Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park is a small park with big contrasts – between the sunlit, gently rolling meadow and the forest with large trees grasping the steep slope that plunges down to the creek stippled with sunlight below. It’s a fairly short walk, just in and out, for now. Eventually, we hope this elbow of a park will be joined to 208 spectacular acres to the east, now being acquired by our Parks & Recreation Commission. So I’d suggest you see it soon, so you can say you “knew it when!”
An Undulating Path through a Meadow of Fluttering Wings
The trail begins in a grove of trees at the end of Knob Creek Drive with its single parking space. A few years ago, Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide removed walls of invasive shrubs that crowded the edges of the trail into the park, obscuring the meadow. Now when I step into the park, the landscape is open to fields filled with tall flowers and sunlight. The meadow is an exuberant, dense tangle of native and non-native wildflowers – and a lot of thistle! But the butterflies and bees make do with what they find and they are everywhere! So I periodically ventured out as far as possible into the shoulder-high plants to get a little closer!
Ben had reported seeing lots of Giant Swallowtails (Papilio cresphontes) on thistles at the park. Having seen them there in previous years, I was excited to look for them. But after a very hot week, they had evidently moved on to greener pastures. I only saw one at an unreachable distance across the meadow on my first visit. But since I saw many of them later at Charles Ilsley Park, here’s a photo of one to refresh your memory. Pretty impressive size, eh? They are actually the largest butterfly in North America!
My birding friend, Bob Bonin, also saw something at Stony Creek in August that I only saw from a distance. I had a quick glimpse of a Snowberry Clearwing Moth (Hemaris diffinis) but couldn’t wade fast enough into the greenery to catch a shot of it. Bob generously shared his beautiful shot of one feeding on the last drops of nectar from a native Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa). Clearwings lose some of the wing scales due to their hummingbird-style, hovering flight, leaving areas of their wings almost transparent. The yellow and black fuzziness of the Snowberry Clearwing (Snowberry is one of its host plants) means that it’s often mistaken for a bumblebee – perhaps providing some protection from predators.
Native bee-balm also prompted a stopover by the Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus) which, according to Wikipedia, prefers to hang from the underside of leaves at night or on hot and humid days. Bee-balm, true to its name, attracts many native insects, including the ubiquitous native Bumblebees (genus Bombus). (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
For the first time ever, I noticed European Honeybees (Apis mellifera) literally running around the tops of non-native Queen Anne’s Lace. I’d never before noticed this “busy bee” activity! They rush across each lacy blossom, perhaps quickly gathering nectar or pollen. Bee Culture, a beekeeping magazine, says that Queen Anne’s Lace produces the greatest amount of nectar in hot weather, so perhaps that’s what attracted them. Let me know in the comments if you have more info than I could find on this phenomenon. Here’s my amateur video of the bee race at Stony Creek Ravine.
It’s always heartening to see Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus) in our parks, especially a female one sipping on Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), its favorite host plant on which to lay eggs!
The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) is a generalist who can live in lots of habitats, from forests to meadows to urban areas. Its caterpillar can eat and grow on many of the trees in our parks, including Wild Black Cherry, Willows, Cottonwoods and Tulip Trees (see below!), but also on non-native plants like Lilacs. This adaptability means it’s thriving, and that made me glad as it paused so delicately to sip from the only tender part of a Plumeless Thistle (Carduus acanthoides).
A Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele) looked a bit ragged and uncomfortable one humid afternoon. I wonder if it had landed on too many prickly, bristly plants like the Plumeless Thistle! Most of the “spangles” are on the underside of the hindwings, so I’ve included an older photo to show them, since this butterfly clearly had no attention of feeding with its wings up.
A Red-spotted Purple (Limenitis arthemis) paused on non-native Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota). It prefers rotted fruit or even dung and carrion, but occasionally it sips nectar from small white flowers like these, according to the citizen science website, butterfliesandmoths.org. These butterflies sometimes produce two broods. The first caterpillars hatch and once half-grown, form a “hibernaculum,” an over-wintering refuge which for caterpillars usually involves a folded leaf and some spun silk to secure it. They then emerge in the spring and finish maturing. According to Wikipedia, some of the first larvae “are able to mature during the summer, so they emerge as the second brood [in] early fall,” but may have a tough time surviving winter cold. The prime condition of the butterfly below makes me wonder if it was from an early second hatch.
Some small butterflies also made the most of the late summer meadow. The common and colorful Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos) landed repeatedly on the path in front of me, as they often do. These very small butterflies can mate many times between April and November so we’re almost bound to see one on any summer walk in our parks. And we’re also likely to see the non-native Cabbage Butterfly (Pieris rapae). I just love the sculptural look of the ventral (underside) of the wings on the one below. I think she’s a female since I can just make out the double wing spots on the dorsal (upper side); males have only one spot.
Right now, you’ll probably see a creature along the trail that looks like a butterfly with its black wings edged in beige, but is really the Carolina Locust (Dissosteira carolina). Despite seeing them every summer, I’ve never gotten a shot of their sudden flights from under my feet. So I can only show you what they look like once they land. But I’ve borrowed with permission a photo from an iNaturalist.org photographer, Joshua G. Smith, who held one in his hand to get a photo of the wing.
The Woods, the Deer Effect and a Bubbling Creek Below
The woods at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park is full of big oaks and some beautiful native Tulip Trees (Lirodendron tulipfera)! These are not the shorter, heavy flowering cultivated trees that I grew up seeing in people’s yards. These mighty trees grow beautifully straight and tall often with few limbs once they reach 80-100 feet. In virgin habitat, they can grow to 160 feet and their girth can be as wide as 10 feet! According to Ben, there’s a huge one on the new piece of property that is planned to eventually connect with the existing 60 acre park. I hope someday I’ll be able to see it and show it to you here!
Wild tulip trees (vs. nursery cultivated ones) only bloom at the top of the tree, so their glamorous flowers are rarely seen, but are rich with nectar. Their bark is ridged in an orderly pattern. The leaves have a unique, squared-off shape. And the graceful, seed-filled cones stay on the tree all winter only falling to the forest floor in the spring. I have never seen the flowers up close or the cones, so my thanks go to iNaturalist.org photographers kwilie and Sandy Wolkenberg for sharing the bloom and cone photos below. We’re lucky to see Tulip trees here because we are at the far north edge of their range. Can you tell I’ve found a new favorite native tree?
The forest floor beneath the impressive trees, though, is almost barren. The shade of course is very dense. But a huge problem is that, despite a limited hunting season in this park two days each week in from October to January, the deer are plentiful. As a result, few woodland plants reach maturity on the forest floor. Deer have no front teeth, so the stems left on the plants they graze are ripped and flattened as seen below. Rabbits, for instance, with their incisors, make a neat, angular cut. But hope springs eternal! Though most tulip tree seeds don’t survive, I found a small sapling that somehow had escaped the notice of the deer -so far.
As you hike down to the creek, more grasses appear. The creek’s moisture encourages some flowers, especially in the spring when the trees haven’t leafed out and more sunlight reaches the forest floor. In summer, the moist river bank is a hangout for damselflies. One warm, gray afternoon, I saw a female Ebony Jewel Wing (Calopteryx maculata) looking at me head-on from a fallen branch.
Her mate is a bit more glamorous, but I also like the elegant understatement of the female.
The west branch of Stony Creek burbles along, tumbling over rocks, slipping under fallen trees, catching glints of sunlight on its surface. And beneath the surface, small fish school in the shallows.
Deep in the woods on the far side of the creek, the shriek of a young Red-tailed Hawk begging to be fed grated upon my ears. Young hawks can repeat this harsh cry for 4 to 6 weeks! I know what adult hawks are dealing with, because in some years, a young hawk subjects my husband and I to their cries from the field next to our house! But hawks believe in tough love and eventually it gets hungry enough, I guess, to do its own hunting. Here’s my recording at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park.
The youngster was nowhere in sight, but here’s a photo of one taken along Predmore Road near Lost Lake Park in 2017.
On a later visit, I was startled by a flash of huge wings, as a young hawk (I think!) flashed across the path in front of me and stumbled into a tree much too small for its size and weight. It wobbled back and forth on a thin branch for a few seconds. But before I raised my camera, it lumbered up into the air and soared off into the woods on the far side of the meadow. As far as I could tell this “desperate escape” was caused by the harassing pursuit of a single Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) – hardly the behavior of an adult hawk! Like a lot of adolescents, this young bird just needs a bit more time to grow up.
Back Up in the Meadow – Baby Birds and a Fun Baby Insect
It’s a steep climb out of the ravine, up through the woods to the path and the sunlit meadow. Back on the trail, I noticed out in the meadow a few fledglings learning to make their own way in the world. A juvenile Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) still sported the fledgling’s dappled chest, a field mark common to other members of the thrush family. It had landed high on the bare branch of a snag to survey the field, looking quite confident that it could survive on its own.
A little Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) popped up out of the greenery, looking like a plush toy! Donald W. Stokes’ Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol. 1) points out that a good field mark for juveniles is that their tails are about half the size of an adult Song Sparrow. Next spring, this little sparrow will look for a nesting site within its “song neighborhood,” i.e. close to the the place where adult birds sing the songs that it heard and memorized as a nestling. According to this Cornell Ornithology Bird Academy website, juvenile male sparrows need to practice for several months before they can sing their repertoire perfectly – sort of like babies babbling before talking.
Far out in the meadow, I saw a hard-working male American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) traveling about with a juvenile. Male Goldfinches do most of the fledgling feeding because the females are busy with a second clutch of eggs. Goldfinches wait to breed until mid-summer when thistles provide them with fluffy pappus (downy plant material) to make an almost water-tight nest lining. Then they feed their young with partially digested thistle seed. I could hear an insistent fledgling calling to be fed and could see the adult male flying to meet it. Each time, the two of them disappeared into the greenery for a meal. I moved further into the dense undergrowth, trying to see the adult feeding the youngster. Finally, the fledgling, alone again, came out onto a bare tree stem and diligently chewed at its tip. My best guess is that this behavior is a way to practice stripping hulls from the seeds that make up almost all of a goldfinch’s diet. But I’m not sure, though I’ve seen two young goldfinches do this in the last week!
Out in the field, the adult male Goldfinch hopped about on a thistle, filling his beak with seed to share with the youngster. I believe the thistle he chose is again Plumeless Thistle. At least it appears to feed the birds and butterflies!
The birds will be able to enjoy a treat before too long, because a big, energetic patch of American Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) with its Dr. Seuss-style color scheme has appeared along the trail! The green berries in the photo below will gradually turn white and then deep purplish-black. When ripe, they are much beloved by birds, particularly the Gray Catbird, Brown Thrasher, Northern Cardinal and the Northern Mockingbird, according to Wikipedia. However, they are highly toxic to most mammals, including us humans! So admire them, but no snacking, not even one!
On the way back to the car, I spotted one of the largest and most graceful nests of Eastern Tent Caterpillars (Malacosoma americanum) I’ve ever seen. These gregarious caterpillars head out each morning to forage together and return to their tents at night. The tents are added to each day before they leave, so they have multiple layers. As a result, the caterpillars can go to different parts of the tent for heating or cooling. Though their feeding can defoliate trees, they cause little permanent damage and the trees generally re-leaf once they’re gone.
My forays deeper into the meadow left me with socks covered in burs and sticky seeds. So on my way back to the car, I stopped at the beautiful bench commemorating the Kezlarian’s generosity toward this park. Along with the burs, I plucked a small caterpillar from one sock and set it on the bench. To my delight, it quickly began scooting around on the granite at a rapid pace. I laughed out loud! It was an inchworm! I looked them up when I got home and discovered they are caterpillars of the large and diverse moth family, Geometridae. Here’s the 30 second video I took of it that still tickles me. (It should have some cartoon music in the background, but again, I’m a complete beginner at videography!)
By the way, after filming, I let it climb on a dry leaf, carried it to a nice green one and wished it well.
The Persistence of Nature as a Challenge to Care
Places like Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park strengthen my hope when life feels challenging. The intense July heat – reportedly the hottest July in history worldwide! – finished the bloom of many flowers that might have lasted longer in a normal year. But honey bees rush about on less nectar-rich blooms, trying to gather their much-needed supply of pollen to feed the young or the nectar for making honey to feed the over-wintering colony. Some butterflies make their way across great distances in unpredictable weather, seeking out available nectar to feed themselves and suitable host plants for their eggs. Young birds exercise their new skills, learning within weeks how to forage on their own in a landscape shaped by the changing climate. The glimmering creek down in the shadows of the forest rises and falls with the rainfall, but, for now, flows on.
This same persistence, I think, also challenges us to do what we can to cool our planet and return to the patterns that nature has bequeathed to us through eons of experimentation. We owe it to the wildflowers, bees, butterflies – all of the natural world that supports us – to shape our lives not just to our human needs, but the needs of all the living beings that share this little blue planet with us. The township stewardship program is working on that, I’m working on that – and I bet you are, too. Let’s press on!