Tag Archives: Brown-eyed Susan

The Milkweed Connection: A “Welcome Home” for Our Superhero Monarchs

Monarch on Joe Pye (Eutrochium maculatum)

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.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

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.

A monarch butterfly egg on the underside of a Common Milkweed leaf (Photo by Merav Vonshak (CC BY-NC) at inaturalist.org

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.

A Monarch caterpillar (probably a 2nd instar)  eating a milkweed leaf. Photo by permission from Tanya Harvey at http://westerncascades.com/2017/07/04/a-week-of-monarchs-and-milkweed-day-1/

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.

A 5th instar Monarch caterpillar eating on Butterfly Milkweed

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.

A Monarch chrysalis, photo by inaturalist.org photographer Pam Kleinsasser (CC BY NC)

Finally, the chrysalis becomes transparent and the the butterfly emerges to dry its wings before taking flight.

Monarch emerging from its translucent chrysalis, photo by inaturalist.org photographer gvelazco (CC BY-SA)
A Monarch butterfly taking off on a sunny afternoon

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.”

Monarchs arriving in central Mexico for the winter. Photo by Carlos Dominguez-Rodriquez (CC BY-NC) at inaturalist.org.

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).

Monarchs wintering in Mexico, photo by Mario Castañeda-Sánchez (CC BY-NC) at iNaturalist.org

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.”

Monarch on Grass-leaved Goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia)

The Threats that Monarchs Face

A graph showing the general decline in the number of Monarch butterflies. Data from 1994-2003 were collected by personnel of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve (MBBR) of the National Commission of Protected Natural Areas (CONANP) in Mexico. Data from 2004-2019 were collected by the WWF-Telcel Alliance, in coordination with the Directorate of the MBBR. 2000-01 population number as reported by Garcia-Serrano et. al (The Monarch Butterfly : Biology and Conservation, 2004)
The Monarch Joint Venture is a national partnership of federal and state agencies, non-governmental organizations, businesses and academic programs working together to conserve the monarch butterfly migration. The content in this article does not necessarily reflect the positions of all Monarch Joint Venture partners.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
MilkweedInCorn_NateHaan
Milkweed used to be a common weed in crop fields. Illustration by Nate Haan.

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!

 

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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.

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)

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 .

Graph showing how monarchs laid more eggs on new growth from milkweed stems mowed in mid-July (green-shaded area) than on milkweed unmowed (orange line) or mowed in mid-June (blue shaded area). Graph by Dr. Haan.

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!

Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) with a female Monarch

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.

Swamp Milkweed blooming in August grows best in a moist spot.

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.

Unlike most milkweed, Poke Milkweed can grow in fairly shady areas.

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?

A “Super Generation” Monarch feeding on New England Aster before migration

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.

Eastern Prairie Ilsley July
Eastern Prairie at Charles Isley Park on July 12, 2018

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.

 

Charles Ilsley Park: Hardy Companions, Tracking the Unseen and the Ghosts of Flowers Past

Charles Ilsley Park’s Northern Prairie, as seen from the spring-fed pond in the center of the park.

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…

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

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?

Stalks of Indian Grass forming a scrim as I look across the Eastern Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park.

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!

The two-toned bill, breast spot, eye-line and chestnut cap are the Tree Sparrow’s field marks.

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.

Part of a large flock, of Tree Sparrows feeding in the Eastern Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park.

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.

The bent stalk  of a Black-eyed Susan near the ground makes it easier for the  Tree sparrows to get at the seed.

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.

A male Eastern Bluebird paused from preening for just a few seconds while sitting in the brush near the tree line.

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.

The female bluebird gave a little signal call to her preening mate as I approached.

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.

A White-breasted Nuthatch probed the bark on a dead limb for hidden insects or their eggs.

Now, About Those Tracks Here, There and Everywhere…

Some pretty striking tracks greeted me in the center field of the park.

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.

Coyote tracks across the western prairie

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.

A coyote print in iced-over snow.

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.

The entrance to the farthest west section of Charles Ilsley Park with its rolling land and woods.

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.

The coyotes prints entering the western section of the park.

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.

The coyote heads off into the woods in the western part of Charles Ilsley Park.

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.

The coyote’s tracks 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.

A flat area under the bushes and vines on the right looked like it could be a place where the coyote spent the night out of the wind.

Beyond that pond was another lovely little pond covered in snow and embraced by the hills around it – but not a track in sight.

A trackless pond beyond the one where the coyote’s tracks ended

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.

The very tall, very straight trunk and furrowed bark of a Tulip-tree

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.

The dried blossoms of a Tulip-tree which always blooms on the highest branches. 

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.

Red buds high on a Silver Maple will swell and offer up one of the first bright colors of 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.

A heavily tracked spot on the western prairie trail

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.

A place where a squirrel may have dug up a nut or seed – or perhaps a coyote found a mouse before bedtime?

The coyote tracks did lead away from area toward the private property on the west side of the park.

Coyote tracks running through the furrows of the private field 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.

Mouse tracks that look like stitching disappearing into a hole 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.

Tracks left by Ben and Alyssa as they seeded the spring-fed pond with a native wetland mix.  (The birders had also trekked across the pond earlier in the morning.)

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?

Yellow Coneflower and Canada Wild Rye in late fall.

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.

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.)

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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!

A young Field Sparrow on Foxglove Beardtongue in Charles Ilsley Park’s Eastern Prairie.

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.

Charles Ilsley Park: Being Restored to Past Glories and Humming with Life

Panicled Asters line the entrance to the park
Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

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”

Panicled Asters line the trail on both sides as you enter the park

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.

A spray of New England Asters along the entrance trail.

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!

A migrating Palm Warbler paused in the park on its way to Florida and the Caribbean for the winter.

Among some bare branches, a couple of Mourning Doves gave me a closer look.

A pair of mourning doves giving me the eye

And below, a female Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) drilled a dead branch  for insects, looking for a snack before retiring for the night.

A female Downy Woodpecker inspecting a dead branch for insects as the sun goes down

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.

A female katydid came out of the field at sunset and began exploring a tree trunk.

The Central Meadow Will Soon Become a Prairie

The central meadow at Charles Ilsley Park is undergoing prairie restoration.

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.

A male bluebird perhaps contemplating being an “empty nester!”
This bluebird pair may migrate south or may choose to remain here over the winter.
A female Bluebird perusing the brown field before foraging.

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.

A killdeer scuttles across the dry landscape trying to scare some insects out of the bracken.
This Killdeer trio may migrate to Florida or Central and South America.

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.

Can you see two killdeer flying with their orange rumps ablaze?

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.

In this season, Northern Flickers can often be seen looking for ants in the restoration area of the park.

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 Eastern Phoebe (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!

The Eastern Phoebe actually prefers ground insects to catching flies, even though it’s officially a flycatcher.

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!

A young Northern Brown Snake who’s losing the white collar it had at birth.

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.

Prairie Plants

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.)

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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.

A native Bumblebee and a European Honey Bee compete for the nectar in a non-native thistle.

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!

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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.

A Painted Lady sipping thistle nectar through its long proboscis (Northern Prairie)
Three Painted Ladies enjoying thistle nectar, just as their caterpillars enjoyed eating thistle leaves.

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.

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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!

A male House Finch eating bits of apple – or perhaps the bugs inside?

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.

A Bald Eagle riding a current of warm air above the Western Prairie

 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.

View from under the huge oak at the east end of the Eastern 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.