Well, the longest night of the year, the winter solstice, is behind us, but the nights are still long, aren’t they? We pull the curtains against the blank, black windows as the sun sets, click on a lamp and if we’re lucky, light a fire. Porch lights suddenly glow along our streets. We escape from the dark, fending it off with relief, as if we are warding off danger.
But what if we welcomed the darkness? What if we paused before pulling the curtains and just looked at night coming on? Sunsets around here can be quite dramatic this time of year. Winter is a time to look for “sun pillars,” when vertical beams of light occasionally appear near the sunset, caused by light reflecting on tiny ice crystals suspended in the atmosphere – like this one at our home one winter evening.
And although I’ve never caught “wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings,” I have caught geese flying splashed with the pink of a sunset.
Even a stray chunk of ice can look quite magical when it catches a ray of orange light as dusk settles.
Perhaps we could learn to stand in the dark on a snowy night and listen for the low hooting of the Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus). According to the Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior Vol. 3, they mate during the winter. But it’s difficult to hear their plaintive, long distance courting through tightly closed windows and doors. Maybe open the door a crack now and then, set your ear to it and listen.
It’s mating season for White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) as well; unfortunately we are aware of that from all the heedless deer on the roads. But on foot, it’s magical to see a young doe covered in snow beneath your bird feeder in the evening…
or smile at a pine tree topped by the full moon like the star on a Christmas tree!
The intriguing thing about being out in the darkness is that it’s often not as dark as it seems from inside those black windows. The moon and the stars do shine, after all, and anything white – flowers in summer, snow in winter – catches that silver light and reflects it, creating patterns we miss if we aren’t looking.
So this winter, perhaps we should consider venturing out into the dark – maybe with a friend to feel more comfortable at first. Or perhaps parents can take children out “owling” on a snowy night – and if you’re considering it, have a look at the gorgeous picture book Owl Moon by Jane Yolen for inspiration. Or just take them on a stroll around the lawn while scouting out Orion overhead or other constellations. Even a walk down a long driveway can be exciting on a moonlit night. You can sing to yourself for courage if the possible presence of nocturnal animals makes you nervous; they most often run away at the sound of a human voice. Or if you are intrigued by them, follow fox tracks in the moonlight.
Maybe you could make it a personal or family ritual to just take a few minutes once a week to sit with a cup of cocoa, turn off the lights and stare through a darkened window. Watch the moon as it changes; perhaps record its phases on a calendar with your children or grandchildren. Open your door and listen to the song of wind in the pines and how it differs from songs “sung” through bare limbs. If you hear a coyote outside, consider calling your children to the door to listen to their song – and then howl along!
Perhaps if we can become familiar with the velvet black of a winter night, its sounds and sights, we’ll be more comfortable with it. Let’s befriend the night and see the beauty that lies out there in the winter darkness.
Hawks by the thousands head out across the west end of Lake Erie each autumn. And smaller migrators wing across at night to avoid those predatory hawks that travel by day. Holiday Beach Conservation Area on Lake Erie (near Amherstburg, Ontario, an easy drive from southeast Michigan) lies on a major fly-way for migrating birds, especially hawks. Local birders from the Holiday Beach Migration Observatory (HBMO) count and keep records on the migration spectacle.
In mid-September each year, HBMO members share the fun of migration by hosting the Festival of Hawks at Holiday Beach, the third-ranked hawk watching site in North America. For the last 41 years, volunteer bird enthusiasts from HBMO have contributed to the study of migration and bird conservation for both hawks and perching birds (“passerines”). Let’s hear it for passionate citizen scientists!
This year three of us from the Oakland Township birding group made our own migration to experience this special event. At the Festival, we looked skyward from the tall observation tower, craning our necks, binoculars aloft, to watch huge, swirling flocks of hawks, known as “kettles,” as seen in the photo above and at left below.
What a sight to see roughly 200 Broad-winged Hawks (Buteo platypterus) wheeling up and over the tree line at the horizon! These forest raptors with their banded tails spiral upward on thermals, riding currents of rising, warm air to great heights with little effort. Traveling over 4,000 miles, hundreds of thousands of these hawks create a “river of raptors” (as they call it in Mexico) flowing into their winter territories in Mexico, Central and South America. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Another impressive raptor settled low in a tree right over the path to the viewing area. An Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) had caught a fish and wasn’t going anywhere until it finished its meal! Ospreys, unlike other hawks, eat only fish. They are skilled anglers and tend to carry their prey head-first for less wind resistance. This one gave me a fierce stare and then went right back to eating its lunch.
We visitors were allowed to crowd around a trained and licensed HBMO bird bander as he attached bands to several birds caught in their super-fine “mist nets.” Runners watch the nets which are stretched between poles on fly-ways near the ground. The captured birds are quickly removed from the nets and rushed to the gentleman banding birds in order to release them as quickly as possible. We began by watching the banding of a tiny Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) brought in a small cloth bag. The man gently wrapped his hand around the tiny bird. The hummer was surprisingly calm.
With a special tool, he softly clipped a tiny band (10 of them fit on a diaper pin!) on the hummer’s leg. The band will identify that specific bird and allow the club to be contacted if someone observes the hummer and reports the band. The bander weighed and measured the tiny bird, then determined its gender and approximate age (juvenile or adult).
For a small donation to Holiday Beach Migration Observatory’s work, we observers could “adopt” a banded bird. That meant having a photo taken with the bird, releasing it from your open palm and being notified where/when your “adoptee” was found by another birder. Donna, one of our birders, adopted a little Hummingbird.
Here are some other birds that got banded, or had their bands checked, while we watched. (Click on the pause button if more time is needed for captions.)
As a bonus, some individuals trained and licensed in falconry brought their owls and hawks. Though hunting with trained birds is an ancient sport, it always make me a little uncomfortable to see the jesses on their legs. But these licensed professionals did give us a chance to see magnificent birds up close. And the birds were clearly well cared for, well fed and beautifully trained.
I love the whole idea of citizen science! How wonderful that the passionate birders of HBMO gather to provide data on the birds that they admire and to educate the rest of us! This summer, here in the township, several residents volunteered to monitor bluebird boxes, providing the Cornell Ornithology Lab’s NestWatch site with plentiful data on a lovely species that may contribute to their continued survival. Some of us report amphibian and reptile sightings to the Michigan Herpetology Atlas or participate in Feeder Watch, which keeps track of winter birds at our home feeders. Some are helping post-doctoral students at the U-M’s M3 Monarch Migration Study use tiny electronic monitors to learn where individual Monarch butterflies travel. There are so many ways to contribute to what science can teach us about the natural world. What’s your passion?
Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide and I both got inspired by the idea of a year-end reflection on some of the remarkable sights in our parks and natural areas over the last year. Nature excels in surprising and delighting any curious observer with its ability to come back from adversity, in some cases to even thrive in difficult circumstances. That ability to keep on growing and creating in the face of any obstacle can be a great inspiration in challenging times.
So as the snow falls, please sit back in a comfortable chair with a warm drink and savor some highlights from the four seasons of 2017 here in Oakland Township.
Winter 2017: Serenity Rises as the Snow Falls
Sometimes we just need a little less hubbub after the holidays and the parks provide a peaceful escape. In general, the only sounds are the wind in bare branches, the occasional calls of the year ’round birds and the tapping of energetic woodpeckers foraging in the tree bark. And other times, when we feel a bit house-bound and crave crisp air on red cheeks, a winter walk provides little discoveries unavailable in other seasons. During one deep freeze last winter, the weekly birding group stepped out on the ice at Cranberry Lake to inspect a beaver lodge. And a few weeks later, I plopped down in the snow for a closer look at 3-D ice dendrites standing upright on a frozen puddle! Folks enjoyed the fine skating rink at Marsh View Park, but some who fancied wild surroundings skated on Twin Lake. On sunny winter days, shadows are always sharp and any spot of color, like the brilliant red of a male cardinal, catches my eye in winter’s clear, white light. Hiking in winter can be wonderful; just be sure you’re bundled up for it! (Click on pause button for longer captions.)
