Tag Archives: Fox Sparrow

Bear Creek Nature Park: A Welcoming Refuge from the Holiday “Must-do’s!”

The meadow west of the Center Pond in December

At our house, we’ve just emerged from the joyful-but-somewhat-frantic bustle of the festive season. From just before Thanksgiving through the New Year, we enjoyed the noise, color and craziness of the holiday with lots of friends and family  – but it feels like we just didn’t stop moving for weeks!  I imagine that’s true for lots of you too.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

I managed to keep some  scraps of my sanity by – you guessed it – venturing out into the parks. Our home is about five minutes from Bear Creek Nature Park; that became my most frequent escape hatch. So here’s a look at the wildness nearby that (with a small nod to Will Shakespeare) knit the raveled sleeve of my cares during the last several weeks.

 

It All Began before Thanksgiving…

Ice forming on the Center Pond on a bitter day in November

In the first half of November, before the rush of the festive season, wild visitors from farther north began to filter into Bear Creek. The birding group got a glimpse of a Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca) in the bushes. These large, chubby sparrows are usually rusty red with chevrons forming the stripes on their breasts. Since I didn’t get a good shot that day, here’s one in a very similar setting from generous iNaturalist photographer, Joseph Salmieri.

A Fox Sparrow by Joseph Salmieri (CC BY-NC) at iNaturalist.org

The birding group also saw a flock of Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) feeding in the grass along a path in early November. These birds make lovely black dashes against the snow on a winter day. They travel here from their breeding grounds in Canada – perhaps all the way from Hudson’s Bay! They’re often my first real sign that winter’s on its way.

A Dark-eyed Junco along the trail at Bear Creek in early November

The second half of November bore down on me suddenly since Thanksgiving came so late this year. Snow fell; the temperature dropped. Yikes! Time to design Christmas cards, turn my photos into a family calendar, think about gifts for special people. Out in the park, birds kept me company to soothe my jitters. One afternoon, my husband and I came across what seemed to be a friendly gathering of birds. Five species hung out together, moving about foraging and chattering in a grove of small trees near where Bear Creek runs out of the pond.

Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) caught our attention first as they chatted in a small tree. A male House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) listened in from behind a branch. The bluebirds probably moved a little farther south to escape the cold for a while, though some may return for short visits during the winter and some may be year ’round residents.

Five bluebirds socialize before moving south while the House Finch, a year ’round resident, listens in from behind a branch.

The House Finch just bears up in the cold of a Michigan winter. Like other small winter residents, he keeps warm by crunching on copious amounts of seed and fluffing his feathers into a winter jacket.

house-finch-male-bc.jpg
A male House Finch will stay with us all winter. Love how the red shows between his wings!

The woodpeckers, too, are a hardy crew. A Downy Woopecker male (Dryobates pubescens) tapped along a tree trunk searching for insects eggs or a frozen caterpillar, quite uninterested in the bluebirds.

A male Downy Woodpecker kept up a tapping rhythm near the bluebirds.

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) joined the gathering on a nearby Wild Black Cherry tree (Prunus serotina). He seemed to be craning his neck to hear what was going on with the bluebirds behind him! But in reality, of course, he was just demonstrating the caution that all wild birds do when feeding.

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker looks about while foraging at another tree trunk.

The fifth member of the bird gathering was the industrious Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor), who pretty much ignored the others, having found something very interesting at the end of a branch.

A Tufted Titmouse sees something worth its attention at the end of a dead branch.

On the big loop path beyond the bird gathering, a White Oak leaf (Quercus alba) testified to the frigid temperatures. The water droplets on it had frozen and magnified the leaf’s veins in a way that always fascinates me.

Frozen water droplets function like a magnifying glass on a white oak leaf.

Our feeders at home got busy around Thanksgiving as well, providing visual entertainment as we buzzed by the windows, working on Christmas projects. New guests arrived at the feeder this year – the Hairy Woodpeckers (Dryobates villosus). Here the female sits in an aging black oak outside the window, just beyond the feeder.

A female Hairy Woodpecker in profile shows off her long, thick beak.

It’s sometimes hard to distinguish the Hairy from the Downy Woodpecker at a distance.  But when both arrive at a feeder at the same time, the difference in size is readily apparent!

The Hairy Woodpecker has a much heavier bill and is much larger than the Downy when seen up close at a feeder!

The Holiday Pace Picks up in December…

Eastern Meadow at Bear Creek on a later winter afternoon

Oh, boy. Hurried wrapping of presents for family in Australia. Multiple trips to the Post Office to send calendars to friends overseas and around the States. Trips out of town for special gifts. But on the way home from the errands, a stop at Bear Creek to slow down, breathe the sharp air and redden my cheeks.

One dark, late afternoon and as I entered the park, I noted an alarming sight. A lovely but deadly Oriental Bittersweet vine (Celastrus orbiculatus) had wrapped itself around a tiny tree. This terribly invasive plant will slowly strangle this sapling if it isn’t carefully removed and its roots treated with herbicide. Sad that such a colorful vine should have such a powerfully negative impact! Birds do eat the berries at times, but unfortunately get very little nutrition from them.

Vines like this invasive Oriental Bittersweet that wrap around trees can strangle them. And the berries have scant nutrition for our birds.

Looking for more benign color, I came across lots of rich green moss (phylum Bryophyta) in the forest. Mosses, unlike plants, can actually grow very slowly in cold temperatures, if not under snow or ice. Some mosses actually survive in Antarctica! Our mosses cope with winter winds by being close to the ground and benefit from the moisture of winter rain and melting snow. They can also go dormant when moisture is low and then regenerate quickly after a rain. What a relief to the eye to come across these bright green mosses on a wintry day! [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

A golden fungus and a bright yellow lichen appeared at various places in the park in December.  These bright touches against bark or leaves always catch my attention on a gray winter day.

Reminders of summer past help me put things back in perspective during the  holiday bustle. An abandoned nest of what I think was Bald-faced Hornets (Dolichovespula maculata) hung low in bush. Yellow Jacket Wasps (Vespula maculifrons) also build aerial nests occasionally, as well as using underground burrows, but theirs are usually higher up than this one. The hornets created this masterpiece with overlapping, striped scallops. Since the hornets nicely camouflaged the nest in a leafy bush, I’d missed it completely in the summer. Amazing that these tiny creatures can create such a beautiful design on the outside of their architecture and those myriad, perfect hexagons inside!

Along the path to the west of the Playground Pond, the abandoned, but still intact nest of last summer’s Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) swung gently in the winter air, but no fledglings rock within it now. Another architectural marvel, this one was woven out of plant fibers over the course of one to two weeks by a female Oriole. Such sturdy nests and they’re only used for one season!

A Baltimore Oriole nest woven last spring by a female using only her beak! And it’s sturdy enough to survive winter winds!

Some summer plants still stand tall in the fields, bearing their seeds for hungry birds. The giant Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) has done its duty. It’s  been picked clean, probably by the flocks of American Goldfinches in the park.

Prairie Dock from last summer has already offered up its seeds for hungry birds.

Its huge, spotted leaves that feel like sandpaper in the summer now lie crumbling beneath the stately stalks.

The huge, sandpaper-like leaves of Prairie Dock are now giving their nutrients back to the soil.

In December, Goldfinches had not yet devoured the seeds of this Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis). This one was so fluffy that it looked like it was dressed in a down jacket for the winter. But with winter wind and wet, heavy snow, it will bow down to the ground before spring, making way for new sprouts.

A Canada Goldenrod still stands upright, looking like its dressed for winter weather.

One afternoon, my husband I found a gorgeous rock embedded with quartz crystals. From its location, I’m guessing it was  hidden under a vernal pool for most of the year. It shone white in the winter woods, looking like a stray snowball from a distance. Isn’t the coloring and crystal structure lovely? So rare to see such a large, white rock.

A beautiful white rock, perhaps granite mixed with quartz and feldspar crystals.

And Then the Post-Holiday Slow-down

Bear Creek meanders south from Gunn Road to join Paint Creek just west of the Paint Creek Cider mill.

Presents are put away.  Decorations are being stored in the basement. The bevy of much beloved guests is dwindling. And the park has gone mostly silent. Perhaps you’ve noticed that birds are a bit tougher to see or hear in Bear Creek Nature Park now. Sometimes they’re present, but I wonder if  their diminished numbers may be due to something good – a plentitude of winter feeders in the surrounding neighborhoods.

On our last visit, we heard a Red-bellied Woodpecker in the woods on the township hall trail and perhaps the “ank-ank-ank” of a White-breasted Nuthatch somewhere on the Big Loop. We watched a family of American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) settling into some tall trees off the western field. The adults arrived first and one began calling. When no young arrived, the calling adult looked back at its mate and they cawed until all the presumably younger members gathered with them in the tree tops. Crow families often stay together for more than one season, the young helping the adults feed the nestlings of the next generation. Such intelligent and social birds!

Down at the Center Pond, the ice had temporarily melted and a pair of Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) glided across the dark surface. They’ve evidently made their December choice of partners and will now spend the winter together before mating in the spring.

A mallard couple keeping company on the pond while the ice is gone.

Signs of spring feel rare and welcome after Christmas and its encouraging to notice that plants have already made preparations. A fuzzy little Thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana) held onto its seeds at the edge of a woodland trail. This plant produces oblong fruits with a thimble-like shape and pattern in summer that change into cottony tufts full of seeds in the fall. It keeps its seeds right into winter and depends on the wind to spread them. But it has another couple of strategies for survival. It produces a substance that discourages other seeds around it from germinating and its tap root is accompanied by rhizomes (underground stems that sprout and make roots) that allow it to spread beneath the soil. Look how its seed tufts in the photo below just happened to form an image of a frowning human profile, something I didn’t notice until I developed the photo! What fun!

I call this tufted seedhead Thimbleweed Man. Do you see the profile face looking right in the top stem?

The trees produce leaf buds in the fall which sometimes have a waxy surface to help retain moisture in the winter cold. The American Dogwood (Cornus florida) makes neat, round, little flower buds that face upward at the branch tips. Separately and sometimes just below the flower buds are leaf buds. I’ve only found one American Dogwood in Bear Creek Nature Park ; it’s on the east side of the Big Loop. Each fall and winter, I look eagerly for these buds with their pointed tops turned to the sun. In spring, I enjoy the way the white bracts (modified leaves) open to reveal a small cluster of yellow flowers at the center.

I saw this lovely bud on the Big Loop but can’t identify it yet! I loved its golden glow on a gray day! If any of you know which tree produced this bud, please tell me in the comments! It almost looks as though the leaves started to break from their buds with the warmer temperatures after the holidays.

A mystery plant – but isn’t its bud a pretty color?

Down near the Center Pond, I spotted the cache of an American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) beneath the trunk of an old Shagbark Hickory tree (Carya ovata). I could hear the owner scolding me from deep within the tangled brush nearby, but I never got a clear look at it. Shagbark Hickory is a fine example of how productive native trees can be in their habitat. According to the Illinois Wildflower website, these big, distinctive trees provide sweet nuts for raccoons, squirrels, chipmunks and many birds. Their leaves host a wide variety of insect caterpillars and so are often sought out by birds like chickadees, vireos, warblers and others. The long shards of shaggy bark provide winter shelter for insects and even nesting sites for small birds like the Brown Creeper. And they’re deer and fire resistant! – though the saplings may be gnawed by rabbits. What a contributor to a healthy habitat!

The consumed cache of an American Red Squirrel at the foot of a large Shagbark Hickory which supplied most of the nuts. Hope this squirrel has other caches for the coming winter months!
Shagbark Hickory bark provides winter shelter for overwintering insects and nesting sites for birds.

On the way back down to the Township Hall the day after Christmas, we spotted the festive bark of another tree. Nice Christmas colors,eh?

The reddish bark and green moss on this Sassafras tree looked quite festive at the holiday season!

Ben identified the tree for me as one of the tallest Sassafras trees (Sassafras albidum) that he’s ever seen. We were certainly impressed! Its bark can sheer off, leaving this red layer exposed. Sassafras is another generous host, providing food for butterfly caterpillars like the Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus), the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) and for many moths. Bobwhites, Wild Turkeys and many songbirds feed on their pitted fruits called “drupes.”

A very tall, native Sassafras tree on the trail from the Township Hall

The Comforts of “Home” on a Winter Walk

A Walnut tree against a stormy sky at Bear Creek Park

Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that… wildness is a necessity.”
― John Muir, in Our National Parks

Sometimes I notice that I’ve become an “over-civilized” person, don’t you? I find myself feeling crabby from too many “must-do’s,” feeling hemmed in by walls and getting stale from breathing what feels like the same old air. That’s when I rediscover Muir’s insight.  Wildness really is a necessity – maybe for all of us, whether we know it or not. Even in winter, I regularly need to immerse myself in the crazy quilt of a meadow full of  dry grass stems and listen to the pulsing roar of wind rushing headlong through the crowns of trees. The wild language of crows backed by the drumbeat of woodpeckers tunes me to a different key. For a short time, I’m enfolded within a complex world much beyond my small human one. And somehow that allows me to rest. I pull my hat down over my ears, snug up the scarf at my neck and I’m home, at ease in a place where I’m welcomed – and so are you – as just another creature making its way through winter days.

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: A Huge Hawk, a Rare Flock, and Birds Color the Changing Landscape

Eastern field and walnut lane late fall
Eastern Old Field looking toward the bare Walnut Lane and a late afternoon November sky

Warm days don’t seem appropriate to November, but we’re happy to have them when the Old Fields darken to russet and the architecture of the trees reappears. The landscape deepens as we can see far into the underbrush to places hidden by summer foliage. The slopes and hollows of the woods are more defined as the understory thins.

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

The skies become even more dramatic in the slanting light of late fall when the vivid shades of autumn fade – or maybe we just notice them more. It’s all about noticing, isn’t it?  I wasn’t sure I’d see enough to share this week.  How wrong I was!

Birds Hold Center Stage: A Bold Raptor, Shy Visitors, and Busy Residents

An impressive Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) warmed herself in thin morning sunlight erect in a bare tree near the Center Pond on our Wednesday Bird Walk. (Female Red-tails are larger than males and this was a big hawk!) She may, as Cornell suggests, have been waiting for the air to warm, because soon she was “climbing a thermal updraft into the sky.”   Off she went, probably searching for mice, voles or other small mammals to shore her up against the cold to come.  Red-tails tend to stay with their mates until one of them dies, but they must be loners outside the mating season.  It’s rare in my experience to see more than one at a time. We saw this one from behind at first; look at that red-tail! (Click on photos to enlarge them.)

Red-tailed hawk tail from back
The red tail of the Red-tailed Hawk

And then she turned around to survey her domain!

Red tailed Hawk
A large Red-tailed Hawk, probably a female, surveys her domain.

When I arrived on Wednesday, Ben and the birders were watching five  Rusty Blackbirds (Euphagus carolinus) at the Playground Pond.  I hadn’t seen one in weeks and thought their migration was over.  These secretive, shy birds spend most of their time in the shadows at the edges of wetlands, flipping over leaves to look for tiny invertebrates.  They land in trees only to pause a second before diving down into the underbrush and skulking along among wet, black mud and leaves.  Unable to get a good shot on Wednesday, I lucked out on Friday when I came upon a whole flock (10 or more?) in the wetland below the benches on the southern hill.

rusty blackbird female closeup
A female Rusty Blackbird posed for a few seconds on a branch in the wetland below the southern hill.

Cornell says the population of these  birds has “plunged an estimated 85-99 percent over the past forty years and scientists are completely puzzled as to what is the cause.”  One theory is that they find fewer wetlands so I’m glad we have several in Oakland Township that they can poke about in before heading south.

rusty blackbird2
A male Rusty Blackbird hiding in low bushes in a wetland last Thursday

On the same day (Thursday), a male Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) searched for a crack in tree bark in which to store what appeared to be a piece of nut.

red-bellied woodpecker with nut
A male Red-bellied Woodpecker looking for a crack in tree bark for storing his piece of (most likely) hickory nut.

Shagbark Hickory nuts

It could well have been a Shagbark hickory nut since there are lots of them still on the trees, which is where Red-bellies prefer to find their nuts, though they’ll take them off the ground if necessary.

Since the nut photo doesn’t show the plumage, here’s a fall picture from a previous year of a male Red-belly.  You can tell males from females by the fact that the red back of the head extends all the way to the bill in males but stops at the top of the head in females.

Red belly male in tree2
A male Red-bellied Woodpecker has red extending from the nape of its neck to its bill, while red on the female goes only from its nape to the top of its head.

Nearby a year ’round resident, the White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) repeatedly made its loud, nasal “nyah” call (Cornell calls it a “yank call”)as it probed right-side-up and upside-down around a branch.  A very distinctive call!  Listen to the “Eastern Call” at this Cornell Lab link.  You’ll probably recognize that you’ve heard it before!

White-breasted nuthatch
A White-breasted Nuthatch made its  “nyah” call repeatedly as it probed about on a branch.

Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata) were in a scrappy mood this week, which isn’t unusual for Blue Jays.  I saw two repeatedly giving each other a hard time on the western slope earlier in the week.

Blue jays playing
Two Blue Jays playing or fighting, not sure which, on the western slope.

A migrating Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca), with its large vivid body, smaller round head and long tail, visited the park again this week on its way south. I thought at first it was a Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) from its vivid color but Ben had it right.  A handsome sparrow! We did see a Hermit Thrush but I didn’t manage to get a good photo this week.

 

Fox sparrow morning light
The Fox Sparrow’s color clearly gave this migrant its common name.

The Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) seem much more secretive this time of year.  I’ve seen both the male and female slipping silently from limb to limb down under the Button Bush in the wetland north of the playground – a great contrast to their exuberant singing from the tops of trees and bushes during spring and summer months.

Cardinal male in swamp
This male Northern Cardinal might be a bit disturbed by the presence of us birders, since his crest is slightly raised.

More Tree Sparrows (Spizella arborea) are arriving by the day from their summer homes on the tundra.  I saw only one near the marsh nearest to Snell Road but I heard what sounded like several in the dense underbrush nearby.

Tree sparrow
Tree Sparrows continue arriving from the arctic to spend the winter here.

A Winter Lodge and Abandoned and Fiercely Defended Nests

Two weeks ago I saw a Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) diving in the Center Pond and then appearing briefly as it swam quickly into the shadows near the eastern shore.  It looks as though it’s been making modifications to its lodge on the southern shore, as the sturdy heap of pond mud and dead plant material appears to have grown higher and darker recently.  Muskrats don’t hibernate but are trapped under ice for months at a time.  How do they breathe, find food and keep warm for all that time?  We’ll explore those questions later  – during a snowy winter week at Bear Creek.

Muskrat den2
There seem to be recent additions of mud and plant material on the muskrat’s lodge at the Center Pond.

Also at the eastern end of the pond, the beautiful wasp or hornet’s nest swaying at the tip of a slender limb, is fraying at the edges from wind and rain.  The colony’s founding queen, workers, males and unfertilized queens have all died by now and all that’s left of that huge colony are the fertile queens who mated this fall.  Back in August and September, they put on weight, being fed by the workers.  Now they are snugged up for the winter under bark, leaf litter, logs or stumps near the pond where they’ll emerge and start new colonies next spring. And that amazing piece of insect architecture will slowly unravel.

wasp nest in autumn
A hornet or wasp nest frays at the edges while the only survivors, the fertile queens, hide in nearby nooks and crannies ’til spring.

On the eastern path, a tidy little nest, most likely that of the American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) , sits securely attached to three branches of a small tree.  It seems destined to survive the winter, though bird nests are rarely re-used.  Goldfinches like to nest in small trees and shrubs in open fields.  According to Cornell Lab, “…the nest is an open cup of rootlets and plant fibers lined with plant down, often woven so tightly that it can hold water. The female lashes the foundation to supporting branches using spider silk, and makes a downy lining often using the fluffy “pappus” material taken from the same types of seedheads that goldfinches so commonly feed on.”  That aptly describes this little nest both inside and out! (Rest your cursor on double photos to see captions.)

I got another ferocious scolding from an aggressive little American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) this week, who was probably defending itself and its stockpile of nuts, seeds and mushrooms cached nearby.  During the winter, they generally live inside logs, stumps or in woodpecker holes, popping out around midday to dig into their food stores cached nearby.  Speedy little rodents, Red Squirrels can reach 14mph over a short distance when excited!  I told Ben and the birders that if this one had been about 10 times bigger, I’d have taken off running.  Look at that fierce little face!

Aggressive red squirrel
An American Red Squirrel fiercely warns me to get away from its winter hole in a nearby tree or log –  or perhaps its winter food cache stored nearby.

Wildflowers: Then and Now

Native wildflowers are almost gone, having produced seed for next year and along the way, fed the honey bees and native bumble bees, caterpillars, birds, even some of the animals in Bear Creek.

Up by the benches on the south hill of the park, the gigantic leaves of Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) curl around the bare stalks of these giant wildflowers that grew from 3 to 10 feet high this summer!  Prairie Dock nectar fed native bumblebees and perhaps the occasional hummingbird, while goldfinches snacked on the seeds.  Now their huge brown leaves curl, reminding me of the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland.

Across the way, the Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) that turned their faces to the sun a few months ago show only those rich brown centers now.  Lots of bees and other insects enjoy this native wildflower during the summer.

Meadowsweet (Spirea alba) still sports its red stalk, but the white plumes have fruited into brown seeds for next year.  Bees of all kinds fed on the nectar of this lovely plant all summer.  Rabbits probably nibbled on the lower leaves while deer sometimes consume the upper ones.  Meadowsweet also feeds a variety of native moths, some of which, of course, are consumed by birds.

Native plants like these are an important source of nourishment for the birds, bugs and other creatures of Bear Creek.  That’s one reason we try to foster them.

Leaf Patterns

The Pin Oak leaves were bright red and green as they encircled the playground a week or so ago.  Suddenly this week, they turned brown but held on.

Pin Oaks Playground Fall
Pin Oaks that were bright green and red last week have quickly turned brown, but held on.

A week ago, the Red Maple (Acer rubrum) near the shed blazed a brilliant red but it appears from the pattern of its now-fallen leaves,  that a gust of south wind brought most of them down at once .

Bur oak shedding leaves
From the pattern on the ground, the Red Maple appears to have lost most of its leaves to the warm south wind this week.

Down at the center pond, the giant White Oak (Quercus alba) shed its leaves this week, creating a mosaic in the water nearby.

white oak at center pond
One of the biggest White Oaks in the park, the one near the Center Pond, shed its leaves this week.
White oak leaves in the pond
A White Oak leaf pattern in the Center Pond.

So despite the fact that November’s fading light cues birds to move on, flowers to wither and leaves to fall, Bear Creek is still a place of beauty and surprise.  November cues us too – to don heavier jackets, maybe a raincoat, some days a hat and gloves – to come take part in the changing of seasons.

Gray dogwood red against yellow leaves
The red tips (pedicles) of Gray Dogwood that are left now that the white fruit (drupes) have fallen or been eaten by birds.
*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 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 American Online; Audubon.org

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Flocking Birds, a Winter Resident from the Arctic Tundra and Some “Lovely but Lethals”

Russet trees across Eastern meadow

Winter chill showed up last week – along with sparrows arriving from the arctic tundra.   Small migrators, just passing through on their way south, huddled among bare limbs.  Fall inspires birds to flock and the skies and trees are crowded with bird society.  A few wildflowers are still sending off or dropping their last fruits and all kinds of leaves whirl down and carpet the paths.  Now is the time when the negative impact of too many deer and invasive plants becomes readily apparent – so we’ll explore “lovely but lethal” creatures and plants in the park as well.

Birds Flock Together in the Chill Winds

Evidently, wildlife experts have various theories about why birds flock in the autumn.  The most common explanation seems to be that it’s protection. More bird eyes and ears can spot predators and find food more easily.  In some species,  the young flock with adults who know more about food sources than they do.  Some experts believe birds learn from other birds about new food sources by hanging out in flocks or rookeries.  Migrating is easier in flocks in which individual birds take turns flying in front, thereby decreasing the wind resistance for the birds behind them.

long line of geese
A long line of Canada Geese straggling into “V” formation over Bear Creek this week

And then there’s the possibility that birds are just more social when they aren’t courting or raising young.  American Robins (Turdus migratorius) for instance, are chirping all over the park now in small flocks, often high in the treetops.  Many robins spend their whole winter here; we just don’t see them on the lawn because they can’t get to worms, so they eat fruits during the cold season.

American Robin on a cold day
American Robin on a cold day

Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) gather in large numbers in the marsh.  I saw a flock of over 50 last week floating and flying near the Gunn Road end of the marsh – and heard reports of hundreds near Rochester Road.  Here are about half of the ones I saw.

29 Ducks in marsh
About half of a flock of over 50 ducks restlessly eating and flying over the marsh this week.

Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura), often seen in ones or twos over the western Old Field during the summer, were soaring in groups of five or more this week.  Our “cleanup crew” with its magnificent 6 ft. wing span will soon be gone, migrating to the southeast to spend the winter.

Turkey vulture and Staghorn sumac
A Turkey Vulture soars past a Staghorn Sumac.

Lately I’ve learned that flocks of Black-Capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) are good places to look for other small birds who hang out with them when in unfamiliar areas.  Their “Chickadee-dee-dee” call ends up being a clue to look for fellow travelers like the sparrows below.  The reason?  Chickadees are great at sounding alarms that other birds heed.  The more “dee’s,” the higher the threat.  And as year ’round residents, they probably know the best, closest food sources as well.  This Chickadee mustered its impressive balancing skills to take off in the stiff winds this week.

Chickadee on a windy day
A chickadee gets ready for take-off in a stiff wind.

Snag w chickadee woodpecker holesEver wonder how a bird as small as a Chickadee survives during cold, rainy nights like we had this week or cold snowy ones? Cornell Lab says that these tiny birds can excavate their own individual holes in the rotting wood of snags (standing dead trees)  – one bird per hole!  I’m glad to hear that, since I know chickadees always face the challenge of eating enough to stay alive in cold weather. They store individual seeds everywhere and then can actually remember where they put thousands of them! Here’s how Cornell says they sort of “clear their hard drives” at this time of year: “Every autumn Black-capped Chickadees allow brain neurons containing old information to die, replacing them with new neurons so they can adapt to changes in their social flocks and environment even with their tiny brains.”  Wish I could do some of that!

Cold Weather Sparrows Arrive While Sparrow Visitors Pause and Move On.

This winter, flocks of  Tree Sparrows (Spizella arborea) will probably gather beneath your bird feeder as well as mine.   These distance travelers have spent the summer raising young on the arctic tundra and this week arrived back at Bear Creek.  See this link to their beautiful arctic nests made of ptarmigan feathers.  These small birds with their warm brown caps and black dot on a gray chest must love cold weather since they clearly think our winters are comfortably mild.

Tree sparrow at Bear Creek
Tree Sparrows arrived this week from their summer homes on the arctic tundra.

Other sparrows are still just passing through.  The large Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca) with gray above its eye and on the nape of its neck is heading for backyards and fields anywhere south of mid-Ohio.  This one looks especially red-brown because it was basking in the light of a setting sun.

Fox sparrow2?
The large Fox Sparrow basks in the light of the setting sun.

This is probably the last week that the White-Throated Sparrow will be at Bear Creek. Its yellow “lores” (spots in front of the eyes) are present at the top of the beak, a bit faint in this photo,  but it had the classic field marks of a white throat and striped head – when it would emerge for a few seconds from hiding among the branches!

Brown form of White-throated Sparrow
Tan-striped form of the White-throated Sparrow which sometimes comes in black and white.

The Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) was here last week, foraging near the Center Pond as the leaves thinned out.  With the cold north winds late in the week, it’s probably winging its way to Tennessee and points south, like the human “snow birds.”

Hermit Thrush
A Hermit Thrush who probably left on the north wind late this week for warmer climes.

Seeding for Spring Continues

3 Common Mullein
Three non-native Common Mullein plants stand like morning sentinels on the western slope of the park.

Like the tall non-native Common Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) above, many wildflowers have finished seeding for the year, but some are still dispersing seeds in a variety of ways.  The native Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), that looks like a tiny white sputnik when it flowers,  is now drooping in the marshes. (Rest your cursor on double photos like this for captions.)

But it’s been a great help to the native wildlife around it.  According to Wikipedia, “Waterfowl and other birds eat the seeds. Wood ducks utilize the plant as nest protection. Deer browse the foliage. Insects and hummingbirds take the nectar, with bees using it to make honey.”  That’s what makes many native plants good for a habitat – lots of uses for native wildlife.

Remember the loose sprays of native Water Hemlock (Cicuta maculata) that were in or near every park wetland during the summer? This plant, the most toxic in North America, is now making a delicate, brown fruit with tiny hooks that attach to animal fur –  or my cotton sweater as I wade into the plants to get a macro photo.  In that way, they spread their seeds for next spring.

Native Gray Dogwood (Cornus foemina) has fed lots of birds with its white berry-like “drupes” this fall and now leaves behind a lovely red fringe at the edge of the marsh in the center of the park.

Gray dogwood?
Gray dogwood fed the birds with its white berries and now leaves a lovely red fringe at the edge of the wetlands.

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) pods are drying and mature seeds are now being released to the wind.  If you see seed on the path or anywhere they can’t sprout, pick them up and send them flying!  The resident and migrating Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus) that feed on them next summer will thank you.

By the Way..

One Tough Dragonfly!

I was astonished on Friday, after the heavy, cold rain and high winds, to still see another Yellow-legged Autumn Dragonfly (Sympetrum vicinum) calmly sitting on the railing at the Playground Pond.  On Sunday a week ago, I’d seen the one in the photo below on a matching red leaf at Seven Ponds and thought that would be my last sighting of the year.  That is one tough insect!  At Bear Creek, a few grasshoppers were still chirping, a bit forlornly, in the tall grass as well and could still be seen springing about on southern slopes in the park.  Amazing.

Yellow legged autumn dragonfly
A Yellow-legged Autumn dragonfly matched the leaf upon which it rested on a cold, late fall afternoon.

And Just One Special Leaf this Week:

Isn’t the Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides) a lovely tree? They shimmer silvery green in the summer and shower golden leaves in the fall.  It’s a very common and short-lived tree with smooth, light bark that’s often mistaken for birch. And as Michigan Flora says, it’s “one of the few deciduous trees of the boreal forest to the north of Michigan.”  Another resident from the far north! That Tree Sparrow must have passed thousands of them on the way here.  Maybe that’s why I saw my first Tree Sparrow of the year right across from the Aspens on the park’s northern loop.  This week, in those stiff winds and rain, the Aspen’s dancing leaves went flying, leaving a carpet of gold on some paths at Bear Creek.

Aspen leaf
Golden Big-Tooth Aspen leaves littered the paths this week like gold coins.

Now for those “Lovely but Lethal” Plants and Animals

It’s tough not to love White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus).  After all, who doesn’t love to see those “doe eyes” gazing our way?

Deer
An over-abundance of the lovely White-tailed Deer can be a problem to native wildflowers and the tree canopy, especially in woodlands like our Oak-Hickory forest.

However, deer are seriously over-populating the landscape here and elsewhere.  According to the Nature Conservancy, “No native vertebrate species in the eastern United States has a more direct effect on habitat integrity than the white-tailed deer.”  The huge number of deer changes the landscape as they prefer to eat native plants, like Common Trillium, for instance. This feeding has reduced the density and height of forest wildflowers and make more room for invasive plants to spread.  Their consumption of acorns  also has an effect on the tree canopy in the woods. Deer are native to Michigan and much-beloved by both nature-lovers and hunters, so finding a solution to their over-abundance is a real challenge.

bittersweet
This invasive lovely and lethal vine that people admire in the fall chokes the life out of trees and bushes.

As we posted separately, one of the worst actual killers in our parks is Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) – which was very apparent this week in the park.  Its yellow leaves, yellow capsules and red fruit can be seen from every path twisting its way up and across trees and bushes.  Introduced as a landscape plant, this striking but lethal vine kills trees and bushes in three ways.  It  winds aggressively around the trunks of trees to get to the sunlight at the top, girdling the tree until it chokes the tree to death.

bittersweet killing small tree
Oriental Bittersweet, a beautiful invasive vine,  will eventually kill this small tree by girdling it and robbing it of nutrients and sunlight.

It also creates so much weight at the tops of trees that once they are weakened by the Bittersweet, they can be blown over in the wind.  They also climb over bushes so densely that they simply steal the sunlight and nutrients from the host plant and any plant nearby.  So please don’t pick it, don’t make or buy wreaths of it and don’t try to pull the heavy vines down yourself because you could get seriously hurt! Please see our post on how to rid our parks or your property of this beautiful killer.

Bittersweet engulfing a walnut tree
Asian Bittersweet killing a walnut tree in the lane.

Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) has been the bane of Bear Creek for a long time.  The northern end of the park is full of this invasive bush with its fragrant flowers in the spring and its red berries in the fall.  This woody shrub can literally crowd out native shrubs and plants as it has, along with other invasives , on the large loop at the north end of the park.

Now a new invasive tree is competing to be the most problematic and it too is lovely.  (Most invasives are pretty; that’s why people plant them in their landscapes!)  Friday morning I counted 16 small to medium-sized trees of this new problem for Bear Creek in one small corner near the center pond. It’s called Callery Pear (Pyrus calleryana) – another lovely, but lethal invasive plant.

Callery Pear invasive tree
A new invasive plant has found its way into Bear Creek – Callery Pear. There are 16 trees of varying sizes already at this corner near the Center Pond.

Of course, native trees can get out of hand, too, like Box Elder (Acer negundo), actually a not-so-wonderful kind of maple . Box-elder samaras seedsLook at the number of samaras (a fruit with wings attached to carry seeds)  in this one small clump on a large tree at the bottom of the western slope.  There are a lot of box elders on the western slope for that very reason!  Though the multiple trunks are often thin and the trees are short-lived, it can quickly colonize an area and crowd out other trees and plants.

 

 

Nature is remarkably resilient.  If we can give it a bit of help through careful stewardship, we can control these lovely and lethal plants and animals so the native ones can take their proper place in the landscape and the non-native ones can slowly be eliminated or at least controlled so they don’t irrevocably change the diverse native landscape that nature provided for us.  So consider joining in our stewardship events (see the Stewardship Events tab above) as we weed and plant to help Bear Creek and our other parks thrive in all their natural glory.

A note about “This Week at Bear Creek”:  My blog posts will probably slow some between November and February since late fall and winter are more static times in the park – and occasionally the weather will make it tricky to get out with my camera!  So please consider “following” Natural Areas Notebook, so that you’ll get an email when a post goes up.  I love doing this blog, so whenever I see some changes in the wildlife or something unusual in the park that I think might interest all of you this season, I’ll be here!  Thanks so much for your support and interest as we made our virtual walks together through the spring and summer!  Let’s see what late fall and winter bring!

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.