October is autumn’s transition month. Some days are warm and sunny, creating almost an illusion of late summer or early September. And on those days, a few bees and butterflies flutter across my path, caterpillars bump along through the grass and native wildflowers still bloom in the fields. A turtle in the Draper marsh basks in the thinning light.
Change is in the air. Let’s look back to see what October had to offer as we take the first cold, rainy steps into the austerity of November.
Early October: Late Season Wildflowers Host the Occasional Bee or Butterfly
One Sunday afternoon in October, a Common Buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia) fluttered down onto the trail right in front of my husband and I. In the summer, Draper Twin Lake Park hosts a rainbow of butterflies. Some mate, lay their eggs and expire, leaving caterpillars behind in their chrysalises. But this colorful little butterfly migrates south for the winter and returns in the spring. Perhaps it stopped at Draper to sample the various goldenrods, since it prefers yellow flowers. Can you see the slightly bug-eyed expression on its face? I laughed to think it was as surprised to see my husband and I as we were to see it land right in front of us!
Late October: Swaying, Russet Prairie Plants Provide a Fall Feast for Wildlife
The video above may look like a sea of dry brown stems to you. But to the birds, particularly the American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis), it looks like your heavily laden Thanksgiving table. In just the video’s 40 seconds, you are seeing hundreds of thousands of seeds: Indian Grass, Coneflowers, Black-eyed Susans, Stiff Goldenrod, Little Bluestem and many more. On the August birdwalk, we spent a happy ten minutes or so watching a flock of goldfinches swaying on bobbing stalks as they stuffed themselves with Stiff Goldenrod seed (Solidago rigida). First there were two and then suddenly there were five all scrabbling to feed on the abundant seed heads.
Relishing Autumn’s Transformation
The Draper prairie with its great looping trail really may look dry, brown and lifeless to some hikers. But not to me. At this time of year, I feel a lot like Ratty, a “country gentleman” sort of muskrat in the children’s classic Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame, a book I quoted in an earlier blog. Like me, Ratty senses the restlessness of autumn. He heads out into a farmer’s field, much as I waded out into the tall grass of Draper’s northern prairie: “…he thrust into the great realm of wheat, yellow, wavy, and murmurous, full of quiet motion and small whisperings. Here he often loved to wander through the forest of stiff strong stalks that carried their own golden sky away over his head — a sky that was always dancing, shimmering, softly talking; or swaying strongly to the passing wnd and recovering itself with a toss and a merry laugh. Here, too, he had many small friends, a society complete in itself…”
Ratty is a kindred spirit. Autumn also plunges me into the bending and tossing grasses and the whispering of dry stems where I can stand shoulder deep in the prairie and just “be” with it all. Like him, I sense a community of other creatures in the flocks of fidgety birds, the agitated butterflies searching for the last bloom, the relentless plodding of a caterpillar through the grass stems. Autumn’s restlessness urges me to celebrate the change, change and change again of every season. I appreciate that reminder.
The exuberant voices of children flow from the playground at Gallagher Creek Park. But beyond its boundaries, the park quickly feels very different on a fall day. The fields enveloping the playground are a waving sea of tall stems loaded with seeds nodding and bobbing in the wind.
On the short path that winds to the east, grasshoppers leap left and right under my feet, clinging to grass stems and then scurrying to the ground. And out at the edge of the creek itself, small migrators flit and bounce from branch to branch, excited by the wealth of food that trees and plants near the water provide for the next leg of their journey south.
Grasshoppers Large and Small Popping Up Everywhere!
Children seem to love grasshoppers. They’re often the first insect that they get to know. After all, they’re harmless, funny looking – and they jump! I love them too and Gallagher Creek Park provided a large variety last week. I didn’t have to go far to see them. The largest ones were hopping among the lovely tufts of yellow and green grasses and sedges in the native gardens that surround the playground.
The bright green and black Differential Grasshopper (Melanoplus differentialis) probably hoped to nibble on grasses and wildflowers as it scooted along the edge of the native garden. In some years, especially in big farming states like Iowa, when weather conditions create swarms, these grasshopppers can be a pest for grain farmers. On the other hand, one of its favorite foods is Giant Ragweed (Ambrosia trifida), so fall allergy suffers should appreciate this large, green grasshopper!
The Two-striped Grasshopper (Melanoplus bivittatus), like the Differential Grasshopper, lays its eggs in the earth where they begin development in the summer. Once cold weather comes, the eggs go into a dormant period called “diapause.” They finish developing and hatch in the spring. Notice the lovely striping on the Two-stripe’s thorax and the bright red lower section of its back legs with tiny black pegs used for stridulation, rubbing the legs together to create the grasshopper’s chirp.
I couldn’t get a great photo of this fast-moving, secretive grasshopper, so it’s a bit hard to see here. Dr. Parsons at the Entomology Department at Michigan State University said that as a consequence, he could only say that this one was “most likely” the Narrow Winged Grasshopper (Melanoplus angustipennis). This grasshopper’s favorite food is asters (family Asteraceae), so it’s definitely at home in our fields, which are full of asters, especially in the autumn.
Just step outside of the playground onto the mowed path and you and your children will be treated to small grasshoppers spraying out from your feet in every direction! The trick is see one up close or catch one. They are quick little critters, these Red-legged Grasshoppers (Melanoplus femurrubrum) and very abundant! The bulbous plate at the tip of the abdomen on the one pictured below indicates that it’s a male Red-legged. Females have pointed abdomens with an ovipositor at the end for planting eggs in the soil.
Migrators Hang Out Near the Creek for Food, Water and Rest
Sometimes I get very lucky. I left the trail and wandered across the eastern field down toward the creek and found a place to stand under a big tree, hidden by its shade. As I’d hoped, small birds bustled among the willow branches searching for insects, spiders or their eggs. And evidently, they found a bonanza! So did I, as I spent a delightful half hour or so in the company of small, beautiful and very busy birds. Spotting them with the camera focused correctly as they flit and hop from limb to limb, moving in and out of the sunlight, can be super challenging but really fun.
My first thrill was holding my breath while a chubby little olive brown bird with a white eye ring dashed out of the greenery for just a few seconds and paused. It was a Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) twitching its wings while considering where to hop next. I caught it just in time! The ruby crown is hidden on the top of its head and generally only appears in spring when it’s courting.
I felt especially lucky when in the distance, across the creek in a willow, a Golden-crowned Kinglet (Regulus satrapa) darted from limb to limb. Its golden crown was visible, but can be raised into a crest during its courting season; that happens farther north in Michigan or in Canada. This kinglet may spend the winter here, since it can tolerate very cold weather. Here are two photos to show you its plump, teardrop shape and its bright yellow crest. [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]
A Golden-crowned Kinglet in the willows by Gallagher Creek
The Golden-crowned Kinglet can stay here all winter because it can tolerate cold temperatures.
Kinglets are often seen in the company of migrating sparrows, so I was very pleased – but not surprised – when a White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) landed on a willow branch and paused. What a beauty it is with the yellow lores at the corner of its eyes and its white stripe on a black crown. White-throated Sparrows can be black and white or black and beige. Males tend to prefer the black and white females, but perversely, all the females prefer beige and black males! You may see these beauties under your feeder so look carefully at those small brown birds you might otherwise ignore!
Overhead, two Sandhill Cranes flew across the park, trumpeting their hoarse calls. According to several sources, these cranes have one of the longest fossil records of any living bird, from 2.5 to 10 million years. Imagine that! Long before modern humans walked the earth, Sandhill Cranes traveled ancient skies on their huge wings. I’m always glad to see them with their toes pointed so perfectly like prima ballerinas.
The invasive European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) isn’t going anywhere this winter. They live all over North America year ’round! Yes, they are very aggressive in attacking the nests of native birds, but they do look dazzling in the winter. Here’s one on a snag at Gallagher Creek Park in its jazzy white tipped feathers. The tips will wear off in time for breeding season so that it can return to its iridescent purple-green head and breast for courting.
Seeds, Seeds, and More Seeds as Nature Sows for Spring
All kinds of plants are fruiting, the happy result of blossoms successfully pollinated by bees, butterflies and other insects. They embody the promise that life goes on despite the cold somnolence of winter. I’m trying to learn the names of at least some of my favorite flowers, grasses and trees when the leaves have fallen and all that’s left are drying seeds and nuts. So here are three favorites from Gallagher and then a slideshow of some I’m still learning.
In 2016, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, first showed me these seed capsules at Gallagher Creek Park. The modest, rangy Bladdernut shrub (Staphylea trifolia) produces 3-chambered seed capsules that hang from the branches like little paper lanterns. Inside each cell is a shiny brown seed that rattles as autumn breezes shake the capsule. Eventually the whole neat package is carried away on wind or water and the seeds are released.
One of the plants in the native garden, Northern Blazing Star (Liatris scariosa) is a member of a genus (Liastris) that I love for its bright purple blossoms that bloom from the top of the stalk down. I was so pleased to see its puffy little seedheads this week, adding an interesting texture to the scene. And look at those tidy little seed capsules at the top. I guess I’m learning that I like this plant when it blooms and when it stops blooming! I’ve got a photo of its relative, Rough Blazing Star (Liatris aspera), so you can get some idea of the plant in bloom.
The Gallagher native garden introduced me to Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis). Tall graceful stems topped by a panicle of fine seeds bend and sway in the wind, having risen from round, green tufts of leaves near the ground. Watching them dance can be mesmerizing.
The graceful seed heads of Prairie Dropseed dance and bob in the slightest breeze.
The leaves form a tuft at ground level.
The fields at Gallagher are a patchwork of interesting shapes and textures. Here’s a quick sampling from a short walk on and off the trail – the plants as they look now, preparing to sow their seeds for next spring – and as they look in other seasons.
Good Short Autumn Walks Require Pausing and Looking
Consider the chipmunk in the photo above. As chipmunks usually do, it was scurrying about at the bottom of a tree, looking for food to store away for the winter. But, for some reason, it decided to just stop and stare out into the field for a few moments. And it occurred to me, that’s what I was doing – pausing and looking.
Binoculars swinging against your jacket are a good reminder to stop and look carefully. Those twitching stalks and stems in a field of dry wildflowers might prompt you to raise them for a better look. Little birds are very likely to appear out of the grass, pull off seeds, then drop quickly to the ground again to pick them up. Look closer through your binoculars.
That “little brown bird” on the trail ahead might turn out to be one that you’ve missed all these years. Stand quietly and let the “binos” show you its special colors or patterns. It takes some practice to develop binocular skills; I’m still working on mine. But when it works, it’s such an “aha!” to see the texture of subtly colored feathers, the barbershop stripes of an “ordinary” butterfly’s antenna, or a tiny insect sipping at the heart of a flower.
And then other little beauties only require your eyes. Consider going alone now and then, leaving even the dog behind. Open a dry seed head and and let the seeds roll into your palm. Notice the pattern that fallen needles make beneath a white pine. Marvel at the aerial maneuvers of a late season dragonfly. Capture what you’ve noticed in a photo perhaps, so you can share what you’ve seen at home.
All it takes is just …. a pause. Move slowly, stand and look. Breathe the cool autumn air. Just “be” for a few moments as the pale autumn light falls on you, shining through the leaves.
Lost Lake Nature Park may be small, only about 58 acres, but it’s a big resource for all kinds of wildlife – including us humans! Roughly 10,000 years ago, the glaciers sculpted this park with its rolling woodlands that now slope down to shady wetlands dotted with ferns and mushrooms. The deep Laurentian ice sheet also eventually dropped enough material to create a huge hill, one of the highest places in the township – now a magnificent sledding hill in the winter months.
The glaciers also gifted us with a large kettle lake. A huge chunk of ice broke off the ancient glacier and melted, gradually filling its hole with water as the glacier retreated, leaving rocks, soil and gravel around the lakeshore. Anglers – both human and avian – now pull fish from the lake and in the fall, a variety of birds seem to find it an ideal place to rest, socialize and feed before heading for points south.
So please join me on the dock as birds call and forage on the far shore or mud flats. Wander with me up and down hills in the woodland dimness, where a dragonfly devours its kin (!), green pools glow in the distance and a motley collection of colorful mushrooms appear and disappear within the bed of dark, moist leaves left from the summer evaporation of a vernal pool. It really is a “magical” little place!
The Pond Provides R&R Before the Big Push South
Almost any time from spring to fall, the honking of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) greets me as I step from my car at Lost Lake Nature Park. What appeared to be a family of about eight glided peacefully around the lake on a cool October morning. A noisy male declared himself to all comers, sounding his deep “honk” which wards off intruders but is also used right before takeoff. The female will often make a higher “hink” call in response, especially when in flight. This group eventually took off toward the east after a relaxing hour or so cruising the pond.
Far across the pond, a tall white figure lifted its knobby, backward knees as it stalked along in the mud. A Great Egret (Ardea alba) stuffed itself on creatures too far away for me to see; frogs, small fish, dragonflies, and grasshoppers all contribute to an Egret’s diet.
For a while, the egret just stared up into the sky, something I’ve never seen an egret do before. Maybe it was just being extra cautious, though I saw and heard nothing threatening. Or maybe it was just curious?
Most of the other birds at Lost Lake camouflage almost perfectly again the background of the browning vegetation on the mud flats. It pays to scan the surface with a pair of binoculars until I see movement. My camera and I could just barely discern three Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) slipping through the slim waterways that thread through the low-growing aquatic plants that blanket parts of the lake.
On the same busy day at the lake, a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) stepped out of the reeds on the far side. It was a wary creature, stalking along the edge to do a little hunting, but repeatedly slipping back into the tall plants to hide. Finally I caught it in the open – but just for a moment! It didn’t seem as lucky or perhaps as skillful as the Egret in finding food. Young Blue Herons are on their own two or three weeks after leaving the nest, so I wondered whether this was a slightly nervous juvenile or simply a wary adult.
A young Green Heron (Butorides virescens) appeared in my binoculars as I swept my gaze across the lake’s mottled surface. Since the heron stood almost completely still, I would never have spotted it without them. Its striped neck is the most obvious sign that this one is a youngster. Shortly, this solitary bird will head out on it own to spend the winter in Florida, along the Gulf Coast, or in the Bahamas. How young birds who often travel alone know where to spend the winter remains a mystery. According to the website of the University of Colorado at Boulder, recent studies indicate that migrations destinations may be genetically determined through years of evolution.
The high, keening cry of the Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) sounded over the lake as a trio of them flew across the pond, wings akimbo at a sharp angle. They too stayed at the north edge of the lake, poking along the muddy shore for a very long time. My binoculars could reach them, but they were too small for my camera to see clearly. So I sat down on the deck and waited. Finally, the three flew in my direction and settled on a grassy flat. They too were nicely camouflaged by the browning foliage in the background, especially the bird on the left!
As I left the floating dock, I noticed a sparkling patch on the surface of the water. On closer inspection, it turned out to be a hatch of Whirligig Beetles (family Gyrinidae) swirling across the surface with sun on their rounded backs.
These little creatures seek protection in groups, swimming frantically in circles when agitated. Their divided eyes are believed to allow them to see both above and below the water’s surface. Nonetheless, periodically a fish dashed to the surface and a few disappeared, leaving a gap in the swarm, as you can see in the 10 second video below.
A closeup shot (below) shows these rotund insects more clearly. You can see how each little beetle makes its own tiny ripples as it energetically rows over the surface with its hind and middle legs. The front legs are used to grab other insects, including those unlucky enough to fall in their midst!
At the water’s edge, a small American Bullfrog (Rana catesbeianus) sat quietly in the shadows, its face turned to the sunlight. I mistook it at first for a Green Frog (Rana clamitans), but they have rigid folds down either side of their back. This little bullfrog had a fold that curled around its tympanum, the eardrum-like circle on the side of a frog’s head. Also its eyes sit up high on its head; Green Frogs’ eyes are lower with little noticeable bulge. I wondered if this small frog stared so steadily because it was trying to see the shadow of an insect flying by, silhouetted against the light. I wish just once I’d get to see that long tongue flash out and snag one!
On one of my trips to Lost Lake, I came across a mother and son team fishing on the deck. The young man, Zach Adams, had just pulled in a Largemouth Bass (Micropterus salmoides) – and I believe, on his first cast! His mom, Cheryl, took a photo before her son released it back into the water. I’m happy that she kindly shared her photo with me, so I could show you one of the denizens that live below the surface of Lost Lake. This bass is what researchers call an “apex predator,” which means that its presence maintains the balance of species within the lake.
Then, Into the Steeply Sloping Woods
The path that leads to the woods was filled with dappled light one October afternoon. A Bumblebee (genus Bombus) slipped its long tongue into the last few flowers ringing a Bee Balm blossom (Monarda fistulosa) that miraculously still survived in October. You can see the stamens protruding from the tubular upper lip of each flower, while the three lower lips offer what the Illinois Wildflowers website describes as “landing pads for visiting insects.” This bumblebee has made the most of the landing pad, I’d say!
Where the sunlight found its way through the leaves, another Bumblebee nuzzled a Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) looking for whatever bits of pollen were still available before this late season goldenrod turned brown.
I came across a cloud of spreadwing damselflies fluttering among some small trees in the first shadowy light of the woods. I’d never seen so many at one time! I believe they were Emerald Spreadwings (Lestes dryas) because of their green sheen and slightly stockier appearance than most damselflies. But I never got a definitive identification.
When I spotted a female AutumnMeadowhawk (Sympetrum vicinum) in their midst, I snapped a quick photo. I didn’t realize until I saw it in my computer that it was consuming one of the spreadwings! Yikes. No honor among Odonata evidently; they are members of the same order! Well, an insect’s gotta do what an insect’s gotta do, I guess.
A Beautiful and Strange Collection of Mushrooms
The fallen log picture above hosted undoubtedly the most beautiful assemblage of mushrooms I’ve ever come across on my hikes. Violet Polypore Mushrooms (Trichaptum biforme) stepped delicately down the side of this log while orange shelf/leaf fungi (genus Stereum) formed ruffles across the surface. Down at the bottom edge, a white Hickory Tussock Moth (Lophocampa caryae) paused to either nibble a bit – or just enjoy the artistry along with me. This tableau captured me so completely that I just sat down on a nearby log to appreciate it for several minutes.
I love entering the half-light of the forest at Lost Lake Nature Park. The topography is so dramatic! The back side of the sledding hill, covered in trees, slopes away to what was a vernal pool last spring. Now I can walk out on the spongy black soil at the foot of the slope and look for mushrooms. The moisture and the bed of rotting leaves is ideal territory for them.
I’m a complete novice at mushrooms, so I want to acknowledge and thank the knowledgeable fungi fans on two Facebook pages that helped me identify some of these: Mushroom Identification and Michigan Mushroom Hunters. I assume that the members are enthusiasts, not necessarily mycologists, so please don’t take their identifications as scientific proof – just much better and more educated guesses than mine! [Important Note: I enjoy mushrooms for their place in the wildlife food chain and their beauty in natural habitats. Please don’t pick them in our parks and don’t eat any wild mushroom unless a qualified individual tells you they’re safe. Lots of our mushrooms are toxic in various ways, so beware!]
In the stippled light of the sloping forest, Russula mushrooms(genus Russula) thrust their caps above the leaf litter. Russulas are “ectomychorrizal” which means they contribute to the “wood wide web.” They form the spore-bearing, visible part of a huge, unseen network of fungi beneath the soil that allow trees to communicate and feed one another and that in return can feed off sugars in the tree roots by tapping into them. [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.
A Red Russula mushroom doesn’t have the bumps and stem ring of the red Amanita.
A White Russula, the first time I’ve seen one that wasn’t brightly colored.
Some mushrooms, of course, grow on dead wood, rather than emerging from the ground. I found two protruding in a somewhat spooky fashion from a snag (standing dead tree) in the moist soil of the former vernal pool. This one is in the genus Pholiota. It is the spore-bearer for unseen fungal threads called hyphae inside the wood that, according to Wikipedia, help break down decaying wood. In other words, like all fungi, they are recyclers!
Another recycler poked out of a nearby snag, though it looked like its job was nearly over. A Facebook mushroom enthusiast named Greg identified it as being in the genus Gymnopilus which is in the same family (Strophariaceae) as the Pholiota mushroom above. This one has a “veil,” a partial ring on the stem that mycologists think may help protect the gills under the cap where the reproductive spores are released.
In the same area, a beautiful “foliose” or Leaf Lichen draped like lace over a dead branch. A lichen is a strange life form that is not a moss or any other plant. According to Wikipedia, it “arises from algae or cyanobacteria living among filaments of multiple fungi species in a mutualistic relationship.” Some live on wood like mushrooms, but they don’t draw nutrients from it. They don’t have roots but pull water and nutrients from the air and dust. Their relationship with one of their partners, like algae, allows them to photosynthesize. These ancient organisms can look like leafy plants, drooping moss or powder on the surface of a rock. Have a look at its varied forms on the Wikipedia page. Lichens are so common in nature and yet live and grow (verrrry slowly!) in such an alien way. They intrigue me! Here’s the big, beautiful one I saw at Lost Lake.
And here’s a sight that just delighted me for no particular reason. But look at the cool knotholes on this downed sassafras log, like open mouths silently singing!
High on the Hillside, Autumn Wildflowers
We often think of summer when we think about wildflowers. But cool weather is the perfect bloom time for many plants. Some of the ones at Lost Lake Nature Park thrive between patches of light on the high slope of the forest; some are happiest down by the lake. So here’s a small assortment of plants that love fall as much as I do!
Heart-leaved Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)
Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa)
Either smooth aster (S. laeve) or prairie heart-leaved aster (S. oolentangiense)
Heath Aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides) by the lake
Lost Lake Takes Me Back to the “Magic Places” of My Childhood
When I was a child, nothing delighted me more than finding what I felt were “magic places.” Usually these spots were hidden ponds, small clearings in a woodland or sudden openings between trees that gave me a new perspective on a familiar spot. Lost Lake brought back that childhood sense of “magic” for me on my final walk this fall.
Along Turtle Creek Lane on the west side of the park, I came across the oval pond in the photo above. The woods rise steeply at the back, as if throwing a protective arm across it. I found some park property across the lane that I hadn’t explored before. It featured a small clearing in the woods and an unexpected view into a grand marsh that is on private land .
So for me, Lost Lake Nature Park has many charms: a lake bustling with birds on a crisp fall day, a trail lined with damselflies and their treacherous kin, a shady spot that lets me explore, – dry shod – the moist bottom of a vanished vernal pool. These spots encourage me to take my time, look around, and feel the “magic” I sensed as a child. That feeling of mystery and possibility feeds my desire to save what we can as the climate struggles to adapt to the changes humans have caused. I want to be sure that the children of tomorrow can wander into untamed nature and find the magic that’s still so available to you and I.
I thought I’d experiment with periodic pieces that feature all the great natural features and creatures to be seen on a short walk in our township parks and natural areas. I expect that some of you feel too busy for a longer stroll (though I highly recommend trying to find the time when you can).
So now and then, I’ll share what I’ve found in just a 20 – 30 minute hike, with the hope that you’ll be inspired to take some brief excursions into nature to renew yourself in the midst of life’s everyday hubbub.
The Paint Creek Heritage Area – Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail is located a short distance north of Silverbell Road, just west of Orion Road. It’s a delicate habitat without trails into it, so I thought I’d take you on a short virtual walk through its spatters of blue flowers on a sunny autumn afternoon.
The prairie here is called “wet” because the water table is near the surface, keeping the ground fairly wet for a good part of the year. In some areas the unique soils won’t let water penetrate deep into the soil. So in the spring, water pools on the surface, but later in the summer summer it’s very dry. Like many prairie plants, the beautiful wildflowers here evolved to cope with those changes. They also thrive after fires, since both lightning and the trains that ran along the trail years ago caused plenty of them. If given relief from non-native plants, these hardy, adaptable native blooms flourish and spread. Many of the plants at the wet prairie are specialists to soils rich in calcium, or calciphiles.
At the moment, the Wet Prairie is dappled in blue. Fringed Gentians (Gentianopsis crinita) grow enthusiastically across this grassy area. As each blossom unfolds, you can see the delicate fringe that lines the deep azure petals. Look for them on a sunny day, because they don’t open when it’s cloudy.
When I first began coming to the prairie about 5 years ago, Fringed Gentians were scarce – a few here, a few there. But thanks to the prescribed burns, systematic removal of competing non-native plants by our Stewardship crew, and probably some luck from the weather, their numbers seem to be very good this year. What a sight now to see groups of them blooming among the native grasses!
Another azure beauty blooms among large rocks on the southwest side of the prairie. Bottle Gentian (Gentiana andrewsii) has an unusual, closed blossom that never opens. Instead, the sturdy Bumblebees need to push their way inside, taking pollen with them when they pop back out and head for the next flower. It’s a clever strategy for enticing a highly effective pollinator like the bumblebee, but excluding the small insects that might take nectar, but not do much serious pollinating!
Like most prairies right now, the Wet Prairie also hosts other blue beauties, like the Smooth Blue Aster (Symphyotrichum laeve) and Sky Blue Aster (Symphyotrichum oolentangiense). The flowers of these two asters have very similar color, so you have to check the leaves to tell them apart. Smooth blue aster has smooth leaves with leaf bases that wrap around the stem, while Sky Blue Aster (also known as Prairie Heart-leaf Aster) has rough leaves with bases that don’t wrap around the stem. According to the Illinois Wildflowers website, a fount of useful information on Midwestern flowers, these little asters feed a huge number of native bees, as well as providing seeds for one of my favorite winter visitors from the far North, the Tree Sparrow (Spizella arborea).
Along the Paint Creek Trail near the park, and in the fenced exclosure at the back of the prairie, the hardy, vivid New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) glow in the sunlight – and migrating Monarch butterflies (Danaus pleixippus) feed avidly on them.
Some very unusual, white wildflowers sit close to the ground in many spots around the Wet Prairie right now. The delicate, dark green-striped Grass-of-Parnassus (Parnassia glauca) blooms are almost at the end of their season, but they’re still shining up from the grass in many places. I’ve never seen this wildflower in our other parks so I’m always happy to learn it’s blooming here in late summer/early fall. I think that in the photo below, the small orange and green satellite next to the flower is a very cool Grass-of-Parnassus seed head!
We have our own little orchids blooming in the Wet Prairie too. Small, spiraling stalks of native Ladies’ Tresses (genus Spiranthes) bloom here and there on the north end of the prairie. Actually, according in U-M’s Michigan Flora website, seven Spiranthes orchids and many other orchids bloom in various areas of Michigan – a surprise to me! Many of these orchids are in decline because of illegal harvesting and high deer densities, so please just look when you see an orchid.
A Few Extra Treats
The big butterflies are almost gone here, but I was lucky enough to see a beautiful small one that I’d not come across anywhere for about 3 years. The Common Buckeyes (Juonian coenia) love yellow flowers for some reason and that’s right where I saw one, poised at the tip of Gray Goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis). Buckeyes migrate to Florida and other southern destinations for the winter, so this one may have just been passing through. I’m glad I happened to cross its path!
The Common Buckeye isn’t common for me, but the Clouded Sulphur actually is, especially at this time of year! I enjoy these small yellow butterflies because they have a lovely flutter in the grass at the end of the year, when so many other flying beauties have disappeared. I just learned this year that these tiny butterflies also migrate south. They’re actually found all over North and South America at various times of the year!
Near the edge of the trail right across from the Wet Prairie, a large, dense patch of acorns lay underneath a small White Oak (Quercus Alba) and what I think was a mature Black Oak (Quercus veluntina). I assumed initially that these two trees had dropped the acorns directly below them. But later my husband suggested that perhaps this big dense patch of acorns was an attempt by a Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) to begin its cache for the winter. Maybe? Red squirrels do make piles of nuts at the foot of the trees in which they nest and then defend them from other creatures. I’m just not sure that a cache is likely so close to the trail – but who knows? A nice autumnal sight in any case.
Maybe Take a Nature Break?
So as you can see, a short walk can reap some nice rewards. A 20-30 minute walk in our parks in any season will offer up delightful surprises deep in the grass, hovering in mid-air, climbing up a shrub or perched high in a tree while you take a refreshing break from your daily routines. And crisp autumn days with cool cheeks, white sunlight and less biting insects are a real tonic after hours inside. So consider treating yourself to even a small dose of nature this week. I’m betting it will do you good. It always does for me.
Birds and butterflies flock to Cranberry Lake Park year ’round. The wide range of habitats there – a lake, wooded wetlands, huge meadows and acres of forest – provide food and shelter during the summer for a wide range of different species. And migrators make it a regular stop-over in the spring and fall, this autumn being no exception.
Last week, little warblers flitted from limb to limb, keeping the birding group busy trying to spot them all by eye or ear. And in the meadows, the special “super-generation” Monarchs that hatched in late summer sipped from and floated above the asters and goldenrods before beginning their long migration to their wintering grounds in Mexico.
Migrating Birds Ride In, While Local Fledglings Bulk Up
When a north wind blows in the dark of night, getting out to the meadows in the morning can be a rewarding experience. Warblers and other migrators from farther north fly and float in using those winds to support them. As migration begins, being partially carried by the wind on a dark night saves energy and also avoids hawks and other predators that fly in the sunlight.
The birding group heard and saw the first flush of these seasonal nomads on their September visit to Cranberry Lake Park. Our first encounter was with a busy Black-and-White Warbler tracking up, down and around tree trunks on the Hickory Lane that runs down the western edge of the park. A tiny bird moving fast in dense shade meant that none of the birders got a decent photo. But since these beautifully patterned warblers wear the same plumage fall or spring, here’s a springtime shot when foliage was less of a problem!
Unfortunately, I missed most of the warblers on the Cranberry Lake Park bird walk by suddenly feeling ill. So fellow birder and fine photographer Joan Bonin was kind enough to share a few of her photos with me! Thank you, Joan! The group spotted a Magnolia Warbler(Setophagia magnolia) in its fall plumage, which as you’ll see in my photo on the right below is a lot different from its spring courting colors! It’s headed for the Bahamas like the Black-and-White. I hope the devastating hurricane there doesn’t mean trouble for them. Best of luck, little birds! [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]
Joan got a shot of a Black-throated Green Warbler (Setophaga virens) which is also headed to the Bahamas. It too wears less flashy plumage in the non-breeding season.
Ben caught sight of a Chestnut-sided Warbler (Setophaga pensylvanica). Using his description and The Warbler Guide by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle, I think it probably was either a female in fall plumage or a first year male or female, because it had a clear breast with no chestnut streaks on its side. Since no one got a photo, I found one from a generous photographer who uses the name “thejasperpatch” at the iNaturalist.org website. Thank you!
The male Chestnut-sided is one of my favorites because of its varied color and pattern. These tiny birds are headed for Central or South America to hang out with a flock they forage with every year – much like human friends who meet up in Florida each winter! Here’s my photo of a male prepared to charm the ladies in his spring plumage.
Ben also heard the slightly rough-edged, two or three note song of the Yellow-throated Vireo (Vireo flavifrons), but the birders could never spot it in the thick foliage. Vireos often accompany warblers on migration. This one was probably planning to spend the winter in the Bahamas too, though they also winter in Cuba. The yellow “spectacles” are one of its distinguishing features. Here’s a photo by fine photographer BJ Stacey at iNaturalist.org .
Fledglings need a bit more sustenance before heading south. Before I departed on birding day, I got a quick photo of a juvenile Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus). It jumped excitedly from branch to branch, waiting for its parent, who periodically flew in to quickly stuff food in its beak. According to the Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol. 2), adult Towhees feed their fledglings for about a month after they leave the nest. At first the young stay in dense foliage, then gradually wait in more exposed places like the one in the photo below. Shortly, this young one will join with other juvenile Towhees to eat and hang out together like any adolescent. Fortunately, understanding adult towhees will allow them to cross their territories to do so.
A week earlier in the same area, my husband and I had heard a male Towhee making his territorial “wheeet” call. When we spotted him, he gave us a sharp warning glance. I wondered at the time if his young were nearby. Maybe that alert male was the hard-working parent feeding the youngster that we birders saw a week later. I’d like to think so.
On a cool, wet morning, a fledgling House Wren (Troglodytes aedon)perched on its own, looking out across a meadow. Other young wrens called to one another farther along the trail, so this one was probably waiting for an adult occupied with feeding its siblings. Before they migrate, wrens become quiet and remain hidden in the greenery frequently where they winter in the southern Gulf states and Florida. Southerners miss out on the male’s glorious spring song. Aren’t we the lucky ones?
Joan Bonin also snagged a photo of a Broad-winged Hawk (Buteo platypterus) who was probably headed south toward the tip of Florida or Cuba. In autumn, huge “kettles” of these birds with thousands of individuals make their way south together. (See photo of a “kettle” at the top of this section.) Two birder friends and I saw a huge circling flock last year at the Hawk Fest in Amherstburg, Ontario, though this year the festival was canceled at the last minute by a storm severe enough to bring down trees. All this severe weather is a serious threat to migrating birds!
Monarchs Everywhere on a Cool, Autumn Morning!
The migration of the “super-generation” Monarchs is well underway. These heroes of the insect world – the last generation of Monarchs to hatch here in the upper Midwest and Northeast – will live for 8 months, instead of the 5-7 weeks of all other Monarchs. They make the entire two-month journey of 3,000 miles to Mexico, spend the winter, and then fly back north to mate. There they lay the eggs for the first of the 4 to 5 generations of short-lived Monarchs who will successively produce their progeny, eventually ending this relay in Michigan each spring.
Alone at the park on a cool, wet morning, I saw twenty-one Monarchs in my first ten minutes! I stopped counting, took a few photos and then just enjoyed the sight of them slipping up out of wet greenery where they’d spent the night. They shivered upward, shedding dew, looking like vivid autumn leaves reversing their descent. It seemed that with every step I took, more of them rose from the moist meadow. A peaceful, quite magical sight. Here’s a short slideshow of just a few of them on the plants on which they’d rested the night before.
Monarchs were feeding close together as in this photo with two Monarchs in the foreground and one that’s just an orange blur in the background. Aren’t they just spectacular in their golden setting? What beautiful, delicate and surprisingly tough long distance athletes they are!
Other Wings Over the Meadows
The dragonflies and their slimmer relatives, the damselflies are on the wing in late summer and early autumn, too. In August, we saw a dragonfly that was new to me, the Slaty Skimmer (Libellula incesta), with a dark blue body and black head. It was above the lake trail which is lined with wooded wetlands, this dragonfly’s favorite habitat, according to the Odonata Central website. Ben got the best photo of it.
Meadowhawk dragonflies (genus Sympetrum) mate and lay eggs in July and August so they are plentiful right now. Determining a specific species in this genus is not possible unless you’re an expert with one in hand. But the males are almost always red and females and juveniles are usually yellowish brown or black and many have chevrons on their abdomens.
I was fortunate to get an identification on one Meadowhawk I saw because it had some distinctive features like yellow legs, a generally unmarked thorax and a scoop-like spatulate end to its abdomen. This is likely a female Autumn Meadowhawk (Sympetrum vicinum) as identified by people more experienced that I on the “Odonata of the Eastern United States” Facebook page.
According to the Minnesota Dragonfly Society website, “Some dragonflies…point their wings forward and down in order to reduce exposure to sunlight and, perhaps, to reflect light and heat away from their bodies.” On really hot days, they’ll point the tip of their abdomen straight up toward the sky to have as little exposure to the sun as possible. Getting warm or cooling down take some acrobatics from these cold-blooded creatures!
Damselflies, another member of the order Odonata, are always busy in the summer and early fall at Cranberry. Unlike dragonflies who generally rest with their wings spread outward, most damselflies rest with their wings closed. One family of damselfies, the Spreadwings (family Lestidae), cling to plants with their wings just slightly spread. This Spotted Spreadwing (Lestes congener) at Cranberry Lake Park in September shows this common wing position for spreadwings. How about those eyeballs!
The female Slender Spreadwing (Lestes rectangularis) can almost disappear with its clear wings and its unusually long, gray-to-black body, especially since it loves the shade.
Now admittedly, the Tussock Moth’s Caterpillar (Euchaetes egele) isn’t fluttering just now, but it plans to! Of course, it will need to chew on quite a lot of Milkweed before it builds its cocoon and waits until spring to transform. The adult moth’s chunky yellow body lined with black dots is hidden under a pair of subtly elegant beige wings. I’m still on the hunt for the moth (which you can see at this link), but for now, I’m enjoying the floppy, mop-head look of the black and orange caterpillar.
Amphibians Still Visible, but…Hibernation Awaits!
In August, I saw a lot of tiny amphibians near Cranberry Lake! The young Leopard Frog (Rana pipiens) my husband I saw will shortly be heading for the bottom of the lake to spend the winter just as the Green Frog above does – on top of mud on the lake bottom, breathing slowly through its skin.
When the temperature drops, the tiny Wood Frog (Rana sylvatica) that Ben picked up on the bird walk will travel upland to hibernate inside a log or under leaves. According to National Geographic’s website, once its body starts to freeze, its liver produces a kind of internal “anti-freeze,” a very sugary glucose solution which is then packed into the cells so they don’t collapse, like human cells do when frozen. The little frog will survive if no more than 67% of its body freezes. Its brain activity stops, its heart stops and it’s frozen solid! But in spring, it thaws and hops away! It can even tolerate our Michigan freeze-thaw-freeze cycles! By the first frost, this little one will be bigger and ready for the big adventure!
So many Eastern American Toads (Anaxyrus americanus) were springing from under our feet in August that we had to be cautious not to step on them! They often hatch simultaneously and may stay together for some time afterward. Once cold weather sets in, they can dig a hole up to 3 feet deep with their hind legs and essentially back into the hole, the dirt falling in to cover them as they get deeper. Then their metabolism slows as it does for all hibernators and they remain in torpor for the winter.
The tiny Gray Tree Frog (Hyla versicolor) is bright green when it’s young (see left below), but becomes gray, brown or green, usually with a black pattern, when it matures (right below). Though the mating season is over for them now, the males are singing in September anyway, especially when it rains. We hear one singing from an unused hood vent outside our kitchen window! Like the wood frog, it can survive when its body freezes, thaw out in the spring, and be just fine.
A tiny Gray Tree frog is bright green when it first hatches like this one in August.
A Gray Tree Frog snoozing on a railing at the playground pond.
Fall Has a Special Kind of Excitement, Doesn’t It?
We often think of the fall as brilliantly colored falling leaves – and of course, that’s coming. But in this early part of fall, as days occasionally turn crisp and nights get chilly, so much more is going on!
Spider webs bejeweled in dew shine in the morning sun as spiders prepare to snag more insects before cold weather begins. Bright yellow goldenrods are now complemented by purple flowers, like New England Aster. Acorns and hickory nuts tumble to the ground and are quickly stored away by squirrels and chipmunks. Large hatches of tiny, late season Red-legged Grasshoppers spring from the grass below our feet as we hike the trails. They must hurry to grow, mate and lay eggs before the ground hardens.
Some birds disappear for a while to change into their winter colors. Others relinquish the territorial fierceness of breeding season to gather in huge flocks, flying in formation or whirling high overhead. Small ones fly singly through the dark, only stopping to eat and rest, before moving on.
And we humans stock our larders with summer produce – berries in the freezer, peaches in bottles, apples at the fruit stand. We repair a leak in the roof, wash the dust off the storm doors, pull jackets and sweaters from the backs of closets – or make arrangements to pack up and migrate south with the birds. All of us animals, human and otherwise, know that as day and night equal out at the equinox, preparations must be made! And so it begins….