Tag Archives: Bur Oak

Charles Ilsley Park – Prairies Full of Spring Music

Looking west on the north prairie at Charles Ilsley Park

Charles Ilsley Park is slowly being returned to native prairie. Think of it as historic restoration. Before European farmers arrived, our township was mostly oak savanna – native grasses, wild flowers and widely spaced oaks. Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, has been working for three years to bring back some of that prairie habitat. Shrubby invasives have slowly been eliminated, some along tree lines just this spring. The sloping curves of the native prairie are appearing once again.

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

Some fields have been replanted with native grasses and wildflowers which must grow deep roots for several years before they fully prosper. More will be planted this year. The land rolls gently, surrounded by a beautiful dark forest. Birds sing from the hedgerows and scuttle across the open ground. Wood frogs chorus joyously from a nearby wetland. A spring stroll around the rolling landscape of Ilsley is an auditory as well as a visual treat. So try clicking on some of the links below (and then page down to recordings)  so you can share the sounds of spring.

Summer Birds Find Us Again

The migrators are winging their way back to us on warm south winds. The Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) again soar above the fields, gathering tiny midges in their open beaks.  Luckily, they can also eat plant foods which allows them to return early in the spring. Both males and females sing in what Cornell calls “a chirp, a whine and a gurgle.” My favorite part is the gurgle which I call a “liquid thwick.” See what you think. Aren’t these Swallows a gorgeous blue?

Tree Swallows soar with their beaks open to scoop up little flying insects – but they eat plant food more often in early spring.

In the western field, the Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) scoots among the furrows of the open field, pauses and then scoots on again. Its orange rump flashes as it flies and its piercing “kill-deer” call (under “flight call” at the link) carries a long way. Killdeers have the large eye, short beak and round head characteristic of other plovers, but unlike their shorebird relatives, they can be quite content in a sunny field.

A Killdeer scurries along a ridge in a fallow field at Charles Ilsley Park.

Killdeer are famous for distracting predators from their shallow, ground nests by faking a broken wing. Our sharp-eyed birder friend Antonio Xeira spotted a killdeer nest last year at Gallagher Creek Park. Be on the look-out! These nests are easy to miss!

A Killdeer’s nest and eggs at Gallagher Creek in late April 2016.

Of course the buzzing trill of male Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus), their red and yellow epaulets flashing, can be heard everywhere now. The brown and white striped females, perhaps reluctant to leave winter feeding grounds south of Michigan, are just beginning to arrive, while the male below may have been here for several weeks.

A male Red-winged Blackbird with just a bit of his red and yellow epaulet showing.

High in the treeline,  the drumming and the fast wik-wik-wik territorial call of the Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) echoes across the bare ground. At last I spotted a “mustached” male on the ground poking his serrated tongue  into an old ant hill. Although they’re woodpeckers, Flickers spend lots of time on the ground probing for ants, their favorite food. Stan Tekiela in the Birds of Michigan Field Guide, identifies Flickers as non-migrators or “partial migrators,” meaning they move south when food become scarce. I seem to see them only after spring arrives. Eastern North America hosts yellow-shafted Northern Flickers, while red-shafted Flickers are found in the western part of the continent.

The black mustache, called a malar, is a sign that this is a male, yellow-shafted Northern Flicker.  He’s probing for ants in an old ant mound.

Male Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia) trill all over the park. This one emerged from the brambles to perch on a stump, tilted his head back a bit (not as far as some song sparrows do) and sang his territorial song. Song Sparrows are chubby little birds and the stripes on their breasts usually gather into a central spot. Their song starts out with several short notes and then a rat-a-tat-tat kind of sewing machine trill. (Click on photos to enlarge, hover cursor for captions.)

The cleaning crew has arrived. Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) silently ride thermals high into the air or swoop lower to sniff for the scent of a carcass. These huge birds prevent disease for the rest of us by cleaning up any carrion they spot from above. According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab, their immune systems are impervious to even the worst toxins including botulism, anthrax, cholera, or salmonella! The paler feathers at the tip of their dark wings, including the “finger feathers” seen here,  let the sun shine through, giving the false impression that their wings are banded in a lighter color.

The turkey vulture soars above the prairies below, preparing to clean the park of unhealthy, unsightly carrion.

Some Not-quite-native Summer Visitors

Non-native birds, like non-native plants, most often arrive in new places because of human activity. These two species came here in rather interesting ways.

Originally a western grassland bird that followed buffalo herds, the Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater) adapted to their nomadic life by laying their eggs in other birds’ nests instead of building their own. As settlers cleared forests in eastern North America for towns and agriculture,  cowbirds expanded their range eastward. Grazing cattle and plowing probably stir up as many insects as buffalo, right? Cowbirds give more of a gurgle and squeak than a song. Here are two male cowbirds doing characteristic dominance displays – head tilt (beak skyward) and plumping the feathers. Pretty hilarious, eh? The lower one looks like a plush toy!

Two male cowbirds doing dominance displays.

Female Cowbirds establish territories and choose the most dominant male, according to Donald Stoke’s Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.2). They can lay as many as 3 dozen eggs in a summer because, though some birds accept the eggs and raise the young, others peck them or push them from their nests. Here’s a newly arrived female checking out the males.

The modestly gray female Cowbird often sits high in the tree tops watching for a good bird’s nest in which to lay her eggs. Here she’s in bush, assessing the males.

We commonly see  European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) along telephone lines or swooping together in huge flocks called “murmurations.” These birds all descend from 100 individuals brought to New York’s Central Park in the 1890s  by Shakespeare devotees who believed America should have every bird mentioned by the Bard!  Starlings can be  very aggressive about taking over favored nesting sites from other birds and now number in the millions.  This starling at Charles Ilsley Park still has some of the feathers with light tips that gave it a spotted look after the fall molt. But as spring progresses, those tips will wear off, leaving its feathers dark and iridescent. Its beak is also changing from autumn gray to summer yellow.

100 European Starlings, imported by Shakespeare enthusiasts in the 1890s, now number about 200 million from Alaska to Mexico, according to the Cornell Lab.

The Year ‘Round Avian Welcoming Committee

Many of the sturdy birds who kept us company during the winter join the spring chorus as well. Of course, I couldn’t resist another shot of an Eastern Bluebird  (Sialia sialis)!  Here’s the link to its spring song.

A male Eastern Bluebird at Charles Ilsley Park.

Some American Robins (Turdus migratorius) stay here all winter, eating berries and other frozen fruits. Others move a little south and come back intermittently depending on the weather. According to Cornell Lab, Robins tend to eat more earthworms in the morning and more fruit in the afternoon. This one probed the wet edge of a vernal pool formed at the bottom of a slope after heavy rains.  The Robin’s “cheer up” call  accompanies any walker in all township parks right now.

An alert American Robin stops to listen while probing the wet soil around the edge of a vernal pool at the bottom of a slope.

Woodpeckers provide the rhythm section as they establish their territories. Here a Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) pauses from his drumming to pose at the top of a snag (standing dead tree.) The Red-belly’s  wet-sounding “Kwir” call sounded from the trees lining the fields and from the edge of the forest.

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker stops drumming long enough to pose at the top of snag.

Speaking of Woodpeckers, look at these fresh Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) holes in a native Wild Black Cherry tree (Prunus serotina)!  Wish I’d seen this huge bird whose drumming is as loud as a jack hammer!  Its call is often confused with the Red-bellied Woodpecker who drums much more quietly. By the way, Ben says that the way to identify these black cherry trees is to look for bark that resembles burnt potato chips. Good description!

The holes of a Pileated Woodpecker in a Wild Black Cherry tree. These woodpeckers tend to make large, often rectangular holes.

The loud, nasal “ank, ank, ank” call of the White Breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) can be heard year ’round as it circles  the upper and lower sides of branches, searching for insects or stashing seeds and nuts. Cornell Lab claims that its name resulted from its habit of whacking at nuts and seeds, “hatching” them from their shells before eating or storing them.

The classic pose of the White-Breasted Nuthatch as it forages for insects. Listen for its loud “ank, ank” call.

The Other Chorus:  Wood Frogs!

Hundreds of Wood Frogs chorused in the wetland beyond this little stream at the north end of Charles Ilsley Park.

After the heavy rains of late March and early April, a swollen, muddy stream edged Ilsley Park on its north side.  Across from the old Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa) in the photo above, on the stream’s far bank, orange-tipped Willows filled a large wetland.  And below them sung hundreds of little Wood Frogs (Rana sylvatica).

Wood Frogs have a black stripe running through their eye and their song is low and sounds a bit like your thumb running over a comb.

If you turn your volume up, below you should hear some individual Wood Frogs singing in the foreground and a mighty chorus in the background that sounds like a purring engine!  I don’t think I’ve heard so many in one place before! You may need to turn up your volume to get the full effect.

Nearby, an old stump was draped in two shades of thick, intensely green Moss (div. Bryophyta).  Moss, an ancient plant,  usually dries and bleaches in winter cold but turns green and lush quickly in spring rain – long before the trees have leafed out.  David George Haskill, in The Forest Unseen, describes mosses’ gift for using and holding water. “Grooves on the surface of stems wick water from the mosses’ wet interiors to their dry tips, like tissue paper dipped in a spill.  The miniature stems are felted with water-hugging curls, and their leaves are studded with bumps that create a large surface for clinging water.  The leaves clasp the stem at just the right angle to hold a crescent of water.” They must have loved our wet spring!

A stump draped in two shades of brilliant green moss.

Curiosity about the red stalks on moss prompted me to check out moss sexual reproduction  (I know – the oddest things intrigue me). Moss sperm cells swim to the eggs by being washed along by rain. Once the eggs are fertilized at the tip of a green moss plant, a new plant begins to grow in place to form the red “sporophytes” seen in the photo below. Those red capsules at the end of the erect stalks (called setae) hold the spores. The capsule won’t open to release the ripened spores until the weather is dry enough to carry them on a breeze. If a spore falls on damp soil, voilá. A moss plant is born. They also multiply in asexual ways, like fragments breaking off to start new plants.

I’ve always loved the upside down world of mud puddle reflections. This large mud puddle, the classic sign of spring, had a surprise in store for me.

Trees reflected in a very large mud puddle in the middle of a trail.

As I skirted it, a huge Garter Snake  (g. Thamnopsis) wove its way out right between my feet and swam across the puddle. I think it’s the longest garter snake I’ve ever seen.

A large Garter Snake slid between my feet, heading for a swim across a large puddle on the trail. Good swimmer!

Charles Ilsley Park Preserves Our Past for the Future

Eastern Meadowlark photo by Greg Lasly. Some rights reserved (CC-BY-NC)

With hard work and some luck, Charles Ilsley Park will eventually offer township residents an authentic experience of this area before European migration. Its undulating fields will fill with native grasses and wildflowers. Perhaps birds not often seen here, like the Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna) in Greg Lasly’s amazing photo above, will  more frequently whistle its plaintive song over the sloping hills.  (I’ve only caught a brief glimpse once with the our birding group.) Or perhaps we’ll enjoy the Bobolink’s (Dolichonyx oryzivorus) long, bubbling song. Now declining in numbers, the  Northern Bobwhite Quail (Colinus virginianus) may once  again bring its simple two-note “Bob-white!”  to the park, a sound that meant “summer” here in my childhood. These birds and others need the open, sunny grasslands that the Dr. Ben is working hard to provide. I’m enjoying  Ilsley’s slow prairie transformation and look forward to even richer, more diverse bird serenades as the years go by.

Footnote:  My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: 
iNaturalist.org for periodic photos;; Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia;  Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; other sites as cited in the text.

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: A Golden Marsh, Frogs Meditate, Squirrels Munch and Mushrooms Arise!

Foot of a tree
The foot of a wet-footed tree at the north end of Bear Creek

This week we’ll leave the sunny Old Fields and spend more time in the north of the park where there’s more water and shade.  The marsh, like so much of the park, is now full of gold as fall flowers bloom along its margins. The Canada Geese are starting to emerge from the reeds with completely new sets of feathers.  The Snapping Turtle still cruises just beneath the water’s surface while dragonflies hover and soar above it.

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino
Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

In the pond  at the edge of Gunn Road, a few frogs hop between the toes of giant wet-footed trees,  while others sit quietly contemplating the coming season.  Squirrels and chipmunks gather acorns and nibble at colorful mushrooms that  mysteriously appear and disappear in the Oak-Hickory forest.  Let’s watch how the north end of Bear Creek settles gracefully into early fall.

The Marsh – All Golden and Green

The green of the marsh – its reeds, its duckweed-covered water, the backdrop of trees – is suddenly offset by the bright yellow of Nodding Beggar-ticks (Bidens cernua), another lovely native wildflower with a singularly homely name!

Marsh in Sept_edited-1
In September, golden flowers with the strange name of Nodding Beggar-ticks surround the northern marsh.

These sunny flowers surround the water in the marsh, lining the northern dock and the edge of the reeds in the distance. Dr. Ben tells me that they are an annual that “can grow from a seed to a big flowering plant in just a few short months or weeks after the water recedes. They are really well adapted to the changing water levels of wetlands!”  Look at these flower faces which are currently full of bees!

bee on Nodding Beggar-tick marsh
Bees are constant visitors at the oddly-named Nodding Beggar-tick plants in the northern marsh.
Spray of Nodding Beggar-tick_edited-1
Nodding Beggar-tick are native flowers that nod a bit as they age.

The reeds and flowers are a great backdrop for the Canada Darner dragonfly (Aeshna canadensis), who likes to hover above the water searching for insects,  just as it does above the wildflowers in the Old Fields.

Canada darner flying marsh2
A Canada Darner finds the air above reeds and marsh flowers just as profitable for finding insects as the wildflowers in the Old Fields.

The Common Cat-tails (Typha latifolia) take on all kinds of strange shapes as they produce seed for next year. The male part at the top has fertilized the brown fuzzy female part below to produce seeds.  And cat-tails also grow by rhizomes, or underground stems.

Cat Tail seeding1 Cat tail seeding 3

Out in the water are the usual inhabitants.  If you come after a rain has cleared some of the surface plant life, you might see the ridged back (or carapace) of a Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina).  Its head  emerges several inches ahead of its body as it cruises leisurely across the marsh, stopping to dip down and feed on submerged vegetation.

snapper swimming
A Snapping Turtle moving slowly and deliberately across the marsh, stopping to eat submerged vegetation.

Of course, if you come on a hot, sunny afternoon when the duckweed and other surface plants crowd the marsh surface, you’ll have to look for  the trail of  two slowly moving blobs of green.

Snapper in the marsh2
On a sunny day with the surface plants thick and rich, look for the Snapper’s water trails to find the slowly moving green blobs of its shell and head.

If the sun is warm on a cool fall morning, you might see a small Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta) sunning itself, all four legs, head and tail extended to soak up maximum warmth.

Baby turtle sunning
A small Painted Turtle suns on a log, all four legs stretched out to catch the sun’s warmth.

Some of the Canada Geese (Branta canadensis ) have now finished their molt.  This one seemed to be waiting for other family members to emerge from the reeds.  When they do, they’ll get some practice flying with their completely new feathers, wheeling about the sky and calling noisily.

Canada Goose after molting
A Canada Goose seems to be waiting on the edge of the reeds for the rest of its family group to finish their complete molt.

I’ve noticed this plant in the marsh for a while and finally learned its name.  Ben tells me that it’s Nodding Smartweed or Willow-weed (Persicaria lapathifolia).  It’s common in moist, disturbed ground.  I quite like its graceful droop!

Nodding Smartweed or Willow-weed
Nodding Smartweed (or Willow-weed) droops gracefully in the muddy flats at the edge of the marsh.

The Pond at the North End:  Mighty Trees, Their Munched Acorns and Small Frogs

If you wander away from the marsh toward Gunn Road, you’ll end up at another much quieter pond.  It’s the one in which so many Wood Frogs (Rana sylvatica) were courting in the spring. Some of these frogs breed more than once which might explain seeing two tiny Wood Frogs near the pond at this time to year. Wood Frogs can vary their skin color from brown to green/gray but they are always in or near the trees (as their name implies) and sport a dark eye mask.

Tiny wood frog
A tiny Wood Frog in its  brown color stretches out a hind leg to cling to a log.
Tiny wood frog near Gunn
A tiny Wood Frog in its green color  on a Bur Oak leaf near Gunn Road.

Nearby, as the sun dipped low, a male Green Frog (Rana clamitans) sat quietly on the end of a log, staring steadily into the distance.  It’s rare for me to see one so still and silent.

Green frog male in evening light
In the late afternoon, a male Green Frog stares quietly into the distance from a log in the pond near Gunn Road.

An Orb Weaver Spider (family Araneidae) had rather daringly hung its web out over the water, attaching it to four different trees quite a distance away.  It looks as though it managed to snag a moth.

Orb spider web pond near Gunn
An Orb Spider web suspended between four trees over the pond near Gunn Road.

Some creature had dug a fairly large hole, with accompanying small ones, at the roots of a gigantic Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa). An Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus) perhaps?   Here you can see one hole beneath a Bur Oak leaf and the remainder of the tree’s acorn with its bristly cap laying nearby.  Bur Oaks, a member of the White Oak family,  don’t produce large acorn crops every year.  Instead, they produce huge numbers of acorns some years in the hope that the squirrels and blue jays will not be able to eat them all and a few will survive to propagate new trees.

Leaf with burr oak nutshells
Bur Oak leaf with scattered acorn pieces and the bristly Bur Oak acorn cap half-chewed on the left.

Here’s a clearer look at the acorns from a Bur Oak that’s just south of the shed near Snell Road.

Burr oak acorn and leaves
The acorns of a Bur Oak with their bristly caps

But the one at the north end is very tall – and incredibly straight – with its crown so far up that you can’t see its acorns even with binoculars!  Or at least, I couldn’t.

Huge burr oak near Gunn
A very tall Bur Oak near Gunn Road with its straight trunk and branches only at the crown.

Eastern Chipmunks (Tamias striatus) are certainly dashing about the park collecting nuts and seeds to put in the storage chambers of their burrows.  This one started filling its pouch near the Center Pond in a previous fall.

Chipmunk Bear Creek_edited-1
An Eastern Chipmunk with his cheek pouches starting to bulge with the food he will store in his underground burrow

The Oak-Hickory Forest and its Mysterious Mushrooms

Dappled sunlight in the woods

The Oak-Hickory forest is blooming – with colorful mushrooms! I learned this week that there are fungi in the earth beneath those trees year ’round. Right now we can see parts of those fungi because they’re making spores above ground in what we commonly call “mushrooms.”

Some fungi break down dead materials to obtain nutrients.  Other fungi form relationships with living plants, including trees,  which generally are mutually beneficial.  This symbiotic association between a fungus and a living plant is called a mycorrhiza.  Mycorrhizal fungi feed on sugars from tree roots and trees in turn can get more minerals and water from the soil through their fungal partner.  According to BBC Earth, some scientists have shown that trees use this system to share nutrients with other trees, including their own saplings, in what some scientists refer to as the “wood wide web!” This web may include both the fungal network and tree roots that are actually grafted together.  I love this idea. Of course,  problems can spread through this web too ( just like our internet!) which is why we published the blog on preventing the spread of Oak Wilt.

Having missed the Parks mushroom workshop last weekend, I can’t identify most of the mushrooms I’ve seen lately. (Drat!)  They look so other-worldly and fascinating. Unless accompanied by a real expert who can make an absolute identification, though, please don’t try to eat them!  Wild mushrooms are notoriously difficult to identify and many are toxic to humans. And in any case, it’s always best to leave the park just the way you found it so we can all enjoy its beauty and surprises.

This amazing mushroom, which may or may not be a Sulfur Shelf mushroom, glowed in the dappled light of the woods.

Yellow and orange fungus
This mushroom, which might or might not be a Sulfur Shelf mushroom, glowed in the dim forest light.

Several of these pale orange mushrooms emerged from the wet soil near the pond at the Gunn Road entrance.

orange mushroom near Gunn
Pale orange mushrooms like this one appeared in the moist soil near the pond by Gunn Road.

Some animal’s taken a nip out of this little one.

Brown and white mushroom
Some animal’s tried a nip of this mushroom which may or may not be a Reddening Lepiota.

Someone’s been eating these red mushrooms, too.

red mushrooms?
These unidentified mushrooms may have been eaten by some small woodland animal, perhaps the American Red Squirrel.

One of the likely consumers of mushrooms in the forest is the  American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) which can safely eat some that are toxic to humans.

Red squirrel
The American Red Squirrel can eat mushrooms that are toxic to humans.

Speaking of “fruits,”  the Pasture Rose (Rosa carolina),  seen in early summer on southern end of the western forest path, has left a lovely fruit, known as a “rose hip.”

Rose hip pasture rose
A Pasture Rose has fruited, leaving a “rose hip.”

Bear Creek offers so much variety – the buzz and sway of the meadows, the shady walnut lane, the small ponds, the big, wild marsh and the dappled light of the woods.  A niche for every mood.  Hope you find the time to sample  some of them soon!

*Footnote:  My sources for information, as well as Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991). The viceroy butterfly is not a Batesian mimic; Stokes Nature Guides:  A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net.; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for beetle info http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info, and invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman.