Stony Creek Ravine: Insects! The Good, the Not-all-Bad, and the Really Ugly

Stony Creek running fast and furious through the ravine after the many rain storms.

I’m sure you must have noticed. Insects are having a fabulous summer. Ticks are poised at the edge of tall grass, their back feet planted, their front ones waving about, trying to hitch a ride on anything that passes. Mosquitoes are reproducing like mad in any of the available standing water left by the repeated deluges that we’re experiencing. It’s not a pretty picture for us humans! But it can be, if I look more closely.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

This last few weeks I’ve explored the small, older section of Stony Creek Raving Nature Park, the western trail from Knob Creek Drive on West Gunn that leads to the Ravine itself. Armed with Deet, I wanted to see if I could find some beautiful, or at least interesting insects that would give me a break from the not-so-lovable ones! So here’s what I found, for better and for worse…

The Trail Begins in Sunny Meadows Filled with Wildflowers

The Meadow is lavender with Bee Balm blossoms and complemented by dashes of orange from Butterfly Milkweed.

Mottled sunlight slips over your shoulders when you first enter this area of the park. On one of my many visits between the downpours, I saw a flash of orange among the shadows which turned out to be the Gray Comma (Polygonia progne). It looks very much like the autumn coloring of the Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma); since it’s summer, it had to be the Gray Comma. These butterflies emerge from within logs or from under tree bark in April and mate. This Gray Comma would be the offspring of those that overwinter. It will produce a generation which will fly in August or September and hibernate to start the cycle again.

The Meadow Trail: Butterflies, Dragonflies and Rolling Meadows of Wildflowers

Foraging Butterflies

Once out in the open meadows, I paused to appreciate the frenetic flight of the Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele). It dashed across the field, landing for a few seconds, then fluttering off again just above the flowers. Their caterpillars have a fondness for Common Blue Violets (Viola sororia), so they will occasionally appear on lawns. In our parks, they prefer native Wild Bergamot/Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa), thistles and milkweed, according to the Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels.

The Great Spangled Fritillary gets its name from the shine of the large silver spots on its hind wings. Here it’s sipping from Butterfly Milkweed.

Aren’t you always happy to see Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus)? The one my photographer friend Paul and I saw in the meadow arrived from somewhere between Mexico and Michigan, wherever its forebears stopped to lay eggs. With luck, this one will help set in motion the “super generation” of Monarchs; they make the whole 3,000 mile journey to Mexico where they overwinter. For lots more details on Monarchs, check out the blog that features them.

Paul and I hoped this Monarch would lay eggs for us on this Butterfly Milkweed. No luck that day. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle.

Territorial Dragonflies

Dragonflies patrol over the meadows as well, zinging here and there in an effort to establish territory and find a mate. The striking male Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) with a green face zipped by me, but it was the juvenile Dasher who settled on a stick. It has the coloring of a female, but a much slimmer body than an adult. The female Dasher lays her eggs by flying over still water and repeatedly dipping her ovipositor into the surface to release her eggs.

Another denizen of the fields, the Halloween Pennant dragonfly (Celithemis eponina) foraged with a bouncy flight. These small dragonflies stay aloft more easily on windy days than other dragonflies and can even fly in light rain, shaking the water off their wings in flight. This one insisted on looking straight at me until it zoomed away. Luckily you can still see its vivid coloring and the huge compound eyes on either side of its head (with nearly 30,000 lenses). Two of its three simple eyes shine above; they’re believed to improve its navigation in changing light and also may help stabilize them as they speedily change course above the greenery.

The brown wing patches on the Halloween Pennant’s wings are thought by some to shade its body on hot days.

Two other dragonflies kept me company on the meadow. A juvenile male Common Whitetail (Plathemis lydia) followed me along the path, evidently hoping I’d stir up some insects that it could snatch from the air. And several Widow Skimmers (Libellula luctuosa) bobbed among the grasses on every trip to the park. The clear tips of their seem to disappear at a distance, but the dark patches near the abdomen are visible, so I sometimes mistake them for a large black fly until I get closer.

Pollinating and Nectaring Bees

Of course, bees forage busily along the path as well. Dr. Gary Parsons, from the Entomology Department at Michigan State University, identified this little native bee nuzzling a Rough-Fruited Cinquefoil blossom (Potentilla recta) as a female Leafcutter Bee (genus Megachile.) The clue he gave me is that a leafcutter has stiff hairs (scopa) covering the underside of its abdomen and that’s where it carries its pollen. In the photo on the right, the one flying away with its bright yellow underside was evidently a dead giveaway.

Paul snapped a fine shot of one of our native Bumblebees (genus Bombus), oblivious of a Bull Thistle’s (Cirsium vulgare) thorns below as it gathers nectar from the blossom.

A native bumblebee feeding on nectar from a Bull Thistle blossom. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle

Colorful Long-legged Flies

Along with the butterflies, dragonflies and an occasional damselfly (more about them later), an assortment of metallic flies dotted the leaves along the trail, but not your plain old black house flies! Dr. Gary Parsons tells me that they are from the family Dolichopodidae, also known as Long-legged flies. These common tiny insects perch in bright sunlight waiting for smaller, unsuspecting insects to cruise by. I like their diminutive size, the way they stand so elegantly on those long legs – and they come in an assortment of colors as you’ll see below!

The Plants that Feed and Shelter Them All

Now of course, what sustains all these creatures are the native plants that serve as host plants for their offspring, i.e., larvae/caterpillars. Here a Common Pug caterpillar (Eupithecia miserulata) is foraging on the petals of a Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta). Dr. Parsons reminded me that petals are actually just modified leaves so caterpillars can feed on them, but since they disappear quickly, leaves are the staple of a caterpillar’s diet.

A Common Pug caterpillar foraging on a Black-eyed Susan blossom

The beauty of native plants is that they can be both decorative and productive, providing lots of sustenance for the insects that are an essential ingredient of the entire food web. So here’s is just a sampling of the myriad of native wildflowers and grasses along the meadow trail.

The Forest Trail Above the Ravine: Damselflies, Abundant Moths and One Useful but Really Ugly Fly

The dappled forest above Stony Creek Ravine

Under the Forest Canopy, Beauties and the Beast

The forest at Stony Creek Ravine Park is a different world when it comes to insects. At the edge, where the forest meets the sunshine, butterflies seem to dominate. Both of the ones I saw imitate the dappled light of the forest with brown wings marked with white spots in lovely patterns. The Little Wood Satyr (Megisto cymela) is the smaller of the two. Notice how the design on the underside of the wings is a bit more complex. Some sources suggest that the eyespots distract predators from attacking vital body parts. Butterflies can survive with ragged wing edges but an attack on the head is instantly fatal. I thought perhaps the larger spots on these forest edge species also provide more camouflage when the butterfly lands in dappled light. No one seems to be sure exactly how their patterns function.

