Tag Archives: damselfly

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: A Chickadee’s “Bed,” plus Insects Alive in Our Wintry World

insect tunnels on tree branch
The filigree of bark beetles on a fallen tree
Cam in red winter coat BC
Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

During this cold week, when nature seemed pretty hunkered down – and I sure was! – I decided to explore how our local bugs get through the winter.  I’d always thought of insects as killed off by the cold – and many are – but others are biding their time and getting through the winter in surprising ways – like the bark beetle larvae which left their filigree in the fallen tree above.

A Chickadee’s Home for the Night?

But I did venture out at dusk to see if I could spot birds settling in for the night.  And a couple of Black-Capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) obliged by disappearing into a snag.  One let its tail protrude from the hole long enough for me to locate it once it suddenly disappeared!

A closer look at the chickadee's tail coming out of its night-time hole
A chickadee’s tail protrudes from its night-time hole

When I tried lightening this hole on the computer, the little bird appeared to have turned its head straight upward to fit into the hole!  If that’s what really happened, I hope it found a more comfortable place to spend the night once I left. Perhaps just getting out of the cold, though,  is more important than a stiff neck.

Chickadee in hole for the night.jpg
The closest shot I managed to get of the chickadee in its hole for the night.

Now, Concerning the Winter Survival Strategies of Insects…

Bernd Heinrich, in his book, Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival,  claims“…there is no life-form on earth as diverse, varied, tough, and inventive as the insects. ”   Heinrich’s adjectives – diverse, tough, and inventive – certainly apply to the varied and creative strategies that our Bear Creek insects employ during the winter months!   So now,  while walking along the snowy trails, I can imagine all these small creatures swimming under the ice, tunneling beneath the bark, dozing in tree holes or eating inside plant galls, waiting like we all are, for the burgeoning of spring.

Wasps, Hornets, Bees and Ants:  Long Live the Queen!

This category of insect winter survival has two sub-strategies.  Almost all wasps, hornets and many bees, including our native Bumblebees (genus Bombus),  live only one season.  After mating in the fall, the only member of the hive that survives is the fertile queen.  She leaves  the hive and inserts herself into a crevice in a log or under bark – some moist place in which she won’t dry out as easily in the winter.  If she survives, she rouses in the spring and goes off to find a new nest location, lays eggs and the hive begins again (click on photos to enlarge or hover over them for captions).

European Honey Bees (Apis mellifera)and Ants (family Formiciadae) have a different strategy – staying in the hive with the queen, and protecting her during the winter. Honey Bees eat honey during the winter and they keep their hive and the queen warm by fanning their wings. They were imported from Europe because this survival strategy meant that Honey Bees dependably provided honey and crop fertilization from the same hive year after year.

Ants lower their metabolism in the winter and pile onto their queen in order to keep her warm. I believe I saw evidence of Carpenter Ants (genus Camponotus) in this tree on the western trail through our Oak/Hickory forest last summer and fall.

Carpenter ants
Possible evidence of Carpenter Ants who chew wood to create galleries between areas of their nest and then deposit it outside.

Carpenter Ants don’t eat wood like termites; they chew it to make the galleries that connect parts of their nest, and then deposit it outside. Assuming that these were Carpenter Ants, they will have moved deeper into the nest and are now hibernating together with their queen.

When spring warms a bee hive or an ant nest, bees and ants are ready to go, having survived the winter as adult insects.

Green Darners: Migration

A very small number of  insects migrate much as birds do. Those of you who read the blog this summer will remember that some of the Green Darners (Anax junius) head south in the winter.

Green Darner3
Some Green Darners, large dragonflies, migrate south in the winter and their offspring return in the spring.

According to National Geographic, these large dragonflies build up fat reserves and as cold weather sets in, some of them ride south on a north wind. Like avian migrants, they make stopovers to rest and feed along the way and, strangely, follow  the same flight paths as birds (don’t they worry about being eaten?). But unlike birds, it’s a one-way ticket for these Green Darners. They breed in the south and die and it’s their offspring that arrive the following spring.  Some Green Darners and many other dragonflies, though, use the following strategy.

Damselflies and Most Dragonflies:  Naiads under the Ice

Naiads appear in Greek mythology and children’s books (like C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia) as glamorous winged water nymphs overseeing streams, rivers, and fountains. The naiads under the ice at Bear Creek, however, are simply the homely immature life stage of the beautiful dragonflies and damselflies we see in the summer. In warm weather,  the females lay their eggs on vegetation  in the pond or marsh. Drab, wingless naiads with hooked jaws  hatch from the eggs.  Even in winter, these hungry carnivores are swimming about consuming mosquito larvae and other invertebrates.  After molting up to 15 times (some dragonflies take 3 years to finish molting!), they crawl up out of the water onto a plant, bend backwards out of their exoskeleton in one last molt and emerge in the warm sunshine as brightly colored and patterned dragonflies or damselflies like these:

A Quick Overview Before We Go On:  The rest of the insects I’m exploring here have a four stage development: 1) Fertile females produce eggs; 2) Larvae , which in butterflies and moths are also called caterpillars, emerge from the eggs and eat like crazy; 3) Pupae form. In butterflies, their bodies harden into their pupal form which  is called a chrysalis. Moths and many other insects spin cocoons and go through the pupal stage inside them; 4) Adults emerge from chrysalises or cocoons and mate to start the cycle again.  It turns out that different insects spend the winter alive and well –  but in different stages of development.

Overwintering as Adult Insects:  Mourning Cloak Butterflies

The adult Mourning Cloaks (Nymphalis antiopa) that we see in early spring emerge from bark crevices or trees holes where they hibernated during the winter (those woodpecker holes in snags do a lot of good, don’t they?).

mourning cloak (1)
Mourning Cloaks hibernate in tree holes so they can emerge in early spring to mate.

These early spring butterflies hatched the previous summer. They ate a little and then went into summer torpor, which is called “estivating.” In the fall, the adult butterflies became active again, ate to put on weight,  and settled into a hole to wait out the winter. In the spring, they emerge very early, sometimes when snow is still on the ground, and mate. And their eggs, larvae and pupae  begin the cycle again.

Overwintering as adults gives some butterflies an advantage since in early spring, there is less competition for food (tree sap, decaying matter) and fewer predators, since many birds haven’t yet returned from migration.

Overwintering as Pupae:  Spring Azure Butterflies

According to the University of Wisconsin Madison Field Station website, the tiny lavender/blue Spring Azure butterfly (Celastrina ladon) overwinters in the pupal stage that in butterflies is called a chrysalis. When the female emerges in early spring, she mates within hours of hatching, lays her eggs the next day and dies on the third – an extremely short adult life!

The Spring Azure overwinters, hatches, mates, lays egss and dies in three days!
The Spring Azure overwinters as a pupa.When the adult female butterfly emerges, it mates, lays eggs and dies in three days!

Larvae hatch from the eggs and eat for about a month. Each then forms a pupa (called a chrysalis in butterflies) and the Spring Azure stays in that form from early summer until the following spring! A long wait as a pupa for a very short time as adult mating butterfly!

Overwintering as Larvae (commonly called caterpillars): Bark Beetles and Woolly Bears

This overwintering strategy, like the Queen strategy of bees and ants,  takes at least a couple of forms – staying under bark or freezing solid!

Bark Beetles:  Busy Tunneling Under the Bark

Bark Beetles (family Curculionidae) are tiny insects (about 1/10 of an inch) that can survive the winter as larvae, pupae or adults. They are a major food source for woodpeckers, especially in the winter (so that’s why woodpeckers continuously peck at tree bark!). According to Donald Stokes’ book, Nature in Winter, adult insects bore through the bark to a softer inner layer. The males enlarge a “nuptial chamber” where mating takes place. The females then tunnel out into a branch or the trunk, under the bark, to lay their eggs. The larvae who hatch from the eggs make increasingly larger tunnels as they eat and grow during the winter.

Eventually, they form pupae under the bark from which adults emerge in the spring.  The adults  bore back through the bark and fly off to another tree. According to Wikipedia, some of these tiny insects become pests and kill trees, especially when climate change and other factors promote their survival.  Most, however, tunnel within weak and dying trees or aid in recycling the wood of dead trees.

Woolly Bear Caterpillars:  Freezing Solid!

Woolly Bear Caterpillars are the larval stage of the somewhat drab  Isabella Tiger Moth (Pyrrharctia isabella). These caterpillars, by the way,  don’t predict winter by their bands; they simply molt throughout the summer “becoming less black and more reddish as …winter approaches” (Bernd Heinrich, Winter World).  

Wooly bear
Woolly Bear Caterpillars freeze solid during the winter by supercooling and producing glucose, which works like anti-freeze, and then thaw in the spring to continue their life cycle.

In the fall, they curl up under leaf litter and survive the cold by a combination of supercooling (lowering their body temperature, even below 32 F!) and producing the glucose which functions as anti-freeze – just  like the spring frogs in a previous blog. They can even survive thawing and re-freezing throughout the winter! Their pupae can’t survive the cold, so they wait until late in March before thawing and beginning to spin their cocoons. Continue reading THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: A Chickadee’s “Bed,” plus Insects Alive in Our Wintry World

This Week at Bear Creek: Wildflowers Galore, a Damsel in No Distress, New Birds and Very Small Frogs

This week the native wildflowers are glorious!  You can start admiring them right in the parking lot!  Since Ben and his crew burned the center circle of the driveway, native wildflowers are sprouting there like crazy! And the native beds on either side of the shed are full of blooms.

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

I’ve enjoyed learning the common names of wildflowers in the last few years.  Knowing names starts a relationship with a plant in the same way that knowing a person’s name makes them more than a casual acquaintance.

This striking,  deep violet-blue native plant with long graceful leaves has an unfortunate name,  Spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis).   (People who came up with common names seemingly had no poetry in their souls and  must have thought it cured spider bites).  Look at this beauty up close!

spiderwort with buds
Spiderwort, a native wildflower,  looks wonderfully exotic but has a pedestrian name which may refer to an earlier belief that it was a cure for spider bite.

There’s also this golden flower that I’d never seen in the circle until this year after the burn.  I love the buttery yellow glow and scalloped petals of Sand Coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata) and so does what looks like a hover fly  whose abdomen is smeared yellow with its pollen.

coreopsis w hover fly2
I believe that’s a hover fly with his abdomen and legs smeared yellow with pollen on this native Sand Coreopsis right in the center of the driveway at Bear Creek.

In the park and in the circle is a happy yellow flower called Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea). It does well after a burn because our part of Michigan used to be prairie. Prairie and other grasslands across North America have burned regularly for thousands of years. Fires were either intentionally set by Native Americans or lit naturally by lightning.  This native plant is adapted to fire and loves sandy soil and sun.

Golden alexander—Zizia aptera
Golden Alexanders, a native wildflower, is popping up around the park but can also be seen in the recently burned center of the circle drive at Bear Creek

 And look at the burgeoning overflow of beautiful Canada Anemone (Anemone canadensis) in the native flowerbed north of the shed!  Native plants can take a few years to really get going but once they do it is worth the effort. And clearly this was the year for these beauties.  Talk about ground cover!

Canada Anemone
The Canada Anemone is having a wonderful year in the native flowerbed north of the shed.
Canada anemone closeup
Here’s a closeup of a silky, white Anemone bloom.

While you’re admiring them, enjoy the many Hebard’s Green-legged Grasshopper nymphs (Melanoplus eurycercus) springing from leaf to leaf among the Anemone.  By August, they’ll have molted into much bigger grasshoppers.

spring grasshopper4
Nymphs of the Hebard’s Green-legged Grasshopper are springing here and there among the Canada Anemones.

*EDIT: thanks to reader feedback, we’ve identified this grasshopper nymph as Hebard’s Green-Legged Grasshopper instead of Green-Legged Grasshopper. Thanks for your expert critique!

Ben’s reported seeing some great birds in Bear Creek, some I have yet to see.  Cornell Ornithology Lab’s allaboutbirds.org wonderfully describes the beautiful deep blue Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) as being “like a scrap of sky with wings. ”  This amazing small bird migrates at night, navigating by a single star.  The young learn their cheerful song from nearby males in their “song neighborhood” and these local songs can last for 20 years passed on by successive generations. They are tricky to photograph (as you’ll see below!) as they sing high in the treetops near woods in shrubby areas – like the northern end of the steep sloping path on the Southwest side of the park or in the center of the big loop at the northern part of the park.

indigo bunting 1 - Version 2
Indigo buntings sing their cheery songs from the tops of trees.
Indigo buntin
Cornell Ornithology Lab describes the Indigo Bunting as looking like “a scrap of sky with wings.”

Ben saw the smaller, darker Orchard Oriole (Icterus spurius) in Bear Creek.  I have a photo of the female at Bear Creek a couple of years ago but the only decent photo of the male I have was taken at our oriole feeder.  They’re here only a short time, arriving late and leaving early, sometimes as early as mid-July, for their winter home in Central America. So look for them soon before they are gone!

orchard oriole
The male orchard oriole is smaller and more russet than the Baltimore Oriole which is more orange.
female orchard oriole
The female Orchard Oriole, like the female Baltimore Oriole,  is yellow rather than orange like its mate.

Ben also saw a bird at Bear Creek last week that I’ve never seen there – but I did hear one today at Marsh View Park.  The iris in the eye of the Red-Eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus) turns red when it matures so don’t be surprised when you click the link below and see a gray and white bird!  The amazing feature of these Vireos is that the male whistles his brief song incessantly from morning ’til night, sometimes repeating a song over 20,000 times in a day! Once you recognize it , you’ll know you’ve heard it in the woods for years.  So click here and then go down the page on the left to the “typical song.”

Those Green Frog tadpoles I mentioned last week are now very young frogs!  Look for them roiling the water in the pond near the playground.  They are still very small, their legs are not fully developed and some of them, as you’ll see in the photo below, still have stubs of tadpole tails that they haven’t yet absorbed into their bodies.  Like other creatures born in huge numbers, frogs serve as fast food for a lot of other species. Without lots of little frogs for nutrition, the predators that depend on them for food will be hungry. That’s one reason the declining numbers of amphibians is a concern in native habitats.

two froglets with partial tails
These young frogs are not fully developed yet and in fact the bottom one is still absorbing his tadpole tail into his body.

Watch for the Snapping Turtle too.  At the playground pond last Sunday, we spotted him  as a large oval patch of Duckweed moving steadily just under the surface of the water.  I imagine that he was using some young frogs as a quick snack.  Here’s a photo of one last year basking after a trip through the duckweed.

basking snapper
A snapper basks in the playground pond after hunting for lunch among the duckweed.

A sleepy little Gray Tree Frog  (Hyla versicolor), strictly nocturnal,  snoozed Sunday on one of the platform supports. Once grown it will generally stay high in the trees except when it comes down to breed. I imagine that’s why its skin looks so much like tree bark – good camouflage!

Gray tree frog
A nocturnal Gray Tree Frog snoozes on the platform supports near the playground pond.

And what about those damsels in no distress?  Well I was referring, of course, to damselflies, those slim, elegant cousins of the dragonflies in the order Odonata.  Sunday this one flashed like neon blue morse code as it rested with its wings folded near the playground pond.  I’m guessing that it’s a Marsh Bluet ((Enallagma ebrium)) but again, don’t quote me.  Bluets are a big group of dragonflies and they all have only minor differences.

blue damsel fly
This damselfly, perhaps a Marsh Bluet, shines neon blue in the sunlight.

One of the dragonflies at the playground pond is almost comic in appearance!  I swear it has a kind of Mickey Mouse face!  Its precise but unimaginative name is the Dot-tailed Whiteface (Leucorrhinia intacta)and you can’t miss them! They’ll even accompany you down the boardwalk.

closeup white-faced 1 spot dragonfly
The Dot-tailed Whiteface Dragonfly has a comical face.

QUICK REVIEW:  New sightings of  species mentioned in earlier “This Weeks”

Evidently, the Green Heron is still fishing down at the Center Pond.  If you admire patience, speed and accuracy, this bird has it all.

Green Heron
The Green Heron once again takes up fishing in the Center Pond.

Wow!  Have a look at one of the branches hanging low over the pond by the playground.  I hobbled over there with my walker last week and we spotted  the long narrow tube of an Baltimore Oriole nest among the branches.  Watch quietly and you’ll see the orange tail feathers of the female oriole as she goes head down into that tube to feed her nestlings.  She and the more colorful male foray out repeatedly gathering food, too and it’s such a close viewing spot, easily accessible for children.  Here’s a quick reminder of the nest shape, though the one at the playground pond is more hidden in the leaves.  (When I replace the camera I dunked in the marsh, I’ll try for a photo of the current one.)

oriole nest
A nest much like this one but hidden in leaves hanging over the playground pond contains Baltimore Oriole nestlings – with their mama head down feeding them.

And last week I featured the male Common Whitetail Dragonfly (Plathemis lydia).  Here’s a female Whitetail  who has settled on the rocks at the east end of the driveway circle.  She’s been there twice in the last week.  She lacks his bluish-white tail but has a lovely pattern down the edge of her rich brown abdomen.

female white tail dragonfly
A female Common Whitetail dragonfly who appears to have chosen the driveway circle at Bear Creek as her favorite spot. Look for her on the rocks at the east end.

Coming Attractions:

Bee balm/Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) will be blooming shortly in the native bed south of the shed, the circle in the driveway and out behind the center pond.  Only the leaves are out now but when they bloom, their lavender flowers will look a little like a frizzy hair dayBelieved to have medicinal properties (hence the name), native bee balm is indeed a balm to bees and butterflies who feed on it.

bee balm
Native Bee Balm/Wild Bergamot is a good source of food for bees and butterflies.

The leaves of our native Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) (which unfortunately is not as common as it needs to be) are sprouting everywhere in the park, including the driveway circle.    Before long, the leaves sprouting now will create fun landscapes like this:

milkweed bud tapestry
Milkweed leaves are sprouting around the park so their pompom-like flower balls should be showing in a few weeks.

One reason the number of Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus) is dangerously low is that we don’t have enough Common Milkweed in many places.  Unfortunately, some nurseries are selling a non-native variety which can’t act as a host plant for the Monarch’s caterpillars.  And as meadows become lawns, more of our native Milkweed disappears.  We’ll explore a bit more about milkweed later in the season.

Summer is blooming: Birds feed their young, wildflowers unfold, dragonflies and damselflies dart above the ponds.  I hope you’ll find time this week to explore and relax in Bear Creek Nature Park.

*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, and invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman.