Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide and I both got inspired by the idea of a year-end reflection on some of the remarkable sights in our parks and natural areas over the last year. Nature excels in surprising and delighting any curious observer with its ability to come back from adversity, in some cases to even thrive in difficult circumstances. That ability to keep on growing and creating in the face of any obstacle can be a great inspiration in challenging times.
So as the snow falls, please sit back in a comfortable chair with a warm drink and savor some highlights from the four seasons of 2017 here in Oakland Township.
Winter 2017: Serenity Rises as the Snow Falls
Sometimes we just need a little less hubbub after the holidays and the parks provide a peaceful escape. In general, the only sounds are the wind in bare branches, the occasional calls of the year ’round birds and the tapping of energetic woodpeckers foraging in the tree bark. And other times, when we feel a bit house-bound and crave crisp air on red cheeks, a winter walk provides little discoveries unavailable in other seasons. During one deep freeze last winter, the weekly birding group stepped out on the ice at Cranberry Lake to inspect a beaver lodge. And a few weeks later, I plopped down in the snow for a closer look at 3-D ice dendrites standing upright on a frozen puddle! Folks enjoyed the fine skating rink at Marsh View Park, but some who fancied wild surroundings skated on Twin Lake. On sunny winter days, shadows are always sharp and any spot of color, like the brilliant red of a male cardinal, catches my eye in winter’s clear, white light. Hiking in winter can be wonderful; just be sure you’re bundled up for it! (Click on pause button for longer captions.)
Spring 2017: Buds, First Blooms, Migrators Flying in by Night and the Ebullient Symphony of Courting Birds and Frogs
Ah, mud-luscious spring! The tiny Chorus and Wood Frogs thawed out after their winter freeze and sang lustily from vernal ponds. In early spring, the birders spotted a crayfish at Bear Creek who’d climbed out of her chimney with eggs under her tail and was lumbering toward the pond. Some spring avian migrators quickly passed through, and we bird watchers were lucky to spot a few special visitors. An unusual American Pipit appeared before my camera lens one afternoon at Gallagher Creek Park on its way to its breeding grounds in the far north. While others, like the Tree Swallow or the Eastern Meadowlark, settled in for the summer to raise their young. After last year’s controlled burn, native Lupines appeared along the Paint Creek Trail. And in May, Ben spotted a rare sight, a frilly spread of rare Bogbean flowers in a kettle wetland at Bald Mountain State Recreation Area off Kern Road. Snow melt and bright green buds always offer an irresistible invitation to come out and join the bustle and music of spring!
Summer 2017: Butterflies Galore as Restored Prairies Began to Bloom
Summer! The very word conjures up a coloring box assortment of butterflies hovering over prairie wildflowers. Birds constructed their nests and later wore themselves out feeding noisy, demanding fledglings. We birders particularly enjoyed close looks at a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak sharing egg-warming duties near a Bear Creek path. The birders laughed in surprise watching a passive/aggressive pair of Canada Geese successfully discourage the presence of a Green Heron by simply swimming uncomfortably close to it. A family ambled along a path at Draper Twin Lake Park, headed for a morning fishing expedition. The birding group, binoculars in hand, spotted an Indigo Bunting while walking the new paths through the prairies at Charles Ilsley Park, increasingly spangled with colorful native wildflowers as restoration proceeds. A Great Horned Owl stared at the delighted birding group through a scrim of leaves near Bear Creek marsh. Every path in the township hummed with life during the summer months. But that’s what we all expect of summer, right?
Autumn 2017: Birds Departed South, and Fall Wildflowers Bloomed
Tundra Swans flew in formation overhead, as migrators of all kinds, like the Hermit Thrush, rode the north wind down to southern climes. But as they departed, nature offered a consolation. Many native wildflowers bloomed in the cool weather as they faithfully do each year. Asters formed carpets of color everywhere, from meadow to marsh! At the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail, tiny Ladies Tresses orchids, Grass of Parnassus with its delicately striped petals, and vivid purple Fringed Gentian intrigued me again by emerging in the chill of early autumn. Native bumblebees pushed their way into Bottle Gentian flowers at Gallagher Creek Park and the Wet Prairie. Butterflies still sipped nectar from late fall blooms. The birders identified ducks of all kinds assembled in rafts on Cranberry Lake. Rattling cries alerted me to the presence of Belted Kingfishers who scouted for prey at both Bear Creek’s pond and Cranberry Lake. Ben dipped his net into a marsh at Charles Ilsley Park to show us tadpoles that overwinter on the muddy surface beneath the water. So much life as the year 2017 began to ebb!
Parks Full of Life All Year ‘Round. Aren’t We Lucky?
As a direct result of the foresight of township residents who have supported the Parks Commission and land preservation, native plants, wildlife, birds, and a beautifully diverse combination of habitats are being restored and preserved in Oakland Township. I want to share my appreciation for that foresight and for the hard work and knowledge of Ben VanderWeide (my kind and able supervisor and editor), other parks volunteers, my fellow birders and park staff. And at the end of the year, I thank all of you who read, comment on and/or follow Natural Areas Notebook. It’s wonderful to be learning more all the time about the natural world – and then to have this opportunity to share what I’m learning with all of you. On to 2018!
Late April and early May are full of dramas. Birds hassle each other over territories. Some turn their brightest feathers into the sunlight or sing elaborately constructed songs to impress the ladies. Snapping turtles roil the waters of the marsh as they twist and turn with their partners, butting heads and biting as they perform their mating dance. Late spring wildflowers and smaller trees hurry to show their best blooms to attract pollinators before bigger trees cloak them in shade. It’s a bustling, slightly crazy season – and isn’t it great?
Migrating Summer Birds Busy Courting, Hassling and Scouting for Nests
Down at the Center Pond one cool spring morning, the birding group watched a Green Heron (Butorides virescens) warming itself on a log at one end of the pond. Its neck wasn’t stretched over the water, so it wasn’t seriously fishing; it just sat there peaceably. Gradually, a pair of passive-aggressive Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) noticed its presence and decided, evidently, that they wanted the pond to themselves. They cruised slowly up to the heron until one of them was nearly beak to beak with it. The heron just sat. They joined forces and approached together. The heron just sat. Finally, one goose climbed onto the heron’s log, while the other positioned itself directly in front of the hapless heron. It sat for another minute and then finally acquiesced, fluttering off to the muddy shore nearby. Conflict successfully avoided, it probably found plenty of snails, insects and amphibians to eat while waiting for the geese to depart.
Sometimes the ongoing drama is a little less obvious. Rose-breasted Grosbeaks (Pheucticus ludovicianus) are plentiful in Bear Creek this year. One morning a male turned his bright pink breast patch to the sun and trilled his elaborate spring song repeatedly for his more modestly dressed mate. (If you hear a fancy version of the robin’s song, there’s likely to be a male grosbeak nearby.)
But nearby, there’s a careful observer. The female Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater) is high in a tree listening, too.
She’s watching for a likely nest in which to lay her eggs. Maybe she’s hoping the grosbeaks will be the ones to nurture and raise her young. Fortunately, the grosbeaks aren’t great prospects. They’re big enough to push the eggs out of the nest – if they notice them. Some birds do and some don’t. The drama hasn’t reached Act II.
In the small meadow west of the pond, a male Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis)spent the morning stringing together short phrases – whistles, tweets, trills and imitations of birds, frogs, even occasionally machinery! His complicated song can go on for minutes without repetition! This male combined song with ruffling his feathers and chasing after the female who was playing hard-to-get. She’d stop to listen, fly off and then dart toward him. He’d pursue her, fluff his feathers again and sing something new. And on they went at the forest edge and among the meadow’s small trees and shrubs.
Some migrators arrive in busy flocks, just stopping over for a short while to refuel before flying north. This week, a flock of 6 or 7 White-Crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) rode in on a south wind during the night and spent the morning gobbling whatever they could find at the edge of the trails. Such a handsome little sparrow with its striped crown!
Some birds fly in for just a short time to breed and then return to southern climes. This Orchard Oriole (Icterus spurius), the smallest of the orioles, flitted quickly among the branches, nibbling on sweet leaf buds for a little quick energy. Even if he finds his yellow-green mate and nests, he’ll likely be gone by mid-July – back to his favorite haunts in Central America.
High overhead, a pair of Sandhill Cranes croaked their wild cry, sounding and looking like two prehistoric pterodactyls with their giant wings. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
The warblers, the tiniest of migrants, have begun to arrive. A week ago a fellow birder helped me spot two species – the Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata) and the Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia) – and, we think, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula.) I didn’t manage to take any decent photos since some ate high in the tree tops and others hopped madly from limb to limb nibbling on leaf buds. So here are three photos from last year just to jog your memory.
In the western meadow, an Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) paused on a stalk. Kingbirds have a crown of red, orange or yellow feathers under that black cap, but they only show when they’re attacking a predator. I’ve never seen them. According to Cornell lab, this solitary, feisty bird changes his lifestyle in the winter, traveling in flocks all along the Amazon and eating fruit instead of Michigan insects. A favorite photo below from a few years ago shows his crown just slightly raised and his red gaping mouth. Maybe he’s feeling just a wee bit aggressive?
Drama in the Wetlands as Well
Over in the marsh, a very small Snapping Turtle(Chelydra serpentina) and a MUCH larger one roiled the water at the far end of the marsh. The difference in their neck lengths will help you determine their relative size in the photos.
I assume the smaller one was the male as he attempted to mount the back of the female’s huge shell at one point. Snappers generally do a lot of face biting when they mate, sometimes injuring each other. The photo below may look like a kiss but it’s more likely that the small turtle on the left is approaching to bite some indeterminable body part of the larger on the right. It didn’t look as though things worked out too well for either of them. After some rolling and tumbling in the marsh, the smaller swam off and the larger floated calmly in the distance.
Blue-spotted Salamanders ((Ambystoma laterale) reproduce in a less excited manner. According to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, salamanders emerge from their burrows on the night of the first snow-melting rain (now that would be dramatic to witness!) and go to the nearest vernal pool After a little nudging and hugging, the male deposits a sperm-topped cone of jelly on the ground in front of the female. She takes it in to fertilize her eggs, which are laid in the water in the next day or so. By mid-summer, the hatched tadpole-like larvae develop lungs instead of gills and absorb their tail fins, taking adult form. Red-backed Salamanders (Plethodon cinereus) lay their eggs in burrows and their young hatch as miniature adults. Here are some salamander eggs and a salamander larvae/tadpole that the monitoring team found in a pool last year, plus three different species of juvenile salamanders under some wood in the park two weeks or so ago.
In the Woods, Not Much Drama, but Burgeoning Life
Again this year, a raccoon is inhabiting the giant hole in the Oak-Hickory forest. Other years this has meant a passel of playful kits by the end of May. I saw nothing until I stepped into the crunchy leaves at the trail’s edge and this curious face popped up at the edge of hole.
The Red Admiral Butterfly (Vanessa atalanta), a migrating insect who probably overwintered in southern Texas, arrived at the wood’s edge a couple of weeks ago. According to Wikipedia, Red Admirals usually have two broods here between May and October.
Under the growing canopy of bright new leaves, a carpet of Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum) is blooming. In the blossom below, a tiny bee from the Halictadae family has curled up to feed on flower nectar. These tiny bees are commonly known as “sweat bees” because they like to lick salt from us humans (luckily, their sting is very minor). This bee’s bright metallic green may mean it’s an Augochlora Sweat Bee (Augochlora pura), solitary bees who don’t live socially in hives. If you know your Michigan bees, please feel free to correct me.
The Little Dramas Keep Life Coming
The dramas of spring creatures mean life continues. The best singer, the most beautiful feathers, the best provider of a good territory get chosen and a new generation begins. Fortunately, the temporary territorial disputes of birds don’t usually result in death or destruction. One bird moves on to new territory and in many cases, joins his former competitor in a fall flock which ends up feeding calmly together on winter feeding grounds. Nature knows that both low level conflict and general cooperation keep life going, even improving, generation by generation. Maybe we humans should take a lesson from them?
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell; 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.
My last blog on Draper Twin Lake Park was in April. So I thought it was high time to return there to share how its lake, wetlands and prairie transform in autumn. I began the first week in November, just before the first hard frost, and ended in the cold, gray days before Thanksgiving. Autumn brings such dramatic changes. Brilliant leaves, hardy fall flowers, migrating birds and insects give way to winter birds and the quiet, brown-and-gray austerity of November.
In the April blog, I explained, with a map, the three sections of Draper – the western lake section, the central large marsh that separates the two hiking areas, and the eastern marsh/prairie section. You can refresh you memory at this link, if you like. So join me for a series of virtual hikes in this unusual tripartite park to watch nature hunkering down for winter.
The Western Trail to Draper Twin Lake: Early November
As you can see above, the lake was beautifully calm one early November afternoon. An angler at the fishing dock that day shared his excitement from the previous day when he’d caught a 25 inch Largemouth Bass (Micropterus salmoides)there. In the photo above, you can see the water circles made by something surfacing and by the angler’s line in the water, but luck wasn’t with him that afternoon.
In the distance, a pair of Mute Swans (Cygnus olor) floated peacefully along the far shore, apparently unconcerned about the angler and his line.
The grace of these non-native birds is irresistible, but how I wish I could see native Trumpeter Swans (Cygnus buccinator) in our township parks. In childhood, I saw one on a pond near Orion Road, but they aren’t common. The more aggressive Mute Swans have affected their numbers by commanding the prime nesting sites. And native trumpeter swans were almost wiped out in the 19th century by two forces – the fashion industry that coveted their feathers and the hunting of muskrats and beavers whose lodges made dry nesting places for native swans then as they do for Canada Geese today.
In the water alongside the dock, a few fruits of the Swamp Rose (Rosa palustris) remained on their dark stalks. I wish I’d experienced this native plant’s pink blossoms and sweet fragrance when it was in bloom. (Here’s an Illinois Wildflowers link to a photo.) Aren’t the bright crimson spots of the rose hips pretty against the silvery dried grasses in the marsh?
Some yellow and lavender leaves crowded the railing at the end of the dock near the shore. Ben VanderWeide, our Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, identified them as possibly the stems of a small Basswood tree. I wonder if the deer and rabbits that like to eat Basswood saplings during the winter will let this one grow. Basswood is fine-grained and soft so it’s often been used by whittlers to carve small objects like children’s toys.
When I headed back to the western parking lot in early November, many of the autumn leaves along the trail were still russet and golden.
One of the last insects of autumn, a Yellow-legged Meadowhawk/Autumn dragonfly, flitted down the trail, keeping me company as I headed back from the lake. Its clear wings with their brush of orange at the base, as well as its orange-red body provide good camouflage once it lands on a fallen leaf.
After an afternoon shower, I saw a Bur Oak leaf (Quercus macrocarpa) along the trail beaded in silver raindrops.
On the way out of the parking lot, a cheerful “family” of Shaggy Mane mushrooms (Coprinus comatus) stood at attention at the edge of the parking lot. The overnight appearance of mushrooms on autumn days almost makes up for the thinning out of wildflowers.
The Western Trail to the Lake: Late November
A week or so later, I returned to the lake near sunset and the view had changed quite dramatically but was still very lovely.
The Whorled/Swamp Loosestrife that surrounds the fishing dock had gone to seed. Ben identified this native wildflower for me and called it “a very nice plant to see in wetlands and around the margins of lakes.” It had purple blossoms in the summer and now made a graceful silhouettes against the autumn reflections in the lake.
The pointed male section at the top of Cat-tails (genus Typha) had fertilized the female “brown-suede” section below earlier in the summer. Now huge plumes shed their seeds at the edge of the dock in the rosy light of an autumn sunset.
By late November, the pair of swans had probably departed for points south and one breezy afternoon, a trio of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis)took their place on Draper Lake. They drifted with the wind, dipping their long necks below the surface periodically to feed on submerged vegetation.
The Shaggy Mane mushroom family had disappeared, as mushrooms can do so suddenly and completely. But as I got back to the parking lot on my later visit, some orange mushrooms glowed in the distance on a dead branch. My best guess is that they are toxic Jack O’Lantern mushrooms (Omphalotus illudens) which cluster on dead wood in the fall. But I’m no mushroom expert so feel free to correct me!
The Eastern Trail to the Marsh and Prairie: Early November
Heading east from the lake section of the park, past the big marsh on the left, you reach a driveway near the crest of hill where a gray building and a small parking lot indicate you’ve reached the the eastern section of Draper Twin Lake Park. As you head off down the trail on the left, in the distance you can see the big central marsh through the trees.
In early November, a few fall wildflowers were still in bloom along this part of the trail. As I set off, I thought I saw a bee probing a blossom of a fall aster (genus Symphotrichum) but on closer inspection, it was one of many Hoverflies (family Syrphidae) that mimic the bee’s appearance, perhaps to ward off predators. Bees were noticeably absent. Presumably non-native European Honeybees (Apis mellifera) had already retreated to their hives inside nearby trees and native Bumblebee queens (genus Bombus) were settling into their individual underground burrows.
