Nourish Nature Around You: Plant an Oak!

Oak at Charles Ilsley Park in spring

We aren’t called Oakland Township in Oakland County for no reason. For thousands of years, oaks have been a keystone tree sustaining our local habitat and the people who live here. When Europeans arrived in the early 1800’s, they marveled at rolling grasslands filled with wildflowers and large oaks scattered here and there or standing in groves. An article in the Michigan Botanist journal quotes C.F. Hoffman from 1835:

Clumps of the noblest oaks, with not a twig of underwood, extending over a gently undulating grassy surface as far as the eye can reach: here clustered together in a grove of tall stems supporting one broad canopy of interlacing branches, and there rearing their gigantic trunks in solitary grandeur from the plain . . . .

C.F. Hoffman 1835
Text and most photos by Cam Mannino

What a vision, eh? If you want a taste of that landscape, visit the restored prairies at Charles Ilsley Park this spring or summer!

I decided I’d better get to know this giant among local plants. I came away impressed! My hope is that what I found will encourage you to take special care of the oaks on your own property – and if you’re without any oaks (heaven forbid!), find a corner for one this year!

What Makes Oaks So Special?

Well, of course, most of the oaks near us are big – which means that they extract huge amounts of carbon from the atmosphere and store it in their bark, branches and roots for years. How many years? White Oaks (Quercus alba), the elders of the plant family here, can keep that carbon stored for 900 years! Doug Tallamy, Professor of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware and author of The Nature of Oaks, explains that given the right conditions, oaks have a life cycle of 300 years growing, 300 years in stasis (just living!) and 300 years of decline.

During their long lifetimes, they stabilize the soil around them with huge root systems, producing ten times more biomass underground than they produce above ground! They need those roots to support them for all those long years. Their large canopies and ridged bark prevent erosion by controlling runoff in heavy rains, maintaining nearby watersheds for centuries. Their shade cools the air. Many native trees provide these services of course, but the oaks do it all on a grander scale. And that’s only the beginning of the services they provide to their surroundings.

Oaks Generously Feed the World Around Them

White Oak near the Center Pond at Bear Creek Nature Park

Throughout the centuries, and even after death, oaks literally make life possible for hundreds of species, untold thousands of individual creatures. I’m imagining that what comes first to your mind is acorns. And you’re right, but there’s more to the story.

Acorns and the Creatures that Love ’em

A single oak tree can provide three million acorns in a lifetime which feed a wide range of mammals, bird and insects. Tallamy cites squirrels, deer, mice, possums, rabbits, raccoons and foxes among our local mammals, plus many birds, including turkeys, woodpeckers, nuthatches, titmice, towhees, flickers, even wood ducks! Acorns provide them with protein and fat before and during the cold winter months – just when food is scarce and hungry creatures need to bulk up to cope with frigid temperatures.

Blue Jays and Oaks: A Match Made in Heaven

Blue Jays spread oaks by caching them and then forgetting where most of them are!

Oaks have a special friend in the crow family (Corvidae), the jays, including of course, our noisy neighbor, the Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata). All over the world wherever oaks shade the ground, some species of jays are planting their acorns far and wide. Our Blue Jays cache them for winter by tapping them into open soil one by one. According to Professor Tallamy, one Blue Jay can bury up to 4,500 acorns a year! Luckily, they only remember the location of about 25% of their acorns. The rest are free to grow into trees, if they germinate or aren’t eaten by other creatures. Jays can carry acorns up to a mile away which means that oaks move out into the landscape faster and farther than other trees. What a great tradeoff – food for the jays, dispersal for the oaks. (Scientists call this “mutualism”)

Oak Strategies for Outfoxing the Fox Squirrels (and other nibblers)

“Mast Years” – Overdoing It With a Purpose

Oaks have evolved a strategy for preventing those plentiful acorn-eaters from gobbling up every acorn. At random intervals, all the oaks in a given location cooperate in producing a giant crop of acorns – more than all those local munchers, like squirrels and deer, could possible eat in a season. It’s called a “mast year.” That way, chances improve for some acorns growing into oak saplings.

The population of acorn consumers increases as well-fed animals produce more young. Ah, but the next year and for several years after, the oaks somehow coordinate again in producing very few acorns, reducing the population of acorn consumers. By doing this together, but unpredictably, the oaks make it impossible for acorn lovers to plan for a mast year. They never know when a good acorn year is coming. And neither do the researchers who have yet to discover how oaks coordinate with other oaks to create a mast year! A mystery, yet to be solved! I love a good mystery…

Fending Off Bud Nibblers – A Yucky Mouthful

Four sapling oaks at Charles Ilsley Park kept their lower leaves this winter perhaps to discourage browsing deer.

You may have noticed that oaks, young oaks especially, keep their dead leaves on their lower limbs until spring. It’s called “marcescence.” One hypothesis is that since oaks evolved with huge, browsing mammals, like mastodons and other megafauna, they needed to protect their tasty, nutritious buds for next year’s growth. That might explain why oak leaves as far as 18 feet up don’t drop in the autumn; that’s about as far as a mastodon could reach! Today’s browsers, like deer and moose, may be put off by a mouthful of distasteful, nutrition-poor dead leaves, just as the mastodons may have been. Or it could be that the dry leaves protect the buds from cold, maintain moisture by holding snow longer or create nutritious leaf litter in spring when most tree growth occurs. Or it may be a combination of all those factors. No one’s quite sure but it’s a distinctive feature of oaks, beeches, hornbeams and a few willows.

But Oaks Sustain Life with an Even More Plentiful Food Source than Acorns!

Oaks provide another much more impactful way of feeding a park, a forest or my yard (which is surrounded by Black Oaks.) It all centers around the creatures that the famous entomologist E.O. Wilson once called “the little things that run the world” – insects! Insects are a basic food group for countless creatures. Stop a second and think of all the creatures around us that eat insects: fish, reptiles, amphibians, spiders, and especially birds!

Some mammals also include insects in their diet, like possums, raccoons, bears, bats, and moles to name a few. Plants eat insects, too. Here are three local species: Sundew (Drosera anglica), Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia purpurea) and Common Bladderwort (Utricularia vulgaris).

Even insects eat other insects! My list includes dragonflies, praying mantises, ladybugs, and crickets, but no doubt there are many more.

An Autumn dragonfly (Sympetrum vicinum) eating a damselfly

Insects also pollinate about 80 to 90 percent of all plants on the earth. What a huge service for life! Without pollinated plants, we’d all go hungry since even human meat-eaters dine on plant-eating creatures. Insects also act as essential decomposers of dead plants and animals.

But what’s just as crucial about insects is their young – those squiggly caterpillars. As the largest class of animals on earth, they feed countless creatures. The massive number of caterpillars in any given area feed a greater number and wider variety of creatures than any other animal that eats plants – more than deer or even elephants!

E.O. Wilson once observed, “If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed 10,000 years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.” See what he meant when he said they “run the world”?

And What Makes Oaks So Special When It Comes to Insects?

Well, wherever oaks grace the landscape, they are the undisputed champions at housing and feeding caterpillars. They support over 900 species in North America. Here’s just a tiny selection among the more than 500 species that oaks support around here in Michigan. Aren’t they amazing?

We don’t even know most of these small caterpillars exist (at least, I didn’t!), because most of them are so small and live high in the trees. Caterpillars largely eat at night in order to avoid birds and other daytime predators. Many adult moths, which make up a huge percentage of the more than 500 species of lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) in our oaks, pollinate at night as well. No wonder we don’t see them! Their presence generally presents no problem for oaks and the leaf damage is not really noticeable to us from the ground. So even if we don’t see them, they’re up there, along with the young of other insects like katydids, beetles, and praying mantises among many others.

According to Jim McCormac, former field botanist at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, only a tiny percentage of insect eggs, caterpillars and pupae survive to produce the next generation. The vast majority become food for other creatures. Doug Tallamy uses our friendly Black-capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) to demonstrate the gigantic quantity of insect offspring needed each year.

A Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) gathering seed on a windy day but seeds make up only 50% of their diet. The rest is insects and their caterpillars.

To feed a clutch of their young, two Chickadee adults must catch 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars each season to feed their young just while they’re in the nest! Then they feed their fledglings outside the nest for another 21 days. And those numbers don’t include the frozen insect eggs and caterpillars that Chickadees rely on to survive the winter.

Our Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, joins a birding group from Seven Ponds Nature Center watching a Blue-headed Vireo, another insect-eater, at Charles Ilsley Park.

Migrating birds flock here each spring because our native trees and plants produce such a flush of nutritious caterpillars. Imagine the numbers of caterpillars required to just feed the birds in your yard. Then imagine the number required in one of our parks, or in a national forest – in every season, all over the country and the world! Insect numbers are in drastic decline worldwide due to insecticides and habitat loss. But we can help by planting and preserving oaks, the trees that host the largest number of caterpillars in their leaves, their bark and their roots – even in their leaf litter!

One of the many litter moth species in the forest at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park emerges onto a patch of moss.

Most caterpillars native to North America can’t eat the leaves of non-native plants, or if they do, they can’t reach maturity by eating those leaves. They didn’t evolve with plants from far away, so they can’t properly digest the leaves. That’s why native flowers, shrubs and plants are so crucial to preserving life everywhere. Pollinator gardens are wonderful at feeding adult insects, but unless they also have a significant percentage of native plants, even they can be a desert for butterfly offspring.

Would You Consider Planting One? Hmmm?

My first year attempt at starting a bed of soft sedges and spring flowers beneath a tall Black Oak in our yard.

Now I know what you’re thinking, or at least I think I do. See if I’m right and if I can give you a somewhat acceptable answer.

  1. You believe that they grow too slowly? They don’t really. The first few years they develop slowly above ground because they’re developing the root system that has to support and feed them for hundreds of years. In one of his presentations (cited below), Tallamy shows yearly photos of a White Oak that he planted from an acorn that grew to 45 feet tall in 20 years with a canopy spread of 30 feet! That’s a lot of cooling shade! Of course, that amount of growth assumes: a) the oak is planted where its roots can grow deep, i.e. no interference from sewer lines, foundations, compacted soil; b) that it’s not fertilized. North American trees grow best on the nutrient poor soils left by glaciation. Weird, eh?
  2. Looking for a somewhat smaller oak? Yes, we have some! Dwarf Chinkapin Oaks and Pin Oaks might work in your yard here in the township. Across the state and the country, there are other smaller varieties. Ask a native nursery or landscaper.
  3. You’re worried that they’re expensive? Get the smallest oak sapling you can find. Small oaks won’t have such heavily pruned root systems. Large nursery saplings need to spend many years re-growing their previously cut roots, but a small sapling can establish and start growing right away. Or simply pick up an acorn right after they fall. There’s a section at the back of Tallamy’s book, The Nature of Oaks, called “How to Plant an Oak.”
  4. Too many leaves? It’s best if you can find a spot where the leaf litter can just be left below the oak tree – no raking or mowing. Leaf litter keeps the soil moist, slowly returns nutrients to the soil and nurtures many moth caterpillars. Some moth caterpillars stick their cocoons to the bark of a branch or trunk. But others drop to the ground, burrow into the soil and pupate there – or spin a cocoon in the fallen leaves to overwinter there. But if leaving fallen oak leaves is impossible in your yard, consider planting ferns, sedges and/or wildflowers beneath your tree. They’ll make for a soft, safe landing for little caterpillars.
  5. Too many acorns? Remember that mast years occur periodically but not every year. And you can handle the acorns from one or two trees. Oaks in the Red Oak group have mast years less often than White Oaks do. Maybe consider sharing some acorns with neighbors along with planting instructions?
  6. You’re afraid a tree might fall on your house? If you have room, plant a grove of oaks, or a mix of oaks and other species, so that their roots interconnect and support each other. And by the way, oaks don’t lift sidewalks or driveways because they grow deep enough not to bother hardscape on the surface. The pavers near our black oaks do just fine. Also, don’t panic about old, hollow oaks. Like a pipe, all the strength of any tree is in its outer ring; the interior is softer, dead material. So unless it poses a danger to structures or you often walk beneath it, don’t cut it down. It’ll survive for a long time and continue feeding the habitat around you.

How’d I do? Are you persuaded? If you still have other concerns about planting an oak in your location, consider leaving me a question in the comments and I will try to find an answer.

Protect Your Oaks!

It’s important that you don’t prune your oaks or damage their bark in any way from mid-March to November. Wait until late fall or winter to trim your oak trees, and avoid attaching signs, bird houses, or anything else to your trees. In warmer weather, a deadly, non-native fungus called Oak Wilt can be carried by native beetles that adore the smell of broken oak bark. They can arrive at your damaged tree within 20 minutes! Keep a can of clear shellac around; if damage happens, quickly spray it on the wound. Currently there’s no reliable cure for oak wilt. Trees in the Red Oak group can spread the disease to other oaks through their interconnected roots. We don’t have much oak wilt in our area yet. Let’s keep it that way!

Also be aware that occasional infestations of non-native Spongy/Gypsy Moths (Lymantria dispar) can severely defoliate oaks and other trees. The trees usually survive and re-sprout, even if defoliated for repeated years. But if you’re concerned, here’s Michigan State University’s web page on identifying and dealing with them. Please don’t confuse them with the native silk web caterpillars, Eastern Tent Caterpillars or Fall Web Worms, which cause only minimal damage. Remember, spraying an oak can kill over 500 species!

A Brief Guide to Oak Identification

I’ve only included leaf shapes here. I’m trying to learn bark patterns for winter ID’s but have a long way to go before I master it. Consult a tree ID app or guide book for more complete information. Lots of acorns look very much alike, but I love the distinctive fringed, stocking-cap-look of Bur Oak acorns that make identifying them so easy!

The bristly caps of Bur Oak acorns

Our oaks fall into two groups, White Oaks and Red Oaks. Here’s a quick look at leaves of the most common species in our area.

The leaves of the White Oak group have rounded lobes. This group includes species such as White Oak, Swamp White Oak, Chinkapin Oak, and Bur Oak. The leaves of Swamp White Oaks and Chinkapin Oaks are slight more pointed but don’t have bristles at the tips like the Red Oak family.

Each lobe on the leaves of the Red Oak group has a sharply pointed tip ending in a bristle. The Red Oak group in our area includes species such as Northern Red Oak, Pin Oak, Red Oak, and Black Oak.

So, What Do You Think? Can You Host an Oak in Your Yard?

A very old oak at Stony Creek Nature Park extension off Snell Road

I know not everyone can plant an oak, but I’m hoping many of you can. More than any other native tree, the mighty oaks provide life support for the whole, intricate web of life that surrounds each of us. All of our native trees host some native caterpillars; our insects evolved with them after all. But if we want to make a big difference with just one tree, the oak’s our best bet. And just think, it will be standing right where you planted it for hundreds of years after you and I are gone. Such a great legacy to leave for the future!

Primary Sources:

  1. Michigan Botanist, 2008, Vol 47 “PRAIRIE AND SAVANNA IN SOUTHERN LOWER MICHIGAN: HISTORY, CLASSIFICATION, ECOLOGY” by Kim Alan Chapman and Richard Brewer. Quote from Hoffman, C.F. (1835). A winter in the west. Michigan History Magazine 9:221–228; 9:413–437 (1925)
  2. Bringing Nature Home and The Nature of Oaks by Professor Doug Tallamy
  3. Doug Tallamy’s online presentation for the Washtenaw Conservation District. The first section is an interesting piece on how to help oaks regenerate in forests. Doug’s section on the nature of oaks begins 27 minutes in.

Bear Creek Nature Park: Spring Arrives on a Wing and a Song

I dropped in on Bear Creek Nature Park multiple times in April and early May, watching nature’s slow-but-steady journey into spring. After a difficult year, seeing nature renew itself felt especially reassuring – a useful antidote to the leftover doldrums of 2020.

Text and photos by Cam Mannino

This week along with my own photos, I’ll be including many by other residents who generously agreed to share their amazing photography. Regular blog readers will remember Bob and Joan Bonin who have previously lent me their amazing photos. And recently, I made a new photographer acquaintance, Paul Birtwhistle, who explores our parks with his camera and his peaceful dog Stanley. All three of these local photographers are blessed with eagle eyes and exceptional photographic skills as you’ll see below. I thank them all for their willingness to let me share their finds with all of you. Believe me, you’re in for a treat!

Nature Begins to Stir in the Cool Gray of Early April

The bare-bones beauty of Bear Creek’s Center Pond in early April

It seems that each year as I enter the park in early spring, the first song that falls from the canopy is that of the Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia.) Their song, which can vary a bit geographically, most often starts with a few short notes, followed by a melodious trill and finishes off with a buzz. A streaky, little brown male with the typical spot on his breast perched at the top of a tree, threw back his head and belted out his song to woo any willing female within range. This year’s vocalist was much too far away for a decent photo, but here’s one from an earlier spring at Bear Creek Nature Park.

Song Sparrows learn their songs from males in the area in which they’re born, so their song versions vary in different locations.

During the bird walk in the first week of April, Ben spotted a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) posing right at the tip of a snag near the park entrance. It was so high that it only made a silhouette against a gray spring sky, but I tried to take a photo anyway. I love that big red crest! These woodpeckers make their rectangular nest holes high in either snags or live trees in the spring and then make lower ones in the fall as shelter from winter winds. I’m going to keep an eye on that snag!

A Pileated Woodpecker poses against the gray of a cold, early April morning.

This Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) looked a bit chilly as it huddled against a bare branch while searching for frozen caterpillars or insect eggs.

A Downy Woodpecker felt as chilly as I did on a cold April morning.

On the way down the Walnut Lane toward the Center Pond, I spotted a Hazelnut Bush (Corylus americana) in bloom. The golden catkins are male flowers. The slightest breeze sends their pollen wafting over the tiny, pink female flowers that barely peek out from the end of the twigs. I’ll be curious to see if it produces any hazelnuts on its thin branches. [Click on photos to enlarge.]

The chuckling of Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus) in a vernal pool invariably greets me as I step into the woods in early April. These little frogs float on the surface, occasionally kicking their legs to move about as they call for a mate. Consequently, they’re much easier to spot than the tinier chorus frogs who lurk under the edges of logs or aquatic plants. After having frozen and thawed unharmed throughout the winter, these masked frogs move toward the pools in early spring. Vernal pools dry up in the summer, which means Wood Frogs can lay their eggs without fish making a meal of them. This time, a log seemed to provide a handy place for the frogs to rest between unsuccessful bouts of floating and chirping; I sympathized as a former wallflower myself!

A pair of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) cruised the far end of the vernal pool. At one point, the slightly larger male performed some amazing preening moves. Or maybe he was posing in an attempt to flirt. If so, his partner doesn’t seem too impressed.

It’s hard to tell whether the male Canada Goose is preening or flirting. The female doesn’t seem interested in either case.

On the way back from the Wednesday bird walk at Bear Creek in early May, my photographer friend, Bob Bonin, got a wonderful shot of a Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) excavating a promising nest hole. Look at that beak full of wood! Chickadees are cavity nesters and will create a nest in soft wood if they can’t find an existing hole that suits them.

A Black-capped Chickadee can create its own nest hole in soft wood if it can’t find a suitable exisiting cavity. Photo by Bob Bonin

Birds and Blossoms as the Woods Turn Green in Late April

Spring turned from brown to green in the second half of April. Unseen in the night sky, millions of birds rode the wind north and some eventually drifted down into Bear Creek Nature Park. Many came here planning to raise young in the park. For others, it was simply a rest stop on their journey farther north.

The Avian Summer Residents

My new photographer friend, Paul Birtwhistle, got an amazing shot of a rarely seen visitor, the American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus). While Paul and his dog sat quietly on the far north dock of Bear Creek marsh, the Bittern stepped quietly out of the reeds near the shore. Bitterns can breed in Michigan so we can hope this one chooses our marsh. If so, perhaps one day we will hear their booming call that sounds like a low “gulp” coming through the cattails and reeds. Cornell Ornithology’s All About Birds website says that when this birds sees a possible threat, it may choose to assume its concealment pose, its neck elongated and its bill tilted toward the sky. Sometimes it even sways, trying to blend its striped body into the moving reeds. Cornell says the posture is so ingrained that they sometimes do it even when in the open as it was in our marsh. I’m glad Paul had this exciting moment and shared it with us.

Paul also saw a Sandhill Crane (Antigone canadensis) at the marsh and a male Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) cruising in a woodland marsh on the southwestern side of the forest. These birds both tend to spend the summer here to mate and raise their young. The Sandhills toss plant material into a mound, then form a neat cup in the center lined with twigs. Wood Ducks look for cavities high in the trees near water, using the hooks at the back of their feet to navigate on the tree bark. What great guests to host for the summer!

Every year we also act as hosts for the Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) in the nest boxes built by birder Tom Korb and installed by the Stewardship Crew. These iridescent avian acrobats will soar above our fields all summer, gathering insects in their open beaks. But in late April, they are busy within our boxes creating nests out of dry grass and lining them with white feathers. Paul caught a pair claiming a nest box on April 27.

A pair of Tree Swallows on a township bird box at Bear Creek Nature Park. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle

In a tree near the nest boxes, a male Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) surveyed the territory. He appeared to be keeping an eye on his mate as she gathered grass for her nest. Bluebirds will nest in boxes near our Tree Swallows from time to time, but they won’t tolerate another bluebird pair close by. Their sky blue eggs take twelve to fourteen days to hatch. A team of trained volunteers coordinated by our township Stewardship Specialist, Grant VanderLaan, monitor the nest boxes in several parks from first egg laid until the young fledge. The data are provided to Cornell University’s NestWatch program, a citizen science project. Some bluebirds stay with us all year ’round and others seek us out as the weather warms.

A male Bluebird surveys the area near the nest boxes at Bear Creek Nature Park.

On April 24, Paul Birtwhistle spent a long time at the Center Pond listening to the kwirr call of the Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) before being able to spot it. At last, he caught sight of the red crown and nape of a male’s head peeking out from a hole on the underside of a branch on the huge White Oak at the pond’s edge. Years ago near the Bear Creek marsh, I’d seen one of these woodpeckers sticking its head out of a horizontal, upside-down nest hole in an oak branch. It seems that these male woodpeckers excavate several nest holes in hope of giving their mate a choice.

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker excavating a possible nest hole to please its mate. Note the wood chips on his red crown. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle

According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab’s All About Birds website, one of the Red-belly’s options for nest hole placement is dead limbs in a live tree, which is exactly where this bird ended up. The holes are about 9-13 inches deep (or maybe horizontal in this case?) and the circular living space is roughly 3.5 by 5.5 inches. Pretty snug fit, I would think! Once the female has chosen her preferred hole, she lays her eggs on a bed of wood chips left from the excavation accomplished by both mates. Sometimes, the pair drill holes along the branch outside the nest hole to warn off other birds, a kind of “We claim this spot!” message. I hope this hole by the pond was chosen by the female.

Katri Studtmann, one of the stewardship summer technicians, gave me a heads-up to look for a Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) that she’d seen at the Center Pond. Of course, the Kingfisher saw me first as I came to the end of the Walnut Lane and took off. I saw her dive into the water at the far end of the pond, but she came up empty. Females, by the way, have one blue and one chestnut brown stripe on their breasts while the males have only the blue stripe.

A female Belted Kingfisher dipped into the Center Pond with a splash but missed her prey.

In a grassy spot, Paul watched two Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus) do a ritualistic dance with their beaks. At first, I thought it was a mating dance – but these are two female Flickers! After reading a bit, I learned that flickers sometimes do this ritual to protect either their mate or their nesting territory. I’m guessing these two are having a quiet, non-violent disagreement about boundaries. Thanks to Paul for getting several shots so we can appreciate their dance moves!

Of course many more birds arrived at Bear Creek Nature Park last month than Paul, Bob, Joan or I happened to see, successfully record or share. But using the Cornell eBird lists created by participants on the April and early May bird walks, here’s another quick slide show of birds you might see or hear at our parks now if your binoculars can find them among the spring greenery! (The photos here are from previous years by me and others.)

All Eyes on the Warblers in May! Some Stay and Some are Just Passing Through

The big warbler migration began here in late-April with hearing or seeing the Blue-winged Warbler and the Palm Warbler. During the May bird walks at both Bear Creek Nature Park and Cranberry Lake Park, we saw many more of these tiny long-distance travelers. So keep your eyes open for small, colorful birds flitting about in trees or diving in and out of shrubs. You don’t want to miss these beauties who often arrive in the morning after riding a strong south wind during the previous night. Some choose to spend the summer here raising young. But others you’ll see below are only here for a few days as they rest up before heading north.

Under a Greening Canopy, Spring Blossoms Emerge in the Woods

As migrating birds arrive, the woodland plants seem to magically appear as the soil warms under the spare canopy of spring. Always the first to arrive are the spring ephemerals, like Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica). This spring ephemeral blooms very early to catch the sun while the trees are bare, then quickly subsides as the shade increases above it. Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) does the same, but uses its leaf cupped below the blossom to preserve some warmth on cool spring days. Bloodroot leaves remain for some time after the petals of the flower have fallen.

In late April and early May, May Apples (Podophyllum peltatum) begin to form colonies under large trees and produce their shy flowers beneath the leaves. Jack-in-the-pulpits (Arisaema triphyllum) unfold in the woodland shade.

Delicate Wood Anemone blossoms (Anemone quinquefolia) nod above their frail stems in the moist shade near vernal pools. Nearby red sporophytes rise from green gametophyte moss. When mature, the sporophyte moss will release the spores which will disperse to start new gametophyte moss colonies.

And at the forest edge of the big loop, the white blossoms of American Dogwood (Cornus florida) turn their faces upward to the sun.

Each oval Dogwood bud faces upward during the winter, so the blossoms do the same as they emerge in the spring.

Resilience, Adaptation – and Song!

In April, I stood by a vernal pool listening to the chuckling song of Wood Frogs who had frozen and thawed repeatedly during a Michigan winter. This week I paused to enjoy the rippling melody of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak that rode the wind through the night to end up singing at the edge of a greening field. Life presents all of us mortal creatures with harrowing challenges. And still the wild ones sing, the leaves thrust through tough bark, and fragile flowers open their beauty to feed the world around them.

As part of the natural world, we too have faced repeated challenges to our survival, especially in the last fifteen months, haven’t we? Most of us have learned that we are more resilient than we knew. Like the little frogs, we have adapted to repeated and sudden changes. Like the birds, by moving on through the darkness we’ve reached the light of another spring. Like the plants, we struggled to bloom where we were planted, accepting limitations but still able to share what beauty we could muster with those around us who needed our nourishment. Despite the losses we’ve had and those we know will eventually come to all of us, let’s follow nature’s example and celebrate the fact that we’re here right now. Let’s belt out our own songs to a blue spring sky and relish being alive.

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.

Draper Twin Lake Park: The Restless Transitions of Mid-Autumn

A trembling aspen which leafed out in spring, and shed leaves in autumn,  despite having fallen across the Draper marsh in a storm at the end of last winter.  Rose hips from Swamp Rose (Rosa Palustris) in the foreground.

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.

Photos and Text by Cam Mannino

As the month moves on,  a sharpness edges the morning air and shadows slide across the landscape more quickly in the late afternoon. The birds are agitated  – snatching up as much seed as possible, drilling holes for snug winter hideaways, or pausing for an overnight respite before catching a north wind going south.

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!

The Common Buckeye is a lovely little butterfly that I see most often during its migration to southern climes.

In early October, afternoons were still occasionally above 50°, warm enough for the European Honey Bees (Apis mellifera) to gather more winter stores. The nectar collected by these bees will be turned into honey for the hive to feed on in the winter. Having large stores of nourishment in the hive is crucial if honey bees are to survive the winter months, so this one paid no attention to me as it probed for some last sips of nectar.

