Maybe you’ve noticed individual feathers showing up in a nearby pond or on your lawn. Or you’ve noticed that birds and birdsong both seem a bit scarce right now. Or the birds you do see look just a bit scruffy. Well, don’t worry too much. It’s likely that nothing’s gone wrong for your avian neighbors. It’s just that lots of birds molt in late summer.
That slightly disheveled bird you saw is probably an adult replacing frayed and worn feathers before the rigors of winter or before its fall migration. Once breeding is over, and while there’s still plenty of food to nourish them, birds systematically shed some of their feathers, replacing them before shedding others. Feathers account for 4-12% of body weight so it takes a lot of food energy to replace them! The foraging male Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) below with its feathers a bit askew is probably close to completing his molt. He will need to build up his reserves before beginning his journey to southern Ohio or points farther south.
So how does molting work? It turns out that feathers are made of keratin like our hair or fingernails, so feathers can’t repair themselves. The rigors of the breeding season can take quite a toll on feathers. Think of it – all that to-ing and fro-ing from the nest or tree cavity, the scrabbling that occurs around an adult bird’s head as the young compete to be fed, plunging into the grass to snatch bugs, and riding down stalks to gather seeds on a windy day. The feathers of an adult bird take quite a beating! (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
A Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) gathering seed on a windy day.
A Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) reaches far into her nest to feed her young.
When I saw this male Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) a week or so ago, I wondered if he was just beginning his complete molt into the dappled blue and brown plumage that he wears during the winter.
The molting process begins with the bird shedding a few feathers. In their place, “pin feathers” emerge quickly. These pin feathers are supplied with blood for growth and look like the rigid shaft of adult feathers. As they lengthen, the blood stays in the lower ends and the tips slowly encase the feathers in a waxy coating. So when you see birds preening during a molt, they are very likely pulling off that coating, allowing the adult feathers to unfurl.
The Great Egret (Ardea alba) below seems to have shed a few feathers, since some were stuck to the branches behind it and some lay below on the trunk of the snag. Perhaps it’s unfurling new feathers, or it could just be going after some persistent feather mites.
I’ve read that pin feathers are more sensitive than adult feathers. I wonder if that’s why we often see birds preening so vigorously before migration. Maybe preening feels something like scratching your head when it itches! According to Cornell’s comprehensive “Birds of North America” subscription website, Egrets molt “some to most” of their body feathers when they’re in “northern non-breeding grounds.” Since egrets nest in only a few areas in Michigan, most of Michigan is a non-breeding area suitable for molting. Maybe that’s why this Egret was preening almost continually, including stretching up its leg to scratch its cheek!
Molting happens on different schedules for different bird species. Some have one molt per year, some molt into breeding colors in the spring and molt again in the fall, and some do partial molts, head and back feathers first and tail and wing feathers later. With experience the age and sex of many birds can be identified using their plumage.
In early summer after breeding, Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) have an extra molt, a partial one. The males molt into “eclipse plumage, ” a drab plumage that makes the males look more like the brown females, though males still retain the red eye, red upper beak and double white stripe which females don’t have. Evidently male ducks do this to get the protection of being much less conspicuous during summer months. Here’s a photo of a male Wood Duck in eclipse plumage by iNaturalist photographer Heather Pickard.
Like many ducks, Wood Ducks choose mates in the fall, overwinter with them and then mate in the spring. Of course the males want to look their most dazzling before courting! So they change into their breeding colors from mid-summer to early autumn, instead of in the spring like many birds. It’s a complete molt, meaning every feather is replaced, which renders them flightless for about three weeks. The female’s appearance stays the same with her new feathers. But the male recreates his elegant breeding plumage, including the iridescent green crest sloping down the back of his neck. Below are two males in a wetland near Lost Lake Nature Park two weeks ago who look like they’re about halfway between eclipse plumage and their glamorous breeding colors.
Birds don’t fight change. They simply do what’s required as the light informs them that the days are getting shorter. They molt. So when I go look for my jacket or warmer socks on a cool autumn day, I’m just part of the same process, I guess. And since my adjustment seems much less arduous than that of our feathered friends, I’ll try not to grouse about it!
Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide and I both got inspired by the idea of a year-end reflection on some of the remarkable sights in our parks and natural areas over the last year. Nature excels in surprising and delighting any curious observer with its ability to come back from adversity, in some cases to even thrive in difficult circumstances. That ability to keep on growing and creating in the face of any obstacle can be a great inspiration in challenging times.
So as the snow falls, please sit back in a comfortable chair with a warm drink and savor some highlights from the four seasons of 2017 here in Oakland Township.
Winter 2017: Serenity Rises as the Snow Falls
Sometimes we just need a little less hubbub after the holidays and the parks provide a peaceful escape. In general, the only sounds are the wind in bare branches, the occasional calls of the year ’round birds and the tapping of energetic woodpeckers foraging in the tree bark. And other times, when we feel a bit house-bound and crave crisp air on red cheeks, a winter walk provides little discoveries unavailable in other seasons. During one deep freeze last winter, the weekly birding group stepped out on the ice at Cranberry Lake to inspect a beaver lodge. And a few weeks later, I plopped down in the snow for a closer look at 3-D ice dendrites standing upright on a frozen puddle! Folks enjoyed the fine skating rink at Marsh View Park, but some who fancied wild surroundings skated on Twin Lake. On sunny winter days, shadows are always sharp and any spot of color, like the brilliant red of a male cardinal, catches my eye in winter’s clear, white light. Hiking in winter can be wonderful; just be sure you’re bundled up for it! (Click on pause button for longer captions.)
Spring 2017: Buds, First Blooms, Migrators Flying in by Night and the Ebullient Symphony of Courting Birds and Frogs
Ah, mud-luscious spring! The tiny Chorus and Wood Frogs thawed out after their winter freeze and sang lustily from vernal ponds. In early spring, the birders spotted a crayfish at Bear Creek who’d climbed out of her chimney with eggs under her tail and was lumbering toward the pond. Some spring avian migrators quickly passed through, and we bird watchers were lucky to spot a few special visitors. An unusual American Pipit appeared before my camera lens one afternoon at Gallagher Creek Park on its way to its breeding grounds in the far north. While others, like the Tree Swallow or the Eastern Meadowlark, settled in for the summer to raise their young. After last year’s controlled burn, native Lupines appeared along the Paint Creek Trail. And in May, Ben spotted a rare sight, a frilly spread of rare Bogbean flowers in a kettle wetland at Bald Mountain State Recreation Area off Kern Road. Snow melt and bright green buds always offer an irresistible invitation to come out and join the bustle and music of spring!
Summer 2017: Butterflies Galore as Restored Prairies Began to Bloom
Summer! The very word conjures up a coloring box assortment of butterflies hovering over prairie wildflowers. Birds constructed their nests and later wore themselves out feeding noisy, demanding fledglings. We birders particularly enjoyed close looks at a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak sharing egg-warming duties near a Bear Creek path. The birders laughed in surprise watching a passive/aggressive pair of Canada Geese successfully discourage the presence of a Green Heron by simply swimming uncomfortably close to it. A family ambled along a path at Draper Twin Lake Park, headed for a morning fishing expedition. The birding group, binoculars in hand, spotted an Indigo Bunting while walking the new paths through the prairies at Charles Ilsley Park, increasingly spangled with colorful native wildflowers as restoration proceeds. A Great Horned Owl stared at the delighted birding group through a scrim of leaves near Bear Creek marsh. Every path in the township hummed with life during the summer months. But that’s what we all expect of summer, right?
Autumn 2017: Birds Departed South, and Fall Wildflowers Bloomed
Tundra Swans flew in formation overhead, as migrators of all kinds, like the Hermit Thrush, rode the north wind down to southern climes. But as they departed, nature offered a consolation. Many native wildflowers bloomed in the cool weather as they faithfully do each year. Asters formed carpets of color everywhere, from meadow to marsh! At the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail, tiny Ladies Tresses orchids, Grass of Parnassus with its delicately striped petals, and vivid purple Fringed Gentian intrigued me again by emerging in the chill of early autumn. Native bumblebees pushed their way into Bottle Gentian flowers at Gallagher Creek Park and the Wet Prairie. Butterflies still sipped nectar from late fall blooms. The birders identified ducks of all kinds assembled in rafts on Cranberry Lake. Rattling cries alerted me to the presence of Belted Kingfishers who scouted for prey at both Bear Creek’s pond and Cranberry Lake. Ben dipped his net into a marsh at Charles Ilsley Park to show us tadpoles that overwinter on the muddy surface beneath the water. So much life as the year 2017 began to ebb!
Parks Full of Life All Year ‘Round. Aren’t We Lucky?
As a direct result of the foresight of township residents who have supported the Parks Commission and land preservation, native plants, wildlife, birds, and a beautifully diverse combination of habitats are being restored and preserved in Oakland Township. I want to share my appreciation for that foresight and for the hard work and knowledge of Ben VanderWeide (my kind and able supervisor and editor), other parks volunteers, my fellow birders and park staff. And at the end of the year, I thank all of you who read, comment on and/or follow Natural Areas Notebook. It’s wonderful to be learning more all the time about the natural world – and then to have this opportunity to share what I’m learning with all of you. On to 2018!
Charles Ilsley Park sways with grass and colorful wildflowers right now as restoration begins returning the rolling fields to the prairies they once were. The eastern prairie, featured this week, is breath-taking! Butterflies dance in and out of native Black-eyed Susans, bees hum, grasshoppers leap at your feet and dragonflies swoop above the Yarrow and Bee Balm. Birds perch and forage at the trail edges and sing from the woods.
These former farm fields, once full of invasive and non-native agricultural plants, are gradually being restored to provide for the birds, insects and other wildlife that historically nested and foraged here. A new path through the thirteen acres of the eastern prairie now provides a perfect quiet stroll on a sunny morning or afternoon.
Birds are Plentiful, Colorful and Sometimes Difficult to See
At this time of year, adult birds are busy feeding and over-seeing either nestlings or fledglings. So they’re deep in the leaves, high in the sky, or down in the grass, foraging for whatever will feed the young. Here’s a graceful female Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) with seeds in her beak approaching her nearby nest hidden in a clump of leaves that hangs right over the trail as you enter the park.
Earlier in the summer, the bird boxes along the trail into the park were busy places! A House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) took over a rather dilapidated one. You’ll notice in one of these pictures, the wren is pecking at a spider web. Cornell Lab says that wrens often put spider egg sacs into their nest box so the spiders will rid it of mites! (Click on arrow for slide show; use pause button for captions.)
The Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor) spread its huge wings as it swooped in and out feeding its mate or young in June. Now the box seems to be just a stop-over spot as it soars and dives in the meadow beyond.
Thanks to Laurie Peklo, a member of the birding group who cleaned out the nesting boxes this spring, the Eastern Bluebirds (Sialiasialis) also found a home at Ilsley again this year.
A few weeks later, we saw a Bluebird fledgling in a tree, perhaps the male’s offspring. Baby bluebirds take a while to turn really blue, so I’ve also included a photo of a bit older one begging in our front yard. (Click on photos to enlarge; use back arrow to return to blog.)
A fledgling Bluebird at Ilsley
A bit older one begging to be fed in our front yard
When you reach the sign about Prairie Restoration, you’ll see that the center of the park is brown and mowed. Don’t worry. Ben VanderWeide, township stewardship manager, and his crew are just preparing the ground so that in the fall, it can be sown with native prairie plants – just as the eastern prairie was planted two years ago, and the north and west were planted last year. In a few years, we’ll have close to 50 acres of prairie in this park!
On every recent visit, a male Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) has sung from the bushes on the hill in the center field. That’s why Ben left the greenery there when the field was prepared for prairie planting – to protect their young. The photo below, was taken in the spring when one male came a bit closer and really belted out his “witchedy, witchedy” song!
A Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) foraged in the grass of the trail on one of our birding walks. Its pink-ish beak matches its pink legs – an easy field mark for these little birds. Ben describes their rolling song as a bouncing ball.
Young Chipping Sparrows (Spizella passerina) and their elders forage there as well. Thanks to birder extraordinaire, Ruth Glass, for the identification! (Click on photos to enlarge.)
Ruth also identified the rather scruffy Eastern Wood- Pewee fledgling (Contopus virens) below.
We birders heard an adult one singing in the woods near the eastern prairie last week, but didn’t see it – as is often the case with singing Pewees. Luckily, one landed near our deck at home a few weeks ago, singing its name on a rising note – Pee-weeee! Nice to see one up close and personal!
In a clump of trees on the south side of the east prairie, an Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) sang from a very tall snag on my last three trips to Ilsley. He must have a nest nearby. He’s so far up, singing his song in phrases of twos and threes, that it’s hard to even see he’s blue!
But my husband and I were lucky enough to have one fly down to a small tree near us while walking at Addison Oaks about ten days ago. Such a glorious bird!
As some of the birders exited the eastern prairie last Wednesday, they saw a very unusual bird, a Yellow-throated Vireo (Vireo flavifrons). I didn’t get a look before it flew – so here’s a lovely photo from a generous Creative Commons photographer at inaturalist.org, Donna Pomeroy.
We also saw the Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus) again. Here’s a photo of this elusive bird by gifted local photographer, Bob Bonin.
Prairie Wildflowers – What a Sight!
In 2015, the eastern prairie was sown with native seed acquired through a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It will take three or four summers of careful stewardship for these native, drought-resistant prairie plants to grow deep roots and reach full bloom. Although this is only their second summer, the native wildflowers are already carpeting the prairie with color.
Ben mowed the field once this year already and will mow once more in August. This relatively high mowing reduces the seed production of annual and biennial plants (like burdock, thistle and Queen Anne’s Lace) and allows sunlight to reach the prairie plants while they are small and growing roots. Look at just of few of the native wildflowers already coming up!
And we still have autumn flowers to look forward to!
That Carpet of Prairie Wildflowers Brought All Kinds of Butterflies!
What a glorious sight! All over Ilsley’s eastern prairie, butterflies float and flutter in and out of the colorful tapestry of native plants – sipping the nectar and enjoying the sunlight. The birders sighted a relatively uncommon black butterfly called the Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus), though it took a lot of talk and research to identify it correctly! Luckily, the next day I saw the very similar Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) and was able to study the photos to spot the distinctions between the two. Here’s a swallowtail identification link I found very useful. (Note that on this site, the butterflies’ names are above rather than below the photos, which can be confusing at first.)
This is the male Spicebush Swallowtail. Notice that he only has white dots along the edge of his forewing, a faint line of pale blue dots above and a wash of blue (or blue scaling) on each hindwing.
The Black Swallowtail has a larger second (or postmedian) row of yellowish spots above the row at the edge of its forewings and its more intense blue is contained in spots, rather than a wash of blue. It has a complete orange dot on each hindwing. This is the female, I believe, since her orange dots have a black center and the male’s are solid orange. Whew! Glad I had photos to help me!
My husband and I saw a third swallowtail flying high into the trees at Ilsley – the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus). Here’s a photo from Bear Creek several years ago, just to remind you of its beauty, too. The female of this species can also be black! But that’s for another blog…
One hot morning, four different Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) drank from blossoms on the Eastern Prairie. They didn’t leave their wings open for long when they settled; they only used them to move from bloom to bloom. Perhaps closed wings kept them cooler, since less sunlight would fall on their closed wings than on open ones. I’ve learned that dragonflies tip their bodies vertically to stay cool on really hot days for that reason.
Some of the birders spotted a Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) one Wednesday morning when I was off looking at the Spicebush Swallowtail. So here’s an older Bear Creek photo of one of those also.
On my last trip to the park, I saw a finger-nail-sized, triangular-shaped, white butterfly that I could not identify (help anyone?) and a tiny orange one that I believe is a Delaware Skipper (Anatrytone logan). To assess their size, consider that the little white one is under a Daisy Fleabane and the orange one is on a blade of grass! Interesting things come in small packages, eh?
A finger-nail sized white butterfly I could not ID.
A Delaware Skipper, I believe
A Spray of Tiny Grasshopper Nymphs, a Nice Big Carolina Locust, and a Widow Skimmer Dragonfly as well
On the path that crosses the center of the Eastern Prairie, you’ll see – and hear! – hundreds of tiny grasshopper nymphs jumping off the path. They sound like rain falling on the taller grass stalks! Only about an half inch long now, they’re hard to identify. My guess is they’re Red-legged Grasshoppers (Melanoplus femurrubrum). The larger one in the slideshow below is definitely a Red-legged but it’s still a nymph, too. These guys molt 5-7 times before reaching adulthood. The brown Carolina Locust (Dissosteira carolina)is much bigger, about 2 inches.
Of course no prairie is complete without dragonflies! Female, or possibly juvenile male, Widow Skimmers (Libellula luctuosa), with yellow abdominal stripes, hunted above the greenery last week. Adult males eventually develop a white wing band next to the dark one and their brown abdomens take on a bluish-white sheen as they mature.
Step by Step, Restoring Our Natural History
We all love local history, so it makes such perfect sense to restore our natural areas, too. At Charles Ilsley Park, we have an opportunity to see what our township looked like before European settlement, when Native American tribes lived on the rolling oak savannahs covered with tall grasses, wildflowers and widely spaced oaks. Even more importantly, natural areas restoration re-creates at least some of the rich diversity of plants, insects, birds and other wildlife that historically shared our green corner of the world. We’re on our way now to something very special here in Oakland Township. Come have a look!
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.
Summer finally made its appearance all over the woods, meadows, wetlands, and forest edges of Cranberry Lake Park. After a prescribed burn this spring, geraniums and trillium emerged under the huge Shagbark Hickories that line the park’s western edge. Summer birds, including the tiny warblers and other new arrivals, are singing lustily to establish their territories and attract interested females as they begin to build nests. Butterflies are just starting to dance above the greenery in the dry meadows. And the hibernators – like snappers, raccoons and leopard frogs – get back in action after their winter snooze. The transformation from spring to summer has well and truly begun.
Birds and Blooms in the Large Sunny Meadows
Small Yellow Warblers (Setophaga petechia) welcome visitors from the high treetops just north of the parking lot. The male with his chestnut-striped breast sings his “sweet-sweet, I’m a little sweet” song as he darts here and there, frequently out of sight in the greenery. Luckily a female with much fainter stripes ignored me while probing for insects in some smaller trees.
At the edge of the big northern meadow one afternoon, I heard the two buzz call that Ben identified on an earlier birdwalk. As I scanned the bushes with my binoculars, a lovely Blue-Winged Warbler (Vermivora cyanoptera)filled my view. By the time I raised the camera, it was gone. Joan Bonin, a gifted local photographer and birder, kindly offered her stunning photo taken a week later at Port Huron State Recreation Area. Thank you, Joan!
A Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus) made a brief appearance in a small meadow opening at the edge of a forested wetland. Evidently these little birds sing incessantly, especially on warm summer afternoons. In fact, Cornell reports that one determined male “sang 22,197 songs in the 14 hours from just before dawn to evening, singing for 10 of those hours.” I missed both his song and a photo, but another gifted local photographer and birder, Bob Bonin (Joan’s husband), kindly shared his lovely photo taken at the Tawas migration site last year. Thanks to Bob, also!
Steve, a fine birder that I met at Bear Creek Park, commented on the last blog that he’d seen an Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) at Cranberry Lake in the last two weeks. Cornell ornithologists report that all blue birds actually have no blue pigment in their feathers. “Their jewel-like color comes instead from microscopic structures in the feathers that refract and reflect blue light, much like the airborne particles that cause the sky to look blue.” Since Steve saw the bird and I didn’t, here’s that bright little piece of sky in another beautiful shot by Bob Bonin.
Butterflies dance across nearly every sunny or dappled area of Cranberry Lake. In a shady corner near the northern meadow, an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail(Papilio glaucus) paused for just a moment before sailing high into the treetops and away. The band of blue spots at the bottom of the hindwing (plus the orange center spots) marks this one as a female.
A smaller, but equally striking butterfly, the American Copper, sampled the blossoms of Common Blackberry bushes (Rubus allagheniensis) that have multiplied mightily since the recent burn.
According to Wikipedia, the male Coppers set up “small territories which they will defend vigorously against rival males or indeed any unlucky passing insect. Even the shadow of a large bird passing overhead is enough to elicit a response.”
It’s clear where this medium-sized [edit: My memory failed me. It’s actually very small!] butterfly got its name, eh?
This female Eastern Tailed-Blue butterfly(Cupido comyntas) doesn’t wear the beautiful blue that her mate flashes when he flies. But you can still see a bit of blue in her modest gray. These medium-sized butterflies almost disappear when they land and fold their wings, which are light gray underneath.
Along the Hickory Lane, More Bird Song and Early Summer Blossoms
On an early bird walk, a Brown Thrasher (Toxostoma rufum) belted out its complex mimicry song from the top of a tree on the Hickory Lane. If you enjoy the Gray Catbird’s mix of other birds’ calls and the odd noise, you’ll love (as I do) the crazy mix of continuous loud song from the thrasher. That morning he was too high up for a good photo. Fortunately a few days later, a tired thrasher, preparing for sleep on a cool spring evening at Gallagher Park, struck a pose for me.
Along the lane, a tiny mimic (listen to the second recording at this link), the Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea), busily fluttered and hopped about a tree trunk foraging for insects. How I’d love to see their nest! Cornell Lab says they “use spiderweb and lichens to build small, neat nests, which sit on top of branches and look like tree knots.”
On a later visit, a male House Wren (Troglodytes aedon), bubbled with spring song. Despite their diminutive size, wrens can be fierce in asserting ownership over a preferred nesting hole, even dragging out eggs of other birds or pecking larger adult birds. Wrens need to maintain a narrow range of temperature for their eggs to hatch which might explain their fierceness over nesting sites. Perhaps this male’s insistent song was just a first salvo in the competition.
In the area between the Hickory Lane and the large marsh to the east, a strange upward sliding call made my husband and I stop and listen one afternoon. We never saw the singing male, but we did spot the female Swainson’s Thrush (Catharus ustulatus), that I originally thought was a robin from its stance. Sorry for the slight blur of a quick photo.
Below these avian songsters, early summer blossoms came burgeoning forth after a recent prescribed burn. The lane was filled on both sides with the Wild Geraniums (Geranium maculatum) you see at the top of this blog. A small white plume poked through leaves of what Ben tells me is either red or white Baneberry (g. Actaea). The actual baneberries that form later are highly toxic, so please don’t eat them! (They’re very bitter so you wouldn’t like them, but children might be tempted because they’re very colorful and shiny.)
Two varieties of the same flower also bloomed on the lane. Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biforum) produces its blossoms beneath the stem and its leaves are smooth below, unlike a nearly identical plant, Downy Solomon’s Seal(Polygonatum pubescens) that has fuzz on the underside of the leaves.
False Solomon’s Seal (Maianthemum racemosum), on the other hand, produces its flowers on a stem that stands above the leaves. Odd name. Perhaps the name was given by someone fooled into thinking at first that it was Solomon’s Seal? Who knows….
Early Summer in the Shadowy Wetlands near Cranberry Lake
Cranberry Lake has a wonderful collection of vernal pools and woodland ponds as well as the lake itself. I’ve come to love these areas because they are always rich with wildlife, especially birds!
I heard the easily-identified “witchedy, witchedy” call of one of my favorite small migrators, the black-masked Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas). He was in a favorite location, in low bushes near a wetland. I never got to see the ones that I heard repeatedly at Cranberry Lake, but I saw this one the following week at Charles Ilsley Park.
In a forested pool, a Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) had draped its head over the edge of a log, evidently eating plants below. At first, I thought it had been beheaded somehow! But on hearing me crunching in the twigs, it lifted its pointed snout into the air, quickly slid backwards into the water and disappeared. So all I got was this odd, headless shot.
A few minutes later, a male Common Grackle’s (Quiscalus quiscula) iridescent head shone in a ray of sunlight on the same log. Clearly frustrated at finding nothing to eat beneath it, he tossed that irritating, useless chunk of bark into the water.
One of summer’s pleasures is being escorted along a trail by dragonflies and damselflies – and then I managed to shoot one swooping over the water when I reached at Cranberry Lake. Perhaps a mating flight?
In April, lovely little blossoms with pink scallops and ruffled edges emerged on the native Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) near Cranberry Lake. A few weeks later, the fruit was beginning to form. I hope birds, animals and we humans leave some berries uneaten so it keeps spreading!
When I reached Cranberry Lake, I found two Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) standing on a sandbar near the shore. One of them “gave me the eye” between the old stems of purple loosestrife.
On the way back up the trail from the lake one morning, Ben spotted a weary raccoon who appeared to have made a hasty bed in the fork of a tree after a night of foraging. It opened one eye as we birders peered from below.
On the edge of the path heading toward one of the large meadows, I heard the snoring rattle of the Leopard Frog’s song coming from a nearby wetland. And then, oops! – one appeared right in the path between two wet areas. Nice to have frog song along with bird song on a summer walk!
Nature by Ear as Well as by Eye
To truly savor the pleasures of nature in early summer requires tuning my ears as well as opening my eyes. Though I’m just learning bird songs and frog songs, every time I identify a voice in nature’s chorus, I feel more connected, more embedded in the natural world. Listening, as well as careful, patient watching, begins to turn a green landscape into an intricately woven tapestry of life in which we humans are just one colorful thread.
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: 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.
Late summer is always a time of transitions, but this year was particularly dramatic. Bear Creek’s meadows baked for weeks under a blazing sun. The marsh dried completely, stranding an over-heated young snapper that struggled through a tangled mat of exposed vegetation. Heat finished off blossoms as some wildflowers began to seed earlier than usual. And then in mid-August, the rains came – downpours, thunderstorms and off-and-on showers. You could almost hear the gulping of plants and trees swallowing the moisture through their roots. Snappers again cruised just below the shallow waters of the marsh. Life rallied. As always, nature just coped and moved on.
Life in the Hot Sun of the Old Fields
The Old Field on the western edge of Bear Creek is quieter now. Mating season has ended (except for the Goldfinches), so birdsong has diminished. But one hot, sticky morning, an Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) threw back his head and let loose his double-phrased song from the highest branch of a tree – a favorite perch for male Buntings.
An Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) seemed to be listening to its neighbor as it rested between forays over the baking meadows, trying to snatch a few unsuspecting insects.
A juvenile Yellow-bellied Flycatcher (Empidonax flaviventris) posed quietly among the branches of smaller trees on the Western Slope. Expert birder, Ruth Glass, tells me that this little bird probably arrived from Canada or northern Michigan and is now migrating down to the Caribbean. Quite an adventure for a small bird!
Near the moist bottom of the slope one steamy morning, I spotted a lump on a leaf. A newly metamorphosed Gray Tree Frog (Hyla versicolor) was sleeping on a Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). I’m afraid I woke it with my camera. The U of M’s Bio-kids website says they are “almost always bright green right after metamorphosis [from tadpole stage] and they stay this way for some time before taking on their adult coloration.” These frogs can sleep in the open during the day, using their camouflage to protect themselves; they don’t dehydrate quickly like other frogs. Isn’t it just the best little creature?
While birds foraged from the trees, the insects below braved the blazing sun to look for their own sustenance. In the grass on the Western Slope, a Common Buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia)seemed to searching the bottom of grass stems. I’ve read that they sip nectar but often look for fluids in moist earth. Perhaps it was hoping for dew on a hot morning in August.
Higher up on the western path, where the land was drier, beetles probed blossoms looking for food. On the left, a non-native Seven-spotted Ladybug (Coccinella setempunctata)searched diligently for aphids, a favorite food. In fact, these beetles were brought here to combat aphids, but as a result, they’ve outcompeted our native ladybugs whose numbers have declined. On the right, a Soldier Beetle (family Cantharidae) may also be pursuing aphids, though it also eats pollen and nectar. (Hover cursor for captions; click on photo to enlarge.)
In the trees near the top of the Western Slope, a sparrow fluffed its feathers in thin shade. It’s hard to identify juvenile sparrows but with its pink feet and bill, I’m guessing this is a juvenile Field Sparrow who hasn’t yet reached full adult plumage when it will have a more distinct eye ring and a clear breast.
American Goldfinches mate in August, much later than other birds. On one hot visit, a female repeatedly rode drying blossoms of Queen Anne’s Lace down to the ground to forage for seeds, perhaps to feed her young – or her hard-working self! Unlike many seed-eating birds, the Goldfinches don’t switch to bugs when breeding. They are strictly vegetarian.
Nestlings of other birds are transforming into curious fledglings. One afternoon, a young, female Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) perched high in a snag (standing dead tree), her spotted breast only halfway transformed into adult plumage.
Wildflowers felt the impact of the fierce sunlight. A Jewel Weed blossom near the pond dried in the heat, while others took its place in the dappled shade. And up on the top of the southern hill, the Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) dropped their petals and began the seeding process in the dry heat.
Sturdy Prairie Dock blossoms, looking like little suns themselves, began to dry out as well as they towered over the wilting Coneflowers.
A female Black Swallowtail hovered just off the sun-drenched Eastern Path, looking restlessly for just the right blossom. Folding its dark wings may help it cope with the sun’s heat.
Patrolling for food, a Ruby Meadowhawk dragonfly rested momentarily on a leaf, its clear wings shimmering in the hot sunlight.
The northeastern edge of the Old Fields evidently stayed moist despite the heat and several “wet-footed” plants took full advantage of the bright sunlight. Joe-Pye (Eutrochium maculatum) spread its dusty pink blooms out across the field instead of appearing as widely distributed single plants as it often does here.
Other native wetland plants fringed the same area. The trio below includes bright pink Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) with its green stems, Joe-Pye with dusty pink blossoms and purple stems and Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) with its white blossoms and leathery leaves.
