Listen! Owls are Out Courting!

A male Great Horned Owl winking at the photographer, my friend Bob Bonin. Male owls are generally smaller than their mates.

My husband called me to the kitchen door. Putting my ear to the storm door, I heard the low, resonant “hoo, huh-hoooo, hoo, hoo” of a Great Horned Owl. That haunting sound marks the beginning of the courting season for owls around here. The breeding season for the Great Horned Owl begins earlier than other owls, mating and nesting in January and February. Others will be heard courting from March through May.

Text by Cam Mannino

The one we heard sounded as though it was nearby and I worried that if I opened the door, its sensitive ears would register the sound, making it fly off. We strained to see the shadowy shape silhouetted against the limbs outside the dark window. But this time, no luck. I opened the door just a crack, heard a few hoots and off it went.

By happy chance, the next day I learned about a course on owls from Cornell University Lab of Ornithology Bird Academy. What luck! I spent some quiet, snowy hours learning about these highly skilled, powerful predators. I thought you might be interested, too. I’ll only be able to offer the highlights here, or course. If owls intrigue you, The Cornell Bird Academy class, “The Wonderful World of Owls,” is thorough and is packed with helpful recordings, photos and videos of owls all over the world.

I’ve only succeeded in photographing one owl in the wild, but luckily, my friend Bob Bonin from our Wednesday bird group generously shared many of his impressive owl photos. So you’re in for a visual treat. Thank you, Bob! I’ve supplemented with photos from generous inaturalist.org photographers and included links to owl calls from Cornell’s All About Birds website, because we’re all more likely to hear owls than see them!

The Special Abilities Owls Use to Rule the Night

Owls live on every continent except Antarctica and in a variety of habitats – deserts, the arctic, the tropics, grasslands, and forests. Though some hunt in daylight or as the sun is rising or setting, owls are best known for hunting at night. Owls may nest in tree cavities, nesting boxes, on the surface of the tundra, in former nests of other birds, and some even burrow underground. Here I’m just exploring the five of the most common ones we might see, or more likely hear, in our region. However, most of the 234 species of owls share some special gifts that allow them all to be formidable hunters.

Amazingly Accurate Binocular and Peripheral Vision in Low Light

The head of a captive Great Horned Owl that I photographed at a hawk festival. Doesn’t look too happy does it?

Owls are the only birds that can catch their prey in the dark. They can’t see when it’s completely dark, but they can in very little light. How? Well, their eyes are large to begin with and in the dark, the pupils expand to fill almost the whole eye surface. Like other nocturnal creatures, owls have the advantage of “eye shine” (tapetum lucidum) which you’ve probably noticed in the eyes of your cat, dog, local raccoon or possum. If light hits them in the dark, their eyes look like glowing red or green circles. Light hits the rods in their retinas (the cells for low light) on the way into the eye, is reflected back by special cells behind the retina and hits the rods again on the way out. That bounce amplifies the light for better night vision.

A Barred Owl demonstrating the flexible neck hidden beneath its feathers. Photo by Owen Strickland (CC BY-NC) at iNaturalist.org

Feathers make owls’ eyes seem to be staring forward like ours, but their eyes are actually set very slightly to the side, allowing them more peripheral vision than we humans have with our straight forward eyes. But because their eyes are only slightly off to the side, the visual fields from each eye can overlap, providing them with accurate binocular vision and depth perception when catching prey.

Our eyes, of course, move in their sockets, so we get more peripheral vision than the birds with eyes on the sides of their heads. But owls can’t move their eyes; they’re fitted tightly into bony sockets. To look around, owls need to rotate their heads. Luckily, that’s easy for them, as it is for most birds. I’m sure you’ve seen geese turn their heads backwards when snoozing or preening. Owls have longer, flexible necks, too, having 14 vertebrae instead of ours with a measly 7. I can hear you exclaiming, “What? Owls don’t have long necks!” Aha! That longer, flexible neck is just hidden under a thick, rounded cloak of feathers beneath their large heads. They can’t turn their heads 360°, of course, even though it sometimes looks like they can. But they can easily reach 180° to look behind them as in the photo of the Barred Owl above – and a bit further at times to almost 270°!

Exceptional Ears Where You’d Least Expect Them!

Like most of us, you might have assumed those tufts on the head of some owls are ears. The host of the Cornell course, ornithologist Dr. Kevin McGowan, explained that the tufts on the Great Horned Owl, for instance, are just used for display during courting or confrontations.

Like us, owls do have an outer and inner ear. Have a look at this photo of a Barn Owl’s face (Tyto alba) taken by photographer Mark Greene at inaturalist.org.

The Barn Owl’s facial disk functions as an outer ear! Photo by Mark Greene (CC BY-ND-NC) at inaturalist.org

That lovely heart-shaped disk is the Barn Owl’s outer ear. Our outer ears on each side of our head funnel sound to our inner ears, located inside our head. The owl’s facial disk does the same, functioning somewhat like a satellite dish bringing in a signal. The stiff, interlocking feathers of the ruff at the outer edge direct sound toward the openings of the inner ears. The inner ear openings are hidden under soft, feathers near the outside edge of each eye. What’s more, in most owls the inner ears are offset, one slightly higher on one side of the head than the other. This allows most owls (see the Saw-whet and Screech owls below) to more accurately locate sounds from above (avoiding predators) and below (finding prey). This elaborate arrangement permits owls to hunt in the dark by both sound and sight.

Those Powerful Talons!

The powerful talons, 2 front, 2 back, of the captive Great Horned Owl that I saw at the hawk festival

All owls have four toes, two forward, two back, unlike most other perching birds who grip a branch with three forward and one back. The Great Horned Owl’s large feet end in large, sturdy talons that can close around prey which is generally rabbit-sized animals, like chickens, ducks, house cats, skunks, ducks, possums and the occasional rodent or frog. Owls that choose smaller prey have smaller feet and thinner talons. Owls usually eat the entire animal and a couple of hours later, regurgitate a pellet that contains the fur, bones and other indigestible bits. Pellets at the bottom of trees are a good sign that owls nest or perch there.

Almost Silent Wings in Flight

The impressive, very quiet wings of a Snowy Owl. Photo by Bob Bonin

Owls navigate the landscape on wings that make almost no sound. What a great advantage for a hunter! The prey can’t hear them coming, and they can more clearly hear the prey. They accomplish this feat in several ways. Cornell’s Dr. McGowan explained that “Owls have relatively large, broad, rounded wings that produce a lot of lift for the size of the bird … This allows for slow flight, and slow flight is quieter than fast flight.” Think of the quick, noisy beats of a duck on takeoff. Secondly, owls evolved special feathers that keep the noise down. “The front edges of the outer wing feathers have a comb-like structure” which creates “a smooth flow of air over the wing, reducing turbulence and therefore noise.” The back edge of these feathers are fringed to do the same thing. Plus, the fine filaments on the velvety surface of an owl’s wings dampen the sound of feathers rubbing against each other. Wow! A flying predator with excellent sight and hearing maneuvering silently through the trees. That’s a formidable hunter!

Now, Let’s Meet – and Listen to – Some Local Owls

Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus)

Great Horned Owl by iNaturalist.org photographer akidd13b (CC BY-NC)

Listen for the Hoot!: The Great Horned Owl Turn up your volume and click on this blue link from Cornell University’s Ornithology Lab. The clearest recording of this owl’s courting “song,” I think, is the first one, labeled “Song.” You’ll hear a call in the distance at first but at about 13 seconds, the louder ones begin. Great Horned Owls vocalize from mid-September to early April, but now is an excellent time to start listening because they’re in the breeding season.

The Great Horned Owl beyond our dark window hooted for the same reasons all owls call – to defend its territory or to court a mate. Great Horned Owls nest during January and February, the earliest of the local owls; others generally mate from March through May. Like most owls, they don’t build their own nests. Great Horned Owls nest in natural tree cavities and tall broken-off tree trunks, but they also take over big, flat nests high in trees constructed with bare sticks. As a result, they prefer last year’s hawk, crow, eagle or heron nests which are built just the way they like them.

Courtship by Great Horned Owls is quick and short on romance – a bit of bowing, hopping, occasional beak snapping, fluffing feathers, a mouse or some other bit of food given by the male to the female, some reciprocal hooting and that’s about it. Cornell’s allaboutbirds.org website has an excellent video of the brief mating of two Great Horned Owls. As you’ll see, it can be pretty perfunctory.

Generally, the female incubates during the day, the male at night for about a month. Like most birds, both adults must defend their eggs and nestlings from snakes, squirrels, chipmunks and other birds. Of course, these owls themselves can prey upon these creatures, as any harassing crow could testify!

The nestlings grow quickly, gaining weight and mobility within the nest for about 6 weeks. Adults spend arduous months feeding hungry owlets like the ones below that Bob Bonin saw peeking from the top of a broken tree. Such a great photo!

Two young Great Horned Owls peeking from a nest in a broken tree. Photo by Bob Bonin

Between the sixth to eighth week, the fledglings come out of the nest and simply sit on branches waiting to be fed. It’s called “branching.” Bob caught this Great Horned Owl fledgling who looks like it’s waiting for its meal to arrive. What a glare, eh?

A young Great Horned Owl who could be thinking about venturing onto a nearby branch or is simply waiting for food to be brought by its parents.

According to Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior, Vol 3, the fledglings start attempting to fly at about 9-10 weeks. They practice flying and hunting and at about 5 months are ready to be on their own.

Barred Owl (Strix varia)

Bob Bonin’s springtime shot of a Barred Owl adult

Listen for the Hoot!: Barred Owls The Barred Owl courts in February or March but its hooting can be heard from January to mid-April. Its distinctive call described by Cornell Ornithology as “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?” is a memory aid that makes me smile. Its hoot is said to carry easily in the forest and I can believe that from the “song” recording at this link.

I’ll probably never hear a Barred Owl hoot in my neighborhood; they stay clear of the territory of any Great Horned Owl, their most dangerous predator. Barred Owls are year ’round residents, though, and most of them stay in the same area year after year, sometimes re-using the same nest. In winter, females in rural areas may stay on their territory while the males venture into cities and suburban areas seeking more food. So you might get lucky at your house or local park!

Barred Owls do most of their hunting during the night, but often they’re seen roosting during the day as well. They have smaller legs and finer talons than the Great Horned Owls (see photo below) because they generally eat smaller prey like mice, chipmunks, squirrels, sometimes frogs or other birds. Mates tend to roost together and Bob Bonin caught a fine photo of a pair doing just that. As is common in large birds, the female is the larger of the two.

A pair of Barred Owls, the smaller male on the left, the larger female on the right. Photo by Bob Bonin

Barred Owls move into the same sorts of nest that Great Horned Owls prefer. They are prey for larger owls and hawks, especially their eggs or nestlings. Sometimes the prey turns on them; small songbirds, crows and woodpeckers occasionally mob and harass them in order to protect their own nest or young. Once hatched, the Barred Owl nestlings remain in the nest for about 4-5 weeks before fledging, but young Barred Owls like the one below may not be fully on their own until the following fall. If this little owl fell from its perch, it would grasp rough bark with its beak and talons, flap its wings and walk up the tree!

The soulful eyes of a young Barred Owl just venturing out onto a branch and waiting to be fed. Photo by Bob Bonin

Northern Saw-whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus)

The little Northern Saw-whet Owl’s hoot is a staccato series of short beeps. Photo by Bob Bonin

Listen for the Hoot: Saw-whet Owls The Saw-whet Owl’s song sounds very much like a truck backing up, a long series of short beeps! Starting in late January, they can be heard “beeping” at the edge of a woods. Of course, they also use a variety of calls to communicate with mates, young and other owls. Some of those calls are very high and piercing! It’s been suggested that the owl’s name refers to the sound of a saw being sharpened on a whetstone. Check out the “calls” at the blue link above and you’ll see why that might be correct!

Saw-Whets are tiny, only 7-9 inches high and very fetching with their over-sized heads and yellow eyes. To avoid becoming prey from larger owls and hawks, they spend daylight hours in dense foliage, most often in evergreens, just as in Bob’s photo above. At night, though, they are efficient hunters. Their diet is mostly mice, especially deer mice, which carry the dreaded ticks that now infest our summers. So the Saw-whet’s diet has my approval. Saw-whets that migrate north to breed, however, may eat songbirds along the way. The slightly offset ear openings of Saw-whets allow them to accurately locate prey even in deep snow.  They’ve been known to plunge into 18 inches of snow and emerge with a mouse! I’d love to witness that!

A great nighttime shot of a Saw-Whet Owl taken by iNaturalist photographer Elliot S. (CC BY-NC)

Saw-whets nest in tree cavities, most often those created by woodpeckers and flickers. The females incubate, while the males bring food. When the owlets reach about 18 days old and produce feathers, the female departs to roost elsewhere. The male continues feeding the young alone, though the older nestlings sometimes help feed their younger siblings. The female may mate again if the opportunity arises. Since these small owls are prey for so many creatures – squirrels, starlings, crows, hawks and larger owls, among others – producing more young is important for their survival as a species.

Eastern Screech Owl (Megascops asio)

The gray morph of the Eastern Screech Owl can camouflage beautifully with the tree bark around its hole. That’s why they’re so hard to spot! Photo by inaturalist photographer Matthew McPhee (CC BY-NC)

Listen for the Hoot … or rather Screech! The most famous song of an Eastern Screech Owl sounds to me like a spooky, descending whinny. It’s the first recording at the link and is used most to defend territory. When communicating with mates or young, Screech Owls use a monotone of pulsing notes which you can also hear at the link. The “screech” is a shriek used when defending the nest or their young. Cornell provides no recording of that sound; maybe if you hear it, you’re running away! Screech owls fly at predators – and occasionally curious humans – who venture too close to their nests. Listen for Screech Owls from mid-January to the end of March.

The Eastern Screech Owl is a cosmopolitan bird in two respects. It can be found on farmland, in suburbs or in cities anywhere east of the Rocky Mountains. And its menu is cosmopolitan too. In summer, they feast on large insects like beetles, moths, crickets and grasshoppers along with mammals. In winter, they tend to exclusively choose animals, some as small as rodents, moles and finches, others as large as Bluejays, woodpeckers, rabbits and squirrels. They even snag an occasional bat as it flies by! They use a “perch and pounce” strategy, waiting for prey in their hole and then dropping down or swooping out at them.

Screech Owls also come in two “morphs.” The gray one above is most common, but lucky for us, Bob Bonin caught a photo of the red morph which makes up only about 15% of the population, according to Wikipedia.

Bob Bonin’s amazing photo of the red morph of an Eastern Screech Owl

In late winter, Screech Owl males tempt a mate by leaving food in a tree cavity, a natural one or one excavated by woodpeckers. Unlike most bird species, their holes are not just used for raising young. Screech Owls sleep and sun in their nest cavities during the day, feed in them to avoid predators and retreat to them in bad weather. Egg laying commonly begins in mid-April. Though Screech Owls are generally monogamous, males do occasionally have a second mate. According to Cornell’s allaboutbirds website, “The second female may evict the first female, lay her own eggs in the nest, and incubate both clutches.” Hmmph! The first female may look for another (ideally more faithful?) mate, since screech owls generally produce two clutches a year. About four weeks after hatching, the fledglings climb out of the hole using their beaks, feet and wings. A week or so later, they begin following the adults, but won’t disperse until late summer and generally move less than a mile way.

Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus)

Bob Bonin’s delightful photo of a sunning, perhaps snoozing, Snowy Owl

Snowy Owls (Bubo scandiacus)

No hoots with this owl! Snowy Owls breed beyond the Arctic Circle so we don’t hear their courting or territorial voices beyond perhaps an occasional irritated clack of the beak. They do, however, show up in our area periodically in the winter looking for food. A common misperception, according to Cornell’s Dr. MacArthur, is that they arrive starving because of insufficient food in northern Canada and the Arctic. Oddly, it’s just the opposite!

Snowys eat lots of lemmings, their favorite arctic rodent that makes up about 90% of their diet when available. Somehow Snowy Owls adjust the number of eggs they lay according to the natural fluctuations in the abundance of lemmings. In years when lemmings are plentiful, the owls produce more young. With larger numbers of young, competition for prime feeding territory can get intense. When that occurs, some young owls with less ability to compete move down into Canada or Michigan to more easily find food in the winter. So these periodic “irruptions” as they’re called are caused by an abundance rather than a scarcity of food in the Arctic.

[A note: Contrary to popular myth, lemmings do not “commit suicide.” Some lemmings erratically migrate en masse when their population density gets too extreme. They can end up in dangerous situations if deep water or other obstacles are in their path.]

The Brown Lemming (L. trimucronatus) is one of the two lemming species that supply most of the diet of Snowy Owls in arctic Canada and Alaska.

Snowy Owls are truly remarkable birds. They scrape their earthen nests out of the Arctic’s frozen tundra. And scientists are learning that, for reasons unknown, a Snowy Owl may breed one year in Canada and the next year in Siberia. They’ve evolved beautifully to cope with frigid temperatures. Their breasts, heads, faces and even legs and feet are heavily insulated with white feathers which camouflage them in their snowy landscape.

And think of this – in the deep, 24-hour darkness of an arctic winter, these birds forage in openings in the endless ice for seabirds. They plunge into the snow, or run across it to capture lemmings. Very few animals survive in such dark, frigid conditions and many of those that do are prey for magnificent snowy owls. So if you can, seek out these beautiful birds when they descend from the top of the world to feed before returning to their icebound homes.

Other Owls You Might Find in Our Region

I’ve only covered five owls that appear in our immediate area. Here are four others that live in Michigan year ’round or come here periodically: 1) The Long-eared Owl (Asio otus) spends most of its time farther north and breeds at the tip of Michigan’s “mitten” or in the Upper Peninsula. It camouflages during the day in dense foliage, so I’m so glad Bob Bonin spotted one! 2) The Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus) lives here year ’round and generally breeds in the upper half of the “mitten.” It can be seen at dawn and dusk flying low over fields or grasslands. 3) The Barn Owl (Tyto alba) seems to be less common in Michigan than it once was, probably caused by loss of habitat. We don’t have the barns and haystacks of the past. It can eat 3-10 mice per day and can catch them in very low light. 4) The Great Gray Owl (Strix nebulosa) lives year ’round in Canada and Alaska, but occasionally ventures into northern Michigan during the winter months. I love its shocked expression. [Click on photos to enlarge.]

Tips for Seeing Owls

Cornell’s excellent class, The Wonderful World of Owls, ended with some useful tips that I hope to use before the winter ends.

  1. Learn Their Sounds – Our odds of identifying a nearby owl with our ears are much greater than our odds of seeing one.
  2. Know Owl Habitats – I’ve provided some info on the habitats of common owls in our area. If you live elsewhere, consider taking Cornell’s course; they cover owls all over the country and world. Or consider exploring Cornell Ornithology’s ebird.org/hotspots to find out which owls – or other birds – have recently been spotted near your area or wherever you’re traveling. Citizen scientists around the globe regularly report to eBird on the birds they see.
  3. Learn the Time of Day When the Owl You’re Seeking is Most Active – For instance, Short-eared Owls are most often seen at dusk, which is the beginning of the day for them.
  4. Go Owling When the Moon is Full or Nearly Full – We increase our chances of seeing an owl when the moon is full on a clear night, especially if snow is reflecting the moonlight. Also there’s some evidence that owls hoot more in bright moonlight.
  5. Avoid Windy Nights – Owls don’t call much if the wind is blowing. Possibly they’ve learned over the eons that their hoots are more difficult to hear in a stiff wind.
  6. Winter is a Great Time for Owling – Owls often roost on branches in the weeks before and after their nesting season. So now is a great time. Seize the day!
  7. Look for Pellets Below Trees or “Whitewash” on Tree Trunks – Those are good signs that owls roost or nest there.
  8. Listen for the Frantic Calls of Mobbing Birds – If you hear a whole group of birds screeching at one time, look around. There’s a good chance that an owl in the area has set them off.

Our Fear of and Fascination with Predators

A Great Horned Owl who may have awoken as our Wednesday morning group passed by.

Few things are more intriguing on a winter night than the haunting song of an owl. They sound like something wild, something alien. Our instincts sometimes are to tame that wildness, to reassure ourselves that these fierce predators of the night are harmless, at least to us. In ancient mythologies or in children’s stories, owls are often associated with wisdom and intelligence. As a child, my younger brother played with an owl puppet and a child I’m fond of now keeps company with two toy owls. We learn early to love owls.

But as an adult, I’m glad to learn of the skillful fierceness and lethal power of a hunting owl, too. I want to remember that death in nature is rarely random violence. Nature accepts death as necessary to survival. Owls kill to eat or to defend the next generation of owls. Wild predators – the ones humans fear like snakes, coyote, wolves or sharks and the ones we admire like dolphins and whales – all must kill to eat and raise their young. And of course, we humans do pretty much the same, except that most of us rely on other humans to do the necessary ending of another life.

I’m trying to deepen my understanding of nature’s undeniable linkage between death and life. Its network of intricate relationships, worked out over eons, requires death to protect and sustain life. Maybe because I’m aging, I’m trying to integrate that acceptance of death into my love for nature, so as not to romanticize it. I want to love all of it, the glorious and the grim, as part of the natural order. Maybe that way, I can better accept that in my own human life as well.

Letting Nature Breathe Again: Restoration at Cranberry Lake Park

North meadow at Cranberry Lake Park after forestry mowing

Ah, at last! The native trees and plants can breathe again! Many of the invasive shrubs that had crept across open areas at Cranberry Lake Park are gone. Now the sun washes across the landscape, rain sluices into the ground, nourishing the roots of native trees, grasses and wildflowers waiting for spring. As the carpet of mowed stems and branches decompose, the nutrition previously taken up by autumn olive, privet, glossy buckthorn and other non-native shrubs can gradually re-nourish the soil. The diverse wildlife that evolved with our native plants will once again benefit from the food and shelter that they’ve depended on for thousands of years. With the help of careful stewardship – treatment of non-native re-sprouts and the spreading of native seed – a habitat will be reborn.

So come have a a look at the new vistas in the park. I can’t show it all, but maybe I can give you taste of it. Along the way, we’ll see a few creatures that shared my walks during the mostly gray days of November and early December.

Miraculous Transformation Along the Hickory Lane

To appreciate the dramatic changes made by forestry mowing, here to the left is a typical view of most paths at Cranberry Lake Park before the restoration work began – and it’s not too scenic, I must say. A tangle of invasive shrubs and vines created very little nutrition for wildlife, left only a narrow edge along the path for native wildflowers and had spread thickly into the fields beyond the trails. The almost impenetrable density of the shrubs blocked views of wetlands and the open vistas of large trees that had existed before the invasive plants took over. The invasives also took up nutrients and shaded out native plants all over the park.

As I headed north from the parking lot at West Predmore Road and stepped into the Hickory Lane, I first noticed that I could see into a wetland that I’d struggled to reach from the opposite side last summer when a group of volunteers and staff monitored a vernal pool there. How nice to see it so clearly from this direction! Perhaps you can see the density of shrubs on the far side, which is what used to exist along the Hickory Lane.

A wetland along the Hickory Lane, now visible after the removal of invasive shrubs

The mature trees along the Hickory Lane, of course, were not touched and only a scrim of shrubs remain between them. Look at the contrast between the un-mowed left side and the open area in the distance on the right! I was immediately tempted out into that cleared meadow.

The Hickory Lane with recently mowed meadow on the right and dense shrubbery remaining on the left

I found a place to slip between the trees and look at the landscape that had appeared. I’d never seen this sight before!

Once dense with shrubs, this beautiful meadow with mature trees opened up before me.

I was elated! The large trees, once shrouded with thickets of invasive shrubs, now stood clear in the November light. I wandered across the shredded trunks and branches of the former thicket, looking down for any signs of native plants which had survived beneath that carpet of invasives. And even though it was early November then, I found two. The tiny evergreen plant popping out in the photo on the left below is named Haircap Moss (a Polytrichum species). These plants thrive in moist, partial shade so they may eventually disappear in this location and be replaced by more sun-friendly species. And on the right below is native Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) which does well in the sun. Its flowers provide sustenance for butterflies and moths in spring and its tiny berries do the same for wildlife in the summer.

This sprawling meadow is divided by a tree line and in the northern section, a huge Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) stood tall in the sunlight, freed at last from the tangle of invasives. It still had one intruder, though. One of the least welcome invasives, Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), hung in its branches. Though the mower had chopped it off near the ground, it will try to make a comeback since its seeds will drop to the ground or be carried all over the park by birds.

A huge Shagbark Hickory in the newly mowed field with a few strands of Oriental Bittersweet clinging to its branches.

This invasive vine spirals up tree trunks, choking them while climbing to the sunlight. It shades out growth below and since it accumulates in the canopy can make trees vulnerable to being toppled in high winds. I saw a smaller tree felled in just this way farther east in the park. (See below left.)The hickory will survive, but a nearby tree in the restored meadow (below right) was heavily infested with Bittersweet. Look at the number of berries that can be spread from one vine!

Now that the field has been forestry mowed, our township stewardship manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide and his crew will take on the extensive follow-up processes to prevent re-sprouting by carefully applying herbicides to invasive shrubs like Bittersweet, or by girdling the trunks of non-native trees. Once that’s completed, native plant seeding can begin. We can do our part by not using Oriental Bittersweet for fall decorating and by cutting and treating any stems that appear near our homes.

The clearing of this wonderful meadow also brought the beauty of the Long Pond into view – a series of linked ponds that runs north and south on the eastern side of the restored meadow. What a treat to get close like this! I look forward to seeing the water glinting through the trees next summer and seeing the water fowl that drop in to forage or rest during migration.

The Long Pond from the eastern edge of the restored meadow beyond the Hickory Lanea vista not seen until the forestry mowing was completed.

Blue sky days were rare in November. Most of the time, the sun struggled to get through heavy cloud cover.

The sun was dimmed by dark clouds on three of my four trips to Cranberry Lake Park.

On one of those cold, dark days, when most birds were silent, I heard a gruff squeak repeated incessantly by a Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) who fled from one tree near the Hickory Lane to another. (Click here and choose the December call recorded in New York near the bottom of the list for a sample.) I thought it might be issuing a warning but I couldn’t see a threat. Later however, I spotted a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) eyeing me from high in a distant tree and wondered if it prompted the Red-belly’s call.

On one of the snowy, quiet days on the Hickory Lane, it cheered me to see the tracks of little animals who’d visited the lane just after the snow fell the previous night or early that morning. I wasn’t alone! I followed the tracks of an Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) for quite a distance, a squirrel, probably the tiny Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus), had bounded across the lane and a White-footed Deer Mouse (Peromyscus leucopus) had left its stitching tracks as it scurried diagonally across the spot where two paths met.

Opening Up the Path to Cranberry Lake

Like the Hickory Lane, the path to the lake had been crowded with non-native invasives. Once the forestry mower got to work, though, the lake could actually be glimpsed from far up the trail.

Along the trail in November and early December, birds were more heard than seen on dark cold days. Of course, Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) still trumpeted overhead. I love it when they get close enough to hear the snap of their wings!

A squadron of Canada Geese honking their way to warmer climes.

Along with the usual year ’round inhabitants, I did get to see two more unusual birds , migrators that I’d missed earlier in the autumn. Early in November, the birding group spotted a small flock of Rusty Blackbirds (Euphagus carolinus) high up in trees near the lake. The numbers of these pale-eyed blackbirds have “plunged an estimated 85-99 percent over the past forty years,” according to Cornell University’s website allaboutbirds.org. The ones near Cranberry Lake were too high for my lens to reach that day, but luckily I’d gotten a closer look back in 2017 at Bear Creek.

Rusty blackbird female at Bear Creek Nature Park in 2017. Note the pale eyes on these close relatives of the Grackle.

On one late November visit, a speckled Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) surprised me by stopping by so late in the season. Since they are known to like open areas in woods, maybe this one found Cranberry Lake Park a good stopover after a late start at migration.

A late-migrating Hermit Thrush

When the birding group reached Cranberry Lake early in the month, a bobbing flotilla of ducks floated in the distance.

Hundreds of ducks floated, fluttered and cruised along Cranberry Lake in early November

The ducks stayed out of the reach of even our binoculars. But some of the more expert birders were able to discern three species by the patterns and colors on their wings or heads: Buffleheads, Lesser Scaup and Ring-necked Ducks. Later in the week, I was able to get a bit closer to the Buffleheads (Bucephala albeola) when a friend let me cross his lawn on the far side of Cranberry Lake. (Thanks, George!)

Bufflehead ducks spend the winter with us wherever they can find open water.

My photographer friend, Paul Birtwhistle, shared his photos of a variety of ducks on open water at Stony Creek Metropark one January. Here are Ring-necked Ducks (Aythya collaris) hanging out with a larger group of Redheads (Aythya americana) and Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) on a cold winter day. For Ring-necked ducks the white swoop on the flanks and the stripe at the base of the bill are good field marks for this black-and-white diving duck. Some Redheads spend the winter here, but most migrate to the Gulf coast.

Ring-necked ducks (the black-and-white ones) hanging out at Stony Creek Metropark with Redheads and Mallards.

Paul also shared some fine photos of Hooded Mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) who frequent Cranberry Lake as well as the lake in Stony Creek Metropark during the winter. Here’s a male and female Hooded Merganser and one of a lucky male who snagged a crayfish!

I found a photo of the Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis) by a generous photographer at iNaturalist.org. These ducks may have been migrating through when the birding group saw them in early November. They tend to spend the winter along the Gulf Coast. The ruffled “cap” on the back of its head is what separates it from the very similar Greater Scaup.

That fuzzy little ridge at the top of the head makes this a Lesser Scaup instead of a Greater one! Photo by Robert Pyle (CC BY-NC)

Mute Swans (Cygnus olor) with their bulbous orange and black bills fed actively on the far side of Cranberry Lake. The Cornell All About Birds website describes the difficulties presented by these beautiful, but non-native birds. “Their aggressive behavior and voracious appetites often disturb local ecosystems, displace native species, and even pose a hazard to humans.” Our native Trumpeter Swans (Cygnus buccinator) were once endangered, and though Cornell Ornithology says they are “recovering,” they still have a hard time competing with Mute Swans. Trumpeters, which have solid black bills, breed in our area, but winter farther south.

A Quiet Walk Back Wakes Me to the Small Details of a Winter Walk

The last of autumn on Cranberry Lake Park’s eastern meadow in late November

On these four quiet days in the park, I didn’t see much wildlife on my way back through the park’s eastern section. When that happened, I looked more carefully downward and as usual I was rewarded by paying attention. Below a wooden walkway over a small wetland on the trail, leaves made a mosaic under a skim of ice. That’s the kind of detail I can miss when looking up.

The dry Showy Goldenrod plumes (Solidago speciosa) drew my attention to bands of late autumn color at the edge of the Eastern Meadow. Along the paths, fertile fronds of Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis), clad in their bead-like sori, contain the spores for next year’s crop.

Dry Wild Cucumber Vines (Echinocystis lobata) were draped like garlands across bushes here and there in the park. In summer, the vines look delicate and airy. In autumn, they produce the prickly seed capsules that give this plant its name. Each capsule opens in the fall, dropping four seeds from within its two chambers.

Tall Thimbleweed (Anemone Cylindrica) is a favorite of mine in early winter. I often miss its modest flowers in the spring. I begin to notice it when its small green center begins to extend into a cylinder as it forms its thimble-like fruit. I appreciate it most when colder weather prompts its seed head to burst forth in a cottony tuft filled with tiny black seeds.

So Exactly What is Being Restored at Cranberry Lake?

A thicket of native Gray Dogwood on the path back to the parking lot

At times, I’ve thought of restoration projects as similar to the restoration of an historic home. The work that Dr. Ben VanderWeide and our stewardship crew perform restores natural vistas that thrived here for thousands of years before European colonization. At Cranberry Lake Park we’re removing invasive shrubs and vines so that native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers can reestablish a mosaic of forest and meadows. That’s historic preservation, for sure!

But what’s essential to understand about the work being done in our parks is that it’s about much more.

One presenter at a Michigan Wildflower Conference compared nature’s intricate systems to the thousands of lines of code in your cellphone, each one of which depends on the performance of thousands of others to make the system work. Imagine, the presenter said, randomly removing just one line of code from your cellphone. You wouldn’t do it! The system might crash!

Nature spent eons perfecting its “coding,” creating a delicate balance that fed and sheltered a huge variety of life forms. Sometimes unwittingly, sometimes knowingly, humans have removed one “line of code” after another from nature’s finely-tuned system. It’s happened everywhere on our small, blue planet, even right here in our yards and parks. Non-native plants introduced into our parks, fields, and gardens can act like an aggressive computer virus, spreading quickly, damaging nature’s finely balanced systems with destructive force.

So as we begin a new year, let’s celebrate that in our little spot on the globe, we’ve chosen to support stewardship and restoration in our natural areas. As the native wildflowers, trees and grasses that nature fostered for eons return to their rightful places, they provide a healthy foundation for the rebirth of our meadows, forests and wetlands. We can justifiably hope that with time and effort, some small part of nature’s intricate and carefully balanced “lines of code” can be restored to our ecosystem. If so, the myriad of complex relationships that once thrived here will again sustain the rich variety of life that nature planned for us.

Nature Shares the Restoration Work at Blue Heron Environmental Area

The North Pond at Blue Heron Environmental Area in Spring 2021
The North Pond at Blue Heron in Autumn of 2021

Quite a transformation, eh? In March of this year, I posted a blog concerning the progress of wetland restorations in Oakland Township. In the fall of 2020, the wetland at Blue Heron Environmental Area had been planned and constructed by the township’s Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, and his colleagues from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. By spring of 2021, the berm built as part of that restoration had created a truly startling change. Where Ben had noticed a significant wet area in a farmed field, a large pond now lay like a slice of blue sky dropped into the sere March stubble.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

So I returned this fall curious to see what nature had since contributed as our partner in the restoration project. The surrounding field was still striped with furrows left by a local farmer harvesting his crop; his work keeps the fields free of invasive plants until Ben can restore the native grasses and wildflowers that once grew there. When I crested a slope above the pond, though, I broke into a grin and whispered, “Wow!” The pond was now encircled by swaying green cattails and among them stood a Great Egret. I could tell from a distance that smaller plants had already populated the muddy shore as well, creating new habitat for wildlife. As I picked my way slowly through the wet ruts in the stubble, I hoped to see even more life flourishing around this newly restored pond – and I was not disappointed! ,

Summer Birds Forage In and Around the Pond, Preparing for Migration

When I got my first glimpse of the pond this autumn, what a delight to see the glorious Great Egret (Ardea alba). [Click on any photo to enlarge.]

A Great Egret wading the North Pond at Blue Heron Environmental Area

This elegant bird waded slowly and carefully around the southern shore of the pond searching for prey. Finally it plunged its head into the water and came up with something to eat! But evidently the bird had extracted its prey from the mud below because it quickly dipped its catch back in the water, flicked its head about to give it a few vigorous swishes in the air and swallowed it down that long elegant neck. Then my glorious companion moved on into deeper water.

As the egret approached deeper water, it stretched its neck vertically as if to get a good look around – or maybe it needed to “get the kinks out” after fishing so long with its head down. Who knows? As the water reached its breast, it took on a slower, even more careful gait, thrusting its neck forward with one step and looking carefully downward with the next. It appeared that the thrusting neck helped it move forward in deeper water and the slowness made it easier to spot potential prey.

I turned to look down the lake and heard a splash behind me. When I quickly turned back, the egret’s big yellow beak was filled with a stringy mess of wet greenery which it impatiently tossed aside. The egret had missed its prey and I’d missed a shot of an exasperated egret.

High overhead that afternoon, a flock of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) flew south, following the leader of their flying chevron. In autumn, geese seem to do frequent practice runs before migrating. I noted that eight of them seemed to be tagging along behind one leg of the “V.” When eight geese flew back north a minute or two later, I couldn’t help imagining that these eight were the stragglers from the “V” who had decided they’d worked out enough for one day and turned back for a quick snack.

Each time I visited this pond, the piercing cry of a pair of Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) fell from high above me. Finally the two landed during my final visit. These dapper little characters spend the summer with us, scraping out their shallow, seemingly vulnerable nests in any bare earth they can find. Luckily, their striped heads and brown backs make them almost invisible in a vegetated field which apparently is enough to keep the Killdeeer and their young alive; I see them in the same fields year after year. I caught this one approaching a puddle in the grass and then turning its orange eye skyward, perhaps checking for predators who could snatch it up in flight, like Cooper’s Hawks and others in the genus Accipiter.

A Killdeer apparently keeping an eye out for flying predators

A pair of Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis) stood surrounded by a small flock of Canada Geese on the south shore of the pond. The geese flew away, but the Cranes slowly moved off into the field. One of them balanced with its wings while trying to navigate those water-filled ruts! After quietly grazing a bit, poking their beaks into the soil, they too took off heading south.

Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) kettled in a spiral above the forest west of the pond. Biting midges killed several deer in Michigan during our warm, wet fall. I wondered if the vultures, important members of nature’s clean-up crew, had found one dead near a forested wetland. Later a solitary vulture flew overhead while I watched a small flock of Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) enjoying the quiet sunlight on the North Pond. And as I left one day, a Savanna Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis) hopped and pecked its way along a tractor rut, plucking up whatever appeared to be edible.

A Mammal, Fish, Amphibian and even Crustacean Also Explored the Pond’s Possibilities

Besides the ubiquitous White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) that leave their hoof prints in the mud around the pond, a few other creatures are evidently trying out this habitat. I’d noticed some cattails draped across a log on my first visit and thought perhaps a muskrat had pulled them to the surface, since cattails are a favorite food. Ben later showed me an area where a muskrat may have tried to burrow into the berm that holds the wetland water, although the berm isn’t sturdy enough for winter quarters. Ben also pointed out an area where cattails had been felled and piled into what looked suspiciously like the beginnings of a muskrat’s feeding platform – a place to get out of the water to eat.

A wedge-shaped pile of harvested cattails hints at the presence of a muskrat building a feeding platform.

A week or so later, the log I had seen earlier had more cattails on it and something else quite unusual that I couldn’t identify. At first, I thought that it might a large fungus. But a helpful member of the Mushroom Identification Facebook group told me it looked like Cyanobacteria (genus Nostoc). Hmm… considering its common name, Blue-Green Algae, I wondered how that flat green stuff on ponds could look like this?

Clumps of colonized cyanobacteria on a log in the North Pond.

My curiosity piqued, I eventually found my way to Michigan State University Extension Educator Beth Clawson who confirmed that it was indeed cyanobacteria and sent me some useful research links. It turns out these very ancient organisms can also form dome-shaped colonies on the bottom of lakes and ponds. The ones at North Pond, Ms. Clawson informed me, are harmless, unlike the summer algae blooms that can be toxic. So it seems most likely that the muskrat pulled up cattails to eat their roots and these clumpy cyanobacteria colonies came up with them.

Imagine! These bacteria are descendants of the very ones that changed life on our planet 3.5 billion years ago! As these particular cyanobacteria performed photosynthesis, they produced oxygen unlike other organisms that didn’t. As cyanobacteria thrived in the early oceans, the environment became ever richer with oxygen, making the evolution of oxygen-breathing creatures like us possible. So, funny-looking blobs on a log set me thinking about the origins of life on ancient earth! No wonder I love doing this blog!

By the way, the muskrat never showed up on any of my visits. Perhaps I just missed it, or perhaps it didn’t find suitable winter housing in this newly restored wetland and moved elsewhere. Or maybe the food sources beyond cattails were too scanty. Muskrats usually supplement their largely vegetarian diet with frogs, crustaceans and fish. Evidence of all three of its prey species exist at the pond but some may be in small numbers.

Prey Species at the North Pond that Might Interest Water Fowl or Muskrats

In late August, heavy summer rains were causing the pond to flow out toward the woods on the northeast edge of the pond. Ben noticed a small fish swimming upstream, against the current toward the pond! Evidently some fish from a nearby forested wetland had discovered the stream and decided to give it a try. We don’t know how many made it there, but what a discovery! I hope these adventurous little fish arrived and remain in their new habitat. If they did, though, they may be providing a dietary supplement for egrets or the elusive muskrat.

A small fish swimming upstream toward the pond in a downhill overflow stream

On my first three visits to North Pond, I repeatedly heard little “plops” as I walked the watery edge of the wetland, but didn’t see a frog. Once I heard the telltale squeak of a startled Northern Leopard Frog (Lithobates pipiens) but no sightings. During my last visit, though, my sharp-eyed husband spotted one traversing the uplands near the pond.

A Northern Leopard Frog in the field beyond the North Pond

The other possible prey for a muskrat or bird is crayfish. In spring, their “chimneys” erupt from the soil as they climb out of their underground burrows to lay eggs. They can be found all over the field and around the North Pond. At this point, crayfish may be the most numerous food source for creatures visiting this wetland. We have crayfish species in Michigan, but unfortunately the most prevalent is an invasive one, the Rusty Crayfish (Faxonius rusticus). I can’t be sure if that’s the species that built the chimneys at the North Pond. According to MSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife website, for most of the year “they build and occupy a deep and complex subterranean tunnel system that goes at least as deep as the ground water table.” So that’s probably where they are now. Below is Ben’s photo of a Rusty Crawfish taken at Bear Creek Nature Park and mine of last spring’s slightly worn chimney at the North Pond in October.

Wet-footed Plants Settle In, Creating Habitat

The cattails that encircle the North Pond are not our native ones, but the aggressive, non-native Narrow-leaved Cattails (Typha angustifolia) that grow near the road. They may take over the pond eventually, turning it into a marsh. Fortunately, though, many native plants have also found their way to the pond. A seed of Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) must have arrived stuck to a bird’s foot or in its droppings; I only saw a single stem in late September. Until mid-October, Nodding Bidens (Bidens cernua) ringed the pond with both seed heads and a few bright yellow blooms. Wood Sorrel (Oxalis stricta) sported tiny yellow blossoms. If they are pollinated and produce seed pods, they will be able to project their seeds up to several feet away from this original plant and add more Sorrel to the wetland habitat. Ben introduced me to Celery-leaved Buttercup (Ranunculus sceleratus), a look-but-don’t-touch plant; crushing or bending its leaves raises lesions on human skin. But as long as we leave it alone, it produces interesting leaves and cheery little yellow flowers from May to September. And of course Duckweed (genus Lemna) covers parts of the water surface like sprinkles on a cupcake.

I first got acquainted with two of the North Pond’s native plants at Watershed Ridge Park in August. When I saw Southern Water Plantain (Alisma subcordatum) there, I admired its tiny white blooms on delicate stems. And I also admired the polka-dot effect of its seed heads at North Pond in October. Yellow Nutsedge (Cyperus esculentus) made a nice contrast to the Water Plantain with its spiky stalks springing up like green and yellow fireworks both around the pond and in the field.

Ben decided to try adding to the pond’s plant life by bringing in rhizomes, the underground stems and roots of two native aquatic plants: Whorled Loosestrife (Decodon verticillatus) and Yellow Water-lily (Nuphar variegata). The Whorled Loosestrife is a native plant as opposed to the invasive species Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria). Ben planted the cuttings he took from Draper Twin Lake Park into the mud below the water close to shore, its preferred habitat.

The Yellow Water-Lily rhizome required deeper water to float its leaves. So Ben moved to the bank at the deepest part of the pond, tucked a few rhizomes in the mud and tossed any remaining small pieces far out from shore. It’ll be great to see if either of these settle in at the North Pond next summer!

Insects Dancing, Posing and Staring Me Down!

Insects, as I’ve noted before, could be real pests this year – but fortunately, the ones I encountered at the North Pond had no interest in me. Some were beautiful, others especially interesting. Let’s start with the ballerina of the group.

When I consulted Dr. Gary Parsons, director of Michigan State University’s Bug House, he informed me that the crane fly that I’d seen pause in its frenetic fluttering to cling to a grass stem was a male. Its blunt abdomen was the clue. But since hundreds of look-alike crane species from five different families live in Michigan, he couldn’t identify this one from a photo.

A very small male Crane Fly

Close by, a larger female Crane Fly performed what I dubbed “The Dance of the Hundred Eggs.” She hopped above the bright, green moss, her body held vertically, wings outstretched, as she poked individual eggs into the ground with her ovipositor. Dr. Parsons tells me the eggs will hatch there, the young will scavenge, and then larvae will pupate before emerging as adults next year. If only I had the appropriate music to accompany this skipping choreography!

A female Crane Fly poking her eggs into moss on the shore of the North Pond.

On the surface of the pond, Whirligig Beetles (family Gyrinidae) danced too. These gregarious little insects whirl, spin and gyrate in large groups. Most sources seem to think it’s a way to avoid predators, or at times, to secure a mate – but no answers are definitive. I just enjoy the dance! I didn’t take a video at the North Pond because they were too far away, but here’s a group portrait of its corps de ballet.
A spinning, scooting, gyrating group of Whirligig Beetles.

I have a particular fondness for Katydids, especially when they pose for me on a grass stem. Their antennae are astonishingly long and their green, cartoon-like faces look slightly humorous to me. Katydids are active July to September when they mate, lay flat eggs on stems, soil or leaves and hatch the following summer. For me, the best way to tell katydids from grasshoppers and crickets is their long antennae, often 1.5 times longer than their body. Grasshoppers and crickets have shorter antennae, usually only half to 2/3 of their body length or less. Anyway, let me introduce you to the little female Meadow Katydid (genus Orchelimum) that I saw by the North Pond. I love her beady, yellow eyes and red, extravagant antennae!

A female Meadow Katydid blends in nicely with her surroundings.

On my visits, I repeatedly came across one species of dragonfly, a male Meadowhawk (genus Sympetrum), and one damselfly, a male Familiar Bluet (Enallagma civile). (Click on the damselfly to see his spiky surface!) I remain hopeful that their variety and numbers will increase next summer if I get there in warmer weather. A Red-legged grasshopper (Melanoplus femurrubrum) gave me a baleful stare in the field nearby.

Given a Chance, Nature Shares the Work of Native Habitat Restoration

The Great Egret is a beautiful part of nature’s contribution to the restoration of the North Pond.

Nature itself is the very best stewardship partner. Here at Blue Heron Environmental Area, Ben began restoration by creating a berm to hold the water in the middle of a field. Once it was built, nature got to work. Thunderstorms repeatedly brought water down from the sky and up from the water-soaked earth. Cattails by the highway sent seeds sailing on stormy winds toward the muddy edges of the pond where they quickly took hold. Taking advantage of the plentiful moisture, seeds thrust their way out of the seed bank, arrived on the wind or were left at the pond edge by thirsty creatures. Seeing this rippling, blue expanse from above, birds dropped down to the pond to probe the shore for food or spend the night safely hidden among the cattails. A muskrat may have crossed the road late one night, survived the traffic and slipped into the dark water. Frogs, fish and flying insects found the new pond by hopping, swimming or winging their way from nearby wetlands or hatching from the wet soil as the summer progressed. Gradually, a small community of plants and wildlife made a summer home at Blue Heron’s North Pond. This fall we hope to seed native plants into the uplands around the pond, and next summer sprigs of native grasses and wildflowers will help knit the uplands to the wetland.

The outcome of restoration can be unpredictable. Yet working to recreate and preserve nature’s complex, interdependent web of life is always worth the effort. I am surprised and delighted by how quickly nature joined us in restoring the North Pond. I’ll be eager to see what else nature contributes to its restoration in the coming year. I hope you’ll be here, watching with me.

View to the northwest at Blue Heron’s North Pond.

Draper Twin Lake Park – East: The Stage is Set for Another Gold and Purple Autumn

Follow the Goldenrod Road … er, path into Draper Twin Lake Park – East

Walking into Draper Twin Lake Park – East in September is almost like being Dorothy on the Yellow Brick Road in The Wizard of Oz. The trails are lined with a wide variety of goldenrods and other sunny yellow wildflowers. Gold-and-black bees and beetles hum and scramble over them, making the most of late season nectar and pollen. Here and there the asters accent the gold with splashes of royal purple, lavender and white. Bronze and copper grasses dip and sway in the prairie, while summer birds finish their molts and prepare to move south or overwinter here.

Text and photos by Cam Mannino

So dodging between downpours and ensconced in my net anti-bug jacket, I ventured out into the thinning light of early autumn to enjoy early fall’s performance. Glad you’re here to join me.

Fall Flowers and Grasses Set the Stage in Early Autumn

Clouds above the golden prairie in the north of Draper Twin Lake Park – East

Here in Oakland Township, goldenrods and tall grasses create the early fall backdrop within which all the other creatures hunt, forage and fly. Over the last few years, I’ve learned to notice the variety of goldenrods that paint their particular yellow on early autumn’s canvas. So I think an introduction to just four of our most common goldenrods is called for, in case you think “you’ve seen one goldenrod, you’ve seen them all!” [Click on photos to enlarge.]

Giant Ragweed Photo
by Sam Kieschnik (CC BY)

A side note: Goldenrods do not cause “hay fever” as many fall allergy sufferers believe. Ragweed (genus Ambrosia) is the culprit! Its blooms are green and its light pollen is dispersed by the wind – right into people’s noses! Goldenrod flowers are yellow and their heavy pollen sticks to insects and can’t be carried by the wind. According to the Michigan Flora website, two kinds of ragweed grow in our county. So please let goldenrods off the hook for making you sneeze! A generous photographer from iNaturalist.org shared the ragweed photo on the left.

As the weather turns cooler, autumn adds in the late asters to complement the goldenrods. The name “aster” comes from an ancient Greek word meaning “star,” so it’s wonderfully appropriate for this colorful family of star-shaped flowers to add sprays of contrasting color within the golden landscape.

Sprinkled here and there around the prairie and the marsh, other native wildflowers make an occasional appearance, adding more variety to the fall scenery. It always intrigues me that so many are yellow! It seems to be early autumn’s favorite color. The late season, many-stemmed Brown-eyed Susans and the Common Evening Primroses were plentiful this year. Maybe more rain helped?

And the tall, graceful, native grasses created a scrim along the trail, their dance moves providing the prairie’s choreography on a breezy September day.

Every performance needs a little drama, and the Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) with its pink stems and purple berries rises to the occasion near the marsh each year.

Pokeweed berries are beloved by birds, but beware! They are toxic for us mere humans.

The Backdrop in Place, Insects Take the Stage

Even as it fades, a Stiff Goldenrod simultaneously hosts 3 European Honeybees and two mating beetles!
Locust Borer beetles

Insects act as the “supporting actors” in any landscape, taking on the essential role of pollinating plants even as the days get colder and flowers begin to fade. I hope you spotted the five black-and-gold insects on the Stiff Goldenrod in the photo above. What a generous host that plant that is!

Two of those insects were mating – or rather, the larger female was busy foraging as the mating occurred. Not much romance among Locust Borer beetles (Megacyllene robiniae), I’m afraid.

In early September, the prairie still hummed with the buzz of hundreds of European Honeybees and native Bumblebees. Later in the month, their activity seem to drop a bit; perhaps that’s because flight is more difficult for bees when temperatures fall below 50 degrees. Let me show you a small sample of the work bees were performing in September.

Butterflies, though fewer in number, were also playing their part in pollination. We saw several large Monarchs (Danaus plexippus), members of the “super generation” hatched right here in Michigan which will take on the entire 2,500 mile journey to their wintering grounds in Mexico!

Smaller butterflies made appearances as well. Butterflies don’t do as much pollination as bees, but they certainly add some fluttering color to an early autumn walk!

Every drama needs a couple of questionable characters. I met up with two of them in September at Draper Park East. The first was a non-native, the European Praying Mantis (Mantis religiousa). It may look like it’s praying, but in reality, it’s actually preying on beneficial insects as well as others. It’s a master of camouflage when vertical in tall green grass. Its triangular head can turn 180 degrees and its raptor-like front legs shoot forward in an instant to ambush unsuspecting insects. Even after my husband spotted it, I had trouble finding it in my viewfinder until it climbed up on a dying goldenrod. Quite an elegant shape on this predatory character!

A European Praying Mantis pauses on the top of Canada Goldenrod to get a better view of possible prey.

Passing by some Big Bluestem that swayed above my head, I noticed an odd lump at the end of the seedhead. I’ve look closely at odd lumps in nature ever since I saw my first elusive Spring Peeper by getting curious about a lumpy leaf years ago. I was rewarded again this time with my second questionable insect at Draper East, a One-Spotted Stinkbug (Euschistus variolarius). Dr. Gary Parsons at Michigan State University’s Bug House helped me out again by identifying this one, partly from the red tips on its protothorax.
A One-Spotted Stinkbug on a seed head of Big Blue Stem. It’s probably heading to the stem for a drink!

Dr. Parsons informs me that the One-spotted is a native stinkbug that eats by piercing the leaves, stems, seeds and fruits of herbaceous (non-woody) plants in order to siphon out some liquid. Generally though, he says, this species isn’t considered a pest. However, the invasive, non-native Brown Marmorated Stinkbugs that I occasionally see at home can be a huge problem for orchards, and stinkbugs can be pests in years in which they are abundant. If they are crushed during the harvest, their scent is not a pleasant addition to the crop!

Birds, Our Usual “Main Characters” in the Landscape, are Busy Changing Costumes for Winter or Migration

The cast of characters in our parks diminishes in the autumn. Insects either hibernate or lay their eggs for next spring’s hatch and die. Cool weather means most birds have finished raising their young just about the time the insect population begins to plummet. They stay high in the trees, often hidden among the leaves, especially if they’re molting.

Fall is a quieter season than spring. Birdsong, after all, is part of spring courtship. This September some social birds, like the Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) did whistle their high contact calls to one another as they gathered fruits in a Wild Black Cherry tree (Prunus serotina) or sallied forth to hawk into a cloud of gnats.

Juveniles may try out bits and pieces of adult songs or call plaintively to be fed long after they can feed themselves. The young Eastern Wood Pewee (Contopus virens) below, however, stared in silence out into the big, wide world. One of my fine birding mentors, Ruth Glass, pointed out that this bird had the buff wing bars of a “first fall juvenile,” rather than the adult’s white bars. That means that this little bird is about to experience its very first migration. Somehow it will have to find its way to its wintering grounds in Central America or even northern South America! Courage and bon voyage, my young friend!

According to website of the Cornell University Ornithology Lab, The Eastern Wood Pewee hawks for insects an average of 36 times per hour even now, in the non-breeding season!

A Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) surveyed the area from high on the tip of a snag. It may spend the winter here, though I see Flickers more often in the summer when they can drill the earth for their favorite food – ants! These birds used to be called “Yellow-Shafted Flickers,” because the undersides of their tail feathers (which can be seen below) as well as their wing feathers are bright yellow in flight.

The Northern Flicker can spend the winter here if it can find enough fruits – even frozen ones!

On the eastern edge of Draper Twin Lake Park – East, several summer visitors chirped and chatted in a tangle of vines and small trees. The warm yellow throat of a female Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) flashed in the greenery. She gave a sharp “chip” call as she moved restlessly from branch to branch. She’ll soon be riding a north wind during the night down to the southeastern states or on to the Caribbean.

A female Common Yellowthroat along the eastern side of the prairie at Draper Twin Lake Park

In the grass along the east path, a juvenile Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum) hopped about, pecking in a desultory manner at bits of this and that. This little bird probably hatched in the boreal forests of Canada and is now headed for Florida or the Caribbean where the insects will be much more plentiful. Many thanks to expert birder Allen Chartier for an explanatory identification of this bird. Juveniles definitely challenge my developing knowledge of fall bird plumage.

Juvenile Palm Warblers are identified by yellow under-tail feathers (or coverts), the pale line above the eye (supercillium), brownish breast streaks and buff wing bars.

I was lucky to see another migrator heading south from the boreal forest, the Lincoln’s Sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii). This nattily dressed little bird with its fine stripes and buff mustache (malar) tends to scurry into tangles as soon as it lands. I’d seen one for only the first time a week before at Charles Ilsley Park, though others spotted it in the spring from its wren-like burbling, complicated song. So imagine my surprise and delight when it hopped up on a branch to preen and stayed long enough for a portrait!

A Lincoln’s Sparrow in one of its rare moments in the open!

A Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) suddenly popped into the open too. Its “bouncing ball” trill burbled up from the prairies all summer long. This particular one looked a bit frowzy around the edges because it hadn’t quite finished its molt. It was still growing fresh feathers for its relatively short flight to Ohio and points south.

A Field Sparrow not quite finished with its molt

Becoming an Attentive “Audience” in the Natural World

The trail that leads to the prairie along the marsh at Draper Twin Lake Park East.

In this piece, I’ve had fun imagining the prairie and its inhabitants as an early fall theatrical production – but that, of course, calls for the last element – the audience. Us! I find that paying as much attention to my natural surroundings as I would to a movie, a play or a concert reaps a similar kind of pleasure. I appreciate the color, the movement and the music of a prairie as much as I enjoy the scenery, the costumes and the gestures of a dance performance. A forest or a fen can be almost as mysterious and as filled with strange inhabitants as any sci-fi adventure. The care adult birds take with fragile nestlings is often as touching and as fraught as a family drama. And the ferocity of a large green insect’s ambush of its unsuspecting victim can be as creepy as the casual violence of an elegant but lethal villain in a murder mystery.

Stepping out into a natural environment is much like losing myself in a powerful story. I leave my ordinary life behind for a few hours and enter into lives much different than my own. Stories of life and death unfold. The sets and costumes change from scene to scene. The music, the dance, the voices, the behavior, the colors are not ones made by humans; I’m in a different reality. When I leave, I come back to myself refreshed, having learned something new, experienced something different than the everydayness of my life. And the only payment I’m required to make is paying attention. What a gift!

Watershed Ridge: Water Works Its Miracles in a Small Restored Wetland

I’m a convert; I’ve come to love wetlands. I grew up avoiding them, icky mud underfoot and the ever present annoyance of so many bugs, for heaven’s sake! But these days, camera swinging at my hip, binoculars bouncing on my chest, I often head straight for the muddy edge of a wetland.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

Shady swamps and vernal pools, sunny marshes and ponds, streams winding through a woodland, water seeping up from beneath the soil or trickling down a slope – that’s where life is swooping, singing, croaking, mating, predating, fluttering and buzzing in every park I visit. Oh, I relish a shady woods on a hot summer day, and I delight in the color and sway of a dancing prairie. But often a wetland is where the action is.

A berm constructed last fall has created open water between two wetlands at the bottom of a slope at Watershed Ridge Park – and creatures are making the most of it!

Last autumn, our Oakland Township Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, worked with local US Fish and Wildlife colleagues to restore several wetlands at Watershed Ridge Park that had been drained for agriculture years ago. One of these wetlands extends between two existing wetlands, and with a berm now holding some of the existing water and this summers downpours, a small area of open water now stands at the bottom of a former agricultural field. It may not look beautiful to you, but it certainly looked inviting to a remarkable number of interesting creatures.

On the Way to the Wetland

One recent Sunday, my husband Reg spotted a Leopard Frog (Rana pipiens), its bright green spotted skin and light stripes (technically “dorsolateral folds”) shining up out of dry grass around the parking lot. I’d been hoping to see these frogs, having noticed them at this park in previous years. Their colors vary from brown to green, but the bright green ones are my favorites. Leopard Frogs use their speed and great leaping ability to escape predators so we were lucky to get this close to one.

A Leopard Frog paused for a portrait in dry stalks at the edge of the parking lot at Watershed Ridge Park.
Horseweed

We followed the path to the west of the parking lot out into a the field that runs along Buell Road. Though the land looks dry and barren now, dotted with Horseweed (Conyza canadensis), Ben thinks that the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which designed and constructed the wetland restoration to Ben’s concept, will be planting native prairie seed in these fields late this fall. Native grass and wildflower seed generally requires a period of cold weather in order to germinate in the spring.

Passing through the hedgerow to the second field, we came upon an Orange Sulphur Butterfly (Colias eurytheme) darting restlessly from stem to stem, back and forth across the path. I despaired of getting a shot of its fully opened wings; it scurries about very quickly and folds its wings at rest. But eventually I caught it in flight further away. Look at the dramatic difference! The yellow spots in the black wing borders indicate that this is a female Orange Sulphur. (Click on photos to enlarge)

As we reached the crest of the slope above the wetland, a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) lifted from the edge of the little wetland, rose on its powerful wings, and disappeared to the north. What a hopeful sign that life had found its way to this tiny pond! We’ll discover what brought it to the pond a bit further on. Since I missed this glorious visitor, here’s a photo of a flying heron that I took at Lost Lake Park in 2018.

A Great Blue Heron on the wing

And Then the Dragonflies Began…

Moving toward the pond, I whirled around to catch a shot of something yellow whizzing by me. The creature never stopped moving, sailing far away and circling back time after time. My photo is a bit blurred because of its speed. But luckily, it was clear enough for dragonfly aficionados of the Facebook group “Odonata of the Eastern United States” to identify it for me as a Wandering Glider (Pantala Flavescens) – a dragonfly that was completely new to me!

A Wandering Glider dragonfly on the wing above the restored wetland

This golden dragonfly, it turns out, can fly a bit over five feet per second and according to Wikipedia, keeps moving “tirelessly with typical wandering flight for hours without making any perch.” All of that made me feel better about my photo! These Gliders are world travelers that migrate to our area each summer. Some of them make an annual multigenerational migration (like the Monarch butterfly) of about 11,200 miles, with each individual flying more than 3,700 miles! They are found on every continent except Antarctica. They’ve been recorded flying over 20,000 feet high in the Himalayas! A true super-hero insect – and I’m so pleased that it found our little wetland to its liking! Here’s a much more glamorous photo of this insect athlete taken and generously shared by drketaki, a photographer at iNaturalist.org.

A female Wandering Glider in its infrequent state of rest! Photo by drketaki (CC BY-NC at inaturalist.org

As we approached the pond, Reg and I realized that we had come upon a dragonfly hotspot. Dragonflies hovered, swooped, and whizzed in the air above the pond. Occasionally one would pause to cling to the stem of some aquatic plant and then whooosh! – off it went for another round of the pond or to make a brief foray into the surrounding field.

At the pond edge, another new acquaintance presented itself. A dark blue-black dragonfly with a sharply pointed abdomen clasped a dead stalk. Seeing those ragged black patches along the edges of the hindwing next to its abdomen, I remembered finding a photo of a Black Saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata) after seeing this wing pattern on a dragonfly years ago. Such an appropriate name!

A male Black Saddlebags dragonfly who may be finished mating and is now aging.

I was puzzled, though, because my dragonfly guide says that these dragonflies should have yellow spots on section 7 of the abdomen and this one at Watershed Ridge had only a faint orange/red mark. A helpful aficionado at the dragonfly Facebook group, though, verified that indeed, it was a Black Saddlebags but added that the color change was probably due to age. It’s believed that these insects migrate from points south (perhaps as far as Cuba) to breed here; their offspring then return to the south. This Saddlebags probably mated many times during his journey to our little wetland, and may be nearing the end of his life now. Isn’t he a lovely midnight blue? And I admire the color-coordinated blue stigma (tiny colored cells) at the tip of each wing.

Farther down the pond, I saw two mated, dark dragonflies flying about in tandem, the male gripping the female as they dashed around the pond. I snapped another blurry shot as they zoomed about. When I sharpened the photo in the computer for a closer look, the light glinting off their bodies made them appear spotted. So I’m still not sure of their identification. But the position of the male’s grasping and their overall dark color makes me think that maybe they were a mated pair of Black Saddlebags. After mating, the Saddlebags male grasps the female as they patrol the still water. Then she periodically drops to the surface to deposit eggs, then returns to the embrace of her mate to repeat the process many times. I’d like to think that the life cycle of the Black Saddlebags – or perhaps some other dark dragonfly – repeated itself at this restored wetland – one male almost finished with his life and another pair creating more of their kind.

A mated pair of dark dragonflies, perhaps Black Saddlebags, flying in tandem as the female periodically drops down to lay her eggs.

I spotted familiar dragonflies, too, of course. The black-and-white striped wings of a Twelve-spotted Skimmer (Libellula pulchella) flashed like Morse code as it flew by. Eventually I found it, resting for few minutes on a stem near the pond’s edge. These skimmers are quite accommodating for photographers; they choose a perch and return to it repeatedly, even if disturbed.

A Twelve-spotted Skimmer is named for its 12 black spots, though the males have an extra 8 white ones.

The bronze shimmer on the wings of a female Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa) caught the sunlight as she perched peacefully on a dry plant stem. According to Kurt Mead in Dragonflies of the North Woods, these skimmers “hang beneath overarching leaves” during the night. I’d love to see that.

The black patches next to the abdomen of this female Widow Skimmer are smaller than the male’s who also has white bands beyond the black ones.

Common Whitetail dragonflies (Plathemis lydia) tend to perch on a flat surface, wings outstretched rather than clinging to stems like many dragonflies. A mature male joined the throng at Watershed Ridge Park but uncharacteristically chose to settle on a bent stem thrusting out of the decaying plant material that covers much of the water surface at the new wetland. Perhaps the more colorful competition at the pond edge was too intense for him. The broad black patch near the end of his wings, the smaller patch near the thorax and the powdery (pruinose) white abdomen are field marks for Whitetail males.

A Common Whitetail male chooses a decaying stem for a perch.

A male Blue Dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis) protected his feeding perch and his mate will do the same once she returns. These dragonflies consume lots of mosquito larva (hooray!) and other small moths or flies – up to 10% of their body weight each day! According to Wikipedia, their hunting technique is just to stay very still and dart out to snatch any prey that ventures close to them, an activity in birds and insects called “hawking.” The striped thorax, blue abdomen, huge, iridescent green eyes and white face are male field marks of these Dashers.

A Blue Dasher male can be identified at a distance by his blue abdomen, striped thorax and large green eyes.

Damselflies, the other member of the order Odonata, had found their way to the wetland, too. This emerald green beauty is an Eastern Forktail damselfly (Ischnura verticalis), a plentiful species in our area.

A male Eastern Forktail dragonfly. These fellows fly from late June to October so keep your eyes open near water!

The one in my photo is a male, but I believe I saw a mature blue female Eastern Forktail ovipositing her eggs in plant material – but she was very tiny and at a great distance. So here’s a wonderful photo of just what I saw by another photographer, Mark Nenadov, who generously shared his work on Wikipedia (CC BY).

Other Signs of Renewed Life at the Wetland

Reg noticed a tiny orange butterfly bouncing along in its weak flight near the base of moist plant stems. I tracked it later in the afternoon and finally saw it land. It was the Least Skipper (Ancyloxypha numitor), an appropriate name for this tiny butterfly (.66 to one inch!) only slightly bigger than my smallest fingernail! Because the ventral (lower) side of its wings are unmarked with brown, it can look solid orange in flight.

The Least Skipper is just that – the smallest of the skippers, usually less than an inch long.

My entomologist mentor, Dr. Gary Parsons, director of the Michigan State University Bug House, identified this colorful character for me. It looks somewhat like a large ladybug, doesn’t it? And it is a larger version of the same family, the Coccinellidae – but this one is the Pink Spotted Lady Beetle (Coleomegilla maculata). (They come both orange and pink.) Like our old fave, the red Ladybug, these insects are the “good guys.” If you’re enjoying sweet corn right now like I am, thank these beetles! They thrive on the eggs of corn earworm, European corn borer and aphids among others. Farmers, I’ve read, have traditionally considered them allies.

The orange morph of the Pink Spotted Lady Beetle rids farm fields of several destructive larvae and aphids.

Now, About What Interested That Great Blue Heron…

With nearly every step that Reg and I took around the wet edge of this pond, we heard “plop, plop, plop,” as frogs leapt beneath the surface at our approach. Reg did spot a little Wood Frog (Rana sylvatica) sitting tentatively near the water’s edge.

The little Wood Frog with its black mask lined in white sat quietly at the edge of the pond.

The heron may have been preying on Wood Frogs, but I’m more inclined to think that the hidden jumpers were small Leopard Frogs. Wood Frogs tend to spend more of their time on uplands at this time of year, though Reg’s discovery was sitting near the water’s edge. According to a US Fish and Wildlife website, Leopard Frogs like to forage near the water’s edge in wet grassy areas; I’ve read they usually face the water ready for a quick escape jump. I’m not sure which frogs were “plopping,” because they were always two steps ahead of us, diving under the surface. Frogs can respire oxygen through their skin for hours while under water, so these guys never surfaced again during my visit. Drat! Ah well, I’m glad so many frogs of whatever species inhabit this little wetland, foraging for insects and potentially serving as forage themselves for a hungry Great Blue Heron.

Aquatic Plants Flourish at the Pond as Well

After the berm was created to restore this wetland, Ben planted Water Plantain (Alisma subcordatum) and now it forms a delicate plume of white and green around one edge of the pond. The tiny flowers must produce wonderful nectar, because European Honey Bees (Apis mellifera) had found their way to the wetland and were buzzing everywhere within these tiny blossoms.

One of many non-native European Honey Bees foraging on tiny blossoms of Water Plantain at the edge of the wetland.

A native Bumblebee (genus Bombus) found its way to a graceful stalk of Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) blooming in shallow water on the south edge of the new wetland.

Bumblebee finding what it needs in the purple blossoms of Blue Vervain

Some aquatic plants found their way to the wetland without Ben’s assistance. According to the Illinois Wildflowers website, the native Bulrush on the left provides sustenance for many creatures. Lots of insects, including caterpillars, two species of Katydids and the Two-striped Grasshopper nibble the leaves. Birds like Canada Geese and swans will happily consume the seeds. Among mammals, muskrats munch on the rootstocks and Meadow Voles will clean up any fallen seed. So it’s a very useful plant for its habitat! The tubers of Yellow Nutsedge (Cyperus esculentus) on the right provide food for a wide range of dabbling ducks, including Pintails, Teals and Mallards. Every native plant has a role to play in keeping life humming in our parks and wild areas.

Even a Little Water Supports So Much Life!

Surprise! An abundant flourishing of life in a most unlikely place.

Please take another look at this restoration project. It’s just a modest little wetland tucked into the bottom of sloping hills in the corner of a former farm field. But thanks to Ben’s creative thinking and planning, the careful design and construction by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and repeated summer downpours, it became a lively oasis for all kinds of wildlife. Instead of remaining a soggy, unproductive area in an agricultural field, it burgeoned into a gathering spot for dragonflies, local ones and ones who travel thousands of miles to mate, feed and age here. New native plants have taken root and begun to colonize the pond. Frogs now huddle in the grass snatching bugs from the air and then slip beneath the pond’s surface to live another day. High in the sky, a huge bird spotted a new blue shape below and descended for a quick lunch. This kind of diversity and richness exemplifies what ecologists call a “productive” habitat, one that provides sustenance, nesting areas, cover and water to many species. Imagine how much more life might visit here when the slope above it is seeded with native plants!

That’s why for me this muddy little pond is a miracle. Just a little water gathered in a low spot provides all those ecosystems services while also providing beauty for us humans. The delicate white plumes of water plantain, the iridescent glow of a damselfly, the “plop” of frogs and the sight of a huge blue bird rising out of the rushes are nature’s gratuitous gifts. Our role is first to stop long enough to simply behold what’s in front of us. We need time to let nature work its magic. And then we can get back to work protecting and restoring our natural inheritance.