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Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park: BUTTERFLIES! Oh, and Birds and Blossoms, too…

The Northern Wetland Meadow at Stony Creek Ravine Park has no shallow pools now, but is lush with plant life.

A kaleidoscope of dancing butterflies grabbed my attention time and again as I visited Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park in August.  Oh, yes, fledgling birds also whisked about in the dense greenery, accompanied by adult supervision, learning to feed or begging to be fed. And patches of glorious orange or blue flowers emerged among the tall grass.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

But it was the butterflies that stole the show for me as they hovered, floated, sailed and finally settled on blossoms or perched on a leaf along the trail. On glamorous wings – or sometimes tattered ones –  they danced summer to a glorious finale. Come see.

The “Corps de Butterflies,” Costumed in a Rainbow of Colors, Take the Stage

Bands of colorful vegetation in the moist, northern restoration meadow attract skimming swallows, darting dragonflies and floating butterflies

Every year now I wait for the late summer arrival of the Giant Swallowtails (Papilio cresphonte), the largest butterflies in North America (6-7 inch wingspan!). This prima ballerina of the butterfly corps  used to only breed in the south. Many researchers seem to think that most Giant Swallowtails still migrate south in the autumn. However, as the climate has warmed and prevented September frosts, they have expanded their range, establishing some small populations in lower Michigan. Whether they are breeding in our area or just nectaring before heading back south, I’m always glad to see them.

A Giant Swallowtail is the lead dancer in August.

Several butterflies showed up on summer’s stage with torn wings. I’ve wondered if that could be a result of being blown into harm’s way by the winds that accompany summer thunderstorms. Or perhaps the late bloom of goldenrods this year meant that butterflies fed more on prickly thistles. The ragged Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) below seemed to be feeding and flying reasonably well, despite its ravaged wings. I hope it had already mated since shape is important in butterfly courtship!

A badly damaged Eastern Tiger Swallowtail seemed to be feeding naturally on thistle.

Most Eastern Tiger Swallowtails  took the stage in August dressed in their best. Notice the long hairs on the abdomen of the one below. I learned recently that the scales on a butterfly’s wings are actually flattened hairs.  According to a study by Judith H. Myers at the University of British Columbia, it’s possible that the long hairs, sometimes called “scent scales,”  are used to spread pheromones in flight during the breeding season. The pheromone receptors that pick up scent are located in both male and female antennae, though scent is less important than color, shape and movement when most butterflies are courting .

This Eastern Tiger Swallowtail has long hair on its abdomen which may help distribute pheromones when attracting a mate.

Another butterfly “long hair” comes in a tiny package, the Common Checkered-Skipper (Pyrgus communis). My husband spotted this tiny male whose wingspan is only about .75 to 1.25 inches. We’ve probably missed it before because it’s so small and looks nondescript when fluttering erratically along the path. But when it stops, wow! Its thorax is dark blue-gray and the males are not only fuzzy like most skippers; they have long bluish “hairs.” A handsome little guy! Evidently the female’s thorax is a much less glamorous dark brown. According to the Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels, this tiny butterfly is  most common in the central and southern states but regularly  expands its range and is seen in our region in late summer and fall.

This male Common Checkered-skipper has long scent scales that look like hair.

I was delighted to finally see a restless Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele) as it fluttered from sunlight to shade and back again along the entrance path. What a costume! The dorsal (upper) side of its wings is patterned in orange and black, but its ventral side flashes with silver spangles! The females lays eggs even into September. Their caterpillars overwinter and start eating violet leaves in the spring, according to the Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide.  

The Great Spangled Fritillary appears in July, but lays its eggs in September.

Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus) added its dark beauty to the butterfly ballet. It’s very tricky to discern the differences between dark swallowtails. If you need help like I do, I recommend the website at this link which compares the female Black Swallowtail, the black morph of the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, the Spicebush Swallowtail and the Pipevine Swallowtail. Whew! It always takes me a while to puzzle them out! I also get help from the good folks at the Michigan Lepidoptera Facebook group.

The Spicebush Swallowtail has a blush of blue on its hindwings.
The ventral (lower) side of the Spicebush’s wings have two rows of orange spots like the Black Swallowtail, except that one spot on the inner arc is replaced by another blush of blue.

I finally got a look at how the little Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos) came by its name. If you look closely at the lower edge of the hindwing, there’s a tiny whitish crescent shape in one of the boxes there. In the photo below, I brightened the spot and created a small red marker so you could see it, too. It’s a subtle field mark, for sure!

The red marker shows the white crescent for which the Pearl Crescent is named.

And here’s how the Pearl Crescent appears from above. You’ll see these little butterflies on any walk you take in our parks from June to October. I like knowing its name; it makes a walk more companionable somehow.

The tiny Pearl Crescent skips along the paths in our parks all summer long.

Of course it’s the season for Monarchs (Danaus plexippus) and though they seem less plentiful this year than last, a goodly number still stroke a few wingbeats and glide over the fields. Here’s a sampling of three at Stony Creek Ravine Park – a male settling along the path, one in flight toward a withering Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare) and what I think was a female on Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

Another set of dancing wings joined the choreography.  With a zing, a dive and a pause in mid-air (à la Baryshnikov), a fierce and glorious dancer,  the Green-striped Darner (Aeshna verticalis) came on the scene. Darners are big, more than 2.5 inches long,  with bulky thoraxes and long abdomens. Add the helmet-like appearance of their giant eyes which meet at the top of their heads, plus their ability to hover,  and in flight they have a remarkable resemblance to a tiny helicopter! These skillful predators feed on all kinds of insects, even meadowhawk dragonflies and damselflies. The northern fields were a-buzz with them at the park last week!

A Green-striped Darner patrolled along the path as we walked north at the park.

Of course, many other insects – bees, small butterflies, and smaller dragonflies – fed and bred in Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park in August. Here are a few more modest members of the winged corps.

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While following the Spicebush Swallowtail, I glanced down at some movement in the grass and found a tiny grasshopper. A wary, or perhaps inquisitive, nymph of what may have been a Red-legged Grasshopper (Melanoplus femurrubrum) peered at me through two blades of grass! My expert resource person, Dr. Gary Parsons of the Michigan State University’s Entomology Department informed me that not only are the nymphs of this genus very similar,  but within each species the nymphs have many variations of color and pattern. Nymphs don’t have fully-formed wings,  so it will have to save its balletic leaps for a bit later in the summer finale.

This  nymph, possibly of a Red-legged Grasshopper, looked straight at me as if to say, “Verrrry interesting!”

Once it saw my camera, it twitched around the side of the grass stem and dangled there for a few minutes by its front legs. At first, the move made it difficult for me to find the nymph among the grass stems. I wondered if this was a camouflage technique; it did resemble a dangling wilted leaf as my eyes searched the ground. But eventually it must have decided I was not a threat and hopped back on the stem. A lovely few moments with a young creature.

A tiny Wood Frog (Rana sylvaticus), barely visible under a leaf, also missed the whole dance above as it made its way to high ground. As the nights cool, Wood Frogs look for leaf litter where they can produce inner anti-freeze and hibernate, frozen solid, until spring.

A tiny Wood Frog, perhaps an inch long, tried to blend into the brown grasses on the trail, keeping perfectly still.

Oh, Yes, Birds too!

My walks in our parks so often provide serendipitous moments for me. I’d been craning my neck to watch Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) swooping overhead, trailing their long, forked tails and wished aloud that one would perch for a photo. Just then, as my husband and I rounded a curve at the bottom of the Lookout Hill, we were gifted with this wonderful sight!

A selection of about 25-30 Barn Swallows perching on the fence around the southern restoration area below the Lookout Hill.

Dozens of Barn Swallows lined up on the fence with others perching on stalks in the tall plants within the fence line. What a surprise!  According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab, older siblings from earlier Barn Swallow broods often assist their parents in feeding the later broods of nestlings. The parents sometimes even get help from unrelated juvenile barn swallows. On the other hand, unmated barn swallows occasionally attack the young of a mated pair in hope of mating with the female! Nature in all species, I expect, has its good instincts and its bad ones.

One morning when I arrived, a large Pokeweed plant along the entrance path near Snell Road was aflutter with juvenile Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum). I could hear their high, piercing calls, but it took a while until one of the youngsters settled on a tree branch nearby for its portrait. Only the mask and the yellow tip of its tail identified it for me, because of its mottled breast and gray overall appearance.

A juvenile Cedar Waxwing can be identified from its mask and the yellow bar at the end of its tail.

A watchful older Waxwing perched in a nearby tree keeping an eye on the rowdy juveniles enjoying the Pokeweed berries and each other’s company. This one appears to be a first year waxwing because its upper wing is solid gray-brown and is missing its red dot; perhaps it has begun the annual molt because its mask and crest look incomplete. Its disgruntled look made me smile, thinking maybe babysitting juveniles was not its favorite assignment!

An older Cedar Waxwing keeps an eye on a troupe of rowdy youngsters.

An Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) sitting nearby looked over at the hubbub but generally ignored the Waxwings. Since Kingbirds are insectivores during the summers here, there was no need to compete for the Pokeweed berries. In the winter, however, when they fly all the way to the Amazon, they join a variety of flocks and eat only fruit.

An Eastern Kingbird watching the young Waxwings.

At the top of the Lookout Hill, a pair of House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus)- either females or juveniles which look just like their moms – were avidly scraping insects or insect eggs off the stems and leaves of a tree that clearly had already hosted a lot of caterpillars or other small bugs. The leaves were riddled with holes! I’m guessing that House Finches learn at a young age that leaves with holes mean FOOD!

These House Finches seemed to be making most of an insect-scavenged tree at the top of the Lookout Hill.

Nearby a juvenile Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus) looked a bit forlorn after it settled in a tree on the Lookout Hill. I didn’t identify this little bird as a Grosbeak until local birder extraordinaire Ruth Glass helped me out. Grosbeaks are now starting their migration to the Caribbean, so I hope this little male will soon be ready to take on his long flight across the country and the ocean beyond.

A juvenile Rose-breasted Grosbeak might mature a bit more before it begins its long migration to the Caribbean.

Our stewardship manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, mowed a path from the bottom of the Lookout Hill, going west, south, and then west again to connect to the older section of the park where the West Branch of Stony Creek runs through a beautiful ravine. As I approached the woods over the ravine, I kept hearing a plaintive Eastern Wood-Pewee (Contopus virens) in the woods but never got to see it. But I did see this little flycatcher, the Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) perching on a bare branch looking a bit rumpled. I wondered if it was a juvenile, though I can’t tell from its plumage.

An Eastern Phoebe looking a bit ruffled along the trail from the new section into the older ravine section of Stony Creek Ravine Park.

On a cool morning on my last trip to the park, a molting European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) appeared to be warming its breast high in a bare snag along the entrance trail. During the summer breeding season, these non-native birds are dressed in sleek black with iridescent blue-green overlays. Their beaks turn yellow then, too. But now, as fall arrives, they change into their winter garb. Their beaks turn dark and the feathers on their backs and breasts become covered with white spots. This one was already well along in the process.

This European Starling is in the process of molting to its spotted winter feathers and dark beak.

And Last But Certainly Not Least, the Trees and Plants that Make It All Possible!

Native Black-eyed Susans growing in a wet spot at Stony Creek Ravine Park.  Photo by Ben VanderWeide

Clearly, butterflies and birds grace our parks because these natural areas are rich in nutritious native food and abundant shelter for both adults and their young – the fledglings and the caterpillars. So let’s spend the last few minutes with perhaps an under-appreciated but vital element of any habitat – the native plants and trees that provide nesting space, nectar, pollen, seeds, nuts and most importantly, oxygen for all creatures – including us!

Wildflowers First

Begin by looking at that glorious patch of rare, native Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia fulgida) pictured above. These are not the ordinary Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) which gardeners  sometimes choose as annuals, or the native, but short-lived Rudbeckia hirtas that thrive in so many habits, including dry prairies. These bright yellow flowers at Stony Creek Ravine Park are a separate species of wildflower that prefers wetlands and is a long-lived perennial. They’re also the species used to create many varieties of cultivars used in landscaping. I’m so glad Ben shared his photo and his enthusiasm on finding these special plants – and for the photo. I was unaware that a wetland “Susan” even existed!

Ben also discovered a lovely patch of Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) growing near the edge of the woods in the north area of the park.  It too is a lovely wetland plant and often hosts our native, long-tongued Bumblebees. Though I’ve seen small patches and single stems of these blue flowers in other parks, Ben’s discovery is the biggest patch I’ve seen.

Several fields in this new section of the park are under cultivation by a local farmer until the park restoration can begin more fully there. At the edge of one of them is a lovely stand of bright pink Swamp/Rose Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata). These wetland milkweeds host Monarch butterflies, of course, as well as swallowtails, some frittilaries, native bees and skippers. But, good news, deer don’t eat milkweeds!  So if you have a moist garden, give these some thought.

I love Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) for its upright purple plumes, but it is also remarkably productive in the food web. Its nectar provides nutrition for a wide variety of native bees, small butterflies and moths. According to the Illinois Wildflowers website, the seeds also provide nutrition for many birds, including Cardinals, Swamp Sparrows, Field Sparrows, Song Sparrows and our winter visitor, the Dark-eyed Junco. Beauty for the eye and utility for the food web – a great combination!

Blue Vervain’s plume provides lots of sustenance to birds and pollinators.

Oh, and remember those young Cedar Waxwings jostling around in the greenery? What attracted them most were Pokeweed berries (Phytolacca americana). Lots of other birds love them as well, including Cardinals, the Gray Catbird and the Brown Thrasher. The fruits,  which are green now,  turn dark purple when mature. On those pink stalks, the plants look as though they should be somewhere in the tropics! Mammals however, like we humans and our pets,  should not partake of any part of this toxic plant. It looks luscious but it has evolved to be eaten by birds and not by any members of mammalia, our class of animals – which is frustrating because the fruits looks so tempting!

Here’s a quick tour of some of the other native wildflowers sprinkled throughout the meadows at Stony Creek Ravine providing sustenance to wildlife.

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And Now, A Few of the Mighty Trees at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park!

The Ravine and the West Branch of Stony Creek, for which the park is named

Though the fields of Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park are alive with pollinators, blossoms and birds, the lush woods that embrace them are equally impressive. In the park’s far western section, the West Branch of Stony Creek shines silver as it runs through the steep terrain of the heavily treed ravine for which the park is named. Along  its slopes and on the trail high above the creek, many species of trees  compete for sunlight while sharing nutrient resources through the fungal networks underground.

Some trees go to great lengths to reach the sunlight along the trail above the ravine.

One tree I look for every time I visit the ravine section of the park is a lovely American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) just over the edge of the slope near the end of the ravine trail.  Its satin-like bark makes me wish I could reach out and touch it.  According to the University of Michigan’s Michigan Flora website, a non-native scale insect (Cryptococcus fagisuga) can leave wounds in its bark that make them vulnerable to a deadly fungus (Nectria coccinea) which causes Beech Bark Disease, only recently discovered in Michigan. We need to protect these glorious native trees which provide so much food for wildlife and so much beauty for us.

A large beech tree stands precariously over the edge of the Stony Creek Ravine.

On the day the Wednesday bird group visited the park, Ben pointed out a huge Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa) next to the trail. This huge tree has merged three very large trunks. Each on their own would constitute a mighty oak!

The empty “mossy cup acorn” of a Bur Oak.

Bur Oaks make what the Michigan Flora website calls “mossy cup” acorns. This tree may live for many years to come. Not terribly shade tolerant, it is exposed to sunlight on the edge of  the woods near the trail and the long wetland along the entrance trail probably provides the amount of moisture it prefers. Ah, the stories this old tree could tell!

An old Bur Oak south of the trail that leads to the Ravine.

On the tree line between the northern restoration section and the western meadows is an old White Oak (Quercus alba) that demonstrates how location effects the growth of trees. In the open sunlight, surrounded by little competition, the oak has basked in sunlight for many years and spread it branches out instead of up, into a lush, wide crown. What a sight!

An old White Oak spreads out in the uninterrupted sunlight next to the north restoration area.

In the forest to the north last fall, Ben and I visited a huge Wild Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) that used its energy to grow tall, reaching up into the sunlight. Maybe that’s why its lovely yellow flowers only bloom high in the crown. Here’s the photo of it that I posted previously in the blog – just another example of the trees waiting to be explored in the forests beyond the fields.

A Tulip Tree growing tall to reach the sun in the shady northern forest at Stony Creek Ravine Park.

The Legacy Within Us

My husband at dusk just being with nature

I recently enjoyed an On Being Podcast interview with naturalist and environmental journalist, Michael McCarthy. He shared an insight from evolutionary psychology, namely that for 50,000 generations we humans were simply part of nature. For all that time, before we settled down to farm, we experienced all the challenges other creatures face in trying to survive in nature. Or as he put it “we were wildlife, if you like.” As a result, McCarthy contends, even now what we experienced, what we learned during those millennia is still in us, still making us feel at home in the natural world.

Maybe that explains why so many of us experience peace when we’re in places like Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park. On some level, we’re at home in natural areas in a way that even our cozy firesides cannot quite duplicate. Standing on the Lookout Hill at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park, I look out across moist wetlands and meadows to the encircling wood and just let go, become part of the scenery, embedded in its beauty. The swallows dip and rise, the butterflies float from stem to stem, the woods stands dark and mysterious, the creek at the western edge sings its songs over the rocks – and I’m just part of it all.

I imagine it’s that kinship with nature that motivates you and I to learn about and care for our badly damaged world. And it’s probably that kinship which pushes us out the door and into a park on a cold fall morning or just before dark on a summer night to once more savor our connection to the natural world. Michael McCarthy put it like this: “… there is a legacy deep within us, a legacy of instinct, a legacy of inherited feelings, which may lie very deep in the tissues…we might have left the natural world, most of us, but the natural world has not left us.”

And what a blessing that is! Our task, our calling now is to continue restoring and preserving the natural world for our children and grandchildren. By honoring that legacy within, we can hope to insure that future generations will also be able to breathe deep and feel the freedom and peace that nature so generously provides to us.

Late Winter Sparkle and Early Spring Music: Charles Ilsley and Cranberry Lake Parks

Do you mind if I briefly take you back to February? I know we’re all getting itchy to  step into spring. But here in southeast Michigan, the line between the two seasons blurs a bit in late February and March.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

So I want to remember that the tail end of winter has it charms – and then spend some time relishing the early signs of spring before the Equinox.

 

 

FEBRUARY:  Sparkling with Ice, Patterned with Prints and Revealing the Shapes of Slopes and Seedheads!

Winter sparkling down the Hickory Lane at Cranberry Lake Park in February

Accompanied by our familiar year ’round birds and a few winter visitors, bundled against bitter days, I spent most of February in two parks – Cranberry Lake Park and Charles Ilsley Park. I puzzled over prints in the snow, admired ice patterns and worked at  re-identifying last year’s wildflowers by their winter architecture.

Wild Neighbors Make Brief Appearances on a Winter Day

It’s always a great comfort to me on a winter walk, when my numb fingers resist taking photos, that birds and animals keep me company. At Charles Ilsley Park, an American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) scrambled onto a branch near me with its mouth stretched around a large nut, perhaps a walnut that had lost its outer covering since dropping last fall. The squirrel was so intent on conquering its prize nut that I got a quick shot before it jumped out of sight.

An American Red Squirrel with a nut almost too big for its jaws!

On a Cranberry Lake Park walk in February, through the thicket of tree branches, the birding group caught sight of a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) on a perch near the lake, scanning for prey. It had plumped up against the cold and looked just a bit disgruntled. Perhaps that morning had brought slim pickings.

A cold, perhaps hungry Red-tailed Hawk didn’t look too happy on a cold morning near Cranberry Lake.

American Tree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea) visit us just for the winter and are everywhere now. With their gray breasts centered with a black spot and a nice chesnut cap and eyeline, they’re by far the most obvious sparrow in the parks in winter – and they make a friendly twitter when they’re flocking. On my coldest day at Cranberry, I saw one huddled in the dry stems of a field as an icy wind ruffled its feathers. It would venture out periodically to grab a few seeds and then hunker down again in the grass. But on a sunnier day, one perched quite calmly on a dry stem of non-native Common Mullein. At Ilsley, several whooshed up from the fields in small flocks and dispersed as I passed. [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

Across Ilsley’s central prairie, high up on a tall snag, I spotted a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus). If you click on the left photo, you’ll see its head peeking above a short branch in the crotch of the dead tree. I began to take a series of slow, cautious steps in its direction, but it spotted my camera raised and sailed off into the distance, the large white patches under each wing flashing in the sunlight. To the right you can see those white under wings in a fine photo by dpdawes at inaturalist.org, who got a lot closer to her/his bird than I did to mine!

Near Ilsley’s north prairie, a lengthy repetition of the “Kwirrrr” call alerted me to my constant winter companion, the Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus). Hitching along a distant tree trunk searching out insect eggs or larvae, this male multi-tasked, firmly establishing his territory with calls while continuing to forage. I clicked the shutter in a hurry when he paused to check for any threats or other males in the area.

A foraging Red-bellied Woodpecker stops foraging long enough to be sure another male isn’t in his territory!

At Ilsley, I followed a flock of American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) as they surged from one treetop to the next. Eventually one ventured close to me, as if checking my intentions. From what I learned in the Cornell crow class, this is likely an older member of a crow family since it has a few white feathers.

The white feathers on this crow make me think it could be an old one. Crows can live as long as 19 years.

And then there are creatures who just have a faulty sense of timing. Somehow, my husband and I spotted this tiny fly perched on the edge of a boot print at Charles Isley Park. Dr. Gary Parsons from Michigan State identified it for me as a Snail-eating Fly  (family Sciomyzidae, possible  genus Dictya), so named because the larval young of this fly have a preference for snails. He guessed that it probably “woke from it winter nap” prematurely, fooled by  a warm, melting winter day. I like its intricately patterned wings and legs!

A tiny Snail-eating Fly poised at the edge of a boot print at Charles Ilsley Park.  It most likely mistook a warmish winter afternoon for a spring day .

Some Wild Neighbors Leave Only Hints of their Presence

Part of the fun in a winter walk is trying to figure out a creature’s presence only from the prints they leave behind. Walking down the Hickory Lane, I saw the flash of an Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) as it dashed across the trail and into a tree hole so slim it seemed impossible that the squirrel could  fit inside! But it left its tracks behind as it approached the tree and leapt toward the trunk.

A large mammal left clues to its activity down near Cranberry Lake. I approached the lake on an icy day. I wanted to see  if the beaver I’d seen evidence of last year had come out of its den again to find some extra tree bark to chew on this winter. As I approached, bright scarlet fruits caught my attention, vivid against the silver of a frosty morning. Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Stewardship Manager, later identified them as the rose hips of a Swamp Rose (Rosa palustris). Color is such eye candy in the winter months!  And just beyond, as I prowled the frozen ground near the lake, was the evidence I sought – a tree stump recently gnawed to a point by what could only be a North American Beaver (Castor canadensis).

I cautiously stepped out onto the ice, but it held. Off in the distance, the snow lay like white satin on the lake’s surface. Around a bend in the shore, the beaver’s den loomed a bit larger this year and yes! I could see the raw end of a recently cut log protruding from its den. How the beaver stuck it in there mystifies me but the bark should make a cozy meal for the beaver/s inside on a cold day. A few other recently added sticks protruded from either side.

Pondering Snow Prints

Tracks of all kinds filigree the landscape on a winter morning. The birding group noticed the small canine tracks of what we guessed was some sort of Fox probably a Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) since it was in an open area rather than a woods. A neat line of single prints usually means a wild canine and these were rather small as they curved around the turkey breeder building at Cranberry Lake Park. The coyote’s tracks at Charles Ilsley Park have the same features but are considerably larger. Coyotes are mating now so you’ll see more of their twisty, fur-filled scat along the trails as they mark the boundaries of their territory. (I’ll spare you a scat photo….)

Lots of smaller creatures are scurrying about on the snow during the night. An indecisive White-footed Mouse (Peromyscus leucopus) left its “sewing machine” tracks in the snow as it apparently darted out into a trail twice, retreated each time and then finished dashing across to dive into a tiny hole on the far side. I’m wondering if the strange track in the center photo is that of a Meadow Vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus) that nosed about just under the surface of the snow.  I’m guessing that from the fact that Voles stay closer to the surface when they burrow in the grass, leaving larger furrows than the smaller mice. But if anyone has a better idea, I’m open to it. And by the size, I’m guessing that tidy little squirrel print on the right is probably that of a pausing American Red Squirrel.

And can anyone guess what made this pattern of polka-dots all over the snow around Cranberry Lake Park one February morning? My first guess was snow melt dripping from the limbs, but I’ve seen a lot of thawing snow and I’ve never seen this tapioca design before. Maybe air bubbles being driven up from below? Anyone have a theory on this one?

What could have made these polka-dots in the snow cover? I’m mystified.

Admiring the Stark Architecture of Last Year’s Wildflowers

One of my goals is to be as familiar  with wildflowers in winter as I’m becoming in summer. I love the linear designs they make against the sere backdrop of a winter field. Here are a few examples paired with their summer finery.

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MARCH:  The Sweet Song of Running Water,Migrators Appear, Buds Swell –  but Can It Last?

Is it spring yet, or the last hurrahs of winter? It was hard to tell on an early spring  day when snow still lay beneath the russet tapestry of dry plants on Charles Ilsley Park’s west prairie. But a brisk wind chased the cloud shadows across the field and it sure felt like spring. (Turn up your volume to hear the wind and the Blue Jay calling.)

First Bursts of Irrepressible Spring Song!

A good pre-spring sign is that male birds have already begun trilling their familiar mating songs. A male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) flew down near me and threw back his head to let forth his song. As usual, he turned 180 degrees to sing in both directions, in an effort, no doubt, to broadcast his presence as widely as possible!

A Northern Cardinal singing his spring song at Charles Ilsley Park

We’re all pretty familiar with the Black-Capped Chickadee’s call (Poecile atricapillus). After all, “Chickadee-dee-dee” is how it got its name! But oddly, in spring they sing a very simple, two note song to establish territory or attract a mate. I couldn’t get a good shot of the lothario that I watched hopping manically from limb to limb at Ilsley, so the song recording below is his, but the photo is from an early spring in 2016.

A Chickadee in Red-Twig Osier.

The Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) have been around off and on all winter. But just lately, they’ve started checking out the bluebird boxes in our parks. Here’s a female evaluating the real estate at Charles Ilsley Park.

A female Eastern Bluebird checking out a nest box at Charles Ilsley Park.

Not all spring sounds, though, are mating calls. Our township stewardship manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, heard the exquisitely high, piercing call of two Golden-crowned Kinglets (Regulus satrapa) at Cranberry Lake Park during the bird walk last week. Cornell tells us that “This is one of the first bird songs that people stop being able to hear as they age.” Ahem…that’s me, I’m afraid. I did see them quickly through my binoculars but never got a camera on them. Here’s a photo of one of these pretty little migrators taken by cedimaria, a photographer at iNaturalist.org. Sometimes these Kinglets appear during the winter in our area, but it’s more likely that the one we heard and saw was on its way north to breed at the tip of the Mitten, or in Canada.

A Golden-crowned Kinglet by photographer cedimaria (CC BY-NC)

Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) flew far over head at Ilsley, braying their prehistoric call and by the first week in March, a male Red-winged Blackbird burst forth with his buzzing trill on a thistle stalk. The females will arrive in a few weeks.

The Trickle of the Thaw and Buds!

At Ilsley, water seemed to be finding it way everywhere as the ice melted in various wetlands. Within the eastern prairie, a narrow rivulet appeared to have sculpted a beautiful little ice cave under the snow. My husband and I were mystified as how it formed.  We thought perhaps the water beneath the ice had drained away along the narrow line to the right and part of the ice had dropped, because the inside of the cave was bone dry. But we’re just guessing. Anyone have a better theory?

A little ice cave formed on the eastern edge of a wetland in the prairie at Charles  Ilsley Park.

I could envision that  a small creature might shelter overnight in this wee cave for protection, since the ground within was dry!

The ice cave looked as though it could shelter a small creature at night.

Elsewhere at Ilsley, the trickle of water signaled hope for spring. Over in the woods, one of the ice covered wetlands had melted enough that a stream ran away from it into the trees.

A melting wetland feeds a stream running through the woods on the northern side of Ilsley’s Eastern Prairie.

And nearby, a brilliant spear-shaped mound of moss took advantage of all the water and glowed in the thin sunlight.

A spear of moss near at wetland at Ilsley.

The swelling, red buds of Silver Maples (Acer saccharinum) always give me hope in March so I keep checking on them each time I explore the path into Ilsley from the west. And in Cranberry Lake Park, Ben spotted the first cottony plumes of Pussy Willow (Salix discolor) breaking into the cold spring air. I’ve loved those fuzzy signs of spring since childhood when they bloomed right outside my family’s  kitchen window.

The Best Kind of “Social Distance”

The Northern Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park in early March

As I finish this blog, the COVID-19 virus has taken hold in Michigan and we are instructed to avoid crowded places and keep a “social distance” from others for at least the rest of the month. That certainly makes perfect sense, but it can make all of us feel a bit isolated. Luckily, nature invites us out into the fields and woods where no threats exist really, except maybe wet feet and some spring mud. Wildlife has always believed in “social distance” so no problem there; they consistently respect my space by taking off when they see me  – as my camera can attest!

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So now’s the ideal moment to re-acquaint yourself and your family with the infinite variety of the natural world. Leave behind the confines of a centrally heated home and let the moist, cold air of March tickle your nose and redden your cheeks. Open a door and listen to the dawn chorus of the songbirds. (Listen for Sandhill Cranes down in the marsh at the end!)

Watch for bursting buds and catch your own reflection in a mud puddle.  Discover the joys of darkness and silence while watching the stars on a clear, moonless night.  Maybe we can rediscover all that we’ve been missing in the hubbub of a “normal” day. And that way, we can turn our “social distance” into an adventure in the wild  for ourselves and our children.

Cranberry Lake Park: Golden Meadows Host Migrators…and Last Minute Mating!

The golden Eastern Meadow at Cranberry Lake Park in early September

Goldenrod! A variety of different Goldenrods gild Cranberry Lake Park in early autumn. Their bounty of nectar and pollen and the insects they attract make Cranberry Lake an ideal stopover for migrating birds and butterflies as they prepare for their long journeys. So cheer for Goldenrods as they feed wildlife, but don’t blame them for your fall allergies – blame ragweed!

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

Year ’round birds and summer residents have almost finished molting and are also stocking up energy for winter or the migration. And a surprising number of insects are also preparing by busily mating one last time, leaving behind eggs or chrysalises that can bring forth young next spring and summer. Lots going on within this carpet of gold!

Migrating Birds –  Some Stayed All Summer; Some Just Stop Briefly for Rest & Refueling

Now’s the time to train your binoculars on any shaking leaf you see. It might be a fall migrator! Colorful, tiny warblers and vireos that are just passing through on their way south are well worth a pause to look into the shrubbery, as you’ll see below! But don’t forget to wish “bon voyage” to the migrators who arrived last spring and sojourned with us all summer. Many are finishing up their molts and readying for long journeys to the southern US or even Central and South America. We saw all of the birds shown below on the bird walk last week at Cranberry Lake Park.

Migrators from Farther North:  Just Passing Through

The trees are aquiver with fall migrators, travelers that bred up north and only briefly stop to rest and refuel around our woods and meadows. The most colorful ones that we often hear but can’t see are warblers and vireos. These little birds travel on the night wind because it’s safer. Hawks, eagles, and other birds that might see these small birds as food migrate during the day so that they can ride the thermals!

My camera and I are not quite quick enough to catch a lot of these tiny, fast-moving birds. So to share them with you, I’m relying on photos of other photographers with the skills, equipment and sometimes sheer luck to capture these little beauties!

The Blue-winged Warbler (Vermivora cyanoptera) breeds at Cranberry Lake Park, but the birds we’ve seen in the last week were probably moving through from further north. This fine bird shows off its black eyeline and blue wings with white wingbars in a gorgeous photo taken by gifted local photographer Joan Bonin:

Blue-winged Warbler (Vermivora cyanoptera) by Joan Bonin

This photo of the striking Black-throated Blue Warbler (Setophaga caerulescens) is by gifted iNaturalist photographer Jeff Skrent at iNaturalist.org.

A Black-throated Blue Warbler, photo by Jeff Skrent (CC BY-NC)

Yellow-throated Vireo  ( Vireo flavifronsfrom another generous iNaturalist photographer who uses the single name, paloma.

A Yellow-throated Vireo by paloma (CC BY-NC)

Nashville Warbler (Leiothlypis ruficapilla) was also too quick for me.  But here’s one I did manage to catch as it passed through in the autumn of 2016 on its way to Central America.

The Nashville Warbler on its way to Central America

Summer Visitors: The Migrators that Come Here to Raise Their Young

Some avian migrators see our parks as a great place to raise their young, so they come in the spring and stay for the summer. Having finished breeding and molting, they are now preparing to leave for points south. The male Common Yellowthroat’s  (Geothlypis trichas) “Witchedy – witchedy” song accompanied me often during the summer months as he and his mate raised their young. But you may here his “chuck” call as he hops among the branches stocking up on insect protein before leaving for Florida.

The Common Yellowthroat stops singing its “witchedy-witchedy” song in the fall and prepares to migrate.

Both the male Common Yellowthroat and his mate did a complete molt in July or August and now have fresh feathers for the trip. She’s bit more secretive than the male as she feeds on beetles, ants, bees (!), dragonflies and  grasshoppers within the golden fields. Usually she’ll leave a week or two later than the male.

The female Common Yellowthroat will be around a bit longer than her mate.

Last spring the Wednesday morning birders heard a Black-throated Green Warbler (Setophaga virens) singing its mating song along the Hickory Lane at Cranberry Lake. And this week, the birders spotted one flitting high in the trees. Perhaps it nested here to raise its young, or it could be just passing through our parks in spring and fall. Here’s  a photo I took of a male during the spring migration this year.

The Black-throated Green Warbler may have nested here this summer or he may be just passing through both in the spring and fall.

High in a snag, a Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) paused briefly to survey the golden eastern meadow one afternoon. Many waxwings go into lower Canada to breed, but I’ve seen successful nests in our parks, too, so this one may have been a summer resident. Some will move south for the winter, but many waxwings will stick around during the cold months.

his Cedar Waxwing may have spent the summer with us or could be migrating south from Canada.

House Wrens (Troglodytes aedon) become quite secretive after breeding. But this one popped out of the greenery for a minute. It appears to have completed the late summer molt and is prepared to start south between now and mid-October.

The House Wren has raised its young here, molted and will be leaving shortly for Florida and other southern states.

A curious juvenile Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) peeked at me from dense shrubbery along the trail, too.  The migration of Field Sparrows is not always predictable. Some migrate, some don’t, and some migrate one year but not the next, according to the Stokes’ Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.2). If this one does migrate, it may join a large flock with Chipping Sparrows as well as other Field Sparrows.

If this Field Sparrow chooses to migrate this year, it will probably join a larger flock. Or it may just stay put!

On one of my Cranberry walks, I spotted some Wood Ducks  (Aix sponsa) far across a well-hidden wetland. They were males who’d chosen this secluded spot to begin their molt out of the summer “eclipse plumage” into their fancy choosing-a-mate plumage. This one looked a bit rough at the moment, but well on his way to his courting colors. As I explained in last week’s molting blog, males molt earlier in the summer to camouflage themselves as females and then molt again in the fall, a time when they compete for a mate to breed with in the spring.

A male Wood Duck almost finished with the molt from his “eclipse plumage” to his courting feathers.

I often hear, but rarely see,  the vireos at Cranberry Lake. But I did get to see a Warbling Vireo (Vireo gilvus) in the spring. A rare treat, since it loves to sing high in the treetops! Its plumage is modest but its song is impressive!  The birders saw one lingering in our park for a while before departing for points south.

Warbling Vireos are often heard high in the trees, but not as commonly seen.

Occasionally I get a quick look at a Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus). But Bob Bonin, Joan’s husband and another gifted photographer, got a much better photo than I have so far! This week it too was hanging out with other migrators.

Red-eyed Vireo – photo by local photographer Bob Bonin

Butterfly Migrators

Birds, of course, are not the only creatures migrating through our parks this autumn. Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus) fluttered everywhere at Cranberry Lake Park in the last few weeks.  This “super-generation” of  fragile creatures – the ones that will fly 3,000 miles to Mexico – were swooping and diving over the meadows at Cranberry Lake, feeding on the acres of Goldenrod. So glad that we provide these master migrators with such a feast!

A female Monarch using it proboscis like a straw to sip nectar from Canada Goldenrod.

The tattered Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes) below looks lightly worn.  Let’s hope that attests to its having mated here this summer after its migration to Cranberry Lake.  These huge butterflies seem to be expanding their range north. Possibly due to climate change, Michigan now often has frost-free Septembers. So if mating was successful, the caterpillars of this very large butterfly may survive inside their chrysalises and hatch in our parks next spring.

This Giant Swallowtail looks a bit tattered at the end of a summer at Cranberry Lake Park. Due to mating? Maybe.

Last Chance for Progeny!  Insects Still Mating in the Meadows

Among the Goldenrod, insects seek out mates in a last ditch effort to leave offspring for next summer. A pair of Goldenrod Soldier Beetles (Chauliognathus pennsylvanicus) rendezvoused on a Bull Thistle  (Cirsium vulgare) – a potentially risky place to mate since a bird might think they make a tasty contrast against the blossom!

Goldenrod Soldier beetles mating on a Bull Thistle

A pair of tiny Pearl Crescent butterflies (Phyciodes tharos) also decided that a warm September afternoon provided the ideal time for mating.

A pair of Pearl Crescent butterflies mating in eastern meadow at Cranberry Lake Park.

And two Ladybugs chased around a Goldenrod stem, one frenetically holding on to the other. I couldn’t really determine whether they were mating or fighting! Clearly, one was more interested in escape and one was in hot pursuit. They were moving too fast for a great shot or a definite identification. My guess is that they were the invasive Asian Ladybugs (Harmonia axyridis). Unfortunately they are more common these days than our native Nine-spotted Ladybug (Coccinella novemnotata) and come in highly variable colors and patterns.

Two ladybugs chased each other around a Goldenrod stem – mating or aggression?

This tiny Red-legged Grasshopper (Melanoplus femurrubrum) had probably spent the night near the stalk of the Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), wisely hidden from predators among its withering leaves. It will molt multiple times before mating and leaving eggs in the soil to emerge next summer.

A Red-legged grasshopper nymph probably spent the night within this Common Milkweed plant.

The edge of a meadow, near a wetland, might be an ideal spot for a female Great Blue Skimmmer dragonfly (Libellula vibrans). She could be spreading her wings in hope of attracting a mate. If successful, the aquatic plants nearby could host her fertilized eggs. Or while waiting for a likely male, she might just have a great perch for hunting unsuspecting prey!

A female Great Blue Skimmer sunned herself on a cool morning, possibly trying to attract a mate – or just hunting for the next unwary insect!

Spider Art On a Misty Morning

Early fall mornings are an excellent time to appreciate the art of the spiders. Warm days followed by cool nights leave heavy dew on spider webs, and when the sun makes them visible, they are dazzling. How about this lovely creation of an Orb Weaver spider (family Araneidae) drooping with the weight of the dew but subtly reflecting the colors of the sun’s spectrum!

The sun reflecting on the dew in an Orb Weaver’s web.

Another intriguing web, though not as beautiful, is cleverly constructed.  The Funnel Web Spider (Circuria species) lays a sticky sheet of web across the grass, which would be difficult to see were it not for the dew. At the edge of the web, it weaves a tunnel where it lies in wait for unsuspecting prey.  Above the sheet, it weaves an irregular network of silk designed to knock flying insects into its sticky net below. You can see the funnel at the back of this web below.

The Funnel Web Spider’s trap for flying insects with a nifty funnel in which the spider can wait for its prey unseen.

Frogs Underfoot!

As I skirted the edge of wetlands one Sunday, it seemed that a frog sprang out of the grass at every step! Most of them were Northern Leopard Frogs (Rana pipiens), their emerald green backs covered with circular black dots outlined in pale gold. Their dark eyes encircled with gold add to their glamour. Pinkish dorsolateral ridges are another distinguishing field mark. They shine like cloisonné in the deep grass!

Leopard frogs big and small sprung out of the grass near wetlands.

Until last week, I’d never noticed Pickerel Frogs (Rana palustris) at Cranberry Lake. These smaller frogs have somewhat rectangular spots that line up along the frogs’ back in neat rows. They are smaller than Leopard frogs. They tend to be brown (though they are sometimes green too), so I’m fairly sure this is Pickerel frog below.

Pickerel Frogs have more rectangular spots in rows down their backs, rather than the more random round spots of Leopard Frogs. So I think this is Pickerel frog, but I’m not positive!

And Finally, the Native Plants that Make It All Possible!

The plants, though not as often noticed by hikers, provide sustenance for all these creatures as the base of the food web. Butterflies sip their nectar. Bees and wasps feed pollen to their young. Other insects munch on leaves or make winter homes in the stalks. Birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals eat all parts of plants, or the insects that live on them. So here’s a gallery of  just a few of the plants that, along with the plentiful goldenrods, have bloomed in sun and shade to sustain the beauty and life of Cranberry Lake Park in late summer. (Use pause button for captions.)

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Autumn Mornings:  Not To Be Missed!

Mist rising in a meadow beyond the trees.

On our September bird walk at Cranberry Lake Park, we arrived on a cool fall morning. The previous day had been unseasonably warm, but a north wind sailed in overnight. The cool air had created heavy dew, leaving silver droplets that set the spider webs shining. The morning sun on the moist leaves created the fine mist you see above, rising  from a meadow beyond the Hickory Lane. What a sight! – the makings of future clouds floating like silver smoke above the wildflowers. A wave of migratory warblers and other small birds had arrived on that night wind. The birders watched, binoculars up, as these travelers hopped busily in the branches, feeding on the plenty of insects attracted by fields full of blooming fall wildflowers. And all of this beauty is gratuitous – unearned, just gifted to us if we just put on our shoes and head out the door! Consider escaping from the busy-ness of life for just an hour this week. Let these beautiful fall days lure you to the parks and savor the gifts that nature so generously offers to all of us.

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.

Lost Lake Nature Park: Fishers of all Kinds, a Tree’s Generous Afterlife and a Lively Meadow

Fragrant Water Lilies (Nymphaea odorata) in Lost Lake

Lost Lake Nature Park, a small 58 acre park probably best known for its sledding hills, hums with life in every season. Right now, fishers of all sorts – birds, animals and humans – are testing their skills against the fish in its 8-acre kettle lake. In the meadow that slopes upward along the sledding hill, dragonflies bask on dried flower heads in early fall sun while a crane fly dances over the soil, laying her eggs among tall native grasses and bright wildflowers. And deep in the woods that cover the slopes, an old tree stump sustains a vivid collection of life. On every short trip this month, Lost Lake sent me home with a little something special.

Around the Lake: Fishers, Flowers and Frogs

On each of my visits, Green Herons (Butorides virescens) foraged and flew at Lost Lake. On my first visit, a young Green Heron stood at the corner of the dock, surveying the eastern pond in the late afternoon sun. The telltale field marks are the streaked side of its head and breast, its greenish yellow legs and its smaller size. Two adult Green Herons flew overhead, giving their distinctive alarm flight call (at this Cornell link under “advertising call”) and later I saw them more  closely in a wetland down the road. The adults are a bit more glamorous than their young, I’d say.

A young Green Heron peruses the far side of the pond from the dock.
A mature Green Heron flew to a marsh nearby

On my second visit, the herons were only visible through binoculars on the far side of the lake. But the third time, I was rewarded. A very young green heron, about half the size of an adult, landed in the pond, flew to a mud flat fairly near the dock and began to fish. I watched this skillful youngster successfully snag a meal twice, and then watched as it struggled to swallow its trophies, as you’ll see in the slideshow below. (Use pause button to read longer captions.)

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On my last visit, a small green heron again appeared, perhaps the same one, this time flying above the head of a fishing  Great Egret (Ardea alba).

A small Green Heron flies behind a fishing Great Egret

The egret was also a successful fisher, though swallowing took no apparent effort for this elegant bird with a long graceful neck. (Click to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

As I was leaving the deck one afternoon, I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. As I turned, an American Mink (Neovison vison) paused at the end of the dock before slipping away into the tall grass. I’d never been that close to a mink before. Quite exciting! Mink always live near water and do lots of fishing, eating crayfish, frogs, and fish as well as rodents and occasionally birds or their eggs. A mink coat, with its dark sheen of guard hairs, looks best on this little creature, I think. Since the mink moved too quickly for a photo, I’ve borrowed one from a gifted and generous photographer at iNaturalist who uses the name DigiBirdTrek.

An American Mink, photo by DigiBirdTrek (CC-BY-NC-SA) found at iNaturalist.org

On two afternoons over Labor Day weekend, human fishers showed up at Lost Lake as well – a threesome one day and a young couple another.  Not sure if they were as successful as the green heron!

Human fishers enjoy Lost Lake as well.

With all those fishers, it’s not surprising that this tiny green frog squeaked and leapt into the pond as I walked off the dock one afternoon. It may have been a young Bull Frog (Lithobates catesbeianus), since it has a fold around the tympanum rather than a ridge running back from the eye, which would indicate a Green Frog (Lithobates clamitans). Small bullfrogs are also more prone to squeaking when alarmed; I’ve never heard a squeak from a small green frog.  I’m open to correction, though, since we can see so little of this small frog.

Admittedly, the pond is not at its best right now in terms of flowers. Many of the water lilies closest to the shore have withered into a brown mass and the brown leaves of some Pickerel Weed (Pontederia cordata) stalks protrude from the water near the shore. But in the distance, the water lilies float on a bed of green (see above) and in some places, the lovely lavender plumes of the pickerel weed still stand tall with their huge, graceful leaves. Along the shore, the sunny ball-shaped heads of Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale) nod in the breeze near the delicate purple chevrons of Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica).

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Down the road, at the same wetland where I saw the mature Green Heron, an elusive family of Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) caught my eye. On each trip, I’d notice a threesome of young ducks being shepherded by the male parent.  This dad wanted nothing to do with me and quickly herded his family around a bend, or behind greenery at the edge of the water. But one day I was able to catch two fairly good shots of dad and his three offspring.

Into the Woods: A Blackened Stump with Vivid Life and Some Clever Seeds

The path into the woods at Lost Lake in dappled afternoon light

The path into the woods starts at the end of the driveway that runs in front of the caretaker’s home, and you’re welcome to use it.  It’s a short, uphill path that is quite steep at the end and then runs quickly downward as you descend the sledding hill. The forest floor is deep green and beautifully dappled by sunlight.

On the dry, wooded hillsides,  some native grasses and wildflowers are beginning to create and disperse seed. The long graceful pods of Sicklepod (Boechera canadensis), a native member of the mustard family, crack open when dry, releasing a long line of seeds to the wind. Jumpseed (Persicaria virginiana), another native, is appropriately named; according to the Minnesota wildflower site, its seed “jumps off the stem at the slightest touch,” sometimes as much as 10-13 feet. Cluster-leaved Tick-trefoil (Hylodesmum glutinosum) makes cool fruits called loments that have little pods with one seed each that travel by sticking to anything that comes close. And an old fave, Bottlebrush Grass (Elymus hystrix), sends its seeds flying on arrow-shaped “awns” that can actually stick upright in the earth when they land. Plant evolution has produced some very creative ways to spread seed!

At the bottom of the hill, in the deeper shade of a wetland, I discovered an old black stump that hosted a variety of brightly colored life. According to Peter Wohlleben, author of The Hidden Life of Trees, the insect and fungal life of felled stumps and logs help the forest by breaking down the nutrients held in the trees’ wood for hundreds of years. The process of decomposition can take as long as the life of the tree – in the case of oaks, up to 300 years! And eventually those released nutrients feed the tree’s offspring and other trees and plants. Well, this old tree stump, a White Pine (Pinus strobus), was busy doing just that. Its surface presented all kinds of colorful life that was busy working to break down its nutrients or using it for shelter.

A tree stump hosting lots of life in the forest at Lost Lake – harvestmen, ants, moss and mushrooms.

What originally caught my eye was a group of tiny, deep orange/red mushrooms.  I couldn’t determine the species of these mushrooms, though they could be an early stage of the Jack-o’Lantern mushrooms (Omphalotus olearius) featured recently at Bear Creek. A few minutes later a second spot of red caught my eye. A group of Harvesters (order Opiliones, suborder Eupnoi), which are arachnids, but not spiders, scrambled around the inside of the stump. The one below came festooned with tiny bright red mites! And then I spotted a ruby red ant, whose species I was unable to discern.  And a lovely patch of green and orange moss with its sporophytes tipped with the capsules that contain its spores graced the flat top surface like a miniature forest. Quite a colorful bunch of creatures, bryophytes (mosses), and fungi working and living on this old stump!

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Down the Hill to the Meadow – Basking Dragonflies, A Dancing Crane Fly, Wildflowers and Native Grasses

A soft lavender bank of Bee Balm (Monard didyma) still blooming near the caretakers’ lawn before you enter the woods

Wildflowers are still blooming in glorious color on the steep sledding hill, the small meadow below it and a short distance from the pond. A few Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) hang on nearby, their drooping petals still golden in early autumn light, along with some Smooth Asters with their dark red or yellow centers (Symphyotrichum laeve). Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) and Grass-leaved Goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia), both late summer/autumn wildflowers, are being visited by native bumblebees. Pale/Thin-leaved Sunflowers (Helianthus strumosus), that love the forest edge,  shine bright under the trees as you approach the wood. An Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis), with its four-parted stigma forming the characteristic x-shape, stands alone at the edge of the parking lot. Near the entrance to the woods, the slender pods of Poke Milkweed (Asclepias exaltata), a milkweed of shady savannas, will eventually dry and break open to release their seeds to the wind. Among the flowers, native grasses sway, like Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) which is now flowering and Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans) which has started to form its seeds.

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Among these grasses, a group of Autumn Dragonflies (Sympetrum vicinum) rested on dried flower heads, needing a bit more sun on cool days. This species has a little cloud of yellow near the base of the hindwing. They hatch out in August and September, providing more late summer color. Mature males are the easiest to spot with their red abdomen. Juvenile males (in closeup below) have a yellow thorax and a yellowish brown abdomen, according to Wikipedia. And the females (second and fourth from the left  in the photo at the far right below) have a brown thorax and a brownish/red abdomen. I find it hard to distinguish between females and juvenile males in Autumn dragonflies,  so feel free to correct me!

One of the oddest sights at Lost Lake occurred on my last visit. I saw something with very long legs dancing vertically, up and down, above small holes in the earth between the grass stems. Eventually, after developing and cropping a lot of photos and doing online research, it became clear that I’d been seeing a Tiger Crane Fly (Tipula dorsalis) laying her eggs in the soil. Taking photos of a crane fly rapidly jumping up and down is a bit challenging, but if you look closely, I hope you can see her curving, vertical body as she pokes the needle-sharp ovipositor at the end of her abdomen into the soil. Her narrow wings and very long legs were splayed in every direction as she danced from one hole to another, laying potentially hundreds of eggs. Click this link  from bugguide.net for a much better photo than mine!

A Tiger Crane fly holds herself vertically as she jumps into and out of a hole in the earth, laying her eggs.

By the way, crane flies are gangly, harmless creatures who can’t bite or sting humans or animals as the unrelated mosquitoes do. Crane flies live only 10-15 days and drink nectar, if they eat all (some don’t!). The only damage they do is in their larval form, when the caterpillars, called “leatherjackets,” do eat some turf grasses and agricultural plants.

The Persistence of Life

Despite the ravages of early September – hurricanes one after another, wildfires, earthquakes – here in the protected natural areas of Oakland Township, life persists. The young green heron successfully fishes its food from among the water lilies. In forest shade, the flowers and grasses produce seed, relying on another spring to foster the next generation. A crane fly dances above the earth, seeing to it that their offspring still float over the grass stalks when summer comes again. And what about us?  Well, of course, we’re members too in that community of life on earth. I like the thought that as you and I foster and nourish that community, we’re doing our part to see that life persists on this little blue planet.

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben;butterfliesathome.com;Pollinators of Native Plants by Heather Holm; 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;Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels and others as cited in the text.