Charles Ilsley Park: A-Flutter with Wings of All Sizes

Text and Photos
by Cam Mannino

At the end of May, spring migration wound down and the breeding season heated up. The migrators and the year-round avian residents of our parks busily set about nesting and tending their newly hatched young. Their bright wings flashed color into the pale spring sunlight, much to the delight of hikers like me and my new photographer friend, Paul Birtwhistle.

Meanwhile, in the meadows, the tiny wings of small butterflies and moths fluttered at my feet and in the tall grass at the trail edge. The wings of ant-sized solitary bees beat almost invisibly as they probed blossoms for nectar. It seemed the whole park vibrated with wings!

So come hang out with Paul and I as we wandered the meadows, wood edges and forested wetlands of Charles Ilsley Park, enjoying the company of winged creatures.

Summer’s Yearly Visitors Offer Song, Color – and New Life! – to Park Visitors

Our Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben Vanderweide (far right) joins a birding group from Seven Ponds Nature Center in watching a migrating Blue-headed Vireo at Charles Ilsley Nature Park.

In May and early June, birdsong filters down through the fresh green leaves as birds arrive from wintering in warmer climes to enjoy the bounteous feast of insects provided by a Michigan spring. Migrators journeying farther north may pause to forage and rest like the Blue-Headed Vireo (Vireo solitarius) spotted high in the treetops by the birders pictured above.

A Blue-Headed Vireo (Vireo solitarius). Photo by willemspan at iNaturalist.org (CC BY)

But many birds settle here for the summer, making the most of the abundant food and shelter our parks provide. Some sweep insects out of the air. Others pluck them off bark or probe for them in the ground. While Paul and I didn’t manage a joint trek through Charles Ilsley Park, we both saw a similar rainbow of birds singing to declare their territory or carrying off caterpillars to feed mates on the nest or newly hatched nestlings.

Birds In or Around the Tall Grass of the Prairies

My visits to Charles Ilsley Park usually begin by walking along the entrance path while monitoring some of the township’s nest boxes. Two other trained volunteers and I keep records of the first egg laid, the hatch and fledge dates and any issues that develop around the nest, like predators (House Sparrows, for example). We submit the data to Cornell University’s NestWatch site as part of a citizen science project.

This year three different species have settled in the boxes that I monitor. Eastern Bluebird babies (Sialia sialis) have broken naked from their shells, begged for food and ultimately found their way into the big wide world. [Click on photos to enlarge.]

Paul and I were both lucky enough to see the adults working to make this happen. It looks like the female of both of these pairs was delivering food for her young while the male stood watch.

A House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) in one of my boxes laid her eggs in a very tidy circle. Wrens fill their boxes almost to the top with twigs, topping them off with just enough grass and feathers to cushion their young. Somehow, the female makes her way into that tight spot to incubate her tiny eggs. I imagine the crowded box discourages predators from entering. By the way, this is an extreme closeup; the wren’s eggs are just a bit larger than a dime!

House Wren eggs laid in a neat circle within a nestbox crammed with twigs and topped with grass and feathers.

Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) take up residence in our boxes as well. After building a nest of dry grass, they collect feathers, almost always white ones, to create a soft covering for the eggs. It’s amazing how many white feathers they find; I’ve read, though, that they sometimes snitch them from other Tree Swallows! Paul got a lovely photo of a male perched like a pasha on another dry Evening Primrose stalk. These striking birds glide above the meadow grass, beaks agape, collecting insects as small as gnats and as big as dragonflies.

At the end of the entrance trail, beyond the nest boxes, I’m greeted by restored prairies rolling off in all directions. In May, Ben brought in a contractor to do a major prescribed burn in Charles Ilsley Park. The low flames moved across the east and north prairies, even taking in the forests around them as part of the planned burn.

The Eastern Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park four days after the prescribed burn.

It was a dramatic sight in the first few weeks to see the blackened land begin to flourish again. The burn replenishes the soil with nutrients held in the dry plants, and the blackened surface and warmth of the fire provides a longer growing season for many native plants. Many non-native plants can be thwarted by periodic fire, unlike our fire-adapted native species.

Ilsley’s Eastern Prairie three weeks after the prescribed burn.

At the entrance to the eastern prairie, an up-and-down two note call issued from the small copse of trees. Wow! I was lucky enough to see a Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus) at close range. Usually I only hear vireos because they tend to stay high in the crowns of trees. What a delight to watch this one hop about in small trees long enough to get a quick photo!

One of my favorite migrators spends the winter among the colorful birds of South American forests. Dressed elegantly in black and white with its upright posture and white tail band, the Eastern Kingbird paused for Paul while surveying its territory. Kingbirds can be aggressive toward birds near their nests, even large ones flying high overhead.

An Eastern Kingbird can be spotted at a distance by its upright posture and white tail band. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle

An assortment of summer sparrows make the most of our restored prairies. Once I began to pay attention to their varied songs and patterns in brown, black and white, they added interesting detail to my hikes. Ben VanderWeide, Oakland Township’s Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, helpfully compares the song of the Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) to the sound of a bouncing ping-pong ball. It starts with slow, sharp bursts that rapidly accelerate into a series of quick, rat-a-tat-tat notes. The melodies of the Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) can vary but are usually characterized by a couple of quick notes followed by a short melody that ends in either a trill or a buzz. For me, the songs of these two birds are the soundtracks of summer in all of our parks.

Birds in the Treetops and Forested Wetlands of Ilsley’s Western Trails
The western woods at Charles Ilsley Park features vernal pools like this and a long, mysterious marsh.

A large wetland runs along the northern edge of the park’s western section. It lies beyond the moist forest that edges the trail and may be missed by some hikers. Luckily, Paul willingly went off trail to get closer to the green surface of the long marsh which is covered with plants that are often mistaken for algae. Common Duckweed (Lemna minor) in my photo below is the small, leaved plant that floats on the water and Water Meal (Wolffia columbiana) is the tiny plant between the Duckweed which can multiply to form a dense mat on the water surface, as it does right now at Ilsley’s western marsh.

The larger leaves are Duckweed and the smaller are Water Meal which has created a thick green mat on the surface of the long western marsh at Charles Ilsley Park.

Evidently, a male Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) found it quite a suitable surface for exploring! I wonder if its nest is high in the trees nearby? Wood Ducks are perching ducks that use the hooks on their webbed feet to negotiate tree bark. According to the Cornell All About Birds website, their ducklings can fall fifty feet from their nest into the greenery below without injury.

A male Wood Duck calmly makes his way through the Water Meal plants on the surface of the park’s western wetland. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle

Two adult Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) and their four goslings demonstrated the appeal of a nice lunch of Water Meal and Duckweed.

Exploring in the west of the park, Paul spotted the impressive Great Crested Flycatcher (Myiarchus crinitus). Inspired by his success, I spotted it later too, but it was rapidly hawking insects out of a high tree at the time. According to Cornell’s All About Birds website, this bird spends almost all of its time seeking insects high in the canopy or scooping them out of the air. Sometimes, Cornell says, it may even “crash into foliage in pursuit of leaf-crawling prey”! I want to learn their rising two note call so I can see their chocolate wings and lemon breasts more often!

The Great Crested Flycatcher’s yellow breast should make it easier to spot from below as it hunts high in the tree canopy. I’m still learning to spot it, though!

On the May bird walk at Charles Ilsley Park, several brightly colored migrators decorated the treetops along the western trail. All of the colorful characters in the slideshow below can breed in our area. So during late June and early July, keep yours eyes open for the nests or fledglings of this avian rainbow when hiking in shrubby areas or at the forest edge!

Pollinators’ Danced at My Feet, Fluttering Their Small Wings Along the Grassy Trails

Since Paul kindly agreed to look upward and outward for birds, I felt free to gaze down into the grass along the trails, looking for the tiny butterflies and moths that often appear before larger insects. On the bird walk, a member spotted the small Eight-Spotted Forester Moth (Alypia octomaculata) that sports puffs of orange hair on its front and middle legs. As the Missouri Department of Conservation points out, it can easily be mistaken for a butterfly: it eats nectar, flies in the daylight and its antennae thicken at the end somewhat like butterfly attennae. This one appeared in its favorite habitat, the place where the field meets the forest. The adult moth feeds in the sunshine, then lays its eggs in the shady woods on grapevines or Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), the host plants its caterpillar loves to eat.

The Eight-Spotted Forester Moth lays its eggs and pupates in the forest, but the adults feed in the sunshine at the forest edge.

The birding group also watched a tattered Mourning Cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa) feed on invasive Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata.) It looks as though overwintering in a log or under tree bark took its toll on this one! Nearby, we spotted a strangely still Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes). The Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels informed me that their host plant is Common Prickly-Ash (Zanthoxylum americanum), a small, thorny tree on which the female can detect a citrus scent with her antennae. I wonder if this Giant Swallowtail was drying its wings after having recently emerged from its chrysalis on a nearby tree.

A few days after seeing the Eight-spotted Forester Moth, I found a very similar small moth at my feet on the trail. It too was tiny and black with white spots, but its orange patches were on the surface of its forewings. With help from the passionate moth lovers at the “Moths of Eastern North America” Facebook page, I learned its name. This thumb-sized, diurnal insect, called the White-spotted Sable Moth (Anania funebris), is referred to as “holarctic,” because it inhabits the majority of continents on the northern half of the planet! This particular Sable Moth seemed to be exclusively feeding off the clover blossoms on the trail, one after another. Though this moth must be quite abundant, I’d never noticed one before.

A White-spotted Sable Moth seemed to be exclusively interested in clover blossoms on the low grass of the trail.

During several different visits, I noticed other small butterflies and moths that kept me company along the trails. The two tiny “tails” at the edge of the hindwings give the Eastern Tailed Blue its name. The Pearl Crescent is named for a small white shape on the underside of its hindwing. The caterpillar of the Peck’s Skipper chews on turf grasses but seems harmless among the wild grasses of our parks.

On my last visit, a dramatic Red-spotted Purple butterfly (Limentitis arthemis astyanax) glided by as I entered the park. I sometimes still mistake them for Spicebush Swallowtails (Papilio troilus troilus) because of the blue, iridescent blush on the top (dorsal) side of their hindwings and the orange spots on the ventral (lower) side of their hindwings. But the Purples have no “tails” and the orange spots beneath form a single line on the hindwings instead of the double line of the Spicebush Swallowtails, as you can see below.

The Beautiful and the Less So: Justifying (Maybe?) My Fascination with Less Likable Creatures

Dr. Doug Parsons, director of Michigan State University’s Bug House, helped me identify a couple of tiny insects that intrigued me. I’d watched what I thought were tiny wasps on almost every dandelion on the trail through the park’s Central Prairie. Dr. Parsons explained that these were not wasps, but Cuckoo Bees (genus Nomada).

Dr. Parsons wrote that this solitary bee “sneaks into the ground nest of the host bee,” most often a Mining Bee (g. Andrena), and “lays her eggs in the cells that the host bee has stocked with pollen for her own larva.” Since Mining Bees never return to the nest after stocking them, the Cuckoo bee’s egg hatches into a larva undisturbed, kills the host’s egg or larva and feeds on the stored pollen. The official term for a creature which does this is a “nest kryptoparasite,” a suitably creepy word for such behavior! Birds in the Cuckoo family do the same, laying their eggs in the nests of other birds – hence the name Cuckoo Bee. This native bee resembles a wasp in part because it has very little hair on its body. Dr. Parsons explained that bees are often fuzzy in order to collect sticky pollen. Since the Mining Bee collects the pollen that feeds the Cuckoo Bee’s young, this sneaky interloper doesn’t require the other bee’s hairier surface. Ah, another fine example of evolution working its magic.

The Cuckcoo Bee lays its eggs in the pollen-stocked nest of other solitary bees, eliminating the need for pollen-collecting hairs on its body.

Last week, I also observed a nondescript, brownish moth fly onto a grass stem, fold itself up and almost disappear. It was quite a challenge to locate it in my camera’s viewfinder! Dr. Parsons confirmed that this little moth is the Eastern Grass Veneer (Crambus laqueatellus). Evidently, some folks refer to these members of Crambidae family as “snout moths” because their long mouth structures resemble pointed noses. Dr. Parsons told me they can be “serious pests in lawns and golf courses” because their caterpillars eat turf grass roots. He isn’t sure, though, that they cause problems in our parks where their larvae may consume a variety of grasses. For me, its disappearing act, pointed “snout” and racing-striped wings were just odd enough to make it a fascinating find.

The Grass Veneer Moth is perching vertically on a small grass blade, its wings folded and its long “snout,” (which is really part of its mouth) pointing straight up. And look at that weird white eye! A delightfully odd little moth with its brown racing stripe, don’t you agree? OK, maybe not…

I’m sure that I puzzle some of you by including unglamorous, fiercely predatory or even destructive creatures in these nature blogs. Sometimes it puzzles me too that I want to explore them. But I guess for me, all of these creatures – from the Cuckoo Bee to the glorious Great Crested Flycatcher – play an essential role in the great drama of nature. By learning a name for these fellow players and the roles they perform on our shared stage, the whole spectacle and my role in it become clearer for me, more coherent – which in these chaotic times is a pretty good feeling! It’s my role – our role perhaps – to honor and respect nature in all its complexity during an era in which too many dishonor the natural world, ignore it or take it for granted. I know you, like me, care enough to watch, learn and share what you learn with others when you can. And that encourages me. Thanks for being here.

Fellow Travelers: Colorful Companions of the Migrating Warblers

What an explosion of bird life in May! In a matter of a few weeks, the trees, fields, marshes and our yards suddenly are alive with bustle and song. Last week, I shared what I learned about the warblers, some of the  tiniest members of the northern migration.  This week, I thought we’d take a look at some of the other colorful summer visitors who are currently serenading possible mates, toting nesting material around our gardens and fields and darting in and out of our backyard feeders.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

This spring seems particularly generous with glorious birds. Up-close visits with a startling variety of color and song all around us in 2019 has made this season quite a special one for me.

The Migrators of the Last Week in April

On April 24, just as the sun was getting low, my husband alerted me to something special right outside the window. I looked up from my book to find myself staring at a rare visitor, the Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus). Twice over the years, we’d caught a quick glimpse of this impressive bird out in the trees beyond the lawn. But it only paused and moved on. Luckily this bird  returned repeatedly that night, so I finally got calm enough to get a shot through the glass – and wow!

The Red-headed Woodpecker is usually heading north to breed, but this year, quite a few passed through the area!

Since then, others have reported seeing more Red-headed Woodpeckers than usual.  We’re hoping ours may be nesting nearby since it’s returned three or four times after its first visit. Sometimes bird lovers confuse this more unusual bird (for our area) with the year ’round Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) who has a red nape but not a fully red head. Red-headed Woodpeckers have become less common in our area due to habitat loss, but maybe we lucked out this year! (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

On April 25, I remembered that the Great Blue Herons (Ardea herodias) were already nesting along the Clinton River trail, so I hurried to see them  before leaves began to obscure the view. Saucer-shaped nests topped many trees in the marsh. One heron stood alone, as if on guard, while multiple females, presumably, arranged their nests or perhaps turned over their large eggs.

That last week in April was what folks used to call a humdinger! A birding friend let me know that she’d seen a killdeer with eggs at Gallagher Creek Park. So later on the 25th, I went searching. You’ll probably find her more quickly in this photo than I did in the park. It took me a while, since she was so well camouflaged!

Play “Find the Killdeer” in this photo. She’s nicely camouflaged.

I got very close before I spotted her. She watched me a few moments but surprised me by trotting over to the rain garden so I could take a picture of her beautiful eggs. Very accommodating, though maybe not the best parenting! I’m hoping at least one fledgling survived, since  Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township stewardship manager, thought he saw a juvenile there in May. Perhaps the predators had as much trouble spotting the nest as I did!

Early May Brought More Solo Arrivals

On May 1st, the birders at Bear Creek Nature Park watched a female Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) busily constructing her nest underneath the roof of a kiosk!  Not a terribly private place, but Phoebes do that sort of thing. She’s not as glamorous as some of the other May arrivals, but I liked her placid expression and the brown suede look of her crown. The Phoebe’s two note song is an easy one for most beginning birders to remember. It does sound a bit like “Feee-beee” though it always sounds a bit more like “Feee-buuuuz” to me.

An Eastern Phoebe bringing material to her nest at Bear Creek Nature Park

On May 3, one of my favorite avian vocalists arrived in our woods, the male  Rose-Breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus). Such a handsome devil! And now, every morning in the dark just before sunrise, I’m treated to his sweet courting melody. I’m guessing he found a mate with it, though the female who arrived four days later had her pick of three males counter-singing while I worked in the yard. What a delightful form of territorial competition, as one male’s song overlaps or quickly follows the song of another!

The male Grosbeak is mellow dude who takes his turn peacefully at the feeder, but competes with other males in song for territory and a mate.

The female had 3 singing males to choose from in our yard. What a trio!

On May 5, my husband Reg and I went in pursuit of the Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna) since members of the birding group had seen them at Wolcott Mill Metropark.  And we found him. This glorious prairie bird sang his own slurry version of their 3-8 note song from atop a willow whose new yellow leaves nicely matched his bright yellow breast. Meadowlarks love to hold forth from high on a wire or exposed branch looking out over a field. I hope our prairie restorations will encourage more of these striking birds to nest in our parks.

The Eastern Meadowlark singing from atop at willow at Wolcott Mill Park.

On May 2, the male Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) arrived right on schedule at our grape jelly feeder. How can anyone resist this dramatic bird? The first male quickly established his rights to the feeder and now proceeds to whistle his song rather insistently near a window whenever the feeder is empty, which is about 3 times a day!  Or at least that’s how it seems to us. We’re happy to accommodate him and later his mate.

Mid-May Brings the Warblers’ Fellow Travelers

Lots of birds, even fairly solitary ones, join the warblers in the nighttime flow of  birds during  May, especially in the second and third weeks. Researchers have yet to solidly determine exactly how these small survivors navigate the skies. Current theories include  sighting landmarks below, orienting to the stars or sensing the earth’s magnetic field, or  all three. Ornithologists still aren’t sure. But aren’t we glad the birds mysteriously manage it?

On May 11, my sharp-eyed husband called me to the window again. And there I stayed for 20 miraculous minutes as a male Scarlet Tanager foraged  along the edge of the brickwork outside our back door.

A lucky look at the male Scarlet Tanager outside our back door.

I hoped he might stay around to nest, but no such luck. The birding group, though, saw both a male and a female with nesting material at Lost Lake Nature Park on May 29th.  Maybe I’ll see fledgling tanagers yet! Tanagers are “dimorphic,” meaning that males look different than females, in this case, though only in the breeding season. In the fall, the male changes into the yellow-green plumage of the female to travel to their wintering grounds in northern South America. Quite a trip for these small birds.

A female Scarlet Tanager at Tawas Point last year traveled right along with the warblers during migration.

A surprise for us at Magee Marsh this year was seeing a Great Crested Flycatcher (Myiarchus crinitus). I don’t get to see them much because once they settle down to breed, they hunt their insect prey high in the tree canopy. Sometimes other birders point out their distinctive call to me and I catch a glimpse of its lemon yellow belly from a distance. This time, I could get a bit closer! Cornell Lab of Ornithology says they “tend to migrate alone,” but this one was surrounded by hundreds of warblers.

The Great Crested Flycatcher actually crashes into the leaves at times in its enthusiasm for snagging insects.

I can’t say for sure when Indigo Buntings arrive in our area from Florida or the Caribbean, but I usually see them in the parks by mid-May. This year, though, we were lucky enough to see this deep azure male at our hulled seed feeder. (A popular place this year!) He came right at the end of May and for a week now has come every evening, right before sunset. I think we’re his stop for a bedtime snack. A writer at Cornell Lab described him perfectly as “a little scrap of sky with wings.”

A male Indigo Bunting that arrives at our feeder just before sunset this year.

Another latecomer to our feeder is the male Orchard Oriole (Icterus spurius) who has only been at our feeder one previous year and then only briefly. This one came to visit on May 29 and appeared daily since, eating the same grape jelly that pleases his bigger cousin, the Baltimore Oriole. Orchard Orioles migrate south again by the end of July so catch sight of one while you can. There’s often a pair at Bear Creek Nature Park.

The Orchard Oriole comes late and leaves early. They’re often seen at Bear Creek Park.

The presence of all these unusual birds at my feeder makes me wonder if a cold, wet spring has left some migrators without their usual diet of insects. So they’re settling for grain until the sun shines and more insect eggs hatch. Just a guess, of course.

Giving Our Migrators a Helping Hand

Year after year for millennia, this wave of brilliantly colored aviators find their way north to us in the spring. Long ago, the luckiest or most skillful avian navigators discovered the lake shores, forests, prairies, and wetlands that were full of the required food and shelter they needed along the way. These survivors learned to take advantage of  peninsulas to shorten the distance over water and toughed it out when they were unavailable. They followed lake shores or ocean beaches when storms blew. And at last they glided down onto fields, splashed into ponds, settled on shady branches in distant forests, fluttered down into the protection of stiff prairie grass, or poked their beaks gratefully into the mud of a fertile marsh. Somehow the young of these avian pioneers knew the paths of their ancestors and somehow that knowledge got passed through thousands of generations of Scarlet Tanagers, Indigo Buntings and all the others.

Wonder and a desire to understand and/or help these winged neighbors are, I think,  common responses to the miracle of migration each spring and fall. Some of us fill our feeders, set up and monitor nest boxes, or band birds to help ornithologists learn more.  Some learn when and when not to rescue nestlings and fledglings and how to do it safely. Some company executives agree to turn off their office lights at night, while some farmers and others pause their wind turbines when notified by experts of particularly heavy migration in the area. Some cat lovers keep their cats indoors until fledglings are strong enough to escape into the treetops. Some gardeners plant their gardens with an eye to supplying fruits and insects as well as beauty. Some simply accept the inconvenience of awkwardly located nesting sites around their yard, and decide to just sit back with a camera or a cup of coffee to admire the hard work of raising little birds.  It all makes a difference. However you express your appreciation for the presence of birds in our world, thanks for doing it.