The north and east prairies at Charles Ilsley Park get more glorious each summer as restoration brings the return of colorful wildflowers blooming again in their native soil. Great sweeps of Black-eyed Susans(Rudbeckia hirta) stare up into the blue sky surrounded by the tousled, lavender blossoms of Bee-balm (Monarda fistulosa) and flat, compact cushions of white Yarrow (Achillea millefolium).
Tall Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) sway in even the slightest breeze.
The peaceful beauty of these undulating prairies on a summer afternoon is mesmerizing. The nodding dance of flowers and the flutter of butterflies among them soothe the spirit much like the sight and sound of a peaceful ocean – but with such a variety of color and movement! Wonderful!
Last Sunday along the entrance trail, young Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) perched high on a dead branch, waiting to be fed. They begged in the usual fledgling fashion, fluttering their small wings rapidly and calling. Finally, a parent arrived (lower left in the photo below), settled and seemed to be considering which to feed first.
Then the adult swooped out across the meadow, gathering insects in its open beak. It returned and managed a short mid-air pause, beating its wings vigorously as it speedily popped food into one of the open beaks.
Then off went mom or dad again to scoop up more bugs! Such a challenging job to feed all four of those hungry youngsters! (One is behind the lowest branch.)
In the center of the park, where restoration planting happened just weeks ago, the melt ponds are drying up, leaving a strange, foamy surface. Water is so crucial for wildlife that it’s always a reliable spot to find something interesting.
A slim bird that I believe was a young Killdeer (Charadriusvociferus), with its naturally worried look, poked along the edge of the pond. The Stokes’ Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol 2) describes juvenile Killdeer as “very similar to adults except that their upper feathers are margined with lighter edges, their dark neck bands are narrower and often gray or brown instead of black.” I think this one fits that description. Do you agree? Once the young are ready to be on their own, their parents breed again. But the male keeps an eye on the youngsters from the first brood from a distance, while the female incubates the new eggs.
Two fledgling Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis), with just a touch of blue on their wings, watched the killdeer from a small, bare tree nearby. No foraging for them right then. Perhaps they were hoping a parent would come to stuff their beaks like the swallows, but at the moment, no such luck. Like the Killdeer adults, their busy parents may also be encouraging their first brood to feed on their own while the adults start a second. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Some adult birds hung out near the pond as well. A Green Heron (Butorides virescens) was so intent on feeding that it flew toward us to find some open water.
This heron was a skilled fisher! It found a bounty of food in the drying pond. Watch below as it stalks and then catches what appears to be a crayfish nymph. (Use the pause button if you need more time for captions.)
The fiercely territorial Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) looked remarkably unruffled by the other species exploring the resources of the pond below. And nearby in a tree at the edge of the center field, an adult Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) looked as though it must have been preening vigorously since its feather were very ruffled! Drat those feather mites!
Summer turned into an unusually busy time for me this year. So I relish escaping into our parks, where I can watch young birds learn the ropes of feeding, or just quietly enjoy the way Yellow Coneflowers sway above a multi-colored prairie. I recommend it to you as a peaceful alternative to a day at the beach.
June is an easy month to love. In the early weeks, May’s buds transformed into blooms. Turtles and dragonflies emerged from the ponds. Butterfly and grasshopper eggs hatched into caterpillars and tiny nymphs. May migrators and some year-round birds completed their nests and were busily laying eggs.
And then came really warm days – or even some very hot days this year! – and by the end of the month, life had quickly moved on. The spring blooms produced their seeds and subsided as the summer flowers began to emerge. Bees buzz along the trails. Dragonflies dominate the open meadows and wetlands. Damselflies, like colorful, winged sticks, pause briefly by the pond and other strange flying creatures hunt in the shade. The fledglings emerge from nests, awkward and downy, begging to be fed by exhausted parents. So much to see that I find myself rushing from park to park, trying not to miss anything! So here’s just a selection of what came my way at Bear Creek Nature Park during the first month of summer.
Early to Mid-June: Brave Beginnings
The Bear Creek Wetlands in Early June
So much happens near the wetlands as summer begins. Two nests graced either side of the viewing deck at the Center Pond. On the west side, high above the water, a Baltimore Oriole’s (Icterus galbula) carefully woven sack swayed with every breeze, rocking either the female brooding her eggs or a cuddle of nestlings with every breeze. While we birders watched one Wednesday morning, the female arrived at the nest and disappeared into it, followed by the attentive male. This lovely photo of the male arriving at the nest was taken by Ewa Mutzenmore, a member of our group.
He gave us the eye as he leaned in to feed either his brooding mate or perhaps their nestlings.
And then, tail up, evidently unfazed, he proceeded to stuff foraged insects into a waiting beak below.
Ewa, whose Oriole photo is above, mentioned having seen a very large Northern Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon) swimming away at the pond when she was there last and suddenly Ben VanderWeide, our Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, spotted it! Its long, thick body was wound around the branches of a willow bush just west of the dock. Though not venomous, I wouldn’t advise picking one up or harassing it; it will bite and spray you with musk to defend itself. Unfortunately, Ewa and I both could only come up with a photo of parts of its winding body; it just didn’t move a muscle. But here’s a link where you can see a photo of its dark brown head. The birds are evidently safe from it, though fish,frogs, and salamanders better beware!
As I approached the pond on a later afternoon, another impressive predator rose like a submarine from the silvery pond. A large Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) up-periscoped to check me out. Isn’t their snout a curious shape? It’s more important to be cautious around Snappers when they’re on land than in the water, because they do bite if threatened and have extremely long necks. And generally, they’re on land to lay eggs.
The head of a female Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) popped out of the bushes for a look around before she winged down and disappeared into her nest in a small tree just east of the dock. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
A Red-winged Blackbird female peeks from a bush in the field near the pond.
She quickly disappeared in her nest to the east of the dock.
Over in the playground pond, a tiny (about silver-dollar-sized!) Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta) climbed onto a log for probably one of its first basks in a spot of sunlight.
As I approached the dock one cloudy day, a lone male Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) stood forlornly gazing out at the water from a floating log, not a mate in sight. When he heard my approach, his beautiful head twisted toward me with a stare that implied he’d prefer to be alone. Then he dropped into the water and glided away.
When he departed, a much tinier male landed on the dock, the Dot-tailed Whiteface Dragonfly (Leucorrhinia intacta), whose name says it all! I get a huge kick out of his Mickey Mouse-style face.
At Draper Twin Lake Park a few weeks ago, I’d seen the female Dot-tailed Whiteface, who is more elegant, if less amusing.
And one Sunday morning, while scanning Bear Creek marsh, I heard the unmistakable whinnying call of a Sora (Porzana carolina), a bird that tends to be heard and not seen. This secretive bird is evidently abundant according to Cornell Ornithology Lab, but likes to stay hidden deep in the cattails and reeds. Looking at this photo by inaturalist.org photographer by Mike Baird, you’d never guess that such a chunky bird with stubby wings had migrated here from Central or South America! And check out those feet!
Several strangely beautiful insects shelter or hunt in shady spots near wetlands, too.
A male Orchard Oriole (Icterus spurius) appeared for the birders at the top of the southern hill away from the wetlands, though they sometime nest along the edges of marshes and rivers. This poor fellow seemed wildly distracted by some itchy insect, probably Feather Mites (super family Analgoidea) which often infest nests in early summer. He just barely stopped preening for a moment! As a victim of biting midges in spring, I could sympathize!
Sun and Shade Meant Blooms, Juicy Leaves – and More Insects!
The birders saw four Monarch Butterfly caterpillars (Danaus plexippus) – one of them above – munching contentedly on leaves of Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). It’s wonderful to know that natural areas management of our parks makes them places where milkweed gets ever more plentiful – and that, as a result, migrating monarchs find their way here to lay their eggs for the next generation.
Nearby, the tiniest of Black-legged Grasshopper nymphs (Melanoplus femurnigrum) sat quietly enough that I could a good look at this little one, less than a half inch long! It’ll probably molt 4 more times before it reaches adulthood. Pretty special eyes, eh?
A Twelve-spotted Skimmer (Libellula pulchella) found a budding stem to be the perfect place to pause and scan us birders and the prey we might have stirred up as we walked among the plants in the parking circle.
In the native gardens near the parking lot and along the Walnut Lane in the center of the park, early June brought colorful blossoms and the seeds of early spring flowers that were already maturing their seeds for next year’s crop inside their fruits. Such a variety of colors and shapes! (Use pause button for time to read captions.)
A Late June Visit To See What Had Changed
Wow! The shy flowers of late spring and early summer had been replaced by the big, bold native milkweeds. Monarch caterpillars seem to have finished munching on Common Milkweed leaves and spun their chrysalises; some have yet to emerge and some may already be flying. Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) is ready to host any number of butterflies this summer. If you’re looking for color in your garden, Butterfly Milkweed’s a nice native choice because it remains an attractive bunch instead of spreading like Common Milkweed – and pollinators find milkweeds irresistible!
Mites must still be giving birds a hard time, though. This itchy little Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea) preened just as insistently as the poor Orchard Oriole earlier in the month! This gnatcatcher is small, only a bit larger than a hummingbird and smaller than a wren and can be identified by its white-edged tail. According to Cornell Lab, they sometimes build up to seven nests in a season because they frequently give up a nest due to mites, predators and problems with Cowbirds and others that lay eggs in their nests. Hope this little one persists despite all those tribulations!
On the western slope, an adult Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) and its fledgling paused in a bush. The adult looked around checking for trouble, then hopped onto the ground, looking for seeds or insects to feed the youngster. The youngster hopped clumsily in the bush, waiting for its parent return, which fortunately resulted in something to eat!
The American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) wait until late June or July to begin their families. They will use the fluffy pappus from thistles and other plants to line their nest and they feed on the thistle’s seeds, a favorite food. It looked as though this couple was already making the most of these Field Thistles (Cirsium arvense) that are just getting started.
A bit later in the Eastern Meadow, a Halloween Pennant Dragonfly (Celithemis eponina) was coping with a stiff breeze by holding tight and adjusting its wing positions to stay aloft. This one could be looking for a mate; maybe that’s why it was working so hard to stay visible on a bare perch above the wildflowers. Once it finds a mate, they’ll both head to the nearest wetland where the female will dip her abdomen into the water, leaving eggs behind.
The Black-legged grasshopper nymphs had changed a bit when I made my last visit. This one now had a bit more black-legged-ness! I assume it had gone through its second molt. I didn’t take a closeup of this one so you could see how tiny these nymphs really are.
The wetlands, as usual, were full of life too. A juvenile Green Frog (Rana clamitans) had left its youth as a tadpole behind and was sitting waiting for the nearest flying insect at the Playground Pond. The green dots are Water Meal (g. Wolffia) which covers the playground pond along with spots of Common Duckweed (Lemna minor) – aptly named since ducks do scoop up both plants and make a meal out of them!
Nearby, a tiny Amber Snail (G. Succinea) snacked delicately on the seeds of Orchard Grass (Dactylisglomerata). I wonder if those black spots on the blossoms are places where the snail has secreted extra slime to stay attached while eating?
While monitoring a vernal pool at Bear Creek, the crew brought up a tiny Crayfish (family Cambaridae). It was too tiny to determine a species but it certainly had all of the equipment it needed for surviving in its underwater world. Crayfish molt six to ten times in their first year, so this one has a long way to go before adulthood!
It was the Best of Times, It was the Worst of Times…
Summer is glorious, right? Who could argue with that? All the blossoms, birds, whispering leaves and yellow sunlight pouring over it all. Or as the poet, e.e. cummings so ebulliently put it, “the leaping greenly spirits of trees/and a blue true dream of sky; and …everything/which is natural which is infinite which is yes.”
But I wonder sometimes if migrating birds, for example, might grouse a bit about cummings’ enthusiasm and ours. Summer is a busy, hard-working time for birds! I’ve become so aware of this by monitoring bluebirds this summer and it’s true of all birds, really. First there are courtship rituals that can involve singing constantly for hours. A diminutive House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) or the Red-eyed Vireo(Vireo olivaceus) may sing their territorial/courting songs a hundred, even a thousand times in a day! Nest-making often involves long days or even a solid week of gathering material and then weaving, or scraping, or even digging a safe place for their eggs. And once eggs hatch, their young sit begging in the nest and later from every branch, crying “MORE FOOD!” Imagine having young every summer, frequently multiple broods of young, and working constantly to be sure at least some of them survive despite predators of all kinds – plus coping with those miserable feather mites!
And yet, thank goodness, they return to us each year to go through it all because the show must go on! The genes must be passed to a new generation! I’ve come to admire the sheer tenacity of nature in facing the vicissitudes of life without homes in which to retreat at night or when the weather is harsh. Learning more about the threats and difficulties that birds overcome, I’m doubly pleased to see them with their breasts turned to the sun on a cool morning, or to hear their quiet evensong calls around me as the sky grows dark. They seem to still be able to pause now and then from all the hubbub of their lives and just “be” for a few moments. I take that as a lesson for my busy life – and probably yours too.
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: inaturalist.org;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;Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels, A Guide to Bird Behavior Vols.1-3 by Donald W and Lillian Q.Stokes, the passionate enthusiasts at the Facebook groups Odonata of the Eastern U.S.and Butterflying Michigan plus others as cited in the text. e.e.cummings poem "I thank You God for most this amazing" in 100 Selected Poems pub. by Grove Press
This year eight volunteers are monitoring nest boxes at Draper Twin Lake Park, Charles Ilsley Park and along the Paint Creek Trail in Oakland Township. We keep track of when the nest is built, the date of the first egg laid, the hatching date and if possible, the fledgling date when the little Eastern Bluebirds, Tree Swallows, House Wrens or Chickadees exit the nest and come out into the big world.
We report our data to NestWatch, a citizen scientist project of the Cornell University Ornithology Lab.
Well, the excitement has peaked in the last two weeks as fledglings begin to screw their courage to the sticking point, leap out of their dark, cozy nests and take to the air. Two weeks ago, I was lucky enough to see a tiny Eastern Bluebird (Sialissialis) launch itself out of the nest box that I’m monitoring near my house and caught the moment with my camera as well. (Use the pause button if you need more time for captions.)
And now many of us volunteers and members of the birding group feel like we’re in a nursery, because we’re surrounded by baby birds! Unlike the young bluebird, Tree Swallow fledglings (Tachycineta bicolor) “are strong fliers as soon as they leave the nest,” according to the Stokes’ Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.1). This one at Charles Ilsley Park seemed to emerge from its nest fully ready to fly. Perhaps that is necessary since swallows feed on the wing. But the adults will help feed their fledglings for the first two or three days. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)[Edit: I’ve deleted the two closeups of the fledgling because from photos others took, I’m not sure it was the fledgling. My apologies.]
In the eastern prairie at Charles Ilsley Park, a Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) flitted about among the Foxglove Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis). Its slim shape and erratic display behavior made me think it might be a juvenile, too. A larger Field Sparrow (probably a male) sat calmly nearby with a grasshopper nymph in its beak. But when I returned the next day, the slim Field Sparrow again flitted distractedly about in the same location and again was accompanied by another Field Sparrow. My former experience with Field Sparrows had been that they often are elusive and dive into the grass at a moment’s notice. But I’ve learned that in the early spring, Field Sparrows nest on the ground if they have enough cover, which this beautiful prairie now provides. I’m wondering if these two were mates who were trying to distract me from a nest hidden among the flower stems. Since there are low bushes nearby, however, the nest could have been along the tree line since these sparrows make nests in low bushes later in the season.
Back at my home, a clutch of Eastern Phoebe fledglings (Sayornis phoebe) appeared in a low bush at dusk. They’d evidently left the nest under the eaves of the nearby shed very recently and a harried adult was busy trying to feed them. Luckily, both Phoebe parents share this exhausting task. One of the fledglings, as you’ll see below, was smaller and a loner. Perhaps that’s not surprising since Cornell says the Phoebe “is a loner, rarely coming in contact with other phoebes.” It may just have been the last to fledge and is still adjusting to the being out of the nest – or perhaps it’s the “runt of the litter.” But its noisier siblings probably had a lot more luck getting fed that night!
Many birds have more than one brood in a summer – so be on the lookout! Your yard may be hosting hard-working parent birds and their rambunctious, noisy, begging youngsters! Our parks certainly are!
Early summer is blooming and buzzing at Draper Twin Lake Park. The golden petals of Sand Coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata) ruffle in the wind among dancing white Ox-eye Daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare) and Yarrow (Achillea millefolium). What a sight for a summer afternoon!
Birds suddenly burst from the deep grass or sway on a sturdy plant stem while being tossed by the wind. Butterflies settle in sunny spots along the moist trails near the marsh or dance along a sunny prairie trail seemingly unable to choose which early summer bloom might please them. Such summery abundance after a cold spring!
Butterflies Take to the Air!
I often begin blogs with birds, because they’re the favorite wildlife for many park visitors. But for better and worse, early summer begins the high season for insects! Yes, some sting, or bite – but mostly they’re just colorful and simply amazing. On a breezy visit to the eastern side of the park, I was greeted by two Eastern Tiger Swallowtails (Papilio glaucus) dancing their courtship ritual high in the air, full of chases, flutters, soaring and falling. I craned my camera upward, clicked a few times and got lucky. An exciting first for me to get photos of butterflies in flight! (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
The male took a brief rest to sip some nectar as the female flew away. But the wind was so strong that he only paused for a few brief moments before he was blown off his flower!
Undeterred, he fed on a bit more nectar and was soon back in the sky, dancing off above the treetops with his female companion.
Nearby, a flash of orange and black made me think I was seeing a Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) among the greenery. But no! The bars at the bottom of its hindwings were the unmistakable insignia of a Viceroy Butterfly (Limenitis archippus).
Viceroys are “Müellerian” mimics, meaning they mimic the color and pattern of Monarchs which, like them, are distasteful to predators. By mimicking each other’s appearance, they give potential attackers a warning. “If you see something that looks like us, stay away or you’ll be sorry!” Isn’t evolution amazing?
In the western portion of the park, a Red-spotted Purple butterfly (Limenitis arthemis), paused on the trail in front of me. In my photo on the left, its red spots can just barely be seen on the underside of the forewing. This beautiful – and very active! – creature is said to be a “Batesian” mimic of the Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor) (on the right) which is toxic to its predators. The Red-spotted Purple isn’t but its similar appearance might make an attacker think so. (Pipevine Swallowtail photo by Annabelle Corboy, an inaturalist.org photographer.)
The harmless Red-spotted Purple is a Batesian mimic of the toxic Pipelvine Swallowtail
Pipevine Swallowtail by Annabelle Corboy (CC BY-NC)
In the grass along an eastern path sat one of the smaller butterflies much loved by generations who raised them in their classrooms or released them for special events, our very own American Painted Lady (Vanessavirginiensis). The two large eye-spots on the underside (ventral) of its hindwing distinguishes it from the Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) which has four smaller eyespots in the same place and is widespread, appearing on every continent except Antarctica and South America.
The tiny butterflies and moths can’t claim the same glamour as the large ones, but they add their own beauty and sprightly flutter as they accompany me along the paths. (Click pause button for identification captions.)
Dragons and Damsels Flying Hither and Yon
Summer truly begins for me when damselflies settle delicately on shady leaves and dragonflies patrol prairies or ponds in search of a mate. The Common Whitetail Dragonflies are out in force right now near Twin Lake and the wetlands.
The female Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis) below was hunting away from the water. She waits on vegetation until prey comes sailing by. After about two weeks, she will approach water to find a mate and choose an area of the pond in which to lay her eggs. Within one minute of mating, she will start dipping her abdomen into the water to release eggs, while the male hovers nearby.
Damselflies (in the order Odonata like dragonflies) look like delicate flying sticks. Many are iridescent or sport elaborate patterns on their abdomen and/or thorax. They are ancient creatures dating back to the early Permian, at least 250,000 years ago, and live on every continent but Antarctica.
As part of the courtship ritual, the male Ebony Jewelwing (Calopteryxmaculata) damselfly bobs up, down and around with other males in what are called “flights of attrition,” until his opponents become exhausted and leave – or he does!
I’d forgotten that the brown and black damselfly below left was a female Violet Dancer (Argia fumipennis violacea) until I got assistance at the Odonata of the Eastern U.S. Facebook page. The male is a much more glamorous purple and blue. I saw the female this week at Draper Twin Lake Park and the male there three years ago.
A Native Bird Returns to the Prairie and Avian Parenting Proceeds Around the Park
The restoration of the Draper Prairie is beginning to entice some native birds to return, as well as native plants. On a windy day, I spotted my first Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis) swaying on a plant stem in a stiff wind. In fact, the wind knocked him from his perch at one point, like the Viceroy butterfly mentioned above. This small sparrow with yellow over its eye may be seen more often now that restored prairies are providing the native plants that attract the insects it prefers. I couldn’t record its call in the wind, but listen here for its song that has an insect-like buzz in the middle!
I began my Draper Twin Lake Park visits with a second scolding from a male bird, akin to my escapade with the goose at Lost Lake. I approached the marsh on the eastern side of Draper Park to look at what appeared to be some female Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) among the giant leaves of Fragrant Water Lily. Almost immediately a male blackbird began its alarm call, left its perch in the distance and flew directly toward me.
He landed in a tree next to me and never stopped expressing his irritation until I moved away. Click below to hear a worried blackbird dad!
As soon as I focused my camera’s long lens, I knew why he was upset. Fledgling blackbirds look very much like their mothers. It was clear the birds among the lily pads were his fledglings and he wanted me to back off. And I did, of course!
Another avian dad was a little further along in parenting his offspring. A male House Finch (Haemorhousmexicanus) rested on a vine near the eastern parking area and just below sat one of his offspring on a guy wire, looking straight up at Dad longingly, begging to be fed. Evidently the male thought this was no longer necessary, because no feeding was forthcoming.
As I strolled through the prairie, I watched a Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor)flying open-mouthed to scoop up food for the young in its nest box. Later I saw some gnats dancing busily above the prairie grass and wondered if the large clouds of them over the prairie were part of the Tree Swallow’s diet.
A female House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) seemed to be carefully watching an Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) flying near what appeared to be her nest box. The Eastern Kingbird can be fiercely territorial about its nest and later I saw it land nearby and look toward the wren’s box. But eventually it flew away. Drama avoided.
Each time I came to Draper I heard the call of the Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) – but it never appeared. It was always in dense shrubs and trees near the soggy edge of the marsh where I couldn’t approach. So here’s a 2016 photo of one throwing his head back and letting loose with “Drink your teeeeeea!”
I did, however, record the male’s wonderful song again this year. [He repeats it at 6-7 second intervals about 4 times on this recording.]
