Tag Archives: Great Blue Heron

NestWatch: Being Citizen Scientists in Our Backyards and Parks

A faithful male Rose-breasted Grosbeak takes his turn on the nest at Bear Creek Nature Park.

On March 21, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, the township’s Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, shared a Cornell Lab of Ornithology presentation on how to safely and accurately monitor bird nests as citizen scientists. Cornell Lab and other researchers count on citizen scientists to provide important information on the nesting success of common birds in our backyards and our parks. If you’re intrigued by this introductory information, there’s a lot more available at www.Nestwatch.org. It’s an amazing resource, as you’ll see by all of the links below!

First, the Rules of the Road

The Eastern Kingbird looked proud of her handiwork once she finished her nest.

Cornell’s Nestwatch has an official “Code of Conduct” for nest monitors to ensure that the data is collected while protecting native birds, their nests, eggs, and young. It’s important that monitoring doesn’t attract predators and that parent birds don’t desert the nest.

  • Please don’t touch the nest, the birds or the eggs when checking nests or nest boxes!  Migratory Birds are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.  They cannot be harassed or harmed.  The only exceptions are those of aggressive invasive bird species like House Sparrows (Passer domesticus) and European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) that are not from North America.  (See more info on predators below.)
  • Don’t check nests in the early morning, which is when birds typically lay their eggs.  If the female leaves the nest during monitoring, the eggs may become too cool.  Afternoons are best for monitoring.
  • Avoid nests during the first few days of incubation. Only approach if the parent bird has left the nest.
  • If monitoring a nest box, tap softly on the box to allow the female to leave if she’s present. Or try singing or talking softly as you approach the nest.
  • Don’t approach nests when baby birds are close to fledging so they won’t try to leave the nest before they are ready. Once young birds are alert and fully fledged, only observe from a distance.
  • Avoid monitoring nests in bad weather like cold, rain, etc., when birds need the nest or nest box for protection
  • Don’t check nests at dusk or after dusk when females may be returning. Again, afternoons are best. The exceptions, of course, are owls who leave their nests at night.
  • Approach and leave the nest site from different directions at each visit so that you don’t create a path for predators like cats, raccoons, etc.
  • More details about the “Code of Conduct” at this link

Collecting and Recording What We Learn

A Cedar Waxwing nestling
  • Visits to the nest should be no longer than a minute. Take a quick look and jot notes at a distance. Use binoculars for more distant cup nests.
  • Check the nest every 3 or 4 days. Checking more often risks disturbing the nest; less often makes the information less useful.
  • Record when the first egg was laid. Birds normally lay only one egg per day, so the number of eggs tells you when she laid her first one. Easy, eh?
  • Record the number of eggs and any interesting bird behavior. (Cornell provides data sheets for this.)
  • Record your data at Nestwatch.org. If you’re working on backyard birds, start an account and you’ll be provided with an online form for entering your data. If you want to volunteer to monitor in our parks or along the Paint Creek Trail, please join our Oakland Township Parks NestWatch Chapter by contacting Dr. Ben at bvanderweide@oaklandtownship.org or call the office at 248-651-7810. You’ll need to take a brief quiz after reading the Code of Conduct material at Cornell in order to be a certified bird monitor.
  • More details on collecting data at this link.

Finding Nests in Our Backyards

A male Yellow Warbler holds a bright green caterpillar for his mate at Bear Creek
  • Check out information on typical nest locations and materials for the birds in your yard by going to http://www.allaboutbirds.org. or a bird/nest field guide.
  • Watch where males are singing to establish their territories or listen for females who sometimes sing from the nest.
  • Watch for birds carrying nesting material like moss, twigs or grass.
  • Watch for birds carrying food, like caterpillars or worms, to feed the young.
  • Listen for frantic calls of young birds begging to be fed.
  • Check out areas where you’ve seen nests previous years. Though birds seldom reuse the same nest, they often nest in the same area.
  • More details  on finding nests here.

Setting Up and Monitoring Nest Boxes

A male Eastern Bluebird guarding his nest box.

Dr. Ben and Tom Korb are trying two different kind of Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) boxes in the township – the traditional ones seen above, and Petersen boxes (see left) which have a more triangular shape.

A Peterson bluebird box

We’ll learn which style our bluebirds prefer. They’ve paired the two types bluebird boxes to see which box design our local bluebirds prefer. Paired nest boxes may also help with competition from Tree Swallows. Others have found that if Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) occupy one box, they will live peaceably with bluebirds next door. We’ve also installed American Kestrel (Falco sparverius) boxes and a box for smaller birds such as chickadees, nuthatches, or Prothonotary Warblers (Protonotaria citrea).

For details on building/buying nest boxes for your back yard, check out this helpful page on nest boxes at  Nestwatch. For more detailed plans on bluebirds and their houses, check out the website of the North American Bluebird Society or this link at Sialis.org. Nestwatch even shows you the right house for the birds in our geographic area.

Beware of Predators!

Predators can approach native birds from the sky and the ground. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

Ground Predators
  • Raccoons and outdoor or feral cats are major predators for birds. A well-respected, peer-reviewed study cited by Cornell found that as many as 1.3 to 3.3 billion birds are killed by cats each year in North America. They are skilled bird hunters! And raccoons can wipe out a whole group of nests in an evening!
  • Keeping pet cats indoors is a great idea if at all possible.
  • Make sure your nest box is at least 6 feet off the ground so raccoons and cats can’t jump on top of the box. If they do, they “fish” for eggs and chicks through the hole.
  •  The right roof and predator guards on the bird house pole can make a big difference.
  • Avoid leaving pet food or birdseed on the ground, which encourages predators.
  • Keep your nest box away from overhanging trees to keep squirrels from dropping on them and chewing the holes to get in.
  • Snakes can be deterred by locating nest boxes away from brush piles or by putting a metal collar/predator guard below the nest box on the pole.
Bird Predators

Aggressive, invasive birds, especially the House Sparrow and the European Starling, will attack and kill native birds, their eggs and their young to take over a nest box. Because they are non-native and plentiful, they are not protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.  So how to deal with these predatory characters?

  • If you don’t want to deter invasive birds, please  consider not putting up bird boxes. These invasive birds are already abundant and  actively attack and kill our native species. Providing them with food and a nest merely exacerbates the problems for native birds.
  • Choosing an appropriate entrance hole size on a nest box is important. Starlings can enter and attack American Kestrels in their boxes – but starlings are too large for a bluebird box if the entrance hole is the right size. House Sparrows, however,  can easily attack bluebird boxes. NestWatch has more information on passive and active means of deterring these non-native predators – from changing nest location to removing nests and eggs or trapping adult birds.
  • Be sure you know what Starlings look like and are able to distinguish House Sparrows with their black triangular bibs from our many species of native sparrows.
  •  These two invasive birds make messy nests with bits of plastic, cigarette butts, paper, etc. so distinguishing them from native nests is easier once you are informed about the appearance of your native bird’s nest.
  • Native birds, like House Wrens (Troglodytes aedon),  occasionally attack other birds to take over a nest as well. And native Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater) lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. Because these birds are naturally occurring species in our area, they are protected by the Migratory Bird Act and should not be removed or harmed.
  • Bees, wasps, squirrels and mice can inhabit nest boxes at various times of the year. Nestwatch has info on coping with them, too.

So Why Become  a Nest Monitor?

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Helping our native birds raise their young in safety is crucial to slow the declining numbers of many bird species. Bluebirds, for example, were threatened until citizens began a campaign of installing and monitoring bird boxes for these azure beauties. The data from nest monitors since NestWatch began in 1965 has provided vital information on over 600 species and resulted in 133 scientific articles and 9 ongoing studies. With the data the public collects, researchers can detect  shifts in bird populations related to landscape and climate change. Saving native birds is important to preserving the beauty of our local natural history.

