Tag Archives: Eastern Bluebird

Draper Twin Lake Park: A Patchwork of Habitats

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.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

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!

Western trail to the fishing Dock at Draper Twin Lakes Park

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 .

A young Eastern Cottontail with the 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!

An Eastern Towhee singing from a snag at Draper in 2017.

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!

A Cooper’s hawk in March whose nest looked unfinished in June.

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..

What I think is a Cooper’s Hawk nest that had been abandoned by the pair that was here in March.

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!

A Sweat Bee busily collects pollen on its hind legs in the center of native Spiderwort.

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).

A bee spreading pollen on its abdomen, a characteristic of Leafcutter Bees.

I just have to show you this whole plant. Isn’t Tall Meadow Rue striking with its drooping pom poms?

Tall Meadow Rue makes a dramatic statement in moist shade.

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!

The 4-8 foot tall Cow Parsnip is gorgeous and host many pollinators, but its sap can cause sever blisters when affected skin is exposed to sunlight.

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.

Fragrant Water Lilies on Draper Twin Lake

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.

Banded Pennant dragonflies make a heart shape as they mate.

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!

Chipping Sparrows like to nest in treed areas with sunny grass for foraging. Your lawn might do!

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.

A juvenile Robin listens and looks around as a Gray Catbird sings in the shrubbery nearby.

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 modest summer native, White Avens, blooms in the partial sunshine at the edge of the trail.  It hosts many insects even though its blooms are tiny.

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.

A Midland Painted Turtle sat in the path, perhaps looking for bare ground in which to lay her eggs.

The Eastern Section:  A Longer Hike Among the Winged Beauties of a Sunny, Flowering Prairie

The Northern Prairie in June never disappoints!

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.

American Painted Ladies have only a 2 inch wingspan – but what a brilliant design!

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!

The orange and gray Common Ringlet moves quickly in the grass, probably to avoid predators like the dragonflies.

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.

A Sandhill Crane appeared over the edge of a slope as it looked back at its two companions.

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.)

 

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!

This Field Sparrow found a dragonfly to take back to the nest which is probably in a low shrub nearby..

An Eastern Phoebe (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.

A Phoebe about to take off after an insect at the edge of the prairie.

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.

A young male Calico Pennant dragonfly landed on a grass stem on the prairie’s loop path.

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.

A Hoverfly found a nice shady spot to sip nectar on this Sand Coreopsis

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!

A Hoverfly drinking nectar from a non-native wildflower

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.

A turtle nest robbed by a predator.

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?

An Amber Snail whose eyes are at the end of the transparent tentacles on its head..

Nature Asks that We Love It, Warts and All

Sand Coreopsis in summer sunshine on Draper prairie

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.

Charles Ilsley Park: Hardy Companions, Tracking the Unseen and the Ghosts of Flowers Past

Charles Ilsley Park’s Northern Prairie, as seen from the spring-fed pond in the center of the park.

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…

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

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?

Stalks of Indian Grass forming a scrim as I look across the Eastern Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park.

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!

The two-toned bill, breast spot, eye-line and chestnut cap are the Tree Sparrow’s field marks.

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.

Part of a large flock, of Tree Sparrows feeding in the Eastern Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park.

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.

The bent stalk  of a Black-eyed Susan near the ground makes it easier for the  Tree sparrows to get at the seed.

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.

A male Eastern Bluebird paused from preening for just a few seconds while sitting in the brush near the tree line.

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.

The female bluebird gave a little signal call to her preening mate as I approached.

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.

A White-breasted Nuthatch probed the bark on a dead limb for hidden insects or their eggs.

Now, About Those Tracks Here, There and Everywhere…

Some pretty striking tracks greeted me in the center field of the park.

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.

Coyote tracks across the western prairie

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.

A coyote print in iced-over snow.

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.

The entrance to the farthest west section of Charles Ilsley Park with its rolling land and woods.

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.

The coyotes prints entering the western section of the park.

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.

The coyote heads off into the woods in the western part of Charles Ilsley Park.

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.

The coyote’s tracks 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.

A flat area under the bushes and vines on the right looked like it could be a place where the coyote spent the night out of the wind.

Beyond that pond was another lovely little pond covered in snow and embraced by the hills around it – but not a track in sight.

A trackless pond beyond the one where the coyote’s tracks ended

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.

The very tall, very straight trunk and furrowed bark of a Tulip-tree

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.

The dried blossoms of a Tulip-tree which always blooms on the highest branches. 

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.

Red buds high on a Silver Maple will swell and offer up one of the first bright colors of 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.

A heavily tracked spot on the western prairie trail

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.

A place where a squirrel may have dug up a nut or seed – or perhaps a coyote found a mouse before bedtime?

The coyote tracks did lead away from area toward the private property on the west side of the park.

Coyote tracks running through the furrows of the private field 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.

Mouse tracks that look like stitching disappearing into a hole 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.

Tracks left by Ben and Alyssa as they seeded the spring-fed pond with a native wetland mix.  (The birders had also trekked across the pond earlier in the morning.)

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?

Yellow Coneflower and Canada Wild Rye in late fall.

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.

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.)

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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!

A young Field Sparrow on Foxglove Beardtongue in Charles Ilsley Park’s Eastern Prairie.

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.

Photos of the Week: Birds Feasting on Seed, Sunshine – and the occasional frozen “dessert!”

Showy Goldenrod seed heads at sunset

On a frigid late afternoon a week or so ago at Draper Twin Lake Park, I came upon a large stand of Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) glowing in the sunlight. It turned out that I was not the only one enjoying that warm patch of sunlight backlighting plumes of goldenrod. That sunny curve in the trail was alive with winter birds!

Feasting on Seeds

Tree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea) twittered cheerfully back and forth in the grass below the plants, foraging with the sunlit stems swaying above them. These cheery-voiced winter visitors from the far north were landing on the goldenrods and nibbling at the seed heads.

A Tree Sparrow nibbles at the Showy Goldenrod to loosen the seed

That made some of  the seed fall to the ground, where the tree sparrows prefer to feed, so the tall grass below rippled with busily foraging members of the flock.

A Tree Sparrow foraging for seed fallen from the goldenrod seed heads above

And Tree Sparrows hung out in the bushes and trees nearby waiting their turn, some gathering a little warmth on their breasts from the setting sun.

A Tree Sparrow in bright sunlight with a dark twig shadow across its face.
An American Tree Sparrow in a nearby tree while clouds blocked the sun. This picture clearly shows the two-colored bill, rusty cap, rusty eyeline, and unstreaked breast that we use to identify tree sparrows.

They weren’t the only species enjoying that patch of sunlit goldenrod, though. Another winter visitor from Canada, a Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis), swooped into the lit plumes and began sampling the seed heads.

A Dark-eyed Junco nibbling on Showy Goldenrod near the Tree Sparrows

In the background, a tentative American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis)dressed in its sedate winter plumage, waited its turn too. So many birds being fed at once! I imagine they all enjoyed the faint warmth of the winter sun shining through the plumes as they ate their evening meal.

An American Goldfinch waits for its turn to share the goldenrod seeds.

Foraging for a Frozen “Dessert”

A male Downy Woodpecker  (Dryobates pubescens) preferred to look for insect eggs or larvae in the stems of Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis). He moved quickly from plant to plant pecking furiously. Later in the winter, I often find goldenrod galls with neat holes in them where Downys have excavated larva from their winter hideaway inside. But this Downy Woodpecker was searching for something inside the stems themselves.

A Downy Woodpecker pecked at the stems of Canada Goldenrod, looking for insect eggs or larvae.

A pair of Eastern Bluebirds seemed to be checking out possible real estate for the spring. The female sat on the box for some time, occasionally fluttering down to poke her head inside.  The male waited calmly nearby, taking periodic foraging trips down into the grass. (Click on photo to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

Later I saw a female  – perhaps the one from the nest box? – pecking on a branch until she loosened a frozen, tiny green caterpillar, which she then promptly swallowed. She was so busy pounding on its hard surface that I never got a clear photo of the caterpillar in her beak – but here she is just after eating her frozen dessert. Looks like it might have felt a bit chilly on the way down, doesn’t it?

A female bluebird who’d just found and consumed a bright green frozen caterpillar!

In the same clump of bushes, a Black-Capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) performed acrobatic feats while trying, it appeared, to extract some kind of insect from the end of a twig. Here it is hanging upside down as it pecked diligently for its supper. I love its feathered leg-warmers.

A Black-capped Chickadee pecked at the end of this twig until something to eat came out of it.

So whether a bird prefers seeds or likes to finish the day with a cold bug or two, Draper Twin Lake Park has food ready and waiting.  Nice how nature works like that…

Bear Creek Nature Park: Autumn “Couples” and A Startling – and Absolutely Beautiful – Restoration Begins

Autumn on the western slope in the southern section of Bear Creek Nature Park.

Bear Creek Nature Park can be surprisingly busy on a late autumn afternoon. Couples sit chatting on a bench, while pairs of other species are gliding together on the Center Pond or cozying up in the hollow of a tree. Birds soar overhead or chatter from distant branches.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

And meanwhile  on the north side of Bear Creek, Oakland Township Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, along with hard-working volunteers and a forestry mower, are ridding the park of invasive shrubbery. And what emerges from their efforts is a beautiful, rolling oak savanna landscape!  You may be a bit shocked at first by the change – but trust me, you’re going to love it!

Pairing Up in Autumn

Spring may be for lovers but autumn’s got its own appeal. One late afternoon, a young couple came wandering down a forest path toward me, the girl giving me a shy hello. And shortly thereafter, as I approached the north platform of the marsh, a slightly older pair of friends relaxed on the bench, just enjoying together the golden light of an autumn day.

A couple shares the peace of an autumn afternoon at the marsh.

Nearby at the Center Pond, the Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) were paired up as well. Mallards choose their mates in the autumn once they’ve finished their molt. They won’t mate until the spring, but they spend the winter hanging out together. Kind of nice, really….

Mallards choose a mate in the fall but don’t get serious about reproduction until the spring.

A third couple showed up in the comfortable, big hole in a White Oak (Quercus alba) where I’ve often seen Raccoons (Procyon lotor). They were looking pretty cozy as the sun went down. You may see only one  in the photo below at first, but note that there’s a third ear showing! The second raccoon, sleepier or less curious than its companion, stayed hidden behind the first. Raccoons are generally solitary but they occasionally den up together and sleep through cold snaps, especially in December and January. They don’t actually hibernate, which would involve slowing down their metabolism for a continuous period. This sleepy-eyed raccoon could be a female and its kit; the young generally stay with their parent for close to year. But from their size, I’m guessing it’s two young raccoons of the same sex – they den that way too –  just waking up as the night comes on.

 

More Birds and a “Bear” of Sorts…

As I approached the pond one afternoon, a flash of slate blue and a ratcheting call alerted me to the presence of a Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon).  Though Cornell tells me I should see them year ’round, I only seem to spot them in the spring and the fall. Again this time it was a noisy, solitary male; kingfisher mating pairs only associate in the breeding season. He stayed off in the distance but I could tell it was a male from the single blue band on his chest. Females have two bands, one blue and one chestnut brown.

One blue belt across the breast means this is a male Belted Kingfisher.

Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) circled high above the eastern meadow, scouting for a snack before nightfall.

A Red-tailed Hawk hoping to spot an early evening snack.

On a snag near the marsh, a female Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) drilled for her evening meal. Downys look a lot like Hairy Woodpeckers, but are smaller and have shorter, sharper beaks and dark dots on their outer white tail feathers. Hairy Woodpeckers have a longer, heavier, spike-like beak and clear white feathers on the outside of their tails.

A female Downy Woodpecker drills for her dinner.

During the bird walk at Bear Creek Nature Park two weeks ago, we were treated to the sight of a good-sized flock of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis). At first we saw just one of two.

A lone male Eastern Bluebird on a gray autumn morning at Bear Creek Nature Park.

And then Ben spotted a whole flock on the western slope where they eventually landed in a single tree, as if decorating it for the holiday season!

A tree began to fill with bluebirds. There are six in the photo but eventually there were about 10 of them!

A couple of migrants had arrived as well. The Tree Sparrow (Spizella arborea) had just arrived from Alaska or Hudson’s Bay where it raised its young this summer. This bird loves cold weather but the far north is too extreme even for Tree Sparrows at this time of year, so it traveled south to relax in a balmly Michigan winter!

American Tree Sparrows think Michigan is a great place to enjoy a mild winter – but then they spend their summers in the far north of Canada and Alaska!

Another migrator was just passing through. I didn’t catch a photo two weeks ago, but here’s a photo of the White-throated Sparrow (Zonothrichia albicollis) from a previous autumn. Notice the yellow lores above its eyes! Handsome bird!

A White-throated Sparrow  stopped at Bear Creek Nature Park on its way south.

And About that Bear…

As you know, there are no actual bears in Bear Creek Nature Park. But there is, of course, the Wooly Bear, the caterpillar of the Isabella Tiger Moth (Pyrrharctia isabella). I have a particular fondness for these little creatures because they so often introduce children to the pleasures of nature. Wooly Bears, as you may recall, curl into a ball if handled as a defensive move. So placing one in a child’s hand often elicits surprise and laughter as the bristles of its brown and black hair tickles a youngster’s palm. In fact, I recently saw this happen to little children at Gallagher Creek Park. So here’s Bear Creek’s only bear, at last.

Wooly Bear Caterpillars can’t actually predict the extent of the winter but they’re fun for children and essentially harmless.

Volunteers Open New Vistas at the Marsh

When farm fields were abandoned in the township decades ago, aggressive non-native shrubs quickly took over the fields and surrounded wet areas. Bear Creek Marsh has been surrounded by these non-native shrubs for many years. But in late October, Six Rivers Land Conservancy and a group of industrious volunteers from Fiat-Chrysler helped Ben VanderWeide and stewardship specialist Alyssa clear huge thickets of glossy buckthorn from the edges of the marsh at the eastern edge of the Oak-Hickory forest. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

The crew created huge piles of the invasive shrubs which Ben plans to burn during the winter months. The stumps of the buckthorn shrubs were carefully treated. As you can see above he uses a blue dye with the treatment to be sure he’s covered the stumps completely in order to prevent re-sprouting.

The end result of their remarkable effort is that we have wonderful new views of the marsh which we could never enjoy before! And, of course, other native plants can thrive at the edge of the marsh!

A fresh view into the marsh created by removal of huge dense stands of invasive shrubs.

An Oak Savanna Emerges from a Tangle of Invasive Shrubs

Before farming came to Oakland Township, the landscape was defined by tall native grasses, native wildflowers and widely spaced oak trees – what is called an “oak savanna.” That grassy, open landscape is just beginning to be restored at the north end of Bear Creek Nature Park – and it is just spectacularly beautiful!

Until last week, invasive Glossy Buckthorn shrubs filled the entire area surrounding the Center Pond,  just as it had surrounded the marsh. Starting at the edge of the forest, the Buckthorn and a few other invasive shrubs formed super dense thickets filling the entire loop trail and the trail edges up to the forest. The photo below, taken the first day that the major restoration began, shows just how densely the Buckthorn had grown!

As the forestry mower began, it became apparent just how dense the thickets of invasives were!

Because of those shrubs, the trails had become tunnels between non-native vegetation. Here are the two arms of the Big Northern Loop and the trail behind the pond as they looked before restoration began and how they look now after we started the restoration process.

Eastern Trail on the Big Loop

Western Trail on the Big Loop

Trail Behind the Center Pond

Before the forestry mower arrived, Ben carefully marked the trees to be saved and the areas filled with invasive shrubs that required removal.  The operator of the mower, an employee of the Ruffed Grouse Society that owns the machine, carefully avoided the trees Ben had marked and even preserved other young oaks that he found buried in the thickets.  As the mowing proceeded, what gradually appeared behind it was an oak savanna – oaks and a few other trees sprinkled across a plain – the very type of  landscape that thrived here hundreds of years ago!  All that’s needed are tall native grasses and wildflowers.

