I doubt that many of the birders in Tom Korb’s photo above had previously spent over half an hour observing a small group of trees with sheer delight. But of course, these trees at Cranberry Lake Park were decorated with colorful, little spring warblers! The warblers and other migrators had flown in on a south wind the night before and were now hungrily feasting on sweet spring catkins. Most of these tiny birds will rest here and then fly farther north, so there were no territorial or mating squabbles. They were content to just nibble and flutter from limb to limb among their traveling companions as we eagerly watched below.
The same phenomenon occurred at Bear Creek Park the week before. A south wind had helped carry warblers and other small birds over the township and then heavy rain had forced them down out of the skies to settle in the trees around the playground pond.
So here’s a gallery of the photos I was able to catch of these tiny, flitting warblers, and a few bonus birds. For birds that we saw or heard, but were too quick for me, I’ve added two photos taken in previous years and two by gifted local photographers, Joan and Bob Bonin. Thank you to Joan, Bob and Tom! (Click on pause button if more time is needed for captions.)
Summer finally made its appearance all over the woods, meadows, wetlands, and forest edges of Cranberry Lake Park. After a prescribed burn this spring, geraniums and trillium emerged under the huge Shagbark Hickories that line the park’s western edge. Summer birds, including the tiny warblers and other new arrivals, are singing lustily to establish their territories and attract interested females as they begin to build nests. Butterflies are just starting to dance above the greenery in the dry meadows. And the hibernators – like snappers, raccoons and leopard frogs – get back in action after their winter snooze. The transformation from spring to summer has well and truly begun.
Birds and Blooms in the Large Sunny Meadows
Small Yellow Warblers (Setophaga petechia) welcome visitors from the high treetops just north of the parking lot. The male with his chestnut-striped breast sings his “sweet-sweet, I’m a little sweet” song as he darts here and there, frequently out of sight in the greenery. Luckily a female with much fainter stripes ignored me while probing for insects in some smaller trees.
At the edge of the big northern meadow one afternoon, I heard the two buzz call that Ben identified on an earlier birdwalk. As I scanned the bushes with my binoculars, a lovely Blue-Winged Warbler (Vermivora cyanoptera)filled my view. By the time I raised the camera, it was gone. Joan Bonin, a gifted local photographer and birder, kindly offered her stunning photo taken a week later at Port Huron State Recreation Area. Thank you, Joan!
A Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus) made a brief appearance in a small meadow opening at the edge of a forested wetland. Evidently these little birds sing incessantly, especially on warm summer afternoons. In fact, Cornell reports that one determined male “sang 22,197 songs in the 14 hours from just before dawn to evening, singing for 10 of those hours.” I missed both his song and a photo, but another gifted local photographer and birder, Bob Bonin (Joan’s husband), kindly shared his lovely photo taken at the Tawas migration site last year. Thanks to Bob, also!
Steve, a fine birder that I met at Bear Creek Park, commented on the last blog that he’d seen an Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) at Cranberry Lake in the last two weeks. Cornell ornithologists report that all blue birds actually have no blue pigment in their feathers. “Their jewel-like color comes instead from microscopic structures in the feathers that refract and reflect blue light, much like the airborne particles that cause the sky to look blue.” Since Steve saw the bird and I didn’t, here’s that bright little piece of sky in another beautiful shot by Bob Bonin.
Butterflies dance across nearly every sunny or dappled area of Cranberry Lake. In a shady corner near the northern meadow, an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail(Papilio glaucus) paused for just a moment before sailing high into the treetops and away. The band of blue spots at the bottom of the hindwing (plus the orange center spots) marks this one as a female.
A smaller, but equally striking butterfly, the American Copper, sampled the blossoms of Common Blackberry bushes (Rubus allagheniensis) that have multiplied mightily since the recent burn.
According to Wikipedia, the male Coppers set up “small territories which they will defend vigorously against rival males or indeed any unlucky passing insect. Even the shadow of a large bird passing overhead is enough to elicit a response.”
It’s clear where this medium-sized [edit: My memory failed me. It’s actually very small!] butterfly got its name, eh?
This female Eastern Tailed-Blue butterfly(Cupido comyntas) doesn’t wear the beautiful blue that her mate flashes when he flies. But you can still see a bit of blue in her modest gray. These medium-sized butterflies almost disappear when they land and fold their wings, which are light gray underneath.
Along the Hickory Lane, More Bird Song and Early Summer Blossoms
On an early bird walk, a Brown Thrasher (Toxostoma rufum) belted out its complex mimicry song from the top of a tree on the Hickory Lane. If you enjoy the Gray Catbird’s mix of other birds’ calls and the odd noise, you’ll love (as I do) the crazy mix of continuous loud song from the thrasher. That morning he was too high up for a good photo. Fortunately a few days later, a tired thrasher, preparing for sleep on a cool spring evening at Gallagher Park, struck a pose for me.
Along the lane, a tiny mimic (listen to the second recording at this link), the Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea), busily fluttered and hopped about a tree trunk foraging for insects. How I’d love to see their nest! Cornell Lab says they “use spiderweb and lichens to build small, neat nests, which sit on top of branches and look like tree knots.”
On a later visit, a male House Wren (Troglodytes aedon), bubbled with spring song. Despite their diminutive size, wrens can be fierce in asserting ownership over a preferred nesting hole, even dragging out eggs of other birds or pecking larger adult birds. Wrens need to maintain a narrow range of temperature for their eggs to hatch which might explain their fierceness over nesting sites. Perhaps this male’s insistent song was just a first salvo in the competition.
In the area between the Hickory Lane and the large marsh to the east, a strange upward sliding call made my husband and I stop and listen one afternoon. We never saw the singing male, but we did spot the female Swainson’s Thrush (Catharus ustulatus), that I originally thought was a robin from its stance. Sorry for the slight blur of a quick photo.
Below these avian songsters, early summer blossoms came burgeoning forth after a recent prescribed burn. The lane was filled on both sides with the Wild Geraniums (Geranium maculatum) you see at the top of this blog. A small white plume poked through leaves of what Ben tells me is either red or white Baneberry (g. Actaea). The actual baneberries that form later are highly toxic, so please don’t eat them! (They’re very bitter so you wouldn’t like them, but children might be tempted because they’re very colorful and shiny.)
Two varieties of the same flower also bloomed on the lane. Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biforum) produces its blossoms beneath the stem and its leaves are smooth below, unlike a nearly identical plant, Downy Solomon’s Seal(Polygonatum pubescens) that has fuzz on the underside of the leaves.
False Solomon’s Seal (Maianthemum racemosum), on the other hand, produces its flowers on a stem that stands above the leaves. Odd name. Perhaps the name was given by someone fooled into thinking at first that it was Solomon’s Seal? Who knows….
Early Summer in the Shadowy Wetlands near Cranberry Lake
Cranberry Lake has a wonderful collection of vernal pools and woodland ponds as well as the lake itself. I’ve come to love these areas because they are always rich with wildlife, especially birds!
I heard the easily-identified “witchedy, witchedy” call of one of my favorite small migrators, the black-masked Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas). He was in a favorite location, in low bushes near a wetland. I never got to see the ones that I heard repeatedly at Cranberry Lake, but I saw this one the following week at Charles Ilsley Park.
In a forested pool, a Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) had draped its head over the edge of a log, evidently eating plants below. At first, I thought it had been beheaded somehow! But on hearing me crunching in the twigs, it lifted its pointed snout into the air, quickly slid backwards into the water and disappeared. So all I got was this odd, headless shot.
A few minutes later, a male Common Grackle’s (Quiscalus quiscula) iridescent head shone in a ray of sunlight on the same log. Clearly frustrated at finding nothing to eat beneath it, he tossed that irritating, useless chunk of bark into the water.
One of summer’s pleasures is being escorted along a trail by dragonflies and damselflies – and then I managed to shoot one swooping over the water when I reached at Cranberry Lake. Perhaps a mating flight?
In April, lovely little blossoms with pink scallops and ruffled edges emerged on the native Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) near Cranberry Lake. A few weeks later, the fruit was beginning to form. I hope birds, animals and we humans leave some berries uneaten so it keeps spreading!
When I reached Cranberry Lake, I found two Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) standing on a sandbar near the shore. One of them “gave me the eye” between the old stems of purple loosestrife.
On the way back up the trail from the lake one morning, Ben spotted a weary raccoon who appeared to have made a hasty bed in the fork of a tree after a night of foraging. It opened one eye as we birders peered from below.
On the edge of the path heading toward one of the large meadows, I heard the snoring rattle of the Leopard Frog’s song coming from a nearby wetland. And then, oops! – one appeared right in the path between two wet areas. Nice to have frog song along with bird song on a summer walk!
Nature by Ear as Well as by Eye
To truly savor the pleasures of nature in early summer requires tuning my ears as well as opening my eyes. Though I’m just learning bird songs and frog songs, every time I identify a voice in nature’s chorus, I feel more connected, more embedded in the natural world. Listening, as well as careful, patient watching, begins to turn a green landscape into an intricately woven tapestry of life in which we humans are just one colorful thread.
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3; Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; other sites as cited in the text.
In the spring, when the leafing trees are full of warblers, it sure helps to have a birding group like our Wednesday Morning Bird Walks to provide trained ears and 14 eyes (or so) instead of just my 2! Migrating birds ride south winds into our parks on their way north, with most birds moving through in April and May. These temporary guests are small and move quickly about in brush or high in the trees. Some birders, like Ben and our fellow birders, Antonio and Mark, can tell us which birds we’re hearing or they spot small movements in the treetops and show us where to point our binoculars.
In the last two weeks, I went looking for warblers and other avian visitors at Cranberry Lake and Charles Ilsley Parks. Some are just passing through, some spending the summer.
As an amateur photographer, it’s a challenge to get decent pictures of these tiny, fast-moving bird guests, so please, click on red links in this blog to see, or in some cases hear, birds that eluded my camera. They’re beautifully diverse. Who knows? Maybe you’ll recognize them in your yard or on your next walk.
Warblers and Others Just Passing Through
According to Wikipedia, English-speaking Europeans refer to their warblers, sparrows, and other small birds as “LBJ’s, ” meaning “little brown jobs.” I used to ignore our “LBJ’s” thinking they were “just sparrows.” Turns out, sparrows can be beautiful too! And our warblers here in North America come in all sorts of subtle colors, especially in the spring when they’re dressed for courting. Here’s a beautiful Chestnut-sided Warbler (Setophaga pensylvanica) that the birding group saw at Cranberry Lake Park.
During the winter, this little male hung out with tropical warblers in the Caribbean or Central America. After traveling so far, it’s no wonder he needed to stock up on food and rest on his way to breeding grounds farther north.
We spotted the Northern Parulawarbler (Setophaga americana), but it just wouldn’t come out for my camera. Even Cornell Lab’s photo doesn’t do it justice, because its gray is much bluer in morning light and its back has a green patch – plus those rusty stripes on a golden throat! (Look at “Field Marks” lower on the page for a better shot.) No LBJ, I’d say!
For a bit of warm sunshine on a gray day, listen for the Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia). The male’s quick song ,recorded at Cranberry Lake Park by Antonio Xeira and posted on the Xeno-Cantu site, sounds to some folks like a repetition of “Sweet, sweet, I’m a little sweet!” – very appropriate for this bright yellow bird with a rusty-striped breast. Yellow warblers can be found in wetlands in our parks throughout the summer.
The Nashville Warbler (Oreothlypis ruficapilla) isn’t quite as glamorous but it’s definitely not an LBJ. These small birds with their eye rings, gray backs and yellow breasts travel north to pine forests where they make their nests out of moss, bark and pine needles, or sometimes, according to the Cornell Lab, even porcupine quills! Here’s a photo I took of one at Bear Creek last fall.
The modest Tennessee Warbler (Oreothlypis peregrina) looks much more subdued. Both were named for the place they were first sighted and both stopped at Cranberry Lake Park this spring.
Ben heard or saw some other warblers in the two parks that I haven’t seen this spring. Have a look at the Blue-winged Warbler(Vermivora cyanoptera), seen at both Cranberry Lake and Ilsley Parks, whose wings look gray in some light (as in the photo) and blue/gray at other times. Or the Black-throated Green Warbler,an olive-green bird with a black throat and black stripes down the side of its breast. Ben always identifies this warbler by its buzzing call, which some folks describe as “zoo-zee, zoo,zoo, zee.” Listen here for the insect-like call (middle of page under “Typical Voice.”). The Magnolia Warbler (Setophaga magnolia), with its bright yellow head and black-striped breast, also stopped by Cranberry Lake Park. Isn’t it great that our parks provide food and rest for these little travelers ?
Even our sparrow visitors are not just LBJ’s! Have a look at the boldly striped cap of this White-crowned Sparrow(Zonotrichia leucophrys)at Charles Ilsley Park. In the second photo, he’s munching off dandelion seeds. See, those puffs in your lawn are food to some of our avian visitors!
Guests That Spend the Summer With Us
The parks are filling, as well, with migrating birds that come to our parks to nest and raise their young. One of the smallest (and hardest to photograph) is one that I think should be called “The Bandit Bird.” But unfortunately, this warbler’s name is the Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas), another bright yellow bird, but this little bird has a black mask across its eyes. Like any good bandit, the Yellowthroat skulks in tangled vines and branches often near marshy areas. The males, though, give their presence away with a very distinctive call of “Witchety, witchety, witchety” as heard here in Antonio’s recording. (Click on images to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Some larger summer guests have arrived in the parks, as well. We saw an Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) at Cranberry Lake but it was down in the grass near the parking lot – so here’s a previous spring’s photo from Bear Creek.
Ben and some other birders saw a Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea)at Cranberry Lake before I arrived – drat! But here’s a photo from a previous spring at Bear Creek. This beautiful bird traveled all the way from South America just to raise young here in Oakland Township.
The nesting boxes are busy at Charles Ilsley Park. Here a Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor) stands guard at one of them.
Nearby, its Eastern Bluebird neighbor, who may have stuck around all winter or arrived much earlier in the year, was out plucking what looks like a caterpillar from a plant and delivering to his presumably nesting mate.
The glorious Baltimore Orioles were in both parks that I visited. The male’s pure, high whistle can be heard high in the treetops as he and his mate search for a spot, usually near water, to weave its bag-like nest that will rock its young in the wind.
Time and Migration Wait for No Man…or Woman Either!
The rolling slopes of Ilsley Park, with its golden dandelion-strewn paths, await! If you can spare the time, join the Wednesday morning bird walks listed under the Stewardship Events tab above. Ben will provide binoculars and his expertise and the easy-going birders will welcome you. So will the glorious avian visitors either enjoying a little R&R before moving on or settling in to raise a family. But many of the warblers will only be here a few more days. So come have a look!
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.