Tag Archives: American Crow

Bare Feet and Feathers? How Do Birds Survive Winter Weather?

Tufted Titmouse in a snow fall, feathers puffed up against the cold

I’m guessing lots of us who love nature have wondered the same thing in the last few weeks. “As the temperature drops below zero, how do those small birds with bare feet survive out there?”

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

Well, it turns out that although our avian winter neighbors share a similar technique for keeping their feet from freezing, their strategies for dealing with cold, snowy days can differ.

 

First Rule:  Use Those Feathers!

Female Cardinal looking lovely in her puffed feathers on a frigid morning

We humans love down jackets on cold winter days and snuggle beneath down comforters on winter nights. Well, birds like the female Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) above, or the Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) pictured at the top of the blog, use the same technique. When birds fluff up their feathers in the cold, they trap a layer of air between the feathers. Their body temperature – in small birds more than 100˚ F –  warms the air layer just as it does in our jackets.  According to Peter Marra, head of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center at the National Zoo, “Birds’ feathers provide remarkable insulation against the cold, and the oil that coats feathers also provides waterproofing, which is important since the only thing worse than being cold, is being cold and wet.” Here are a few of birds making the most of their feathers on a recent cold morning. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

What About Those Bare Feet, Though?

A Goldfinch last summer at Lost Lake, checking out its “bare feet.”

Last summer I caught this American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) staring at its feet in a tree near Lost Lake. I laughed to think that perhaps it was worrying about how they’d feel on a snowy day! Birds really do have very cold feet in the winter. According to scientist and professor Bernd Heinrich on the Cornell website, the feet of chickadees stay just above freezing even while their body temperatures are very high. Presumably, they don’t feel it much. Their feet are mostly tendons and bones with very few muscles or nerves. If you look at those three birds with feather puffed that are pictured above, you can see they’ve hunched over their feet, covering them with their body feathers. Or sometimes birds simply tuck one leg at a time against their breast. Also, the arteries and veins in birds’ feet are close together. As Heinrich explains it, a bird’s feet are provided with continuous blood flow which keeps them from freezing.  Since the arteries pass close to the veins in a bird’s legs, the cooled blood from the feet gets warmed on the way back to the heart to keep the bird’s body warm. And the warm blood from the heart is cooled down as it moves out to the legs, reducing heat loss. Pretty efficient system!

Second Rule: Eat as Much as Possible!

A White Breasted Nuthatch preparing to tuck a seed into the bark of a tree

On cold days, small birds really need to stuff themselves every few minutes to keep warm. When you see a White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) or Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillusdashing from your feeder to nearby trees, it’s eating some seeds and storing others in the trees’ bark. Amazingly, the brains of Chickadees expand in the fall to improve their memory so that they can later find those seeds or nuts. According to Cornell’s Birdsleuth website, “neurons are added to the Chickadee’s hippocampus in the fall, increasing its volume by about 30%.”  As a result, Chickadees can remember up to a thousand places in which they’ve tucked their winter provisions! (I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before in the blog, but it’s so amazing that it bears repeating!)

But What Do They Eat in Winter?

Mourning Doves (Zenaida macroura) and American Goldfinches can be gluttonous at feeders during the winter because they are vegetarians; no insects or caterpillars for them! On most winter days, they can find seeds or fruits, but  your feeder helps to supplement the wild supply. Mourning Doves can eat 12-20% of their body weight per day! They store seed in their crops, a muscular pouch near the throat, and digest it later to help keep themselves warm at night.

Mourning Doves eat 12-20% of their body weight in seeds each day.

I’ve seen Cedar Waxwings (Bombycillia cedrorum) eating frozen vine fruits or leaf buds that overwinter on the branches of trees.

Cedar waxwings will eat leaf buds on trees during the winter as well as frozen berries.

But many local birds, including Waxwings, are omnivores who can eat a wide range of foods. The Tufted Titmouse, White-Breasted Nuthatch, Chickadees and all kinds of Woodpeckers (family Picidae) spend winter days probing loose bark or hopping along branches looking for frozen dinners;  insects, insect eggs, pupae or perhaps a frozen caterpillar will do just fine as sources of protein on a cold day.

