Tag Archives: Columbine

Draper Twin Lake Park: The Restored Prairie is A-buzz, A-flutter and Blooming!

The Draper prairie in bloom with bright yellow Sand Coreopsis, Yarrow and Ox-eye Daisies

Early summer is blooming and buzzing at Draper Twin Lake Park. The golden petals of Sand Coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata) ruffle in the wind among dancing white Ox-eye Daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare) and Yarrow (Achillea millefolium). What a sight for a summer afternoon!  

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

Birds suddenly burst from the deep grass or sway on a sturdy plant stem while being tossed by the wind. Butterflies settle in sunny spots along the moist trails near the marsh or dance along a sunny prairie trail seemingly unable to choose which early summer bloom might please them. Such summery abundance after a cold spring!

 Butterflies Take to the Air!

I often begin blogs with birds, because they’re the favorite wildlife for many park visitors. But for better and worse, early summer begins the high season for insects! Yes, some sting, or bite – but mostly they’re just colorful and simply amazing. On a breezy visit to the eastern side of the park, I was greeted by two Eastern Tiger Swallowtails (Papilio glaucus) dancing their courtship ritual high in the air, full of chases, flutters, soaring and falling. I craned my camera upward, clicked a few times and got lucky. An exciting first for me to get photos of butterflies in flight! (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

The male took a brief rest to sip some nectar as the female flew away. But the wind was so strong that he only paused for a few brief moments before he was blown off his flower!

Undeterred, he fed on a bit more nectar and was soon back in the sky, dancing off above the treetops with his female companion.

Nearby, a flash of orange and black made me think I was seeing a Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) among the greenery. But no! The bars at the bottom of its hindwings were the unmistakable insignia of a Viceroy Butterfly (Limenitis archippus).

By mimicking the Monarch’s appearance, the Viceroy warns predators that he’s distasteful too.

Viceroys are “Müellerian” mimics, meaning they mimic the color and pattern of Monarchs which, like them, are distasteful to predators. By mimicking each other’s appearance, they give potential attackers a warning. “If you see something that looks like us, stay away or you’ll be sorry!” Isn’t evolution amazing?

In the western portion of the park, a Red-spotted Purple butterfly (Limenitis arthemis), paused on the trail in front of me. In my photo on the left, its red spots can just barely be seen on the underside of the forewing. This beautiful – and very active! – creature is said to be a “Batesian” mimic of  the Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor) (on the right) which is toxic to its predators. The Red-spotted Purple isn’t but its similar appearance might make an attacker think so. (Pipevine Swallowtail photo by Annabelle Corboy, an inaturalist.org photographer.)

In the grass along an eastern path sat one of the smaller butterflies much loved by generations who raised them in their classrooms or released them for special events, our very own American Painted Lady (Vanessa virginiensis). The two large eye-spots on the underside (ventral) of its hindwing distinguishes it from the Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) which has four smaller eyespots in the same place and is widespread, appearing on every continent except Antarctica and South America.

Two large eyespots on the underside (ventral) of the hindwing means this is an American Painted Lady rather than the globally widespread Painted Lady.

The tiny butterflies and moths can’t claim the same glamour as the large ones, but they add their own beauty and sprightly flutter as they accompany me along the paths. (Click pause button for identification captions.)

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Dragons and Damsels Flying Hither and Yon

Summer truly begins for me when damselflies settle delicately on shady leaves and dragonflies patrol prairies or ponds in search of a mate. The Common Whitetail Dragonflies are out in force right now  near Twin Lake and the wetlands.

The female Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis) below was hunting away from the water. She waits on vegetation until prey comes sailing by. After about two weeks, she will approach water to find a mate and choose an area of the pond in which to lay her eggs. Within one minute of mating, she will start dipping her abdomen into the water to release eggs, while the male hovers nearby.

This female Eastern Pondhawk will soon be choosing a male. His abdomen is blue, his thorax is green & blue and his head is green.

Damselflies (in the order Odonata like dragonflies) look like delicate flying sticks. Many are iridescent or sport elaborate patterns on their abdomen and/or thorax. They are ancient creatures dating back to the early Permian, at least 250,000 years ago, and live on every continent but Antarctica.

As part of the courtship ritual, the male Ebony Jewelwing (Calopteryx maculata) damselfly bobs up, down and around with other males in what are called “flights of attrition,” until his opponents become exhausted and leave – or he does!

The male Ebony Jewelwing damselfly on the hunt. Love how his body shows through those translucent wings!

I’d forgotten that the brown and black damselfly below left was a female Violet Dancer (Argia fumipennis violacea) until I got assistance at the Odonata of the Eastern U.S. Facebook page. The male is a much more glamorous purple and blue. I saw the female this week at Draper Twin Lake Park and the male there three years ago.

A Native Bird Returns to the Prairie and Avian Parenting Proceeds Around the Park

The restoration of the Draper Prairie is beginning to entice some native birds to return, as well as native plants. On a windy day, I spotted my first Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis) swaying on a plant stem in a stiff wind. In fact, the wind knocked him from his perch at one point, like the Viceroy butterfly mentioned above. This small sparrow with yellow over its eye may be seen more often now that restored prairies are providing the native plants that attract the insects it prefers. I couldn’t record its call in the wind, but listen here for  its song that has an insect-like buzz in the middle!

The Savannah Sparrow is returning to our parks since prairie restoration provides ideal habitat.

I began my Draper Twin Lake Park visits with a second scolding from a male bird, akin to my escapade with the goose at Lost Lake. I approached the marsh on the eastern side of Draper Park to look at what appeared to be some female Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) among the giant leaves of Fragrant Water Lily. Almost immediately a male blackbird began its alarm call, left its perch in the distance and flew directly toward me.

The male Red-winged Blackbird headed toward me when I got too close to his fledglings.

He landed in a tree next to me and never stopped expressing his irritation until I moved away. Click below to hear a worried blackbird dad!

As soon as I focused my camera’s long lens, I knew why he was upset. Fledgling blackbirds look very much like their mothers. It was clear the birds among the lily pads were his fledglings and he wanted me to back off. And I did, of course!

Another avian dad was a little further along in parenting his offspring. A male House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) rested on a vine near the eastern parking area and just below sat one of his offspring on a guy wire, looking straight up at Dad longingly, begging to be fed. Evidently the male thought this was no longer necessary, because no feeding was forthcoming.

As I strolled through the prairie, I watched a Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor) flying open-mouthed to scoop up food for the young in its nest box. Later I saw some gnats dancing busily above the prairie grass and wondered if the large clouds of them over the prairie were part of the Tree Swallow’s diet.

A female House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) seemed to be carefully watching an Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) flying near what appeared to be her nest box. The Eastern Kingbird can be fiercely territorial about its nest and later I saw it land nearby and look toward the wren’s box. But eventually it flew away.  Drama avoided.

Each time I came to Draper I heard the call of the Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) – but it never appeared. It was always in dense shrubs and trees near the soggy edge of the marsh where I couldn’t approach. So here’s a 2016 photo of one throwing his head back and letting loose with “Drink your teeeeeea!”

An Eastern Towhee singing “Drink your teeeeeea!

I did, however, record the male’s wonderful song again this year. [He repeats it at 6-7 second intervals about 4 times on this recording.]

Wildflowers Provide the Colorful Backdrop for All This Activity

The restoration plantings of Draper Twin Lake Park’s northern prairie grow more luxuriant and varied every year. This summer many native wildflowers began to bloom after spending years spent sinking deep roots to resist drought. I’ll be excited to see what arrives with mid-summer and fall as natives find their footing in this gently rolling prairie. (Click pause button if you need more time for captions.)

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In moister regions of the park, other native plants emerge. Scouring Rush (Equisetum arvense), a native fern-ally, produces spores on its cone that look like Indian beadwork. Fragrant Waterlilies (Nymphaea odorata) send up bright yellow club-like buds from the marsh and Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) dangles its exotic blossoms in the shade.

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Sunlight, Rain and Earth Make It All Possible

Daisies add sunshine to a cloudy afternoon on Draper Twin Lake Park’s Northern Prairie

Plants deserve a bit more respect from the creatures, like us, that depend on them.  We tend to notice most the animals, birds, insects that have faces like ours, I guess. But of course, all around us plants are doing the amazing work of pulling up minerals and water from the earth, soaking up sunlight from the sky and miraculously turning those elements into the food that fuels all living beings. Directly or indirectly, everything that all of us eat is provided by plants. I feel very lucky that volunteering for Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our natural areas stewardship manager, has taught me to honor a wider scope of nature. Now while I’m fascinated with wildlife, I’m also learning to notice and name the plants, particularly the native wildflowers and grasses, that have performed the miracle of photosynthesis right here for thousands of years.  Such a generous gift!

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: 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,  A Guide to Bird Behavior Vols.1-3 by Donald W and Lillian Q.Stokes, the passionate enthusiasts at the Facebook groups Odonata of the Eastern U.S.and Butterflying Michigan plus others as cited in the text.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Bear Creek 75 Years Ago

BC View of House 1939 (1)

The farm house at what is now Bear Creek Nature Park as it appeared in 1939.

Long before 107 acre Bear Creek Nature Park had official trails or a play area or decks at the marsh, it was a farm with chickens, ducks, cows, orchards and a garden. The Comps family rented the house on that farm from 1939 until they moved to their own home on Silver Bell Road in 1959. George Comps, a boy when the family moved there,  wrote a long book called Incredible Yesterdays (published by Ravenswood Press, 1997) about his years on that piece of land. The book is available at the Rochester Hills Library in their local history room,  the Oakland Township Historical Society and the Rochester Hills Historical Museum.   All the quotes and black-and-white photos below are from Mr. Comps’ book, whose long-time friend and copyright heir Janet Potton gave me permission to use photos and quotes.

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

What an intriguing look Incredible Yesterdays provides of Oakland Township’s oldest publicly protected park as it existed 75 years ago! Bear Creek’s land was a source of sustenance, heat, income, play, beauty and peace for the Comps family during difficult times. So join me for a short visit to Bear Creek as it looked during the Great Depression and through the Second World War (current map of Bear Creek here).  It was a very different world, but oddly familiar.

What Bear Creek Provided in the 1940s: Warmth and Food!

In 1939, during the Great Depression, the elder Mr. Comps lost his job and the family moved from Rochester to the home you see in the photo at the top of today’s blog. The Great Depression made life challenging for the Comps family. Unlike their house in town, this house had no electricity, no running water and no central heat at that point! But the owner, Mr. Devereaux, agreed to let them stay rent free for a year if they fixed the place up. So the maple syrup buckets on the trees in the photo no doubt provided a sweet treat much appreciated by the family!

Path through Oak-Hickory forest
The woods where the Comps’ family cut wood to heat their home in 1939.

The house was heated with a wood-burning cook stove in the kitchen and another in the dining room. “We burned wood that we cut back in the woods. When we first started cutting it was fun because it was something different, but later it got to be a real chore, hard work … Most of the wood we cut was oak and it was so hard it dulled the saw in a hurry.”

Shagbark Hickory nuts
Hickory nuts at Bear Creek were a source of food in 1939 and still grow in the park.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The many trees on the farm provided food as well  as heat. And many of those tree species survive on the farm today. “Being we had an abundance of nut trees and bushes on the farm, we kids decided to gather as many as we could. There were hickory, walnut and butternut trees and many hazel nut bushes. We gathered nuts every year and spent a lot of time shucking them so we could dry them and have nuts to crack and eat in the winter.”

Honey bee with jodpurs
Bees provided the honey the family found in a huge “bee tree,” an oak they cut down to get to the honey.

Sweets are always in big demand for a family so Dad and the boys went one winter night to chop down a huge oak to get at the bees’ nest inside. “When we got to the tree, there weren’t any bees to be found on the outside. Dad rapped the tree a few times and some did crawl out but it was too cold for them to fly … He said we’d have to cut the tree down to get to the honey. We could use the wood for heat.  This tree was a huge oak about six feet in diameter at the base and extremely tall … Dad carefully took out the combs of honey and put them into the washtub we had brought along for just that purpose.”

Umbrella mushrooms in colony
There were mushrooms on the farm, but Comps’ mother decided not to eat them, not being sure they were edible.

Two Italian men came to the house shortly after the family moved in asking for permission to hunt for mushrooms. Permission granted, “They did come, several days in a row, and they always had a big basket of mushrooms.” Mrs. Comps’ didn’t charge the gentlemen for their mushrooms and when they offered her some for the family, she graciously accepted them, but then decided she wasn’t quite sure they were edible and threw them away – a wise thing to do if you don’t know much about mushrooms.

Hunters also came to hunt pheasants because at that time open fields and remnants stands of native grasses, like the Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) in the photo below, would have provided lots of ideal cover for them.

Big Blue Stem
Big Bluestem, a typical prairie grass that was probably more common in Oakland Township in the 1940s.

And of course the family had a garden as well. So the land that later became Bear Creek served the family well in terms of warmth and nourishment.

What Bear Creek Provided in the 1940s:  Beauty!

Despite the hardships of the Depression, the Comps family made time for simple pleasures. When the skies were darker at night in Oakland Township than they are now, the family enjoyed the startling beauty of the Northern Lights. “It was an astounding sight when the sky would light up with all the colors from all around. The streaks of light would shoot up so strong and even from the south and make it look like you were standing under an umbrella of light. Directly overhead the shafts of light would meet but wouldn’t come together, creating a hole in the display … Just awe inspiring.”  sunset!The skies in Bear Creek are still beautiful, but brighter night skies from nearby development makes seeing the northern lights a rare occurrence these days.

Mr. Comps remembered the steep hill sloping down to Gunn Road in the northern part of the Oak-Hickory forest. There he and his sister  came across “hundreds” of garter snakes “curled up,” basking in the spring sunlight and named it “Snake Hill.” He said,  “In the spring, the ground would be covered with wood lilies (trillium)” and the children picked some on Snake Hill to add to their Mother’s Day gift bouquet. Alas, deer eat trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) and other native woodland plants – and  now trillium are found only in a few spots in the park. And in 20 years, I’ve never seen that many garter snakes! On a high hill on the east of the farm,  probably where houses stand today, George found “wild columbine on a big hill” and transplanted some to his mother’s garden. (Hover cursor over photos for captions.  Click on photos to enlarge.)

 

What Nature Provided in the 1940s:  Pocket Money

Lots of animals that we’ve come to appreciate now were just considered “varmints” by farmers when the Comps children lived on the farm. Ridding the neighborhood of these “pests” was a way to earn a bit of pocket money. Crows were disliked by farmers because as Mr. Comps put it,  they “would follow behind the farmer’s corn planter and dig up the kernels, eating them as fast as he planted them.”  So in those days, Oakland Township paid a bounty that could be collected at the little store in Goodison. “They paid a dime for a rat tail, a dime for baby rats, a dime for a crow’s head and a quarter for a pair of groundhog  ears.”

Muskrats pelts had value too. George’s older brother, Bud, trapped muskrats in the pond and the swamps.  At first, he didn’t have the knack.  But “After talking to the Old Timers at the Goodison store, he gained valuable information about where to put the traps and how to secure them … On his second trip to gather his loot he did very well.” Skinning and preparing the pelts for drying was “more than he bargained for” but he did it for two winters and “gave  the money to mom to help alleviate the strain on the budget.”  So nature provided a little assistance in a hard time for many families – but I’m glad now these creatures can live peacefully in their native homes.

muskrat closeup2
A muskrat peacefully cruising through the duckweed, safe from losing its pelt like it did in earlier times.

What Nature Provided in the 1940s:  Fun! Excitement!

Some of the fun in those days was a bit tough on nature. George Comps remembered “… frog hunting late at night and using barrel staves for hitting the frogs.”

But those barrel staves also made skis for sailing down the western slope on a snowy day. “The big hill was too steep to cultivate and the grass was short from the cattle grazing, thus making it a good place to go skiing and with deep snow, it could be excellent.” The western slope also provided a great place for constructing snowmen.  “… this was the spot we started the snowball  and by the time we got to the bottom the ball was so big we couldn’t move it …  It kept on rolling, getting larger as it went down hill.” The children sensibly started the second snowball only halfway down the hill to make the snowman’s head! Nowadays I see evidence of kids sledding on that hill and still see the occasional remains of much smaller snowmen.

Kids weren’t quite as squeamish about nature adventures in the 1940s. One day the children went swimming in the Center Pond (which they called “Our Little Lake”) and came out with leeches on their legs (turtles show up with them these days!).  After that they just brought a salt shaker with them because salting the “bloodsuckers” made them fall off!  They actually built an earthen dam to make the pond a bit deeper.  It became their place “to go ice skating in the winter and in summer we played on a homemade raft.”

When summer dried Bear Creek marsh (which they called Bear/Bare Swamp), “we could walk all over the swamp.  The grass was so tall we couldn’t see out.”  They came across various snakes, “mostly blue racers.  We were never afraid of them because they were so fast and afraid of humans so they always went slithering on ahead of us.” The marsh no longer dries completely in the summer but the grasses and reed do get tall!

Marsh in Sept_edited-1
The marsh dried in summers in the 1940s.

They’d “go to the stone pile by the swamp [Bear Creek Marsh] and find a soft rock that we used for chalk…we’d take it to the house and break it up so we could handle it.”

Whistle swamp from the lane
A wetland where the Comps made willow whistles.

Nearer to the house, was “Whistle Swamp” so named because “… Dad took us there and showed us how to make whistles from the willow branches. This could be done only in the early spring when the bark…was loose and we could slip it off very easily.”  “Whistle Swamp” seems to be the wetland west of the Walnut Lane, about halfway down.

Grass fires – which children find very exciting and terrify adults –  have always been a part of Oakland Township’s  “Oak Savanna” landscape – some natural, some used by Native Americans to clear and fertilize land. Later, after European settlers arrived and began to develop the area, the Comps family experienced fires in the prairies along that railroad, sparked by trains that passed through Goodison. “Spring was always a time when there were lots of grass fires, especially along the railroad tracks in the valley.”

Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans)
Indiangrass, a beautiful native grass that lends color to the late summer landscape.

Current Parks Commissioner Barkham also remembers seeing smoke repeatedly during the summers when she was a girl years later,  as sparks from the trains made tall grass along the tracks catch fire.  And imagine, no township fire department, just locals with brooms and shovels! That’s one reason we still have so many beautiful native plants growing along the Paint Creek Trail now! Many of our native plant communities depend on fire, whereas some invasive plants do not.  The Parks and Recreation Commission now depends on safe, controlled prescribed burns instead of wildfires to hold onto our natural heritage, the amazing diversity of native plant and animals in Oakland Township.

What Nature Provided in 1940s :  The Under-appreciated “Swamp”

In the 1940s wetlands were often seen as a problem and drained.  Now we know they are crucial and beneficial for erosion control, fisheries,  wildlife habitat, flood control, ground water filtering, native and rare species habitat  and much more. The Comps affectionately named lots of “swamps” on the farm. True swamps  are forested wetlands with standing water at least part of the year, while wet meadow and marsh more accurately describe other wetlands that Mr. Comps explored at Bear Creek. I can’t be sure I’ve located all these correctly, but what follows are a few of George Comps’ “swamps” today.

West of the house was the hay barn, where the cows that grazed the western slope presumably were kept.  That area now is the playground field near Snell Road; the road is much wider now than it was in the 1940s. Behind the barn in the center photo below you can see the tops of two giant oaks that are still there.  Those giants stand over the marsh that the Comps’ children called “the barn swamp.”  Mr. Comps mentions that Michigan Holly, a native bush, grew in the middle of that area, so I’ll look for it in the spring!

“On the east side of the swamp…were two big oak trees.  They grew about half way down the bank and their branches hung just a few feet above the ground at the top of the hill.  We used to hang on the branches and bounce up and down.”  Seventy-five more years have taken a toll as you’ll see at left below.  I’m guessing that what Mr. Comps refers to as “the lane” was somewhere near the path that starts north of the playground and goes all the way to Center Pond. Our Playground Pond on the right is likely what he refers to as the “Lane Swamp.”

“Across from it was The Duck Swamp where all Mike’s ducks would go when they wanted to take to water.” Since this one’s so close to the house location, I’m thinking that his younger brother’s domestic ducks took off to the wetland just west of the Snell path into the park where Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus) were singing lustily this week.

Pond near the house Mike's ducks
A true “swamp” is a forested wetland with a mix of live trees and standing dead trees, or snags. The family’s domestic ducks took off to “Duck Swamp.”

Or perhaps he meant the wetland, just north of there, where today woodpeckers are constantly drilling in the trees. Not much open water for ducks now, though.  It’s filled in with native buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis).

Lane Swamp
This could also be “Duck Swamp” though it’s a bit farther from the house site.

One thing we do know is that the  “Walnut Lane” I refer to was “the lane” when the Comps children played on the farm. Mr. Comps describes going out on a moonlight walk with his sister when they were young.  “We started out and went down the lane because it was easier walking.  When we got to the lake, we heard an owl hoot and it sounded very close.  At the end of the lane was a big huge oak tree and we stopped and listened. It hooted again and we spotted it sitting on the edge of a low branch.”

white oak at center pond
The same “big huge oak,” that George Comps saw near the Center Pond 75 years ago – only “bigger and huger” now!

The “Little Lake,” our Center Pond now,  shows how different the landscape looked when Bear Creek was farmed 75 years ago.  Here’s another view of “The Little Lake” in 1940 and a closer shot of it today.  Now the pond is surrounded by trees and thickets of dense bushes, some native ones and many invasive shrubs.  The cultivated fields, once grazed by cattle or mowed for hay, are now full of wildflowers,  again some native, many non-native, and some invasive.

Big Rock n side pondWhen the Comps children took the moonlit walk to the Little Lake,  George Comps waited on the south side of the lake while his sister found her favorite place on “the Big Rock” on the north side of the pond.  Today, that rock, I’m quite sure, is still here, a short distance up the northern loop and surrounded by invasive bushes.  George’s sister sat there to watch the water.   Today, it can’t be sat upon and the view is obscured by woody shrubs.  Eventually, stewardship will bring back some of openness that the Comps children enjoyed, though rather than simply grazed fields, we hope for widely spaced trees and native wildflowers with their faces to the sun.

What Bear Creek Provides Today:  Peaceful Beauty

We, of course, don’t rely on Bear Creek Nature Park in the same way the Comps family had to, for food, warmth and pocket money. But it still provides its bounty for us by filtering and slowing stormwater, housing bees and other native pollinators to tend our crops, providing us with a healthy respite from our busy lives and many other ways. We leave the flowers and nuts to seed again and the bees, muskrats, crows and ground hogs live undisturbed within its boundaries. But they and all of the nature at Bear Creek still share the same beauty and peace that the Comps family treasured 75 years ago. “Mom liked to go wandering down to the woods. She was a decidedly observant person and never missed a thing when it came to nature.  This was her way to relax and get away from the trials and tribulations of the day to day problems…” All of us who enjoy Bear Creek benefit in just the same way today.

My thanks to Mr. Comps for writing down such a lively and frank account of life on a plot of land much beloved by our citizens  – and to his long-time friend,  Janet Potton, who gave me permission to use photos and quotes from the book.

This Week at Bear Creek: An Appreciation of Some of Less Appreciated Species! And a Few That Are Easier on the Eye.

Last week, I shared some lovable creatures – a raccoon kit, a baby chipmunk, the majestic yellow swallowtail, the iridescent Tree Swallow.

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

This week, I thought we might explore the creatures and plants in the park that perhaps aren’t so lovable at first glance – but who make their own contributions to the rich diversity of Bear Creek Nature Park.

Unglamorous Birds that are Useful, Super Smart or Misunderstood

Well, of course, probably the homeliest bird in Bear Creek is the Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) with its bare, scrawny red head and hunched posture when perching.

vulture perched
The Turkey Vulture looks a bit menacing when perched in a tree.

Old westerns and horror stories taught us to see them as harbingers of death, circling ominously in the sky.  Actually though, in flight Turkey Vultures are majestic and impressive.  They ride the thermals rising from the warming earth,  their wings teetering right and left, with very few wingbeats.  They’re often  mistaken for hawks or eagles from a distance,  but vultures hold their wings high in a “V” when seen straight on and the undersides of their flight feathers are paler than the rest of their dark brown bodies so the light shining through them forms what  appears from below to be a pale band at the edge of each wing.

vulture closeup_2
A Turkey Vulture in the air looks majestic and powerful riding the thermals scarcely beating its wings.

Vultures are the reliable leaders of the clean-up crew in the park, because they, unlike many birds, have a keen sense of smell and detect carrion (dead animals) even under the tree canopy. With their strong, sharp beaks, they clean up carcasses one strong bite at a time.  Their bare heads mean nothing nasty gets caught in feathers and their immune system keeps them safe even from botulism, anthrax, cholera and salmonella!  If vultures didn’t scavenge, we’d be surrounded by the nasty sight and smell of lots of dead animals.  So say something nice about vultures next time people bad-mouth them, OK?

crow closeup2
The velvety black American Crow is one of the most intelligent of all birds, as intelligent as some apes!

The American Crow  (Corvus brachyrhynchos) is another under-appreciated bird that many people fear. Like vultures, crows do eat carrion but it’s only part of their diet.  They eat seeds, fruit, some small animals and, unhappily, occasionally the eggs or even young of other birds. But crows are also the geniuses of the bird world, outstripped only by their cousins in the Corvid family, the ravens.  Crows have huge brains with a brain/body quotient approaching that of some apes!  They use and even make tools.  They are mischievous – snitching food from river otters while other crows distract it or hauling a fisherman’s line out of the ice by pulling it up with its beak, stepping on it and hauling again in order to eat the bait (or if lucky, the fish!) on the hook and then letting the line slide innocently back through the hole.  They mimic both other birds and humans.  A famous naturalist, Jean Craighead George tells how  a crow outside her back door used to raid picnic tables in the neighborhood and one morning greeted her with “Hiya, Babe!” Children might enjoy Jean’s book A Tarantula in My Purse about her adventures with crows and other creatures or her award-winning novel of a boy learning to survive in the woods, called My Side of the Mountain.

Crows are very social birds.  Their young don’t breed until they are two and the groups of crows you see in summer are usually family groups with youngsters staying with their parents for 4 or more years.  These younger crows guard and sometimes help build the nest and even occasionally feed the nestlings!  We should all have such helpful offspring!

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The Brown-Headed Cowbird’s sneaky trick of laying eggs in other birds’ nests may be a result of its original environment.

The Brown-Headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater) is perhaps the most difficult bird to like.  The female does not build nests, but lays its eggs in other birds’ nests. This sneaky trick is often played on much smaller birds, who have more difficulty pushing out  the cowbird’s eggs.  The trick doesn’t always work.  Bigger birds may shove the eggs out and smaller birds destroy the cowbirds’ eggs or ignore them, building a second nest on top of the first in which to lay their eggs.   But once in the park, I saw a tiny sparrow stuffing food into the mouth of a baby cowbird, oblivious to the size difference – or maybe just a generous foster parent?  To add injury to insult, female cowbirds lay eggs in huge quantities – 30 or 40 a season – in order to be sure some grow to maturity.

Now why would a bird do this?  One theory that seems plausible is that since we know cowbirds originated in the Western states, they presumably followed buffalo and later cattle herds, eating the insects stirred up by the animals.  That constant movement made it impossible to stay in one place, build a nest and raise young.  So by laying their eggs in other birds’ nests, their young  survived and reproduced.  When our area was settled and cleared, cowbirds moved East and like other invasive species, they created havoc among the creatures whose land they invaded.  So I forgive the cowbird who can’t help the adaptation it found for passing on its genes.  But I still don’t love them.

And then there’s the not-so-beloved plant  – Duckweed.

Poor old duckweed is often mistaken for “pond scum” or “algae.” Some believe it’s a sign of polluted water.  But it’s actually a family of flowering plants that live in still water and sometimes along the edges of streams. Let’s look at the three water plants growing in the center pond, one of which is duckweed.  (My thanks to Maryann Whitman for her help in identification!)

white water crowfoot
The White Water Crowfoot, an aquatic buttercup, shares the pond with the green ovals of Duckweed and the smallest flowering plant on earth,  Common Water Meal.

The tiny aquatic buttercup, White Water Crowfoot (Ranunculus aquatilis), is much prettier when it’s blooming – as it is now – than when the blossoms die and leave just  a mass of brown strings on the surface.  The clumps of  plump green ovals with red spots are Greater Duckweed (Spirodela polyrhiza) which has tiny air pockets that keep it afloat.  Believe it or not, the tiny green grains in between these plants are the smallest flowering plants in the world!  They are Common Water Meal (Wolffia columbiana) and I’ve never seen their blooms since they are 1/100th of an inch wide!  These plants provide lots of food for animals, fish and amphibians.  In fact, I imagine Duckweed got its name because I’ve seen ducks swimming along the pond near the playground with their beaks open on the surface scooping up Duckweed as they go.  So perhaps we can give it some respect,  though I agree that I prefer the aesthetics of clear water.  Here’s a muskrat, though,  that seems content to be surrounded by it!

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Muskrats, ducks and others feed on duckweed, a plant that lives mostly in still water.

 And Now Let’s Get Back to Easier-on-the-Eye Species!

The Eastern Kingbird, (Tyrannus tyrannus) just back from wintering in the Amazon (!), has an  erect posture which makes him easily identifiable. His head is darker gray than his body and his long tail is tipped with white.  Despite their distinguished appearance, Eastern Kingbirds are very aggressive with bigger birds,  like crows, hawks, owls and blue jays.  If an intruder flies over them,  even 100 feet up, they fly up  and dive bomb it from above.  During these flights, they sometimes reveal a red, orange or yellow crown which is usually concealed under their dark grey feathers. Though they eat small insects on the wing, they prefer large ones that they take up into a tree, beat against a branch and eat whole!  They don’t call them Kingbirds for nothing! Did you notice their Latin name above?

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The Eastern Kingbird aggressively takes on much bigger birds in defending its territory.

If the vulture is the homeliest bird in the park, certainly the Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) can compete for the prettiest.  These small thrushes, the male with a royal blue back and brick red breast patch and the female in more subtle hues, grace our park year ’round.

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The male bluebird has a royal blue back and a russet breast patch. The female’s colors are similar but more subtle.

Bluebirds swoop down to pick up insects which they can spot 60 feet or more away.  Their numbers dropped in th early 20th century when introduced species like the European Starling and the House Sparrow took over old woodpecker holes in dead trees, making the Bluebirds’  preferred nesting spots harder to find. Campaigns to place bluebird nesting boxes saved the bluebird.  Here’s one checking out a possible hole for suitability.

bluebird checking out hole
Bluebirds check out holes in large trees, their favorite nesting spots.

For some strange reason, someone named this beautiful butterfly, the Red-Spotted Purple (Limenitis arthemis) although its most distinguishing feature is  iridescent blue hindwings that flash in the sunlight.  The apex of the forewings does have tiny red spots on black but often the tips of the forewings just look brushed with a russet orange. This early butterfly, like others, samples tree sap, rotting fruit, even dung and carrion but unlike the Cabbage White or Mourning Cloak, it also sips flower nectar.

red -spotted purple
The mis-named Red-spotted Purple’s most noticeable feature is bright iridescent blue hindwings flashing in the sunlight..

Dragonflies, one of the beautiful predators in Bear Creek,  are zooming over the ponds right now.  The Common Whitetail (Plathemis lydia) is best seen at noon when it’s most active.  You’ll see mostly males with their wide, flat blue-white tails and a large amber stripe in the middle of each wing.  The females with dark abdomens only visit the water for short periods.  Males perch in the same place each day and protect their territory by chasing off other males.  You can sometimes hear the clatter of clashing wings as the Whitetails  bump into intruders from underneath as they fly over.

common whitetail
The Common Whitetail male has a bluish white tail and amber bands (though the light may make them look black) in the middle of its clear wings.

The Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa), like other dragonflies, overwinters in the  water as nymphs, molting  up to 10 times  until they crawl out of the water, find a plant stem, and shed their last exoskeleton, emerging as  adult dragonflies.  They fly off to eat other insects for 2 or 3 weeks.  You can watch their huge eyes turn as they track their prey before taking off and their acrobatic flying is just incredible.  They will also accompany you along a path, hoping you will stir up some tasty insects.  Nice to be escorted through the fields by a dragonfly!

Widow Skimmer dragonfly
The Widow Skimmer has black or dark brown bands near its body with white and black bands farther out on its clear wings.

A lovely native flower should be blooming now in the garden near the shed.  This Wild Columbine  (Aquilegia canadensis) looks almost exotic enough to be found in the tropics! And hummingbirds love its red color and long yellow stamen.

columbine
The hummingbirds love our exotic-looking native Columbine.

Now every nook and cranny is sporting some pretty little Daisy Fleabane (Erigeron species). You’ll come across a lot of wildflower names with “bane” in them,  which I’ve heard simply means that the people who named them thought they repelled or poisoned something –  in this case “fleas” so I imagine they might have been mixed into straw mattresses.  But that’s just a guess.

daisy fleabane
Daisy Fleabane is a little native flower that pops up all over Bear Creek Park. Its name indicates that people once considered it a flea repellent!

 Coming Attractions:

A snapping turtle was spotted in the pond near the playground again this week.  This might be the week to see one laying eggs since I saw this one on June 1 a few years ago.  Wouldn’t it be great to see a baby snapper?

snapper laying eggs
A Snapping Turtle digs a hole with its back feet to lay its eggs in Bear Creek. Most of the eggs are dug up and eaten by raccoons and foxes among others.

Huge green leaves are appearing west of the benches at the top of the hill on the southern side of the park.  In a few weeks, one of the tallest native flowers in the park will bloom, the sunny yellow Prairie Dock on with its lo-o-o-o-ng stalk and lovely big buds.

Prairie dock
Praire Dock, a native plant, can grow as high as 9 feel tall! Look for their giant leaves already coming out of the ground west of the benches at the top of the hill in the southern part of the park.

A Correction:

Last week I mentioned seeing an “albino raccoon” in the big hole in the tree on the western path through the woods.  I’m informed by my stepson, Glenn,  that that is a “blond raccoon” or some people call them a “cinnamon raccoon.”  They are light brown and beige, rather than gray and black like most raccoons.  Evidently they have different “morphs” as I mentioned  last week with the female swallowtail butterfly. I stand corrected!  Anyway, Reg spotted the blond raccoon last Sunday in the same tree in the same big hole!  Keep a lookout!  Here’s his quick photo of a bit of its fur showing as it slept on Sunday afternoon.

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A “blond raccoon” asleep in the same hole in which we often see baby raccoons this time of year!

So I hope the vultures didn’t scare you off !  And that you’ll share in the comments section some of your Bear Creek Nature Park finds and favorites.

*Quick footnote:  My sources for information, as well as 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