Tag Archives: False Sunflower

Charles Isley Park: Dressed in the Gold and Black of Late Summer

Do me a favor, would you? Imagine standing in front of a huge meadow full of tall grass and wildflowers dancing in a soft breeze. You can hear crickets and cicadas singing in the deep grass. Now turn your computer’s volume to about half and click on the arrow in the image below. (You’ll hear a little of the wind in the microphone.)

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

There! That’s a bit of what it’s been like at Charles Ilsley Park in the last few glorious weeks of August.  Goldfinches sing as they swoop in their roller coaster flights across the fields that are burnished with goldenrod. Butterflies, with golden wings fluttering, sip sweet nectar from the giant thistles. And all of this gilded beauty is backed by the sounds of a summer breeze sighing in your ear and the buzz of cicadas and crickets. That’s about as close to pure glory as my life affords.

The Glow Began in July…

The eastern path through the central meadow at Charles Ilsley Park on July 15, 2019

Let’s just say the Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) got magnificently carried away in the central meadow at Ilsley. Perhaps the contractor who planted wild seed last year had a wee bit too much of them in the mix? But I didn’t hear anyone complain when the meadow was literally blanketed in black and gold. By early August, they had browned, leaving behind seeds that will provide nourishment for migrators and winter birds.

Nature Comes Back with a Second Wave of Gold

A female Monarch (Danaus plexippus) stares out at me from a Black-eyed Susan finished off from the intense heat of July. Her wings are a lovely soft gold underneath.

In their place, though not quite as abundant, came a close relative, the buttery yellow Brown-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia triloba). Instead of a single flower on each stem like their black-eyed cousins, these Susans produce branching stems with profuse, but smaller blossoms which create a similar sunny effect.

Brown-eyed Susans emerged just as the Black-eyed Susans faded, though not in quite the same profusion.

Of course, August always brings waves of different Goldenrods to keep the gold coming in late summer. Right now, I commonly see three different ones: the cascades of Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), Stiff Goldenrod  (Solidago rigida) with its ramrod stems lined with clinging oval leaves and bouquet-like sprays of Grass-leaved Goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia) which is from a different genus of the Aster family. Later in the month, we’ll begin to see the  upright, lemon yellow plumes of Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) doing its part to keep the fields golden right into September. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

The Gray-headed/Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) add their droopy charm to the fields too, though their best days are behind them for this season. And the tall spikes of Common Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis) are topped by gold blossoms that stay open from evening until early morning, and later on cloudy days as well.

I love how native plants host so many insects in an era when the insect world is suffering from plunging numbers all over the planet. Here two False Sunflowers (Heliopsis helianthoides) standing next to each other hosted a Soldier Beetle (Cantharidae family) and the nymph of a Katydid (Tettigoniida family). Have a closer look at the amazing length of the katydid’s antennae by clicking on the right photo. One of the ways you can tell a grasshopper from a katydid is that grasshoppers have much shorter antennae than the very long, fine ones you’ll see on the nymph below.

Out in the far west of the park at the edge of the woods, a tall, striking, yellow flower with very unusual blossoms caught my eye. Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Stewardship Manager, identified it for me as Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia)and indeed, its flat stem had narrow “wings” on either side. Wingstem flower heads cluster at the top of the 3′-8′ stem. Each bloom is actually a flower within a ring of flowers. The “disc florets” in this plant are the tube-shaped flowers that thrust outward from the center of the flower head. What looks like a ring of petals around the central disc is actually a ring of “ray florets” and each of them is an individual flower that has the ability to produce its own seed. In botany, “florets” are individual flowers within a flower head, whereas what we see as individual petals on ray flowers are really three petals fused together. And how about those curly little stigmas that we see whimsically protruding from the ends of the disc florets! What a fun wildflower!

Wingstem is not seen a lot in Michigan, but it’s now growing in two of our parks!

Wingstem has a limited distribution in Michigan, so we’re lucky to have them. These Charles Ilsley Park plants grew from seeds that Ben collected at the township’s Blue Heron Environmental Area, which was the only place he’s seen them in the township. It’s exciting to know that the seeds Ben planted at Ilsley have taken hold, so that we now have two parks in which this unusual native plant has found a home.

Birds Matching the Black and Gold Landscape

Let’s Start with A Goldfinch Saga!

American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) – Unlike most other birds, Goldfinches start mating around mid- to late-July when the thistles bloom, which is a source for both nesting material and food for them. Once the first broods fledge in early August, most Goldfinches mate a second time.

On August 9, Mike and Joan Kent, birding friends, took a walk at Ilsley and spotted a nest in a thistle.  Joan peeked in and saw 3 eggs. They noticed a lot of Goldfinches nearby and assumed it was probably the nest of one of them. And that was that, until…

On our Wednesday bird walk on August 21, Vinnie Morganti, another member of our bird group, spotted the same nest located within the thorny stems of a tall Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare). A Goldfinch’s cup nest  is woven from plants and root fibers and lashed to a bush or plant with spider silk. Then it’s lined with thistle down which makes it close to waterproof inside. A small masterpiece. This pair chose a location which probably deterred predators, though it may have been a bit hard on the parents’ wings while feeding!

A Goldfinch nest tucked into a thistle and lined with thistle down

Peeking into the nest, I discovered  4 baby birds. Fellow birder, Tom Korb, got a photo of the blind and slightly fuzzy hatchlings by valiantly sticking his cellphone into the thistle above them. Tom and I decided to share monitoring these little birds until they fledged and report our findings to Cornell’s Nestwatch , a citizen science site we use for our township nest boxes.

Goldfinch hatchlings, probably about four days old,  cuddled up in a cup filled with plant down. Photo by Tom Korb.

We bird monitors are trained not to go to a nest more often than every 3 – 5 days. So when I returned to the park the following day, I stood far off looking through a long lens. Imagine my delight when I saw one little head popping up above the nest! I don’t know if it could see the meadow yet. Perhaps it was just enjoying the breeze ruffling its Einstein hairdo!

The fuzzy head of a goldfinch hatchling facing out into the meadow, perhaps to catch a breeze.

I came back to monitor on August 24 hoping to get a photo inside the nest despite the thistle’s thorns. I’d brought along the fancy, black leather gloves my mother had given me years ago to wear to  the theater – but here I was using them to reach inside a thistle! I could picture my mom laughing and shaking her head – but the gloves worked beautifully! In the photo, I could see the opened eye of at least one little nestling, though the rest were snoozing in their sturdy nest cup. It appeared that the beige tips of feathers might be emerging from their dark sheaths. We think now that they were about a week old in this photo.  They’d come a long way  from those blind babies in just 3 days!

Three days after we first saw them, their eyes were opening and their yellowish-beige feathers began to emerge from their sheaths. They were about a week old.

At our August 28 bird walk in another park, Mike Kent told us about his wife seeing the nest at Charles Ilsley Park on August 9.  Good news for us monitors, because that allowed us to use the guidelines on the Nestwatch site to estimate the age of the Goldfinch hatchlings more accurately. After the bird walk, I accompanied Tom on his monitoring trip to the Ilsley nest. What a change! Little heads peered up over the nest edge – eyes and beaks open. According to the Donald W. Stokes’ Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.1), during their first week after hatching, Goldfinch nestlings are quiet but will silently reach up for food if the edge of the nest is tapped. In the second week, these nestlings begin making a lot of noise – but wisely only do so when a parent arrives with food. Tom got a great photo of the bright red mouth of a begging, but silent, youngster!

The bright red inside the nestlings mouth makes a nice target for its parent when feeding! Photo by Tom Korb

That day, all the nestlings, now about 11 days old, looked bright and alert, peeking out into the world and fully feathered. The Stokes Guide explained that those white blobs on the nest are fecal sacs, the avian equivalent of soiled diapers. Goldfinch nestlings are quite fastidious. The first week after the young hatch, adults carry the waste sacs away from the nest. But starting in the second week, little goldfinches back up to the edge of the nest and drop these little packages over the side!

A nestling peers at me from the nest at 11 days old, surrounded by the fecal sacs that  it and the others have dropped over the nest edge.

My last turn at monitoring the nest was on August 31 – and the nest was empty. The nestlings had become fledglings. Our estimate is that they fledged on their 12th or 13th day after hatching. The nest was remarkably clean inside (if not outside) which might have meant a healthier, more comfortable environment for the nestlings.  

I could hear a fledgling begging far off in a stand of thistle and through my binoculars, I thought I saw a couple of small birds fluttering among the stems. A female flew in among the thistle, perhaps feeding “our” fledglings from her second brood. A male seemed to be on sentinel duty nearby before he flew off to gather more seed. Off into the world for our Goldfinch fledglings! And the end of our nesting saga.

Hard-working Goldfinch Adults

While the females incubate a second brood, male Goldfinches  are on their own in feeding the first brood – which can be as many as seven fledglings, according to Cornell’s nestwatch.org! Begging calls of first brood youngsters could be heard a week ago as young fledglings pursued their harried parents around the park or called from the treelines to be found. This little Goldfinch fledgling seemed a bit more mellow than the rest.

A goldfinch fledgling watching for its father and no doubt hoping for a meal.

The Goldfinches’ primary food source is thistle seed so I’ve seen males all over the fields with thistle down (pappus) hanging from their beaks. They dig industriously into the seedhead, pull out the down, carefully nibble off the seeds and then let the down fly. Stokes informed me that they feed partially digested seed to their  young, as they also do for the mate during her first week on the nest. Quite a responsibility!

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More Gold and Black Birds!

In a bush in the far west meadow, I saw a flash of yellow and took a quick couple of shots as a bird perched for a moment and then flew.  I wasn’t sure what I’d seen. Local birding expert, Ruth Glass, identified it as a female Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula.) She told me that by now most of our summer orioles have left for Central or South America with their young, so the one I saw was likely a migrator from further north.

The birding group saw other birds sporting lovely yellow trim. A trio of Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) perched far above in a bare tree. Through binoculars, two clearly had the yellow bellies and yellow tail bands that identify this handsome bird. Juveniles have a fainter black mask and some brown streaking on the breast, but in this distant photo against a gray sky, it’s hard to tell if any of them were juveniles or adults .

Cedar Waxwings added their bright yellow bellies and yellow-tipped tails to a golden August morning.

Ruth Glass also helped me identify a strange looking dark bird that mystified me. She said she was “95% sure” it was a male Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) molting from his brilliant blue breeding colors  into his mostly brown non-breeding colors which are similar to the female Bunting. This mottled look is common for males during the molt. I would never have guessed! Thank you, Ruth!

A male Indigo Bunting in the midst of his molt into brownish non-breeding colors

Some large dark brown birds also added contrast to all the gold around them. A trio of Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) rested on a broken snag near the edge of the center field. Through the trees on my way into the park, I saw one of them spreading its magnificent wings to the sunlight. They do this to warm them, stretch them, or to expose any bacteria on them to air and light.

A turkey vulture spreading its wings to the sun.

Around the corner, two other vultures perched on a broken snag. This one made me smile, because it looked as though it was appealing for a little sympathy. I’m afraid vultures don’t get much appreciation, though I think their soaring flight is graceful and the cleanup services they provide are crucial. Really, though, the bird was just preparing to preen.

Another vulture looks like it’s asking for sympathy, but it’s really just starting to preen.

The first vulture suddenly flew straight up in the air and landed rather awkwardly on a branch that was much too short. It fluttered clumsily right, then left, until it finally found its footing. Is it my imagination or are the other two a bit embarrassed by the graceless landing skills of their compatriot? Probably, my imagination….  (Tap arrow to play and to pause for reading captions.)

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Butterflies Complement the Color Scheme

This August the huge, dramatic Giant Swallowtail butteflies (Papilio cresphontes) arrived in Charles Ilsley Park in large numbers. One afternoon about two weeks ago, perhaps a dozen of them landed delicately on the large purple blooms of Bull Thistle, or hovered in front of them, extending their long proboscises to sip while avoiding the thorns. I don’t know if this thistle is a favorite plant for these big butterflies or if they were just the biggest blooms with the most nectar when they arrived. They chased each other over the fields, creating a shimmer of gold and black all over the central meadow.

A Giant Swallowtail, one of many at Ilsley in August, sips nectar from a Bull Thistle.

You’ll note that the one above has a few missing pieces on its wings and that the black edges look a bit worn. I compared the very tattered dorsal (upper) side of one I saw on thistle at Charles Ilsley Park in late August with the fine specimen I saw on Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa) at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park in late July a couple of years ago. I wondered if the difference in wear and tear was due to feeding among thorny thistles or perhaps just the normal battering big wings take after an extra month of foraging and mating. I’m guessing a bit of both.

These dramatic swallowtails have expanded their range further north since about 2001 when first frosts became more uncommon in September – perhaps an effect of global warming. They lay their eggs on plants that will act as hosts for their larvae, which includes two of our abundant natives, Swamp Milkweed  and the Solidago genus of Goldenrods.

The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) made its elegant contribution to the black-and-gold meadows. These high-flyers raise 2-3 broods each summer. Their caterpillars spin a remarkable chrysalis that matches dead wood very closely. It’s held in place by a thin string of silk on one end of the chrysalis and a silk pad at the other. That’s where the caterpillar spends the winter. There’s a remarkable photo of a Tiger Swallowtail’s chrysalis at the bottom of this Wikipedia page. Be sure to click on it to enlarge so you can tell where the bark ends and the chrysalis begins! My photo below shows the tiny hairs on the swallowtail’s wings – the closest my camera has ever come to a Tiger Swallowtail, I think.

The blue spots at the bottom of her rather ragged wings tells me that this is a female Tiger Swallowtail. Perhaps sipping at thistles has taken its toll on her as well as the Giant Swallowtails?

Three small Lepidopterans played a role in the color scheme. Like the members of the Swallowtail family (Papilio),  a female Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) found Bull Thistle a good choice for nectar in this transition time just before the Goldenrods reach their full glory and other fall asters emerge. I admit I appreciate the non-native Bull Thistles more this year, having seen how much sustenance they’re providing after a torrid July brought an earlier end to the bloom of so many wildflowers. A Clouded Sulphur (Colias philodice) paused on the drying leaves of a Queen Anne’s Lace. I’ve wanted to see a chrysalis of these small butterflies ever since I read it described as “yellow with a pink zipper”! No luck yet.  And the Ctenucha Moth (Erebidae family) did a fine job of contrasting its black wings with the yellow Grass-leaved Goldrod.

So much gold!  And I didn’t even include the gold and black bumblebees, wasps and honey bees foraging among this late summer landscape! Such riches, eh?

Late Summer Serenity

Sometimes life does come full circle.  Standing at the edge of the meadows at Charles Ilsley Park with sunlight falling on a fluttering, buzzing,  golden landscape, I could feel the deep sense of calm and quiet that I relished in our township in my childhood. On just such a morning then, I would stand on the sturdy limbs of a rugged old tree overlooking a wild pond or spread my blanket in the short grass near the shore and breathe in the comforting scent of warm earth and grass. I feel so fortunate as an older woman to still experience that certainty of being part of something big and beautiful that nature offers all of us if we take the time. I wish that for you, too.

Postcript: Watch for More Ilsley Photos!

Of course, Charles Ilsley Park offered me much more than gold and black in its rich diversity:  a wet spot in a field suddenly blooming with red and blue wildflowers, a fuzzy brown House Finch fledgling peeking through the greenery,  lavender blossoms emerging from the seedbank where a moist swale was restored, a dramatic Darner dragonfly decorated in a pattern of blue and green and more. So rather than extend this blog, I’ll create a shorter photo blog later this week to fill in the rest of the color palette at Charles Ilsley Park.  Hope you can drop by!

Out and About in Oakland: Rare Beauty on the Wet Prairie Again! (Paint Creek Trail)

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino
Blog post and photos
by Cam Mannino

As runners and bikers sail along beside you on the Paint Creek Trail, perhaps you, like me, wonder if they notice all the beauty around them.  But sometimes a walker misses glorious sites as well.  This week and last, Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide alerted me to two beautiful wildflowers that I would have missed!  Both were gracing  lesser known areas of our park system, areas full of life and a surprising variety of native wildflowers.  I thought I should share them with other walkers, runners and bikers who might have missed them, too.

The Wet Prairie (Paint Creek Trail):  Michigan Lilies and More

A “wet prairie” sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it?  Prairies are always sunny, but the soil can range from wet to very dry.  Sometimes, in the flood plain of a stream, or other area with a shallow water table, special fire-adapted wildflowers and grasses find a footing. Conditions are perfect at this spot on the trail.  The original channel of Paint Creek and its floodplain cross this 10 acre parcel on the west side of the trail.  Last fall, we published a blog of the autumn flowers that bloomed here last year. And in June, we showed the stunning native Yellow Ladyslipper  orchids  (Cypripedium parviflorum) hidden in the grass.  Now look at this summer bloom!

Michigan Lily
Native Michigan Lily near the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail

How’s that for a spectacular native plant!  The Michigan Lily (Lilium michiganense) might remind you of the non-native Orange Day-Lily (Hemerocallis fulva) or what we used to call “Roadside Lilies.”  But this is a much fancier, native lily.  They don’t last long in hot weather – and deer frequently eat the buds before they bloom, which prevents them re-seeding.  So we’re lucky to have them this year!  Take a look as you hike or bike near the prairie.

Other native wildflowers are blooming on the Wet Prairie now too.  Of course, orange Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) dots the area.  Here’s Ben’s photo from last summer.

The grand finale, this milkweed takes the show. A beautiful milkweed for your garden, this species form clumps instead of spreading widely.
Butterfly milkweed dots the Wet Prairie with bright orange blossoms. Ben’s photo.

Native Shrubby Cinquefoil (Dasiphora fruticosa)  tilts its blossoms to the sun near the trail, too.

Shrubby Cinquefoil Wet Prairie
Native Shrubby Cinquefoil loves the moist ground and the full sun of the Wet Prairie.

The lavender blooms of native Showy Tick Trefoil (Desmodium canadense) are drying in the heat but the Joe Pye (Eutrochium maculatum), a native wildflower that likes moist feet and sunlight, is just getting ready to go!

Insects swoop from plant to plant in the Wet Prairie searching for either food or shade.  Here  a female Widow Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula luctuosa) pauses on a bare twig.

Widow Skimmer Wet Prairie_edited-1
A female Widow Skimmer dragonfly on the Wet Prairie

This young male Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly (Erythemis simplicollis) still has chevrons on his tail. As he matures, a waxy coating will move up from the tip of his tail, turning his abdomen light blue.  Eastern Pondhawk males fiercely defend about 5 square yards of territory from “intruders,” according to my insect “guru,” the Bug Lady at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Eastern Pondhawk Dragonfly young
A young male Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly. Males defend about 5 square yards of territory.

A modest brown butterfly paused for a moment on some dried flower heads.  I think it’s a Columbine Duskywing (Erynnis lucilius), but it may be another Duskywing.  I love its striped antennae.

Columbine Duskywing erynnis licilius
A Duskywing butterfly with striped antennae

Native False Sunflowers (Heliopsis helianthoides) shine golden in the  shade beneath the trees just south of the Wet Prairie.

Woodland sunflowers
False Sunflowers west of the Paint Creek Trail near Silverbell Road.

The prescribed burns and removal of invasive shrubs have given the native Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) lots of room just at the edge of the tree canopy south of the Wet Prairie.

Black Susans PC Wet Prairie

That Other Wildflower Surprise –  Gallagher Creek Park

Ben notified me too about another native that’s blooming right now at the little 15 acre park at the corner of Silverbell and Adams Road.  So I hurried over  to see it, of course, and wow!  So many native flowers, so much birdsong, a frog, dragonflies, butterflies – all kinds of life is emerging in that small park at the headwaters of Gallagher Creek!   I plan to dedicate a piece to it very soon.  But  this week I wanted to share this  elegant spike of white blossoms  called  Culver’s Root (Veronicastrum virginicum) because  its blooms only last a couple of weeks.  So if you want to see it, hurry over to Gallagher Creek Park, too.  The flowers are just to the west of the parking lot,  swaying gracefully  in the tall grass.

Culver's Root – Version 2
Culver’s Root, an elegant native wildflower, swaying in the breeze at Gallagher Creek Park.

It’s wonderful to have friends who share their discoveries with you.  Thank you, Dr. Ben!  I hope some of you readers will use the comment section when you make discoveries in our township parks.  The more eyes we have looking, the more beauty we’ll discover in the meadows, prairies and forests when we’re “Out and About in Oakland!

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.

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Small Surprises as Summer Wanes

Cam at BC1
Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

Nature is always full of great little surprises.  This week again, nature sprung a few on me – the unfamiliar appearance of a familiar bird, a sky full of dragonflies, and a park visitor who has touched the soft fuzz on a sleeping bee!

But the predictable is comforting, too. Queen Anne’s Lace has begun sharing the Old Fields with tufts of Goldenrod, all of them swaying and dancing in the wind.  Glorious days for a walk in Bear Creek!

goldenrod western path2
Queen Anne’s Lace now shares the western slope with burgeoning Goldenrod.

An Avian Surprise (at least to me…)

The molt that I discussed last week continues.   Groups of young House Wrens (Troglodytes aedon) are still hiding in bushes within the park, waiting for the fall migration.  You can hear their persistent scolding as you walk by .

wren in bushes 5
Groups of young wrens hide in bushes around the park, waiting for the fall migration.

An Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) hopped restlessly in a bare tree looking south, as if dreaming of his winter home on the Amazon.

Eastern Kingbird3
An Eastern Kingbird looking south as if dreaming of his winter home on the Amazon.

But here’s the SURPRISE!  Now does this look like a male Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) to you?

Male mallard in eclipse plumage
A male Mallard in its “eclipse plumage” after the molt.

If so, congratulations!  It didn’t to me.  This is actually what the glamorous green-headed male Mallard looks like after his mid-summer molt.  It’s called “eclipse plumage. ” The flight feathers are molted at the same time,  so during the molt, he was temporarily flightless.  Courtship for Mallards begins in the fall,  so in a few weeks the reddish- brown head feathers will be molted again into the brilliant green the male needs for attracting his mate.  The clue to gender in mallards, by the way, is the bill,  which is olive green/yellow in the male and orange with black in the female.  Eclipse plumage!  Who knew?

A Surprise in the Woods:  Green Rain!

Last Sunday, entering the Oak-Hickory woods, my husband and I began to hear what sounded like raindrops, pit-patting around us in the leaves and on the ground.  Puzzled, we finally realized that small green chunks were raining down on us. High in a Red Oak (Quercus rubra) sat a black squirrel.  Here’s one NOT at the top of a tree!

black squirrel2
This squirrel is a probably a black Fox Squirrel rather than a black Gray Squirrel since it is not pure black.

Black squirrels are just a color variant of the Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) or the Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger). Of course, the Surprise –  “green rain” –  was a  shower of green acorn pieces that lasted several minutes as the black squirrel munched high above.  It took us a minute to catch on and we had a good laugh. Here’s an un- chewed Red Oak acorn; the mature ones are nut-brown.

small green acorn
The source of the “green rain,”  pieces of Red Oak acorn, fell around us from the munching of a black squirrel high above.

Another small surprise:  According to Wikipedia, North American squirrels were mostly black before Europeans came here, because forests were huge and shady and being black offered protection against predators and the cold.  With deforestation, the gray and brown varieties flourished. Now black squirrels are appearing more often in northern areas that have colder winters.

A Surprise in the Air:  A Swarm!

A squadron of about twenty-five darners (genus Anax), large dragonflies, swooped and dove over the western Old Field on Sunday, looking like Harry Potter in a quidditch match. Quite a surprise, since we’d never before seen more than two or three darners at a time in Bear Creek.  Probably we were seeing a feeding frenzy since lots of insects were foraging on abundant wildflowers below.    I only managed to photograph  6 in this one small section of the sky.

Squadron of darners
Squadron of darner dragonflies over a field full of insects.

According to an article by Michael L. May in the Journal of Insect Conservation, some dragonflies, including some (but not all) Green Darners (Anax junius), annually migrate in huge swarms, traveling “hundreds to thousands of kilometers north to south.”   Really?  Another small surprise for me!  I wonder if this squadron will migrate with a larger swarm? See Green Darners in an earlier TWBC post.

So what was in the fields below the darner swarm?  Despite the hush from the molting birds, Bear Creek is humming with insects.  The Carolina Grasshopper (Dissosteira carolina), now full grown ( see the nymph in the July 30 blog),  makes a dry whirring sound as it flies short distances along the trail on its dark wings. It also sings, or stridulates, by rubbing  its rasp-like hind leg against its forewing .

Carolina grasshopper
The Carolina grasshopper now has its copper color and makes short flights along the trail with its dark wings.

Most of the Red-Legged Grasshoppers (Melanoplus femurrubrum) are developing a bit later than usual this summer.  So this male nymph will need to molt into an adult before we hear it singing in September.

Later instar red-legged grasshopper
This is a late summer nymph of a Red-Legged Grasshopper who probably has not starting “singing” yet.

Grasshoppers have short antennae.  Crickets and katydids have lo-o-o-ng ones!  Here’s a female Shieldback Katydid (genus Atlanticus) that may be contributing to the hum in the fields or at the edge of the woods.  Look at the length of both her antennae and that very long ovipositor with which she lays her eggs.  (Hint: it looks like a tail.)

Shieldback Katydid genus Atlanticus
A Shieldback Katydid with the long antennae of all katydids and a very long ovipositor with which she lays her eggs.

Annual Green Cicadas  (Tibicen canicularis) drone in the trees, looking like some sort of alien.   (This one, however, was handily on our garage door!)

Cicada
The drone of the Annual Green Cicada is part of the familiar late summer hum.

Last weekend, bees buzzed from flower to flower in the western Old Field, balancing gracefully on the stems.  Another recent surprise for me was learning that the common Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) is a non-native brought here from Europe in the 1600’s.  Here’s one with the “pollen baskets,” (corbicula) on her hind legs bulging after foraging among the goldenrod.

Honey bee with jodpurs
A Honey Bee, a non-native bee,  fills the pollen baskets on its hind legs as it forages on goldenrod.

As you’ve no doubt heard, Honey Bees have fallen on hard times, suffering from  multiple causes of  “Colony Collapse Disorder.” So it’s great to see them buzzing in the sunlight on so many late summer flowers in Bear Creek.

And speaking of bees…

Surprise Information from a Fellow Bear Creek Walker

One of the pleasures of being a Volunteer Park Steward is meeting so many other people with nature knowledge and experience.  A kindly woman named Mavis told me this week that she sometimes sees our native Bumblebees (Genus Bombus) sleeping under Goldenrod fronds or leaves at sunset.  She said she very gently reaches up the palm of her hand and touches their fuzzy bodies! Imagine what that might feel like!

I’ve read since then that a sleeping bumblebee is probably a drone, a male.  The female workers generally return to the hive at night to feed the queen, other workers and the larvae (baby bees). Males don’t even have leg baskets for gathering pollen.  They simply buzz about feeding themselves (thereby pollinating plants) and wait for a chance to mate with the queen – so they have no need to return to the hive.

So now I have another new goal – to feel the fuzz on a sleeping bumblebee.  The female Bumblebee worker below is filling her pollen basket by burying herself in a plume of Meadowsweet (Spiraea alba) in one of the native flower beds.

Meadowsweet closeup w bumblebee
A female bumblebee is almost buried in Meadowsweet as she fills the pollen baskets on her hind legs with its pale pollen.

Another Surprise:  Four Different, Very Tall Yellow Wildflowers in the Native Bed.

The native beds near the shed are full of tall yellow flowers – in fact four different ones! Thanks to Stewardship Manager, Ben VanderWeide, I’ve learned to distinguish between these giant beauties rather than seeing just “tall yellow flowers.”  It seems that these plants, like the asters,  have “composite flowers,” i.e.,  each apparent “petal” is actually a separate ray flower (or floret) and at the center are the disk flowers with a seed attached to each.

I’ve featured one of the yellow giants before, Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum). It’s super tall, up to 10 feet,  with a composite flower, ball-shaped buds on bare stalks and GIANT leaves near the ground.

prairie dock flower
Prairie Dock can grow to up to 10 feet high and features ball-shaped buds and huge leaves right at ground level.

Another I’ve mentioned before, False Sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides) also has a composite flower.  It grows about 8 feet high with leaves along the stalk. Here you can see the disk flowers in bloom.

False sunflower flowering
The disk flowers at the center of this False Sunflower are in bloom.

Then there’s the characteristic drooping ray flowers of the Cut-Leaved Coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata)  that grows 6 to 8 feet high. Here a bumblebee has its proboscis in one of the tube-shaped disk flowers.

green cone flower w insect_edited-1
Cut-leaved Coneflower with a bumblebee enjoying the disk flowers.

And rounding off the group of yellow giants is  Tall Coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris) which grows 3 to 9 feet tall.  Obviously, Honey Bees and Bumblebees love them, too!

Bees on tall coreopsis
Two bumblebees and a Honey Bee  busily  probe blossoms, pollinating the Tall Coreopsis.

While we’re discussing native giants,  have a look at  the big tufts of Big Blue Stem (Andropogon gerardii) which are now showing the pronged seed heads which gave this tall prairie grass its other name, Turkey Foot.  I remember walking through a field on Lake George Road as a child with these giants towering over my head.  So it’s great to see them back again since the prescribed burns in Bear Creek!

big blue stem1
Big Blue Stem, a native prairie grass that can grow 10 feet tall,  has reappeared in the park since prescribed burns.

Coming Attractions:  Asters!

The purples and lavenders of native Asters are beginning to appear in Bear Creek.  Here’s this year’s first glimpse of three that will be much more prolific in the coming days.  Asters, like the yellow giants above, all have composite flowers as well.

New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae)near the center pond:

New England Aster
The first dark purple New England Asters of 2015 with their composite flowers.

Smooth Asters (Symphotrichum laeve) on the western sloping path are lighter lavender and have a more delicate look than the New England Aster.

Smooth aster
The more delicate, lavender Smooth Asters have “petals” that are really individual ray flowers with disk flowers at the center.

And finally, I believe these are Panicled Asters (Symphytrichum lancelotaum) with small, white to  lavender ray flowers and yellow to lavender disk flowers.  My wildflower experts will check on this for me next week.

Panicled aster?
The small Panicled Asters have whitish lavender ray flowers (petals) and yellow or lavender disk flowers at the center.

A Fond Farewell:

The striking red Cardinal Flower is almost done for the year.  If you have time, take the path that leads north from the playground and have one last look on the southern side of the marsh boardwalk that’s on your left a short way down.

Cardinal flower end of August
The Cardinal flower is finishing its gorgeous red bloom near the marsh north of the playground.

So, if you like Surprises,  nature always obliges – especially at Bear Creek Nature Park. Literally, never a dull moment!

*Footnote:  My sources for information, as well as Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991). The viceroy butterfly is not a Batesian mimic; Stokes Nature Guides:  A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net.; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for beetle info and invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman.