On a cold April morning, a monumental figure appeared on the roof ridge of an empty house we can see through our woods.
We’d noticed a pair of vultures over the field next door, circling together, diving and turning, sculpting patterns in the cold morning air. Then a few minutes later, a monumental shape appeared on the roof ridge of an empty house through the woods. A Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) had landed and spread its powerful 5-6 foot wingspan. But where was the other bird? Ah, peering through the trees, I spied a somewhat smaller vulture perched on top of the chimney, keeping its partner company.
Of course, I ran off to consult the Cornell Ornithology Lab website and found this: “Often, especially in the morning, they can be seen standing erect, wings spread in the sun, presumably to warm up, cool off, or dry off.”
Wikipedia added to that list the possibility of “baking off bacteria” which would have made more sense on a warm summer morning. I suspected they might be a mating pair, though the breeding season can run a bit later in their northern ranges.
Since turkey vultures form long term bonds after a group courting ritual, perhaps I was seeing an established couple – or possibly an older bird with a younger one, since the smaller bird seemed to have more of the immature’s gray around its eyes than the typical fully red head of an adult. I wasn’t sure.
Eventually, the larger bird joined its partner on the flat surface of the chimney cap. Vultures evidently like to perch on abandoned buildings or any surface which is slightly cooler than its surroundings.
They stood together for a short time. The smaller bird lowered its head, perhaps recognizing an elder bird or signaling a willingness for a partnership.
They then spent a long time preening, which could have been a precursor to mating, but most likely is also important for any bird that eats carrion.
Turkey vultures, unlike Black Vultures (Coragyps atratus), rarely, if ever, kill anything. Instead they cruise using their excellent eyesight and keen sense of smell to spot a freshly dead animal. Their bare heads and sturdy digestive systems make them virtually invulnerable to contracting anthrax, botulism or other diseases in decomposing meat. Vultures and other carrion eaters function in our habitat as a constantly vigilant clean up crew. For all my park visits, I rarely see or smell the remains of a dead animal – which I appreciate.
Predators don’t mess much with adult vultures. But when owls, hawks, or eagles do occasionally attack them, they aren’t agile enough to be good fighters. Their defense is to hiss or just vomit nasty, acid stomach contents on their attackers – and baby vultures do the same when attacked by raccoons or possums. I bet no predator tries that twice!
Vultures are admittedly homely, awkward birds on the ground. They hop and waddle with their wings akimbo and struggle to take flight. But once lift off occurs, they are masters of the sky!
They rise swiftly, riding warm air thermals, circling high into the sky in a teetering, V-shaped flight. Rarely flapping those huge wings, they soar gracefully across and above the landscape. Light shines through the tapered tips of their primary (flight) feathers, creating what appears to be a wide silver-gray band edging their dark wings. I see them that way on almost every hike.
So I felt very lucky to have been gifted – on my birthday no less! – with a glimpse of these impressive birds in a more restful, and even intimate moment. No mating occurred, though. Before long, they both flexed those dark wings, took a few beats, and sailed back into the sky.
J.R.R. Tolkien provided the ideal words to describe the in-between season in which we’re suspended right now: “… a morning of pale Spring still clinging to Winter’s chill.” Spring is officially here with the Spring Equinox, but mornings in the prairies and forests of the township can still feel as though we’re caught in the last weak grip of winter.
So this week, I thought I’d be on the lookout for sure signs of spring’s arrival and naturally, once I started looking, they were everywhere!
Birds Herald Longer Days with Song and Some Fancy Posturing
Arriving at Draper Twin Lake Park one cold, gray Sunday, my husband and I heard a very loud, clear rendition of the entire spring song of a Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). (Cardinals have a lot of calls. Listen to the second call listed at this Cornell link – that’s the one we heard.) This fellow seemed confident that he could woo the ladies and establish his territory at the same time with his full-throated singing! Look at that beak!
Male American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) at our feeder are changing out of their modest winter attire into their breeding feathers. In a month or so, they’ll be bright yellow in the hope of interesting a female with an eye for color. Here’s a male on the bottom right perch of our thistle feeder who started changing his wardrobe in March. Perhaps the female on the bottom left perch will be interested? (The other birds are Pine Siskins (Spinus pinus) who will migrate north before long.)
The buzzing trill of the Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaiusphoeniceus), which is accompanied by raising his red shoulder patches, is a common and beloved sign of spring here in Michigan. But last week I saw a male who was taking display to a whole new level. While calling, he also began awkwardly dancing along a branch, keeping his scarlet “epaulets” raised, occasionally fanning his tail, all in the interest of establishing a territory and showing off for some lucky female. What a guy! (Click through the slide show below to see the progression of his dance!)
Other birds establish dominance over other males with creative use of their necks! Below two newly arrived Common Grackles (Quiscalusquiscula) appear to be trying to “out-snoot” each other with their beaks tilted skyward! I think the one on the right is probably the winner here, don’t you? Or else the one the left is an uninterested female. It’s hard to tell.
Mark, a birding friend, told me that the Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula) at Stoney Creek Metropark were doing their dramatic neck displays as well. According to Cornell Lab’s All About Birds website, Goldeneyes spend December to April in courtship groups where they form mating pairs by performing a lot of energetic neck movements. The male bends his neck backwards until his head lays on his back and then he snaps it forward, splashing water with his feet at the same time! The female responds by lowering her head and swinging it forward. Pretty dramatic courtship! I wasn’t able to get to the Metropark this week, but a kindly photographer from iNaturalist, who goes by Mike B, allowed us the use of this photo of a male taken near Chicago. These diving ducks are headed to their breeding grounds in northern Canada and Alaska, just south of the Arctic.
Flocks of Birds – Large Ones and Small Ones – Fly Overhead and Forage in Our Parks
The birding group had an exciting Wednesday at Charles Ilsley Park when two huge flocks of Tundra Swans (Cygnus columbianus) flew overhead! Cornell says that these huge, all white swans with black beaks spent the winter on the Atlantic coast and are now headed to the Arctic tundra to build their nests and breed. Aren’t we lucky to be on their flyway?
Another birding friend, Mike Kent, took the photo below, because, wouldn’t you know, that was the day I decided to leave my camera at home!!! Look carefully at Mike’s photo because he caught a fascinating detail. We saw one lone Canada Goose (Brantacanadensis) traveling along with this huge flock of swans! You can just see its dark body in the upper left of the photo, third bird down. Hope this adventurous goose doesn’t plan to go all the way to the Arctic with its new-found friends!
That Wednesday was great for seeing big birds at Ilsley Park. Mike also caught for us a nice photo of a family of Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) who settled at the bottom of a slope to rest and feed. The larger, darker birds to the right are probably the adults, while the two smaller gray ones on the left are probably last year’s young ones.
At Bear Creek Nature Park, smaller flocks were chatting in trees and foraging along the paths. A noisy group of American Robins (Turdus migratorius) were snatching berries from a tree infested with invasive Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus). Some robins overwinter here and some migrate to southern Ohio and Kentucky. Some move back and forth all winter long. Though these non-native berries attract them during the winter, they unfortunately don’t provide much nutrition for the birds since thawing and freezing makes them very sugary. So migrating, in their case, might be a better choice!
On a path from the playground to the Walnut Lane at Bear Creek Nature Park, I saw my first flock of Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia). I love to listen to these tuneful birds in the spring, but have never before seen a flock of them in one area, as I did this week. They were “chicken-scratching” by scooting backwards with their feet in a ferocious attempt to get at some food beneath the surface -probably small seeds or insect eggs. The flock was so busy that the ground along the trail looked torn as they scraped their way down to the frozen surface, looking for food.
Buds are Swelling from Bare Branches – a Welcome Sign of Spring’s Arrival
Every year as spring approaches, I watch the Silver Maple (Acersaccharinum) to the right of the deck at Bear Creek’s Center Pond. It’s always one of the first trees to signal spring for me, its robust, red buds hanging gracefully from drooping branches over the water.
