Tag Archives: Blue-Spotted Salamander

Bear Creek Nature Park: Little Spring Dramas Everywhere You Look

Native choke berry shrubs (Prunus virginiana) burst with blooms to attract  pollinators before the trees leaf out.
Blog and photos by Cam Mannino

Late April and early May are full of dramas. Birds hassle each other over territories. Some turn their brightest feathers into the sunlight or sing elaborately constructed songs  to impress the ladies. Snapping turtles roil the waters of the marsh as they twist and turn with their partners, butting heads and biting as they perform their mating dance. Late spring wildflowers and smaller trees hurry to show their best blooms to attract pollinators before bigger trees cloak them in shade. It’s a bustling, slightly crazy season – and isn’t it great?

 

Migrating Summer Birds Busy Courting, Hassling and Scouting for Nests

Down at the Center Pond one cool spring morning, the birding group watched a Green Heron (Butorides virescens) warming itself on a log at one end of the pond.  Its neck wasn’t stretched over the water, so it wasn’t seriously fishing; it just sat there peaceably. Gradually,  a pair of passive-aggressive Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) noticed its presence and decided, evidently, that they wanted the pond to themselves. They cruised slowly up to the heron until one of them was nearly beak to beak with it. The heron just sat. They joined forces and approached together. The heron just sat. Finally, one goose climbed onto the heron’s log, while the other positioned itself directly in front of the hapless heron. It sat for another minute and then finally acquiesced, fluttering off to the muddy shore nearby. Conflict successfully avoided, it probably found plenty of snails, insects and amphibians to eat while waiting for the geese to depart.

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Sometimes the ongoing drama is a little less obvious.  Rose-breasted Grosbeaks (Pheucticus ludovicianus) are plentiful in Bear Creek this year. One morning a male turned his bright pink breast patch to the sun and trilled his elaborate spring song repeatedly for his more modestly dressed mate. (If you hear a fancy version of the robin’s song, there’s likely to be a male grosbeak nearby.)

A male Rose-breasted Grosbeak uses his bright pink breast patch and his elaborate song to attract his mate.
A female Rose-breasted Grosbeak listens to the male’s operatic song.

But nearby, there’s a careful observer. The female Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater) is high in a tree listening, too.

A female Cowbird high in a tree watching to see if a likely bird builds a nest in which she can lay her eggs. The Grosbeak’s perhaps?

She’s watching for a likely nest in which to lay her eggs. Maybe she’s hoping  the grosbeaks will be the ones to nurture and raise her young. Fortunately, the grosbeaks aren’t great prospects. They’re big enough to push the eggs out of the nest – if they notice them. Some birds do and some don’t. The drama hasn’t reached Act II.

In the small meadow west of the pond, a male Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) spent the morning stringing together short phrases – whistles, tweets, trills and  imitations of birds, frogs, even occasionally machinery!  His complicated song can go on for minutes without repetition! This male combined song with ruffling his feathers and chasing after the female who was playing hard-to-get. She’d stop to listen, fly off and then dart toward him. He’d pursue her, fluff his feathers again and sing something new. And on they went at the forest edge and among the meadow’s small trees and shrubs.

The male catbird taking a quick pause before ruffling his feathers and breaking into elaborate song.

Some migrators arrive in busy flocks, just stopping over for a short while to refuel before flying north. This week, a flock of 6 or 7 White-Crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) rode in on a south wind during the night and spent the morning gobbling whatever they could find at the edge of the trails. Such a handsome little sparrow with its striped crown!

A small flock of White-Crowned Sparrows stopped to forage at Bear Creek on their way to cooler nesting grounds farther north.

Some birds fly in for just a short time to breed and then return to southern climes. This Orchard Oriole (Icterus spurius), the smallest of the orioles, flitted quickly among the branches, nibbling on sweet leaf buds for a little quick energy. Even if he finds his yellow-green mate and nests, he’ll likely be gone by mid-July – back to his favorite haunts in Central America.

The smaller, russet-colored Orchard Oriole may nest here, but will leave by mid-July for Central America where he spends the rest of the year.

High overhead, a pair of Sandhill Cranes croaked their wild cry, sounding and looking like two prehistoric pterodactyls with their giant wings. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

The warblers, the tiniest of migrants, have begun to arrive.  A week ago a fellow birder helped me spot two species – the Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata) and the Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia) – and, we think, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula.) I didn’t manage to take any decent photos since some ate high in the tree tops and others hopped madly from limb to limb nibbling on leaf buds. So here are three photos from last year just to jog your memory.

In the western meadow, an Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) paused on a stalk. Kingbirds have a crown of red, orange or yellow feathers under that black cap, but they only show when they’re attacking a predator. I’ve never seen them. According to Cornell lab, this solitary, feisty bird changes his lifestyle in the winter, traveling in flocks all along the Amazon and eating fruit instead of Michigan insects. A favorite photo below from a few years ago shows his crown just slightly raised and his red gaping mouth.  Maybe he’s feeling just a wee bit aggressive?

The Eastern Kingbird has colored feathers under that black cap that show when he’s aggressive toward a predator.

Drama in the Wetlands as Well

Over in the marsh, a very small Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) and a MUCH larger one roiled the water at the far end of the marsh. The difference in their neck lengths will help you determine their relative size in the photos.

I assume the smaller one was the male as he attempted to mount the back of the female’s huge shell at one point.   Snappers generally do a lot of face biting when they mate, sometimes injuring each other. The photo below may look like a kiss but it’s more likely that the small turtle on the left is approaching to bite some indeterminable body part of the larger on the right. It didn’t look as though things worked out too well for either of them. After some rolling and tumbling in the marsh, the smaller swam off and the larger floated calmly in the distance.

What looks like a turtle kiss may actually be a bite that the smaller turtle (left) is giving the larger as part of the attempted mating process.

Blue-spotted Salamanders ((Ambystoma laterale) reproduce in a less excited manner. According to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, salamanders emerge from their burrows on the night of the first snow-melting rain (now that would be dramatic to witness!) and go to the nearest vernal pool After a little nudging and hugging, the male deposits a sperm-topped cone of jelly on the ground in front of the female. She takes it in to fertilize her eggs, which are laid in the water in the next day or so. By mid-summer, the hatched tadpole-like larvae develop lungs instead of gills and absorb their tail fins, taking adult form.  Red-backed Salamanders (Plethodon cinereus) lay their eggs in burrows and their young hatch as miniature adults. Here are some salamander eggs and a salamander larvae/tadpole that the monitoring team found in a pool last year, plus three different species of juvenile salamanders under some wood in the park two weeks or so ago.

In the Woods, Not Much Drama, but Burgeoning Life

Again this year, a raccoon is inhabiting the giant hole in the Oak-Hickory forest. Other years this has meant a passel of playful kits by the end of May. I saw nothing until I stepped into the crunchy leaves at the trail’s edge and this curious face popped up at the edge of hole.

A raccoon has found the hole that is often used by females to bear and raise their young. We’ll know by the end of May.

The Red Admiral Butterfly (Vanessa atalanta), a migrating insect who probably overwintered in southern Texas, arrived at the wood’s edge a couple of weeks ago. According to Wikipedia, Red Admirals usually have two broods here between May and October.

The Red Admiral overwinters in Texas but comes here to have 2 broods between May and October.

Under the growing canopy of bright new leaves, a carpet of Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum) is blooming. In the blossom below, a tiny bee from the Halictadae family has curled up to feed on flower nectar. These tiny bees are commonly known as “sweat bees” because they like to lick salt from us humans (luckily, their sting is very minor). This bee’s bright metallic green may mean it’s an Augochlora Sweat Bee (Augochlora pura), solitary bees who don’t live socially in hives. If you know your Michigan bees, please feel free to correct me.

A solitary bee in the Halictidae family gathering nectar from a wild geranium

 The Little Dramas Keep Life Coming

Delicate early spring blossoms of the native Serviceberry (Amelanchier interior) near the eastern end of the Center Pond

The dramas of spring creatures mean life continues. The best singer, the most beautiful feathers, the best provider of a good territory get chosen and a new generation begins. Fortunately, the temporary territorial disputes of birds don’t usually result in death or destruction. One bird moves on to new territory and in many cases, joins his former competitor in a fall flock which ends up feeding calmly together on winter feeding grounds. Nature knows that both low level conflict and general cooperation keep life going, even improving, generation by generation.  Maybe we humans should take a lesson from them?

