Tag Archives: Bee Balm

Charles Ilsley Park: Hardy Companions, Tracking the Unseen and the Ghosts of Flowers Past

Charles Ilsley Park’s Northern Prairie, as seen from the spring-fed pond in the center of the park.

I’m willing to admit that winter walks are a bit more demanding for me. Though I love being out in the open with red cheeks and the glitter of sunlight on snow, breaking through an icy snow crust with every step can be a bit arduous. And as a writer who loves taking photos, well, wildlife is simply a bit more scarce and plant life is a lot less colorful. So the blog creates an interesting challenge. Luckily, I’m all for a good challenge! So this week, in a way, I’m writing about what I didn’t see in February at Charles Ilsley Park. Bear with me…

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

One February morning, I pursued the paw prints of an unseen coyote who had left a trail in the ice-encrusted snow on the previous moonlit night. And I spent part of an afternoon just noticing the  brown and gray architecture of the dry seed heads of some favorite summer wildflowers, now ghosts of their colorful summer selves. Their pleasing shapes provided some inspiration about the native garden I’m dreaming about for next summer. But I’ll start this blog with the handful of  birds that I did see, that kept me company on frigid days, just to remind myself that I had sturdy companions on the grayest and coldest days of the year.

Who’s That Twittering in the Tall Grass?

Stalks of Indian Grass forming a scrim as I look across the Eastern Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park.

One late afternoon as I approached the Eastern Prairie at Ilsley, I heard the cheerful “chatting” (see first “call” heading at this link) of a small group of winter visitors from the Arctic, American Tree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea). One of them paused long enough for a good look at its two-tone bill. This little bird had puffed up its down jacket to deal with a frigid morning!

The two-toned bill, breast spot, eye-line and chestnut cap are the Tree Sparrow’s field marks.

Two days later, the birding group heard more “chatting.” We spotted a large flock of Tree Sparrows flowing like a river from the trees, down into the tall prairie grass. These social flocks keep in contact  with short calls back and forth – “I’m here! I’m over here!” – as they forage. I managed to catch a group of them in a vine-laden bush at the edge of prairie.

Part of a large flock, of Tree Sparrows feeding in the Eastern Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park.

It was wonderful to watch so many migratory birds feeding enthusiastically on the native seeds of our restored prairie. We were curious to see which plants they were enjoying. That morning they were finding bent Black-eyed Susan stems (Rudbeckia hirta) and plucking out the seeds. Here’s the bent stem at almost ground level, the seeds on the snow and the area trampled by the flock’s small feet.

The bent stalk  of a Black-eyed Susan near the ground makes it easier for the  Tree sparrows to get at the seed.

Actually, this large flock of birds had a few fellow travelers. Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) and American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) joined the Tree Sparrows’ feast. Larger flocks increase the odds that birds can survive against predators in winter, when birds show up well against the snow. They also mean more eyes spotting good food.  (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

On a Sunday walk in the Western Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park, my husband and I spotted Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) diving in and out of the grass. Finally, a pair of them settled on some brush and fallen logs along the tree line. The male ignored me completely while he preened vigorously. Since bluebirds often use the abandoned nests of woodpeckers in the winter, I wondered if he’d picked up some mites from an old nest, poor fellow. I managed to get one quick shot when he rested for just a moment.

A male Eastern Bluebird paused from preening for just a few seconds while sitting in the brush near the tree line.

The female nearby was keeping an eye on me and as I approached she sent the male a little “chit-chit-chit”  call (second “call” heading at this link) that warns of ground predators – me, in this case! Then they both flew off again.

The female bluebird gave a little signal call to her preening mate as I approached.

At the far edge of the western prairie, we heard the “ank-ank-ank”  call of the White Breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis). (Under “Eastern calls” at this link.)  It was hopping quickly from branch to dead branch above our heads, searching out anything it could eat , like frozen insect eggs or caterpillars.

A White-breasted Nuthatch probed the bark on a dead limb for hidden insects or their eggs.

Now, About Those Tracks Here, There and Everywhere…

Some pretty striking tracks greeted me in the center field of the park.

As I started out one Thursday morning, I was presented with some pretty impressive tracks.  I recognized them immediately, because one of them was mine! The last four birders on the Wednesday morning bird walk had trekked along chatting as we went back to our cars. As a former bookseller, I had to smile remembering Pooh and Piglet tracking a “heffalump” around a bush, which of course turned out to be their own footprints, too. A fun beginning to my search for animal tracks.

I left the trail and headed diagonally across the field following a nice straight line of canine prints – and readers of my previous winter blogs probably know what that means – a Coyote! Coyotes (Canis latrans) trot along at night making a straight trail of prints. Being wild animals, coyotes want to use as little energy as necessary between meals, so they never run around in the snow like dogs do.  They place their back feet inside the print of their front feet to use less energy and move directly where they want to go.

Coyote tracks across the western prairie

Because a crust covered the snow after freezing rain, it was clear that this coyote had to break through the snow with each step, leaving a pointed top to the track it left behind.

A coyote print in iced-over snow.

I followed the prints as it became apparent that this coyote was headed for the farthest west section of the park, where Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide had hired a forestry mower to remove invasive shrubs and create a path to the nearby subdivision for residents’ use. Two trees nicely frame the opening to this newly renovated area.

The entrance to the farthest west section of Charles Ilsley Park with its rolling land and woods.

This western section with its rolling, glacial landscape, wetlands and wooded areas is very different from the open prairies of Ilsley. It seems our coyote thought this might be a better place to rest on an icy, windy night. Coyotes are not really nocturnal animals, but they have learned that night is a good time to hunt and not be bothered by humans and their activities. So I imagine this coyote had been out hunting mice on the prairie and was heading back to the woods to get out of the wind.

The coyotes prints entering the western section of the park.

After passing into the western area, the coyote turned sharply south into the woods. So I followed its tracks, imagining it trotting between the trees, slipping in and out of the shadows made by the full moon the night before.

The coyote heads off into the woods in the western part of Charles Ilsley Park.

It’s easy to see that among the glacially-formed slopes of this rolling landscape, a coyote would be out of the sharp wind that blew across the prairie.  The landscape in this area of the park is suddenly so different, as the slopes rise and then descend to one wetland after another.  I kept following the coyote deeper into the woods as the line of prints flowed over the slopes.

The coyote’s tracks flowed over the slopes.

At last the coyote’s tracks came down to a small pond where they seemed to end in a flattened area under some vines and branches at the right which would have provided a bit of cover.

A flat area under the bushes and vines on the right looked like it could be a place where the coyote spent the night out of the wind.

Beyond that pond was another lovely little pond covered in snow and embraced by the hills around it – but not a track in sight.

A trackless pond beyond the one where the coyote’s tracks ended

I lost the coyote’s trail after that and wandered up to Ben’s path again. I stopped to admire a very tall, wonderfully straight native Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipfera) with its closely furrowed bark.

The very tall, very straight trunk and furrowed bark of a Tulip-tree

Its yellow blossoms were now dried but still quivering in the wind at the very top of the tree. Ben pointed it out on an earlier walk and told us he thought our area is at the northern edge of this lovely tree’s range. It’s the first wild tulip tree I’ve ever seen.

The dried blossoms of a Tulip-tree which always blooms on the highest branches. 

Nearby stood a tall Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum), its red buds just waiting to expand and bring us one of the first really vivid colors of early spring.

Red buds high on a Silver Maple will swell and offer up one of the first bright colors of spring.

As I left the western wooded area and headed back onto the western prairie, I came across a flattened place in the trail that looked like a major crossroads for critters.  The tracks around it were hard to read .  I thought I recognized squirrel and possible rabbit tracks, but I have no idea who was there and what was going on, really. Since there are coyote tracks  above this flattened area, I wondered if one slept here; as top predators, they do sleep in the open at times.  Its warmth would have melted the snow and allowed smaller creatures to get to the ground underneath the crusted surface once the coyote left the scene.  Just a guess.

A heavily tracked spot on the western prairie trail

One possible hint was a hole in the snow nearby where a squirrel may have tried to dig up a nut in the frozen soil. Or perhaps our coyote dug up a Meadow Mouse (Microtus pennsylvanicus) before heading off to sleep? I’m not sure because the tracks around it were not fresh; they had been trampled, rained on and frozen.

A place where a squirrel may have dug up a nut or seed – or perhaps a coyote found a mouse before bedtime?

The coyote tracks did lead away from area toward the private property on the west side of the park.

Coyote tracks running through the furrows of the private field on the west side of the park.

If the open hole was that of a captured mouse, the birders saw evidence that some mice are luckier than others.  Here are some mouse tracks that we spotted near the edge of the western prairie.  It looks like this mouse made it safely under the snow’s insulation – safe from the icy wind and out of sight. I love the “stitching” look of mouse tracks in the snow.

Mouse tracks that look like stitching disappearing into a hole in the snow.

On the last leg of my tracking trip to the park, as I approached the central section from the north, I saw one of the spring-fed ponds covered with lots of tracks, making neat, straight lines across the snow-covered surface. What was going on? And then it occurred to me. These were stewardship tracks! Ben had told us at the end of the bird walk that he’d brought  a native wetland seed mix to spread on the ponds before it rained later that day. He and Stewardship Specialist Alyssa Radzwion put the seed right on the frozen surface.  Native seeds needs to be exposed to the cold before they will germinate properly. Once warm weather comes, the seeds will drop down into the shallow water  or moist edge habitat and with luck, begin bringing some color and native plant life to these special areas of the park.

Tracks left by Ben and Alyssa as they seeded the spring-fed pond with a native wetland mix.  (The birders had also trekked across the pond earlier in the morning.)

The Ghosts of Summers Past Provide Inspiration for Spring

I’ve begun  learning to recognize and appreciate the winter forms of some favorite wildflowers.  Their subtle shades of brown or gray as well as their patterns and geometry have started me wondering if I could create a native garden next summer that the birds and I could enjoy all year ’round. It’s clear that birds need the seeds that cling to native plants despite snow and wind. And I could appreciate the architecture of winter plants. So which shapes provide what landscapers like to call “visual interest” and also provide winter food for wildlife?

Yellow Coneflower and Canada Wild Rye in late fall.

Perhaps some of you remember how beautiful the Eastern Prairie looked when filled with Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) in the summer. This hardy native has always had a special place in my life. When I was a teenager, the first song I ever wrote included the “wide-eyed stare” of this sunny flower. So it definitely needs to be in my garden. I’m taken with its winter fringed cap in winter and would be happy to let it hang out in my garden.

Mixed in with these bright yellow beauties were the lavender fireworks of Bee-balm (Monarda fistulosa) and they create appealing geometry in a winter landscape.

For contrast, I’d need some white in my summer garden – and maybe good old Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) would be a possibility – if I could keep it from spreading too much.  I like its chocolate brown against the white snow.

I love how Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) sway in a summer breeze so I hope they’ll be included somehow too. The plump, oblong seed heads obviously provide forage for the birds and silvery, pointed spears would be a graceful accent in a winter garden.

I may plant Asters in our field rather than in the garden.  They grow in such profusion! I’m not sure which of the many Asters  is represented in the winter photo below  because so many kinds of asters bloom in late summer and fall! They are such a boon to all kinds of butterflies and bees who can feed on them before winter arrives. Here’s just a sampling.  (Use pause button for captions.)

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Brown-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia triloba), which also bloom late in late summer and fall, might be another good choice for the field, since they grow so tall (compared to Black-eyed Susans) and have a branching form with multiple blooms at the same time.

Well, that’s a start.  I want to search out some other favorites, like Foxglove Beard-tongue  (Penstemon digitalis) and see what it looks like after bloom – though I doubt I can resist it for the garden. That little Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) makes me impatient for spring!

A young Field Sparrow on Foxglove Beardtongue in Charles Ilsley Park’s Eastern Prairie.

See? Wasn’t that a clever way to get to get some color into an early March blog, when everything is still brown, gray and white? I knew you’d appreciate it…

Finding Delight in a Late Winter Walk

It takes a bit more effort to get out on a frosty morning.  There’s all that layered clothing and boots and gloves and scarves. And the early March landscape is getting just a bit tiresome — too much brown and white out our windows. But once I’m out the door and into the landscape, nature offers me a few treats to keep me coming back. Tracking a coyote’s tracks to a secluded pond in the woods feels like a little adventure. The friendly chatting of winter birds keeps me company and the sight of bluebirds in the stark landscape nourishes my color-starved eyes. And how lucky that noticing the winter geometry of last summer’s blooms sets me off dreaming about a new native garden! So all that makes crunching step-by-step through the snow crust worth the effort when the thermometer encourages me to stay home.

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township’s Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University; Wikipedia; A Field Guide to Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, and Trees of Michigan Field Guide by Stan Tekiela.

A Year in the Life of Wildflower Seeds

Collecting wildflower seed here in our township is an enjoyable, labor intensive activity that proceeds through several stages in all four seasons of the year. The flowers do all the work in the summer by producing their colorful blooms.  Then the humans – volunteers and Parks staff –  take over the work in the other three seasons by  harvesting, cleaning and sowing the seed.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

Since we’ve just completed the cycle for 2018, I thought we’d share how this ancient cycle of work, organized each year by Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our Natural Areas Stewardship manager, happens throughout the year.

Winter and Spring: Spreading Seed

Ben spreading seed at Bear Creek Nature Park after a prescribed burn in spring 2018.

Readers may remember the blog from last April, when Ben, his stewardship tech Alex Kreibel and I spread wildflower seed in Bear Creek Nature Park. We spent a cool spring morning sowing seed by hand as it’s been done for thousands of years.

For larger projects we might spread seed with a special native seed drill or broadcast spreader attached to a tractor.

loading the seed
When we seed our first prairie plantings at Charles Ilsley Park and Draper Twin Lake Park, we hired Jerry Stewart with Native Connections to do the planting. Here he is filling the machine with seed in 2015.

The seeds we spread take their time for the next few years, sprouting a bit of greenery to catch the sunlight as they grow deep roots. Those roots help them survive drought like all prairie plants. In a few years, when the roots have grown deep, the plants we sow finally bloom and produce more seed. Luckily, nature has also dispersed seeds for countless years. With a little help from us humans through prescribed fire or invasive plant control, native seeds already in the soil will also find their way to the sunlight and grow!

Summer: Blossoms Attract Pollinators

Plants mostly rely on wind and insects – beetles, flies, butterflies – to move pollen from one plant to the next. Pollination is the process by which male genetic material (in the pollen) is transferred from the anther of one plant to the female pistil of another plant (or in self-pollinating plants to pistils on the same plant). If the pollen lands on a compatible plant, it will germinate grow a pollen tube to conduct the sperm to the potential seeds (ovules) in the ovary of the second plant.

Big Bluestem blooms LL
Big Bluestem (Adropogon gerardii) shown here is a wind-pollinated plant. This pictures shows its anthers that produce pollen (bright yellow) and the stigmas that catch pollen (purple and fuzzy).

Wind-pollinated plants like grasses and some trees produce lots of pollen and cast it to the wind, taking a chance that a few grains will land in a receptive flower on another plant. But our insect-pollinated plants use a more targeted method to transfer pollen from one flower to the next. These plants create tempting blossoms full of color, scent, nectar and, of course, pollen to attract and reward pollinators, ensuring that some will be transported to another flower on the insect courier.

We’ll follow the three insect-pollinated plants below, from various parks,  through our seed collecting cycle: Joe Pye (Euthrochium maculatum), Stiff Goldenrod (Solidago rigida) and White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima). [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

Autumn:  Voilà! Fertile Seeds Ready for Harvesting

Here are the same three wildflowers in their seeding phase in the early autumn.  (Please note that two of the three photos below were generously provided by iNaturalist photographers, Ken Potter and mikaelamazzeo94.)

And again, some readers will remember from a November blog  that while nature was dispersing seed through wind, water and gravity this autumn, we humans were out among them, snipping selectively.  Good stewardship requires gathering some native seed so that 1) the seeds get to spots that need native seed, often our active restoration areas where seeds might not reach on their own; and 2) so that the township can save a bit of money on expensive native wildflower seed!

Two volunteers gathering native wildflower seed at Charles Ilsley Park.

Winnowing Out the Seed by Hand – and Foot!

On December 6, 2018 the final stage of our seed collecting came to fruition as Ben taught us techniques for separating the seed from the plants to get them ready to spread. Volunteers and staff gathered at the Parks Department pole barn on Buell Road on a cold winter morning to push the dry stalks through various sizes of screening.

Volunteers in various stages of seed cleaning.

For some plants, that meant wearing leather gloves to rub the stalks against the screen so that the seed would fall into the tub underneath, as we did with White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) shown below.

For plants with sturdy structures, like the round heads of Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa) below, it meant putting a screened box on a plastic  sheet on the floor and actually treading on the seed heads to help loosen the seed!

Ben treading on Menarda seed heads

Once the seeds were separated, they were turned over to Ben’s current stewardship specialist, Alyssa  Radzwion, and volunteer Dena Scher who poured the seeds into bags, labeled them with their scientific names and recorded the information.

Each species of seeds is weighed, labeled and readied for storage.

So here is our haul for this year!

Stewardship specialist Alyssa Radzwion with our stock of wild seed from 2018.

If we have more volunteers to gather seed  (hint, hint…), we could harvest even more in 2019! So consider the ancient pleasure of  sowing seed in the spring, gathering seed on an autumn day, and cleaning seed at a good old fashioned work bee next December. The hum of voices, the laughter, the earthy fragrances of different seeds – it’s a fun way to meet neighbors and help nature grow more of those beautiful wildflowers that are beginning to carpet our restored prairies. And to top it all off, you get to feel like a kid again as you rub, stomp and get covered in tiny silk parachutes!

Dr. Ben covered in the silky parachutes of common milkweed.

Lost Lake Nature Park: Big Birds, Small Creatures and a Forest Full of Mushrooms!

Fragrant Water Lilies (Nymphaea odorata) dotted the surface of Lost Lake in the last few weeks.

I’m so glad that Lost Lake Nature Park isn’t really lost.  It’s such a different sort of nature park. The round, blue eye of the kettle lake stares up into the sky. Lately, water birds have been feeding and making practice flights as they prepare to depart for warmer climes. Steep forested hills stretch around the lake like a friendly arm. And, I discovered to my delight, the oak-pine forest sprouts a surprising number of mushrooms in the autumn!

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

I took several different kinds of trips to this interesting little park in September – once or twice on my own, once with the birding group and once with a group of avid mushroom hunters assisted by two well-informed guides who discerned the edible from the inedible. Such a diverse little park with its tall native grasses in the summer and its sledding hills in the winter – and something new to discover on every visit!

Around the Lake: Migrators Feed and Fly

Far across the lake one cool morning, a strangely gaunt Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodius) spread its wings for takeoff. I hoped that its ragged head and breast meant that it was simply molting, since I’ve read that they do a complete molt in early fall.

A gaunt Great Blue Heron. I’m hoping the appearance is due to molting!

I observed that its wing feathers were largely intact. The heron finally took a few turns around the pond and seemed to fly quite gracefully. So maybe if it was molting, this bird can complete its molt, eat heartily at Lost Lake and still successfully winter in Florida. I sure hope so.  (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

Across the pond, at the same moment, a healthier-looking Great Egret (Ardea alba) took its time fishing, before it too took a few turns around the pond as if exercising its flight muscles before migrating.

A fishing Egret suddenly rose into the air and took a quick turn around the pond.
The yellow bill and black legs mark it as Great Egret. And how about that green eye, eh?

Hearing a high trilling call, I looked around for a Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus). For a while, I saw nothing on the muddy flats. But finally I spotted it near some bright green grass, assiduously poking its beak into the muddy shallows at one end of the pond. So often I can’t spot these little birds until they move because they blend so nicely with their surroundings!

A Killdeer searches for insect larvae, snails or beetles in the muddy shallows of the lake.

The Wednesday birders spotted a Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) steaming quickly across the lake. So clumsy on land, these furry fellows can really get moving using those swaying tails for propulsion. We birders watched it swim by and it gave us the eye as well!

A muskrat steaming across Lost Lake while keeping an eye on the birders.

As I approached the dock on one visit, I heard a loud “Squeeeak” followed by a watery “plop!” And there under the edge of the dock crouched an alarmed Northern Green Frog (Lithobates clamitans melanota). It may have been a juvenile, since I’ve read that the young are more likely to squeak when caught off guard. Evidently other frogs, like Bullfrogs and Leopard frogs, are also known to make this odd sound, which is much like the noise that results from stepping on a plastic toy!

A Green Frog squeaked loudly as it leapt to a safer perch underneath the dock.

On the other side of the dock, two small red Meadowhawk  dragonflies  (genus Sympetrum) found a convenient lily pad on which to mate. As usual, the male held the female’s head firmly with pincers on its tail as mating commenced. These two seem to be Ruby Meadowhawks (Sympetrum rubicundulum), but there are several red Meadowhawks that look very much alike so I can’t be sure. A short time later they took off flying, still attached, while some frustrated males hovered nearby.

Meadowhawk dragonflies mating on a lily pad at Lost Lake

Throughout September, the lake was fringed with colorful native wildflowers that bloomed vigorously after last spring’s prescribed burn. These beauties have quite interesting names: Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), Sneeze-weed (Helenium autumnale), Smooth Blue Aster  (Symphyotrichum laeve), Round-headed Bush Clover (Lespedeza capitata), Bee-balm (Monarda fistulosa), Beggar-tick (genus Bidens)Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) and Yellow Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata). (Use pause button if more time is needed for captions.)

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In the Moist, Low Areas of the Forest

The rolling woods surrounding Lost Lake

The light sifts through the tree canopy on the hills that surround Lost Lake. If you take a hike up the sledding hill, or reach the top by following the path through the woods, you’re treated to a view of the undulating forest floor. In summer, the sunny side of the sledding hill is a-buzz with dragonflies, butterflies and native wildflowers. But at this time of the year, the lower, moist areas of the forest draw my attention.

Almost any movement out the corner of my eye turns out to be a Chipmunk (Tamias striatus) zipping along a log or quickly diving into hollow tree trunks. This one had scored a nice big nut in its bulging cheeks.

A Chipmunk with its mouth stretched around a sizable nut!

As we birders passed by the woods near the road, a young fawn waited in the shade for its mother’s return. Female White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) leave their young for long stretches because their adult scent can attract predators, whereas the young have little or no scent.

A fawn waits for its mother’s return in the woods at Long Lake Nature Park.

In the woods, I saw a Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) chased away from a huge tree hole by a Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus). The hole was big enough for a raccoon, so I think they must both have been interested for other reasons than nesting next spring! The birds were much too far away for a good shot with my camera in the dim light of the woods. But luckily, I saw this male Flicker hunting in short grass later in the week so you can at least see him up close.

A male Flicker with its black “mustache.”

There are a few shade-loving, late season flowers in the forest now, like the modest Large-leaved Aster (Eurybia macrophylla) and Calico Aster (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum). I’m always happy to see any native blooms on these cool gray days, especially on the forest floor where, because of deer, wildflowers are rarer than they used to be.

The Stars of the Show – the Mushrooms!

About 20 of us attended a mushroom identification workshop hosted by the Oakland Township Parks and Recreation Department. Two experienced guides from Michigan Mushroom Hunters Club, Phil Tedeschi and Jerry Watson, helped us identify an amazing variety of mushrooms one cool, windy September morning. I admit to not even knowing that mushrooms were plentiful in cool weather! We first learned that mushrooms are just the fruiting bodies of certain types of fungi. Most of the fungus grows in the soil or wood, but when conditions are right for reproduction, these fungi will send up mushrooms to produce spores! After an informative lecture,  we meandered heads-down through the lowlands of the forest as our guides identified one mushroom after another. The workshop and its handouts were packed with detailed information, but here are a few highlights I want to share:

Note: Picking plants, animals, fungi, and other natural parts of our natural areas violates park rules. Please leave them to grow, and for others to see and enjoy!

Safety first! Advice from the Mushroom Workshop Handout

A toxic Amanita mushroom that I saw weeks ago at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park.

When in doubt, throw it out! Take an expert with you until you’ve really learned about mushrooms, which can take some time. Learn the Amanita mushrooms and don’t eat any of them! When eating a wild mushroom for the first time, always take only a small bite and refrigerate the rest, so you’ll have a specimen if you get a reaction. Never eat wild mushrooms raw. Do not eat decomposing or worm-eaten mushrooms. Don’t pick mushrooms from contaminated sites.  Eat wild mushrooms in moderate quantities.

A Sampling of the Fabulous Fungi We Found

The Pigskin Poisonous Puffball (Scleroderma citrinum). Puffballs, common mushrooms, are generally edible, our guide said. But NOT if they are the ones that are black inside!

Cortinarius mushrooms (genus Cortinarius) are generally toxic. The few that aren’t toxic are hard to identify, so best to avoid them all!

The Bluing Bolete (Suillellus luridus) turns blue when the underside is scored. Unfortunately, there are many look-alikes, one of which is toxic. So it’s best not to eat them unless you have a definite ID, and then only when cooked. The raw ones can cause gastric upset.

Some Russula Mushrooms (genus Russula) are perfectly edible; others aren’t. So again, be sure to have a reliable expert guide you! Our guide told me this one was Hygrophorus russula which is edible, though it was a bit too old to eat. As you can see, it’s a gilled mushroom. The gills produce the spores (a mushroom’s “seeds”) which drop down  and are carried away on the wind.

We did find “for sure” edible mushrooms.

We found several edible mushrooms, too, but my notes weren’t clear enough, I’m afraid in most cases. My excuse is that I was taking photos, listening and trying to type in my phone at the same time! But the Cinnabar Chanterelle (Cantharellus cinnabarinus) is definitely edible.

A few more fascinating fungi that may or may not be edible!

Inky Caps (Coprinopsis atramentaria) start out bell-shaped like this and then flatten out. The guide told us they often grow on animal dung from the previous year, which kind of makes them a bit less appetizing in my book.

Old Man of the Woods (Strobilomyces strobilaceus) suits its colorful name. Sources say it’s edible, but most think the taste isn’t worth the trouble. It’s a polypore mushroom, meaning it drops its spores from the openings (pores) at the end of tubes on the underside.

The birders spotted these tiny mushrooms with black stems on our Lost Lake Nature Park hike. According to the Mushroom Identification Facebook group, they are from the genus Marasmius, family Marasmiaceae, to which Shitake mushrooms(Lentinula edodes) belong – but I have no idea if these tiny mushrooms are edible. And they sure don’t look like Shitakes, do they?

Marasmius mushrooms which may be in the same family as Shitakes but may or may not be edible.

Whether edible or not, fungi have their uses.  As the presenters pointed out, humans use them for dyes, cheeses, yogurts, wine, beer, breads (yeast!) among other uses. The “saprotrophic” mushrooms, which include the famous Portobello mushroom (Agaricus bisporus),  are the recyclers of the forest. Along with bacteria, they decompose dead organic matter (plant or animal), thereby releasing carbon, nitrogen and essential minerals back to the soil. “Mycorrhizal” fungi, of which the toxic Amanitas are a member, partner with trees and plants to create giant webbed networks that gather essential nutrients and moisture for the trees/plants and may allow them to chemically communicate as well. The fungi benefit by feeding on the sugars that the plants can create through photosynthesis. So fungi deserve our thanks, even when they don’t end up on our dinner plates!

Native Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem and Indian Grass growing at the bottom of the sledding hill.

So much to enjoy at this little park. In winter, the sledding hills fill with the laughter of big folks and little ones careening down the slopes. And in all the other seasons, the lake, the forest and the grassy hill host nesting birds, frogs, dragonflies, the occasional mink, native wildflowers – and humans, of course! Some learn to kayak or how to use a stand-up paddleboard at this park. Some practice yoga. And some come to bird watch or just take a short hike through a variety of habitats. Whether you come to meet friends, a squeaking frog or strange-looking mushroom, Lost Lake Nature Park will welcome you and send you home smiling. I can almost guarantee it.

For information on the nature programming at Lost Lake Nature done in partnership with Dinosaur Hill Nature Preserve, click here, or click here for other fall nature programs at Lost Lake and all our parks.

Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park: Busy, Sunlit Meadows and Moist, Mysterious Shade

The west branch of Stony Creek runs through a steep ravine visible. You can see the creek from the trail that runs along a ridge high above the creek.

If you’d like a short, quiet walk all alone (I do occasionally), consider wandering for an hour or so in Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park. This 60 acre park is a bit  farther off the beaten path than our other township parks; I seldom see another hiker when I’m there. For now, it’s only accessible from a single parking space at the end of Knob Creek Trail which is off of East Buell Road. It’s an in-and-out trail (no loop) that begins in sloping, glacial meadows. Follow the trail into an oak forest overlooking a deep ravine in which Stony Creek burbles and flows around fallen trees and rocks far below. The Parks Commission has been awarded a matching grant from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund to join this little park to 208 spectacular acres along Snell Road. But for now, it’s a quiet little getaway.

Exiting a small woods at the start, the trail winds up through sunny meadows to the dark oak forest.

Sunny Meadows:  Illusive Birds and a Big, Beautiful Butterfly!

The meadows along the first part of the trail are alive with morning birdsong – but seeing the birds is a bit tricky, especially in July. Many adults are hidden high in leafy branches and the recently fledged young huddle deep in the lower greenery, staying out of sight as they wait to be fed. My first sighting was a small flock of tiny brown birds moving quickly back and forth between a leafy bush and a small, dense tree. Suddenly I became aware that my camera and I were being scolded by an annoyed adult House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) perched behind me. (For a perfect replication of its chatter, listen to the second “Calls Northern” recording at this Cornell Lab link.)

An adult wren scolds its young into hiding and scolds me as well!

No doubt its chatter also served as a warning to the fledglings to hide. But eventually a curious fledgling popped into the open and had a look around. It looked like a plush toy with tiny wings! (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

Far out in the meadow in a tall, bare tree against a gray sky, the Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) threw back his head and sang. He abbreviated his spring song from “Drink your Teeeeeea” to simply “Your Teeeeea.” Just a reminder to other towhees, I imagine, that he was on his territory.

An Eastern Towhee belts out his song high in a bare tree above the meadow.

Wherever Bee-balm (Monarda fistulosa) and Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) grace a meadow, it seems the butterflies gather to sip their nectar.

In the same meadow in which it appeared last year, the Giant Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio cresphontes) floated above the flowers. The largest butterfly species in Canada or the United States (4-6 inch wingspread!), the Giant Swallowtail can beat its wings once and sail on gracefully for a long distance. However, it flutters constantly as it feeds, rather than landing to sip at blossoms. These swallowtails migrate like Monarch butterflies do – going south each winter. The females are larger than the males, so the one below must be a female. Perhaps her wings against the Queen Anne’s Lace give you a sense of how large – and how striking – she is!   

Male and female Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus) are choosing both mates and tasty flowers as they dip and rise among the Bee-balm at Stony Creek.  The male has a slight bulge in one vein of each hindwing.  The female doesn’t.

A female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) soared high overhead, landing in a Wild Black Cherry tree  (Prunus serotina), a host plant on which her caterpillars can feed. She may have landed to lay her eggs on a leaf or she could be displaying her beauty and availability against the green leaves  for any interested mate. Tiger Swallowtails in our area mate once or twice each summer and their pupae overwinter in their chrysalises until next spring.

A female Tiger Swallowtail lands on a Wild Black Cherry tree that could act as a host plant for her caterpillars.

Far below, deep in the grass, a Cabbage Butterfly (Pieris rapae) landed on a grass stem. For the first time, I noticed the delicate architecture of the underside of its wings – and its long elegant antennae. Males have only a single spot on the fore and hind wing, so I think this is a male.

A Cabbage butterfly displays the intricate architecture on the ventral (lower) side of its forewing.

A curious predator, a female Common Whitetail Dragonfly (Plathemis lydia), watched me from a grass stem with great interest. Humans, after all, are so good at stirring up prey – easy pickings!  Love that face!

A female Common Whitetail dragonfly looks eagerly for prey stirred up by my passage.

The Moist Woods:  A Fungus Fatale, a Pretty but Perilous Plant and A Mysterious Song in the Trees

Water Hemlock where the forest ends at the bottom of Stony Creek Ravine

Entering the cooler shade of the oak forest at Stony Creek Ravine, you begin to feel the moisture rising from the creek as it tumbles along far below. On my first park visit, it had rained the previous day so the ground seemed to exhale moisture as well. A perfect environment for mushrooms – and some very interesting ones! [Caution:  Please Never Eat a Wild Mushroom Unless a Trained Person Identifies It Definitively for You.  I Am Not a Trained Person.}

I first came across some fungi fatale – Amanita mushrooms (family Amanitaceae). Though squirrels nibble on them, they are highly toxic to humans. They are sometimes (not always!) recognizable by little warts on their surface and a collar that forms on the stem. Here are two just beginning to emerge from the soil on the path and a lovely mature white one, slipping out of a crack in the earth.

A maturing toxic Amanita mushroom

Small red mushrooms appeared along the woodland trail as well. Joshua Aaron on the  “Mushroom Identification” Facebook page identified these as members of a large worldwide genus of red mushrooms called Russula. Some are toxic, some not, so again caution is required.  Clearly some creatures gave these a nibble and decided to leave the rest.

Both Amanita and Russula mushrooms are fruiting bodies of those fabulous mycorrhizal fungi which help the trees reach and process nutrients from the soil while the tree feeds them its sugars created by photosynthesis. Helping a healthy forest along is another good reason to let them stay where they are and reproduce!

It turns out that a nearby plant, Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora),  which appears to be a mushroom, isn’t one. It’s more unusual –  a parasitic plant. Indian Pipes have no chlorophyll to use in photosynthesis like green plants do. Instead they tap into fungi, like Russula mushrooms, beneath the soil, feeding on the same sugars that the trees share with the fungi. It’s not too different from the way we tap maples for their sweet sap, is it?

Indian Pipe is a parasitic plant that feeds off fungi beneath the soil.

Nearby grew what folks at the Facebook page identified as Chanterelle mushrooms (genus Chantarellus), which, assuming that’s correct, would make them edible. I left them to disperse their spores undisturbed in the interests of both safety and respecting the natural state of our parks. One had fallen over so I got a good look at its fake gills, which are one of the signs of Chanterelles.

A Chanterelle mushroom with its fake gills on the stalk.

A couple of Bolete mushrooms had emerged among the oak leaves along the trail. These mushrooms (family Boletaceae) have pores below their caps instead of gills. They also belong to  a big mushroom group that includes both inedible and edible ones. Porcini mushrooms, for example, are boletes.

A bolete mushroom with pores beneath its cap rather than gills.

Walking along the ridge above the creek, I could hear a lone bird singing in the canopy of the oak forest – but it made no appearance.  I recorded its incessantly repeated song which reminded Ben and I of the rising and falling song of the Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus) – but we’re not sure. Anyone able to give us a more confident identification? (Turn up your volume; it sings about three times.) [Second Edit:  Ruth Glass, local birder extraordinaire, now says definitively that this is the song of a Scarlet Tanager.  So I’ve again replaced the photo to show you a Scarlet Tanager. Thank you once again Ruth Glass!]

Although its song accompanied me for over an hour, the bird never emerged from the leafy treetops. So here’s what I missed – a photo of a Scarlet Tanager that I took at Bear Creek.

The Scarlet Tanager that I evidently heard but didn’t see. This is a photo from Bear Creek in previous years.

A plaintive song haunted the shady forest one morning – the questioning call of the Eastern Wood-Pewee. I could see this small bird in the high branches of a distant tree, but as soon as I moved closer, it moved farther off. So here’s a photo I took of one at Bear Creek Nature Park a couple years ago.

The Eastern Wood-Pewee sounds like it’s asking a question: “Pee-weeeeee?”

What seemed to be a juvenile Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolorhung from a vertically suspended branch in the forest. Its forehead patch (between the eyes)  was gray rather than black (hard to see in the photo) and its buff sides were less pronounced – field marks of a fledgling according to Stokes’ Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.2). With its crest a bit ruffled, it looked as though it was not quite sure what to do next.

A young Tufted Titmouse considers its next move at the edge of the woods.

On one warm morning, I noticed two Mourning Cloak Butterflies (Nymphalis antiopa) dancing through the green dimness of the woods. Last fall, Morning Cloaks went into hibernation within hollow logs or under loose bark. There they freeze nearly solid during the winter, their cells protected by self-produced anti-freeze. Very early in the spring, often before the snow melts, they emerge, looking pretty ragged. They mate and reproduce so that by mid-summer, their young emerge. I’m guessing that’s why the ones I saw at Stony Creek Ravine appeared to have just wriggled out of their chrysalises. They were near perfect specimens. One landed, wings open, on a fallen log.

A fresh-from-the-chrysalis Mourning Cloak butterfly on a fallen log.

The other folded its wings, showing the underside  which closely resembles the tree bark under which they hide in the winter, camouflaging them with protective coloration. Quite a difference from the dorsal (upper) side of those wings, eh?

The underside of the wings of the Mourning Cloak provide great camouflage against tree bark.

Native grasses and plants thrive in the light, drier shade along the edge of the forest. I’m particularly fond of the arrow-like spikelets of Bottlebrush Grass (Elymus hystrix). Carrying their seeds inside, the spikelets eventually shoot along on the wind and then pierce the ground, giving the seeds a chance to spread and then be neatly planted.

Bottlebrush Grass has spikelets neatly arranged along its stem, giving the impression of a bottle brush.

Native Heal-all (Prunella vulgaris) is everywhere in shady areas. Some still believe it has medicinal value. I  like it for two reasons – the way its purple flowers protrude from its barrel-shaped calyx and the fact that when a raindrop hits the plant, the calyx flexes and flings out the seed.  I hope to see that someday!

Each little flower of Heal-all makes four tiny seeds that are flung away from the plant when hit by a raindrop.

Where the forest ends and the wetlands begin at the bottom of the ravine, a flower fatale flourishes – Water Hemlock (g. Circuta). Every part of this plant is toxic to humans and other mammals (but as I’ve said before, who would eat it?) – so avoid the fate of Socrates and just admire its big, umbrella-shaped blossoms nodding in the breeze. Many insects, however, feed on Water Hemlock, and it hosts the caterpillars of Black Swallowtail butterflies!

Water Hemlock grows in the ravine with big umbrella-shaped blossoms. While toxic to mammals, this plants helps us enjoy more Black Swallowtail butterflies!

An iridescent cloud of male and female Ebony Jewelwing Damselflies (Calopteryx maculata) darted in and out of the shadows near the creek. These predators of many species are also the prey of many. So thank goodness these beautiful creatures lay lots of eggs!

Nearby in patches of sunlight grew golden stands of a lovely wetland flower called Fringed Loosestrife (Lysimachia ciliata). This native wildflower modestly bows its blossoms toward the wet soil waiting for a Melittid bee to come along. These native bees specialize on this flower, feeding its oils and pollens to its larvae. Fringed Loosestrife can also spread by rhizomes beneath the soil.

Fringed Loosestrife loves “wet feet” and partial shade. It blooms in sunnier patches near the edge of Stony Creek.

If you turn up your volume, perhaps you can hear the babble of Stony Creek as it finds it way over stones in the ravine. Such a soothing sound. But you don’t need to traverse the steep sides of the ravine and get wet feet. You can simply rest on the high ridge where the trail ends and watch the water sparkle as the creek rounds a graceful curve right below you. Combined with the birdsong in the treetops, the whispering of summer leaves, and the flutter of butterfly wings, you should walk back out of this little park feeling a bit more mellow than when you walked in.

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: 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, A Guide to Bird Behavior Vols.1-3 by Donald W and Lillian Q.Stokes, and others as cited in the text.

Photos of the Week: Hungry Fledglings and Prairies Bursting with Color

Mid-summer on the Eastern Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park

The north and east prairies at Charles Ilsley Park get more glorious each summer as restoration brings the return of colorful wildflowers blooming again in their native soil. Great sweeps of Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) stare  up into the blue sky surrounded by the tousled, lavender blossoms of Bee-balm (Monarda fistulosa) and flat, compact cushions of white Yarrow (Achillea millefolium).

Sweeps of Black-eyed Susans intermingle with Bee Balm and Yarrow on the Eastern Prairie

 Tall Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) sway in even the slightest breeze.

Yellow Coneflowers tower over the carpet of color on the Eastern Prairie at Ilsley.

The peaceful  beauty of these undulating prairies on a summer afternoon is mesmerizing. The nodding dance of flowers and the flutter of butterflies among them soothe the spirit much like the sight and sound of a peaceful ocean –  but with such a variety of color and movement! Wonderful!

Last Sunday along the entrance trail, young Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) perched high on a dead branch, waiting to be fed. They begged in the usual fledgling fashion, fluttering their small wings rapidly and calling. Finally, a parent arrived (lower left in the photo below), settled and seemed to be considering which to feed first.

Then the adult swooped out across the meadow, gathering insects in its open beak. It returned and managed a short mid-air pause, beating its wings vigorously as it speedily popped food into one of the open beaks.

Then off went mom or dad again to scoop up more bugs! Such a challenging job to feed all four of those hungry youngsters! (One is behind the lowest branch.)

In the center of the park, where restoration planting happened just weeks ago, the melt ponds are drying up, leaving a strange, foamy surface. Water is so crucial for wildlife that it’s always a reliable spot to find something interesting.

A slim bird that I believe was a young Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus), with its naturally worried look, poked along the edge of the pond.  The Stokes’ Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol 2) describes juvenile Killdeer as “very similar to adults except that their upper feathers are margined with lighter edges, their dark neck bands are narrower and often gray or brown instead of black.” I think this one fits that description. Do you agree? Once the young are ready to be on their own, their parents breed again. But the male keeps an eye on the youngsters from the first brood from a distance, while the female incubates the new eggs.

A young Killdeer was not quite as adept at finding food yet. Its parent may feed it as evening comes on.

Two fledgling Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis), with just a touch of blue on their wings,  watched the killdeer from a small, bare tree nearby. No foraging for them right then. Perhaps they were hoping a parent would come to stuff their beaks like the swallows, but at the moment, no such luck. Like the Killdeer adults, their busy parents may also be encouraging their first brood to feed on their own while the adults start a second. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

Some adult birds hung out near the pond as well. A Green Heron (Butorides virescens) was so intent on feeding that it flew toward us to find some open water.

This heron was a skilled fisher! It found a bounty of food in the drying pond. Watch below as it stalks and then catches what appears to be a crayfish nymph. (Use the pause button if you need more time for captions.)

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The fiercely territorial Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) looked remarkably unruffled by the other species exploring the resources of the pond below. And nearby in a tree at the edge of the center field, an adult Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) looked as though it must have been preening vigorously since its feather were very ruffled! Drat those feather mites!

Summer turned into an unusually busy time for me this year. So I relish escaping into our parks, where I can watch young birds learn the ropes of feeding, or just quietly enjoy the way Yellow Coneflowers sway above a multi-colored prairie. I recommend it to you as a peaceful alternative to a day at the beach.