October is autumn’s transition month. Some days are warm and sunny, creating almost an illusion of late summer or early September. And on those days, a few bees and butterflies flutter across my path, caterpillars bump along through the grass and native wildflowers still bloom in the fields. A turtle in the Draper marsh basks in the thinning light.
Change is in the air. Let’s look back to see what October had to offer as we take the first cold, rainy steps into the austerity of November.
Early October: Late Season Wildflowers Host the Occasional Bee or Butterfly
One Sunday afternoon in October, a Common Buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia) fluttered down onto the trail right in front of my husband and I. In the summer, Draper Twin Lake Park hosts a rainbow of butterflies. Some mate, lay their eggs and expire, leaving caterpillars behind in their chrysalises. But this colorful little butterfly migrates south for the winter and returns in the spring. Perhaps it stopped at Draper to sample the various goldenrods, since it prefers yellow flowers. Can you see the slightly bug-eyed expression on its face? I laughed to think it was as surprised to see my husband and I as we were to see it land right in front of us!
Late October: Swaying, Russet Prairie Plants Provide a Fall Feast for Wildlife
The video above may look like a sea of dry brown stems to you. But to the birds, particularly the American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis), it looks like your heavily laden Thanksgiving table. In just the video’s 40 seconds, you are seeing hundreds of thousands of seeds: Indian Grass, Coneflowers, Black-eyed Susans, Stiff Goldenrod, Little Bluestem and many more. On the August birdwalk, we spent a happy ten minutes or so watching a flock of goldfinches swaying on bobbing stalks as they stuffed themselves with Stiff Goldenrod seed (Solidago rigida). First there were two and then suddenly there were five all scrabbling to feed on the abundant seed heads.
Relishing Autumn’s Transformation
The Draper prairie with its great looping trail really may look dry, brown and lifeless to some hikers. But not to me. At this time of year, I feel a lot like Ratty, a “country gentleman” sort of muskrat in the children’s classic Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame, a book I quoted in an earlier blog. Like me, Ratty senses the restlessness of autumn. He heads out into a farmer’s field, much as I waded out into the tall grass of Draper’s northern prairie: “…he thrust into the great realm of wheat, yellow, wavy, and murmurous, full of quiet motion and small whisperings. Here he often loved to wander through the forest of stiff strong stalks that carried their own golden sky away over his head — a sky that was always dancing, shimmering, softly talking; or swaying strongly to the passing wnd and recovering itself with a toss and a merry laugh. Here, too, he had many small friends, a society complete in itself…”
Ratty is a kindred spirit. Autumn also plunges me into the bending and tossing grasses and the whispering of dry stems where I can stand shoulder deep in the prairie and just “be” with it all. Like him, I sense a community of other creatures in the flocks of fidgety birds, the agitated butterflies searching for the last bloom, the relentless plodding of a caterpillar through the grass stems. Autumn’s restlessness urges me to celebrate the change, change and change again of every season. I appreciate that reminder.
Lost Lake Nature Park may be small, only about 58 acres, but it’s a big resource for all kinds of wildlife – including us humans! Roughly 10,000 years ago, the glaciers sculpted this park with its rolling woodlands that now slope down to shady wetlands dotted with ferns and mushrooms. The deep Laurentian ice sheet also eventually dropped enough material to create a huge hill, one of the highest places in the township – now a magnificent sledding hill in the winter months.
The glaciers also gifted us with a large kettle lake. A huge chunk of ice broke off the ancient glacier and melted, gradually filling its hole with water as the glacier retreated, leaving rocks, soil and gravel around the lakeshore. Anglers – both human and avian – now pull fish from the lake and in the fall, a variety of birds seem to find it an ideal place to rest, socialize and feed before heading for points south.
So please join me on the dock as birds call and forage on the far shore or mud flats. Wander with me up and down hills in the woodland dimness, where a dragonfly devours its kin (!), green pools glow in the distance and a motley collection of colorful mushrooms appear and disappear within the bed of dark, moist leaves left from the summer evaporation of a vernal pool. It really is a “magical” little place!
The Pond Provides R&R Before the Big Push South
Almost any time from spring to fall, the honking of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) greets me as I step from my car at Lost Lake Nature Park. What appeared to be a family of about eight glided peacefully around the lake on a cool October morning. A noisy male declared himself to all comers, sounding his deep “honk” which wards off intruders but is also used right before takeoff. The female will often make a higher “hink” call in response, especially when in flight. This group eventually took off toward the east after a relaxing hour or so cruising the pond.
Far across the pond, a tall white figure lifted its knobby, backward knees as it stalked along in the mud. A Great Egret (Ardea alba) stuffed itself on creatures too far away for me to see; frogs, small fish, dragonflies, and grasshoppers all contribute to an Egret’s diet.
For a while, the egret just stared up into the sky, something I’ve never seen an egret do before. Maybe it was just being extra cautious, though I saw and heard nothing threatening. Or maybe it was just curious?
Most of the other birds at Lost Lake camouflage almost perfectly again the background of the browning vegetation on the mud flats. It pays to scan the surface with a pair of binoculars until I see movement. My camera and I could just barely discern three Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) slipping through the slim waterways that thread through the low-growing aquatic plants that blanket parts of the lake.
On the same busy day at the lake, a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) stepped out of the reeds on the far side. It was a wary creature, stalking along the edge to do a little hunting, but repeatedly slipping back into the tall plants to hide. Finally I caught it in the open – but just for a moment! It didn’t seem as lucky or perhaps as skillful as the Egret in finding food. Young Blue Herons are on their own two or three weeks after leaving the nest, so I wondered whether this was a slightly nervous juvenile or simply a wary adult.
A young Green Heron (Butorides virescens) appeared in my binoculars as I swept my gaze across the lake’s mottled surface. Since the heron stood almost completely still, I would never have spotted it without them. Its striped neck is the most obvious sign that this one is a youngster. Shortly, this solitary bird will head out on it own to spend the winter in Florida, along the Gulf Coast, or in the Bahamas. How young birds who often travel alone know where to spend the winter remains a mystery. According to the website of the University of Colorado at Boulder, recent studies indicate that migrations destinations may be genetically determined through years of evolution.
The high, keening cry of the Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) sounded over the lake as a trio of them flew across the pond, wings akimbo at a sharp angle. They too stayed at the north edge of the lake, poking along the muddy shore for a very long time. My binoculars could reach them, but they were too small for my camera to see clearly. So I sat down on the deck and waited. Finally, the three flew in my direction and settled on a grassy flat. They too were nicely camouflaged by the browning foliage in the background, especially the bird on the left!
As I left the floating dock, I noticed a sparkling patch on the surface of the water. On closer inspection, it turned out to be a hatch of Whirligig Beetles (family Gyrinidae) swirling across the surface with sun on their rounded backs.
These little creatures seek protection in groups, swimming frantically in circles when agitated. Their divided eyes are believed to allow them to see both above and below the water’s surface. Nonetheless, periodically a fish dashed to the surface and a few disappeared, leaving a gap in the swarm, as you can see in the 10 second video below.
A closeup shot (below) shows these rotund insects more clearly. You can see how each little beetle makes its own tiny ripples as it energetically rows over the surface with its hind and middle legs. The front legs are used to grab other insects, including those unlucky enough to fall in their midst!
At the water’s edge, a small American Bullfrog (Rana catesbeianus) sat quietly in the shadows, its face turned to the sunlight. I mistook it at first for a Green Frog (Rana clamitans), but they have rigid folds down either side of their back. This little bullfrog had a fold that curled around its tympanum, the eardrum-like circle on the side of a frog’s head. Also its eyes sit up high on its head; Green Frogs’ eyes are lower with little noticeable bulge. I wondered if this small frog stared so steadily because it was trying to see the shadow of an insect flying by, silhouetted against the light. I wish just once I’d get to see that long tongue flash out and snag one!
On one of my trips to Lost Lake, I came across a mother and son team fishing on the deck. The young man, Zach Adams, had just pulled in a Largemouth Bass (Micropterus salmoides) – and I believe, on his first cast! His mom, Cheryl, took a photo before her son released it back into the water. I’m happy that she kindly shared her photo with me, so I could show you one of the denizens that live below the surface of Lost Lake. This bass is what researchers call an “apex predator,” which means that its presence maintains the balance of species within the lake.
Then, Into the Steeply Sloping Woods
The path that leads to the woods was filled with dappled light one October afternoon. A Bumblebee (genus Bombus) slipped its long tongue into the last few flowers ringing a Bee Balm blossom (Monarda fistulosa) that miraculously still survived in October. You can see the stamens protruding from the tubular upper lip of each flower, while the three lower lips offer what the Illinois Wildflowers website describes as “landing pads for visiting insects.” This bumblebee has made the most of the landing pad, I’d say!
Where the sunlight found its way through the leaves, another Bumblebee nuzzled a Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) looking for whatever bits of pollen were still available before this late season goldenrod turned brown.
I came across a cloud of spreadwing damselflies fluttering among some small trees in the first shadowy light of the woods. I’d never seen so many at one time! I believe they were Emerald Spreadwings (Lestes dryas) because of their green sheen and slightly stockier appearance than most damselflies. But I never got a definitive identification.
When I spotted a female AutumnMeadowhawk (Sympetrum vicinum) in their midst, I snapped a quick photo. I didn’t realize until I saw it in my computer that it was consuming one of the spreadwings! Yikes. No honor among Odonata evidently; they are members of the same order! Well, an insect’s gotta do what an insect’s gotta do, I guess.
A Beautiful and Strange Collection of Mushrooms
The fallen log picture above hosted undoubtedly the most beautiful assemblage of mushrooms I’ve ever come across on my hikes. Violet Polypore Mushrooms (Trichaptum biforme) stepped delicately down the side of this log while orange shelf/leaf fungi (genus Stereum) formed ruffles across the surface. Down at the bottom edge, a white Hickory Tussock Moth (Lophocampa caryae) paused to either nibble a bit – or just enjoy the artistry along with me. This tableau captured me so completely that I just sat down on a nearby log to appreciate it for several minutes.
I love entering the half-light of the forest at Lost Lake Nature Park. The topography is so dramatic! The back side of the sledding hill, covered in trees, slopes away to what was a vernal pool last spring. Now I can walk out on the spongy black soil at the foot of the slope and look for mushrooms. The moisture and the bed of rotting leaves is ideal territory for them.
I’m a complete novice at mushrooms, so I want to acknowledge and thank the knowledgeable fungi fans on two Facebook pages that helped me identify some of these: Mushroom Identification and Michigan Mushroom Hunters. I assume that the members are enthusiasts, not necessarily mycologists, so please don’t take their identifications as scientific proof – just much better and more educated guesses than mine! [Important Note: I enjoy mushrooms for their place in the wildlife food chain and their beauty in natural habitats. Please don’t pick them in our parks and don’t eat any wild mushroom unless a qualified individual tells you they’re safe. Lots of our mushrooms are toxic in various ways, so beware!]
In the stippled light of the sloping forest, Russula mushrooms(genus Russula) thrust their caps above the leaf litter. Russulas are “ectomychorrizal” which means they contribute to the “wood wide web.” They form the spore-bearing, visible part of a huge, unseen network of fungi beneath the soil that allow trees to communicate and feed one another and that in return can feed off sugars in the tree roots by tapping into them. [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.
A Red Russula mushroom doesn’t have the bumps and stem ring of the red Amanita.
A White Russula, the first time I’ve seen one that wasn’t brightly colored.
Some mushrooms, of course, grow on dead wood, rather than emerging from the ground. I found two protruding in a somewhat spooky fashion from a snag (standing dead tree) in the moist soil of the former vernal pool. This one is in the genus Pholiota. It is the spore-bearer for unseen fungal threads called hyphae inside the wood that, according to Wikipedia, help break down decaying wood. In other words, like all fungi, they are recyclers!
