Tag Archives: Calico Aster

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

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

We tend to think of autumn as colored leaves and crisp air. But the prairies and meadows of the township parks celebrate fall with flowers. Many asters love cooler weather and right now the restored prairies of Charles Ilsley Park are dressed in white wildflowers, dotted with splashes of gold.  Butterflies and bees still flutter and hum among the blossoms and grasshoppers still spring like popcorn out of the grass as you walk. Birds, including occasional summer visitors headed south, eat the plants’ berries and seeds or snag a few insects from bare soil or tree limbs. The frantic growth of summer is indeed ebbing, but the park still bustles with life as it awaits the first frost.

Note:  Click here for a map of the park to help in visualizing the various trails and prairies described.

Entering Along the “Great White Way”

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

Walking along the mowed trail into Charles Ilsley Park before the latest heat wave, a nodding crowd of graceful Panicled Asters (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum)  stood on either side, like a crowd at a procession. Occasionally, a spray of New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) added a little royal purple to the view.

A spray of New England Asters along the entrance trail.

Just before sunset one afternoon, several migrating Palm Warblers (Setophaga palmarum) flitted among the branches of a tree along this trail. This little bird was probably on its way from Canada to Florida or the Caribbean. Let’s hope it finds its favorite foods and perches after the terrible storms there this fall!

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

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

A pair of mourning doves giving me the eye

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

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

A quick movement out of the grass onto a nearby tree turned out to be a Katydid (family Tettigoniidae) moving slowly along the trunk with its ungainly legs. Katydids are generally nocturnal and sing at night. I’m guessing this one’s a female because of what appears to be a sickle-shaped ovipositor for laying eggs. Aren’t her antennae amazing? Grasshoppers have short antennae, but katydid antennae are extravagantly long.

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

The Central Meadow Will Soon Become a Prairie

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

Don’t be dismayed by the browned surface in the central area of the park.  Like the other three sections already restored (east, north and west), the invasive shrubs and non-native plants have now been removed from this area. This fall, matted grass and leftover branches will be removed and the central area will be planted with native wildflower seed. Just as in the other three prairies, it will take 3-5 years for the native plants to fully bloom because as drought-adapted wildflowers, they need time to put down long roots before putting energy into flowering. But even now, life goes on in this brown landscape.

Blue is the first spark of color you’ll see in the restoration area – because the Eastern Bluebirds are everywhere! Many of them are using their former nesting boxes for perches as they fly down and forage in the soil and whatever grass remains.

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

Blackened stems, dead grass and bare soil make a perfect landscape for Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) who prefer to nest and forage on open ground. They are known to nest on rooftops, golf courses, even parking lots! They scuttle up and down the restoration field at Ilsley, making periodic quick stops to see if they’ve scared up anything to eat. In autumn, Killdeer gather in small groups (I saw five ) as they migrate as far as Central and South America for the winter, though many choose southern Florida as well.

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

When Killdeer fly, they make a keening call and the feathers on their rumps, just above their tails, flash orange in the sunlight. Look for two flying Killdeer in this quick shot.

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

Another ground forager is still here but will also join small groups for migration. Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus ) love ants, so they too are quite happy to forage in the newly re-sprouting grass or on the bare soil in this area of the park. You’ll often see 3 or 4 together on the ground.

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

Carolina Locust (Dissosteira carolina) flew up from bare earth as I approached the far end of the restoration area. I’ve never been able to catch a photo of one flying; they’re just too quick for me! So on the left is my photo of the locust on the ground, but on the right is a photo by Joshua G Smith at inaturalist.org who shows us its wing by gently holding the insect. You can see why these grasshoppers are often mistaken for butterflies when taking their short flights! (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

At the far end of the restoration area are a few bushes that form a line across the bottom of the north prairie. On all four trips to the park, an Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) rested in the low branches of a tree there – a perfect perch for a flycatcher who actually prefers ground foraging  to catching flies!

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

With all those birds around, this immature Northern Brown Snake (Storeria dekayi) had better be careful! These harmless, little snakes (they don’t bite!) are born with a white “collar” around their necks and are either brown or gray.  As they mature, the collar disappears and the head is darker.  So I’m guessing this one is a juvenile on its way to getting rid of that collar!

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

Lots of Life on Three Prairies – East, North and West!

We’re gifted currently with three prairie plantings at Ilsley in various stages of restoration. The eastern and northern prairies are now in their second summer, the western prairie is in its first. All of them host a wide variety of wildflowers, butterflies, bees and birds.

Prairie Plants

Calico Asters (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum) have turned the eastern prairie white this fall.  The northern prairie, full of invasive thistles last year, is now covered with Brown-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia triloba), a species of Rudbeckia that I just learned about this year! The western prairie is cloaked in white Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota) at the south end, and golden with Black-Eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) at the north end. Natives like Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and some Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) have returned to sway in the breeze above the eastern and northern prairies, which now have mowed trails. The western prairie trail grew over during the summer, but the soft plants make it easy walking. We’re on our way to 50 acres of prairie in this park! (Click on pause button for captions.)

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Insects on the Prairies

Both Bumblebees (genus Bombus) and European Honey Bees (Apis mellifera) buzz quickly over the native blossoms, making the most of late fall nectar. One late afternoon, native bumblebees were driving honey bees off of some flowers with a quick dart toward them, while on other blossoms, honey bees were hassling butterflies.

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

Eventually, however, peace was restored and each found their own blossom on the Calico Asters.

At mid-summer,  the prairies were full of large butterflies – Monarchs and three kinds of Swallowtails. This month, though most of the larger ones are missing; only a few tardy Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) sip at blossoms. The unseasonably warm weather may have prompted  them to tarry a bit longer than other Monarchs who began moving in September. We hope they make it to Mexico before the cold sets in!

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A variety of smaller butterflies, some as small as your thumbnail, move restlessly among the blossoms on all three prairies. The Painted Lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui) is only 1.5-2.0 inches. It migrates some years and not others, but often winters in Mexico like the Monarchs. Its caterpillars eat thistle foliage and the adult butterflies love thistle nectar. This one was sipping daintily along with two other Painted Ladies on non-native Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare) on the northern prairie.

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

The other small butterflies seemed endlessly restless, doing much more flying right now than eating.  I managed to photograph three – but the tiny Grizzled Skipper (Pyrgus centaureae) eluded me, so I’ve borrowed a photo from inaturalist.org with the permission of the photographer, Marian Zöller.

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Birds Enjoying the Prairies

Birds of all sizes frequent these prairies during the year. Many of them, like the Tree Swallows,  have already begun their fall migration. But one evening at the far end of the eastern prairie, a solitary Sandhill Crane (Antigone canadensis) foraged, probably for just-hatched Red-legged Grasshopper nymphs (Melanoplus femurrubrum) that sprang in hundreds from the grass. Suddenly, it lifted into the air. I wonder if it, too, is beginning its migration to Florida or the Caribbean? I’m afraid I was too taken with its size, beauty and the snap of its huge wings to set my exposure accurately, but it was a lovely sight just before dark.

In an old apple tree on the edge of the western prairie, a flock of pale House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) pecked happily at the aging fruit. Usually House Finch males are much darker red, but the intensity of the color is determined by what they eat while molting. I have a feeling these were eating apples (or the bugs within them) instead of bright red berries!

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

And a first for me in Oakland Township!  Last Sunday, a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) spiraled high into the air over the western prairie, riding upward on a rising current of warm air. What a very special moment to see this powerful bird peacefully enjoying the heat of the prairie on a quiet Sunday afternoon.

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

 The View from the Oldest Trees

Two huge oaks trees seem to anchor the past firmly in the present at Charles Ilsley Park. One stands at the south end of the center area that’s being restored and the other stands at the east end of the eastern prairie. The size of these old oaks with their huge trunks and spreading crowns means they’ve been here for hundreds of years, standing watch over the land. Pausing under the eastern prairie tree one afternoon, I took a photo of that tree’s “view” of the restored prairie.

