Spring is an incredibly busy time for our stewardship manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide. So many projects demand attention at once – and they all depend on so many variables! Planting native seed has to happen while the ground is still cold and wet. Prescribed burns, however, have to happen when the wind is low and from the right direction, and the plants are dry.
Meanwhile volunteer training and supervision is going on for vernal pool monitoring, nesting box monitoring and burn crews. Whew! Here’s a sample of what went on in late March and April at just one location – Bear Creek Nature Park.
Seeding Mowed Areas with Native Seed
In late March, Dr. Ben and Stewardship Specialist Alyssa Radzwion began a project to spread the seeds of native grasses and wildflowers in the areas cleared by forestry mowing last fall. The hope is that these native plants can help prevent some renewed growth of the invasive shrubs that were removed. It’s a project that will take years of persistent work, but they made a good beginning.
Monitoring the Life in Vernal Pools
In mid- April, the stewardship staff, a stewardship tech from the Six Rivers Land Conservancy (see Ian below) and a group of volunteers, including Parks Commissioner Dan Simon and his wife pulled on tall boots and waders and ventured into the vernal pools in Bear Creek’s forest. The purpose is to monitor the health of these temporary pools, which are biodiversity hotspots in our forests.
As usual, the crew found a surprising variety of creatures. Spring frogs, salamanders and many insects choose vernal pools as a good place to mate and lay eggs because they are free of hungry fish. The pools dry up and disappear in warmer weather, preventing fish from establishing if they are introduced.
Nest Box Monitoring
For the second year, Dr. Ben has organized and trained a group of volunteers to monitor nest boxes from first nesting to the flight of fledglings. We “citizen scientists” report our data to Cornell Ornithology Lab’s “NestWatch” program. This year Ben added six boxes in Bear Creek Nature Park to the ones in Draper Twin Lake Park, Charles Ilsley Park, and along the Paint Creek Trail. And I’ll be the Bear Creek monitor this year, which will be great! I’m hoping to count Eastern Bluebirds and Tree Swallows, and possibly Black-capped Chickadees or House Wrens where the nest boxes are closer to trees and shrubs. We might have Brown-headed Cowbirds to count too if those characters lay their eggs in any of the other birds’ nests!
The boxes were only up a day or so when Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) and Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) began to explore the boxes. I’m betting they are impressed with the real estate – new construction, a southeast exposure and a security system (metal predator guards to keep out raccoons, snakes, etc.). Between raindrops last Thursday, I watched a pair of Tree Swallows courting on one of the new boxes. They were doing their wet gurgling call to each other the whole time and touching beak-to-beak, while the male performed fancy wing displays. The male had just chased off a competitor, so he seemed excited! It looks like an argument in the photo below, doesn’t it? But I think it was just a lively prelude to mating.
I also found two completed Bluebird nests made of dry grasses in the new Bear Creek nest boxes, but didn’t get to see the female doing the building. However, here’s a little Bluebird female I saw at Charles Ilsley Park the week before bringing nesting material to her box.
Much to my delight, four days later at Bear Creek Nature Park, I found the first egg in one of our new boxes – a Bluebird egg. They lay one egg each day for 3-5 days and won’t start incubating them until all the eggs are laid. The eggs then generally hatch on the same day, making feeding the nestlings more efficient for the adult birds. Remember, please, that only trained and certified volunteers are allowed to monitor the bluebird boxes so as not to cause too much disturbance at the nest!
Holding Prescribed Burns Using Trained Volunteers
The township uses prescribed burns to periodically refresh our fire-adapted native plants, which benefit from periodic fires. Some of these burns are complicated and require hiring professional burn crews. But many are conducted by a group of volunteers trained and supervised by Dr. Ben. In late April, previous volunteer crew members and some new volunteers practiced their skills with two small burns at Bear Creek Nature Park in the native gardens near the parking lot. Volunteers are an important part of the stewardship program and the teamwork is an great way to meet local people who care about the natural world. Consider joining us!
And a Celebratory Dance to End a Busy Month
Toward the very end of April, Dr. Ben arranged our annual Earth Day/Spring celebration: The Woodcock Dance Watch – and wow! This year’s dance was spectacular! This odd bird, with big eyes toward the back of its head, a stout body and a huge beak, does its unique aerial mating dance at dusk.After a short review of information about the American Woodcock (Scolopax minor), we toasted marshmallows while waiting for the sun to set. (Thanks to iNaturalist photographer Ty Smith for sharing his photo.)
This year, one of our birding group members had been making almost nightly visits to Bear Creek Nature Park to watch one particular Woodcock who faithfully danced on the path near a certain puddle. So, as the sky darkened, ten of us gathered on the slope designated by our birder friend, Vinnie, and waited.
Suddenly, very close to us, the Woodcock landed on the path and started his dance. He began with a very odd bug-like buzz called a “peent” call while turning in circles, as he attempted to attract any available female. Then he took to the air with whirring wings, flying in lazy circles high in the air while burbling a different call. Finally he plopped back down right where he started. Without pause he started the “peenting” again, and the dance continued. It was an exciting performance! We all came away feeling it had been an evening well spent celebrating the spring rituals of the natural world.
A Busy Month for Nature and its Stewards
Ah, Spring! Little creatures slip into and out of ponds to begin mating. Seeds await the moisture and warmth they need to thrust new stems into the sunlight. Birds are busy migrating north, establishing territory, finding mates, building nests – even dancing! And we humans are busy studying, recording and preparing their habitat for another glorious summer!
Wow, what a tough April – for us and for wildlife! I even considered the possibility at one point that our thermometer was broken, since it seemed to be stuck at 32 degrees! The intrepid birding group went out in a snow squall the first week of the month. Despite cold and driving wind, we still came across flocks of early migrators, like the Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) pictured above, along with more than 60 robins foraging in the meadows.
We got a couple of brief respites in which it was possible to imagine a normal spring day with birdsong, fragile leaves, turtles warming in the sun. Then it was back in the freezer. Wildlife and plant life coped with cold wind and sleet, soaked up whatever sun was available and waited for change. We humans harnessed the warmer days for stewardship projects. And then voilà, spring arrived (I hope) last weekend.
Despite the Icy Cold, Birds Arriving, Leaving, and Braving the Cold, Plus a Tough Little Willow Tree.
Experts tell us that bird migration depends more on the length of spring days, than it does on the temperature. As a result, our first summer-only birds arrived to find snowy fields rather than the first greening of spring. What could they or our year ’round residents do but cope?
This Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) hid among the grasses at the edge of the marsh as the snow fell on the birders the first Wednesday in April. She’s probably been back for a few weeks and is well-equipped to deal with the cold. Normally by this time, though, she’d be picking nest sites, but I doubt this thin spot at the edge of the marsh was being seriously considered.
In a tree at the south end of the marsh, a male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) looked dismayed by the cold wind ruffling his crest. His staring eyes seemed to suggest that he was as stunned by the freezing temperatures as the bundled-up birders below him!
Birders spotted the silhouette of a Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)hunched in a branch near the marsh. No doubt it was hoping to have some clean-up work soon. After all, its job and its food source is seeing that all the carrion in the park is dealt with quickly and efficiently. I had to wonder if it regretted having left southern Ohio, or points even farther south.
During a brief pause in the snowfall, a Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula), who may have spent his winter in southern Ohio, stared out into the white landscape. It’s likely he arrived with other males and a mixed flock of Red-wings and Brown-headed Cowbirds, frequent traveling companions this time of year.
Over at the Playground Pond, a shy little Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe)huddled on a branch, twitching its tail over the water, as the snow fell. Having perhaps wintered in Tennessee, this little bird is usually one of the earliest flycatchers to arrive in Michigan. So it’s hardy enough to brave the cold – though maybe, like us, it have would preferred better April weather. Look closely; it’s nicely camouflaged against the branches and behind the veil of falling snow!
Our sturdy, native Pussy Willow (Salix discolor) survives even in Alaska and northern Canada. So it bravely thrust forth its fuzzy white catkins in the southern part of the marsh as the snow swirled around it. The bright, bare branches of native Red Twig/Red-Osier Dogwood (Cornus sericea) added a nice dash of color to a dark morning.
Some of the winter-only visitors are still stocking up before leaving for points north. Small flocks of American Tree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea) twitter among the bushes, getting last minute meals before heading to Hudson’s Bay or the Arctic tundra for the summer. They certainly seem to relish cold weather! I’m glad Bear Creek Nature Park seems to have provided enough winter food for this small long-distance flyer.
During a brief snow melt last week, the Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis)also seemed busy preparing to depart northward for the summer. They foraged among the newly sprouting grass where the prescribed burn had taken place in March. They don’t travel quite as far as the Tree Sparrows, perhaps only into Ontario.
Short, Warm Respites Meant Birdsong, Frog Song, Turtles and More
For a few short days, off and on, we had sun and some genuinely spring-like temperatures. The Wood Frogs (Rana sylvatica)thawed out from their winter freeze. The low, chuckling call of the Wood Frogs joined the constant, rhythmic peeping of the Chorus Frogs, featured in the blog a couple of weeks ago. Here’s a photo of a Wood Frog taken last November as they began hibernation. The black patch near the eye underlined with light yellow, plus ridges down the back are the field marks for this small frog.
The clucking or chuckling sounds in the foreground of this recording from a week ago are those of the Wood Frog. The higher-pitched calls in the background are from Western Chorus frogs. Be sure to turn up your volume!
On a cold but sunny afternoon, the male Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) chirped his burbling refrain as the wind ruffled his feathers and carried his melodious tune out across the Eastern Meadow.
On the recording below taken ten days ago, he sings loudly twice with a bit of a rest in between.
When the temperature rose to sixty degrees, all kinds of plants, animals and insects seemed to come to life at once! When Ben ventured out into the park about 8:30 pm one evening, he heard the buzzing “peent” call of the American Woodcock (Scolopax minor). This call from the ground precedes an aerial display in which the Woodcock spirals up into the sky and then chirps on the way down, plummeting the last several feet before landing right where it began. All this happens just before dark in small open fields near wetlands at Bear Creek and Cranberry Lake Parks. For the whole sequence of sounds during this mating flight, try this link at Cornell Ornithology Lab. (Wait for the “peent!” at the end. It will surprise you!). Though I’ve heard and briefly seen the Woodcock, here’s a photo by talented photographer Jerry Oldenettel at iNaturalist.org who’s had much better luck than I at getting a good photo!
A pair of Bluebirds (Sialis sialis)seem to searching out nest sites at Bear Creek. I saw a male one snowy afternoon peering down into the grass for possible food and a female surveying the Eastern Meadow.
A male bluebird scanning the grass for something to eat.
A female bluebird surveying the eastern meadow
This male Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus)finds all kinds of good things to eat as he tap, tap, taps on a tree trunk. Though they’ll eat seeds and fruits, their preference is for insect larvae, so they’re very good stewards of trees, ridding them of bark beetles and other insects. According to Donald W. Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.1), if we hear a quick, loud, regular beat in its drumming, that’s a mating call. When the drumming is lighter and irregular, the Hairy is either feeding or starting to excavate a nest hole.
Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater)foraged in the fields as well. These handsome birds don’t create nests, but rather lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. Cowbirds aren’t really irresponsible parents. Having evolved to constantly follow western buffalo herds, they had no time to care for young. So the cowbirds who took advantage of the nests and care of other birds carried on the species!
The Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta marginata), who’d been hibernating in the cold mud on pond bottoms all winter, climbed onto logs all over the park on the first warm day. In the photo below, nine of them were basking in a patch of sunlight within a shady wetland, letting the sun soak into their dark shells. Aahhh, that must have felt sooo good!
While hand sowing native seed, we discovered Eastern Garter Snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis) twisted around each other in a wriggling hug as they mated in the brown grass. The female, according to Wikipedia, is larger than the male. They may have evolved this way because garter snakes bear live young. The more little snakes they can carry, the more likely their genes will go on to another generation.
With temperatures so low, insects are still scarce in the fields right now. But I noticed what appears to be a Sexton/Carrion Beetle (g. Nicrophorus, fam. Silphidae) clambering through grass and leaves one warm-ish afternoon. It was probably sensing a dead mouse or bird and heading to bury it as a source of food for its larvae. These small members of the “cleanup crew” are large and colorful, usually dark with red on the forewings and fancy club-shaped antennae.
I saw two plants making go of it in the cold April air. The perennial Skunk Cabbage(Symplocarpus foetidus) thrust it bulbous, purple bract (spathe) up through the mud. The bract envelops a long spike (spadix) which holds the flowers. Early flies and bees are attracted by its pungent (and skunk-y, not very pleasant) odor. Interesting that the leaves on this plant show up after the flowers.
The skunk cabbage’s flower within its spathe emerging from the mud on March 31.
Its leaves beginning to form by April 18.
At this time last year, another of the earliest spring flowers, Spring Beauties (Claytonia virginica) had already presented their pink- and white-striped blossoms in the forest. This year, though, in the middle of April, their spindly leaves were just starting up around the roots of large trees. Perhaps the warmer weather will hurry them along, too!
Spring Beauty is slow getting going this year.
Look for its tiny blossoms under forest trees as the sunlight increases.
Stewardship Projects Proceeded
A few cold but clear days provided suitable conditions for Dr. Ben’s VanderWeide’s park projects. Along with the prescribed burn in March and hand-sowing the fields of Bear Creek with native seed, Ben, Alex Kriebel (stewardship specialist with Oakland Township Parks), Ian Ableson (a new stewardship employee at Six Rivers Land Conservancy), and 4 volunteers began the yearly monitoring of vernal pools. As part of a larger project of the Michigan Natural Features Inventory, Ben monitors these biodiversity hotspots three times over the summer. What a collection of unusual creatures! They wake and feed or quickly hatch, mature, mate, lay eggs and expire in these temporary ponds that dry over the summer. Great to know our vernal pools are teeming with life! (Click on pause button if you need more time for captions.)
The Promise of Full-fledged Spring
We humans know how to take advantage of spring-like weather, just as the wildlife does. One warm, cloudy afternoon, a small girl brought her kite to test the April winds. This youngster got her long-tailed kite flying high and kept it there. So great to see parents bringing young children out to play surrounded by nature in our parks.
Last weekend, I think most of us dared to hope that “real spring” had finally arrived. The air was softer, the temperature more normal for late April, and a brighter sun warmed our upturned faces from a blue sky. Leaf buds that have waited on branches all winter have begun to swell. Soon more of those buds will open and our world will slowly dress itself in spring’s lovely shade of green. More migrators will navigate hundreds or even thousands of miles, making use of the sun, the stars and earth’s magnetic fields to find their way back to us. Mornings and sunsets will be filled with more chatter and birdsong. So try to keep your eyes and ears alert! Spring’s full-fledged arrival is just beginning to burst forth in full glory.
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner; inaturalist.org;Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela;Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels, and others as cited in the text.
Quite a week at Bear Creek! It began with 3 inches of snow at 30 degrees and ended at 70 degrees and sunshine! I began the week by joining Ben and two other volunteers (Catherine Hu and Antonio Xeira) in monitoring the creatures that live in our vernal pools – the wetlands that fill in the spring and mostly or completely dry by middle or end of the summer. I’ll be sharing both my photos this week and, with his permission, the photos of Antonio Xeira, an avid birder from Portugal and a fellow lover of the natural world.
It turns out that Bear Creek’s vernal pools are teeming with life! And new life began to assert itself in the rest of the park, too, as the weather warmed. The first woodland flowers thrust out of the earth, a few more migratory birds rode in on the wind, butterflies spread their wings in the sunlight, turtles basked and swam while the frogs sang and salamanders left floats of eggs in the vernal pools. Finally, on a perfect spring Saturday, humans appeared on the playground lawn enjoying the spring sunlight with their fellow creatures. A lovely week.
Who Knew Bear Creek Hosted Shrimp and Clams?
Michigan Natural Features Inventory is leading a project to map and monitor vernal pools, something never done in Michigan before. Since these wetlands dry up for part of the year, they are particularly vulnerable to being filled in. But scientists are finding that vernal pools are “biodiversity hotspots” of the forests. Late fall or early spring flooding of these pools stimulates dormant creatures to awake and others to hatch as the water level rises. The “indicator species,” the ones normally present in a vernal pool, are, among others, wood frogs, fairy shrimp,and a variety of salamanders. We sampled four ponds and found evidence of these species.
Fairy Shrimp (Order Anostraca) are .5 to 1.5 inches long, swim upside down and look like a tiny version of the shrimp sold at the seafood counter! According to the website of the Vernal Pool Association, their sets of 11 leaf-like legs do several things – propel them through the water, gather food (algae, bacteria etc.), and take in oxygen from the water.
Here’s a female with an egg sac attached, and eggs visible inside!
Of course there are other small creatures in these ponds too – tiny Fingernail Clams (family Sphaeriidae), mosquito larvae and water beetles that row around with their front legs like oars! (Click to enlarge; hover cursor for captions)
Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus) love these ponds. We found brown ones and one tiny rust-colored one underneath a log. They come in varying shades of brown and, according to Wikipedia, some are able to change their shade! (Both photos by Antonio Xeira)
The salamanders had already mated, laid their eggs in the water and disappeared under logs or leaf litter. But their egg sacks, attached to twigs, were pretty impressive! Ben thinks the larger egg masses are Spotted Salamander(Ambystoma maculatum), with Blue-spotted Salamanders (Ambystoma laterale) laying smaller egg masses or individual eggs.
Meanwhile in the Sunshine…Birds!
More migratory birds are passing through to cooler climes or coming to spend their summer with us. One late afternoon on the far side of the Center Pond, I watched a Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) perch, watch carefully and suddenly dip down into the water with a rattling call. Belted Kingfishers excavate 3-6 foot bank-side tunnels for nesting which slope upward to keep out water. Fossils indicate that they have graced ponds for 600,000 years! This fellow was a male; a female has a rust-colored belt across her belly, making her one of the few female birds who are fancier than the males.
The Kingfisher will spend the summer with us, as will the Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus). These beautifully spotted birds can be identified in flight by a flash of white on their rump. They’re high in the trees now, probably searching out nest holes. But since ants and beetles are a favorite meal, you can spot them poking their long beaks and barbed tongues into lawns or trails too.
A tiny migrant arrived this week too, the hyper-active Ruby-Crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula). With a constantly flicking tail, these restless birds move from branch to branch, rarely alighting for more than a few seconds. This one is just passing through on its way to breed somewhere in Canada. Its “ruby crown” only appears when it’s excited so I guess this one felt relaxed, despite its hyper behavior.
A pair of Eastern Phoebes (Sayornis phoebe) hung out near the kiosk at Gunn Road. They were clearly checking it out as a possible nest site. Once she starts laying eggs, however, the female will chase this male away from her mud-and-grass nest.
I don’t often see American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) at Bear Creek during the winter, though they stay in the area. My theory is that they’re all at neighborhood thistle feeders! But admittedly, they’re easier to spot now that the males have donned their bright yellow summer feathers.
Flowers and Butterflies – It’s Definitely Spring!
Most years, I don’t see any woodland flowers until later in spring. The earliest to emerge are usually Spring Beauties (Claytonia virginica). But right now at Bear Creek, those lovely little flowers have only their leaves coming out of the ground in the dappled light of the woods. But another of my early spring favorites, with the un-poetic name Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), is blooming along the western side of the Northern Loop. Notice how the flowers arise before the furled leaf below has opened – unusual in plants. The leaf will make a circular cloak around the flower once it’s fully open.
Two butterflies fluttered over my shoulder on Saturday. Both of them spent the winter months as adult butterflies, hibernating in a frozen state under loose bark or in tree cavities. Mourning Cloaks are frequently the first butterflies out and about in the spring which means they start the mating process earlier and have more broods than many migrating butterflies or ones that hatch in the spring. This one quickly winged its way to the Oak-Hickory forest – perhaps hoping for oak sap to rise soon and fill wells made by sapsuckers. Sap is one of its favorite foods. Nice winter camouflage, eh? It looks like loose bark, especially with its wings closed. The Mourning Cloak has blue spots on it wings when they are open.
A small Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma) fluttered around me, landing on the trail. It also favors tree sap and spends the winter in frozen hibernation as an adult. The one I saw Saturday was tiny, restless and hard to photograph but it was still wearing winter colors – hindwing mostly orange with black spots (in photo at left). In the photo below, taken in a previous June, a summer-form Eastern Comma sports dark hindwings.
Basking Feels So Good in the Spring!
A Garter Snake (genus Thamnophis)had climbed onto a small tree in one of the vernal pools we monitored last Monday and dropped into the water as Antonio, one of the volunteers, approached. No doubt it was interrupted while trying to soak up some sunlight after frigid Sunday weather.
Fourteen Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta)shared logs in the Center Pond, soaking up the sun of the first really warm day. Like snakes, turtles are reptiles which can’t regulate their body heat except through activity. So most warm days turtles stick out their heads, necks and legs to capture the sun’s heat on their extremities as well as their dark shells.
I saw my first Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) on Saturday as it cruised the marsh. It was feeding below the water with its long neck and then poking its head out for a breath of air. It must feel great to eat and swim after a long winter under the ice.
And human denizens of the park came to Bear Creek on Saturday to eat and bask in the warm sunshine, too. This family (whose name I unfortunately forgot to get!) graciously allowed a photo of their picnic on the grass with a lovely little human in a big hat to protect her from the spring sunshine.
So much life in this 107 acres, eh? Within the shady vernal pools, on logs at the Center Pond, on bare tree limbs, in the grass on the edge of trails and on the green carpet of the playground, the park hummed with life by the end of the week. After a white-and-black, silent winter, the color and song of spring greet us like a warm smile. I hope you’ll be there, too, smiling back.
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.