Do me a favor, would you? Imagine standing in front of a huge meadow full of tall grass and wildflowers dancing in a soft breeze. You can hear crickets and cicadas singing in the deep grass. Now turn your computer’s volume to about half and click on the arrow in the image below. (You’ll hear a little of the wind in the microphone.)
There! That’s a bit of what it’s been like at Charles Ilsley Park in the last few glorious weeks of August. Goldfinches sing as they swoop in their roller coaster flights across the fields that are burnished with goldenrod. Butterflies, with golden wings fluttering, sip sweet nectar from the giant thistles. And all of this gilded beauty is backed by the sounds of a summer breeze sighing in your ear and the buzz of cicadas and crickets. That’s about as close to pure glory as my life affords.
The Glow Began in July…
Let’s just say the Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) got magnificently carried away in the central meadow at Ilsley. Perhaps the contractor who planted wild seed last year had a wee bit too much of them in the mix? But I didn’t hear anyone complain when the meadow was literally blanketed in black and gold. By early August, they had browned, leaving behind seeds that will provide nourishment for migrators and winter birds.
Nature Comes Back with a Second Wave of Gold
In their place, though not quite as abundant, came a close relative, the buttery yellow Brown-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia triloba). Instead of a single flower on each stem like their black-eyed cousins, these Susans produce branching stems with profuse, but smaller blossoms which create a similar sunny effect.
Of course, August always brings waves of different Goldenrods to keep the gold coming in late summer. Right now, I commonly see three different ones: the cascades of Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), Stiff Goldenrod (Solidago rigida) with its ramrod stems lined with clinging oval leaves and bouquet-like sprays of Grass-leaved Goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia) which is from a different genus of the Aster family. Later in the month, we’ll begin to see the upright, lemon yellow plumes of Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) doing its part to keep the fields golden right into September. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
The Gray-headed/Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) add their droopy charm to the fields too, though their best days are behind them for this season. And the tall spikes of Common Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis) are topped by gold blossoms that stay open from evening until early morning, and later on cloudy days as well.
I love how native plants host so many insects in an era when the insect world is suffering from plunging numbers all over the planet. Here two False Sunflowers (Heliopsis helianthoides) standing next to each other hosted a Soldier Beetle (Cantharidae family) and the nymph of a Katydid (Tettigoniida family). Have a closer look at the amazing length of the katydid’s antennae by clicking on the right photo. One of the ways you can tell a grasshopper from a katydid is that grasshoppers have much shorter antennae than the very long, fine ones you’ll see on the nymph below.
Out in the far west of the park at the edge of the woods, a tall, striking, yellow flower with very unusual blossoms caught my eye. Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Stewardship Manager, identified it for me as Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) – and indeed, its flat stem had narrow “wings” on either side. Wingstem flower heads cluster at the top of the 3′-8′ stem. Each bloom is actually a flower within a ring of flowers. The “disc florets” in this plant are the tube-shaped flowers that thrust outward from the center of the flower head. What looks like a ring of petals around the central disc is actually a ring of “ray florets” and each of them is an individual flower that has the ability to produce its own seed. In botany, “florets” are individual flowers within a flower head, whereas what we see as individual petals on ray flowers are really three petals fused together. And how about those curly little stigmas that we see whimsically protruding from the ends of the disc florets! What a fun wildflower!
Wingstem has a limited distribution in Michigan, so we’re lucky to have them. These Charles Ilsley Park plants grew from seeds that Ben collected at the township’s Blue Heron Environmental Area, which was the only place he’s seen them in the township. It’s exciting to know that the seeds Ben planted at Ilsley have taken hold, so that we now have two parks in which this unusual native plant has found a home.
Birds Matching the Black and Gold Landscape
Let’s Start with A Goldfinch Saga!
American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) – Unlike most other birds, Goldfinches start mating around mid- to late-July when the thistles bloom, which is a source for both nesting material and food for them. Once the first broods fledge in early August, most Goldfinches mate a second time.
On August 9, Mike and Joan Kent, birding friends, took a walk at Ilsley and spotted a nest in a thistle. Joan peeked in and saw 3 eggs. They noticed a lot of Goldfinches nearby and assumed it was probably the nest of one of them. And that was that, until…
On our Wednesday bird walk on August 21, Vinnie Morganti, another member of our bird group, spotted the same nest located within the thorny stems of a tall Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare). A Goldfinch’s cup nest is woven from plants and root fibers and lashed to a bush or plant with spider silk. Then it’s lined with thistle down which makes it close to waterproof inside. A small masterpiece. This pair chose a location which probably deterred predators, though it may have been a bit hard on the parents’ wings while feeding!
Peeking into the nest, I discovered 4 baby birds. Fellow birder, Tom Korb, got a photo of the blind and slightly fuzzy hatchlings by valiantly sticking his cellphone into the thistle above them. Tom and I decided to share monitoring these little birds until they fledged and report our findings to Cornell’s Nestwatch , a citizen science site we use for our township nest boxes.
We bird monitors are trained not to go to a nest more often than every 3 – 5 days. So when I returned to the park the following day, I stood far off looking through a long lens. Imagine my delight when I saw one little head popping up above the nest! I don’t know if it could see the meadow yet. Perhaps it was just enjoying the breeze ruffling its Einstein hairdo!
I came back to monitor on August 24 hoping to get a photo inside the nest despite the thistle’s thorns. I’d brought along the fancy, black leather gloves my mother had given me years ago to wear to the theater – but here I was using them to reach inside a thistle! I could picture my mom laughing and shaking her head – but the gloves worked beautifully! In the photo, I could see the opened eye of at least one little nestling, though the rest were snoozing in their sturdy nest cup. It appeared that the beige tips of feathers might be emerging from their dark sheaths. We think now that they were about a week old in this photo. They’d come a long way from those blind babies in just 3 days!
At our August 28 bird walk in another park, Mike Kent told us about his wife seeing the nest at Charles Ilsley Park on August 9. Good news for us monitors, because that allowed us to use the guidelines on the Nestwatch site to estimate the age of the Goldfinch hatchlings more accurately. After the bird walk, I accompanied Tom on his monitoring trip to the Ilsley nest. What a change! Little heads peered up over the nest edge – eyes and beaks open. According to the Donald W. Stokes’ Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.1), during their first week after hatching, Goldfinch nestlings are quiet but will silently reach up for food if the edge of the nest is tapped. In the second week, these nestlings begin making a lot of noise – but wisely only do so when a parent arrives with food. Tom got a great photo of the bright red mouth of a begging, but silent, youngster!
That day, all the nestlings, now about 11 days old, looked bright and alert, peeking out into the world and fully feathered. The Stokes Guide explained that those white blobs on the nest are fecal sacs, the avian equivalent of soiled diapers. Goldfinch nestlings are quite fastidious. The first week after the young hatch, adults carry the waste sacs away from the nest. But starting in the second week, little goldfinches back up to the edge of the nest and drop these little packages over the side!
My last turn at monitoring the nest was on August 31 – and the nest was empty. The nestlings had become fledglings. Our estimate is that they fledged on their 12th or 13th day after hatching. The nest was remarkably clean inside (if not outside) which might have meant a healthier, more comfortable environment for the nestlings.
I could hear a fledgling begging far off in a stand of thistle and through my binoculars, I thought I saw a couple of small birds fluttering among the stems. A female flew in among the thistle, perhaps feeding “our” fledglings from her second brood. A male seemed to be on sentinel duty nearby before he flew off to gather more seed. Off into the world for our Goldfinch fledglings! And the end of our nesting saga.
Hard-working Goldfinch Adults
While the females incubate a second brood, male Goldfinches are on their own in feeding the first brood – which can be as many as seven fledglings, according to Cornell’s nestwatch.org! Begging calls of first brood youngsters could be heard a week ago as young fledglings pursued their harried parents around the park or called from the treelines to be found. This little Goldfinch fledgling seemed a bit more mellow than the rest.
The Goldfinches’ primary food source is thistle seed so I’ve seen males all over the fields with thistle down (pappus) hanging from their beaks. They dig industriously into the seedhead, pull out the down, carefully nibble off the seeds and then let the down fly. Stokes informed me that they feed partially digested seed to their young, as they also do for the mate during her first week on the nest. Quite a responsibility!
More Gold and Black Birds!
In a bush in the far west meadow, I saw a flash of yellow and took a quick couple of shots as a bird perched for a moment and then flew. I wasn’t sure what I’d seen. Local birding expert, Ruth Glass, identified it as a female Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula.) She told me that by now most of our summer orioles have left for Central or South America with their young, so the one I saw was likely a migrator from further north.
The birding group saw other birds sporting lovely yellow trim. A trio of Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) perched far above in a bare tree. Through binoculars, two clearly had the yellow bellies and yellow tail bands that identify this handsome bird. Juveniles have a fainter black mask and some brown streaking on the breast, but in this distant photo against a gray sky, it’s hard to tell if any of them were juveniles or adults .
Ruth Glass also helped me identify a strange looking dark bird that mystified me. She said she was “95% sure” it was a male Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) molting from his brilliant blue breeding colors into his mostly brown non-breeding colors which are similar to the female Bunting. This mottled look is common for males during the molt. I would never have guessed! Thank you, Ruth!
Some large dark brown birds also added contrast to all the gold around them. A trio of Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) rested on a broken snag near the edge of the center field. Through the trees on my way into the park, I saw one of them spreading its magnificent wings to the sunlight. They do this to warm them, stretch them, or to expose any bacteria on them to air and light.
Around the corner, two other vultures perched on a broken snag. This one made me smile, because it looked as though it was appealing for a little sympathy. I’m afraid vultures don’t get much appreciation, though I think their soaring flight is graceful and the cleanup services they provide are crucial. Really, though, the bird was just preparing to preen.
The first vulture suddenly flew straight up in the air and landed rather awkwardly on a branch that was much too short. It fluttered clumsily right, then left, until it finally found its footing. Is it my imagination or are the other two a bit embarrassed by the graceless landing skills of their compatriot? Probably, my imagination…. (Tap arrow to play and to pause for reading captions.)
Butterflies Complement the Color Scheme
This August the huge, dramatic Giant Swallowtail butteflies (Papilio cresphontes) arrived in Charles Ilsley Park in large numbers. One afternoon about two weeks ago, perhaps a dozen of them landed delicately on the large purple blooms of Bull Thistle, or hovered in front of them, extending their long proboscises to sip while avoiding the thorns. I don’t know if this thistle is a favorite plant for these big butterflies or if they were just the biggest blooms with the most nectar when they arrived. They chased each other over the fields, creating a shimmer of gold and black all over the central meadow.
You’ll note that the one above has a few missing pieces on its wings and that the black edges look a bit worn. I compared the very tattered dorsal (upper) side of one I saw on thistle at Charles Ilsley Park in late August with the fine specimen I saw on Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa) at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park in late July a couple of years ago. I wondered if the difference in wear and tear was due to feeding among thorny thistles or perhaps just the normal battering big wings take after an extra month of foraging and mating. I’m guessing a bit of both.
These dramatic swallowtails have expanded their range further north since about 2001 when first frosts became more uncommon in September – perhaps an effect of global warming. They lay their eggs on plants that will act as hosts for their larvae, which includes two of our abundant natives, Swamp Milkweed and the Solidago genus of Goldenrods.
The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) made its elegant contribution to the black-and-gold meadows. These high-flyers raise 2-3 broods each summer. Their caterpillars spin a remarkable chrysalis that matches dead wood very closely. It’s held in place by a thin string of silk on one end of the chrysalis and a silk pad at the other. That’s where the caterpillar spends the winter. There’s a remarkable photo of a Tiger Swallowtail’s chrysalis at the bottom of this Wikipedia page. Be sure to click on it to enlarge so you can tell where the bark ends and the chrysalis begins! My photo below shows the tiny hairs on the swallowtail’s wings – the closest my camera has ever come to a Tiger Swallowtail, I think.
Three small Lepidopterans played a role in the color scheme. Like the members of the Swallowtail family (Papilio), a female Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) found Bull Thistle a good choice for nectar in this transition time just before the Goldenrods reach their full glory and other fall asters emerge. I admit I appreciate the non-native Bull Thistles more this year, having seen how much sustenance they’re providing after a torrid July brought an earlier end to the bloom of so many wildflowers. A Clouded Sulphur (Colias philodice) paused on the drying leaves of a Queen Anne’s Lace. I’ve wanted to see a chrysalis of these small butterflies ever since I read it described as “yellow with a pink zipper”! No luck yet. And the Ctenucha Moth (Erebidae family) did a fine job of contrasting its black wings with the yellow Grass-leaved Goldrod.
So much gold! And I didn’t even include the gold and black bumblebees, wasps and honey bees foraging among this late summer landscape! Such riches, eh?
Late Summer Serenity
Sometimes life does come full circle. Standing at the edge of the meadows at Charles Ilsley Park with sunlight falling on a fluttering, buzzing, golden landscape, I could feel the deep sense of calm and quiet that I relished in our township in my childhood. On just such a morning then, I would stand on the sturdy limbs of a rugged old tree overlooking a wild pond or spread my blanket in the short grass near the shore and breathe in the comforting scent of warm earth and grass. I feel so fortunate as an older woman to still experience that certainty of being part of something big and beautiful that nature offers all of us if we take the time. I wish that for you, too.
Postcript: Watch for More Ilsley Photos!
Of course, Charles Ilsley Park offered me much more than gold and black in its rich diversity: a wet spot in a field suddenly blooming with red and blue wildflowers, a fuzzy brown House Finch fledgling peeking through the greenery, lavender blossoms emerging from the seedbank where a moist swale was restored, a dramatic Darner dragonfly decorated in a pattern of blue and green and more. So rather than extend this blog, I’ll create a shorter photo blog later this week to fill in the rest of the color palette at Charles Ilsley Park. Hope you can drop by!