Another recycler poked out of a nearby snag, though it looked like its job was nearly over. A Facebook mushroom enthusiast named Greg identified it as being in the genus Gymnopilus which is in the same family (Strophariaceae) as the Pholiota mushroom above. This one has a “veil,” a partial ring on the stem that mycologists think may help protect the gills under the cap where the reproductive spores are released.
In the same area, a beautiful “foliose” or Leaf Lichen draped like lace over a dead branch. A lichen is a strange life form that is not a moss or any other plant. According to Wikipedia, it “arises from algae or cyanobacteria living among filaments of multiple fungi species in a mutualistic relationship.” Some live on wood like mushrooms, but they don’t draw nutrients from it. They don’t have roots but pull water and nutrients from the air and dust. Their relationship with one of their partners, like algae, allows them to photosynthesize. These ancient organisms can look like leafy plants, drooping moss or powder on the surface of a rock. Have a look at its varied forms on the Wikipedia page. Lichens are so common in nature and yet live and grow (verrrry slowly!) in such an alien way. They intrigue me! Here’s the big, beautiful one I saw at Lost Lake.
And here’s a sight that just delighted me for no particular reason. But look at the cool knotholes on this downed sassafras log, like open mouths silently singing!
High on the Hillside, Autumn Wildflowers
We often think of summer when we think about wildflowers. But cool weather is the perfect bloom time for many plants. Some of the ones at Lost Lake Nature Park thrive between patches of light on the high slope of the forest; some are happiest down by the lake. So here’s a small assortment of plants that love fall as much as I do!
Heart-leaved Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)
Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa)
Either smooth aster (S. laeve) or prairie heart-leaved aster (S. oolentangiense)
Heath Aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides) by the lake
Lost Lake Takes Me Back to the “Magic Places” of My Childhood
When I was a child, nothing delighted me more than finding what I felt were “magic places.” Usually these spots were hidden ponds, small clearings in a woodland or sudden openings between trees that gave me a new perspective on a familiar spot. Lost Lake brought back that childhood sense of “magic” for me on my final walk this fall.
Along Turtle Creek Lane on the west side of the park, I came across the oval pond in the photo above. The woods rise steeply at the back, as if throwing a protective arm across it. I found some park property across the lane that I hadn’t explored before. It featured a small clearing in the woods and an unexpected view into a grand marsh that is on private land .
So for me, Lost Lake Nature Park has many charms: a lake bustling with birds on a crisp fall day, a trail lined with damselflies and their treacherous kin, a shady spot that lets me explore, – dry shod – the moist bottom of a vanished vernal pool. These spots encourage me to take my time, look around, and feel the “magic” I sensed as a child. That feeling of mystery and possibility feeds my desire to save what we can as the climate struggles to adapt to the changes humans have caused. I want to be sure that the children of tomorrow can wander into untamed nature and find the magic that’s still so available to you and I.
Birds and butterflies flock to Cranberry Lake Park year ’round. The wide range of habitats there – a lake, wooded wetlands, huge meadows and acres of forest – provide food and shelter during the summer for a wide range of different species. And migrators make it a regular stop-over in the spring and fall, this autumn being no exception.
Last week, little warblers flitted from limb to limb, keeping the birding group busy trying to spot them all by eye or ear. And in the meadows, the special “super-generation” Monarchs that hatched in late summer sipped from and floated above the asters and goldenrods before beginning their long migration to their wintering grounds in Mexico.
Migrating Birds Ride In, While Local Fledglings Bulk Up
When a north wind blows in the dark of night, getting out to the meadows in the morning can be a rewarding experience. Warblers and other migrators from farther north fly and float in using those winds to support them. As migration begins, being partially carried by the wind on a dark night saves energy and also avoids hawks and other predators that fly in the sunlight.
The birding group heard and saw the first flush of these seasonal nomads on their September visit to Cranberry Lake Park. Our first encounter was with a busy Black-and-White Warbler tracking up, down and around tree trunks on the Hickory Lane that runs down the western edge of the park. A tiny bird moving fast in dense shade meant that none of the birders got a decent photo. But since these beautifully patterned warblers wear the same plumage fall or spring, here’s a springtime shot when foliage was less of a problem!
Unfortunately, I missed most of the warblers on the Cranberry Lake Park bird walk by suddenly feeling ill. So fellow birder and fine photographer Joan Bonin was kind enough to share a few of her photos with me! Thank you, Joan! The group spotted a Magnolia Warbler(Setophagia magnolia) in its fall plumage, which as you’ll see in my photo on the right below is a lot different from its spring courting colors! It’s headed for the Bahamas like the Black-and-White. I hope the devastating hurricane there doesn’t mean trouble for them. Best of luck, little birds! [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]
Joan got a shot of a Black-throated Green Warbler (Setophaga virens) which is also headed to the Bahamas. It too wears less flashy plumage in the non-breeding season.
Ben caught sight of a Chestnut-sided Warbler (Setophaga pensylvanica). Using his description and The Warbler Guide by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle, I think it probably was either a female in fall plumage or a first year male or female, because it had a clear breast with no chestnut streaks on its side. Since no one got a photo, I found one from a generous photographer who uses the name “thejasperpatch” at the iNaturalist.org website. Thank you!
The male Chestnut-sided is one of my favorites because of its varied color and pattern. These tiny birds are headed for Central or South America to hang out with a flock they forage with every year – much like human friends who meet up in Florida each winter! Here’s my photo of a male prepared to charm the ladies in his spring plumage.
Ben also heard the slightly rough-edged, two or three note song of the Yellow-throated Vireo (Vireo flavifrons), but the birders could never spot it in the thick foliage. Vireos often accompany warblers on migration. This one was probably planning to spend the winter in the Bahamas too, though they also winter in Cuba. The yellow “spectacles” are one of its distinguishing features. Here’s a photo by fine photographer BJ Stacey at iNaturalist.org .
Fledglings need a bit more sustenance before heading south. Before I departed on birding day, I got a quick photo of a juvenile Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus). It jumped excitedly from branch to branch, waiting for its parent, who periodically flew in to quickly stuff food in its beak. According to the Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol. 2), adult Towhees feed their fledglings for about a month after they leave the nest. At first the young stay in dense foliage, then gradually wait in more exposed places like the one in the photo below. Shortly, this young one will join with other juvenile Towhees to eat and hang out together like any adolescent. Fortunately, understanding adult towhees will allow them to cross their territories to do so.
A week earlier in the same area, my husband and I had heard a male Towhee making his territorial “wheeet” call. When we spotted him, he gave us a sharp warning glance. I wondered at the time if his young were nearby. Maybe that alert male was the hard-working parent feeding the youngster that we birders saw a week later. I’d like to think so.
On a cool, wet morning, a fledgling House Wren (Troglodytes aedon)perched on its own, looking out across a meadow. Other young wrens called to one another farther along the trail, so this one was probably waiting for an adult occupied with feeding its siblings. Before they migrate, wrens become quiet and remain hidden in the greenery frequently where they winter in the southern Gulf states and Florida. Southerners miss out on the male’s glorious spring song. Aren’t we the lucky ones?
Joan Bonin also snagged a photo of a Broad-winged Hawk (Buteo platypterus) who was probably headed south toward the tip of Florida or Cuba. In autumn, huge “kettles” of these birds with thousands of individuals make their way south together. (See photo of a “kettle” at the top of this section.) Two birder friends and I saw a huge circling flock last year at the Hawk Fest in Amherstburg, Ontario, though this year the festival was canceled at the last minute by a storm severe enough to bring down trees. All this severe weather is a serious threat to migrating birds!
Monarchs Everywhere on a Cool, Autumn Morning!
The migration of the “super-generation” Monarchs is well underway. These heroes of the insect world – the last generation of Monarchs to hatch here in the upper Midwest and Northeast – will live for 8 months, instead of the 5-7 weeks of all other Monarchs. They make the entire two-month journey of 3,000 miles to Mexico, spend the winter, and then fly back north to mate. There they lay the eggs for the first of the 4 to 5 generations of short-lived Monarchs who will successively produce their progeny, eventually ending this relay in Michigan each spring.
Alone at the park on a cool, wet morning, I saw twenty-one Monarchs in my first ten minutes! I stopped counting, took a few photos and then just enjoyed the sight of them slipping up out of wet greenery where they’d spent the night. They shivered upward, shedding dew, looking like vivid autumn leaves reversing their descent. It seemed that with every step I took, more of them rose from the moist meadow. A peaceful, quite magical sight. Here’s a short slideshow of just a few of them on the plants on which they’d rested the night before.
Monarchs were feeding close together as in this photo with two Monarchs in the foreground and one that’s just an orange blur in the background. Aren’t they just spectacular in their golden setting? What beautiful, delicate and surprisingly tough long distance athletes they are!
Other Wings Over the Meadows
The dragonflies and their slimmer relatives, the damselflies are on the wing in late summer and early autumn, too. In August, we saw a dragonfly that was new to me, the Slaty Skimmer (Libellula incesta), with a dark blue body and black head. It was above the lake trail which is lined with wooded wetlands, this dragonfly’s favorite habitat, according to the Odonata Central website. Ben got the best photo of it.
Meadowhawk dragonflies (genus Sympetrum) mate and lay eggs in July and August so they are plentiful right now. Determining a specific species in this genus is not possible unless you’re an expert with one in hand. But the males are almost always red and females and juveniles are usually yellowish brown or black and many have chevrons on their abdomens.
I was fortunate to get an identification on one Meadowhawk I saw because it had some distinctive features like yellow legs, a generally unmarked thorax and a scoop-like spatulate end to its abdomen. This is likely a female Autumn Meadowhawk (Sympetrum vicinum) as identified by people more experienced that I on the “Odonata of the Eastern United States” Facebook page.
According to the Minnesota Dragonfly Society website, “Some dragonflies…point their wings forward and down in order to reduce exposure to sunlight and, perhaps, to reflect light and heat away from their bodies.” On really hot days, they’ll point the tip of their abdomen straight up toward the sky to have as little exposure to the sun as possible. Getting warm or cooling down take some acrobatics from these cold-blooded creatures!
Damselflies, another member of the order Odonata, are always busy in the summer and early fall at Cranberry. Unlike dragonflies who generally rest with their wings spread outward, most damselflies rest with their wings closed. One family of damselfies, the Spreadwings (family Lestidae), cling to plants with their wings just slightly spread. This Spotted Spreadwing (Lestes congener) at Cranberry Lake Park in September shows this common wing position for spreadwings. How about those eyeballs!
The female Slender Spreadwing (Lestes rectangularis) can almost disappear with its clear wings and its unusually long, gray-to-black body, especially since it loves the shade.
Now admittedly, the Tussock Moth’s Caterpillar (Euchaetes egele) isn’t fluttering just now, but it plans to! Of course, it will need to chew on quite a lot of Milkweed before it builds its cocoon and waits until spring to transform. The adult moth’s chunky yellow body lined with black dots is hidden under a pair of subtly elegant beige wings. I’m still on the hunt for the moth (which you can see at this link), but for now, I’m enjoying the floppy, mop-head look of the black and orange caterpillar.
Amphibians Still Visible, but…Hibernation Awaits!
In August, I saw a lot of tiny amphibians near Cranberry Lake! The young Leopard Frog (Rana pipiens) my husband I saw will shortly be heading for the bottom of the lake to spend the winter just as the Green Frog above does – on top of mud on the lake bottom, breathing slowly through its skin.
When the temperature drops, the tiny Wood Frog (Rana sylvatica) that Ben picked up on the bird walk will travel upland to hibernate inside a log or under leaves. According to National Geographic’s website, once its body starts to freeze, its liver produces a kind of internal “anti-freeze,” a very sugary glucose solution which is then packed into the cells so they don’t collapse, like human cells do when frozen. The little frog will survive if no more than 67% of its body freezes. Its brain activity stops, its heart stops and it’s frozen solid! But in spring, it thaws and hops away! It can even tolerate our Michigan freeze-thaw-freeze cycles! By the first frost, this little one will be bigger and ready for the big adventure!
So many Eastern American Toads (Anaxyrus americanus) were springing from under our feet in August that we had to be cautious not to step on them! They often hatch simultaneously and may stay together for some time afterward. Once cold weather sets in, they can dig a hole up to 3 feet deep with their hind legs and essentially back into the hole, the dirt falling in to cover them as they get deeper. Then their metabolism slows as it does for all hibernators and they remain in torpor for the winter.
The tiny Gray Tree Frog (Hyla versicolor) is bright green when it’s young (see left below), but becomes gray, brown or green, usually with a black pattern, when it matures (right below). Though the mating season is over for them now, the males are singing in September anyway, especially when it rains. We hear one singing from an unused hood vent outside our kitchen window! Like the wood frog, it can survive when its body freezes, thaw out in the spring, and be just fine.
A tiny Gray Tree frog is bright green when it first hatches like this one in August.
A Gray Tree Frog snoozing on a railing at the playground pond.
Fall Has a Special Kind of Excitement, Doesn’t It?
We often think of the fall as brilliantly colored falling leaves – and of course, that’s coming. But in this early part of fall, as days occasionally turn crisp and nights get chilly, so much more is going on!
Spider webs bejeweled in dew shine in the morning sun as spiders prepare to snag more insects before cold weather begins. Bright yellow goldenrods are now complemented by purple flowers, like New England Aster. Acorns and hickory nuts tumble to the ground and are quickly stored away by squirrels and chipmunks. Large hatches of tiny, late season Red-legged Grasshoppers spring from the grass below our feet as we hike the trails. They must hurry to grow, mate and lay eggs before the ground hardens.
Some birds disappear for a while to change into their winter colors. Others relinquish the territorial fierceness of breeding season to gather in huge flocks, flying in formation or whirling high overhead. Small ones fly singly through the dark, only stopping to eat and rest, before moving on.
And we humans stock our larders with summer produce – berries in the freezer, peaches in bottles, apples at the fruit stand. We repair a leak in the roof, wash the dust off the storm doors, pull jackets and sweaters from the backs of closets – or make arrangements to pack up and migrate south with the birds. All of us animals, human and otherwise, know that as day and night equal out at the equinox, preparations must be made! And so it begins….
In the previous post, I collected all the gold and black vividness of August at Charles Ilsley Park – in blossoms, birds and butterflies.
But of course, Ilsley in August had lots of other hues. Nature seems incapable of limiting itself to just two colors in any season. So let’s see some of the other colorful brushstrokes from nature’s palette.
Stewardship Pays Off in Shades of Lavender in the Central Meadow
In the last few years, vernal pools have formed in the center of Charles Ilsley Park and a stream suddenly appeared crossing a trail on the east side of the central meadow. Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Stewardship Manager, realized that a farmer had once laid tile to drain those ponds. By pulling out some of the broken tiles, Ben restored a wetland area where the water can now seep underground instead of across the trail. As a result, a beautiful variety of lavender wetland flowers now bob and sway above the grass stems there. Tall, erect Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) branches into tapering spikes covered with tiny flowers frequented by many kinds of bees. The smaller, lavender Monkey Flower (Mimulus ringens) was a delightful new wildflower for me. These seeds were part of the wetland seed mix that were planted as part of the restoration process. After so many years of farming, very few native species remained, so stewardship staff designed a diverse wetland mix to help these areas recover. And nearby where dry, prairie soil begins again, a balding Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa) left a beautiful pattern as it shed its petals. [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]
Blue Vervain loves moist earth and sunlight so it thrives in this moist restored area.
Monkey Flower grew vigorously at Charles Ilsley Park after being planted in 2018
Nearby, where the soil was dry, a Bee Balm showed its elegant balding head!
Birds and a Jazzy Insect Add Blue to the Ilsley Palette
A couple of blue birds made their contribution to the color scheme. A juvenile Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) with just a few of its azure feathers showing, hid deep within the the leaves of a giant oak along the entrance path. My photo attempt was hopeless. But a few days later, another small bluebird perched in an oak in my front yard. In the photo below, it seems to be studying the ground just before it swooped down and picked up a caterpillar. Well done, little bluebird! A tiny Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea) popped in and out of the shrubbery along the edge of the meadow. Even adults of this species are only 4-5 inches long and weigh 1-2 ounces! This little flycatcher twitches its white edged tail to stir up insects when surrounded by plants, though as you can see below, it probes bark for insects and their eggs as well.
If you see a large dragonfly helicoptering over the flower tops, it’s probably a Darner (Aeshnidae family. They are the largest dragonflies in North America, with the fastest flight and the keenest eyesight. The female has a needle-like ovipositor at the end of her abdomen so that she can slit open stalks and insert her eggs – hence, the name “darner.” (My husband remembers relatives calling them “sewing beetles!”) They spend most of their time in the air on their powerful wings, so I was glad to find this Green-striped Darner (Aeshna verticalis) resting for a moment on some dried Curly Dock (Rumex crispus). What an elaborate color scheme and pattern on this big beautiful insect!
Stewardship brings Red, White and Blue to the Golden Western Meadow
Ben noticed a moist swale in the western meadow as he was planning for the prairie planting and spread some wildflower seed from plants that love “wet feet.” What a lovely treat to see Cardinal Flower/Red Lobelia (Lobelia cardinalis), white Swamp Betony(Pedicularis lanceolata) and Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) thriving within a low spot in a dry, sunny meadow! Charles Ilsley Park introduced me to a second new wildflower when I saw these Swamp Betony for the first time in August.
One of our eagle-eyed birders took a photo of a third new flower to add to my “life list,” Dotted Mint/Horse Mint (Monarda punctata). This Monarda, in the same genus as our lavender Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa), has successive whorls of creamy white blossoms dotted in dark purple growing above one another along its stem. Ben had included this flower in the seed mix when this meadow was cleared and planted as part of prairie restoration. I hope we see more of it! Thanks to Vinnie Morganti for loaning me her photo of this interesting tri-level flower.
Nature Loves Earth Tones
Of course, browns and greens are always the backdrop of nature’s palette. A soft brown fledgling with a striped breast played peek-a-boo with me through some shrubs one afternoon. I could hear its begging chirp from beyond the plants, but it took a while before it really peeked out into the open. Can you spot its tiny head near the center of this photo? (You might need to click on this photo to get a better look.)
Finally, it came out for more than a split second so I could snap a photo. I checked its identification with local birding expert, Ruth Glass. I proposed that it was a young House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) and she agreed it was. These little birds drive their parents nuts with begging constantly for hours around our feeder so I thought I recognized that insistent chirp!
A group of little brown House Wrens ((Troglodytes aedon) chattered away in an oak along the treeline, darting here and there among the branches. At last, one came out to look around.
Almost immediately an adult wren appeared to scold me for being there. I snapped a quick photo and departed, so as not to incur more wrath from an annoyed parent!
As fall arrives, nuts and seeds add more rich brown shades and lovely greens. The lime green nuts of Walnut Trees (Juglans nigra) hang like tennis balls from limbs around the park and the Black Oaks sport clusters of bright green acorns with patterned brown beanies.
My candidate for this year’s most beautiful brown, though, are the teardrop-shaped, russet seeds of the Foxglove Beardtongue/Penstemon (Penstemon digitalis). In mid-summer, this native wildflower stands tall, while sprouting graceful white blossoms. Its seeds and dark red stems now are almost as visually appealing as its flowers!
Harvesting the Last of Summer Colors
Isn’t that wetland above a lovely harmony of greens? This wetland extends a long way on the north side of the far west trail that leads to the Wynstone subdivision west of the park. This one is large, mysterious and full of life as most wetlands are. I just “discovered” it after many walks in Ilsley and felt like a visitor to an alien world.
I listened to the raucous begging of a Green Heron fledgling down in the bushes ner the water and caught a glimpse of an adult stuffing food into the youngster’s bill. Just a glimpse, no photo – but I didn’t mind. I just wanted to take in all the green-ness to remember on a black-and-white winter day.
Summer is clearly waning, now. The butterflies look tattered and worn. The summer wildflowers are brown and seeding. But we have lots to look forward to. The meadows now brimming with goldenrods will soon be splashed with purple asters. The migrating birds, wearing more sedate winter colors, and the last of the “super generation” Monarchs will be riding north winds toward warmer climes. Leaves will reveal the dramatic colors they’ve hidden under all that chlorophyll since they “greened up” in the spring. So maybe, like wise stewards, we should store up as much color as we can while the supply is plentiful. We may need the memory of it on a January day.
Do me a favor, would you? Imagine standing in front of a huge meadow full of tall grass and wildflowers dancing in a soft breeze. You can hear crickets and cicadas singing in the deep grass. Now turn your computer’s volume to about half and click on the arrow in the image below. (You’ll hear a little of the wind in the microphone.)
There! That’s a bit of what it’s been like at Charles Ilsley Park in the last few glorious weeks of August. Goldfinches sing as they swoop in their roller coaster flights across the fields that are burnished with goldenrod. Butterflies, with golden wings fluttering, sip sweet nectar from the giant thistles. And all of this gilded beauty is backed by the sounds of a summer breeze sighing in your ear and the buzz of cicadas and crickets. That’s about as close to pure glory as my life affords.
The Glow Began in July…
Let’s just say the Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) got magnificently carried away in the central meadow at Ilsley. Perhaps the contractor who planted wild seed last year had a wee bit too much of them in the mix? But I didn’t hear anyone complain when the meadow was literally blanketed in black and gold. By early August, they had browned, leaving behind seeds that will provide nourishment for migrators and winter birds.
Nature Comes Back with a Second Wave of Gold
In their place, though not quite as abundant, came a close relative, the buttery yellow Brown-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia triloba). Instead of a single flower on each stem like their black-eyed cousins, these Susans produce branching stems with profuse, but smaller blossoms which create a similar sunny effect.
Of course, August always brings waves of different Goldenrods to keep the gold coming in late summer. Right now, I commonly see three different ones: the cascades of Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), Stiff Goldenrod (Solidago rigida) with its ramrod stems lined with clinging oval leaves and bouquet-like sprays of Grass-leaved Goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia) which is from a different genus of the Aster family. Later in the month, we’ll begin to see the upright, lemon yellow plumes of Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) doing its part to keep the fields golden right into September. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
A stately plume of Canada Goldenrod
Stiff Goldenrod (Solidago rigida) with its fancy stalk lined with oval leaves
Grass-leaved goldenrod is really an aster, despite its common name.
Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa)
The Gray-headed/Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) add their droopy charm to the fields too, though their best days are behind them for this season. And the tall spikes of Common Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis) are topped by gold blossoms that stay open from evening until early morning, and later on cloudy days as well.
I love how native plants host so many insects in an era when the insect world is suffering from plunging numbers all over the planet. Here two False Sunflowers (Heliopsis helianthoides) standing next to each other hosted a Soldier Beetle (Cantharidae family) and the nymph of a Katydid (Tettigoniida family). Have a closer look at the amazing length of the katydid’s antennae by clicking on the right photo. One of the ways you can tell a grasshopper from a katydid is that grasshoppers have much shorter antennae than the very long, fine ones you’ll see on the nymph below.
Out in the far west of the park at the edge of the woods, a tall, striking, yellow flower with very unusual blossoms caught my eye. Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Stewardship Manager, identified it for me as Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) – and indeed, its flat stem had narrow “wings” on either side. Wingstem flower heads cluster at the top of the 3′-8′ stem. Each bloom is actually a flower within a ring of flowers. The “disc florets” in this plant are the tube-shaped flowers that thrust outward from the center of the flower head. What looks like a ring of petals around the central disc is actually a ring of “ray florets” and each of them is an individual flower that has the ability to produce its own seed. In botany, “florets” are individual flowers within a flower head, whereas what we see as individual petals on ray flowers are really three petals fused together. And how about those curly little stigmas that we see whimsically protruding from the ends of the disc florets! What a fun wildflower!
Wingstem has a limited distribution in Michigan, so we’re lucky to have them. These Charles Ilsley Park plants grew from seeds that Ben collected at the township’s Blue Heron Environmental Area, which was the only place he’s seen them in the township. It’s exciting to know that the seeds Ben planted at Ilsley have taken hold, so that we now have two parks in which this unusual native plant has found a home.
Birds Matching the Black and Gold Landscape
Let’s Start with A Goldfinch Saga!
American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) – Unlike most other birds, Goldfinches start mating around mid- to late-July when the thistles bloom, which is a source for both nesting material and food for them. Once the first broods fledge in early August, most Goldfinches mate a second time.
On August 9, Mike and Joan Kent, birding friends, took a walk at Ilsley and spotted a nest in a thistle. Joan peeked in and saw 3 eggs. They noticed a lot of Goldfinches nearby and assumed it was probably the nest of one of them. And that was that, until…
On our Wednesday bird walk on August 21, Vinnie Morganti, another member of our bird group, spotted the same nest located within the thorny stems of a tall Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare). A Goldfinch’s cup nest is woven from plants and root fibers and lashed to a bush or plant with spider silk. Then it’s lined with thistle down which makes it close to waterproof inside. A small masterpiece. This pair chose a location which probably deterred predators, though it may have been a bit hard on the parents’ wings while feeding!
Peeking into the nest, I discovered 4 baby birds. Fellow birder, Tom Korb, got a photo of the blind and slightly fuzzy hatchlings by valiantly sticking his cellphone into the thistle above them. Tom and I decided to share monitoring these little birds until they fledged and report our findings to Cornell’s Nestwatch , a citizen science site we use for our township nest boxes.
We bird monitors are trained not to go to a nest more often than every 3 – 5 days. So when I returned to the park the following day, I stood far off looking through a long lens. Imagine my delight when I saw one little head popping up above the nest! I don’t know if it could see the meadow yet. Perhaps it was just enjoying the breeze ruffling its Einstein hairdo!
I came back to monitor on August 24 hoping to get a photo inside the nest despite the thistle’s thorns. I’d brought along the fancy, black leather gloves my mother had given me years ago to wear to the theater – but here I was using them to reach inside a thistle! I could picture my mom laughing and shaking her head – but the gloves worked beautifully! In the photo, I could see the opened eye of at least one little nestling, though the rest were snoozing in their sturdy nest cup. It appeared that the beige tips of feathers might be emerging from their dark sheaths. We think now that they were about a week old in this photo. They’d come a long way from those blind babies in just 3 days!
At our August 28 bird walk in another park, Mike Kent told us about his wife seeing the nest at Charles Ilsley Park on August 9. Good news for us monitors, because that allowed us to use the guidelines on the Nestwatch site to estimate the age of the Goldfinch hatchlings more accurately. After the bird walk, I accompanied Tom on his monitoring trip to the Ilsley nest. What a change! Little heads peered up over the nest edge – eyes and beaks open. According to the Donald W. Stokes’ Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.1), during their first week after hatching, Goldfinch nestlings are quiet but will silently reach up for food if the edge of the nest is tapped. In the second week, these nestlings begin making a lot of noise – but wisely only do so when a parent arrives with food. Tom got a great photo of the bright red mouth of a begging, but silent, youngster!
That day, all the nestlings, now about 11 days old, looked bright and alert, peeking out into the world and fully feathered. The Stokes Guide explained that those white blobs on the nest are fecal sacs, the avian equivalent of soiled diapers. Goldfinch nestlings are quite fastidious. The first week after the young hatch, adults carry the waste sacs away from the nest. But starting in the second week, little goldfinches back up to the edge of the nest and drop these little packages over the side!
My last turn at monitoring the nest was on August 31 – and the nest was empty. The nestlings had become fledglings. Our estimate is that they fledged on their 12th or 13th day after hatching. The nest was remarkably clean inside (if not outside) which might have meant a healthier, more comfortable environment for the nestlings.
I could hear a fledgling begging far off in a stand of thistle and through my binoculars, I thought I saw a couple of small birds fluttering among the stems. A female flew in among the thistle, perhaps feeding “our” fledglings from her second brood. A male seemed to be on sentinel duty nearby before he flew off to gather more seed. Off into the world for our Goldfinch fledglings! And the end of our nesting saga.
Hard-working Goldfinch Adults
While the females incubate a second brood, male Goldfinches are on their own in feeding the first brood – which can be as many as seven fledglings, according to Cornell’s nestwatch.org! Begging calls of first brood youngsters could be heard a week ago as young fledglings pursued their harried parents around the park or called from the treelines to be found. This little Goldfinch fledgling seemed a bit more mellow than the rest.
The Goldfinches’ primary food source is thistle seed so I’ve seen males all over the fields with thistle down (pappus) hanging from their beaks. They dig industriously into the seedhead, pull out the down, carefully nibble off the seeds and then let the down fly. Stokes informed me that they feed partially digested seed to their young, as they also do for the mate during her first week on the nest. Quite a responsibility!
More Gold and Black Birds!
In a bush in the far west meadow, I saw a flash of yellow and took a quick couple of shots as a bird perched for a moment and then flew. I wasn’t sure what I’d seen. Local birding expert, Ruth Glass, identified it as a female Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula.) She told me that by now most of our summer orioles have left for Central or South America with their young, so the one I saw was likely a migrator from further north.
The birding group saw other birds sporting lovely yellow trim. A trio of Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) perched far above in a bare tree. Through binoculars, two clearly had the yellow bellies and yellow tail bands that identify this handsome bird. Juveniles have a fainter black mask and some brown streaking on the breast, but in this distant photo against a gray sky, it’s hard to tell if any of them were juveniles or adults .
Ruth Glass also helped me identify a strange looking dark bird that mystified me. She said she was “95% sure” it was a male Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) molting from his brilliant blue breeding colors into his mostly brown non-breeding colors which are similar to the female Bunting. This mottled look is common for males during the molt. I would never have guessed! Thank you, Ruth!
Some large dark brown birds also added contrast to all the gold around them. A trio of Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) rested on a broken snag near the edge of the center field. Through the trees on my way into the park, I saw one of them spreading its magnificent wings to the sunlight. They do this to warm them, stretch them, or to expose any bacteria on them to air and light.
Around the corner, two other vultures perched on a broken snag. This one made me smile, because it looked as though it was appealing for a little sympathy. I’m afraid vultures don’t get much appreciation, though I think their soaring flight is graceful and the cleanup services they provide are crucial. Really, though, the bird was just preparing to preen.
The first vulture suddenly flew straight up in the air and landed rather awkwardly on a branch that was much too short. It fluttered clumsily right, then left, until it finally found its footing. Is it my imagination or are the other two a bit embarrassed by the graceless landing skills of their compatriot? Probably, my imagination…. (Tap arrow to play and to pause for reading captions.)
Butterflies Complement the Color Scheme
This August the huge, dramatic Giant Swallowtail butteflies (Papilio cresphontes) arrived in Charles Ilsley Park in large numbers. One afternoon about two weeks ago, perhaps a dozen of them landed delicately on the large purple blooms of Bull Thistle, or hovered in front of them, extending their long proboscises to sip while avoiding the thorns. I don’t know if this thistle is a favorite plant for these big butterflies or if they were just the biggest blooms with the most nectar when they arrived. They chased each other over the fields, creating a shimmer of gold and black all over the central meadow.
You’ll note that the one above has a few missing pieces on its wings and that the black edges look a bit worn. I compared the very tattered dorsal (upper) side of one I saw on thistle at Charles Ilsley Park in late August with the fine specimen I saw on Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa) at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park in late July a couple of years ago. I wondered if the difference in wear and tear was due to feeding among thorny thistles or perhaps just the normal battering big wings take after an extra month of foraging and mating. I’m guessing a bit of both.
These dramatic swallowtails have expanded their range further north since about 2001 when first frosts became more uncommon in September – perhaps an effect of global warming. They lay their eggs on plants that will act as hosts for their larvae, which includes two of our abundant natives, Swamp Milkweed and the Solidago genus of Goldenrods.
The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) made its elegant contribution to the black-and-gold meadows. These high-flyers raise 2-3 broods each summer. Their caterpillars spin a remarkable chrysalis that matches dead wood very closely. It’s held in place by a thin string of silk on one end of the chrysalis and a silk pad at the other. That’s where the caterpillar spends the winter. There’s a remarkable photo of a Tiger Swallowtail’s chrysalis at the bottom of this Wikipedia page. Be sure to click on it to enlarge so you can tell where the bark ends and the chrysalis begins! My photo below shows the tiny hairs on the swallowtail’s wings – the closest my camera has ever come to a Tiger Swallowtail, I think.
Three small Lepidopterans played a role in the color scheme. Like the members of the Swallowtail family (Papilio), a female Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) found Bull Thistle a good choice for nectar in this transition time just before the Goldenrods reach their full glory and other fall asters emerge. I admit I appreciate the non-native Bull Thistles more this year, having seen how much sustenance they’re providing after a torrid July brought an earlier end to the bloom of so many wildflowers. A Clouded Sulphur (Colias philodice) paused on the drying leaves of a Queen Anne’s Lace. I’ve wanted to see a chrysalis of these small butterflies ever since I read it described as “yellow with a pink zipper”! No luck yet. And the Ctenucha Moth (Erebidae family) did a fine job of contrasting its black wings with the yellow Grass-leaved Goldrod.
Just like other swallowtails, the Black Swallowtail makes the most of bull thistles that thrived this year.
A Clouded Sulphur has black bands on the dorsal side of its wings.
A Ctenucha Moth on Grass-leaved Goldenrod
So much gold! And I didn’t even include the gold and black bumblebees, wasps and honey bees foraging among this late summer landscape! Such riches, eh?
Late Summer Serenity
Sometimes life does come full circle. Standing at the edge of the meadows at Charles Ilsley Park with sunlight falling on a fluttering, buzzing, golden landscape, I could feel the deep sense of calm and quiet that I relished in our township in my childhood. On just such a morning then, I would stand on the sturdy limbs of a rugged old tree overlooking a wild pond or spread my blanket in the short grass near the shore and breathe in the comforting scent of warm earth and grass. I feel so fortunate as an older woman to still experience that certainty of being part of something big and beautiful that nature offers all of us if we take the time. I wish that for you, too.
Postcript: Watch for More Ilsley Photos!
Of course, Charles Ilsley Park offered me much more than gold and black in its rich diversity: a wet spot in a field suddenly blooming with red and blue wildflowers, a fuzzy brown House Finch fledgling peeking through the greenery, lavender blossoms emerging from the seedbank where a moist swale was restored, a dramatic Darner dragonfly decorated in a pattern of blue and green and more. So rather than extend this blog, I’ll create a shorter photo blog later this week to fill in the rest of the color palette at Charles Ilsley Park. Hope you can drop by!