THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Off-and-On Spring, a Prescribed Burn, and Two Special Bird Sightings

 

Flooding a week later

The Playground Pond flooding to the west after heavy spring rains

This Week at Bear Creek celebrated its first birthday this week. We’ve come full circle on the calendar exploring together what’s blooming, singing, buzzing and trotting through the park. I’ve had such a great time watching, asking questions of Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Stewardship Manager, reading your comments and pouring over books and blogs to research these pieces. I hope it has brought you some surprises and fresh insights, too. I’ve proposed to Ben that we widen the lens a bit this year and rather than focusing on one park, I’ll explore other parks in the township in a series we’re calling “Out and About in Oakland Township.” So watch for that coming soon!

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

But for now, let’s explore what’s been happening in Bear Creek for the last couple of weeks while I was reporting on Bear Creek history. Spring  arrived, retreated and struggled to make a comeback, no doubt confusing  the first migrating birds (one new to me!), singing frogs and emerging insects. A successful prescribed burn lit the Old Fields, returning nutrients to the earth and warming the soil with black ash.  It also provided some pretty nice hunting for birds of prey, including a second bird  I’d never seen before.

A Tentative Start to Spring: The Birds

Before we watch the migrators, here’s our old friend, the Black- capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) doing something fun. I learned a while ago that this little native can excavate holes in dead trees and/or trees with softer bark. And one cold morning, near the marsh closest to Snell Road, I spotted one doing just that. Notice the wood shavings on its head in the left photo and on its beak in the right photo. It was dropping the shavings on the ground as it worked diligently. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

Back to spring arrivals. The Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia) returned, some practicing parts of their spring song, but mostly just searching in the wetlands and brush for something to eat!

One warm morning, an American Woodcock (Scolopax minor) shot out from under my feet and two days later I saw one probing with its long beak among thick vines and brambles at the edge of  the wetland below the benches on the south hill.  I’d never seen one in Bear Creek before! This oddly shaped bird, with its squared-off head and widely spaced eyes, stayed just out of sight in the underbrush. I’ll spare you my attempt at a photo. Here’s a much better one of the Woodcock from Cornell Lab! I hope to see this interesting bird doing  its “cool aerial mating dance,” as Ben calls it, at a stewardship birding event he’s planned for Cranberry Lake on Earth Day, April 22 at 7:30 pm (Mark your calendars!).

A flock of  migrators, the Grackles (Quiscalus quiscula), with their light eyes and iridescent coats, seem to have taken over the marsh just north of the playground. Their calls, akin to the sound of a rusty gate, scrape the air as these large birds begin establishing territories.

Grackle in sunlight

The Grackles call, or “song,” sounds like the squeak of a rusty gate.

They share some wetlands with another summer visitor, the Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), who trills a sharp call while showing off his epaulets. Since the females hadn’t arrived last week, this guy seemed more focused on food one cold morning.

Red-winged blackbird in Autumn Olive

Male Red-winged Blackbirds are trilling in and around the wetlands to establish territories before the females arrive.

The Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis)are performing their spring duets, since both the male and female trill a large variety of songs. Here’s a male near the marsh and then a recording of his lovely song which he began a few minutes later. (Be sure to increase your volume.)

Cardinal male

A male Cardinal near the marsh

And of course, I couldn’t resist a pair of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis).

The Frog Serenade Begins

The spring frogs have thawed out after being frozen all winter.  They are singing with abandon in every wet spot in the park, trying to attract their mates. During the day, we’re likely to hear either the Wood Frog (Lithobates sylvaticus) or the Western Chorus Frog (Pseudacris triseriata) or both. In this short sound recording, the high pitched continuous singing is the song of the Western Chorus Frog and the lower, almost conversational croaking is the song of the  Wood Frogs. 

Wood Frogs like to float in the water and sing, so look for concentric circles on the surface and you’ll often see the 2 – 2.5 inch male croaking. This one floated in the marsh west of the Snell entrance.

Wood frog in pond near house

A Wood Frog floating and singing in a marsh near the Snell entrance

The Western Chorus Frog is smaller, only 1 – 1.5 inches, but it has a mighty bubble at its throat as it sings.  I caught this one in mid-croak a year ago.

Chorus frog full cheep

Chorus frog full cheep

The water is deep at the Center Pond, so Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta)have emerged from winter torpor under the mud to share whatever bits of logs are available in order to bask in the thin sunlight. I’m waiting to see how many hatchlings survived the winter in their shared nests!

Turtle threesome

Three on a log at the Center Pond

Plants Sprouting, A Risk-taking Caterpillar and a Very Tiny Spider!

Frost in late March

Frost in late March

The last week of March thick frost covered all of last year’s plants at Bear Creek, including a Goldenrod Ball Gall missing its larval inhabitant and one of last year’s Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota) dried blossoms.

But the sun came out and this year’s plants began to emerge. Each spring I look for the first fascinating but homely Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidusaround the marsh at the western entrance to the Oak-Hickory forest.  And there it was, nosing its way out of the mud.

Skunk Cabbage2

Skunk Cabbage is one of the first plants of spring.

Nearby, on the path behind the Center Pond, a minuscule spider worked diligently on its web strung between two branches of native Pussy Willow (Salix discolor). And some sort of caterpillar appeared as well, which might be that of the striking Virginia Ctenucha Moth. The caterpillars of this moth feed on grasses and sedges and are often found in open fields in early spring and fall.

Over near Snell Road, I spotted some lovely catkins and Ben tells me I’ve found Hazelnut (Corylus americana), a plant that George Comps harvested for nuts when he lived on this piece of land in the 1940’s. The long yellow ones are male flowers and if you look closely, you’ll see small red ones that are female – both on the same plant.

American Hazel catkins

American Hazel with long golden male catkins and inconspicuous red female flowers.

Up in the new native bed near the pavilion, transplanted last fall from a generous donor, the lovely little Sharp-lobed Hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba) bloomed quietly one warm morning.

Hepatica closeup

Hepatica in the newest native bed next to the pavilion

Prescribed Burn:  A Boost for Native Plants

Last week Dr. Ben, township staff and 6 volunteers conducted a prescribed burn down the center of the southern part of Bear Creek, to the left and right of the Walnut Lane. Many native plants in our area are adapted to fire from natural sources and thousands of years of clearing and fertilizing with fire by local Native American communities.  In fact, many native plants form buds underground that allow them to sprout vigorously after fire. Non-native plants and invasives may or may not be fire-adapted, so periodic burning can be a setback for them.

Heidi dripping fire

Volunteer, Heidi Patterson, drips a low flame to start the blaze while other fire crew members stand by with water.

Fire also returns to the earth the nutrients in dead material from the previous year and provides a black ash surface that absorbs heat from the sun (solar radiation), giving plants a longer growing season.

Dr. Ben serves as “fire boss” for our crew and trained these volunteers during the winter. It was wonderful to see them do such a careful, well-coordinated burn, while saving the township the cost of hiring a burn crew. Thank you to volunteers Steve Powell, David Lazar, Antonio Xeira, Dioniza Toth-Reinalt, Heidi Paterson, and Jim Lloyd, plus Township staff member Jeff Johnson, and of course Dr. Ben for a stewardship job well done!

About that Hawk and its Fellow Hunter…

Avian hunters were super appreciative of the burn! A large Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) perched calmly on a limb as the smoke floated up from the  fires below. As Ben pointed out, she knew it would make finding her prey so much easier!

Red Tailed Hawk Hunting after Fire

Red-tailed Hawk watches the field “like a hawk” looking for prey during the prescribed burn.

A  female American Kestrel (Falco sparvarius) found a mole after the fire and took it up into a tree on the eastern edge of the Old Field.  Kestrels are the smallest North American falcons and are declining in some of their range due partly to predation by hawks and even crows – so it’s great to see one at Bear Creek.  Kestrels are known to cache some of their food, but after the winter months, this one seemed very determined to have a meal!  (Thanks to Ben for ID of this bird and the caterpillar above!)

Sharp-shinned Hawk w a mole

An American Kestrel found a mole for dinner after the prescribed burn.

From One Spring to the Next

Tree in puddle

Black Walnut Tree reflected in a puddle after heavy rainstorms

So thank you for circling the year with me at Bear Creek. It’s difficult to choose favorite moments because every season has its joys.  I know I’ll remember the bulge of the Chorus Frog’s throat in early spring, the head of a Cedar Waxwing protruding from her nest in early summer, two baby wrens taking a dust bath on the Walnut Lane, the Western Slope covered with Monarch butterflies hanging from purple New England Asters in autumn, and learning how muskrats cruise under winter ice and frogs freeze solid before resurrecting in the spring. If you have favorite moments, photos, new realizations, I’d love to hear about them in the comments below.

But let’s be off to another year!  We’ll keep periodically visiting Bear Creek, of course, but also venture out to Lost Lake Nature Park, Cranberry Lake Park, Draper Twin Lake Park, Charles Ilsley Park, Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park, Blue Heron Environmental Area, Gallagher Creek Park, Marsh View Park, and the Paint Creek Trail to see all the diversity our green gem of a township has to offer!  Now I’m off to see if I can find some warblers…

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: Golden Fields Full of Monarchs, a Hummer and Other Beauties and Curiosities

 

Western slope from the north2

The golden western slope of Bear Creek from the northern end – full of Monarch butterflies this week.

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

Open fields edged by trees have always been favorite places of mine.  And this Tuesday,in the fields on either side of the park, Monarch butterflies were everywhere!  Bear Creek may be hosting fall migrators on their way to Mexico – or we’ve just had a big hatch of  these beautiful and ecologically fragile creatures.  In fact, many butterflies, bees and darners fluttered, hummed and hovered over the swaying seas of gold in Bear Creek, while grasshoppers serenaded them beneath the tall stems.

Some speculate that humans love open fields because our ancient ancestors felt safe where they could see into the distance but escape into the trees.  I just know I’m very happy in a field full of wildflowers.

First, of course: The Monarchs and the Hummer!

After only seeing the occasional Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) this summer, on Tuesday they were floating and fluttering all over the park!  Though the Joe Pye (Eutrochium maculatum) in the Eastern Old field seems to be past its peak,  its nectar drew in a Monarch (and other butterflies below) anyway.

Monarch on Joe Pye

A monarch explores the fading Joe Pye for a sip of nectar.

I considered myself lucky to get so close – but when I started down the Western Sloping Path from north to south, wow!  Monarchs surrounded me every step of the way.  I believe I saw at least a dozen there, but I’ll share just a few who were enjoying the New England Asters.

Monarch on New Englans aster

A female Monarch on a New England Aster

Monarch hanging New England Aster2

A female Monarch butterfly dangles from a clump of New England Asters.

At the very bottom of the sloping path, I watched as two Monarchs approached and fed on the same plant.

Two monarchs New England Aster

Two monarchs share a New England aster plant.

Just at that special moment, I saw the second Ruby-Throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) I’ve ever seen at Bear Creek – a female, hovering momentarily as she looked at me and then zoomed off toward the woods.  No photo, of course, but perhaps this silhouette of a hummer in mid-hover from a few years ago will help you visualize the one I saw this week.

hummer silhouette copy - Version 2

A female Ruby-throated Hummingbird paused in mid-flight at the bottom of the Western Sloping Path

Fields Full of Wildflowers and their Beautiful Visitors

Eastern Tiger Swallowtails (Papilio glaucus) fluttered quickly across the golden fields.  I just caught sight of one in the far distance on the Eastern Path on Sunday so here’s a picture from another  August, when a male landed on Spotted Knapweed, an invasive wildflower.

yellow swallowtail 2

A Tiger Swallowtail lands on Spotted Knapweed, an invasive wildflower from Eurasia.

New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) increasingly complement the Goldenrods’ glow as these vivid native flowers grow tall to reach their share of the thinning sunlight.

asters and goldenrod

Asters have grown tall this year competing with the height of Goldenrod and complementing its color.

Great Spangled Fritillary in the Eastern field paused on fading blossoms of Joe Pye to take a sip, just like the Monarch did.

Great spangled fritillary

A Great Spangled Fritillary pauses to sample the fading blossoms of Joe Pye Weed.

And the Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus) rested beneath a blossom of the same plant.

Silver-spotted skipper butterfly

A Silver-spotted Skipper explores the possibilities of the Joe Pye by hanging from a fading blossom.

About That Hum in the Old Fields…

Honey Bees (Apis mellifera), native Bumblebees (genus Bombus) and even Eastern Yellow Jacket Wasps (Vespula maculifrons ) hum among the flowers in the Old Fields.  Don’t worry; they’re much too busy gathering pollen, or in the case of wasps, eating nectar, to bother with us humans.

Bee on goldenrod2

A Honey Bee making the most of late season pollen on a Canada Goldenrod.

Always on the lookout for a quick munch, the big Canada Darner Dragonfly (Aeshna canadensis) zooms and dives over the blossoms below. This B-52 of insects consumes a lot of late summer bugs.

Canada darner in flight2

A Canada Darner flew over the reeds next to the Eastern Path, scouting for unwary insects.

Below the Darner, a modest wet-footed flower stands among the wetland reeds in the Eastern Old Field. According to Wikipedia, Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) got its name because our ancestors believed that since the leaves clasped the stem “wrapping the leaves in bandages around splints would help mend broken bones.”

Boneset

Reportedly Boneset got its name from a past belief that because the leaves clasp the stem, it would help with mending broken bones.

Down in the grass, the Red-legged Grasshoppers (Melanoplus femurrubrum) sing lustily as a backdrop to all this beauty by rubbing their rasp-like back leg against their forewing.

grasshopper on joepye1

Red-legged grasshoppers chirp in the grass, preparing to mate and lay their eggs in the soil for next year.

Bumblebee buzzed softly as it balanced carefully at the top of a stem of Canada Goldenrod

Bumblebee on goldenrod

A bumblebee balancing on the tip of a Goldenrod stem.

Yellow Jackets, like all wasps,  don’t do much pollinating because they lack the fuzzy body hair of bees.  They generally eat nectar but collect bugs for the protein they feed to their young.

Yellow jacket on hemlock

A Yellow Jacket Wasp explores a tiny blossom of Queen Anne’s Lace.

What’s That Bump on the Goldenrod, Anyway?

As you’re wandering through the Old Fields, you may have noticed some strange shapes on the stalks and tips of Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis).   Galls are growths on plant stems caused by insects who lay their eggs on the plants in the spring.  When the larva hatch, they eat into the plant, causing it to form a gall around them.  Inside, the larva eats until late summer when it forms a pupa which spends the winter inside that protective covering.  In spring, the adult insect emerges to restart the life cycle. Galls don’t kill the Goldenrod; they just look funny!

The ball gall is the most common goldenrod gall and is formed by  the small Goldenrod Gall Fly (Eurosta solidaginis).  With its hard surface, this gall seems like a decent place to spend the winter, doesn’t it?  During the summer, though, some wasps lay eggs in galls and their larvae hatch and make a meal of the gall fly’s.   And in the winter,  Downy Woodpeckers drill holes in galls to reach the pupae,  and Gray Squirrels chew on galls to do the same.  Obviously enough Gall Flies survive in these dwellings to start a new crop next spring, so nature stays in balance. I think this gall may have been invaded by a wasp.

Goldenrod gall2

A ball Goldenrod gall formed by the larva of a Goldenrod Gall Fly who turns into a pupa and spends the winter there – though the holes indicate that perhaps a wasp has invaded this gall and its larva may have eaten the gall fly’s.

Goldenrods also harbor the very tiny (.2″) Goldenrod Gall Midge (Rhopalomyia solidaginis) which causes a rosette gall.  Once the grub of this tiny creature hatches, the stem of the goldenrod generally stops growing but keeps producing leaves which bunch up and make a nice hiding place for a midge’s larva to grow – along with spiders and other midges who may move in.   Sometimes, as in this photo, the stem will continue to grow above the rosette gall, but it’s much more spindly.

Goldenrod gall_edited-1

A rosette gall on Canada Goldenrod created by a single tiny insect but potentially a hiding place for other midges and spiders as well.

For years I saw willows in the park that seemed to be producing pine cones at the end of their branches.  Turns out they’re Willow Pine Cone Galls, made by a tiny (about .2″) midge scientifically known as Rhabdophaga strobiloides.  The pine cone-shaped gall that its larva causes can harbor many species.  According to the University of Wisconscin-Milwaukee’s Field Station website, “Beetles, caterpillars, sawflies, cynipid wasps, midges, and the eggs of meadow grasshoppers have been found inside pine cone galls.”  They’re now on a willow on the west side of the Center Pond and can also be seen in the wetland area east of the Eastern Path.

gall

No, not a pinecone! A Willow Pine Cone gall that can harbor over 30 different species besides the larva of its original midge.

The Eastern Old Field rolls down to the Center Pond and the Western one slopes dramatically to the west.  The trails that wind across them are full of strange and beautiful creatures and the plants that feed on and live in them.  Walk quietly. Look closely.  Listen carefully.  And when nature shares a secret with you, please share it with the rest of us.

*Footnote:  My sources for information, as well as Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991). The viceroy butterfly is not a Batesian mimic; Stokes Nature Guides:  A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net.; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for beetle info http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info, and invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman.