Tag Archives: Great Blue Heron

Gallagher Creek Park: Young Birds and Young Humans Play as Autumn Carries On

Grownups, children and a baby-to-be playing at Gallagher Creek Park

Surprised a bit by seeing the photo above in a nature blog? Well, on my four October visits to Gallagher Creek Park, I noticed an abundance of a new species there – young humans and their watchful adults!

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

Late on autumn afternoons, this modest 15 acre park is now filled with the voices of excited little humans rocking, swinging, spinning , climbing, and sliding on the colorful new playground equipment installed in July by volunteers and staff of the Parks and Recreation Commission. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

The park’s already becoming a place for families to cross paths and get to know their neighbors in the most densely populated part of our township. And meanwhile, in the background…

Nature Goes About Its Autumnal Business

Autumn at Gallagher Creek Park

The natural areas of Gallagher Creek look a bit scruffy right now from all the construction that went on this summer to build a picnic pavilion, a restroom enclosure, expanded parking area, the playground and a paved pathway. But despite all that to-ing and fro-ing, nature survives and offers beauty and bounty when you take time to venture into the fields.

Birds in the Distance as Children Play

Birds may keep their distance when the children are playing, but as I approached the tall grass at the edge of the creek east of the busy playground, a familiar head appeared above the tall grass.

A young Blue Heron peeks above the grass at the edge of the creek.

From the absence of a white crown on its head, it seemed to be a juvenile Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) stalking along the far side of the creek. Young Blue Herons take 3 years to develop full adult plumage, according to the Stokes Guides to Bird Behavior (Vol. 3). This youngster flew off, as I crackled through the browning stalks of goldenrod and yarrow.

But just as I arrived the next morning, when the playground was empty,  a juvenile – perhaps the same one? – flew over the treetops and swooped into a tree covered in vines. I snuck slowly forward and got one shot of it standing tall before it bent its knobby knees backward, spread those magnificent wings, and took to the air once more.

The young heron stood quietly in the tree as I approached.
The young Great Blue Heron bent its knees backward to begin its flight.

While the children shouted and laughed in the afternoon sun on a different afternoon, I watched a lone European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) high in a snag staring out over the playground nearby. It paid no attention to the happy noises below. I imagined that it was waiting for its highly social companions, since starlings gather in huge flocks at this time of year. This one had completed its fall molt complete with fresh feathers tipped in white, giving it the spotted plumage that starlings wear in fall and winter. By spring, the white tips will be worn off, returning these birds to their iridescent blue/black mating colors, and its beak will lighten and even change to bright yellow if it’s a male.

A European Starling that had finished its complete fall molt leaving its iridescent feathers tipped in white.

Unnoticed by the playground youngsters, a large, rippling flock (or “murmuration”) of about 75 starlings suddenly descended on the trees east of the creek. But the lone starling just kept staring into the distance. Perhaps it just needed a break from all the cackling and whistling that goes on in a starling gathering.

Part of a large “murmuration” of swooping starlings near Gallagher Creek.

Over in a quiet corner of the park, near the cat-tail marsh along the road, three little migrating Palm Warblers (Setophaga palmarum) in their duller fall colors chirped contact calls at each other before heading further south. The most notable field mark for these little birds is the bright yellow feathers under their tails and a pale “eyebrow” which they have year ’round.

Seeds Flying, Rattling, Dropping and Providing Food for Wildlife

Autumn, of course,  is the time when plants ripen and disperse seeds for next spring’s blooming. In doing so, they also provide important nourishment for all kinds of creatures. So while the children played, I went out to see what kinds of food nature was preparing in the background.

Seemingly unaware of the hubbub on the playground, a struggling American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) fumbled about trying to extract seed from a Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) while it swayed wildly in a stiff breeze.  I wondered if it was a juvenile who hadn’t quite mastered the skills necessary to extract seeds on a windy day.

It wasn’t easy for this Goldfinch to get the seed it wanted as the stalk it was on tossed back and forth in a stiff wind.

American Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) would delight any child at this time of year with its hot pink stem and blackish purple berries. The trick would be to keep them from trying to eat the berries,  since the seeds inside are slightly toxic to humans. According to one of my favorite wildflower sites, many of our favorite song birds (Bluebirds, Cedar Waxwings and more), as well as raccoons, opposums and the gray fox, feed on pokeweed berries with no problem.  Pokeweed prefers disturbed soil, which makes Gallagher Creek Park just the right spot this year! After I took this shot, I came back a few days later to find the stem broken and picked clean.  Mission accomplished – food eaten and seeds dispersed.

American Pokeweed berries are glamorous but the seeds inside are slightly toxic.

Some seed pods are rarely seen in our township except in this park. The wispy Bladdernut shrubs (Staphylea trifolia) produce elegant lantern-like pods. The shiny brown seeds inside shake in the wind, making a sound like a baby’s rattle. Though insects feed on the blossoms, there’s little evidence I could find that the seeds provide forage for wildlife. But the trees are doing a fine job of producing more Bladdernut shrubs as the number of them along the eastern tree line seems to be increasing nicely.

The Bladdernut shrub produces these elegant pods full of shiny brown seeds that rattle in the wind.

The common Cat-tails (genus Typha) are seeding as well, making a nice repast for a hungry Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata).

The pods of Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) are splitting open to release their silky little parachutes, each containing a seed that can sail away on the wind.  Milkweed has done its job by feeding Monarch caterpillars as well as many other butterflies and insects over the summer. So its current task is to get those seeds out into the world. If the seeds succeed in sprouting, they will feed more insects next year.

Seeds and their silky parachutes spill from Swamp Milkweed pods

More Edibles for Wildlife Wait in the Grass

Mushrooms, of course, can be edible by humans, but they are frequently a meal for squirrels and deer as well. I saw two varieties while the children romped at Gallagher Creek. A giant Puffball (genus Calvatia) had been broken in half, probably by a curious human, since it seemed to have no teeth marks in it. One appeared in the same area last year. And a stump hosted some pretty Turkey-tail Mushrooms (Trametes versicolor), whose tough, rubbery surface might not please us, but probably could please a squirrel (particularly a Red Squirrel).  I see them now and again with a mushroom between their paws.

As I stepped into the deep grass, I wished I had one of those busy children in tow to enjoy the sprays of Red-legged Grasshoppers (Melanoplus femurrubrum) leaping away from my feet. It would have made them laugh as it did me. These small grasshoppers lay their eggs less than inch under the earth in the autumn, and those eggs are a food source for birds, skunks, snakes and raccoons. Nymphs and adults can also be a food source for toads, snakes and some birds, but mostly during the summer months.

A Reg-legged Grasshopper finding a niche on a log, just in case.

Beauty Underfoot Before the Frost

Even though much of Gallagher Creek is covered in brown stalks and shriveled blossoms, a few autumn wildflowers survived right up until the first frost. East of the observation deck, near the creek, the ground is covered with unusual and fragile Bottle Gentians (Gentiana andrewsii), a native wildflower that grows in only a few places in our township. Its closed blossoms never open so they are most often fertilized by bumblebees who are big enough to force their way inside and back out again. The gentians were so plentiful this year that I had to step carefully to avoid treading on one as I explored the area.

Bottle Gentian blossoms never open, so bumblebees have to push their large bodies inside to get at the pollen and then push their way out!

Nearby, a late-migrating Monarch butterfly ((Danaus plexippus) paused to sip on the last purple blossoms of New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), a classic autumn wildflower.

A Monarch sipping at New England Aster as it begin its long migration to Mexico.

Birds Everywhere on a Cold, Quiet Morning – and a Playful Young Female

On the cold morning when I saw the heron that I mentioned above, the playground was empty and quiet. The bushes and trees, though, were alive with birds busily flitting from branch to branch, or shrub to soil, in search of anything they could find to eat.

What delighted me most was a large flock of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis). They were probably gathering to move a little farther south in Michigan or to Ohio in order to reach warmer weather, though Bluebirds often return here on warm winter days and some stay all year. The males are always the flashiest and were more plentiful in this flock.

But my favorite Bluebird on that chilly morning was what I’m guessing was a juvenile female. Young Bluebirds fledge wearing spotted breasts. But according to the Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.2), they molt into adult plumage in August and September. I began to wonder if this gray-headed female was a youngster because she seemed to be practicing the grass-handling skills that she would need next spring in building her carefully woven nest. When I first spotted her, she had the head of a grass stem in her beak with the dry stalk trailing down her back.

A female Bluebird holding the head of a grass stem in her beak.

She made a couple of tries at moving the grass into a more suitable position.

Seemingly frustrated, she dropped the stem between her feet and stared intently at it for a minute.

Frustrated, she finally dropped the grass between her feet and studied it.

At last it seemed she had figured it out.  She picked it up carefully in the middle of the stalk, a much easier way to handle it.

Ah, it works better to grasp the stem in the middle!

Satisfied, she carefully set it down on the railing on which she was perched.  And then left the grass stem there and flew to nearby tree.

I loved seeing this young bird fiddle with what may have been her first attempt at handling the building material she would need in the spring to create her nest.

Besides the Bluebirds, a whole assortment of other birds made the most of the quiet park that cold morning.  I’m fairly sure that a tiny migrating Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) was among them, but it insisted on keeping only its rear in view! So I’ve added a photo of another one I saw in a previous year so you can have a better look at it. (Use the pause button if more time is needed for captions.)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A Park Where the Young Can Learn and Play

A Milkweed seed on a windy morning at Gallagher Creek

I believe that young humans, like the young of all species, need play as a way to learn about the world.  So I loved watching children on the new playground at Gallagher Creek Park. So much is being learned as youngsters cope with siblings and strangers on the slide or the rocking “dragonfly” seesaw. Muscles grow stronger. Some learn the consequences of risk-taking and others overcome their fears.  It’s great.

What I’m hoping is that once the trails are mowed again next spring, parents will take their children by the hand and explore this little park that offers so much – baby muskrats in the spring, a swollen creek after rain, tree swallows diving for insects in the summer, and native wildflowers in three seasons. And yes, even little birds, that like all children, are learning how to be skillful grown-ups.

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net;Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels, A Guide to Bird Behavior Vols.1-3 by Donald W and Lillian Q.Stokes, entomology.ca/uky.edu on Red-legged Grasshoppers, illinoiswildflowers.info and others as cited in the text.

 

 

Lost Lake Nature Park: Big Birds, Small Creatures and a Forest Full of Mushrooms!

Fragrant Water Lilies (Nymphaea odorata) dotted the surface of Lost Lake in the last few weeks.

I’m so glad that Lost Lake Nature Park isn’t really lost.  It’s such a different sort of nature park. The round, blue eye of the kettle lake stares up into the sky. Lately, water birds have been feeding and making practice flights as they prepare to depart for warmer climes. Steep forested hills stretch around the lake like a friendly arm. And, I discovered to my delight, the oak-pine forest sprouts a surprising number of mushrooms in the autumn!

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

I took several different kinds of trips to this interesting little park in September – once or twice on my own, once with the birding group and once with a group of avid mushroom hunters assisted by two well-informed guides who discerned the edible from the inedible. Such a diverse little park with its tall native grasses in the summer and its sledding hills in the winter – and something new to discover on every visit!

Around the Lake: Migrators Feed and Fly

Far across the lake one cool morning, a strangely gaunt Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodius) spread its wings for takeoff. I hoped that its ragged head and breast meant that it was simply molting, since I’ve read that they do a complete molt in early fall.

A gaunt Great Blue Heron. I’m hoping the appearance is due to molting!

I observed that its wing feathers were largely intact. The heron finally took a few turns around the pond and seemed to fly quite gracefully. So maybe if it was molting, this bird can complete its molt, eat heartily at Lost Lake and still successfully winter in Florida. I sure hope so.  (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

Across the pond, at the same moment, a healthier-looking Great Egret (Ardea alba) took its time fishing, before it too took a few turns around the pond as if exercising its flight muscles before migrating.

A fishing Egret suddenly rose into the air and took a quick turn around the pond.
The yellow bill and black legs mark it as Great Egret. And how about that green eye, eh?

Hearing a high trilling call, I looked around for a Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus). For a while, I saw nothing on the muddy flats. But finally I spotted it near some bright green grass, assiduously poking its beak into the muddy shallows at one end of the pond. So often I can’t spot these little birds until they move because they blend so nicely with their surroundings!

A Killdeer searches for insect larvae, snails or beetles in the muddy shallows of the lake.

The Wednesday birders spotted a Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) steaming quickly across the lake. So clumsy on land, these furry fellows can really get moving using those swaying tails for propulsion. We birders watched it swim by and it gave us the eye as well!