Wildflowers Provide the Colorful Backdrop for All This Activity
The restoration plantings of Draper Twin Lake Park’s northern prairie grow more luxuriant and varied every year. This summer many native wildflowers began to bloom after spending years spent sinking deep roots to resist drought. I’ll be excited to see what arrives with mid-summer and fall as natives find their footing in this gently rolling prairie. (Click pause button if you need more time for captions.)
In moister regions of the park, other native plants emerge. Scouring Rush (Equisetum arvense), a native fern-ally, produces spores on its cone that look like Indian beadwork. Fragrant Waterlilies (Nymphaea odorata) send up bright yellow club-like buds from the marsh and Wild Columbine(Aquilegiacanadensis) dangles its exotic blossoms in the shade.
Sunlight, Rain and Earth Make It All Possible
Plants deserve a bit more respect from the creatures, like us, that depend on them. We tend to notice most the animals, birds, insects that have faces like ours, I guess. But of course, all around us plants are doing the amazing work of pulling up minerals and water from the earth, soaking up sunlight from the sky and miraculously turning those elements into the food that fuels all living beings. Directly or indirectly, everything that all of us eat is provided by plants. I feel very lucky that volunteering for Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our natural areas stewardship manager, has taught me to honor a wider scope of nature. Now while I’m fascinated with wildlife, I’m also learning to notice and name the plants, particularly the native wildflowers and grasses, that have performed the miracle of photosynthesis right here for thousands of years. Such a generous gift!
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: inaturalist.org;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;Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels, A Guide to Bird Behavior Vols.1-3 by Donald W and Lillian Q.Stokes, the passionate enthusiasts at the Facebook groups Odonata of the Eastern U.S.and Butterflying Michigan plus others as cited in the text.
Since this week’s blog features a variety of wildflowers along parts of the Paint Creek Trail, I thought we’d start with a little visit to the creek itself, which is currently overflowing its banks. The Swamp Buttercup certainly seems pleased with all that moisture! (If you increase your volume, you can listen to the soothing sound of flowing water and birdsong!)
Well, with summer heat settling in, native spring flowers are producing a glorious finale to the season before making room for summer blooms. Spring wildflowers love the weaker spring sun sifting through bare branches. But hot sun and the increasing number of leaves mark the end of spring blooms. Soon these wildflowers will set their fruits, send it to the ground by means of wind, water or simple gravity, and their seed-based reproductive efforts will come to an end for the season.
So before they’re all gone, here are the ones I saw last week on the Paint Creek Trail between Gallagher Road and Dutton Road. You may still be able to spy some of these native beauties as you walk or bike on a sunny afternoon for the next few days.
Discoveries on the Trail between Gallagher and Silver Bell Roads
Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea – above) should still be glowing beneath the light shade of trees near the Wet Prairie after Memorial Day. These members of the carrot family are visited by many spring pollinators, but they can also also self-pollinate. You can see them near the parking lot on Gallagher Road and at other spots along the trail as well.
In the Wet Prairie, a more unusual little wildflower is happily sprouting where the sun is full and the ground is moist. Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium) is really a wildflower, though its leaves look like grass. Best to look for these dainty flowers on a sunny day, since the flowers stay closed on cloudy days.
Another unusual little wildflower huddles under its much taller grass-like stem on the Wet Prairie. Star Grass (Hypoxis hirsuta) shines up out of prairie on a 6 inch stalk topped by a small (3/4 inch) blossom. The six stamens with their angular anthers add to its star-like appearance. Maybe the dew on the leaf in the photo will help you sense the size of this tiny jewel of a wildflower.
Near the creek, just north of the Wet Prairie, a burst of orange caught my eye and I discovered a native flower that was new to me, Golden Ragwort (Packera aurea). This plant too has multiple methods of reproduction. Each of the tiny florets that make up the protruding center of the flower will produce an achene, a winged fruit enveloping a single seed that will disperse into the wind. But ragwort also produces underground stems (rhizomes) aid its spread!
A native, fire-adapted plant which was new to me has the unusual name Bastard Toadflax (Comandra umbellata) and this is not a flax or a toadflax plant. A report on desertusa.com, claims it was named “toadflax” by the 16th century botanist, John Gerard, because the flowers “be yellow, having a mouth unto a frog’s mouth” and “bastard” because at the time meant “false,” indicating perhaps that it was not a real toadflax. This interesting prairie plant is “hemiparasitic” because it feeds through its roots, but also taps into roots of other plants to get nutrition and water using special structures called haustoria. Bastard toadflax reproduces by rhizomes and produces a small oily fruits enjoyed by birds and mice, who by eating them carry the seeds farther afield.
If you notice a splash of white far back in the Wet Prairie, it might be a patch of Robin’s Plantain (Erigeron pulchellus), a tough, little native that thrives after prescribed burns. It’s a relative of Daisy Fleabane (Erigeron annuus), a common wildflower in our parks. Unlike Daisy Fleabane, though, Robin’s Plantain more commonly produces one bloom to a stem. Like the Golden Ragwort, it reproduces by both achenes and rhizomes.
Early last week, the fluffy, white blossoms of native Choke Cherry (Prunus virginiana) hung in long clusters along single stems called racemes. After warmer sun later in the week, they had begun to turn yellow. They don’t produce edible cherries, but their bitter fruit appeals to game birds, songbirds and woodpeckers, according to one of my favorite wildflower sites, www.illinoiswildflowers.info.
All long the trail you’ll see Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) blooming. Now here’s one bloom you might love to see fading, because its ripening fruit is tiny, but delicious. Good luck getting them before the birds and beasts do, though!
Discoveries on the Trail from Silver Bell Road to Dutton Road
Despite our late spring, many different native wildflowers were blooming along this section of the trail. At the bottom of the stairs leading to the creek, just past the parking area, Swamp Marigolds (Ranunculus hispidus) shine bright despite the deep shade. As you saw in the video at the top of the blog, the wetlands along the stream are doing what they do best – soaking up the runoff after heavy rains. And Marsh Marigold is doing its part!
Farther down the trail, the lavender spikes of Wild Lupine (Lupinusperennis) are blooming. This beloved native produces seedpods open explosively, launching seeds up to seven feet from the plant. Lupine also produces colorful clones as it spreads with rhizomes. Lupines are rising toward the sun in several parks as part of the restoration work being done on our prairies. It’s so heartening to see these lavender blossoms opening up from bottom to top on their stately racemes. And I love the whimsy of its wheel-shaped leaves.
Along the berms on the western side of the trail, a perky yellow flower blossoms in bunches. The fuzzy stems and leaves give it the first part of its name, Hoary Puccoon (Lithospermumcanescens). According to Wikipedia, the second word “puccoon” comes from an ancient Native American word “poughkone,” and refers to plants formerly used for dyes by Native Americans. I wonder if its roots can turn things that vivid yellow/orange?
Near the first bridge going south, I found a whole group of native wildflowers that were just finishing their blooms. A small group of Common Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) still stood in the shade just off the trail. These flamboyant white flowers start turning pink as they age, eventually leaving only their leaves behind to gather up more sun for next years flowers. While true pink- and red-flowering trillium species exist, our Common Trillium just turn pink as they age gracefully.
A Common Trillium is pure white when it blooms.
It begins to turn pink as it fades.
Eventually, as it wilts for the season, it turns a deeper pink.
Nearby Starry False Solomon’s Seal (Maianthemum stellatum) bore only a rather disheveled version of its star-shaped blossom. After the blossoms, the plant will produce green fruits with purple/black stripes that eventually turn red. Woodland birds and mice enjoy the fruits, thereby carrying the seeds within the berries to new locations.
Native Bees and Tiny Butterflies Busy Pollinating
Many spring wildflowers depend heavily on flies and native bees (of which there are 450 Michigan species!) for their pollination, because many other butterflies and the honey bees finish migrating or emerge from hives only in warmer months. Above is what I think is a native Mining Bee (Andrenidae family) foraging for pollen and thereby pollinating one Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum) after another! I’m not knowledgeable about bees, but I learned from Pollinators of Native Plants that a particular Mining Bee, Adrena distans, is a specialist pollinator of Wild Geranium, so that’s my guess. Please feel free to correct me if you know more about bees than I do!
A few tiny butterflies were doing their part in pollinating flowers as well. If you see a fluttering wink of blue among the grass stems, it’s probably a Spring Azure butterfly (Celastrina Ladon). These 1 inch pollinators are blue when flying but once they settle, they quickly fold their wings so only the dull gray side shows. It makes them hard for hungry birds – and interested photographers! – to spot. Azures tend to pollinate Golden Alexanders, False Solomon Seal as well as other wildflowers. (Photo on the left by iNaturalist. org photographer Dan Mullen.)
Spring Azure blue upper wings by Dan Mullen (CC BY-NC-ND)
The Spring Azure is much less notable to predators when it settles to feed.
The tiny Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos) quickly fluttered by me and landed on dry grass stems in the Wet Prairie. These little butterflies produce several broods of caterpillars throughout the summer. So watch for tiny (up to 1.25 in.) flashes of orange and black rising from the grass and scurrying across trails all summer long, busily sipping nectar and inadvertently transporting pollen for the flowers.
The last little butterfly was in a perfect spot to find a mate. According to http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org, “To seek females, males perch in openings, flats or depressions near woods.” And that’s right where this one was – in the open, on a dead plant stalk near the trees just south of the Wet Prairie. He’s not glamorous but he has a glamorous name, the Dreamy Duskywing (Erynnis icelus). (Duskywings can be hard to tell apart, so again, feel free to correct me!) [Edit: A man who collects butterflies and has seen many Duskywings told me on Facebook that he believes this is a Sleepy Duskywing (Erynnis brizo) which he says are more common in this area.} He’s picked a great spot since one of his favorite nectars is the nearby wild lupine. These duskywings like to lay eggs on aspens and cottonwoods, which surround the Wet Prairie.
Migrators Building Nests and, What Else? – Singing!
Late spring is a busy time for birds. Some have just arrived and are busy singing to attract mates. A Warbling Vireo (Vireogilvus) sang over my head in one of the Quaking Aspens (Populus tremuloides) near the Wet Prairie. This vireo is rarely seen once the leaves come on the trees; they like to stay high in the treetops and search diligently for caterpillars. But hearing a quick, rolling song high above me, I spotted his vireo shape, gray/olive back and yellow-ish white belly from below. Then he disappeared into the tree canopy. So here’s a photo of one I saw at Cranberry Lake a week ago. Click here to listen to his rollicking warble!
The Warbling Vireo near the trail seemed quite frantic, singing insistently and hopping higher and higher in the tree as he did so. At first I thought another male vireo was singing across the trail from him – and I believe that he thought so too! But when I followed the other song, it was one of the great bird mimics, the GrayCatbird (Dumetellacarolinensis), doing an imitation of the Vireo’s song and, I think, driving him crazy! The Catbird was, as usual, adding a few flourishes of his own, but it seemed as though the Vireo found his call an annoying form of competition! For a sample of the Catbird’s wonderfully complex, mimicking song, click on the word “Song” at this link.
A pair of Baltimore Orioles (Icterus galbula) swooped down onto the Wet Prairie one afternoon. The female immediately disappeared into tall grass. It’s likely that she was carefully choosing grass stems out of which she could strip fibers for weaving her long, sack of a nest. Evidently, the male’s job was to stand guard while she had her head down.
Suddenly, the female oriole lifted out of the grass, followed immediately by the male, and they swooped into a tall Cottonwood (Populus deltoides) on the northern side of the prairie. She disappeared into a clump of leaves hanging high over the meadow, but I could see the branches moving as she worked and a tiny bit of the growing nest (look in the center of the photo below through the leaves). I found a great little YouTube video of the Oriole’s weaving process, which is really incredible. Imagine tying knots and twirling fibers around a branch using only your beak!
I heard a pair of Eastern Kingbirds (Tyrannus tyrannus) fluttering together from tree to tree and stopped to watch. After giving what sounded like greeting calls, they soared up into a tall tree near the Wet Meadow. The female stood at the edge of a very messy nest which she was constructing on top of what appeared to be an old squirrel nest. The male doesn’t help build the nest, so while she worked, he stood guard in a nearby tree. I read in the Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol. 1) that Kingbirds build preliminary nests before settling into a final one to lay eggs. I’m guessing this may be just a trial nest, since building on a squirrel nest seems like an iffy location! (Squirrels are known to eat bird eggs!) The fine fibers drooping down over the top of the squirrel’s dry, gray branches and leaves are the female kingbird’s doing.
Kingbirds are identifiable from a distance by their upright posture – what one member of the birding group calls their “military stance.” And note the white tips on the tail feathers.
Every Nature Walk has its Special Moments
Last week, I had to smile at this seemingly relaxed male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). He hopped slowly up and down a slope by the trail, picking up and rejecting items he found between the grass stems. With the grass taller than his head and his red crest (which is usually erect) drooping backwards, he reminded me of an avian Red Riding Hood!
It’s little things like that – and seeing the Blue-eyed Grass staring up at me – or watching the two Eastern Kingbirds near their nest – that send me home happy from every foray into the natural world. And these grant adventures only require the right clothes for the weather, water-proof shoes, a little application of bug spray at times and my undivided attention for an hour or so. I usually take my camera along, but walks without anything but my trusty binoculars are just as rewarding. If you ever feel a bit weary as the poet Wordsworth once did, “The world is too much with us, late and soon/Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers…,” try a foray into our parks with your curiosity set at high alert. I’m confident that nature will send you home refreshed and with moments to share with others. Thanks for sharing mine!
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner; inaturalist.org;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;Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels, A Guide to Bird Behavior Vols.1-3 by Donald W and Lillian Q.Stokes, Pollinators of Native Plants by Heather Holm,and others as cited in the text.