Tag Archives: Grass-leaved Goldenrod

The Milkweed Connection: A “Welcome Home” for Our Superhero Monarchs

Monarch on Joe Pye (Eutrochium maculatum)

Great news! Reports from the Monarch Butterfly wintering grounds in Mexico say that this will be another good year for Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus) in our area! Monarchs of the Midwest and Northeast count on us to provide a big pulse of wildflowers with nectar to sip and lots of Milkweeds (genus Asclepias) on which to lay their eggs. Monarchs are very choosy! Their caterpillars can only become butterflies by eating  the leaves of plants in the Milkweed family.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

In February, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township stewardship manager, hosted an interesting and  thorough presentation by Dr. Nate Haan of Michigan State University on the topic “Monarch Butterfly Ecology and Conservation.” So here’s  a bit of what he shared with us that might help you and I be prepared for the arrival of these beautiful pollinators. My thanks to Dr. Haan for his presentation and to the photographers cited in the captions of some photos below for helping me tell the amazing story of our “super generation” of Monarchs.

The Life of a Monarch from Egg to Adult

One end of the Monarch migration starts each late summer/ autumn here in Michigan and other Midwest and Northeastern states. Monarchs that traveled here in spring sip wildflower nectar, mate and lay eggs on the underside of milkweed  leaves. Their favorite milkweed is Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), though any milkweed in the Asclepias species will do. More about that later.

A monarch butterfly egg on the underside of a Common Milkweed leaf (Photo by Merav Vonshak (CC BY-NC) at inaturalist.org

Only about 2-10% of the Monarch eggs hatch in the fields, because they are food for a wide variety insects and spiders.  But for the lucky few, small caterpillars emerge from these eggs.  They begin by eating the egg itself and then going on to eat the leaves of the host milkweed plant. Milkweed has tiny silver hairs as a protection against predators, but over the eons Monarch caterpillars have learned to shave them off!  They then attach their hind end to the leaf and move in a half circle eating, which prevents most of them from getting stuck in the milky latex that gives milkweed its name. Then the little caterpillar molts, shedding its exoskeleton to become an increasingly more colorful and larger caterpillar. It takes them five molts to reach full size.

A Monarch caterpillar (probably a 2nd instar)  eating a milkweed leaf. Photo by permission from Tanya Harvey at http://westerncascades.com/2017/07/04/a-week-of-monarchs-and-milkweed-day-1/

The sticky, milky latex is the plant’s second defense against predators, because it can gum up a caterpillar’s mouth. But the fifth and last  molt of the Monarch caterpillar has found an even more effective way to defuse the threat than the first instar did. The large yellow and black fifth instar’s technique is to make a quick bite into the main vein of the leaf, releasing pressure and waiting until the liquid drains out.  Then they can continue to eat anywhere on the leaf. Here’s  my photo of a fifth instar eating Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) along the Paint Creek Trail.

A 5th instar Monarch caterpillar eating on Butterfly Milkweed

It takes 10-14 days for the caterpillar to complete 5 molts.  It then leaves the milkweed behind, finds a horizontal surface, attaches itself with a silk pad and molts again. This time the caterpillar creates an opaque green chrysalis with gold trim! The chrysalis hardens after a short time and the butterfly begins to develop inside. This pupal stage lasts for another 10-14 days.

A Monarch chrysalis, photo by inaturalist.org photographer Pam Kleinsasser (CC BY NC)

Finally, the chrysalis becomes transparent and the the butterfly emerges to dry its wings before taking flight.

Monarch emerging from its translucent chrysalis, photo by inaturalist.org photographer gvelazco (CC BY-SA)
A Monarch butterfly taking off on a sunny afternoon

The Super Powers of our Monarch “Super Generation”

The Monarchs fluttering over our parks in August and September are gifted with two super powers: they live much longer than other Monarchs, and they can fly over 3000 miles to overwinter in Mexico. I’ve cited this quote from National Geographic before in discussing monarchs but it bears repeating. According to Dr. Pablo Jaramillo-López, a research scientist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico “…when fall rolls around …, 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.”

Monarchs arriving in central Mexico for the winter. Photo by Carlos Dominguez-Rodriquez (CC BY-NC) at inaturalist.org.

It can take up to two months for our Monarchs to reach the mountains of central Mexico. They spend the winter there, protected by the micro-climate created by Oyamel, or “Sacred” Fir trees (Abies religiosa).

Monarchs wintering in Mexico, photo by Mario Castañeda-Sánchez (CC BY-NC) at iNaturalist.org

In the spring, our “super generation” monarchs then start the journey back to Michigan by flying as far north as Texas. After mating and laying eggs there, they die, and their offspring carry on the migration north. It takes four or five generations of Monarchs along the way, each living only 5-7 weeks (instead of 8 months!) for the last of our super-generation’s offspring to land with such exquisite delicacy on the wildflowers in our parks. As Dr. Pablo Jaramillo-López says in National Geographic, “This makes the migrating monarchs so unique as they are the same species but for some reason live much longer.”

Monarch on Grass-leaved Goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia)

The Threats that Monarchs Face

A graph showing the general decline in the number of Monarch butterflies. Data from 1994-2003 were collected by personnel of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve (MBBR) of the National Commission of Protected Natural Areas (CONANP) in Mexico. Data from 2004-2019 were collected by the WWF-Telcel Alliance, in coordination with the Directorate of the MBBR. 2000-01 population number as reported by Garcia-Serrano et. al (The Monarch Butterfly : Biology and Conservation, 2004)
The Monarch Joint Venture is a national partnership of federal and state agencies, non-governmental organizations, businesses and academic programs working together to conserve the monarch butterfly migration. The content in this article does not necessarily reflect the positions of all Monarch Joint Venture partners.

