Meet my new photographer friend Paul Birtwhistle whose wonderful photos have appeared over the summer in my posts. We’re pleased today to share a photo essay that Paul created for us. You’ll get to meet Paul and his canine “photo assistant” Stanley, while scrolling through a glorious gallery of Paul’s photos that capture a wide range of the creatures that he’s met this year at Bear Creek Nature Park. Enjoy, my friends! – Cam Mannino
Hello everyone, my name is Paul Birtwhistle and I have been encouraged by Cam Mannino and Dr. Ben VanderWeide to write a blog and share some of the photographs I have captured over the past year or so whilst walking my English Labrador called Stanley around Bear Creek Nature Park in Oakland Township, Michigan.
I have been walking around Bear Creek Nature Park with my wife and both of our dogs for a few years now and we really appreciate the wonderful wildlife and flora that is on our doorstep but soon after the pandemic arrived I realized that we were going to have a lot more time available to spend outdoors so I decided to get back into photography and see if I could capture some of the beauty that we regularly observed.
I’m a convert; I’ve come to love wetlands. I grew up avoiding them, icky mud underfoot and the ever present annoyance of so many bugs, for heaven’s sake! But these days, camera swinging at my hip, binoculars bouncing on my chest, I often head straight for the muddy edge of a wetland.
Shady swamps and vernal pools, sunny marshes and ponds, streams winding through a woodland, water seeping up from beneath the soil or trickling down a slope – that’s where life is swooping, singing, croaking, mating, predating, fluttering and buzzing in every park I visit. Oh, I relish a shady woods on a hot summer day, and I delight in the color and sway of a dancing prairie. But often a wetland is where the action is.
Last autumn, our Oakland Township Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, worked with local US Fish and Wildlife colleagues to restore several wetlands at Watershed Ridge Park that had been drained for agriculture years ago. One of these wetlands extends between two existing wetlands, and with a berm now holding some of the existing water and this summers downpours, a small area of open water now stands at the bottom of a former agricultural field. It may not look beautiful to you, but it certainly looked inviting to a remarkable number of interesting creatures.
On the Way to the Wetland
One recent Sunday, my husband Reg spotted a Leopard Frog (Rana pipiens), its bright green spotted skin and light stripes (technically “dorsolateral folds”) shining up out of dry grass around the parking lot. I’d been hoping to see these frogs, having noticed them at this park in previous years. Their colors vary from brown to green, but the bright green ones are my favorites. Leopard Frogs use their speed and great leaping ability to escape predators so we were lucky to get this close to one.
We followed the path to the west of the parking lot out into a the field that runs along Buell Road. Though the land looks dry and barren now, dotted with Horseweed (Conyza canadensis), Ben thinks that the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which designed and constructed the wetland restoration to Ben’s concept, will be planting native prairie seed in these fields late this fall. Native grass and wildflower seed generally requires a period of cold weather in order to germinate in the spring.
Passing through the hedgerow to the second field, we came upon an Orange Sulphur Butterfly (Colias eurytheme) darting restlessly from stem to stem, back and forth across the path. I despaired of getting a shot of its fully opened wings; it scurries about very quickly and folds its wings at rest. But eventually I caught it in flight further away. Look at the dramatic difference! The yellow spots in the black wing borders indicate that this is a female Orange Sulphur. (Click on photos to enlarge)
As we reached the crest of the slope above the wetland, a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) lifted from the edge of the little wetland, rose on its powerful wings, and disappeared to the north. What a hopeful sign that life had found its way to this tiny pond! We’ll discover what brought it to the pond a bit further on. Since I missed this glorious visitor, here’s a photo of a flying heron that I took at Lost Lake Park in 2018.
And Then the Dragonflies Began…
Moving toward the pond, I whirled around to catch a shot of something yellow whizzing by me. The creature never stopped moving, sailing far away and circling back time after time. My photo is a bit blurred because of its speed. But luckily, it was clear enough for dragonfly aficionados of the Facebook group “Odonata of the Eastern United States” to identify it for me as a Wandering Glider (Pantala Flavescens) – a dragonfly that was completely new to me!
This golden dragonfly, it turns out, can fly a bit over five feet per second and according to Wikipedia, keeps moving “tirelessly with typical wandering flight for hours without making any perch.” All of that made me feel better about my photo! These Gliders are world travelers that migrate to our area each summer. Some of them make an annual multigenerational migration (like the Monarch butterfly) of about 11,200 miles, with each individual flying more than 3,700 miles! They are found on every continent except Antarctica. They’ve been recorded flying over 20,000 feet high in the Himalayas! A true super-hero insect – and I’m so pleased that it found our little wetland to its liking! Here’s a much more glamorous photo of this insect athlete taken and generously shared by drketaki, a photographer at iNaturalist.org.
As we approached the pond, Reg and I realized that we had come upon a dragonfly hotspot. Dragonflies hovered, swooped, and whizzed in the air above the pond. Occasionally one would pause to cling to the stem of some aquatic plant and then whooosh! – off it went for another round of the pond or to make a brief foray into the surrounding field.
At the pond edge, another new acquaintance presented itself. A dark blue-black dragonfly with a sharply pointed abdomen clasped a dead stalk. Seeing those ragged black patches along the edges of the hindwing next to its abdomen, I remembered finding a photo of a Black Saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata) after seeing this wing pattern on a dragonfly years ago. Such an appropriate name!
I was puzzled, though, because my dragonfly guide says that these dragonflies should have yellow spots on section 7 of the abdomen and this one at Watershed Ridge had only a faint orange/red mark. A helpful aficionado at the dragonfly Facebook group, though, verified that indeed, it was a Black Saddlebags but added that the color change was probably due to age. It’s believed that these insects migrate from points south (perhaps as far as Cuba) to breed here; their offspring then return to the south. This Saddlebags probably mated many times during his journey to our little wetland, and may be nearing the end of his life now. Isn’t he a lovely midnight blue? And I admire the color-coordinated blue stigma (tiny colored cells) at the tip of each wing.
Farther down the pond, I saw two mated, dark dragonflies flying about in tandem, the male gripping the female as they dashed around the pond. I snapped another blurry shot as they zoomed about. When I sharpened the photo in the computer for a closer look, the light glinting off their bodies made them appear spotted. So I’m still not sure of their identification. But the position of the male’s grasping and their overall dark color makes me think that maybe they were a mated pair of Black Saddlebags. After mating, the Saddlebags male grasps the female as they patrol the still water. Then she periodically drops to the surface to deposit eggs, then returns to the embrace of her mate to repeat the process many times. I’d like to think that the life cycle of the Black Saddlebags – or perhaps some other dark dragonfly – repeated itself at this restored wetland – one male almost finished with his life and another pair creating more of their kind.
I spotted familiar dragonflies, too, of course. The black-and-white striped wings of a Twelve-spotted Skimmer (Libellula pulchella) flashed like Morse code as it flew by. Eventually I found it, resting for few minutes on a stem near the pond’s edge. These skimmers are quite accommodating for photographers; they choose a perch and return to it repeatedly, even if disturbed.
The bronze shimmer on the wings of a female Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa) caught the sunlight as she perched peacefully on a dry plant stem. According to Kurt Mead in Dragonflies of the North Woods, these skimmers “hang beneath overarching leaves” during the night. I’d love to see that.
Common Whitetail dragonflies (Plathemis lydia) tend to perch on a flat surface, wings outstretched rather than clinging to stems like many dragonflies. A mature male joined the throng at Watershed Ridge Park but uncharacteristically chose to settle on a bent stem thrusting out of the decaying plant material that covers much of the water surface at the new wetland. Perhaps the more colorful competition at the pond edge was too intense for him. The broad black patch near the end of his wings, the smaller patch near the thorax and the powdery (pruinose) white abdomen are field marks for Whitetail males.
A male Blue Dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis) protected his feeding perch and his mate will do the same once she returns. These dragonflies consume lots of mosquito larva (hooray!) and other small moths or flies – up to 10% of their body weight each day! According to Wikipedia, their hunting technique is just to stay very still and dart out to snatch any prey that ventures close to them, an activity in birds and insects called “hawking.” The striped thorax, blue abdomen, huge, iridescent green eyes and white face are male field marks of these Dashers.
Damselflies, the other member of the order Odonata, had found their way to the wetland, too. This emerald green beauty is an Eastern Forktail damselfly (Ischnura verticalis), a plentiful species in our area.
The one in my photo is a male, but I believe I saw a mature blue female Eastern Forktail ovipositing her eggs in plant material – but she was very tiny and at a great distance. So here’s a wonderful photo of just what I saw by another photographer, Mark Nenadov, who generously shared his work on Wikipedia (CC BY).
Other Signs of Renewed Life at the Wetland
Reg noticed a tiny orange butterfly bouncing along in its weak flight near the base of moist plant stems. I tracked it later in the afternoon and finally saw it land. It was the Least Skipper (Ancyloxypha numitor), an appropriate name for this tiny butterfly (.66 to one inch!) only slightly bigger than my smallest fingernail! Because the ventral (lower) side of its wings are unmarked with brown, it can look solid orange in flight.
My entomologist mentor, Dr. Gary Parsons, director of the Michigan State University Bug House, identified this colorful character for me. It looks somewhat like a large ladybug, doesn’t it? And it is a larger version of the same family, the Coccinellidae – but this one is the Pink Spotted Lady Beetle (Coleomegilla maculata). (They come both orange and pink.) Like our old fave, the red Ladybug, these insects are the “good guys.” If you’re enjoying sweet corn right now like I am, thank these beetles! They thrive on the eggs of corn earworm, European corn borer and aphids among others. Farmers, I’ve read, have traditionally considered them allies.
Now, About What Interested That Great Blue Heron…
With nearly every step that Reg and I took around the wet edge of this pond, we heard “plop, plop, plop,” as frogs leapt beneath the surface at our approach. Reg did spot a little Wood Frog (Rana sylvatica) sitting tentatively near the water’s edge.
The heron may have been preying on Wood Frogs, but I’m more inclined to think that the hidden jumpers were small Leopard Frogs. Wood Frogs tend to spend more of their time on uplands at this time of year, though Reg’s discovery was sitting near the water’s edge. According to a US Fish and Wildlife website, Leopard Frogs like to forage near the water’s edge in wet grassy areas; I’ve read they usually face the water ready for a quick escape jump. I’m not sure which frogs were “plopping,” because they were always two steps ahead of us, diving under the surface. Frogs can respire oxygen through their skin for hours while under water, so these guys never surfaced again during my visit. Drat! Ah well, I’m glad so many frogs of whatever species inhabit this little wetland, foraging for insects and potentially serving as forage themselves for a hungry Great Blue Heron.
Aquatic Plants Flourish at the Pond as Well
After the berm was created to restore this wetland, Ben planted Water Plantain (Alisma subcordatum) and now it forms a delicate plume of white and green around one edge of the pond. The tiny flowers must produce wonderful nectar, because European Honey Bees (Apis mellifera) had found their way to the wetland and were buzzing everywhere within these tiny blossoms.
A native Bumblebee (genus Bombus) found its way to a graceful stalk of Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) blooming in shallow water on the south edge of the new wetland.
Some aquatic plants found their way to the wetland without Ben’s assistance. According to the Illinois Wildflowers website, the native Bulrush on the left provides sustenance for many creatures. Lots of insects, including caterpillars, two species of Katydids and the Two-striped Grasshopper nibble the leaves. Birds like Canada Geese and swans will happily consume the seeds. Among mammals, muskrats munch on the rootstocks and Meadow Voles will clean up any fallen seed. So it’s a very useful plant for its habitat! The tubers of Yellow Nutsedge (Cyperus esculentus) on the right provide food for a wide range of dabbling ducks, including Pintails, Teals and Mallards. Every native plant has a role to play in keeping life humming in our parks and wild areas.
Even a Little Water Supports So Much Life!
Please take another look at this restoration project. It’s just a modest little wetland tucked into the bottom of sloping hills in the corner of a former farm field. But thanks to Ben’s creative thinking and planning, the careful design and construction by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and repeated summer downpours, it became a lively oasis for all kinds of wildlife. Instead of remaining a soggy, unproductive area in an agricultural field, it burgeoned into a gathering spot for dragonflies, local ones and ones who travel thousands of miles to mate, feed and age here. New native plants have taken root and begun to colonize the pond. Frogs now huddle in the grass snatching bugs from the air and then slip beneath the pond’s surface to live another day. High in the sky, a huge bird spotted a new blue shape below and descended for a quick lunch. This kind of diversity and richness exemplifies what ecologists call a “productive” habitat, one that provides sustenance, nesting areas, cover and water to many species. Imagine how much more life might visit here when the slope above it is seeded with native plants!
That’s why for me this muddy little pond is a miracle. Just a little water gathered in a low spot provides all those ecosystems services while also providing beauty for us humans. The delicate white plumes of water plantain, the iridescent glow of a damselfly, the “plop” of frogs and the sight of a huge blue bird rising out of the rushes are nature’s gratuitous gifts. Our role is first to stop long enough to simply behold what’s in front of us. We need time to let nature work its magic. And then we can get back to work protecting and restoring our natural inheritance.
I’m sure you must have noticed. Insects are having a fabulous summer. Ticks are poised at the edge of tall grass, their back feet planted, their front ones waving about, trying to hitch a ride on anything that passes. Mosquitoes are reproducing like mad in any of the available standing water left by the repeated deluges that we’re experiencing. It’s not a pretty picture for us humans! But it can be, if I look more closely.
This last few weeks I’ve explored the small, older section of Stony Creek Raving Nature Park, the western trail from Knob Creek Drive on West Gunn that leads to the Ravine itself. Armed with Deet, I wanted to see if I could find some beautiful, or at least interesting insects that would give me a break from the not-so-lovable ones! So here’s what I found, for better and for worse…
The Trail Begins in Sunny Meadows Filled with Wildflowers
Mottled sunlight slips over your shoulders when you first enter this area of the park. On one of my many visits between the downpours, I saw a flash of orange among the shadows which turned out to be the Gray Comma (Polygonia progne). It looks very much like the autumn coloring of the Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma); since it’s summer, it had to be the Gray Comma. These butterflies emerge from within logs or from under tree bark in April and mate. This Gray Comma would be the offspring of those that overwinter. It will produce a generation which will fly in August or September and hibernate to start the cycle again.
The Meadow Trail: Butterflies, Dragonflies and Rolling Meadows of Wildflowers
Once out in the open meadows, I paused to appreciate the frenetic flight of the Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele). It dashed across the field, landing for a few seconds, then fluttering off again just above the flowers. Their caterpillars have a fondness for Common Blue Violets(Viola sororia), so they will occasionally appear on lawns. In our parks, they prefer native Wild Bergamot/Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa), thistles and milkweed, according to the Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels.
Aren’t you always happy to see Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus)? The one my photographer friend Paul and I saw in the meadow arrived from somewhere between Mexico and Michigan, wherever its forebears stopped to lay eggs. With luck, this one will help set in motion the “super generation” of Monarchs; they make the whole 3,000 mile journey to Mexico where they overwinter. For lots more details on Monarchs, check out the blog that features them.
Dragonflies patrol over the meadows as well, zinging here and there in an effort to establish territory and find a mate. The striking male Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) with a green face zipped by me, but it was the juvenile Dasher who settled on a stick. It has the coloring of a female, but a much slimmer body than an adult. The female Dasher lays her eggs by flying over still water and repeatedly dipping her ovipositor into the surface to release her eggs.
Another denizen of the fields, the Halloween Pennant dragonfly (Celithemis eponina) foraged with a bouncy flight. These small dragonflies stay aloft more easily on windy days than other dragonflies and can even fly in light rain, shaking the water off their wings in flight. This one insisted on looking straight at me until it zoomed away. Luckily you can still see its vivid coloring and the huge compound eyes on either side of its head (with nearly 30,000 lenses). Two of its three simple eyes shine above; they’re believed to improve its navigation in changing light and also may help stabilize them as they speedily change course above the greenery.
Two other dragonflies kept me company on the meadow. A juvenile male Common Whitetail (Plathemis lydia) followed me along the path, evidently hoping I’d stir up some insects that it could snatch from the air. And several Widow Skimmers (Libellula luctuosa) bobbed among the grasses on every trip to the park. The clear tips of their seem to disappear at a distance, but the dark patches near the abdomen are visible, so I sometimes mistake them for a large black fly until I get closer.
Pollinating and Nectaring Bees
Of course, bees forage busily along the path as well. Dr. Gary Parsons, from the Entomology Department at Michigan State University, identified this little native bee nuzzling a Rough-Fruited Cinquefoil blossom (Potentilla recta) as a female Leafcutter Bee (genus Megachile.) The clue he gave me is that a leafcutter has stiff hairs (scopa) covering the underside of its abdomen and that’s where it carries its pollen. In the photo on the right, the one flying away with its bright yellow underside was evidently a dead giveaway.
Paul snapped a fine shot of one of our native Bumblebees (genus Bombus), oblivious of a Bull Thistle’s (Cirsium vulgare) thorns below as it gathers nectar from the blossom.
Colorful Long-legged Flies
Along with the butterflies, dragonflies and an occasional damselfly (more about them later), an assortment of metallic flies dotted the leaves along the trail, but not your plain old black house flies! Dr. Gary Parsons tells me that they are from the family Dolichopodidae, also known as Long-legged flies. These common tiny insects perch in bright sunlight waiting for smaller, unsuspecting insects to cruise by. I like their diminutive size, the way they stand so elegantly on those long legs – and they come in an assortment of colors as you’ll see below!
The Plants that Feed and Shelter Them All
Now of course, what sustains all these creatures are the native plants that serve as host plants for their offspring, i.e., larvae/caterpillars. Here a Common Pug caterpillar (Eupithecia miserulata) is foraging on the petals of a Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta). Dr. Parsons reminded me that petals are actually just modified leaves so caterpillars can feed on them, but since they disappear quickly, leaves are the staple of a caterpillar’s diet.
The beauty of native plants is that they can be both decorative and productive, providing lots of sustenance for the insects that are an essential ingredient of the entire food web. So here’s is just a sampling of the myriad of native wildflowers and grasses along the meadow trail.
The Forest Trail Above the Ravine: Damselflies, Abundant Moths and One Useful but Really Ugly Fly
Under the Forest Canopy, Beauties and the Beast
The forest at Stony Creek Ravine Park is a different world when it comes to insects. At the edge, where the forest meets the sunshine, butterflies seem to dominate. Both of the ones I saw imitate the dappled light of the forest with brown wings marked with white spots in lovely patterns. The Little Wood Satyr (Megisto cymela) is the smaller of the two. Notice how the design on the underside of the wings is a bit more complex. Some sources suggest that the eyespots distract predators from attacking vital body parts. Butterflies can survive with ragged wing edges but an attack on the head is instantly fatal. I thought perhaps the larger spots on these forest edge species also provide more camouflage when the butterfly lands in dappled light. No one seems to be sure exactly how their patterns function.
The larger Northern Pearly-eye (Enodia anthedon) spends more time in the woods itself, especially near moist areas. It feeds on tree sap, rotting fruit, fungi and even dung – not a picky eater, evidently, eh? You’ll often see its head slanted downward on a tree trunk. Quite the set of spectacles on those buggy eyes and the orange and black antennae are very fancy!
Deeper in the shade of the forest, though, tiny moths flourish. The oaks in our forests and lawns act as host plants for the largest variety of insect caterpillars of any tree in North America, according to Dr. Doug Tallamy, a professor of entomology and author of The Nature of Oaks. Some moth larvae pupate on the tree, some burrow into the soil below but many just pupate within the leaf litter and then emerge in warm weather. So as I walked down through the woods at Stony Creek Ravine, huge clouds of tiny, triangular, leaf litter moths floated up at my feet. Almost every one immediately scuttled back under the leaves. But a gray one, that I believe is a Speckled Renia moth (Renia adspergillus), paused on a patch of bright green moss. So exciting for me see one as more than a flutter at my feet!
Actually that short pause may not have been a good move for the Speckled Renia. Nearby, I saw the “not-so-bad” but “very ugly” insect of the blog title. Robber Flies (family Asilidae) are aggressive predators, and like the “bad guys” for whom they are named, they generally ambush other insects, including their own kind, from a hiding place. I saw two different insects meet their demise in the grip of a Robber Fly.
Robber flies don’t bother humans unless you’re handling one; I’d avoid that unless you’re doing research. And they are simply providing the service predators provide: keeping the numbers of their prey at a balanced level within their habitat. If you see one in your garden, ignore it; it will probably eliminate many pests for you. At a wetland, I met one up close and personal and really, that is one ugly bug!
Deeper in the forest, I watched a black and white blur move toward a log. As I stepped forward, it suddenly transformed into just a fleck of something lying on a log. I thought perhaps my eyes had deceived me and it was just a bit of falling detritus. But I decided to ask Dr. Parsons if I’d really seen a living, moving creature. On the left below is the pointy fleck I saw, on the right the closeup I sent to Dr. Parsons.
Dr. Parsons let me know I wasn’t crazy. The tiny moth’s larvae is part of a large insect family, the Tortricidae, commonly known as Leaf Rollers. The caterpillars in this family eat and pupate in a carefully rolled leaf, hence the name. Dr. Parsons surmises that the adult moth above is most likely a Banded Olethreutes (Olethreutes fasciatana). Many members of this family specialize in fruit trees and their caterpillars are considered pests. This one’s offspring feeds on Wild Black Cherry (Prunus serotina), but they’re not considered particularly harmful. Some experts think this camouflage is an attempt to simulate an unpalatable bird dropping. If I hadn’t seen this tiny moth moving, I’d never have noticed it, so I guess the trick works!
Dancing Damselflies Seek the Spotlightin the Creek
But enough of Robber flies and bird droppings! Let’s move on down to the West Branch of Stony Creek itself to enjoy instead the mating ceremonies of elegant Damselflies!
I paused near a wooded wetland to witness what appeared to be a pair of damselflies courting. The male Ebony Jewelwing (Calopteryx maculata) landed first and fluttered about from twig to twig, keeping his iridescent colors flashing in the sun. The elegant brown female appeared and began what looked very much like flirting, flying close to him, then landing farther away with her abdomen cocked at an angle. Perhaps she was ready to mate, but the male hesitated. According to Robert DuBois, author of Damselflies ofMinnesota, Wisconsin & Michigan, he may have had good reason; females can mate 4 or 5 times each day, rarely with the same male! Anyway, I gave them some privacy and headed toward the creek to see how other males were faring.
In late June, Stony Creek meandered its way around the rocks and sticks protruding from the slowly moving water. A group of Ebony Jewelwing males held a competition there for the sunniest spot on a prominent stick in the creek while waiting for females to show up. One male posed on the stick and began to display. Displays of his impressive wings can be intended to ward off competitors and may also interest females in the surrounding greenery. Periodically, he launched gracefully off his stick and zipped off to confront other males trying to oust him from the spotlight. A series of a scrambles with a group of competitors ensued for about 10 minutes. The University of Wisconsin Field Station’s “Bug Lady,” says that male Jewelwings compete by bumping into each other until one flies off. That’s certainly what occurred at Stony Creek Ravine as the originally male settled back on his stick after each skirmish.
If the male is successful, he’ll grab onto the female’s abdomen with his pincers and the two of them, locked together, will fly to a nearby perch. If she is ready to participate, she bends her abdomen upward and the partners form a heart-shaped “mating wheel.” Benoit Renaud, a generous photographer at iNaturalist.org got a wonderful photo of two doing just that! Thank you, Benoit!
After mating, the male releases her and together they fly off to find rushes, sedges, moss or floating plant material. The female then bends her abdomen downward, slits a hole in the plant with her sharp ovipositor and lays her eggs. The male stands guard to protect her from males who might try to abscond with her and remove his sperm before she lays the eggs. Evidently, despite that heart-shaped wheel, damselfly mating is not a particularly romantic process. But it’s kept these graceful insects on the wing for thousands of years, so we won’t argue with it, right?
A week or so after I took my damselfly photos, the July deluge poured down on us. The once placid creek rushed through the ravine, flowing over the rocks and sticks in the damselflies’ courting arena. According to the “Bug Lady,” the Ebony Jewelwings like plants in a “moderate current” in which to lay their eggs. So I’m assuming there was a bit of a hiatus in their mating ceremonies this year!
And Then The Fireflies Arrived…
I learned this week that fireflies sparkle at twilight in moderate or tropical zones all over the world. I love knowing that. Imagine! As the earth spins away from the sun each day, these tiny Firefly beetles (family Lampyridae) dance across landscapes, delighting humans around the globe!
The males of our local beetle, the Common Eastern Firefly (Photinus pyralis) dance in a “J” formation, flashing their signal as they swing upward. A chemical reaction in the cells at the tips of their abdomens creates the bioluminescence that delights us. And with luck, a female in the area sends a coded signal back in just 1-2 seconds and they find each other.
The incredible variety of insects around (and often in) our home serves many purposes. The possum near our shed eats all the ticks it can find each summer. Bats, birds, and even the ugly Robber Flies, gobble up mosquitos by the millions. Bees pollinate our garden, wildflowers and nearby farmers’ crops. The beating wings of thousands of flying insects lure migrators back to our yard each spring. Here are a few of the most interesting ones we saw just this week.
Recognizing all the services that insects provide, I avoid wide-spectrum “bug killers” and instead try to utilize long sleeves, high socks and strategically applied Deet or Permethrin to repel them when outside. Despite all of that, like you, I swat flies and mosquitoes, flick insects off exposed skin and get snarky when insects slips inside the house.
But then at our darkened windows on these steamy, rain-soaked evenings, I pause to enjoy the tiny fireworks of a glowing beetle dancing in the tall grass at the edge of the field. And I’m lifted out of my grousing about bugs and rainy weather. Night after sticky night, the flash of the firefly reminds me that some insects are magical and that all of them play a crucial role in keeping life humming on this gorgeous little planet.
At the end of May, spring migration wound down and the breeding season heated up. The migrators and the year-round avian residents of our parks busily set about nesting and tending their newly hatched young. Their bright wings flashed color into the pale spring sunlight, much to the delight of hikers like me and my new photographer friend, Paul Birtwhistle.
Meanwhile, in the meadows, the tiny wings of small butterflies and moths fluttered at my feet and in the tall grass at the trail edge. The wings of ant-sized solitary bees beat almost invisibly as they probed blossoms for nectar. It seemed the whole park vibrated with wings!
So come hang out with Paul and I as we wandered the meadows, wood edges and forested wetlands of Charles Ilsley Park, enjoying the company of winged creatures.
Summer’s Yearly Visitors Offer Song, Color – and New Life! – to Park Visitors
In May and early June, birdsong filters down through the fresh green leaves as birds arrive from wintering in warmer climes to enjoy the bounteous feast of insects provided by a Michigan spring. Migrators journeying farther north may pause to forage and rest like the Blue-Headed Vireo (Vireo solitarius) spotted high in the treetops by the birders pictured above.
But many birds settle here for the summer, making the most of the abundant food and shelter our parks provide. Some sweep insects out of the air. Others pluck them off bark or probe for them in the ground. While Paul and I didn’t manage a joint trek through Charles Ilsley Park, we both saw a similar rainbow of birds singing to declare their territory or carrying off caterpillars to feed mates on the nest or newly hatched nestlings.
Birds In or Around the Tall Grass of the Prairies
My visits to Charles Ilsley Park usually begin by walking along the entrance path while monitoring some of the township’s nest boxes. Two other trained volunteers and I keep records of the first egg laid, the hatch and fledge dates and any issues that develop around the nest, like predators (House Sparrows, for example). We submit the data to Cornell University’s NestWatch site as part of a citizen science project.
This year three different species have settled in the boxes that I monitor. Eastern Bluebird babies (Sialia sialis) have broken naked from their shells, begged for food and ultimately found their way into the big wide world. [Click on photos to enlarge.]
Paul and I were both lucky enough to see the adults working to make this happen. It looks like the female of both of these pairs was delivering food for her young while the male stood watch.
A House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) in one of my boxes laid her eggs in a very tidy circle. Wrens fill their boxes almost to the top with twigs, topping them off with just enough grass and feathers to cushion their young. Somehow, the female makes her way into that tight spot to incubate her tiny eggs. I imagine the crowded box discourages predators from entering. By the way, this is an extreme closeup; the wren’s eggs are just a bit larger than a dime!
Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) take up residence in our boxes as well. After building a nest of dry grass, they collect feathers, almost always white ones, to create a soft covering for the eggs. It’s amazing how many white feathers they find; I’ve read, though, that they sometimes snitch them from other Tree Swallows! Paul got a lovely photo of a male perched like a pasha on another dry Evening Primrose stalk. These striking birds glide above the meadow grass, beaks agape, collecting insects as small as gnats and as big as dragonflies.
At the end of the entrance trail, beyond the nest boxes, I’m greeted by restored prairies rolling off in all directions. In May, Ben brought in a contractor to do a major prescribed burn in Charles Ilsley Park. The low flames moved across the east and north prairies, even taking in the forests around them as part of the planned burn.
It was a dramatic sight in the first few weeks to see the blackened land begin to flourish again. The burn replenishes the soil with nutrients held in the dry plants, and the blackened surface and warmth of the fire provides a longer growing season for many native plants. Many non-native plants can be thwarted by periodic fire, unlike our fire-adapted native species.
At the entrance to the eastern prairie, an up-and-down two note call issued from the small copse of trees. Wow! I was lucky enough to see a Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus) at close range. Usually I only hear vireos because they tend to stay high in the crowns of trees. What a delight to watch this one hop about in small trees long enough to get a quick photo!
One of my favorite migrators spends the winter among the colorful birds of South American forests. Dressed elegantly in black and white with its upright posture and white tail band, the Eastern Kingbird paused for Paul while surveying its territory. Kingbirds can be aggressive toward birds near their nests, even large ones flying high overhead.
An assortment of summer sparrows make the most of our restored prairies. Once I began to pay attention to their varied songs and patterns in brown, black and white, they added interesting detail to my hikes. Ben VanderWeide, Oakland Township’s Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, helpfully compares the song of the Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) to the sound of a bouncing ping-pong ball. It starts with slow, sharp bursts that rapidly accelerate into a series of quick, rat-a-tat-tat notes. The melodies of the Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) can vary but are usually characterized by a couple of quick notes followed by a short melody that ends in either a trill or a buzz. For me, the songs of these two birds are the soundtracks of summer in all of our parks.
Birds in the Treetops and Forested Wetlands of Ilsley’s Western Trails
A large wetland runs along the northern edge of the park’s western section. It lies beyond the moist forest that edges the trail and may be missed by some hikers. Luckily, Paul willingly went off trail to get closer to the green surface of the long marsh which is covered with plants that are often mistaken for algae. Common Duckweed (Lemna minor) in my photo below is the small, leaved plant that floats on the water and Water Meal (Wolffia columbiana) is the tiny plant between the Duckweed which can multiply to form a dense mat on the water surface, as it does right now at Ilsley’s western marsh.
Evidently, a male Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) found it quite a suitable surface for exploring! I wonder if its nest is high in the trees nearby? Wood Ducks are perching ducks that use the hooks on their webbed feet to negotiate tree bark. According to the Cornell All About Birds website, their ducklings can fall fifty feet from their nest into the greenery below without injury.
Two adult Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) and their four goslings demonstrated the appeal of a nice lunch of Water Meal and Duckweed.
Exploring in the west of the park, Paul spotted the impressive Great Crested Flycatcher (Myiarchus crinitus). Inspired by his success, I spotted it later too, but it was rapidly hawking insects out of a high tree at the time. According to Cornell’s All About Birds website, this bird spends almost all of its time seeking insects high in the canopy or scooping them out of the air. Sometimes, Cornell says, it may even “crash into foliage in pursuit of leaf-crawling prey”! I want to learn their rising two note call so I can see their chocolate wings and lemon breasts more often!
On the May bird walk at Charles Ilsley Park, several brightly colored migrators decorated the treetops along the western trail. All of the colorful characters in the slideshow below can breed in our area. So during late June and early July, keep yours eyes open for the nests or fledglings of this avian rainbow when hiking in shrubby areas or at the forest edge!
Pollinators’ Danced at My Feet, Fluttering Their Small Wings Along the Grassy Trails
Since Paul kindly agreed to look upward and outward for birds, I felt free to gaze down into the grass along the trails, looking for the tiny butterflies and moths that often appear before larger insects. On the bird walk, a member spotted the small Eight-Spotted Forester Moth (Alypia octomaculata) that sports puffs of orange hair on its front and middle legs. As the Missouri Department of Conservation points out, it can easily be mistaken for a butterfly: it eats nectar, flies in the daylight and its antennae thicken at the end somewhat like butterfly attennae. This one appeared in its favorite habitat, the place where the field meets the forest. The adult moth feeds in the sunshine, then lays its eggs in the shady woods on grapevines or Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), the host plants its caterpillar loves to eat.
The birding group also watched a tattered Mourning Cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa) feed on invasive Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata.) It looks as though overwintering in a log or under tree bark took its toll on this one! Nearby, we spotted a strangely still Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes). The Butterflies of MichiganField Guide by Jaret C. Daniels informed me that their host plant is Common Prickly-Ash (Zanthoxylum americanum), a small, thorny tree on which the female can detect a citrus scent with her antennae. I wonder if this Giant Swallowtail was drying its wings after having recently emerged from its chrysalis on a nearby tree.
A few days after seeing the Eight-spotted Forester Moth, I found a very similar small moth at my feet on the trail. It too was tiny and black with white spots, but its orange patches were on the surface of its forewings. With help from the passionate moth lovers at the “Moths of Eastern North America” Facebook page, I learned its name. This thumb-sized, diurnal insect, called the White-spotted Sable Moth (Anania funebris), is referred to as “holarctic,” because it inhabits the majority of continents on the northern half of the planet! This particular Sable Moth seemed to be exclusively feeding off the clover blossoms on the trail, one after another. Though this moth must be quite abundant, I’d never noticed one before.
During several different visits, I noticed other small butterflies and moths that kept me company along the trails. The two tiny “tails” at the edge of the hindwings give the Eastern Tailed Blue its name. The Pearl Crescent is named for a small white shape on the underside of its hindwing. The caterpillar of the Peck’s Skipper chews on turf grasses but seems harmless among the wild grasses of our parks.
On my last visit, a dramatic Red-spotted Purple butterfly (Limentitis arthemis astyanax) glided by as I entered the park. I sometimes still mistake them for Spicebush Swallowtails (Papilio troilus troilus) because of the blue, iridescent blush on the top (dorsal) side of their hindwings and the orange spots on the ventral (lower) side of their hindwings. But the Purples have no “tails” and the orange spots beneath form a single line on the hindwings instead of the double line of the Spicebush Swallowtails, as you can see below.
The Beautiful and the Less So: Justifying (Maybe?) My Fascination with Less Likable Creatures
Dr. Doug Parsons, director of Michigan State University’s Bug House, helped me identify a couple of tiny insects that intrigued me. I’d watched what I thought were tiny wasps on almost every dandelion on the trail through the park’s Central Prairie. Dr. Parsons explained that these were not wasps, but Cuckoo Bees (genus Nomada).
Dr. Parsons wrote that this solitary bee “sneaks into the ground nest of the host bee,” most often a Mining Bee (g. Andrena), and “lays her eggs in the cells that the host bee has stocked with pollen for her own larva.” Since Mining Bees never return to the nest after stocking them, the Cuckoo bee’s egg hatches into a larva undisturbed, kills the host’s egg or larva and feeds on the stored pollen. The official term for a creature which does this is a “nest kryptoparasite,” a suitably creepy word for such behavior! Birds in the Cuckoo family do the same, laying their eggs in the nests of other birds – hence the name Cuckoo Bee. This native bee resembles a wasp in part because it has very little hair on its body. Dr. Parsons explained that bees are often fuzzy in order to collect sticky pollen. Since the Mining Bee collects the pollen that feeds the Cuckoo Bee’s young, this sneaky interloper doesn’t require the other bee’s hairier surface. Ah, another fine example of evolution working its magic.
Last week, I also observed a nondescript, brownish moth fly onto a grass stem, fold itself up and almost disappear. It was quite a challenge to locate it in my camera’s viewfinder! Dr. Parsons confirmed that this little moth is the Eastern Grass Veneer (Crambus laqueatellus). Evidently, some folks refer to these members of Crambidae family as “snout moths” because their long mouth structures resemble pointed noses. Dr. Parsons told me they can be “serious pests in lawns and golf courses” because their caterpillars eat turf grass roots. He isn’t sure, though, that they cause problems in our parks where their larvae may consume a variety of grasses. For me, its disappearing act, pointed “snout” and racing-striped wings were just odd enough to make it a fascinating find.
I’m sure that I puzzle some of you by including unglamorous, fiercely predatory or even destructive creatures in these nature blogs. Sometimes it puzzles me too that I want to explore them. But I guess for me, all of these creatures – from the Cuckoo Bee to the glorious Great Crested Flycatcher – play an essential role in the great drama of nature. By learning a name for these fellow players and the roles they perform on our shared stage, the whole spectacle and my role in it become clearer for me, more coherent – which in these chaotic times is a pretty good feeling! It’s my role – our role perhaps – to honor and respect nature in all its complexity during an era in which too many dishonor the natural world, ignore it or take it for granted. I know you, like me, care enough to watch, learn and share what you learn with others when you can. And that encourages me. Thanks for being here.
I dropped in on Bear Creek Nature Park multiple times in April and early May, watching nature’s slow-but-steady journey into spring. After a difficult year, seeing nature renew itself felt especially reassuring – a useful antidote to the leftover doldrums of 2020.
This week along with my own photos, I’ll be including many by other residents who generously agreed to share their amazing photography. Regular blog readers will remember Bob and Joan Bonin who have previously lent me their amazing photos. And recently, I made a new photographer acquaintance, Paul Birtwhistle, who explores our parks with his camera and his peaceful dog Stanley. All three of these local photographers are blessed with eagle eyes and exceptional photographic skills as you’ll see below. I thank them all for their willingness to let me share their finds with all of you. Believe me, you’re in for a treat!
Nature Begins to Stir in the Cool Gray of Early April
It seems that each year as I enter the park in early spring, the first song that falls from the canopy is that of the Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia.) Their song, which can vary a bit geographically, most often starts with a few short notes, followed by a melodious trill and finishes off with a buzz. A streaky, little brown male with the typical spot on his breast perched at the top of a tree, threw back his head and belted out his song to woo any willing female within range. This year’s vocalist was much too far away for a decent photo, but here’s one from an earlier spring at Bear Creek Nature Park.
During the bird walk in the first week of April, Ben spotted a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) posing right at the tip of a snag near the park entrance. It was so high that it only made a silhouette against a gray spring sky, but I tried to take a photo anyway. I love that big red crest! These woodpeckers make their rectangular nest holes high in either snags or live trees in the spring and then make lower ones in the fall as shelter from winter winds. I’m going to keep an eye on that snag!
This Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) looked a bit chilly as it huddled against a bare branch while searching for frozen caterpillars or insect eggs.
On the way down the Walnut Lane toward the Center Pond, I spotted a Hazelnut Bush (Corylus americana) in bloom. The golden catkins are male flowers. The slightest breeze sends their pollen wafting over the tiny, pink female flowers that barely peek out from the end of the twigs. I’ll be curious to see if it produces any hazelnuts on its thin branches. [Click on photos to enlarge.]
The chuckling of Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus) in a vernal pool invariably greets me as I step into the woods in early April. These little frogs float on the surface, occasionally kicking their legs to move about as they call for a mate. Consequently, they’re much easier to spot than the tinier chorus frogs who lurk under the edges of logs or aquatic plants. After having frozen and thawed unharmed throughout the winter, these masked frogs move toward the pools in early spring. Vernal pools dry up in the summer, which means Wood Frogs can lay their eggs without fish making a meal of them. This time, a log seemed to provide a handy place for the frogs to rest between unsuccessful bouts of floating and chirping; I sympathized as a former wallflower myself!
A pair of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) cruised the far end of the vernal pool. At one point, the slightly larger male performed some amazing preening moves. Or maybe he was posing in an attempt to flirt. If so, his partner doesn’t seem too impressed.
On the way back from the Wednesday bird walk at Bear Creek in early May, my photographer friend, Bob Bonin, got a wonderful shot of a Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) excavating a promising nest hole. Look at that beak full of wood! Chickadees are cavity nesters and will create a nest in soft wood if they can’t find an existing hole that suits them.
Birds and Blossoms as the Woods Turn Green in Late April
Spring turned from brown to green in the second half of April. Unseen in the night sky, millions of birds rode the wind north and some eventually drifted down into Bear Creek Nature Park. Many came here planning to raise young in the park. For others, it was simply a rest stop on their journey farther north.
The Avian Summer Residents
My new photographer friend, Paul Birtwhistle, got an amazing shot of a rarely seen visitor, the American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus). While Paul and his dog sat quietly on the far north dock of Bear Creek marsh, the Bittern stepped quietly out of the reeds near the shore. Bitterns can breed in Michigan so we can hope this one chooses our marsh. If so, perhaps one day we will hear their booming call that sounds like a low “gulp” coming through the cattails and reeds. Cornell Ornithology’s All About Birds website says that when this birds sees a possible threat, it may choose to assume its concealment pose, its neck elongated and its bill tilted toward the sky. Sometimes it even sways, trying to blend its striped body into the moving reeds. Cornell says the posture is so ingrained that they sometimes do it even when in the open as it was in our marsh. I’m glad Paul had this exciting moment and shared it with us.
Paul also saw a Sandhill Crane (Antigone canadensis) at the marsh and a male Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) cruising in a woodland marsh on the southwestern side of the forest. These birds both tend to spend the summer here to mate and raise their young. The Sandhills toss plant material into a mound, then form a neat cup in the center lined with twigs. Wood Ducks look for cavities high in the trees near water, using the hooks at the back of their feet to navigate on the tree bark. What great guests to host for the summer!
Every year we also act as hosts for the Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) in the nest boxes built by birder Tom Korb and installed by the Stewardship Crew. These iridescent avian acrobats will soar above our fields all summer, gathering insects in their open beaks. But in late April, they are busy within our boxes creating nests out of dry grass and lining them with white feathers. Paul caught a pair claiming a nest box on April 27.
In a tree near the nest boxes, a male Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) surveyed the territory. He appeared to be keeping an eye on his mate as she gathered grass for her nest. Bluebirds will nest in boxes near our Tree Swallows from time to time, but they won’t tolerate another bluebird pair close by. Their sky blue eggs take twelve to fourteen days to hatch. A team of trained volunteers coordinated by our township Stewardship Specialist, Grant VanderLaan, monitor the nest boxes in several parks from first egg laid until the young fledge. The data are provided to Cornell University’s NestWatch program, a citizen science project. Some bluebirds stay with us all year ’round and others seek us out as the weather warms.
On April 24, Paul Birtwhistle spent a long time at the Center Pond listening to the kwirr call of the Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) before being able to spot it. At last, he caught sight of the red crown and nape of a male’s head peeking out from a hole on the underside of a branch on the huge White Oak at the pond’s edge. Years ago near the Bear Creek marsh, I’d seen one of these woodpeckers sticking its head out of a horizontal, upside-down nest hole in an oak branch. It seems that these male woodpeckers excavate several nest holes in hope of giving their mate a choice.
According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab’s All About Birds website, one of the Red-belly’s options for nest hole placement is dead limbs in a live tree, which is exactly where this bird ended up. The holes are about 9-13 inches deep (or maybe horizontal in this case?) and the circular living space is roughly 3.5 by 5.5 inches. Pretty snug fit, I would think! Once the female has chosen her preferred hole, she lays her eggs on a bed of wood chips left from the excavation accomplished by both mates. Sometimes, the pair drill holes along the branch outside the nest hole to warn off other birds, a kind of “We claim this spot!” message. I hope this hole by the pond was chosen by the female.
Katri Studtmann, one of the stewardship summer technicians, gave me a heads-up to look for a Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) that she’d seen at the Center Pond. Of course, the Kingfisher saw me first as I came to the end of the Walnut Lane and took off. I saw her dive into the water at the far end of the pond, but she came up empty. Females, by the way, have one blue and one chestnut brown stripe on their breasts while the males have only the blue stripe.
Of course many more birds arrived at Bear Creek Nature Park last month than Paul, Bob, Joan or I happened to see, successfully record or share. But using the Cornell eBird lists created by participants on the April and early May bird walks, here’s another quick slide show of birds you might see or hear at our parks now if your binoculars can find them among the spring greenery! (The photos here are from previous years by me and others.)
All Eyes on the Warblers in May! Some Stay and Some are Just Passing Through
The big warbler migration began here in late-April with hearing or seeing the Blue-winged Warbler and the Palm Warbler. During the May bird walks at both Bear Creek Nature Park and Cranberry Lake Park, we saw many more of these tiny long-distance travelers. So keep your eyes open for small, colorful birds flitting about in trees or diving in and out of shrubs. You don’t want to miss these beauties who often arrive in the morning after riding a strong south wind during the previous night. Some choose to spend the summer here raising young. But others you’ll see below are only here for a few days as they rest up before heading north.
Under a Greening Canopy, Spring Blossoms Emerge in the Woods
As migrating birds arrive, the woodland plants seem to magically appear as the soil warms under the spare canopy of spring. Always the first to arrive are the spring ephemerals, like Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica). This spring ephemeral blooms very early to catch the sun while the trees are bare, then quickly subsides as the shade increases above it. Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) does the same, but uses its leaf cupped below the blossom to preserve some warmth on cool spring days. Bloodroot leaves remain for some time after the petals of the flower have fallen.
In late April and early May, May Apples (Podophyllum peltatum) begin to form colonies under large trees and produce their shy flowers beneath the leaves. Jack-in-the-pulpits (Arisaema triphyllum) unfold in the woodland shade.
Delicate Wood Anemone blossoms (Anemone quinquefolia) nod above their frail stems in the moist shade near vernal pools. Nearby red sporophytes rise from green gametophyte moss. When mature, the sporophyte moss will release the spores which will disperse to start new gametophyte moss colonies.
And at the forest edge of the big loop, the white blossoms of American Dogwood (Cornus florida) turn their faces upward to the sun.
Resilience, Adaptation – and Song!
In April, I stood by a vernal pool listening to the chuckling song of Wood Frogs who had frozen and thawed repeatedly during a Michigan winter. This week I paused to enjoy the rippling melody of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak that rode the wind through the night to end up singing at the edge of a greening field. Life presents all of us mortal creatures with harrowing challenges. And still the wild ones sing, the leaves thrust through tough bark, and fragile flowers open their beauty to feed the world around them.
As part of the natural world, we too have faced repeated challenges to our survival, especially in the last fifteen months, haven’t we? Most of us have learned that we are more resilient than we knew. Like the little frogs, we have adapted to repeated and sudden changes. Like the birds, by moving on through the darkness we’ve reached the light of another spring. Like the plants, we struggled to bloom where we were planted, accepting limitations but still able to share what beauty we could muster with those around us who needed our nourishment. Despite the losses we’ve had and those we know will eventually come to all of us, let’s follow nature’s example and celebrate the fact that we’re here right now. Let’s belt out our own songs to a blue spring sky and relish being alive.