Tag Archives: American red squirrel

Cranberry Lake Park: Prepping for Winter, Sowing for Spring

One of the many spots where meadow meets woods at Cranberry Lake Park

Cranberry Lake Park, with its varied habitats, gives an autumn visitor lots of possibilities. In October, the lake hosts huge bobbing rafts of water birds, feeding and resting on their way south. The grassy trails lead you to expansive meadows covered now by the soft gray of seeding goldenrod, where migratory birds converse in the bushes while harvesting seed. Or you can choose the shady Hickory Lane to the west or the dappled light of the maple forest to the north if you’re in the mood for a woodland walk.   

Text & photos by Cam Mannino

My visits were scattered throughout the month –  unusually warm days early on, a sunset hike one breezy evening, and finally a cold, rainy morning right before first frost. Each time I rediscovered how sensibly nature prepares for a winter rest and a bountiful spring. 

 

 

Cranberry Lake Itself  – A Thwarted Kingfisher, a Remarkable Grebe, and Diving Ducks of All Kinds

The edge of Cranberry lake at the end of an eastern trail.

Cranberry Lake welcomes all kinds of water birds as they begin their long journeys to southern climes. One cold, wet morning, I watched a bird hovering vertically high above the water, head down, scanning the surface below. Suddenly, it gave a loud rattling cry and headed for a leafless tree near the shore. An agitated male Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) shouted its noisy call from a bare limb. Perhaps he was put out by not spotting prey from that perch either!

This male Belted Kingfisher had one slate blue belt on his chest. The female has a chestnut brown belt and a blue one.

A small Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) flew in to probe the edge of a mud flat, landing near a Canada Goose (Branta canadensis). Quite an odd couple!

A Killdeer shares a mud flat in the lake with a Canada Goose.

Killdeer are wading birds, being Plovers, but I’ve most often seen them in barren fields, either scurrying along scaring up insects or keening in flight to distract predators.  This one, though, looked right at home as it probed the mud for insect larvae or other aquatic prey before beginning migration.

Far out on the lake, a huge mixed flock of migrating ducks and other water birds, well over 200 of them, floated on the surface, foraged for food, or slept and preened on the mud flats in the shallower parts of the lake.

Part of a huge flock of diving ducks on Cranberry Lake

After studying the photo magnified, Ben guessed that most of the birds were Ring-necked Ducks (Aythya collaris) which are diving ducks. Unlike mallards and other dabbling ducks who simply tip upside down to feed, diving ducks have legs set far back on their bodies.  As a result, they need to run across water, wings flapping,  to get into the air and are awkward on land – but they dive, feed and swim underwater with ease!

(Since most of the Cranberry Lake flock was far from shore, the closeup photos of diving ducks below are all from inaturalist.org photographers. My thanks to all of them and to Creative Commons where they license their work.)

Ring-necked Duck by lonnyholmes CC BY NC
Ring-necked Duck by lonnyholmes (CC-BY-NC)

Two other diving ducks that Ben thinks may have been in this flock include Redhead (Aythya americana) which are so social that they’re also referred to as “rafting ducks” and  Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis). According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab, Lesser Scaup chicks “are capable of diving under water on their hatching day, but they are too buoyant to stay under for more than just a moment. By the time they are 5 to 7 weeks old they are able to…swim underwater for 15-18 meters (50-60 ft).” Here’s a wonderful closeup of a Redhead by photographer lonnyholmes and a Lesser Scaup photo by photographer Paul Sullivan. (Hover cursor for captions; click on photos to enlarge.)

Far out in the lake, through my binoculars, I also spotted Bufflehead, another diving duck,  on their way from the boreal forests of Canada and Alaska, where according to Cornell, they “nest almost exclusively in holes excavated by Northern Flickers and, on occasion, by Pileated Woodpeckers.” Unfortunately the male and three female/juvenile Bufflehead that I saw at were too far for my longest lens to reach clearly. So on the left is my distance photo from Cranberry Lake (click to enlarge) and  on the right is a closeup from a  photographer at inaturalist.org who uses the name dlbowls showing the male’s dark head iridescent in the sunlight.

Feeding alone on a rainy morning, the solitary  Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) dove repeatedly into the gray surface of the lake. Modest brown this time of year,  these grebes bills turn white with a neat black band in breeding season. Pied-billed Grebes control their buoyancy by trapping water in their feathers. According to Cornell Lab, this allows them to escape danger by doing what children might call “belly smackers” – “plunging with head and tail raised above the belly, making a splash. They can also dive head first, or simply sink quietly out of view, leaving no trace. Parents dive with young clamped under their wings … These grebes often avoid danger by submerging, crocodile-style, with just the eyes and nostrils above the surface.”

The little grebe at Cranberry Lake gave me a brief demonstration of the submerging tactic –  first trapping water in its feathers , then settling back down on the water, and finally beginning to submerge like a little submarine.  What a trick!  I’m very taken with this little bird. (Use pause button for captions.)

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Wide, Sunny Meadows Surrounded by Autumn Color

A meadow on the north end of the park

On the trails that lead toward the meadows, small brown birds dash from bush to bush or dart down into the grass.  Some are tiny migrators who might appear modest and plain until you see them through binoculars or a camera lens. Chubby White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis), with their yellow “lores” and striped heads, hung out in small flocks, keeping in contact with soft seep calls.

The White-Crowned Sparrow has yellow “lores” – spots in the corners of its eyes.

Another brown migrant paused in the bushes along the trail from the lake – the Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus). These normally solitary birds are often quite secretive – hence the name, perhaps? They’re well-dressed hermits, though, with their chocolate back, spotted breast and white eye ring. And during migration, they do sometimes forage with or near other small birds.

The chocolate back of the shy little Hermit Thrush
The Hermit Thrush poses so we can see its spotted breast

The Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) is silent now, no longer burbling its song from high in a bush as it did this spring and summer. In fact, this one glowered from the bare branches, seeming a bit put-out by my presence. Or maybe it’s just irritable about having to migrate, though  it will only travel a short distance to the south.

A Song Sparrow seems to be glowering at my presence from the branches of a vine-enshrouded bush

At the edge of a small meadow, a year-round resident, the American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) pecked delicately at the seeds of Common Evening-Primrose (Oenothera biennis) that nicely complemented its muted gold.

An American Goldfinch fed in its modest winter feathers.

And another year ’rounder, the Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) stared from the drooping vines of Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), an aggressive, invasive plant that strangles, shades out and topples trees. Two trees along the trail had fallen recently due to masses of this vine in their canopies. Those orange and red fall fruits are disastrously appealing to birds, who spread their seeds far and wide.

A Northern Cardinal in a tangle of invasive, tree-killing Oriental Bittersweet.

On my early October visits, insects were still very much in evidence. One warm October afternoon, a busy group of adult and juvenile Large Milkweed Bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus) fed eagerly on the seeds of Common Milkweed (Ascelpias syriaca) in a southern meadow. The large beetles below are adults accompanied by the mostly red juveniles. They eat milkweed seeds by injecting saliva through the seed’s surface which liquifies it so it can be sucked through their straw-like rostrums. Milkweeds produce lots of seeds, so luckily these beetles, though destructive to individual pods, don’t really do a lot of damage in a season. And they are kind of jazzy looking, don’t you think?

Juvenile and adult Milkweed Bugs on a Common Milkweed.

Red-legged Grasshoppers (Melanoplus femurrubrum) mate in the autumn and lay their eggs in the earth. The eggs won’t finish developing until spring, when the first nymphs emerge. They’ll molt 5-7 times during the summer before they are fully adult, like this pair on a grassy trail.

A female (left and larger) and male Red-legged Grasshopper will lay eggs that will hatch next spring.

As October moved on, the goldenrods – Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) and late blooming Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) – began to seed, casting a silver-brown patina over the meadows.

Despite the cooler days, the small Autumn Meadowhawk (Sympetrum vicinum) still glided along the meadow paths, stopping on a fallen Canada Goldenrod stem to warm its wings in the autumn sunlight. The yellow-orange blush on the wings near the thorax is a distinguishing field mark. Autumn Meadowhawks fly later than most other species in our area, but are usually gone by early November, having laid their eggs along the lake’s shoreline.

A small male Autumn Meadowhawk warms its wings on a cool fall morning

The Hickory Lane and Wooded Wetlands – Filtered Light, Foraging Nut Eaters, a Frog and Puffballs

The Hickory Lane at sunset

Woodland walks are magical in the early morning or just before sunset. The light filters down through a golden shimmer of falling leaves and sometimes sets a crimson leaf aglow.

A Silver Maple leaf (Acer saccharinum) in the northern forest  set aglow in morning light.

On a warm walk in early October, the bright yellow caterpillar of a Spotted Tussock Moth (Lophocampa maculata) caught my eye within the dry leaves on the Hickory Lane. Such a fancy caterpillar! Research in Caterpillars of Eastern North America seems to indicate that  it’s the middle instar of the Spotted Tussock moth because in earlier stages, the end sections of this yellow caterpillar are completely black – but I’m open to correction by more knowledgeable readers!

The caterpillar of what I think is a Spotted Tussock Moth

An Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus) on the Hickory Lane basked in the sunset, perhaps resting from a long day of ferrying nuts in its cheeks to stock its underground burrow. It won’t hibernate, but when it wakes periodically from its winter torpor, it will need a little sustenance before snoozing again.

