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Gallagher Creek Park: A Time of Transitions Created by Caring Humans and by Nature Itself

Little, busy Gallagher Creek Park has gone through some big changes in the last few years.  The Oakland Township Parks and Recreation Commission made a commitment to provide this densely populated area of the township with a playground for children. And they made it happen very quickly!  Meanwhile,  Dr. Ben VanderWeide, the township Stewardship Manager, set in motion a plan to eliminate large stands of non-native shrubs and begin restoring the fields that surround the new playground.  This spring, he and his crew spent long hours creating and planting an extensive set of native gardens.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

So I’ve enjoyed several happy outings at this little green park from late April to late June, observing both the exciting changes initiated by human effort and nature’s annual, sometimes less noticed,  transition from spring to summer. Glad you’re here to share both of them with me.

 

 

The People Factor:  From an Old Farm Field to a Playground Surrounded by Beauty

In the spring of 2015, the restoration of native habitat at Gallagher Creek began with a prescribed burn handled by contractors and supervised by Dr. Ben. Having done a plant survey, he had found many native plants struggling to grow amongst invasives. So in 2015, before the Parks Commission began to consider playground plans, Ben set about removing large stands of aggressive shrubs from the eastern sections of  Gallagher Creek. In the early winter of 2016, he was able to begin planting native seed, using budgeted Land Preservation millage funds and a prairie restoration grant from the US Fish and Wildlife Service – Partners for Fish and Wildlife program. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

From 2016 to 2019, the Parks and Recreation Commissioners and Director Mindy Milos-Dale set about making the playground area a priority project. A professional architect from Professional Engineering Associates (PEA) worked with the Parks Commission and staff to develop a design for the playground, picnic pavilion, and paths that would harmonize with the natural environment. The Township Board’s Safety Paths and Trails Committee worked with dedication to complete the northern paved trail along Silverbell Road that leads into the park and LJ Construction did an excellent job of putting it all together. Now it’s  easier and safer for families to reach Gallagher Creek Park from surrounding neighborhoods. And the stewardship crew, volunteers of all ages, and Dr. Ben set out to surround the playground with an educational garden that can familiarize both children and their parents with lovely plants that are native to our area.

Stewardship crew and volunteers planting at the Gallagher Creek

All of the work came to fruition this May when the park was dedicated and the gardens completed.

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Nature Begins its Transition at Gallagher Creek

The paths that lead out of the native gardens create a transition from the playground to the natural areas that surround the slides and swings. Right now, the only trail beyond the playground leads to a platform near the creek, but more are planned. So knees cocked high, I waded through the carpet of tall grass and flowers, exploring, watching a wet, cold, spring make the transformation into early summer.

A Cold, Wet Spring at Gallagher Creek: Wildflowers Emerge, the Birds are Fewer than Previous Years, and Insects Not Yet Active

Gallagher Creek ran over its banks after the heavy rains in May

May was wet! Gallagher Creek, normally shallow and wandering slowly through tall grass, flooded over into pools beneath the sheltering willows. Instead of whispering, it burbled along it path toward Paint Creek. The cool temperatures and moisture were perfect for some plants.

The most spectacular spring wildflower was the Yellow Lady Slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum) tucked in near the old stump left of the platform at the creek.  The long purple ribbons on these yellow dancing shoes suit this wildflower’s name just perfectly!

Yellow Ladyslipper, a native wildflower, near the platform by the creek

Mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum) erupted from the soil in time to live up to their name, too. They formed a circular carpet out in the eastern field, where Ben had cleared a dense stand of shrubs in a previous year. Mayapples are more commonly seen in wooded areas but this colony of them seems quite happy to be surrounded by tall grass.

A circular carpet of May Apples thriving in the middle of the eastern field at Gallagher Creek

Their modest little flowers, which emerge from little “green apple” buds, droop shyly beneath the leaves.

The Mayapple’s flower is hidden beneath its umbrella-like leaves.

Wild Strawberry flowers (Fragaria virginiana) lay hidden in the grass all over the park. Their berries will provide a tasty  treat for all kinds of animals who always get to these berries before I do!

Wild Strawberry flowers are almost constantly underfoot in the natural areas of Gallagher Creek Park in May.

Where Gallagher Creek had flooded , it had left standing water far out in the eastern field. And some little rivulets flow the other way, toward the creek from the marsh near Silverbell Road. So I was glad I had waterproof hiking shoes. All along the creek in May,  golden splashes of Swamp Buttercup (Ranunculus hispidus) shone like little suns from the wet grass. I’ve never seen as many here as I’ve seen this year.

Swamp Buttercup created golden swathes among the wet grass near Gallagher Creek.

When Ben cleared the shrubs, he saved a lovely Nannyberry bush (Viburnum lentago) that can now stand out in the landscape. According to the website Illinoiswildflowers.info, this graceful native shrub or small tree later produces juicy, sweet, purplish fruits that many birds love, including Ruffed Grouse, Northern Bobwhite, Ring-necked Pheasant, Northern Flicker, Gray Catbird, American Robin, Hermit Thrush, Eastern Bluebird, Cedar Waxwing, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and Purple Finch. It’s also a popular nesting shrub for birds. Sounds like a good one for my yard!

Native Nannyberry produces lovely panicles of creamy flowers and then purplish fruits that the birds love. It’s a nesting shrub for many birds as well.

Oak trees are “monoecious,” meaning they have both male and female flowers on the same tree. The male flowers look like little bright green balls on the long, elegant catkins and the female flowers, which become the acorns, are inconspicuous little blossoms on the same branch. The female flowers are pollinated by the wind, which means a lot of us around here are sneezing in May! And once the male flowers open and shed their pollen, they fall to the ground. Here are the male flowers on an oak at Gallagher Creek Park (maybe black oak, Quercus velutina).

The male flowers on the oak catkins have opened and are releasing their pollen to the wind in hopes that the pollen will find a female flower.

Just a couple of birds kept me company at Gallagher Creek Park in late April and May.  I mentioned in the blog earlier this month that a birder friend sent me a photo of a  Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) standing over her eggs in the shallow nest she’d scraped in the bare earth. The eggs, however, disappeared without my birder friend or me ever spotting the fledglings. Killdeer nests are awfully vulnerable to snakes, raccoons, coyotes and of course, careless humans! But I’ve learned that the adults can lead newborns to safer territory with water and food on the day they hatch from their eggs. They’re born ready to go. So maybe there are fledglings somewhere on the property being cared for by the male while the female starts a new nest. I hope so.

A killdeer standing over her eggs at Gallagher Creek Park early in the spring. (Photo by a birder friend who wishes to be remain anonymous)

Last year, the air over the park was filled with swooping and diving Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor). This year, I’ve only seen one or two. It may be that the busy playground has encouraged them to settle elsewhere. Here’s a photo of one high in a tree at Gallagher Creek Park about two years ago, and one on the wing, scooping insects out of the air in the wetland area on the far side of the creek as I’ve seen them doing this year.

 

As Summer Tentatively Arrived More Birds and Lots of Crazy Insects!

Getting to Know a Killdeer, plus Other Avian Visitors

In June, I thought perhaps I was repeatedly seeing  the Killdeer that my birding friend had introduced me to in late April. By June 1, the adult Killdeer had abandoned its first nest and seemed to be striking up a friendship with a local American Robin (Turdus migratorius). The killdeer appears to be the female, since the only other adult killdeer around is usually flying in circles making its piercing territorial call which is the male’s way of protecting his mate’s territory.  (No wonder the second part of the Killdeer’s scientific name is “vociferous”!)  The Robin may have been a female as well, since its head is not as dark as most males. On that June 1 afternoon, these two birds of different species hung out together  in a native bed near the pavilion that hadn’t yet been planted. It was surprising to me that the two of them seemed so relaxed in each other’s presence – especially since killdeer are usually quite excitable. I liked to imagine that perhaps the smaller bird found the Robin’s stolid presence reassuring – or maybe that they were silently commiserating over the difficulties of nesting and raising young!

A week later on June 8, the Killdeer was bobbing along among the newly planted garden where it had visited with the Robin, calling now and then.

The Killdeer explored the plants in the native garden where it had kept company with the Robin a week earlier.

Six days later on June 14, Ben texted that he’d just seen another killdeer nest with four eggs in it. When I went on my own, I couldn’t find it; their nests are notorious for being well camouflaged!  A day later, sharp-eyed Ben texted again to say he’d seen a hatchling coming out one of the eggs! And he sent me this wonderful photo!  Be sure to notice the long beak on this youngster.

A killdeer fledgling emerging from its egg. Photo by Dr. Ben VanderWeide

My husband and I hurried to the park. At first we only saw the female doing a distraction maneuver near the nest location that Ben had described. She huddled down in the grass and stretched her wings up vertically, spread her tail and fluttered, trying to draw our attention. Killdeer females do this when possible predators approach their young. They want predators to think they are starting a new nest. “Don’t look there! Look over here!”

A female killdeer from behind pretending that she is creating a new nest to distract me from her fledgling young.

This time we saw the baby bird, probably just half an hour out of its egg. We wanted to keep our distance to avoid any further distress for either the fledgling or its mother so no photo. But while we watched, this tiny bird struggled to its feet for a few seconds, then flopped on the ground and fluttered forward a little on its tiny wings. By a few repetitions of this arduous process, it got away from the exposed nest, the eggs and the hot sun and hid under some grass. What a little survivor! We walked away.

That evening, I learned the following  from A Guide to Bird Behavior, Vol. II by Donald W. and Lillian Q. Stokes: “Once the chicks have hatched, the parents lead them gradually to areas with abundant food and some coverOn the first day, the chicks may move up to 120 feet from the nests…Brooding [covering the bird with adult’s body] by one or both parents occurs frequently during the first few days and, of course, during the nights.”  I felt reassured, though I’ve not seen the fledgling since it hatched. Here’s a little Killdeer in a photo taken by iNaturalist.org photographer, Steven Mlodinow. Definitely “aaawww” worthy, I’d say.  Hope someday I get to see one on its feet like this!

Killdeer Fledgling by Steven Mlodinow (CC BY-NC) at iNaturalist.org

The Robin, by the way, may have been staring toward the pavilion because she was contemplating a nest there. Ben reported two adult Robins calmly ignoring humans below as they zipped back and forth bringing food to their young in the rafters of the pavilion. When I visited on June 14, I saw two Robin hatchlings who still needed to grow into their beaks a bit before leaving the nest.  Unlike hatchling Killdeers who leave the nest within minutes,  the Robin nestlings can spend almost two weeks in their nest.

Two young Robins with just their beaks showing in the pavilion at Gallagher Creek.

On each visit over the six weeks, I kept hearing the “witchedy, witchedy” calls of the tiny, masked Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas). Each time, though, the calls seemed to be coming from the wetland on the far side of the creek. But last week, on June 19, I finally spotted one high atop a snag near the marsh along Silverbell Road.

A Common Yellowthroat perched on the top of a tall stump near the marsh.

On that last visit, I also heard a Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) trilling its melody and finally spotted it high on a bare limb.  It looked as though it were studying the marsh for insects before singing another “verse.”

The Song Sparrow studying the insects in the Gallagher Creek Marsh.

A few minutes later, I looked up from a flower to see a Great Egret (Ardea alba) soaring away from the creek and across the marsh. It was gone before I could raise the camera to my eye. So here’s a flying Egret photo taken at Bear Creek marsh a few years ago with a possible mate in the distance.  I hope the flying egret nests near Gallagher Creek this year.

A Great Egret taking flight at Bear Creek marsh  a few years ago – with perhaps a mate in the distance?

Gallagher Creek’s Wild and Weird June Insects

The natural areas at Gallagher Creek Park bloomed with a few more wildflowers in June. And that prompted visits by a variety of insects. Some I wrote about last week when I reported on native pollinators – bumblebees, sweat bees, leafcutter bees and hoverflies. This week get ready for some hair-raising stories! These insects are colorful and fascinating but come with some pretty fierce behavior!

Thanks to very kind assistance from Dr. Gary Parsons, an entomologist from Michigan State University, I now know that an insect I saw last week is a female Feather-legged Fly, specifically Trichopoda pennipes. These insects mimic wasps.  With their feathery jodpurs, they  sip on nectar, spreading some pollen as they buzz from flower to flower. Their genus also has the unpleasant distinction of laying its eggs in or on other insects. Once they hatch they eat the host! Yuck. According to Dr. Parsons, though, they may play a role in controlling an invasive stink bug because of their parasitic habits. Great looking little critter with a grim reproductive strategy, eh?  (Note the two tiny Hoverflies (genus Syrphidae) mating on these Yarrow blossoms in the background.)

A feather-legged fly which mimics a wasp, pollinates as it sips nectar from flower to flower.

Speaking of Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), the fields at Gallagher are filled with this well-known native plant – and insects are making the most of them! Below, a potential victim of the Feather-legged Fly has come up with a snazzy defense. An insect group called Froghoppers (superfamily Cercopoidea) has a nymph stage that we commonly call Spittlebugs. To protect itself from predators, the nymph pierces the plant stem, feeds on its sap (doing no serious harm) and then excretes a bitter-tasting foam around itself. That keeps the nymph moist, insulates it from cold, and hides it from view  so it can safely metamorphose within its bubbles. This spittlebug seems to have found an exceptionally safe spot beneath an umbrella of Yarrow buds.

The foam of a Spittlebug or Froghopper nymph protects it from view of predators.

Yarrow also hosted a very impressive arachnid.  The long legs stretching down this stalk belong to a Daddylonglegs, also known as a Harvestman (order Opiliones).  Unlike other arachnids, their body segments (cephalothorax and abdomen) are fused together and they have two tiny eyes on top of their heads instead of up to eight for spiders. Quite a specimen, isn’t it?

A daddylonglegs or harvestman waiting for prey on a budding Yarrow.

A lovely plant with the oddly descriptive name of Hairy Beard-tongue (Penstemon hirsutus) played host to an Eastern Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa virginica ) this week. Unlike the Bumblebee which it resembles, it doesn’t have a long tongue to reach into these delicate lavender tubes for nectar. Sometimes the Carpenter Bee has to slit the petals open to reach the pollen in narrow blossoms. I wonder if that’s why this bee solved the problem by choosing  the smaller, shallower flowers?

An Eastern Carpenter Bee probes the tubular blossoms of Hairy Beard-tongue.

An Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly (Erythemis simplicollis) rested among the greenery in the eastern meadow. According to the “Bug Lady” at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee Field Station, the white tip of her abdomen means she’s a female and they can lay up to 900 eggs per day!  Most of the eggs and larvae, of course, will get eaten by fish and frogs.  Dragonflies are flying predators. By snagging other insects from the air, they keep the habitat in balance. And they are such flying aces!

A female Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly may lay as many as 900 eggs a day in the wetlands at Gallagher Creek.

We need a relief from cool but strange insects, right?  So let’s end with a second, closer look at Gallagher’s butterflies, some of which were featured in a slideshow last week.  Here’s another look at the gorgeous Red-spotted Purple buttefly (Limenitis arthemis astyanax), this time with the upper (dorsal) view and the equally dramatic lower (ventral) view.

The spectacular Red-spotted Purple (Limenitis arthemis), the dorsal view
The lower (ventral) side of the Red-spotted Purple’s wings

And here’s the tiny Pearl Crescent, this time with its fuzzy face peering over the edge of a leaf as it flitted about the eastern meadow. The matching orange tips on its striped antennae are nice touches,  aren’t they?

The tiny Pearl Crescent with its fuzzy face peering over th edge of a leaf.

The Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus) is named after the silver patch on the underside of its wings. Its caterpillars protect themselves from predators by creating a leaf shelter by cutting a flap off the edge of a leaf, folding it over and than fastening it shut with silk!

Gallagher Creek Park’s Colorful Future

Non-native Ox-eye Daisies always burst forth in June as they have at Gallagher Creek Park.

Gallagher Creek Park already greets the eye with brightly colored playground equipment and the bright little faces of the children who come each day to enjoy  it. And out in the meadow, both native and non-native wildflowers add their beauty to a park visit.

Imagine the color and variety that will greet us when the native gardens come to full bloom in two or three years! Those sturdy native prairie plants in the playground gardens will eventually survive bright sunlight and droughts without much watering because they take the time to grow long roots before fully blooming. Here’s a slideshow of some of those plants as they’ll look when full grown.   Maybe they’ll set us dreaming about our own gardens!

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Charles Ilsley Park: Hardy Companions, Tracking the Unseen and the Ghosts of Flowers Past

Charles Ilsley Park’s Northern Prairie, as seen from the spring-fed pond in the center of the park.

I’m willing to admit that winter walks are a bit more demanding for me. Though I love being out in the open with red cheeks and the glitter of sunlight on snow, breaking through an icy snow crust with every step can be a bit arduous. And as a writer who loves taking photos, well, wildlife is simply a bit more scarce and plant life is a lot less colorful. So the blog creates an interesting challenge. Luckily, I’m all for a good challenge! So this week, in a way, I’m writing about what I didn’t see in February at Charles Ilsley Park. Bear with me…

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

One February morning, I pursued the paw prints of an unseen coyote who had left a trail in the ice-encrusted snow on the previous moonlit night. And I spent part of an afternoon just noticing the  brown and gray architecture of the dry seed heads of some favorite summer wildflowers, now ghosts of their colorful summer selves. Their pleasing shapes provided some inspiration about the native garden I’m dreaming about for next summer. But I’ll start this blog with the handful of  birds that I did see, that kept me company on frigid days, just to remind myself that I had sturdy companions on the grayest and coldest days of the year.

Who’s That Twittering in the Tall Grass?

Stalks of Indian Grass forming a scrim as I look across the Eastern Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park.

One late afternoon as I approached the Eastern Prairie at Ilsley, I heard the cheerful “chatting” (see first “call” heading at this link) of a small group of winter visitors from the Arctic, American Tree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea). One of them paused long enough for a good look at its two-tone bill. This little bird had puffed up its down jacket to deal with a frigid morning!

The two-toned bill, breast spot, eye-line and chestnut cap are the Tree Sparrow’s field marks.

Two days later, the birding group heard more “chatting.” We spotted a large flock of Tree Sparrows flowing like a river from the trees, down into the tall prairie grass. These social flocks keep in contact  with short calls back and forth – “I’m here! I’m over here!” – as they forage. I managed to catch a group of them in a vine-laden bush at the edge of prairie.

Part of a large flock, of Tree Sparrows feeding in the Eastern Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park.

It was wonderful to watch so many migratory birds feeding enthusiastically on the native seeds of our restored prairie. We were curious to see which plants they were enjoying. That morning they were finding bent Black-eyed Susan stems (Rudbeckia hirta) and plucking out the seeds. Here’s the bent stem at almost ground level, the seeds on the snow and the area trampled by the flock’s small feet.

The bent stalk  of a Black-eyed Susan near the ground makes it easier for the  Tree sparrows to get at the seed.

Actually, this large flock of birds had a few fellow travelers. Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) and American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) joined the Tree Sparrows’ feast. Larger flocks increase the odds that birds can survive against predators in winter, when birds show up well against the snow. They also mean more eyes spotting good food.  (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

On a Sunday walk in the Western Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park, my husband and I spotted Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) diving in and out of the grass. Finally, a pair of them settled on some brush and fallen logs along the tree line. The male ignored me completely while he preened vigorously. Since bluebirds often use the abandoned nests of woodpeckers in the winter, I wondered if he’d picked up some mites from an old nest, poor fellow. I managed to get one quick shot when he rested for just a moment.

A male Eastern Bluebird paused from preening for just a few seconds while sitting in the brush near the tree line.

The female nearby was keeping an eye on me and as I approached she sent the male a little “chit-chit-chit”  call (second “call” heading at this link) that warns of ground predators – me, in this case! Then they both flew off again.

The female bluebird gave a little signal call to her preening mate as I approached.

At the far edge of the western prairie, we heard the “ank-ank-ank”  call of the White Breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis). (Under “Eastern calls” at this link.)  It was hopping quickly from branch to dead branch above our heads, searching out anything it could eat , like frozen insect eggs or caterpillars.

A White-breasted Nuthatch probed the bark on a dead limb for hidden insects or their eggs.

Now, About Those Tracks Here, There and Everywhere…

Some pretty striking tracks greeted me in the center field of the park.

As I started out one Thursday morning, I was presented with some pretty impressive tracks.  I recognized them immediately, because one of them was mine! The last four birders on the Wednesday morning bird walk had trekked along chatting as we went back to our cars. As a former bookseller, I had to smile remembering Pooh and Piglet tracking a “heffalump” around a bush, which of course turned out to be their own footprints, too. A fun beginning to my search for animal tracks.

I left the trail and headed diagonally across the field following a nice straight line of canine prints – and readers of my previous winter blogs probably know what that means – a Coyote! Coyotes (Canis latrans) trot along at night making a straight trail of prints. Being wild animals, coyotes want to use as little energy as necessary between meals, so they never run around in the snow like dogs do.  They place their back feet inside the print of their front feet to use less energy and move directly where they want to go.

Coyote tracks across the western prairie

Because a crust covered the snow after freezing rain, it was clear that this coyote had to break through the snow with each step, leaving a pointed top to the track it left behind.

A coyote print in iced-over snow.

I followed the prints as it became apparent that this coyote was headed for the farthest west section of the park, where Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide had hired a forestry mower to remove invasive shrubs and create a path to the nearby subdivision for residents’ use. Two trees nicely frame the opening to this newly renovated area.

The entrance to the farthest west section of Charles Ilsley Park with its rolling land and woods.

This western section with its rolling, glacial landscape, wetlands and wooded areas is very different from the open prairies of Ilsley. It seems our coyote thought this might be a better place to rest on an icy, windy night. Coyotes are not really nocturnal animals, but they have learned that night is a good time to hunt and not be bothered by humans and their activities. So I imagine this coyote had been out hunting mice on the prairie and was heading back to the woods to get out of the wind.

The coyotes prints entering the western section of the park.

After passing into the western area, the coyote turned sharply south into the woods. So I followed its tracks, imagining it trotting between the trees, slipping in and out of the shadows made by the full moon the night before.

The coyote heads off into the woods in the western part of Charles Ilsley Park.

It’s easy to see that among the glacially-formed slopes of this rolling landscape, a coyote would be out of the sharp wind that blew across the prairie.  The landscape in this area of the park is suddenly so different, as the slopes rise and then descend to one wetland after another.  I kept following the coyote deeper into the woods as the line of prints flowed over the slopes.

The coyote’s tracks flowed over the slopes.

At last the coyote’s tracks came down to a small pond where they seemed to end in a flattened area under some vines and branches at the right which would have provided a bit of cover.

A flat area under the bushes and vines on the right looked like it could be a place where the coyote spent the night out of the wind.

Beyond that pond was another lovely little pond covered in snow and embraced by the hills around it – but not a track in sight.

A trackless pond beyond the one where the coyote’s tracks ended

I lost the coyote’s trail after that and wandered up to Ben’s path again. I stopped to admire a very tall, wonderfully straight native Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipfera) with its closely furrowed bark.

The very tall, very straight trunk and furrowed bark of a Tulip-tree

Its yellow blossoms were now dried but still quivering in the wind at the very top of the tree. Ben pointed it out on an earlier walk and told us he thought our area is at the northern edge of this lovely tree’s range. It’s the first wild tulip tree I’ve ever seen.

The dried blossoms of a Tulip-tree which always blooms on the highest branches. 

Nearby stood a tall Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum), its red buds just waiting to expand and bring us one of the first really vivid colors of early spring.

Red buds high on a Silver Maple will swell and offer up one of the first bright colors of spring.

As I left the western wooded area and headed back onto the western prairie, I came across a flattened place in the trail that looked like a major crossroads for critters.  The tracks around it were hard to read .  I thought I recognized squirrel and possible rabbit tracks, but I have no idea who was there and what was going on, really. Since there are coyote tracks  above this flattened area, I wondered if one slept here; as top predators, they do sleep in the open at times.  Its warmth would have melted the snow and allowed smaller creatures to get to the ground underneath the crusted surface once the coyote left the scene.  Just a guess.

A heavily tracked spot on the western prairie trail

One possible hint was a hole in the snow nearby where a squirrel may have tried to dig up a nut in the frozen soil. Or perhaps our coyote dug up a Meadow Mouse (Microtus pennsylvanicus) before heading off to sleep? I’m not sure because the tracks around it were not fresh; they had been trampled, rained on and frozen.

A place where a squirrel may have dug up a nut or seed – or perhaps a coyote found a mouse before bedtime?

The coyote tracks did lead away from area toward the private property on the west side of the park.

Coyote tracks running through the furrows of the private field on the west side of the park.

If the open hole was that of a captured mouse, the birders saw evidence that some mice are luckier than others.  Here are some mouse tracks that we spotted near the edge of the western prairie.  It looks like this mouse made it safely under the snow’s insulation – safe from the icy wind and out of sight. I love the “stitching” look of mouse tracks in the snow.

Mouse tracks that look like stitching disappearing into a hole in the snow.

On the last leg of my tracking trip to the park, as I approached the central section from the north, I saw one of the spring-fed ponds covered with lots of tracks, making neat, straight lines across the snow-covered surface. What was going on? And then it occurred to me. These were stewardship tracks! Ben had told us at the end of the bird walk that he’d brought  a native wetland seed mix to spread on the ponds before it rained later that day. He and Stewardship Specialist Alyssa Radzwion put the seed right on the frozen surface.  Native seeds needs to be exposed to the cold before they will germinate properly. Once warm weather comes, the seeds will drop down into the shallow water  or moist edge habitat and with luck, begin bringing some color and native plant life to these special areas of the park.

Tracks left by Ben and Alyssa as they seeded the spring-fed pond with a native wetland mix.  (The birders had also trekked across the pond earlier in the morning.)

The Ghosts of Summers Past Provide Inspiration for Spring

I’ve begun  learning to recognize and appreciate the winter forms of some favorite wildflowers.  Their subtle shades of brown or gray as well as their patterns and geometry have started me wondering if I could create a native garden next summer that the birds and I could enjoy all year ’round. It’s clear that birds need the seeds that cling to native plants despite snow and wind. And I could appreciate the architecture of winter plants. So which shapes provide what landscapers like to call “visual interest” and also provide winter food for wildlife?

Yellow Coneflower and Canada Wild Rye in late fall.

Perhaps some of you remember how beautiful the Eastern Prairie looked when filled with Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) in the summer. This hardy native has always had a special place in my life. When I was a teenager, the first song I ever wrote included the “wide-eyed stare” of this sunny flower. So it definitely needs to be in my garden. I’m taken with its winter fringed cap in winter and would be happy to let it hang out in my garden.

Mixed in with these bright yellow beauties were the lavender fireworks of Bee-balm (Monarda fistulosa) and they create appealing geometry in a winter landscape.

For contrast, I’d need some white in my summer garden – and maybe good old Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) would be a possibility – if I could keep it from spreading too much.  I like its chocolate brown against the white snow.

I love how Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) sway in a summer breeze so I hope they’ll be included somehow too. The plump, oblong seed heads obviously provide forage for the birds and silvery, pointed spears would be a graceful accent in a winter garden.

I may plant Asters in our field rather than in the garden.  They grow in such profusion! I’m not sure which of the many Asters  is represented in the winter photo below  because so many kinds of asters bloom in late summer and fall! They are such a boon to all kinds of butterflies and bees who can feed on them before winter arrives. Here’s just a sampling.  (Use pause button for captions.)

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Brown-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia triloba), which also bloom late in late summer and fall, might be another good choice for the field, since they grow so tall (compared to Black-eyed Susans) and have a branching form with multiple blooms at the same time.

Well, that’s a start.  I want to search out some other favorites, like Foxglove Beard-tongue  (Penstemon digitalis) and see what it looks like after bloom – though I doubt I can resist it for the garden. That little Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) makes me impatient for spring!

A young Field Sparrow on Foxglove Beardtongue in Charles Ilsley Park’s Eastern Prairie.

See? Wasn’t that a clever way to get to get some color into an early March blog, when everything is still brown, gray and white? I knew you’d appreciate it…

Finding Delight in a Late Winter Walk

It takes a bit more effort to get out on a frosty morning.  There’s all that layered clothing and boots and gloves and scarves. And the early March landscape is getting just a bit tiresome — too much brown and white out our windows. But once I’m out the door and into the landscape, nature offers me a few treats to keep me coming back. Tracking a coyote’s tracks to a secluded pond in the woods feels like a little adventure. The friendly chatting of winter birds keeps me company and the sight of bluebirds in the stark landscape nourishes my color-starved eyes. And how lucky that noticing the winter geometry of last summer’s blooms sets me off dreaming about a new native garden! So all that makes crunching step-by-step through the snow crust worth the effort when the thermometer encourages me to stay home.

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township’s Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University; Wikipedia; A Field Guide to Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, and Trees of Michigan Field Guide by Stan Tekiela.

Photos of the Week: Welcoming Fledglings Into the World

This year eight volunteers are monitoring nest boxes at Draper Twin Lake Park, Charles Ilsley Park and along the Paint Creek Trail in Oakland Township. We keep track of when the nest is built, the date of the first egg laid, the hatching date and if possible, the fledgling date when the little Eastern Bluebirds, Tree Swallows, House Wrens or Chickadees exit the nest and come out into the big world.

Cam at nest box. Photo by V. Morganti

We report our data to NestWatch, a citizen scientist project of the Cornell University Ornithology Lab.

Well, the excitement has peaked in the last two weeks as fledglings begin to  screw their courage to the sticking point, leap out of their dark, cozy nests and take to the air. Two weeks ago, I was lucky enough to see a tiny Eastern Bluebird (Sialis sialis) launch itself out of the nest box that I’m monitoring near my house and caught the moment with my camera as well. (Use the pause button if you need more time for captions.)

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And now many of us volunteers and members of the birding group feel like we’re in a nursery, because we’re surrounded by baby birds! Unlike the young bluebird,  Tree Swallow fledglings (Tachycineta bicolor) “are strong fliers as soon as they leave the nest,” according to the Stokes’ Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.1). This one at Charles Ilsley Park seemed to emerge from its nest fully ready to fly. Perhaps that is necessary since swallows feed on the wing. But the adults will help feed  their fledglings for the first two or three days.  (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)[Edit:  I’ve deleted the two closeups of the fledgling because from photos others took, I’m not sure it was the fledgling. My apologies.]

Two adult Tree Swallows and a fledgling clinging to the hole.

In the eastern prairie at Charles Ilsley Park, a Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) flitted about among the Foxglove Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis). Its slim shape and erratic display behavior made me think it might be a juvenile, too. A larger Field Sparrow (probably a male) sat calmly nearby with a grasshopper nymph in its beak. But when I returned the next day, the slim Field Sparrow again flitted distractedly about in the same location and again was accompanied by another Field Sparrow. My former experience with Field Sparrows had been that they often are elusive and dive into the grass at a moment’s notice. But I’ve learned that in the early spring, Field Sparrows nest on the ground if they have enough cover, which this beautiful prairie now provides. I’m wondering if these two were mates who were trying to distract me from a nest hidden among the flower stems. Since there are low bushes nearby, however, the nest could have been along the tree line since these sparrows make nests in low bushes later in the season.

 

Back at my home, a clutch of Eastern Phoebe fledglings (Sayornis phoebe) appeared in a low bush at dusk. They’d evidently left the nest under the eaves of the nearby shed very recently and a harried adult was busy trying to feed them. Luckily, both Phoebe parents share this exhausting task. One of the fledglings, as you’ll see below, was smaller and a loner. Perhaps that’s not surprising since Cornell says the Phoebe “is a loner, rarely coming in contact with other phoebes.” It may just have been the last to fledge and is still adjusting to the being out of the nest – or perhaps it’s the “runt of the litter.” But its noisier siblings probably had a lot more luck getting fed that night!

The three noisier Phoebe siblings looking like a singing act as they beg to be fed.
The adult Eastern Phoebe arrives to feed the young. The loner on the left may have fledged last.
A Phoebe fledgling sits quietly on its own.

Many birds have more than one brood in a summer – so be on the lookout! Your yard may be hosting hard-working parent birds and their rambunctious, noisy, begging youngsters! Our parks certainly are!