Footnote:  My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell; Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3; Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia;  Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; other sites as cited in the text.
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THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Visit the Bear Creek Nursery, Babies Galore! and One Strange Creature…

There’s just something endearing about almost any baby creature and now is the time to go “awww” in Bear Creek (or in your backyard for that matter!)

Blog post and photos  by Cam Mannino
Blog post and photos
by Cam Mannino

Adult birds stuff the mouths of hungry fledglings, tiny frogs (and I do mean tiny!) spring across the mud and  through the grass at the edges of vernal pools, and young woodchucks and bunnies sally forth to forage in the grass.  The park is full of babies!

(Note:  Though I can venture a short way into the park now, my mobility’s still pretty limited by the accident.  So though all these baby creatures are at Bear Creek now, some of the photos were taken near my home.)

Fledglings and Others in the Nursery

On the Wednesday Bird Walk at Bear Creek this morning, Ben and other birders spotted fledglings all over the park. The fledglings are there for us to see and hear if we take the time to listen and watch.  Sometimes you can hear their squabbling when adults bring food to the nest.  At other times, you can hear the insistent peeping that accompanies their begging posture – tail up, wings down, fast flutter of the wings.  Here’s an example from home of a female House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) with her begging fledgling:

adult and fledgling house finch
A fledgling House Finch assumes the classic begging pose.

Adult birds model feeding behavior for their young – pulling worms, cracking seeds, swallowing bugs in mid-air – but it takes time for fledglings to choose independence and stop begging to be fed directly by their parents.  (Sounds like some human adolescents I’ve known…) Here’s an adult Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) on the right approaching its young with a seed…

adult and fledgling titmouse
An adult Tufted Titmouse brings a seed to a fledgling with an empty hull in its beak. Like babies, they stick crazy things in their mouths.

And then, in a rather awkward move, the adult stuffs its big seed into the fledgling’s beak.

titmouse feeding fledgling
The adult titmouse awkwardly pushes a seed into its fledgling’s beak.

The Tufted Titmouse is a relative of the Black-capped Chickadee and like them, cracks seeds open between its feet and hides some to eat later.  Tufted Titmice make their nests in tree cavities and line them with animal hair, sometimes plucked from passing animals and sometimes found in old squirrel or raccoon nests.  One of the reasons it’s good to leave dead trees in a forest is that the Titmouse can’t excavate a hole itself,  so it needs woodpeckers’ holes from the previous season.

Fledglings are trying out a lot of adult behavior and exhibit a lot of curiosity, just like all youngsters.  Here’s a female House Finch fledgling shot this week who knows she should look around carefully before feeding, but maybe is exaggerating the stance just a bit!

fledgling female house finch craning her neck
A curious fledgling House Finch trying to be cautious before feeding and maybe overdoing it.

Besides being very curious, juveniles often have different plumage from adults and their wing feathers are usually smaller.  See the short wings on this  female fledgling Rose-Breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus)?

grosbeak fledgling
Fledglings, like this female Rose-Breasted Grosbeak, still have to develop the long wing feathers they’ll need as adults.

And this thin, young Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) has the mustache of a male, but it hasn’t gone through the fall molt yet.  Males will keep that mustache.  Females will lose theirs.

fledgling flicker
This young Northern Flicker needs to go through the fall molt before we’ll know whether it keeps the male mustache or loses it because it’s a female.

Of course, the mammal babies explore Bear Creek at this time of year, too.  Here are two young Woodchucks (Marmota monax) learning to forage near our woods on July 1 last year.  Also called Groundhogs, these lowland marmots,  the largest members of the squirrel family (Sciuridae) in our region, are generally herbivorous (vegetarian) and are amazing diggers (as many of us know too well around home!).  They make large burrows, equipped with a spy hole, a nest/sleeping area, a toilet chamber and up to 45 feet of tunnels!

baby groundhogs
Young groundhogs explore the grass near the woods at my home on July 1 – but you’ll see them all over Bear Creek too!

And, of course, there are always little Cottontail Rabbits (Sylvilagus floridanus). I like this description from the Michigan DNR of the mating ritual of rabbits, something I’ve never witnessed: “This usually occurs after dark. The buck chases the doe until she eventually turns and faces him. She then spars at him with her forepaws. They crouch, facing each other, until one of the pair leaps about 2 feet in the air. This behavior is repeated by both animals before mating.”  Pretty athletic!  Rabbits have 3 or 4 litters a year on average so there are always plenty of bunnies. Here’s one sucking in a grass stem bit by bit.

bunny eating
A Cottontail bunny pulls a long stem into its mouth.

And then, of course, it had to clean up a bit after eating.

bunny washing
A Cottontail bunny grooms its face after eating.

On Tuesday of this week, the grasses around the vernal pools in the north end of the park were alive with baby Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus) of various sizes.  This tiny one was struggling to get out of a tire rut some thoughtless person had made in the pedestrian entrance on Gunn.  He’s only about 3/4 of an inch long!  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a frog this small before!

Tiny wood frog
A tiny Wood Frog with his black eye stripe struggles to get out of a tire rut left by a thoughtless person near the Gunn pedestrian entrance to Bear Creek.

About that Strange Creature…

By the way, at one of the vernal pools in the north end of the park under some wood, we found a Blue-Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma laterale).  It was about to rain and very dark in the woods,  so I apologize that the photo is not as sharp as I would like but it’s such an interesting creature, I had to share it with you anyway. 

Blue spotted salamander
The Blue-spotted Salamader hides under logs or bark in moist areas and can regenerate its tail – which detaches if attacked!

Salamanders are strange creatures.  According to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources,  “When danger is sensed, the blue-spotted salamander’s tail lashes back and forth and produces a noxious secretion from two glands at the base of its tail. Even if the predator gets by this defense, it may only end up with a small morsel. When grabbed,  the salamander’s tail will detach. While the predator is detained by the writhing tail,  the salamander zips off to safety. In time a new tail will grow to replace the lost one.”  So, uh, don’t grab one.  They’re pretty darn slippery (one is tempted to say “slimy”) anyway!

Native Plants in Bloom!

So let’s move out into the meadows and marshes and see what’s blooming!

A fun native wildflower is blooming in its own inimitable way in the northern area of the marsh. Common Bur-Reed (Sparganium eurycarpum), like  many of our native plants, can survive fire in wetlands because it spreads underground through rhizomes (root-like underground stems).  Muskrats munch on the rhizomes and water birds eat the seeds which of course helps keeps its growth under control.

bur-reed
Muskrats eat the underground stems of Common Bur-Reed and birds eat its seeds – a native contributor to marsh life.

Last year, at the edge of the woods near the intersection of the path behind the pond and the eastern arm of the Northern Loop, Whorled Loosestrife (Lysimachia quadrifolia) made its appearance.  Like many native plants in our area, it favors sandy soil and oak/hickory forests, which is exactly what Bear Creek offers.  I hadn’t noticed it until last year,  but perhaps you did?

whorled loosestrife
Whorled loosestrife (unlike Purple Loosestrife, an invasive) is a native plant that likes the sandy soil and oak/hickory environment of Bear Creek.

Probably like me, you’ve passed by another native plant for years without paying much attention.  Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)  pops up all over Bear Creek – and lots of other places around the world, actually – and doesn’t look that glamorous – until you look closely at its myriad of little white flowers. Our Yarrow may have hybridized at some point in its past.  The more light pink those little flowers are the closer it is to the native variety. I like it in any case.

yarrow
Yarrow is a modest native that looks like a wedding bouquet when you get close to its tiny disc flowers.

 Coming Attractions:

One of Ben’s and my favorite native wildflowers is budding all over Bear Creek and blooming in the southern native bed.  It’s Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) and just watch!  It will live up to its name once the warmer weather comes.  Butterflies and bees love it even more than we do!

DSCF5509
Butterfly Milkweed will justify its name when butterflies (and bees) flock to it in July.

So put on your bug juice (all this rain has unfortunately made for a bumper crop of mosquitoes) or come when it’s windy and sunny and watch for the young ‘uns.  They grow up fast, just like our children.

*Quick footnote:  My sources for information, as well as Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: 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, and invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman.