Category Archives: This Week at Bear Creek

Bear Creek Nature Park: Life-or-Death Drama…but Always the Persistence of Life

View through the woods to a wetland at Bear Creek

Bear Creek Nature Park is the Oakland Township Park I know best. I’ve walked there with my husband Reg for almost thirty years and brought some sort of camera with me for the last thirteen of them. As the winter ebbs each year, we watch for the appearance of the first narrow leaves of Spring Beauty or Blood Root under certain trees. Each May, we check out a huge hole in a particular oak, hoping for a glimpse of this year’s raccoon kits scrambling up and down within in the trunk. My husband has an eagle eye for the slowly moving hulk of snapping turtles gliding across the surface of the marsh and we both listen each summer for the banjo-like strum of the Green Frog’s song at the Center Pond.

But after all these years, we can still be fascinated by something we’ve never seen before, as you’ll see in the life-or-death drama of two determined foes fighting for life on the western slope last week. It’s a fresh experience to watch a trio of Eastern Bluebird fledglings sorting out their relationships in the Eastern Meadow. Amid all the comforts of the turning seasons with their eternal cycles of emerging, blossoming and subsiding, we can still be amazed by the persistence of life. Let me show you what I mean.

High Drama on the Western Slope

The Western Slope at Bear Creek Nature Park, August 2019

My husband and I headed for the western slope one perfect summer day and came upon two small creatures in a life-or-death contest. My husband spotted a large, yellowish/white  caterpillar with five spiky, black  hairs chewing avidly on a Box Elder leaf (Acer negundo). I learned later from Dr. Gary Parsons, Collection Manager and Bug House Director at Michigan State University’s Etymology Department, that it was the larva of an American Dagger Moth (Acronicta americana). When we stopped to look more closely, we saw a large, exotic-looking insect hovering nearby. Oh boy, I recognized this determined female.

An Ichneumon Wasp hovering near an American Dagger Moth caterpillar

It was an Ichneumon Wasp (family Ichneumonidae), a creature that preys on caterpillars in order to plant its eggs in or on them. When the eggs hatch, the unfortunate victim provides a plentiful source of food for the Ichneumon Wasp’s young!

This female kept her long abdomen with its ovipositor curled upward like a scorpion as she maneuvered near her target. The caterpillar clearly sensed the danger of her presence because it began to rear back its head along its body, thrashing forward each time the insect approached. The wasp first hid under a nearby leaf and then leapt forth, for all the world like a silent movie villain!

The Ichneumon Wasp appears from behind a leaf as the caterpillar begins to thrash to keep it off.

The battle went on and on in the bright sunlight. The wasp repeatedly attempted to gain  purchase on the caterpillar, but its bristled body and its constant thrashing made depositing the wasp’s eggs extremely difficult.

The Ichneumon Wasp tries to land on the caterpillar but the caterpillars bristles and its thrashing are quite a defense!

They were worthy opponents. We waited a long time but the battle continued to rage – the caterpillar eating the leaf between attacks to keep its energy up and the wasp trying desperately to deposit its eggs on a nourishing food source. Eventually, we left them both to their fate and walked on into the morning.

It was a peaceful change of scene to see male and female Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) settling on plants nearby. I hope they mated and laid eggs earlier since they were landing on Common Milkweed (Asclepia syriaca) that weren’t young and tender, but too dry and tough to provide much nutrition for their offspring. Perhaps they were some of the first Monarchs to start migrating south to Mexico. [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

In early August, we saw a female Monarch fluttering among fresh Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) in the meadow west of the Center Pond. Monarch caterpillars specialize; they only eat milkweed leaves. Perhaps this one’s young are currently nibbling their way along the leaves of this plant, intending to molt, pupate and emerge before the migration.

On August 1, we spotted a female Monarch fluttering among Butterfly Milkweed, perhaps eating, perhaps stopping to lay her eggs.  

Just a short way along the Western Slope trail, a slightly worn Viceroy Butterfly (Limenitis archippus) settled on Queen Anne’s Lace. Viceroys look very much like Monarchs and recent research indicates that both species use their color to advertise that they are unpalatable to predators. However they can be distinguished from Monarchs by the thin, black lines across the veins of the hind wings. Often, too, they tend to flutter more frequently than Monarchs which beat their wings quickly and then coast for a few moments in flight.

The black lines on its hind wings distinguish the  Viceroy Butterfly  from the Monarch.

Viceroys have another defense against predators like the Ichneumon Wasp. Their caterpillars look like bird droppings! Here’s a photo of one shared by a photographer who uses the name jdfish1 at inaturalist.org. What a strategy this butterfly evolved for protecting its young!

The Viceroy’s caterpillar looks so much like a bird dropping that predators may not even notice it.

On to the Pond:  A Stealthy Fisher and I Share Strategies

A native Michigan Lily (Lillium michiganense) blooming in a moist area just west of the Center Pond in early August

As I turned down the path that leads to the Center Pond, I was confronted by a wriggling, bristly caterpillar who appeared to be suspended in mid-air right in front of me. The Hickory Tussock Moth (Lophocampa caryae), like the Dagger Moth caterpillar, is covered with bristly hairs that can cause a skin rash if you pick either of them up. Since it pupates in leaf litter after eating on leaves, it was wriggling out an almost invisible string in order to carefully lower itself to the ground. It didn’t look fully grown to me because it hadn’t developed the long black hairs front and back of later instars. I wished it well and passed on.

A Hickory Tussock Moth in mid-air while lowering itself to the ground.

But after a few steps, I stopped again. A young Green Heron (Butorides virescens) sat preening in a branch near the dock.

A juvenile Green Heron preening in the sunlight.

I love watching these birds fish, so I approached very cautiously, repeatedly taking a few slow-motion steps each time the heron looked out toward the pond and then pausing when it looked even slightly in my direction. After checking out its feathers, it flew down to stand in the water, stretching out its long neck. It didn’t stay there long; Green Herons often prefer to hunt from a perch rather than wade like the Great Blue Herons, for example.

A juvenile heron stretches it neck after landing in the water.

I continued to stealthily approach each time the heron’s focus turned out toward the pond.  And suddenly, it flew to the dock and began to hunt in earnest. I As I watched it verrrry sloooowly step down to the edge of the dock and stretch out its neck to search for prey, a huge smile spread across my face. I almost laughed aloud. I thought, “You and I, Green Heron, have developed the same strategy, except I want a photo and you want a meal!”

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It didn’t score a meal that time. It gave up and flew to the other side of the pond. Here’s what it was probably looking for, but couldn’t quite reach – a Green Frog (Rana clamitans) immersed in duckweed, who lived to mate another day.

