Tag Archives: Common Milkweed

Gallagher Creek Park: Young Birds and Young Humans Play as Autumn Carries On

Grownups, children and a baby-to-be playing at Gallagher Creek Park

Surprised a bit by seeing the photo above in a nature blog? Well, on my four October visits to Gallagher Creek Park, I noticed an abundance of a new species there – young humans and their watchful adults!

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

Late on autumn afternoons, this modest 15 acre park is now filled with the voices of excited little humans rocking, swinging, spinning , climbing, and sliding on the colorful new playground equipment installed in July by volunteers and staff of the Parks and Recreation Commission. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

The park’s already becoming a place for families to cross paths and get to know their neighbors in the most densely populated part of our township. And meanwhile, in the background…

Nature Goes About Its Autumnal Business

Autumn at Gallagher Creek Park

The natural areas of Gallagher Creek look a bit scruffy right now from all the construction that went on this summer to build a picnic pavilion, a restroom enclosure, expanded parking area, the playground and a paved pathway. But despite all that to-ing and fro-ing, nature survives and offers beauty and bounty when you take time to venture into the fields.

Birds in the Distance as Children Play

Birds may keep their distance when the children are playing, but as I approached the tall grass at the edge of the creek east of the busy playground, a familiar head appeared above the tall grass.

A young Blue Heron peeks above the grass at the edge of the creek.

From the absence of a white crown on its head, it seemed to be a juvenile Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) stalking along the far side of the creek. Young Blue Herons take 3 years to develop full adult plumage, according to the Stokes Guides to Bird Behavior (Vol. 3). This youngster flew off, as I crackled through the browning stalks of goldenrod and yarrow.

But just as I arrived the next morning, when the playground was empty,  a juvenile – perhaps the same one? – flew over the treetops and swooped into a tree covered in vines. I snuck slowly forward and got one shot of it standing tall before it bent its knobby knees backward, spread those magnificent wings, and took to the air once more.

The young heron stood quietly in the tree as I approached.
The young Great Blue Heron bent its knees backward to begin its flight.

While the children shouted and laughed in the afternoon sun on a different afternoon, I watched a lone European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) high in a snag staring out over the playground nearby. It paid no attention to the happy noises below. I imagined that it was waiting for its highly social companions, since starlings gather in huge flocks at this time of year. This one had completed its fall molt complete with fresh feathers tipped in white, giving it the spotted plumage that starlings wear in fall and winter. By spring, the white tips will be worn off, returning these birds to their iridescent blue/black mating colors, and its beak will lighten and even change to bright yellow if it’s a male.

A European Starling that had finished its complete fall molt leaving its iridescent feathers tipped in white.

Unnoticed by the playground youngsters, a large, rippling flock (or “murmuration”) of about 75 starlings suddenly descended on the trees east of the creek. But the lone starling just kept staring into the distance. Perhaps it just needed a break from all the cackling and whistling that goes on in a starling gathering.

Part of a large “murmuration” of swooping starlings near Gallagher Creek.

Over in a quiet corner of the park, near the cat-tail marsh along the road, three little migrating Palm Warblers (Setophaga palmarum) in their duller fall colors chirped contact calls at each other before heading further south. The most notable field mark for these little birds is the bright yellow feathers under their tails and a pale “eyebrow” which they have year ’round.

Seeds Flying, Rattling, Dropping and Providing Food for Wildlife

Autumn, of course,  is the time when plants ripen and disperse seeds for next spring’s blooming. In doing so, they also provide important nourishment for all kinds of creatures. So while the children played, I went out to see what kinds of food nature was preparing in the background.

Seemingly unaware of the hubbub on the playground, a struggling American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) fumbled about trying to extract seed from a Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) while it swayed wildly in a stiff breeze.  I wondered if it was a juvenile who hadn’t quite mastered the skills necessary to extract seeds on a windy day.

It wasn’t easy for this Goldfinch to get the seed it wanted as the stalk it was on tossed back and forth in a stiff wind.

American Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) would delight any child at this time of year with its hot pink stem and blackish purple berries. The trick would be to keep them from trying to eat the berries,  since the seeds inside are slightly toxic to humans. According to one of my favorite wildflower sites, many of our favorite song birds (Bluebirds, Cedar Waxwings and more), as well as raccoons, opposums and the gray fox, feed on pokeweed berries with no problem.  Pokeweed prefers disturbed soil, which makes Gallagher Creek Park just the right spot this year! After I took this shot, I came back a few days later to find the stem broken and picked clean.  Mission accomplished – food eaten and seeds dispersed.

American Pokeweed berries are glamorous but the seeds inside are slightly toxic.

Some seed pods are rarely seen in our township except in this park. The wispy Bladdernut shrubs (Staphylea trifolia) produce elegant lantern-like pods. The shiny brown seeds inside shake in the wind, making a sound like a baby’s rattle. Though insects feed on the blossoms, there’s little evidence I could find that the seeds provide forage for wildlife. But the trees are doing a fine job of producing more Bladdernut shrubs as the number of them along the eastern tree line seems to be increasing nicely.

The Bladdernut shrub produces these elegant pods full of shiny brown seeds that rattle in the wind.

The common Cat-tails (genus Typha) are seeding as well, making a nice repast for a hungry Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata).

The pods of Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) are splitting open to release their silky little parachutes, each containing a seed that can sail away on the wind.  Milkweed has done its job by feeding Monarch caterpillars as well as many other butterflies and insects over the summer. So its current task is to get those seeds out into the world. If the seeds succeed in sprouting, they will feed more insects next year.

Seeds and their silky parachutes spill from Swamp Milkweed pods

More Edibles for Wildlife Wait in the Grass

Mushrooms, of course, can be edible by humans, but they are frequently a meal for squirrels and deer as well. I saw two varieties while the children romped at Gallagher Creek. A giant Puffball (genus Calvatia) had been broken in half, probably by a curious human, since it seemed to have no teeth marks in it. One appeared in the same area last year. And a stump hosted some pretty Turkey-tail Mushrooms (Trametes versicolor), whose tough, rubbery surface might not please us, but probably could please a squirrel (particularly a Red Squirrel).  I see them now and again with a mushroom between their paws.

As I stepped into the deep grass, I wished I had one of those busy children in tow to enjoy the sprays of Red-legged Grasshoppers (Melanoplus femurrubrum) leaping away from my feet. It would have made them laugh as it did me. These small grasshoppers lay their eggs less than inch under the earth in the autumn, and those eggs are a food source for birds, skunks, snakes and raccoons. Nymphs and adults can also be a food source for toads, snakes and some birds, but mostly during the summer months.

A Reg-legged Grasshopper finding a niche on a log, just in case.

Beauty Underfoot Before the Frost

Even though much of Gallagher Creek is covered in brown stalks and shriveled blossoms, a few autumn wildflowers survived right up until the first frost. East of the observation deck, near the creek, the ground is covered with unusual and fragile Bottle Gentians (Gentiana andrewsii), a native wildflower that grows in only a few places in our township. Its closed blossoms never open so they are most often fertilized by bumblebees who are big enough to force their way inside and back out again. The gentians were so plentiful this year that I had to step carefully to avoid treading on one as I explored the area.

Bottle Gentian blossoms never open, so bumblebees have to push their large bodies inside to get at the pollen and then push their way out!

Nearby, a late-migrating Monarch butterfly ((Danaus plexippus) paused to sip on the last purple blossoms of New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), a classic autumn wildflower.

A Monarch sipping at New England Aster as it begin its long migration to Mexico.

Birds Everywhere on a Cold, Quiet Morning – and a Playful Young Female

On the cold morning when I saw the heron that I mentioned above, the playground was empty and quiet. The bushes and trees, though, were alive with birds busily flitting from branch to branch, or shrub to soil, in search of anything they could find to eat.

What delighted me most was a large flock of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis). They were probably gathering to move a little farther south in Michigan or to Ohio in order to reach warmer weather, though Bluebirds often return here on warm winter days and some stay all year. The males are always the flashiest and were more plentiful in this flock.

But my favorite Bluebird on that chilly morning was what I’m guessing was a juvenile female. Young Bluebirds fledge wearing spotted breasts. But according to the Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.2), they molt into adult plumage in August and September. I began to wonder if this gray-headed female was a youngster because she seemed to be practicing the grass-handling skills that she would need next spring in building her carefully woven nest. When I first spotted her, she had the head of a grass stem in her beak with the dry stalk trailing down her back.

A female Bluebird holding the head of a grass stem in her beak.

She made a couple of tries at moving the grass into a more suitable position.

Seemingly frustrated, she dropped the stem between her feet and stared intently at it for a minute.

Frustrated, she finally dropped the grass between her feet and studied it.

At last it seemed she had figured it out.  She picked it up carefully in the middle of the stalk, a much easier way to handle it.

Ah, it works better to grasp the stem in the middle!