A Honey Bee gathering nectar from an aster to feed the hive during the cold winter months.

The sturdy Heath Aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides) emerges as the summer fades and blooms heartily in the cooler temperatures. So any warm afternoon in fall, this lovely native wildflower offers itself to foraging bees in the hope of being pollinated quickly so that seeds will be ready before the snow falls.

Heath Asters make their own white snowstorm, often blooming right up until snow falls.

Brown-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia triloba) look a lot like their relative, the Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta). But Brown-eyeds tend to grow multiple stems from a single root and usually grow taller than the Black-eyed variety. I see them only in late summer or fall, whereas Black-eyeds last from June to September. Nice to have some fresh yellow wildflowers just as cool weather sets in!

Brown-eyed Susans are short-lived perennials that grow on mulitple stems.

A lone, fading Black-eyed Susan hid a tiny beetle among its petals and attracted a greenish-gray caterpillar busily nibbling off the tiny yellow flowers poking from the wildflower’s composite seed head. After pouring over the guide Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner, my best guess is that it’s the caterpillar of the Common Pug Moth (Eupithecia vulgata) whose larva has chevrons along its spine and which feeds on these flowers, among many other plants. If I’m right about the caterpillar (and remember, I’m just guessing!), the Pug Moth is a  modest gray- brown with a small dark spot on both its fore- and hindwings.

An insect caterpillar and a small beetle  as well as various windflower fibers have landed on a fading Black-eyed Susan.

In the grass, we found a Wooly Bear Caterpillar, the larva  of the Isabella Tiger Moth (Pyrrharctia isabella). If you look carefully below, you can almost discern its projecting mandibles (jaws) about to tear off the edge of a clover leaf. (Sorry for the blur. It was chewing rather vigorously!) The Farmer’s Almanac these days does a fine job of explaining the “folklore” behind the idea that the width of the color bands predict the severity of winter. A serious scientific study has never been done; it would require too many caterpillars over too many years. According to Wikipedia, however, Wooly Bears vary a lot in their color banding and the bands also tend to widen with each molt – so it’s not likely to be an ace weatherman.

A Wooly Bear caterpillar munching on clover.

In the marsh within the eastern section of the park, a Midland Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta marginata) found a sunny spot on the mud behind the dying leaf of a Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus). It closed its eyes, turned its head skyward and basked. Shortly it will sink to the muddy bottom and won’t emerge until spring. During winter, it actually stops breathing, but its slowed metabolism means it can survive on the oxygen that passes through its skin from the surrounding water. Hibernation is miraculous, isn’t it?

A Midland Painted Turtle in the Draper marsh basks in the thin sunlight of early autumn.

One birding morning on the western side of the park, Township Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide,  introduced us to a colorful shrub off one side of Draper’s fishing dock.  It turned out to be Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix)! It’s a relative of the harmless and quite beautiful Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina), and a sibling to Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans). I’d never come across this bush with its gray bark and white berries, but the familiar red leaves of other sumacs. Luckily it grows within or at the edge of bogs, fens, marshes and other very wet places where my hiking shoes don’t often carry me. Look but don’t touch and don’t inhale its smoke are the watchwords here.  Poison Sumac is more toxic than Poison Ivy.  The Michigan Flora website has a great photo of it in bloom.

Poison Sumac looks quite glamorous in the fall with its red leaves and white berries.

A more benign plant sent a spray of red leaves across the lily pads in late September and early October. Native  Whorled/Swamp Loosestrife (Decodon verticillatus) is not a problem like the non-native, invasive Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria). This native wildflower produces purple blossoms along each stem and leaves that turn red in October. In November, its seed heads make a lovely pattern against the water of the lake. [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

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.

Two Goldfinches eating while riding the swaying stalks of goldenrod.

Five Goldfinches ultimately enjoyed the seeds of just one clump of Stiff Goldenrod. (The fifth bird is semi-hidden at the lower right.)

A flock of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) sailed across the path far in front of us – just a swish of blue against the morning sky. Bluebirds restlessly move south a bit in the fall, but can often be seen here in the winter, even on icy days. I never got close enough for a shot during the birding walk, but I did see a flock at Bear Creek Nature Park a couple of weeks earlier. This pair seemed to be exploring the possibilities of a winter hole in a snag at Bear Creek.

The male bluebird pays close attention as a female checks out the possibilities of a hole in a snag.

In the distance, an Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) rocked on a low branch at the far edge of the field and repeatedly darted down into the grass. At last, it found what was possibly the cocoon of a caterpillar and it rose back to the branch, tail pumping as always, with its prize in its beak.

An Eastern Phoebe with what appeared to be a caterpillar’s cocoon.

