Tag Archives: American Robin

A Bevy of Migrators Discover the New Wetlands at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park

Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) are a common sight this spring at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park

While I spent late March and early April scouting out Watershed Ridge Park, the migrating birds –  and ducks especially – discovered the sparkling new wetlands at the 208 acre expansion of Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park. As part of this park’s restoration, the tiles that had drained the field while under agriculture were broken. Water began to naturally rise to the surface, recreating the wetlands that once acted as a refuge for wildlife. (For a brief description of this process, see an earlier blog on this park.) So this spring, weary migrators of all kinds began making the most of this new place to rest and forage. Some will spend the summer here raising young. Others relax for a few days and then head north on a strong south wind.

So this blog will be a bit different than others. Thanks to Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Stewardship Manager and Ruth Glass, a local expert birder of many years, I received a copious list of the ducks and other migrators that the two of them have already seen at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park this spring before I made my visits there. Though they watch and appreciate birds, they rarely take photos of them.

Some photos and all text
by Cam Mannino

A fine local photographer, Joan Bonin, who frequents this park occasionally, was kind enough to share some of her impressive photos with me. And I’ve supplemented my recent photos and hers with photos from the generous photographers at iNaturalist.org. So now, thanks to all of those helpers, I can share some of the wild life that’s visiting our newest natural area. The number of beautiful migrators and year ’round birds spotted at this park is dazzling.

[A note:  Visiting this new section of Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park is difficult right now, because there’s no parking lot and not much in the way of trails, just tire tracks encircling the fenced enclosure that contains the wetlands within the conservation easement held by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE, formerly DEQ.) But the Parks and Recreation Commission hopes to have a parking lot and some trails mowed by this summer. Meanwhile, consider exploring the original 60 acres that features the ravine itself and is accessible at the end of Knob Creek Drive. And if you visit the east expansion, please stay back from the wetlands so that you don’t flush the migrating waterfowl and shorebirds. We’ll let you know when this larger part of park is ready for prime time!]

Restore the Wetlands and They Will Come!

One of the large ponds that formed last autumn at Stony Creek Ravine when the drainage tiles installed years ago were crushed and the water rose again naturally.

It gladdens my heart to know that weary migrating ducks and shorebirds are gliding down from pale, spring skies to settle on these pools. Here are a few that Ben, Joan and Ruth saw. What a collection of special ducks!

American Wigeons floating in a restored wetland at Stony Creek Ravine Park.

The ducks floating inside the conservation easement in the photo above are American Wigeons (Mareca americana). Wigeons are dabbling ducks, as are all the ducks seen at the huge new expanse of Stony Creek Ravine this spring. I imagine that ducks must be able to gauge water depth from the air since we’ve yet to see any diving ducks, which require deeper water. Dabblers tip up, tails in the air, to forage beneath the water for grasses, mollusks, small crustaceans and insects. Unlike diving ducks, dabblers have legs positioned forward, which allows them to waddle and forage on the muddy edge and sometimes on dry land. The legs of diving ducks are positioned farther back on their bodies to provide more thrust for diving,  which means that walking on land is awkward at best for them.

American Wigeons have a short bill so they can pick grains off terrestrial plants as well as aquatic ones. Here’s a closeup shot from BJ Stacey at iNaturalist. Pretty jazzy green eye patch, eh? And I like the white bill and crown, which the Cornell Lab of Ornithology says is where they got the nickname “baldpate.” Hope I can remember that for ID purposes!

American Wigeons are dabbling ducks that can eat both under water and on land. Photo by BJ Stacey (CC BY-NC)

Ben alerted me to the presence of Green-winged Teal (Anas crecca) in the newly restored wetlands, but though I’ve visited the park several times, I’ve missed them! The bills of Green-winged Teals are edged with comb-like structures called lamellae. By dipping their beaks in the water or wet mud, they can strain out tadpoles, mollusks, crustaceans and such. Both Ben and Ruth spotted 14-16 of these small ducks in the easement ponds at various times this April.

Green-winged Teal strain food through comb-like structures on their bills. Photo by Philip Mark Osso (CC BY-NC) .  

It’s not surprising that a duck with the Latin genus name “Spatula” has a huge spoon-shaped bill! Look at the size of that bill on the Northern Shoveler (Spatula clypeata) below! They feed by swinging it from side to side in shallow water to sieve out creatures from the shallows. The male’s bill is black and the female’s orange. These migrators don’t stick around Michigan for the summer. Maps at the Cornell Lab show them heading northwest to breed in western Canada and Alaska or northeast to breed as far north as Maine or New Brunswick. Northern Shovelers may move south for the winter, but prefer cooler summers when raising young.

The Northern Shoveler is identified by its large spoon-shaped bill. Photo by Chris Butler at iNaturalist.org (CC BY-NC)

Blue-winged Teal (Anas discors) are tiny ducks that make long migrations.  Cornell Lab of Ornithology says they spend the winter either in the Caribbean, a likely destination for our Michigan population, or Central and South America for western populations. They usually arrive late in the spring and leave in early fall; Ruth saw some in mid-April at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park. Blue-winged Teal breed and rear their young in Michigan summers. The male’s white “paint stripe” behind the bill will be a field mark I’ll look for in the future, as well as sky-blue wing patches beneath their wings when they rise into the air. (Photo by Jaden at iNaturalist.org)

A tiny, long distance traveler, the Blue-winged Teal can breed in Michigan. Photo by Jaden at iNaturalist.org (CC BY-NC)

Champion bird spotter Ruth Glass also saw Gadwall (Mareca strepera) and American Black Ducks (Anas rubripes) among the flotillas at Stony Creek Ravine. Gadwall may escape notice from a distance, mistaken for your average brown female duck. But look at the beautifully intricate patterning on its breast and flank in the photo below! Cornell Lab reports that these sweet-looking ducks occasionally “snatch food from diving ducks as they surface.” Sneaky little ducks! They’ll head to northern Canada to breed. Glad they took some R&R with us!

The delicate pattern of its feathers sets the Gadwall apart from other ducks . Photo by Greg Lasley (CC BY-NC)

One of the ducks that Ruth Glass saw was not a migrator American Black Ducks  (Anas rubripes), according to the Cornell Lab, live here year ’round, but they are shy ducks and often mistaken for female mallards. They actually hybridize with Mallards so some have green patches on their heads. Hope I recognize them if I see some this summer!

American Black Ducks are often seen in the company of Mallards and are mistaken for mallard females. Photo by Joanne Redwood (CC BY-NC) at iNaturalist.org

Ruth and Ben finally spotted some shore birds in the conservation easement wetlands as well. Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes) love flooded fields so the shallow ponds are perfect for them. The feathers of  this shorebird were fashionable in the 19th century so their numbers declined. They  rebounded when hunting them was outlawed in the US and Canada in the early 20th century. Sadly though, they are in decline again because of the disappearance of wetlands. So hooray for Oakland Township’s Land Preservation Fund and the Natural Resources Trust Fund for enabling Parks and Recreation to acquire and protect this habitat that is so important to these birds!

Though tolerant of other shorebirds during migration, Lesser Yellowlegs fiercely defend their nests in northern Canada. (Photo by jdmanthey CC BY-NC)

Cornell Lab says that the Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca) is known for its strident alarm calls and will perch high in trees to keep a sharp eye out for nest predators. They migrate from Central America or the Caribbean to the boreal wetlands of northern Canada in order to breed. Its beak looks about as long as its legs! Other field marks include a longer, slightly upturned bill for foraging in deeper water and barring on the flanks that go much farther toward the tail. Pretty subtle differences, aren’t they?

The Greater Yellowlegs has a much longer bill than the Lesser Yellowlegs and wades into deeper water. (Photo by jdelaneynp CC BY-NC)

After having failed to see these two Yellowlegs several times at the park, I finally saw a lone one stalking around one of the shallow ponds near Snell Road and took a long distance shot through the fence. Ben and Ruth both guess that it’s a Greater Yellowlegs.  It’s easier to judge the two types of Yellowlegs when they are wading around together and the differences in their bill size, barring on their flanks and overall body bulk are more apparent.

A Yellowlegs foraging in a shallow wetland at Stony Creek Ravine.

And of course, the nattily-dressed Killdeer, a plover who likes a bit of mud at its feet, has taken up residence within the wetlands as well. Since these birds simply scratch out a depression in the soil to lay their eggs, the sparsely vegetated soil of the wetlands provides great habitat. I took this photo between the fence wires and the Killdeer with its large orange eyes paid me no mind.

Killdeers may be happy to nest  inside the protection of the  conservation fence near the water.

Ruth Glass’ Rare Sighting

Ruth Glass reported a rare bird in Stony Creek Ravine Park this spring – the Krider’s Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis kriderii). Some experts consider it a sub-species of the Red-tailed Hawk; the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and other experts identify it as a color morph of that more common hawk. Whatever, it is rare to see a Krider’s this far east in the United States! Ruth described its normal territory for me. “Krider’s breed on the northern Great Plains of Alaska and northwestern Canada, and winter on the southern Great Plains south to the Gulf Coast, and east into the Mississippi River Valley.” She observed it through her scope for part of an afternoon, but hasn’t seen it since, as it no doubt headed north. What a magnificent and lucky sighting! Here’s a closeup of a Krider’s by an iNaturalist photographer; Ruth said that it’s in very much the same pose and background as the one she saw.

A Krider’s Red-Tailed Hawk showed up for Ruth Glass at the park. A rare sight this far east! (Photo by Mark Greene at iNaturalist.org (CC BY-NC)

I saw two of our more common Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) riding a thermal high in the air on a sunny morning at the park. Bathed in the bright sunlight, one of them flew to the field where I was walking and  hung overhead, as if it were scoping me out. Glad I’m not a mouse or a chipmunk! Note its brown belly-band and brown head, unlike the Krider’s Red-tailed Hawk above.

“Snow Birds” of the Fields Also Find Their Way Here.

Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park also hosts a wide variety of upland birds which, like human “snow birds,” leave us behind in the autumn and return each spring. Ruth spotted a pair of  American Kestrels (Falco sparverius) hunting from atop the fence posts at the park. One afternoon, a monumental chase occurred in which one kestrel grabbed a vole in its talons and the other screamed as it chased its compatriot over the fields trying to snatch it away. Wish I had seen that. Glad Ruth did!

The American Kestrel is our country’s smallest falcon. Photo by Pablo H. Capovilla at iNaturalist.org (CC BY-NC)

The Brown Thrasher (Toxostoma rufum) also dropped in at Stony Creek Ravine Park.  Ruth loves these birds as much as I do. As she says, “They are such a fun bird! As a close cousin of the Mockingbird, the strangest noises come out of them, including: cell phone beeps and rings, car alarms, sirens, scolding noises, many other birds’ songs, etc.” She took a lovely photo of one through her scope at Stony Creek Ravine Park.

Brown Thrashers are great imitators of noises as well as other birds’ songs. Photo by Ruth Glass with permission

Ruth can identify minor differences between sparrows – and their songs! This month at Stony Creek Ravine, she came across two that are rare sightings for me. I’ve never identified the Vesper Sparrow (Pooecetes gramineus). Though it can be heard in the early morning, its name refers to its evensong at twilight. Looking through binoculars, the field marks for this little sparrow are a thin eye ring and a tiny chocolate-colored patch at the top of its wing.

The Vesper Sparrow sings even as it gets dark, hence its lovely name. Photo by Bryan Box (CC BY-NC)

The Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis) loves grassy meadows, the denser the better; they build their nests on the ground amid deep thatch left by last year’s stems. I wonder if the one Ruth saw a few weeks ago will nest at Stony Creek Ravine; a lot of the land was cleared to create the conservation area. According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Savannah Sparrows are very common – but I’ve only seen this striped sparrow with the yellow patch around its eye twice. Here’s my photo from Draper Twin Lake Park in 2018.

A field mark for the Savannah Sparrow is the yellow patch in front of the eye.

One Sunday afternoon, my husband and I watched the flight of a returning Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) who settled onto a tree limb. Herons normally nest in rookeries so I’ve no idea where this one will settle into its communal nursery. I was just glad that it had a good long look at Stony Creek Ravine from its perch at the edge of the trees north of the wetland enclosure. Amazing how such a large bird can look so tiny against that lovely dark woods!

A Great Blue Heron perched in a tree beyond the north edge of the conservation easement  

Ruth arrived high on the Outlook Point between the restored wetlands at dusk to see the mating flight of the American Woodcock (Scolopax minor). She tells me she’s seen three of these “timberdoodles!” I finally got a good look at one last year when Ben held his annual Earth Day Woodcock event, sadly cancelled this year due to the need for social distancing. At dusk, this oddly-shaped bird makes a buzzing beep, sounding  a bit like the cartoon Road Runner. Then it sails high up in the darkening sky, spirals down and lands right where it took off. Quite a courtship ritual! I’ve scared them up right from under my feet at least three times in various parks, but with no chance for a photo. Fortunately iNaturalist photographer Ty Smith was luckier than I was.

Woodcocks are known for their dramatic spiral mating dance performed high in the sky at dusk. (Photo by Ty Smith (CC BY-NC)

My trips to Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park this month have given me a chance to welcome back a couple of my favorite sparrows. The Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) with its pinkish beak and feet showed up for me about 10 days ago. The males sing their bouncing ball song all over the park right now. Maybe the shy, quiet one that my camera caught (left below)was a female. The male Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) tirelessly repeated his courting song that ends in a quick buzz or trill. And as always, he accommodated me by sitting on a perch in the open and ignoring my presence completely. [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

Here’s just a sampling of the variety of birds that the four of us – Ben, Ruth, Joan and I – have enjoyed in Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park this month. Such abundance –  and I’m sure we’ve not yet seen all there is to see!

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With Apologies to John Donne: No Creature is an Island…

Old Oak at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park

I must admit that at first it felt a bit odd using so many photos by other people in this blog. Usually the observations and photos are mostly mine. But it’s occurred to me that it’s somehow fitting to be supported by others’ efforts in this season and during this hair-raising global pandemic. In early spring, the bird world is busy with all kinds of cooperation. Migrating birds often travel in large flocks for safety and to find the habitats they need. Mating birds work cooperatively in building and protecting nests. And in the human sphere, we’ve become conscious during the virus outbreak of how much we depend on the assistance of others – all the workers in hospitals, grocery stores, police and fire departments, pharmacies, research labs as well as teachers,  journalists and parents working from home. So perhaps it’s appropriate that the observant eyes and photography skills of others are central in this week’s blog. My thanks to Ruth Glass, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, Joan Bonin and all the generous photographers who share their work on iNaturalist. And my gratitude, too, to the Oakland Township Parks and Recreation Commissioners and staff who worked for years to preserve this special natural area for the benefit of all of us – and more importantly for the wildlife and plant life that sustain us every day in so many ways.

And now to John Donne’s meditation on community written in 17th century England, another time and place of plagues:

“No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.”

Gallagher Creek Park: A Time of Transitions Created by Caring Humans and by Nature Itself

Little, busy Gallagher Creek Park has gone through some big changes in the last few years.  The Oakland Township Parks and Recreation Commission made a commitment to provide this densely populated area of the township with a playground for children. And they made it happen very quickly!  Meanwhile,  Dr. Ben VanderWeide, the township Stewardship Manager, set in motion a plan to eliminate large stands of non-native shrubs and begin restoring the fields that surround the new playground.  This spring, he and his crew spent long hours creating and planting an extensive set of native gardens.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

So I’ve enjoyed several happy outings at this little green park from late April to late June, observing both the exciting changes initiated by human effort and nature’s annual, sometimes less noticed,  transition from spring to summer. Glad you’re here to share both of them with me.

 

 

The People Factor:  From an Old Farm Field to a Playground Surrounded by Beauty

In the spring of 2015, the restoration of native habitat at Gallagher Creek began with a prescribed burn handled by contractors and supervised by Dr. Ben. Having done a plant survey, he had found many native plants struggling to grow amongst invasives. So in 2015, before the Parks Commission began to consider playground plans, Ben set about removing large stands of aggressive shrubs from the eastern sections of  Gallagher Creek. In the early winter of 2016, he was able to begin planting native seed, using budgeted Land Preservation millage funds and a prairie restoration grant from the US Fish and Wildlife Service – Partners for Fish and Wildlife program. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

From 2016 to 2019, the Parks and Recreation Commissioners and Director Mindy Milos-Dale set about making the playground area a priority project. A professional architect from Professional Engineering Associates (PEA) worked with the Parks Commission and staff to develop a design for the playground, picnic pavilion, and paths that would harmonize with the natural environment. The Township Board’s Safety Paths and Trails Committee worked with dedication to complete the northern paved trail along Silverbell Road that leads into the park and LJ Construction did an excellent job of putting it all together. Now it’s  easier and safer for families to reach Gallagher Creek Park from surrounding neighborhoods. And the stewardship crew, volunteers of all ages, and Dr. Ben set out to surround the playground with an educational garden that can familiarize both children and their parents with lovely plants that are native to our area.

Stewardship crew and volunteers planting at the Gallagher Creek

All of the work came to fruition this May when the park was dedicated and the gardens completed.

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Nature Begins its Transition at Gallagher Creek

The paths that lead out of the native gardens create a transition from the playground to the natural areas that surround the slides and swings. Right now, the only trail beyond the playground leads to a platform near the creek, but more are planned. So knees cocked high, I waded through the carpet of tall grass and flowers, exploring, watching a wet, cold, spring make the transformation into early summer.

A Cold, Wet Spring at Gallagher Creek: Wildflowers Emerge, the Birds are Fewer than Previous Years, and Insects Not Yet Active

Gallagher Creek ran over its banks after the heavy rains in May

May was wet! Gallagher Creek, normally shallow and wandering slowly through tall grass, flooded over into pools beneath the sheltering willows. Instead of whispering, it burbled along it path toward Paint Creek. The cool temperatures and moisture were perfect for some plants.

The most spectacular spring wildflower was the Yellow Lady Slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum) tucked in near the old stump left of the platform at the creek.  The long purple ribbons on these yellow dancing shoes suit this wildflower’s name just perfectly!

Yellow Ladyslipper, a native wildflower, near the platform by the creek

Mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum) erupted from the soil in time to live up to their name, too. They formed a circular carpet out in the eastern field, where Ben had cleared a dense stand of shrubs in a previous year. Mayapples are more commonly seen in wooded areas but this colony of them seems quite happy to be surrounded by tall grass.

A circular carpet of May Apples thriving in the middle of the eastern field at Gallagher Creek

Their modest little flowers, which emerge from little “green apple” buds, droop shyly beneath the leaves.

The Mayapple’s flower is hidden beneath its umbrella-like leaves.

Wild Strawberry flowers (Fragaria virginiana) lay hidden in the grass all over the park. Their berries will provide a tasty  treat for all kinds of animals who always get to these berries before I do!

Wild Strawberry flowers are almost constantly underfoot in the natural areas of Gallagher Creek Park in May.

Where Gallagher Creek had flooded , it had left standing water far out in the eastern field. And some little rivulets flow the other way, toward the creek from the marsh near Silverbell Road. So I was glad I had waterproof hiking shoes. All along the creek in May,  golden splashes of Swamp Buttercup (Ranunculus hispidus) shone like little suns from the wet grass. I’ve never seen as many here as I’ve seen this year.

Swamp Buttercup created golden swathes among the wet grass near Gallagher Creek.

When Ben cleared the shrubs, he saved a lovely Nannyberry bush (Viburnum lentago) that can now stand out in the landscape. According to the website Illinoiswildflowers.info, this graceful native shrub or small tree later produces juicy, sweet, purplish fruits that many birds love, including Ruffed Grouse, Northern Bobwhite, Ring-necked Pheasant, Northern Flicker, Gray Catbird, American Robin, Hermit Thrush, Eastern Bluebird, Cedar Waxwing, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and Purple Finch. It’s also a popular nesting shrub for birds. Sounds like a good one for my yard!

Native Nannyberry produces lovely panicles of creamy flowers and then purplish fruits that the birds love. It’s a nesting shrub for many birds as well.

Oak trees are “monoecious,” meaning they have both male and female flowers on the same tree. The male flowers look like little bright green balls on the long, elegant catkins and the female flowers, which become the acorns, are inconspicuous little blossoms on the same branch. The female flowers are pollinated by the wind, which means a lot of us around here are sneezing in May! And once the male flowers open and shed their pollen, they fall to the ground. Here are the male flowers on an oak at Gallagher Creek Park (maybe black oak, Quercus velutina).

The male flowers on the oak catkins have opened and are releasing their pollen to the wind in hopes that the pollen will find a female flower.

Just a couple of birds kept me company at Gallagher Creek Park in late April and May.  I mentioned in the blog earlier this month that a birder friend sent me a photo of a  Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) standing over her eggs in the shallow nest she’d scraped in the bare earth. The eggs, however, disappeared without my birder friend or me ever spotting the fledglings. Killdeer nests are awfully vulnerable to snakes, raccoons, coyotes and of course, careless humans! But I’ve learned that the adults can lead newborns to safer territory with water and food on the day they hatch from their eggs. They’re born ready to go. So maybe there are fledglings somewhere on the property being cared for by the male while the female starts a new nest. I hope so.

A killdeer standing over her eggs at Gallagher Creek Park early in the spring. (Photo by a birder friend who wishes to be remain anonymous)

Last year, the air over the park was filled with swooping and diving Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor). This year, I’ve only seen one or two. It may be that the busy playground has encouraged them to settle elsewhere. Here’s a photo of one high in a tree at Gallagher Creek Park about two years ago, and one on the wing, scooping insects out of the air in the wetland area on the far side of the creek as I’ve seen them doing this year.

 

As Summer Tentatively Arrived More Birds and Lots of Crazy Insects!

Getting to Know a Killdeer, plus Other Avian Visitors

In June, I thought perhaps I was repeatedly seeing  the Killdeer that my birding friend had introduced me to in late April. By June 1, the adult Killdeer had abandoned its first nest and seemed to be striking up a friendship with a local American Robin (Turdus migratorius). The killdeer appears to be the female, since the only other adult killdeer around is usually flying in circles making its piercing territorial call which is the male’s way of protecting his mate’s territory.  (No wonder the second part of the Killdeer’s scientific name is “vociferous”!)  The Robin may have been a female as well, since its head is not as dark as most males. On that June 1 afternoon, these two birds of different species hung out together  in a native bed near the pavilion that hadn’t yet been planted. It was surprising to me that the two of them seemed so relaxed in each other’s presence – especially since killdeer are usually quite excitable. I liked to imagine that perhaps the smaller bird found the Robin’s stolid presence reassuring – or maybe that they were silently commiserating over the difficulties of nesting and raising young!

A week later on June 8, the Killdeer was bobbing along among the newly planted garden where it had visited with the Robin, calling now and then.

The Killdeer explored the plants in the native garden where it had kept company with the Robin a week earlier.

Six days later on June 14, Ben texted that he’d just seen another killdeer nest with four eggs in it. When I went on my own, I couldn’t find it; their nests are notorious for being well camouflaged!  A day later, sharp-eyed Ben texted again to say he’d seen a hatchling coming out one of the eggs! And he sent me this wonderful photo!  Be sure to notice the long beak on this youngster.

A killdeer fledgling emerging from its egg. Photo by Dr. Ben VanderWeide

My husband and I hurried to the park. At first we only saw the female doing a distraction maneuver near the nest location that Ben had described. She huddled down in the grass and stretched her wings up vertically, spread her tail and fluttered, trying to draw our attention. Killdeer females do this when possible predators approach their young. They want predators to think they are starting a new nest. “Don’t look there! Look over here!”

A female killdeer from behind pretending that she is creating a new nest to distract me from her fledgling young.

This time we saw the baby bird, probably just half an hour out of its egg. We wanted to keep our distance to avoid any further distress for either the fledgling or its mother so no photo. But while we watched, this tiny bird struggled to its feet for a few seconds, then flopped on the ground and fluttered forward a little on its tiny wings. By a few repetitions of this arduous process, it got away from the exposed nest, the eggs and the hot sun and hid under some grass. What a little survivor! We walked away.

That evening, I learned the following  from A Guide to Bird Behavior, Vol. II by Donald W. and Lillian Q. Stokes: “Once the chicks have hatched, the parents lead them gradually to areas with abundant food and some coverOn the first day, the chicks may move up to 120 feet from the nests…Brooding [covering the bird with adult’s body] by one or both parents occurs frequently during the first few days and, of course, during the nights.”  I felt reassured, though I’ve not seen the fledgling since it hatched. Here’s a little Killdeer in a photo taken by iNaturalist.org photographer, Steven Mlodinow. Definitely “aaawww” worthy, I’d say.  Hope someday I get to see one on its feet like this!

Killdeer Fledgling by Steven Mlodinow (CC BY-NC) at iNaturalist.org

The Robin, by the way, may have been staring toward the pavilion because she was contemplating a nest there. Ben reported two adult Robins calmly ignoring humans below as they zipped back and forth bringing food to their young in the rafters of the pavilion. When I visited on June 14, I saw two Robin hatchlings who still needed to grow into their beaks a bit before leaving the nest.  Unlike hatchling Killdeers who leave the nest within minutes,  the Robin nestlings can spend almost two weeks in their nest.

Two young Robins with just their beaks showing in the pavilion at Gallagher Creek.

On each visit over the six weeks, I kept hearing the “witchedy, witchedy” calls of the tiny, masked Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas). Each time, though, the calls seemed to be coming from the wetland on the far side of the creek. But last week, on June 19, I finally spotted one high atop a snag near the marsh along Silverbell Road.

A Common Yellowthroat perched on the top of a tall stump near the marsh.

On that last visit, I also heard a Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) trilling its melody and finally spotted it high on a bare limb.  It looked as though it were studying the marsh for insects before singing another “verse.”

The Song Sparrow studying the insects in the Gallagher Creek Marsh.

A few minutes later, I looked up from a flower to see a Great Egret (Ardea alba) soaring away from the creek and across the marsh. It was gone before I could raise the camera to my eye. So here’s a flying Egret photo taken at Bear Creek marsh a few years ago with a possible mate in the distance.  I hope the flying egret nests near Gallagher Creek this year.

A Great Egret taking flight at Bear Creek marsh  a few years ago – with perhaps a mate in the distance?

Gallagher Creek’s Wild and Weird June Insects

The natural areas at Gallagher Creek Park bloomed with a few more wildflowers in June. And that prompted visits by a variety of insects. Some I wrote about last week when I reported on native pollinators – bumblebees, sweat bees, leafcutter bees and hoverflies. This week get ready for some hair-raising stories! These insects are colorful and fascinating but come with some pretty fierce behavior!

Thanks to very kind assistance from Dr. Gary Parsons, an entomologist from Michigan State University, I now know that an insect I saw last week is a female Feather-legged Fly, specifically Trichopoda pennipes. These insects mimic wasps.  With their feathery jodpurs, they  sip on nectar, spreading some pollen as they buzz from flower to flower. Their genus also has the unpleasant distinction of laying its eggs in or on other insects. Once they hatch they eat the host! Yuck. According to Dr. Parsons, though, they may play a role in controlling an invasive stink bug because of their parasitic habits. Great looking little critter with a grim reproductive strategy, eh?  (Note the two tiny Hoverflies (genus Syrphidae) mating on these Yarrow blossoms in the background.)

A feather-legged fly which mimics a wasp, pollinates as it sips nectar from flower to flower.

Speaking of Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), the fields at Gallagher are filled with this well-known native plant – and insects are making the most of them! Below, a potential victim of the Feather-legged Fly has come up with a snazzy defense. An insect group called Froghoppers (superfamily Cercopoidea) has a nymph stage that we commonly call Spittlebugs. To protect itself from predators, the nymph pierces the plant stem, feeds on its sap (doing no serious harm) and then excretes a bitter-tasting foam around itself. That keeps the nymph moist, insulates it from cold, and hides it from view  so it can safely metamorphose within its bubbles. This spittlebug seems to have found an exceptionally safe spot beneath an umbrella of Yarrow buds.

The foam of a Spittlebug or Froghopper nymph protects it from view of predators.

Yarrow also hosted a very impressive arachnid.  The long legs stretching down this stalk belong to a Daddylonglegs, also known as a Harvestman (order Opiliones).  Unlike other arachnids, their body segments (cephalothorax and abdomen) are fused together and they have two tiny eyes on top of their heads instead of up to eight for spiders. Quite a specimen, isn’t it?

A daddylonglegs or harvestman waiting for prey on a budding Yarrow.

A lovely plant with the oddly descriptive name of Hairy Beard-tongue (Penstemon hirsutus) played host to an Eastern Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa virginica ) this week. Unlike the Bumblebee which it resembles, it doesn’t have a long tongue to reach into these delicate lavender tubes for nectar. Sometimes the Carpenter Bee has to slit the petals open to reach the pollen in narrow blossoms. I wonder if that’s why this bee solved the problem by choosing  the smaller, shallower flowers?

An Eastern Carpenter Bee probes the tubular blossoms of Hairy Beard-tongue.

An Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly (Erythemis simplicollis) rested among the greenery in the eastern meadow. According to the “Bug Lady” at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee Field Station, the white tip of her abdomen means she’s a female and they can lay up to 900 eggs per day!  Most of the eggs and larvae, of course, will get eaten by fish and frogs.  Dragonflies are flying predators. By snagging other insects from the air, they keep the habitat in balance. And they are such flying aces!

A female Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly may lay as many as 900 eggs a day in the wetlands at Gallagher Creek.

We need a relief from cool but strange insects, right?  So let’s end with a second, closer look at Gallagher’s butterflies, some of which were featured in a slideshow last week.  Here’s another look at the gorgeous Red-spotted Purple buttefly (Limenitis arthemis astyanax), this time with the upper (dorsal) view and the equally dramatic lower (ventral) view.

The spectacular Red-spotted Purple (Limenitis arthemis), the dorsal view
The lower (ventral) side of the Red-spotted Purple’s wings

And here’s the tiny Pearl Crescent, this time with its fuzzy face peering over the edge of a leaf as it flitted about the eastern meadow. The matching orange tips on its striped antennae are nice touches,  aren’t they?

The tiny Pearl Crescent with its fuzzy face peering over th edge of a leaf.

The Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus) is named after the silver patch on the underside of its wings. Its caterpillars protect themselves from predators by creating a leaf shelter by cutting a flap off the edge of a leaf, folding it over and than fastening it shut with silk!

Gallagher Creek Park’s Colorful Future

Non-native Ox-eye Daisies always burst forth in June as they have at Gallagher Creek Park.

Gallagher Creek Park already greets the eye with brightly colored playground equipment and the bright little faces of the children who come each day to enjoy  it. And out in the meadow, both native and non-native wildflowers add their beauty to a park visit.

Imagine the color and variety that will greet us when the native gardens come to full bloom in two or three years! Those sturdy native prairie plants in the playground gardens will eventually survive bright sunlight and droughts without much watering because they take the time to grow long roots before fully blooming. Here’s a slideshow of some of those plants as they’ll look when full grown.   Maybe they’ll set us dreaming about our own gardens!

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Photos of the Week: We Made It! The First Sure Signs of Spring!

Vernal pool thawing at Bear Creek

J.R.R. Tolkien provided the ideal words  to describe the in-between season in which we’re suspended right now: “… a morning of pale Spring still clinging to Winter’s chill.” Spring is officially here with the Spring Equinox, but mornings in the prairies and forests of the township can still feel as though we’re caught in the last weak grip of winter.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

So this week, I thought I’d be on the lookout for sure signs of spring’s arrival and naturally, once I started looking, they were everywhere!

Birds Herald Longer Days with Song and Some Fancy Posturing

Arriving at Draper Twin Lake Park one cold, gray Sunday, my husband and I heard a very loud, clear rendition of the entire spring song of a Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). (Cardinals have a lot of calls. Listen to the second call listed at this Cornell link – that’s the one we heard.) This fellow seemed confident that he could woo the ladies and establish his territory at the same time with his full-throated singing! Look at that beak!

A Northern Cardinal shouts out his spring song!

Male  American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) at our feeder are changing out of their modest winter attire into their breeding feathers. In a month or so, they’ll be bright yellow in the hope of interesting a female with an eye for color. Here’s a male on the bottom right perch of our thistle feeder who started changing his wardrobe in March. Perhaps the female on the bottom left perch will be interested? (The other birds are Pine Siskins (Spinus pinus) who will migrate north before long.)

The male Goldfinch on the bottom right perch is signaling spring by changing into his bright yellow breeding feathers.

The buzzing trill of the Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), which is accompanied by raising his red shoulder patches, is a common and beloved sign of spring here in Michigan. But last week I saw a male who was taking display to a whole new level. While calling, he also began awkwardly dancing along a branch, keeping his scarlet “epaulets” raised, occasionally fanning his tail, all in the interest of establishing a territory and showing off for some lucky female. What a guy! (Click through the slide show below to see the progression of his dance!)

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Other birds establish dominance over other males with creative use of their necks! Below two newly arrived Common Grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) appear to be  trying to “out-snoot” each other with their beaks tilted skyward!  I think the one on the right is probably the winner here, don’t you? Or else the one the left is an uninterested female. It’s hard to tell.

Grackles use head tilting to establish dominance over other males.

Mark, a birding friend, told me that the Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula) at Stoney Creek Metropark were doing their dramatic neck displays as well. According to Cornell Lab’s All About Birds website, Goldeneyes spend December to April in courtship groups where they form mating pairs by performing  a lot of energetic neck movements. The male bends his neck backwards until his head lays on his back and then he snaps it forward, splashing water with his feet at the same time! The female responds by lowering her head and swinging it forward. Pretty dramatic courtship! I wasn’t able to get to the Metropark this week, but a kindly photographer from iNaturalist, who goes by Mike B, allowed us the use of this photo of a male taken near Chicago. These diving ducks are headed to their breeding grounds in northern Canada and Alaska, just south of the Arctic.

A male Goldeneye doing a courtship display before heading farther north.Photo by Mike B (CC BY-SA) at iNaturalist.org

Flocks of Birds – Large Ones and Small Ones – Fly Overhead and Forage in Our Parks

The birding group had an exciting Wednesday at Charles Ilsley Park when two huge flocks of Tundra Swans (Cygnus columbianus) flew overhead! Cornell says that these huge, all white swans with black beaks spent the winter on the Atlantic coast and are now headed to the Arctic tundra to build their nests and breed. Aren’t we lucky to be on their flyway?

Another birding friend, Mike Kent, took the photo below, because, wouldn’t you know, that was the day I decided to leave my camera at home!!! Look carefully at Mike’s photo because he caught a fascinating detail. We saw one lone Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) traveling along with this huge flock of swans! You can just see its dark body in the upper left of the photo, third bird down. Hope this adventurous goose doesn’t plan to go all the way to the Arctic with its new-found friends!

A huge flock of Tundra Swans with a lone Canada Goose (upper right) traveling with them. Photo by Mike Kent.

That Wednesday was great for seeing big birds at Ilsley Park. Mike also caught for us a nice photo of a family of Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) who settled at the bottom of a slope to rest and feed. The larger, darker birds to the right are probably the adults, while the two smaller gray ones on the left are probably last year’s young ones.

A family of Sandhill Cranes at Ilsley park. Possibly adults to the right, last year’s juveniles to the left. Photo by Mike Kent.

At Bear Creek Nature Park, smaller flocks were chatting in trees and foraging along the paths. A noisy group of American Robins (Turdus migratorius) were snatching berries from a tree infested with invasive Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus). Some robins overwinter here and some migrate to southern Ohio and Kentucky. Some move back and forth all winter long. Though these non-native berries attract them during the winter, they unfortunately don’t provide much nutrition for the birds since thawing and freezing makes them very sugary. So migrating, in their case, might be a better choice!

A robin from a larger flock sits among the berries of invasive Oriental Bittersweet.
A small part of a flock of probably 20 robins at Bear Creek Nature Park this week.

On a path from the playground to the Walnut Lane at Bear Creek Nature Park, I saw my first flock of Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia). I love to listen to these tuneful birds in the spring, but have never before seen a flock of them in one area, as I did this week. They were “chicken-scratching” by scooting backwards with their feet in a ferocious attempt to get at some food beneath the surface -probably small seeds or insect eggs. The flock was so busy that the ground along the trail looked torn as they scraped their way down to the frozen surface, looking for food.

A Song Sparrow, part of a flock on the path at Bear Creek, searched for food by scratching backwards on the soil like a chicken.

Buds are Swelling from Bare Branches – a Welcome Sign of Spring’s Arrival

Every year as spring approaches, I watch the Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) to the right of the deck at Bear Creek’s Center Pond. It’s always one of the first trees to signal spring for me, its robust, red buds hanging gracefully from drooping branches over the water.

The swelling red buds of Silver Maple are an early sign of spring approaching.

A small Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) near the pond has just barely thrust its leaf bud from the woody protection it had during the winter (left). In May, it will be a huge glorious bud (center), and in June, the green leaves will unfold into the sunlight (right). (Click photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

Yes, It’s Muddy…but It’s S’posed to Be, Right?

Sky in a puddle at Bear Creek Nature Park

It’s the end of March. Most of the ice on the surface is gone (at least for the moment!), but the ground is still frozen beneath. So rain and melting snow have nowhere to go. That makes for muddy shoes, smeared pant legs and cars decorated in various shades of brown. But hey, those signs announce that full-fledged, glorious spring is almost here! Birds are beginning to sing, dance, do a bit of neck gymnastics, don spring colors and wing their way north overhead in huge numbers. And trees are slowly waking from their roots, sending sugary sap up through their vascular systems, ripening their leaves for another summer of sun-gathering. All of  nature, including us humans, have survived a very challenging, deep-freeze winter. Now’s the time to celebrate just being alive on a mudluscious walk in the pale sunshine of an early spring morning.

Cranberry Lake Park: Have Hope! Sure but Subtle Signs of Spring!

The solstice has passed; the days and nights get equal time. But when I’m shivering, my fingers and ears go numb in a stiff  wind, I struggle to hold on to the idea that we’re heading into spring. Until, that is, I head into the parks.

Blog by Cam Mannino

In mid-March,  water birds began splashing down in Cranberry Lake, finding any narrow stretch of open water within the ice sheet. They floated and fed – until one glorious morning, the whole lake turned liquid and bright blue! Migrating flocks honked, chattered and wheeled overhead. Some stopped to rest and feed before heading further north; others explored nesting sites. Our year ’round residents tuned up their spring songs. Territories must be established! Potential mates must be impressed! Best of all, the tiny frogs thawed after their frozen winter state – and now they are  singing! Can genuine spring, with its fulsome birdsong and burgeoning buds be far behind? I think not!

Water Birds Arrive Early, Despite the Ice – and the Muskrats Emerge, too!

It always impresses me that some of the first migrators to arrive in early spring are the water birds! They float, seemingly content, in the icy cracks that form as the sun begins to work on the frozen lake surface. Their cold water strategies involve body fat, oiled feathers, down insulation, and a circulation system which allows cool blood coming up from their feet to pass close to  warm blood traveling down, warming it as it returns to the heart. Below a group of Common Mergansers – black-headed males and brown-headed females –  glided along a thin channel of water on the far side of Cranberry Lake’s iced-over surface.

Common Mergansers – black-headed males, brown-headed females – find a small slit of open water at Cranberry Lake early in March.

Off in the distance, the Wednesday birders spotted the hunched silhouette of a Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) perched on the edge of the ice as a goose floated nearby. It slipped in and out of the water, hungry no doubt for food but also for a meager scrap of sunlight after living under the ice all winter!

Two sunny but cold days later, the ice had disappeared and the lake was bright blue and busy with migrating ducks and geese. Two Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola) and a group of Ring-necked Ducks (Aythya collaris)black-and-white males and brown females –   dove and surfaced as they foraged near a Canada Goose (Branta canadensis).

A group of Ring-necked Ducks and two Bufflehead dove and rose next to a Canada Goose as they rested and foraged in the lake.

I got a bit closer to a Bufflehead by checking from the opposite side of the lake. This lone male rocked along on the surface, bobbing under to feed every few minutes. Cornell Lab of Ornithology says Bufflehead accomplish this dive  by compressing their feathers to drive out the air and then pitching forward. A few seconds later, they pop to the surface like a cork and float on.

The Bufflehead dives underwater by pitching forward with its feathers compressed to squeeze out the air, making it less buoyant and able to submerge.

And that same cold morning, what I think was a large muskrat came steaming across the pond toward the eastern side. At the time, I thought this bustling swimmer was a Beaver (Castor canadensis), since there is a large beaver lodge on the western side of the lake. But I’m just not sure of that, so I’m sticking with it being a large muskrat. In the water, its tail looked wide enough to be a beaver, but as it approached the shore, it just didn’t seem to be big enough to be a beaver, unless it was a yearling. And beavers tend to swim with only their heads out of the water. In any case, nice to see this furry fellow plying the pond in the sunshine. What do you think? Big muskrat or young beaver?

The width of this swimmer’s tail made me think this was a beaver, but I think now it was a large muskrat.
From this nearing shore photo, it appears I’ve seen a large muskrat, rather than a small beaver.

Hearing the ancient bugle of the Sandhill Crane (Antigone canadensis), I quickly looked up to see two in the distance, flying into the far end of the lake.  Aren’t we lucky that they breed in our wetlands?

A pair of Sandhill Cranes fly in to check out the edge of Cranberry Lake as a possible breeding ground.

 Spring Songs Signal the Beginning of the Mating Season

As I approached the park one icy afternoon, bright spring music reached my ear – Western Chorus Frogs. These tiny frogs (Pseudacris triseriata – about 1.5 inches long!) are daytime relatives of the nocturnal Spring Peepers (Pseudacris crucifer). They spent the winter frozen solid, no heartbeat, no brain activity, but protected by an anti-freeze of sorts that keeps their tissues from breaking down. Pretty amazing! They thaw out and start singing as the days lengthen. The first afternoon I scanned a wetland trying to see these tiny creatures that seemed to be singing right at my feet, but I could not spot one! So on a second try a few days later, I found a log to sit on near the wetland in the trees just east of the parking lot. After about 20 minutes with my binoculars, I finally spotted two (of the hundreds that were probably there!), the sacks beneath their chins bulging, as they tried to impress a female with their piercing calls. Have a look and a listen!

Two tiny Chorus Frogs with bulging necks sing to attract a mate in the shallow water of a wetland.

A male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) sang from the tree tops in the eastern meadow, turning every few minutes to send his territory call in a new direction. He’s a bit faint on the recording below, so you might need to turn your volume up! I got a bit closer to another male in a bush near the parking lot later on. He was doing “call and response” with another cardinal hidden in the trees nearby.

And of course, the American Robins (Turdus migratorius) that went south to Ohio and Kentucky returned as well, joining the hardy ones that spent the winter here.

One of many Robins that have returned from Ohio and Kentucky to breed here in the summer.

His spring call is also a bit soft.  And he makes a longish pause before his second “tit whoo” call.

Woodpeckers, of course, use drumming to establish territories, rather than singing.  Both male and female Downy Woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens) attract mates and protect territories with drumming. You can hear their typical drum roll in this Cornell Lab recording which was put to use by the little female Downy below.

I get a huge kick out of hearing flocks of American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) chirp in the shrubs and small trees. To my ear, they are the only bird that actually says “tweet, tweet, tweet!”  Have a listen at this link and see if you agree! The males are currently molting into their bright yellow summer outfits.

Groups of American Goldfinches are singing their “tweet, tweet” calls in Cranberry Lake Park right now.

On a bird walk one Wednesday, we heard the far distant, insistent drumming of a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus). Mark, one of the great spotters in the bird group, finally located it with binoculars on a very distant tree, and suddenly its mate (we assumed) dove across the trail far ahead of us before slipping up and away between the trees. No chance for a photo.  But here’s an incredible closeup by talented photographer Monica Krancevic at iNaturalist.org.

Pileated Woodpecker by Monica Krancevic (CC BY-NC) at iNaturalist.org

The First Blooms and Some Sturdy Ferns Wait Patiently

The lovely red blossoms of the Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) brighten gray days in early spring. They emerge on bare branches before the leaves and are pollinated by the wind before butterflies or other insects emerge and start to pollinate. Those big clusters of scarlet florets are a great food source for hungry squirrels in the spring, when food is scarce, since nuts and seeds are either already eaten or beginning to crack open and sprout.  Last week, I found these male (staminate) clusters fallen from the treetops onto the exposed roots of a large silver maple. I love how the red at the edge of the root echoes the red of the flowers.

The scarlet blossoms of a silver maple are echoed in the root of the tree itself.

Take a closer look at this cluster of florets, some still closed, others waving stamens that have already shed their pollen to wind.  Once pollinated, the female florets will produce winged fruits, called samaras.

A closeup of a cluster of male florets, some closed, some with their stamens already emptied of pollen.

Nearby on the trail to the lake, some sturdy ferns survived the winter with fertile fronds intact.  The brown beads below are the sporangia on the fertile fronds of the Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis) that carry the spores for this year’s crop of new plants. On the right, are the vegetative fronds that provide sugars through photosynthesis in the summer months.

And the feathery ones below left are the fertile fronds of Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) whose spores will be released and carried by the wind in the spring. Their vegetative fronds on the right stood tall and bright green, taking advantage of the moist soil and spotty sunshine in the forest.

Spring Just Peeks Out…Here and There

A pair of Canada Geese rest in the quiet refuge of a shaded wetland

Behind a scrim of small trees on the way to the lake, I spotted these two Canada Geese floating serenely in a secluded wetland, away from the noisy flocks gathering on the lake. They reminded me that, at this time of year, spring has to be sought out. It appears and disappears. One day the lake is iced over, a few days later it’s rippling and blue and then the snow falls again. On some days, spring isn’t easily seen – just a few red blossom clusters floating in a vernal pool  or scattered on the lifeless grass. Sometimes spring can only be heard and not seen. Frogs as tiny as your thumb sing unseen one day and the next, perch on a bit of floating grass, their throats bulging with amorous sound. Flocks twitter or honk high in a cold blue sky or male birds rehearse the first tentative versions of their mating songs. Woodpeckers tap out a seductive rhythm on the bark of trees.

The Eastern Meadow at Cranberry Lake doesn’t look very spring-like yet – but the clues are there.

Early spring isn’t flamboyant and colorful, like it will be in a few weeks. It’s hesitant, waiting to be found and enjoyed if we can only slow down enough. If we watch, we’ll see it peeking through the alternating rain or snowfall, cracking and opening in thawing ponds or hear it whistling, chirping, trilling from inside the brush or high in the treetops. So I hope you have time to delight in these  subtle hints of early spring as they unfold. It won’t be long now…

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.

Charles Ilsley Park – Prairies Full of Spring Music

Looking west on the north prairie at Charles Ilsley Park

Charles Ilsley Park is slowly being returned to native prairie. Think of it as historic restoration. Before European farmers arrived, our township was mostly oak savanna – native grasses, wild flowers and widely spaced oaks. Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, has been working for three years to bring back some of that prairie habitat. Shrubby invasives have slowly been eliminated, some along tree lines just this spring. The sloping curves of the native prairie are appearing once again.

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

Some fields have been replanted with native grasses and wildflowers which must grow deep roots for several years before they fully prosper. More will be planted this year. The land rolls gently, surrounded by a beautiful dark forest. Birds sing from the hedgerows and scuttle across the open ground. Wood frogs chorus joyously from a nearby wetland. A spring stroll around the rolling landscape of Ilsley is an auditory as well as a visual treat. So try clicking on some of the links below (and then page down to recordings)  so you can share the sounds of spring.

Summer Birds Find Us Again

The migrators are winging their way back to us on warm south winds. The Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) again soar above the fields, gathering tiny midges in their open beaks.  Luckily, they can also eat plant foods which allows them to return early in the spring. Both males and females sing in what Cornell calls “a chirp, a whine and a gurgle.” My favorite part is the gurgle which I call a “liquid thwick.” See what you think. Aren’t these Swallows a gorgeous blue?

Tree Swallows soar with their beaks open to scoop up little flying insects – but they eat plant food more often in early spring.

In the western field, the Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) scoots among the furrows of the open field, pauses and then scoots on again. Its orange rump flashes as it flies and its piercing “kill-deer” call (under “flight call” at the link) carries a long way. Killdeers have the large eye, short beak and round head characteristic of other plovers, but unlike their shorebird relatives, they can be quite content in a sunny field.

A Killdeer scurries along a ridge in a fallow field at Charles Ilsley Park.

Killdeer are famous for distracting predators from their shallow, ground nests by faking a broken wing. Our sharp-eyed birder friend Antonio Xeira spotted a killdeer nest last year at Gallagher Creek Park. Be on the look-out! These nests are easy to miss!

A Killdeer’s nest and eggs at Gallagher Creek in late April 2016.

Of course the buzzing trill of male Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus), their red and yellow epaulets flashing, can be heard everywhere now. The brown and white striped females, perhaps reluctant to leave winter feeding grounds south of Michigan, are just beginning to arrive, while the male below may have been here for several weeks.

A male Red-winged Blackbird with just a bit of his red and yellow epaulet showing.

High in the treeline,  the drumming and the fast wik-wik-wik territorial call of the Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) echoes across the bare ground. At last I spotted a “mustached” male on the ground poking his serrated tongue  into an old ant hill. Although they’re woodpeckers, Flickers spend lots of time on the ground probing for ants, their favorite food. Stan Tekiela in the Birds of Michigan Field Guide, identifies Flickers as non-migrators or “partial migrators,” meaning they move south when food become scarce. I seem to see them only after spring arrives. Eastern North America hosts yellow-shafted Northern Flickers, while red-shafted Flickers are found in the western part of the continent.

The black mustache, called a malar, is a sign that this is a male, yellow-shafted Northern Flicker.  He’s probing for ants in an old ant mound.

Male Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia) trill all over the park. This one emerged from the brambles to perch on a stump, tilted his head back a bit (not as far as some song sparrows do) and sang his territorial song. Song Sparrows are chubby little birds and the stripes on their breasts usually gather into a central spot. Their song starts out with several short notes and then a rat-a-tat-tat kind of sewing machine trill. (Click on photos to enlarge, hover cursor for captions.)

The cleaning crew has arrived. Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) silently ride thermals high into the air or swoop lower to sniff for the scent of a carcass. These huge birds prevent disease for the rest of us by cleaning up any carrion they spot from above. According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab, their immune systems are impervious to even the worst toxins including botulism, anthrax, cholera, or salmonella! The paler feathers at the tip of their dark wings, including the “finger feathers” seen here,  let the sun shine through, giving the false impression that their wings are banded in a lighter color.

The turkey vulture soars above the prairies below, preparing to clean the park of unhealthy, unsightly carrion.

Some Not-quite-native Summer Visitors

Non-native birds, like non-native plants, most often arrive in new places because of human activity. These two species came here in rather interesting ways.

Originally a western grassland bird that followed buffalo herds, the Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater) adapted to their nomadic life by laying their eggs in other birds’ nests instead of building their own. As settlers cleared forests in eastern North America for towns and agriculture,  cowbirds expanded their range eastward. Grazing cattle and plowing probably stir up as many insects as buffalo, right? Cowbirds give more of a gurgle and squeak than a song. Here are two male cowbirds doing characteristic dominance displays – head tilt (beak skyward) and plumping the feathers. Pretty hilarious, eh? The lower one looks like a plush toy!

Two male cowbirds doing dominance displays.

Female Cowbirds establish territories and choose the most dominant male, according to Donald Stoke’s Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.2). They can lay as many as 3 dozen eggs in a summer because, though some birds accept the eggs and raise the young, others peck them or push them from their nests. Here’s a newly arrived female checking out the males.

The modestly gray female Cowbird often sits high in the tree tops watching for a good bird’s nest in which to lay her eggs. Here she’s in bush, assessing the males.

We commonly see  European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) along telephone lines or swooping together in huge flocks called “murmurations.” These birds all descend from 100 individuals brought to New York’s Central Park in the 1890s  by Shakespeare devotees who believed America should have every bird mentioned by the Bard!  Starlings can be  very aggressive about taking over favored nesting sites from other birds and now number in the millions.  This starling at Charles Ilsley Park still has some of the feathers with light tips that gave it a spotted look after the fall molt. But as spring progresses, those tips will wear off, leaving its feathers dark and iridescent. Its beak is also changing from autumn gray to summer yellow.

100 European Starlings, imported by Shakespeare enthusiasts in the 1890s, now number about 200 million from Alaska to Mexico, according to the Cornell Lab.

The Year ‘Round Avian Welcoming Committee

Many of the sturdy birds who kept us company during the winter join the spring chorus as well. Of course, I couldn’t resist another shot of an Eastern Bluebird  (Sialia sialis)!  Here’s the link to its spring song.

A male Eastern Bluebird at Charles Ilsley Park.

Some American Robins (Turdus migratorius) stay here all winter, eating berries and other frozen fruits. Others move a little south and come back intermittently depending on the weather. According to Cornell Lab, Robins tend to eat more earthworms in the morning and more fruit in the afternoon. This one probed the wet edge of a vernal pool formed at the bottom of a slope after heavy rains.  The Robin’s “cheer up” call  accompanies any walker in all township parks right now.

An alert American Robin stops to listen while probing the wet soil around the edge of a vernal pool at the bottom of a slope.

Woodpeckers provide the rhythm section as they establish their territories. Here a Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) pauses from his drumming to pose at the top of a snag (standing dead tree.) The Red-belly’s  wet-sounding “Kwir” call sounded from the trees lining the fields and from the edge of the forest.

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker stops drumming long enough to pose at the top of snag.

Speaking of Woodpeckers, look at these fresh Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) holes in a native Wild Black Cherry tree (Prunus serotina)!  Wish I’d seen this huge bird whose drumming is as loud as a jack hammer!  Its call is often confused with the Red-bellied Woodpecker who drums much more quietly. By the way, Ben says that the way to identify these black cherry trees is to look for bark that resembles burnt potato chips. Good description!

The holes of a Pileated Woodpecker in a Wild Black Cherry tree. These woodpeckers tend to make large, often rectangular holes.

The loud, nasal “ank, ank, ank” call of the White Breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) can be heard year ’round as it circles  the upper and lower sides of branches, searching for insects or stashing seeds and nuts. Cornell Lab claims that its name resulted from its habit of whacking at nuts and seeds, “hatching” them from their shells before eating or storing them.

The classic pose of the White-Breasted Nuthatch as it forages for insects. Listen for its loud “ank, ank” call.

The Other Chorus:  Wood Frogs!

Hundreds of Wood Frogs chorused in the wetland beyond this little stream at the north end of Charles Ilsley Park.

After the heavy rains of late March and early April, a swollen, muddy stream edged Ilsley Park on its north side.  Across from the old Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa) in the photo above, on the stream’s far bank, orange-tipped Willows filled a large wetland.  And below them sung hundreds of little Wood Frogs (Rana sylvatica).

Wood Frogs have a black stripe running through their eye and their song is low and sounds a bit like your thumb running over a comb.

If you turn your volume up, below you should hear some individual Wood Frogs singing in the foreground and a mighty chorus in the background that sounds like a purring engine!  I don’t think I’ve heard so many in one place before! You may need to turn up your volume to get the full effect.

Nearby, an old stump was draped in two shades of thick, intensely green Moss (div. Bryophyta).  Moss, an ancient plant,  usually dries and bleaches in winter cold but turns green and lush quickly in spring rain – long before the trees have leafed out.  David George Haskill, in The Forest Unseen, describes mosses’ gift for using and holding water. “Grooves on the surface of stems wick water from the mosses’ wet interiors to their dry tips, like tissue paper dipped in a spill.  The miniature stems are felted with water-hugging curls, and their leaves are studded with bumps that create a large surface for clinging water.  The leaves clasp the stem at just the right angle to hold a crescent of water.” They must have loved our wet spring!

A stump draped in two shades of brilliant green moss.

Curiosity about the red stalks on moss prompted me to check out moss sexual reproduction  (I know – the oddest things intrigue me). Moss sperm cells swim to the eggs by being washed along by rain. Once the eggs are fertilized at the tip of a green moss plant, a new plant begins to grow in place to form the red “sporophytes” seen in the photo below. Those red capsules at the end of the erect stalks (called setae) hold the spores. The capsule won’t open to release the ripened spores until the weather is dry enough to carry them on a breeze. If a spore falls on damp soil, voilá. A moss plant is born. They also multiply in asexual ways, like fragments breaking off to start new plants.

I’ve always loved the upside down world of mud puddle reflections. This large mud puddle, the classic sign of spring, had a surprise in store for me.

Trees reflected in a very large mud puddle in the middle of a trail.

As I skirted it, a huge Garter Snake  (g. Thamnopsis) wove its way out right between my feet and swam across the puddle. I think it’s the longest garter snake I’ve ever seen.

A large Garter Snake slid between my feet, heading for a swim across a large puddle on the trail. Good swimmer!

Charles Ilsley Park Preserves Our Past for the Future

Eastern Meadowlark photo by Greg Lasly. Some rights reserved (CC-BY-NC)

With hard work and some luck, Charles Ilsley Park will eventually offer township residents an authentic experience of this area before European migration. Its undulating fields will fill with native grasses and wildflowers. Perhaps birds not often seen here, like the Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna) in Greg Lasly’s amazing photo above, will  more frequently whistle its plaintive song over the sloping hills.  (I’ve only caught a brief glimpse once with the our birding group.) Or perhaps we’ll enjoy the Bobolink’s (Dolichonyx oryzivorus) long, bubbling song. Now declining in numbers, the  Northern Bobwhite Quail (Colinus virginianus) may once  again bring its simple two-note “Bob-white!”  to the park, a sound that meant “summer” here in my childhood. These birds and others need the open, sunny grasslands that the Dr. Ben is working hard to provide. I’m enjoying  Ilsley’s slow prairie transformation and look forward to even richer, more diverse bird serenades as the years go by.

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