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.
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 (Sialissialis) 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.)
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.]
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!
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!
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
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.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.
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.
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).
Predators can approach native birds from the sky and the ground. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Raccoons are native predators of bird eggs.
Native snakes like the Milk Snake eat birds eggs but need protection as a native species.
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.
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.
Invasive and aggressive House Sparrow (photo by dlbowls (CC BY-NC) at iNaturalist.org
Invasive European Starling
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.”
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 “kwirr” call from high above alerted us to a Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpescarolinus). 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.)
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
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.
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”
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.
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!
Among some bare branches, a couple of Mourning Doves gave me a closer look.
And below, a female Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) drilled a dead branch for insects, looking for a snack before retiring for the night.
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.
The Central Meadow Will Soon Become a Prairie
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.
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.
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.
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.
A 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 EasternPhoebe (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!
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!
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.
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.)
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Watershed Ridge, at the corner of Lake George and Buell Roads, is not yet an accessible park. Trails have yet to be created for exploring its forests, wetlands and meadows, though they are planned for the future. Large areas of the land are still under cultivation for agriculture; local farmer, John Fogler, rents fields within the park to plant soy beans and pumpkins. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
But last fall, our Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, Ben VanderWeide, began removing an almost impenetrable cover of invasive bushes that had taken over part of this beautiful piece of land. And suddenly, the graceful contours of the land came into view.
The rolling slopes looked lifeless then. But what a transformation this spring and summer as sun finally reached the native wildflowers!
Part of the reason Ben chose this area for restoration was that he’d noticed unusual native plants struggling to survive in the shade of invasive bushes like autumn olive, glossy buckthorn, privet, and such. Last autumn, Smooth Aster (Symphyotrichum laeve) and a small orchid called Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes species) thrust their stems into the cool air. (Here’s a photo of the little orchid as it looked at the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail.)
Right now I’d advise anyone to be cautious about walking through Watershed Ridge since it’s easy to get disoriented on 170 acres without trails (though a compass in your phone helps, I find!). Hikers need to use the edges of the farm fields so that they don’t damage the crops. The woody debris on the ground makes walking a bit tricky and there’s a fair amount of Poison-ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) to avoid. Photos below might help those afraid of all 3-three-leaved plants. The one on the left is poison ivy. Note the “thumb” on the leaves which is missing from other three-leaved plants like the Black Raspberry (Rubus occidentalis) on the right. Poison-ivy often has reddish “feet” when it’s climbing a tree and grows along the trunk rather than around it.
So for now, perhaps consider an easier alternative.
Join me on a virtual walk from the entrance area with its busy young birds, into the forest with its woodland flowers and wetlands and beyond the woods to the meadow with a riot of native wildflowers, butterflies, an exotic moth and more!
Birds Grace the Simple Entrance off Buell Road
The best spot to park is on Buell Road at the firewood pickup site (1650 W. Buell Road is the approximate address – click here for a map). Just to the west you’ll see a work area for Parks and Recreation staff that includes a pole barn and bulk materials storage. This work area is closed to the public, but you’re welcome to explore the rest of the park.
The old fence rows near the entrance on Buell Road have many trees, shrubs and vines, so birds nested happily around the area this summer. In mid-July, this area was full of fledglings trying out their wings and pestering their parents. A flock of young Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) settled on limbs and fence posts, begging to be fed while their beleaguered adults either surrendered or tried to escape their noisy youngsters. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
A young Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe), however, was off on its own, trying out its wings, exploring the pole barn (sheds are popular Phoebe nest sites) and flying down into the grass like any adult Phoebe might.
A young Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) was also off on its own and looking a bit dubious about what to do next as it sat in a nearby pine. This may be a young male since it appears that its juvenile red cap is slowly receding into the red spot that a male sports on the back of its head.
I failed to get decent photos, but two weeks ago, a pair of Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) were still feeding their nestlings, flying back and forth between a tree on the west side of the area to a large willow on the east where they probably were foraging for insects before returning to the nest. Here are two not-so-hot photos!
From mid-July to mid-August, American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) raise their young. Unlike most native birds, they wait until mid-summer to breed, because they like to line their nests with thistle down, eat the seeds themselves and feed them to their young. Several were flitting among the thistles along Buell Road.
A male Northern Flicker with his dashing “mustache” perused the territory from the top of a snag.
A “High Quality” Woodland Sprinkled with Wildflowers that Love Moisture, Shade and Rich Humus.
When you step into the cool darkness of the woods on a warm summer afternoon, you notice that most of the plants bear modest little flowers compared to sunnier areas. Perhaps that’s because they’ve evolved growth and reproductive strategies that are different from the large, colorful blooms of a sunny meadow or prairie.
One good example is the unusual flower of a parasitic plant (not a mushroom!) that Ben helped me find, called Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora). This small, white wildflower typically grows in forests and lives on the photosynthesis of trees – especially oaks in our area – by tapping into the mycorrhizal fungi that connect the trees below the soil. As a result, it doesn’t use photosynthesis and contains no chlorophyll. According to the Illinois Wildflower website (a descriptive floral site), “This unusual wildflower is normally found in high quality woodlands” where there is “abundant humus.” Hooray for Watershed Ridge, eh?
The modest blooms of summer woodland plants primarily attract small bees, like sweat or carpenter bees, or flies, rather than honeybees or bumblebees. They also frequently spread by rhizomes (underground stems) and/or by making bur-like fruits that will stick to any passing animal, including you!
Wildflowers that enjoy dappled light find a home where the woods meets the now-open meadow.
Naturally, mushrooms also thrive in shady, moist places. Near the edge of the woods, I saw what I think are two kinds of highly toxic mushrooms from the genus Amanita. I believe they are either Amanita phalloides or Amanita bisporigera. In any case, Amanita mushrooms are also called “death caps” for good reason – so admire their exotic strangeness, but leave them right where they are. The yellow one may have been nibbled by squirrels or rabbits who can eat the toxins with no problem.
Wetlands Glow Blue/Green in the Deep Shade of the Woods
Two wetland pools shine in the darkness on either side of a ridge within the woods at Watershed. Near the western one, an old log is festooned with a huge number of tiny, stalked mushrooms which I can’t identify. They make quite a show against the dark, wet decaying log on which they are thriving. (Anyone have an ID for me?)
Ben saw two snappers on a log in one of these woodland pools, but they dove in before I saw them. I did see some of my favorite frogs, though. A small female Green Frog (Rana clamitans) (left)basked on a fallen log, while a male nearby (right) did the same. In the female, the tympanum (circle behind the eye used for hearing) is about the size of her eye; the male’s tympanum is about twice the size of his eye and he has a yellow throat.
At the eastern pool, a tiny, black-masked Wood Frog (Rana sylvatica), perhaps 1/2 inch long, paused for its photo on a leaf. This one’s back and legs are bright green, perhaps from the Water Meal (Wolffia columbiana) or the algae in the pool nearby. It seemed an odd time of year to find an early spring frog, but Wikipedia says that occasionally Wood Frogs do breed more than once per year. Maybe the heavy rains contributed to more water and hence more breeding behavior? Just a guess.
At the edge of the soybean field just beyond the wood, every step scared up hundreds of small Northern Leopard Frogs (Rana pipiens). They sprang out of moist grass and huddled beneath the bean plants. These young frogs take about 70-110 days to develop after the females lay their eggs in the water between May to June. At about 2 inches long, they’re half the size of a mature Leopard Frog. Their numbers have generally been in decline since the 1970’s so what a delight to see so many of them here in the township on a protected piece of land!
A Riot of Color as Wildflowers and Butterflies Reclaim a Wild Meadow
Step out of the woods and the colorful signs of restoration engulf you. Once shaded-out by invasive shrubs, native wildflowers like Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia fulgida) and Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) in the photo above sprang back into the sunlight that finally reached them. So exciting to see these plants come back with such vigor in the first season after the invasives are removed! (Use pause button to read captions.)
And with the wildflowers, of course, come the butterflies – but first, one glorious moth! When I first spotted this unusual creature, I thought it must be some sort of bumblebee. But no, it’s the Snowberry Clearwing Moth (Hemaris diffinis). It has fewer central scales on its wings than other butterflies or moths so the wings appear clear in places. It’s odd shape and hovering flight have also inspired the names “the hummingbird moth” (not to be confused with the European one of the same name, Wikipedia tells me!) or the “flying lobster!” A new creature for me!
On my first summer visit with Ben, we saw a glorious Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) sipping from some of the bee balm which emerged in great waves of color across the restored meadow this summer. What a sight!
Having seen the Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio troilus) for the first time at Charles Ilsley Park a few weeks ago, I saw another male at Watershed Ridge. The clue is the wash of blue scaling on the wings. A week later I saw another one near the shed which was either the female, which has a less intense wash of blue scaling, or a tattered male who had already lost some of his scales. That Spicebush continually tried to chase off a female Monarch (Danaus plexippus) who was patrolling the same patch of flowers last weekend. The scales on her wings looked quite worn as well. Perhaps they’d worn each other out with all that chasing! I saw some fritillaries dancing together at a distance but not close enough for a shot. But the little Orange Sulphur (Colias eurytheme) was kind enough to pose for a few moments.
The meadow slopes down to a sunny wetland that is probably fed by the creek running through the trees just east of the meadow. The stream bottom is bright orange, most likely a result of iron deposits in the soil. I loved how the sky was caught in the water’s surface as I looked upstream.
The resulting wetland at the meadow’s edge featured flowers that love “wet feet,” like Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium maculatum) and Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum).
With a wetland nearby, dragonflies, flying predators, swooped across the meadow on the hunt for other insects.
A Meadow Under Restoration Gets Us Dreaming
Witnessing the dramatic renewal that takes place when invasive shrubs are removed from park land is simply inspirational. What else, who else might return to this lovely piece of land once the Parks and Recreation Commission has time and the funds to develop this 170 acres? What seeds are waiting in the seed bank for their turn in the sun – perhaps even this autumn when the asters in their varied lavender-to-purple blooms or other autumn wildflowers rise from the earth? What other exotic creatures like the Snowberry Clearwing Moth might be sipping at future flowers? What birds might return to nest here? The possibilities are endless as the Ben and the Parks Commission work to renew the diversity of life which is our township’s natural heritage. So much to look forward to as this park progresses over the next several years!
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; 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; other sites as cited in the text.