NestWatch Website Button

But beyond all that, c’mon!  What’s more delightful than baby birds? Being a friend to native birds is always good for us, as well as for our feathered friends.

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.

Photos of the Week: A Rookery Full of Great Blue Heron Fledglings

At a rookery along the Clinton River Trail west of Dequindre Road, young Great Blue Herons (Ardea herodias) are preparing to go out on their own. According to the Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior Volume III, both adults care for the eggs for 28 days, and the nestling phase lasts 7-8 weeks. Now, in mid-July, the young are fully fledged but still at the nest practicing their wing techniques. Their hard working parents will feed them for another 2 or 3 weeks, and the young herons will take their first flights during this time.

According to both Stokes and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the young can be identified by two-toned beaks (rather than all yellow), black and white striped necks (rather than solid color),  and a solid black crown (rather than the black and white adult crown). So I’m guessing that all the herons you’ll see below are fledglings. In the slide show below, a young heron tries out different wing movements, perhaps to build up necessary muscles or just get the feel for different positions – arched high, extended flat,  curved forward for slowing down to a stop, etc.  One youngster also seemed to practice spearing with its huge beak, striking down into the edge of the huge nest of twigs.

It’s important to be very quiet and unobtrusive around heron rookeries. The birds are easily disturbed and can abandon rookeries where there’s too much activity and noise. Luckily this one is protected from the busy trail by a scrim of trees. So if we’re quiet, careful and stay on the trail, the herons can continue to ignore hikers, bikers and the occasional curious amateur photographer sticking her camera between the leaves!

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Out and About in Oakland: Draper Twin Lake Park

Welcome to a new occasional series here at Natural Areas Notebook.

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

Having spent a year writing “This Week at Bear Creek,” (which continues, but perhaps with a little longer pause between blogs), we decided it would be fun to periodically have a look at other parks in Oakland Township. So this week, please join me as I explore Draper Twin Lake Park.

 

 

Getting Acquainted with Draper

Draper Park shares some similarities with Bear Creek – marsh land, birds, wildlife, old fields and trails.  But it offers very different opportunities for exploration as well.  To me, the park seems to have three distinct parts, each with a different character.  The central section is one giant marsh, full of cattails, sedges, muskrat lodges and birds.  It stretches from Draper Twin Lake to Inwood Road (where it can be viewed from your car) and beyond.

Central Marsh Draper
The central section of Draper Twin Lake Park is one long marsh running from the lake to Inwood Road and beyond.

The east and west sections, which cannot be connected by a trail,  have attractions like hiking trails lined with summer flowers leading to a fishing platform on a lake much larger than Bear Creek’s Center Pond, trails around a “floating mat” marsh,  a newly planted prairie and as you’ll see, a lively mix of wildlife and plant life. As of April 2016, nearly 80 bird species have been observed at Draper Twin Lake Park.

Here’s a map to get oriented.  The green outline is the whole park.  You can see the western trail running down to Twin Lake on the left.   The purple section at the center is the long marsh and McClure Drain (a marshy creek) running south from the lake.  And the trail in the eastern section runs all the way from Inwood Road to Parks Road, and a loop encircles a smaller and quite unusual marsh, passes the newly planted prairie (in light green) and continues through old fields at the eastern edge of the park.

Map of Draper Twin Lake Park showing accessibility improvements and natural community types.
Map of Draper Twin Lake Park showing accessibility improvements and natural community types.

The Western Section:  A Winding Trail to the Lake

Draper signLook for this sign where Hadden and Inwood meet and you’re at the parking lot on the western end of Draper Twin Lake  Park.  Until last week, a large Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) stood there, but when a giant limb had to be removed,  it was discovered that the whole tree was too fragile to remain.  Luckily, I got there there after the limb was removed and before the cutting of the tree and got to see something quite fascinating!

Tree with Squirrel nest
A Red Squirrel’s nest within a badly damaged tree (now removed) in the Draper parking lot.

Once the limb had come off the tree, it exposed the winter nest of a Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) deep down in the trunk. It was like looking through a window into the hidden world of this chattery, hyper little squirrel! The nest was clearly visible inside, full of pine cones and nut shells.  Its winter nut cache was spread out at the bottom of the trunk. Red Squirrels don’t bury nuts like other squirrels but make piles on the surface near their nests. Have a look by clicking on these photos to enlarge them. (Hover with your cursor for captions.)

I’m sorry the tree is gone, but an arborist consulted by the PRC said the tree was too fragile for a parking lot. But at least we got to peak into the life of one squirrel before its nest disappeared! The squirrel, by the way, appears to be exploring another tree nearby.

Trail to Fishing Dock Draper
Trail to the lake at Draper with two White Pines

Along the trail to the lake in late summer,  we’ll see some lovely native wildflowers, like Obedient Plant (Physostegia virginiana) and Tall Bellflower (Campanula americana) I saw there last August.

For now, early spring butterflies danced around my feet one morning as I walked. The smallest were a pair of Spring Azures (Celastrina ladon) twirling in a mating dance above the path.  Their tiny wings created lavender-blue blurs as they spun around each other. But when they landed for a few seconds, they folded their wings and almost disappeared, matching the beautifully patterned gray undersides of their wings to the nearest twig or leaf for protection.  If you click on the leaf photo,  just between the wings you can see their lovely blue upper surface.  Faint blue stripes on the lower surface of the wings appear in the photo on the twig.

An old friend, a  Cabbage Butterfly (Pieris rapae), fluttered along the path as well.  This one’s a female since she has two spots on her forewings instead of one, as the male does.

Cabbage Butterfly Draper
A female Cabbage Butterfly has two spots on her forewings, rather than one spot as the male does.

A wee Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) hopped excitedly in the tree limbs on another morning with the birders. Though I caught a glimpse of his ruby crown through the binoculars, I never caught him showing it off for the camera!   You can see what he looks like flashing his ruby crown, though,  by clicking on this Audubon link.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet Draper
A Ruby-crowned Kinglet in the bushes on the trail to the lake at Draper.

Late last week, a male Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) on the lake trail was doing a simple “chewink” call (second entry under “calls” at the link) rather than singing like the one I’ll show you below in the eastern part of the park. These birds are particularly susceptible to the predation of cowbirds who lay eggs in their nests. Unlike many birds, they don’t seem to recognize cowbirds eggs or remove them. Cowbirds evolved to follow buffalo herds out west and so had to make use of other birds’ nests in order to move on.  But as farming replaced forests in the eastern US,  they moved here. According to the Cornell Lab, “In some areas cowbirds lay eggs in more than half of all towhee nests. ”

Towhee Draper Pond2
A male Eastern Towhee on the western trail at Draper.

As I approached the lake, I heard the unmistakable call of a pair of Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis). They were blocked from full view through the treetops so here’s a photo from an earlier year in Bear Creek.

sandhill in marsh
Two of these Sandhill Cranes, the tallest birds in Michigan, flew high over my head on the way to one of the twin lakes at Draper.

Sandhill Cranes mate for life and stay together year ’round. According to Cornell Lab, their young can leave the nest only 8 hours after they are born and are capable of swimming. Ben tells me they nested last year in the marsh on the eastern side of Draper, but I haven’t seen them there yet this year.

While birding on Wednesday, Ben’s group introduced me to a Cooper Hawk’s nest they’d seen the previous month. There appeared to be tail feathers sticking out of the nest.

Cooper's Hawk nest w tail feather
A Cooper’s Hawk nest near Draper Twin Lake

A few moments later, we were lucky enough to see the hawk itself on a branch near the nest, just carefully keeping an eye on things.

Cooper's hawk near nest
A Cooper’s Hawk near its nest at the lake

One of the special recreational features of Draper Lake is the fishing dock at the end of the trail. Fishermen tell me they catch Bluegills (Lepomis macrochirus), Crappie (genus Pomoxis), Largemouth Bass (Micropterus salmoides) and Northern Pike (Esox lucius). I just sit on the benches provided and watch for water birds.

Birders at Fishing Dock Draper
Ben and Wednesday morning birders at the fishing dock at Draper Twin Lake.

On one of my solo trips to Draper, I saw a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) standing among cattails at the far end of the pond, but my camera couldn’t quite reach it. Finally, it took off and I got a slightly blurred photo of its huge, blue wings.

Blue Heron Draper Lake
A Great Blue Heron takes off into the marsh at the far east end of the lake at Draper Park

Both Barn Swallows and Tree Swallows swooped and darted on the opposite side of the pond – visible through binoculars but not a camera. I could see two big Canada Geese near their nest – one either moving eggs or feeding young,  and the other standing guard.

Two Canada Geese at nest
Two Canada Geese across the pond, one tending the nest, the other standing guard

On Wednesday, one of the birders and I watched  Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata)apparently courting up in the trees along the trail. What was probably two males bobbed up and down on their thin legs  for a female on a nearby branch.  According to the Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.2), this bobbing “is often done in courtship flocks by more than one bird at a time.” I wonder which male’s bobbing she found most impressive?

Three Jays
It appeared that two male Blue Jays performed a bobbing courtship dance in the treetops for a nearby female.

Now let’s head off to the eastern part of Draper Twin Lake Park. The western and eastern sections aren’t connected by a trail because of the huge marsh in between. So walk or drive just a short way down the road and you’ll see a small utility building to your left.  You can park there.

The Eastern Section:  A Special Marsh, a Rolling Prairie and a Circular Path through the Old Fields

The eastern section of Draper Lake is still a “work in progress” and for me, that’s part of what makes it interesting. The trails are still being opened up and the prairie is planted on the northern side. This part of the park offers a peaceful place to hike and would be a beautiful, easy place to cross country ski in the winter.

Western loop Draper
Western arm of the circular trail on the eastern section of Draper Lake Park

I usually head off  to the west (left of the utility building) on the path pictured above which was  recently widened to eliminate woody invasive shrubs like Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata). At this time of year, it looks a bit rough since the stumps are still visible and brush is ragged from the cutting machine.  Ben plans to seed it with Little Blue Stem (Schizachrium scoparium), a native grass, and treat whatever stumps try to re-sprout. The curving sweep of this wider trail get us closer to the marsh – in fact particularly close to last year’s nesting site for Sandhill Cranes. On my first spring visit, a beautiful Great Egret (Ardea alba) rose from the marsh. I didn’t move fast enough for a great photo but here’s one during the summer at Bear Creek Marsh to give you a feel for what I saw.

Great Egret flying marsh
Great Egret flying over a marsh.

The open water areas around the edges of the marsh are now filling with various water lilies, sprouting from rhizomes deep in the muck after a long winter. The center area of the marsh has a very special floating sedge mat. The sedge mat is best viewed from the edge of the marsh since walking on it is very precarious and would damage the sensitive plants.

Draper Marsh from West
Water lilies line open water around the outside of the eastern marsh, surrounding a floating sedge mat.

Frogs leapt in as I approached the marsh on my first visit and huge round tadpoles wriggled just under the surface. But they eluded my camera. I did see a blur of blue diving into the water way over on the far side of the marsh and heard the rattling call of the Belted Kingfisher.  Glad I had an extra photo of one from Bear Creek!

Belted Kingfisher
A Belted Kingfisher (this one from Bear Creek) dove for food on the far side of the eastern marsh at Draper.

On my second trip, I came upon a young Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) who seemed to be making its way over a log.  Perhaps it was a female preparing to lay eggs, or maybe it had left the large central marsh for the relative seclusion of this smaller marsh to the east.

This week, Ben saw a Blanding’s Turtle (Emys blandingii) at Draper Lake as well. Last year my husband and I stopped along the paved part of Buell on the way home from Draper to take a photo of this one.  We helped it off the road by grabbing its shell at the back and moving it in the direction it was going, as we’ve been taught.  Blanding’s Turtles are listed as threatened in Michigan so we want to save as many as we can! Note the yellow chin and neck which is characteristic of these turtles.

Blandings Turtle on Buell Road
A Blanding’s Turtle crossing Buell Road near Draper Twin Lake Park

Ben and the birders spotted the flight of a Green Heron (Butorides virescens) at this marsh on Wednesday. These short, stocky birds sometimes lure their prey with little sticks or insects and then “zap!”   – they catch them with their spear-like bills. Here’s one hunting from a log at Bear Creek.

green heron
Ben and the birders saw the flight of a Green Heron at the marsh on the eastern side of Draper.

If you continue on the circular trail in this eastern section, you come to a beautiful sight – the rolling contours of what is about to become a native prairie. Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide has been working for two years to turn what used to be an overgrown farm field into the prairie grass and wildflowers that are native to our area. Last fall it was planted with native seed purchased with a grant from the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Maintenance mowing keeps the annual weeds under control for the first two years, so it will take about 3 or 4 summers before it looks like a full-3blown prairie. These sunny native plants like to sink their roots deep before they flower.  I can’t wait to see what comes up this spring, though.

Prairie turning green Draper
The prairie, planted with wild grasses and wildflowers, is starting to grow. It will reach its full growth in 3 or 4 yrs.

At the western edge of the prairie, eagle-eyed Ben spotted a migrating Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum) twitching its tail feathers in distant brush on the west side of the prairie. Warblers are small and elusive so we birders were happy to know one was passing through on its way to its breeding grounds in Canada.

Palm Warbler 1
Ben spotted a Palm Warbler at Draper this week. Here’s one from last fall at Bear Creek.

As you complete the circle, you find yourself in an old field overlooking the eastern edge of the marsh. The center of the marsh, Ben tells me, is  a “floating mat” which, according to an article from Loyola University “consists of tightly entangled plants and their roots, mixed with peat.” Apparently, it may look like any other marsh, but water is floating beneath it though plants and even bushes may be growing on top.

Draper marsh from east
The eastern edge of the eastern marsh at Draper Twin Lake Park is a floating mat of tangled plants and their roots with water moving underneath.
Roots of plants like Muskingum Sedge intertwine to form the floating sedge mat in the eastern marsh
Roots of plants like Muskingum Sedge intertwine to form the floating sedge mat in the eastern marsh

Right now, several Eastern Towhees (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) have begun their burbling song in the trees above the marsh. This one was throwing his head back in full courtship mode! I haven’t spotted any females yet, but I’ll keep looking, since this guy clearly expects one!

Towhee singing Draper
An Eastern Towhee singing his courting song in the eastern section of Draper Park

Here’s his version of the famous Towhee “Drink Your Te-e-e-e-ea” song.  This recording was made by my new birding friend, Antonio Xeira.

Click here to listen to the “Drink Your Tea” call of an Eastern Towhee.

Eastern Bluebirds perched and sang  (Sialia sialis) high in the trees, too high for a great shot.  So here’s a closeup of a male with either nesting material or breakfast in his beak from another spring.

bluebird with nest materials2
A Bluebird with either nesting material or breakfast in his beak.

And everywhere at Draper, you now hear the melody of the Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia).  Here’s one in a small tree  at Draper this week and another recording  of a Song Sparrow that my friend, Antonio Xeira, made with a good directional microphone.

Song sparrow Draper1
The Song Sparrows are singing all over Draper right now. His trilling can be heard below.

Trail’s End

A mighty White Pine ((Pinus strobus) stands sentinel toward the end of this circular trail around the marsh.  Draper Twin Lake Park has lots of these native trees;  their soft needles  make a soft, hushing sound in a breeze.

White Pine Draper
A large white pine that overlooks the eastern marsh from the top of a slope.

