October is autumn’s transition month. Some days are warm and sunny, creating almost an illusion of late summer or early September. And on those days, a few bees and butterflies flutter across my path, caterpillars bump along through the grass and native wildflowers still bloom in the fields. A turtle in the Draper marsh basks in the thinning light.
Change is in the air. Let’s look back to see what October had to offer as we take the first cold, rainy steps into the austerity of November.
Early October: Late Season Wildflowers Host the Occasional Bee or Butterfly
One Sunday afternoon in October, a Common Buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia) fluttered down onto the trail right in front of my husband and I. In the summer, Draper Twin Lake Park hosts a rainbow of butterflies. Some mate, lay their eggs and expire, leaving caterpillars behind in their chrysalises. But this colorful little butterfly migrates south for the winter and returns in the spring. Perhaps it stopped at Draper to sample the various goldenrods, since it prefers yellow flowers. Can you see the slightly bug-eyed expression on its face? I laughed to think it was as surprised to see my husband and I as we were to see it land right in front of us!
Late October: Swaying, Russet Prairie Plants Provide a Fall Feast for Wildlife
The video above may look like a sea of dry brown stems to you. But to the birds, particularly the American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis), it looks like your heavily laden Thanksgiving table. In just the video’s 40 seconds, you are seeing hundreds of thousands of seeds: Indian Grass, Coneflowers, Black-eyed Susans, Stiff Goldenrod, Little Bluestem and many more. On the August birdwalk, we spent a happy ten minutes or so watching a flock of goldfinches swaying on bobbing stalks as they stuffed themselves with Stiff Goldenrod seed (Solidago rigida). First there were two and then suddenly there were five all scrabbling to feed on the abundant seed heads.
Relishing Autumn’s Transformation
The Draper prairie with its great looping trail really may look dry, brown and lifeless to some hikers. But not to me. At this time of year, I feel a lot like Ratty, a “country gentleman” sort of muskrat in the children’s classic Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame, a book I quoted in an earlier blog. Like me, Ratty senses the restlessness of autumn. He heads out into a farmer’s field, much as I waded out into the tall grass of Draper’s northern prairie: “…he thrust into the great realm of wheat, yellow, wavy, and murmurous, full of quiet motion and small whisperings. Here he often loved to wander through the forest of stiff strong stalks that carried their own golden sky away over his head — a sky that was always dancing, shimmering, softly talking; or swaying strongly to the passing wnd and recovering itself with a toss and a merry laugh. Here, too, he had many small friends, a society complete in itself…”
Ratty is a kindred spirit. Autumn also plunges me into the bending and tossing grasses and the whispering of dry stems where I can stand shoulder deep in the prairie and just “be” with it all. Like him, I sense a community of other creatures in the flocks of fidgety birds, the agitated butterflies searching for the last bloom, the relentless plodding of a caterpillar through the grass stems. Autumn’s restlessness urges me to celebrate the change, change and change again of every season. I appreciate that reminder.
On a frigid late afternoon a week or so ago at Draper Twin Lake Park, I came upon a large stand of Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) glowing in the sunlight. It turned out that I was not the only one enjoying that warm patch of sunlight backlighting plumes of goldenrod. That sunny curve in the trail was alive with winter birds!
Feasting on Seeds
Tree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea) twittered cheerfully back and forth in the grass below the plants, foraging with the sunlit stems swaying above them. These cheery-voiced winter visitors from the far north were landing on the goldenrods and nibbling at the seed heads.
That made some of the seed fall to the ground, where the tree sparrows prefer to feed, so the tall grass below rippled with busily foraging members of the flock.
And Tree Sparrows hung out in the bushes and trees nearby waiting their turn, some gathering a little warmth on their breasts from the setting sun.
They weren’t the only species enjoying that patch of sunlit goldenrod, though. Another winter visitor from Canada, a Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis), swooped into the lit plumes and began sampling the seed heads.
In the background, a tentative American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis), dressed in its sedate winter plumage, waited its turn too. So many birds being fed at once! I imagine they all enjoyed the faint warmth of the winter sun shining through the plumes as they ate their evening meal.
Foraging for a Frozen “Dessert”
A male Downy Woodpecker (Dryobatespubescens) preferred to look for insect eggs or larvae in the stems of Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis). He moved quickly from plant to plant pecking furiously. Later in the winter, I often find goldenrod galls with neat holes in them where Downys have excavated larva from their winter hideaway inside. But this Downy Woodpecker was searching for something inside the stems themselves.
A pair of Eastern Bluebirds seemed to be checking out possible real estate for the spring. The female sat on the box for some time, occasionally fluttering down to poke her head inside. The male waited calmly nearby, taking periodic foraging trips down into the grass. (Click on photo to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Later I saw a female – perhaps the one from the nest box? – pecking on a branch until she loosened a frozen, tiny green caterpillar, which she then promptly swallowed. She was so busy pounding on its hard surface that I never got a clear photo of the caterpillar in her beak – but here she is just after eating her frozen dessert. Looks like it might have felt a bit chilly on the way down, doesn’t it?
In the same clump of bushes, a Black-Capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) performed acrobatic feats while trying, it appeared, to extract some kind of insect from the end of a twig. Here it is hanging upside down as it pecked diligently for its supper. I love its feathered leg-warmers.
So whether a bird prefers seeds or likes to finish the day with a cold bug or two, Draper Twin Lake Park has food ready and waiting. Nice how nature works like that…
Maybe you’ve noticed individual feathers showing up in a nearby pond or on your lawn. Or you’ve noticed that birds and birdsong both seem a bit scarce right now. Or the birds you do see look just a bit scruffy. Well, don’t worry too much. It’s likely that nothing’s gone wrong for your avian neighbors. It’s just that lots of birds molt in late summer.
That slightly disheveled bird you saw is probably an adult replacing frayed and worn feathers before the rigors of winter or before its fall migration. Once breeding is over, and while there’s still plenty of food to nourish them, birds systematically shed some of their feathers, replacing them before shedding others. Feathers account for 4-12% of body weight so it takes a lot of food energy to replace them! The foraging male Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) below with its feathers a bit askew is probably close to completing his molt. He will need to build up his reserves before beginning his journey to southern Ohio or points farther south.
So how does molting work? It turns out that feathers are made of keratin like our hair or fingernails, so feathers can’t repair themselves. The rigors of the breeding season can take quite a toll on feathers. Think of it – all that to-ing and fro-ing from the nest or tree cavity, the scrabbling that occurs around an adult bird’s head as the young compete to be fed, plunging into the grass to snatch bugs, and riding down stalks to gather seeds on a windy day. The feathers of an adult bird take quite a beating! (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
A Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) gathering seed on a windy day.
A Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) reaches far into her nest to feed her young.
When I saw this male Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) a week or so ago, I wondered if he was just beginning his complete molt into the dappled blue and brown plumage that he wears during the winter.
The molting process begins with the bird shedding a few feathers. In their place, “pin feathers” emerge quickly. These pin feathers are supplied with blood for growth and look like the rigid shaft of adult feathers. As they lengthen, the blood stays in the lower ends and the tips slowly encase the feathers in a waxy coating. So when you see birds preening during a molt, they are very likely pulling off that coating, allowing the adult feathers to unfurl.
The Great Egret (Ardea alba) below seems to have shed a few feathers, since some were stuck to the branches behind it and some lay below on the trunk of the snag. Perhaps it’s unfurling new feathers, or it could just be going after some persistent feather mites.
I’ve read that pin feathers are more sensitive than adult feathers. I wonder if that’s why we often see birds preening so vigorously before migration. Maybe preening feels something like scratching your head when it itches! According to Cornell’s comprehensive “Birds of North America” subscription website, Egrets molt “some to most” of their body feathers when they’re in “northern non-breeding grounds.” Since egrets nest in only a few areas in Michigan, most of Michigan is a non-breeding area suitable for molting. Maybe that’s why this Egret was preening almost continually, including stretching up its leg to scratch its cheek!
Molting happens on different schedules for different bird species. Some have one molt per year, some molt into breeding colors in the spring and molt again in the fall, and some do partial molts, head and back feathers first and tail and wing feathers later. With experience the age and sex of many birds can be identified using their plumage.
In early summer after breeding, Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) have an extra molt, a partial one. The males molt into “eclipse plumage, ” a drab plumage that makes the males look more like the brown females, though males still retain the red eye, red upper beak and double white stripe which females don’t have. Evidently male ducks do this to get the protection of being much less conspicuous during summer months. Here’s a photo of a male Wood Duck in eclipse plumage by iNaturalist photographer Heather Pickard.
Like many ducks, Wood Ducks choose mates in the fall, overwinter with them and then mate in the spring. Of course the males want to look their most dazzling before courting! So they change into their breeding colors from mid-summer to early autumn, instead of in the spring like many birds. It’s a complete molt, meaning every feather is replaced, which renders them flightless for about three weeks. The female’s appearance stays the same with her new feathers. But the male recreates his elegant breeding plumage, including the iridescent green crest sloping down the back of his neck. Below are two males in a wetland near Lost Lake Nature Park two weeks ago who look like they’re about halfway between eclipse plumage and their glamorous breeding colors.
Birds don’t fight change. They simply do what’s required as the light informs them that the days are getting shorter. They molt. So when I go look for my jacket or warmer socks on a cool autumn day, I’m just part of the same process, I guess. And since my adjustment seems much less arduous than that of our feathered friends, I’ll try not to grouse about it!
At first glance, Bear Creek Nature Park in November doesn’t have much to recommend it. A frequently gray sky glowers overhead. Insects don’t buzz, soar over or spring out of the fields now drained of color. Birds only occasionally call but never sing. A casual observer might say that that there’s “nothing to see.” But they’d be wrong.
It just takes a bit more attention and a dash of memory to enjoy a late autumn hike. That quick little movement in the bare shrubbery could be a group of small golden migrators wintering here with us. Leaves skate across the pond’s first skim of ice or frame a bit of brilliant green and red moss. The birds that live with us year ’round are making winter homes and energetically seeking out bits of nourishment all around us if we look. Summer creatures snooze under the bark of trees and under the soil at our feet as we walk. Life doesn’t stop, even in November. We just need a bit more care to enjoy it on a November day.
Noticing November’s Birds – Blue, Red, Golden, Even Ones with Fancy Hairdos!
All month the Center Pond has shifted from water to ice and back again – but it’s always a place to watch with a keen eye. On the first bird walk of the month, the group saw Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) as usual, calmly cruising at the far end of the pond. But then, wait! What about that bird with the bouffant crest? It seems that those sneaky Hooded Mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) may have added an egg to a Mallard or Wood Duck nest, as they occasionally do. The young female Merganser steamed up and down the bank at a snappy pace, as her Mallard companions paused to preen along the way.
That same early November day, the birders heard the “tsee, tsee” call and then saw a group of winter visitors from northern Canada, Golden-crowned Kinglets (Regulus satrapa). The flock was too quick-moving for me, so I’ve borrowed a lovely shot from iNaturalist.org’s photographer, Joanne Redwood. Though we saw these little Kinglets in bare shrubs, look for them mostly where there are lots of pines whose needles provide shelter for them on snowy days.
Late in the month, a male Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon)had claimed the center pond as his winter territory and found my presence quite annoying. When I spotted this guy, he was calmly gazing out across the pond with his crest lowered. But as I approached, his crest began to rise as he swooped between three trees at the eastern end of the pond, shouting his rattle-call to declare his territory. Female Belted Kingfishers usually migrate a bit south to be guaranteed some open water, which they need for fishing. But the males often stay north to protect possible nesting territory. When the pond freezes, though, he’ll temporarily move south or to water that stays open in the dead of winter.
The next time I saw the mallards at the pond, the day was icy cold but the pond was still open. Three males were “bottoms up,” feeding.
On that same icy day, a large flock of Mallards on Bear Creek Marsh preened frantically, trying to keep warm by adding oil to their feathers from a gland beneath their tails. The oil helps align their feathers, providing maximum waterproofing and insulation.
On windy days, of which there were many this month, our year ’round birds seemed to retreat to the woods, where I suppose the tree density breaks the wind. I was surprised this week to see a female Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) in the woods. I tend to see them most in meadows or open areas; that day she was just taking a break in the woods from gusting 20 miles-per-hour winds! So nice to see these bright blue birds on a gray fall day. (Click on photos to enlarge.)
Black-capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) scout out decaying snags, looking for a snug hole for winter nights. Sometimes they excavate one and sometimes they appropriate an old woodpecker hole. This snag looked a little promising. The number of “dees” in a Chickadee’s call indicates how much danger is around. Fortunately, my husband and I only rated the average 3 “dees.”
A few minutes later, a White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) decided to take it step further – either looking for possible insect eggs or perhaps exploring the depth of a hole in the same snag for a winter retreat. In winter, Nuthatches hang out with Chickadees and Titmice for protection and to take advantage of possible food sources other birds may find.
A “kwirr” call from high above alerted us to a Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpescarolinus). This male definitely seemed to be foraging. I think I spotted little insect eggs on his beak as he concentrated his attention on one spot in the bark. He can use his summer nesting hole in a dead tree or limb on cold winter nights.
Imagining and Remembering: Good Tools for a November Walk
On days when birds are elusive and the parks seem quiet, I watch for reminders of summer creatures who are hidden away, spending the winter underground, under water, or under bark and leaves all around me. Here are a few that came to mind during November.
The Raccoon’s (Procyon lotor) hole is empty now, but I bet there may be one or two sleeping deep in that well-used south-facing hole.
It looks as though a Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) built this unusual “push-up” den among the trees on a small mud flat in the Center Pond. So there will be probably be one swimming very slowly and eating in the air space inside the den during the winter.
Of course, some of the reminders concern summer visitors. This little nest we spotted during an early snow shower could be the summer breeding home of a variety of birds. I’m no expert on nests, but I’m imagining that it could be that of a Chipping Sparrow since Cornell describes their nests as “a loose cup of rootlets and dried grasses so flimsy you can often see through it” But that’s just a guess.
And this fragile, scrap of nest near the pond brings back memories of the faithful father, the Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus) who patiently took his turn at the nest – an unusual behavior in male birds. The nest was never very sturdy but autumn winds and rain have left only the base.
And this abandoned, tattered masterpiece was probably the home of some sort of Yellow Jacket species, perhaps the Bald-Faced Hornet (Dolichovespula maculata.) The only surviving member of this once active hive would be the inseminated queen who is probably spending the winter under bark or inside a log nearby. She’ll emerge to lay the eggs of future queens and future workers whose infertile eggs produce the males.
Standing by a wetland pond in the park last week, I was reminded of the Salamanders(Order Urodela) who now must be hibernating under my feet. On a warm, wet night next spring, salamanders will wriggle their way to the water, lay their eggs on a stick and hide again under logs further upland. That’s where I found some of their young when the trees were green last spring.
The Mourning Cloak butterfly(Nymphalis antiopa) which can actually overwinter as an adult under bark or in a tree cavity might be camouflaged inside or on any tree you pass on your hike. The underside of it wings imitate tree bark when folded. The upper side, however, features a white edge and a lovely band of blue spots when it flutters forth in early April, as you can see in this photo by inaturalist.org photographer Lewnanny Richardson.
Relishing Bits of Color Among the Autumn Brown
I crave color when the leaves have fallen and my eyes are still adjusting to the austere beauty of late autumn and winter. Luckily nature still provides a few splashes here and there before the snow covers it all. A sampling in the slideshow below.(Use pause button for captions.)
Or If All Else Fails…
How about placing bets on which leaf wins the race across an icy Center Pond? Here’s a silly 10 second video with faint “play-by-play” by my husband, Reg.
The Subtle Charms of Late Autumn Hiking
The pizzazz of spring and summer is past, the colors of early fall are memory, but late autumn, too, has its charms if you give it a chance. The last leaves high in the canopy are hushing in the wind. Take a moment to watch just one leaf dance and swirl its way down to the water. Or toss a milkweed seed to the wind and then watch it sail across a meadow. Have a closer look at a plate-sized mushroom on a log. Sit on a bench out at the marsh and watch the wind ripple the water or the cat-tail seeds shining like snow as they blow across the marsh. Let your cheeks tingle in crisp air after long hours indoors. I bet you’ll come back inside refreshed and with stories to tell. You’ll see…
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.
Late summer wildflowers nodded and swayed in the meadows, woods, wetlands and native gardens at Bear Creek this August. Monarch butterflies paused on the blossoms, competing mostly with industrious native bumblebees. And all over the park, young birds were feeding on their own – or in a few cases, still getting fed by doting adults. In the center pond, a tiny creature foraged in disguise!
So take a wander along the trails, as goldenrod transforms the park from green to gold, and enjoy the bright beauty of summer’s last hurrah!
Like Some Human Youngsters, A Few Avian “Adolescents” Stick Close to Mom or Dad
A young Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannustyrannus) hid in a shrub in the eastern meadow, insisting loudly about being fed. No parental response was forthcoming from the adult on a shrub some distance away. So eventually, the youngster ventured out into the field, looking about with curiosity. Seemingly satisfied with this move toward independence, the adult flew in to feed the youngster. And then they shared the bush a while until the adult flew farther off again. (Click on slideshow’s pause button for captions.)
Two groups of Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) were escorting their young around the Center Pond. In one group, two males and a female floated along with a small juvenile. The males are now in their late summer “eclipse plumage” which makes them look very much like the females – except that the males have yellow bills, while females’ bills are orange and black. The males will change back to their glamorous, iridescent green head feathers later in the fall when Mallards choose their mates for next spring. I guess these two males on the right were sticking close to this female just in case she made an early decision!
Nearby, a female Mallard escorted her four youngsters with no male attention at all.
A male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)seemed remarkably calm at my approach as he concentrated on gathering seeds in his beak. Usually they dash off at the first sight of me when they’re on the ground. He wasn’t crushing the seeds, so I assume he had a nest nearby since cardinals can have up to four broods in a season. That’s a lot of parenting in just a few months.
A male American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) plucked buds from native Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) which is just beginning to bloom.He may have been feeding his young as well, since this is the nesting season for goldfinches.
While Adults Molt, Young Birds Forage on Their Own
Many bird species molt from mid-August until mid-September, including Field Sparrows, Downy Woodpeckers, House Wrens and many others. The Eastern Kingbird, featured feeding its young above, doesn’t molt until it reaches its winter territory in South America. It’s occurred to me that since birds go into hiding during the molt, perhaps their young have to be a bit more independent sooner than other birds. Just a guess. In any case, a lot of young birds are out and about, clumsily trying to forage on their own.
I saw what I think is an adult Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) just beginning its molt. The bird’s feathers looked oddly fluffed out and it was picking at its breast in a persistent way. It might be a male since they molt a bit earlier than females. Below, a group of young song sparrows hopped along the trail, seeing what they could find in the grass before flying up into small trees nearby. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Downy Woodpecker adults(Picoides pubescens)are molting now too. The Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol II) says “[Downy] Fledglings in general can be told from adults by the clearly new, white feathers on their breast. Adult have gone in and out of the nest hole hundreds of times by this stage and look very worn, with bits of black showing through their white breast feathers.” The feathers on the young female I saw looked wonderfully fresh as it tried to drill into a branch, so I’m guessing it’s a foraging juvenile.
Down at the Center Pond, a Green Heron rested calmly on a log. Since spring, I’ve repeatedly seen a Green Heron in that very place, so I’m thinking it’s a mature bird. Cornell contends that Green Herons are sometimes found in colonies. But I’ve never seen more than one of these solitary birds at a time.
Two other solitary birds could have been adults or juveniles. It’s hard to distinguish with the House Wren and the Black-capped Chickadee once they’re out on their own. The House Wren may have been a youngster since it was clearly curious, but the Chickadee appeared to be a sophisticated contortionist as it probed a stick for insects.
Glorious Wildflower Color, Exuberant Vines and a Few Pretty-but-Toxic fruits in the Woods and Shady Wetlands
Though wildflowers are not generally as numerous on the shady paths of Bear Creek, you don’t want to miss them. So keep an eye out for their exotic shapes and vivid colors shining out of the greenery as you make your way, especially near wetlands. I just learned from Wikipedia that the Jack-o’lantern mushrooms(Omphalotusolearius) below are even bio-luminescent and their gills glow faintly green in the dark when they’re fresh! Hence the name, eh?
Native Wildflowers and Grasses Bask in the Sunlight of the Meadows and Native Gardens
In the native gardens, the center of the parking lot, and scattered across the sunny meadows, native wildflowers bloom among the Canada Goldenrod and the Queen Anne’s lace. The monarchs seem to be enjoying them. A female sipped nectar from the Purple Coneflower and a male spread his beautiful wings on the Joe-Pye. (The field marks for males are bulges in the veins on their hind wings.) Here’s a sampling:
A Quarter-sized Creature Dons a Bubble Disguise
One cloudy afternoon, my husband spotted a very small clump of bubbles, green Water Meal (Wolffia coumbiana) and Duckweed (Lemna minor) moving slowly around the water of the center pond near the dock.
At first only the yellow/green striped head of a tiny Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta)peeked out of the bubbly mass.
At last, we could see this tiny creature – a turtle about the size of a quarter – who’d found a nifty disguise to wear while munching on the Water Meal and Duckweed greenery that covers the pond. I’m betting on this little one to survive to adulthood!
Perhaps when this baby gets a little bigger, it can join the Painted Turtles who hang out on this log at the east end of the pond almost every warm day. Last Saturday, this group seemed to be doing a slow motion version of the Hokey-Pokey (“You put your left leg in, you put your left leg out”), except for that one member who is not quite with the program!
The Delight is the Details
Meadows like the one shown above on the western slope are an eye-full on a summer day. The sweeps of green, yellow and white against a blue sky soothe the spirit like a cool hand on a fevered brow. Soak it in. You can feel yourself unwinding. Then look a little closer. So much of the delight in nature comes from noticing small things – like the turtle in its bubble disguise, the scarlet cardinal flower shining in a shady wetland, or a parent bird feeding its young on a leafy branch. Like any great work of art, there’s always more to see in nature’s landscapes than what comes quickly to the eye. So perhaps spend a few quiet minutes looking down into the water or into the tall grass. Scan the treetops through your binoculars. The smallest discovery can add just a little more joy to a walk in the park.
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: butterfliesathome.com;Pollinators of Native Plants by Heather Holm; Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3; 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; other sites as cited in the text.