Tag Archives: butterfly milkweed

Photos of the Week: Fall Splendor at the Wet Prairie

 

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) showing off his red belly while foraging on the trail near the Wet Prairie

One hot fall morning, a male Red-bellied Woodpecker “kwirred” cheerfully  as it hopped among drooping vines, plucking fall fruits along the Paint Creek Trail north of Silver Bell Road. Down near the ground, beneath the towering stalks of Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans) on the Wet Prairie,   native wildflowers bloomed, often unseen.  This special prairie  is “wet” because the soil just below the surface doesn’t allow water to penetrate. That leads to very wet conditions in the spring, but droughty soil in the heat of summer.  It’s a “prairie” because prairie plants, which are adapted to fire, thrived here despite repeated wildfires over the years caused by the railroad. As a result, an unusual mix of autumn wildflowers, in exotic shapes and vivid colors, flourishes on our Wet Prairie.

 

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Watershed Ridge Park: Restoration Off to a Colorful Start!

 

Wildflowers re-establish themselves in a meadow at Watershed Ridge after invasive shrubs are removed

Watershed Ridge, at the corner of Lake George and Buell Roads, is not yet an accessible park. Trails have yet to be created for exploring its forests, wetlands and meadows, though they are planned for the future. Large areas of the land are still under cultivation for agriculture; local farmer, John Fogler, rents fields within the park to plant soy beans and pumpkins. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

But last fall, our Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, Ben VanderWeide, began removing an almost impenetrable cover of invasive bushes that had taken over part of this beautiful piece of land. And suddenly, the graceful contours of the land came into view.

The slopes of Watershed Ridge after last fall’s removal of invasive shrubs

The rolling slopes looked lifeless then. But what a transformation this spring and summer as sun finally reached the native wildflowers!

The sloping landscape of Watershed Ridge Park this summer after the removal of invasive shrubs

Part of the reason Ben chose this area for restoration was that he’d noticed unusual native plants struggling to survive in the shade of invasive bushes like autumn olive, glossy buckthorn, privet, and such. Last autumn, Smooth Aster (Symphyotrichum laeveand a small orchid called Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes species) thrust their stems into the cool air. (Here’s a photo of the little orchid as it looked at the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail.)

Ladies Tresses, a small orchid, is a fall wildflower that Ben saw at Watershed Ridge last autumn.

Right now I’d advise anyone to be cautious about  walking through Watershed Ridge since it’s easy to get disoriented on 170 acres without trails (though a compass in your phone helps, I find!). Hikers need to use the edges of the farm fields so that they don’t damage the crops. The woody debris on the ground makes walking a bit tricky  and there’s a fair amount of Poison-ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) to avoid. Photos below might help those afraid of all 3-three-leaved plants. The one on the left is poison ivy.  Note the “thumb” on the leaves which is missing from other three-leaved plants like the Black Raspberry (Rubus occidentalis) on the right. Poison-ivy often has reddish “feet” when it’s climbing a tree and grows along the trunk rather than around it.

So for now, perhaps consider an easier alternative.

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

Join me on a virtual walk from the entrance area with its busy young birds, into the forest with its woodland flowers and wetlands and beyond the woods to the meadow with a riot of native wildflowers, butterflies, an exotic moth and more!

 

 

 

Birds Grace the Simple Entrance off Buell Road

The best spot to park is on Buell Road at the firewood pickup site (1650 W. Buell Road is the approximate address – click here for a map). Just to the west you’ll see a work area for Parks and Recreation staff that includes a pole barn and bulk materials storage. This work area is closed to the public, but you’re welcome to explore the rest of the park.

The old fence rows near the entrance on Buell Road have many trees, shrubs and vines, so birds nested happily around the area this summer. In mid-July, this area was full of fledglings trying out their wings and pestering their parents. A flock of young Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) settled on limbs and fence posts, begging to be fed while their beleaguered adults either surrendered or tried to escape their noisy youngsters. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

A young Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe), however, was off on its own, trying out its wings, exploring the pole barn (sheds are popular Phoebe nest sites) and flying down into the grass like any adult Phoebe might.

A young Phoebe exploring the shed at Watershed Ridge – a very typical behavior for a bird that often builds nests in human structures.
The same Phoebe in a nearby tree to provide a glimpse of how small this little flycatcher is!

A young Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) was also off on its own and looking a bit dubious about what to do next as it sat in a nearby pine. This may be a young male since it appears that its juvenile red cap is slowly receding into the red spot that a male sports on the back of its head.

A juvenile Downy Woodpecker considers what to do next.

I failed to get decent photos, but two weeks ago, a pair of Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) were still feeding their nestlings, flying back and forth between a tree on the west side of the area to a large willow on the east where they probably were foraging for insects before returning to the nest. Here are two not-so-hot photos!

From mid-July to mid-August, American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) raise their young. Unlike most native birds, they wait until mid-summer to breed, because they like to line their nests with thistle down, eat the seeds themselves and feed them to their young. Several were flitting among the thistles along Buell Road.

American Goldfinches like thistle down for their nests and the seed for feeding themselves and their young.

A male Northern Flicker with his dashing “mustache” perused the territory from the top of a snag.

A male Northern Flicker with his dashing “mustache”

A “High Quality” Woodland Sprinkled with Wildflowers that Love Moisture, Shade and Rich Humus.

When you step into the cool darkness of the woods on a warm summer afternoon, you notice that most of the plants bear modest little flowers compared to sunnier areas. Perhaps that’s because they’ve  evolved growth and reproductive strategies that are different from the large, colorful blooms of a sunny meadow or prairie.

One good example is the unusual flower of a parasitic plant (not a mushroom!) that Ben helped me find, called Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora). This small, white wildflower typically grows in forests and lives on the photosynthesis of trees – especially oaks in our area – by tapping into the  mycorrhizal fungi that connect the trees below the soil. As a result, it doesn’t use photosynthesis and contains no chlorophyll. According to the Illinois Wildflower website (a descriptive floral site), “This unusual wildflower is normally found in high quality woodlands” where there is “abundant humus.”  Hooray for Watershed Ridge, eh?

The modest blooms of summer woodland plants primarily attract small bees, like sweat or carpenter bees,  or flies,  rather than honeybees or bumblebees.  They also frequently spread by rhizomes (underground stems) and/or by making bur-like fruits that will stick to any passing animal, including you!

Wildflowers that enjoy dappled light find a home where the woods meets the now-open meadow.

Naturally, mushrooms also thrive in shady, moist places. Near the edge of the woods, I saw what I think are two kinds of highly toxic mushrooms from the genus Amanita. I believe they are either Amanita phalloides or Amanita bisporigera. In any case, Amanita mushrooms are also called “death caps” for good reason –  so admire their exotic strangeness, but leave them right where they are. The yellow one may have been nibbled by squirrels or rabbits who can eat the toxins with no problem.

Wetlands Glow Blue/Green in the Deep Shade of the Woods

One of the wetland pools within the woods at Watershed Ridge

Two wetland pools shine in the darkness on either side of a ridge within the woods at Watershed.  Near the western one, an old log is festooned with a huge number of tiny, stalked mushrooms which I can’t identify. They make quite a show against the dark, wet decaying log on which they are thriving.  (Anyone have an ID for me?)

Ben saw two snappers on a log in one of these woodland pools, but they dove in before I saw them. I did see some of my favorite frogs, though. A small female Green Frog (Rana clamitans) (left) basked on a fallen log, while a male nearby (right) did the same. In the female, the tympanum (circle behind the eye used for hearing) is about the size of her eye; the male’s tympanum is about twice the size of his eye and he has a yellow throat.

At the eastern pool, a tiny, black-masked Wood Frog (Rana sylvatica), perhaps 1/2 inch long, paused for its photo on a leaf. This one’s back and legs are bright green, perhaps from the Water Meal (Wolffia columbiana) or the algae in the pool nearby. It seemed an odd time of year  to find an early spring frog, but Wikipedia says that  occasionally Wood Frogs do breed more than once per year. Maybe the heavy rains contributed to more water and hence more breeding behavior? Just a guess.

A tiny Wood Frog pausing on an oak leaf near one of the woodland pools

At the edge of the soybean field just beyond the wood, every step scared up hundreds of small Northern Leopard Frogs (Rana pipiens). They sprang out of moist grass and huddled beneath the bean plants. These young frogs  take about 70-110 days to develop after the females lay their eggs in the water between May to June. At about 2 inches long, they’re half the size of a mature Leopard Frog. Their numbers have generally been in decline since the 1970’s so what a delight to see so many of them here in the township on a protected piece of land!

A small (about 2 inch) Leopard Frog, among hundreds that sprang out of the tall grass into the bean field a few weeks ago.

A Riot of Color as Wildflowers and Butterflies Reclaim a Wild Meadow

Black-eyed Susans and Butterfly Milkweed “take the field” after invasive shrubs are removed from Watershed Ridge

Step out of the woods and the colorful signs of restoration engulf you. Once shaded-out by invasive shrubs, native wildflowers like Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia fulgida) and Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) in the photo above sprang back into the sunlight that finally reached them.  So exciting to see these plants come back with such vigor in the first season after the invasives are removed! (Use pause button to read captions.)

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And with the wildflowers, of course, come the butterflies – but first, one glorious moth! When I first spotted this unusual creature, I thought it must be some sort of bumblebee. But no, it’s the Snowberry Clearwing Moth (Hemaris diffinis). It has fewer central scales on its wings than other butterflies or moths so the wings appear clear in places. It’s odd shape and hovering flight have also inspired the names “the hummingbird moth” (not to be confused with the European one of the same name, Wikipedia tells me!) or the “flying lobster!”  A new creature for me!

This is not a bumblebee. It’s a Snowberry Clearwing Moth mimicking one!

On my first summer visit with Ben, we saw a glorious Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) sipping from some of the bee balm which emerged in great waves of color across the restored meadow this summer. What a sight!

A female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail sips nectar from the great swath of bee balm that now flows across the restored meadow.

Having seen the Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio troilus) for the first time at Charles Ilsley Park a few weeks ago, I saw another male at Watershed Ridge.  The clue is the wash of blue scaling on the wings. A week later I saw another one near the shed which was either the female, which has a less intense wash of blue scaling, or a tattered male who had already lost some of his scales. That Spicebush continually tried to chase off a female Monarch (Danaus plexippus) who was patrolling the same patch of flowers last weekend. The scales on her wings looked quite worn as well. Perhaps they’d worn each other out with all that chasing! I saw some fritillaries dancing together at a distance but not close enough for a shot. But the little Orange Sulphur  (Colias eurytheme) was kind enough to pose for a few moments.

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The meadow slopes down to a sunny wetland that is probably fed by the creek running through the trees just east of the meadow. The stream bottom is bright orange, most likely a result of iron deposits in the soil. I loved how the sky was caught in the water’s surface as I looked upstream.

The resulting wetland at the meadow’s edge featured flowers that love “wet feet,” like Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium maculatum) and Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum).

With a wetland nearby, dragonflies, flying predators, swooped across the meadow on the hunt for other insects.

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A Meadow Under Restoration Gets Us Dreaming

Another view of the meadow that is slowly being restored at Watershed Ridge

Witnessing the dramatic renewal that takes place when invasive shrubs are removed from park land is simply inspirational. What else, who else might return to this lovely piece of land once the Parks and Recreation Commission has time and the funds to develop this 170 acres? What seeds are waiting in the seed bank for their turn in the sun – perhaps even this autumn when the asters in their varied lavender-to-purple blooms or other autumn wildflowers rise from the earth? What other exotic creatures like the Snowberry Clearwing Moth might be sipping at future flowers? What birds might return to nest here? The possibilities are endless as the Ben and the Parks Commission work to renew the diversity of life which is our township’s natural heritage. So much to look forward to as this park progresses over the next several years!

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; 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.

Photos of the Week: The Monarch Butterfly Caterpillar and its Host

Along the Paint Creek Trail,  Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) foliage and flowers are hosting small native creatures –  a Bumblebee (genus Bombus), a Harvester (order Opiliones) – and those glamorous larvae –  Monarch Butterfly Caterpillars (Danaus plexippus).  The Monarch butterflies lay their tiny eggs on the underside of milkweed leaves. 3-8 days later, the larvae, or caterpillars, emerge and feed on the plant. The caterpillars go through 5 molts until the 5th instar attaches itself to a horizontal surface using a silk pad and forms a chrysalis. Two weeks later they emerge transformed as adults, beautiful butterflies.

That’s the beauty of native plants; they’re the natural host for the creatures with which they “grew up” or evolved – like the native bumblebee or the harvester, an outdoor arachnid that’s a distant relative to the spider.   Native creatures in turn pollinate other native flowers or provide forage for native birds, amphibians and reptiles. Native plants form the foundation for preserving our native habitat – and beautiful creatures like the Monarch butterfly!

 

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Sources: Wikipedia and Field Guide to Monarch Caterpillars by Karen Oberhauser and Kristen Kuda University of Minnesota

Orange you glad it’s fall!

Summer and early fall in Oakland Township mean plenty of wildflowers popping up all through the parks. My personal favorite is Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)! When walking through the parks in July it is easy to spot: bright orange clumps of flowers pop up above the grasses and sedges of prairies. I found some great specimens in grassy areas along the Paint Creek Trail. Keep an eye out for their fluffy seeds this fall!

butterfly-milkweed-seed-pod
A Butterfly Milkweed seed pod splitting to show mature seeds. -Picture by Heather Herndon

Continue reading Orange you glad it’s fall!

Out and About In Oakland: Stony Creek Ravine – A Park Less Traveled

The diversity of Oakland Township’s parks and natural areas is a source of repeated surprise and delight  for me.

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

In the last few, very hot weeks, my husband Reg and I have explored the cool, shady trail that threads its way through Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park, a hidden gem that is still under development by the Parks and Recreation Commission. Be prepared to feel you are up north or even out west as you wind your way along a high ridge overlooking the creek.

The 0.4 mile hike isn’t long but it is dramatic. You begin in a tunnel formed by tall shrubs.  Here Reg stops to listen to birdsong as we enter the park.

Path to the Woods Reg SCR
Birdsong can be heard  all around you when you enter Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park.

Gray Catbirds meow from the thickets, Black-capped Chickadees scold on nearby branches – and birdsong flows down from the treetops, trilled by cardinals and other songsters that I don’t yet recognize by ear.

Cardinal 3GC (1)
Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) sing from the treetops as you enter Stony Creek Ravine.
Chickadee
Black-Capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) search the trees for the insects and spiders that make up most of their diet at this time of year.

Occasionally the trail opens to reveal grassy areas filled with wildflowers.  Ben and his summer technicians have worked hard to restore some of the open areas that once existed here.

Bee balm in morning light SCR
Native plants like Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa) again find a home here as restoration continues in the park.

By ridding areas of invasive shrubs,  native wildflowers and grasses like these below find a home here once more.

Butterfly Milkweed grows taller here than I've ever seen it.
Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) grows taller here than I’ve ever seen it.
Native bottlebrush grass is appearing since ecological restoration began here.
Native Bottlebrush Grass (Elymus hystrix) is appearing since ecological restoration began here.
White Avens, a modest native wildflower, competes for the sunlight in restored areas.
White Avens (Geum canadense), a modest native wildflower, competes for the sunlight in restored areas.

In these sunny meadows, a large, native Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) basks in the sunlight without competition from the invasive shrubs that Ben removed last year.

Staghorn sumac SCR
Native Staghorn Sumac thrives in the sunshine, no longer competing with as many invasive shrubs.

Mushrooms grow on the moist, steep sides of the ravine. This one appears to be a mushroom from the genus Amanita, mushrooms toxic to humans. Squirrels, though,  eat them with no ill effect.I think a nip’s been taken out of this one, actually.

AManita muscara mushroom SCR
Toxic Amanita mushrooms are perfectly edible for squirrels.

Of course, all the flowers attract the bees and butterflies who share your walk. For a few minutes, a Bumblebee (genus Bombus) seemed to be enjoying riding down thin stalks of Narrow-Leaved Plantain (Plantago lanceolata) in the middle of the trail. This small bee seemed to be working awfully hard for the limited nectar or pollen on these plants. Maybe it was just a youngster having a good time or practicing its technique?

Bee among the thimble weed
A small Bumblebee flies from one Narrow-leaved Plantain stalk to the next.
Bee riding thimbleweed
The bumblebee repeatedly rode the stalks to the ground, busily trying to gather nectar and seemingly enjoying the ride.

Where there’s water, of course, there are damselflies. Ebony Jewelwings (Calopteryx maculata) balance on the leaves at Stony Creek Ravine and can be seen in groups down near the water.

 

Ebony Jewelwing Damselfly male (1)
A male Ebony Jewelwing damselfly pauses on a leaf in bright sunlight.

The shy Little Wood Satyr butterfly (Megisto cymela) doesn’t search for nectar or pollen. It bustles about in low foliage looking for plant sap or the sticky honeydew left by aphids.

Little Wood Satyr SCR
A Little Wood Satyr looking for plant sap – and maybe an escape from the hot sun too.

The trail winds gently on into the cool shade of an oak forest.

Path through the woods
Cool, shady path through the oak forest at Stony Creek Ravine.

Along the trail, you’ll see the remains of a farmer’s old stone wall, evidence that this land was once more open and sunny than it is today.

Stone wall SCR
A farmer’s stone wall now lays within the oak forest.

The land begins to fall away on either side of the path, plunging dramatically down to Stony Creek as it winds its way through the narrow ravine below. What a view! And the grade is much steeper than a photo can even make it look!

Stoney Creek Ravine
Stony Creek winds its way through the ravine from which the park got its name.

It’s important to stay on the trail here since the stream bed is a conservation area and downhill sliding and slipping causes erosion and damage.  Here are some of our native plants that find a home at the bottom of the ravine, right near the water. (Hover cursor for captions; click on photo to enlarge).

White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) are prevalent in this park. The Parks and Recreation Commission allows controlled hunts in this park every Tuesday and Wednesday from October 1 to January 1, with a PRC-issued special license, to provide opportunity for hunters and to manage the high density of deer in the park. Since the park is closed on those days for 3 months, come visit this slice of dramatic beauty on different days or during the other 9 months of the year .

Deer at SCR second time
Deer hunting is allowed, with a PRC license, Tuesdays and Wednesdays from Oct.1 to Jan.1. No hiking then!

Currently the park’s trailhead is at the end of Knob Creek Drive which is off E. Gunn Road. Right now there is only room for one car to park off-road at the entrance. The PRC applied for a grant to help purchase an adjacent 209 acres to expand this park – an area full of  wildflowers and the wetlands that birds and amphibians love, plus space for plenty of parking off Snell Road.  Fingers crossed that we receive that grant!

The trail takes you to a great vantage point and then ends within the park’s forest of sturdy oaks and their saplings.  When you turn to walk back, you’ll be surprised, I think, by how much you notice that escaped your attention on the way in.  I always am.

Oak Forest at SCR
Large Red and White Oaks stand among smaller trees along the top of the ridge at the end of the trail.

We all probably have our favorite natural areas in Oakland Township.  Mine’s always been Bear Creek Nature Park and yours may be the Paint Creek Trail or Cranberry Lake Park. But it’s exciting to explore the paths “less traveled by” with fresh eyes. Beauty takes so many forms in the natural world and I love being introduced to landscapes nearby that I’ve never seen before. Give it a try. You never know. As poet Robert Frost suggested, taking one of these paths “less traveled by” may make “all the difference.”

Footnote:  My sources for information are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991); Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for insect info; http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info; invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman; experienced birder Ruth Glass, bird walk leader at Stoney Creek Metro Park for bird identification; Birds of North America Online; Audubon.org; Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, Trees in My Forest by Bernd Heinrich, Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, Savannah River Ecology Lab (Univ of Georgia); Tortoise Trust website www.tortoisetrust.org;  An Orchard Invisible: A Natural History of Seeds by Jonathan Silvertown; The Ecology of Plants by Gurevitch, Scheiner and Fox; other sites as cited in the text.

Out and About in Oakland: Rare Beauty on the Wet Prairie Again! (Paint Creek Trail)

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

As runners and bikers sail along beside you on the Paint Creek Trail, perhaps you, like me, wonder if they notice all the beauty around them.  But sometimes a walker misses glorious sites as well.  This week and last, Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide alerted me to two beautiful wildflowers that I would have missed!  Both were gracing  lesser known areas of our park system, areas full of life and a surprising variety of native wildflowers.  I thought I should share them with other walkers, runners and bikers who might have missed them, too.

The Wet Prairie (Paint Creek Trail):  Michigan Lilies and More

A “wet prairie” sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it?  Prairies are always sunny, but the soil can range from wet to very dry.  Sometimes, in the flood plain of a stream, or other area with a shallow water table, special fire-adapted wildflowers and grasses find a footing. Conditions are perfect at this spot on the trail.  The original channel of Paint Creek and its floodplain cross this 10 acre parcel on the west side of the trail.  Last fall, we published a blog of the autumn flowers that bloomed here last year. And in June, we showed the stunning native Yellow Ladyslipper  orchids  (Cypripedium parviflorum) hidden in the grass.  Now look at this summer bloom!

Michigan Lily
Native Michigan Lily near the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail

How’s that for a spectacular native plant!  The Michigan Lily (Lilium michiganense) might remind you of the non-native Orange Day-Lily (Hemerocallis fulva) or what we used to call “Roadside Lilies.”  But this is a much fancier, native lily.  They don’t last long in hot weather – and deer frequently eat the buds before they bloom, which prevents them re-seeding.  So we’re lucky to have them this year!  Take a look as you hike or bike near the prairie.

Other native wildflowers are blooming on the Wet Prairie now too.  Of course, orange Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) dots the area.  Here’s Ben’s photo from last summer.

The grand finale, this milkweed takes the show. A beautiful milkweed for your garden, this species form clumps instead of spreading widely.
Butterfly milkweed dots the Wet Prairie with bright orange blossoms. Ben’s photo.

Native Shrubby Cinquefoil (Dasiphora fruticosa)  tilts its blossoms to the sun near the trail, too.

Shrubby Cinquefoil Wet Prairie
Native Shrubby Cinquefoil loves the moist ground and the full sun of the Wet Prairie.

The lavender blooms of native Showy Tick Trefoil (Desmodium canadense) are drying in the heat but the Joe Pye (Eutrochium maculatum), a native wildflower that likes moist feet and sunlight, is just getting ready to go!

Insects swoop from plant to plant in the Wet Prairie searching for either food or shade.  Here  a female Widow Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula luctuosa) pauses on a bare twig.

Widow Skimmer Wet Prairie_edited-1
A female Widow Skimmer dragonfly on the Wet Prairie

This young male Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly (Erythemis simplicollis) still has chevrons on his tail. As he matures, a waxy coating will move up from the tip of his tail, turning his abdomen light blue.  Eastern Pondhawk males fiercely defend about 5 square yards of territory from “intruders,” according to my insect “guru,” the Bug Lady at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Eastern Pondhawk Dragonfly young
A young male Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly. Males defend about 5 square yards of territory.

A modest brown butterfly paused for a moment on some dried flower heads.  I think it’s a Columbine Duskywing (Erynnis lucilius), but it may be another Duskywing.  I love its striped antennae.

Columbine Duskywing erynnis licilius
A Duskywing butterfly with striped antennae

Native False Sunflowers (Heliopsis helianthoides) shine golden in the  shade beneath the trees just south of the Wet Prairie.

Woodland sunflowers
False Sunflowers west of the Paint Creek Trail near Silverbell Road.

The prescribed burns and removal of invasive shrubs have given the native Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) lots of room just at the edge of the tree canopy south of the Wet Prairie.

Black Susans PC Wet Prairie

That Other Wildflower Surprise –  Gallagher Creek Park

Ben notified me too about another native that’s blooming right now at the little 15 acre park at the corner of Silverbell and Adams Road.  So I hurried over  to see it, of course, and wow!  So many native flowers, so much birdsong, a frog, dragonflies, butterflies – all kinds of life is emerging in that small park at the headwaters of Gallagher Creek!   I plan to dedicate a piece to it very soon.  But  this week I wanted to share this  elegant spike of white blossoms  called  Culver’s Root (Veronicastrum virginicum) because  its blooms only last a couple of weeks.  So if you want to see it, hurry over to Gallagher Creek Park, too.  The flowers are just to the west of the parking lot,  swaying gracefully  in the tall grass.

Culver's Root – Version 2
Culver’s Root, an elegant native wildflower, swaying in the breeze at Gallagher Creek Park.

It’s wonderful to have friends who share their discoveries with you.  Thank you, Dr. Ben!  I hope some of you readers will use the comment section when you make discoveries in our township parks.  The more eyes we have looking, the more beauty we’ll discover in the meadows, prairies and forests when we’re “Out and About in Oakland!

Footnote:  My sources for information are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991); Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for insect info; http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info; invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman; experienced birder Ruth Glass, bird walk leader at Stoney Creek Metro Park for bird identification; Birds of North America Online; Audubon.org; Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, Trees in My Forest by Bernd Heinrich, Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, Savannah River Ecology Lab (Univ of Georgia); Tortoise Trust website www.tortoisetrust.org;  An Orchard Invisible: A Natural History of Seeds by Jonathan Silvertown; The Ecology of Plants by Gurevitch, Scheiner and Fox; other sites as cited in the text.

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Young Creatures Explore among High Summer Flowers

 

Yound doe w two fawns
A small doe with her two fawns, one nursing, on the path behind the Center Pond one hot Sunday afternoon

Take a walk down the Walnut Lane in the center of Bear Creek. Contemplate the marsh on an early July morning when the heat is building for a blistering afternoon. Laugh at the bulging yellow throats expelling frog song at the Center Pond.

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

You simply can’t miss summer youngsters sallying forth to explore the world. Frog eggs, fledglings, fawns, ducklings, floating, flying or running with tails in the air – young creatures are setting out to explore their world.  And the wildflowers!! The flowers that declare “IT’S SUMMER!” are spattering color across the meadows, under the trees and  along the damp shores of the wetlands. It’s a season for hot sun, cool shade, “bug juice” protection after a rain – and celebrating all the life just burgeoning forth all around you.

High Summer in the Meadows

Up on the highest point, overlooking the rolling old fields of Bear Creek, tall native flowers sway and nod in the summer sunlight. Native Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) established its giant, sandpaper-and-leather leaves (up to 1.5 feet high and 1 ft wide!) last month.

prairie dock leaf and bud
Prairie Dock’s giant leaf with the stem and bud just forming earlier in the summer

Prairie Dock thrives after fire, so this spring’s prescribed burn really encouraged this wonderful native plant. It may be that it grows tall in order to get its flowers above tall prairie grasses, like Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) which is also sprouting around the park since the burn. Naked Prairie Dock stems shoot up to 10 feet in the air topped by ball-shaped buds and bright yellow flowers. All kinds of bees probe the blossoms – and occasionally hummingbirds and as well, according to the website  www.illinoiswildflowers.info (a fave site for detailed wildflower information).

Prairie Dock
The bare stems of native Prairie Dock with ball-shaped buds and bright yellow flowers shoot up to 10 feet in the air!

Just below them, the Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) dance with every passing breeze. These prairie natives actually prefer dry soil and are easy to grow if you’re considering a native garden. Just give them plenty of sun!

Purple coneflower
Native yellow coneflower is blooming below and around the giant Prairie Dock up on the south hill.

Along the trails, Wild Bee Balm/Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) also welcomes bees, of course. In fact one small bee (Monarda dufourea) specializes in pollinating this native member of the mint family.

Bee balm, Menarda
Wild Bee Balm/Bergamot is a native that attracts all kinds of bees, even one who specializes in it!

Brilliant orange Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) dots the fields with its bright orange fireworks. This native, often mistaken for the western plant Indian Paintbrush , lives up to its name. Butterflies love it, Monarchs included. Mammals avoid it, so it also gets planted in native gardens.

Butterfly milkweed
Butterfly milkweed dots the fields with its orange fireworks and makes graceful, curved seedpods in the autumn.

Of course, the fields are full of summer birds and their young as well. A male Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) hopped from limb to limb at the far edge of the Eastern Path, busy finding insects for his young who fluttered along behind (juvenile not pictured here.)

Oriole BC
A Baltimore Oriole busily searches for insects to feed his young.

I caught a photo of what appears to be a Baltimore Oriole fledgling venturing out to find food on her own one rainy morning.

Oriole juvenile female wet
Young Baltimore Oriole exploring the world one rainy morning.

A male Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater)  postured in a tree, throwing his head back to impress a competitor who assiduously ignored him.

Cowbird males posturing
One Brown-headed Cowbird male trying, and evidently failing, to impress another.

After repeatedly seeing the flashing white patch above the tail of Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus) as they fly up from the field to the trees in Bear Creek, I finally caught one sitting in the grass near home. These elegantly colored woodpeckers most often eat on the ground, probing for ants in the soil with their long beaks and then licking them up quickly with their barbed tongues.

Flicker male in the grass
The black “mustache” means this Northern Flicker, searching for ants in the grass, is a male.

In the distance, almost any time of day, the sweet summer song of the Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus ), spills from the treetops. Some compare its intricate song to a Robin singing opera! I especially love the evening version, which to my ear, seems softer than the daytime song.

Rose breasted Grosbeak male
The Rose-breasted Grosbeak sings his lovely, intricate song off and on all day, and to my ear, a mellower version at sunset.

Male House Finches also sing cheerily in small bushes and trees. Their red feathers seem particularly intense this year which Cornell Lab says is due to the pigment in their diet during their spring molt. Something certainly livened up the color of this male!

House finch male
The bright red of this male House Finch is created by the pigments in its diet during the molt.

The female House Finch wears a more sedate outfit. Here’s one fluffing up her feathers in preparation for some serious preening.

House Finch female taking off
A female House Finch prepares for preening her wing feathers..

Butterflies also grace the meadows as they flutter among the blossoms.  Though we associate Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) with their importance to Monarchs (Danaus plexippus), this native plant  hosts myriad butterflies.  Here a male Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) sips its nectar on a hot afternoon.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail male
A male Eastern Tiger Swallowtail has blue patches with orange spots at the edge of its beautifully striped wings.

And nearby, a Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele) did the same.  It’s wonderful how native plants provide a natural food source for so much of our native wildlife.

Great spangled frittilary 2
A Great Spangled Fritillary probes for nectar on native Common Milkweed along the Eastern Path.

This fancy insect, the Red Milkweed Beetle ((Tetraopes tetrophthalmus), is munching the milkweed’s leaves.  Doesn’t it look like a cartoon bug with its  ruffled skirt and lo-o-ong, curved “horns”?

Red Milkweed Beetle (Family Cerambycidae)
The Red Milkweed Beetle is toxic from eating milkweed and its bright colors warn predators of that fact.

According to the “Bug Lady” at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, “Adult RMBs…can get away with being red and black in a green world because milkweeds are toxic, and so, therefore, are RMBs, and red and black are … aposematic (warning) colors.” If insects intrigue you, as they occasionally do me, read more about this cool bug at the Bug Lady’s link. This insect evidently “purrs,” wipes its face on a leaf if it gets too much “milk” on its mouth to prevent having it glued shut (!) and has a really interesting life cycle!

On the other side of the park, native Staghorn Sumac‘s (Rhus typhina )scarlet fruits  are already shining among deep green leaves at the edge of the Western Slope.

Sumac
The glamorous red fruits of the Staghorn Sumac on the western edge of the park.

High Summer Between the Sunny Fields and the Shade

As you stroll toward the more moist and shady areas of the park, other creatures and wildflowers greet you as you move in and out of the bright sunlight and shade. A beautiful milkweed that loves having moist “feet,” the Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) grows among the reeds and cat-tails along the Eastern Path and across the boardwalk from the Playground Pond. Ben VanderWeide, our township Stewardship Manager, tells me that it makes a better garden plant than Common Milkweed, because this pretty plant grows in well-behaved clumps.  Here’s one about to bloom.

Swamp Milkweed
A Swamp Milkweed about to bloom. Some lovers of native wildflowers are hoping to give it the more glamorous name, “Rose Milkweed.” I vote yes!

And another beautiful native member of the  milkweed family  is also about to bloom. Spotted Joe Pye (Eutrochium maculatum) now shows its blushing green leaves and soon its pink blossoms and purple stems will be ready for close viewing at the southern entrance to Bear Creek Marsh.

Joe Pye not yet blooming
Joe Pye will soon be blooming near the deck at the southern entrance to Bear Creek Marsh.

Of course non-natives add splashes of color at the moist border between field and forest, as well. Settlers brought to their gardens many plants with “wort” in their name, believing they had medicinal value.  Here are a couple non-native “wort” plants – Common St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) on the left and Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) on the right. (Hover cursor for caption; click to enlarge.)

A creature that loves dappled light,  an Ebony Jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata), pauses for a moment in bright sunlight, showing the complex color of those normally very dark wings. This seems to be a female because her abdomen is not metallic blue like the male and her wings are tipped with white dots.

Ebony jewelwing damselfly
A female  Ebony Jewelwing damselfly has a duller abdomen and white dots on the tips of her wings.

One morning while birding on the northern loop of the park, a Ctencuha Moth landed on Ben and posed for a few moments.  What a striking moth with dark wings set off by yellow and light blue on the thorax and head – and its iridescent blue body blazes forth when it takes flight!

Ctenucha Moth lands on Ben
This beautiful Ctenucha Moth has an iridescent blue body best seen when it flies.

High Summer in the Pond and the Marsh

Of course, really wet areas of Bear Creek  have high summer flora and fauna all their own. Hundreds of Green Frogs (Rana clamitans) emerged last week. And suddenly all you could see at the Center Pond were their bulging yellow throats as they produced what could literally be called “full-throated” frogsong. There were so many that they were chasing each other through the water in competition for mates.

Apparently, some Green Frogs are already laying eggs. In this photo, each dark dot is a frog embryo surrounded by protective, clear “jelly” in a mass which is called “frogspawn.”   Each female frog can lay from 1,000 to 7,000 eggs – but only about five become adult frogs. Frog eggs and tadpoles are a food source for many creatures – fish, birds, and dragonflies among others. About a week from now,  the tiny tadpoles will emerge.

Frog eggs w water strider
Frog eggs float in their gelatin just below the water surface at the Center Pond while  Water Striders (family Gerridae) move across the surface above.

It appears that the family of Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) that we birders saw earlier at the Playground Pond may have moved to the Center Pond as the fledglings became juveniles. At the far west of the pond, a female carefully supervised five youngsters as they splashed and fed.

Wood duck family
A female Wood Duck supervised her five youngsters as they fed and splashed in the Center Pond.

The Center Pond also had a dragonfly visitor that I hadn’t identified before.  The usual residents, like the Dot-tailed Whiteface Dragonfly (Leucorrhinia intacta), were accompanied by a pair of Blue Dashers (Pachydiplax longipennis) who took turns perching on a branch protruding from the water. This male had probably been nearby since hatching in May, when his abdomen would have been darker blue, but as this dragonfly ages,  it “develops a coating of waxy cells that lighten it,” according to my insect “guru,” the University of Wisconsin’s “Bug Lady.”  

Blue dasher male dragonfly Pachydiplax longipennis
The Blue Dasher dragonfly’s dark blue abdomen gets paler as the summer wears on. Its head, though, is a lively blue/green and its thorax is beautifully striped.

Before the rains came to break the long dry spell, the Bear Creek Marsh had gone dry, leaving an unhappy young Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) stranded in the drying mud. It was still moving but very slowly. It looked much happier two days later after a long, overnight rain put some water back into the marsh!

One hot Sunday afternoon, my husband and I spotted an unfamiliar bird across the water near the reeds. I didn’t get a great shot; my lens just didn’t reach far enough. I’m not sure if this is sandpiper or some other shore bird, but I’m open to suggestions. [Edit:  Expert birder Ruth Glass identifies this bird as a Solitary Sandpiper (Tringa solitaria). Thank you, Ruth!]

Common Sandpiper in the Marsh?
I saw this shore bird in the distance at the marsh. Anybody have an ID suggestion? [Edit: Expert birder Ruth Glass identified this as a Solitary Sandpiper]
The marsh, too, has its high summer blooms. Sedges of various kinds sink their roots in the mud around the northern deck. I’m getting more interested in the wide variety of these ancient plants from the genus Carex. Common Bur-Reed plants are decorated with spiky spherical fruits. Aren’t they cool shapes?

Button Bush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), a native shrub  with its Sputnik-style blooms, clusters near both entrances to the marsh. Its sputnik-like blooms decorate wetlands and attract native insects all summer and its fruits feed birds throughout the autumn and winter.

button bush bloom closeup
Closeup of a Buttonbush blossom

Fresh new Cat-tail heads are developing in the marsh. Male flowers cluster in the spike at the top of the stem, while tiny female flowers form in the thicker section below. While the native species is a beneficial wetland plant, the non-native invasive cattails are often aggressive, especially where lots of nutrients from lawns and roads drain into wetlands.

Cat-tails
Cat-tails have male flowers in the spike at the top, female flowers in the thicker section below.

And near the marsh, another summer native, Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), peeks out of the shade into the sunlight. The stems of this wildflower can reduce the effects of poison ivy if mashed and rubbed against the skin, according to the National Institutes of Health.  I just like how it looks! Bees and hummingbirds like the nectar inside.

Jewel weed
Jewelweed is also called Touch-me-not, because when mature, the seeds shoot out if touched.

A Perfect Time for Youngsters to Meet Youngsters

Patch of common milkweed
A patch of Common Milkweed on the Eastern Path

A breezy, warm afternoon is a perfect time to introduce a child you love to some of nature’s youngsters hatching, flying, swimming and leaping through Bear Creek Nature Park.  And along the way, children can sniff the flowers (no picking!), stick a finger in the frogspawn (eeww!), try to imitate birdsong, analyze the clouds – whatever suits the child’s fancy.   Nature can fill children with delight, laughter, and wonder if they’re allowed to explore like other small creatures. Hope you and your curious youngsters get acquainted with Bear Creek’s wild youngsters and both get to spread their wings and explore high summer in the park.

