gathering pollen for two reasons. Our bees and wannabees keep the wildflowers (and eventually fruits and vegetables) reproducing year after year. But by also feeding pollen to all those larval bees and flies, they feed the young of clever birds who winkle them out of holes and pluck them off of leaves and limbs. Yes, we may get a few cut, chewed or even defoliated leaves in our garden. But many of those caterpillars will nourish the next generation of glorious birds singing the morning chorus! Now doesn’t that make you appreciate insects just a wee bit more?

Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide and volunteer Stephanie Patil with hundreds of native plants purchased by township residents through the Parks and Recreation Commission.

 

 

 

Fellow Travelers: Colorful Companions of the Migrating Warblers

What an explosion of bird life in May! In a matter of a few weeks, the trees, fields, marshes and our yards suddenly are alive with bustle and song. Last week, I shared what I learned about the warblers, some of the  tiniest members of the northern migration.  This week, I thought we’d take a look at some of the other colorful summer visitors who are currently serenading possible mates, toting nesting material around our gardens and fields and darting in and out of our backyard feeders.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

This spring seems particularly generous with glorious birds. Up-close visits with a startling variety of color and song all around us in 2019 has made this season quite a special one for me.

The Migrators of the Last Week in April

On April 24, just as the sun was getting low, my husband alerted me to something special right outside the window. I looked up from my book to find myself staring at a rare visitor, the Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus). Twice over the years, we’d caught a quick glimpse of this impressive bird out in the trees beyond the lawn. But it only paused and moved on. Luckily this bird  returned repeatedly that night, so I finally got calm enough to get a shot through the glass – and wow!

The Red-headed Woodpecker is usually heading north to breed, but this year, quite a few passed through the area!

Since then, others have reported seeing more Red-headed Woodpeckers than usual.  We’re hoping ours may be nesting nearby since it’s returned three or four times after its first visit. Sometimes bird lovers confuse this more unusual bird (for our area) with the year ’round Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) who has a red nape but not a fully red head. Red-headed Woodpeckers have become less common in our area due to habitat loss, but maybe we lucked out this year! (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

On April 25, I remembered that the Great Blue Herons (Ardea herodias) were already nesting along the Clinton River trail, so I hurried to see them  before leaves began to obscure the view. Saucer-shaped nests topped many trees in the marsh. One heron stood alone, as if on guard, while multiple females, presumably, arranged their nests or perhaps turned over their large eggs.

That last week in April was what folks used to call a humdinger! A birding friend let me know that she’d seen a killdeer with eggs at Gallagher Creek Park. So later on the 25th, I went searching. You’ll probably find her more quickly in this photo than I did in the park. It took me a while, since she was so well camouflaged!

Play “Find the Killdeer” in this photo. She’s nicely camouflaged.

I got very close before I spotted her. She watched me a few moments but surprised me by trotting over to the rain garden so I could take a picture of her beautiful eggs. Very accommodating, though maybe not the best parenting! I’m hoping at least one fledgling survived, since  Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township stewardship manager, thought he saw a juvenile there in May. Perhaps the predators had as much trouble spotting the nest as I did!

Early May Brought More Solo Arrivals

On May 1st, the birders at Bear Creek Nature Park watched a female Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) busily constructing her nest underneath the roof of a kiosk!  Not a terribly private place, but Phoebes do that sort of thing. She’s not as glamorous as some of the other May arrivals, but I liked her placid expression and the brown suede look of her crown. The Phoebe’s two note song is an easy one for most beginning birders to remember. It does sound a bit like “Feee-beee” though it always sounds a bit more like “Feee-buuuuz” to me.

An Eastern Phoebe bringing material to her nest at Bear Creek Nature Park

On May 3, one of my favorite avian vocalists arrived in our woods, the male  Rose-Breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus). Such a handsome devil! And now, every morning in the dark just before sunrise, I’m treated to his sweet courting melody. I’m guessing he found a mate with it, though the female who arrived four days later had her pick of three males counter-singing while I worked in the yard. What a delightful form of territorial competition, as one male’s song overlaps or quickly follows the song of another!

The male Grosbeak is mellow dude who takes his turn peacefully at the feeder, but competes with other males in song for territory and a mate.
The female had 3 singing males to choose from in our yard. What a trio!

On May 5, my husband Reg and I went in pursuit of the Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna) since members of the birding group had seen them at Wolcott Mill Metropark.  And we found him. This glorious prairie bird sang his own slurry version of their 3-8 note song from atop a willow whose new yellow leaves nicely matched his bright yellow breast. Meadowlarks love to hold forth from high on a wire or exposed branch looking out over a field. I hope our prairie restorations will encourage more of these striking birds to nest in our parks.

The Eastern Meadowlark singing from atop at willow at Wolcott Mill Park.

On May 2, the male Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) arrived right on schedule at our grape jelly feeder. How can anyone resist this dramatic bird? The first male quickly established his rights to the feeder and now proceeds to whistle his song rather insistently near a window whenever the feeder is empty, which is about 3 times a day!  Or at least that’s how it seems to us. We’re happy to accommodate him and later his mate.

Mid-May Brings the Warblers’ Fellow Travelers

Lots of birds, even fairly solitary ones, join the warblers in the nighttime flow of  birds during  May, especially in the second and third weeks. Researchers have yet to solidly determine exactly how these small survivors navigate the skies. Current theories include  sighting landmarks below, orienting to the stars or sensing the earth’s magnetic field, or  all three. Ornithologists still aren’t sure. But aren’t we glad the birds mysteriously manage it?

On May 11, my sharp-eyed husband called me to the window again. And there I stayed for 20 miraculous minutes as a male Scarlet Tanager foraged  along the edge of the brickwork outside our back door.

A lucky look at the male Scarlet Tanager outside our back door.

I hoped he might stay around to nest, but no such luck. The birding group, though, saw both a male and a female with nesting material at Lost Lake Nature Park on May 29th.  Maybe I’ll see fledgling tanagers yet! Tanagers are “dimorphic,” meaning that males look different than females, in this case, though only in the breeding season. In the fall, the male changes into the yellow-green plumage of the female to travel to their wintering grounds in northern South America. Quite a trip for these small birds.

A female Scarlet Tanager at Tawas Point last year traveled right along with the warblers during migration.

A surprise for us at Magee Marsh this year was seeing a Great Crested Flycatcher (Myiarchus crinitus). I don’t get to see them much because once they settle down to breed, they hunt their insect prey high in the tree canopy. Sometimes other birders point out their distinctive call to me and I catch a glimpse of its lemon yellow belly from a distance. This time, I could get a bit closer! Cornell Lab of Ornithology says they “tend to migrate alone,” but this one was surrounded by hundreds of warblers.

The Great Crested Flycatcher actually crashes into the leaves at times in its enthusiasm for snagging insects.

I can’t say for sure when Indigo Buntings arrive in our area from Florida or the Caribbean, but I usually see them in the parks by mid-May. This year, though, we were lucky enough to see this deep azure male at our hulled seed feeder. (A popular place this year!) He came right at the end of May and for a week now has come every evening, right before sunset. I think we’re his stop for a bedtime snack. A writer at Cornell Lab described him perfectly as “a little scrap of sky with wings.”

A male Indigo Bunting that arrives at our feeder just before sunset this year.

Another latecomer to our feeder is the male Orchard Oriole (Icterus spurius) who has only been at our feeder one previous year and then only briefly. This one came to visit on May 29 and appeared daily since, eating the same grape jelly that pleases his bigger cousin, the Baltimore Oriole. Orchard Orioles migrate south again by the end of July so catch sight of one while you can. There’s often a pair at Bear Creek Nature Park.

The Orchard Oriole comes late and leaves early. They’re often seen at Bear Creek Park.

The presence of all these unusual birds at my feeder makes me wonder if a cold, wet spring has left some migrators without their usual diet of insects. So they’re settling for grain until the sun shines and more insect eggs hatch. Just a guess, of course.

Giving Our Migrators a Helping Hand

Year after year for millennia, this wave of brilliantly colored aviators find their way north to us in the spring. Long ago, the luckiest or most skillful avian navigators discovered the lake shores, forests, prairies, and wetlands that were full of the required food and shelter they needed along the way. These survivors learned to take advantage of  peninsulas to shorten the distance over water and toughed it out when they were unavailable. They followed lake shores or ocean beaches when storms blew. And at last they glided down onto fields, splashed into ponds, settled on shady branches in distant forests, fluttered down into the protection of stiff prairie grass, or poked their beaks gratefully into the mud of a fertile marsh. Somehow the young of these avian pioneers knew the paths of their ancestors and somehow that knowledge got passed through thousands of generations of Scarlet Tanagers, Indigo Buntings and all the others.

Wonder and a desire to understand and/or help these winged neighbors are, I think,  common responses to the miracle of migration each spring and fall. Some of us fill our feeders, set up and monitor nest boxes, or band birds to help ornithologists learn more.  Some learn when and when not to rescue nestlings and fledglings and how to do it safely. Some company executives agree to turn off their office lights at night, while some farmers and others pause their wind turbines when notified by experts of particularly heavy migration in the area. Some cat lovers keep their cats indoors until fledglings are strong enough to escape into the treetops. Some gardeners plant their gardens with an eye to supplying fruits and insects as well as beauty. Some simply accept the inconvenience of awkwardly located nesting sites around their yard, and decide to just sit back with a camera or a cup of coffee to admire the hard work of raising little birds.  It all makes a difference. However you express your appreciation for the presence of birds in our world, thanks for doing it.

TINY, INTREPID MIGRATORS: The Colorful Warblers of Late Spring

Polish up your binocular lenses and head outside, dear readers!  The trees, shrubs and marshes are filled with a rainbow of colorful birds. And though some of these visitors may choose to stay and raise young here, others are just passing through.  So time’s a-wasting!

The second and third weeks of May are probably the busiest weeks of the spring for those of us who enjoy birds. New birds arrive daily at our feeders and we rush to the window. Flocks gather at  birding ‘hot spots” like Tawas Point in Michigan or Magee Marsh in Ohio and we pack up the car and take off to see them.  Familiar birdsong in the treetops prompts the birding group to go silent and look up.

A tree full of busy warblers captivated the birding group in May 2018.

Scientists theorize that the tiny warblers, and many other spring birds, may have made long, arduous journeys through the night ever since their ancestors in the tropics experimented with moving north in the spring.  As the glaciers retreated, some of the tropical or sub-tropical birds kept pushing on a bit further north each spring, seeking more sunlit hours and different or more nourishing food. Those ancestors liked what they found –  longer summer days, an abundance of blossoms and insects and plenty of nesting sites. And lucky for us, they eventually arrived here in Oakland Township and liked what they saw.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

This year,  I got curious about  where our visiting warblers spent the winter. How far had they  traveled to reach Michigan from their wintering grounds? I also wanted to be sure which birds you and  I need to look for right now, before they fly off to breed further north and which ones we can relax about a bit, because they’ll spend the summer with us, raising their young in our parks and yards. The more I learn about nature, the more I feel myself embedded in the natural world – and I like that feeling.

So here’s what I’ve learned about some visiting warblers so far this month. These birds are all ones I’ve seen this spring. But I’m using some of last year’s photos  when they’re better than some of the ones I took during this year’s cold, rainy spring. Next week, I hope to explore the fellow travelers, other beautiful migrators that accompanied this year’s warblers  and will be spending the summer with us as well.

Some Warblers are Here Only Occasionally or are Just Passing Through

Evidently for some birds,  our area is a good place to get some R & R, but locations further north have charms that lure them on.  Perhaps these migrators long for cooler summer temperatures, deeper forests, or a reliable food source that they need or simply prefer.

At Magee Marsh in Ohio, my husband and I saw our first male Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea), named for the bright yellow robes of Roman Catholic papal clerks.  You can’t see this male’s lovely blue-gray wings in my photo because he wouldn’t stop singing his four tweet song.  I think his clear golden feathers with a peachy blur are probably the prettiest yellow feathers I’ve ever seen! Prothonotary numbers are dwindling due to a lack of forested wetlands in the U.S. and the loss of mangrove forests along the Atlantic Coast of Central and northern South America, where they spend the winter.  They more commonly breed in Missouri, Arkansas and the south but a few do choose to breed in our area.  Some were seen along the Clinton River Trail in the last couple of years. So,  enjoy a rare treat if you spot this beautiful warbler!

The Prothonotary Warbler has blue-gray wings that don’t show here because he was too busy singing to hop about!
The male Blackpoll Warbler (Setophaga striata) below may look like an overgrown Chickadee, but Blackpolls are avian record-holders!  Cornell Ornithology Lab reports that, “This long-distance athlete weighs less than half an ounce yet makes the longest overwater journey of any songbird—nearly 1,800 miles nonstop over the Atlantic Ocean to its wintering grounds.”  Imagine!   Now they are on their way to mate in Northern Canada; some go all the way to Hudson’s Bay! According to Cornell Lab, to accomplish their monumental autumn flights, Blackpolls have to double their weight!  Talk about bulking up!
The Blackpoll Warbler can fly over the Atlantic for 3 days nonstop on its way to its wintering grounds. Though still quite numerous, their numbers have fallen 88% in the last 40 years.

This male Magnolia Warbler with its black necklace and mask was on its way to Northern Michigan or Canada because he prefers to breed in dense conifer forests.  And he’s already traveled a long way since he winters in the Caribbean or Central America.

This male Magnolia Warbler (Setophaga magnolia) spent his winter in the Caribbean or Central America. He’s on his way to the conifer forests of Northern Michigan  of Canada.

Blackburnian Warblers (Setophaga fusca) travel super long distances, too.  According to Wikipedia, they winter in the mountains from Colombia to Peru at heights of 2,000-8,000 feet.  They also prefer to breed in coniferous forests, especially ones with hemlocks.  So they’re heading farther north to upper Michigan and Canada.  While there, they’ll spend most of their time in the high canopy, plucking moth and butterfly larvae from the treetops.  So the best time to see them is during migration when they’re down at eye level.

The Blackburnian Warbler travels here from mountainous areas from Colombia to Peru

The Northern Parula (Setophaga americana) spends its winters in Mexico, the Caribbean or Central America.  Parulas raise young from Florida to the boreal forests of northern Canada, but according to Cornell, they skip Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin and some northeastern states.  Why avoid us?  Mosses like the southern Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides)  or northern lichens like Old Man’s Beard (g. Usnea) that droop from branches are important to the Parula for nesting material and neither is common in our area.  So since they breed north of us and south of us but not here,  try to see them before they move on!

The Northern Parula’s  rust-colored throat isn’t visible in this photo.  It breeds in many states but not here since we don’t have the tree mosses  or lichens they depend on for nesting material.

According to the migration map at Cornell, the Yellow-rumped Warbler just barely misses our area during the breeding season.  They  breed north of  Michigan’s “thumb.”  The reason may be that,  like the Blackburnian, they prefer mature forests with more conifers in them than we have around here.  Luckily, during migration,  I’ve seen them many times at Bear Creek Park, either around the playground pond or in the oak-hickory forest.  They can winter as far north as Indiana and Ohio (rarely in the southern edge of Michigan) because they can digest fruits that other warblers can’t,  like juniper or myrtle, but also the fruits of poison ivy, poison oak and virginia creeper, for heaven’s sake!   Strong stomachs, eh? This one rested at Magee Marsh this year before crossing Lake Erie.

The Yellow-rumped Warbler prefers the conifer forests of Canada as nesting territory.

During migration, I’ve spotted Palm Warblers (Setophaga palmarum) year after year at Bear Creek Nature Park. Their song is a rapid buzzing trill,   Look for Palm Warblers on the ground, a location uncommon for most warblers.  They also do a lot of tail pumping while they forage. Palm Warblers prefer to nest in the boreal (evergreen) forests of Canada. Their migration north begins in Florida or the Caribbean.

Palm Warblers spend a lot of time on the ground, which is unusual for warblers.

Some Warblers Spend the Summer With Us.

All summer long, we are graced with the presence of other warblers.  They are small and can be difficult to see hidden in the summer greenery, though, so it’s a delight to see them before the leaves are fully grown.  I have yet to see a warbler nest, but I’ve only become aware of these little beauties since I joined the birding group, so maybe you long-time birders have spotted them raising young. If so, I’d love to hear about it in the comments section below!

The Chestnut-sided Warbler (Setophaga pensylvanica), one of my favorite warblers,  is shown on Cornell Lab’s migration map as  nesting here in our area,  but I’ve only seen them during migration.  Please let me know if you see one during the summer or hear what Cornell describes as their “pleased, pleased, pleased to meetcha!” breeding song. These little birds spend their winters among tropical birds in Central and northern South America. They tend to go back to the same tropical area each autumn and  hang out and feed with the same mixed group of tropical birds they hung out with the previous year. I’d love to see that reunion each year!

The Chestnut-sided Warbler spends the winter with the same group of tropical birds in Central or northern South America.

Happily, the Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia) is a common summer resident in our parks.  These bright yellow birds are likely to be in shrubs or trees near wetlands.  The male’s very quick “sweet, sweet, I’m a little sweet” call can be heard at quite a distance, so keep following that call! This tiny bird is also a long distance migrator.  Yellow Warblers fly non-stop across the Gulf of Mexico to spend the winter in Central America or northern South America. Wouldn’t their tropical ancestors be proud of them?  (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

Some of our eastern American Redstarts (Setophaga ruticilla) only travel to Florida for the winter.  But many fly on to the Greater Antilles (the large islands in the Caribbean) or to northern South America.   Listen for its cheerful song since they mate in our area, as well as over a large area of the  country. The Redstart is believed to startle insects out of trees by simultaneously drooping its orange-patched wings and flashing open its colorful  tail. It must work, because Cornell says that they excel among the warblers at catching flying insects.

The intricately  patterned Black-and-white Warblers (Mniotilta varia) hop along, around, over and under the trunks and branches of trees, much like nuthatches,  looking for insects in the moss and bark. They can nest here, though I’ve only seen them during migration and don’t yet recognize their rapid, shrill trill.  They build nests  on the ground in forest leaf litter, so we’re more likely to see them in parks than on our tidy lawns.  They are scrappy little birds that give the Redstarts and Chickadees a hard time when establishing territory. Some travel to Florida for the winter, but others fly on to northern South America where they hassle inhabitants there as well!

The Black-and-white Warbler hops about on trees and branches searching for insects or insect eggs,  much as the Nuthatch and Brown Creeper do.

The birding group sees  or hears Black-throated Green Warblers (Setophaga virens) during migration.  The maps at Cornell Lab shows that some breed here, but they’re more likely to nest farther north in forests with mature trees. There they often feed high up in the canopy.  So really, the best time to see them is when they’re migrating because they tend to stay further down in the greenery. Though they do have a mating song, we’re most likely to hear their buzzing “zzzzz” territorial song while they’re traveling.  The mating song is the first recording at this Cornell link and the buzzing call is the second one.  They may have migrated up  from the Caribbean. Or they may have traveled from Central America and northern South America, either around or over the Gulf of Mexico.

Listen for the buzzing “zzzzz” call of The Black-throated Green Warbler to locate it during migration.

Birds Flowing Over Us  in the Dark Night Sky

Imagine standing on your lawn in the dark on a warm spring night.  Though you can’t see them in the dark sky, a river of small birds, dressed in their best courtship colors, are  alternately soaring and fluttering as they ride the south wind.  Most of  the smallest ones travel in large mixed flocks for safety.  For hundreds of miles each night, they wing their  way beneath the stars.  They’re battered by unexpected cold fronts and rainstorms that force them down  to the earth, sometimes in places unsuitable for rest or foraging. They rest, try to forage and fly on.  They dodge predators like owls  or suburban cats that patrol the night and hawks and other predators by day.  They fly on. Some are confused by the bright lights of buildings or towers and break against unseen glass or metal, falling to their deaths by the millions each year. But luckily, others manage to tilt their wings, swerve away or over these obstacles and fly on.  Driven by the need to find the optimum habitat for raising their young,  these colorful small birds persist in the journey defined by their tropical ancestors thousands of year ago.