A muskrat steaming across Lost Lake while keeping an eye on the birders.

As I approached the dock on one visit, I heard a loud “Squeeeak” followed by a watery “plop!” And there under the edge of the dock crouched an alarmed Northern Green Frog (Lithobates clamitans melanota). It may have been a juvenile, since I’ve read that the young are more likely to squeak when caught off guard. Evidently other frogs, like Bullfrogs and Leopard frogs, are also known to make this odd sound, which is much like the noise that results from stepping on a plastic toy!

A Green Frog squeaked loudly as it leapt to a safer perch underneath the dock.

On the other side of the dock, two small red Meadowhawk  dragonflies  (genus Sympetrum) found a convenient lily pad on which to mate. As usual, the male held the female’s head firmly with pincers on its tail as mating commenced. These two seem to be Ruby Meadowhawks (Sympetrum rubicundulum), but there are several red Meadowhawks that look very much alike so I can’t be sure. A short time later they took off flying, still attached, while some frustrated males hovered nearby.

Meadowhawk dragonflies mating on a lily pad at Lost Lake

Throughout September, the lake was fringed with colorful native wildflowers that bloomed vigorously after last spring’s prescribed burn. These beauties have quite interesting names: Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), Sneeze-weed (Helenium autumnale), Smooth Blue Aster  (Symphyotrichum laeve), Round-headed Bush Clover (Lespedeza capitata), Bee-balm (Monarda fistulosa), Beggar-tick (genus Bidens)Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) and Yellow Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata). (Use pause button if more time is needed for captions.)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

In the Moist, Low Areas of the Forest

The rolling woods surrounding Lost Lake

The light sifts through the tree canopy on the hills that surround Lost Lake. If you take a hike up the sledding hill, or reach the top by following the path through the woods, you’re treated to a view of the undulating forest floor. In summer, the sunny side of the sledding hill is a-buzz with dragonflies, butterflies and native wildflowers. But at this time of the year, the lower, moist areas of the forest draw my attention.

Almost any movement out the corner of my eye turns out to be a Chipmunk (Tamias striatus) zipping along a log or quickly diving into hollow tree trunks. This one had scored a nice big nut in its bulging cheeks.

A Chipmunk with its mouth stretched around a sizable nut!

As we birders passed by the woods near the road, a young fawn waited in the shade for its mother’s return. Female White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) leave their young for long stretches because their adult scent can attract predators, whereas the young have little or no scent.

A fawn waits for its mother’s return in the woods at Long Lake Nature Park.

In the woods, I saw a Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) chased away from a huge tree hole by a Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus). The hole was big enough for a raccoon, so I think they must both have been interested for other reasons than nesting next spring! The birds were much too far away for a good shot with my camera in the dim light of the woods. But luckily, I saw this male Flicker hunting in short grass later in the week so you can at least see him up close.

A male Flicker with its black “mustache.”

There are a few shade-loving, late season flowers in the forest now, like the modest Large-leaved Aster (Eurybia macrophylla) and Calico Aster (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum). I’m always happy to see any native blooms on these cool gray days, especially on the forest floor where, because of deer, wildflowers are rarer than they used to be.

The Stars of the Show – the Mushrooms!

About 20 of us attended a mushroom identification workshop hosted by the Oakland Township Parks and Recreation Department. Two experienced guides from Michigan Mushroom Hunters Club, Phil Tedeschi and Jerry Watson, helped us identify an amazing variety of mushrooms one cool, windy September morning. I admit to not even knowing that mushrooms were plentiful in cool weather! We first learned that mushrooms are just the fruiting bodies of certain types of fungi. Most of the fungus grows in the soil or wood, but when conditions are right for reproduction, these fungi will send up mushrooms to produce spores! After an informative lecture,  we meandered heads-down through the lowlands of the forest as our guides identified one mushroom after another. The workshop and its handouts were packed with detailed information, but here are a few highlights I want to share:

Note: Picking plants, animals, fungi, and other natural parts of our natural areas violates park rules. Please leave them to grow, and for others to see and enjoy!

Safety first! Advice from the Mushroom Workshop Handout

A toxic Amanita mushroom that I saw weeks ago at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park.

When in doubt, throw it out! Take an expert with you until you’ve really learned about mushrooms, which can take some time. Learn the Amanita mushrooms and don’t eat any of them! When eating a wild mushroom for the first time, always take only a small bite and refrigerate the rest, so you’ll have a specimen if you get a reaction. Never eat wild mushrooms raw. Do not eat decomposing or worm-eaten mushrooms. Don’t pick mushrooms from contaminated sites.  Eat wild mushrooms in moderate quantities.

A Sampling of the Fabulous Fungi We Found

The Pigskin Poisonous Puffball (Scleroderma citrinum). Puffballs, common mushrooms, are generally edible, our guide said. But NOT if they are the ones that are black inside!

Cortinarius mushrooms (genus Cortinarius) are generally toxic. The few that aren’t toxic are hard to identify, so best to avoid them all!

The Bluing Bolete (Suillellus luridus) turns blue when the underside is scored. Unfortunately, there are many look-alikes, one of which is toxic. So it’s best not to eat them unless you have a definite ID, and then only when cooked. The raw ones can cause gastric upset.

Some Russula Mushrooms (genus Russula) are perfectly edible; others aren’t. So again, be sure to have a reliable expert guide you! Our guide told me this one was Hygrophorus russula which is edible, though it was a bit too old to eat. As you can see, it’s a gilled mushroom. The gills produce the spores (a mushroom’s “seeds”) which drop down  and are carried away on the wind.

We did find “for sure” edible mushrooms.

We found several edible mushrooms, too, but my notes weren’t clear enough, I’m afraid in most cases. My excuse is that I was taking photos, listening and trying to type in my phone at the same time! But the Cinnabar Chanterelle (Cantharellus cinnabarinus) is definitely edible.

A few more fascinating fungi that may or may not be edible!

Inky Caps (Coprinopsis atramentaria) start out bell-shaped like this and then flatten out. The guide told us they often grow on animal dung from the previous year, which kind of makes them a bit less appetizing in my book.

Old Man of the Woods (Strobilomyces strobilaceus) suits its colorful name. Sources say it’s edible, but most think the taste isn’t worth the trouble. It’s a polypore mushroom, meaning it drops its spores from the openings (pores) at the end of tubes on the underside.

The birders spotted these tiny mushrooms with black stems on our Lost Lake Nature Park hike. According to the Mushroom Identification Facebook group, they are from the genus Marasmius, family Marasmiaceae, to which Shitake mushrooms(Lentinula edodes) belong – but I have no idea if these tiny mushrooms are edible. And they sure don’t look like Shitakes, do they?

Marasmius mushrooms which may be in the same family as Shitakes but may or may not be edible.

Whether edible or not, fungi have their uses.  As the presenters pointed out, humans use them for dyes, cheeses, yogurts, wine, beer, breads (yeast!) among other uses. The “saprotrophic” mushrooms, which include the famous Portobello mushroom (Agaricus bisporus),  are the recyclers of the forest. Along with bacteria, they decompose dead organic matter (plant or animal), thereby releasing carbon, nitrogen and essential minerals back to the soil. “Mycorrhizal” fungi, of which the toxic Amanitas are a member, partner with trees and plants to create giant webbed networks that gather essential nutrients and moisture for the trees/plants and may allow them to chemically communicate as well. The fungi benefit by feeding on the sugars that the plants can create through photosynthesis. So fungi deserve our thanks, even when they don’t end up on our dinner plates!

Native Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem and Indian Grass growing at the bottom of the sledding hill.

So much to enjoy at this little park. In winter, the sledding hills fill with the laughter of big folks and little ones careening down the slopes. And in all the other seasons, the lake, the forest and the grassy hill host nesting birds, frogs, dragonflies, the occasional mink, native wildflowers – and humans, of course! Some learn to kayak or how to use a stand-up paddleboard at this park. Some practice yoga. And some come to bird watch or just take a short hike through a variety of habitats. Whether you come to meet friends, a squeaking frog or strange-looking mushroom, Lost Lake Nature Park will welcome you and send you home smiling. I can almost guarantee it.

For information on the nature programming at Lost Lake Nature done in partnership with Dinosaur Hill Nature Preserve, click here, or click here for other fall nature programs at Lost Lake and all our parks.

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?

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.