Below center, the native Bumblebee (genus Bombus) sips nectar from the Swamp Milkweed with its long tongue and on the left, is a closer look at Boneset. Odd name, eh? Evidently early herbalists noticed the way the stem seemed to rise right through the clinging leaves reminding them of a splint around a bone. So its leaves were wrapped with bandages around broken bones. Native Flowering Spurge (Euphorbia corollata) on the right also thrives here as it does in various spots along the Paint Creek Trail.
Sheltering in the Shade
Near the wood edges, I found mammals and insects enjoying the shade. Following a shining strand hanging before our eyes, my husband and I discovered a very tiny white spider escaping the bright sunlight on the underside of a leaf. I tried but couldn’t identify it, despite that wonderful design on its abdomen. We wondered if that brown ball was an egg sack. Anyone know this tiny creature’s name?
And, as usual, damselflies moved in and out of the shade at the edge of the Oak-Hickory forest. I’m guessing, based on its bright blue head, striped thorax, and very pale abdomen, that this one may be a female Bluet (genus Enallagma) or a recently hatched one. But since there are at least 17 species of Bluets in the Midwest, I’m not sure which one this is. Again, I’m open to your ideas.
A White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) sat calmly on the shady site of a dried vernal pool, while her fawn dutifully hurried off into the bushes as I paused for the photo.
And an Eastern Cottontail paused in a shady spot along a trail one hot morning as well.
And Then the Rains Came…
What a relief when heavy rain came to refill the wetlands and ponds at Bear Creek Park! After watching that young Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) struggling through vegetation in the dry marsh, it was a relief to see two Snappers feeding and cruising just below the surface in the cooling water provided by the rain.
The bright sun and rain caused Common Duckweed (Lemna minor) and Water Meal (genus Wolffia) – often mistaken for heavy algae – to form thicker mats across wetlands around the park. At the Playground Pond, I heard a plop! one afternoon and saw just the head of a Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) moving through the juicy green surface. Luckily, its ears close when it enters the water! When swimming, it uses its tail to propel itself with the help of its webbed back feet.
Once the Muskrat dove, I noticed other denizens of the Pond nicely camouflaged in duckweed and water meal as well. Here are two turtles and a frog on a log decked out in greenery.
Quivering in the duckweed near the boardwalk made me look down to see a whole collection of small Green Frogs (Rana clamitans). Each of those individual spots on the leg of the frog below is a water meal plant! Ducks do love this plant, by the way. Sometimes they just dip their bills in and move along, scooping it up.
In the wetland just north of the Playground Pond, a particularly beautiful native plant is blooming in the moist shade, Cardinal Flower or Red Lobelia (Lobelia cardinalis). Last week when I took an out-of-town friend to the park and left my camera at home, we watched a Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) sipping at a tall stalk of this scarlet beauty. I came back for its photo the following day – but no Hummingbird then, I’m sorry to say!
We also spotted two Barn Swallowsperched quietly in nearby trees. No camera again! The next day, they were swooping madly across the meadows, their bills open, enjoying the swarms of insects that had hatched after the rain. One perched for a moment in a snag over the wetland and I got this quick photo of it from below.
As the water rose in the Center Pond, tiny Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta) appeared on nearly every log. Here’s a silver-dollar-sized one trundling along as it explores its world like any youngster.
This week, a Green Heron (Butorides virescens) dropped into the bushes at the western edge of the pond. It kept a close eye on the water, when it wasn’t actively preening with its long, extendable neck. Green Herons are expert hunters of both fish and frogs. I wondered if the absence of July’s huge number of green frogs was attributable to the drought or this multi-colored fisher. (My apologies for the slightly pixelated photos caused by aggressive cropping so we could see it up close.)
Yes, it’s been a hot, sticky and then rainy summer. But we’re all in this together – animals, birds and plants. The natural world provided a gentle reminder that change, even dramatic change, is an inherent part of being alive. Summer may be waning now but the beauty around us isn’t. Surprises await our arrival every day, no matter what the weather.
P.S. More Native Beauties Blooming along the Paint Creek Trail!
The trick about blogging during the summer is that so much happens all over the township, all at once! Keep an eye out for these special native wildflowers blooming for just a short time in the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail. The shallow water table in this meadow provides a perfect spot for these fire-adapted beauties. The field is dotted with the purple fireworks of Cylindrical Blazing Star (Liatris cylindracea), the striped elegance of Grass of Parnassus (Parnassia glauca) and the delicate, spotted petals of Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum). Don’t miss them!
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.