Maybe you’ve noticed individual feathers showing up in a nearby pond or on your lawn. Or you’ve noticed that birds and birdsong both seem a bit scarce right now. Or the birds you do see look just a bit scruffy. Well, don’t worry too much. It’s likely that nothing’s gone wrong for your avian neighbors. It’s just that lots of birds molt in late summer.
That slightly disheveled bird you saw is probably an adult replacing frayed and worn feathers before the rigors of winter or before its fall migration. Once breeding is over, and while there’s still plenty of food to nourish them, birds systematically shed some of their feathers, replacing them before shedding others. Feathers account for 4-12% of body weight so it takes a lot of food energy to replace them! The foraging male Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) below with its feathers a bit askew is probably close to completing his molt. He will need to build up his reserves before beginning his journey to southern Ohio or points farther south.
So how does molting work? It turns out that feathers are made of keratin like our hair or fingernails, so feathers can’t repair themselves. The rigors of the breeding season can take quite a toll on feathers. Think of it – all that to-ing and fro-ing from the nest or tree cavity, the scrabbling that occurs around an adult bird’s head as the young compete to be fed, plunging into the grass to snatch bugs, and riding down stalks to gather seeds on a windy day. The feathers of an adult bird take quite a beating! (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
A Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) gathering seed on a windy day.
A Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) reaches far into her nest to feed her young.
When I saw this male Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) a week or so ago, I wondered if he was just beginning his complete molt into the dappled blue and brown plumage that he wears during the winter.
The molting process begins with the bird shedding a few feathers. In their place, “pin feathers” emerge quickly. These pin feathers are supplied with blood for growth and look like the rigid shaft of adult feathers. As they lengthen, the blood stays in the lower ends and the tips slowly encase the feathers in a waxy coating. So when you see birds preening during a molt, they are very likely pulling off that coating, allowing the adult feathers to unfurl.
The Great Egret (Ardea alba) below seems to have shed a few feathers, since some were stuck to the branches behind it and some lay below on the trunk of the snag. Perhaps it’s unfurling new feathers, or it could just be going after some persistent feather mites.
I’ve read that pin feathers are more sensitive than adult feathers. I wonder if that’s why we often see birds preening so vigorously before migration. Maybe preening feels something like scratching your head when it itches! According to Cornell’s comprehensive “Birds of North America” subscription website, Egrets molt “some to most” of their body feathers when they’re in “northern non-breeding grounds.” Since egrets nest in only a few areas in Michigan, most of Michigan is a non-breeding area suitable for molting. Maybe that’s why this Egret was preening almost continually, including stretching up its leg to scratch its cheek!
Molting happens on different schedules for different bird species. Some have one molt per year, some molt into breeding colors in the spring and molt again in the fall, and some do partial molts, head and back feathers first and tail and wing feathers later. With experience the age and sex of many birds can be identified using their plumage.
In early summer after breeding, Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) have an extra molt, a partial one. The males molt into “eclipse plumage, ” a drab plumage that makes the males look more like the brown females, though males still retain the red eye, red upper beak and double white stripe which females don’t have. Evidently male ducks do this to get the protection of being much less conspicuous during summer months. Here’s a photo of a male Wood Duck in eclipse plumage by iNaturalist photographer Heather Pickard.
Like many ducks, Wood Ducks choose mates in the fall, overwinter with them and then mate in the spring. Of course the males want to look their most dazzling before courting! So they change into their breeding colors from mid-summer to early autumn, instead of in the spring like many birds. It’s a complete molt, meaning every feather is replaced, which renders them flightless for about three weeks. The female’s appearance stays the same with her new feathers. But the male recreates his elegant breeding plumage, including the iridescent green crest sloping down the back of his neck. Below are two males in a wetland near Lost Lake Nature Park two weeks ago who look like they’re about halfway between eclipse plumage and their glamorous breeding colors.
Birds don’t fight change. They simply do what’s required as the light informs them that the days are getting shorter. They molt. So when I go look for my jacket or warmer socks on a cool autumn day, I’m just part of the same process, I guess. And since my adjustment seems much less arduous than that of our feathered friends, I’ll try not to grouse about it!
If you’d like a short, quiet walk all alone (I do occasionally), consider wandering for an hour or so in Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park. This 60 acre park is a bit farther off the beaten path than our other township parks; I seldom see another hiker when I’m there. For now, it’s only accessible from a single parking space at the end of Knob Creek Trail which is off of East Buell Road. It’s an in-and-out trail (no loop) that begins in sloping, glacial meadows. Follow the trail into an oak forest overlooking a deep ravine in which Stony Creek burbles and flows around fallen trees and rocks far below. The Parks Commission has been awarded a matching grant from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund to join this little park to 208 spectacular acres along Snell Road. But for now, it’s a quiet little getaway.
Sunny Meadows: Illusive Birds and a Big, Beautiful Butterfly!
The meadows along the first part of the trail are alive with morning birdsong – but seeing the birds is a bit tricky, especially in July. Many adults are hidden high in leafy branches and the recently fledged young huddle deep in the lower greenery, staying out of sight as they wait to be fed. My first sighting was a small flock of tiny brown birds moving quickly back and forth between a leafy bush and a small, dense tree. Suddenly I became aware that my camera and I were being scolded by an annoyed adult House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) perched behind me. (For a perfect replication of its chatter, listen to the second “Calls Northern” recording at this Cornell Lab link.)
No doubt its chatter also served as a warning to the fledglings to hide. But eventually a curious fledgling popped into the open and had a look around. It looked like a plush toy with tiny wings! (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
A fledgling wren peruses its world.
The wren fledgling considers how far it is to the ground.
It’s a big world to a small wren.
Far out in the meadow in a tall, bare tree against a gray sky, the Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) threw back his head and sang. He abbreviated his spring song from “Drink your Teeeeeea” to simply “Your Teeeeea.” Just a reminder to other towhees, I imagine, that he was on his territory.
Wherever Bee-balm (Monarda fistulosa) and Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) grace a meadow, it seems the butterflies gather to sip their nectar.
In the same meadow in which it appeared last year, the Giant Swallowtail butterfly(Papiliocresphontes) floated above the flowers. The largest butterfly species in Canada or the United States (4-6 inch wingspread!), the Giant Swallowtail can beat its wings once and sail on gracefully for a long distance. However, it flutters constantly as it feeds, rather than landing to sip at blossoms. These swallowtails migrate like Monarch butterflies do – going south each winter. The females are larger than the males, so the one below must be a female. Perhaps her wings against the Queen Anne’s Lace give you a sense of how large – and how striking – she is!
Male and female Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus) are choosing both mates and tasty flowers as they dip and rise among the Bee-balm at Stony Creek. The male has a slight bulge in one vein of each hindwing. The female doesn’t.
A female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) soared high overhead, landing in a Wild Black Cherry tree (Prunusserotina), a host plant on which her caterpillars can feed. She may have landed to lay her eggs on a leaf or she could be displaying her beauty and availability against the green leaves for any interested mate. Tiger Swallowtails in our area mate once or twice each summer and their pupae overwinter in their chrysalises until next spring.
Far below, deep in the grass, a Cabbage Butterfly (Pieris rapae) landed on a grass stem. For the first time, I noticed the delicate architecture of the underside of its wings – and its long elegant antennae. Males have only a single spot on the fore and hind wing, so I think this is a male.
A curious predator, a female Common Whitetail Dragonfly (Plathemis lydia), watched me from a grass stem with great interest. Humans, after all, are so good at stirring up prey – easy pickings! Love that face!
The Moist Woods: A Fungus Fatale, a Pretty but Perilous Plant and A Mysterious Song in the Trees
Entering the cooler shade of the oak forest at Stony Creek Ravine, you begin to feel the moisture rising from the creek as it tumbles along far below. On my first park visit, it had rained the previous day so the ground seemed to exhale moisture as well. A perfect environment for mushrooms – and some very interesting ones! [Caution: Please Never Eat a Wild Mushroom Unless a Trained Person Identifies It Definitively for You. I Am Not a Trained Person.}
I first came across some fungi fatale – Amanita mushrooms (family Amanitaceae). Though squirrels nibble on them, they are highly toxic to humans. They are sometimes (not always!) recognizable by little warts on their surface and a collar that forms on the stem. Here are two just beginning to emerge from the soil on the path and a lovely mature white one, slipping out of a crack in the earth.
Small red mushrooms appeared along the woodland trail as well. Joshua Aaron on the “Mushroom Identification” Facebook page identified these as members of a large worldwide genus of red mushrooms called Russula. Some are toxic, some not, so again caution is required. Clearly some creatures gave these a nibble and decided to leave the rest.
Both Amanita and Russula mushrooms are fruiting bodies of those fabulous mycorrhizal fungi which help the trees reach and process nutrients from the soil while the tree feeds them its sugars created by photosynthesis. Helping a healthy forest along is another good reason to let them stay where they are and reproduce!
It turns out that a nearby plant, Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora), which appears to be a mushroom, isn’t one. It’s more unusual – a parasitic plant. Indian Pipes have no chlorophyll to use in photosynthesis like green plants do. Instead they tap into fungi, like Russula mushrooms, beneath the soil, feeding on the same sugars that the trees share with the fungi. It’s not too different from the way we tap maples for their sweet sap, is it?
Nearby grew what folks at the Facebook page identified as Chanterelle mushrooms (genus Chantarellus), which, assuming that’s correct, would make them edible. I left them to disperse their spores undisturbed in the interests of both safety and respecting the natural state of our parks. One had fallen over so I got a good look at its fake gills, which are one of the signs of Chanterelles.
A couple of Bolete mushrooms had emerged among the oak leaves along the trail. These mushrooms (family Boletaceae) have pores below their caps instead of gills. They also belong to a big mushroom group that includes both inedible and edible ones. Porcini mushrooms, for example, are boletes.
Walking along the ridge above the creek, I could hear a lone bird singing in the canopy of the oak forest – but it made no appearance. I recorded its incessantly repeated song which reminded Ben and I of the rising and falling song of the Red-eyed Vireo (Vireoolivaceus) – but we’re not sure. Anyone able to give us a more confident identification? (Turn up your volume; it sings about three times.) [Second Edit: Ruth Glass, local birder extraordinaire, now says definitively that this is the song of a Scarlet Tanager.So I’ve again replaced the photo to show you a Scarlet Tanager. Thank you once again Ruth Glass!]
Although its song accompanied me for over an hour, the bird never emerged from the leafy treetops. So here’s what I missed – a photo of a Scarlet Tanager that I took at Bear Creek.
A plaintive song haunted the shady forest one morning – the questioning call of the Eastern Wood-Pewee. I could see this small bird in the high branches of a distant tree, but as soon as I moved closer, it moved farther off. So here’s a photo I took of one at Bear Creek Nature Park a couple years ago.
What seemed to be a juvenile Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) hung from a vertically suspended branch in the forest. Its forehead patch (between the eyes) was gray rather than black (hard to see in the photo) and its buff sides were less pronounced – field marks of a fledgling according to Stokes’ Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.2). With its crest a bit ruffled, it looked as though it was not quite sure what to do next.
On one warm morning, I noticed two Mourning Cloak Butterflies (Nymphalis antiopa) dancing through the green dimness of the woods. Last fall, Morning Cloaks went into hibernation within hollow logs or under loose bark. There they freeze nearly solid during the winter, their cells protected by self-produced anti-freeze. Very early in the spring, often before the snow melts, they emerge, looking pretty ragged. They mate and reproduce so that by mid-summer, their young emerge. I’m guessing that’s why the ones I saw at Stony Creek Ravine appeared to have just wriggled out of their chrysalises. They were near perfect specimens. One landed, wings open, on a fallen log.
The other folded its wings, showing the underside which closely resembles the tree bark under which they hide in the winter, camouflaging them with protective coloration. Quite a difference from the dorsal (upper) side of those wings, eh?
Native grasses and plants thrive in the light, drier shade along the edge of the forest. I’m particularly fond of the arrow-like spikelets of Bottlebrush Grass (Elymus hystrix). Carrying their seeds inside, the spikelets eventually shoot along on the wind and then pierce the ground, giving the seeds a chance to spread and then be neatly planted.
Native Heal-all (Prunella vulgaris) is everywhere in shady areas. Some still believe it has medicinal value. I like it for two reasons – the way its purple flowers protrude from its barrel-shaped calyx and the fact that when a raindrop hits the plant, the calyx flexes and flings out the seed. I hope to see that someday!
Where the forest ends and the wetlands begin at the bottom of the ravine, a flower fatale flourishes – Water Hemlock (g. Circuta). Every part of this plant is toxic to humans and other mammals (but as I’ve said before, who would eat it?) – so avoid the fate of Socrates and just admire its big, umbrella-shaped blossoms nodding in the breeze. Many insects, however, feed on Water Hemlock, and it hosts the caterpillars of Black Swallowtail butterflies!
An iridescent cloud of male and female Ebony Jewelwing Damselflies (Calopteryx maculata) darted in and out of the shadows near the creek. These predators of many species are also the prey of many. So thank goodness these beautiful creatures lay lots of eggs!
Nearby in patches of sunlight grew golden stands of a lovely wetland flower called Fringed Loosestrife (Lysimachia ciliata). This native wildflower modestly bows its blossoms toward the wet soil waiting for a Melittid bee to come along. These native bees specialize on this flower, feeding its oils and pollens to its larvae. Fringed Loosestrife can also spread by rhizomes beneath the soil.
If you turn up your volume, perhaps you can hear the babble of Stony Creek as it finds it way over stones in the ravine. Such a soothing sound. But you don’t need to traverse the steep sides of the ravine and get wet feet. You can simply rest on the high ridge where the trail ends and watch the water sparkle as the creek rounds a graceful curve right below you. Combined with the birdsong in the treetops, the whispering of summer leaves, and the flutter of butterfly wings, you should walk back out of this little park feeling a bit more mellow than when you walked in.
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; 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, A Guide to Bird Behavior Vols.1-3 by Donald W and Lillian Q.Stokes, and others as cited in the text.
Early summer is blooming and buzzing at Draper Twin Lake Park. The golden petals of Sand Coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata) ruffle in the wind among dancing white Ox-eye Daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare) and Yarrow (Achillea millefolium). What a sight for a summer afternoon!
Birds suddenly burst from the deep grass or sway on a sturdy plant stem while being tossed by the wind. Butterflies settle in sunny spots along the moist trails near the marsh or dance along a sunny prairie trail seemingly unable to choose which early summer bloom might please them. Such summery abundance after a cold spring!
Butterflies Take to the Air!
I often begin blogs with birds, because they’re the favorite wildlife for many park visitors. But for better and worse, early summer begins the high season for insects! Yes, some sting, or bite – but mostly they’re just colorful and simply amazing. On a breezy visit to the eastern side of the park, I was greeted by two Eastern Tiger Swallowtails (Papilio glaucus) dancing their courtship ritual high in the air, full of chases, flutters, soaring and falling. I craned my camera upward, clicked a few times and got lucky. An exciting first for me to get photos of butterflies in flight! (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
The male took a brief rest to sip some nectar as the female flew away. But the wind was so strong that he only paused for a few brief moments before he was blown off his flower!
Undeterred, he fed on a bit more nectar and was soon back in the sky, dancing off above the treetops with his female companion.
Nearby, a flash of orange and black made me think I was seeing a Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) among the greenery. But no! The bars at the bottom of its hindwings were the unmistakable insignia of a Viceroy Butterfly (Limenitis archippus).
Viceroys are “Müellerian” mimics, meaning they mimic the color and pattern of Monarchs which, like them, are distasteful to predators. By mimicking each other’s appearance, they give potential attackers a warning. “If you see something that looks like us, stay away or you’ll be sorry!” Isn’t evolution amazing?
In the western portion of the park, a Red-spotted Purple butterfly (Limenitis arthemis), paused on the trail in front of me. In my photo on the left, its red spots can just barely be seen on the underside of the forewing. This beautiful – and very active! – creature is said to be a “Batesian” mimic of the Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor) (on the right) which is toxic to its predators. The Red-spotted Purple isn’t but its similar appearance might make an attacker think so. (Pipevine Swallowtail photo by Annabelle Corboy, an inaturalist.org photographer.)
The harmless Red-spotted Purple is a Batesian mimic of the toxic Pipelvine Swallowtail
Pipevine Swallowtail by Annabelle Corboy (CC BY-NC)
In the grass along an eastern path sat one of the smaller butterflies much loved by generations who raised them in their classrooms or released them for special events, our very own American Painted Lady (Vanessavirginiensis). The two large eye-spots on the underside (ventral) of its hindwing distinguishes it from the Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) which has four smaller eyespots in the same place and is widespread, appearing on every continent except Antarctica and South America.
The tiny butterflies and moths can’t claim the same glamour as the large ones, but they add their own beauty and sprightly flutter as they accompany me along the paths. (Click pause button for identification captions.)
Dragons and Damsels Flying Hither and Yon
Summer truly begins for me when damselflies settle delicately on shady leaves and dragonflies patrol prairies or ponds in search of a mate. The Common Whitetail Dragonflies are out in force right now near Twin Lake and the wetlands.
The female Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis) below was hunting away from the water. She waits on vegetation until prey comes sailing by. After about two weeks, she will approach water to find a mate and choose an area of the pond in which to lay her eggs. Within one minute of mating, she will start dipping her abdomen into the water to release eggs, while the male hovers nearby.
Damselflies (in the order Odonata like dragonflies) look like delicate flying sticks. Many are iridescent or sport elaborate patterns on their abdomen and/or thorax. They are ancient creatures dating back to the early Permian, at least 250,000 years ago, and live on every continent but Antarctica.
As part of the courtship ritual, the male Ebony Jewelwing (Calopteryxmaculata) damselfly bobs up, down and around with other males in what are called “flights of attrition,” until his opponents become exhausted and leave – or he does!
I’d forgotten that the brown and black damselfly below left was a female Violet Dancer (Argia fumipennis violacea) until I got assistance at the Odonata of the Eastern U.S. Facebook page. The male is a much more glamorous purple and blue. I saw the female this week at Draper Twin Lake Park and the male there three years ago.
A Native Bird Returns to the Prairie and Avian Parenting Proceeds Around the Park
The restoration of the Draper Prairie is beginning to entice some native birds to return, as well as native plants. On a windy day, I spotted my first Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis) swaying on a plant stem in a stiff wind. In fact, the wind knocked him from his perch at one point, like the Viceroy butterfly mentioned above. This small sparrow with yellow over its eye may be seen more often now that restored prairies are providing the native plants that attract the insects it prefers. I couldn’t record its call in the wind, but listen here for its song that has an insect-like buzz in the middle!
I began my Draper Twin Lake Park visits with a second scolding from a male bird, akin to my escapade with the goose at Lost Lake. I approached the marsh on the eastern side of Draper Park to look at what appeared to be some female Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) among the giant leaves of Fragrant Water Lily. Almost immediately a male blackbird began its alarm call, left its perch in the distance and flew directly toward me.
He landed in a tree next to me and never stopped expressing his irritation until I moved away. Click below to hear a worried blackbird dad!
As soon as I focused my camera’s long lens, I knew why he was upset. Fledgling blackbirds look very much like their mothers. It was clear the birds among the lily pads were his fledglings and he wanted me to back off. And I did, of course!
Another avian dad was a little further along in parenting his offspring. A male House Finch (Haemorhousmexicanus) rested on a vine near the eastern parking area and just below sat one of his offspring on a guy wire, looking straight up at Dad longingly, begging to be fed. Evidently the male thought this was no longer necessary, because no feeding was forthcoming.
As I strolled through the prairie, I watched a Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor)flying open-mouthed to scoop up food for the young in its nest box. Later I saw some gnats dancing busily above the prairie grass and wondered if the large clouds of them over the prairie were part of the Tree Swallow’s diet.
A female House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) seemed to be carefully watching an Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) flying near what appeared to be her nest box. The Eastern Kingbird can be fiercely territorial about its nest and later I saw it land nearby and look toward the wren’s box. But eventually it flew away. Drama avoided.
Each time I came to Draper I heard the call of the Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) – but it never appeared. It was always in dense shrubs and trees near the soggy edge of the marsh where I couldn’t approach. So here’s a 2016 photo of one throwing his head back and letting loose with “Drink your teeeeeea!”
I did, however, record the male’s wonderful song again this year. [He repeats it at 6-7 second intervals about 4 times on this recording.]
Wildflowers Provide the Colorful Backdrop for All This Activity
The restoration plantings of Draper Twin Lake Park’s northern prairie grow more luxuriant and varied every year. This summer many native wildflowers began to bloom after spending years spent sinking deep roots to resist drought. I’ll be excited to see what arrives with mid-summer and fall as natives find their footing in this gently rolling prairie. (Click pause button if you need more time for captions.)
In moister regions of the park, other native plants emerge. Scouring Rush (Equisetum arvense), a native fern-ally, produces spores on its cone that look like Indian beadwork. Fragrant Waterlilies (Nymphaea odorata) send up bright yellow club-like buds from the marsh and Wild Columbine(Aquilegiacanadensis) dangles its exotic blossoms in the shade.
Sunlight, Rain and Earth Make It All Possible
Plants deserve a bit more respect from the creatures, like us, that depend on them. We tend to notice most the animals, birds, insects that have faces like ours, I guess. But of course, all around us plants are doing the amazing work of pulling up minerals and water from the earth, soaking up sunlight from the sky and miraculously turning those elements into the food that fuels all living beings. Directly or indirectly, everything that all of us eat is provided by plants. I feel very lucky that volunteering for Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our natural areas stewardship manager, has taught me to honor a wider scope of nature. Now while I’m fascinated with wildlife, I’m also learning to notice and name the plants, particularly the native wildflowers and grasses, that have performed the miracle of photosynthesis right here for thousands of years. Such a generous gift!
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; 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, A Guide to Bird Behavior Vols.1-3 by Donald W and Lillian Q.Stokes, the passionate enthusiasts at the Facebook groups Odonata of the Eastern U.S.and Butterflying Michigan plus others as cited in the text.
What a difference a month makes! I began a series of visits to Cranberry Lake Park on September 24 and ended on October 25. I wanted to watch the park change as fall moved toward winter. It’s as if the color slowly leaves the flowers and grasses in the earth, flows up into the trees and then disappears into the black and white of winter. So this time I’m sharing a transition – who and what is coming and going at this changeable time of year.
Late September: Flowers Change to Fruit and Seeds
In late September, the meadow was still green, but splashed with the gold of Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa). A sweeping curve of this beautiful native plant swept around the large thicket of shrubs in the center of the meadow. It was easy to imagine the path of last summer’s winds as it carried the seeds that created this graceful shape.
And a few other flowers hung on in September. Individual stems of Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis)glowed gold among the greenery and a few hardy, flat-topped Yarrow stalks(Achillea millefolium) thrust their way above the browning Canada Goldenrod. Late-blooming Sweet Everlasting (Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium) – which some call Cudweed! – appeared as well, its tightly furled white buds just beginning to open in the cool autumn air. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Wild Grapes, also known as River Bank Grapes (Vitis riparia), hung in clusters on almost bare branches offering a treat for migrating and resident birds – and a few of us humans as well! A few weeks later they had either fallen to the ground or been eaten right off the vine.
Abundant clusters of wild Riverbank Grapes adorn the branches of this shrub.
A few weeks later the wild grapes had disappeared, probably nourishing animals as they stock up for winter.
In September, the Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) leaves changed from green to scarlet and the upright plumes of deep red fruits began to form. One morning, a flock of Black-Capped Chickadees bounced among the branches, foraging either for fruits or the occasional bug. Perhaps they were the ones who stripped the fruit from some of the plumes. Sumac fruits are eaten by many game and songbirds, though normally they’re not a first choice this time of year.
Over the next few weeks, the Goldenrods began to brown and go to seed. Showy Goldenrod seems to start seeding from the top down, week by week. And eventually that golden curve of Showy Goldenrod had turned a seed-rich, but not very attractive, brown.
And despite not being a first choice fruit, the Staghorn Sumac’s seeds had either been eaten on the plant or fallen on the ground to be found by ground feeders.
Talk about cool seeds! Looks at these elaborate seed pods of Dogbane/Indian Hemp (Apocynum cannabinum)! Dogbane is related to milkweeds, and like milkweeds the seeds with tufts of hair help the plant float on the breeze to new places. On the left is this red-stemmed, white-blossomed plant in June and on the center and right, the unbelievably long, angular seed pods this week.
Of course, some seeds are actually a HUGE problem. In autumn, the invasive, tree-killing vine, Oriental/Asian Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), produces its seductively beautiful yellow and red fruits. This vine encircles the trunks of trees while climbing for the sun. In doing so, it can choke the life out of a tree. If it gets to the top, it can kill the tree by shading it out and/or by making it top heavy and more likely to fall in storms. Unfortunately, hungry birds eat the berries and spread Bittersweet readily through their droppings. PLEASE DON’T PICK THIS VINE OR MAKE WREATHS FROM IT , ETC. Contact the Parks Department if you want some strategies for getting rid of this beautiful “bad guy”!
By late October, the meadow at Cranberry Creek had turned November brown as plants continued to produce seeds.
I did, though, find a few shy Smooth Asters (Symphyotrichum laeve) tucked beneath overhanging foliage, braving the cold with the last of its lavender blossoms.
During October: A Feast for Migrating Birds!
It’s hard for us to watch the palette of spring and summer fade – but birds? They love it! Warblers and other small visitors who spent their summer raising young in the cool northern reaches of Canada sailed into the park and found a feast! As did our year ’round resident birds.
One of my favorite partakers of fruits and seeds is the tiny Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) who’s found its way here from around Hudson Bay in Canada – or even farther north. I seem to always miss seeing the ruby crown which the male shows when he’s excited. I guess the birds I’m seeing are either females or males that are just too calm!
One afternoon at Cranberry Lake, the park was filled with White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis). They whisked in and out of shrubs while dashing down into the grass in search of seeds. This one paused just long enough for me to see its yellow lores, the spots at the corner of its eyes. It may have arrived from the UP or the tip of the mitten on its way to points south – not quite as arduous a trip as some migrators have.
This “first winter” White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys) was probably born this summer. It will take on adult coloring when it molts next spring into its bright black and white crown that now is brown and gray. This one was feeding avidly ongoldenrod seed during its journey from northern Canada to somewhere south of Michigan.
One morning, far up the path in the shadow of trees, a small Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) landed quickly, picked up a bug or fallen fruit from the grass, and took off. No photo. But here’s one from a previous year with its chocolate brown back and breast smudges. Too bad the Hermit Thrush doesn’t court its mate here, because its song has 3 different phrases with a pause between each. You can hear two versions of it here.
Our birding group saw other migratory birds enjoying the rest and sustenance provided by Cranberry Lake Park, but through our binoculars. They were too far away or too restless for me to capture them with the camera. The little Nashville Warbler (Oreothlypis ruficapilla) is making its way from Canada’s far north to Mexico or Central America. The Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum) stopped by on its journey from Canada to Florida or the Caribbean. And the Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata) has a comparatively short migration from northern Michigan or Canada to just south of Michigan. So as in all of our parks, Cranberry Lake offers much needed R&R for these small seasonal visitors.
During the bird walk, a Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus) swooped into the Hickory Lane on the west side of the park, perhaps chasing a songbird. It flew straight in front of us and quickly disappeared – we think without snagging the bird. Pretty exciting! Sharp-shinned Hawks are smaller and seen less often than the similar Cooper’s Hawk. They usually appear only during migration, so it’s probably headed south by now. Here’s a link to a photo at Cornell Lab.
A summer resident, the Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) called “chewink!” from the edge of the woods one birdwalk morning. When Ben imitated his call, the male Towhee darted into a nearby bush, intending, I assume, to check out the competition. Here’s a photo of one from last spring. (Let’s just say my photo luck was not with me on that bird walk!)
So though we miss the flowers, they have done their work. They attracted the right pollinators which helped create the very seeds that feed tired and hungry migrating birds – as well as having provided bees with the makings for the honey that will feed them through the winter, too. As a compensation, color comes to us once more as the trees begin to turn.
Late October: Winter Resident from the Far North Arrives – and Color Fills the Trees
Just this week, an American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea) may have flown into Cranberry Lake Park from the edge of the Arctic tundra! This sparrow, with a spot in the middle of its gray chest and a two-tone bill, loves cold weather. During the summer, Tree Sparrows make elegant nests of ptarmigan feathers right on the ground in the Arctic in order to raise their young. Evidently for a Tree Sparrow, spending the winter in Michigan is like going to Florida! Below is the first one I’ve seen this year.
A flock of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) did a lot to brighten up the browning of the meadow last week. Most Bluebirds migrate south, but a few actually stay with us all winter, either in family groups or small flocks, as long as there are seeds and berries available. I couldn’t resist taking more than one photo. Their splashes of azure in the field were really cheering on a gray fall day.
Color, of course, is the glory of a Michigan autumn. On September 24, the Hickory Lane still looked green and lush. By October 11, the colors had changed to gold and orange. And on October 24, a single glowing Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) at the south end of the lane was still shining in the sunlight after most of the other hickory trees began to turn brown.
The maple family contributes lavishly to the beauty of autumn. On the path to the lake, a striking leaf from a Red Maple (Acer rubrum) featured some colorful geometry. And nearby, the deeply lobed greenish-white underside of a pale yellow leaf from a Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) created some contrast. At the lake’s edge, oak and maple leaves formed a scarf of fall color floating on the surface.
The lake again was filled with migrating ducks and water birds – all much too far out for any kind of shot. Female Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa), Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) and Mute Swans(Cygnus olor) were among the throng. Here are photos of those birds from locations where I can get closer to them!
But there were also Pied-Billed Grebes(Podilymbus podiceps), and American Black Ducks(Anas rubripes)on Cranberry Lake. Please click on these red Cornell Lab links if you’d like to see them up close. Let’s hope a viewing deck gets built on Cranberry Lake in the next few years so all of us can get a closer look in person at the water birds that flock to the lake in spring and fall to socialize and feed.
A Different Kind of Transition in the North of the Park
Finally, a wonderful transition is being finished on the trail at the north end of the park. The Parks and Recreation maintenance staff has spent long hours this summer improving the trail from 32 Mile Road into the park. Instead of an oft-flooded, muddy track, they have laid down a solid surface with periodic drainage pipes running beneath it to keep the new trail from flooding. You certainly can feel the difference underfoot! And I imagine equestrians, as well as hikers, will appreciate the improvement. Thanks to Maintenance Foreman Doug Caruso and Maintenance Technician Jeff Johnson for a hard job that, when completed, should be a great improvement for the park!
Autumn: Harvest Time for All of Us!
So, just as we humans harvest crops before the snow falls, birds and animals harvest the wild “crops” of the fields – seeds and fruits. Some of them, like Black-Capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus), both eat and store them, tucking the seeds into bark where they will find them when snow blankets the meadow. Others, like the Palm Warbler, use them to fuel their flight to warmer climes. Winter residents, like the Tree Sparrow, will probe the brown goldenrod for seeds all winter – as well as flocking at your feeder. So when the color drains away, when the leaves are wet and brown underfoot, it may be a comfort to think of the bounty that surrounds us in those dry, drab plants. The brown and gray seeds nourish all kinds of creatures, and guarantee next summer’s bounty of plants. Those dry leaves underfoot dropped when they completed their work of sending sugars to the trees’ roots, ready to fuel next year’s growth. Seeds and falling leaves really are another reason to be thankful as November arrives. Maybe nature deserves a rest after a job well done!
*Footnote: My sources for information, as well as Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Dr. 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; 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 http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info, http://www.illinoiswildflowers.info and invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman.
Well, what a change! Two weeks ago, we had spring flowers, leaf buds and spring courtship as birds sang and showed off in the treetops. And then came the heat and sun, and suddenly, it was early summer with leaves seeming to enlarge by the hour, spring flowers disappearing to be replaced by early summer blooms, more baby birds and the first dragonflies swooping along the paths in front of us.
So let’s explore just a few of the wildflowers and creatures that shared this change with us. (Plus some lovely post-prescribed burn surprises along the Paint Creek Trail.)
When it was still spring…
Late Spring Birds and a Fun Insect
The male Rose-breasted Grosbeak’s (Pheucticus ludovicianus) long, tuneful song was everywhere in Bear Creek in the last weeks of spring. Now their nests are finished and singing has to accompany the task of raising young. Both the male and female build that nest and care for the young – a very modern couple! (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Nearby, hopping from limb to limb, two male Yellow Warblers (Setophaga petechia) sang their seductive “Sweet, sweet, I’m a little sweet” song as they chased each other through the small trees at the edge of the woods. I never spotted the female, though she must have been nearby. She lacks the rusty striping of the male and has a more olive back.
In the fields behind the Playground Pond, a pair of Eastern Towhees (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) were getting acquainted. The male was not singing his “Drink your Tea-a-a-a-” call, so I think the two may have been looking for a nesting sight. I’d never seen the female Towhee before and she’s quite different from the male’s coloring.
Speaking of nesting, I found this large egg under one of the walnut trees near the lane. If one end hadn’t been missing, it would have been about 2 1/2 inches long. And there was nothing inside. I’m wondering if it could be the shell from the egg of a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) that I’ve seen off and on near the Center Pond. Cornell Lab describes the Red-tail’s eggs as 2.2 to 2.7 inches long and “white or buffy, blotched or speckled with buff, brown, or purple.” What do you think? Any bird egg experts out there?
A flash of iridescent green at my feet signaled the hyper presence of the Six-spotted Tiger Beetle (Cicindela sexguttata)who frequents the forest edge. I imagine it got its name because its larva, developing in a burrow during the summer, springs up out of its hole to catch prey! A tiny, green, stalking tiger! Cool how their antennae and legs are as green as their bodies.
Late Spring Wildflowers and Leaves
Two weeks ago, the Oak-Hickory forest was filled with big, beautiful Wild Geraniums (Geranium maculatum). These lovely lavender flowers carpet the area near the marsh every year, but this year they were all over the park – taller, more plentiful and with larger blooms than I’ve ever seen! Perhaps this year’s and last year’s prescribed burns helped.
Each year I wait for the blossoming of the Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) that stands east of the Northern Loop. I was intrigued to learn that the actual flowers are only the center of these blossoms. The “petals” are actually bracts, specialized leaves that attract pollinators by glamorizing the cluster of tiny center flowers. Here are three pictures of the buds, encased in their bracts, opening as May progresses.
While the Flowering Dogwood buds were opening, the leaves of the Shagbark Hickory(Carya ovata)were just emerging from their amazing buds.
The huge White Oaks (Quercus alba)near Snell Road were producing miniature red leaves that, two weeks later, were green and stretching out to catch the sunlight.
Of course, the May Apples (Podophyllum peltatum) were producing their modest white flowers that hang hidden beneath an umbrella of leaves.
Another spring favorite of mine are the little hands of Early Meadow-rue (Thalictrum dioicum) that find spots of sun in the mottled spring light of the woods.
Down at the pond, tiny aquatic buttercups, called White Water Crowfoot (Ranunculus longirostris)floated in large swirls across the pond. Once the heat arrived, the flowers disappeared and the brown stems are now making a not-so-lovely brown mat until they sink below the surface.
Heat! And Summer Rushes Forward
Summer Birds and other Creatures
A Green Heron (Butorides virescens), one of our summer residents, perched in a snag (standing dead tree) at the Center Pond. I usually see them fishing at the water’s edge. According to Cornell Lab, “The Green Heron is one of the world’s few tool-using bird species. It creates fishing lures with bread crusts, insects, earthworms, twigs, feathers, and other objects, dropping them on the surface of the water to entice small fish.” I will be watching now to see if I can catch one doing that!
Out in Bear Creek Marsh, Ben and an experienced birder, Antonio Xeira, heard the call of a seldom-seen denizen of wetlands, the Sora (Porzana carolina). This waterbird, a member of the Rail family, with a heavy yellow beak and stock body, stalks quietly among the cattails, looking for seeds, insects and snails. Its whinnying call is particularly dramatic. Ben and Antonio recognized its other two tone “ker-wee” call at the marsh. Click on its picture here and go halfway down this page for its song and call. I’d never even heard of Sora before!
A delightful sight greeted the Wednesday birders at the Playground Pond last week. A mother Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) was escorting her six ducklings around the pond, as well as what appeared to be two Hooded Merganser chicks (Lophodytes cucullatus)! Ben surmised that perhaps a Merganser had laid its eggs in the nest hole of the Wood Duck and she ended up hatching them along with her own. Here’s a photo of the adult female with her own chicks and a photo of a Hooded Merganser baby that swam with them. This Merganser duckling jumps from a tree hole when one day old and swims on its own. It takes 3 days for the Wood Duck’s ducklings to do the same.
Down at the Center Pond, the “boing-boing” banjo sound of the Green Frog (Lithobates clamitans) creates part of the summer music at Bear Creek. You can tell this one’s a male because its tympanum, a kind of external ear drum, is larger than its eye. I like this one’s tentative expression.
And the Common White-tail Dragonfly (Plathemis lydia)makes a soft whir-r-r as it soars by, looking for prey. This one’s a female, because the male’s abdomen is white, which accounts for its common name.
As the heat began, wildflowers started to bloom in the native beds near the parking lot. One of the loveliest is native Wild Lupine (Lupinus perennis) glowing lavender and white in the warm sunlight.
Nearby was a plant I’d never seen until Ben VanderWeide, our stewardship manager, made me aware of it. It has the lovely name of Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium). To me each tiny blossom resembles a tiny Iris. It’s called “grass” because it has grass-like leaves and stems with parallel veins that are hard to distinguish from a grass when there aren’t any flowers. The flowers only open fully in full sunlight, so it can be easy to miss early in the morning or on a cloudy day. But isn’t it pretty in the late spring/early summer?
And another early summer favorite is spreading abundantly in the native bed north of the shed. Canada Anemone’s (Anemone canadensis) lovely white flowers stand gracefully above its deep green foliage .
Sunny Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) accompany these other native plants in the wild garden in the driveway center, one of the native beds and across from the Playground Pond. This one’s hosting a Spittle Bug or Frog Hopper, common names for the super-family of insects called Cercopoidea. The adult insects can hop 100 times their length! The foam is used for protection for the nymph stage of development. Though the nymph sucks on the plant, it generally doesn’t hurt the plant much. Most of the liquid is used to create that evidently nasty-tasting froth that deters predators.
Ben and his crew planted some native Prairie Phlox across from the Playground Pond, another area of Bear Creek to be slowly stocked with native plants.
Warm weather brought out the exotic-looking blooms of native Wild Columbine in the bed just north of the shed. These lovely native wildflowers grew down the side of a hill east of the park when it was a farm back in the 1930s and 40s.
And out in the eastern Old Field, lots of native Common Milkweed appeared once the grasses were knocked back by the prescribed burn in March. No doubt all the nutrients that were released into the soil then, plus the longer growing season caused by the darkened earth, will give it a little boost. Hope the Monarch Butterflies take note!
And now the Paint Creek Trail surprise…
This spring, Ben VanderWeide, the Township Stewardship Manager, and volunteers did a prescribed burn along the Paint Creek Trail near the parking lot at Gallagher Road. The purpose, as always, was to stimulate native plants and discourage non-native invasive ones. Also prescribed fire releases nutrients from last year’s plants back into the soil.
Partly as result of this process, some lovely native plants emerged this year in greater numbers than before the burn. Look at this lovely photo Ben took of a native Yellow Ladyslipper orchid (Cypripedium parviflorum) – and there were lots of them hidden within the burgeoning grass. You can certainly see where this lovely wildflower got its name – a graceful slipper with ribbons attached!
The grass was also shining with Star-grass (Hypoxis hirsuta), a small yellow native that hosts small bees and other pollinators. It’s lucky there were lots of these shining stars this year because they need other plants to cross pollinate, which of course is assisted by the bees. Here’s Ben’s photo.
Along the tree line near the parking lot at Gallagher, a yellow cloud of Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) nodded in the wind. Ben caught this one up close.
And Ben also noted a Sedge plant (family Cyperaceae) with its interesting bloom. As I mentioned two weeks ago, sedges are ancient plants that look something like grasses but are constructed differently. Ancient Egyptians used sedges to make papyrus.
Ben tells me that beautiful native wildflowers like Culver’s Root(Veronicastrum virginicum), Showy Tick-trefoil(Desmodium canadense) and other prairie plants are “sprouting vigorously” along the trail north Gallagher Road – so click on the links to see them and then keep an eye out for them!
So treat yourself. Hang some binoculars around your neck and look at birds up close – both the year ’round residents and the summer visitors. Take your time. Stand near a patch of summer flowers and watch quietly. See what surprises you. Maybe a bee that turns out to be a harmless hover fly. Or the shiny glamour of the Six-spotted Tiger Beetle. Try using your cell phone to take a shot of a single flower you’ve never noticed before and then identify it when you get home. I promise you’ll relax. Your breath will slow, you’ll smile a bit more, life will just get more interesting. Nature comes alive in ways you’d never expect when you give it your undivided attention. Let us know what you find!
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; An Orchard Invisible: A Natural History of Seeds by Jonathan Silvertown; The Ecology of Plants by Gurevitch, Scheiner and Fox; other sites as cited in the text.