Tag Archives: Downy Woodpecker

Watershed Ridge Park: Adventures in a Pathless Park – Virtual Hike # 1

Doesn’t dealing with the possibility of a highly invasive virus in our private ecosystems sometimes feel like a pathless wood? An adventure we’d just as soon have done without? Well, maybe you could consider my favorite antidote – a real pathless wood or meadow that offers adventure all along the way.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

Skirt an unexpectedly wide wetland by crunching along on any dry stalks you can find. Listen to coyotes singing in the moist shade of a spring forest. Wend your way through tall, graceful native grasses. Navigate through, or preferably around, prickly brambles that grab at your sleeve. Hop over one of many streams that flow in every direction – or use a log as a mossy bridge if you dare. It’s all available at Watershed Ridge Park.  I can guarantee that for the time you’re there,  you’re unlikely to think of anything but what’s underfoot, over the next slope or landing in the next tree.

 

My Advice:  Get Oriented First and Use the Compass in Your Phone as Necessary!

The Parks and Recreation Commission (PRC) has created a fine parking lot on West Buell Road, but will not be able to create the first park trails until later this year.  They are planned to follow the edges of some of the farm fields in the southwest corner of the park. So for now,  you’ll need to ramble along muddy field edges in the spring, climb over fallen logs in the woods year ’round and hike your knees up high to navigate the meadow’s tall plants in the summer. If you visit Watershed Ridge Park now, I’d recommend sturdy boots, a high tolerance for mud, a jacket that doesn’t collect burrs or get snagged easily by thorns and a compass of some kind. This blog is the fourth I’ve written on Watershed Ridge, and I’ve gotten disoriented twice there over the years. Even our stewardship manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide,  got turned around on an early trip to Watershed Ridge Park!

So to begin,  I want to show you an aerial map of the whole park so you can envision where I’m walking as we take two vigorous virtual hikes together this week and next.

WRP_AerialMap2_Hikes
An aerial view of Watershed Ridge Park. The aerial photo is from 2017.

The green line on the map marks the boundaries of the park.  The little pink squares off West Buell Road mark the area around  the township’s pole barn situated at the edge of a large agricultural field. The yellow line shows the approximate route for our virtual hike!

NOTE:  It’s important when exploring Watershed Ridge Park not to tread across planted fields. For now, the Parks & Recreation Commission (PRC) rents land for farming on the big eastern fields and at the northeast and southwest corners of the park,  because they want to preserve farming in the area as a cultural feature. Farming provides the benefit of controlling invasive plants until a restoration plan is implemented.

On the west side of the park, the PRC is hoping to get some habitat restoration going in the next year! Partnering with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, they are hoping to restore how the water moves (hydrology) in certain areas. In some spots, they will strategically plug some of the drainage ditches dug years ago. In other areas small berms will be built to slow down water running off the fields, recreating the shallow ponds and saturated soils that were eliminated to make way for farming years ago. Some of the farm fields will also be planted with native grasses and wildflowers, focusing on areas that are often too wet to farm, or so steep that the soil erodes easily. As a huge prairie fan, that pleases me mightily. Once you picture these rolling fields restored to waving native grasses and wildflowers, I hope you’ll agree. For now, though, please stay on the edges of the farm fields to avoid hurting the crops.  

Trodding the Edges of a Rolling Farm Field with Forays into the Forest

After walking east from the parking lot along Buell Road, my husband and I headed out one Sunday along the grass edge between the two farmed fields on the eastern edge of the park (north of the “firewood pickup area”).  The ridge after which the park is named runs roughly diagonally across the large center field; this watershed ridge means that streams on the park’s western side flow to Paint Creek and streams in the east flow toward the west branch of Stony Creek.

It appeared that a raccoon had been treading the same ground the night before.

A raccoon left a print along the muddy edge of a farm field at Watershed Ridge.

Off in the field, beyond a slope, we heard the keening cry of Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus), those smartly striped Plovers that wing their way here each spring. They winter in southern climes as far away as the West Indies, Central America and the northern regions of South America. There they enjoyed beaches and coastal wetlands or fields. So it must feel like a bit of a comedown to settle here in a muddy field with low vegetation – but that is their preferred breeding area. They need the insects, crayfish and worms that our area produces once warmer weather arrives in order to feed themselves and their young.

Two of the four Killdeer that were probing the mud of the big eastern field.

Near the northeast section of the field, we took a short foray into the deep woods. In the dimness, we could see the tip of a large wetland and a tall, sloped hummock that faced northwest. We suddenly heard a high, squeaking howl, which we at first took for two trees rubbing together. But the squeals were followed by soft barking! Coyotes! (Canis latrans var.) Our guess was that one of these clever canines had built their well-protected den on the south side of the large hummock handily located near water and also therefore, potential prey. What a sound in the dim light! (No photo there, I’m afraid; I was too excited and the tree density made it hard for the camera to see the sloping hill beyond – so please feel free to use your imagination!) The notes were high, keening and not as powerful as usual and we wondered if we were hearing pups. Coyote pups are born in March or April, so it’s possible, but unlikely. Perhaps a female was agitated by our scent. Impossible to know, but intriguing!

Wild coyotes avoid humans. You’ll usually see them walking away. Photo by Jonathan Schechter with permission.

Later in the week, in the far distance near another wetland, I saw the haunches of a coyote, its tail hanging low, as it loped around the edge of dry reeds near the water and disappeared. I wonder if it was one of the family we’d heard? The photo above is by Jonathan Schechter, wildlife photographer and writer of his fine blog, The Wilder Side of Oakland County, which is currently on hiatus so the county can concentrate on emergency virus information.

Coming out of the woods, we spotted dark Polypore/Shelf mushrooms decorating a snag (standing dead tree). These fungi will slowly recycle the nutrients and carbon dioxide sequestered in the wood over many years. The mushrooms do their part to slow down the release of carbon into the atmosphere caused by the death of a tree.

Polypore/shelf mushrooms proliferate on a snag, feeding on the nutrients and carbon dioxide that the tree stored for many years.

One of the delights of this hike was the sight of a Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger) feeding contentedly on the bright red buds of a Silver Maple  (Acer saccharinum). Now that’s a real spring tableau!

A male Fox Squirrel savored a treat of buds from a Silver Maple.

Near the maple, a small thicket of orange-tipped Gray Dogwood (Cornus racemosa) contributed a bit of color to the early spring landscape. They hosted galls formed by an insect called the Dogwood Club Midge (Resseliella clavula) which laid its eggs in the stems last year; the plant then obligingly grew round them to create a safe hideaway! In the fall, the larva drilled their way out of the gall and burrowed into the ground to emerge this spring. They don’t harm the wild shrubs and provide food for some other creatures, I expect. Very elegant, those Dogwood Club galls! [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

The heads of some curious White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) popped up over the edge of a slope in the field. Look at that series of attentive ears!

A curious group of White-tailed Does, their ears perked!

And of course, a couple of trees were dotted with an American Crow family (Corvus brachyrhynchos). As I moved slowly toward them, they flew off as usual, leaving one family member to pass by a bit closer to execute a quick inspection of us humans below.

As we approached the northwest corner of the field, we stepped once more into the woods for a closer look at a mysterious swamp. The term “swamp,” as defined by the Environmental Protection Agency, is any wetland dominated by woody plants,” meaning trees and shrubs. The large wetland to the north drains into this woodland, and the water spreads out among many trees and shrubs.  Imagine the size of the tree that left that crenelated stump!

A giant tree stump at the edge of a wonderfully mysterious swamp

Exploring the Woods to the West of the Big Center Farm Field

A natural log bridge in the woods to the west of the large agricultural field.

Inside the woodland edge, a female Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) darted from branch to branch, occasionally looking into tree holes that might make a suitable nesting spot in a few weeks.

A female Eastern Bluebird pauses while searching for a nesting site.

Once inside the wood, giants appear everywhere – large Oak trees with big mossy feet!

The mossy foot of a huge member of the Red Oak family

It occurred to me as I walked this lovely forest that I might see the butterfly that always seems to emerge first each spring, the Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa). Shortly thereafter, one flew up behind me and sailed right above my right shoulder and off into the distance! Mourning Cloak adults spend the winter under tree bark and are well camouflaged for it. They will mate and lay eggs this spring and their offspring will spend next winter in the woods at Watershed Ridge Park. Here are photos I took in other years of  the upper (dorsal) and lower (ventral) side of their wings.

The Mourning Cloak butterfly overwinters as an adult to take advantage of less food competition in the spring.
The wood-like appearance of the underside of the Mourning Cloak’s wings makes terrific camouflage in a forest.

An Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus) had left behind its torpid winter state.  Chipmunks don’t exactly hibernate. This little one repeatedly slept from 1-8 days at a time this winter and woke periodically to munch on the nuts in its larder, before sleeping again. Wikipedia informs me that the word “chipmunk” is derived from an Objibwe word for “one who descends trees headlong.” And indeed that is exactly what this little one did before it paused for its portrait.

An Eastern Chipmunk paused while foraging for nuts and seeds.

Brown Creeper (Certhia americana)darted down from high in a tree and began spiraling up the bark, looking for insects or insect eggs.  If you see movement like that, a bird spiraling up one tree, and then flying down to the bottom of the next, you can be quite confident even at a distance that you’ve seen one of these tiny, well-camouflaged birds. It’s often mistaken for a White Breasted Nuthatch, but the Nuthatch hops both up and down the trunk and doesn’t usually start at the bottom of a tree. My little Creeper didn’t stick around, but  last week, the fine local photographer, Joan Bonin, caught a lovely photo of one up-close with her skill and a steady hand on her super long lens.  What a shot!

A Brown Creeper blending nicely with tree bark.  Photo by Joan Bonin used with permission.

A Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) hunting for insects appeared to be tattooing a design into the surface of a snag. As you can see, this male was very intent on foraging – or maybe he was contemplating his artwork! Males Downies drum in the spring to attract mates, but this one’s soft taps were intermittent rather than the continuous drumming or whinnying calls usually employed by a Downy male to capture a female’s attention.

A male downy leaving its mark on a snag.

On the northeast side of this woods, a stream runs out of the very large wetland in the north of the park. The stream bed was probably excavated years ago by a farmer trying to drain more land for agriculture. It runs from that huge wetland to a smaller one at the bottom of a meadow and then on to Lake George Road and ultimately Paint Creek.

A distant view of the tip of a large marsh in the north of the park and a stream flowing out of it.

On the day I visited, the ice had just begun to melt and in places where the sun hit, I could listen quietly to the glorious spring sound of bubbling water! Watch for the Skunk Cabbage shoots along the bank in my video below.

So Much to Explore, but Enough for Now…

Virtual Hike #1 comes to an end. You and I wend our way south, back to the parking lot.  We emerge from a part of the woods that we’ll explore more in Hike #2 next week.  Being careful to stay on the grassy edge of a smaller farm field, we stop to admire an Eastern Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis) cleverly camouflaged among the fallen stems.

A garter snake seeking the sun at the grassy edge of a field.

Our steps make the snake slide into a clump of dry grass, but then it feels the need to peek out.  Its head is striped like a barber pole by the shadows of grass stems.

The garter snake’s body is spiral striped by the grass stems. So shiny in the sunlight!

That’s the kind of beautiful little moment – the snake’s cautious peek and spiraling shadows briefly forming on those iridescent scales – that, for me, makes a lovely end to a long, challenging walk.  I hope it feels like that to you, too!. Stop back next week and we’ll explore more of big, untamed Watershed Ridge Park.  I’ll be glad to have your company!

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.

Bare Feet and Feathers? How Do Birds Survive Winter Weather?

Tufted Titmouse in a snow fall, feathers puffed up against the cold

I’m guessing lots of us who love nature have wondered the same thing in the last few weeks. “As the temperature drops below zero, how do those small birds with bare feet survive out there?”

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

Well, it turns out that although our avian winter neighbors share a similar technique for keeping their feet from freezing, their strategies for dealing with cold, snowy days can differ.

 

First Rule:  Use Those Feathers!

Female Cardinal looking lovely in her puffed feathers on a frigid morning

We humans love down jackets on cold winter days and snuggle beneath down comforters on winter nights. Well, birds like the female Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) above, or the Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) pictured at the top of the blog, use the same technique. When birds fluff up their feathers in the cold, they trap a layer of air between the feathers. Their body temperature – in small birds more than 100˚ F –  warms the air layer just as it does in our jackets.  According to Peter Marra, head of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center at the National Zoo, “Birds’ feathers provide remarkable insulation against the cold, and the oil that coats feathers also provides waterproofing, which is important since the only thing worse than being cold, is being cold and wet.” Here are a few of birds making the most of their feathers on a recent cold morning. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

What About Those Bare Feet, Though?

A Goldfinch last summer at Lost Lake, checking out its “bare feet.”

Last summer I caught this American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) staring at its feet in a tree near Lost Lake. I laughed to think that perhaps it was worrying about how they’d feel on a snowy day! Birds really do have very cold feet in the winter. According to scientist and professor Bernd Heinrich on the Cornell website, the feet of chickadees stay just above freezing even while their body temperatures are very high. Presumably, they don’t feel it much. Their feet are mostly tendons and bones with very few muscles or nerves. If you look at those three birds with feather puffed that are pictured above, you can see they’ve hunched over their feet, covering them with their body feathers. Or sometimes birds simply tuck one leg at a time against their breast. Also, the arteries and veins in birds’ feet are close together. As Heinrich explains it, a bird’s feet are provided with continuous blood flow which keeps them from freezing.  Since the arteries pass close to the veins in a bird’s legs, the cooled blood from the feet gets warmed on the way back to the heart to keep the bird’s body warm. And the warm blood from the heart is cooled down as it moves out to the legs, reducing heat loss. Pretty efficient system!

Second Rule: Eat as Much as Possible!

A White Breasted Nuthatch preparing to tuck a seed into the bark of a tree

On cold days, small birds really need to stuff themselves every few minutes to keep warm. When you see a White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) or Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillusdashing from your feeder to nearby trees, it’s eating some seeds and storing others in the trees’ bark. Amazingly, the brains of Chickadees expand in the fall to improve their memory so that they can later find those seeds or nuts. According to Cornell’s Birdsleuth website, “neurons are added to the Chickadee’s hippocampus in the fall, increasing its volume by about 30%.”  As a result, Chickadees can remember up to a thousand places in which they’ve tucked their winter provisions! (I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before in the blog, but it’s so amazing that it bears repeating!)

But What Do They Eat in Winter?

Mourning Doves (Zenaida macroura) and American Goldfinches can be gluttonous at feeders during the winter because they are vegetarians; no insects or caterpillars for them! On most winter days, they can find seeds or fruits, but  your feeder helps to supplement the wild supply. Mourning Doves can eat 12-20% of their body weight per day! They store seed in their crops, a muscular pouch near the throat, and digest it later to help keep themselves warm at night.

Mourning Doves eat 12-20% of their body weight in seeds each day.

I’ve seen Cedar Waxwings (Bombycillia cedrorum) eating frozen vine fruits or leaf buds that overwinter on the branches of trees.

Cedar waxwings will eat leaf buds on trees during the winter as well as frozen berries.

But many local birds, including Waxwings, are omnivores who can eat a wide range of foods. The Tufted Titmouse, White-Breasted Nuthatch, Chickadees and all kinds of Woodpeckers (family Picidae) spend winter days probing loose bark or hopping along branches looking for frozen dinners;  insects, insect eggs, pupae or perhaps a frozen caterpillar will do just fine as sources of protein on a cold day.

A male downy searching for frozen bugs or larvae on a winter morning

American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos), being bigger birds, will eat almost anything to “stoke their furnaces” during the winter. In our area, the carcasses of White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) provide lots of good protein. And if a crow finds one, it notifies its family and friends to join the feast. (No fair being squeamish. We all have to eat!)

Crows find deer carcasses a great source of protein in cold weather.

Where Do Birds Spend Cold Winter Nights?

According to the Smithsonian’s Peter Marra, “Many small birds, like Black-Capped Chickadees, Eastern Bluebirds, and House Wrens, will gather in large groups at night and crowd together in a small, tight space to share body heat.” Sharing body heat keeps down fat loss during the night to preserve energy for the next day’s foraging.  In his article for Cornell’s All About Birds, Bernd Heinrich describes finding a group of tiny Golden- Crowned Kinglets (Regulus satrapa) huddled in a circle on the branch of a pine tree, beaks in, tails out, sharing their body heat on a winter night. These tiny birds, which overwinter in our area, are about half the weight of a Chickadee! This lovely winter photo of a Golden-crowned Kinglet was taken by a photographer named cedimaria at the website inaturalist.org.

A Golden-crowned Kinglet by photographer cedimaria (CC BY-NC)

Bernd Heinrich reports in his essay collection, Winter’s World, that woodpeckers provide some cozy winter housing for other birds as well as themselves. Every spring, woodpeckers make a fresh hole for raising their young, but they tend to use them for only one year. So small birds can often find an abandoned woodpecker hole to get out of the wind and snow on a winter night. In the autumn, Dr. Heinrich has also spotted both Downy Woodpeckers (Dryobates pubescens) and Hairy Woodpeckers (Dryobates villosus) constructing special overnight shelters just for winter use. I spotted a Downy doing just that in Gallagher Creek Park one November day.  Note the flying wood chips!

A Downy woodpecker in November excavating a hole, chips flying.

Special Winter Strategies Can Be Helpful…

Even though Chickadees can excavate their own holes, in extreme cold they require a few extra tricks at night. According to the Audubon society, these little birds can lower their body temperature at night by as much as 22 degrees, minimizing the difference between their body temperature and the bitterly cold air. They also keep warmer by shivering, which activates opposing muscle groups and produces heat. Luckily, they can even shiver while sleeping, which is something I can’t quite  imagine doing! And of course once settled, like many birds, they can tuck their beaks and feet into their feathers to preserve heat as well.

Though Chickadees can excavate their own holes , sometimes they explore an available cranny in a snag as a possible place to spend a cold night.

Though they don’t appear in our parks these days, Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus) survive days of light fluffy snow in a surprising way. They burrow into the snow, creating a long tunnel with a chamber on the end. These one-day burrows not only provide insulation, according to Bernd Heinrich, but they also provide protection from predators. Large dark birds are very visible against the snow! (This photo was generously shared at iNaturalist.org by photographer Brian Murphy.)

Ruffed Grouse make tunnels under the snow for insulation and protection from predators. Photo by Brian Murphy (CC BY-NC)

Thank Goodness for Our Adaptable Winter Birds!

A Chickadee plumped up and ready for a winter day.

Aren’t you glad that some birds stay with us all winter?  And that some actually arrive for an extended stay just as the snow begins to fall? The constant flutter of a busy Chickadee, the “yank yank” call of a Nuthatch as it circles a branch or the friendly chirping of a flock of foraging Tree Sparrows in dry grass are so companionable on gray winter days. And what could be more heartening on a frigid morning than the sight of scarlet Northern Cardinals or azure Blue Jays in a snowy bush? I’m so thankful that some birds have figured out how to survive the cold along with us. By taking shelter, shivering, eating heartily, and snuggling into down comforters very much like we do, they keep us company as we make our way towards spring.

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, Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, A Naturalist at Large by Bernd Heinrich and others as cited in the text.

 

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…

Gallagher Creek Park: Young Birds and Young Humans Play as Autumn Carries On

Grownups, children and a baby-to-be playing at Gallagher Creek Park

Surprised a bit by seeing the photo above in a nature blog? Well, on my four October visits to Gallagher Creek Park, I noticed an abundance of a new species there – young humans and their watchful adults!

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

Late on autumn afternoons, this modest 15 acre park is now filled with the voices of excited little humans rocking, swinging, spinning , climbing, and sliding on the colorful new playground equipment installed in July by volunteers and staff of the Parks and Recreation Commission. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

The park’s already becoming a place for families to cross paths and get to know their neighbors in the most densely populated part of our township. And meanwhile, in the background…

Nature Goes About Its Autumnal Business

Autumn at Gallagher Creek Park

The natural areas of Gallagher Creek look a bit scruffy right now from all the construction that went on this summer to build a picnic pavilion, a restroom enclosure, expanded parking area, the playground and a paved pathway. But despite all that to-ing and fro-ing, nature survives and offers beauty and bounty when you take time to venture into the fields.

Birds in the Distance as Children Play

Birds may keep their distance when the children are playing, but as I approached the tall grass at the edge of the creek east of the busy playground, a familiar head appeared above the tall grass.

A young Blue Heron peeks above the grass at the edge of the creek.

From the absence of a white crown on its head, it seemed to be a juvenile Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) stalking along the far side of the creek. Young Blue Herons take 3 years to develop full adult plumage, according to the Stokes Guides to Bird Behavior (Vol. 3). This youngster flew off, as I crackled through the browning stalks of goldenrod and yarrow.

But just as I arrived the next morning, when the playground was empty,  a juvenile – perhaps the same one? – flew over the treetops and swooped into a tree covered in vines. I snuck slowly forward and got one shot of it standing tall before it bent its knobby knees backward, spread those magnificent wings, and took to the air once more.

The young heron stood quietly in the tree as I approached.
The young Great Blue Heron bent its knees backward to begin its flight.

While the children shouted and laughed in the afternoon sun on a different afternoon, I watched a lone European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) high in a snag staring out over the playground nearby. It paid no attention to the happy noises below. I imagined that it was waiting for its highly social companions, since starlings gather in huge flocks at this time of year. This one had completed its fall molt complete with fresh feathers tipped in white, giving it the spotted plumage that starlings wear in fall and winter. By spring, the white tips will be worn off, returning these birds to their iridescent blue/black mating colors, and its beak will lighten and even change to bright yellow if it’s a male.

A European Starling that had finished its complete fall molt leaving its iridescent feathers tipped in white.

Unnoticed by the playground youngsters, a large, rippling flock (or “murmuration”) of about 75 starlings suddenly descended on the trees east of the creek. But the lone starling just kept staring into the distance. Perhaps it just needed a break from all the cackling and whistling that goes on in a starling gathering.

Part of a large “murmuration” of swooping starlings near Gallagher Creek.

Over in a quiet corner of the park, near the cat-tail marsh along the road, three little migrating Palm Warblers (Setophaga palmarum) in their duller fall colors chirped contact calls at each other before heading further south. The most notable field mark for these little birds is the bright yellow feathers under their tails and a pale “eyebrow” which they have year ’round.

Seeds Flying, Rattling, Dropping and Providing Food for Wildlife

Autumn, of course,  is the time when plants ripen and disperse seeds for next spring’s blooming. In doing so, they also provide important nourishment for all kinds of creatures. So while the children played, I went out to see what kinds of food nature was preparing in the background.

Seemingly unaware of the hubbub on the playground, a struggling American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) fumbled about trying to extract seed from a Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) while it swayed wildly in a stiff breeze.  I wondered if it was a juvenile who hadn’t quite mastered the skills necessary to extract seeds on a windy day.

It wasn’t easy for this Goldfinch to get the seed it wanted as the stalk it was on tossed back and forth in a stiff wind.

American Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) would delight any child at this time of year with its hot pink stem and blackish purple berries. The trick would be to keep them from trying to eat the berries,  since the seeds inside are slightly toxic to humans. According to one of my favorite wildflower sites, many of our favorite song birds (Bluebirds, Cedar Waxwings and more), as well as raccoons, opposums and the gray fox, feed on pokeweed berries with no problem.  Pokeweed prefers disturbed soil, which makes Gallagher Creek Park just the right spot this year! After I took this shot, I came back a few days later to find the stem broken and picked clean.  Mission accomplished – food eaten and seeds dispersed.

American Pokeweed berries are glamorous but the seeds inside are slightly toxic.

Some seed pods are rarely seen in our township except in this park. The wispy Bladdernut shrubs (Staphylea trifolia) produce elegant lantern-like pods. The shiny brown seeds inside shake in the wind, making a sound like a baby’s rattle. Though insects feed on the blossoms, there’s little evidence I could find that the seeds provide forage for wildlife. But the trees are doing a fine job of producing more Bladdernut shrubs as the number of them along the eastern tree line seems to be increasing nicely.

The Bladdernut shrub produces these elegant pods full of shiny brown seeds that rattle in the wind.

The common Cat-tails (genus Typha) are seeding as well, making a nice repast for a hungry Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata).

The pods of Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) are splitting open to release their silky little parachutes, each containing a seed that can sail away on the wind.  Milkweed has done its job by feeding Monarch caterpillars as well as many other butterflies and insects over the summer. So its current task is to get those seeds out into the world. If the seeds succeed in sprouting, they will feed more insects next year.

Seeds and their silky parachutes spill from Swamp Milkweed pods

More Edibles for Wildlife Wait in the Grass

Mushrooms, of course, can be edible by humans, but they are frequently a meal for squirrels and deer as well. I saw two varieties while the children romped at Gallagher Creek. A giant Puffball (genus Calvatia) had been broken in half, probably by a curious human, since it seemed to have no teeth marks in it. One appeared in the same area last year. And a stump hosted some pretty Turkey-tail Mushrooms (Trametes versicolor), whose tough, rubbery surface might not please us, but probably could please a squirrel (particularly a Red Squirrel).  I see them now and again with a mushroom between their paws.

As I stepped into the deep grass, I wished I had one of those busy children in tow to enjoy the sprays of Red-legged Grasshoppers (Melanoplus femurrubrum) leaping away from my feet. It would have made them laugh as it did me. These small grasshoppers lay their eggs less than inch under the earth in the autumn, and those eggs are a food source for birds, skunks, snakes and raccoons. Nymphs and adults can also be a food source for toads, snakes and some birds, but mostly during the summer months.

A Reg-legged Grasshopper finding a niche on a log, just in case.

Beauty Underfoot Before the Frost

Even though much of Gallagher Creek is covered in brown stalks and shriveled blossoms, a few autumn wildflowers survived right up until the first frost. East of the observation deck, near the creek, the ground is covered with unusual and fragile Bottle Gentians (Gentiana andrewsii), a native wildflower that grows in only a few places in our township. Its closed blossoms never open so they are most often fertilized by bumblebees who are big enough to force their way inside and back out again. The gentians were so plentiful this year that I had to step carefully to avoid treading on one as I explored the area.

Bottle Gentian blossoms never open, so bumblebees have to push their large bodies inside to get at the pollen and then push their way out!

Nearby, a late-migrating Monarch butterfly ((Danaus plexippus) paused to sip on the last purple blossoms of New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), a classic autumn wildflower.

A Monarch sipping at New England Aster as it begin its long migration to Mexico.

Birds Everywhere on a Cold, Quiet Morning – and a Playful Young Female

On the cold morning when I saw the heron that I mentioned above, the playground was empty and quiet. The bushes and trees, though, were alive with birds busily flitting from branch to branch, or shrub to soil, in search of anything they could find to eat.

What delighted me most was a large flock of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis). They were probably gathering to move a little farther south in Michigan or to Ohio in order to reach warmer weather, though Bluebirds often return here on warm winter days and some stay all year. The males are always the flashiest and were more plentiful in this flock.

But my favorite Bluebird on that chilly morning was what I’m guessing was a juvenile female. Young Bluebirds fledge wearing spotted breasts. But according to the Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.2), they molt into adult plumage in August and September. I began to wonder if this gray-headed female was a youngster because she seemed to be practicing the grass-handling skills that she would need next spring in building her carefully woven nest. When I first spotted her, she had the head of a grass stem in her beak with the dry stalk trailing down her back.

A female Bluebird holding the head of a grass stem in her beak.

She made a couple of tries at moving the grass into a more suitable position.

Seemingly frustrated, she dropped the stem between her feet and stared intently at it for a minute.

Frustrated, she finally dropped the grass between her feet and studied it.

At last it seemed she had figured it out.  She picked it up carefully in the middle of the stalk, a much easier way to handle it.

Ah, it works better to grasp the stem in the middle!

Satisfied, she carefully set it down on the railing on which she was perched.  And then left the grass stem there and flew to nearby tree.

I loved seeing this young bird fiddle with what may have been her first attempt at handling the building material she would need in the spring to create her nest.

Besides the Bluebirds, a whole assortment of other birds made the most of the quiet park that cold morning.  I’m fairly sure that a tiny migrating Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) was among them, but it insisted on keeping only its rear in view! So I’ve added a photo of another one I saw in a previous year so you can have a better look at it. (Use the pause button if more time is needed for captions.)

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A Park Where the Young Can Learn and Play

A Milkweed seed on a windy morning at Gallagher Creek

I believe that young humans, like the young of all species, need play as a way to learn about the world.  So I loved watching children on the new playground at Gallagher Creek Park. So much is being learned as youngsters cope with siblings and strangers on the slide or the rocking “dragonfly” seesaw. Muscles grow stronger. Some learn the consequences of risk-taking and others overcome their fears.  It’s great.

What I’m hoping is that once the trails are mowed again next spring, parents will take their children by the hand and explore this little park that offers so much – baby muskrats in the spring, a swollen creek after rain, tree swallows diving for insects in the summer, and native wildflowers in three seasons. And yes, even little birds, that like all children, are learning how to be skillful grown-ups.

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; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net;Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels, A Guide to Bird Behavior Vols.1-3 by Donald W and Lillian Q.Stokes, entomology.ca/uky.edu on Red-legged Grasshoppers, illinoiswildflowers.info and others as cited in the text.