Restoration Brings New Life and Exciting Visitors

Shades of green in a forest near the Wet Prairie

As bright green leaves emerge each May, stewardship in our parks kicks into high gear. During the last two years, our township stewardship manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide restored two wetlands with help from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and our township stewardship crew and volunteers restored a fragile woodland with a lot of muscle power and hard work.

Text and photos by Cam Mannino

I covered these three transformations earlier in Natural Areas Notebook – restored wetlands in at Blue Heron Conservation Area and Watershed Ridge Park and remnant woodland and wetland restoration near the Paint Creek Heritage Area – Wet Prairie.

In the last few weeks, work has moved forward, which will bring even more life and beauty to these three natural areas. And the changes wrought have already encouraged surprising new visitors and a renaissance of sorts. Come see….

At Blue Heron Environmental Area, A Rare Visitor and A First Sowing of Wild Seed

On May 4, as I passed Blue Heron on my way to monitor bluebird boxes, I saw Ben in the north field with my gifted photographer friends, Bob and Joan Bonin. Hmm… A few minutes later, I received a quick text from Ben that they suspected they were looking at a Willet, a bird I’d never heard of! Well, monitoring completed, I made a beeline to Blue Heron and yes indeed, it was a Willet (Tringa semipalmata), a shore bird rarely seen in Michigan. Be sure to click on the photos below to enlarge them so you can appreciate the detail the Bonins achieved!

Willets generally winter along the east and west coast of North America, the Caribbean islands, and the north coasts of South America. The eastern subspecies breeds during the summer farther up the northeast coast. The western birds breed out in the high plains area of the western U.S. and Canada. Our Willet had lighter colored feathers, so it appears to be a “western” bird. So it’s a mystery how this bird found its way to Blue Heron, but we are so glad it did! Evidently it needed some R&R after its wanderings and stopped by to rest on the shore of this blue oasis. The marshy edges of the new wetland were rich with food. Bob caught the moments when the Willet extracted a worm and when it latched onto what appears to be an insect larva from the water. Restoration of this wetland two years ago provided this wayward Willet with a safe haven. Ah, the rewards of good stewardship!

A few days later, the US Fish and Wildlife Service folks arrived to seed the north end of the field at Blue Heron. (The south end will still be farmed for now.) Native grass and wildflower seed sprayed from waggling, vibrating tubes at the back of the small tractor and a drag behind covered them with just a thin layer of dirt. The seeding happened a bit later than the stewardship crew had planned due to a busy season for USFWS. But Ben still hopes to see some new growth this summer. Native seed can take 3-5 years to reach full bloom.

A team from the US Fish and Wildlife Service plant seed above the north shore of the wetland at Blue Heron Environmental Area

Other Water Birds Dropped Down to the Pond for a Visit this Year

Last spring, the early arrival migrators were Black Ducks and the Greater Yellowlegs. Along with the Willet, other water birds arrived during this spring’s visits: a Solitary Sandpiper (Tringa solitaria) poked about in the shallows during the seed planting before continuing its journey to Canada. And a female Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus), who likely lives in the area year ’round, lifted off from the pond as I skirted the shore.

Reliable Wetland Summer Residents

A few other creatures shared Blue Heron with me this spring – the ones that tend to show up since Ben restored the wetland. Slideshow below:

Watershed Ridge Park Receives its Blanket of Native Seed as Summer Residents Arrive

The north fields at Watershed Ridge Park after seeding by US Fish and Wildlife Service on the same May day as the work at Blue Heron.

The little USFWS tractor also tracked across the sloping landscapes of the two north fields of Watershed Ridge Park, depositing native wildflower and grass seed. Once the seeds germinate and begin growing, they should help prevent erosion into the newly restored wetlands – as well as adding a lot of beauty for us visitors! The following day Ben did some hand sowing of wetland seed and came across a lovely surprise at the edge of a wetland!

My favorite surprise during my visits was a glorious male Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) high in a tree near the parking lot. His more modestly dressed mate poked about a snag nearby, but flew away as I slowly turned to take her portrait. Wood Ducks can nest as far as 50 feet up in trees and have hooks at the back of their webbed feet to navigate up in the canopy.

A male Wood Duck avidly watched his mate explore a possible tree hole in a snag.

I think Mrs. Wood Duck probably decided that the snag was not close enough to a wetland, since she prefers a location in a tree near a wetland. Ideally, there her young can make a soft landing in deep leaves when they jump from the nest and then trundle after her into a nearby pond – with only the help of their mother’s encouraging quacking! I’ve included below the photo of a female Wood Duck that I saw at Bear Creek Nature Park a few years ago. If you can spot her on the limb, you’ll notice her subtle attire.

A female Wood Duck high in a tree looking for a nest hole in Bear Creek Nature Park. She’s well camouflaged, isn’t she? The one at Watershed Ridge blended into her snag beautifully, too.

Migrators at Watershed Ridge Park Find A Stopping-off Site or a Nesting Spot Near the Wetlands

Besides the Grackle, other migrators peeked from hedgerows or sang in tangled greenery near the restored wetlands. Slideshow below.

At the Wet Prairie an Open Canopy Creates Ideal Habitat for Two Special Visitors

The open canopy woodland near the Wet Prairie attracts interesting species and a native, diverse forest floor!

Please Note: No trails exist in the Paint Creek Heritage Area – Wet Prairie, but you can enjoy the wildflowers from the Paint Creek Trail, which runs along its entire eastern edge. In this sensitive natural area most stewardship work must be accomplished by hand to carefully preserve the unusual prairie and wetlands. So please, enjoy these special natural areas from the trail. I’ll give you a closer look at them below or feel free to search for other posts about the Wet Prairie on this website.