Farther down the tree line, pulses of House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) flew down into the grass to feed and then back into the trees. It seems that the red heads and chests of the males are a bit paler in the fall. I know the depth of the hue depends on what they eat, so perhaps their favorite berries or seeds are not quite as available as the season wanes.

House Finches fluttering out of a tree in the distance at Draper Twin Lake Park

High overhead a pair of Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) bugled their way across the autumn skies. They were headed south but it may have just been one of their many practice runs before migrating to Florida.

Sandhill Cranes flying south over Draper Twin Lake Park

Over in the eastern section of the park, a Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) added its “miaows” from the hedgerow one afternoon, possibly calling a mate or youngster to share some wild Summer Grapes (Vitis aestivalis). I hope it’s a nice change from their summer diet, since number the insects that they eat during the summer is diminishing with the colder weather. The catbirds will be leaving soon to winter in Florida, Cuba, the Bahamas or along the eastern seaboard.

A Gray Catbird calls to a companion from a wild grape vine.

Down near the water, I noticed a lot of twitching in the shrubbery and waited in the shade for what might appear. The first bird that emerged was a familiar year ’round bird, the Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus). This tiny acrobat hung upside down, then rightside up,  twisting this way and that, to snatch as much seed as possible from Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) near the lake.

A Black-capped Chickadee eating its fill of Canada Goldenrod

Small visiting migrators often show up around chickadees. Cornell Ornithology Lab provides a possible explanation. “Most birds that associate with chickadee flocks respond to chickadee alarm calls, even when their own species doesn’t have a similar alarm call.” Good to have a reliable sentinel! I’ve also read that visiting birds find food by hanging around local chickadees who presumably know the best foraging spots. That was certainly the case at Draper Lake. A migrating Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) popped out into the open and began stripping seeds from the goldenrod just like the local chickadee. In the fall and winter, it pays to look carefully wherever chickadees are gathering.

A Ruby-crowned Kinglet joined the Chickadee in devouring goldenrod seed. A leaf cast an interesting shadow on its tiny back.

As I turned away from the Kinglet, I heard a call that I knew was a woodpecker and looked up. A large black and white bird landed on a nearby tree and began to peck at a hole. Wow! It was the closest I’ve ever been to a Pileated Woodpecker. And as an added bonus, the afternoon sun lit its crest with a scarlet glow. It may have been looking for the right tree in which to make a new hole, one lower than its nesting hole, that will serve as winter shelter.

A Pileated Woodpecker seemed to be considering whether a hole in this tree could be further excavated for a winter storm hideaway.

Near the end of the path, a Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) hopped about, restlessly picking up and dropping bits of this and that. Theoretically these sparrows, plentiful in the summer, can spend the winter here, but I rarely seem them after the fall. This one may have migrated here from farther north and also chosen to explore where the chickadee was foraging.

The sparrow near the lake has the typical long tail of a Song Sparrow.  If you could see its breast, there’d be a dark spot in the middle of its striping, another field mark.

I saw several other birds at Draper Twin Lake Park with the birding group in the last two months, but only through my binoculars.  A quick flash of red or yellow high in the fall leaves, a recognizable song in the distance, or a sudden chasing flight over the prairie – none of that provided a chance for a photo. However, I wanted to share these birds here so that you can appreciate how many birds can be seen at Draper Twin Lake Park in autumn. So here’s a short slideshow of some of them as seen in photos I’ve taken at other times, or in photos from the generous photographers at inaturalist.org. (Use pause button for captions.)

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Relishing Autumn’s Transformation

Native Indian Grass swaying in an October wind

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.

Photos of the Week: Birds Feasting on Seed, Sunshine – and the occasional frozen “dessert!”

Showy Goldenrod seed heads at sunset

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.

A Tree Sparrow nibbles at the Showy Goldenrod to loosen the seed

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.

A Tree Sparrow foraging for seed fallen from the goldenrod seed heads above

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.

A Tree Sparrow in bright sunlight with a dark twig shadow across its face.

An American Tree Sparrow in a nearby tree while clouds blocked the sun. This picture clearly shows the two-colored bill, rusty cap, rusty eyeline, and unstreaked breast that we use to identify tree sparrows.

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.

A Dark-eyed Junco nibbling on Showy Goldenrod near the Tree Sparrows

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.

An American Goldfinch waits for its turn to share the goldenrod seeds.

Foraging for a Frozen “Dessert”

A male Downy Woodpecker  (Dryobates pubescens) 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 Downy Woodpecker pecked at the stems of Canada Goldenrod, looking for insect eggs or larvae.

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?

A female bluebird who’d just found and consumed a bright green frozen caterpillar!

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.

A Black-capped Chickadee pecked at the end of this twig until something to eat came out of it.

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…