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

It pleased me to imagine that maybe that tree is “looking out on” on a prairie that’s beginning to look a bit like the one it “saw” when it was young so many years ago. And as we watched the bald eagle float above the western prairie, I wondered if it was seeing what its eagle ancestors saw from high in the sky long ago. Humans are such forward-looking creatures, always planning and moving toward the future. It’s a marvel that here in our township, and in other townships around the country, we’ve chosen to set aside areas like Ilsley where the history of our land and its native creatures can be preserved. The trees, wildflowers, birds and butterflies – all of it connects us firmly to our past –  and if we continue to be good stewards, will sustain and delight us for years to come as we move into the future.

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: butterfliesathome.com;Pollinators of Native Plants by Heather Holm; Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3; inaturalist.org;Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela;Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels and others as cited in the text.
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OUT AND ABOUT IN OAKLAND: LOST LAKE – Big Birds, Big Hill, Big Diversity of Life

Cam walking into BC
Blog and photos by Cam Mannino

Until recently, I’d visited Lost Lake Nature Park (on Predmore west of Cranberry Lake Park) only in the winter and marveled at its amazing sledding hill. I’d spent a delightful snowy afternoon taking action shots of kids and adults as they whizzed by on their sleds during Winter Carnival. Fun place! I’d visited once in spring with  the birders and seen a cloud of Yellow Warblers whisking through the trees at the top of the hill.

But it occurred to me that I didn’t know what this 58 acre park had to offer in the summer. So for the last couple of weeks, I’ve spent quiet hours watching water birds as I explored around the 8 acre “kettle lake.” I hiked up through the woods after a rain and was astonished by colorful mushrooms of all shapes emerging at every turn in the path. I ambled down the sled hill in the sunshine among native wildflowers and swooping dragonflies. Let me show you a sampling of what I found.

Lost Lake Itself and Its Wetlands

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Lost Lake is a “kettle lake” left by a retreating glacier.

As the audio sign near the lake explains, about 10,000 years ago, an “isolated block of glacial ice melted and filled a depression, or ‘kettle,’ in which it sat.” Kettle lakes are “natural wells, refreshed by groundwater springs.” Wetlands encircle the lake. Right now, the cat-tails and reeds near the water are fringed with early fall wildflowers. A sapphire blue one , with a name that sounds like an exclamation – Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) creates a striking contrast against the yellow Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) and Riddell’s Goldenrod (Solidago riddellii).

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Great Blue Lobelia is plentiful on  the southern edge of Lost Lake.

The cheerful blooms of Nodding Bur-Marigold/Nodding Beggar-Tick (Bidens cernua) edge the shore near the floating dock. It’s a native annual that spreads through re-seeding in the fall.

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Nodding Bur-Marigold, also called Nodding Beggar-tick, is a native annual.

In the water nearby, graceful spikes of lavender rise above the water. These lovely native plants have the unlovely name of Pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata), clearly named by a fisherman who appreciated his catch more than the flowers nearby! Found in “high quality wetlands,” according to the Illinois Wildflowers site, it produces large fruits occasionally eaten by ducks.

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This graceful. aquatic native, has the unlovely name, Pickerelweed!

Lavender and yellow seem to autumn’s chosen colors when it comes to wildflowers. The Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) of summer that edge the parking lot are waning and the Smooth Asters (Symphyotrichum laeve) are beginning to emerge among them.

Large portions of the pond are dotted with native Fragrant Waterlilies (Nymphaea odorata). I couldn’t catch their sweet scent, but lots of little creatures – beetles, small bees, flies –  evidently can. These elegant blooms produce abundant pollen. Turtles, beavers, muskrats and the occasional deer wade in to feed on the huge, round leaves.

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Fragrant Waterlilies produce abundant pollen for insects and their leaves provide foods for muskrats, turtles and beavers.

According to the Illinois Wildflowers website, Waterlily blooms last 3 or 4 days, but once the petals wither, a fruit develops whose stalk bends downward so it can mature underwater. When the seeds are ripe, they are released and float to the surface where they’re carried by water and wind until they sink to the bottom for germination. I saw new blossoms on every trip because of buds like these (love the  neatly-folded, small green bud below the big yellow one!).

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A Yellow Waterlily (Nuphar advena) bud about to open with a closed small green bud next to it.

[Edit:  I forgot to include a small Green Frog (Rana clamitans[) that I caught peeking from between the lily pads.  Like the juvenile birds who seem to grow into their beaks, I wonder if little frogs like this one need to grow into their enormous eyes! Lovely how the sunset that evening colored its small world.]

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A small Green Frog came out from between the lily pads as the setting sun turned the water golden.

Under the water, I saw small fish of various sizes schooling. The audio sign indicates that several different species live in the lake, including bullhead, blue-gills, perch, bass and northern pike. What I saw, I think,  were Minnows (family Cyprinidae).

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Evidently perch, bass, blue-gills and others live in Lost Lake but I  saw only Minnows.

Twice as I approached the lake, I was greeted by the site of large water birds. One morning two Great Egrets (Ardea alba) stood at the eastern edge of the lake.

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What appears to be an adult egret with a juvenile at the eastern edge of Lost Lake.

I thought perhaps the larger was an adult and the much smaller was a juvenile. The larger one preened and both foraged for frogs and small invertebrates in the mud at the edge of the pond. After 20 minutes, the large one took off flying and the small one followed. They simply circled for a few minutes and then landed to eat again. I wondered if the older was helping the younger strengthen its flight muscles for migration. Just a guess, though.

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The egrets took off and circled for a few minutes before settling to eat again.

While watching the egrets, a large flock of Canada Geese flew overhead, calling to each other. The egrets looked up and watched, just like I did. (Hover cursor for captions; click on photo to enlarge.)

On my second visit to Lost Lake,  a pair of Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) waded and foraged in exactly the same area that the Great Egrets had used on my previous visit. Sandhills are grey birds, sometimes with what Cornell Lab calls a “rusty wash.” I’ve read, too, that they use mud to preen which often makes them appear brown. Seeing them dancing gracefully up in the air and floating down when mating in the spring is a sight to behold.

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On the following visit, a pair of Sandhill Cranes foraged in the same area as the egrets.

The Woods: An Oak-Pine Barren

Near the pond, a wide variety of trees tower overhead – Cottonwoods (Populus deltoides), Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera), White Oak (Quercus alba) which is already producing bright green acorns and a variety of pines, including huge White Pines (Pinus strobus). The dry, sandy acidic soil here support an Oak-Pine Barren, a special plant community where the most common trees are widely spaced pines and oaks. To mimic the frequent fires that maintained the open tree canopy, the Natural Areas Stewardship crew burns the woodlands at this park every few years with careful use of prescribed fire.

The path to the woods goes west from the lake, beyond the vehicle barrier signs in front of the Nature Center. Along the way, a native perennial, Bee Balm/Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) fills a sunny spot along a fence line.

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Bee balm along a fence on the way to the woods at Lost Lake

On a moist morning after a downpour, I followed the short path that winds up through the woods toward the top of the sledding hill.

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The path that starts west of the lake leads through the woods to the top of the sledding hill.

The warmth and moisture had caused the appearance of an astonishing variety of mushrooms, which are the “fruiting bodies” of the fungi living under the soil. Mushrooms produce the fungi’s spores above the soil surface so that they can be scattered for reproduction. In that way, they are like the blooms of flowers carrying the seeds for next year’s crop. But what a diversity of shapes and colors on one morning alone! Below is a gallery of mushrooms, some beautiful, some homely, but all ready to disperse spores on the same damp morning.

Click on the photos to enlarge but I’m afraid I can only tentatively identify a couple of toxic ones. The tall, thin white one with a cap appears to be an early stage of  the dramatically named Destroying Angel (Amanita virosa) mushroom. It belongs to the toxic genus Amanita, which probably also includes the  red or red-and-white mushrooms pictured hereAnd the green mushrooms on tree bark are probably a shelf fungus called Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor).

Along with oaks and pines, the woods has many Sassafras trees (Sassafras albidum) with their distinctive 3-pronged leaves that smell like root beer when plucked. Sassafras evidently thrives in the sandy soil which underlies a Oak-Pine Barren like this. Here are the huge leaves of a tiny sapling trying to make the most of the forest light.

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The large leaves of a tiny Sassafras sapling

Nearby by, a black lump of mud seemed to jump in deep shade. Looking closer, I spotted a  very small Eastern American Toad nicely camouflaged against the forest floor. See if you can spot it; it took me a minute when focusing my camera!

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An Eastern American Toad is perfectly camouflaged against the moist forest floor.

Here it is up close.

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Here’s the little creature up close.

Near the top of the sledding hill, at the edge of the forest, native Bottlebrush Grass makes an appearance. The unusual shape of its “awns” (bristle-like appendages) seems to mimic the pine needles nearby and its pale stalk lights up in the smallest amount of sunlight.

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Bottlebrush grass at the forest edge catching the sunlight with its awns that look like pine needles.

Back Down the Big Hill: Sunshine and Prairie Plants

Emerging from the forest shade and descending into the bright sunlight at the bottom of the hill, you’re suddenly surrounded by dry prairie plants of all kinds. Right now,  plumes of Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) glow in the fall sunshine and native Bumblebees (genus Bombus) hover among the blossoms, making the most of late-season nectar.

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A Bumblebee moves among the blossoms of Showy Goldenrod searching for nectar.

All kinds of native grasses thrive from the top of the hill to the bottom – Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans).

Ruby Meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum rubicundulum) kept me company as I descended the hill, even quietly posing for a closeup on a beautiful stalk of Big Bluestem.

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A Ruby Meadowhawk poses on a stalk of Big Bluestem.

What I think was a Violet Dancer damselfly (Argia fumipennis) hovered along the path as well. Damselflies seem to love places where a forest meets an open meadow.

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What I think is a Violet Dancer damselfly on a dry grass stalk on the sledding hill at Lost Lake

Stopping back at the lake at the end of one walk, some frantic activity at the edge of the water caught my eye. Amazingly, four pairs of Ruby Meadowhawks were mating simultaneously! Linked together, each of the four pairs rose and fell, quickly dipping into the water and then zooming upward again. Here’s the best blurry photo I could get of the 4 pairs enacting their dragonfly drama.

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Four Ruby Meadowhawk pairs beginning the mating ritual at the same time.

A male begins the mating ritual by grasping onto the female right behind the head with pincers at the end of his abdomen. Then the two bend toward each other so that the female can extract sperm from the male’s abdomen, forming the mating wheel that I posted at Gallagher Creek a few weeks ago. I did get one closeup of one pair showing the male grasping his mate. Quite a sight, eh? Not much romance among dragonflies, it seems – but then they are called “dragon” flies…

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A male Ruby Meadowhawk initiates mating by grasping the female behind the head with pincers at the end of its abdomen.

In a large White Oak near the pond, the impressive paper nest of Common Aerial Yellow Jackets (Dolichovespula arenaria) hung among the leaves. This Yellow Jacket species is distinct from the ground-nesting Yellow Jackets of the species Vespula with which I’m more familiar. Bald-faced hornets (Dolichovespula maculatamake these gorgeous exposed nests too. But if you look closely, you’ll see that the inhabitants of this one, flying in and out, definitely have the yellow and black pattern of the Yellow Jacket. Isn’t it amazing how these insects chew wood pulp and shape it into these graceful spheres, filled with perfect hexagons and sturdy enough to survive all kinds of summer weather?

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Aerial Yellow Jackets entering and leaving their nest

Four Seasons of Varied Recreation

I’ve featured here the natural richness of Lost Lake Nature Park.  But beyond wonderful winter sledding (there’s a warming house too!),  other recreational opportunities are also available. Kayaks for exploring the lake more closely can be rented from the Parks Department by registering at least one week in advance. Check info at this link. Whether you rent or bring your own kayak, there’s an easy-to-use launching platform on the floating dock that also makes kayaking easily accessible by people with disabilities.

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Kayak launching is easy from the floating dock.

Consider bringing a lunch to eat at the picnic tables in the shade near the water.  Or fish in the sunshine from the floating dock (with a current license, of course).

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Picnic area next to Lost Lake

The house you see from the parking lot is the home of the caretakers’ family and is a private residence.  But on the lower level is the Nature Center which houses a project workroom and  a display of taxidermy which allows children to see a coyote, skunk, owl, fox, heron and others up close.  (Photo,  copyrighted by CMNTv,  is a screen shot from a YouTube video.)

screen-shot-2016-09-14-at-3-48-50-pmThe Nature Center is not open on a daily basis,  though plans are afoot to expand its use with open houses and children’s day-camping.  The PRC contracts with Dinosaur Hill to host field trips for Rochester school children each year.  This year,  area kindergarteners will be invited.

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Nature Center at Lost Lake on the lower level of the caretakers’ private residence.

Lost Lake has lots to offer in any season.  The PRC holds a variety of events here, including this fall,  Yoga by the Lake, a Marsh Bird workshop, a Pumpkin Bowling Event and more. See the details in the Fall 2016 newsletter at this link.  I hope to explore the edges of the lake and its wetlands in a kayak before winter comes. Maybe you’d enjoy a picnic after fishing, watching water birds or simply gazing into the golden heart of a waterlily. The short, steep trail through the forest to the top of the sledding hill and down will get your heart pumping in shady woodland landscape. Look for the hole of a local Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) near the top of the hill. Or come sledding on a snowy Friday night under the lights or on a winter weekend afternoon with the kids. It’s your park so I hope you take time to enjoy it!

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: Winged Migrants Ride the Wind, an Angry Mom, and Learning the Oaks

Bees on NE Aster

Aaah, the crisp, cool air of autumn arrived this week!  And with it came migrating warblers from northern breeding grounds and a restlessness among the migrants that spend their summers here.  Some year ’round birds are still suffering the indignities of the molt, while others are past it and comfortable in their winter colors.  A red squirrel with the soft belly of a nursing female scolded me from a tree while I struggled to distinguish one oak tree from another. I think I’m getting it.

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

A few summer plants bravely sent one or two more blooms out into the cool air while the fall asters still hum with bees.  Autumn begins to take hold at Bear Creek.

Winged Migrants Riding through the Night on the North Wind

Standing in a bright, cool morning Tuesday at the weekly bird walk, I learned from Dr. Ben that migratory birds ride the wind that comes with cold fronts.   My curiosity piqued, I went to the Cornell Lab site to learn more.  Soaring birds, I learned, like hawks or vultures, who use rising warm air (thermals) to get lift for their flight, tend to migrate during the day.   However, large numbers of smaller perching birds (passerines) ride the cool, dry, north wind of a cold front during the night to make their flight easier and then settle down during the day to rest and eat.

This week I saw three warblers who’d stopped by on their way from northern breeding grounds.  On the weekend, I saw a Nashville Warbler (Oreothlypis ruficapilla).  It would have spent the summer raising young in the UP or southern Canada and is now beginning a very long trek to Central America!  Since these warblers eats insects, it’ll be on its way quickly to get to warmer areas where insects aren’t in danger of a killing frost.

Nashville warbler
A Nashville Warbler passed through the park on its way from breeding grounds in the UP or southern Canada to its winter home in Central America.

On Tuesday, after seeing many migratory birds at Charles Ilsley Park on the weekly bird walk, I hurried over to Bear Creek and found some more.

This little bird, that probably flew south on the cold front Monday night, is the Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata).  Though it’s not visible in this photo, this migrant has a bright yellow square patch on the top of its tail when it flutters its wings and a yellow blush beneath its wings.  In spring, the males are a white, gray and black with yellow patches on their heads and tails.  This immature bird was probably born this year somewhere farther north in Michigan or southern Canada.  The Yellow-rumped Warblers that stop here can winter farther north than most warblers because they can digest waxy berries that grow in colder areas. So this young bird may be going only as far as Ohio!

Yellow-rumped warbler immature 1st winter
The Yellow-rumped Warbler has a bright yellow patch on the top of its tail only visible when it flutters its wings.

In a nearby bush near the southernmost swamp near Snell Road.  a Palm Warbler rested from its nighttime ride on the north wind.  It too probably came from Canada but will makes its way to Florida or the Caribbean for the winter.

Palm Warbler2
The Palm Warbler breeds in Canada and then rides the north wind south to Florida and the Caribbean.

Summer Visitors Prepare for Migration

At the edge of the playground pond,  a single Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) was stocking up on insects, making quick darts out from its perch. Though it probably raised young here this summer, phoebes don’t hang out with other phoebes, even their mates!  This one may be getting ready for its journey to the southeast or Florida; it appears to have finished molting into its winter plumage with a white edge to its tail feathers.

Eastern phoebe
This Eastern Phoebe seems to have finished its fall molt and was stocking up on insects before heading south.

This male Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) is still molting into the eclipse plumage it wears for the winter.  It loses its white sides and sharply defined stripes but keeps its colorful eye and bill.  Though the Cornell Lab indicates that Wood Ducks can be in southeast Michigan year ’round, I’ve only seen them here during the breeding season.  This one’s mate may have nested in a hole in one of the dead trees around the Playground Pond where I saw him  – a setting favored by Wood Ducks.

Male wood duck eclipse plumage
This male Wood Duck appears to be molting into his eclipse plumage that he’ll wear during the winter.

Our old pals, the Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) start pairing up in the fall, much earlier than most birds.  Here’s a male in his eclipse  (non-breeding) plumage with his yellow beak,  and a female with her orange and black beak,  hanging out at the Center Pond.  They may be starting to pair bond or perhaps they’re just siblings from the same brood.  He’ll change into his familiar iridescent green head before courtship begins later on.  Mallards move south for the winter, some going as far as Mexico.

Female mallard male in eclipse plumage
A male Mallard with his yellow beak and eclipse or non-breeding plumage hangs out  at the Center Pond with a female with her orange and black beak.

A Local Resident Looking Just Awful!

I also spotted a pitiful sight. A female Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) was huddled in a tree with her head almost bald as she completed her fall molt.  Her beautiful brown feathers tinged with red were partially there, but her head looked like that of a small vulture with a huge orange beak!  Cardinals go bald during the molt, losing all of their head feathers at once. The photos aren’t great but you’ll get the general effect.

molting female cardinal
A female Northern Cardinal looks pretty miserable during her fall molt as she loses all her head feathers at once!
molting female cardinal2
This is a molting female Cardinal. She doesn’t look happy, does she?

One Tough Mama Defends her Fall Babies

American Red Squirrels(Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) breed twice a year.  The second litter comes in late August or September.  The babies emerge in 40 days but nurse for 70!  This week,  I met up with one frazzled mother squirrel.  As I was staring up into the tree canopy, trying to study oaks, she suddenly spotted me, came dashing across a log and scooted up a nearby trunk to a sturdy branch.  From there, she scolded me soundly for several minutes, continuing even after I took a quick photo and walked away.  You can hear a scolding Red Squirrel at this link, though I think the Bear Creek mother, with the soft belly of a nursing female, sounded quite a bit more adamant!  Her torn ear and aggressive posture would seem to indicate that she’s no pushover!

New mom red squirrel
A scolding American Red Squirrel with the soft belly of a nursing female and a torn ear is probably protecting her fall litter.

A Wild-Looking Fruit and Some Late Bloomers

The native  Wild-Cucumber vine (Echinocystis lobata) has finished for the year, leaving behind the dried surface of its weird fruit covered with spikes.  It expels its seeds out of the bottom of this fruit and then dies, because it’s an annual.  In the summer, you can see its fragrant white flowers covering bushes in the park.

Wild Cucumber fruit
The fruit of native Wild-Cucumber makes this amazing fruit and expels its seeds from the bottom of it.

I always like to see a few of the brave summer flowers producing blossoms even as fall settles in.  The 6-8 foot native Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) near the benches on the south hill are now mostly bare stalks with giant leaves near the ground – but one stalk still showed two bright yellow flowers about halfway down a stalk.

Prairie Dock late in season
Two late blooming Prairie Dock flowers near the benches at the top of the south hill.

And at the bottom of the sloping path, a single non-native Chicory (Cichorium intybus) showed its lovely blue color and its pinking shears petals.  I think there’s a tiny spider near the center of the blossom.

Chicory late in the season
A late-blooming Chicory

The yellow centers of the Calico Asters (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum), featured last week,  are changing  to rose as they age.

Calico asters in rose
The yellow centers of Calico Asters are changing to their rose color as they age.

And now for those Oaks!

We live, of course, in Oakland Township within Oakland County, so I figure I should learn more about oaks, right?

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a photo of a Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa) near Gunn Road and decided I should try to learn more about different kinds of oaks.  I’m studying the bark so I can discern them in the winter, but for now, here are 3 leaf types from 3 different kinds of oaks, in case you’d like to put a name to the trees you see.  (I always think that a name makes me notice more!)

So here is the leaf of a White Oak (Quercus alba).  Notice that the lobes are rounded and the sinuses (spaces between the lobes) are quite noticeable, the lower ones on this leaf reaching about halfway to the center vein. The acorn in this photo may or may not be a White Oak acorn; though it was under the tree, squirrels could have carried it there from Black Oaks nearby. This tree was on the path that winds upward to the park from the Township Hall – a very precious, undisturbed  Oak-Hickory forest.

White oak leaf and acorn
A White Oak leaf with rounded lobes.  The acorn may be from a Red Oak nearby rather than the White Oak.

White Oaks grow tall in a forest to reach the light and grow much wider and shorter in the open sun of a field.  These beautiful trees with light gray bark can live 200-300 years and according to Wikipedia, one specimen has been documented at 450 years.  Imagine the stories they could tell about life in Oakland Township!

The leaves on a Black Oak (Quercus velutina) have pointed lobes tipped with bristles, like other members of the Red Oak group, rather than the rounded ones of the White Oak group.  They prefer sandy soils and are a smaller relative of the much larger Red Oak which has a similar leaf  but with more lobes and a less shiny surface.

Red Oak leaf
The lobes of the Black Oak’s leaf are pointed with small bristles at the end of each point.

Down at the pond near Gunn Road, I found a sprouting threesome of Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor) leaves, probably the result of an acorn being cached by a squirrel in some previous year.  It has rounded lobes as part of the White Oak group, like the Bur Oak,  but the Swamp Oak’s lobes are shallow and the leaves get broader beyond the middle.

Swamp Oak leaf
Swamp White Oak leaf has rounded lobes as part of the White Oak family but the lobes are shallow and the leave widens at the mid-point.

So that’s a start on Oaks, though there’s so much more to know!

If you are available, come with us to the bird walk next Wednesday, October 7,  at 8:00 a.m. at Bear Creek.  If the weather is right, you may see some lovely little migrants resting and eating before heading south!  It’s the season for taking deep breaths of cool air, listening to the last rustle of wind through the leaves before they begin to fall and enjoying the bright white light of the sun as its arc lowers and shortens a bit each day.  Each daylight hour in nature becomes more precious now, so try to make the most of them!

*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.