A Green Frog enjoying the cool duckweed and warm sun at the Center Pond.

When I reached the deck, a family of three small Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) with an adult female were feeding off the bright green Common Duckweed (Lemna minor) on the far side of the pond. Three other young wood ducks cruised around by themselves, far from the others.

I’d seen this same grouping at the bird walk a couple of days earlier. This time though, the female spotted me in the distance and disappeared into the vines at the far edge of the pond.   When she returned, she appeared to have summoned the male who’d been hiding  because he clearly was molting. His gorgeous iridescent green crest and curvy “duck tail” were being replaced by more sedate non-breeding plumage. He and the female quickly stood guard over their family group as if to put me on notice!

The male Wood Duck came out of the vines despite being in molt when summoned by the female to defend the young from that strange person with the camera on the deck.

The other three ducklings came a bit closer to the others, but again seemed to be happy on their own. I wondered if they were from her first brood, since Wood Ducks can breed twice in a summer, though the minimum number in a Wood Duck clutch is usually six. So maybe she just had three slightly more independent offspring and three who needed more protection? No way of knowing.

The male Wood Duck eventually decided I was not a threat and disappeared back into the tangle of vines to work a bit more on his molting process.

The male Wood Duck pulling on feathers during his molt.

My husband and I watched an Eastern Wood-pewee  (Contopus virens) sally forth from the shrubbery to hawk for insects. But as soon as it returned to the dead vines at the pond edge, it almost disappeared from view. See how quickly you can spot it here:

A camouflaged Wood-Pewee disappears into the landscape while foraging at the pond.

As I left the pond, walking along the eastern boardwalk, I heard the “miaou” call of a Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis). One of the birders had pointed out a catbird there earlier in the week and I’d taken a quick photo. But I told the others that I’d always wanted a good photo of the rusty undertail coverts of these birds and I’d never gotten one. Well, two days later, I heard the “miaou”  again, and there it was obliging me  by showing the part of its anatomy that I’d read about but never caught in a photo.

In the meadow west of the Center Pond, the Wednesday birding group also spotted a male Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) dropping down into the grass to feed and then quickly rising again to the nearest branch. I got a quick photo then to share with you, but didn’t see the bird again during the week. Keep an eye out when you’re there. He’s a beautiful eye-full, even when looking a bit bedraggled either from parenting duties or perhaps the beginning of his molt.

An Indigo Bunting foraged in the meadow west of the Center Pond.

Out on Bear Marsh with Snappers!

Bear Creek Marsh on a breezy summer day

In the woods on the way to the marsh, a movement at our feet caught our attention. A tiny American Toad (Anaxyrus americanus) about 3/4 of an inch long, hopped onto some leaves and froze, hoping perhaps to blend into the background and escape notice; camouflage is a basic survival strategy for toads. Though they breed in shallow water,  they spend most of their time on land. I love this little toad’s chubby legs. Small as he is, he’s off into the larger world to feed and if lucky enough to survive, produce another generation of toads.

A tiny American Toad. Juveniles like this are more active during the day than adult toads.

Along the way, some small white mushrooms stood tall along a seam in a log. Crown-tipped Coral mushrooms (Clavicorona pyxidata) are aptly named. They do resemble undersea corals and their tips are recessed and surrounded by little points. They grow only on dead wood, especially hardwood that has lost its bark. So they are helping to recycle the forest for us and creating this odd, but lovely life form in the process.

This Crown-tipped Coral mushroom is probably at bit past its prime since it’s no longer white. Or it may just not have gotten enough sunlight.

A couple of striking insects also appeared as we passed through the wood toward the marsh. A Northern Pearly Eye butterfly (Enodia anthedon) landed in a bare spot on the trail, sunlight shining through its wings. This butterfly doesn’t feed on flowers, but on tree sap, rotting fruit, decaying vegetation, even carrion – transforming death back into life. The life cycle of butterflies is full of amazing transformations, so why not one more?

The Northern Pearly Eye frequents shady wooded areas unlike many other butterflies.

Dr. Gary Parsons of MSU also helped me identify this cartoonishly cute, metallic native bee near the marsh as being from the family Halictidae. They are commonly called Sweat Bees, the ones that are attracted to your perspiration. But this tiny one was sipping from the drying blossoms of a native wildflower called Jumpseed  (Persicaria virginiana), so called because according to Michigan Flora,  if the plant is disturbed, it can propel mature seed about 9 feet, a nifty means of dispersal!

A native, solitary bee from the family Halictidae sips nectar from native Jumpseed.

At  least six Common Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina) moved slowly through the water at Bear Creek Marsh, their shells looking like moving clumps of mud. Snappers are generally shy and harmless except when bothered on land. Their plastron (the lower shell) is  small, leaving parts of its body exposed and vulnerable. They can’t completely disappear inside their shell and be safe like many turtles. So on land, their only protection is flinging out their very long necks and biting. Snappers clean our lakes and marshes of bacteria much like vultures clean our land, by consuming underwater carrion, but unlike vultures they also forage for live prey and aquatic vegetation.

A large adult snapper gliding  slowly through the water at Bear Creek marsh.

The edge of the dock at the northern entrance to the marsh is blooming with Arrowhead (Sagittaria latifolia), a lovely aquatic plant that produces white flowers sprouting from both sides of a stalk or “raceme”- and the large, vivid arrow-shaped leaves are almost more beautiful than the flowers! Dragonflies cling to them like bright baubles. What a sight on a summer morning!

The Eastern Meadow: Young Birds Out on Their Own..Sort Of

The Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) is just getting ready to turn the meadow gold. A male American Goldfinch (Spinus tristus) stood on a thistle and happily tore off some of the Goldenrod buds, possibly to feed either his mate or young. Goldfinches don’t start breeding until late summer when the thistles provide down for nests and seeds for growing broods.

A male Goldfinch stands on a thistle while feed on Goldenrod buds

Once he looked up and saw my camera, he gave me a wary glance but went right back to foraging.

A male Goldfinch giving me and my camera careful consideration before returning to eating or gathering seeds.

Joe Pye (Eutrochium maculatum) blooms in soft patches of bright pink blossoms with purple stems along the eastern trail. There’s just enough moisture to keep their “feet wet,” and the Bumblebees (genus Bombus) hum contentedly as they search for nectar from both the buds and the shaggy, open blooms.

A Bumblebee sips on Joe Pye buds
A bumblebee moves delicately through Joe Pye blossoms

A Common Wood Nymph (Ceryonis pegala) butterfly bobbed along pausing periodically in the deep grass. I mistook it at first for the Little Wood Satyr because they look similar. But the Wood Nymph is almost twice as big and frequents grassy fields while Wood Satyrs prefer shady woods or wood edges. The Wood Nymph also appears a bit later in the summer than the Wood Satyr.  Glad my source, Butterflies of Michigan by Jaret C. Daniels set me straight!

The Common Wood Nymph likes sunshine and is twice the size of the Little Wood Satyr.

When I first saw three fledgling Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) near the top of the trail, they were all sitting on a sign together. But as I approached,  two of them rose into the air and began mock fighting, banging into each other, flying away, settling for a moment, and then mock fighting again. They were too quick for me to snap a photo. Meanwhile the third little bluebird went off on its own, first looking about and then pecking quietly in the grass as it had no doubt seen its parents do.

A solitary little Bluebird fledgling left its siblings to forage in the grass.

Eventually it flew to a bare tree far off in the field and calmly surveyed the whole field. The blue on its wing tips and tail feathers was much more apparent in the full morning sunlight.

The blue tail feathers of the solitary fledgling Bluebird shone in the light.

The two more social siblings finally settled next to each other on the edge of a sign. After all that mock fighting, they snuggled up against each other – though I wonder if an ornithologist would tell me that the play fighting was dominance behavior and the positioning of the one fledgling’s head over the neck of the other meant that they had settled the pecking order between them.

Two bluebird fledglings settle together after play fighting over the field.

I later spotted two fledgling Bluebirds next to a male adult in a tree along the Walnut Lane. I wondered if the two fledglings were the scrappy pair who rested on the sign. All three seemed to be focused on the field. Maybe they were looking for the solitary fledgling who preferred to be off on its own. It was fun to imagine family dynamics among bluebirds.

An adult male Bluebird with two fledglings in a tree along the Walnut Lane.

What I think was a small Amber Snail (family Succinea) left a shining trail behind it on a milkweed leaf as I left the Eastern Meadow. Amber snails are described as land snails but they also live in moist environments. I was a bit surprised to see one out in the sunshine when we’ve had such blistering hot days this summer!

An Amber snail explores the possibility of a Common Milkweed leaf.

At the curve of the path that leads to the Walnut Lane, a busy adult Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher  (Polioptila caerulea) did its best to keep up with a very flighty fledgling that begged insistently as it bounced from branch to branch. As you can see from the slight blur in its photo below, I had some trouble keeping up with the youngster myself! Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Stewardship Manager, showed me a Gnatcatcher nest that fell near his home. So imagine how tiny that fledgling had to be at birth to fit in that lovely nest with possibly  as many as four other hatchlings! Look for the white eye ring and the white feathers on either side of  the dark tail feathers to identify these active little birds.

Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher foraging to feed its active fledgling.

A Short Trip Through More Summer Blooms

A glorious abundance of Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) below the boardwalk north of the playground.

I couldn’t detail all the wildflowers and grasses that I enjoyed at Bear Creek Nature Park in the last week, so take a short stroll through the rest of them here. Their color adds so much joy to a summer walk!

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Life Calls Us Out to Explore

Little Henry explores Bear Creek Nature Park

Reg and I met twenty-month-old Henry trotting along the path west of the Center Pond as his parents took a rest on a nearby bench. He looked content to just keep moving up the trail, seeing what he could see. It was clear he was happy to be there. Henry reminded me of the third Bluebird fledgling that I described earlier – happy to be off on his own, exploring the big beautiful world that he’s just beginning to understand.

What’s so great is that Henry’s experience is accessible to all of us, no matter our age. If we get out in the natural world with our curiosity and eyes wide open, we can’t help being surprised and delighted by it all – even two small insects determined to fight the other off to pass on their DNA to a new generation. Bird parents exhaust themselves caring for their young. Wildflowers fight their way up out of hard soil to bud, bloom and send their seeds forth into the world. Butterflies, turtles, even fungi recycle death back into life. Life in all its multifaceted glory keeps struggling to persist. And it’s our responsibility as stewards of this glory to keep working hard to make that possible. Here in Oakland Township, the residents have made a commitment to support that call to stewardship – and even in the midst of a tough 2020, I think that’s something to celebrate. Bet you do, too.

Restoration Never Stops: Winter Planting and “Weeding” in Our Natural Areas

The Center Pond and the sloping trail to the west after December mowing by the stewardship crew.

Most home gardeners take a break during the winter. The gardens have been prepared for winter; no weeding or seeding is planned until spring. Winter is a time to dream about next year’s garden.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

But late fall and winter are busy times for our Parks and Recreation stewardship crew. Many native seeds need cold winter temperatures in order to germinate. According to the useful website Ecolandscaping.org, thawing and freezing loosen the outer coating of some native seeds, signaling them to germinate as the soil warms. The Milkweeds (genus Asclepias) and Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa) would be examples of native seeds that require the winter’s cold before germinating. [Use pause button to see captions below, if necessary.]

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Other seeds may need multiple seasons in the soil before they germinate – like Round-lobed Hepatica (Hepatica americana) or Common Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum). [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

And of course, given the diversity of native plants, some seeds sprout and grow in one growing season like Black-Eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) or New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae).

Native Seeds Can Be Planted Almost Year ‘Round

Because native plants are adapted to our climate, very early spring, late fall and even snowy winter days can all be times for planting in our parks and natural areas. In November of 2015, the northern prairie at Draper Twin Lake Park was seeded. In this case, the planting area was huge and special equipment was required to get the native seed distributed evenly across the site. So Oakland Township Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, used a native plant contractor. By 2018, a lush prairie began to bloom at Draper Twin Lake Park.

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In the winter of 2018, Ben and his stewardship specialist did a very orderly planting of moisture-loving seeds in the emerging wetlands at Charles Ilsley Park.  Last winter when I reported on interesting tracks at Charles Ilsley Park, I  mentioned a neat grid of “tracks” on the snowy surface of one of the wetlands.

Of course, they were the footprints left by Ben and Alyssa as they seeded the spring-fed pond with a native wetland mix.  (The birders had trekked across the pond earlier in the morning.) Ben had planted Water Plantain (Alisma triviale), some sedges (grass-like plants), and bright purple Monkey-Flower (Mimulus ringens) along with other wetland species.

Many of the plants they seeded aren’t apparent yet.  But nature took temporary advantage of the spot. Up out of the wetland sprouted a native annual Witchgrass (Panicum capillare). We’ll have to wait for Ben’s plants to grow larger – but meanwhile, the seed bank has produced a grass that feeds the caterpillars of several Skipper butterflies  and produces late fall seeds for lots of birds, including cardinals, woodcocks, bobolinks, bobwhite quail and many others.

Native Witchgrass emerged from the seed bank in the prairie wetlands at Ilsley.

Sometimes, Ben hand sows the native seed that his crew and volunteers harvest each year from various parks. Here on a cool April morning of 2018, shortly after a prescribed burn, Ben is casting seed at Bear Creek Nature Park by hand in a tradition that dates back centuries. It’s a simple way to plant smaller amounts of gathered seed in certain areas that can benefit from more native plants.

Dr. Ben Vanderweide 2018 seeding smaller areas at Bear Creek in 2018 with native seed gathered by his crew and volunteers.

A Kind of “Weeding” Happens Year ‘Round as Well

Just as in a garden, removing or thinning unwanted plants is an endless stewardship task in natural areas. Invasive shrubs that crowd or shade out our native species can literally take over fields. To give native plants a chance to establish themselves, the non-natives must be removed repeatedly for several years in a row. Vines like Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) must be cut and treated to keep them from strangling trees by spiraling around their trunks – or to prevent them from climbing across the crowns of trees, making them so top-heavy that they fall in wind storms. Non-native wildflowers and grasses can be invasive too, while providing little food and shelter for wildlife. Late autumn and winter can be ideal times to do those jobs, when plants are pulling down nutrients into their roots.

In the fall of 2018, Ben arranged for a forestry mower to remove a huge area of aggressively invasive shrubs that had blanketed the fields north of the pond for decades.  Last year in early spring, with snow still on the ground, he and his stewardship assistant spent a few days carefully seeding this vast area with native seed since the area was too full of mowed shrub material to be planted by machine.

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A month ago on a dry winter day,  he went over the area again with a bushhog since many of the shrubs tried to make a comeback during the summer before they were spot treated in August. It was great to see these areas cleared again so that the architecture of Bear Creek’s natural rolling landscape could be fully appreciated once more!

The rolling landscape of the north section of Bear Creek Park after Ben bush-hogged again this December.

In 2016, I wrote a history blog about how Bear Creek Nature Park looked when it was a farm during the Great Depression.  In the library’s local history room is a book entitled Incredible Yesterdays (Ravenswood Press, 1977) by local author George Comps who lived on the property in the 1930’s. At one point, he described a moonlit night when he and his sister walked to the Center Pond. While George stood on the south side, his sister went around to her favorite “Big Rock” on the north side and they could see each other across the pond in the moonlight. When I wrote the 2016 blog, I bemoaned the fact that what I believe was that “Big Rock” was buried in invasive shrubs that also surrounded the pond, blocking the view to the other side. But with Ben’s last mowing of the land, the Comps’ favorite rock is once again visible and the view across the pond that they saw some 75 years ago is possible again. Now that’s both land and history preservation!

Last week, a different kind of “weeding” was happening at the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail. In last October’s blog, I described the very special conditions of this natural area that blooms with many unusual wildflowers throughout the growing season.

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Though adapted to fire and  both wet and dry conditions, these rare-but-sturdy flowers do need lots of sunshine. Over the years, trees have grown up around the edge of the Wet Prairie, shading out some of the sunlight these lovely plants require. So this January,  Ben and his stewardship specialist Grant, have been felling some trees to bring more sunlight to this special spot on the Paint Creek Trail. They’re also working to eliminate a large, dense thicket of Glossy Buckthorn (Frangula alnus), like the ones they removed last year also at Bear Creek Nature Park’s marsh. An aggressively invasive bush, glossy buckthorn crowds out native plants and its admittedly attractive berries are also not as nutritious for wildlife as those of our native shrubs and plants.

Big Rewards for Year ‘Round Work

February of 2018 at the Eastern Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park – an austere beauty seen through a scrim of Indian Grass.

The eastern prairie at Charles Ilsley Park is one of my favorites – a huge rolling expanse embraced by forest. In February last year, its austere palette of browns and dark grays suited the inward quietness of a winter day. This park has required years of “weeding” – removal of non-native shrubs, elimination of stands of non-native plants and coming this spring, another prescribed burn, if the weather allows. Like many of you, I imagine, I don’t relish the sound of chain saws against wood, the stoop work of treating stumps to prevent the return of invasive shrubs, the roar of mowers as they chew  through a thicket of invasive shrubs.

July at Charles Ilsley’s Eastern Prairie

But all of that is just preparing the way for native plants and their seeds to flourish. And the reward is great  – a richly diverse native habitat where bees and butterflies sip at blossoms, where birds build nests in the deep grass or along the tree line, where creatures and their young are fed by plants that they’ve thrived on for thousands of years. Jane Giblin, of the Michigan Wildflower Association, recently quoted someone who said we should “garden as if life depended on it,” because, of course it does! And that’s also the goal of our township’s stewardship program – to restore our parks and natural areas by  “weeding out” plants that don’t provide rich, healthy habitat while protecting, nourishing and restoring the plants that feed and house the creatures that called this land home eons before we did.

Boxes Full of Blue Baby Birds at Bear Creek Park. What Could Be Better?

All over Oakland Township – along the Paint Creek Trail and in Draper Twin Lake, Charles Ilsley and Bear Creek Parks – citizen scientist volunteers are busily monitoring nest boxes  twice a week for Cornell Ornithology Lab’s Nestwatch program .  I posted last year about the training we receive through our township stewardship manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide’s annual workshop and Cornell’s online resources.

Text and photos by Cam Mannino

 

As a volunteer monitor for the boxes at Bear Creek Nature Park this year, I’ve kept my eye on two species of bright blue native birds :  Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) and Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) .   It’s been such a joy, and it’s also taught me that citizen science can sometimes challenge the heart.

 

Eastern Bluebirds From Egg to Flight

The Bluebirds have had a good year in the brand new boxes at Bear Creek.  Fourteen baby birds from three different boxes have taken the big plunge and ultimately  flown out into the summer sunshine.  It always strikes me that the moment that little birds fly is really a second birth for them after emerging out of their eggs.   What a moment that first flight must be – much like exiting from the womb for human babies – moving from a cozy darkness to a big, bright, demanding world outside.

It all begins, of course, with a nest and an egg.  The male Bluebird attracts a mate to a tree cavity or nest box by dropping in a little nesting material and either popping in and out of the hole or sitting on the box fluttering his bright blue wings.  But once a pair has mated, the female builds the nest – a cup of nicely woven grasses and occasionally some pine needles. She lays one small egg each day, usually in the morning.  Bluebird females don’t stay on the nest all day.  They come and go to feed.  Incubation takes 11 to 19 days. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

Bluebird babies hatch out naked, blind and completely helpless.  The ornithology term is “altricial” as opposed to “precocial,”  which refers to baby birds  like the Killdeer that emerge from the egg ready to run and feed.  At first, black feathers appear under the nestlings’ skin looking like blue-black splotches.  Gradually feathers emerge here and there on their tiny bodies. I’ll bet the beaks of nestlings are lined in white because they help the parent stick the caterpillars in the right place inside that dark cavity.

Hatchling bluebirds about 2-3 days old.

From hatchling to fledgling takes another 17-19 days for bluebirds. The feathers develop first in spiky looking “sheaths.”  I think that’s what we’re seeing in this photo about a week after the nestlings hatched.

Bluebirds about about a week after hatching.

Gradually the sheaths drop away, leaving a white dust.  The feathers begin to unfurl.  As you can see below, nests get pretty crowded as the nestlings grow.  Perhaps feeling a bit cramped is nature’s way of encouraging these little birds to take flight. Also, according to Stokes’ Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.3), the parents feed them less often just before fledging,  so that they are more motivated to get out where the food is.  Tough love in the bird world evidently!

Bluebirds about 12 days after hatching.

This summer, I haven’t been lucky enough to arrive at the Bear Creek nest boxes when fledglings are emerging from a nest box.  But last year, I was fortunate to be home, camera at the ready, when the first bluebird took off from a nest box in our field.   First it hesitated with its tiny feet at the hole and looked around.

A fledgling bluebird surveys the possibility of exiting its nest box for the first time.

After a bit of nervous looking around,  it gathered its courage and dropped from the hole, wings up ready for the downward stroke, body and legs hanging below!

The take off!

And then those blue wings, still partially in spotted brown, spread out for the first time.  So exciting!

Wings open for the first time.

Normally, the fledgling will fly onto a low branch of a nearby tree or shrub and then flutter their way to higher branches. According to Stokes, the parents will bring the fledgling food for the next three to four weeks.  But if the adults mate again during that time, the job of feeding the young falls to the male while the female starts another clutch of eggs.

The fledgling watched over by its dad after its first flight.

A variety of predators, of course, can interrupt this miraculous cycle.  In the park this year, three bluebird eggs in one nest box simply disappeared a few days after they were laid. I could only guess at the culprit.  House Wrens  are known to dispose of other birds’ eggs by removal or pecking and they would fit in a nest box hole.  It seems doubtful that  a snake or raccoon managed to get past the predator guard.  Whoever was the nest thief,  the bluebird adults were resilient.  About a week later,  three more eggs appeared in the nest box. This time, they hatched and are now almost fully feathered.  I expect them to take wing some time next week.

Tree Swallows Literally Feather Their Own Nest!

The beautiful blue and white Tree Swallows had a tougher time than the Bluebirds this year but nine little Tree Swallows added their blue to the sky anyway.  They arrived in late April and began mating displays.

A male Tree Swallow (right)  “chats” with his prospective mate.

I  was pleased to find the beginnings of nest building in the boxes.  But shortly thereafter, we had a severe cold snap and the Tree Swallows disappeared for a week or so at least.  My fellow monitors and I guessed that the insects that they feed on in flight were wiped out by the cold so the Tree Swallows temporarily flew farther south. According to The Stokes Guidethis behavior isn’t uncommon for Tree Swallows in inclement weather.

By mid-May, the swallows returned and began adding material to their nests.  Tree Swallows use grasses as a base for their nests, but they  line the nest with feathers, white ones being a particular favorite.  Eventually I began to see little white eggs not much bigger than a large  jelly bean in three of the boxes. I was so glad to have the swallows nesting again that I decided to forego taking a photo.   So here’s a photo of a single Tree Swallow egg shared by a generous iNaturalist.org photographer who uses the name caw33iii.

A first Tree Swallow egg in its feathery nest. Photo by caw33iii (CC BY-NC)

Eventually, one of my three Tree Swallow boxes had six eggs.  Tree Swallows incubate their eggs for 11-19 days also.  When I arrived on the 21st day, I was greeted by this lovely sight – one or two day old hatchings! I couldn’t resist a quick cellphone photo.  You can see the blue pigment of feathers beneath the skin and of course, white beaks again and completely blind eyes.  Such a pretty variety of feathers in this soft, cozy nest!

Baby Tree Swallows a few days after hatching.

These babies did just fine, because they seemed to have very experienced parents.   Unlike Bluebird parents who will  usually flush from the nest as I approach or simply scold from a nearby tree while I monitor, Tree Swallow parents take, let’s say, a more active role!   Once when I approached to monitor, a female Tree Swallow  just stuck her head out the hole and refused to leave.  I went my merry way without data.

A female Tree Swallow refuses to flush from her box. So I depart without data.

Every time I arrived to peek in this nest box, an adult  swooped over me repeatedly, issuing liquid warning calls.  I’m glad that these parents so fiercely protect their young, so it made me laugh each time. I trust these skillful fliers; they’re just sending a warning to an interloper they have no reason to trust.   I always finish my peek in any nest box in less than a minute anyway, as the Nestwatch training advises.  The last thing I wanted to do was discourage this conscientious couple!

I believe I arrived late on this clutch’s fledge day,  because I heard lots of twittering deep in the nearby bushes. Generally all the fledglings leave on the same day, though occasionally one of them needs an extra day. And indeed, when I took a quick, careful peek into the box, only one little fledgling was left there, probably still screwing its courage to the sticking point.    Again, the parents sailed over my head, encouraging me to leave.  I took their advice.  When I visited again three days later, I was pleased to see that the last little fledgling had taken off into the blue as well.

Tree Swallow fledglings are much more precocious than fledgling bluebirds.  They can fly and scoop insects out of the air on their own in just 2 or 3 days!  Since I have no Bear Creek fledging photos, here’s one I took two years ago of a fledgling Tree Swallow at Draper Twin Lake Park.  It had flown high up onto a guy wire but was having a little trouble sticking the landing!

A Tree Swallow fledgling finding its balance on a wire at Draper in 2017.

Another Tree Swallow nest box at Bear Creek did not fare so well this year.  Three eggs never hatched and the other three  fledglings simply died shortly before their fledge date.  I gently removed them from the nest, limp in my palm, and carried them a distance away in the deep grass under a shrub,  so predators would not be attracted to the other boxes.  A sad afternoon.  Perhaps I missed signs of violence but I looked and didn’t see any.  Perhaps the parents were less adept at finding food after the cold spring delayed the hatching of insects.   But I’m just guessing.  It may have just been a challenging year for these Tree Swallows.

Despite a few casualties, the Bear Creek nest boxes have already fledged nine Tree Swallows  and fourteen Eastern Bluebirds. And we still have 3 Bluebird eggs and 4 Bluebird hatchlings in two boxes.  And that’s just the six boxes in one park!  Imagining these small blue  birds out in the greenery all over the township, growing, practicing their foraging and flying skills and preparing to make the fall migration makes me very happy.

Both of these species have suffered steep declines over the years.  Bluebirds are recovering largely because humans began to provide nest boxes for them back in the 1960’s and 70’s.  Tree Swallow numbers have declined by 49% in the last 40 years, but perhaps the nest boxes and  the information gathered from them will eventually boost their numbers as well.  We have to hope so,  because summer would not be as glorious without these little scraps of blue sky winging their way above our flowered fields.

 

 

 

PHOTOS OF THE WEEK: Spring is a Super Busy Time for Stewardship!

 

Spring is an incredibly busy time for our stewardship manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide. So many projects demand attention at once – and they all depend on so many variables! Planting native seed has to happen while the ground is still cold and wet. Prescribed burns, however, have to happen when the wind is low and from the right direction, and the plants are dry.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

Meanwhile volunteer training and supervision is going on for vernal pool monitoring, nesting box monitoring and  burn crews. Whew! Here’s a sample of what went on in late March and April at just one location – Bear Creek Nature Park.

Seeding Mowed Areas with Native Seed

In late March, Dr. Ben and Stewardship Specialist Alyssa Radzwion began a project to spread the seeds of native grasses and wildflowers in the areas cleared by forestry mowing last fall. The hope is that these native plants can help prevent some renewed growth of the invasive shrubs that were removed. It’s a project that will take years of persistent work, but they made a good beginning.

Dr. Ben sowing native grass and wildflower seed at Bear Creek.

Monitoring the Life in Vernal Pools

In mid- April, the stewardship staff, a stewardship tech from the Six Rivers Land Conservancy (see Ian below) and a group of volunteers, including Parks Commissioner Dan Simon and his wife  pulled on tall boots and waders and ventured into the vernal pools in Bear Creek’s forest. The purpose is to monitor the health of these temporary pools, which are biodiversity hotspots in our forests.

Alyssa Radzwion and Ian Abelson of Six Rivers Land Conservancy observing tiny life in a vernal pool.

As usual, the crew found a surprising variety of creatures. Spring frogs, salamanders and many insects choose vernal pools as a good place to mate and lay eggs because they are free of hungry fish. The pools dry up and disappear in warmer weather, preventing fish from establishing if they are introduced.

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Nest Box Monitoring

For the second year, Dr. Ben has organized and trained a group of volunteers to monitor nest boxes from first nesting to the flight of fledglings. We “citizen scientists” report our data to Cornell Ornithology Lab’s “NestWatch” program. This year Ben added six boxes in Bear Creek Nature Park to the ones in Draper Twin Lake Park, Charles Ilsley Park, and along the Paint Creek Trail.  And I’ll be the Bear Creek monitor this year, which will be great! I’m hoping to count Eastern Bluebirds and Tree Swallows, and possibly Black-capped Chickadees or House Wrens where the nest boxes are closer to trees and shrubs. We might have Brown-headed Cowbirds to count too if those characters lay their eggs in any of the other birds’ nests!

The boxes were only up a day or so when Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) and Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) began to explore the boxes. I’m betting they are impressed with the real estate – new construction, a southeast exposure and a security system (metal predator guards to keep out raccoons, snakes, etc.). Between raindrops last Thursday,  I watched a pair of  Tree Swallows courting on one of the new boxes. They were doing their wet gurgling call to each other the whole time and touching beak-to-beak, while the male performed fancy wing displays. The male had just chased off a competitor, so he seemed excited!  It looks like an argument in the photo below, doesn’t it?  But I think it was just a lively prelude to mating.

What looks like an argument is just a lively display of courting behavior, I think.

I also found two completed Bluebird nests made of dry grasses in the new Bear Creek nest boxes, but didn’t get to see the female doing the building.  However, here’s a little Bluebird female I saw at Charles Ilsley Park  the week before bringing nesting material to her box.

A female Bluebird bringing nesting material to her box at Ilsley Park.

Much to my delight, four days later at Bear Creek Nature Park, I found the first egg in one of our new boxes – a Bluebird egg.  They lay one egg each day for 3-5 days and won’t start incubating them until all the eggs are laid. The eggs then generally hatch on the same day, making feeding the nestlings more efficient for the adult birds.  Remember, please, that only trained and certified volunteers are allowed to monitor the bluebird boxes so as not to cause too much disturbance at the nest!

First bluebird egg in the new boxes at Bear Creek.

Holding Prescribed Burns Using Trained Volunteers

The township uses prescribed burns to periodically refresh our fire-adapted native plants, which benefit from periodic fires. Some of these burns are complicated and require hiring professional burn crews. But many are conducted by a group of volunteers trained and supervised by Dr. Ben. In late April, previous volunteer crew members and some new volunteers practiced their skills with two small burns at Bear Creek Nature Park in the native gardens near the parking lot. Volunteers are an important part of the stewardship program and the teamwork is an great way to meet local people who care about the natural world. Consider joining us!

And a Celebratory Dance to End a Busy Month

Toward the very end of April, Dr. Ben arranged our annual Earth Day/Spring celebration: The Woodcock Dance Watch – and wow! This year’s dance was spectacular! This odd bird, with big eyes toward the back of its head, a stout body and a huge beak, does its unique aerial mating dance at dusk. After a short review of information about the American Woodcock (Scolopax minor), we toasted marshmallows while waiting for the sun to set. (Thanks to iNaturalist photographer Ty Smith for sharing his photo.)

Woodcock, photo by Ty Smith (CC BY-NC) at inaturalist.org

This year, one of our birding group members had been making almost nightly visits to Bear Creek Nature Park to watch one particular Woodcock who faithfully danced on the path near a certain puddle. So, as the sky darkened, ten of us gathered on the slope designated by our birder friend, Vinnie, and waited.

Dr. Ben with his wife, Debbie and birder Sigrid Grace

Suddenly, very close to us, the Woodcock landed on the path and started his dance. He began with a very odd bug-like buzz called a “peent” call while turning in circles, as he attempted to attract any available female. Then he took to the air with whirring wings, flying in lazy circles high in the air while burbling a different call. Finally he plopped back down right where he started. Without pause he started the “peenting” again, and the dance continued. It was an exciting performance! We all came away feeling it had been an evening well spent celebrating the spring rituals of the natural world.

A Busy Month for Nature and its Stewards

Ah, Spring! Little creatures slip into and out of ponds to begin mating. Seeds await the moisture and warmth they need to thrust new stems into the sunlight. Birds are busy migrating north, establishing territory, finding mates, building nests – even dancing!   And we humans are busy studying, recording and preparing  their habitat for another glorious summer!

Bear Creek Nature Park: Color! Song! A Sensory Trip Through Early Spring

The dry stalks of native Little Bluestem grasses paint a splash of soft orange on the somber canvas of spring..

Gray clouds blanket our April skies in Michigan – but the occasional bright blue day or a beam of pale sunlight slipping between the rain clouds can lift our spirits in a giddy instant. The earth emerges from its snow cover in shades of gray and brown – but summer birds return dressed in their spring finery, ready to join others in exuberant song.

Photos and text by Cam Mannino

Hibernators poke their heads from tree holes or slip out of the leaf litter or swim up from thawing ponds, ready to nurture a new generation of young. Early spring takes its time, offering us just a few tastes here and there of the colorful bustle ahead as the days grow longer.

Visitor Birds Fly In Bearing Color and Song on Their Bright Wings

I hope you’ve been able to open a window or step out your door to listen to the birds’ dawn chorus in the last few days. Just in case, I thought I’d play a recording I made outside our home last Sunday morning. If you increase your volume,  you’ll hear the insistent call of Northern Cardinal, the buzzing call of a Red-winged Blackbird, the “kwirrr call of the Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus), the “tweeeeets” of American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) and in the background, Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) high overhead, plus a few smaller birds twittering along.  It’s a joyful noise after a cold winter.

The male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) you heard above, of course, has provided splashes of scarlet against the snow all winter.  But now some old friends are arriving for the summer, brightening up an April day. Members of our birding group heard the high pitched whistling calls of Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) and then spotted a small group that had settled into trees near a Bear Creek Nature Park wetland. The yellow tips of their tails and yellow bellies added a spot of sunshine on a blue/gray morning. Though Waxwings can stay here year ’round, I see Waxwings less often in the winter. I’m glad some of them choose to nest in Bear Creek each year.

One of a group of Cedar Waxwings seen by the birding group.

As a friend and I skirted the eastern edge of the Center Pond one afternoon, we heard a splash and looked up to see a female Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) flying up into a tree with her quarry. She swallowed it, though, before I got her picture. Her blue and rust colored belts show that she’s a female.

The male has only one blue belt. Fortunately, last Sunday, the male was at the Center Pond. When my husband and I arrived, the kingfisher was very agitated, calling as he dashed from tree to tree. These kingfishers don’t sing. At best, their fast, rat-a-tat rattle provides the other birds’ vocals with a little background percussion.

The gorgeous male Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) brought more than his share of brilliant color to the chilly waters of the Playground Pond. Together he and his mate will scout for a nesting hole high in the top of a tree near water in the woods nearby. Wood Duck nestlings are “precocial,”  meaning born ready to go – eyes open, covered in feathers and, in their case, outfitted with claws for climbing. Only days after birth, they claw their way up to the edge of their nest cavity and leap into the air, following their mother’s calls below.  They fall harmlessly into the leaf litter or water and join her in the the nearest pond to feed. Amazing feat for a baby bird! The adult birds make quite a racket when taking flight, the male’s “zeet” call is very different from the female’s “oo-eek.”

Though Wood Ducks generally choose a mate in January, this one seemed to have arrived alone. A few days later, his mate showed up.

The diminutive Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) repeatedly sang his lovely up-and-down spring song while he hopped about frenetically in a cluster of vines near the Playground Pond. Through the tangled branches, I could see the red crown raised slightly atop his head, but never got a clear shot. Luckily, gifted local photographer, Joan Bonin, got a lovely photo when a kinglet posed on a branch for her at Holland Ponds in Shelby Township. Thanks to Joan for sharing her excellent photographs for the blog!

In his brilliant iridescent green head, yellow beak and orange legs, the Mallard  (Anas platyrhynchos) seemed to be leading his more modestly dress mate around the Playground Pond one afternoon. But when the female Mallard spotted me, she turned and swam away, quacking insistently until the male looked around nervously, saw me and fled toward her, scrambling awkwardly across some submerged logs to catch up with his mate. By the way, that famous  “Quack!” is only given by Mallard females. Have a listen to it along with male’s very different call at this link.

A pair of mallards cruised the Playground Pond, keeping an eye on the Wood Duck.

Near the Walnut Lane, a wonderful ripple of song flowed down from the treetops. After a bit of peering around, high above I spotted an American Robin holding forth repeatedly with his up-and-down lilting spring song. I recorded his music and then looked up and took a photo from an angle I hadn’t noticed before. I got a worm’s eye view, you might say, of that very sharp, probing beak and felt glad it wasn’t being thrust in my direction!

Over in the marsh, the male Red-winged Blackbirds have been clucking and buzzing from atop the cat-tails for a couple of weeks as a way of establishing territory. Last week, the females began to arrive. Maybe their dark striping lets them blend safely into the shadows while they tend their nests among the stems down near the water. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

And Then the Frogs Join the Chorus!

After one warm April day, the hibernating spring frogs broke into song. Every wetland at Bear Creek trilled with the high-pitched peeping of Chorus Frogs (genus Pseudacris) and lower chuckling gurgle of the Wood Frogs. Both have been frozen all winter with no heartbeat and no brain waves but enough built-in anti-freeze in their cells to somehow stay alive. And as soon as they warm up, they’re ready to sing!

The Wood Frogs, like the one above,  are easier to spot because they croak while floating on the surface,  flexing their legs in an occasional kick. The thrust creates concentric circles in the water around them, so I look for the little masked frogs in the middle of those circles. Most Chorus frogs are harder to see, usually huddled on, against or under logs. I haven’t spotted one yet this spring, (though their piercing songs can be deafening up close! Here’s a photo, though, from a previous year.

A Chorus Frog in mid-cheep.

Some of our local Chorus Frogs, Spring Peepers, (Pseudacris crucifer) are nocturnal. I imagine that the Bear Creek Nature Park neighbors are hearing them when the sun sets, or will shortly. If you see one sleeping on a leaf during the day as I did once, you’ll see the “X” on its back just behind its head, though it’s hard to see in this shot. Isn’t it tiny?

Spring peepers are the nocturnal spring frog you’re hearing at night.

Other Hibernators Emerge…

The Raccoon (Procyon lotor) that I watch for every year in the oak-hickory forest has already given birth to four kits.  One of them is what’s sometimes called a “blond morph”; it’s not an albino, just a different morph or phenotype of the raccoon. I saw a blond adult raccoon a few years ago in the same tree so that trait must be in the local gene pool. The four kits (one is barely visible at the back right) seem to be laying across their sleeping mother’s back in order  to get a good look at me. She’s probably catching up on her sleep after hunting all night to feed these youngsters!

Four raccoon kits , three of whom were checking me out. The one on the right is a light phenotype, which is unusual but not extremely rare.

A couple other hibernators made their first appearance in the last two weeks.  An Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus), that had dozed off and on all winter in its multi-chambered den, emerged and just sat quietly in a patch of sunlight along the entrance trail. The light must take some getting used to after months underground, just waking now and then to eat stored nuts and seeds.

A quiet Chipmunk sat in the sunlight, enjoying being out its underground den after a long winter.

A pair of Midland Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta marginata) kept each other company on a log in the Playground Pond last week. The slightly warmer water must have signaled them to leave their winter torpor in the mud below and swim up into the light and air. I wondered if these two were a pair; the lower one maintained a steady stare at the higher one, who paid no attention while I was there. They both probably were just staring off into the distance, though, as turtles often do.

Painted Turtles emerged from the mud below into the light of a rainy day at the Playground Pond

Over in the marsh, a whole group of them gathered in the reeds and assumed exactly the same pose in order to soak up the sun on their dark shells.

A group of Painted Turtles bask in identical poses in the marsh.

A couple Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina) surfaced in the marsh as well. One fed with its head down as it cruised the marsh, eating vegetation. It looked just like a slowly moving green lump! But the other, much smaller, was basking with its entire body encased in vivid green Duckweed (genus Lemna). It seems very content with the look, and probably feeling, it had created, eh?

A small Snapping Turtle basking in a covering of duckweed.

Plants Begin to Bloom…and Butterflies (and others) aren’t Far Behind!

Just as spring was breaking and icy puddles were melting, I came across a little stream burbling through Bear Creek Nature Park’s eastern woods. This streams runs out of the Center Pond toward the marsh, joining Bear Creek after it leaves the march. Such a lovely spring sound!

On the north side of the Center Pond last week, the Willows (genus Salix) bloomed and (hooray!) we got our first glimpse this year of butterflies – and other pollinators.  First we saw one of the hibernating butterflies, the Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa). It looked a bit ragged from having spent the winter in a tree cavity or under loose bark on the snow-covered ground. It’s often the first butterfly I see in the spring. Mourning cloaks generally don’t pollinate much because they sip tree sap or the honeydew of aphids, rather than nectar from flowers. This one might have been displaying in order to attract a female.

Mourning Cloak on a blooming willow.

On the same plant, a migrator, the Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) posed. It does sip nectar but it also competes with other males for territory by showing off its flying skills. Perhaps that’s why this one was flitting busily from limb to limb.

A Red Admiral had migrated from the south, probably Texas, to land on this willow near the Center Pond last Sunday.

On one bloom, we saw what appeared a small Wasp (maybe suborder Apocrita). It seemed very busy enjoying the willow’s pollen.  According to Wikipedia, unlike the better known wasps, like Yellowjackets (fam. Vespidae), most wasps are solitary with each female living and breeding alone.

A solitary wasp on willow blooms.

Over in a wetland on the west side of the marsh, the strange blossom of Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) had thrust itself up out of the mud. Its purple and yellow spathe covers a tiny spike of petal-less flowers inside. The smell of skunk cabbage attracts early spring flies that pollinate this sci-fi looking blossom. It releases a skunk-like smell and a bitter taste when bruised which means most predators stay away, too. The stem of Skunk Cabbage remains beneath the ground and the green leaves rise after the flowers. Odd, how this eccentric plant with the nasty scent seems to reverse my expectations of how plants grow in the spring!

The flower of the Skunk Cabbage rises from the mud with a spike of tiny flowers protected by the purple and yellow cover of the spathe.

The brightest colors in the woods now, though, are the vivid greens of Moss (members of the Bryophytes). Spring light sifts through bare limbs providing enough sunlight to feed these interesting, ancient plants. The leafy green parts of moss are “gametophytes” that produce the gametes, sperm and ova. Once spring raindrops rinse the sperm across the surface of the moss to a waiting ovum, fertilization occurs and a tall thin “sporophyte” rises from the green surface. The sporophyte will eventually release it spores. These spores initiate thin filaments called the “protonema” out of which grow new gametophytes, starting a new patch of moss.

Here are what I’m guessing are three different stages of moss growing on the same tree near the marsh. Or maybe its three different mosses? I’m too much of an amateur naturalist to know.  I do know that I love the green glow of moss in the dappled light of the forest. (If you are knowledgeable about mosses, please feel free to correct my guesses and help me identify them! )

If mosses just don’t do it for you, don’t despair.  Thanks to last fall’s forestry mowing north of the pond, sun has already reached the sunny faces of the Blood Root (Sanguinaria canadensis). I admire its leafy cloak that rises with the flower wrapped inside.

Bloodroot bloomed early this year because sunlight reached it after the forestry mowing.

The first tender leaves and buds of the woodland wildflower, Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica) are already rising at the feet of trees in the Oak-Hickory forest.

And out in the eastern meadow, a Pussy Willow (Salix discolor) began to bud a few weeks ago, while it peacefully hosts a wide assortment of developing insects within its pine cone-shaped Willow galls. Last Sunday, it had bloomed, but the insects didn’t seem to be issuing forth yet.

Slip on Your Boots and Your Raincoat!  Spring is Singing Its Siren Song

Song sparrow (Melospiza melodia) singing.

Spring’s a great time to act like a kid again. Try heading for the park on a rainy day and let the sounds and sights of spring cheer you like they did when you were small. Slosh through a puddle.  Squelch through some mud.  Leave your earbuds at home – and pause, eyes closed,  for a short serenade by a Robin or a Song Sparrow.  Use your binoculars to scan the wetlands for tiny frogs, their throats bulging with song. Let your color-starved eyes feast on  the yellow of a Waxwing’s belly, the emerald shine of a Mallard’s head,  the exotic, multi-colored pattern of a  Wood Duck’s plumage.  Swish your palm across a soft cushion of a vivd green moss. Perhaps even get close enough to a skunk cabbage to make your nose wrinkle. Our senses need a good workout after being indoors for so long.  Treat yourself to a walk in the park. I can pretty much guarantee you’ll come home  happier than when you left.  Works for me every single time.