Tag Archives: black morph of Gray Squirrel

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Bird Antics, Goldenrod Duplexes and Squirrel “Dreys”

Vertical Silver Maple buds painting look (1)
Warm days begin to bring out Silver Maple buds
Cam in red winter coat BC
Blog Post and Photos by Cam Mannino

What a puzzling week, eh?  Was it spring or late winter?  The buds on the Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) near the Center Pond seemed as confused as the rest of us.  They began to emerge as the sun warmed  the cold air.  I was concerned about the effect of icy nights later in the week.  Alas,  a twisted ankle meant I couldn’t get back to the pond to check on them. But maples seem to survive unpredictable Michigan winters, so we’ll hope it pauses and waits for a few weeks.  On a long walk one sunny, snowy day, I crossed the late night/early morning path of a rabbit  and went on to enjoy the antics of the “usual suspects” of a late winter day at Bear Creek: a Bluebird pair, a Chickadee pursued by a stalking Titmouse, and a Red-bellied Woodpecker busily poking at bark, looking for beetles. On a sunny, mud-slushy short walk with my somewhat tenuous ankle, I came across Goldenrod duplexes and while watching squirrels, decided I’d share some new info I read about these mischievous mammals.

Bird Antics from the “Usual Suspects”

Our Eastern Bluebird couple (Sialia sialis) seems to be sticking around despite fluctuating temperatures.  A hardy pair of Bluebirds!  This week I again spotted the female fluttering among the fruits of invasive Asian Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) – the vine that chokes our trees!

Female Bluebird fluttering along the Walnut Lane
Female Bluebird fluttering among vines along the Walnut Lane

She will undoubtedly disperse the seeds in them in short order since birds have very quick metabolisms, if you know what I mean…

Female bluebird getting ready to disperse the seeds of a tree killer, Asian Bittersweet
Female Bluebird getting ready to disperse the seeds of a tree- killing vine, Asian Bittersweet

I wish she’d eat the Staghorn Sumac fruit(Rhus typhina) on the Western Slope! They’re native plants and are supposed to be on a Bluebird’s winter menu!

Staghorn sumac fruit
Staghorn Sumac fruit in winter

Her male partner sat stolidly on a nearby branch, keeping an eye out for any competitors.

Mr. Bluebird2
A male Bluebird sticking close to his female partner as other bluebirds darted in and out of bushes near the Walnut Lane.

On the trail that leads north from the playground, a Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) stalked a Black-capped Chickadee  (Poecile atricapillus), apparently trying to see where it was caching its seeds in the tree bark. No matter where the Chickadee hopped or flew, the Titmouse was right behind.  Here’s the Titmouse with its crest raised.  It does that when excited, in this case perhaps perturbed by my camera,  or as this article suggests,  by trying to snitch some seed from the Chickadee’s hiding place!

Titmouse BC3
A Tufted Titmouse traveling around a tree and its vines right behind a Black-capped Chickadee, perhaps to snitch its cached seeds!

The Chickadee looked pretty annoyed when it finally paused for a moment! Was it that annoying Titmouse or my camera?  Or was it  just its natural expression?  Who knows?

Chickadee stare
A Black-capped Chickadee who appears to be in a state of high dudgeon!

High in the trees, a Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) made its wet “Kwirr” call as it hopped about a tree trunk, getting snow on its beak as it searched for bark beetles or other small creatures.

Red-bellied woodpecker in tree2
A Red-bellied Woodpecker searches for something to eat beneath snowy leaves caught in the fork of a tree.
Red-bellied woodpecker pecking
A male Red-bellied Woodpecker drilling for food.

As I approached the top of the Western Slope that, a Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) high in a distant tree spotted me and shouted its warning call, “Jay, jay, jay!!!!”,  announcing my presence to all the other birds.  Here’s one in an invasive  Autumn Olive bush (Elaeagnus umbellata) later that day.

Blue Jay
The Blue Jay’s call often warns other birds about predators – or harmless humans like me!

Signs of Other Creatures: Tracks and the Duplexes

Rabbit tracks

Behind the Center Pond, my husband and I crossed the tracks of an Eastern Cottontail ((Sylvilagus floridanus) emerging from under a bush next to the trail.  Though you can see a rabbit almost any time of day, these tracks were likely made between dusk and dawn because rabbits generally feed at night.  In winter, their diet is mostly bark, buds and the twigs of woody plants.  Cottontails don’t usually live underground.  Though they use holes for raising young, the rest of the time, they huddle in piles of vines and brush. They will sometimes use a groundhog’s den temporarily during heavy snow – like this Wednesday’s snowstorm!

Along the path that runs just to the west of the Playground Pond, toward the benches at the top of the hill,  the Canada Goldenrod(Solidago canadensis) bulge with ball galls, the round, woody little dwellings that house the Goldenrod Gall Fly’s larva (Eurosta solidagnis) for the winter. (See the blog from January 21 for more info.)   Lots of them will successfully hatch out in the spring, but it looks like this one won’t.  Instead it probably provided much-needed protein on a cold day – perhaps for a persistent Chickadee who had to chip away for a while to get to the larva inside.

Chewed goldenrod gall
I wonder if this work on a Golderod Gall was done by a very persistent Chickadee trying to get at the larva inside.

Nearby, I found a whole patch of Gall Fly duplexes!  The holes in these galls are the neat little ones usually made by a Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens).  They are experts at drilling holes to find food, after all.  Goldenrod Gall Flies must be a great source of sustenance for birds in the winter!

Duplex Goldenrod Gall
A “duplex” of Golden Rod galls from which a bird, probably a Downy Woodpecker, has extracted larvae for food.

Squirrels in the Winter

This month the Seven Ponds Nature Center in Dryden had an informative newsletter piece about squirrels, written by Lois Rheaume, a naturalist on staff there. Having read it, I decided that I needed to read more about them.  Bear Creek, of course, is full of squirrels, three different species that seem like four!

From top to bottom below:  the American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus), the Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger),  and the Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) which comes in two basic colors, gray or black – and variations of those.  (No, they are not a cross with a Fox Squirrel; that’s genetically impossible.)

American Red Squirrel
American Red Squirrel
Fox Squirrel
Fox Squirrel
Gray Squirrel
Gray Squirrel

 

Black morph of a Gray Squirrel
Black morph of a Gray Squirrel with a Fox Squirrel behind it

According to Ms. Rheaume, Fox and Red Squirrels were most common in our area when the land was heavily farmed.   Red Squirrels and Fox Squirrels spend more time on the ground so open farm lands suit them. Gray Squirrels spend more time up in trees, so as trees have taken over open fields and have matured in suburban neighborhoods, more Gray Squirrels have moved in.   Squirrels can move easily up and down trees because their back feet can rotate 180°!

Fox and Gray Squirrels bury nuts underground.  Using excellent spatial memory and a keen sense of smell, they find about 95% of them.  (The forgotten ones help trees to sprout in our forests.) The Red Squirrel, who grows a rusty strip of fur down its spine for the winter, makes a cache on top of the ground.

Ms. Rheaume’s piece informed me that squirrels assess acorns by rotating them quickly under their sensitive noses with their front paws. They tend to eat White Oak acorns (Quercus alba) right away because they have thinner shells and sprout more quickly.  They’re also less nutritious for them.   Squirrels are more likely to store Red Oak acorns (Quercus rubra)  which contain higher amounts of tannin to preserve them and because they contain more fat and nutrition for winter months.  Amazing what creatures know.

Some folks may not know that squirrels build nests in trees, nests that can be mistaken for those of hawks, for instance.  Squirrels prefer a tree hole on a cold, snowy night but they are frequently unavailable.  They build nests, called “dreys” in the fork of a tree or where a sturdy limb meets the trunk.  These dreys can be used for young in the summer but they can also come in handy on cold days.

Squirrel nest1
Squirrel nests, called dreys, appear more in the fall when the leaves have fallen.

Dreys end up being a foot or more in diameter and start out with a platform of small branches with green leaves attached.   Squirrels gnaw off these branches before autumn, so that the leaves don’t fall, but stay on for the winter.  Ms. Rheaume saw one dislodged by a storm.  It contained “a fluffy layer of leaves and sticks on the outside with the next ‘wall’ lined with several layers of oak leaves, making a virtual waterproof barrier for the soft grasses, shredded bark, and lichens which make up the soft bed in the center.”  According to Wikipedia, dreys have one or two “entrance/exit holes…usually close to the bottom and oriented toward the trunk which keeps the rain out.”  Sounds reasonably cozy on a cold night, doesn’t it?

Fallen queen annes (1)

It seems that the coming week will be as topsy-turvy as the last one – a huge snowstorm followed by a warm weekend.  The dry stalks of last year’s plants, like the Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota) above, are succumbing to the weight of snow, wind and cold.  But through it all, the creatures of Bear Creek find ways to keep warm, find food and keep us company as the days get noticeably longer. I heard a report of a Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis) arriving this week.  We have lots of Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) in our yard  and we saw an obese Raccoon (Procyon lotor) taking a hibernation break and stuffing itself beneath our bird feeder.   Perhaps these springtime creatures were fooled by  strangely warm winter days or perhaps they know something else we don’t!  Time will tell.

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

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Winter Robins, Trailing a Fox and Reminders from Last Spring

Blue morning shadows on center pond

Cam in red winter coat BC
Blog Post and Photos by Cam Mannino

I love the blue shadows that bright sun paints across winter snow. On my visits to Bear Creek this week, I spent some time with my face turned to the ground, trailing animals that had trotted along the paths to the Center Pond, perhaps on the previous moonlit night – or crossed and re-crossed the marsh nearby on a snowy morning. Trundling along, nose down,  I twice caught the sound of social chirping from flocks of birds gathered in trees nearby and went to explore. Later, standing on the ice, I craned my neck skyward to peer at spring reminders hanging from overhead branches. As usual, nature had a few surprises for me. Let’s start with those birds.

Winter Flocks – A Colorful, Noisy Sight

Winter Robins in a tree
Part of a flock of winter robins this week at the park.

Despite the fact that we think of  American Robins (Turdus migratorius) as harbingers of spring, nearly every winter they appear in the bare trees at Bear Creek. According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab, some do migrate, but many robins stay in their breeding  grounds. Evidently they can gather in huge roosts “sometimes including a quarter-million birds during winter.” Wouldn’t that be something to see? This week, a chorus of soft “cluck” sounds alerted me to a small flock of  8-10 birds who were feeding on frozen berries.  Many in this flock seemed to have exceptionally dark heads like this one:

Male robin
Male robin on a wintry day at Bear Creek

Since Cornell says that males have darker heads than females, I think there were probably more males in this group and since winter is not half over and has been fairly mild, perhaps the body feathers from their last molt are still in pretty good shape as well!

Later in the week, I heard another chorus of higher-pitched chipping calls and was expecting to find a flock of Tree Sparrows (Spizella arborea). Instead, I was treated to the rosy heads of male House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) socializing with their beige, striped females in bushes along the path just north of the playground. At my home feeder, I only see four or so at a time, but there were again 8-10 in the park, fluttering and moving too quickly for a shot as they hunted for berries. But one male  graciously posed for me in the half shade for a minute.

House finch BC
A male House Finch – his red head in the sunshine, his tail in the shadows.

Readers of the blog know how I love the color red, so I was delighted to see these Robins and Finches brightening up a winter day.

Following Fox Tracks

As I left the playground pond one morning, I came across the round prints of what was probably a Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes fulvus), trotting along the night before,  like this one which passed outside my window at home a couple of years ago.

Red fox on the run
The Red Fox whose tracks I followed this week might have looked like this one, seen at my home.

The tracks are so delicate  – single round circles in a continuous path, as the fox sets its back foot neatly into the track made by its front foot.  Their tracks never wander, as domestic dogs’ do, and they often follow human paths; wild animals, who must find their own food, need to conserve their energy by taking the easiest, most direct route. I decided to follow the fox.  Nose down, I headed west and the fox prints “took me” down the western slope, the neat circles staying close to the middle of the path.

Fox print western slope
Red Fox tracks going down the middle of the path that leads down and up the western slope.

At the end of the path, near the benches at the top of the south hill, the fox turned left and I followed its tracks over the edge of the hill on the path that leads through a tunnel of small trees to the meadow west of the Center Pond. And from there, I followed this ghost fox just past the Center Pond until it turned to go along the boardwalk to the east of the pond.

I turned south to go home because I was half frozen, but I enjoyed spending the last half hour of my walk “accompanying” this wild animal as it had trotted along under a full moon.

Another day this week I found other evidence of  perhaps the same fox. Here are tracks leading again to its exploration of the muskrat lodge in the Center Pond (I’d shown similar tracks in a previous blog). Its tracks clearly stopped by the lodge as it left its “calling card,” a small scat, the size of which was further evidence that this was likely a fox. And then the tracks took their neat bee-line to the other side of the pond (click on photos to enlarge,  hover your cursor over a photo for a caption).

Foxes are one of the predators of muskrats.  In the winter, coyotes and foxes are known to pounce on lodges and feeding platforms to prey on muskrats below. I couldn’t help wondering if that’s what happened in the marsh at the southwestern edge of the forest, where there are two collapsed muskrat feeding platforms from the summer. If so, the attempt wasn’t recent because there was no sign of bloodshed, but a clear path led to the lodge and away. The fox ate no muskrat that night.

Nearby squirrel tracks made a crossroad near the same lodge (see right photo above). One set of prints was much smaller than the other. My guess is that one set is that of The American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus); you can hear one there often during the day.  And the other may have been a larger squirrel, probably a black phase/morph of the Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), a species commonly seen in the woods around this marsh. They must have crossed the marsh in the morning after the fox’s nocturnal visit. (The Gray Squirrel photo was taken under our feeder as I neglected to get a shot of one at Bear Creek!).

If anyone knows tracks better than I (I am a rank amateur) and wants to correct me on any of these tracks, please feel free!

Memories of Last Spring:  Abandoned Nests

One advantage of following these tracks, too, was that I got a new perspective on two types of nests. Exploring the tracks of the muskrat lodge on the Center Pond, I was able to get a good look at the abandoned nest of the Bald-Faced Hornet (Dolichovespula maculata) that hangs over the eastern edge of the pond. It was a good way to see the amazing tiered construction of this astonishing  insect architecture fashioned from chewed bark and their own saliva.

Closeup hornets nest over ice
The weather has torn away the surface to show us the tiered interior of the amazing nest of  the Bald-Faced Hornet.

Three times this week, I spotted the hanging sack-like nests of the Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula), nests I couldn’t see until the austerity of winter revealed them swaying among bare limbs. I love these bright migrating birds who build snug nests that rock their nestlings in the treetops. They won’t be back from Florida and the Caribbean until early May.

oriole BC 5/3/14
A chilly male Baltimore Oriole in early spring.

The first nest I saw (the closeup) was hanging over the marsh at the southwest end of the forest where I saw the collapsed muskrat lodges.  The second was in the trees across the field at the bottom of the Eastern Path.  And the last, very high up, hung near the boardwalk over the marsh on the south end of the Walnut Lane, heading back to the parking lot. Imagine seeing three in one week!

Such a nice reminder that spring will come again!

Sunset at BC
Sunset at Bear Creek – the hour of the fox!

Winter at Bear Creek makes new requirements on us visitors. First of all, the trails and ponds are icy so  Yax Trax or some similar cleats on your shoes/boots are a fine idea. Second, we’re required to listen even more carefully than we do in warm weather. Birds don’t sing now, but do they do call to each other either in pairs or flocks, making it easier to see the few that keep us company in the winter. And sometimes it also requires using our imaginations – to see in the mind’s eye that Red Fox with its brown boots trotting swiftly through the park in the moonlight looking for a meal. Or a Red Squirrel bounding across the ice in the early morning to dig food from its winter cache. Or as in our last few blogs, to imagine the muskrat swimming in the darkness under the ice or the butterfly overwintering in a hollow tree. Then the quiet emptiness of the black-and-white park is filled with activity that we can hear in the treetops or see in our mind’s eye.

*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 and other sites as cited in the text.