Draper Twin Lake Park: Work Begins to Restore a More Natural Landscape

Restoration north of the parking lot in the west section Draper Twin Lake Park

Ask anyone in my family if I’d ever be celebrating the felling of trees and they would look at you incredulously and start laughing. Cam? The original (occasionally literal) tree hugger?!

Text and photos by Cam Mannino

I had a favorite 100 year old sugar maple that befriended me as a child and I spent happy hours high in the branches with my books and snacks. When that tree and others were being felled for a housing development in the field next door, my mother – not a born nature lover – went to bat for those trees, even contacting the governor’s office since “environmental protection” was in its infancy then. But to no avail.

So imagine my astonishment at finding myself standing in the western section of Draper Twin Lake Park with Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township’s Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, delighting in the scene pictured in this video!!

A Forestry Mower Removing Non-native Trees and Shrubs at the west section of Draper Twin Lake Park



Restoring the Habitat of the Past to Provide for a Healthy Future

The trail to Twin Lake before restoration began

My pleasure, of course, stemmed from my growing understanding and appreciation of restoration. That monster of a machine, a forestry mower, was removing a gigantic glut of non-native trees and shrubs. (See the photo above!) For decades, this natural area of grasses, wildflowers and widely spaced native trees had been farmed. The bare soil, depleted of its native diversity, suffered an invasion when farming stopped in the 1970s; trees, shrubs and other plants from Europe and Asia made the most of a great opportunity. Escaping from farms, flower gardens or landscaping, invasive plants found their way to this habitat. Benefiting from the absence of the competitors or conditions they had to contend with at home, they spread wildly. Our local plants and trees couldn’t compete. They didn’t evolve with these new arrivals and so had no defenses for countering their steady increase. It would take millennia for our native insects, birds, diseases, and plants to eventually evolve and adapt to these new plants, too long for the survival of the many species that depend on them.

That’s where our stewardship crew steps in. Ecological restoration attempts to give our local trees, grasses and wildflowers a fighting chance to thrive. When it succeeds, native plants can then provide for the whole food web that evolved with them. As you can see below, the forestry mower opened up fields and forest, beginning the process of restoring the landscape that nature designed eons ago.

The trail to Twin Lake after this fall’s restoration began

It’s not that non-native trees and shrubs are “bad”; they functional beautifully in their home environments. But they aren’t able to effectively nourish and protect the creatures that live and evolved here in Oakland Township. Butterflies may sip at non-native garden flowers, but their caterpillars generally can’t eat non-native leaves or fail to reach maturity if they do. Birds may eat non-native berries but they almost universally feed their nestlings nutritious caterpillars which are full of fat and protein. Fewer native plants means fewer caterpillars which means fewer birds, a ripple effect that then moves on through the food web. Restoring native plants to an area means lots of nature gets fed and sheltered.

Meet the Most Common (and Pesky) Invasives at Draper Twin Lake Park

Invasive shrubs lining the trail to Twin Lake before restoration this fall

So let’s get more familiar with the highly invasive shrubs and vines that ended up dominating so many of our natural areas, including Draper Twin Lake Park. For the most part, they started out in nurseries which unwittingly (or occasionally wittingly) sold them to landscapers and homeowners as decorative additions to their gardens. Some of the most infamous and tenacious invasive shrubs in our parks include Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata), Glossy Buckthorn (Frangula alnus) and Common Privet (Ligustrum vulgare), shrubs that produce plentiful fruits which unfortunately provide scant nutrition for our birds. Generally non-native fruits provide sugars (carbohydrates) for wildlife but don’t have the fats (lipids) that birds, for example, require for migration or winter survival. Research at Michigan State University has shown that birds prefer native fruits when they can get them, but will eat the less healthy non-native fruits if nothing else is available. Once eaten by birds or other animals, invasive trees and shrubs spread far and wide through their droppings.

The fruits of Oriental Bittersweet vines (Celastrus orbiculatus) are particularly pernicious. The outer yellow skins peel back to reveal red fruits, attracting both birds searching for a late season food source, and humans who unwittingly use them for decorative purposes. Birds enjoy the sugars in their fruit during late fall, but since its seeds can last a long time in the guts of birds, the plant can be spread long distances. Once established, the vine climbs quickly, reaching for light in the treetops. As the vine spirals up the trunk, it girdles and slowly strangles the tree. When the vine reaches the crown, its foliage shades out the tree’s leaves, weakening the tree. Its weight makes the tree’s crown heavy and vulnerable to toppling in high winds. It’s a real femme fatale, this vine with its pretty fruits and its deadly growth pattern.

Many invasives quickly form dense thickets in a field or woods through underground stems (rhizomes) or root suckers. Their density chokes out the sun, rain and space that our native plants require. Below is a photo from Bear Creek Nature Park that demonstrates the density that once surrounded a pine tree, killing its lower branches. And on the right at Draper Twin Lake Park, a young oak had the same problem until the restoration began this fall.

Some invasives, like Tree-of-Heaven (Ailanthus altissima), produce giant quantities of seeds which can be carried on the wind and once sown, the trees grow incredibly quickly. Growth of 3.5 to 6 feet each year of its first four years is considered normal! It also releases toxins into the soil to prevent or inhibit the growth of plants around it. In the photo on the right below, Ben placed his hand where the second year growth of one of these trees began! Faster growth means that these trees shade out neighbors and mature faster than others, allowing them to spread quickly.

You might be as surprised as I once was to learn that even some of our common and long-beloved bushes can spread invasively. That’s part of what happened at Draper Twin Lake Park. Ben found huge thickets of non-natives like Forsythia (Forsythia intermedia) from Asia and Common Lilac (Syringa vulgaris) from southeastern Europe on the western section of Draper; they both probably once surrounded the house when a farm was located here.

The Removal of Invasives Goes Beyond Mowing

Once the forestry mower has done its work, hard work lies ahead. Stumps of invasive shrubs that the mower missed are cut and carefully dabbed with herbicide to prevent re-sprouting. Some, like the persistent Tree-of-Heaven, will require further treatment and periodic mowing to discourage new growth. Oriental Bittersweet can only be removed by cutting the vines and then carefully treating the roots to prevent regrowth. New sprouts will also need to be treated repeatedly for some time, a tedious but necessary process. Some larger trees are treated by a process called “drill and fill” in which holes are drilled around the tree and herbicide is introduced. When the tree dies, it will still remain standing, storing its carbon for years to come and providing shelter for woodpeckers and other cavity nesting animals, like red squirrels or raccoons. The stewardship staff will spread native plant seed to help bring back what was choked out by the invasive trees and shrubs – native grasses first, then wildflower seed in a year or two after the invasive shrub re-sprouts have been controlled. Further down the road, prescribed fires may be used to encourage our fire-adapted native plants.

Winter Wildlife and I Explore the Newly Restored Landscape

On one of my visits to the western section of the park, Ben showed me the remains of a beaver dam and the small pond this industrious builder had created. The dam consisted of a few small trees and some plant material patched together with mud. Though we saw a few pencil-shaped stumps in the area, Ben’s guess is that when the beaver began this project a couple of years ago, it couldn’t find enough small willows or cottonwoods, its preferred building materials, to meet the beaver’s need, so it abandoned the idea. However, the beaver did create a lovely little pond behind the dam. And the little dam slowed the water down enough that Ben was surprised to find much drier footing further south in the marsh while doing a plant survey in 2020!

In the fields east of the trail, a few winter birds kept me company as they sought out frozen insect eggs or larvae in the trees newly liberated from the crush of invasive shrubs.

A small group of White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) browsed between the newly thinned trees in the forest. Deer consume dry grasses, but unfortunately they much prefer acorns and small oak saplings in fall and winter, affecting the quality of our forests. According to a Tufts University website, in winter they also rely on insulation from stored fat and more of the coarse dark hairs in their coats called “guard hairs.” Glands in their skin produce oils that help their coats repel water, an advantage on snowy days.

Deer browsing for grasses, twigs and small trees in the thinned forest after restoration.

One snowy morning, I spent twenty minutes or so tracking a small animal. Its prints lay in a single line, which usually indicates a fox or coyote. Wild canines, unlike domestic dogs, place their hind foot carefully into the track of the front foot on the same side, making a neat row of single, or “direct register” tracks. The tracks that I was following intrigued me because they were much smaller than most that I’d seen. After puzzling a bit, I suddenly noticed that the tracks had no nail prints at the end of the toes. And with that, I remembered that wild canines share direct register tracks with another group of animals – cats! What I’d been tracking was the small, roundish, direct register prints of a house cat! Cats, unlike canines, walk with their toenails withdrawn in order to keep them sharp for hunting – or they may have had them removed by pet owners. I shook my head, laughing at myself for tracking a cat and went back to the trail.

Squirrels and squirrel tracks were everywhere that morning! Their tracks usually appear as a block of four prints like the ones below. I think these belong to the American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus), because the larger five-toed tracks of their hind feet are slightly in front of the four-toed tracks of their front feet; that’s the pattern left when these little guys take off and land, pushing down with the front feet while swinging the hind feet forward. I also saw a larger Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger) high up in the small branches of a tree, probably making a meal of the tiny leaf buds.

Down by the Lake, a Little Avian Hysteria

Twin Lake with perfect ovals, possibly caused by warmer water flowing upward and rotating during a thaw-freeze cycle.

Winter silence had descended when I arrived at the dock on Twin Lake one cloudy afternoon. In the deep quiet, I got intrigued by strange ovals on the lake surface. It was fun to imagine a squadron of flying saucers landing on the surface, but I was curious to do some research when I reached home. From assembling the hints I could find online, I’m guessing that they may be caused by rotating convection currents created by warm water rising and cold water falling during a frost/freeze cycle, inhibiting ice formation. But if you have better information, please let me know in the comments.

Suddenly far across the lake, a pair of Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) began circling high above the trees. I caught one with my camera as it spiraled lazily. Red-tail hawks are believed to mate for life, though they quickly choose another mate if one of them dies. This pair may be nesting in the area since the Wednesday bird group saw two of them in the trees across the lake a couple of weeks later.

One of a pair of Red-tailed Hawks far above the trees across Draper Twin Lake.

Just as I spotted the hawks in the distance, a screech of alarm calls broke out from a flock of American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) nearby. They flashed out of the trees in a large group, flying away to the south. Evidently, the hawks must have gone unnoticed in the forest until they rose into the air to do a little scouting together. Their appearance startled the crows who were too flustered to harass or “mob” them as they often do. My camera managed to catch one in mid-caw after it launched off a limb.

A crow cawing in sudden flight as two red-tailed hawks appear over the treetops.

After the noise subsided, I turned to look at a Muskrat lodge (Ondatra zibethicus) off the side of the dock. Muskrats may have been dozing inside since their metabolism slows way down in the winter. Or it may have left its dry sleeping chamber above the water line, swum down through its underwater entrance and begun cruising slowly along under the ice, searching for a meal. Note that unlike beavers who build their much larger lodges with trees, branches and sticks, muskrats build with mud and cattail stems or other aquatic plant material. This one was also surrounded by graceful stalks carrying the dried pom-poms of Whorled Loosestrife seed heads (Lysimachia quadrifolia). A tidy winter abode, I think.

My Evolving Understanding of “Letting Nature Takes Its Course.”

The path leading back to the parking lot after restoration began

It took me a few years of working in the parks with Ben before I fully understood the beauty and power of restoring our natural areas. I approached restoration suspiciously at first, having grown up with the ethos,”Let nature take its course.” How could altering the landscape through mowing, felling trees and shrubs, and the occasional use of herbicides be good for nature?

Remembering the Landscape of My Childhood

The first step to understanding restoration was noticing what was missing today. One day early on as a Parks volunteer in 2015, I asked Ben what birds might return if we restored the Oak Savannah landscape – grass, trees and widely spaced oaks – that had existed here before European settlement. Among other birds, he mentioned the Northern Bobwhite (Colinus virginianus). Ah! That name instantly brought back memories of the two-note song of that quail whistling from summer fields around my parents’ home on Lake George Road when I was a child. I live very near my family home now, but I haven’t heard a Bobwhite sing for more than 50 years. The native Big Bluestem grass (Andropogon gerardii) that towered over my head as a little girl was replaced by housing and short, green, non-native lawns in my teen years. As ground feeders and nesters, the Bobwhites needed that tall, stiff grass to protect them and their young from hawks and other predators and they no doubt fed off the seeds that fell from those dry stalks in the autumn. The increasing use of pesticides in farming plus habitat loss have both contributed to an 85% decline in the numbers of the Bobwhite Quail since the 1970’s. I miss them.

Northern Bobwhite Quail by Robin Gwen Agarwal (CC BY-NC) at iNaturalist.org

Listening to Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home, at a Michigan Wildflower Conference in 2019, I was reminded of the moths that used to dance in groups around our porch light on summer nights – or splattered against the windshields of my parents’ car. I suddenly realized that I don’t see as many moths clinging to our porch windows or fluttering in the headlights now as I did years ago. The reason, I learned, was that the caterpillars of most moths and butterflies need native plants in order to feed and mature into adults; my yard, like most of my neighbors, was filled with decorative plants, shrubs and trees native to places all over the world – like Norway and Japanese Maples – but fewer of the ones more common in my childhood. Native oaks and other native trees provide sustenance for the caterpillars of many species of butterflies and moths. Here are two examples of what we may be missing: Wild Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) and Pagoda/Alternate Leaf Dogwoods are the preferred hosts for many insects including the spectacular Cecropia Moth (Hyalophora Cecropia). Oaks are especially generous, hosting the caterpillars of hundreds of species of Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies), including the impressive Polyphemus Moth (Antheraea polyphemus).

When I was a child in Oakland Township, seeing a White-tailed Deer was a rare treat. At that time, large expanses of active or abandoned farm land surrounded by woods allowed them to stay out of sight. Today development has crowded deer closer to our homes and gardens and on to our roads. The forest floor, once covered in wildflowers like trillium are more often choked with non-native shrubs or vines that take advantage of the open ground left by herds of deer browsing on the tender sprouts of wildflowers in spring or saplings in winter.

So it turns out that I was wrong. The non-native plants that fill our fields and surround our personal property were not a matter of “letting nature takes its course.” Quite the opposite, in fact. The carpets of invasive plants were the effect of humans unwittingly but actively changing our native habit over the last two hundred years.

The Good News? We Can Work to Restore What Nature Created
The trail nears the lake which now can be seen through the trees

So finally I understood that what humans had done could in some measure be undone. True, we can’t completely recreate nature’s original landscape design on any large scale or in such rich diversity. But the people of Oakland Township have made an ongoing commitment to preserving and restoring natural areas here wherever possible. Thanks to them, Ben and his crew are systematically decreasing the invasive plants in our natural areas and giving the plants that nature provided eons ago a chance to thrive again. Homeowners like us are choosing to integrate native plants and trees into our landscapes and turning turf into meadows and wildflower gardens. If enough of us create native neighborhoods, perhaps I will live to hear the whistle of the Bobwhite once more.

That’s why I, an inveterate tree lover, could celebrate the felling of invasive trees that day at Draper. What I was seeing as the forestry mower cleared away the brush was stewardship – restoring and caring for a productive, diverse ecosystem that nature took thousands of years to perfect. As the old hymn goes, I “…was blind but now I see.”

Looking east over the marsh that divides the west and east sections of Draper Twin Lake Park

Watershed Ridge Park: Adventures in a Pathless Park – Virtual Hike # 1

Doesn’t dealing with the possibility of a highly invasive virus in our private ecosystems sometimes feel like a pathless wood? An adventure we’d just as soon have done without? Well, maybe you could consider my favorite antidote – a real pathless wood or meadow that offers adventure all along the way.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

Skirt an unexpectedly wide wetland by crunching along on any dry stalks you can find. Listen to coyotes singing in the moist shade of a spring forest. Wend your way through tall, graceful native grasses. Navigate through, or preferably around, prickly brambles that grab at your sleeve. Hop over one of many streams that flow in every direction – or use a log as a mossy bridge if you dare. It’s all available at Watershed Ridge Park.  I can guarantee that for the time you’re there,  you’re unlikely to think of anything but what’s underfoot, over the next slope or landing in the next tree.

 

My Advice:  Get Oriented First and Use the Compass in Your Phone as Necessary!

The Parks and Recreation Commission (PRC) has created a fine parking lot on West Buell Road, but will not be able to create the first park trails until later this year.  They are planned to follow the edges of some of the farm fields in the southwest corner of the park. So for now,  you’ll need to ramble along muddy field edges in the spring, climb over fallen logs in the woods year ’round and hike your knees up high to navigate the meadow’s tall plants in the summer. If you visit Watershed Ridge Park now, I’d recommend sturdy boots, a high tolerance for mud, a jacket that doesn’t collect burrs or get snagged easily by thorns and a compass of some kind. This blog is the fourth I’ve written on Watershed Ridge, and I’ve gotten disoriented twice there over the years. Even our stewardship manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide,  got turned around on an early trip to Watershed Ridge Park!

So to begin,  I want to show you an aerial map of the whole park so you can envision where I’m walking as we take two vigorous virtual hikes together this week and next.

WRP_AerialMap2_Hikes

An aerial view of Watershed Ridge Park. The aerial photo is from 2017.

The green line on the map marks the boundaries of the park.  The little pink squares off West Buell Road mark the area around  the township’s pole barn situated at the edge of a large agricultural field. The yellow line shows the approximate route for our virtual hike!

NOTE:  It’s important when exploring Watershed Ridge Park not to tread across planted fields. For now, the Parks & Recreation Commission (PRC) rents land for farming on the big eastern fields and at the northeast and southwest corners of the park,  because they want to preserve farming in the area as a cultural feature. Farming provides the benefit of controlling invasive plants until a restoration plan is implemented.

On the west side of the park, the PRC is hoping to get some habitat restoration going in the next year! Partnering with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, they are hoping to restore how the water moves (hydrology) in certain areas. In some spots, they will strategically plug some of the drainage ditches dug years ago. In other areas small berms will be built to slow down water running off the fields, recreating the shallow ponds and saturated soils that were eliminated to make way for farming years ago. Some of the farm fields will also be planted with native grasses and wildflowers, focusing on areas that are often too wet to farm, or so steep that the soil erodes easily. As a huge prairie fan, that pleases me mightily. Once you picture these rolling fields restored to waving native grasses and wildflowers, I hope you’ll agree. For now, though, please stay on the edges of the farm fields to avoid hurting the crops.  

Trodding the Edges of a Rolling Farm Field with Forays into the Forest

After walking east from the parking lot along Buell Road, my husband and I headed out one Sunday along the grass edge between the two farmed fields on the eastern edge of the park (north of the “firewood pickup area”).  The ridge after which the park is named runs roughly diagonally across the large center field; this watershed ridge means that streams on the park’s western side flow to Paint Creek and streams in the east flow toward the west branch of Stony Creek.

It appeared that a raccoon had been treading the same ground the night before.

A raccoon left a print along the muddy edge of a farm field at Watershed Ridge.

Off in the field, beyond a slope, we heard the keening cry of Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus), those smartly striped Plovers that wing their way here each spring. They winter in southern climes as far away as the West Indies, Central America and the northern regions of South America. There they enjoyed beaches and coastal wetlands or fields. So it must feel like a bit of a comedown to settle here in a muddy field with low vegetation – but that is their preferred breeding area. They need the insects, crayfish and worms that our area produces once warmer weather arrives in order to feed themselves and their young.

Two of the four Killdeer that were probing the mud of the big eastern field.

Near the northeast section of the field, we took a short foray into the deep woods. In the dimness, we could see the tip of a large wetland and a tall, sloped hummock that faced northwest. We suddenly heard a high, squeaking howl, which we at first took for two trees rubbing together. But the squeals were followed by soft barking! Coyotes! (Canis latrans var.) Our guess was that one of these clever canines had built their well-protected den on the south side of the large hummock handily located near water and also therefore, potential prey. What a sound in the dim light! (No photo there, I’m afraid; I was too excited and the tree density made it hard for the camera to see the sloping hill beyond – so please feel free to use your imagination!) The notes were high, keening and not as powerful as usual and we wondered if we were hearing pups. Coyote pups are born in March or April, so it’s possible, but unlikely. Perhaps a female was agitated by our scent. Impossible to know, but intriguing!

Wild coyotes avoid humans. You’ll usually see them walking away. Photo by Jonathan Schechter with permission.

Later in the week, in the far distance near another wetland, I saw the haunches of a coyote, its tail hanging low, as it loped around the edge of dry reeds near the water and disappeared. I wonder if it was one of the family we’d heard? The photo above is by Jonathan Schechter, wildlife photographer and writer of his fine blog, The Wilder Side of Oakland County, which is currently on hiatus so the county can concentrate on emergency virus information.

Coming out of the woods, we spotted dark Polypore/Shelf mushrooms decorating a snag (standing dead tree). These fungi will slowly recycle the nutrients and carbon dioxide sequestered in the wood over many years. The mushrooms do their part to slow down the release of carbon into the atmosphere caused by the death of a tree.

Polypore/shelf mushrooms proliferate on a snag, feeding on the nutrients and carbon dioxide that the tree stored for many years.

One of the delights of this hike was the sight of a Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger) feeding contentedly on the bright red buds of a Silver Maple  (Acer saccharinum). Now that’s a real spring tableau!

A male Fox Squirrel savored a treat of buds from a Silver Maple.

Near the maple, a small thicket of orange-tipped Gray Dogwood (Cornus racemosa) contributed a bit of color to the early spring landscape. They hosted galls formed by an insect called the Dogwood Club Midge (Resseliella clavula) which laid its eggs in the stems last year; the plant then obligingly grew round them to create a safe hideaway! In the fall, the larva drilled their way out of the gall and burrowed into the ground to emerge this spring. They don’t harm the wild shrubs and provide food for some other creatures, I expect. Very elegant, those Dogwood Club galls! [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

The heads of some curious White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) popped up over the edge of a slope in the field. Look at that series of attentive ears!

A curious group of White-tailed Does, their ears perked!

And of course, a couple of trees were dotted with an American Crow family (Corvus brachyrhynchos). As I moved slowly toward them, they flew off as usual, leaving one family member to pass by a bit closer to execute a quick inspection of us humans below.

As we approached the northwest corner of the field, we stepped once more into the woods for a closer look at a mysterious swamp. The term “swamp,” as defined by the Environmental Protection Agency, is any wetland dominated by woody plants,” meaning trees and shrubs. The large wetland to the north drains into this woodland, and the water spreads out among many trees and shrubs.  Imagine the size of the tree that left that crenelated stump!

A giant tree stump at the edge of a wonderfully mysterious swamp

Exploring the Woods to the West of the Big Center Farm Field

A natural log bridge in the woods to the west of the large agricultural field.

Inside the woodland edge, a female Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) darted from branch to branch, occasionally looking into tree holes that might make a suitable nesting spot in a few weeks.

A female Eastern Bluebird pauses while searching for a nesting site.

Once inside the wood, giants appear everywhere – large Oak trees with big mossy feet!

The mossy foot of a huge member of the Red Oak family

It occurred to me as I walked this lovely forest that I might see the butterfly that always seems to emerge first each spring, the Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa). Shortly thereafter, one flew up behind me and sailed right above my right shoulder and off into the distance! Mourning Cloak adults spend the winter under tree bark and are well camouflaged for it. They will mate and lay eggs this spring and their offspring will spend next winter in the woods at Watershed Ridge Park. Here are photos I took in other years of  the upper (dorsal) and lower (ventral) side of their wings.

The Mourning Cloak butterfly overwinters as an adult to take advantage of less food competition in the spring.

The wood-like appearance of the underside of the Mourning Cloak’s wings makes terrific camouflage in a forest.

An Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus) had left behind its torpid winter state.  Chipmunks don’t exactly hibernate. This little one repeatedly slept from 1-8 days at a time this winter and woke periodically to munch on the nuts in its larder, before sleeping again. Wikipedia informs me that the word “chipmunk” is derived from an Objibwe word for “one who descends trees headlong.” And indeed that is exactly what this little one did before it paused for its portrait.

An Eastern Chipmunk paused while foraging for nuts and seeds.

Brown Creeper (Certhia americana)darted down from high in a tree and began spiraling up the bark, looking for insects or insect eggs.  If you see movement like that, a bird spiraling up one tree, and then flying down to the bottom of the next, you can be quite confident even at a distance that you’ve seen one of these tiny, well-camouflaged birds. It’s often mistaken for a White Breasted Nuthatch, but the Nuthatch hops both up and down the trunk and doesn’t usually start at the bottom of a tree. My little Creeper didn’t stick around, but  last week, the fine local photographer, Joan Bonin, caught a lovely photo of one up-close with her skill and a steady hand on her super long lens.  What a shot!

A Brown Creeper blending nicely with tree bark.  Photo by Joan Bonin used with permission.

A Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) hunting for insects appeared to be tattooing a design into the surface of a snag. As you can see, this male was very intent on foraging – or maybe he was contemplating his artwork! Males Downies drum in the spring to attract mates, but this one’s soft taps were intermittent rather than the continuous drumming or whinnying calls usually employed by a Downy male to capture a female’s attention.

A male downy leaving its mark on a snag.

On the northeast side of this woods, a stream runs out of the very large wetland in the north of the park. The stream bed was probably excavated years ago by a farmer trying to drain more land for agriculture. It runs from that huge wetland to a smaller one at the bottom of a meadow and then on to Lake George Road and ultimately Paint Creek.

A distant view of the tip of a large marsh in the north of the park and a stream flowing out of it.

On the day I visited, the ice had just begun to melt and in places where the sun hit, I could listen quietly to the glorious spring sound of bubbling water! Watch for the Skunk Cabbage shoots along the bank in my video below.

So Much to Explore, but Enough for Now…

Virtual Hike #1 comes to an end. You and I wend our way south, back to the parking lot.  We emerge from a part of the woods that we’ll explore more in Hike #2 next week.  Being careful to stay on the grassy edge of a smaller farm field, we stop to admire an Eastern Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis) cleverly camouflaged among the fallen stems.

A garter snake seeking the sun at the grassy edge of a field.

Our steps make the snake slide into a clump of dry grass, but then it feels the need to peek out.  Its head is striped like a barber pole by the shadows of grass stems.

The garter snake’s body is spiral striped by the grass stems. So shiny in the sunlight!

That’s the kind of beautiful little moment – the snake’s cautious peek and spiraling shadows briefly forming on those iridescent scales – that, for me, makes a lovely end to a long, challenging walk.  I hope it feels like that to you, too!. Stop back next week and we’ll explore more of big, untamed Watershed Ridge Park.  I’ll be glad to have your company!

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Bird Antics, Goldenrod Duplexes and Squirrel “Dreys”

Vertical Silver Maple buds painting look (1)

Warm days begin to bring out Silver Maple buds

Cam in red winter coat BC

Blog Post and Photos by Cam Mannino

What a puzzling week, eh?  Was it spring or late winter?  The buds on the Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) near the Center Pond seemed as confused as the rest of us.  They began to emerge as the sun warmed  the cold air.  I was concerned about the effect of icy nights later in the week.  Alas,  a twisted ankle meant I couldn’t get back to the pond to check on them. But maples seem to survive unpredictable Michigan winters, so we’ll hope it pauses and waits for a few weeks.  On a long walk one sunny, snowy day, I crossed the late night/early morning path of a rabbit  and went on to enjoy the antics of the “usual suspects” of a late winter day at Bear Creek: a Bluebird pair, a Chickadee pursued by a stalking Titmouse, and a Red-bellied Woodpecker busily poking at bark, looking for beetles. On a sunny, mud-slushy short walk with my somewhat tenuous ankle, I came across Goldenrod duplexes and while watching squirrels, decided I’d share some new info I read about these mischievous mammals.

Bird Antics from the “Usual Suspects”

Our Eastern Bluebird couple (Sialia sialis) seems to be sticking around despite fluctuating temperatures.  A hardy pair of Bluebirds!  This week I again spotted the female fluttering among the fruits of invasive Asian Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) – the vine that chokes our trees!

Female Bluebird fluttering along the Walnut Lane

Female Bluebird fluttering among vines along the Walnut Lane

She will undoubtedly disperse the seeds in them in short order since birds have very quick metabolisms, if you know what I mean…

Female bluebird getting ready to disperse the seeds of a tree killer, Asian Bittersweet

Female Bluebird getting ready to disperse the seeds of a tree- killing vine, Asian Bittersweet

I wish she’d eat the Staghorn Sumac fruit(Rhus typhina) on the Western Slope! They’re native plants and are supposed to be on a Bluebird’s winter menu!

Staghorn sumac fruit

Staghorn Sumac fruit in winter

Her male partner sat stolidly on a nearby branch, keeping an eye out for any competitors.

Mr. Bluebird2

A male Bluebird sticking close to his female partner as other bluebirds darted in and out of bushes near the Walnut Lane.

On the trail that leads north from the playground, a Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) stalked a Black-capped Chickadee  (Poecile atricapillus), apparently trying to see where it was caching its seeds in the tree bark. No matter where the Chickadee hopped or flew, the Titmouse was right behind.  Here’s the Titmouse with its crest raised.  It does that when excited, in this case perhaps perturbed by my camera,  or as this article suggests,  by trying to snitch some seed from the Chickadee’s hiding place!

Titmouse BC3

A Tufted Titmouse traveling around a tree and its vines right behind a Black-capped Chickadee, perhaps to snitch its cached seeds!

The Chickadee looked pretty annoyed when it finally paused for a moment! Was it that annoying Titmouse or my camera?  Or was it  just its natural expression?  Who knows?

Chickadee stare

A Black-capped Chickadee who appears to be in a state of high dudgeon!

High in the trees, a Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) made its wet “Kwirr” call as it hopped about a tree trunk, getting snow on its beak as it searched for bark beetles or other small creatures.

Red-bellied woodpecker in tree2

A Red-bellied Woodpecker searches for something to eat beneath snowy leaves caught in the fork of a tree.

Red-bellied woodpecker pecking

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker drilling for food.

As I approached the top of the Western Slope that, a Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) high in a distant tree spotted me and shouted its warning call, “Jay, jay, jay!!!!”,  announcing my presence to all the other birds.  Here’s one in an invasive  Autumn Olive bush (Elaeagnus umbellata) later that day.

Blue Jay

The Blue Jay’s call often warns other birds about predators – or harmless humans like me!

Signs of Other Creatures: Tracks and the Duplexes

Rabbit tracks

Behind the Center Pond, my husband and I crossed the tracks of an Eastern Cottontail ((Sylvilagus floridanus) emerging from under a bush next to the trail.  Though you can see a rabbit almost any time of day, these tracks were likely made between dusk and dawn because rabbits generally feed at night.  In winter, their diet is mostly bark, buds and the twigs of woody plants.  Cottontails don’t usually live underground.  Though they use holes for raising young, the rest of the time, they huddle in piles of vines and brush. They will sometimes use a groundhog’s den temporarily during heavy snow – like this Wednesday’s snowstorm!

Along the path that runs just to the west of the Playground Pond, toward the benches at the top of the hill,  the Canada Goldenrod(Solidago canadensis) bulge with ball galls, the round, woody little dwellings that house the Goldenrod Gall Fly’s larva (Eurosta solidagnis) for the winter. (See the blog from January 21 for more info.)   Lots of them will successfully hatch out in the spring, but it looks like this one won’t.  Instead it probably provided much-needed protein on a cold day – perhaps for a persistent Chickadee who had to chip away for a while to get to the larva inside.

Chewed goldenrod gall

I wonder if this work on a Golderod Gall was done by a very persistent Chickadee trying to get at the larva inside.

Nearby, I found a whole patch of Gall Fly duplexes!  The holes in these galls are the neat little ones usually made by a Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens).  They are experts at drilling holes to find food, after all.  Goldenrod Gall Flies must be a great source of sustenance for birds in the winter!

Duplex Goldenrod Gall

A “duplex” of Golden Rod galls from which a bird, probably a Downy Woodpecker, has extracted larvae for food.

Squirrels in the Winter

This month the Seven Ponds Nature Center in Dryden had an informative newsletter piece about squirrels, written by Lois Rheaume, a naturalist on staff there. Having read it, I decided that I needed to read more about them.  Bear Creek, of course, is full of squirrels, three different species that seem like four!

From top to bottom below:  the American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus), the Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger),  and the Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) which comes in two basic colors, gray or black – and variations of those.  (No, they are not a cross with a Fox Squirrel; that’s genetically impossible.)

American Red Squirrel

American Red Squirrel

Fox Squirrel

Fox Squirrel

Gray Squirrel

Gray Squirrel

 

Black morph of a Gray Squirrel

Black morph of a Gray Squirrel with a Fox Squirrel behind it

According to Ms. Rheaume, Fox and Red Squirrels were most common in our area when the land was heavily farmed.   Red Squirrels and Fox Squirrels spend more time on the ground so open farm lands suit them. Gray Squirrels spend more time up in trees, so as trees have taken over open fields and have matured in suburban neighborhoods, more Gray Squirrels have moved in.   Squirrels can move easily up and down trees because their back feet can rotate 180°!

Fox and Gray Squirrels bury nuts underground.  Using excellent spatial memory and a keen sense of smell, they find about 95% of them.  (The forgotten ones help trees to sprout in our forests.) The Red Squirrel, who grows a rusty strip of fur down its spine for the winter, makes a cache on top of the ground.

Ms. Rheaume’s piece informed me that squirrels assess acorns by rotating them quickly under their sensitive noses with their front paws. They tend to eat White Oak acorns (Quercus alba) right away because they have thinner shells and sprout more quickly.  They’re also less nutritious for them.   Squirrels are more likely to store Red Oak acorns (Quercus rubra)  which contain higher amounts of tannin to preserve them and because they contain more fat and nutrition for winter months.  Amazing what creatures know.

Some folks may not know that squirrels build nests in trees, nests that can be mistaken for those of hawks, for instance.  Squirrels prefer a tree hole on a cold, snowy night but they are frequently unavailable.  They build nests, called “dreys” in the fork of a tree or where a sturdy limb meets the trunk.  These dreys can be used for young in the summer but they can also come in handy on cold days.

Squirrel nest1

Squirrel nests, called dreys, appear more in the fall when the leaves have fallen.

Dreys end up being a foot or more in diameter and start out with a platform of small branches with green leaves attached.   Squirrels gnaw off these branches before autumn, so that the leaves don’t fall, but stay on for the winter.  Ms. Rheaume saw one dislodged by a storm.  It contained “a fluffy layer of leaves and sticks on the outside with the next ‘wall’ lined with several layers of oak leaves, making a virtual waterproof barrier for the soft grasses, shredded bark, and lichens which make up the soft bed in the center.”  According to Wikipedia, dreys have one or two “entrance/exit holes…usually close to the bottom and oriented toward the trunk which keeps the rain out.”  Sounds reasonably cozy on a cold night, doesn’t it?

Fallen queen annes (1)

It seems that the coming week will be as topsy-turvy as the last one – a huge snowstorm followed by a warm weekend.  The dry stalks of last year’s plants, like the Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota) above, are succumbing to the weight of snow, wind and cold.  But through it all, the creatures of Bear Creek find ways to keep warm, find food and keep us company as the days get noticeably longer. I heard a report of a Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis) arriving this week.  We have lots of Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) in our yard  and we saw an obese Raccoon (Procyon lotor) taking a hibernation break and stuffing itself beneath our bird feeder.   Perhaps these springtime creatures were fooled by  strangely warm winter days or perhaps they know something else we don’t!  Time will tell.

Footnote:  My sources for information are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991); Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for insect info; http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info; invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman; experienced birder Ruth Glass, bird walk leader at Stoney Creek Metro Park for bird identification; Birds of North America Online; Audubon.org; Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, Trees in My Forest by Bernd Heinrich, Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, Savannah River Ecology Lab (Univ of Georgia); Tortoise Trust website www.tortoisetrust.org;  An Orchard Invisible: A Natural History of Seeds by Jonathan Silvertown; The Ecology of Plants by Gurevitch, Scheiner and Fox; other sites as cited in the text.

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Departing Guests, the Winter Crew and Trees Storing Energy for Winter

 

Across the eastern old field from pond path

Hard frost and driving winds  – November asserts its presence at Bear Creek.  Geese and ducks are re-thinking their presence in the ponds and marshes and gathering to move south.  Most migrants have moved on.

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

But the winter bird crew calls to its fellow foragers as they all stock up for the coming snow.  Plant pods crack open, dropping seed or sending them flying through the air with the last of the leaves. Trees have almost finished storing energy in their roots.  Like us, Bear Creek’s almost ready to face another winter.

Departing Guests

Large flock of geese

Hundreds of Canada Geese gathered over the marsh at dusk, heading south.

At dusk one night this week, I heard (before I saw) the cacophony of hundreds of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) as they gathered over the marsh to begin their migration.  The sound of that many wings at once and their wild calls felt like the very essence of late fall.  I wish I could have captured the sound of those geese but I literally was transfixed by the sheer volume, the roar, of their noise.

In the hour before, I’d seen and heard smaller groups of geese wheeling overhead near the treetops, heading southeast to join this larger flock.

Geese at dusk

Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) are still in the ponds.  This shot from last fall shows a male after his molt, with a whole set of perfect new feathers, ready to find a mate and take off for the south.  A new set of feathers makes flying that much easier for migrating birds.

Mr. Mallards eye2

A male Mallard with a perfect set of new feathers after his molt.

Mallards are beginning to gather in larger flocks as well, readying themselves to move off  when ice forms on the ponds and in the marsh.

Flock of ducks

Ducks gather over the marsh before migrating

The Hardy Birds of the Winter Crew

Birdsong is long gone now,  but the winter birds use chips and calls to keep in touch with larger flocks as they busily forage. American Tree Sparrows (Spizella arborea) probe for fruit and seeds from bushes on the western slope. (Click on double photos to enlarge. Rest your cursor on a double photo for captions)

Here’s a link if you’d like to hear the musical tweet these travelers use to keep in contact.  (Page down to “Calls” and click on the first one.)

Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis), a bird that is usually a ground feeder, pulled industriously at a cluster of goldenrod to get at seeds which had not yet fallen.

Junco among goldenrod seeds

Dark-eyed Junco feeding on goldenrod seeds

A pair of Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis), who always brighten dark days, looked at me warily from small shrubs near the wetland below the south hill.  According Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, these adult cardinals live no more than “a few miles from their place of birth.” So  these Cardinals, which can live for many years, could have  resided in Bear Creek for a long time.  Cardinals pair up for the winter and 80% of them stay with their mates the following year.

Here’s a  Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) who’d just finished vigorously attacking a seed and was apparently tipping its head up to swallow the results.

Downy swallowing seed head up

The female Downy Woodpecker has no red spot on the back of her head, as the male does.

The photo above came from our back yard this week because the ones I saw in the park seemed to never stay in one spot for more than a split second.  But I like the look of this one’s wings as it took off from a branch in the park!

Downy woodpecker takeoff

A Downy Woodpecker taking off from a branch in Bear Creek

I saw House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus ) in Bear Creek this week but, like the Downy, they were too quick for me.  So instead I took these pictures of a male and female at our home, where the feeder keeps them nearby.  According to Cornell Ornithology Lab, House Finches were originally western birds.  ” In 1940 a small number of finches were turned loose on Long Island, New York, after failed attempts to sell them as cage birds (‘Hollywood finches’). ”   In the next 50 years, they spread all over the eastern US and southern Canada. I can’t imagine these social birds in cages!!

Winter Crew Animals

Below all those migrating birds in the marsh, a new muskrat lodge is being constructed. Since Muskrats (Ondatra zibethicus) are most active at night, dawn or dusk,this lodge was probably constructed in semi- or complete darkness!  This one maybe become a full-fledged winter dwelling, as large as the one in the Center Pond,  or it may just be a smaller feeding platform, a place to come up through the ice during the winter to breathe and eat.

muskrat lodge in marsh

A new muskrat lodge is being built in the marsh.

Three White-Tailed Deer does (Odocoileus virginianus) that had bedded down near the Center Pond moved slowly behind a scrim of trees near the wetland below the southern hill.  Maybe they were headed to the western woods to eat some of the plentiful acorns, but this one stopped to peek around a tree at me.

Doe near central wetland

A curious doe near the wetland below the southern hill.

And over in the western woods, an agitated Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger) stopped dead when it spotted me, but flicked its tail at top speed, its version of a threat gesture.

Squirrel with moving tail

An agitated Fox Squirrel, its body completely still, was waving its tail so fast that it blurred in the photo.

Seeds Everywere

Hard frost may have brought the demise of many insects in the park, but seed-eaters can choose from a gigantic larder!  Perhaps you remember the Wild Senna (Senna hebcarpa) growing in the native beds near the shed.   They’ve now produced long pods which turn black when the seeds inside are mature.  Native bumblebees seek the pollen while ants and ladybugs, that may protect the plant from predators, love the nectar.  The caterpillars of Sulphur butterflies (the family of small yellow ones) feed on its foliage.  The seeds in those long black pods appeal to Northern Bobwhites (Colinus virginianus), a small quail with a distinctive whistle once plentiful in Oakland Township,  but now largely missing.  As native plants like Wild Senna, that serve so many creatures, return to our parks through careful stewardship, we hope to see the return of birds like the Bobwhite.

Mixed in with the ubiquitous Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) last summer was the more delicate native, Grass-leaved Goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia), which looks quite lovely as it seeds. Native bumblebees, honey bees, butterflies and lots of other insects enjoyed its nectar during the summer and American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) feed on it now.  Occasionally it feeds rabbits and deer as well – another important plant in the park’s native habitat.

The modest Thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana) , a favorite of small bees and hoverflies (that look like bees), is seeding into airy puffs right now.

Trees Conserving Energy for Spring

All summer, the leaves of the Park’s deciduous trees produced sugars by storing the energy of sunlight in chemical bonds  (photosynthesis). By autumn, this energy in sugars is safely stored in the roots of the trees, away from the snow and cold.  During summer and fall, trees also produce next year’s leaf buds, and in some cases, flower buds, for next spring.  The buds are packed with miniature leaves which are covered with a waxy coating that protects them from the cold.  In the spring warmer temperatures and longer days break the ends of the cold waiting period, signaling sugar-rich sap to rise. The leaves, fed by the sap, burst forth and start again to supply the tree through photosynthesis. Pretty nice arrangement, I’d say!  Here are some leaf buds on Maples in Bear Creek.

Perhaps we can make peace with the changing season by knowing that the seeds of spring wildflowers are already planted and the leaves of favorite trees wait inside those leaf buds for a warm spring day.  Some of us go south like the migrating birds.  Others of us are like the trees who husband energy in their roots, but stand tall when snow covers their branches. We too turn our energies more inward in the winter, perhaps by a warm fire, but still sally forth, sporting cherry noses and pink cheeks , to enjoy the wintry world.   Bear Creek welcomes you in any season.

Sunset at Bear Creek

*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, Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, Trees in My Forest by Bernd Heinrich, Winter World by Bernd Heinrich

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Winter Prep, Migrants Coming and Going, Chilly Insects, Fall Leaves, and a New Native Garden

White goldenrod autumn

Autumn’s here and a bit gone, so winter prep begins in earnest at Bear Creek.  The hibernators are finding or freshening up snug housing for the winter.  Migrating birds stop for a rest and a repast before continuing their journeys, while others arrive to spend the winter with us.  A few hearty insects, who survived the migrating birds and the cold nights, hop and fly on warmer south-facing slopes. Leaves rustle underfoot and tumble past so the quest continues to learn their names, to be more familiar with the giants of the plant world.  Let’s start with a walk through the Oak-Hickory forest.

Animals Prep for Winter

Path through Oak-Hickory forest

The path from the Gunn Road entrance into the Oak-Hickory forest

One of this week’s highlights was discovering a North American Raccoon (Procyon lotor) in the same place I’ve seen them almost every spring or fall – in a huge hole in a white oak halfway down the eastern forest path. On my first walk this week, I could only see a bit of fur at the bottom of the hole, but that brought me back the next morning.  At first the hole appeared empty. Disappointed, I approached, crunching noisily through the leaves and surprise!  A raccoon was fully visible in the dark of the huge hole, staring intently at me while I took its photo.  What a treat to know that once more one of these clever bandits will spend the winter dozing in this cozy home with its ideal southern exposure.

Raccoon in hole edited 4

A raccoon returns my stare from a tree that has housed raccoons for many years

The chirping and dashing of chipmunks and squirrels will accompany your walk through our Oak-Hickory forest again this week.  They are  eating and storing acorns and other nuts for hibernation or winter meals.   Here’s an Eastern Chipmunk ((Tamias striatus) with a mouthful of leaves, evidently planning to refresh its burrow before its long sleep .  Chipmunks wake every few weeks in winter, eat  a bit from their food stores and snooze some more.

chipmunk w leaves

An Eastern Chipmunk seems to be freshening up its burrow in time for hibernation.

A scratching and scrabbling sound nearby alerted me to a  pair of Fox Squirrels (Sciurus niger) spiraling up a giant tree near the marsh.  Fox Squirrels mate between November and March and then again in the summer – so it may have been a practice mating chase.  Or perhaps just two young ones feeling their oats, or in this case, acorns!  One paused high above on a tree knot.  The other used its 180°-rotating ankles to stretch out lengthwise, head down on the trunk.  Fox Squirrels prefer winter dens within woodpecker holes, but if none are available, they will build leaf nests in the crotches of trees. They spend the winter days with us – as anyone with a bird feeder knows!

Down at the Pond, Out in the Fields: Migratory Visitors and a Couple of Hearty Insects

Center Pond in Autumn

When I reached the Center Pond this week (so clear this time of year!), I saw two migrants that I’d never seen before  busily flipping over leaves to search for insects in the muddy shadows of the southern shore – a male and female Rusty Blackbird (Euphagus carolinus).  Cornell lab calls this bird “relatively uncommon” because it is “one of North America’s most rapidly declining species.”  I hope this turns around because I was thrilled to see them on their trip from Canada’s far north to their southern destination.  My photo of the male in non-breeding plumage is below.  I didn’t get a decent shot of the female, who is gray-brown with a black stripe through the eye. This Cornell link has much better photos of both genders.

Rusty blackbird Center Pond

A quite uncommon, migrating Rusty Blackbird and his mate (not pictured) flipped over leaves, looking for insects at the Center Pond.

Up near the Playground Pond, I saw a recent arrival from Canada who’ll spend the winter with us – the Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis).  I’m sure you’ve seen flocks of them under your feeder in the winter.  Their black backs and white bellies make them look like Chinese calligraphy on white snow.

Dark-eyed Junco

A Dark-eyed Junco matched the black-and-white shadow pattern on the path west of the Playground Pond.

I’ve been posting photos of juvenile Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) for the last few weeks but this week I got a good look at a beautiful adult one.  Here you can see both the yellow tip of its tail and the bright red wing spots that evidently looked like sealing wax to the person who named this elegant bird.

Cedar Waxwing with waxwing showing

An adult Cedar Waxwing. Notice the red dots on its wings which looked like sealing wax to the person that named them.

I had an opportunity to clearly see a Swamp Sparrow after only spotting the head of one at Bear Creek last week!  It’s a handsome little bird with slightly longer legs than some sparrows so it can wade in and pull food from the water. (Thanks to Ruth Glass again for the ID!)

Swamp sparrow

A Swamp Sparrow has slightly longer legs than some sparrows so it can pull invertebrates from the water.

Likewise, on October 10, I posted a shadowy photo of a Golden-crowned Kinglet (Regulus satrapa) at Bear Creek.  Today one grazed a window at our home! I followed instructions found on the web and waited 5-10 minutes before intervening – though I had a resting box ready, just in case.  Luckily, it recovered and flew off,  but before it did, I got a slightly fuzzy photo of its golden crown taken through the window. This tiny bird, smaller than a Chickadee and not much bigger than a Hummer, has traveled all the way from the Canadian north and can survive  in -40° temperatures! So let’s hope its accident won’t prevent this hardy survivor from arriving just a bit further south where it intends to spend the winter.

IMG_3480

A Golden-crowned Kinglet who survived a glancing blow against a window in our home. They are in Bear Creek right now as well, but very quick and difficult to see.

Insects that Made It Through Very Chilly Nights!

On sunny days,  you can still hear grasshoppers in warm spots on the trail – though far fewer than before.  I think they are still Red-legged Grasshoppers (Melanoplus femurrubrum)since they usually remain in the fields through October.  The female Red-legged Grasshoppers lay their eggs in the ground during late summer or fall. Only the eggs overwinter, I believe, though some species overwinter as nymphs. (If anyone knows more, please share!) I saw a pair mating rather awkwardly on the edge of a path in October last year.  The male is the smaller, greener grasshopper.

grasshoppers mating

Mating grasshoppers.  The larger female will lay her eggs in the ground and the first nymphs will hatch next summer.

I always thought that all red dragonflies at Bear Creek were Ruby Meadowhawks.  But it seems that there are multiple red Meadowhawk dragonflies. The one I’m seeing on almost every sunny path at the moment is probably a late bloomer named the Yellow-Legged Autumn Dragonfly (Sympetrum vicinum) or at least that’s my best guess.

Yellow-legged Autumn Dragonfly

Lots of these Yellow-legged Autumn Dragonflies are darting along the paths at Bear Creek now.

Now, About those Falling Leaves…

So why the color change?  And how do leaves fall?  The shorter days cue trees to reduce the chlorophyll in their leaves, the substance which makes them green in summer and able to feed sugars to the tree through the chemical action of photosynthesis.  As the chlorophyll subsides with less light, other pigments begin to show or form in the leaves making the leaves turn yellow, orange and red.  In response to less sunlight, a layer of cells gradually forms at the base of each leaf blocking the veins that carry fluids into and out of the leaf.  When that seal is complete, the leaves detach and fall.  More detailed info at this USDA Forest Service link.

Two Members of White Oak Group, the Ones with Rounded Lobes

While in the woods, I continue to snap photos of leaves, trying to imprint their shapes in my mind.  I can now easily recognize the White Oak (Quercus alba) with its rounded lobes and light gray bark.  The fall leaves can evidently be a variety of colors, but are mostly red to brown.

The Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa) is a member of the White Oak family, too, with rounded lobes but much deeper sinuses (spaces between the lobes) than the White Oak.  The bristly acorns are a clue to its name.

Three Members of the Red Oak Group, the ones with Pointed Lobes

Northern Red Oaks (Quercus rubra) have leaves with 7-11 bristle-tipped, pointed lobes.  The fall leaves can be red to brown.  I loved the deep chocolate color of this one on a deck in the marsh.

Red Oak Leaf

A Northern Red Oak leaf has 7-11 pointed, bristled lobes.

The leaves of Black Oaks (Quercus velutina), a member of the Red Oak group, have only 5-7 pointed, bristle-tipped lobes and can be yellow to brown in the autumn.

Black oak leaf brown

The Black Oak,  a member of the Red Oak group, has 5-7 pointed, bristly lobes.

Another member of the Red Oak group, the Northern Pin Oak (Quercus palustris), has deep sinuses that reach almost to the central vein between the pointed lobes .  These trees encircle the playground with color right now and they are in the woods as well.

Pin Oak

Northern Pin Oaks have deep sinuses and the pointed lobes typical of the Red Oak group.

Acorns, the nuts which contain Oak seeds, are dropping through the leaves and rolling underfoot.  Eastern Chipmunks take some of them underground to the larder chambers in their burrows.  Squirrels simply dig holes in the ground and cover the nut with earth.  They’ll find some to eat in the winter and others will be forgotten.  While feeding wildlife (some birds eat acorns too), this burying of nuts also helps replenish the forest with saplings in coming years. (Cool info on acorns at this link that two people sent to me this week! Thanks to Mary and Ben!)

Two Kinds of Maples – there are many more!

Maples are tolerant of shade, so they form part of the “understory” of our woods. They produce winged seeds that we, as kids, called “helicopter seeds,”  but that botanists call “samaras.”  There’s a photo at this link of samaras from a Silver Maple.

Red Maples (Acer rubrum)are one of the most widespread trees in Eastern North America.  I liked how the one on the left below had only partially turned when it fell, so it ended up tri-colored. The scarlet one on the right turned before it fell.

The Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) has a more delicate, deeply lobed leaf  whose pearly underside provides its name.

Silver Maple leaf

The Silver Maple is more deeply lobed and gets it name from its silver underside.

Some other Leaf Favorites

I’m particularly fond of the 3-fingered leaf of the Sassafras tree (Sassafras albidum).  According to Wikipedia, in the 19th century,  Sassafras roots were used for root beer or “sarsaparilla,” a soft drink that straight-arrow cowboys ordered at the saloon in old western movies, a source of amusement to their macho compatriots.  You can smell the root beer scent if you snap the stem of a green Sassafras leaf.  However, the roots turn out to be bad for your liver, so root beer these days is made with artificial flavorings.

Sassafras leaf

The 3-fingered leaf of a Sassafras tree, whose roots were once used to make root beer and sarsaparilla.

Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) left a lovely pattern on the path near the marsh. These native trees filled the field behind my parents’ house on Lake George Road so I have a particular fondness for the graceful shape and scarlet color of their autumn leaves.

Sumac leaves

Staghorn Sumac leaves on a path near the marsh.

A New Home for Native Plants at Bear Creek!

Staff and volunteers

A crew of volunteers and staff dug up 25 species of donated native plants and re-planted them at Bear Creek this week.  From left to right: Carol Kasprzak, Bruno Feo, Jeff Johnson, Reg Brown, Ben VanderWeide and me (behind the camera).

This week a team of six volunteers and staff caravanned to Armada to collect two beds of native plants donated to Bear Creek by Nancy Parmenter.  She’d sold her house and the new owners needed a larger play area for their children.  So we’re very grateful that she gave them a new home at Bear Creek.  The crew spent several ideal autumn hours digging up the plants and then re-planting them in a new bed near the parking lot.

The plants may not look glamorous now in late fall, but by spring  25 species of native grasses and wildflowers will be adding more color and diversity to Bear Creek.  The garden is just to the right of the pavilion and there’s a wood chip path through  it so that in spring you’ll be able to walk close to the flowers.   Thank you to everyone who dug and planted and to Nancy Parmenter for this wonderful donation!

So you have lots of reasons to visit the park on these glorious autumn days – watch for migrating birds, laugh at chipmunks during their fall eating frenzy, be escorted by late season dragonflies, spy on a hibernating raccoon or have a first look at our newest native flowerbed.  Savor the season!