Watershed Ridge: Changes Afoot!

The field above the western marsh at Water Ridge in late autumn

Until now, Watershed Ridge Park’s 170 acres have been a challenge to explore. A visitor needed to be ready for waist-high fields and of course our township’s wonderful wetlands in all their wet-footed glory. But in early November, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, the Oakland Township stewardship manager, laid out its first trails which were created by the maintenance crew. The new trail skirts the edges of fields still sown and harvested by local farmers who keep invasive species at bay until this rolling landscape can be restored to the wildflowers and grasses that are part of our historical legacy. But even in the autumn, the hedgerows and woods that edge the fields provide shelter and sustenance to a variety of birds and this November, even one special migrator, as you’ll see below. And in summer, birds sing and nest, wildflowers bloom in profusion and butterflies, moths, bees and other insects enjoy the bounty.

Text & Photos by Cam Mannino

So come take a walk with me along the edges of the newly created path which starts from the parking lot. It’s a very muddy path right now, so I recommend wearing old shoes! Or maybe you can walk just off the edges in the tall grass to save the grass seed planted on the paths in anticipation of next spring. Follow along on the map that Ben’s provided to show you the route.

I’ll introduce you to a few creatures that make their home here and some that are just passing through. But mostly, I want to give you the “lay of the land,” and show you some stewardship projects underway that will make this park even more beautiful for us and nourishing for wildlife as the years go on.

Follow along by looking for the letters in the blog post indicating spots of interest on my hike.

The Path West to (what I’m calling) Southwest Field 1 (A on map)

The new trail crossing Southwest Field 1 to the hedgerow cut

This trail begins in the parking lot, follows Buell Road west and then gently curves north. The parking lot on Buell can be a great place to stand quietly and look for birds in the tall trees and in the tangle of vines that weave through them. On my first November visit, I watched European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) wheeling down into the treetops. Eventually one moved close enough for a photo. Its iridescent breast glowed emerald in late afternoon sun, accenting the white dots of its winter plumage. Despite being aggressive birds, their swooping flocks, called “murmurations, ” that rise, fall, flow and ripple through the sky are truly mesmerizing.

A solitary European Starling in its winter garb. Quite a beak, eh?

A House Finch pair (Haemorhous mexicanus) peered out from the vine-covered shrubbery. The male’s cherry red head and breast gets its color from the pigments in the food it eats. For that reason, red fruits are particularly favored since the brown and white striped females prefer the males whose red is most vivid. [Click on photos to enlarge.]

I followed the curving path to where it cut between Southwest Field 1 and the next one north, which for now, I’m calling Southwest Field 2.

Creating a Wetland Extension (B) in Southwest Field Two (C)
The hedgerow cut between Southwest Fields 1 and 2

As I stepped between the two fields, a small bird landed on a shriveled wildflower lined with seeds. At first, the red patch above its eyes made me think it was an oddly colored House Finch – but, no. I knew that scarlet crown, pinkish breast and dramatic striping had to be some unfamiliar bird – one I’d never seen before. It turned out to be the Common Redpoll (Acanthis flammea), a winter finch that rarely comes this far south in Michigan; this little guy flew all the way from the Arctic, the boreal forests of Canada’s far north or Hudson’s Bay! In fact, Cornell Ornithology Lab says a Redpoll banded in Michigan once showed up in Siberia! (Check out the link for other amazing facts about these little birds!) Redpolls are unpredictable, erratic migrators. This year significant numbers of them chose to land in our area, according to Ruth Glass, local birder extraordinaire. I feel very lucky to have seen this one!

A Common Redpoll which is not so common in southeast Michigan which is the extreme southern edge of its winter range.

Once past the hedgerow, I walked over to the edge of the slope to look down on one of Watershed Ridge’s new wetlands. Ben, our Stewardship Manager, wanted to restore wetlands in some of the fields that have been agricultural for so long, often in areas that had been tiled or ditched to drain wetlands when the area was first farmed. The restored wetlands will capture and filter nutrients and sediment from the water before it enters creeks, streams and lakes downstream. The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) helped design the grade of the slope around the new wetland to gather the rain water that runs down from the fields above. They also provided the crew and equipment to insure that the grades of the slopes were created accurately according to their design so that they would hold water. The construction took place in October and seems to have worked beautifully; the pool was beginning to fill nicely after late autumn rain.

The expansion of the wetland in Southwest Field 2

Now the stewardship team will wait to see how the wetland works over the next year. For example, will it dry like a vernal pool or have some standing water all year? Then Ben can decide which plants will thrive in or around this new water feature. It may look like a modest pool at the moment, but in time, we can hope it will flourish with aquatic and wetland plants that will feed and protect wildlife.

A flock of other winter visitors, the Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis), fluttered from one corner of this huge field to the other. A solitary Junco let me capture its portrait at the shadowy edge of the woods to the north. In contrast to the Common Redpoll, this sleek, black-and-white sparrow with its white outer tail feathers is a regular winter visitor from the Canadian forests.

Dark-eyed Juncos are often the first winter migrants to arrive from northern Canada.

Nearby a year ’round resident of the area, a male Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) spiraled around a branch searching for food beneath the loose bark. It looks like it’s given this perch a good going-over! These little woodpeckers often like to hang out with mixed flocks of birds for protection from predators.

A Downy Woodpecker drilling for insects or insect eggs on a dead branch

When I visited Watershed Ridge Park in early November, some insects still kept me company. At the muddy edge of a tilled field, a Carolina Locust (Dissosteira carolina) crept slowly over the furrows, perhaps looking for the soy beans left after the harvest. The least destructive of locusts, these insects do eat grasses but sometimes beans are their preferred diet, according to the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee Field Station.

A Carolina Locust may have been looking for soybeans left behind after the farmer harvested them.

The Field Two trail turns back east and heads for Field Three (E) just east of the parking lot by cutting through a hedgerow (D).

Cut through the hedgerow from Southwest Field 2 to Field 3
Following the Trail into Field Three (E), Then Off Trail Through the Forest (F)
Trail from Field 2 through the hedgerow to Field 3

From the hedgerow cut, the trail runs alongside the forest and then circles the field to return to the parking lot. But my choice one November afternoon was to go off trail through the woods. This moist woods is alive with frog song in the spring months. But now it’s almost silent, so that the crackle of my footsteps on the deep layers of Northern Red Oak (Quercus rubra) and White Oak (Quercus alba) leaves sounded loud and a bit intrusive.

Red Oak leaves have pointed lobes tipped with bristles and White Oak leaves have rounded lobes.

Among the leaf litter, I noticed a Northern Red Oak leaf with a peach-colored pom-pom attached. With help from Dr. Gary Parsons at Michigan State University’s Entomology Department, I learned that it was a Woolly Oak Leaf Gall, the winter abode of a very tiny insect larva called a gall wasp. Callirhytis lanata, this particular gall wasp, would look like a dot on your finger tip; it’s only 1-8 mm long, about a third of an inch! When the wasp lays her egg on a Red Oak leaf, either she or the larva which hatches from egg secretes a substance that stimulates the leaf to create these gall tissues that form the pom-pom. Inside the gall, the larva eats those tissues, pupates, and a tiny new adult wasp emerges in the spring. If the gall isn’t invaded by a predator, the fuzzy little pom-pom is a safe, cozy spot to spend the winter!

A Woolly Oak Leaf gall forms a warm, enclosed getaway where the larva of tiny wasp can spend the winter.

Farther east in this woods, I was confronted by what appears to be the deadly effects of invasive species, those life forms that may be relatively harmless in their native lands, but become destructive where they are not native. I came across a graveyard of large trees (G) that had died and fallen rather than been cut by humans. Ben’s best guess was that they were likely Ash trees (genus Fraxinus) decimated by the Emerald Ash Borer (Agrilus planipennis). Ash trees in the native range of Emerald Ash Borer in northeast Asia share evolutionary history with this insect and can protect against damage; trees in North America and Europe are naive to this insect and not yet resistant. Since it was discovered in our area in 2002, Emerald Ash Borer has killed millions of ash trees just in southeast Michigan. Ben tells me that this insect infestation continues to be a problem in our township. In the same way that Dutch Elm Disease affected elms years ago, it is still killing small ash trees before they get a chance to mature. So please don’t transport firewood from our area which can further spread this kind of devastation!

A large area of fallen ash trees killed by the Emerald Ash Borer between 2002 and the present.

Lichens and moss appear on fallen logs throughout this forest, but I tend to notice them most in the austerity of autumn. Wikipedia describes lichens as “self-contained mini-ecosystems” or composite organisms made up of a variety of fungi and either cyanobacteria or green algae along with other tiny microorganisms. (Their scientific names vary based on the fungi species within them.) These tiny ecosystems survive on all kinds of surfaces, in all kinds of habitats, all over the world. Though they are not plants, the algae or cyanobacteria in lichens can produce sugars through photosynthesis to feed the fungi and the fungi in turn create a protective structure that gathers in the water and minerals needed for the photosynthesis, a symbiotic relationship. Some lichens are thought to be the oldest living organisms, settling in on the bare rock of the early planet.

This may be a “cructose” lichen with flakes on the surface that Wikipedia describes as “a bit like peeling paint.”

In November, the mosses (Bryophyta) at Watershed Ridge Park were thinning and less lush. But when I took a moment to focus on them, I could imagine the small community they host on each log. In her book, Gathering Moss, bryologist (a botanist specializing in mosses) and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, Robin Wall Kimmerer describes moss as “the most ancient of land plants.” These tiny plants inhabit nooks and crevices worldwide and in doing so, Kimmerer compares their roles in the forest to the roles corals play in oceans – removing water impurities and hosting within their structures a myriad of tiny creatures necessary to the larger ecosystem in which they exist. Mosses also slowly help process logs into soil over decades and even rocks into sand over eons. I’d love to see the tiny creatures moving within these land-based “reefs” of moss, in the same way fish and eels inhabit an ocean reef. But I’ll need a magnification loupe and a lot more training before I can do that!

Mosses purify water and host tiny invertebrates that play their role within the life of a forest.

Off in the distance, at the eastern edge of this forest, a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) huddled over, apparently eating prey on the forest floor. Suddenly it flew up, skimmed quickly along the tree line and then headed out for the larger forest beyond the field.

A Red-tailed Hawk foraging just beyond the forest at the edge of the Eastern Field.

Years ago a farmer had dredged a ditch to drain the eastern wetland that stretches behind the eastern fields. To this day, the ditch carries water to another wetland. I turned to follow that stream back west to explore the area around and beyond that western marsh.

Water running through an old drainage ditch from the eastern to the west marsh.
Exploring the Meadow (H) Above the Western Marsh (I)
The slope above the eastern marsh, now covered with Showy Goldenrod

Walking back west, I arrive at a restored meadow that slopes down to the Western Marsh. During the summer, this lovely hill is covered in grasses and wildflowers. In this season, the field becomes an expanse of burnt golds and browns with the dried flower heads of various goldenrods. I’m learning to recognize wildflowers during their seeding season and this autumn, I mastered a few more. So here are four goldenrods in the sloping meadow as they appeared in the summer and as they look now, for those of you who share my interest in knowing the names of the plants and animals that share our local habitat with us.

As I stepped from the forest, a small orange butterfly popped up from among the goldenrods and sailed off into the distance. I pursued it, of course, but it never settled again. Luckily, I think I recognized it from its pattern, size and color. The small, orange and brown Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma) produces two generations each year and they look slightly different. The adults that emerge from logs or tree hollows in early summer have orange forewings, but much darker hindwings like this one:

The summer form of the Eastern Comma

The summer adults produce the winter adult that I saw at Watershed Ridge Park, which has similar patterning, but the hindwings are more orange. I think what I saw was a member of the winter generation which either overwinters or sometimes migrates. These butterflies feed on rotting fruit, tree sap or sometimes dung or carrion (!). So it’s not entirely surprising that I saw one fluttering above the goldenrod on a cool November day. Here’s a photo taken in November of a winter form Eastern Comma by a photographer just named “thoughton” at iNaturalist.org.

Winter form of the Eastern Comma by iNaturalist photographer “thoughton” (CC BY-NC)

A few days later I was treated to a sight that I’m learning to anticipate in autumn – the dance of the Winter Crane Flies (genus Trichocera). These fragile little insects rise from dead grasses in cool weather and bob up and down in small mating swarms of mostly males. Females evidently only join in to find a quick mate and then lay eggs in the ground. The adults overwinter in logs or under leaf litter and emerge in the late afternoon of warm spring, fall and occasionally even winter days.

The blurred wings of Winter Crane flies dancing in a swarm in the the meadow above the marsh

With some persistence, I was able to follow one of these crane flies to where it rested for a few moments on a blade of grass. Now I could see the delicate legs and body of this cool weather dancer. Winter crane flies are harmless and completely ignore humans. In fact, as I walked on, I strolled right through a troupe of them that just continued bobbing up and down around me. Such a light-hearted performance to a human eye!

A closeup of the Winter Crane Fly as it rests on a plant stem
Extending the Western Marsh

The farmer who built the ditch running from the eastern marsh to the western hoped, I imagine, to drain both to gain more tillable ground. So the drainage ditch water used to quickly run on beyond the western marsh – but not anymore.

Back in October, the Fish and Wildlife Service helped Ben created an elegant plug for the ditch (J) which will keep water in the western marsh and let it rise to the level it likely obtained before the farmer’s ditch lowered the water level. The Wildlife Service also scooped out a shallow spillway that will allow the water to flow around the plug and slowly re-enter the ditch beyond the plug. That will keep the plug from being eroded if the water rises too high in the marsh. Look how attractive and useful this new barrier is! (Marsh to the right, ditch to the left.)

The large plug created to hold more water in the marsh also makes a path between two fields.
The Northern Field and Its Newly Created Wetland (K)

Until recently, I didn’t know this huge agricultural field was part of Watershed Ridge Park!

The long agricultural field off Lake George Road constitutes the northern section of Watershed Ridge Park

One afternoon in early October, my husband and I walked the long length of the north field to see if we could catch a glimpse of the north edge of the familiar western marsh. We walked carefully along the edge of the farmer’s field in order to preserve his crop and then headed into the woods. Just a few steps from the field, we were immersed in a lush, green area of the park that neither of us had never seen.

My husband, Reg, in the woods above the western marsh

A little more sorting our way through the undergrowth and we were rewarded by a lovely sight – the north side of the marsh with abundant tall reeds and surrounded by large trees. I can’t wait to see this area in the spring and summer!

The northern side of the western marsh in October

Ben thought of a third water project for this park. As part of the October work, he asked the Fish and Wildlife Service to design a new wetland in the northern field, near the ditch plug. By mid-November, it had already begun to collect runoff from the slopes above. Like the other projects, the goal of this hydrological restoration is to regain wetlands that were lost to tiling farm fields and ditching streams. The restored wetlands will capture runoff from the adjacent fields and filter the water. What a sight to see this wetland full enough to reflect an autumn sky!

New wetland in the northern meadow at Watershed Ridge Park

It appears that wildlife is already taking advantage of a new water source. Deer tracks encircled the water’s edge. No doubt other smaller animals and birds will make their way here once the wetland is surrounded by plant life, rather than the wide open agricultural field. But that change won’t take place for a few more years.

Deer tracks surrounding the new northern field wetland.
Making Watershed Ridge Park More Welcoming – for Us and Other Species!
Acres of wetland surrounded by natural berm in the forest at the far eastern edge of Watershed Ridge Park.

Stewardship is a multi-faceted effort in our township: removing invasive species, mapping and surveying natural areas, monitoring vernal pools, sowing native seed, restoring native landscape, educating the public so they can more fully enjoy the nature around them, and so much more. And now Ben, our Stewardship Manager, has added the restoration of degraded wetlands to that list of tasks.

These pools, though relatively small now, will be a welcome addition to the parks, enriching the diversity of plants and animals around us. Water is just as crucial for other creatures as it is for humans. That’s why I always seek it out, muddy shoes and all, when I explore our parks. If they function as we hope they will, in the future butterflies, dragonflies and other insects will flutter and dash above these wetlands, courting, mating and producing young. Birds will dip their beaks on a hot summer day and the deer at the water’s edge will be joined by more nighttime creatures eager to slake their thirst in the darkness. Nature will find a warm welcome once the rolling landscapes sway and dance again with a rich assortment of native flowers and grasses .

And of course, with our new trails (and more to come), we humans can more easily be there too, enjoying that diverse natural world. Once the trails turn green, I hope you’ll find the time to follow these very accessible, gentle trails and perhaps venture beyond them to see all this remarkable park offers. It will grow only more beautiful in the years to come.

A solo dance by one Winter Crane Fly near the western marsh

Bear Creek Nature Park: A Welcoming Refuge from the Holiday “Must-do’s!”

The meadow west of the Center Pond in December

At our house, we’ve just emerged from the joyful-but-somewhat-frantic bustle of the festive season. From just before Thanksgiving through the New Year, we enjoyed the noise, color and craziness of the holiday with lots of friends and family  – but it feels like we just didn’t stop moving for weeks!  I imagine that’s true for lots of you too.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

I managed to keep some  scraps of my sanity by – you guessed it – venturing out into the parks. Our home is about five minutes from Bear Creek Nature Park; that became my most frequent escape hatch. So here’s a look at the wildness nearby that (with a small nod to Will Shakespeare) knit the raveled sleeve of my cares during the last several weeks.

 

It All Began before Thanksgiving…

Ice forming on the Center Pond on a bitter day in November

In the first half of November, before the rush of the festive season, wild visitors from farther north began to filter into Bear Creek. The birding group got a glimpse of a Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca) in the bushes. These large, chubby sparrows are usually rusty red with chevrons forming the stripes on their breasts. Since I didn’t get a good shot that day, here’s one in a very similar setting from generous iNaturalist photographer, Joseph Salmieri.

A Fox Sparrow by Joseph Salmieri (CC BY-NC) at iNaturalist.org

The birding group also saw a flock of Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) feeding in the grass along a path in early November. These birds make lovely black dashes against the snow on a winter day. They travel here from their breeding grounds in Canada – perhaps all the way from Hudson’s Bay! They’re often my first real sign that winter’s on its way.

A Dark-eyed Junco along the trail at Bear Creek in early November

The second half of November bore down on me suddenly since Thanksgiving came so late this year. Snow fell; the temperature dropped. Yikes! Time to design Christmas cards, turn my photos into a family calendar, think about gifts for special people. Out in the park, birds kept me company to soothe my jitters. One afternoon, my husband and I came across what seemed to be a friendly gathering of birds. Five species hung out together, moving about foraging and chattering in a grove of small trees near where Bear Creek runs out of the pond.

Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) caught our attention first as they chatted in a small tree. A male House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) listened in from behind a branch. The bluebirds probably moved a little farther south to escape the cold for a while, though some may return for short visits during the winter and some may be year ’round residents.

Five bluebirds socialize before moving south while the House Finch, a year ’round resident, listens in from behind a branch.

The House Finch just bears up in the cold of a Michigan winter. Like other small winter residents, he keeps warm by crunching on copious amounts of seed and fluffing his feathers into a winter jacket.

house-finch-male-bc.jpg

A male House Finch will stay with us all winter. Love how the red shows between his wings!

The woodpeckers, too, are a hardy crew. A Downy Woopecker male (Dryobates pubescens) tapped along a tree trunk searching for insects eggs or a frozen caterpillar, quite uninterested in the bluebirds.

A male Downy Woodpecker kept up a tapping rhythm near the bluebirds.

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) joined the gathering on a nearby Wild Black Cherry tree (Prunus serotina). He seemed to be craning his neck to hear what was going on with the bluebirds behind him! But in reality, of course, he was just demonstrating the caution that all wild birds do when feeding.

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker looks about while foraging at another tree trunk.

The fifth member of the bird gathering was the industrious Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor), who pretty much ignored the others, having found something very interesting at the end of a branch.

A Tufted Titmouse sees something worth its attention at the end of a dead branch.

On the big loop path beyond the bird gathering, a White Oak leaf (Quercus alba) testified to the frigid temperatures. The water droplets on it had frozen and magnified the leaf’s veins in a way that always fascinates me.

Frozen water droplets function like a magnifying glass on a white oak leaf.

Our feeders at home got busy around Thanksgiving as well, providing visual entertainment as we buzzed by the windows, working on Christmas projects. New guests arrived at the feeder this year – the Hairy Woodpeckers (Dryobates villosus). Here the female sits in an aging black oak outside the window, just beyond the feeder.

A female Hairy Woodpecker in profile shows off her long, thick beak.

It’s sometimes hard to distinguish the Hairy from the Downy Woodpecker at a distance.  But when both arrive at a feeder at the same time, the difference in size is readily apparent!

The Hairy Woodpecker has a much heavier bill and is much larger than the Downy when seen up close at a feeder!

The Holiday Pace Picks up in December…

Eastern Meadow at Bear Creek on a later winter afternoon

Oh, boy. Hurried wrapping of presents for family in Australia. Multiple trips to the Post Office to send calendars to friends overseas and around the States. Trips out of town for special gifts. But on the way home from the errands, a stop at Bear Creek to slow down, breathe the sharp air and redden my cheeks.

One dark, late afternoon and as I entered the park, I noted an alarming sight. A lovely but deadly Oriental Bittersweet vine (Celastrus orbiculatus) had wrapped itself around a tiny tree. This terribly invasive plant will slowly strangle this sapling if it isn’t carefully removed and its roots treated with herbicide. Sad that such a colorful vine should have such a powerfully negative impact! Birds do eat the berries at times, but unfortunately get very little nutrition from them.

Vines like this invasive Oriental Bittersweet that wrap around trees can strangle them. And the berries have scant nutrition for our birds.

Looking for more benign color, I came across lots of rich green moss (phylum Bryophyta) in the forest. Mosses, unlike plants, can actually grow very slowly in cold temperatures, if not under snow or ice. Some mosses actually survive in Antarctica! Our mosses cope with winter winds by being close to the ground and benefit from the moisture of winter rain and melting snow. They can also go dormant when moisture is low and then regenerate quickly after a rain. What a relief to the eye to come across these bright green mosses on a wintry day! [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

A golden fungus and a bright yellow lichen appeared at various places in the park in December.  These bright touches against bark or leaves always catch my attention on a gray winter day.

Reminders of summer past help me put things back in perspective during the  holiday bustle. An abandoned nest of what I think was Bald-faced Hornets (Dolichovespula maculata) hung low in bush. Yellow Jacket Wasps (Vespula maculifrons) also build aerial nests occasionally, as well as using underground burrows, but theirs are usually higher up than this one. The hornets created this masterpiece with overlapping, striped scallops. Since the hornets nicely camouflaged the nest in a leafy bush, I’d missed it completely in the summer. Amazing that these tiny creatures can create such a beautiful design on the outside of their architecture and those myriad, perfect hexagons inside!

Along the path to the west of the Playground Pond, the abandoned, but still intact nest of last summer’s Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) swung gently in the winter air, but no fledglings rock within it now. Another architectural marvel, this one was woven out of plant fibers over the course of one to two weeks by a female Oriole. Such sturdy nests and they’re only used for one season!

A Baltimore Oriole nest woven last spring by a female using only her beak! And it’s sturdy enough to survive winter winds!

Some summer plants still stand tall in the fields, bearing their seeds for hungry birds. The giant Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) has done its duty. It’s  been picked clean, probably by the flocks of American Goldfinches in the park.

Prairie Dock from last summer has already offered up its seeds for hungry birds.

Its huge, spotted leaves that feel like sandpaper in the summer now lie crumbling beneath the stately stalks.

The huge, sandpaper-like leaves of Prairie Dock are now giving their nutrients back to the soil.

In December, Goldfinches had not yet devoured the seeds of this Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis). This one was so fluffy that it looked like it was dressed in a down jacket for the winter. But with winter wind and wet, heavy snow, it will bow down to the ground before spring, making way for new sprouts.

A Canada Goldenrod still stands upright, looking like its dressed for winter weather.

One afternoon, my husband I found a gorgeous rock embedded with quartz crystals. From its location, I’m guessing it was  hidden under a vernal pool for most of the year. It shone white in the winter woods, looking like a stray snowball from a distance. Isn’t the coloring and crystal structure lovely? So rare to see such a large, white rock.

A beautiful white rock, perhaps granite mixed with quartz and feldspar crystals.

And Then the Post-Holiday Slow-down

Bear Creek meanders south from Gunn Road to join Paint Creek just west of the Paint Creek Cider mill.

Presents are put away.  Decorations are being stored in the basement. The bevy of much beloved guests is dwindling. And the park has gone mostly silent. Perhaps you’ve noticed that birds are a bit tougher to see or hear in Bear Creek Nature Park now. Sometimes they’re present, but I wonder if  their diminished numbers may be due to something good – a plentitude of winter feeders in the surrounding neighborhoods.

On our last visit, we heard a Red-bellied Woodpecker in the woods on the township hall trail and perhaps the “ank-ank-ank” of a White-breasted Nuthatch somewhere on the Big Loop. We watched a family of American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) settling into some tall trees off the western field. The adults arrived first and one began calling. When no young arrived, the calling adult looked back at its mate and they cawed until all the presumably younger members gathered with them in the tree tops. Crow families often stay together for more than one season, the young helping the adults feed the nestlings of the next generation. Such intelligent and social birds!

Down at the Center Pond, the ice had temporarily melted and a pair of Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) glided across the dark surface. They’ve evidently made their December choice of partners and will now spend the winter together before mating in the spring.

A mallard couple keeping company on the pond while the ice is gone.

Signs of spring feel rare and welcome after Christmas and its encouraging to notice that plants have already made preparations. A fuzzy little Thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana) held onto its seeds at the edge of a woodland trail. This plant produces oblong fruits with a thimble-like shape and pattern in summer that change into cottony tufts full of seeds in the fall. It keeps its seeds right into winter and depends on the wind to spread them. But it has another couple of strategies for survival. It produces a substance that discourages other seeds around it from germinating and its tap root is accompanied by rhizomes (underground stems that sprout and make roots) that allow it to spread beneath the soil. Look how its seed tufts in the photo below just happened to form an image of a frowning human profile, something I didn’t notice until I developed the photo! What fun!

I call this tufted seedhead Thimbleweed Man. Do you see the profile face looking right in the top stem?

The trees produce leaf buds in the fall which sometimes have a waxy surface to help retain moisture in the winter cold. The American Dogwood (Cornus florida) makes neat, round, little flower buds that face upward at the branch tips. Separately and sometimes just below the flower buds are leaf buds. I’ve only found one American Dogwood in Bear Creek Nature Park ; it’s on the east side of the Big Loop. Each fall and winter, I look eagerly for these buds with their pointed tops turned to the sun. In spring, I enjoy the way the white bracts (modified leaves) open to reveal a small cluster of yellow flowers at the center.

I saw this lovely bud on the Big Loop but can’t identify it yet! I loved its golden glow on a gray day! If any of you know which tree produced this bud, please tell me in the comments! It almost looks as though the leaves started to break from their buds with the warmer temperatures after the holidays.

A mystery plant – but isn’t its bud a pretty color?

Down near the Center Pond, I spotted the cache of an American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) beneath the trunk of an old Shagbark Hickory tree (Carya ovata). I could hear the owner scolding me from deep within the tangled brush nearby, but I never got a clear look at it. Shagbark Hickory is a fine example of how productive native trees can be in their habitat. According to the Illinois Wildflower website, these big, distinctive trees provide sweet nuts for raccoons, squirrels, chipmunks and many birds. Their leaves host a wide variety of insect caterpillars and so are often sought out by birds like chickadees, vireos, warblers and others. The long shards of shaggy bark provide winter shelter for insects and even nesting sites for small birds like the Brown Creeper. And they’re deer and fire resistant! – though the saplings may be gnawed by rabbits. What a contributor to a healthy habitat!

The consumed cache of an American Red Squirrel at the foot of a large Shagbark Hickory which supplied most of the nuts. Hope this squirrel has other caches for the coming winter months!

Shagbark Hickory bark provides winter shelter for overwintering insects and nesting sites for birds.

On the way back down to the Township Hall the day after Christmas, we spotted the festive bark of another tree. Nice Christmas colors,eh?

The reddish bark and green moss on this Sassafras tree looked quite festive at the holiday season!

Ben identified the tree for me as one of the tallest Sassafras trees (Sassafras albidum) that he’s ever seen. We were certainly impressed! Its bark can sheer off, leaving this red layer exposed. Sassafras is another generous host, providing food for butterfly caterpillars like the Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus), the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) and for many moths. Bobwhites, Wild Turkeys and many songbirds feed on their pitted fruits called “drupes.”

A very tall, native Sassafras tree on the trail from the Township Hall

The Comforts of “Home” on a Winter Walk

A Walnut tree against a stormy sky at Bear Creek Park

Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that… wildness is a necessity.”
― John Muir, in Our National Parks

Sometimes I notice that I’ve become an “over-civilized” person, don’t you? I find myself feeling crabby from too many “must-do’s,” feeling hemmed in by walls and getting stale from breathing what feels like the same old air. That’s when I rediscover Muir’s insight.  Wildness really is a necessity – maybe for all of us, whether we know it or not. Even in winter, I regularly need to immerse myself in the crazy quilt of a meadow full of  dry grass stems and listen to the pulsing roar of wind rushing headlong through the crowns of trees. The wild language of crows backed by the drumbeat of woodpeckers tunes me to a different key. For a short time, I’m enfolded within a complex world much beyond my small human one. And somehow that allows me to rest. I pull my hat down over my ears, snug up the scarf at my neck and I’m home, at ease in a place where I’m welcomed – and so are you – as just another creature making its way through winter days.

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.