Curiously, many native wildflowers like a little disturbance now and then. So township natural areas manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, sees that they get just what they need! By eliminating invasive shrubs, native plants grow stronger as sunlight reaches their previously shade-suppressed leaves. Regular prescribed burns help many fire-adapted native species emerge from the seed bank and thrive. The Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) along the Paint Creek Trail (seen above) are loving all the upheaval from invasive shrub removal three years ago. Yellow Lady Slippers (Cypripedium parviflorum), and Swamp Buttercups (Ranunculus hispidus) are flourishing for the same reason at Gallagher Creek Park. Native wildflowers are emerging in greater numbers all over Cranberry Lake Park after a recent burn. Below is a small sampling of local native wildflowers which benefit from the Parks Commission’s efforts to restore our natural heritage.
Well, what a change! Two weeks ago, we had spring flowers, leaf buds and spring courtship as birds sang and showed off in the treetops. And then came the heat and sun, and suddenly, it was early summer with leaves seeming to enlarge by the hour, spring flowers disappearing to be replaced by early summer blooms, more baby birds and the first dragonflies swooping along the paths in front of us.
So let’s explore just a few of the wildflowers and creatures that shared this change with us. (Plus some lovely post-prescribed burn surprises along the Paint Creek Trail.)
When it was still spring…
Late Spring Birds and a Fun Insect
The male Rose-breasted Grosbeak’s (Pheucticus ludovicianus) long, tuneful song was everywhere in Bear Creek in the last weeks of spring. Now their nests are finished and singing has to accompany the task of raising young. Both the male and female build that nest and care for the young – a very modern couple! (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Nearby, hopping from limb to limb, two male Yellow Warblers (Setophaga petechia) sang their seductive “Sweet, sweet, I’m a little sweet” song as they chased each other through the small trees at the edge of the woods. I never spotted the female, though she must have been nearby. She lacks the rusty striping of the male and has a more olive back.
In the fields behind the Playground Pond, a pair of Eastern Towhees (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) were getting acquainted. The male was not singing his “Drink your Tea-a-a-a-” call, so I think the two may have been looking for a nesting sight. I’d never seen the female Towhee before and she’s quite different from the male’s coloring.
Speaking of nesting, I found this large egg under one of the walnut trees near the lane. If one end hadn’t been missing, it would have been about 2 1/2 inches long. And there was nothing inside. I’m wondering if it could be the shell from the egg of a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) that I’ve seen off and on near the Center Pond. Cornell Lab describes the Red-tail’s eggs as 2.2 to 2.7 inches long and “white or buffy, blotched or speckled with buff, brown, or purple.” What do you think? Any bird egg experts out there?
A flash of iridescent green at my feet signaled the hyper presence of the Six-spotted Tiger Beetle (Cicindela sexguttata)who frequents the forest edge. I imagine it got its name because its larva, developing in a burrow during the summer, springs up out of its hole to catch prey! A tiny, green, stalking tiger! Cool how their antennae and legs are as green as their bodies.
Late Spring Wildflowers and Leaves
Two weeks ago, the Oak-Hickory forest was filled with big, beautiful Wild Geraniums (Geranium maculatum). These lovely lavender flowers carpet the area near the marsh every year, but this year they were all over the park – taller, more plentiful and with larger blooms than I’ve ever seen! Perhaps this year’s and last year’s prescribed burns helped.
Each year I wait for the blossoming of the Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) that stands east of the Northern Loop. I was intrigued to learn that the actual flowers are only the center of these blossoms. The “petals” are actually bracts, specialized leaves that attract pollinators by glamorizing the cluster of tiny center flowers. Here are three pictures of the buds, encased in their bracts, opening as May progresses.
While the Flowering Dogwood buds were opening, the leaves of the Shagbark Hickory(Carya ovata)were just emerging from their amazing buds.
The huge White Oaks (Quercus alba)near Snell Road were producing miniature red leaves that, two weeks later, were green and stretching out to catch the sunlight.
Of course, the May Apples (Podophyllum peltatum) were producing their modest white flowers that hang hidden beneath an umbrella of leaves.
Another spring favorite of mine are the little hands of Early Meadow-rue (Thalictrum dioicum) that find spots of sun in the mottled spring light of the woods.
Down at the pond, tiny aquatic buttercups, called White Water Crowfoot (Ranunculus longirostris)floated in large swirls across the pond. Once the heat arrived, the flowers disappeared and the brown stems are now making a not-so-lovely brown mat until they sink below the surface.
Heat! And Summer Rushes Forward
Summer Birds and other Creatures
A Green Heron (Butorides virescens), one of our summer residents, perched in a snag (standing dead tree) at the Center Pond. I usually see them fishing at the water’s edge. According to Cornell Lab, “The Green Heron is one of the world’s few tool-using bird species. It creates fishing lures with bread crusts, insects, earthworms, twigs, feathers, and other objects, dropping them on the surface of the water to entice small fish.” I will be watching now to see if I can catch one doing that!
Out in Bear Creek Marsh, Ben and an experienced birder, Antonio Xeira, heard the call of a seldom-seen denizen of wetlands, the Sora (Porzana carolina). This waterbird, a member of the Rail family, with a heavy yellow beak and stock body, stalks quietly among the cattails, looking for seeds, insects and snails. Its whinnying call is particularly dramatic. Ben and Antonio recognized its other two tone “ker-wee” call at the marsh. Click on its picture here and go halfway down this page for its song and call. I’d never even heard of Sora before!
A delightful sight greeted the Wednesday birders at the Playground Pond last week. A mother Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) was escorting her six ducklings around the pond, as well as what appeared to be two Hooded Merganser chicks (Lophodytes cucullatus)! Ben surmised that perhaps a Merganser had laid its eggs in the nest hole of the Wood Duck and she ended up hatching them along with her own. Here’s a photo of the adult female with her own chicks and a photo of a Hooded Merganser baby that swam with them. This Merganser duckling jumps from a tree hole when one day old and swims on its own. It takes 3 days for the Wood Duck’s ducklings to do the same.
Down at the Center Pond, the “boing-boing” banjo sound of the Green Frog (Lithobates clamitans) creates part of the summer music at Bear Creek. You can tell this one’s a male because its tympanum, a kind of external ear drum, is larger than its eye. I like this one’s tentative expression.
And the Common White-tail Dragonfly (Plathemis lydia)makes a soft whir-r-r as it soars by, looking for prey. This one’s a female, because the male’s abdomen is white, which accounts for its common name.
As the heat began, wildflowers started to bloom in the native beds near the parking lot. One of the loveliest is native Wild Lupine (Lupinus perennis) glowing lavender and white in the warm sunlight.
Nearby was a plant I’d never seen until Ben VanderWeide, our stewardship manager, made me aware of it. It has the lovely name of Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium). To me each tiny blossom resembles a tiny Iris. It’s called “grass” because it has grass-like leaves and stems with parallel veins that are hard to distinguish from a grass when there aren’t any flowers. The flowers only open fully in full sunlight, so it can be easy to miss early in the morning or on a cloudy day. But isn’t it pretty in the late spring/early summer?
And another early summer favorite is spreading abundantly in the native bed north of the shed. Canada Anemone’s (Anemone canadensis) lovely white flowers stand gracefully above its deep green foliage .
Sunny Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) accompany these other native plants in the wild garden in the driveway center, one of the native beds and across from the Playground Pond. This one’s hosting a Spittle Bug or Frog Hopper, common names for the super-family of insects called Cercopoidea. The adult insects can hop 100 times their length! The foam is used for protection for the nymph stage of development. Though the nymph sucks on the plant, it generally doesn’t hurt the plant much. Most of the liquid is used to create that evidently nasty-tasting froth that deters predators.
Ben and his crew planted some native Prairie Phlox across from the Playground Pond, another area of Bear Creek to be slowly stocked with native plants.
Warm weather brought out the exotic-looking blooms of native Wild Columbine in the bed just north of the shed. These lovely native wildflowers grew down the side of a hill east of the park when it was a farm back in the 1930s and 40s.
And out in the eastern Old Field, lots of native Common Milkweed appeared once the grasses were knocked back by the prescribed burn in March. No doubt all the nutrients that were released into the soil then, plus the longer growing season caused by the darkened earth, will give it a little boost. Hope the Monarch Butterflies take note!
And now the Paint Creek Trail surprise…
This spring, Ben VanderWeide, the Township Stewardship Manager, and volunteers did a prescribed burn along the Paint Creek Trail near the parking lot at Gallagher Road. The purpose, as always, was to stimulate native plants and discourage non-native invasive ones. Also prescribed fire releases nutrients from last year’s plants back into the soil.
Partly as result of this process, some lovely native plants emerged this year in greater numbers than before the burn. Look at this lovely photo Ben took of a native Yellow Ladyslipper orchid (Cypripedium parviflorum) – and there were lots of them hidden within the burgeoning grass. You can certainly see where this lovely wildflower got its name – a graceful slipper with ribbons attached!
The grass was also shining with Star-grass (Hypoxis hirsuta), a small yellow native that hosts small bees and other pollinators. It’s lucky there were lots of these shining stars this year because they need other plants to cross pollinate, which of course is assisted by the bees. Here’s Ben’s photo.
Along the tree line near the parking lot at Gallagher, a yellow cloud of Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) nodded in the wind. Ben caught this one up close.
And Ben also noted a Sedge plant (family Cyperaceae) with its interesting bloom. As I mentioned two weeks ago, sedges are ancient plants that look something like grasses but are constructed differently. Ancient Egyptians used sedges to make papyrus.
Ben tells me that beautiful native wildflowers like Culver’s Root(Veronicastrum virginicum), Showy Tick-trefoil(Desmodium canadense) and other prairie plants are “sprouting vigorously” along the trail north Gallagher Road – so click on the links to see them and then keep an eye out for them!
So treat yourself. Hang some binoculars around your neck and look at birds up close – both the year ’round residents and the summer visitors. Take your time. Stand near a patch of summer flowers and watch quietly. See what surprises you. Maybe a bee that turns out to be a harmless hover fly. Or the shiny glamour of the Six-spotted Tiger Beetle. Try using your cell phone to take a shot of a single flower you’ve never noticed before and then identify it when you get home. I promise you’ll relax. Your breath will slow, you’ll smile a bit more, life will just get more interesting. Nature comes alive in ways you’d never expect when you give it your undivided attention. Let us know what you find!
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.
How can anyone resist Bear Creek Nature Park in late June?!
Flowers keep offering up more and more color. Fledglings are trying out their wings and begging their parents for food. Trees whisper back and forth as the full green leaves of summer rustle and wave, soothing the frayed edges of our lives. But if you’re in the mood for a little excitement, you can always keep an eye out for the little dramas that snakes and other fascinating predators provide. Some examples:
Find A Little Serenity…
Look at this clear invitation from what I like to call The Lane, the central path in the park lined with Black Walnut trees (Juglans nigra) that I imagine the farmer planted there years ago for nuts, beautiful wood and just their sheer magnificence.
Up near Gunn Road, there are water trails leading into the marsh where muskrats, ducks, and geese cruise into and out of the reeds in the summer sun. The curviness of this trail, caught by my husband Reg this week, makes me think it was made by a muskrat but Ben thinks its width might indicate a goose. Or maybe a family of ducks? Anyway, it makes me wish I could follow.
Frog music is part of the charm of a summer day. The Leopard Frog (Rana pipiens)is out and about now because the breeding season is past and they can wander away from the water. They are beautiful spotted frogs and for reasons not quite clear, their numbers are falling in Michigan. So keep an eye out for this emerald green, leopard-spotted frog wherever it’s moist.
The Green Frog Tadpoles (Rana clamitans)in the Center Pond are a-l-l-lmost frogs. Here’s a nice big fat tadpole with tiny legs that Reg spotted there this week. And the bigger ones in the playground pond are already making their banjo-plucking calls!
Insects add a lot of color and grace as they swoop over the meadows and ponds. Out near the marsh, you’re likely to see the elegant Widow Skimmers. Here’s a male with a black/dark brown band near his body and a white strip farther out on the wing, but this one is immature. When he’s fully grown, his abdomen will turn light blue.
The female Widow Skimmer dresses only in somber colors without the white band, though she shares gold stripes on the abdomen with the juvenile male.
A rare sight but one that occurs this time of the year is the appearance of the Baltimore Checkerspot (Euphydryas phaeton), surely the most beautiful of this family of butterflies, called the Brushfoots. I’ve seen one only once at Bear Creek, but it was in the third week of June so be on the lookout! This smaller butterfly (1.75″-2.5″) with orange-tipped antennae is eye-catching from above.
And it’s even more eye-catching on the underside! See that orange face?
More modest members of the Brushfoot family, but much more common visitors, are the fritillaries. Here is the smaller one we’re seeing now in June, which I think is the Meadow Fritillary (Boloria bellona), but again, don’t quote me. (Anyone out there a butterfly expert?)
Ben tells me that in the woods near the marsh, the fruits of the Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum) are now springing open, flinging out five seeds per plant! Go geraniums! While out in the Old Fields of Bear Creek, native and non-native flowers turn their faces to the sun. Here’s our native Old Field/Common Cinquefoil (Potentilla simplex) in one of the Native Plant Beds near the shed.
And here is its invasive cousin out in the fields, Rough-fruited Cinquefoil (Potentilla recta), a cultivated version that appears much more often, unfortunately, than our native one! You’ll see it on the way into the park from Snell Road once you leave the woods.
Rough-fruited Cinquefoil’s sharply defined, heart-shaped petals and paler color was no doubt pretty in its original garden but unfortunately, it “naturalized,” and is now taking the place of our native Old Field Cinquefoil which is only seen right now in the Native Plant Beds near the shed. Every time that happens, we lose a little of the rich diversity that nature provided us for us here in Oakland Township.
Other invasives aren’t necessarily cultivars, human-bred plants. They are plants from other natural environments that end up here and get carried away, growing aggressively. Unfortunately, this applies to the prosaically named but quite pretty Bladder Campion (Silene vulgarism). This plant which is actually eaten in certain parts of the world, originated in Eurasia and is now found in Bear Creek on what I call the “Steep Slope Path” that runs north/south on the western side of the park near Snell.
However, this little beauty, Deptford Pink (Dianthus armeria), is a Non-Native that exists quite peacefully with our native plants, peeking shyly out among the Big Guys. There’s some edging their way into the Native Plant Bed in the driveway circle but there’s some to enjoy as well on the path that runs along the west side of the playground pond.
Appreciate Nature’s Dramas!
While all this color emerges and the air is filled with bird song, frog music and “tree talk,” dramas unfold in Bear Creek as well.
Remember those Eastern RaccoonsKits (Procyon lotor) we featured in May? Well, the mother (here in a previous year) is in charge of feeding those kits until September.
This week Ben saw evidence that part of their current diet is turtle eggs which the raccoon (or perhaps a fox) dug out of the soft earth where the turtle had laid them. Here’s the evidence I saw a few years ago.
A Robin’s egg might be available too, which is one of the reasons, as reported last week, that Robins have 3 broods a year to keep their numbers up! Lovely “robin’s egg blue,” eh?
Some interesting, quite harmless snakes slide through the grass right now, so don’t let them startle you! They’re much more afraid of you than you of them, believe me! The small (9-12 inch), shy Brown Snake (Storeria dekayl) , which can be beige, brown or gray, appears now and then in the Bear Creek Old Fields, though it likes to spend most of its time under things – or underground, eating worms and slugs. I particularly like the lovely tortoise shell pattern on the top of its head and the light stripe along its body accentuated by black markings.
Another beautiful, harmless but much longer snake (2-4 feet) is the Eastern Milk Snake (Lampropeltis triangulum). The females lay their eggs right now in June. Contrary to the old farmer’s tale, they do not milk cows! They, like the Brown Snake, prefer to hide most of the time. According to the DNR’s website on Michigan snakes, they eat lots of mice and rats but are “harmless to humans though they may vibrate their tails and bite if cornered or handled.” So simply watch them glide gracefully and seemingly effortlessly away and all will be well.
Of course, sometimes it’s the snakes that are the prey! Just outside Bear Creek last June, we saw a regal but juvenile Cooper’s Hawk which had successfully caught what appeared to be an Eastern Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis).Cooper’s Hawks chase medium-sized birds, their preferred prey, through the trees and eat them if they’re successful. According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab, these chases result in a signficant number of Cooper’s Hawks fracturing their wishbones, even though they are very skillful flyers. They can also make a meal of small mammals and snakes when necessary. This young hawk is doing what Cooper’s Hawks do with prey, holding it away from its body until it’s dead. Always good to diversify your diet, I suppose.
Earlier I mentioned Native Plant Beds. When you visit the park from Snell Road, take a tour of the two Native Plant Beds to the north and south of the shed, as well as the native plants in the driveway circle. Ben’s found some very easy-to-read, attractive plant signs that will help you identify some of what you are seeing. I’m looking forward to the bloom of the Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium), delicate blue flowers balancing on grass stems!
Out in the fields, TheCommon Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) has big, beautiful buds which open into their hearty, dusty pink flowers shortly. Don’t you love how the green leaves have pink veins down the middle of them? (You can see that clearly in the bottom leaf here.)
And in the marsh and other wet areas, the native Button Bush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) is producing its perfectly round buds. By mid-July, they will burst into bigger balls covered with tiny white flowers, each shooting out a long yellow-tipped stamen, looking like exploding fireworks or the old-fashioned sputnik!
I hope you’ll find the time some quiet afternoon to let yourself rest in the soothing sounds and beautiful sights of a walk in Bear Creek on a summer day. Or get your heart pumping at the site of a hunting hawk or a snake weaving its way through tall grass. Time in nature is never wasted.