Keep an eye on your thistle feeder! Those little birds feeding greedily may not be the American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) that we thought they were. Just as in 2015, the Pine Siskins (Spinus pinus) rode the icy north winds down from Canada into Oakland Township. Some years they come; some years they don’t. Cornell Lab of Ornithology refers to them as erratic migrators who range like nomads across the continent each winter, foraging for seeds. Your finch feeder and mine are just the ticket to attract these wandering birds.
It’s easy to confuse Pine Siskins with other finches – particularly the female House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus), which is also streaked with brown. But the smaller Pine Siskins have fine, sharp bills rather than the heavier bills of other finches, and their wings flash yellow as they scrabble with other birds at your feeder. While American Goldfinches sport some yellow feathers even in winter, they have clear breasts, not striped ones. Ben reminded me that the gregarious Pine Siskins also have a distinctive wheezy, high twitter and a distinctive “Zhreee” call that accompanies their feeding and flight. Check out the differences between these bird species below. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Pine Siskins have developed some pretty powerful winter survival strategies. Cornell Lab of Ornithology says that they get through frigid nights by “ramping up their metabolic rate,” which is already 40% higher than other songbirds their size. “When temperatures plunge as low as -70°C (–94°F), they can accelerate that rate up to five times normal for several hours.” Plus they’re big eaters! They gain 50% more winter fat than other finches and can stuff their crops with “seeds totaling as much as 10% of their body mass…. The energy in that amount of food could get them through 5–6 nighttime hours of subzero temperatures.”
I try not to worry too much if the Pine Siskins monopolize our feeder for a while. So far, the American Goldfinches seem to find their moments to feed. And Pine Siskins pester their own kind as readily as they do their finch relatives, as you’ll see in the slideshow below! (Click on the pause button if you need more time for captions.)
So enjoy these feisty little travelers while you can. You never know where they’ll spend next winter!
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.
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 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).
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!
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.
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.
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.)
I caught a photo of what appears to be a Baltimore Oriole fledgling venturing out to find food on her own 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.
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.
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!
The female House Finch wears a more sedate outfit. Here’s one fluffing up her feathers in preparation for some serious preening.
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.
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.
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”?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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 bya 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.”
Before the rains came to break the long dry spell, the Bear Creek Marsh had gone dry, leaving an unhappy young CommonSnapping 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!]
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.
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.
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.
A Perfect Time for Youngsters to Meet Youngsters
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.