Tag Archives: Eastern Garter Snake

Watershed Ridge Park: Adventures in a Pathless Park – Virtual Hike # 1

Doesn’t dealing with the possibility of a highly invasive virus in our private ecosystems sometimes feel like a pathless wood? An adventure we’d just as soon have done without? Well, maybe you could consider my favorite antidote – a real pathless wood or meadow that offers adventure all along the way.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

Skirt an unexpectedly wide wetland by crunching along on any dry stalks you can find. Listen to coyotes singing in the moist shade of a spring forest. Wend your way through tall, graceful native grasses. Navigate through, or preferably around, prickly brambles that grab at your sleeve. Hop over one of many streams that flow in every direction – or use a log as a mossy bridge if you dare. It’s all available at Watershed Ridge Park.  I can guarantee that for the time you’re there,  you’re unlikely to think of anything but what’s underfoot, over the next slope or landing in the next tree.

 

My Advice:  Get Oriented First and Use the Compass in Your Phone as Necessary!

The Parks and Recreation Commission (PRC) has created a fine parking lot on West Buell Road, but will not be able to create the first park trails until later this year.  They are planned to follow the edges of some of the farm fields in the southwest corner of the park. So for now,  you’ll need to ramble along muddy field edges in the spring, climb over fallen logs in the woods year ’round and hike your knees up high to navigate the meadow’s tall plants in the summer. If you visit Watershed Ridge Park now, I’d recommend sturdy boots, a high tolerance for mud, a jacket that doesn’t collect burrs or get snagged easily by thorns and a compass of some kind. This blog is the fourth I’ve written on Watershed Ridge, and I’ve gotten disoriented twice there over the years. Even our stewardship manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide,  got turned around on an early trip to Watershed Ridge Park!

So to begin,  I want to show you an aerial map of the whole park so you can envision where I’m walking as we take two vigorous virtual hikes together this week and next.

WRP_AerialMap2_Hikes
An aerial view of Watershed Ridge Park. The aerial photo is from 2017.

The green line on the map marks the boundaries of the park.  The little pink squares off West Buell Road mark the area around  the township’s pole barn situated at the edge of a large agricultural field. The yellow line shows the approximate route for our virtual hike!

NOTE:  It’s important when exploring Watershed Ridge Park not to tread across planted fields. For now, the Parks & Recreation Commission (PRC) rents land for farming on the big eastern fields and at the northeast and southwest corners of the park,  because they want to preserve farming in the area as a cultural feature. Farming provides the benefit of controlling invasive plants until a restoration plan is implemented.

On the west side of the park, the PRC is hoping to get some habitat restoration going in the next year! Partnering with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, they are hoping to restore how the water moves (hydrology) in certain areas. In some spots, they will strategically plug some of the drainage ditches dug years ago. In other areas small berms will be built to slow down water running off the fields, recreating the shallow ponds and saturated soils that were eliminated to make way for farming years ago. Some of the farm fields will also be planted with native grasses and wildflowers, focusing on areas that are often too wet to farm, or so steep that the soil erodes easily. As a huge prairie fan, that pleases me mightily. Once you picture these rolling fields restored to waving native grasses and wildflowers, I hope you’ll agree. For now, though, please stay on the edges of the farm fields to avoid hurting the crops.  

Trodding the Edges of a Rolling Farm Field with Forays into the Forest

After walking east from the parking lot along Buell Road, my husband and I headed out one Sunday along the grass edge between the two farmed fields on the eastern edge of the park (north of the “firewood pickup area”).  The ridge after which the park is named runs roughly diagonally across the large center field; this watershed ridge means that streams on the park’s western side flow to Paint Creek and streams in the east flow toward the west branch of Stony Creek.

It appeared that a raccoon had been treading the same ground the night before.

A raccoon left a print along the muddy edge of a farm field at Watershed Ridge.

Off in the field, beyond a slope, we heard the keening cry of Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus), those smartly striped Plovers that wing their way here each spring. They winter in southern climes as far away as the West Indies, Central America and the northern regions of South America. There they enjoyed beaches and coastal wetlands or fields. So it must feel like a bit of a comedown to settle here in a muddy field with low vegetation – but that is their preferred breeding area. They need the insects, crayfish and worms that our area produces once warmer weather arrives in order to feed themselves and their young.

Two of the four Killdeer that were probing the mud of the big eastern field.

Near the northeast section of the field, we took a short foray into the deep woods. In the dimness, we could see the tip of a large wetland and a tall, sloped hummock that faced northwest. We suddenly heard a high, squeaking howl, which we at first took for two trees rubbing together. But the squeals were followed by soft barking! Coyotes! (Canis latrans var.) Our guess was that one of these clever canines had built their well-protected den on the south side of the large hummock handily located near water and also therefore, potential prey. What a sound in the dim light! (No photo there, I’m afraid; I was too excited and the tree density made it hard for the camera to see the sloping hill beyond – so please feel free to use your imagination!) The notes were high, keening and not as powerful as usual and we wondered if we were hearing pups. Coyote pups are born in March or April, so it’s possible, but unlikely. Perhaps a female was agitated by our scent. Impossible to know, but intriguing!

Wild coyotes avoid humans. You’ll usually see them walking away. Photo by Jonathan Schechter with permission.

Later in the week, in the far distance near another wetland, I saw the haunches of a coyote, its tail hanging low, as it loped around the edge of dry reeds near the water and disappeared. I wonder if it was one of the family we’d heard? The photo above is by Jonathan Schechter, wildlife photographer and writer of his fine blog, The Wilder Side of Oakland County, which is currently on hiatus so the county can concentrate on emergency virus information.

Coming out of the woods, we spotted dark Polypore/Shelf mushrooms decorating a snag (standing dead tree). These fungi will slowly recycle the nutrients and carbon dioxide sequestered in the wood over many years. The mushrooms do their part to slow down the release of carbon into the atmosphere caused by the death of a tree.

Polypore/shelf mushrooms proliferate on a snag, feeding on the nutrients and carbon dioxide that the tree stored for many years.

One of the delights of this hike was the sight of a Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger) feeding contentedly on the bright red buds of a Silver Maple  (Acer saccharinum). Now that’s a real spring tableau!

A male Fox Squirrel savored a treat of buds from a Silver Maple.

Near the maple, a small thicket of orange-tipped Gray Dogwood (Cornus racemosa) contributed a bit of color to the early spring landscape. They hosted galls formed by an insect called the Dogwood Club Midge (Resseliella clavula) which laid its eggs in the stems last year; the plant then obligingly grew round them to create a safe hideaway! In the fall, the larva drilled their way out of the gall and burrowed into the ground to emerge this spring. They don’t harm the wild shrubs and provide food for some other creatures, I expect. Very elegant, those Dogwood Club galls! [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

The heads of some curious White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) popped up over the edge of a slope in the field. Look at that series of attentive ears!

A curious group of White-tailed Does, their ears perked!

And of course, a couple of trees were dotted with an American Crow family (Corvus brachyrhynchos). As I moved slowly toward them, they flew off as usual, leaving one family member to pass by a bit closer to execute a quick inspection of us humans below.

As we approached the northwest corner of the field, we stepped once more into the woods for a closer look at a mysterious swamp. The term “swamp,” as defined by the Environmental Protection Agency, is any wetland dominated by woody plants,” meaning trees and shrubs. The large wetland to the north drains into this woodland, and the water spreads out among many trees and shrubs.  Imagine the size of the tree that left that crenelated stump!

A giant tree stump at the edge of a wonderfully mysterious swamp

Exploring the Woods to the West of the Big Center Farm Field

A natural log bridge in the woods to the west of the large agricultural field.

Inside the woodland edge, a female Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) darted from branch to branch, occasionally looking into tree holes that might make a suitable nesting spot in a few weeks.

A female Eastern Bluebird pauses while searching for a nesting site.

Once inside the wood, giants appear everywhere – large Oak trees with big mossy feet!

The mossy foot of a huge member of the Red Oak family

It occurred to me as I walked this lovely forest that I might see the butterfly that always seems to emerge first each spring, the Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa). Shortly thereafter, one flew up behind me and sailed right above my right shoulder and off into the distance! Mourning Cloak adults spend the winter under tree bark and are well camouflaged for it. They will mate and lay eggs this spring and their offspring will spend next winter in the woods at Watershed Ridge Park. Here are photos I took in other years of  the upper (dorsal) and lower (ventral) side of their wings.

The Mourning Cloak butterfly overwinters as an adult to take advantage of less food competition in the spring.
The wood-like appearance of the underside of the Mourning Cloak’s wings makes terrific camouflage in a forest.

An Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus) had left behind its torpid winter state.  Chipmunks don’t exactly hibernate. This little one repeatedly slept from 1-8 days at a time this winter and woke periodically to munch on the nuts in its larder, before sleeping again. Wikipedia informs me that the word “chipmunk” is derived from an Objibwe word for “one who descends trees headlong.” And indeed that is exactly what this little one did before it paused for its portrait.

An Eastern Chipmunk paused while foraging for nuts and seeds.

Brown Creeper (Certhia americana)darted down from high in a tree and began spiraling up the bark, looking for insects or insect eggs.  If you see movement like that, a bird spiraling up one tree, and then flying down to the bottom of the next, you can be quite confident even at a distance that you’ve seen one of these tiny, well-camouflaged birds. It’s often mistaken for a White Breasted Nuthatch, but the Nuthatch hops both up and down the trunk and doesn’t usually start at the bottom of a tree. My little Creeper didn’t stick around, but  last week, the fine local photographer, Joan Bonin, caught a lovely photo of one up-close with her skill and a steady hand on her super long lens.  What a shot!

A Brown Creeper blending nicely with tree bark.  Photo by Joan Bonin used with permission.

A Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) hunting for insects appeared to be tattooing a design into the surface of a snag. As you can see, this male was very intent on foraging – or maybe he was contemplating his artwork! Males Downies drum in the spring to attract mates, but this one’s soft taps were intermittent rather than the continuous drumming or whinnying calls usually employed by a Downy male to capture a female’s attention.

A male downy leaving its mark on a snag.

On the northeast side of this woods, a stream runs out of the very large wetland in the north of the park. The stream bed was probably excavated years ago by a farmer trying to drain more land for agriculture. It runs from that huge wetland to a smaller one at the bottom of a meadow and then on to Lake George Road and ultimately Paint Creek.

A distant view of the tip of a large marsh in the north of the park and a stream flowing out of it.

On the day I visited, the ice had just begun to melt and in places where the sun hit, I could listen quietly to the glorious spring sound of bubbling water! Watch for the Skunk Cabbage shoots along the bank in my video below.

So Much to Explore, but Enough for Now…

Virtual Hike #1 comes to an end. You and I wend our way south, back to the parking lot.  We emerge from a part of the woods that we’ll explore more in Hike #2 next week.  Being careful to stay on the grassy edge of a smaller farm field, we stop to admire an Eastern Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis) cleverly camouflaged among the fallen stems.

A garter snake seeking the sun at the grassy edge of a field.

Our steps make the snake slide into a clump of dry grass, but then it feels the need to peek out.  Its head is striped like a barber pole by the shadows of grass stems.

The garter snake’s body is spiral striped by the grass stems. So shiny in the sunlight!

That’s the kind of beautiful little moment – the snake’s cautious peek and spiraling shadows briefly forming on those iridescent scales – that, for me, makes a lovely end to a long, challenging walk.  I hope it feels like that to you, too!. Stop back next week and we’ll explore more of big, untamed Watershed Ridge Park.  I’ll be glad to have your company!

The Case for Crows: Bright, Sociable Homebodies

 

The American Crow – a personal favorite

Let me try to persuade you (if persuasion is required) to join me in admiring the American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos). My early interest in these birds was nourished years ago when as a bookstore owner, I hosted an author presentation by Jean Craighead George about her middle grade book, The Tarantula in My Purse. (I know, great title!) The book chronicled Jean’s many adventures with various animals, including a crow she rescued as a fledgling that her children named Crowbar. Crowbar’s exploits with the George family were hilarious and brilliantly portrayed the bird’s ingenuity. An example: when Jean’s daughter complained that the crow was taking toys from her sandbox, her mother suggested she play on the slide, since the crow with its large, taloned feet couldn’t do that. Crowbar observed the child gaily swooping down the slide a few times, then flew to the sandbox, plucked up a plastic coffee can lid, flew to the top of the slide, stepped onto the lid and sailed down the slide! Another example: Jean once placed candy party favors under upside-down paper cups to keep Crowbar from bothering them. Crowbar waited until Jean was in the kitchen, then carefully tapped the little cups to the side of the table until the candy fell out, ate it, and then neatly tapped the cups back in place to hide his misdeed.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

So imagine my delight when the Bird Academy at Cornell Lab of Ornithology offered a 3-hour online course on crows taught by Dr. Kevin McGowan who’s studied these birds for 30 years! I signed up at once for “Anything but Common: The Hidden Life of the American Crow.” Since winter walks don’t offer much birdsong – but do frequently feature crow calls – I thought I’d take this opportunity to share some of what I’ve learned and my general enthusiasm for the American Crow.

First, the Bad Rap on Crows

Crows find a deer carcass provides a lot of protein on a winter day.

Let’s get the complaints about crows out of the way first. I know some friends who are frightened of crows or at least “creeped out” by them. The main reason seems to be that part of their diet is carrion. But consider, cleaning up carcasses is actually a service to both us and the ecosystem, since it reprocesses lots of nasty stuff that we don’t have to deal with! Crows eat just about anything –  sumac berries, wild cherries, seeds, fish, discarded pizza – whatever! They are often disliked because they do occasionally consume baby birds. But guess what! The most lethal predator of baby birds in our area is this guy!

Chipmunks are a major predator of baby birds;  crows are one of the least.

Yes, the chief wild predator of nestlings in the northern United States is chipmunks –  and their relatives the squirrels! They’re omnivores and excellent, quick tree climbers. In the southern U.S., the main predators of baby birds are snakes:

Snakes are the largest predator of baby birds in the southern US. This is an Eastern Garter Snake.

Dr. McGowan cites a meta-analysis study done in 2007 (“Factors Affecting Nest Predation on Forest Songbirds in North America“, F.R. Thomson). Out of 245 predation events on nestlings by wild animals, only 2 were caused by crows. Chipmunks, squirrels and snakes consumed half of the nestlings in the study. Outdoor cats kill a lot more baby birds than crows and among wild creatures, raptors, insects, cowbirds, jays, and mice are all more likely to kill or dine on baby birds than crows. Birds eggs are most often eaten by raccoons and opossums. So I think we can dispense with the notion that crows are killing lots of songbirds.

But you don’t want to park your car under trees in which large groups of crows roost on a winter night – very messy! And they can tear things apart trying to get at garbage or any kind of available food. Early morning is a noisy time to be around a family of crows, too, especially in the spring when young crows are hungry and insistent that they be fed right now! Crows are also loud and boisterous in flocks and a flock can consume large amounts of seed, which doesn’t endear them to farmers, of course!

You don’t want to park your car under roosting crows in the winter! Photo by jdkatzvt at iNaturalist.org (CC-BY-NC)

Now On to the Positives!

So yes, like all animals, crows can cause problems. But crows also provide a variety of services within a habitat. They keep insect and rodent populations under control, as well as some agricultural pests like Japanese beetles and corn borers. Their nests are often acquired by some owls and merlins who don’t make their own. And crows are superlative sentinels, warning other creatures about predators on a regular basis, as you’ve probably noticed when they start cawing whenever you’re around.

And of course, they become prey for higher predators; the Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) is the most dangerous predator for adult crows.

Great Horned Owls are the creature most likely to feast on adult crows.

Raccoons (Procyon lotor) eat crow eggs and nestlings too, and occasionally add insult to injury by sleeping in the nest once they’ve finished! The birding group may have seen one of these culprits at Cranberry Lake Park a few years ago. The nest was made of sticks like crow’s nest are, and this raccoon looked quite content to be there early in the morning  – after a late night snack perhaps?

An apparently young raccoon waking up in what may be a crow’s nest, probably after feasting on eggs or even nestlings.

Crows will also “mob” hawks in their territory since raptors take a fair number of crow eggs.

Two crows attacking hawk
Crows harassing a hawk at Bear Creek Nature Park

But what intrigues me about crows are some of their special qualities, ones that are unusual in nature.

Crows Enjoy Family Life (or what scientists call “cooperative breeding”)

A family – not a “gang” or a “murder” –  of crows on Buell Road in 2016

In all seasons, crows hang out with their family, which usually includes a monogamous pair, this year’s young, plus young from previous years. None of the brownish yearlings breed. Some female crows can breed at 2 years old, but generally mature when the males do, at about 4 – 5 years of age. So during this long adolescence, they generally stay with their family and help out with nest building as well as caring for and feeding their younger siblings. According to Dr. McGowan, that’s a rare trait in birds.

Crow pairs are generally monogamous and occasionally will preen each other.

They also stick close to home, defending their territory year ’round, but they feel free to go off territory to forage and roost. They move together, feeding or just hanging around – but one of the family members is  always on guard, signaling when danger approaches. Both adults and young will groom each other occasionally, which is called “allopreening.” So Dr. McGowan admonishes us that if we see a group of 2-15 crows gathering consistently in one place, “it’s not a gang, it’s not a ‘murder.’ It’s a family.”

Crows are Social Creatures (or What Dr. McGowan Calls  “Fun- loving Party Animals!”)

A large flock of crows in the autumn at Bear Creek Nature Park

Dr. McGowan likes the fact that crows “never do anything quietly or alone.” Their families live within larger communities of crows. Foraging flocks can swell to 250 crows or more in January, and then drop off to 50 or so in April when breeding starts. As soon as the fledglings can fly, though, the numbers in flocks go right back up. A crow flock changes from day to day; an individual crow may spend time with different groups every day. Blackbirds and geese, I learned, are the same way.

Crows gather in large roosts starting in late fall. Photo by ellen hildebrandt (CC BY-NC) at iNaturalist.org

In winter, crows gather into very large groups to spend the nights together in huge “slumber parties,”  as McGowan calls them. They’re probably seeking safety in numbers from predators, since crows see no better at night then we do. These huge roosts can contain birds from areas farther north who are unfamiliar with the territory. They may be keeping an eye on the birds that look best fed,  so they can follow them when they go out to forage in the morning.

Researchers think that these social groups serve several other functions. The younger crows may be testing themselves as they call, chase and hold mock fights. They may  be trying to determine whether they’re going to breed soon or stay with their family for another year. Social groups provide a good opportunity for finding both your competition and your potential mate. In some cases, the young hang out in social groups during the day, but go home to their parents at night. Or they may spend part of the day being social and part of the day on their home territory.

Do Crows Have Empathy?

According to Dr. McGowan, the social nature of crows also shows up in some other interesting ways. He has seen crows “adopt” young from outside their family. A bird rehabilitator that my husband and I once knew received a crow with a broken wing, healed it and then put it in a big, open aviary in her back yard. A large group of crows gathered around the aviary and called to the bird inside for three days, until it finally flew out and joined them. An adoption? Or perhaps a family encouraging an injured member to rejoin them? Dr. McGowan, who tags each baby bird for identification, probably could have told us, but I’ll never know.

Dr. McGowan also documented on film a crow coming upon an unrelated crow that was seriously ill – weak, encrusted eyes, almost asleep out in the open during the day. Though the male was foraging for his mate, he stopped and put a seed in the sick female’s beak – and two other unrelated crows did the same shortly thereafter. I wondered if this behavior may have contributed to the huge die-off of crows from West Nile virus several years ago.

The Crows and Their Relatives (Corvidae) are Smart!

An American Crow with a nut. Photo by Scott Buckel (CC BY-NC) at iNaturalist.org

Because crows demonstrate so many unusual kinds of intelligence, they’re occasionally referred to as “feathered apes.” You may have seen the PBS Nova sequence on YouTube in which University of Washington researchers donned a variety of masks around campus, but one researcher wore a caveman mask when climbing to crow nests in order to weigh, measure, tag and band the young. Ten years later, the crows still reacted negatively to someone wearing that mask – gathering, calling and sometimes even attacking the person in the caveman mask! Evidently, the information from that mask is remembered and passed on within the crow community to birds not yet born when the mask was used!

The Cornell Bird Academy finds the same memory in a more positive sense. Crows recognize Dr. McGowan since he feeds crows peanuts to attract them for study; they even come up behind him, recognizing his walk. One crow who saw him leaving the Ornithology Lab, flew down to the far end of a parking lot and perched in front of his Subaru waiting for him to arrive with a peanut!  It knew his car as well as his face, despite the fact that were many Subarus in the parking lot.

New Caledonian Crows (Corvus moneduloides) in the South Pacific make tools to get at food – saw-toothed tools, curved ones and others. Here’s a video of a wild female crow in the lab of Russell Gray at the  University of Auckland in New Zealand.  She creates a hook by  sticking a straight metal stick under the duct tape at the bottom of a tube and then carefully bending it around the tube. Her hook complete, she then uses it to pick up a small bucket of food from within the tube. Pretty creative for those creatures that we disparage as “bird-brained!”

A New Caledonian Crow preparing to use its tool by Frédéric Desmoulins (CC BY-NC) at iNaturalist.org

A Common Raven (Corvus corax), the American Crow’s larger Northern relative, was documented in Scandinavia using its beak and foot to haul up an ice fisherman’s line to grab his catch. The PBS video on YouTube has clearly been staged for the camera, but demonstrates nicely what the raven learned to do when a camera wasn’t around.

A Common Raven by Catchang (CC BY-NC) at iNaturalist.org

And yet another favorite video comes from the science section of the New York Times.  An American Crow, after being taught to pick up rocks, quickly figures out how to raise the water level in a tube to get at a piece of floating food.  Aesop’s fable come to life! (Be patient – a short ad comes first.)

Seasons of a Crow’s Life

Crow on a snowy day on Lake George Road

Winter:  Huge flocks of dozens or hundreds or crows can gather at night. According to the Bird Academy class, the largest on record had as many as a thousand crows! Where many pines are available, hundreds of them will often disappear inside the branches for shelter. In areas where only deciduous trees are available, they will make do and sleep more exposed on bare branches.

In just the last 20-30 years, crows have begun to nest and roost at night in suburban and urban areas. Crows have always foraged in towns, but generally flew to fields outside of towns when darkness fell. Dr. McGowan attributes this change to several factors:  loss of natural habitat due to development, safety from predators due to city lights,  abundant food, simple curiosity and freedom from being hunted. The Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1970 allows crows to be shot but only in season; urban and suburban areas, though, generally  forbid hunting – a plus for the crows.

March and April: Around the time of the first serious snow melt, watch for crows carrying sticks.   They construct their nests high up in trees, usually just below the top or in the top quarter of a tree in a crotch or on horizontal branches.  The outer surface is all sticks, but the inner lining may be made of pine needles or animal hair from dogs or deer.  The whole crow family may help build a new nest each year.Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Stewardship Manager, spotted this nicely camouflaged nest filled with snow at Draper Twin Lake Park.  From the location and its stick construction, I’m guessing it’s a crow nest.

A well-camouflaged, snow-covered crow nest at Draper Twin Lake Park

April to May:  Females make a new high-pitched crow sound that the Cornell staff calls “whining.” They think it may be a signal that the female is hungry since males and their family helpers often fly to her with food when they hear it. The female lays 3-9 bluish to olive green eggs with gray or brown splotches near the egg’s large end. The female incubates the eggs for 18 -19 days and broods the little nestlings for an unusually long time, 5-6 weeks! As a comparison, our Eastern Bluebirds brood their nestlings for only 16-18 days.  Crows usually have 1-2 clutches per year.

June to July: Dr. McGownan describes the summer months  as often the noisiest time of the year for crows. Fledglings mouths are bright red inside as they beg loudly to be fed.  (Listen to the fledgling call at this link.) The nestlings and fledglings don’t venture far from the nest if they leave at all in this period.

A juvenile crow begging for food by Michelle at iNaturalist.org (CC BY-NC-SA)

September:  By now, baby crows are practicing more of their sounds. The crows start to forage outside of their territory again.  Gangs of fledglings and yearlings may gather together wherever they find a food source. The family feeds the fledglings for two months after they’re out of the nest, so it takes roughly 4 months of work to raise a family of crows – a long time in the bird world.

No Wonder I Like Crows!

An American crow acting as sentinel for its family.

Crows live relatively long lives for a bird, about 20 years –  and their feathers start to turn white here and there about halfway through their long lives. (Hmm…sounds familiar.) They clearly pass on information from one generation to another. Some of them are tool makers. Though DNA tests done at Cornell show there is infidelity among crow pairs (what researchers call “extra-pair breeding”),  the majority are monogamous and family-oriented.  In his 30 years of research, Dr. McGowan has only found one crow killed by another crow; killing their own kind is extremely rare. They clearly remember both good experiences and bad ones for a long time. In other words, despite being wild, winged creatures with vastly different lives, they still have many things in common with us humans.

Let’s see…crows can be described as a species that is social, curious, mischievous, creative, birds that enjoy investigating new things. Generalists rather than specialists, their behavior and skills show lots of variety and they enjoy a palate that ranges from nuts, seeds and berries to meat, beer and pizza. It occurs to me that those are some of the qualities I enjoy in my friends and family! So no wonder crows fascinate me – and I hope that now, they intrigue you a bit, too.

Bear Creek Nature Park: Snow, Sleet but Spring Arrived Anyway!

Red-winged Blackbirds in an April snow squall

Wow, what a tough April – for us and for wildlife! I even considered the possibility at one point that our thermometer was broken, since it seemed to be stuck at 32 degrees! The intrepid birding group went out in a snow squall the first week of the month. Despite cold and driving wind, we still came across flocks of early migrators, like the Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) pictured above,  along with more than 60 robins foraging in the meadows.

We got a couple of brief respites in which it was possible to imagine a normal spring day with birdsong, fragile leaves, turtles warming in the sun. Then it was back in the freezer. Wildlife and plant life coped with cold wind and sleet, soaked up whatever sun was available and waited for change. We humans harnessed the warmer days for stewardship projects. And then voilà, spring arrived (I hope) last weekend.

Despite the Icy Cold, Birds Arriving, Leaving, and Braving the Cold, Plus a Tough Little Willow Tree.

Experts tell us that bird migration depends more on the length of spring days, than it does on the temperature. As a result, our first summer-only birds arrived to find snowy fields rather than the first greening of spring. What could they or our year ’round residents do but cope?

This Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) hid among the grasses at the edge of the marsh as the snow fell on the birders the first Wednesday in April. She’s probably been back for a few weeks and is well-equipped to deal with the cold. Normally by this time, though, she’d be picking nest sites, but I doubt this thin spot at the edge of the marsh was being seriously considered.

A Canada Goose rested among the dead reeds at the edge of the marsh as the snow fell.

In a tree at the south end of the marsh, a male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) looked dismayed by the cold wind ruffling his crest. His staring eyes seemed to suggest that he was as stunned by the freezing temperatures as the bundled-up birders below him!

A Northern Cardinal looking a bit shocked at the snow and the icy wind ruffling his crest.

Birders spotted the silhouette of a Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) hunched in a branch near the marsh. No doubt it was hoping to have some clean-up work soon. After all, its job and its food source is seeing that all the carrion in the park is dealt with quickly and efficiently. I had to wonder if it regretted having left southern Ohio, or points even farther south.

The silhouette of a Turkey Vulture coping with an April snowstorm at Bear Marsh.

During a brief pause in the snowfall, a Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula), who may have spent his winter in southern Ohio, stared out into the white landscape. It’s likely he arrived with other males and a mixed flock of Red-wings and Brown-headed Cowbirds, frequent traveling companions this time of year.

A lone Grackle looking back  toward the south on a snowy Michigan day

Over at the Playground Pond, a shy little Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) huddled on a branch, twitching its tail over the water, as the snow fell. Having perhaps wintered in Tennessee, this little bird is usually one of the earliest flycatchers to arrive in Michigan. So it’s hardy enough to brave the cold – though maybe, like us, it have would preferred better April weather. Look closely;  it’s nicely camouflaged against the branches and behind the veil of falling snow!

An Eastern Phoebe, in its brown and white plumage, almost disappears into the branches and the snowfall.

Our sturdy, native Pussy Willow (Salix discolor) survives even in Alaska and northern Canada. So it bravely thrust forth its fuzzy white catkins in the southern part of the marsh as the snow swirled around it. The bright, bare branches of native Red Twig/Red-Osier Dogwood (Cornus sericea) added a nice dash of color to a dark morning.

Some of the winter-only visitors are still stocking up before leaving for points north. Small flocks of  American Tree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea) twitter among the bushes, getting last minute meals before heading to Hudson’s Bay or the Arctic tundra for the summer. They certainly seem to relish cold weather! I’m glad Bear Creek Nature Park seems to have provided enough winter food for this small long-distance flyer.

A Tree Sparrow stocks up on food before leaving for Hudson’s Bay in northern Canada or perhaps the Arctic tundra.

During a brief snow melt last week, the Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) also seemed busy preparing to depart northward for the summer. They foraged among the newly sprouting grass where the prescribed burn had taken place in March. They don’t travel quite as far as the Tree Sparrows, perhaps only into Ontario.

The Dark-eyed Juncos are preparing to depart to Ontario and points north.

Short, Warm Respites Meant Birdsong, Frog Song, Turtles and More

For a few short days, off and on, we had sun and some genuinely spring-like temperatures. The  Wood Frogs (Rana sylvatica) thawed out from their winter freeze. The low, chuckling call of the Wood Frogs joined the constant, rhythmic peeping of the Chorus Frogs, featured in the blog a couple of weeks ago. Here’s a photo of a Wood Frog taken last November as they began hibernation. The black patch near the eye underlined with light yellow, plus ridges down the back are the field marks for this small frog.

Last November the Wood Frog found a spot to hibernate in a log or under fallen leaves.

The clucking or chuckling sounds in the foreground of this recording from a week ago are those of the Wood Frog. The higher-pitched calls in the background are from Western Chorus frogs. Be sure to turn up your volume!

On a cold but sunny afternoon, the male Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) chirped his burbling refrain as the wind ruffled his feathers and carried his melodious tune out across the Eastern Meadow.

A Song Sparrow lets the wind carry his song into the Eastern Meadow.

On the recording below taken ten days ago, he sings loudly twice with a bit of a rest in between.

When the temperature rose to sixty degrees, all kinds of plants, animals and insects seemed to come to life at once! When Ben ventured out into the park about 8:30 pm one evening, he heard the buzzing “peent” call of the American Woodcock (Scolopax minor).  This call from the ground precedes an aerial display in which the Woodcock spirals up into the sky and then chirps on the way down, plummeting the last several feet before landing right where it began. All this happens just before dark in small open fields near wetlands at Bear Creek and Cranberry Lake Parks. For the whole sequence of sounds during this mating flight, try this link at Cornell Ornithology Lab. (Wait for the “peent!” at the end. It will surprise you!). Though I’ve heard and briefly seen the Woodcock, here’s a photo by talented photographer Jerry Oldenettel at iNaturalist.org who’s had much better luck than I at getting a good photo!

The Woodcock probes for worms with that long beak and performs an elaborate courting dance as the sun sets.

A pair of Bluebirds (Sialis sialis) seem to searching out nest sites at Bear Creek. I saw a male one snowy afternoon peering down into the grass for possible food and a female surveying the Eastern Meadow.

This male Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus) finds all kinds of good things to eat as he tap, tap, taps on a tree trunk. Though they’ll eat seeds and fruits, their preference is for insect larvae, so they’re very good stewards of trees, ridding them of bark beetles and other insects. According to Donald W. Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.1), if we hear a quick, loud, regular beat in its drumming, that’s a mating call. When the drumming is lighter and irregular, the Hairy is either feeding or starting to excavate a nest hole.

The Hairy Woodpecker has a thicker, longer beak than the similar Downy.

Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater) foraged in the fields as well. These handsome birds don’t create nests, but rather lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. Cowbirds aren’t really irresponsible parents. Having evolved to constantly follow western buffalo herds, they had no time to care for young. So the cowbirds who took advantage of the nests and care of other birds carried on the species!

A Brown-headed Cowbird pauses while foraging in the Eastern Meadow.

The Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta marginata), who’d been hibernating in the cold mud on pond bottoms all winter, climbed onto logs all over the park on the first warm day. In the photo below, nine of them were basking in a patch of  sunlight within a shady wetland, letting the sun soak into their dark shells. Aahhh, that must have felt sooo good!

Nine Painted Turtles turtles basking in the sunlight on the first warm day.

While hand sowing native seed, we discovered Eastern Garter Snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis) twisted around each other in a wriggling hug as they mated in the brown grass. The female, according to Wikipedia, is larger than the male. They may have evolved this way because garter snakes bear live young. The more little snakes they can carry, the more likely their genes will go on to another generation.

Eastern Garter Snakes mating. The male snake is much smaller than the female who needs to carry the live young.

With temperatures so low, insects are still scarce in the fields right now. But I noticed what appears to be a Sexton/Carrion Beetle (g. Nicrophorus, fam. Silphidae) clambering through grass and leaves one warm-ish afternoon. It was probably sensing a dead mouse or bird and heading to bury it as a source of food for its larvae. These small members of the “cleanup crew” are large and colorful, usually dark with red on the forewings and fancy club-shaped antennae.

A Sexton Beetle on its way to bury a carcass of a mouse or bird on which its larvae can feed.

I saw two plants making go of it in the cold April air. The perennial Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) thrust it bulbous, purple bract (spathe) up through the mud. The bract envelops a long spike (spadix) which holds the flowers. Early flies and bees are attracted by its pungent (and skunk-y, not very pleasant) odor. Interesting that the leaves on this plant show up after the flowers.

At this time last year, another of the earliest spring flowers, Spring Beauties (Claytonia virginica) had already presented their pink- and white-striped blossoms in the forest. This year, though, in the middle of April, their spindly leaves were just starting up around the roots of large trees. Perhaps the warmer weather will hurry them along, too!

Stewardship Projects Proceeded

A few cold but clear days provided suitable conditions for Dr. Ben’s VanderWeide’s park projects.  Along with the prescribed burn in March and hand-sowing the fields of Bear Creek with native seed, Ben, Alex Kriebel (stewardship specialist with Oakland Township Parks), Ian Ableson (a new stewardship employee at Six Rivers Land Conservancy), and 4 volunteers began the yearly monitoring of vernal pools. As part of a larger project of the Michigan Natural Features Inventory, Ben monitors these biodiversity hotspots three times over the summer. What a collection of unusual creatures! They wake and feed or quickly hatch, mature, mate, lay eggs and expire in these temporary ponds that dry over the summer. Great to know our vernal pools are teeming with life! (Click on pause button if you need more time for captions.)

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The Promise of Full-fledged Spring

A young girl flies her kite at Bear Creek Nature Park on a spring-like afternoon.

We humans know how to take advantage of spring-like weather, just as the wildlife does. One warm, cloudy afternoon, a small girl brought her kite to test the April winds. This youngster got her long-tailed kite flying high and kept it there. So great to see parents bringing young children out to play surrounded by nature in our parks.

Last weekend, I think most of us dared to hope that “real spring” had finally arrived. The air was softer, the temperature more normal for late April, and a brighter sun warmed our upturned faces from a blue sky. Leaf buds that have waited on branches all winter have begun to swell. Soon more of those buds will open and our world will slowly dress itself in spring’s lovely shade of green. More migrators will navigate hundreds or even thousands of miles, making use of the sun, the stars and earth’s magnetic fields to find their way back to us.  Mornings and sunsets will be filled with more chatter and birdsong. So try to keep your eyes and ears alert!  Spring’s full-fledged arrival is just beginning to burst forth in full glory.

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner; inaturalist.org;Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela;Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels,  and others as cited in the text.

BEAR CREEK: Is It Spring Yet? Ummm, No… plus Tracking Bear Creek Itself

Blog and photos by Cam Mannino
Blog and photos by
Cam Mannino

What a crazy February and March, eh?  Snow, ice – and then suddenly mud, warm sunlight, even a butterfly! – then icy winds again.  Such schizophrenic weather complicates life in the natural world.  A snake basks in the sun one day and a few days later, returning sandhill cranes peck along the surface of thin ice.  Ducks leave wing prints and webbed feet tracks on a snowy pond and a few days later, a female crayfish emerges with eggs under her tail.  Never a dull moment in the parks! Meanwhile I set off to track the meandering course of Bear Creek itself.

 

Early February – A Normal Winter for the Birds

Robin in evening sun BC
A Robin plumps against the cold on an early February day

American Robins (Turdus migratorius), despite their association with spring, know how to cope with cold days:  find dried fruits on old vines, turn your dark red breast to any sunlight available and plump up your feathers to create some down insulation.

The Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) on the western slope found sun at the very top of a tree and decided to try out his mating call on an icy morning.  “Peter, Peter, Peter,”  he trilled,  despite the snow below.

Singing Titmouse BC
A Tufted Titmouse tried out his spring call – “Peter, Peter” on a sunny, very cold morning

A small flock of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) passed contact calls back and forth in the small trees and shrubs.  The male  below probably spent this odd winter at Bear Creek and appears to be just fine.

A male Eastern Bluebird pauses on the branch of a small tree

Nearby, a small bird busily wound its way up a tree, poking at the bark every few seconds and moving on.  That upward spiral was a clue.  It was a Brown Creeper (Certhia americana), a funny little bird with a small head and a long sharp beak good for winkling out bugs and larvae from tree bark.  If you look carefully in my hastily shot photo, you can see its right eye and curving black beak.

Brown Creeper 2 BC
A Brown Creeper always works its way around and up a tree when foraging.

The longer days brought a  warm weather migrant to the marsh, the Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia). It probed the grassy clumps protruding from the ice, looking for tidbits – seeds, perhaps?  This  sparrow’s cheerful mating song will burble forth all over the park when real spring arrives.

Song Sparrow BC Marsh 2
An early Song Sparrow poked about in the grasses of the marsh exposed above the ice.

Then, Suddenly, Spring, Off and On

Residents take immediate advantage of a spring-like day at Bear Creek.

Somewhere near the middle of February  the temperature rose, the ice began to melt, and the snow turned to mud. Humans, that most adaptable of creatures,  came out to enjoy a respite from winter cold. And so did some other animals who may have been fooled into emerging a bit early!

This Eastern Comma Butterfly (Polygonia comma) probably spent the winter as an adult under the bark of a log or in a hollow tree. It’s common to see them alone in a sunny spot in early spring – but not usually in February!  I hope this one went back to its winter digs as the temperature dropped!

Eastern Comma Butterfly BC February
An Eastern Comma butterfly emerged from hibernation as the weather warmed unseasonably in February.

Further along, an Eastern Garter Snake  (Thamnophis sirtalis) basked in the sunlight on the trail before slipping off into the grass.

A basking Garter Snake slipped off the path into the grass.

On another warm-ish day, the birding group came upon 30-40 talkative year ’round residents, Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum), flitting from tree to tree and whistling in their thin, high voices. Cornell Lab recently posted that scientists are exploring the idea that the waxwings with the most red waxy dots on their wing tips are the most mature adult birds and the most likely to be successful at mating.

Flock of Cedar Waxwings BC
A flock of Cedar Waxwings whistled and flew from tree to tree in late February.

The birding group was greeted by the waving claws of a small, but assertive female crayfish sitting in a puddle on the trail near the pond. Under her tail, she carried quite a load of eggs.  Michigan has eight native species of crayfish, and one aggressive, invasive one, called the Rusty Crayfish.  This one could be the invasive because according to U-M’s Biokids site, they take an aggressive claws-up stance to fight off predators (as she did when we approached) and she also had smudge-like spots on the back of her carapace. But crayfish are  difficult creatures to positively identify, so for now,  we’ll just say she’s a crayfish.  If her eggs hatch despite the cold that returned the following day, she will carry her young through several molts, until they fall off and start life on their own.   Thanks to Ben for his great photo.

Ben's photo Crayfish w eggs BC
A crayfish with eggs under her tail

Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) floated above her reflection in the Center Pond.  Some of the birders wondered if it could be classified as the subspecies of Lesser Canada Goose, since its neck is shorter than most Canada Geese. But since its body and beak are large, it’s hard to say.  It may just be normal variation – or maybe it had a Lesser Goose  or Cackling Goose relative (Branta hutchinsii) in its past!

Lesser Canada Goose BC
This Canada Goose has a remarkably short neck so it could be part of a subspecies called the Lesser Canada Goose.

In the unseasonal warmth, a native Hazelnut  bush (Corylus americana) extended its long male catkins that will fertilize the tiny female flowers on the twigs when they emerge later.  The little flowers eventually produce clusters of nuts.  The farmer who lived on Bear Creek during the Depression and WWII gathered these nuts as a boy, as reported in an earlier blog. 

hazelnut-catkins-1
These male catkins of the Hazelnut bush will fertilize tiny female flowers on the branch to produce  – what else? – hazelnuts!

Winter Returns, Sigh…

The marsh froze over again – thinner ice that water birds could peck through to forage in the water below.  One morning in a cold wind, a pair of  Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) poked about on the ice near Gunn Road, stalking back and forth on their knobby legs.  They didn’t seem to be finding much to eat.

Sandhill Cranes poked at the thin ice when the marsh re-froze after the false spring.

At the Center Pond, it looked as though some ducks had walked on the ice and then taken off, leaving some decorative webbed foot tracks and wing prints in the snow.

Duck feet and wing tracks Center Pond BC
The prints of duck feet and wings on the Center Pond’s snowy surface.

The next morning, the sun broke through and thinned the ice. A male Canada Goose found a break in it and stuck his head down, looking for food. Brrr…glad they have plenty of fat and keep their layers of feathers well-oiled  by preening from an oil gland at the tip of their tail like other water birds.

Two Geese in icy marsh BC
The male Canada Goose searches for food in an open patch in the thin marsh ice.

On the western slope, a male Eastern Bluebird repeatedly swooped down into the grass and back up into a nearby bush, evidently finding some seed he liked on a cold morning.

Flying bluebird BC
A male Eastern Bluebird glides to the ground to look for seeds.
Coyote tracks BC Lane
Most likely coyote tracks on the Walnut Lane

And along the upper part of the Walnut Lane, tracks revealed the path of what might have been a Coyote (Canis latrans) from the size of these canid tracks.  Like the fox, when they trot, they place the back foot where the front was – hence the single tracks.  Wish I could see this animal in the park.  Its scat is everywhere!  We can be assured, I think, that this animal does just fine no matter what the weather!

 Tracking the Meandering Path of Bear Creek Itself

Occasionally a park visitor asks me why the park is called Bear Creek.  Well, I don’t know why the creek was called “bear” because there are no bears.  At one time, the marsh was reportedly called “Bare Marsh” because of the many dead trees standing in the water years ago.   But some people ask because they haven’t noticed the little creek  and its meandering path that eventually reaches Paint Creek.  I never paid  much attention to it myself once it left the Center Pond boardwalk.  But in February, I decided to follow it.

It begins, I believe, in a spring that I saw  years ago during a drought that dried up the pond.  All that was left was a wet spot at the west end of the pond,  with water seeping eastward in a feeble stream.  In a normal year, when the water is high, a small creek flows out  under the boardwalk at the pond’s eastern end.

bear-creek-begins-out-of-center-pond-bc

From there, it runs east through the woods, enters Bear Marsh and picks up ground water. In the photo below, it exits the marsh running north out of  the culvert under Gunn Road.

Bear Creek n of Gunn Road at marsh

The little creek then takes a left hand turn, flowing back west.  In the woods somewhere, it evidently takes another left, bending south until it crosses under Gunn Road again right across from Pine Needle Trail, near Collins Road.

Bear Creek at Pine Needle Trail off Gunn BC

It wends it way south behind various houses, appearing again at a culvert under the aptly named, Bear Creek Court off Collins Road.

Bear Creek off Bear Creek Court

Just north of Oak Hill , near the entrance to the Township Hall,  the creek crosses under Collins Road.

Bear Creek going under Collins Road BC

 

It flows  along a ditch on the western side of Collins Road and curves behind the Paint Creek Methodist Church and the Lyon Gear factory,

Bear Creek behind church BC

At that point, the creek takes a dive under ground, crossing Orion Road and appearing again at what appears to be its final destination, flowing out of a culvert as it joins Paint Creek behind the Cider Mill parking lot.

Bear Creek empties into Paint Creekk at Cider Mill

A Creek with a Past Flows Toward Its Future

It’s wonderful to think of the hundreds, perhaps thousands of spring mornings during which this little creek has wended its way from a modest pond in a field off Snell Road to merge at last with Paint Creek.  Long may it meander across the landscape.  If we are careful stewards of the natural beauty granted to us, then for generations to come, the bluebirds will still forage in the meadows on azure wings, the coyotes will still trot up the lane on a winter night, and the butterflies will still slip out of tree bark into the sunshine. My thanks to all of those whose efforts and resources make that future possible!

Footnote:  My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: 
Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; Birds of North America Online; Audubon.org; Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes; Trees in My Forest by Bernd Heinrich; Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, Savannah River Ecology Lab (Univ of Georgia)and websites linked in the text.

Enjoying an Evening of Turtles, Salamanders, Frogs and, oh yeah, a Rattlesnake!

Last Thursday, Ben VanderWeide, our township stewardship manager, hosted a well-attended event on rare/endangered “herps” (Herpetofauna), that is, amphibians and reptiles.

Blog and photos by Cam Mannino
Blog and photos by
Cam Mannino

At this time of year, talking about snakes, turtles, salamanders and frogs may seem a bit odd to you.  Actually though,  the Herpetology expert and presenter, David Mifsud of Herpetological Resource Management (HRM), told us that he sees Spring Peepers, Eastern Garter Snakes and Red-backed Salamanders moving around in Michigan winters when temperatures warm up as they have lately.    So for starters, here are three that he says we might look for during this winter thaw:

 

Garter snake closeup GC
Eastern Garter Snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis) may be moving on warm winter days.
red-backed-salamander-1
You could see a Red-backed Salamander (Plethodon cinereus) in a vernal pool created by snow melt.
Spring Peeper largest size
Spring Peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) can occasionally be heard/seen on a warm winter day.

And even if you don’t see one of these herps “in person” this winter, it’s just pleasant to think about springtime creatures in the dead of winter, right?  So here’s a brief trip through some of the important and lively information that David shared with about 30 of us last Thursday night.

Note:  Because some of these creatures are rare, some of the photos this week are courtesy of photographers at iNaturalist.org.  Please check the captions for names of these gifted people and many thanks to Creative Commons, iNaturalist and these photographers for sharing their work!

How Important are Amphibians and Reptiles?  Let Me Count the Ways…

  • Canaries in the coal mine. Amphibians and reptiles accumulate toxins and other contaminates in their bodies and most live both in water and on land.  So they are effective gauges (bio-indicators) of what’s getting into both environments.
  • Many eat invasive species.  For example,  the very homely Mudpuppy (Necturus maculosus), an aquatic salamander, favors eating invasive Zebra Mussels (Dreissena polymorpha) and  invasive Brown Gobies (Neogobius melanostomus), both huge problems in the Great Lakes. I grant you  this much-maligned aquatic salamander is not pretty. But it’s eating these invasive species, crayfish, worms,  and insect larvae! There’s no evidence that they reduce game fish populations (see Harding 1997). So please!  Return them with care to the water if you catch them on your hooks winter or summer.
original
Mudpuppies eat invasive species not game fish. Photo by Marcus Rosten CC-BY. I lightened and cropped slightly.
  • Predator and Prey. Herps can be both predator and prey, meaning they’re important in nature’s food web.  For example, dragonflies, like the Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa) on the left below,  lay eggs in vernal pools.  The  nymphs that hatch feed on the eggs of salamanders who deposit their eggs on sticks in vernal pools, as seen in the center photo.  But when the Tiger Salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum) on the right – an inhabitant mostly of western and southern Michigan –  reaches adulthood,  it in turn eats dragonflies.  This kind of food cycle helps keep a healthy balance between predator and prey in the ecosystem and builds the ladder system of the food web.
  • Our natural heritage. And of course, these creatures deserve our care because they are native to the habitats which are our natural heritage. And just as we preserve historic homes, we need to preserve the habitats for plants and animals that share our natural inheritance.
  • Just because. These beautiful creatures deserve a place to call home too!

And the Prognosis for Michigan Herps?  Uh, Not So Good…

Unfortunately, in Michigan and the Great Lakes Region, more than half of our species of amphibians and reptiles are declining. Why?

  • Amphibians and reptiles spend time on land and in the water. So those pollutants and contaminants that they accumulate, making them bio-indicators, can also kill them. Plastic beads in beauty products, pesticides from lawns and agriculture, hormones from our medicines in waste water, and agricultural run-off can affect these creatures.
  • Many reptiles have to live a long time in order to mature and reproduce.  The Blanding’s Turtle (Emydoidea blandingii), found in our township,  is listed as a Species of Special Concern in Michigan. It takes up to 20 years for these yellow-chinned turtles to mature enough to produce young and they can live up to 90 years! This one on a road near Draper Twin Lake Park is demonstrating one of the hazards – habitat loss or disruption.  In this case, a road cut through its habitat. If you see a turtle on the road and can safely do so, be sure to move it gently in the direction it was going or it will turn head right back the way it came. Turtles are very focused on getting to and from their breeding grounds!

    Blandings Turtle near Draper
    A Blanding’s Turtle has to survive up to 20 years before it produces young!
  • Creatures with long lives like turtles especially need connected habitat corridors since they require both water and dry land, where they lay their eggs. Here a Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) is laying her eggs high on a sunny slope in Bear Creek before she returns to the pond. She demonstrates a common natural hazard. A female Snapper has a strong scent from living in marshes so it’s easy for predators – like foxes, coyotes, or raccoons – to track down her nest of eggs. And the mounds of earth she leaves behind are a big clue too!
snapper laying eggs
A Snapping Turtle leaves a strong marsh scent on her trail that lead predators, like raccoons, to her nest of eggs.
  • As cute, and as pesky,  as raccoons can be, they are serious predators of amphibians and reptiles and over-populated in some parks. Their numbers are often higher in urban areas than they would be naturally because they are “subsidized” by the food we provide unwittingly, such as our trash and the dog food we leave outside. After racoons leave the feast in your backyard, they return to a local natural area to snack on amphibian and reptile eggs, often causing over 90% nest failure. To keep park environments in balance between predators and prey, please remove food sources from around your home, and don’t transport trapped raccoons or other animals to our parks! 

 

raccoon in hole
Raccoons are efficient predators of “herp” eggs and young. So please don’t transport yours to the parks or we’ll have too many! This one peeked from a tree at Bear Creek.

Of course,  birds and other creatures prey on amphibians and reptiles as well.  This Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) is heading for quite a feast!

cr cooper's hawk with snake
A Cooper’s Hawk prepares to dine on a snake.
  • Unfortunately, salamanders and turtles are sometimes poached from the wild for pets, both by wildlife traffickers and uninformed parents and children. This has had a devastating effect, for instance,  on the very cute and tiny Spotted Turtle (Clemmys guttata) who’s only 3-5 inches long! And the same thing has happened to Box Turtles (Terrapene carolina) and even Common Snappers, which are sold overseas as well as domestically for supposed “medicinal” purposes.
spotted-turtle-cc-no-my-photo
Photo of the tiny Spotted Turtle by Todd Pierson (CC BY-NC-SA) whose numbers have declined due to treating them as pets.

The Leopard Frog (Rana pipiens), which appears in our parks, is also a Species of Special Concern in Michigan due to its declining numbers. This lovely frog with its emerald body and oval spots has unfortunately been poorly studied. So researchers still need to find the reasons for its distress.

leopard frog
The Leopard Frog’s numbers are declining and no one yet knows exactly why.

OK, but what about that Michigan rattlesnake???

emr_andrewhoffman2008_cc-by-nc-nd-3
Photo by Andrew Hoffman CC BY-NA-ND 4.0. No changes were made to the photo.

Most of us have heard of, but never seen, Michigan’s most venomous snake, the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake (Sistrurus catenatus catenatus) (a couple other snakes have weak venom that only causes irritation). This very shy, low-key snake only grows to about 2 feet long. According to Michigan DNR, it has one set of rattles at birth and develops more as it sheds its skin several times each year.  Its head is triangular like most rattlesnakes, though it is the smallest and least venomous rattler in the U.S.  Look also for a vertical eye slit and saddle-shaped spots.

The likelihood of you being bothered by this snake is low.  In 2016 it was listed as a Federally Threatened Species, which means its numbers are becoming drastically low.  And these snakes just want to avoid you. David reports having searched for this snake with a tracking device and after hearing a loud “beep” from his device, found it under the grass between his feet!  As he moved the grass aside, the snake silently slid over his shoe and away. That’s a conflict-avoiding snake! And a herpetologist with nerves of steel, I might add.

So if you do get to see one, consider yourself lucky. Don’t hurt or handle these docile snakes, since folks most often get bitten when harassing a snake that just wants to get away. Many bites are “dry,” meaning no venom. It takes lots of energy for the snake to produce the venom, and it doesn’t want to waste it! But if you get any kind of bite from this snake, see a doctor right away. Luckily, Dave informed us that no one in the US has died from such a bite in 100 years.

In spring, when these snakes are most active, they’re seen near wetlands, but they are likely to move to drier, upland areas in the summer. While they been seen recently at Stony Creek Metro Park in our area, we have no recent sighting in our township parks. Let us know if you see one!

Massasaugas overwinter for up to six months under logs, in small animal burrows and often in the “chimneys” created by crayfish, like this one.

A recently refreshed Crayfish hole among the detritus
A recently refreshed crayfish hole can hold many creatures over the winter, occasionally including Massasauga rattlesnakes.

Evidently, these burrows fill with ground water which maintains a more constant temperature in the winter than above ground – and that’s what important to an animal that can’t control its body temperature internally.  What’s amazing is that they often share these chimneys with other small creatures during the winter when all of them are in hibernation mode.  A kind of winter “condo” as David described it.  Imagine that!

Befriending Our Local Amphibians and Reptiles

Five turtles line up on a log at Bear Creek Nature Park.
The “Von Trapp Family”  Painted Turtles line up on a log at Bear Creek Nature Park.

Our parks are great places to see all kinds of “herps.”  Snappers and painted turtles cruise Bear Creek’s ponds and marshes.  Our wetlands in every park fill with a chorus of frog song every spring.  Snakes bask in sunny spots and quickly disappear into tall grass.  And in moist woodland uplands, salamanders emerge on the first warm night to make their way to vernal pools to mate and lay their eggs.  We need to care for these interesting creatures and their habitats  to be sure that they still thrive in our world when our children or grandchildren go looking for them.

Footnote:  My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: 
Harding, James H. (1997) Amphibians and Reptiles of the Great Lakes Region. iNaturalist.org for periodic photos;Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991); Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for insect info; http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info; invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman and the website www.illinoiswildflowers.info; experienced birder Ruth Glass, bird walk leader at Stoney Creek Metro Park for bird identification; Birds of North America Online; Audubon.org; Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, Trees in My Forest by Bernd Heinrich, Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, Savannah River Ecology Lab (Univ of Georgia); Tortoise Trust website www.tortoisetrust.org;  An Orchard Invisible: A Natural History of Seeds by Jonathan Silvertown; The Ecology of Plants by Gurevitch, Scheiner and Fox; other sites as cited in the text.