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!
Summer finally made its appearance all over the woods, meadows, wetlands, and forest edges of Cranberry Lake Park. After a prescribed burn this spring, geraniums and trillium emerged under the huge Shagbark Hickories that line the park’s western edge. Summer birds, including the tiny warblers and other new arrivals, are singing lustily to establish their territories and attract interested females as they begin to build nests. Butterflies are just starting to dance above the greenery in the dry meadows. And the hibernators – like snappers, raccoons and leopard frogs – get back in action after their winter snooze. The transformation from spring to summer has well and truly begun.
Birds and Blooms in the Large Sunny Meadows
Small Yellow Warblers (Setophaga petechia) welcome visitors from the high treetops just north of the parking lot. The male with his chestnut-striped breast sings his “sweet-sweet, I’m a little sweet” song as he darts here and there, frequently out of sight in the greenery. Luckily a female with much fainter stripes ignored me while probing for insects in some smaller trees.
At the edge of the big northern meadow one afternoon, I heard the two buzz call that Ben identified on an earlier birdwalk. As I scanned the bushes with my binoculars, a lovely Blue-Winged Warbler (Vermivora cyanoptera)filled my view. By the time I raised the camera, it was gone. Joan Bonin, a gifted local photographer and birder, kindly offered her stunning photo taken a week later at Port Huron State Recreation Area. Thank you, Joan!
A Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus) made a brief appearance in a small meadow opening at the edge of a forested wetland. Evidently these little birds sing incessantly, especially on warm summer afternoons. In fact, Cornell reports that one determined male “sang 22,197 songs in the 14 hours from just before dawn to evening, singing for 10 of those hours.” I missed both his song and a photo, but another gifted local photographer and birder, Bob Bonin (Joan’s husband), kindly shared his lovely photo taken at the Tawas migration site last year. Thanks to Bob, also!
Steve, a fine birder that I met at Bear Creek Park, commented on the last blog that he’d seen an Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) at Cranberry Lake in the last two weeks. Cornell ornithologists report that all blue birds actually have no blue pigment in their feathers. “Their jewel-like color comes instead from microscopic structures in the feathers that refract and reflect blue light, much like the airborne particles that cause the sky to look blue.” Since Steve saw the bird and I didn’t, here’s that bright little piece of sky in another beautiful shot by Bob Bonin.
Butterflies dance across nearly every sunny or dappled area of Cranberry Lake. In a shady corner near the northern meadow, an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail(Papilio glaucus) paused for just a moment before sailing high into the treetops and away. The band of blue spots at the bottom of the hindwing (plus the orange center spots) marks this one as a female.
A smaller, but equally striking butterfly, the American Copper, sampled the blossoms of Common Blackberry bushes (Rubus allagheniensis) that have multiplied mightily since the recent burn.
According to Wikipedia, the male Coppers set up “small territories which they will defend vigorously against rival males or indeed any unlucky passing insect. Even the shadow of a large bird passing overhead is enough to elicit a response.”
It’s clear where this medium-sized [edit: My memory failed me. It’s actually very small!] butterfly got its name, eh?
This female Eastern Tailed-Blue butterfly(Cupido comyntas) doesn’t wear the beautiful blue that her mate flashes when he flies. But you can still see a bit of blue in her modest gray. These medium-sized butterflies almost disappear when they land and fold their wings, which are light gray underneath.
Along the Hickory Lane, More Bird Song and Early Summer Blossoms
On an early bird walk, a Brown Thrasher (Toxostoma rufum) belted out its complex mimicry song from the top of a tree on the Hickory Lane. If you enjoy the Gray Catbird’s mix of other birds’ calls and the odd noise, you’ll love (as I do) the crazy mix of continuous loud song from the thrasher. That morning he was too high up for a good photo. Fortunately a few days later, a tired thrasher, preparing for sleep on a cool spring evening at Gallagher Park, struck a pose for me.
Along the lane, a tiny mimic (listen to the second recording at this link), the Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea), busily fluttered and hopped about a tree trunk foraging for insects. How I’d love to see their nest! Cornell Lab says they “use spiderweb and lichens to build small, neat nests, which sit on top of branches and look like tree knots.”
On a later visit, a male House Wren (Troglodytes aedon), bubbled with spring song. Despite their diminutive size, wrens can be fierce in asserting ownership over a preferred nesting hole, even dragging out eggs of other birds or pecking larger adult birds. Wrens need to maintain a narrow range of temperature for their eggs to hatch which might explain their fierceness over nesting sites. Perhaps this male’s insistent song was just a first salvo in the competition.
In the area between the Hickory Lane and the large marsh to the east, a strange upward sliding call made my husband and I stop and listen one afternoon. We never saw the singing male, but we did spot the female Swainson’s Thrush (Catharus ustulatus), that I originally thought was a robin from its stance. Sorry for the slight blur of a quick photo.
Below these avian songsters, early summer blossoms came burgeoning forth after a recent prescribed burn. The lane was filled on both sides with the Wild Geraniums (Geranium maculatum) you see at the top of this blog. A small white plume poked through leaves of what Ben tells me is either red or white Baneberry (g. Actaea). The actual baneberries that form later are highly toxic, so please don’t eat them! (They’re very bitter so you wouldn’t like them, but children might be tempted because they’re very colorful and shiny.)
Two varieties of the same flower also bloomed on the lane. Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biforum) produces its blossoms beneath the stem and its leaves are smooth below, unlike a nearly identical plant, Downy Solomon’s Seal(Polygonatum pubescens) that has fuzz on the underside of the leaves.
False Solomon’s Seal (Maianthemum racemosum), on the other hand, produces its flowers on a stem that stands above the leaves. Odd name. Perhaps the name was given by someone fooled into thinking at first that it was Solomon’s Seal? Who knows….
Early Summer in the Shadowy Wetlands near Cranberry Lake
Cranberry Lake has a wonderful collection of vernal pools and woodland ponds as well as the lake itself. I’ve come to love these areas because they are always rich with wildlife, especially birds!
I heard the easily-identified “witchedy, witchedy” call of one of my favorite small migrators, the black-masked Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas). He was in a favorite location, in low bushes near a wetland. I never got to see the ones that I heard repeatedly at Cranberry Lake, but I saw this one the following week at Charles Ilsley Park.
In a forested pool, a Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) had draped its head over the edge of a log, evidently eating plants below. At first, I thought it had been beheaded somehow! But on hearing me crunching in the twigs, it lifted its pointed snout into the air, quickly slid backwards into the water and disappeared. So all I got was this odd, headless shot.
A few minutes later, a male Common Grackle’s (Quiscalus quiscula) iridescent head shone in a ray of sunlight on the same log. Clearly frustrated at finding nothing to eat beneath it, he tossed that irritating, useless chunk of bark into the water.
One of summer’s pleasures is being escorted along a trail by dragonflies and damselflies – and then I managed to shoot one swooping over the water when I reached at Cranberry Lake. Perhaps a mating flight?
In April, lovely little blossoms with pink scallops and ruffled edges emerged on the native Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) near Cranberry Lake. A few weeks later, the fruit was beginning to form. I hope birds, animals and we humans leave some berries uneaten so it keeps spreading!
When I reached Cranberry Lake, I found two Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) standing on a sandbar near the shore. One of them “gave me the eye” between the old stems of purple loosestrife.
On the way back up the trail from the lake one morning, Ben spotted a weary raccoon who appeared to have made a hasty bed in the fork of a tree after a night of foraging. It opened one eye as we birders peered from below.
On the edge of the path heading toward one of the large meadows, I heard the snoring rattle of the Leopard Frog’s song coming from a nearby wetland. And then, oops! – one appeared right in the path between two wet areas. Nice to have frog song along with bird song on a summer walk!
Nature by Ear as Well as by Eye
To truly savor the pleasures of nature in early summer requires tuning my ears as well as opening my eyes. Though I’m just learning bird songs and frog songs, every time I identify a voice in nature’s chorus, I feel more connected, more embedded in the natural world. Listening, as well as careful, patient watching, begins to turn a green landscape into an intricately woven tapestry of life in which we humans are just one colorful thread.
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager 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; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; other sites as cited in the text.
Right now, no one would nominate Gallagher Creek Park for Oakland Township’s most scenic natural area. Last fall, the invasive shrubs that covered large areas of the park were bushwhacked to the ground. Native wildflower seeds were sown but haven’t had time to grow the deep roots they need to fully bloom. And it’s muddy, gray early spring, after all!
But each time I’ve visited over the last few weeks, wow! This homely little 15 acres is full of spring liveliness. Swimming, soaring, singing, sprouting – spring arrived with exuberance at Gallagher Creek Park.
A Muskrat Adult and its Child Enjoy the Creek and Its Fresh Greens
On my first visit to Gallagher Creek, an adult Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) busily pulled up what appeared to be bulbs at the base of some grasses in the stream. Though they don’t hibernate, muskrats spend most of the winter under the ice feeding on the dead plant material of their “push-ups” (feeding platforms) or lodges. Fresh greens must taste great after that! Two days later, I saw a young muskrat paddling at top speed toward the observation deck to take a closer look at me, like any curious youngster. If you look towards the north, you can see their family winter lodge at the edge of some cat-tails. (Hover cursor for captions; click on photos to enlarge.)
Migrating Birds Make Gallagher Creek Their Summer Residence
All over this small park, birds are calling, singing and searching for nests. On my first visit, the chirping and liquid “thwick” of the Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) drew my eyes high into the bare branches of aging willows. Swooping and diving, these iridescent blue acrobats performed aerial feats before resting high in the treetops.
Over on the bare ground of the hillock next to the parking lot, a pair of Killdeer(Charadrius vociferus) scurried about, sometimes pecking at wet puddles, sometimes circling me with keening calls. Once the female seemed to be starting her shallow nest, her breast pressed against the bare earth. They often make several small scrapes (usually only 3 inches or so across) before settling on a nest site. Cornell Lab thinks it could be a way to mislead predators, as they do, of course, with their “injured wing” trick. Here’s the male (I assume) up on the edge of the hill, keeping an orange eye on me.
The Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus) probably moved a bit south for the winter. But this “mustached” male is here now establishing a territory at Gallagher Creek, tapping on trees and making his “kwirr” call from the top of snags behind the creek. From below, you can clearly see the yellow undersides of his tail feathers. He has yellow under those elegant wings, too, like nearly all of the Northern Flickers in eastern North America.
Below the Northern Flicker, a pair of Common Grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) moved restlessly about the trees, making their clucks and “squeaky gate” whistles. According to the Cornell Lab, “Common Grackles are resourceful foragers. They sometimes follow plows to catch invertebrates and mice, wade into water to catch small fish, pick leeches off the legs of turtles, steal worms from American Robins, raid nests, and kill and eat adult birds.” Now that’s an omnivore and a bit of a bandit as well!
Of course, with all that water and a cat-tail marsh in the park, Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) take up residence there as well. This one, for some reason, chose to flip upside-down in his quest for cat-tail seeds.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about a European Starling(Sturnus vulgaris) at Charles Ilsley Park who still sported its fall feathers with the light tips which give it a spotted look. But in Gallagher Creek Park, a week later, the tips had finally worn off this lone starling, so that its iridescence would shine for the mating season. It seemed to be gazing longingly on this cold spring afternoon, perhaps waiting for its compatriots to arrive.
Some Year ‘Rounders Used the Park as a Dating Hang-out
One cool afternoon, three American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) fluttered and cawed, perhaps showing off to a potential mate or simply playing together in a tree that seemed much too small for three large, shiny black birds. The intelligence of crows is legendary. These clever birds are part of the Corvid family, which also includes Blue Jays and Ravens. Cornell Lab describes just a few of the tools they occasionally create. “Examples include a captive crow using a cup to carry water over to a bowl of dry mash; shaping a piece of wood and then sticking it into a hole in a fence post in search of food; and breaking off pieces of pine cone to drop on tree climbers near a nest.”
At the edge of Gallagher Creek two Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) floated along, occasionally dabbling for grasses below the surface in the quiet pools of the overflow. These two would likely have paired up in the fall. Did you know that only the females quack? The male, according to Cornell Lab, only makes a “quieter, rasping one- or two-noted call.”
Spring Odds ‘n Ends
The wetland near the stream must be home to many crayfish (or crawdads if you prefer). Their chimneys appear every few feet if you walk east from the observation deck. Little construction marvels, these chimneys are the openings to crayfish burrows. According to the America’s Wetland Foundation website, they build these chimneys by using their legs and mouth to form small balls of mud which they carry to the surface and arrange in rows like laying bricks! I’ve read that crayfish mostly forage at night, though the birding group saw one recently in the morning. So despite all these burrows, I have yet to spot a crayfish itself at Gallagher Creek!
The little hill where the Killdeer scampered is littered with the pretty shells of what I think are Grove Snails (Cepaea nemoralis). (I’m no mollusk expert, so if you are an expert please feel free to correct me!) These lovely, whorled and striped shells are all empty. I’d read in a book called The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell that some birds consume snails, shell and all, in order to stock up on calcium for their eggs. But these are probably too large for most of our birds to swallow whole. I wonder why there are so many here? Grove Snails are not native, but were evidently brought to the United States in the 19th century.
In some areas of the park, Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) flowers are everywhere. Don’t get your hopes up though for gathering the fruit in June. In my experience, the animals eat them green before they can ripen for us humans!
A single Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera) produced long male catkins that are, as Ben put it, “pumping out pollen to pollinate the female flowers via the wind.” Birches are “monoecius” which means they produce both male and female flowers. In the right photo, the red and yellow male inflorescence (a cluster of flowers on a stem) can pollinate the more erect, green female flowers. Birches can pollinate themselves if there aren’t others of their species nearby, which is the case with this tree.
In the old hedgerow that separates the two large sections of the park stands a wispy native shrub that makes clusters of spring flowers and then a spectacular air-filled seed capsule in the fall. It has the unfortunate name of Bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia) but it’s a special native tree that is fairly unusual in our area. So laugh at the funny name and enjoy the fact that it’s here.
Like most wetland areas, Gallagher Creek has big bunches of Skunk Cabbage(Symplocarpus foetidus) poking out of the mud at the edge of the stream. Out in the eastern part of the park, after the invasive shrubs were eliminated, a large patch of Mayapples(Podophyllum peltatum) got stranded in the sunlight. Evidently, the invasive shrubs provided the shade these forest wildflowers generally love. But alas, they have lost their shade and may be diminished over time. Not to worry. Seeds of many sun-loving plants have no doubt been waiting for years in the soil for those pesky shrubs to disappear. We’ll soon see what appears now that sun is warming the soil.
Such an Unassuming Little Park with So Much Life!
This little park will someday have trails through prairie wildflowers and a children’s play area. But for now, each time I arrive, I wonder if I’ll see anything interesting. In the brown and gray of early spring a few weeks ago, it looked particularly unpromising. But then shining azure birds swooped overhead, the killdeer circled and called, and a curious little muskrat made a few quick passes by the observation deck to check out the strange animal with a camera. And then I was very glad I kept coming to this little corner of the township and its merry little creek. If you take the time to explore, you might feel that way, too.
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.
Look for this feature early each week! Cam Mannino shares her latest observations, photos, and inspirations from Bear Creek Nature Park. Thanks Cam!
This Week at Bear Creek
By Volunteer Park Steward, Cam Mannino
Welcome to the first post for “This Week at Bear Creek.” As a long time BC walker and photographer, I’ve long considered a narrative photo blog with that title. So I’m happy that Dr. Ben has offered the idea a home here in the Notebook. I’ll try to keep you informed about the abundant wildlife and plants in the park as well as stewardship opportunities and other events. The plan is to post once a week in the spring, summer and fall (with a hiatus or two for Real Life and vacations) and a bit less in the winter when the park is quieter and walking’s more challenging. So let’s begin with:
March 29 – April 4, 2015
Last Wednesday I accompanied Ben and Sigrid Grace, an enthusiastic birder, on a bird walk through Bear Creek. We saw 25 bird species that early morning, so I’ll focus on bird arrivals and departures this week.
As we entered the park, Ben spotted a red fox running at full lope across the field toward the woods, his tail streaming behind him. Too fast for a photo that day but here’s a photo of a red fox at a trot from 2013.
Spring migration is off to a great start. The Song Sparrow’s arrived and is already singing with gusto.
Ben heard the rattling call of a Sandhill Crane.
A Great Blue Heron flew high overhead, perhaps just back from its winter stay on the Florida or Gulf coast.
And the Common Grackles with their white eyes, iridescent blue heads and rusty-gate voices are tilting their beaks skyward in an attempt to establish a pecking order.
Red-winged Blackbirds trill, Canada Geese honk and Mallard Ducks cackle in the marsh near Gunn Road, establishing their territories among the reeds.
We saw a large flock of Cedar Waxwings fluttering between bushes and trees. No way of knowing whether these elegant birds spent the winter here or just rode in on the south wind the night before.
Soon the Dark-eyed Juncos will be leaving for Canadian forests and the modest Tree Sparrows will be heading to Canada’s far north to build their nests of ptarmigan feathers on the tundra.
Human visitors will notice that the Eastern parts of the Oak-Hickory Forest near Gunn Road received a “prescribed burn” the previous week. This professionally controlled, slow-moving, low burn discourages invasive plants and trees like Autumn Olive and Buckthorn. Be patient and in a few short weeks, all that black ash, full of nutrients, will nourish new growth. The thin spring sunlight filtering through the bare limbs should bring us more Spring Beauties and Blood Root, two of the earliest and most beautifully delicate spring woodland flowers. We’ll let you know when they began to emerge.
Thanks for sharing This Week at Bear Creek. If questions occur to you, comment below and I’ll try to find answers. And of course, please share your week at Bear Creek in the comments as well.