Crawling into that blossom above is another insect that was new to me. I got a clearer shot of the Spotted Cucumber Beetle (Diabrotica undecimpunctata) as I watched the EasternYellow Jacket (Vespula maculifrons)below foraging for nectar on a Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa). The beetle’s lime green thorax, spotted abdomen and striped antennae make it look like a cartoon insect, but it’s a major pest for farmers. These bright green beetles attack a variety of crops, including cucumbers and soybeans, and their caterpillars (or larvae) drill down to eat the roots of young plants. Here at Draper, though, this one seemed to just be searching for food quite peaceably with its neighbors, the wasp and hoverfly.
As you round that first curve in the trail, there’s a “floating mat” marsh to your right. In the center of this marsh is a tightly woven tangle of plants and roots with water running beneath it – and shrubs as well as individual plants thrive on this mat.
Before the first frost, Ben’s birding group was still seeing a few migrating sparrows on this path. The White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis),which probably raised its young in Canada, was traveling to southern Ohio and beyond for the winter. (Note the yellow “lores” at the corner of the eyes.)
Ben’s group spotted a Swamp Sparrow (Melospiza georgiana) as well. It has longer legs than other sparrows so it can wade into water. It will actually put its whole head under the surface to fish out small invertebrates. It was on its way south, too.
After turning the corner at the north end of this path, you’ll see the prairie that’s being restored from an old farm field. When I went in early November, the trees along the edge were in full color. (See the photo at the top of the blog.) In the prairie itself, some native plants were still blooming this fall. I was surprised to see Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) still turning their bright faces to the autumn sun. Ben identified for me another native plant as White Vervain (Verbena articifolia) which produces tightly packed tiny white flowers in the summer. The Blue Vervain(Verbena hastata) that Ben planted on the prairie last fall will hopefully make an appearance next year.
A female Clouded Sulphur butterfly (Colias philodice)danced among the dry stems on the field, finally landing on a seeding Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare), trying to find a last sip of nectar before the first frost.
Nearby, a drab little Skipper (family Hesperiidae)that I was unable to identify had found the same plant for a last minute snack.
As I rounded the curve and headed back to the parking area, I heard a commotion in an adjoining field. And suddenly a small tree was filled with dozens of European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) gathering for their migration. Such a gabble of sound and a fluttering of restless wings!
Eastern Trail: Late November
By late November, most of the color had drained from the trees. Around the marsh edges, the Poplars (genus Populus) created a crisp contrast to the russet leaves nearby.
Poplars are plentiful in many of our township parks, while White Pines (Pinus strobus) are less frequent. These soft-needle, native pines were lumbered off from the late 18th through the early 20th century. The few very large white pines that remain in our township probably reflect where they were found historically, while the smaller white pines most likely spread from planted trees often used in landscaping. According to Wikipedia, White Pines produce new needles each spring which they shed about 18 months later in the fall, creating thick carpets on the ground beneath.
Just off the curve in the trail near the prairie, there’s a remarkable White Pine with seven trunks, five of which are full size! I’ve never seen such a tall pine with multiple trunks. On the left is the base of the tree and on the right is my 5′ 11″ husband looking very small next to the height of this impressive tree – or should I say “trees?”
Birds migrating farther south no longer skittered from limb to limb. Instead, our tried-and-true, hardy, year ’round birds – Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata), Black-capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) and Mourning Doves (Zenaida macroura) – huddled in shrubs to avoid cold winds or basked on bare branches on sunnier days.
And there were the familiar migratory birds of the far north – the American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea) and the Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) – who think Michigan is great place to spend the winter.
Bare Trees, Early Sunsets, and Acres of Quiet
Autumn turns us inward, I think. The bustle and color of summer has quieted to more somber grays and browns. Windsong is changed by flowing through dry leaves and bare limbs. A woodpecker drills in the distance; a crow or a jay stridently announces your presence. Now that leaves are underfoot, the trees sleep down in their roots. Turtles and frogs drowse in torpor beneath the water surface. In autumn’s quiet depths, the natural world offers us a place to listen, watch, and maybe just…be. A welcome respite from the hurly-burly of our lives.
Footnote: My sources for information,besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, 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 and the website www.illinoiswildflowers.info; 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 in Gallagher Creek Park, Ben discovered an uncommon shrub (or small tree) producing its unusual, papery seed capsules. So of course, I had to buzz over and have a look. And there it was in the southeastern corner of the circular path off the parking lot. As I traveled the township, I kept coming across restless, large flocks of birds, some preparing to migrate, others just gathering before cold weather arrives. And I learned a fun, new word for the fall jitters of birds.
A Shrub with Fascinating Seeds
This rare plant should be called Lantern Bush in my opinion. Instead it has one of those prosaic names I always complain about – Bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia), for heaven’s sake! Anyway…there’s a scale in botany called the “Coefficient of Conservatism.” That scale represents how tolerant a plant is to disturbances like agriculture and how faithful it is to a pre-settlement natural community. If a plant species is tolerant of disturbance and not very choosy about its habitat, the plant has a lower number on the 10-point scale. Bladdernut, however, is typically found in high quality natural communities such as floodplains and moist woodlands, so it is harder to find, at least in Michigan. Its Coefficient of Conservatism rates a 9 out of 10. Look at these wonderful chambered seed capsules, hanging delicately from the shrub’s limbs, like Chinese lanterns.
The seed capsules are paper-thin. They crush easily to expose their shiny, brown seeds or they can float in water, carrying them to new locations. The inside of this cool seed capsule is as intriguing as the outside.
Evidently, Bladdernut blooms for two or three weeks each spring producing drooping clusters of bell-shaped flowers. The flowers, when pollinated by a visiting variety of bees, produce these lantern-like seed capsules. Fun to see a plant I’d never noticed in all my years of outdoor exploration.
Restless Flocks Experiencing Zugunruhe
You must have noticed large flocks of busy, almost jittery, sometimes noisy birds everywhere in the township right now! This week I learned from the Cornell Lab that there’s a name for this excitement in migrating birds – zugunruhe. It’s a German word that means migratory restlessness. (Zug = migration or movement; unruhe = restlessness.) According to Wikipedia, non-migrating birds sometimes experience zugunruhe too, but at much lower levels. Scientists aren’t sure if it is a stimulus for, or a result of, increased fall feeding. According to Cornell’s excellent website post on bird migration, “Migration can be triggered by a combination of changes in day length, lower temperatures, changes in food supplies, and genetic predisposition.” Bird species respond differently to these triggers, so some species cued strongly by shorter days moved south this fall even with the warm weather, while others are sticking around. So here are some of the restless locals, some migrating, some just flocking for winter, that I came across this week – 3 flocks of them on Buell Road west of Rochester Road.
A recently plowed field on Buell Road was covered with hundreds of feeding Canada Geese (Branta canadensis), no doubt dreaming of warmer climes as they ate.
A flock of European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) filled the top of a small tree and also lined the crossbars of nearby power lines on Buell.
A noisy flock of American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) swooped down onto the road in front of me as I drove along Buell one afternoon. I never saw anything in the road that they were eating, so I have no idea what all the excitement was about. (Sorry for the blurriness – shot through the windshield!)
On Wednesday, Ben and I saw huge numbers of water birds on Cranberry Lake, though they were too far out to get a clear, much less comprehensive photo. Fortunately, Ben identified them through binoculars. So please click on the red links to see their photos on Cornell Lab: Ruddy Ducks (Oxyura jamaicensis), American Black Ducks(Anas rubripes), Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis), Pied-bill Grebes (Podilymbus podiceps) and of course, some Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos).
In the children’s classic, Wind in the Willows, British author Kenneth Grahame creates a wonderful conversation between the non-migrating Water Rat (what we call a Muskrat) and migrating swallows. “No, you don’t understand, naturally,” said the second swallow. “First we feel it stirring within us, a sweet unrest; then back come the recollections one by one, like homing pigeons. They flutter through our dreams at night, they fly with us in our wheelings and circlings by day….never shall I forget the blissful feeling of the hot sun again on my back as I sped down to the lakes that lay so blue and placid below me, and the taste of my first fat insect! … ‘Ah yes, the call of the South, of the South!’ twittered the other two dreamily. ‘Its songs, its hues, its radiant air! O, do you remember—-‘ and, forgetting the Rat, they slid into passionate reminiscence.”
A fine, imaginative description of zugunruhe, don’t you think?
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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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!).
[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.]
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 DestroyingAngel (Amanita virosa)mushroom.It belongs to the toxic genus Amanita, which probably also includes the red or red-and-white mushrooms pictured here. And 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.
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!
Here it is 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.
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.
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).
A 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.
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.
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.
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…
In a large White Oak near the pond, the impressive paper nest of CommonAerial 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 maculata) make 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?
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.
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).
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.)
The 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.
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.