Tag Archives: Dark-eyed Junco

Charles Ilsley Park: Hardy Companions, Tracking the Unseen and the Ghosts of Flowers Past

Charles Ilsley Park’s Northern Prairie, as seen from the spring-fed pond in the center of the park.

I’m willing to admit that winter walks are a bit more demanding for me. Though I love being out in the open with red cheeks and the glitter of sunlight on snow, breaking through an icy snow crust with every step can be a bit arduous. And as a writer who loves taking photos, well, wildlife is simply a bit more scarce and plant life is a lot less colorful. So the blog creates an interesting challenge. Luckily, I’m all for a good challenge! So this week, in a way, I’m writing about what I didn’t see in February at Charles Ilsley Park. Bear with me…

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

One February morning, I pursued the paw prints of an unseen coyote who had left a trail in the ice-encrusted snow on the previous moonlit night. And I spent part of an afternoon just noticing the  brown and gray architecture of the dry seed heads of some favorite summer wildflowers, now ghosts of their colorful summer selves. Their pleasing shapes provided some inspiration about the native garden I’m dreaming about for next summer. But I’ll start this blog with the handful of  birds that I did see, that kept me company on frigid days, just to remind myself that I had sturdy companions on the grayest and coldest days of the year.

Who’s That Twittering in the Tall Grass?

Stalks of Indian Grass forming a scrim as I look across the Eastern Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park.

One late afternoon as I approached the Eastern Prairie at Ilsley, I heard the cheerful “chatting” (see first “call” heading at this link) of a small group of winter visitors from the Arctic, American Tree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea). One of them paused long enough for a good look at its two-tone bill. This little bird had puffed up its down jacket to deal with a frigid morning!

The two-toned bill, breast spot, eye-line and chestnut cap are the Tree Sparrow’s field marks.

Two days later, the birding group heard more “chatting.” We spotted a large flock of Tree Sparrows flowing like a river from the trees, down into the tall prairie grass. These social flocks keep in contact  with short calls back and forth – “I’m here! I’m over here!” – as they forage. I managed to catch a group of them in a vine-laden bush at the edge of prairie.

Part of a large flock, of Tree Sparrows feeding in the Eastern Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park.

It was wonderful to watch so many migratory birds feeding enthusiastically on the native seeds of our restored prairie. We were curious to see which plants they were enjoying. That morning they were finding bent Black-eyed Susan stems (Rudbeckia hirta) and plucking out the seeds. Here’s the bent stem at almost ground level, the seeds on the snow and the area trampled by the flock’s small feet.

The bent stalk  of a Black-eyed Susan near the ground makes it easier for the  Tree sparrows to get at the seed.

Actually, this large flock of birds had a few fellow travelers. Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) and American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) joined the Tree Sparrows’ feast. Larger flocks increase the odds that birds can survive against predators in winter, when birds show up well against the snow. They also mean more eyes spotting good food.  (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

On a Sunday walk in the Western Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park, my husband and I spotted Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) diving in and out of the grass. Finally, a pair of them settled on some brush and fallen logs along the tree line. The male ignored me completely while he preened vigorously. Since bluebirds often use the abandoned nests of woodpeckers in the winter, I wondered if he’d picked up some mites from an old nest, poor fellow. I managed to get one quick shot when he rested for just a moment.

A male Eastern Bluebird paused from preening for just a few seconds while sitting in the brush near the tree line.

The female nearby was keeping an eye on me and as I approached she sent the male a little “chit-chit-chit”  call (second “call” heading at this link) that warns of ground predators – me, in this case! Then they both flew off again.

The female bluebird gave a little signal call to her preening mate as I approached.

At the far edge of the western prairie, we heard the “ank-ank-ank”  call of the White Breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis). (Under “Eastern calls” at this link.)  It was hopping quickly from branch to dead branch above our heads, searching out anything it could eat , like frozen insect eggs or caterpillars.

A White-breasted Nuthatch probed the bark on a dead limb for hidden insects or their eggs.

Now, About Those Tracks Here, There and Everywhere…

Some pretty striking tracks greeted me in the center field of the park.

As I started out one Thursday morning, I was presented with some pretty impressive tracks.  I recognized them immediately, because one of them was mine! The last four birders on the Wednesday morning bird walk had trekked along chatting as we went back to our cars. As a former bookseller, I had to smile remembering Pooh and Piglet tracking a “heffalump” around a bush, which of course turned out to be their own footprints, too. A fun beginning to my search for animal tracks.

I left the trail and headed diagonally across the field following a nice straight line of canine prints – and readers of my previous winter blogs probably know what that means – a Coyote! Coyotes (Canis latrans) trot along at night making a straight trail of prints. Being wild animals, coyotes want to use as little energy as necessary between meals, so they never run around in the snow like dogs do.  They place their back feet inside the print of their front feet to use less energy and move directly where they want to go.

Coyote tracks across the western prairie

Because a crust covered the snow after freezing rain, it was clear that this coyote had to break through the snow with each step, leaving a pointed top to the track it left behind.

A coyote print in iced-over snow.

I followed the prints as it became apparent that this coyote was headed for the farthest west section of the park, where Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide had hired a forestry mower to remove invasive shrubs and create a path to the nearby subdivision for residents’ use. Two trees nicely frame the opening to this newly renovated area.

The entrance to the farthest west section of Charles Ilsley Park with its rolling land and woods.

This western section with its rolling, glacial landscape, wetlands and wooded areas is very different from the open prairies of Ilsley. It seems our coyote thought this might be a better place to rest on an icy, windy night. Coyotes are not really nocturnal animals, but they have learned that night is a good time to hunt and not be bothered by humans and their activities. So I imagine this coyote had been out hunting mice on the prairie and was heading back to the woods to get out of the wind.

The coyotes prints entering the western section of the park.

After passing into the western area, the coyote turned sharply south into the woods. So I followed its tracks, imagining it trotting between the trees, slipping in and out of the shadows made by the full moon the night before.

The coyote heads off into the woods in the western part of Charles Ilsley Park.

It’s easy to see that among the glacially-formed slopes of this rolling landscape, a coyote would be out of the sharp wind that blew across the prairie.  The landscape in this area of the park is suddenly so different, as the slopes rise and then descend to one wetland after another.  I kept following the coyote deeper into the woods as the line of prints flowed over the slopes.

The coyote’s tracks flowed over the slopes.

At last the coyote’s tracks came down to a small pond where they seemed to end in a flattened area under some vines and branches at the right which would have provided a bit of cover.

A flat area under the bushes and vines on the right looked like it could be a place where the coyote spent the night out of the wind.

Beyond that pond was another lovely little pond covered in snow and embraced by the hills around it – but not a track in sight.

A trackless pond beyond the one where the coyote’s tracks ended

I lost the coyote’s trail after that and wandered up to Ben’s path again. I stopped to admire a very tall, wonderfully straight native Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipfera) with its closely furrowed bark.

The very tall, very straight trunk and furrowed bark of a Tulip-tree

Its yellow blossoms were now dried but still quivering in the wind at the very top of the tree. Ben pointed it out on an earlier walk and told us he thought our area is at the northern edge of this lovely tree’s range. It’s the first wild tulip tree I’ve ever seen.

The dried blossoms of a Tulip-tree which always blooms on the highest branches. 

Nearby stood a tall Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum), its red buds just waiting to expand and bring us one of the first really vivid colors of early spring.

Red buds high on a Silver Maple will swell and offer up one of the first bright colors of spring.

As I left the western wooded area and headed back onto the western prairie, I came across a flattened place in the trail that looked like a major crossroads for critters.  The tracks around it were hard to read .  I thought I recognized squirrel and possible rabbit tracks, but I have no idea who was there and what was going on, really. Since there are coyote tracks  above this flattened area, I wondered if one slept here; as top predators, they do sleep in the open at times.  Its warmth would have melted the snow and allowed smaller creatures to get to the ground underneath the crusted surface once the coyote left the scene.  Just a guess.

A heavily tracked spot on the western prairie trail

One possible hint was a hole in the snow nearby where a squirrel may have tried to dig up a nut in the frozen soil. Or perhaps our coyote dug up a Meadow Mouse (Microtus pennsylvanicus) before heading off to sleep? I’m not sure because the tracks around it were not fresh; they had been trampled, rained on and frozen.

A place where a squirrel may have dug up a nut or seed – or perhaps a coyote found a mouse before bedtime?

The coyote tracks did lead away from area toward the private property on the west side of the park.

Coyote tracks running through the furrows of the private field on the west side of the park.

If the open hole was that of a captured mouse, the birders saw evidence that some mice are luckier than others.  Here are some mouse tracks that we spotted near the edge of the western prairie.  It looks like this mouse made it safely under the snow’s insulation – safe from the icy wind and out of sight. I love the “stitching” look of mouse tracks in the snow.

Mouse tracks that look like stitching disappearing into a hole in the snow.

On the last leg of my tracking trip to the park, as I approached the central section from the north, I saw one of the spring-fed ponds covered with lots of tracks, making neat, straight lines across the snow-covered surface. What was going on? And then it occurred to me. These were stewardship tracks! Ben had told us at the end of the bird walk that he’d brought  a native wetland seed mix to spread on the ponds before it rained later that day. He and Stewardship Specialist Alyssa Radzwion put the seed right on the frozen surface.  Native seeds needs to be exposed to the cold before they will germinate properly. Once warm weather comes, the seeds will drop down into the shallow water  or moist edge habitat and with luck, begin bringing some color and native plant life to these special areas of the park.

Tracks left by Ben and Alyssa as they seeded the spring-fed pond with a native wetland mix.  (The birders had also trekked across the pond earlier in the morning.)

The Ghosts of Summers Past Provide Inspiration for Spring

I’ve begun  learning to recognize and appreciate the winter forms of some favorite wildflowers.  Their subtle shades of brown or gray as well as their patterns and geometry have started me wondering if I could create a native garden next summer that the birds and I could enjoy all year ’round. It’s clear that birds need the seeds that cling to native plants despite snow and wind. And I could appreciate the architecture of winter plants. So which shapes provide what landscapers like to call “visual interest” and also provide winter food for wildlife?

Yellow Coneflower and Canada Wild Rye in late fall.

Perhaps some of you remember how beautiful the Eastern Prairie looked when filled with Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) in the summer. This hardy native has always had a special place in my life. When I was a teenager, the first song I ever wrote included the “wide-eyed stare” of this sunny flower. So it definitely needs to be in my garden. I’m taken with its winter fringed cap in winter and would be happy to let it hang out in my garden.

Mixed in with these bright yellow beauties were the lavender fireworks of Bee-balm (Monarda fistulosa) and they create appealing geometry in a winter landscape.

For contrast, I’d need some white in my summer garden – and maybe good old Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) would be a possibility – if I could keep it from spreading too much.  I like its chocolate brown against the white snow.

I love how Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) sway in a summer breeze so I hope they’ll be included somehow too. The plump, oblong seed heads obviously provide forage for the birds and silvery, pointed spears would be a graceful accent in a winter garden.

I may plant Asters in our field rather than in the garden.  They grow in such profusion! I’m not sure which of the many Asters  is represented in the winter photo below  because so many kinds of asters bloom in late summer and fall! They are such a boon to all kinds of butterflies and bees who can feed on them before winter arrives. Here’s just a sampling.  (Use pause button for captions.)

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Brown-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia triloba), which also bloom late in late summer and fall, might be another good choice for the field, since they grow so tall (compared to Black-eyed Susans) and have a branching form with multiple blooms at the same time.

Well, that’s a start.  I want to search out some other favorites, like Foxglove Beard-tongue  (Penstemon digitalis) and see what it looks like after bloom – though I doubt I can resist it for the garden. That little Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) makes me impatient for spring!

A young Field Sparrow on Foxglove Beardtongue in Charles Ilsley Park’s Eastern Prairie.

See? Wasn’t that a clever way to get to get some color into an early March blog, when everything is still brown, gray and white? I knew you’d appreciate it…

Finding Delight in a Late Winter Walk

It takes a bit more effort to get out on a frosty morning.  There’s all that layered clothing and boots and gloves and scarves. And the early March landscape is getting just a bit tiresome — too much brown and white out our windows. But once I’m out the door and into the landscape, nature offers me a few treats to keep me coming back. Tracking a coyote’s tracks to a secluded pond in the woods feels like a little adventure. The friendly chatting of winter birds keeps me company and the sight of bluebirds in the stark landscape nourishes my color-starved eyes. And how lucky that noticing the winter geometry of last summer’s blooms sets me off dreaming about a new native garden! So all that makes crunching step-by-step through the snow crust worth the effort when the thermometer encourages me to stay home.

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township’s Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University; Wikipedia; A Field Guide to Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, and Trees of Michigan Field Guide by Stan Tekiela.

Photos of the Week: Birds Feasting on Seed, Sunshine – and the occasional frozen “dessert!”

Showy Goldenrod seed heads at sunset

On a frigid late afternoon a week or so ago at Draper Twin Lake Park, I came upon a large stand of Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) glowing in the sunlight. It turned out that I was not the only one enjoying that warm patch of sunlight backlighting plumes of goldenrod. That sunny curve in the trail was alive with winter birds!

Feasting on Seeds

Tree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea) twittered cheerfully back and forth in the grass below the plants, foraging with the sunlit stems swaying above them. These cheery-voiced winter visitors from the far north were landing on the goldenrods and nibbling at the seed heads.

A Tree Sparrow nibbles at the Showy Goldenrod to loosen the seed

That made some of  the seed fall to the ground, where the tree sparrows prefer to feed, so the tall grass below rippled with busily foraging members of the flock.

A Tree Sparrow foraging for seed fallen from the goldenrod seed heads above

And Tree Sparrows hung out in the bushes and trees nearby waiting their turn, some gathering a little warmth on their breasts from the setting sun.

A Tree Sparrow in bright sunlight with a dark twig shadow across its face.
An American Tree Sparrow in a nearby tree while clouds blocked the sun. This picture clearly shows the two-colored bill, rusty cap, rusty eyeline, and unstreaked breast that we use to identify tree sparrows.

They weren’t the only species enjoying that patch of sunlit goldenrod, though. Another winter visitor from Canada, a Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis), swooped into the lit plumes and began sampling the seed heads.

A Dark-eyed Junco nibbling on Showy Goldenrod near the Tree Sparrows

In the background, a tentative American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis)dressed in its sedate winter plumage, waited its turn too. So many birds being fed at once! I imagine they all enjoyed the faint warmth of the winter sun shining through the plumes as they ate their evening meal.

An American Goldfinch waits for its turn to share the goldenrod seeds.

Foraging for a Frozen “Dessert”

A male Downy Woodpecker  (Dryobates pubescens) preferred to look for insect eggs or larvae in the stems of Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis). He moved quickly from plant to plant pecking furiously. Later in the winter, I often find goldenrod galls with neat holes in them where Downys have excavated larva from their winter hideaway inside. But this Downy Woodpecker was searching for something inside the stems themselves.

A Downy Woodpecker pecked at the stems of Canada Goldenrod, looking for insect eggs or larvae.

A pair of Eastern Bluebirds seemed to be checking out possible real estate for the spring. The female sat on the box for some time, occasionally fluttering down to poke her head inside.  The male waited calmly nearby, taking periodic foraging trips down into the grass. (Click on photo to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

Later I saw a female  – perhaps the one from the nest box? – pecking on a branch until she loosened a frozen, tiny green caterpillar, which she then promptly swallowed. She was so busy pounding on its hard surface that I never got a clear photo of the caterpillar in her beak – but here she is just after eating her frozen dessert. Looks like it might have felt a bit chilly on the way down, doesn’t it?

A female bluebird who’d just found and consumed a bright green frozen caterpillar!

In the same clump of bushes, a Black-Capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) performed acrobatic feats while trying, it appeared, to extract some kind of insect from the end of a twig. Here it is hanging upside down as it pecked diligently for its supper. I love its feathered leg-warmers.

A Black-capped Chickadee pecked at the end of this twig until something to eat came out of it.

So whether a bird prefers seeds or likes to finish the day with a cold bug or two, Draper Twin Lake Park has food ready and waiting.  Nice how nature works like that…

Bear Creek Nature Park: Snow, Sleet but Spring Arrived Anyway!

Red-winged Blackbirds in an April snow squall

Wow, what a tough April – for us and for wildlife! I even considered the possibility at one point that our thermometer was broken, since it seemed to be stuck at 32 degrees! The intrepid birding group went out in a snow squall the first week of the month. Despite cold and driving wind, we still came across flocks of early migrators, like the Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) pictured above,  along with more than 60 robins foraging in the meadows.

We got a couple of brief respites in which it was possible to imagine a normal spring day with birdsong, fragile leaves, turtles warming in the sun. Then it was back in the freezer. Wildlife and plant life coped with cold wind and sleet, soaked up whatever sun was available and waited for change. We humans harnessed the warmer days for stewardship projects. And then voilà, spring arrived (I hope) last weekend.

Despite the Icy Cold, Birds Arriving, Leaving, and Braving the Cold, Plus a Tough Little Willow Tree.

Experts tell us that bird migration depends more on the length of spring days, than it does on the temperature. As a result, our first summer-only birds arrived to find snowy fields rather than the first greening of spring. What could they or our year ’round residents do but cope?

This Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) hid among the grasses at the edge of the marsh as the snow fell on the birders the first Wednesday in April. She’s probably been back for a few weeks and is well-equipped to deal with the cold. Normally by this time, though, she’d be picking nest sites, but I doubt this thin spot at the edge of the marsh was being seriously considered.

A Canada Goose rested among the dead reeds at the edge of the marsh as the snow fell.

In a tree at the south end of the marsh, a male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) looked dismayed by the cold wind ruffling his crest. His staring eyes seemed to suggest that he was as stunned by the freezing temperatures as the bundled-up birders below him!

A Northern Cardinal looking a bit shocked at the snow and the icy wind ruffling his crest.

Birders spotted the silhouette of a Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) hunched in a branch near the marsh. No doubt it was hoping to have some clean-up work soon. After all, its job and its food source is seeing that all the carrion in the park is dealt with quickly and efficiently. I had to wonder if it regretted having left southern Ohio, or points even farther south.

The silhouette of a Turkey Vulture coping with an April snowstorm at Bear Marsh.

During a brief pause in the snowfall, a Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula), who may have spent his winter in southern Ohio, stared out into the white landscape. It’s likely he arrived with other males and a mixed flock of Red-wings and Brown-headed Cowbirds, frequent traveling companions this time of year.

A lone Grackle looking back  toward the south on a snowy Michigan day

Over at the Playground Pond, a shy little Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) huddled on a branch, twitching its tail over the water, as the snow fell. Having perhaps wintered in Tennessee, this little bird is usually one of the earliest flycatchers to arrive in Michigan. So it’s hardy enough to brave the cold – though maybe, like us, it have would preferred better April weather. Look closely;  it’s nicely camouflaged against the branches and behind the veil of falling snow!

An Eastern Phoebe, in its brown and white plumage, almost disappears into the branches and the snowfall.

Our sturdy, native Pussy Willow (Salix discolor) survives even in Alaska and northern Canada. So it bravely thrust forth its fuzzy white catkins in the southern part of the marsh as the snow swirled around it. The bright, bare branches of native Red Twig/Red-Osier Dogwood (Cornus sericea) added a nice dash of color to a dark morning.

Some of the winter-only visitors are still stocking up before leaving for points north. Small flocks of  American Tree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea) twitter among the bushes, getting last minute meals before heading to Hudson’s Bay or the Arctic tundra for the summer. They certainly seem to relish cold weather! I’m glad Bear Creek Nature Park seems to have provided enough winter food for this small long-distance flyer.

A Tree Sparrow stocks up on food before leaving for Hudson’s Bay in northern Canada or perhaps the Arctic tundra.

During a brief snow melt last week, the Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) also seemed busy preparing to depart northward for the summer. They foraged among the newly sprouting grass where the prescribed burn had taken place in March. They don’t travel quite as far as the Tree Sparrows, perhaps only into Ontario.

The Dark-eyed Juncos are preparing to depart to Ontario and points north.

Short, Warm Respites Meant Birdsong, Frog Song, Turtles and More

For a few short days, off and on, we had sun and some genuinely spring-like temperatures. The  Wood Frogs (Rana sylvatica) thawed out from their winter freeze. The low, chuckling call of the Wood Frogs joined the constant, rhythmic peeping of the Chorus Frogs, featured in the blog a couple of weeks ago. Here’s a photo of a Wood Frog taken last November as they began hibernation. The black patch near the eye underlined with light yellow, plus ridges down the back are the field marks for this small frog.

Last November the Wood Frog found a spot to hibernate in a log or under fallen leaves.

The clucking or chuckling sounds in the foreground of this recording from a week ago are those of the Wood Frog. The higher-pitched calls in the background are from Western Chorus frogs. Be sure to turn up your volume!

On a cold but sunny afternoon, the male Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) chirped his burbling refrain as the wind ruffled his feathers and carried his melodious tune out across the Eastern Meadow.

A Song Sparrow lets the wind carry his song into the Eastern Meadow.

On the recording below taken ten days ago, he sings loudly twice with a bit of a rest in between.

When the temperature rose to sixty degrees, all kinds of plants, animals and insects seemed to come to life at once! When Ben ventured out into the park about 8:30 pm one evening, he heard the buzzing “peent” call of the American Woodcock (Scolopax minor).  This call from the ground precedes an aerial display in which the Woodcock spirals up into the sky and then chirps on the way down, plummeting the last several feet before landing right where it began. All this happens just before dark in small open fields near wetlands at Bear Creek and Cranberry Lake Parks. For the whole sequence of sounds during this mating flight, try this link at Cornell Ornithology Lab. (Wait for the “peent!” at the end. It will surprise you!). Though I’ve heard and briefly seen the Woodcock, here’s a photo by talented photographer Jerry Oldenettel at iNaturalist.org who’s had much better luck than I at getting a good photo!

The Woodcock probes for worms with that long beak and performs an elaborate courting dance as the sun sets.

A pair of Bluebirds (Sialis sialis) seem to searching out nest sites at Bear Creek. I saw a male one snowy afternoon peering down into the grass for possible food and a female surveying the Eastern Meadow.

This male Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus) finds all kinds of good things to eat as he tap, tap, taps on a tree trunk. Though they’ll eat seeds and fruits, their preference is for insect larvae, so they’re very good stewards of trees, ridding them of bark beetles and other insects. According to Donald W. Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.1), if we hear a quick, loud, regular beat in its drumming, that’s a mating call. When the drumming is lighter and irregular, the Hairy is either feeding or starting to excavate a nest hole.

The Hairy Woodpecker has a thicker, longer beak than the similar Downy.

Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater) foraged in the fields as well. These handsome birds don’t create nests, but rather lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. Cowbirds aren’t really irresponsible parents. Having evolved to constantly follow western buffalo herds, they had no time to care for young. So the cowbirds who took advantage of the nests and care of other birds carried on the species!

A Brown-headed Cowbird pauses while foraging in the Eastern Meadow.

The Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta marginata), who’d been hibernating in the cold mud on pond bottoms all winter, climbed onto logs all over the park on the first warm day. In the photo below, nine of them were basking in a patch of  sunlight within a shady wetland, letting the sun soak into their dark shells. Aahhh, that must have felt sooo good!

Nine Painted Turtles turtles basking in the sunlight on the first warm day.

While hand sowing native seed, we discovered Eastern Garter Snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis) twisted around each other in a wriggling hug as they mated in the brown grass. The female, according to Wikipedia, is larger than the male. They may have evolved this way because garter snakes bear live young. The more little snakes they can carry, the more likely their genes will go on to another generation.

Eastern Garter Snakes mating. The male snake is much smaller than the female who needs to carry the live young.

With temperatures so low, insects are still scarce in the fields right now. But I noticed what appears to be a Sexton/Carrion Beetle (g. Nicrophorus, fam. Silphidae) clambering through grass and leaves one warm-ish afternoon. It was probably sensing a dead mouse or bird and heading to bury it as a source of food for its larvae. These small members of the “cleanup crew” are large and colorful, usually dark with red on the forewings and fancy club-shaped antennae.

A Sexton Beetle on its way to bury a carcass of a mouse or bird on which its larvae can feed.

I saw two plants making go of it in the cold April air. The perennial Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) thrust it bulbous, purple bract (spathe) up through the mud. The bract envelops a long spike (spadix) which holds the flowers. Early flies and bees are attracted by its pungent (and skunk-y, not very pleasant) odor. Interesting that the leaves on this plant show up after the flowers.

At this time last year, another of the earliest spring flowers, Spring Beauties (Claytonia virginica) had already presented their pink- and white-striped blossoms in the forest. This year, though, in the middle of April, their spindly leaves were just starting up around the roots of large trees. Perhaps the warmer weather will hurry them along, too!

Stewardship Projects Proceeded

A few cold but clear days provided suitable conditions for Dr. Ben’s VanderWeide’s park projects.  Along with the prescribed burn in March and hand-sowing the fields of Bear Creek with native seed, Ben, Alex Kriebel (stewardship specialist with Oakland Township Parks), Ian Ableson (a new stewardship employee at Six Rivers Land Conservancy), and 4 volunteers began the yearly monitoring of vernal pools. As part of a larger project of the Michigan Natural Features Inventory, Ben monitors these biodiversity hotspots three times over the summer. What a collection of unusual creatures! They wake and feed or quickly hatch, mature, mate, lay eggs and expire in these temporary ponds that dry over the summer. Great to know our vernal pools are teeming with life! (Click on pause button if you need more time for captions.)

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The Promise of Full-fledged Spring

A young girl flies her kite at Bear Creek Nature Park on a spring-like afternoon.

We humans know how to take advantage of spring-like weather, just as the wildlife does. One warm, cloudy afternoon, a small girl brought her kite to test the April winds. This youngster got her long-tailed kite flying high and kept it there. So great to see parents bringing young children out to play surrounded by nature in our parks.

Last weekend, I think most of us dared to hope that “real spring” had finally arrived. The air was softer, the temperature more normal for late April, and a brighter sun warmed our upturned faces from a blue sky. Leaf buds that have waited on branches all winter have begun to swell. Soon more of those buds will open and our world will slowly dress itself in spring’s lovely shade of green. More migrators will navigate hundreds or even thousands of miles, making use of the sun, the stars and earth’s magnetic fields to find their way back to us.  Mornings and sunsets will be filled with more chatter and birdsong. So try to keep your eyes and ears alert!  Spring’s full-fledged arrival is just beginning to burst forth in full glory.

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner; 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,  and others as cited in the text.

Draper Twin Lake Park: Dashes of Color and Ice Artistry Livened Up the January Thaw

Skaters just before the January thaw started at Draper Lake
Skaters just before the January thaw started at Draper Lake

Snow, ice, sleet, rain – all the elements of Michigan’s traditional “January thaw.” Sigh…Gray skies day after day make me crave color! On multiple jaunts at Draper Twin Lake Park  – some icy, some muddy – I sought it out.

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

As usual, the mushrooms provided a surprising splash of color here and there. Birds in varying shades of red relieved winter’s gray. And changing ice designs added a bit of artistry to every visit. Hey, we take what we can get in beauty at this time of year, right?

Along the Path to the Eastern Marsh:  Red Birds, Yellow Mushrooms and Blue Shadows

A Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) drummed noisily on a telephone pole on the eastern side of the park. Let’s hope this male had a cozy hole to spend the  winter night; the starlings, twittering in a thicket nearby, are known for absconding with holes created by Red-Bellies. This guy’s red cap glowed against a gray sky – a good omen for someone questing for color on a dark day!

Red-belly Woodpecker Draper on telephone pole
A Red-bellied Woodpecker atop a telephone pole on the east side of Draper Twin Lake Park

On the way to the marsh, a chorus of House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) chirped from the shrubbery. These gregarious birds with their rosy males added both color and the friendly sound of their “chatting” to the gray quiet. House Finches pause to busily crush the seeds they find with quick bites, making them easier to spot and photograph.

house-finches-4
A group of House Finches chirped among the shrubs on the path to the marsh on Draper’s east end.

A male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) added a gorgeous dash of scarlet as he darted among the shrubs along the marsh edge at the bottom of the trail.

cardinal-male
The scarlet of a male Cardinal offers a welcome break from gray on a winter’s day.

While at the marsh, I was surprised to hear what I think was the call of a Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) in the distance. The birders saw one at Charles Ilsley Park the previous week but I’ve never seen one in the middle of winter. If you listen to the “Rolling rattle call” at this Cornell Lab link, you’ll hear what I heard far away on a wintry day. Here’s a flicker I saw in early spring last year.

flicker-walnut-lane-1
A Northern Flicker could be heard in Draper Park last week, but I never saw it. This photo is from the previous spring.

Out on the ice, a graceful swoop of marsh sedges turned blue and silver in the shadows.

Frosted reeds Draper Marsh
The sedges in the marsh seemed tinged with blue in the shadows of a winter afternoon.

On a log near the marsh, a bright patch of yellow polypore/shelf mushrooms glowed under the edge of a log.  One of the reasons I love wetlands is that summer and winter,  they reward any hiker with colorful birds and mushrooms.

yellow-polypore-mushroom
Yellow polypore mushrooms on a log near the eastern marsh at Draper.

Out on Draper’s Northern Prairie

The Prairie Restoration on the northeastern part of the park looked very different than it did when the trees glowed with autumn color. (Click on images to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

But birds were there too. Flocks of modestly dressed winter visitors – Dark-Eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) and American Tree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea) – hopped down from small bare trees and bushes, chattering away as they foraged on the ground.

That bit of leaf in the Junco’s beak may be result of flipping things over to look for seeds. The seeds of two native wildflowers left in the field looked as though they may have provided some sustenance. The seed pod of Wild Senna (Senna hebecarpa) on the left below and the dried inflorescence of a late-flowering Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) on the right are both native plants sown in 2015 by Ben VanderWeide, our Stewardship Manager, to restore the prairie, using a grant from the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Over the crest of a slope on the rolling prairie, a slow, lumbering Possum (Didelphis virginiana) nosed its way along the edge of the field. It appeared to be searching for seeds or earthworms on the wet earth exposed by the thaw. Possums don’t hibernate and are generally nocturnal, but there it was in morning light. Possums feign death (“playing possum”) when extremely frightened – but they’ll fight first –  so be wary of their sharp teeth. North America’s only marsupial, possums raise their infants in the female’s pouch for about two and a half months. Later, the babies, up to 13 of them, can be seen draped over their mother’s back as she goes about her business.

Possum Draper
A possum out foraging after rain on a winter morning

In a tree at the edge of the prairie one morning, a lone Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) blended its soft pinks with the gentle shades of the winter landscape.

Mourning Dove
A Mourning Dove’s colors blend with the shades of a winter morning.

Along the Western Path to Draper Lake

The western path was a bright glare of ice on my first January trip to the pond. At the edge of the parking lot, a dead branch still sported orange polypore/shelf mushrooms, just as it did  in the fall.  Amazing how hardy these fungi are in cold weather!

Orange Polypore Mushrooms Closeup Draper
The orange polypore (“shelf”) mushrooms survived the cold intact, perhaps even getting a bit more orange!

 

A stick covered in a mosaic of green and blue lichen and a nearby patch of leafy (foliose) lichen caught my eye.  Lichen are intriguing, because they are a “composite organism” made up of algae and/or cyanobacteria living among filaments of a fungus in a symbiotic relationship. The fungus provides protection for the algae and gathers moisture and nutrients.  The algae uses those nutrients and energy from the sun, and through photosynthesis produces food (carbohydrates) for both itself and the fungus. These ancient organisms occur from alpine regions to sea level in all kinds of shapes (morphologies). The more delicate forms of lichens are very sensitive to air pollution (bio-indicators), which is why you will only find flatter forms that colonize rocks and branches in areas with more air pollution. In areas with cleaner air you’ll find more delicate, branching lichens. I’m just glad they gave me some varying shades of  green and blue on a wintry day.

Near the pond during a bird walk, a bright yellow mushroom beckoned in the distance. How’s this for a bit of sunshine on a moist winter morning? I’m no expert at mushrooms, as readers know. To me, it looks like kernels of corn. But I think this one’s common name is “Witches’ Butter,” Dacrymyces palmata (Fungi get more imaginative names than plants do…). Any mycologists out there who can verify that for me?

yellow-mushroom-2
What may be “Witches Butter” mushrooms on a log near Draper Twin Lake

Lovely russet  patterns formed on the path, made  from White Pine needles (Pinus strobus) and a variety of leaves embedded in ice near the lake.

A strange ice sculpture took shape along the floating deck at the lake. I dubbed it the “Sunny Side Up” formation when I first saw it on an icy day. When I came back with the birders 10 days later, the surface ice had melted down, leaving the “yolk” standing in 3-D surrounded by icy ridges where the outline of the “egg white” once was. Wonder what created this interesting bulge in the ice?

Twice I came across ice fishermen out on the lake.  On the first visit, a man was unloading his sled full of equipment way off in the distance on the far side of the lake, while skaters glided about in the winter sunshine.

Three days after these skating scenes, the melt had begun and the rains came. The surface of the lake turned from white to gray, with inches of water standing on ice.

The lake after a thaw and rain but enough ice to support two ice fisherman (not pictured) sloshing along the surface.
The lake after a thaw and rain but enough ice to support two ice fisherman (not pictured) sloshing along the surface.

I saw (but didn’t photograph for some reason!) two fisherman walking out into that sloshing mess,  confident about the ice underneath. A strange sight! It looked like two men walking on water!

The last day I visited the park with the birders, the ice had developed a crackled surface. Quite a wonderful abstract design, but not one that would encourage venturing out onto the ice!

Crackled ice
Abstract design on ice created by Mother Nature – and a few skaters and ice fishermen

Later that week as the snow began to fall again, a Tufted Titmouse paused for a few moments in a nearby bush. One of these little birds fooled the experienced birders in our Wednesday bird group by seeming to mimic the “cheer” call of a Carolina Wren. According to the Sibley Guides website, Titmice have a wide variety of songs so maybe this is one of them.  Quite a performance, anyway.

Tufted titmouse as snow falls
Tufted titmouse as the snow fell

Beauty Reveals Itself When We Seek for It

Ice Design Buell and Lk George
Ice design at Buell and Lake George Roads

On my way home from Draper Twin Lake Park one morning, I stopped to admire a “modern art” ice shape in a pond at the corner of Buell and Lake George Roads.  It could almost have been a composition by Matisse or maybe Paul Klee. For much of my life, I missed the details as I hiked through a landscape. The camera encouraged me to look more closely. Now nature gifts me with surprises – the quizzical tilt of a dragonfly’s head, the spiral of seeds in a flower head and this winter, odd ice designs and strokes of color within winter’s gray and white world.

But a camera isn’t necessary.  An observant pair of curious eyes is all we really need to notice the beauty that might otherwise be missed, especially in a January thaw.

Footnote:  My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: 
Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; 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).

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Irrepressible Nature Celebrates the Season

Center Pond striped w shadows and snow 2 BC
Center Pond striped with shadows on Christmas Eve morning

For the last few weeks, our faithful winter birds have had a lot to contend with – deep snow, rain and biting wind. So like us, many of them gathered to eat together, to socialize and to seek the protection of being with their kind in the depths of winter. Flocks moved restlessly all over the park – bluebirds, crows, geese, starlings, robins, mixed flocks of tree sparrows and juncos.

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

The woods and wetlands were festooned with the red limbs of dogwood, mushrooms, snow and shadow designs. Some pods harbored their seeds ’til spring while others stood empty, silhouetted against the snow. A delicate insect flew past and settled on the snow crust. Despite the forbidding cold and snow,  life remains undaunted – even in the harshness of winter.

Hardy Birds Brave the Cold

Log w snow Center Pond BC'
The Playground Pond on Christmas Eve morning

The Playground Pond was evidently the “place to be” for birds on Christmas Eve.  At the edge of the pond, a solitary Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) mined a snag for some protein to start the day – maybe frozen insect larvae or eggs. This one was a male since it wore its red cap all the way down to its beak.

Redbelly BC
A male Red-bellied Woodpecker searches for insect larvae or eggs near the Playground Pond.

Two Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis)  – always a welcome splash of color on winter days –  paused on the railings of the Playground Pond.

Male Bluebird Dec. 24 BC
A male Bluebird on the railing at the Playground Pond
Female Bluebird Dec 24 BC
The more modestly dressed female Bluebird across the way from her bright blue mate

Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) whisked in and out of the bushes, as if playing tag. This male assumed an alarm pose, with his crest high and his tail flicking up and down.

Cardinal male tail up
This male Northern Cardinal takes an alarm pose – crest raised and tail flicking up and down.

This female found a good-sized seed for breakfast, but she’s on alert as well.

Cardinal female 3
A female Cardinal breakfasts on a good-sized seed.

The White-Breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) twisted its stout body this way and that, probing the fallen log in the pond. Nuthatches know that loose bark is a good place to find frozen caterpillars or insect eggs.

Nuthatch on log Playgr Pond Bc Dec 24
A White-breasted Nuthatch carefully probed the dead log in the Playground Pond for a morning meal.

Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) and Tree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea ), migratory visitors, frequently winter in the same area each year. That morning they gathered at the Playground Pond to feed and “chat,” chirping contact calls to stay connected with other members. Small birds like these have to eat about 30% of their body weight each day in winter just to survive. No wonder they flock at your feeder! (Hover cursor for captions; click on photos to enlarge.)

High in a tree along Bear Creek, an American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis), dressed in its muted winter plumage, delicately pecked at winter leaf buds.

Goldfinch eating winter bud
An American Goldfinch pecks delicately at the leaf buds of a tall tree.

A flock of gregarious House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) fluttered from branch to branch at the edge of a wetland. The males’ rosy red heads and breasts vary in intensity by what they find to eat. This one’s hue seemed a bit dimmed on a winter afternoon.

house-finch
The rosy red of the male House Finch varies in intensity by what it finds to eat.

Nature Decorates with Snow and Mushrooms

The French pastry, Buche de Noel, was fashionable this Christmas – an elaborately decorated Yule Log cake.  Not to be outdone, nature created its own  Buche de Noel, using a real log, a ribbon of snow and ruffles of golden and white Polypore (or shelf) mushrooms!

Log decorated with polypore mushrooms2
Nature’s Yule Log decorated with polypore mushrooms and snow

Some Turkey-tail mushrooms (Polypore versicolor), tinted green by algae growing on the them, fancied up a nearby log.

Polyphore versicolor mushrooms BC
Green “Turkey-tail” mushrooms decorated a nearby log.

Under the trees, snow melted around heaps of oak leaves, making little mandalas across the forest floor.

Leaf mandala in snow BC
Melting snow on oak leaves created little mandalas on the forest floor.

And look at the elegant script of this letter “E” left by the snow near the marsh. I’m not sure of the font…

Letter E made of snow BC
A snowy letter “E” left in the oak leaves near the marsh

Dried grasses along the Walnut Lane wrote calligraphy on the snow with shadows.

Shadow and snow calligraphy BC
Grasses create calligraphy from shadows at the edge of the Walnut Lane.

Altogether quite a festive look to the park, despite the absence of bright color or birdsong!

Seeds and Seed Pods Carry the Promise of Spring

In a small tree, the trailing stem of a long vine had produced a pale cloud of seed. Ben identified it as a native clematis plant with the surprisingly romantic name, Virgin’s Bower (Clematis virginiana).  Here’s a link to its streamer of white flowers in the spring and below is the mini-cloud of seed and fluff as it finished fruiting.

Mystery vine BC
The fruiting of a native vine, Virgin’s Bower, produces these mini-clouds in a small tree.

A prairie native, Round-headed Bush-Clover (Lespedeza capitata) blooms on tall stalks with tiny white flowers in the late summer and early fall. Its seeds, packed with protein, provide winter food for Turkeys, Mourning Doves and Dark-eyed Juncos.

Mystery plant BC Dec 24
The russet seed heads of Round-headed Bush-clover feed lots of birds in the winter.

Wild Senna seed pods (Senna hebecarpa) droop in multiple arcs from tall stems in the native beds. In the spring, flowers fill the stems like yellow popcorn. Now each flat, brown seed pod has 10-18 cells with a single seed in each one waiting to be released in the spring.

Of course, before winter arrived, some plants released their seeds to drop, fly or float away. A Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) in the native bed hosted a Meadow Fritillary butterfly (Boloria bellona) in late June.  Now, having dispersed its seed to the wind, the seed pods of the same plant stands empty in the winter wind.

 

 Now About that Winter Bug…

One cold day, a winged insect with long, fragile wings flew slowly across the path and landed delicately on the snow. What in the world? A winter insect? Yes, this little creature’s life cycle is exactly the opposite of most insects.

Insect in the snow BC
This stonefly settled on the snow at Bear Creek after probably hatching nearby in Paint Creek’s rushing waters.

According to Donald Stokes’ Nature in Winter,  some Stoneflies (order Plecoptera) hatch from their eggs in fall or early winter. The larvae feed under rocks at the edge of a clean, rushing stream – probably nearby Paint Creek for our bug. In mid-winter, they complete their many molts, emerge as adults and fly. They live only a few weeks, mating and dropping their eggs back into the water. Quite a surprise, this contrarian insect!

Nature Awaits Your Winter Walks

Gunn wetland BC winter colors
Ice in the Gunn Road wetland turns golden-beige as it begins to melt.

If a tiny sparrow and an intrepid stonefly can brave the cold, we can too, right? We feather-less, fur-less creatures can layer up our woollies, don our hiking boots, swath ourselves in scarves, monster mittens and maybe a pair of Yax Trax, pull our hats down over our ears and venture out! To lure us forth, nature provides so much to enjoy even in the “dead” of winter – which is actually very much alive! Sally forth with rosy noses and wind-bussed cheeks to explore, even for a short walk. And then return home for cocoa or whatever warms you best from the inside.  Nothing like a winter walk to make you feel ALIVE!

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