Tag Archives: Great Spangled Fritillary

Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park: BUTTERFLIES! Oh, and Birds and Blossoms, too…

The Northern Wetland Meadow at Stony Creek Ravine Park has no shallow pools now, but is lush with plant life.

A kaleidoscope of dancing butterflies grabbed my attention time and again as I visited Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park in August.  Oh, yes, fledgling birds also whisked about in the dense greenery, accompanied by adult supervision, learning to feed or begging to be fed. And patches of glorious orange or blue flowers emerged among the tall grass.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

But it was the butterflies that stole the show for me as they hovered, floated, sailed and finally settled on blossoms or perched on a leaf along the trail. On glamorous wings – or sometimes tattered ones –  they danced summer to a glorious finale. Come see.

The “Corps de Butterflies,” Costumed in a Rainbow of Colors, Take the Stage

Bands of colorful vegetation in the moist, northern restoration meadow attract skimming swallows, darting dragonflies and floating butterflies

Every year now I wait for the late summer arrival of the Giant Swallowtails (Papilio cresphonte), the largest butterflies in North America (6-7 inch wingspan!). This prima ballerina of the butterfly corps  used to only breed in the south. Many researchers seem to think that most Giant Swallowtails still migrate south in the autumn. However, as the climate has warmed and prevented September frosts, they have expanded their range, establishing some small populations in lower Michigan. Whether they are breeding in our area or just nectaring before heading back south, I’m always glad to see them.

A Giant Swallowtail is the lead dancer in August.

Several butterflies showed up on summer’s stage with torn wings. I’ve wondered if that could be a result of being blown into harm’s way by the winds that accompany summer thunderstorms. Or perhaps the late bloom of goldenrods this year meant that butterflies fed more on prickly thistles. The ragged Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) below seemed to be feeding and flying reasonably well, despite its ravaged wings. I hope it had already mated since shape is important in butterfly courtship!

A badly damaged Eastern Tiger Swallowtail seemed to be feeding naturally on thistle.

Most Eastern Tiger Swallowtails  took the stage in August dressed in their best. Notice the long hairs on the abdomen of the one below. I learned recently that the scales on a butterfly’s wings are actually flattened hairs.  According to a study by Judith H. Myers at the University of British Columbia, it’s possible that the long hairs, sometimes called “scent scales,”  are used to spread pheromones in flight during the breeding season. The pheromone receptors that pick up scent are located in both male and female antennae, though scent is less important than color, shape and movement when most butterflies are courting .

This Eastern Tiger Swallowtail has long hair on its abdomen which may help distribute pheromones when attracting a mate.

Another butterfly “long hair” comes in a tiny package, the Common Checkered-Skipper (Pyrgus communis). My husband spotted this tiny male whose wingspan is only about .75 to 1.25 inches. We’ve probably missed it before because it’s so small and looks nondescript when fluttering erratically along the path. But when it stops, wow! Its thorax is dark blue-gray and the males are not only fuzzy like most skippers; they have long bluish “hairs.” A handsome little guy! Evidently the female’s thorax is a much less glamorous dark brown. According to the Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels, this tiny butterfly is  most common in the central and southern states but regularly  expands its range and is seen in our region in late summer and fall.

This male Common Checkered-skipper has long scent scales that look like hair.

I was delighted to finally see a restless Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele) as it fluttered from sunlight to shade and back again along the entrance path. What a costume! The dorsal (upper) side of its wings is patterned in orange and black, but its ventral side flashes with silver spangles! The females lays eggs even into September. Their caterpillars overwinter and start eating violet leaves in the spring, according to the Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide.  

The Great Spangled Fritillary appears in July, but lays its eggs in September.

Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus) added its dark beauty to the butterfly ballet. It’s very tricky to discern the differences between dark swallowtails. If you need help like I do, I recommend the website at this link which compares the female Black Swallowtail, the black morph of the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, the Spicebush Swallowtail and the Pipevine Swallowtail. Whew! It always takes me a while to puzzle them out! I also get help from the good folks at the Michigan Lepidoptera Facebook group.

The Spicebush Swallowtail has a blush of blue on its hindwings.
The ventral (lower) side of the Spicebush’s wings have two rows of orange spots like the Black Swallowtail, except that one spot on the inner arc is replaced by another blush of blue.

I finally got a look at how the little Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos) came by its name. If you look closely at the lower edge of the hindwing, there’s a tiny whitish crescent shape in one of the boxes there. In the photo below, I brightened the spot and created a small red marker so you could see it, too. It’s a subtle field mark, for sure!

The red marker shows the white crescent for which the Pearl Crescent is named.

And here’s how the Pearl Crescent appears from above. You’ll see these little butterflies on any walk you take in our parks from June to October. I like knowing its name; it makes a walk more companionable somehow.

The tiny Pearl Crescent skips along the paths in our parks all summer long.

Of course it’s the season for Monarchs (Danaus plexippus) and though they seem less plentiful this year than last, a goodly number still stroke a few wingbeats and glide over the fields. Here’s a sampling of three at Stony Creek Ravine Park – a male settling along the path, one in flight toward a withering Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare) and what I think was a female on Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

Another set of dancing wings joined the choreography.  With a zing, a dive and a pause in mid-air (à la Baryshnikov), a fierce and glorious dancer,  the Green-striped Darner (Aeshna verticalis) came on the scene. Darners are big, more than 2.5 inches long,  with bulky thoraxes and long abdomens. Add the helmet-like appearance of their giant eyes which meet at the top of their heads, plus their ability to hover,  and in flight they have a remarkable resemblance to a tiny helicopter! These skillful predators feed on all kinds of insects, even meadowhawk dragonflies and damselflies. The northern fields were a-buzz with them at the park last week!

A Green-striped Darner patrolled along the path as we walked north at the park.

Of course, many other insects – bees, small butterflies, and smaller dragonflies – fed and bred in Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park in August. Here are a few more modest members of the winged corps.

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While following the Spicebush Swallowtail, I glanced down at some movement in the grass and found a tiny grasshopper. A wary, or perhaps inquisitive, nymph of what may have been a Red-legged Grasshopper (Melanoplus femurrubrum) peered at me through two blades of grass! My expert resource person, Dr. Gary Parsons of the Michigan State University’s Entomology Department informed me that not only are the nymphs of this genus very similar,  but within each species the nymphs have many variations of color and pattern. Nymphs don’t have fully-formed wings,  so it will have to save its balletic leaps for a bit later in the summer finale.

This  nymph, possibly of a Red-legged Grasshopper, looked straight at me as if to say, “Verrrry interesting!”

Once it saw my camera, it twitched around the side of the grass stem and dangled there for a few minutes by its front legs. At first, the move made it difficult for me to find the nymph among the grass stems. I wondered if this was a camouflage technique; it did resemble a dangling wilted leaf as my eyes searched the ground. But eventually it must have decided I was not a threat and hopped back on the stem. A lovely few moments with a young creature.

A tiny Wood Frog (Rana sylvaticus), barely visible under a leaf, also missed the whole dance above as it made its way to high ground. As the nights cool, Wood Frogs look for leaf litter where they can produce inner anti-freeze and hibernate, frozen solid, until spring.

A tiny Wood Frog, perhaps an inch long, tried to blend into the brown grasses on the trail, keeping perfectly still.

Oh, Yes, Birds too!

My walks in our parks so often provide serendipitous moments for me. I’d been craning my neck to watch Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) swooping overhead, trailing their long, forked tails and wished aloud that one would perch for a photo. Just then, as my husband and I rounded a curve at the bottom of the Lookout Hill, we were gifted with this wonderful sight!

A selection of about 25-30 Barn Swallows perching on the fence around the southern restoration area below the Lookout Hill.

Dozens of Barn Swallows lined up on the fence with others perching on stalks in the tall plants within the fence line. What a surprise!  According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab, older siblings from earlier Barn Swallow broods often assist their parents in feeding the later broods of nestlings. The parents sometimes even get help from unrelated juvenile barn swallows. On the other hand, unmated barn swallows occasionally attack the young of a mated pair in hope of mating with the female! Nature in all species, I expect, has its good instincts and its bad ones.

One morning when I arrived, a large Pokeweed plant along the entrance path near Snell Road was aflutter with juvenile Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum). I could hear their high, piercing calls, but it took a while until one of the youngsters settled on a tree branch nearby for its portrait. Only the mask and the yellow tip of its tail identified it for me, because of its mottled breast and gray overall appearance.

A juvenile Cedar Waxwing can be identified from its mask and the yellow bar at the end of its tail.

A watchful older Waxwing perched in a nearby tree keeping an eye on the rowdy juveniles enjoying the Pokeweed berries and each other’s company. This one appears to be a first year waxwing because its upper wing is solid gray-brown and is missing its red dot; perhaps it has begun the annual molt because its mask and crest look incomplete. Its disgruntled look made me smile, thinking maybe babysitting juveniles was not its favorite assignment!

An older Cedar Waxwing keeps an eye on a troupe of rowdy youngsters.

An Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) sitting nearby looked over at the hubbub but generally ignored the Waxwings. Since Kingbirds are insectivores during the summers here, there was no need to compete for the Pokeweed berries. In the winter, however, when they fly all the way to the Amazon, they join a variety of flocks and eat only fruit.

An Eastern Kingbird watching the young Waxwings.

At the top of the Lookout Hill, a pair of House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus)- either females or juveniles which look just like their moms – were avidly scraping insects or insect eggs off the stems and leaves of a tree that clearly had already hosted a lot of caterpillars or other small bugs. The leaves were riddled with holes! I’m guessing that House Finches learn at a young age that leaves with holes mean FOOD!

These House Finches seemed to be making most of an insect-scavenged tree at the top of the Lookout Hill.

Nearby a juvenile Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus) looked a bit forlorn after it settled in a tree on the Lookout Hill. I didn’t identify this little bird as a Grosbeak until local birder extraordinaire Ruth Glass helped me out. Grosbeaks are now starting their migration to the Caribbean, so I hope this little male will soon be ready to take on his long flight across the country and the ocean beyond.

A juvenile Rose-breasted Grosbeak might mature a bit more before it begins its long migration to the Caribbean.

Our stewardship manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, mowed a path from the bottom of the Lookout Hill, going west, south, and then west again to connect to the older section of the park where the West Branch of Stony Creek runs through a beautiful ravine. As I approached the woods over the ravine, I kept hearing a plaintive Eastern Wood-Pewee (Contopus virens) in the woods but never got to see it. But I did see this little flycatcher, the Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) perching on a bare branch looking a bit rumpled. I wondered if it was a juvenile, though I can’t tell from its plumage.

An Eastern Phoebe looking a bit ruffled along the trail from the new section into the older ravine section of Stony Creek Ravine Park.

On a cool morning on my last trip to the park, a molting European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) appeared to be warming its breast high in a bare snag along the entrance trail. During the summer breeding season, these non-native birds are dressed in sleek black with iridescent blue-green overlays. Their beaks turn yellow then, too. But now, as fall arrives, they change into their winter garb. Their beaks turn dark and the feathers on their backs and breasts become covered with white spots. This one was already well along in the process.

This European Starling is in the process of molting to its spotted winter feathers and dark beak.

And Last But Certainly Not Least, the Trees and Plants that Make It All Possible!

Native Black-eyed Susans growing in a wet spot at Stony Creek Ravine Park.  Photo by Ben VanderWeide

Clearly, butterflies and birds grace our parks because these natural areas are rich in nutritious native food and abundant shelter for both adults and their young – the fledglings and the caterpillars. So let’s spend the last few minutes with perhaps an under-appreciated but vital element of any habitat – the native plants and trees that provide nesting space, nectar, pollen, seeds, nuts and most importantly, oxygen for all creatures – including us!

Wildflowers First

Begin by looking at that glorious patch of rare, native Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia fulgida) pictured above. These are not the ordinary Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) which gardeners  sometimes choose as annuals, or the native, but short-lived Rudbeckia hirtas that thrive in so many habits, including dry prairies. These bright yellow flowers at Stony Creek Ravine Park are a separate species of wildflower that prefers wetlands and is a long-lived perennial. They’re also the species used to create many varieties of cultivars used in landscaping. I’m so glad Ben shared his photo and his enthusiasm on finding these special plants – and for the photo. I was unaware that a wetland “Susan” even existed!

Ben also discovered a lovely patch of Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) growing near the edge of the woods in the north area of the park.  It too is a lovely wetland plant and often hosts our native, long-tongued Bumblebees. Though I’ve seen small patches and single stems of these blue flowers in other parks, Ben’s discovery is the biggest patch I’ve seen.

Several fields in this new section of the park are under cultivation by a local farmer until the park restoration can begin more fully there. At the edge of one of them is a lovely stand of bright pink Swamp/Rose Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata). These wetland milkweeds host Monarch butterflies, of course, as well as swallowtails, some frittilaries, native bees and skippers. But, good news, deer don’t eat milkweeds!  So if you have a moist garden, give these some thought.

I love Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) for its upright purple plumes, but it is also remarkably productive in the food web. Its nectar provides nutrition for a wide variety of native bees, small butterflies and moths. According to the Illinois Wildflowers website, the seeds also provide nutrition for many birds, including Cardinals, Swamp Sparrows, Field Sparrows, Song Sparrows and our winter visitor, the Dark-eyed Junco. Beauty for the eye and utility for the food web – a great combination!

Blue Vervain’s plume provides lots of sustenance to birds and pollinators.

Oh, and remember those young Cedar Waxwings jostling around in the greenery? What attracted them most were Pokeweed berries (Phytolacca americana). Lots of other birds love them as well, including Cardinals, the Gray Catbird and the Brown Thrasher. The fruits,  which are green now,  turn dark purple when mature. On those pink stalks, the plants look as though they should be somewhere in the tropics! Mammals however, like we humans and our pets,  should not partake of any part of this toxic plant. It looks luscious but it has evolved to be eaten by birds and not by any members of mammalia, our class of animals – which is frustrating because the fruits looks so tempting!

Here’s a quick tour of some of the other native wildflowers sprinkled throughout the meadows at Stony Creek Ravine providing sustenance to wildlife.

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And Now, A Few of the Mighty Trees at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park!

The Ravine and the West Branch of Stony Creek, for which the park is named

Though the fields of Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park are alive with pollinators, blossoms and birds, the lush woods that embrace them are equally impressive. In the park’s far western section, the West Branch of Stony Creek shines silver as it runs through the steep terrain of the heavily treed ravine for which the park is named. Along  its slopes and on the trail high above the creek, many species of trees  compete for sunlight while sharing nutrient resources through the fungal networks underground.

Some trees go to great lengths to reach the sunlight along the trail above the ravine.

One tree I look for every time I visit the ravine section of the park is a lovely American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) just over the edge of the slope near the end of the ravine trail.  Its satin-like bark makes me wish I could reach out and touch it.  According to the University of Michigan’s Michigan Flora website, a non-native scale insect (Cryptococcus fagisuga) can leave wounds in its bark that make them vulnerable to a deadly fungus (Nectria coccinea) which causes Beech Bark Disease, only recently discovered in Michigan. We need to protect these glorious native trees which provide so much food for wildlife and so much beauty for us.

A large beech tree stands precariously over the edge of the Stony Creek Ravine.

On the day the Wednesday bird group visited the park, Ben pointed out a huge Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa) next to the trail. This huge tree has merged three very large trunks. Each on their own would constitute a mighty oak!

The empty “mossy cup acorn” of a Bur Oak.

Bur Oaks make what the Michigan Flora website calls “mossy cup” acorns. This tree may live for many years to come. Not terribly shade tolerant, it is exposed to sunlight on the edge of  the woods near the trail and the long wetland along the entrance trail probably provides the amount of moisture it prefers. Ah, the stories this old tree could tell!

An old Bur Oak south of the trail that leads to the Ravine.

On the tree line between the northern restoration section and the western meadows is an old White Oak (Quercus alba) that demonstrates how location effects the growth of trees. In the open sunlight, surrounded by little competition, the oak has basked in sunlight for many years and spread it branches out instead of up, into a lush, wide crown. What a sight!

An old White Oak spreads out in the uninterrupted sunlight next to the north restoration area.

In the forest to the north last fall, Ben and I visited a huge Wild Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) that used its energy to grow tall, reaching up into the sunlight. Maybe that’s why its lovely yellow flowers only bloom high in the crown. Here’s the photo of it that I posted previously in the blog – just another example of the trees waiting to be explored in the forests beyond the fields.

A Tulip Tree growing tall to reach the sun in the shady northern forest at Stony Creek Ravine Park.

The Legacy Within Us

My husband at dusk just being with nature

I recently enjoyed an On Being Podcast interview with naturalist and environmental journalist, Michael McCarthy. He shared an insight from evolutionary psychology, namely that for 50,000 generations we humans were simply part of nature. For all that time, before we settled down to farm, we experienced all the challenges other creatures face in trying to survive in nature. Or as he put it “we were wildlife, if you like.” As a result, McCarthy contends, even now what we experienced, what we learned during those millennia is still in us, still making us feel at home in the natural world.

Maybe that explains why so many of us experience peace when we’re in places like Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park. On some level, we’re at home in natural areas in a way that even our cozy firesides cannot quite duplicate. Standing on the Lookout Hill at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park, I look out across moist wetlands and meadows to the encircling wood and just let go, become part of the scenery, embedded in its beauty. The swallows dip and rise, the butterflies float from stem to stem, the woods stands dark and mysterious, the creek at the western edge sings its songs over the rocks – and I’m just part of it all.

I imagine it’s that kinship with nature that motivates you and I to learn about and care for our badly damaged world. And it’s probably that kinship which pushes us out the door and into a park on a cold fall morning or just before dark on a summer night to once more savor our connection to the natural world. Michael McCarthy put it like this: “… there is a legacy deep within us, a legacy of instinct, a legacy of inherited feelings, which may lie very deep in the tissues…we might have left the natural world, most of us, but the natural world has not left us.”

And what a blessing that is! Our task, our calling now is to continue restoring and preserving the natural world for our children and grandchildren. By honoring that legacy within, we can hope to insure that future generations will also be able to breathe deep and feel the freedom and peace that nature so generously provides to us.

Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park: Meadows A-Flutter and a Steep Forest with… Tulip Trees!

The west branch of Stony Creek winds through the ravine

Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park is a small park with big contrasts – between the sunlit, gently rolling meadow and the forest with large trees grasping the steep slope that plunges down to the creek stippled with sunlight below. It’s a fairly short walk, just in and out, for now. Eventually, we hope this elbow of a park will be joined to 208 spectacular acres to the east, now being acquired by our Parks & Recreation Commission. So I’d suggest you see it soon, so you can say you “knew it when!”

An Undulating Path through a Meadow of Fluttering Wings

The trail begins in a grove of trees at the end of Knob Creek Drive with its single parking space. A few years ago, Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide removed walls of invasive shrubs that crowded the edges of the trail into the park, obscuring the meadow. Now when I step into the park, the landscape is open to fields filled with tall flowers and sunlight. The meadow is an exuberant, dense tangle of native and non-native wildflowers –  and a lot of thistle! But the butterflies and bees make do with what they find and they are everywhere! So I periodically ventured out as far as possible into the shoulder-high plants to get a little closer!

Cam among the incredibly tall flowers and thistles of the meadow at Stony Creek Ravine.

Ben had reported seeing lots of Giant Swallowtails (Papilio cresphontes) on thistles at the park. Having seen them there in previous years, I was excited to look for them. But after a very hot week, they had evidently moved on to greener pastures. I only saw one at an unreachable distance across the meadow on my first visit. But since I saw many of them later at Charles Ilsley Park, here’s a photo of one to refresh your memory. Pretty impressive size, eh? They are actually the largest butterfly in North America!

Giant Swallowtail butterflies seem to be coming to our area in increasing numbers.

My birding friend, Bob Bonin, also saw something at Stony Creek in August that I only saw from a distance. I had a quick glimpse of a Snowberry Clearwing Moth (Hemaris diffinis) but couldn’t wade fast enough into the greenery to catch a shot of it. Bob generously shared his beautiful shot of one feeding on the last drops of nectar from a native  Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa).  Clearwings lose some of the wing scales due to their hummingbird-style, hovering flight, leaving areas of their wings almost transparent. The yellow and black fuzziness of the  Snowberry Clearwing (Snowberry is one of its host plants) means that it’s often mistaken for a bumblebee – perhaps providing some protection from predators.

The Snowberry Clearwing Moth can be mistaken for a bumblebee. Photo at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park by Bob Bonin, used with permission

Native bee-balm also prompted a stopover by the Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus) which, according to Wikipedia, prefers to hang from the underside of leaves at night or on hot and humid days. Bee-balm, true to its name, attracts many native insects, including the ubiquitous native Bumblebees (genus Bombus).  (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

 

For the first time ever, I noticed European Honeybees (Apis mellifera) literally running around the tops of non-native Queen Anne’s Lace. I’d never before noticed this “busy bee” activity! They rush across each lacy blossom, perhaps quickly gathering nectar or pollen. Bee Culture, a beekeeping magazine, says that Queen Anne’s Lace produces the greatest amount of nectar in hot weather, so perhaps that’s what attracted them. Let me know in the comments if you have more info than I could find on this phenomenon. Here’s my amateur video of the bee race at Stony Creek Ravine.

It’s always heartening to see Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus) in our parks, especially a female one sipping on Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), its favorite host plant on which to lay eggs!

A female Monarch on Common Milkweed! Every year our parks do their part to protect this beloved species.

The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) is a generalist who can live in lots of habitats, from forests to meadows to urban areas. Its caterpillar can eat and grow on many of the trees in our parks, including Wild Black Cherry, Willows, Cottonwoods and Tulip Trees (see below!), but also on non-native plants like Lilacs. This adaptability means it’s thriving, and that made me glad as it paused so delicately to sip from the only tender part of a Plumeless Thistle (Carduus acanthoides).

An Eastern Tiger Swallowtail sips nectar from a non-native plumeless thistle.

Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele) looked a bit ragged and uncomfortable one humid afternoon. I wonder if it had landed on too many prickly, bristly plants like the Plumeless Thistle! Most of the “spangles” are on the underside of the hindwings, so I’ve included an older photo to show them, since this butterfly clearly had no attention of feeding with its wings up.

A Great Spangled Fritillary on a very uncomfortable  plant!
Most of the silver spangles on a Great Spangled Fritillary are on the underside of the hindwings.

Red-spotted Purple (Limenitis arthemis) paused on non-native Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota). It prefers rotted fruit or even dung and carrion, but occasionally it sips nectar from small white flowers like these, according to the citizen science website, butterfliesandmoths.org.  These butterflies sometimes produce two broods. The first caterpillars hatch and once half-grown, form a “hibernaculum,” an over-wintering refuge which for caterpillars usually involves a folded leaf and some spun silk to secure it. They then emerge in the spring and finish maturing.  According to Wikipedia, some of  the first larvae “are able to mature during the summer, so they emerge as the second brood [in] early fall,” but may have a tough time surviving winter cold. The prime condition of the butterfly below makes me wonder if it was from an early second hatch.

A Red-spotted Purple rests on a non-native Queen Anne’s Lace.

Some small butterflies also made the most of the late summer meadow. The  common and colorful Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos) landed repeatedly on the path in front of me, as they often do. These very small butterflies can mate many times between April and November so we’re almost bound to see one on any summer walk  in our parks. And we’re also likely to see the non-native Cabbage Butterfly (Pieris rapae). I just love the sculptural look of the ventral (underside) of the wings on the one below. I think she’s a female since I can just make out the double wing spots on the dorsal (upper side); males have only one spot.

Right now, you’ll probably see a creature along the trail that looks like a butterfly with its black wings edged in beige, but is really the Carolina Locust (Dissosteira carolina). Despite seeing them every summer, I’ve never gotten a shot of their sudden flights from under my feet. So I can only show you what they look like once they land. But I’ve borrowed with permission a photo from an iNaturalist.org photographer, Joshua G. Smith, who held one in his hand to get a photo of the wing.

The Woods, the Deer Effect and a Bubbling Creek Below

A panorama of the woods where it begins to slope toward Stony Creek

The woods at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park is full of big oaks and some beautiful native Tulip Trees (Lirodendron tulipfera)! These are not the shorter, heavy flowering cultivated trees that I grew up seeing in people’s yards. These mighty trees grow beautifully straight and tall often with few limbs once they reach 80-100 feet. In virgin habitat, they can grow to 160 feet and their girth can be as wide as 10 feet! According to Ben, there’s a huge one on the new piece of property that is planned to eventually connect with the existing 60 acre park. I hope someday I’ll be able to see it and show it to you here!

Tulip trees were once valued as timber because they grow straight and tall with few limbs until they are 80-100 feet tall.

Wild tulip trees (vs. nursery cultivated ones) only bloom at the top of the tree, so their glamorous flowers are rarely seen, but are rich with nectar. Their bark is ridged in an orderly pattern. The leaves have a unique, squared-off shape. And the graceful, seed-filled cones stay on the tree all winter only falling to the forest floor in the spring. I have never seen the flowers up close or the cones, so my thanks go to iNaturalist.org photographers kwilie and Sandy Wolkenberg for sharing the bloom and cone photos below. We’re lucky to see Tulip trees here because we are at the far north edge of their range. Can you tell I’ve found a new favorite native tree?

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The forest floor beneath the impressive trees, though, is almost barren. The shade of course is very dense. But a huge problem is that, despite a limited hunting season in this park two days each week in from October to January, the deer are plentiful. As a result, few woodland plants reach maturity on the forest floor. Deer have no front teeth, so the stems left on the plants they graze are ripped and flattened as seen below. Rabbits, for instance, with their incisors, make a neat, angular cut. But hope springs eternal! Though most tulip tree seeds don’t survive, I found a small sapling that somehow had escaped the notice of the deer -so far.

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As you hike down to the creek, more grasses appear. The creek’s moisture encourages some flowers, especially in the spring when the trees haven’t leafed out and more sunlight reaches the forest floor. In summer, the moist river bank is a  hangout for damselflies. One warm, gray afternoon,  I saw a female Ebony Jewel Wing (Calopteryx maculata) looking at me head-on from a fallen branch.

A female Ebony Jewelwing damselfly looked at me intently!

Her mate is a bit more glamorous, but I also like the elegant understatement of the female.

The west branch of Stony Creek burbles along, tumbling over rocks, slipping under fallen trees, catching glints of sunlight on its surface. And beneath the surface, small fish school in the shallows.

Small fish schooling in the clear water of Stony Creek as it runs through the ravine.

Deep in the woods on the far side of the creek, the shriek of a young Red-tailed Hawk begging to be fed grated upon my ears. Young hawks can repeat this harsh cry for 4 to 6 weeks! I know what adult hawks are dealing with, because in some years, a young hawk subjects my husband and I to their cries from the field next to our house! But hawks believe in tough love and eventually it gets hungry enough, I guess, to do its own hunting. Here’s my recording at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park.

The youngster was nowhere in sight, but here’s a photo of one taken along Predmore Road near Lost Lake Park in 2017.

Red-tailed Hawk juvenile near Lost Lake in 2017

On a later visit, I was startled by a flash of huge wings, as a young hawk (I think!) flashed across the path in front of me and stumbled into a tree much too small for its size and weight. It wobbled back and forth on a thin branch for a few seconds. But before I raised my camera, it lumbered up into the air and soared off into the woods on the far side of the meadow. As far as I could tell this “desperate escape” was caused by the harassing pursuit of a single Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) – hardly the behavior of an adult hawk!  Like a lot of adolescents, this young bird just needs a bit more time to grow up.

Back Up in the Meadow – Baby Birds and a Fun Baby Insect

It’s a steep climb out of the ravine, up through the woods to the path and the sunlit meadow. Back on the trail,  I noticed out in the meadow a few fledglings learning to make their own way in the world. A juvenile Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) still sported the fledgling’s dappled chest, a field mark common to other members of the thrush family. It had landed high on the bare branch of a snag to survey the field, looking quite confident that it could survive on its own.

A Bluebird fledgling out on its own and surveying its world.

A little Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) popped up out of the greenery, looking like a plush toy! Donald W. Stokes’ Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol. 1) points out that a good field mark for juveniles is that their tails are about half the size of an adult Song Sparrow. Next spring, this little sparrow will look for a nesting site within its “song neighborhood,” i.e. close to the the place where adult birds sing the songs that it heard and memorized as a nestling. According to this Cornell Ornithology Bird Academy website, juvenile male sparrows need to practice for several months before they can sing their repertoire perfectly – sort of like babies babbling before talking.

A Song Sparrow fledgling learns its song repertoire from neighboring adults while still in the nest.

Far out in the meadow, I saw a hard-working male American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) traveling about with a juvenile. Male Goldfinches do most of the fledgling feeding because the females are busy with a second clutch of eggs. Goldfinches wait to breed until mid-summer when thistles provide them with fluffy pappus (downy plant material) to make an almost water-tight nest lining. Then they feed their young with partially digested thistle seed. I could hear an insistent fledgling calling to be fed and could see the adult male flying to meet it. Each time, the two of them disappeared into the greenery for a meal. I moved further into the dense undergrowth, trying to see the adult feeding the youngster. Finally, the fledgling, alone again, came out onto a bare tree stem and diligently chewed at its tip. My best guess is that this behavior is a way to practice stripping hulls from the seeds that make up almost all of a goldfinch’s diet. But I’m not sure, though I’ve seen two young goldfinches do this in the last week!

A juvenile Goldfinch gnaws the end of a stem, perhaps practice for removing hulls from seeds in the future.

Out in the field, the adult male Goldfinch hopped about on a thistle, filling his beak with seed to share with the youngster. I believe the thistle he chose  is again Plumeless Thistle.  At least it appears to feed the birds and butterflies!

A Goldfinch male filling his beak with native seed from a Plumeless Thistle to share with his nearby fledgling.

The birds will be able to enjoy a treat before too long, because a big, energetic patch of  American Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) with its Dr. Seuss-style color scheme has appeared along the trail! The green berries in the photo below will gradually turn white and then deep purplish-black. When ripe, they are much beloved by birds, particularly the Gray Catbird, Brown Thrasher, Northern Cardinal and the Northern Mockingbird, according to Wikipedia. However, they are highly toxic to most mammals, including us humans! So admire them,  but no snacking, not even one!

On the way back to the car, I spotted one of the largest and  most graceful nests of Eastern Tent Caterpillars (Malacosoma americanum) I’ve ever seen. These gregarious caterpillars head out each morning to forage together and return to their tents at night. The tents are added to each day before they leave, so they have multiple layers. As a result, the caterpillars can go to different parts of the tent for heating or cooling.  Though their feeding can defoliate trees, they cause little permanent damage and the trees generally re-leaf once they’re gone.

This tent is almost empty probably because in the morning, the Tent Caterpillars leave en masse to find food together.

My forays deeper into the meadow left me with socks covered in burs and sticky seeds. So on my way back to the car, I stopped at the beautiful bench commemorating the Kezlarian’s generosity toward this park. Along with the burs, I plucked a small caterpillar from one sock and set it on the bench. To my delight, it quickly began scooting around on the granite at a rapid pace. I laughed out loud! It was an inchworm! I looked them up when I got home and discovered they are caterpillars of the large and diverse moth family, Geometridae. Here’s the 30 second video I took of it that still tickles me. (It should have some cartoon music in the background, but again, I’m a complete beginner at videography!)

By the way, after filming, I let it climb on a dry leaf, carried it to a nice green one and wished it well.

The Persistence of Nature as a Challenge to Care

Water flows around a bend in Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park.

Places like Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park strengthen my hope when life feels challenging. The intense July heat – reportedly the hottest July in history worldwide! – finished the bloom of many flowers that might have lasted longer in a normal year. But honey bees rush about on less nectar-rich blooms, trying to gather their much-needed supply of pollen to feed the young  or  the nectar for making honey to feed the over-wintering colony. Some butterflies make their way across great distances  in unpredictable weather, seeking out available nectar to feed themselves and suitable host plants for their eggs. Young birds exercise their new skills, learning within weeks how to forage on their own in a landscape shaped by the changing climate. The glimmering creek down in the shadows of the forest rises and falls with the rainfall, but, for now,  flows on.

This same persistence, I think, also challenges us to do what we can to cool our planet and return to the patterns that nature has bequeathed to us through eons of experimentation. We owe it to the wildflowers, bees, butterflies – all of the natural world that supports us – to shape our lives not just to our human needs, but the needs of all the living beings that share this little blue planet with us. The township stewardship program is working on that, I’m working on that – and I bet you are, too. Let’s press on!

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Young Creatures Explore among High Summer Flowers

 

Yound doe w two fawns
A small doe with her two fawns, one nursing, on the path behind the Center Pond one hot Sunday afternoon

Take a walk down the Walnut Lane in the center of Bear Creek. Contemplate the marsh on an early July morning when the heat is building for a blistering afternoon. Laugh at the bulging yellow throats expelling frog song at the Center Pond.

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

You simply can’t miss summer youngsters sallying forth to explore the world. Frog eggs, fledglings, fawns, ducklings, floating, flying or running with tails in the air – young creatures are setting out to explore their world.  And the wildflowers!! The flowers that declare “IT’S SUMMER!” are spattering color across the meadows, under the trees and  along the damp shores of the wetlands. It’s a season for hot sun, cool shade, “bug juice” protection after a rain – and celebrating all the life just burgeoning forth all around you.

High Summer in the Meadows

Up on the highest point, overlooking the rolling old fields of Bear Creek, tall native flowers sway and nod in the summer sunlight. Native Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) established its giant, sandpaper-and-leather leaves (up to 1.5 feet high and 1 ft wide!) last month.

prairie dock leaf and bud
Prairie Dock’s giant leaf with the stem and bud just forming earlier in the summer

Prairie Dock thrives after fire, so this spring’s prescribed burn really encouraged this wonderful native plant. It may be that it grows tall in order to get its flowers above tall prairie grasses, like Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) which is also sprouting around the park since the burn. Naked Prairie Dock stems shoot up to 10 feet in the air topped by ball-shaped buds and bright yellow flowers. All kinds of bees probe the blossoms – and occasionally hummingbirds and as well, according to the website  www.illinoiswildflowers.info (a fave site for detailed wildflower information).

Prairie Dock
The bare stems of native Prairie Dock with ball-shaped buds and bright yellow flowers shoot up to 10 feet in the air!

Just below them, the Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) dance with every passing breeze. These prairie natives actually prefer dry soil and are easy to grow if you’re considering a native garden. Just give them plenty of sun!

Purple coneflower
Native yellow coneflower is blooming below and around the giant Prairie Dock up on the south hill.

Along the trails, Wild Bee Balm/Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) also welcomes bees, of course. In fact one small bee (Monarda dufourea) specializes in pollinating this native member of the mint family.

Bee balm, Menarda
Wild Bee Balm/Bergamot is a native that attracts all kinds of bees, even one who specializes in it!

Brilliant orange Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) dots the fields with its bright orange fireworks. This native, often mistaken for the western plant Indian Paintbrush , lives up to its name. Butterflies love it, Monarchs included. Mammals avoid it, so it also gets planted in native gardens.

Butterfly milkweed
Butterfly milkweed dots the fields with its orange fireworks and makes graceful, curved seedpods in the autumn.

Of course, the fields are full of summer birds and their young as well. A male Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) hopped from limb to limb at the far edge of the Eastern Path, busy finding insects for his young who fluttered along behind (juvenile not pictured here.)

Oriole BC
A Baltimore Oriole busily searches for insects to feed his young.

I caught a photo of what appears to be a Baltimore Oriole fledgling venturing out to find food on her own one rainy morning.

Oriole juvenile female wet
Young Baltimore Oriole exploring the world one rainy morning.

A male Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater)  postured in a tree, throwing his head back to impress a competitor who assiduously ignored him.

Cowbird males posturing
One Brown-headed Cowbird male trying, and evidently failing, to impress another.

After repeatedly seeing the flashing white patch above the tail of Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus) as they fly up from the field to the trees in Bear Creek, I finally caught one sitting in the grass near home. These elegantly colored woodpeckers most often eat on the ground, probing for ants in the soil with their long beaks and then licking them up quickly with their barbed tongues.

Flicker male in the grass
The black “mustache” means this Northern Flicker, searching for ants in the grass, is a male.

In the distance, almost any time of day, the sweet summer song of the Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus ), spills from the treetops. Some compare its intricate song to a Robin singing opera! I especially love the evening version, which to my ear, seems softer than the daytime song.

Rose breasted Grosbeak male
The Rose-breasted Grosbeak sings his lovely, intricate song off and on all day, and to my ear, a mellower version at sunset.

Male House Finches also sing cheerily in small bushes and trees. Their red feathers seem particularly intense this year which Cornell Lab says is due to the pigment in their diet during their spring molt. Something certainly livened up the color of this male!

House finch male
The bright red of this male House Finch is created by the pigments in its diet during the molt.

The female House Finch wears a more sedate outfit. Here’s one fluffing up her feathers in preparation for some serious preening.

House Finch female taking off
A female House Finch prepares for preening her wing feathers..

Butterflies also grace the meadows as they flutter among the blossoms.  Though we associate Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) with their importance to Monarchs (Danaus plexippus), this native plant  hosts myriad butterflies.  Here a male Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) sips its nectar on a hot afternoon.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail male
A male Eastern Tiger Swallowtail has blue patches with orange spots at the edge of its beautifully striped wings.

And nearby, a Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele) did the same.  It’s wonderful how native plants provide a natural food source for so much of our native wildlife.

Great spangled frittilary 2
A Great Spangled Fritillary probes for nectar on native Common Milkweed along the Eastern Path.

This fancy insect, the Red Milkweed Beetle ((Tetraopes tetrophthalmus), is munching the milkweed’s leaves.  Doesn’t it look like a cartoon bug with its  ruffled skirt and lo-o-ong, curved “horns”?

Red Milkweed Beetle (Family Cerambycidae)
The Red Milkweed Beetle is toxic from eating milkweed and its bright colors warn predators of that fact.

According to the “Bug Lady” at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, “Adult RMBs…can get away with being red and black in a green world because milkweeds are toxic, and so, therefore, are RMBs, and red and black are … aposematic (warning) colors.” If insects intrigue you, as they occasionally do me, read more about this cool bug at the Bug Lady’s link. This insect evidently “purrs,” wipes its face on a leaf if it gets too much “milk” on its mouth to prevent having it glued shut (!) and has a really interesting life cycle!

On the other side of the park, native Staghorn Sumac‘s (Rhus typhina )scarlet fruits  are already shining among deep green leaves at the edge of the Western Slope.

Sumac
The glamorous red fruits of the Staghorn Sumac on the western edge of the park.

High Summer Between the Sunny Fields and the Shade

As you stroll toward the more moist and shady areas of the park, other creatures and wildflowers greet you as you move in and out of the bright sunlight and shade. A beautiful milkweed that loves having moist “feet,” the Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) grows among the reeds and cat-tails along the Eastern Path and across the boardwalk from the Playground Pond. Ben VanderWeide, our township Stewardship Manager, tells me that it makes a better garden plant than Common Milkweed, because this pretty plant grows in well-behaved clumps.  Here’s one about to bloom.

Swamp Milkweed
A Swamp Milkweed about to bloom. Some lovers of native wildflowers are hoping to give it the more glamorous name, “Rose Milkweed.” I vote yes!

And another beautiful native member of the  milkweed family  is also about to bloom. Spotted Joe Pye (Eutrochium maculatum) now shows its blushing green leaves and soon its pink blossoms and purple stems will be ready for close viewing at the southern entrance to Bear Creek Marsh.

Joe Pye not yet blooming
Joe Pye will soon be blooming near the deck at the southern entrance to Bear Creek Marsh.

Of course non-natives add splashes of color at the moist border between field and forest, as well. Settlers brought to their gardens many plants with “wort” in their name, believing they had medicinal value.  Here are a couple non-native “wort” plants – Common St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) on the left and Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) on the right. (Hover cursor for caption; click to enlarge.)

A creature that loves dappled light,  an Ebony Jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata), pauses for a moment in bright sunlight, showing the complex color of those normally very dark wings. This seems to be a female because her abdomen is not metallic blue like the male and her wings are tipped with white dots.

Ebony jewelwing damselfly
A female  Ebony Jewelwing damselfly has a duller abdomen and white dots on the tips of her wings.

One morning while birding on the northern loop of the park, a Ctencuha Moth landed on Ben and posed for a few moments.  What a striking moth with dark wings set off by yellow and light blue on the thorax and head – and its iridescent blue body blazes forth when it takes flight!

Ctenucha Moth lands on Ben
This beautiful Ctenucha Moth has an iridescent blue body best seen when it flies.

High Summer in the Pond and the Marsh

Of course, really wet areas of Bear Creek  have high summer flora and fauna all their own. Hundreds of Green Frogs (Rana clamitans) emerged last week. And suddenly all you could see at the Center Pond were their bulging yellow throats as they produced what could literally be called “full-throated” frogsong. There were so many that they were chasing each other through the water in competition for mates.

Apparently, some Green Frogs are already laying eggs. In this photo, each dark dot is a frog embryo surrounded by protective, clear “jelly” in a mass which is called “frogspawn.”   Each female frog can lay from 1,000 to 7,000 eggs – but only about five become adult frogs. Frog eggs and tadpoles are a food source for many creatures – fish, birds, and dragonflies among others. About a week from now,  the tiny tadpoles will emerge.

Frog eggs w water strider
Frog eggs float in their gelatin just below the water surface at the Center Pond while  Water Striders (family Gerridae) move across the surface above.

It appears that the family of Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) that we birders saw earlier at the Playground Pond may have moved to the Center Pond as the fledglings became juveniles. At the far west of the pond, a female carefully supervised five youngsters as they splashed and fed.

Wood duck family
A female Wood Duck supervised her five youngsters as they fed and splashed in the Center Pond.

The Center Pond also had a dragonfly visitor that I hadn’t identified before.  The usual residents, like the Dot-tailed Whiteface Dragonfly (Leucorrhinia intacta), were accompanied by a pair of Blue Dashers (Pachydiplax longipennis) who took turns perching on a branch protruding from the water. This male had probably been nearby since hatching in May, when his abdomen would have been darker blue, but as this dragonfly ages,  it “develops a coating of waxy cells that lighten it,” according to my insect “guru,” the University of Wisconsin’s “Bug Lady.”  

Blue dasher male dragonfly Pachydiplax longipennis
The Blue Dasher dragonfly’s dark blue abdomen gets paler as the summer wears on. Its head, though, is a lively blue/green and its thorax is beautifully striped.

Before the rains came to break the long dry spell, the Bear Creek Marsh had gone dry, leaving an unhappy young Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) stranded in the drying mud. It was still moving but very slowly. It looked much happier two days later after a long, overnight rain put some water back into the marsh!

One hot Sunday afternoon, my husband and I spotted an unfamiliar bird across the water near the reeds. I didn’t get a great shot; my lens just didn’t reach far enough. I’m not sure if this is sandpiper or some other shore bird, but I’m open to suggestions. [Edit:  Expert birder Ruth Glass identifies this bird as a Solitary Sandpiper (Tringa solitaria). Thank you, Ruth!]

Common Sandpiper in the Marsh?
I saw this shore bird in the distance at the marsh. Anybody have an ID suggestion? [Edit: Expert birder Ruth Glass identified this as a Solitary Sandpiper]
The marsh, too, has its high summer blooms. Sedges of various kinds sink their roots in the mud around the northern deck. I’m getting more interested in the wide variety of these ancient plants from the genus Carex. Common Bur-Reed plants are decorated with spiky spherical fruits. Aren’t they cool shapes?

Button Bush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), a native shrub  with its Sputnik-style blooms, clusters near both entrances to the marsh. Its sputnik-like blooms decorate wetlands and attract native insects all summer and its fruits feed birds throughout the autumn and winter.

button bush bloom closeup
Closeup of a Buttonbush blossom

Fresh new Cat-tail heads are developing in the marsh. Male flowers cluster in the spike at the top of the stem, while tiny female flowers form in the thicker section below. While the native species is a beneficial wetland plant, the non-native invasive cattails are often aggressive, especially where lots of nutrients from lawns and roads drain into wetlands.

Cat-tails
Cat-tails have male flowers in the spike at the top, female flowers in the thicker section below.

And near the marsh, another summer native, Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), peeks out of the shade into the sunlight. The stems of this wildflower can reduce the effects of poison ivy if mashed and rubbed against the skin, according to the National Institutes of Health.  I just like how it looks! Bees and hummingbirds like the nectar inside.

Jewel weed
Jewelweed is also called Touch-me-not, because when mature, the seeds shoot out if touched.

A Perfect Time for Youngsters to Meet Youngsters

Patch of common milkweed
A patch of Common Milkweed on the Eastern Path

A breezy, warm afternoon is a perfect time to introduce a child you love to some of nature’s youngsters hatching, flying, swimming and leaping through Bear Creek Nature Park.  And along the way, children can sniff the flowers (no picking!), stick a finger in the frogspawn (eeww!), try to imitate birdsong, analyze the clouds – whatever suits the child’s fancy.   Nature can fill children with delight, laughter, and wonder if they’re allowed to explore like other small creatures. Hope you and your curious youngsters get acquainted with Bear Creek’s wild youngsters and both get to spread their wings and explore high summer in the park.

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.

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Golden Fields Full of Monarchs, a Hummer and Other Beauties and Curiosities

 

Western slope from the north2
The golden western slope of Bear Creek from the northern end – full of Monarch butterflies this week.
Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino
Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

Open fields edged by trees have always been favorite places of mine.  And this Tuesday,in the fields on either side of the park, Monarch butterflies were everywhere!  Bear Creek may be hosting fall migrators on their way to Mexico – or we’ve just had a big hatch of  these beautiful and ecologically fragile creatures.  In fact, many butterflies, bees and darners fluttered, hummed and hovered over the swaying seas of gold in Bear Creek, while grasshoppers serenaded them beneath the tall stems.

Some speculate that humans love open fields because our ancient ancestors felt safe where they could see into the distance but escape into the trees.  I just know I’m very happy in a field full of wildflowers.

First, of course: The Monarchs and the Hummer!

After only seeing the occasional Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) this summer, on Tuesday they were floating and fluttering all over the park!  Though the Joe Pye (Eutrochium maculatum) in the Eastern Old field seems to be past its peak,  its nectar drew in a Monarch (and other butterflies below) anyway.

Monarch on Joe Pye
A monarch explores the fading Joe Pye for a sip of nectar.

I considered myself lucky to get so close – but when I started down the Western Sloping Path from north to south, wow!  Monarchs surrounded me every step of the way.  I believe I saw at least a dozen there, but I’ll share just a few who were enjoying the New England Asters.

Monarch on New Englans aster
A female Monarch on a New England Aster
Monarch hanging New England Aster2
A female Monarch butterfly dangles from a clump of New England Asters.

At the very bottom of the sloping path, I watched as two Monarchs approached and fed on the same plant.

Two monarchs New England Aster
Two monarchs share a New England aster plant.

Just at that special moment, I saw the second Ruby-Throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) I’ve ever seen at Bear Creek – a female, hovering momentarily as she looked at me and then zoomed off toward the woods.  No photo, of course, but perhaps this silhouette of a hummer in mid-hover from a few years ago will help you visualize the one I saw this week.

hummer silhouette copy - Version 2
A female Ruby-throated Hummingbird paused in mid-flight at the bottom of the Western Sloping Path

Fields Full of Wildflowers and their Beautiful Visitors

Eastern Tiger Swallowtails (Papilio glaucus) fluttered quickly across the golden fields.  I just caught sight of one in the far distance on the Eastern Path on Sunday so here’s a picture from another  August, when a male landed on Spotted Knapweed, an invasive wildflower.

yellow swallowtail 2
A Tiger Swallowtail lands on Spotted Knapweed, an invasive wildflower from Eurasia.

New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) increasingly complement the Goldenrods’ glow as these vivid native flowers grow tall to reach their share of the thinning sunlight.

asters and goldenrod
Asters have grown tall this year competing with the height of Goldenrod and complementing its color.

Great Spangled Fritillary in the Eastern field paused on fading blossoms of Joe Pye to take a sip, just like the Monarch did.

Great spangled fritillary
A Great Spangled Fritillary pauses to sample the fading blossoms of Joe Pye Weed.

And the Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus) rested beneath a blossom of the same plant.

Silver-spotted skipper butterfly
A Silver-spotted Skipper explores the possibilities of the Joe Pye by hanging from a fading blossom.

About That Hum in the Old Fields…

Honey Bees (Apis mellifera), native Bumblebees (genus Bombus) and even Eastern Yellow Jacket Wasps (Vespula maculifrons ) hum among the flowers in the Old Fields.  Don’t worry; they’re much too busy gathering pollen, or in the case of wasps, eating nectar, to bother with us humans.

Bee on goldenrod2
A Honey Bee making the most of late season pollen on a Canada Goldenrod.

Always on the lookout for a quick munch, the big Canada Darner Dragonfly (Aeshna canadensis) zooms and dives over the blossoms below. This B-52 of insects consumes a lot of late summer bugs.

Canada darner in flight2
A Canada Darner flew over the reeds next to the Eastern Path, scouting for unwary insects.

Below the Darner, a modest wet-footed flower stands among the wetland reeds in the Eastern Old Field. According to Wikipedia, Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) got its name because our ancestors believed that since the leaves clasped the stem “wrapping the leaves in bandages around splints would help mend broken bones.”

Boneset
Reportedly Boneset got its name from a past belief that because the leaves clasp the stem, it would help with mending broken bones.

Down in the grass, the Red-legged Grasshoppers (Melanoplus femurrubrum) sing lustily as a backdrop to all this beauty by rubbing their rasp-like back leg against their forewing.

grasshopper on joepye1
Red-legged grasshoppers chirp in the grass, preparing to mate and lay their eggs in the soil for next year.

Bumblebee buzzed softly as it balanced carefully at the top of a stem of Canada Goldenrod

Bumblebee on goldenrod
A bumblebee balancing on the tip of a Goldenrod stem.

Yellow Jackets, like all wasps,  don’t do much pollinating because they lack the fuzzy body hair of bees.  They generally eat nectar but collect bugs for the protein they feed to their young.

Yellow jacket on hemlock
A Yellow Jacket Wasp explores a tiny blossom of Queen Anne’s Lace.

What’s That Bump on the Goldenrod, Anyway?

As you’re wandering through the Old Fields, you may have noticed some strange shapes on the stalks and tips of Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis).   Galls are growths on plant stems caused by insects who lay their eggs on the plants in the spring.  When the larva hatch, they eat into the plant, causing it to form a gall around them.  Inside, the larva eats until late summer when it forms a pupa which spends the winter inside that protective covering.  In spring, the adult insect emerges to restart the life cycle. Galls don’t kill the Goldenrod; they just look funny!

The ball gall is the most common goldenrod gall and is formed by  the small Goldenrod Gall Fly (Eurosta solidaginis).  With its hard surface, this gall seems like a decent place to spend the winter, doesn’t it?  During the summer, though, some wasps lay eggs in galls and their larvae hatch and make a meal of the gall fly’s.   And in the winter,  Downy Woodpeckers drill holes in galls to reach the pupae,  and Gray Squirrels chew on galls to do the same.  Obviously enough Gall Flies survive in these dwellings to start a new crop next spring, so nature stays in balance. I think this gall may have been invaded by a wasp.

Goldenrod gall2
A ball Goldenrod gall formed by the larva of a Goldenrod Gall Fly who turns into a pupa and spends the winter there – though the holes indicate that perhaps a wasp has invaded this gall and its larva may have eaten the gall fly’s.

Goldenrods also harbor the very tiny (.2″) Goldenrod Gall Midge (Rhopalomyia solidaginis) which causes a rosette gall.  Once the grub of this tiny creature hatches, the stem of the goldenrod generally stops growing but keeps producing leaves which bunch up and make a nice hiding place for a midge’s larva to grow – along with spiders and other midges who may move in.   Sometimes, as in this photo, the stem will continue to grow above the rosette gall, but it’s much more spindly.

Goldenrod gall_edited-1
A rosette gall on Canada Goldenrod created by a single tiny insect but potentially a hiding place for other midges and spiders as well.

For years I saw willows in the park that seemed to be producing pine cones at the end of their branches.  Turns out they’re Willow Pine Cone Galls, made by a tiny (about .2″) midge scientifically known as Rhabdophaga strobiloides.  The pine cone-shaped gall that its larva causes can harbor many species.  According to the University of Wisconscin-Milwaukee’s Field Station website, “Beetles, caterpillars, sawflies, cynipid wasps, midges, and the eggs of meadow grasshoppers have been found inside pine cone galls.”  They’re now on a willow on the west side of the Center Pond and can also be seen in the wetland area east of the Eastern Path.

gall
No, not a pinecone! A Willow Pine Cone gall that can harbor over 30 different species besides the larva of its original midge.

The Eastern Old Field rolls down to the Center Pond and the Western one slopes dramatically to the west.  The trails that wind across them are full of strange and beautiful creatures and the plants that feed on and live in them.  Walk quietly. Look closely.  Listen carefully.  And when nature shares a secret with you, please share it with the rest of us.

*Footnote:  My sources for information, as well as Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991). The viceroy butterfly is not a Batesian mimic; 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 beetle info http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info, and invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman.

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: More Avian Adolescents, An Influx of Fierce but Fascinating Predators and Native Plants Flourishing Everywhere

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

The Walnut Lane in the center of the park is a hangout for avian adolescents this time of year. Every few feet you hear or see another fledgling sparring with siblings, practicing a song or poking about for food on their own as their tired parents retreat from constant feeding. Below I’ve  provided links to Cornell Ornithology Lab photos of the adult birds  so you can see how the juveniles differ from the adults in appearance.

The numbers of the most successful park predator keep growing – and no, it’s not coyotes! And native wildflowers love the second half of the summer (yes, we’re already there!) and are showing their colors everywhere you look.

Avian Adolescents – and one baby…

I have to begin with a nestling.  Remember the female Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) on a nest from last week’s post?  Well, this week her nestling stuck its little half-masked head above the nest edge so I got to see a Waxwing nestling for the first time! It sure doesn’t look like the elegant bird it will be in a few weeks! It’s still mostly mouth and that beak still looks soft, doesn’t it?

Cedar Waxwing nestling
A nestling Cedar Waxwing where I saw the adult female sitting last week.

Amusingly, adolescent birds  have the same awkward, gawky, not-quite-put-together look of a human adolescent. And like them, they seem to hang out together – this year, in the lane of Black Walnuts. Here’s a juvenile Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis), a bird which when it matures is sleek with gray feathers and a black cap. This youngster is in shadow, but you can see he still has downy fluff that makes him look a bit like he’s wearing baggy pants!

juvenile catbird Lane Bear Creek
This juvenile Gray Catbird still has downy leggings instead of the sleek gray shape of an adult. (See link above)

And here’s a young Rose-Breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus). The juveniles look like their brown-and-white mothers, but I believe that little red dot under this one’s wing  tells you it will eventually look like the stunning male at this link – black and white with a hot pink bib at his throat.

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This young Rose-Breasted Grosbeak will grow up to be a beautiful black and white male with a rosy pink bib at his throat. (See link above)

This young Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) looks a bit scraggly, but seemed to be  finding all kinds of things to peck at or eat  on a walnut tree. I’m thinking it’s just a gawky adolescent.

Juvenile downy woodpecker1
This juvenile Downy Woodpecker hasn’t quite got the finished look of an adult and is still learning how to find food.

Look at the lovely pattern its wing made as it flew off.

juvenile downy woodpecker taking off
The wing of a young Downy Woodpecker produces a beautiful pattern as it takes flight.

And here’s a home photo of an adult Downy  to show how much more “together” an adult downy can look!

downy woodpecker2
An adult  Downy Woodpecker looks a bit less at loose ends than the juvenile..

By the way, if you live in a house with wood siding as we do, you may be frustrated by a male Downy drumming on your house. According to Cornell Lab, the Downy isn’t feeding, which means you don’t have bugs in the siding. This is the Downy’s way of singing; it uses percussion to attract a mate. Of course, they’re still making holes in your wood!

New Fierce but Fascinating Predators Arrive at Bear Creek!

I’m referring, of course, to Dragonflies. Right now, the BIGGEST of these drone-like insects, called “Darners” (after the large needles), are hatching out of the ponds and patrolling the fields of Bear Creek. They can be three to five inches long and have a wingspan slightly larger than their body. I’m quite confident that this is a Lance-tipped Darner (Aeshna constricta ) we saw Sunday along the western sloping path. Dragonflies are notoriously difficult to identify, however, so feel free to correct me!

Lance-tipped darner
The Lance-tipped Darner is a large dragonfly and like all dragonflies, a wildly successful predator, catching 95% of its prey which, happily, includes mosquitoes!

I’m quite sure that I saw a Swamp Darner (Epiaeschna heros) zooming over the Old Field off the eastern path earlier this week.  Here’s a photo of a non-zooming Swamp Darner from a couple of years ago.

Swamp darner
Watch for this Swamp Darner who usually appears at the end of July or early August.

Of course, regular dragonflies are hatching out of the ponds as well. Dragonflies successfully snatch out of the air 95% of their prey,  (especially mosquitoes!) and consume them on the wing. Lions, for example, only catch their prey 25% of the time and Great White Sharks only 50%,  so we’re talking about very successful predators here! How about this face?! This is a common dragonfly, the White-Faced Meadowhawk (Sympetrum obtrusum.)  

Closeup white-faced meadowhawk
A White-faced Meadowhawk dragonfly stares me down with its giant eyes which can see you both when heading toward you and flying away from you!

On a sweeter insect note, we also were gifted with the sight of two Great Spangled Fritillaries (Speyeria cybele) mating. We couldn’t determine which gender is larger, but there is quite a size difference! Here are two photos, as they synchronized opening and closing their wings.

Mating meadow fritillaires wings open
Mating Great Spangled Fritllaries
Mating fritillaries wings closed
The Great Spangled Fritillaries synchronized the opening and closing of their wings while mating.

Native Wildflowers Assert Themselves as the Summer Warms

The second half of  the summer ushers in a big bloom of native wildflowers. In the hot sunlight of high summer, prairie flowers flourish, since long ago, much of Oakland Township’s land was prairie. I recommend  bringing your lunch, sitting on the hilltop benches at the south end of the park, and just enjoying the Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) as they sway in the wind.

yellow cone flowers
Native Yellow Coneflowers encircle the benches on the hilltop at the south end of the park.

And right across the path, another native, Black-Eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) bloom in happy profusion.

black-eyed susans
Black-eyed Susans are sometimes confused with Yellow Coneflowers – but now you can compare the two plants near the hilltop benches at the southern end of the park.

Large lavender swaths of Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), also known as Bee Balm, keep company with these other two.  This wildflower is certainly a “balm” to bees since you rarely see a group of them without seeing bees busily probing the hearts of these fun, “bad hair day” flowers! Like the native plants I mentioned last week, Bergamot has been considered a medicinal plant  and was used as an antiseptic by Native Americans.

Bee balm with bee
Wild Bergamot lives up another of its names, Bee Balm.
CAUTIONARY NOTE FROM OAKLAND TOWNSHIP PARKS AND RECREATION: DO NOT pick or consume wild plants in our parks. In addition to being potentially poisonous, many wild plants are endangered because of over-harvesting. Oakland Township ordinances prohibit removal, destruction, and harvesting of plants within parks. Leave plants for wildlife and other park users to enjoy!

In the native flowerbed near the shed, some glorious plants are blooming for your enjoyment as well. Look at these lovely native False Sunflowers (Heliopsis helianthoides).

woodland sunflowers
False Sunflowers shine gold  in the sunlight against the shade of trees near the shed.

And tall plumes of native Meadowsweet (Spiraea alba), standing in the sunlight, hum with pollinating bumblebees.

meadowsweet
Tall plumes of native Meadowsweet sway in the sunlight in the native flowerbed near the shed.
Meadowsweet closeup w bumblebee
Native meadowsweet is a perfect spot for a bumblebee carrying a load of pollen.

Nearby, a native plant with an exotic flower also grows tall in the flowerbed by the shed. It’s Wild Senna (Senna hebecarpa) and with a flower like this, it should be called wild!

Wild senna closeup
The exotic-looking flower of Wild Senna growing in the native flowerbed by the shed.

And look how they grow in profusion along the stalk of the plant!

Wild senna Senna herbecarpa
Wild Senna produces lots of blooms right next to the stem.

And here’s one last exotic-looking native shrub that I’ve always loved. My parents backyard which backed up to the Paint Creek Cemetery used to be full of native Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) which always looked to me like it belonged in the tropics!  No, it’s not poisonous. Here’s a link  where you can see that Poison Sumac looks completely different and lives in wet areas, unlike this sumac that is at the edge of the woods next to the western sloping path.

Staghorn sumac Rhus typhina
A native shrub, Staghorn Sumac is a beautiful and benign plant.

Coming Attraction

One of the tallest native wildflowers is just barely starting to bloom among the Yellow Coneflowers at the top of the southern hill.  Prairie Dock has HUGE leathery leaves and can reach 10 feet in height. You can see the tall stalk with its round buds towering over the other plants in the sunlit native flower bed near the shed as well.

Meadowsweet, Prairie dock, butterfly weed and woodland sunflower_edited-1
Prairie Dock towers over the other plants in the native flowerbed near the shed. Those huge, leathery leaves in front are prairie dock plants as well.

Here’s the first beginnings of a bloom out by the benches on the southern hilltop.

prairie dock bud and blossom
Prairie Dock begins to bloom at the end of its gigantic stalk, the tallest wildflower in the park.

So bring a lunch and/or a friend and hang out with the avian adolescents on the lane this week or simply sit on the benches at the top of the southern hill and watch the Yellow Coneflowers sway and listen to the hum of bees in the Bee Balm. You deserve to nourish yourself with a lazy afternoon at Bear Creek Nature Park!