Monarch numbers go up and down but sadly, over the last two decades the trend is generally downward as you can see above. So what’s the problem?  As usual, there are multiple factors. Dr. Haan named five:

  1. Logging in their overwintering area in Mexico makes surviving in the mountains more difficult. The Mexican government and non-governmental organizations are working on finding sustainable projects that can support local economic alternatives for people living in the Monarch’s wintering grounds.
  2. Less wildflowers and more agricultural crops in the Great Plains and Midwest states. This leaves less nectar resources to feed the Monarchs and fewer milkweed stems on which to lay eggs for successive generations. Some farmers are changing their approach to their grazing and crop land to accommodate the Monarch’s need for milkweed.
  3. According to the Monarch Joint Venture website, OE (Ophryocystis elektroscirrha), a parasite can get on the wings of adult Monarchs, who then spread this parasite on the milkweed leaves when they mate or lay eggs. If caterpillars eat the leaves, they become infected with the pathogen that can cause a developing Monarch’s wings to be too weak to get out of its chrysalis and may shorten the lives of adult Monarchs. Tropical forms of milkweed sold by nurseries tend to be associated with this parasite and they should be avoided. Dr. Haan reported also that  Monarchs bred from more tropical areas, like Florida, may carry OE, too.
  4. Insecticides used on garden plants can be lethal to butterflies, as well as other beneficial insects. Perhaps the greatest problem is milkweed loss in the Midwest, which is the core breeding habitat for Monarchs.  Milkweed used to be much more common around and on farms.
  5. In the late 1990’s many farmers turned to Roundup Ready genetically modified seeds which makes their crops resistant to Roundup.  This allows farmers to spray Roundup on their crops,  which kills milkweed along with other unwanted plants without hurting their crops.   As a result, Dr. Haan said, scientists estimate that 40% of the milkweed needed by Monarchs, is gone, maybe a billion stems in the last 20 years, which coincides with the decline in Monarch populations.
MilkweedInCorn_NateHaan
Milkweed used to be a common weed in crop fields. Illustration by Nate Haan.

So How Do We Help Our Friendly Local Monarchs?

Well, we can use less insecticide and when we do use it, follow directions carefully. We can avoid growing non-native milkweeds that carry the parasite OE. We can plant milkweed to support developing caterpillars and nectar-producing native flowers to feed the adult Monarchs. Coneflowers, asters and goldenrods, and many other prairie flowers that prefer medium to dry soil and full sunlight flourish just when the super generation of Monarchs is beefing up for the long migration. Of course, lots of other butterflies, bees and other pollinators loves these flowers too!

 

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Varied Milkweed Species Feed Young Monarchs and Add Color to Our Fields and Gardens

Maybe the biggest  – and most beautiful – contribution we can make to the welfare of Monarch butterflies is to plant more milkweeds in our fields and gardens. Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) multiplies both by the parachuting seeds we all loved as children and by its extensive network of roots. So it can spread too quickly to be a great garden plant. But it’s perfect in big sunny fields or natural areas.

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)

If you are lucky enough to have Common Milkweed on your property, it will help, Dr. Haan told us, if you trim/mow  down about a third of the milkweed stems on your property in late June or early July. He and his associate’s research shows that Monarchs prefer to lay more eggs on the tender stems that re-grow because they are easier to eat and more nutritious .

Graph showing how monarchs laid more eggs on new growth from milkweed stems mowed in mid-July (green-shaded area) than on milkweed unmowed (orange line) or mowed in mid-June (blue shaded area). Graph by Dr. Haan.

Since most of our milkweed plants are full grown by August, their leaves are old and tough and Monarch egg predators are present in large numbers. If you can trim or mow some of your milkweed plants in mid-summer, they will re-sprout and provide the softer leaves on which Monarchs like to plant their eggs in late July or early August for the migrating “Super Generation.” Those new stems also contain less predatory insects and spiders, meaning monarch eggs may have a better chance of surviving.

Luckily, If you’d like Monarchs in your yard or garden rather than a field, there are other kinds of milkweed for those settings. Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) tends to stay in one place. It needs a dry to medium moisture level and lots of sun. And what a beautiful orange to match the Monarchs! Other butterflies and pollinators love them too, of course!

Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) with a female Monarch

Swamp Milkweed aka Rose, Pink or Red Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) also loves sun, but as the word “Swamp” implies, it likes “wet feet” or at least medium to moist soil.

Swamp Milkweed blooming in August grows best in a moist spot.

If you have a shady area with medium to dry moisture levels, try planting the graceful Poke Milkweed (Asclepias exultata) with its cascade of bluish-white blossoms.

Unlike most milkweed, Poke Milkweed can grow in fairly shady areas.

Native plant nurseries (see the list in an earlier blog) can show you other native milkweeds as well. If possible, find ones that are Michigan genotypes since they will grow most easily and serve admirably as host plants for our Michigan Monarchs.

So Rewarding to Make a Difference, Isn’t It?

A “Super Generation” Monarch feeding on New England Aster before migration

Who knew, when I was a child, that milkweed plants would begin to diminish and the Monarchs would begin to decline as a result? And now we know, according to the recent summary of a biodiversity report, that as many as a million other species worldwide are in the same situation.

It’s easy to despair, I know – but let’s not! The best antidote to despair is always doing what you can in your own corner of the world and supporting others who share your concern for nature.

And in the case of the Monarch butterfly, it can be as simple as planting milkweed! Or it’s as easy as planting native flowers, grasses, shrubs, and trees in our yards instead of exotic plants. With no recent shared history, these exotic plants don’t always feed butterfly caterpillars and other beneficial native insects.  Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, it’s changing the non-native turf of your own lawn into large gardens filled with colorful native plants with paths of mowed turf leading from one to the next. Or it’s maybe creating a native prairie out of an old agricultural field like our township stewardship crew and some nature-loving homeowners are doing.

Eastern Prairie Ilsley July
Eastern Prairie at Charles Isley Park on July 12, 2018

All it takes is just caring, learning and getting started.  I’ve begun. The township parks stewardship crew has begun. Many of you have already begun.  What we can hope is that others will join us.

 

Cranberry Lake Park: Golden Meadows Host Migrators…and Last Minute Mating!

The golden Eastern Meadow at Cranberry Lake Park in early September

Goldenrod! A variety of different Goldenrods gild Cranberry Lake Park in early autumn. Their bounty of nectar and pollen and the insects they attract make Cranberry Lake an ideal stopover for migrating birds and butterflies as they prepare for their long journeys. So cheer for Goldenrods as they feed wildlife, but don’t blame them for your fall allergies – blame ragweed!

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

Year ’round birds and summer residents have almost finished molting and are also stocking up energy for winter or the migration. And a surprising number of insects are also preparing by busily mating one last time, leaving behind eggs or chrysalises that can bring forth young next spring and summer. Lots going on within this carpet of gold!

Migrating Birds –  Some Stayed All Summer; Some Just Stop Briefly for Rest & Refueling

Now’s the time to train your binoculars on any shaking leaf you see. It might be a fall migrator! Colorful, tiny warblers and vireos that are just passing through on their way south are well worth a pause to look into the shrubbery, as you’ll see below! But don’t forget to wish “bon voyage” to the migrators who arrived last spring and sojourned with us all summer. Many are finishing up their molts and readying for long journeys to the southern US or even Central and South America. We saw all of the birds shown below on the bird walk last week at Cranberry Lake Park.

Migrators from Farther North:  Just Passing Through

The trees are aquiver with fall migrators, travelers that bred up north and only briefly stop to rest and refuel around our woods and meadows. The most colorful ones that we often hear but can’t see are warblers and vireos. These little birds travel on the night wind because it’s safer. Hawks, eagles, and other birds that might see these small birds as food migrate during the day so that they can ride the thermals!

My camera and I are not quite quick enough to catch a lot of these tiny, fast-moving birds. So to share them with you, I’m relying on photos of other photographers with the skills, equipment and sometimes sheer luck to capture these little beauties!

The Blue-winged Warbler (Vermivora cyanoptera) breeds at Cranberry Lake Park, but the birds we’ve seen in the last week were probably moving through from further north. This fine bird shows off its black eyeline and blue wings with white wingbars in a gorgeous photo taken by gifted local photographer Joan Bonin:

Blue-winged Warbler (Vermivora cyanoptera) by Joan Bonin

This photo of the striking Black-throated Blue Warbler (Setophaga caerulescens) is by gifted iNaturalist photographer Jeff Skrent at iNaturalist.org.

A Black-throated Blue Warbler, photo by Jeff Skrent (CC BY-NC)

Yellow-throated Vireo  ( Vireo flavifronsfrom another generous iNaturalist photographer who uses the single name, paloma.

A Yellow-throated Vireo by paloma (CC BY-NC)

Nashville Warbler (Leiothlypis ruficapilla) was also too quick for me.  But here’s one I did manage to catch as it passed through in the autumn of 2016 on its way to Central America.

The Nashville Warbler on its way to Central America

Summer Visitors: The Migrators that Come Here to Raise Their Young

Some avian migrators see our parks as a great place to raise their young, so they come in the spring and stay for the summer. Having finished breeding and molting, they are now preparing to leave for points south. The male Common Yellowthroat’s  (Geothlypis trichas) “Witchedy – witchedy” song accompanied me often during the summer months as he and his mate raised their young. But you may here his “chuck” call as he hops among the branches stocking up on insect protein before leaving for Florida.

The Common Yellowthroat stops singing its “witchedy-witchedy” song in the fall and prepares to migrate.

Both the male Common Yellowthroat and his mate did a complete molt in July or August and now have fresh feathers for the trip. She’s bit more secretive than the male as she feeds on beetles, ants, bees (!), dragonflies and  grasshoppers within the golden fields. Usually she’ll leave a week or two later than the male.

The female Common Yellowthroat will be around a bit longer than her mate.

Last spring the Wednesday morning birders heard a Black-throated Green Warbler (Setophaga virens) singing its mating song along the Hickory Lane at Cranberry Lake. And this week, the birders spotted one flitting high in the trees. Perhaps it nested here to raise its young, or it could be just passing through our parks in spring and fall. Here’s  a photo I took of a male during the spring migration this year.

The Black-throated Green Warbler may have nested here this summer or he may be just passing through both in the spring and fall.

High in a snag, a Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) paused briefly to survey the golden eastern meadow one afternoon. Many waxwings go into lower Canada to breed, but I’ve seen successful nests in our parks, too, so this one may have been a summer resident. Some will move south for the winter, but many waxwings will stick around during the cold months.

his Cedar Waxwing may have spent the summer with us or could be migrating south from Canada.

House Wrens (Troglodytes aedon) become quite secretive after breeding. But this one popped out of the greenery for a minute. It appears to have completed the late summer molt and is prepared to start south between now and mid-October.

The House Wren has raised its young here, molted and will be leaving shortly for Florida and other southern states.

A curious juvenile Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) peeked at me from dense shrubbery along the trail, too.  The migration of Field Sparrows is not always predictable. Some migrate, some don’t, and some migrate one year but not the next, according to the Stokes’ Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.2). If this one does migrate, it may join a large flock with Chipping Sparrows as well as other Field Sparrows.

If this Field Sparrow chooses to migrate this year, it will probably join a larger flock. Or it may just stay put!

On one of my Cranberry walks, I spotted some Wood Ducks  (Aix sponsa) far across a well-hidden wetland. They were males who’d chosen this secluded spot to begin their molt out of the summer “eclipse plumage” into their fancy choosing-a-mate plumage. This one looked a bit rough at the moment, but well on his way to his courting colors. As I explained in last week’s molting blog, males molt earlier in the summer to camouflage themselves as females and then molt again in the fall, a time when they compete for a mate to breed with in the spring.

A male Wood Duck almost finished with the molt from his “eclipse plumage” to his courting feathers.

I often hear, but rarely see,  the vireos at Cranberry Lake. But I did get to see a Warbling Vireo (Vireo gilvus) in the spring. A rare treat, since it loves to sing high in the treetops! Its plumage is modest but its song is impressive!  The birders saw one lingering in our park for a while before departing for points south.

Warbling Vireos are often heard high in the trees, but not as commonly seen.

Occasionally I get a quick look at a Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus). But Bob Bonin, Joan’s husband and another gifted photographer, got a much better photo than I have so far! This week it too was hanging out with other migrators.

Red-eyed Vireo – photo by local photographer Bob Bonin

Butterfly Migrators

Birds, of course, are not the only creatures migrating through our parks this autumn. Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus) fluttered everywhere at Cranberry Lake Park in the last few weeks.  This “super-generation” of  fragile creatures – the ones that will fly 3,000 miles to Mexico – were swooping and diving over the meadows at Cranberry Lake, feeding on the acres of Goldenrod. So glad that we provide these master migrators with such a feast!

A female Monarch using it proboscis like a straw to sip nectar from Canada Goldenrod.

The tattered Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes) below looks lightly worn.  Let’s hope that attests to its having mated here this summer after its migration to Cranberry Lake.  These huge butterflies seem to be expanding their range north. Possibly due to climate change, Michigan now often has frost-free Septembers. So if mating was successful, the caterpillars of this very large butterfly may survive inside their chrysalises and hatch in our parks next spring.

This Giant Swallowtail looks a bit tattered at the end of a summer at Cranberry Lake Park. Due to mating? Maybe.

Last Chance for Progeny!  Insects Still Mating in the Meadows

Among the Goldenrod, insects seek out mates in a last ditch effort to leave offspring for next summer. A pair of Goldenrod Soldier Beetles (Chauliognathus pennsylvanicus) rendezvoused on a Bull Thistle  (Cirsium vulgare) – a potentially risky place to mate since a bird might think they make a tasty contrast against the blossom!

Goldenrod Soldier beetles mating on a Bull Thistle

A pair of tiny Pearl Crescent butterflies (Phyciodes tharos) also decided that a warm September afternoon provided the ideal time for mating.

A pair of Pearl Crescent butterflies mating in eastern meadow at Cranberry Lake Park.

And two Ladybugs chased around a Goldenrod stem, one frenetically holding on to the other. I couldn’t really determine whether they were mating or fighting! Clearly, one was more interested in escape and one was in hot pursuit. They were moving too fast for a great shot or a definite identification. My guess is that they were the invasive Asian Ladybugs (Harmonia axyridis). Unfortunately they are more common these days than our native Nine-spotted Ladybug (Coccinella novemnotata) and come in highly variable colors and patterns.

Two ladybugs chased each other around a Goldenrod stem – mating or aggression?

This tiny Red-legged Grasshopper (Melanoplus femurrubrum) had probably spent the night near the stalk of the Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), wisely hidden from predators among its withering leaves. It will molt multiple times before mating and leaving eggs in the soil to emerge next summer.

A Red-legged grasshopper nymph probably spent the night within this Common Milkweed plant.

The edge of a meadow, near a wetland, might be an ideal spot for a female Great Blue Skimmmer dragonfly (Libellula vibrans). She could be spreading her wings in hope of attracting a mate. If successful, the aquatic plants nearby could host her fertilized eggs. Or while waiting for a likely male, she might just have a great perch for hunting unsuspecting prey!

A female Great Blue Skimmer sunned herself on a cool morning, possibly trying to attract a mate – or just hunting for the next unwary insect!

Spider Art On a Misty Morning

Early fall mornings are an excellent time to appreciate the art of the spiders. Warm days followed by cool nights leave heavy dew on spider webs, and when the sun makes them visible, they are dazzling. How about this lovely creation of an Orb Weaver spider (family Araneidae) drooping with the weight of the dew but subtly reflecting the colors of the sun’s spectrum!

The sun reflecting on the dew in an Orb Weaver’s web.

Another intriguing web, though not as beautiful, is cleverly constructed.  The Funnel Web Spider (Circuria species) lays a sticky sheet of web across the grass, which would be difficult to see were it not for the dew. At the edge of the web, it weaves a tunnel where it lies in wait for unsuspecting prey.  Above the sheet, it weaves an irregular network of silk designed to knock flying insects into its sticky net below. You can see the funnel at the back of this web below.

The Funnel Web Spider’s trap for flying insects with a nifty funnel in which the spider can wait for its prey unseen.

Frogs Underfoot!

As I skirted the edge of wetlands one Sunday, it seemed that a frog sprang out of the grass at every step! Most of them were Northern Leopard Frogs (Rana pipiens), their emerald green backs covered with circular black dots outlined in pale gold. Their dark eyes encircled with gold add to their glamour. Pinkish dorsolateral ridges are another distinguishing field mark. They shine like cloisonné in the deep grass!

Leopard frogs big and small sprung out of the grass near wetlands.

Until last week, I’d never noticed Pickerel Frogs (Rana palustris) at Cranberry Lake. These smaller frogs have somewhat rectangular spots that line up along the frogs’ back in neat rows. They are smaller than Leopard frogs. They tend to be brown (though they are sometimes green too), so I’m fairly sure this is Pickerel frog below.

Pickerel Frogs have more rectangular spots in rows down their backs, rather than the more random round spots of Leopard Frogs. So I think this is Pickerel frog, but I’m not positive!

And Finally, the Native Plants that Make It All Possible!

The plants, though not as often noticed by hikers, provide sustenance for all these creatures as the base of the food web. Butterflies sip their nectar. Bees and wasps feed pollen to their young. Other insects munch on leaves or make winter homes in the stalks. Birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals eat all parts of plants, or the insects that live on them. So here’s a gallery of  just a few of the plants that, along with the plentiful goldenrods, have bloomed in sun and shade to sustain the beauty and life of Cranberry Lake Park in late summer. (Use pause button for captions.)

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Autumn Mornings:  Not To Be Missed!

Mist rising in a meadow beyond the trees.

On our September bird walk at Cranberry Lake Park, we arrived on a cool fall morning. The previous day had been unseasonably warm, but a north wind sailed in overnight. The cool air had created heavy dew, leaving silver droplets that set the spider webs shining. The morning sun on the moist leaves created the fine mist you see above, rising  from a meadow beyond the Hickory Lane. What a sight! – the makings of future clouds floating like silver smoke above the wildflowers. A wave of migratory warblers and other small birds had arrived on that night wind. The birders watched, binoculars up, as these travelers hopped busily in the branches, feeding on the plenty of insects attracted by fields full of blooming fall wildflowers. And all of this beauty is gratuitous – unearned, just gifted to us if we just put on our shoes and head out the door! Consider escaping from the busy-ness of life for just an hour this week. Let these beautiful fall days lure you to the parks and savor the gifts that nature so generously offers to all of us.

Lost Lake Nature Park: Fishers of all Kinds, a Tree’s Generous Afterlife and a Lively Meadow

Fragrant Water Lilies (Nymphaea odorata) in Lost Lake

Lost Lake Nature Park, a small 58 acre park probably best known for its sledding hills, hums with life in every season. Right now, fishers of all sorts – birds, animals and humans – are testing their skills against the fish in its 8-acre kettle lake. In the meadow that slopes upward along the sledding hill, dragonflies bask on dried flower heads in early fall sun while a crane fly dances over the soil, laying her eggs among tall native grasses and bright wildflowers. And deep in the woods that cover the slopes, an old tree stump sustains a vivid collection of life. On every short trip this month, Lost Lake sent me home with a little something special.

Around the Lake: Fishers, Flowers and Frogs

On each of my visits, Green Herons (Butorides virescens) foraged and flew at Lost Lake. On my first visit, a young Green Heron stood at the corner of the dock, surveying the eastern pond in the late afternoon sun. The telltale field marks are the streaked side of its head and breast, its greenish yellow legs and its smaller size. Two adult Green Herons flew overhead, giving their distinctive alarm flight call (at this Cornell link under “advertising call”) and later I saw them more  closely in a wetland down the road. The adults are a bit more glamorous than their young, I’d say.

A young Green Heron peruses the far side of the pond from the dock.
A mature Green Heron flew to a marsh nearby

On my second visit, the herons were only visible through binoculars on the far side of the lake. But the third time, I was rewarded. A very young green heron, about half the size of an adult, landed in the pond, flew to a mud flat fairly near the dock and began to fish. I watched this skillful youngster successfully snag a meal twice, and then watched as it struggled to swallow its trophies, as you’ll see in the slideshow below. (Use pause button to read longer captions.)

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On my last visit, a small green heron again appeared, perhaps the same one, this time flying above the head of a fishing  Great Egret (Ardea alba).

A small Green Heron flies behind a fishing Great Egret

The egret was also a successful fisher, though swallowing took no apparent effort for this elegant bird with a long graceful neck. (Click to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

As I was leaving the deck one afternoon, I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. As I turned, an American Mink (Neovison vison) paused at the end of the dock before slipping away into the tall grass. I’d never been that close to a mink before. Quite exciting! Mink always live near water and do lots of fishing, eating crayfish, frogs, and fish as well as rodents and occasionally birds or their eggs. A mink coat, with its dark sheen of guard hairs, looks best on this little creature, I think. Since the mink moved too quickly for a photo, I’ve borrowed one from a gifted and generous photographer at iNaturalist who uses the name DigiBirdTrek.

An American Mink, photo by DigiBirdTrek (CC-BY-NC-SA) found at iNaturalist.org

On two afternoons over Labor Day weekend, human fishers showed up at Lost Lake as well – a threesome one day and a young couple another.  Not sure if they were as successful as the green heron!

Human fishers enjoy Lost Lake as well.

With all those fishers, it’s not surprising that this tiny green frog squeaked and leapt into the pond as I walked off the dock one afternoon. It may have been a young Bull Frog (Lithobates catesbeianus), since it has a fold around the tympanum rather than a ridge running back from the eye, which would indicate a Green Frog (Lithobates clamitans). Small bullfrogs are also more prone to squeaking when alarmed; I’ve never heard a squeak from a small green frog.  I’m open to correction, though, since we can see so little of this small frog.

Admittedly, the pond is not at its best right now in terms of flowers. Many of the water lilies closest to the shore have withered into a brown mass and the brown leaves of some Pickerel Weed (Pontederia cordata) stalks protrude from the water near the shore. But in the distance, the water lilies float on a bed of green (see above) and in some places, the lovely lavender plumes of the pickerel weed still stand tall with their huge, graceful leaves. Along the shore, the sunny ball-shaped heads of Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale) nod in the breeze near the delicate purple chevrons of Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica).

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Down the road, at the same wetland where I saw the mature Green Heron, an elusive family of Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) caught my eye. On each trip, I’d notice a threesome of young ducks being shepherded by the male parent.  This dad wanted nothing to do with me and quickly herded his family around a bend, or behind greenery at the edge of the water. But one day I was able to catch two fairly good shots of dad and his three offspring.

Into the Woods: A Blackened Stump with Vivid Life and Some Clever Seeds

The path into the woods at Lost Lake in dappled afternoon light

The path into the woods starts at the end of the driveway that runs in front of the caretaker’s home, and you’re welcome to use it.  It’s a short, uphill path that is quite steep at the end and then runs quickly downward as you descend the sledding hill. The forest floor is deep green and beautifully dappled by sunlight.

On the dry, wooded hillsides,  some native grasses and wildflowers are beginning to create and disperse seed. The long graceful pods of Sicklepod (Boechera canadensis), a native member of the mustard family, crack open when dry, releasing a long line of seeds to the wind. Jumpseed (Persicaria virginiana), another native, is appropriately named; according to the Minnesota wildflower site, its seed “jumps off the stem at the slightest touch,” sometimes as much as 10-13 feet. Cluster-leaved Tick-trefoil (Hylodesmum glutinosum) makes cool fruits called loments that have little pods with one seed each that travel by sticking to anything that comes close. And an old fave, Bottlebrush Grass (Elymus hystrix), sends its seeds flying on arrow-shaped “awns” that can actually stick upright in the earth when they land. Plant evolution has produced some very creative ways to spread seed!

At the bottom of the hill, in the deeper shade of a wetland, I discovered an old black stump that hosted a variety of brightly colored life. According to Peter Wohlleben, author of The Hidden Life of Trees, the insect and fungal life of felled stumps and logs help the forest by breaking down the nutrients held in the trees’ wood for hundreds of years. The process of decomposition can take as long as the life of the tree – in the case of oaks, up to 300 years! And eventually those released nutrients feed the tree’s offspring and other trees and plants. Well, this old tree stump, a White Pine (Pinus strobus), was busy doing just that. Its surface presented all kinds of colorful life that was busy working to break down its nutrients or using it for shelter.

A tree stump hosting lots of life in the forest at Lost Lake – harvestmen, ants, moss and mushrooms.

What originally caught my eye was a group of tiny, deep orange/red mushrooms.  I couldn’t determine the species of these mushrooms, though they could be an early stage of the Jack-o’Lantern mushrooms (Omphalotus olearius) featured recently at Bear Creek. A few minutes later a second spot of red caught my eye. A group of Harvesters (order Opiliones, suborder Eupnoi), which are arachnids, but not spiders, scrambled around the inside of the stump. The one below came festooned with tiny bright red mites! And then I spotted a ruby red ant, whose species I was unable to discern.  And a lovely patch of green and orange moss with its sporophytes tipped with the capsules that contain its spores graced the flat top surface like a miniature forest. Quite a colorful bunch of creatures, bryophytes (mosses), and fungi working and living on this old stump!

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Down the Hill to the Meadow – Basking Dragonflies, A Dancing Crane Fly, Wildflowers and Native Grasses

A soft lavender bank of Bee Balm (Monard didyma) still blooming near the caretakers’ lawn before you enter the woods

Wildflowers are still blooming in glorious color on the steep sledding hill, the small meadow below it and a short distance from the pond. A few Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) hang on nearby, their drooping petals still golden in early autumn light, along with some Smooth Asters with their dark red or yellow centers (Symphyotrichum laeve). Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) and Grass-leaved Goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia), both late summer/autumn wildflowers, are being visited by native bumblebees. Pale/Thin-leaved Sunflowers (Helianthus strumosus), that love the forest edge,  shine bright under the trees as you approach the wood. An Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis), with its four-parted stigma forming the characteristic x-shape, stands alone at the edge of the parking lot. Near the entrance to the woods, the slender pods of Poke Milkweed (Asclepias exaltata), a milkweed of shady savannas, will eventually dry and break open to release their seeds to the wind. Among the flowers, native grasses sway, like Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) which is now flowering and Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans) which has started to form its seeds.

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Among these grasses, a group of Autumn Dragonflies (Sympetrum vicinum) rested on dried flower heads, needing a bit more sun on cool days. This species has a little cloud of yellow near the base of the hindwing. They hatch out in August and September, providing more late summer color. Mature males are the easiest to spot with their red abdomen. Juvenile males (in closeup below) have a yellow thorax and a yellowish brown abdomen, according to Wikipedia. And the females (second and fourth from the left  in the photo at the far right below) have a brown thorax and a brownish/red abdomen. I find it hard to distinguish between females and juvenile males in Autumn dragonflies,  so feel free to correct me!

One of the oddest sights at Lost Lake occurred on my last visit. I saw something with very long legs dancing vertically, up and down, above small holes in the earth between the grass stems. Eventually, after developing and cropping a lot of photos and doing online research, it became clear that I’d been seeing a Tiger Crane Fly (Tipula dorsalis) laying her eggs in the soil. Taking photos of a crane fly rapidly jumping up and down is a bit challenging, but if you look closely, I hope you can see her curving, vertical body as she pokes the needle-sharp ovipositor at the end of her abdomen into the soil. Her narrow wings and very long legs were splayed in every direction as she danced from one hole to another, laying potentially hundreds of eggs. Click this link  from bugguide.net for a much better photo than mine!

A Tiger Crane fly holds herself vertically as she jumps into and out of a hole in the earth, laying her eggs.

By the way, crane flies are gangly, harmless creatures who can’t bite or sting humans or animals as the unrelated mosquitoes do. Crane flies live only 10-15 days and drink nectar, if they eat all (some don’t!). The only damage they do is in their larval form, when the caterpillars, called “leatherjackets,” do eat some turf grasses and agricultural plants.

The Persistence of Life

Despite the ravages of early September – hurricanes one after another, wildfires, earthquakes – here in the protected natural areas of Oakland Township, life persists. The young green heron successfully fishes its food from among the water lilies. In forest shade, the flowers and grasses produce seed, relying on another spring to foster the next generation. A crane fly dances above the earth, seeing to it that their offspring still float over the grass stalks when summer comes again. And what about us?  Well, of course, we’re members too in that community of life on earth. I like the thought that as you and I foster and nourish that community, we’re doing our part to see that life persists on this little blue planet.

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben;butterfliesathome.com;Pollinators of Native Plants by Heather Holm; Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3; Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; 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 and others as cited in the text.

Out and About in Oakland: Gallagher Creek Park – A Nature Oasis in a Busy Area

 

Viewing Platform GC
Viewing Platform at Gallagher Creek Park

I’ll admit that when I first visited Gallagher Creek Park, just east of Adams on Silverbell, I didn’t quite get it. It seemed like a rather ordinary, flat piece of land surrounded by a marsh. But luckily, I decided to look more closely and, as usual, the closer I look, the more nature shares with me. I’ve visited the park several times over the last month and each time I appreciate this little park more.

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

The stream flowing quietly through the grass beneath the viewing platform creates a cool, moist retreat for an abundance of birds and the special native plants that love wet feet. The Old Fields bloom with an astonishing variety of native wildflowers. Insects float and buzz between the blossoms. In short, this little park hosts an amazing variety of wildlife and plants with its combination of marsh, wet meadows and open fields (click here to see a map).  Let me show you just a sampling.

 

 

Gallagher Creek Itself:  A Haven for Birds and Wildflowers

The recently constructed viewing platform (thanks to Eagle Scout Jonathan Walling!) near Gallagher Creek allows visitors to watch the slow ripples of cool water flowing through the grass and trees. This gentle flow creates a soothing retreat that shelters creatures and plants of all kinds. According to three surveys by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Gallagher Creek is home to “one of the few remaining self-sustaining Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) populations in southern Michigan.”

After the last survey, though, they reported that the “gravel riffles and natural pools” had been silted by nearby construction, reducing the population from 300 Brook Trout per mile in 1998 to just 50 per mile in 2010.  (See Ben’s blog on this from 2015.) Native plants growing more abundantly at the edges of the park can act as a buffer and filter such sediment. Gallagher Creek runs northeast and enters Paint Creek at the Cider Mill in Goodison. If we want Brook Trout in our township, one way is to protect a cold water stream like Gallagher Creek.

Wetland Wildlife and Plants: A Riparian Corridor and a Marsh

Streams like Gallagher Creek create what’s called a “riparian corridor,” an area where the land meets a stream or river that not only filters and purifies water, but also provides habitat for a wide diversity of plants and wildlife. Antonio Xeira, our birder friend, spotted a  most impressive bird  near the creek. Here’s his photo of a Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) who spends its days high up among the leaves of a Willow (probably black willow, Salix nigra) north of the stream. It’s not easy to see so I appreciate Antonio’s shot!  See that open eye?

Great Horned Owl GC Antonio 8 2016
A Great Horned Owl, photographed by Antonio Xeira, spends the day in a large Willow tree to the north of Gallagher Creek.

A much smaller visitor among the willows is what I think was a Willow or Alder Flycatcher (Empidonax species) that perched in the shadows to preen. ( It could also be a Eastern Wood-Pewee (Contopus virens), but I’ll leave that for you to decide. They’re very similar.) It was a hot morning and this little bird was very busy dealing with the gnats or mites that can bother birds as much as they can bother us humans this time of year!

Willow Flycatcher
A Willow or Alder Flycatcher or an Eastern Wood-Pewee? You decide which one preened one hot morning in a Black Willow.

The shade near the stream also provided a stopover for a busy House Wren (Troglodytes aedon).

House Wren
A House Wren stops briefly in the willow’s shade on a hot morning.

This hard-working adult was foraging for her young in a nearby thicket of native Gray Dogwood (Cornus foemina), which provides lots of cover and a food source for all kinds of birds at Gallagher Creek.

Gray Dogwood GC
Stands of native Gray Dogwood provide shade, protection and a food source in several thickets around Gallagher Creek.

One morning, I approached the thicket to see if I could see the young wren.  Immediately, the adult starting her scolding call, chipping incessantly at me, probably both to ward me off and to tell her fledgling to stay back in the trees. I did finally manage to get a shot of the youngster who appeared to still be growing into its beak!

Fledgling wren GC
A fledgling House Wren hid deep inside the shade of Gray Dogwood as its mother scolded nearby.

Back in May, Antonio also noticed the burrow of a Crayfish (superfamilies Astacoidea and Parastacoidea),  a creature that loves clear, cold water streams. In case you haven’t seen a crayfish, I include a photo of one that I saw in Bear Creek.  If you enlarge the photo by clicking on it, you’ll see it’s a female carrying eggs under her tail! Crayfish are daylight creatures who retreat to burrows at night. I can’t say which species is in either photo. We do have one invasive crayfish in Michigan, the Rusty Crayfish (Orconectes rusticus), which fishermen used to use as bait and which have affected populations of our native crayfish.(Hover cursor for captions; click on photo to enlarge.)

Moisture-loving wildflowers in pink, purple, white and yellow bloom among the tall grasses and reeds  at the edge of the stream. Here are three native flowers that are easy to spot in the park – Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata), Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) and Joe Pye (Eutrochium maculatum).

The moist ground even a bit farther out from the stream suits many plants. Tall Sunflowers (Helianthus giganteus) and Water Hemlocks (Cicuta maculata), both natives,  prefer to sink their roots in moist earth.

Of course, dragonflies make their home wherever there is water. I saw a mating pair of Ruby Meadowhawks (Sympetrum rubicundulum) making a wheel of their bodies in the wet grass one morning.  The female is retrieving sperm from the male’s abdomen where he placed it earlier.  And to the right is what I think is another female Ruby Meadowhawk perching near the edge of the stream. Meadowhawk dragonflies (family Libellulidae)are plentiful this time of year and tough to identify,  but fascinating to watch as they hunt along the creek.

This thumbnail-sized Skipper butterfly (family Hesperiidae), I’m guessing a Delaware Skipper (Anatrytone logan), paused delicately on a moist leaf as I approached the stream.  Isn’t it elegant with its striped legs and antennae, large eyes and deep orange wings?

Delaware Skipper?
A thumbnail-sized member of the Skipper butterfly family, perhaps a Delaware Skipper.

Gallagher Creek Park also shares an emergent marsh with its neighbors to the east. This thriving area is slowly being cleared of the dreaded invasive, Phragmites (Phragmites australis), which is much too prevalent in the area. It’s an on-going project of Dr. Ben and the Parks and Recreation Commision. How wonderful to see natives like sedges (Carex species) and Joe Pye flourishing as that terrible invasive plant diminishes!

Emergent Marsh GC (1)
Native plants like Sedges and Joe Pye flourish in the park’s emergent marsh as the PRC works to eliminate invasive Phragmites.

Wildlife and Plants in the Old Fields

In the spring and early summer, our sharp-eyed birding friend, Antonio, found two nests on open ground at Gallagher Creek. I wonder if these eggs hatched since they seem so vulnerable. On the left is a Killdeer’s nest (Charadrius vociferus) from late April. The name, by the way, comes from their call, not from their effect on deer! And on the right is  a Spotted Sandpiper‘s nest (Actitis macularius) in early June.  Thanks, Antonio!

Now birds whisk in and out of the leafy trees at the perimeter of the Old Field next to the parking lot – many of them juveniles or adults working at feeding them. The “miaou” of a young Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) caught my attention at the edge of the field.  And later hearing a “cluck,” I look up to see an American Robin (Turdus migratorius), perhaps a molting female adult or a juvenile losing its spots, perched at the top of a snag.

A young Gray Catbird "miaous" from bushes near at the edge of the Old Field.
A young Gray Catbird “miaous” from bushes near the edge of the Old Field.
An immature Robin, still losing its breast spots, surveys Gallagher Creek.
A Robin, perhaps a molting female or a youngster still losing its breast spots, surveys Gallagher Creek.

Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina) and a male House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) hung out together in the bushes one hot morning.

Chipping sparrow and House Finch
A Chipping Sparrow and a House Finch share a bush one hot summer morning.

American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) provide the soundtrack for Gallagher Creek right now. These cheery little birds are one of the few who sing as they fly! With every downward swoop of their undulating flight comes a short burst of song. Here’s a male that settled for a few moments in that Willow, again – a popular place to pause for many of the birds here.

Goldfinch in willow GC
A male goldfinch settles in the willow trees, resting from his singing flight in the golfinch mating season.

Goldfinches mate in August because their favorite food source is available – thistle seed.  So they’re quite happy, I imagine,  that non-native Field Thistle (Cirsium arvense) established a large, plumed patch on the western end  of the loop path.

Field thistle GC
Goldfinches mate in August when the Field thistles produce their favorite seed.

We appreciated being greeted by a relaxed Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) when parking at Gallagher Creek one morning.  It seemed to be enjoying a bit of morning light after a long night of nibbling.

Rabbit GC
An Eastern Cottontail enjoys early morning sun after a long night of nibbling at Gallagher Creek.

As Reg and I set out on the path, we were greeted by a sight I’d never seen before.  A Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) hung onto one of the huge non-native stalks of Common Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) in the Old Field. Downies eat both insects and seeds, so I guess it was just varying its diet

Downy Woodpecer on Common Mullein
A Downy Woodpecker extracting seeds from a huge non-native plant, Common Mullein.

Closer to the water, this small bird fluffed its feathers as it settled in a bush. It looks a lot like the Willow Flycatcher but was a little bigger. So I’m guessing this is an Eastern Wood-Peewee (Contopus virens), but I can’t be sure!

Eastern Wood-PeeWee
I think from its size, this is an Eastern Wood-Pewee, but again, it could be a Flycatcher!

Among all the non-native wildflowers, like Queen Anne’s Lace and Spotted Knapweed in the Old Fields, many native wildflowers are increasingly making a home in the Old Fields here. In August of 2014,  Dr. Ben did what’s called a floristic survey of Gallagher Creek.  Of the 192 species he found on one day there, 131 were native!  Today they are more plentiful and healthy because Ben and his summer techs have eliminated many invasive shrubby plants and held repeated prescribed burns here. They plan to increase the native plant habitat in this park by planting native prairie species into the areas that were primarily non-native, invasive plants. The first phase of native plant installation will happen fall 2016, with a second round in 2017. Check out the sign on the west side of the driveway just as you enter the parking lot to learn more details.

In Bear Creek, Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is an occasional plant, but  this summer, it grew in large swathes along the paths of the field near the parking lot at Gallagher Creek. Now, after the intense heat, it is turning brown and seeding for next spring’s crop.

Of course, native Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) appears here and there, and is now producing its green, paisley-shaped pods. Along with more common Canada Goldenrod, another native called Grass-leaved Goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia), flourishes as well. As I reminded readers last summer, Goldenrods do not cause “hay fever.” Their pollen is heavy and drops quickly to the ground. The sneeze-producing culprit that blooms at the same time is the wind-pollinated Ragweed (genus Ambrosia) which you can see if you click on the link.

Common Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis) raises its graceful stems topped by yellow flowers among the grasses to the east of the park.  According to the Illinois Wildflower site (one of my faves), these flowers “remain open from evening to early morning, but will remain open longer on cloudy days. They have a mild lemony scent, and bloom from mid-summer to fall on mature plants. Long narrow seedpods develop, which split open from the top to release many tiny, irregular brown seeds. They are small enough to be dispersed by the wind, and can remain viable in the soil after 70 years.”  So if we keep caring for the land here, these night-blooming natives should be here for your grandchildren!

Common Evening Primrose blooms as the sun goes down until morning.
Common Evening Primrose open as the sun goes down  and don’t close until morning.

Out in the Old Fields, insects are busy in the late summer sun.  Carolina Locusts (Dissosteira carolina) spring into flight, their wings making a brown blur at your feet.

Grasshopper at GC
Carolina Locusts fly up as your tread the paths of Gallagher Creek.

Viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) explored the possibilities of a Queen’s Anne’s Lace bloom one hot morning. Viceroys are distinguished from Monarchs by the bars on their hindwings.

Viceroy on Queen Anne's Lace
A Viceroy butterfly is distinguished from a Monarch by bars on its hindwings.

Common Ringlet (Coenonympha tullia) hovered in the grass below. Ringlets aren’t the most efficient flyers but they are prolific, occurring in Northern Europe, Asia and across North America but not in the southern hemisphere .

Common ringlet butterly
The Common Ringlet butterfly hovers close to the ground searching for nectar from small plants.

Clouded Sulphurs (Colias philodice) have a larger range of flight, feeding on taller plants like the Milkweeds and Coneflowers, but also on alfalfa or clover closer to the ground.

Clouded Sulphur on Spotted Knapweed
A Clouded Sulphur among the non-native Spotted Knapweed and Queen Anne’s Lace.

So, this modest little park is actually a rich oasis of native plants and wildlife along an important cold water stream  in the midst of the most developed area of our township.

Joe Pye GC
Joe Pye and Goldenrod complement each other near the creek where the reeds are growing in the background.

The Parks and Recreation Commission has plans to put a pavilion and perhaps even a play area in Gallagher Creek to make it even more inviting to its neighbors.  But right now, if you bring your binoculars and your curiosity to Gallagher Creek as the summer wanes, nature, as always, will reward you with lots of beauty to explore.

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