This year eight volunteers are monitoring nest boxes at Draper Twin Lake Park, Charles Ilsley Park and along the Paint Creek Trail in Oakland Township. We keep track of when the nest is built, the date of the first egg laid, the hatching date and if possible, the fledgling date when the little Eastern Bluebirds, Tree Swallows, House Wrens or Chickadees exit the nest and come out into the big world.
We report our data to NestWatch, a citizen scientist project of the Cornell University Ornithology Lab.
Well, the excitement has peaked in the last two weeks as fledglings begin to screw their courage to the sticking point, leap out of their dark, cozy nests and take to the air. Two weeks ago, I was lucky enough to see a tiny Eastern Bluebird (Sialissialis) launch itself out of the nest box that I’m monitoring near my house and caught the moment with my camera as well. (Use the pause button if you need more time for captions.)
And now many of us volunteers and members of the birding group feel like we’re in a nursery, because we’re surrounded by baby birds! Unlike the young bluebird, Tree Swallow fledglings (Tachycineta bicolor) “are strong fliers as soon as they leave the nest,” according to the Stokes’ Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.1). This one at Charles Ilsley Park seemed to emerge from its nest fully ready to fly. Perhaps that is necessary since swallows feed on the wing. But the adults will help feed their fledglings for the first two or three days. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)[Edit: I’ve deleted the two closeups of the fledgling because from photos others took, I’m not sure it was the fledgling. My apologies.]
In the eastern prairie at Charles Ilsley Park, a Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) flitted about among the Foxglove Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis). Its slim shape and erratic display behavior made me think it might be a juvenile, too. A larger Field Sparrow (probably a male) sat calmly nearby with a grasshopper nymph in its beak. But when I returned the next day, the slim Field Sparrow again flitted distractedly about in the same location and again was accompanied by another Field Sparrow. My former experience with Field Sparrows had been that they often are elusive and dive into the grass at a moment’s notice. But I’ve learned that in the early spring, Field Sparrows nest on the ground if they have enough cover, which this beautiful prairie now provides. I’m wondering if these two were mates who were trying to distract me from a nest hidden among the flower stems. Since there are low bushes nearby, however, the nest could have been along the tree line since these sparrows make nests in low bushes later in the season.
Back at my home, a clutch of Eastern Phoebe fledglings (Sayornis phoebe) appeared in a low bush at dusk. They’d evidently left the nest under the eaves of the nearby shed very recently and a harried adult was busy trying to feed them. Luckily, both Phoebe parents share this exhausting task. One of the fledglings, as you’ll see below, was smaller and a loner. Perhaps that’s not surprising since Cornell says the Phoebe “is a loner, rarely coming in contact with other phoebes.” It may just have been the last to fledge and is still adjusting to the being out of the nest – or perhaps it’s the “runt of the litter.” But its noisier siblings probably had a lot more luck getting fed that night!
Many birds have more than one brood in a summer – so be on the lookout! Your yard may be hosting hard-working parent birds and their rambunctious, noisy, begging youngsters! Our parks certainly are!
Charles Ilsley Park sways with grass and colorful wildflowers right now as restoration begins returning the rolling fields to the prairies they once were. The eastern prairie, featured this week, is breath-taking! Butterflies dance in and out of native Black-eyed Susans, bees hum, grasshoppers leap at your feet and dragonflies swoop above the Yarrow and Bee Balm. Birds perch and forage at the trail edges and sing from the woods.
These former farm fields, once full of invasive and non-native agricultural plants, are gradually being restored to provide for the birds, insects and other wildlife that historically nested and foraged here. A new path through the thirteen acres of the eastern prairie now provides a perfect quiet stroll on a sunny morning or afternoon.
Birds are Plentiful, Colorful and Sometimes Difficult to See
At this time of year, adult birds are busy feeding and over-seeing either nestlings or fledglings. So they’re deep in the leaves, high in the sky, or down in the grass, foraging for whatever will feed the young. Here’s a graceful female Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) with seeds in her beak approaching her nearby nest hidden in a clump of leaves that hangs right over the trail as you enter the park.
Earlier in the summer, the bird boxes along the trail into the park were busy places! A House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) took over a rather dilapidated one. You’ll notice in one of these pictures, the wren is pecking at a spider web. Cornell Lab says that wrens often put spider egg sacs into their nest box so the spiders will rid it of mites! (Click on arrow for slide show; use pause button for captions.)
The Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor) spread its huge wings as it swooped in and out feeding its mate or young in June. Now the box seems to be just a stop-over spot as it soars and dives in the meadow beyond.
Thanks to Laurie Peklo, a member of the birding group who cleaned out the nesting boxes this spring, the Eastern Bluebirds (Sialiasialis) also found a home at Ilsley again this year.
A few weeks later, we saw a Bluebird fledgling in a tree, perhaps the male’s offspring. Baby bluebirds take a while to turn really blue, so I’ve also included a photo of a bit older one begging in our front yard. (Click on photos to enlarge; use back arrow to return to blog.)
A fledgling Bluebird at Ilsley
A bit older one begging to be fed in our front yard
When you reach the sign about Prairie Restoration, you’ll see that the center of the park is brown and mowed. Don’t worry. Ben VanderWeide, township stewardship manager, and his crew are just preparing the ground so that in the fall, it can be sown with native prairie plants – just as the eastern prairie was planted two years ago, and the north and west were planted last year. In a few years, we’ll have close to 50 acres of prairie in this park!
On every recent visit, a male Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) has sung from the bushes on the hill in the center field. That’s why Ben left the greenery there when the field was prepared for prairie planting – to protect their young. The photo below, was taken in the spring when one male came a bit closer and really belted out his “witchedy, witchedy” song!
A Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) foraged in the grass of the trail on one of our birding walks. Its pink-ish beak matches its pink legs – an easy field mark for these little birds. Ben describes their rolling song as a bouncing ball.
Young Chipping Sparrows (Spizella passerina) and their elders forage there as well. Thanks to birder extraordinaire, Ruth Glass, for the identification! (Click on photos to enlarge.)
Ruth also identified the rather scruffy Eastern Wood- Pewee fledgling (Contopus virens) below.
We birders heard an adult one singing in the woods near the eastern prairie last week, but didn’t see it – as is often the case with singing Pewees. Luckily, one landed near our deck at home a few weeks ago, singing its name on a rising note – Pee-weeee! Nice to see one up close and personal!
In a clump of trees on the south side of the east prairie, an Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) sang from a very tall snag on my last three trips to Ilsley. He must have a nest nearby. He’s so far up, singing his song in phrases of twos and threes, that it’s hard to even see he’s blue!
But my husband and I were lucky enough to have one fly down to a small tree near us while walking at Addison Oaks about ten days ago. Such a glorious bird!
As some of the birders exited the eastern prairie last Wednesday, they saw a very unusual bird, a Yellow-throated Vireo (Vireo flavifrons). I didn’t get a look before it flew – so here’s a lovely photo from a generous Creative Commons photographer at inaturalist.org, Donna Pomeroy.
We also saw the Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus) again. Here’s a photo of this elusive bird by gifted local photographer, Bob Bonin.
Prairie Wildflowers – What a Sight!
In 2015, the eastern prairie was sown with native seed acquired through a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It will take three or four summers of careful stewardship for these native, drought-resistant prairie plants to grow deep roots and reach full bloom. Although this is only their second summer, the native wildflowers are already carpeting the prairie with color.
Ben mowed the field once this year already and will mow once more in August. This relatively high mowing reduces the seed production of annual and biennial plants (like burdock, thistle and Queen Anne’s Lace) and allows sunlight to reach the prairie plants while they are small and growing roots. Look at just of few of the native wildflowers already coming up!
And we still have autumn flowers to look forward to!
That Carpet of Prairie Wildflowers Brought All Kinds of Butterflies!
What a glorious sight! All over Ilsley’s eastern prairie, butterflies float and flutter in and out of the colorful tapestry of native plants – sipping the nectar and enjoying the sunlight. The birders sighted a relatively uncommon black butterfly called the Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus), though it took a lot of talk and research to identify it correctly! Luckily, the next day I saw the very similar Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) and was able to study the photos to spot the distinctions between the two. Here’s a swallowtail identification link I found very useful. (Note that on this site, the butterflies’ names are above rather than below the photos, which can be confusing at first.)
This is the male Spicebush Swallowtail. Notice that he only has white dots along the edge of his forewing, a faint line of pale blue dots above and a wash of blue (or blue scaling) on each hindwing.
The Black Swallowtail has a larger second (or postmedian) row of yellowish spots above the row at the edge of its forewings and its more intense blue is contained in spots, rather than a wash of blue. It has a complete orange dot on each hindwing. This is the female, I believe, since her orange dots have a black center and the male’s are solid orange. Whew! Glad I had photos to help me!
My husband and I saw a third swallowtail flying high into the trees at Ilsley – the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus). Here’s a photo from Bear Creek several years ago, just to remind you of its beauty, too. The female of this species can also be black! But that’s for another blog…
One hot morning, four different Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) drank from blossoms on the Eastern Prairie. They didn’t leave their wings open for long when they settled; they only used them to move from bloom to bloom. Perhaps closed wings kept them cooler, since less sunlight would fall on their closed wings than on open ones. I’ve learned that dragonflies tip their bodies vertically to stay cool on really hot days for that reason.
Some of the birders spotted a Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) one Wednesday morning when I was off looking at the Spicebush Swallowtail. So here’s an older Bear Creek photo of one of those also.
On my last trip to the park, I saw a finger-nail-sized, triangular-shaped, white butterfly that I could not identify (help anyone?) and a tiny orange one that I believe is a Delaware Skipper (Anatrytone logan). To assess their size, consider that the little white one is under a Daisy Fleabane and the orange one is on a blade of grass! Interesting things come in small packages, eh?
A finger-nail sized white butterfly I could not ID.
A Delaware Skipper, I believe
A Spray of Tiny Grasshopper Nymphs, a Nice Big Carolina Locust, and a Widow Skimmer Dragonfly as well
On the path that crosses the center of the Eastern Prairie, you’ll see – and hear! – hundreds of tiny grasshopper nymphs jumping off the path. They sound like rain falling on the taller grass stalks! Only about an half inch long now, they’re hard to identify. My guess is they’re Red-legged Grasshoppers (Melanoplus femurrubrum). The larger one in the slideshow below is definitely a Red-legged but it’s still a nymph, too. These guys molt 5-7 times before reaching adulthood. The brown Carolina Locust (Dissosteira carolina)is much bigger, about 2 inches.
Of course no prairie is complete without dragonflies! Female, or possibly juvenile male, Widow Skimmers (Libellula luctuosa), with yellow abdominal stripes, hunted above the greenery last week. Adult males eventually develop a white wing band next to the dark one and their brown abdomens take on a bluish-white sheen as they mature.
Step by Step, Restoring Our Natural History
We all love local history, so it makes such perfect sense to restore our natural areas, too. At Charles Ilsley Park, we have an opportunity to see what our township looked like before European settlement, when Native American tribes lived on the rolling oak savannahs covered with tall grasses, wildflowers and widely spaced oaks. Even more importantly, natural areas restoration re-creates at least some of the rich diversity of plants, insects, birds and other wildlife that historically shared our green corner of the world. We’re on our way now to something very special here in Oakland Township. Come have a look!
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; Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; other sites as cited in the text.
Late summer is always a time of transitions, but this year was particularly dramatic. Bear Creek’s meadows baked for weeks under a blazing sun. The marsh dried completely, stranding an over-heated young snapper that struggled through a tangled mat of exposed vegetation. Heat finished off blossoms as some wildflowers began to seed earlier than usual. And then in mid-August, the rains came – downpours, thunderstorms and off-and-on showers. You could almost hear the gulping of plants and trees swallowing the moisture through their roots. Snappers again cruised just below the shallow waters of the marsh. Life rallied. As always, nature just coped and moved on.
Life in the Hot Sun of the Old Fields
The Old Field on the western edge of Bear Creek is quieter now. Mating season has ended (except for the Goldfinches), so birdsong has diminished. But one hot, sticky morning, an Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) threw back his head and let loose his double-phrased song from the highest branch of a tree – a favorite perch for male Buntings.
An Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) seemed to be listening to its neighbor as it rested between forays over the baking meadows, trying to snatch a few unsuspecting insects.
A juvenile Yellow-bellied Flycatcher (Empidonax flaviventris) posed quietly among the branches of smaller trees on the Western Slope. Expert birder, Ruth Glass, tells me that this little bird probably arrived from Canada or northern Michigan and is now migrating down to the Caribbean. Quite an adventure for a small bird!
Near the moist bottom of the slope one steamy morning, I spotted a lump on a leaf. A newly metamorphosed Gray Tree Frog (Hyla versicolor) was sleeping on a Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). I’m afraid I woke it with my camera. The U of M’s Bio-kids website says they are “almost always bright green right after metamorphosis [from tadpole stage] and they stay this way for some time before taking on their adult coloration.” These frogs can sleep in the open during the day, using their camouflage to protect themselves; they don’t dehydrate quickly like other frogs. Isn’t it just the best little creature?
While birds foraged from the trees, the insects below braved the blazing sun to look for their own sustenance. In the grass on the Western Slope, a Common Buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia)seemed to searching the bottom of grass stems. I’ve read that they sip nectar but often look for fluids in moist earth. Perhaps it was hoping for dew on a hot morning in August.
Higher up on the western path, where the land was drier, beetles probed blossoms looking for food. On the left, a non-native Seven-spotted Ladybug (Coccinella setempunctata)searched diligently for aphids, a favorite food. In fact, these beetles were brought here to combat aphids, but as a result, they’ve outcompeted our native ladybugs whose numbers have declined. On the right, a Soldier Beetle (family Cantharidae) may also be pursuing aphids, though it also eats pollen and nectar. (Hover cursor for captions; click on photo to enlarge.)
