Tag Archives: American red squirrel

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

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

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

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

 

 

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

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

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

Wild Neighbors Make Brief Appearances on a Winter Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Wild Neighbors Leave Only Hints of their Presence

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

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

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

Pondering Snow Prints

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

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

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

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

Admiring the Stark Architecture of Last Year’s Wildflowers

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

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

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

First Bursts of Irrepressible Spring Song!

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

A Northern Cardinal singing his spring song at Charles Ilsley Park

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

A Chickadee in Red-Twig Osier.

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

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

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

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

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

The Trickle of the Thaw and Buds!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A spear of moss near at wetland at Ilsley.

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

The Best Kind of “Social Distance”

The Northern Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park in early March

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

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

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

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.

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.