Now these lovely, hungry, weary travelers have arrived or  at least have chosen to stop, rest and eat here before continuing on.  It seems only right that we take a little time to appreciate them.  Their bustling activity,  brilliant color and cheerful song provide a welcome change after the quiet, cold, gray-and-brown landscape of  winter.  Now that I’ve come to know some of them, late spring is even more of a joy.  I wish that for you, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Milkweed Connection: A “Welcome Home” for Our Superhero Monarchs

Monarch on Joe Pye (Eutrochium maculatum)

Great news! Reports from the Monarch Butterfly wintering grounds in Mexico say that this will be another good year for Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus) in our area! Monarchs of the Midwest and Northeast count on us to provide a big pulse of wildflowers with nectar to sip and lots of Milkweeds (genus Asclepias) on which to lay their eggs. Monarchs are very choosy! Their caterpillars can only become butterflies by eating  the leaves of plants in the Milkweed family.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

In February, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township stewardship manager, hosted an interesting and  thorough presentation by Dr. Nate Haan of Michigan State University on the topic “Monarch Butterfly Ecology and Conservation.” So here’s  a bit of what he shared with us that might help you and I be prepared for the arrival of these beautiful pollinators. My thanks to Dr. Haan for his presentation and to the photographers cited in the captions of some photos below for helping me tell the amazing story of our “super generation” of Monarchs.

The Life of a Monarch from Egg to Adult

One end of the Monarch migration starts each late summer/ autumn here in Michigan and other Midwest and Northeastern states. Monarchs that traveled here in spring sip wildflower nectar, mate and lay eggs on the underside of milkweed  leaves. Their favorite milkweed is Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), though any milkweed in the Asclepias species will do. More about that later.

A monarch butterfly egg on the underside of a Common Milkweed leaf (Photo by Merav Vonshak (CC BY-NC) at inaturalist.org

Only about 2-10% of the Monarch eggs hatch in the fields, because they are food for a wide variety insects and spiders.  But for the lucky few, small caterpillars emerge from these eggs.  They begin by eating the egg itself and then going on to eat the leaves of the host milkweed plant. Milkweed has tiny silver hairs as a protection against predators, but over the eons Monarch caterpillars have learned to shave them off!  They then attach their hind end to the leaf and move in a half circle eating, which prevents most of them from getting stuck in the milky latex that gives milkweed its name. Then the little caterpillar molts, shedding its exoskeleton to become an increasingly more colorful and larger caterpillar. It takes them five molts to reach full size.

A Monarch caterpillar (probably a 2nd instar)  eating a milkweed leaf. Photo by permission from Tanya Harvey at http://westerncascades.com/2017/07/04/a-week-of-monarchs-and-milkweed-day-1/

The sticky, milky latex is the plant’s second defense against predators, because it can gum up a caterpillar’s mouth. But the fifth and last  molt of the Monarch caterpillar has found an even more effective way to defuse the threat than the first instar did. The large yellow and black fifth instar’s technique is to make a quick bite into the main vein of the leaf, releasing pressure and waiting until the liquid drains out.  Then they can continue to eat anywhere on the leaf. Here’s  my photo of a fifth instar eating Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) along the Paint Creek Trail.

A 5th instar Monarch caterpillar eating on Butterfly Milkweed

It takes 10-14 days for the caterpillar to complete 5 molts.  It then leaves the milkweed behind, finds a horizontal surface, attaches itself with a silk pad and molts again. This time the caterpillar creates an opaque green chrysalis with gold trim! The chrysalis hardens after a short time and the butterfly begins to develop inside. This pupal stage lasts for another 10-14 days.

A Monarch chrysalis, photo by inaturalist.org photographer Pam Kleinsasser (CC BY NC)

Finally, the chrysalis becomes transparent and the the butterfly emerges to dry its wings before taking flight.

Monarch emerging from its translucent chrysalis, photo by inaturalist.org photographer gvelazco (CC BY-SA)
A Monarch butterfly taking off on a sunny afternoon

The Super Powers of our Monarch “Super Generation”

The Monarchs fluttering over our parks in August and September are gifted with two super powers: they live much longer than other Monarchs, and they can fly over 3000 miles to overwinter in Mexico. I’ve cited this quote from National Geographic before in discussing monarchs but it bears repeating. According to Dr. Pablo Jaramillo-López, a research scientist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico “…when fall rolls around …, a special ‘super generation’ of monarchs that can live up to eight months will make use of air currents to wing all the way back to Mexico—a seemingly impossible feat for such a delicate-looking insect.”

Monarchs arriving in central Mexico for the winter. Photo by Carlos Dominguez-Rodriquez (CC BY-NC) at inaturalist.org.

It can take up to two months for our Monarchs to reach the mountains of central Mexico. They spend the winter there, protected by the micro-climate created by Oyamel, or “Sacred” Fir trees (Abies religiosa).

Monarchs wintering in Mexico, photo by Mario Castañeda-Sánchez (CC BY-NC) at iNaturalist.org

In the spring, our “super generation” monarchs then start the journey back to Michigan by flying as far north as Texas. After mating and laying eggs there, they die, and their offspring carry on the migration north. It takes four or five generations of Monarchs along the way, each living only 5-7 weeks (instead of 8 months!) for the last of our super-generation’s offspring to land with such exquisite delicacy on the wildflowers in our parks. As Dr. Pablo Jaramillo-López says in National Geographic, “This makes the migrating monarchs so unique as they are the same species but for some reason live much longer.”

Monarch on Grass-leaved Goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia)

The Threats that Monarchs Face

A graph showing the general decline in the number of Monarch butterflies. Data from 1994-2003 were collected by personnel of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve (MBBR) of the National Commission of Protected Natural Areas (CONANP) in Mexico. Data from 2004-2019 were collected by the WWF-Telcel Alliance, in coordination with the Directorate of the MBBR. 2000-01 population number as reported by Garcia-Serrano et. al (The Monarch Butterfly : Biology and Conservation, 2004)
The Monarch Joint Venture is a national partnership of federal and state agencies, non-governmental organizations, businesses and academic programs working together to conserve the monarch butterfly migration. The content in this article does not necessarily reflect the positions of all Monarch Joint Venture partners.

Monarch numbers go up and down but sadly, over the last two decades the trend is generally downward as you can see above. So what’s the problem?  As usual, there are multiple factors. Dr. Haan named five:

  1. Logging in their overwintering area in Mexico makes surviving in the mountains more difficult. The Mexican government and non-governmental organizations are working on finding sustainable projects that can support local economic alternatives for people living in the Monarch’s wintering grounds.
  2. Less wildflowers and more agricultural crops in the Great Plains and Midwest states. This leaves less nectar resources to feed the Monarchs and fewer milkweed stems on which to lay eggs for successive generations. Some farmers are changing their approach to their grazing and crop land to accommodate the Monarch’s need for milkweed.
  3. According to the Monarch Joint Venture website, OE (Ophryocystis elektroscirrha), a parasite can get on the wings of adult Monarchs, who then spread this parasite on the milkweed leaves when they mate or lay eggs. If caterpillars eat the leaves, they become infected with the pathogen that can cause a developing Monarch’s wings to be too weak to get out of its chrysalis and may shorten the lives of adult Monarchs. Tropical forms of milkweed sold by nurseries tend to be associated with this parasite and they should be avoided. Dr. Haan reported also that  Monarchs bred from more tropical areas, like Florida, may carry OE, too.
  4. Insecticides used on garden plants can be lethal to butterflies, as well as other beneficial insects. Perhaps the greatest problem is milkweed loss in the Midwest, which is the core breeding habitat for Monarchs.  Milkweed used to be much more common around and on farms.
  5. In the late 1990’s many farmers turned to Roundup Ready genetically modified seeds which makes their crops resistant to Roundup.  This allows farmers to spray Roundup on their crops,  which kills milkweed along with other unwanted plants without hurting their crops.   As a result, Dr. Haan said, scientists estimate that 40% of the milkweed needed by Monarchs, is gone, maybe a billion stems in the last 20 years, which coincides with the decline in Monarch populations.
MilkweedInCorn_NateHaan
Milkweed used to be a common weed in crop fields. Illustration by Nate Haan.

So How Do We Help Our Friendly Local Monarchs?

Well, we can use less insecticide and when we do use it, follow directions carefully. We can avoid growing non-native milkweeds that carry the parasite OE. We can plant milkweed to support developing caterpillars and nectar-producing native flowers to feed the adult Monarchs. Coneflowers, asters and goldenrods, and many other prairie flowers that prefer medium to dry soil and full sunlight flourish just when the super generation of Monarchs is beefing up for the long migration. Of course, lots of other butterflies, bees and other pollinators loves these flowers too!

 

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Varied Milkweed Species Feed Young Monarchs and Add Color to Our Fields and Gardens

Maybe the biggest  – and most beautiful – contribution we can make to the welfare of Monarch butterflies is to plant more milkweeds in our fields and gardens. Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) multiplies both by the parachuting seeds we all loved as children and by its extensive network of roots. So it can spread too quickly to be a great garden plant. But it’s perfect in big sunny fields or natural areas.

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)

If you are lucky enough to have Common Milkweed on your property, it will help, Dr. Haan told us, if you trim/mow  down about a third of the milkweed stems on your property in late June or early July. He and his associate’s research shows that Monarchs prefer to lay more eggs on the tender stems that re-grow because they are easier to eat and more nutritious .

Graph showing how monarchs laid more eggs on new growth from milkweed stems mowed in mid-July (green-shaded area) than on milkweed unmowed (orange line) or mowed in mid-June (blue shaded area). Graph by Dr. Haan.

Since most of our milkweed plants are full grown by August, their leaves are old and tough and Monarch egg predators are present in large numbers. If you can trim or mow some of your milkweed plants in mid-summer, they will re-sprout and provide the softer leaves on which Monarchs like to plant their eggs in late July or early August for the migrating “Super Generation.” Those new stems also contain less predatory insects and spiders, meaning monarch eggs may have a better chance of surviving.

Luckily, If you’d like Monarchs in your yard or garden rather than a field, there are other kinds of milkweed for those settings. Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) tends to stay in one place. It needs a dry to medium moisture level and lots of sun. And what a beautiful orange to match the Monarchs! Other butterflies and pollinators love them too, of course!

Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) with a female Monarch

Swamp Milkweed aka Rose, Pink or Red Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) also loves sun, but as the word “Swamp” implies, it likes “wet feet” or at least medium to moist soil.

Swamp Milkweed blooming in August grows best in a moist spot.

If you have a shady area with medium to dry moisture levels, try planting the graceful Poke Milkweed (Asclepias exultata) with its cascade of bluish-white blossoms.

Unlike most milkweed, Poke Milkweed can grow in fairly shady areas.

Native plant nurseries (see the list in an earlier blog) can show you other native milkweeds as well. If possible, find ones that are Michigan genotypes since they will grow most easily and serve admirably as host plants for our Michigan Monarchs.

So Rewarding to Make a Difference, Isn’t It?

A “Super Generation” Monarch feeding on New England Aster before migration

Who knew, when I was a child, that milkweed plants would begin to diminish and the Monarchs would begin to decline as a result? And now we know, according to the recent summary of a biodiversity report, that as many as a million other species worldwide are in the same situation.

It’s easy to despair, I know – but let’s not! The best antidote to despair is always doing what you can in your own corner of the world and supporting others who share your concern for nature.

And in the case of the Monarch butterfly, it can be as simple as planting milkweed! Or it’s as easy as planting native flowers, grasses, shrubs, and trees in our yards instead of exotic plants. With no recent shared history, these exotic plants don’t always feed butterfly caterpillars and other beneficial native insects.  Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, it’s changing the non-native turf of your own lawn into large gardens filled with colorful native plants with paths of mowed turf leading from one to the next. Or it’s maybe creating a native prairie out of an old agricultural field like our township stewardship crew and some nature-loving homeowners are doing.

Eastern Prairie Ilsley July
Eastern Prairie at Charles Isley Park on July 12, 2018

All it takes is just caring, learning and getting started.  I’ve begun. The township parks stewardship crew has begun. Many of you have already begun.  What we can hope is that others will join us.