October is autumn’s transition month. Some days are warm and sunny, creating almost an illusion of late summer or early September. And on those days, a few bees and butterflies flutter across my path, caterpillars bump along through the grass and native wildflowers still bloom in the fields. A turtle in the Draper marsh basks in the thinning light.
Change is in the air. Let’s look back to see what October had to offer as we take the first cold, rainy steps into the austerity of November.
Early October: Late Season Wildflowers Host the Occasional Bee or Butterfly
One Sunday afternoon in October, a Common Buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia) fluttered down onto the trail right in front of my husband and I. In the summer, Draper Twin Lake Park hosts a rainbow of butterflies. Some mate, lay their eggs and expire, leaving caterpillars behind in their chrysalises. But this colorful little butterfly migrates south for the winter and returns in the spring. Perhaps it stopped at Draper to sample the various goldenrods, since it prefers yellow flowers. Can you see the slightly bug-eyed expression on its face? I laughed to think it was as surprised to see my husband and I as we were to see it land right in front of us!
Late October: Swaying, Russet Prairie Plants Provide a Fall Feast for Wildlife
The video above may look like a sea of dry brown stems to you. But to the birds, particularly the American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis), it looks like your heavily laden Thanksgiving table. In just the video’s 40 seconds, you are seeing hundreds of thousands of seeds: Indian Grass, Coneflowers, Black-eyed Susans, Stiff Goldenrod, Little Bluestem and many more. On the August birdwalk, we spent a happy ten minutes or so watching a flock of goldfinches swaying on bobbing stalks as they stuffed themselves with Stiff Goldenrod seed (Solidago rigida). First there were two and then suddenly there were five all scrabbling to feed on the abundant seed heads.
Relishing Autumn’s Transformation
The Draper prairie with its great looping trail really may look dry, brown and lifeless to some hikers. But not to me. At this time of year, I feel a lot like Ratty, a “country gentleman” sort of muskrat in the children’s classic Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame, a book I quoted in an earlier blog. Like me, Ratty senses the restlessness of autumn. He heads out into a farmer’s field, much as I waded out into the tall grass of Draper’s northern prairie: “…he thrust into the great realm of wheat, yellow, wavy, and murmurous, full of quiet motion and small whisperings. Here he often loved to wander through the forest of stiff strong stalks that carried their own golden sky away over his head — a sky that was always dancing, shimmering, softly talking; or swaying strongly to the passing wnd and recovering itself with a toss and a merry laugh. Here, too, he had many small friends, a society complete in itself…”
Ratty is a kindred spirit. Autumn also plunges me into the bending and tossing grasses and the whispering of dry stems where I can stand shoulder deep in the prairie and just “be” with it all. Like him, I sense a community of other creatures in the flocks of fidgety birds, the agitated butterflies searching for the last bloom, the relentless plodding of a caterpillar through the grass stems. Autumn’s restlessness urges me to celebrate the change, change and change again of every season. I appreciate that reminder.
In the previous post, I collected all the gold and black vividness of August at Charles Ilsley Park – in blossoms, birds and butterflies.
But of course, Ilsley in August had lots of other hues. Nature seems incapable of limiting itself to just two colors in any season. So let’s see some of the other colorful brushstrokes from nature’s palette.
Stewardship Pays Off in Shades of Lavender in the Central Meadow
In the last few years, vernal pools have formed in the center of Charles Ilsley Park and a stream suddenly appeared crossing a trail on the east side of the central meadow. Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Stewardship Manager, realized that a farmer had once laid tile to drain those ponds. By pulling out some of the broken tiles, Ben restored a wetland area where the water can now seep underground instead of across the trail. As a result, a beautiful variety of lavender wetland flowers now bob and sway above the grass stems there. Tall, erect Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) branches into tapering spikes covered with tiny flowers frequented by many kinds of bees. The smaller, lavender Monkey Flower (Mimulus ringens) was a delightful new wildflower for me. These seeds were part of the wetland seed mix that were planted as part of the restoration process. After so many years of farming, very few native species remained, so stewardship staff designed a diverse wetland mix to help these areas recover. And nearby where dry, prairie soil begins again, a balding Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa) left a beautiful pattern as it shed its petals. [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]
Blue Vervain loves moist earth and sunlight so it thrives in this moist restored area.
Monkey Flower grew vigorously after being planted in 2018
Nearby, where the soil was dry, a Bee Balm showed its elegant balding head!
Birds and a Jazzy Insect Add Blue to the Ilsley Palette
A couple of blue birds made their contribution to the color scheme. A juvenile Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) with just a few of its azure feathers showing, hid deep within the the leaves of a giant oak along the entrance path. My photo attempt was hopeless. But a few days later, another small bluebird perched in an oak in my front yard. In the photo below, it seems to be studying the ground just before it swooped down and picked up a caterpillar. Well done, little bluebird! A tiny Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea) popped in and out of the shrubbery along the edge of the meadow. Even adults of this species are only 4-5 inches long and weigh 1-2 ounces! This little flycatcher twitches its white edged tail to stir up insects when surrounded by plants, though as you can see below, it probes bark for insects and their eggs as well.
If you see a large dragonfly helicoptering over the flower tops, it’s probably a Darner (Aeshnidae family. They are the largest dragonflies in North America, with the fastest flight and the keenest eyesight. The female has a needle-like ovipositor at the end of her abdomen so that she can slit open stalks and insert her eggs – hence, the name “darner.” (My husband remembers relatives calling them “sewing beetles!”) They spend most of their time in the air on their powerful wings, so I was glad to find this Green-striped Darner (Aeshna verticalis) resting for a moment on some dried Curly Dock (Rumex crispus). What an elaborate color scheme and pattern on this big beautiful insect!
Stewardship brings Red, White and Blue to the Golden Western Meadow
Ben noticed a moist swale in the western meadow as he was planning for the prairie planting and spread some wildflower seed from plants that love “wet feet.” What a lovely treat to see Cardinal Flower/Red Lobelia (Lobelia cardinalis), white Swamp Betony(Pedicularis lanceolata) and Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) thriving within a low spot in a dry, sunny meadow! Charles Ilsley Park introduced me to a second new wildflower when I saw these Swamp Betony for the first time in August.
One of our eagle-eyed birders took a photo of a third new flower to add to my “life list,” Dotted Mint/Horse Mint (Monarda punctata). This Monarda, in the same genus as our lavender Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa), has successive whorls of creamy white blossoms dotted in dark purple growing above one another along its stem. Ben had included this flower in the seed mix when this meadow was cleared and planted as part of prairie restoration. I hope we see more of it! Thanks to Vinnie Morganti for loaning me her photo of this interesting tri-level flower.
Nature Loves Earth Tones
Of course, browns and greens are always the backdrop of nature’s palette. A soft brown fledgling with a striped breast played peek-a-boo with me through some shrubs one afternoon. I could hear its begging chirp from beyond the plants, but it took a while before it really peeked out into the open. Can you spot its tiny head near the center of this photo? (You might need to click on this photo to get a better look.)
Finally, it came out for more than a split second so I could snap a photo. I checked its identification with local birding expert, Ruth Glass. I proposed that it was a young House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) and she agreed it was. These little birds drive their parents nuts with begging constantly for hours around our feeder so I thought I recognized that insistent chirp!
A group of little brown House Wrens ((Troglodytes aedon) chattered away in an oak along the treeline, darting here and there among the branches. At last, one came out to look around.
Almost immediately an adult wren appeared to scold me for being there. I snapped a quick photo and departed, so as not to incur more wrath from an annoyed parent!
As fall arrives, nuts and seeds add more rich brown shades and lovely greens. The lime green nuts of Walnut Trees (Juglans nigra) hang like tennis balls from limbs around the park and the Black Oaks sport clusters of bright green acorns with patterned brown beanies.
My candidate for this year’s most beautiful brown, though, are the teardrop-shaped, russet seeds of the Foxglove Beardtongue/Penstemon (Penstemon digitalis). In mid-summer, this native wildflower stands tall, while sprouting graceful white blossoms. Its seeds and dark red stems now are almost as visually appealing as its flowers!
Harvesting the Last of Summer Colors
Isn’t that wetland above a lovely harmony of greens? This wetland extends a long way on the north side of the far west trail that leads to the Wynstone subdivision west of the park. This one is large, mysterious and full of life as most wetlands are. I just “discovered” it after many walks in Ilsley and felt like a visitor to an alien world.
I listened to the raucous begging of a Green Heron fledgling down in the bushes ner the water and caught a glimpse of an adult stuffing food into the youngster’s bill. Just a glimpse, no photo – but I didn’t mind. I just wanted to take in all the green-ness to remember on a black-and-white winter day.
Summer is clearly waning, now. The butterflies look tattered and worn. The summer wildflowers are brown and seeding. But we have lots to look forward to. The meadows now brimming with goldenrods will soon be splashed with purple asters. The migrating birds, wearing more sedate winter colors, and the last of the “super generation” Monarchs will be riding north winds toward warmer climes. Leaves will reveal the dramatic colors they’ve hidden under all that chlorophyll since they “greened up” in the spring. So maybe, like wise stewards, we should store up as much color as we can while the supply is plentiful. We may need the memory of it on a January day.
All over Oakland Township – along the Paint Creek Trail and in Draper Twin Lake, Charles Ilsley and Bear Creek Parks – citizen scientist volunteers are busily monitoring nest boxes twice a week for Cornell Ornithology Lab’s Nestwatch program . I posted last year about thetraining we receive through our township stewardship manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide’s annual workshop and Cornell’s online resources.
As a volunteer monitor for the boxes at Bear Creek Nature Park this year, I’ve kept my eye on two species of bright blue native birds : Tree Swallows(Tachycinetabicolor) and Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) . It’s been such a joy, and it’s also taught me that citizen science can sometimes challenge the heart.
Eastern Bluebirds From Egg to Flight
The Bluebirds have had a good year in the brand new boxes at Bear Creek. Fourteen baby birds from three different boxes have taken the big plunge and ultimately flown out into the summer sunshine. It always strikes me that the moment that little birds fly is really a second birth for them after emerging out of their eggs. What a moment that first flight must be – much like exiting from the womb for human babies – moving from a cozy darkness to a big, bright, demanding world outside.
It all begins, of course, with a nest and an egg. The male Bluebird attracts a mate to a tree cavity or nest box by dropping in a little nesting material and either popping in and out of the hole or sitting on the box fluttering his bright blue wings. But once a pair has mated, the female builds the nest – a cup of nicely woven grasses and occasionally some pine needles. She lays one small egg each day, usually in the morning. Bluebird females don’t stay on the nest all day. They come and go to feed. Incubation takes 11 to 19 days. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
A female Bluebird bringing nesting material to her box at Ilsley Park earlier this year.
First bluebird egg in the new boxes at Bear Creek this year
Bluebird babies hatch out naked, blind and completely helpless. The ornithology term is “altricial” as opposed to “precocial,” which refers to baby birds like the Killdeer that emerge from the egg ready to run and feed. At first, black feathers appear under the nestlings’ skin looking like blue-black splotches. Gradually feathers emerge here and there on their tiny bodies. I’ll bet the beaks of nestlings are lined in white because they help the parent stick the caterpillars in the right place inside that dark cavity.
From hatchling to fledgling takes another 17-19 days for bluebirds. The feathers develop first in spiky looking “sheaths.” I think that’s what we’re seeing in this photo about a week after the nestlings hatched.
Gradually the sheaths drop away, leaving a white dust. The feathers begin to unfurl. As you can see below, nests get pretty crowded as the nestlings grow. Perhaps feeling a bit cramped is nature’s way of encouraging these little birds to take flight. Also, according to Stokes’ Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.3), the parents feed them less often just before fledging, so that they are more motivated to get out where the food is. Tough love in the bird world evidently!
This summer, I haven’t been lucky enough to arrive at the Bear Creek nest boxes when fledglings are emerging from a nest box. But last year, I was fortunate to be home, camera at the ready, when the first bluebird took off from a nest box in our field. First it hesitated with its tiny feet at the hole and looked around.
After a bit of nervous looking around, it gathered its courage and dropped from the hole, wings up ready for the downward stroke, body and legs hanging below!
And then those blue wings, still partially in spotted brown, spread out for the first time. So exciting!
Normally, the fledgling will fly onto a low branch of a nearby tree or shrub and then flutter their way to higher branches. According to Stokes, the parents will bring the fledgling food for the next three to four weeks. But if the adults mate again during that time, the job of feeding the young falls to the male while the female starts another clutch of eggs.
A variety of predators, of course, can interrupt this miraculous cycle. In the park this year, three bluebird eggs in one nest box simply disappeared a few days after they were laid. I could only guess at the culprit. House Wrens are known to dispose of other birds’ eggs by removal or pecking and they would fit in a nest box hole. It seems doubtful that a snake or raccoon managed to get past the predator guard. Whoever was the nest thief, the bluebird adults were resilient. About a week later, three more eggs appeared in the nest box. This time, they hatched and are now almost fully feathered. I expect them to take wing some time next week.
Tree Swallows Literally Feather Their Own Nest!
The beautiful blue and white Tree Swallows had a tougher time than the Bluebirds this year but nine little Tree Swallows added their blue to the sky anyway. They arrived in late April and began mating displays.
I was pleased to find the beginnings of nest building in the boxes. But shortly thereafter, we had a severe cold snap and the Tree Swallows disappeared for a week or so at least. My fellow monitors and I guessed that the insects that they feed on in flight were wiped out by the cold so the Tree Swallows temporarily flew farther south. According to The Stokes Guide, this behavior isn’t uncommon for Tree Swallows in inclement weather.
By mid-May, the swallows returned and began adding material to their nests. Tree Swallows use grasses as a base for their nests, but they line the nest with feathers, white ones being a particular favorite. Eventually I began to see little white eggs not much bigger than a large jelly bean in three of the boxes. I was so glad to have the swallows nesting again that I decided to forego taking a photo. So here’s a photo of a single Tree Swallow egg shared by a generous iNaturalist.org photographer who uses the name caw33iii.
Eventually, one of my three Tree Swallow boxes had six eggs. Tree Swallows incubate their eggs for 11-19 days also. When I arrived on the 21st day, I was greeted by this lovely sight – one or two day old hatchings! I couldn’t resist a quick cellphone photo. You can see the blue pigment of feathers beneath the skin and of course, white beaks again and completely blind eyes. Such a pretty variety of feathers in this soft, cozy nest!
These babies did just fine, because they seemed to have very experienced parents. Unlike Bluebird parents who will usually flush from the nest as I approach or simply scold from a nearby tree while I monitor, Tree Swallow parents take, let’s say, a more active role! Once when I approached to monitor, a female Tree Swallow just stuck her head out the hole and refused to leave. I went my merry way without data.
Every time I arrived to peek in this nest box, an adult swooped over me repeatedly, issuing liquid warning calls. I’m glad that these parents so fiercely protect their young, so it made me laugh each time. I trust these skillful fliers; they’re just sending a warning to an interloper they have no reason to trust. I always finish my peek in any nest box in less than a minute anyway, as the Nestwatch training advises. The last thing I wanted to do was discourage this conscientious couple!
I believe I arrived late on this clutch’s fledge day, because I heard lots of twittering deep in the nearby bushes. Generally all the fledglings leave on the same day, though occasionally one of them needs an extra day. And indeed, when I took a quick, careful peek into the box, only one little fledgling was left there, probably still screwing its courage to the sticking point. Again, the parents sailed over my head, encouraging me to leave. I took their advice. When I visited again three days later, I was pleased to see that the last little fledgling had taken off into the blue as well.
Tree Swallow fledglings are much more precocious than fledgling bluebirds. They can fly and scoop insects out of the air on their own in just 2 or 3 days! Since I have no Bear Creek fledging photos, here’s one I took two years ago of a fledgling Tree Swallow at Draper Twin Lake Park. It had flown high up onto a guy wire but was having a little trouble sticking the landing!
Another Tree Swallow nest box at Bear Creek did not fare so well this year. Three eggs never hatched and the other three fledglings simply died shortly before their fledge date. I gently removed them from the nest, limp in my palm, and carried them a distance away in the deep grass under a shrub, so predators would not be attracted to the other boxes. A sad afternoon. Perhaps I missed signs of violence but I looked and didn’t see any. Perhaps the parents were less adept at finding food after the cold spring delayed the hatching of insects. But I’m just guessing. It may have just been a challenging year for these Tree Swallows.
Despite a few casualties, the Bear Creek nest boxes have already fledged nine Tree Swallows and fourteen Eastern Bluebirds. And we still have 3 Bluebird eggs and 4 Bluebird hatchlings in two boxes. And that’s just the six boxes in one park! Imagining these small blue birds out in the greenery all over the township, growing, practicing their foraging and flying skills and preparing to make the fall migration makes me very happy.
An adult male Eastern Bluebird
An adult male Tree Swallow calling to its mate.
Both of these species have suffered steep declines over the years. Bluebirds are recovering largely because humans began to provide nest boxes for them back in the 1960’s and 70’s. Tree Swallow numbers have declined by 49% in the last 40 years, but perhaps the nest boxes and the information gathered from them will eventually boost their numbers as well. We have to hope so, because summer would not be as glorious without these little scraps of blue sky winging their way above our flowered fields.
I never know what I’m going to see or hear when I head into Draper Twin Lake Park. A large marsh separates the park’s two halves. If I start in the west side of the park, the shady trail is lined with moisture-loving plants and ends up at the fishing dock by the blue expanse of the lake. If I park at the maintenance building in the eastern half of the park, I ponder whether to circle left, passing a floating mat marsh, or head straight north to the beautiful restored prairie.
All the choices are good ones, so let me share what’s blooming, buzzing and singing in Draper’s quilt of habitats. And then you can do your own choosing some summer afternoon.
The Western Section: A Shady, Short Stroll to the Lake… or the Case of the Disappearing Wildlife!
I feel a bit like the fisherman with his story about the “one that got away” in describing the western side of the park this June. Whether alone or with fellow birders, I heard a lot more than I saw – though some of what I saw was wonderful. You’ll see what I mean…
The trail from the parking lot was green and cool on a hot day. My first encounter was with a small Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) as I came around a bend in the trail. The bunny took one look at me and disappeared into the grass. In a fine article by naturalist Katie McKiernan in the Seven Ponds Nature Center newsletter, I learned more about the phrase “breed like rabbits.” The Cottontail female is usually pregnant while nursing her previous litter! They mate from March to August, so I’m guessing female rabbits look forward to the autumn! Since this year’s bunny dashed off without a selfie, here’s one from a few years ago that has the morning sun shining through its ears .
High in the treetops, hidden among the leaves, I could hear the signature “Drink Your Teeeeea” song of the Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus). Here’s my recording. You may need to turn up your volume a bit.
Despite some serious neck craning, neither I nor my fellow birders could spot any of the four we heard. But here’s a photo of one singing at Draper in 2017. All this lush foliage from the heavy rain is amazing, but not always the best for bird spotting!
On a bird walk back in March of this year, the birding group was excited to see a pair of Cooper’s Hawks (Accipiter cooperii) in a bare tree near the lake. We’d seen one near a nest there in 2016 and wondered if they had returned to nest near the lake again. What an impressive bird!
However, construction on a new house near the park border was making a lot of noise that morning and we wondered if that would affect their nesting. On my June trip, I hoped to see one, but wasn’t optimistic since we hadn’t spotted them with the bird group in April or May. While looking for the elusive Towhee, I caught site of a large, saucer-shaped nest high in a White Pine. The nest was difficult to see from every direction, a choice spot from a bird’s point of view..
The nest didn’t look used; in fact it didn’t look as though it had been completed. Perhaps another missing creature? If this is the hawks’ abandoned nest, let’s hope they found a peaceful spot farther from the sounds of hammers and nails.
Luckily, other wildlife and some elegant plants did appear along the way to the lake. Lush purple native Spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis) bloomed in the dappled light under the trees. What appeared to be a Metallic Green Sweat Bee (genus Agapostemon) was gathering pollen on its hind legs. The contrast of the bright yellow pollen against the purple blossom must be a great signal to pollinators!
And nearby, I was delighted to see a bee among the drooping, elegant blooms of Tall Meadow Rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum). Since this pollinator seemed to be collecting pollen by smoothing it across its abdomen, it may have been a Leafcutter Bee (family Apocrita).
I just have to show you this whole plant. Isn’t Tall Meadow Rue striking with its drooping pom poms?
As I neared the lake, I was greeted by a stand of giants, plants 4-8 feet tall with huge leaves. It turns out to be Cow Parsnip (Heracleum maxiumum), a plant that hosts huge numbers of bees, wasps, beetles and flies over the course of the summer. It’s a biennial which means it produces leaves, stems and roots one year, then flowers and seeds the next. Cow Parsnip can cause blisters or iritation if its sap on your skin is exposed to bright sunlight. But according to Wikipedia, Native Americans found many uses for it medicinally such as poultices from the roots for swelling or bruises and mosquito repellent from crushed leaves. They even made children’s flutes from this plant after removing the outer surface. Sounds like this beautiful and statuesque plant is best seen in its natural setting, though, not in my garden!
Down by Draper Lake, the Fragrant Water Lilies were beginning to bloom. The dragonflies will find them a great courting platform in the days to come, I imagine.
And among the aquatic plants near the fishing deck, a pair of Banded Pennant dragonflies (Celithemis fasciata) were already busy mating. The male clings to the stem and holds the head of the female. She clings to him, while curving her abdomen upward to receive the sperm. According to Wikipedia, this posture is appropriately called the heart or circle shape.
Since these dragonflies are in the Skimmer family (Libelluidae), the female will lay her eggs by “tapping the surface of the water repeatedly with her abdomen, by shaking the eggs out of her abdomen as she flies along, or by placing the eggs on vegetation.”
On the way back from lake, the birders and I saw an energetic little Chipping Sparrow(Spizella passerina) moving through the small trees. These small, pert sparrows with their chestnut cap and black eyeline prefer treed areas with open, grassy spaces – so you may have some on your lawn if you look closely!
A solitary walk one hot afternoon allowed me to share a moment with a young American Robin (Turdus migratorius). Where removal of invasive shrubs last year left some damp, open ground, the youngster landed and looked around. A Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) hiding in the shrubbery nearby sang its charming conversational collection of bird noises. I could never catch the Catbird out on a limb, so the Robin and I just spent a few quiet minutes together listening intently.
I discovered a modest little summer wildflower peeking out of the grass. Lots of insects drink nectar from the tiny blooms of White Avens (Geum canadense) and the leaves are hosts for the caterpillars of many of them as well.
A Midland Painted Turtle ((Chrysemys picta marginata) sat calmly tucked within its shell in the middle of the path as I headed back to the parking lot. I’m guessing it was a female looking for bare ground in which to dig a hole and lay her eggs. Though it wasn’t an ideal spot, I kept my opinion to myself and I left her to it.
The Eastern Section: A Longer Hike Among the Winged Beauties of a Sunny, Flowering Prairie
No question about which path to take this month! One Sunday, my husband and I headed straight out to the restored prairie, excited to see what was blooming and buzzing. Again this year, what a delight! Under a bright, blue sky, the slightest breeze made the thigh-high grass and wildflowers bow and sway to the musical accompaniment of bird song. What could be better?
On the Way to the Prairie
As we walked north, the music was supplied by two bright yellow birds. A male American Goldfinch at the tip of a snag trilled his quick, syncopated song that always seems to include a couple of loud “tweets.” And farther away, near the small marsh to the west, we spotted the Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) who is more common this year than ever! The male loves to sing his “witchedy” song from shrubs or low limbs near a wetland. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
At our feet on the entrance path, a small American Painted Lady politely sat for her portrait in the short grass.
The Common Ringlet (Coenonympha tullia), an even smaller butterfly at less than an inch a half, was fluttering from one grass stem to another on the path, perhaps to thwart being snatched by a dragonfly or other predator. Finally it settled for more than a split second. Nice barbershop stripes on the antennae!
Birds of Various Sizes on the Prairie, including One Difficult Invasive Species
Reaching the prairie, I knelt among the tall grasses and wildflowers to take a shot and suddenly noticed the thin, gray neck and head of a Sandhill Crane (Antigone canadensis) just above the flower tops.
Actually, we ultimately saw three of them stalking slowly just under the crest of the flowering slope. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology informs me that in our region, juveniles stay with their parents until they nest again in April or May and then form foraging groups with other juveniles out on their own. Since these birds had adult plumage and were similar in size, I’m guessing this group may have been just such a cohort of young Sandhills.
On top of the hill, a female Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) defended her nest, perhaps from invasive House Sparrows (Passer domesticus). This Eurasian species, once called “English Sparrows,” have been ravaging some of the prairie nest boxes. Volunteer nest box monitors have found boxes with beheaded nestlings, an attack typical of House Sparrows, which compete with our native cavity nesting birds. House Sparrows can ruin the eggs or kill the young of bluebirds, tree swallows and other cavity nesters. When we find a box with eggs, Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Nestwatch program asks us to remove or addle them to help control the burgeoning House Sparrow population. Since they are so widespread and have such a harmful affect on native birds, they’re considered an invasive species and are not protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. So although it makes us more than a bit squeamish, we monitors try to comply! (Thanks to iNaturalist photographer avepel for the House Sparrow photo.)
A female Bluebird defending her nestbox from predators like the House Sparrow.
House Sparrow by avepel (CC BY-NC) at inaturalist.org
A House Sparrow egg removed from the nest by a nestbox monitor
On a happier note, a Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) found some food for its young in the tall prairie grass, snagging what appeared to be a dragonfly. In my limited experience, Field Sparrows are shy during most of the summer. But when it’s time to lay the eggs and feed the young, they’re good providers and so are a bit more visible. You won’t see Field Sparrows in an urban or suburban setting like House Sparrows; they insist on wide open spaces! As a result, their numbers are currently in decline, so I’m glad we’re preserving prairie for them!
An EasternPhoebe (Sayornis phoebe) flew to the ground and returned to a branch, its tail characteristically pumping up and down, as it also looked for insects in the tall grass. I caught it just as it prepared for takeoff.
Dramatic Dragonflies, Tiny Pollinators, and Other Unfortunate Eggs
More native summer wildflowers bloom with each passing day as the restored prairie comes to full bloom. The color and scent are attracting little pollinators and the dragonflies looking for lunch! These three native wildflowers were planted as part of the prairie restoration and are particular favorites of mine.
With my birding partners, I saw my first ever Calico Pennant dragonfly (Celithemis elisa) along the prairie loop path. Wow! We were all pretty impressed with this creature! The bright orange abdomen indicates a male and a young one, since the yellow spots near the wing tips turn red as they mature.
The elegant Widow Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula luctuosa) landed along the loop path as well. The yellow and black abdomen indicates that it’s a juvenile and the just-developing white patches beside the dark wing patch means that this one is a juvenile male. With the birders, I saw another juvenile at a similar stage and when I got home, wondered if we’d seen one who’d narrowly escaped a predator. It seemed to be managing quite nicely, though, flying with no difficulty among the stalks of prairie grasses.
The Hoverflies (family Syrphidae) were busy finding nectar and inadvertently doing their large share of pollination.
Another little Hoverfly clasped the stamen of a non-native Common St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) blossom as it drank nectar. Dr. Parsons, the entomologist who helped me with hoverflies, says that hoverfly mouthparts are not like the long sipping straws of butterflies. Instead their mouthparts are soft with a hairy tip that sponges up nectar so that the mouth at the end of tip can draw it in. Normally the mouthparts are folded under the head, but they extend them like this little one is doing to reach for food. They can also liquify pollen with their saliva and drink it up as well. No wonder they distribute so much pollen!
One of the nest monitors reported seeing a Snapping Turtle ((Chelydra serpentina) laying eggs on the west edge of the north prairie. But when my husband and I came across a turtle nest along the western side, some hungry animal – perhaps a raccoon or coyote – had dug the eggs up for a meal. I can’t be sure we saw the Snapper’s nest. The egg remains look small enough to perhaps be those of a Painted Turtle or the much rarer Blanding’s Turtle (Emys blandingii ) that one of our bird monitors has seen twice on the trails as well.
And down in the short grass, a small Amber Snail (family Succineidae) moved languidly along the path, oblivious of all the prairie drama above. Isn’t it interesting that they have eyes on the end of those translucent tentacles on their heads?
Nature Asks that We Love It, Warts and All
It’s a temptation to romanticize who and what we love, isn’t it? For me, nature’s always been full of creativity, beauty, harmony – and I’m not wrong about that. Watch a cardinal stuff a seed into its mates beak to woo her. Or see a a mother raccoon cope with a treeful of young after a long night of foraging. Or learn how trees feed their young through the miraculous network of ancient underground fungi.
But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to accept that there’s a fierceness to nature, too – not just tornadoes and floods but everyday survival fierceness: an empty turtle nest; the caterpillar that consumes its live host; an owl swooping down on a baby rabbit; a dragonfly snatched by a field sparrow.
And then there are burgeoning invasive species introduced by humans: the house sparrow’s predation, the bittersweet vine choking the life out of trees, the zebra mussels changing the environment of the Great Lakes.
Nature’s solutions to life’s endless challenges and change may not always be pretty, but they have sustained our kind and all life on this planet for millennia. Each time I venture out into the natural world, I’m being shown the importance of honoring and preserving the complex, carefully balanced, interwoven systems that nature has worked out over eons. Until recently, humans were blind to those finely tuned systems and we have unwittingly done serious harm to them in multiple ways. But now we are beginning to see and understand what we’ve done. Now we know that these delicately balanced relationships can be restored if we have the will to do so. I’m glad our small green corner of the planet has made a commitment to doing just that.
I’m willing to admit that winter walks are a bit more demanding for me. Though I love being out in the open with red cheeks and the glitter of sunlight on snow, breaking through an icy snow crust with every step can be a bit arduous. And as a writer who loves taking photos, well, wildlife is simply a bit more scarce and plant life is a lot less colorful. So the blog creates an interesting challenge. Luckily, I’m all for a good challenge! So this week, in a way, I’m writing about what I didn’t see in February at Charles Ilsley Park. Bear with me…
One February morning, I pursued the paw prints of an unseen coyote who had left a trail in the ice-encrusted snow on the previous moonlit night. And I spent part of an afternoon just noticing the brown and gray architecture of the dry seed heads of some favorite summer wildflowers, now ghosts of their colorful summer selves. Their pleasing shapes provided some inspiration about the native garden I’m dreaming about for next summer. But I’ll start this blog with the handful of birds that I did see, that kept me company on frigid days, just to remind myself that I had sturdy companions on the grayest and coldest days of the year.
Who’s That Twittering in the Tall Grass?
One late afternoon as I approached the Eastern Prairie at Ilsley, I heard the cheerful “chatting” (see first “call” heading at this link) of a small group of winter visitors from the Arctic, American Tree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea). One of them paused long enough for a good look at its two-tone bill. This little bird had puffed up its down jacket to deal with a frigid morning!
Two days later, the birding group heard more “chatting.” We spotted a large flock of Tree Sparrows flowing like a river from the trees, down into the tall prairie grass. These social flocks keep in contact with short calls back and forth – “I’m here! I’m over here!” – as they forage. I managed to catch a group of them in a vine-laden bush at the edge of prairie.
It was wonderful to watch so many migratory birds feeding enthusiastically on the native seeds of our restored prairie. We were curious to see which plants they were enjoying. That morning they were finding bent Black-eyed Susan stems (Rudbeckia hirta) and plucking out the seeds. Here’s the bent stem at almost ground level, the seeds on the snow and the area trampled by the flock’s small feet.
Actually, this large flock of birds had a few fellow travelers. Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) and American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) joined the Tree Sparrows’ feast. Larger flocks increase the odds that birds can survive against predators in winter, when birds show up well against the snow. They also mean more eyes spotting good food. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
On a Sunday walk in the Western Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park, my husband and I spotted Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) diving in and out of the grass. Finally, a pair of them settled on some brush and fallen logs along the tree line. The male ignored me completely while he preened vigorously. Since bluebirds often use the abandoned nests of woodpeckers in the winter, I wondered if he’d picked up some mites from an old nest, poor fellow. I managed to get one quick shot when he rested for just a moment.
The female nearby was keeping an eye on me and as I approached she sent the male a little “chit-chit-chit” call (second “call” heading at this link) that warns of ground predators – me, in this case! Then they both flew off again.
At the far edge of the western prairie, we heard the “ank-ank-ank” call of the White Breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis). (Under “Eastern calls” at this link.) It was hopping quickly from branch to dead branch above our heads, searching out anything it could eat , like frozen insect eggs or caterpillars.
Now, About Those Tracks Here, There and Everywhere…
As I started out one Thursday morning, I was presented with some pretty impressive tracks. I recognized them immediately, because one of them was mine! The last four birders on the Wednesday morning bird walk had trekked along chatting as we went back to our cars. As a former bookseller, I had to smile remembering Pooh and Piglet tracking a “heffalump” around a bush, which of course turned out to be their own footprints, too. A fun beginning to my search for animal tracks.
I left the trail and headed diagonally across the field following a nice straight line of canine prints – and readers of my previous winter blogs probably know what that means – a Coyote! Coyotes (Canis latrans) trot along at night making a straight trail of prints. Being wild animals, coyotes want to use as little energy as necessary between meals, so they never run around in the snow like dogs do. They place their back feet inside the print of their front feet to use less energy and move directly where they want to go.
Because a crust covered the snow after freezing rain, it was clear that this coyote had to break through the snow with each step, leaving a pointed top to the track it left behind.
I followed the prints as it became apparent that this coyote was headed for the farthest west section of the park, where Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide had hired a forestry mower to remove invasive shrubs and create a path to the nearby subdivision for residents’ use. Two trees nicely frame the opening to this newly renovated area.
This western section with its rolling, glacial landscape, wetlands and wooded areas is very different from the open prairies of Ilsley. It seems our coyote thought this might be a better place to rest on an icy, windy night. Coyotes are not really nocturnal animals, but they have learned that night is a good time to hunt and not be bothered by humans and their activities. So I imagine this coyote had been out hunting mice on the prairie and was heading back to the woods to get out of the wind.
After passing into the western area, the coyote turned sharply south into the woods. So I followed its tracks, imagining it trotting between the trees, slipping in and out of the shadows made by the full moon the night before.
It’s easy to see that among the glacially-formed slopes of this rolling landscape, a coyote would be out of the sharp wind that blew across the prairie. The landscape in this area of the park is suddenly so different, as the slopes rise and then descend to one wetland after another. I kept following the coyote deeper into the woods as the line of prints flowed over the slopes.
At last the coyote’s tracks came down to a small pond where they seemed to end in a flattened area under some vines and branches at the right which would have provided a bit of cover.
Beyond that pond was another lovely little pond covered in snow and embraced by the hills around it – but not a track in sight.
I lost the coyote’s trail after that and wandered up to Ben’s path again. I stopped to admire a very tall, wonderfully straight native Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipfera) with its closely furrowed bark.
Its yellow blossoms were now dried but still quivering in the wind at the very top of the tree. Ben pointed it out on an earlier walk and told us he thought our area is at the northern edge of this lovely tree’s range. It’s the first wild tulip tree I’ve ever seen.
Nearby stood a tall Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum), its red buds just waiting to expand and bring us one of the first really vivid colors of early spring.
As I left the western wooded area and headed back onto the western prairie, I came across a flattened place in the trail that looked like a major crossroads for critters. The tracks around it were hard to read . I thought I recognized squirrel and possible rabbit tracks, but I have no idea who was there and what was going on, really. Since there are coyote tracks above this flattened area, I wondered if one slept here; as top predators, they do sleep in the open at times. Its warmth would have melted the snow and allowed smaller creatures to get to the ground underneath the crusted surface once the coyote left the scene. Just a guess.
One possible hint was a hole in the snow nearby where a squirrel may have tried to dig up a nut in the frozen soil. Or perhaps our coyote dug up a Meadow Mouse (Microtus pennsylvanicus) before heading off to sleep? I’m not sure because the tracks around it were not fresh; they had been trampled, rained on and frozen.
The coyote tracks did lead away from area toward the private property on the west side of the park.
If the open hole was that of a captured mouse, the birders saw evidence that some mice are luckier than others. Here are some mouse tracks that we spotted near the edge of the western prairie. It looks like this mouse made it safely under the snow’s insulation – safe from the icy wind and out of sight. I love the “stitching” look of mouse tracks in the snow.
On the last leg of my tracking trip to the park, as I approached the central section from the north, I saw one of the spring-fed ponds covered with lots of tracks, making neat, straight lines across the snow-covered surface. What was going on? And then it occurred to me. These were stewardship tracks! Ben had told us at the end of the bird walk that he’d brought a native wetland seed mix to spread on the ponds before it rained later that day. He and Stewardship Specialist Alyssa Radzwion put the seed right on the frozen surface. Native seeds needs to be exposed to the cold before they will germinate properly. Once warm weather comes, the seeds will drop down into the shallow water or moist edge habitat and with luck, begin bringing some color and native plant life to these special areas of the park.
The Ghosts of Summers Past Provide Inspiration for Spring
I’ve begun learning to recognize and appreciate the winter forms of some favorite wildflowers. Their subtle shades of brown or gray as well as their patterns and geometry have started me wondering if I could create a native garden next summer that the birds and I could enjoy all year ’round. It’s clear that birds need the seeds that cling to native plants despite snow and wind. And I could appreciate the architecture of winter plants. So which shapes provide what landscapers like to call “visual interest” and also provide winter food for wildlife?
Perhaps some of you remember how beautiful the Eastern Prairie looked when filled with Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) in the summer. This hardy native has always had a special place in my life. When I was a teenager, the first song I ever wrote included the “wide-eyed stare” of this sunny flower. So it definitely needs to be in my garden. I’m taken with its winter fringed cap in winter and would be happy to let it hang out in my garden.
Black-eyed Susans in bloom
Black-eyed Susan in winter – a lovely cone of seeds for the birds
Mixed in with these bright yellow beauties were the lavender fireworks of Bee-balm (Monarda fistulosa) and they create appealing geometry in a winter landscape.
For contrast, I’d need some white in my summer garden – and maybe good old Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) would be a possibility – if I could keep it from spreading too much. I like its chocolate brown against the white snow.
I love how Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) sway in a summer breeze so I hope they’ll be included somehow too. The plump, oblong seed heads obviously provide forage for the birds and silvery, pointed spears would be a graceful accent in a winter garden.
I may plant Asters in our field rather than in the garden. They grow in such profusion! I’m not sure which of the many Asters is represented in the winter photo below because so many kinds of asters bloom in late summer and fall! They are such a boon to all kinds of butterflies and bees who can feed on them before winter arrives. Here’s just a sampling. (Use pause button for captions.)
Brown-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia triloba), which also bloom late in late summer and fall, might be another good choice for the field, since they grow so tall (compared to Black-eyed Susans) and have a branching form with multiple blooms at the same time.
Well, that’s a start. I want to search out some other favorites, like Foxglove Beard-tongue (Penstemon digitalis) and see what it looks like after bloom – though I doubt I can resist it for the garden. That little Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) makes me impatient for spring!
See? Wasn’t that a clever way to get to get some color into an early March blog, when everything is still brown, gray and white? I knew you’d appreciate it…
Finding Delight in a Late Winter Walk
It takes a bit more effort to get out on a frosty morning. There’s all that layered clothing and boots and gloves and scarves. And the early March landscape is getting just a bit tiresome — too much brown and white out our windows. But once I’m out the door and into the landscape, nature offers me a few treats to keep me coming back. Tracking a coyote’s tracks to a secluded pond in the woods feels like a little adventure. The friendly chatting of winter birds keeps me company and the sight of bluebirds in the stark landscape nourishes my color-starved eyes. And how lucky that noticing the winter geometry of last summer’s blooms sets me off dreaming about a new native garden! So all that makes crunching step-by-step through the snow crust worth the effort when the thermometer encourages me to stay home.
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township’s Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University; Wikipedia; A Field Guide to Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, and Trees of Michigan Field Guide by Stan Tekiela.