The north and east prairies at Charles Ilsley Park get more glorious each summer as restoration brings the return of colorful wildflowers blooming again in their native soil. Great sweeps of Black-eyed Susans(Rudbeckia hirta) stare up into the blue sky surrounded by the tousled, lavender blossoms of Bee-balm (Monarda fistulosa) and flat, compact cushions of white Yarrow (Achillea millefolium).
Tall Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) sway in even the slightest breeze.
The peaceful beauty of these undulating prairies on a summer afternoon is mesmerizing. The nodding dance of flowers and the flutter of butterflies among them soothe the spirit much like the sight and sound of a peaceful ocean – but with such a variety of color and movement! Wonderful!
Last Sunday along the entrance trail, young Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) perched high on a dead branch, waiting to be fed. They begged in the usual fledgling fashion, fluttering their small wings rapidly and calling. Finally, a parent arrived (lower left in the photo below), settled and seemed to be considering which to feed first.
Then the adult swooped out across the meadow, gathering insects in its open beak. It returned and managed a short mid-air pause, beating its wings vigorously as it speedily popped food into one of the open beaks.
Then off went mom or dad again to scoop up more bugs! Such a challenging job to feed all four of those hungry youngsters! (One is behind the lowest branch.)
In the center of the park, where restoration planting happened just weeks ago, the melt ponds are drying up, leaving a strange, foamy surface. Water is so crucial for wildlife that it’s always a reliable spot to find something interesting.
A slim bird that I believe was a young Killdeer (Charadriusvociferus), with its naturally worried look, poked along the edge of the pond. The Stokes’ Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol 2) describes juvenile Killdeer as “very similar to adults except that their upper feathers are margined with lighter edges, their dark neck bands are narrower and often gray or brown instead of black.” I think this one fits that description. Do you agree? Once the young are ready to be on their own, their parents breed again. But the male keeps an eye on the youngsters from the first brood from a distance, while the female incubates the new eggs.
Two fledgling Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis), with just a touch of blue on their wings, watched the killdeer from a small, bare tree nearby. No foraging for them right then. Perhaps they were hoping a parent would come to stuff their beaks like the swallows, but at the moment, no such luck. Like the Killdeer adults, their busy parents may also be encouraging their first brood to feed on their own while the adults start a second. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Some adult birds hung out near the pond as well. A Green Heron (Butorides virescens) was so intent on feeding that it flew toward us to find some open water.
This heron was a skilled fisher! It found a bounty of food in the drying pond. Watch below as it stalks and then catches what appears to be a crayfish nymph. (Use the pause button if you need more time for captions.)
The fiercely territorial Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) looked remarkably unruffled by the other species exploring the resources of the pond below. And nearby in a tree at the edge of the center field, an adult Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) looked as though it must have been preening vigorously since its feather were very ruffled! Drat those feather mites!
Summer turned into an unusually busy time for me this year. So I relish escaping into our parks, where I can watch young birds learn the ropes of feeding, or just quietly enjoy the way Yellow Coneflowers sway above a multi-colored prairie. I recommend it to you as a peaceful alternative to a day at the beach.
Watershed Ridge, at the corner of Lake George and Buell Roads, is not yet an accessible park. Trails have yet to be created for exploring its forests, wetlands and meadows, though they are planned for the future. Large areas of the land are still under cultivation for agriculture; local farmer, John Fogler, rents fields within the park to plant soy beans and pumpkins. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
But last fall, our Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, Ben VanderWeide, began removing an almost impenetrable cover of invasive bushes that had taken over part of this beautiful piece of land. And suddenly, the graceful contours of the land came into view.
The rolling slopes looked lifeless then. But what a transformation this spring and summer as sun finally reached the native wildflowers!
Part of the reason Ben chose this area for restoration was that he’d noticed unusual native plants struggling to survive in the shade of invasive bushes like autumn olive, glossy buckthorn, privet, and such. Last autumn, Smooth Aster (Symphyotrichum laeve) and a small orchid called Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes species) thrust their stems into the cool air. (Here’s a photo of the little orchid as it looked at the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail.)
Right now I’d advise anyone to be cautious about walking through Watershed Ridge since it’s easy to get disoriented on 170 acres without trails (though a compass in your phone helps, I find!). Hikers need to use the edges of the farm fields so that they don’t damage the crops. The woody debris on the ground makes walking a bit tricky and there’s a fair amount of Poison-ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) to avoid. Photos below might help those afraid of all 3-three-leaved plants. The one on the left is poison ivy. Note the “thumb” on the leaves which is missing from other three-leaved plants like the Black Raspberry (Rubus occidentalis) on the right. Poison-ivy often has reddish “feet” when it’s climbing a tree and grows along the trunk rather than around it.
So for now, perhaps consider an easier alternative.
Join me on a virtual walk from the entrance area with its busy young birds, into the forest with its woodland flowers and wetlands and beyond the woods to the meadow with a riot of native wildflowers, butterflies, an exotic moth and more!
Birds Grace the Simple Entrance off Buell Road
The best spot to park is on Buell Road at the firewood pickup site (1650 W. Buell Road is the approximate address – click here for a map). Just to the west you’ll see a work area for Parks and Recreation staff that includes a pole barn and bulk materials storage. This work area is closed to the public, but you’re welcome to explore the rest of the park.
The old fence rows near the entrance on Buell Road have many trees, shrubs and vines, so birds nested happily around the area this summer. In mid-July, this area was full of fledglings trying out their wings and pestering their parents. A flock of young Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) settled on limbs and fence posts, begging to be fed while their beleaguered adults either surrendered or tried to escape their noisy youngsters. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
A young Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe), however, was off on its own, trying out its wings, exploring the pole barn (sheds are popular Phoebe nest sites) and flying down into the grass like any adult Phoebe might.
A young Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) was also off on its own and looking a bit dubious about what to do next as it sat in a nearby pine. This may be a young male since it appears that its juvenile red cap is slowly receding into the red spot that a male sports on the back of its head.
I failed to get decent photos, but two weeks ago, a pair of Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) were still feeding their nestlings, flying back and forth between a tree on the west side of the area to a large willow on the east where they probably were foraging for insects before returning to the nest. Here are two not-so-hot photos!
From mid-July to mid-August, American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) raise their young. Unlike most native birds, they wait until mid-summer to breed, because they like to line their nests with thistle down, eat the seeds themselves and feed them to their young. Several were flitting among the thistles along Buell Road.
A male Northern Flicker with his dashing “mustache” perused the territory from the top of a snag.
A “High Quality” Woodland Sprinkled with Wildflowers that Love Moisture, Shade and Rich Humus.
When you step into the cool darkness of the woods on a warm summer afternoon, you notice that most of the plants bear modest little flowers compared to sunnier areas. Perhaps that’s because they’ve evolved growth and reproductive strategies that are different from the large, colorful blooms of a sunny meadow or prairie.
One good example is the unusual flower of a parasitic plant (not a mushroom!) that Ben helped me find, called Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora). This small, white wildflower typically grows in forests and lives on the photosynthesis of trees – especially oaks in our area – by tapping into the mycorrhizal fungi that connect the trees below the soil. As a result, it doesn’t use photosynthesis and contains no chlorophyll. According to the Illinois Wildflower website (a descriptive floral site), “This unusual wildflower is normally found in high quality woodlands” where there is “abundant humus.” Hooray for Watershed Ridge, eh?
The modest blooms of summer woodland plants primarily attract small bees, like sweat or carpenter bees, or flies, rather than honeybees or bumblebees. They also frequently spread by rhizomes (underground stems) and/or by making bur-like fruits that will stick to any passing animal, including you!
Wildflowers that enjoy dappled light find a home where the woods meets the now-open meadow.
Naturally, mushrooms also thrive in shady, moist places. Near the edge of the woods, I saw what I think are two kinds of highly toxic mushrooms from the genus Amanita. I believe they are either Amanita phalloides or Amanita bisporigera. In any case, Amanita mushrooms are also called “death caps” for good reason – so admire their exotic strangeness, but leave them right where they are. The yellow one may have been nibbled by squirrels or rabbits who can eat the toxins with no problem.
Wetlands Glow Blue/Green in the Deep Shade of the Woods
Two wetland pools shine in the darkness on either side of a ridge within the woods at Watershed. Near the western one, an old log is festooned with a huge number of tiny, stalked mushrooms which I can’t identify. They make quite a show against the dark, wet decaying log on which they are thriving. (Anyone have an ID for me?)
Ben saw two snappers on a log in one of these woodland pools, but they dove in before I saw them. I did see some of my favorite frogs, though. A small female Green Frog (Rana clamitans) (left)basked on a fallen log, while a male nearby (right) did the same. In the female, the tympanum (circle behind the eye used for hearing) is about the size of her eye; the male’s tympanum is about twice the size of his eye and he has a yellow throat.
At the eastern pool, a tiny, black-masked Wood Frog (Rana sylvatica), perhaps 1/2 inch long, paused for its photo on a leaf. This one’s back and legs are bright green, perhaps from the Water Meal (Wolffia columbiana) or the algae in the pool nearby. It seemed an odd time of year to find an early spring frog, but Wikipedia says that occasionally Wood Frogs do breed more than once per year. Maybe the heavy rains contributed to more water and hence more breeding behavior? Just a guess.
At the edge of the soybean field just beyond the wood, every step scared up hundreds of small Northern Leopard Frogs (Rana pipiens). They sprang out of moist grass and huddled beneath the bean plants. These young frogs take about 70-110 days to develop after the females lay their eggs in the water between May to June. At about 2 inches long, they’re half the size of a mature Leopard Frog. Their numbers have generally been in decline since the 1970’s so what a delight to see so many of them here in the township on a protected piece of land!
A Riot of Color as Wildflowers and Butterflies Reclaim a Wild Meadow
Step out of the woods and the colorful signs of restoration engulf you. Once shaded-out by invasive shrubs, native wildflowers like Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia fulgida) and Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) in the photo above sprang back into the sunlight that finally reached them. So exciting to see these plants come back with such vigor in the first season after the invasives are removed! (Use pause button to read captions.)
And with the wildflowers, of course, come the butterflies – but first, one glorious moth! When I first spotted this unusual creature, I thought it must be some sort of bumblebee. But no, it’s the Snowberry Clearwing Moth (Hemaris diffinis). It has fewer central scales on its wings than other butterflies or moths so the wings appear clear in places. It’s odd shape and hovering flight have also inspired the names “the hummingbird moth” (not to be confused with the European one of the same name, Wikipedia tells me!) or the “flying lobster!” A new creature for me!
On my first summer visit with Ben, we saw a glorious Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) sipping from some of the bee balm which emerged in great waves of color across the restored meadow this summer. What a sight!
Having seen the Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio troilus) for the first time at Charles Ilsley Park a few weeks ago, I saw another male at Watershed Ridge. The clue is the wash of blue scaling on the wings. A week later I saw another one near the shed which was either the female, which has a less intense wash of blue scaling, or a tattered male who had already lost some of his scales. That Spicebush continually tried to chase off a female Monarch (Danaus plexippus) who was patrolling the same patch of flowers last weekend. The scales on her wings looked quite worn as well. Perhaps they’d worn each other out with all that chasing! I saw some fritillaries dancing together at a distance but not close enough for a shot. But the little Orange Sulphur (Colias eurytheme) was kind enough to pose for a few moments.
The meadow slopes down to a sunny wetland that is probably fed by the creek running through the trees just east of the meadow. The stream bottom is bright orange, most likely a result of iron deposits in the soil. I loved how the sky was caught in the water’s surface as I looked upstream.
The resulting wetland at the meadow’s edge featured flowers that love “wet feet,” like Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium maculatum) and Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum).
With a wetland nearby, dragonflies, flying predators, swooped across the meadow on the hunt for other insects.
A Meadow Under Restoration Gets Us Dreaming
Witnessing the dramatic renewal that takes place when invasive shrubs are removed from park land is simply inspirational. What else, who else might return to this lovely piece of land once the Parks and Recreation Commission has time and the funds to develop this 170 acres? What seeds are waiting in the seed bank for their turn in the sun – perhaps even this autumn when the asters in their varied lavender-to-purple blooms or other autumn wildflowers rise from the earth? What other exotic creatures like the Snowberry Clearwing Moth might be sipping at future flowers? What birds might return to nest here? The possibilities are endless as the Ben and the Parks Commission work to renew the diversity of life which is our township’s natural heritage. So much to look forward to as this park progresses over the next several years!
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.
Meeting the lovely family above at Draper Twin Lake Park one morning was a fitting beginning to my walk. This dad was kept very busy baiting hooks and unhooking Blue Gills for his three young children who were excited to take their catch home and “eat ’em.” Well, the avian parents this week are as busy as that dad. Many fledglings are out of the nest but not quite “ready for prime time.” The youngsters’ flights are still a bit awkward, they haven’t quite grown into their beaks, and they object to being weaned from feedings by mom and dad. They crouch on branches, trying to look helpless by quivering their wings and begging “Feed Me!” with loud, high-pitched and incessant chirping. The conscientious adult birds are busy plucking berries, ferrying caterpillars and crunching seeds to fill young beaks. Meanwhile, more summer butterflies and other insects appear each day as native and non-native flowers line the trails and bloom in the wetlands. Summer, the busy season for nature, is well underway.
Industrious Parent Birds and Their Demanding Offspring!
Twice as I entered the western path to the lake, I spotted a male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) plucking little fruits from a bush and feeding them to his offspring. Juvenile cardinals have coloring similar to the female, except that their beaks are dark brown instead of red-orange like both adults. This hiding youngster couldn’t resist one peak at me over the tops of the greenery.
Further along the trail, a conscientious mother bird, the female Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens), brought goodies to her youngster that was crouched on a branch in the classic quivering pose of begging fledglings. “Poor me; feed me; I’m starving.”
Once mom took off, the youngster, its juvenile red cap on display, practiced a bit of upside-down branch hopping.
A male Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) sang an abbreviated version of his “Witchedy, witchedy” song repeatedly in a snag over the marsh. Farther up the path, I’d seen a young female hiding in a large bush, but it didn’t stop moving long enough for a good shot, I’m sorry to say. It has the slightly askew, downy look of a young bird. Thanks to Natural Areas Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide and expert birder Ruth Glass for identifying this little one for me! And to Bob Bonin for his fine photo of a fully fledged adult female so you can see how the little female will eventually look.
In another snag by the lake, a mother Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)was busy feeding her nestling(s), traveling back and forth and stretching into the hole to feed whoever was inside. Those babies should be very safe in this nice deep hole in their lakeside dead tree!
Over in the eastern part of Draper Park, I was greeted by two fledgling Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) sitting on a wire by the parking lot. Adult Barn Swallows sport russet throats and loooong, deeply forked tails. These were obviously fledglings.
These youngsters were still slightly downy, shorter-tailed than adults, and only partially iridescent blue-black on the back. They sat remarkably still on the wire and periodically tried extending their wings. The fledglings below seemed to tip slightly back and forth as if trying to find its balance with those snazzy new wings. And the light color on the side of its bill is also typical of a juvenile Barn Swallow.
What appeared to be a well-behaved, quiet young Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) – on the right below – traveled about on the edge of the north prairie as its parent (left) slipped down into the grass periodically to forage like grown-up flycatchers. From a distance in bright morning light, it was hard to see if the presumed youngster (right) had a slightly more yellow lower belly than the adult. The smaller bird looked a bit misproportioned, though, like a lot of fledglings do and also had a more “smudgy” juvenile breast as described by Cornell lab. So my conclusion is I was looking at an adult and its offspring.
An Unusual Sighting
Ben spotted a bird with a long sweeping tail in a snag near the prairie and quickly identified it. According to Cornell Lab, the Black-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus erythropthalmus) is “common but secretive” and “heard far more often than seen.” Evidently, it eats lots of spiny caterpillars and has adapted to that spiky diet by shedding its stomach lining periodically to get rid of the spines. Yikes! I caught sight of the cuckoo flying with its very long tail trailing behind, but never got a shot. So here’s a beautiful photo from a gifted photographer, Jerry Oldenettel, on inaturalist.org.
Butterflies Big and Very Small
A female Black Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio polyxenes) probed the funnel-shaped blossoms of Hairy Vetch (Vicia villosa), a non-native vining plant. The large blue spots at the bottom of the butterfly’s wing tell us she is a female and the two rows of yellow spots indicate that she’s not the black morph of the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus), which is very similar. According to Wikipedia, the orange spots on the underside of her wings protect her while she’s laying eggs, because they mimic the Pipevine/Blue Swallowtail (Battus philenor)which is toxic to birds. The Black Swallowtail is not, but birds will be wary.
Red Admirals(Vanessa atalanta) showed up on both sides of the park one morning. This butterfly migrates from the south rather than overwintering here. Look at those cool striped antennae with yellowish-white tips!
According to butterfliesandmoths.org, the Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus) rarely frequents white flowers and almost never yellow ones. But the males do sit on tall flowers or grasses to attract females, so perhaps this handsome skipper was trying to snag a mate!
A Northern Pearly-Eye Butterfly that rested on the path one morning overwintered as a caterpillar. Like the early season butterflies (e.g. the Mourning Cloak), it feeds on sap from willows, poplars and birches or sometimes the fluids found in carrion or dung. Nature makes use of everything, doesn’t it?
A pair of mating Little Wood Satyr (Megisto cymela) butterflies flew from the path to a nearby leaf still attached to one another as I approached.
Flowers Blooming at Draper Now that are New to Me
This month at Draper, Ben identified for me two beautiful native flowers I’d never seen before. Near the lake, we spotted the fuzzy blooms of another “Beard-tongued” plant, in the same genus as the Hairy Beard-tongue (Penstemon hirsutus) featured in our Photo of the Week two weeks ago. This one is called Foxglove Beard-tongue (Penstemon digitalis). Some blossoms have little lavender stripes inside to lead insects to the nectar, helping to spread their pollen.
The other native plant was a rose growing right next to the floating dock called the Swamp Rose (Rosa palustris). On one of the blooms, I spotted a tiny Katydid (family Tettigoniidae). Check out those long antennae!
A Slide Show of Flowers – Native and Non-Native – Currently Blooming at Draper Park
I always like to know the names of flowers whether native or not. It keeps me more aware of the detail in the landscape. So here are three kinds – native wildflowers, non-natives that are not always invasive, and an invasive plant that does harm to other plants by shading or crowding them out and multiplying aggressively.
Turtles vs. Creatures That Love Their Eggs
Often in early summer, I see Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta) walking along the same trails I’m taking. They’re looking for soft, sandy soil where they can bury their eggs. Some places are definitely more hospitable for this purpose than others. This Painted Turtle came trundling along a path near Draper Lake, perhaps returning from an attempt to safely bury her eggs.
But out on the prairie on the eastern side of the park, evidence abounds that lots of animals love to find and eat turtle eggs. On one outing with the birding group, we spotted several turtle nest dug up with the leathery white egg shells laying outside.
Among the creatures that enjoy turtle eggs are raccoons, foxes, coyotes, skunks, and birds like herons, gulls and crows. As an (chicken) egg eater myself, I can’t complain. Luckily, Painted Turtles are our most abundant turtle species, so I assume nature is just taking its course as usual.
It’s always iffy to anthropomorphize and assume that the behavior of other animals is similar to our own. We can’t, of course, know for sure what motivates a particular animal’s behavior. After all, we don’t understand our own motivations sometimes! But science is increasingly exploring the social and emotional lives of all sorts of creatures and discovering that many teach and learn in much the same way we humans do. And of course, animals have knowledge, skills, and memory that is superior to our own – for example chickadees remembering thousands of places they have stashed seeds or nuts. So when young fledglings beg to be fed or practice short flights in much the same way that little children pester us for food or learn to walk, it’s probably normal to feel an intuitive understanding of what might be going on. If we smile in recognition of our kinship with all creatures, maybe that will help us be more careful stewards of the natural world in which we’re embedded. And that has to be a good thing, right?
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: 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.
My last blog on Draper Twin Lake Park was in April. So I thought it was high time to return there to share how its lake, wetlands and prairie transform in autumn. I began the first week in November, just before the first hard frost, and ended in the cold, gray days before Thanksgiving. Autumn brings such dramatic changes. Brilliant leaves, hardy fall flowers, migrating birds and insects give way to winter birds and the quiet, brown-and-gray austerity of November.
In the April blog, I explained, with a map, the three sections of Draper – the western lake section, the central large marsh that separates the two hiking areas, and the eastern marsh/prairie section. You can refresh you memory at this link, if you like. So join me for a series of virtual hikes in this unusual tripartite park to watch nature hunkering down for winter.
The Western Trail to Draper Twin Lake: Early November
As you can see above, the lake was beautifully calm one early November afternoon. An angler at the fishing dock that day shared his excitement from the previous day when he’d caught a 25 inch Largemouth Bass (Micropterus salmoides)there. In the photo above, you can see the water circles made by something surfacing and by the angler’s line in the water, but luck wasn’t with him that afternoon.
In the distance, a pair of Mute Swans (Cygnus olor) floated peacefully along the far shore, apparently unconcerned about the angler and his line.
The grace of these non-native birds is irresistible, but how I wish I could see native Trumpeter Swans (Cygnus buccinator) in our township parks. In childhood, I saw one on a pond near Orion Road, but they aren’t common. The more aggressive Mute Swans have affected their numbers by commanding the prime nesting sites. And native trumpeter swans were almost wiped out in the 19th century by two forces – the fashion industry that coveted their feathers and the hunting of muskrats and beavers whose lodges made dry nesting places for native swans then as they do for Canada Geese today.
In the water alongside the dock, a few fruits of the Swamp Rose (Rosa palustris) remained on their dark stalks. I wish I’d experienced this native plant’s pink blossoms and sweet fragrance when it was in bloom. (Here’s an Illinois Wildflowers link to a photo.) Aren’t the bright crimson spots of the rose hips pretty against the silvery dried grasses in the marsh?
Some yellow and lavender leaves crowded the railing at the end of the dock near the shore. Ben VanderWeide, our Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, identified them as possibly the stems of a small Basswood tree. I wonder if the deer and rabbits that like to eat Basswood saplings during the winter will let this one grow. Basswood is fine-grained and soft so it’s often been used by whittlers to carve small objects like children’s toys.
When I headed back to the western parking lot in early November, many of the autumn leaves along the trail were still russet and golden.
One of the last insects of autumn, a Yellow-legged Meadowhawk/Autumn dragonfly, flitted down the trail, keeping me company as I headed back from the lake. Its clear wings with their brush of orange at the base, as well as its orange-red body provide good camouflage once it lands on a fallen leaf.
After an afternoon shower, I saw a Bur Oak leaf (Quercus macrocarpa) along the trail beaded in silver raindrops.
On the way out of the parking lot, a cheerful “family” of Shaggy Mane mushrooms (Coprinus comatus) stood at attention at the edge of the parking lot. The overnight appearance of mushrooms on autumn days almost makes up for the thinning out of wildflowers.
The Western Trail to the Lake: Late November
A week or so later, I returned to the lake near sunset and the view had changed quite dramatically but was still very lovely.
The Whorled/Swamp Loosestrife that surrounds the fishing dock had gone to seed. Ben identified this native wildflower for me and called it “a very nice plant to see in wetlands and around the margins of lakes.” It had purple blossoms in the summer and now made a graceful silhouettes against the autumn reflections in the lake.
The pointed male section at the top of Cat-tails (genus Typha) had fertilized the female “brown-suede” section below earlier in the summer. Now huge plumes shed their seeds at the edge of the dock in the rosy light of an autumn sunset.
By late November, the pair of swans had probably departed for points south and one breezy afternoon, a trio of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis)took their place on Draper Lake. They drifted with the wind, dipping their long necks below the surface periodically to feed on submerged vegetation.
The Shaggy Mane mushroom family had disappeared, as mushrooms can do so suddenly and completely. But as I got back to the parking lot on my later visit, some orange mushrooms glowed in the distance on a dead branch. My best guess is that they are toxic Jack O’Lantern mushrooms (Omphalotus illudens) which cluster on dead wood in the fall. But I’m no mushroom expert so feel free to correct me!
The Eastern Trail to the Marsh and Prairie: Early November
Heading east from the lake section of the park, past the big marsh on the left, you reach a driveway near the crest of hill where a gray building and a small parking lot indicate you’ve reached the the eastern section of Draper Twin Lake Park. As you head off down the trail on the left, in the distance you can see the big central marsh through the trees.
In early November, a few fall wildflowers were still in bloom along this part of the trail. As I set off, I thought I saw a bee probing a blossom of a fall aster (genus Symphotrichum) but on closer inspection, it was one of many Hoverflies (family Syrphidae) that mimic the bee’s appearance, perhaps to ward off predators. Bees were noticeably absent. Presumably non-native European Honeybees (Apis mellifera) had already retreated to their hives inside nearby trees and native Bumblebee queens (genus Bombus) were settling into their individual underground burrows.
Crawling into that blossom above is another insect that was new to me. I got a clearer shot of the Spotted Cucumber Beetle (Diabrotica undecimpunctata) as I watched the EasternYellow Jacket (Vespula maculifrons)below foraging for nectar on a Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa). The beetle’s lime green thorax, spotted abdomen and striped antennae make it look like a cartoon insect, but it’s a major pest for farmers. These bright green beetles attack a variety of crops, including cucumbers and soybeans, and their caterpillars (or larvae) drill down to eat the roots of young plants. Here at Draper, though, this one seemed to just be searching for food quite peaceably with its neighbors, the wasp and hoverfly.
As you round that first curve in the trail, there’s a “floating mat” marsh to your right. In the center of this marsh is a tightly woven tangle of plants and roots with water running beneath it – and shrubs as well as individual plants thrive on this mat.
Before the first frost, Ben’s birding group was still seeing a few migrating sparrows on this path. The White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis),which probably raised its young in Canada, was traveling to southern Ohio and beyond for the winter. (Note the yellow “lores” at the corner of the eyes.)
Ben’s group spotted a Swamp Sparrow (Melospiza georgiana) as well. It has longer legs than other sparrows so it can wade into water. It will actually put its whole head under the surface to fish out small invertebrates. It was on its way south, too.
After turning the corner at the north end of this path, you’ll see the prairie that’s being restored from an old farm field. When I went in early November, the trees along the edge were in full color. (See the photo at the top of the blog.) In the prairie itself, some native plants were still blooming this fall. I was surprised to see Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) still turning their bright faces to the autumn sun. Ben identified for me another native plant as White Vervain (Verbena articifolia) which produces tightly packed tiny white flowers in the summer. The Blue Vervain(Verbena hastata) that Ben planted on the prairie last fall will hopefully make an appearance next year.
A female Clouded Sulphur butterfly (Colias philodice)danced among the dry stems on the field, finally landing on a seeding Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare), trying to find a last sip of nectar before the first frost.
Nearby, a drab little Skipper (family Hesperiidae)that I was unable to identify had found the same plant for a last minute snack.
As I rounded the curve and headed back to the parking area, I heard a commotion in an adjoining field. And suddenly a small tree was filled with dozens of European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) gathering for their migration. Such a gabble of sound and a fluttering of restless wings!
Eastern Trail: Late November
By late November, most of the color had drained from the trees. Around the marsh edges, the Poplars (genus Populus) created a crisp contrast to the russet leaves nearby.
Poplars are plentiful in many of our township parks, while White Pines (Pinus strobus) are less frequent. These soft-needle, native pines were lumbered off from the late 18th through the early 20th century. The few very large white pines that remain in our township probably reflect where they were found historically, while the smaller white pines most likely spread from planted trees often used in landscaping. According to Wikipedia, White Pines produce new needles each spring which they shed about 18 months later in the fall, creating thick carpets on the ground beneath.
Just off the curve in the trail near the prairie, there’s a remarkable White Pine with seven trunks, five of which are full size! I’ve never seen such a tall pine with multiple trunks. On the left is the base of the tree and on the right is my 5′ 11″ husband looking very small next to the height of this impressive tree – or should I say “trees?”
Birds migrating farther south no longer skittered from limb to limb. Instead, our tried-and-true, hardy, year ’round birds – Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata), Black-capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) and Mourning Doves (Zenaida macroura) – huddled in shrubs to avoid cold winds or basked on bare branches on sunnier days.
And there were the familiar migratory birds of the far north – the American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea) and the Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) – who think Michigan is great place to spend the winter.
Bare Trees, Early Sunsets, and Acres of Quiet
Autumn turns us inward, I think. The bustle and color of summer has quieted to more somber grays and browns. Windsong is changed by flowing through dry leaves and bare limbs. A woodpecker drills in the distance; a crow or a jay stridently announces your presence. Now that leaves are underfoot, the trees sleep down in their roots. Turtles and frogs drowse in torpor beneath the water surface. In autumn’s quiet depths, the natural world offers us a place to listen, watch, and maybe just…be. A welcome respite from the hurly-burly of our lives.
Footnote: My sources for information,besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991); Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for insect info; http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info; invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman and the website www.illinoiswildflowers.info; experienced birder Ruth Glass, bird walk leader at Stoney Creek Metro Park for bird identification; Birds of North America Online; Audubon.org; Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, Trees in My Forest by Bernd Heinrich, Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, Savannah River Ecology Lab (Univ of Georgia); Tortoise Trust website www.tortoisetrust.org; An Orchard Invisible: A Natural History of Seeds by Jonathan Silvertown; The Ecology of Plants by Gurevitch, Scheiner and Fox; other sites as cited in the text.
Bear Creek is busy with autumn. Butterflies sip nectar from late season wildflowers. Bees store up pollen to feed the colony during the winter. Grasses, vines and other plants produce seed heads or berries for next year’s crop, providing food for bird and beast alike. Migrating birds stop by on their way south, eating and resting. Summer’s avian visitors, having raised young here, prepare for departure. Some insects hatch, munch on plants, breed and in turn, become a meal for others. And in moist areas, some life forms emerge that range from just weird-looking to gloriously creepy!
Autumn Prep: Late Season Foraging, Molting and Migrating
One sunny afternoon, a band of Clouded Sulphur butterflies (Coliasphilodice) fed and fluttered among the pale lavender blossoms of native Smooth Swamp Asters (Symphyotrichum firmum) just off the Eastern Path. What a sight to watch this small male, its golden wings with bold black edges quivering, as it approached for a sip.
Clouded Sulphurs produce many broods a year and perhaps this couple will produce a chrysalis that will overwinter and open in the spring. I’d love to see one then, since the chrysalis reportedly turns yellow with a pink “zipper” right before the butterfly emerges! The male is the one with black wing bands.
Nearby, a small Common Buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia) was sampling the aster’s nectar as well. Native autumn wildflowers provide such a feast before frost descends!
Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus) are sadly scarce this year after we saw so many at Bear Creek last year. According to the Michigan State Extension website, a severe March snowstorm in their wintering grounds in Mexico killed 50-70% of the Monarchs before they could migrate! But the birding group was lucky enough to spot a female in the western Old Field, feeding on a native New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae).
Red-legged Grasshoppers are bouncing out of the grass like popcorn along the paths of Bear Creek. They are in the process of molting five times into bigger and bigger instars. This one, retreating under a leaf, isn’t quite adult yet.
At the Center Pond one morning, a Great Egret (Ardea alba) went fishing before migrating to Florida and the Caribbean. Hikers at Bear Creek report seeing a lot of them in the park in the last few weeks, which is great to hear! (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Under a bench on the viewing platform, two male Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos ) were developing their mating colors again. They’d spent the last 6 weeks or so in their “eclipse plumage,” when they take on the brown-toned female coloring. As they preened last week, however, an iridescent band of green was developing above their greenish yellow bills. (The females’ bills are orange and black.) I wondered if their flight feathers were most affected by the molt that day, since they didn’t take to the water when I sat down on a bench.
Several days later, I saw a bit of drama featuring these males. One of them had finished molting into his full mating colors. He “got the girl” and the other didn’t. The mallard couple did a lot of synchronous head bobbing on the deck and then swam off together. The other male was left on the sidelines, I’m afraid. But he may find a mate once his molt is complete. Feathers evidently tell female Mallards something important about choosing a healthy male.
An Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) periodically sallied forth to capture insects from high above the meadow east of the pond. Here’s a photo from last year so you can see it a bit closer. This solitary bird will spend the winter in a flock, eating fruits along the Amazon River in South America. Sounds like a long trip but a pleasant escape, eh?
A twitching of leaves in the low bushes below revealed the constant tail-wagging of a small brown bird. A migrating Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum) moved among the branches with a telltale patch of yellow under its tail and a dark eyeline. It probably spent the summer raising young in Canada’s far north and is on its way to Florida or the Caribbean. In spring, a male’s courting colors are a bright yellow breast and throat and a chestnut cap.
What appeared to be a juvenile House Wren chipped and scolded from a nearby shrub as I passed. It looks like a young one, doesn’t it? It’ll be traveling to Florida and the West Indies once it leaves Bear Creek, riding on a North wind toward southern warmth.
This week the birding group saw several migrators, but I didn’t get great shots. So here are three of last year’s photos of the birds we saw through binoculars this week. You might trying bringing your binoculars when you hike here and take a close look at any small, brownish birds in the bushes. We typically don’t get to see these warblers or kinglets except when they stop in our parks on their journey north or south. They spend the summer raising young farther north.
At the edge of a wetland, a Spreadwing damselfly with huge blue eyes, which may be a Spotted Spreadwing (Lestes congener),hung onto a twig. Spreadwings always perch with their wings half open and have pincers at the end of their abdomen – but their individual species names are hard to nail down. So don’t quote me on the name of this blue-eyed, bug-eyed character!
Seeds and Berries Mean Spring Prep, too
Plants pollinated in the summer are beginning to produce the seeds and berries that will guarantee their return next year. At the edge of the woods, False Solomon Seal (Maianthemum canadense) berries are ripening from mottled pink to red. Aren’t they pretty?
An aggressive native vine, Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), has thrived this summer and seems to be climbing in dense mats over trees and shrubs all over Bear Creek. It produces berry-like “drupes” (a fruit with a pit that contains the seed/s) on bright red stems that eventually turn brown. Many migrating and year-round birds feed on these berries, along with the occasional skunk or red fox.
Wildflowers are setting seed for next spring and the birds take advantage of that as well. Here are a few native flowers and their beginnings of seed formation.
And Now for Creepy Crawlies and Other Oddities
Ben’s new Stewardship tech, Heather Herndon, spotted a spectacular creepy creature on a rotting log. It appears to be a Leopard Slug (Limax maximus), a non-native who cleans up dead plants and consumes fungi, some agricultural plants and even smaller slugs! What an odd creature it is! According to Wikipedia, it is hermaphroditic, which means it carries both eggs and sperm. It does mate, however, exchanging sperm with another slug through a reproductive pore near its right tentacle. How strange is that? Slugs, like snails, are gastropods, but unlike snails, they can’t withdraw into shells. What’s odd, though, is that this slug actually has an internal shell behind its head that seems to be an evolutionary left-over, since it has no apparent purpose. So creepily cool, this one!
On our Wednesday bird walk, we spotted this wonderful web of an Orb Weaver spider. It was a big web and placed unusually high off the ground. Looks like the spider, who may be that tiny dot at the center, caught something near the edge of the web.
Cathy Rooney, one of the Park Protector nominees, put up on Facebook a wonderful video she found. It shows an Orb Weaver working meticulously to create a web just like this one. I found this version at YouTube so it should be accessible to any reader. Great find, Cathy!
Out in the Old Fields, the Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) pods are preparing to break open and release their seeds. But this year, the Large Milkweed Bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus) hatched in great numbers and are attacking more milkweed pods than usual. These insects inject saliva into the seed with their snout-like rostrum. The saliva dissolves the seed so the insect can vacuum it back up! Milkweeds are toxic and these insects are too once they feed. Their bright red color is believed to ward off predators by advertising that. In these two photos, early “instars” (developmental stages between molts) are on the left, and on the right are later and larger instars and one adult beetle. Thanks to the weather and this spring’s prescribed burn, the Milkweed is plentiful this year too, so we can hope that bugs won’t wipe out next year’s crop.
Fungi appeared here and there in Bear Creek after the heavy rainfall. Ben identified this white branching mushroom on a fallen log. It seems to be from genus Clavulina, most likely White Coral Mushroom, Clavulina cristata. Doesn’t it look like a tiny white forest? It’s believed to be mychorrizal, meaning it emerges from fungi underground that surround a tree’s roots and assist the tree in absorbing water and nutrients while the tree feeds the fungi. A beneficial symbiosis.
Like last year, huge fungi formed on the dead tree across from the Playground Pond. They are clearly some kind of polypore, or shelf mushroom, but I’ve been unable to nail that down. Anyone have a guess? They were so big this year that one of them collected water in which insects swam! On my last visit, though, only one was still on the tree. Either the downpours knocked them off or perhaps children did, like I saw two little boys try to do last year.
A little girl was delighted by finding a common Shaggy Mane Mushroom (Coprinus comatus)in the green grass of the playground field. It is beautifully ruffled, isn’t it?
It took a while to identify this mushroom, but I’m pretty sure it’s called an Elm Oyster Mushroom (Hypsizygus ulmarius) because they look like this and grow out of Box Elders (Acer negundo) at this time of year, like this one on the Western Slope did.
I know some people experience autumn as a somewhat melancholy season – flowers missing petals, tree shedding leaves, birds departing. The park quiets down as birdsong diminishes and the cricket song replaces frog song. Others find the riotous color of fall leaves and the crisp air exciting and invigorating and they love the fall. It can strike me either way, depending on the day.
For those who feel a bit sad at summer’s end, maybe it helps to remember that autumn is just the beginning of a long rest before spring. Trees take a breather from photosynthesis and live down in their roots for several months. Seeds are finding their way to the ground where they’ll reside until sunlight summons their hidden life back to the surface. Some birds, like some humans, depart for the south. But others, like the first little Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) we saw this week, are winging their way from the north to spend the winter here where our winter weather suits them just fine.
If we’re curious and take the time to look, every season here offers beautiful – and sometimes oddly fascinating – discoveries. And that cheers me even on the grayest of autumn days.
Footnote: My sources for information are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991); Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for insect info; http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info; invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman; experienced birder Ruth Glass, bird walk leader at Stoney Creek Metro Park for bird identification; Birds of North America Online; Audubon.org; Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, Trees in My Forest by Bernd Heinrich, Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, Savannah River Ecology Lab (Univ of Georgia); Tortoise Trust website www.tortoisetrust.org; An Orchard Invisible: A Natural History of Seeds by Jonathan Silvertown; The Ecology of Plants by Gurevitch, Scheiner and Fox; other sites as cited in the text.