Tag Archives: Eastern Bluebird

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.

 

 

Photos of the Week: Welcoming Fledglings Into the World

This year eight volunteers are monitoring nest boxes at Draper Twin Lake Park, Charles Ilsley Park and along the Paint Creek Trail in Oakland Township. We keep track of when the nest is built, the date of the first egg laid, the hatching date and if possible, the fledgling date when the little Eastern Bluebirds, Tree Swallows, House Wrens or Chickadees exit the nest and come out into the big world.

Cam at nest box. Photo by V. Morganti

We report our data to NestWatch, a citizen scientist project of the Cornell University Ornithology Lab.

Well, the excitement has peaked in the last two weeks as fledglings begin to  screw their courage to the sticking point, leap out of their dark, cozy nests and take to the air. Two weeks ago, I was lucky enough to see a tiny Eastern Bluebird (Sialis sialis) launch itself out of the nest box that I’m monitoring near my house and caught the moment with my camera as well. (Use the pause button if you need more time for captions.)

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And now many of us volunteers and members of the birding group feel like we’re in a nursery, because we’re surrounded by baby birds! Unlike the young bluebird,  Tree Swallow fledglings (Tachycineta bicolor) “are strong fliers as soon as they leave the nest,” according to the Stokes’ Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.1). This one at Charles Ilsley Park seemed to emerge from its nest fully ready to fly. Perhaps that is necessary since swallows feed on the wing. But the adults will help feed  their fledglings for the first two or three days.  (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)[Edit:  I’ve deleted the two closeups of the fledgling because from photos others took, I’m not sure it was the fledgling. My apologies.]

Two adult Tree Swallows and a fledgling clinging to the hole.

In the eastern prairie at Charles Ilsley Park, a Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) flitted about among the Foxglove Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis). Its slim shape and erratic display behavior made me think it might be a juvenile, too. A larger Field Sparrow (probably a male) sat calmly nearby with a grasshopper nymph in its beak. But when I returned the next day, the slim Field Sparrow again flitted distractedly about in the same location and again was accompanied by another Field Sparrow. My former experience with Field Sparrows had been that they often are elusive and dive into the grass at a moment’s notice. But I’ve learned that in the early spring, Field Sparrows nest on the ground if they have enough cover, which this beautiful prairie now provides. I’m wondering if these two were mates who were trying to distract me from a nest hidden among the flower stems. Since there are low bushes nearby, however, the nest could have been along the tree line since these sparrows make nests in low bushes later in the season.

 

Back at my home, a clutch of Eastern Phoebe fledglings (Sayornis phoebe) appeared in a low bush at dusk. They’d evidently left the nest under the eaves of the nearby shed very recently and a harried adult was busy trying to feed them. Luckily, both Phoebe parents share this exhausting task. One of the fledglings, as you’ll see below, was smaller and a loner. Perhaps that’s not surprising since Cornell says the Phoebe “is a loner, rarely coming in contact with other phoebes.” It may just have been the last to fledge and is still adjusting to the being out of the nest – or perhaps it’s the “runt of the litter.” But its noisier siblings probably had a lot more luck getting fed that night!

The three noisier Phoebe siblings looking like a singing act as they beg to be fed.
The adult Eastern Phoebe arrives to feed the young. The loner on the left may have fledged last.
A Phoebe fledgling sits quietly on its own.

Many birds have more than one brood in a summer – so be on the lookout! Your yard may be hosting hard-working parent birds and their rambunctious, noisy, begging youngsters! Our parks certainly are!

NestWatch: Being Citizen Scientists in Our Backyards and Parks

A faithful male Rose-breasted Grosbeak takes his turn on the nest at Bear Creek Nature Park.

On March 21, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, the township’s Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, shared a Cornell Lab of Ornithology presentation on how to safely and accurately monitor bird nests as citizen scientists. Cornell Lab and other researchers count on citizen scientists to provide important information on the nesting success of common birds in our backyards and our parks. If you’re intrigued by this introductory information, there’s a lot more available at www.Nestwatch.org. It’s an amazing resource, as you’ll see by all of the links below!

First, the Rules of the Road

The Eastern Kingbird looked proud of her handiwork once she finished her nest.

Cornell’s Nestwatch has an official “Code of Conduct” for nest monitors to ensure that the data is collected while protecting native birds, their nests, eggs, and young. It’s important that monitoring doesn’t attract predators and that parent birds don’t desert the nest.

  • Please don’t touch the nest, the birds or the eggs when checking nests or nest boxes!  Migratory Birds are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.  They cannot be harassed or harmed.  The only exceptions are those of aggressive invasive bird species like House Sparrows (Passer domesticus) and European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) that are not from North America.  (See more info on predators below.)
  • Don’t check nests in the early morning, which is when birds typically lay their eggs.  If the female leaves the nest during monitoring, the eggs may become too cool.  Afternoons are best for monitoring.
  • Avoid nests during the first few days of incubation. Only approach if the parent bird has left the nest.
  • If monitoring a nest box, tap softly on the box to allow the female to leave if she’s present. Or try singing or talking softly as you approach the nest.
  • Don’t approach nests when baby birds are close to fledging so they won’t try to leave the nest before they are ready. Once young birds are alert and fully fledged, only observe from a distance.
  • Avoid monitoring nests in bad weather like cold, rain, etc., when birds need the nest or nest box for protection
  • Don’t check nests at dusk or after dusk when females may be returning. Again, afternoons are best. The exceptions, of course, are owls who leave their nests at night.
  • Approach and leave the nest site from different directions at each visit so that you don’t create a path for predators like cats, raccoons, etc.
  • More details about the “Code of Conduct” at this link

Collecting and Recording What We Learn

A Cedar Waxwing nestling
  • Visits to the nest should be no longer than a minute. Take a quick look and jot notes at a distance. Use binoculars for more distant cup nests.
  • Check the nest every 3 or 4 days. Checking more often risks disturbing the nest; less often makes the information less useful.
  • Record when the first egg was laid. Birds normally lay only one egg per day, so the number of eggs tells you when she laid her first one. Easy, eh?
  • Record the number of eggs and any interesting bird behavior. (Cornell provides data sheets for this.)
  • Record your data at Nestwatch.org. If you’re working on backyard birds, start an account and you’ll be provided with an online form for entering your data. If you want to volunteer to monitor in our parks or along the Paint Creek Trail, please join our Oakland Township Parks NestWatch Chapter by contacting Dr. Ben at bvanderweide@oaklandtownship.org or call the office at 248-651-7810. You’ll need to take a brief quiz after reading the Code of Conduct material at Cornell in order to be a certified bird monitor.
  • More details on collecting data at this link.

Finding Nests in Our Backyards

A male Yellow Warbler holds a bright green caterpillar for his mate at Bear Creek
  • Check out information on typical nest locations and materials for the birds in your yard by going to http://www.allaboutbirds.org. or a bird/nest field guide.
  • Watch where males are singing to establish their territories or listen for females who sometimes sing from the nest.
  • Watch for birds carrying nesting material like moss, twigs or grass.
  • Watch for birds carrying food, like caterpillars or worms, to feed the young.
  • Listen for frantic calls of young birds begging to be fed.
  • Check out areas where you’ve seen nests previous years. Though birds seldom reuse the same nest, they often nest in the same area.
  • More details  on finding nests here.

Setting Up and Monitoring Nest Boxes

A male Eastern Bluebird guarding his nest box.

Dr. Ben and Tom Korb are trying two different kind of Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) boxes in the township – the traditional ones seen above, and Petersen boxes (see left) which have a more triangular shape.

A Peterson bluebird box

We’ll learn which style our bluebirds prefer. They’ve paired the two types bluebird boxes to see which box design our local bluebirds prefer. Paired nest boxes may also help with competition from Tree Swallows. Others have found that if Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) occupy one box, they will live peaceably with bluebirds next door. We’ve also installed American Kestrel (Falco sparverius) boxes and a box for smaller birds such as chickadees, nuthatches, or Prothonotary Warblers (Protonotaria citrea).

For details on building/buying nest boxes for your back yard, check out this helpful page on nest boxes at  Nestwatch. For more detailed plans on bluebirds and their houses, check out the website of the North American Bluebird Society or this link at Sialis.org. Nestwatch even shows you the right house for the birds in our geographic area.

Beware of Predators!

Predators can approach native birds from the sky and the ground. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

Ground Predators
  • Raccoons and outdoor or feral cats are major predators for birds. A well-respected, peer-reviewed study cited by Cornell found that as many as 1.3 to 3.3 billion birds are killed by cats each year in North America. They are skilled bird hunters! And raccoons can wipe out a whole group of nests in an evening!
  • Keeping pet cats indoors is a great idea if at all possible.
  • Make sure your nest box is at least 6 feet off the ground so raccoons and cats can’t jump on top of the box. If they do, they “fish” for eggs and chicks through the hole.
  •  The right roof and predator guards on the bird house pole can make a big difference.
  • Avoid leaving pet food or birdseed on the ground, which encourages predators.
  • Keep your nest box away from overhanging trees to keep squirrels from dropping on them and chewing the holes to get in.
  • Snakes can be deterred by locating nest boxes away from brush piles or by putting a metal collar/predator guard below the nest box on the pole.
Bird Predators

Aggressive, invasive birds, especially the House Sparrow and the European Starling, will attack and kill native birds, their eggs and their young to take over a nest box. Because they are non-native and plentiful, they are not protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.  So how to deal with these predatory characters?

  • If you don’t want to deter invasive birds, please  consider not putting up bird boxes. These invasive birds are already abundant and  actively attack and kill our native species. Providing them with food and a nest merely exacerbates the problems for native birds.
  • Choosing an appropriate entrance hole size on a nest box is important. Starlings can enter and attack American Kestrels in their boxes – but starlings are too large for a bluebird box if the entrance hole is the right size. House Sparrows, however,  can easily attack bluebird boxes. NestWatch has more information on passive and active means of deterring these non-native predators – from changing nest location to removing nests and eggs or trapping adult birds.
  • Be sure you know what Starlings look like and are able to distinguish House Sparrows with their black triangular bibs from our many species of native sparrows.
  •  These two invasive birds make messy nests with bits of plastic, cigarette butts, paper, etc. so distinguishing them from native nests is easier once you are informed about the appearance of your native bird’s nest.
  • Native birds, like House Wrens (Troglodytes aedon),  occasionally attack other birds to take over a nest as well. And native Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater) lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. Because these birds are naturally occurring species in our area, they are protected by the Migratory Bird Act and should not be removed or harmed.
  • Bees, wasps, squirrels and mice can inhabit nest boxes at various times of the year. Nestwatch has info on coping with them, too.

So Why Become  a Nest Monitor?

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Helping our native birds raise their young in safety is crucial to slow the declining numbers of many bird species. Bluebirds, for example, were threatened until citizens began a campaign of installing and monitoring bird boxes for these azure beauties. The data from nest monitors since NestWatch began in 1965 has provided vital information on over 600 species and resulted in 133 scientific articles and 9 ongoing studies. With the data the public collects, researchers can detect  shifts in bird populations related to landscape and climate change. Saving native birds is important to preserving the beauty of our local natural history.

NestWatch Website Button

But beyond all that, c’mon!  What’s more delightful than baby birds? Being a friend to native birds is always good for us, as well as for our feathered friends.

Bear Creek Nature Park: So Much to See When There’s “Nothing to See”

White Oak leaves under water at the Center Pond with tree reflection

At first glance, Bear Creek Nature Park in November doesn’t have much to recommend it.  A frequently gray sky glowers overhead. Insects don’t buzz, soar over or spring out of the fields now drained of color. Birds only occasionally call but never sing. A casual observer might say that that there’s “nothing to see.” But they’d be wrong.

Blog and photos by
Cam Mannino

It just takes a bit more attention and a dash of memory to enjoy a late autumn hike. That quick little movement in the bare shrubbery could be a group of small golden migrators wintering here with us. Leaves skate across the pond’s first skim of ice or frame a bit of brilliant green and red moss. The birds that live with us year ’round are making winter homes and energetically seeking out bits of nourishment all around us if we look. Summer creatures snooze under the bark of trees and under the soil at our feet as we walk. Life doesn’t stop, even in November. We just need a bit more care to enjoy it on a November day.

Noticing November’s Birds – Blue, Red, Golden, Even Ones with Fancy Hairdos!

All month the Center Pond has shifted from water to ice and back again – but it’s always a place to watch with a keen eye. On the first bird walk of the month, the group saw Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) as usual, calmly cruising at the far end of the pond. But then, wait! What about that bird with the bouffant crest? It seems that those sneaky Hooded Mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) may have added an egg to a Mallard or Wood Duck nest, as they occasionally do. The young female Merganser steamed up and down the bank at a snappy pace, as her Mallard companions paused to preen along the way.

That same early November day, the birders heard the “tsee, tsee” call and then saw a group of winter visitors from northern Canada, Golden-crowned Kinglets (Regulus satrapa). The flock was too quick-moving for me, so I’ve borrowed a lovely shot from iNaturalist.org’s photographer, Joanne Redwood. Though we saw these little Kinglets in bare shrubs, look for them mostly where there are lots of pines whose needles provide shelter for them on snowy days.

A Golden-crowned Kinglet photographed by Joanne Redwood (CC BY-NC)

Late in the month, a male Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) had claimed the center pond as his winter territory and found my presence quite annoying. When I spotted this guy, he was calmly gazing out across the pond with his crest lowered. But as I approached, his crest began to rise as he swooped between three trees at the eastern end of the pond, shouting his rattle-call to declare his territory. Female Belted Kingfishers usually migrate a bit south to be guaranteed some open water, which they need for fishing. But the males often stay north to protect possible nesting territory. When the pond freezes, though,  he’ll temporarily move south or to water that stays open in the dead of winter.

An agitated male Belted Kingfisher pauses for a shot as he defines his territory for me by swooping between 3 trees.

The next time I saw the mallards at the pond, the day was icy cold but the pond was still open.  Three males were “bottoms up,” feeding.

Three male Mallards go “up tails all” while feeding in the Center Pond.

On that same icy day, a large flock of Mallards on Bear Creek Marsh preened frantically, trying to keep warm by adding oil to their feathers from a gland beneath their tails. The oil helps align their feathers, providing maximum waterproofing and insulation.

On any icy day, Mallards in the marsh preen busily, adding more oil to their feathers for insulation and waterproofing.

On windy days, of which there were many this month, our year ’round birds seemed to retreat to the woods, where I suppose the tree density breaks the wind. I was surprised this week to see a female Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) in the woods. I tend to see them most in meadows or open areas; that day she was just taking a break in the woods from gusting 20 miles-per-hour winds! So nice to see these bright blue birds on a gray fall day.  (Click on photos to enlarge.)

Black-capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) scout out decaying snags, looking for a snug hole for winter nights. Sometimes they excavate one and sometimes they appropriate an old woodpecker hole. This snag  looked a little promising. The number of “dees” in a Chickadee’s call indicates how much danger is around. Fortunately, my husband and I only rated the average 3 “dees.”

The number of “dees” in the call of Black-capped Chickadee indicates how much danger it perceives.

A few minutes later, a White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) decided to take it step further – either looking for possible insect eggs or perhaps exploring the depth of a hole in the same snag for a winter retreat. In winter, Nuthatches hang out with Chickadees and Titmice for protection and to take advantage of  possible food sources other birds may find.

A White-breasted Nuthatch explores a hole in the same snag graced by the Chickadee a few minutes before.

A “kwirr” call from high above alerted us to a Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus). This male definitely seemed to be foraging.  I think I spotted little insect eggs on his beak as he concentrated his attention on one spot in the bark. He can use his summer nesting hole in a dead tree or limb on cold winter nights.

 

Imagining and Remembering: Good Tools for a November Walk

On days when birds are elusive and the parks seem quiet, I watch for reminders of summer creatures who are hidden away, spending the winter underground, under water, or under bark and leaves all around me. Here are a few that came to mind during November.

The Raccoon’s (Procyon lotor) hole is empty now, but I bet there may be one or two sleeping deep in that well-used south-facing hole.

It looks as though a Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) built this unusual “push-up” den among the trees on a small mud flat in the Center Pond.  So there will be probably be one  swimming very slowly and eating in the air space inside the den during the winter.

Of course, some of the reminders concern summer visitors. This little nest we spotted during an early snow shower could be the summer breeding home of a variety of birds.  I’m no expert on nests, but I’m imagining that it could be that of a Chipping Sparrow since Cornell describes their nests as “a loose cup of rootlets and dried grasses so flimsy you can often see through it”  But that’s just a guess.

And this fragile, scrap of nest near the pond brings back memories of the faithful father, the Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus) who patiently took his turn at the nest – an unusual behavior in male birds.  The nest was never very sturdy but autumn winds and rain have left only the base.

And this abandoned, tattered masterpiece was probably the home of some sort of Yellow Jacket species, perhaps the Bald-Faced Hornet (Dolichovespula maculata.)  The only surviving member of this once active hive would be the inseminated queen who is probably spending the winter under bark or inside a log nearby.  She’ll emerge to lay the eggs of future queens and future  workers whose infertile eggs produce the males.

Standing by a wetland pond in the park last week, I was reminded of the Salamanders (Order Urodela) who now must be hibernating under my feet. On a warm, wet night next spring, salamanders will wriggle their way to the water, lay their eggs on a stick and hide again under logs further upland. That’s where I found some of their young when the trees were green last spring.

The Mourning Cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa) which can actually overwinter as an adult under bark or in a tree cavity might be camouflaged inside or on any tree you pass on your hike. The underside of it wings imitate tree bark when folded. The upper side, however,  features a white edge and a lovely band of blue spots when it flutters forth in early April, as you can see in this photo by inaturalist.org photographer Lewnanny Richardson.

Relishing Bits of Color Among the Autumn Brown

I crave color when the leaves have fallen and my eyes are still adjusting to the austere beauty of late autumn and winter.  Luckily nature still provides a few splashes here and there before the snow covers it all.  A sampling in the slideshow below.(Use pause button for captions.)

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Or If All Else Fails…

How about placing bets on which leaf wins the race across an icy Center Pond?  Here’s a silly 10 second video with faint “play-by-play” by my husband, Reg.

The Subtle Charms of Late Autumn Hiking

And adult and child venturing out on the Walnut Lane.

The pizzazz of spring and summer is past, the colors of early fall are memory, but late autumn, too, has its charms if you give it a chance. The last leaves high in the canopy are hushing in the wind. Take a moment to watch just one leaf dance and swirl its way down to the water. Or toss a milkweed seed to the wind and then watch it sail across a meadow. Have a closer look at a plate-sized mushroom on a log. Sit on a bench out at the marsh and watch the wind ripple the water or the cat-tail seeds shining like snow as they blow across the marsh. Let your cheeks tingle in crisp air after long hours indoors. I bet you’ll come back inside refreshed and with stories to tell. You’ll see…

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.

Charles Ilsley Park: Being Restored to Past Glories and Humming with Life

Panicled Asters line the entrance to the park
Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

We tend to think of autumn as colored leaves and crisp air. But the prairies and meadows of the township parks celebrate fall with flowers. Many asters love cooler weather and right now the restored prairies of Charles Ilsley Park are dressed in white wildflowers, dotted with splashes of gold.  Butterflies and bees still flutter and hum among the blossoms and grasshoppers still spring like popcorn out of the grass as you walk. Birds, including occasional summer visitors headed south, eat the plants’ berries and seeds or snag a few insects from bare soil or tree limbs. The frantic growth of summer is indeed ebbing, but the park still bustles with life as it awaits the first frost.

Note:  Click here for a map of the park to help in visualizing the various trails and prairies described.

Entering Along the “Great White Way”

Panicled Asters line the trail on both sides as you enter the park

Walking along the mowed trail into Charles Ilsley Park before the latest heat wave, a nodding crowd of graceful Panicled Asters (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum)  stood on either side, like a crowd at a procession. Occasionally, a spray of New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) added a little royal purple to the view.

A spray of New England Asters along the entrance trail.

Just before sunset one afternoon, several migrating Palm Warblers (Setophaga palmarum) flitted among the branches of a tree along this trail. This little bird was probably on its way from Canada to Florida or the Caribbean. Let’s hope it finds its favorite foods and perches after the terrible storms there this fall!

A migrating Palm Warbler paused in the park on its way to Florida and the Caribbean for the winter.

Among some bare branches, a couple of Mourning Doves gave me a closer look.

A pair of mourning doves giving me the eye

And below, a female Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) drilled a dead branch  for insects, looking for a snack before retiring for the night.

A female Downy Woodpecker inspecting a dead branch for insects as the sun goes down

A quick movement out of the grass onto a nearby tree turned out to be a Katydid (family Tettigoniidae) moving slowly along the trunk with its ungainly legs. Katydids are generally nocturnal and sing at night. I’m guessing this one’s a female because of what appears to be a sickle-shaped ovipositor for laying eggs. Aren’t her antennae amazing? Grasshoppers have short antennae, but katydid antennae are extravagantly long.

A female katydid came out of the field at sunset and began exploring a tree trunk.

The Central Meadow Will Soon Become a Prairie

The central meadow at Charles Ilsley Park is undergoing prairie restoration.

Don’t be dismayed by the browned surface in the central area of the park.  Like the other three sections already restored (east, north and west), the invasive shrubs and non-native plants have now been removed from this area. This fall, matted grass and leftover branches will be removed and the central area will be planted with native wildflower seed. Just as in the other three prairies, it will take 3-5 years for the native plants to fully bloom because as drought-adapted wildflowers, they need time to put down long roots before putting energy into flowering. But even now, life goes on in this brown landscape.

Blue is the first spark of color you’ll see in the restoration area – because the Eastern Bluebirds are everywhere! Many of them are using their former nesting boxes for perches as they fly down and forage in the soil and whatever grass remains.

A male bluebird perhaps contemplating being an “empty nester!”
This bluebird pair may migrate south or may choose to remain here over the winter.
A female Bluebird perusing the brown field before foraging.

Blackened stems, dead grass and bare soil make a perfect landscape for Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) who prefer to nest and forage on open ground. They are known to nest on rooftops, golf courses, even parking lots! They scuttle up and down the restoration field at Ilsley, making periodic quick stops to see if they’ve scared up anything to eat. In autumn, Killdeer gather in small groups (I saw five ) as they migrate as far as Central and South America for the winter, though many choose southern Florida as well.

A killdeer scuttles across the dry landscape trying to scare some insects out of the bracken.
This Killdeer trio may migrate to Florida or Central and South America.

When Killdeer fly, they make a keening call and the feathers on their rumps, just above their tails, flash orange in the sunlight. Look for two flying Killdeer in this quick shot.

Can you see two killdeer flying with their orange rumps ablaze?

Another ground forager is still here but will also join small groups for migration. Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus ) love ants, so they too are quite happy to forage in the newly re-sprouting grass or on the bare soil in this area of the park. You’ll often see 3 or 4 together on the ground.

In this season, Northern Flickers can often be seen looking for ants in the restoration area of the park.

Carolina Locust (Dissosteira carolina) flew up from bare earth as I approached the far end of the restoration area. I’ve never been able to catch a photo of one flying; they’re just too quick for me! So on the left is my photo of the locust on the ground, but on the right is a photo by Joshua G Smith at inaturalist.org who shows us its wing by gently holding the insect. You can see why these grasshoppers are often mistaken for butterflies when taking their short flights! (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

At the far end of the restoration area are a few bushes that form a line across the bottom of the north prairie. On all four trips to the park, an Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) rested in the low branches of a tree there – a perfect perch for a flycatcher who actually prefers ground foraging  to catching flies!

The Eastern Phoebe actually prefers ground insects to catching flies, even though it’s officially a flycatcher.

With all those birds around, this immature Northern Brown Snake (Storeria dekayi) had better be careful! These harmless, little snakes (they don’t bite!) are born with a white “collar” around their necks and are either brown or gray.  As they mature, the collar disappears and the head is darker.  So I’m guessing this one is a juvenile on its way to getting rid of that collar!

A young Northern Brown Snake who’s losing the white collar it had at birth.

Lots of Life on Three Prairies – East, North and West!

We’re gifted currently with three prairie plantings at Ilsley in various stages of restoration. The eastern and northern prairies are now in their second summer, the western prairie is in its first. All of them host a wide variety of wildflowers, butterflies, bees and birds.

Prairie Plants

Calico Asters (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum) have turned the eastern prairie white this fall.  The northern prairie, full of invasive thistles last year, is now covered with Brown-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia triloba), a species of Rudbeckia that I just learned about this year! The western prairie is cloaked in white Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota) at the south end, and golden with Black-Eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) at the north end. Natives like Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and some Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) have returned to sway in the breeze above the eastern and northern prairies, which now have mowed trails. The western prairie trail grew over during the summer, but the soft plants make it easy walking. We’re on our way to 50 acres of prairie in this park! (Click on pause button for captions.)

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Insects on the Prairies

Both Bumblebees (genus Bombus) and European Honey Bees (Apis mellifera) buzz quickly over the native blossoms, making the most of late fall nectar. One late afternoon, native bumblebees were driving honey bees off of some flowers with a quick dart toward them, while on other blossoms, honey bees were hassling butterflies.

A native Bumblebee and a European Honey Bee compete for the nectar in a non-native thistle.

Eventually, however, peace was restored and each found their own blossom on the Calico Asters.

At mid-summer,  the prairies were full of large butterflies – Monarchs and three kinds of Swallowtails. This month, though most of the larger ones are missing; only a few tardy Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) sip at blossoms. The unseasonably warm weather may have prompted  them to tarry a bit longer than other Monarchs who began moving in September. We hope they make it to Mexico before the cold sets in!

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A variety of smaller butterflies, some as small as your thumbnail, move restlessly among the blossoms on all three prairies. The Painted Lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui) is only 1.5-2.0 inches. It migrates some years and not others, but often winters in Mexico like the Monarchs. Its caterpillars eat thistle foliage and the adult butterflies love thistle nectar. This one was sipping daintily along with two other Painted Ladies on non-native Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare) on the northern prairie.

A Painted Lady sipping thistle nectar through its long proboscis (Northern Prairie)
Three Painted Ladies enjoying thistle nectar, just as their caterpillars enjoyed eating thistle leaves.

The other small butterflies seemed endlessly restless, doing much more flying right now than eating.  I managed to photograph three – but the tiny Grizzled Skipper (Pyrgus centaureae) eluded me, so I’ve borrowed a photo from inaturalist.org with the permission of the photographer, Marian Zöller.

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Birds Enjoying the Prairies

Birds of all sizes frequent these prairies during the year. Many of them, like the Tree Swallows,  have already begun their fall migration. But one evening at the far end of the eastern prairie, a solitary Sandhill Crane (Antigone canadensis) foraged, probably for just-hatched Red-legged Grasshopper nymphs (Melanoplus femurrubrum) that sprang in hundreds from the grass. Suddenly, it lifted into the air. I wonder if it, too, is beginning its migration to Florida or the Caribbean? I’m afraid I was too taken with its size, beauty and the snap of its huge wings to set my exposure accurately, but it was a lovely sight just before dark.

In an old apple tree on the edge of the western prairie, a flock of pale House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) pecked happily at the aging fruit. Usually House Finch males are much darker red, but the intensity of the color is determined by what they eat while molting. I have a feeling these were eating apples (or the bugs within them) instead of bright red berries!

A male House Finch eating bits of apple – or perhaps the bugs inside?

And a first for me in Oakland Township!  Last Sunday, a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) spiraled high into the air over the western prairie, riding upward on a rising current of warm air. What a very special moment to see this powerful bird peacefully enjoying the heat of the prairie on a quiet Sunday afternoon.

A Bald Eagle riding a current of warm air above the Western Prairie

 The View from the Oldest Trees

Two huge oaks trees seem to anchor the past firmly in the present at Charles Ilsley Park. One stands at the south end of the center area that’s being restored and the other stands at the east end of the eastern prairie. The size of these old oaks with their huge trunks and spreading crowns means they’ve been here for hundreds of years, standing watch over the land. Pausing under the eastern prairie tree one afternoon, I took a photo of that tree’s “view” of the restored prairie.

View from under the huge oak at the east end of the Eastern Prairie

It pleased me to imagine that maybe that tree is “looking out on” on a prairie that’s beginning to look a bit like the one it “saw” when it was young so many years ago. And as we watched the bald eagle float above the western prairie, I wondered if it was seeing what its eagle ancestors saw from high in the sky long ago. Humans are such forward-looking creatures, always planning and moving toward the future. It’s a marvel that here in our township, and in other townships around the country, we’ve chosen to set aside areas like Ilsley where the history of our land and its native creatures can be preserved. The trees, wildflowers, birds and butterflies – all of it connects us firmly to our past –  and if we continue to be good stewards, will sustain and delight us for years to come as we move into the future.

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: butterfliesathome.com;Pollinators of Native Plants by Heather Holm; Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3; 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.