A male downy searching for frozen bugs or larvae on a winter morning

American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos), being bigger birds, will eat almost anything to “stoke their furnaces” during the winter. In our area, the carcasses of White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) provide lots of good protein. And if a crow finds one, it notifies its family and friends to join the feast. (No fair being squeamish. We all have to eat!)

Crows find deer carcasses a great source of protein in cold weather.

Where Do Birds Spend Cold Winter Nights?

According to the Smithsonian’s Peter Marra, “Many small birds, like Black-Capped Chickadees, Eastern Bluebirds, and House Wrens, will gather in large groups at night and crowd together in a small, tight space to share body heat.” Sharing body heat keeps down fat loss during the night to preserve energy for the next day’s foraging.  In his article for Cornell’s All About Birds, Bernd Heinrich describes finding a group of tiny Golden- Crowned Kinglets (Regulus satrapa) huddled in a circle on the branch of a pine tree, beaks in, tails out, sharing their body heat on a winter night. These tiny birds, which overwinter in our area, are about half the weight of a Chickadee! This lovely winter photo of a Golden-crowned Kinglet was taken by a photographer named cedimaria at the website inaturalist.org.

A Golden-crowned Kinglet by photographer cedimaria (CC BY-NC)

Bernd Heinrich reports in his essay collection, Winter’s World, that woodpeckers provide some cozy winter housing for other birds as well as themselves. Every spring, woodpeckers make a fresh hole for raising their young, but they tend to use them for only one year. So small birds can often find an abandoned woodpecker hole to get out of the wind and snow on a winter night. In the autumn, Dr. Heinrich has also spotted both Downy Woodpeckers (Dryobates pubescens) and Hairy Woodpeckers (Dryobates villosus) constructing special overnight shelters just for winter use. I spotted a Downy doing just that in Gallagher Creek Park one November day.  Note the flying wood chips!

A Downy woodpecker in November excavating a hole, chips flying.

Special Winter Strategies Can Be Helpful…

Even though Chickadees can excavate their own holes, in extreme cold they require a few extra tricks at night. According to the Audubon society, these little birds can lower their body temperature at night by as much as 22 degrees, minimizing the difference between their body temperature and the bitterly cold air. They also keep warmer by shivering, which activates opposing muscle groups and produces heat. Luckily, they can even shiver while sleeping, which is something I can’t quite  imagine doing! And of course once settled, like many birds, they can tuck their beaks and feet into their feathers to preserve heat as well.

Though Chickadees can excavate their own holes , sometimes they explore an available cranny in a snag as a possible place to spend a cold night.

Though they don’t appear in our parks these days, Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus) survive days of light fluffy snow in a surprising way. They burrow into the snow, creating a long tunnel with a chamber on the end. These one-day burrows not only provide insulation, according to Bernd Heinrich, but they also provide protection from predators. Large dark birds are very visible against the snow! (This photo was generously shared at iNaturalist.org by photographer Brian Murphy.)

Ruffed Grouse make tunnels under the snow for insulation and protection from predators. Photo by Brian Murphy (CC BY-NC)

Thank Goodness for Our Adaptable Winter Birds!

A Chickadee plumped up and ready for a winter day.

Aren’t you glad that some birds stay with us all winter?  And that some actually arrive for an extended stay just as the snow begins to fall? The constant flutter of a busy Chickadee, the “yank yank” call of a Nuthatch as it circles a branch or the friendly chirping of a flock of foraging Tree Sparrows in dry grass are so companionable on gray winter days. And what could be more heartening on a frigid morning than the sight of scarlet Northern Cardinals or azure Blue Jays in a snowy bush? I’m so thankful that some birds have figured out how to survive the cold along with us. By taking shelter, shivering, eating heartily, and snuggling into down comforters very much like we do, they keep us company as we make our way towards spring.

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township’s Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University; Wikipedia; A Field Guide to Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, A Naturalist at Large by Bernd Heinrich and others as cited in the text.

 

Charles Ilsley Park: Ah, It’s Spring! Oops…No, It’s Not.

March in Michigan is such a tease! We had a glimpse of spring-like weather, but we knew it was too good to last, didn’t we? Winter came roaring back.

Blog and photos by Cam Mannino

I’ve been braving the corrugated potholes of Predmore Road to visit Charles Ilsley Park to see what these back-and-forth changes have wrought – and also to check out some great new nest boxes going up there. As usual, the spring-like weather provided lots of things to see. Winter’s return meant exploring tracks crisscrossing the snow, leaving clues of who’s been out and about when I’m not there.  Presence and absence – sometimes both are interesting!

February’s Big Melt Gave Us a Taste of Spring

The false spring definitely held some surprises! In the center of the park, which was prepared for prairie planting last fall, two huge melt ponds had appeared! What a sight on a clear day, as if the park had suddenly opened two big blue eyes! In the distance, what we took to be a spring when the birding group spotted it last month, was still bubbling from the ground. Our township Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, is now guessing that it’s the outlet of a tiled culvert that a farmer had dug to drain these very spots in his meadow for planting. Ben hopes to check it out when the weather’s warmer. Here’s a video of the water bubbling out of the ground on the day I first saw these very large melt ponds. (Sorry about the wind in the microphone!)

On the way into the park, we spotted a creature who, like us, had been fooled by the warmer weather. A Woolly Bear Caterpillar wended its way across the path, hoping to find some sustenance before spinning its cocoon to emerge as an Isabella Tiger Moth (Pyrrharctia isabella). The moth photo below is by Steve Jurvetson (CC BY) at inaturalist.org. (Click on the photos to enlarge them; hover your cursor for captions).

European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) glistened in the morning sunlight in a tree at the top of the central meadow. In the autumn, starlings molt into feathers with bright white tips, which makes them look spotted all over. During the winter, the white tips wear off (called “wear molt”), leaving their feathers a glossy, iridescent bronze for the breeding season.  Odd to see one all by itself when we so often see them in large flocks.

A European Starling who has lost its winter spots through “wear molt” and is ready for the breeding season.

Tiny yellow-gilled mushrooms covered the slope as we entered the central meadow. Most mushrooms defy identification for me, so if anyone can ID this one, please leave a comment!  Later Reg found an extremely light, two inch ball in the grass – an Oak Gall.  A Gall Wasp (family Cynipidae) laid an egg on an oak last year, and when the larva hatched inside, it injected a chemical into the plant creating a tissue-like secretion that it can feed on until it emerges as an adult wasp. Perhaps, like the Woolly Bear, it may have misjudged its moment! Or the larva may have provided some wintertime sustenance for a bird.

High above, a flock of Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) called from the chilly, blue sky. Theses ancient birds must have felt the pull of the warming days and ventured north from their winter feeding grounds in Ohio and further south. I love their hoarse, wild calls (click on “Listen” at the link) that sound almost prehistoric.  According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, these cranes use their extra long windpipes, which extend to their sternum, in order to make that sound. Soon they’ll be performing their graceful mating dances – leaping  whimsically into the air and floating back down with the partners that they choose for life.

A flock of Sandhill Cranes returning from Ohio or further south.

Newly-returned Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) flashed their  bright red epaulets by hunching their wings, accompanied by a buzzing call  to establish their territories. Some stayed during the winter, but most moved south last fall as the weather got colder. The kwirr call of the Red-bellied Woodpeckers (Melanerpes carolinus) could also be heard in the treetops, as well as its drumming  (click on “drum” at this link), another way of establishing  its territory and attracting a mate.. And Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) pair up this time of year, soaring and circling lazily in  the rising thermals of warmer air. I’ve read that if you’re lucky, you’ll see them drop their talons in flight, apparently an important indicator that two hawks are interested in each other. Sometimes they even lock talons and tumble together in flight! The hawks I saw were circling high in the sky – out of the reach, I’m afraid, of my longest lens, so please pardon the blur.

Last spring, the birding group saw a female Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) approaching her nest in a tree along the entrance trail. The actual basket-like nest was tough to see among the leaves. But as Reg and I left the park on that cold spring-like day, the nest was visible, sturdily attached to the tip of a branch, having braved the winter winds. She’ll weave a new one this spring from grass, grapevine bark, horsehair, wool, occasionally even recycling materials from a previous nest, according to Cornell’s allaboutbirds.org.

Spring Nest Prep Courtesy of Parks Volunteers

Out in the eastern meadow, we came across two other volunteers, Tom Korb and his nephew Alex Korb, both valued members of the Wednesday birding group. They were making last minute changes to some bluebird nest boxes that Tom’s created for the Oakland Township.  Tom built several nest boxes for Charles Ilsley Park and Draper Twin Lake Park with the talented assistance of Sue Ferko. The picture on the right below shows Tom and Sue installing a nest box at Draper Twin Lake Park last week.

On the advice of birder extraordinaire, Ruth Glass, Tom and Sue also built some Peterson-style bluebird nest boxes that are triangular in shape. Ruth has found that bluebirds seem to prefer the Peterson houses at Stony Creek Metropark. So Ben and Tom decided to experiment by putting up both types to see which ones the bluebirds at our parks preferred. Tom also constructed two nest boxes for for American Kestrels (Falco sparverius), North America’s smallest falcons. Kestrels nest in cavities along wooded edges, so that’s where the new box in Ilsley Park was placed, in the tree line between the central and western meadows. Chickadee houses will soon be installed as well.

You’ll also note that the bluebird houses are installed  in pairs.  The theory is that Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) and Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor), who often compete for housing, will share space if there are two houses together.  So we shall see! Bluebirds began to investigate Tom’s houses as soon as they were up, and I saw a pair every time I hiked there since. I’ve only seen an American Kestrel once from a distance after a prescribed burn at Bear Creek – so I’m hoping to see a pair at their new nest box sometime soon. (Kestrel photo by Steven Mlodinow from inaturalist.org).

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And then Winter Staged a Comeback…

Snow and shadows surrounded the melt ponds about a week after the photo posted above at the top of the blog.

On my last trip to the park, everything was silent except for the occasional trill or cluck of the indomitable Red-winged Blackbird and the distant kwirr of the Red-bellied Woodpecker. When I arrived in the late afternoon, no other human had explored the park that day – probably due to that corrugated road! – so the trails were pure white, not a footprint in sight! But clearly, the wildlife enjoyed having the park to themselves after the snow fell.

I quickly spotted the first track of a Coyote (Canis latrans). Canines can’t retract their claws, so in the photo below, you’ll see the two nail marks at the top of the print. The larger pads are located outside, rather than directly below, the smaller pads, which is typical of coyotes. As usual, the prints were neatly placed in a straight line. Our well-fed dogs can afford to wander as they walk, but wild coyotes on the hunt can’t afford to waste energy, especially on cold days.

When I reached the central meadow, I spotted two separate coyote tracks heading east over the hill. One went almost straight up and over the highest park of the hill. The other took an easier route around the lower end.

As I followed the tracks, I imagined what might have occurred. When the snow storm came out of the northeast, a pair of coyotes probably trotted off to the west where perhaps the hill would break some of the wind. And then I came across a sight I’d never seen before. The tracks led to a flat area on the far western meadow beyond the tree line. There the snow had been stirred up near several medium-sized patches of bare earth where the snow had melted off the grass. The bare spots were too small for deer beds and several had clear coyote tracks that appeared to be leading to them. Could this be a group of coyote beds, I wondered?

Coyote tracks led to this area where the snow was stirred up and bare patches showed where the snow had melted. A coyote bed?

That night I researched where coyotes sleep and found that they are known to just lay down in the open as long as there are no humans or other predators to disturb them. And I found Google images of them laying in open snowy fields. Since coyotes are the top predators in Charles Ilsley Park, and humans live a fair distance from this field, I’m guessing that the coyotes crossed the tree line, found a low spot in the field, turned around a few times in the snow the way canines often do, and settled down for the night. But who knows? If anyone has a more accurate interpretation, I’m open to it. Anyway, following the tracks and finding this curious area offered me a fun expedition late on a snowy afternoon.

Another nocturnal traveler left its tracks as well. These small, roundish canine tracks are most likely to have come from a Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) trotting along a trail on the eastern prairie on the previous night. Its tracks were quite near those of a coyote, and I saw no signs of conflict, so I doubt they ever encountered each other that night. Recently though, Tom Korb did spot the clean skull of what he believed was a Red Fox at Charles Ilsley Park, so perhaps another fox met a coyote at some point! The photo below of a running Red Fox was taken at my home several years ago, so I’m just guessing about this midnight scenario.

red-fox-tracks-ilsley.jpg
The small, roundish tracks may be those of a Red Fox on the eastern prairie at Ilsley
Red fox (Vulpes vulpes) on the run near my home several years ago.

Daytime park residents left their marks as well. I heard but never saw the little creature who I’m thinking left these four tiny tracks – the American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus). It saw me before I reached its hideout log, so I’ve added a photo of one who popped up out of snow near my back door a few winters ago. It was looking for birdseed under the snow cover.

And American Crows  (Corvus brachyrhynchos) were strutting about in the snow as well. I saw one dive bombing a Red-tailed Hawk one morning, but it was too far off for a photo. So here’s a shot of two in flight last March and what I believe are the tracks of a crow who left prints of its feet and dragging tail feathers in the snow last week near a tree line at Charles Ilsley Park. Like wolves, crows cleverly walk in a straight line to save energy. Note the big, hooked claw on the back of the foot which indicates that its probably not a turkey track.

Two crows in flight.
Crow feet and tail prints making a straight line in the snow.

Such fun to think of being the only human in the park that snowy afternoon, leaving my big sloppy footprints among the precise and delicate ones of so many wild neighbors! If you’re a more experienced tracker than I am (I’m a novice!), feel free to comment and set me straight!

A New Image of Our Self-sufficient Wild Neighbors

Looking south from Charles Ilsley Park’s northern meadow on a snowy afternoon

March can be a frustrating month.  One day I get to see the Sandhill Cranes bugling overhead. I kneel to watch an unlucky Woolly Bear Caterpillar wend its through wet grass. And a week later, the snow descends again, making life more difficult for the cranes, perhaps deadly for the caterpillar and sometimes less visually interesting for a park visitor with a camera around her neck and three solid months of winter under her belt.

But then I notice the coyote prints trailing up a small hill and follow them to a disturbed patch of ground. Normally, when I hear coyotes howling and yipping near my house in the middle of the night, I picture a small group sitting on its haunches in the moonlight before retiring to a snug den.

Moon rise near sunset at Charles Ilsley Park last week.

But nature has handed me a possible new image of this clever, well-adapted animal that’s moved into my territory the last few years. Now I can envision my coyote neighbors as wild creatures so sure of themselves, of their ability to handle their world, that they can just lay down with their traveling companions, sing together under the moon for a few minutes, then curl up in the snow and drift off to sleep.

That’s probably one of the reasons I spend time in nature as often as I do. It never stops teaching me to pay attention. And it never stops reminding me that human lives are embedded within the lives of a whole panoply of living beings – plants and animals that have adapted to change, survived and even thrived. Maybe we humans, so often resistant to change, can learn do do the same. And that helps me drift off to sleep.

 My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner;inaturalist.org;Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net.

 

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

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

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

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

 

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

 

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

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

Migrating Birds Make Gallagher Creek Their Summer Residence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three crows play around a surprisingly small tree.

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

Spring Odds ‘n Ends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 Such an Unassuming Little Park with So Much Life!

A stormy afternoon at Gallagher Creek Park.

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

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

 

NOW SHOWING: An Uncommon Shrub with Cool Seeds and Flocks with “Zugunruhe”

Cam walking into BC
Blog and photos by Cam Mannino

This week in Gallagher Creek Park, Ben discovered an uncommon shrub (or small tree) producing its unusual, papery seed capsules.  So of course, I had to buzz over and have a look.  And there it was  in the southeastern corner of the circular path off the parking lot.  As I traveled the township, I kept coming across restless, large flocks of birds, some preparing to migrate, others just gathering before cold  weather arrives.  And I learned a fun, new word for the fall jitters of birds.

A Shrub with Fascinating Seeds

This rare plant should be called Lantern Bush in my opinion.  Instead it has one of those prosaic names I always complain about – Bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia), for heaven’s sake! Anyway…there’s a scale in botany called the  “Coefficient of Conservatism.” That scale represents how tolerant a plant is to disturbances like agriculture and how faithful it is to a pre-settlement natural community. If a plant species is tolerant of disturbance and not very choosy about its habitat, the plant has a lower number on the 10-point scale.  Bladdernut, however, is typically found in high quality natural communities such as floodplains and moist woodlands, so it is harder to find, at least in Michigan. Its Coefficient of Conservatism rates a 9 out of 10. Look at these wonderful chambered seed capsules, hanging delicately from the shrub’s limbs, like Chinese  lanterns.

Bladdernut2
The lantern-like seed capsules of an uncommon shrub at Gallagher Creek Park,  Bladdernut.

The seed capsules are paper-thin. They crush easily to expose their shiny, brown seeds or they can float in water, carrying them to new locations. The inside of this cool seed capsule is as intriguing as the outside.

img_1724
Shiny Bladdernut seeds inside their chambered seed capsule.

Evidently, Bladdernut blooms for two or three weeks each spring producing drooping clusters of bell-shaped flowers. The flowers, when pollinated by a visiting variety of bees, produce these lantern-like seed capsules. Fun to see a plant I’d never noticed in all my years of outdoor exploration.

Restless Flocks Experiencing Zugunruhe

You must have noticed large flocks of busy, almost jittery, sometimes noisy birds everywhere in the township right now! This week I learned from the Cornell Lab that there’s a name for this excitement in migrating birds – zugunruhe. It’s a German word that means migratory restlessness. (Zug = migration or movement; unruhe = restlessness.) According to Wikipedia, non-migrating birds sometimes experience zugunruhe too, but at much lower levels. Scientists aren’t sure if it is a stimulus for, or a result of,  increased fall feeding.  According to Cornell’s excellent website post on bird migration,Migration can be triggered by a combination of changes in day length, lower temperatures, changes in food supplies, and genetic predisposition.” Bird species respond differently to these triggers, so some species cued strongly by shorter days moved south this fall even with the warm weather, while others are sticking around. So here are some of the restless locals, some migrating, some just flocking for winter, that I came across this week – 3  flocks of them on Buell Road west of Rochester Road.

A recently plowed field on Buell Road was covered with hundreds of feeding Canada Geese (Branta canadensis), no doubt dreaming of warmer climes as they ate.

Flock of Geese Buell Rd1
A flock of hundreds of Canada Geese eating on a recently plowed field before migration.

A flock of European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) filled the top of a small tree and also lined the crossbars of nearby power lines on Buell.

Flock of Starling Buell
A flock of European Starlings (in the bare branches of a snag

A noisy flock of American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) swooped down onto the road in front of me as I drove along Buell one afternoon. I never saw anything in the road that they were eating, so I have no idea what all the excitement was about. (Sorry for the blurriness – shot through the windshield!)

Flock of Crows Buell
A flock of American Crows on Buell Road

On Wednesday, Ben and I saw huge numbers of water birds on Cranberry Lake, though they were too far out to get a clear, much less comprehensive photo. Fortunately,  Ben identified them through binoculars. So please click on the red links to see their photos on Cornell Lab:  Ruddy Ducks (Oxyura jamaicensis), American Black Ducks (Anas rubripes), Lesser Scaup  (Aythya affinis), Pied-bill Grebes (Podilymbus podiceps) and of course, some Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos).

Ducks on CL
Some of the hundreds of mixed species of water birds on Cranberry Lake this week.

Imagining Zugunruhe

In the children’s classic, Wind in the Willows, British author Kenneth Grahame creates a wonderful conversation between the non-migrating Water Rat (what we call a Muskrat) and migrating swallows. “No, you don’t understand, naturally,” said the second swallow. “First we feel it stirring within us, a sweet unrest; then back come the recollections one by one, like homing pigeons. They flutter through our dreams at night, they fly with us in our wheelings and circlings by day….never shall I forget the blissful feeling of the hot sun again on my back as I sped down to the lakes that lay so blue and placid below me, and the taste of my first fat insect! … ‘Ah yes, the call of the South, of the South!’ twittered the other two dreamily. ‘Its songs, its hues, its radiant air! O, do you remember—-‘ and, forgetting the Rat, they slid into passionate reminiscence.”

A fine, imaginative description of zugunruhe, don’t you think?

This Week at Bear Creek: Late Winter Odds ‘n’ Ends

 

Leap day in the marsh
Open water in the marsh, early in the week.
Cam in red winter coat BC
Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

Ah, late winter – mud one day, snowfall the next.  My first walk this week featured returning geese honking unseen among the marsh reeds, two Mallard pairs, muskrats feeding in open water, flocks of robins flitting among the trees.  Later in the week, I arrived in a steady snowfall, crows calling overhead, and a titmouse leaning into the wind.  Nothing that remarkable, really, just nature doing its between-season adaptations. In the snowy quiet,  I began noticing details –  a fancy willow gall, a strange beaded plant in the marsh, a fallen log cracked open to show the galleries created by carpenter ants.  So here are bits and pieces of an late winter/early spring week at Bear Creek.

Seduced by Signs of Spring

The weather warmed in the first half of the week.  A Muskrat family (Ondatra zibethicus) emerged in the marsh as soon as the ice broke. They must have been famished for both food and sunlight after swimming and eating under the ice for months. These furry marsh dwellers went bottoms-up in the icy water, pulling up vegetation, holding it between their paws and nibbling a mile a minute!  Perhaps you can see that this adult has a long stem of greenery in its clawed front foot.

Muskrat paws
A muskrat busily eating in shallow water at the marsh after a long, dark winter feeding under the ice.

Two adults seemed to be accompanied by two young muskrats.  One came steaming across the water, touched noses with its parent and then swam away as the adult ducked under  for food.

Young muskrat swims away
A young muskrat swims away as its parent dives for food.

According to the Washington Department of  Fish and Wildlife, young muskrats born at the end of the summer usually spend the winter with their parents.  In spring, they  establish their own territories within 300 feet of the adults.  A close-knit family!  The small muskrat above swam off to sit at the edge of the marsh, finding food at the shore on its own.

Muskrat in the marsh
The young muskrat settled on the shore to look for its own food.

Overhead, snow clouds gathered.  A single American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) called an alarm  and a small group of returning Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) winged their way high against a gray sky, calling to each other.  (Click photos to enlarge; hove cursor over photos for captions.)

While I was there, the geese hidden in the marsh honked vigorously at them, but stayed out of sight among the reeds.  So here’s a goose last March settling into the cold, snowy landscape.

Landing goose
A goose landing in the marsh in late winter

In the trees on the way into the park, a flock of American Robins (Turdus migratorius) darted back forth and across the path, some just clucking, others trying out a few notes of spring song as snow began to fall again.

Winter Robin Snow Buckthorn
A flock of robins darted and dove among the trees along the entrance to the park.

Male Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) from the marsh below our house landed in the bushes near our feeder at home again this week –  but for some reason, I have yet to see them in Bear Creek’s marsh.  The females haven’t arrived yet so the males at our house aren’t showing off their red epaulets much and only sing a shortened version of their well-known spring trill.

Update!  As of a warm Tuesday morning, the Blackbirds were all over the southern end of Bear Creek and around the Center Pond, trilling in the trees! I didn’t go to the marsh today, but I’m betting they are there now too.  So good to hear them on a beautiful morning!

Red-winged blackbird in Autumn Olive
Male Red-winged Blackbirds haven’t show up yet in the marsh, despite many of them in the trees around our feeder.  They aren’t showing much of their red epaulets or singing their full spring trill until the females arrive.

Winter Moves Back In

Big, beautiful snowflakes fell quickly on my next walk at Bear Creek.  The brown leaves still rustled on the Pin Oaks (Quercus palustris) that encircle the snowy playground .

Pin Oak in snowWhen I asked Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide why their leaves didn’t drop in the fall, he explained that this phenomenon is called “marescence.”  Deer (and in some regions, moose) nibble off twigs and bark from young trees during the winter.  Young Oaks, particularly Pin Oaks, being closer to the ground, retain their leaves as a way of discouraging nibblers! According to Wikipedia,  “Dead, dry leaves make the twigs less nutritious and less palatable” so large herbivores are less interested. Good survival strategy for young trees!

All over the park, the snow and wind had flattened last year’s Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), perhaps helping in the process of returning their nutrients to the soil.

Flattened goldenrod
Goldenrod, ready to return its nutrients to the soil, lay flattened by snow and wind.

Along the Eastern Path, an elegantly tufted  Pinecone Willow Gall caught my eye.  These little “pinecones” at the tips of branches,  formed by the plant’s reaction to Gall Midges (Rabdophaga strobiloides) laying their eggs,  can house over 30 insects eggs and larvae that are overwintering and will hatch in the spring.

Willow Gall Eastern Path
A Pinecone Willow Gall can host numerous insects eggs and larvae until spring.

According to Nature in Winter, by Donald Stokes, a study found that 23 willow galls yielded 564 insects of different species!  Birds must be appreciative of such abundance in the spring!

Ben informs me that the beaded plants standing like little sentinels in the southern part of the marsh are the  dark brown fertile fronds of the Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis), so called because early settlers noticed how quickly they react to frost. Those brown beads are called sori which according to Wikipedia are clusters of structures that produce and contain spores.  Hence its other name, Bead Fern.

Back in the woods, birds were coping with the wind and the snow.  I missed a shot in the park  but here’s a shot of a Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) from home doing the same thing.

Titmouse in snowstorm
A Tufted Titmouse leans into the wind as the snow falls

A crow took off from a tree in the snow as well.  Aren’t their finger-like wings impressive?

crow flying
A crow taking off as the snow falls.

A fallen log caught my eye because its sheared end revealed the galleries left by Carpenter Ants (Camponotus pennsylvanicus).  

Closeup carpenter ant galleries
The galleries of carpenter ants left inside a fallen tree

These galleries are used to keep the ants’ eggs, larvae and pupae at the proper temperature and moisture during the summer.  At the same time, they contribute to the wood’s decay which recycles the nutrients of dead trees back into the earth.  According to Stokes’ book, Nature in Winter, “As winter approaches, the colony “heads for the center of a log or to the underground part of their nest in order to minimize the rigors of the winter.” Stokes says that Pileated Woodpeckers  (Dryocopus pileatus) peck “huge holes in trees in order to feed on the [Carpenter]ants” during the winter.

Late in the week, after another snowfall or two, two pairs of  Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), having found partners in the late autumn, landed near the Muskrat who was again foraging in the marsh.

Mallards and muskrat in marsh
Two Mallard pairs and a muskrat in the chilly waters of the marsh.

Sharp Snow Shadows and  then… Spring?

weed shadow

Who knows how many snows remain before spring really arrives?  But in a month or so, the brown, white, and grey shades of winter with its sharp shadows on the snow will give way to the green haze, birdsong and trembling puddle reflections of spring.  Nature brings us different kinds of beauties in different seasons. That never fails to surprise and delight me.  I hope it does you too.

 

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