October is autumn’s transition month. Some days are warm and sunny, creating almost an illusion of late summer or early September. And on those days, a few bees and butterflies flutter across my path, caterpillars bump along through the grass and native wildflowers still bloom in the fields. A turtle in the Draper marsh basks in the thinning light.
Change is in the air. Let’s look back to see what October had to offer as we take the first cold, rainy steps into the austerity of November.
Early October: Late Season Wildflowers Host the Occasional Bee or Butterfly
One Sunday afternoon in October, a Common Buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia) fluttered down onto the trail right in front of my husband and I. In the summer, Draper Twin Lake Park hosts a rainbow of butterflies. Some mate, lay their eggs and expire, leaving caterpillars behind in their chrysalises. But this colorful little butterfly migrates south for the winter and returns in the spring. Perhaps it stopped at Draper to sample the various goldenrods, since it prefers yellow flowers. Can you see the slightly bug-eyed expression on its face? I laughed to think it was as surprised to see my husband and I as we were to see it land right in front of us!
Late October: Swaying, Russet Prairie Plants Provide a Fall Feast for Wildlife
The video above may look like a sea of dry brown stems to you. But to the birds, particularly the American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis), it looks like your heavily laden Thanksgiving table. In just the video’s 40 seconds, you are seeing hundreds of thousands of seeds: Indian Grass, Coneflowers, Black-eyed Susans, Stiff Goldenrod, Little Bluestem and many more. On the August birdwalk, we spent a happy ten minutes or so watching a flock of goldfinches swaying on bobbing stalks as they stuffed themselves with Stiff Goldenrod seed (Solidago rigida). First there were two and then suddenly there were five all scrabbling to feed on the abundant seed heads.
Relishing Autumn’s Transformation
The Draper prairie with its great looping trail really may look dry, brown and lifeless to some hikers. But not to me. At this time of year, I feel a lot like Ratty, a “country gentleman” sort of muskrat in the children’s classic Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame, a book I quoted in an earlier blog. Like me, Ratty senses the restlessness of autumn. He heads out into a farmer’s field, much as I waded out into the tall grass of Draper’s northern prairie: “…he thrust into the great realm of wheat, yellow, wavy, and murmurous, full of quiet motion and small whisperings. Here he often loved to wander through the forest of stiff strong stalks that carried their own golden sky away over his head — a sky that was always dancing, shimmering, softly talking; or swaying strongly to the passing wnd and recovering itself with a toss and a merry laugh. Here, too, he had many small friends, a society complete in itself…”
Ratty is a kindred spirit. Autumn also plunges me into the bending and tossing grasses and the whispering of dry stems where I can stand shoulder deep in the prairie and just “be” with it all. Like him, I sense a community of other creatures in the flocks of fidgety birds, the agitated butterflies searching for the last bloom, the relentless plodding of a caterpillar through the grass stems. Autumn’s restlessness urges me to celebrate the change, change and change again of every season. I appreciate that reminder.
The exuberant voices of children flow from the playground at Gallagher Creek Park. But beyond its boundaries, the park quickly feels very different on a fall day. The fields enveloping the playground are a waving sea of tall stems loaded with seeds nodding and bobbing in the wind.
On the short path that winds to the east, grasshoppers leap left and right under my feet, clinging to grass stems and then scurrying to the ground. And out at the edge of the creek itself, small migrators flit and bounce from branch to branch, excited by the wealth of food that trees and plants near the water provide for the next leg of their journey south.
Grasshoppers Large and Small Popping Up Everywhere!
Children seem to love grasshoppers. They’re often the first insect that they get to know. After all, they’re harmless, funny looking – and they jump! I love them too and Gallagher Creek Park provided a large variety last week. I didn’t have to go far to see them. The largest ones were hopping among the lovely tufts of yellow and green grasses and sedges in the native gardens that surround the playground.
The bright green and black Differential Grasshopper (Melanoplus differentialis) probably hoped to nibble on grasses and wildflowers as it scooted along the edge of the native garden. In some years, especially in big farming states like Iowa, when weather conditions create swarms, these grasshopppers can be a pest for grain farmers. On the other hand, one of its favorite foods is Giant Ragweed (Ambrosia trifida), so fall allergy suffers should appreciate this large, green grasshopper!
The Two-striped Grasshopper (Melanoplus bivittatus), like the Differential Grasshopper, lays its eggs in the earth where they begin development in the summer. Once cold weather comes, the eggs go into a dormant period called “diapause.” They finish developing and hatch in the spring. Notice the lovely striping on the Two-stripe’s thorax and the bright red lower section of its back legs with tiny black pegs used for stridulation, rubbing the legs together to create the grasshopper’s chirp.
I couldn’t get a great photo of this fast-moving, secretive grasshopper, so it’s a bit hard to see here. Dr. Parsons at the Entomology Department at Michigan State University said that as a consequence, he could only say that this one was “most likely” the Narrow Winged Grasshopper (Melanoplus angustipennis). This grasshopper’s favorite food is asters (family Asteraceae), so it’s definitely at home in our fields, which are full of asters, especially in the autumn.
Just step outside of the playground onto the mowed path and you and your children will be treated to small grasshoppers spraying out from your feet in every direction! The trick is see one up close or catch one. They are quick little critters, these Red-legged Grasshoppers (Melanoplus femurrubrum) and very abundant! The bulbous plate at the tip of the abdomen on the one pictured below indicates that it’s a male Red-legged. Females have pointed abdomens with an ovipositor at the end for planting eggs in the soil.
Migrators Hang Out Near the Creek for Food, Water and Rest
Sometimes I get very lucky. I left the trail and wandered across the eastern field down toward the creek and found a place to stand under a big tree, hidden by its shade. As I’d hoped, small birds bustled among the willow branches searching for insects, spiders or their eggs. And evidently, they found a bonanza! So did I, as I spent a delightful half hour or so in the company of small, beautiful and very busy birds. Spotting them with the camera focused correctly as they flit and hop from limb to limb, moving in and out of the sunlight, can be super challenging but really fun.
My first thrill was holding my breath while a chubby little olive brown bird with a white eye ring dashed out of the greenery for just a few seconds and paused. It was a Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) twitching its wings while considering where to hop next. I caught it just in time! The ruby crown is hidden on the top of its head and generally only appears in spring when it’s courting.
I felt especially lucky when in the distance, across the creek in a willow, a Golden-crowned Kinglet (Regulus satrapa) darted from limb to limb. Its golden crown was visible, but can be raised into a crest during its courting season; that happens farther north in Michigan or in Canada. This kinglet may spend the winter here, since it can tolerate very cold weather. Here are two photos to show you its plump, teardrop shape and its bright yellow crest. [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]
A Golden-crowned Kinglet in the willows by Gallagher Creek
The Golden-crowned Kinglet can stay here all winter because it can tolerate cold temperatures.
Kinglets are often seen in the company of migrating sparrows, so I was very pleased – but not surprised – when a White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) landed on a willow branch and paused. What a beauty it is with the yellow lores at the corner of its eyes and its white stripe on a black crown. White-throated Sparrows can be black and white or black and beige. Males tend to prefer the black and white females, but perversely, all the females prefer beige and black males! You may see these beauties under your feeder so look carefully at those small brown birds you might otherwise ignore!
Overhead, two Sandhill Cranes flew across the park, trumpeting their hoarse calls. According to several sources, these cranes have one of the longest fossil records of any living bird, from 2.5 to 10 million years. Imagine that! Long before modern humans walked the earth, Sandhill Cranes traveled ancient skies on their huge wings. I’m always glad to see them with their toes pointed so perfectly like prima ballerinas.
The invasive European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) isn’t going anywhere this winter. They live all over North America year ’round! Yes, they are very aggressive in attacking the nests of native birds, but they do look dazzling in the winter. Here’s one on a snag at Gallagher Creek Park in its jazzy white tipped feathers. The tips will wear off in time for breeding season so that it can return to its iridescent purple-green head and breast for courting.
Seeds, Seeds, and More Seeds as Nature Sows for Spring
All kinds of plants are fruiting, the happy result of blossoms successfully pollinated by bees, butterflies and other insects. They embody the promise that life goes on despite the cold somnolence of winter. I’m trying to learn the names of at least some of my favorite flowers, grasses and trees when the leaves have fallen and all that’s left are drying seeds and nuts. So here are three favorites from Gallagher and then a slideshow of some I’m still learning.
In 2016, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, first showed me these seed capsules at Gallagher Creek Park. The modest, rangy Bladdernut shrub (Staphylea trifolia) produces 3-chambered seed capsules that hang from the branches like little paper lanterns. Inside each cell is a shiny brown seed that rattles as autumn breezes shake the capsule. Eventually the whole neat package is carried away on wind or water and the seeds are released.
One of the plants in the native garden, Northern Blazing Star (Liatris scariosa) is a member of a genus (Liastris) that I love for its bright purple blossoms that bloom from the top of the stalk down. I was so pleased to see its puffy little seedheads this week, adding an interesting texture to the scene. And look at those tidy little seed capsules at the top. I guess I’m learning that I like this plant when it blooms and when it stops blooming! I’ve got a photo of its relative, Rough Blazing Star (Liatris aspera), so you can get some idea of the plant in bloom.
The Gallagher native garden introduced me to Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis). Tall graceful stems topped by a panicle of fine seeds bend and sway in the wind, having risen from round, green tufts of leaves near the ground. Watching them dance can be mesmerizing.
The graceful seed heads of Prairie Dropseed dance and bob in the slightest breeze.
The leaves form a tuft at ground level.
The fields at Gallagher are a patchwork of interesting shapes and textures. Here’s a quick sampling from a short walk on and off the trail – the plants as they look now, preparing to sow their seeds for next spring – and as they look in other seasons.
Good Short Autumn Walks Require Pausing and Looking
Consider the chipmunk in the photo above. As chipmunks usually do, it was scurrying about at the bottom of a tree, looking for food to store away for the winter. But, for some reason, it decided to just stop and stare out into the field for a few moments. And it occurred to me, that’s what I was doing – pausing and looking.
Binoculars swinging against your jacket are a good reminder to stop and look carefully. Those twitching stalks and stems in a field of dry wildflowers might prompt you to raise them for a better look. Little birds are very likely to appear out of the grass, pull off seeds, then drop quickly to the ground again to pick them up. Look closer through your binoculars.
That “little brown bird” on the trail ahead might turn out to be one that you’ve missed all these years. Stand quietly and let the “binos” show you its special colors or patterns. It takes some practice to develop binocular skills; I’m still working on mine. But when it works, it’s such an “aha!” to see the texture of subtly colored feathers, the barbershop stripes of an “ordinary” butterfly’s antenna, or a tiny insect sipping at the heart of a flower.
And then other little beauties only require your eyes. Consider going alone now and then, leaving even the dog behind. Open a dry seed head and and let the seeds roll into your palm. Notice the pattern that fallen needles make beneath a white pine. Marvel at the aerial maneuvers of a late season dragonfly. Capture what you’ve noticed in a photo perhaps, so you can share what you’ve seen at home.
All it takes is just …. a pause. Move slowly, stand and look. Breathe the cool autumn air. Just “be” for a few moments as the pale autumn light falls on you, shining through the leaves.
I’m guessing lots of us who love nature have wondered the same thing in the last few weeks. “As the temperature drops below zero, how do those small birds with bare feet survive out there?”
Well, it turns out that although our avian winter neighbors share a similar technique for keeping their feet from freezing, their strategies for dealing with cold, snowy days can differ.
First Rule: Use Those Feathers!
We humans love down jackets on cold winter days and snuggle beneath down comforters on winter nights. Well, birds like the female Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) above, or the Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) pictured at the top of the blog, use the same technique. When birds fluff up their feathers in the cold, they trap a layer of air between the feathers. Their body temperature – in small birds more than 100˚ F – warms the air layer just as it does in our jackets. According to Peter Marra, head of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center at the National Zoo, “Birds’ feathers provide remarkable insulation against the cold, and the oil that coats feathers also provides waterproofing, which is important since the only thing worse than being cold, is being cold and wet.” Here are a few of birds making the most of their feathers on a recent cold morning. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
What About Those Bare Feet, Though?
Last summer I caught this American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) staring at its feet in a tree near Lost Lake. I laughed to think that perhaps it was worrying about how they’d feel on a snowy day! Birds really do have very cold feet in the winter. According to scientist and professor Bernd Heinrich on the Cornell website, the feet of chickadees stay just above freezing even while their body temperatures are very high. Presumably, they don’t feel it much. Their feet are mostly tendons and bones with very few muscles or nerves. If you look at those three birds with feather puffed that are pictured above, you can see they’ve hunched over their feet, covering them with their body feathers. Or sometimes birds simply tuck one leg at a time against their breast. Also, the arteries and veins in birds’ feet are close together. As Heinrich explains it, a bird’s feet are provided with continuous blood flow which keeps them from freezing. Since the arteries pass close to the veins in a bird’s legs, the cooled blood from the feet gets warmed on the way back to the heart to keep the bird’s body warm. And the warm blood from the heart is cooled down as it moves out to the legs, reducing heat loss. Pretty efficient system!
Second Rule: Eat as Much as Possible!
On cold days, small birds really need to stuff themselves every few minutes to keep warm. When you see a White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) or Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) dashing from your feeder to nearby trees, it’s eating some seeds and storing others in the trees’ bark. Amazingly, the brains of Chickadees expand in the fall to improve their memory so that they can later find those seeds or nuts. According to Cornell’s Birdsleuth website, “neurons are added to the Chickadee’s hippocampus in the fall, increasing its volume by about 30%.” As a result, Chickadees can remember up to a thousand places in which they’ve tucked their winter provisions! (I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before in the blog, but it’s so amazing that it bears repeating!)
But What Do They Eat in Winter?
Mourning Doves (Zenaida macroura) and American Goldfinches can be gluttonous at feeders during the winter because they are vegetarians; no insects or caterpillars for them! On most winter days, they can find seeds or fruits, but your feeder helps to supplement the wild supply. Mourning Doves can eat 12-20% of their body weight per day! They store seed in their crops, a muscular pouch near the throat, and digest it later to help keep themselves warm at night.
I’ve seen Cedar Waxwings (Bombycillia cedrorum) eating frozen vine fruits or leaf buds that overwinter on the branches of trees.
But many local birds, including Waxwings, are omnivores who can eat a wide range of foods. The Tufted Titmouse, White-Breasted Nuthatch, Chickadees and all kinds of Woodpeckers (family Picidae) spend winter days probing loose bark or hopping along branches looking for frozen dinners; insects, insect eggs, pupae or perhaps a frozen caterpillar will do just fine as sources of protein on a cold day.
AmericanCrows (Corvus brachyrhynchos), being bigger birds, will eat almost anything to “stoke their furnaces” during the winter. In our area, the carcasses of White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) provide lots of good protein. And if a crow finds one, it notifies its family and friends to join the feast. (No fair being squeamish. We all have to eat!)
Where Do Birds Spend Cold Winter Nights?
According to the Smithsonian’s Peter Marra, “Many small birds, like Black-Capped Chickadees, Eastern Bluebirds, and House Wrens, will gather in large groups at night and crowd together in a small, tight space to share body heat.” Sharing body heat keeps down fat loss during the night to preserve energy for the next day’s foraging. In his article for Cornell’s All About Birds, Bernd Heinrich describes finding a group of tiny Golden- Crowned Kinglets (Regulus satrapa) huddled in a circle on the branch of a pine tree, beaks in, tails out, sharing their body heat on a winter night. These tiny birds, which overwinter in our area, are about half the weight of a Chickadee! This lovely winter photo of a Golden-crowned Kinglet was taken by a photographer named cedimaria at the website inaturalist.org.
Bernd Heinrich reports in his essay collection, Winter’s World, that woodpeckers provide some cozy winter housing for other birds as well as themselves. Every spring, woodpeckers make a fresh hole for raising their young, but they tend to use them for only one year. So small birds can often find an abandoned woodpecker hole to get out of the wind and snow on a winter night. In the autumn, Dr. Heinrich has also spotted both Downy Woodpeckers (Dryobates pubescens) and Hairy Woodpeckers (Dryobates villosus) constructing special overnight shelters just for winter use. I spotted a Downy doing just that in Gallagher Creek Park one November day. Note the flying wood chips!
Special Winter Strategies Can Be Helpful…
Even though Chickadees can excavate their own holes, in extreme cold they require a few extra tricks at night. According to the Audubon society, these little birds can lower their body temperature at night by as much as 22 degrees, minimizing the difference between their body temperature and the bitterly cold air. They also keep warmer by shivering, which activates opposing muscle groups and produces heat. Luckily, they can even shiver while sleeping, which is something I can’t quite imagine doing! And of course once settled, like many birds, they can tuck their beaks and feet into their feathers to preserve heat as well.
Though they don’t appear in our parks these days, Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus) survive days of light fluffy snow in a surprising way. They burrow into the snow, creating a long tunnel with a chamber on the end. These one-day burrows not only provide insulation, according to Bernd Heinrich, but they also provide protection from predators. Large dark birds are very visible against the snow! (This photo was generously shared at iNaturalist.org by photographer Brian Murphy.)
Thank Goodness for Our Adaptable Winter Birds!
Aren’t you glad that some birds stay with us all winter? And that some actually arrive for an extended stay just as the snow begins to fall? The constant flutter of a busy Chickadee, the “yank yank” call of a Nuthatch as it circles a branch or the friendly chirping of a flock of foraging Tree Sparrows in dry grass are so companionable on gray winter days. And what could be more heartening on a frigid morning than the sight of scarlet Northern Cardinals or azure Blue Jays in a snowy bush? I’m so thankful that some birds have figured out how to survive the cold along with us. By taking shelter, shivering, eating heartily, and snuggling into down comforters very much like we do, they keep us company as we make our way towards spring.
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, Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, A Naturalist at Large by Bernd Heinrich and others as cited in the text.
Well, they’re off! When the wind sails in from the north, it’s a signal to all kinds of creatures: “Time to go!” So they take wing singly and in large flocks, letting the flow of cool air support them, carrying them quickly onward as they beat wings of all sizes to make their way to warmer climes.
And of course, it’s not just birds. Above you can see our friend Nancy Isken’s photo of Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus) last week resting at Tawas Point State Park before crossing Saginaw Bay. They were beginning their long journey to Mexico where they will spend the winter. In the spring, these Monarchs will make the first leg of the journey back north, stopping in warm areas like Texas to produce a new crop of butterflies who continue heading north. These new generations will fly only a few hundred miles, stop and reproduce, completing their whole life cycle in only 5-7 weeks. So it takes several generations to complete the trip back to Michigan each summer. Sarina Jepson of the Xerces Society, which is focused on invertebrate conservation, says in a fine National Geographic article, “…when fall rolls around again, a special ‘super generation’ of monarchs that can live up to eight months will make use of air currents to wing all the way back to Mexico—a seemingly impossible feat for such a delicate-looking insect.” Imagine that! So the Monarch butterflies born here In Oakland Township each summer can potentially live for 8 months instead of 5-7 weeks and fly 3,000 miles instead of a few hundred. We are living among real, live superheroes!
And Monarchs aren’t the only insects that migrate. Green Darner Dragonflies (Anax junius) (also tracked by the Xerces Society) travel down to Texas and Mexico as well. For dragonflies, it also takes many generations of reproduction before their trip is completed, though their migration is less well understood. But again, like the Monarch generations that arrive here each summer, the dragonfly offspring seem to know how to find their way in the right direction. Citizen science and research is helping explore dragonfly migration. But for now, I love a good nature mystery, don’t you?
Painted Lady butterflies (Vanessa cardui) make multiple generation migrations all over the world. But they migrate erratically. Some years they migrate and some years they don’t. And the direction and route can vary widely. Some experts speculate that their migration routes may be affected by dramatic changes in weather and climate – another nature mystery yet to be solved.
At this time of year, the night sky begins to fill with thousands, even millions, of birds riding the wind south in the darkness, navigating by the stars or the setting sun, or by sensing the earth’s magnetic field. Some may navigate by landmarks or simply remembering good feeding grounds. And amazingly, most juvenile migrating birds, like those insects hatching during migration, somehow know how to find their way without any help from adults! Cornell’s BirdCast website is a great way to watch the flow of birds across the United States day by day throughout the fall.
Remember all those bright little warblers, unusual sparrows and other small birds that sailed up here on a south wind in May? Well, most of them have now finished breeding farther north and are beginning to make their way back to more warmth and sunshine. They’ve molted out of their bright breeding feathers so they’re a little less colorful now and their routes vary a bit depending on available food and weather. But keep a look out for these little travelers starting now. Here are a few from the autumn of previous years:
If you’re thinking you’d like to see some bird migrations in BIG numbers, you might check out the Hawk Fest featuring hawks, eagles, falcons and owls at Lake Erie Metropark on September 15 and 16. Or if you love our Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis), consider a trip to the Audubon Society’s Cranefestat Big Marsh Lake in Bellevue, Michigan (near Battle Creek) on October 13 and 14.
Of course, if you want to stay close to home, you’ll be warmly welcomed at our Oakland Township Wednesday morning bird walks. The walks rotate through our township parks each month and in September and October, they start at 8 a.m. The schedule is available year ’round if you click on the drop-down menu above for “Stewardship Events.” We’re a friendly group with some experienced birders who are glad to help beginners see their first migrators. Bring your binoculars or borrow a set from Ben, our Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, who leads the walks.
So yes, summer is waning. But I can’t help feeling celebratory as autumn air turns crisp and the skies fill with winged creatures. I recommend looking upward this fall and perhaps wishing “Bon Voyage!”, to our migrators who provide such beauty and mystery as they find their paths through the air.
Oakland Township is honored to have royalty stop by on their way to the north country! No entourage for this group, though the paparazzi do follow them avidly, as you’ll see below. Like many royals nowadays, they mostly look ordinary. But once in a while, if you’re lucky, each of them don their extravagant gold and ruby crowns – especially when courting their royal consorts or battling over territory.
As you may have guessed, I’m referring to two kinglets, those tiny avian migrators who, when excited, raise their brightly colored crests. In the last two weeks, both little “crowned heads” of North America paused in their northern sojourn to enjoy a brief respite among the trees of Charles Ilsley Park.
Most of the time, the Ruby-crowned Kinglet(Reguluscalendula) is an unassuming green-gray bird with a white eye-ring. It hops at a frenetic pace from limb to limb, tree to tree, twitching its wings, and moving on. Here’s a Ruby-crowned Kinglet in its humble garb at Ilsley last week.
But when agitated, this diminutive monarch pops up a bright scarlet crest. Unfortunately all of the Ruby-crowns I’ve seen have been reluctant to display their crowns for me. So, here’s a photo of one doing just that, taken by Mathesant, a talented photographer at inaturalist.org.
On a cold April morning, the birders spotted another royal migrator, the Golden-crowned Kinglet (Regulus satrapa). Since this one preferred to stay high in the treetops, taking his portrait at Ilsley on a gray day was a bit challenging – but at least we were able to admire that bright yellow head stripe from a distance.
These little birds (smaller than a chickadee!) keep a patch of orange/red feathers hidden beneath that stripe. This tiny kinglet also only flaunts his splendid crown when he’s really excited. I couldn’t find a photo of the raised crest that I could share here. But it’s pretty impressive, so catch a glimpse at this Cornell link instead.
These two aerial royals only grace our parks on their way to the dense spruce or fir forests to the north, the summer retreats where they raise their offspring. So be on the lookout right now for royalty in the tree tops!