In the trees near the top of the Western Slope, a sparrow fluffed its feathers in thin shade. It’s hard to identify juvenile sparrows but with its pink feet and bill, I’m guessing this is a juvenile Field Sparrow who hasn’t yet reached full adult plumage when it will have a more distinct eye ring and a clear breast.
American Goldfinches mate in August, much later than other birds. On one hot visit, a female repeatedly rode drying blossoms of Queen Anne’s Lace down to the ground to forage for seeds, perhaps to feed her young – or her hard-working self! Unlike many seed-eating birds, the Goldfinches don’t switch to bugs when breeding. They are strictly vegetarian.
Nestlings of other birds are transforming into curious fledglings. One afternoon, a young, female Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) perched high in a snag (standing dead tree), her spotted breast only halfway transformed into adult plumage.
Wildflowers felt the impact of the fierce sunlight. A Jewel Weed blossom near the pond dried in the heat, while others took its place in the dappled shade. And up on the top of the southern hill, the Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) dropped their petals and began the seeding process in the dry heat.
Sturdy Prairie Dock blossoms, looking like little suns themselves, began to dry out as well as they towered over the wilting Coneflowers.
A female Black Swallowtail hovered just off the sun-drenched Eastern Path, looking restlessly for just the right blossom. Folding its dark wings may help it cope with the sun’s heat.
Patrolling for food, a Ruby Meadowhawk dragonfly rested momentarily on a leaf, its clear wings shimmering in the hot sunlight.
The northeastern edge of the Old Fields evidently stayed moist despite the heat and several “wet-footed” plants took full advantage of the bright sunlight. Joe-Pye (Eutrochium maculatum) spread its dusty pink blooms out across the field instead of appearing as widely distributed single plants as it often does here.
Other native wetland plants fringed the same area. The trio below includes bright pink Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) with its green stems, Joe-Pye with dusty pink blossoms and purple stems and Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) with its white blossoms and leathery leaves.
Below center, the native Bumblebee (genus Bombus) sips nectar from the Swamp Milkweed with its long tongue and on the left, is a closer look at Boneset. Odd name, eh? Evidently early herbalists noticed the way the stem seemed to rise right through the clinging leaves reminding them of a splint around a bone. So its leaves were wrapped with bandages around broken bones. Native Flowering Spurge (Euphorbia corollata) on the right also thrives here as it does in various spots along the Paint Creek Trail.
Sheltering in the Shade
Near the wood edges, I found mammals and insects enjoying the shade. Following a shining strand hanging before our eyes, my husband and I discovered a very tiny white spider escaping the bright sunlight on the underside of a leaf. I tried but couldn’t identify it, despite that wonderful design on its abdomen. We wondered if that brown ball was an egg sack. Anyone know this tiny creature’s name?
And, as usual, damselflies moved in and out of the shade at the edge of the Oak-Hickory forest. I’m guessing, based on its bright blue head, striped thorax, and very pale abdomen, that this one may be a female Bluet (genus Enallagma) or a recently hatched one. But since there are at least 17 species of Bluets in the Midwest, I’m not sure which one this is. Again, I’m open to your ideas.
A White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) sat calmly on the shady site of a dried vernal pool, while her fawn dutifully hurried off into the bushes as I paused for the photo.
And an Eastern Cottontail paused in a shady spot along a trail one hot morning as well.
And Then the Rains Came…
What a relief when heavy rain came to refill the wetlands and ponds at Bear Creek Park! After watching that young Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) struggling through vegetation in the dry marsh, it was a relief to see two Snappers feeding and cruising just below the surface in the cooling water provided by the rain.
The bright sun and rain caused Common Duckweed (Lemna minor) and Water Meal (genus Wolffia) – often mistaken for heavy algae – to form thicker mats across wetlands around the park. At the Playground Pond, I heard a plop! one afternoon and saw just the head of a Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) moving through the juicy green surface. Luckily, its ears close when it enters the water! When swimming, it uses its tail to propel itself with the help of its webbed back feet.
Once the Muskrat dove, I noticed other denizens of the Pond nicely camouflaged in duckweed and water meal as well. Here are two turtles and a frog on a log decked out in greenery.
Quivering in the duckweed near the boardwalk made me look down to see a whole collection of small Green Frogs (Rana clamitans). Each of those individual spots on the leg of the frog below is a water meal plant! Ducks do love this plant, by the way. Sometimes they just dip their bills in and move along, scooping it up.
