Hawks by the thousands head out across the west end of Lake Erie each autumn. And smaller migrators wing across at night to avoid those predatory hawks that travel by day. Holiday Beach Conservation Area on Lake Erie (near Amherstburg, Ontario, an easy drive from southeast Michigan) lies on a major fly-way for migrating birds, especially hawks. Local birders from the Holiday Beach Migration Observatory (HBMO) count and keep records on the migration spectacle.
In mid-September each year, HBMO members share the fun of migration by hosting the Festival of Hawks at Holiday Beach, the third-ranked hawk watching site in North America. For the last 41 years, volunteer bird enthusiasts from HBMO have contributed to the study of migration and bird conservation for both hawks and perching birds (“passerines”). Let’s hear it for passionate citizen scientists!
This year three of us from the Oakland Township birding group made our own migration to experience this special event. At the Festival, we looked skyward from the tall observation tower, craning our necks, binoculars aloft, to watch huge, swirling flocks of hawks, known as “kettles,” as seen in the photo above and at left below.
What a sight to see roughly 200 Broad-winged Hawks (Buteo platypterus) wheeling up and over the tree line at the horizon! These forest raptors with their banded tails spiral upward on thermals, riding currents of rising, warm air to great heights with little effort. Traveling over 4,000 miles, hundreds of thousands of these hawks create a “river of raptors” (as they call it in Mexico) flowing into their winter territories in Mexico, Central and South America. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Another impressive raptor settled low in a tree right over the path to the viewing area. An Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) had caught a fish and wasn’t going anywhere until it finished its meal! Ospreys, unlike other hawks, eat only fish. They are skilled anglers and tend to carry their prey head-first for less wind resistance. This one gave me a fierce stare and then went right back to eating its lunch.
We visitors were allowed to crowd around a trained and licensed HBMO bird bander as he attached bands to several birds caught in their super-fine “mist nets.” Runners watch the nets which are stretched between poles on fly-ways near the ground. The captured birds are quickly removed from the nets and rushed to the gentleman banding birds in order to release them as quickly as possible. We began by watching the banding of a tiny Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) brought in a small cloth bag. The man gently wrapped his hand around the tiny bird. The hummer was surprisingly calm.
With a special tool, he softly clipped a tiny band (10 of them fit on a diaper pin!) on the hummer’s leg. The band will identify that specific bird and allow the club to be contacted if someone observes the hummer and reports the band. The bander weighed and measured the tiny bird, then determined its gender and approximate age (juvenile or adult).
For a small donation to Holiday Beach Migration Observatory’s work, we observers could “adopt” a banded bird. That meant having a photo taken with the bird, releasing it from your open palm and being notified where/when your “adoptee” was found by another birder. Donna, one of our birders, adopted a little Hummingbird.
Here are some other birds that got banded, or had their bands checked, while we watched. (Click on the pause button if more time is needed for captions.)
As a bonus, some individuals trained and licensed in falconry brought their owls and hawks. Though hunting with trained birds is an ancient sport, it always make me a little uncomfortable to see the jesses on their legs. But these licensed professionals did give us a chance to see magnificent birds up close. And the birds were clearly well cared for, well fed and beautifully trained.
I love the whole idea of citizen science! How wonderful that the passionate birders of HBMO gather to provide data on the birds that they admire and to educate the rest of us! This summer, here in the township, several residents volunteered to monitor bluebird boxes, providing the Cornell Ornithology Lab’s NestWatch site with plentiful data on a lovely species that may contribute to their continued survival. Some of us report amphibian and reptile sightings to the Michigan Herpetology Atlas or participate in Feeder Watch, which keeps track of winter birds at our home feeders. Some are helping post-doctoral students at the U-M’s M3 Monarch Migration Study use tiny electronic monitors to learn where individual Monarch butterflies travel. There are so many ways to contribute to what science can teach us about the natural world. What’s your passion?
I’m so glad that Lost Lake Nature Park isn’t really lost. It’s such a different sort of nature park. The round, blue eye of the kettle lake stares up into the sky. Lately, water birds have been feeding and making practice flights as they prepare to depart for warmer climes. Steep forested hills stretch around the lake like a friendly arm. And, I discovered to my delight, the oak-pine forest sprouts a surprising number of mushrooms in the autumn!
I took several different kinds of trips to this interesting little park in September – once or twice on my own, once with the birding group and once with a group of avid mushroom hunters assisted by two well-informed guides who discerned the edible from the inedible. Such a diverse little park with its tall native grasses in the summer and its sledding hills in the winter – and something new to discover on every visit!
Around the Lake: Migrators Feed and Fly
Far across the lake one cool morning, a strangely gaunt Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodius) spread its wings for takeoff. I hoped that its ragged head and breast meant that it was simply molting, since I’ve read that they do a complete molt in early fall.
I observed that its wing feathers were largely intact. The heron finally took a few turns around the pond and seemed to fly quite gracefully. So maybe if it was molting, this bird can complete its molt, eat heartily at Lost Lake and still successfully winter in Florida. I sure hope so. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Across the pond, at the same moment, a healthier-looking Great Egret(Ardea alba) took its time fishing, before it too took a few turns around the pond as if exercising its flight muscles before migrating.
Hearing a high trilling call, I looked around for a Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus). For a while, I saw nothing on the muddy flats. But finally I spotted it near some bright green grass, assiduously poking its beak into the muddy shallows at one end of the pond. So often I can’t spot these little birds until they move because they blend so nicely with their surroundings!
The Wednesday birders spotted a Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) steaming quickly across the lake. So clumsy on land, these furry fellows can really get moving using those swaying tails for propulsion. We birders watched it swim by and it gave us the eye as well!
As I approached the dock on one visit, I heard a loud “Squeeeak” followed by a watery “plop!” And there under the edge of the dock crouched an alarmed Northern Green Frog (Lithobates clamitans melanota). It may have been a juvenile, since I’ve read that the young are more likely to squeak when caught off guard. Evidently other frogs, like Bullfrogs and Leopard frogs, are also known to make this odd sound, which is much like the noise that results from stepping on a plastic toy!
On the other side of the dock, two small red Meadowhawk dragonflies (genus Sympetrum) found a convenient lily pad on which to mate. As usual, the male held the female’s head firmly with pincers on its tail as mating commenced. These two seem to be Ruby Meadowhawks (Sympetrum rubicundulum), but there are several red Meadowhawks that look very much alike so I can’t be sure. A short time later they took off flying, still attached, while some frustrated males hovered nearby.
Throughout September, the lake was fringed with colorful native wildflowers that bloomed vigorously after last spring’s prescribed burn. These beauties have quite interesting names: Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), Sneeze-weed (Helenium autumnale), Smooth Blue Aster (Symphyotrichum laeve), Round-headed Bush Clover (Lespedeza capitata), Bee-balm (Monarda fistulosa), Beggar-tick (genus Bidens), Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) and Yellow Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata). (Use pause button if more time is needed for captions.)
In the Moist, Low Areas of the Forest
The light sifts through the tree canopy on the hills that surround Lost Lake. If you take a hike up the sledding hill, or reach the top by following the path through the woods, you’re treated to a view of the undulating forest floor. In summer, the sunny side of the sledding hill is a-buzz with dragonflies, butterflies and native wildflowers. But at this time of the year, the lower, moist areas of the forest draw my attention.
Almost any movement out the corner of my eye turns out to be a Chipmunk (Tamias striatus) zipping along a log or quickly diving into hollow tree trunks. This one had scored a nice big nut in its bulging cheeks.
As we birders passed by the woods near the road, a young fawn waited in the shade for its mother’s return. Female White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) leave their young for long stretches because their adult scent can attract predators, whereas the young have little or no scent.
In the woods, I saw a Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) chased away from a huge tree hole by a Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus). The hole was big enough for a raccoon, so I think they must both have been interested for other reasons than nesting next spring! The birds were much too far away for a good shot with my camera in the dim light of the woods. But luckily, I saw this male Flicker hunting in short grass later in the week so you can at least see him up close.
There are a few shade-loving, late season flowers in the forest now, like the modest Large-leaved Aster (Eurybia macrophylla) and Calico Aster (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum). I’m always happy to see any native blooms on these cool gray days, especially on the forest floor where, because of deer, wildflowers are rarer than they used to be.
The Stars of the Show – the Mushrooms!
About 20 of us attended a mushroom identification workshop hosted by the Oakland Township Parks and Recreation Department. Two experienced guides from Michigan Mushroom Hunters Club, Phil Tedeschi and Jerry Watson, helped us identify an amazing variety of mushrooms one cool, windy September morning. I admit to not even knowing that mushrooms were plentiful in cool weather! We first learned that mushrooms are just the fruiting bodies of certain types of fungi. Most of the fungus grows in the soil or wood, but when conditions are right for reproduction, these fungi will send up mushrooms to produce spores! After an informative lecture, we meandered heads-down through the lowlands of the forest as our guides identified one mushroom after another. The workshop and its handouts were packed with detailed information, but here are a few highlights I want to share:
Note: Picking plants, animals, fungi, and other natural parts of our natural areas violates park rules. Please leave them to grow, and for others to see and enjoy!
Safety first! Advice from the Mushroom Workshop Handout
When in doubt, throw it out! Take an expert with you until you’ve really learned about mushrooms, which can take some time. Learn the Amanita mushrooms and don’t eat any of them! When eating a wild mushroom for the first time, always take only a small bite and refrigerate the rest, so you’ll have a specimen if you get a reaction. Never eat wild mushrooms raw. Do not eat decomposing or worm-eaten mushrooms. Don’t pick mushrooms from contaminated sites. Eat wild mushrooms in moderate quantities.
A Sampling of the Fabulous Fungi We Found
The Pigskin Poisonous Puffball (Scleroderma citrinum). Puffballs, common mushrooms, are generally edible, our guide said. But NOT if they are the ones that are black inside!
Cortinarius mushrooms (genus Cortinarius) are generally toxic. The few that aren’t toxic are hard to identify, so best to avoid them all!
The Bluing Bolete (Suillellus luridus) turns blue when the underside is scored. Unfortunately, there are many look-alikes, one of which is toxic. So it’s best not to eat them unless you have a definite ID, and then only when cooked. The raw ones can cause gastric upset.
Some Russula Mushrooms (genus Russula) are perfectly edible; others aren’t. So again, be sure to have a reliable expert guide you! Our guide told me this one was Hygrophorus russula which is edible, though it was a bit too old to eat. As you can see, it’s a gilled mushroom. The gills produce the spores (a mushroom’s “seeds”) which drop down and are carried away on the wind.
We did find “for sure” edible mushrooms.
We found several edible mushrooms, too, but my notes weren’t clear enough, I’m afraid in most cases. My excuse is that I was taking photos, listening and trying to type in my phone at the same time! But the Cinnabar Chanterelle (Cantharellus cinnabarinus) is definitely edible.
A few more fascinating fungi that may or may not be edible!
Inky Caps (Coprinopsis atramentaria) start out bell-shaped like this and then flatten out. The guide told us they often grow on animal dung from the previous year, which kind of makes them a bit less appetizing in my book.
Old Man of the Woods (Strobilomyces strobilaceus) suits its colorful name. Sources say it’s edible, but most think the taste isn’t worth the trouble. It’s a polypore mushroom, meaning it drops its spores from the openings (pores) at the end of tubes on the underside.
The birders spotted these tiny mushrooms with black stems on our Lost Lake Nature Park hike. According to the Mushroom Identification Facebook group, they are from the genus Marasmius, family Marasmiaceae, to which Shitake mushrooms(Lentinula edodes) belong – but I have no idea if these tiny mushrooms are edible. And they sure don’t look like Shitakes, do they?
Whether edible or not, fungi have their uses. As the presenters pointed out, humans use them for dyes, cheeses, yogurts, wine, beer, breads (yeast!) among other uses. The “saprotrophic” mushrooms, which include the famous Portobello mushroom (Agaricus bisporus), are the recyclers of the forest. Along with bacteria, they decompose dead organic matter (plant or animal), thereby releasing carbon, nitrogen and essential minerals back to the soil. “Mycorrhizal” fungi, of which the toxic Amanitas are a member, partner with trees and plants to create giant webbed networks that gather essential nutrients and moisture for the trees/plants and may allow them to chemically communicate as well. The fungi benefit by feeding on the sugars that the plants can create through photosynthesis. So fungi deserve our thanks, even when they don’t end up on our dinner plates!
So much to enjoy at this little park. In winter, the sledding hills fill with the laughter of big folks and little ones careening down the slopes. And in all the other seasons, the lake, the forest and the grassy hill host nesting birds, frogs, dragonflies, the occasional mink, native wildflowers – and humans, of course! Some learn to kayak or how to use a stand-up paddleboard at this park. Some practice yoga. And some come to bird watch or just take a short hike through a variety of habitats. Whether you come to meet friends, a squeaking frog or strange-looking mushroom, Lost Lake Nature Park will welcome you and send you home smiling. I can almost guarantee it.
Goldenrod! A variety of different Goldenrods gild Cranberry Lake Park in early autumn. Their bounty of nectar and pollen and the insects they attract make Cranberry Lake an ideal stopover for migrating birds and butterflies as they prepare for their long journeys. So cheer for Goldenrods as they feed wildlife, but don’t blame them for your fall allergies – blame ragweed!
Year ’round birds and summer residents have almost finished molting and are also stocking up energy for winter or the migration. And a surprising number of insects are also preparing by busily mating one last time, leaving behind eggs or chrysalises that can bring forth young next spring and summer. Lots going on within this carpet of gold!
Migrating Birds – Some Stayed All Summer; Some Just Stop Briefly for Rest & Refueling
Now’s the time to train your binoculars on any shaking leaf you see. It might be a fall migrator! Colorful, tiny warblers and vireos that are just passing through on their way south are well worth a pause to look into the shrubbery, as you’ll see below! But don’t forget to wish “bon voyage” to the migrators who arrived last spring and sojourned with us all summer. Many are finishing up their molts and readying for long journeys to the southern US or even Central and South America. We saw all of the birds shown below on the bird walk last week at Cranberry Lake Park.
Migrators from Farther North: Just Passing Through
The trees are aquiver with fall migrators, travelers that bred up north and only briefly stop to rest and refuel around our woods and meadows. The most colorful ones that we often hear but can’t see are warblers and vireos. These little birds travel on the night wind because it’s safer. Hawks, eagles, and other birds that might see these small birds as food migrate during the day so that they can ride the thermals!
My camera and I are not quite quick enough to catch a lot of these tiny, fast-moving birds. So to share them with you, I’m relying on photos of other photographers with the skills, equipment and sometimes sheer luck to capture these little beauties!
The Blue-winged Warbler (Vermivora cyanoptera) breeds at Cranberry Lake Park, but the birds we’ve seen in the last week were probably moving through from further north. This fine bird shows off its black eyeline and blue wings with white wingbars in a gorgeous photo taken by gifted local photographer Joan Bonin:
This photo of the striking Black-throated Blue Warbler (Setophaga caerulescens) is by gifted iNaturalist photographer Jeff Skrent at iNaturalist.org.
A Yellow-throated Vireo ( Vireo flavifrons) from another generous iNaturalist photographer who uses the single name, paloma.
A Nashville Warbler (Leiothlypis ruficapilla) was also too quick for me. But here’s one I did manage to catch as it passed through in the autumn of 2016 on its way to Central America.
Summer Visitors: The Migrators that Come Here to Raise Their Young
Some avian migrators see our parks as a great place to raise their young, so they come in the spring and stay for the summer. Having finished breeding and molting, they are now preparing to leave for points south. The male Common Yellowthroat’s (Geothlypis trichas) “Witchedy – witchedy” song accompanied me often during the summer months as he and his mate raised their young. But you may here his “chuck” call as he hops among the branches stocking up on insect protein before leaving for Florida.
Both the male Common Yellowthroat and his mate did a complete molt in July or August and now have fresh feathers for the trip. She’s bit more secretive than the male as she feeds on beetles, ants, bees (!), dragonflies and grasshoppers within the golden fields. Usually she’ll leave a week or two later than the male.
Last spring the Wednesday morning birders heard a Black-throated Green Warbler (Setophaga virens) singing its mating song along the Hickory Lane at Cranberry Lake. And this week, the birders spotted one flitting high in the trees. Perhaps it nested here to raise its young, or it could be just passing through our parks in spring and fall. Here’s a photo I took of a male during the spring migration this year.
High in a snag, a Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) paused briefly to survey the golden eastern meadow one afternoon. Many waxwings go into lower Canada to breed, but I’ve seen successful nests in our parks, too, so this one may have been a summer resident. Some will move south for the winter, but many waxwings will stick around during the cold months.
House Wrens (Troglodytes aedon) become quite secretive after breeding. But this one popped out of the greenery for a minute. It appears to have completed the late summer molt and is prepared to start south between now and mid-October.
A curious juvenile Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) peeked at me from dense shrubbery along the trail, too. The migration of Field Sparrows is not always predictable. Some migrate, some don’t, and some migrate one year but not the next, according to the Stokes’ Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.2). If this one does migrate, it may join a large flock with Chipping Sparrows as well as other Field Sparrows.
On one of my Cranberry walks, I spotted some Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) far across a well-hidden wetland. They were males who’d chosen this secluded spot to begin their molt out of the summer “eclipse plumage” into their fancy choosing-a-mate plumage. This one looked a bit rough at the moment, but well on his way to his courting colors. As I explained in last week’s molting blog, males molt earlier in the summer to camouflage themselves as females and then molt again in the fall, a time when they compete for a mate to breed with in the spring.
I often hear, but rarely see, the vireos at Cranberry Lake. But I did get to see a Warbling Vireo (Vireo gilvus) in the spring. A rare treat, since it loves to sing high in the treetops! Its plumage is modest but its song is impressive! The birders saw one lingering in our park for a while before departing for points south.
Occasionally I get a quick look at a Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus). But Bob Bonin, Joan’s husband and another gifted photographer, got a much better photo than I have so far! This week it too was hanging out with other migrators.
Birds, of course, are not the only creatures migrating through our parks this autumn. Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus) fluttered everywhere at Cranberry Lake Park in the last few weeks. This “super-generation” of fragile creatures – the ones that will fly 3,000 miles to Mexico – were swooping and diving over the meadows at Cranberry Lake, feeding on the acres of Goldenrod. So glad that we provide these master migrators with such a feast!
The tattered Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes) below looks lightly worn. Let’s hope that attests to its having mated here this summer after its migration to Cranberry Lake. These huge butterflies seem to be expanding their range north. Possibly due to climate change, Michigan now often has frost-free Septembers. So if mating was successful, the caterpillars of this very large butterfly may survive inside their chrysalises and hatch in our parks next spring.
Last Chance for Progeny! Insects Still Mating in the Meadows
Among the Goldenrod, insects seek out mates in a last ditch effort to leave offspring for next summer. A pair of Goldenrod Soldier Beetles (Chauliognathus pennsylvanicus) rendezvoused on a Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare) – a potentially risky place to mate since a bird might think they make a tasty contrast against the blossom!
A pair of tiny Pearl Crescent butterflies (Phyciodes tharos) also decided that a warm September afternoon provided the ideal time for mating.
And two Ladybugs chased around a Goldenrod stem, one frenetically holding on to the other. I couldn’t really determine whether they were mating or fighting! Clearly, one was more interested in escape and one was in hot pursuit. They were moving too fast for a great shot or a definite identification. My guess is that they were the invasive Asian Ladybugs (Harmonia axyridis). Unfortunately they are more common these days than our native Nine-spotted Ladybug (Coccinella novemnotata) and come in highly variable colors and patterns.
This tiny Red-legged Grasshopper (Melanoplus femurrubrum) had probably spent the night near the stalk of the Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), wisely hidden from predators among its withering leaves. It will molt multiple times before mating and leaving eggs in the soil to emerge next summer.
The edge of a meadow, near a wetland, might be an ideal spot for a female Great Blue Skimmmer dragonfly (Libellula vibrans). She could be spreading her wings in hope of attracting a mate. If successful, the aquatic plants nearby could host her fertilized eggs. Or while waiting for a likely male, she might just have a great perch for hunting unsuspecting prey!
Spider Art On a Misty Morning
Early fall mornings are an excellent time to appreciate the art of the spiders. Warm days followed by cool nights leave heavy dew on spider webs, and when the sun makes them visible, they are dazzling. How about this lovely creation of an Orb Weaver spider (family Araneidae)drooping with the weight of the dew but subtly reflecting the colors of the sun’s spectrum!
Another intriguing web, though not as beautiful, is cleverly constructed. The Funnel Web Spider (Circuria species) lays a sticky sheet of web across the grass, which would be difficult to see were it not for the dew. At the edge of the web, it weaves a tunnel where it lies in wait for unsuspecting prey. Above the sheet, it weaves an irregular network of silk designed to knock flying insects into its sticky net below. You can see the funnel at the back of this web below.
As I skirted the edge of wetlands one Sunday, it seemed that a frog sprang out of the grass at every step! Most of them were Northern Leopard Frogs (Rana pipiens), their emerald green backs covered with circular black dots outlined in pale gold. Their dark eyes encircled with gold add to their glamour. Pinkish dorsolateral ridges are another distinguishing field mark. They shine like cloisonné in the deep grass!
Until last week, I’d never noticed Pickerel Frogs (Rana palustris) at Cranberry Lake. These smaller frogs have somewhat rectangular spots that line up along the frogs’ back in neat rows. They are smaller than Leopard frogs. They tend to be brown (though they are sometimes green too), so I’m fairly sure this is Pickerel frog below.
And Finally, the Native Plants that Make It All Possible!
The plants, though not as often noticed by hikers, provide sustenance for all these creatures as the base of the food web. Butterflies sip their nectar. Bees and wasps feed pollen to their young. Other insects munch on leaves or make winter homes in the stalks. Birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals eat all parts of plants, or the insects that live on them. So here’s a gallery of just a few of the plants that, along with the plentiful goldenrods, have bloomed in sun and shade to sustain the beauty and life of Cranberry Lake Park in late summer. (Use pause button for captions.)
Autumn Mornings: Not To Be Missed!
On our September bird walk at Cranberry Lake Park, we arrived on a cool fall morning. The previous day had been unseasonably warm, but a north wind sailed in overnight. The cool air had created heavy dew, leaving silver droplets that set the spider webs shining. The morning sun on the moist leaves created the fine mist you see above, rising from a meadow beyond the Hickory Lane. What a sight! – the makings of future clouds floating like silver smoke above the wildflowers. A wave of migratory warblers and other small birds had arrived on that night wind. The birders watched, binoculars up, as these travelers hopped busily in the branches, feeding on the plenty of insects attracted by fields full of blooming fall wildflowers. And all of this beauty is gratuitous – unearned, just gifted to us if we just put on our shoes and head out the door! Consider escaping from the busy-ness of life for just an hour this week. Let these beautiful fall days lure you to the parks and savor the gifts that nature so generously offers to all of us.
Maybe you’ve noticed individual feathers showing up in a nearby pond or on your lawn. Or you’ve noticed that birds and birdsong both seem a bit scarce right now. Or the birds you do see look just a bit scruffy. Well, don’t worry too much. It’s likely that nothing’s gone wrong for your avian neighbors. It’s just that lots of birds molt in late summer.
That slightly disheveled bird you saw is probably an adult replacing frayed and worn feathers before the rigors of winter or before its fall migration. Once breeding is over, and while there’s still plenty of food to nourish them, birds systematically shed some of their feathers, replacing them before shedding others. Feathers account for 4-12% of body weight so it takes a lot of food energy to replace them! The foraging male Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) below with its feathers a bit askew is probably close to completing his molt. He will need to build up his reserves before beginning his journey to southern Ohio or points farther south.
So how does molting work? It turns out that feathers are made of keratin like our hair or fingernails, so feathers can’t repair themselves. The rigors of the breeding season can take quite a toll on feathers. Think of it – all that to-ing and fro-ing from the nest or tree cavity, the scrabbling that occurs around an adult bird’s head as the young compete to be fed, plunging into the grass to snatch bugs, and riding down stalks to gather seeds on a windy day. The feathers of an adult bird take quite a beating! (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
A Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) gathering seed on a windy day.
A Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) reaches far into her nest to feed her young.
When I saw this male Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) a week or so ago, I wondered if he was just beginning his complete molt into the dappled blue and brown plumage that he wears during the winter.
The molting process begins with the bird shedding a few feathers. In their place, “pin feathers” emerge quickly. These pin feathers are supplied with blood for growth and look like the rigid shaft of adult feathers. As they lengthen, the blood stays in the lower ends and the tips slowly encase the feathers in a waxy coating. So when you see birds preening during a molt, they are very likely pulling off that coating, allowing the adult feathers to unfurl.
The Great Egret (Ardea alba) below seems to have shed a few feathers, since some were stuck to the branches behind it and some lay below on the trunk of the snag. Perhaps it’s unfurling new feathers, or it could just be going after some persistent feather mites.
I’ve read that pin feathers are more sensitive than adult feathers. I wonder if that’s why we often see birds preening so vigorously before migration. Maybe preening feels something like scratching your head when it itches! According to Cornell’s comprehensive “Birds of North America” subscription website, Egrets molt “some to most” of their body feathers when they’re in “northern non-breeding grounds.” Since egrets nest in only a few areas in Michigan, most of Michigan is a non-breeding area suitable for molting. Maybe that’s why this Egret was preening almost continually, including stretching up its leg to scratch its cheek!
Molting happens on different schedules for different bird species. Some have one molt per year, some molt into breeding colors in the spring and molt again in the fall, and some do partial molts, head and back feathers first and tail and wing feathers later. With experience the age and sex of many birds can be identified using their plumage.
In early summer after breeding, Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) have an extra molt, a partial one. The males molt into “eclipse plumage, ” a drab plumage that makes the males look more like the brown females, though males still retain the red eye, red upper beak and double white stripe which females don’t have. Evidently male ducks do this to get the protection of being much less conspicuous during summer months. Here’s a photo of a male Wood Duck in eclipse plumage by iNaturalist photographer Heather Pickard.
Like many ducks, Wood Ducks choose mates in the fall, overwinter with them and then mate in the spring. Of course the males want to look their most dazzling before courting! So they change into their breeding colors from mid-summer to early autumn, instead of in the spring like many birds. It’s a complete molt, meaning every feather is replaced, which renders them flightless for about three weeks. The female’s appearance stays the same with her new feathers. But the male recreates his elegant breeding plumage, including the iridescent green crest sloping down the back of his neck. Below are two males in a wetland near Lost Lake Nature Park two weeks ago who look like they’re about halfway between eclipse plumage and their glamorous breeding colors.
Birds don’t fight change. They simply do what’s required as the light informs them that the days are getting shorter. They molt. So when I go look for my jacket or warmer socks on a cool autumn day, I’m just part of the same process, I guess. And since my adjustment seems much less arduous than that of our feathered friends, I’ll try not to grouse about it!
Well, they’re off! When the wind sails in from the north, it’s a signal to all kinds of creatures: “Time to go!” So they take wing singly and in large flocks, letting the flow of cool air support them, carrying them quickly onward as they beat wings of all sizes to make their way to warmer climes.
And of course, it’s not just birds. Above you can see our friend Nancy Isken’s photo of Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus) last week resting at Tawas Point State Park before crossing Saginaw Bay. They were beginning their long journey to Mexico where they will spend the winter. In the spring, these Monarchs will make the first leg of the journey back north, stopping in warm areas like Texas to produce a new crop of butterflies who continue heading north. These new generations will fly only a few hundred miles, stop and reproduce, completing their whole life cycle in only 5-7 weeks. So it takes several generations to complete the trip back to Michigan each summer. Sarina Jepson of the Xerces Society, which is focused on invertebrate conservation, says in a fine National Geographic article, “…when fall rolls around again, a special ‘super generation’ of monarchs that can live up to eight months will make use of air currents to wing all the way back to Mexico—a seemingly impossible feat for such a delicate-looking insect.” Imagine that! So the Monarch butterflies born here In Oakland Township each summer can potentially live for 8 months instead of 5-7 weeks and fly 3,000 miles instead of a few hundred. We are living among real, live superheroes!
And Monarchs aren’t the only insects that migrate. Green Darner Dragonflies (Anax junius) (also tracked by the Xerces Society) travel down to Texas and Mexico as well. For dragonflies, it also takes many generations of reproduction before their trip is completed, though their migration is less well understood. But again, like the Monarch generations that arrive here each summer, the dragonfly offspring seem to know how to find their way in the right direction. Citizen science and research is helping explore dragonfly migration. But for now, I love a good nature mystery, don’t you?
Painted Lady butterflies (Vanessa cardui) make multiple generation migrations all over the world. But they migrate erratically. Some years they migrate and some years they don’t. And the direction and route can vary widely. Some experts speculate that their migration routes may be affected by dramatic changes in weather and climate – another nature mystery yet to be solved.
At this time of year, the night sky begins to fill with thousands, even millions, of birds riding the wind south in the darkness, navigating by the stars or the setting sun, or by sensing the earth’s magnetic field. Some may navigate by landmarks or simply remembering good feeding grounds. And amazingly, most juvenile migrating birds, like those insects hatching during migration, somehow know how to find their way without any help from adults! Cornell’s BirdCast website is a great way to watch the flow of birds across the United States day by day throughout the fall.
Remember all those bright little warblers, unusual sparrows and other small birds that sailed up here on a south wind in May? Well, most of them have now finished breeding farther north and are beginning to make their way back to more warmth and sunshine. They’ve molted out of their bright breeding feathers so they’re a little less colorful now and their routes vary a bit depending on available food and weather. But keep a look out for these little travelers starting now. Here are a few from the autumn of previous years:
If you’re thinking you’d like to see some bird migrations in BIG numbers, you might check out the Hawk Fest featuring hawks, eagles, falcons and owls at Lake Erie Metropark on September 15 and 16. Or if you love our Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis), consider a trip to the Audubon Society’s Cranefestat Big Marsh Lake in Bellevue, Michigan (near Battle Creek) on October 13 and 14.
Of course, if you want to stay close to home, you’ll be warmly welcomed at our Oakland Township Wednesday morning bird walks. The walks rotate through our township parks each month and in September and October, they start at 8 a.m. The schedule is available year ’round if you click on the drop-down menu above for “Stewardship Events.” We’re a friendly group with some experienced birders who are glad to help beginners see their first migrators. Bring your binoculars or borrow a set from Ben, our Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, who leads the walks.
So yes, summer is waning. But I can’t help feeling celebratory as autumn air turns crisp and the skies fill with winged creatures. I recommend looking upward this fall and perhaps wishing “Bon Voyage!”, to our migrators who provide such beauty and mystery as they find their paths through the air.