As the township birding group departed Cranberry Lake Park last week, the bugling call of Tundra Swans (Cygnus columbianus) filtered down through the frosty air. Looking up, Ben drew our attention to a huge V-shaped flock of striking black and white birds arrowing across the cold November sky. Gifted local photographer Bob Bonin quickly captured this very special sighting .
The Tundra Swans are so-named because they spend the summer on their breeding grounds above the tree line on the Arctic Circle. On river deltas, near large bodies of water, they build their nests on the chilly ridges formed by the thawing and freezing soil. During the 24 hour sun of an arctic summer, they feed themselves and their young on the lichens, mosses, and grasses of upland or wet meadow tundra. When the long dark of a far north winter started to set in, the swans we saw began their journey south. They passed over our area along their route, likely on their way to the eastern coast of the United States for the winter months.
But another much more modest arctic migrator arrived in the last month – the American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea). (Many thanks again to Bob Bonin for sharing his photos!)
This brown and gray sparrow with a black spot on its breast also raises its young on the arctic tundra. After the male has attracted a mate by singing from the stunted, shrub-like trees of the Arctic, the pair construct a nest of white ptarmigan feathers right on the tundra itself. During the Arctic’s long summer days, they feast and feed their young on insects. But here these modest brown birds, who have traveled so far to spend the winter with us, become vegetarians, peacefully searching out seed in the snow beneath our feeders. (Despite their name, Tree Sparrows spend most of their time on the ground or in shrubs.)
So while we humans may grouse about cold winter days, birds from the arctic must find our area quite balmy. High above, magnificent Tundra Swans wing their way to America’s east coast, bugling cheerfully along the way. And humble Tree Sparrows, leaving behind a dark, frigid arctic winter, treat the blizzards of a Michigan winter like a Florida vacation! Everything, as they say, is relative.
From early autumn until the first really cold weather, nature is busy preparing for winter – and so is the Parks Commission. While plants disperse seed and mushrooms release spores for next spring’s growth, our stewardship manager, Ben VanderWeide, is sowing native seed as well. As the trees drop leaves to prepare for spring growth, Ben and his contractors clear away invasive shrubs to provide spring sunlight for native grasses, bushes and wildflowers. So this week, please join me for some short visits to several parks to see how nature and the Parks Commission work together to prepare for winter snow and the spring to come.
Bear Creek Nature Park: Seeding, Feeding and Choosing a Mate
Bear Creek made a glorious exit from autumn. In late October, it burned with autumn gold and red.
As usual, the Black Walnuts (Juglans nigra) “fell asleep” before the other trees; they “wake up” late in the spring, too. I like to think they need more rest than other trees!
The Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) were busy with two kinds of preparation: finding a mate for the spring and eating to store up fat for the winter. Happily, both could be accomplished at once. Males, now in courting colors, cruised the Center Pond with females, going “up tails all” while feeding below the surface.
Mallards choose partners in the fall and then mate in the spring. So eventually they begin to pair off like these two did as the setting sun gilded the pond.
Plants, of course, are dropping seeds and fruits. The white fruits of Gray Dogwood (Cornus foemina) have either been eaten by birds or dropped to the ground to produce a dense thicket of more dogwood next year. On the right are the bare red pedicels in November. (Click to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
At the edge of the wood, I spotted a Gilled Mushroom (order Agaricales) within a dead stump. It will drop its spores from the gills beneath the cap to produce more mushrooms next year.
Lost Lake Nature Park: Shedding Leaves and Seeds
Fall is a time when trees shed their summer leaves. The apparent path of the sun lowers toward the horizon from September to Winter Solstice (December 21). So, the days grow shorter. Less daylight means that leaves lose the chlorophyll that makes them green and allows them to photosynthesize. This process of photosynthesis stores energy from sunlight in the chemical bonds of sugars. Trees use these sugars to grow during spring and summer, and many times sugars are stored for the future as starch. In the fall leaves change color as the chlorophyll recedes, their job completed for the season. Eventually lower light signals the trees to create “abscission cells” which grow between the stem and the branch, separating them. Down come the leaves. (“Abscission,” by the way, has the same root as the word “scissors!”)
Leaf carpets are useful as well as beautiful. As they decompose, leaves release nutrients back into the soil and provide the spongy humus that helps the soil hold water. And of course, they can act as protective mulch for the roots of forest plants and trees. Here’s a colorful carpet of White Oak and Red Maple leaves near Lost Lake.
Out in Lost Lake, the big flat leaves of Fragrant Water Lilies are fading for all the same reasons as other leaves. Their graceful simplicity against the dark water was eye-catching.
In the forest, near the top of the sledding hill, some native plants were still preparing to drop their seeds. Showy Goldenrod’s (Solidago speciosa) seeding plumes still stood tall in the forest light under the trees. And a stem of Bottlebrush Grass (Elymus hystrix) had yet to let go of its awn-tipped seeds. The grass fruit flies through the air and lands on the ground like tiny arrows, carrying their cargo of next year’s seed.
A flock of restless American Tree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea) swooped and dove near the western edge of the lake and foraged over the grassy area near the former stable. Tree Sparrows, summer residents of the Arctic, are experienced foragers. They spend the winter here finding edible seeds, fruits, insect larvae – whatever they can find in a snowy Michigan winter.
At the end of the walk, human prep for winter becomes apparent. Jeff Johnson, the Parks Commission’s Maintenance Tech, spent about a day and a half preparing the sledding hills for winter use. He marked off the big hill, the kiddie’s hill and the boundaries of the upward trek. Just in time for the big snowfall!
Cranberry Lake Park: Pond Ice and Puffballs
In the center of Cranberry Lake Park is a large pond where I’d seen herons and mallards feeding together one early fall afternoon. When I went back to explore in late fall, the pond was beautifully still and silent. A light skim of ice had formed on one end.
Near the pond, a large colony of tiny Puffball Mushrooms (genus Bovista) had finished releasing their spores. These tiny puffballs tend to grow in groups like this.
A few years ago, I saw these little mushrooms covering a stump at Bear Creek. They were plump in early autumn, filled with spores. When the spores are mature and are tapped by falling raindrops, small creatures or the occasional curious human – poof! – the spores pop out of the open center to be carried on the air so more mushrooms appear the following year.
The little mushrooms at Cranberry Lake were spent; their center holes had opened, releasing the spores. Quite a come-down in appearance, I’m afraid.
Stewardship: Lending a Helping Hand to Nature’s Winter Prep
The Wet Prarie on the Paint Creek Trail: Birds Gather Seeds and So Do We
The Tree Sparrow at Lost Lake is not the only creature foraging for wild seed this autumn. Ben and a crew of volunteers spent a peaceful morning at the Wet Prairie off the Paint Creek Trail gathering native grass and wildflower seeds for planting in other areas of the township.
Gallagher Creek and Charles Ilsley Parks: Seeds Sown by Plants and People
While the native plants are dropping seeds to prepare for spring abundance, so our Township Stewardship Manager, Ben VanderWeide is busy sowing native seed around the township. During the first week of December, parts of two parks, Gallagher Creek and Charles Ilsley Parks, were planted with native seed that Ben had gotten through a US Fish and Wildlife grant. The land had earlier been prepared in Gallagher Creek’s west section by clearing invasive shrubs and plants through selective treatment, mowing, and prescribed burns. Now a no-till native seed drill, designed to handle the varying sizes of native seeds, went to work. Discs cut a thin furrow in the ground to a pre-determined depth and simultaneously, seeds were dropped into the thin furrows.
At Charles Ilsey Park, the machine sowed more native seed after last year’s more extensive prairie planting. Here’s a YouTube video of the native seed drill at work.
Watershed Ridge Park, the Wet Prairie and Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park: Trees and Humans Prepare for New Growth
Just as trees prepare for spring by discarding their old leaves in the autumn, Ben and his contractors are working on ridding our parks of shrubs and underbrush to encourage new native growth. After cutting invasive woody shrub sprouts on the Wet Prairie, Ben carefully treated stumps to prevent them from re-sprouting next year. Invasives are persistent, so Ben has to be too!
At Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park, Ben brought in a contractor with a forestry mower to clear invasive shrubs from the current entrance. What a difference! Though not taken at exactly the same place, the photo just below will give you an idea of the density of the invasive shrubs at Stony Creek Ravine before removal – and below that is the wonderfully open look it has now. A lovely view from the beautiful stone bench in the distance.
But the biggest, most impressive “clearing the decks” project this fall was the beginning of habitat restoration process at Watershed Ridge Park. Just a month ago, the rolling slopes of this park were tangled with invasive shrubs that in many places were impenetrable. However, Ben noticed sun-loving native grasses and wildflowers struggling to survive under the heavy cover of overhanging limbs and vines – plants like the delicate orchid Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes species),Large-leaved Aster (Eurybia macrophylla) and three kinds of native Goldenrod.
So the first week in December, restoration began. A contractor’s forestry mower cleared 10.5 acres of invasive shrubs from among the trees. Now the contours of the land can be seen, dotted with oak, ash, elm and cherry trees.
The land slopes down from east to west to a marsh and a pond, both fed by a stream running from the large marsh that’s to the north of the park.
Now the stream, the marsh and the pond, which extends as far as Lake George Road, can be approached easily without fighting through dense, invasive shrubbery and vines. Once trails are created, this will be a lovely spot to watch for water wildlife!
In the forest at the edges of the cleared area are Red, Black and White Oaks. Here’s an old White Oak (Quercus alba) within the cleared area. Probably because of the crowding from shrubs and small trees, it never had the chance to spread its limbs wide in the sunlight, like the White Oak we all enjoy near Bear Creek’s Center Pond. But it’s still pretty impressive!
I couldn’t resist taking a photo of the orange Turkey-tail Mushrooms (Trametes versicolor) Ben spotted sprouting from a fallen long nearby. Turkey-tails come in a wide variety of colors!
In case you’re interested, this is the contractor’s forestry mower that cleared the shrubs at Stony Creek Ravine and also at Watershed Ridge.
What an exciting beginning to restoring this piece of land and creating a park that the community can enjoy! It will take time to develop trails and any other amenities that are appropriate to this beautiful land with its woods, slopes and wetlands. We’ll try to keep you posted on developments.
Nature and Parks Stewardship: Partners in Fostering Our Natural Heritage
I’ve come to see that stewardship supports nature by mimicking it in so many ways. Seeds that create new growth each year drop to the ground or sail away on the wind to take root and grow into more life. And we gather native seed and carefully sow it in narrow furrows to do the same. Trees drop their leaves to make way for new ones next spring. We too clear away invasive plants and shrubs to make way for new life. Native seed, lying dormant in the underground seed bank for years, will now sense exposure to sunlight and moisture on the earth above, crack open and begin to sprout. And with those plants, eventually will come butterflies, other insects, and birds that eat or nest in those native plants, restoring the diverse habitat that is part of our area’s natural history. So much life from simply giving nature a helping hand!
Footnote: My sources for information,besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991); Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for insect info; http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info; invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman and the website www.illinoiswildflowers.info; 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.
Wow! When Ben told me that they’d been removing shrubby, invasive plants and preparing ground for seeding at Gallagher Creek Park, I didn’t picture such a great transformation. When I stepped from my car in the parking lot, I was at first shocked and then, as I explored, really thrilled!
The big changes are that the park is much more open, its gently rolling terrain revealed, and the creek is now visible almost all the way through the park! Where it once was hidden by both summer growth and impenetrable thickets, now the little creek can be observed, meandering across the meadows toward Paint Creek. In this open landscape, a hardy wildflower defied the frost, as did a tiny butterfly and an unfamiliar grasshopper, while a woodpecker drilled away at his winter home. Let me show you.
New Open Spaces
Maybe these photos of Ben’s will begin to give you a feel for how much more open the park is now. The cleared areas in the foreground of these two photos (the upward slope to the west) will be seeded with wildflowers and native grasses or sedges this month. The rest of the area, recently cleared, is scheduled for seeding next year. The native plant seed is being provided through a US Fish and Wildlife grant. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
The area beyond the tree line in the distance in the above photos has been cleared all the way to the edge of the marsh that borders Silverbell Road. Eventually, once everything is replanted and the terrain is more settled, there may be paths into this area.
