Stony Creek Ravine: Insects! The Good, the Not-all-Bad, and the Really Ugly

Stony Creek running fast and furious through the ravine after the many rain storms.

I’m sure you must have noticed. Insects are having a fabulous summer. Ticks are poised at the edge of tall grass, their back feet planted, their front ones waving about, trying to hitch a ride on anything that passes. Mosquitoes are reproducing like mad in any of the available standing water left by the repeated deluges that we’re experiencing. It’s not a pretty picture for us humans! But it can be, if I look more closely.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

This last few weeks I’ve explored the small, older section of Stony Creek Raving Nature Park, the western trail from Knob Creek Drive on West Gunn that leads to the Ravine itself. Armed with Deet, I wanted to see if I could find some beautiful, or at least interesting insects that would give me a break from the not-so-lovable ones! So here’s what I found, for better and for worse…

The Trail Begins in Sunny Meadows Filled with Wildflowers

The Meadow is lavender with Bee Balm blossoms and complemented by dashes of orange from Butterfly Milkweed.

Mottled sunlight slips over your shoulders when you first enter this area of the park. On one of my many visits between the downpours, I saw a flash of orange among the shadows which turned out to be the Gray Comma (Polygonia progne). It looks very much like the autumn coloring of the Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma); since it’s summer, it had to be the Gray Comma. These butterflies emerge from within logs or from under tree bark in April and mate. This Gray Comma would be the offspring of those that overwinter. It will produce a generation which will fly in August or September and hibernate to start the cycle again.

The Meadow Trail: Butterflies, Dragonflies and Rolling Meadows of Wildflowers

Foraging Butterflies

Once out in the open meadows, I paused to appreciate the frenetic flight of the Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele). It dashed across the field, landing for a few seconds, then fluttering off again just above the flowers. Their caterpillars have a fondness for Common Blue Violets (Viola sororia), so they will occasionally appear on lawns. In our parks, they prefer native Wild Bergamot/Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa), thistles and milkweed, according to the Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels.

The Great Spangled Fritillary gets its name from the shine of the large silver spots on its hind wings. Here it’s sipping from Butterfly Milkweed.

Aren’t you always happy to see Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus)? The one my photographer friend Paul and I saw in the meadow arrived from somewhere between Mexico and Michigan, wherever its forebears stopped to lay eggs. With luck, this one will help set in motion the “super generation” of Monarchs; they make the whole 3,000 mile journey to Mexico where they overwinter. For lots more details on Monarchs, check out the blog that features them.

Paul and I hoped this Monarch would lay eggs for us on this Butterfly Milkweed. No luck that day. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle.

Territorial Dragonflies

Dragonflies patrol over the meadows as well, zinging here and there in an effort to establish territory and find a mate. The striking male Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) with a green face zipped by me, but it was the juvenile Dasher who settled on a stick. It has the coloring of a female, but a much slimmer body than an adult. The female Dasher lays her eggs by flying over still water and repeatedly dipping her ovipositor into the surface to release her eggs.

Another denizen of the fields, the Halloween Pennant dragonfly (Celithemis eponina) foraged with a bouncy flight. These small dragonflies stay aloft more easily on windy days than other dragonflies and can even fly in light rain, shaking the water off their wings in flight. This one insisted on looking straight at me until it zoomed away. Luckily you can still see its vivid coloring and the huge compound eyes on either side of its head (with nearly 30,000 lenses). Two of its three simple eyes shine above; they’re believed to improve its navigation in changing light and also may help stabilize them as they speedily change course above the greenery.

The brown wing patches on the Halloween Pennant’s wings are thought by some to shade its body on hot days.

Two other dragonflies kept me company on the meadow. A juvenile male Common Whitetail (Plathemis lydia) followed me along the path, evidently hoping I’d stir up some insects that it could snatch from the air. And several Widow Skimmers (Libellula luctuosa) bobbed among the grasses on every trip to the park. The clear tips of their seem to disappear at a distance, but the dark patches near the abdomen are visible, so I sometimes mistake them for a large black fly until I get closer.

Pollinating and Nectaring Bees

Of course, bees forage busily along the path as well. Dr. Gary Parsons, from the Entomology Department at Michigan State University, identified this little native bee nuzzling a Rough-Fruited Cinquefoil blossom (Potentilla recta) as a female Leafcutter Bee (genus Megachile.) The clue he gave me is that a leafcutter has stiff hairs (scopa) covering the underside of its abdomen and that’s where it carries its pollen. In the photo on the right, the one flying away with its bright yellow underside was evidently a dead giveaway.

Paul snapped a fine shot of one of our native Bumblebees (genus Bombus), oblivious of a Bull Thistle’s (Cirsium vulgare) thorns below as it gathers nectar from the blossom.

