Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park: Summer’s Long Goodbye Begins

The northern meadow at Stony Creek Ravine, partially fenced off for wetland restoration

Summer’s slow demise in late August/early September urged me to acknowledge the need for letting go. Tiny warblers seem to suddenly disappear as they head south. Canada geese begin their practice runs, forming loose “V’s” while trumpeting across the sky. Hummingbirds feed ravenously at any available nectar, gaining 25-40% of their body weight before the long journey to Mexico. Some fledglings still flutter, cry and pursue their parents for a meal; others hone their newly acquired foraging skills. Spiraling through the trees, they seek out the feast of eggs or caterpillars that the pollinators left behind. The meadows quiet down as molting birds hide their bare heads in the greenery hoping to be unseen. Wasps buzz above our outdoor meals, struggling to supplement diminished sources of food.

Text and photos by Cam Mannino

I spent quiet hours at the newer, eastern section of Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park during these waning days of summer. Come join me in the thinning sunlight and share the ebullience of young birds, the sprays of grasshoppers beneath my feet, and the persistence of butterflies on late summer blossoms that are hallmarks of this transitional season of the year.

Birds, Experienced and Not-so-experienced, Forage and Flutter

A flock of Barn Swallows gathered on a fence at Stony Creek Ravine after foraging over the wetlands for flying insects

I spent my days at Stony Creek Ravine exploring the open fields visible from the top of the Outlook Hill in the eastern section of the park. Much of this area is fenced in to protect small shrubs and trees planted in the re-emerging wetlands. Thousands of native plants were sown there when the old drainage tiles from previous owners were broken to allow water to flow again to the surface. In the spring, pools form and migrating waterbirds glide in for a bit of R&R.

Right now, though, the fenced-in sections are moist but little standing water remains after a hot summer. Social birds flock to the fences to chatter together. Solitary birds, some unusual ones this season, forage within the fence boundaries. Other just need a place to periodically perch while scouting for seeds among the tall grass and flowers within or around the fencing. My photographer friend, Bob Bonin, generously shared some of his excellent photos of birds he came across while patiently waiting near the fence line. It was the right place to be, as you’ll see below!

Young Fledglings Practice Their Foraging, Flying and Landing Skills

One of my mornings at Stony Creek Ravine was in the company of Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide’s Wednesday bird walks. As we entered the park, we spotted several young Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) whisking in and out of the shrubbery, bits of blue on their wings shining in the sunlight. Three of them spent a remarkable amount of time exploring a hole in a distant snag. We wondered if, being cavity nesters, they were just curious about holes in general or if this hole might have been the one from which they fledged only weeks before.

Three young Bluebirds took turns looking into this hole in a snag. Had it maybe been their nesting hole? We’ll never know, will we?

On another visit, an adult Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) regally surveyed the area from the tallest branch of a bare tree. Perhaps the adult I saw (below left) was keeping its eye out for its offspring, a juvenile that Bob Bonin saw a few days earlier (below right.) Both birds will shortly be heading to forests in South America where they will feast on fruit during the winter. [Click on photos to enlarge.]

Bob also spotted a female Orchard Oriole (Icterus spurius) and perhaps one of her offspring. Like their bright orange relatives, the Baltimore Oriole, these birds build pouch-like nests. They breed in our parks each year but are less noticeable to most of us. The male is a dark russet orange and black and the female is yellow. Orchard Orioles depart for their overwintering grounds earlier than many other birds, so by now they’re on their way to Central America.

I fell instantly in love with this little puffball. Local bird expert, Allen Chartier, tells me it’s a juvenile Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia). This young bird can relax a bit longer than the distance migrators. Song Sparrows travel around just enough during the winter to keep themselves out of the worst of Michigan’s cold season.

This wee Song Sparrow juvenile can use autumn days to perfect its foraging skills. It will need them to handle a Midwestern winter.

A few other small birds appeared for me along the fence line. A little Eastern Wood-Pewee (Contopus virens) sings one of the most recognizable calls of a summer day – the rising “Pee – weeeee?” that sounds like an oft-repeated question. Birdsong beginners, like me, appreciate a song that identifies this little flycatcher who can be difficult to spot otherwise. Bob Bonin spotted a little Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina) who’ll be heading off to Florida before long. And he also saw a young Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) with its telltale pink/orange beak and feet.

Breeding Season Over, Adult Summer Visitors Relax Before Migration

My friend Bob brings patience as well as skill to his photography. He caught sight of two birds at the park that people rarely see and waited until he got the shot he wanted. One was a “leucistic” Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis) which means that it had partial pigmentation loss. Unlike the complete loss of pigmentation of albinos which also causes white, pink or red eyes, leucistic animals have partial pigmentation loss and their eyes are dark. Bob also waited over two hours for a closeup of another unusual bird, a Sedge Wren (Cistothorus stellaris) as it foraged for spiders and insects down in the dense grass, sedges and small shrubs within the fence. This is ideal habitat for Sedge Wrens, but since they are unpredictable nomads, we can’t count on seeing them every year.

Stony Creek Ravine hosts some more common summer residents as well – and we’re always glad to see them as well.

The plaintive cry of a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) fell from the trees around a marshy area filled with sedges (genus Carex), ancient, grass-like plants that thrive in moist ground. When it suddenly appeared overhead, I caught it twice with my camera, once like a magnificent arrow streaking across the sky, and once in mid-scream from a prey’s eye view. Glad I’m too big to be carried away for dinner!

The fierce glare of a red-tailed hawk against the summer sky. What a striking, powerful predator!
The cry of a Red-tailed Hawk must put fear in the heart of every rabbit or field mouse within earshot.

Down Below, Butterflies, Bees and Late-Season Grasshoppers Harvested the Last of Summer’s Bounty

One of late summer’s most glamorous residents appeared in August, the glorious Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes), North America’s biggest butterfly. If you’d like to attract some to your garden, two of its favorite native plants are Rose/Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) and all of the goldenrods, both of which bloom in late summer and early fall If you can also tolerate thistles, they seem to favor them quite a lot more than we do!

At first glance, it’s easy to confuse the black and gold-spotted dorsal ( upper) sides of the Giant Swallowtail and the Eastern Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes,) especially if they’re flying. But compare the ventral (lower) side of the wings. The underside of the Giant Swallowtail’s wings are yellow and the Eastern Black’s (below) are black. I was lucky to see both feeding at thistles during my visits to Stony Creek Ravine.

Smaller butterflies and moths float and flutter in the grass as well, of course – and one well-fed caterpillar just chews its way along.

As regular readers know, I’m intrigued by insects of many kinds and want to convince all comers to just enjoy them. So here are some of my other favorites during late summer at Stony Creek Ravine.

Hardy Native Wildflowers Mix with Plentiful Non-natives until Restoration Advances.

A glorious spread of native wetland Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia fulgida), a relative of the other Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) that thrives in all types of open habitat.

Though the fields in the eastern section of the park have been cleared of many non-native shrubs, native wildflowers are not plentiful yet in the fields at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park. The long stretch of native wetland Black-eyed Susans in the photo above is a glorious exception. Restoration of a healthy habitat with more diversity has begun with seed planting at this large park, but it will take several years to come to fruition. So I have to smile seeing sturdy native blooms holding their own amidst the non-native plants on the Outlook Hill, in the surrounding fields and near the wetlands. Here are some of the other stalwart native competitors declaring their presence at this amazing 268 acre park.

One native plant that’s rampant at the park this year may not please everyone – Common Ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia.) So if you suffer from hay fever, now is not a good time for your visit! Please remember, though, ragweed pollen is dispersed by the wind; that’s why it ends up in noses. So please don’t blame your sneezing on innocent goldenrods that bloom at much the same time. Their pollen is heavy and falls right to the ground, far from sensitive noses!

Common Ragweed, photo by iNaturalist.org photographer pes_c515 (CC BY-NC)

Oh! And One Creepy Fungus that I Just Have to Share!