Birds often choose very specific habitats for breeding and foraging. For example, Cornell University’s ornithology website, allaboutbirds.org, identifies some of the most popular breeding habitats for species like the Red-Headed Woodpecker that seek out “deciduous woodlands with oak or beech, groves of dead or dying trees, river bottoms, burned areas, recent clearings…” How lucky, then, that the open, moist woodlands near the Wet Prairie (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) turn out to be just such a habitat.

Though oaks stand tall in this forest, the canopy was thinned over the years by non-native infestations of Emerald Ash Borer and Dutch Elm disease that left dying trees and snags (standing dead trees). In this habitat, sunlight slips between the trees, dappling the earth below where woodland flowers and small native trees like oaks can thrive in the partial shade .

Dead trees leave spaces in the canopy for sunlight to reach the forest floor, nourishing small native trees and wildflowers. These dead “snags” are vital nesting spots for cavity nesting birds.

This open woodland also features the very “river bottoms” mentioned by Cornell. The original bed of Paint Creek (before the railroad moved it east into a straight channel) – filled now by snow melt, rainwater and rising ground water – still winds its moist path across the forest floor. In May, it flourished with Marsh Marigolds!

Marsh Marigolds flourish in the ancient bed of Paint Creek that still winds through the forest. The creek was moved east long ago to accommodate the railroad.

And even the required “burned areas” and “recent clearings” that Cornell lists exist here! In fall of 2020 and the following winter, the stewardship team worked long, hard hours to clear a dense jungle of invasive shrubs and vines in the forest near the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail. Non-native shrubs like Privet, Common Buckthorn, Glossy Buckthorn, Autumn Olive, Multiflora Rose, and Oriental Bittersweet vine were hand cut and huge piles of them were safely burned atop the winter snow.

Burning piles of invasive shrubs, trees and vines dotted the forest after removal and were burned on the snow in early 2021.

Two Visitors Came to Check Out this “Open Woods” Habitat

And guess what? All of those conditions that Cornell mentioned did indeed attract a Red-headed Woodpecker to our open woods this spring! In late May, this bird’s call and drilling attracted the gaze of Lisa, a volunteer pulling invasive Garlic Mustard with Ben and the summer stewardship technicians. Listen to the third call at this link to hear what the crew heard.

At first glance, she thought she was seeing the much more common male Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) with its brilliant red crest and nape (On left below). But no, the busy bird drilling a hole in a snag was indeed a Red-Headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus!) Check out the differences.

According to Cornell’s Birds of the World migration maps , Red-headed Woodpeckers are more likely to be passing through our area to breed farther north in the top half of Michigan’s “mitten.” But some do nest here and we may have seen one that will finish its hole and raise a family near the Wet Prairie! Fingers crossed!

The Red-headed obliged me with a pose that shows its dramatic back and red head. What a treat!

During my visit, another bird that seeks out open woodlands, the Great Crested Flycatcher (Myiarchus crinitus), landed in a tree near the woodpecker and was spotted by Camryn, our sharp-eyed summer technician. Luckily it paused for a look around. It’s also a cavity nester so let’s hope it decides to raise young here as well.

A Great Crested Flycatcher flew in and perched on a snag in the open forest. Watch for that yellow belly and the chocolate back and wings!

These fairly common flycatchers, with their distinctive “wee-eep” and vibrating “burrrr” calls, love to hawk insects from high in the canopy, making them hard to see. So what a treat to see one at the tip of a snag! It didn’t sing or call for us, but the sight of its chocolate brown head and back and that lemon yellow breast, plus the sighting of the Red-headed Woodpecker, definitely made my rush down to the trail worth the effort! Thanks to Lisa for spotting the woodpecker and to Camryn for spotting the flycatcher and taking me near the location for both!

Native Wildflowers Stage a Comeback after Invasive Shrub Clearing

Golden Ragwort (Packera aurea) basking in the dappled sunlight along the ancient bed of Paint Creek

This May, spring’s rain and pale sunlight once again reached native wildflowers that had been buried under the tangle of non-natives for many long years. And like a miracle, they emerged in the forest’s dappled light and bloomed! Whenever this happens after clearing or prescribed burns, it fills me with delight. Some already existed as single blooms and now spread in glorious profusion, like the Golden Ragwort above. Others may not have been seen here for years. Here’s a sampling of the plants that waited so long for their days in the sun.

Restorations Require Death – and then, New Life!

A thick carpet of Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) moved onto the edge of the Paint Creek Trail once invasive brush was removed last year. What a sight, eh?

One of the odd aspects of stewardship work is that it involves removing living plants so that others, plants that nourish our local food web, re-emerge and thrive. But it’s occurred to me lately that gardeners have experienced this dilemma for centuries. Gardens require the removal of plants and grasses that infiltrate the borders. Sometimes even beloved but too exuberant flowers need to be thinned for their own health and the health of plants around them.

So inevitably, restorations mean eliminating aggressive, invasive non-native plants and trees that, if left in place, would eventually blanket a whole prairie or forest. Our stewardship crew spends days and weeks clearing invasive, non-native plants brought to America for their beauty or usefulness by settlers, landscapers and gardeners or as unseen hitchhikers in overseas shipments. Without the competition, predators and soil conditions of their Eurasian habitats, they can quickly smother, shade out, or choke off native plants.

The importance of native plants can’t be overemphasized. Because they evolved and thrived here for aeons, they can survive droughts, freezing temperatures, even fire. In fact many native plants require freezing winters or periodic fire to germinate! But they have no defenses against the rapid spread of non-native plants, because they’ve only been living with them for decades or perhaps hundreds of years, rather than thousands of years. Adaptation and evolution are very slow processes.

When native wildflowers and trees flourish, so does all other life around them. Native bees and butterflies can be attracted to non-native blooms, but their caterpillars can’t feed or develop normally on them. The leaves of native plants provide rich nutrition for caterpillars, the little creatures that nourish nearly every baby and adult bird we see. Later in the year, the berries of native plants provide migrators and winter birds with much more energy and nutrition than berries from non-native plants. Nature worked out an interlocking system of sustenance and shelter for life that we humans have altered dramatically over long years.

So what a delight it was to see that funny little tractor shaking out native seed at Watershed Ridge Park and Blue Heron Environmental Area! Or Ben and his crew hand spreading native seed collected right here in the township. Or even watching the removal of invasive thickets one year – and the next, seeing the plants nature intended rising from the soil after having waited decades to feel the rain, the sun, and the wind once again! I hope it’s not impious to describe those moments as little miracles, little resurrections – because that’s how they feel to me. I hope they lift your spirits as they did for me.

Stewardship Volunteering: An Invitation to Befriend Our Native Landscape

The native grass that I wandered through as a child which I later learned was native Big Bluestem.

As happens so often in life, I sort of backed into being a stewardship volunteer. I spent my childhood in Oakland Township forging paths through abandoned farm fields filled with tall grass. On a flannel blanket scented by the warm earth beneath, I settled beside a small wetland to read. My father knew where wild asparagus grew on Collins Road and rushed back home one afternoon to report seeing a trumpeter swan. We watched birds on a simple feeder in a bush outside the kitchen window. My brother and I could be gone all morning in the fields as long as we returned when the dinner bell rang. Being outside meant disappearing from adult supervision for hours on end, and we loved it.

Text and photos by Cam Mannino

When my husband I moved back to this area, we began Sunday walks in Bear Creek Nature Park, just an abandoned farm when I was child. At a Parks and Recreation Commission meeting in 2015, I took the opportunity to ask the Oakland Township Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, about a giant tuft of stiff grass that jutted out at the edge of a field at Bear Creek. Did someone plant some exotic grass in our park? It looked very odd and ungainly. Ben explained that it was Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), a native grass that had once covered large areas of our township – part of our ancient natural landscape. Really? He suggested coming to a presentation that he’d planned to describe that pre-settlement landscape and the role of periodic prescribed fire in restoring and preserving it. Fire as a preservation technique? I took the bait and arrived home from that event bubbling with ideas about Michigan’s prairies and how they might be restored to us. That huge tuft of grass at Bear Creek Nature Park, it turned out, was probably a remnant of the grasses through which I’d roamed years ago, grasses which had emerged after field fires during my childhood.

That eye-opening presentation marked the starting point of what is now my seven-year journey into deepening my relationship with the natural world. I continue to appreciate nature in ever more intimate detail – and it never fails to simultaneously fascinate and soothe me. Through volunteering in a variety of ways, I’ve come to understand that I have a part to play in healing the landscape that nurtured me as child and still does. And in doing so, I experience a bit of healing myself.

So here’s my invitation to join us in this reciprocal process of enriching the native diversity of our natural areas while enriching ourselves. Perhaps you’ll discover an activity that suits your gifts or interests. For details on monthly events, click on a date on the calendar page at this link. [See the blue bar at the top of the linked calendar page.]

Why Not Literally Be “For the Birds?”

If our feathered neighbors intrigue you, perhaps these activities are for you!

Ramble the Parks with the Wednesday Morning Bird Group

Birders at Cranberry Lake Park watching several different migrating warblers in a nearby tree. Photo by Tom Korb, a member of the group

Every Wednesday year ’round (with a few weeks off in December), a group of us gather at one of the township parks. We come with binoculars (or Ben can loan us a pair) and head out on the trails. Some of the birding group members are amateurs. Others have birded for years and can recognize a bird by its song or its pattern in flight overhead. Learn, laugh, hang out with kindly people in all kinds of weather and be a citizen scientist at the same time! The data collected each week by Ben and stewardship specialist, Grant Vanderlaan, is reported to the Cornell University Ornithology Department’s ebird website where it can be used by researchers to learn more about our feathered neighbors.

Get “Upclose and Personal” with Birds by Monitoring Nest Boxes

A female Bluebird bringing nesting material to her box.

We volunteers participate in another citizen science project, Cornell University’s NestWatch Project. Each volunteer takes responsibility for monitoring a set of bird boxes in one of our parks. After a yearly session on the do’s and don’ts of monitoring, we visit our boxes once or twice each week. I’ve peeked within the nest boxes of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia Sialis), Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor), and House Wrens (Troglodytes aedon) to record the date of the first egg laid, the hatch date, the fledge date and other data. As a result, I’ve seen baby birds hatch, feed from their parents’ beaks and sail out into the big bright world on their first solo flight! What fun! I recommend it to you.

Need A Little Excitement in Your Life? Volunteer with the Prescribed Burn Crew!

Two trained burn crew volunteers, a woman dripping low flame, a man carrying water for dowsing when required

Many of our native plants are “fire-adapted,” which means they benefit from fire or actually require it to germinate! After a low burn, the nutrients of dry plants nourish the soil, the blackened fields absorb sun for a longer growing season and room is created for native plants and the creatures which need sun and rain. So although Ben hires contractors for complicated burns, he also provides training each year for members of a volunteer fire crew. All adults are welcome, regardless of gender. The volunteers don protective equipment provided by the Parks and Recreation Commission and that, plus training and on-site supervision by Ben, makes for a dramatic, interesting and safe experience. So add a bit of adventure to your life and provide our stewardship team and nature itself with some badly needed help!

This could be you! Trained and ready to help restore our natural areas with prescribed fire.

Share an Ancient Tradition: The Gathering and Preparing of Native Seed

Two volunteers gathering native wildflower seed at Charles Ilsley Park.

Gathering the Seed

On a lovely autumn afternoon, Ben invites us to gather in a prairie to collect native seed, something humans have done for thousands of years. I love these autumn events; they’re so incredibly peaceful , relaxing and so easily productive. Ben chooses the site where desirable seeds are plentiful and gives us brief instructions on how much we can harvest. We then move out into the fields and slip seeds from their stalks, dropping them into a labeled bag later to be cleaned and sown where needed in our parks.

Former Stewardship Specialist, Alyssa, gathering coneflower seeds among the Big Bluestem at Charles Ilsley Park.

Preparing the Seed for Sowing

Volunteers cleaning seed and Stewardship Specialist Grant VanderLaan weighing it on the right.

Early in December, volunteers and staff gather at the township’s pole barn on Buell Road to separate the seed from its pods or seed heads. We dress warmly, snacks are on hand and we set to work pushing the seeds through screens into tubs, bagging the stalks and stems for compost. Some seeds need to be rubbed through a coarser screen while standing in order to break them off sturdy seed heads. The seed for each species is individually weighed, its origin and collection date recorded and then stored away for sowing. We chat while we work and the whole feeling of the event is a bit like an old-fashioned barn raising or quilting bee!

Sowing the Seed

Native seeds need to be sown in late fall or early spring, when nature drops many of its seeds; wild seeds usually require cold temperatures in order to germinate. It lands on the soil surface and moves into the soil by the force of rain or snow during freeze/thaw periods. Many are tiny, almost dust-like, and ignored by the birds. Some seeds are carried below ground by animals or insects.

Our collected native seeds are most often sown by hand or occasionally with a hand-cranked seed spreader. Ben and his crew recreate nature’s process in our parks by spreading it on the surface of prairie sites prepared by burns or mowing, on the edges of wetlands or for aquatic plants, even on pond ice. Natives may need three or more years to reach full bloom because they first establish deep roots. Unlike non-native nursery plants, they’re tough survivors who’ve evolved to grow without fertilizer or much other human intervention in Michigan’s unpredictable weather!

The stewardship crew planting in early spring, 2021

Scoop Up Tiny Shrimp and Other Tiny Aquatic Critters: Vernal Pool Monitoring

Volunteers monitoring a vernal pool in the early spring

Vernal pools are seasonal wetlands that form in low areas in the spring. They fill with snow melt and rain water, and then dry up in warm weather. As a consequence, these pools don’t support fish, which makes them a safe place for many creatures to breed and lay eggs. Tiny orange Fairy Shrimp (Order Anostraca) and appropriately named Fingernail Clams (Pisidium moitessierianum) are indicator species in these freshwater pools. Who knew shrimp and clams live and breed right in our parks? Likewise, our Wood Frogs (Lithobates syvaticus) and some species of Salamanders court and lay eggs here after overwintering in the uplands. Periodically Ben trains volunteers to record data from the vernal pools so that it can be reported to the Michigan Natural Features Inventory – a third kind of citizen science! Ben provides small nets and clear boxes and we don our high boots and wade in, learning first hand how to identify what dwells in these temporary pools that team with life that most of us have never seen before!

Enjoy Taking on the “Bad Guys?” Try Invasive Species Management!

Invasive species – like Bradford/Callery Pear (Pyrus calleryana), Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata), Glossy Buckthorn (Rhamnus frangula), Common Privet (Ligustrum vulgare), Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) and many others – are a big problem because they didn’t evolve here. In their original habitats in Eurasia and elsewhere, they did what our native plants do here, providing food and shelter for native species. But of course here, they are not among their native species. Consequently, they’re much less productive for our habitat. Their seeds may last longer in the fall, but offer little useful nutrition to our migrating birds – too much sugar, not enough fat. Butterflies may sip at non-native blossoms, but their young (the caterpillars) generally can’t/won’t eat non-native leaves, or if they do, fail to thrive into adulthood. Most caterpillars only feed on plants they’ve evolved with for centuries. Since caterpillars and their native plant hosts anchor the food web that feeds our birds and other creatures, the lack of caterpillars means a less healthy, more hungry habitat. Also, the predators that kept invasive species in check in their original habitats (insects, animals, fungi) aren’t present here – so invasives can quickly spread across the landscape with little opposition – robbing our native plants of the sunlight, rain, soil nutrients and pollination they need.

So here are a couple of examples to show how you might help preserve the rich diversity of our natural areas by eliminating non-native, invasive species:

Lend a Hand at Cutting and Burning Invasive Shrubs and Vines

Volunteers and stewardship staff took on clearing a large area of invasive shrubs and vines at the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail in late 2020. Forestry mowing would have damaged the fragile ecosystem there. After weeks of work, clearing was complete and the resulting piles were burned on the winter snow. See the transformation process in the slideshow below.

Attend Garlic Pulls on a Spring Morning

No, garlic pulls are not at all like taffy pulls, unfortunately. Just nice folks who go out into woodlands with Ben and Grant to remove the nefarious, invasive Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata). This introduced European plant crowds out many species of our native woodland wildflowers like Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum, May Apple (Podophyllum peltatum), Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica), and Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis). Garlic Mustard, named for its scent, is easy to pull! A four-year-old delighted in helping me pull some near my home and did a fine job. The following year, a native wildflower emerged from the seed bank – the kind of reward we hope to see again in our natural areas! (Notice the historical photo below of the forest floor at Bear Creek in 1979!)

Who Benefits More? Me or the Natural Areas?

Eastern Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park in full bloom in July after wildflower seeding

I’m sure it’s happened to you, too. We volunteer because we want to be of use and what we discover is that the greatest benefit has been to ourselves! Working with Ben and the other stewardship folk, I have learned to be of use to nature. I’m happy to provide data to researchers learning to protect nesting and migrating birds or tiny shrimp. And it’s such a thrill to see a diverse tapestry of native plants emerge from the soil after decades of being buried beneath a heavy load of invasive shrubs or grasses. It invariably feels like I’m privileged to witness a small resurrection.

But what I’ve experienced is that the benefits for me often outweigh the relatively small part I play in the process. I’ve made bright, interesting friends both in person and here on the blog. What a delight to enjoy and learn from kindred spirits! I’ve stimulated my aging brain with new information that matters to me. I’ve exercised both my mind and my muscles as I head out in the fields to see what nature is ready to show me. This kind of volunteering makes me feel more alive!

But most importantly, through stewardship work, I’ve come closer to the natural world. In fact, I’ve come to feel embedded in it. We humans aren’t just walking on the earth, after all. We are an integral part of a vast and intricate system that feeds us daily, quenches our thirst, supplies our oxygen, clothes us, heats our homes, provides materials for the very roof over our heads and the tools we use every day – and nature does all that while gifting us with beauty! A field full of wildflowers, sunlight streaming through a break in the clouds, bird song and the whisper of leaves, the dance of tall grass in a summer breeze – all of that glorious art is gratis once we step out our door.

So I hope you’ll find a way to join us. More than 1500 acres of preserved natural areas in Oakland Township could use your attention and if possible, your helping hands. I guarantee that nature will richly reward your efforts.

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.

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Birdsong, Blossoms, Babies-Spring!

Spring Beauties

Tiny spring beauties find any sunny spot in the dappled light of the woods to show their delicate faces.

Sunlight is dappling the Oak-Hickory forest at Bear Creek. Tiny Spring Beauties (Claytonia virginica) shine pink and white wherever thin spring sun touches the forest floor. Migrating birds, here for a brief stop before moving north, hop from limb to limb in the treetops, searching for a meal. Some of our summer visitors are exploring for nests around the forest’s vernal pools while others are settling in around the ponds and among the twigs and vines in sunny areas.

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

A few butterflies and moths flutter through open fields, keeping us company as we walk. Springs bubble up out of the ground and a stream flows through the woods toward the marsh. The haze of green moves up from the shrubs into the trees. In the woods, in marshes and wetlands, in sunny meadows – at last, it’s really spring!

Spring in the Woods

During the night, migrating birds are riding the south wind, finding their way back to Bear Creek.  A busy group of Yellow-rumped Warblers  (Setophaga coronata) chatted and fluttered in the greening forest. They’re on their way north to court and breed among the conifers farther up in Michigan. Some go as far as Hudson Bay or eastern Alaska. Here they’re stocking up on protein for the flight, finding little insects on the branches. Later, in the trees near the Snell marsh, I got a shot of one showing his eponymous “yellow rump” patch. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover your cursor for captions.)

Farther into the woods, near one of the vernal pools we monitored a few weeks ago, two Wood Ducks had arrived from the south and were checking out possible nest holes 25-30 feet up in a snag (standing dead tree.) They prefer the larger holes left by fallen branches. Wood ducks have strong claws on their feet to grasp branches and bark. Later, their 3 day old ducklings  will jump down from those heights into the leaves below unharmed to join their mother foraging in a nearby pond as  seen in this 1.5 minute Youtube video from a BBC documentary.

Down in the vernal pool, beneath the Wood Ducks, stood a graceful, small tree covered in white blossoms, a Juneberry or Serviceberry (Amelanchier sp.).  This native tree produces small fruits that are much beloved by birds and other wildlife.

Juneberry Tree in Vernal Pool

Juneberry Tree in a vernal pool beneath the Wood Ducks.

Plentiful spring rain topped up the vernal pool and a few Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus) began to sing again.  Mostly, though,  they seem to have found their mates and deposited their eggs on vegetation under the water.

Wood frog vernal pool

A Wood Frog peeking out of a vernal pool in the woods.

Likewise, the salamanders have finished producing those huge bundles  of eggs that were in the last Bear Creek blog. These nocturnal creatures are now back under logs nearby, waiting to come out and feed at night. Here’s what I think is a small Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) that we found under wood in a moist area near a vernal pond.

Spotted salamander BCNP

Spotted Salamanders hide during the day under logs in moist dark places in the woods and feed at night.

3 bloodroot

Bloodroot blooms for only 2 or 3 days in early spring and all over Bear Creek’s wood this year.

Under the budding branches of taller trees, all kinds of native plants are finding their way into the pale sunlight. The sunny faces of  Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) shown in the last Bear Creek blog (left) have finished blooming. But all over the woods you can see their cloak-like leaves which unfold after the flowers drop their petals. In the center, stands the Bloodroot’s “fruit” which now contains its fertilized seeds.

Seed pod of Bloodroot

The fruit capsule of a Bloodroot after the petals have fallen from the flower.

As the tree canopy fills high above, the Bloodroot’s stalk will continue to grow until it forms a little umbrella over the fruit. Eventually the seed capsule will swell and burst, dispersing tiny brown seeds for next year’s crop to be carried underground by ants who relish the elaiosome, a parcel rich in oils and proteins, attached to the seed.  This was a great year for Bloodroot. Successive prescribed burns may have really benefited this little woodland flower.

May Apples (Podophyllum peltatum) are living up to their names. Their umbrella-like leaves shelter a round green bud that resembles a tiny apple. It will bloom into a creamy white flower in a few weeks, still hidden beneath the leaves.

May Apple w apple

The bud of a May Apple does look like a tiny apple hiding beneath the umbrella like leaves.

An inconspicuous little plant called Pennsylvania Sedge (Carex pensylvanica) is just completing its bloom all over the forest. It appears to be little clumps of grass, but this time of year, this sedge blooms with a little yellow flower. The papyrus that ancient Egyptians used was made from a member of the sedge family.

Pennsylvania sedge Carex pensylvanica

Pennsylvania Sedge looks like clumps of grass in the forest, but is not a grass. It blooms yellow this time of year.

In moist places in the woods, an old friend appeared this week. Jack-in-the Pulpits (Arisaema triphyllum) produce bright red cones of berry-like fruit in the late summer and fall.

Jack in the Pulpit

A small Jack-in-the-pulpit appeared in the woods near Bear Creek marsh.

At the edge of the wood, where it meets the field or the marsh, one of my favorite summer visitors has arrived. The Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus), with the striking rosy red patch on his white chest and black and white patterned back, sings at the forest edge near the marsh and the pond. This one hid in a bush when he saw my camera – but kept singing!

grosbeak at BC

A Rose-breasted Grosbeak hiding within in a shrub but singing with great abandon

And what a song! Here’s a recording in Bear Creek by my friend, Antonio Xeira from the Xeno-cantu website . (Be sure to turn up your volume.)

http://www.xeno-canto.org/315152/embed?simple=1

Here’s bit clearer photo from our home feeder.

The elegant male Rose-Breasted Grosbeak. Photo by Cam Mannino.

Each red patch on the chest of a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak is different so it’s easy to tell one from another.

Some flowers seem to be happiest at the forest edge, too.  Like the shy Common Blue Violet (Viola sororia). Such a pretty little face.

Common violet

Common Blue Violet often appears where the trail meets the edge of tall grass or the woods.

Approaching the pond as you come out of the eastern woods, you begin to see and hear a small stream flowing toward the marsh.  It’s most apparent under the boardwalk at the eastern edge of the Center Pond.

Stream from C Pond to marsh BC

A stream fed by the spring in the Center Pond runs east toward the marsh.

That little stream joins with ground water rising to the surface in the marsh and eventually flows under Gunn Road at the northeast corner of the marsh – becoming the park’s namesake, Bear Creek! I love the sound of running water after a frozen winter!

Spring in the Marshes, Ponds and Vernal Pools

There are babies down near the water. Four young Canada Goose goslings (Branta canadensis) paddled and bobbed between their parents as they surveyed Bear Creek Marsh.

Goose family

Canada Goose parents take their goslings out for a swim in the marsh.

And three small Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta)crowded together on the tip of a log after rain made the water rise in the Center Pond. Space in the sunshine was at a premium!

3 small turtles

These young Painted Turtles found only a tip of a log to bask on after heavy rains.

High above the marsh near Snell Road, the air was full of newly hatched midges and Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) swooped back and forth with their mouths wide open gathering them in. Their ruddy breasts caught the evening light at dusk one night and shone like copper. They were much too fast and high for a good shot.  So here’s a link to see one at the Audubon website.

Approaching the Center Pond at a distance one early evening, I saw a Great Egret drifting down to the water. I hurried along with my camera, but a very nice couple, walking and talking, scared him up just as I put the camera to my eye!  Drat. So here’s one of my favorite egret photos from another year. I’m glad to  know they’re still at Bear Creek since I missed them last year.

Egret in tree6 - Version 4

An egret sitting in a tree at the Center Pond two years ago.

The leaves of an aquatic plant float on the surface of the Playground Pond.  What a lovely pattern Celery Leaf Buttercup  (Ranunculus sceleratus) makes in spring sunlight!

Celery Leaf Buttercup

A n aquatic plant, Celery Leaf Buttercup, floats its leaves on the surface of the Playground Pond.

Spring in the Meadows

While near the Center Pond, keep an eye out for another summer visitor, the Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus), a feisty bird who harasses much larger birds that enter its territory – even hawks and herons!  According to the Cornell lab, “They have been known to knock unsuspecting Blue Jays out of trees.” The Kingbird’s dark head, upright posture and the white tips on its tail make it quickly recognizable. This flycatcher spends the winter eating fruit in South American forests.

Eastern kingbird

The very territorial Eastern Kingbird defends his ground in fields near the Center Pond.

Out in the eastern meadow one morning, a Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor) sang its wonderful liquid song next to the nesting box at the top of the hill. I didn’t see a mate, so he may have been trying to attract one to that suitable home. This photo was taken an hour later as another one swooped for midges above the Playground Pond. I love the distinctive liquid gurgle of their calls.

Tree Swallow at Playground Pond Bc

The iridescent blue back and head contrasting with a white breast are easy field marks for the Tree Swallow.

Here’s Antonio’s recording of the burbling sound of the Tree Swallow.

http://www.xeno-canto.org/315286/embed?simple=1

In the meadow that morning, a Song Sparrow  (Melospiza melodia) had found a small tree near the Tree Swallow. He stood at the very top, threw back his small head, and sang!

Song Sparrow BC

A Song Sparrow throwing his head back in song from the tip of a small tree in the eastern meadow

The Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina) is a summer visitor who spent the winter in either Florida or the Caribbean. This little sparrow has a rusty brown cap and snappy black eye stripe and white supercilium ( strip above the eye).

Chipping Sparrow 2

The Chipping Sparrow is small and a very snappy dresser.

Some describe its chipping song as sounding like a sewing machine.  Below is another recording at Xeno-cantu by my friend, Antonio Xeira.

http://www.xeno-canto.org/313309/embed?simple=1

Tiny early spring butterflies and moths spin and float along the trails, as caterpillars trundle slowly in the grass below. Here again is the caterpillar of the Virginia Ctenucha Moth but this time I saw it upside down so that its red feet and white tufts were more apparent than its dark upper side with its two faint yellow stripes seen in an earlier blog.

Virginia ctenucha moth caterpillar

An upside down Virginia Ctenucha Moth caterpillar with red feet chewing on a blade of grass.

You may remember the Spring Azure butterfly with its gray underside from last week’s post about Draper Twin Lake Park.  Amazingly, at Bear Creek this week, one settled for a quick moment and I got to see the lovely lavender blue of the upper surface of its wings, which I normally see only as a spinning blur when its flying.

spring azure wings open_edited-1

The blue wings of a Spring Azure are normally seen only in flight. When their wings close, they are gray with faint blue stripes.

On the trail last week, my husband spotted this tiny moth with about a one inch wingspread. At first I thought it was some sort of fancy fly, but after some research, we learned it was a Grapevine Epimenis Moth (Psychomorpha epimenis). This tiny moth’s caterpillar, as its name applies, uses various grapevines as a host plant.  According to Wikipedia, “The larva [caterpillar] makes a leaf shelter in new foliage by taking the leaf edges, pulling them upward and then tying them together with silk.”

Grapevine epimenis moth

The tiny Grapevine Epimenis Moth breeds once a year and its caterpillars use grape vines as a host plant.

During the recent prescribed burn at Bear Creek, Ben discovered a small spring bubbling out of the earth in the eastern meadow. There’s something magical about water flowing up out of the earth, only to sink and disappear again.

Spring in eastern old field

A spring bubbling out of the earth in the eastern meadow.

The native plants transplanted to Bear Creek last year from a generous donor are beginning to bloom near the pavilion. The golden Wood Poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum) shone like a little sun of its own in late afternoon light. And another lovely native, new to me, is the wildflower on the right with the unfortunate name of Bellwort (Uvularia grandiflora).  The leaves seem to droop like the lovely flower, though Ben tells me, once blooming is over, they expand, fill out and look lovely for the rest of the summer!

 

Final Note:  Closed Trail

Some of you may have noticed that the trail that wound around the wetland below the south hill is closed.  Five years ago when a management plan was created for Bear Creek, Plantwise, who studied the park and wrote the plan, recommended reducing trail density in the park so that the wildlife would have larger portions of undisturbed habitat.  Also, being near the marsh, the newly closed trail is often soggy with standing water, which which means wet feet for hikers, deep ruts made by bikers and headaches for mowing crews. It also means that when those activities take place on the trail, there’s erosion and the possibility of increased sedimentation in the marsh. As Ben said, “Moving the trail away from the wetland may allow the woodcock and some other birds to breed successfully near that little wetland, instead of using it as a temporary stopover on the way to better habitat.”

So if you start down the south hill below the benches, just take a left into what I’ve always called “the tunnel of trees” and you’ll come out on the south side of the meadow that’s east of the Center Pond.  From there, you can skirt the wetland from the other side and still see the birds at the edge of the marsh and listen to their songs from a nice dry trail. Dry feet and more birds.  Sounds like a workable solution.

Spring All Over Bear Creek

Goose and turtles

A Canada Goose and a Painted Turtle family in the marsh

So no matter where you go now in Bear Creek, spring asserts itself. If you settle on a quiet bench by the water, climb a rolling woodland trail or stroll through a sunlit meadow, spring will be singing, flying, fluttering and swimming by and around you. Relish it while it lasts!

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: Shrimp, Clams?? Yes! Plus Plenty of Spring

Quite a week at Bear Creek!  It began with 3 inches of snow at  30 degrees and ended at 70 degrees and sunshine! I began the week by joining Ben and two other volunteers (Catherine Hu and Antonio Xeira) in monitoring the creatures that live in our vernal pools – the wetlands that fill in the spring and mostly or completely dry by middle or end of the summer. I’ll be sharing both my photos this week and, with his permission,  the photos of Antonio Xeira, an avid birder from Portugal and a fellow lover of the natural world.

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

It turns out that Bear Creek’s vernal pools are teeming with life!  And new life began to assert itself in the rest of the park, too,  as the weather warmed. The first woodland flowers thrust out of the earth,  a few more migratory birds rode in on the wind, butterflies spread their wings in the sunlight, turtles basked and swam while the frogs  sang and salamanders left floats of eggs in the vernal pools. Finally, on a perfect spring Saturday, humans appeared on the playground lawn enjoying the spring sunlight with their fellow creatures.  A lovely week.

Who Knew Bear Creek Hosted Shrimp and Clams?

Antonio and Catherine OT0002

Volunteers Catherine Hu and Antonio Xeira examine their finds from a vernal pool.

Michigan Natural Features Inventory is leading a project to map and monitor vernal pools, something never done in Michigan before. Since these wetlands dry up for part of the year, they are particularly vulnerable to being filled in. But scientists are finding that vernal pools are “biodiversity hotspots” of the forests. Late fall or early spring flooding of these pools stimulates dormant creatures to awake and others to hatch as the water level rises. The “indicator species,” the ones normally present in a vernal pool, are, among others,  wood frogs, fairy shrimp,and a variety of salamanders.  We sampled four ponds and found evidence of these species.

Fairy Shrimp (Order Anostraca) are .5 to 1.5 inches long, swim upside down and look like a tiny version of the shrimp sold at the seafood counter!  According to the website of the Vernal Pool Association, their sets of 11 leaf-like legs do several things – propel them through the water, gather food (algae, bacteria etc.), and take in oxygen from the water.

Fairy shrimp3 OT0019

Fairy shrimp from a vernal pool

Here’s a female with an egg sac attached, and eggs visible inside!

Fairy shrimp OT0001

A female fairy shrimp with full egg sack attached.

Of course there are other small creatures in these ponds too – tiny Fingernail Clams (family Sphaeriidae), mosquito larvae and water beetles that row around with their front legs like oars! (Click to enlarge; hover cursor for captions)

Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus) love these ponds. We found brown ones and one tiny rust-colored one underneath a log. They come in varying shades of brown and, according to Wikipedia,  some are able to change their shade! (Both photos by Antonio Xeira)

The salamanders had already mated, laid their eggs in the water and disappeared under logs or leaf litter. But their egg sacks, attached to twigs, were pretty impressive!  Ben thinks the larger egg masses are Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum), with Blue-spotted Salamanders (Ambystoma laterale) laying smaller egg masses or individual eggs.