A lovely grove of oaks found among the invasive shrubs – a future oak savanna!

When Ben took me last week to see what had begun, I was astonished and delighted to discover vistas that I’d never known were hidden beneath all those shrubs! Here’s the western loop trail stretching south toward the pond. Now I could see a cleared meadow dotted with young oaks and other trees with the edge of the forest on the perimeter. What a difference from walking through a tunnel of buckthorn!

I could stand in the center of the loop which had been an impassible tangle of shrubs and look south down an undulating slope to the whole expanse of the Center Pond, a viewpoint I’d never had before!

Looking south to the Center Pond spread out below a slope that was made visible once the invasive shrubs were gone.

When Ben and I left the western loop heading back up the trail toward the south, the forest stood tall beyond the newly cleared field.  We could now see the forest, a dark wall of  hickories and oaks, that embraced the new landscape. We were no longer inside a  tunnel of shrubs that blocked  everything but the treetops beyond. Ben looks pretty pleased with the work after the first day of restoration, doesn’t he?  He should be!

A Landscape Resurrecting

When I followed that path around to stand again on the observation deck at the Center Pond, I realized the scope of the  transformation emerging at Bear Creek. Now the graceful, flowing curves of the landscape began to dip and rise in graceful curves beyond the pond. These three photos together can give you some idea of what I saw standing there, looking north from west to east across the pond.

I’m guessing that you can tell I was thrilled at the transformation taking place at Bear Creek. I  have walked this park for over 25 years and at one point, I walked it every day for 3 years. It’s essentially my “home park,” and I know it intimately. So when Ben first talked of changing it, I was skeptical. When I came to see the first day’s restoration work last week, I actually stopped in my tracks as I came to the pond and gasped – and then I began to smile. That smile never left my face as I wandered through a vastly changed Bear Creek that for me had suddenly become even more beautiful. The feeling of “rightness” was so powerful. This, I felt, was the way this land was meant to be. It seemed as if the earth could take a deep breath, that the oaks that had been hidden among the tangle of shrubs were now stretching to the sky, ready to grow taller and stronger in the sun and the wind.

A grove of oaks appeared among the shrubs. Notice their dry leaves on a number of trees!

It will take years of hard work to complete this transformation. Buckthorns don’t give up easily. This winter Ben will plant native grass seed among the shards left from the shrubs, the broken wood eventually returning its nutrients to the earth. In the spring, the buckthorn will vigorously produce sprouts again and Ben and his crew will have to persist in keeping the ground that they gained for the oaks, the native plants and the wildlife.

Eventually, when the shrubs have subsided, Ben can plant the area with native wildflowers. Turtles will emerge from the wetlands to find soft soil in which to dig their nests and lay their eggs.  The native plants will slowly sink their roots deep enough to survive fire and drought. And if we’re patient and lucky, they will finally come to full bloom. And that’s when we’ll be able to see birds and butterflies fluttering and floating between and above the oak trees, over the rolling grassland – some perhaps that we haven’t seen in a long time.   And won’t that be a sight to see?

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

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

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

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

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

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

Nature Goes About Its Autumnal Business

Autumn at Gallagher Creek Park

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

Birds in the Distance as Children Play

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeds Flying, Rattling, Dropping and Providing Food for Wildlife

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeds and their silky parachutes spill from Swamp Milkweed pods

More Edibles for Wildlife Wait in the Grass

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

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

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

Beauty Underfoot Before the Frost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Park Where the Young Can Learn and Play

A Milkweed seed on a windy morning at Gallagher Creek

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

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

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net;Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels, A Guide to Bird Behavior Vols.1-3 by Donald W and Lillian Q.Stokes, entomology.ca/uky.edu on Red-legged Grasshoppers, illinoiswildflowers.info and others as cited in the text.