One of the benefits of being in a birding group is having more eyes and ears seeking out interesting details in the landscape, plus access to other people’s areas of expertise. For example, the energetic, hardworking summer natural areas stewardship technicains each year provide me, at least, with younger eyes and ears, youthful enthusiasm and a knowledge base more updated than mine!

In late July, while walking up the path to the ravine, Emma Campbell, one of this summer’s technicians, stopped to comment on a spiky bump in the trail that most of us stepped around, assuming that it was just a sharp piece of root. But Emma carefully broke off one small portion and finding it white inside, correctly identified as a fungus spookily called Dead Man’s Fingers (Xylaria polymorpha). Evidently it’s a common fungus that grows from rotting wood; as you can see below, this one emerged around the remains of a stump. What a Halloween-ish discovery! Thank you, Emma! Wish I could have creeped out some friends with this one when I was a kid!

A fungus called “Dead Man’s Fingers” for obvious reasons.

The “Oohs” and the “Ughs” of Nature’s Impulse to Keep Fostering Life

Unless you are a hopeless romantic, every close observer of the natural world knows that nature is not all “sweetness and light.” The lives around us in nature can be both big and beautiful like the Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) or small and homely like the Fall Webworm (Hyphantria cunea). It can be full of tenderness, like birds tirelessly feeding their young or ruthless in its need to survive, like a hawk tearing the flesh of its prey. It can be inspiring like a flight of fall geese or macabre like the Dead Man’s Fingers fungus. But whatever qualities it has for us humans, nature itself doesn’t judge and never despairs. Against all odds, nature just proceeds eon after eon in service of sustaining life, whatever that takes. The “nature of nature,” as it were, is to adapt, survive and assure the existence of the next generation.

We humans, as just another species, would do well to take a lesson from the creatures and plants that surround us. We cannot afford to despair as our behavior changes the climate, threatening life on this special blue planet. Generations could stretch on into the future indefinitely if we would do as all other creatures have evolved to do – adapt, change, survive and above all, work hard to ensure that long after we’re gone, life continues on a healthier path than we’re on right now. If we do, our grandchildren and their descendants will honor our efforts and that honor will be well deserved. Let’s not disappoint them.

Watershed Ridge: Water Works Its Miracles in a Small Restored Wetland

I’m a convert; I’ve come to love wetlands. I grew up avoiding them, icky mud underfoot and the ever present annoyance of so many bugs, for heaven’s sake! But these days, camera swinging at my hip, binoculars bouncing on my chest, I often head straight for the muddy edge of a wetland.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

Shady swamps and vernal pools, sunny marshes and ponds, streams winding through a woodland, water seeping up from beneath the soil or trickling down a slope – that’s where life is swooping, singing, croaking, mating, predating, fluttering and buzzing in every park I visit. Oh, I relish a shady woods on a hot summer day, and I delight in the color and sway of a dancing prairie. But often a wetland is where the action is.

A berm constructed last fall has created open water between two wetlands at the bottom of a slope at Watershed Ridge Park – and creatures are making the most of it!

Last autumn, our Oakland Township Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, worked with local US Fish and Wildlife colleagues to restore several wetlands at Watershed Ridge Park that had been drained for agriculture years ago. One of these wetlands extends between two existing wetlands, and with a berm now holding some of the existing water and this summers downpours, a small area of open water now stands at the bottom of a former agricultural field. It may not look beautiful to you, but it certainly looked inviting to a remarkable number of interesting creatures.

On the Way to the Wetland

One recent Sunday, my husband Reg spotted a Leopard Frog (Rana pipiens), its bright green spotted skin and light stripes (technically “dorsolateral folds”) shining up out of dry grass around the parking lot. I’d been hoping to see these frogs, having noticed them at this park in previous years. Their colors vary from brown to green, but the bright green ones are my favorites. Leopard Frogs use their speed and great leaping ability to escape predators so we were lucky to get this close to one.

A Leopard Frog paused for a portrait in dry stalks at the edge of the parking lot at Watershed Ridge Park.
Horseweed

We followed the path to the west of the parking lot out into a the field that runs along Buell Road. Though the land looks dry and barren now, dotted with Horseweed (Conyza canadensis), Ben thinks that the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which designed and constructed the wetland restoration to Ben’s concept, will be planting native prairie seed in these fields late this fall. Native grass and wildflower seed generally requires a period of cold weather in order to germinate in the spring.

Passing through the hedgerow to the second field, we came upon an Orange Sulphur Butterfly (Colias eurytheme) darting restlessly from stem to stem, back and forth across the path. I despaired of getting a shot of its fully opened wings; it scurries about very quickly and folds its wings at rest. But eventually I caught it in flight further away. Look at the dramatic difference! The yellow spots in the black wing borders indicate that this is a female Orange Sulphur. (Click on photos to enlarge)

As we reached the crest of the slope above the wetland, a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) lifted from the edge of the little wetland, rose on its powerful wings, and disappeared to the north. What a hopeful sign that life had found its way to this tiny pond! We’ll discover what brought it to the pond a bit further on. Since I missed this glorious visitor, here’s a photo of a flying heron that I took at Lost Lake Park in 2018.

A Great Blue Heron on the wing

And Then the Dragonflies Began…

Moving toward the pond, I whirled around to catch a shot of something yellow whizzing by me. The creature never stopped moving, sailing far away and circling back time after time. My photo is a bit blurred because of its speed. But luckily, it was clear enough for dragonfly aficionados of the Facebook group “Odonata of the Eastern United States” to identify it for me as a Wandering Glider (Pantala Flavescens) – a dragonfly that was completely new to me!

A Wandering Glider dragonfly on the wing above the restored wetland

This golden dragonfly, it turns out, can fly a bit over five feet per second and according to Wikipedia, keeps moving “tirelessly with typical wandering flight for hours without making any perch.” All of that made me feel better about my photo! These Gliders are world travelers that migrate to our area each summer. Some of them make an annual multigenerational migration (like the Monarch butterfly) of about 11,200 miles, with each individual flying more than 3,700 miles! They are found on every continent except Antarctica. They’ve been recorded flying over 20,000 feet high in the Himalayas! A true super-hero insect – and I’m so pleased that it found our little wetland to its liking! Here’s a much more glamorous photo of this insect athlete taken and generously shared by drketaki, a photographer at iNaturalist.org.

A female Wandering Glider in its infrequent state of rest! Photo by drketaki (CC BY-NC at inaturalist.org

As we approached the pond, Reg and I realized that we had come upon a dragonfly hotspot. Dragonflies hovered, swooped, and whizzed in the air above the pond. Occasionally one would pause to cling to the stem of some aquatic plant and then whooosh! – off it went for another round of the pond or to make a brief foray into the surrounding field.

At the pond edge, another new acquaintance presented itself. A dark blue-black dragonfly with a sharply pointed abdomen clasped a dead stalk. Seeing those ragged black patches along the edges of the hindwing next to its abdomen, I remembered finding a photo of a Black Saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata) after seeing this wing pattern on a dragonfly years ago. Such an appropriate name!

A male Black Saddlebags dragonfly who may be finished mating and is now aging.

I was puzzled, though, because my dragonfly guide says that these dragonflies should have yellow spots on section 7 of the abdomen and this one at Watershed Ridge had only a faint orange/red mark. A helpful aficionado at the dragonfly Facebook group, though, verified that indeed, it was a Black Saddlebags but added that the color change was probably due to age. It’s believed that these insects migrate from points south (perhaps as far as Cuba) to breed here; their offspring then return to the south. This Saddlebags probably mated many times during his journey to our little wetland, and may be nearing the end of his life now. Isn’t he a lovely midnight blue? And I admire the color-coordinated blue stigma (tiny colored cells) at the tip of each wing.

Farther down the pond, I saw two mated, dark dragonflies flying about in tandem, the male gripping the female as they dashed around the pond. I snapped another blurry shot as they zoomed about. When I sharpened the photo in the computer for a closer look, the light glinting off their bodies made them appear spotted. So I’m still not sure of their identification. But the position of the male’s grasping and their overall dark color makes me think that maybe they were a mated pair of Black Saddlebags. After mating, the Saddlebags male grasps the female as they patrol the still water. Then she periodically drops to the surface to deposit eggs, then returns to the embrace of her mate to repeat the process many times. I’d like to think that the life cycle of the Black Saddlebags – or perhaps some other dark dragonfly – repeated itself at this restored wetland – one male almost finished with his life and another pair creating more of their kind.

A mated pair of dark dragonflies, perhaps Black Saddlebags, flying in tandem as the female periodically drops down to lay her eggs.

I spotted familiar dragonflies, too, of course. The black-and-white striped wings of a Twelve-spotted Skimmer (Libellula pulchella) flashed like Morse code as it flew by. Eventually I found it, resting for few minutes on a stem near the pond’s edge. These skimmers are quite accommodating for photographers; they choose a perch and return to it repeatedly, even if disturbed.

A Twelve-spotted Skimmer is named for its 12 black spots, though the males have an extra 8 white ones.

The bronze shimmer on the wings of a female Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa) caught the sunlight as she perched peacefully on a dry plant stem. According to Kurt Mead in Dragonflies of the North Woods, these skimmers “hang beneath overarching leaves” during the night. I’d love to see that.

The black patches next to the abdomen of this female Widow Skimmer are smaller than the male’s who also has white bands beyond the black ones.

Common Whitetail dragonflies (Plathemis lydia) tend to perch on a flat surface, wings outstretched rather than clinging to stems like many dragonflies. A mature male joined the throng at Watershed Ridge Park but uncharacteristically chose to settle on a bent stem thrusting out of the decaying plant material that covers much of the water surface at the new wetland. Perhaps the more colorful competition at the pond edge was too intense for him. The broad black patch near the end of his wings, the smaller patch near the thorax and the powdery (pruinose) white abdomen are field marks for Whitetail males.

A Common Whitetail male chooses a decaying stem for a perch.

A male Blue Dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis) protected his feeding perch and his mate will do the same once she returns. These dragonflies consume lots of mosquito larva (hooray!) and other small moths or flies – up to 10% of their body weight each day! According to Wikipedia, their hunting technique is just to stay very still and dart out to snatch any prey that ventures close to them, an activity in birds and insects called “hawking.” The striped thorax, blue abdomen, huge, iridescent green eyes and white face are male field marks of these Dashers.

A Blue Dasher male can be identified at a distance by his blue abdomen, striped thorax and large green eyes.

Damselflies, the other member of the order Odonata, had found their way to the wetland, too. This emerald green beauty is an Eastern Forktail damselfly (Ischnura verticalis), a plentiful species in our area.

A male Eastern Forktail dragonfly. These fellows fly from late June to October so keep your eyes open near water!

The one in my photo is a male, but I believe I saw a mature blue female Eastern Forktail ovipositing her eggs in plant material – but she was very tiny and at a great distance. So here’s a wonderful photo of just what I saw by another photographer, Mark Nenadov, who generously shared his work on Wikipedia (CC BY).

Other Signs of Renewed Life at the Wetland

Reg noticed a tiny orange butterfly bouncing along in its weak flight near the base of moist plant stems. I tracked it later in the afternoon and finally saw it land. It was the Least Skipper (Ancyloxypha numitor), an appropriate name for this tiny butterfly (.66 to one inch!) only slightly bigger than my smallest fingernail! Because the ventral (lower) side of its wings are unmarked with brown, it can look solid orange in flight.

The Least Skipper is just that – the smallest of the skippers, usually less than an inch long.

My entomologist mentor, Dr. Gary Parsons, director of the Michigan State University Bug House, identified this colorful character for me. It looks somewhat like a large ladybug, doesn’t it? And it is a larger version of the same family, the Coccinellidae – but this one is the Pink Spotted Lady Beetle (Coleomegilla maculata). (They come both orange and pink.) Like our old fave, the red Ladybug, these insects are the “good guys.” If you’re enjoying sweet corn right now like I am, thank these beetles! They thrive on the eggs of corn earworm, European corn borer and aphids among others. Farmers, I’ve read, have traditionally considered them allies.

The orange morph of the Pink Spotted Lady Beetle rids farm fields of several destructive larvae and aphids.

Now, About What Interested That Great Blue Heron…

With nearly every step that Reg and I took around the wet edge of this pond, we heard “plop, plop, plop,” as frogs leapt beneath the surface at our approach. Reg did spot a little Wood Frog (Rana sylvatica) sitting tentatively near the water’s edge.

The little Wood Frog with its black mask lined in white sat quietly at the edge of the pond.

The heron may have been preying on Wood Frogs, but I’m more inclined to think that the hidden jumpers were small Leopard Frogs. Wood Frogs tend to spend more of their time on uplands at this time of year, though Reg’s discovery was sitting near the water’s edge. According to a US Fish and Wildlife website, Leopard Frogs like to forage near the water’s edge in wet grassy areas; I’ve read they usually face the water ready for a quick escape jump. I’m not sure which frogs were “plopping,” because they were always two steps ahead of us, diving under the surface. Frogs can respire oxygen through their skin for hours while under water, so these guys never surfaced again during my visit. Drat! Ah well, I’m glad so many frogs of whatever species inhabit this little wetland, foraging for insects and potentially serving as forage themselves for a hungry Great Blue Heron.

Aquatic Plants Flourish at the Pond as Well

After the berm was created to restore this wetland, Ben planted Water Plantain (Alisma subcordatum) and now it forms a delicate plume of white and green around one edge of the pond. The tiny flowers must produce wonderful nectar, because European Honey Bees (Apis mellifera) had found their way to the wetland and were buzzing everywhere within these tiny blossoms.

One of many non-native European Honey Bees foraging on tiny blossoms of Water Plantain at the edge of the wetland.

A native Bumblebee (genus Bombus) found its way to a graceful stalk of Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) blooming in shallow water on the south edge of the new wetland.

Bumblebee finding what it needs in the purple blossoms of Blue Vervain

Some aquatic plants found their way to the wetland without Ben’s assistance. According to the Illinois Wildflowers website, the native Bulrush on the left provides sustenance for many creatures. Lots of insects, including caterpillars, two species of Katydids and the Two-striped Grasshopper nibble the leaves. Birds like Canada Geese and swans will happily consume the seeds. Among mammals, muskrats munch on the rootstocks and Meadow Voles will clean up any fallen seed. So it’s a very useful plant for its habitat! The tubers of Yellow Nutsedge (Cyperus esculentus) on the right provide food for a wide range of dabbling ducks, including Pintails, Teals and Mallards. Every native plant has a role to play in keeping life humming in our parks and wild areas.

Even a Little Water Supports So Much Life!

Surprise! An abundant flourishing of life in a most unlikely place.

Please take another look at this restoration project. It’s just a modest little wetland tucked into the bottom of sloping hills in the corner of a former farm field. But thanks to Ben’s creative thinking and planning, the careful design and construction by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and repeated summer downpours, it became a lively oasis for all kinds of wildlife. Instead of remaining a soggy, unproductive area in an agricultural field, it burgeoned into a gathering spot for dragonflies, local ones and ones who travel thousands of miles to mate, feed and age here. New native plants have taken root and begun to colonize the pond. Frogs now huddle in the grass snatching bugs from the air and then slip beneath the pond’s surface to live another day. High in the sky, a huge bird spotted a new blue shape below and descended for a quick lunch. This kind of diversity and richness exemplifies what ecologists call a “productive” habitat, one that provides sustenance, nesting areas, cover and water to many species. Imagine how much more life might visit here when the slope above it is seeded with native plants!

That’s why for me this muddy little pond is a miracle. Just a little water gathered in a low spot provides all those ecosystems services while also providing beauty for us humans. The delicate white plumes of water plantain, the iridescent glow of a damselfly, the “plop” of frogs and the sight of a huge blue bird rising out of the rushes are nature’s gratuitous gifts. Our role is first to stop long enough to simply behold what’s in front of us. We need time to let nature work its magic. And then we can get back to work protecting and restoring our natural inheritance.