Footnote:  My sources for information are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991); Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for insect info; http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info; invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman; experienced birder Ruth Glass, bird walk leader at Stoney Creek Metro Park for bird identification; Birds of North America Online; Audubon.org; Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, Trees in My Forest by Bernd Heinrich, Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, Savannah River Ecology Lab (Univ of Georgia); Tortoise Trust website www.tortoisetrust.org;  An Orchard Invisible: A Natural History of Seeds by Jonathan Silvertown; The Ecology of Plants by Gurevitch, Scheiner and Fox; other sites as cited in the text.

Planting Prairies: Oakland Township Restoring Its Natural Heritage

Before European settlement, our special area of Michigan was actually an Oak Savannah with large expanses of tall waving grasses,

Big Blue Stem in the wind
Big Bluestem – a classic prairie grass

widely scattered, spreading oaks

Red Oak Ilsely Nov. 2015
A spreading oak at Charles Ilsley Park

and other native trees, shrubs and prairie wildflowers.  During the spring and summer, ground-nesting birds like the Northern Bobwhite Quail  (Colinus virginianus) settled among tall grass stems, producing young.  Bobolinks (Dolichonyx oryzivorus) sang their burbling song while swaying on grass stems.  The Eastern Meadowlarks (Sturnella magna) whistled their slow song from perches in low shrubs.  Later, in the 1800’s, non-native game birds like Ring-necked Pheasants (Phasianus colchicus) were introduced and took advantage of the tall grass for cover.

On November 14 and 15, Oakland Township’s Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, took a huge step forward in prairie restoration on  20 acres of Draper Twin Lake Park and another 18 acres in Charles Ilsley  Park.  The hope is that residents will  be able to experience the land as it may have looked before and that native residents – birds, animals, grasses, wildflowers, shrubs and trees of the prairie – can return, adding more rich diversity to the plants and wildlife of Oakland Township.

The process began in the summer of 2014 as crews working with Dr. Ben began removing the non-native and invasive species that had taken over the land after farming had ceased.  This meant long hours of cutting woody invasive trees and shrubs like Autumn Olive, Multiflora Rose and Glossy Buckthorn which had quickly colonized the open land, and then treating the stumps to prevent re-growth.  The process continued this summer until one beautifully rolling 20 acre field was finally prepared for planting in Draper Twin Lake Park.

About to be prairie Draper Lake
20 acres of soon-to-be prairie at Draper Twin Lake Park

Two other rolling fields of 5 and 13 acres at Charles Ilsley Park were also cleared and prepared.(Click on double photos for larger view.  Rest cursor on photos for captions.) Two more 15 acre fields are being prepared for planting in 2016 and 2017.

Dr. Ben sought out a U.S. Fish and Wildlife grant to purchase wild seed for these areas and then carefully selected a list of plants suitable for our specific sites. Township residents will need to be patient, since prairie flowers spend their first two to three years putting down deep roots. These deep roots help prairie plants survive drought conditions or fire to which they became adapted over thousands of years of fluctuations in climate and periodic fire.  In fact, carefully controlled prescribed burns will be used periodically on these prairies in the future because regular burning helps native plants thrive and thwarts non- natives who are not adapted to it. Some native plants even require fire in order to bloom!

A few flowers will begin to appear next spring, but the prairies should really start blooming vigorously by the spring and summer of 2018.  Here are just a few of the prairie grasses and wildflowers that will be gracing our prairies then. (Click on photos to enlarge them and hover your cursor over the photo for plant names.)

Along with these more familiar native plants, Dr. Ben also included grasses and flowers that used to bloom here but that we see less often now. Click on these links to see Foxglove Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis), Wild Lupine (Lupinus perennis), and Sky-blue Asters (Symphyotrichum oolentangiense).  And that’s only a sample of the 36 species of plants Dr. Ben ordered!

With those plants up and growing, our parks can attract more butterflies and native prairie birds like those mentioned above or maybe other special species, such as the  Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus), or Henslow’s Sparrow.

So that November weekend, Jerry Stewart from Native Connections brought equipment designed for planting native seed. Jerry first carefully calibrated the seed drill for the  seed type, planting rate, and depth.  He then loaded seed in the hoppers and was ready to go.

Four of our former OT stewardship technicians, who had worked hard to clear land for this project, joined Dr. Ben and Parks Commissioner Colleen Barkham (not pictured) to see the moment when the seed finally went into the ground. The former technicians are now finishing up school or pursuing careers in various environmental fields.

Ben and former interns
Left to right: Dr. Ben Vanderweide, Andrea Nadjarian (2015), Weston Hillier (2015), Matt Peklo (2012-2014), Alex Kriebel (2013-14)

Now the native seed is in and next spring,  sturdy native wildflowers and grasses will begin sinking their roots deep into the soil, a survival strategy that will take them 2 or 3 summers.  And then in year three or four, we will be able to watch prairies in full bloom again in Oakland Township.  As time passes we hope the wildlife return –  butterflies floating above swaying grass and native wildflowers, while the Bobolinks sing and the “Bob-White!” whistle returns to grace the summer months.  Dr. Ben shared some photos taken on the Flint Hills prairie in Kansas (where he completed his doctorate)  in order to help us dream until then.

Golden Kansas Prairie
A golden fall prairie in Kansas
Kansas Prairie
A prairie in Kansas with a huge bloom of Coneflowers the year after a drought!
Oak Savannah
A fall landscape from Kansas shows a “gallery forest” that grows along the streams in Kansas. The widely spaced oaks with prairie vegetation underneath give an image of what “oak savanna” or “oak barrens” might have looked like years ago here in Oakland Township.
Fire on the Kansas Prairie
A low, controlled prescribed burn on Kansas prairie

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Story-telling Wildflowers, Solo Fledglings and the Usual Odds ‘n’ Ends

First week of July, the launch point for what I think of as High Summer.

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

Though it’s gray and rainy as I write (again!), I’m still anticipating the dry heat of the heart of the season when the Old Fields of Bear Creek are sprinkled with color,  grasses and tall flowers bend and sway in the wind, big nectar-sipping butterflies balance on blossoms and swallows swoop and dive overhead.  Hope springs eternal that we will see more days like the 4th of July weekend, eh?

History as Told by Wildflowers

Botanists use the term “Old Fields” for the largely treeless expanses of Bear Creek when you enter from Snell Road and west of the playground pond.  I love the term because it implies a history and for me, the wildflowers express that history in different ways. Compared to native grasslands, savannas, or prairie, Old Fields typically have an abundance of non-native, often agricultural, plants and a few scattered native plants that recolonized after farming or grazing stopped.

It only makes sense to begin with Michigan’s Native Americans.  Meet Indian Hemp (Apocynum cannabinum).  During its growing season, all parts of this plant are toxic so you and that dog on your leash should leave it alone (in case either of you were tempted to eat it!) What’s historically interesting is that native people figured out that in the fall, when the toxins drained down into the roots, this plant could be harvested usefully. According to Wikipedia, Indian Hemp was  “used as a source of fiber by Native Americans to make hunting nets, fishing lines, clothing, and twine.”   Hemp is still used in similar products today.  I love its dark red stems and tiny white flowers. You’ll find it along the north side of the path that curves down around the vernal pond below the high seating area on the south side of the Park.

indian hemp 1
Native Indian Hemp had many uses for the Indians who harvested it in the fall when the toxins in the plant had drained down into its roots.

When settlers arrived in Michigan, the dry, sunny, sandy soil of these areas of Bear Creek were prairie – tall grasses, a few native trees and native flowering plants.  Those settlers probably saw our native Black-eyed Susan  (Rudbeckia hirta) when they arrived.  And they are still here,  currently growing in profusion up near the benches on the hill at the south end of the park.

Edit:  Ben tells me that many plants in the Aster family (Asteraceae), to which Black-eyed Susans belong, have two different sets of flowers – the big petals are actually individual ray flowers with reproductive parts at the base, and the black center is made of individual disc flowers (the outer ring of disc flowers are flowering in this picture).  Click here for a basic explanation, or here for a more technical explanation. So every apparent “petal,” small and large,  is actually a separate flower, producing its own seed!  Quite an amazing amount of seed production in what looks like one big flower!

black eyed susan
The bright eyes of the native Black-eyed Susan would have been here to greet early settlers.

Another beloved native, Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) could have greeted those settlers, just as today its hot pink buds burst into orange blossoms in the native bed and here and there in the field west of the Center Pond.  True to its name, last Sunday it hosted a Meadow Fritillary (Boloria bellona).

butterfly milkweed w Meadow fritllary
Native Butterfly Milkweed living up to its name by hosting a Meadow Fritillary.

According to Wikipedia, after the Civil War,  a U.S. farmer and agriculturalist, Timothy Hanson,  is said to have introduced a European grass as a source of  hay and cattle fodder. Today it’s still here and plentiful and is probably named in Mr. Hanson’s honor; it’s called Timothy (Phleum pratense). It’s a beautiful grass but as a European import, it’s less useful to our native wildlife.  Here it is  in flowering mode with showy red anthers (pollen making organs) at Bear Creek at the top of the hill near the seating area again. Like all grasses, Timothy is wind-pollinated and throws copious amounts of pollen to the wind, hoping that a few pollen grains will land on receptive stigmas of another Timothy plant (stigmas are part of the “female” reproductive structures in plants). Since grasses and other wind-pollinated plants don’t need to advertise to pollinators like insects, birds, or bats, their flowers are not very showy, and sometimes plain hard to see!

timothy Phleum pratense
Non-native Timothy, a European grass brought here to feed sheep and cattle.

After two hot days over the weekend, it had finished flowering for the season, a blessing for folks with spring allergies!

Timothy after seeding
Timothy grass finished flowering by this Monday after a warm weekend.

Timothy and other non-native grasses took the place of tall prairie grasses like Big Blue Stem which is slowly returning to Bear Creek after prescribed burns.  Many of our ground-nesting birds like Pheasants, Meadowlarks and Northern Bobwhites prefer these tall native grasses and losing them, as you’ll hear from me often, reduces the biodiversity we were blessed with here. This fall photo at Seven Ponds Nature Center will give you a feel for the height of this tall native prairie grass that  once flourished in Bear Creek and now is making a comeback .

Big blue stem
Native Big Bluestem growing at Seven Ponds Nature Center

Farmers were still farming here in the 1940’s, of course,  and like the settlers, they needed pasture, hay and silage for their animals.  These days Butterfly Milkweed has to contend with the Birdsfoot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus),a plant from Eurasia and Northern Africa,  which farmers probably seeded while creating pasture for sheep and cattle.  It’s a lovely plant up close, though this particular specimen could be a cultivar (a garden version) that snuck in among the others which aren’t quite as regular and glamorous.

birdsfoot trefoil
Invasive Birdsfoot Trefoil from Eurasia and Northern Africa crowds out native plants.

But look what happened this year to Butterfly Milkweed in the meadow west of the Center Pond.  You can barely see the orange of the Butterfly Milkweed among the yellow of Birdsfoot Trefoil!

invasive birdfoot trefoil_edited-1
Invasive Birdfoot Trefoil crowding out native Butterfly Milkweed.

Next week, along with this week’s discoveries, I hope to explore the historical “roots” (as it were) of other native and non-native species in the shady areas of Bear Creek.  I never knew how much history was blooming right under  my nose!

Fledglings and Old Friends

If you walk along the lane of Walnuts (Julgans nigra) at the center of Bear Creek early in the morning or late afternoon, you’re likely to see some very small, a bit rough-around-the-edges fledglings off on their first solo explorations, no adult nearby.  These young birds are notoriously hard to identify because their plumage is often quite different from their parent.  For example, I’m 99% sure this is a baby Bluebird (Sialia sialis) we saw on Sunday, because of its white eye ring, brown speckled breast, and most importantly, the blue feathers in its wing and tail – and also because it’s smaller, curious and has a not-quite-finished look.

baby bird ID
A fledgling Bluebird (I think) surveys a walnut tree along the center lane.

But I could be wrong – so feel free to correct me!

Here’s another fledgling high in a walnut tree.  Warblers are particularly hard to identify as fledglings,  but I’m going with a fledgling Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia).

fledgling yellow warbler?

Remember the adult version from an early spring post?

yellow warbler
Yellow Warbler posted earlier this spring.

One of our faithful birds, here summer and winter, was also hopping around the walnut trunks searching for bugs or places to store big, fat seeds.  Here’s the agile White-Breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) in an unusually upright position:

nuthatch right side up
The White-Breasted Nuthatch in a seemingly rare pose – right side up!

More often, you’ll see a Nuthatch foraging upside down like this:

upside down nuthatch
A common way of feeding and exploring for the White-Breasted Nuthatch – upside down!

And a summer visitor was farther out in the small trees just east of the Walnut lane, the russet and black Orchard Oriole (Icterus spurius) with his beautiful yellow-olive mate (not pictured).

male orchard oriole2
The male Orchard Oriole flitted through the small trees with his mate (not pictured) who is yellow and olive green.

Another faithful resident, the American Robin (Turdus migratorius) is beginning a second brood for the year so look for a female, like this one in a red oak this week,  sitting in her nest with just her head and tail showing.

Robin in nest
Robins are beginning their second broods of the season.

Those Odds ‘n’ Ends

In the north marsh, Reg spotted what looked like an upside-down Snapping Turtle  ((Chelydra serpentina), its light lower shell (plastron) exposed and its legs flopping in the air.  It was very far away and we puzzled over the sight through binoculars, until suddenly the turtle righted itself and we saw two turtles turn and swim away from each other!  Apparently we saw mating Snappers which breed between April and November.  Since the distant white blob didn’t make much of a photo, here’s a reminder of the beak-nosed appearance of this prehistoric reptile.

snapper head on_2
We saw two of these amazing Snappers mating in the marsh about a week ago.

I must admit that the Center Pond is at its most homely right now.  I hope you saw the White Water Crowfoot (Ranunculus aquatilis), an aquatic buttercup, in bloom earlier, because now it’s left mats of brown strings across the surface.  But despite that, we laughed at seeing 14 young Green Frogs (Lithobates clamitans), sitting at attention on that brown surface all over the pond, each in their own separate little territory, probably enjoying the sunlight.  The bright yellow belly and the tympanum (a frog’s eardrum) on the cheek  that’s bigger than the eye tells you this is a young male on a log near the deck.

Green frog sunbathing
The tympanum (a frog’s eardrum) that’s larger than its eye and a bright yellow belly means this is a young male Green Frog.

I marvel at the semi-precious stone appearance of the Amber Snail (genus Succineida) who lives in moist areas – like this one, found on a dewy leaf near the playground pond.

snail
The appropriately-named Amber Snail loves moisture!

Coming Attractions:

July is the month for a beloved non-native wildflower, Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota) and the first blooms and buds are beginning to show among all that tall grass.  I’m glad this is one of the non-native plants that can co-exist with our native ones!

Queen Anne blossom closed
A bud of non-native Queen Anne’s Lace which is also called Wild Carrot!

History under our feet, fledglings surveying the park from high in the walnut trees, and all the other pleasures of summer in Bear Creek await you – on the next sunny, breezy summer day that we all hope is just over the horizon!

*Quick footnote:  My sources for information, as well as Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Stokes Nature Guides:  A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; 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, and invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman.

 

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Visit the Bear Creek Nursery, Babies Galore! and One Strange Creature…

There’s just something endearing about almost any baby creature and now is the time to go “awww” in Bear Creek (or in your backyard for that matter!)

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

Adult birds stuff the mouths of hungry fledglings, tiny frogs (and I do mean tiny!) spring across the mud and  through the grass at the edges of vernal pools, and young woodchucks and bunnies sally forth to forage in the grass.  The park is full of babies!

(Note:  Though I can venture a short way into the park now, my mobility’s still pretty limited by the accident.  So though all these baby creatures are at Bear Creek now, some of the photos were taken near my home.)

Fledglings and Others in the Nursery

On the Wednesday Bird Walk at Bear Creek this morning, Ben and other birders spotted fledglings all over the park. The fledglings are there for us to see and hear if we take the time to listen and watch.  Sometimes you can hear their squabbling when adults bring food to the nest.  At other times, you can hear the insistent peeping that accompanies their begging posture – tail up, wings down, fast flutter of the wings.  Here’s an example from home of a female House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) with her begging fledgling:

adult and fledgling house finch
A fledgling House Finch assumes the classic begging pose.

Adult birds model feeding behavior for their young – pulling worms, cracking seeds, swallowing bugs in mid-air – but it takes time for fledglings to choose independence and stop begging to be fed directly by their parents.  (Sounds like some human adolescents I’ve known…) Here’s an adult Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) on the right approaching its young with a seed…

adult and fledgling titmouse
An adult Tufted Titmouse brings a seed to a fledgling with an empty hull in its beak. Like babies, they stick crazy things in their mouths.

And then, in a rather awkward move, the adult stuffs its big seed into the fledgling’s beak.

titmouse feeding fledgling
The adult titmouse awkwardly pushes a seed into its fledgling’s beak.

The Tufted Titmouse is a relative of the Black-capped Chickadee and like them, cracks seeds open between its feet and hides some to eat later.  Tufted Titmice make their nests in tree cavities and line them with animal hair, sometimes plucked from passing animals and sometimes found in old squirrel or raccoon nests.  One of the reasons it’s good to leave dead trees in a forest is that the Titmouse can’t excavate a hole itself,  so it needs woodpeckers’ holes from the previous season.

Fledglings are trying out a lot of adult behavior and exhibit a lot of curiosity, just like all youngsters.  Here’s a female House Finch fledgling shot this week who knows she should look around carefully before feeding, but maybe is exaggerating the stance just a bit!

fledgling female house finch craning her neck
A curious fledgling House Finch trying to be cautious before feeding and maybe overdoing it.

Besides being very curious, juveniles often have different plumage from adults and their wing feathers are usually smaller.  See the short wings on this  female fledgling Rose-Breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus)?

grosbeak fledgling
Fledglings, like this female Rose-Breasted Grosbeak, still have to develop the long wing feathers they’ll need as adults.

And this thin, young Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) has the mustache of a male, but it hasn’t gone through the fall molt yet.  Males will keep that mustache.  Females will lose theirs.

fledgling flicker
This young Northern Flicker needs to go through the fall molt before we’ll know whether it keeps the male mustache or loses it because it’s a female.

Of course, the mammal babies explore Bear Creek at this time of year, too.  Here are two young Woodchucks (Marmota monax) learning to forage near our woods on July 1 last year.  Also called Groundhogs, these lowland marmots,  the largest members of the squirrel family (Sciuridae) in our region, are generally herbivorous (vegetarian) and are amazing diggers (as many of us know too well around home!).  They make large burrows, equipped with a spy hole, a nest/sleeping area, a toilet chamber and up to 45 feet of tunnels!

baby groundhogs
Young groundhogs explore the grass near the woods at my home on July 1 – but you’ll see them all over Bear Creek too!

And, of course, there are always little Cottontail Rabbits (Sylvilagus floridanus). I like this description from the Michigan DNR of the mating ritual of rabbits, something I’ve never witnessed: “This usually occurs after dark. The buck chases the doe until she eventually turns and faces him. She then spars at him with her forepaws. They crouch, facing each other, until one of the pair leaps about 2 feet in the air. This behavior is repeated by both animals before mating.”  Pretty athletic!  Rabbits have 3 or 4 litters a year on average so there are always plenty of bunnies. Here’s one sucking in a grass stem bit by bit.

bunny eating
A Cottontail bunny pulls a long stem into its mouth.

And then, of course, it had to clean up a bit after eating.

bunny washing
A Cottontail bunny grooms its face after eating.

On Tuesday of this week, the grasses around the vernal pools in the north end of the park were alive with baby Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus) of various sizes.  This tiny one was struggling to get out of a tire rut some thoughtless person had made in the pedestrian entrance on Gunn.  He’s only about 3/4 of an inch long!  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a frog this small before!

Tiny wood frog
A tiny Wood Frog with his black eye stripe struggles to get out of a tire rut left by a thoughtless person near the Gunn pedestrian entrance to Bear Creek.

About that Strange Creature…

By the way, at one of the vernal pools in the north end of the park under some wood, we found a Blue-Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma laterale).  It was about to rain and very dark in the woods,  so I apologize that the photo is not as sharp as I would like but it’s such an interesting creature, I had to share it with you anyway. 

Blue spotted salamander
The Blue-spotted Salamader hides under logs or bark in moist areas and can regenerate its tail – which detaches if attacked!

Salamanders are strange creatures.  According to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources,  “When danger is sensed, the blue-spotted salamander’s tail lashes back and forth and produces a noxious secretion from two glands at the base of its tail. Even if the predator gets by this defense, it may only end up with a small morsel. When grabbed,  the salamander’s tail will detach. While the predator is detained by the writhing tail,  the salamander zips off to safety. In time a new tail will grow to replace the lost one.”  So, uh, don’t grab one.  They’re pretty darn slippery (one is tempted to say “slimy”) anyway!

Native Plants in Bloom!

So let’s move out into the meadows and marshes and see what’s blooming!

A fun native wildflower is blooming in its own inimitable way in the northern area of the marsh. Common Bur-Reed (Sparganium eurycarpum), like  many of our native plants, can survive fire in wetlands because it spreads underground through rhizomes (root-like underground stems).  Muskrats munch on the rhizomes and water birds eat the seeds which of course helps keeps its growth under control.

bur-reed
Muskrats eat the underground stems of Common Bur-Reed and birds eat its seeds – a native contributor to marsh life.

Last year, at the edge of the woods near the intersection of the path behind the pond and the eastern arm of the Northern Loop, Whorled Loosestrife (Lysimachia quadrifolia) made its appearance.  Like many native plants in our area, it favors sandy soil and oak/hickory forests, which is exactly what Bear Creek offers.  I hadn’t noticed it until last year,  but perhaps you did?

whorled loosestrife
Whorled loosestrife (unlike Purple Loosestrife, an invasive) is a native plant that likes the sandy soil and oak/hickory environment of Bear Creek.

Probably like me, you’ve passed by another native plant for years without paying much attention.  Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)  pops up all over Bear Creek – and lots of other places around the world, actually – and doesn’t look that glamorous – until you look closely at its myriad of little white flowers. Our Yarrow may have hybridized at some point in its past.  The more light pink those little flowers are the closer it is to the native variety. I like it in any case.

yarrow
Yarrow is a modest native that looks like a wedding bouquet when you get close to its tiny disc flowers.

 Coming Attractions:

One of Ben’s and my favorite native wildflowers is budding all over Bear Creek and blooming in the southern native bed.  It’s Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) and just watch!  It will live up to its name once the warmer weather comes.  Butterflies and bees love it even more than we do!

DSCF5509
Butterfly Milkweed will justify its name when butterflies (and bees) flock to it in July.

So put on your bug juice (all this rain has unfortunately made for a bumper crop of mosquitoes) or come when it’s windy and sunny and watch for the young ‘uns.  They grow up fast, just like our children.

*Quick footnote:  My sources for information, as well as Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Stokes Nature Guides:  A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; 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, and invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman.