At the end of May, spring migration wound down and the breeding season heated up. The migrators and the year-round avian residents of our parks busily set about nesting and tending their newly hatched young. Their bright wings flashed color into the pale spring sunlight, much to the delight of hikers like me and my new photographer friend, Paul Birtwhistle.
Meanwhile, in the meadows, the tiny wings of small butterflies and moths fluttered at my feet and in the tall grass at the trail edge. The wings of ant-sized solitary bees beat almost invisibly as they probed blossoms for nectar. It seemed the whole park vibrated with wings!
So come hang out with Paul and I as we wandered the meadows, wood edges and forested wetlands of Charles Ilsley Park, enjoying the company of winged creatures.
Summer’s Yearly Visitors Offer Song, Color – and New Life! – to Park Visitors
In May and early June, birdsong filters down through the fresh green leaves as birds arrive from wintering in warmer climes to enjoy the bounteous feast of insects provided by a Michigan spring. Migrators journeying farther north may pause to forage and rest like the Blue-Headed Vireo (Vireo solitarius) spotted high in the treetops by the birders pictured above.
But many birds settle here for the summer, making the most of the abundant food and shelter our parks provide. Some sweep insects out of the air. Others pluck them off bark or probe for them in the ground. While Paul and I didn’t manage a joint trek through Charles Ilsley Park, we both saw a similar rainbow of birds singing to declare their territory or carrying off caterpillars to feed mates on the nest or newly hatched nestlings.
Birds In or Around the Tall Grass of the Prairies
My visits to Charles Ilsley Park usually begin by walking along the entrance path while monitoring some of the township’s nest boxes. Two other trained volunteers and I keep records of the first egg laid, the hatch and fledge dates and any issues that develop around the nest, like predators (House Sparrows, for example). We submit the data to Cornell University’s NestWatch site as part of a citizen science project.
This year three different species have settled in the boxes that I monitor. Eastern Bluebird babies (Sialia sialis) have broken naked from their shells, begged for food and ultimately found their way into the big wide world. [Click on photos to enlarge.]
Paul and I were both lucky enough to see the adults working to make this happen. It looks like the female of both of these pairs was delivering food for her young while the male stood watch.
A House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) in one of my boxes laid her eggs in a very tidy circle. Wrens fill their boxes almost to the top with twigs, topping them off with just enough grass and feathers to cushion their young. Somehow, the female makes her way into that tight spot to incubate her tiny eggs. I imagine the crowded box discourages predators from entering. By the way, this is an extreme closeup; the wren’s eggs are just a bit larger than a dime!
Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) take up residence in our boxes as well. After building a nest of dry grass, they collect feathers, almost always white ones, to create a soft covering for the eggs. It’s amazing how many white feathers they find; I’ve read, though, that they sometimes snitch them from other Tree Swallows! Paul got a lovely photo of a male perched like a pasha on another dry Evening Primrose stalk. These striking birds glide above the meadow grass, beaks agape, collecting insects as small as gnats and as big as dragonflies.
At the end of the entrance trail, beyond the nest boxes, I’m greeted by restored prairies rolling off in all directions. In May, Ben brought in a contractor to do a major prescribed burn in Charles Ilsley Park. The low flames moved across the east and north prairies, even taking in the forests around them as part of the planned burn.
It was a dramatic sight in the first few weeks to see the blackened land begin to flourish again. The burn replenishes the soil with nutrients held in the dry plants, and the blackened surface and warmth of the fire provides a longer growing season for many native plants. Many non-native plants can be thwarted by periodic fire, unlike our fire-adapted native species.
At the entrance to the eastern prairie, an up-and-down two note call issued from the small copse of trees. Wow! I was lucky enough to see a Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus) at close range. Usually I only hear vireos because they tend to stay high in the crowns of trees. What a delight to watch this one hop about in small trees long enough to get a quick photo!
One of my favorite migrators spends the winter among the colorful birds of South American forests. Dressed elegantly in black and white with its upright posture and white tail band, the Eastern Kingbird paused for Paul while surveying its territory. Kingbirds can be aggressive toward birds near their nests, even large ones flying high overhead.
An assortment of summer sparrows make the most of our restored prairies. Once I began to pay attention to their varied songs and patterns in brown, black and white, they added interesting detail to my hikes. Ben VanderWeide, Oakland Township’s Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, helpfully compares the song of the Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) to the sound of a bouncing ping-pong ball. It starts with slow, sharp bursts that rapidly accelerate into a series of quick, rat-a-tat-tat notes. The melodies of the Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) can vary but are usually characterized by a couple of quick notes followed by a short melody that ends in either a trill or a buzz. For me, the songs of these two birds are the soundtracks of summer in all of our parks.
Birds in the Treetops and Forested Wetlands of Ilsley’s Western Trails
A large wetland runs along the northern edge of the park’s western section. It lies beyond the moist forest that edges the trail and may be missed by some hikers. Luckily, Paul willingly went off trail to get closer to the green surface of the long marsh which is covered with plants that are often mistaken for algae. Common Duckweed (Lemna minor) in my photo below is the small, leaved plant that floats on the water and Water Meal (Wolffia columbiana) is the tiny plant between the Duckweed which can multiply to form a dense mat on the water surface, as it does right now at Ilsley’s western marsh.
Evidently, a male Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) found it quite a suitable surface for exploring! I wonder if its nest is high in the trees nearby? Wood Ducks are perching ducks that use the hooks on their webbed feet to negotiate tree bark. According to the Cornell All About Birds website, their ducklings can fall fifty feet from their nest into the greenery below without injury.
Two adult Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) and their four goslings demonstrated the appeal of a nice lunch of Water Meal and Duckweed.
Exploring in the west of the park, Paul spotted the impressive Great Crested Flycatcher (Myiarchus crinitus). Inspired by his success, I spotted it later too, but it was rapidly hawking insects out of a high tree at the time. According to Cornell’s All About Birds website, this bird spends almost all of its time seeking insects high in the canopy or scooping them out of the air. Sometimes, Cornell says, it may even “crash into foliage in pursuit of leaf-crawling prey”! I want to learn their rising two note call so I can see their chocolate wings and lemon breasts more often!
On the May bird walk at Charles Ilsley Park, several brightly colored migrators decorated the treetops along the western trail. All of the colorful characters in the slideshow below can breed in our area. So during late June and early July, keep yours eyes open for the nests or fledglings of this avian rainbow when hiking in shrubby areas or at the forest edge!
Pollinators’ Danced at My Feet, Fluttering Their Small Wings Along the Grassy Trails
Since Paul kindly agreed to look upward and outward for birds, I felt free to gaze down into the grass along the trails, looking for the tiny butterflies and moths that often appear before larger insects. On the bird walk, a member spotted the small Eight-Spotted Forester Moth (Alypia octomaculata) that sports puffs of orange hair on its front and middle legs. As the Missouri Department of Conservation points out, it can easily be mistaken for a butterfly: it eats nectar, flies in the daylight and its antennae thicken at the end somewhat like butterfly attennae. This one appeared in its favorite habitat, the place where the field meets the forest. The adult moth feeds in the sunshine, then lays its eggs in the shady woods on grapevines or Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), the host plants its caterpillar loves to eat.
The birding group also watched a tattered Mourning Cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa) feed on invasive Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata.) It looks as though overwintering in a log or under tree bark took its toll on this one! Nearby, we spotted a strangely still Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes). The Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels informed me that their host plant is Common Prickly-Ash (Zanthoxylum americanum), a small, thorny tree on which the female can detect a citrus scent with her antennae. I wonder if this Giant Swallowtail was drying its wings after having recently emerged from its chrysalis on a nearby tree.
A few days after seeing the Eight-spotted Forester Moth, I found a very similar small moth at my feet on the trail. It too was tiny and black with white spots, but its orange patches were on the surface of its forewings. With help from the passionate moth lovers at the “Moths of Eastern North America” Facebook page, I learned its name. This thumb-sized, diurnal insect, called the White-spotted Sable Moth (Anania funebris), is referred to as “holarctic,” because it inhabits the majority of continents on the northern half of the planet! This particular Sable Moth seemed to be exclusively feeding off the clover blossoms on the trail, one after another. Though this moth must be quite abundant, I’d never noticed one before.
During several different visits, I noticed other small butterflies and moths that kept me company along the trails. The two tiny “tails” at the edge of the hindwings give the Eastern Tailed Blue its name. The Pearl Crescent is named for a small white shape on the underside of its hindwing. The caterpillar of the Peck’s Skipper chews on turf grasses but seems harmless among the wild grasses of our parks.
On my last visit, a dramatic Red-spotted Purple butterfly (Limentitis arthemis astyanax) glided by as I entered the park. I sometimes still mistake them for Spicebush Swallowtails (Papilio troilus troilus) because of the blue, iridescent blush on the top (dorsal) side of their hindwings and the orange spots on the ventral (lower) side of their hindwings. But the Purples have no “tails” and the orange spots beneath form a single line on the hindwings instead of the double line of the Spicebush Swallowtails, as you can see below.
The Beautiful and the Less So: Justifying (Maybe?) My Fascination with Less Likable Creatures
Dr. Doug Parsons, director of Michigan State University’s Bug House, helped me identify a couple of tiny insects that intrigued me. I’d watched what I thought were tiny wasps on almost every dandelion on the trail through the park’s Central Prairie. Dr. Parsons explained that these were not wasps, but Cuckoo Bees (genus Nomada).
Dr. Parsons wrote that this solitary bee “sneaks into the ground nest of the host bee,” most often a Mining Bee (g. Andrena), and “lays her eggs in the cells that the host bee has stocked with pollen for her own larva.” Since Mining Bees never return to the nest after stocking them, the Cuckoo bee’s egg hatches into a larva undisturbed, kills the host’s egg or larva and feeds on the stored pollen. The official term for a creature which does this is a “nest kryptoparasite,” a suitably creepy word for such behavior! Birds in the Cuckoo family do the same, laying their eggs in the nests of other birds – hence the name Cuckoo Bee. This native bee resembles a wasp in part because it has very little hair on its body. Dr. Parsons explained that bees are often fuzzy in order to collect sticky pollen. Since the Mining Bee collects the pollen that feeds the Cuckoo Bee’s young, this sneaky interloper doesn’t require the other bee’s hairier surface. Ah, another fine example of evolution working its magic.
Last week, I also observed a nondescript, brownish moth fly onto a grass stem, fold itself up and almost disappear. It was quite a challenge to locate it in my camera’s viewfinder! Dr. Parsons confirmed that this little moth is the Eastern Grass Veneer (Crambus laqueatellus). Evidently, some folks refer to these members of Crambidae family as “snout moths” because their long mouth structures resemble pointed noses. Dr. Parsons told me they can be “serious pests in lawns and golf courses” because their caterpillars eat turf grass roots. He isn’t sure, though, that they cause problems in our parks where their larvae may consume a variety of grasses. For me, its disappearing act, pointed “snout” and racing-striped wings were just odd enough to make it a fascinating find.
I’m sure that I puzzle some of you by including unglamorous, fiercely predatory or even destructive creatures in these nature blogs. Sometimes it puzzles me too that I want to explore them. But I guess for me, all of these creatures – from the Cuckoo Bee to the glorious Great Crested Flycatcher – play an essential role in the great drama of nature. By learning a name for these fellow players and the roles they perform on our shared stage, the whole spectacle and my role in it become clearer for me, more coherent – which in these chaotic times is a pretty good feeling! It’s my role – our role perhaps – to honor and respect nature in all its complexity during an era in which too many dishonor the natural world, ignore it or take it for granted. I know you, like me, care enough to watch, learn and share what you learn with others when you can. And that encourages me. Thanks for being here.