An Eastern Chipmunk rests from its seed and nut-gathering labors before winter.

A Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) dashed quickly up a tree on the Hickory Lane (in this case, it’s the black morph). And nearby, an American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) did the same. I wondered if they had enjoyed some of the hickory nuts that were neatly opened on a fallen log not too far away.

Almost invariably, curious deer emerge at the edge of the woods, and they too are putting on weight for winter. They eat lots of nuts, including plenty of acorns, this time of year. Their love of acorns in the fall and saplings during the winter can make it harder for our oak forests to regenerate. This doe looks like she’s definitely eaten her share and is ready for cold days ahead!

A well-fed doe foraging for nuts before winter arrives.

In a pond hidden in the trees, a Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) had built a roomy “push-up” den in which it can eat above the water line. Muskrats don’t hibernate, but spend the winter cruising very slowly beneath the ice. What appears to be a hole is probably just plant matter or mud, since muskrats generally enter their push-up dens from under the water through a tunnel that leads up to a cavity at the center.  According to Wikipedia, “In snowy areas, they keep the openings to their push-ups closed by plugging them with vegetation, which they replace every day.”

Near that woodland pond in late October, a tiny masked Wood Frog (Rana sylvatica) literally sat “like a bump on a log,” staring off into the distance, partially lit by the green light of a leaf. Wood Frogs love forested wetlands like this during the summer. But this little frog may be preparing for winter. It will move upland, away from the water, burrow under leaves or a log. Then most of the water in its body will freeze solid, and its breathing and heartbeats will stop! But it will thaw in the spring and go right back to the pond to mate. Hope this little one finds a cozy spot before long.

The astonishing Wood Frog freezes solid in the winter and thaws out in the spring.

On a fallen long nearby, my husband and I came across  a colony of Puffball Mushrooms (division Basidiomycota) just as we did last year. These stalkless mushrooms would disperse spores on their own, of course, but I asked my husband to poke a couple in order to catch the brownish cloud of spores escaping through their tiny apertures. Wikipedia says falling raindrops disperse puffball spores in a similar way.

On my last visit just before first frost, under moist trees in these wooded wetlands, the Sensitive Ferns’ green, leafy, sterile fronds (Onoclea sensibilis) were already withering in the dropping temperatures. But the separate fertile fronds, covered in brown beads called “sori” that contain next year’s spores, stood erect in the grass beneath the trees.

Quietly Prepping for Winter and Another Spring

Cranberry Lake Park, like all of nature, provides testimony every autumn that the year is not “dying” as is so often said of this season. On the contrary. At every turn in the trails, nature is sensibly preparing for winter and sowing for spring. Yes, plants wither – but their seeds, stems, and roots wait within the soil for warm spring light. Gray-brown bracken will eventually fall, nourishing the soil in which those seeds can grow. Bright leaves fade and fall, of course, but only because trees are in “dormancy,” resting, slowing their metabolism, preserving themselves for next spring’s surge of growth. Some insects migrate, others winter-over under bark or within plants, while still others perish, leaving behind eggs which bide their time beneath the earth. Birds fly south, frogs burrow under logs, and animals of all sorts settle into winter quarters. Nature doesn’t resist change. It simply adapts to it, with every intention of burgeoning forth with gusto in the spring. We humans probably do best when we follow nature’s lead by just letting nature take its course –  preparing for longer nights and colder days, while confidently sowing seeds – both literally and metaphorically – for a future spring.

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner; inaturalist.org;Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela;Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels,  and others as cited in the text.
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THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Bird Antics, Goldenrod Duplexes and Squirrel “Dreys”

Vertical Silver Maple buds painting look (1)
Warm days begin to bring out Silver Maple buds
Cam in red winter coat BC
Blog Post and Photos by Cam Mannino

What a puzzling week, eh?  Was it spring or late winter?  The buds on the Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) near the Center Pond seemed as confused as the rest of us.  They began to emerge as the sun warmed  the cold air.  I was concerned about the effect of icy nights later in the week.  Alas,  a twisted ankle meant I couldn’t get back to the pond to check on them. But maples seem to survive unpredictable Michigan winters, so we’ll hope it pauses and waits for a few weeks.  On a long walk one sunny, snowy day, I crossed the late night/early morning path of a rabbit  and went on to enjoy the antics of the “usual suspects” of a late winter day at Bear Creek: a Bluebird pair, a Chickadee pursued by a stalking Titmouse, and a Red-bellied Woodpecker busily poking at bark, looking for beetles. On a sunny, mud-slushy short walk with my somewhat tenuous ankle, I came across Goldenrod duplexes and while watching squirrels, decided I’d share some new info I read about these mischievous mammals.

Bird Antics from the “Usual Suspects”

Our Eastern Bluebird couple (Sialia sialis) seems to be sticking around despite fluctuating temperatures.  A hardy pair of Bluebirds!  This week I again spotted the female fluttering among the fruits of invasive Asian Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) – the vine that chokes our trees!

Female Bluebird fluttering along the Walnut Lane
Female Bluebird fluttering among vines along the Walnut Lane

She will undoubtedly disperse the seeds in them in short order since birds have very quick metabolisms, if you know what I mean…

Female bluebird getting ready to disperse the seeds of a tree killer, Asian Bittersweet
Female Bluebird getting ready to disperse the seeds of a tree- killing vine, Asian Bittersweet

I wish she’d eat the Staghorn Sumac fruit(Rhus typhina) on the Western Slope! They’re native plants and are supposed to be on a Bluebird’s winter menu!

Staghorn sumac fruit
Staghorn Sumac fruit in winter

Her male partner sat stolidly on a nearby branch, keeping an eye out for any competitors.

Mr. Bluebird2
A male Bluebird sticking close to his female partner as other bluebirds darted in and out of bushes near the Walnut Lane.

On the trail that leads north from the playground, a Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) stalked a Black-capped Chickadee  (Poecile atricapillus), apparently trying to see where it was caching its seeds in the tree bark. No matter where the Chickadee hopped or flew, the Titmouse was right behind.  Here’s the Titmouse with its crest raised.  It does that when excited, in this case perhaps perturbed by my camera,  or as this article suggests,  by trying to snitch some seed from the Chickadee’s hiding place!

Titmouse BC3
A Tufted Titmouse traveling around a tree and its vines right behind a Black-capped Chickadee, perhaps to snitch its cached seeds!

The Chickadee looked pretty annoyed when it finally paused for a moment! Was it that annoying Titmouse or my camera?  Or was it  just its natural expression?  Who knows?

Chickadee stare
A Black-capped Chickadee who appears to be in a state of high dudgeon!

High in the trees, a Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) made its wet “Kwirr” call as it hopped about a tree trunk, getting snow on its beak as it searched for bark beetles or other small creatures.

Red-bellied woodpecker in tree2
A Red-bellied Woodpecker searches for something to eat beneath snowy leaves caught in the fork of a tree.
Red-bellied woodpecker pecking
A male Red-bellied Woodpecker drilling for food.

As I approached the top of the Western Slope that, a Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) high in a distant tree spotted me and shouted its warning call, “Jay, jay, jay!!!!”,  announcing my presence to all the other birds.  Here’s one in an invasive  Autumn Olive bush (Elaeagnus umbellata) later that day.

Blue Jay
The Blue Jay’s call often warns other birds about predators – or harmless humans like me!

Signs of Other Creatures: Tracks and the Duplexes

Rabbit tracks

Behind the Center Pond, my husband and I crossed the tracks of an Eastern Cottontail ((Sylvilagus floridanus) emerging from under a bush next to the trail.  Though you can see a rabbit almost any time of day, these tracks were likely made between dusk and dawn because rabbits generally feed at night.  In winter, their diet is mostly bark, buds and the twigs of woody plants.  Cottontails don’t usually live underground.  Though they use holes for raising young, the rest of the time, they huddle in piles of vines and brush. They will sometimes use a groundhog’s den temporarily during heavy snow – like this Wednesday’s snowstorm!

Along the path that runs just to the west of the Playground Pond, toward the benches at the top of the hill,  the Canada Goldenrod(Solidago canadensis) bulge with ball galls, the round, woody little dwellings that house the Goldenrod Gall Fly’s larva (Eurosta solidagnis) for the winter. (See the blog from January 21 for more info.)   Lots of them will successfully hatch out in the spring, but it looks like this one won’t.  Instead it probably provided much-needed protein on a cold day – perhaps for a persistent Chickadee who had to chip away for a while to get to the larva inside.

Chewed goldenrod gall
I wonder if this work on a Golderod Gall was done by a very persistent Chickadee trying to get at the larva inside.

Nearby, I found a whole patch of Gall Fly duplexes!  The holes in these galls are the neat little ones usually made by a Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens).  They are experts at drilling holes to find food, after all.  Goldenrod Gall Flies must be a great source of sustenance for birds in the winter!

Duplex Goldenrod Gall
A “duplex” of Golden Rod galls from which a bird, probably a Downy Woodpecker, has extracted larvae for food.

Squirrels in the Winter

This month the Seven Ponds Nature Center in Dryden had an informative newsletter piece about squirrels, written by Lois Rheaume, a naturalist on staff there. Having read it, I decided that I needed to read more about them.  Bear Creek, of course, is full of squirrels, three different species that seem like four!

From top to bottom below:  the American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus), the Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger),  and the Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) which comes in two basic colors, gray or black – and variations of those.  (No, they are not a cross with a Fox Squirrel; that’s genetically impossible.)

American Red Squirrel
American Red Squirrel
Fox Squirrel
Fox Squirrel
Gray Squirrel
Gray Squirrel

 

Black morph of a Gray Squirrel
Black morph of a Gray Squirrel with a Fox Squirrel behind it

According to Ms. Rheaume, Fox and Red Squirrels were most common in our area when the land was heavily farmed.   Red Squirrels and Fox Squirrels spend more time on the ground so open farm lands suit them. Gray Squirrels spend more time up in trees, so as trees have taken over open fields and have matured in suburban neighborhoods, more Gray Squirrels have moved in.   Squirrels can move easily up and down trees because their back feet can rotate 180°!

Fox and Gray Squirrels bury nuts underground.  Using excellent spatial memory and a keen sense of smell, they find about 95% of them.  (The forgotten ones help trees to sprout in our forests.) The Red Squirrel, who grows a rusty strip of fur down its spine for the winter, makes a cache on top of the ground.

Ms. Rheaume’s piece informed me that squirrels assess acorns by rotating them quickly under their sensitive noses with their front paws. They tend to eat White Oak acorns (Quercus alba) right away because they have thinner shells and sprout more quickly.  They’re also less nutritious for them.   Squirrels are more likely to store Red Oak acorns (Quercus rubra)  which contain higher amounts of tannin to preserve them and because they contain more fat and nutrition for winter months.  Amazing what creatures know.

Some folks may not know that squirrels build nests in trees, nests that can be mistaken for those of hawks, for instance.  Squirrels prefer a tree hole on a cold, snowy night but they are frequently unavailable.  They build nests, called “dreys” in the fork of a tree or where a sturdy limb meets the trunk.  These dreys can be used for young in the summer but they can also come in handy on cold days.

Squirrel nest1
Squirrel nests, called dreys, appear more in the fall when the leaves have fallen.

Dreys end up being a foot or more in diameter and start out with a platform of small branches with green leaves attached.   Squirrels gnaw off these branches before autumn, so that the leaves don’t fall, but stay on for the winter.  Ms. Rheaume saw one dislodged by a storm.  It contained “a fluffy layer of leaves and sticks on the outside with the next ‘wall’ lined with several layers of oak leaves, making a virtual waterproof barrier for the soft grasses, shredded bark, and lichens which make up the soft bed in the center.”  According to Wikipedia, dreys have one or two “entrance/exit holes…usually close to the bottom and oriented toward the trunk which keeps the rain out.”  Sounds reasonably cozy on a cold night, doesn’t it?

Fallen queen annes (1)

It seems that the coming week will be as topsy-turvy as the last one – a huge snowstorm followed by a warm weekend.  The dry stalks of last year’s plants, like the Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota) above, are succumbing to the weight of snow, wind and cold.  But through it all, the creatures of Bear Creek find ways to keep warm, find food and keep us company as the days get noticeably longer. I heard a report of a Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis) arriving this week.  We have lots of Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) in our yard  and we saw an obese Raccoon (Procyon lotor) taking a hibernation break and stuffing itself beneath our bird feeder.   Perhaps these springtime creatures were fooled by  strangely warm winter days or perhaps they know something else we don’t!  Time will tell.

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.

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Winter Robins, Trailing a Fox and Reminders from Last Spring

Blue morning shadows on center pond

Cam in red winter coat BC
Blog Post and Photos by Cam Mannino

I love the blue shadows that bright sun paints across winter snow. On my visits to Bear Creek this week, I spent some time with my face turned to the ground, trailing animals that had trotted along the paths to the Center Pond, perhaps on the previous moonlit night – or crossed and re-crossed the marsh nearby on a snowy morning. Trundling along, nose down,  I twice caught the sound of social chirping from flocks of birds gathered in trees nearby and went to explore. Later, standing on the ice, I craned my neck skyward to peer at spring reminders hanging from overhead branches. As usual, nature had a few surprises for me. Let’s start with those birds.

Winter Flocks – A Colorful, Noisy Sight

Winter Robins in a tree
Part of a flock of winter robins this week at the park.

Despite the fact that we think of  American Robins (Turdus migratorius) as harbingers of spring, nearly every winter they appear in the bare trees at Bear Creek. According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab, some do migrate, but many robins stay in their breeding  grounds. Evidently they can gather in huge roosts “sometimes including a quarter-million birds during winter.” Wouldn’t that be something to see? This week, a chorus of soft “cluck” sounds alerted me to a small flock of  8-10 birds who were feeding on frozen berries.  Many in this flock seemed to have exceptionally dark heads like this one:

Male robin
Male robin on a wintry day at Bear Creek

Since Cornell says that males have darker heads than females, I think there were probably more males in this group and since winter is not half over and has been fairly mild, perhaps the body feathers from their last molt are still in pretty good shape as well!

Later in the week, I heard another chorus of higher-pitched chipping calls and was expecting to find a flock of Tree Sparrows (Spizella arborea). Instead, I was treated to the rosy heads of male House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) socializing with their beige, striped females in bushes along the path just north of the playground. At my home feeder, I only see four or so at a time, but there were again 8-10 in the park, fluttering and moving too quickly for a shot as they hunted for berries. But one male  graciously posed for me in the half shade for a minute.

House finch BC
A male House Finch – his red head in the sunshine, his tail in the shadows.

Readers of the blog know how I love the color red, so I was delighted to see these Robins and Finches brightening up a winter day.

Following Fox Tracks

As I left the playground pond one morning, I came across the round prints of what was probably a Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes fulvus), trotting along the night before,  like this one which passed outside my window at home a couple of years ago.

Red fox on the run
The Red Fox whose tracks I followed this week might have looked like this one, seen at my home.

The tracks are so delicate  – single round circles in a continuous path, as the fox sets its back foot neatly into the track made by its front foot.  Their tracks never wander, as domestic dogs’ do, and they often follow human paths; wild animals, who must find their own food, need to conserve their energy by taking the easiest, most direct route. I decided to follow the fox.  Nose down, I headed west and the fox prints “took me” down the western slope, the neat circles staying close to the middle of the path.

Fox print western slope
Red Fox tracks going down the middle of the path that leads down and up the western slope.

At the end of the path, near the benches at the top of the south hill, the fox turned left and I followed its tracks over the edge of the hill on the path that leads through a tunnel of small trees to the meadow west of the Center Pond. And from there, I followed this ghost fox just past the Center Pond until it turned to go along the boardwalk to the east of the pond.

I turned south to go home because I was half frozen, but I enjoyed spending the last half hour of my walk “accompanying” this wild animal as it had trotted along under a full moon.

Another day this week I found other evidence of  perhaps the same fox. Here are tracks leading again to its exploration of the muskrat lodge in the Center Pond (I’d shown similar tracks in a previous blog). Its tracks clearly stopped by the lodge as it left its “calling card,” a small scat, the size of which was further evidence that this was likely a fox. And then the tracks took their neat bee-line to the other side of the pond (click on photos to enlarge,  hover your cursor over a photo for a caption).

Foxes are one of the predators of muskrats.  In the winter, coyotes and foxes are known to pounce on lodges and feeding platforms to prey on muskrats below. I couldn’t help wondering if that’s what happened in the marsh at the southwestern edge of the forest, where there are two collapsed muskrat feeding platforms from the summer. If so, the attempt wasn’t recent because there was no sign of bloodshed, but a clear path led to the lodge and away. The fox ate no muskrat that night.

Nearby squirrel tracks made a crossroad near the same lodge (see right photo above). One set of prints was much smaller than the other. My guess is that one set is that of The American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus); you can hear one there often during the day.  And the other may have been a larger squirrel, probably a black phase/morph of the Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), a species commonly seen in the woods around this marsh. They must have crossed the marsh in the morning after the fox’s nocturnal visit. (The Gray Squirrel photo was taken under our feeder as I neglected to get a shot of one at Bear Creek!).

If anyone knows tracks better than I (I am a rank amateur) and wants to correct me on any of these tracks, please feel free!

Memories of Last Spring:  Abandoned Nests

One advantage of following these tracks, too, was that I got a new perspective on two types of nests. Exploring the tracks of the muskrat lodge on the Center Pond, I was able to get a good look at the abandoned nest of the Bald-Faced Hornet (Dolichovespula maculata) that hangs over the eastern edge of the pond. It was a good way to see the amazing tiered construction of this astonishing  insect architecture fashioned from chewed bark and their own saliva.

Closeup hornets nest over ice
The weather has torn away the surface to show us the tiered interior of the amazing nest of  the Bald-Faced Hornet.

Three times this week, I spotted the hanging sack-like nests of the Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula), nests I couldn’t see until the austerity of winter revealed them swaying among bare limbs. I love these bright migrating birds who build snug nests that rock their nestlings in the treetops. They won’t be back from Florida and the Caribbean until early May.

oriole BC 5/3/14
A chilly male Baltimore Oriole in early spring.

