Category Archives: Wildlife

Back to Bear Creek: Surprise! Unusual Sightings of Birds, Bugs and More

Native Golden Alexanders and Spiderwort blooming in the circle of the parking lot at Bear Creek
Blog Post & Photos by Cam Mannino

The last two weeks at Bear Creek gifted me with some exciting moments – seeing previously unseen birds, witnessing unusual nesting behavior, watching a turtle struggling to bury her eggs and being surprised by a little butterfly I hadn’t seen for years. So though the blog just visited Bear Creek two weeks ago, I wanted to share the bounty I’m enjoying before the season changes much.

Unusual Birds and the Usual Ones Doing Interesting Things!

As many of you know, I’ve been walking in Bear Creek for 25 years and I’ve watched for owls all that time. They spend their days sleeping right next to tree trunks on high limbs, and despite craning my neck for years, I’d never spotted one. But on the first June bird walk, a fellow birder, Bob Bonin,  spotted one high up in a tree near Bear Creek Marsh. Huge, silhouetted against the morning sky, this Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) wasn’t easy to see, much less photograph. But luckily, I got a few shots before he gave the group an annoyed look, lifted his huge body with his massive wings and flew away. Such a thrill! (Click on arrows for slideshow; use pause button for a closer look.)

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A bit earlier that morning, we saw an unusual bird at the other end of the size spectrum. A male Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) perched high on a snag behind the Center Pond and turned his iridescent green back to the morning sun. We saw a quick orange flash at his throat but I missed it. The Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol. I) indicates that males’ throats look brown or black if the light doesn’t hit their necks just right. When I returned on a late afternoon, there he was on the same snag – but this time the afternoon sun caught the edge of his throat which shone gold rather than ruby red. He’s not the most glamorous hummer, but I’m glad I got to see a bit of his gleam.

This male hummingbird’s bright throat only shone for a second in the morning sun, so I settled for the light in his eye and his iridescent green back.
The same male hummer’s throat shone gold in the late afternoon sun.

Near the Center Pond, the birders also discovered the nest of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus) – with the male sitting calmly, tending the eggs or nestlings. Occasionally, he even sang his lovely tune as he waited patiently. I’d read in the Stokes Guides that male Grosbeaks sometime take on this responsibility, but I’d never seen it. On three separate visits, the male was the only one on this nest – though the female may have relieved him at other times. So, Happy Father’s Day to this dedicated Grosbeak dad!

Male Rose-breasted Grosbeak tending the fledglings
A slightly tired looking male Grosbeak remains near the nest after nest tending

In a willow to the right of the deck in the Center Pond is a beautiful nest.  It’s cleverly attached between two vertical branches about 20 feet up, ingeniously woven and quite large – maybe 9 inches long. During my first 3 visits, only the female’s black tail cocked behind her was visible from the observation deck. Finally one afternoon, I waded into the grass at the pond’s edge and  caught sight of her hindquarters as she fed her young. And then, I saw a fledgling’s head just above the edge of the nest. Ah, this nest was constructed by a female Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) – a somewhat eccentric one since Red-wings normally build close to the water and weave their nests among cat-tails or reeds. She’s quite an architect! The location of this elaborate nest makes it nearly invisible and unreachable by predators. Clever mama Red-wing!

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Two nests appeared high in a tree on the Walnut Lane. The barely visible, masked eye of the female Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) peeked through the leaves that camouflaged the first nest spotted by the birders. Since she sat there quietly every time I visited, I’ve included a photo of a Waxwing from a previous year so you’ll  remember how elegant this conscientious mother bird truly is!

Only the masked eye of the female Cedar Waxwing shows above the edge of her cleverly hidden nest along the Walnut Lane.

 

An adult Cedar Waxwing. The two red dots on the wing gave it its name.

Across the Walnut Lane, the birders also discovered the nest of a female Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) who spent several days building her gauzy, somewhat more loosely constructed nest. She proudly stood above it a few days later as it neared completion. The female Kingbird constructs the nest and keeps the male off it until the eggs hatch. Then both parents feed the nestlings. But even during the egg phase, the male stays on a branch nearby to defend the territory for his mate and young.

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Another good provider, a tiny male Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia) brought a bright green caterpillar to feed his nestlings or mate. In between feeding trips, he’d let loose with his proud song, “Sweet, sweet, I’m a little sweet.” Impressive dad who can bring home the bugs, singing all the while! Bet the female warbler was as impressed as I was.

A Yellow Warbler feeds his mate or young  a bright green caterpillar and sings in between feedings.

An Orchard Oriole male (Icterus spurius) serenaded us from a small tree in the middle of a meadow. His long, melodious song sounded much like the third song recorded at this link.  A few Orchard Orioles seem to come to Bear Creek each year – but they migrate south by mid-July. So keep an eye out and an ear cocked soon in the meadows to the east of the Walnut Lane!

A male Orchard Oriole singing with gusto in the meadow beneath the seating area in the southern end of the park

An invisible bird, high up in the tree tops, repeated its melodious warble continuously one warm morning. I’ve never seen a Warbling Vireo (Vireo gilvus); they rarely come down from the heights. But fortunately, a great photographer from the iNaturalist website, Steven Mlodinow, has seen one and generously allows others to borrow his photo. Listen for this warbler’s rich melody all summer long, but don’t be surprised if you never spot this elusive summer resident.

A photo of a Warbling Vireo by gifted photographer, Steven Mlodinow (CC BY-NC) on iNaturalist.org

Little Surprises Near the Wetlands

At the northeast corner of the Center Pond, a young Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta) hurried to cover her eggs one hot afternoon. She’s found a likely spot where Ben had cleared away invasive shrubs a couple of years ago. As you’ll see in the video below, she work really hard with her back legs to get the dirt to move. She’d no doubt have preferred sandier soil! But she was determined to see the job done!

I’ve seen Northern Leopard Frogs (Lithobates pipiens) periodically at Cranberry Lake but never one at Bear Creek. But hearing their snoring call near a wetland, I waded into tall grass and found this one, hiding among the greenery. Glad to know this beautiful frog is at Bear Creek, too.

A Leopard Frog hiding in tall grass near a wetland.

Ben noticed an  Eastern American Toad (Anaxyrus americanus) toad on the path one afternoon when we went to look at nests.  Normally, I only see brown toads, but Wikipedia informs me that “The color and pattern is somewhat variable, especially for the females. Skin color can change depending on habitat colors, humidity, stress, and temperature…Some toads of this subspecies have a more pervasive red and deep brown color, many with red warts on their bodies.”  So this little toad is probably female and the red description  fits  her pretty well.  I wonder if the unusually hot temperatures had an effect on her appearance?  Hard to tell.

A young Eastern American Toad or a dwarf American Toad near the Center Pond at Bear Creek

Amazing Insects: A Butterfly I’ve Missed for Years, Favorite Dragonflies and the Skills of Tiny Pollinators

Next year, I’ll be looking for the boldly patterned Baltimore Checkerspot butterflies (Euphydryas phaeton) on June 11 or 12. I’ve only seen them on those two dates, 6 years apart! This year, four of them fluttered at a spot in the trail where water runs under the path – a place I’ve often seen other small butterflies feeding on minerals left by the water. Later in the summer, watch for the communal caterpillar webs of these small butterflies (about 2.5 inches) on the host wildflower Turtlehead (Chelone glabra) where these butterflies lay their eggs during the summer and where the caterpillars first feed.

Interestingly, in the fall, Baltimore Checkerspot caterpillars wrap themselves in leaf litter, overwinter and finish developing in the spring. This seems to be a big year for them – so keep an eye out if you see a small, dark butterfly at your feet.

The Baltimore Checkerspot overwinters as a caterpillar.

Different species of dragonflies seem to appear each week to dance among the budding wildflowers and over the pond. The dramatic, yet quite common Twelve-spotted Skimmer (Libellula pulchella) did indeed skim over the tops of grasses in the Eastern Meadow this week. Dragonflies often land, fly, and then come back to the same dry stalk – so if you miss one in your binoculars the first time, wait a moment and you’ll probably see it in the same place again!

Twelve-spotted Skimmer dragonfly BC

A bright green Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis) dragonfly clung to a grass stem on the western slope. If it’s a male, it will gradually turn blue over the summer. If a female, it will remain green. Probably this one is newly emerged since it’s hunting in a meadow. When it’s ready to mate, it will rendezvous with others  at the Center Pond.

This Eastern Pondhawk is still in the meadow but will go to the pond when it’s time to mate.

A small Dot-tailed Whiteface (Leucorrhinia intacta) dragonfly posed for a face-on selfie at the Playground Pond before continuing its quest to consume as many mosquitoes, flies and other small insects as possible before the day is out. Love its cartoon-like face and the one yellow dot on its tail that give it its name.

Easy to see why this is called a Dot-tailed Whiteface dragonfly, eh?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pollinators are busy all over the park, feeding and carrying the pollen that will bring us next year’s blooms. This may look like a European Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) but Honey Bees are fuzzy all over and this one just isn’t. So it’s more likely to be a Dronefly (Eristalis tenax), a type of Hoverfly (family Syrphidae), which uses its pattern, slight fuzziness and loud hum to mimic male Honey Bees as a way of protecting against predators. Droneflies cannot sting, but a passing dragonfly probably doesn’t take a chance!

Daisy with bee
This dronefly (a kind of hoverfly) mimicks a bee’s appearance and hum for protection.

I noticed what looked at first like a tiny wasp on this umbel of a native Nannyberry bush (Viburnum lentago) near the Center Pond. But after a bit of research in Pollinators of Native Plants by Heather Holm, I’m going to guess it’s a female Leaf-cutter Bee (family Megachilidae). It has a wasp-y pattern and shape and it’s collecting pollen on its abdomen and on the top of its back leg (look at those jodhpurs!). Leaf-cutters cut small, neat circles out of leaves, hence the name. They then roll up a single fertilized egg and a chunk of pollen in each circle, forming a solitary, cigar-shaped nest which is placed in a hole in the soil, wood or other structures. Such an unusual nest!

A leaf-cutter bee pollinating a Nannyberry bush near the Center Pond

Bring a Friend – or Friends! – to Visit Your Favorite Park

Oakland Township Natural Areas manager Ben VanderWeide leads a group of birders at Cranberry Lake Park

I’ve always loved walking alone in the township parks. I can listen to birdsong, stop to look at something tiny like the Little Wood Satyr butterfly below, or enjoy the fresh scents of wood, greenery, the earth after a rain in silence. Solitary walks are contemplative.

A Little Wood Satyr butterfly rests in the shade

But this particular blog testifies to the special pleasures of hiking with interested friends and family. First of all, they just bring more eyes! I’m always seeing things with the birders or with my husband, that I’d never have noticed with just my two eyes (in this case, the owl, the hummer, the oriole, the male grosbeak in his nest and more). But also their curiosity piques mine. They bring specialized interests and knowledge. They often patiently help me find the bird hiding in a leafy tree (“The center trunk at about 2 o’clock…). It’s a different kind of delight to walk with nature-noticing friends. So if all of this nature stuff intrigues you, take some nature-lovers with you on your next walk. Or consider joining our friendly birding group on Wednesday mornings year ’round. We’d love to have you join us! (The schedule is under “Events” at the top of the home page.)

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Pollinators of Native Plants by Heather Holm; Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3; Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia;  Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; other sites as cited in the text.

Cranberry Lake: Summer Ushers in Birds, Butterflies and Blossoms

Wild Geraniums along the Hickory Lane

 

Blog and Photos by Cam Mannino

Summer finally made its appearance all over the woods, meadows, wetlands, and forest edges of Cranberry Lake Park.  After a prescribed burn this spring, geraniums and trillium emerged under the huge Shagbark Hickories that line the park’s western edge. Summer birds, including the tiny warblers and other new arrivals, are singing lustily to establish their territories and attract interested females as they begin to build nests. Butterflies are just starting to dance above the greenery in the dry meadows. And the hibernators – like snappers, raccoons and  leopard frogs – get back in action after their winter snooze. The transformation from spring to summer has well and truly begun.

Birds and Blooms in the Large Sunny Meadows

Small Yellow Warblers (Setophaga petechia) welcome visitors from the high treetops just north of the parking lot. The male with his chestnut-striped breast sings his “sweet-sweet, I’m a little sweet” song as he darts here and there, frequently out of sight in the greenery. Luckily a female with much fainter stripes ignored me while probing for insects in some smaller trees.

A female Yellow Warbler probed the branches of a small tree near the western entrance to the park.

At the edge of the big northern meadow one afternoon, I heard the two buzz call that Ben identified on an earlier birdwalk. As I scanned the bushes with my binoculars, a lovely Blue-Winged Warbler (Vermivora cyanoptera) filled my view. By the time I raised the camera, it was gone. Joan Bonin, a gifted local photographer and birder, kindly offered her stunning photo taken a week later at Port Huron State Recreation Area.  Thank you, Joan!

This gorgeous photo of a Blue-Winged Warbler was taken by local birder and photographer extraordinaire, Joan Bonin.

Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus) made a brief appearance in a small meadow opening at the edge of a forested wetland. Evidently these little birds sing incessantly, especially on warm summer afternoons. In fact, Cornell reports that one determined male “sang 22,197 songs in the 14 hours from just before dawn to evening, singing for 10 of those hours.” I missed both his song and a photo, but another gifted local photographer and birder, Bob Bonin (Joan’s husband), kindly shared his lovely photo taken at the Tawas migration site last year. Thanks to Bob, also!

Local photographer Bob Bonin’s fine shot of a Red-eyed Vireo taken at the Tawas  migration site last May.

Steve, a fine birder that I met at Bear Creek Park, commented on the last blog that he’d seen an Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) at Cranberry Lake in the last two weeks.   Cornell ornithologists report that all blue birds actually have no blue pigment in their feathers. “Their jewel-like color comes instead from microscopic structures in the feathers that refract and reflect blue light, much like the airborne particles that cause the sky to look blue.” Since Steve saw the bird and I didn’t, here’s that  bright little piece of sky in another beautiful shot by Bob Bonin.

Indigo Buntings sing as many as 200 of their two or three phrase songs per hour at dawn according to Cornell Lab.

Butterflies dance across nearly every sunny or dappled area of Cranberry Lake. In a shady corner near the northern meadow, an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) paused for just a moment before sailing high into the treetops and away. The band of blue spots at the bottom of the hindwing (plus the orange center spots) marks this one as a female.

A female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly paused in the shade before fluttering off into the treetops.
Black Raspberry blooms

A smaller, but equally striking butterfly, the American Copper, sampled the blossoms of Common Blackberry bushes (Rubus allagheniensis) that have multiplied mightily since the recent burn.

According to Wikipedia, the male Coppers set up “small territories which they will defend vigorously against rival males or indeed any unlucky passing insect. Even the shadow of a large bird passing overhead is enough to elicit a response.”

It’s clear where this medium-sized butterfly  got its name, eh?

An American Copper butterfly rests on a grass stem between the multiplying Blackberry bushes.

This female Eastern Tailed-Blue butterfly (Cupido comyntas) doesn’t wear the beautiful blue that her mate flashes when he flies. But you can still see a bit of blue in her modest gray. These medium-sized butterflies almost disappear when they land and fold their wings, which are light gray underneath.

A female Eastern Tailed-blue butterfly is a more muted gray-blue than her brighter blue mate.

Along the Hickory Lane, More Bird Song and Early Summer Blossoms

On an early bird walk, a Brown Thrasher (Toxostoma rufum) belted out its complex mimicry song from the top of a tree on the Hickory Lane. If you enjoy the Gray Catbird’s mix of other birds’ calls and the odd noise,  you’ll love (as I do) the crazy mix of continuous loud song from the thrasher. That morning he was too high up for a good photo. Fortunately  a few days later, a tired thrasher, preparing for sleep on a cool spring evening at Gallagher Park, struck a pose for me.

This Brown Thrasher was preparing to sleep on a cool evening – one leg tucked up under his feathers which were fluffed for warmth

Along the lane,  a tiny mimic (listen to the second recording at this link), the Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea), busily fluttered and hopped about a tree trunk foraging for insects. How I’d love to see their nest!  Cornell Lab says they “use spiderweb and lichens to build small, neat nests, which sit on top of branches and look like tree knots.”

The Blue-gray Gnatcatcher cocks his tail with its white outer feathers this way and that as he searches for insects – but not many gnats, despite its name!

On a later visit, a male House Wren (Troglodytes aedon), bubbled with spring song. Despite their diminutive size, wrens can be fierce in asserting ownership over a preferred nesting hole, even dragging out eggs of other birds or pecking larger adult birds. Wrens need to maintain a narrow range of temperature for their eggs to hatch which might explain their fierceness over nesting sites. Perhaps this male’s insistent song was just a first salvo in the competition.

The effervescent singing of a House Wren on the Hickory Lane.

In the area between the Hickory Lane and the large marsh to the east, a strange upward sliding call made my husband and I stop and listen one afternoon. We never saw the singing male, but we did spot the female Swainson’s Thrush (Catharus ustulatus), that I originally thought was a robin from its stance.  Sorry for the slight blur of a quick photo.

A female Swainson’s thrush stopped with us to listen to the hidden male singing his ascending whistle of a song.

Below these avian songsters, early summer blossoms came burgeoning forth after a recent prescribed burn. The lane was filled on both sides with the Wild Geraniums (Geranium maculatum) you see at the top of this blog. A small white plume poked through leaves of what Ben tells me is either red or white Baneberry (g. Actaea). The actual baneberries that form later are highly toxic, so please don’t eat them! (They’re very bitter so you wouldn’t like them, but children might be tempted because they’re very colorful and shiny.)

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Two varieties of the same flower also bloomed on the lane.  Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biforum) produces its blossoms beneath the stem and its leaves are smooth below, unlike a nearly identical plant, Downy Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum pubescens) that has fuzz on the underside of the leaves.

Solomon’s Seal hangs its blossoms below the stem, as does Downy Solomon’s Seal but the undersides of leaves on Solomon’s Seal are not covered in downy fuzz.

False Solomon’s Seal (Maianthemum racemosum), on the other hand, produces its flowers on a stem that stands above the leaves. Odd name. Perhaps the name was given by someone fooled into thinking at first that it was Solomon’s Seal? Who knows….

False Solomon’s Seal carries its blossoms on a stem above the leaves.

Early Summer in the Shadowy Wetlands near Cranberry Lake

Cranberry Lake has a wonderful collection of vernal pools and woodland ponds as well as the lake itself. I’ve come to love these areas because they are always rich with wildlife, especially birds!

I heard the easily-identified “witchedy, witchedy” call of one of my favorite small migrators, the black-masked Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas). He was in a favorite location, in low bushes near a wetland. I never got to see the ones that I heard repeatedly at Cranberry Lake, but I saw this one the following week at Charles Ilsley Park.

The Common Yellowthroat sings his “witchedy-witchedy” song from low bushes, usually located near a wetland.

In a forested pool, a Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) had draped its head over the edge of a log, evidently eating plants below. At first, I thought it had been beheaded somehow! But on hearing me crunching in the twigs, it lifted its pointed snout into the air, quickly slid backwards into the water and disappeared. So all I got was this odd, headless shot.

A snapper in a forest pond with its head submerged eating plant material, no doubt.

A few minutes later, a male Common Grackle’s (Quiscalus quiscula) iridescent head shone in a ray of sunlight on the same log. Clearly frustrated at finding nothing to eat beneath it, he tossed that irritating, useless chunk of bark into the water.

A male Common Grackle tossed his chunk of bark into the water after checking and finding no edible insects underneath. At least that’s how it appeared.

One of summer’s pleasures is being escorted along a trail by dragonflies and damselflies – and then I managed to shoot one swooping over the water when I reached at Cranberry Lake.  Perhaps a mating flight?

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In April, lovely little blossoms with pink scallops and ruffled edges emerged on the native Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) near Cranberry Lake. A few weeks later, the fruit was beginning to form. I hope birds, animals and we humans leave some berries uneaten so it keeps spreading!

When I reached Cranberry Lake, I found two Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) standing on a sandbar near the shore. One of them “gave me the eye” between the old stems of purple loosestrife.

A Sandhill Crane at Cranberry Lake turns a wary eye my way

On the way back up the trail from the lake one morning, Ben spotted a weary raccoon who appeared to have made a hasty bed in the fork of a tree after a night of foraging. It opened one eye as we birders peered from below.

A weary raccoon opens one eye to look back at us from what appears to be a hastily constructed napping place.

On the edge of the path heading toward one of the large meadows, I heard the snoring rattle of the Leopard Frog’s song coming from a nearby wetland. And then, oops! – one appeared right in the path between two wet areas. Nice to have frog song along with bird song on a summer walk!

The Leopard Frog’s appearance nicely matches its name. Its song is a low, snoring sort of rattle – very distinctive.

Nature by Ear as Well as by Eye

The forest pond where the Grackle and the Snapping Turtle spent a quiet afternoon.

To truly savor the pleasures of nature in early summer requires tuning my ears as well as opening my eyes. Though I’m just learning bird songs and frog songs, every time I identify a voice in nature’s chorus, I feel more connected, more embedded in the natural world. Listening, as well as careful, patient watching, begins to turn a green landscape into an intricately woven tapestry of life in which we humans are just one colorful thread.

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3; Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia;  Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; other sites as cited in the text.

Bear Creek Nature Park: Little Spring Dramas Everywhere You Look

Native choke berry shrubs (Prunus virginiana) burst with blooms to attract  pollinators before the trees leaf out.
Blog and photos by Cam Mannino

Late April and early May are full of dramas. Birds hassle each other over territories. Some turn their brightest feathers into the sunlight or sing elaborately constructed songs  to impress the ladies. Snapping turtles roil the waters of the marsh as they twist and turn with their partners, butting heads and biting as they perform their mating dance. Late spring wildflowers and smaller trees hurry to show their best blooms to attract pollinators before bigger trees cloak them in shade. It’s a bustling, slightly crazy season – and isn’t it great?

 

Migrating Summer Birds Busy Courting, Hassling and Scouting for Nests

Down at the Center Pond one cool spring morning, the birding group watched a Green Heron (Butorides virescens) warming itself on a log at one end of the pond.  Its neck wasn’t stretched over the water, so it wasn’t seriously fishing; it just sat there peaceably. Gradually,  a pair of passive-aggressive Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) noticed its presence and decided, evidently, that they wanted the pond to themselves. They cruised slowly up to the heron until one of them was nearly beak to beak with it. The heron just sat. They joined forces and approached together. The heron just sat. Finally, one goose climbed onto the heron’s log, while the other positioned itself directly in front of the hapless heron. It sat for another minute and then finally acquiesced, fluttering off to the muddy shore nearby. Conflict successfully avoided, it probably found plenty of snails, insects and amphibians to eat while waiting for the geese to depart.

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Sometimes the ongoing drama is a little less obvious.  Rose-breasted Grosbeaks (Pheucticus ludovicianus) are plentiful in Bear Creek this year. One morning a male turned his bright pink breast patch to the sun and trilled his elaborate spring song repeatedly for his more modestly dressed mate. (If you hear a fancy version of the robin’s song, there’s likely to be a male grosbeak nearby.)

A male Rose-breasted Grosbeak uses his bright pink breast patch and his elaborate song to attract his mate.
A female Rose-breasted Grosbeak listens to the male’s operatic song.

But nearby, there’s a careful observer. The female Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater) is high in a tree listening, too.

A female Cowbird high in a tree watching to see if a likely bird builds a nest in which she can lay her eggs. The Grosbeak’s perhaps?

She’s watching for a likely nest in which to lay her eggs. Maybe she’s hoping  the grosbeaks will be the ones to nurture and raise her young. Fortunately, the grosbeaks aren’t great prospects. They’re big enough to push the eggs out of the nest – if they notice them. Some birds do and some don’t. The drama hasn’t reached Act II.

In the small meadow west of the pond, a male Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) spent the morning stringing together short phrases – whistles, tweets, trills and  imitations of birds, frogs, even occasionally machinery!  His complicated song can go on for minutes without repetition! This male combined song with ruffling his feathers and chasing after the female who was playing hard-to-get. She’d stop to listen, fly off and then dart toward him. He’d pursue her, fluff his feathers again and sing something new. And on they went at the forest edge and among the meadow’s small trees and shrubs.

The male catbird taking a quick pause before ruffling his feathers and breaking into elaborate song.

Some migrators arrive in busy flocks, just stopping over for a short while to refuel before flying north. This week, a flock of 6 or 7 White-Crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) rode in on a south wind during the night and spent the morning gobbling whatever they could find at the edge of the trails. Such a handsome little sparrow with its striped crown!

A small flock of White-Crowned Sparrows stopped to forage at Bear Creek on their way to cooler nesting grounds farther north.

Some birds fly in for just a short time to breed and then return to southern climes. This Orchard Oriole (Icterus spurius), the smallest of the orioles, flitted quickly among the branches, nibbling on sweet leaf buds for a little quick energy. Even if he finds his yellow-green mate and nests, he’ll likely be gone by mid-July – back to his favorite haunts in Central America.

The smaller, russet-colored Orchard Oriole may nest here, but will leave by mid-July for Central America where he spends the rest of the year.

High overhead, a pair of Sandhill Cranes croaked their wild cry, sounding and looking like two prehistoric pterodactyls with their giant wings. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

The warblers, the tiniest of migrants, have begun to arrive.  A week ago a fellow birder helped me spot two species – the Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata) and the Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia) – and, we think, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula.) I didn’t manage to take any decent photos since some ate high in the tree tops and others hopped madly from limb to limb nibbling on leaf buds. So here are three photos from last year just to jog your memory.

In the western meadow, an Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) paused on a stalk. Kingbirds have a crown of red, orange or yellow feathers under that black cap, but they only show when they’re attacking a predator. I’ve never seen them. According to Cornell lab, this solitary, feisty bird changes his lifestyle in the winter, traveling in flocks all along the Amazon and eating fruit instead of Michigan insects. A favorite photo below from a few years ago shows his crown just slightly raised and his red gaping mouth.  Maybe he’s feeling just a wee bit aggressive?

The Eastern Kingbird has colored feathers under that black cap that show when he’s aggressive toward a predator.

Drama in the Wetlands as Well

Over in the marsh, a very small Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) and a MUCH larger one roiled the water at the far end of the marsh. The difference in their neck lengths will help you determine their relative size in the photos.

I assume the smaller one was the male as he attempted to mount the back of the female’s huge shell at one point.   Snappers generally do a lot of face biting when they mate, sometimes injuring each other. The photo below may look like a kiss but it’s more likely that the small turtle on the left is approaching to bite some indeterminable body part of the larger on the right. It didn’t look as though things worked out too well for either of them. After some rolling and tumbling in the marsh, the smaller swam off and the larger floated calmly in the distance.

What looks like a turtle kiss may actually be a bite that the smaller turtle (left) is giving the larger as part of the attempted mating process.

Blue-spotted Salamanders ((Ambystoma laterale) reproduce in a less excited manner. According to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, salamanders emerge from their burrows on the night of the first snow-melting rain (now that would be dramatic to witness!) and go to the nearest vernal pool After a little nudging and hugging, the male deposits a sperm-topped cone of jelly on the ground in front of the female. She takes it in to fertilize her eggs, which are laid in the water in the next day or so. By mid-summer, the hatched tadpole-like larvae develop lungs instead of gills and absorb their tail fins, taking adult form.  Red-backed Salamanders (Plethodon cinereus) lay their eggs in burrows and their young hatch as miniature adults. Here are some salamander eggs and a salamander larvae/tadpole that the monitoring team found in a pool last year, plus three different species of juvenile salamanders under some wood in the park two weeks or so ago.

In the Woods, Not Much Drama, but Burgeoning Life

Again this year, a raccoon is inhabiting the giant hole in the Oak-Hickory forest. Other years this has meant a passel of playful kits by the end of May. I saw nothing until I stepped into the crunchy leaves at the trail’s edge and this curious face popped up at the edge of hole.

A raccoon has found the hole that is often used by females to bear and raise their young. We’ll know by the end of May.

The Red Admiral Butterfly (Vanessa atalanta), a migrating insect who probably overwintered in southern Texas, arrived at the wood’s edge a couple of weeks ago. According to Wikipedia, Red Admirals usually have two broods here between May and October.

The Red Admiral overwinters in Texas but comes here to have 2 broods between May and October.

Under the growing canopy of bright new leaves, a carpet of Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum) is blooming. In the blossom below, a tiny bee from the Halictadae family has curled up to feed on flower nectar. These tiny bees are commonly known as “sweat bees” because they like to lick salt from us humans (luckily, their sting is very minor). This bee’s bright metallic green may mean it’s an Augochlora Sweat Bee (Augochlora pura), solitary bees who don’t live socially in hives. If you know your Michigan bees, please feel free to correct me.

A solitary bee in the Halictidae family gathering nectar from a wild geranium

 The Little Dramas Keep Life Coming

Delicate early spring blossoms of the native Serviceberry (Amelanchier interior) near the eastern end of the Center Pond

The dramas of spring creatures mean life continues. The best singer, the most beautiful feathers, the best provider of a good territory get chosen and a new generation begins. Fortunately, the temporary territorial disputes of birds don’t usually result in death or destruction. One bird moves on to new territory and in many cases, joins his former competitor in a fall flock which ends up feeding calmly together on winter feeding grounds. Nature knows that both low level conflict and general cooperation keep life going, even improving, generation by generation.  Maybe we humans should take a lesson from them?

Footnote:  My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell; Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3; Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia;  Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; other sites as cited in the text.

Gallagher Creek Park: A Modest Little Park Shares Spring’s Exuberance

Gallagher Creek with lots of bright green algae running fast and wide after heavy rain.

Right now, no one would nominate Gallagher Creek Park for Oakland Township’s most scenic natural area. Last fall, the invasive shrubs that covered large areas of the park were bushwhacked to the ground. Native wildflower seeds were sown but haven’t had time to grow the deep roots they need to fully bloom.  And it’s muddy, gray early spring, after all!

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

 

But each time I’ve visited over the last few weeks, wow!  This homely little 15 acres is full of spring liveliness. Swimming, soaring, singing, sprouting – spring arrived with exuberance at Gallagher Creek Park.

 

A Muskrat Adult and its Child Enjoy the Creek and Its Fresh Greens

On my first visit to Gallagher Creek, an adult Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) busily pulled up what appeared to be bulbs at the base of some grasses in the stream. Though they don’t hibernate, muskrats spend most of the winter under the ice  feeding on the dead plant material of their “push-ups” (feeding platforms)  or lodges. Fresh greens must taste great after that! Two days later, I saw a young muskrat paddling at top speed toward the observation deck to take a closer look at me, like any curious youngster.  If you look towards the north, you can see their family winter lodge at the edge of some cat-tails. (Hover cursor for captions; click on photos to enlarge.)

Migrating Birds Make Gallagher Creek Their Summer Residence

All over this small park, birds are calling, singing and searching for nests. On my first visit, the chirping and liquid “thwick” of the Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) drew my eyes high into the bare branches of aging willows. Swooping and diving, these iridescent blue acrobats performed aerial feats before resting high in the treetops.

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Over on the bare ground of the hillock next to the parking lot, a pair of Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) scurried about, sometimes pecking at wet puddles, sometimes circling me with keening calls. Once the female seemed to be starting her shallow nest, her breast pressed against the bare earth. They often make several small scrapes (usually only 3 inches or so across) before settling on a nest site. Cornell Lab thinks it could be a way to mislead predators, as they do, of course, with their “injured wing” trick. Here’s the male (I assume) up on the edge of the hill, keeping an orange eye on me.

A Killdeer keeping a close eye on me. Those orange eyes are so striking!

The Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus) probably moved a bit south for the winter. But this “mustached” male is here now establishing a territory at Gallagher Creek, tapping on trees and making his “kwirr” call from the top of snags behind the creek. From below, you can clearly see the yellow undersides of his tail feathers. He has yellow under those elegant wings, too, like nearly all of the Northern Flickers in eastern North America.

You can see why the Northern Flicker is the eastern yellow-shafted race of the species!

Below the Northern Flicker, a pair of Common Grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) moved restlessly about the trees, making their clucks and  “squeaky gate” whistles. According to the Cornell Lab, “Common Grackles are resourceful foragers. They sometimes follow plows to catch invertebrates and mice, wade into water to catch small fish, pick leeches off the legs of turtles, steal worms from American Robins, raid nests, and kill and eat adult birds.” Now that’s an omnivore and a bit of a bandit as well!

Though Common Grackles look black from a distance, they are really iridescent bronze and blue with a staring, golden eye.

Of course, with all that water and a cat-tail marsh in the park, Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) take up residence there as well. This one, for some reason, chose to flip upside-down in his quest for cat-tail seeds.

A Red-winged Blackbird goes bottoms-up to pull some seeds from a cat-tail in the marsh.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about a European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) at Charles Ilsley Park who still sported its fall feathers with the light tips which give it a spotted look. But in Gallagher Creek Park, a week later, the tips had finally worn off this lone starling, so that its iridescence would shine for the mating season. It seemed to be gazing longingly on this cold spring afternoon, perhaps waiting for its compatriots to arrive.

This single starling won’t be alone for long. We usually see them gather in large flocks as the summer progresses.

Some Year ‘Rounders Used the Park as a Dating Hang-out

One cool afternoon, three American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) fluttered and cawed, perhaps showing off to a potential mate or simply playing together in a tree that seemed much too small for three large, shiny black birds. The intelligence of crows is legendary. These clever birds are part of the Corvid family, which also includes Blue Jays and Ravens. Cornell Lab describes just a few of the tools they occasionally create. “Examples include a captive crow using a cup to carry water over to a bowl of dry mash; shaping a piece of wood and then sticking it into a hole in a fence post in search of food; and breaking off pieces of pine cone to drop on tree climbers near a nest.”

Three crows play around a surprisingly small tree.

At the edge of Gallagher Creek two Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) floated along, occasionally dabbling for grasses below the surface in the quiet pools of the overflow.  These two would likely have paired up in the fall. Did you know that only the females quack? The male, according to Cornell Lab, only makes a “quieter, rasping one- or two-noted call.”

Spring Odds ‘n Ends

The wetland near the stream must be home to many crayfish (or crawdads if you prefer). Their chimneys appear every few feet if you walk east from the observation deck.  Little construction marvels, these chimneys are the openings to crayfish burrows. According to the America’s Wetland Foundation website, they build these chimneys by using their legs and mouth to form small balls of mud which they carry to the surface and arrange in rows like laying bricks! I’ve read that crayfish mostly forage at night, though the birding group saw one recently in the morning.  So despite all these burrows, I have yet to spot a crayfish itself at Gallagher Creek!

Crayfish “chimneys” above their burrows are plentiful right now at Gallagher Creek.

The little hill where the Killdeer scampered is littered with the pretty shells of what I think are Grove Snails (Cepaea nemoralis).  (I’m no mollusk expert, so if you are an expert please feel free to correct me!)  These lovely, whorled and striped shells are all empty. I’d read in a book called The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell that some birds consume snails, shell and all, in order to stock up on calcium for their eggs. But these are probably too large for most of our birds to swallow whole. I wonder why there are so many here?  Grove Snails are not native, but were evidently brought to the United States in the 19th century.

The empty shell of a Grove Snail (I think). Many birds eat small snails to increase their calcium before egg-laying.

In some areas of the park, Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) flowers are everywhere. Don’t get your hopes up though for gathering the fruit in June. In my experience, the animals eat them green before they can ripen for us humans!

Wild strawberry plants are bountiful at Gallagher Creek but animals generally eat the green fruit before they ripen.

A single Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera) produced long male catkins that are, as Ben put it, “pumping out pollen to pollinate the female flowers via the wind.”  Birches are “monoecius” which means they produce both male and female flowers. In the right photo, the red and yellow male inflorescence (a cluster of flowers on a stem) can pollinate the more erect, green female flowers.  Birches can pollinate themselves if there aren’t others of their species nearby, which is the case with this tree.

By early May, the long male inflorescences were sending out pollen on the wind, while the flowers in the smaller green female inflorescences were being pollinated.

In the old hedgerow that separates the two large sections of the park stands a wispy native shrub that makes clusters of spring flowers and then a spectacular air-filled seed capsule in the fall. It has the unfortunate name of Bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia)  but it’s a special native tree that is fairly unusual in our area. So laugh at the funny name and enjoy the fact that it’s here.

 

Like most wetland areas, Gallagher Creek has big bunches of Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) poking out of the mud at the edge of the stream.  Out in the eastern part of the park, after the invasive shrubs were eliminated, a large patch of Mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum) got stranded in the sunlight. Evidently, the invasive shrubs provided the shade these forest wildflowers generally love. But alas, they have lost their shade and may be diminished over time. Not to worry. Seeds of many sun-loving plants have no doubt been waiting for years in the soil for those pesky shrubs to disappear. We’ll soon see what appears now that sun is warming the soil.

 Such an Unassuming Little Park with So Much Life!

A stormy afternoon at Gallagher Creek Park.

This little park will someday have trails through prairie wildflowers and a children’s play area. But for now, each time I arrive, I wonder if I’ll see anything interesting. In the brown and gray of early spring a few weeks ago, it looked particularly unpromising. But then shining azure birds swooped overhead, the killdeer circled and called, and a curious little muskrat made a few quick passes by the observation deck to check out the strange animal with a camera. And then I was very glad I kept coming to this little corner of the township and its merry little creek. If you take the time to explore, you might feel that way, too.

Footnote:  My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell; Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3; Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia;  Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; other sites as cited in the text.

 

Charles Ilsley Park – Prairies Full of Spring Music

Looking west on the north prairie at Charles Ilsley Park

Charles Ilsley Park is slowly being returned to native prairie. Think of it as historic restoration. Before European farmers arrived, our township was mostly oak savanna – native grasses, wild flowers and widely spaced oaks. Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, has been working for three years to bring back some of that prairie habitat. Shrubby invasives have slowly been eliminated, some along tree lines just this spring. The sloping curves of the native prairie are appearing once again.

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

Some fields have been replanted with native grasses and wildflowers which must grow deep roots for several years before they fully prosper. More will be planted this year. The land rolls gently, surrounded by a beautiful dark forest. Birds sing from the hedgerows and scuttle across the open ground. Wood frogs chorus joyously from a nearby wetland. A spring stroll around the rolling landscape of Ilsley is an auditory as well as a visual treat. So try clicking on some of the links below (and then page down to recordings)  so you can share the sounds of spring.

Summer Birds Find Us Again

The migrators are winging their way back to us on warm south winds. The Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) again soar above the fields, gathering tiny midges in their open beaks.  Luckily, they can also eat plant foods which allows them to return early in the spring. Both males and females sing in what Cornell calls “a chirp, a whine and a gurgle.” My favorite part is the gurgle which I call a “liquid thwick.” See what you think. Aren’t these Swallows a gorgeous blue?

Tree Swallows soar with their beaks open to scoop up little flying insects – but they eat plant food more often in early spring.

In the western field, the Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) scoots among the furrows of the open field, pauses and then scoots on again. Its orange rump flashes as it flies and its piercing “kill-deer” call (under “flight call” at the link) carries a long way. Killdeers have the large eye, short beak and round head characteristic of other plovers, but unlike their shorebird relatives, they can be quite content in a sunny field.

A Killdeer scurries along a ridge in a fallow field at Charles Ilsley Park.

Killdeer are famous for distracting predators from their shallow, ground nests by faking a broken wing. Our sharp-eyed birder friend Antonio Xeira spotted a killdeer nest last year at Gallagher Creek Park. Be on the look-out! These nests are easy to miss!

A Killdeer’s nest and eggs at Gallagher Creek in late April 2016.

Of course the buzzing trill of male Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus), their red and yellow epaulets flashing, can be heard everywhere now. The brown and white striped females, perhaps reluctant to leave winter feeding grounds south of Michigan, are just beginning to arrive, while the male below may have been here for several weeks.

A male Red-winged Blackbird with just a bit of his red and yellow epaulet showing.

High in the treeline,  the drumming and the fast wik-wik-wik territorial call of the Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) echoes across the bare ground. At last I spotted a “mustached” male on the ground poking his serrated tongue  into an old ant hill. Although they’re woodpeckers, Flickers spend lots of time on the ground probing for ants, their favorite food. Stan Tekiela in the Birds of Michigan Field Guide, identifies Flickers as non-migrators or “partial migrators,” meaning they move south when food become scarce. I seem to see them only after spring arrives. Eastern North America hosts yellow-shafted Northern Flickers, while red-shafted Flickers are found in the western part of the continent.

The black mustache, called a malar, is a sign that this is a male, yellow-shafted Northern Flicker.  He’s probing for ants in an old ant mound.

Male Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia) trill all over the park. This one emerged from the brambles to perch on a stump, tilted his head back a bit (not as far as some song sparrows do) and sang his territorial song. Song Sparrows are chubby little birds and the stripes on their breasts usually gather into a central spot. Their song starts out with several short notes and then a rat-a-tat-tat kind of sewing machine trill. (Click on photos to enlarge, hover cursor for captions.)

The cleaning crew has arrived. Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) silently ride thermals high into the air or swoop lower to sniff for the scent of a carcass. These huge birds prevent disease for the rest of us by cleaning up any carrion they spot from above. According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab, their immune systems are impervious to even the worst toxins including botulism, anthrax, cholera, or salmonella! The paler feathers at the tip of their dark wings, including the “finger feathers” seen here,  let the sun shine through, giving the false impression that their wings are banded in a lighter color.

The turkey vulture soars above the prairies below, preparing to clean the park of unhealthy, unsightly carrion.

Some Not-quite-native Summer Visitors

Non-native birds, like non-native plants, most often arrive in new places because of human activity. These two species came here in rather interesting ways.

Originally a western grassland bird that followed buffalo herds, the Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater) adapted to their nomadic life by laying their eggs in other birds’ nests instead of building their own. As settlers cleared forests in eastern North America for towns and agriculture,  cowbirds expanded their range eastward. Grazing cattle and plowing probably stir up as many insects as buffalo, right? Cowbirds give more of a gurgle and squeak than a song. Here are two male cowbirds doing characteristic dominance displays – head tilt (beak skyward) and plumping the feathers. Pretty hilarious, eh? The lower one looks like a plush toy!

Two male cowbirds doing dominance displays.

Female Cowbirds establish territories and choose the most dominant male, according to Donald Stoke’s Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.2). They can lay as many as 3 dozen eggs in a summer because, though some birds accept the eggs and raise the young, others peck them or push them from their nests. Here’s a newly arrived female checking out the males.

The modestly gray female Cowbird often sits high in the tree tops watching for a good bird’s nest in which to lay her eggs. Here she’s in bush, assessing the males.

We commonly see  European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) along telephone lines or swooping together in huge flocks called “murmurations.” These birds all descend from 100 individuals brought to New York’s Central Park in the 1890s  by Shakespeare devotees who believed America should have every bird mentioned by the Bard!  Starlings can be  very aggressive about taking over favored nesting sites from other birds and now number in the millions.  This starling at Charles Ilsley Park still has some of the feathers with light tips that gave it a spotted look after the fall molt. But as spring progresses, those tips will wear off, leaving its feathers dark and iridescent. Its beak is also changing from autumn gray to summer yellow.

100 European Starlings, imported by Shakespeare enthusiasts in the 1890s, now number about 200 million from Alaska to Mexico, according to the Cornell Lab.

The Year ‘Round Avian Welcoming Committee

Many of the sturdy birds who kept us company during the winter join the spring chorus as well. Of course, I couldn’t resist another shot of an Eastern Bluebird  (Sialia sialis)!  Here’s the link to its spring song.

A male Eastern Bluebird at Charles Ilsley Park.

Some American Robins (Turdus migratorius) stay here all winter, eating berries and other frozen fruits. Others move a little south and come back intermittently depending on the weather. According to Cornell Lab, Robins tend to eat more earthworms in the morning and more fruit in the afternoon. This one probed the wet edge of a vernal pool formed at the bottom of a slope after heavy rains.  The Robin’s “cheer up” call  accompanies any walker in all township parks right now.

An alert American Robin stops to listen while probing the wet soil around the edge of a vernal pool at the bottom of a slope.

Woodpeckers provide the rhythm section as they establish their territories. Here a Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) pauses from his drumming to pose at the top of a snag (standing dead tree.) The Red-belly’s  wet-sounding “Kwir” call sounded from the trees lining the fields and from the edge of the forest.

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker stops drumming long enough to pose at the top of snag.

Speaking of Woodpeckers, look at these fresh Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) holes in a native Wild Black Cherry tree (Prunus serotina)!  Wish I’d seen this huge bird whose drumming is as loud as a jack hammer!  Its call is often confused with the Red-bellied Woodpecker who drums much more quietly. By the way, Ben says that the way to identify these black cherry trees is to look for bark that resembles burnt potato chips. Good description!

The holes of a Pileated Woodpecker in a Wild Black Cherry tree. These woodpeckers tend to make large, often rectangular holes.

The loud, nasal “ank, ank, ank” call of the White Breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) can be heard year ’round as it circles  the upper and lower sides of branches, searching for insects or stashing seeds and nuts. Cornell Lab claims that its name resulted from its habit of whacking at nuts and seeds, “hatching” them from their shells before eating or storing them.

The classic pose of the White-Breasted Nuthatch as it forages for insects. Listen for its loud “ank, ank” call.

The Other Chorus:  Wood Frogs!

Hundreds of Wood Frogs chorused in the wetland beyond this little stream at the north end of Charles Ilsley Park.

After the heavy rains of late March and early April, a swollen, muddy stream edged Ilsley Park on its north side.  Across from the old Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa) in the photo above, on the stream’s far bank, orange-tipped Willows filled a large wetland.  And below them sung hundreds of little Wood Frogs (Rana sylvatica).

Wood Frogs have a black stripe running through their eye and their song is low and sounds a bit like your thumb running over a comb.

If you turn your volume up, below you should hear some individual Wood Frogs singing in the foreground and a mighty chorus in the background that sounds like a purring engine!  I don’t think I’ve heard so many in one place before! You may need to turn up your volume to get the full effect.

Nearby, an old stump was draped in two shades of thick, intensely green Moss (div. Bryophyta).  Moss, an ancient plant,  usually dries and bleaches in winter cold but turns green and lush quickly in spring rain – long before the trees have leafed out.  David George Haskill, in The Forest Unseen, describes mosses’ gift for using and holding water. “Grooves on the surface of stems wick water from the mosses’ wet interiors to their dry tips, like tissue paper dipped in a spill.  The miniature stems are felted with water-hugging curls, and their leaves are studded with bumps that create a large surface for clinging water.  The leaves clasp the stem at just the right angle to hold a crescent of water.” They must have loved our wet spring!

A stump draped in two shades of brilliant green moss.

Curiosity about the red stalks on moss prompted me to check out moss sexual reproduction  (I know – the oddest things intrigue me). Moss sperm cells swim to the eggs by being washed along by rain. Once the eggs are fertilized at the tip of a green moss plant, a new plant begins to grow in place to form the red “sporophytes” seen in the photo below. Those red capsules at the end of the erect stalks (called setae) hold the spores. The capsule won’t open to release the ripened spores until the weather is dry enough to carry them on a breeze. If a spore falls on damp soil, voilá. A moss plant is born. They also multiply in asexual ways, like fragments breaking off to start new plants.

I’ve always loved the upside down world of mud puddle reflections. This large mud puddle, the classic sign of spring, had a surprise in store for me.

Trees reflected in a very large mud puddle in the middle of a trail.

As I skirted it, a huge Garter Snake  (g. Thamnopsis) wove its way out right between my feet and swam across the puddle. I think it’s the longest garter snake I’ve ever seen.

A large Garter Snake slid between my feet, heading for a swim across a large puddle on the trail. Good swimmer!

Charles Ilsley Park Preserves Our Past for the Future

Eastern Meadowlark photo by Greg Lasly. Some rights reserved (CC-BY-NC)

With hard work and some luck, Charles Ilsley Park will eventually offer township residents an authentic experience of this area before European migration. Its undulating fields will fill with native grasses and wildflowers. Perhaps birds not often seen here, like the Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna) in Greg Lasly’s amazing photo above, will  more frequently whistle its plaintive song over the sloping hills.  (I’ve only caught a brief glimpse once with the our birding group.) Or perhaps we’ll enjoy the Bobolink’s (Dolichonyx oryzivorus) long, bubbling song. Now declining in numbers, the  Northern Bobwhite Quail (Colinus virginianus) may once  again bring its simple two-note “Bob-white!”  to the park, a sound that meant “summer” here in my childhood. These birds and others need the open, sunny grasslands that the Dr. Ben is working hard to provide. I’m enjoying  Ilsley’s slow prairie transformation and look forward to even richer, more diverse bird serenades as the years go by.

Footnote:  My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: 
iNaturalist.org for periodic photos;; Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia;  Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; other sites as cited in the text.

BEAR CREEK: Is It Spring Yet? Ummm, No… plus Tracking Bear Creek Itself

Blog and photos by Cam Mannino
Blog and photos by
Cam Mannino

What a crazy February and March, eh?  Snow, ice – and then suddenly mud, warm sunlight, even a butterfly! – then icy winds again.  Such schizophrenic weather complicates life in the natural world.  A snake basks in the sun one day and a few days later, returning sandhill cranes peck along the surface of thin ice.  Ducks leave wing prints and webbed feet tracks on a snowy pond and a few days later, a female crayfish emerges with eggs under her tail.  Never a dull moment in the parks! Meanwhile I set off to track the meandering course of Bear Creek itself.

 

Early February – A Normal Winter for the Birds

Robin in evening sun BC
A Robin plumps against the cold on an early February day

American Robins (Turdus migratorius), despite their association with spring, know how to cope with cold days:  find dried fruits on old vines, turn your dark red breast to any sunlight available and plump up your feathers to create some down insulation.

The Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) on the western slope found sun at the very top of a tree and decided to try out his mating call on an icy morning.  “Peter, Peter, Peter,”  he trilled,  despite the snow below.

Singing Titmouse BC
A Tufted Titmouse tried out his spring call – “Peter, Peter” on a sunny, very cold morning

A small flock of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) passed contact calls back and forth in the small trees and shrubs.  The male  below probably spent this odd winter at Bear Creek and appears to be just fine.

A male Eastern Bluebird pauses on the branch of a small tree

Nearby, a small bird busily wound its way up a tree, poking at the bark every few seconds and moving on.  That upward spiral was a clue.  It was a Brown Creeper (Certhia americana), a funny little bird with a small head and a long sharp beak good for winkling out bugs and larvae from tree bark.  If you look carefully in my hastily shot photo, you can see its right eye and curving black beak.

Brown Creeper 2 BC
A Brown Creeper always works its way around and up a tree when foraging.

The longer days brought a  warm weather migrant to the marsh, the Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia). It probed the grassy clumps protruding from the ice, looking for tidbits – seeds, perhaps?  This  sparrow’s cheerful mating song will burble forth all over the park when real spring arrives.

Song Sparrow BC Marsh 2
An early Song Sparrow poked about in the grasses of the marsh exposed above the ice.

Then, Suddenly, Spring, Off and On

Residents take immediate advantage of a spring-like day at Bear Creek.

Somewhere near the middle of February  the temperature rose, the ice began to melt, and the snow turned to mud. Humans, that most adaptable of creatures,  came out to enjoy a respite from winter cold. And so did some other animals who may have been fooled into emerging a bit early!

This Eastern Comma Butterfly (Polygonia comma) probably spent the winter as an adult under the bark of a log or in a hollow tree. It’s common to see them alone in a sunny spot in early spring – but not usually in February!  I hope this one went back to its winter digs as the temperature dropped!

Eastern Comma Butterfly BC February
An Eastern Comma butterfly emerged from hibernation as the weather warmed unseasonably in February.

Further along, an Eastern Garter Snake  (Thamnophis sirtalis) basked in the sunlight on the trail before slipping off into the grass.

A basking Garter Snake slipped off the path into the grass.

On another warm-ish day, the birding group came upon 30-40 talkative year ’round residents, Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum), flitting from tree to tree and whistling in their thin, high voices. Cornell Lab recently posted that scientists are exploring the idea that the waxwings with the most red waxy dots on their wing tips are the most mature adult birds and the most likely to be successful at mating.

Flock of Cedar Waxwings BC
A flock of Cedar Waxwings whistled and flew from tree to tree in late February.

The birding group was greeted by the waving claws of a small, but assertive female crayfish sitting in a puddle on the trail near the pond. Under her tail, she carried quite a load of eggs.  Michigan has eight native species of crayfish, and one aggressive, invasive one, called the Rusty Crayfish.  This one could be the invasive because according to U-M’s Biokids site, they take an aggressive claws-up stance to fight off predators (as she did when we approached) and she also had smudge-like spots on the back of her carapace. But crayfish are  difficult creatures to positively identify, so for now,  we’ll just say she’s a crayfish.  If her eggs hatch despite the cold that returned the following day, she will carry her young through several molts, until they fall off and start life on their own.   Thanks to Ben for his great photo.

Ben's photo Crayfish w eggs BC
A crayfish with eggs under her tail

Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) floated above her reflection in the Center Pond.  Some of the birders wondered if it could be classified as the subspecies of Lesser Canada Goose, since its neck is shorter than most Canada Geese. But since its body and beak are large, it’s hard to say.  It may just be normal variation – or maybe it had a Lesser Goose  or Cackling Goose relative (Branta hutchinsii) in its past!

Lesser Canada Goose BC
This Canada Goose has a remarkably short neck so it could be part of a subspecies called the Lesser Canada Goose.

In the unseasonal warmth, a native Hazelnut  bush (Corylus americana) extended its long male catkins that will fertilize the tiny female flowers on the twigs when they emerge later.  The little flowers eventually produce clusters of nuts.  The farmer who lived on Bear Creek during the Depression and WWII gathered these nuts as a boy, as reported in an earlier blog. 

hazelnut-catkins-1
These male catkins of the Hazelnut bush will fertilize tiny female flowers on the branch to produce  – what else? – hazelnuts!

Winter Returns, Sigh…

The marsh froze over again – thinner ice that water birds could peck through to forage in the water below.  One morning in a cold wind, a pair of  Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) poked about on the ice near Gunn Road, stalking back and forth on their knobby legs.  They didn’t seem to be finding much to eat.

Sandhill Cranes poked at the thin ice when the marsh re-froze after the false spring.

At the Center Pond, it looked as though some ducks had walked on the ice and then taken off, leaving some decorative webbed foot tracks and wing prints in the snow.

Duck feet and wing tracks Center Pond BC
The prints of duck feet and wings on the Center Pond’s snowy surface.

The next morning, the sun broke through and thinned the ice. A male Canada Goose found a break in it and stuck his head down, looking for food. Brrr…glad they have plenty of fat and keep their layers of feathers well-oiled  by preening from an oil gland at the tip of their tail like other water birds.

Two Geese in icy marsh BC
The male Canada Goose searches for food in an open patch in the thin marsh ice.

On the western slope, a male Eastern Bluebird repeatedly swooped down into the grass and back up into a nearby bush, evidently finding some seed he liked on a cold morning.

Flying bluebird BC
A male Eastern Bluebird glides to the ground to look for seeds.
Coyote tracks BC Lane
Most likely coyote tracks on the Walnut Lane

And along the upper part of the Walnut Lane, tracks revealed the path of what might have been a Coyote (Canis latrans) from the size of these canid tracks.  Like the fox, when they trot, they place the back foot where the front was – hence the single tracks.  Wish I could see this animal in the park.  Its scat is everywhere!  We can be assured, I think, that this animal does just fine no matter what the weather!

 Tracking the Meandering Path of Bear Creek Itself

Occasionally a park visitor asks me why the park is called Bear Creek.  Well, I don’t know why the creek was called “bear” because there are no bears.  At one time, the marsh was reportedly called “Bare Marsh” because of the many dead trees standing in the water years ago.   But some people ask because they haven’t noticed the little creek  and its meandering path that eventually reaches Paint Creek.  I never paid  much attention to it myself once it left the Center Pond boardwalk.  But in February, I decided to follow it.

It begins, I believe, in a spring that I saw  years ago during a drought that dried up the pond.  All that was left was a wet spot at the west end of the pond,  with water seeping eastward in a feeble stream.  In a normal year, when the water is high, a small creek flows out  under the boardwalk at the pond’s eastern end.

bear-creek-begins-out-of-center-pond-bc

From there, it runs east through the woods, enters Bear Marsh and picks up ground water. In the photo below, it exits the marsh running north out of  the culvert under Gunn Road.

Bear Creek n of Gunn Road at marsh

The little creek then takes a left hand turn, flowing back west.  In the woods somewhere, it evidently takes another left, bending south until it crosses under Gunn Road again right across from Pine Needle Trail, near Collins Road.

Bear Creek at Pine Needle Trail off Gunn BC

It wends it way south behind various houses, appearing again at a culvert under the aptly named, Bear Creek Court off Collins Road.

Bear Creek off Bear Creek Court

Just north of Oak Hill , near the entrance to the Township Hall,  the creek crosses under Collins Road.

Bear Creek going under Collins Road BC

 

It flows  along a ditch on the western side of Collins Road and curves behind the Paint Creek Methodist Church and the Lyon Gear factory,

Bear Creek behind church BC

At that point, the creek takes a dive under ground, crossing Orion Road and appearing again at what appears to be its final destination, flowing out of a culvert as it joins Paint Creek behind the Cider Mill parking lot.

Bear Creek empties into Paint Creekk at Cider Mill

A Creek with a Past Flows Toward Its Future

It’s wonderful to think of the hundreds, perhaps thousands of spring mornings during which this little creek has wended its way from a modest pond in a field off Snell Road to merge at last with Paint Creek.  Long may it meander across the landscape.  If we are careful stewards of the natural beauty granted to us, then for generations to come, the bluebirds will still forage in the meadows on azure wings, the coyotes will still trot up the lane on a winter night, and the butterflies will still slip out of tree bark into the sunshine. My thanks to all of those whose efforts and resources make that future possible!

Footnote:  My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: 
Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; Birds of North America Online; Audubon.org; Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes; Trees in My Forest by Bernd Heinrich; Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, Savannah River Ecology Lab (Univ of Georgia)and websites linked in the text.

Cranberry Lake Park: Evidence of Things Unseen – Tracks of Night Visitors and Overnight Ice Sculptures

meadow-cl-winter
Meadow at the center of Cranberry Lake Park in winter

Tracks, tracks, tracks – they’re everywhere in the parks after a good snowfall. Mostly they’re left by us humans and our dogs, of course, as they are in this photo of the meadow. But sometimes, tracks, distant bird calls, empty nests reveal hints of who’s exploring the park when we’re not there. Or, in the case of gorgeous ice crystals on a puddle, or a huge beaver lodge, we discover what’s occurred when we weren’t looking.

Who’s Been Here While We Weren’t?

Heading into Cranberry Lake Park with the birders one morning, we stopped at Ben’s urging to listen to the distant call and tapping of a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus.) (Listen at this highlighted Cornell link under “typical voice.”)  These very large woodpeckers make huge rectangular holes as they create nest holes or search for carpenter ants in trees. According to Cornell Lab, the holes offer shelter later to swifts, owls, wood ducks and other birds. We never got to see this huge member of the woodpecker family that morning, but even hearing it, you sense real wildness close by. Joan Bonin, a township birder, took this excellent picture of  a Pileated Woodpecker on a cherry tree in her back yard. Thanks for sharing, Joan!

pileated-woodpecker-by-joan-bonin
Photo of a Pileated Woodpecker by local photographer and birder, Joan Bonin.

Winter nights at the park must be full of scurrying animals.  An Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) went bounding across a wooden platform at the edge of a trail (left below). To hop, rabbits push off with their front paws (center photo) and swing their powerful back legs forward –  hence the shape of their tracks (right). Wonder if this cottontail was fleeing something or just full of exuberance on a snowy night? (Hover for captions; click on photo to enlarge.)

Meanwhile, out in the meadow, a White-footed Mouse (Peromyscus leucopus) must have stopped to explore  a clump of exposed grass, and then another. Mice don’t hibernate in winter; that’s why they sometimes seek warmth and food in our houses! After a rain, you can sometimes spot tunnels mice dig under the snow to keep out of sight. Thanks to Creative Commons Photographer Greg Lasley for his photo of this little nighttime adventurer.

According to a delightful article in the New York Times, occasionally mice use their prehensile tails to climb small trees; line an abandoned nest with grass, milkweed fluff and feathers; tuck a snack under the lining and spend the night! So I probably should have looked more closely at this nest which may have been made by an American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis), since it’s cup-shaped and wedged between several branches in a small tree.

Goldfinch nest? CL
A White-footed Mouse might have found this nest a cozy place on a winter night.

Perhaps a mouse at Cranberry Lake could tuck some of these Highbush Cranberries (Viburnum trilobum) into an abandoned nest for a midnight snack.

High-bush cranberries might make a delicious snack.
While not actually a cranberry, highbush cranberries might make a delicious snack for wildlife.

Heading north from the meadow, a straight line of round prints led from the path to a pond. Two Canid prints, one on the top of the other,  appeared inside each of these tracks in  fluffy snow.  I’m guessing it was a fox.  Foxes travel in a straight line to save as much energy as they can while foraging. They also place their back foot inside the track of front one, probably for the same reason.  (Dogs get fed, so their tracks wander all over the place!)  The fox (if that’s what it was!) that left the tracks to the pond seemed to be headed out onto the icy pond – perhaps an easier path for a light animal than going through the brush. The fox on the right is a Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) I saw trotting at dusk near our home.

On the path to Cranberry Lake,  night wanderers left their marks. The birders noticed tracks (left below) of White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) heading, like the fox,  toward a frozen forest pool.  We surmised that a Raccoon (Procyon lotor) left the five-toed tracks (center photo) which spread as the snow melted and then got covered in ice after a freezing rain. A possum waddled along under the shrubbery leaving its tiny pairs of  five-pointed tracks (right) as it nosed in the snow.

 What Occurred When We Weren’t Looking?

One morning, a shallow puddle on the path had turned to ice but, wow!  The surface was covered with 3 dimensional ice crystals, like tiny, leafy ice sculptures all over the puddle.

multiple-ice-crystals-cl
A frozen puddle covered with 3-D ice dendrites, a type of  ice crystal.

According to a website called SnowCrystals.com, these crystals are called Ice Dendrites. They form at low temperatures and high humidity, a condition which had occurred the previous night. The word “dendritic” means “tree-like,” and indeed these do branch. I don’t remember seeing these free-standing ice crystals before, so I sat down in the snow and took a closer look. Amazing!

Ice crystal closeup CL
A free-standing ice dendrite, a kind of ice crystal, growing on the surface of a puddle at Cranberry Lake.
Ice crystals CL
Ice dendrites, branching ice crystals, on the surface of a puddle at Cranberry Lake

Near the large pond in the center of the park, the dark fertile leaves (or fronds) of the Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis) poked out of the snow. The underground stem of this plant (called a rhizome) is fed through photosynthesis by its large bright green leaves of summer. But the rhizome also produces separate, specialized dark fronds which are fertile and small enough to go unnoticed (at least by me!) in the summer. They support clusters of sporangia, little brown beads which contain the spores that will sail off in the wind next summer to start new plants. They give this interesting plant its other name, Bead Fern. Fascinating that these two photos are different leaves/fronds of the same plant.

Sensitive Fern infertile fronds in summer.
Sensitive Fern infertile fronds feed the rhizome, or underground stem of the plant in the summer.
The fertile fronds that support the "beads" that contain the spores of Sensitive Fern.
The fertile fronds that support the “beads” that contain the spores of Sensitive Fern.

One icy morning I  took a walk out onto Cranberry Lake. People were skating and ice fishing on the opposite side of the lake.  As I looked to my left, I caught sight of the very large lodge of a North American Beaver (Castor canadensis).  

Beaver Lodge CL
A Beaver lodge on the west edge of Cranberry Lake

According to Northern Woodlands.org, beavers build lodges with branches, debris and grass, coating the surface with mud but leaving ventilation at the top. The entrance is safely under the water. Then they cut fresh branches and anchor them to mud on the lake bottom nearby so they can feed on the bark in the winter. You can see some protruding from the ice in front of of the lodge.

Young branches stuck in the mud near the beaver lodge provide winter food under the ice.
Young branches stuck in the mud near the beaver lodge provide winter food under the ice.

Inside, the lodges have a feeding platform just above the water and a higher, drier sleeping platform covered with shredded wood fibers and grass. Beavers store fat in their tails, which shrink over the winter as the fat is used up. With a family of beavers inside plus snow and mud insulation, it’s a relatively snug place to spend the winter. So glad I could get out on the ice to see it!

Winter Requires Eyes, Ears and Imagination

Trackless path CL
An unmarked path to Cranberry Lake one winter morning

Winter walks are more challenging, but they have their compensations. It’s fun to be the first to step onto a pure white path on a snowy morning. Blue forest shadows make patterns on the untrod snowy trail.

Forest shadows on snow
Forest shadows on the path to Cranberry Lake

Birds are fewer, more furtive and some are less colorful in the winter months, but hearing their group singing in a thicket or a distant call or tap is a companionable sound on a cold morning.

Female Downy Woodpecker CL
A female Downy Woodpecker taps along the branch of a tree

Tracks leading hither and yon help us imagine a moonlit night with a fox trotting across an icy pond or deer running with their white tails flashing in the darkness. Following tracks like an amateur detective makes winter walking a bit of an adventure as we imagine the unseen world of Cranberry Lake on a winter night.

 

 

Footnote:  My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: 
Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; Birds of North America Online; Audubon.org; Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes; Trees in My Forest by Bernd Heinrich; Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, Savannah River Ecology Lab (Univ of Georgia)and websites linked in the text.

 

 

Photo of the Week: Deer! Oh, dear…

young-deer-in-snow

Who can resist doe eyes? Deer are truly beautiful animals with a special place in our natural areas and ecosystem. But deer numbers are higher than they’ve ever been historically.  Deer no longer have any predators here, except hunters. Coyotes don’t bring down their numbers; they have easier  food sources such as plentiful road kill, mice, rats, rabbits, fruits and wild berries.

As deer keep multiplying, these beautiful native animals cause serious health and safety concerns for themselves, for us and for our native habitats.

What to do? Sterilizing females is expensive; it involves surgery. Hiring professional hunters distresses people.  So, do we live with these dangers or do we find a solution?

Enjoying an Evening of Turtles, Salamanders, Frogs and, oh yeah, a Rattlesnake!

Last Thursday, Ben VanderWeide, our township stewardship manager, hosted a well-attended event on rare/endangered “herps” (Herpetofauna), that is, amphibians and reptiles.

Blog and photos by Cam Mannino
Blog and photos by
Cam Mannino

At this time of year, talking about snakes, turtles, salamanders and frogs may seem a bit odd to you.  Actually though,  the Herpetology expert and presenter, David Mifsud of Herpetological Resource Management (HRM), told us that he sees Spring Peepers, Eastern Garter Snakes and Red-backed Salamanders moving around in Michigan winters when temperatures warm up as they have lately.    So for starters, here are three that he says we might look for during this winter thaw:

 

Garter snake closeup GC
Eastern Garter Snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis) may be moving on warm winter days.
red-backed-salamander-1
You could see a Red-backed Salamander (Plethodon cinereus) in a vernal pool created by snow melt.
Spring Peeper largest size
Spring Peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) can occasionally be heard/seen on a warm winter day.

And even if you don’t see one of these herps “in person” this winter, it’s just pleasant to think about springtime creatures in the dead of winter, right?  So here’s a brief trip through some of the important and lively information that David shared with about 30 of us last Thursday night.

Note:  Because some of these creatures are rare, some of the photos this week are courtesy of photographers at iNaturalist.org.  Please check the captions for names of these gifted people and many thanks to Creative Commons, iNaturalist and these photographers for sharing their work!

How Important are Amphibians and Reptiles?  Let Me Count the Ways…

  • Canaries in the coal mine. Amphibians and reptiles accumulate toxins and other contaminates in their bodies and most live both in water and on land.  So they are effective gauges (bio-indicators) of what’s getting into both environments.
  • Many eat invasive species.  For example,  the very homely Mudpuppy (Necturus maculosus), an aquatic salamander, favors eating invasive Zebra Mussels (Dreissena polymorpha) and  invasive Brown Gobies (Neogobius melanostomus), both huge problems in the Great Lakes. I grant you  this much-maligned aquatic salamander is not pretty. But it’s eating these invasive species, crayfish, worms,  and insect larvae! There’s no evidence that they reduce game fish populations (see Harding 1997). So please!  Return them with care to the water if you catch them on your hooks winter or summer.
original
Mudpuppies eat invasive species not game fish. Photo by Marcus Rosten CC-BY. I lightened and cropped slightly.
  • Predator and Prey. Herps can be both predator and prey, meaning they’re important in nature’s food web.  For example, dragonflies, like the Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa) on the left below,  lay eggs in vernal pools.  The  nymphs that hatch feed on the eggs of salamanders who deposit their eggs on sticks in vernal pools, as seen in the center photo.  But when the Tiger Salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum) on the right – an inhabitant mostly of western and southern Michigan –  reaches adulthood,  it in turn eats dragonflies.  This kind of food cycle helps keep a healthy balance between predator and prey in the ecosystem and builds the ladder system of the food web.
  • Our natural heritage. And of course, these creatures deserve our care because they are native to the habitats which are our natural heritage. And just as we preserve historic homes, we need to preserve the habitats for plants and animals that share our natural inheritance.
  • Just because. These beautiful creatures deserve a place to call home too!

And the Prognosis for Michigan Herps?  Uh, Not So Good…

Unfortunately, in Michigan and the Great Lakes Region, more than half of our species of amphibians and reptiles are declining. Why?

  • Amphibians and reptiles spend time on land and in the water. So those pollutants and contaminants that they accumulate, making them bio-indicators, can also kill them. Plastic beads in beauty products, pesticides from lawns and agriculture, hormones from our medicines in waste water, and agricultural run-off can affect these creatures.
  • Many reptiles have to live a long time in order to mature and reproduce.  The Blanding’s Turtle (Emydoidea blandingii), found in our township,  is listed as a Species of Special Concern in Michigan. It takes up to 20 years for these yellow-chinned turtles to mature enough to produce young and they can live up to 90 years! This one on a road near Draper Twin Lake Park is demonstrating one of the hazards – habitat loss or disruption.  In this case, a road cut through its habitat. If you see a turtle on the road and can safely do so, be sure to move it gently in the direction it was going or it will turn head right back the way it came. Turtles are very focused on getting to and from their breeding grounds!

    Blandings Turtle near Draper
    A Blanding’s Turtle has to survive up to 20 years before it produces young!
  • Creatures with long lives like turtles especially need connected habitat corridors since they require both water and dry land, where they lay their eggs. Here a Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) is laying her eggs high on a sunny slope in Bear Creek before she returns to the pond. She demonstrates a common natural hazard. A female Snapper has a strong scent from living in marshes so it’s easy for predators – like foxes, coyotes, or raccoons – to track down her nest of eggs. And the mounds of earth she leaves behind are a big clue too!
snapper laying eggs
A Snapping Turtle leaves a strong marsh scent on her trail that lead predators, like raccoons, to her nest of eggs.
  • As cute, and as pesky,  as raccoons can be, they are serious predators of amphibians and reptiles and over-populated in some parks. Their numbers are often higher in urban areas than they would be naturally because they are “subsidized” by the food we provide unwittingly, such as our trash and the dog food we leave outside. After racoons leave the feast in your backyard, they return to a local natural area to snack on amphibian and reptile eggs, often causing over 90% nest failure. To keep park environments in balance between predators and prey, please remove food sources from around your home, and don’t transport trapped raccoons or other animals to our parks! 

 

raccoon in hole
Raccoons are efficient predators of “herp” eggs and young. So please don’t transport yours to the parks or we’ll have too many! This one peeked from a tree at Bear Creek.

Of course,  birds and other creatures prey on amphibians and reptiles as well.  This Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) is heading for quite a feast!

cr cooper's hawk with snake
A Cooper’s Hawk prepares to dine on a snake.
  • Unfortunately, salamanders and turtles are sometimes poached from the wild for pets, both by wildlife traffickers and uninformed parents and children. This has had a devastating effect, for instance,  on the very cute and tiny Spotted Turtle (Clemmys guttata) who’s only 3-5 inches long! And the same thing has happened to Box Turtles (Terrapene carolina) and even Common Snappers, which are sold overseas as well as domestically for supposed “medicinal” purposes.
spotted-turtle-cc-no-my-photo
Photo of the tiny Spotted Turtle by Todd Pierson (CC BY-NC-SA) whose numbers have declined due to treating them as pets.

The Leopard Frog (Rana pipiens), which appears in our parks, is also a Species of Special Concern in Michigan due to its declining numbers. This lovely frog with its emerald body and oval spots has unfortunately been poorly studied. So researchers still need to find the reasons for its distress.

leopard frog
The Leopard Frog’s numbers are declining and no one yet knows exactly why.

OK, but what about that Michigan rattlesnake???

emr_andrewhoffman2008_cc-by-nc-nd-3
Photo by Andrew Hoffman CC BY-NA-ND 4.0. No changes were made to the photo.

Most of us have heard of, but never seen, Michigan’s most venomous snake, the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake (Sistrurus catenatus catenatus) (a couple other snakes have weak venom that only causes irritation). This very shy, low-key snake only grows to about 2 feet long. According to Michigan DNR, it has one set of rattles at birth and develops more as it sheds its skin several times each year.  Its head is triangular like most rattlesnakes, though it is the smallest and least venomous rattler in the U.S.  Look also for a vertical eye slit and saddle-shaped spots.

The likelihood of you being bothered by this snake is low.  In 2016 it was listed as a Federally Threatened Species, which means its numbers are becoming drastically low.  And these snakes just want to avoid you. David reports having searched for this snake with a tracking device and after hearing a loud “beep” from his device, found it under the grass between his feet!  As he moved the grass aside, the snake silently slid over his shoe and away. That’s a conflict-avoiding snake! And a herpetologist with nerves of steel, I might add.

So if you do get to see one, consider yourself lucky. Don’t hurt or handle these docile snakes, since folks most often get bitten when harassing a snake that just wants to get away. Many bites are “dry,” meaning no venom. It takes lots of energy for the snake to produce the venom, and it doesn’t want to waste it! But if you get any kind of bite from this snake, see a doctor right away. Luckily, Dave informed us that no one in the US has died from such a bite in 100 years.

In spring, when these snakes are most active, they’re seen near wetlands, but they are likely to move to drier, upland areas in the summer. While they been seen recently at Stony Creek Metro Park in our area, we have no recent sighting in our township parks. Let us know if you see one!

Massasaugas overwinter for up to six months under logs, in small animal burrows and often in the “chimneys” created by crayfish, like this one.

A recently refreshed Crayfish hole among the detritus
A recently refreshed crayfish hole can hold many creatures over the winter, occasionally including Massasauga rattlesnakes.

Evidently, these burrows fill with ground water which maintains a more constant temperature in the winter than above ground – and that’s what important to an animal that can’t control its body temperature internally.  What’s amazing is that they often share these chimneys with other small creatures during the winter when all of them are in hibernation mode.  A kind of winter “condo” as David described it.  Imagine that!

Befriending Our Local Amphibians and Reptiles

Five turtles line up on a log at Bear Creek Nature Park.
The “Von Trapp Family”  Painted Turtles line up on a log at Bear Creek Nature Park.

Our parks are great places to see all kinds of “herps.”  Snappers and painted turtles cruise Bear Creek’s ponds and marshes.  Our wetlands in every park fill with a chorus of frog song every spring.  Snakes bask in sunny spots and quickly disappear into tall grass.  And in moist woodland uplands, salamanders emerge on the first warm night to make their way to vernal pools to mate and lay their eggs.  We need to care for these interesting creatures and their habitats  to be sure that they still thrive in our world when our children or grandchildren go looking for them.

Footnote:  My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: 
Harding, James H. (1997) Amphibians and Reptiles of the Great Lakes Region. iNaturalist.org for periodic photos;Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991); Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for insect info; http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info; invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman and the website www.illinoiswildflowers.info; experienced birder Ruth Glass, bird walk leader at Stoney Creek Metro Park for bird identification; Birds of North America Online; Audubon.org; Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, Trees in My Forest by Bernd Heinrich, Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, Savannah River Ecology Lab (Univ of Georgia); Tortoise Trust website www.tortoisetrust.org;  An Orchard Invisible: A Natural History of Seeds by Jonathan Silvertown; The Ecology of Plants by Gurevitch, Scheiner and Fox; other sites as cited in the text.

Protecting Michigan’s Rare Amphibians and Reptiles: Saving the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake

Protecting Michigan’s Rare Amphibians and Reptiles: Saving the Eastern  Massasauga Rattlesnake

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  • When: 6:30 pm Thursday, January 19, 2017
  • Where: Paint Creek Cider Mill, 4480 Orion Rd, Rochester, MI 48306

Join us as David Mifsud with Herpetological Resource Management shares his wealth of knowledge about reptiles and amphibians in our great state. Michigan is home to over 60 species of reptiles and amphibians (called “herpetofauna”). More than half are designated as “Species of Greatest Conservation Need” by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR). In 2016 the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake was elevated to Federally Threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This designation has significant impacts on the conservation and management of these snakes in Michigan. This presentation will focus on rare amphibians and reptiles in Michigan, with emphasis on the Massasauga Rattlesnake, and discuss the basic natural history, threats, and conservation needs for these species.

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