Autumn at Bear Creek Nature Park: A Rich Harvest for the Multitudes

The eastern end of the Center Pond at Bear Creek after a summer drought

The Center Pond at Bear Creek Nature Park was a hub of avian activity during early fall. After a very dry summer, the water level fell significantly, exposing the muddy bottom in some areas and bringing underwater prey closer to the surface. And the birds came! Summer visitors who raised young here and birds migrating south clearly saw the remaining open water and muddy edges as an oasis. After the vernal pools dried up and even Bear Creek marsh filled with plants in the dry summer heat, the Center Pond provided an ideal place to find food!

During the dry summer heat, Bear Creek Marsh’s open water disappeared as the moist center filled with cattails and flowering plants.

I, sadly, wasn’t able to use my long lens much for birds in the last few weeks after a minor fiasco with my back – but never fear!

Text by and some photos by Cam Mannino

Two of my brilliant photographer friends, Bob Bonin and Paul Birtwhistle, generously filled my inbox with glorious shots of all kinds of birds they saw there! Through their eyes, you and I can witness what Bear Creek had to offer our avian friends in early fall. And I’ll add in a few extras from my October trips through Bear Creek’s fields and its oak-hickory forest. So let’s head out together on another virtual hike, this time with two other nature-loving photographers.

Off Toward the Slopes of the Western Meadow

The sloping Western Meadow in late October.

The gardens near the parking lot on Snell Road are shedding their seed now. They currently look a bit chaotic, but all those seed heads will be a nourishing boon to birds this winter. But one hardy species, Cut-leaf Coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata), contributed its bright yellow rays to the fall colors until mid-October. What a heartening native addition to a late-summer/fall garden!

Hardy native Cut-leaf Coneflowers shine brightly in the garden nearest the Snell parking lot despite falling temperatures.

Paul Birtwhistle and I both stopped by the Playground Pond this fall. In September, Paul came across a female Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) banging away on one of the many snags (standing dead trees) in the pond. (Females have a black “mustache”; males have a red one.) At this time of year, she was probably seeking out wood-boring beetle larvae, though in general, carpenter ants are her preference.

A female Pileated Woodpecker searched for beetle larvae and other goodies on a dead snag in the Playground Pond. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle.

When I arrived at the Playground Pond in October with the Wednesday morning birding group, a gang of juvenile Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) were socializing in a dead tree. The juveniles are much less colorful than their parents – mostly gray instead of cedar brown and lemon yellow – but even at a distance, we could see the bright yellow tips on their tails and their developing black masks. (Click on photos to enlarge.)

In September, Paul ventured further west to the steeply sloping path of the western meadow where tiny migrators foraged at the edge of the woods. And what a group of golden beauties! The Magnolia Warbler (Setophaga magnolia) nests in conifers at the tip of Michigan’s “mitten,” the Upper Peninsula or in Canada. This female or immature male with its complete white eye ring, vivid yellow breast and gray head stopped by Bear Creek to rest and feed on its way to bask in Caribbean sun for the winter.

A female or immature male Magnolia Warbler paused momentarily while busily foraging for insects at the edge of the Western Meadow. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle.

Another migrator, the Nashville Warbler (Leiothlypis ruficapilla), also breeds in “up north” Michigan and in Canada. It drops by in fall and spring when it’s migrating to and from its wintering grounds in Mexico. That’s quite a trip twice a year! Paul caught it pausing as it too sought out Bear Creek’s rich supply of insects for its long journey.

The Nashville Warbler stopped by on the western slopes of Bear Creek Nature Park. For field marks, look for its gray head with a white eye ring, and all that bright yellow below. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle.

The other little bird Paul glimpsed in the west of the park was an immature male Common Yellow-throat (Geothlypis trichas). (Adult males have a white-banded black mask, and in immature males this mask is very faint; females have a warm brown head, yellow undersides, and olive back.) This young male might have hatched from an egg right at Bear Creek Nature Park since Paul and I repeatedly saw Yellowthroats or heard their “witchedy, witchedy” call near the marsh this summer. Or perhaps this one arrived from further north. In either case, he too stocked up on insects here before winging off to the southeast toward Florida or the Caribbean.

This immature male Common Yellowthroat may have fledged at Bear Creek this summer, or he might be traveling south from farther north. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle.

Strolling Along the Walnut Lane

The Walnut Lane in late October.

The Walnut Lane which runs between two meadows serves as a favorite perusing perch for birds. When Paul arrived there on October 1, he spotted migrating Palm Warblers (Setophaga palmarum) gazing out among the golden leaves along the trail. After raising young in the Upper Peninsula or even Canada’s boreal forests, these striking birds stop by each fall on their way to Florida or the Caribbean to partake of our parks’ bounty.

A Palm Warbler on the Walnut Lane. Its rusty brown cap, light “eyebrow” line and yellowish breast are good field marks for this little migrator who’s just passing through. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle.

The same day, down near north end of the Lane, Paul spotted a Chinese Praying Mantis (Tenodera sinensis). We have two species of non-native Mantises in Michigan. This larger one, at 3-5 inches, is a highly successful predator also on the hunt for insects. Its orange back with green edges is distinctive, though sometimes Chinese Mantises are solid green like the smaller species, the European Mantis (Mantis religiosa), which is no more than 3 inches long. These two may have out-competed the only native mantis in our country, the Carolina mantis (Stagmomantis carolina) which now exists only in the southeast. This one clearly focused on Paul. Maybe she was flirting?

This Chinese Praying Mantis looks seductive, doesn’t she? But she’s probably just focusing her bilateral vision so she can escape Paul if necessary. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle.

In the late summer and fall, Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) frequently perch on the Walnut Lane. I saw a pensive female there on October 2. On October 5, Paul and I both saw a pair exploring the possibilities of a snag for insects now or perhaps next year’s cavity nest. In fact, the Lane area was full of their fluttering that day! The nesting boxes placed by the stewardship crew and tended by volunteers have added a lot of bluebirds to Bear Creek – and other parks with boxes – so keep an eye out for them!

A Ruby-Crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) also flitted about within the branches along the Lane. Paul caught this tiny bird between dashes from limb to limb (left below), while I just caught the blur of another one’s flight during the bird walk.

The Center Pond Feeding the Multitudes – and a Rare Visitor

Western end of the Center Pond with mud flats forming after the summer drought.

Both of my photographer friends hung out at the Center Pond, a hub of activity in the fall at Bear Creek Nature Park. On each of his visits, Paul Birtwhistle snapped his photos quickly to catch in action two large, very successful foragers. In early September, he came upon a very excited Green Heron (Butorides virescens) with a crest that literally stood on end like a “punk” hairstyle. Maybe just the thought of all those “easy pickings” in the shallow water had a huge effect on this skillful fisher! Here’s a brief slideshow of Paul’s shots of its hunting techniques.

Paul watched a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) feed day after day at the Center Pond. The first time, on October 9, he witnessed one snagging two different prey. Its first prize was a little Largemouth Bass (Micropterus salmoides)! Some flying bird must have dropped Bass eggs into the pond earlier in the summer since this pond is spring-fed. Each prey caught, Paul reports, was dipped in the water and then shaken vigorously. Cornell University’s website explains that this process may quickly break the spine before the heron swallows it whole. Gulp!

Its second catch was a small Green Frog (Rana clamitans). The heron came back the next day for another frog. In fact, Paul’s seen a heron fishing repeatedly for two weeks! Evidently, the shallower water after the summer drought made fishing much more profitable for the water birds this year! The pond may have fewer frogs next summer but we’re sending well-fed herons south during the migration. Here’s a small sampling of Paul’s amazing photos of this impressive bird, with its 6 to 7 foot wingspan and its skillful fishing.

The Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) have also been bottoms-up feeding at the Center Pond during October. Paul got a wonderful shot of a pair surveying the pond from the edge. They’re probably here for a variety of aquatic plants, including the bright green Duckweed (aptly named!) (Lemna minor) and Common Water Meal (Wolffia columbiana) that they scoop up with their bills when they’re cruising along.

A Wood Duck couple standing amidst a nice patch of Duckweed and Water Meal, some of their favorite aquatic plants. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle.

Male Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) molt into eclipse plumage in later summer/early fall that makes them look more like the females. Later in the fall, they molt again into their breeding colors in order to attract a mate for the next season. I think this male, with its head bejeweled with water droplets, has excellent mating prospects! What a glamor shot! Thanks, Paul!

A male Mallard in his fresh breeding plumage. What a sight for a female Mallard’s eyes! Photo by Paul Birtwhistle.

Of course, not all the foraging was going on in the water at the Center Pond. An unusual migrator appeared at the Wednesday bird walk. A Rusty Blackbird (Euphagus carolinus) settled down on the muddy shoals exposed by the drought and spent several hours flipping over leaves to see what insects, seeds or fallen fruit might be hiding there. My other patient photographer buddy, Bob Bonin, stayed at the pond for hours and caught his beautiful shot (below left). Rusty Blackbirds only pass through during fall and spring migration and their numbers are rapidly declining. I last saw them in 2015 when a small flock in their breeding colors (below right) landed in a wetland near the Center Pond. Researchers think their decline is caused by the usual suspects – agriculture, logging, development, soil contamination. So I’m glad our parks provided a rich source of sustenance for even this single Rusty in its fall plumage.

Bob’s patience paid off again. In those extra hours, he also tracked the quick, short flights of a variety of small migrating birds foraging at the Center Pond. Yellow-rumped Warblers (Setophaga coronata) eat a wide variety of foods during migration – insects when they can find them, seeds, berries of all kinds, including poison ivy berries! The field mark to look for, winter or spring, is the bright yellow patch between the wings on the top of its rump, though their plumage is much more dramatic in the spring, like most birds.

White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) can be seen under my feeder during the fall and winter – maybe yours too? These hardy sparrows flooded into Bear Creek Nature Park early in October after breeding farther north. Their striped heads can sometimes be confused with the White-crowned Sparrow, but the White Throats have that nifty white patch under the beak and bright yellow spots (called “lores”) just above their eyes. Check out the pattern differences when you see a “little brown bird” pecking in the grass! It’s not “just a sparrow!” Try thinking “Which sparrow is it?” Thanks to Bob for this great identification shot!

A brush pile or tall vegetation close to your feeder lets the White-throated Sparrow feel safe enough to eat there as it pops in and out of cover during the winter. Photo by Bob Bonin.

Down on the dock, the birding group saw an Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) doing what flycatchers do best – quickly sallying out over water to snitch insects from the air. These grayish-brown songbirds sing a steeply descending “Pheeee-buzz” song in the summer and are easily identified by an almost continuous pumping or twitching of their tails when perched.

Eastern Phoebes sing, nest and raise young here in the summer but travel to the southern US for the winter since their main food source is insects.

A Short Walk Through Alice’s Woods, aka the Oak-Hickory Forest

Let’s wind up our virtual hike with a quick walk through the oak-hickory forest, which is now named “Alice’s Woods,” in honor of the incredible Alice Tomboulian who inspired, helped found and served Oakland Township Parks for so many years. Alice was an intrepid lover of the natural world who understood the importance of both preservation and the urgent requirements of restoring that land with native species. She was an inspiration to so many, including me, and is greatly missed.

The quiet of a forest always soothes me, and that’s especially true in autumn light. Fewer birds, other than woodpeckers, regularly appear for me in the woods. I come across Titmice, a summer Wood-Pewee, once a Sharp-shinned Hawk, the occasional migrating warbler, the Brown Creeper and two or three times a Great Horned Owl, among others. But this October, I felt surrounded only by what I call “leaf talk.” The spinning descent of dry leaves accompanied the tree shadows slipping across my husband’s shoulders in the dappled light. In the woods, we tried to notice the small forest details that tend to show themselves when we aren’t peering up into the canopy for birds.

First, we came across an array of fallen logs, each one heavily filigreed with Turkey-tail Mushrooms (Trametes versicolor). These polypore mushrooms help break down dead wood into sugars and carbon dioxide by loosening the bonds of lignin that made the wood and bark rigid. In other words, these fungi are gradual wood recyclers – and they’re beautiful while doing it!

The concentric geometry of a web spun by an Orb-weaver Spider (genus Araneus) caught our eye in a spot of fall sunlight. The spider may have expired on a chilly night, but she left behind evidence of her skill. According to Dr. Gary Parsons at Michigan State University’s Bug House, the mating process in this genus can be a bit fraught. “Males …usually need to perform some kind of species-specific signal (usually by plucking the web in a specific pattern) as they approach the female to let them know they are not prey and wish to mate. If the female is overly hungry or not ready to mate, she might turn on the male and eat him if he gets too close. If she is ready to mate, she probably will leave him alone during the act, after which the male beats a hasty retreat.” Don’t mess with an unwilling female Orb-weaver!

The vertical line in the Orb-weaver’s web is called a “trash-line.” It serves as a storage place for insects she’s caught and wrapped to be consumed later or a disposal site for ones she’s already sucked dry!

Emerging from the woods to head back to the car, we were greeted by the charmingly bug-eyed Spotted Spreadwing damselfly (Lestes congener). This little creature survives longer than most other damselflies, into October and even November. Its eggs overwinter and can tolerate temperatures as low as -17 degrees, according to my cherished guide, Damselflies of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan by Robert Dubois and Mike Reese. So glad this hardy little insect posed for me.

Usually the last of the damselflies each autumn – the Spotted Spreadwing with its half-blue bug eyes – stared up at us from a dry grass stem.

Red-legged Grasshoppers (Melanoplus femurrubrum) accompanied us along every path, springing away under our feet. In our colder latitudes, these grasshoppers are smaller and have to mature more quickly since this species only reproduces once in a season. Females will lay eggs in the soil to overwinter. The nymphs will dig their way out next spring and molt 5-7 times before being ready to mate.

The Red-legged Grasshopper’s back legs are not only a lovely color, but have quite a fancy design.

I hope you’ve noticed the sweet, buzzing song of crickets – and probably some katydids and grasshoppers too – this time of year. My sharp-eyed husband spotted one of the tiny Ground Crickets (family Trigonidiidae) whose males sing so wonderfully this time of year just by pulling the scraper-like edge of one forewing against the other. Dr. Parsons would have needed to have this tiny (maybe 3/4 inch?) creature in hand to identify it among the seven species in three genera in Michigan. He did tell me that they can survive quite cold temperatures down in the grass as long as they don’t freeze. So when the weather warms back up in the fall, the males “sing” again, hoping to mate before winter sets in.

In the autumn, at least hundreds, maybe thousands, of male Ground Crickets “sing” by scraping one wing against the other, hoping to attract a female in the meadows of Bear Creek Nature Park before a hard freeze comes.

Ensuring Autumn’s Richness Continues to Feed the Future

I like to think of autumn as a time of rich harvest in our parks. Yes, it’s true that the leaves are falling and flowers and grasses are withering – but that means seeds can feed hungry migrators before they fly further south on a north wind under the stars. Those dry seed heads in our parks, or left for the winter (we hope) in your drying garden, can nourish our avian neighbors who tough out the winter with us. Insects have left behind chrysalises, cocoons, and galls, where their young will gradually transform next spring into dancing butterflies, fluttering moths in a summer night, and the millions of caterpillars and adult insects needed to feed next summer’s frogs, flycatchers, soaring swallows and thousands of baby birds. It means seeds and nuts will rest on or in the cooling earth, ready to crack open and thrust out new life when the soil warms again. While we humans sip our sweet cider and bite into crisp apples, nature is serving up food for the multitudes and sowing new life in its endless cycle of abundance.

If we continue to preserve natural areas and restore them to the health that nature designed through millennia, we can hope that endless fruitful autumns stretch ahead on our planet home. Here in Oakland Township, we’re doing our best to do just that in our parks. It isn’t enough to simply preserve open land, as crucial as that is. Through the yearly cycles of restoration work performed by our stewardship crew and volunteers under Dr. VanderWeide’s expert guidance, we are continuously caring for the land. We are slowly restoring as much of its historic diversity, richness and beauty as we possibly can after years of human use or neglect. And that transformation, that commitment to nurturing the land, sustains my commitment to the future, to a healthier world for the young, even when the nights grow longer and bare trees sketch black tracery against the autumn sky. I hope it does that for you, too.

Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide and volunteers gathering native seed to enrich other township parks.

Restoration Brings New Life and Exciting Visitors

Shades of green in a forest near the Wet Prairie

As bright green leaves emerge each May, stewardship in our parks kicks into high gear. During the last two years, our township stewardship manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide restored two wetlands with help from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and our township stewardship crew and volunteers restored a fragile woodland with a lot of muscle power and hard work.

Text and photos by Cam Mannino

I covered these three transformations earlier in Natural Areas Notebook – restored wetlands in at Blue Heron Conservation Area and Watershed Ridge Park and remnant woodland and wetland restoration near the Paint Creek Heritage Area – Wet Prairie.

In the last few weeks, work has moved forward, which will bring even more life and beauty to these three natural areas. And the changes wrought have already encouraged surprising new visitors and a renaissance of sorts. Come see….

At Blue Heron Environmental Area, A Rare Visitor and A First Sowing of Wild Seed

On May 4, as I passed Blue Heron on my way to monitor bluebird boxes, I saw Ben in the north field with my gifted photographer friends, Bob and Joan Bonin. Hmm… A few minutes later, I received a quick text from Ben that they suspected they were looking at a Willet, a bird I’d never heard of! Well, monitoring completed, I made a beeline to Blue Heron and yes indeed, it was a Willet (Tringa semipalmata), a shore bird rarely seen in Michigan. Be sure to click on the photos below to enlarge them so you can appreciate the detail the Bonins achieved!

Willets generally winter along the east and west coast of North America, the Caribbean islands, and the north coasts of South America. The eastern subspecies breeds during the summer farther up the northeast coast. The western birds breed out in the high plains area of the western U.S. and Canada. Our Willet had lighter colored feathers, so it appears to be a “western” bird. So it’s a mystery how this bird found its way to Blue Heron, but we are so glad it did! Evidently it needed some R&R after its wanderings and stopped by to rest on the shore of this blue oasis. The marshy edges of the new wetland were rich with food. Bob caught the moments when the Willet extracted a worm and when it latched onto what appears to be an insect larva from the water. Restoration of this wetland two years ago provided this wayward Willet with a safe haven. Ah, the rewards of good stewardship!

A few days later, the US Fish and Wildlife Service folks arrived to seed the north end of the field at Blue Heron. (The south end will still be farmed for now.) Native grass and wildflower seed sprayed from waggling, vibrating tubes at the back of the small tractor and a drag behind covered them with just a thin layer of dirt. The seeding happened a bit later than the stewardship crew had planned due to a busy season for USFWS. But Ben still hopes to see some new growth this summer. Native seed can take 3-5 years to reach full bloom.

A team from the US Fish and Wildlife Service plant seed above the north shore of the wetland at Blue Heron Environmental Area

Other Water Birds Dropped Down to the Pond for a Visit this Year

Last spring, the early arrival migrators were Black Ducks and the Greater Yellowlegs. Along with the Willet, other water birds arrived during this spring’s visits: a Solitary Sandpiper (Tringa solitaria) poked about in the shallows during the seed planting before continuing its journey to Canada. And a female Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus), who likely lives in the area year ’round, lifted off from the pond as I skirted the shore.

Reliable Wetland Summer Residents

A few other creatures shared Blue Heron with me this spring – the ones that tend to show up since Ben restored the wetland. Slideshow below:

Watershed Ridge Park Receives its Blanket of Native Seed as Summer Residents Arrive

The north fields at Watershed Ridge Park after seeding by US Fish and Wildlife Service on the same May day as the work at Blue Heron.

The little USFWS tractor also tracked across the sloping landscapes of the two north fields of Watershed Ridge Park, depositing native wildflower and grass seed. Once the seeds germinate and begin growing, they should help prevent erosion into the newly restored wetlands – as well as adding a lot of beauty for us visitors! The following day Ben did some hand sowing of wetland seed and came across a lovely surprise at the edge of a wetland!

My favorite surprise during my visits was a glorious male Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) high in a tree near the parking lot. His more modestly dressed mate poked about a snag nearby, but flew away as I slowly turned to take her portrait. Wood Ducks can nest as far as 50 feet up in trees and have hooks at the back of their webbed feet to navigate up in the canopy.

A male Wood Duck avidly watched his mate explore a possible tree hole in a snag.

I think Mrs. Wood Duck probably decided that the snag was not close enough to a wetland, since she prefers a location in a tree near a wetland. Ideally, there her young can make a soft landing in deep leaves when they jump from the nest and then trundle after her into a nearby pond – with only the help of their mother’s encouraging quacking! I’ve included below the photo of a female Wood Duck that I saw at Bear Creek Nature Park a few years ago. If you can spot her on the limb, you’ll notice her subtle attire.

A female Wood Duck high in a tree looking for a nest hole in Bear Creek Nature Park. She’s well camouflaged, isn’t she? The one at Watershed Ridge blended into her snag beautifully, too.

Migrators at Watershed Ridge Park Find A Stopping-off Site or a Nesting Spot Near the Wetlands

Besides the Grackle, other migrators peeked from hedgerows or sang in tangled greenery near the restored wetlands. Slideshow below.

At the Wet Prairie an Open Canopy Creates Ideal Habitat for Two Special Visitors

The open canopy woodland near the Wet Prairie attracts interesting species and a native, diverse forest floor!

Please Note: No trails exist in the Paint Creek Heritage Area – Wet Prairie, but you can enjoy the wildflowers from the Paint Creek Trail, which runs along its entire eastern edge. In this sensitive natural area most stewardship work must be accomplished by hand to carefully preserve the unusual prairie and wetlands. So please, enjoy these special natural areas from the trail. I’ll give you a closer look at them below or feel free to search for other posts about the Wet Prairie on this website.

Birds often choose very specific habitats for breeding and foraging. For example, Cornell University’s ornithology website, allaboutbirds.org, identifies some of the most popular breeding habitats for species like the Red-Headed Woodpecker that seek out “deciduous woodlands with oak or beech, groves of dead or dying trees, river bottoms, burned areas, recent clearings…” How lucky, then, that the open, moist woodlands near the Wet Prairie (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) turn out to be just such a habitat.

Though oaks stand tall in this forest, the canopy was thinned over the years by non-native infestations of Emerald Ash Borer and Dutch Elm disease that left dying trees and snags (standing dead trees). In this habitat, sunlight slips between the trees, dappling the earth below where woodland flowers and small native trees like oaks can thrive in the partial shade .

Dead trees leave spaces in the canopy for sunlight to reach the forest floor, nourishing small native trees and wildflowers. These dead “snags” are vital nesting spots for cavity nesting birds.

This open woodland also features the very “river bottoms” mentioned by Cornell. The original bed of Paint Creek (before the railroad moved it east into a straight channel) – filled now by snow melt, rainwater and rising ground water – still winds its moist path across the forest floor. In May, it flourished with Marsh Marigolds!

Marsh Marigolds flourish in the ancient bed of Paint Creek that still winds through the forest. The creek was moved east long ago to accommodate the railroad.

And even the required “burned areas” and “recent clearings” that Cornell lists exist here! In fall of 2020 and the following winter, the stewardship team worked long, hard hours to clear a dense jungle of invasive shrubs and vines in the forest near the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail. Non-native shrubs like Privet, Common Buckthorn, Glossy Buckthorn, Autumn Olive, Multiflora Rose, and Oriental Bittersweet vine were hand cut and huge piles of them were safely burned atop the winter snow.

Burning piles of invasive shrubs, trees and vines dotted the forest after removal and were burned on the snow in early 2021.

Two Visitors Came to Check Out this “Open Woods” Habitat

And guess what? All of those conditions that Cornell mentioned did indeed attract a Red-headed Woodpecker to our open woods this spring! In late May, this bird’s call and drilling attracted the gaze of Lisa, a volunteer pulling invasive Garlic Mustard with Ben and the summer stewardship technicians. Listen to the third call at this link to hear what the crew heard.

At first glance, she thought she was seeing the much more common male Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) with its brilliant red crest and nape (On left below). But no, the busy bird drilling a hole in a snag was indeed a Red-Headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus!) Check out the differences.

According to Cornell’s Birds of the World migration maps , Red-headed Woodpeckers are more likely to be passing through our area to breed farther north in the top half of Michigan’s “mitten.” But some do nest here and we may have seen one that will finish its hole and raise a family near the Wet Prairie! Fingers crossed!

The Red-headed obliged me with a pose that shows its dramatic back and red head. What a treat!

During my visit, another bird that seeks out open woodlands, the Great Crested Flycatcher (Myiarchus crinitus), landed in a tree near the woodpecker and was spotted by Camryn, our sharp-eyed summer technician. Luckily it paused for a look around. It’s also a cavity nester so let’s hope it decides to raise young here as well.

A Great Crested Flycatcher flew in and perched on a snag in the open forest. Watch for that yellow belly and the chocolate back and wings!

These fairly common flycatchers, with their distinctive “wee-eep” and vibrating “burrrr” calls, love to hawk insects from high in the canopy, making them hard to see. So what a treat to see one at the tip of a snag! It didn’t sing or call for us, but the sight of its chocolate brown head and back and that lemon yellow breast, plus the sighting of the Red-headed Woodpecker, definitely made my rush down to the trail worth the effort! Thanks to Lisa for spotting the woodpecker and to Camryn for spotting the flycatcher and taking me near the location for both!

Native Wildflowers Stage a Comeback after Invasive Shrub Clearing

Golden Ragwort (Packera aurea) basking in the dappled sunlight along the ancient bed of Paint Creek

This May, spring’s rain and pale sunlight once again reached native wildflowers that had been buried under the tangle of non-natives for many long years. And like a miracle, they emerged in the forest’s dappled light and bloomed! Whenever this happens after clearing or prescribed burns, it fills me with delight. Some already existed as single blooms and now spread in glorious profusion, like the Golden Ragwort above. Others may not have been seen here for years. Here’s a sampling of the plants that waited so long for their days in the sun.

Restorations Require Death – and then, New Life!

A thick carpet of Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) moved onto the edge of the Paint Creek Trail once invasive brush was removed last year. What a sight, eh?

One of the odd aspects of stewardship work is that it involves removing living plants so that others, plants that nourish our local food web, re-emerge and thrive. But it’s occurred to me lately that gardeners have experienced this dilemma for centuries. Gardens require the removal of plants and grasses that infiltrate the borders. Sometimes even beloved but too exuberant flowers need to be thinned for their own health and the health of plants around them.

So inevitably, restorations mean eliminating aggressive, invasive non-native plants and trees that, if left in place, would eventually blanket a whole prairie or forest. Our stewardship crew spends days and weeks clearing invasive, non-native plants brought to America for their beauty or usefulness by settlers, landscapers and gardeners or as unseen hitchhikers in overseas shipments. Without the competition, predators and soil conditions of their Eurasian habitats, they can quickly smother, shade out, or choke off native plants.

The importance of native plants can’t be overemphasized. Because they evolved and thrived here for aeons, they can survive droughts, freezing temperatures, even fire. In fact many native plants require freezing winters or periodic fire to germinate! But they have no defenses against the rapid spread of non-native plants, because they’ve only been living with them for decades or perhaps hundreds of years, rather than thousands of years. Adaptation and evolution are very slow processes.

When native wildflowers and trees flourish, so does all other life around them. Native bees and butterflies can be attracted to non-native blooms, but their caterpillars can’t feed or develop normally on them. The leaves of native plants provide rich nutrition for caterpillars, the little creatures that nourish nearly every baby and adult bird we see. Later in the year, the berries of native plants provide migrators and winter birds with much more energy and nutrition than berries from non-native plants. Nature worked out an interlocking system of sustenance and shelter for life that we humans have altered dramatically over long years.

So what a delight it was to see that funny little tractor shaking out native seed at Watershed Ridge Park and Blue Heron Environmental Area! Or Ben and his crew hand spreading native seed collected right here in the township. Or even watching the removal of invasive thickets one year – and the next, seeing the plants nature intended rising from the soil after having waited decades to feel the rain, the sun, and the wind once again! I hope it’s not impious to describe those moments as little miracles, little resurrections – because that’s how they feel to me. I hope they lift your spirits as they did for me.

Summer Resident Birds in Oakland Township

This post was written by Katri Studtmann, Land Stewardship Technician.

As winter turned to spring and the days got longer and warmer, I started to get excited because I knew our summer residents were on their way back from their southern wintering grounds. As their sweet songs rang again in my neighborhood, I knew spring was on its way. Where I grew up in Minnesota, the first birds back that I typically noticed were the American Robin and the Red-winged Blackbird. Every spring, my family has a contest on who will see the first robin. There are rules to this contest, of course, you must either have photo proof of the robin or someone must be able to vouch that you saw it, otherwise it does not count. My dad took the title this year, spotting and sending a picture of a robin on February 27th. Here in warmer climate of Oakland Township in southeast Michigan, American Robins are year-round residents.

As March turned to April and April turned to May, I started to notice more and more of our summer residents showing up. Many migratory birds have spectacular and vibrant breeding plumage, so it’s fun to spot these beautiful balls of color shining in the trees. Spring is one of my favorite times to bird because the trees are not quite leafed out, so the birds are easier to see. Also, with the rapid influx of migratory birds, you are never sure what you will come across on your outdoor adventure.

Migration Mysteries

The past month has been particularly fun in the parks of Oakland Township for birding since May is typically peak bird migration season. When you take a second to watch and listen, you can notice birds you have never seen before. But why do birds migrate, and where do they spend winters? These are great questions that previously puzzled many people, but with extensive research on migratory birds, we have started to learn their secrets.

Male and female bluebirds standing guard over their nest box. If you look closely, you can see the female has some food for her chicks in her beak. In Oakland Township Eastern Bluebirds are year-round residents. Picture by Cam Mannino.

Some birds like the American Crow, Blue Jay, American Robin, Eastern Bluebird, and Northern Cardinal stick around Michigan all year long, but other birds travel great distances every spring and fall. In North America, there are over 650 species of breeding birds, and of those over half will migrate! Scientists have a few theories on why some birds migrate and some do not. The two main reasons birds will migrate are for food and nesting spots. As it becomes spring in Michigan, millions of bugs start to hatch – a fantastic food for many birds. Many migrant birds are insectivores (eat insects as a primary food source), so with the high influx of insects hatching in northern areas, this is inviting for many birds to make the trek north.

If the migrants stayed south in the tropics, there would be more competition for resources with the native tropical birds, making it harder to raise their chicks. Scientists theorized that many birds head north to breed because the more moderate temperatures make it easier to hatch their delicate eggs and rear chicks. Also, the longer days in the north give birds more time to feed their young every day. Then in the fall, when the days get shorter and colder and resources start to diminish, migratory birds make the trek back south for the winter.

Common Yellowthroat perching momentarily in a tree. Warblers are often difficult to spot because they don’t sit still long enough to get a good look at them. Picture by Cam Mannino.

Of the birds that migrate, there are short-distance, medium-distance, and long-distance migrants. Some examples of short-distance migrants are Chipping Sparrow, Eastern Towhee, American Woodcock, and Red-winged Blackbirds. They are usually the first birds back in the spring since they are only migrating a state or two south. In Minnesota, most American Robins migrate a little way south, but in southern Michigan, many Robins stick around all winter.

Some medium-distance migrants include the Green Heron, Great Egret, and Gray Catbird. These birds typically migrate south but just barely. They overwinter anywhere from Virginia to the southern U.S. Long-distance migrants are the truly impressive migratory birds because many of them flying to Central or South America every year.

Some long-distance migrants include the Tree Swallow, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Scarlet Tanager, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Wood Thrush, Orchard Oriole, Common Yellowthroat, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Eastern Kingbird, and Yellow Warbler. During the spring migration, there are some birds you may see for only a few days or weeks. These birds are migrating further north than Michigan to breed and are only stopping over for a few days on their journey north. This makes them especially a treat to see since the window to spot them is very small. Some migratory birds that stopped through Oakland Township this spring include the Blue-headed Vireo, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Palm Warbler, and White-crowned Sparrow. There are also some birds that winter in Michigan and then migrate further north to breed. A couple of examples of birds that winter in Michigan includes the American Tree Sparrow and the Dark-eyed Junco.

A White-crowned Sparrow at Charles Ilsley Park. Taken by Cam Mannino in May 2017.

Special Birds of Interest

A couple birds in particular that have fascinated me this spring are the Rose-breasted Grosbeak and the Eastern Wood-Pewee. I spotted my first Rose-breasted Grosbeak this spring around May 14th. We were doing a prescribed burn along the Paint Creek Trail, and my job for the first part of the burn was to stand on the trail and inform people about what was happening. As I was standing, I noticed a bird singing a sweet, complicated song. I started trying to dial in where it was coming from, then noticed the bright red chest of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak sitting in a tree not too far from me. I played his song on my Merlin bird app, and suddenly, he swooped in above my head and landed on a branch near me. I continued playing his song, and he swooped me a couple of more times. It was so cool to watch! Eventually, I stopped bothering him, and he flew away to sing his sweet song elsewhere in the woods.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak flying off of a branch and over my head.

About two weeks ago, I started hearing the unmistakable song of the Eastern Wood-Pewee in Charles Ilsley Park. My favorite part of the Pewee song is how they sing their name, “pe-weee, pe-weee.” They are tricky birds to spot with their gray-brown color. A few days later, I was at Lost Lake Nature Park and finally spotted one singing his song high on a branch. I watched him for a while, singing his little heart out high in a tree. Both the Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Eastern Wood-Pewee migrate from Central or South America or the Caribbean every year to raise their chicks in the north.

Discovering the World of Birds

The next time you are walking about in one of the parks, take a moment to watch and listen to the birds singing in the trees. You might see one of our summer residents that are only here for a few months. And if you are lucky, you might even spot a bird migrating through to its nesting location further north, or to wintering grounds further south.

If you are new to birding, you have several options to become more comfortable spotting and identifying the birds you see. One great option is to come to our bird walks every Wednesday morning. Another is to find a friend who knows their Michigan birds well. I find the best way to learn how to identify birds is to go with someone who is experienced in birding. If you don’t have any friends that are adept at birding, there are some great resources to help you determine what birds you are observing. A simple field guide is always helpful, but I enjoy using bird apps like the Merlin bird app. With this app, you can look at birds that are likely in your area, pictures of the birds, and hear what sounds they commonly make. Hopefully, the next time you are in one of Oakland Township’s parks, you will see a bird you have not seen before!

Wednesday Bird Walk Link: https://oaklandnaturalareas.com/volunteer-calendar/birding-walks/

Bear Creek Nature Park: Spring Arrives on a Wing and a Song

I dropped in on Bear Creek Nature Park multiple times in April and early May, watching nature’s slow-but-steady journey into spring. After a difficult year, seeing nature renew itself felt especially reassuring – a useful antidote to the leftover doldrums of 2020.

Text and photos by Cam Mannino

This week along with my own photos, I’ll be including many by other residents who generously agreed to share their amazing photography. Regular blog readers will remember Bob and Joan Bonin who have previously lent me their amazing photos. And recently, I made a new photographer acquaintance, Paul Birtwhistle, who explores our parks with his camera and his peaceful dog Stanley. All three of these local photographers are blessed with eagle eyes and exceptional photographic skills as you’ll see below. I thank them all for their willingness to let me share their finds with all of you. Believe me, you’re in for a treat!

Nature Begins to Stir in the Cool Gray of Early April

The bare-bones beauty of Bear Creek’s Center Pond in early April

It seems that each year as I enter the park in early spring, the first song that falls from the canopy is that of the Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia.) Their song, which can vary a bit geographically, most often starts with a few short notes, followed by a melodious trill and finishes off with a buzz. A streaky, little brown male with the typical spot on his breast perched at the top of a tree, threw back his head and belted out his song to woo any willing female within range. This year’s vocalist was much too far away for a decent photo, but here’s one from an earlier spring at Bear Creek Nature Park.

Song Sparrows learn their songs from males in the area in which they’re born, so their song versions vary in different locations.

During the bird walk in the first week of April, Ben spotted a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) posing right at the tip of a snag near the park entrance. It was so high that it only made a silhouette against a gray spring sky, but I tried to take a photo anyway. I love that big red crest! These woodpeckers make their rectangular nest holes high in either snags or live trees in the spring and then make lower ones in the fall as shelter from winter winds. I’m going to keep an eye on that snag!

A Pileated Woodpecker poses against the gray of a cold, early April morning.

This Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) looked a bit chilly as it huddled against a bare branch while searching for frozen caterpillars or insect eggs.

A Downy Woodpecker felt as chilly as I did on a cold April morning.

On the way down the Walnut Lane toward the Center Pond, I spotted a Hazelnut Bush (Corylus americana) in bloom. The golden catkins are male flowers. The slightest breeze sends their pollen wafting over the tiny, pink female flowers that barely peek out from the end of the twigs. I’ll be curious to see if it produces any hazelnuts on its thin branches. [Click on photos to enlarge.]

The chuckling of Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus) in a vernal pool invariably greets me as I step into the woods in early April. These little frogs float on the surface, occasionally kicking their legs to move about as they call for a mate. Consequently, they’re much easier to spot than the tinier chorus frogs who lurk under the edges of logs or aquatic plants. After having frozen and thawed unharmed throughout the winter, these masked frogs move toward the pools in early spring. Vernal pools dry up in the summer, which means Wood Frogs can lay their eggs without fish making a meal of them. This time, a log seemed to provide a handy place for the frogs to rest between unsuccessful bouts of floating and chirping; I sympathized as a former wallflower myself!

A pair of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) cruised the far end of the vernal pool. At one point, the slightly larger male performed some amazing preening moves. Or maybe he was posing in an attempt to flirt. If so, his partner doesn’t seem too impressed.

It’s hard to tell whether the male Canada Goose is preening or flirting. The female doesn’t seem interested in either case.

On the way back from the Wednesday bird walk at Bear Creek in early May, my photographer friend, Bob Bonin, got a wonderful shot of a Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) excavating a promising nest hole. Look at that beak full of wood! Chickadees are cavity nesters and will create a nest in soft wood if they can’t find an existing hole that suits them.

A Black-capped Chickadee can create its own nest hole in soft wood if it can’t find a suitable exisiting cavity. Photo by Bob Bonin

Birds and Blossoms as the Woods Turn Green in Late April

Spring turned from brown to green in the second half of April. Unseen in the night sky, millions of birds rode the wind north and some eventually drifted down into Bear Creek Nature Park. Many came here planning to raise young in the park. For others, it was simply a rest stop on their journey farther north.

The Avian Summer Residents

My new photographer friend, Paul Birtwhistle, got an amazing shot of a rarely seen visitor, the American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus). While Paul and his dog sat quietly on the far north dock of Bear Creek marsh, the Bittern stepped quietly out of the reeds near the shore. Bitterns can breed in Michigan so we can hope this one chooses our marsh. If so, perhaps one day we will hear their booming call that sounds like a low “gulp” coming through the cattails and reeds. Cornell Ornithology’s All About Birds website says that when this birds sees a possible threat, it may choose to assume its concealment pose, its neck elongated and its bill tilted toward the sky. Sometimes it even sways, trying to blend its striped body into the moving reeds. Cornell says the posture is so ingrained that they sometimes do it even when in the open as it was in our marsh. I’m glad Paul had this exciting moment and shared it with us.

Paul also saw a Sandhill Crane (Antigone canadensis) at the marsh and a male Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) cruising in a woodland marsh on the southwestern side of the forest. These birds both tend to spend the summer here to mate and raise their young. The Sandhills toss plant material into a mound, then form a neat cup in the center lined with twigs. Wood Ducks look for cavities high in the trees near water, using the hooks at the back of their feet to navigate on the tree bark. What great guests to host for the summer!

Every year we also act as hosts for the Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) in the nest boxes built by birder Tom Korb and installed by the Stewardship Crew. These iridescent avian acrobats will soar above our fields all summer, gathering insects in their open beaks. But in late April, they are busy within our boxes creating nests out of dry grass and lining them with white feathers. Paul caught a pair claiming a nest box on April 27.

A pair of Tree Swallows on a township bird box at Bear Creek Nature Park. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle

In a tree near the nest boxes, a male Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) surveyed the territory. He appeared to be keeping an eye on his mate as she gathered grass for her nest. Bluebirds will nest in boxes near our Tree Swallows from time to time, but they won’t tolerate another bluebird pair close by. Their sky blue eggs take twelve to fourteen days to hatch. A team of trained volunteers coordinated by our township Stewardship Specialist, Grant VanderLaan, monitor the nest boxes in several parks from first egg laid until the young fledge. The data are provided to Cornell University’s NestWatch program, a citizen science project. Some bluebirds stay with us all year ’round and others seek us out as the weather warms.

A male Bluebird surveys the area near the nest boxes at Bear Creek Nature Park.

On April 24, Paul Birtwhistle spent a long time at the Center Pond listening to the kwirr call of the Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) before being able to spot it. At last, he caught sight of the red crown and nape of a male’s head peeking out from a hole on the underside of a branch on the huge White Oak at the pond’s edge. Years ago near the Bear Creek marsh, I’d seen one of these woodpeckers sticking its head out of a horizontal, upside-down nest hole in an oak branch. It seems that these male woodpeckers excavate several nest holes in hope of giving their mate a choice.

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker excavating a possible nest hole to please its mate. Note the wood chips on his red crown. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle

According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab’s All About Birds website, one of the Red-belly’s options for nest hole placement is dead limbs in a live tree, which is exactly where this bird ended up. The holes are about 9-13 inches deep (or maybe horizontal in this case?) and the circular living space is roughly 3.5 by 5.5 inches. Pretty snug fit, I would think! Once the female has chosen her preferred hole, she lays her eggs on a bed of wood chips left from the excavation accomplished by both mates. Sometimes, the pair drill holes along the branch outside the nest hole to warn off other birds, a kind of “We claim this spot!” message. I hope this hole by the pond was chosen by the female.

Katri Studtmann, one of the stewardship summer technicians, gave me a heads-up to look for a Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) that she’d seen at the Center Pond. Of course, the Kingfisher saw me first as I came to the end of the Walnut Lane and took off. I saw her dive into the water at the far end of the pond, but she came up empty. Females, by the way, have one blue and one chestnut brown stripe on their breasts while the males have only the blue stripe.

A female Belted Kingfisher dipped into the Center Pond with a splash but missed her prey.

In a grassy spot, Paul watched two Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus) do a ritualistic dance with their beaks. At first, I thought it was a mating dance – but these are two female Flickers! After reading a bit, I learned that flickers sometimes do this ritual to protect either their mate or their nesting territory. I’m guessing these two are having a quiet, non-violent disagreement about boundaries. Thanks to Paul for getting several shots so we can appreciate their dance moves!

Of course many more birds arrived at Bear Creek Nature Park last month than Paul, Bob, Joan or I happened to see, successfully record or share. But using the Cornell eBird lists created by participants on the April and early May bird walks, here’s another quick slide show of birds you might see or hear at our parks now if your binoculars can find them among the spring greenery! (The photos here are from previous years by me and others.)

All Eyes on the Warblers in May! Some Stay and Some are Just Passing Through

The big warbler migration began here in late-April with hearing or seeing the Blue-winged Warbler and the Palm Warbler. During the May bird walks at both Bear Creek Nature Park and Cranberry Lake Park, we saw many more of these tiny long-distance travelers. So keep your eyes open for small, colorful birds flitting about in trees or diving in and out of shrubs. You don’t want to miss these beauties who often arrive in the morning after riding a strong south wind during the previous night. Some choose to spend the summer here raising young. But others you’ll see below are only here for a few days as they rest up before heading north.

Under a Greening Canopy, Spring Blossoms Emerge in the Woods

As migrating birds arrive, the woodland plants seem to magically appear as the soil warms under the spare canopy of spring. Always the first to arrive are the spring ephemerals, like Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica). This spring ephemeral blooms very early to catch the sun while the trees are bare, then quickly subsides as the shade increases above it. Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) does the same, but uses its leaf cupped below the blossom to preserve some warmth on cool spring days. Bloodroot leaves remain for some time after the petals of the flower have fallen.

In late April and early May, May Apples (Podophyllum peltatum) begin to form colonies under large trees and produce their shy flowers beneath the leaves. Jack-in-the-pulpits (Arisaema triphyllum) unfold in the woodland shade.

Delicate Wood Anemone blossoms (Anemone quinquefolia) nod above their frail stems in the moist shade near vernal pools. Nearby red sporophytes rise from green gametophyte moss. When mature, the sporophyte moss will release the spores which will disperse to start new gametophyte moss colonies.

And at the forest edge of the big loop, the white blossoms of American Dogwood (Cornus florida) turn their faces upward to the sun.

Each oval Dogwood bud faces upward during the winter, so the blossoms do the same as they emerge in the spring.

Resilience, Adaptation – and Song!

In April, I stood by a vernal pool listening to the chuckling song of Wood Frogs who had frozen and thawed repeatedly during a Michigan winter. This week I paused to enjoy the rippling melody of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak that rode the wind through the night to end up singing at the edge of a greening field. Life presents all of us mortal creatures with harrowing challenges. And still the wild ones sing, the leaves thrust through tough bark, and fragile flowers open their beauty to feed the world around them.

As part of the natural world, we too have faced repeated challenges to our survival, especially in the last fifteen months, haven’t we? Most of us have learned that we are more resilient than we knew. Like the little frogs, we have adapted to repeated and sudden changes. Like the birds, by moving on through the darkness we’ve reached the light of another spring. Like the plants, we struggled to bloom where we were planted, accepting limitations but still able to share what beauty we could muster with those around us who needed our nourishment. Despite the losses we’ve had and those we know will eventually come to all of us, let’s follow nature’s example and celebrate the fact that we’re here right now. Let’s belt out our own songs to a blue spring sky and relish being alive.

Charles Ilsley Park: The Solace of Nature, Despite Windstorms and Heat

On June 10, a powerful windstorm with 90 mph winds flattened half of a small woods along  our driveway, dropped and split trees around our yard and dramatically thinned and damaged the larger forest canopy that surrounds our house. As soon as that massive fist of wind plowed its way north, the heat descended, staying around 90 degrees for two weeks or so. As a result, my forays into Charles Ilsley Park to monitor nest boxes became my only opportunity to see nature largely unscathed.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

Twice each week, I hike out to see if eggs in the nest boxes have hatched, if nestlings are becoming feathered, if fledglings have ventured forth into the big world outside. So in this blog, I’ll share in one virtual hike what I saw at Charles Ilsley Park before the windstorm and during my semi-weekly monitoring walks. Glad you’re accompanying me.

 

 

CIP_BlogVirtualHike

On the Path Heading In

The trail into Charles Ilsley Park

Local birder extraordinaire, Ruth Glass, alerted my photographer friends Joan and Bob Bonin and me to the presence of a Yellow-throated Vireo nest (Vireo flavifrons) near the parking lot. I searched the branches on two different trips and never spotted it. But luckily, Bob got a great photo of this lovely migrator on its nest. The nest is such an art piece, as you’ll see below. It’s usually made of bits of bark, grasses, dry leaves; this one is decorated with lichen as well – and all nicely packaged with spider silk! The males and females of this vireo look alike (monomorphic) and both genders incubate the young. Ruth reported that she saw the female in the nest being serenaded by the male nearby. But I have no way of knowing which gender Bob saw for this photo. Sigh…wish I could have seen this bird in its nest – but I’m  so glad Ruth and the Bonins did!

Both male and female vireos incubate their eggs. Photo by Bob Bonin with permission.

An Eastern Wood-Pewee (Contopus virens) landed in the big oaks along the entrance trail. It appeared to have a bit of nesting material in its beak – probably a piece of lichen. According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, this little flycatcher’s “lichen-covered nest is so inconspicuous that it often looks like a knot on a branch.”

An Eastern Wood-pewee with lichen for nesting material

The Central Prairie – Flowers Blooming and Boxes Filled with Baby Birds

Birding group enjoying a pause on the central prairie

Blooms, Butterflies and Beetles

On my early visits, purple spires of Wild Lupine (Lupinus perennis) peeked out of the grass here and there in the central and western prairie. Lupine once established can tolerate intense sun and dry soil, so it does well in prairies. When I came back later in June with the birding group, some of the lupines had made fuzzy seed pods that I’d never noticed before!

By the time the pods had formed on the lupine, a summer bloom, Lance-leaf Coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata) had emerged in the central prairie. Coreopsis bursts forth in golden composite blooms. The sunshine-yellow, ragged “petals” are really ray florets that surround the tiny disc florets at the flower’s center. These florets are tiny individual flowers, part of the plant’s reproductive structure.

Lance-leaf Coreopsis is a composite, a bloom formed by two kinds of florets. The center is a cluster of disc florets that provide nectar and pollen, surrounded by ray florets that look like petals.

According to one of my fave wildflower websites, Illinois Wildflowers, it also provides both nectar and pollen to a wide variety of floral visitors – lots of native bee species as well as beetles, and butterflies. One of the birders spotted a Baltimore Checkerspot (Euphydryas phaeton) sipping nectar avidly from a Coreopsis. Unlike most butterflies, its caterpillar overwinters. According to Wikipedia, in late summer or fall, the caterpillar stops eating, spins out some silk and wraps itself in a pre-hibernation web on a plant.  Before winter begins, it will exit the web, and spend the cold months hibernating in dead grass or leaf litter until pupating in the spring.

A Baltimore Checkerspot enjoying the nectar of a Prairie Coreopsis

A couple mid-summer wildflowers appeared later in June. Hairy Beard-tongue (Penstemon hirsutus) produces tiny hairs on every surface – leaves, stems, even petals. Clearly this wildflower knows how to protect itself from predators who don’t like a mouthful of fuzz! And blazing orange Butterfly Milkweed  (Asclepias tuberosa) is thrusting its way up through the tall grass and daisies as well – a food source for the Monarch caterpillar. [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

In deep grass at the edge of the trail, a buttery yellow flutter caught my eye. It was a diurnal (daytime) moth with feathery antennae. Knowledgeable folks on the “Butterflying Michigan” Facebook page helped me identify it as a member of the genus Xanthotype. It’s evidently either a Crocus Geometer or a False Crocus Geometer,  but I was also informed that a definitive species identification between the two would require examining their genitalia! Uh, no.

A small Geometer moth from the genus Xanthotype on the path at Charles Ilsley Park

Native bees foraged on flowers in the central prairie too. I’ve learned that it’s nigh on to impossible to identify the species of a native bee from a photograph so I won’t try. But I do love to see these solitary bees at home in our parks, especially a flashy metallic green one like this bee on the non-native Ox-eye Daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare).

A native bee making the most of a non-native Ox-eye Daisy

Following the path around the Center Prairie in early June, I found one of the small ponds swirling with busy Whirligig Beetles (family Gyrinidae).

A slightly fuzzy photo of a swimming Whirligig beetle as it paused for a second.

These gregarious beetles are beautifully adapted for survival. They row around in circles on the surface with their middle and back legs, probably looking for mates or prey, but also making it tough for would-be predators to catch one! They can also swim underwater if necessary because they trap an air bubble under their stiff wing covers (or “elytra”). They constantly produce a waxy substance that keeps them buoyant and makes them slippery to predators. In fact, males have sticky front legs so the female doesn’t slip from their grasp while mating! Add to that, their split eyes that can see both above and below the water and their ability to fly and it’s clear that whirligig beetles have evolved for survival in pretty sophisticated ways. Here’s a little of the stir they were  creating at Ilsley.

Neonatal Care in the Central Prairie

The nest boxes in the Central Prairie are busy places in June. Birds industriously construct nests inside, lay their eggs, feed their nestling at a relentless pace and eventually frenetically feed the begging fledglings when they emerge. This year the boxes that I’m monitoring sheltered Eastern Bluebirds, Tree Swallows and a House Wren. Luckily, all the birds that I monitor this year lived harmoniously, though the Tree Swallows gave me friendly reminders of their presence by swooping right over my head while I checked their boxes. Here’s a Tree Swallow adult (Tachycineta bicolor) giving me the once over as I passed near its box.

A Tree Swallow on last summer’s  Evening Primrose preparing to dive bomb me –  in a friendly way, of course –  as I approached to monitor a nest.

Tree Swallow eggs are small, pure white and sit daintily in their grassy nests lined with white feathers. After the  writhing, pink hatchlings emerge, it takes about a week for them to begin to develop dark feathers beneath their pink skin, as you can see below. I assume that the white edges on their beaks help adults aim their beaks accurately as they feed each of them in the dark of a nest box or tree cavity.

Tree Swallows love to line their nests with white feathers. These nestlings at about a week old are just beginning to form feathers under skin.

Here’s a lovely lady Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) taking a break from incubation on a nest box in the central prairie.

A female Eastern Bluebird with some food for her nestlings.

Bluebird eggs are usually pale blue and the nest is constructed of grass and sometimes pine needles. Here are some nestlings in a pile in one of my bluebird boxes almost ready to become fledglings. It’s pretty crowded in there with six of them! These little ones napping in a heap are about 6 days from entering the big, bright world outside.

Bluebird nestlings piled this way and that about 6 days before leaving the nest.

A Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) paused on a twig with food for its young. Song Sparrows can nest on the ground or as high as 15 feet up in a shrub. I wondered if this one was waiting for me to move along before darting to its nest hidden somewhere in the vicinity. Wish I could see those nestlings!

A Song Sparrow with food for its nestlings nearby

A Battle for a Nest Box in the Western Prairie

A male bluebird calmly watching a fellow male caught up in a fracas in the western prairie.

Things were not so peaceful in the western prairie. During a birding walk in June, we witnessed a daring feat of courage. For some reason, four adult Tree Swallows attempted to drive a male Eastern Bluebird (and probably the female inside) out of a nest box. We watched the aerial acrobatics of the iridescent blue swallows as they repeatedly dove at the harried male Bluebird who defended the box. The persistent swallows even clipped him with their wings occasionally as he ducked and snapped at them. Here are a series of stills as the battle  raged.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The bluebird stayed right where he was and Tom from our birding group reported finding bluebird eggs inside the next day. Though Bluebirds will not tolerate another bluebird close by, they generally ignore the swallows and vice versa. But not this time.  Hooray for the brave little bluebird!

A Side Trip to the Eastern Prairie in Search of A Tiny Bird

Birders social distancing on their way to the eastern prairie

By traveling around the west prairie and back through the north one, we reach the central prairie trail again which takes us to eastern prairie. I love this rolling landscape full of dancing native grasses and wildflowers. But I only got there once in early June before the windstorm struck. What prompted me was the alert from Ruth Glass who, along with seeing the Yellow-throated Vireo, had also seen the nest of a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea) in a Box Elder there. When I reached the right tree,  I stood for several minutes scrutinizing it without seeing the tiny nest. But suddenly a Gnatcatcher flew in with food in its beak – and I could see it! My photos were just so-so, but again my photographer buddies, the Bonins, came through. Joan got a beautiful photo of the nest with an adult Gnatcatcher sitting inside so I can share this little beauty with you. Again, the nest is decorated with lichens which not only are beautiful but scientists believe have anti-microbial properties that fend off infections, like mosses do.

A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher on its little nest decorated with lichen. Photo by Joan Z. Bonin with permission

Near the wetland on the south side of the prairie, a Common Yellowthroat burbled his “witchedy witchedy” song, declaring his territory to ward off other males. According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “Each male normally has only one mate in his territory during a breeding season. However, a female’s mating calls often attract other males, and she may mate with them behind her mate’s back.”  I believe the female’s “ready to mate” call, a fast series of chips, is the second “call” (as opposed to “song”) listed at this Cornell link.  What scamps, those females! But these little birds are contending with predation from carnivorous birds like Merlins and Shrikes and sometimes have to cope with Brown-headed Cowbirds dropping eggs in their nests. Increasing the genetic diversity of their offspring may help the species adjust to the perils of their habitat, or help that female ensure some of her young survive.

Male Common Yellowthroats are calling all over Ilsley now, defending their territory and access to their mates.

On the Way Back:  An Uncrowned King and a Vigorous Bath 

Along the trail back to the parking lot, an elegant Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) with a white tip on its tail, broad shoulders and a rounded crown perched near the tree line. The Kingbird’s crown, I’ve learned, hides a bright red/orange patch at its center which can be raised in a threat gesture just before dive-bombing any intruder in its territory, even Crows, Red-tailed Hawks or Great Blue Herons flying overhead! Its feistiness and that crown evidently earned it the name Kingbird. I’ve never seen that scarlet crown; I even searched for a photo of it on iNaturalist.org to no avail. But if you want to see a Kingbird’s crown when it’s really riled up, page down a short way at  this link from McGill Bird Observatory! The Kingbird that I saw at Ilsley was considerably more mellow.

Eastern Kingbirds flock together and forage for fruit each winter in the forests of South America.

As I crested a slope on the way back to the car,  I paused at a distance to watch a Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) take a dust bath. In a soft patch of dry earth, the bird performed a series of fast gyrations while beating its wings at high speed. When I developed the series of photos, I realized that in its frenzy, this male had exposed his belly by rolling onto his back! I’m guessing he had been plagued by mites and was determined to get rid of them! Here’s the sequence of moves that he made:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Nature Knitting My Raveled Sleeve Once More…

A Carolina Wren that appeared at our home in March. It’s carrying a bit of moss for the nest.

Shakespeare said that it was sleep that “knits the raveled sleeve of care” – and Will was right, of course. But nature is a gifted knitter of cares for me as well. The leafy landscape at home that has soothed me for more than a quarter century is drastically changed –    large sections of it simply absent, twisted, broken, split, dying.

But despite nature’s power to destroy,  it still acts as a balm through it all. When a pair of Carolina Wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) disappeared from our yard after the windstorm, I could visit the nest boxes at Charles Ilsley Park to to see pink hatchlings just out of their shells and know life would go on. In Ilsley’s western prairie, the bluebird stood his ground and started his family. The whirligigs danced and dove; blooms rose from the earth and turned their many colored faces to the sun. While sitting at my back door disconsolate, staring at a huge pile of broken tree limbs, two Baltimore Orioles alighted and quickly mated as if to say, “We lost our nestlings in the storm, but here we are, starting again.” And at home, the Carolina Wrens returned four days after the destruction, the male singing his three phrase song as loudly and ebulliently as ever. So through all the craziness of this plague year, I was blessed with short interludes to breathe in the beauty and resilient energy of life despite the chaos around us. And for that I’m very grateful.