In the wetland just north of the Playground Pond, a particularly beautiful native plant is blooming in the moist shade, Cardinal Flower or Red Lobelia (Lobelia cardinalis). Last week when I took an out-of-town friend to the park and left my camera at home, we watched a Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) sipping at a tall stalk of this scarlet beauty. I came back for its photo the following day – but no Hummingbird then, I’m sorry to say!
We also spotted two Barn Swallowsperched quietly in nearby trees. No camera again! The next day, they were swooping madly across the meadows, their bills open, enjoying the swarms of insects that had hatched after the rain. One perched for a moment in a snag over the wetland and I got this quick photo of it from below.
As the water rose in the Center Pond, tiny Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta) appeared on nearly every log. Here’s a silver-dollar-sized one trundling along as it explores its world like any youngster.
This week, a Green Heron (Butorides virescens) dropped into the bushes at the western edge of the pond. It kept a close eye on the water, when it wasn’t actively preening with its long, extendable neck. Green Herons are expert hunters of both fish and frogs. I wondered if the absence of July’s huge number of green frogs was attributable to the drought or this multi-colored fisher. (My apologies for the slightly pixelated photos caused by aggressive cropping so we could see it up close.)
Yes, it’s been a hot, sticky and then rainy summer. But we’re all in this together – animals, birds and plants. The natural world provided a gentle reminder that change, even dramatic change, is an inherent part of being alive. Summer may be waning now but the beauty around us isn’t. Surprises await our arrival every day, no matter what the weather.
P.S. More Native Beauties Blooming along the Paint Creek Trail!
The trick about blogging during the summer is that so much happens all over the township, all at once! Keep an eye out for these special native wildflowers blooming for just a short time in the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail. The shallow water table in this meadow provides a perfect spot for these fire-adapted beauties. The field is dotted with the purple fireworks of Cylindrical Blazing Star (Liatris cylindracea), the striped elegance of Grass of Parnassus (Parnassia glauca) and the delicate, spotted petals of Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum). Don’t miss them!
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.
What a glorious week for seeing migrating songbirds – and what frustration for a photographer who can’t quite manage to capture them all! The trees, bushes and vines (like the Virginia Creeper on the right) are full of tiny, chirping birds that hop about quickly searching for sustenance before the next leg of their fall journeys.
I’ll share what I was able to photograph this week, with all the imperfections of an amateur photographer who, until this year, had almost no experience with warblers – who are very small and move very fast!
And then I’ll link you to better photos from Cornell Lab or Audubon.org, so you can see these little beauties up close – instead of half hidden by brush, silhouetted against the sun or at the very tops of trees! So much color and energy in the park! It’s a wonder how these small songbirds sail through the night and land in Bear Creek for a day’s rest and some fruits, seeds and insects to sustain them on the next leg of their journeys.
Winged Visitors : Warblers and Kinglets Everywhere!
If you’re looking for small migrating birds at Bear Creek, bring good binoculars and a lot of patience! I learned a lot at Wednesday’s bird walk from Dr. Ben and Ruth Glass who leads bird walks at Stoney Creek Metro Park and is a highly experienced birder. For instance, they told us that in early morning, it’s best to look for birds where the sun first hits the trees. (Makes sense, eh?) So take the path into the park from Snell and once you get out in the field, look in the trees and bushes at the first large curve to the left. Wow! Lots of birds in those bushes and trees!
Other great places for me have been the Walnut Lane and the circuit all the way around the Playground Pond. Walk slowly and very quietly and begin by listening to any cheeping in the bushes. Watch for twitching foliage and you’ll see them. But you need to go soon! The migration for many songbirds peaked this week and numbers will decline until they are gone by early November.
Here’s a sampling of what you might see:
Palm Warblers (Setophaga palmarum) hopped from branch to branch again this week. Look for their “field marks,” including a rusty cap, dark eye line, breast streaks at the sides and yellow underparts. It’ll be leaving soon to go as far south as the Caribbean – which could be where it got its name?
I caught sight of what I think is a Tennessee Warbler (Oreothlypis peregrina) going after some fruit. It seems to be a male in its non-breeding, fall colors. Page down to the bottom of this link for several different good views, including the non-breeding (fall) plumage. Side note: Last week’s Nashville Warbler (Oreothlypis ruficapilla) and this one aren’t necessarily from Tennessee. According to Ruth Glass, they were first reported and drawn by John James Audubon who lived in Kentucky for part of his life and probably named birds for where he saw them.
The tiny, almost constantly moving Kinglets pass through Bear Creek during the spring and fall, too. The flitting Ruby-Crowned Kinglet is identified by its size, irregular white eye ring and its twitching wings! Its “ruby crown” only shows when it’s excited or courting, though one of the birders saw a Kinglet’s crown this Wednesday! Maybe you can see the tiny red dot on the head of this bird that I saw the next day – or you can have a look at it really flared in this Audubon link.
I saw another Kinglet last weekend silhouetted in the sunlight and had no idea what it was until Ruth Glass identified it from my poor photo as a Golden-CrownedKinglet (Regulus satrapa.)Their field marks are a very short, thin beak perfect for winkling out insects and of course the gold on their wings and crown. Have a look at this Audubon link for a better view!
Winged Visitors: Sparrows? Yes!
I learned this year to stop ignoring small, brownish birds assuming they were all sparrows that I already knew. That’s how I missed seeing other small migrants. Look at this beautiful White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) with the bright yellow dots(called “lores”) in front of its eyes, a striped crown and of course, a white throat marked by black stripes called “whiskers” or “malar stripes”!
And here’s a young White-Crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys ) which needs to be differentiated from the White-Throated Sparrow above. It’s about to make its first migration, because it was born somewhere in the far north below the arctic circle this very summer. (Thanks again to Ruth Glass for the ID!)
White-Crowned Sparrows look radically different after one year. Here’s a photo I took at Bear Creek on October 6, 2008 and then a closeup of one at my house in spring a few years later. Hard to believe it’s the same bird as the brown “first winter” bird in the photo above, isn’t it?
Sharp-eyed Ruth also saw two Lincoln’s Sparrows (Melospiza lincolnii ) which look very much like a Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) but are smaller and daintier and have no central spot on their breasts. Unlike the courser streaking on a song sparrow, the Lincoln’s Sparrow’s black streaks are finer and on “buffy” flanks. Wikipedia says they are “quite secretive” – too much so, for my eyes and camera! So here’s another Cornell link to get a look.
The visiting summer sparrows that spent their summer in the park are still here too. A Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) with its bright white eye ring and pinkish bill and feet watches other migrants hop in the trees. As their name implies, Field Sparrows avoid suburban areas and will soon fly off to somewhere south of Michigan so keep an eye out for them soon at places like Bear Creek!
Winged Migrants: a Mixture of Species
During the Wednesday bird walk, the treetops on Walnut Lane were filled with Pine Siskins (Spinus pinus). This nomadic finch appears some years and not others as it follows the best seed crops. My photo in morning sun in the treetops shows its streaky head and body but not the flashes of its subdued winter yellow as they flutter or fly, so have a look at Cornell Lab’s photo.
Down at the Center Pond, we saw an Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) darting from the shore to the water, catching a few bugs. The most distinguishing field mark of a Phoebe is a constantly pumping tail, plus a dark head and white breast. The males usually sing “Phee-beee” only when courting but one was trying out its song on Wednesday. It probably spent the summer here. It will be migrating in the next couple of weeks and be gone by early November.
At the western edge of the pond on Wednesday, deep in the brush, skulked a migrating Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) who probably raised its young farther north in Michigan or Canada. These birds rummage in leaf litter looking for insects, so they can be hard to see. But the following day, it appeared on a log near the pond.
Also at the pond, Ruth spotted a Blue-headed Vireo (Vireo solitarius) which may have spent the summer among pines farther north. It generally looks blue-gray but Ruth told us it’s more blue in direct sunlight. I love its white “spectacles.” Unfortunately, I didn’t get a shot of it but here’s the link to Cornell’s photo.
The Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) males at the Center Pond are slowly getting rid of their eclipse plumage. Here’s one whose beautiful green head feathers have almost completely molted.
He’d probably like the molt to be over, since some of the males now have their full complement of courting plumage and are already pairing up with females, though mating won’t happen until spring! They’ll move to the Gulf Coast this winter, unless they can find an area with sufficient food and open water farther north.
The Gray Catbird raised its young here this summer but will be leaving soon, too. This one in the vines and bushes north of the Playground Pond looks like it’s finished molting and is about ready to go.
Winter Residents (or Delayed Departures) Molting into Winter Garb
A flock of young Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum), who have left their fledgling feathers behind and now wear their first winter garb, jostled noisily among the fruiting vines and trees. Some of them may remain here for at least part of the winter and then head south. I saw a flock of Waxwings at Bear Creek eating in ice-glazed branches on Christmas Eve two years ago! Others have already left for warmer climes, sometimes as far south as Central America. These noisy young ones are identified by mottled chests, shorter crests, and a wider white lines around the mask – but the tips of their tails still glow bright yellow in sunlight like adult waxwings.
This female American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) looks a bit disconcerted about molting into her drab winter colors, much like the female Cardinal that I posted last week.
This winter-ready Goldfinch, though, looked as if it enjoyed its ride on a plume of Canada Goldenrod as it picked seeds from the dried blossoms as they swayed in the wind.
Odds ‘n’ Ends
A tiny Eastern Chipmunk ((Tamias striatus) dashed up a tree near Snell Road. I love how his tail was backlit by the late afternoon sun.
In the southernmost meadow near Snell, I spotted a large patch of white plants I’d never seen before. Dr. Ben identified them as FragrantCudweed. The University of Michigan Herbarium uses that common nameor the slightly less bovine Old-Field Balsam. Many internet sites call it Sweet Everlasting (my fave of the three) and look at its Latin name – Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium – !! Whatever you call this native plant, it’s interesting. According to a Minnesota Wildflower site, the clusters of what look like egg-shaped buds are actually the blooms with the yellow/brown anthers (pollen- producing flower parts) exposed at the end. And what looks like whorled petals are bracts, leaflike structures which will open and fall when the seed ripens. Nice to have fresh blooms so late in the year! As the weather gets colder, we’ll really wish they were everlasting!
Fall migration must be a restless, exhausting, but exciting time for birds. Their hormones, the shorter days, and the temperature all tell them it’s time to go south. Dangers lurk along the way, which is one of the reasons perching birds travel at night, avoiding raptors who travel by day. Severe weather, a shopping mall where a woods used to be, lighted buildings that confuse the birds’ navigation systems can all be disastrous. But the pull is strong and off these small birds go in the night, riding the wind if they can. I hope you get to see some of them off.
*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);Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net.; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for beetle info http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info, and 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 American Online; Audubon.org
Last week I took a side trip to Draper Lake with all its lavender flowers, fish and insects! Hope you saw the previous post. So now let’s get back to Bear Creek!
Have you noticed that a hush has fallen over the park? Oh, you’ll hear the American Goldfinches who are raising young now, the Cardinal’s trill, the chipping of a sparrow, the harsh cry of a crow or maybe a flock of crows. But many birds are beginning to molt, replacing their feathers for migration, singing less as they freshen up for autumn. The eggs of butterflies and moths have hatched into caterpillars who are inching along host plant stems. Plants of all kinds are turning from flowering to “fruiting.” And what are those human work crews doing at the park? Summer begins to wane and change is still the norm at Bear Creek!
Freshening Up for Fall: The Molt
According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab, birds’ feathers are like our hair or fingernails – hard structures that can’t repair themselves if they’re damaged. So birds periodically molt, which simply means they replace worn, damaged feathers with fresh ones. Since this uses a lot of energy, most birds have a complete molt in late summer after they’ve finished raising their young and for migrating birds, before the fall migration . Some birds – like warblers, tanagers and buntings – do one full molt and then have a partial molt to change into their courting colors before breeding season. Others molt more often or only molt wing feathers. So it’s a highly variable process.
Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) are big birds with long feathers so molting takes time! They remain in the reeds with their young in July and spend 30-45 days replacing their feathers before migrating. They can be unusually quiet during this period because they are vulnerable; neither they nor their young can fly until the molt is over. They must swim or walk to find food. This photo, taken earlier in the summer and not at Bear Creek, shows an adult and young before their molt.
Others birds, especially smaller ones, continue to be active during their molt. This Indigo Bunting(Passerina cyanea) wasn’t hiding or quiet; he was singing at the top of a tree this week. But you can tell his head feathers aren’t the beautiful blue they were earlier in the summer and look a bit thin like a balding human male. Male Indigo Buntings do a complete molt in August, and then a partial molt in the spring to cover themselves with bright blue feathers and black wings for courting the females. To see all the stages of an Indigo Bunting’s molt, visit the Cornell Lab link above.
The chatty Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) tries to warn away intruders, like you and I, during the molt with the famous “miaow” call from which they get their name. That call is everywhere in the park right now! Here’s the sleek gray catbird before molting:
And their “miaow” alarm call sounded like this on the west side of the northern loop trail last week. I must have been quite close to the Catbird because it was a very insistent call! (Remember to turn up your volume!)
When nesting is over, Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) become very social and gather into flocks to molt and migrate . This week a small group of them were swooping above the grass near the playground and chattering together, before landing in a dead tree near the Playground Pond. Their migrating flocks can number in the hundreds of thousands!
Field Sparrows (Spizella pusilla ) are always hard for me to photograph. I see them from a distance as they skulk in tall grass or low shrubs always moving out of sight just ahead of me as I walk. So I was glad to get these two shots. I’m not positive, but I think the first is a juvenile since it has the light streaks on its upper breast of a fledgling but the white eye ring and pink feet of an adult Field Sparrow.
A few days later, though, I saw this sparrow on the walnut lane at the center of the park, and from the condition of its feathers, I think it may be a molting adult Field Sparrow. Please, all birders feel free to set me straight, of course!
Flowers Bear Fruit…but not the edible kind.
After plants are pollinated and fertilized, they develop “fruit,” that is, structures in or on which seeds mature and which disseminate that seed. Fruits can fly through the air like maple seeds in their winged packages or cling like burrs for traveling or get carried away and eaten, like a ripe berry. Some of the plants introduced in earlier blog posts are now “fruiting.” For example, remember Wild Senna (Senna hebecarpa) in the native bed by the shed? It’s flowering in the photo above and look at the “fruits” it’s formed now, the long pods in the second photo.
Delicate Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea canadensis)takes a different approach. Its fruit has stiff hairs, like a burr, that can attach to animals’ fur or clothing. The branches of these sorts of plants often bend downward in late summer, assisting in the process of reaching a passing fox, dog, whatever. Below, the flowering plant and then its fruit:
And the familiar Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) uses the airborne seed as we all know. Right now the meaty, dusty-pink flowers are withering and the fertilized ones are developing milkweed pods, the fruit within which its seeds are maturing. When ready to go, the dried pods will crack open and the airy silk, called coma, attached to each seed will take them sailing with the wind across the Old Fields.
Caterpillars Emerge to Munch!
Speaking of milkweeds, I’ve been trying to find a Monarch caterpillar (Danaus plexippus) munching on one for weeks to no avail! Parks Commissioner Colleen Barkham tells me she has three in her garden! I’m clearly just not being lucky enough to see this amazing stage of the Monarch’s life. But here’s Ben’s photo taken last year along the Paint Creek Trail. Pretty jazzy, eh? That color, like the Monarch butterfly’s, tells predators that the milkweed has made it toxic. Let me know in comments if and where you see one! Please!
The Milkweed Tussock Moth’s (Euchaetes egle) caterpillar wards off predators with soft spikes and the same yellow, black and white coloring as the Monarch caterpillar. The moth, however, is a dull gray unlike the vivid colors of the beautiful Monarch.
East of the walnut lane, less appealing caterpillars, Eastern Tent Caterpillars (Malacosoma americanum), have made their silk web in a tree which they will partially defoliate as they feed. The tents are pretty amazing, though. According to Wikipedia, “the tent consists of discrete layers of silk separated by gaps and the temperature in these compartments varies markedly. Caterpillars can adjust their body temperatures by moving from one compartment to another.” They gather in a sunny compartment on a cool morning as in the photo below, but move into shadier ones to escape hot afternoon sun.
And what about those human changes?
Bear Creek Nature Park is benefiting from two great projects. The Parks Commission’s maintenance crew repaired and upgraded a bridge on the southern edge of the Oak-Hickory forest in the northwest park of the park. Now we have a beautiful, sturdy new bridge over the wetland area with a ramp to take you safely down the north side. Thank you maintenance crew (Doug Caruso, Jeff Johnson, Clif Selent, and Lou Danek)!
Near Snell, Oakland Township Stewardship Manager, Ben VanderWeide, and his summer technicians spent a couple of hot, dirty but productive afternoons clearing a large area east of the pavilion near the Snell parking lot.
A generous citizen, Nancy Parmenter, has donated all the native plants she cultivated in her carefully tended garden for 20 years since she is moving and the new owners didn’t want them! In the fall, Ben and others (the technicians will be back at college) will dig up over 30 different native species and transplant them into this newly cleared area. What a treat to have a free, HUGE number of native plants for a new Bear Creek bed. Thanks crew and Nancy Parmenter! If you want to help with the transplanting effort, just let us know!
Coming Attractions: Here Comes the Goldenrod!
Right now, areas of the park are draped in the white of Queen Anne’s Lace.
But shortly, the park will blaze with gold. Goldenrod will take over the Old Fields. The most prominent variety in the park, Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) is on the right in the photo below. But it’s accompanied by other varieties as well, like Grass-leaved Goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia) on the left.
By the way, Goldenrod, despite its “bad rep,” is probably not the cause of anyone’s fall allergies. Goldenrod’s heavy pollen can’t travel far on the wind. The culprit is more likely Common Ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia) which blooms at the same time and whose pollen can be carried 40 miles on the wind! Here’s a link to a photo of Ragweed.
Goldenrod spreads through rhizomes, underground stems that produce roots and shoots. In fact, this native plant has become an invasive species in Germany and China ! How’s that for a reversal? But here it provides lots of late summer pollen for bees and other pollinators and a golden glow as summer turns to fall! Coming soon to an Old Field near you!
So in the hot, dog days of summer, Bear Creek keeps changing, making room for freshened-up birds, butterfly metamorphosis, seeds for next year’s flowers and a new native bed. A reminder to us humans that change is inherent in nature as well as in our lives – and that’s a good thing!
*Quick 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.