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.
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!
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 buzzing trill of the Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaiusphoeniceus), 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!)
Other birds establish dominance over other males with creative use of their necks! Below two newly arrived Common Grackles (Quiscalusquiscula) 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.
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.
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 (Brantacanadensis) 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!
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.
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!
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.
Buds are Swelling from Bare Branches – a Welcome Sign of Spring’s Arrival
Every year as spring approaches, I watch the Silver Maple (Acersaccharinum) 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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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?
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?
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!
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.
A male cardinal turns periodically to send his call in all directions.
A male cardinal sang near the parking lot. Another answered from the woods 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The fertile frond of Sensitive Fern waits for warm weather to release its spores.
Sensitive Fern vegetative fronds in summer do the work of photosynthesis.
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.
The fertile fronds of Ostrich Fern wait for spring to release their spores.
Vegetative fronds of Ostrich Fern
Spring Just Peeks Out…Here and There
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.
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 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.
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?
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 Other Chorus: Wood Frogs!
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 Willowsfilled a large wetland. And below them sung hundreds of little Wood Frogs (Rana sylvatica).
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!
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.
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.
Charles Ilsley Park Preserves Our Past for the Future
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.
What a crazy February and March, eh? Snow, ice – and then suddenly mud, warm sunlight, even a butterfly! – then icy winds again. Such schizophrenic weather complicates life in the natural world. A snake basks in the sun one day and a few days later, returning sandhill cranes peck along the surface of thin ice. Ducks leave wing prints and webbed feet tracks on a snowy pond and a few days later, a female crayfish emerges with eggs under her tail. Never a dull moment in the parks! Meanwhile I set off to track the meandering course of Bear Creek itself.
Early February – A Normal Winter for the Birds
American Robins (Turdus migratorius), despite their association with spring, know how to cope with cold days: find dried fruits on old vines, turn your dark red breast to any sunlight available and plump up your feathers to create some down insulation.
The Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) on the western slope found sun at the very top of a tree and decided to try out his mating call on an icy morning. “Peter, Peter, Peter,” he trilled, despite the snow below.
A small flock of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) passed contact calls back and forth in the small trees and shrubs. The male below probably spent this odd winter at Bear Creek and appears to be just fine.
Nearby, a small bird busily wound its way up a tree, poking at the bark every few seconds and moving on. That upward spiral was a clue. It was a Brown Creeper (Certhia americana), a funny little bird with a small head and a long sharp beak good for winkling out bugs and larvae from tree bark. If you look carefully in my hastily shot photo, you can see its right eye and curving black beak.
The longer days brought a warm weather migrant to the marsh, the Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia). It probed the grassy clumps protruding from the ice, looking for tidbits – seeds, perhaps? This sparrow’s cheerful mating song will burble forth all over the park when real spring arrives.
Then, Suddenly, Spring, Off and On
Somewhere near the middle of February the temperature rose, the ice began to melt, and the snow turned to mud. Humans, that most adaptable of creatures, came out to enjoy a respite from winter cold. And so did some other animals who may have been fooled into emerging a bit early!
This Eastern Comma Butterfly (Polygonia comma) probably spent the winter as an adult under the bark of a log or in a hollow tree. It’s common to see them alone in a sunny spot in early spring – but not usually in February! I hope this one went back to its winter digs as the temperature dropped!
Further along, an Eastern GarterSnake (Thamnophis sirtalis) basked in the sunlight on the trail before slipping off into the grass.
On another warm-ish day, the birding group came upon 30-40 talkative year ’round residents, Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum), flitting from tree to tree and whistling in their thin, high voices. Cornell Lab recently posted that scientists are exploring the idea that the waxwings with the most red waxy dots on their wing tips are the most mature adult birds and the most likely to be successful at mating.
The birding group was greeted by the waving claws of a small, but assertive female crayfish sitting in a puddle on the trail near the pond. Under her tail, she carried quite a load of eggs. Michigan has eight native species of crayfish, and one aggressive, invasive one, called the Rusty Crayfish. This one could be the invasive because according to U-M’s Biokids site, they take an aggressive claws-up stance to fight off predators (as she did when we approached) and she also had smudge-like spots on the back of her carapace. But crayfish are difficult creatures to positively identify, so for now, we’ll just say she’s a crayfish. If her eggs hatch despite the cold that returned the following day, she will carry her young through several molts, until they fall off and start life on their own. Thanks to Ben for his great photo.
A Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) floated above her reflection in the Center Pond. Some of the birders wondered if it could be classified as the subspecies of Lesser Canada Goose, since its neck is shorter than most Canada Geese. But since its body and beak are large, it’s hard to say. It may just be normal variation – or maybe it had a Lesser Goose or Cackling Goose relative (Branta hutchinsii) in its past!
In the unseasonal warmth, a native Hazelnut bush (Corylus americana) extended its long male catkins that will fertilize the tiny female flowers on the twigs when they emerge later. The little flowers eventually produce clusters of nuts. The farmer who lived on Bear Creek during the Depression and WWII gathered these nuts as a boy, as reported in an earlier blog.
Winter Returns, Sigh…
The marsh froze over again – thinner ice that water birds could peck through to forage in the water below. One morning in a cold wind, a pair of Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) poked about on the ice near Gunn Road, stalking back and forth on their knobby legs. They didn’t seem to be finding much to eat.
At the Center Pond, it looked as though some ducks had walked on the ice and then taken off, leaving some decorative webbed foot tracks and wing prints in the snow.
The next morning, the sun broke through and thinned the ice. A male Canada Goose found a break in it and stuck his head down, looking for food. Brrr…glad they have plenty of fat and keep their layers of feathers well-oiled by preening from an oil gland at the tip of their tail like other water birds.
On the western slope, a male Eastern Bluebird repeatedly swooped down into the grass and back up into a nearby bush, evidently finding some seed he liked on a cold morning.
And along the upper part of the Walnut Lane, tracks revealed the path of what might have been a Coyote (Canis latrans) from the size of these canid tracks. Like the fox, when they trot, they place the back foot where the front was – hence the single tracks. Wish I could see this animal in the park. Its scat is everywhere! We can be assured, I think, that this animal does just fine no matter what the weather!
Tracking the Meandering Path of Bear Creek Itself
Occasionally a park visitor asks me why the park is called Bear Creek. Well, I don’t know why the creek was called “bear” because there are no bears. At one time, the marsh was reportedly called “Bare Marsh” because of the many dead trees standing in the water years ago. But some people ask because they haven’t noticed the little creek and its meandering path that eventually reaches Paint Creek. I never paid much attention to it myself once it left the Center Pond boardwalk. But in February, I decided to follow it.
It begins, I believe, in a spring that I saw years ago during a drought that dried up the pond. All that was left was a wet spot at the west end of the pond, with water seeping eastward in a feeble stream. In a normal year, when the water is high, a small creek flows out under the boardwalk at the pond’s eastern end.
From there, it runs east through the woods, enters Bear Marsh and picks up ground water. In the photo below, it exits the marsh running north out of the culvert under Gunn Road.
The little creek then takes a left hand turn, flowing back west. In the woods somewhere, it evidently takes another left, bending south until it crosses under Gunn Road again right across from Pine Needle Trail, near Collins Road.
It wends it way south behind various houses, appearing again at a culvert under the aptly named, Bear Creek Court off Collins Road.
Just north of Oak Hill , near the entrance to the Township Hall, the creek crosses under Collins Road.
It flows along a ditch on the western side of Collins Road and curves behind the Paint Creek Methodist Church and the Lyon Gear factory,
At that point, the creek takes a dive under ground, crossing Orion Road and appearing again at what appears to be its final destination, flowing out of a culvert as it joins Paint Creek behind the Cider Mill parking lot.
A Creek with a Past Flows Toward Its Future
It’s wonderful to think of the hundreds, perhaps thousands of spring mornings during which this little creek has wended its way from a modest pond in a field off Snell Road to merge at last with Paint Creek. Long may it meander across the landscape. If we are careful stewards of the natural beauty granted to us, then for generations to come, the bluebirds will still forage in the meadows on azure wings, the coyotes will still trot up the lane on a winter night, and the butterflies will still slip out of tree bark into the sunshine. My thanks to all of those whose efforts and resources make that future possible!
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows:
Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; 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)and websites linked in the text.
I’ll admit that when I first visited Gallagher Creek Park, just east of Adams on Silverbell, I didn’t quite get it. It seemed like a rather ordinary, flat piece of land surrounded by a marsh. But luckily, I decided to look more closely and, as usual, the closer I look, the more nature shares with me. I’ve visited the park several times over the last month and each time I appreciate this little park more.
The stream flowing quietly through the grass beneath the viewing platform creates a cool, moist retreat for an abundance of birds and the special native plants that love wet feet. The Old Fields bloom with an astonishing variety of native wildflowers. Insects float and buzz between the blossoms. In short, this little park hosts an amazing variety of wildlife and plants with its combination of marsh, wet meadows and open fields (click here to see a map). Let me show you just a sampling.
Gallagher Creek Itself: A Haven for Birds and Wildflowers
The recently constructed viewing platform (thanks to Eagle Scout Jonathan Walling!) near Gallagher Creek allows visitors to watch the slow ripples of cool water flowing through the grass and trees. This gentle flow creates a soothing retreat that shelters creatures and plants of all kinds. According to three surveys by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Gallagher Creek is home to “one of the few remaining self-sustaining Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) populations in southern Michigan.”
After the last survey, though, they reported that the “gravel riffles and natural pools” had been silted by nearby construction, reducing the population from 300 Brook Trout per mile in 1998 to just 50 per mile in 2010. (See Ben’s blog on this from 2015.) Native plants growing more abundantly at the edges of the park can act as a buffer and filter such sediment. Gallagher Creek runs northeast and enters Paint Creek at the Cider Mill in Goodison. If we want Brook Trout in our township, one way is to protect a cold water stream like Gallagher Creek.
Wetland Wildlife and Plants: A Riparian Corridor and a Marsh
Streams like Gallagher Creek create what’s called a “riparian corridor,” an area where the land meets a stream or river that not only filters and purifies water, but also provides habitat for a wide diversity of plants and wildlife. Antonio Xeira, our birder friend, spotted a most impressive bird near the creek. Here’s his photo of a Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus)who spends its days high up among the leaves of a Willow (probably black willow, Salix nigra)north of the stream. It’s not easy to see so I appreciate Antonio’s shot! See that open eye?
A much smaller visitor among the willows is what I think was a Willowor Alder Flycatcher (Empidonax species) that perched in the shadows to preen. ( It could also be a Eastern Wood-Pewee (Contopus virens), but I’ll leave that for you to decide. They’re very similar.) It was a hot morning and this little bird was very busy dealing with the gnats or mites that can bother birds as much as they can bother us humans this time of year!
The shade near the stream also provided a stopover for a busy House Wren (Troglodytes aedon).
This hard-working adult was foraging for her young in a nearby thicket of native Gray Dogwood (Cornus foemina), which provides lots of cover and a food source for all kinds of birds at Gallagher Creek.
One morning, I approached the thicket to see if I could see the young wren. Immediately, the adult starting her scolding call, chipping incessantly at me, probably both to ward me off and to tell her fledgling to stay back in the trees. I did finally manage to get a shot of the youngster who appeared to still be growing into its beak!
Back in May, Antonio also noticed the burrow of a Crayfish (superfamilies Astacoidea and Parastacoidea), a creature that loves clear, cold water streams. In case you haven’t seen a crayfish, I include a photo of one that I saw in Bear Creek. If you enlarge the photo by clicking on it, you’ll see it’s a female carrying eggs under her tail! Crayfish are daylight creatures who retreat to burrows at night. I can’t say which species is in either photo. We do have one invasive crayfish in Michigan, the Rusty Crayfish (Orconectes rusticus), which fishermen used to use as bait and which have affected populations of our native crayfish.(Hover cursor for captions; click on photo to enlarge.)
Moisture-loving wildflowers in pink, purple, white and yellow bloom among the tall grasses and reeds at the edge of the stream. Here are three native flowers that are easy to spot in the park – Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata), Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis)and Joe Pye (Eutrochium maculatum).
The moist ground even a bit farther out from the stream suits many plants. Tall Sunflowers (Helianthus giganteus)and Water Hemlocks (Cicuta maculata),both natives, prefer to sink their roots in moist earth.
Of course, dragonflies make their home wherever there is water. I saw a mating pair of Ruby Meadowhawks (Sympetrum rubicundulum) making a wheel of their bodies in the wet grass one morning. The female is retrieving sperm from the male’s abdomen where he placed it earlier. And to the right is what I think is another female Ruby Meadowhawk perching near the edge of the stream. Meadowhawk dragonflies (family Libellulidae)are plentiful this time of year and tough to identify, but fascinating to watch as they hunt along the creek.
This thumbnail-sized Skipper butterfly (family Hesperiidae), I’m guessing a Delaware Skipper (Anatrytone logan), paused delicately on a moist leaf as I approached the stream. Isn’t it elegant with its striped legs and antennae, large eyes and deep orange wings?
Gallagher Creek Park also shares an emergent marsh with its neighbors to the east. This thriving area is slowly being cleared of the dreaded invasive, Phragmites (Phragmites australis), which is much too prevalent in the area. It’s an on-going project of Dr. Ben and the Parks and Recreation Commision. How wonderful to see natives like sedges (Carex species) and Joe Pye flourishing as that terrible invasive plant diminishes!
Wildlife and Plants in the Old Fields
In the spring and early summer, our sharp-eyed birding friend, Antonio, found two nests on open ground at Gallagher Creek. I wonder if these eggs hatched since they seem so vulnerable. On the left is a Killdeer’s nest (Charadrius vociferus) from late April. The name, by the way, comes from their call, not from their effect on deer! And on the right is a Spotted Sandpiper‘s nest (Actitis macularius) in early June. Thanks, Antonio!
Now birds whisk in and out of the leafy trees at the perimeter of the Old Field next to the parking lot – many of them juveniles or adults working at feeding them. The “miaou” of a young Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) caught my attention at the edge of the field. And later hearing a “cluck,” I look up to see an American Robin (Turdus migratorius), perhaps a molting female adult or a juvenile losing its spots, perched at the top of a snag.
A Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina) and a male House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) hung out together in the bushes one hot morning.
American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) provide the soundtrack for Gallagher Creek right now. These cheery little birds are one of the few who sing as they fly! With every downward swoop of their undulating flight comes a short burst of song. Here’s a male that settled for a few moments in that Willow, again – a popular place to pause for many of the birds here.
Goldfinches mate in August because their favorite food source is available – thistle seed. So they’re quite happy, I imagine, that non-native Field Thistle (Cirsium arvense) established a large, plumed patch on the western end of the loop path.
We appreciated being greeted by a relaxed Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) when parking at Gallagher Creek one morning. It seemed to be enjoying a bit of morning light after a long night of nibbling.
As Reg and I set out on the path, we were greeted by a sight I’d never seen before. A Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens)hung onto one of the huge non-native stalks of Common Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)in the Old Field. Downies eat both insects and seeds, so I guess it was just varying its diet
Closer to the water, this small bird fluffed its feathers as it settled in a bush. It looks a lot like the Willow Flycatcher but was a little bigger. So I’m guessing this is an Eastern Wood-Peewee (Contopus virens), but I can’t be sure!
Among all the non-native wildflowers, like Queen Anne’s Lace and Spotted Knapweed in the Old Fields, many native wildflowers are increasingly making a home in the Old Fields here. In August of 2014, Dr. Ben did what’s called a floristic survey of Gallagher Creek. Of the 192 species he found on one day there, 131 were native! Today they are more plentiful and healthy because Ben and his summer techs have eliminated many invasive shrubby plants and held repeated prescribed burns here. They plan to increase the native plant habitat in this park by planting native prairie species into the areas that were primarily non-native, invasive plants. The first phase of native plant installation will happen fall 2016, with a second round in 2017. Check out the sign on the west side of the driveway just as you enter the parking lot to learn more details.
In Bear Creek, Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is an occasional plant, but this summer, it grew in large swathes along the paths of the field near the parking lot at Gallagher Creek. Now, after the intense heat, it is turning brown and seeding for next spring’s crop.
Of course, native Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) appears here and there, and is now producing its green, paisley-shaped pods. Along with more common Canada Goldenrod,another native called Grass-leavedGoldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia),flourishes as well. As I reminded readers last summer, Goldenrods do not cause “hay fever.” Their pollen is heavy and drops quickly to the ground. The sneeze-producing culprit that blooms at the same time is the wind-pollinated Ragweed(genus Ambrosia) which you can see if you click on the link.
Common Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis)raises its graceful stems topped by yellow flowers among the grasses to the east of the park. According to the Illinois Wildflower site (one of my faves), these flowers “remain open from evening to early morning, but will remain open longer on cloudy days. They have a mild lemony scent, and bloom from mid-summer to fall on mature plants. Long narrow seedpods develop, which split open from the top to release many tiny, irregular brown seeds. They are small enough to be dispersed by the wind, and can remain viable in the soil after 70 years.” So if we keep caring for the land here, these night-blooming natives should be here for your grandchildren!
Out in the Old Fields, insects are busy in the late summer sun. Carolina Locusts (Dissosteira carolina)spring into flight, their wings making a brown blur at your feet.
A Viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) explored the possibilities of a Queen’s Anne’s Lace bloom one hot morning. Viceroys are distinguished from Monarchs by the bars on their hindwings.
A Common Ringlet (Coenonympha tullia) hovered in the grass below. Ringlets aren’t the most efficient flyers but they are prolific, occurring in Northern Europe, Asia and across North America but not in the southern hemisphere .
Clouded Sulphurs (Colias philodice) have a larger range of flight, feeding on taller plants like the Milkweeds and Coneflowers, but also on alfalfa or clover closer to the ground.
So, this modest little park is actually a rich oasis of native plants and wildlife along an important cold water stream in the midst of the most developed area of our township.
The Parks and Recreation Commission has plans to put a pavilion and perhaps even a play area in Gallagher Creek to make it even more inviting to its neighbors. But right now, if you bring your binoculars and your curiosity to Gallagher Creek as the summer wanes, nature, as always, will reward you with lots of beauty to explore.
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.