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Cranberry Lake Park: Prepping for Winter, Sowing for Spring

One of the many spots where meadow meets woods at Cranberry Lake Park

Cranberry Lake Park, with its varied habitats, gives an autumn visitor lots of possibilities. In October, the lake hosts huge bobbing rafts of water birds, feeding and resting on their way south. The grassy trails lead you to expansive meadows covered now by the soft gray of seeding goldenrod, where migratory birds converse in the bushes while harvesting seed. Or you can choose the shady Hickory Lane to the west or the dappled light of the maple forest to the north if you’re in the mood for a woodland walk.   

Text & photos by Cam Mannino

My visits were scattered throughout the month –  unusually warm days early on, a sunset hike one breezy evening, and finally a cold, rainy morning right before first frost. Each time I rediscovered how sensibly nature prepares for a winter rest and a bountiful spring. 

 

 

Cranberry Lake Itself  – A Thwarted Kingfisher, a Remarkable Grebe, and Diving Ducks of All Kinds

The edge of Cranberry lake at the end of an eastern trail.

Cranberry Lake welcomes all kinds of water birds as they begin their long journeys to southern climes. One cold, wet morning, I watched a bird hovering vertically high above the water, head down, scanning the surface below. Suddenly, it gave a loud rattling cry and headed for a leafless tree near the shore. An agitated male Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) shouted its noisy call from a bare limb. Perhaps he was put out by not spotting prey from that perch either!

This male Belted Kingfisher had one slate blue belt on his chest. The female has a chestnut brown belt and a blue one.

A small Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) flew in to probe the edge of a mud flat, landing near a Canada Goose (Branta canadensis). Quite an odd couple!

A Killdeer shares a mud flat in the lake with a Canada Goose.

Killdeer are wading birds, being Plovers, but I’ve most often seen them in barren fields, either scurrying along scaring up insects or keening in flight to distract predators.  This one, though, looked right at home as it probed the mud for insect larvae or other aquatic prey before beginning migration.

Far out on the lake, a huge mixed flock of migrating ducks and other water birds, well over 200 of them, floated on the surface, foraged for food, or slept and preened on the mud flats in the shallower parts of the lake.

Part of a huge flock of diving ducks on Cranberry Lake

After studying the photo magnified, Ben guessed that most of the birds were Ring-necked Ducks (Aythya collaris) which are diving ducks. Unlike mallards and other dabbling ducks who simply tip upside down to feed, diving ducks have legs set far back on their bodies.  As a result, they need to run across water, wings flapping,  to get into the air and are awkward on land – but they dive, feed and swim underwater with ease!

(Since most of the Cranberry Lake flock was far from shore, the closeup photos of diving ducks below are all from inaturalist.org photographers. My thanks to all of them and to Creative Commons where they license their work.)

Ring-necked Duck by lonnyholmes CC BY NC
Ring-necked Duck by lonnyholmes (CC-BY-NC)

Two other diving ducks that Ben thinks may have been in this flock include Redhead (Aythya americana) which are so social that they’re also referred to as “rafting ducks” and  Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis). According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab, Lesser Scaup chicks “are capable of diving under water on their hatching day, but they are too buoyant to stay under for more than just a moment. By the time they are 5 to 7 weeks old they are able to…swim underwater for 15-18 meters (50-60 ft).” Here’s a wonderful closeup of a Redhead by photographer lonnyholmes and a Lesser Scaup photo by photographer Paul Sullivan. (Hover cursor for captions; click on photos to enlarge.)

Far out in the lake, through my binoculars, I also spotted Bufflehead, another diving duck,  on their way from the boreal forests of Canada and Alaska, where according to Cornell, they “nest almost exclusively in holes excavated by Northern Flickers and, on occasion, by Pileated Woodpeckers.” Unfortunately the male and three female/juvenile Bufflehead that I saw at were too far for my longest lens to reach clearly. So on the left is my distance photo from Cranberry Lake (click to enlarge) and  on the right is a closeup from a  photographer at inaturalist.org who uses the name dlbowls showing the male’s dark head iridescent in the sunlight.

Feeding alone on a rainy morning, the solitary  Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) dove repeatedly into the gray surface of the lake. Modest brown this time of year,  these grebes bills turn white with a neat black band in breeding season. Pied-billed Grebes control their buoyancy by trapping water in their feathers. According to Cornell Lab, this allows them to escape danger by doing what children might call “belly smackers” – “plunging with head and tail raised above the belly, making a splash. They can also dive head first, or simply sink quietly out of view, leaving no trace. Parents dive with young clamped under their wings … These grebes often avoid danger by submerging, crocodile-style, with just the eyes and nostrils above the surface.”

The little grebe at Cranberry Lake gave me a brief demonstration of the submerging tactic –  first trapping water in its feathers , then settling back down on the water, and finally beginning to submerge like a little submarine.  What a trick!  I’m very taken with this little bird. (Use pause button for captions.)

