Little, busy Gallagher Creek Park has gone through some big changes in the last few years. The Oakland Township Parks and Recreation Commission made a commitment to provide this densely populated area of the township with a playground for children. And they made it happen very quickly! Meanwhile, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, the township Stewardship Manager, set in motion a plan to eliminate large stands of non-native shrubs and begin restoring the fields that surround the new playground. This spring, he and his crew spent long hours creating and planting an extensive set of native gardens.
So I’ve enjoyed several happy outings at this little green park from late April to late June, observing both the exciting changes initiated by human effort and nature’s annual, sometimes less noticed, transition from spring to summer. Glad you’re here to share both of them with me.
The People Factor: From an Old Farm Field to a Playground Surrounded by Beauty
In the spring of 2015, the restoration of native habitat at Gallagher Creek began with a prescribed burn handled by contractors and supervised by Dr. Ben. Having done a plant survey, he had found many native plants struggling to grow amongst invasives. So in 2015, before the Parks Commission began to consider playground plans, Ben set about removing large stands of aggressive shrubs from the eastern sections of Gallagher Creek. In the early winter of 2016, he was able to begin planting native seed, using budgeted Land Preservation millage funds and a prairie restoration grant from the US Fish and Wildlife Service – Partners for Fish and Wildlife program. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
From 2016 to 2019, the Parks and Recreation Commissioners and Director Mindy Milos-Dale set about making the playground area a priority project. A professional architect from Professional Engineering Associates (PEA) worked with the Parks Commission and staff to develop a design for the playground, picnic pavilion, and paths that would harmonize with the natural environment. The Township Board’s Safety Paths and Trails Committee worked with dedication to complete the northern paved trail along Silverbell Road that leads into the park and LJ Construction did an excellent job of putting it all together. Now it’s easier and safer for families to reach Gallagher Creek Park from surrounding neighborhoods. And the stewardship crew, volunteers of all ages, and Dr. Ben set out to surround the playground with an educational garden that can familiarize both children and their parents with lovely plants that are native to our area.
All of the work came to fruition this May when the park was dedicated and the gardens completed.
Nature Begins its Transition at Gallagher Creek
The paths that lead out of the native gardens create a transition from the playground to the natural areas that surround the slides and swings. Right now, the only trail beyond the playground leads to a platform near the creek, but more are planned. So knees cocked high, I waded through the carpet of tall grass and flowers, exploring, watching a wet, cold, spring make the transformation into early summer.
A Cold, Wet Spring at Gallagher Creek: Wildflowers Emerge, the Birds are Fewer than Previous Years, and Insects Not Yet Active
May was wet! Gallagher Creek, normally shallow and wandering slowly through tall grass, flooded over into pools beneath the sheltering willows. Instead of whispering, it burbled along it path toward Paint Creek. The cool temperatures and moisture were perfect for some plants.
The most spectacular spring wildflower was the Yellow Lady Slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum) tucked in near the old stump left of the platform at the creek. The long purple ribbons on these yellow dancing shoes suit this wildflower’s name just perfectly!
Mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum) erupted from the soil in time to live up to their name, too. They formed a circular carpet out in the eastern field, where Ben had cleared a dense stand of shrubs in a previous year. Mayapples are more commonly seen in wooded areas but this colony of them seems quite happy to be surrounded by tall grass.
Their modest little flowers, which emerge from little “green apple” buds, droop shyly beneath the leaves.
Wild Strawberry flowers (Fragaria virginiana) lay hidden in the grass all over the park. Their berries will provide a tasty treat for all kinds of animals who always get to these berries before I do!
Where Gallagher Creek had flooded , it had left standing water far out in the eastern field. And some little rivulets flow the other way, toward the creek from the marsh near Silverbell Road. So I was glad I had waterproof hiking shoes. All along the creek in May, golden splashes of Swamp Buttercup (Ranunculus hispidus) shone like little suns from the wet grass. I’ve never seen as many here as I’ve seen this year.
When Ben cleared the shrubs, he saved a lovely Nannyberry bush (Viburnum lentago) that can now stand out in the landscape. According to the website Illinoiswildflowers.info, this graceful native shrub or small tree later produces juicy, sweet, purplish fruits that many birds love, including Ruffed Grouse, Northern Bobwhite, Ring-necked Pheasant, Northern Flicker, Gray Catbird, American Robin, Hermit Thrush, Eastern Bluebird, Cedar Waxwing, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and Purple Finch. It’s also a popular nesting shrub for birds. Sounds like a good one for my yard!
Oak trees are “monoecious,” meaning they have both male and female flowers on the same tree. The male flowers look like little bright green balls on the long, elegant catkins and the female flowers, which become the acorns, are inconspicuous little blossoms on the same branch. The female flowers are pollinated by the wind, which means a lot of us around here are sneezing in May! And once the male flowers open and shed their pollen, they fall to the ground. Here are the male flowers on an oak at Gallagher Creek Park (maybe black oak, Quercus velutina).
Just a couple of birds kept me company at Gallagher Creek Park in late April and May. I mentioned in the blog earlier this month that a birder friend sent me a photo of a Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) standing over her eggs in the shallow nest she’d scraped in the bare earth. The eggs, however, disappeared without my birder friend or me ever spotting the fledglings. Killdeer nests are awfully vulnerable to snakes, raccoons, coyotes and of course, careless humans! But I’ve learned that the adults can lead newborns to safer territory with water and food on the day they hatch from their eggs. They’re born ready to go. So maybe there are fledglings somewhere on the property being cared for by the male while the female starts a new nest. I hope so.
Last year, the air over the park was filled with swooping and diving Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor). This year, I’ve only seen one or two. It may be that the busy playground has encouraged them to settle elsewhere. Here’s a photo of one high in a tree at Gallagher Creek Park about two years ago, and one on the wing, scooping insects out of the air in the wetland area on the far side of the creek as I’ve seen them doing this year.
As Summer Tentatively Arrived More Birds and Lots of Crazy Insects!
Getting to Know a Killdeer, plus Other Avian Visitors
In June, I thought perhaps I was repeatedly seeing the Killdeer that my birding friend had introduced me to in late April. By June 1, the adult Killdeer had abandoned its first nest and seemed to be striking up a friendship with a local American Robin (Turdus migratorius). The killdeer appears to be the female, since the only other adult killdeer around is usually flying in circles making its piercing territorial call which is the male’s way of protecting his mate’s territory. (No wonder the second part of the Killdeer’s scientific name is “vociferous”!) The Robin may have been a female as well, since its head is not as dark as most males. On that June 1 afternoon, these two birds of different species hung out together in a native bed near the pavilion that hadn’t yet been planted. It was surprising to me that the two of them seemed so relaxed in each other’s presence – especially since killdeer are usually quite excitable. I liked to imagine that perhaps the smaller bird found the Robin’s stolid presence reassuring – or maybe that they were silently commiserating over the difficulties of nesting and raising young!
A week later on June 8, the Killdeer was bobbing along among the newly planted garden where it had visited with the Robin, calling now and then.
Six days later on June 14, Ben texted that he’d just seen another killdeer nest with four eggs in it. When I went on my own, I couldn’t find it; their nests are notorious for being well camouflaged! A day later, sharp-eyed Ben texted again to say he’d seen a hatchling coming out one of the eggs! And he sent me this wonderful photo! Be sure to notice the long beak on this youngster.
My husband and I hurried to the park. At first we only saw the female doing a distraction maneuver near the nest location that Ben had described. She huddled down in the grass and stretched her wings up vertically, spread her tail and fluttered, trying to draw our attention. Killdeer females do this when possible predators approach their young. They want predators to think they are starting a new nest. “Don’t look there! Look over here!”
This time we saw the baby bird, probably just half an hour out of its egg. We wanted to keep our distance to avoid any further distress for either the fledgling or its mother so no photo. But while we watched, this tiny bird struggled to its feet for a few seconds, then flopped on the ground and fluttered forward a little on its tiny wings. By a few repetitions of this arduous process, it got away from the exposed nest, the eggs and the hot sun and hid under some grass. What a little survivor! We walked away.
That evening, I learned the following from A Guide to Bird Behavior, Vol. II by Donald W. and Lillian Q. Stokes: “Once the chicks have hatched, the parents lead them gradually to areas with abundant food and some cover…On the first day, the chicks may move up to 120 feet from the nests…Brooding [covering the bird with adult’s body] by one or both parents occurs frequently during the first few days and, of course, during the nights.” I felt reassured, though I’ve not seen the fledgling since it hatched. Here’s a little Killdeer in a photo taken by iNaturalist.org photographer, Steven Mlodinow. Definitely “aaawww” worthy, I’d say. Hope someday I get to see one on its feet like this!
The Robin, by the way, may have been staring toward the pavilion because she was contemplating a nest there. Ben reported two adult Robins calmly ignoring humans below as they zipped back and forth bringing food to their young in the rafters of the pavilion. When I visited on June 14, I saw two Robin hatchlings who still needed to grow into their beaks a bit before leaving the nest. Unlike hatchling Killdeers who leave the nest within minutes, the Robin nestlings can spend almost two weeks in their nest.
On each visit over the six weeks, I kept hearing the “witchedy, witchedy” calls of the tiny, masked Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas). Each time, though, the calls seemed to be coming from the wetland on the far side of the creek. But last week, on June 19, I finally spotted one high atop a snag near the marsh along Silverbell Road.
On that last visit, I also heard a Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) trilling its melody and finally spotted it high on a bare limb. It looked as though it were studying the marsh for insects before singing another “verse.”
A few minutes later, I looked up from a flower to see a Great Egret (Ardea alba) soaring away from the creek and across the marsh. It was gone before I could raise the camera to my eye. So here’s a flying Egret photo taken at Bear Creek marsh a few years ago with a possible mate in the distance. I hope the flying egret nests near Gallagher Creek this year.
Gallagher Creek’s Wild and Weird June Insects
The natural areas at Gallagher Creek Park bloomed with a few more wildflowers in June. And that prompted visits by a variety of insects. Some I wrote about last week when I reported on native pollinators – bumblebees, sweat bees, leafcutter bees and hoverflies. This week get ready for some hair-raising stories! These insects are colorful and fascinating but come with some pretty fierce behavior!
Thanks to very kind assistance from Dr. Gary Parsons, an entomologist from Michigan State University, I now know that an insect I saw last week is a female Feather-legged Fly, specifically Trichopoda pennipes. These insects mimic wasps. With their feathery jodpurs, they sip on nectar, spreading some pollen as they buzz from flower to flower. Their genus also has the unpleasant distinction of laying its eggs in or on other insects. Once they hatch they eat the host! Yuck. According to Dr. Parsons, though, they may play a role in controlling an invasive stink bug because of their parasitic habits. Great looking little critter with a grim reproductive strategy, eh? (Note the two tiny Hoverflies (genus Syrphidae) mating on these Yarrow blossoms in the background.)
Speaking of Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), the fields at Gallagher are filled with this well-known native plant – and insects are making the most of them! Below, a potential victim of the Feather-legged Fly has come up with a snazzy defense. An insect group called Froghoppers (superfamily Cercopoidea) has a nymph stage that we commonly call Spittlebugs. To protect itself from predators, the nymph pierces the plant stem, feeds on its sap (doing no serious harm) and then excretes a bitter-tasting foam around itself. That keeps the nymph moist, insulates it from cold, and hides it from view so it can safely metamorphose within its bubbles. This spittlebug seems to have found an exceptionally safe spot beneath an umbrella of Yarrow buds.
Yarrow also hosted a very impressive arachnid. The long legs stretching down this stalk belong to a Daddylonglegs, also known as a Harvestman (order Opiliones). Unlike other arachnids, their body segments (cephalothorax and abdomen) are fused together and they have two tiny eyes on top of their heads instead of up to eight for spiders. Quite a specimen, isn’t it?
A lovely plant with the oddly descriptive name of Hairy Beard-tongue (Penstemon hirsutus) played host to an Eastern Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa virginica ) this week. Unlike the Bumblebee which it resembles, it doesn’t have a long tongue to reach into these delicate lavender tubes for nectar. Sometimes the Carpenter Bee has to slit the petals open to reach the pollen in narrow blossoms. I wonder if that’s why this bee solved the problem by choosing the smaller, shallower flowers?
An Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly (Erythemis simplicollis) rested among the greenery in the eastern meadow. According to the “Bug Lady” at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee Field Station, the white tip of her abdomen means she’s a female and they can lay up to 900 eggs per day! Most of the eggs and larvae, of course, will get eaten by fish and frogs. Dragonflies are flying predators. By snagging other insects from the air, they keep the habitat in balance. And they are such flying aces!
We need a relief from cool but strange insects, right? So let’s end with a second, closer look at Gallagher’s butterflies, some of which were featured in a slideshow last week. Here’s another look at the gorgeous Red-spotted Purple buttefly (Limenitis arthemis astyanax), this time with the upper (dorsal) view and the equally dramatic lower (ventral) view.
And here’s the tiny Pearl Crescent, this time with its fuzzy face peering over the edge of a leaf as it flitted about the eastern meadow. The matching orange tips on its striped antennae are nice touches, aren’t they?
The Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus) is named after the silver patch on the underside of its wings. Its caterpillars protect themselves from predators by creating a leaf shelter by cutting a flap off the edge of a leaf, folding it over and than fastening it shut with silk!
Gallagher Creek Park’s Colorful Future
Gallagher Creek Park already greets the eye with brightly colored playground equipment and the bright little faces of the children who come each day to enjoy it. And out in the meadow, both native and non-native wildflowers add their beauty to a park visit.
Imagine the color and variety that will greet us when the native gardens come to full bloom in two or three years! Those sturdy native prairie plants in the playground gardens will eventually survive bright sunlight and droughts without much watering because they take the time to grow long roots before fully blooming. Here’s a slideshow of some of those plants as they’ll look when full grown. Maybe they’ll set us dreaming about our own gardens!