Stony Creek Ravine: Insects! The Good, the Not-all-Bad, and the Really Ugly

Stony Creek running fast and furious through the ravine after the many rain storms.

I’m sure you must have noticed. Insects are having a fabulous summer. Ticks are poised at the edge of tall grass, their back feet planted, their front ones waving about, trying to hitch a ride on anything that passes. Mosquitoes are reproducing like mad in any of the available standing water left by the repeated deluges that we’re experiencing. It’s not a pretty picture for us humans! But it can be, if I look more closely.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

This last few weeks I’ve explored the small, older section of Stony Creek Raving Nature Park, the western trail from Knob Creek Drive on West Gunn that leads to the Ravine itself. Armed with Deet, I wanted to see if I could find some beautiful, or at least interesting insects that would give me a break from the not-so-lovable ones! So here’s what I found, for better and for worse…

The Trail Begins in Sunny Meadows Filled with Wildflowers

The Meadow is lavender with Bee Balm blossoms and complemented by dashes of orange from Butterfly Milkweed.

Mottled sunlight slips over your shoulders when you first enter this area of the park. On one of my many visits between the downpours, I saw a flash of orange among the shadows which turned out to be the Gray Comma (Polygonia progne). It looks very much like the autumn coloring of the Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma); since it’s summer, it had to be the Gray Comma. These butterflies emerge from within logs or from under tree bark in April and mate. This Gray Comma would be the offspring of those that overwinter. It will produce a generation which will fly in August or September and hibernate to start the cycle again.

The Meadow Trail: Butterflies, Dragonflies and Rolling Meadows of Wildflowers

Foraging Butterflies

Once out in the open meadows, I paused to appreciate the frenetic flight of the Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele). It dashed across the field, landing for a few seconds, then fluttering off again just above the flowers. Their caterpillars have a fondness for Common Blue Violets (Viola sororia), so they will occasionally appear on lawns. In our parks, they prefer native Wild Bergamot/Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa), thistles and milkweed, according to the Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels.

The Great Spangled Fritillary gets its name from the shine of the large silver spots on its hind wings. Here it’s sipping from Butterfly Milkweed.

Aren’t you always happy to see Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus)? The one my photographer friend Paul and I saw in the meadow arrived from somewhere between Mexico and Michigan, wherever its forebears stopped to lay eggs. With luck, this one will help set in motion the “super generation” of Monarchs; they make the whole 3,000 mile journey to Mexico where they overwinter. For lots more details on Monarchs, check out the blog that features them.

Paul and I hoped this Monarch would lay eggs for us on this Butterfly Milkweed. No luck that day. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle.

Territorial Dragonflies

Dragonflies patrol over the meadows as well, zinging here and there in an effort to establish territory and find a mate. The striking male Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) with a green face zipped by me, but it was the juvenile Dasher who settled on a stick. It has the coloring of a female, but a much slimmer body than an adult. The female Dasher lays her eggs by flying over still water and repeatedly dipping her ovipositor into the surface to release her eggs.

Another denizen of the fields, the Halloween Pennant dragonfly (Celithemis eponina) foraged with a bouncy flight. These small dragonflies stay aloft more easily on windy days than other dragonflies and can even fly in light rain, shaking the water off their wings in flight. This one insisted on looking straight at me until it zoomed away. Luckily you can still see its vivid coloring and the huge compound eyes on either side of its head (with nearly 30,000 lenses). Two of its three simple eyes shine above; they’re believed to improve its navigation in changing light and also may help stabilize them as they speedily change course above the greenery.

The brown wing patches on the Halloween Pennant’s wings are thought by some to shade its body on hot days.

Two other dragonflies kept me company on the meadow. A juvenile male Common Whitetail (Plathemis lydia) followed me along the path, evidently hoping I’d stir up some insects that it could snatch from the air. And several Widow Skimmers (Libellula luctuosa) bobbed among the grasses on every trip to the park. The clear tips of their seem to disappear at a distance, but the dark patches near the abdomen are visible, so I sometimes mistake them for a large black fly until I get closer.

Pollinating and Nectaring Bees

Of course, bees forage busily along the path as well. Dr. Gary Parsons, from the Entomology Department at Michigan State University, identified this little native bee nuzzling a Rough-Fruited Cinquefoil blossom (Potentilla recta) as a female Leafcutter Bee (genus Megachile.) The clue he gave me is that a leafcutter has stiff hairs (scopa) covering the underside of its abdomen and that’s where it carries its pollen. In the photo on the right, the one flying away with its bright yellow underside was evidently a dead giveaway.

Paul snapped a fine shot of one of our native Bumblebees (genus Bombus), oblivious of a Bull Thistle’s (Cirsium vulgare) thorns below as it gathers nectar from the blossom.

A native bumblebee feeding on nectar from a Bull Thistle blossom. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle

Colorful Long-legged Flies

Along with the butterflies, dragonflies and an occasional damselfly (more about them later), an assortment of metallic flies dotted the leaves along the trail, but not your plain old black house flies! Dr. Gary Parsons tells me that they are from the family Dolichopodidae, also known as Long-legged flies. These common tiny insects perch in bright sunlight waiting for smaller, unsuspecting insects to cruise by. I like their diminutive size, the way they stand so elegantly on those long legs – and they come in an assortment of colors as you’ll see below!

The Plants that Feed and Shelter Them All

Now of course, what sustains all these creatures are the native plants that serve as host plants for their offspring, i.e., larvae/caterpillars. Here a Common Pug caterpillar (Eupithecia miserulata) is foraging on the petals of a Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta). Dr. Parsons reminded me that petals are actually just modified leaves so caterpillars can feed on them, but since they disappear quickly, leaves are the staple of a caterpillar’s diet.

A Common Pug caterpillar foraging on a Black-eyed Susan blossom

The beauty of native plants is that they can be both decorative and productive, providing lots of sustenance for the insects that are an essential ingredient of the entire food web. So here’s is just a sampling of the myriad of native wildflowers and grasses along the meadow trail.

The Forest Trail Above the Ravine: Damselflies, Abundant Moths and One Useful but Really Ugly Fly

The dappled forest above Stony Creek Ravine

Under the Forest Canopy, Beauties and the Beast

The forest at Stony Creek Ravine Park is a different world when it comes to insects. At the edge, where the forest meets the sunshine, butterflies seem to dominate. Both of the ones I saw imitate the dappled light of the forest with brown wings marked with white spots in lovely patterns. The Little Wood Satyr (Megisto cymela) is the smaller of the two. Notice how the design on the underside of the wings is a bit more complex. Some sources suggest that the eyespots distract predators from attacking vital body parts. Butterflies can survive with ragged wing edges but an attack on the head is instantly fatal. I thought perhaps the larger spots on these forest edge species also provide more camouflage when the butterfly lands in dappled light. No one seems to be sure exactly how their patterns function.

The larger Northern Pearly-eye (Enodia anthedon) spends more time in the woods itself, especially near moist areas. It feeds on tree sap, rotting fruit, fungi and even dung – not a picky eater, evidently, eh? You’ll often see its head slanted downward on a tree trunk. Quite the set of spectacles on those buggy eyes and the orange and black antennae are very fancy!

The Northern Pearly-eye in its characteristic upside down position

Deeper in the shade of the forest, though, tiny moths flourish. The oaks in our forests and lawns act as host plants for the largest variety of insect caterpillars of any tree in North America, according to Dr. Doug Tallamy, a professor of entomology and author of The Nature of Oaks. Some moth larvae pupate on the tree, some burrow into the soil below but many just pupate within the leaf litter and then emerge in warm weather. So as I walked down through the woods at Stony Creek Ravine, huge clouds of tiny, triangular, leaf litter moths floated up at my feet. Almost every one immediately scuttled back under the leaves. But a gray one, that I believe is a Speckled Renia moth (Renia adspergillus), paused on a patch of bright green moss. So exciting for me see one as more than a flutter at my feet!

This Speckled Renia moth landed briefly on the edge of bright green moss before scooting back under the leaf litter!

Actually that short pause may not have been a good move for the Speckled Renia. Nearby, I saw the “not-so-bad” but “very ugly” insect of the blog title. Robber Flies (family Asilidae) are aggressive predators, and like the “bad guys” for whom they are named, they generally ambush other insects, including their own kind, from a hiding place. I saw two different insects meet their demise in the grip of a Robber Fly.

Robber flies don’t bother humans unless you’re handling one; I’d avoid that unless you’re doing research. And they are simply providing the service predators provide: keeping the numbers of their prey at a balanced level within their habitat. If you see one in your garden, ignore it; it will probably eliminate many pests for you. At a wetland, I met one up close and personal and really, that is one ugly bug!

The bristles on the head of the Robber Fly protect its face when its wrestling with its larger, struggling prey like bees, grasshoppers or dragonflies!

Deeper in the forest, I watched a black and white blur move toward a log. As I stepped forward, it suddenly transformed into just a fleck of something lying on a log. I thought perhaps my eyes had deceived me and it was just a bit of falling detritus. But I decided to ask Dr. Parsons if I’d really seen a living, moving creature. On the left below is the pointy fleck I saw, on the right the closeup I sent to Dr. Parsons.

Dr. Parsons let me know I wasn’t crazy. The tiny moth’s larvae is part of a large insect family, the Tortricidae, commonly known as Leaf Rollers. The caterpillars in this family eat and pupate in a carefully rolled leaf, hence the name. Dr. Parsons surmises that the adult moth above is most likely a Banded Olethreutes (Olethreutes fasciatana). Many members of this family specialize in fruit trees and their caterpillars are considered pests. This one’s offspring feeds on Wild Black Cherry (Prunus serotina), but they’re not considered particularly harmful. Some experts think this camouflage is an attempt to simulate an unpalatable bird dropping. If I hadn’t seen this tiny moth moving, I’d never have noticed it, so I guess the trick works!

Dancing Damselflies Seek the Spotlight in the Creek

But enough of Robber flies and bird droppings! Let’s move on down to the West Branch of Stony Creek itself to enjoy instead the mating ceremonies of elegant Damselflies!

Stony Creek in late June flowing slowly around rocks and under sticks in late June.

I paused near a wooded wetland to witness what appeared to be a pair of damselflies courting. The male Ebony Jewelwing (Calopteryx maculata) landed first and fluttered about from twig to twig, keeping his iridescent colors flashing in the sun. The elegant brown female appeared and began what looked very much like flirting, flying close to him, then landing farther away with her abdomen cocked at an angle. Perhaps she was ready to mate, but the male hesitated. According to Robert DuBois, author of Damselflies of Minnesota, Wisconsin & Michigan, he may have had good reason; females can mate 4 or 5 times each day, rarely with the same male! Anyway, I gave them some privacy and headed toward the creek to see how other males were faring.

In late June, Stony Creek meandered its way around the rocks and sticks protruding from the slowly moving water. A group of Ebony Jewelwing males held a competition there for the sunniest spot on a prominent stick in the creek while waiting for females to show up. One male posed on the stick and began to display. Displays of his impressive wings can be intended to ward off competitors and may also interest females in the surrounding greenery. Periodically, he launched gracefully off his stick and zipped off to confront other males trying to oust him from the spotlight. A series of a scrambles with a group of competitors ensued for about 10 minutes. The University of Wisconsin Field Station’s “Bug Lady,” says that male Jewelwings compete by bumping into each other until one flies off. That’s certainly what occurred at Stony Creek Ravine as the originally male settled back on his stick after each skirmish.

If the male is successful, he’ll grab onto the female’s abdomen with his pincers and the two of them, locked together, will fly to a nearby perch. If she is ready to participate, she bends her abdomen upward and the partners form a heart-shaped “mating wheel.” Benoit Renaud, a generous photographer at iNaturalist.org got a wonderful photo of two doing just that! Thank you, Benoit!

Ebony Jewelwing damselflies in a heart-shaped mating wheel. Photo by Benoit Renaud (CC BY)

After mating, the male releases her and together they fly off to find rushes, sedges, moss or floating plant material. The female then bends her abdomen downward, slits a hole in the plant with her sharp ovipositor and lays her eggs. The male stands guard to protect her from males who might try to abscond with her and remove his sperm before she lays the eggs. Evidently, despite that heart-shaped wheel, damselfly mating is not a particularly romantic process. But it’s kept these graceful insects on the wing for thousands of years, so we won’t argue with it, right?

A week or so after I took my damselfly photos, the July deluge poured down on us. The once placid creek rushed through the ravine, flowing over the rocks and sticks in the damselflies’ courting arena. According to the “Bug Lady,” the Ebony Jewelwings like plants in a “moderate current” in which to lay their eggs. So I’m assuming there was a bit of a hiatus in their mating ceremonies this year!

After a series of heavy rains, Stony Creek rushed over rocks and sticks in a sparkling flood.

And Then The Fireflies Arrived…

A firefly beetle in India. Photo by Ashwin Viswanathan (CC BY) at inaturalist.org

I learned this week that fireflies sparkle at twilight in moderate or tropical zones all over the world. I love knowing that. Imagine! As the earth spins away from the sun each day, these tiny Firefly beetles (family Lampyridae) dance across landscapes, delighting humans around the globe!

The males of our local beetle, the Common Eastern Firefly (Photinus pyralis) dance in a “J” formation, flashing their signal as they swing upward. A chemical reaction in the cells at the tips of their abdomens creates the bioluminescence that delights us. And with luck, a female in the area sends a coded signal back in just 1-2 seconds and they find each other.

The incredible variety of insects around (and often in) our home serves many purposes. The possum near our shed eats all the ticks it can find each summer. Bats, birds, and even the ugly Robber Flies, gobble up mosquitos by the millions. Bees pollinate our garden, wildflowers and nearby farmers’ crops. The beating wings of thousands of flying insects lure migrators back to our yard each spring. Here are a few of the most interesting ones we saw just this week.

Recognizing all the services that insects provide, I avoid wide-spectrum “bug killers” and instead try to utilize long sleeves, high socks and strategically applied Deet or Permethrin to repel them when outside. Despite all of that, like you, I swat flies and mosquitoes, flick insects off exposed skin and get snarky when insects slips inside the house.

But then at our darkened windows on these steamy, rain-soaked evenings, I pause to enjoy the tiny fireworks of a glowing beetle dancing in the tall grass at the edge of the field. And I’m lifted out of my grousing about bugs and rainy weather. Night after sticky night, the flash of the firefly reminds me that some insects are magical and that all of them play a crucial role in keeping life humming on this gorgeous little planet.

Growing With the Seasons: Learning on Site

This post was written by Stewardship Technician Max Dunn

I am now more than halfway through my seasonal internship as a stewardship technician with Oakland Township Parks and Recreation. My work season is ending about 6 weeks earlier than the rest of the crew since I am heading back to college at the end of August. Although I haven’t been here long, I’ve learned and experienced more at this job than my past three combined. I am now able to confidently maneuver a truck and trailer, identify and treat multiple invasive species, input data into Geographic Information System’s (GIS), and most fun of all, experience beloved native plants in their natural habitats.   

Truck & Trailer Experience

In 2017 I purchased a 1997 Plymouth Breeze and have been driving it daily ever since. This small, easily maneuverable car stands 4.5 feet tall, a dwarf to the stewardship crews truck; a large-and-in-charge GMC 2500 standard 8 foot bed, often pulling a trailer. Driving a rig of this size and length may be common place for some of you, but it was very new to me. We first practiced in an open field to get comfortable then worked up to main roads. Before getting behind the wheel for the first time, thoughts of doubt and insecurity arose in my head. An occurrence that often accompanies me when learning new things. However, this time I realized my degrading thoughts and switched my outlook to one of confidence. This allowed me to be the controller instead of the controlled and made space for a present and enjoyable learning experience.

Backing up the trailer proved to be the hardest task for me since small trailers are very touch sensitive to your driving. It’s a great test of patience and focus and I have come to enjoy the sharp mental state it puts me in. Just remember, when you turn left, the trailer goes right. Unless it’s at too much of an angle, then it goes left. Also, this is an extension of your truck, so allow more space for clearance.

Although pulling a trailer can be a challenge, it is essential for our work. It’s equipped with a 130-gallon water tank, water pump, and heavy duty hose which supplies readily available water for prescribed burns and herbicide application. It requires a great amount of trust from Oakland Township to put this equipment into the hands of myself and the other stewardship technicians and I am grateful they have. I have gained numerous skills from this task alone which will stick with me well into the future.

Geographic Information System

GIS is an acronym for Geographic Information System, a mapping system that captures, stores, and displays data related to specific positions on Earth’s surface. The stewardship crew and I use an app on our phones called ESRI FieldMaps to document locations of invasive species and herbicide application out in the field. With each location, we input additional information such as plant density, herbicide concentration, and weather for that day.

This job introduced me to the hands-on aspect of GIS. I was familiarized with with these systems last spring in an agriculture class at Michigan State University and it was a great overview. But I have found that subjects like this are best learned from hands-on experience. Within the first three days on the job we were getting oriented and comfortable with the Field Maps app. It was early in the garlic mustard season, so documenting plant locations in the field was our orientation task (and what a great one to use since it is so prevalent!). It initially seemed like so much information needed to be included with the garlic mustard location. I was slightly concerned that I would miss out on something valuable and began to ask myself, “How do I properly estimate a plants density and how do I draw a polygon of the area we surveyed? More importantly, how do I remember the area I surveyed?” These all turned out to be useless concerns since the app is quite user-friendly.

Swallow-wort is an invasive plant that is related to milkweeds. It makes seeds attached to fluffy parachutes, so it can spread long distances to new areas.

I have really enjoyed scanning our parks for invasive plants like swallow-wort, and recording their locations and plant densities into the GIS. It is interesting to find a large, dense “mother” patch, then locate all the stragglers in an area. Once all the points are plotted, a rough dispersal outline is created which shows how far offspring of that colony spread. These dispersal outlines then provide valuable information for future stewardship crews because we can compare dispersal outlines throughout time and see how the plants respond to our treatments. If they are effective, the outlines will shrink in size.

Using this app consistently on the job site has taught me how to properly record data and take time to complete tasks that remove me from “actual field work.” My past three jobs were strictly manual labor so if I wasn’t working with my body, it was viewed as a waste of time. It took around a month at this job to break down that ideology and I have gotten much better at taking the time to input data.

Wildflowers at Gallagher Creek Park

One of the most enjoyable new experiences on the job has been finding mature, native plants in their natural habitats. It provides insight into how naturally occurring plants compare to landscaped ones in size, spread, and structure. Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea), for example, seems to be pretty adaptable. I have seen them in wetland areas with dappled light, semi-dry areas with full sun, and in landscaped beds. Furthermore, they can be quite small and slender in the wild when competing with other plants, but can be very full and wide in landscaped areas; give them space and they will grow! These differences were witnessed in May at the native plant beds of Gallagher Creek Park. 

Golden Alexanders in the native plant landscaping beds at Gallagher Creek Park. Photo by Ben VanderWeide.

Gallagher Creek Park on Silverbell Road, just east of Adams Road is probably best known for the playground. However, it also houses some amazing plants such as Wild Lupine (Lupinus perennis) and Yellow Lady Slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum).

The day before we went to weed the native plant beds around the playground in May, our Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide let us know that Yellow Lady Slippers would most likely be flowering in the park. When we got to a garden bed near the suspected area, we took a quick intermission from weeding and began our search. Early on, I stumbled across a beautiful wild lupine, the first one I have ever seen uncultivated and growing naturally. Their loose flower clusters and unique foliage are quite striking!

As I was framing a picture of it, I noticed a helical blade of grass twisting its way into the frame and took it as a foreshadow of a Yellow Lady Slipper sighting. I thought this because the grass perfectly mimicked the helically-twisted sepals of a Yellow Lady Slipper. After admiring the lupine and golden grass blade, we continued our search, and as foretold, stumbled upon a colony of Yellow Lady Slippers! Partially bloomed flowers resembled Corinthian helmets, while the fully mature looked like sunbathing aliens. It was interesting to see how small they were in real life and appreciate their complexity up close. That was truly a day to remember.

Spending time on job sites is something I look forward to. I have realized that as I experience something new, I also learn more about myself. I now tackle new task with confidence and take breaks from manual labor in order to do activities like data entry that have delayed returns. It has been great to grow alongside the abundant wildlife each workday, and I am amazed at how much I have experienced on the job. I am curious to look back in 5 weeks and see what else I’ve learned!

Jack-in-the-Pulpit: What’s Under the Hood?

This week’s blog post was written by Stewardship Technician Max Dunn

Over the past few weeks, the stewardship crew has been hard at work pulling garlic mustard. As we grid the parks for these pesky weeds my eyes are also searching for Jack-in-the-Pulpit. Since we are walking every square inch of the parks to eradicate garlic mustard, I figured I should take some time to appreciate another plant. Life is all about balance right?

Jack-in-the-Pulpit flowering structures are composed of a modified leaf called a spathe and a pillar-like spadix which houses many small flowers and eventually striking red berries.

Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) is a widespread, eccentric perennial of woodlands that varies greatly in pigmentation, alters its sex overtime, and holds insects captive. This plant is easily recognized by its flowering structure, which is equipped with a hooded spathe and a pillar-like spadix. The spathe is a modified leaf that wraps around the spadix. This leaf initially caught my attention while gridding for garlic mustard because of their unique color patterns, ranging from a pure pastel green to a combination of dark green and waxy maroon. I am most interested in the underside of the spathe hoods since they create beautiful patterns, especially when the waxy maroon pigmentation contrasts pastel green veins.

The spadix also varies in pigmentation, but I found they tend to be green in Oakland Township. This pillar-like structure contains small, closely-arranged flowers that are either male or female depending on the plant. Nutrient reserves in the plant’s below ground corm (a modified stem for energy storage) helps determine the sex of the flowers. Plants with small corms and fewer stored nutrients are male, while plants with larger corms and more nutrient reserves are female. Larger corms allow plants to produce a second set of leaves and invest energy in female flowers that will produce striking, inedible red berries that are on display in the fall.

An interesting way to identify the sex of these plants is by looking at an insect trapping mechanism on the lower part of the spathe. Male spathes are equipped with a small little crook that allows pollen-covered insects like thrips and flies to easily exit and fly to a female flower. However, insects do not have an easy escape route in female plants since they lack this small crook in their spathe. With no easy escape these insects naturally spend more time near the flowers of the female spadix, frantically walking around and pollinating the flowers of the spadix more effectively.

These forest floor plants are an awesome sight if you take a second to look under the hood. The color variation of the spathes are beautiful and fascinating. If you catch a female at the right time you might just find a victim of successful pollination! Jack-in-the-Pulpit will be flowering for a couple more weeks so enjoy these unique plants before they finish flowering for the year. Comment below if you have a favorite Jack-in-the-Pulpit color variation!

Bear Creek Nature Park: Spring Arrives on a Wing and a Song

I dropped in on Bear Creek Nature Park multiple times in April and early May, watching nature’s slow-but-steady journey into spring. After a difficult year, seeing nature renew itself felt especially reassuring – a useful antidote to the leftover doldrums of 2020.

Text and photos by Cam Mannino

This week along with my own photos, I’ll be including many by other residents who generously agreed to share their amazing photography. Regular blog readers will remember Bob and Joan Bonin who have previously lent me their amazing photos. And recently, I made a new photographer acquaintance, Paul Birtwhistle, who explores our parks with his camera and his peaceful dog Stanley. All three of these local photographers are blessed with eagle eyes and exceptional photographic skills as you’ll see below. I thank them all for their willingness to let me share their finds with all of you. Believe me, you’re in for a treat!

Nature Begins to Stir in the Cool Gray of Early April

The bare-bones beauty of Bear Creek’s Center Pond in early April

It seems that each year as I enter the park in early spring, the first song that falls from the canopy is that of the Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia.) Their song, which can vary a bit geographically, most often starts with a few short notes, followed by a melodious trill and finishes off with a buzz. A streaky, little brown male with the typical spot on his breast perched at the top of a tree, threw back his head and belted out his song to woo any willing female within range. This year’s vocalist was much too far away for a decent photo, but here’s one from an earlier spring at Bear Creek Nature Park.

Song Sparrows learn their songs from males in the area in which they’re born, so their song versions vary in different locations.

During the bird walk in the first week of April, Ben spotted a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) posing right at the tip of a snag near the park entrance. It was so high that it only made a silhouette against a gray spring sky, but I tried to take a photo anyway. I love that big red crest! These woodpeckers make their rectangular nest holes high in either snags or live trees in the spring and then make lower ones in the fall as shelter from winter winds. I’m going to keep an eye on that snag!

A Pileated Woodpecker poses against the gray of a cold, early April morning.

This Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) looked a bit chilly as it huddled against a bare branch while searching for frozen caterpillars or insect eggs.

A Downy Woodpecker felt as chilly as I did on a cold April morning.

On the way down the Walnut Lane toward the Center Pond, I spotted a Hazelnut Bush (Corylus americana) in bloom. The golden catkins are male flowers. The slightest breeze sends their pollen wafting over the tiny, pink female flowers that barely peek out from the end of the twigs. I’ll be curious to see if it produces any hazelnuts on its thin branches. [Click on photos to enlarge.]

The chuckling of Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus) in a vernal pool invariably greets me as I step into the woods in early April. These little frogs float on the surface, occasionally kicking their legs to move about as they call for a mate. Consequently, they’re much easier to spot than the tinier chorus frogs who lurk under the edges of logs or aquatic plants. After having frozen and thawed unharmed throughout the winter, these masked frogs move toward the pools in early spring. Vernal pools dry up in the summer, which means Wood Frogs can lay their eggs without fish making a meal of them. This time, a log seemed to provide a handy place for the frogs to rest between unsuccessful bouts of floating and chirping; I sympathized as a former wallflower myself!

A pair of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) cruised the far end of the vernal pool. At one point, the slightly larger male performed some amazing preening moves. Or maybe he was posing in an attempt to flirt. If so, his partner doesn’t seem too impressed.

It’s hard to tell whether the male Canada Goose is preening or flirting. The female doesn’t seem interested in either case.

On the way back from the Wednesday bird walk at Bear Creek in early May, my photographer friend, Bob Bonin, got a wonderful shot of a Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) excavating a promising nest hole. Look at that beak full of wood! Chickadees are cavity nesters and will create a nest in soft wood if they can’t find an existing hole that suits them.

A Black-capped Chickadee can create its own nest hole in soft wood if it can’t find a suitable exisiting cavity. Photo by Bob Bonin

Birds and Blossoms as the Woods Turn Green in Late April

Spring turned from brown to green in the second half of April. Unseen in the night sky, millions of birds rode the wind north and some eventually drifted down into Bear Creek Nature Park. Many came here planning to raise young in the park. For others, it was simply a rest stop on their journey farther north.

The Avian Summer Residents

My new photographer friend, Paul Birtwhistle, got an amazing shot of a rarely seen visitor, the American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus). While Paul and his dog sat quietly on the far north dock of Bear Creek marsh, the Bittern stepped quietly out of the reeds near the shore. Bitterns can breed in Michigan so we can hope this one chooses our marsh. If so, perhaps one day we will hear their booming call that sounds like a low “gulp” coming through the cattails and reeds. Cornell Ornithology’s All About Birds website says that when this birds sees a possible threat, it may choose to assume its concealment pose, its neck elongated and its bill tilted toward the sky. Sometimes it even sways, trying to blend its striped body into the moving reeds. Cornell says the posture is so ingrained that they sometimes do it even when in the open as it was in our marsh. I’m glad Paul had this exciting moment and shared it with us.

Paul also saw a Sandhill Crane (Antigone canadensis) at the marsh and a male Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) cruising in a woodland marsh on the southwestern side of the forest. These birds both tend to spend the summer here to mate and raise their young. The Sandhills toss plant material into a mound, then form a neat cup in the center lined with twigs. Wood Ducks look for cavities high in the trees near water, using the hooks at the back of their feet to navigate on the tree bark. What great guests to host for the summer!

Every year we also act as hosts for the Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) in the nest boxes built by birder Tom Korb and installed by the Stewardship Crew. These iridescent avian acrobats will soar above our fields all summer, gathering insects in their open beaks. But in late April, they are busy within our boxes creating nests out of dry grass and lining them with white feathers. Paul caught a pair claiming a nest box on April 27.

A pair of Tree Swallows on a township bird box at Bear Creek Nature Park. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle

In a tree near the nest boxes, a male Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) surveyed the territory. He appeared to be keeping an eye on his mate as she gathered grass for her nest. Bluebirds will nest in boxes near our Tree Swallows from time to time, but they won’t tolerate another bluebird pair close by. Their sky blue eggs take twelve to fourteen days to hatch. A team of trained volunteers coordinated by our township Stewardship Specialist, Grant VanderLaan, monitor the nest boxes in several parks from first egg laid until the young fledge. The data are provided to Cornell University’s NestWatch program, a citizen science project. Some bluebirds stay with us all year ’round and others seek us out as the weather warms.

A male Bluebird surveys the area near the nest boxes at Bear Creek Nature Park.

On April 24, Paul Birtwhistle spent a long time at the Center Pond listening to the kwirr call of the Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) before being able to spot it. At last, he caught sight of the red crown and nape of a male’s head peeking out from a hole on the underside of a branch on the huge White Oak at the pond’s edge. Years ago near the Bear Creek marsh, I’d seen one of these woodpeckers sticking its head out of a horizontal, upside-down nest hole in an oak branch. It seems that these male woodpeckers excavate several nest holes in hope of giving their mate a choice.

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker excavating a possible nest hole to please its mate. Note the wood chips on his red crown. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle

According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab’s All About Birds website, one of the Red-belly’s options for nest hole placement is dead limbs in a live tree, which is exactly where this bird ended up. The holes are about 9-13 inches deep (or maybe horizontal in this case?) and the circular living space is roughly 3.5 by 5.5 inches. Pretty snug fit, I would think! Once the female has chosen her preferred hole, she lays her eggs on a bed of wood chips left from the excavation accomplished by both mates. Sometimes, the pair drill holes along the branch outside the nest hole to warn off other birds, a kind of “We claim this spot!” message. I hope this hole by the pond was chosen by the female.

Katri Studtmann, one of the stewardship summer technicians, gave me a heads-up to look for a Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) that she’d seen at the Center Pond. Of course, the Kingfisher saw me first as I came to the end of the Walnut Lane and took off. I saw her dive into the water at the far end of the pond, but she came up empty. Females, by the way, have one blue and one chestnut brown stripe on their breasts while the males have only the blue stripe.

A female Belted Kingfisher dipped into the Center Pond with a splash but missed her prey.

In a grassy spot, Paul watched two Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus) do a ritualistic dance with their beaks. At first, I thought it was a mating dance – but these are two female Flickers! After reading a bit, I learned that flickers sometimes do this ritual to protect either their mate or their nesting territory. I’m guessing these two are having a quiet, non-violent disagreement about boundaries. Thanks to Paul for getting several shots so we can appreciate their dance moves!

Of course many more birds arrived at Bear Creek Nature Park last month than Paul, Bob, Joan or I happened to see, successfully record or share. But using the Cornell eBird lists created by participants on the April and early May bird walks, here’s another quick slide show of birds you might see or hear at our parks now if your binoculars can find them among the spring greenery! (The photos here are from previous years by me and others.)

All Eyes on the Warblers in May! Some Stay and Some are Just Passing Through

The big warbler migration began here in late-April with hearing or seeing the Blue-winged Warbler and the Palm Warbler. During the May bird walks at both Bear Creek Nature Park and Cranberry Lake Park, we saw many more of these tiny long-distance travelers. So keep your eyes open for small, colorful birds flitting about in trees or diving in and out of shrubs. You don’t want to miss these beauties who often arrive in the morning after riding a strong south wind during the previous night. Some choose to spend the summer here raising young. But others you’ll see below are only here for a few days as they rest up before heading north.

Under a Greening Canopy, Spring Blossoms Emerge in the Woods

As migrating birds arrive, the woodland plants seem to magically appear as the soil warms under the spare canopy of spring. Always the first to arrive are the spring ephemerals, like Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica). This spring ephemeral blooms very early to catch the sun while the trees are bare, then quickly subsides as the shade increases above it. Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) does the same, but uses its leaf cupped below the blossom to preserve some warmth on cool spring days. Bloodroot leaves remain for some time after the petals of the flower have fallen.

In late April and early May, May Apples (Podophyllum peltatum) begin to form colonies under large trees and produce their shy flowers beneath the leaves. Jack-in-the-pulpits (Arisaema triphyllum) unfold in the woodland shade.

Delicate Wood Anemone blossoms (Anemone quinquefolia) nod above their frail stems in the moist shade near vernal pools. Nearby red sporophytes rise from green gametophyte moss. When mature, the sporophyte moss will release the spores which will disperse to start new gametophyte moss colonies.

And at the forest edge of the big loop, the white blossoms of American Dogwood (Cornus florida) turn their faces upward to the sun.

Each oval Dogwood bud faces upward during the winter, so the blossoms do the same as they emerge in the spring.

Resilience, Adaptation – and Song!

In April, I stood by a vernal pool listening to the chuckling song of Wood Frogs who had frozen and thawed repeatedly during a Michigan winter. This week I paused to enjoy the rippling melody of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak that rode the wind through the night to end up singing at the edge of a greening field. Life presents all of us mortal creatures with harrowing challenges. And still the wild ones sing, the leaves thrust through tough bark, and fragile flowers open their beauty to feed the world around them.

As part of the natural world, we too have faced repeated challenges to our survival, especially in the last fifteen months, haven’t we? Most of us have learned that we are more resilient than we knew. Like the little frogs, we have adapted to repeated and sudden changes. Like the birds, by moving on through the darkness we’ve reached the light of another spring. Like the plants, we struggled to bloom where we were planted, accepting limitations but still able to share what beauty we could muster with those around us who needed our nourishment. Despite the losses we’ve had and those we know will eventually come to all of us, let’s follow nature’s example and celebrate the fact that we’re here right now. Let’s belt out our own songs to a blue spring sky and relish being alive.

Footnote: Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park’s Golden Haze

In mid-April, I got a tip from Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township’s Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, that he’d come across a yellow haze floating above the ground in the woods at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park. Ben identified it as a large colony of Spicebush (Lindera bezoin), the biggest number of these shrubs together that he had ever seen. That was enough enticement for me to don my hiking shoes and head out the door!

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

Ben gave me rough directions – head west into the woods from the north fenced wetland until you come to several vernal pools where the land begins to rise. No trails exist in that very wet woods, so I hopped over rivulets, climbed over logs, skirted small vernal pools and finally saw a yellow band of light in the distance. Once I got closer, I was enchanted. A wide arc of soft yellow floated and nodded against a cold, gray sky, like a gentle golden light in a dim room.

I’d seen photos of Spicebush flowers but never seen them myself. As I came closer to the bushes, I realized that thousands of tiny yellow puffball blossoms along hundreds of Spicebush branches were the source of the golden cloud.

Thousands of tiny, yellow, Spicebush blossoms created the golden haze in the woods at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park.

Of course, I had to learn more about this native shrub! Those tiny yellow blossoms, looking much like well-buttered popcorn, evidently smell sweet. Drat! I’d neglected to sniff them! And when crushed, their scent is described as aromatic and spicy, hence its name. In moist understory, they most often multiply from their roots as they did in this location, forming large colonies.

Before I ever saw this native shrub, I had seen a creature which counts on it to raise its young – the Spicebush Swallowtail Butterfly (Papilio troilus). This dark swallowtail can be mistaken for the Eastern Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) or the Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor). The field marks that identify them for me are the blue blush on the top (dorsal) side of the hind wings and a double row of orange spots on the hind wings’ lower (ventral) side. According to Wikipedia, the males do a lively courtship dance for the females which I’d dearly love to witness! Maybe I’ll catch the performance here when the weather warms up.

Female Spicebush Butterflies are wildly attracted to Spicebush and lay their eggs on the leaves more often than on other shrubs. Once hatched, a small, brown first instar is protected from predators by closely resembling bird droppings! The tiny caterpillar chews into the leaf, settles on its midrib,and exudes some silk. As the silk dries, it curls the leaf around the caterpillar, providing daytime protection; the caterpillar exits its tubular abode to eat, but only at night.

The later instars use much more dramatic mimicry to avoid predators like birds, dragonflies and spiders. These larger caterpillars turn green and orange and have a design on their thorax that makes them look something like a snake. To add to the effect they have an osmeterium, a structure on the first sections of the thorax that they can raise to look like the forked tongue of a snake! (Check out the link!) They then move to the lower branches of the Spicebush to spin a silk pupa.

Many thanks to the inaturalist.org photographers below who shared their photos, since I’ve yet to spot a Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar. These butterflies generally produce three generations each year, so I’ll be looking for them along with the dancing males!

On my way into and out of the woods, I came across a wonderful collection of early spring woodland wildflowers. Many of our forest wildflowers have been decimated by White-tailed Deer(Odocoileus virginianus), so seeing large patches of Spring Beauty, sunshine spots of Marsh Marigolds and other native flowers sent me home with a smile.

When I returned to the woods ten days later, the golden haze had disappeared and the glorious Spicebush colony had become just another green-leaved denizen of the woods. But soon the first butterflies will appear. They’ll flutter and forage in the woods and the fields beyond. And we can hope that they’ll leave behind some young to keep the life cycle going. I’m cheered on a gray spring day that this native shrub thrives at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park, and that its golden haze will host its namesake butterflies for years to come.