October is autumn’s transition month. Some days are warm and sunny, creating almost an illusion of late summer or early September. And on those days, a few bees and butterflies flutter across my path, caterpillars bump along through the grass and native wildflowers still bloom in the fields. A turtle in the Draper marsh basks in the thinning light.
Change is in the air. Let’s look back to see what October had to offer as we take the first cold, rainy steps into the austerity of November.
Early October: Late Season Wildflowers Host the Occasional Bee or Butterfly
One Sunday afternoon in October, a Common Buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia) fluttered down onto the trail right in front of my husband and I. In the summer, Draper Twin Lake Park hosts a rainbow of butterflies. Some mate, lay their eggs and expire, leaving caterpillars behind in their chrysalises. But this colorful little butterfly migrates south for the winter and returns in the spring. Perhaps it stopped at Draper to sample the various goldenrods, since it prefers yellow flowers. Can you see the slightly bug-eyed expression on its face? I laughed to think it was as surprised to see my husband and I as we were to see it land right in front of us!
Late October: Swaying, Russet Prairie Plants Provide a Fall Feast for Wildlife
The video above may look like a sea of dry brown stems to you. But to the birds, particularly the American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis), it looks like your heavily laden Thanksgiving table. In just the video’s 40 seconds, you are seeing hundreds of thousands of seeds: Indian Grass, Coneflowers, Black-eyed Susans, Stiff Goldenrod, Little Bluestem and many more. On the August birdwalk, we spent a happy ten minutes or so watching a flock of goldfinches swaying on bobbing stalks as they stuffed themselves with Stiff Goldenrod seed (Solidago rigida). First there were two and then suddenly there were five all scrabbling to feed on the abundant seed heads.
Relishing Autumn’s Transformation
The Draper prairie with its great looping trail really may look dry, brown and lifeless to some hikers. But not to me. At this time of year, I feel a lot like Ratty, a “country gentleman” sort of muskrat in the children’s classic Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame, a book I quoted in an earlier blog. Like me, Ratty senses the restlessness of autumn. He heads out into a farmer’s field, much as I waded out into the tall grass of Draper’s northern prairie: “…he thrust into the great realm of wheat, yellow, wavy, and murmurous, full of quiet motion and small whisperings. Here he often loved to wander through the forest of stiff strong stalks that carried their own golden sky away over his head — a sky that was always dancing, shimmering, softly talking; or swaying strongly to the passing wnd and recovering itself with a toss and a merry laugh. Here, too, he had many small friends, a society complete in itself…”
Ratty is a kindred spirit. Autumn also plunges me into the bending and tossing grasses and the whispering of dry stems where I can stand shoulder deep in the prairie and just “be” with it all. Like him, I sense a community of other creatures in the flocks of fidgety birds, the agitated butterflies searching for the last bloom, the relentless plodding of a caterpillar through the grass stems. Autumn’s restlessness urges me to celebrate the change, change and change again of every season. I appreciate that reminder.
Do me a favor, would you? Imagine standing in front of a huge meadow full of tall grass and wildflowers dancing in a soft breeze. You can hear crickets and cicadas singing in the deep grass. Now turn your computer’s volume to about half and click on the arrow in the image below. (You’ll hear a little of the wind in the microphone.)
There! That’s a bit of what it’s been like at Charles Ilsley Park in the last few glorious weeks of August. Goldfinches sing as they swoop in their roller coaster flights across the fields that are burnished with goldenrod. Butterflies, with golden wings fluttering, sip sweet nectar from the giant thistles. And all of this gilded beauty is backed by the sounds of a summer breeze sighing in your ear and the buzz of cicadas and crickets. That’s about as close to pure glory as my life affords.
The Glow Began in July…
Let’s just say the Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) got magnificently carried away in the central meadow at Ilsley. Perhaps the contractor who planted wild seed last year had a wee bit too much of them in the mix? But I didn’t hear anyone complain when the meadow was literally blanketed in black and gold. By early August, they had browned, leaving behind seeds that will provide nourishment for migrators and winter birds.
Nature Comes Back with a Second Wave of Gold
In their place, though not quite as abundant, came a close relative, the buttery yellow Brown-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia triloba). Instead of a single flower on each stem like their black-eyed cousins, these Susans produce branching stems with profuse, but smaller blossoms which create a similar sunny effect.
Of course, August always brings waves of different Goldenrods to keep the gold coming in late summer. Right now, I commonly see three different ones: the cascades of Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), Stiff Goldenrod (Solidago rigida) with its ramrod stems lined with clinging oval leaves and bouquet-like sprays of Grass-leaved Goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia) which is from a different genus of the Aster family. Later in the month, we’ll begin to see the upright, lemon yellow plumes of Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) doing its part to keep the fields golden right into September. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
A stately plume of Canada Goldenrod
Stiff Goldenrod (Solidago rigida) with its fancy stalk lined with oval leaves
Grass-leaved goldenrod is really an aster, despite its common name.
Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa)
The Gray-headed/Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) add their droopy charm to the fields too, though their best days are behind them for this season. And the tall spikes of Common Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis) are topped by gold blossoms that stay open from evening until early morning, and later on cloudy days as well.
I love how native plants host so many insects in an era when the insect world is suffering from plunging numbers all over the planet. Here two False Sunflowers (Heliopsis helianthoides) standing next to each other hosted a Soldier Beetle (Cantharidae family) and the nymph of a Katydid (Tettigoniida family). Have a closer look at the amazing length of the katydid’s antennae by clicking on the right photo. One of the ways you can tell a grasshopper from a katydid is that grasshoppers have much shorter antennae than the very long, fine ones you’ll see on the nymph below.
Out in the far west of the park at the edge of the woods, a tall, striking, yellow flower with very unusual blossoms caught my eye. Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Stewardship Manager, identified it for me as Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) – and indeed, its flat stem had narrow “wings” on either side. Wingstem flower heads cluster at the top of the 3′-8′ stem. Each bloom is actually a flower within a ring of flowers. The “disc florets” in this plant are the tube-shaped flowers that thrust outward from the center of the flower head. What looks like a ring of petals around the central disc is actually a ring of “ray florets” and each of them is an individual flower that has the ability to produce its own seed. In botany, “florets” are individual flowers within a flower head, whereas what we see as individual petals on ray flowers are really three petals fused together. And how about those curly little stigmas that we see whimsically protruding from the ends of the disc florets! What a fun wildflower!
Wingstem has a limited distribution in Michigan, so we’re lucky to have them. These Charles Ilsley Park plants grew from seeds that Ben collected at the township’s Blue Heron Environmental Area, which was the only place he’s seen them in the township. It’s exciting to know that the seeds Ben planted at Ilsley have taken hold, so that we now have two parks in which this unusual native plant has found a home.
Birds Matching the Black and Gold Landscape
Let’s Start with A Goldfinch Saga!
American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) – Unlike most other birds, Goldfinches start mating around mid- to late-July when the thistles bloom, which is a source for both nesting material and food for them. Once the first broods fledge in early August, most Goldfinches mate a second time.
On August 9, Mike and Joan Kent, birding friends, took a walk at Ilsley and spotted a nest in a thistle. Joan peeked in and saw 3 eggs. They noticed a lot of Goldfinches nearby and assumed it was probably the nest of one of them. And that was that, until…
On our Wednesday bird walk on August 21, Vinnie Morganti, another member of our bird group, spotted the same nest located within the thorny stems of a tall Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare). A Goldfinch’s cup nest is woven from plants and root fibers and lashed to a bush or plant with spider silk. Then it’s lined with thistle down which makes it close to waterproof inside. A small masterpiece. This pair chose a location which probably deterred predators, though it may have been a bit hard on the parents’ wings while feeding!
Peeking into the nest, I discovered 4 baby birds. Fellow birder, Tom Korb, got a photo of the blind and slightly fuzzy hatchlings by valiantly sticking his cellphone into the thistle above them. Tom and I decided to share monitoring these little birds until they fledged and report our findings to Cornell’s Nestwatch , a citizen science site we use for our township nest boxes.
We bird monitors are trained not to go to a nest more often than every 3 – 5 days. So when I returned to the park the following day, I stood far off looking through a long lens. Imagine my delight when I saw one little head popping up above the nest! I don’t know if it could see the meadow yet. Perhaps it was just enjoying the breeze ruffling its Einstein hairdo!
I came back to monitor on August 24 hoping to get a photo inside the nest despite the thistle’s thorns. I’d brought along the fancy, black leather gloves my mother had given me years ago to wear to the theater – but here I was using them to reach inside a thistle! I could picture my mom laughing and shaking her head – but the gloves worked beautifully! In the photo, I could see the opened eye of at least one little nestling, though the rest were snoozing in their sturdy nest cup. It appeared that the beige tips of feathers might be emerging from their dark sheaths. We think now that they were about a week old in this photo. They’d come a long way from those blind babies in just 3 days!
At our August 28 bird walk in another park, Mike Kent told us about his wife seeing the nest at Charles Ilsley Park on August 9. Good news for us monitors, because that allowed us to use the guidelines on the Nestwatch site to estimate the age of the Goldfinch hatchlings more accurately. After the bird walk, I accompanied Tom on his monitoring trip to the Ilsley nest. What a change! Little heads peered up over the nest edge – eyes and beaks open. According to the Donald W. Stokes’ Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.1), during their first week after hatching, Goldfinch nestlings are quiet but will silently reach up for food if the edge of the nest is tapped. In the second week, these nestlings begin making a lot of noise – but wisely only do so when a parent arrives with food. Tom got a great photo of the bright red mouth of a begging, but silent, youngster!
That day, all the nestlings, now about 11 days old, looked bright and alert, peeking out into the world and fully feathered. The Stokes Guide explained that those white blobs on the nest are fecal sacs, the avian equivalent of soiled diapers. Goldfinch nestlings are quite fastidious. The first week after the young hatch, adults carry the waste sacs away from the nest. But starting in the second week, little goldfinches back up to the edge of the nest and drop these little packages over the side!
My last turn at monitoring the nest was on August 31 – and the nest was empty. The nestlings had become fledglings. Our estimate is that they fledged on their 12th or 13th day after hatching. The nest was remarkably clean inside (if not outside) which might have meant a healthier, more comfortable environment for the nestlings.
I could hear a fledgling begging far off in a stand of thistle and through my binoculars, I thought I saw a couple of small birds fluttering among the stems. A female flew in among the thistle, perhaps feeding “our” fledglings from her second brood. A male seemed to be on sentinel duty nearby before he flew off to gather more seed. Off into the world for our Goldfinch fledglings! And the end of our nesting saga.
Hard-working Goldfinch Adults
While the females incubate a second brood, male Goldfinches are on their own in feeding the first brood – which can be as many as seven fledglings, according to Cornell’s nestwatch.org! Begging calls of first brood youngsters could be heard a week ago as young fledglings pursued their harried parents around the park or called from the treelines to be found. This little Goldfinch fledgling seemed a bit more mellow than the rest.
The Goldfinches’ primary food source is thistle seed so I’ve seen males all over the fields with thistle down (pappus) hanging from their beaks. They dig industriously into the seedhead, pull out the down, carefully nibble off the seeds and then let the down fly. Stokes informed me that they feed partially digested seed to their young, as they also do for the mate during her first week on the nest. Quite a responsibility!
More Gold and Black Birds!
In a bush in the far west meadow, I saw a flash of yellow and took a quick couple of shots as a bird perched for a moment and then flew. I wasn’t sure what I’d seen. Local birding expert, Ruth Glass, identified it as a female Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula.) She told me that by now most of our summer orioles have left for Central or South America with their young, so the one I saw was likely a migrator from further north.
The birding group saw other birds sporting lovely yellow trim. A trio of Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) perched far above in a bare tree. Through binoculars, two clearly had the yellow bellies and yellow tail bands that identify this handsome bird. Juveniles have a fainter black mask and some brown streaking on the breast, but in this distant photo against a gray sky, it’s hard to tell if any of them were juveniles or adults .
Ruth Glass also helped me identify a strange looking dark bird that mystified me. She said she was “95% sure” it was a male Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) molting from his brilliant blue breeding colors into his mostly brown non-breeding colors which are similar to the female Bunting. This mottled look is common for males during the molt. I would never have guessed! Thank you, Ruth!
Some large dark brown birds also added contrast to all the gold around them. A trio of Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) rested on a broken snag near the edge of the center field. Through the trees on my way into the park, I saw one of them spreading its magnificent wings to the sunlight. They do this to warm them, stretch them, or to expose any bacteria on them to air and light.
Around the corner, two other vultures perched on a broken snag. This one made me smile, because it looked as though it was appealing for a little sympathy. I’m afraid vultures don’t get much appreciation, though I think their soaring flight is graceful and the cleanup services they provide are crucial. Really, though, the bird was just preparing to preen.
The first vulture suddenly flew straight up in the air and landed rather awkwardly on a branch that was much too short. It fluttered clumsily right, then left, until it finally found its footing. Is it my imagination or are the other two a bit embarrassed by the graceless landing skills of their compatriot? Probably, my imagination…. (Tap arrow to play and to pause for reading captions.)
Butterflies Complement the Color Scheme
This August the huge, dramatic Giant Swallowtail butteflies (Papilio cresphontes) arrived in Charles Ilsley Park in large numbers. One afternoon about two weeks ago, perhaps a dozen of them landed delicately on the large purple blooms of Bull Thistle, or hovered in front of them, extending their long proboscises to sip while avoiding the thorns. I don’t know if this thistle is a favorite plant for these big butterflies or if they were just the biggest blooms with the most nectar when they arrived. They chased each other over the fields, creating a shimmer of gold and black all over the central meadow.
You’ll note that the one above has a few missing pieces on its wings and that the black edges look a bit worn. I compared the very tattered dorsal (upper) side of one I saw on thistle at Charles Ilsley Park in late August with the fine specimen I saw on Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa) at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park in late July a couple of years ago. I wondered if the difference in wear and tear was due to feeding among thorny thistles or perhaps just the normal battering big wings take after an extra month of foraging and mating. I’m guessing a bit of both.
These dramatic swallowtails have expanded their range further north since about 2001 when first frosts became more uncommon in September – perhaps an effect of global warming. They lay their eggs on plants that will act as hosts for their larvae, which includes two of our abundant natives, Swamp Milkweed and the Solidago genus of Goldenrods.
The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) made its elegant contribution to the black-and-gold meadows. These high-flyers raise 2-3 broods each summer. Their caterpillars spin a remarkable chrysalis that matches dead wood very closely. It’s held in place by a thin string of silk on one end of the chrysalis and a silk pad at the other. That’s where the caterpillar spends the winter. There’s a remarkable photo of a Tiger Swallowtail’s chrysalis at the bottom of this Wikipedia page. Be sure to click on it to enlarge so you can tell where the bark ends and the chrysalis begins! My photo below shows the tiny hairs on the swallowtail’s wings – the closest my camera has ever come to a Tiger Swallowtail, I think.
Three small Lepidopterans played a role in the color scheme. Like the members of the Swallowtail family (Papilio), a female Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) found Bull Thistle a good choice for nectar in this transition time just before the Goldenrods reach their full glory and other fall asters emerge. I admit I appreciate the non-native Bull Thistles more this year, having seen how much sustenance they’re providing after a torrid July brought an earlier end to the bloom of so many wildflowers. A Clouded Sulphur (Colias philodice) paused on the drying leaves of a Queen Anne’s Lace. I’ve wanted to see a chrysalis of these small butterflies ever since I read it described as “yellow with a pink zipper”! No luck yet. And the Ctenucha Moth (Erebidae family) did a fine job of contrasting its black wings with the yellow Grass-leaved Goldrod.
Just like other swallowtails, the Black Swallowtail makes the most of bull thistles that thrived this year.
A Clouded Sulphur has black bands on the dorsal side of its wings.
A Ctenucha Moth on Grass-leaved Goldenrod
So much gold! And I didn’t even include the gold and black bumblebees, wasps and honey bees foraging among this late summer landscape! Such riches, eh?
Late Summer Serenity
Sometimes life does come full circle. Standing at the edge of the meadows at Charles Ilsley Park with sunlight falling on a fluttering, buzzing, golden landscape, I could feel the deep sense of calm and quiet that I relished in our township in my childhood. On just such a morning then, I would stand on the sturdy limbs of a rugged old tree overlooking a wild pond or spread my blanket in the short grass near the shore and breathe in the comforting scent of warm earth and grass. I feel so fortunate as an older woman to still experience that certainty of being part of something big and beautiful that nature offers all of us if we take the time. I wish that for you, too.
Postcript: Watch for More Ilsley Photos!
Of course, Charles Ilsley Park offered me much more than gold and black in its rich diversity: a wet spot in a field suddenly blooming with red and blue wildflowers, a fuzzy brown House Finch fledgling peeking through the greenery, lavender blossoms emerging from the seedbank where a moist swale was restored, a dramatic Darner dragonfly decorated in a pattern of blue and green and more. So rather than extend this blog, I’ll create a shorter photo blog later this week to fill in the rest of the color palette at Charles Ilsley Park. Hope you can drop by!
Great news! Reports from the Monarch Butterfly wintering grounds in Mexico say that this will be another good year for Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus) in our area! Monarchs of the Midwest and Northeast count on us to provide a big pulse of wildflowers with nectar to sip and lots of Milkweeds (genus Asclepias) on which to lay their eggs. Monarchs are very choosy! Their caterpillars can only become butterflies by eating the leaves of plants in the Milkweed family.
In February, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township stewardship manager, hosted an interesting and thorough presentation by Dr. Nate Haan of Michigan State University on the topic “Monarch Butterfly Ecology and Conservation.” So here’s a bit of what he shared with us that might help you and I be prepared for the arrival of these beautiful pollinators. My thanks to Dr. Haan for his presentation and to the photographers cited in the captions of some photos below for helping me tell the amazing story of our “super generation” of Monarchs.
The Life of a Monarch from Egg to Adult
One end of the Monarch migration starts each late summer/ autumn here in Michigan and other Midwest and Northeastern states. Monarchs that traveled here in spring sip wildflower nectar, mate and lay eggs on the underside of milkweed leaves. Their favorite milkweed is Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), though any milkweed in the Asclepias species will do. More about that later.
Only about 2-10% of the Monarch eggs hatch in the fields, because they are food for a wide variety insects and spiders. But for the lucky few, small caterpillars emerge from these eggs. They begin by eating the egg itself and then going on to eat the leaves of the host milkweed plant. Milkweed has tiny silver hairs as a protection against predators, but over the eons Monarch caterpillars have learned to shave them off! They then attach their hind end to the leaf and move in a half circle eating, which prevents most of them from getting stuck in the milky latex that gives milkweed its name. Then the little caterpillar molts, shedding its exoskeleton to become an increasingly more colorful and larger caterpillar. It takes them five molts to reach full size.
The sticky, milky latex is the plant’s second defense against predators, because it can gum up a caterpillar’s mouth. But the fifth and last molt of the Monarch caterpillar has found an even more effective way to defuse the threat than the first instar did. The large yellow and black fifth instar’s technique is to make a quick bite into the main vein of the leaf, releasing pressure and waiting until the liquid drains out. Then they can continue to eat anywhere on the leaf. Here’s my photo of a fifth instar eating Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) along the Paint Creek Trail.
It takes 10-14 days for the caterpillar to complete 5 molts. It then leaves the milkweed behind, finds a horizontal surface, attaches itself with a silk pad and molts again. This time the caterpillar creates an opaque green chrysalis with gold trim! The chrysalis hardens after a short time and the butterfly begins to develop inside. This pupal stage lasts for another 10-14 days.
Finally, the chrysalis becomes transparent and the the butterfly emerges to dry its wings before taking flight.
The Super Powers of our Monarch “Super Generation”
The Monarchs fluttering over our parks in August and September are gifted with two super powers: they live much longer than other Monarchs, and they can fly over 3000 miles to overwinter in Mexico. I’ve cited this quote from National Geographic before in discussing monarchs but it bears repeating. According to Dr. Pablo Jaramillo-López, a research scientist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico “…when fall rolls around …, a special ‘super generation’ of monarchs that can live up to eight months will make use of air currents to wing all the way back to Mexico—a seemingly impossible feat for such a delicate-looking insect.”
It can take up to two months for our Monarchs to reach the mountains of central Mexico. They spend the winter there, protected by the micro-climate created by Oyamel, or “Sacred” Fir trees (Abies religiosa).
In the spring, our “super generation” monarchs then start the journey back to Michigan by flying as far north as Texas. After mating and laying eggs there, they die, and their offspring carry on the migration north. It takes four or five generations of Monarchs along the way, each living only 5-7 weeks (instead of 8 months!) for the last of our super-generation’s offspring to land with such exquisite delicacy on the wildflowers in our parks. As Dr. Pablo Jaramillo-López says in National Geographic, “This makes the migrating monarchs so unique as they are the same species but for some reason live much longer.”
The Threats that Monarchs Face
Monarch numbers go up and down but sadly, over the last two decades the trend is generally downward as you can see above. So what’s the problem? As usual, there are multiple factors. Dr. Haan named five:
Logging in their overwintering area in Mexico makes surviving in the mountains more difficult. The Mexican government and non-governmental organizations are working on finding sustainable projects that can support local economic alternatives for people living in the Monarch’s wintering grounds.
Less wildflowers and more agricultural crops in the Great Plains and Midwest states. This leaves less nectar resources to feed the Monarchs and fewer milkweed stems on which to lay eggs for successive generations. Some farmers are changing their approach to their grazing and crop land to accommodate the Monarch’s need for milkweed.
According to the Monarch Joint Venture website, OE (Ophryocystis elektroscirrha), a parasite can get on the wings of adult Monarchs, who then spread this parasite on the milkweed leaves when they mate or lay eggs. If caterpillars eat the leaves, they become infected with the pathogen that can cause a developing Monarch’s wings to be too weak to get out of its chrysalis and may shorten the lives of adult Monarchs. Tropical forms of milkweed sold by nurseries tend to be associated with this parasite and they should be avoided. Dr. Haan reported also that Monarchs bred from more tropical areas, like Florida, may carry OE, too.
Insecticides used on garden plants can be lethal to butterflies, as well as other beneficial insects. Perhaps the greatest problem is milkweed loss in the Midwest, which is the core breeding habitat for Monarchs. Milkweed used to be much more common around and on farms.
In the late 1990’s many farmers turned to Roundup Ready genetically modified seeds which makes their crops resistant to Roundup. This allows farmers to spray Roundup on their crops, which kills milkweed along with other unwanted plants without hurting their crops. As a result, Dr. Haan said, scientists estimate that 40% of the milkweed needed by Monarchs, is gone, maybe a billion stems in the last 20 years, which coincides with the decline in Monarch populations.
So How Do We Help Our Friendly Local Monarchs?
Well, we can use less insecticide and when we do use it, follow directions carefully. We can avoid growing non-native milkweeds that carry the parasite OE. We can plant milkweed to support developing caterpillars and nectar-producing native flowers to feed the adult Monarchs. Coneflowers, asters and goldenrods, and many other prairie flowers that prefer medium to dry soil and full sunlight flourish just when the super generation of Monarchs is beefing up for the long migration. Of course, lots of other butterflies, bees and other pollinators loves these flowers too!
Varied Milkweed Species Feed Young Monarchs and Add Color to Our Fields and Gardens
Maybe the biggest – and most beautiful – contribution we can make to the welfare of Monarch butterflies is to plant more milkweeds in our fields and gardens. Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) multiplies both by the parachuting seeds we all loved as children and by its extensive network of roots. So it can spread too quickly to be a great garden plant. But it’s perfect in big sunny fields or natural areas.
If you are lucky enough to have Common Milkweed on your property, it will help, Dr. Haan told us, if you trim/mow down about a third of the milkweed stems on your property in late June or early July. He and his associate’s research shows that Monarchs prefer to lay more eggs on the tender stems that re-grow because they are easier to eat and more nutritious .
Since most of our milkweed plants are full grown by August, their leaves are old and tough and Monarch egg predators are present in large numbers. If you can trim or mow some of your milkweed plants in mid-summer, they will re-sprout and provide the softer leaves on which Monarchs like to plant their eggs in late July or early August for the migrating “Super Generation.” Those new stems also contain less predatory insects and spiders, meaning monarch eggs may have a better chance of surviving.
Luckily, If you’d like Monarchs in your yard or garden rather than a field, there are other kinds of milkweed for those settings. Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) tends to stay in one place. It needs a dry to medium moisture level and lots of sun. And what a beautiful orange to match the Monarchs! Other butterflies and pollinators love them too, of course!
Swamp Milkweed aka Rose, Pink or Red Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) also loves sun, but as the word “Swamp” implies, it likes “wet feet” or at least medium to moist soil.
If you have a shady area with medium to dry moisture levels, try planting the graceful Poke Milkweed (Asclepias exultata) with its cascade of bluish-white blossoms.
Native plant nurseries (see the list in an earlier blog) can show you other native milkweeds as well. If possible, find ones that are Michigan genotypes since they will grow most easily and serve admirably as host plants for our Michigan Monarchs.
So Rewarding to Make a Difference, Isn’t It?
Who knew, when I was a child, that milkweed plants would begin to diminish and the Monarchs would begin to decline as a result? And now we know, according to the recent summary of a biodiversity report, that as many as a million other species worldwide are in the same situation.
It’s easy to despair, I know – but let’s not! The best antidote to despair is always doing what you can in your own corner of the world and supporting others who share your concern for nature.
And in the case of the Monarch butterfly, it can be as simple as planting milkweed! Or it’s as easy as planting native flowers, grasses, shrubs, and trees in our yards instead of exotic plants. With no recent shared history, these exotic plants don’t always feed butterfly caterpillars and other beneficial native insects. Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, it’s changing the non-native turf of your own lawn into large gardens filled with colorful native plants with paths of mowed turf leading from one to the next. Or it’s maybe creating a native prairie out of an old agricultural field like our township stewardship crew and some nature-loving homeowners are doing.
All it takes is just caring, learning and getting started. I’ve begun. The township parks stewardship crew has begun. Many of you have already begun. What we can hope is that others will join us.
I’m willing to admit that winter walks are a bit more demanding for me. Though I love being out in the open with red cheeks and the glitter of sunlight on snow, breaking through an icy snow crust with every step can be a bit arduous. And as a writer who loves taking photos, well, wildlife is simply a bit more scarce and plant life is a lot less colorful. So the blog creates an interesting challenge. Luckily, I’m all for a good challenge! So this week, in a way, I’m writing about what I didn’t see in February at Charles Ilsley Park. Bear with me…
One February morning, I pursued the paw prints of an unseen coyote who had left a trail in the ice-encrusted snow on the previous moonlit night. And I spent part of an afternoon just noticing the brown and gray architecture of the dry seed heads of some favorite summer wildflowers, now ghosts of their colorful summer selves. Their pleasing shapes provided some inspiration about the native garden I’m dreaming about for next summer. But I’ll start this blog with the handful of birds that I did see, that kept me company on frigid days, just to remind myself that I had sturdy companions on the grayest and coldest days of the year.
Who’s That Twittering in the Tall Grass?
One late afternoon as I approached the Eastern Prairie at Ilsley, I heard the cheerful “chatting” (see first “call” heading at this link) of a small group of winter visitors from the Arctic, American Tree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea). One of them paused long enough for a good look at its two-tone bill. This little bird had puffed up its down jacket to deal with a frigid morning!
Two days later, the birding group heard more “chatting.” We spotted a large flock of Tree Sparrows flowing like a river from the trees, down into the tall prairie grass. These social flocks keep in contact with short calls back and forth – “I’m here! I’m over here!” – as they forage. I managed to catch a group of them in a vine-laden bush at the edge of prairie.
It was wonderful to watch so many migratory birds feeding enthusiastically on the native seeds of our restored prairie. We were curious to see which plants they were enjoying. That morning they were finding bent Black-eyed Susan stems (Rudbeckia hirta) and plucking out the seeds. Here’s the bent stem at almost ground level, the seeds on the snow and the area trampled by the flock’s small feet.
Actually, this large flock of birds had a few fellow travelers. Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) and American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) joined the Tree Sparrows’ feast. Larger flocks increase the odds that birds can survive against predators in winter, when birds show up well against the snow. They also mean more eyes spotting good food. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
On a Sunday walk in the Western Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park, my husband and I spotted Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) diving in and out of the grass. Finally, a pair of them settled on some brush and fallen logs along the tree line. The male ignored me completely while he preened vigorously. Since bluebirds often use the abandoned nests of woodpeckers in the winter, I wondered if he’d picked up some mites from an old nest, poor fellow. I managed to get one quick shot when he rested for just a moment.
The female nearby was keeping an eye on me and as I approached she sent the male a little “chit-chit-chit” call (second “call” heading at this link) that warns of ground predators – me, in this case! Then they both flew off again.
At the far edge of the western prairie, we heard the “ank-ank-ank” call of the White Breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis). (Under “Eastern calls” at this link.) It was hopping quickly from branch to dead branch above our heads, searching out anything it could eat , like frozen insect eggs or caterpillars.
Now, About Those Tracks Here, There and Everywhere…
As I started out one Thursday morning, I was presented with some pretty impressive tracks. I recognized them immediately, because one of them was mine! The last four birders on the Wednesday morning bird walk had trekked along chatting as we went back to our cars. As a former bookseller, I had to smile remembering Pooh and Piglet tracking a “heffalump” around a bush, which of course turned out to be their own footprints, too. A fun beginning to my search for animal tracks.
I left the trail and headed diagonally across the field following a nice straight line of canine prints – and readers of my previous winter blogs probably know what that means – a Coyote! Coyotes (Canis latrans) trot along at night making a straight trail of prints. Being wild animals, coyotes want to use as little energy as necessary between meals, so they never run around in the snow like dogs do. They place their back feet inside the print of their front feet to use less energy and move directly where they want to go.
Because a crust covered the snow after freezing rain, it was clear that this coyote had to break through the snow with each step, leaving a pointed top to the track it left behind.
I followed the prints as it became apparent that this coyote was headed for the farthest west section of the park, where Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide had hired a forestry mower to remove invasive shrubs and create a path to the nearby subdivision for residents’ use. Two trees nicely frame the opening to this newly renovated area.
This western section with its rolling, glacial landscape, wetlands and wooded areas is very different from the open prairies of Ilsley. It seems our coyote thought this might be a better place to rest on an icy, windy night. Coyotes are not really nocturnal animals, but they have learned that night is a good time to hunt and not be bothered by humans and their activities. So I imagine this coyote had been out hunting mice on the prairie and was heading back to the woods to get out of the wind.
After passing into the western area, the coyote turned sharply south into the woods. So I followed its tracks, imagining it trotting between the trees, slipping in and out of the shadows made by the full moon the night before.
It’s easy to see that among the glacially-formed slopes of this rolling landscape, a coyote would be out of the sharp wind that blew across the prairie. The landscape in this area of the park is suddenly so different, as the slopes rise and then descend to one wetland after another. I kept following the coyote deeper into the woods as the line of prints flowed over the slopes.
At last the coyote’s tracks came down to a small pond where they seemed to end in a flattened area under some vines and branches at the right which would have provided a bit of cover.
Beyond that pond was another lovely little pond covered in snow and embraced by the hills around it – but not a track in sight.
I lost the coyote’s trail after that and wandered up to Ben’s path again. I stopped to admire a very tall, wonderfully straight native Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipfera) with its closely furrowed bark.
Its yellow blossoms were now dried but still quivering in the wind at the very top of the tree. Ben pointed it out on an earlier walk and told us he thought our area is at the northern edge of this lovely tree’s range. It’s the first wild tulip tree I’ve ever seen.
Nearby stood a tall Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum), its red buds just waiting to expand and bring us one of the first really vivid colors of early spring.
As I left the western wooded area and headed back onto the western prairie, I came across a flattened place in the trail that looked like a major crossroads for critters. The tracks around it were hard to read . I thought I recognized squirrel and possible rabbit tracks, but I have no idea who was there and what was going on, really. Since there are coyote tracks above this flattened area, I wondered if one slept here; as top predators, they do sleep in the open at times. Its warmth would have melted the snow and allowed smaller creatures to get to the ground underneath the crusted surface once the coyote left the scene. Just a guess.
One possible hint was a hole in the snow nearby where a squirrel may have tried to dig up a nut in the frozen soil. Or perhaps our coyote dug up a Meadow Mouse (Microtus pennsylvanicus) before heading off to sleep? I’m not sure because the tracks around it were not fresh; they had been trampled, rained on and frozen.
The coyote tracks did lead away from area toward the private property on the west side of the park.
If the open hole was that of a captured mouse, the birders saw evidence that some mice are luckier than others. Here are some mouse tracks that we spotted near the edge of the western prairie. It looks like this mouse made it safely under the snow’s insulation – safe from the icy wind and out of sight. I love the “stitching” look of mouse tracks in the snow.
On the last leg of my tracking trip to the park, as I approached the central section from the north, I saw one of the spring-fed ponds covered with lots of tracks, making neat, straight lines across the snow-covered surface. What was going on? And then it occurred to me. These were stewardship tracks! Ben had told us at the end of the bird walk that he’d brought a native wetland seed mix to spread on the ponds before it rained later that day. He and Stewardship Specialist Alyssa Radzwion put the seed right on the frozen surface. Native seeds needs to be exposed to the cold before they will germinate properly. Once warm weather comes, the seeds will drop down into the shallow water or moist edge habitat and with luck, begin bringing some color and native plant life to these special areas of the park.
The Ghosts of Summers Past Provide Inspiration for Spring
I’ve begun learning to recognize and appreciate the winter forms of some favorite wildflowers. Their subtle shades of brown or gray as well as their patterns and geometry have started me wondering if I could create a native garden next summer that the birds and I could enjoy all year ’round. It’s clear that birds need the seeds that cling to native plants despite snow and wind. And I could appreciate the architecture of winter plants. So which shapes provide what landscapers like to call “visual interest” and also provide winter food for wildlife?
Perhaps some of you remember how beautiful the Eastern Prairie looked when filled with Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) in the summer. This hardy native has always had a special place in my life. When I was a teenager, the first song I ever wrote included the “wide-eyed stare” of this sunny flower. So it definitely needs to be in my garden. I’m taken with its winter fringed cap in winter and would be happy to let it hang out in my garden.
Black-eyed Susans in bloom
Black-eyed Susan in winter – a lovely cone of seeds for the birds
Mixed in with these bright yellow beauties were the lavender fireworks of Bee-balm (Monarda fistulosa) and they create appealing geometry in a winter landscape.
For contrast, I’d need some white in my summer garden – and maybe good old Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) would be a possibility – if I could keep it from spreading too much. I like its chocolate brown against the white snow.
I love how Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) sway in a summer breeze so I hope they’ll be included somehow too. The plump, oblong seed heads obviously provide forage for the birds and silvery, pointed spears would be a graceful accent in a winter garden.
I may plant Asters in our field rather than in the garden. They grow in such profusion! I’m not sure which of the many Asters is represented in the winter photo below because so many kinds of asters bloom in late summer and fall! They are such a boon to all kinds of butterflies and bees who can feed on them before winter arrives. Here’s just a sampling. (Use pause button for captions.)
Brown-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia triloba), which also bloom late in late summer and fall, might be another good choice for the field, since they grow so tall (compared to Black-eyed Susans) and have a branching form with multiple blooms at the same time.
Well, that’s a start. I want to search out some other favorites, like Foxglove Beard-tongue (Penstemon digitalis) and see what it looks like after bloom – though I doubt I can resist it for the garden. That little Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) makes me impatient for spring!
See? Wasn’t that a clever way to get to get some color into an early March blog, when everything is still brown, gray and white? I knew you’d appreciate it…
Finding Delight in a Late Winter Walk
It takes a bit more effort to get out on a frosty morning. There’s all that layered clothing and boots and gloves and scarves. And the early March landscape is getting just a bit tiresome — too much brown and white out our windows. But once I’m out the door and into the landscape, nature offers me a few treats to keep me coming back. Tracking a coyote’s tracks to a secluded pond in the woods feels like a little adventure. The friendly chatting of winter birds keeps me company and the sight of bluebirds in the stark landscape nourishes my color-starved eyes. And how lucky that noticing the winter geometry of last summer’s blooms sets me off dreaming about a new native garden! So all that makes crunching step-by-step through the snow crust worth the effort when the thermometer encourages me to stay home.
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township’s Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University; Wikipedia; A Field Guide to Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, and Trees of Michigan Field Guide by Stan Tekiela.
We tend to think of autumn as colored leaves and crisp air. But the prairies and meadows of the township parks celebrate fall with flowers. Many asters love cooler weather and right now the restored prairies of Charles Ilsley Park are dressed in white wildflowers, dotted with splashes of gold. Butterflies and bees still flutter and hum among the blossoms and grasshoppers still spring like popcorn out of the grass as you walk. Birds, including occasional summer visitors headed south, eat the plants’ berries and seeds or snag a few insects from bare soil or tree limbs. The frantic growth of summer is indeed ebbing, but the park still bustles with life as it awaits the first frost.
Note: Click here for a map of the park to help in visualizing the various trails and prairies described.
Entering Along the “Great White Way”
Walking along the mowed trail into Charles Ilsley Park before the latest heat wave, a nodding crowd of graceful Panicled Asters (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum) stood on either side, like a crowd at a procession. Occasionally, a spray of New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) added a little royal purple to the view.
Just before sunset one afternoon, several migrating Palm Warblers (Setophaga palmarum) flitted among the branches of a tree along this trail. This little bird was probably on its way from Canada to Florida or the Caribbean. Let’s hope it finds its favorite foods and perches after the terrible storms there this fall!
Among some bare branches, a couple of Mourning Doves gave me a closer look.
And below, a female Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) drilled a dead branch for insects, looking for a snack before retiring for the night.
A quick movement out of the grass onto a nearby tree turned out to be a Katydid (family Tettigoniidae) moving slowly along the trunk with its ungainly legs. Katydids are generally nocturnal and sing at night. I’m guessing this one’s a female because of what appears to be a sickle-shaped ovipositor for laying eggs. Aren’t her antennae amazing? Grasshoppers have short antennae, but katydid antennae are extravagantly long.
The Central Meadow Will Soon Become a Prairie
Don’t be dismayed by the browned surface in the central area of the park. Like the other three sections already restored (east, north and west), the invasive shrubs and non-native plants have now been removed from this area. This fall, matted grass and leftover branches will be removed and the central area will be planted with native wildflower seed. Just as in the other three prairies, it will take 3-5 years for the native plants to fully bloom because as drought-adapted wildflowers, they need time to put down long roots before putting energy into flowering. But even now, life goes on in this brown landscape.
Blue is the first spark of color you’ll see in the restoration area – because the Eastern Bluebirds are everywhere! Many of them are using their former nesting boxes for perches as they fly down and forage in the soil and whatever grass remains.
Blackened stems, dead grass and bare soil make a perfect landscape for Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) who prefer to nest and forage on open ground. They are known to nest on rooftops, golf courses, even parking lots! They scuttle up and down the restoration field at Ilsley, making periodic quick stops to see if they’ve scared up anything to eat. In autumn, Killdeer gather in small groups (I saw five ) as they migrate as far as Central and South America for the winter, though many choose southern Florida as well.
When Killdeer fly, they make a keening call and the feathers on their rumps, just above their tails, flash orange in the sunlight. Look for two flying Killdeer in this quick shot.
