Tag Archives: Eastern Gray Squirrel

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Winter Robins, Trailing a Fox and Reminders from Last Spring

Blue morning shadows on center pond

Cam in red winter coat BC
Blog Post and Photos by Cam Mannino

I love the blue shadows that bright sun paints across winter snow. On my visits to Bear Creek this week, I spent some time with my face turned to the ground, trailing animals that had trotted along the paths to the Center Pond, perhaps on the previous moonlit night – or crossed and re-crossed the marsh nearby on a snowy morning. Trundling along, nose down,  I twice caught the sound of social chirping from flocks of birds gathered in trees nearby and went to explore. Later, standing on the ice, I craned my neck skyward to peer at spring reminders hanging from overhead branches. As usual, nature had a few surprises for me. Let’s start with those birds.

Winter Flocks – A Colorful, Noisy Sight

Winter Robins in a tree
Part of a flock of winter robins this week at the park.

Despite the fact that we think of  American Robins (Turdus migratorius) as harbingers of spring, nearly every winter they appear in the bare trees at Bear Creek. According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab, some do migrate, but many robins stay in their breeding  grounds. Evidently they can gather in huge roosts “sometimes including a quarter-million birds during winter.” Wouldn’t that be something to see? This week, a chorus of soft “cluck” sounds alerted me to a small flock of  8-10 birds who were feeding on frozen berries.  Many in this flock seemed to have exceptionally dark heads like this one:

Male robin
Male robin on a wintry day at Bear Creek

Since Cornell says that males have darker heads than females, I think there were probably more males in this group and since winter is not half over and has been fairly mild, perhaps the body feathers from their last molt are still in pretty good shape as well!

Later in the week, I heard another chorus of higher-pitched chipping calls and was expecting to find a flock of Tree Sparrows (Spizella arborea). Instead, I was treated to the rosy heads of male House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) socializing with their beige, striped females in bushes along the path just north of the playground. At my home feeder, I only see four or so at a time, but there were again 8-10 in the park, fluttering and moving too quickly for a shot as they hunted for berries. But one male  graciously posed for me in the half shade for a minute.

House finch BC
A male House Finch – his red head in the sunshine, his tail in the shadows.

Readers of the blog know how I love the color red, so I was delighted to see these Robins and Finches brightening up a winter day.

Following Fox Tracks

As I left the playground pond one morning, I came across the round prints of what was probably a Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes fulvus), trotting along the night before,  like this one which passed outside my window at home a couple of years ago.

Red fox on the run
The Red Fox whose tracks I followed this week might have looked like this one, seen at my home.

The tracks are so delicate  – single round circles in a continuous path, as the fox sets its back foot neatly into the track made by its front foot.  Their tracks never wander, as domestic dogs’ do, and they often follow human paths; wild animals, who must find their own food, need to conserve their energy by taking the easiest, most direct route. I decided to follow the fox.  Nose down, I headed west and the fox prints “took me” down the western slope, the neat circles staying close to the middle of the path.

Fox print western slope
Red Fox tracks going down the middle of the path that leads down and up the western slope.

At the end of the path, near the benches at the top of the south hill, the fox turned left and I followed its tracks over the edge of the hill on the path that leads through a tunnel of small trees to the meadow west of the Center Pond. And from there, I followed this ghost fox just past the Center Pond until it turned to go along the boardwalk to the east of the pond.

I turned south to go home because I was half frozen, but I enjoyed spending the last half hour of my walk “accompanying” this wild animal as it had trotted along under a full moon.

Another day this week I found other evidence of  perhaps the same fox. Here are tracks leading again to its exploration of the muskrat lodge in the Center Pond (I’d shown similar tracks in a previous blog). Its tracks clearly stopped by the lodge as it left its “calling card,” a small scat, the size of which was further evidence that this was likely a fox. And then the tracks took their neat bee-line to the other side of the pond (click on photos to enlarge,  hover your cursor over a photo for a caption).

Foxes are one of the predators of muskrats.  In the winter, coyotes and foxes are known to pounce on lodges and feeding platforms to prey on muskrats below. I couldn’t help wondering if that’s what happened in the marsh at the southwestern edge of the forest, where there are two collapsed muskrat feeding platforms from the summer. If so, the attempt wasn’t recent because there was no sign of bloodshed, but a clear path led to the lodge and away. The fox ate no muskrat that night.

Nearby squirrel tracks made a crossroad near the same lodge (see right photo above). One set of prints was much smaller than the other. My guess is that one set is that of The American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus); you can hear one there often during the day.  And the other may have been a larger squirrel, probably a black phase/morph of the Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), a species commonly seen in the woods around this marsh. They must have crossed the marsh in the morning after the fox’s nocturnal visit. (The Gray Squirrel photo was taken under our feeder as I neglected to get a shot of one at Bear Creek!).

If anyone knows tracks better than I (I am a rank amateur) and wants to correct me on any of these tracks, please feel free!

Memories of Last Spring:  Abandoned Nests

One advantage of following these tracks, too, was that I got a new perspective on two types of nests. Exploring the tracks of the muskrat lodge on the Center Pond, I was able to get a good look at the abandoned nest of the Bald-Faced Hornet (Dolichovespula maculata) that hangs over the eastern edge of the pond. It was a good way to see the amazing tiered construction of this astonishing  insect architecture fashioned from chewed bark and their own saliva.

Closeup hornets nest over ice
The weather has torn away the surface to show us the tiered interior of the amazing nest of  the Bald-Faced Hornet.

Three times this week, I spotted the hanging sack-like nests of the Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula), nests I couldn’t see until the austerity of winter revealed them swaying among bare limbs. I love these bright migrating birds who build snug nests that rock their nestlings in the treetops. They won’t be back from Florida and the Caribbean until early May.

oriole BC 5/3/14
A chilly male Baltimore Oriole in early spring.

The first nest I saw (the closeup) was hanging over the marsh at the southwest end of the forest where I saw the collapsed muskrat lodges.  The second was in the trees across the field at the bottom of the Eastern Path.  And the last, very high up, hung near the boardwalk over the marsh on the south end of the Walnut Lane, heading back to the parking lot. Imagine seeing three in one week!

Such a nice reminder that spring will come again!

Sunset at BC
Sunset at Bear Creek – the hour of the fox!

Winter at Bear Creek makes new requirements on us visitors. First of all, the trails and ponds are icy so  Yax Trax or some similar cleats on your shoes/boots are a fine idea. Second, we’re required to listen even more carefully than we do in warm weather. Birds don’t sing now, but do they do call to each other either in pairs or flocks, making it easier to see the few that keep us company in the winter. And sometimes it also requires using our imaginations – to see in the mind’s eye that Red Fox with its brown boots trotting swiftly through the park in the moonlight looking for a meal. Or a Red Squirrel bounding across the ice in the early morning to dig food from its winter cache. Or as in our last few blogs, to imagine the muskrat swimming in the darkness under the ice or the butterfly overwintering in a hollow tree. Then the quiet emptiness of the black-and-white park is filled with activity that we can hear in the treetops or see in our mind’s eye.

*Footnote:  My sources for information are as follows: 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; 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 and other sites as cited in the text.

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Winged Beauty Above and Below, Wildflowers Familiar and “Un-” and a Virtual Visit to the Pond

This week the fierce heat subsided and in its wake, earlier blooms, like the milkweed, dried and began to produce fruit and seed.  But late summer wildflowers gloried in the sunshine, lining the paths with dancing color and basking in the dappled sunlight of the woods.

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

Darners patrolled without pause, zooming across their territories while smaller dragonflies hovered and darted in the sunshine.  Young Red-Tailed Hawks soared above and juvenile Northern Flickers explored on their own while some adult birds begin to disappear into bushes and reeds to start their late summer molt before migration.

Wings Below in the Meadows and Marshes: Butterflies Big and Small, Darners, Dragonflies and a Very Cool-Looking Beetle

This week Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies (Papilio glaucus) and Monarchs (Danaus plexippus) chased across the Old Fields looking for nectar.  This is a photo from a few years back when a female of both species  met for a sip of nectar on a Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare), an invasive plant from Eurasia.  Thanks to hard work by the Parks Commission, most of the Bull Thistle is gone from Bear Creek, but the occasional plant crops up from time to time.

Swallowtail and Monarch
A black morph female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail and a female Monarch meet for a sip of nectar on a Bull Thistle.

By the way, if you see a smaller Monarch-like butterfly with a black bar on the bottom of each hindwing, that’s the Viceroy Butterfly (Limenitis archippus).  I was taught that its coloring mimics the Monarch because birds  find Monarchs distasteful, if not toxic, so the pattern and color offer protection from predators to the more edible Viceroys.  But according to Seven Ponds Nature Center in Dryden, Viceroys are just as distasteful as Monarchs to some predators.  So it’s apparently just another warning signal to unwary birds that they won’t like the taste, so stay away! Thanks for the information, Seven Ponds!

Viceroy
The black bar across the bottom of its hindwing indicates that this is NOT a Monarch butterfly, a species which tastes awful to birds.  This is the Viceroy butterfly which mimics the Monarch’s coloring and its awful taste.

I tried, I really tried, to get a photo of a flying Green Darner (Anax junius), who was patrolling about 100 yards of wildflowers on the western side of the sloping path on the southwest side of the park.  I had to try because he never stopped zooming back and forth for a full 20 minutes!  I could see his green head and thorax and his blue abdomen but the camera (at my skill level…) only saw this.  But maybe it conveys just how fast this little creature was moving!

blue green darner flying
A Green Darner zipping through the air as he patrols a territory of wildflowers near the sloping path on the southwest side of the park.

So here’s a link to a up-close-and-personal shot of this colorful predator.

On the edges of paths, among the meadow flowers and at the Playground Pond, a smaller dragonfly poses on a stalk or alights on a railing, the Ruby Meadowhawk (Sympetrum rubicundulum).  The four wings of a dragonfly work separately which I imagine explains why the middle of the thorax looks like a complicated set of gears!

Ruby Meadowhawk
A Ruby Meadowhawk dragonfly on the railing at the Playground Pond.

Down near the Center Pond,  Pearl Crescent butterflies  probed a part of the path that was a bit more moist on a hot day. Pearl Crescents emerge in several broods throughout the summer and newly hatched males can gather in groups like this looking for a drink.

Group of young male Pearl Crescents
A group of newly hatched male Pearl Crescents probe for moisture on a path near the Center Pond.

By rights, I shouldn’t like this Red Milkweed Beetle (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus) because I’m very fond of Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).  But it’s such a cartoon of a bug that I can’t resist it – and so far I haven’t seen many on the milkweed in Bear Creek.  Its red and black color is a warning signal to predators that its distasteful, since, like Monarchs and their caterpillars, it feeds on milkweed.  So it can afford to be bright and colorful!

red bug closeup
This Red Milkweed Beetle doesn’t worry about being conspicuous. Its color warns predators that it tastes nasty because it eats Common Milkweed.

Wings Above:  a Juvenile Red-Tailed Hawk and a Fledgling Flicker.

High in the air, you may now hear the plaintive, piercing cry of a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk whose parents are tapering off their feeding schedule.   Through September, the fledglings screech to express their desire to be fed or perhaps just mimicking the adult scream so beloved of movie-makers,  available for listening at this link.  The tails of juveniles are not red like their parents; they’ll get those feathers in their second year.

young redtail hawk soaring closeup
A juvenile Red-tailed Hawk gives its cinematic scream as it flies. It will acquire the characteristic red tail in its second year.

Incidentally, twice on one walk this week, a dark gray Meadow Vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus) dashed across the path in front of me heading for the “runways” they make through tall grass.  These small rodents need to run fast!  Hawks like this one as well as  owls, foxes and even snakes use voles as a food source, keeping their abundant population under control.  Here’s a link to a photo since they ran past way too quickly for me to get one! (Best photo is further down the Wikipedia page.)

Though they drum in trees like other woodpeckers, the Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus ) spends most of its time  probing the ground for ants, its favorite food.  You can spot them easily in flight; they have bright white patches on their rumps.  Flickers begin a complete molt sometime during August or September before moving south.  While they replace every feather, they are vulnerable and seldom seen.

flicker hunting1
An adult Northern Flicker in a characteristic pose as it probes for its favorite food, ants!

This week, though, look for a juvenile.  See how much thinner this one is than the adult and the soft tuft of down still on his leg?

flicker juvenile
A juvenile Northern Flicker with a little nestling down above its leg and a much smaller head than the adult flicker.

Wildflowers: Swaths of Lace, A Shy Flower in the Woods, and Arrowheads in the Marsh

If you’ve been to the park, you know ’tis the season of a favorite non-native wildflower, Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota).

Queen Anne and meadow
Queen Anne’s Lace lines the paths and elegantly swathes the hillside during late July and early August.

Queen Anne’s Lace is the ancestor of our cultivated carrot.  It probably came to the US from Europe as a garden flower and though prolific, it co-exists with our other native wildflowers.  Lots of insects visit these plants.  Here a blossom hosts both an Eastern Tailed-Blue butterfly (Everes comyntas)  and a Pennsylvania Leatherwing Soldier Beetle (Chauliognathus pensylvanicus).

Eastern Blue Tail on Queen Anne w Soldier Beetle
An Eastern Tailed-Blue butterfly and a Pennsylvania Leatherwing Soldier Beetle visit a blossom of Queen Anne’s Lace, a member of the carrot family.

This week, along the eastern path,  I saw a rare form of Queen Anne’s Lace  – one with a pink corolla.  I’ve seen pink in Queen Anne’s that are opening, but never one before that was completely pink when open,  which the Michigan Flora website says is rare!

pink queen anne
A pink form of Queen Anne’s Lace, which the Michigan Flora website tells me is rare, was blooming along the eastern path this week.

Out in the field next to the eastern path, a native plant I’d never noticed before is blooming.  Look for the tall purple stalks of Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) swaying in the wind.

Blue Vervain Verbena Hestata
Blue Vervain, a native plant that was new to me, is blooming now near the eastern path.

In the woods near the southern deck of the marsh, a modest native woodland flower nods its shy head.  Fringed Loosestrife (Lysimachia ciliata), a native plant (unlike the invasive Purple Loosestrife) presents simply green leaves and two yellow flowers with their heads bowed.

Fringed loosestrife Lysimacchia ciliata
The modestly bowed heads of Fringed Loosestrife in the woods near the southern end of the marsh.

But when you look underneath to see the blossom’s face, it’s rippled petals and brownish red center are lovely.  I’ve never noticed this flower in the woods before.  Maybe it’s bloomed because of the prescribed burn in the spring.

Fringed loosestrife closeup native
Fringed Loosestrife has nodding blossoms, so you have look closely to see its rippled petals and dark red center. It’s a native woodland flower that may have bloomed because of this year’s prescribed burn.

And while you’re at the southern deck in the marsh, have a look at how the heat has brought on the fluffy blooms of  native Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium maculatum) which were only in bud a week ago.

Joe Pye in bloom
The heat has brought out the blooms of native Joe-Pye Weed in the southern part of the marsh.

In the northern part of the marsh, a lovely “wet-footed” native is blooming, Common Arrowhead (Sagittaria latifolia).  You can easily see where it got its name in a time when arrowheads were part of everyday life!

Arrowhead
It’s easy to where this “wet-footed” plant in the northern marsh got its name, Common Arrowhead.

A Virtual Visit to the Center Pond

At the Center Pond, the water was clearing, as plant life sinks beneath the surface toward the end of the summer.  It occurred to me that a photo and sound track might be a treat for anyone too busy to get to the park.  So, if you were sitting on a bench there on a lazy summer afternoon, this is what you might see:

Center Pond
A view of the Center Pond which is finally clearing again, as it usually does as summer wanes.

And this is what you might hear.  The 30 second recording (Turn up your Volume!) includes, I think,  the singing of an American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis),  definitely  the trilling a Northern Cardinal  (Cardinalis cardinalis) at the very end and the occasional banjo sound of a Green Frog (Rana clamitans).

On a nearby log, you’d see a  grumpy-looking, but probably content, Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta), eyes closed and all four legs and neck extended basking in the sun.  Such a treat for a reptile that can’t produce its own body heat!

basking turtle
A grumpy-looking, but probably happy, Painted Turtle extends all four legs and his neck and head to catch as much of the sun’s heat as this cold-blooded reptile possibly can.

Nearby, the incessant scolding of an American Goldfinch could draw you, as it did me, to a nearby tree, where a busy Eastern Gray Squirrel (Ciurus carolinensis) jumped through the branches.  The birds must have thought he was looking for their eggs, but Gray Squirrels only do that when nuts and seeds are hard to find – and that’s not the case now in Bear Creek!  He was too far up for a good shot but here’s a link to a photo.

And if you wandered down the boardwalk on the eastern edge of the pond , you’d see the results of the work that Ben VanderWeide, our stewardship manager, and his summer crew have done clearing away  invasives like Common Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica), Glossy Buckthorn (Frangula alnus), and Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) from that side of the pond.  Once the saplings that try to re-sprout are treated, Ben plans to plant some native seeds there.  But right now, it’s wonderful to have a clearer view of the pond without all those invasive trees and bushes crowding the shore!

Stewardship work at park
Ben and the summer stewardship crew this year and last have cleared away invasive trees and shrubs at the eastern end of the Center Pond. And a lovely natural view emerges!

I hope to bring you other “virtual visits” to Bear Creek because I know some of you can’t get to the park as often as I do.  But I hope you’ll take the time to spend at least a few hours in Bear Creek while the trees and ponds are still alive with song and wildflowers grace the fields.  Slow down and see what a half hour walk can do to make your day a bit more mellow.  Treat yourself to a bit of nature.

*Quick footnote:  My sources for information, as well as Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991). The viceroy butterfly is not a Batesian mimic; 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 beetle info and invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman.