Standing hip-deep in native grasses and wildflowers is a pretty terrific way to spend a few hours on a cool autumn afternoon. Every fall our township Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, plans a few days for harvesting the seeds of native wildflowers to plant in our parks over the winter and the following spring.
So this October, volunteers gathered, clippers in hand, paper bags at the ready, to chat quietly as we snipped the seed heads from native prairie flowers. Can you see two of our seed-gathering volunteers in this Where’sWaldo-style photo?
It always makes me feel like a child again to stand in a field with friends and have native grasses towering over us. Here’s our township Stewardship Specialist, Alyssa Radzwion, smiling through a scrim of native grass.
On the day pictured above, we harvested seeds from Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta), Gray-headed Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata), Foxglove Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis), and several other native plants.
Harvesting native seeds is good stewardship. Ben instructs us volunteers to collect an appropriate amount for each species, leaving lots of seeds where they are to feed wildlife and renew our prairies so they look as glorious next spring as they did this year! The seeds we harvest, along with purchased wildflower seed, can then help restore more of our natural areas to their former glory. All that and peaceful autumn afternoons among wildflowers and kindred spirits. Maybe you’d like to join us next year as we lend nature a helping hand?
Surprised a bit by seeing the photo above in a nature blog? Well, on my four October visits to Gallagher Creek Park, I noticed an abundance of a new species there – young humans and their watchful adults!
Late on autumn afternoons, this modest 15 acre park is now filled with the voices of excited little humans rocking, swinging, spinning , climbing, and sliding on the colorful new playground equipment installed in July by volunteers and staff of the Parks and Recreation Commission. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
See-sawing on the “dragonfly” at Gallagher
Playing on the “Stand ‘n’ Spin”
Two girls playing on the hollow “log.”
The park’s already becoming a place for families to cross paths and get to know their neighbors in the most densely populated part of our township. And meanwhile, in the background…
Nature Goes About Its Autumnal Business
The natural areas of Gallagher Creek look a bit scruffy right now from all the construction that went on this summer to build a picnic pavilion, a restroom enclosure, expanded parking area, the playground and a paved pathway. But despite all that to-ing and fro-ing, nature survives and offers beauty and bounty when you take time to venture into the fields.
Birds in the Distance as Children Play
Birds may keep their distance when the children are playing, but as I approached the tall grass at the edge of the creek east of the busy playground, a familiar head appeared above the tall grass.
From the absence of a white crown on its head, it seemed to be a juvenile Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) stalking along the far side of the creek. Young Blue Herons take 3 years to develop full adult plumage, according to the Stokes Guides to Bird Behavior (Vol. 3). This youngster flew off, as I crackled through the browning stalks of goldenrod and yarrow.
But just as I arrived the next morning, when the playground was empty, a juvenile – perhaps the same one? – flew over the treetops and swooped into a tree covered in vines. I snuck slowly forward and got one shot of it standing tall before it bent its knobby knees backward, spread those magnificent wings, and took to the air once more.
While the children shouted and laughed in the afternoon sun on a different afternoon, I watched a lone European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) high in a snag staring out over the playground nearby. It paid no attention to the happy noises below. I imagined that it was waiting for its highly social companions, since starlings gather in huge flocks at this time of year. This one had completed its fall molt complete with fresh feathers tipped in white, giving it the spotted plumage that starlings wear in fall and winter. By spring, the white tips will be worn off, returning these birds to their iridescent blue/black mating colors, and its beak will lighten and even change to bright yellow if it’s a male.
Unnoticed by the playground youngsters, a large, rippling flock (or “murmuration”) of about 75 starlings suddenly descended on the trees east of the creek. But the lone starling just kept staring into the distance. Perhaps it just needed a break from all the cackling and whistling that goes on in a starling gathering.
Over in a quiet corner of the park, near the cat-tail marsh along the road, three little migrating Palm Warblers (Setophaga palmarum) in their duller fall colors chirped contact calls at each other before heading further south. The most notable field mark for these little birds is the bright yellow feathers under their tails and a pale “eyebrow” which they have year ’round.
Seeds Flying, Rattling, Dropping and Providing Food for Wildlife
Autumn, of course, is the time when plants ripen and disperse seeds for next spring’s blooming. In doing so, they also provide important nourishment for all kinds of creatures. So while the children played, I went out to see what kinds of food nature was preparing in the background.
Seemingly unaware of the hubbub on the playground, a struggling American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) fumbled about trying to extract seed from a Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) while it swayed wildly in a stiff breeze. I wondered if it was a juvenile who hadn’t quite mastered the skills necessary to extract seeds on a windy day.
American Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) would delight any child at this time of year with its hot pink stem and blackish purple berries. The trick would be to keep them from trying to eat the berries, since the seeds inside are slightly toxic to humans. According to one of my favorite wildflower sites, many of our favorite song birds (Bluebirds, Cedar Waxwings and more), as well as raccoons, opposums and the gray fox, feed on pokeweed berries with no problem. Pokeweed prefers disturbed soil, which makes Gallagher Creek Park just the right spot this year! After I took this shot, I came back a few days later to find the stem broken and picked clean. Mission accomplished – food eaten and seeds dispersed.