A small Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) near the pond has just barely thrust its leaf bud from the woody protection it had during the winter (left). In May, it will be a huge glorious bud (center), and in June, the green leaves will unfold into the sunlight (right). (Click photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Yes, It’s Muddy…but It’s S’posed to Be, Right?
It’s the end of March. Most of the ice on the surface is gone (at least for the moment!), but the ground is still frozen beneath. So rain and melting snow have nowhere to go. That makes for muddy shoes, smeared pant legs and cars decorated in various shades of brown. But hey, those signs announce that full-fledged, glorious spring is almost here! Birds are beginning to sing, dance, do a bit of neck gymnastics, don spring colors and wing their way north overhead in huge numbers. And trees are slowly waking from their roots, sending sugary sap up through their vascular systems, ripening their leaves for another summer of sun-gathering. All of nature, including us humans, have survived a very challenging, deep-freeze winter. Now’s the time to celebrate just being alive on a mudluscious walk in the pale sunshine of an early spring morning.
Two years ago, the birding group stepped onto the ice at the edge of Cranberry Lake to see a beaver lodge (above). Pretty cool! But since then, we hadn’t seen much activity around the lodge – no felled or gnawed trees, for example.
Well, an American beaver (Castor canadensis) is definitely in residence this winter! During the first week of January, one appears to have swum through the canal near the end of the lake trail. A good-sized hole had been broken in the ice, leaving large shards on either side. (See below.) And nearby there were definite signs of a foraging beaver!
The beaver must have gone right to work gathering some bark to feed on this winter. Beavers eat leaves during the summer, but in winter they feed on the soft inner bark of trees. As my husband and I looked around, we spotted several examples of this accomplished lumberjack’s work! One was only partially gnawed; perhaps a predator or a curious human interrupted its work – or maybe it just decided it had enough fodder and retired to its lodge. [Click to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]
A tree left partially gnawed.
The largest of the trees the beaver felled.
Three small trees neatly felled by a beaver
Beavers have huge, self-sharpening, iron-fortified incisors that they use for this work. The iron makes those big buck teeth very strong and bright orange, as you can see in this taxidermy beaver on display at Seven Ponds Nature Center in Dryden.
My guess is that our Cranberry Lake beaver (it’s usually a male that gathers food during the winter) came up through the ice and felled a few trees. He then grabbed each log with his powerful jaws, dragging it under the ice and swimming with it out to his lodge. At that early time in January, it was impossible for me to get out on the thin ice to see his cache. What beavers usually do, according to the PBS Nature documentary “Leave It to Beavers” is to sink a few trees in the mud beneath the lodge with some of the branches left above the surface. That allows the beaver to feed under the ice, safe from predators like coyotes. The dark limbs above the surface also help to bring some warmth below on sunny days, keeping the ice near the cache less solid and acting as a marker for their stash of food. Clever little animals! Here’s the lodge two years ago with some trees sticking out of the ice in just that way.
Some of the trunks and branches may just be placed on the lodge for future use. That’s what this year’s beaver appears to have done – though looking through the trees made it difficult to see.
A couple of weeks later, when we’d had some colder weather, I ventured out to the lake edge again to see if any more trees had been felled. None had, but I noticed a long trail of frozen bubbles under the ice. Normally these are methane bubbles released by the bacteria that feed on plants decomposing under the ice. Perhaps this marks some leaves or twigs from the felled trees that the beaver hauled out to his lodge. But of course, the air bubbles could also be coming from the beaver, right? I wondered if this new lodge tenant had ventured out again, but found the ice too thick to break through. Muskrats, which are much smaller than beavers, also swim under the ice in winter, so I’m not sure who or what left this trail.
Two year old beavers, I learned from the Nature documentary, leave their home lodge and venture out to find an empty lodge that they can rebuild or to build a new one. On a cold day last March, I spotted what I at first assumed was a small beaver swimming toward the shore opposite the lodge. Because of its size, though, I decided it was a muskrat – but now I wonder if my first guess was correct. No way of knowing really, but I like to think so!
Young beavers sometimes need to venture out of their lodges more in the winter, because they didn’t fill their larders quite full enough in the autumn. So perhaps the swimmer I saw last March is the new tenant and local lumberjack – and perhaps not.
But if this hydro engineer sticks around, he may be making a few spots in Cranberry Lake a bit deeper each year. Beavers dig deep channels beneath their ponds because the deeper the water, the safer beavers are from predators. According to the documentary, out west during the 2002 droughts, farmers and ranchers with beavers in their ponds had the only water available for livestock – and of course wildlife gathered at those ponds as well. Beavers keep a lot of water on the landscape by deepening streams and creating ponds with their dams. Of course beavers can also cause trouble with their architectural abilities, flooding roads and human housing, but luckily the documentary explains how clever stewards in Canada are using the beavers’ natural attraction to the sound of trickling water to encourage them to build in safer places.
Usually young beavers don’t mate until their third year. If the beaver who felled the trees this January sticks around and is lucky enough to come across a mate, maybe we’ll discover a whole family of beavers one of these days! I’d just love to photograph a beaver sitting out of the water, but since they usually appear just before dawn or after sunset, no luck so far. Fortunately, a photographer named Blake A. Mann got a lovely photo of one chewing contently on a stick and graciously shared it through iNaturalist.org. He’s definitely inspired me to keep looking!
Winter walks can yield odd – and quite amazing – surprises. For example, how about seeing large tadpoles wriggling just under the ice at Bear Creek Nature Park’s playground pond? My husband and I couldn’t believe what we were seeing at first and neither could members of the birding group last Wednesday – but there they were.
About a half dozen of them cork-screwed up to the surface, snatched tiny bits of green Water Meal(Wolffiacolumbiana) floating within a hole in the ice and quickly wriggled back into the depths. Tadpoles in the dead of winter? A first for us and for many of you readers too, I imagine!
After doing a little research, I discovered that this is not as strange as it first appeared. Evidently, Green Frogs (Rana clamitans) lay their eggs from April until autumn. So some tadpoles hatch from their eggs late in the year and overwinter under the ice. It’s not easy. The water under the ice is low in oxygen since no air reaches the surface, and currents can’t mix oxygen into the still water.
When ice forms on a pond, the adult Green Frogs, which is the most common frog at in the Playground Pond, spend the winter resting on the mud below the pond. During hibernation, they can absorb sufficient oxygen through their skin. Their tadpoles, however, can swim and feed during the winter, provided it is not too severe. I immediately wondered, “Why don’t they freeze when the temperature drops?” Well, the North Woodlands website of the North Woodlands Association in New Hampshire explains that it all depends on the harshness of the winter. Tadpoles can move and feed because they have more skin surface related to their body size, or a “higher surface area to volume ratio.” As a result, they absorb enough available oxygen through their skin to power their winter activity.
Also, though the temperature may be 32° near the ice, as the tadpoles scurry back down into the pond, the temperature rises to 38 or 39° and may be 40° on the bottom. Perhaps that’s why I never got a perfect shot of one wriggling at the surface; it’s just too cold to stay there for long. Or at least that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it!
By the way, it’s possible that the tadpoles are Bullfrogs (Lithobates catesbeianus) too. They can often take 2 years to metamorphose into adult frogs. But Green Frogs, like the one below, are the ones I most commonly see at the Playground Pond.
If those tough, wriggly tadpoles survive winter under the ice, they may be getting a jump on the tadpoles that hatch in the spring by being bigger at an earlier date. When the weather warms, the winter tadpoles are ready to metamorphose sooner and grow into bigger frogs. And bigger frogs are better at defending their food territories and finding mates. Maybe we should take that as inspiration for all of us to keep moving in cold weather!
Collecting wildflower seed here in our township is an enjoyable, labor intensive activity that proceeds through several stages in all four seasons of the year. The flowers do all the work in the summer by producing their colorful blooms. Then the humans – volunteers and Parks staff – take over the work in the other three seasons by harvesting, cleaning and sowing the seed.
Since we’ve just completed the cycle for 2018, I thought we’d share how this ancient cycle of work, organized each year by Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our Natural Areas Stewardship manager, happens throughout the year.
Winter and Spring: Spreading Seed
Readers may remember the blog from last April, when Ben, his stewardship tech Alex Kreibel and I spread wildflower seed in Bear Creek Nature Park. We spent a cool spring morning sowing seed by hand as it’s been done for thousands of years.
For larger projects we might spread seed with a special native seed drill or broadcast spreader attached to a tractor.
The seeds we spread take their time for the next few years, sprouting a bit of greenery to catch the sunlight as they grow deep roots. Those roots help them survive drought like all prairie plants. In a few years, when the roots have grown deep, the plants we sow finally bloom and produce more seed. Luckily, nature has also dispersed seeds for countless years. With a little help from us humans through prescribed fire or invasive plant control, native seeds already in the soil will also find their way to the sunlight and grow!
Summer: Blossoms Attract Pollinators
Plants mostly rely on wind and insects – beetles, flies, butterflies – to move pollen from one plant to the next. Pollination is the process by which male genetic material (in the pollen) is transferred from the anther of one plant to the female pistil of another plant (or in self-pollinating plants to pistils on the same plant). If the pollen lands on a compatible plant, it will germinate grow a pollen tube to conduct the sperm to the potential seeds (ovules) in the ovary of the second plant.
Wind-pollinated plants like grasses and some trees produce lots of pollen and cast it to the wind, taking a chance that a few grains will land in a receptive flower on another plant. But our insect-pollinated plants use a more targeted method to transfer pollen from one flower to the next. These plants create tempting blossoms full of color, scent, nectar and, of course, pollen to attract and reward pollinators, ensuring that some will be transported to another flower on the insect courier.
We’ll follow the three insect-pollinated plants below, from various parks, through our seed collecting cycle: Joe Pye (Euthrochium maculatum), Stiff Goldenrod (Solidago rigida) and White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima). [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]
Autumn: Voilà! Fertile Seeds Ready for Harvesting
Here are the same three wildflowers in their seeding phase in the early autumn. (Please note that two of the three photos below were generously provided by iNaturalist photographers, Ken Potter and mikaelamazzeo94.)
And again, some readers will remember from a November blog that while nature was dispersing seed through wind, water and gravity this autumn, we humans were out among them, snipping selectively. Good stewardship requires gathering some native seed so that 1) the seeds get to spots that need native seed, often our active restoration areas where seeds might not reach on their own; and 2) so that the township can save a bit of money on expensive native wildflower seed!
Winnowing Out the Seed by Hand – and Foot!
On December 6, 2018 the final stage of our seed collecting came to fruition as Ben taught us techniques for separating the seed from the plants to get them ready to spread. Volunteers and staff gathered at the Parks Department pole barn on Buell Road on a cold winter morning to push the dry stalks through various sizes of screening.
For some plants, that meant wearing leather gloves to rub the stalks against the screen so that the seed would fall into the tub underneath, as we did with White Snakeroot(Ageratinaaltissima) shown below.
For plants with sturdy structures, like the round heads of Bee Balm(Monarda fistulosa) below, it meant putting a screened box on a plastic sheet on the floor and actually treading on the seed heads to help loosen the seed!
Once the seeds were separated, they were turned over to Ben’s current stewardship specialist, Alyssa Radzwion, and volunteer Dena Scher who poured the seeds into bags, labeled them with their scientific names and recorded the information.
So here is our haul for this year!
If we have more volunteers to gather seed (hint, hint…), we could harvest even more in 2019! So consider the ancient pleasure of sowing seed in the spring, gathering seed on an autumn day, and cleaning seed at a good old fashioned work bee next December. The hum of voices, the laughter, the earthy fragrances of different seeds – it’s a fun way to meet neighbors and help nature grow more of those beautiful wildflowers that are beginning to carpet our restored prairies. And to top it all off, you get to feel like a kid again as you rub, stomp and get covered in tiny silk parachutes!