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Wide, Sunny Meadows Surrounded by Autumn Color

A meadow on the north end of the park

On the trails that lead toward the meadows, small brown birds dash from bush to bush or dart down into the grass.  Some are tiny migrators who might appear modest and plain until you see them through binoculars or a camera lens. Chubby White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis), with their yellow “lores” and striped heads, hung out in small flocks, keeping in contact with soft seep calls.

The White-Crowned Sparrow has yellow “lores” – spots in the corners of its eyes.

Another brown migrant paused in the bushes along the trail from the lake – the Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus). These normally solitary birds are often quite secretive – hence the name, perhaps? They’re well-dressed hermits, though, with their chocolate back, spotted breast and white eye ring. And during migration, they do sometimes forage with or near other small birds.

The chocolate back of the shy little Hermit Thrush
The Hermit Thrush poses so we can see its spotted breast

The Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) is silent now, no longer burbling its song from high in a bush as it did this spring and summer. In fact, this one glowered from the bare branches, seeming a bit put-out by my presence. Or maybe it’s just irritable about having to migrate, though  it will only travel a short distance to the south.

A Song Sparrow seems to be glowering at my presence from the branches of a vine-enshrouded bush

At the edge of a small meadow, a year-round resident, the American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) pecked delicately at the seeds of Common Evening-Primrose (Oenothera biennis) that nicely complemented its muted gold.

An American Goldfinch fed in its modest winter feathers.

And another year ’rounder, the Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) stared from the drooping vines of Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), an aggressive, invasive plant that strangles, shades out and topples trees. Two trees along the trail had fallen recently due to masses of this vine in their canopies. Those orange and red fall fruits are disastrously appealing to birds, who spread their seeds far and wide.

A Northern Cardinal in a tangle of invasive, tree-killing Oriental Bittersweet.

On my early October visits, insects were still very much in evidence. One warm October afternoon, a busy group of adult and juvenile Large Milkweed Bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus) fed eagerly on the seeds of Common Milkweed (Ascelpias syriaca) in a southern meadow. The large beetles below are adults accompanied by the mostly red juveniles. They eat milkweed seeds by injecting saliva through the seed’s surface which liquifies it so it can be sucked through their straw-like rostrums. Milkweeds produce lots of seeds, so luckily these beetles, though destructive to individual pods, don’t really do a lot of damage in a season. And they are kind of jazzy looking, don’t you think?

Juvenile and adult Milkweed Bugs on a Common Milkweed.

Red-legged Grasshoppers (Melanoplus femurrubrum) mate in the autumn and lay their eggs in the earth. The eggs won’t finish developing until spring, when the first nymphs emerge. They’ll molt 5-7 times during the summer before they are fully adult, like this pair on a grassy trail.

A female (left and larger) and male Red-legged Grasshopper will lay eggs that will hatch next spring.

As October moved on, the goldenrods – Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) and late blooming Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) – began to seed, casting a silver-brown patina over the meadows.

Despite the cooler days, the small Autumn Meadowhawk (Sympetrum vicinum) still glided along the meadow paths, stopping on a fallen Canada Goldenrod stem to warm its wings in the autumn sunlight. The yellow-orange blush on the wings near the thorax is a distinguishing field mark. Autumn Meadowhawks fly later than most other species in our area, but are usually gone by early November, having laid their eggs along the lake’s shoreline.

A small male Autumn Meadowhawk warms its wings on a cool fall morning

The Hickory Lane and Wooded Wetlands – Filtered Light, Foraging Nut Eaters, a Frog and Puffballs

The Hickory Lane at sunset

Woodland walks are magical in the early morning or just before sunset. The light filters down through a golden shimmer of falling leaves and sometimes sets a crimson leaf aglow.

A Silver Maple leaf (Acer saccharinum) in the northern forest  set aglow in morning light.

On a warm walk in early October, the bright yellow caterpillar of a Spotted Tussock Moth (Lophocampa maculata) caught my eye within the dry leaves on the Hickory Lane. Such a fancy caterpillar! Research in Caterpillars of Eastern North America seems to indicate that  it’s the middle instar of the Spotted Tussock moth because in earlier stages, the end sections of this yellow caterpillar are completely black – but I’m open to correction by more knowledgeable readers!

The caterpillar of what I think is a Spotted Tussock Moth

An Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus) on the Hickory Lane basked in the sunset, perhaps resting from a long day of ferrying nuts in its cheeks to stock its underground burrow. It won’t hibernate, but when it wakes periodically from its winter torpor, it will need a little sustenance before snoozing again.

An Eastern Chipmunk rests from its seed and nut-gathering labors before winter.

A Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) dashed quickly up a tree on the Hickory Lane (in this case, it’s the black morph). And nearby, an American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) did the same. I wondered if they had enjoyed some of the hickory nuts that were neatly opened on a fallen log not too far away.

Almost invariably, curious deer emerge at the edge of the woods, and they too are putting on weight for winter. They eat lots of nuts, including plenty of acorns, this time of year. Their love of acorns in the fall and saplings during the winter can make it harder for our oak forests to regenerate. This doe looks like she’s definitely eaten her share and is ready for cold days ahead!

A well-fed doe foraging for nuts before winter arrives.

In a pond hidden in the trees, a Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) had built a roomy “push-up” den in which it can eat above the water line. Muskrats don’t hibernate, but spend the winter cruising very slowly beneath the ice. What appears to be a hole is probably just plant matter or mud, since muskrats generally enter their push-up dens from under the water through a tunnel that leads up to a cavity at the center.  According to Wikipedia, “In snowy areas, they keep the openings to their push-ups closed by plugging them with vegetation, which they replace every day.”

Near that woodland pond in late October, a tiny masked Wood Frog (Rana sylvatica) literally sat “like a bump on a log,” staring off into the distance, partially lit by the green light of a leaf. Wood Frogs love forested wetlands like this during the summer. But this little frog may be preparing for winter. It will move upland, away from the water, burrow under leaves or a log. Then most of the water in its body will freeze solid, and its breathing and heartbeats will stop! But it will thaw in the spring and go right back to the pond to mate. Hope this little one finds a cozy spot before long.

The astonishing Wood Frog freezes solid in the winter and thaws out in the spring.

On a fallen long nearby, my husband and I came across  a colony of Puffball Mushrooms (division Basidiomycota) just as we did last year. These stalkless mushrooms would disperse spores on their own, of course, but I asked my husband to poke a couple in order to catch the brownish cloud of spores escaping through their tiny apertures. Wikipedia says falling raindrops disperse puffball spores in a similar way.

On my last visit just before first frost, under moist trees in these wooded wetlands, the Sensitive Ferns’ green, leafy, sterile fronds (Onoclea sensibilis) were already withering in the dropping temperatures. But the separate fertile fronds, covered in brown beads called “sori” that contain next year’s spores, stood erect in the grass beneath the trees.

Quietly Prepping for Winter and Another Spring

Cranberry Lake Park, like all of nature, provides testimony every autumn that the year is not “dying” as is so often said of this season. On the contrary. At every turn in the trails, nature is sensibly preparing for winter and sowing for spring. Yes, plants wither – but their seeds, stems, and roots wait within the soil for warm spring light. Gray-brown bracken will eventually fall, nourishing the soil in which those seeds can grow. Bright leaves fade and fall, of course, but only because trees are in “dormancy,” resting, slowing their metabolism, preserving themselves for next spring’s surge of growth. Some insects migrate, others winter-over under bark or within plants, while still others perish, leaving behind eggs which bide their time beneath the earth. Birds fly south, frogs burrow under logs, and animals of all sorts settle into winter quarters. Nature doesn’t resist change. It simply adapts to it, with every intention of burgeoning forth with gusto in the spring. We humans probably do best when we follow nature’s lead by just letting nature take its course –  preparing for longer nights and colder days, while confidently sowing seeds – both literally and metaphorically – for a future spring.

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner; inaturalist.org;Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela;Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels,  and others as cited in the text.
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Out and About in Oakland: Draper Twin Lake Park

Welcome to a new occasional series here at Natural Areas Notebook.

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

Having spent a year writing “This Week at Bear Creek,” (which continues, but perhaps with a little longer pause between blogs), we decided it would be fun to periodically have a look at other parks in Oakland Township. So this week, please join me as I explore Draper Twin Lake Park.

 

 

Getting Acquainted with Draper

Draper Park shares some similarities with Bear Creek – marsh land, birds, wildlife, old fields and trails.  But it offers very different opportunities for exploration as well.  To me, the park seems to have three distinct parts, each with a different character.  The central section is one giant marsh, full of cattails, sedges, muskrat lodges and birds.  It stretches from Draper Twin Lake to Inwood Road (where it can be viewed from your car) and beyond.

Central Marsh Draper
The central section of Draper Twin Lake Park is one long marsh running from the lake to Inwood Road and beyond.

The east and west sections, which cannot be connected by a trail,  have attractions like hiking trails lined with summer flowers leading to a fishing platform on a lake much larger than Bear Creek’s Center Pond, trails around a “floating mat” marsh,  a newly planted prairie and as you’ll see, a lively mix of wildlife and plant life. As of April 2016, nearly 80 bird species have been observed at Draper Twin Lake Park.

Here’s a map to get oriented.  The green outline is the whole park.  You can see the western trail running down to Twin Lake on the left.   The purple section at the center is the long marsh and McClure Drain (a marshy creek) running south from the lake.  And the trail in the eastern section runs all the way from Inwood Road to Parks Road, and a loop encircles a smaller and quite unusual marsh, passes the newly planted prairie (in light green) and continues through old fields at the eastern edge of the park.

Map of Draper Twin Lake Park showing accessibility improvements and natural community types.
Map of Draper Twin Lake Park showing accessibility improvements and natural community types.

The Western Section:  A Winding Trail to the Lake

Draper signLook for this sign where Hadden and Inwood meet and you’re at the parking lot on the western end of Draper Twin Lake  Park.  Until last week, a large Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) stood there, but when a giant limb had to be removed,  it was discovered that the whole tree was too fragile to remain.  Luckily, I got there there after the limb was removed and before the cutting of the tree and got to see something quite fascinating!

Tree with Squirrel nest
A Red Squirrel’s nest within a badly damaged tree (now removed) in the Draper parking lot.

Once the limb had come off the tree, it exposed the winter nest of a Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) deep down in the trunk. It was like looking through a window into the hidden world of this chattery, hyper little squirrel! The nest was clearly visible inside, full of pine cones and nut shells.  Its winter nut cache was spread out at the bottom of the trunk. Red Squirrels don’t bury nuts like other squirrels but make piles on the surface near their nests. Have a look by clicking on these photos to enlarge them. (Hover with your cursor for captions.)

I’m sorry the tree is gone, but an arborist consulted by the PRC said the tree was too fragile for a parking lot. But at least we got to peak into the life of one squirrel before its nest disappeared! The squirrel, by the way, appears to be exploring another tree nearby.

Trail to Fishing Dock Draper
Trail to the lake at Draper with two White Pines

Along the trail to the lake in late summer,  we’ll see some lovely native wildflowers, like Obedient Plant (Physostegia virginiana) and Tall Bellflower (Campanula americana) I saw there last August.

For now, early spring butterflies danced around my feet one morning as I walked. The smallest were a pair of Spring Azures (Celastrina ladon) twirling in a mating dance above the path.  Their tiny wings created lavender-blue blurs as they spun around each other. But when they landed for a few seconds, they folded their wings and almost disappeared, matching the beautifully patterned gray undersides of their wings to the nearest twig or leaf for protection.  If you click on the leaf photo,  just between the wings you can see their lovely blue upper surface.  Faint blue stripes on the lower surface of the wings appear in the photo on the twig.

An old friend, a  Cabbage Butterfly (Pieris rapae), fluttered along the path as well.  This one’s a female since she has two spots on her forewings instead of one, as the male does.

Cabbage Butterfly Draper
A female Cabbage Butterfly has two spots on her forewings, rather than one spot as the male does.

A wee Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) hopped excitedly in the tree limbs on another morning with the birders. Though I caught a glimpse of his ruby crown through the binoculars, I never caught him showing it off for the camera!   You can see what he looks like flashing his ruby crown, though,  by clicking on this Audubon link.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet Draper
A Ruby-crowned Kinglet in the bushes on the trail to the lake at Draper.

Late last week, a male Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) on the lake trail was doing a simple “chewink” call (second entry under “calls” at the link) rather than singing like the one I’ll show you below in the eastern part of the park. These birds are particularly susceptible to the predation of cowbirds who lay eggs in their nests. Unlike many birds, they don’t seem to recognize cowbirds eggs or remove them. Cowbirds evolved to follow buffalo herds out west and so had to make use of other birds’ nests in order to move on.  But as farming replaced forests in the eastern US,  they moved here. According to the Cornell Lab, “In some areas cowbirds lay eggs in more than half of all towhee nests. ”

Towhee Draper Pond2
A male Eastern Towhee on the western trail at Draper.

As I approached the lake, I heard the unmistakable call of a pair of Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis). They were blocked from full view through the treetops so here’s a photo from an earlier year in Bear Creek.

sandhill in marsh
Two of these Sandhill Cranes, the tallest birds in Michigan, flew high over my head on the way to one of the twin lakes at Draper.

Sandhill Cranes mate for life and stay together year ’round. According to Cornell Lab, their young can leave the nest only 8 hours after they are born and are capable of swimming. Ben tells me they nested last year in the marsh on the eastern side of Draper, but I haven’t seen them there yet this year.

While birding on Wednesday, Ben’s group introduced me to a Cooper Hawk’s nest they’d seen the previous month. There appeared to be tail feathers sticking out of the nest.

Cooper's Hawk nest w tail feather
A Cooper’s Hawk nest near Draper Twin Lake

A few moments later, we were lucky enough to see the hawk itself on a branch near the nest, just carefully keeping an eye on things.

Cooper's hawk near nest
A Cooper’s Hawk near its nest at the lake

One of the special recreational features of Draper Lake is the fishing dock at the end of the trail. Fishermen tell me they catch Bluegills (Lepomis macrochirus), Crappie (genus Pomoxis), Largemouth Bass (Micropterus salmoides) and Northern Pike (Esox lucius). I just sit on the benches provided and watch for water birds.

Birders at Fishing Dock Draper
Ben and Wednesday morning birders at the fishing dock at Draper Twin Lake.

On one of my solo trips to Draper, I saw a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) standing among cattails at the far end of the pond, but my camera couldn’t quite reach it. Finally, it took off and I got a slightly blurred photo of its huge, blue wings.

Blue Heron Draper Lake
A Great Blue Heron takes off into the marsh at the far east end of the lake at Draper Park

Both Barn Swallows and Tree Swallows swooped and darted on the opposite side of the pond – visible through binoculars but not a camera. I could see two big Canada Geese near their nest – one either moving eggs or feeding young,  and the other standing guard.

Two Canada Geese at nest
Two Canada Geese across the pond, one tending the nest, the other standing guard

On Wednesday, one of the birders and I watched  Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata)apparently courting up in the trees along the trail. What was probably two males bobbed up and down on their thin legs  for a female on a nearby branch.  According to the Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.2), this bobbing “is often done in courtship flocks by more than one bird at a time.” I wonder which male’s bobbing she found most impressive?

Three Jays
It appeared that two male Blue Jays performed a bobbing courtship dance in the treetops for a nearby female.

Now let’s head off to the eastern part of Draper Twin Lake Park. The western and eastern sections aren’t connected by a trail because of the huge marsh in between. So walk or drive just a short way down the road and you’ll see a small utility building to your left.  You can park there.

The Eastern Section:  A Special Marsh, a Rolling Prairie and a Circular Path through the Old Fields

The eastern section of Draper Lake is still a “work in progress” and for me, that’s part of what makes it interesting. The trails are still being opened up and the prairie is planted on the northern side. This part of the park offers a peaceful place to hike and would be a beautiful, easy place to cross country ski in the winter.

Western loop Draper
Western arm of the circular trail on the eastern section of Draper Lake Park

I usually head off  to the west (left of the utility building) on the path pictured above which was  recently widened to eliminate woody invasive shrubs like Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata). At this time of year, it looks a bit rough since the stumps are still visible and brush is ragged from the cutting machine.  Ben plans to seed it with Little Blue Stem (Schizachrium scoparium), a native grass, and treat whatever stumps try to re-sprout. The curving sweep of this wider trail get us closer to the marsh – in fact particularly close to last year’s nesting site for Sandhill Cranes. On my first spring visit, a beautiful Great Egret (Ardea alba) rose from the marsh. I didn’t move fast enough for a great photo but here’s one during the summer at Bear Creek Marsh to give you a feel for what I saw.

Great Egret flying marsh
Great Egret flying over a marsh.

The open water areas around the edges of the marsh are now filling with various water lilies, sprouting from rhizomes deep in the muck after a long winter. The center area of the marsh has a very special floating sedge mat. The sedge mat is best viewed from the edge of the marsh since walking on it is very precarious and would damage the sensitive plants.

Draper Marsh from West
Water lilies line open water around the outside of the eastern marsh, surrounding a floating sedge mat.

Frogs leapt in as I approached the marsh on my first visit and huge round tadpoles wriggled just under the surface. But they eluded my camera. I did see a blur of blue diving into the water way over on the far side of the marsh and heard the rattling call of the Belted Kingfisher.  Glad I had an extra photo of one from Bear Creek!

Belted Kingfisher
A Belted Kingfisher (this one from Bear Creek) dove for food on the far side of the eastern marsh at Draper.

On my second trip, I came upon a young Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) who seemed to be making its way over a log.  Perhaps it was a female preparing to lay eggs, or maybe it had left the large central marsh for the relative seclusion of this smaller marsh to the east.

This week, Ben saw a Blanding’s Turtle (Emys blandingii) at Draper Lake as well. Last year my husband and I stopped along the paved part of Buell on the way home from Draper to take a photo of this one.  We helped it off the road by grabbing its shell at the back and moving it in the direction it was going, as we’ve been taught.  Blanding’s Turtles are listed as threatened in Michigan so we want to save as many as we can! Note the yellow chin and neck which is characteristic of these turtles.

Blandings Turtle on Buell Road
A Blanding’s Turtle crossing Buell Road near Draper Twin Lake Park

Ben and the birders spotted the flight of a Green Heron (Butorides virescens) at this marsh on Wednesday. These short, stocky birds sometimes lure their prey with little sticks or insects and then “zap!”   – they catch them with their spear-like bills. Here’s one hunting from a log at Bear Creek.

green heron
Ben and the birders saw the flight of a Green Heron at the marsh on the eastern side of Draper.

If you continue on the circular trail in this eastern section, you come to a beautiful sight – the rolling contours of what is about to become a native prairie. Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide has been working for two years to turn what used to be an overgrown farm field into the prairie grass and wildflowers that are native to our area. Last fall it was planted with native seed purchased with a grant from the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Maintenance mowing keeps the annual weeds under control for the first two years, so it will take about 3 or 4 summers before it looks like a full-3blown prairie. These sunny native plants like to sink their roots deep before they flower.  I can’t wait to see what comes up this spring, though.

Prairie turning green Draper
The prairie, planted with wild grasses and wildflowers, is starting to grow. It will reach its full growth in 3 or 4 yrs.

At the western edge of the prairie, eagle-eyed Ben spotted a migrating Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum) twitching its tail feathers in distant brush on the west side of the prairie. Warblers are small and elusive so we birders were happy to know one was passing through on its way to its breeding grounds in Canada.

Palm Warbler 1
Ben spotted a Palm Warbler at Draper this week. Here’s one from last fall at Bear Creek.

As you complete the circle, you find yourself in an old field overlooking the eastern edge of the marsh. The center of the marsh, Ben tells me, is  a “floating mat” which, according to an article from Loyola University “consists of tightly entangled plants and their roots, mixed with peat.” Apparently, it may look like any other marsh, but water is floating beneath it though plants and even bushes may be growing on top.

Draper marsh from east
The eastern edge of the eastern marsh at Draper Twin Lake Park is a floating mat of tangled plants and their roots with water moving underneath.
Roots of plants like Muskingum Sedge intertwine to form the floating sedge mat in the eastern marsh
Roots of plants like Muskingum Sedge intertwine to form the floating sedge mat in the eastern marsh

Right now, several Eastern Towhees (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) have begun their burbling song in the trees above the marsh. This one was throwing his head back in full courtship mode! I haven’t spotted any females yet, but I’ll keep looking, since this guy clearly expects one!

Towhee singing Draper
An Eastern Towhee singing his courting song in the eastern section of Draper Park

Here’s his version of the famous Towhee “Drink Your Te-e-e-e-ea” song.  This recording was made by my new birding friend, Antonio Xeira.

Click here to listen to the “Drink Your Tea” call of an Eastern Towhee.

Eastern Bluebirds perched and sang  (Sialia sialis) high in the trees, too high for a great shot.  So here’s a closeup of a male with either nesting material or breakfast in his beak from another spring.

bluebird with nest materials2
A Bluebird with either nesting material or breakfast in his beak.

And everywhere at Draper, you now hear the melody of the Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia).  Here’s one in a small tree  at Draper this week and another recording  of a Song Sparrow that my friend, Antonio Xeira, made with a good directional microphone.

Song sparrow Draper1
The Song Sparrows are singing all over Draper right now. His trilling can be heard below.

Trail’s End

A mighty White Pine ((Pinus strobus) stands sentinel toward the end of this circular trail around the marsh.  Draper Twin Lake Park has lots of these native trees;  their soft needles  make a soft, hushing sound in a breeze.

White Pine Draper
A large white pine that overlooks the eastern marsh from the top of a slope.

I look forward to knowing Draper Twin Lake Park better. I’ll keep visiting with Ben’s birding walks, and on my own, watching for spring and summer wildflowers, looking for fish below the dock, water birds in the lake and of course, enjoying the slow coming of that beautiful rolling prairie. Maybe I’ll meet you there some sunny morning,  perhaps fishing for bluegills, or strolling the paths, or maybe even on skis some snowy winter day!  They’re our parks, after all, so come and explore!

Footnote:  My sources for information are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991); Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for insect info; http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info; invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman; experienced birder Ruth Glass, bird walk leader at Stoney Creek Metro Park for bird identification; Birds of North America Online; Audubon.org; Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, Trees in My Forest by Bernd Heinrich, Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, Savannah River Ecology Lab (Univ of Georgia); Tortoise Trust website www.tortoisetrust.org;  An Orchard Invisible: A Natural History of Seeds by Jonathan Silvertown; The Ecology of Plants by Gurevitch, Scheiner and Fox; other sites as cited in the text.

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Shrimp, Clams?? Yes! Plus Plenty of Spring

Quite a week at Bear Creek!  It began with 3 inches of snow at  30 degrees and ended at 70 degrees and sunshine! I began the week by joining Ben and two other volunteers (Catherine Hu and Antonio Xeira) in monitoring the creatures that live in our vernal pools – the wetlands that fill in the spring and mostly or completely dry by middle or end of the summer. I’ll be sharing both my photos this week and, with his permission,  the photos of Antonio Xeira, an avid birder from Portugal and a fellow lover of the natural world.

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

It turns out that Bear Creek’s vernal pools are teeming with life!  And new life began to assert itself in the rest of the park, too,  as the weather warmed. The first woodland flowers thrust out of the earth,  a few more migratory birds rode in on the wind, butterflies spread their wings in the sunlight, turtles basked and swam while the frogs  sang and salamanders left floats of eggs in the vernal pools. Finally, on a perfect spring Saturday, humans appeared on the playground lawn enjoying the spring sunlight with their fellow creatures.  A lovely week.

Who Knew Bear Creek Hosted Shrimp and Clams?

Antonio and Catherine OT0002
Volunteers Catherine Hu and Antonio Xeira examine their finds from a vernal pool.

Michigan Natural Features Inventory is leading a project to map and monitor vernal pools, something never done in Michigan before. Since these wetlands dry up for part of the year, they are particularly vulnerable to being filled in. But scientists are finding that vernal pools are “biodiversity hotspots” of the forests. Late fall or early spring flooding of these pools stimulates dormant creatures to awake and others to hatch as the water level rises. The “indicator species,” the ones normally present in a vernal pool, are, among others,  wood frogs, fairy shrimp,and a variety of salamanders.  We sampled four ponds and found evidence of these species.

Fairy Shrimp (Order Anostraca) are .5 to 1.5 inches long, swim upside down and look like a tiny version of the shrimp sold at the seafood counter!  According to the website of the Vernal Pool Association, their sets of 11 leaf-like legs do several things – propel them through the water, gather food (algae, bacteria etc.), and take in oxygen from the water.

Fairy shrimp3 OT0019
Fairy shrimp from a vernal pool

Here’s a female with an egg sac attached, and eggs visible inside!

Fairy shrimp OT0001
A female fairy shrimp with full egg sack attached.

Of course there are other small creatures in these ponds too – tiny Fingernail Clams (family Sphaeriidae), mosquito larvae and water beetles that row around with their front legs like oars! (Click to enlarge; hover cursor for captions)

Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus) love these ponds. We found brown ones and one tiny rust-colored one underneath a log. They come in varying shades of brown and, according to Wikipedia,  some are able to change their shade! (Both photos by Antonio Xeira)

The salamanders had already mated, laid their eggs in the water and disappeared under logs or leaf litter. But their egg sacks, attached to twigs, were pretty impressive!  Ben thinks the larger egg masses are Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum), with Blue-spotted Salamanders (Ambystoma laterale) laying smaller egg masses or individual eggs.

Meanwhile in the Sunshine…Birds!

More migratory birds are passing through to cooler climes or coming to spend their summer with us. One late afternoon on the far side of the Center Pond, I watched a Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) perch, watch carefully and suddenly dip down into the water with a rattling call.  Belted Kingfishers excavate 3-6 foot bank-side tunnels for nesting which slope upward to keep out water. Fossils indicate that they have graced ponds for 600,000 years! This fellow was a male; a female has a rust-colored belt across her belly, making her one of the few female birds who are fancier than the males.

Belted Kingfisher 2
A Belted Kingfisher makes a rattling call before dipping down to eat from the Center Pond.

The Kingfisher will spend the summer with us, as will the Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus).  These beautifully spotted birds can be identified  in flight by a flash of white on their rump.  They’re high in the trees now, probably searching out nest holes. But since ants and beetles are a favorite meal, you can spot them poking their long beaks and barbed tongues into lawns or trails too.

Flicker Walnut Lane
An unusual posture for a flicker who normally uses its barbed tongue and long beak to probe the ground for ants and beetles.

A tiny migrant arrived this week too, the hyper-active Ruby-Crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula). With a constantly flicking tail, these restless birds move from branch to branch, rarely alighting for more than a few seconds. This one is just passing through on its way to breed somewhere in Canada.  Its “ruby crown” only appears when it’s excited so I guess this one felt relaxed, despite its hyper behavior.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet
This Ruby-crowned Kinglet is just stopping by on its way to spend the breeding season in Canada.

A pair of Eastern Phoebes (Sayornis phoebe) hung out near the kiosk at Gunn Road. They were clearly checking it out as a possible nest site. Once she starts laying eggs, however, the female will chase this male away from her mud-and-grass nest.

Phoebe BC
A pair of Phoebes were checking out the kiosk near Gunn Road as a possible nesting site.

I don’t often see American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) at Bear Creek during the winter, though they stay in the area.  My theory is that they’re all at neighborhood thistle feeders! But admittedly, they’re easier to spot now that the males have donned their bright yellow summer feathers.

Goldfinch BC
A male American Goldfinch has molted into its bright summer colors.

Flowers and Butterflies – It’s Definitely Spring!

Most years, I don’t see any woodland flowers until later in spring. The earliest to emerge are usually Spring Beauties (Claytonia virginica). But right now at Bear Creek, those lovely little flowers have only their leaves coming out of the ground in the dappled light of the woods.  But another of my early spring favorites, with the un-poetic name Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), is blooming along the western side of the Northern Loop. Notice how the flowers arise before the furled leaf below has opened – unusual in plants. The leaf will make a circular cloak around the flower once it’s fully open.

Blood root BC
The leaves of the Bloodroot unfurl after the flowers appear, eventually making a round cloak around the blossom.

Two butterflies fluttered over my shoulder on Saturday. Both of them spent the winter months as adult butterflies, hibernating in a frozen state under loose bark or in tree cavities. Mourning Cloaks are frequently the first butterflies out and about  in the spring which means they start the mating process earlier and have more broods than many migrating butterflies or ones that hatch in the spring. This one quickly winged its way to the Oak-Hickory forest – perhaps hoping for oak sap to rise soon and fill wells made by sapsuckers.  Sap is one of its favorite foods. Nice winter camouflage, eh? It looks like loose bark, especially with its wings closed. The Mourning Cloak has blue spots on it wings when they are open.

mourning cloak (1)
The Mourning Cloak emerges early in spring after hibernating under loose bark or in a tree hole all winter.
Winter-form Eastern Comma
Winter-form Eastern Comma

A small Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma) fluttered around me, landing on the trail. It also favors tree sap and spends the winter in frozen hibernation as an adult. The one I saw Saturday was tiny, restless and hard to photograph but it was still wearing winter colors – hindwing mostly orange with black spots (in photo at left). In the photo below, taken in a previous June, a summer-form Eastern Comma sports dark hindwings.

eastern comma butterfly
A summer-form Eastern Comma, with mostly black hindwings

Basking Feels So Good in the Spring!

A Garter Snake (genus Thamnophis) had climbed onto a small tree in one of the vernal pools we monitored last Monday and dropped into the water as Antonio, one of the volunteers, approached. No doubt it was interrupted while trying to soak up some sunlight after frigid Sunday weather.

antonios snake cropped
A snake probably basking in a small tree, dropped into a vernal pool where Antonio Xeira took its photo.

Fourteen Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta)shared logs in the Center Pond, soaking up the sun of the first really warm day. Like snakes, turtles are reptiles which can’t regulate their body heat except through activity. So most warm days turtles stick out their heads, necks and legs to capture the sun’s heat on their extremities as well as their dark shells.

14 Painted Turtles
Fourteen Painted Turtles soak up the sunlight at the Center Pond.

I saw my first Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) on Saturday as it cruised the marsh. It was feeding below the water with its long neck and then poking its head out for a breath of air. It must feel great to eat and swim after a long winter under the ice.

Snapper swimming marsh
A Snapping Turtle cruising the marsh for food and a little sunshine.

And human denizens of the park came to Bear Creek on Saturday to eat and bask in the warm sunshine, too. This family (whose name I unfortunately forgot to get!) graciously allowed a photo of their picnic on the grass with a lovely little human in a big hat to protect her from the spring sunshine.

Families picnicking BC
Families picnicking and basking at Bear Creek on Saturday afternoon.

So much life in this 107 acres, eh? Within the shady vernal pools, on logs at the Center Pond, on bare tree limbs, in the grass on the edge of trails and on the green carpet of  the playground, the park hummed with life by the end of the week. After a white-and-black, silent winter, the color and song of spring greet us like a warm smile. I hope you’ll be there, too,  smiling back.

Footnote:  My sources for information are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991); Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for insect info; http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info; invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman; experienced birder Ruth Glass, bird walk leader at Stoney Creek Metro Park for bird identification; Birds of North America Online; Audubon.org; Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, Trees in My Forest by Bernd Heinrich, Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, Savannah River Ecology Lab (Univ of Georgia); Tortoise Trust website www.tortoisetrust.org;  An Orchard Invisible: A Natural History of Seeds by Jonathan Silvertown; The Ecology of Plants by Gurevitch, Scheiner and Fox; other sites as cited in the text.

What happens to natural areas stewardship in the winter?

As the seasons change from fall to winter, most people finish up any last minute yard work and put away the gardening tools. Time for a break, right? Not quite! We tune up our brushcutters, sharpen the chainsaw, stock up on supplies, and head back out.

Cutting buckthorn, autumn olive, privet, and other invasive shrubs is much easier in the winter without insects, heat, and leaves.
Cutting buckthorn, autumn olive, privet, and other invasive shrubs is much easier in the winter without insects, heat, and leaves. I knocked out a large swath of buckthorn at Paint Creek Heritage Area – Wet Prairie in November and December.

Many stewardship tasks can only be done – or are easier to do – in the winter. After this cold snap, the buckthorn and other invasive shrubs growing in wetlands will be easier to access by walking on the ice. With the leaves off the trees we can easily spot the invasive shrubs, and the cool weather and absence of insects make it very pleasant to work outside. Here are two ways you can get outside to enjoy the outdoors and help with stewardship work this winter.

Prairie Restoration Workdays at Charles Ilsley Park

We scheduled Prairie Restoration Workdays at Charles Ilsley Park every Tuesday from 10 am to 1 pm during January and February. Even during the cold this week I headed out to clear invasive woody plants from the fields where we plan to plant native prairie vegetation over the next few years. We get very hot and sweaty work working in the open fields during the summer, but it is very comfortable to cut brush in the winter. Find the full schedule of prairie restoration workdays in the Volunteer Workdays part of our Stewardship Events page. We hope to see grassland bird species, prairie flowers, and thriving communities of organisms in the next few years!

Multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora) perches next to the trails to snag unsuspecting hikers.
Multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora) perches next to the trails to snag unsuspecting hikers.
Patches of woody vegetation in the fields at Charles Ilsley Park need to be removed before native prairie vegetation can be planted. We keep oaks and other tree species that would have been found historically in oak savannas.
Patches of woody vegetation in the fields at Charles Ilsley Park need to be removed before native prairie vegetation can be planted. We keep oaks and other tree species that would have been found historically in oak savannas.

Bird Walks and Work Days

Birds bring movement and life to our winter fields, forests, and wetlands. Learn more about birds and help us improve their habitat during our weekly bird walks which rotate through different parks. We want to find out which bird species are using our parks so that we can manage our natural areas for their benefit. We spend the first hour or so walking the park to record the bird species we see or hear. After the bird walk, we spend time helping birds by removing invasive plants, building/installing nest boxes, maintaining feeders, or planning for future stewardship work.

Visit the Birding Walks page to see the full schedule of weekly bird walks from now until the end of May. We started at Bear Creek Nature Park this week and got good looks of Black-capped Chickadees, Hairy Woodpeckers, and other typical winter birds. Many birds travel widely to find food in the winter, so you never know what you’ll see! We have some extra binoculars available for your use  on a first-come, first-serve basis. Hope to see you out there!

If you look closely, you'll see the belted kingfisher that I spotted perched on a branch above Paint Creek on January 8, 2015.
If you look closely, you’ll see the belted kingfisher that I spotted perched on a branch above Paint Creek on January 8, 2015. You never know what you’ll see in the winter!