Spring 2017: Buds, First Blooms, Migrators Flying in by Night and the Ebullient Symphony of Courting Birds and Frogs
Ah, mud-luscious spring! The tiny Chorus and Wood Frogs thawed out after their winter freeze and sang lustily from vernal ponds. In early spring, the birders spotted a crayfish at Bear Creek who’d climbed out of her chimney with eggs under her tail and was lumbering toward the pond. Some spring avian migrators quickly passed through, and we bird watchers were lucky to spot a few special visitors. An unusual American Pipit appeared before my camera lens one afternoon at Gallagher Creek Park on its way to its breeding grounds in the far north. While others, like the Tree Swallow or the Eastern Meadowlark, settled in for the summer to raise their young. After last year’s controlled burn, native Lupines appeared along the Paint Creek Trail. And in May, Ben spotted a rare sight, a frilly spread of rare Bogbean flowers in a kettle wetland at Bald Mountain State Recreation Area off Kern Road. Snow melt and bright green buds always offer an irresistible invitation to come out and join the bustle and music of spring!
Summer 2017: Butterflies Galore as Restored Prairies Began to Bloom
Summer! The very word conjures up a coloring box assortment of butterflies hovering over prairie wildflowers. Birds constructed their nests and later wore themselves out feeding noisy, demanding fledglings. We birders particularly enjoyed close looks at a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak sharing egg-warming duties near a Bear Creek path. The birders laughed in surprise watching a passive/aggressive pair of Canada Geese successfully discourage the presence of a Green Heron by simply swimming uncomfortably close to it. A family ambled along a path at Draper Twin Lake Park, headed for a morning fishing expedition. The birding group, binoculars in hand, spotted an Indigo Bunting while walking the new paths through the prairies at Charles Ilsley Park, increasingly spangled with colorful native wildflowers as restoration proceeds. A Great Horned Owl stared at the delighted birding group through a scrim of leaves near Bear Creek marsh. Every path in the township hummed with life during the summer months. But that’s what we all expect of summer, right?
Autumn 2017: Birds Departed South, and Fall Wildflowers Bloomed
Tundra Swans flew in formation overhead, as migrators of all kinds, like the Hermit Thrush, rode the north wind down to southern climes. But as they departed, nature offered a consolation. Many native wildflowers bloomed in the cool weather as they faithfully do each year. Asters formed carpets of color everywhere, from meadow to marsh! At the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail, tiny Ladies Tresses orchids, Grass of Parnassus with its delicately striped petals, and vivid purple Fringed Gentian intrigued me again by emerging in the chill of early autumn. Native bumblebees pushed their way into Bottle Gentian flowers at Gallagher Creek Park and the Wet Prairie. Butterflies still sipped nectar from late fall blooms. The birders identified ducks of all kinds assembled in rafts on Cranberry Lake. Rattling cries alerted me to the presence of Belted Kingfishers who scouted for prey at both Bear Creek’s pond and Cranberry Lake. Ben dipped his net into a marsh at Charles Ilsley Park to show us tadpoles that overwinter on the muddy surface beneath the water. So much life as the year 2017 began to ebb!
Parks Full of Life All Year ‘Round. Aren’t We Lucky?
As a direct result of the foresight of township residents who have supported the Parks Commission and land preservation, native plants, wildlife, birds, and a beautifully diverse combination of habitats are being restored and preserved in Oakland Township. I want to share my appreciation for that foresight and for the hard work and knowledge of Ben VanderWeide (my kind and able supervisor and editor), other parks volunteers, my fellow birders and park staff. And at the end of the year, I thank all of you who read, comment on and/or follow Natural Areas Notebook. It’s wonderful to be learning more all the time about the natural world – and then to have this opportunity to share what I’m learning with all of you. On to 2018!
The last two weeks at Bear Creek gifted me with some exciting moments – seeing previously unseen birds, witnessing unusual nesting behavior, watching a turtle struggling to bury her eggs and being surprised by a little butterfly I hadn’t seen for years. So though the blog just visited Bear Creek two weeks ago, I wanted to share the bounty I’m enjoying before the season changes much.
Unusual Birds and the Usual Ones Doing Interesting Things!
As many of you know, I’ve been walking in Bear Creek for 25 years and I’ve watched for owls all that time. They spend their days sleeping right next to tree trunks on high limbs, and despite craning my neck for years, I’d never spotted one. But on the first June bird walk, a fellow birder, Bob Bonin, spotted one high up in a tree near Bear Creek Marsh. Huge, silhouetted against the morning sky, this Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) wasn’t easy to see, much less photograph. But luckily, I got a few shots before he gave the group an annoyed look, lifted his huge body with his massive wings and flew away. Such a thrill! (Click on arrows for slideshow; use pause button for a closer look.)
A bit earlier that morning, we saw an unusual bird at the other end of the size spectrum. A male Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) perched high on a snag behind the Center Pond and turned his iridescent green back to the morning sun. We saw a quick orange flash at his throat but I missed it. The Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol. I) indicates that males’ throats look brown or black if the light doesn’t hit their necks just right. When I returned on a late afternoon, there he was on the same snag – but this time the afternoon sun caught the edge of his throat which shone gold rather than ruby red. He’s not the most glamorous hummer, but I’m glad I got to see a bit of his gleam.
Near the Center Pond, the birders also discovered the nest of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus) – with the male sitting calmly, tending the eggs or nestlings. Occasionally, he even sang his lovely tune as he waited patiently. I’d read in the Stokes Guides that male Grosbeaks sometime take on this responsibility, but I’d never seen it. On three separate visits, the male was the only one on this nest – though the female may have relieved him at other times. So, Happy Father’s Day to this dedicated Grosbeak dad!
In a willow to the right of the deck in the Center Pond is a beautiful nest. It’s cleverly attached between two vertical branches about 20 feet up, ingeniously woven and quite large – maybe 9 inches long. During my first 3 visits, only the female’s black tail cocked behind her was visible from the observation deck. Finally one afternoon, I waded into the grass at the pond’s edge and caught sight of her hindquarters as she fed her young. And then, I saw a fledgling’s head just above the edge of the nest. Ah, this nest was constructed by a female Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) – a somewhat eccentric one since Red-wings normally build close to the water and weave their nests among cat-tails or reeds. She’s quite an architect! The location of this elaborate nest makes it nearly invisible and unreachable by predators. Clever mama Red-wing!
Two nests appeared high in a tree on the Walnut Lane. The barely visible, masked eye of the female Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) peeked through the leaves that camouflaged the first nest spotted by the birders. Since she sat there quietly every time I visited, I’ve included a photo of a Waxwing from a previous year so you’ll remember how elegant this conscientious mother bird truly is!
Across the Walnut Lane, the birders also discovered the nest of a female Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) who spent several days building her gauzy, somewhat more loosely constructed nest. She proudly stood above it a few days later as it neared completion. The female Kingbird constructs the nest and keeps the male off it until the eggs hatch. Then both parents feed the nestlings. But even during the egg phase, the male stays on a branch nearby to defend the territory for his mate and young.
Another good provider, a tiny male Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia) brought a bright green caterpillar to feed his nestlings or mate. In between feeding trips, he’d let loose with his proud song, “Sweet, sweet, I’m a little sweet.” Impressive dad who can bring home the bugs, singing all the while! Bet the female warbler was as impressed as I was.
An Orchard Oriole male (Icterus spurius) serenaded us from a small tree in the middle of a meadow. His long, melodious song sounded much like the third song recorded at this link. A few Orchard Orioles seem to come to Bear Creek each year – but they migrate south by mid-July. So keep an eye out and an ear cocked soon in the meadows to the east of the Walnut Lane!
An invisible bird, high up in the tree tops, repeated its melodious warble continuously one warm morning. I’ve never seen a Warbling Vireo (Vireo gilvus); they rarely come down from the heights. But fortunately, a great photographer from the iNaturalist website, Steven Mlodinow, has seen one and generously allows others to borrow his photo. Listen for this warbler’s rich melody all summer long, but don’t be surprised if you never spot this elusive summer resident.
Little Surprises Near the Wetlands
At the northeast corner of the Center Pond, a young Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta) hurried to cover her eggs one hot afternoon. She’s found a likely spot where Ben had cleared away invasive shrubs a couple of years ago. As you’ll see in the video below, she work really hard with her back legs to get the dirt to move. She’d no doubt have preferred sandier soil! But she was determined to see the job done!
I’ve seen Northern Leopard Frogs (Lithobates pipiens)periodically at Cranberry Lake but never one at Bear Creek. But hearing their snoring call near a wetland, I waded into tall grass and found this one, hiding among the greenery. Glad to know this beautiful frog is at Bear Creek, too.
Ben noticed an Eastern American Toad (Anaxyrus americanus) toad on the path one afternoon when we went to look at nests. Normally, I only see brown toads, but Wikipedia informs me that “The color and pattern is somewhat variable, especially for the females. Skin color can change depending on habitat colors, humidity, stress, and temperature…Some toads of this subspecies have a more pervasive red and deep brown color, many with red warts on their bodies.” So this little toad is probably female and the red description fits her pretty well. I wonder if the unusually hot temperatures had an effect on her appearance? Hard to tell.
Amazing Insects: A Butterfly I’ve Missed for Years, Favorite Dragonflies and the Skills of Tiny Pollinators
Next year, I’ll be looking for the boldly patterned Baltimore Checkerspot butterflies (Euphydryas phaeton) on June 11 or 12. I’ve only seen them on those two dates, 6 years apart! This year, four of them fluttered at a spot in the trail where water runs under the path – a place I’ve often seen other small butterflies feeding on minerals left by the water. Later in the summer, watch for the communal caterpillar webs of these small butterflies (about 2.5 inches) on the host wildflower Turtlehead (Chelone glabra) where these butterflies lay their eggs during the summer and where the caterpillars first feed.
Interestingly, in the fall, Baltimore Checkerspot caterpillars wrap themselves in leaf litter, overwinter and finish developing in the spring. This seems to be a big year for them – so keep an eye out if you see a small, dark butterfly at your feet.
Different species of dragonflies seem to appear each week to dance among the budding wildflowers and over the pond. The dramatic, yet quite common Twelve-spotted Skimmer (Libellula pulchella)did indeed skim over the tops of grasses in the Eastern Meadow this week. Dragonflies often land, fly, and then come back to the same dry stalk – so if you miss one in your binoculars the first time, wait a moment and you’ll probably see it in the same place again!
A bright green Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis) dragonfly clung to a grass stem on the western slope. If it’s a male, it will gradually turn blue over the summer. If a female, it will remain green. Probably this one is newly emerged since it’s hunting in a meadow. When it’s ready to mate, it will rendezvous with others at the Center Pond.
A small Dot-tailed Whiteface (Leucorrhinia intacta) dragonfly posed for a face-on selfie at the Playground Pond before continuing its quest to consume as many mosquitoes, flies and other small insects as possible before the day is out. Love its cartoon-like face and the one yellow dot on its tail that give it its name.
Pollinators are busy all over the park, feeding and carrying the pollen that will bring us next year’s blooms. This may look like a European Honey Bee (Apis mellifera)but Honey Bees are fuzzy all over and this one just isn’t. So it’s more likely to be a Dronefly (Eristalistenax), a type of Hoverfly (family Syrphidae), which uses its pattern, slight fuzziness and loud hum to mimic male Honey Bees as a way of protecting against predators. Droneflies cannot sting, but a passing dragonfly probably doesn’t take a chance!
I noticed what looked at first like a tiny wasp on this umbel of a native Nannyberry bush (Viburnum lentago) near the Center Pond. But after a bit of research in Pollinators of Native Plantsby Heather Holm, I’m going to guess it’s a female Leaf-cutter Bee (family Megachilidae). It has a wasp-y pattern and shape and it’s collecting pollen on its abdomen and on the top of its back leg (look at those jodhpurs!). Leaf-cutters cut small, neat circles out of leaves, hence the name. They then roll up a single fertilized egg and a chunk of pollen in each circle, forming a solitary, cigar-shaped nest which is placed in a hole in the soil, wood or other structures. Such an unusual nest!
Bring a Friend – or Friends! – to Visit Your Favorite Park
I’ve always loved walking alone in the township parks. I can listen to birdsong, stop to look at something tiny like the Little Wood Satyr butterfly below, or enjoy the fresh scents of wood, greenery, the earth after a rain in silence. Solitary walks are contemplative.
But this particular blog testifies to the special pleasures of hiking with interested friends and family. First of all, they just bring more eyes! I’m always seeing things with the birders or with my husband, that I’d never have noticed with just my two eyes (in this case, the owl, the hummer, the oriole, the male grosbeak in his nest and more). But also their curiosity piques mine. They bring specialized interests and knowledge. They often patiently help me find the bird hiding in a leafy tree (“The center trunk at about 2 o’clock…). It’s a different kind of delight to walk with nature-noticing friends. So if all of this nature stuff intrigues you, take some nature-lovers with you on your next walk. Or consider joining our friendly birding group on Wednesday mornings year ’round. We’d love to have you join us! (The schedule is under “Events” at the top of the home page.)
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: 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; other sites as cited in the text.
I’ll admit that when I first visited Gallagher Creek Park, just east of Adams on Silverbell, I didn’t quite get it. It seemed like a rather ordinary, flat piece of land surrounded by a marsh. But luckily, I decided to look more closely and, as usual, the closer I look, the more nature shares with me. I’ve visited the park several times over the last month and each time I appreciate this little park more.
The stream flowing quietly through the grass beneath the viewing platform creates a cool, moist retreat for an abundance of birds and the special native plants that love wet feet. The Old Fields bloom with an astonishing variety of native wildflowers. Insects float and buzz between the blossoms. In short, this little park hosts an amazing variety of wildlife and plants with its combination of marsh, wet meadows and open fields (click here to see a map). Let me show you just a sampling.
Gallagher Creek Itself: A Haven for Birds and Wildflowers
The recently constructed viewing platform (thanks to Eagle Scout Jonathan Walling!) near Gallagher Creek allows visitors to watch the slow ripples of cool water flowing through the grass and trees. This gentle flow creates a soothing retreat that shelters creatures and plants of all kinds. According to three surveys by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Gallagher Creek is home to “one of the few remaining self-sustaining Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) populations in southern Michigan.”
After the last survey, though, they reported that the “gravel riffles and natural pools” had been silted by nearby construction, reducing the population from 300 Brook Trout per mile in 1998 to just 50 per mile in 2010. (See Ben’s blog on this from 2015.) Native plants growing more abundantly at the edges of the park can act as a buffer and filter such sediment. Gallagher Creek runs northeast and enters Paint Creek at the Cider Mill in Goodison. If we want Brook Trout in our township, one way is to protect a cold water stream like Gallagher Creek.
Wetland Wildlife and Plants: A Riparian Corridor and a Marsh
Streams like Gallagher Creek create what’s called a “riparian corridor,” an area where the land meets a stream or river that not only filters and purifies water, but also provides habitat for a wide diversity of plants and wildlife. Antonio Xeira, our birder friend, spotted a most impressive bird near the creek. Here’s his photo of a Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus)who spends its days high up among the leaves of a Willow (probably black willow, Salix nigra)north of the stream. It’s not easy to see so I appreciate Antonio’s shot! See that open eye?
A much smaller visitor among the willows is what I think was a Willowor Alder Flycatcher (Empidonax species) that perched in the shadows to preen. ( It could also be a Eastern Wood-Pewee (Contopus virens), but I’ll leave that for you to decide. They’re very similar.) It was a hot morning and this little bird was very busy dealing with the gnats or mites that can bother birds as much as they can bother us humans this time of year!
The shade near the stream also provided a stopover for a busy House Wren (Troglodytes aedon).
This hard-working adult was foraging for her young in a nearby thicket of native Gray Dogwood (Cornus foemina), which provides lots of cover and a food source for all kinds of birds at Gallagher Creek.
One morning, I approached the thicket to see if I could see the young wren. Immediately, the adult starting her scolding call, chipping incessantly at me, probably both to ward me off and to tell her fledgling to stay back in the trees. I did finally manage to get a shot of the youngster who appeared to still be growing into its beak!
Back in May, Antonio also noticed the burrow of a Crayfish (superfamilies Astacoidea and Parastacoidea), a creature that loves clear, cold water streams. In case you haven’t seen a crayfish, I include a photo of one that I saw in Bear Creek. If you enlarge the photo by clicking on it, you’ll see it’s a female carrying eggs under her tail! Crayfish are daylight creatures who retreat to burrows at night. I can’t say which species is in either photo. We do have one invasive crayfish in Michigan, the Rusty Crayfish (Orconectes rusticus), which fishermen used to use as bait and which have affected populations of our native crayfish.(Hover cursor for captions; click on photo to enlarge.)
Moisture-loving wildflowers in pink, purple, white and yellow bloom among the tall grasses and reeds at the edge of the stream. Here are three native flowers that are easy to spot in the park – Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata), Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis)and Joe Pye (Eutrochium maculatum).
The moist ground even a bit farther out from the stream suits many plants. Tall Sunflowers (Helianthus giganteus)and Water Hemlocks (Cicuta maculata),both natives, prefer to sink their roots in moist earth.
Of course, dragonflies make their home wherever there is water. I saw a mating pair of Ruby Meadowhawks (Sympetrum rubicundulum) making a wheel of their bodies in the wet grass one morning. The female is retrieving sperm from the male’s abdomen where he placed it earlier. And to the right is what I think is another female Ruby Meadowhawk perching near the edge of the stream. Meadowhawk dragonflies (family Libellulidae)are plentiful this time of year and tough to identify, but fascinating to watch as they hunt along the creek.
This thumbnail-sized Skipper butterfly (family Hesperiidae), I’m guessing a Delaware Skipper (Anatrytone logan), paused delicately on a moist leaf as I approached the stream. Isn’t it elegant with its striped legs and antennae, large eyes and deep orange wings?
Gallagher Creek Park also shares an emergent marsh with its neighbors to the east. This thriving area is slowly being cleared of the dreaded invasive, Phragmites (Phragmites australis), which is much too prevalent in the area. It’s an on-going project of Dr. Ben and the Parks and Recreation Commision. How wonderful to see natives like sedges (Carex species) and Joe Pye flourishing as that terrible invasive plant diminishes!
Wildlife and Plants in the Old Fields
In the spring and early summer, our sharp-eyed birding friend, Antonio, found two nests on open ground at Gallagher Creek. I wonder if these eggs hatched since they seem so vulnerable. On the left is a Killdeer’s nest (Charadrius vociferus) from late April. The name, by the way, comes from their call, not from their effect on deer! And on the right is a Spotted Sandpiper‘s nest (Actitis macularius) in early June. Thanks, Antonio!
Now birds whisk in and out of the leafy trees at the perimeter of the Old Field next to the parking lot – many of them juveniles or adults working at feeding them. The “miaou” of a young Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) caught my attention at the edge of the field. And later hearing a “cluck,” I look up to see an American Robin (Turdus migratorius), perhaps a molting female adult or a juvenile losing its spots, perched at the top of a snag.
A Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina) and a male House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) hung out together in the bushes one hot morning.
American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) provide the soundtrack for Gallagher Creek right now. These cheery little birds are one of the few who sing as they fly! With every downward swoop of their undulating flight comes a short burst of song. Here’s a male that settled for a few moments in that Willow, again – a popular place to pause for many of the birds here.
Goldfinches mate in August because their favorite food source is available – thistle seed. So they’re quite happy, I imagine, that non-native Field Thistle (Cirsium arvense) established a large, plumed patch on the western end of the loop path.
We appreciated being greeted by a relaxed Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) when parking at Gallagher Creek one morning. It seemed to be enjoying a bit of morning light after a long night of nibbling.
As Reg and I set out on the path, we were greeted by a sight I’d never seen before. A Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens)hung onto one of the huge non-native stalks of Common Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)in the Old Field. Downies eat both insects and seeds, so I guess it was just varying its diet
Closer to the water, this small bird fluffed its feathers as it settled in a bush. It looks a lot like the Willow Flycatcher but was a little bigger. So I’m guessing this is an Eastern Wood-Peewee (Contopus virens), but I can’t be sure!
Among all the non-native wildflowers, like Queen Anne’s Lace and Spotted Knapweed in the Old Fields, many native wildflowers are increasingly making a home in the Old Fields here. In August of 2014, Dr. Ben did what’s called a floristic survey of Gallagher Creek. Of the 192 species he found on one day there, 131 were native! Today they are more plentiful and healthy because Ben and his summer techs have eliminated many invasive shrubby plants and held repeated prescribed burns here. They plan to increase the native plant habitat in this park by planting native prairie species into the areas that were primarily non-native, invasive plants. The first phase of native plant installation will happen fall 2016, with a second round in 2017. Check out the sign on the west side of the driveway just as you enter the parking lot to learn more details.
In Bear Creek, Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is an occasional plant, but this summer, it grew in large swathes along the paths of the field near the parking lot at Gallagher Creek. Now, after the intense heat, it is turning brown and seeding for next spring’s crop.
Of course, native Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) appears here and there, and is now producing its green, paisley-shaped pods. Along with more common Canada Goldenrod,another native called Grass-leavedGoldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia),flourishes as well. As I reminded readers last summer, Goldenrods do not cause “hay fever.” Their pollen is heavy and drops quickly to the ground. The sneeze-producing culprit that blooms at the same time is the wind-pollinated Ragweed(genus Ambrosia) which you can see if you click on the link.
Common Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis)raises its graceful stems topped by yellow flowers among the grasses to the east of the park. According to the Illinois Wildflower site (one of my faves), these flowers “remain open from evening to early morning, but will remain open longer on cloudy days. They have a mild lemony scent, and bloom from mid-summer to fall on mature plants. Long narrow seedpods develop, which split open from the top to release many tiny, irregular brown seeds. They are small enough to be dispersed by the wind, and can remain viable in the soil after 70 years.” So if we keep caring for the land here, these night-blooming natives should be here for your grandchildren!
Out in the Old Fields, insects are busy in the late summer sun. Carolina Locusts (Dissosteira carolina)spring into flight, their wings making a brown blur at your feet.
A Viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) explored the possibilities of a Queen’s Anne’s Lace bloom one hot morning. Viceroys are distinguished from Monarchs by the bars on their hindwings.
A Common Ringlet (Coenonympha tullia) hovered in the grass below. Ringlets aren’t the most efficient flyers but they are prolific, occurring in Northern Europe, Asia and across North America but not in the southern hemisphere .
Clouded Sulphurs (Colias philodice) have a larger range of flight, feeding on taller plants like the Milkweeds and Coneflowers, but also on alfalfa or clover closer to the ground.
So, this modest little park is actually a rich oasis of native plants and wildlife along an important cold water stream in the midst of the most developed area of our township.
The Parks and Recreation Commission has plans to put a pavilion and perhaps even a play area in Gallagher Creek to make it even more inviting to its neighbors. But right now, if you bring your binoculars and your curiosity to Gallagher Creek as the summer wanes, nature, as always, will reward you with lots of beauty to explore.
Footnote: My sources for information are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991); Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for insect info; http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info; invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman; experienced birder Ruth Glass, bird walk leader at Stoney Creek Metro Park for bird identification; Birds of North America Online; Audubon.org; Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, Trees in My Forest by Bernd Heinrich, Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, Savannah River Ecology Lab (Univ of Georgia); Tortoise Trust website www.tortoisetrust.org; An Orchard Invisible: A Natural History of Seeds by Jonathan Silvertown; The Ecology of Plants by Gurevitch, Scheiner and Fox; other sites as cited in the text.