I look forward to knowing Draper Twin Lake Park better. I’ll keep visiting with Ben’s birding walks, and on my own, watching for spring and summer wildflowers, looking for fish below the dock, water birds in the lake and of course, enjoying the slow coming of that beautiful rolling prairie. Maybe I’ll meet you there some sunny morning,  perhaps fishing for bluegills, or strolling the paths, or maybe even on skis some snowy winter day!  They’re our parks, after all, so come and 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.

New Weekly Feature! Check out “This Week at Bear Creek”

Look for this feature early each week! Cam Mannino shares her latest observations, photos, and inspirations from Bear Creek Nature Park. Thanks Cam!


 This Week at Bear Creek

By Volunteer Park Steward, Cam Mannino

Cam at Bear Creek Nature Park.
Cam at Bear Creek Nature Park.

Welcome to the first post for “This Week at Bear Creek.” As a long time BC walker and photographer, I’ve long considered a narrative photo blog with that title. So I’m happy that Dr. Ben has offered the idea a home here in the Notebook. I’ll try to keep you informed about the abundant wildlife and plants in the park as well as stewardship opportunities and other events. The plan is to post once a week in the spring, summer and fall (with a hiatus or two for Real Life and vacations) and a bit less in the winter when the park is quieter and walking’s more challenging. So let’s begin with:

March 29 – April 4, 2015

Last Wednesday I accompanied Ben and Sigrid Grace, an enthusiastic birder, on a bird walk through Bear Creek. We saw 25 bird species that early morning, so I’ll focus on bird arrivals and departures this week.

Ben and Sigrid at Bear Creek Nature Park, April 1, 2015.
Ben and Sigrid at Bear Creek Nature Park, April 1, 2015.

As we entered the park, Ben spotted a red fox running at full lope across the field toward the woods, his tail streaming behind him. Too fast for a photo that day but here’s a photo of a red fox at a trot from 2013.

Red fox (Vulpes vulpes) on the run.
Red fox (Vulpes vulpes) on the run.

Spring migration is off to a great start. The Song Sparrow’s arrived and is already singing with gusto.

Song sparrow (Melospiza melodia) singing.
Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) singing.

Ben heard the rattling call of a Sandhill Crane.

Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis) at Bear Creek Marsh
Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis) at Bear Creek Marsh

A Great Blue Heron flew high overhead, perhaps just back from its winter stay on the Florida or Gulf coast.

Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) flying. In flight herons have their neck bent in an “s” shape, while sandhill cranes hold their neck straight.
Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) flying. In flight herons have their neck bent in an “s” shape, while sandhill cranes hold their neck straight.

And the Common Grackles with their white eyes, iridescent blue heads and rusty-gate voices are tilting their beaks skyward in an attempt to establish a pecking order.

Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) posturing.
Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) posturing.

Red-winged Blackbirds trill, Canada Geese honk and Mallard Ducks cackle in the marsh near Gunn Road, establishing their territories among the reeds.

Red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoenicius) trilling.
Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoenicius) trilling.

We saw a large flock of Cedar Waxwings fluttering between bushes and trees. No way of knowing whether these elegant birds spent the winter here or just rode in on the south wind the night before.

Cedar waxwing (Bombycillia cedrorum)
Cedar Waxwing (Bombycillia cedrorum).

Soon the Dark-eyed Juncos will be leaving for Canadian forests and the modest Tree Sparrows will be heading to Canada’s far north to build their nests of ptarmigan feathers on the tundra.

Human visitors will notice that the Eastern parts of the Oak-Hickory Forest near Gunn Road received a “prescribed burn” the previous week. This professionally controlled, slow-moving, low burn discourages invasive plants and trees like Autumn Olive and Buckthorn. Be patient and in a few short weeks, all that black ash, full of nutrients, will nourish new growth. The thin spring sunlight filtering through the bare limbs should bring us more Spring Beauties and Blood Root, two of the earliest and most beautifully delicate spring woodland flowers. We’ll let you know when they began to emerge.

Thanks for sharing This Week at Bear Creek.   If questions occur to you, comment below and I’ll try to find answers. And of course, please share your week at Bear Creek in the comments as well.