Below on the left, you can see some of the bushes that used to block our view of the creek edge – and on the right, is how it looks now that the shrubs have been removed. Some of these were native shrubs, Gray Dogwood (Cornus foemina). When it sprouts in the spring, Ben plans to let some of it grow again. But it needed to be cut back to prevent these aggressive shrubs from taking over the field along with Autumn Olive and other invasives!
Now you’d think with all that cut wood and dead grass, the park would feel quite abandoned by wildlife. But no. Despite the frost, my husband spotted Bottle Gentians still blooming on the west side of the park. These somewhat rare wildflowers and others should bloom more profusely now that the shrubs are removed and the Gentian’s seeds can benefit from increased sunlight.
Here are other rare native wildflowers that we hikers can hope to see in greater abundance once the restoration is complete.
The multi-colored wings of a native Common Buckeye Butterfly (Junonia coenia) glowed in autumn light against the deadwood one sunny morning last week. Isn’t the wing pattern beautiful on this small butterfly?
Nearby, we spotted a grasshopper that I’d never noticed before. Its dark brown body and forked “cerci” (area just above the end of the abdomen) make me think it’s a Broad-necked Grasshopper (Melanoplus keeleri luridus). According to the Orthoptera of Michigan (a link sent to me by a kind reader), this grasshopper is around until early November which is another indicator. Nice surprise!
I admit to being a bit worried about the long term survival of this long Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) weaving its way through the drying grass. It’s pretty vulnerable to hawks or owls until the plant life returns!
Up in a snag on the southwest side of the park, a slightly comical Downy Woodpecker was making its repetitive “squeek” as it excavated a series of holes in a snag. Just above its head , you can see the wood chips flying as it tossed them out of the hole. It may have a couple left in its beak as well. Busy bird, popping in and out of different holes.
Of course a group of White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) stared curiously at me from the edge of the park. I don’t think I’ve ever come to this park without seeing deer on the eastern side. Watch out for them when driving in November and December as they get quite heedless during the rut!
A couple of oddities showed up, too. Here’s a large Puffball Mushroom (phylum Basidiomycota) that was a bit beyond its expiration date, so to speak – though it appears some animal or bird may have sampled it.
The hole of what was probably a Rusty Crayfish (Orconectes rusticus) appeared as well.These aggressive crayfish used to live only in the West, but were transported to our area, it’s believed, as bait. This may be the same hole our birding friend Antonio saw in May, but it’s taller now with fresh, wet mud on it.
Gallagher Creek Itself is Now Visible!
My husband and I had fun tracking along as much of the creek as we could once we realized its path could be followed through the park. It enters through a culvert under Silverbell Road at the west and flows down past the viewing platform. In the summer, its current is hidden among tall grasses. Autumn, however, reveals its meandering journey, making multiple pools that join up farther down.
It was impossible to get close to the river before. Both non-native and native grasses grew shoulder high and the thickets of shrubs were impenetrable. Now we can watch the creek find its way along the meadow.
In the “riparian corridor” formed by the stream meeting the meadow, we spotted what I think is an American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea), though the stick that was right in front of its eye made it hard to tell before it took off!
Gallagher Creek joins up with two other small streams that cross Silverbell farther east and flow into and out of the marsh toward the creek. They create a more quickly flowing stream by the time the creek reaches the new Pinnacles development to the east where a lovely bridge crosses over it. (Thanks to our birding friend, Nancy Russell, for the tip on where to find it!)
By the way, wasps evidently thought the bridge made a nice location and built across from the bridge. I guess all the houses, even the insect ones, are elegant and huge in this development!
From there, Gallagher Creek flows down behind private homes, until it appears again, to flow from west to east through a culvert under Gallagher Road, just above the Paint Creek Trail.
And once it’s crossed the road, it flows along Gallagher, eventually running through a culvert into Paint Creek near the cider mill.
According to the Southeast Michigan Department of Natural Resources newsletter in 2011, Gallagher Creek was “home to one of the few remaining self-sustaining Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) populations in southern Michigan.” At the time that newsletter appeared, development around the park had decreased this native fish’s population dramatically. “The brook trout density found in this survey was about 50 per mile, down from 300 per mile in 1990 and 1998. This decline in abundance is likely due to siltation of the stream from the development along the creek.” I wonder if brook trout are still spawning in Gallagher Creek, the young still making their way to Paint Creek. Perhaps the DNR will do another survey that will let us know their fate.
Now we can look with anticipation to next year at Gallagher Creek Park. The land should bloom with new flowers and grasses planted this fall and next spring. Native seeds that have waited in the seed bank below the ground for years may now emerge as sun reaches the soil. With more flowers, come more butterflies and other insects, and then more birds and other wildlife. So keep your eye on this little gem of a park. It’s on its way to being a great resource for families in the south end of the township!
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.
What a difference a month makes! I began a series of visits to Cranberry Lake Park on September 24 and ended on October 25. I wanted to watch the park change as fall moved toward winter. It’s as if the color slowly leaves the flowers and grasses in the earth, flows up into the trees and then disappears into the black and white of winter. So this time I’m sharing a transition – who and what is coming and going at this changeable time of year.
Late September: Flowers Change to Fruit and Seeds
In late September, the meadow was still green, but splashed with the gold of Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa). A sweeping curve of this beautiful native plant swept around the large thicket of shrubs in the center of the meadow. It was easy to imagine the path of last summer’s winds as it carried the seeds that created this graceful shape.
And a few other flowers hung on in September. Individual stems of Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis)glowed gold among the greenery and a few hardy, flat-topped Yarrow stalks(Achillea millefolium) thrust their way above the browning Canada Goldenrod. Late-blooming Sweet Everlasting (Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium) – which some call Cudweed! – appeared as well, its tightly furled white buds just beginning to open in the cool autumn air. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Wild Grapes, also known as River Bank Grapes (Vitis riparia), hung in clusters on almost bare branches offering a treat for migrating and resident birds – and a few of us humans as well! A few weeks later they had either fallen to the ground or been eaten right off the vine.
Abundant clusters of wild Riverbank Grapes adorn the branches of this shrub.
A few weeks later the wild grapes had disappeared, probably nourishing animals as they stock up for winter.
In September, the Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) leaves changed from green to scarlet and the upright plumes of deep red fruits began to form. One morning, a flock of Black-Capped Chickadees bounced among the branches, foraging either for fruits or the occasional bug. Perhaps they were the ones who stripped the fruit from some of the plumes. Sumac fruits are eaten by many game and songbirds, though normally they’re not a first choice this time of year.
Over the next few weeks, the Goldenrods began to brown and go to seed. Showy Goldenrod seems to start seeding from the top down, week by week. And eventually that golden curve of Showy Goldenrod had turned a seed-rich, but not very attractive, brown.
And despite not being a first choice fruit, the Staghorn Sumac’s seeds had either been eaten on the plant or fallen on the ground to be found by ground feeders.
Talk about cool seeds! Looks at these elaborate seed pods of Dogbane/Indian Hemp (Apocynum cannabinum)! Dogbane is related to milkweeds, and like milkweeds the seeds with tufts of hair help the plant float on the breeze to new places. On the left is this red-stemmed, white-blossomed plant in June and on the center and right, the unbelievably long, angular seed pods this week.
Of course, some seeds are actually a HUGE problem. In autumn, the invasive, tree-killing vine, Oriental/Asian Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), produces its seductively beautiful yellow and red fruits. This vine encircles the trunks of trees while climbing for the sun. In doing so, it can choke the life out of a tree. If it gets to the top, it can kill the tree by shading it out and/or by making it top heavy and more likely to fall in storms. Unfortunately, hungry birds eat the berries and spread Bittersweet readily through their droppings. PLEASE DON’T PICK THIS VINE OR MAKE WREATHS FROM IT , ETC. Contact the Parks Department if you want some strategies for getting rid of this beautiful “bad guy”!
By late October, the meadow at Cranberry Creek had turned November brown as plants continued to produce seeds.
I did, though, find a few shy Smooth Asters (Symphyotrichum laeve) tucked beneath overhanging foliage, braving the cold with the last of its lavender blossoms.
During October: A Feast for Migrating Birds!
It’s hard for us to watch the palette of spring and summer fade – but birds? They love it! Warblers and other small visitors who spent their summer raising young in the cool northern reaches of Canada sailed into the park and found a feast! As did our year ’round resident birds.
One of my favorite partakers of fruits and seeds is the tiny Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) who’s found its way here from around Hudson Bay in Canada – or even farther north. I seem to always miss seeing the ruby crown which the male shows when he’s excited. I guess the birds I’m seeing are either females or males that are just too calm!
One afternoon at Cranberry Lake, the park was filled with White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis). They whisked in and out of shrubs while dashing down into the grass in search of seeds. This one paused just long enough for me to see its yellow lores, the spots at the corner of its eyes. It may have arrived from the UP or the tip of the mitten on its way to points south – not quite as arduous a trip as some migrators have.
This “first winter” White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys) was probably born this summer. It will take on adult coloring when it molts next spring into its bright black and white crown that now is brown and gray. This one was feeding avidly ongoldenrod seed during its journey from northern Canada to somewhere south of Michigan.
One morning, far up the path in the shadow of trees, a small Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) landed quickly, picked up a bug or fallen fruit from the grass, and took off. No photo. But here’s one from a previous year with its chocolate brown back and breast smudges. Too bad the Hermit Thrush doesn’t court its mate here, because its song has 3 different phrases with a pause between each. You can hear two versions of it here.
Our birding group saw other migratory birds enjoying the rest and sustenance provided by Cranberry Lake Park, but through our binoculars. They were too far away or too restless for me to capture them with the camera. The little Nashville Warbler (Oreothlypis ruficapilla) is making its way from Canada’s far north to Mexico or Central America. The Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum) stopped by on its journey from Canada to Florida or the Caribbean. And the Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata) has a comparatively short migration from northern Michigan or Canada to just south of Michigan. So as in all of our parks, Cranberry Lake offers much needed R&R for these small seasonal visitors.
During the bird walk, a Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus) swooped into the Hickory Lane on the west side of the park, perhaps chasing a songbird. It flew straight in front of us and quickly disappeared – we think without snagging the bird. Pretty exciting! Sharp-shinned Hawks are smaller and seen less often than the similar Cooper’s Hawk. They usually appear only during migration, so it’s probably headed south by now. Here’s a link to a photo at Cornell Lab.
A summer resident, the Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) called “chewink!” from the edge of the woods one birdwalk morning. When Ben imitated his call, the male Towhee darted into a nearby bush, intending, I assume, to check out the competition. Here’s a photo of one from last spring. (Let’s just say my photo luck was not with me on that bird walk!)
So though we miss the flowers, they have done their work. They attracted the right pollinators which helped create the very seeds that feed tired and hungry migrating birds – as well as having provided bees with the makings for the honey that will feed them through the winter, too. As a compensation, color comes to us once more as the trees begin to turn.
Late October: Winter Resident from the Far North Arrives – and Color Fills the Trees
Just this week, an American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea) may have flown into Cranberry Lake Park from the edge of the Arctic tundra! This sparrow, with a spot in the middle of its gray chest and a two-tone bill, loves cold weather. During the summer, Tree Sparrows make elegant nests of ptarmigan feathers right on the ground in the Arctic in order to raise their young. Evidently for a Tree Sparrow, spending the winter in Michigan is like going to Florida! Below is the first one I’ve seen this year.
A flock of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) did a lot to brighten up the browning of the meadow last week. Most Bluebirds migrate south, but a few actually stay with us all winter, either in family groups or small flocks, as long as there are seeds and berries available. I couldn’t resist taking more than one photo. Their splashes of azure in the field were really cheering on a gray fall day.
Color, of course, is the glory of a Michigan autumn. On September 24, the Hickory Lane still looked green and lush. By October 11, the colors had changed to gold and orange. And on October 24, a single glowing Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) at the south end of the lane was still shining in the sunlight after most of the other hickory trees began to turn brown.
The maple family contributes lavishly to the beauty of autumn. On the path to the lake, a striking leaf from a Red Maple (Acer rubrum) featured some colorful geometry. And nearby, the deeply lobed greenish-white underside of a pale yellow leaf from a Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) created some contrast. At the lake’s edge, oak and maple leaves formed a scarf of fall color floating on the surface.
The lake again was filled with migrating ducks and water birds – all much too far out for any kind of shot. Female Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa), Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) and Mute Swans(Cygnus olor) were among the throng. Here are photos of those birds from locations where I can get closer to them!
But there were also Pied-Billed Grebes(Podilymbus podiceps), and American Black Ducks(Anas rubripes)on Cranberry Lake. Please click on these red Cornell Lab links if you’d like to see them up close. Let’s hope a viewing deck gets built on Cranberry Lake in the next few years so all of us can get a closer look in person at the water birds that flock to the lake in spring and fall to socialize and feed.
A Different Kind of Transition in the North of the Park
Finally, a wonderful transition is being finished on the trail at the north end of the park. The Parks and Recreation maintenance staff has spent long hours this summer improving the trail from 32 Mile Road into the park. Instead of an oft-flooded, muddy track, they have laid down a solid surface with periodic drainage pipes running beneath it to keep the new trail from flooding. You certainly can feel the difference underfoot! And I imagine equestrians, as well as hikers, will appreciate the improvement. Thanks to Maintenance Foreman Doug Caruso and Maintenance Technician Jeff Johnson for a hard job that, when completed, should be a great improvement for the park!
Autumn: Harvest Time for All of Us!
So, just as we humans harvest crops before the snow falls, birds and animals harvest the wild “crops” of the fields – seeds and fruits. Some of them, like Black-Capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus), both eat and store them, tucking the seeds into bark where they will find them when snow blankets the meadow. Others, like the Palm Warbler, use them to fuel their flight to warmer climes. Winter residents, like the Tree Sparrow, will probe the brown goldenrod for seeds all winter – as well as flocking at your feeder. So when the color drains away, when the leaves are wet and brown underfoot, it may be a comfort to think of the bounty that surrounds us in those dry, drab plants. The brown and gray seeds nourish all kinds of creatures, and guarantee next summer’s bounty of plants. Those dry leaves underfoot dropped when they completed their work of sending sugars to the trees’ roots, ready to fuel next year’s growth. Seeds and falling leaves really are another reason to be thankful as November arrives. Maybe nature deserves a rest after a job well done!
*Footnote: My sources for information, as well as Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net.; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for beetle info http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info, http://www.illinoiswildflowers.info and invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman.
Hard frost and driving winds – November asserts its presence at Bear Creek. Geese and ducks are re-thinking their presence in the ponds and marshes and gathering to move south. Most migrants have moved on.
But the winter bird crew calls to its fellow foragers as they all stock up for the coming snow. Plant pods crack open, dropping seed or sending them flying through the air with the last of the leaves. Trees have almost finished storing energy in their roots. Like us, Bear Creek’s almost ready to face another winter.
At dusk one night this week, I heard (before I saw) the cacophony of hundreds of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) as they gathered over the marsh to begin their migration. The sound of that many wings at once and their wild calls felt like the very essence of late fall. I wish I could have captured the sound of those geese but I literally was transfixed by the sheer volume, the roar, of their noise.
In the hour before, I’d seen and heard smaller groups of geese wheeling overhead near the treetops, heading southeast to join this larger flock.
Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) are still in the ponds. This shot from last fall shows a male after his molt, with a whole set of perfect new feathers, ready to find a mate and take off for the south. A new set of feathers makes flying that much easier for migrating birds.
Mallards are beginning to gather in larger flocks as well, readying themselves to move off when ice forms on the ponds and in the marsh.
The Hardy Birds of the Winter Crew
Birdsong is long gone now, but the winter birds use chips and calls to keep in touch with larger flocks as they busily forage. American Tree Sparrows (Spizella arborea) probe for fruit and seeds from bushes on the western slope. (Click on double photos to enlarge. Rest your cursor on a double photo for captions)
Here’s a link if you’d like to hear the musical tweet these travelers use to keep in contact. (Page down to “Calls” and click on the first one.)
A Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis), a bird that is usually a ground feeder, pulled industriously at a cluster of goldenrod to get at seeds which had not yet fallen.
A pair of Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis), who always brighten dark days, looked at me warily from small shrubs near the wetland below the south hill. According Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, these adult cardinals live no more than “a few miles from their place of birth.” So these Cardinals, which can live for many years, could have resided in Bear Creek for a long time. Cardinals pair up for the winter and 80% of them stay with their mates the following year.
Here’s a Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) who’d just finished vigorously attacking a seed and was apparently tipping its head up to swallow the results.
The photo above came from our back yard this week because the ones I saw in the park seemed to never stay in one spot for more than a split second. But I like the look of this one’s wings as it took off from a branch in the park!
I saw House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus ) in Bear Creek this week but, like the Downy, they were too quick for me. So instead I took these pictures of a male and female at our home, where the feeder keeps them nearby. According to Cornell Ornithology Lab, House Finches were originally western birds. ” In 1940 a small number of finches were turned loose on Long Island, New York, after failed attempts to sell them as cage birds (‘Hollywood finches’). ” In the next 50 years, they spread all over the eastern US and southern Canada. I can’t imagine these social birds in cages!!
Winter Crew Animals
Below all those migrating birds in the marsh, a new muskrat lodge is being constructed. Since Muskrats (Ondatra zibethicus) are most active at night, dawn or dusk,this lodge was probably constructed in semi- or complete darkness! This one maybe become a full-fledged winter dwelling, as large as the one in the Center Pond, or it may just be a smaller feeding platform, a place to come up through the ice during the winter to breathe and eat.
Three White-Tailed Deer does (Odocoileus virginianus) that had bedded down near the Center Pond moved slowly behind a scrim of trees near the wetland below the southern hill. Maybe they were headed to the western woods to eat some of the plentiful acorns, but this one stopped to peek around a tree at me.
And over in the western woods, an agitated Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger) stopped dead when it spotted me, but flicked its tail at top speed, its version of a threat gesture.
Hard frost may have brought the demise of many insects in the park, but seed-eaters can choose from a gigantic larder! Perhaps you remember the Wild Senna (Senna hebcarpa) growing in the native beds near the shed. They’ve now produced long pods which turn black when the seeds inside are mature. Native bumblebees seek the pollen while ants and ladybugs, that may protect the plant from predators, love the nectar. The caterpillars of Sulphur butterflies (the family of small yellow ones) feed on its foliage. The seeds in those long black pods appeal to NorthernBobwhites(Colinus virginianus), a small quail with a distinctive whistle once plentiful in Oakland Township, but now largely missing. As native plants like Wild Senna, that serve so many creatures, return to our parks through careful stewardship, we hope to see the return of birds like the Bobwhite.
Mixed in with the ubiquitous Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) last summer was the more delicate native, Grass-leaved Goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia), which looks quite lovely as it seeds. Native bumblebees, honey bees, butterflies and lots of other insects enjoyed its nectar during the summer and American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) feed on it now. Occasionally it feeds rabbits and deer as well – another important plant in the park’s native habitat.
The modest Thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana) , a favorite of small bees and hoverflies (that look like bees), is seeding into airy puffs right now.
Trees Conserving Energy for Spring
All summer, the leaves of the Park’s deciduous trees produced sugars by storing the energy of sunlight in chemical bonds (photosynthesis). By autumn, this energy in sugars is safely stored in the roots of the trees, away from the snow and cold. During summer and fall, trees also produce next year’s leaf buds, and in some cases, flower buds, for next spring. The buds are packed with miniature leaves which are covered with a waxy coating that protects them from the cold. In the spring warmer temperatures and longer days break the ends of the cold waiting period, signaling sugar-rich sap to rise. The leaves, fed by the sap, burst forth and start again to supply the tree through photosynthesis. Pretty nice arrangement, I’d say! Here are some leaf buds on Maples in Bear Creek.
Perhaps we can make peace with the changing season by knowing that the seeds of spring wildflowers are already planted and the leaves of favorite trees wait inside those leaf buds for a warm spring day. Some of us go south like the migrating birds. Others of us are like the trees who husband energy in their roots, but stand tall when snow covers their branches. We too turn our energies more inward in the winter, perhaps by a warm fire, but still sally forth, sporting cherry noses and pink cheeks , to enjoy the wintry world. Bear Creek welcomes you in any season.
*Footnote: My sources for information, as well as Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991);Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net.; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for insect info http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info; invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman; experienced birder Ruth Glass, bird walk leader at Stoney Creek Metro Park for bird identification;Birds of North American Online; Audubon.org, Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, Trees in My Forest by Bernd Heinrich, Winter World by Bernd Heinrich