Another ground forager is still here but will also join small groups for migration. Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus ) love ants, so they too are quite happy to forage in the newly re-sprouting grass or on the bare soil in this area of the park. You’ll often see 3 or 4 together on the ground.
A Carolina Locust (Dissosteira carolina) flew up from bare earth as I approached the far end of the restoration area. I’ve never been able to catch a photo of one flying; they’re just too quick for me! So on the left is my photo of the locust on the ground, but on the right is a photo by Joshua G Smith at inaturalist.org who shows us its wing by gently holding the insect. You can see why these grasshoppers are often mistaken for butterflies when taking their short flights! (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
At the far end of the restoration area are a few bushes that form a line across the bottom of the north prairie. On all four trips to the park, an EasternPhoebe (Sayornis phoebe) rested in the low branches of a tree there – a perfect perch for a flycatcher who actually prefers ground foraging to catching flies!
With all those birds around, this immature Northern Brown Snake (Storeria dekayi) had better be careful! These harmless, little snakes (they don’t bite!) are born with a white “collar” around their necks and are either brown or gray. As they mature, the collar disappears and the head is darker. So I’m guessing this one is a juvenile on its way to getting rid of that collar!
Lots of Life on Three Prairies – East, North and West!
We’re gifted currently with three prairie plantings at Ilsley in various stages of restoration. The eastern and northern prairies are now in their second summer, the western prairie is in its first. All of them host a wide variety of wildflowers, butterflies, bees and birds.
Calico Asters (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum) have turned the eastern prairie white this fall. The northern prairie, full of invasive thistles last year, is now covered with Brown-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia triloba), a species of Rudbeckia that I just learned about this year! The western prairie is cloaked in white Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota) at the south end, and golden with Black-Eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) at the north end. Natives like Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and some Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) have returned to sway in the breeze above the eastern and northern prairies, which now have mowed trails. The western prairie trail grew over during the summer, but the soft plants make it easy walking. We’re on our way to 50 acres of prairie in this park! (Click on pause button for captions.)
Insects on the Prairies
Both Bumblebees (genus Bombus) and European Honey Bees (Apis mellifera) buzz quickly over the native blossoms, making the most of late fall nectar. One late afternoon, native bumblebees were driving honey bees off of some flowers with a quick dart toward them, while on other blossoms, honey bees were hassling butterflies.
Eventually, however, peace was restored and each found their own blossom on the Calico Asters.
At mid-summer, the prairies were full of large butterflies – Monarchs and three kinds of Swallowtails. This month, though most of the larger ones are missing; only a few tardy Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) sip at blossoms. The unseasonably warm weather may have prompted them to tarry a bit longer than other Monarchs who began moving in September. We hope they make it to Mexico before the cold sets in!
A variety of smaller butterflies, some as small as your thumbnail, move restlessly among the blossoms on all three prairies. The Painted Lady butterfly(Vanessa cardui) is only 1.5-2.0 inches. It migrates some years and not others, but often winters in Mexico like the Monarchs. Its caterpillars eat thistle foliage and the adult butterflies love thistle nectar. This one was sipping daintily along with two other Painted Ladies on non-native Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare) on the northern prairie.
The other small butterflies seemed endlessly restless, doing much more flying right now than eating. I managed to photograph three – but the tiny Grizzled Skipper (Pyrgus centaureae) eluded me, so I’ve borrowed a photo from inaturalist.org with the permission of the photographer, Marian Zöller.
Birds Enjoying the Prairies
Birds of all sizes frequent these prairies during the year. Many of them, like the Tree Swallows, have already begun their fall migration. But one evening at the far end of the eastern prairie, a solitary Sandhill Crane (Antigone canadensis) foraged, probably for just-hatched Red-legged Grasshopper nymphs(Melanoplus femurrubrum) that sprang in hundreds from the grass. Suddenly, it lifted into the air. I wonder if it, too, is beginning its migration to Florida or the Caribbean? I’m afraid I was too taken with its size, beauty and the snap of its huge wings to set my exposure accurately, but it was a lovely sight just before dark.
In an old apple tree on the edge of the western prairie, a flock of pale House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus)pecked happily at the aging fruit. Usually House Finch males are much darker red, but the intensity of the color is determined by what they eat while molting. I have a feeling these were eating apples (or the bugs within them) instead of bright red berries!
And a first for me in Oakland Township! Last Sunday, a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)spiraled high into the air over the western prairie, riding upward on a rising current of warm air. What a very special moment to see this powerful bird peacefully enjoying the heat of the prairie on a quiet Sunday afternoon.
The View from the Oldest Trees
Two huge oaks trees seem to anchor the past firmly in the present at Charles Ilsley Park. One stands at the south end of the center area that’s being restored and the other stands at the east end of the eastern prairie. The size of these old oaks with their huge trunks and spreading crowns means they’ve been here for hundreds of years, standing watch over the land. Pausing under the eastern prairie tree one afternoon, I took a photo of that tree’s “view” of the restored prairie.
It pleased me to imagine that maybe that tree is “looking out on” on a prairie that’s beginning to look a bit like the one it “saw” when it was young so many years ago. And as we watched the bald eagle float above the western prairie, I wondered if it was seeing what its eagle ancestors saw from high in the sky long ago. Humans are such forward-looking creatures, always planning and moving toward the future. It’s a marvel that here in our township, and in other townships around the country, we’ve chosen to set aside areas like Ilsley where the history of our land and its native creatures can be preserved. The trees, wildflowers, birds and butterflies – all of it connects us firmly to our past – and if we continue to be good stewards, will sustain and delight us for years to come as we move into the future.
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: butterfliesathome.com;Pollinators of Native Plants by Heather Holm; Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3; inaturalist.org;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;Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels and others as cited in the text.