Draper Twin Lake Park – East: The Stage is Set for Another Gold and Purple Autumn

Follow the Goldenrod Road … er, path into Draper Twin Lake Park – East

Walking into Draper Twin Lake Park – East in September is almost like being Dorothy on the Yellow Brick Road in The Wizard of Oz. The trails are lined with a wide variety of goldenrods and other sunny yellow wildflowers. Gold-and-black bees and beetles hum and scramble over them, making the most of late season nectar and pollen. Here and there the asters accent the gold with splashes of royal purple, lavender and white. Bronze and copper grasses dip and sway in the prairie, while summer birds finish their molts and prepare to move south or overwinter here.

Text and photos by Cam Mannino

So dodging between downpours and ensconced in my net anti-bug jacket, I ventured out into the thinning light of early autumn to enjoy early fall’s performance. Glad you’re here to join me.

Fall Flowers and Grasses Set the Stage in Early Autumn

Clouds above the golden prairie in the north of Draper Twin Lake Park – East

Here in Oakland Township, goldenrods and tall grasses create the early fall backdrop within which all the other creatures hunt, forage and fly. Over the last few years, I’ve learned to notice the variety of goldenrods that paint their particular yellow on early autumn’s canvas. So I think an introduction to just four of our most common goldenrods is called for, in case you think “you’ve seen one goldenrod, you’ve seen them all!” [Click on photos to enlarge.]

Giant Ragweed Photo
by Sam Kieschnik (CC BY)

A side note: Goldenrods do not cause “hay fever” as many fall allergy sufferers believe. Ragweed (genus Ambrosia) is the culprit! Its blooms are green and its light pollen is dispersed by the wind – right into people’s noses! Goldenrod flowers are yellow and their heavy pollen sticks to insects and can’t be carried by the wind. According to the Michigan Flora website, two kinds of ragweed grow in our county. So please let goldenrods off the hook for making you sneeze! A generous photographer from iNaturalist.org shared the ragweed photo on the left.

As the weather turns cooler, autumn adds in the late asters to complement the goldenrods. The name “aster” comes from an ancient Greek word meaning “star,” so it’s wonderfully appropriate for this colorful family of star-shaped flowers to add sprays of contrasting color within the golden landscape.

Sprinkled here and there around the prairie and the marsh, other native wildflowers make an occasional appearance, adding more variety to the fall scenery. It always intrigues me that so many are yellow! It seems to be early autumn’s favorite color. The late season, many-stemmed Brown-eyed Susans and the Common Evening Primroses were plentiful this year. Maybe more rain helped?

And the tall, graceful, native grasses created a scrim along the trail, their dance moves providing the prairie’s choreography on a breezy September day.

Every performance needs a little drama, and the Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) with its pink stems and purple berries rises to the occasion near the marsh each year.

Pokeweed berries are beloved by birds, but beware! They are toxic for us mere humans.

The Backdrop in Place, Insects Take the Stage

Even as it fades, a Stiff Goldenrod simultaneously hosts 3 European Honeybees and two mating beetles!
Locust Borer beetles

Insects act as the “supporting actors” in any landscape, taking on the essential role of pollinating plants even as the days get colder and flowers begin to fade. I hope you spotted the five black-and-gold insects on the Stiff Goldenrod in the photo above. What a generous host that plant that is!

Two of those insects were mating – or rather, the larger female was busy foraging as the mating occurred. Not much romance among Locust Borer beetles (Megacyllene robiniae), I’m afraid.

In early September, the prairie still hummed with the buzz of hundreds of European Honeybees and native Bumblebees. Later in the month, their activity seem to drop a bit; perhaps that’s because flight is more difficult for bees when temperatures fall below 50 degrees. Let me show you a small sample of the work bees were performing in September.

Butterflies, though fewer in number, were also playing their part in pollination. We saw several large Monarchs (Danaus plexippus), members of the “super generation” hatched right here in Michigan which will take on the entire 2,500 mile journey to their wintering grounds in Mexico!

Smaller butterflies made appearances as well. Butterflies don’t do as much pollination as bees, but they certainly add some fluttering color to an early autumn walk!

Every drama needs a couple of questionable characters. I met up with two of them in September at Draper Park East. The first was a non-native, the European Praying Mantis (Mantis religiousa). It may look like it’s praying, but in reality, it’s actually preying on beneficial insects as well as others. It’s a master of camouflage when vertical in tall green grass. Its triangular head can turn 180 degrees and its raptor-like front legs shoot forward in an instant to ambush unsuspecting insects. Even after my husband spotted it, I had trouble finding it in my viewfinder until it climbed up on a dying goldenrod. Quite an elegant shape on this predatory character!

A European Praying Mantis pauses on the top of Canada Goldenrod to get a better view of possible prey.

Passing by some Big Bluestem that swayed above my head, I noticed an odd lump at the end of the seedhead. I’ve look closely at odd lumps in nature ever since I saw my first elusive Spring Peeper by getting curious about a lumpy leaf years ago. I was rewarded again this time with my second questionable insect at Draper East, a One-Spotted Stinkbug (Euschistus variolarius). Dr. Gary Parsons at Michigan State University’s Bug House helped me out again by identifying this one, partly from the red tips on its protothorax.
A One-Spotted Stinkbug on a seed head of Big Blue Stem. It’s probably heading to the stem for a drink!

Dr. Parsons informs me that the One-spotted is a native stinkbug that eats by piercing the leaves, stems, seeds and fruits of herbaceous (non-woody) plants in order to siphon out some liquid. Generally though, he says, this species isn’t considered a pest. However, the invasive, non-native Brown Marmorated Stinkbugs that I occasionally see at home can be a huge problem for orchards, and stinkbugs can be pests in years in which they are abundant. If they are crushed during the harvest, their scent is not a pleasant addition to the crop!

Birds, Our Usual “Main Characters” in the Landscape, are Busy Changing Costumes for Winter or Migration

The cast of characters in our parks diminishes in the autumn. Insects either hibernate or lay their eggs for next spring’s hatch and die. Cool weather means most birds have finished raising their young just about the time the insect population begins to plummet. They stay high in the trees, often hidden among the leaves, especially if they’re molting.

Fall is a quieter season than spring. Birdsong, after all, is part of spring courtship. This September some social birds, like the Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) did whistle their high contact calls to one another as they gathered fruits in a Wild Black Cherry tree (Prunus serotina) or sallied forth to hawk into a cloud of gnats.

Juveniles may try out bits and pieces of adult songs or call plaintively to be fed long after they can feed themselves. The young Eastern Wood Pewee (Contopus virens) below, however, stared in silence out into the big, wide world. One of my fine birding mentors, Ruth Glass, pointed out that this bird had the buff wing bars of a “first fall juvenile,” rather than the adult’s white bars. That means that this little bird is about to experience its very first migration. Somehow it will have to find its way to its wintering grounds in Central America or even northern South America! Courage and bon voyage, my young friend!

According to website of the Cornell University Ornithology Lab, The Eastern Wood Pewee hawks for insects an average of 36 times per hour even now, in the non-breeding season!

A Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) surveyed the area from high on the tip of a snag. It may spend the winter here, though I see Flickers more often in the summer when they can drill the earth for their favorite food – ants! These birds used to be called “Yellow-Shafted Flickers,” because the undersides of their tail feathers (which can be seen below) as well as their wing feathers are bright yellow in flight.

The Northern Flicker can spend the winter here if it can find enough fruits – even frozen ones!

On the eastern edge of Draper Twin Lake Park – East, several summer visitors chirped and chatted in a tangle of vines and small trees. The warm yellow throat of a female Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) flashed in the greenery. She gave a sharp “chip” call as she moved restlessly from branch to branch. She’ll soon be riding a north wind during the night down to the southeastern states or on to the Caribbean.

A female Common Yellowthroat along the eastern side of the prairie at Draper Twin Lake Park

In the grass along the east path, a juvenile Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum) hopped about, pecking in a desultory manner at bits of this and that. This little bird probably hatched in the boreal forests of Canada and is now headed for Florida or the Caribbean where the insects will be much more plentiful. Many thanks to expert birder Allen Chartier for an explanatory identification of this bird. Juveniles definitely challenge my developing knowledge of fall bird plumage.

Juvenile Palm Warblers are identified by yellow under-tail feathers (or coverts), the pale line above the eye (supercillium), brownish breast streaks and buff wing bars.

I was lucky to see another migrator heading south from the boreal forest, the Lincoln’s Sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii). This nattily dressed little bird with its fine stripes and buff mustache (malar) tends to scurry into tangles as soon as it lands. I’d seen one for only the first time a week before at Charles Ilsley Park, though others spotted it in the spring from its wren-like burbling, complicated song. So imagine my surprise and delight when it hopped up on a branch to preen and stayed long enough for a portrait!

A Lincoln’s Sparrow in one of its rare moments in the open!

A Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) suddenly popped into the open too. Its “bouncing ball” trill burbled up from the prairies all summer long. This particular one looked a bit frowzy around the edges because it hadn’t quite finished its molt. It was still growing fresh feathers for its relatively short flight to Ohio and points south.

A Field Sparrow not quite finished with its molt

Becoming an Attentive “Audience” in the Natural World

The trail that leads to the prairie along the marsh at Draper Twin Lake Park East.

In this piece, I’ve had fun imagining the prairie and its inhabitants as an early fall theatrical production – but that, of course, calls for the last element – the audience. Us! I find that paying as much attention to my natural surroundings as I would to a movie, a play or a concert reaps a similar kind of pleasure. I appreciate the color, the movement and the music of a prairie as much as I enjoy the scenery, the costumes and the gestures of a dance performance. A forest or a fen can be almost as mysterious and as filled with strange inhabitants as any sci-fi adventure. The care adult birds take with fragile nestlings is often as touching and as fraught as a family drama. And the ferocity of a large green insect’s ambush of its unsuspecting victim can be as creepy as the casual violence of an elegant but lethal villain in a murder mystery.

Stepping out into a natural environment is much like losing myself in a powerful story. I leave my ordinary life behind for a few hours and enter into lives much different than my own. Stories of life and death unfold. The sets and costumes change from scene to scene. The music, the dance, the voices, the behavior, the colors are not ones made by humans; I’m in a different reality. When I leave, I come back to myself refreshed, having learned something new, experienced something different than the everydayness of my life. And the only payment I’m required to make is paying attention. What a gift!

DRAPER TWIN LAKE PARK: Fledglings, Hard-working Parents, Native Blooms, Butterflies and More

A kindly Dad taking his three young children fishing one morning at Draper Twin Lake Park.

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

Meeting the lovely family above at Draper Twin Lake Park one morning was a fitting beginning to my walk.  This dad was kept very busy baiting hooks and unhooking Blue Gills for his three young children who were excited to take their catch home and “eat ’em.” Well, the avian parents this week are as busy as that dad. Many fledglings are out of the nest but not quite “ready for prime time.” The youngsters’ flights are still a bit awkward, they haven’t quite grown into their beaks, and they object to being weaned from feedings by mom and dad. They crouch on branches, trying to look helpless by quivering their wings and begging “Feed Me!” with loud, high-pitched and incessant chirping. The conscientious adult birds are busy plucking berries, ferrying caterpillars and crunching seeds to fill young beaks. Meanwhile, more summer butterflies and other insects appear each day as native and non-native flowers line the trails and bloom in the wetlands. Summer, the busy season for nature, is well underway.

Industrious Parent Birds and Their Demanding Offspring!

A male cardinal gathering fruits to stuff into the beak of his fledgling

Twice as I entered the western path to the lake, I spotted a male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) plucking little fruits from a bush and feeding them to his offspring. Juvenile cardinals have coloring similar to the female, except that their beaks are dark brown instead of red-orange like both adults. This hiding youngster couldn’t resist one peak at me over the tops of the greenery.

Juvenile cardinals have coloring similar to the female,  except her beak is red-orange and the youngsters’ beaks are black.

Further along the trail, a conscientious mother bird, the female Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens), brought goodies to her youngster that was crouched on a branch in the classic quivering pose of begging fledglings. “Poor me; feed me; I’m starving.”

A juvenile Downy Woodpecker crouches and flutters in the classic begging style of baby birds looking to be fed.

Once mom took off, the youngster, its juvenile red cap on display, practiced a bit of upside-down branch hopping.

Juvenile Downy Woodpeckers have small red caps. Adult females have no red on the head and males end up with only a red dot at the back of the head.

A male Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) sang an abbreviated version of his “Witchedy, witchedy” song repeatedly in a snag over the marsh. Farther up the path, I’d seen a young female hiding in a large bush, but it didn’t stop moving long enough for a good shot, I’m sorry to say. It has the slightly askew, downy look of a young bird. Thanks to Natural Areas Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide and expert birder Ruth Glass for identifying this little one for me! And to Bob Bonin for his fine photo of a fully fledged adult female so you can see how the little female will eventually look.

 

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In another snag by the lake, a mother Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) was busy feeding her nestling(s), traveling back and forth and stretching into the hole to feed whoever was inside. Those babies should be very safe in this nice deep hole in their lakeside dead tree!

 

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Over in the eastern part of Draper Park, I was greeted by two fledgling Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) sitting on a wire by the parking lot. Adult Barn Swallows sport russet throats and loooong, deeply forked tails. These were obviously fledglings.

Two Barn Swallow fledglings sat quietly on a wire, occasionally testing their very long wings.

These youngsters were still slightly downy, shorter-tailed than adults, and only partially iridescent blue-black on the back. They sat remarkably still on the wire and periodically tried extending their wings. The fledglings below seemed to tip slightly back and forth as if trying to find its balance with those snazzy new wings. And the light color on the side of its bill is also typical of a juvenile Barn Swallow.

A young Barn Swallow working on its wing technique

What appeared to be a well-behaved, quiet young Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) – on the right below – traveled about on the edge of the north prairie as its parent (left) slipped down into the grass periodically to forage like grown-up flycatchers. From a distance in bright morning light, it was hard to see if the presumed youngster (right) had a slightly more yellow lower belly than the adult. The smaller bird looked a bit misproportioned, though, like a lot of fledglings do and also had a more “smudgy” juvenile breast as described by Cornell lab. So my conclusion is I was looking at an adult and its offspring.

What appeared to be an adult Eastern Phoebe (left) with its more smudgy-breasted youngster on the right.

An Unusual Sighting

Ben spotted a bird with a long sweeping tail in a snag near the prairie and quickly identified it. According to Cornell Lab, the Black-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus erythropthalmus) is “common but secretive” and “heard far more often than seen.” Evidently, it eats lots of spiny caterpillars and has adapted to that spiky diet by shedding its stomach lining periodically to get rid of the spines. Yikes! I caught sight of the cuckoo flying with its very long tail trailing behind, but never got a shot. So here’s a beautiful photo from a gifted photographer, Jerry Oldenettel, on inaturalist.org.

Photo of Black-billed Cuckoo by Jerry Oldenettel (CC BY NC SA) from inaturalist.org

Butterflies Big and Very Small

A female Black Swallowtail shows her distinguishing big band of blue spots as she sips from Hairy Vetch, a non-native vine.

A female Black Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio polyxenesprobed the funnel-shaped blossoms of Hairy Vetch (Vicia villosa), a non-native vining plant. The large blue spots at the bottom of the butterfly’s wing tell us she is a female and the two rows of  yellow spots indicate that she’s not the black morph of the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus), which is very similar. According to Wikipedia, the orange spots on the underside of her wings protect her while she’s laying eggs, because they mimic the Pipevine/Blue Swallowtail (Battus philenor) which is toxic to birds. The Black Swallowtail is not, but birds will be wary.

The female Black Swallowtail’s orange spots on her hindwings mimic the Blue Swallowtail, which is toxic to many birds. Mimicry can provide protection.

Red Admirals (Vanessa atalanta) showed up on both sides of the park one morning. This butterfly migrates from the south rather than overwintering here. Look at those cool striped antennae with yellowish-white tips!

The Red Admiral butterfly migrates from the south each spring.

According to butterfliesandmoths.org, the Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus) rarely frequents white flowers and almost never yellow ones.  But the males do sit on tall flowers or grasses to attract females, so perhaps this handsome skipper was trying to snag a mate!

The Silver-spotted Skipper prefers more colorful flowers but may have been posing on this Daisy to attract a female.

Northern Pearly-Eye Butterfly that rested on the path one morning overwintered as a caterpillar. Like the early season butterflies (e.g. the Mourning Cloak), it feeds on sap from willows, poplars and birches or sometimes the fluids found in carrion or dung. Nature makes use of everything, doesn’t it?

The Northern Pearly-eye butterfly feeds on sap and other fluids, but not on flower nectar.

A pair of mating Little Wood Satyr (Megisto cymela) butterflies flew from the path to a nearby leaf still attached to one another as I approached.

Mating Little Wood Satyr butterflies

Flowers Blooming at Draper Now that are New to Me

This month at Draper, Ben identified for me two beautiful native flowers I’d never seen before. Near the lake, we spotted the fuzzy blooms of another “Beard-tongued” plant, in the same genus as the Hairy Beard-tongue (Penstemon hirsutus) featured in our Photo of the Week two weeks ago. This one is called Foxglove Beard-tongue (Penstemon digitalis). Some blossoms have little lavender stripes inside to lead insects to the nectar, helping to spread their pollen.

The other native plant was a rose growing right next to the floating dock called the Swamp Rose (Rosa palustris). On one of the blooms, I spotted a tiny Katydid (family Tettigoniidae). Check out those long antennae!

 

A Slide Show of Flowers – Native and Non-Native – Currently Blooming at Draper Park

I always like to know the names of flowers whether native or not. It keeps me more aware of the detail in the landscape. So here are three kinds – native wildflowers, non-natives that are not always invasive, and an invasive plant that does harm to other plants by shading or crowding them out and multiplying aggressively.

 

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Turtles vs. Creatures That Love Their Eggs

Often in early summer, I see Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta) walking along the same trails I’m taking. They’re looking for soft, sandy soil where they can bury their eggs. Some places are definitely more hospitable for this purpose than others. This Painted Turtle came trundling along a path near Draper Lake, perhaps returning from an attempt to safely bury her eggs.

A Painted Turtle perhaps returning from a soft spot in the soil where she buried her eggs.

But out on the prairie on the eastern side of the park, evidence abounds that lots of animals love to find and eat turtle eggs. On one outing with the birding group, we spotted several turtle nest dug up with the leathery white egg shells laying outside.

Some animal has dug up a turtle nest and eaten the eggs leaving the rubbery shell.

Among the creatures that enjoy turtle eggs are raccoons, foxes, coyotes, skunks, and birds like herons, gulls and crows. As an (chicken) egg eater myself, I can’t complain. Luckily, Painted Turtles are our most abundant turtle species, so I assume nature is just taking its course as usual.

Dappled light on a trail on the western side of Draper Twin Lake Park.

It’s always iffy to anthropomorphize and assume that the behavior of other animals is similar to our own. We can’t, of course, know for sure what motivates a particular animal’s behavior. After all, we don’t understand our own motivations sometimes! But science is increasingly exploring the social and emotional lives of all sorts of creatures and discovering that many teach and learn in much the same way we humans do. And of course, animals have knowledge, skills, and memory that is superior to our own – for example chickadees remembering thousands of places they have stashed seeds or nuts. So when young fledglings beg to be fed or practice short flights in much the same way that little children pester us for food or learn to walk, it’s probably normal to feel an intuitive understanding of what might be going on. If we smile in recognition of our kinship with all creatures, maybe that will help us be more careful stewards of the natural world in which we’re embedded. And that has to be a good thing, right?

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: 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.