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.

TINY, INTREPID MIGRATORS: The Colorful Warblers of Late Spring

Polish up your binocular lenses and head outside, dear readers!  The trees, shrubs and marshes are filled with a rainbow of colorful birds. And though some of these visitors may choose to stay and raise young here, others are just passing through.  So time’s a-wasting!

The second and third weeks of May are probably the busiest weeks of the spring for those of us who enjoy birds. New birds arrive daily at our feeders and we rush to the window. Flocks gather at  birding ‘hot spots” like Tawas Point in Michigan or Magee Marsh in Ohio and we pack up the car and take off to see them.  Familiar birdsong in the treetops prompts the birding group to go silent and look up.

A tree full of busy warblers captivated the birding group in May 2018.

Scientists theorize that the tiny warblers, and many other spring birds, may have made long, arduous journeys through the night ever since their ancestors in the tropics experimented with moving north in the spring.  As the glaciers retreated, some of the tropical or sub-tropical birds kept pushing on a bit further north each spring, seeking more sunlit hours and different or more nourishing food. Those ancestors liked what they found –  longer summer days, an abundance of blossoms and insects and plenty of nesting sites. And lucky for us, they eventually arrived here in Oakland Township and liked what they saw.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

This year,  I got curious about  where our visiting warblers spent the winter. How far had they  traveled to reach Michigan from their wintering grounds? I also wanted to be sure which birds you and  I need to look for right now, before they fly off to breed further north and which ones we can relax about a bit, because they’ll spend the summer with us, raising their young in our parks and yards. The more I learn about nature, the more I feel myself embedded in the natural world – and I like that feeling.

So here’s what I’ve learned about some visiting warblers so far this month. These birds are all ones I’ve seen this spring. But I’m using some of last year’s photos  when they’re better than some of the ones I took during this year’s cold, rainy spring. Next week, I hope to explore the fellow travelers, other beautiful migrators that accompanied this year’s warblers  and will be spending the summer with us as well.

Some Warblers are Here Only Occasionally or are Just Passing Through

Evidently for some birds,  our area is a good place to get some R & R, but locations further north have charms that lure them on.  Perhaps these migrators long for cooler summer temperatures, deeper forests, or a reliable food source that they need or simply prefer.

At Magee Marsh in Ohio, my husband and I saw our first male Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea), named for the bright yellow robes of Roman Catholic papal clerks.  You can’t see this male’s lovely blue-gray wings in my photo because he wouldn’t stop singing his four tweet song.  I think his clear golden feathers with a peachy blur are probably the prettiest yellow feathers I’ve ever seen! Prothonotary numbers are dwindling due to a lack of forested wetlands in the U.S. and the loss of mangrove forests along the Atlantic Coast of Central and northern South America, where they spend the winter.  They more commonly breed in Missouri, Arkansas and the south but a few do choose to breed in our area.  Some were seen along the Clinton River Trail in the last couple of years. So,  enjoy a rare treat if you spot this beautiful warbler!

The Prothonotary Warbler has blue-gray wings that don’t show here because he was too busy singing to hop about!

The male Blackpoll Warbler (Setophaga striata) below may look like an overgrown Chickadee, but Blackpolls are avian record-holders!  Cornell Ornithology Lab reports that, “This long-distance athlete weighs less than half an ounce yet makes the longest overwater journey of any songbird—nearly 1,800 miles nonstop over the Atlantic Ocean to its wintering grounds.”  Imagine!   Now they are on their way to mate in Northern Canada; some go all the way to Hudson’s Bay! According to Cornell Lab, to accomplish their monumental autumn flights, Blackpolls have to double their weight!  Talk about bulking up!

The Blackpoll Warbler can fly over the Atlantic for 3 days nonstop on its way to its wintering grounds. Though still quite numerous, their numbers have fallen 88% in the last 40 years.

This male Magnolia Warbler with its black necklace and mask was on its way to Northern Michigan or Canada because he prefers to breed in dense conifer forests.  And he’s already traveled a long way since he winters in the Caribbean or Central America.

This male Magnolia Warbler (Setophaga magnolia) spent his winter in the Caribbean or Central America. He’s on his way to the conifer forests of Northern Michigan  of Canada.

Blackburnian Warblers (Setophaga fusca) travel super long distances, too.  According to Wikipedia, they winter in the mountains from Colombia to Peru at heights of 2,000-8,000 feet.  They also prefer to breed in coniferous forests, especially ones with hemlocks.  So they’re heading farther north to upper Michigan and Canada.  While there, they’ll spend most of their time in the high canopy, plucking moth and butterfly larvae from the treetops.  So the best time to see them is during migration when they’re down at eye level.

The Blackburnian Warbler travels here from mountainous areas from Colombia to Peru

The Northern Parula (Setophaga americana) spends its winters in Mexico, the Caribbean or Central America.  Parulas raise young from Florida to the boreal forests of northern Canada, but according to Cornell, they skip Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin and some northeastern states.  Why avoid us?  Mosses like the southern Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides)  or northern lichens like Old Man’s Beard (g. Usnea) that droop from branches are important to the Parula for nesting material and neither is common in our area.  So since they breed north of us and south of us but not here,  try to see them before they move on!

The Northern Parula’s  rust-colored throat isn’t visible in this photo.  It breeds in many states but not here since we don’t have the tree mosses  or lichens they depend on for nesting material.

According to the migration map at Cornell, the Yellow-rumped Warbler just barely misses our area during the breeding season.  They  breed north of  Michigan’s “thumb.”  The reason may be that,  like the Blackburnian, they prefer mature forests with more conifers in them than we have around here.  Luckily, during migration,  I’ve seen them many times at Bear Creek Park, either around the playground pond or in the oak-hickory forest.  They can winter as far north as Indiana and Ohio (rarely in the southern edge of Michigan) because they can digest fruits that other warblers can’t,  like juniper or myrtle, but also the fruits of poison ivy, poison oak and virginia creeper, for heaven’s sake!   Strong stomachs, eh? This one rested at Magee Marsh this year before crossing Lake Erie.

The Yellow-rumped Warbler prefers the conifer forests of Canada as nesting territory.

During migration, I’ve spotted Palm Warblers (Setophaga palmarum) year after year at Bear Creek Nature Park. Their song is a rapid buzzing trill,   Look for Palm Warblers on the ground, a location uncommon for most warblers.  They also do a lot of tail pumping while they forage. Palm Warblers prefer to nest in the boreal (evergreen) forests of Canada. Their migration north begins in Florida or the Caribbean.

Palm Warblers spend a lot of time on the ground, which is unusual for warblers.

Some Warblers Spend the Summer With Us.

All summer long, we are graced with the presence of other warblers.  They are small and can be difficult to see hidden in the summer greenery, though, so it’s a delight to see them before the leaves are fully grown.  I have yet to see a warbler nest, but I’ve only become aware of these little beauties since I joined the birding group, so maybe you long-time birders have spotted them raising young. If so, I’d love to hear about it in the comments section below!

The Chestnut-sided Warbler (Setophaga pensylvanica), one of my favorite warblers,  is shown on Cornell Lab’s migration map as  nesting here in our area,  but I’ve only seen them during migration.  Please let me know if you see one during the summer or hear what Cornell describes as their “pleased, pleased, pleased to meetcha!” breeding song. These little birds spend their winters among tropical birds in Central and northern South America. They tend to go back to the same tropical area each autumn and  hang out and feed with the same mixed group of tropical birds they hung out with the previous year. I’d love to see that reunion each year!

The Chestnut-sided Warbler spends the winter with the same group of tropical birds in Central or northern South America.

Happily, the Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia) is a common summer resident in our parks.  These bright yellow birds are likely to be in shrubs or trees near wetlands.  The male’s very quick “sweet, sweet, I’m a little sweet” call can be heard at quite a distance, so keep following that call! This tiny bird is also a long distance migrator.  Yellow Warblers fly non-stop across the Gulf of Mexico to spend the winter in Central America or northern South America. Wouldn’t their tropical ancestors be proud of them?  (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

Some of our eastern American Redstarts (Setophaga ruticilla) only travel to Florida for the winter.  But many fly on to the Greater Antilles (the large islands in the Caribbean) or to northern South America.   Listen for its cheerful song since they mate in our area, as well as over a large area of the  country. The Redstart is believed to startle insects out of trees by simultaneously drooping its orange-patched wings and flashing open its colorful  tail. It must work, because Cornell says that they excel among the warblers at catching flying insects.

The intricately  patterned Black-and-white Warblers (Mniotilta varia) hop along, around, over and under the trunks and branches of trees, much like nuthatches,  looking for insects in the moss and bark. They can nest here, though I’ve only seen them during migration and don’t yet recognize their rapid, shrill trill.  They build nests  on the ground in forest leaf litter, so we’re more likely to see them in parks than on our tidy lawns.  They are scrappy little birds that give the Redstarts and Chickadees a hard time when establishing territory. Some travel to Florida for the winter, but others fly on to northern South America where they hassle inhabitants there as well!

The Black-and-white Warbler hops about on trees and branches searching for insects or insect eggs,  much as the Nuthatch and Brown Creeper do.

The birding group sees  or hears Black-throated Green Warblers (Setophaga virens) during migration.  The maps at Cornell Lab shows that some breed here, but they’re more likely to nest farther north in forests with mature trees. There they often feed high up in the canopy.  So really, the best time to see them is when they’re migrating because they tend to stay further down in the greenery. Though they do have a mating song, we’re most likely to hear their buzzing “zzzzz” territorial song while they’re traveling.  The mating song is the first recording at this Cornell link and the buzzing call is the second one.  They may have migrated up  from the Caribbean. Or they may have traveled from Central America and northern South America, either around or over the Gulf of Mexico.

Listen for the buzzing “zzzzz” call of The Black-throated Green Warbler to locate it during migration.

Birds Flowing Over Us  in the Dark Night Sky

Imagine standing on your lawn in the dark on a warm spring night.  Though you can’t see them in the dark sky, a river of small birds, dressed in their best courtship colors, are  alternately soaring and fluttering as they ride the south wind.  Most of  the smallest ones travel in large mixed flocks for safety.  For hundreds of miles each night, they wing their  way beneath the stars.  They’re battered by unexpected cold fronts and rainstorms that force them down  to the earth, sometimes in places unsuitable for rest or foraging. They rest, try to forage and fly on.  They dodge predators like owls  or suburban cats that patrol the night and hawks and other predators by day.  They fly on. Some are confused by the bright lights of buildings or towers and break against unseen glass or metal, falling to their deaths by the millions each year. But luckily, others manage to tilt their wings, swerve away or over these obstacles and fly on.  Driven by the need to find the optimum habitat for raising their young,  these colorful small birds persist in the journey defined by their tropical ancestors thousands of year ago.

Now these lovely, hungry, weary travelers have arrived or  at least have chosen to stop, rest and eat here before continuing on.  It seems only right that we take a little time to appreciate them.  Their bustling activity,  brilliant color and cheerful song provide a welcome change after the quiet, cold, gray-and-brown landscape of  winter.  Now that I’ve come to know some of them, late spring is even more of a joy.  I wish that for you, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PHOTOS OF THE WEEK: A Warblerfest at Two Township Parks

Fellow birder Tom Korb’s photo of Oakland Township birding group watching spring warblers.

I doubt that many of the  birders in Tom Korb’s photo above had previously spent over half an hour observing a small group of trees with sheer delight. But of course, these trees at Cranberry Lake Park were decorated with colorful, little spring warblers! The warblers and other migrators had flown in on a south wind the night before and were now hungrily feasting on sweet spring catkins. Most of  these tiny birds will rest here and then fly farther north, so there were no territorial or mating squabbles. They were content to just nibble and flutter from limb to limb among their traveling companions as we eagerly watched below.

The same phenomenon occurred at Bear Creek Park the week before. A south wind had helped carry warblers and other small birds over the township and then heavy rain had forced them down out of the skies to settle in the trees around the playground pond.

So here’s a gallery of the photos I was able to catch of these tiny, flitting warblers, and a few bonus birds. For birds that we saw or heard, but were too quick for me, I’ve added two photos taken in previous years and two by  gifted local photographers, Joan and Bob Bonin.  Thank you to Joan, Bob and Tom! (Click on pause button if more time is needed for captions.)

 

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