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Photos of the Week: Nature During “The Big Freeze”

The mighty oak at Ilsley Park on a wintry morning

Since we seem to be heading into a warming trend, I thought I’d share the odds ‘n’ ends of what I’m calling The Big Freeze, those recent days of frigid temperatures and wind.  In the interests of preserving my camera and my numb fingers, my hikes during  the Big Freeze were shorter and the photos were fewer.

Blog by Cam Mannino

But as usual, I delighted in the sightings or even the  signs and traces of other creatures, including other humans, who shared the bitter temperatures with me.  On those frigid, silent days, I found myself appreciating the slightest visual treat that passed unnoticed in the lushness of summer  – a rock, a mud puddle, snow-covered mushrooms.  So here’s a sampling from Bear Creek and Charles Ilsley Parks of what can make a walk worthwhile even on the zero degree days of a challenging winter.

Wildlife Braving The Big Freeze

Flocks of Cedar Waxwings brightened a cold morning at Bear Creek Nature Park with color and friendly chatter.

Birds are rarer sights for me on super cold winter walks, so what a treat to come across a flock of Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) on two different walks at Bear Creek Nature Park. The high-pitched whistling as these winter social groups swooped and settled was quite cheering during The Big Freeze. Here are some other creatures that shared those bitter morning walks with me.

Far in the distance early one morning, a Red-tailed Hawk plumped its feathers for warmth as it surveyed Bear Creek Nature Park.
American Red Squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) don an auburn stripe down their back and tail for extra warmth on winter days.
A Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) dove through the bushes  foraging for food one snowy morning.
The Red-bellied Woodpecker’s “kwirr” call announces its presence. Its drumming is rapid, short and surprisingly soft for such a large bird.

Though I heard more creatures deep in the brambles and watched birds fly overhead, I only caught a few with my camera.  Some animals only left their tracks behind. On a bird walk at Charles Ilsley Park, we saw the neat tracks of two coyotes who’d trotted along in the moonlight the night before. Coyotes make straight, single tracks, placing their back feet in the tracks of their front feet to save energy. One of the birders said he’d heard that the coyote’s tail can leave a slight drag line as seen in the closeup below. I couldn’t find a source for that, but it makes sense since coyotes run with their tails down, rather than up like wolves or dogs. Click on the photos to enlarge; hover your cursor for captions. (Coyote photo below by amandaandmike at

Coyote by amandaandmike (CC BY-NC-SA)

A Meadow Vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus), aka a Meadow Mouse,  must have crossed the path at Bear Creek Nature Park on a snowy night and then disappeared by burrowing into the snow. Lucky for this little creature that the coyote wasn’t around! (Meadow Vole photo by Wolfgang Siebeneich at

I’ve never seen a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) at Bear Creek Nature Park, though others have. But I did see the hole one had recently excavated in a tree  in the Oak- Hickory forest there – with this “carpenter’s” wood chips scattered below. (Woodpecker photo kindly lent by Joan Bonin, a gifted local photographer.)

Evidence of Humans at Play During the Big Freeze

It’s always cheering to come upon evidence of other people using our parks to just play in the snow.

Odds ‘n’ Ends that Caught My Winter Eye

The austerity of winter reveals landscape features unnoticed in the lushness of spring and summer.  The birding group marveled at a fast-running spring  flowing out into the snow at Charles Ilsley Park which had been dry or hidden in the dense growth of the field the rest of the year.

At sunset one afternoon, I rounded the corner of the shed at Bear Creek Nature Park and saw a pink and blue sunset glowing in a puddle of melted snow.

The graceful “bones” of last year’s wildflowers, clusters of half-moon shelf mushrooms, even an unusual rock catch my eye when framed in white. (Use pause button if you need more time for captions.)

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 Beauty in the Big Freeze: Appreciating the Small Things

Plant material below the surface colors the ice on a wetland at Bear Creek Nature Park.

Sometimes it’s just the pale green and lavender of ice in a wetland or the high whistle of a swoop of Cedar Waxwings. The scarlet flash of a Cardinal or a dancing snowman can lift your heart on gray winter day. Feathery snow settling on a seed pod or the gaudy beauty of an early sunset – it’s just a matter of taking in beauty in smaller, more subtle doses that can buoy our spirits in the dark cold of a Michigan winter.

Photos of the Week: Wildflower “Persons” in Summer and Winter Garb

I’ve found that knowing the names of plants around me begins a kind of relationship with them. They’re no longer just green – or in this season brown –  background. So imagine my pleasure on coming across this quote from Potawatomi scientist and professor, Robin Wall Kimmerer, just as I was starting this blog:

"In indigenous ways of knowing, all beings are recognized as non-human persons, and all have their own names. It is a sign of respect to call a being by its name, and a sign of disrespect to ignore it. Words and names are the ways we humans build relationship, not only with each other, but also with plants." (From Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer)
Blog and photos by
Cam Mannino

Perhaps you’re like me. When wildflowers are in colorful bloom, their names rise more quickly from my memory. But in winter, when their graceful but desiccated architecture contrasts with winter white, I can’t always recognize, much less name,  my summertime acquaintances.

So this week, I’ve paired summer portraits of  wildflowers with their winter portraits. Perhaps as we recognize more wildflowers in their spare but beautiful winter garb, we’ll feel more connected to the winter landscape. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)

Bee Balm/Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)

Wild Senna (Senna hebecarpa)

Joe Pye  (Eutrochium maculatum)

Tall Coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris)

Nodding Wild Onion (Allium cernuum)

Round-headed Bush Clover (Lespedeza capitata)

It’s clear to me now why natural landscape designers encourage us to create some “visual interest” by allowing some of these plants to remain in native gardens for the winter. Ornithologists and others also remind us that dry stalks and seed heads provide food and cover for winter birds and snug homes for overwintering beneficial insects. Not surprisingly, the natural world gifts us with beauty and practical benefits in all the seasons of the year!

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

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

Blog and photos by Cam Mannino

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

Winter 2017: Serenity Rises as the Snow Falls

The Tree Line Between Two Prairies, Charles Ilsley Park

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

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

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

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

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Summer 2017: Butterflies Galore as Restored Prairies Began to Bloom

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

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

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Autumn 2017:  Birds Departed South, and Fall Wildflowers Bloomed

Autumn color at Cranberry Lake Park

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

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

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

Photos of the Week: Surprised by a Winter Insect

The marsh at Draper Lake Park in early December

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

A blur of tiny insects near some leafless twigs

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

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

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

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

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

Photos of the Week: A Rookery Full of Great Blue Heron Fledglings

At a rookery along the Clinton River Trail west of Dequindre Road, young Great Blue Herons (Ardea herodias) are preparing to go out on their own. According to the Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior Volume III, both adults care for the eggs for 28 days, and the nestling phase lasts 7-8 weeks. Now, in mid-July, the young are fully fledged but still at the nest practicing their wing techniques. Their hard working parents will feed them for another 2 or 3 weeks, and the young herons will take their first flights during this time.

According to both Stokes and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the young can be identified by two-toned beaks (rather than all yellow), black and white striped necks (rather than solid color),  and a solid black crown (rather than the black and white adult crown). So I’m guessing that all the herons you’ll see below are fledglings. In the slide show below, a young heron tries out different wing movements, perhaps to build up necessary muscles or just get the feel for different positions – arched high, extended flat,  curved forward for slowing down to a stop, etc.  One youngster also seemed to practice spearing with its huge beak, striking down into the edge of the huge nest of twigs.

It’s important to be very quiet and unobtrusive around heron rookeries. The birds are easily disturbed and can abandon rookeries where there’s too much activity and noise. Luckily this one is protected from the busy trail by a scrim of trees. So if we’re quiet, careful and stay on the trail, the herons can continue to ignore hikers, bikers and the occasional curious amateur photographer sticking her camera between the leaves!

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