The first nest I saw (the closeup) was hanging over the marsh at the southwest end of the forest where I saw the collapsed muskrat lodges.  The second was in the trees across the field at the bottom of the Eastern Path.  And the last, very high up, hung near the boardwalk over the marsh on the south end of the Walnut Lane, heading back to the parking lot. Imagine seeing three in one week!

Such a nice reminder that spring will come again!

Sunset at BC
Sunset at Bear Creek – the hour of the fox!

Winter at Bear Creek makes new requirements on us visitors. First of all, the trails and ponds are icy so  Yax Trax or some similar cleats on your shoes/boots are a fine idea. Second, we’re required to listen even more carefully than we do in warm weather. Birds don’t sing now, but do they do call to each other either in pairs or flocks, making it easier to see the few that keep us company in the winter. And sometimes it also requires using our imaginations – to see in the mind’s eye that Red Fox with its brown boots trotting swiftly through the park in the moonlight looking for a meal. Or a Red Squirrel bounding across the ice in the early morning to dig food from its winter cache. Or as in our last few blogs, to imagine the muskrat swimming in the darkness under the ice or the butterfly overwintering in a hollow tree. Then the quiet emptiness of the black-and-white park is filled with activity that we can hear in the treetops or see in our mind’s eye.

*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 and other sites as cited in the text.

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Bluebirds, a Smallish Murmuration of Starlings, and “Hey, That’s MY Hole!”

Low sun winter sunset western slope (1)
Sunset on the western slope
Cam in red winter coat BC
Blog Post and Photos by Cam Mannino

This busy week, most of my visits to Bear Creek were at sunset.  As the low winter sun created long slanting shadows across the fields, birds sought places to spend the night. Some birds floated in large groups covering the trees like black leaves.  Others slipped into holes and crevices.  And a couple of them even duked it out over a snug retreat on a cold night. I’ve become a watcher of holes this year.

A Bluebird Couple

Though many Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) migrate south, some stay near their summer breeding grounds,  eating fruits from sumac, juniper, multiflora rose, and spending the nights in tree holes.  Late on the Sunday after New Year’s Day, my husband and I saw a bluebird pair.  They were foraging on the ground and then flying, separately, up into small trees on our way to the western slope. This particular male is undoubtedly the bluest Bluebird I have ever seen! He definitely had a courtship advantage!

Male bluebird
The bluest male Bluebird I have ever seen.

After getting a photo of the female, I learned that their gray heads identify their gender. Bluebirds often stay together for multiple seasons if they breed successfully.  I’m not surprised that this female decided to stick with that gorgeous blue male!

Female bluebird - note gray head
A female bluebird – note the gray head – who probably chose her mate for his beautiful blue feathers.

The next day, I went alone to Bear Creek as the sun was setting and snow was falling steadily in a strong wind.  I was delighted to find a pair (probably the same ones given the male’s intense blue!) near the shed, sitting together on a branch.  Please forgive the slightly blurred photo – the combination of low light, extreme cold and blowing snow made getting a shot a little difficult.

Two bluebirds 2
A bluebird pair in a tree near the shed.  Mated bluebirds often stay together for multiple seasons.

A Smallish Murmuration of Starlings

European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) are famous for giant gatherings of thousands of them, creating huge, moving sky sculptures over European cities.  Watch a minute or so of this  beautiful video from Gretna Green, Scotland to appreciate the beauty these birds can create. According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab,  these non-native imports are great mimics, who can copy the songs of “Eastern Wood-Pewee, Killdeer, Meadowlarks, Northern Bobwhite, Wood Thrush, Red-tailed Hawk, American Robin, Northern Flicker, and many others.”

In the fall, Starlings molt into feathers with white tips so in winter, their breasts are beautifully mottled in white.  As the winter wears on, those tips wear off so that by spring, they are all glossy black with purple and green iridescence  – what scientists term “wear molt.”

A small murmuration of starlings arrived in Bear Creek the same afternoon that the Bluebird couple waited together in the tree.  Evidently, the park provided a pre-roosting spot, a place to gather a couple of  hours before dark, to socialize.  Our murmuration consisted of about 200 birds in five trees near the eastern edge of the park. They floated in groups up out of the fields, or across from other trees, looking like black leaves defying gravity. Periodically they chorused for several minutes and then all fell silent – until the chorus began again.   Near dark, as I left the park, they had dispersed in small groups, probably to an even larger night-time roost with other flocks.

 

Over 200 starlings in tree
A small part of over 200 European Starlings in a pre-roosting spot on the eastern edge of the park

Starlings, introduced into the US in 1890s, aggressively compete for nesting sites with Bluebirds, which is one good reason for posting bluebird boxes!  I didn’t see Bluebirds in Bear Creek the next day and wondered if they found all those starlings a bit off-putting!

Native Winter Birds and Their Holes, I think…

As the snow fell in the Oak-Hickory forest,  a Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) flitted among the branches. They seem to never sit still for more than a few seconds!  Like Chickadees, whose company they often keep, they beat on seeds with their beaks to break them open for eating, though they also store some in bark crevices to be retrieved later.  (Click on the photos to enlarge. Hover over the photos for captions. The blurred one, taken as the wind blew, was so endearing, I had to include it!)

Nearby a Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) explored near what could be its hole for the night.  You can see him in the background of the left photo at the edge of the tree.  The second shot is of another male Red-belly probing the bark on a tree near the Center Pond as the sun catches his red nape.

Woodpeckers are everywhere in the park now, spiraling up and around trunks and branches.  I saw a female Downy Woodpecker near the Playground Pond and nearby, at the wetland north of the playground, her slightly bigger relative, the female Hairy Woodpecker.  They’re not easy to tell apart, but the Hairy’s beak is thicker and almost as long as its head whereas the Downy’s is more delicate and smaller, about 1/3 of its head size.  Also, the Downy has black spots on its outside tail feathers when seen from underneath whereas the Hairy’s are pure white on both sides.  Males of both species have red spots on the backs of their heads. Females don’t.

Late one afternoon, we saw two birds which appeared to be competing for the same hole. For a split second, a White-Breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis)and a Black-Capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) flew at each other, feet thrust forward  in a flurry of wings – but the Chickadee withdrew and flew off.  The Nuthatch, triumphant,  disappeared into the hole.  I caught only the aftermath with my camera.

As I said, I’m keeping my eye on holes.  Here’s one high over the back of the Playground Pond that I’m watching.  After taking this photo just before dark last week, I lightened the hole to see inside.  It’s probably wishful thinking, but could that be a small bird inside this comfortable little hole? Probably not, but I’ll keep looking anyway.

someone in the hole?
I wonder – could that be a bird inside this hole in a snag behind the Playground Pond – or is it my imagination?

A Wintering Mammal –  and the Tracks of Two Others?

An American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) scurried among the branches of a brush pile near the Center Pond and finally emerged with a large nut, or perhaps a fungus, in its mouth.  That probably got eaten before bedtime – or perhaps added to its winter food cache.

Red squirrel w nut
An American Red Squirrel holding a nut – or perhaps a fungus?

This week a Meadow Vole/Field Mouse  (Microtus pennsylvanicus) seemed to have tunneled under the snow near a log. The tracks looked just like a more complex set in deeper snow that I saw last year.

I can’t be sure who made them.  But voles are active during the day in the winter. (At night during the summer.)  They scurry about feeding on seeds and grains.  For a look at a Meadow Vole, one that gives you a sense of its real size, I recommend the photo at the bottom of this link.  Very attractive little rodent and an important part of the food web (but can be quite a pest in one’s lawn!).

One other set of mystery tracks caught my eye.  (And please – if you are a tracking expert, correct me on track photos!)  Down at the pond, I saw these canine tracks making a neat line curving along the edge of the pond.

Fox tracks center pond?According to the website Wildernesscollege.com, both gray and red foxes place their hind foot squarely inside the print of the front foot.  And unlike dogs, their tracks are very direct, not wandering off center or doubling back like dog tracks.  Wild canines want to leave as few tracks as possible, I guess!  So because these tracks are fairly small, I’m thinking these came from a Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) who  took a shortcut across the ice at the edge of the pond while out in the moonlight.  I wish I’d seen it!  But here’s a photo of one who’d caught a mole at the edge of our woods a few years ago.

red fox1 with mole
A Red Fox with a mole it has caught.

Winter is clearly a challenge for birds and animals.  Owls need to pounce into the snow for prey.  Small creatures can’t help leaving tracks to follow.  Food and warmth are a constant challenge.  But there they are, hopping in branches, trotting along in the moonlight, keeping us company on the grayest days of winter.

*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 and other sites as cited in the text.

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: A Huge Hawk, a Rare Flock, and Birds Color the Changing Landscape

Eastern field and walnut lane late fall
Eastern Old Field looking toward the bare Walnut Lane and a late afternoon November sky

Warm days don’t seem appropriate to November, but we’re happy to have them when the Old Fields darken to russet and the architecture of the trees reappears. The landscape deepens as we can see far into the underbrush to places hidden by summer foliage. The slopes and hollows of the woods are more defined as the understory thins.

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino
Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

The skies become even more dramatic in the slanting light of late fall when the vivid shades of autumn fade – or maybe we just notice them more. It’s all about noticing, isn’t it?  I wasn’t sure I’d see enough to share this week.  How wrong I was!

Birds Hold Center Stage: A Bold Raptor, Shy Visitors, and Busy Residents

An impressive Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) warmed herself in thin morning sunlight erect in a bare tree near the Center Pond on our Wednesday Bird Walk. (Female Red-tails are larger than males and this was a big hawk!) She may, as Cornell suggests, have been waiting for the air to warm, because soon she was “climbing a thermal updraft into the sky.”   Off she went, probably searching for mice, voles or other small mammals to shore her up against the cold to come.  Red-tails tend to stay with their mates until one of them dies, but they must be loners outside the mating season.  It’s rare in my experience to see more than one at a time. We saw this one from behind at first; look at that red-tail! (Click on photos to enlarge them.)

Red-tailed hawk tail from back
The red tail of the Red-tailed Hawk

And then she turned around to survey her domain!

Red tailed Hawk
A large Red-tailed Hawk, probably a female, surveys her domain.

When I arrived on Wednesday, Ben and the birders were watching five  Rusty Blackbirds (Euphagus carolinus) at the Playground Pond.  I hadn’t seen one in weeks and thought their migration was over.  These secretive, shy birds spend most of their time in the shadows at the edges of wetlands, flipping over leaves to look for tiny invertebrates.  They land in trees only to pause a second before diving down into the underbrush and skulking along among wet, black mud and leaves.  Unable to get a good shot on Wednesday, I lucked out on Friday when I came upon a whole flock (10 or more?) in the wetland below the benches on the southern hill.

rusty blackbird female closeup
A female Rusty Blackbird posed for a few seconds on a branch in the wetland below the southern hill.

Cornell says the population of these  birds has “plunged an estimated 85-99 percent over the past forty years and scientists are completely puzzled as to what is the cause.”  One theory is that they find fewer wetlands so I’m glad we have several in Oakland Township that they can poke about in before heading south.

rusty blackbird2
A male Rusty Blackbird hiding in low bushes in a wetland last Thursday

On the same day (Thursday), a male Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) searched for a crack in tree bark in which to store what appeared to be a piece of nut.

red-bellied woodpecker with nut
A male Red-bellied Woodpecker looking for a crack in tree bark for storing his piece of (most likely) hickory nut.

Shagbark Hickory nuts

It could well have been a Shagbark hickory nut since there are lots of them still on the trees, which is where Red-bellies prefer to find their nuts, though they’ll take them off the ground if necessary.

Since the nut photo doesn’t show the plumage, here’s a fall picture from a previous year of a male Red-belly.  You can tell males from females by the fact that the red back of the head extends all the way to the bill in males but stops at the top of the head in females.

Red belly male in tree2
A male Red-bellied Woodpecker has red extending from the nape of its neck to its bill, while red on the female goes only from its nape to the top of its head.

Nearby a year ’round resident, the White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) repeatedly made its loud, nasal “nyah” call (Cornell calls it a “yank call”)as it probed right-side-up and upside-down around a branch.  A very distinctive call!  Listen to the “Eastern Call” at this Cornell Lab link.  You’ll probably recognize that you’ve heard it before!

White-breasted nuthatch
A White-breasted Nuthatch made its  “nyah” call repeatedly as it probed about on a branch.

Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata) were in a scrappy mood this week, which isn’t unusual for Blue Jays.  I saw two repeatedly giving each other a hard time on the western slope earlier in the week.

Blue jays playing
Two Blue Jays playing or fighting, not sure which, on the western slope.

A migrating Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca), with its large vivid body, smaller round head and long tail, visited the park again this week on its way south. I thought at first it was a Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) from its vivid color but Ben had it right.  A handsome sparrow! We did see a Hermit Thrush but I didn’t manage to get a good photo this week.

 

Fox sparrow morning light
The Fox Sparrow’s color clearly gave this migrant its common name.

The Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) seem much more secretive this time of year.  I’ve seen both the male and female slipping silently from limb to limb down under the Button Bush in the wetland north of the playground – a great contrast to their exuberant singing from the tops of trees and bushes during spring and summer months.

Cardinal male in swamp
This male Northern Cardinal might be a bit disturbed by the presence of us birders, since his crest is slightly raised.

More Tree Sparrows (Spizella arborea) are arriving by the day from their summer homes on the tundra.  I saw only one near the marsh nearest to Snell Road but I heard what sounded like several in the dense underbrush nearby.

Tree sparrow
Tree Sparrows continue arriving from the arctic to spend the winter here.

A Winter Lodge and Abandoned and Fiercely Defended Nests

Two weeks ago I saw a Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) diving in the Center Pond and then appearing briefly as it swam quickly into the shadows near the eastern shore.  It looks as though it’s been making modifications to its lodge on the southern shore, as the sturdy heap of pond mud and dead plant material appears to have grown higher and darker recently.  Muskrats don’t hibernate but are trapped under ice for months at a time.  How do they breathe, find food and keep warm for all that time?  We’ll explore those questions later  – during a snowy winter week at Bear Creek.

Muskrat den2
There seem to be recent additions of mud and plant material on the muskrat’s lodge at the Center Pond.

Also at the eastern end of the pond, the beautiful wasp or hornet’s nest swaying at the tip of a slender limb, is fraying at the edges from wind and rain.  The colony’s founding queen, workers, males and unfertilized queens have all died by now and all that’s left of that huge colony are the fertile queens who mated this fall.  Back in August and September, they put on weight, being fed by the workers.  Now they are snugged up for the winter under bark, leaf litter, logs or stumps near the pond where they’ll emerge and start new colonies next spring. And that amazing piece of insect architecture will slowly unravel.

wasp nest in autumn
A hornet or wasp nest frays at the edges while the only survivors, the fertile queens, hide in nearby nooks and crannies ’til spring.

On the eastern path, a tidy little nest, most likely that of the American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) , sits securely attached to three branches of a small tree.  It seems destined to survive the winter, though bird nests are rarely re-used.  Goldfinches like to nest in small trees and shrubs in open fields.  According to Cornell Lab, “…the nest is an open cup of rootlets and plant fibers lined with plant down, often woven so tightly that it can hold water. The female lashes the foundation to supporting branches using spider silk, and makes a downy lining often using the fluffy “pappus” material taken from the same types of seedheads that goldfinches so commonly feed on.”  That aptly describes this little nest both inside and out! (Rest your cursor on double photos to see captions.)

I got another ferocious scolding from an aggressive little American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) this week, who was probably defending itself and its stockpile of nuts, seeds and mushrooms cached nearby.  During the winter, they generally live inside logs, stumps or in woodpecker holes, popping out around midday to dig into their food stores cached nearby.  Speedy little rodents, Red Squirrels can reach 14mph over a short distance when excited!  I told Ben and the birders that if this one had been about 10 times bigger, I’d have taken off running.  Look at that fierce little face!

Aggressive red squirrel
An American Red Squirrel fiercely warns me to get away from its winter hole in a nearby tree or log –  or perhaps its winter food cache stored nearby.

Wildflowers: Then and Now

Native wildflowers are almost gone, having produced seed for next year and along the way, fed the honey bees and native bumble bees, caterpillars, birds, even some of the animals in Bear Creek.

Up by the benches on the south hill of the park, the gigantic leaves of Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) curl around the bare stalks of these giant wildflowers that grew from 3 to 10 feet high this summer!  Prairie Dock nectar fed native bumblebees and perhaps the occasional hummingbird, while goldfinches snacked on the seeds.  Now their huge brown leaves curl, reminding me of the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland.

Across the way, the Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) that turned their faces to the sun a few months ago show only those rich brown centers now.  Lots of bees and other insects enjoy this native wildflower during the summer.

Meadowsweet (Spirea alba) still sports its red stalk, but the white plumes have fruited into brown seeds for next year.  Bees of all kinds fed on the nectar of this lovely plant all summer.  Rabbits probably nibbled on the lower leaves while deer sometimes consume the upper ones.  Meadowsweet also feeds a variety of native moths, some of which, of course, are consumed by birds.

Native plants like these are an important source of nourishment for the birds, bugs and other creatures of Bear Creek.  That’s one reason we try to foster them.

Leaf Patterns

The Pin Oak leaves were bright red and green as they encircled the playground a week or so ago.  Suddenly this week, they turned brown but held on.

Pin Oaks Playground Fall
Pin Oaks that were bright green and red last week have quickly turned brown, but held on.

A week ago, the Red Maple (Acer rubrum) near the shed blazed a brilliant red but it appears from the pattern of its now-fallen leaves,  that a gust of south wind brought most of them down at once .

Bur oak shedding leaves
From the pattern on the ground, the Red Maple appears to have lost most of its leaves to the warm south wind this week.

Down at the center pond, the giant White Oak (Quercus alba) shed its leaves this week, creating a mosaic in the water nearby.

white oak at center pond
One of the biggest White Oaks in the park, the one near the Center Pond, shed its leaves this week.
White oak leaves in the pond
A White Oak leaf pattern in the Center Pond.

So despite the fact that November’s fading light cues birds to move on, flowers to wither and leaves to fall, Bear Creek is still a place of beauty and surprise.  November cues us too – to don heavier jackets, maybe a raincoat, some days a hat and gloves – to come take part in the changing of seasons.

Gray dogwood red against yellow leaves
The red tips (pedicles) of Gray Dogwood that are left now that the white fruit (drupes) have fallen or been eaten by birds.
*Footnote:  My sources for information, as well as Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide, 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 American Online; Audubon.org

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Winged Migrants Ride the Wind, an Angry Mom, and Learning the Oaks

Bees on NE Aster

Aaah, the crisp, cool air of autumn arrived this week!  And with it came migrating warblers from northern breeding grounds and a restlessness among the migrants that spend their summers here.  Some year ’round birds are still suffering the indignities of the molt, while others are past it and comfortable in their winter colors.  A red squirrel with the soft belly of a nursing female scolded me from a tree while I struggled to distinguish one oak tree from another. I think I’m getting it.

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino
Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino.

A few summer plants bravely sent one or two more blooms out into the cool air while the fall asters still hum with bees.  Autumn begins to take hold at Bear Creek.

Winged Migrants Riding through the Night on the North Wind

Standing in a bright, cool morning Tuesday at the weekly bird walk, I learned from Dr. Ben that migratory birds ride the wind that comes with cold fronts.   My curiosity piqued, I went to the Cornell Lab site to learn more.  Soaring birds, I learned, like hawks or vultures, who use rising warm air (thermals) to get lift for their flight, tend to migrate during the day.   However, large numbers of smaller perching birds (passerines) ride the cool, dry, north wind of a cold front during the night to make their flight easier and then settle down during the day to rest and eat.

This week I saw three warblers who’d stopped by on their way from northern breeding grounds.  On the weekend, I saw a Nashville Warbler (Oreothlypis ruficapilla).  It would have spent the summer raising young in the UP or southern Canada and is now beginning a very long trek to Central America!  Since these warblers eats insects, it’ll be on its way quickly to get to warmer areas where insects aren’t in danger of a killing frost.

Nashville warbler
A Nashville Warbler passed through the park on its way from breeding grounds in the UP or southern Canada to its winter home in Central America.

On Tuesday, after seeing many migratory birds at Charles Ilsley Park on the weekly bird walk, I hurried over to Bear Creek and found some more.

This little bird, that probably flew south on the cold front Monday night, is the Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata).  Though it’s not visible in this photo, this migrant has a bright yellow square patch on the top of its tail when it flutters its wings and a yellow blush beneath its wings.  In spring, the males are a white, gray and black with yellow patches on their heads and tails.  This immature bird was probably born this year somewhere farther north in Michigan or southern Canada.  The Yellow-rumped Warblers that stop here can winter farther north than most warblers because they can digest waxy berries that grow in colder areas. So this young bird may be going only as far as Ohio!

Yellow-rumped warbler immature 1st winter
The Yellow-rumped Warbler has a bright yellow patch on the top of its tail only visible when it flutters its wings.

In a nearby bush near the southernmost swamp near Snell Road.  a Palm Warbler rested from its nighttime ride on the north wind.  It too probably came from Canada but will makes its way to Florida or the Caribbean for the winter.

Palm Warbler2
The Palm Warbler breeds in Canada and then rides the north wind south to Florida and the Caribbean.

Summer Visitors Prepare for Migration

At the edge of the playground pond,  a single Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) was stocking up on insects, making quick darts out from its perch. Though it probably raised young here this summer, phoebes don’t hang out with other phoebes, even their mates!  This one may be getting ready for its journey to the southeast or Florida; it appears to have finished molting into its winter plumage with a white edge to its tail feathers.

Eastern phoebe
This Eastern Phoebe seems to have finished its fall molt and was stocking up on insects before heading south.

This male Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) is still molting into the eclipse plumage it wears for the winter.  It loses its white sides and sharply defined stripes but keeps its colorful eye and bill.  Though the Cornell Lab indicates that Wood Ducks can be in southeast Michigan year ’round, I’ve only seen them here during the breeding season.  This one’s mate may have nested in a hole in one of the dead trees around the Playground Pond where I saw him  – a setting favored by Wood Ducks.

Male wood duck eclipse plumage
This male Wood Duck appears to be molting into his eclipse plumage that he’ll wear during the winter.

Our old pals, the Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) start pairing up in the fall, much earlier than most birds.  Here’s a male in his eclipse  (non-breeding) plumage with his yellow beak,  and a female with her orange and black beak,  hanging out at the Center Pond.  They may be starting to pair bond or perhaps they’re just siblings from the same brood.  He’ll change into his familiar iridescent green head before courtship begins later on.  Mallards move south for the winter, some going as far as Mexico.

Female mallard male in eclipse plumage
A male Mallard with his yellow beak and eclipse or non-breeding plumage hangs out  at the Center Pond with a female with her orange and black beak.

A Local Resident Looking Just Awful!

I also spotted a pitiful sight. A female Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) was huddled in a tree with her head almost bald as she completed her fall molt.  Her beautiful brown feathers tinged with red were partially there, but her head looked like that of a small vulture with a huge orange beak!  Cardinals go bald during the molt, losing all of their head feathers at once. The photos aren’t great but you’ll get the general effect.

molting female cardinal
A female Northern Cardinal looks pretty miserable during her fall molt as she loses all her head feathers at once!
molting female cardinal2
This is a molting female Cardinal. She doesn’t look happy, does she?

One Tough Mama Defends her Fall Babies

American Red Squirrels(Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) breed twice a year.  The second litter comes in late August or September.  The babies emerge in 40 days but nurse for 70!  This week,  I met up with one frazzled mother squirrel.  As I was staring up into the tree canopy, trying to study oaks, she suddenly spotted me, came dashing across a log and scooted up a nearby trunk to a sturdy branch.  From there, she scolded me soundly for several minutes, continuing even after I took a quick photo and walked away.  You can hear a scolding Red Squirrel at this link, though I think the Bear Creek mother, with the soft belly of a nursing female, sounded quite a bit more adamant!  Her torn ear and aggressive posture would seem to indicate that she’s no pushover!

New mom red squirrel
A scolding American Red Squirrel with the soft belly of a nursing female and a torn ear is probably protecting her fall litter.

A Wild-Looking Fruit and Some Late Bloomers

The native  Wild-Cucumber vine (Echinocystis lobata) has finished for the year, leaving behind the dried surface of its weird fruit covered with spikes.  It expels its seeds out of the bottom of this fruit and then dies, because it’s an annual.  In the summer, you can see its fragrant white flowers covering bushes in the park.

Wild Cucumber fruit
The fruit of native Wild-Cucumber makes this amazing fruit and expels its seeds from the bottom of it.

I always like to see a few of the brave summer flowers producing blossoms even as fall settles in.  The 6-8 foot native Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) near the benches on the south hill are now mostly bare stalks with giant leaves near the ground – but one stalk still showed two bright yellow flowers about halfway down a stalk.

Prairie Dock late in season
Two late blooming Prairie Dock flowers near the benches at the top of the south hill.

And at the bottom of the sloping path, a single non-native Chicory (Cichorium intybus) showed its lovely blue color and its pinking shears petals.  I think there’s a tiny spider near the center of the blossom.

Chicory late in the season
A late-blooming Chicory

The yellow centers of the Calico Asters (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum), featured last week,  are changing  to rose as they age.

Calico asters in rose
The yellow centers of Calico Asters are changing to their rose color as they age.

And now for those Oaks!

We live, of course, in Oakland Township within Oakland County, so I figure I should learn more about oaks, right?

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a photo of a Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa) near Gunn Road and decided I should try to learn more about different kinds of oaks.  I’m studying the bark so I can discern them in the winter, but for now, here are 3 leaf types from 3 different kinds of oaks, in case you’d like to put a name to the trees you see.  (I always think that a name makes me notice more!)

So here is the leaf of a White Oak (Quercus alba).  Notice that the lobes are rounded and the sinuses (spaces between the lobes) are quite noticeable, the lower ones on this leaf reaching about halfway to the center vein. The acorn in this photo may or may not be a White Oak acorn; though it was under the tree, squirrels could have carried it there from Black Oaks nearby. This tree was on the path that winds upward to the park from the Township Hall – a very precious, undisturbed  Oak-Hickory forest.

White oak leaf and acorn
A White Oak leaf with rounded lobes.  The acorn may be from a Red Oak nearby rather than the White Oak.

White Oaks grow tall in a forest to reach the light and grow much wider and shorter in the open sun of a field.  These beautiful trees with light gray bark can live 200-300 years and according to Wikipedia, one specimen has been documented at 450 years.  Imagine the stories they could tell about life in Oakland Township!

The leaves on a Black Oak (Quercus velutina) have pointed lobes tipped with bristles, like other members of the Red Oak group, rather than the rounded ones of the White Oak group.  They prefer sandy soils and are a smaller relative of the much larger Red Oak which has a similar leaf  but with more lobes and a less shiny surface.

Red Oak leaf
The lobes of the Black Oak’s leaf are pointed with small bristles at the end of each point.

Down at the pond near Gunn Road, I found a sprouting threesome of Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor) leaves, probably the result of an acorn being cached by a squirrel in some previous year.  It has rounded lobes as part of the White Oak group, like the Bur Oak,  but the Swamp Oak’s lobes are shallow and the leaves get broader beyond the middle.

Swamp Oak leaf
Swamp White Oak leaf has rounded lobes as part of the White Oak family but the lobes are shallow and the leave widens at the mid-point.

So that’s a start on Oaks, though there’s so much more to know!

If you are available, come with us to the bird walk next Wednesday, October 7,  at 8:00 a.m. at Bear Creek.  If the weather is right, you may see some lovely little migrants resting and eating before heading south!  It’s the season for taking deep breaths of cool air, listening to the last rustle of wind through the leaves before they begin to fall and enjoying the bright white light of the sun as its arc lowers and shortens a bit each day.  Each daylight hour in nature becomes more precious now, so try to make the most of them!

*Footnote:  My sources for information, as well as Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991). The viceroy butterfly is not a Batesian mimic; 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 beetle info http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info, and invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman.

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: A Golden Marsh, Frogs Meditate, Squirrels Munch and Mushrooms Arise!

Foot of a tree
The foot of a wet-footed tree at the north end of Bear Creek

This week we’ll leave the sunny Old Fields and spend more time in the north of the park where there’s more water and shade.  The marsh, like so much of the park, is now full of gold as fall flowers bloom along its margins. The Canada Geese are starting to emerge from the reeds with completely new sets of feathers.  The Snapping Turtle still cruises just beneath the water’s surface while dragonflies hover and soar above it.

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino
Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

In the pond  at the edge of Gunn Road, a few frogs hop between the toes of giant wet-footed trees,  while others sit quietly contemplating the coming season.  Squirrels and chipmunks gather acorns and nibble at colorful mushrooms that  mysteriously appear and disappear in the Oak-Hickory forest.  Let’s watch how the north end of Bear Creek settles gracefully into early fall.

The Marsh – All Golden and Green

The green of the marsh – its reeds, its duckweed-covered water, the backdrop of trees – is suddenly offset by the bright yellow of Nodding Beggar-ticks (Bidens cernua), another lovely native wildflower with a singularly homely name!

Marsh in Sept_edited-1
In September, golden flowers with the strange name of Nodding Beggar-ticks surround the northern marsh.

These sunny flowers surround the water in the marsh, lining the northern dock and the edge of the reeds in the distance. Dr. Ben tells me that they are an annual that “can grow from a seed to a big flowering plant in just a few short months or weeks after the water recedes. They are really well adapted to the changing water levels of wetlands!”  Look at these flower faces which are currently full of bees!

bee on Nodding Beggar-tick marsh
Bees are constant visitors at the oddly-named Nodding Beggar-tick plants in the northern marsh.
Spray of Nodding Beggar-tick_edited-1
Nodding Beggar-tick are native flowers that nod a bit as they age.

The reeds and flowers are a great backdrop for the Canada Darner dragonfly (Aeshna canadensis), who likes to hover above the water searching for insects,  just as it does above the wildflowers in the Old Fields.

Canada darner flying marsh2
A Canada Darner finds the air above reeds and marsh flowers just as profitable for finding insects as the wildflowers in the Old Fields.

The Common Cat-tails (Typha latifolia) take on all kinds of strange shapes as they produce seed for next year. The male part at the top has fertilized the brown fuzzy female part below to produce seeds.  And cat-tails also grow by rhizomes, or underground stems.

Cat Tail seeding1 Cat tail seeding 3

Out in the water are the usual inhabitants.  If you come after a rain has cleared some of the surface plant life, you might see the ridged back (or carapace) of a Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina).  Its head  emerges several inches ahead of its body as it cruises leisurely across the marsh, stopping to dip down and feed on submerged vegetation.

snapper swimming
A Snapping Turtle moving slowly and deliberately across the marsh, stopping to eat submerged vegetation.

Of course, if you come on a hot, sunny afternoon when the duckweed and other surface plants crowd the marsh surface, you’ll have to look for  the trail of  two slowly moving blobs of green.

Snapper in the marsh2
On a sunny day with the surface plants thick and rich, look for the Snapper’s water trails to find the slowly moving green blobs of its shell and head.

If the sun is warm on a cool fall morning, you might see a small Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta) sunning itself, all four legs, head and tail extended to soak up maximum warmth.

Baby turtle sunning
A small Painted Turtle suns on a log, all four legs stretched out to catch the sun’s warmth.

Some of the Canada Geese (Branta canadensis ) have now finished their molt.  This one seemed to be waiting for other family members to emerge from the reeds.  When they do, they’ll get some practice flying with their completely new feathers, wheeling about the sky and calling noisily.

Canada Goose after molting
A Canada Goose seems to be waiting on the edge of the reeds for the rest of its family group to finish their complete molt.

I’ve noticed this plant in the marsh for a while and finally learned its name.  Ben tells me that it’s Nodding Smartweed or Willow-weed (Persicaria lapathifolia).  It’s common in moist, disturbed ground.  I quite like its graceful droop!

Nodding Smartweed or Willow-weed
Nodding Smartweed (or Willow-weed) droops gracefully in the muddy flats at the edge of the marsh.

The Pond at the North End:  Mighty Trees, Their Munched Acorns and Small Frogs

If you wander away from the marsh toward Gunn Road, you’ll end up at another much quieter pond.  It’s the one in which so many Wood Frogs (Rana sylvatica) were courting in the spring. Some of these frogs breed more than once which might explain seeing two tiny Wood Frogs near the pond at this time to year. Wood Frogs can vary their skin color from brown to green/gray but they are always in or near the trees (as their name implies) and sport a dark eye mask.

Tiny wood frog
A tiny Wood Frog in its  brown color stretches out a hind leg to cling to a log.
Tiny wood frog near Gunn
A tiny Wood Frog in its green color  on a Bur Oak leaf near Gunn Road.

Nearby, as the sun dipped low, a male Green Frog (Rana clamitans) sat quietly on the end of a log, staring steadily into the distance.  It’s rare for me to see one so still and silent.

Green frog male in evening light
In the late afternoon, a male Green Frog stares quietly into the distance from a log in the pond near Gunn Road.

An Orb Weaver Spider (family Araneidae) had rather daringly hung its web out over the water, attaching it to four different trees quite a distance away.  It looks as though it managed to snag a moth.

Orb spider web pond near Gunn
An Orb Spider web suspended between four trees over the pond near Gunn Road.

Some creature had dug a fairly large hole, with accompanying small ones, at the roots of a gigantic Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa). An Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus) perhaps?   Here you can see one hole beneath a Bur Oak leaf and the remainder of the tree’s acorn with its bristly cap laying nearby.  Bur Oaks, a member of the White Oak family,  don’t produce large acorn crops every year.  Instead, they produce huge numbers of acorns some years in the hope that the squirrels and blue jays will not be able to eat them all and a few will survive to propagate new trees.

Leaf with burr oak nutshells
Bur Oak leaf with scattered acorn pieces and the bristly Bur Oak acorn cap half-chewed on the left.

Here’s a clearer look at the acorns from a Bur Oak that’s just south of the shed near Snell Road.

Burr oak acorn and leaves
The acorns of a Bur Oak with their bristly caps

But the one at the north end is very tall – and incredibly straight – with its crown so far up that you can’t see its acorns even with binoculars!  Or at least, I couldn’t.

Huge burr oak near Gunn
A very tall Bur Oak near Gunn Road with its straight trunk and branches only at the crown.

Eastern Chipmunks (Tamias striatus) are certainly dashing about the park collecting nuts and seeds to put in the storage chambers of their burrows.  This one started filling its pouch near the Center Pond in a previous fall.

Chipmunk Bear Creek_edited-1
An Eastern Chipmunk with his cheek pouches starting to bulge with the food he will store in his underground burrow

The Oak-Hickory Forest and its Mysterious Mushrooms

Dappled sunlight in the woods

The Oak-Hickory forest is blooming – with colorful mushrooms! I learned this week that there are fungi in the earth beneath those trees year ’round. Right now we can see parts of those fungi because they’re making spores above ground in what we commonly call “mushrooms.”

Some fungi break down dead materials to obtain nutrients.  Other fungi form relationships with living plants, including trees,  which generally are mutually beneficial.  This symbiotic association between a fungus and a living plant is called a mycorrhiza.  Mycorrhizal fungi feed on sugars from tree roots and trees in turn can get more minerals and water from the soil through their fungal partner.  According to BBC Earth, some scientists have shown that trees use this system to share nutrients with other trees, including their own saplings, in what some scientists refer to as the “wood wide web!” This web may include both the fungal network and tree roots that are actually grafted together.  I love this idea. Of course,  problems can spread through this web too ( just like our internet!) which is why we published the blog on preventing the spread of Oak Wilt.

Having missed the Parks mushroom workshop last weekend, I can’t identify most of the mushrooms I’ve seen lately. (Drat!)  They look so other-worldly and fascinating. Unless accompanied by a real expert who can make an absolute identification, though, please don’t try to eat them!  Wild mushrooms are notoriously difficult to identify and many are toxic to humans. And in any case, it’s always best to leave the park just the way you found it so we can all enjoy its beauty and surprises.

This amazing mushroom, which may or may not be a Sulfur Shelf mushroom, glowed in the dappled light of the woods.

Yellow and orange fungus
This mushroom, which might or might not be a Sulfur Shelf mushroom, glowed in the dim forest light.

Several of these pale orange mushrooms emerged from the wet soil near the pond at the Gunn Road entrance.

orange mushroom near Gunn
Pale orange mushrooms like this one appeared in the moist soil near the pond by Gunn Road.

Some animal’s taken a nip out of this little one.

Brown and white mushroom
Some animal’s tried a nip of this mushroom which may or may not be a Reddening Lepiota.

Someone’s been eating these red mushrooms, too.

red mushrooms?
These unidentified mushrooms may have been eaten by some small woodland animal, perhaps the American Red Squirrel.

One of the likely consumers of mushrooms in the forest is the  American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) which can safely eat some that are toxic to humans.

Red squirrel
The American Red Squirrel can eat mushrooms that are toxic to humans.

Speaking of “fruits,”  the Pasture Rose (Rosa carolina),  seen in early summer on southern end of the western forest path, has left a lovely fruit, known as a “rose hip.”

Rose hip pasture rose
A Pasture Rose has fruited, leaving a “rose hip.”

Bear Creek offers so much variety – the buzz and sway of the meadows, the shady walnut lane, the small ponds, the big, wild marsh and the dappled light of the woods.  A niche for every mood.  Hope you find the time to sample  some of them soon!

*Footnote:  My sources for information, as well as Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991). The viceroy butterfly is not a Batesian mimic; 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 beetle info http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info, and invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman.

This Week at Bear Creek: Small Creatures with Great Gifts

It pays to look carefully as you stroll along the paths of Bear Creek. Small creatures are sometimes the most amazing.

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino
Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino
scarlet tanager2
The Scarlet Tanager fresh from his trip from the west coast of South America

Though a friend on Gunn Road tells me she sees them in the woods behind her house, I’ve only seen the Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea) once in Bear Creek, near the northern entrance to the marsh –  but it was worth waiting for! Fresh from the northwestern edge of South America, they move high in the trees and are usually difficult to see, the female especially as she’s olive above, yellow below, matching the spring leaves. This one’s special talent is just being gorgeous!  Keep a sharp eye out and let me know if you see one!

wren - Version 3
The House Wren’s song is the essence of spring

The House Wren  (Troglodytes aedon) makes Oakland Township part of its huge range; this small vocalist sings for folks  from Northern Canada to the tip of South America.  Cornell Lab says this tiny bird weighs about the same as two quarters. Despite its small size the house wren competes fiercely with bigger birds for a preferred spot, sometimes evicting others from nests they are already using. But they also accommodate themselves to mailboxes, old boots, wren birdhouses or any nook or cranny.  Look for “Typical Voice” on the left of this link to hear his famous song:

Here’s another wee beauty , the Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia), a summer visitor to Oakland Township that Ben saw in the park last week.

yellow warbler2
The male yellow warbler sings “Sweet, sweet, I’m a little sweet.”

This tiny bird  sings a great little song that birders often hear as “Sweet, sweet, I’m a little sweet.” That’s how I spotted this little male. Yellow warblers like wet places so look for this little guy near the center pond or listen for him in the bushes near the marsh.  Here’s a link to his song.  See what you think he’s saying. We’ll discuss Brown-Headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater) another time, but they lay their eggs in other birds’ nests, particularly smaller birds like the Yellow Warbler.  Even if the warbler recognizes the interloper egg in its nest, the bird’s too small to push the egg out, so it usually just builds a nest on top of the original one, lays its eggs and ignores the cowbird’s. Pretty nifty solution, though it’s a good thing bird’s don’t have much sense of smell, eh?  I’ve never seen such a nest, but I’d love to!

American Goldfinches  (Spinus tristis)  live with us all year, though there may be some slight shift in populations from north to south during the winter.  The bright yellow of the males is a sure sign of spring, and during the Goldfinches’ second molt in late fall, the male’s return to the olive-yellow of the female presages the coming of winter. Goldfinches, one of the strictest vegetarians of the bird world, eat only seeds unless a hapless bug happens to fly into their beak during flight! While other birds are busy courting in the spring, they establish territories and wait to breed until late summer when the thistle seed they love is plentiful.  They make tiny nests (3″ across x 2.5″ high) woven together with spider silk and lined with thistle down.  Sounds pretty cozy.  Here’s a link to their cheerful song. This finch pair (note the different plumage) seems to have had a tiff: finch1

finch2
This pair of American Goldfinches looks like they’ve had a tiff.

 

Ah, and then  buzz, whirr,  click, the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) zooms into the park during the first two weeks of May.

hummer in the rain2
A rainy day dims the dazzling colors of the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird.

Though this photo taken in the rain dims him a bit, in bright sunlight the sparkling iridescence of the male’s green head and deep ruby throat dazzles the eye and his ability to fly in any direction, even backwards, beating his wings 53 times/second is really impressive. He weighs only 1/10th of an ounce and has to eat 50 times his weight in nectar daily! The plainer green females arrive later, build their half dollar-sized nests and do all the care and feeding of the young. Hummingbirds are not common in Bear Creek but Ben saw one last week, actually sitting quietly like my rainy day one.

water strider
Water striders have the unique gift of walking on water

Speaking of small talented critters, look closely at the surface of calm water anywhere in the park right now and you will see Water Striders (Gerridae). They are unique in the insect world for their ability to walk on water!  Their specially adapted legs are covered with thousands of hairs that repel water, help them distribute their weight and trap air to bring the strider to the surface if dunked. The middle legs row and the back legs steer and they can really scoot across the water!

6 spotted tiger beetle
The Six-spotted Tiger Beetle flits along the boundary between the forest and the sunlight.

One more interesting little insect, the Six-Spotted Tiger Beetle (Cicindela sexguttata), flits along paths near the woods through the park now.  Probably his fierce name comes from the fact that the larvae burrow into the ground when they hatch where they lay in wait.  When a spider or insect happens by, they spring out and attack – much like a tiger pouncing on prey.  Someone with a fine imagination named this little guy!

violet
Michigan has 28 different varieties of violets

Our native Violets  peek out here and there.  Aren’t they lovely with the stripes on their petals and that beard at the center?  I think these are Common Blue Violets (Viola sororia) but don’t hold me to it, since there are 28 species of violets in Michigan, according to the University of Michigan Herbarium.

wild strawberry
Wild strawberries are plentiful in Bear Creek this year

The Wild Strawberries (Fragaria virginiana) are in full bloom and they are everywhere!  Just think, every one of those flowers is  a potential berry! A feast for wildlife since they’ll probably eat them all before they are ripe enough for humans!

May apple bud and blossom
The buds and flowers of the May Apples hide shyly below the leaves.

The May Apples (Podophyllum peltatum) are now producing their shy buds, those inedible “apples”after which they are named.  Some are blooming too,  in their shy way, bowing humbly beneath the leaves. Here are a bud and a blossom.

IMGP4489
Wild Geraniums are blooming in many more places after the prescribed burn.

Reliable sources (Ben and my husband Reg) tell me the carpet of Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum) has finally arrived and indeed is even more beautiful after the prescribed burn!  Geraniums are blooming in areas we’ve never seen them before!  Here’s Ben’s photo from Monday, the 18th.

Red squirrel closeup
The American Red Squirrel will chatter at you as you emerge from the woods at the Snell entrance.

And just to give small talented mammals some due, the American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) occasionally leaves a legacy to its offspring!  You’ll hear these squirrels, the smallest in the park, chattering at you as you emerge from the trees on the path from the Snell parking lot. They are very intense about their territory and you are passing through it, for heaven’s sake! They are feisty, speedy and spend part of every day creating middens, places where they store seeds and other goodies. If food is scarce, females will evidently “bequeath” one to their young, that is, give up the midden and part of her territory to her offspring. Nice little inheritance!

Coming Attractions:

wood duck and 6 ducklings
The amazing Wood Duck’s ducklings will arrive in June.

Watch for the somewhat elusive Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa)! They are in the park now, but by mid-June, there will be ducklings! And what ducklings they are! Wood ducks nest in holes in trees as tall as 60 feet. When the ducklings are two days old, mom leaves the nest, flies down to the water and calls her young.  One by one they screw their courage to the sticking point and launch themselves into the air. Their wings are too small for flight,  but they are so light they bounce on the leaf litter below. Once they are all out of the nest, they go to mom and begin to swim. Now that’s quite a gift. For a one minute video of this feat, check out this link from the PBS program, Nature. It’s just wonderful, truly. Here’s a female and a couple of ducklings in the center pond at a bit of a distance last June.

And watch for the dragonflies and damsel flies! They are just beginning to swoop and dive around the ponds and in sunny spots near the woods,  but there will be all kinds of them as June and July come on.

Quick Review:  Spotted Again this Week!

  • One Snapping Turtle in the pond near the playground, and 3 in the marsh on Sunday the 17th!
snapper
Three snappers were seen in the marsh last week.

 

  • Rose-Breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus) singing in the trees near the northern entrance to the marsh also on Sunday.
singing grosbeak
The male Rose-Breasted Grosbeak sings to his mate from treetops near the marsh.

 

  • A Baltimore Oriole at the center pond again this year.
lady oriole
Again this year, the Baltimore Oriole is whistling in the trees near the center pond.

 

Spring is so full of change and energy that it’s a great time to explore Bear Creek Nature Park.  As usual, let me know if you see anything we haven’t, or if you’ve also seen and enjoyed the ones we post here – and where you saw them.

*Quick footnote:  My sources for information, as well as Dr. Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: 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.