Category Archives: Insects

Bear Creek Nature Park: Snow, Sleet but Spring Arrived Anyway!

Red-winged Blackbirds in an April snow squall

Wow, what a tough April – for us and for wildlife! I even considered the possibility at one point that our thermometer was broken, since it seemed to be stuck at 32 degrees! The intrepid birding group went out in a snow squall the first week of the month. Despite cold and driving wind, we still came across flocks of early migrators, like the Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) pictured above,  along with more than 60 robins foraging in the meadows.

We got a couple of brief respites in which it was possible to imagine a normal spring day with birdsong, fragile leaves, turtles warming in the sun. Then it was back in the freezer. Wildlife and plant life coped with cold wind and sleet, soaked up whatever sun was available and waited for change. We humans harnessed the warmer days for stewardship projects. And then voilà, spring arrived (I hope) last weekend.

Despite the Icy Cold, Birds Arriving, Leaving, and Braving the Cold, Plus a Tough Little Willow Tree.

Experts tell us that bird migration depends more on the length of spring days, than it does on the temperature. As a result, our first summer-only birds arrived to find snowy fields rather than the first greening of spring. What could they or our year ’round residents do but cope?

This Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) hid among the grasses at the edge of the marsh as the snow fell on the birders the first Wednesday in April. She’s probably been back for a few weeks and is well-equipped to deal with the cold. Normally by this time, though, she’d be picking nest sites, but I doubt this thin spot at the edge of the marsh was being seriously considered.

A Canada Goose rested among the dead reeds at the edge of the marsh as the snow fell.

In a tree at the south end of the marsh, a male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) looked dismayed by the cold wind ruffling his crest. His staring eyes seemed to suggest that he was as stunned by the freezing temperatures as the bundled-up birders below him!

A Northern Cardinal looking a bit shocked at the snow and the icy wind ruffling his crest.

Birders spotted the silhouette of a Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) hunched in a branch near the marsh. No doubt it was hoping to have some clean-up work soon. After all, its job and its food source is seeing that all the carrion in the park is dealt with quickly and efficiently. I had to wonder if it regretted having left southern Ohio, or points even farther south.

The silhouette of a Turkey Vulture coping with an April snowstorm at Bear Marsh.

During a brief pause in the snowfall, a Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula), who may have spent his winter in southern Ohio, stared out into the white landscape. It’s likely he arrived with other males and a mixed flock of Red-wings and Brown-headed Cowbirds, frequent traveling companions this time of year.

A lone Grackle looking back  toward the south on a snowy Michigan day

Over at the Playground Pond, a shy little Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) huddled on a branch, twitching its tail over the water, as the snow fell. Having perhaps wintered in Tennessee, this little bird is usually one of the earliest flycatchers to arrive in Michigan. So it’s hardy enough to brave the cold – though maybe, like us, it have would preferred better April weather. Look closely;  it’s nicely camouflaged against the branches and behind the veil of falling snow!

An Eastern Phoebe, in its brown and white plumage, almost disappears into the branches and the snowfall.

Our sturdy, native Pussy Willow (Salix discolor) survives even in Alaska and northern Canada. So it bravely thrust forth its fuzzy white catkins in the southern part of the marsh as the snow swirled around it. The bright, bare branches of native Red Twig/Red-Osier Dogwood (Cornus sericea) added a nice dash of color to a dark morning.

Some of the winter-only visitors are still stocking up before leaving for points north. Small flocks of  American Tree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea) twitter among the bushes, getting last minute meals before heading to Hudson’s Bay or the Arctic tundra for the summer. They certainly seem to relish cold weather! I’m glad Bear Creek Nature Park seems to have provided enough winter food for this small long-distance flyer.

A Tree Sparrow stocks up on food before leaving for Hudson’s Bay in northern Canada or perhaps the Arctic tundra.

During a brief snow melt last week, the Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) also seemed busy preparing to depart northward for the summer. They foraged among the newly sprouting grass where the prescribed burn had taken place in March. They don’t travel quite as far as the Tree Sparrows, perhaps only into Ontario.

The Dark-eyed Juncos are preparing to depart to Ontario and points north.

Short, Warm Respites Meant Birdsong, Frog Song, Turtles and More

For a few short days, off and on, we had sun and some genuinely spring-like temperatures. The  Wood Frogs (Rana sylvatica) thawed out from their winter freeze. The low, chuckling call of the Wood Frogs joined the constant, rhythmic peeping of the Chorus Frogs, featured in the blog a couple of weeks ago. Here’s a photo of a Wood Frog taken last November as they began hibernation. The black patch near the eye underlined with light yellow, plus ridges down the back are the field marks for this small frog.

Last November the Wood Frog found a spot to hibernate in a log or under fallen leaves.

The clucking or chuckling sounds in the foreground of this recording from a week ago are those of the Wood Frog. The higher-pitched calls in the background are from Western Chorus frogs. Be sure to turn up your volume!

On a cold but sunny afternoon, the male Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) chirped his burbling refrain as the wind ruffled his feathers and carried his melodious tune out across the Eastern Meadow.

A Song Sparrow lets the wind carry his song into the Eastern Meadow.

On the recording below taken ten days ago, he sings loudly twice with a bit of a rest in between.

When the temperature rose to sixty degrees, all kinds of plants, animals and insects seemed to come to life at once! When Ben ventured out into the park about 8:30 pm one evening, he heard the buzzing “peent” call of the American Woodcock (Scolopax minor).  This call from the ground precedes an aerial display in which the Woodcock spirals up into the sky and then chirps on the way down, plummeting the last several feet before landing right where it began. All this happens just before dark in small open fields near wetlands at Bear Creek and Cranberry Lake Parks. For the whole sequence of sounds during this mating flight, try this link at Cornell Ornithology Lab. (Wait for the “peent!” at the end. It will surprise you!). Though I’ve heard and briefly seen the Woodcock, here’s a photo by talented photographer Jerry Oldenettel at iNaturalist.org who’s had much better luck than I at getting a good photo!

The Woodcock probes for worms with that long beak and performs an elaborate courting dance as the sun sets.

A pair of Bluebirds (Sialis sialis) seem to searching out nest sites at Bear Creek. I saw a male one snowy afternoon peering down into the grass for possible food and a female surveying the Eastern Meadow.

This male Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus) finds all kinds of good things to eat as he tap, tap, taps on a tree trunk. Though they’ll eat seeds and fruits, their preference is for insect larvae, so they’re very good stewards of trees, ridding them of bark beetles and other insects. According to Donald W. Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.1), if we hear a quick, loud, regular beat in its drumming, that’s a mating call. When the drumming is lighter and irregular, the Hairy is either feeding or starting to excavate a nest hole.

The Hairy Woodpecker has a thicker, longer beak than the similar Downy.

Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater) foraged in the fields as well. These handsome birds don’t create nests, but rather lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. Cowbirds aren’t really irresponsible parents. Having evolved to constantly follow western buffalo herds, they had no time to care for young. So the cowbirds who took advantage of the nests and care of other birds carried on the species!

A Brown-headed Cowbird pauses while foraging in the Eastern Meadow.

The Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta marginata), who’d been hibernating in the cold mud on pond bottoms all winter, climbed onto logs all over the park on the first warm day. In the photo below, nine of them were basking in a patch of  sunlight within a shady wetland, letting the sun soak into their dark shells. Aahhh, that must have felt sooo good!

Nine Painted Turtles turtles basking in the sunlight on the first warm day.

While hand sowing native seed, we discovered Eastern Garter Snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis) twisted around each other in a wriggling hug as they mated in the brown grass. The female, according to Wikipedia, is larger than the male. They may have evolved this way because garter snakes bear live young. The more little snakes they can carry, the more likely their genes will go on to another generation.

Eastern Garter Snakes mating. The male snake is much smaller than the female who needs to carry the live young.

With temperatures so low, insects are still scarce in the fields right now. But I noticed what appears to be a Sexton/Carrion Beetle (g. Nicrophorus, fam. Silphidae) clambering through grass and leaves one warm-ish afternoon. It was probably sensing a dead mouse or bird and heading to bury it as a source of food for its larvae. These small members of the “cleanup crew” are large and colorful, usually dark with red on the forewings and fancy club-shaped antennae.

A Sexton Beetle on its way to bury a carcass of a mouse or bird on which its larvae can feed.

I saw two plants making go of it in the cold April air. The perennial Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) thrust it bulbous, purple bract (spathe) up through the mud. The bract envelops a long spike (spadix) which holds the flowers. Early flies and bees are attracted by its pungent (and skunk-y, not very pleasant) odor. Interesting that the leaves on this plant show up after the flowers.

At this time last year, another of the earliest spring flowers, Spring Beauties (Claytonia virginica) had already presented their pink- and white-striped blossoms in the forest. This year, though, in the middle of April, their spindly leaves were just starting up around the roots of large trees. Perhaps the warmer weather will hurry them along, too!

Stewardship Projects Proceeded

A few cold but clear days provided suitable conditions for Dr. Ben’s VanderWeide’s park projects.  Along with the prescribed burn in March and hand-sowing the fields of Bear Creek with native seed, Ben, Alex Kriebel (stewardship specialist with Oakland Township Parks), Ian Ableson (a new stewardship employee at Six Rivers Land Conservancy), and 4 volunteers began the yearly monitoring of vernal pools. As part of a larger project of the Michigan Natural Features Inventory, Ben monitors these biodiversity hotspots three times over the summer. What a collection of unusual creatures! They wake and feed or quickly hatch, mature, mate, lay eggs and expire in these temporary ponds that dry over the summer. Great to know our vernal pools are teeming with life! (Click on pause button if you need more time for captions.)

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The Promise of Full-fledged Spring

A young girl flies her kite at Bear Creek Nature Park on a spring-like afternoon.

We humans know how to take advantage of spring-like weather, just as the wildlife does. One warm, cloudy afternoon, a small girl brought her kite to test the April winds. This youngster got her long-tailed kite flying high and kept it there. So great to see parents bringing young children out to play surrounded by nature in our parks.

Last weekend, I think most of us dared to hope that “real spring” had finally arrived. The air was softer, the temperature more normal for late April, and a brighter sun warmed our upturned faces from a blue sky. Leaf buds that have waited on branches all winter have begun to swell. Soon more of those buds will open and our world will slowly dress itself in spring’s lovely shade of green. More migrators will navigate hundreds or even thousands of miles, making use of the sun, the stars and earth’s magnetic fields to find their way back to us.  Mornings and sunsets will be filled with more chatter and birdsong. So try to keep your eyes and ears alert!  Spring’s full-fledged arrival is just beginning to burst forth in full glory.

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner; inaturalist.org;Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela;Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels,  and others as cited in the text.

Recapping a Great Presentation on Pollinators: Exploring Michigan Bees, Wasps, and Bee-wannabes!

In late January, the Oakland Township Natural Areas Stewardship program hosted an overflow crowd for an evening presentation by Caleb Wilson of Oakland University on protecting our backyard pollinators.  Throughout the presentation, I heard voices around me (including mine) whispering “Really?  I never knew that!” So I thought I’d share a few of those “Really!” moments with all of you.

Blog and photos by Cam Mannino

Here’s a gallery of photos.  See if you can spot the differences between  bees, wasps and hoverflies (the “bee-wannabes” of the title.)  Then, read on to learn more about these important little insects! (Use the pause button if you need time for captions or a closer look.)

[Edit:  Please note that, at our request,  Caleb was kind enough to “fine tune” this piece for me shortly after it was published.  My thanks to him for that help and for a great presentation!]

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Caleb Wilson’s First Cool Facts about Bees

  • Approximately 4,000 species of bees inhabit North America (as compared to about 3000 species of vertebrates). Michigan hosts more than 465 bee species!
  • Western or European Honey bees (Apis mellifera) are not native to the U.S.  They were brought here by settlers who wanted a sweetener when sugar was still a luxury .
  • Bees are strict vegetarians. They eat sweet nectar and protein-rich pollen.  Wasps (suborder Apocrita that aren’t ants and bees), however, are omnivorous.  They primarily feed on nectar – but not pollen – and young wasps feed only on invertebrates –  like other insects, insect larvae (caterpillars) or spiders –  brought back to the nest by their mothers.
  • Bees are excellent pollinators since their “furry” bodies distribute a lot of pollen as they move from one flower to another.
  • Hover Flies (family Syrphidae) – the bee-wannabes –  are the second most common pollinator after bees. They imitate bee colors and patterns for protection from predators, but actually have no stingers. Neat trick!
  • Wasps  are less effective as pollinators because they have much less hair on their generally thin, smooth bodies so pollen does not stick to them.  Wasps benefit our gardens and other agriculture, though,  by controlling insect pests.

Checking the ID of Bees, Wasps and Hover Flies

  • Bees have wings which cover their petiole or “waists” (connection between their thorax and abdomen) when feeding,  so their waists can be difficult to see. Wasps have tiny waists and hoverflies have thick ones.
  • Bees and wasps have four wings – though the second set are hard to see since they are hooked together when flying and so they appear to have only two. Hoverflies only have two wings.
  • Bees are fuzzy, whereas wasps and hoverflies generally have very little hair or none on their bodies. Most bees have a hairy back leg, though European honey bees don’t.
  • Bees and wasps have eyes on the sides of their heads and longer antennae. Hoverflies have eyes on the tops of their heads (often touching) and short antennae.
  • If it’s visibly carrying  pollen on its legs or body, it’s some kind of bee.

Myths about Bees that Needed Correction

  • “All bees make honey.”  Uh, No… Most bees don’t make honey. Honey bees do, of course. And native Bumblebee queens store “nectar pots” to be eaten by their larvae as they develop – but no honey.
  • “All bees sting.”  Well, No, Actually. All female bees can sting; males can’t.  Honey bees can only sting once because their stinger is barbed to stay in your skin (ouch!) and as the honey bee pulls away, the lower part of her abdomen tears away and she dies.  Other female bees in our part of the world (for example, the bumblebee) and female wasps (the Yellow Jacket, for instance) have stingers without barbs and can sting repeatedly.
  • “Bees are aggressive.”  Wrong again.  Bees generally sting only to protect their hive. They will generally ignore humans otherwise. Wasps, however, can be more aggressive.
  • “Bees live in hives.”  Mmmm…some do, some don’t.  Honey bees are very social and do, of course, live in hives.   Bumblebees are social, too but they nest in the ground. Sweat bees form colonies with a queen and workers, but they don’t make honey and don’t have large numbers like a honey hive.  But most bees are solitary.  They live in burrows that they dig in the ground, or in cavities like logs, reeds, stems of dead plants, snail shells and such. Occasionally solitary bees lay their eggs in group areas for protection, but they each care for their own young rather than having communal hives. Social wasps, like Yellow Jackets (genus Vespula or Dolichovespula),  build elaborate nests but many wasps are solitary, too.

Why are Bees in Decline?

It turns out there are multiple factors:

  • A significant cause is that there are just fewer flowering plants! Urbanization has brought concrete and large areas of green lawn monocultures with fewer flowers. Agriculture has replaced fields full of diverse wildflowers with huge fields of soybeans and corn which are pollinated by wind, not by bees or other pollinators.
  • Insecticides like neonicotinoids and fungicides are in many treated seeds and seedlings or are sprayed on crops, killing bees as well as predatory pests and fungi.
  • Parasites and pathogens that used to attack other bees have now switched to honeybees.
  • Transportation throughout the year to various crops and other uses of agricultural bees can stress them. Bumblebees, for example,  are often kept in large greenhouses to pollinate tomatoes. In such settings,  they can develop viruses and parasites like Nosema bombi, which can then be spread to wild bees.

So Here’s How We Can Help Our Bees

  • Plant more flowers – native ones, preferably!  Find a native plant nursery here.
  • Leave those dandelions in your yard a little longer!  It’s often the only flower around in early spring and bees LOVE them!
  • Plant flowers of different species that will bloom at different times of the year so that nectar and pollen are present in spring, summer and fall.
  • Reduce the frequency of mowing  and raise the height of your mower if you can.
  • If you plant from seeds or seedlings, make an effort to determine if they have been treated with chemicals. This is not always easy to determine, especially when buying from large chain stores.
  • Some bees need bare patches of ground or rotten wood.  If you have an out-of-the-way bare spot on your property, bees will appreciate it.
  • You might build a bee hotel to host wild bees but be careful about its design, so it cannot host mold or attract parasites.  Here’s a site Caleb trusts for info on them.  They also need periodic cleaning.
  • Don’t buy a honey bee hive if you want to save native wild bees.  Honey bees are non-native and very important to agriculture, but studies show that they can have a negative impact on wild bees.  If you do decide to start bee-keeping, be sure you are fully educated by a trained professional and that you are prepared for a lot of work!  Giving up on a hive can be seriously detrimental to both the honey bees and the wild bees that live near them.
  • Leave wild plants somewhere on your property if possible, especially if you already have good habitat with native plants. If you have mostly non-native invasive plants or lawn, explore replacing some of these areas with native plants.
A native bumblebee and a non-native honey bee compete over a thistle

So consider befriending your helpful neighborhood pollinators and pest predators.  They spend their short lives in service to the flowers, fruits and vegetables that we all enjoy.  For lots more great identification photos and tips on helping bees, check out the Michigan bee website of Jason Gibbs from the Entomology Department at Michigan State University.  He offers three big take-aways about bees:  1) Feed them by planting untreated flowers and seeds; 2) House them by saving their habitat, leaving some bare soil, or building bee hotels; 3) Don’t kill them – limit or avoid use of insecticides. Pretty do-able suggestions, I’d say.

Click here to view the slides from Caleb’s talk for wonderful photos, useful charts and more info!

Learn about Metro Detroit’s Wild Native Bees – Jan 25, 6:30 pm

Join us tomorrow night for our first 2018 Natural Areas Stewardship Talk! Caleb Wilson from Oakland University will discuss “Ecology and Conservation of Metro Detroit’s Bees: Protecting Native Pollinators in Your Backyard.” Check out the full description below. This event is free and open to the public. Bring your friends and family!

  • Location: Paint Creek Cider Mill, 4480 Orion Road, Rochester, MI 48306
  • Date: Thursday, January 25
  • Time: 6:30 pm

CalebWilson_NativeBees_2018_Flyer

Beauty in Every Season: A Year-End Review of our Parks and Natural Areas

Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide and I both got inspired by the idea of a year-end reflection on some of  the remarkable sights in our parks and natural areas over the last year. Nature excels in surprising and delighting any curious observer with its ability to come back from adversity, in some cases to even thrive in difficult circumstances. That ability to keep on growing and creating in the face of any obstacle can be a great inspiration in challenging times.

Blog and photos by Cam Mannino

So as the snow falls, please sit back in a comfortable chair with a warm drink and savor  some highlights from the four seasons of 2017 here in Oakland Township.

Winter 2017: Serenity Rises as the Snow Falls

The Tree Line Between Two Prairies, Charles Ilsley Park

Sometimes we just need a little less hubbub after the holidays and the parks provide a  peaceful escape. In general, the only sounds are the wind in bare branches, the occasional calls of the year ’round birds and the tapping  of energetic woodpeckers foraging in the tree bark. And other times,  when we feel  a bit house-bound and crave crisp air on red cheeks,  a winter walk provides little discoveries unavailable in other seasons. During one deep freeze last winter, the weekly birding group stepped out on the ice at Cranberry Lake to inspect a beaver lodge. And a few weeks later,  I plopped down in the snow for a closer look at 3-D ice dendrites standing upright on a frozen puddle! Folks enjoyed the fine skating rink at Marsh View Park, but some who fancied wild surroundings skated on Twin Lake. On sunny winter days, shadows are always sharp and any spot of color, like the brilliant red of a male cardinal,  catches my  eye in winter’s clear, white light. Hiking in winter can be wonderful; just be sure you’re bundled up for it! (Click on pause button for longer captions.)

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Spring 2017: Buds, First Blooms, Migrators Flying in by Night and the Ebullient Symphony of Courting Birds and Frogs

Golden Alexanders carpet the woods near the Wet Prairie along the Paint Creek Trail

Ah, mud-luscious spring! The tiny Chorus and Wood Frogs thawed out after their winter freeze and sang lustily from vernal ponds. In early spring, the birders spotted a crayfish at Bear Creek who’d climbed out of her chimney with eggs under her tail and was lumbering toward the pond. Some spring avian migrators quickly passed through, and we bird watchers were lucky to spot a few special visitors. An unusual American Pipit appeared before my camera lens one afternoon at Gallagher Creek Park on its way to its breeding grounds in the far north. While others, like the Tree Swallow or the Eastern Meadowlark, settled in for the summer to raise their young. After last year’s controlled burn, native Lupines appeared along the Paint Creek Trail. And in May, Ben spotted a rare sight, a frilly spread of rare Bogbean flowers in a kettle wetland at Bald Mountain State Recreation Area off Kern Road. Snow melt and bright green buds always offer an irresistible invitation to come out and join the bustle and music of spring!

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Summer 2017: Butterflies Galore as Restored Prairies Began to Bloom

East Prairie Ilsley 2017 (1)
Member of the birding group at Charles Ilsley Park in July

Summer! The very word conjures up a coloring box assortment of butterflies hovering over prairie wildflowers. Birds constructed their nests and later wore themselves out feeding noisy, demanding fledglings. We birders particularly enjoyed close looks at a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak sharing egg-warming duties near a Bear Creek path. The birders laughed in surprise watching  a passive/aggressive pair of Canada Geese successfully discourage the presence of a Green Heron by simply swimming uncomfortably close to it.  A family ambled along a path at Draper Twin Lake Park, headed for a morning fishing expedition.  The birding group, binoculars in hand,  spotted an Indigo Bunting while walking the new paths through the prairies at Charles Ilsley Park, increasingly spangled with colorful native wildflowers as restoration proceeds. A Great Horned Owl stared at the delighted birding group through a scrim of leaves near Bear Creek marsh.  Every path in the township hummed with life during the summer months. But that’s what we all expect of summer, right?

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Autumn 2017:  Birds Departed South, and Fall Wildflowers Bloomed

Autumn color at Cranberry Lake Park

Tundra Swans flew in formation overhead,  as migrators of all kinds, like the Hermit Thrush, rode the north wind down to southern climes. But as they departed, nature offered a consolation.  Many native wildflowers bloomed in the cool weather as they faithfully do each year. Asters formed carpets of color everywhere, from meadow to marsh! At the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail,  tiny Ladies Tresses orchids, Grass of Parnassus with its delicately striped petals, and vivid purple Fringed Gentian intrigued me again by emerging in the chill of early autumn. Native bumblebees pushed their way into Bottle Gentian flowers at Gallagher Creek Park and the Wet Prairie. Butterflies still sipped nectar from late fall blooms. The birders identified ducks of all kinds assembled in rafts on Cranberry Lake. Rattling cries alerted me to the presence of  Belted Kingfishers who scouted for prey at  both Bear Creek’s pond and Cranberry Lake. Ben dipped his net into a marsh at Charles Ilsley Park to show us tadpoles that overwinter on the muddy surface beneath the water. So much life as the year 2017 began to ebb!

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Parks Full of Life All Year ‘Round. Aren’t We Lucky?

As a direct result of the foresight of township residents who have supported the Parks Commission and land preservation, native plants, wildlife, birds, and a beautifully diverse combination of habitats are being restored and preserved in Oakland Township. I want to share my appreciation for that foresight and for the hard work and knowledge of Ben VanderWeide (my kind and able supervisor and editor), other parks volunteers, my fellow birders and park staff.  And at the end of the year, I thank all of you who read, comment on and/or follow Natural Areas Notebook. It’s wonderful to be learning more all the time about the natural world – and then to have this opportunity to share what I’m learning with all of you. On to 2018!

Photos of the Week: Surprised by a Winter Insect

The marsh at Draper Lake Park in early December

On an early December day, when temperature hovered around 40 degrees in a leafless Draper Twin Lake Park, a loose swarm of flying insects danced in the low afternoon sunlight. Instead of flying like most swarming insects, in a tumbling horizontal cloud, these small insects, about 1/4 to 1/2  inch long and very delicate, fluttered vertically near the ground, their tiny wings just a blur among the dry and shriveled remains of plants.

A blur of tiny insects near some leafless twigs

What sort of insect flies in December? Finally, one of these chill-hardy small creatures landed on a desiccated Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota). A little research revealed that these up-and-down dancers were Winter Crane Flies (family Trichoceridae), a not-too-distant  relative of the larger crane flies (family Tipulidae) seen in the summer months.

Closeup of a Winter Crane Fly on a dried Queen Anne’s Lace blossom

According to the Field Station website of the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, it seems that these bobbing insects are males, probably doing a mating dance, luring out any recently-hatched female who might be interested.  She will lay her eggs in a damp area – inside a a cave, under leaf litter or inside a hollow log like this one.

Most sources believe that adult winter crane flies don’t bother to eat. After all, winter doesn’t offer much food!  But when the larvae hatch from those eggs, they forage on decaying plant matter until ready to pupate and emerge during a winter thaw or on a cold day in the very early spring.  So you might keep an eye out for a few of these hardy Winter Crane Flies walking on the  snow surface on a warm-ish winter day.

If winter insects intrigue you or your children, the Clinton River Watershed Council (CRWC) is hosting Bug ID Training on Thursday, January 11, from 6-7 pm. A few weeks later you can put your new ID skills to use at the CRWC Winter Stonefly Search on Saturday, January 20 from 9 am – 2 pm (registration required). These aquatic insect naiads can’t tolerate pollution because they require well-oxygenated water to survive.  Finding them in a stream, therefore,  is great sign of water quality.  So if you have a future entomologist in your family or are just curious about the health of our rivers and streams, call CRWC (248-601-0606) or email (registration@crwc.org) to register for either event. Click the link above for more details about these great opportunities. Thanks to Clinton River Watershed Council for monitoring the health of our water!