Meanwhile in the Sunshine…Birds!

More migratory birds are passing through to cooler climes or coming to spend their summer with us. One late afternoon on the far side of the Center Pond, I watched a Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) perch, watch carefully and suddenly dip down into the water with a rattling call.  Belted Kingfishers excavate 3-6 foot bank-side tunnels for nesting which slope upward to keep out water. Fossils indicate that they have graced ponds for 600,000 years! This fellow was a male; a female has a rust-colored belt across her belly, making her one of the few female birds who are fancier than the males.

Belted Kingfisher 2

A Belted Kingfisher makes a rattling call before dipping down to eat from the Center Pond.

The Kingfisher will spend the summer with us, as will the Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus).  These beautifully spotted birds can be identified  in flight by a flash of white on their rump.  They’re high in the trees now, probably searching out nest holes. But since ants and beetles are a favorite meal, you can spot them poking their long beaks and barbed tongues into lawns or trails too.

Flicker Walnut Lane

An unusual posture for a flicker who normally uses its barbed tongue and long beak to probe the ground for ants and beetles.

A tiny migrant arrived this week too, the hyper-active Ruby-Crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula). With a constantly flicking tail, these restless birds move from branch to branch, rarely alighting for more than a few seconds. This one is just passing through on its way to breed somewhere in Canada.  Its “ruby crown” only appears when it’s excited so I guess this one felt relaxed, despite its hyper behavior.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

This Ruby-crowned Kinglet is just stopping by on its way to spend the breeding season in Canada.

A pair of Eastern Phoebes (Sayornis phoebe) hung out near the kiosk at Gunn Road. They were clearly checking it out as a possible nest site. Once she starts laying eggs, however, the female will chase this male away from her mud-and-grass nest.

Phoebe BC

A pair of Phoebes were checking out the kiosk near Gunn Road as a possible nesting site.

I don’t often see American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) at Bear Creek during the winter, though they stay in the area.  My theory is that they’re all at neighborhood thistle feeders! But admittedly, they’re easier to spot now that the males have donned their bright yellow summer feathers.

Goldfinch BC

A male American Goldfinch has molted into its bright summer colors.

Flowers and Butterflies – It’s Definitely Spring!

Most years, I don’t see any woodland flowers until later in spring. The earliest to emerge are usually Spring Beauties (Claytonia virginica). But right now at Bear Creek, those lovely little flowers have only their leaves coming out of the ground in the dappled light of the woods.  But another of my early spring favorites, with the un-poetic name Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), is blooming along the western side of the Northern Loop. Notice how the flowers arise before the furled leaf below has opened – unusual in plants. The leaf will make a circular cloak around the flower once it’s fully open.

Blood root BC

The leaves of the Bloodroot unfurl after the flowers appear, eventually making a round cloak around the blossom.

Two butterflies fluttered over my shoulder on Saturday. Both of them spent the winter months as adult butterflies, hibernating in a frozen state under loose bark or in tree cavities. Mourning Cloaks are frequently the first butterflies out and about  in the spring which means they start the mating process earlier and have more broods than many migrating butterflies or ones that hatch in the spring. This one quickly winged its way to the Oak-Hickory forest – perhaps hoping for oak sap to rise soon and fill wells made by sapsuckers.  Sap is one of its favorite foods. Nice winter camouflage, eh? It looks like loose bark, especially with its wings closed. The Mourning Cloak has blue spots on it wings when they are open.

mourning cloak (1)

The Mourning Cloak emerges early in spring after hibernating under loose bark or in a tree hole all winter.

Winter-form Eastern Comma

Winter-form Eastern Comma

A small Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma) fluttered around me, landing on the trail. It also favors tree sap and spends the winter in frozen hibernation as an adult. The one I saw Saturday was tiny, restless and hard to photograph but it was still wearing winter colors – hindwing mostly orange with black spots (in photo at left). In the photo below, taken in a previous June, a summer-form Eastern Comma sports dark hindwings.

eastern comma butterfly

A summer-form Eastern Comma, with mostly black hindwings

Basking Feels So Good in the Spring!

A Garter Snake (genus Thamnophis) had climbed onto a small tree in one of the vernal pools we monitored last Monday and dropped into the water as Antonio, one of the volunteers, approached. No doubt it was interrupted while trying to soak up some sunlight after frigid Sunday weather.

antonios snake cropped

A snake probably basking in a small tree, dropped into a vernal pool where Antonio Xeira took its photo.

Fourteen Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta)shared logs in the Center Pond, soaking up the sun of the first really warm day. Like snakes, turtles are reptiles which can’t regulate their body heat except through activity. So most warm days turtles stick out their heads, necks and legs to capture the sun’s heat on their extremities as well as their dark shells.

14 Painted Turtles

Fourteen Painted Turtles soak up the sunlight at the Center Pond.

I saw my first Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) on Saturday as it cruised the marsh. It was feeding below the water with its long neck and then poking its head out for a breath of air. It must feel great to eat and swim after a long winter under the ice.

Snapper swimming marsh

A Snapping Turtle cruising the marsh for food and a little sunshine.

And human denizens of the park came to Bear Creek on Saturday to eat and bask in the warm sunshine, too. This family (whose name I unfortunately forgot to get!) graciously allowed a photo of their picnic on the grass with a lovely little human in a big hat to protect her from the spring sunshine.

Families picnicking BC

Families picnicking and basking at Bear Creek on Saturday afternoon.

So much life in this 107 acres, eh? Within the shady vernal pools, on logs at the Center Pond, on bare tree limbs, in the grass on the edge of trails and on the green carpet of  the playground, the park hummed with life by the end of the week. After a white-and-black, silent winter, the color and song of spring greet us like a warm smile. I hope you’ll be there, too,  smiling back.

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.