Tag Archives: American Crow

Late Winter Sparkle and Early Spring Music: Charles Ilsley and Cranberry Lake Parks

Do you mind if I briefly take you back to February? I know we’re all getting itchy to  step into spring. But here in southeast Michigan, the line between the two seasons blurs a bit in late February and March.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

So I want to remember that the tail end of winter has it charms – and then spend some time relishing the early signs of spring before the Equinox.

 

 

FEBRUARY:  Sparkling with Ice, Patterned with Prints and Revealing the Shapes of Slopes and Seedheads!

Winter sparkling down the Hickory Lane at Cranberry Lake Park in February

Accompanied by our familiar year ’round birds and a few winter visitors, bundled against bitter days, I spent most of February in two parks – Cranberry Lake Park and Charles Ilsley Park. I puzzled over prints in the snow, admired ice patterns and worked at  re-identifying last year’s wildflowers by their winter architecture.

Wild Neighbors Make Brief Appearances on a Winter Day

It’s always a great comfort to me on a winter walk, when my numb fingers resist taking photos, that birds and animals keep me company. At Charles Ilsley Park, an American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) scrambled onto a branch near me with its mouth stretched around a large nut, perhaps a walnut that had lost its outer covering since dropping last fall. The squirrel was so intent on conquering its prize nut that I got a quick shot before it jumped out of sight.

An American Red Squirrel with a nut almost too big for its jaws!

On a Cranberry Lake Park walk in February, through the thicket of tree branches, the birding group caught sight of a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) on a perch near the lake, scanning for prey. It had plumped up against the cold and looked just a bit disgruntled. Perhaps that morning had brought slim pickings.

A cold, perhaps hungry Red-tailed Hawk didn’t look too happy on a cold morning near Cranberry Lake.

American Tree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea) visit us just for the winter and are everywhere now. With their gray breasts centered with a black spot and a nice chesnut cap and eyeline, they’re by far the most obvious sparrow in the parks in winter – and they make a friendly twitter when they’re flocking. On my coldest day at Cranberry, I saw one huddled in the dry stems of a field as an icy wind ruffled its feathers. It would venture out periodically to grab a few seeds and then hunker down again in the grass. But on a sunnier day, one perched quite calmly on a dry stem of non-native Common Mullein. At Ilsley, several whooshed up from the fields in small flocks and dispersed as I passed. [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

Across Ilsley’s central prairie, high up on a tall snag, I spotted a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus). If you click on the left photo, you’ll see its head peeking above a short branch in the crotch of the dead tree. I began to take a series of slow, cautious steps in its direction, but it spotted my camera raised and sailed off into the distance, the large white patches under each wing flashing in the sunlight. To the right you can see those white under wings in a fine photo by dpdawes at inaturalist.org, who got a lot closer to her/his bird than I did to mine!

Near Ilsley’s north prairie, a lengthy repetition of the “Kwirrrr” call alerted me to my constant winter companion, the Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus). Hitching along a distant tree trunk searching out insect eggs or larvae, this male multi-tasked, firmly establishing his territory with calls while continuing to forage. I clicked the shutter in a hurry when he paused to check for any threats or other males in the area.

A foraging Red-bellied Woodpecker stops foraging long enough to be sure another male isn’t in his territory!

At Ilsley, I followed a flock of American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) as they surged from one treetop to the next. Eventually one ventured close to me, as if checking my intentions. From what I learned in the Cornell crow class, this is likely an older member of a crow family since it has a few white feathers.

The white feathers on this crow make me think it could be an old one. Crows can live as long as 19 years.

And then there are creatures who just have a faulty sense of timing. Somehow, my husband and I spotted this tiny fly perched on the edge of a boot print at Charles Isley Park. Dr. Gary Parsons from Michigan State identified it for me as a Snail-eating Fly  (family Sciomyzidae, possible  genus Dictya), so named because the larval young of this fly have a preference for snails. He guessed that it probably “woke from it winter nap” prematurely, fooled by  a warm, melting winter day. I like its intricately patterned wings and legs!

A tiny Snail-eating Fly poised at the edge of a boot print at Charles Ilsley Park.  It most likely mistook a warmish winter afternoon for a spring day .

Some Wild Neighbors Leave Only Hints of their Presence

Part of the fun in a winter walk is trying to figure out a creature’s presence only from the prints they leave behind. Walking down the Hickory Lane, I saw the flash of an Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) as it dashed across the trail and into a tree hole so slim it seemed impossible that the squirrel could  fit inside! But it left its tracks behind as it approached the tree and leapt toward the trunk.

A large mammal left clues to its activity down near Cranberry Lake. I approached the lake on an icy day. I wanted to see  if the beaver I’d seen evidence of last year had come out of its den again to find some extra tree bark to chew on this winter. As I approached, bright scarlet fruits caught my attention, vivid against the silver of a frosty morning. Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Stewardship Manager, later identified them as the rose hips of a Swamp Rose (Rosa palustris). Color is such eye candy in the winter months!  And just beyond, as I prowled the frozen ground near the lake, was the evidence I sought – a tree stump recently gnawed to a point by what could only be a North American Beaver (Castor canadensis).

I cautiously stepped out onto the ice, but it held. Off in the distance, the snow lay like white satin on the lake’s surface. Around a bend in the shore, the beaver’s den loomed a bit larger this year and yes! I could see the raw end of a recently cut log protruding from its den. How the beaver stuck it in there mystifies me but the bark should make a cozy meal for the beaver/s inside on a cold day. A few other recently added sticks protruded from either side.

Pondering Snow Prints

Tracks of all kinds filigree the landscape on a winter morning. The birding group noticed the small canine tracks of what we guessed was some sort of Fox probably a Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) since it was in an open area rather than a woods. A neat line of single prints usually means a wild canine and these were rather small as they curved around the turkey breeder building at Cranberry Lake Park. The coyote’s tracks at Charles Ilsley Park have the same features but are considerably larger. Coyotes are mating now so you’ll see more of their twisty, fur-filled scat along the trails as they mark the boundaries of their territory. (I’ll spare you a scat photo….)

Lots of smaller creatures are scurrying about on the snow during the night. An indecisive White-footed Mouse (Peromyscus leucopus) left its “sewing machine” tracks in the snow as it apparently darted out into a trail twice, retreated each time and then finished dashing across to dive into a tiny hole on the far side. I’m wondering if the strange track in the center photo is that of a Meadow Vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus) that nosed about just under the surface of the snow.  I’m guessing that from the fact that Voles stay closer to the surface when they burrow in the grass, leaving larger furrows than the smaller mice. But if anyone has a better idea, I’m open to it. And by the size, I’m guessing that tidy little squirrel print on the right is probably that of a pausing American Red Squirrel.

And can anyone guess what made this pattern of polka-dots all over the snow around Cranberry Lake Park one February morning? My first guess was snow melt dripping from the limbs, but I’ve seen a lot of thawing snow and I’ve never seen this tapioca design before. Maybe air bubbles being driven up from below? Anyone have a theory on this one?

What could have made these polka-dots in the snow cover? I’m mystified.

Admiring the Stark Architecture of Last Year’s Wildflowers

One of my goals is to be as familiar  with wildflowers in winter as I’m becoming in summer. I love the linear designs they make against the sere backdrop of a winter field. Here are a few examples paired with their summer finery.

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MARCH:  The Sweet Song of Running Water,Migrators Appear, Buds Swell –  but Can It Last?

Is it spring yet, or the last hurrahs of winter? It was hard to tell on an early spring  day when snow still lay beneath the russet tapestry of dry plants on Charles Ilsley Park’s west prairie. But a brisk wind chased the cloud shadows across the field and it sure felt like spring. (Turn up your volume to hear the wind and the Blue Jay calling.)

First Bursts of Irrepressible Spring Song!

A good pre-spring sign is that male birds have already begun trilling their familiar mating songs. A male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) flew down near me and threw back his head to let forth his song. As usual, he turned 180 degrees to sing in both directions, in an effort, no doubt, to broadcast his presence as widely as possible!

A Northern Cardinal singing his spring song at Charles Ilsley Park

We’re all pretty familiar with the Black-Capped Chickadee’s call (Poecile atricapillus). After all, “Chickadee-dee-dee” is how it got its name! But oddly, in spring they sing a very simple, two note song to establish territory or attract a mate. I couldn’t get a good shot of the lothario that I watched hopping manically from limb to limb at Ilsley, so the song recording below is his, but the photo is from an early spring in 2016.

A Chickadee in Red-Twig Osier.

The Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) have been around off and on all winter. But just lately, they’ve started checking out the bluebird boxes in our parks. Here’s a female evaluating the real estate at Charles Ilsley Park.

A female Eastern Bluebird checking out a nest box at Charles Ilsley Park.

Not all spring sounds, though, are mating calls. Our township stewardship manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, heard the exquisitely high, piercing call of two Golden-crowned Kinglets (Regulus satrapa) at Cranberry Lake Park during the bird walk last week. Cornell tells us that “This is one of the first bird songs that people stop being able to hear as they age.” Ahem…that’s me, I’m afraid. I did see them quickly through my binoculars but never got a camera on them. Here’s a photo of one of these pretty little migrators taken by cedimaria, a photographer at iNaturalist.org. Sometimes these Kinglets appear during the winter in our area, but it’s more likely that the one we heard and saw was on its way north to breed at the tip of the Mitten, or in Canada.

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

Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) flew far over head at Ilsley, braying their prehistoric call and by the first week in March, a male Red-winged Blackbird burst forth with his buzzing trill on a thistle stalk. The females will arrive in a few weeks.

The Trickle of the Thaw and Buds!

At Ilsley, water seemed to be finding it way everywhere as the ice melted in various wetlands. Within the eastern prairie, a narrow rivulet appeared to have sculpted a beautiful little ice cave under the snow. My husband and I were mystified as how it formed.  We thought perhaps the water beneath the ice had drained away along the narrow line to the right and part of the ice had dropped, because the inside of the cave was bone dry. But we’re just guessing. Anyone have a better theory?

A little ice cave formed on the eastern edge of a wetland in the prairie at Charles  Ilsley Park.

I could envision that  a small creature might shelter overnight in this wee cave for protection, since the ground within was dry!

The ice cave looked as though it could shelter a small creature at night.

Elsewhere at Ilsley, the trickle of water signaled hope for spring. Over in the woods, one of the ice covered wetlands had melted enough that a stream ran away from it into the trees.

A melting wetland feeds a stream running through the woods on the northern side of Ilsley’s Eastern Prairie.

And nearby, a brilliant spear-shaped mound of moss took advantage of all the water and glowed in the thin sunlight.

A spear of moss near at wetland at Ilsley.

The swelling, red buds of Silver Maples (Acer saccharinum) always give me hope in March so I keep checking on them each time I explore the path into Ilsley from the west. And in Cranberry Lake Park, Ben spotted the first cottony plumes of Pussy Willow (Salix discolor) breaking into the cold spring air. I’ve loved those fuzzy signs of spring since childhood when they bloomed right outside my family’s  kitchen window.

The Best Kind of “Social Distance”

The Northern Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park in early March

As I finish this blog, the COVID-19 virus has taken hold in Michigan and we are instructed to avoid crowded places and keep a “social distance” from others for at least the rest of the month. That certainly makes perfect sense, but it can make all of us feel a bit isolated. Luckily, nature invites us out into the fields and woods where no threats exist really, except maybe wet feet and some spring mud. Wildlife has always believed in “social distance” so no problem there; they consistently respect my space by taking off when they see me  – as my camera can attest!

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So now’s the ideal moment to re-acquaint yourself and your family with the infinite variety of the natural world. Leave behind the confines of a centrally heated home and let the moist, cold air of March tickle your nose and redden your cheeks. Open a door and listen to the dawn chorus of the songbirds. (Listen for Sandhill Cranes down in the marsh at the end!)

Watch for bursting buds and catch your own reflection in a mud puddle.  Discover the joys of darkness and silence while watching the stars on a clear, moonless night.  Maybe we can rediscover all that we’ve been missing in the hubbub of a “normal” day. And that way, we can turn our “social distance” into an adventure in the wild  for ourselves and our children.

The Case for Crows: Bright, Sociable Homebodies

 

The American Crow – a personal favorite

Let me try to persuade you (if persuasion is required) to join me in admiring the American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos). My early interest in these birds was nourished years ago when as a bookstore owner, I hosted an author presentation by Jean Craighead George about her middle grade book, The Tarantula in My Purse. (I know, great title!) The book chronicled Jean’s many adventures with various animals, including a crow she rescued as a fledgling that her children named Crowbar. Crowbar’s exploits with the George family were hilarious and brilliantly portrayed the bird’s ingenuity. An example: when Jean’s daughter complained that the crow was taking toys from her sandbox, her mother suggested she play on the slide, since the crow with its large, taloned feet couldn’t do that. Crowbar observed the child gaily swooping down the slide a few times, then flew to the sandbox, plucked up a plastic coffee can lid, flew to the top of the slide, stepped onto the lid and sailed down the slide! Another example: Jean once placed candy party favors under upside-down paper cups to keep Crowbar from bothering them. Crowbar waited until Jean was in the kitchen, then carefully tapped the little cups to the side of the table until the candy fell out, ate it, and then neatly tapped the cups back in place to hide his misdeed.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

So imagine my delight when the Bird Academy at Cornell Lab of Ornithology offered a 3-hour online course on crows taught by Dr. Kevin McGowan who’s studied these birds for 30 years! I signed up at once for “Anything but Common: The Hidden Life of the American Crow.” Since winter walks don’t offer much birdsong – but do frequently feature crow calls – I thought I’d take this opportunity to share some of what I’ve learned and my general enthusiasm for the American Crow.

First, the Bad Rap on Crows

Crows find a deer carcass provides a lot of protein on a winter day.

Let’s get the complaints about crows out of the way first. I know some friends who are frightened of crows or at least “creeped out” by them. The main reason seems to be that part of their diet is carrion. But consider, cleaning up carcasses is actually a service to both us and the ecosystem, since it reprocesses lots of nasty stuff that we don’t have to deal with! Crows eat just about anything –  sumac berries, wild cherries, seeds, fish, discarded pizza – whatever! They are often disliked because they do occasionally consume baby birds. But guess what! The most lethal predator of baby birds in our area is this guy!

Chipmunks are a major predator of baby birds;  crows are one of the least.

Yes, the chief wild predator of nestlings in the northern United States is chipmunks –  and their relatives the squirrels! They’re omnivores and excellent, quick tree climbers. In the southern U.S., the main predators of baby birds are snakes:

Snakes are the largest predator of baby birds in the southern US. This is an Eastern Garter Snake.

Dr. McGowan cites a meta-analysis study done in 2007 (“Factors Affecting Nest Predation on Forest Songbirds in North America“, F.R. Thomson). Out of 245 predation events on nestlings by wild animals, only 2 were caused by crows. Chipmunks, squirrels and snakes consumed half of the nestlings in the study. Outdoor cats kill a lot more baby birds than crows and among wild creatures, raptors, insects, cowbirds, jays, and mice are all more likely to kill or dine on baby birds than crows. Birds eggs are most often eaten by raccoons and opossums. So I think we can dispense with the notion that crows are killing lots of songbirds.

But you don’t want to park your car under trees in which large groups of crows roost on a winter night – very messy! And they can tear things apart trying to get at garbage or any kind of available food. Early morning is a noisy time to be around a family of crows, too, especially in the spring when young crows are hungry and insistent that they be fed right now! Crows are also loud and boisterous in flocks and a flock can consume large amounts of seed, which doesn’t endear them to farmers, of course!

You don’t want to park your car under roosting crows in the winter! Photo by jdkatzvt at iNaturalist.org (CC-BY-NC)

Now On to the Positives!

So yes, like all animals, crows can cause problems. But crows also provide a variety of services within a habitat. They keep insect and rodent populations under control, as well as some agricultural pests like Japanese beetles and corn borers. Their nests are often acquired by some owls and merlins who don’t make their own. And crows are superlative sentinels, warning other creatures about predators on a regular basis, as you’ve probably noticed when they start cawing whenever you’re around.

And of course, they become prey for higher predators; the Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) is the most dangerous predator for adult crows.

Great Horned Owls are the creature most likely to feast on adult crows.

Raccoons (Procyon lotor) eat crow eggs and nestlings too, and occasionally add insult to injury by sleeping in the nest once they’ve finished! The birding group may have seen one of these culprits at Cranberry Lake Park a few years ago. The nest was made of sticks like crow’s nest are, and this raccoon looked quite content to be there early in the morning  – after a late night snack perhaps?

An apparently young raccoon waking up in what may be a crow’s nest, probably after feasting on eggs or even nestlings.

Crows will also “mob” hawks in their territory since raptors take a fair number of crow eggs.

Two crows attacking hawk
Crows harassing a hawk at Bear Creek Nature Park

But what intrigues me about crows are some of their special qualities, ones that are unusual in nature.

Crows Enjoy Family Life (or what scientists call “cooperative breeding”)

A family – not a “gang” or a “murder” –  of crows on Buell Road in 2016

In all seasons, crows hang out with their family, which usually includes a monogamous pair, this year’s young, plus young from previous years. None of the brownish yearlings breed. Some female crows can breed at 2 years old, but generally mature when the males do, at about 4 – 5 years of age. So during this long adolescence, they generally stay with their family and help out with nest building as well as caring for and feeding their younger siblings. According to Dr. McGowan, that’s a rare trait in birds.

Crow pairs are generally monogamous and occasionally will preen each other.

They also stick close to home, defending their territory year ’round, but they feel free to go off territory to forage and roost. They move together, feeding or just hanging around – but one of the family members is  always on guard, signaling when danger approaches. Both adults and young will groom each other occasionally, which is called “allopreening.” So Dr. McGowan admonishes us that if we see a group of 2-15 crows gathering consistently in one place, “it’s not a gang, it’s not a ‘murder.’ It’s a family.”

Crows are Social Creatures (or What Dr. McGowan Calls  “Fun- loving Party Animals!”)

A large flock of crows in the autumn at Bear Creek Nature Park

Dr. McGowan likes the fact that crows “never do anything quietly or alone.” Their families live within larger communities of crows. Foraging flocks can swell to 250 crows or more in January, and then drop off to 50 or so in April when breeding starts. As soon as the fledglings can fly, though, the numbers in flocks go right back up. A crow flock changes from day to day; an individual crow may spend time with different groups every day. Blackbirds and geese, I learned, are the same way.

Crows gather in large roosts starting in late fall. Photo by ellen hildebrandt (CC BY-NC) at iNaturalist.org

In winter, crows gather into very large groups to spend the nights together in huge “slumber parties,”  as McGowan calls them. They’re probably seeking safety in numbers from predators, since crows see no better at night then we do. These huge roosts can contain birds from areas farther north who are unfamiliar with the territory. They may be keeping an eye on the birds that look best fed,  so they can follow them when they go out to forage in the morning.

Researchers think that these social groups serve several other functions. The younger crows may be testing themselves as they call, chase and hold mock fights. They may  be trying to determine whether they’re going to breed soon or stay with their family for another year. Social groups provide a good opportunity for finding both your competition and your potential mate. In some cases, the young hang out in social groups during the day, but go home to their parents at night. Or they may spend part of the day being social and part of the day on their home territory.

Do Crows Have Empathy?

According to Dr. McGowan, the social nature of crows also shows up in some other interesting ways. He has seen crows “adopt” young from outside their family. A bird rehabilitator that my husband and I once knew received a crow with a broken wing, healed it and then put it in a big, open aviary in her back yard. A large group of crows gathered around the aviary and called to the bird inside for three days, until it finally flew out and joined them. An adoption? Or perhaps a family encouraging an injured member to rejoin them? Dr. McGowan, who tags each baby bird for identification, probably could have told us, but I’ll never know.

Dr. McGowan also documented on film a crow coming upon an unrelated crow that was seriously ill – weak, encrusted eyes, almost asleep out in the open during the day. Though the male was foraging for his mate, he stopped and put a seed in the sick female’s beak – and two other unrelated crows did the same shortly thereafter. I wondered if this behavior may have contributed to the huge die-off of crows from West Nile virus several years ago.

The Crows and Their Relatives (Corvidae) are Smart!

An American Crow with a nut. Photo by Scott Buckel (CC BY-NC) at iNaturalist.org

Because crows demonstrate so many unusual kinds of intelligence, they’re occasionally referred to as “feathered apes.” You may have seen the PBS Nova sequence on YouTube in which University of Washington researchers donned a variety of masks around campus, but one researcher wore a caveman mask when climbing to crow nests in order to weigh, measure, tag and band the young. Ten years later, the crows still reacted negatively to someone wearing that mask – gathering, calling and sometimes even attacking the person in the caveman mask! Evidently, the information from that mask is remembered and passed on within the crow community to birds not yet born when the mask was used!

The Cornell Bird Academy finds the same memory in a more positive sense. Crows recognize Dr. McGowan since he feeds crows peanuts to attract them for study; they even come up behind him, recognizing his walk. One crow who saw him leaving the Ornithology Lab, flew down to the far end of a parking lot and perched in front of his Subaru waiting for him to arrive with a peanut!  It knew his car as well as his face, despite the fact that were many Subarus in the parking lot.

New Caledonian Crows (Corvus moneduloides) in the South Pacific make tools to get at food – saw-toothed tools, curved ones and others. Here’s a video of a wild female crow in the lab of Russell Gray at the  University of Auckland in New Zealand.  She creates a hook by  sticking a straight metal stick under the duct tape at the bottom of a tube and then carefully bending it around the tube. Her hook complete, she then uses it to pick up a small bucket of food from within the tube. Pretty creative for those creatures that we disparage as “bird-brained!”

A New Caledonian Crow preparing to use its tool by Frédéric Desmoulins (CC BY-NC) at iNaturalist.org

A Common Raven (Corvus corax), the American Crow’s larger Northern relative, was documented in Scandinavia using its beak and foot to haul up an ice fisherman’s line to grab his catch. The PBS video on YouTube has clearly been staged for the camera, but demonstrates nicely what the raven learned to do when a camera wasn’t around.

A Common Raven by Catchang (CC BY-NC) at iNaturalist.org

And yet another favorite video comes from the science section of the New York Times.  An American Crow, after being taught to pick up rocks, quickly figures out how to raise the water level in a tube to get at a piece of floating food.  Aesop’s fable come to life! (Be patient – a short ad comes first.)

Seasons of a Crow’s Life

Crow on a snowy day on Lake George Road

Winter:  Huge flocks of dozens or hundreds or crows can gather at night. According to the Bird Academy class, the largest on record had as many as a thousand crows! Where many pines are available, hundreds of them will often disappear inside the branches for shelter. In areas where only deciduous trees are available, they will make do and sleep more exposed on bare branches.

In just the last 20-30 years, crows have begun to nest and roost at night in suburban and urban areas. Crows have always foraged in towns, but generally flew to fields outside of towns when darkness fell. Dr. McGowan attributes this change to several factors:  loss of natural habitat due to development, safety from predators due to city lights,  abundant food, simple curiosity and freedom from being hunted. The Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1970 allows crows to be shot but only in season; urban and suburban areas, though, generally  forbid hunting – a plus for the crows.

March and April: Around the time of the first serious snow melt, watch for crows carrying sticks.   They construct their nests high up in trees, usually just below the top or in the top quarter of a tree in a crotch or on horizontal branches.  The outer surface is all sticks, but the inner lining may be made of pine needles or animal hair from dogs or deer.  The whole crow family may help build a new nest each year.Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Stewardship Manager, spotted this nicely camouflaged nest filled with snow at Draper Twin Lake Park.  From the location and its stick construction, I’m guessing it’s a crow nest.

A well-camouflaged, snow-covered crow nest at Draper Twin Lake Park

April to May:  Females make a new high-pitched crow sound that the Cornell staff calls “whining.” They think it may be a signal that the female is hungry since males and their family helpers often fly to her with food when they hear it. The female lays 3-9 bluish to olive green eggs with gray or brown splotches near the egg’s large end. The female incubates the eggs for 18 -19 days and broods the little nestlings for an unusually long time, 5-6 weeks! As a comparison, our Eastern Bluebirds brood their nestlings for only 16-18 days.  Crows usually have 1-2 clutches per year.

June to July: Dr. McGownan describes the summer months  as often the noisiest time of the year for crows. Fledglings mouths are bright red inside as they beg loudly to be fed.  (Listen to the fledgling call at this link.) The nestlings and fledglings don’t venture far from the nest if they leave at all in this period.

A juvenile crow begging for food by Michelle at iNaturalist.org (CC BY-NC-SA)

September:  By now, baby crows are practicing more of their sounds. The crows start to forage outside of their territory again.  Gangs of fledglings and yearlings may gather together wherever they find a food source. The family feeds the fledglings for two months after they’re out of the nest, so it takes roughly 4 months of work to raise a family of crows – a long time in the bird world.

No Wonder I Like Crows!

An American crow acting as sentinel for its family.

Crows live relatively long lives for a bird, about 20 years –  and their feathers start to turn white here and there about halfway through their long lives. (Hmm…sounds familiar.) They clearly pass on information from one generation to another. Some of them are tool makers. Though DNA tests done at Cornell show there is infidelity among crow pairs (what researchers call “extra-pair breeding”),  the majority are monogamous and family-oriented.  In his 30 years of research, Dr. McGowan has only found one crow killed by another crow; killing their own kind is extremely rare. They clearly remember both good experiences and bad ones for a long time. In other words, despite being wild, winged creatures with vastly different lives, they still have many things in common with us humans.

Let’s see…crows can be described as a species that is social, curious, mischievous, creative, birds that enjoy investigating new things. Generalists rather than specialists, their behavior and skills show lots of variety and they enjoy a palate that ranges from nuts, seeds and berries to meat, beer and pizza. It occurs to me that those are some of the qualities I enjoy in my friends and family! So no wonder crows fascinate me – and I hope that now, they intrigue you a bit, too.

Bear Creek Nature Park: A Welcoming Refuge from the Holiday “Must-do’s!”

The meadow west of the Center Pond in December

At our house, we’ve just emerged from the joyful-but-somewhat-frantic bustle of the festive season. From just before Thanksgiving through the New Year, we enjoyed the noise, color and craziness of the holiday with lots of friends and family  – but it feels like we just didn’t stop moving for weeks!  I imagine that’s true for lots of you too.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

I managed to keep some  scraps of my sanity by – you guessed it – venturing out into the parks. Our home is about five minutes from Bear Creek Nature Park; that became my most frequent escape hatch. So here’s a look at the wildness nearby that (with a small nod to Will Shakespeare) knit the raveled sleeve of my cares during the last several weeks.

 

It All Began before Thanksgiving…

Ice forming on the Center Pond on a bitter day in November

In the first half of November, before the rush of the festive season, wild visitors from farther north began to filter into Bear Creek. The birding group got a glimpse of a Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca) in the bushes. These large, chubby sparrows are usually rusty red with chevrons forming the stripes on their breasts. Since I didn’t get a good shot that day, here’s one in a very similar setting from generous iNaturalist photographer, Joseph Salmieri.

A Fox Sparrow by Joseph Salmieri (CC BY-NC) at iNaturalist.org

The birding group also saw a flock of Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) feeding in the grass along a path in early November. These birds make lovely black dashes against the snow on a winter day. They travel here from their breeding grounds in Canada – perhaps all the way from Hudson’s Bay! They’re often my first real sign that winter’s on its way.

A Dark-eyed Junco along the trail at Bear Creek in early November

The second half of November bore down on me suddenly since Thanksgiving came so late this year. Snow fell; the temperature dropped. Yikes! Time to design Christmas cards, turn my photos into a family calendar, think about gifts for special people. Out in the park, birds kept me company to soothe my jitters. One afternoon, my husband and I came across what seemed to be a friendly gathering of birds. Five species hung out together, moving about foraging and chattering in a grove of small trees near where Bear Creek runs out of the pond.

Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) caught our attention first as they chatted in a small tree. A male House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) listened in from behind a branch. The bluebirds probably moved a little farther south to escape the cold for a while, though some may return for short visits during the winter and some may be year ’round residents.

Five bluebirds socialize before moving south while the House Finch, a year ’round resident, listens in from behind a branch.

The House Finch just bears up in the cold of a Michigan winter. Like other small winter residents, he keeps warm by crunching on copious amounts of seed and fluffing his feathers into a winter jacket.

house-finch-male-bc.jpg
A male House Finch will stay with us all winter. Love how the red shows between his wings!

The woodpeckers, too, are a hardy crew. A Downy Woopecker male (Dryobates pubescens) tapped along a tree trunk searching for insects eggs or a frozen caterpillar, quite uninterested in the bluebirds.

A male Downy Woodpecker kept up a tapping rhythm near the bluebirds.

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) joined the gathering on a nearby Wild Black Cherry tree (Prunus serotina). He seemed to be craning his neck to hear what was going on with the bluebirds behind him! But in reality, of course, he was just demonstrating the caution that all wild birds do when feeding.

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker looks about while foraging at another tree trunk.

The fifth member of the bird gathering was the industrious Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor), who pretty much ignored the others, having found something very interesting at the end of a branch.

A Tufted Titmouse sees something worth its attention at the end of a dead branch.

On the big loop path beyond the bird gathering, a White Oak leaf (Quercus alba) testified to the frigid temperatures. The water droplets on it had frozen and magnified the leaf’s veins in a way that always fascinates me.

Frozen water droplets function like a magnifying glass on a white oak leaf.

Our feeders at home got busy around Thanksgiving as well, providing visual entertainment as we buzzed by the windows, working on Christmas projects. New guests arrived at the feeder this year – the Hairy Woodpeckers (Dryobates villosus). Here the female sits in an aging black oak outside the window, just beyond the feeder.

A female Hairy Woodpecker in profile shows off her long, thick beak.

It’s sometimes hard to distinguish the Hairy from the Downy Woodpecker at a distance.  But when both arrive at a feeder at the same time, the difference in size is readily apparent!

The Hairy Woodpecker has a much heavier bill and is much larger than the Downy when seen up close at a feeder!

The Holiday Pace Picks up in December…

Eastern Meadow at Bear Creek on a later winter afternoon

Oh, boy. Hurried wrapping of presents for family in Australia. Multiple trips to the Post Office to send calendars to friends overseas and around the States. Trips out of town for special gifts. But on the way home from the errands, a stop at Bear Creek to slow down, breathe the sharp air and redden my cheeks.

One dark, late afternoon and as I entered the park, I noted an alarming sight. A lovely but deadly Oriental Bittersweet vine (Celastrus orbiculatus) had wrapped itself around a tiny tree. This terribly invasive plant will slowly strangle this sapling if it isn’t carefully removed and its roots treated with herbicide. Sad that such a colorful vine should have such a powerfully negative impact! Birds do eat the berries at times, but unfortunately get very little nutrition from them.

Vines like this invasive Oriental Bittersweet that wrap around trees can strangle them. And the berries have scant nutrition for our birds.

Looking for more benign color, I came across lots of rich green moss (phylum Bryophyta) in the forest. Mosses, unlike plants, can actually grow very slowly in cold temperatures, if not under snow or ice. Some mosses actually survive in Antarctica! Our mosses cope with winter winds by being close to the ground and benefit from the moisture of winter rain and melting snow. They can also go dormant when moisture is low and then regenerate quickly after a rain. What a relief to the eye to come across these bright green mosses on a wintry day! [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

A golden fungus and a bright yellow lichen appeared at various places in the park in December.  These bright touches against bark or leaves always catch my attention on a gray winter day.

Reminders of summer past help me put things back in perspective during the  holiday bustle. An abandoned nest of what I think was Bald-faced Hornets (Dolichovespula maculata) hung low in bush. Yellow Jacket Wasps (Vespula maculifrons) also build aerial nests occasionally, as well as using underground burrows, but theirs are usually higher up than this one. The hornets created this masterpiece with overlapping, striped scallops. Since the hornets nicely camouflaged the nest in a leafy bush, I’d missed it completely in the summer. Amazing that these tiny creatures can create such a beautiful design on the outside of their architecture and those myriad, perfect hexagons inside!

Along the path to the west of the Playground Pond, the abandoned, but still intact nest of last summer’s Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) swung gently in the winter air, but no fledglings rock within it now. Another architectural marvel, this one was woven out of plant fibers over the course of one to two weeks by a female Oriole. Such sturdy nests and they’re only used for one season!

A Baltimore Oriole nest woven last spring by a female using only her beak! And it’s sturdy enough to survive winter winds!

Some summer plants still stand tall in the fields, bearing their seeds for hungry birds. The giant Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) has done its duty. It’s  been picked clean, probably by the flocks of American Goldfinches in the park.

Prairie Dock from last summer has already offered up its seeds for hungry birds.

Its huge, spotted leaves that feel like sandpaper in the summer now lie crumbling beneath the stately stalks.

The huge, sandpaper-like leaves of Prairie Dock are now giving their nutrients back to the soil.

In December, Goldfinches had not yet devoured the seeds of this Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis). This one was so fluffy that it looked like it was dressed in a down jacket for the winter. But with winter wind and wet, heavy snow, it will bow down to the ground before spring, making way for new sprouts.

A Canada Goldenrod still stands upright, looking like its dressed for winter weather.

One afternoon, my husband I found a gorgeous rock embedded with quartz crystals. From its location, I’m guessing it was  hidden under a vernal pool for most of the year. It shone white in the winter woods, looking like a stray snowball from a distance. Isn’t the coloring and crystal structure lovely? So rare to see such a large, white rock.

A beautiful white rock, perhaps granite mixed with quartz and feldspar crystals.

And Then the Post-Holiday Slow-down

Bear Creek meanders south from Gunn Road to join Paint Creek just west of the Paint Creek Cider mill.

Presents are put away.  Decorations are being stored in the basement. The bevy of much beloved guests is dwindling. And the park has gone mostly silent. Perhaps you’ve noticed that birds are a bit tougher to see or hear in Bear Creek Nature Park now. Sometimes they’re present, but I wonder if  their diminished numbers may be due to something good – a plentitude of winter feeders in the surrounding neighborhoods.

On our last visit, we heard a Red-bellied Woodpecker in the woods on the township hall trail and perhaps the “ank-ank-ank” of a White-breasted Nuthatch somewhere on the Big Loop. We watched a family of American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) settling into some tall trees off the western field. The adults arrived first and one began calling. When no young arrived, the calling adult looked back at its mate and they cawed until all the presumably younger members gathered with them in the tree tops. Crow families often stay together for more than one season, the young helping the adults feed the nestlings of the next generation. Such intelligent and social birds!

Down at the Center Pond, the ice had temporarily melted and a pair of Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) glided across the dark surface. They’ve evidently made their December choice of partners and will now spend the winter together before mating in the spring.

A mallard couple keeping company on the pond while the ice is gone.

Signs of spring feel rare and welcome after Christmas and its encouraging to notice that plants have already made preparations. A fuzzy little Thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana) held onto its seeds at the edge of a woodland trail. This plant produces oblong fruits with a thimble-like shape and pattern in summer that change into cottony tufts full of seeds in the fall. It keeps its seeds right into winter and depends on the wind to spread them. But it has another couple of strategies for survival. It produces a substance that discourages other seeds around it from germinating and its tap root is accompanied by rhizomes (underground stems that sprout and make roots) that allow it to spread beneath the soil. Look how its seed tufts in the photo below just happened to form an image of a frowning human profile, something I didn’t notice until I developed the photo! What fun!

I call this tufted seedhead Thimbleweed Man. Do you see the profile face looking right in the top stem?

The trees produce leaf buds in the fall which sometimes have a waxy surface to help retain moisture in the winter cold. The American Dogwood (Cornus florida) makes neat, round, little flower buds that face upward at the branch tips. Separately and sometimes just below the flower buds are leaf buds. I’ve only found one American Dogwood in Bear Creek Nature Park ; it’s on the east side of the Big Loop. Each fall and winter, I look eagerly for these buds with their pointed tops turned to the sun. In spring, I enjoy the way the white bracts (modified leaves) open to reveal a small cluster of yellow flowers at the center.

I saw this lovely bud on the Big Loop but can’t identify it yet! I loved its golden glow on a gray day! If any of you know which tree produced this bud, please tell me in the comments! It almost looks as though the leaves started to break from their buds with the warmer temperatures after the holidays.

A mystery plant – but isn’t its bud a pretty color?

Down near the Center Pond, I spotted the cache of an American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) beneath the trunk of an old Shagbark Hickory tree (Carya ovata). I could hear the owner scolding me from deep within the tangled brush nearby, but I never got a clear look at it. Shagbark Hickory is a fine example of how productive native trees can be in their habitat. According to the Illinois Wildflower website, these big, distinctive trees provide sweet nuts for raccoons, squirrels, chipmunks and many birds. Their leaves host a wide variety of insect caterpillars and so are often sought out by birds like chickadees, vireos, warblers and others. The long shards of shaggy bark provide winter shelter for insects and even nesting sites for small birds like the Brown Creeper. And they’re deer and fire resistant! – though the saplings may be gnawed by rabbits. What a contributor to a healthy habitat!

The consumed cache of an American Red Squirrel at the foot of a large Shagbark Hickory which supplied most of the nuts. Hope this squirrel has other caches for the coming winter months!
Shagbark Hickory bark provides winter shelter for overwintering insects and nesting sites for birds.

On the way back down to the Township Hall the day after Christmas, we spotted the festive bark of another tree. Nice Christmas colors,eh?

The reddish bark and green moss on this Sassafras tree looked quite festive at the holiday season!

Ben identified the tree for me as one of the tallest Sassafras trees (Sassafras albidum) that he’s ever seen. We were certainly impressed! Its bark can sheer off, leaving this red layer exposed. Sassafras is another generous host, providing food for butterfly caterpillars like the Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus), the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) and for many moths. Bobwhites, Wild Turkeys and many songbirds feed on their pitted fruits called “drupes.”

A very tall, native Sassafras tree on the trail from the Township Hall

The Comforts of “Home” on a Winter Walk

A Walnut tree against a stormy sky at Bear Creek Park

Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that… wildness is a necessity.”
― John Muir, in Our National Parks

Sometimes I notice that I’ve become an “over-civilized” person, don’t you? I find myself feeling crabby from too many “must-do’s,” feeling hemmed in by walls and getting stale from breathing what feels like the same old air. That’s when I rediscover Muir’s insight.  Wildness really is a necessity – maybe for all of us, whether we know it or not. Even in winter, I regularly need to immerse myself in the crazy quilt of a meadow full of  dry grass stems and listen to the pulsing roar of wind rushing headlong through the crowns of trees. The wild language of crows backed by the drumbeat of woodpeckers tunes me to a different key. For a short time, I’m enfolded within a complex world much beyond my small human one. And somehow that allows me to rest. I pull my hat down over my ears, snug up the scarf at my neck and I’m home, at ease in a place where I’m welcomed – and so are you – as just another creature making its way through winter days.

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.