The larger Northern Pearly-eye (Enodia anthedon) spends more time in the woods itself, especially near moist areas. It feeds on tree sap, rotting fruit, fungi and even dung – not a picky eater, evidently, eh? You’ll often see its head slanted downward on a tree trunk. Quite the set of spectacles on those buggy eyes and the orange and black antennae are very fancy!

The Northern Pearly-eye in its characteristic upside down position

Deeper in the shade of the forest, though, tiny moths flourish. The oaks in our forests and lawns act as host plants for the largest variety of insect caterpillars of any tree in North America, according to Dr. Doug Tallamy, a professor of entomology and author of The Nature of Oaks. Some moth larvae pupate on the tree, some burrow into the soil below but many just pupate within the leaf litter and then emerge in warm weather. So as I walked down through the woods at Stony Creek Ravine, huge clouds of tiny, triangular, leaf litter moths floated up at my feet. Almost every one immediately scuttled back under the leaves. But a gray one, that I believe is a Speckled Renia moth (Renia adspergillus), paused on a patch of bright green moss. So exciting for me see one as more than a flutter at my feet!

This Speckled Renia moth landed briefly on the edge of bright green moss before scooting back under the leaf litter!

Actually that short pause may not have been a good move for the Speckled Renia. Nearby, I saw the “not-so-bad” but “very ugly” insect of the blog title. Robber Flies (family Asilidae) are aggressive predators, and like the “bad guys” for whom they are named, they generally ambush other insects, including their own kind, from a hiding place. I saw two different insects meet their demise in the grip of a Robber Fly.

Robber flies don’t bother humans unless you’re handling one; I’d avoid that unless you’re doing research. And they are simply providing the service predators provide: keeping the numbers of their prey at a balanced level within their habitat. If you see one in your garden, ignore it; it will probably eliminate many pests for you. At a wetland, I met one up close and personal and really, that is one ugly bug!

The bristles on the head of the Robber Fly protect its face when its wrestling with its larger, struggling prey like bees, grasshoppers or dragonflies!

Deeper in the forest, I watched a black and white blur move toward a log. As I stepped forward, it suddenly transformed into just a fleck of something lying on a log. I thought perhaps my eyes had deceived me and it was just a bit of falling detritus. But I decided to ask Dr. Parsons if I’d really seen a living, moving creature. On the left below is the pointy fleck I saw, on the right the closeup I sent to Dr. Parsons.

Dr. Parsons let me know I wasn’t crazy. The tiny moth’s larvae is part of a large insect family, the Tortricidae, commonly known as Leaf Rollers. The caterpillars in this family eat and pupate in a carefully rolled leaf, hence the name. Dr. Parsons surmises that the adult moth above is most likely a Banded Olethreutes (Olethreutes fasciatana). Many members of this family specialize in fruit trees and their caterpillars are considered pests. This one’s offspring feeds on Wild Black Cherry (Prunus serotina), but they’re not considered particularly harmful. Some experts think this camouflage is an attempt to simulate an unpalatable bird dropping. If I hadn’t seen this tiny moth moving, I’d never have noticed it, so I guess the trick works!

Dancing Damselflies Seek the Spotlight in the Creek

But enough of Robber flies and bird droppings! Let’s move on down to the West Branch of Stony Creek itself to enjoy instead the mating ceremonies of elegant Damselflies!

Stony Creek in late June flowing slowly around rocks and under sticks in late June.

I paused near a wooded wetland to witness what appeared to be a pair of damselflies courting. The male Ebony Jewelwing (Calopteryx maculata) landed first and fluttered about from twig to twig, keeping his iridescent colors flashing in the sun. The elegant brown female appeared and began what looked very much like flirting, flying close to him, then landing farther away with her abdomen cocked at an angle. Perhaps she was ready to mate, but the male hesitated. According to Robert DuBois, author of Damselflies of Minnesota, Wisconsin & Michigan, he may have had good reason; females can mate 4 or 5 times each day, rarely with the same male! Anyway, I gave them some privacy and headed toward the creek to see how other males were faring.

In late June, Stony Creek meandered its way around the rocks and sticks protruding from the slowly moving water. A group of Ebony Jewelwing males held a competition there for the sunniest spot on a prominent stick in the creek while waiting for females to show up. One male posed on the stick and began to display. Displays of his impressive wings can be intended to ward off competitors and may also interest females in the surrounding greenery. Periodically, he launched gracefully off his stick and zipped off to confront other males trying to oust him from the spotlight. A series of a scrambles with a group of competitors ensued for about 10 minutes. The University of Wisconsin Field Station’s “Bug Lady,” says that male Jewelwings compete by bumping into each other until one flies off. That’s certainly what occurred at Stony Creek Ravine as the originally male settled back on his stick after each skirmish.

If the male is successful, he’ll grab onto the female’s abdomen with his pincers and the two of them, locked together, will fly to a nearby perch. If she is ready to participate, she bends her abdomen upward and the partners form a heart-shaped “mating wheel.” Benoit Renaud, a generous photographer at iNaturalist.org got a wonderful photo of two doing just that! Thank you, Benoit!

Ebony Jewelwing damselflies in a heart-shaped mating wheel. Photo by Benoit Renaud (CC BY)

After mating, the male releases her and together they fly off to find rushes, sedges, moss or floating plant material. The female then bends her abdomen downward, slits a hole in the plant with her sharp ovipositor and lays her eggs. The male stands guard to protect her from males who might try to abscond with her and remove his sperm before she lays the eggs. Evidently, despite that heart-shaped wheel, damselfly mating is not a particularly romantic process. But it’s kept these graceful insects on the wing for thousands of years, so we won’t argue with it, right?

A week or so after I took my damselfly photos, the July deluge poured down on us. The once placid creek rushed through the ravine, flowing over the rocks and sticks in the damselflies’ courting arena. According to the “Bug Lady,” the Ebony Jewelwings like plants in a “moderate current” in which to lay their eggs. So I’m assuming there was a bit of a hiatus in their mating ceremonies this year!

After a series of heavy rains, Stony Creek rushed over rocks and sticks in a sparkling flood.

And Then The Fireflies Arrived…

A firefly beetle in India. Photo by Ashwin Viswanathan (CC BY) at inaturalist.org

I learned this week that fireflies sparkle at twilight in moderate or tropical zones all over the world. I love knowing that. Imagine! As the earth spins away from the sun each day, these tiny Firefly beetles (family Lampyridae) dance across landscapes, delighting humans around the globe!

The males of our local beetle, the Common Eastern Firefly (Photinus pyralis) dance in a “J” formation, flashing their signal as they swing upward. A chemical reaction in the cells at the tips of their abdomens creates the bioluminescence that delights us. And with luck, a female in the area sends a coded signal back in just 1-2 seconds and they find each other.

The incredible variety of insects around (and often in) our home serves many purposes. The possum near our shed eats all the ticks it can find each summer. Bats, birds, and even the ugly Robber Flies, gobble up mosquitos by the millions. Bees pollinate our garden, wildflowers and nearby farmers’ crops. The beating wings of thousands of flying insects lure migrators back to our yard each spring. Here are a few of the most interesting ones we saw just this week.

Recognizing all the services that insects provide, I avoid wide-spectrum “bug killers” and instead try to utilize long sleeves, high socks and strategically applied Deet or Permethrin to repel them when outside. Despite all of that, like you, I swat flies and mosquitoes, flick insects off exposed skin and get snarky when insects slips inside the house.

But then at our darkened windows on these steamy, rain-soaked evenings, I pause to enjoy the tiny fireworks of a glowing beetle dancing in the tall grass at the edge of the field. And I’m lifted out of my grousing about bugs and rainy weather. Night after sticky night, the flash of the firefly reminds me that some insects are magical and that all of them play a crucial role in keeping life humming on this gorgeous little planet.

Late Winter Sparkle and Early Spring Music: Charles Ilsley and Cranberry Lake Parks

Do you mind if I briefly take you back to February? I know we’re all getting itchy to  step into spring. But here in southeast Michigan, the line between the two seasons blurs a bit in late February and March.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

So I want to remember that the tail end of winter has it charms – and then spend some time relishing the early signs of spring before the Equinox.

 

 

FEBRUARY:  Sparkling with Ice, Patterned with Prints and Revealing the Shapes of Slopes and Seedheads!

Winter sparkling down the Hickory Lane at Cranberry Lake Park in February

Accompanied by our familiar year ’round birds and a few winter visitors, bundled against bitter days, I spent most of February in two parks – Cranberry Lake Park and Charles Ilsley Park. I puzzled over prints in the snow, admired ice patterns and worked at  re-identifying last year’s wildflowers by their winter architecture.

Wild Neighbors Make Brief Appearances on a Winter Day

It’s always a great comfort to me on a winter walk, when my numb fingers resist taking photos, that birds and animals keep me company. At Charles Ilsley Park, an American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) scrambled onto a branch near me with its mouth stretched around a large nut, perhaps a walnut that had lost its outer covering since dropping last fall. The squirrel was so intent on conquering its prize nut that I got a quick shot before it jumped out of sight.

An American Red Squirrel with a nut almost too big for its jaws!

On a Cranberry Lake Park walk in February, through the thicket of tree branches, the birding group caught sight of a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) on a perch near the lake, scanning for prey. It had plumped up against the cold and looked just a bit disgruntled. Perhaps that morning had brought slim pickings.

A cold, perhaps hungry Red-tailed Hawk didn’t look too happy on a cold morning near Cranberry Lake.

American Tree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea) visit us just for the winter and are everywhere now. With their gray breasts centered with a black spot and a nice chesnut cap and eyeline, they’re by far the most obvious sparrow in the parks in winter – and they make a friendly twitter when they’re flocking. On my coldest day at Cranberry, I saw one huddled in the dry stems of a field as an icy wind ruffled its feathers. It would venture out periodically to grab a few seeds and then hunker down again in the grass. But on a sunnier day, one perched quite calmly on a dry stem of non-native Common Mullein. At Ilsley, several whooshed up from the fields in small flocks and dispersed as I passed. [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

Across Ilsley’s central prairie, high up on a tall snag, I spotted a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus). If you click on the left photo, you’ll see its head peeking above a short branch in the crotch of the dead tree. I began to take a series of slow, cautious steps in its direction, but it spotted my camera raised and sailed off into the distance, the large white patches under each wing flashing in the sunlight. To the right you can see those white under wings in a fine photo by dpdawes at inaturalist.org, who got a lot closer to her/his bird than I did to mine!

Near Ilsley’s north prairie, a lengthy repetition of the “Kwirrrr” call alerted me to my constant winter companion, the Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus). Hitching along a distant tree trunk searching out insect eggs or larvae, this male multi-tasked, firmly establishing his territory with calls while continuing to forage. I clicked the shutter in a hurry when he paused to check for any threats or other males in the area.

A foraging Red-bellied Woodpecker stops foraging long enough to be sure another male isn’t in his territory!

At Ilsley, I followed a flock of American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) as they surged from one treetop to the next. Eventually one ventured close to me, as if checking my intentions. From what I learned in the Cornell crow class, this is likely an older member of a crow family since it has a few white feathers.

The white feathers on this crow make me think it could be an old one. Crows can live as long as 19 years.

And then there are creatures who just have a faulty sense of timing. Somehow, my husband and I spotted this tiny fly perched on the edge of a boot print at Charles Isley Park. Dr. Gary Parsons from Michigan State identified it for me as a Snail-eating Fly  (family Sciomyzidae, possible  genus Dictya), so named because the larval young of this fly have a preference for snails. He guessed that it probably “woke from it winter nap” prematurely, fooled by  a warm, melting winter day. I like its intricately patterned wings and legs!

A tiny Snail-eating Fly poised at the edge of a boot print at Charles Ilsley Park.  It most likely mistook a warmish winter afternoon for a spring day .

Some Wild Neighbors Leave Only Hints of their Presence

Part of the fun in a winter walk is trying to figure out a creature’s presence only from the prints they leave behind. Walking down the Hickory Lane, I saw the flash of an Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) as it dashed across the trail and into a tree hole so slim it seemed impossible that the squirrel could  fit inside! But it left its tracks behind as it approached the tree and leapt toward the trunk.

A large mammal left clues to its activity down near Cranberry Lake. I approached the lake on an icy day. I wanted to see  if the beaver I’d seen evidence of last year had come out of its den again to find some extra tree bark to chew on this winter. As I approached, bright scarlet fruits caught my attention, vivid against the silver of a frosty morning. Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Stewardship Manager, later identified them as the rose hips of a Swamp Rose (Rosa palustris). Color is such eye candy in the winter months!  And just beyond, as I prowled the frozen ground near the lake, was the evidence I sought – a tree stump recently gnawed to a point by what could only be a North American Beaver (Castor canadensis).

I cautiously stepped out onto the ice, but it held. Off in the distance, the snow lay like white satin on the lake’s surface. Around a bend in the shore, the beaver’s den loomed a bit larger this year and yes! I could see the raw end of a recently cut log protruding from its den. How the beaver stuck it in there mystifies me but the bark should make a cozy meal for the beaver/s inside on a cold day. A few other recently added sticks protruded from either side.

Pondering Snow Prints

Tracks of all kinds filigree the landscape on a winter morning. The birding group noticed the small canine tracks of what we guessed was some sort of Fox probably a Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) since it was in an open area rather than a woods. A neat line of single prints usually means a wild canine and these were rather small as they curved around the turkey breeder building at Cranberry Lake Park. The coyote’s tracks at Charles Ilsley Park have the same features but are considerably larger. Coyotes are mating now so you’ll see more of their twisty, fur-filled scat along the trails as they mark the boundaries of their territory. (I’ll spare you a scat photo….)

Lots of smaller creatures are scurrying about on the snow during the night. An indecisive White-footed Mouse (Peromyscus leucopus) left its “sewing machine” tracks in the snow as it apparently darted out into a trail twice, retreated each time and then finished dashing across to dive into a tiny hole on the far side. I’m wondering if the strange track in the center photo is that of a Meadow Vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus) that nosed about just under the surface of the snow.  I’m guessing that from the fact that Voles stay closer to the surface when they burrow in the grass, leaving larger furrows than the smaller mice. But if anyone has a better idea, I’m open to it. And by the size, I’m guessing that tidy little squirrel print on the right is probably that of a pausing American Red Squirrel.

And can anyone guess what made this pattern of polka-dots all over the snow around Cranberry Lake Park one February morning? My first guess was snow melt dripping from the limbs, but I’ve seen a lot of thawing snow and I’ve never seen this tapioca design before. Maybe air bubbles being driven up from below? Anyone have a theory on this one?

What could have made these polka-dots in the snow cover? I’m mystified.

Admiring the Stark Architecture of Last Year’s Wildflowers

One of my goals is to be as familiar  with wildflowers in winter as I’m becoming in summer. I love the linear designs they make against the sere backdrop of a winter field. Here are a few examples paired with their summer finery.

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MARCH:  The Sweet Song of Running Water,Migrators Appear, Buds Swell –  but Can It Last?

Is it spring yet, or the last hurrahs of winter? It was hard to tell on an early spring  day when snow still lay beneath the russet tapestry of dry plants on Charles Ilsley Park’s west prairie. But a brisk wind chased the cloud shadows across the field and it sure felt like spring. (Turn up your volume to hear the wind and the Blue Jay calling.)

First Bursts of Irrepressible Spring Song!

A good pre-spring sign is that male birds have already begun trilling their familiar mating songs. A male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) flew down near me and threw back his head to let forth his song. As usual, he turned 180 degrees to sing in both directions, in an effort, no doubt, to broadcast his presence as widely as possible!

A Northern Cardinal singing his spring song at Charles Ilsley Park

We’re all pretty familiar with the Black-Capped Chickadee’s call (Poecile atricapillus). After all, “Chickadee-dee-dee” is how it got its name! But oddly, in spring they sing a very simple, two note song to establish territory or attract a mate. I couldn’t get a good shot of the lothario that I watched hopping manically from limb to limb at Ilsley, so the song recording below is his, but the photo is from an early spring in 2016.

A Chickadee in Red-Twig Osier.

The Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) have been around off and on all winter. But just lately, they’ve started checking out the bluebird boxes in our parks. Here’s a female evaluating the real estate at Charles Ilsley Park.

A female Eastern Bluebird checking out a nest box at Charles Ilsley Park.

Not all spring sounds, though, are mating calls. Our township stewardship manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, heard the exquisitely high, piercing call of two Golden-crowned Kinglets (Regulus satrapa) at Cranberry Lake Park during the bird walk last week. Cornell tells us that “This is one of the first bird songs that people stop being able to hear as they age.” Ahem…that’s me, I’m afraid. I did see them quickly through my binoculars but never got a camera on them. Here’s a photo of one of these pretty little migrators taken by cedimaria, a photographer at iNaturalist.org. Sometimes these Kinglets appear during the winter in our area, but it’s more likely that the one we heard and saw was on its way north to breed at the tip of the Mitten, or in Canada.

A Golden-crowned Kinglet by photographer cedimaria (CC BY-NC)

Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) flew far over head at Ilsley, braying their prehistoric call and by the first week in March, a male Red-winged Blackbird burst forth with his buzzing trill on a thistle stalk. The females will arrive in a few weeks.

The Trickle of the Thaw and Buds!

At Ilsley, water seemed to be finding it way everywhere as the ice melted in various wetlands. Within the eastern prairie, a narrow rivulet appeared to have sculpted a beautiful little ice cave under the snow. My husband and I were mystified as how it formed.  We thought perhaps the water beneath the ice had drained away along the narrow line to the right and part of the ice had dropped, because the inside of the cave was bone dry. But we’re just guessing. Anyone have a better theory?

A little ice cave formed on the eastern edge of a wetland in the prairie at Charles  Ilsley Park.

I could envision that  a small creature might shelter overnight in this wee cave for protection, since the ground within was dry!

The ice cave looked as though it could shelter a small creature at night.

Elsewhere at Ilsley, the trickle of water signaled hope for spring. Over in the woods, one of the ice covered wetlands had melted enough that a stream ran away from it into the trees.

A melting wetland feeds a stream running through the woods on the northern side of Ilsley’s Eastern Prairie.

And nearby, a brilliant spear-shaped mound of moss took advantage of all the water and glowed in the thin sunlight.

A spear of moss near at wetland at Ilsley.

The swelling, red buds of Silver Maples (Acer saccharinum) always give me hope in March so I keep checking on them each time I explore the path into Ilsley from the west. And in Cranberry Lake Park, Ben spotted the first cottony plumes of Pussy Willow (Salix discolor) breaking into the cold spring air. I’ve loved those fuzzy signs of spring since childhood when they bloomed right outside my family’s  kitchen window.

The Best Kind of “Social Distance”

The Northern Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park in early March

As I finish this blog, the COVID-19 virus has taken hold in Michigan and we are instructed to avoid crowded places and keep a “social distance” from others for at least the rest of the month. That certainly makes perfect sense, but it can make all of us feel a bit isolated. Luckily, nature invites us out into the fields and woods where no threats exist really, except maybe wet feet and some spring mud. Wildlife has always believed in “social distance” so no problem there; they consistently respect my space by taking off when they see me  – as my camera can attest!

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So now’s the ideal moment to re-acquaint yourself and your family with the infinite variety of the natural world. Leave behind the confines of a centrally heated home and let the moist, cold air of March tickle your nose and redden your cheeks. Open a door and listen to the dawn chorus of the songbirds. (Listen for Sandhill Cranes down in the marsh at the end!)

Watch for bursting buds and catch your own reflection in a mud puddle.  Discover the joys of darkness and silence while watching the stars on a clear, moonless night.  Maybe we can rediscover all that we’ve been missing in the hubbub of a “normal” day. And that way, we can turn our “social distance” into an adventure in the wild  for ourselves and our children.

Restoration Never Stops: Winter Planting and “Weeding” in Our Natural Areas

The Center Pond and the sloping trail to the west after December mowing by the stewardship crew.

Most home gardeners take a break during the winter. The gardens have been prepared for winter; no weeding or seeding is planned until spring. Winter is a time to dream about next year’s garden.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

But late fall and winter are busy times for our Parks and Recreation stewardship crew. Many native seeds need cold winter temperatures in order to germinate. According to the useful website Ecolandscaping.org, thawing and freezing loosen the outer coating of some native seeds, signaling them to germinate as the soil warms. The Milkweeds (genus Asclepias) and Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa) would be examples of native seeds that require the winter’s cold before germinating. [Use pause button to see captions below, if necessary.]

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Other seeds may need multiple seasons in the soil before they germinate – like Round-lobed Hepatica (Hepatica americana) or Common Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum). [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

And of course, given the diversity of native plants, some seeds sprout and grow in one growing season like Black-Eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) or New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae).

Native Seeds Can Be Planted Almost Year ‘Round

Because native plants are adapted to our climate, very early spring, late fall and even snowy winter days can all be times for planting in our parks and natural areas. In November of 2015, the northern prairie at Draper Twin Lake Park was seeded. In this case, the planting area was huge and special equipment was required to get the native seed distributed evenly across the site. So Oakland Township Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, used a native plant contractor. By 2018, a lush prairie began to bloom at Draper Twin Lake Park.

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In the winter of 2018, Ben and his stewardship specialist did a very orderly planting of moisture-loving seeds in the emerging wetlands at Charles Ilsley Park.  Last winter when I reported on interesting tracks at Charles Ilsley Park, I  mentioned a neat grid of “tracks” on the snowy surface of one of the wetlands.

Of course, they were the footprints left by Ben and Alyssa as they seeded the spring-fed pond with a native wetland mix.  (The birders had trekked across the pond earlier in the morning.) Ben had planted Water Plantain (Alisma triviale), some sedges (grass-like plants), and bright purple Monkey-Flower (Mimulus ringens) along with other wetland species.

Many of the plants they seeded aren’t apparent yet.  But nature took temporary advantage of the spot. Up out of the wetland sprouted a native annual Witchgrass (Panicum capillare). We’ll have to wait for Ben’s plants to grow larger – but meanwhile, the seed bank has produced a grass that feeds the caterpillars of several Skipper butterflies  and produces late fall seeds for lots of birds, including cardinals, woodcocks, bobolinks, bobwhite quail and many others.

Native Witchgrass emerged from the seed bank in the prairie wetlands at Ilsley.

Sometimes, Ben hand sows the native seed that his crew and volunteers harvest each year from various parks. Here on a cool April morning of 2018, shortly after a prescribed burn, Ben is casting seed at Bear Creek Nature Park by hand in a tradition that dates back centuries. It’s a simple way to plant smaller amounts of gathered seed in certain areas that can benefit from more native plants.

Dr. Ben Vanderweide 2018 seeding smaller areas at Bear Creek in 2018 with native seed gathered by his crew and volunteers.

A Kind of “Weeding” Happens Year ‘Round as Well

Just as in a garden, removing or thinning unwanted plants is an endless stewardship task in natural areas. Invasive shrubs that crowd or shade out our native species can literally take over fields. To give native plants a chance to establish themselves, the non-natives must be removed repeatedly for several years in a row. Vines like Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) must be cut and treated to keep them from strangling trees by spiraling around their trunks – or to prevent them from climbing across the crowns of trees, making them so top-heavy that they fall in wind storms. Non-native wildflowers and grasses can be invasive too, while providing little food and shelter for wildlife. Late autumn and winter can be ideal times to do those jobs, when plants are pulling down nutrients into their roots.

In the fall of 2018, Ben arranged for a forestry mower to remove a huge area of aggressively invasive shrubs that had blanketed the fields north of the pond for decades.  Last year in early spring, with snow still on the ground, he and his stewardship assistant spent a few days carefully seeding this vast area with native seed since the area was too full of mowed shrub material to be planted by machine.

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A month ago on a dry winter day,  he went over the area again with a bushhog since many of the shrubs tried to make a comeback during the summer before they were spot treated in August. It was great to see these areas cleared again so that the architecture of Bear Creek’s natural rolling landscape could be fully appreciated once more!

The rolling landscape of the north section of Bear Creek Park after Ben bush-hogged again this December.

In 2016, I wrote a history blog about how Bear Creek Nature Park looked when it was a farm during the Great Depression.  In the library’s local history room is a book entitled Incredible Yesterdays (Ravenswood Press, 1977) by local author George Comps who lived on the property in the 1930’s. At one point, he described a moonlit night when he and his sister walked to the Center Pond. While George stood on the south side, his sister went around to her favorite “Big Rock” on the north side and they could see each other across the pond in the moonlight. When I wrote the 2016 blog, I bemoaned the fact that what I believe was that “Big Rock” was buried in invasive shrubs that also surrounded the pond, blocking the view to the other side. But with Ben’s last mowing of the land, the Comps’ favorite rock is once again visible and the view across the pond that they saw some 75 years ago is possible again. Now that’s both land and history preservation!

Last week, a different kind of “weeding” was happening at the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail. In last October’s blog, I described the very special conditions of this natural area that blooms with many unusual wildflowers throughout the growing season.

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Though adapted to fire and  both wet and dry conditions, these rare-but-sturdy flowers do need lots of sunshine. Over the years, trees have grown up around the edge of the Wet Prairie, shading out some of the sunlight these lovely plants require. So this January,  Ben and his stewardship specialist Grant, have been felling some trees to bring more sunlight to this special spot on the Paint Creek Trail. They’re also working to eliminate a large, dense thicket of Glossy Buckthorn (Frangula alnus), like the ones they removed last year also at Bear Creek Nature Park’s marsh. An aggressively invasive bush, glossy buckthorn crowds out native plants and its admittedly attractive berries are also not as nutritious for wildlife as those of our native shrubs and plants.

Big Rewards for Year ‘Round Work

February of 2018 at the Eastern Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park – an austere beauty seen through a scrim of Indian Grass.

The eastern prairie at Charles Ilsley Park is one of my favorites – a huge rolling expanse embraced by forest. In February last year, its austere palette of browns and dark grays suited the inward quietness of a winter day. This park has required years of “weeding” – removal of non-native shrubs, elimination of stands of non-native plants and coming this spring, another prescribed burn, if the weather allows. Like many of you, I imagine, I don’t relish the sound of chain saws against wood, the stoop work of treating stumps to prevent the return of invasive shrubs, the roar of mowers as they chew  through a thicket of invasive shrubs.

July at Charles Ilsley’s Eastern Prairie

But all of that is just preparing the way for native plants and their seeds to flourish. And the reward is great  – a richly diverse native habitat where bees and butterflies sip at blossoms, where birds build nests in the deep grass or along the tree line, where creatures and their young are fed by plants that they’ve thrived on for thousands of years. Jane Giblin, of the Michigan Wildflower Association, recently quoted someone who said we should “garden as if life depended on it,” because, of course it does! And that’s also the goal of our township’s stewardship program – to restore our parks and natural areas by  “weeding out” plants that don’t provide rich, healthy habitat while protecting, nourishing and restoring the plants that feed and house the creatures that called this land home eons before we did.

Lost Lake: A Small Park with a “Magic” All Its Own

A wonderful stump for sitting along the water beneath the trees at Lost Lake.

Lost Lake Nature Park may be small, only about 58 acres, but it’s a big resource for all kinds of wildlife – including us humans! Roughly 10,000 years ago, the glaciers sculpted this park with its rolling woodlands that now slope down to shady wetlands dotted with ferns and mushrooms. The deep Laurentian ice sheet also eventually dropped enough material to create a huge hill, one of the highest places in the township – now a magnificent sledding hill in the winter months.

The glaciers also gifted us with a large kettle lake. A huge chunk of ice broke off the ancient glacier and melted, gradually filling its hole with water as the glacier retreated, leaving rocks, soil and gravel around the lakeshore. Anglers – both human and avian – now pull fish from the lake and in the fall, a variety of birds seem to find it an ideal place to rest, socialize and feed before heading for points south.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

So please join me on the dock as birds call and forage on the far shore or mud flats. Wander with me up and down hills in the woodland dimness, where a dragonfly devours its kin (!), green pools glow in the distance and a motley collection of colorful mushrooms appear and disappear within the bed of dark, moist leaves left from the summer evaporation of a vernal pool. It really is a “magical” little place!

 

The Pond Provides R&R Before the Big Push South

Part of a family of Canada Geese call, feed and relax at Lost Lake

Almost any time from spring to fall, the honking of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) greets me as I step from my car at Lost Lake Nature Park. What appeared to be a family of about eight glided peacefully around the lake on a cool October morning. A noisy male declared himself to all comers, sounding his deep “honk” which wards off intruders but is also used right before takeoff. The female will often make a higher “hink” call in response, especially when in flight. This group eventually took off toward the east after a relaxing hour or so cruising the pond.

Canada Geese after taking off from Lost Lake

Far across the pond, a tall white figure lifted its knobby, backward knees as it stalked along in the mud. A Great Egret (Ardea alba) stuffed itself on creatures too far away for me to see; frogs, small fish, dragonflies, and grasshoppers all contribute to an Egret’s diet.

The Great Egret had a wildly successful afternoon foraging along the north edge of Lost Lake.

For a while, the egret just stared up into the sky, something I’ve never seen an egret do before. Maybe it was just being extra cautious, though I saw and heard nothing threatening. Or maybe it was just curious?

The Great Egret studying the sky for some unknown reason.

Most of the other birds at Lost Lake camouflage almost perfectly again the background of the browning vegetation on the mud flats. It pays to scan the surface with a pair of binoculars until I see movement. My camera and I could just barely discern three Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) slipping through the slim waterways that thread  through the low-growing aquatic plants that blanket parts of the lake.

Wood Ducks are tough to see  in the open water between the aquatic plants. The male is in the center; left is most likely the female and the one bringing up the rear may be a juvenile.

On the same busy day at the lake, a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) stepped out of the reeds on the far side. It was a wary creature, stalking along the edge to do a little hunting, but repeatedly slipping back into the tall plants to hide. Finally I caught it in the open – but just for a moment! It didn’t seem as lucky or perhaps as skillful as the Egret in finding food. Young Blue Herons are on their own two or three weeks after leaving the nest, so I wondered whether this was a slightly nervous juvenile or simply a wary adult.

A Great Blue Heron slipping into and out of plants along the north edge of the lake

A young Green Heron (Butorides virescens) appeared in my binoculars as I swept my gaze across the lake’s mottled surface.  Since the heron stood almost completely still, I would never have spotted it without them. Its striped neck is the most obvious sign that this one is a youngster. Shortly,  this solitary bird will head out on it own to spend the winter in Florida, along the Gulf Coast, or in the Bahamas. How young birds who often travel alone know where to spend the winter remains a mystery. According to the website of the University of Colorado at Boulder, recent studies indicate that migrations destinations may be genetically determined through years of evolution.

A young Green Heron probed the mud flats for fish, snails, amphibians, whatever he could find before migrating to Florida, Cuba or the Bahamas.

The high, keening cry of the Killdeer (Charadrius vociferussounded over the lake as a trio of them flew across the pond, wings akimbo at a sharp angle. They too stayed at the north edge of the lake, poking along the muddy shore for a very long time. My binoculars could reach them, but they were too small for my camera to see clearly. So I sat down on the deck and waited. Finally, the three flew in my direction and settled on a grassy flat. They too were nicely camouflaged by the browning foliage in the background, especially the bird on the left!

Three killdeer finally took pity on me and landed close enough to the fishing platform to snap what might be a family portrait.

As I left the floating dock, I noticed a sparkling patch on the surface of the water. On closer inspection, it turned out to be a hatch of Whirligig Beetles (family Gyrinidae) swirling across the surface with sun on their rounded backs.

A swarm of Whirligig beetles, some sparkling in the sunlight

These little creatures seek protection in groups, swimming frantically in circles when agitated. Their divided eyes are believed to allow them to see both above and below the water’s surface. Nonetheless, periodically a fish dashed to the surface and a few disappeared, leaving a gap in the swarm,  as you can see in the 10 second video below.

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A closeup shot (below) shows these rotund insects more clearly. You can see how each little beetle makes its own tiny ripples as it energetically rows over the surface with its hind and middle legs. The front legs are used to grab other insects, including those unlucky enough to fall in their midst!

Whirligig Beetles rowing around in a swarm on Lost Lake.

At the water’s edge, a small American Bullfrog (Rana catesbeianus) sat quietly in the shadows, its face turned to the sunlight. I mistook it at first for a Green Frog (Rana clamitans), but they have rigid folds down either side of their back. This little bullfrog had a fold that curled around its tympanum, the eardrum-like circle on the side of a frog’s head. Also its eyes sit up high on its head; Green Frogs’ eyes are lower with little noticeable bulge. I wondered if this small frog stared so steadily because it was trying to see the shadow of an insect flying by, silhouetted against the light. I wish just once I’d get to see that long tongue flash out and snag one!

Several bullfrogs jumped into the water as I came off the dock, but this little one kept concentrating on looking for an insect – or perhaps just enjoying the sun on a cool day.

On one of my trips to Lost Lake, I came across a mother and son team fishing on the deck. The young man, Zach Adams, had just pulled in a Largemouth Bass (Micropterus salmoides) – and I believe, on his first cast! His mom, Cheryl, took a photo before her son released it back into the water. I’m happy that she kindly shared her photo with me, so I could show you one of the denizens that live below the surface of Lost Lake. This bass is what researchers call an “apex predator,” which means that its presence maintains the balance of species within the lake.

Zach Adams with the Largemouth Bass he caught at Lost Lake

Then, Into the Steeply Sloping Woods

The high point of the woods at Lost Lake slopes down to a dry vernal pool at its foot

The path that leads to the woods was filled with dappled light one October afternoon. A Bumblebee (genus Bombus) slipped its long tongue into the last few flowers ringing a Bee Balm blossom (Monarda fistulosa) that miraculously still survived in October. You can see the stamens protruding from the tubular upper lip of each flower, while the three lower lips offer what the Illinois Wildflowers website describes as “landing pads for visiting insects.” This bumblebee has made the most of the landing pad, I’d say!

A Bumblebee searched industriously for any nectar left on an aging Bee Balm blossom.

Where the sunlight found its way through the leaves, another Bumblebee  nuzzled a Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) looking for whatever bits of pollen were still available before this late season goldenrod turned brown.

A Bumblebee exploring the possibilities of one of the late and lovely Showy Goldenrods.

I came across a cloud of spreadwing damselflies fluttering among some small trees in the first shadowy light of the woods. I’d never seen so many at one time! I believe they were Emerald Spreadwings (Lestes dryas) because of their green sheen and slightly stockier appearance than most damselflies. But I never got a definitive identification.

A whole group of Emerald Spreadwing damselflies settled on the plants and trees just before I entered the woods.

When I spotted a female Autumn Meadowhawk (Sympetrum vicinum) in their midst, I snapped a quick photo. I didn’t realize until I saw it in my computer that it was consuming one of the spreadwings! Yikes. No honor among Odonata evidently; they are members of the same order! Well, an insect’s gotta do what an insect’s gotta do, I guess.

I believe this male Autumn Dragonfly is holding a half-eaten spreadwing damselfly!

A Beautiful and Strange Collection of Mushrooms

Violet Polypore Mushrooms, Stereum and a Hickory Tussock Moth all share a log in Lost Lake Nature Park.

The fallen log picture above hosted undoubtedly the most beautiful assemblage of mushrooms I’ve ever come across on my hikes. Violet Polypore Mushrooms (Trichaptum biforme) stepped delicately down the side of this log while orange shelf/leaf fungi (genus Stereum) formed ruffles across the surface. Down at the bottom edge, a white Hickory Tussock Moth (Lophocampa caryae) paused to either nibble a bit – or just enjoy the artistry along with me. This tableau captured me so completely that I just sat down on a nearby log to appreciate it for several minutes.

I love entering the half-light of the forest at Lost Lake Nature Park. The topography is so dramatic! The back side of the sledding hill, covered in trees, slopes away to what was a vernal pool last spring. Now I can walk out on the spongy black soil at the foot of the slope and look for mushrooms. The moisture and the bed of rotting leaves is ideal territory for them.

I’m a complete novice at mushrooms, so I want to acknowledge and thank the knowledgeable fungi fans on two Facebook pages that helped me identify some of these: Mushroom Identification and Michigan Mushroom Hunters. I assume that the members are enthusiasts, not necessarily mycologists, so please don’t take their identifications as scientific proof – just much better and more educated guesses than mine! [Important Note:  I enjoy mushrooms for their place in the wildlife food chain and their beauty in natural habitats. Please don’t pick them in our parks and don’t eat any wild mushroom unless a qualified individual tells you they’re safe. Lots of our mushrooms are toxic in various ways, so beware!]

In the stippled light of the sloping forest, Russula mushrooms(genus Russula) thrust their caps above the leaf litter. Russulas are “ectomychorrizal” which means they contribute to the “wood wide web.” They form the spore-bearing, visible part of a huge, unseen network of fungi beneath the soil that allow trees to communicate and feed one another and that in return can feed off sugars in the tree roots by tapping into them. [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.

Having attended a great mushroom event at Lost Lake Nature Park in 2018, I recognized this little mushroom as a Pigskin Poisonous Puffball (Scleroderma citrinum). What gives away the toxicity of this little puffball is that if you cut it open, it’s solid black inside!

The Pigskin Poisonous Puffball is a handsome mushroom with a great name – but don’t eat one!

Some mushrooms, of course, grow on dead wood, rather than emerging from the ground. I found two protruding in a somewhat spooky fashion from a snag (standing dead tree) in the moist soil of the former vernal pool. This one is in the genus Pholiota. It is the spore-bearer for unseen fungal threads called hyphae inside the wood that, according to Wikipedia, help break down decaying wood. In other words, like all fungi, they are recyclers!

A Pholiota mushroom whose role is to break down decaying wood into nutrients it can use.

Another recycler poked out of a nearby snag, though it looked like its job was nearly over. A Facebook mushroom enthusiast named Greg identified it as being in the genus Gymnopilus which is in the same family (Strophariaceae) as the Pholiota mushroom above. This one has a “veil,” a partial ring on the stem that mycologists think may help protect the gills under the cap where the reproductive spores are released.

This aging mushroom has what mycologists call a “veil,” a partial ring of material around the stem meant to protect the gills under the cap where the spores are released.

In the same area, a beautiful “foliose” or Leaf Lichen draped like lace over a dead branch. A lichen is a strange life form that is not a moss or any other plant.  According to Wikipedia, it “arises from algae or cyanobacteria living among filaments of multiple fungi species in a mutualistic relationship.”  Some live on wood like mushrooms,  but they don’t draw nutrients from it.  They don’t have roots but pull water and nutrients from the air and dust.  Their relationship with one of their partners, like algae, allows them to photosynthesize.  These ancient organisms  can look like leafy plants, drooping moss or powder on the surface of a rock.  Have a look at its varied forms on the Wikipedia page.  Lichens are so common in nature and yet live and grow (verrrry slowly!) in such an alien way.  They intrigue me! Here’s the big, beautiful one I saw at Lost Lake.

A Leaf/foliose Lichen. Lichens cover 6% of the earth’s surface and are not plants!

And here’s a sight that just delighted me for no particular reason.  But look at the cool knotholes on this downed sassafras log, like open mouths silently singing!

I just got a kick out of the three open mouths of these knotholes on a fallen tree.

High on the Hillside, Autumn Wildflowers

Sassafras trees seem to take on fall colors much earlier than other trees in the forest.

We often think of  summer when we think about wildflowers. But cool weather is the perfect bloom time for many plants. Some of the ones at Lost Lake Nature Park thrive between patches of light on the high slope of the forest; some are happiest down by the lake. So here’s a small assortment of plants that love fall as much as I do!

Lost Lake Takes Me Back to the “Magic Places” of My Childhood

A cool green pond with hills sloping up behind to a forest clearing

When I was a child, nothing delighted me more than finding what I felt were “magic places.” Usually these spots were hidden ponds, small clearings in a woodland or sudden openings between trees that gave me a new perspective on a familiar spot.  Lost Lake brought back that childhood sense of “magic” for me on my final walk this fall.

Along Turtle Creek Lane on the west side of the park, I came across the oval pond in the photo above. The woods rise steeply at the back, as if throwing a protective arm across it. I found some park property across the lane that I hadn’t explored before. It  featured a small clearing in the woods and an unexpected view into a grand marsh that is on private land .

A view from park property into a huge marsh on private land to the west of the park.

So for me, Lost Lake Nature Park has many charms: a lake bustling with birds on a crisp fall day, a trail lined with damselflies and their treacherous kin, a shady spot that lets me explore, – dry shod –  the moist bottom of a vanished vernal pool. These spots encourage me to take my time, look around, and feel the “magic” I sensed as a child. That feeling of mystery and possibility feeds my desire to save what we can as the climate struggles to adapt to the changes humans have caused. I want to be sure that the children of tomorrow can wander into untamed nature and find the magic that’s still so available to you and I.

Photos of the Week: Expanding Nature’s Color Palette at Charles Ilsley Park

Cardinal Flower (aka Red Lobelia) and Great Blue Lobelia in a moist swale at Charles Ilsley Park

In the previous post, I collected all the gold and black vividness of August at Charles Ilsley Park – in blossoms, birds and butterflies.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

But of course, Ilsley in August had lots of other hues. Nature seems incapable of limiting itself to just two colors in any season. So let’s see some of the other colorful brushstrokes from nature’s palette.

 

Stewardship Pays Off in Shades of Lavender in the Central Meadow

Lavender flowers emerged in the central meadow when a small wetland area was restored.

In the last few years, vernal pools have formed in the center of Charles Ilsley Park and a stream suddenly appeared crossing a trail on the east side of the central meadow. Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Stewardship Manager, realized that a farmer had once laid tile to drain those ponds. By pulling out some of the  broken tiles, Ben restored a wetland area where the water can now seep underground instead of across the trail. As a result, a beautiful variety of lavender wetland flowers now bob and sway above the grass stems there.  Tall, erect Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) branches into tapering spikes covered with tiny flowers frequented by many kinds of bees.  The smaller,  lavender Monkey Flower (Mimulus ringens) was a delightful new wildflower for me. These seeds were part of the wetland seed mix that were planted as part of the restoration process. After so many years of farming,  very few native species remained, so stewardship staff designed a diverse wetland mix to help these areas recover. And nearby where dry, prairie soil begins again, a balding Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa) left a beautiful pattern as it shed its petals. [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

Birds and a Jazzy Insect Add Blue to the Ilsley Palette

A couple of blue birds made their contribution to the color scheme. A juvenile Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) with just a few of its azure feathers showing, hid deep within the  the leaves of a giant oak along the entrance path. My photo attempt was hopeless. But a few days later, another small bluebird perched in an oak in my front yard. In the photo below, it seems to be studying the ground just before it swooped down and picked up a caterpillar. Well done, little bluebird!  A tiny Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea) popped in and out of the shrubbery along the edge of the meadow. Even adults of this species are only 4-5 inches long and weigh 1-2 ounces! This little flycatcher twitches its white edged tail to stir up insects when surrounded by plants, though as you can see below, it probes bark for insects and their eggs as well.

A young Eastern Bluebird spotted and later caught a caterpillar below.

Gnatcatchers search tree bark for any insect or spider.

A Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher twitches its tail to scare up insects, but gnats actually don’t make up much of its diet.

If you see a large dragonfly helicoptering over the flower tops, it’s probably a Darner (Aeshnidae family. They are the largest dragonflies in North America, with the fastest flight and the keenest eyesight. The female has a needle-like ovipositor at the end of her abdomen so that she can slit open stalks and insert her eggs – hence, the name “darner.”  (My husband remembers relatives calling them “sewing beetles!”) They spend most of their time in the air on their powerful wings, so I was glad  to find this Green-striped Darner (Aeshna verticalis) resting for a moment on some dried Curly Dock (Rumex crispus). What an elaborate color scheme and pattern on this big beautiful insect!

The Green-Striped Darner’s compound eyes are so large that they almost touch. So it has great eyesight!

Stewardship brings Red, White and Blue to the Golden Western Meadow

Ben noticed a moist swale in the western meadow as he was planning for the prairie planting and spread some wildflower seed from plants that love “wet feet.” What a lovely treat to see Cardinal Flower/Red Lobelia (Lobelia cardinalis), white Swamp Betony (Pedicularis lanceolata) and Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) thriving within a low spot in a dry, sunny meadow! Charles Ilsley Park introduced me to a second new wildflower when I saw these Swamp Betony for the first time in August.

One of our eagle-eyed birders took a photo of a third new flower to add to my “life list,” Dotted Mint/Horse Mint (Monarda punctata). This Monarda, in the same genus as our lavender Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa),  has successive whorls of creamy white  blossoms dotted in dark purple growing above one another along its stem. Ben had included this flower in the seed mix when this meadow was cleared and planted as part of prairie restoration. I hope we see more of it! Thanks to Vinnie Morganti for loaning me her photo of this interesting tri-level  flower.

A three-story bloom on these lovely Dotted/Horse Mint stems!

Nature Loves Earth Tones

Of course, browns and greens are always the backdrop of nature’s palette. A soft brown fledgling with a striped breast played peek-a-boo with me through some shrubs one afternoon. I could hear its begging chirp from beyond the plants, but it took a while before it really peeked out into the open. Can you spot its tiny head near the center of this photo? (You might need to click on this photo to get a better look.)

A tiny brown bird poked its head in and out of the greenery at Ilsley.

Finally, it came out for more than a split second so I could snap a photo. I checked its identification with local birding expert, Ruth Glass. I proposed that it was a young House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) and she  agreed it was. These little birds drive their parents nuts with begging constantly for hours around our feeder so I thought I recognized that insistent chirp!

A fledgling House Finch finally stops in the open for more than a few seconds.

A group of little brown House Wrens ((Troglodytes aedon) chattered away in an oak along the treeline, darting here and there among the branches. At last, one came out to look around.

A fledgling House Wren peers down from a bush after several minutes of begging calls.

Almost immediately an adult wren appeared to scold me for being there. I snapped a quick photo and departed, so as not to incur more wrath from an annoyed parent!

An adult Wren arrived on the scene and asked me to go away in no uncertain terms! Such a scold!

As fall arrives, nuts and seeds add more rich brown shades and lovely greens. The lime green nuts of  Walnut Trees (Juglans nigra) hang like tennis balls from limbs around the park and the Black Oaks sport clusters of bright green acorns with patterned brown beanies.

My candidate for this year’s most beautiful brown, though, are the  teardrop-shaped, russet seeds of the Foxglove Beardtongue/Penstemon (Penstemon digitalis). In mid-summer, this native wildflower stands tall, while sprouting graceful white blossoms. Its seeds and dark red stems now are almost as visually appealing as its flowers!

Harvesting the Last of Summer Colors

A wonderfully large and mysterious wetland I saw at Charles Ilsley Park for the first time in August

Isn’t that wetland above a lovely harmony of greens?  This wetland extends a long way on the north side of the far west trail that leads to the Wynstone subdivision west of the park. This one is  large, mysterious and full of life as most wetlands are. I just “discovered” it after many walks in Ilsley and felt like a visitor to an alien world.

I listened to the raucous begging of a Green Heron fledgling down in the bushes ner the water and caught a glimpse of an adult stuffing food into the youngster’s bill. Just a glimpse, no photo – but I didn’t mind. I just wanted to take in all the green-ness to remember on a black-and-white winter day.

Summer is clearly waning, now. The butterflies look tattered and worn. The summer wildflowers are brown and seeding. But we have lots to look forward to. The meadows now brimming with goldenrods will soon be splashed with purple asters. The migrating birds, wearing more sedate winter colors, and the last of the “super generation” Monarchs will be riding north winds toward warmer climes. Leaves will reveal the dramatic colors they’ve hidden under all that chlorophyll since they “greened up” in the spring. So maybe, like wise stewards, we should store up as much color as we can while the supply is plentiful. We may need the memory of it on a January day.