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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.)
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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?
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!
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 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.
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 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?
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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
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.
I’m willing to admit that winter walks are a bit more demanding for me. Though I love being out in the open with red cheeks and the glitter of sunlight on snow, breaking through an icy snow crust with every step can be a bit arduous. And as a writer who loves taking photos, well, wildlife is simply a bit more scarce and plant life is a lot less colorful. So the blog creates an interesting challenge. Luckily, I’m all for a good challenge! So this week, in a way, I’m writing about what I didn’t see in February at Charles Ilsley Park. Bear with me…
One February morning, I pursued the paw prints of an unseen coyote who had left a trail in the ice-encrusted snow on the previous moonlit night. And I spent part of an afternoon just noticing the brown and gray architecture of the dry seed heads of some favorite summer wildflowers, now ghosts of their colorful summer selves. Their pleasing shapes provided some inspiration about the native garden I’m dreaming about for next summer. But I’ll start this blog with the handful of birds that I did see, that kept me company on frigid days, just to remind myself that I had sturdy companions on the grayest and coldest days of the year.
Who’s That Twittering in the Tall Grass?
One late afternoon as I approached the Eastern Prairie at Ilsley, I heard the cheerful “chatting” (see first “call” heading at this link) of a small group of winter visitors from the Arctic, American Tree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea). One of them paused long enough for a good look at its two-tone bill. This little bird had puffed up its down jacket to deal with a frigid morning!
Two days later, the birding group heard more “chatting.” We spotted a large flock of Tree Sparrows flowing like a river from the trees, down into the tall prairie grass. These social flocks keep in contact with short calls back and forth – “I’m here! I’m over here!” – as they forage. I managed to catch a group of them in a vine-laden bush at the edge of prairie.
It was wonderful to watch so many migratory birds feeding enthusiastically on the native seeds of our restored prairie. We were curious to see which plants they were enjoying. That morning they were finding bent Black-eyed Susan stems (Rudbeckia hirta) and plucking out the seeds. Here’s the bent stem at almost ground level, the seeds on the snow and the area trampled by the flock’s small feet.
Actually, this large flock of birds had a few fellow travelers. Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) and American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) joined the Tree Sparrows’ feast. Larger flocks increase the odds that birds can survive against predators in winter, when birds show up well against the snow. They also mean more eyes spotting good food. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
On a Sunday walk in the Western Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park, my husband and I spotted Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) diving in and out of the grass. Finally, a pair of them settled on some brush and fallen logs along the tree line. The male ignored me completely while he preened vigorously. Since bluebirds often use the abandoned nests of woodpeckers in the winter, I wondered if he’d picked up some mites from an old nest, poor fellow. I managed to get one quick shot when he rested for just a moment.
The female nearby was keeping an eye on me and as I approached she sent the male a little “chit-chit-chit” call (second “call” heading at this link) that warns of ground predators – me, in this case! Then they both flew off again.
At the far edge of the western prairie, we heard the “ank-ank-ank” call of the White Breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis). (Under “Eastern calls” at this link.) It was hopping quickly from branch to dead branch above our heads, searching out anything it could eat , like frozen insect eggs or caterpillars.
Now, About Those Tracks Here, There and Everywhere…
As I started out one Thursday morning, I was presented with some pretty impressive tracks. I recognized them immediately, because one of them was mine! The last four birders on the Wednesday morning bird walk had trekked along chatting as we went back to our cars. As a former bookseller, I had to smile remembering Pooh and Piglet tracking a “heffalump” around a bush, which of course turned out to be their own footprints, too. A fun beginning to my search for animal tracks.
I left the trail and headed diagonally across the field following a nice straight line of canine prints – and readers of my previous winter blogs probably know what that means – a Coyote! Coyotes (Canis latrans) trot along at night making a straight trail of prints. Being wild animals, coyotes want to use as little energy as necessary between meals, so they never run around in the snow like dogs do. They place their back feet inside the print of their front feet to use less energy and move directly where they want to go.
Because a crust covered the snow after freezing rain, it was clear that this coyote had to break through the snow with each step, leaving a pointed top to the track it left behind.
I followed the prints as it became apparent that this coyote was headed for the farthest west section of the park, where Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide had hired a forestry mower to remove invasive shrubs and create a path to the nearby subdivision for residents’ use. Two trees nicely frame the opening to this newly renovated area.
This western section with its rolling, glacial landscape, wetlands and wooded areas is very different from the open prairies of Ilsley. It seems our coyote thought this might be a better place to rest on an icy, windy night. Coyotes are not really nocturnal animals, but they have learned that night is a good time to hunt and not be bothered by humans and their activities. So I imagine this coyote had been out hunting mice on the prairie and was heading back to the woods to get out of the wind.
After passing into the western area, the coyote turned sharply south into the woods. So I followed its tracks, imagining it trotting between the trees, slipping in and out of the shadows made by the full moon the night before.
It’s easy to see that among the glacially-formed slopes of this rolling landscape, a coyote would be out of the sharp wind that blew across the prairie. The landscape in this area of the park is suddenly so different, as the slopes rise and then descend to one wetland after another. I kept following the coyote deeper into the woods as the line of prints flowed over the slopes.
At last the coyote’s tracks came down to a small pond where they seemed to end in a flattened area under some vines and branches at the right which would have provided a bit of cover.
Beyond that pond was another lovely little pond covered in snow and embraced by the hills around it – but not a track in sight.
I lost the coyote’s trail after that and wandered up to Ben’s path again. I stopped to admire a very tall, wonderfully straight native Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipfera) with its closely furrowed bark.
Its yellow blossoms were now dried but still quivering in the wind at the very top of the tree. Ben pointed it out on an earlier walk and told us he thought our area is at the northern edge of this lovely tree’s range. It’s the first wild tulip tree I’ve ever seen.
Nearby stood a tall Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum), its red buds just waiting to expand and bring us one of the first really vivid colors of early spring.
As I left the western wooded area and headed back onto the western prairie, I came across a flattened place in the trail that looked like a major crossroads for critters. The tracks around it were hard to read . I thought I recognized squirrel and possible rabbit tracks, but I have no idea who was there and what was going on, really. Since there are coyote tracks above this flattened area, I wondered if one slept here; as top predators, they do sleep in the open at times. Its warmth would have melted the snow and allowed smaller creatures to get to the ground underneath the crusted surface once the coyote left the scene. Just a guess.
One possible hint was a hole in the snow nearby where a squirrel may have tried to dig up a nut in the frozen soil. Or perhaps our coyote dug up a Meadow Mouse (Microtus pennsylvanicus) before heading off to sleep? I’m not sure because the tracks around it were not fresh; they had been trampled, rained on and frozen.
The coyote tracks did lead away from area toward the private property on the west side of the park.
If the open hole was that of a captured mouse, the birders saw evidence that some mice are luckier than others. Here are some mouse tracks that we spotted near the edge of the western prairie. It looks like this mouse made it safely under the snow’s insulation – safe from the icy wind and out of sight. I love the “stitching” look of mouse tracks in the snow.
On the last leg of my tracking trip to the park, as I approached the central section from the north, I saw one of the spring-fed ponds covered with lots of tracks, making neat, straight lines across the snow-covered surface. What was going on? And then it occurred to me. These were stewardship tracks! Ben had told us at the end of the bird walk that he’d brought a native wetland seed mix to spread on the ponds before it rained later that day. He and Stewardship Specialist Alyssa Radzwion put the seed right on the frozen surface. Native seeds needs to be exposed to the cold before they will germinate properly. Once warm weather comes, the seeds will drop down into the shallow water or moist edge habitat and with luck, begin bringing some color and native plant life to these special areas of the park.
The Ghosts of Summers Past Provide Inspiration for Spring
I’ve begun learning to recognize and appreciate the winter forms of some favorite wildflowers. Their subtle shades of brown or gray as well as their patterns and geometry have started me wondering if I could create a native garden next summer that the birds and I could enjoy all year ’round. It’s clear that birds need the seeds that cling to native plants despite snow and wind. And I could appreciate the architecture of winter plants. So which shapes provide what landscapers like to call “visual interest” and also provide winter food for wildlife?
Perhaps some of you remember how beautiful the Eastern Prairie looked when filled with Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) in the summer. This hardy native has always had a special place in my life. When I was a teenager, the first song I ever wrote included the “wide-eyed stare” of this sunny flower. So it definitely needs to be in my garden. I’m taken with its winter fringed cap in winter and would be happy to let it hang out in my garden.
Black-eyed Susans in bloom
Black-eyed Susan in winter – a lovely cone of seeds for the birds
Mixed in with these bright yellow beauties were the lavender fireworks of Bee-balm (Monarda fistulosa) and they create appealing geometry in a winter landscape.
For contrast, I’d need some white in my summer garden – and maybe good old Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) would be a possibility – if I could keep it from spreading too much. I like its chocolate brown against the white snow.
I love how Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) sway in a summer breeze so I hope they’ll be included somehow too. The plump, oblong seed heads obviously provide forage for the birds and silvery, pointed spears would be a graceful accent in a winter garden.
I may plant Asters in our field rather than in the garden. They grow in such profusion! I’m not sure which of the many Asters is represented in the winter photo below because so many kinds of asters bloom in late summer and fall! They are such a boon to all kinds of butterflies and bees who can feed on them before winter arrives. Here’s just a sampling. (Use pause button for captions.)
Brown-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia triloba), which also bloom late in late summer and fall, might be another good choice for the field, since they grow so tall (compared to Black-eyed Susans) and have a branching form with multiple blooms at the same time.
Well, that’s a start. I want to search out some other favorites, like Foxglove Beard-tongue (Penstemon digitalis) and see what it looks like after bloom – though I doubt I can resist it for the garden. That little Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) makes me impatient for spring!
See? Wasn’t that a clever way to get to get some color into an early March blog, when everything is still brown, gray and white? I knew you’d appreciate it…
Finding Delight in a Late Winter Walk
It takes a bit more effort to get out on a frosty morning. There’s all that layered clothing and boots and gloves and scarves. And the early March landscape is getting just a bit tiresome — too much brown and white out our windows. But once I’m out the door and into the landscape, nature offers me a few treats to keep me coming back. Tracking a coyote’s tracks to a secluded pond in the woods feels like a little adventure. The friendly chatting of winter birds keeps me company and the sight of bluebirds in the stark landscape nourishes my color-starved eyes. And how lucky that noticing the winter geometry of last summer’s blooms sets me off dreaming about a new native garden! So all that makes crunching step-by-step through the snow crust worth the effort when the thermometer encourages me to stay home.
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township’s Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University; Wikipedia; A Field Guide to Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, and Trees of Michigan Field Guide by Stan Tekiela.
I’m guessing lots of us who love nature have wondered the same thing in the last few weeks. “As the temperature drops below zero, how do those small birds with bare feet survive out there?”
Well, it turns out that although our avian winter neighbors share a similar technique for keeping their feet from freezing, their strategies for dealing with cold, snowy days can differ.
First Rule: Use Those Feathers!
We humans love down jackets on cold winter days and snuggle beneath down comforters on winter nights. Well, birds like the female Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) above, or the Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) pictured at the top of the blog, use the same technique. When birds fluff up their feathers in the cold, they trap a layer of air between the feathers. Their body temperature – in small birds more than 100˚ F – warms the air layer just as it does in our jackets. According to Peter Marra, head of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center at the National Zoo, “Birds’ feathers provide remarkable insulation against the cold, and the oil that coats feathers also provides waterproofing, which is important since the only thing worse than being cold, is being cold and wet.” Here are a few of birds making the most of their feathers on a recent cold morning. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
What About Those Bare Feet, Though?
Last summer I caught this American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) staring at its feet in a tree near Lost Lake. I laughed to think that perhaps it was worrying about how they’d feel on a snowy day! Birds really do have very cold feet in the winter. According to scientist and professor Bernd Heinrich on the Cornell website, the feet of chickadees stay just above freezing even while their body temperatures are very high. Presumably, they don’t feel it much. Their feet are mostly tendons and bones with very few muscles or nerves. If you look at those three birds with feather puffed that are pictured above, you can see they’ve hunched over their feet, covering them with their body feathers. Or sometimes birds simply tuck one leg at a time against their breast. Also, the arteries and veins in birds’ feet are close together. As Heinrich explains it, a bird’s feet are provided with continuous blood flow which keeps them from freezing. Since the arteries pass close to the veins in a bird’s legs, the cooled blood from the feet gets warmed on the way back to the heart to keep the bird’s body warm. And the warm blood from the heart is cooled down as it moves out to the legs, reducing heat loss. Pretty efficient system!
Second Rule: Eat as Much as Possible!
On cold days, small birds really need to stuff themselves every few minutes to keep warm. When you see a White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) or Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) dashing from your feeder to nearby trees, it’s eating some seeds and storing others in the trees’ bark. Amazingly, the brains of Chickadees expand in the fall to improve their memory so that they can later find those seeds or nuts. According to Cornell’s Birdsleuth website, “neurons are added to the Chickadee’s hippocampus in the fall, increasing its volume by about 30%.” As a result, Chickadees can remember up to a thousand places in which they’ve tucked their winter provisions! (I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before in the blog, but it’s so amazing that it bears repeating!)
But What Do They Eat in Winter?
Mourning Doves (Zenaida macroura) and American Goldfinches can be gluttonous at feeders during the winter because they are vegetarians; no insects or caterpillars for them! On most winter days, they can find seeds or fruits, but your feeder helps to supplement the wild supply. Mourning Doves can eat 12-20% of their body weight per day! They store seed in their crops, a muscular pouch near the throat, and digest it later to help keep themselves warm at night.
I’ve seen Cedar Waxwings (Bombycillia cedrorum) eating frozen vine fruits or leaf buds that overwinter on the branches of trees.
But many local birds, including Waxwings, are omnivores who can eat a wide range of foods. The Tufted Titmouse, White-Breasted Nuthatch, Chickadees and all kinds of Woodpeckers (family Picidae) spend winter days probing loose bark or hopping along branches looking for frozen dinners; insects, insect eggs, pupae or perhaps a frozen caterpillar will do just fine as sources of protein on a cold day.
AmericanCrows (Corvus brachyrhynchos), being bigger birds, will eat almost anything to “stoke their furnaces” during the winter. In our area, the carcasses of White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) provide lots of good protein. And if a crow finds one, it notifies its family and friends to join the feast. (No fair being squeamish. We all have to eat!)
Where Do Birds Spend Cold Winter Nights?
According to the Smithsonian’s Peter Marra, “Many small birds, like Black-Capped Chickadees, Eastern Bluebirds, and House Wrens, will gather in large groups at night and crowd together in a small, tight space to share body heat.” Sharing body heat keeps down fat loss during the night to preserve energy for the next day’s foraging. In his article for Cornell’s All About Birds, Bernd Heinrich describes finding a group of tiny Golden- Crowned Kinglets (Regulus satrapa) huddled in a circle on the branch of a pine tree, beaks in, tails out, sharing their body heat on a winter night. These tiny birds, which overwinter in our area, are about half the weight of a Chickadee! This lovely winter photo of a Golden-crowned Kinglet was taken by a photographer named cedimaria at the website inaturalist.org.
Bernd Heinrich reports in his essay collection, Winter’s World, that woodpeckers provide some cozy winter housing for other birds as well as themselves. Every spring, woodpeckers make a fresh hole for raising their young, but they tend to use them for only one year. So small birds can often find an abandoned woodpecker hole to get out of the wind and snow on a winter night. In the autumn, Dr. Heinrich has also spotted both Downy Woodpeckers (Dryobates pubescens) and Hairy Woodpeckers (Dryobates villosus) constructing special overnight shelters just for winter use. I spotted a Downy doing just that in Gallagher Creek Park one November day. Note the flying wood chips!
Special Winter Strategies Can Be Helpful…
Even though Chickadees can excavate their own holes, in extreme cold they require a few extra tricks at night. According to the Audubon society, these little birds can lower their body temperature at night by as much as 22 degrees, minimizing the difference between their body temperature and the bitterly cold air. They also keep warmer by shivering, which activates opposing muscle groups and produces heat. Luckily, they can even shiver while sleeping, which is something I can’t quite imagine doing! And of course once settled, like many birds, they can tuck their beaks and feet into their feathers to preserve heat as well.
Though they don’t appear in our parks these days, Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus) survive days of light fluffy snow in a surprising way. They burrow into the snow, creating a long tunnel with a chamber on the end. These one-day burrows not only provide insulation, according to Bernd Heinrich, but they also provide protection from predators. Large dark birds are very visible against the snow! (This photo was generously shared at iNaturalist.org by photographer Brian Murphy.)
Thank Goodness for Our Adaptable Winter Birds!
Aren’t you glad that some birds stay with us all winter? And that some actually arrive for an extended stay just as the snow begins to fall? The constant flutter of a busy Chickadee, the “yank yank” call of a Nuthatch as it circles a branch or the friendly chirping of a flock of foraging Tree Sparrows in dry grass are so companionable on gray winter days. And what could be more heartening on a frigid morning than the sight of scarlet Northern Cardinals or azure Blue Jays in a snowy bush? I’m so thankful that some birds have figured out how to survive the cold along with us. By taking shelter, shivering, eating heartily, and snuggling into down comforters very much like we do, they keep us company as we make our way towards spring.
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township’s Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University; Wikipedia; A Field Guide to Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, A Naturalist at Large by Bernd Heinrich and others as cited in the text.
For our second Stewardship Talk of 2019 we are excited to host Dr. Nate Haan from Michigan State University for his talk, “Monarch Butterfly Ecology and Conservation.” The talk is free and will be this Thursday, February 7, 2019 at 6:30 pm at the Paint Creek Cider Mill, 4480 Orion Road, Rochester, MI 48306. Dr. Haan will share about monarch butterfly natural history and ecology, as well as some of the current research on their decline and what we can do to save them.
Monarch butterflies are one of the most interesting and recognizable insects in the world. Every year they migrate thousands of miles, from our backyards in Michigan to mountains in central Mexico. They also have fascinating interactions with their toxic milkweed host plants. Unfortunately, monarchs have declined in recent decades and the overwintering population in Mexico is only around 20% of its former size.