Satisfied, she carefully set it down on the railing on which she was perched.  And then left the grass stem there and flew to nearby tree.

I loved seeing this young bird fiddle with what may have been her first attempt at handling the building material she would need in the spring to create her nest.

Besides the Bluebirds, a whole assortment of other birds made the most of the quiet park that cold morning.  I’m fairly sure that a tiny migrating Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) was among them, but it insisted on keeping only its rear in view! So I’ve added a photo of another one I saw in a previous year so you can have a better look at it. (Use the pause button if more time is needed for captions.)

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A Park Where the Young Can Learn and Play

A Milkweed seed on a windy morning at Gallagher Creek

I believe that young humans, like the young of all species, need play as a way to learn about the world.  So I loved watching children on the new playground at Gallagher Creek Park. So much is being learned as youngsters cope with siblings and strangers on the slide or the rocking “dragonfly” seesaw. Muscles grow stronger. Some learn the consequences of risk-taking and others overcome their fears.  It’s great.

What I’m hoping is that once the trails are mowed again next spring, parents will take their children by the hand and explore this little park that offers so much – baby muskrats in the spring, a swollen creek after rain, tree swallows diving for insects in the summer, and native wildflowers in three seasons. And yes, even little birds, that like all children, are learning how to be skillful grown-ups.

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net;Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels, A Guide to Bird Behavior Vols.1-3 by Donald W and Lillian Q.Stokes, entomology.ca/uky.edu on Red-legged Grasshoppers, illinoiswildflowers.info and others as cited in the text.

 

 

Bear Creek Park: Eggs to Fledglings, Caterpillars to Butteflies, Everything Just Keeps Growing!

 

Spiderwort, a native wildflower, blooms in profusion even in the garden at the center of the parking lot at Bear Creek Nature Park!

June is an easy month to love. In the early weeks, May’s buds transformed into blooms. Turtles and dragonflies emerged from the ponds. Butterfly and grasshopper eggs hatched into caterpillars and tiny nymphs. May migrators and some year-round birds completed their nests and were busily laying eggs.

Cam at Tree Swallow nest box. Photo by V. Morganti

And then came really warm days – or even some very hot days this year! –  and by the end of the month, life had quickly moved on. The spring blooms produced their seeds and subsided as the summer flowers began to emerge. Bees buzz along the trails. Dragonflies dominate the open meadows and wetlands. Damselflies, like colorful, winged sticks, pause briefly by the pond and other strange flying creatures hunt in the shade. The fledglings emerge from nests, awkward and downy, begging to be fed by exhausted parents. So much to see that I find myself rushing from park to park, trying not to miss anything! So here’s just a selection of what came my way at Bear Creek Nature Park during the first month of summer.

Early to Mid-June:  Brave Beginnings

The Bear Creek Wetlands in Early June

So much happens near the wetlands as summer begins. Two nests graced either side of the viewing deck at the Center Pond. On the west side, high above the water, a Baltimore Oriole’s (Icterus galbula) carefully woven sack swayed with every breeze, rocking either the female brooding her eggs or a cuddle of nestlings with every breeze. While we birders watched one Wednesday morning, the female arrived at the nest and disappeared into it, followed by the attentive male. This lovely photo of the male arriving at the nest was taken by Ewa Mutzenmore, a member of our group.

The male Baltimore Oriole arrives at the nest. Photo by E. Mutzenmore of the birding group.

He gave us the eye as he leaned in to feed either his brooding mate or perhaps their nestlings.

The male Oriole keeping an eye on the camera.

And then, tail up, evidently unfazed, he proceeded to stuff foraged insects into a waiting beak below.

Tail up, the male oriole feeds his nestlings or his mate who arrived before him.

Ewa, whose Oriole photo is above, mentioned having seen a very large Northern Water Snake  (Nerodia sipedon) swimming away at the pond when she was there last and suddenly Ben VanderWeide, our Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, spotted it! Its long, thick body was wound around the branches of a willow bush just west of the dock. Though not venomous, I wouldn’t advise picking one up or harassing it; it will bite and spray you with musk to defend itself. Unfortunately, Ewa and I both could only come up with a photo of parts of its winding body; it just didn’t move a muscle. But here’s a link where you can see a photo of its dark brown head. The birds are evidently safe from it, though fish,frogs, and salamanders better beware!

The body of a large, but non-venomous, Northern Water Snake wound into a bush limb near the Center Pond.

As I approached the pond on a later afternoon, another impressive predator rose like a submarine from the silvery pond.  A large Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) up-periscoped to check me out.  Isn’t their snout a curious shape?  It’s more important to be cautious around Snappers when they’re on land than in the water, because they do bite if threatened and have extremely long necks. And generally, they’re on land to lay eggs.

The head of a female Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) popped out of the bushes for a look around before she winged down and disappeared into her nest in a small tree just east of the dock. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

 

Over in the playground pond, a tiny (about silver-dollar-sized!) Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta) climbed onto a log for probably one of its first basks in a spot of sunlight.

A silver-dollar-sized Painted Turtle learns the fine art of sun basking.

As I approached the dock one cloudy day, a lone male Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) stood forlornly gazing out at the water from a floating log, not a mate in sight.  When he heard my approach, his beautiful head twisted toward me with a  stare that implied he’d prefer to be alone. Then he dropped into the water and glided away.

A lone, male Mallard notices me with some misgivings about my presence.

When he departed, a much tinier male landed on the dock, the Dot-tailed Whiteface Dragonfly (Leucorrhinia intacta), whose name says it all!  I get a huge kick out of his Mickey Mouse-style face.

A male Dot-tailed Whiteface looks for prey or a mate at the edge of the Center Pond dock.

At Draper Twin Lake Park a few weeks ago, I’d seen the female Dot-tailed Whiteface, who is more elegant, if less amusing.

A female Dot-tailed Whiteface dragonfly near the marsh at Draper Twin Lake park.

And one Sunday morning, while scanning Bear Creek marsh, I heard the unmistakable whinnying call of a Sora (Porzana carolina), a bird that tends to be heard and not seen. This secretive bird is evidently abundant according to Cornell Ornithology Lab, but likes to stay hidden deep in the cattails and reeds. Looking at this photo by inaturalist.org photographer by Mike Baird, you’d never guess that such a chunky bird with stubby wings had migrated here from Central or South America! And check out those feet!

A Sora as photographed by a gifted and generous photographer on iNaturalist.org, Mike Baird. (CC BY)

Several strangely beautiful insects shelter or hunt in shady spots near wetlands, too.

A male Orchard Oriole (Icterus spurius) appeared for the birders at the top of the southern hill away from the wetlands, though they sometime nest along the edges of marshes and rivers. This poor fellow seemed wildly distracted by some itchy insect, probably Feather Mites (super family Analgoidea) which often infest nests in early summer. He just barely stopped preening for a moment! As a victim of biting midges in spring, I could sympathize!

Sun and Shade Meant Blooms, Juicy Leaves – and More Insects!

Closeup of a tiny Monarch Butterfly caterpillar munching on a leaf of Common Milkweed.

The birders saw four Monarch Butterfly caterpillars (Danaus plexippus)  – one of them above – munching contentedly on leaves of  Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). It’s wonderful to know that natural areas management of our parks makes them places where milkweed gets ever more plentiful – and that, as a result,  migrating monarchs find their way here to lay their eggs  for the next generation.

Nearby, the tiniest of Black-legged Grasshopper nymphs (Melanoplus femurnigrumsat quietly enough that I could a good look at this little one, less than a half inch long! It’ll probably molt 4 more times before it reaches adulthood.  Pretty special eyes, eh?

A tiny grasshopper nymph watches the lens carefully as I take a closeup.

Twelve-spotted Skimmer (Libellula pulchella) found a budding stem to be the perfect place to pause and scan us birders and the prey we might have stirred up as we walked among the plants in the parking circle.

A Twelve-spotted dragonfly pauses in the garden at the center of the parking lot.

In the native gardens near the parking lot and along the Walnut Lane in the center of the park, early June brought colorful blossoms and the seeds of early spring flowers that  were already maturing their seeds for next year’s crop inside their fruits. Such a variety of colors and shapes! (Use pause button for time to read captions.)

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A Late June Visit To See What Had Changed

Wow!  The shy flowers of late spring and early summer had been replaced by the big, bold native milkweeds. Monarch caterpillars seem to have finished munching on Common Milkweed leaves and spun their chrysalises; some have yet to emerge and some may already be flying. Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) is ready to host any number of butterflies this summer. If you’re looking for color in your garden, Butterfly Milkweed’s a nice native choice because it remains an attractive bunch instead of spreading like Common Milkweed – and pollinators find milkweeds irresistible!

Mites must still be giving birds a hard time, though.  This itchy little Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea) preened just as insistently as the poor Orchard Oriole earlier in the month! This gnatcatcher is small, only a bit larger than a hummingbird and smaller than a wren and can be identified by its white-edged tail. According to Cornell Lab, they sometimes build up to seven nests in a season because they frequently give up a nest due to mites, predators and problems with Cowbirds and others that lay eggs in their nests. Hope this little one persists despite all those tribulations!

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On the western slope, an adult Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) and its fledgling paused in a bush. The adult looked around checking for trouble, then hopped onto the ground, looking for seeds or insects to feed the youngster. The youngster hopped clumsily in the bush, waiting for its parent return, which fortunately resulted in something to eat!

The American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) wait until late June or July to begin their families. They will use the fluffy pappus from thistles and other plants to line their nest and they feed on the thistle’s seeds, a favorite food. It looked as though this couple was already making the most of these Field Thistles (Cirsium arvense) that are just getting started.

This pair of American Goldfinches is just beginning its breeding season.

A bit later in the Eastern Meadow, a Halloween Pennant Dragonfly (Celithemis eponina) was coping with a stiff breeze by holding tight and adjusting its wing positions to stay aloft.  This one could be looking for a mate; maybe that’s why it was working so hard to stay visible on a bare perch above the wildflowers.  Once it finds a mate, they’ll both head to the nearest wetland where the female will dip her abdomen into the water, leaving eggs behind.

A Halloween Pennant Dragonfly adjusting its wings in a brisk wind

The Black-legged grasshopper nymphs had changed a bit when I made my last visit. This one now had a bit more black-legged-ness! I assume it had gone through its second molt. I didn’t take a closeup of this one so you could see how tiny these nymphs really are.

The wetlands, as usual, were full of life too. A juvenile Green Frog (Rana clamitans) had left  its youth as a tadpole behind and was sitting waiting for the nearest flying insect at the Playground Pond. The green dots are Water Meal (g. Wolffia) which covers the playground pond along with spots of Common Duckweed (Lemna minor) – aptly named since ducks do scoop up both plants and make a meal out of them!

Nearby, a tiny Amber Snail (G. Succinea) snacked delicately on the seeds of Orchard Grass (Dactylis glomerata). I wonder if those black spots on the blossoms are places where the snail has secreted extra slime to stay attached while eating?

An Amber Snail munches on seeds of Orchard Grass.

While monitoring a vernal pool at Bear Creek, the crew brought up a tiny Crayfish (family Cambaridae). It was too tiny to determine a species but it certainly had all of the equipment it needed for surviving in its underwater world.  Crayfish molt six to ten times in their first year, so this one has a long way to go before adulthood!

A tiny crayfish from a vernal pool. It will molt 6-10 times in its first year.

It was the Best of Times, It was the Worst of Times…

A bumblebee head down in an unusual white blossom of Common Milkweed

Summer is glorious, right?  Who could argue with that?  All the blossoms, birds, whispering leaves and yellow sunlight pouring over it all.  Or as the poet,  e.e. cummings so ebulliently put it, “the leaping greenly spirits of trees/and a blue true dream of sky; and …everything/which is natural which is infinite which is yes.”

But I wonder sometimes if migrating birds, for example, might grouse a bit about cummings’ enthusiasm and ours. Summer is a busy, hard-working time for birds! I’ve become so aware of this by monitoring bluebirds this summer and it’s true of all birds, really. First there are courtship rituals that can involve singing constantly for hours. A diminutive House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) or the Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus) may sing their territorial/courting songs a hundred, even a thousand times in a day! Nest-making often involves long days or even a solid week of gathering material and then weaving, or scraping, or even digging a safe place for their eggs. And once eggs hatch, their young sit begging in the nest and later from every branch, crying “MORE FOOD!” Imagine having young every summer, frequently multiple broods of young,  and working constantly to be sure at least some of them survive despite predators of all kinds – plus coping with those miserable feather mites!

And yet, thank goodness, they return to us each year to go through it all because the show must go on! The genes must be passed to a new generation! I’ve come to admire the sheer tenacity of nature in facing the vicissitudes of life without homes in which to retreat at night or when the weather is harsh. Learning more about the threats and difficulties that birds overcome, I’m doubly pleased to see them with their breasts turned to the sun on a cool morning, or to hear their quiet evensong calls around me as the sky grows dark. They seem to still be able to pause now and then from all the hubbub of their lives and just “be” for a few moments. I take that as a lesson for my busy life – and probably yours too.

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. e.e.cummings poem "I thank You God for most this amazing" in 100 Selected Poems pub. by Grove Press

Watershed Ridge Park: Restoration Off to a Colorful Start!

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So for now, perhaps consider an easier alternative.

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

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

 

 

 

Birds Grace the Simple Entrance off Buell Road

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

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

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

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

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

A juvenile Downy Woodpecker considers what to do next.

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

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

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

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

A male Northern Flicker with his dashing “mustache”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of the wetland pools within the woods at Watershed Ridge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Meadow Under Restoration Gets Us Dreaming

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

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

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: butterfliesathome.com;Pollinators of Native Plants by Heather Holm; Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3; Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; other sites as cited in the text.

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

 

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

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

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

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

High Summer in the Meadows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

High Summer Between the Sunny Fields and the Shade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

High Summer in the Pond and the Marsh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

button bush bloom closeup
Closeup of a Buttonbush blossom

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

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

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

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

A Perfect Time for Youngsters to Meet Youngsters

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

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

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

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Spring Bursts into Summer – and Delicate Paint Creek Trail Surprises

Geraniums in the woods BC
A carpet of Wild Geranium in the Oak-Hickory forest

Well, what a change! Two weeks ago, we had spring flowers, leaf buds and spring courtship as birds sang and showed off in the treetops. And then came the heat and sun, and suddenly, it was early summer with leaves seeming to enlarge by the hour, spring flowers disappearing to be replaced by early summer blooms, more baby birds and the first dragonflies swooping along the paths in front of us.

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

So let’s explore just a few of the  wildflowers and creatures that shared this change with us.  (Plus some lovely post-prescribed burn surprises along the Paint Creek Trail.)

When it was still spring…

 Late Spring Birds and a Fun Insect

The male Rose-breasted Grosbeak’s  (Pheucticus ludovicianus) long, tuneful song was everywhere in Bear Creek in the last weeks of spring. Now their nests are finished and singing  has to accompany the task of raising young. Both the male and female build that nest and care for the young – a very modern couple! (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

Nearby, hopping from limb to limb, two male Yellow Warblers (Setophaga petechia) sang their seductive “Sweet, sweet, I’m a little sweet” song as they chased each other through the small trees at the edge of the woods. I never spotted the female, though she must have been nearby.  She lacks the rusty striping of the male and has a more olive back.

In the fields behind the Playground Pond, a pair of Eastern Towhees (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) were getting acquainted. The male was not singing his “Drink your Tea-a-a-a-” call, so I think the two may have been looking for a nesting sight. I’d never seen the female Towhee before and she’s quite different from the male’s coloring.

Speaking of nesting, I found this large egg under one of the walnut trees near the lane.  If one end hadn’t been missing, it would have been about 2 1/2 inches long.  And there was nothing inside.  I’m wondering if it could be the shell from the egg of a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) that I’ve seen off and on near the Center Pond. Cornell Lab describes the Red-tail’s eggs as 2.2 to 2.7 inches long and “white or buffy, blotched or speckled with buff, brown, or purple.”  What do you think?  Any bird egg experts out there?

Red-tailed Hawk egg?
What could be the hatched egg of a Red-tailed Hawk – but I can’t be sure.

A flash of iridescent green  at my feet signaled the hyper presence of the Six-spotted Tiger Beetle (Cicindela sexguttata) who frequents the forest edge. I imagine it got its name because its larva, developing in a burrow during the summer, springs up out of its hole to catch prey!  A tiny, green, stalking tiger! Cool how their antennae and legs are as green as their bodies.

Six-spotted Tiger Beetle
A Six-spotted Tiger Beetle usually scouts the forest edge at Bear Creek, looking for prey.
Late Spring Wildflowers and Leaves

Two weeks ago, the Oak-Hickory forest was filled with big, beautiful Wild Geraniums (Geranium maculatum). These lovely lavender flowers carpet the area near the marsh every year, but this year they were all over the park –  taller, more plentiful and with larger blooms than I’ve ever seen! Perhaps this year’s and last year’s prescribed burns helped.

Wild Geranium
Wild Geranium blossoms bloomed in the mottled spring light of the forest.

Each year I wait for the blossoming of the Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) that stands east of the Northern Loop.  I was intrigued to learn that the actual flowers are only the center of these blossoms.  The “petals” are actually bracts, specialized leaves that attract pollinators by glamorizing the cluster of tiny center flowers.  Here are three pictures of the buds, encased in their bracts,  opening as May progresses.

While the Flowering Dogwood buds were opening, the leaves of the Shagbark Hickory(Carya ovata) were just emerging from their amazing buds.

Hickory leaves emerge
Shagbark Hickory leaves emerge from the leaf buds.

The huge White Oaks (Quercus alba) near Snell Road were producing miniature red leaves  that, two weeks later, were green and stretching out to catch the sunlight.

Tiny Red White Oak leaves
White Oak leaves are red when they first emerge, but quickly expand and turn green.

Of course, the May Apples (Podophyllum peltatum) were producing their modest white flowers that hang hidden beneath an umbrella of leaves.

May Apple Blossom
A May Apple blossom nods below its umbrella of leaves.

Another spring favorite of mine are the little hands of Early Meadow-rue (Thalictrum dioicum) that find spots of sun in the mottled spring light of the woods.

Early Meadow-rue
Early Meadow-rue somehow looks like little green hands in the spotty sunlight of the spring forest.

Down at the pond, tiny aquatic buttercups, called White Water Crowfoot  (Ranunculus longirostris) floated in large swirls across the pond.  Once the heat arrived, the flowers disappeared and the brown stems are now making a not-so-lovely brown mat until they sink below the surface.

White water crowfoot
White Water Crowfoot, an aquatic buttercup, dies away with the heat, leaving a brown mat of stems on the Center Pond.

Heat! And Summer Rushes Forward

Summer Birds and other Creatures

Green Heron (Butorides virescens), one of our summer residents, perched in a snag (standing dead tree) at the Center Pond.  I usually see them fishing at the water’s edge.  According to Cornell Lab, “The Green Heron is one of the world’s few tool-using bird species. It creates fishing lures with bread crusts, insects, earthworms, twigs, feathers, and other objects, dropping them on the surface of the water to entice small fish.”  I will be watching now to see if I can catch one doing that!

Green Heron
A Green Heron, a tool-using bird, hunches in dead tree on the far side of the Center Pond.

Out in Bear Creek Marsh, Ben and an experienced birder, Antonio Xeira, heard the call of a seldom-seen denizen of wetlands, the Sora (Porzana carolina). This waterbird, a member of the Rail family,  with a heavy yellow beak and stock body,  stalks quietly among the cattails, looking for seeds, insects and snails. Its whinnying call is particularly dramatic. Ben and Antonio recognized its other two tone “ker-wee” call at the marsh. Click on its picture here and go halfway down this page for its song and call. I’d never even heard of Sora before!

A delightful sight greeted the Wednesday birders at the Playground Pond last week. A mother Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) was escorting her six ducklings around the pond,  as well as what appeared to be two Hooded Merganser chicks (Lophodytes cucullatus)! Ben surmised that perhaps a Merganser had laid its eggs in the nest hole of the Wood Duck and she ended up hatching them along with her own. Here’s a photo of the adult female with her own chicks and a photo of a Hooded Merganser baby that swam with them.  This Merganser duckling jumps from a tree hole when one day old and swims on its own.  It takes 3 days for the Wood Duck’s ducklings to do the same.

Down at the Center Pond, the “boing-boing” banjo sound of the Green Frog (Lithobates clamitans) creates part of the summer music at Bear Creek.  You can tell this one’s a male because its tympanum, a kind of external ear drum, is larger than its eye. I like this one’s tentative expression.

Mitch the male Green Frog
A male Green Frog with a questioning expression!

And the Common White-tail Dragonfly (Plathemis lydia) makes a soft whir-r-r as it soars by, looking for prey. This one’s a female, because the male’s abdomen is white, which accounts for its common name.

Common Whitetail Dragonfly
A female Common Whitetail Dragonfy in Bear Creek Marsh.
Summer Wildflowers

As the heat began, wildflowers started to bloom in the native beds near the parking lot.  One of the loveliest is native Wild Lupine (Lupinus perennis) glowing lavender and white in the warm sunlight.

Lupine BC native bed
Wild Lupine in warm sunlight in the native bed near the parking lot

Nearby was a plant I’d never seen until Ben VanderWeide, our stewardship manager,  made me aware of it.  It has the lovely name of Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium).  To me each tiny blossom resembles a tiny Iris.  It’s called “grass” because it has grass-like leaves and stems with parallel veins that are hard to distinguish from a grass when there aren’t any flowers. The flowers only open fully in full sunlight, so it can be easy to miss early in the morning or on a cloudy day. But isn’t it pretty in the late spring/early summer?

And another early summer favorite is spreading abundantly in the native bed north of the shed.  Canada Anemone’s (Anemone canadensis) lovely white flowers stand gracefully above its deep green foliage .

Canada anemone
Canada Anemone ‘s white and yellow blossoms stand erect above its interesting, dark green foliage in a native bed.

Sunny Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) accompany these other native plants in the wild garden in the driveway center, one of the native beds and across from the Playground Pond.  This one’s hosting a Spittle Bug or Frog Hopper, common names for the super-family of insects called  Cercopoidea.  The adult insects can hop 100 times their length!  The foam is used for protection for the nymph stage of development.  Though the nymph sucks on the plant, it generally doesn’t hurt the plant much.  Most of the liquid is used to create that evidently nasty-tasting froth that deters predators.

Golden alexander w spittle bug foam
Golden Alexanders hosting the spittlebug nymph who uses a little liquid from the stem to protect itself with foam.

Ben and his crew planted some native Prairie Phlox across from the Playground Pond, another area of Bear Creek to be slowly stocked with native plants.

Prairie phlox Playground pond native
Prairie phlox, a native wildflower planted by Dr. Ben across from the Playground Pond.

Warm weather brought out the exotic-looking blooms of native Wild Columbine in the bed just north of the shed.  These lovely native wildflowers grew down the side of a hill east of the park when it was a farm back in the 1930s and 40s.

Columbine blossoms in native bed BC
Native Wild Columbine once grew on a hillside east of the park when Bear Creek was a farm in the 1940’s.

And out in the eastern Old Field, lots of native Common Milkweed appeared once the grasses were knocked back by the prescribed burn in March.  No doubt all the nutrients that were released into the soil then, plus the longer growing season caused by the darkened earth, will give it a little boost.  Hope the Monarch Butterflies take note!

Milkweed eastern meadow
Milkweed plants take advantage of increased sun and nutrients since the prescribed burn.

And now the Paint Creek Trail surprise…

This spring, Ben VanderWeide, the Township Stewardship Manager, and volunteers did a prescribed burn along the Paint Creek Trail near the parking lot at Gallagher Road.  The purpose, as always, was to stimulate native plants and discourage non-native invasive ones.  Also prescribed fire releases nutrients from last year’s plants back into the soil.

Partly as result of this process, some lovely native plants emerged this year in greater numbers than before the burn.  Look at this lovely photo Ben took of a native Yellow Ladyslipper  orchid (Cypripedium parviflorum)  – and there were lots of them hidden within the burgeoning grass. You can certainly see where this lovely wildflower got its name – a graceful slipper with ribbons attached!

Yellow Ladyslipper - Ben
A native Yellow Ladyslipper that bloomed along the Paint Creek Trail after a prescribed burn.

The grass was also shining with Star-grass (Hypoxis hirsuta), a small yellow native that hosts small bees and other pollinators.  It’s lucky there were lots of these shining stars this year because they need other plants to cross pollinate, which of course is assisted by the bees.  Here’s Ben’s photo.

Star-grass Ben's
These bright yellow flowers called Star-grass also shone out of the grass along the PC Trail after the prescribed burn.

Along the tree line near the parking lot at Gallagher, a yellow cloud of Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) nodded in the wind.  Ben caught this one up close.

Golden Alexander Ben's
Golden Alexanders dancing in the wind near the tree line along the Paint Creek Trail

And Ben also noted a Sedge plant  (family Cyperaceae)  with its interesting bloom. As I mentioned two weeks ago, sedges are ancient plants that look something like grasses but are constructed differently. Ancient Egyptians used sedges to make papyrus.

Sedge - Ben PCT
A sedge plant along the PC Trail – a member of an ancient family of plants used by the Egyptians to make papyrus.

Ben tells me that beautiful native wildflowers like Culver’s Root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Showy Tick-trefoil (Desmodium canadense) and other prairie plants are “sprouting vigorously” along the trail north Gallagher Road – so click on the links to see them and then keep an eye out for them!

Path to the Marsh BC
The path to the Bear Creek Marsh in late afternoon sun.

So treat yourself.  Hang some binoculars around your neck and look at birds up close – both the year ’round residents and the summer visitors.  Take your time.  Stand near a patch of summer flowers and watch quietly. See what surprises you.  Maybe a bee that turns out to be a harmless hover fly.  Or the shiny glamour of the Six-spotted Tiger Beetle.  Try using your cell phone to take a shot of a single flower you’ve never noticed before and then identify it when you get home.  I promise you’ll relax.  Your breath will slow, you’ll smile a bit more, life will just get more interesting.  Nature comes alive in ways you’d never expect when you give it your undivided attention.  Let us know what you find!

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.