In the previous post, I collected all the gold and black vividness of August at Charles Ilsley Park – in blossoms, birds and butterflies.
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
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.]
Blue Vervain loves moist earth and sunlight so it thrives in this moist restored area.
Monkey Flower grew vigorously after being planted in 2018
Nearby, where the soil was dry, a Bee Balm showed its elegant balding head!
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.
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!
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.
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.)
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 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.
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!
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
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.
Goldenrod! A variety of different Goldenrods gild Cranberry Lake Park in early autumn. Their bounty of nectar and pollen and the insects they attract make Cranberry Lake an ideal stopover for migrating birds and butterflies as they prepare for their long journeys. So cheer for Goldenrods as they feed wildlife, but don’t blame them for your fall allergies – blame ragweed!
Year ’round birds and summer residents have almost finished molting and are also stocking up energy for winter or the migration. And a surprising number of insects are also preparing by busily mating one last time, leaving behind eggs or chrysalises that can bring forth young next spring and summer. Lots going on within this carpet of gold!
Migrating Birds – Some Stayed All Summer; Some Just Stop Briefly for Rest & Refueling
Now’s the time to train your binoculars on any shaking leaf you see. It might be a fall migrator! Colorful, tiny warblers and vireos that are just passing through on their way south are well worth a pause to look into the shrubbery, as you’ll see below! But don’t forget to wish “bon voyage” to the migrators who arrived last spring and sojourned with us all summer. Many are finishing up their molts and readying for long journeys to the southern US or even Central and South America. We saw all of the birds shown below on the bird walk last week at Cranberry Lake Park.
Migrators from Farther North: Just Passing Through
The trees are aquiver with fall migrators, travelers that bred up north and only briefly stop to rest and refuel around our woods and meadows. The most colorful ones that we often hear but can’t see are warblers and vireos. These little birds travel on the night wind because it’s safer. Hawks, eagles, and other birds that might see these small birds as food migrate during the day so that they can ride the thermals!
My camera and I are not quite quick enough to catch a lot of these tiny, fast-moving birds. So to share them with you, I’m relying on photos of other photographers with the skills, equipment and sometimes sheer luck to capture these little beauties!
The Blue-winged Warbler (Vermivora cyanoptera) breeds at Cranberry Lake Park, but the birds we’ve seen in the last week were probably moving through from further north. This fine bird shows off its black eyeline and blue wings with white wingbars in a gorgeous photo taken by gifted local photographer Joan Bonin:
This photo of the striking Black-throated Blue Warbler (Setophaga caerulescens) is by gifted iNaturalist photographer Jeff Skrent at iNaturalist.org.
A Yellow-throated Vireo ( Vireo flavifrons) from another generous iNaturalist photographer who uses the single name, paloma.
A Nashville Warbler (Leiothlypis ruficapilla) was also too quick for me. But here’s one I did manage to catch as it passed through in the autumn of 2016 on its way to Central America.
Summer Visitors: The Migrators that Come Here to Raise Their Young
Some avian migrators see our parks as a great place to raise their young, so they come in the spring and stay for the summer. Having finished breeding and molting, they are now preparing to leave for points south. The male Common Yellowthroat’s (Geothlypis trichas) “Witchedy – witchedy” song accompanied me often during the summer months as he and his mate raised their young. But you may here his “chuck” call as he hops among the branches stocking up on insect protein before leaving for Florida.
Both the male Common Yellowthroat and his mate did a complete molt in July or August and now have fresh feathers for the trip. She’s bit more secretive than the male as she feeds on beetles, ants, bees (!), dragonflies and grasshoppers within the golden fields. Usually she’ll leave a week or two later than the male.
Last spring the Wednesday morning birders heard a Black-throated Green Warbler (Setophaga virens) singing its mating song along the Hickory Lane at Cranberry Lake. And this week, the birders spotted one flitting high in the trees. Perhaps it nested here to raise its young, or it could be just passing through our parks in spring and fall. Here’s a photo I took of a male during the spring migration this year.
High in a snag, a Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) paused briefly to survey the golden eastern meadow one afternoon. Many waxwings go into lower Canada to breed, but I’ve seen successful nests in our parks, too, so this one may have been a summer resident. Some will move south for the winter, but many waxwings will stick around during the cold months.
House Wrens (Troglodytes aedon) become quite secretive after breeding. But this one popped out of the greenery for a minute. It appears to have completed the late summer molt and is prepared to start south between now and mid-October.
A curious juvenile Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) peeked at me from dense shrubbery along the trail, too. The migration of Field Sparrows is not always predictable. Some migrate, some don’t, and some migrate one year but not the next, according to the Stokes’ Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.2). If this one does migrate, it may join a large flock with Chipping Sparrows as well as other Field Sparrows.
On one of my Cranberry walks, I spotted some Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) far across a well-hidden wetland. They were males who’d chosen this secluded spot to begin their molt out of the summer “eclipse plumage” into their fancy choosing-a-mate plumage. This one looked a bit rough at the moment, but well on his way to his courting colors. As I explained in last week’s molting blog, males molt earlier in the summer to camouflage themselves as females and then molt again in the fall, a time when they compete for a mate to breed with in the spring.
I often hear, but rarely see, the vireos at Cranberry Lake. But I did get to see a Warbling Vireo (Vireo gilvus) in the spring. A rare treat, since it loves to sing high in the treetops! Its plumage is modest but its song is impressive! The birders saw one lingering in our park for a while before departing for points south.
Occasionally I get a quick look at a Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus). But Bob Bonin, Joan’s husband and another gifted photographer, got a much better photo than I have so far! This week it too was hanging out with other migrators.
Birds, of course, are not the only creatures migrating through our parks this autumn. Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus) fluttered everywhere at Cranberry Lake Park in the last few weeks. This “super-generation” of fragile creatures – the ones that will fly 3,000 miles to Mexico – were swooping and diving over the meadows at Cranberry Lake, feeding on the acres of Goldenrod. So glad that we provide these master migrators with such a feast!
The tattered Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes) below looks lightly worn. Let’s hope that attests to its having mated here this summer after its migration to Cranberry Lake. These huge butterflies seem to be expanding their range north. Possibly due to climate change, Michigan now often has frost-free Septembers. So if mating was successful, the caterpillars of this very large butterfly may survive inside their chrysalises and hatch in our parks next spring.
Last Chance for Progeny! Insects Still Mating in the Meadows
Among the Goldenrod, insects seek out mates in a last ditch effort to leave offspring for next summer. A pair of Goldenrod Soldier Beetles (Chauliognathus pennsylvanicus) rendezvoused on a Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare) – a potentially risky place to mate since a bird might think they make a tasty contrast against the blossom!
A pair of tiny Pearl Crescent butterflies (Phyciodes tharos) also decided that a warm September afternoon provided the ideal time for mating.
And two Ladybugs chased around a Goldenrod stem, one frenetically holding on to the other. I couldn’t really determine whether they were mating or fighting! Clearly, one was more interested in escape and one was in hot pursuit. They were moving too fast for a great shot or a definite identification. My guess is that they were the invasive Asian Ladybugs (Harmonia axyridis). Unfortunately they are more common these days than our native Nine-spotted Ladybug (Coccinella novemnotata) and come in highly variable colors and patterns.
This tiny Red-legged Grasshopper (Melanoplus femurrubrum) had probably spent the night near the stalk of the Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), wisely hidden from predators among its withering leaves. It will molt multiple times before mating and leaving eggs in the soil to emerge next summer.
The edge of a meadow, near a wetland, might be an ideal spot for a female Great Blue Skimmmer dragonfly (Libellula vibrans). She could be spreading her wings in hope of attracting a mate. If successful, the aquatic plants nearby could host her fertilized eggs. Or while waiting for a likely male, she might just have a great perch for hunting unsuspecting prey!
Spider Art On a Misty Morning
Early fall mornings are an excellent time to appreciate the art of the spiders. Warm days followed by cool nights leave heavy dew on spider webs, and when the sun makes them visible, they are dazzling. How about this lovely creation of an Orb Weaver spider (family Araneidae)drooping with the weight of the dew but subtly reflecting the colors of the sun’s spectrum!
Another intriguing web, though not as beautiful, is cleverly constructed. The Funnel Web Spider (Circuria species) lays a sticky sheet of web across the grass, which would be difficult to see were it not for the dew. At the edge of the web, it weaves a tunnel where it lies in wait for unsuspecting prey. Above the sheet, it weaves an irregular network of silk designed to knock flying insects into its sticky net below. You can see the funnel at the back of this web below.
As I skirted the edge of wetlands one Sunday, it seemed that a frog sprang out of the grass at every step! Most of them were Northern Leopard Frogs (Rana pipiens), their emerald green backs covered with circular black dots outlined in pale gold. Their dark eyes encircled with gold add to their glamour. Pinkish dorsolateral ridges are another distinguishing field mark. They shine like cloisonné in the deep grass!
Until last week, I’d never noticed Pickerel Frogs (Rana palustris) at Cranberry Lake. These smaller frogs have somewhat rectangular spots that line up along the frogs’ back in neat rows. They are smaller than Leopard frogs. They tend to be brown (though they are sometimes green too), so I’m fairly sure this is Pickerel frog below.
And Finally, the Native Plants that Make It All Possible!
The plants, though not as often noticed by hikers, provide sustenance for all these creatures as the base of the food web. Butterflies sip their nectar. Bees and wasps feed pollen to their young. Other insects munch on leaves or make winter homes in the stalks. Birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals eat all parts of plants, or the insects that live on them. So here’s a gallery of just a few of the plants that, along with the plentiful goldenrods, have bloomed in sun and shade to sustain the beauty and life of Cranberry Lake Park in late summer. (Use pause button for captions.)
Autumn Mornings: Not To Be Missed!
On our September bird walk at Cranberry Lake Park, we arrived on a cool fall morning. The previous day had been unseasonably warm, but a north wind sailed in overnight. The cool air had created heavy dew, leaving silver droplets that set the spider webs shining. The morning sun on the moist leaves created the fine mist you see above, rising from a meadow beyond the Hickory Lane. What a sight! – the makings of future clouds floating like silver smoke above the wildflowers. A wave of migratory warblers and other small birds had arrived on that night wind. The birders watched, binoculars up, as these travelers hopped busily in the branches, feeding on the plenty of insects attracted by fields full of blooming fall wildflowers. And all of this beauty is gratuitous – unearned, just gifted to us if we just put on our shoes and head out the door! Consider escaping from the busy-ness of life for just an hour this week. Let these beautiful fall days lure you to the parks and savor the gifts that nature so generously offers to all of us.
Watershed Ridge Park offers an adventurous, challenging hike on a hot summer day. No trails exist yet to lead you through Watershed, since it’s not yet developed. But you can park by the evergreen trees just east of the maintenance shed and explore from there (approximately 1664 W. Buell Rd). This park is named for a watershed boundary, a high point within the park, that causes precipitation to flow in two directions, ultimately feeding both Paint Creek and Stony Creek. The diversity of habitats is remarkable. Large areas of the park have agricultural fields that are tilled and planted by a local farmer, which helps keep invasive plants out until the area can be restored to natural habitat.
But once I step out of the farm fields, the magic begins! A forest with vernal pools, a bright meadow, a boggy swamp shaded by trees, a seasonal stream, and a hidden marsh surrounded by a nearly impenetrable circle of native shrubs. So feel free to join me as I walk through some of this wild and wonderful park on a hot summer day.
The Forest and Its Wetlands
I started down the edge of the farmer’s field to the west of the maintenance shed, walking carefully so as not to damage the Fogler’s soybeans. The field was dotted with wildflowers, like Pale-leaved Sunflowers (Helianthus strumosus) which attracted the attention of the Red-spotted Purple (Limenitis arthemis), a butterfly that seems to be plentiful this year!
Once I entered the cooler woods on the north edge of the field, I began to see blue-green wetlands shining in the dim, dappled light.
Oh yes, mosquitoes buzzed, but I patted on more insect repellent and headed for the water, because I knew that’s where I’d see the most wildlife. And sure enough, as I settled on a log near the water, a rustle behind me turned out to be a young White-tailed deer buck (Odocoileus virginianus) peering curiously at me from behind the greenery.
I could hear an Eastern Wood-Peweesinging plaintively in the distance, a nice soundtrack for my entrance into a mysterious forest. A plop! at my feet made me aware of a young Green Frog (Rana clamitans), covered in Duckweed (genus Lemno), who’d been basking on a log just moments before.
Far out in the water, two Twelve-spotted Skimmer dragonflies (Libellula pulchella) chased each other around a fallen willow until one finally settled for a moment. It was too far away for a good shot, so here’s my photo of a male in Bear Creek marsh several years ago.
The forest wetlands were a busy location for courting that afternoon. A pair of Emerald Spreadwing damselflies (Lestes elatus) had evidently mated just before I arrived. Below you can see the female grasping the stem, her abdomen curled inward, preparing to lay eggs on a plant, while the male above keeps a wary eye for predators or other males.
It was hard to see how glamorous these Emerald Spreadwings are in the dim light, so I was pleased when a male landed in the sunlight nearby.
One of the stumps in the wetland was decorated with the wheel-shaped web of an Orb Weaver Spider (family Araneidae). It glowed in a ray of sunlight. According to Wikipedia, “Many orb-weavers build a new web each day. Most orb-weavers tend to be active during the evening hours; they hide for most of the day. Generally, towards evening, the spider will consume the old web, rest for approximately an hour, then spin a new web in the same general location.” Very tidy, eh? That might explain why I never saw the spider and there was virtually no detritus in the web. I’m not sure what to think about the extensive web on the stump below. A practice run?
At the water’s edge, three “conks” of Shelf/Polypore fungi shone white against the tracks in the wood, maybe the feeding galleries of emerald ash borer larvae .
Near another shady vernal pool wetland, I spotted a tiny Wood Frog (Ranasylvatica) gazing toward the water from a small piece of wood. Perhaps it was a fond last look since this little creature will soon move uphill a bit from the forest pool in which it hatched. Finding a place to hibernate under the leaf litter, it will freeze solid until spring. No heartbeat, no breathing, no movement. This seeming miracle is made possible by a glucose anti-freeze of sorts produced by its liver. As regular readers of the blog know, this strategy for survival never fails to astonish me.
As I neared the edge of the woods, where it opens to the meadow, familiar plants were there to greet me. I could have wished for less attention from Enchanter’s Nightshade, (Circaea canadensis) which at this time of the year is producing seed within burr-like fruits. Looking high into the trees, I strayed into a large patch and my socks were covered. For the rest of my walk, I became a transportation vehicle for Enchanter’s Nightshade fruits!
Another forest edge plant, Jumpseed (Persicaria virginiana), spreads its seed in a different way. Once the seed is mature, any disturbance can send its seeds flying up to three yards!
Another native wildflower that hugs the forest edge, Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), is called Spotted Touch-Me-Not for the same reason. Its mature seeds also spring forth from the fruits when they are disturbed.
The Meadow that Slopes Down to the Marsh
Walking out into the hot, moist meadow, I found myself knee deep in dense grasses and flowers. The sunlit field was slashed with long dark shadows from the forest as I waded through the dense growth underfoot. All around me, dragonflies patrolled the flower tops, since the presence of a meadow in which to show off their colors and flying skills and a nearby marsh full of vegetation is their perfect habitat for mating and laying eggs. Widow Skimmers and Meadowhawks (genus Sympetrum) were everywhere. [I suspect the Meadowhawks were Ruby Meadowhawks (Sympetrum rubicundulum) but I’ve learned they can be confused with others unless you capture them and look closely – which I’m not at all interested in doing!)
Tiny butterflies fluttered through the flower stems adding their bit of color to scene. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
A Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus)
A tiny Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos)
As I struggled down toward the marsh, lifting my knees high to get through the lush tangle of stems, I begin to notice the plants near the marsh that love having “wet feet.” Mine, actually, were getting a bit wet, too!
Hearing sharp chipping calls behind me, I turned around to find an adult Song Sparrow (Melospizamelodia) warning its offspring to stay out of sight. This may be a female since they often begin their molt later than males do. The youngster stayed out of sight within a nearby bush.
Adult birds can be a bit scarce in late July and August because many are molting a whole new set of feathers. They’re generally not a pretty sight in the process, I can tell you! They’re not hiding out of vanity, of course; they’re just more vulnerable as wing feathers are replaced. I could hear the “witchety, witchety” call of the Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas)beyond the wall of native Gray Dogwood (Cornus foemina) which prevented me from seeing into the marsh. And a Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) “miaowed” from the Dogwood as well, making only a brief appearance. So I took the bird photos below in other parks at other times.
Ben’s Balancing Act in a Shady Swamp
Swamps are generally defined by ecologists as a forested wetland. Watershed Ridge Park has a beauty. Ben VanderWeide, our township’s Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, put on his waders one afternoon and went to explore this habitat at Watershed Ridge while working on a plant inventory of the park. What an adventure! The water may look shallow, Ben told me later, but the muck beneath it can be very, very deep! To explore the swamp, Ben tested each step and only went into the water once he found firm footing. Otherwise, he stepped or jumped from one hummock to another. Some of the hummocks were made by “windthrows,” fallen trees uprooted by the wind which had become covered by vegetation. Others were made by stumps of trees that had probably been felled years ago and were now overgrown with plant material.
While moving from hummock to hummock, Ben spotted some interesting and unusual native plants. How about Duck Potato (Sagittaria latifolia), also known as Common Arrowhead? I know I’d never heard of that one before! Ducks and other creatures love to eat its submerged tubers which store nutrients for the flower’s regrowth and/or reproduction. And since, we humans love our favorite tuber – potatoes – why not the name Duck Potato?
Ben found another unusual little beauty in the swamp, a Wild Calla (Calla palustris). Wild Calla is the only species in the genus Calla which is within the family Araceae. That family includes what are commonly called Calla Lilies (though they aren’t true lilies or in the Calla genus) and our old friend Jack-in-the-pulpit. It appears that the Wild Calla in Ben’s photo below had already been pollinated because, like Jack-in-the-Pulpit, the flowers are disappearing, replaced by green, berry-like fruits that will turn red in the autumn. Such a find!
Ben also spotted a sedge that he’d never seen in our parks before. Sedges (plants in the family Cyperaceae) are a big family of plants that look like grasses or reeds, but have triangular-shaped stems instead of flat ones. Papyrus and Water Chestnuts are in the same family. What I enjoy about sedges is that they often have such interesting spikes, like the one Ben found, Tuckerman’s Sedge (Carex tuckermanii). It also appears to have finished flowering and started producing fruits.
Along with these rewarding finds in the Watershed swamp, Ben was treated to a snack of High-bush Blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum) as he balanced precariously on top of those floating hummocks!
His treat was only fair, really, since he had to carefully avoid the abundant Poison Sumac(Toxicodendron vernix) scattered through the swamp. While he came home with a small Poison Sumac rash, it was a small price to pay for discovering cool, new plants and wild blueberries as far as Ben was concerned. Poison Sumac takes the form of a shrub or small tree and grows only in very wet places like swamps and bogs. My thanks to Ben for exploring this Watershed habitat. I don’t think I’ll be pulling on my waders anytime soon…but I’m very glad he did!
When sufficient rain falls, a small stream flows out of Watershed’s swamp and finds its way through the woods westward, eventually feeding the marsh I spoke of earlier at the foot of the big meadow. It’s not an impressive stream, but it feeds the plants in the marsh, which brings the insects, which feed the birds…you get the idea. Nature depends on connections like that.
Time to Head Home
By now, my damp feet, my tired knees and my socks decorated with Enchanter’s Nightshade made me aware that it was time to leave. So I trudged back up the meadow, through the dim woods where the Pee-wee still asked its question, “Pee-weee?”, along the Fogler’s soy beans and across the lawn to the cornfield beyond the shed. There a group of young Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) hung out on the cornstalks, moving restlessly like a bunch of rowdy teenagers, while their weary elders probably went on molting while hidden in the bushes and fields nearby.
I was standing next to a large tree stump when a juvenile House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) popped out of the vines that covered it. This young bird was a bit older than the plush-looking little Wren I’d seen at Stony Creek Ravine a few weeks ago. But it was clear that the Watershed wren had still not quite grown into its beak. Surprised at how close I was, it hopped nervously for a moment, looked away, looked back – and popped back into the leafy cover. Caution won out over curiosity.
My Watershed adventure complete, I headed home, content that I’d experienced the natural world in the same way I’d relished it as a child growing up on Lake George Road. Yes, my arm had a few itchy spots here and there, my tired knees felt wobbly and water squished in my shoes – but I’d meandered on paths of my own making, out of sight of other humans, a quiet part of something wild and much older than I – and yet close enough to the kitchen at home that I’d be there in time for dinner. Thanks for coming along.
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: inaturalist.org; Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University; Wikipedia; 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, A Guide to Bird Behavior Vols.1-3 by Donald W and Lillian Q.Stokes, and others as cited in the text.
I’ll admit that when I first visited Gallagher Creek Park, just east of Adams on Silverbell, I didn’t quite get it. It seemed like a rather ordinary, flat piece of land surrounded by a marsh. But luckily, I decided to look more closely and, as usual, the closer I look, the more nature shares with me. I’ve visited the park several times over the last month and each time I appreciate this little park more.
The stream flowing quietly through the grass beneath the viewing platform creates a cool, moist retreat for an abundance of birds and the special native plants that love wet feet. The Old Fields bloom with an astonishing variety of native wildflowers. Insects float and buzz between the blossoms. In short, this little park hosts an amazing variety of wildlife and plants with its combination of marsh, wet meadows and open fields (click here to see a map). Let me show you just a sampling.
Gallagher Creek Itself: A Haven for Birds and Wildflowers
The recently constructed viewing platform (thanks to Eagle Scout Jonathan Walling!) near Gallagher Creek allows visitors to watch the slow ripples of cool water flowing through the grass and trees. This gentle flow creates a soothing retreat that shelters creatures and plants of all kinds. According to three surveys by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Gallagher Creek is home to “one of the few remaining self-sustaining Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) populations in southern Michigan.”
After the last survey, though, they reported that the “gravel riffles and natural pools” had been silted by nearby construction, reducing the population from 300 Brook Trout per mile in 1998 to just 50 per mile in 2010. (See Ben’s blog on this from 2015.) Native plants growing more abundantly at the edges of the park can act as a buffer and filter such sediment. Gallagher Creek runs northeast and enters Paint Creek at the Cider Mill in Goodison. If we want Brook Trout in our township, one way is to protect a cold water stream like Gallagher Creek.
Wetland Wildlife and Plants: A Riparian Corridor and a Marsh
Streams like Gallagher Creek create what’s called a “riparian corridor,” an area where the land meets a stream or river that not only filters and purifies water, but also provides habitat for a wide diversity of plants and wildlife. Antonio Xeira, our birder friend, spotted a most impressive bird near the creek. Here’s his photo of a Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus)who spends its days high up among the leaves of a Willow (probably black willow, Salix nigra)north of the stream. It’s not easy to see so I appreciate Antonio’s shot! See that open eye?
A much smaller visitor among the willows is what I think was a Willowor Alder Flycatcher (Empidonax species) that perched in the shadows to preen. ( It could also be a Eastern Wood-Pewee (Contopus virens), but I’ll leave that for you to decide. They’re very similar.) It was a hot morning and this little bird was very busy dealing with the gnats or mites that can bother birds as much as they can bother us humans this time of year!
The shade near the stream also provided a stopover for a busy House Wren (Troglodytes aedon).
This hard-working adult was foraging for her young in a nearby thicket of native Gray Dogwood (Cornus foemina), which provides lots of cover and a food source for all kinds of birds at Gallagher Creek.
One morning, I approached the thicket to see if I could see the young wren. Immediately, the adult starting her scolding call, chipping incessantly at me, probably both to ward me off and to tell her fledgling to stay back in the trees. I did finally manage to get a shot of the youngster who appeared to still be growing into its beak!
Back in May, Antonio also noticed the burrow of a Crayfish (superfamilies Astacoidea and Parastacoidea), a creature that loves clear, cold water streams. In case you haven’t seen a crayfish, I include a photo of one that I saw in Bear Creek. If you enlarge the photo by clicking on it, you’ll see it’s a female carrying eggs under her tail! Crayfish are daylight creatures who retreat to burrows at night. I can’t say which species is in either photo. We do have one invasive crayfish in Michigan, the Rusty Crayfish (Orconectes rusticus), which fishermen used to use as bait and which have affected populations of our native crayfish.(Hover cursor for captions; click on photo to enlarge.)
Moisture-loving wildflowers in pink, purple, white and yellow bloom among the tall grasses and reeds at the edge of the stream. Here are three native flowers that are easy to spot in the park – Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata), Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis)and Joe Pye (Eutrochium maculatum).
The moist ground even a bit farther out from the stream suits many plants. Tall Sunflowers (Helianthus giganteus)and Water Hemlocks (Cicuta maculata),both natives, prefer to sink their roots in moist earth.
Of course, dragonflies make their home wherever there is water. I saw a mating pair of Ruby Meadowhawks (Sympetrum rubicundulum) making a wheel of their bodies in the wet grass one morning. The female is retrieving sperm from the male’s abdomen where he placed it earlier. And to the right is what I think is another female Ruby Meadowhawk perching near the edge of the stream. Meadowhawk dragonflies (family Libellulidae)are plentiful this time of year and tough to identify, but fascinating to watch as they hunt along the creek.
This thumbnail-sized Skipper butterfly (family Hesperiidae), I’m guessing a Delaware Skipper (Anatrytone logan), paused delicately on a moist leaf as I approached the stream. Isn’t it elegant with its striped legs and antennae, large eyes and deep orange wings?
Gallagher Creek Park also shares an emergent marsh with its neighbors to the east. This thriving area is slowly being cleared of the dreaded invasive, Phragmites (Phragmites australis), which is much too prevalent in the area. It’s an on-going project of Dr. Ben and the Parks and Recreation Commision. How wonderful to see natives like sedges (Carex species) and Joe Pye flourishing as that terrible invasive plant diminishes!
Wildlife and Plants in the Old Fields
In the spring and early summer, our sharp-eyed birding friend, Antonio, found two nests on open ground at Gallagher Creek. I wonder if these eggs hatched since they seem so vulnerable. On the left is a Killdeer’s nest (Charadrius vociferus) from late April. The name, by the way, comes from their call, not from their effect on deer! And on the right is a Spotted Sandpiper‘s nest (Actitis macularius) in early June. Thanks, Antonio!
Now birds whisk in and out of the leafy trees at the perimeter of the Old Field next to the parking lot – many of them juveniles or adults working at feeding them. The “miaou” of a young Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) caught my attention at the edge of the field. And later hearing a “cluck,” I look up to see an American Robin (Turdus migratorius), perhaps a molting female adult or a juvenile losing its spots, perched at the top of a snag.
A Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina) and a male House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) hung out together in the bushes one hot morning.
American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) provide the soundtrack for Gallagher Creek right now. These cheery little birds are one of the few who sing as they fly! With every downward swoop of their undulating flight comes a short burst of song. Here’s a male that settled for a few moments in that Willow, again – a popular place to pause for many of the birds here.
Goldfinches mate in August because their favorite food source is available – thistle seed. So they’re quite happy, I imagine, that non-native Field Thistle (Cirsium arvense) established a large, plumed patch on the western end of the loop path.
We appreciated being greeted by a relaxed Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) when parking at Gallagher Creek one morning. It seemed to be enjoying a bit of morning light after a long night of nibbling.
As Reg and I set out on the path, we were greeted by a sight I’d never seen before. A Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens)hung onto one of the huge non-native stalks of Common Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)in the Old Field. Downies eat both insects and seeds, so I guess it was just varying its diet
Closer to the water, this small bird fluffed its feathers as it settled in a bush. It looks a lot like the Willow Flycatcher but was a little bigger. So I’m guessing this is an Eastern Wood-Peewee (Contopus virens), but I can’t be sure!
Among all the non-native wildflowers, like Queen Anne’s Lace and Spotted Knapweed in the Old Fields, many native wildflowers are increasingly making a home in the Old Fields here. In August of 2014, Dr. Ben did what’s called a floristic survey of Gallagher Creek. Of the 192 species he found on one day there, 131 were native! Today they are more plentiful and healthy because Ben and his summer techs have eliminated many invasive shrubby plants and held repeated prescribed burns here. They plan to increase the native plant habitat in this park by planting native prairie species into the areas that were primarily non-native, invasive plants. The first phase of native plant installation will happen fall 2016, with a second round in 2017. Check out the sign on the west side of the driveway just as you enter the parking lot to learn more details.
In Bear Creek, Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is an occasional plant, but this summer, it grew in large swathes along the paths of the field near the parking lot at Gallagher Creek. Now, after the intense heat, it is turning brown and seeding for next spring’s crop.
Of course, native Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) appears here and there, and is now producing its green, paisley-shaped pods. Along with more common Canada Goldenrod,another native called Grass-leavedGoldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia),flourishes as well. As I reminded readers last summer, Goldenrods do not cause “hay fever.” Their pollen is heavy and drops quickly to the ground. The sneeze-producing culprit that blooms at the same time is the wind-pollinated Ragweed(genus Ambrosia) which you can see if you click on the link.
Common Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis)raises its graceful stems topped by yellow flowers among the grasses to the east of the park. According to the Illinois Wildflower site (one of my faves), these flowers “remain open from evening to early morning, but will remain open longer on cloudy days. They have a mild lemony scent, and bloom from mid-summer to fall on mature plants. Long narrow seedpods develop, which split open from the top to release many tiny, irregular brown seeds. They are small enough to be dispersed by the wind, and can remain viable in the soil after 70 years.” So if we keep caring for the land here, these night-blooming natives should be here for your grandchildren!
Out in the Old Fields, insects are busy in the late summer sun. Carolina Locusts (Dissosteira carolina)spring into flight, their wings making a brown blur at your feet.
A Viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) explored the possibilities of a Queen’s Anne’s Lace bloom one hot morning. Viceroys are distinguished from Monarchs by the bars on their hindwings.
A Common Ringlet (Coenonympha tullia) hovered in the grass below. Ringlets aren’t the most efficient flyers but they are prolific, occurring in Northern Europe, Asia and across North America but not in the southern hemisphere .
Clouded Sulphurs (Colias philodice) have a larger range of flight, feeding on taller plants like the Milkweeds and Coneflowers, but also on alfalfa or clover closer to the ground.
So, this modest little park is actually a rich oasis of native plants and wildlife along an important cold water stream in the midst of the most developed area of our township.
The Parks and Recreation Commission has plans to put a pavilion and perhaps even a play area in Gallagher Creek to make it even more inviting to its neighbors. But right now, if you bring your binoculars and your curiosity to Gallagher Creek as the summer wanes, nature, as always, will reward you with lots of beauty to explore.
Footnote: My sources for information are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991); Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for insect info; http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info; invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman; experienced birder Ruth Glass, bird walk leader at Stoney Creek Metro Park for bird identification; Birds of North America Online; Audubon.org; Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, Trees in My Forest by Bernd Heinrich, Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, Savannah River Ecology Lab (Univ of Georgia); Tortoise Trust website www.tortoisetrust.org; An Orchard Invisible: A Natural History of Seeds by Jonathan Silvertown; The Ecology of Plants by Gurevitch, Scheiner and Fox; other sites as cited in the text.
This week the fierce heat subsided and in its wake, earlier blooms, like the milkweed, dried and began to produce fruit and seed. But late summer wildflowers gloried in the sunshine, lining the paths with dancing color and basking in the dappled sunlight of the woods.
Darners patrolled without pause, zooming across their territories while smaller dragonflies hovered and darted in the sunshine. Young Red-Tailed Hawks soared above and juvenile Northern Flickers explored on their own while some adult birds begin to disappear into bushes and reeds to start their late summer molt before migration.
Wings Below in the Meadows and Marshes: Butterflies Big and Small, Darners, Dragonflies and a Very Cool-Looking Beetle
This week Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies (Papilio glaucus) and Monarchs (Danaus plexippus) chased across the Old Fields looking for nectar. This is a photo from a few years back when a female of both species met for a sip of nectar on a Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare), an invasive plant from Eurasia. Thanks to hard work by the Parks Commission, most of the Bull Thistle is gone from Bear Creek, but the occasional plant crops up from time to time.
By the way, if you see a smaller Monarch-like butterfly with a black bar on the bottom of each hindwing, that’s the Viceroy Butterfly (Limenitis archippus). I was taught that its coloring mimics the Monarch because birds find Monarchs distasteful, if not toxic, so the pattern and color offer protection from predators to the more edible Viceroys. But according to Seven Ponds Nature Center in Dryden, Viceroys are just as distasteful as Monarchs to some predators. So it’s apparently just another warning signal to unwary birds that they won’t like the taste, so stay away! Thanks for the information, Seven Ponds!
I tried, I really tried, to get a photo of a flying Green Darner (Anax junius), who was patrolling about 100 yards of wildflowers on the western side of the sloping path on the southwest side of the park. I had to try because he never stopped zooming back and forth for a full 20 minutes! I could see his green head and thorax and his blue abdomen but the camera (at my skill level…) only saw this. But maybe it conveys just how fast this little creature was moving!
On the edges of paths, among the meadow flowers and at the Playground Pond, a smaller dragonfly poses on a stalk or alights on a railing, the Ruby Meadowhawk (Sympetrum rubicundulum). The four wings of a dragonfly work separately which I imagine explains why the middle of the thorax looks like a complicated set of gears!
Down near the Center Pond, Pearl Crescent butterflies probed a part of the path that was a bit more moist on a hot day. Pearl Crescents emerge in several broods throughout the summer and newly hatched males can gather in groups like this looking for a drink.
By rights, I shouldn’t like this Red Milkweed Beetle (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus) because I’m very fond of Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). But it’s such a cartoon of a bug that I can’t resist it – and so far I haven’t seen many on the milkweed in Bear Creek. Its red and black color is a warning signal to predators that its distasteful, since, like Monarchs and their caterpillars, it feeds on milkweed. So it can afford to be bright and colorful!
Wings Above: a Juvenile Red-Tailed Hawk and a Fledgling Flicker.
High in the air, you may now hear the plaintive, piercing cry of a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk whose parents are tapering off their feedingschedule. Through September, the fledglings screech to express their desire to be fed or perhaps just mimicking the adult scream so beloved of movie-makers, available for listening at this link. The tails of juveniles are not red like their parents; they’ll get those feathers in their second year.
Incidentally, twice on one walk this week, a dark gray Meadow Vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus) dashed across the path in front of me heading for the “runways” they make through tall grass. These small rodents need to run fast! Hawks like this one as well as owls, foxes and even snakes use voles as a food source, keeping their abundant population under control. Here’s a link to a photo since they ran past way too quickly for me to get one! (Best photo is further down the Wikipedia page.)
Though they drum in trees like other woodpeckers, the Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus ) spends most of its time probing the ground for ants, its favorite food. You can spot them easily in flight; they have bright white patches on their rumps. Flickers begin a complete molt sometime during August or September before moving south. While they replace every feather, they are vulnerable and seldom seen.
This week, though, look for a juvenile. See how much thinner this one is than the adult and the soft tuft of down still on his leg?
Wildflowers: Swaths of Lace, A Shy Flower in the Woods, and Arrowheads in the Marsh
If you’ve been to the park, you know ’tis the season of a favorite non-native wildflower, Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota).
Queen Anne’s Lace is the ancestor of our cultivated carrot. It probably came to the US from Europe as a garden flower and though prolific, it co-exists with our other native wildflowers. Lots of insects visit these plants. Here a blossom hosts both an Eastern Tailed-Blue butterfly (Everes comyntas) and a Pennsylvania Leatherwing Soldier Beetle (Chauliognathus pensylvanicus).
This week, along the eastern path, I saw a rare form of Queen Anne’s Lace – one with a pink corolla. I’ve seen pink in Queen Anne’s that are opening, but never one before that was completely pink when open, which the Michigan Flora website says is rare!
Out in the field next to the eastern path, a native plant I’d never noticed before is blooming. Look for the tall purple stalks of Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) swaying in the wind.
In the woods near the southern deck of the marsh, a modest native woodland flower nods its shy head. Fringed Loosestrife (Lysimachia ciliata), a native plant (unlike the invasive Purple Loosestrife) presents simply green leaves and two yellow flowers with their heads bowed.
But when you look underneath to see the blossom’s face, it’s rippled petals and brownish red center are lovely. I’ve never noticed this flower in the woods before. Maybe it’s bloomed because of the prescribed burn in the spring.
And while you’re at the southern deck in the marsh, have a look at how the heat has brought on the fluffy blooms of native Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium maculatum) which were only in bud a week ago.
In the northern part of the marsh, a lovely “wet-footed” native is blooming, Common Arrowhead (Sagittaria latifolia). You can easily see where it got its name in a time when arrowheads were part of everyday life!
A Virtual Visit to the Center Pond
At the Center Pond, the water was clearing, as plant life sinks beneath the surface toward the end of the summer. It occurred to me that a photo and sound track might be a treat for anyone too busy to get to the park. So, if you were sitting on a bench there on a lazy summer afternoon, this is what you might see:
And this is what you might hear. The 30 second recording (Turn up your Volume!) includes, I think, the singing of an American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis), definitely the trilling a Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) at the very end and the occasional banjo sound of a Green Frog (Rana clamitans).
On a nearby log, you’d see a grumpy-looking, but probably content, Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta), eyes closed and all four legs and neck extended basking in the sun. Such a treat for a reptile that can’t produce its own body heat!
Nearby, the incessant scolding of an American Goldfinch could draw you, as it did me, to a nearby tree, where a busy Eastern Gray Squirrel (Ciurus carolinensis) jumped through the branches. The birds must have thought he was looking for their eggs, but Gray Squirrels only do that when nuts and seeds are hard to find – and that’s not the case now in Bear Creek! He was too far up for a good shot but here’s a link to a photo.
And if you wandered down the boardwalk on the eastern edge of the pond , you’d see the results of the work that Ben VanderWeide, our stewardship manager, and his summer crew have done clearing away invasives like Common Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica), Glossy Buckthorn (Frangula alnus), and Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) from that side of the pond. Once the saplings that try to re-sprout are treated, Ben plans to plant some native seeds there. But right now, it’s wonderful to have a clearer view of the pond without all those invasive trees and bushes crowding the shore!
I hope to bring you other “virtual visits” to Bear Creek because I know some of you can’t get to the park as often as I do. But I hope you’ll take the time to spend at least a few hours in Bear Creek while the trees and ponds are still alive with song and wildflowers grace the fields. Slow down and see what a half hour walk can do to make your day a bit more mellow. Treat yourself to a bit of nature.
*Quick footnote: My sources for information, as well as Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991). The viceroy butterfly is not a Batesian mimic; Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net.; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for beetle info and invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman.