Tag Archives: American Woodcock

Bear Creek Nature Park: Snow, Sleet but Spring Arrived Anyway!

Red-winged Blackbirds in an April snow squall

Wow, what a tough April – for us and for wildlife! I even considered the possibility at one point that our thermometer was broken, since it seemed to be stuck at 32 degrees! The intrepid birding group went out in a snow squall the first week of the month. Despite cold and driving wind, we still came across flocks of early migrators, like the Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) pictured above,  along with more than 60 robins foraging in the meadows.

We got a couple of brief respites in which it was possible to imagine a normal spring day with birdsong, fragile leaves, turtles warming in the sun. Then it was back in the freezer. Wildlife and plant life coped with cold wind and sleet, soaked up whatever sun was available and waited for change. We humans harnessed the warmer days for stewardship projects. And then voilà, spring arrived (I hope) last weekend.

Despite the Icy Cold, Birds Arriving, Leaving, and Braving the Cold, Plus a Tough Little Willow Tree.

Experts tell us that bird migration depends more on the length of spring days, than it does on the temperature. As a result, our first summer-only birds arrived to find snowy fields rather than the first greening of spring. What could they or our year ’round residents do but cope?

This Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) hid among the grasses at the edge of the marsh as the snow fell on the birders the first Wednesday in April. She’s probably been back for a few weeks and is well-equipped to deal with the cold. Normally by this time, though, she’d be picking nest sites, but I doubt this thin spot at the edge of the marsh was being seriously considered.

A Canada Goose rested among the dead reeds at the edge of the marsh as the snow fell.

In a tree at the south end of the marsh, a male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) looked dismayed by the cold wind ruffling his crest. His staring eyes seemed to suggest that he was as stunned by the freezing temperatures as the bundled-up birders below him!

A Northern Cardinal looking a bit shocked at the snow and the icy wind ruffling his crest.

Birders spotted the silhouette of a Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) hunched in a branch near the marsh. No doubt it was hoping to have some clean-up work soon. After all, its job and its food source is seeing that all the carrion in the park is dealt with quickly and efficiently. I had to wonder if it regretted having left southern Ohio, or points even farther south.

The silhouette of a Turkey Vulture coping with an April snowstorm at Bear Marsh.

During a brief pause in the snowfall, a Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula), who may have spent his winter in southern Ohio, stared out into the white landscape. It’s likely he arrived with other males and a mixed flock of Red-wings and Brown-headed Cowbirds, frequent traveling companions this time of year.

A lone Grackle looking back  toward the south on a snowy Michigan day

Over at the Playground Pond, a shy little Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) huddled on a branch, twitching its tail over the water, as the snow fell. Having perhaps wintered in Tennessee, this little bird is usually one of the earliest flycatchers to arrive in Michigan. So it’s hardy enough to brave the cold – though maybe, like us, it have would preferred better April weather. Look closely;  it’s nicely camouflaged against the branches and behind the veil of falling snow!

An Eastern Phoebe, in its brown and white plumage, almost disappears into the branches and the snowfall.

Our sturdy, native Pussy Willow (Salix discolor) survives even in Alaska and northern Canada. So it bravely thrust forth its fuzzy white catkins in the southern part of the marsh as the snow swirled around it. The bright, bare branches of native Red Twig/Red-Osier Dogwood (Cornus sericea) added a nice dash of color to a dark morning.

Some of the winter-only visitors are still stocking up before leaving for points north. Small flocks of  American Tree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea) twitter among the bushes, getting last minute meals before heading to Hudson’s Bay or the Arctic tundra for the summer. They certainly seem to relish cold weather! I’m glad Bear Creek Nature Park seems to have provided enough winter food for this small long-distance flyer.

A Tree Sparrow stocks up on food before leaving for Hudson’s Bay in northern Canada or perhaps the Arctic tundra.

During a brief snow melt last week, the Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) also seemed busy preparing to depart northward for the summer. They foraged among the newly sprouting grass where the prescribed burn had taken place in March. They don’t travel quite as far as the Tree Sparrows, perhaps only into Ontario.

The Dark-eyed Juncos are preparing to depart to Ontario and points north.

Short, Warm Respites Meant Birdsong, Frog Song, Turtles and More

For a few short days, off and on, we had sun and some genuinely spring-like temperatures. The  Wood Frogs (Rana sylvatica) thawed out from their winter freeze. The low, chuckling call of the Wood Frogs joined the constant, rhythmic peeping of the Chorus Frogs, featured in the blog a couple of weeks ago. Here’s a photo of a Wood Frog taken last November as they began hibernation. The black patch near the eye underlined with light yellow, plus ridges down the back are the field marks for this small frog.

Last November the Wood Frog found a spot to hibernate in a log or under fallen leaves.

The clucking or chuckling sounds in the foreground of this recording from a week ago are those of the Wood Frog. The higher-pitched calls in the background are from Western Chorus frogs. Be sure to turn up your volume!

On a cold but sunny afternoon, the male Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) chirped his burbling refrain as the wind ruffled his feathers and carried his melodious tune out across the Eastern Meadow.

A Song Sparrow lets the wind carry his song into the Eastern Meadow.

On the recording below taken ten days ago, he sings loudly twice with a bit of a rest in between.

When the temperature rose to sixty degrees, all kinds of plants, animals and insects seemed to come to life at once! When Ben ventured out into the park about 8:30 pm one evening, he heard the buzzing “peent” call of the American Woodcock (Scolopax minor).  This call from the ground precedes an aerial display in which the Woodcock spirals up into the sky and then chirps on the way down, plummeting the last several feet before landing right where it began. All this happens just before dark in small open fields near wetlands at Bear Creek and Cranberry Lake Parks. For the whole sequence of sounds during this mating flight, try this link at Cornell Ornithology Lab. (Wait for the “peent!” at the end. It will surprise you!). Though I’ve heard and briefly seen the Woodcock, here’s a photo by talented photographer Jerry Oldenettel at iNaturalist.org who’s had much better luck than I at getting a good photo!

The Woodcock probes for worms with that long beak and performs an elaborate courting dance as the sun sets.

A pair of Bluebirds (Sialis sialis) seem to searching out nest sites at Bear Creek. I saw a male one snowy afternoon peering down into the grass for possible food and a female surveying the Eastern Meadow.

This male Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus) finds all kinds of good things to eat as he tap, tap, taps on a tree trunk. Though they’ll eat seeds and fruits, their preference is for insect larvae, so they’re very good stewards of trees, ridding them of bark beetles and other insects. According to Donald W. Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.1), if we hear a quick, loud, regular beat in its drumming, that’s a mating call. When the drumming is lighter and irregular, the Hairy is either feeding or starting to excavate a nest hole.

The Hairy Woodpecker has a thicker, longer beak than the similar Downy.

Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater) foraged in the fields as well. These handsome birds don’t create nests, but rather lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. Cowbirds aren’t really irresponsible parents. Having evolved to constantly follow western buffalo herds, they had no time to care for young. So the cowbirds who took advantage of the nests and care of other birds carried on the species!

A Brown-headed Cowbird pauses while foraging in the Eastern Meadow.

The Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta marginata), who’d been hibernating in the cold mud on pond bottoms all winter, climbed onto logs all over the park on the first warm day. In the photo below, nine of them were basking in a patch of  sunlight within a shady wetland, letting the sun soak into their dark shells. Aahhh, that must have felt sooo good!

Nine Painted Turtles turtles basking in the sunlight on the first warm day.

While hand sowing native seed, we discovered Eastern Garter Snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis) twisted around each other in a wriggling hug as they mated in the brown grass. The female, according to Wikipedia, is larger than the male. They may have evolved this way because garter snakes bear live young. The more little snakes they can carry, the more likely their genes will go on to another generation.

Eastern Garter Snakes mating. The male snake is much smaller than the female who needs to carry the live young.

With temperatures so low, insects are still scarce in the fields right now. But I noticed what appears to be a Sexton/Carrion Beetle (g. Nicrophorus, fam. Silphidae) clambering through grass and leaves one warm-ish afternoon. It was probably sensing a dead mouse or bird and heading to bury it as a source of food for its larvae. These small members of the “cleanup crew” are large and colorful, usually dark with red on the forewings and fancy club-shaped antennae.

A Sexton Beetle on its way to bury a carcass of a mouse or bird on which its larvae can feed.

I saw two plants making go of it in the cold April air. The perennial Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) thrust it bulbous, purple bract (spathe) up through the mud. The bract envelops a long spike (spadix) which holds the flowers. Early flies and bees are attracted by its pungent (and skunk-y, not very pleasant) odor. Interesting that the leaves on this plant show up after the flowers.

At this time last year, another of the earliest spring flowers, Spring Beauties (Claytonia virginica) had already presented their pink- and white-striped blossoms in the forest. This year, though, in the middle of April, their spindly leaves were just starting up around the roots of large trees. Perhaps the warmer weather will hurry them along, too!

Stewardship Projects Proceeded

A few cold but clear days provided suitable conditions for Dr. Ben’s VanderWeide’s park projects.  Along with the prescribed burn in March and hand-sowing the fields of Bear Creek with native seed, Ben, Alex Kriebel (stewardship specialist with Oakland Township Parks), Ian Ableson (a new stewardship employee at Six Rivers Land Conservancy), and 4 volunteers began the yearly monitoring of vernal pools. As part of a larger project of the Michigan Natural Features Inventory, Ben monitors these biodiversity hotspots three times over the summer. What a collection of unusual creatures! They wake and feed or quickly hatch, mature, mate, lay eggs and expire in these temporary ponds that dry over the summer. Great to know our vernal pools are teeming with life! (Click on pause button if you need more time for captions.)

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The Promise of Full-fledged Spring

A young girl flies her kite at Bear Creek Nature Park on a spring-like afternoon.

We humans know how to take advantage of spring-like weather, just as the wildlife does. One warm, cloudy afternoon, a small girl brought her kite to test the April winds. This youngster got her long-tailed kite flying high and kept it there. So great to see parents bringing young children out to play surrounded by nature in our parks.

Last weekend, I think most of us dared to hope that “real spring” had finally arrived. The air was softer, the temperature more normal for late April, and a brighter sun warmed our upturned faces from a blue sky. Leaf buds that have waited on branches all winter have begun to swell. Soon more of those buds will open and our world will slowly dress itself in spring’s lovely shade of green. More migrators will navigate hundreds or even thousands of miles, making use of the sun, the stars and earth’s magnetic fields to find their way back to us.  Mornings and sunsets will be filled with more chatter and birdsong. So try to keep your eyes and ears alert!  Spring’s full-fledged arrival is just beginning to burst forth in full glory.

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.

Watch Woodcock Dance on Earth Day!

Join us to eat s’mores and watch woodcock do their cool aerial mating dance! Woodcock begin dancing just after sunset, which is at 8:22 pm on Earth Day 2016. While we wait for sunset we will enjoy snacks, a spring evening, and a brief intro to woodcock biology. As the light fades we will quiet down so that we can enjoy this avian spectacle. Bring a comfortable lawn chair, binoculars, and layers to add as the night cools down.

Where: Predmore Road parking lot at Cranberry Lake Park, 388 W. Predmore Rd., Rochester, MI 48306. Click to view a map: https://goo.gl/maps/QJrJLaT2kfr

When: Tomorrow, April 22. We’ll have a campfire and snacks starting around 7:30 pm. If the weather is good the birds should start dancing around 8:30 pm.

American Woodcock. Who wouldn't want to see a cool bird like this? Photo by Flickr user guizmo_68. Used under Creative Commons License cc-by-2.0
American Woodcock. Who wouldn’t want to see a cool bird like this? Photo by Flickr user guizmo_68. Used under Creative Commons License cc-by-2.0

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Off-and-On Spring, a Prescribed Burn, and Two Special Bird Sightings

 

Flooding a week later
The Playground Pond flooding to the west after heavy spring rains

This Week at Bear Creek celebrated its first birthday this week. We’ve come full circle on the calendar exploring together what’s blooming, singing, buzzing and trotting through the park. I’ve had such a great time watching, asking questions of Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Stewardship Manager, reading your comments and pouring over books and blogs to research these pieces. I hope it has brought you some surprises and fresh insights, too. I’ve proposed to Ben that we widen the lens a bit this year and rather than focusing on one park, I’ll explore other parks in the township in a series we’re calling “Out and About in Oakland Township.” So watch for that coming soon!

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

But for now, let’s explore what’s been happening in Bear Creek for the last couple of weeks while I was reporting on Bear Creek history. Spring  arrived, retreated and struggled to make a comeback, no doubt confusing  the first migrating birds (one new to me!), singing frogs and emerging insects. A successful prescribed burn lit the Old Fields, returning nutrients to the earth and warming the soil with black ash.  It also provided some pretty nice hunting for birds of prey, including a second bird  I’d never seen before.

A Tentative Start to Spring: The Birds

Before we watch the migrators, here’s our old friend, the Black- capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) doing something fun. I learned a while ago that this little native can excavate holes in dead trees and/or trees with softer bark. And one cold morning, near the marsh closest to Snell Road, I spotted one doing just that. Notice the wood shavings on its head in the left photo and on its beak in the right photo. It was dropping the shavings on the ground as it worked diligently. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

Back to spring arrivals. The Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia) returned, some practicing parts of their spring song, but mostly just searching in the wetlands and brush for something to eat!

One warm morning, an American Woodcock (Scolopax minor) shot out from under my feet and two days later I saw one probing with its long beak among thick vines and brambles at the edge of  the wetland below the benches on the south hill.  I’d never seen one in Bear Creek before! This oddly shaped bird, with its squared-off head and widely spaced eyes, stayed just out of sight in the underbrush. I’ll spare you my attempt at a photo. Here’s a much better one of the Woodcock from Cornell Lab! I hope to see this interesting bird doing  its “cool aerial mating dance,” as Ben calls it, at a stewardship birding event he’s planned for Cranberry Lake on Earth Day, April 22 at 7:30 pm (Mark your calendars!).

A flock of  migrators, the Grackles (Quiscalus quiscula), with their light eyes and iridescent coats, seem to have taken over the marsh just north of the playground. Their calls, akin to the sound of a rusty gate, scrape the air as these large birds begin establishing territories.

Grackle in sunlight
The Grackles call, or “song,” sounds like the squeak of a rusty gate.

They share some wetlands with another summer visitor, the Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), who trills a sharp call while showing off his epaulets. Since the females hadn’t arrived last week, this guy seemed more focused on food one cold morning.

Red-winged blackbird in Autumn Olive
Male Red-winged Blackbirds are trilling in and around the wetlands to establish territories before the females arrive.

The Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis)are performing their spring duets, since both the male and female trill a large variety of songs. Here’s a male near the marsh and then a recording of his lovely song which he began a few minutes later. (Be sure to increase your volume.)

Cardinal male
A male Cardinal near the marsh

And of course, I couldn’t resist a pair of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis).

The Frog Serenade Begins

The spring frogs have thawed out after being frozen all winter.  They are singing with abandon in every wet spot in the park, trying to attract their mates. During the day, we’re likely to hear either the Wood Frog (Lithobates sylvaticus) or the Western Chorus Frog (Pseudacris triseriata) or both. In this short sound recording, the high pitched continuous singing is the song of the Western Chorus Frog and the lower, almost conversational croaking is the song of the  Wood Frogs. 

Wood Frogs like to float in the water and sing, so look for concentric circles on the surface and you’ll often see the 2 – 2.5 inch male croaking. This one floated in the marsh west of the Snell entrance.

Wood frog in pond near house
A Wood Frog floating and singing in a marsh near the Snell entrance

The Western Chorus Frog is smaller, only 1 – 1.5 inches, but it has a mighty bubble at its throat as it sings.  I caught this one in mid-croak a year ago.

Chorus frog full cheep
Chorus frog full cheep

The water is deep at the Center Pond, so Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta)have emerged from winter torpor under the mud to share whatever bits of logs are available in order to bask in the thin sunlight. I’m waiting to see how many hatchlings survived the winter in their shared nests!

Turtle threesome
Three on a log at the Center Pond

Plants Sprouting, A Risk-taking Caterpillar and a Very Tiny Spider!

Frost in late March
Frost in late March

The last week of March thick frost covered all of last year’s plants at Bear Creek, including a Goldenrod Ball Gall missing its larval inhabitant and one of last year’s Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota) dried blossoms.

But the sun came out and this year’s plants began to emerge. Each spring I look for the first fascinating but homely Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidusaround the marsh at the western entrance to the Oak-Hickory forest.  And there it was, nosing its way out of the mud.

Skunk Cabbage2
Skunk Cabbage is one of the first plants of spring.

Nearby, on the path behind the Center Pond, a minuscule spider worked diligently on its web strung between two branches of native Pussy Willow (Salix discolor). And some sort of caterpillar appeared as well, which might be that of the striking Virginia Ctenucha Moth. The caterpillars of this moth feed on grasses and sedges and are often found in open fields in early spring and fall.

Over near Snell Road, I spotted some lovely catkins and Ben tells me I’ve found Hazelnut (Corylus americana), a plant that George Comps harvested for nuts when he lived on this piece of land in the 1940’s. The long yellow ones are male flowers and if you look closely, you’ll see small red ones that are female – both on the same plant.

American Hazel catkins
American Hazel with long golden male catkins and inconspicuous red female flowers.

Up in the new native bed near the pavilion, transplanted last fall from a generous donor, the lovely little Sharp-lobed Hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba) bloomed quietly one warm morning.

Hepatica closeup
Hepatica in the newest native bed next to the pavilion

Prescribed Burn:  A Boost for Native Plants

Last week Dr. Ben, township staff and 6 volunteers conducted a prescribed burn down the center of the southern part of Bear Creek, to the left and right of the Walnut Lane. Many native plants in our area are adapted to fire from natural sources and thousands of years of clearing and fertilizing with fire by local Native American communities.  In fact, many native plants form buds underground that allow them to sprout vigorously after fire. Non-native plants and invasives may or may not be fire-adapted, so periodic burning can be a setback for them.

Heidi dripping fire
Volunteer, Heidi Patterson, drips a low flame to start the blaze while other fire crew members stand by with water.

Fire also returns to the earth the nutrients in dead material from the previous year and provides a black ash surface that absorbs heat from the sun (solar radiation), giving plants a longer growing season.

Dr. Ben serves as “fire boss” for our crew and trained these volunteers during the winter. It was wonderful to see them do such a careful, well-coordinated burn, while saving the township the cost of hiring a burn crew. Thank you to volunteers Steve Powell, David Lazar, Antonio Xeira, Dioniza Toth-Reinalt, Heidi Paterson, and Jim Lloyd, plus Township staff member Jeff Johnson, and of course Dr. Ben for a stewardship job well done!

About that Hawk and its Fellow Hunter…

Avian hunters were super appreciative of the burn! A large Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) perched calmly on a limb as the smoke floated up from the  fires below. As Ben pointed out, she knew it would make finding her prey so much easier!

Red Tailed Hawk Hunting after Fire
Red-tailed Hawk watches the field “like a hawk” looking for prey during the prescribed burn.

A  female American Kestrel (Falco sparvarius) found a mole after the fire and took it up into a tree on the eastern edge of the Old Field.  Kestrels are the smallest North American falcons and are declining in some of their range due partly to predation by hawks and even crows – so it’s great to see one at Bear Creek.  Kestrels are known to cache some of their food, but after the winter months, this one seemed very determined to have a meal!  (Thanks to Ben for ID of this bird and the caterpillar above!)

Sharp-shinned Hawk w a mole
An American Kestrel found a mole for dinner after the prescribed burn.

From One Spring to the Next

Tree in puddle
Black Walnut Tree reflected in a puddle after heavy rainstorms

So thank you for circling the year with me at Bear Creek. It’s difficult to choose favorite moments because every season has its joys.  I know I’ll remember the bulge of the Chorus Frog’s throat in early spring, the head of a Cedar Waxwing protruding from her nest in early summer, two baby wrens taking a dust bath on the Walnut Lane, the Western Slope covered with Monarch butterflies hanging from purple New England Asters in autumn, and learning how muskrats cruise under winter ice and frogs freeze solid before resurrecting in the spring. If you have favorite moments, photos, new realizations, I’d love to hear about them in the comments below.

But let’s be off to another year!  We’ll keep periodically visiting Bear Creek, of course, but also venture out to Lost Lake Nature Park, Cranberry Lake Park, Draper Twin Lake Park, Charles Ilsley Park, Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park, Blue Heron Environmental Area, Gallagher Creek Park, Marsh View Park, and the Paint Creek Trail to see all the diversity our green gem of a township has to offer!  Now I’m off to see if I can find some warblers…

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.