Tag Archives: Daisy Fleabane

Bees and “Wannabees”: Native Pollinators Tend Early Summer Blooms

European Honey Bee on Goldenrod, summer of 2015

When most of us think of pollinators, the European Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) comes to mind first – and with good reason. These hive bees work industriously in agricultural fields and orchards. And we benefit from the fruits, vegetables and of course flowers they visit.  According to MSU Extension, though, they are active in temperatures above 60 °F and prefer clear, sunny, placid weather. In case you haven’t noticed (or don’t live in Michigan), that’s not yet our weather here this year.

Luckily, native bees and hoverflies come to our rescue, and the rescue of countless wildflowers. Bumblebees (genus Bombus), our chunky native bees, only require temperatures above 50° and will fly in wet, dark and windy weather – the kind we’re living with this year! And along side them are other native bees and the ever-present hoverflies who look like bees but aren’t. So let’s see who’s out and about in our parks pollinating plants on these cool, damp days of early summer.

[A Disclaimer: I’m a learner when it comes to insect identification, but I’ve done my best to figure out what I’m seeing. Let me know in comments if you think I’ve erred. And if you’d like more detailed info, check out my two main sources: a fine book by Heather Holm entitled Pollinators of Native Plants and this excellent web article by Jason Gibbs from MSU Dept. of Etymology.]

Native Bees Happily Take on the Job of Spring Pollination

Female bees of all species carry most of the load when it comes to pollination, because they feed pollen to themselves and their young. Some species stash it on hairs or in pollen baskets on their hind legs. Others let it spread thickly across the stiff hairs of their abdomen. Wasps, like Yellow Jackets or Hornets, can look like bees but they don’t collect or eat pollen. (They are predators who keep insect numbers in check, including some garden pests.) So if you see lots of yellow or orange pollen on the leg or abdomen of an insect, it’s a bee! Where are these bees finding pollen now?

Native Wild Lupine (Lupine perennis) rises elegantly within the restored prairie at Charles Ilsley Park in early June. Look for them near the observation deck at Gallagher Creek Park as well. They are a popular stop on the pollen route for our native bees right now.

Lupines at Charles Ilsley Park where prairies are being restored

A Metallic Green Sweat Bee (genus Agapostemon) found the Lupine blossoms irresistible. These very small bees are solitary; they don’t live in hives. Instead, they make tunnels in bare soil and tend their young alone. Sweat bees are occasionally attracted to human sweat on hot, dry days but their sting is not as severe as a bee or wasp. They are normally docile while foraging but can be aggressive if you get near their nests. But please don’t use pesticides on them. These little bees do a lot of pollinating! Creating a spot of bare soil on your property away from your garden and house where they can nest will make both you and them feel safer.

A metalic green sweat bee finds its way into a lupine blossom.

One cool afternoon, I watched a couple of sweat bees make the proverbial “beeline”  for the native Daisy Fleabane (Erigeron annuus), a close relative of asters and daisies, but a different genus. These tiny, sun-faced flowers are one of the first blooms to emerge in spring and they last all summer. So it seems that the two sweat bees heading in from the right on the photo below know a reliable source of nectar and pollen when they see one!

Two metallic green sweat bees heading for a tiny Daisy Fleabane.

A native Bumblebee (genus Bombus) used its long tongue to reach inside the lavender lips of the Lupine blossoms at Gallagher Creek Park and then flew off with its pollen load tucked neatly into the pollen sacks on its legs. According to author Heather Holm, bumblebees sometimes use a technique called “buzz pollination” in which they release pollen from tight places by clinging onto a plant’s anthers (the tip of the male stamen that holds the pollen) and activating their flight muscles, making a buzz. Poof! Out comes the pollen. Neat trick. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

 

Carpenter Bees (genus Xylocopa) shape their nests by patiently shaving off wood bit by bit to make perfectly round holes, usually on the underside of branches, or at our house, under deck railings! They lay their eggs inside, sealing each egg in separately with neat plugs of pollen to keep the young larvae fed. Later, the young bees will overwinter in these nests to emerge for mating the following spring. Here’s what I’m quite sure is an Eastern Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa virginica) nuzzling a Blackberry blossom (Rubus allegheniensis). It looks a lot like a native Bumblebee, but its abdomen is shiny black instead of fuzzy and it has a dot in the center of its yellow thorax.

A Carpenter Bee collects pollen or nectar from a blackberry blossom.

The blackberry bush also hosted another bee. I believe it’s a Masked/Cellophane Bee (genus Hylaeus).  These solitary bees are the only ones that transport pollen in a crop like some birds do with seed.  These bees use exisiting cavities in wood for nesting, and wrap their larvae in a thin membrane that evidently gave them the name “cellophane bees” – and they also have white patches on their heads, hence the “masked” name.

A masked/cellophane bee carries pollen in its crop.

Native Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea), an early summer flower, attracted the attention of another native pollinator, the solitary Leafcutter Bee (genus Megachilidae). They can be very active within blossoms, making what some sources describe as a “swimming motion.” Evidently, that also releases  a lot of pollen that they carry on stiff hairs on their abdomen. Their nests are built vertically in hollow plant stems or other natural cavities. They neatly cut and then chew bits of leaves to line each cell. Entomologists suppose that the leaves may preserve the moisture in the pollen plug at the end of each cell, so it will last until the larvae hatches to eat it. The larvae then pupates, emerges for a short life of a few weeks and starts the cycle again.

A Leafcutter Bee searches for both nectar and pollen on a Golden Alexanders blossom

And then there are the “Wannabees”

I love Jason Gibb’s term “wannabees” for the ubiquitous Hoverflies – also called flower flies – members of the genus Taxomerus (family Syrphidae).  Hoverflies visit flowers frequently and are commonly mistaken for bees. Many of them mimic bees and wasps, being patterned in white, black and  yellow (or orange). But they differ from bees in one important way; hoverflies do not have stingers. They just want their predators to think they do! They feed on both pollen and nectar. Though hoverflies don’t carry as much pollen on their smooth bodies as bees do on their fuzzy ones, they may make up for that by visiting flowers more often. As a result, they are considered the second most effective plant pollinators. Another great benefit of hoverflies is that their larvae eat aphids like crazy, much like ladybugs do. So they can keep plants healthy as well as do some pollinating.

Drama Unfolds on Daisy Fleabanes!

It’s not a surprise that the nodding stalks of Daisy Fleabane (Erigeron annuus) show up in every field in the spring. Hoverflies move constantly from one to the next since not many different wildflowers bloom in this cold spring! As they land, of course, they drop pollen on the waiting stigmas of the flower, just what’s needed to produce more Daisy Fleabane. From my observation, the flowers in bright sunlight get more attention from hoverflies than those in the shade. Perhaps they see in ultraviolet like bees and the flowers look much more inviting in the sunshine?

But more than just pollination is taking place on those sunny little blooms! It turns out that a Daisy Fleabane can be a stage for high drama – birth and death among the petals! One tiny fleabane flower featured the mating of two hoverflies while a third ignored them in its avid search for a good meal. The dispassionate female seems to be casually having a snack as well.

Two hoverflies mated on a Daisy Fleabane while one ignored them in the interest of finding nectar or pollen

And on another Fleabane blossom, an ambush!  I’ve just learned about Crab Spiders (genus Thomisidae). These crafty arachnids don’t spin webs. They simply sit on or just under the edges of flowers waiting to grab unwary insects. Those long curved front legs do look a bit crab-like!

A crab spider sitting on a fleabane blossom hoping, no doubt, to snag a careless insect.

The Bluebottle Fly (genus Calliphora) in the photo below seems to have been oblivious to a crab spider until it was grabbed around the middle by one of the long legs of its hidden predator. Those big fly eyes look vaguely shocked, don’t they? The hoverfly on the blossom above  seems unconcerned, its head deep in the pollen. And what I think is the green sweatbee flying in may choose to do the same on a different bloom. I doubt they stayed around long enough to be a second and third meal for the spider!

A crab spider under the edge of a fleabane has grabbed a fly for lunch, while an uninterested hoverfly eats nearby. And what I think is  another green sweat bee speeds in on the right.

What about the Butterflies?

Well, butterflies are arriving, or hatching or coming out from under bark after overwintering. But not many are present yet. And let’s face it; the flowers available now are not especially tempting when compared to the variety and plentitude of summer. So the butterflies that appear in the parks make do with other food sources – sweet tree sap, rotting fruits from last fall, carrion, even occasionally the nutrition left in animal scat! Here’s  a selection of the butterflies I’ve seen so far and not one of them was pollinating a flower! (Click on photos to enlarge; use pause button for captions.)

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I’ve also seen three different Monarchs but they didn’t stop to have photos taken. And the very tiny White-striped Black moth (Trichodezia albovittata) is a first sighting ever for me. Its miniscule black and white wings flutter so fast that when flying, it looks like a blurry signal of dots and dashes! I was so happy when it paused for a few moments!

Native Plants + Native Insects = Caterpillars + More Well-fed Bird Hatchlings

Two-day-old Eastern Bluebird hatchlings (Sialis sialis)

You’ve probably noticed that I’ve used the word “larvae” several times in this piece. The common term for these squiggly young is “caterpillar.” Caterpillars (as I’ve mentioned before) are the preferred food that birds stuff down the tender throats of their hatchlings. They are great baby food for birds, full of protein and fat and easy to swallow.

So let’s be glad that our native insects are out gathering pollen for two reasons. Our bees and wannabees keep the wildflowers (and eventually fruits and vegetables) reproducing year after year. But by also feeding pollen to all those larval bees and flies, they feed the young of clever birds who winkle them out of holes and pluck them off of leaves and limbs. Yes, we may get a few cut, chewed or even defoliated leaves in our garden. But many of those caterpillars will nourish the next generation of glorious birds singing the morning chorus! Now doesn’t that make you appreciate insects just a wee bit more?

Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide and volunteer Stephanie Patil with hundreds of native plants purchased by township residents through the Parks and Recreation Commission.

 

 

 

Draper Twin Lake Park: The Restored Prairie is A-buzz, A-flutter and Blooming!

The Draper prairie in bloom with bright yellow Sand Coreopsis, Yarrow and Ox-eye Daisies

Early summer is blooming and buzzing at Draper Twin Lake Park. The golden petals of Sand Coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata) ruffle in the wind among dancing white Ox-eye Daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare) and Yarrow (Achillea millefolium). What a sight for a summer afternoon!  

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

Birds suddenly burst from the deep grass or sway on a sturdy plant stem while being tossed by the wind. Butterflies settle in sunny spots along the moist trails near the marsh or dance along a sunny prairie trail seemingly unable to choose which early summer bloom might please them. Such summery abundance after a cold spring!

 Butterflies Take to the Air!

I often begin blogs with birds, because they’re the favorite wildlife for many park visitors. But for better and worse, early summer begins the high season for insects! Yes, some sting, or bite – but mostly they’re just colorful and simply amazing. On a breezy visit to the eastern side of the park, I was greeted by two Eastern Tiger Swallowtails (Papilio glaucus) dancing their courtship ritual high in the air, full of chases, flutters, soaring and falling. I craned my camera upward, clicked a few times and got lucky. An exciting first for me to get photos of butterflies in flight! (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

The male took a brief rest to sip some nectar as the female flew away. But the wind was so strong that he only paused for a few brief moments before he was blown off his flower!

Undeterred, he fed on a bit more nectar and was soon back in the sky, dancing off above the treetops with his female companion.

Nearby, a flash of orange and black made me think I was seeing a Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) among the greenery. But no! The bars at the bottom of its hindwings were the unmistakable insignia of a Viceroy Butterfly (Limenitis archippus).

By mimicking the Monarch’s appearance, the Viceroy warns predators that he’s distasteful too.

Viceroys are “Müellerian” mimics, meaning they mimic the color and pattern of Monarchs which, like them, are distasteful to predators. By mimicking each other’s appearance, they give potential attackers a warning. “If you see something that looks like us, stay away or you’ll be sorry!” Isn’t evolution amazing?

In the western portion of the park, a Red-spotted Purple butterfly (Limenitis arthemis), paused on the trail in front of me. In my photo on the left, its red spots can just barely be seen on the underside of the forewing. This beautiful – and very active! – creature is said to be a “Batesian” mimic of  the Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor) (on the right) which is toxic to its predators. The Red-spotted Purple isn’t but its similar appearance might make an attacker think so. (Pipevine Swallowtail photo by Annabelle Corboy, an inaturalist.org photographer.)

In the grass along an eastern path sat one of the smaller butterflies much loved by generations who raised them in their classrooms or released them for special events, our very own American Painted Lady (Vanessa virginiensis). The two large eye-spots on the underside (ventral) of its hindwing distinguishes it from the Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) which has four smaller eyespots in the same place and is widespread, appearing on every continent except Antarctica and South America.

Two large eyespots on the underside (ventral) of the hindwing means this is an American Painted Lady rather than the globally widespread Painted Lady.

The tiny butterflies and moths can’t claim the same glamour as the large ones, but they add their own beauty and sprightly flutter as they accompany me along the paths. (Click pause button for identification captions.)

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Dragons and Damsels Flying Hither and Yon

Summer truly begins for me when damselflies settle delicately on shady leaves and dragonflies patrol prairies or ponds in search of a mate. The Common Whitetail Dragonflies are out in force right now  near Twin Lake and the wetlands.

The female Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis) below was hunting away from the water. She waits on vegetation until prey comes sailing by. After about two weeks, she will approach water to find a mate and choose an area of the pond in which to lay her eggs. Within one minute of mating, she will start dipping her abdomen into the water to release eggs, while the male hovers nearby.

This female Eastern Pondhawk will soon be choosing a male. His abdomen is blue, his thorax is green & blue and his head is green.

Damselflies (in the order Odonata like dragonflies) look like delicate flying sticks. Many are iridescent or sport elaborate patterns on their abdomen and/or thorax. They are ancient creatures dating back to the early Permian, at least 250,000 years ago, and live on every continent but Antarctica.

As part of the courtship ritual, the male Ebony Jewelwing (Calopteryx maculata) damselfly bobs up, down and around with other males in what are called “flights of attrition,” until his opponents become exhausted and leave – or he does!

The male Ebony Jewelwing damselfly on the hunt. Love how his body shows through those translucent wings!

I’d forgotten that the brown and black damselfly below left was a female Violet Dancer (Argia fumipennis violacea) until I got assistance at the Odonata of the Eastern U.S. Facebook page. The male is a much more glamorous purple and blue. I saw the female this week at Draper Twin Lake Park and the male there three years ago.

A Native Bird Returns to the Prairie and Avian Parenting Proceeds Around the Park

The restoration of the Draper Prairie is beginning to entice some native birds to return, as well as native plants. On a windy day, I spotted my first Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis) swaying on a plant stem in a stiff wind. In fact, the wind knocked him from his perch at one point, like the Viceroy butterfly mentioned above. This small sparrow with yellow over its eye may be seen more often now that restored prairies are providing the native plants that attract the insects it prefers. I couldn’t record its call in the wind, but listen here for  its song that has an insect-like buzz in the middle!

The Savannah Sparrow is returning to our parks since prairie restoration provides ideal habitat.

I began my Draper Twin Lake Park visits with a second scolding from a male bird, akin to my escapade with the goose at Lost Lake. I approached the marsh on the eastern side of Draper Park to look at what appeared to be some female Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) among the giant leaves of Fragrant Water Lily. Almost immediately a male blackbird began its alarm call, left its perch in the distance and flew directly toward me.

The male Red-winged Blackbird headed toward me when I got too close to his fledglings.

He landed in a tree next to me and never stopped expressing his irritation until I moved away. Click below to hear a worried blackbird dad!

As soon as I focused my camera’s long lens, I knew why he was upset. Fledgling blackbirds look very much like their mothers. It was clear the birds among the lily pads were his fledglings and he wanted me to back off. And I did, of course!

Another avian dad was a little further along in parenting his offspring. A male House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) rested on a vine near the eastern parking area and just below sat one of his offspring on a guy wire, looking straight up at Dad longingly, begging to be fed. Evidently the male thought this was no longer necessary, because no feeding was forthcoming.

As I strolled through the prairie, I watched a Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor) flying open-mouthed to scoop up food for the young in its nest box. Later I saw some gnats dancing busily above the prairie grass and wondered if the large clouds of them over the prairie were part of the Tree Swallow’s diet.

A female House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) seemed to be carefully watching an Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) flying near what appeared to be her nest box. The Eastern Kingbird can be fiercely territorial about its nest and later I saw it land nearby and look toward the wren’s box. But eventually it flew away.  Drama avoided.

Each time I came to Draper I heard the call of the Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) – but it never appeared. It was always in dense shrubs and trees near the soggy edge of the marsh where I couldn’t approach. So here’s a 2016 photo of one throwing his head back and letting loose with “Drink your teeeeeea!”

An Eastern Towhee singing “Drink your teeeeeea!

I did, however, record the male’s wonderful song again this year. [He repeats it at 6-7 second intervals about 4 times on this recording.]

Wildflowers Provide the Colorful Backdrop for All This Activity

The restoration plantings of Draper Twin Lake Park’s northern prairie grow more luxuriant and varied every year. This summer many native wildflowers began to bloom after spending years spent sinking deep roots to resist drought. I’ll be excited to see what arrives with mid-summer and fall as natives find their footing in this gently rolling prairie. (Click pause button if you need more time for captions.)

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In moister regions of the park, other native plants emerge. Scouring Rush (Equisetum arvense), a native fern-ally, produces spores on its cone that look like Indian beadwork. Fragrant Waterlilies (Nymphaea odorata) send up bright yellow club-like buds from the marsh and Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) dangles its exotic blossoms in the shade.

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Sunlight, Rain and Earth Make It All Possible

Daisies add sunshine to a cloudy afternoon on Draper Twin Lake Park’s Northern Prairie

Plants deserve a bit more respect from the creatures, like us, that depend on them.  We tend to notice most the animals, birds, insects that have faces like ours, I guess. But of course, all around us plants are doing the amazing work of pulling up minerals and water from the earth, soaking up sunlight from the sky and miraculously turning those elements into the food that fuels all living beings. Directly or indirectly, everything that all of us eat is provided by plants. I feel very lucky that volunteering for Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our natural areas stewardship manager, has taught me to honor a wider scope of nature. Now while I’m fascinated with wildlife, I’m also learning to notice and name the plants, particularly the native wildflowers and grasses, that have performed the miracle of photosynthesis right here for thousands of years.  Such a generous gift!

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: inaturalist.org;Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela;Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels,  A Guide to Bird Behavior Vols.1-3 by Donald W and Lillian Q.Stokes, the passionate enthusiasts at the Facebook groups Odonata of the Eastern U.S.and Butterflying Michigan plus others as cited in the text.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

OUT AND ABOUT IN OAKLAND: Cranberry Lake Park – Birdsong, Flower-Studded Old Fields and Fancy Bugs

Ox-eye Daisies CL
Big, sunny patches of Ox-eye Daisies stare up from the Old Fields of Cranberry Lake Park

Strolling through the old farm fields of Cranberry Lake Park in summer is an auditory feast. The  canopied paths and wide open fields as well as the shady, moist wetlands celebrate summer with a full-throated chorus of birdsong – the quick sweet notes of the Yellow Warbler, the high-pitched trill of the American Redstart, the melodious song of the elusive Warbling Vireo. Ben’s birding group reports more than 50 different bird species on one spring visit, more than in any other park in the township. So you’d expect this week’s blog to be filled with bird photos, right?  Uh, not quite.

Version 2
Blog post and Photos by Cam Mannino

Oh, I do have bird photos to share but some will come from other times and places in the township because birding in Cranberry Lake right now is more by ear than by sight. Birds dive into tangled brush or tall grass or disappear among the whispering leaves overhead to make nests, feed young, intent at the moment on propagating their species. So they’re not all inclined to pose for photos.  Luckily, dragonflies, butterflies, grasshoppers – all sorts of insects –  do. And of course summer flowers are very obliging when a breeze pauses for a moment. So let’s set off together with eyes and ears alert to see what this historic farm has to offer.

Axford-Coffin House CL Western facade
The Axford-Coffin House, at one time a working farm and a country retreat, is now surrounded by a 213 acre park.

The lovely Cranberry Lake Farm Historic District on West Predmore Road is a township treasure and listed in the National Register of Historic Places. If you haven’t explored its beautiful grounds, I recommend you begin by taking a visual tour and learning about its history at this link. We, however, are off to explore the southern part of the 213 acre park that once was a working farm.

Out in the Sunny Old Fields

Old Fields Birdsong!

As we head off along the path from the parking lot that’s west of the historic home, we’re surrounded by knee-deep grasses and wildflowers. Tiny Yellow Warblers (Setophaga petechia) are whisking in and out of the large bushes or small trees nearby, still singing their quick “I’m a little sweet” songs as in Antonio Xeira’s recording here. This male with his rust-streaked breast actually paused long enough for a photo!

Yellow Warbler male
A male Yellow Warbler at Cranberry Lake Park

And another male Yellow Warbler nearby was busying bringing home lunch for his mate or maybe some nestlings in a distant bush.

Yellow Warbler male w food
Male Yellow Warbler taking food back to the nest.

On three different visits in the last 10 days or so, I heard or saw a male American Redstart singing in the same tree at a fork in the trail. I’m thinking he and his mate must have a nest nearby. For some reason, I’d never seen this bird before and he’s a beauty.  There’s a good closeup of him here at the Cornell Ornithology Lab. His song is thin, high and ends abruptly.  Cornell Lab says its sometimes described as sneeze-like!  Page down at this Cornell link to hear his song.

American Redstart
A male American Redstart sang in the same tree on three separate visits. Wish I could spot its nest!

In the same tree one morning, I saw a Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) swinging at the tip of a branch as it tried to harvest something from among the leaves. At this time of year, omnivore birds like the Titmouse are probably looking for protein for their mate or young, so perhaps he’d found a caterpillar?

Acrobatic titmouse
A Tufted Titmouse swung from the tip of a branch searching diligently for something it wanted to eat.

As I crossed the southern old field,  going north, two Common Yellowthroats (Geothlypis trichas) announced their territories, calling back and forth across this grassy meadow.

Central path CL
The path across the meadow heading farther north into Cranberry Lake Park

Yellowthroats have the distinction of being one of the first New World birds catalogued in 1766 by Carl Linnaeus, the famous biologist who created the Latin classification system for all life forms. My photo of the Yellowthroat is below but for a clearer photo of this masked bandit, look here on Cornell Lab’s website.

common yellowthroat
The black-masked Common Yellowthroat is tough to see but easy to identify from its “Witchedy, witchedy” song.

I rarely see Yellowthroats up close but you can hear their “Witchedy, witchedy” songs all over Cranberry Lake Park. Turn your volume up and you’ll hear the singing competition of two males going back and forth twice on my 25 second recording.

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Out in the Old Fields:  Wildflowers,  Competing for Space

The old farm fields at Cranberry Lake exemplify the changes that happen over time when forage crops thrive in abandoned farm fields which are also surrounded by neighboring gardens filled with cultivated flowers.

Native plants are certainly here – native Canada Goldenrod will burnish the fields in the fall and other pre-development plants hold their own at Cranberry Lake, too. Here’s a gallery of a few of them. (Click to enlarge; hover cursor for captions)

The rosy stems of native Dogbane or Indian-Hemp (Apocynum cannabinum) will soon be topped with clusters of white flowers. This plant is toxic if eaten but I doubt you or your dog will be tempted.

Dogbane or Indian Hemp
Dogbane, whose stems will get rosier as it matures, is a lovely native plant that is toxic if ingested.

The meadows are full of non-native plants that, over the years,  have found their way into Michigan’s former farm fields. Many of them are good neighbors, existing side-by-side with native plants without crowding out the original inhabitants. I particularly like Orange Hawkweed (Hieracium aurantiacum), also called Devil’s Paintbrush (not to be confused with Indian Paintbrush). It can be problematic but isn’t at this point in Oakland Township parks. The Wildflowers of Michigan Field Guide explains that  the name came from a mistaken belief that hawks ate it to improve their eyesight!

Orange Hawkweed or Devil's Paintbrush
Orange Hawkweed or Devil’s Paintbrush – often confused with Indian Paintbrush.

Other non-natives pop up here and there in the old fields at Cranberry Lake.  Goat’s Beard blossoms open in the early morning and close about noon. And when its blooming season is over,  it makes a huge seed head, like a giant, beige dandelion, which it is doing right now. By the way, the insect on the blossom at left is a Hover Fly (family Syrphidae) which mimics bees or wasps for protection but has no stinger.

Other non-native plants that usually appear singly are White Campion (Silene latifolia) and Rough-Fruited Cinquefoil (Potentilla recta) which is easily confused with some of our native varieties (thanks to Ben for the ID help!).

Of course, invasive non-native plants have also moved into Cranberry Lake. Here’s a native House Wren (Troglodytes aedon), singing from within one of the worst  invasives, the Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata), a shrub which is native to Asia. These large bushes fix nitrogen in the soil, creating soil conditions unsuitable for native plants. Its berries are spread by birds and animals. It leafs out early and keeps its leaves late into the fall, shading out other plants. In short, it’s one problem shrub! But the Wren is a welcome summer resident  and his beautiful, burbling courting song  (recorded by Antonio Xeira) is much beloved even if it does emanate from an invasive bush.

Singing House Wren
House Wren singing, oblivious to his presence in a very invasive shrub, the Autumn Olive

Another serious  invasive shrub grows abundantly in Cranberry Lake, the Multiflora Rose (Rosa multiflora). This admittedly lovely plant loses its appeal when its strong thorns catch your skin, and this gangly shrub happens to be crowding out native plants all over Michigan. That hurts both our plant and wildlife communities by making native species less plentiful and less healthy because they are less diverse. Multiflora Rose was brought to the US from Japan by horticulturists after WWII as a fencing plant and spread quickly from gardens into natural or disturbed areas.  Like the Autumn Olive, it unfortunately can grow in sun or shade and has the same means of competing for space – lots of berries spread by wildlife and leaves early spring to late fall that shade out other plants.

Multiflora Rose CL
Multiflora Rose, a highly invasive shrub crowding out native plants all over Michigan

Hairy Vetch (Vicia villosa)  is beautiful, like many invasives, but has a tendency  to spread. It was brought here as forage for animals. It isn’t as invasive as its relative Crown Vetch (Securigera varia), which forms dense colonies that exclude other plant species, but it does form smaller colonies and can be seen along the paths at various places in the park. Here a native Bumblebee (g. Bombus) probes the tube-like flowers with its long tongue.

bumblebee vetch
A native Bumblebee searches for nectar with its long tongue on a Hairy Vetch plant, an invasive species.

And nearby, a Seven-Spotted Lady Bug (Coccinella septempunctata), a species introduced repeatedly from Europe to rid crops of aphids, looked for a meal on a fellow European, the Hairy Vetch again!  At least it wasn’t the Harlequin Ladybug/Asian Lady Beetle (Harmonia axyridis) that infested homes a few years ago. Unfortunately, our native ladybugs, the Nine-Spotted Ladybug, (Coccinella novemnotata) are now rare and scientists are not sure why that happened.

American ladybug on Hairy Vetch CL
A non-native Seven-spotted Ladybug looking for aphids on a non-native Hairy Vetch plant.
Out in the Old Fields: Fancy Bugs!

The sun-drenched Old Fields at Cranberry Lake seem to attract unusually interesting insects, including – wait for it – flies! Yes, I’m aware that flies aren’t as immediately appealing as butterflies or as impressive as dragonflies,  but some really are pretty cool.  Here’s a photo of a Soldier Fly (Odontomyia cincta) exploring the Dogbane. Can you see the black chevrons on his green back and his red head?  Pretty fancy, eh?

Soldier Fly Odontomyia cincta.
A Soldier Fly explores the buds of a Dogbane or Indian-hemp Plant

Or how about these mating Golden-backed Snipe Flies (Chrysopilus thoracicus)? The male is the smaller one with the much bigger eyes (“The better to find you with, my dear!”).

golden-backed snipe
Golden-backed Snipe flies mating. The smaller one with larger eyes is the male.

Of course, butterflies float above these fields as well. This weekend we saw our first Viceroy (Limenitis archippus) of the year. This one had a slightly injured forewing on one side, but was still happily fluttering about the field exploring flowers. Viceroys are often smaller than Monarch Butterflies and have a telltale bar on their hindwing that the Monarch doesn’t have.

Viceroy w torn wing CL
A Viceroy butterfly with the telltale bars on its hindwing that distinguish it from a Monarch butterfly

What appeared to be a female Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyzenes asterius) hustled from blossom to blossom in the distance last Sunday, never alighting. So here’s an earlier photo from Bear Creek. I could, however, have seen the black form of the female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail which is very similar. 

A female Black Swallowtail fluttered above the old fields at Cranberry this weekend. Or it may have been the black form of a yellow Tiger Swallowtail, too.

And of course we saw the common but lovely Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos), Cabbage (Pieris rapae)and Little Wood Satyr (Megisto cymela) butterflies as well.

One afternoon I saw a quick, snapping, short flight of what looked like a big moth with yellow-ish wings.  It turned out, after I saw it land, that it was a Carolina Locust in flight.  The “Bug Lady” at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee website says that “In The Handy Bug Answer Book, Dr. Gilbert Waldbauer refers to these unexpected wing patterns as ‘flash colors’ which, sometimes in concert with flight noises, attract/distract a predator. When the grasshopper lands and tucks in its flying wings, the pursuing predator suddenly can’t find anything that matches its search image.” That was certainly the case for me. It took me a minute to believe that this brown creature at my feet was the one I’d seen flying. Here’s a link where you can scroll down to a photo of one in flight.

Carolina Grasshopper
The Carolina Locust who shows “flash colors” when it makes a short flight to escape predators and then disappears in the grass.

Aaah, Out of the Sunlight: The Lake, Wetlands and Shade

Cranberry Lake looking east
Cranberry Lake looking east toward Rochester Road
Birds, Amphibians and Reptiles in the Leafy Shade

Walking on shady paths and passing by wetlands, I naturally come across plants, insects, birds and other creatures that prefer that environment to sunny, open fields. Two Cedar Waxwings landed up in a leafy treetop on Sunday afternoon. My photo that day just doesn’t do justice to this lovely bird, so here’s a photo from another summer. The field marks of this elegant bird are its crest, its black mask, the yellow tip to its tail and a red dot on each wing that looks like red sealing-wax.   And their color does look like cedar, doesn’t it?

cedar waxwing BC 5/2/10
The field marks for a Cedar Waxwing are red wax-like dots on each wing, the black mask, the yellow tip of the tail and a soft crest.

Down near Cranberry Lake, three of the Wednesday birders recognized the melodious tune of the Warbling Vireo, here recorded by birder Antonio Xeira. What a lovely song flowing down from the treetops where it stays out of sight,  seeking out caterpillars. I love the contrast in these two song descriptions found at the Cornell Lab website. “The early twentieth century ornithologist William Dawson described the song this way: ‘Fresh as apples and as sweet as apple blossoms comes that dear, homely song from the willows.'” The highly variable song usually ends on a high note, leading the birder Pete Dunne to describe it as sounding “like a happy drunk making a conversational point at a party.” Here’s the closeup photo at Cornell Lab.

An incredible songster, the Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) makes a pastiche of other birds’ songs and strings them together. Walking past dense, low foliage, you can often heard him singing his avian version of “sampling,” as in this 45 second recording Antonio made on the Paint Creek Trail.

Catbird Ilsley
A Gray Catbird singing out in the open a little earlier in the spring
Creatures that Favor Moisture and Shade

Frogs generally love moist surroundings. In summer, though, the beautiful Northern Leopard Frog (Lithobates pipiens) often moves into grassy areas for its meals. One paused at the edge of the trail at Cranberry Lake Park, an emerald green frog with golden eyes and the spots that give it its name. Northern Leopard Frogs have very large mouths and though they usually eat worms, flies and crickets, they have also been known to swallow birds and garter snakes, according to Wikipedia!

Leopard Frog CL
Not hard to imagine how the Northern Leopard Frog got its name!

One warm afternoon, I came upon a Painted Turtle trundling along the path toward Cranberry Lake.

Painted Turtle male? CL
A Painted Turtle heading back to Cranberry Lake, perhaps after laying eggs in the sandy field?

I thought at first it was a male, because it had extra long nails which males use to stroke their mates. But I’m not sure, since it may have been a female coming back to the lake from laying eggs in sandy soil out in the fields. A few days later, my husband and I spotted a hole in the meadow edge where it appeared a raccoon might have dug up a batch of  turtle eggs to feed its young!

Remains of Painted Turtle Eggs
What appears to be the remains of Painted Turtle eggs dug out of the ground by a raccoon or other hungry animal with young..

 Berries in the Shade

Cranberry Lake is of course important because it has a cranberry bog. At the moment, it’s not visible, but the Parks and Recreation Commission’s Master Plan includes construction of an observation deck at the lake in the next couple of years.

But other berries are forming along the shady path toward the pond.  The native Bristly Blackberry bushes are blooming under the trees.  In fact, their flowers are beginning to fade in the heat and the fruits, the blackberries, are forming.

Bristly blackberry
Bristly Blackberry blooming on the shady path leading to Cranberry Lake.

And very near the lake, Ben pointed out Highbush Blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum) forming in the shade. This is the plant that Native Americans enjoyed and that was domesticated in 1907 to create the blueberries we all enjoy in July.  I’m glad I got a photo, because when I went back a second time, some bird or mammal had already munched some of them.  They don’t wait until their ripe the way we do!  Drat…

Highbush Blueberry, Vaccinium corymbosum.
Native highbush blueberry is the plant stock from which the domesticated blueberries we eat were derived.

Along the Hickory Lane on the west side of the park, I saw fruits forming on False Solomon’s Seal, a native plant that spreads by rhizomes (underground stems) under the trees.

False solomon's seal?
False Solomon’s-seal getting ready to bloom and casting its shadow on a leaf below in the mottled light of the Hickory Lane
Insects that Have It “Made in the Shade”

Dragonflies patrol along the shady paths as well as the open meadows.  I saw one last week that I hadn’t seen for a long time, a female Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis). She’s emerald green all over with brown/black chevrons on her tail. According to the “Bug Lady” at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee,  the male gradually changes from green to blue, starting at the tip of its tail and moving up as it matures! These dragonflies stick close to animals, like us, because we stir up a cloud of biting insects they love to eat. Thanks, Pondhawks! Enjoy an all-you-can-eat feast!

Eastern Pondhawk3 CL
A female Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly is emerald green, unlike the male who changes from green to blue as it matures.

Another dragonfly who seems to frequent moist areas almost exclusively is the Dot-tailed Whiteface (Leucorrhinia intacta). The male looks like he’s wearing a Mickey Mouse mask with his white face and eyes. What I think was his mate landed nearby. I couldn’t see her white face but all of her tail and wing markings and her location near the male would seem to indicate she’s the female.

Damselflies also patrol the paths as you near Cranberry Lake itself. Emerald green seems to be a popular color for creatures who want to disappear from predators in the shade. Here’s one called, appropriately enough, the Emerald Spreadwing Damselfly (Lestes sponsa).  

Below the huge Shagbark Hickories (Carya ovata) on the lane at the western edge of the park, a Virginian Ctenucha Moth (Ctenucha virginica) sailed past and settled on a leaf. I was quite excited to see this moth (which caused a slight blur in the photo), since Ben had helped me identify its spiky caterpillar earlier in the spring. It’s quite common and likes goldenrod nectar. This one might have hatched a bit early in  the heat, since the goldenrods won’t bloom for another month. This elegantly shaped moth with an orange head flashes its metallic blue body when it flies.

A Park for All Seasons

Improvements continue  at Cranberry Lake Park.  The northern most part of the central trail that connects with trails in Addison Oaks county park is being renovated this year (and possibly next) to make it less damp so that hikers, bikers and horseback riders will have an easier time accessing the park. That northern section is full of wetlands, those precious resources that clean our groundwater, store flood waters, feed our wildlife and give shelter to exhausted migrating birds – but they make for wet trails in the spring.

But most of the park is open for your enjoyment year ’round  with migrating warblers in the spring, breeding birds in the summer (and summer concerts on the farmhouse porch), a bright orange glow in late summer and fall as Canada Goldenrod bloom and Monarch butterflies fill the fields traveling south. In winter, its gently rolling meadows might be a place to try out your cross-country skis. And then there’s all that history near the Flumerfelt Barn and historic home. So branch out. Try a new park this summer and see what you and your children can find  to love at Cranberry Lake Park.

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

This Week At Bear Creek: Youngsters Everywhere, My First Monarch and Nature’s Medicine Cabinet.

Well, the sun is shining!  It’s a bit cooler than the usual July (fewer mosquitoes!) but summer is proceeding at  Bear Creek Nature Park nonetheless.

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

Young are still being born and raised, almost grown fledglings are trying out new skills and all over the park, wildflowers grow leggy from the rain, reaching upward as they compete with neighboring plants for the sun. Among those plants are more that illuminate our local history.

 

Raising Young:

Eastern Chipmunks (Tamias striatus) are “chipping” loud and long.  Females often do this as way to ward off intruders from their territory, though some also believe that they’re issuing a mating call which may be the case this week, since their second breeding season is June to August.   Here’s one sitting on a rock in the sun, doing her aggressive or perhaps  flirtatious best, her small body  twitching with every “chip”!

Chipmunk chipping
A female chipmunk generally “chips” to warn intruders to stay out of her territory or she could be issuing a mating call at this time of year.

And up in the trees, female birds are still sitting on clutches of eggs or warming nestlings on a cool morning.  Here’s a Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) sitting on her nest.  According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab, she can make up to 2500 individual trips to construct it!

cedar waxwing in nest
A female Cedar Waxwing may take take 2500 individual trips to build this nest in 5-6 days!

Fledglings are bigger and more confident now.  Here’s a fledgling Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) with his rose and beige breast feathers beginning to replace the brown spotted ones of the smaller fledgling posted last week.

Bear Creek bluebird
An almost mature Eastern Bluebird will have a rosier breast once all his feathers come in.

As you enter the park from Snell Road, listen for a young Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) practicing his trill at the top of a small tree on your right.  He’s been there every time I’ve gone in the last week.  His song’s a little rusty yet and he opens his beak just a bit farther than a mature bird, I think, but he’s catching on! Here’s a link to his “sewing machine” sound – a few squeaks and tweets following by a staccato trill.  I think the second “song button” on the link sounds most like our young Song Sparrow.

juvenile song sparrow singing
A fledgling Song Sparrow throws his head back and practices his “sewing machine” trill.

Down at the eastern end of the Center Pond, a young Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) floats quietly beneath the overhanging branches of a shrub. There are two siblings keeping each other company there at the moment.

young wood duck
A young Wood Duck floats among the duckweed at the eastern end of the Center Pond.

And above the lawn that extends in front of the playground, two Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) soared above the clover-covered grass catching insects (mosquitoes, I hope!) on the wing. Though they have cobalt blue backs like the Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor ) I talked about earlier, these agile flyers have rusty red breasts rather than white ones.  I only got a photo of them on the wing so here’s a link to see them up close.

barn swallow
Barn Swallows soar above the lawn near the playground. They’re distinguished from Tree Sparrows by a rusty red breast.

Beloved Monarchs, Long Distance Travelers, Arrive!

At last, I’ve seen my first Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) of this summer.  Flitting quickly from blossom to blossom, this female searched for nectar from  Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) in the eastern Old Field.  Unfortunately, the flowers aren’t open yet, perhaps delayed by  unseasonably cool temperatures.   A Monarch who left Mexico in the spring went through 3 generations to get here, turning from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly at each stop along the way – and yet the third generation retains the knowledge that its forebear lived at Bear Creek last year!  If this butterfly’s eggs eventually produce another caterpillar and another butterfly, that lovely creature  will make the whole 2,000 mile trek back to Mexico in one long haul.  Amazing.  Monarch populations were up slightly this year but are still down 90% in the last 25 years.  May this one prosper and multiply!

female monarch butterfly - Version 2
A female Monarch Butterfly explores the buds of Swamp Milkweed in the eastern Old Field.

Nature’s “Medicine Cabinet”: Wildflowers Tell Local History

Last week, I featured  some of the plants that were here when Indians lived in our township, some native wildflowers that probably greeted early European settlers and the non-native grasses and flowers that  were planted by farmers for pasture and silage.  This week, I thought I’d share some of the plants used or brought here by those settlers, some for their reputed medical benefits.

NOTE FROM OAKLAND TOWNSHIP PARKS AND RECREATION: DO NOT pick or consume wild plants in our parks. In addition to being potentially poisonous, many wild plants are endangered because of over-harvesting. Oakland Township ordinances prohibit removal, destruction, and harvesting of plants within parks. Leave plants for wildlife and other park users to enjoy!

“Worts”:  Plants for Healing

According to Wikipedia,  “A word with the suffix -wort is often very old…It was often used in the names of herbs and plants that had medicinal uses, the first part of the word denoting the complaint against which it might be specially efficacious.”

For example, this delicate little flower on a long stalk growing profusely on the Snell path into the park is called Nipplewort (Lapsana communis) because, some say,  it was thought at one time to increase the flow of breast milk.  It’s a widespread non-native these days!

nipplewort
Nipplewort, an invasive non-native, may have been brought by settlers to our area as a treatment for increasing the flow of breastmilk. Some herbalists still think it works that way today.

I’ve already discussed the beautiful native with the terrible name Spiderwort which folks must have thought of as a cure for spider bites.  It’s still used by herbalists today and is still blooming in the driveway circle at the Snell entrance.

spiderwort with buds
Spiderwort is a “wort” plant that must have been thought useful against spider bites and other skin problems. It’s still used by herbalists for various ailments today.

The most well-known “wort” these days is Common St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum)a plant used as a common herbal supplement around the world.  According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, it’s been used as an herbal treatment since the time of the Greeks, so  I’m guessing the plant arrived here in someone’s garden for that very reason.  Unfortunately,  this species of St. John’s Wort is  invasive,  poisonous to livestock and also crowds out other plants, including our  native St. John’s Worts, which thus far, I’ve not come across.

Common St John's Wort Hypericum perforatum
St. John’s Wort is used as an herbal supplement but it also toxic to livestock.

A native Bear Creek wildflower thought to be medicinal by herbalists is Heal-All (Prunella vulgaris) .  It was used by Indians to treat superficial wounds and is used to some extent that way in Europe today and for other ailments in Chinese medicine as well.  Fortunately, bees and butterflies like this native plant too!

heal all
Heal-All doesn’t quite live up to its common name, but it was used by Indians to treat superficial wounds and is also still used as an herbal treatment in Europe and China..

“Banes”:  Plants for Warding Things Off

And then there are the “bane” plants, which people believed could ward off or even be toxic to other species.  I’ve already discussed Daisy Fleabane (Erigeron species), which is meant to be the “bane” of fleas and may have been used at one time in straw mattresses for just that reason.  It’s prolific in Bear Creek this year, the most I’ve ever seen there!

daisy fleabane
Daisy Fleabane was thought to be the bane of fleas, of course! Good for mattress stuffing.

And now, growing on the west side of the Snell entrance path, among the trees, is Red Baneberry (Actaea rubra), a native plant with “bane” in its name because it is toxic to humans.  Wikipedia claims it was used to make poison arrows by Native Americans.  So don’t eat them.  You wouldn’t get them down anyway, probably; they’re extremely bitter! They are attractive to the eye though!

Red Baneberry
Native Red Baneberry is toxic but tastes so bitter no one would want to eat it!

Chicory (Cichorium intybus), on the other hand, is neither a “wort” or a “bane.  It may have arrived here as a coffee substitute as it is still used in some herbal drinks.  But farmers could also have planted it as  part of their pasturage for livestock. It’s considered an invasive species since it’s seen all along roadsides, but in Bear Creek, it seems to be coexisting with our native plants.  I have to admit that I love its pale blue color, so rare in nature, and the pinking-scissors edge of the petals.

chicory opening
Chicory, a potentially invasive non-native plant, may have come here as a coffee substitute or as part of planting pasturage for livestock.

And this week, I also saw the white/light pink version of Chicory, which I’ve never seen at Bear Creek before.

white chicory
A white/pink version of Chicory, rather than the usual blue.

A Few Last Minute Native Plants

Before they finish blooming, I want to mention three other humble native plants before their blossoms are entirely gone.  The first might have been named by a woman long ago, Thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana).  The “thimble” is the fruit and it disperses its seeds by tumbling along the ground.

Thimble weed?
The “thimble,” the fruit of Thimbleweed, tumbles in order to spread its seed.

White Avens (Geum canadense), a very modest woodland native is one of the plants that can live near/under Black Walnut trees but it grows elsewhere in the woods of Bear Creek as well.

white avens
White Avens appears all over Bear Creek and is one of the new native plants that can live beneath Black Walnut trees.

And lastly, this delicate plant has almost finished flowering for the year.  Now it will start making little burrs that spread by sticking to animal fur or your pant leg!  You’ll spot Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea canadensis) along many dappled woodland paths in the park.  It’s no relation to Deadly Nightshade.  It was given its exotic name because it lives in the shade and its genus, Circaea,  was named after the enchantress, Circe, from Greek mythology who supposedly used it in her magic potions.

enchanter's nightshade
Enchanter’s Nightshade is not related to the deadly kind and got its exotic name by preferring dappled light and from being supposedly used in magic potions by Circe, a mythological Greek enchantress.

The woodland paths and sunny Old Fields of Bear Creek still carry memories of our local history in the wildflowers that bloom there.  That idea intrigues me and makes even the most humble plants at my feet more interesting.  Hope it does for you, too.

*Quick footnote:  My sources for information, as well as Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Stokes Nature Guides:  A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net.; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels, and invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This Week at Bear Creek: An Appreciation of Some of Less Appreciated Species! And a Few That Are Easier on the Eye.

Last week, I shared some lovable creatures – a raccoon kit, a baby chipmunk, the majestic yellow swallowtail, the iridescent Tree Swallow.

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

This week, I thought we might explore the creatures and plants in the park that perhaps aren’t so lovable at first glance – but who make their own contributions to the rich diversity of Bear Creek Nature Park.

Unglamorous Birds that are Useful, Super Smart or Misunderstood

Well, of course, probably the homeliest bird in Bear Creek is the Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) with its bare, scrawny red head and hunched posture when perching.

vulture perched
The Turkey Vulture looks a bit menacing when perched in a tree.

Old westerns and horror stories taught us to see them as harbingers of death, circling ominously in the sky.  Actually though, in flight Turkey Vultures are majestic and impressive.  They ride the thermals rising from the warming earth,  their wings teetering right and left, with very few wingbeats.  They’re often  mistaken for hawks or eagles from a distance,  but vultures hold their wings high in a “V” when seen straight on and the undersides of their flight feathers are paler than the rest of their dark brown bodies so the light shining through them forms what  appears from below to be a pale band at the edge of each wing.

vulture closeup_2
A Turkey Vulture in the air looks majestic and powerful riding the thermals scarcely beating its wings.

Vultures are the reliable leaders of the clean-up crew in the park, because they, unlike many birds, have a keen sense of smell and detect carrion (dead animals) even under the tree canopy. With their strong, sharp beaks, they clean up carcasses one strong bite at a time.  Their bare heads mean nothing nasty gets caught in feathers and their immune system keeps them safe even from botulism, anthrax, cholera and salmonella!  If vultures didn’t scavenge, we’d be surrounded by the nasty sight and smell of lots of dead animals.  So say something nice about vultures next time people bad-mouth them, OK?

crow closeup2
The velvety black American Crow is one of the most intelligent of all birds, as intelligent as some apes!

The American Crow  (Corvus brachyrhynchos) is another under-appreciated bird that many people fear. Like vultures, crows do eat carrion but it’s only part of their diet.  They eat seeds, fruit, some small animals and, unhappily, occasionally the eggs or even young of other birds. But crows are also the geniuses of the bird world, outstripped only by their cousins in the Corvid family, the ravens.  Crows have huge brains with a brain/body quotient approaching that of some apes!  They use and even make tools.  They are mischievous – snitching food from river otters while other crows distract it or hauling a fisherman’s line out of the ice by pulling it up with its beak, stepping on it and hauling again in order to eat the bait (or if lucky, the fish!) on the hook and then letting the line slide innocently back through the hole.  They mimic both other birds and humans.  A famous naturalist, Jean Craighead George tells how  a crow outside her back door used to raid picnic tables in the neighborhood and one morning greeted her with “Hiya, Babe!” Children might enjoy Jean’s book A Tarantula in My Purse about her adventures with crows and other creatures or her award-winning novel of a boy learning to survive in the woods, called My Side of the Mountain.

Crows are very social birds.  Their young don’t breed until they are two and the groups of crows you see in summer are usually family groups with youngsters staying with their parents for 4 or more years.  These younger crows guard and sometimes help build the nest and even occasionally feed the nestlings!  We should all have such helpful offspring!

3 male cowbirds
The Brown-Headed Cowbird’s sneaky trick of laying eggs in other birds’ nests may be a result of its original environment.

The Brown-Headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater) is perhaps the most difficult bird to like.  The female does not build nests, but lays its eggs in other birds’ nests. This sneaky trick is often played on much smaller birds, who have more difficulty pushing out  the cowbird’s eggs.  The trick doesn’t always work.  Bigger birds may shove the eggs out and smaller birds destroy the cowbirds’ eggs or ignore them, building a second nest on top of the first in which to lay their eggs.   But once in the park, I saw a tiny sparrow stuffing food into the mouth of a baby cowbird, oblivious to the size difference – or maybe just a generous foster parent?  To add injury to insult, female cowbirds lay eggs in huge quantities – 30 or 40 a season – in order to be sure some grow to maturity.

Now why would a bird do this?  One theory that seems plausible is that since we know cowbirds originated in the Western states, they presumably followed buffalo and later cattle herds, eating the insects stirred up by the animals.  That constant movement made it impossible to stay in one place, build a nest and raise young.  So by laying their eggs in other birds’ nests, their young  survived and reproduced.  When our area was settled and cleared, cowbirds moved East and like other invasive species, they created havoc among the creatures whose land they invaded.  So I forgive the cowbird who can’t help the adaptation it found for passing on its genes.  But I still don’t love them.

And then there’s the not-so-beloved plant  – Duckweed.

Poor old duckweed is often mistaken for “pond scum” or “algae.” Some believe it’s a sign of polluted water.  But it’s actually a family of flowering plants that live in still water and sometimes along the edges of streams. Let’s look at the three water plants growing in the center pond, one of which is duckweed.  (My thanks to Maryann Whitman for her help in identification!)

white water crowfoot
The White Water Crowfoot, an aquatic buttercup, shares the pond with the green ovals of Duckweed and the smallest flowering plant on earth,  Common Water Meal.

The tiny aquatic buttercup, White Water Crowfoot (Ranunculus aquatilis), is much prettier when it’s blooming – as it is now – than when the blossoms die and leave just  a mass of brown strings on the surface.  The clumps of  plump green ovals with red spots are Greater Duckweed (Spirodela polyrhiza) which has tiny air pockets that keep it afloat.  Believe it or not, the tiny green grains in between these plants are the smallest flowering plants in the world!  They are Common Water Meal (Wolffia columbiana) and I’ve never seen their blooms since they are 1/100th of an inch wide!  These plants provide lots of food for animals, fish and amphibians.  In fact, I imagine Duckweed got its name because I’ve seen ducks swimming along the pond near the playground with their beaks open on the surface scooping up Duckweed as they go.  So perhaps we can give it some respect,  though I agree that I prefer the aesthetics of clear water.  Here’s a muskrat, though,  that seems content to be surrounded by it!

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Muskrats, ducks and others feed on duckweed, a plant that lives mostly in still water.

 And Now Let’s Get Back to Easier-on-the-Eye Species!

The Eastern Kingbird, (Tyrannus tyrannus) just back from wintering in the Amazon (!), has an  erect posture which makes him easily identifiable. His head is darker gray than his body and his long tail is tipped with white.  Despite their distinguished appearance, Eastern Kingbirds are very aggressive with bigger birds,  like crows, hawks, owls and blue jays.  If an intruder flies over them,  even 100 feet up, they fly up  and dive bomb it from above.  During these flights, they sometimes reveal a red, orange or yellow crown which is usually concealed under their dark grey feathers. Though they eat small insects on the wing, they prefer large ones that they take up into a tree, beat against a branch and eat whole!  They don’t call them Kingbirds for nothing! Did you notice their Latin name above?

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The Eastern Kingbird aggressively takes on much bigger birds in defending its territory.

If the vulture is the homeliest bird in the park, certainly the Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) can compete for the prettiest.  These small thrushes, the male with a royal blue back and brick red breast patch and the female in more subtle hues, grace our park year ’round.

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The male bluebird has a royal blue back and a russet breast patch. The female’s colors are similar but more subtle.

Bluebirds swoop down to pick up insects which they can spot 60 feet or more away.  Their numbers dropped in th early 20th century when introduced species like the European Starling and the House Sparrow took over old woodpecker holes in dead trees, making the Bluebirds’  preferred nesting spots harder to find. Campaigns to place bluebird nesting boxes saved the bluebird.  Here’s one checking out a possible hole for suitability.

bluebird checking out hole
Bluebirds check out holes in large trees, their favorite nesting spots.

For some strange reason, someone named this beautiful butterfly, the Red-Spotted Purple (Limenitis arthemis) although its most distinguishing feature is  iridescent blue hindwings that flash in the sunlight.  The apex of the forewings does have tiny red spots on black but often the tips of the forewings just look brushed with a russet orange. This early butterfly, like others, samples tree sap, rotting fruit, even dung and carrion but unlike the Cabbage White or Mourning Cloak, it also sips flower nectar.

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The mis-named Red-spotted Purple’s most noticeable feature is bright iridescent blue hindwings flashing in the sunlight..

Dragonflies, one of the beautiful predators in Bear Creek,  are zooming over the ponds right now.  The Common Whitetail (Plathemis lydia) is best seen at noon when it’s most active.  You’ll see mostly males with their wide, flat blue-white tails and a large amber stripe in the middle of each wing.  The females with dark abdomens only visit the water for short periods.  Males perch in the same place each day and protect their territory by chasing off other males.  You can sometimes hear the clatter of clashing wings as the Whitetails  bump into intruders from underneath as they fly over.

common whitetail
The Common Whitetail male has a bluish white tail and amber bands (though the light may make them look black) in the middle of its clear wings.

The Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa), like other dragonflies, overwinters in the  water as nymphs, molting  up to 10 times  until they crawl out of the water, find a plant stem, and shed their last exoskeleton, emerging as  adult dragonflies.  They fly off to eat other insects for 2 or 3 weeks.  You can watch their huge eyes turn as they track their prey before taking off and their acrobatic flying is just incredible.  They will also accompany you along a path, hoping you will stir up some tasty insects.  Nice to be escorted through the fields by a dragonfly!

Widow Skimmer dragonfly
The Widow Skimmer has black or dark brown bands near its body with white and black bands farther out on its clear wings.

A lovely native flower should be blooming now in the garden near the shed.  This Wild Columbine  (Aquilegia canadensis) looks almost exotic enough to be found in the tropics! And hummingbirds love its red color and long yellow stamen.

columbine
The hummingbirds love our exotic-looking native Columbine.

Now every nook and cranny is sporting some pretty little Daisy Fleabane (Erigeron species). You’ll come across a lot of wildflower names with “bane” in them,  which I’ve heard simply means that the people who named them thought they repelled or poisoned something –  in this case “fleas” so I imagine they might have been mixed into straw mattresses.  But that’s just a guess.

daisy fleabane
Daisy Fleabane is a little native flower that pops up all over Bear Creek Park. Its name indicates that people once considered it a flea repellent!

 Coming Attractions:

A snapping turtle was spotted in the pond near the playground again this week.  This might be the week to see one laying eggs since I saw this one on June 1 a few years ago.  Wouldn’t it be great to see a baby snapper?

snapper laying eggs
A Snapping Turtle digs a hole with its back feet to lay its eggs in Bear Creek. Most of the eggs are dug up and eaten by raccoons and foxes among others.

Huge green leaves are appearing west of the benches at the top of the hill on the southern side of the park.  In a few weeks, one of the tallest native flowers in the park will bloom, the sunny yellow Prairie Dock on with its lo-o-o-o-ng stalk and lovely big buds.

Prairie dock
Praire Dock, a native plant, can grow as high as 9 feel tall! Look for their giant leaves already coming out of the ground west of the benches at the top of the hill in the southern part of the park.

A Correction:

Last week I mentioned seeing an “albino raccoon” in the big hole in the tree on the western path through the woods.  I’m informed by my stepson, Glenn,  that that is a “blond raccoon” or some people call them a “cinnamon raccoon.”  They are light brown and beige, rather than gray and black like most raccoons.  Evidently they have different “morphs” as I mentioned  last week with the female swallowtail butterfly. I stand corrected!  Anyway, Reg spotted the blond raccoon last Sunday in the same tree in the same big hole!  Keep a lookout!  Here’s his quick photo of a bit of its fur showing as it slept on Sunday afternoon.

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A “blond raccoon” asleep in the same hole in which we often see baby raccoons this time of year!

So I hope the vultures didn’t scare you off !  And that you’ll share in the comments section some of your Bear Creek Nature Park finds and favorites.

*Quick footnote:  My sources for information, as well as Dr. Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Stokes Nature Guides:  A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net.; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela;Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels