Tag Archives: Common Milkweed

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.

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 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.

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Bear Creek Becomes a Park, 1969-2003


Ranger Ricks at Center Pond 1969
Baldwin School Children in their Ranger Rick neckerchiefs explore the Center Pond in 1969

Last week, we explored nature in Bear Creek when it was a working farm 75 years ago. I thought it would be interesting to continue following its history to learn how it became our first publicly protected park. And the source for that information was  the “mover and shaker” who envisioned turning this abandoned farm into  Bear Creek Nature Park and  helped make it a reality – Parks and Recreation Commissioner Alice Tomboulian.

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

Many thanks to Alice and her husband Paul for sharing their knowledge of Bear Creek 45 years ago – and their photos below that I’m using with their permission! Also thanks to Parks Director Mindy Milos-Dale for great info and photos of the Grand Opening of the new park developments in 2003!

1969: Exploring an Abandoned Farm

Much had changed since the 1940’s when the Comps family lived on the farm. With no animals grazing, the grass in some Old Fields had grown tall, while rental farmers raised corn in others. The county had widened Snell Road, taking out the old sugar maples that once graced the front of the farmhouse. The county had also straightened Gunn Road, eliminating a steep curve that went around the far north of Bear Creek marsh by building a new straight crossing with a metal culvert. Sometime in the 60’s, the old farmhouse burned, leaving today only a remnant of an outdoor grill built by George Comps’ father  in the 1940’s or 50’s from stones on the property. (Hover over photos for captions. Click on photos to enlarge.)

When Alice and Paul Tomboulian and their family moved to Oakland Township in 1969, the land that became Bear Creek Nature Park was abandoned farmland still owned as an investment by Mr. Devereaux of the Richard C. Devereaux Foundation in Detroit (now of Bloomfield Hills). The Tomboulians were naturalists and lived across from this lovely piece of land.  Alice was a volunteer at Seven Ponds Nature Center in Dryden and  Paul headed the department of Chemistry and Environmental Health at Oakland University. They recognized the importance of those 107 acres – the marsh, the wetlands, the plants and wildlife – for conservation and preservation. In those days, children and their parents exploring empty land was common and not thought at all to be trespassing. So the Tomboulian family skated on the pond near Gunn Road and explored the woods and fields.

Vernal pool near Gunn full of water in early spring
Vernal pool near Gunn full of water in early spring

Early 1970s to 1977: Nature Study at Bear Creek

Alice and Paul Tomboulian and their three children used the land that would become Bear Creek as a perfect spot for nature study. Even Alice’s stepmother joined in! Exploring the marsh, for example,  took some gusto in those days before the docks were available for observation. So Alice and her stepmom waded in, fully dressed in old clothes, to explore the reeds for coot nests and other denizens of the marsh.  Along the way, of course, they also picked up the same kind of trash my husband and I retrieve in the park from time to time to this day!

Alice Tomboulian and Stepmom in Marsh
Alice Tomboulian and her stepmother in the ’70s wading out of the marsh after nature study and a little trash pickup! Early ’70s

One day Alice heard a chain saw roaring across the road and hurried over to see who was cutting down trees. It turned out to be the landowner, Mr. Devereaux. Rather than questioning her interest, Mr. Devereaux was pleased that someone was watching over  and protecting his land and gave his permission to explore and later, granted permission for Baldwin School field trips for nature study. Soon school children, their parents and teachers began arriving through a narrow path from Collins Road, which today is a much wider, developed path from the Township Hall. The children below and in the photo at the top of the blog, some sporting “Ranger Rick” neckerchiefs, would be in their fifties by now.

On that field trip on a sunny June day in 1969, the children did a bit of exploring around the pond, though of course no viewing from a deck was possible since none existed. Note the difference between 1969 and now. In 1969, the northern side of the Center Pond was edged only with tall grass – most of it non-native grazing grasses and native reeds. Now the north side of the pond is surrounded by  thickets of some native and many non-native invasive shrubs .


Here’s another group of Baldwin school children coming down the Eastern Path in June of 1969. Then a narrow foot path wound down through the eastern Old Field where the grass planted to feed the cows was starting to grow tall.

First Graders on Eastern Path 1969
School children in 1969 coming down the narrow footpath that now is the Eastern Path.

Now a wider, developed trail follows the same path but over the years, thanks to the stewardship of the  Parks and Recreation Commission, native Canada Goldenrod and other native  wildflowers have made a big comeback.  Black-eyed Susans, Coneflowers, Prairie Dock and Common Milkweed, beloved by Monarch butterflies, live peaceably beside non-native wildflowers like Queen Anne’s Lace and Ox-eye Daisies.

In 1974, an ecological survey of Oakland Township by Paul Thompson of the Cranbrook Institute of Science confirmed the importance of the land that is now Bear Creek. He briefly described the area that is now Bear Creek. as having “an excellent cattail marsh…several dozen muskrat lodges…an oak hickory woodland of moderate sized trees, and a number of small woodland ponds.”

Paul Thompson's description of the oak-hickory forest on the north end of Bear Creek Nature Park.
Paul Thompson’s description of the oak-hickory forest and Bear Marsh on the north end of Bear Creek Nature Park, which he labeled as areas W-67 and W-68.

1977 – 2003 Bear Creek Becomes a Park, Wild and Undeveloped

In the early 70’s, Alice and Paul Tomboulian and their children continued their nature study on the land that was to become Bear Creek Nature Park.  Mark, the Tomboulian’s younger son, was a born naturalist. Over the years that he explored Mr. Devereaux’s land,  he kept a list of every plant, animal and bird he saw.  Here Alice and her three children are doing some nature study at Bear Creek marsh in the 1970’s.  (Photo from an article in the Pontiac Press, now the Oakland Press.)

Alice and Children at Marsh 1970s
Alice Tomboulian and from right to left, her three children Nancy, Mark and Jeff, exploring nature at Bear Creek Marsh in the 1970’s. Photo from Oakland Press.

In the ’70s,  Alice was serving on the Oakland Township Board of Trustees. Armed with her own nature study and her son Mark’s wonderful list of the wildlife and plant life in the marsh, she proposed to the Parks Commission the creation of the township’s first park by buying Mr. Devereaux’s property.   And in 1977, The Oakland Township Parks Commission purchased the 107 acres of  land which is now Bear Creek Nature Park using $305,000 from the Parks Millage Fund.

At the time, township residents preferred keeping the parks with access only by footpaths. But problems needed to be solved in Bear Creek Marsh.   Over the years, the metal culvert under Gunn road installed in the 1940’s had  rusted and partially collapsed.  The drainage became blocked with runoff and debris from roadwork and development.  Water flooded the marsh, creating unnaturally high water levels,  “sometimes giving the appearance of a 8 acre lake,” as Paul Tomboulian puts it.  The high water was drowning a very special native habitat relied on by native wildlife. (Hover cursor over photo on right for caption.)

Alice, the PRC, and the Township worked with the Oakland County Road Commission for 16 years to correct this problem. According to Paul Tomboulian,  the old culvert eventually “was replaced with a new 78-foot long pipe in 2003, new water levels were set, and erosion control measures near Gunn Road were installed.”  Now,  the water level has returned to more normal levels and bulrushes, cattails and marsh wildlife are returning to Bear Creek Marsh.

September 2003 – Bear Creek Becomes a Fully Developed Nature Park

Later, when the Parks Commission became the Parks and  Recreation Commission, the PRC moved to make Bear Creek Nature Park even more accessible to the public.   With the approval of commission members,  Parks Director Mindy Milos-Dale sought out and wrote the Township’s first grant from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund. The grant proposal was accepted and paid for 44% of the cost of facilities improvements at the park.  They included ADA accessible limestone trails, wooden boardwalks, docks and overlooks in wetland areas, a picnic pavilion, a children’s play area, a gravel parking lot and restroom facilities. The remaining cost was matched from Parks Millage Funds.

new england aster and goldenrod2
Canada Goldenrod complements New England Aster in the Old Fields of Bear Creek

After all the careful planning and financing was done, Bear Creek Nature Park had its Grand Opening on September 27, 2003.  Visitors, like us today, enjoyed the Old Fields filled with the gorgeous orange and purple of fall’s Canada Goldenrod and New England Aster. They could hear Canada Geese and Sandhill Cranes crying overhead as they headed south. Visitors watched water birds from the observation deck as they do today. Muskrats and snapping turtles swam peacefully in Bear Creek Marsh.

BC photo 2003 1

 What a journey!  We owe a debt of gratitude to the vision, consistent effort and careful study of the Tomboulians, PRC commissioners over the years, Parks Director Milos-Dale and the support of many park-loving Trustees  whose foresight and careful planning protected the marshes, meadows and woodlands of Bear Creek for all of us who enjoy its very special beauties today.

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Flocking Birds, a Winter Resident from the Arctic Tundra and Some “Lovely but Lethals”

Russet trees across Eastern meadow

Winter chill showed up last week – along with sparrows arriving from the arctic tundra.   Small migrators, just passing through on their way south, huddled among bare limbs.  Fall inspires birds to flock and the skies and trees are crowded with bird society.  A few wildflowers are still sending off or dropping their last fruits and all kinds of leaves whirl down and carpet the paths.  Now is the time when the negative impact of too many deer and invasive plants becomes readily apparent – so we’ll explore “lovely but lethal” creatures and plants in the park as well.

Birds Flock Together in the Chill Winds

Evidently, wildlife experts have various theories about why birds flock in the autumn.  The most common explanation seems to be that it’s protection. More bird eyes and ears can spot predators and find food more easily.  In some species,  the young flock with adults who know more about food sources than they do.  Some experts believe birds learn from other birds about new food sources by hanging out in flocks or rookeries.  Migrating is easier in flocks in which individual birds take turns flying in front, thereby decreasing the wind resistance for the birds behind them.

long line of geese
A long line of Canada Geese straggling into “V” formation over Bear Creek this week

And then there’s the possibility that birds are just more social when they aren’t courting or raising young.  American Robins (Turdus migratorius) for instance, are chirping all over the park now in small flocks, often high in the treetops.  Many robins spend their whole winter here; we just don’t see them on the lawn because they can’t get to worms, so they eat fruits during the cold season.

American Robin on a cold day
American Robin on a cold day

Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) gather in large numbers in the marsh.  I saw a flock of over 50 last week floating and flying near the Gunn Road end of the marsh – and heard reports of hundreds near Rochester Road.  Here are about half of the ones I saw.

29 Ducks in marsh
About half of a flock of over 50 ducks restlessly eating and flying over the marsh this week.

Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura), often seen in ones or twos over the western Old Field during the summer, were soaring in groups of five or more this week.  Our “cleanup crew” with its magnificent 6 ft. wing span will soon be gone, migrating to the southeast to spend the winter.

Turkey vulture and Staghorn sumac
A Turkey Vulture soars past a Staghorn Sumac.

Lately I’ve learned that flocks of Black-Capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) are good places to look for other small birds who hang out with them when in unfamiliar areas.  Their “Chickadee-dee-dee” call ends up being a clue to look for fellow travelers like the sparrows below.  The reason?  Chickadees are great at sounding alarms that other birds heed.  The more “dee’s,” the higher the threat.  And as year ’round residents, they probably know the best, closest food sources as well.  This Chickadee mustered its impressive balancing skills to take off in the stiff winds this week.

Chickadee on a windy day
A chickadee gets ready for take-off in a stiff wind.

Snag w chickadee woodpecker holesEver wonder how a bird as small as a Chickadee survives during cold, rainy nights like we had this week or cold snowy ones? Cornell Lab says that these tiny birds can excavate their own individual holes in the rotting wood of snags (standing dead trees)  – one bird per hole!  I’m glad to hear that, since I know chickadees always face the challenge of eating enough to stay alive in cold weather. They store individual seeds everywhere and then can actually remember where they put thousands of them! Here’s how Cornell says they sort of “clear their hard drives” at this time of year: “Every autumn Black-capped Chickadees allow brain neurons containing old information to die, replacing them with new neurons so they can adapt to changes in their social flocks and environment even with their tiny brains.”  Wish I could do some of that!

Cold Weather Sparrows Arrive While Sparrow Visitors Pause and Move On.

This winter, flocks of  Tree Sparrows (Spizella arborea) will probably gather beneath your bird feeder as well as mine.   These distance travelers have spent the summer raising young on the arctic tundra and this week arrived back at Bear Creek.  See this link to their beautiful arctic nests made of ptarmigan feathers.  These small birds with their warm brown caps and black dot on a gray chest must love cold weather since they clearly think our winters are comfortably mild.

Tree sparrow at Bear Creek
Tree Sparrows arrived this week from their summer homes on the arctic tundra.

Other sparrows are still just passing through.  The large Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca) with gray above its eye and on the nape of its neck is heading for backyards and fields anywhere south of mid-Ohio.  This one looks especially red-brown because it was basking in the light of a setting sun.

Fox sparrow2?
The large Fox Sparrow basks in the light of the setting sun.

This is probably the last week that the White-Throated Sparrow will be at Bear Creek. Its yellow “lores” (spots in front of the eyes) are present at the top of the beak, a bit faint in this photo,  but it had the classic field marks of a white throat and striped head – when it would emerge for a few seconds from hiding among the branches!

Brown form of White-throated Sparrow
Tan-striped form of the White-throated Sparrow which sometimes comes in black and white.

The Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) was here last week, foraging near the Center Pond as the leaves thinned out.  With the cold north winds late in the week, it’s probably winging its way to Tennessee and points south, like the human “snow birds.”

Hermit Thrush
A Hermit Thrush who probably left on the north wind late this week for warmer climes.

Seeding for Spring Continues

3 Common Mullein
Three non-native Common Mullein plants stand like morning sentinels on the western slope of the park.

Like the tall non-native Common Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) above, many wildflowers have finished seeding for the year, but some are still dispersing seeds in a variety of ways.  The native Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), that looks like a tiny white sputnik when it flowers,  is now drooping in the marshes. (Rest your cursor on double photos like this for captions.)

But it’s been a great help to the native wildlife around it.  According to Wikipedia, “Waterfowl and other birds eat the seeds. Wood ducks utilize the plant as nest protection. Deer browse the foliage. Insects and hummingbirds take the nectar, with bees using it to make honey.”  That’s what makes many native plants good for a habitat – lots of uses for native wildlife.

Remember the loose sprays of native Water Hemlock (Cicuta maculata) that were in or near every park wetland during the summer? This plant, the most toxic in North America, is now making a delicate, brown fruit with tiny hooks that attach to animal fur –  or my cotton sweater as I wade into the plants to get a macro photo.  In that way, they spread their seeds for next spring.

Native Gray Dogwood (Cornus foemina) has fed lots of birds with its white berry-like “drupes” this fall and now leaves behind a lovely red fringe at the edge of the marsh in the center of the park.

Gray dogwood?
Gray dogwood fed the birds with its white berries and now leaves a lovely red fringe at the edge of the wetlands.

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) pods are drying and mature seeds are now being released to the wind.  If you see seed on the path or anywhere they can’t sprout, pick them up and send them flying!  The resident and migrating Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus) that feed on them next summer will thank you.

By the Way..

One Tough Dragonfly!

I was astonished on Friday, after the heavy, cold rain and high winds, to still see another Yellow-legged Autumn Dragonfly (Sympetrum vicinum) calmly sitting on the railing at the Playground Pond.  On Sunday a week ago, I’d seen the one in the photo below on a matching red leaf at Seven Ponds and thought that would be my last sighting of the year.  That is one tough insect!  At Bear Creek, a few grasshoppers were still chirping, a bit forlornly, in the tall grass as well and could still be seen springing about on southern slopes in the park.  Amazing.

Yellow legged autumn dragonfly
A Yellow-legged Autumn dragonfly matched the leaf upon which it rested on a cold, late fall afternoon.

And Just One Special Leaf this Week:

Isn’t the Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides) a lovely tree? They shimmer silvery green in the summer and shower golden leaves in the fall.  It’s a very common and short-lived tree with smooth, light bark that’s often mistaken for birch. And as Michigan Flora says, it’s “one of the few deciduous trees of the boreal forest to the north of Michigan.”  Another resident from the far north! That Tree Sparrow must have passed thousands of them on the way here.  Maybe that’s why I saw my first Tree Sparrow of the year right across from the Aspens on the park’s northern loop.  This week, in those stiff winds and rain, the Aspen’s dancing leaves went flying, leaving a carpet of gold on some paths at Bear Creek.

Aspen leaf
Golden Big-Tooth Aspen leaves littered the paths this week like gold coins.

Now for those “Lovely but Lethal” Plants and Animals

It’s tough not to love White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus).  After all, who doesn’t love to see those “doe eyes” gazing our way?

An over-abundance of the lovely White-tailed Deer can be a problem to native wildflowers and the tree canopy, especially in woodlands like our Oak-Hickory forest.

However, deer are seriously over-populating the landscape here and elsewhere.  According to the Nature Conservancy, “No native vertebrate species in the eastern United States has a more direct effect on habitat integrity than the white-tailed deer.”  The huge number of deer changes the landscape as they prefer to eat native plants, like Common Trillium, for instance. This feeding has reduced the density and height of forest wildflowers and make more room for invasive plants to spread.  Their consumption of acorns  also has an effect on the tree canopy in the woods. Deer are native to Michigan and much-beloved by both nature-lovers and hunters, so finding a solution to their over-abundance is a real challenge.

This invasive lovely and lethal vine that people admire in the fall chokes the life out of trees and bushes.

As we posted separately, one of the worst actual killers in our parks is Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) – which was very apparent this week in the park.  Its yellow leaves, yellow capsules and red fruit can be seen from every path twisting its way up and across trees and bushes.  Introduced as a landscape plant, this striking but lethal vine kills trees and bushes in three ways.  It  winds aggressively around the trunks of trees to get to the sunlight at the top, girdling the tree until it chokes the tree to death.

bittersweet killing small tree
Oriental Bittersweet, a beautiful invasive vine,  will eventually kill this small tree by girdling it and robbing it of nutrients and sunlight.

It also creates so much weight at the tops of trees that once they are weakened by the Bittersweet, they can be blown over in the wind.  They also climb over bushes so densely that they simply steal the sunlight and nutrients from the host plant and any plant nearby.  So please don’t pick it, don’t make or buy wreaths of it and don’t try to pull the heavy vines down yourself because you could get seriously hurt! Please see our post on how to rid our parks or your property of this beautiful killer.

Bittersweet engulfing a walnut tree
Asian Bittersweet killing a walnut tree in the lane.

Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) has been the bane of Bear Creek for a long time.  The northern end of the park is full of this invasive bush with its fragrant flowers in the spring and its red berries in the fall.  This woody shrub can literally crowd out native shrubs and plants as it has, along with other invasives , on the large loop at the north end of the park.

Now a new invasive tree is competing to be the most problematic and it too is lovely.  (Most invasives are pretty; that’s why people plant them in their landscapes!)  Friday morning I counted 16 small to medium-sized trees of this new problem for Bear Creek in one small corner near the center pond. It’s called Callery Pear (Pyrus calleryana) – another lovely, but lethal invasive plant.

Callery Pear invasive tree
A new invasive plant has found its way into Bear Creek – Callery Pear. There are 16 trees of varying sizes already at this corner near the Center Pond.

Of course, native trees can get out of hand, too, like Box Elder (Acer negundo), actually a not-so-wonderful kind of maple . Box-elder samaras seedsLook at the number of samaras (a fruit with wings attached to carry seeds)  in this one small clump on a large tree at the bottom of the western slope.  There are a lot of box elders on the western slope for that very reason!  Though the multiple trunks are often thin and the trees are short-lived, it can quickly colonize an area and crowd out other trees and plants.



Nature is remarkably resilient.  If we can give it a bit of help through careful stewardship, we can control these lovely and lethal plants and animals so the native ones can take their proper place in the landscape and the non-native ones can slowly be eliminated or at least controlled so they don’t irrevocably change the diverse native landscape that nature provided for us.  So consider joining in our stewardship events (see the Stewardship Events tab above) as we weed and plant to help Bear Creek and our other parks thrive in all their natural glory.

A note about “This Week at Bear Creek”:  My blog posts will probably slow some between November and February since late fall and winter are more static times in the park – and occasionally the weather will make it tricky to get out with my camera!  So please consider “following” Natural Areas Notebook, so that you’ll get an email when a post goes up.  I love doing this blog, so whenever I see some changes in the wildlife or something unusual in the park that I think might interest all of you this season, I’ll be here!  Thanks so much for your support and interest as we made our virtual walks together through the spring and summer!  Let’s see what late fall and winter bring!

Footnote:  My sources for information, as well as Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991);Stokes Nature Guides:  A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net.; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for beetle info http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info, and invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman; experienced birder Ruth Glass, bird walk leader at Stoney Creek Metro Park for bird identification; Birds of North American Online; Audubon.org.