I’m happy to share this blog post from Dr. Dan Carter, an ecologist and botanist who currently lives in southeast Wisconsin. Click the link below to read the full blog post, complete with beautiful pictures of his native lawn! Dan has been gardening with native plants in his home landscape for twenty years, where he actively experiments with alternative native lawns. His alternative lawn incorporates native plant species that can handle foot traffic and can be mowed occasionally, making them functionally the same as a conventional lawn.
Unfortunately, our high maintenance, low diversity, non-native, chemical-soaked lawns are the largest irrigated crop in the United States, to the detriment of butterflies, bees, and other beneficial insects that support our food web. There is a lot of social pressure to keep a non-native lawn, but I hope this article will help you think twice about why you maintain your lawn and inspire you to try an attractive, native lawnscape. The butterflies will thank you, and I bet you’ll enjoy the buzz of life that returns to your little corner of the world. You can read more of Dan’s thoughtful blog posts on his website at prairiebotanist.com.
– Ben VanderWeide, Natural Areas Stewardship Manager
For most of us, home ownership carries with it the management of at least a small parcel of land, and usually this means maintaining a lawn. For the ambitious, this might also include perennial borders, shrubs, and trees. We all need outdoor space to recreate in. Our neighbors all have lawns. People seem to like them. Right?
I killed our bluegrass and fescue lawn. I have methodically replaced it over the last five springs, summers, and falls with species native to North America. Why? I’m an ecologist, and I see irreplaceable natural communities and ecosystems being degraded and destroyed every day and almost everywhere I go. Oftentimes, these types of environmental problems are large and intractable, and working against them is like screaming into the wind. One thing I can do is live my values at home. I also just like to be around plants and all of the organisms they attract. More than 500 North American plants are established on our half-acre lot […]
Hawks by the thousands head out across the west end of Lake Erie each autumn. And smaller migrators wing across at night to avoid those predatory hawks that travel by day. Holiday Beach Conservation Area on Lake Erie (near Amherstburg, Ontario, an easy drive from southeast Michigan) lies on a major fly-way for migrating birds, especially hawks. Local birders from the Holiday Beach Migration Observatory (HBMO) count and keep records on the migration spectacle.
In mid-September each year, HBMO members share the fun of migration by hosting the Festival of Hawks at Holiday Beach, the third-ranked hawk watching site in North America. For the last 41 years, volunteer bird enthusiasts from HBMO have contributed to the study of migration and bird conservation for both hawks and perching birds (“passerines”). Let’s hear it for passionate citizen scientists!
This year three of us from the Oakland Township birding group made our own migration to experience this special event. At the Festival, we looked skyward from the tall observation tower, craning our necks, binoculars aloft, to watch huge, swirling flocks of hawks, known as “kettles,” as seen in the photo above and at left below.
What a sight to see roughly 200 Broad-winged Hawks (Buteo platypterus) wheeling up and over the tree line at the horizon! These forest raptors with their banded tails spiral upward on thermals, riding currents of rising, warm air to great heights with little effort. Traveling over 4,000 miles, hundreds of thousands of these hawks create a “river of raptors” (as they call it in Mexico) flowing into their winter territories in Mexico, Central and South America. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Another impressive raptor settled low in a tree right over the path to the viewing area. An Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) had caught a fish and wasn’t going anywhere until it finished its meal! Ospreys, unlike other hawks, eat only fish. They are skilled anglers and tend to carry their prey head-first for less wind resistance. This one gave me a fierce stare and then went right back to eating its lunch.
We visitors were allowed to crowd around a trained and licensed HBMO bird bander as he attached bands to several birds caught in their super-fine “mist nets.” Runners watch the nets which are stretched between poles on fly-ways near the ground. The captured birds are quickly removed from the nets and rushed to the gentleman banding birds in order to release them as quickly as possible. We began by watching the banding of a tiny Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) brought in a small cloth bag. The man gently wrapped his hand around the tiny bird. The hummer was surprisingly calm.
With a special tool, he softly clipped a tiny band (10 of them fit on a diaper pin!) on the hummer’s leg. The band will identify that specific bird and allow the club to be contacted if someone observes the hummer and reports the band. The bander weighed and measured the tiny bird, then determined its gender and approximate age (juvenile or adult).
For a small donation to Holiday Beach Migration Observatory’s work, we observers could “adopt” a banded bird. That meant having a photo taken with the bird, releasing it from your open palm and being notified where/when your “adoptee” was found by another birder. Donna, one of our birders, adopted a little Hummingbird.
Here are some other birds that got banded, or had their bands checked, while we watched. (Click on the pause button if more time is needed for captions.)
As a bonus, some individuals trained and licensed in falconry brought their owls and hawks. Though hunting with trained birds is an ancient sport, it always make me a little uncomfortable to see the jesses on their legs. But these licensed professionals did give us a chance to see magnificent birds up close. And the birds were clearly well cared for, well fed and beautifully trained.
I love the whole idea of citizen science! How wonderful that the passionate birders of HBMO gather to provide data on the birds that they admire and to educate the rest of us! This summer, here in the township, several residents volunteered to monitor bluebird boxes, providing the Cornell Ornithology Lab’s NestWatch site with plentiful data on a lovely species that may contribute to their continued survival. Some of us report amphibian and reptile sightings to the Michigan Herpetology Atlas or participate in Feeder Watch, which keeps track of winter birds at our home feeders. Some are helping post-doctoral students at the U-M’s M3 Monarch Migration Study use tiny electronic monitors to learn where individual Monarch butterflies travel. There are so many ways to contribute to what science can teach us about the natural world. What’s your passion?
Well, they’re off! When the wind sails in from the north, it’s a signal to all kinds of creatures: “Time to go!” So they take wing singly and in large flocks, letting the flow of cool air support them, carrying them quickly onward as they beat wings of all sizes to make their way to warmer climes.
And of course, it’s not just birds. Above you can see our friend Nancy Isken’s photo of Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus) last week resting at Tawas Point State Park before crossing Saginaw Bay. They were beginning their long journey to Mexico where they will spend the winter. In the spring, these Monarchs will make the first leg of the journey back north, stopping in warm areas like Texas to produce a new crop of butterflies who continue heading north. These new generations will fly only a few hundred miles, stop and reproduce, completing their whole life cycle in only 5-7 weeks. So it takes several generations to complete the trip back to Michigan each summer. Sarina Jepson of the Xerces Society, which is focused on invertebrate conservation, says in a fine National Geographic article, “…when fall rolls around again, a special ‘super generation’ of monarchs that can live up to eight months will make use of air currents to wing all the way back to Mexico—a seemingly impossible feat for such a delicate-looking insect.” Imagine that! So the Monarch butterflies born here In Oakland Township each summer can potentially live for 8 months instead of 5-7 weeks and fly 3,000 miles instead of a few hundred. We are living among real, live superheroes!
And Monarchs aren’t the only insects that migrate. Green Darner Dragonflies (Anax junius) (also tracked by the Xerces Society) travel down to Texas and Mexico as well. For dragonflies, it also takes many generations of reproduction before their trip is completed, though their migration is less well understood. But again, like the Monarch generations that arrive here each summer, the dragonfly offspring seem to know how to find their way in the right direction. Citizen science and research is helping explore dragonfly migration. But for now, I love a good nature mystery, don’t you?
Painted Lady butterflies (Vanessa cardui) make multiple generation migrations all over the world. But they migrate erratically. Some years they migrate and some years they don’t. And the direction and route can vary widely. Some experts speculate that their migration routes may be affected by dramatic changes in weather and climate – another nature mystery yet to be solved.
At this time of year, the night sky begins to fill with thousands, even millions, of birds riding the wind south in the darkness, navigating by the stars or the setting sun, or by sensing the earth’s magnetic field. Some may navigate by landmarks or simply remembering good feeding grounds. And amazingly, most juvenile migrating birds, like those insects hatching during migration, somehow know how to find their way without any help from adults! Cornell’s BirdCast website is a great way to watch the flow of birds across the United States day by day throughout the fall.
Remember all those bright little warblers, unusual sparrows and other small birds that sailed up here on a south wind in May? Well, most of them have now finished breeding farther north and are beginning to make their way back to more warmth and sunshine. They’ve molted out of their bright breeding feathers so they’re a little less colorful now and their routes vary a bit depending on available food and weather. But keep a look out for these little travelers starting now. Here are a few from the autumn of previous years:
If you’re thinking you’d like to see some bird migrations in BIG numbers, you might check out the Hawk Fest featuring hawks, eagles, falcons and owls at Lake Erie Metropark on September 15 and 16. Or if you love our Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis), consider a trip to the Audubon Society’s Cranefestat Big Marsh Lake in Bellevue, Michigan (near Battle Creek) on October 13 and 14.
Of course, if you want to stay close to home, you’ll be warmly welcomed at our Oakland Township Wednesday morning bird walks. The walks rotate through our township parks each month and in September and October, they start at 8 a.m. The schedule is available year ’round if you click on the drop-down menu above for “Stewardship Events.” We’re a friendly group with some experienced birders who are glad to help beginners see their first migrators. Bring your binoculars or borrow a set from Ben, our Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, who leads the walks.
So yes, summer is waning. But I can’t help feeling celebratory as autumn air turns crisp and the skies fill with winged creatures. I recommend looking upward this fall and perhaps wishing “Bon Voyage!”, to our migrators who provide such beauty and mystery as they find their paths through the air.
Readers of this blog know, I hope, that I love wild creatures of all kinds. But I will admit that in August, young Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) try my patience!
Almost every year, a mated pair of Red-tails successfully raise one carefully tended youngster in the woods across the field from our home. According to the Stokes’ Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol. III), Red-tailed Hawk mates are good partners, each taking turns on the nest for the month-long incubation period. Then they spend another month feeding the nestlings, first tearing off bits of prey to feed the young directly, and later dropping off food for the young to eat on their own. (I have yet to see the nesting behavior because it seems to take place in a woods on private property nearby).
Even a couple weeks after fledgling, the adult hawks will bring food to the young who will continue begging with their “Kloo-eek” calls. But inevitably the time finally arrives when the youngster must hunt on its own. And it seems to take a while for young hawks to accept this reality. (Ring bells with any human young you know, dear reader?)
That’s when we’re treated to about a month of plaintive piercing calls coming from the electrical towers in the field next to us. I’ve counted. We hear 3-5 calls about every 15-30 seconds for hours each day! (Turn your volume up – but be prepared!)
The adults do not appear or respond. They either believe in tough love or don’t respond because they are finishing their yearly molt – probably both. As the Stokes so calmly describe it, “If red-tails have nested anywhere near your home, this constant calling of the young can be quite tiresome.” Ummm…yeah. But we grin and bear it, knowing that this striking raptor is an important – and beautiful – part of nature’s balance. And within a few weeks, thank goodness, it will fly off, seeking its own little corner of the world.
The north and east prairies at Charles Ilsley Park get more glorious each summer as restoration brings the return of colorful wildflowers blooming again in their native soil. Great sweeps of Black-eyed Susans(Rudbeckia hirta) stare up into the blue sky surrounded by the tousled, lavender blossoms of Bee-balm (Monarda fistulosa) and flat, compact cushions of white Yarrow (Achillea millefolium).
Tall Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) sway in even the slightest breeze.
The peaceful beauty of these undulating prairies on a summer afternoon is mesmerizing. The nodding dance of flowers and the flutter of butterflies among them soothe the spirit much like the sight and sound of a peaceful ocean – but with such a variety of color and movement! Wonderful!
Last Sunday along the entrance trail, young Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) perched high on a dead branch, waiting to be fed. They begged in the usual fledgling fashion, fluttering their small wings rapidly and calling. Finally, a parent arrived (lower left in the photo below), settled and seemed to be considering which to feed first.
Then the adult swooped out across the meadow, gathering insects in its open beak. It returned and managed a short mid-air pause, beating its wings vigorously as it speedily popped food into one of the open beaks.
Then off went mom or dad again to scoop up more bugs! Such a challenging job to feed all four of those hungry youngsters! (One is behind the lowest branch.)
In the center of the park, where restoration planting happened just weeks ago, the melt ponds are drying up, leaving a strange, foamy surface. Water is so crucial for wildlife that it’s always a reliable spot to find something interesting.
A slim bird that I believe was a young Killdeer (Charadriusvociferus), with its naturally worried look, poked along the edge of the pond. The Stokes’ Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol 2) describes juvenile Killdeer as “very similar to adults except that their upper feathers are margined with lighter edges, their dark neck bands are narrower and often gray or brown instead of black.” I think this one fits that description. Do you agree? Once the young are ready to be on their own, their parents breed again. But the male keeps an eye on the youngsters from the first brood from a distance, while the female incubates the new eggs.
Two fledgling Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis), with just a touch of blue on their wings, watched the killdeer from a small, bare tree nearby. No foraging for them right then. Perhaps they were hoping a parent would come to stuff their beaks like the swallows, but at the moment, no such luck. Like the Killdeer adults, their busy parents may also be encouraging their first brood to feed on their own while the adults start a second. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Some adult birds hung out near the pond as well. A Green Heron (Butorides virescens) was so intent on feeding that it flew toward us to find some open water.
This heron was a skilled fisher! It found a bounty of food in the drying pond. Watch below as it stalks and then catches what appears to be a crayfish nymph. (Use the pause button if you need more time for captions.)
The fiercely territorial Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) looked remarkably unruffled by the other species exploring the resources of the pond below. And nearby in a tree at the edge of the center field, an adult Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) looked as though it must have been preening vigorously since its feather were very ruffled! Drat those feather mites!
Summer turned into an unusually busy time for me this year. So I relish escaping into our parks, where I can watch young birds learn the ropes of feeding, or just quietly enjoy the way Yellow Coneflowers sway above a multi-colored prairie. I recommend it to you as a peaceful alternative to a day at the beach.