October is autumn’s transition month. Some days are warm and sunny, creating almost an illusion of late summer or early September. And on those days, a few bees and butterflies flutter across my path, caterpillars bump along through the grass and native wildflowers still bloom in the fields. A turtle in the Draper marsh basks in the thinning light.
Change is in the air. Let’s look back to see what October had to offer as we take the first cold, rainy steps into the austerity of November.
Early October: Late Season Wildflowers Host the Occasional Bee or Butterfly
One Sunday afternoon in October, a Common Buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia) fluttered down onto the trail right in front of my husband and I. In the summer, Draper Twin Lake Park hosts a rainbow of butterflies. Some mate, lay their eggs and expire, leaving caterpillars behind in their chrysalises. But this colorful little butterfly migrates south for the winter and returns in the spring. Perhaps it stopped at Draper to sample the various goldenrods, since it prefers yellow flowers. Can you see the slightly bug-eyed expression on its face? I laughed to think it was as surprised to see my husband and I as we were to see it land right in front of us!
Late October: Swaying, Russet Prairie Plants Provide a Fall Feast for Wildlife
The video above may look like a sea of dry brown stems to you. But to the birds, particularly the American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis), it looks like your heavily laden Thanksgiving table. In just the video’s 40 seconds, you are seeing hundreds of thousands of seeds: Indian Grass, Coneflowers, Black-eyed Susans, Stiff Goldenrod, Little Bluestem and many more. On the August birdwalk, we spent a happy ten minutes or so watching a flock of goldfinches swaying on bobbing stalks as they stuffed themselves with Stiff Goldenrod seed (Solidago rigida). First there were two and then suddenly there were five all scrabbling to feed on the abundant seed heads.
Relishing Autumn’s Transformation
The Draper prairie with its great looping trail really may look dry, brown and lifeless to some hikers. But not to me. At this time of year, I feel a lot like Ratty, a “country gentleman” sort of muskrat in the children’s classic Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame, a book I quoted in an earlier blog. Like me, Ratty senses the restlessness of autumn. He heads out into a farmer’s field, much as I waded out into the tall grass of Draper’s northern prairie: “…he thrust into the great realm of wheat, yellow, wavy, and murmurous, full of quiet motion and small whisperings. Here he often loved to wander through the forest of stiff strong stalks that carried their own golden sky away over his head — a sky that was always dancing, shimmering, softly talking; or swaying strongly to the passing wnd and recovering itself with a toss and a merry laugh. Here, too, he had many small friends, a society complete in itself…”
Ratty is a kindred spirit. Autumn also plunges me into the bending and tossing grasses and the whispering of dry stems where I can stand shoulder deep in the prairie and just “be” with it all. Like him, I sense a community of other creatures in the flocks of fidgety birds, the agitated butterflies searching for the last bloom, the relentless plodding of a caterpillar through the grass stems. Autumn’s restlessness urges me to celebrate the change, change and change again of every season. I appreciate that reminder.
What an explosion of bird life in May! In a matter of a few weeks, the trees, fields, marshes and our yards suddenly are alive with bustle and song. Last week, I shared what I learned about the warblers, some of the tiniest members of the northern migration. This week, I thought we’d take a look at some of the other colorful summer visitors who are currently serenading possible mates, toting nesting material around our gardens and fields and darting in and out of our backyard feeders.
This spring seems particularly generous with glorious birds. Up-close visits with a startling variety of color and song all around us in 2019 has made this season quite a special one for me.
The Migrators of the Last Week in April
On April 24, just as the sun was getting low, my husband alerted me to something special right outside the window. I looked up from my book to find myself staring at a rare visitor, the Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus). Twice over the years, we’d caught a quick glimpse of this impressive bird out in the trees beyond the lawn. But it only paused and moved on. Luckily this bird returned repeatedly that night, so I finally got calm enough to get a shot through the glass – and wow!
Since then, others have reported seeing more Red-headed Woodpeckers than usual. We’re hoping ours may be nesting nearby since it’s returned three or four times after its first visit. Sometimes bird lovers confuse this more unusual bird (for our area) with the year ’round Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) who has a red nape but not a fully red head. Red-headed Woodpeckers have become less common in our area due to habitat loss, but maybe we lucked out this year! (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
On April 25, I remembered that the Great Blue Herons (Ardea herodias) were already nesting along the Clinton River trail, so I hurried to see them before leaves began to obscure the view. Saucer-shaped nests topped many trees in the marsh. One heron stood alone, as if on guard, while multiple females, presumably, arranged their nests or perhaps turned over their large eggs.
That last week in April was what folks used to call a humdinger! A birding friend let me know that she’d seen a killdeer with eggs at Gallagher Creek Park. So later on the 25th, I went searching. You’ll probably find her more quickly in this photo than I did in the park. It took me a while, since she was so well camouflaged!
I got very close before I spotted her. She watched me a few moments but surprised me by trotting over to the rain garden so I could take a picture of her beautiful eggs. Very accommodating, though maybe not the best parenting! I’m hoping at least one fledgling survived, since Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township stewardship manager, thought he saw a juvenile there in May. Perhaps the predators had as much trouble spotting the nest as I did!
Early May Brought More Solo Arrivals
On May 1st, the birders at Bear Creek Nature Park watched a female Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) busily constructing her nest underneath the roof of a kiosk! Not a terribly private place, but Phoebes do that sort of thing. She’s not as glamorous as some of the other May arrivals, but I liked her placid expression and the brown suede look of her crown. The Phoebe’s two note song is an easy one for most beginning birders to remember. It does sound a bit like “Feee-beee” though it always sounds a bit more like “Feee-buuuuz” to me.
On May 3, one of my favorite avian vocalists arrived in our woods, the male Rose-Breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus). Such a handsome devil! And now, every morning in the dark just before sunrise, I’m treated to his sweet courting melody. I’m guessing he found a mate with it, though the female who arrived four days later had her pick of three males counter-singing while I worked in the yard. What a delightful form of territorial competition, as one male’s song overlaps or quickly follows the song of another!
On May 5, my husband Reg and I went in pursuit of the Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna) since members of the birding group had seen them at Wolcott Mill Metropark. And we found him. This glorious prairie bird sang his own slurry version of their 3-8 note song from atop a willow whose new yellow leaves nicely matched his bright yellow breast. Meadowlarks love to hold forth from high on a wire or exposed branch looking out over a field. I hope our prairie restorations will encourage more of these striking birds to nest in our parks.
On May 2, the male Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) arrived right on schedule at our grape jelly feeder. How can anyone resist this dramatic bird? The first male quickly established his rights to the feeder and now proceeds to whistle his song rather insistently near a window whenever the feeder is empty, which is about 3 times a day! Or at least that’s how it seems to us. We’re happy to accommodate him and later his mate.
Mid-May Brings the Warblers’ Fellow Travelers
Lots of birds, even fairly solitary ones, join the warblers in the nighttime flow of birds during May, especially in the second and third weeks. Researchers have yet to solidly determine exactly how these small survivors navigate the skies. Current theories include sighting landmarks below, orienting to the stars or sensing the earth’s magnetic field, or all three. Ornithologists still aren’t sure. But aren’t we glad the birds mysteriously manage it?
On May 11, my sharp-eyed husband called me to the window again. And there I stayed for 20 miraculous minutes as a male Scarlet Tanager foraged along the edge of the brickwork outside our back door.
I hoped he might stay around to nest, but no such luck. The birding group, though, saw both a male and a female with nesting material at Lost Lake Nature Park on May 29th. Maybe I’ll see fledgling tanagers yet! Tanagers are “dimorphic,” meaning that males look different than females, in this case, though only in the breeding season. In the fall, the male changes into the yellow-green plumage of the female to travel to their wintering grounds in northern South America. Quite a trip for these small birds.
A surprise for us at Magee Marsh this year was seeing a Great Crested Flycatcher (Myiarchus crinitus). I don’t get to see them much because once they settle down to breed, they hunt their insect prey high in the tree canopy. Sometimes other birders point out their distinctive call to me and I catch a glimpse of its lemon yellow belly from a distance. This time, I could get a bit closer! Cornell Lab of Ornithology says they “tend to migrate alone,” but this one was surrounded by hundreds of warblers.
I can’t say for sure when Indigo Buntings arrive in our area from Florida or the Caribbean, but I usually see them in the parks by mid-May. This year, though, we were lucky enough to see this deep azure male at our hulled seed feeder. (A popular place this year!) He came right at the end of May and for a week now has come every evening, right before sunset. I think we’re his stop for a bedtime snack. A writer at Cornell Lab described him perfectly as “a little scrap of sky with wings.”
Another latecomer to our feeder is the male Orchard Oriole (Icterus spurius) who has only been at our feeder one previous year and then only briefly. This one came to visit on May 29 and appeared daily since, eating the same grape jelly that pleases his bigger cousin, the Baltimore Oriole. Orchard Orioles migrate south again by the end of July so catch sight of one while you can. There’s often a pair at Bear Creek Nature Park.
The presence of all these unusual birds at my feeder makes me wonder if a cold, wet spring has left some migrators without their usual diet of insects. So they’re settling for grain until the sun shines and more insect eggs hatch. Just a guess, of course.
Giving Our Migrators a Helping Hand
Year after year for millennia, this wave of brilliantly colored aviators find their way north to us in the spring. Long ago, the luckiest or most skillful avian navigators discovered the lake shores, forests, prairies, and wetlands that were full of the required food and shelter they needed along the way. These survivors learned to take advantage of peninsulas to shorten the distance over water and toughed it out when they were unavailable. They followed lake shores or ocean beaches when storms blew. And at last they glided down onto fields, splashed into ponds, settled on shady branches in distant forests, fluttered down into the protection of stiff prairie grass, or poked their beaks gratefully into the mud of a fertile marsh. Somehow the young of these avian pioneers knew the paths of their ancestors and somehow that knowledge got passed through thousands of generations of Scarlet Tanagers, Indigo Buntings and all the others.
Wonder and a desire to understand and/or help these winged neighbors are, I think, common responses to the miracle of migration each spring and fall. Some of us fill our feeders, set up and monitor nest boxes, or band birds to help ornithologists learn more. Some learn when and when not to rescue nestlings and fledglings and how to do it safely. Some company executives agree to turn off their office lights at night, while some farmers and others pause their wind turbines when notified by experts of particularly heavy migration in the area. Some cat lovers keep their cats indoors until fledglings are strong enough to escape into the treetops. Some gardeners plant their gardens with an eye to supplying fruits and insects as well as beauty. Some simply accept the inconvenience of awkwardly located nesting sites around their yard, and decide to just sit back with a camera or a cup of coffee to admire the hard work of raising little birds. It all makes a difference. However you express your appreciation for the presence of birds in our world, thanks for doing it.
This year eight volunteers are monitoring nest boxes at Draper Twin Lake Park, Charles Ilsley Park and along the Paint Creek Trail in Oakland Township. We keep track of when the nest is built, the date of the first egg laid, the hatching date and if possible, the fledgling date when the little Eastern Bluebirds, Tree Swallows, House Wrens or Chickadees exit the nest and come out into the big world.
We report our data to NestWatch, a citizen scientist project of the Cornell University Ornithology Lab.
Well, the excitement has peaked in the last two weeks as fledglings begin to screw their courage to the sticking point, leap out of their dark, cozy nests and take to the air. Two weeks ago, I was lucky enough to see a tiny Eastern Bluebird (Sialissialis) launch itself out of the nest box that I’m monitoring near my house and caught the moment with my camera as well. (Use the pause button if you need more time for captions.)
And now many of us volunteers and members of the birding group feel like we’re in a nursery, because we’re surrounded by baby birds! Unlike the young bluebird, Tree Swallow fledglings (Tachycineta bicolor) “are strong fliers as soon as they leave the nest,” according to the Stokes’ Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.1). This one at Charles Ilsley Park seemed to emerge from its nest fully ready to fly. Perhaps that is necessary since swallows feed on the wing. But the adults will help feed their fledglings for the first two or three days. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)[Edit: I’ve deleted the two closeups of the fledgling because from photos others took, I’m not sure it was the fledgling. My apologies.]
In the eastern prairie at Charles Ilsley Park, a Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) flitted about among the Foxglove Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis). Its slim shape and erratic display behavior made me think it might be a juvenile, too. A larger Field Sparrow (probably a male) sat calmly nearby with a grasshopper nymph in its beak. But when I returned the next day, the slim Field Sparrow again flitted distractedly about in the same location and again was accompanied by another Field Sparrow. My former experience with Field Sparrows had been that they often are elusive and dive into the grass at a moment’s notice. But I’ve learned that in the early spring, Field Sparrows nest on the ground if they have enough cover, which this beautiful prairie now provides. I’m wondering if these two were mates who were trying to distract me from a nest hidden among the flower stems. Since there are low bushes nearby, however, the nest could have been along the tree line since these sparrows make nests in low bushes later in the season.
Back at my home, a clutch of Eastern Phoebe fledglings (Sayornis phoebe) appeared in a low bush at dusk. They’d evidently left the nest under the eaves of the nearby shed very recently and a harried adult was busy trying to feed them. Luckily, both Phoebe parents share this exhausting task. One of the fledglings, as you’ll see below, was smaller and a loner. Perhaps that’s not surprising since Cornell says the Phoebe “is a loner, rarely coming in contact with other phoebes.” It may just have been the last to fledge and is still adjusting to the being out of the nest – or perhaps it’s the “runt of the litter.” But its noisier siblings probably had a lot more luck getting fed that night!
Many birds have more than one brood in a summer – so be on the lookout! Your yard may be hosting hard-working parent birds and their rambunctious, noisy, begging youngsters! Our parks certainly are!
Most of the action at Lost Lake Nature Park in the last few weeks has centered around which pair of Canada Geese control which section of the lake. These normally mild-mannered birds can act like a flock of drama queens when establishing territory and nesting. When I arrived for the first time two weeks ago, the weather was still cold, but some geese tempers were simmering!
I’d just read The Geese of Beaver Bog by Bernd Heinrich and supplemented my limited Canada Goose knowledge with Donald Stokes’ Guide to Bird Behavior, Volume 1 – so I was curious to see if I could read Canada Goose body language for the first time. Well, it was quite an exciting set of lessons from the geese themselves!
Then I went on to explore the more mellow residents of Lost Lake Nature Park and also fell in love with some wildflowers and a momentarily glamorous insect.
Drama at the Lake!
When I stepped out of my car during my first visit, a male Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) and his mate saw me and moved away from the floating dock. The female swam calmly to the west end of the lake while the male patrolled the center.
He turned his head toward me as I reached the dock and kept me in sight all the time. It was a cold day with a strong north wind, unusual for late April. As I walked along the shore toward the east, I heard the male goose honking wildly and turned to see him making a bee-line straight toward me across the pond! When he reached the dock, he took to the air and flew at me, honking wildly, his wings snapping just above my head. Needless to say, I did not raise my camera for a photo! He dropped heavily into the water behind me and gave what the Stokes guide called “the head flip,” stretching his neck high, shaking his head from side to side and giving what Stokes calls “quiet grunts” indicating that the goose is apprehensive or disturbed.
I was puzzled as to what I’d done to receive what was so clearly a threat. So after a few minutes, I moved back to the dock and finally noticed what should have been obvious before. A goose nest rested among the stalks on the island in the lake, lined with feathers from the female’s chest (a “brood patch”) and perhaps some cat-tail fluff. Silly me, I didn’t realize that the whole south side of the pond was this pair’s territory and they had started a family there!
On the far side of the pond, a second pair of geese were already nesting. Periodically the first male would venture somewhat toward the second pair and the male of that pair would stand with his neck very straight and his body tilted slightly forward. If I understand the Stokes Guide correctly, he was making an “I’m aware of you” signal to the other male, indicating that he sensed a possible confrontation. The first male circled away each time.
Later in that visit, the female goose of the first pair rejoined her mate near the nest. As she approached, they both began what Stokes calls a “greeting ceremony.” She would call softly “hink, hink” as she swam and he would respond almost simultaneously with his loud “A-honk!” When she reached him, she put her bill near his, almost tucking her head beneath his lower bill.
Then to my amusement, they both turned in my direction and seemed to be scolding me loudly for having dared to get that close to their beautiful nest! Look at the male’s eye turned right toward me and the female facing me directly! It was just a reminder….
On my next visit to the dock, it was the female who gave me the warning – a stern look as she sat on her nest. That neck position with a straight, lowered head aimed right at me is a threat pose. She remembered this possible trespasser with the camera!
On my third visit, she still kept an eye on me, but seemed more relaxed at my presence, just turning her head to let me know that I was seen. That extended wing may be creating a warm blanket for her eggs, if any, as well as for her.
A week later, I saw what I thought might be my first pair quietly feeding near the nest. Female geese leave the nest for up to an hour during incubation and these two were very close to the nest. It was a lovely warm day and the eggs, if there were any, were probably quite warm under the loose feathers and cat-tail down. I also spotted a third nest at the west end of the lake with one goose standing over it and the female of the second pair on the north side was still sitting on her nest.
But the Canada Goose treat of the day was that, on my way home, I stopped to see two adult geese down the road at a residential pond, standing guard over seven little goslings calmly munching on the fresh green grass.
Other Wildlife Around the Lake Seemed More Relaxed
On that third visit, I also got treated to a pair of very calm Hooded Mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus)floating around the bend in the island not far from the female goose. I’ve always seen photos of male Hooded Mergansers with their hoods raised dramatically, as in this photo by inaturalist.org photographer, Liam O’Brien.
The male at Lost Lake, however, seemed calm and collected. Through the veil of dry stalks, I was able to catch a quick shot of him. His relaxed crest lay in a slight droop at the back of his neck. The patterns of color on his body and head are so lovely and his bright, golden eye shone like a small gem in his velvety black head!
On the coldest days, the Ring-necked Ducks (Aythya collaris) on the far edge of the lake tucked their bills into their back feathers. I thought perhaps they were keeping a low profile against the icy north wind that drove quick, short waves across the pond. In this relaxed posture, they simply drifted with the wind.
A gathering of Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta marginata) sun-bathed on the log where I’d first seen the Mergansers. This large one looked particularly content, despite its perpetual grimace.
Nearby, I think I kept hearing the snoring call of the Northern Leopard Frog (Rana pipiens). It’s as low as the Wood Frog’s, but less continuous and truly, very much like a snore! My recording was much too distant because the Leopard Frogs quieted every time I approached! But you can listen to one at this Macaulay Library link .
I didn’t know until this year that Leopard Frogs come out of hibernation from muddy lake bottoms in very early spring. I usually see them later in the spring or summer when they move into grassy areas. Here’s a picture of one a few summers back in just such an area at Bear Creek Nature Park. Snazzy spots, eh?
Birds and Blossoms in the Wooded Areas
Lost Lake is surrounded by the high, dry hills cloaked by an Oak-Pine Barren. Birds flit in and out of the trees that surround the lake and the woods beyond. The rhythmic, insistent call of the Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) sounded from the very top of a snag near the lake one sunny afternoon.
In the photo that accompanies my recording below, you can see why he was once called the Yellow-shafted Flicker.
Nearby, in the grassy area just west of the caretakers’ house, a female Flicker was paying close attention! Male flickers have a black “mustache” on either side of their bill; females don’t.
Flickers are actually woodpeckers, though they spend a lot of time on the ground probing for their favorite food, ants. In fact, woodpeckers of several kinds busied themselves foraging on snags all over Lost Lake.That’s one of the reasons bird lovers leave dead trees standing in their woods when they can. They provide places to eat and nest for woodpeckers. Here a female Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) drills with great concentration on a dead limb, probably searching for beetle larvae.
A Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)hitched quickly from branch to branch, probably looking for a similar meal, though he may also have been establishing a territory since he periodically let forth with his kwirrrr call.
In the White Pines (Pinus strobus) near the caretakers’ house, the cheery, tweeting call of the American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) can be heard almost any day! I imagine they frequent the family’s thistle feeder all day long!
Occasionally, I’d see an Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) in the area, sometimes on a low limb or sitting on the upturned boat near the shore. It’s always darting down near the water’s edge, probably seeking out insects, since it’s a flycatcher.
On my last warm day visit, an Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) had flown in on a south wind the night before. It took off from a branch as I stepped out of my car, but then landed near the water, just as the Phoebe had. Perhaps you can just see the spot of greenery in its beak in the righthand photo? Nesting material, methinks! (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
The Eastern Kingbird on takeoff!
The Kingbird resting near the pond with a bit of nesting material in its beak.
Resilient Spring Flowers Flourish After a Prescribed Burn
The native plants of Lost Lake are a hardy bunch when it comes to fire! Shortly before a Lost Lake prescribed burn took place on April 27, I spotted two clusters of a classic spring flower, the native Round-lobed Hepatica (Hepatica americana). Some were along the trail to the Oak-Pine Barrens and the ones below were just at the edge of the grassy area west of the caretakers’ house.
The fire crew was alerted to the presence of these little beauties and did their best to avoid them, leaving the ones in the photo above completely untouched, and singeing the ones along the trail, but leaving some leaves and blossoms. The surprise was that when I came back a week after the fire, the hepatica which was untouched by fire had disappeared – perhaps finished off by warming temperatures or by a grazing deer. But the singed ones along the trail had made a comeback! These fire-adapted plants were producing new leaves and blossoms already on the blackened forest floor! The nutrients from the last year’s dry stalks had been released back into the soil by the fire and the blackened soil was nicely warmed again – so up they came for a second chance in the sun!
Hepatica flowers bloom again after the prescribed burn.
A hardy little hepatica rises from the blackened soil.
Likewise, down near the burned shore of the lake, under the trees, a huge patch of another native plant, May Apples (Podophyllum peltatum) emerged from the darkened soil. Their umbrella-like leaves were just beginning to open in the dappled light.
And of course the fire couldn’t reach the leaves of the Fragrant Water Lilies (Nymphaea odorata) rising from beneath the water near the edge of the lake. I never knew just how the lily pad took shape. Evidently they come up vertically like a wide blade of green and then eventually lay back on the water surface, as the various stages in the photo below suggest. I’m looking forward to the summer blossoms that bloom in the morning.
And One Very Cool Insect with Stars at Its Feet
A tiny Water-Strider (fam. Gerridae) rowed across the surface of a wetland at the foot of the slope in the Oak-Pine Barrens. This little creature literally walks on water! In the shadows, it was easier to see its body and legs covered in thousands of tiny hairs which keep its body dry and light enough to perch above the water as it forages. Its long, flexible, strong legs distribute its body weight evenly so it can move easily across the surface of the water – hence its irreverent other name, the Jesus bug! It steers using those long back legs and pierces its prey with the claws on the middle of its front leg!
But suddenly, when this amazing little creature moved into the sunlight, a small reflection of the sun shone like a star where each leg met the waterline. I was delighted and immediately decided that the Water Strider could be the “star-studded finale” on the blog this week!
Seeing this tiny rower motor about the surface of a wetland, listening to the snap of a goose’s wings right over my head, or coming upon little lavender flower faces peering up at me from the grass – those moments are epiphanies for me. They illuminate the reality that despite the presence of nature’s most invasive species, i.e. we humans! – nature endlessly tries to adapt and survive, even if it means walking on the water, challenging a trespasser or springing out of burned earth. Surely such skills, daring, resilience and sheer beauty deserve our loyalty, protection and thoughtful stewardship.
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: inaturalist.org;Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; maccaulaylibrary.org; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; A Guide to Bird Behavior Volume 1 by Donald W. Stokes,and other sources as cited in the text.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
A male bluebird scanning the grass for something to eat.
A female bluebird 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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
The skunk cabbage’s flower within its spathe emerging from the mud on March 31.
Its leaves beginning to form by April 18.
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!
Spring Beauty is slow getting going this year.
Look for its tiny blossoms under forest trees as the sunlight increases.
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.)
The Promise of Full-fledged Spring
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.