Some seed pods are rarely seen in our township except in this park. The wispy Bladdernut shrubs (Staphylea trifolia) produce elegant lantern-like pods. The shiny brown seeds inside shake in the wind, making a sound like a baby’s rattle. Though insects feed on the blossoms, there’s little evidence I could find that the seeds provide forage for wildlife. But the trees are doing a fine job of producing more Bladdernut shrubs as the number of them along the eastern tree line seems to be increasing nicely.
The common Cat-tails (genus Typha) are seeding as well, making a nice repast for a hungry Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata).
Cat-tails are seeding in the marsh on the park’s west side.
A Blue Jay probing for cat-tail seeds.
The pods of Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) are splitting open to release their silky little parachutes, each containing a seed that can sail away on the wind. Milkweed has done its job by feeding Monarch caterpillars as well as many other butterflies and insects over the summer. So its current task is to get those seeds out into the world. If the seeds succeed in sprouting, they will feed more insects next year.
More Edibles for Wildlife Wait in the Grass
Mushrooms, of course, can be edible by humans, but they are frequently a meal for squirrels and deer as well. I saw two varieties while the children romped at Gallagher Creek. A giant Puffball (genus Calvatia) had been broken in half, probably by a curious human, since it seemed to have no teeth marks in it. One appeared in the same area last year. And a stump hosted some pretty Turkey-tail Mushrooms (Trametes versicolor), whose tough, rubbery surface might not please us, but probably could please a squirrel (particularly a Red Squirrel). I see them now and again with a mushroom between their paws.
A large puffball appeared along the treeline for the second year in a row.
Turkey-tail mushrooms on a stump at Gallagher.
As I stepped into the deep grass, I wished I had one of those busy children in tow to enjoy the sprays of Red-legged Grasshoppers (Melanoplus femurrubrum) leaping away from my feet. It would have made them laugh as it did me. These small grasshoppers lay their eggs less than inch under the earth in the autumn, and those eggs are a food source for birds, skunks, snakes and raccoons. Nymphs and adults can also be a food source for toads, snakes and some birds, but mostly during the summer months.
Beauty Underfoot Before the Frost
Even though much of Gallagher Creek is covered in brown stalks and shriveled blossoms, a few autumn wildflowers survived right up until the first frost. East of the observation deck, near the creek, the ground is covered with unusual and fragile Bottle Gentians (Gentiana andrewsii), a native wildflower that grows in only a few places in our township. Its closed blossoms never open so they are most often fertilized by bumblebees who are big enough to force their way inside and back out again. The gentians were so plentiful this year that I had to step carefully to avoid treading on one as I explored the area.
Nearby, a late-migrating Monarch butterfly ((Danaus plexippus) paused to sip on the last purple blossoms of New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), a classic autumn wildflower.
Birds Everywhere on a Cold, Quiet Morning – and a Playful Young Female
On the cold morning when I saw the heron that I mentioned above, the playground was empty and quiet. The bushes and trees, though, were alive with birds busily flitting from branch to branch, or shrub to soil, in search of anything they could find to eat.
What delighted me most was a large flock of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis). They were probably gathering to move a little farther south in Michigan or to Ohio in order to reach warmer weather, though Bluebirds often return here on warm winter days and some stay all year. The males are always the flashiest and were more plentiful in this flock.
But my favorite Bluebird on that chilly morning was what I’m guessing was a juvenile female. Young Bluebirds fledge wearing spotted breasts. But according to the Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.2), they molt into adult plumage in August and September. I began to wonder if this gray-headed female was a youngster because she seemed to be practicing the grass-handling skills that she would need next spring in building her carefully woven nest. When I first spotted her, she had the head of a grass stem in her beak with the dry stalk trailing down her back.
She made a couple of tries at moving the grass into a more suitable position.
Seemingly frustrated, she dropped the stem between her feet and stared intently at it for a minute.
At last it seemed she had figured it out. She picked it up carefully in the middle of the stalk, a much easier way to handle it.
Satisfied, she carefully set it down on the railing on which she was perched. And then left the grass stem there and flew to nearby tree.
I loved seeing this young bird fiddle with what may have been her first attempt at handling the building material she would need in the spring to create her nest.
Besides the Bluebirds, a whole assortment of other birds made the most of the quiet park that cold morning. I’m fairly sure that a tiny migrating Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) was among them, but it insisted on keeping only its rear in view! So I’ve added a photo of another one I saw in a previous year so you can have a better look at it. (Use the pause button if more time is needed for captions.)
A Park Where the Young Can Learn and Play
I believe that young humans, like the young of all species, need play as a way to learn about the world. So I loved watching children on the new playground at Gallagher Creek Park. So much is being learned as youngsters cope with siblings and strangers on the slide or the rocking “dragonfly” seesaw. Muscles grow stronger. Some learn the consequences of risk-taking and others overcome their fears. It’s great.
What I’m hoping is that once the trails are mowed again next spring, parents will take their children by the hand and explore this little park that offers so much – baby muskrats in the spring, a swollen creek after rain, tree swallows diving for insects in the summer, and native wildflowers in three seasons. And yes, even little birds, that like all children, are learning how to be skillful grown-ups.
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net;Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels, A Guide to Bird Behavior Vols.1-3 by Donald W and Lillian Q.Stokes, entomology.ca/uky.edu on Red-legged Grasshoppers, illinoiswildflowers.info and others as cited in the text.
I’m so glad that Lost Lake Nature Park isn’t really lost. It’s such a different sort of nature park. The round, blue eye of the kettle lake stares up into the sky. Lately, water birds have been feeding and making practice flights as they prepare to depart for warmer climes. Steep forested hills stretch around the lake like a friendly arm. And, I discovered to my delight, the oak-pine forest sprouts a surprising number of mushrooms in the autumn!
I took several different kinds of trips to this interesting little park in September – once or twice on my own, once with the birding group and once with a group of avid mushroom hunters assisted by two well-informed guides who discerned the edible from the inedible. Such a diverse little park with its tall native grasses in the summer and its sledding hills in the winter – and something new to discover on every visit!
Around the Lake: Migrators Feed and Fly
Far across the lake one cool morning, a strangely gaunt Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodius) spread its wings for takeoff. I hoped that its ragged head and breast meant that it was simply molting, since I’ve read that they do a complete molt in early fall.
I observed that its wing feathers were largely intact. The heron finally took a few turns around the pond and seemed to fly quite gracefully. So maybe if it was molting, this bird can complete its molt, eat heartily at Lost Lake and still successfully winter in Florida. I sure hope so. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Across the pond, at the same moment, a healthier-looking Great Egret(Ardea alba) took its time fishing, before it too took a few turns around the pond as if exercising its flight muscles before migrating.
Hearing a high trilling call, I looked around for a Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus). For a while, I saw nothing on the muddy flats. But finally I spotted it near some bright green grass, assiduously poking its beak into the muddy shallows at one end of the pond. So often I can’t spot these little birds until they move because they blend so nicely with their surroundings!
The Wednesday birders spotted a Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) steaming quickly across the lake. So clumsy on land, these furry fellows can really get moving using those swaying tails for propulsion. We birders watched it swim by and it gave us the eye as well!
As I approached the dock on one visit, I heard a loud “Squeeeak” followed by a watery “plop!” And there under the edge of the dock crouched an alarmed Northern Green Frog (Lithobates clamitans melanota). It may have been a juvenile, since I’ve read that the young are more likely to squeak when caught off guard. Evidently other frogs, like Bullfrogs and Leopard frogs, are also known to make this odd sound, which is much like the noise that results from stepping on a plastic toy!
On the other side of the dock, two small red Meadowhawk dragonflies (genus Sympetrum) found a convenient lily pad on which to mate. As usual, the male held the female’s head firmly with pincers on its tail as mating commenced. These two seem to be Ruby Meadowhawks (Sympetrum rubicundulum), but there are several red Meadowhawks that look very much alike so I can’t be sure. A short time later they took off flying, still attached, while some frustrated males hovered nearby.
Throughout September, the lake was fringed with colorful native wildflowers that bloomed vigorously after last spring’s prescribed burn. These beauties have quite interesting names: Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), Sneeze-weed (Helenium autumnale), Smooth Blue Aster (Symphyotrichum laeve), Round-headed Bush Clover (Lespedeza capitata), Bee-balm (Monarda fistulosa), Beggar-tick (genus Bidens), Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) and Yellow Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata). (Use pause button if more time is needed for captions.)
In the Moist, Low Areas of the Forest
The light sifts through the tree canopy on the hills that surround Lost Lake. If you take a hike up the sledding hill, or reach the top by following the path through the woods, you’re treated to a view of the undulating forest floor. In summer, the sunny side of the sledding hill is a-buzz with dragonflies, butterflies and native wildflowers. But at this time of the year, the lower, moist areas of the forest draw my attention.
Almost any movement out the corner of my eye turns out to be a Chipmunk (Tamias striatus) zipping along a log or quickly diving into hollow tree trunks. This one had scored a nice big nut in its bulging cheeks.
As we birders passed by the woods near the road, a young fawn waited in the shade for its mother’s return. Female White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) leave their young for long stretches because their adult scent can attract predators, whereas the young have little or no scent.
In the woods, I saw a Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) chased away from a huge tree hole by a Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus). The hole was big enough for a raccoon, so I think they must both have been interested for other reasons than nesting next spring! The birds were much too far away for a good shot with my camera in the dim light of the woods. But luckily, I saw this male Flicker hunting in short grass later in the week so you can at least see him up close.
There are a few shade-loving, late season flowers in the forest now, like the modest Large-leaved Aster (Eurybia macrophylla) and Calico Aster (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum). I’m always happy to see any native blooms on these cool gray days, especially on the forest floor where, because of deer, wildflowers are rarer than they used to be.
The Stars of the Show – the Mushrooms!
About 20 of us attended a mushroom identification workshop hosted by the Oakland Township Parks and Recreation Department. Two experienced guides from Michigan Mushroom Hunters Club, Phil Tedeschi and Jerry Watson, helped us identify an amazing variety of mushrooms one cool, windy September morning. I admit to not even knowing that mushrooms were plentiful in cool weather! We first learned that mushrooms are just the fruiting bodies of certain types of fungi. Most of the fungus grows in the soil or wood, but when conditions are right for reproduction, these fungi will send up mushrooms to produce spores! After an informative lecture, we meandered heads-down through the lowlands of the forest as our guides identified one mushroom after another. The workshop and its handouts were packed with detailed information, but here are a few highlights I want to share:
Note: Picking plants, animals, fungi, and other natural parts of our natural areas violates park rules. Please leave them to grow, and for others to see and enjoy!
Safety first! Advice from the Mushroom Workshop Handout
When in doubt, throw it out! Take an expert with you until you’ve really learned about mushrooms, which can take some time. Learn the Amanita mushrooms and don’t eat any of them! When eating a wild mushroom for the first time, always take only a small bite and refrigerate the rest, so you’ll have a specimen if you get a reaction. Never eat wild mushrooms raw. Do not eat decomposing or worm-eaten mushrooms. Don’t pick mushrooms from contaminated sites. Eat wild mushrooms in moderate quantities.
A Sampling of the Fabulous Fungi We Found
The Pigskin Poisonous Puffball (Scleroderma citrinum). Puffballs, common mushrooms, are generally edible, our guide said. But NOT if they are the ones that are black inside!
Cortinarius mushrooms (genus Cortinarius) are generally toxic. The few that aren’t toxic are hard to identify, so best to avoid them all!
The Bluing Bolete (Suillellus luridus) turns blue when the underside is scored. Unfortunately, there are many look-alikes, one of which is toxic. So it’s best not to eat them unless you have a definite ID, and then only when cooked. The raw ones can cause gastric upset.
Some Russula Mushrooms (genus Russula) are perfectly edible; others aren’t. So again, be sure to have a reliable expert guide you! Our guide told me this one was Hygrophorus russula which is edible, though it was a bit too old to eat. As you can see, it’s a gilled mushroom. The gills produce the spores (a mushroom’s “seeds”) which drop down and are carried away on the wind.
We did find “for sure” edible mushrooms.
We found several edible mushrooms, too, but my notes weren’t clear enough, I’m afraid in most cases. My excuse is that I was taking photos, listening and trying to type in my phone at the same time! But the Cinnabar Chanterelle (Cantharellus cinnabarinus) is definitely edible.
A few more fascinating fungi that may or may not be edible!
Inky Caps (Coprinopsis atramentaria) start out bell-shaped like this and then flatten out. The guide told us they often grow on animal dung from the previous year, which kind of makes them a bit less appetizing in my book.
Old Man of the Woods (Strobilomyces strobilaceus) suits its colorful name. Sources say it’s edible, but most think the taste isn’t worth the trouble. It’s a polypore mushroom, meaning it drops its spores from the openings (pores) at the end of tubes on the underside.
The birders spotted these tiny mushrooms with black stems on our Lost Lake Nature Park hike. According to the Mushroom Identification Facebook group, they are from the genus Marasmius, family Marasmiaceae, to which Shitake mushrooms(Lentinula edodes) belong – but I have no idea if these tiny mushrooms are edible. And they sure don’t look like Shitakes, do they?
Whether edible or not, fungi have their uses. As the presenters pointed out, humans use them for dyes, cheeses, yogurts, wine, beer, breads (yeast!) among other uses. The “saprotrophic” mushrooms, which include the famous Portobello mushroom (Agaricus bisporus), are the recyclers of the forest. Along with bacteria, they decompose dead organic matter (plant or animal), thereby releasing carbon, nitrogen and essential minerals back to the soil. “Mycorrhizal” fungi, of which the toxic Amanitas are a member, partner with trees and plants to create giant webbed networks that gather essential nutrients and moisture for the trees/plants and may allow them to chemically communicate as well. The fungi benefit by feeding on the sugars that the plants can create through photosynthesis. So fungi deserve our thanks, even when they don’t end up on our dinner plates!
So much to enjoy at this little park. In winter, the sledding hills fill with the laughter of big folks and little ones careening down the slopes. And in all the other seasons, the lake, the forest and the grassy hill host nesting birds, frogs, dragonflies, the occasional mink, native wildflowers – and humans, of course! Some learn to kayak or how to use a stand-up paddleboard at this park. Some practice yoga. And some come to bird watch or just take a short hike through a variety of habitats. Whether you come to meet friends, a squeaking frog or strange-looking mushroom, Lost Lake Nature Park will welcome you and send you home smiling. I can almost guarantee it.
Goldenrod! A variety of different Goldenrods gild Cranberry Lake Park in early autumn. Their bounty of nectar and pollen and the insects they attract make Cranberry Lake an ideal stopover for migrating birds and butterflies as they prepare for their long journeys. So cheer for Goldenrods as they feed wildlife, but don’t blame them for your fall allergies – blame ragweed!
Year ’round birds and summer residents have almost finished molting and are also stocking up energy for winter or the migration. And a surprising number of insects are also preparing by busily mating one last time, leaving behind eggs or chrysalises that can bring forth young next spring and summer. Lots going on within this carpet of gold!
Migrating Birds – Some Stayed All Summer; Some Just Stop Briefly for Rest & Refueling
Now’s the time to train your binoculars on any shaking leaf you see. It might be a fall migrator! Colorful, tiny warblers and vireos that are just passing through on their way south are well worth a pause to look into the shrubbery, as you’ll see below! But don’t forget to wish “bon voyage” to the migrators who arrived last spring and sojourned with us all summer. Many are finishing up their molts and readying for long journeys to the southern US or even Central and South America. We saw all of the birds shown below on the bird walk last week at Cranberry Lake Park.
Migrators from Farther North: Just Passing Through
The trees are aquiver with fall migrators, travelers that bred up north and only briefly stop to rest and refuel around our woods and meadows. The most colorful ones that we often hear but can’t see are warblers and vireos. These little birds travel on the night wind because it’s safer. Hawks, eagles, and other birds that might see these small birds as food migrate during the day so that they can ride the thermals!
My camera and I are not quite quick enough to catch a lot of these tiny, fast-moving birds. So to share them with you, I’m relying on photos of other photographers with the skills, equipment and sometimes sheer luck to capture these little beauties!
The Blue-winged Warbler (Vermivora cyanoptera) breeds at Cranberry Lake Park, but the birds we’ve seen in the last week were probably moving through from further north. This fine bird shows off its black eyeline and blue wings with white wingbars in a gorgeous photo taken by gifted local photographer Joan Bonin:
This photo of the striking Black-throated Blue Warbler (Setophaga caerulescens) is by gifted iNaturalist photographer Jeff Skrent at iNaturalist.org.
A Yellow-throated Vireo ( Vireo flavifrons) from another generous iNaturalist photographer who uses the single name, paloma.
A Nashville Warbler (Leiothlypis ruficapilla) was also too quick for me. But here’s one I did manage to catch as it passed through in the autumn of 2016 on its way to Central America.
Summer Visitors: The Migrators that Come Here to Raise Their Young
Some avian migrators see our parks as a great place to raise their young, so they come in the spring and stay for the summer. Having finished breeding and molting, they are now preparing to leave for points south. The male Common Yellowthroat’s (Geothlypis trichas) “Witchedy – witchedy” song accompanied me often during the summer months as he and his mate raised their young. But you may here his “chuck” call as he hops among the branches stocking up on insect protein before leaving for Florida.
Both the male Common Yellowthroat and his mate did a complete molt in July or August and now have fresh feathers for the trip. She’s bit more secretive than the male as she feeds on beetles, ants, bees (!), dragonflies and grasshoppers within the golden fields. Usually she’ll leave a week or two later than the male.
Last spring the Wednesday morning birders heard a Black-throated Green Warbler (Setophaga virens) singing its mating song along the Hickory Lane at Cranberry Lake. And this week, the birders spotted one flitting high in the trees. Perhaps it nested here to raise its young, or it could be just passing through our parks in spring and fall. Here’s a photo I took of a male during the spring migration this year.
High in a snag, a Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) paused briefly to survey the golden eastern meadow one afternoon. Many waxwings go into lower Canada to breed, but I’ve seen successful nests in our parks, too, so this one may have been a summer resident. Some will move south for the winter, but many waxwings will stick around during the cold months.
House Wrens (Troglodytes aedon) become quite secretive after breeding. But this one popped out of the greenery for a minute. It appears to have completed the late summer molt and is prepared to start south between now and mid-October.
A curious juvenile Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) peeked at me from dense shrubbery along the trail, too. The migration of Field Sparrows is not always predictable. Some migrate, some don’t, and some migrate one year but not the next, according to the Stokes’ Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.2). If this one does migrate, it may join a large flock with Chipping Sparrows as well as other Field Sparrows.
On one of my Cranberry walks, I spotted some Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) far across a well-hidden wetland. They were males who’d chosen this secluded spot to begin their molt out of the summer “eclipse plumage” into their fancy choosing-a-mate plumage. This one looked a bit rough at the moment, but well on his way to his courting colors. As I explained in last week’s molting blog, males molt earlier in the summer to camouflage themselves as females and then molt again in the fall, a time when they compete for a mate to breed with in the spring.
I often hear, but rarely see, the vireos at Cranberry Lake. But I did get to see a Warbling Vireo (Vireo gilvus) in the spring. A rare treat, since it loves to sing high in the treetops! Its plumage is modest but its song is impressive! The birders saw one lingering in our park for a while before departing for points south.
Occasionally I get a quick look at a Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus). But Bob Bonin, Joan’s husband and another gifted photographer, got a much better photo than I have so far! This week it too was hanging out with other migrators.
Birds, of course, are not the only creatures migrating through our parks this autumn. Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus) fluttered everywhere at Cranberry Lake Park in the last few weeks. This “super-generation” of fragile creatures – the ones that will fly 3,000 miles to Mexico – were swooping and diving over the meadows at Cranberry Lake, feeding on the acres of Goldenrod. So glad that we provide these master migrators with such a feast!
The tattered Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes) below looks lightly worn. Let’s hope that attests to its having mated here this summer after its migration to Cranberry Lake. These huge butterflies seem to be expanding their range north. Possibly due to climate change, Michigan now often has frost-free Septembers. So if mating was successful, the caterpillars of this very large butterfly may survive inside their chrysalises and hatch in our parks next spring.
Last Chance for Progeny! Insects Still Mating in the Meadows
Among the Goldenrod, insects seek out mates in a last ditch effort to leave offspring for next summer. A pair of Goldenrod Soldier Beetles (Chauliognathus pennsylvanicus) rendezvoused on a Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare) – a potentially risky place to mate since a bird might think they make a tasty contrast against the blossom!
A pair of tiny Pearl Crescent butterflies (Phyciodes tharos) also decided that a warm September afternoon provided the ideal time for mating.
And two Ladybugs chased around a Goldenrod stem, one frenetically holding on to the other. I couldn’t really determine whether they were mating or fighting! Clearly, one was more interested in escape and one was in hot pursuit. They were moving too fast for a great shot or a definite identification. My guess is that they were the invasive Asian Ladybugs (Harmonia axyridis). Unfortunately they are more common these days than our native Nine-spotted Ladybug (Coccinella novemnotata) and come in highly variable colors and patterns.
This tiny Red-legged Grasshopper (Melanoplus femurrubrum) had probably spent the night near the stalk of the Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), wisely hidden from predators among its withering leaves. It will molt multiple times before mating and leaving eggs in the soil to emerge next summer.
The edge of a meadow, near a wetland, might be an ideal spot for a female Great Blue Skimmmer dragonfly (Libellula vibrans). She could be spreading her wings in hope of attracting a mate. If successful, the aquatic plants nearby could host her fertilized eggs. Or while waiting for a likely male, she might just have a great perch for hunting unsuspecting prey!
Spider Art On a Misty Morning
Early fall mornings are an excellent time to appreciate the art of the spiders. Warm days followed by cool nights leave heavy dew on spider webs, and when the sun makes them visible, they are dazzling. How about this lovely creation of an Orb Weaver spider (family Araneidae)drooping with the weight of the dew but subtly reflecting the colors of the sun’s spectrum!
Another intriguing web, though not as beautiful, is cleverly constructed. The Funnel Web Spider (Circuria species) lays a sticky sheet of web across the grass, which would be difficult to see were it not for the dew. At the edge of the web, it weaves a tunnel where it lies in wait for unsuspecting prey. Above the sheet, it weaves an irregular network of silk designed to knock flying insects into its sticky net below. You can see the funnel at the back of this web below.
As I skirted the edge of wetlands one Sunday, it seemed that a frog sprang out of the grass at every step! Most of them were Northern Leopard Frogs (Rana pipiens), their emerald green backs covered with circular black dots outlined in pale gold. Their dark eyes encircled with gold add to their glamour. Pinkish dorsolateral ridges are another distinguishing field mark. They shine like cloisonné in the deep grass!
Until last week, I’d never noticed Pickerel Frogs (Rana palustris) at Cranberry Lake. These smaller frogs have somewhat rectangular spots that line up along the frogs’ back in neat rows. They are smaller than Leopard frogs. They tend to be brown (though they are sometimes green too), so I’m fairly sure this is Pickerel frog below.
And Finally, the Native Plants that Make It All Possible!
The plants, though not as often noticed by hikers, provide sustenance for all these creatures as the base of the food web. Butterflies sip their nectar. Bees and wasps feed pollen to their young. Other insects munch on leaves or make winter homes in the stalks. Birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals eat all parts of plants, or the insects that live on them. So here’s a gallery of just a few of the plants that, along with the plentiful goldenrods, have bloomed in sun and shade to sustain the beauty and life of Cranberry Lake Park in late summer. (Use pause button for captions.)
Autumn Mornings: Not To Be Missed!
On our September bird walk at Cranberry Lake Park, we arrived on a cool fall morning. The previous day had been unseasonably warm, but a north wind sailed in overnight. The cool air had created heavy dew, leaving silver droplets that set the spider webs shining. The morning sun on the moist leaves created the fine mist you see above, rising from a meadow beyond the Hickory Lane. What a sight! – the makings of future clouds floating like silver smoke above the wildflowers. A wave of migratory warblers and other small birds had arrived on that night wind. The birders watched, binoculars up, as these travelers hopped busily in the branches, feeding on the plenty of insects attracted by fields full of blooming fall wildflowers. And all of this beauty is gratuitous – unearned, just gifted to us if we just put on our shoes and head out the door! Consider escaping from the busy-ness of life for just an hour this week. Let these beautiful fall days lure you to the parks and savor the gifts that nature so generously offers to all of us.
Watershed Ridge Park offers an adventurous, challenging hike on a hot summer day. No trails exist yet to lead you through Watershed, since it’s not yet developed. But you can park by the evergreen trees just east of the maintenance shed and explore from there (approximately 1664 W. Buell Rd). This park is named for a watershed boundary, a high point within the park, that causes precipitation to flow in two directions, ultimately feeding both Paint Creek and Stony Creek. The diversity of habitats is remarkable. Large areas of the park have agricultural fields that are tilled and planted by a local farmer, which helps keep invasive plants out until the area can be restored to natural habitat.
But once I step out of the farm fields, the magic begins! A forest with vernal pools, a bright meadow, a boggy swamp shaded by trees, a seasonal stream, and a hidden marsh surrounded by a nearly impenetrable circle of native shrubs. So feel free to join me as I walk through some of this wild and wonderful park on a hot summer day.
The Forest and Its Wetlands
I started down the edge of the farmer’s field to the west of the maintenance shed, walking carefully so as not to damage the Fogler’s soybeans. The field was dotted with wildflowers, like Pale-leaved Sunflowers (Helianthus strumosus) which attracted the attention of the Red-spotted Purple (Limenitis arthemis), a butterfly that seems to be plentiful this year!
Once I entered the cooler woods on the north edge of the field, I began to see blue-green wetlands shining in the dim, dappled light.
Oh yes, mosquitoes buzzed, but I patted on more insect repellent and headed for the water, because I knew that’s where I’d see the most wildlife. And sure enough, as I settled on a log near the water, a rustle behind me turned out to be a young White-tailed deer buck (Odocoileus virginianus) peering curiously at me from behind the greenery.
I could hear an Eastern Wood-Peweesinging plaintively in the distance, a nice soundtrack for my entrance into a mysterious forest. A plop! at my feet made me aware of a young Green Frog (Rana clamitans), covered in Duckweed (genus Lemno), who’d been basking on a log just moments before.
Far out in the water, two Twelve-spotted Skimmer dragonflies (Libellula pulchella) chased each other around a fallen willow until one finally settled for a moment. It was too far away for a good shot, so here’s my photo of a male in Bear Creek marsh several years ago.
The forest wetlands were a busy location for courting that afternoon. A pair of Emerald Spreadwing damselflies (Lestes elatus) had evidently mated just before I arrived. Below you can see the female grasping the stem, her abdomen curled inward, preparing to lay eggs on a plant, while the male above keeps a wary eye for predators or other males.
It was hard to see how glamorous these Emerald Spreadwings are in the dim light, so I was pleased when a male landed in the sunlight nearby.
One of the stumps in the wetland was decorated with the wheel-shaped web of an Orb Weaver Spider (family Araneidae). It glowed in a ray of sunlight. According to Wikipedia, “Many orb-weavers build a new web each day. Most orb-weavers tend to be active during the evening hours; they hide for most of the day. Generally, towards evening, the spider will consume the old web, rest for approximately an hour, then spin a new web in the same general location.” Very tidy, eh? That might explain why I never saw the spider and there was virtually no detritus in the web. I’m not sure what to think about the extensive web on the stump below. A practice run?
At the water’s edge, three “conks” of Shelf/Polypore fungi shone white against the tracks in the wood, maybe the feeding galleries of emerald ash borer larvae .
Near another shady vernal pool wetland, I spotted a tiny Wood Frog (Ranasylvatica) gazing toward the water from a small piece of wood. Perhaps it was a fond last look since this little creature will soon move uphill a bit from the forest pool in which it hatched. Finding a place to hibernate under the leaf litter, it will freeze solid until spring. No heartbeat, no breathing, no movement. This seeming miracle is made possible by a glucose anti-freeze of sorts produced by its liver. As regular readers of the blog know, this strategy for survival never fails to astonish me.
As I neared the edge of the woods, where it opens to the meadow, familiar plants were there to greet me. I could have wished for less attention from Enchanter’s Nightshade, (Circaea canadensis) which at this time of the year is producing seed within burr-like fruits. Looking high into the trees, I strayed into a large patch and my socks were covered. For the rest of my walk, I became a transportation vehicle for Enchanter’s Nightshade fruits!
Another forest edge plant, Jumpseed (Persicaria virginiana), spreads its seed in a different way. Once the seed is mature, any disturbance can send its seeds flying up to three yards!
Another native wildflower that hugs the forest edge, Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), is called Spotted Touch-Me-Not for the same reason. Its mature seeds also spring forth from the fruits when they are disturbed.
The Meadow that Slopes Down to the Marsh
Walking out into the hot, moist meadow, I found myself knee deep in dense grasses and flowers. The sunlit field was slashed with long dark shadows from the forest as I waded through the dense growth underfoot. All around me, dragonflies patrolled the flower tops, since the presence of a meadow in which to show off their colors and flying skills and a nearby marsh full of vegetation is their perfect habitat for mating and laying eggs. Widow Skimmers and Meadowhawks (genus Sympetrum) were everywhere. [I suspect the Meadowhawks were Ruby Meadowhawks (Sympetrum rubicundulum) but I’ve learned they can be confused with others unless you capture them and look closely – which I’m not at all interested in doing!)
Tiny butterflies fluttered through the flower stems adding their bit of color to scene. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
A Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus)
A tiny Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos)
As I struggled down toward the marsh, lifting my knees high to get through the lush tangle of stems, I begin to notice the plants near the marsh that love having “wet feet.” Mine, actually, were getting a bit wet, too!
Hearing sharp chipping calls behind me, I turned around to find an adult Song Sparrow (Melospizamelodia) warning its offspring to stay out of sight. This may be a female since they often begin their molt later than males do. The youngster stayed out of sight within a nearby bush.
Adult birds can be a bit scarce in late July and August because many are molting a whole new set of feathers. They’re generally not a pretty sight in the process, I can tell you! They’re not hiding out of vanity, of course; they’re just more vulnerable as wing feathers are replaced. I could hear the “witchety, witchety” call of the Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas)beyond the wall of native Gray Dogwood (Cornus foemina) which prevented me from seeing into the marsh. And a Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) “miaowed” from the Dogwood as well, making only a brief appearance. So I took the bird photos below in other parks at other times.
Ben’s Balancing Act in a Shady Swamp
Swamps are generally defined by ecologists as a forested wetland. Watershed Ridge Park has a beauty. Ben VanderWeide, our township’s Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, put on his waders one afternoon and went to explore this habitat at Watershed Ridge while working on a plant inventory of the park. What an adventure! The water may look shallow, Ben told me later, but the muck beneath it can be very, very deep! To explore the swamp, Ben tested each step and only went into the water once he found firm footing. Otherwise, he stepped or jumped from one hummock to another. Some of the hummocks were made by “windthrows,” fallen trees uprooted by the wind which had become covered by vegetation. Others were made by stumps of trees that had probably been felled years ago and were now overgrown with plant material.
While moving from hummock to hummock, Ben spotted some interesting and unusual native plants. How about Duck Potato (Sagittaria latifolia), also known as Common Arrowhead? I know I’d never heard of that one before! Ducks and other creatures love to eat its submerged tubers which store nutrients for the flower’s regrowth and/or reproduction. And since, we humans love our favorite tuber – potatoes – why not the name Duck Potato?
Ben found another unusual little beauty in the swamp, a Wild Calla (Calla palustris). Wild Calla is the only species in the genus Calla which is within the family Araceae. That family includes what are commonly called Calla Lilies (though they aren’t true lilies or in the Calla genus) and our old friend Jack-in-the-pulpit. It appears that the Wild Calla in Ben’s photo below had already been pollinated because, like Jack-in-the-Pulpit, the flowers are disappearing, replaced by green, berry-like fruits that will turn red in the autumn. Such a find!
Ben also spotted a sedge that he’d never seen in our parks before. Sedges (plants in the family Cyperaceae) are a big family of plants that look like grasses or reeds, but have triangular-shaped stems instead of flat ones. Papyrus and Water Chestnuts are in the same family. What I enjoy about sedges is that they often have such interesting spikes, like the one Ben found, Tuckerman’s Sedge (Carex tuckermanii). It also appears to have finished flowering and started producing fruits.
Along with these rewarding finds in the Watershed swamp, Ben was treated to a snack of High-bush Blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum) as he balanced precariously on top of those floating hummocks!
His treat was only fair, really, since he had to carefully avoid the abundant Poison Sumac(Toxicodendron vernix) scattered through the swamp. While he came home with a small Poison Sumac rash, it was a small price to pay for discovering cool, new plants and wild blueberries as far as Ben was concerned. Poison Sumac takes the form of a shrub or small tree and grows only in very wet places like swamps and bogs. My thanks to Ben for exploring this Watershed habitat. I don’t think I’ll be pulling on my waders anytime soon…but I’m very glad he did!
When sufficient rain falls, a small stream flows out of Watershed’s swamp and finds its way through the woods westward, eventually feeding the marsh I spoke of earlier at the foot of the big meadow. It’s not an impressive stream, but it feeds the plants in the marsh, which brings the insects, which feed the birds…you get the idea. Nature depends on connections like that.
Time to Head Home
By now, my damp feet, my tired knees and my socks decorated with Enchanter’s Nightshade made me aware that it was time to leave. So I trudged back up the meadow, through the dim woods where the Pee-wee still asked its question, “Pee-weee?”, along the Fogler’s soy beans and across the lawn to the cornfield beyond the shed. There a group of young Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) hung out on the cornstalks, moving restlessly like a bunch of rowdy teenagers, while their weary elders probably went on molting while hidden in the bushes and fields nearby.
I was standing next to a large tree stump when a juvenile House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) popped out of the vines that covered it. This young bird was a bit older than the plush-looking little Wren I’d seen at Stony Creek Ravine a few weeks ago. But it was clear that the Watershed wren had still not quite grown into its beak. Surprised at how close I was, it hopped nervously for a moment, looked away, looked back – and popped back into the leafy cover. Caution won out over curiosity.
My Watershed adventure complete, I headed home, content that I’d experienced the natural world in the same way I’d relished it as a child growing up on Lake George Road. Yes, my arm had a few itchy spots here and there, my tired knees felt wobbly and water squished in my shoes – but I’d meandered on paths of my own making, out of sight of other humans, a quiet part of something wild and much older than I – and yet close enough to the kitchen at home that I’d be there in time for dinner. Thanks for coming along.
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: inaturalist.org; Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels, A Guide to Bird Behavior Vols.1-3 by Donald W and Lillian Q.Stokes, and others as cited in the text.