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The Wet Prairie: Unusual Fall Blooms Host A Variety of Guests

I’m always cautious when I  write about the wildflowers at the Wet Prairie along the Paint Creek Trail between Gallagher and Silver Bell Roads.  Many of  the wildflowers here are very fragile and quite unusual, so this natural area needs to be treated very carefully.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

Because I’d like to help residents understand just how special the Wet Prairie is, I’m occasionally allowed to take a very careful and slow walk with my camera. Here’s the beauty – and the fascinating strangeness –  I came across on two short trips there last month.

Restoration of a Special Place Yields Special Flowers

Butterfly milkweed seeding with Smooth Blue Aster and Gray Goldenrod in bloom.

Restoration of this 10-acre natural area by Dr. Ben VanderWeide and his Parks and Recreation stewardship crew has worked wonders over the years.  Years ago when I first saw the little flower with the exotic name, Grass-of-Parnassus (Parnassia glauca), one blossom stood alone on the prairie. I loved it the moment it caught my eye. This year the prairie was covered with these striped beauties, the most I’ve ever seen!

Grass-of-Parnassus has grown increasingly abundant at the Wet Prairie with restoration continuing there.

According to the Illinois wildflower site (a favorite of mine), Grass-of-Parnassus loves moisture and chalky (calcareous) soil,  but doesn’t like a lot of competition from other plants. A high water table keeps this prairie wet for a good portion of the year. In some places, the unusual soil prevents water from draining away, pooling in the spring and drying out in summer sun. Occasional use of prescribed fire suits many of the  plants that grow here. They’re fire-adapted after growing for millennia in landscapes that burned frequently, not to mention fires in the last few hundred years started by lightning or by the trains that passed on the nearby railroad. Ben and his crew have consistently removed invasive shrubs and encroaching trees to keep the area open and sunny. Grass-of-Parnassus, no doubt a long-time denizen of the Wet Prairie, celebrated all of these unusual conditions and the restoration work this summer with an abundant bloom!

The prairie also hosts another airy fall wildflower that prefers little competition. Flowering Spurge (Euphorbia corollata) grows along the drier areas near the trail. A wide variety of native bees and butterflies find their way to its bright white showy bracts, which are modified leaves like the red bracts of poinsettias.  The white bracts of flowering spurge highlight the yellow flowers at the center. I love their simplicity; they remind of the flowers I drew as a child. Their leaves are safe from deer browsing because they contain a toxic white latex.

Flowering Spurge avoids competition and can tolerate the dryness near the trail.

Flowering Spurge is monoecious, which means separate male and female flowers are produced on the same plant.  Once pollinators do their work, the fertile female flowers are replaced by a capsule with a seed in each of its three chambers which appear right at the center of the female flowers! Below is a closeup look at their bulbous seed pods which will eventually eject the seeds when they’re mature.

Seed capsules forming on Flowering Spurge.

Tucked down among the grasses, Cylindrical Blazing-star (Liatris cylindracea) makes itself known through the whirling effect of its purple blossoms.  Each flower head is crowded with 15-20 individual tube-shaped flowers. A two-part curving “style,” emerges from each one. The style is the slender stalk that connects the stigma, the surface on which the pollen lands,  to the ovary below in the blossom. These lovely wildflowers last  about a month in late summer/early fall and tend to appear singly like many of the flowers on the Wet Prairie, preferring little competition. The name Blazing Star seems particularly appropriate in this wildflower, since the styles spin out from each flower like the stars in a Van Gogh painting.

Our long-tongued native Bumblebees can easily pollinate Cylindrical Blazing-star’s crowded flower heads.

Shrubby Cinquefoil (Dasiphora fruticosa) thrives in the moist, chalky soil of the Wet Prairie. A small, woody bush, only 1.5 to 3 feet tall, it attracts native bees, honeybees and a variety of other flying insects to its bright yellow flowers during the summer and early fall. It also benefits from being of little interest to deer.

A small bush, Shrubby Cinquefoil provides nourishment to a big variety of insects.

On the early September walk, I explored the wetter areas at the back of the prairie and came across an elegant stem of Turtlehead (Chelone glabra) with a haze of dusty lavender Joe Pye (Eutrochium maculatum) dancing in the distance. The turtlehead’s two-lipped flower performs two functions: the top lip  forms a protective hood for the flower’s stamen and pistils and the the lower serves as a landing pad for foraging insects. Like many of our native plants, it protects itself from deer – in this case by having bitter leaves.

Turtlehead blooms first at the bottom of its florescence.

On the far back slopes of the prairie, a Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) made a swirling explosion of seeds, each attached to its silky white parachute. What a delicate abstract design with its central slender pod shape!

Butterfly Milkweed going to seed in a spectacular fashion!

Early in September,  I spotted a yellow wildflower growing on the steep bank above Paint Creek across the trail from the Wet Prairie.  It turned out to be  a wildflower I rarely see, Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia), a very tall (3-8 feet) plant that often finds a home on river banks or near wetlands. Their sunbursts of raggedy yellow flowers contain a rim of “ray florets” that look like petals but are each a separate fertile flower and a disc floret filled with individual tubular flowers that together create a pin-cushion effect at the center. (Petals, as opposed to “ray florets,” are actually non-fertile modified leaf-like structures.)

Wingstem is a tall wildflower that loves river banks like the one across from the Wet Prairie.

Two stalks of a modest wildflower that  I’d never seen before stood alone above the creek. Ben identified it as White Lettuce (Prenanthes alba). The drooping blossoms are cross-pollinated by those  masterful native pollinators, the bumblebees  (genus Bombus) seeking nectar with their long tongues. I watched as two of them foraged busily, the one on the left probing for nectar vertically within the blossom, just the lower tip of its body showing, and the one on the right with a yellow “pollen basket” on its back leg.

Bumblebees buzzing quietly as they seek out the nectar of White Lettuce.

Nearby a non-native Japanese Beetle (Popillia japonica) explored the abundance of the tiny disk florets that make up a Snakeroot flowerhead (Ageratina altissima). These wildflowers thrive in disturbed soil, especially at the edges or openings of woodlands.  They spread quickly both by rhizomes  (underground stems) and by achenes lofted to new locations by small tufts of  white hair called pappus. I look forward to them, because they are often the last wildflower to bloom in the fall.

Early settlers thought this Snakeroot was good for snake bites. On the contrary, its roots and leaves are toxic to both cattle and humans!

When I arrived later in September, the Grass-of-Parnassus was fading. But the Wet Prairie was dotted with Smooth Blue Asters (Symphyotrichum laeve) – small, erect sprays of lavender sprinkled generously across the landscape. According to the Illinois Wildflowers site, this seemingly delicate wildflower is a major food source for pollinators, including at least six species of native bees, honeybees and as you’ll soon see below, butterflies. Tree Sparrows, Wild Turkeys, Ruffed Grouse and White-footed mice enjoy the seeds and the caterpillars of several moths browse on their leaves. A small plant with a big benefit to wildlife!

Smooth Blue Asters dot the prairie in the fall providing abundant food sources for wildlife.

Within the exclusion fence at the back of the prairie, New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) tossed and nodded their purple flowers in the autumn breeze. New England Asters rely on non-native honeybees, native bumblebees and other long-tongued bees to pollinate them. The short-tongued bees and hover/syrphid flies visit to collect pollen, but are generally too smooth-bodied to be effective pollinators. This aster also hosts the caterpillars of many species of moths, which feed on the leaves. Those caterpillars can provide important nutrition for adult birds and their nestlings. For those reasons and their sheer beauty, I was happy to see these purple wildflowers with their golden centers dipping and rising in the late afternoon sunlight.

New England Aster provides its pollen and leaves to insects as well as leaves that their young can eat and grow to maturity.

As September progressed, I counted on finding two favorite wildflowers on the Wet Prairie and was not disappointed. Where water seeps to the surface on the south side of the prairie, Bottle Gentians (Gentiana andrewsii) produce their strange indigo blossoms that never open.  These large bud-like flowers wait instead for the big, bustling bumblebees to force their way inside looking for nectar and pollen. Once within, the bees produce a high-pitched buzz with their flight muscles, using their legs and mouth parts to direct the vibration toward the pollen-laden anthers inside. The pollen explodes into the air within the enclosed Bottle Gentian, clinging to the bumblebee’s fuzzy bodies. Have a look and listen to this short video  of a bumblebee” buzz pollinating” some  poppies. What a clever way for the bumblebee to collect pollen and for the Bottle Gentian to be pollinated!

Bottle Gentian flowers never open and bumblebees have to force their way inside!

Another deep blue Gentian is unfurling the artfully fringed and overlapping lobes of its blossom in the short grass of the prairie. The Fringed Gentian (Gentianopsis crinita), like the Grass-of-Parnassus, thrives in the chalky (calcareous), generally moist soil of the Wet Prairie. Several species of bumblebees frequent these gentians and once fertilized, it forms pods filled with tiny seeds that are carried away by either wind or water. Can you believe that blue?

Fringed Gentian’s four-lobed blossoms spout like small purple fountains from the grass of the Wet Prairie

Beautiful Autumn Blossoms Get Plenty of Visitors

In general terms, a host plant is one that provides food and shelter for other species – in the case of wildflowers, either nectar or pollen for adult insects, or leaves and stems for their caterpillar young. Native plants are particularly effective hosts. In the autumn, the special flowers of the Wet Prairie are providing a last minute meal for bees, beetles, wasps, butterflies and other insects by day and moths by night, including one rare one! So it’s not surprising that on my two short visits, I saw a variety of “guests” drop in for a visit.

The Butterfly Guests and the Young of a Very Unusual Moth

The Orange Sulphur flies low, skimming over the tops of flowers, as this one did on my first visit.

As I mentioned earlier, butterflies seem to find plenty of nectar on the Wet Prairie’s Smooth Blue Asters.  I saw a Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele) restlessly flitting about the field on both visits, but luckily, on the second visit, one settled down for a sip on a Smooth Blue Aster. These small flowers must pack a lot of sugary punch on a cool day! Here’s a close look at this fritillary’s strange spotted eyes and its long proboscis probing the flower for nectar.

A Great Spangled Fritillary sipping from a Smooth Blue Aster

On my second visit, an Orange Sulphur (Colias eurytheme) also rose and sank repeatedly as it flitted above the greenery.  At one point, it headed straight for a Smooth Blue Aster, its proboscis curled in flight.

An Orange Sulphur on its way to sample the Smooth Blue Aster on the Wet Prairie.

Once it landed, the proboscis extended and acted as a straw to extract the sugary nectar from the disc floret at the center of the aster. The field mark for the Orange Sulphur is that orange blush on the  upper (dorsal) surface of the wing, though the female’s is a bit paler. The male has a wide brown band at the wing edge whereas the female’s brown band is punctuated by white spots. Glad this one finally stopping scurrying around the prairie and settled in for a late afternoon drink.

An Orange Sulphur settles in for a meal on the Smooth Blue Aster

The male Eastern Tailed Blue butterfly (Cupido comyntas) looks like a small  chip of blue sky bobbing along in short flights over the grass in the Wet Prairie. (The female’s wings are brown on the upper side.) The Eastern Tailed Blue normally closes its wings when stopping to feed or rest, showing only the gray undersides of its wings, featuring two orange spots and a tiny “tail” on each hindwing. Fortunately, it occasionally stops with its wings slightly open to bask in warm sunlight, like the one below. That sunlight felt soothing to both of us on a cool fall afternoon.

The Eastern Tailed Blue butterfly has a tiny tail at the bottom of its hindwing.

Out in the wet areas where the Bottle Gentian blooms, my husband spotted a male Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) far back in the greenery. When I reached him, his immobility surprised me; I was able to get remarkably close. I noticed he was periodically pulsing his wings which looked fresh and flawless. My guess is that this fellow was  one of the “super generation” of Monarchs that had just emerged from his chrysalis. Once his wings were fully functional, he would fly off to feed before beginning his long journey to Mexico. Isn’t he a beauty? I wished him well.

A newly emerged male Monarch Butterfly pulsing his absolutely perfect, undamaged wings.

A nearby Joe Pye blossom hosted the ubiquitous Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus). Its long tongue allows it to feed on many different wildflowers. Notice the hooked antennae, a field mark for all skippers. I come upon these sturdy little Silver-spotted butterflies quite often on my walks. Maybe you do, too?

A Silver-spotted Skipper drops in for a drink on Joe Pye blooms.

I’m always attracted by the bright orange blossoms of Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), and noticed a strange quivering on the leaves of one at the edge of the trail. The cause turned out to be the avid chewing of the chubby orange and black caterpillar of  the Unexpected Tiger Moth (Cycnia inopinatus). An intriguing name, eh? It certainly was unexpected for me! The Michigan Lepidoptera Facebook group identified it for me, and I confirmed their information with the huge caterpillar compendium, Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner.

The caterpillar of a moth that is ranked as “uncommon” to “rare,” the Unexpected Tiger Moth, munched on it host plant, Butterfly Milkweed, in the Wet Prairie.

After a couple hours of research, I finally found a comprehensive article on the website of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, Eastern Region. This moth is  described as “uncommon to rare and local throughout its range” due largely to habitat loss.   Our caterpillar hatched in the right area, since the adult moth seeks out high quality barrens or grasslands full of butterfly or whorled milkweed.

Adult Unexpected Tiger Moths (see the iNaturalist photo below) hatch, mate and lay eggs in 2-3 weeks, never bothering to eat during their brief lifetimes. The ones that emerge in the spring produce the August brood, which probably explains the presence of the caterpillar I saw. It will eat and then transform into a pupa whose loose cocoon will fall into the leaf litter to overwinter until spring.  So we’ll just have to hope that the orange and black caterpillar above ate enough to mature and survive the winter, so that next spring a rare moth emerges and finds a mate along the trail.  [Photo below by Chrissy McClarren and Andy Reago at iNaturalist.org]

The rare  Unexpected Tiger Moth will only travel short distances in its 2-3 week lifespan.  Photo by Chrissy McClarren and Andy Reago (CC BY-NC)

Other Insect Visitors, including a Cannibal!

An Eastern Yellow Jacket Wasp (Vespula maculifrons) seeks out nectar but doesn’t provide much pollination because its smooth body doesn’t  transport pollen to other blossoms.

I came across a trio of insects that had landed on a Stiff Goldenrod (Solidago rigida), a wonderful plant with its upright posture and filigree of fuzzy, soft green leaves hugging the stem. On the left, a jazzily striped Locust Borer Beetle (Megacyllene robiniae) fed on the goldenrod’s pollen. If it’s a mated female, she will later scurry along the bark of non-native Black Locust trees (Robinia pseudoacacia) looking for a wound in which to lay her eggs. On the right side of the plant, two Soldier Beetles (family Cantharidae) found one cluster of  yellow blossoms to be the perfect spot for quiet mating. Nice to know that one of my favorite goldenrods is such a generous host!

A Stiff Goldenrod hosts both mating soldier beetles and a foraging Locust Borer beetle

Out in the shorter grasses of the prairie, however, lurked a predator with cannibal instincts. Fortunately, it was only about 2.5 to 3.5 inches long! We spotted a non-native European Praying Mantis (Mantis religiosa) who was busily eating what appeared to another of its kind. (There are no native praying mantises in Michigan.) If you look carefully in the photo below,  you can see a long, angled brown and green leg very much like its own bending up from the green abdomen that the mantis holds between its spiked, raptor-like legs. I know, the photo’s a bit grim, but there’s no malice here. It’s just dinnertime on the prairie for a hungry insect trying to survive in its habitat. I think it’s important to keep reminding myself of that – and you too maybe?

Praying Mantis are non-native in Michigan and catch only live, preferably moving, prey, including their own kind.

I can’t confidently determine the gender of this mantis,  but females are usually larger than males with bigger eyes, so my guess is that this is a male. Now, you may know that female praying mantises are notorious for consuming their partners after mating. Actually, about 70% of the males are crafty enough to avoid becoming a quick, nourishing meal for their mates. But it turns out that mantises prey on each other even in the nymph stages, scuttling away from each other after hatching in order to survive! No doubt that’s one reason that I’ve always seen only one Praying Mantis at a time!

Filling the “Swamp” or Valuing Water and Wetlands

Beyond a sea of goldenrod, a wetland fringed with Joe Pye and cat-tails can be seen behind the woods along the trail to the Wet Prairie.

One afternoon, standing knee deep in grass and flowers, I remembered that I grew up in a time when wetlands were scorned as nasty “swamps”,  damp places “infested” with bugs, places that should be dried out in order to become “more productive.” Hence the common metaphor these days, “drain the swamp.”

Unproductive?  Ugly? There I was standing in the Wet Prairie among a colorful panoply of native wildflowers and grasses, all beautiful, some very special, even rare – and each of them serving their unusual habitat in so many complex ways. All day and all night  from spring to fall, butterflies, beetles, bees, moths and other insects find their way to the wildflowers and grasses of the Wet Prairie to find sustenance and shelter for themselves and their young. Animals seek the wetland nearby and spring pools on the prairie for drinking and bathing. And below the surface, the roots of wetland plants are cleaning the water which permeates the water table to later quench the thirst of humans who don’t always appreciate the services wetlands provide.

“Swamp” is actually a botanical term that technically means a wetland dominated by trees and shrubs.  But for some these days, it’s still a pejorative for those “nasty” wetlands of my youth. I protest! And I celebrate the restoration work that will keep the Wet Prairie blooming, beautiful, and yes, “productive” for its insect guests and for future hikers of the Paint Creek Trail.

Charles Ilsley Park: Being Restored to Past Glories and Humming with Life

Panicled Asters line the entrance to the park
Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

We tend to think of autumn as colored leaves and crisp air. But the prairies and meadows of the township parks celebrate fall with flowers. Many asters love cooler weather and right now the restored prairies of Charles Ilsley Park are dressed in white wildflowers, dotted with splashes of gold.  Butterflies and bees still flutter and hum among the blossoms and grasshoppers still spring like popcorn out of the grass as you walk. Birds, including occasional summer visitors headed south, eat the plants’ berries and seeds or snag a few insects from bare soil or tree limbs. The frantic growth of summer is indeed ebbing, but the park still bustles with life as it awaits the first frost.

Note:  Click here for a map of the park to help in visualizing the various trails and prairies described.

Entering Along the “Great White Way”

Panicled Asters line the trail on both sides as you enter the park

Walking along the mowed trail into Charles Ilsley Park before the latest heat wave, a nodding crowd of graceful Panicled Asters (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum)  stood on either side, like a crowd at a procession. Occasionally, a spray of New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) added a little royal purple to the view.

A spray of New England Asters along the entrance trail.

Just before sunset one afternoon, several migrating Palm Warblers (Setophaga palmarum) flitted among the branches of a tree along this trail. This little bird was probably on its way from Canada to Florida or the Caribbean. Let’s hope it finds its favorite foods and perches after the terrible storms there this fall!

A migrating Palm Warbler paused in the park on its way to Florida and the Caribbean for the winter.

Among some bare branches, a couple of Mourning Doves gave me a closer look.

A pair of mourning doves giving me the eye

And below, a female Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) drilled a dead branch  for insects, looking for a snack before retiring for the night.

A female Downy Woodpecker inspecting a dead branch for insects as the sun goes down

A quick movement out of the grass onto a nearby tree turned out to be a Katydid (family Tettigoniidae) moving slowly along the trunk with its ungainly legs. Katydids are generally nocturnal and sing at night. I’m guessing this one’s a female because of what appears to be a sickle-shaped ovipositor for laying eggs. Aren’t her antennae amazing? Grasshoppers have short antennae, but katydid antennae are extravagantly long.

A female katydid came out of the field at sunset and began exploring a tree trunk.

The Central Meadow Will Soon Become a Prairie

The central meadow at Charles Ilsley Park is undergoing prairie restoration.

Don’t be dismayed by the browned surface in the central area of the park.  Like the other three sections already restored (east, north and west), the invasive shrubs and non-native plants have now been removed from this area. This fall, matted grass and leftover branches will be removed and the central area will be planted with native wildflower seed. Just as in the other three prairies, it will take 3-5 years for the native plants to fully bloom because as drought-adapted wildflowers, they need time to put down long roots before putting energy into flowering. But even now, life goes on in this brown landscape.

Blue is the first spark of color you’ll see in the restoration area – because the Eastern Bluebirds are everywhere! Many of them are using their former nesting boxes for perches as they fly down and forage in the soil and whatever grass remains.

A male bluebird perhaps contemplating being an “empty nester!”
This bluebird pair may migrate south or may choose to remain here over the winter.
A female Bluebird perusing the brown field before foraging.

Blackened stems, dead grass and bare soil make a perfect landscape for Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) who prefer to nest and forage on open ground. They are known to nest on rooftops, golf courses, even parking lots! They scuttle up and down the restoration field at Ilsley, making periodic quick stops to see if they’ve scared up anything to eat. In autumn, Killdeer gather in small groups (I saw five ) as they migrate as far as Central and South America for the winter, though many choose southern Florida as well.

A killdeer scuttles across the dry landscape trying to scare some insects out of the bracken.
This Killdeer trio may migrate to Florida or Central and South America.

When Killdeer fly, they make a keening call and the feathers on their rumps, just above their tails, flash orange in the sunlight. Look for two flying Killdeer in this quick shot.

Can you see two killdeer flying with their orange rumps ablaze?

Another ground forager is still here but will also join small groups for migration. Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus ) love ants, so they too are quite happy to forage in the newly re-sprouting grass or on the bare soil in this area of the park. You’ll often see 3 or 4 together on the ground.

In this season, Northern Flickers can often be seen looking for ants in the restoration area of the park.

Carolina Locust (Dissosteira carolina) flew up from bare earth as I approached the far end of the restoration area. I’ve never been able to catch a photo of one flying; they’re just too quick for me! So on the left is my photo of the locust on the ground, but on the right is a photo by Joshua G Smith at inaturalist.org who shows us its wing by gently holding the insect. You can see why these grasshoppers are often mistaken for butterflies when taking their short flights! (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

At the far end of the restoration area are a few bushes that form a line across the bottom of the north prairie. On all four trips to the park, an Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) rested in the low branches of a tree there – a perfect perch for a flycatcher who actually prefers ground foraging  to catching flies!

The Eastern Phoebe actually prefers ground insects to catching flies, even though it’s officially a flycatcher.

With all those birds around, this immature Northern Brown Snake (Storeria dekayi) had better be careful! These harmless, little snakes (they don’t bite!) are born with a white “collar” around their necks and are either brown or gray.  As they mature, the collar disappears and the head is darker.  So I’m guessing this one is a juvenile on its way to getting rid of that collar!

A young Northern Brown Snake who’s losing the white collar it had at birth.

Lots of Life on Three Prairies – East, North and West!

We’re gifted currently with three prairie plantings at Ilsley in various stages of restoration. The eastern and northern prairies are now in their second summer, the western prairie is in its first. All of them host a wide variety of wildflowers, butterflies, bees and birds.

Prairie Plants

Calico Asters (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum) have turned the eastern prairie white this fall.  The northern prairie, full of invasive thistles last year, is now covered with Brown-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia triloba), a species of Rudbeckia that I just learned about this year! The western prairie is cloaked in white Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota) at the south end, and golden with Black-Eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) at the north end. Natives like Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and some Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) have returned to sway in the breeze above the eastern and northern prairies, which now have mowed trails. The western prairie trail grew over during the summer, but the soft plants make it easy walking. We’re on our way to 50 acres of prairie in this park! (Click on pause button for captions.)

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Insects on the Prairies

Both Bumblebees (genus Bombus) and European Honey Bees (Apis mellifera) buzz quickly over the native blossoms, making the most of late fall nectar. One late afternoon, native bumblebees were driving honey bees off of some flowers with a quick dart toward them, while on other blossoms, honey bees were hassling butterflies.

A native Bumblebee and a European Honey Bee compete for the nectar in a non-native thistle.

Eventually, however, peace was restored and each found their own blossom on the Calico Asters.

At mid-summer,  the prairies were full of large butterflies – Monarchs and three kinds of Swallowtails. This month, though most of the larger ones are missing; only a few tardy Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) sip at blossoms. The unseasonably warm weather may have prompted  them to tarry a bit longer than other Monarchs who began moving in September. We hope they make it to Mexico before the cold sets in!

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A variety of smaller butterflies, some as small as your thumbnail, move restlessly among the blossoms on all three prairies. The Painted Lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui) is only 1.5-2.0 inches. It migrates some years and not others, but often winters in Mexico like the Monarchs. Its caterpillars eat thistle foliage and the adult butterflies love thistle nectar. This one was sipping daintily along with two other Painted Ladies on non-native Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare) on the northern prairie.

A Painted Lady sipping thistle nectar through its long proboscis (Northern Prairie)
Three Painted Ladies enjoying thistle nectar, just as their caterpillars enjoyed eating thistle leaves.

The other small butterflies seemed endlessly restless, doing much more flying right now than eating.  I managed to photograph three – but the tiny Grizzled Skipper (Pyrgus centaureae) eluded me, so I’ve borrowed a photo from inaturalist.org with the permission of the photographer, Marian Zöller.

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Birds Enjoying the Prairies

Birds of all sizes frequent these prairies during the year. Many of them, like the Tree Swallows,  have already begun their fall migration. But one evening at the far end of the eastern prairie, a solitary Sandhill Crane (Antigone canadensis) foraged, probably for just-hatched Red-legged Grasshopper nymphs (Melanoplus femurrubrum) that sprang in hundreds from the grass. Suddenly, it lifted into the air. I wonder if it, too, is beginning its migration to Florida or the Caribbean? I’m afraid I was too taken with its size, beauty and the snap of its huge wings to set my exposure accurately, but it was a lovely sight just before dark.

In an old apple tree on the edge of the western prairie, a flock of pale House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) pecked happily at the aging fruit. Usually House Finch males are much darker red, but the intensity of the color is determined by what they eat while molting. I have a feeling these were eating apples (or the bugs within them) instead of bright red berries!

A male House Finch eating bits of apple – or perhaps the bugs inside?

And a first for me in Oakland Township!  Last Sunday, a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) spiraled high into the air over the western prairie, riding upward on a rising current of warm air. What a very special moment to see this powerful bird peacefully enjoying the heat of the prairie on a quiet Sunday afternoon.

A Bald Eagle riding a current of warm air above the Western Prairie

 The View from the Oldest Trees

Two huge oaks trees seem to anchor the past firmly in the present at Charles Ilsley Park. One stands at the south end of the center area that’s being restored and the other stands at the east end of the eastern prairie. The size of these old oaks with their huge trunks and spreading crowns means they’ve been here for hundreds of years, standing watch over the land. Pausing under the eastern prairie tree one afternoon, I took a photo of that tree’s “view” of the restored prairie.

View from under the huge oak at the east end of the Eastern Prairie

It pleased me to imagine that maybe that tree is “looking out on” on a prairie that’s beginning to look a bit like the one it “saw” when it was young so many years ago. And as we watched the bald eagle float above the western prairie, I wondered if it was seeing what its eagle ancestors saw from high in the sky long ago. Humans are such forward-looking creatures, always planning and moving toward the future. It’s a marvel that here in our township, and in other townships around the country, we’ve chosen to set aside areas like Ilsley where the history of our land and its native creatures can be preserved. The trees, wildflowers, birds and butterflies – all of it connects us firmly to our past –  and if we continue to be good stewards, will sustain and delight us for years to come as we move into the future.

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: butterfliesathome.com;Pollinators of Native Plants by Heather Holm; Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3; 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.

Cranberry Lake: Summer Ushers in Birds, Butterflies and Blossoms

Wild Geraniums along the Hickory Lane

 

Blog and Photos by Cam Mannino

Summer finally made its appearance all over the woods, meadows, wetlands, and forest edges of Cranberry Lake Park.  After a prescribed burn this spring, geraniums and trillium emerged under the huge Shagbark Hickories that line the park’s western edge. Summer birds, including the tiny warblers and other new arrivals, are singing lustily to establish their territories and attract interested females as they begin to build nests. Butterflies are just starting to dance above the greenery in the dry meadows. And the hibernators – like snappers, raccoons and  leopard frogs – get back in action after their winter snooze. The transformation from spring to summer has well and truly begun.

Birds and Blooms in the Large Sunny Meadows

Small Yellow Warblers (Setophaga petechia) welcome visitors from the high treetops just north of the parking lot. The male with his chestnut-striped breast sings his “sweet-sweet, I’m a little sweet” song as he darts here and there, frequently out of sight in the greenery. Luckily a female with much fainter stripes ignored me while probing for insects in some smaller trees.

A female Yellow Warbler probed the branches of a small tree near the western entrance to the park.

At the edge of the big northern meadow one afternoon, I heard the two buzz call that Ben identified on an earlier birdwalk. As I scanned the bushes with my binoculars, a lovely Blue-Winged Warbler (Vermivora cyanoptera) filled my view. By the time I raised the camera, it was gone. Joan Bonin, a gifted local photographer and birder, kindly offered her stunning photo taken a week later at Port Huron State Recreation Area.  Thank you, Joan!

This gorgeous photo of a Blue-Winged Warbler was taken by local birder and photographer extraordinaire, Joan Bonin.

Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus) made a brief appearance in a small meadow opening at the edge of a forested wetland. Evidently these little birds sing incessantly, especially on warm summer afternoons. In fact, Cornell reports that one determined male “sang 22,197 songs in the 14 hours from just before dawn to evening, singing for 10 of those hours.” I missed both his song and a photo, but another gifted local photographer and birder, Bob Bonin (Joan’s husband), kindly shared his lovely photo taken at the Tawas migration site last year. Thanks to Bob, also!

Local photographer Bob Bonin’s fine shot of a Red-eyed Vireo taken at the Tawas  migration site last May.

Steve, a fine birder that I met at Bear Creek Park, commented on the last blog that he’d seen an Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) at Cranberry Lake in the last two weeks.   Cornell ornithologists report that all blue birds actually have no blue pigment in their feathers. “Their jewel-like color comes instead from microscopic structures in the feathers that refract and reflect blue light, much like the airborne particles that cause the sky to look blue.” Since Steve saw the bird and I didn’t, here’s that  bright little piece of sky in another beautiful shot by Bob Bonin.

Indigo Buntings sing as many as 200 of their two or three phrase songs per hour at dawn according to Cornell Lab.

Butterflies dance across nearly every sunny or dappled area of Cranberry Lake. In a shady corner near the northern meadow, an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) paused for just a moment before sailing high into the treetops and away. The band of blue spots at the bottom of the hindwing (plus the orange center spots) marks this one as a female.

A female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly paused in the shade before fluttering off into the treetops.
Black Raspberry blooms

A smaller, but equally striking butterfly, the American Copper, sampled the blossoms of Common Blackberry bushes (Rubus allagheniensis) that have multiplied mightily since the recent burn.

According to Wikipedia, the male Coppers set up “small territories which they will defend vigorously against rival males or indeed any unlucky passing insect. Even the shadow of a large bird passing overhead is enough to elicit a response.”

It’s clear where this medium-sized [edit:  My memory failed me.  It’s actually very small!] butterfly  got its name, eh?

An American Copper butterfly rests on a grass stem between the multiplying Blackberry bushes.

This female Eastern Tailed-Blue butterfly (Cupido comyntas) doesn’t wear the beautiful blue that her mate flashes when he flies. But you can still see a bit of blue in her modest gray. These medium-sized butterflies almost disappear when they land and fold their wings, which are light gray underneath.

A female Eastern Tailed-blue butterfly is a more muted gray-blue than her brighter blue mate.

Along the Hickory Lane, More Bird Song and Early Summer Blossoms

On an early bird walk, a Brown Thrasher (Toxostoma rufum) belted out its complex mimicry song from the top of a tree on the Hickory Lane. If you enjoy the Gray Catbird’s mix of other birds’ calls and the odd noise,  you’ll love (as I do) the crazy mix of continuous loud song from the thrasher. That morning he was too high up for a good photo. Fortunately  a few days later, a tired thrasher, preparing for sleep on a cool spring evening at Gallagher Park, struck a pose for me.

This Brown Thrasher was preparing to sleep on a cool evening – one leg tucked up under his feathers which were fluffed for warmth

Along the lane,  a tiny mimic (listen to the second recording at this link), the Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea), busily fluttered and hopped about a tree trunk foraging for insects. How I’d love to see their nest!  Cornell Lab says they “use spiderweb and lichens to build small, neat nests, which sit on top of branches and look like tree knots.”

The Blue-gray Gnatcatcher cocks his tail with its white outer feathers this way and that as he searches for insects – but not many gnats, despite its name!

On a later visit, a male House Wren (Troglodytes aedon), bubbled with spring song. Despite their diminutive size, wrens can be fierce in asserting ownership over a preferred nesting hole, even dragging out eggs of other birds or pecking larger adult birds. Wrens need to maintain a narrow range of temperature for their eggs to hatch which might explain their fierceness over nesting sites. Perhaps this male’s insistent song was just a first salvo in the competition.

The effervescent singing of a House Wren on the Hickory Lane.

In the area between the Hickory Lane and the large marsh to the east, a strange upward sliding call made my husband and I stop and listen one afternoon. We never saw the singing male, but we did spot the female Swainson’s Thrush (Catharus ustulatus), that I originally thought was a robin from its stance.  Sorry for the slight blur of a quick photo.

A female Swainson’s thrush stopped with us to listen to the hidden male singing his ascending whistle of a song.

Below these avian songsters, early summer blossoms came burgeoning forth after a recent prescribed burn. The lane was filled on both sides with the Wild Geraniums (Geranium maculatum) you see at the top of this blog. A small white plume poked through leaves of what Ben tells me is either red or white Baneberry (g. Actaea). The actual baneberries that form later are highly toxic, so please don’t eat them! (They’re very bitter so you wouldn’t like them, but children might be tempted because they’re very colorful and shiny.)

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Two varieties of the same flower also bloomed on the lane.  Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biforum) produces its blossoms beneath the stem and its leaves are smooth below, unlike a nearly identical plant, Downy Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum pubescens) that has fuzz on the underside of the leaves.

Solomon’s Seal hangs its blossoms below the stem, as does Downy Solomon’s Seal but the undersides of leaves on Solomon’s Seal are not covered in downy fuzz.

False Solomon’s Seal (Maianthemum racemosum), on the other hand, produces its flowers on a stem that stands above the leaves. Odd name. Perhaps the name was given by someone fooled into thinking at first that it was Solomon’s Seal? Who knows….

False Solomon’s Seal carries its blossoms on a stem above the leaves.

Early Summer in the Shadowy Wetlands near Cranberry Lake

Cranberry Lake has a wonderful collection of vernal pools and woodland ponds as well as the lake itself. I’ve come to love these areas because they are always rich with wildlife, especially birds!

I heard the easily-identified “witchedy, witchedy” call of one of my favorite small migrators, the black-masked Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas). He was in a favorite location, in low bushes near a wetland. I never got to see the ones that I heard repeatedly at Cranberry Lake, but I saw this one the following week at Charles Ilsley Park.

The Common Yellowthroat sings his “witchedy-witchedy” song from low bushes, usually located near a wetland.

In a forested pool, a Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) had draped its head over the edge of a log, evidently eating plants below. At first, I thought it had been beheaded somehow! But on hearing me crunching in the twigs, it lifted its pointed snout into the air, quickly slid backwards into the water and disappeared. So all I got was this odd, headless shot.

A snapper in a forest pond with its head submerged eating plant material, no doubt.

A few minutes later, a male Common Grackle’s (Quiscalus quiscula) iridescent head shone in a ray of sunlight on the same log. Clearly frustrated at finding nothing to eat beneath it, he tossed that irritating, useless chunk of bark into the water.

A male Common Grackle tossed his chunk of bark into the water after checking and finding no edible insects underneath. At least that’s how it appeared.

One of summer’s pleasures is being escorted along a trail by dragonflies and damselflies – and then I managed to shoot one swooping over the water when I reached at Cranberry Lake.  Perhaps a mating flight?

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In April, lovely little blossoms with pink scallops and ruffled edges emerged on the native Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) near Cranberry Lake. A few weeks later, the fruit was beginning to form. I hope birds, animals and we humans leave some berries uneaten so it keeps spreading!

When I reached Cranberry Lake, I found two Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) standing on a sandbar near the shore. One of them “gave me the eye” between the old stems of purple loosestrife.

A Sandhill Crane at Cranberry Lake turns a wary eye my way

On the way back up the trail from the lake one morning, Ben spotted a weary raccoon who appeared to have made a hasty bed in the fork of a tree after a night of foraging. It opened one eye as we birders peered from below.

A weary raccoon opens one eye to look back at us from what appears to be a hastily constructed napping place.

On the edge of the path heading toward one of the large meadows, I heard the snoring rattle of the Leopard Frog’s song coming from a nearby wetland. And then, oops! – one appeared right in the path between two wet areas. Nice to have frog song along with bird song on a summer walk!

The Leopard Frog’s appearance nicely matches its name. Its song is a low, snoring sort of rattle – very distinctive.

Nature by Ear as Well as by Eye

The forest pond where the Grackle and the Snapping Turtle spent a quiet afternoon.

To truly savor the pleasures of nature in early summer requires tuning my ears as well as opening my eyes. Though I’m just learning bird songs and frog songs, every time I identify a voice in nature’s chorus, I feel more connected, more embedded in the natural world. Listening, as well as careful, patient watching, begins to turn a green landscape into an intricately woven tapestry of life in which we humans are just one colorful thread.

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3; 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; other sites as cited in the text.