Watershed Ridge Park: Aflutter with Small Wings

The large sloping meadow near the big marsh at Watershed Ridge Park with native plants, grasses and butterflies of all sizes

This summer, like the last, the western section of Watershed Ridge Park hums to the vibration of small winged creatures. So just as I did last summer, I headed first for the small restored wetland at the foot of a sloping field on the park’s western edge, because I knew it would be alive with fierce and fabulous dragonflies and their diminutive relations, the damselflies. As you’ll see, I was not disappointed!

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

But this summer, our Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, has cut some temporary trails into the dense greenery north of the fields in order to allow his crew to take on the task of taming a major invasion of non-native pest plants like Oriental Bittersweet vine, Autumn Olive, Privet and more. For now, these rough, bush-hogged trails allow me much easier access to the woods and the prairie at the heart of this part of the park. So I invite you to join me as I wade through moist meadows, pick my way carefully between wooded wetlands and stumble along the trail’s stubble to explore what warm summer mornings offer in the west of Watershed Ridge.

A Wetland Habitat Always Means Life!

The restored wetland in west of Watershed Ridge Park has changed dramatically in the last year. It’s now lined with Cattails and Pickerel Weed as well as Blue Vervain and Bulrushes.

I love how the trail that leads west from the parking lot passes high above the wetlands below, then curves gracefully through the hedgerow separating two fields – the one on the right still agricultural, the one on the left planted with native seed this spring.

At the foot of the green field, lies the newly restored wetland picture above. It’s just a humble, muddy little pool surrounded by native and non-native plants. The community includes non-native Cattails and Eurasian Great Hairy Willow-herb (Epilobium hirsutum , but also clusters of native plants like glorious Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata), tough little Bulrush (Scirpus atrovirens), and the wonderful spiky blooms of Hop Sedge (Carex lupulina), member of an ancient genus. Sprigs of native pink Creeping Smartweed (Persicaria longiseta) poke out of the former farm field surrounding the wetland. According to Dr. Gary Parsons at Michigan State University’s Bug House, that suits the tiny Lucerne Moth (Nomophila nearctica) since its caterpillars feed avidly on it – as well as on non-native alfalfa and clover.

I waded into a small meadow behind the wetland to the west, filled with native Daisy Fleabane (Erigeron annuus) and a variety of soft grasses. Its proximity to the water and its gently swaying stems make it a good place to look for the “dragons and damsels.”

A field near a wetland is an ideal spot for discovering dragonflies and damselflies.

When I first arrived in late June, dragonflies were racing around the pond and the surrounding meadow, either in pairs, or singly, in a mad dash to mate and feed. These colorful, fierce predators with their spiked legs and powerful jaws spend their extended youth underwater. They live below the water surface, first as eggs and then as gilled nymphs, crawling or swimming around to feed on everything around them. They grow by molting into larger nymphs. The process can repeat for as little as four months to an average of one to three years! Finally they attach with their claws to an upright surface – stem, rock, bridge – and a full-fledged dragonfly extracts itself from the skin of the last nymph. The thorax emerges first, then the head and legs. Once the legs harden, the new dragonfly arches backward, thrusting the entire abdomen out of its casing. The wings fill with fluid and this creature with gills transforms into an air breather. Imagine, what it must be like to emerge from a dark pond into the bright sunlight and suddenly be able to breathe air – and fly! No wonder they frequently look so frantically excited!

But emergence is a dangerous time. According to Dragonflies of the Northern Woods by Kurt Mead, while they are emerging and before they can fly, up to 90% of these “teneral” or newly-hatched dragonflies are consumed by birds and sometimes by ants or spiders. In our northern climate, adult dragonflies may live from just a week to at most a couple of months. During their brief life in the air, they must latch onto a mate and produce eggs for the following year. So the priority is to mate quickly. Local naturalist Allen Chartier and the Facebook group, “Odonata of the Eastern United States,” both identified the dragonfly below with its shiny wings as the teneral male of some species of Meadowhawk dragonfly (genus Sympetrum.) His species won’t be clear until he fully matures. Isn’t he handsome? I watched him flutter a short distance to this grass stem, so he’s already on his way to maturity. I wish him well.

A teneral male Meadowhawk dragonfly who may have recently emerged from the casing of its nymph. The shiny wings can be an indicator of a teneral dragonfly.

Early Arrivals: Dragonflies that Appear in late May

Some dragonflies appear during the last week of May and so have an early jump on pairing up. When I arrived at the park in late June, some of these early males either stuck close to a nearby female, or rushed around, perhaps demonstrating their finer qualities to eligible females. And of course they were busy foraging for other insects.

Common Whitetails (Plathemis lydia) call our parks home every summer. The two below were definitely visiting the wetland with serious intentions. Whitetail males will patrol a pond trying to chase off competitors and if the female on the right has chosen our small pond, the guy on the left is likely to mate with her. He was busy discouraging another male when I saw him. The female can lay up to 1,000 eggs per day and may mate every day or two according to my dragonfly guide book. No wonder the Common Whitetail is so common!

The other common early dragonfly is the Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa.) The male’s distinguishing feature are the dark wing patches next to his thorax and abdomen and white patches farther out on his wings. The female only has the dark patches near the body, plus yellow stripes down the sides of the abdomen. They lay eggs singly when alone, but the male “hover-guards” her in crowded ponds to, as the guidebook so circumspectly phrases it, “protect his ‘genetic investment.'” Had to smile when I read that….

I also saw three early dragonflies that were either “wallflowers” thus far – or I just missed seeing their mates in all the activity! They’re a colorful bunch.

Later Arrivals: Dragonflies that Show Up the Second Week in June

When I arrived on June 28, I only saw singletons among these later dragonflies that had probably appeared at the wetland a couple of weeks earlier. Perhaps they needed a bit more time to find a mate? Who knows? But I was glad to see them in any case.

The “Damsels” of Watershed Ridge, 2022

Damselflies share the order Odonata with dragonflies, but look and behave a bit differently. Unlike dragonflies, damselflies are generally smaller, less muscular and appear more delicate – hence their name which means “young mistress” in French. But they too are effective predators. They have large compound eyes like their relatives, but have “only” five to ten thousand individual lenses in them versus the maximum of 30,000 for a dragonfly. While the dragonfly’s eyes take up most of their head, damselflies’ eyes are placed at either side of the head, often giving them a hammerhead shark appearance. Dragonflies spend time high in the air and settle with their wings open. Damselflies spend more time at knee height among grasses and often fold their wings when they’ve landed.

Like dragonflies, damselflies spend a long youth underwater. In a vernal pool monitoring event in 2016, we happened to temporarily scoop one up with a couple of fingernail clams and a water beetle. They’re not quite as glamorous as they look when their adults, eh?

While monitoring a vernal pool in 2016, we happened upon a damselfly nymph in company with three Fingernail Clams and a Water Beetle

So here’s the selection of damselflies I encountered at the newly restored wetland on a summer morning. Many thanks again to Allen Chartier for help with the identifications.

And Now, a Quick Trip Down a Woodland Path

A singing Indigo Bunting that greeted me every time I went to Watershed Ridge Park this summer

On every one of my five trips to Watershed Ridge Park in late June and July, I was welcomed to the temporary woodland trail by the bright, paired phrases of the Indigo Bunting’s song. His favored perch was high in a tree or snag near the trail’s eastern entrance. What a gift! Have a listen at this link. (Though their songs vary by location, the second song listed at the link is very similar to the male’s song at Watershed Ridge.) I never got an ideal shot of him, so here’s another one I took in 2019 that shows you the male’s dark wing and his two-tone beak!

A closer look at an Indigo Bunting, taken in 2019

The fluttering of two butterflies on both sides of the trail caught my eye. Woodland butterflies don’t sip nectar from flowers, since most woodland flowers finish once the canopy leafs out – and forest edges are the niche these butterflies fill. Instead, they seek out a generally unappealing diet (for humans) of tree sap, fermenting or rotten fruit and dung which supplies sodium, nitrogen and other nutrients. They lay their eggs on woodland grasses that their caterpillars can digest. The larger one (1.75-2.5″) with more spots, the Northern Pearly-eye (Enodia anthedon) moves about erratically even on overcast days and can fly late into the evening, according to Jaret C. Daniels’ guide, Butterflies of Michigan. The smaller one on the right below with about a one inch wingspan is the Little Wood Satyr (Megisto cymela) which often bobs at my feet at the edge of wooded trails.

Because of the dense foliage, I heard birds more than saw them. My handy Merlin app from Cornell University’s Ornithology Lab identified a sharp two-note song from deep in the woods as that of the Yellow-throated Vireo (Vireo flavirons). At Cornell’s allaboutbirds.org site, I discovered that these vireos like to stay in the interior of the canopy in deciduous woodlands, picking insects off branches. I waited several minutes but the vireo seemed content to stay right where it was. Here’s a shot of one by a generous iNaturalist photographer, Ken Butler.

The Yellow-throated Vireo offers his mate a few nest sites and once she chooses one, the nest is built 20-50 feet up in the canopy. Photo by Ken Butler (CC BY-NC) at iNaturalist.org

A Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) kept its back to me amid the branches of a tree off the trail. I think it was female because I got a quick flash of its head when it landed and noticed that it had no black “mustache” mark near its bill. But it could have been either a female or the gray head of a juvenile. Once more I waited, hoping it would move so I could get a better look. But the best I got was a glance over its shoulder as if to inquire why I was still there. That look prompted me to give up and move on.

A Northern Flicker seemed to be saying, “You’ve had a look, so could you just move on?” So I did.

Monet in the Meadow: A Colorful Field a-Flutter with Wings

Like a Monet painting, the large meadow near the big marsh was dotted with splashes of orange, yellow and white from Butterfly Milkweed, Black-Eyed Susans and Daisy Fleabane.

The temporary trail made it infinitely easier for me to get to one of my favorite spots at Watershed Ridge Park. This meadow slopes down to a large marsh that currently can be glimpsed between the trees from the trail at the bottom of the meadow.

The big marsh, formerly invisible behind a wall of shrubs can currently be seen through a break in the trees on the temporary trail.

At each visit, my camera and I were teased by a fast-moving Great Spangled Fritillary butterfly (Speyeria cybele) that never landed along the trail without suddenly disappearing down into tall grass. On my fourth visit, I donned my anti-tick outfit – socks over shoes, long sleeves, white clothing, a dose of Deet, etc. – and set off determined to see it land. I suspected that my quarry would eventually settle on one of the most nectar-rich flowers currently blooming, Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa.) But the largest patches were far away from the trail.

I waded into the waist-high grass. And there it was, its proboscis sunk in one of the bright orange blossoms on its composite flowerhead. Milkweed is one of its favorites, along with Bergamot/Bee Balm and thistles. This one may be the female since the base of her wings seemed dark on the upper (dorsal) side, but I can’t tell for sure. If it is a female, she may not lay her eggs until August and may still be whisking around the meadow in September.

The Great Spangled Fritillary scoped me out while sipping nectar from a Butterly Milkweed.

Another reward for being lured into the deep grass was a selection of almost inconspicuous butterflies. I’m learning to watch for these tiny wings in the meadows. They’re so wonderfully varied and have unusual colors and patterns when I can get close. But they can be a bit skittish in front of the camera!

The Chickweed Geometer (Haematopis grataria) has a wingspan of only 3/4 of inch or so and flies during the day, unlike most moths. Its caterpillar is the famous inchworm. I didn’t realize it was yellow with pink stripes and dots until my long lens caught it in the meadow! Dr. Parsons told me that its wonderful feathery antennae indicate that it’s a male; the females’, he said, were “thread-like.”

The Chickweed Geometer’s caterpillar is one of the inchworms of song fame. In fact, all Geometer moths are inchworms in their creepy, crawly youth!

I hope you can see the delicate black pattern at the edge of this very tiny creature which is another member of the Geometridae family. Dr. Parsons at Michigan State University identified it as the Large Lace Border Moth (Scopula limboundata). Large, I thought? Its wingspan is only an inch wide, but evidently there is a Smaller Lace Border moth in Eurasia, that is even a little bit smaller! The black design along the creamy edge of its wings does create the illusion of lace, doesn’t it? Such an elegant, delicate little moth!

The Large Lace Border Moth is also a Geometer Moth. So aptly named! I’m getting quite fond of the variety and beauty in the family Geometridae!

The Eastern Tailed-blue butterfly (Cupido comyntas) looks like a blue or brown blur when its flying and I often initially think it’s a Summer Azure (Celastrina neglecta). But once it settles, the tiny little “tails” at the bottom of its wing remind of its name. Its size varies from just under an inch to just over. The male’s upper wings are generally blue, but the female’s can vary from light blue to brown or dark gray. I’m quite sure this was a brown female, but she refused to open her wings far enough for a shot. So I’ve added photos of a brown female and a blue male from previous years so perhaps you can enjoy naming this lovely little butterfly if you come across it in your garden or field. (Click on photos to see the detail.)

The Northern Broken-Dash Skipper butterfly (Wallengrenia egeremet) looked large at 1-1.5 inches after all the tiny butterflies and moths and it’s certainly less glamorous. But I’m glad to know its name and maybe we can love it because its caterpillar eats a species of crabgrass? This female may be about to lay eggs!

This Northern Broken-dash Skipper looks like she might be about to deposit some eggs from her lowered ovipositor. Grass is the host plant for her caterpillars, particularly Hairy Crabgrass, a common non-native in southern Michigan.

My walk into the deep grass also afforded me a little insect drama taking place on two pink blossoms of native Pasture/Carolina Rose (Rosa carolina). A group of Longhorn Flower Beetles (family Cerambycidae, subfamily Lepturinae) were competing in a frenzy of activity – some were feeding, others appeared to be trying to mate. Most of my photos were blurry because of their frantic jostling which was continuous and involved 5 or 6 individuals. But Dr. Parsons could identify two species in the photo below. The ones on the left and in the middle are generally known as Banded Longhorn Beetles (Typocrus velutinus). The skinny one on the right evidently has no common name, but its scientific name is Strangalia acuminata, which ominously translates from Latin as “pointed stranglers” if the Latin Google translation is correct! I, however, didn’t witness any such nefarious behavior.

These Flower Longhorn Beetles were feeding on the nectar and pollen of Pasture Roses. Note
the long antennae that gave them their name. Some beetles in this family have antennae as long as their bodies!

I could hear a Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) singing his “Witchedy witchedy” melody near the big marsh but as usual, he never came into the open. But I did see a young Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) exploring a branch with great curiosity.

Into the Pathless Woods on My Way Home

At the top of the meadow, one of the mowed trails dead-ends at the north edge of a moist woodland. The undergrowth is sparse here. My eyes take a minute to adjust to the dim light. I unfailingly find this woods delightfully spooky, full of greenish light, moss, and unidentified scurryings. Two sizable wetlands anchor the area, one covered in glowing green aquatic plants and the other full of fallen trees, both alive with frogs and turtles now.

A bright green forested wetland covered with a layer of watermeal and duckweed.

The “green pond” above is always home to frogs and turtles. What I love is how the sunlight above the water is washed green, as if I’d put a green filter on my camera. It always feel mysterious and quiet, hidden away in the trees. Other years I’ve spotted Leopard frogs here, but on this visit, I only saw small Green Frogs (Lithobates clamitans). They’re often mistaken for Bullfrogs, but they’re smaller and have two ridges that run down either side of their back from behind their eyes. The “guh-loop,” plucked- banjo-string sound of its calls during the mating season is absent now. A young male posed on a moss covered log sinking slowly into the water. The circle behind his eye vibrates, functioning like an ear drum. If it’s smaller or the same size as her eye (as in the photo below), she’s a female; if it’s larger, he’s a male.

A young female Green Frog pauses on a mossy log. Note the ridge along her back, an important field mark for this frog.

Farther away in the green pond, a Midland Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta marginata) had emerged from the pond onto a fallen log, its shell decorated with bits of duckweed – a common fashion statement for turtles.

A Midland Painted Turtle basks in the dim light over the green, wooded wetland

Nearby, a pure white Shelf Mushroom (genus Polyporus) glowed in the dim light. It’s the reproductive part of a fungus living within the decaying log, doing its work of slowly recycling the carbon within the rotting wood.

A shelf mushroom glowed white in the half-light over the forest wetland.

As I moved toward the second wetland, a movement caught the corner of my eye, but I couldn’t quite see what it was. I approached a tree nearby and finally spotted a Northern Pearly-Eye butterfly camouflaged against the bark. I don’t often see them this far into the woods.

A Northern Pearly-eye camouflaged on tree bark

The water in the second wetland is more open and fallen logs surround the edges. I find Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus) in large numbers here in the spring, but on a July day, the amphibious inhabitants were a bit different.

The second wetland has more open water and many fallen trees. One willow lying prostrate in the water keeps putting up fresh greenery each year so it must still be firmly rooted.

As I approached the wetland, something jumped beside my shoe – which made me jump! I thought I might have stepped on a creature. Luckily, I hadn’t. It was a small American Toad (Anaxyrus americanus) which froze in place. It may have hatched in this forest pond and is now moving upland to feed. If it survives being bite-size, it’ll be able to breed in a couple of years. I wish I’d been there earlier in the year to hear the fast, vibrating call of a mating toad. Have a listen at this link provided by the Macauley Library which has a fine collection of animal sounds. (Be patient; it takes a few moments of listening to hear the toad!)

This small American Toad may need a couple years of maturation before he can sing and breed.

As I stepped between the muddy logs to reach the pond, a loud spattering of splashes told me I’d scared off a whole passel of small frogs. I waited in the shadows, seeing only concentric circles where they’d hit the water. At last, I spotted one on a log and was pleased to see it was a juvenile American Bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus), a species I don’t see as often as others, for some reason. It takes about two or three years for a bullfrog to mature enough to breed and I’m guessing this one has at least another year, maybe two, before she’ll arrive at a mating site to choose from a group of chorusing males. Notice that she has just a short ridge near her eye that encompasses her tympanum, not the long ridges that extend down the body of the Green Frog. Her typanum is about the size of her eye; the male’s would be larger than his eye.

A fairly young female Bullfrog who continued staring into the distance as others leapt into the water at my approach. She looks thin and young to me, but I’m no expert on bullfrog appearance.

As I left the forest and emerged into the sunny farm field beyond, I heard the cry of a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) and watched as a male Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) took on the job of keeping it far from his nest and young. He repeatedly dropped over the hawk’s back and gave it a quick peck before wheeling away. The hawk stayed in the area and the blackbird kept up his attack as I headed for the parking lot.

A Red-winged Blackbird harassing a Red-tailed Hawk, probably to drive it away from its nest and young.

This July, It Was the Little Things…

The darkest blackberry mysteriously disappeared shortly after this photo was taken…

Usually on a July walk, I’m looking for birds or their rambunctious fledglings. And I do delight in them during the weekly Oakland Township bird walks. But this month, I felt the need to look for even smaller winged beings, curious to see old acquaintances and eager to meet new ones. And luckily, Watershed Ridge Park shared lots of them once I started looking. Oh, a few birds flew or sang in the depths of the hedgerows and beyond the forested trails. But the moist meadows with their wetlands drew me and I waded in to explore the smallest of fluttering wings.

And I’m so glad I did. Getting close to a pastel Geometer moth to discover its feathery antennae, admiring a freshly hatched dragonfly settling after testing out his shiny new wings or grinning at the frantic scrambling of beetles on a pair of pale pink roses – those were the joys of July for me. I hope a taste of that joy reached you, too. Look for the little ones. You won’t be sorry.

Nature Shares the Restoration Work at Blue Heron Environmental Area

The North Pond at Blue Heron Environmental Area in Spring 2021
The North Pond at Blue Heron in Autumn of 2021

Quite a transformation, eh? In March of this year, I posted a blog concerning the progress of wetland restorations in Oakland Township. In the fall of 2020, the wetland at Blue Heron Environmental Area had been planned and constructed by the township’s Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, and his colleagues from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. By spring of 2021, the berm built as part of that restoration had created a truly startling change. Where Ben had noticed a significant wet area in a farmed field, a large pond now lay like a slice of blue sky dropped into the sere March stubble.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

So I returned this fall curious to see what nature had since contributed as our partner in the restoration project. The surrounding field was still striped with furrows left by a local farmer harvesting his crop; his work keeps the fields free of invasive plants until Ben can restore the native grasses and wildflowers that once grew there. When I crested a slope above the pond, though, I broke into a grin and whispered, “Wow!” The pond was now encircled by swaying green cattails and among them stood a Great Egret. I could tell from a distance that smaller plants had already populated the muddy shore as well, creating new habitat for wildlife. As I picked my way slowly through the wet ruts in the stubble, I hoped to see even more life flourishing around this newly restored pond – and I was not disappointed! ,

Summer Birds Forage In and Around the Pond, Preparing for Migration

When I got my first glimpse of the pond this autumn, what a delight to see the glorious Great Egret (Ardea alba). [Click on any photo to enlarge.]

A Great Egret wading the North Pond at Blue Heron Environmental Area

This elegant bird waded slowly and carefully around the southern shore of the pond searching for prey. Finally it plunged its head into the water and came up with something to eat! But evidently the bird had extracted its prey from the mud below because it quickly dipped its catch back in the water, flicked its head about to give it a few vigorous swishes in the air and swallowed it down that long elegant neck. Then my glorious companion moved on into deeper water.

As the egret approached deeper water, it stretched its neck vertically as if to get a good look around – or maybe it needed to “get the kinks out” after fishing so long with its head down. Who knows? As the water reached its breast, it took on a slower, even more careful gait, thrusting its neck forward with one step and looking carefully downward with the next. It appeared that the thrusting neck helped it move forward in deeper water and the slowness made it easier to spot potential prey.

I turned to look down the lake and heard a splash behind me. When I quickly turned back, the egret’s big yellow beak was filled with a stringy mess of wet greenery which it impatiently tossed aside. The egret had missed its prey and I’d missed a shot of an exasperated egret.

High overhead that afternoon, a flock of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) flew south, following the leader of their flying chevron. In autumn, geese seem to do frequent practice runs before migrating. I noted that eight of them seemed to be tagging along behind one leg of the “V.” When eight geese flew back north a minute or two later, I couldn’t help imagining that these eight were the stragglers from the “V” who had decided they’d worked out enough for one day and turned back for a quick snack.

Each time I visited this pond, the piercing cry of a pair of Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) fell from high above me. Finally the two landed during my final visit. These dapper little characters spend the summer with us, scraping out their shallow, seemingly vulnerable nests in any bare earth they can find. Luckily, their striped heads and brown backs make them almost invisible in a vegetated field which apparently is enough to keep the Killdeeer and their young alive; I see them in the same fields year after year. I caught this one approaching a puddle in the grass and then turning its orange eye skyward, perhaps checking for predators who could snatch it up in flight, like Cooper’s Hawks and others in the genus Accipiter.

A Killdeer apparently keeping an eye out for flying predators

A pair of Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis) stood surrounded by a small flock of Canada Geese on the south shore of the pond. The geese flew away, but the Cranes slowly moved off into the field. One of them balanced with its wings while trying to navigate those water-filled ruts! After quietly grazing a bit, poking their beaks into the soil, they too took off heading south.

Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) kettled in a spiral above the forest west of the pond. Biting midges killed several deer in Michigan during our warm, wet fall. I wondered if the vultures, important members of nature’s clean-up crew, had found one dead near a forested wetland. Later a solitary vulture flew overhead while I watched a small flock of Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) enjoying the quiet sunlight on the North Pond. And as I left one day, a Savanna Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis) hopped and pecked its way along a tractor rut, plucking up whatever appeared to be edible.

A Mammal, Fish, Amphibian and even Crustacean Also Explored the Pond’s Possibilities

Besides the ubiquitous White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) that leave their hoof prints in the mud around the pond, a few other creatures are evidently trying out this habitat. I’d noticed some cattails draped across a log on my first visit and thought perhaps a muskrat had pulled them to the surface, since cattails are a favorite food. Ben later showed me an area where a muskrat may have tried to burrow into the berm that holds the wetland water, although the berm isn’t sturdy enough for winter quarters. Ben also pointed out an area where cattails had been felled and piled into what looked suspiciously like the beginnings of a muskrat’s feeding platform – a place to get out of the water to eat.

A wedge-shaped pile of harvested cattails hints at the presence of a muskrat building a feeding platform.

A week or so later, the log I had seen earlier had more cattails on it and something else quite unusual that I couldn’t identify. At first, I thought that it might a large fungus. But a helpful member of the Mushroom Identification Facebook group told me it looked like Cyanobacteria (genus Nostoc). Hmm… considering its common name, Blue-Green Algae, I wondered how that flat green stuff on ponds could look like this?

Clumps of colonized cyanobacteria on a log in the North Pond.

My curiosity piqued, I eventually found my way to Michigan State University Extension Educator Beth Clawson who confirmed that it was indeed cyanobacteria and sent me some useful research links. It turns out these very ancient organisms can also form dome-shaped colonies on the bottom of lakes and ponds. The ones at North Pond, Ms. Clawson informed me, are harmless, unlike the summer algae blooms that can be toxic. So it seems most likely that the muskrat pulled up cattails to eat their roots and these clumpy cyanobacteria colonies came up with them.

Imagine! These bacteria are descendants of the very ones that changed life on our planet 3.5 billion years ago! As these particular cyanobacteria performed photosynthesis, they produced oxygen unlike other organisms that didn’t. As cyanobacteria thrived in the early oceans, the environment became ever richer with oxygen, making the evolution of oxygen-breathing creatures like us possible. So, funny-looking blobs on a log set me thinking about the origins of life on ancient earth! No wonder I love doing this blog!

By the way, the muskrat never showed up on any of my visits. Perhaps I just missed it, or perhaps it didn’t find suitable winter housing in this newly restored wetland and moved elsewhere. Or maybe the food sources beyond cattails were too scanty. Muskrats usually supplement their largely vegetarian diet with frogs, crustaceans and fish. Evidence of all three of its prey species exist at the pond but some may be in small numbers.

Prey Species at the North Pond that Might Interest Water Fowl or Muskrats

In late August, heavy summer rains were causing the pond to flow out toward the woods on the northeast edge of the pond. Ben noticed a small fish swimming upstream, against the current toward the pond! Evidently some fish from a nearby forested wetland had discovered the stream and decided to give it a try. We don’t know how many made it there, but what a discovery! I hope these adventurous little fish arrived and remain in their new habitat. If they did, though, they may be providing a dietary supplement for egrets or the elusive muskrat.

A small fish swimming upstream toward the pond in a downhill overflow stream

On my first three visits to North Pond, I repeatedly heard little “plops” as I walked the watery edge of the wetland, but didn’t see a frog. Once I heard the telltale squeak of a startled Northern Leopard Frog (Lithobates pipiens) but no sightings. During my last visit, though, my sharp-eyed husband spotted one traversing the uplands near the pond.

A Northern Leopard Frog in the field beyond the North Pond

The other possible prey for a muskrat or bird is crayfish. In spring, their “chimneys” erupt from the soil as they climb out of their underground burrows to lay eggs. They can be found all over the field and around the North Pond. At this point, crayfish may be the most numerous food source for creatures visiting this wetland. We have crayfish species in Michigan, but unfortunately the most prevalent is an invasive one, the Rusty Crayfish (Faxonius rusticus). I can’t be sure if that’s the species that built the chimneys at the North Pond. According to MSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife website, for most of the year “they build and occupy a deep and complex subterranean tunnel system that goes at least as deep as the ground water table.” So that’s probably where they are now. Below is Ben’s photo of a Rusty Crawfish taken at Bear Creek Nature Park and mine of last spring’s slightly worn chimney at the North Pond in October.

Wet-footed Plants Settle In, Creating Habitat

The cattails that encircle the North Pond are not our native ones, but the aggressive, non-native Narrow-leaved Cattails (Typha angustifolia) that grow near the road. They may take over the pond eventually, turning it into a marsh. Fortunately, though, many native plants have also found their way to the pond. A seed of Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) must have arrived stuck to a bird’s foot or in its droppings; I only saw a single stem in late September. Until mid-October, Nodding Bidens (Bidens cernua) ringed the pond with both seed heads and a few bright yellow blooms. Wood Sorrel (Oxalis stricta) sported tiny yellow blossoms. If they are pollinated and produce seed pods, they will be able to project their seeds up to several feet away from this original plant and add more Sorrel to the wetland habitat. Ben introduced me to Celery-leaved Buttercup (Ranunculus sceleratus), a look-but-don’t-touch plant; crushing or bending its leaves raises lesions on human skin. But as long as we leave it alone, it produces interesting leaves and cheery little yellow flowers from May to September. And of course Duckweed (genus Lemna) covers parts of the water surface like sprinkles on a cupcake.

I first got acquainted with two of the North Pond’s native plants at Watershed Ridge Park in August. When I saw Southern Water Plantain (Alisma subcordatum) there, I admired its tiny white blooms on delicate stems. And I also admired the polka-dot effect of its seed heads at North Pond in October. Yellow Nutsedge (Cyperus esculentus) made a nice contrast to the Water Plantain with its spiky stalks springing up like green and yellow fireworks both around the pond and in the field.

Ben decided to try adding to the pond’s plant life by bringing in rhizomes, the underground stems and roots of two native aquatic plants: Whorled Loosestrife (Decodon verticillatus) and Yellow Water-lily (Nuphar variegata). The Whorled Loosestrife is a native plant as opposed to the invasive species Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria). Ben planted the cuttings he took from Draper Twin Lake Park into the mud below the water close to shore, its preferred habitat.

The Yellow Water-Lily rhizome required deeper water to float its leaves. So Ben moved to the bank at the deepest part of the pond, tucked a few rhizomes in the mud and tossed any remaining small pieces far out from shore. It’ll be great to see if either of these settle in at the North Pond next summer!

Insects Dancing, Posing and Staring Me Down!

Insects, as I’ve noted before, could be real pests this year – but fortunately, the ones I encountered at the North Pond had no interest in me. Some were beautiful, others especially interesting. Let’s start with the ballerina of the group.

When I consulted Dr. Gary Parsons, director of Michigan State University’s Bug House, he informed me that the crane fly that I’d seen pause in its frenetic fluttering to cling to a grass stem was a male. Its blunt abdomen was the clue. But since hundreds of look-alike crane species from five different families live in Michigan, he couldn’t identify this one from a photo.

A very small male Crane Fly

Close by, a larger female Crane Fly performed what I dubbed “The Dance of the Hundred Eggs.” She hopped above the bright, green moss, her body held vertically, wings outstretched, as she poked individual eggs into the ground with her ovipositor. Dr. Parsons tells me the eggs will hatch there, the young will scavenge, and then larvae will pupate before emerging as adults next year. If only I had the appropriate music to accompany this skipping choreography!

A female Crane Fly poking her eggs into moss on the shore of the North Pond.

On the surface of the pond, Whirligig Beetles (family Gyrinidae) danced too. These gregarious little insects whirl, spin and gyrate in large groups. Most sources seem to think it’s a way to avoid predators, or at times, to secure a mate – but no answers are definitive. I just enjoy the dance! I didn’t take a video at the North Pond because they were too far away, but here’s a group portrait of its corps de ballet.
A spinning, scooting, gyrating group of Whirligig Beetles.

I have a particular fondness for Katydids, especially when they pose for me on a grass stem. Their antennae are astonishingly long and their green, cartoon-like faces look slightly humorous to me. Katydids are active July to September when they mate, lay flat eggs on stems, soil or leaves and hatch the following summer. For me, the best way to tell katydids from grasshoppers and crickets is their long antennae, often 1.5 times longer than their body. Grasshoppers and crickets have shorter antennae, usually only half to 2/3 of their body length or less. Anyway, let me introduce you to the little female Meadow Katydid (genus Orchelimum) that I saw by the North Pond. I love her beady, yellow eyes and red, extravagant antennae!

A female Meadow Katydid blends in nicely with her surroundings.

On my visits, I repeatedly came across one species of dragonfly, a male Meadowhawk (genus Sympetrum), and one damselfly, a male Familiar Bluet (Enallagma civile). (Click on the damselfly to see his spiky surface!) I remain hopeful that their variety and numbers will increase next summer if I get there in warmer weather. A Red-legged grasshopper (Melanoplus femurrubrum) gave me a baleful stare in the field nearby.

Given a Chance, Nature Shares the Work of Native Habitat Restoration

The Great Egret is a beautiful part of nature’s contribution to the restoration of the North Pond.

Nature itself is the very best stewardship partner. Here at Blue Heron Environmental Area, Ben began restoration by creating a berm to hold the water in the middle of a field. Once it was built, nature got to work. Thunderstorms repeatedly brought water down from the sky and up from the water-soaked earth. Cattails by the highway sent seeds sailing on stormy winds toward the muddy edges of the pond where they quickly took hold. Taking advantage of the plentiful moisture, seeds thrust their way out of the seed bank, arrived on the wind or were left at the pond edge by thirsty creatures. Seeing this rippling, blue expanse from above, birds dropped down to the pond to probe the shore for food or spend the night safely hidden among the cattails. A muskrat may have crossed the road late one night, survived the traffic and slipped into the dark water. Frogs, fish and flying insects found the new pond by hopping, swimming or winging their way from nearby wetlands or hatching from the wet soil as the summer progressed. Gradually, a small community of plants and wildlife made a summer home at Blue Heron’s North Pond. This fall we hope to seed native plants into the uplands around the pond, and next summer sprigs of native grasses and wildflowers will help knit the uplands to the wetland.

The outcome of restoration can be unpredictable. Yet working to recreate and preserve nature’s complex, interdependent web of life is always worth the effort. I am surprised and delighted by how quickly nature joined us in restoring the North Pond. I’ll be eager to see what else nature contributes to its restoration in the coming year. I hope you’ll be here, watching with me.

View to the northwest at Blue Heron’s North Pond.

Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park: BUTTERFLIES! Oh, and Birds and Blossoms, too…

The Northern Wetland Meadow at Stony Creek Ravine Park has no shallow pools now, but is lush with plant life.

A kaleidoscope of dancing butterflies grabbed my attention time and again as I visited Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park in August.  Oh, yes, fledgling birds also whisked about in the dense greenery, accompanied by adult supervision, learning to feed or begging to be fed. And patches of glorious orange or blue flowers emerged among the tall grass.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

But it was the butterflies that stole the show for me as they hovered, floated, sailed and finally settled on blossoms or perched on a leaf along the trail. On glamorous wings – or sometimes tattered ones –  they danced summer to a glorious finale. Come see.

The “Corps de Butterflies,” Costumed in a Rainbow of Colors, Take the Stage

Bands of colorful vegetation in the moist, northern restoration meadow attract skimming swallows, darting dragonflies and floating butterflies

Every year now I wait for the late summer arrival of the Giant Swallowtails (Papilio cresphonte), the largest butterflies in North America (6-7 inch wingspan!). This prima ballerina of the butterfly corps  used to only breed in the south. Many researchers seem to think that most Giant Swallowtails still migrate south in the autumn. However, as the climate has warmed and prevented September frosts, they have expanded their range, establishing some small populations in lower Michigan. Whether they are breeding in our area or just nectaring before heading back south, I’m always glad to see them.

A Giant Swallowtail is the lead dancer in August.

Several butterflies showed up on summer’s stage with torn wings. I’ve wondered if that could be a result of being blown into harm’s way by the winds that accompany summer thunderstorms. Or perhaps the late bloom of goldenrods this year meant that butterflies fed more on prickly thistles. The ragged Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) below seemed to be feeding and flying reasonably well, despite its ravaged wings. I hope it had already mated since shape is important in butterfly courtship!

A badly damaged Eastern Tiger Swallowtail seemed to be feeding naturally on thistle.

Most Eastern Tiger Swallowtails  took the stage in August dressed in their best. Notice the long hairs on the abdomen of the one below. I learned recently that the scales on a butterfly’s wings are actually flattened hairs.  According to a study by Judith H. Myers at the University of British Columbia, it’s possible that the long hairs, sometimes called “scent scales,”  are used to spread pheromones in flight during the breeding season. The pheromone receptors that pick up scent are located in both male and female antennae, though scent is less important than color, shape and movement when most butterflies are courting .

This Eastern Tiger Swallowtail has long hair on its abdomen which may help distribute pheromones when attracting a mate.

Another butterfly “long hair” comes in a tiny package, the Common Checkered-Skipper (Pyrgus communis). My husband spotted this tiny male whose wingspan is only about .75 to 1.25 inches. We’ve probably missed it before because it’s so small and looks nondescript when fluttering erratically along the path. But when it stops, wow! Its thorax is dark blue-gray and the males are not only fuzzy like most skippers; they have long bluish “hairs.” A handsome little guy! Evidently the female’s thorax is a much less glamorous dark brown. According to the Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels, this tiny butterfly is  most common in the central and southern states but regularly  expands its range and is seen in our region in late summer and fall.

This male Common Checkered-skipper has long scent scales that look like hair.

I was delighted to finally see a restless Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele) as it fluttered from sunlight to shade and back again along the entrance path. What a costume! The dorsal (upper) side of its wings is patterned in orange and black, but its ventral side flashes with silver spangles! The females lays eggs even into September. Their caterpillars overwinter and start eating violet leaves in the spring, according to the Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide.  

The Great Spangled Fritillary appears in July, but lays its eggs in September.

Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus) added its dark beauty to the butterfly ballet. It’s very tricky to discern the differences between dark swallowtails. If you need help like I do, I recommend the website at this link which compares the female Black Swallowtail, the black morph of the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, the Spicebush Swallowtail and the Pipevine Swallowtail. Whew! It always takes me a while to puzzle them out! I also get help from the good folks at the Michigan Lepidoptera Facebook group.

The Spicebush Swallowtail has a blush of blue on its hindwings.

The ventral (lower) side of the Spicebush’s wings have two rows of orange spots like the Black Swallowtail, except that one spot on the inner arc is replaced by another blush of blue.

I finally got a look at how the little Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos) came by its name. If you look closely at the lower edge of the hindwing, there’s a tiny whitish crescent shape in one of the boxes there. In the photo below, I brightened the spot and created a small red marker so you could see it, too. It’s a subtle field mark, for sure!

The red marker shows the white crescent for which the Pearl Crescent is named.

And here’s how the Pearl Crescent appears from above. You’ll see these little butterflies on any walk you take in our parks from June to October. I like knowing its name; it makes a walk more companionable somehow.

The tiny Pearl Crescent skips along the paths in our parks all summer long.

Of course it’s the season for Monarchs (Danaus plexippus) and though they seem less plentiful this year than last, a goodly number still stroke a few wingbeats and glide over the fields. Here’s a sampling of three at Stony Creek Ravine Park – a male settling along the path, one in flight toward a withering Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare) and what I think was a female on Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

Another set of dancing wings joined the choreography.  With a zing, a dive and a pause in mid-air (à la Baryshnikov), a fierce and glorious dancer,  the Green-striped Darner (Aeshna verticalis) came on the scene. Darners are big, more than 2.5 inches long,  with bulky thoraxes and long abdomens. Add the helmet-like appearance of their giant eyes which meet at the top of their heads, plus their ability to hover,  and in flight they have a remarkable resemblance to a tiny helicopter! These skillful predators feed on all kinds of insects, even meadowhawk dragonflies and damselflies. The northern fields were a-buzz with them at the park last week!

A Green-striped Darner patrolled along the path as we walked north at the park.

Of course, many other insects – bees, small butterflies, and smaller dragonflies – fed and bred in Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park in August. Here are a few more modest members of the winged corps.

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While following the Spicebush Swallowtail, I glanced down at some movement in the grass and found a tiny grasshopper. A wary, or perhaps inquisitive, nymph of what may have been a Red-legged Grasshopper (Melanoplus femurrubrum) peered at me through two blades of grass! My expert resource person, Dr. Gary Parsons of the Michigan State University’s Entomology Department informed me that not only are the nymphs of this genus very similar,  but within each species the nymphs have many variations of color and pattern. Nymphs don’t have fully-formed wings,  so it will have to save its balletic leaps for a bit later in the summer finale.

This  nymph, possibly of a Red-legged Grasshopper, looked straight at me as if to say, “Verrrry interesting!”

Once it saw my camera, it twitched around the side of the grass stem and dangled there for a few minutes by its front legs. At first, the move made it difficult for me to find the nymph among the grass stems. I wondered if this was a camouflage technique; it did resemble a dangling wilted leaf as my eyes searched the ground. But eventually it must have decided I was not a threat and hopped back on the stem. A lovely few moments with a young creature.

A tiny Wood Frog (Rana sylvaticus), barely visible under a leaf, also missed the whole dance above as it made its way to high ground. As the nights cool, Wood Frogs look for leaf litter where they can produce inner anti-freeze and hibernate, frozen solid, until spring.

A tiny Wood Frog, perhaps an inch long, tried to blend into the brown grasses on the trail, keeping perfectly still.

Oh, Yes, Birds too!

My walks in our parks so often provide serendipitous moments for me. I’d been craning my neck to watch Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) swooping overhead, trailing their long, forked tails and wished aloud that one would perch for a photo. Just then, as my husband and I rounded a curve at the bottom of the Lookout Hill, we were gifted with this wonderful sight!

A selection of about 25-30 Barn Swallows perching on the fence around the southern restoration area below the Lookout Hill.

Dozens of Barn Swallows lined up on the fence with others perching on stalks in the tall plants within the fence line. What a surprise!  According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab, older siblings from earlier Barn Swallow broods often assist their parents in feeding the later broods of nestlings. The parents sometimes even get help from unrelated juvenile barn swallows. On the other hand, unmated barn swallows occasionally attack the young of a mated pair in hope of mating with the female! Nature in all species, I expect, has its good instincts and its bad ones.

One morning when I arrived, a large Pokeweed plant along the entrance path near Snell Road was aflutter with juvenile Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum). I could hear their high, piercing calls, but it took a while until one of the youngsters settled on a tree branch nearby for its portrait. Only the mask and the yellow tip of its tail identified it for me, because of its mottled breast and gray overall appearance.

A juvenile Cedar Waxwing can be identified from its mask and the yellow bar at the end of its tail.

A watchful older Waxwing perched in a nearby tree keeping an eye on the rowdy juveniles enjoying the Pokeweed berries and each other’s company. This one appears to be a first year waxwing because its upper wing is solid gray-brown and is missing its red dot; perhaps it has begun the annual molt because its mask and crest look incomplete. Its disgruntled look made me smile, thinking maybe babysitting juveniles was not its favorite assignment!

An older Cedar Waxwing keeps an eye on a troupe of rowdy youngsters.

An Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) sitting nearby looked over at the hubbub but generally ignored the Waxwings. Since Kingbirds are insectivores during the summers here, there was no need to compete for the Pokeweed berries. In the winter, however, when they fly all the way to the Amazon, they join a variety of flocks and eat only fruit.

An Eastern Kingbird watching the young Waxwings.

At the top of the Lookout Hill, a pair of House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus)- either females or juveniles which look just like their moms – were avidly scraping insects or insect eggs off the stems and leaves of a tree that clearly had already hosted a lot of caterpillars or other small bugs. The leaves were riddled with holes! I’m guessing that House Finches learn at a young age that leaves with holes mean FOOD!

These House Finches seemed to be making most of an insect-scavenged tree at the top of the Lookout Hill.

Nearby a juvenile Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus) looked a bit forlorn after it settled in a tree on the Lookout Hill. I didn’t identify this little bird as a Grosbeak until local birder extraordinaire Ruth Glass helped me out. Grosbeaks are now starting their migration to the Caribbean, so I hope this little male will soon be ready to take on his long flight across the country and the ocean beyond.

A juvenile Rose-breasted Grosbeak might mature a bit more before it begins its long migration to the Caribbean.

Our stewardship manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, mowed a path from the bottom of the Lookout Hill, going west, south, and then west again to connect to the older section of the park where the West Branch of Stony Creek runs through a beautiful ravine. As I approached the woods over the ravine, I kept hearing a plaintive Eastern Wood-Pewee (Contopus virens) in the woods but never got to see it. But I did see this little flycatcher, the Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) perching on a bare branch looking a bit rumpled. I wondered if it was a juvenile, though I can’t tell from its plumage.

An Eastern Phoebe looking a bit ruffled along the trail from the new section into the older ravine section of Stony Creek Ravine Park.

On a cool morning on my last trip to the park, a molting European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) appeared to be warming its breast high in a bare snag along the entrance trail. During the summer breeding season, these non-native birds are dressed in sleek black with iridescent blue-green overlays. Their beaks turn yellow then, too. But now, as fall arrives, they change into their winter garb. Their beaks turn dark and the feathers on their backs and breasts become covered with white spots. This one was already well along in the process.

This European Starling is in the process of molting to its spotted winter feathers and dark beak.

And Last But Certainly Not Least, the Trees and Plants that Make It All Possible!

Native Black-eyed Susans growing in a wet spot at Stony Creek Ravine Park.  Photo by Ben VanderWeide

Clearly, butterflies and birds grace our parks because these natural areas are rich in nutritious native food and abundant shelter for both adults and their young – the fledglings and the caterpillars. So let’s spend the last few minutes with perhaps an under-appreciated but vital element of any habitat – the native plants and trees that provide nesting space, nectar, pollen, seeds, nuts and most importantly, oxygen for all creatures – including us!

Wildflowers First

Begin by looking at that glorious patch of rare, native Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia fulgida) pictured above. These are not the ordinary Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) which gardeners  sometimes choose as annuals, or the native, but short-lived Rudbeckia hirtas that thrive in so many habits, including dry prairies. These bright yellow flowers at Stony Creek Ravine Park are a separate species of wildflower that prefers wetlands and is a long-lived perennial. They’re also the species used to create many varieties of cultivars used in landscaping. I’m so glad Ben shared his photo and his enthusiasm on finding these special plants – and for the photo. I was unaware that a wetland “Susan” even existed!

Ben also discovered a lovely patch of Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) growing near the edge of the woods in the north area of the park.  It too is a lovely wetland plant and often hosts our native, long-tongued Bumblebees. Though I’ve seen small patches and single stems of these blue flowers in other parks, Ben’s discovery is the biggest patch I’ve seen.

Several fields in this new section of the park are under cultivation by a local farmer until the park restoration can begin more fully there. At the edge of one of them is a lovely stand of bright pink Swamp/Rose Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata). These wetland milkweeds host Monarch butterflies, of course, as well as swallowtails, some frittilaries, native bees and skippers. But, good news, deer don’t eat milkweeds!  So if you have a moist garden, give these some thought.

I love Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) for its upright purple plumes, but it is also remarkably productive in the food web. Its nectar provides nutrition for a wide variety of native bees, small butterflies and moths. According to the Illinois Wildflowers website, the seeds also provide nutrition for many birds, including Cardinals, Swamp Sparrows, Field Sparrows, Song Sparrows and our winter visitor, the Dark-eyed Junco. Beauty for the eye and utility for the food web – a great combination!

Blue Vervain’s plume provides lots of sustenance to birds and pollinators.

Oh, and remember those young Cedar Waxwings jostling around in the greenery? What attracted them most were Pokeweed berries (Phytolacca americana). Lots of other birds love them as well, including Cardinals, the Gray Catbird and the Brown Thrasher. The fruits,  which are green now,  turn dark purple when mature. On those pink stalks, the plants look as though they should be somewhere in the tropics! Mammals however, like we humans and our pets,  should not partake of any part of this toxic plant. It looks luscious but it has evolved to be eaten by birds and not by any members of mammalia, our class of animals – which is frustrating because the fruits looks so tempting!

Here’s a quick tour of some of the other native wildflowers sprinkled throughout the meadows at Stony Creek Ravine providing sustenance to wildlife.

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And Now, A Few of the Mighty Trees at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park!

The Ravine and the West Branch of Stony Creek, for which the park is named

Though the fields of Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park are alive with pollinators, blossoms and birds, the lush woods that embrace them are equally impressive. In the park’s far western section, the West Branch of Stony Creek shines silver as it runs through the steep terrain of the heavily treed ravine for which the park is named. Along  its slopes and on the trail high above the creek, many species of trees  compete for sunlight while sharing nutrient resources through the fungal networks underground.

Some trees go to great lengths to reach the sunlight along the trail above the ravine.

One tree I look for every time I visit the ravine section of the park is a lovely American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) just over the edge of the slope near the end of the ravine trail.  Its satin-like bark makes me wish I could reach out and touch it.  According to the University of Michigan’s Michigan Flora website, a non-native scale insect (Cryptococcus fagisuga) can leave wounds in its bark that make them vulnerable to a deadly fungus (Nectria coccinea) which causes Beech Bark Disease, only recently discovered in Michigan. We need to protect these glorious native trees which provide so much food for wildlife and so much beauty for us.

A large beech tree stands precariously over the edge of the Stony Creek Ravine.

On the day the Wednesday bird group visited the park, Ben pointed out a huge Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa) next to the trail. This huge tree has merged three very large trunks. Each on their own would constitute a mighty oak!

The empty “mossy cup acorn” of a Bur Oak.

Bur Oaks make what the Michigan Flora website calls “mossy cup” acorns. This tree may live for many years to come. Not terribly shade tolerant, it is exposed to sunlight on the edge of  the woods near the trail and the long wetland along the entrance trail probably provides the amount of moisture it prefers. Ah, the stories this old tree could tell!

An old Bur Oak south of the trail that leads to the Ravine.

On the tree line between the northern restoration section and the western meadows is an old White Oak (Quercus alba) that demonstrates how location effects the growth of trees. In the open sunlight, surrounded by little competition, the oak has basked in sunlight for many years and spread it branches out instead of up, into a lush, wide crown. What a sight!

An old White Oak spreads out in the uninterrupted sunlight next to the north restoration area.

In the forest to the north last fall, Ben and I visited a huge Wild Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) that used its energy to grow tall, reaching up into the sunlight. Maybe that’s why its lovely yellow flowers only bloom high in the crown. Here’s the photo of it that I posted previously in the blog – just another example of the trees waiting to be explored in the forests beyond the fields.

A Tulip Tree growing tall to reach the sun in the shady northern forest at Stony Creek Ravine Park.

The Legacy Within Us

My husband at dusk just being with nature

I recently enjoyed an On Being Podcast interview with naturalist and environmental journalist, Michael McCarthy. He shared an insight from evolutionary psychology, namely that for 50,000 generations we humans were simply part of nature. For all that time, before we settled down to farm, we experienced all the challenges other creatures face in trying to survive in nature. Or as he put it “we were wildlife, if you like.” As a result, McCarthy contends, even now what we experienced, what we learned during those millennia is still in us, still making us feel at home in the natural world.

Maybe that explains why so many of us experience peace when we’re in places like Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park. On some level, we’re at home in natural areas in a way that even our cozy firesides cannot quite duplicate. Standing on the Lookout Hill at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park, I look out across moist wetlands and meadows to the encircling wood and just let go, become part of the scenery, embedded in its beauty. The swallows dip and rise, the butterflies float from stem to stem, the woods stands dark and mysterious, the creek at the western edge sings its songs over the rocks – and I’m just part of it all.

I imagine it’s that kinship with nature that motivates you and I to learn about and care for our badly damaged world. And it’s probably that kinship which pushes us out the door and into a park on a cold fall morning or just before dark on a summer night to once more savor our connection to the natural world. Michael McCarthy put it like this: “… there is a legacy deep within us, a legacy of instinct, a legacy of inherited feelings, which may lie very deep in the tissues…we might have left the natural world, most of us, but the natural world has not left us.”

And what a blessing that is! Our task, our calling now is to continue restoring and preserving the natural world for our children and grandchildren. By honoring that legacy within, we can hope to insure that future generations will also be able to breathe deep and feel the freedom and peace that nature so generously provides to us.

Late Winter Sparkle and Early Spring Music: Charles Ilsley and Cranberry Lake Parks

Do you mind if I briefly take you back to February? I know we’re all getting itchy to  step into spring. But here in southeast Michigan, the line between the two seasons blurs a bit in late February and March.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

So I want to remember that the tail end of winter has it charms – and then spend some time relishing the early signs of spring before the Equinox.

 

 

FEBRUARY:  Sparkling with Ice, Patterned with Prints and Revealing the Shapes of Slopes and Seedheads!

Winter sparkling down the Hickory Lane at Cranberry Lake Park in February

Accompanied by our familiar year ’round birds and a few winter visitors, bundled against bitter days, I spent most of February in two parks – Cranberry Lake Park and Charles Ilsley Park. I puzzled over prints in the snow, admired ice patterns and worked at  re-identifying last year’s wildflowers by their winter architecture.

Wild Neighbors Make Brief Appearances on a Winter Day

It’s always a great comfort to me on a winter walk, when my numb fingers resist taking photos, that birds and animals keep me company. At Charles Ilsley Park, an American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) scrambled onto a branch near me with its mouth stretched around a large nut, perhaps a walnut that had lost its outer covering since dropping last fall. The squirrel was so intent on conquering its prize nut that I got a quick shot before it jumped out of sight.

An American Red Squirrel with a nut almost too big for its jaws!

On a Cranberry Lake Park walk in February, through the thicket of tree branches, the birding group caught sight of a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) on a perch near the lake, scanning for prey. It had plumped up against the cold and looked just a bit disgruntled. Perhaps that morning had brought slim pickings.

A cold, perhaps hungry Red-tailed Hawk didn’t look too happy on a cold morning near Cranberry Lake.

American Tree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea) visit us just for the winter and are everywhere now. With their gray breasts centered with a black spot and a nice chesnut cap and eyeline, they’re by far the most obvious sparrow in the parks in winter – and they make a friendly twitter when they’re flocking. On my coldest day at Cranberry, I saw one huddled in the dry stems of a field as an icy wind ruffled its feathers. It would venture out periodically to grab a few seeds and then hunker down again in the grass. But on a sunnier day, one perched quite calmly on a dry stem of non-native Common Mullein. At Ilsley, several whooshed up from the fields in small flocks and dispersed as I passed. [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

Across Ilsley’s central prairie, high up on a tall snag, I spotted a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus). If you click on the left photo, you’ll see its head peeking above a short branch in the crotch of the dead tree. I began to take a series of slow, cautious steps in its direction, but it spotted my camera raised and sailed off into the distance, the large white patches under each wing flashing in the sunlight. To the right you can see those white under wings in a fine photo by dpdawes at inaturalist.org, who got a lot closer to her/his bird than I did to mine!

Near Ilsley’s north prairie, a lengthy repetition of the “Kwirrrr” call alerted me to my constant winter companion, the Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus). Hitching along a distant tree trunk searching out insect eggs or larvae, this male multi-tasked, firmly establishing his territory with calls while continuing to forage. I clicked the shutter in a hurry when he paused to check for any threats or other males in the area.

A foraging Red-bellied Woodpecker stops foraging long enough to be sure another male isn’t in his territory!

At Ilsley, I followed a flock of American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) as they surged from one treetop to the next. Eventually one ventured close to me, as if checking my intentions. From what I learned in the Cornell crow class, this is likely an older member of a crow family since it has a few white feathers.

The white feathers on this crow make me think it could be an old one. Crows can live as long as 19 years.

And then there are creatures who just have a faulty sense of timing. Somehow, my husband and I spotted this tiny fly perched on the edge of a boot print at Charles Isley Park. Dr. Gary Parsons from Michigan State identified it for me as a Snail-eating Fly  (family Sciomyzidae, possible  genus Dictya), so named because the larval young of this fly have a preference for snails. He guessed that it probably “woke from it winter nap” prematurely, fooled by  a warm, melting winter day. I like its intricately patterned wings and legs!

A tiny Snail-eating Fly poised at the edge of a boot print at Charles Ilsley Park.  It most likely mistook a warmish winter afternoon for a spring day .

Some Wild Neighbors Leave Only Hints of their Presence

Part of the fun in a winter walk is trying to figure out a creature’s presence only from the prints they leave behind. Walking down the Hickory Lane, I saw the flash of an Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) as it dashed across the trail and into a tree hole so slim it seemed impossible that the squirrel could  fit inside! But it left its tracks behind as it approached the tree and leapt toward the trunk.

A large mammal left clues to its activity down near Cranberry Lake. I approached the lake on an icy day. I wanted to see  if the beaver I’d seen evidence of last year had come out of its den again to find some extra tree bark to chew on this winter. As I approached, bright scarlet fruits caught my attention, vivid against the silver of a frosty morning. Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Stewardship Manager, later identified them as the rose hips of a Swamp Rose (Rosa palustris). Color is such eye candy in the winter months!  And just beyond, as I prowled the frozen ground near the lake, was the evidence I sought – a tree stump recently gnawed to a point by what could only be a North American Beaver (Castor canadensis).

I cautiously stepped out onto the ice, but it held. Off in the distance, the snow lay like white satin on the lake’s surface. Around a bend in the shore, the beaver’s den loomed a bit larger this year and yes! I could see the raw end of a recently cut log protruding from its den. How the beaver stuck it in there mystifies me but the bark should make a cozy meal for the beaver/s inside on a cold day. A few other recently added sticks protruded from either side.

Pondering Snow Prints

Tracks of all kinds filigree the landscape on a winter morning. The birding group noticed the small canine tracks of what we guessed was some sort of Fox probably a Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) since it was in an open area rather than a woods. A neat line of single prints usually means a wild canine and these were rather small as they curved around the turkey breeder building at Cranberry Lake Park. The coyote’s tracks at Charles Ilsley Park have the same features but are considerably larger. Coyotes are mating now so you’ll see more of their twisty, fur-filled scat along the trails as they mark the boundaries of their territory. (I’ll spare you a scat photo….)

Lots of smaller creatures are scurrying about on the snow during the night. An indecisive White-footed Mouse (Peromyscus leucopus) left its “sewing machine” tracks in the snow as it apparently darted out into a trail twice, retreated each time and then finished dashing across to dive into a tiny hole on the far side. I’m wondering if the strange track in the center photo is that of a Meadow Vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus) that nosed about just under the surface of the snow.  I’m guessing that from the fact that Voles stay closer to the surface when they burrow in the grass, leaving larger furrows than the smaller mice. But if anyone has a better idea, I’m open to it. And by the size, I’m guessing that tidy little squirrel print on the right is probably that of a pausing American Red Squirrel.

And can anyone guess what made this pattern of polka-dots all over the snow around Cranberry Lake Park one February morning? My first guess was snow melt dripping from the limbs, but I’ve seen a lot of thawing snow and I’ve never seen this tapioca design before. Maybe air bubbles being driven up from below? Anyone have a theory on this one?

What could have made these polka-dots in the snow cover? I’m mystified.

Admiring the Stark Architecture of Last Year’s Wildflowers

One of my goals is to be as familiar  with wildflowers in winter as I’m becoming in summer. I love the linear designs they make against the sere backdrop of a winter field. Here are a few examples paired with their summer finery.

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MARCH:  The Sweet Song of Running Water,Migrators Appear, Buds Swell –  but Can It Last?

Is it spring yet, or the last hurrahs of winter? It was hard to tell on an early spring  day when snow still lay beneath the russet tapestry of dry plants on Charles Ilsley Park’s west prairie. But a brisk wind chased the cloud shadows across the field and it sure felt like spring. (Turn up your volume to hear the wind and the Blue Jay calling.)

First Bursts of Irrepressible Spring Song!

A good pre-spring sign is that male birds have already begun trilling their familiar mating songs. A male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) flew down near me and threw back his head to let forth his song. As usual, he turned 180 degrees to sing in both directions, in an effort, no doubt, to broadcast his presence as widely as possible!

A Northern Cardinal singing his spring song at Charles Ilsley Park

We’re all pretty familiar with the Black-Capped Chickadee’s call (Poecile atricapillus). After all, “Chickadee-dee-dee” is how it got its name! But oddly, in spring they sing a very simple, two note song to establish territory or attract a mate. I couldn’t get a good shot of the lothario that I watched hopping manically from limb to limb at Ilsley, so the song recording below is his, but the photo is from an early spring in 2016.

A Chickadee in Red-Twig Osier.

The Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) have been around off and on all winter. But just lately, they’ve started checking out the bluebird boxes in our parks. Here’s a female evaluating the real estate at Charles Ilsley Park.

A female Eastern Bluebird checking out a nest box at Charles Ilsley Park.

Not all spring sounds, though, are mating calls. Our township stewardship manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, heard the exquisitely high, piercing call of two Golden-crowned Kinglets (Regulus satrapa) at Cranberry Lake Park during the bird walk last week. Cornell tells us that “This is one of the first bird songs that people stop being able to hear as they age.” Ahem…that’s me, I’m afraid. I did see them quickly through my binoculars but never got a camera on them. Here’s a photo of one of these pretty little migrators taken by cedimaria, a photographer at iNaturalist.org. Sometimes these Kinglets appear during the winter in our area, but it’s more likely that the one we heard and saw was on its way north to breed at the tip of the Mitten, or in Canada.

A Golden-crowned Kinglet by photographer cedimaria (CC BY-NC)

Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) flew far over head at Ilsley, braying their prehistoric call and by the first week in March, a male Red-winged Blackbird burst forth with his buzzing trill on a thistle stalk. The females will arrive in a few weeks.

The Trickle of the Thaw and Buds!

At Ilsley, water seemed to be finding it way everywhere as the ice melted in various wetlands. Within the eastern prairie, a narrow rivulet appeared to have sculpted a beautiful little ice cave under the snow. My husband and I were mystified as how it formed.  We thought perhaps the water beneath the ice had drained away along the narrow line to the right and part of the ice had dropped, because the inside of the cave was bone dry. But we’re just guessing. Anyone have a better theory?

A little ice cave formed on the eastern edge of a wetland in the prairie at Charles  Ilsley Park.

I could envision that  a small creature might shelter overnight in this wee cave for protection, since the ground within was dry!

The ice cave looked as though it could shelter a small creature at night.

Elsewhere at Ilsley, the trickle of water signaled hope for spring. Over in the woods, one of the ice covered wetlands had melted enough that a stream ran away from it into the trees.

A melting wetland feeds a stream running through the woods on the northern side of Ilsley’s Eastern Prairie.

And nearby, a brilliant spear-shaped mound of moss took advantage of all the water and glowed in the thin sunlight.

A spear of moss near at wetland at Ilsley.

The swelling, red buds of Silver Maples (Acer saccharinum) always give me hope in March so I keep checking on them each time I explore the path into Ilsley from the west. And in Cranberry Lake Park, Ben spotted the first cottony plumes of Pussy Willow (Salix discolor) breaking into the cold spring air. I’ve loved those fuzzy signs of spring since childhood when they bloomed right outside my family’s  kitchen window.

The Best Kind of “Social Distance”

The Northern Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park in early March

As I finish this blog, the COVID-19 virus has taken hold in Michigan and we are instructed to avoid crowded places and keep a “social distance” from others for at least the rest of the month. That certainly makes perfect sense, but it can make all of us feel a bit isolated. Luckily, nature invites us out into the fields and woods where no threats exist really, except maybe wet feet and some spring mud. Wildlife has always believed in “social distance” so no problem there; they consistently respect my space by taking off when they see me  – as my camera can attest!

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So now’s the ideal moment to re-acquaint yourself and your family with the infinite variety of the natural world. Leave behind the confines of a centrally heated home and let the moist, cold air of March tickle your nose and redden your cheeks. Open a door and listen to the dawn chorus of the songbirds. (Listen for Sandhill Cranes down in the marsh at the end!)

Watch for bursting buds and catch your own reflection in a mud puddle.  Discover the joys of darkness and silence while watching the stars on a clear, moonless night.  Maybe we can rediscover all that we’ve been missing in the hubbub of a “normal” day. And that way, we can turn our “social distance” into an adventure in the wild  for ourselves and our children.

Photos of the Week: Expanding Nature’s Color Palette at Charles Ilsley Park

Cardinal Flower (aka Red Lobelia) and Great Blue Lobelia in a moist swale at Charles Ilsley Park

In the previous post, I collected all the gold and black vividness of August at Charles Ilsley Park – in blossoms, birds and butterflies.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

But of course, Ilsley in August had lots of other hues. Nature seems incapable of limiting itself to just two colors in any season. So let’s see some of the other colorful brushstrokes from nature’s palette.

 

Stewardship Pays Off in Shades of Lavender in the Central Meadow

Lavender flowers emerged in the central meadow when a small wetland area was restored.

In the last few years, vernal pools have formed in the center of Charles Ilsley Park and a stream suddenly appeared crossing a trail on the east side of the central meadow. Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Stewardship Manager, realized that a farmer had once laid tile to drain those ponds. By pulling out some of the  broken tiles, Ben restored a wetland area where the water can now seep underground instead of across the trail. As a result, a beautiful variety of lavender wetland flowers now bob and sway above the grass stems there.  Tall, erect Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) branches into tapering spikes covered with tiny flowers frequented by many kinds of bees.  The smaller,  lavender Monkey Flower (Mimulus ringens) was a delightful new wildflower for me. These seeds were part of the wetland seed mix that were planted as part of the restoration process. After so many years of farming,  very few native species remained, so stewardship staff designed a diverse wetland mix to help these areas recover. And nearby where dry, prairie soil begins again, a balding Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa) left a beautiful pattern as it shed its petals. [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

Birds and a Jazzy Insect Add Blue to the Ilsley Palette

A couple of blue birds made their contribution to the color scheme. A juvenile Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) with just a few of its azure feathers showing, hid deep within the  the leaves of a giant oak along the entrance path. My photo attempt was hopeless. But a few days later, another small bluebird perched in an oak in my front yard. In the photo below, it seems to be studying the ground just before it swooped down and picked up a caterpillar. Well done, little bluebird!  A tiny Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea) popped in and out of the shrubbery along the edge of the meadow. Even adults of this species are only 4-5 inches long and weigh 1-2 ounces! This little flycatcher twitches its white edged tail to stir up insects when surrounded by plants, though as you can see below, it probes bark for insects and their eggs as well.

A young Eastern Bluebird spotted and later caught a caterpillar below.

Gnatcatchers search tree bark for any insect or spider.

A Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher twitches its tail to scare up insects, but gnats actually don’t make up much of its diet.

If you see a large dragonfly helicoptering over the flower tops, it’s probably a Darner (Aeshnidae family. They are the largest dragonflies in North America, with the fastest flight and the keenest eyesight. The female has a needle-like ovipositor at the end of her abdomen so that she can slit open stalks and insert her eggs – hence, the name “darner.”  (My husband remembers relatives calling them “sewing beetles!”) They spend most of their time in the air on their powerful wings, so I was glad  to find this Green-striped Darner (Aeshna verticalis) resting for a moment on some dried Curly Dock (Rumex crispus). What an elaborate color scheme and pattern on this big beautiful insect!

The Green-Striped Darner’s compound eyes are so large that they almost touch. So it has great eyesight!

Stewardship brings Red, White and Blue to the Golden Western Meadow

Ben noticed a moist swale in the western meadow as he was planning for the prairie planting and spread some wildflower seed from plants that love “wet feet.” What a lovely treat to see Cardinal Flower/Red Lobelia (Lobelia cardinalis), white Swamp Betony (Pedicularis lanceolata) and Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) thriving within a low spot in a dry, sunny meadow! Charles Ilsley Park introduced me to a second new wildflower when I saw these Swamp Betony for the first time in August.

One of our eagle-eyed birders took a photo of a third new flower to add to my “life list,” Dotted Mint/Horse Mint (Monarda punctata). This Monarda, in the same genus as our lavender Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa),  has successive whorls of creamy white  blossoms dotted in dark purple growing above one another along its stem. Ben had included this flower in the seed mix when this meadow was cleared and planted as part of prairie restoration. I hope we see more of it! Thanks to Vinnie Morganti for loaning me her photo of this interesting tri-level  flower.

A three-story bloom on these lovely Dotted/Horse Mint stems!

Nature Loves Earth Tones

Of course, browns and greens are always the backdrop of nature’s palette. A soft brown fledgling with a striped breast played peek-a-boo with me through some shrubs one afternoon. I could hear its begging chirp from beyond the plants, but it took a while before it really peeked out into the open. Can you spot its tiny head near the center of this photo? (You might need to click on this photo to get a better look.)

A tiny brown bird poked its head in and out of the greenery at Ilsley.

Finally, it came out for more than a split second so I could snap a photo. I checked its identification with local birding expert, Ruth Glass. I proposed that it was a young House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) and she  agreed it was. These little birds drive their parents nuts with begging constantly for hours around our feeder so I thought I recognized that insistent chirp!

A fledgling House Finch finally stops in the open for more than a few seconds.

A group of little brown House Wrens ((Troglodytes aedon) chattered away in an oak along the treeline, darting here and there among the branches. At last, one came out to look around.

A fledgling House Wren peers down from a bush after several minutes of begging calls.

Almost immediately an adult wren appeared to scold me for being there. I snapped a quick photo and departed, so as not to incur more wrath from an annoyed parent!

An adult Wren arrived on the scene and asked me to go away in no uncertain terms! Such a scold!

As fall arrives, nuts and seeds add more rich brown shades and lovely greens. The lime green nuts of  Walnut Trees (Juglans nigra) hang like tennis balls from limbs around the park and the Black Oaks sport clusters of bright green acorns with patterned brown beanies.

My candidate for this year’s most beautiful brown, though, are the  teardrop-shaped, russet seeds of the Foxglove Beardtongue/Penstemon (Penstemon digitalis). In mid-summer, this native wildflower stands tall, while sprouting graceful white blossoms. Its seeds and dark red stems now are almost as visually appealing as its flowers!

Harvesting the Last of Summer Colors

A wonderfully large and mysterious wetland I saw at Charles Ilsley Park for the first time in August

Isn’t that wetland above a lovely harmony of greens?  This wetland extends a long way on the north side of the far west trail that leads to the Wynstone subdivision west of the park. This one is  large, mysterious and full of life as most wetlands are. I just “discovered” it after many walks in Ilsley and felt like a visitor to an alien world.

I listened to the raucous begging of a Green Heron fledgling down in the bushes ner the water and caught a glimpse of an adult stuffing food into the youngster’s bill. Just a glimpse, no photo – but I didn’t mind. I just wanted to take in all the green-ness to remember on a black-and-white winter day.

Summer is clearly waning, now. The butterflies look tattered and worn. The summer wildflowers are brown and seeding. But we have lots to look forward to. The meadows now brimming with goldenrods will soon be splashed with purple asters. The migrating birds, wearing more sedate winter colors, and the last of the “super generation” Monarchs will be riding north winds toward warmer climes. Leaves will reveal the dramatic colors they’ve hidden under all that chlorophyll since they “greened up” in the spring. So maybe, like wise stewards, we should store up as much color as we can while the supply is plentiful. We may need the memory of it on a January day.