A native bumblebee feeding on nectar from a Bull Thistle blossom. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle

Colorful Long-legged Flies

Along with the butterflies, dragonflies and an occasional damselfly (more about them later), an assortment of metallic flies dotted the leaves along the trail, but not your plain old black house flies! Dr. Gary Parsons tells me that they are from the family Dolichopodidae, also known as Long-legged flies. These common tiny insects perch in bright sunlight waiting for smaller, unsuspecting insects to cruise by. I like their diminutive size, the way they stand so elegantly on those long legs – and they come in an assortment of colors as you’ll see below!

The Plants that Feed and Shelter Them All

Now of course, what sustains all these creatures are the native plants that serve as host plants for their offspring, i.e., larvae/caterpillars. Here a Common Pug caterpillar (Eupithecia miserulata) is foraging on the petals of a Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta). Dr. Parsons reminded me that petals are actually just modified leaves so caterpillars can feed on them, but since they disappear quickly, leaves are the staple of a caterpillar’s diet.

A Common Pug caterpillar foraging on a Black-eyed Susan blossom

The beauty of native plants is that they can be both decorative and productive, providing lots of sustenance for the insects that are an essential ingredient of the entire food web. So here’s is just a sampling of the myriad of native wildflowers and grasses along the meadow trail.

The Forest Trail Above the Ravine: Damselflies, Abundant Moths and One Useful but Really Ugly Fly

The dappled forest above Stony Creek Ravine

Under the Forest Canopy, Beauties and the Beast

The forest at Stony Creek Ravine Park is a different world when it comes to insects. At the edge, where the forest meets the sunshine, butterflies seem to dominate. Both of the ones I saw imitate the dappled light of the forest with brown wings marked with white spots in lovely patterns. The Little Wood Satyr (Megisto cymela) is the smaller of the two. Notice how the design on the underside of the wings is a bit more complex. Some sources suggest that the eyespots distract predators from attacking vital body parts. Butterflies can survive with ragged wing edges but an attack on the head is instantly fatal. I thought perhaps the larger spots on these forest edge species also provide more camouflage when the butterfly lands in dappled light. No one seems to be sure exactly how their patterns function.

The larger Northern Pearly-eye (Enodia anthedon) spends more time in the woods itself, especially near moist areas. It feeds on tree sap, rotting fruit, fungi and even dung – not a picky eater, evidently, eh? You’ll often see its head slanted downward on a tree trunk. Quite the set of spectacles on those buggy eyes and the orange and black antennae are very fancy!

The Northern Pearly-eye in its characteristic upside down position

Deeper in the shade of the forest, though, tiny moths flourish. The oaks in our forests and lawns act as host plants for the largest variety of insect caterpillars of any tree in North America, according to Dr. Doug Tallamy, a professor of entomology and author of The Nature of Oaks. Some moth larvae pupate on the tree, some burrow into the soil below but many just pupate within the leaf litter and then emerge in warm weather. So as I walked down through the woods at Stony Creek Ravine, huge clouds of tiny, triangular, leaf litter moths floated up at my feet. Almost every one immediately scuttled back under the leaves. But a gray one, that I believe is a Speckled Renia moth (Renia adspergillus), paused on a patch of bright green moss. So exciting for me see one as more than a flutter at my feet!

This Speckled Renia moth landed briefly on the edge of bright green moss before scooting back under the leaf litter!

Actually that short pause may not have been a good move for the Speckled Renia. Nearby, I saw the “not-so-bad” but “very ugly” insect of the blog title. Robber Flies (family Asilidae) are aggressive predators, and like the “bad guys” for whom they are named, they generally ambush other insects, including their own kind, from a hiding place. I saw two different insects meet their demise in the grip of a Robber Fly.

Robber flies don’t bother humans unless you’re handling one; I’d avoid that unless you’re doing research. And they are simply providing the service predators provide: keeping the numbers of their prey at a balanced level within their habitat. If you see one in your garden, ignore it; it will probably eliminate many pests for you. At a wetland, I met one up close and personal and really, that is one ugly bug!

The bristles on the head of the Robber Fly protect its face when its wrestling with its larger, struggling prey like bees, grasshoppers or dragonflies!

Deeper in the forest, I watched a black and white blur move toward a log. As I stepped forward, it suddenly transformed into just a fleck of something lying on a log. I thought perhaps my eyes had deceived me and it was just a bit of falling detritus. But I decided to ask Dr. Parsons if I’d really seen a living, moving creature. On the left below is the pointy fleck I saw, on the right the closeup I sent to Dr. Parsons.

Dr. Parsons let me know I wasn’t crazy. The tiny moth’s larvae is part of a large insect family, the Tortricidae, commonly known as Leaf Rollers. The caterpillars in this family eat and pupate in a carefully rolled leaf, hence the name. Dr. Parsons surmises that the adult moth above is most likely a Banded Olethreutes (Olethreutes fasciatana). Many members of this family specialize in fruit trees and their caterpillars are considered pests. This one’s offspring feeds on Wild Black Cherry (Prunus serotina), but they’re not considered particularly harmful. Some experts think this camouflage is an attempt to simulate an unpalatable bird dropping. If I hadn’t seen this tiny moth moving, I’d never have noticed it, so I guess the trick works!

Dancing Damselflies Seek the Spotlight in the Creek

But enough of Robber flies and bird droppings! Let’s move on down to the West Branch of Stony Creek itself to enjoy instead the mating ceremonies of elegant Damselflies!

Stony Creek in late June flowing slowly around rocks and under sticks in late June.

I paused near a wooded wetland to witness what appeared to be a pair of damselflies courting. The male Ebony Jewelwing (Calopteryx maculata) landed first and fluttered about from twig to twig, keeping his iridescent colors flashing in the sun. The elegant brown female appeared and began what looked very much like flirting, flying close to him, then landing farther away with her abdomen cocked at an angle. Perhaps she was ready to mate, but the male hesitated. According to Robert DuBois, author of Damselflies of Minnesota, Wisconsin & Michigan, he may have had good reason; females can mate 4 or 5 times each day, rarely with the same male! Anyway, I gave them some privacy and headed toward the creek to see how other males were faring.

In late June, Stony Creek meandered its way around the rocks and sticks protruding from the slowly moving water. A group of Ebony Jewelwing males held a competition there for the sunniest spot on a prominent stick in the creek while waiting for females to show up. One male posed on the stick and began to display. Displays of his impressive wings can be intended to ward off competitors and may also interest females in the surrounding greenery. Periodically, he launched gracefully off his stick and zipped off to confront other males trying to oust him from the spotlight. A series of a scrambles with a group of competitors ensued for about 10 minutes. The University of Wisconsin Field Station’s “Bug Lady,” says that male Jewelwings compete by bumping into each other until one flies off. That’s certainly what occurred at Stony Creek Ravine as the originally male settled back on his stick after each skirmish.

If the male is successful, he’ll grab onto the female’s abdomen with his pincers and the two of them, locked together, will fly to a nearby perch. If she is ready to participate, she bends her abdomen upward and the partners form a heart-shaped “mating wheel.” Benoit Renaud, a generous photographer at iNaturalist.org got a wonderful photo of two doing just that! Thank you, Benoit!

Ebony Jewelwing damselflies in a heart-shaped mating wheel. Photo by Benoit Renaud (CC BY)

After mating, the male releases her and together they fly off to find rushes, sedges, moss or floating plant material. The female then bends her abdomen downward, slits a hole in the plant with her sharp ovipositor and lays her eggs. The male stands guard to protect her from males who might try to abscond with her and remove his sperm before she lays the eggs. Evidently, despite that heart-shaped wheel, damselfly mating is not a particularly romantic process. But it’s kept these graceful insects on the wing for thousands of years, so we won’t argue with it, right?

A week or so after I took my damselfly photos, the July deluge poured down on us. The once placid creek rushed through the ravine, flowing over the rocks and sticks in the damselflies’ courting arena. According to the “Bug Lady,” the Ebony Jewelwings like plants in a “moderate current” in which to lay their eggs. So I’m assuming there was a bit of a hiatus in their mating ceremonies this year!

After a series of heavy rains, Stony Creek rushed over rocks and sticks in a sparkling flood.

And Then The Fireflies Arrived…

A firefly beetle in India. Photo by Ashwin Viswanathan (CC BY) at inaturalist.org

I learned this week that fireflies sparkle at twilight in moderate or tropical zones all over the world. I love knowing that. Imagine! As the earth spins away from the sun each day, these tiny Firefly beetles (family Lampyridae) dance across landscapes, delighting humans around the globe!

The males of our local beetle, the Common Eastern Firefly (Photinus pyralis) dance in a “J” formation, flashing their signal as they swing upward. A chemical reaction in the cells at the tips of their abdomens creates the bioluminescence that delights us. And with luck, a female in the area sends a coded signal back in just 1-2 seconds and they find each other.

The incredible variety of insects around (and often in) our home serves many purposes. The possum near our shed eats all the ticks it can find each summer. Bats, birds, and even the ugly Robber Flies, gobble up mosquitos by the millions. Bees pollinate our garden, wildflowers and nearby farmers’ crops. The beating wings of thousands of flying insects lure migrators back to our yard each spring. Here are a few of the most interesting ones we saw just this week.

Recognizing all the services that insects provide, I avoid wide-spectrum “bug killers” and instead try to utilize long sleeves, high socks and strategically applied Deet or Permethrin to repel them when outside. Despite all of that, like you, I swat flies and mosquitoes, flick insects off exposed skin and get snarky when insects slips inside the house.

But then at our darkened windows on these steamy, rain-soaked evenings, I pause to enjoy the tiny fireworks of a glowing beetle dancing in the tall grass at the edge of the field. And I’m lifted out of my grousing about bugs and rainy weather. Night after sticky night, the flash of the firefly reminds me that some insects are magical and that all of them play a crucial role in keeping life humming on this gorgeous little planet.

Bear Creek Park: Eggs to Fledglings, Caterpillars to Butteflies, Everything Just Keeps Growing!

 

Spiderwort, a native wildflower, blooms in profusion even in the garden at the center of the parking lot at Bear Creek Nature Park!

June is an easy month to love. In the early weeks, May’s buds transformed into blooms. Turtles and dragonflies emerged from the ponds. Butterfly and grasshopper eggs hatched into caterpillars and tiny nymphs. May migrators and some year-round birds completed their nests and were busily laying eggs.

Cam at Tree Swallow nest box. Photo by V. Morganti

And then came really warm days – or even some very hot days this year! –  and by the end of the month, life had quickly moved on. The spring blooms produced their seeds and subsided as the summer flowers began to emerge. Bees buzz along the trails. Dragonflies dominate the open meadows and wetlands. Damselflies, like colorful, winged sticks, pause briefly by the pond and other strange flying creatures hunt in the shade. The fledglings emerge from nests, awkward and downy, begging to be fed by exhausted parents. So much to see that I find myself rushing from park to park, trying not to miss anything! So here’s just a selection of what came my way at Bear Creek Nature Park during the first month of summer.

Early to Mid-June:  Brave Beginnings

The Bear Creek Wetlands in Early June

So much happens near the wetlands as summer begins. Two nests graced either side of the viewing deck at the Center Pond. On the west side, high above the water, a Baltimore Oriole’s (Icterus galbula) carefully woven sack swayed with every breeze, rocking either the female brooding her eggs or a cuddle of nestlings with every breeze. While we birders watched one Wednesday morning, the female arrived at the nest and disappeared into it, followed by the attentive male. This lovely photo of the male arriving at the nest was taken by Ewa Mutzenmore, a member of our group.

The male Baltimore Oriole arrives at the nest. Photo by E. Mutzenmore of the birding group.

He gave us the eye as he leaned in to feed either his brooding mate or perhaps their nestlings.

The male Oriole keeping an eye on the camera.

And then, tail up, evidently unfazed, he proceeded to stuff foraged insects into a waiting beak below.

Tail up, the male oriole feeds his nestlings or his mate who arrived before him.

Ewa, whose Oriole photo is above, mentioned having seen a very large Northern Water Snake  (Nerodia sipedon) swimming away at the pond when she was there last and suddenly Ben VanderWeide, our Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, spotted it! Its long, thick body was wound around the branches of a willow bush just west of the dock. Though not venomous, I wouldn’t advise picking one up or harassing it; it will bite and spray you with musk to defend itself. Unfortunately, Ewa and I both could only come up with a photo of parts of its winding body; it just didn’t move a muscle. But here’s a link where you can see a photo of its dark brown head. The birds are evidently safe from it, though fish,frogs, and salamanders better beware!

The body of a large, but non-venomous, Northern Water Snake wound into a bush limb near the Center Pond.

As I approached the pond on a later afternoon, another impressive predator rose like a submarine from the silvery pond.  A large Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) up-periscoped to check me out.  Isn’t their snout a curious shape?  It’s more important to be cautious around Snappers when they’re on land than in the water, because they do bite if threatened and have extremely long necks. And generally, they’re on land to lay eggs.

The head of a female Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) popped out of the bushes for a look around before she winged down and disappeared into her nest in a small tree just east of the dock. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

 

Over in the playground pond, a tiny (about silver-dollar-sized!) Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta) climbed onto a log for probably one of its first basks in a spot of sunlight.

A silver-dollar-sized Painted Turtle learns the fine art of sun basking.

As I approached the dock one cloudy day, a lone male Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) stood forlornly gazing out at the water from a floating log, not a mate in sight.  When he heard my approach, his beautiful head twisted toward me with a  stare that implied he’d prefer to be alone. Then he dropped into the water and glided away.

A lone, male Mallard notices me with some misgivings about my presence.

When he departed, a much tinier male landed on the dock, the Dot-tailed Whiteface Dragonfly (Leucorrhinia intacta), whose name says it all!  I get a huge kick out of his Mickey Mouse-style face.

A male Dot-tailed Whiteface looks for prey or a mate at the edge of the Center Pond dock.

At Draper Twin Lake Park a few weeks ago, I’d seen the female Dot-tailed Whiteface, who is more elegant, if less amusing.

A female Dot-tailed Whiteface dragonfly near the marsh at Draper Twin Lake park.

And one Sunday morning, while scanning Bear Creek marsh, I heard the unmistakable whinnying call of a Sora (Porzana carolina), a bird that tends to be heard and not seen. This secretive bird is evidently abundant according to Cornell Ornithology Lab, but likes to stay hidden deep in the cattails and reeds. Looking at this photo by inaturalist.org photographer by Mike Baird, you’d never guess that such a chunky bird with stubby wings had migrated here from Central or South America! And check out those feet!

A Sora as photographed by a gifted and generous photographer on iNaturalist.org, Mike Baird. (CC BY)

Several strangely beautiful insects shelter or hunt in shady spots near wetlands, too.

A male Orchard Oriole (Icterus spurius) appeared for the birders at the top of the southern hill away from the wetlands, though they sometime nest along the edges of marshes and rivers. This poor fellow seemed wildly distracted by some itchy insect, probably Feather Mites (super family Analgoidea) which often infest nests in early summer. He just barely stopped preening for a moment! As a victim of biting midges in spring, I could sympathize!

Sun and Shade Meant Blooms, Juicy Leaves – and More Insects!

Closeup of a tiny Monarch Butterfly caterpillar munching on a leaf of Common Milkweed.

The birders saw four Monarch Butterfly caterpillars (Danaus plexippus)  – one of them above – munching contentedly on leaves of  Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). It’s wonderful to know that natural areas management of our parks makes them places where milkweed gets ever more plentiful – and that, as a result,  migrating monarchs find their way here to lay their eggs  for the next generation.

Nearby, the tiniest of Black-legged Grasshopper nymphs (Melanoplus femurnigrumsat quietly enough that I could a good look at this little one, less than a half inch long! It’ll probably molt 4 more times before it reaches adulthood.  Pretty special eyes, eh?

A tiny grasshopper nymph watches the lens carefully as I take a closeup.

Twelve-spotted Skimmer (Libellula pulchella) found a budding stem to be the perfect place to pause and scan us birders and the prey we might have stirred up as we walked among the plants in the parking circle.

A Twelve-spotted dragonfly pauses in the garden at the center of the parking lot.

In the native gardens near the parking lot and along the Walnut Lane in the center of the park, early June brought colorful blossoms and the seeds of early spring flowers that  were already maturing their seeds for next year’s crop inside their fruits. Such a variety of colors and shapes! (Use pause button for time to read captions.)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A Late June Visit To See What Had Changed

Wow!  The shy flowers of late spring and early summer had been replaced by the big, bold native milkweeds. Monarch caterpillars seem to have finished munching on Common Milkweed leaves and spun their chrysalises; some have yet to emerge and some may already be flying. Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) is ready to host any number of butterflies this summer. If you’re looking for color in your garden, Butterfly Milkweed’s a nice native choice because it remains an attractive bunch instead of spreading like Common Milkweed – and pollinators find milkweeds irresistible!

Mites must still be giving birds a hard time, though.  This itchy little Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea) preened just as insistently as the poor Orchard Oriole earlier in the month! This gnatcatcher is small, only a bit larger than a hummingbird and smaller than a wren and can be identified by its white-edged tail. According to Cornell Lab, they sometimes build up to seven nests in a season because they frequently give up a nest due to mites, predators and problems with Cowbirds and others that lay eggs in their nests. Hope this little one persists despite all those tribulations!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

On the western slope, an adult Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) and its fledgling paused in a bush. The adult looked around checking for trouble, then hopped onto the ground, looking for seeds or insects to feed the youngster. The youngster hopped clumsily in the bush, waiting for its parent return, which fortunately resulted in something to eat!

The American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) wait until late June or July to begin their families. They will use the fluffy pappus from thistles and other plants to line their nest and they feed on the thistle’s seeds, a favorite food. It looked as though this couple was already making the most of these Field Thistles (Cirsium arvense) that are just getting started.

This pair of American Goldfinches is just beginning its breeding season.

A bit later in the Eastern Meadow, a Halloween Pennant Dragonfly (Celithemis eponina) was coping with a stiff breeze by holding tight and adjusting its wing positions to stay aloft.  This one could be looking for a mate; maybe that’s why it was working so hard to stay visible on a bare perch above the wildflowers.  Once it finds a mate, they’ll both head to the nearest wetland where the female will dip her abdomen into the water, leaving eggs behind.

A Halloween Pennant Dragonfly adjusting its wings in a brisk wind

The Black-legged grasshopper nymphs had changed a bit when I made my last visit. This one now had a bit more black-legged-ness! I assume it had gone through its second molt. I didn’t take a closeup of this one so you could see how tiny these nymphs really are.

The wetlands, as usual, were full of life too. A juvenile Green Frog (Rana clamitans) had left  its youth as a tadpole behind and was sitting waiting for the nearest flying insect at the Playground Pond. The green dots are Water Meal (g. Wolffia) which covers the playground pond along with spots of Common Duckweed (Lemna minor) – aptly named since ducks do scoop up both plants and make a meal out of them!

Nearby, a tiny Amber Snail (G. Succinea) snacked delicately on the seeds of Orchard Grass (Dactylis glomerata). I wonder if those black spots on the blossoms are places where the snail has secreted extra slime to stay attached while eating?

An Amber Snail munches on seeds of Orchard Grass.

While monitoring a vernal pool at Bear Creek, the crew brought up a tiny Crayfish (family Cambaridae). It was too tiny to determine a species but it certainly had all of the equipment it needed for surviving in its underwater world.  Crayfish molt six to ten times in their first year, so this one has a long way to go before adulthood!

A tiny crayfish from a vernal pool. It will molt 6-10 times in its first year.

It was the Best of Times, It was the Worst of Times…

A bumblebee head down in an unusual white blossom of Common Milkweed

Summer is glorious, right?  Who could argue with that?  All the blossoms, birds, whispering leaves and yellow sunlight pouring over it all.  Or as the poet,  e.e. cummings so ebulliently put it, “the leaping greenly spirits of trees/and a blue true dream of sky; and …everything/which is natural which is infinite which is yes.”

But I wonder sometimes if migrating birds, for example, might grouse a bit about cummings’ enthusiasm and ours. Summer is a busy, hard-working time for birds! I’ve become so aware of this by monitoring bluebirds this summer and it’s true of all birds, really. First there are courtship rituals that can involve singing constantly for hours. A diminutive House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) or the Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus) may sing their territorial/courting songs a hundred, even a thousand times in a day! Nest-making often involves long days or even a solid week of gathering material and then weaving, or scraping, or even digging a safe place for their eggs. And once eggs hatch, their young sit begging in the nest and later from every branch, crying “MORE FOOD!” Imagine having young every summer, frequently multiple broods of young,  and working constantly to be sure at least some of them survive despite predators of all kinds – plus coping with those miserable feather mites!

And yet, thank goodness, they return to us each year to go through it all because the show must go on! The genes must be passed to a new generation! I’ve come to admire the sheer tenacity of nature in facing the vicissitudes of life without homes in which to retreat at night or when the weather is harsh. Learning more about the threats and difficulties that birds overcome, I’m doubly pleased to see them with their breasts turned to the sun on a cool morning, or to hear their quiet evensong calls around me as the sky grows dark. They seem to still be able to pause now and then from all the hubbub of their lives and just “be” for a few moments. I take that as a lesson for my busy life – and probably yours too.

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: inaturalist.org;Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela;Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels,  A Guide to Bird Behavior Vols.1-3 by Donald W and Lillian Q.Stokes, the passionate enthusiasts at the Facebook groups Odonata of the Eastern U.S.and Butterflying Michigan plus others as cited in the text. e.e.cummings poem "I thank You God for most this amazing" in 100 Selected Poems pub. by Grove Press

Watershed Ridge Park: Restoration Off to a Colorful Start!

 

Wildflowers re-establish themselves in a meadow at Watershed Ridge after invasive shrubs are removed

Watershed Ridge, at the corner of Lake George and Buell Roads, is not yet an accessible park. Trails have yet to be created for exploring its forests, wetlands and meadows, though they are planned for the future. Large areas of the land are still under cultivation for agriculture; local farmer, John Fogler, rents fields within the park to plant soy beans and pumpkins. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

But last fall, our Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, Ben VanderWeide, began removing an almost impenetrable cover of invasive bushes that had taken over part of this beautiful piece of land. And suddenly, the graceful contours of the land came into view.

The slopes of Watershed Ridge after last fall’s removal of invasive shrubs

The rolling slopes looked lifeless then. But what a transformation this spring and summer as sun finally reached the native wildflowers!

The sloping landscape of Watershed Ridge Park this summer after the removal of invasive shrubs

Part of the reason Ben chose this area for restoration was that he’d noticed unusual native plants struggling to survive in the shade of invasive bushes like autumn olive, glossy buckthorn, privet, and such. Last autumn, Smooth Aster (Symphyotrichum laeveand a small orchid called Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes species) thrust their stems into the cool air. (Here’s a photo of the little orchid as it looked at the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail.)

Ladies Tresses, a small orchid, is a fall wildflower that Ben saw at Watershed Ridge last autumn.

Right now I’d advise anyone to be cautious about  walking through Watershed Ridge since it’s easy to get disoriented on 170 acres without trails (though a compass in your phone helps, I find!). Hikers need to use the edges of the farm fields so that they don’t damage the crops. The woody debris on the ground makes walking a bit tricky  and there’s a fair amount of Poison-ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) to avoid. Photos below might help those afraid of all 3-three-leaved plants. The one on the left is poison ivy.  Note the “thumb” on the leaves which is missing from other three-leaved plants like the Black Raspberry (Rubus occidentalis) on the right. Poison-ivy often has reddish “feet” when it’s climbing a tree and grows along the trunk rather than around it.

So for now, perhaps consider an easier alternative.

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

Join me on a virtual walk from the entrance area with its busy young birds, into the forest with its woodland flowers and wetlands and beyond the woods to the meadow with a riot of native wildflowers, butterflies, an exotic moth and more!

 

 

 

Birds Grace the Simple Entrance off Buell Road

The best spot to park is on Buell Road at the firewood pickup site (1650 W. Buell Road is the approximate address – click here for a map). Just to the west you’ll see a work area for Parks and Recreation staff that includes a pole barn and bulk materials storage. This work area is closed to the public, but you’re welcome to explore the rest of the park.

The old fence rows near the entrance on Buell Road have many trees, shrubs and vines, so birds nested happily around the area this summer. In mid-July, this area was full of fledglings trying out their wings and pestering their parents. A flock of young Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) settled on limbs and fence posts, begging to be fed while their beleaguered adults either surrendered or tried to escape their noisy youngsters. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

A young Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe), however, was off on its own, trying out its wings, exploring the pole barn (sheds are popular Phoebe nest sites) and flying down into the grass like any adult Phoebe might.

A young Phoebe exploring the shed at Watershed Ridge – a very typical behavior for a bird that often builds nests in human structures.

The same Phoebe in a nearby tree to provide a glimpse of how small this little flycatcher is!

A young Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) was also off on its own and looking a bit dubious about what to do next as it sat in a nearby pine. This may be a young male since it appears that its juvenile red cap is slowly receding into the red spot that a male sports on the back of its head.

A juvenile Downy Woodpecker considers what to do next.

I failed to get decent photos, but two weeks ago, a pair of Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) were still feeding their nestlings, flying back and forth between a tree on the west side of the area to a large willow on the east where they probably were foraging for insects before returning to the nest. Here are two not-so-hot photos!

From mid-July to mid-August, American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) raise their young. Unlike most native birds, they wait until mid-summer to breed, because they like to line their nests with thistle down, eat the seeds themselves and feed them to their young. Several were flitting among the thistles along Buell Road.

American Goldfinches like thistle down for their nests and the seed for feeding themselves and their young.

A male Northern Flicker with his dashing “mustache” perused the territory from the top of a snag.

A male Northern Flicker with his dashing “mustache”

A “High Quality” Woodland Sprinkled with Wildflowers that Love Moisture, Shade and Rich Humus.

When you step into the cool darkness of the woods on a warm summer afternoon, you notice that most of the plants bear modest little flowers compared to sunnier areas. Perhaps that’s because they’ve  evolved growth and reproductive strategies that are different from the large, colorful blooms of a sunny meadow or prairie.

One good example is the unusual flower of a parasitic plant (not a mushroom!) that Ben helped me find, called Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora). This small, white wildflower typically grows in forests and lives on the photosynthesis of trees – especially oaks in our area – by tapping into the  mycorrhizal fungi that connect the trees below the soil. As a result, it doesn’t use photosynthesis and contains no chlorophyll. According to the Illinois Wildflower website (a descriptive floral site), “This unusual wildflower is normally found in high quality woodlands” where there is “abundant humus.”  Hooray for Watershed Ridge, eh?

The modest blooms of summer woodland plants primarily attract small bees, like sweat or carpenter bees,  or flies,  rather than honeybees or bumblebees.  They also frequently spread by rhizomes (underground stems) and/or by making bur-like fruits that will stick to any passing animal, including you!

Wildflowers that enjoy dappled light find a home where the woods meets the now-open meadow.

Naturally, mushrooms also thrive in shady, moist places. Near the edge of the woods, I saw what I think are two kinds of highly toxic mushrooms from the genus Amanita. I believe they are either Amanita phalloides or Amanita bisporigera. In any case, Amanita mushrooms are also called “death caps” for good reason –  so admire their exotic strangeness, but leave them right where they are. The yellow one may have been nibbled by squirrels or rabbits who can eat the toxins with no problem.

Wetlands Glow Blue/Green in the Deep Shade of the Woods

One of the wetland pools within the woods at Watershed Ridge

Two wetland pools shine in the darkness on either side of a ridge within the woods at Watershed.  Near the western one, an old log is festooned with a huge number of tiny, stalked mushrooms which I can’t identify. They make quite a show against the dark, wet decaying log on which they are thriving.  (Anyone have an ID for me?)

Ben saw two snappers on a log in one of these woodland pools, but they dove in before I saw them. I did see some of my favorite frogs, though. A small female Green Frog (Rana clamitans) (left) basked on a fallen log, while a male nearby (right) did the same. In the female, the tympanum (circle behind the eye used for hearing) is about the size of her eye; the male’s tympanum is about twice the size of his eye and he has a yellow throat.

At the eastern pool, a tiny, black-masked Wood Frog (Rana sylvatica), perhaps 1/2 inch long, paused for its photo on a leaf. This one’s back and legs are bright green, perhaps from the Water Meal (Wolffia columbiana) or the algae in the pool nearby. It seemed an odd time of year  to find an early spring frog, but Wikipedia says that  occasionally Wood Frogs do breed more than once per year. Maybe the heavy rains contributed to more water and hence more breeding behavior? Just a guess.

A tiny Wood Frog pausing on an oak leaf near one of the woodland pools

At the edge of the soybean field just beyond the wood, every step scared up hundreds of small Northern Leopard Frogs (Rana pipiens). They sprang out of moist grass and huddled beneath the bean plants. These young frogs  take about 70-110 days to develop after the females lay their eggs in the water between May to June. At about 2 inches long, they’re half the size of a mature Leopard Frog. Their numbers have generally been in decline since the 1970’s so what a delight to see so many of them here in the township on a protected piece of land!

A small (about 2 inch) Leopard Frog, among hundreds that sprang out of the tall grass into the bean field a few weeks ago.

A Riot of Color as Wildflowers and Butterflies Reclaim a Wild Meadow

Black-eyed Susans and Butterfly Milkweed “take the field” after invasive shrubs are removed from Watershed Ridge

Step out of the woods and the colorful signs of restoration engulf you. Once shaded-out by invasive shrubs, native wildflowers like Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia fulgida) and Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) in the photo above sprang back into the sunlight that finally reached them.  So exciting to see these plants come back with such vigor in the first season after the invasives are removed! (Use pause button to read captions.)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

And with the wildflowers, of course, come the butterflies – but first, one glorious moth! When I first spotted this unusual creature, I thought it must be some sort of bumblebee. But no, it’s the Snowberry Clearwing Moth (Hemaris diffinis). It has fewer central scales on its wings than other butterflies or moths so the wings appear clear in places. It’s odd shape and hovering flight have also inspired the names “the hummingbird moth” (not to be confused with the European one of the same name, Wikipedia tells me!) or the “flying lobster!”  A new creature for me!

This is not a bumblebee. It’s a Snowberry Clearwing Moth mimicking one!

On my first summer visit with Ben, we saw a glorious Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) sipping from some of the bee balm which emerged in great waves of color across the restored meadow this summer. What a sight!

A female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail sips nectar from the great swath of bee balm that now flows across the restored meadow.

Having seen the Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio troilus) for the first time at Charles Ilsley Park a few weeks ago, I saw another male at Watershed Ridge.  The clue is the wash of blue scaling on the wings. A week later I saw another one near the shed which was either the female, which has a less intense wash of blue scaling, or a tattered male who had already lost some of his scales. That Spicebush continually tried to chase off a female Monarch (Danaus plexippus) who was patrolling the same patch of flowers last weekend. The scales on her wings looked quite worn as well. Perhaps they’d worn each other out with all that chasing! I saw some fritillaries dancing together at a distance but not close enough for a shot. But the little Orange Sulphur  (Colias eurytheme) was kind enough to pose for a few moments.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The meadow slopes down to a sunny wetland that is probably fed by the creek running through the trees just east of the meadow. The stream bottom is bright orange, most likely a result of iron deposits in the soil. I loved how the sky was caught in the water’s surface as I looked upstream.

The resulting wetland at the meadow’s edge featured flowers that love “wet feet,” like Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium maculatum) and Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum).

With a wetland nearby, dragonflies, flying predators, swooped across the meadow on the hunt for other insects.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A Meadow Under Restoration Gets Us Dreaming

Another view of the meadow that is slowly being restored at Watershed Ridge

Witnessing the dramatic renewal that takes place when invasive shrubs are removed from park land is simply inspirational. What else, who else might return to this lovely piece of land once the Parks and Recreation Commission has time and the funds to develop this 170 acres? What seeds are waiting in the seed bank for their turn in the sun – perhaps even this autumn when the asters in their varied lavender-to-purple blooms or other autumn wildflowers rise from the earth? What other exotic creatures like the Snowberry Clearwing Moth might be sipping at future flowers? What birds might return to nest here? The possibilities are endless as the Ben and the Parks Commission work to renew the diversity of life which is our township’s natural heritage. So much to look forward to as this park progresses over the next several years!

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: butterfliesathome.com;Pollinators of Native Plants by Heather Holm; Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3; Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; other sites as cited in the text.