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 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.
Last Thursday, Ben VanderWeide, our township stewardship manager, hosted a well-attended event on rare/endangered “herps” (Herpetofauna), that is, amphibians and reptiles.
At this time of year, talking about snakes, turtles, salamanders and frogs may seem a bit odd to you. Actually though, the Herpetology expert and presenter, David Mifsud of Herpetological Resource Management (HRM), told us that he sees Spring Peepers, Eastern Garter Snakes and Red-backed Salamanders moving around in Michigan winters when temperatures warm up as they have lately. So for starters, here are three that he says we might look for during this winter thaw:
And even if you don’t see one of these herps “in person” this winter, it’s just pleasant to think about springtime creatures in the dead of winter, right? So here’s a brief trip through some of the important and lively information that David shared with about 30 of us last Thursday night.
Note: Because some of these creatures are rare, some of the photos this week are courtesy of photographers at iNaturalist.org. Please check the captions for names of these gifted people and many thanks to Creative Commons, iNaturalist and these photographers for sharing their work!
How Important are Amphibians and Reptiles? Let Me Count the Ways…
Canaries in the coal mine. Amphibians and reptiles accumulate toxins and other contaminates in their bodies and most live both in water and on land. So they are effective gauges (bio-indicators) of what’s getting into both environments.
Many eat invasive species. For example, the very homely Mudpuppy (Necturus maculosus), an aquatic salamander, favors eating invasive Zebra Mussels (Dreissena polymorpha) and invasive Brown Gobies (Neogobius melanostomus), both huge problems in the Great Lakes. I grant you this much-maligned aquatic salamander is not pretty. But it’s eating these invasive species, crayfish, worms, and insect larvae! There’s no evidence that they reduce game fish populations (see Harding 1997). So please! Return them with care to the water if you catch them on your hooks winter or summer.
Predator and Prey. Herps can be both predator and prey, meaning they’re important in nature’s food web. For example, dragonflies, like the Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa) on the left below, lay eggs in vernal pools. The nymphs that hatch feed on the eggs of salamanders who deposit their eggs on sticks in vernal pools, as seen in the center photo. But when the Tiger Salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum) on the right – an inhabitant mostly of western and southern Michigan – reaches adulthood, it in turn eats dragonflies. This kind of food cycle helps keep a healthy balance between predator and prey in the ecosystem and builds the ladder system of the food web.
Our natural heritage. And of course, these creatures deserve our care because they are native to the habitats which are our natural heritage. And just as we preserve historic homes, we need to preserve the habitats for plants and animals that share our natural inheritance.
Just because. These beautiful creatures deserve a place to call home too!
And the Prognosis for Michigan Herps? Uh, Not So Good…
Unfortunately, in Michigan and the Great Lakes Region, more than half of our species of amphibians and reptiles are declining. Why?
Amphibians and reptiles spend time on land and in the water. So those pollutants and contaminants that they accumulate, making them bio-indicators, can also kill them. Plastic beads in beauty products, pesticides from lawns and agriculture, hormones from our medicines in waste water, and agricultural run-off can affect these creatures.
Many reptiles have to live a long time in order to mature and reproduce. The Blanding’s Turtle (Emydoidea blandingii), found in our township, is listed as a Species of Special Concern in Michigan. It takes up to 20 years for these yellow-chinned turtles to mature enough to produce young and they can live up to 90 years! This one on a road near Draper Twin Lake Park is demonstrating one of the hazards – habitat loss or disruption. In this case, a road cut through its habitat. If you see a turtle on the road and can safely do so, be sure to move it gently in the direction it was going or it will turn head right back the way it came. Turtles are very focused on getting to and from their breeding grounds!
Creatures with long lives like turtles especially need connected habitat corridors since they require both water and dry land, where they lay their eggs. Here a Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina)is laying her eggs high on a sunny slope in Bear Creek before she returns to the pond. She demonstrates a common natural hazard. A female Snapper has a strong scent from living in marshes so it’s easy for predators – like foxes, coyotes, or raccoons – to track down her nest of eggs. And the mounds of earth she leaves behind are a big clue too!
As cute, and as pesky, as raccoons can be, they are serious predators of amphibians and reptiles and over-populated in some parks. Their numbers are often higher in urban areas than they would be naturally because they are “subsidized” by the food we provide unwittingly, such as our trash and the dog food we leave outside. After racoons leave the feast in your backyard, they return to a local natural area to snack on amphibian and reptile eggs, often causing over 90% nest failure. To keep park environments in balance between predators and prey, please remove food sources from around your home, and don’t transport trapped raccoons or other animals to our parks!
Of course, birds and other creatures prey on amphibians and reptiles as well. This Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii)is heading for quite a feast!
Unfortunately, salamanders and turtles are sometimes poached from the wild for pets, both by wildlife traffickers and uninformed parents and children. This has had a devastating effect, for instance, on the very cute and tiny Spotted Turtle (Clemmys guttata) who’s only 3-5 inches long! And the same thing has happened to Box Turtles (Terrapene carolina) and even Common Snappers, which are sold overseas as well as domestically for supposed “medicinal” purposes.
The Leopard Frog (Rana pipiens), which appears in our parks, is also a Species of Special Concern in Michigan due to its declining numbers. This lovely frog with its emerald body and oval spots has unfortunately been poorly studied. So researchers still need to find the reasons for its distress.
OK, but what about that Michigan rattlesnake???
Most of us have heard of, but never seen, Michigan’s most venomous snake, the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake (Sistrurus catenatus catenatus) (a couple other snakes have weak venom that only causes irritation). This very shy, low-key snake only grows to about 2 feet long. According to Michigan DNR, it has one set of rattles at birth and develops more as it sheds its skin several times each year. Its head is triangular like most rattlesnakes, though it is the smallest and least venomous rattler in the U.S. Look also for a vertical eye slit and saddle-shaped spots.
The likelihood of you being bothered by this snake is low. In 2016 it was listed as a Federally Threatened Species, which means its numbers are becoming drastically low. And these snakes just want to avoid you. David reports having searched for this snake with a tracking device and after hearing a loud “beep” from his device, found it under the grass between his feet! As he moved the grass aside, the snake silently slid over his shoe and away. That’s a conflict-avoiding snake! And a herpetologist with nerves of steel, I might add.
So if you do get to see one, consider yourself lucky. Don’t hurt or handle these docile snakes, since folks most often get bitten when harassing a snake that just wants to get away. Many bites are “dry,” meaning no venom. It takes lots of energy for the snake to produce the venom, and it doesn’t want to waste it! But if you get any kind of bite from this snake, see a doctor right away. Luckily, Dave informed us that no one in the US has died from such a bite in 100 years.
In spring, when these snakes are most active, they’re seen near wetlands, but they are likely to move to drier, upland areas in the summer. While they been seen recently at Stony Creek Metro Park in our area, we have no recent sighting in our township parks. Let us know if you see one!
Massasaugas overwinter for up to six months under logs, in small animal burrows and often in the “chimneys” created by crayfish, like this one.
Evidently, these burrows fill with ground water which maintains a more constant temperature in the winter than above ground – and that’s what important to an animal that can’t control its body temperature internally. What’s amazing is that they often share these chimneys with other small creatures during the winter when all of them are in hibernation mode. A kind of winter “condo” as David described it. Imagine that!
Befriending Our Local Amphibians and Reptiles
Our parks are great places to see all kinds of “herps.” Snappers and painted turtles cruise Bear Creek’s ponds and marshes. Our wetlands in every park fill with a chorus of frog song every spring. Snakes bask in sunny spots and quickly disappear into tall grass. And in moist woodland uplands, salamanders emerge on the first warm night to make their way to vernal pools to mate and lay their eggs. We need to care for these interesting creatures and their habitats to be sure that they still thrive in our world when our children or grandchildren go looking for them.
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows:
Harding, James H. (1997) Amphibians and Reptiles of the Great Lakes Region. iNaturalist.org for periodic photos;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 and the website www.illinoiswildflowers.info; 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.
Strolling through the old farm fields of Cranberry Lake Park in summer is an auditory feast. The canopied paths and wide open fields as well as the shady, moist wetlands celebrate summer with a full-throated chorus of birdsong – the quick sweet notes of the Yellow Warbler, the high-pitched trill of the American Redstart, the melodious song of the elusive Warbling Vireo. Ben’s birding group reports more than 50 different bird species on one spring visit, more than in any other park in the township. So you’d expect this week’s blog to be filled with bird photos, right? Uh, not quite.
Oh, I do have bird photos to share but some will come from other times and places in the township because birding in Cranberry Lake right now is more by ear than by sight. Birds dive into tangled brush or tall grass or disappear among the whispering leaves overhead to make nests, feed young, intent at the moment on propagating their species. So they’re not all inclined to pose for photos. Luckily, dragonflies, butterflies, grasshoppers – all sorts of insects – do. And of course summer flowers are very obliging when a breeze pauses for a moment. So let’s set off together with eyes and ears alert to see what this historic farm has to offer.
The lovely Cranberry Lake Farm Historic District on West Predmore Road is a township treasure and listed in the National Register of Historic Places. If you haven’t explored its beautiful grounds, I recommend you begin by taking a visual tour and learning about its history at this link. We, however, are off to explore the southern part of the 213 acre park that once was a working farm.
Out in the Sunny Old Fields
Old Fields Birdsong!
As we head off along the path from the parking lot that’s west of the historic home, we’re surrounded by knee-deep grasses and wildflowers. Tiny Yellow Warblers (Setophaga petechia) are whisking in and out of the large bushes or small trees nearby, still singing their quick “I’m a little sweet” songs as in Antonio Xeira’s recording here. This male with his rust-streaked breast actually paused long enough for a photo!
And another male Yellow Warbler nearby was busying bringing home lunch for his mate or maybe some nestlings in a distant bush.
On three different visits in the last 10 days or so, I heard or saw a male American Redstart singing in the same tree at a fork in the trail. I’m thinking he and his mate must have a nest nearby. For some reason, I’d never seen this bird before and he’s a beauty. There’s a good closeup of him here at the Cornell Ornithology Lab. His song is thin, high and ends abruptly. Cornell Lab says its sometimes described as sneeze-like! Page down at this Cornell link to hear his song.
In the same tree one morning, I saw a Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) swinging at the tip of a branch as it tried to harvest something from among the leaves. At this time of year, omnivore birds like the Titmouse are probably looking for protein for their mate or young, so perhaps he’d found a caterpillar?
As I crossed the southern old field, going north, two Common Yellowthroats (Geothlypis trichas) announced their territories, calling back and forth across this grassy meadow.
Yellowthroats have the distinction of being one of the first New World birds catalogued in 1766 by Carl Linnaeus, the famous biologist who created the Latin classification system for all life forms. My photo of the Yellowthroat is below but for a clearer photo of this masked bandit, look here on Cornell Lab’s website.
I rarely see Yellowthroats up close but you can hear their “Witchedy, witchedy” songs all over Cranberry Lake Park. Turn your volume up and you’ll hear the singing competition of two males going back and forth twice on my 25 second recording.
Out in the Old Fields: Wildflowers, Competing for Space
The old farm fields at Cranberry Lake exemplify the changes that happen over time when forage crops thrive in abandoned farm fields which are also surrounded by neighboring gardens filled with cultivated flowers.
Native plants are certainly here – native Canada Goldenrod will burnish the fields in the fall and other pre-development plants hold their own at Cranberry Lake, too. Here’s a gallery of a few of them. (Click to enlarge; hover cursor for captions)
The rosy stems of native Dogbane or Indian-Hemp(Apocynum cannabinum)will soon be topped with clusters of white flowers. This plant is toxic if eaten but I doubt you or your dog will be tempted.
The meadows are full of non-native plants that, over the years, have found their way into Michigan’s former farm fields. Many of them are good neighbors, existing side-by-side with native plants without crowding out the original inhabitants. I particularly like Orange Hawkweed (Hieracium aurantiacum), also called Devil’s Paintbrush (not to be confused with Indian Paintbrush). It can be problematic but isn’t at this point in Oakland Township parks. The Wildflowers of Michigan Field Guide explains that the name came from a mistaken belief that hawks ate it to improve their eyesight!
Other non-natives pop up here and there in the old fields at Cranberry Lake. Goat’s Beard blossoms open in the early morning and close about noon. And when its blooming season is over, it makes a huge seed head, like a giant, beige dandelion, which it is doing right now. By the way, the insect on the blossom at left is a Hover Fly (family Syrphidae) which mimics bees or wasps for protection but has no stinger.
Other non-native plants that usually appear singly are White Campion (Silene latifolia) and Rough-Fruited Cinquefoil (Potentilla recta) which is easily confused with some of our native varieties (thanks to Ben for the ID help!).
Of course, invasive non-native plants have also moved into Cranberry Lake. Here’s a native House Wren (Troglodytes aedon), singing from within one of the worst invasives, the Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata), a shrub which is native to Asia. These large bushes fix nitrogen in the soil, creating soil conditions unsuitable for native plants. Its berries are spread by birds and animals. It leafs out early and keeps its leaves late into the fall, shading out other plants. In short, it’s one problem shrub! But the Wren is a welcome summer resident and his beautiful, burbling courting song (recorded by Antonio Xeira) is much beloved even if it does emanate from an invasive bush.
Another serious invasive shrub grows abundantly in Cranberry Lake, the Multiflora Rose(Rosa multiflora). This admittedly lovely plant loses its appeal when its strong thorns catch your skin, and this gangly shrub happens to be crowding out native plants all over Michigan. That hurts both our plant and wildlife communities by making native species less plentiful and less healthy because they are less diverse. Multiflora Rose was brought to the US from Japan by horticulturists after WWII as a fencing plant and spread quickly from gardens into natural or disturbed areas. Like the Autumn Olive, it unfortunately can grow in sun or shade and has the same means of competing for space – lots of berries spread by wildlife and leaves early spring to late fall that shade out other plants.
Hairy Vetch (Vicia villosa) is beautiful, like many invasives, but has a tendency to spread. It was brought here as forage for animals. It isn’t as invasive as its relative Crown Vetch (Securigera varia), which forms dense colonies that exclude other plant species, but it does form smaller colonies and can be seen along the paths at various places in the park. Here a native Bumblebee (g. Bombus) probes the tube-like flowers with its long tongue.
And nearby, a Seven-Spotted Lady Bug(Coccinella septempunctata), a species introduced repeatedly from Europe to rid crops of aphids, looked for a meal on a fellow European, the Hairy Vetch again! At least it wasn’t the Harlequin Ladybug/Asian Lady Beetle (Harmonia axyridis) that infested homes a few years ago. Unfortunately, our native ladybugs, the Nine-Spotted Ladybug, (Coccinella novemnotata) are now rare and scientists are not sure why that happened.
Out in the Old Fields: Fancy Bugs!
The sun-drenched Old Fields at Cranberry Lake seem to attract unusually interesting insects, including – wait for it – flies! Yes, I’m aware that flies aren’t as immediately appealing as butterflies or as impressive as dragonflies, but some really are pretty cool. Here’s a photo of a Soldier Fly (Odontomyia cincta) exploring the Dogbane. Can you see the black chevrons on his green back and his red head? Pretty fancy, eh?
Or how about these mating Golden-backed Snipe Flies (Chrysopilus thoracicus)? The male is the smaller one with the much bigger eyes (“The better to find you with, my dear!”).
Of course, butterflies float above these fields as well. This weekend we saw our first Viceroy (Limenitis archippus) of the year. This one had a slightly injured forewing on one side, but was still happily fluttering about the field exploring flowers. Viceroys are often smaller than Monarch Butterflies and have a telltale bar on their hindwing that the Monarch doesn’t have.
And of course we saw the common but lovely Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos), Cabbage (Pieris rapae)and Little Wood Satyr (Megisto cymela)butterflies as well.
One afternoon I saw a quick, snapping, short flight of what looked like a big moth with yellow-ish wings. It turned out, after I saw it land, that it was a Carolina Locust in flight. The “Bug Lady” at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee website says that “In The Handy Bug Answer Book, Dr. Gilbert Waldbauer refers to these unexpected wing patterns as ‘flash colors’ which, sometimes in concert with flight noises, attract/distract a predator. When the grasshopper lands and tucks in its flying wings, the pursuing predator suddenly can’t find anything that matches its search image.” That was certainly the case for me. It took me a minute to believe that this brown creature at my feet was the one I’d seen flying. Here’s a link where you can scroll down to a photo of one in flight.
Aaah, Out of the Sunlight: The Lake, Wetlands and Shade
Birds, Amphibians and Reptiles in the Leafy Shade
Walking on shady paths and passing by wetlands, I naturally come across plants, insects, birds and other creatures that prefer that environment to sunny, open fields. Two Cedar Waxwings landed up in a leafy treetop on Sunday afternoon. My photo that day just doesn’t do justice to this lovely bird, so here’s a photo from another summer. The field marks of this elegant bird are its crest, its black mask, the yellow tip to its tail and a red dot on each wing that looks like red sealing-wax. And their color does look like cedar, doesn’t it?
Down near Cranberry Lake, three of the Wednesday birders recognized the melodious tune of the Warbling Vireo, here recorded by birder Antonio Xeira. What a lovely song flowing down from the treetops where it stays out of sight, seeking out caterpillars. I love the contrast in these two song descriptions found at the Cornell Lab website. “The early twentieth century ornithologist William Dawson described the song this way: ‘Fresh as apples and as sweet as apple blossoms comes that dear, homely song from the willows.'” The highly variable song usually ends on a high note, leading the birder Pete Dunne to describe it as sounding “like a happy drunk making a conversational point at a party.” Here’s the closeup photo at Cornell Lab.
Frogs generally love moist surroundings. In summer, though, the beautiful Northern Leopard Frog (Lithobates pipiens)often moves into grassy areas for its meals. One paused at the edge of the trail at Cranberry Lake Park, an emerald green frog with golden eyes and the spots that give it its name. Northern Leopard Frogs have very large mouths and though they usually eat worms, flies and crickets, they have also been known to swallow birds and garter snakes, according to Wikipedia!
One warm afternoon, I came upon a Painted Turtle trundling along the path toward Cranberry Lake.
I thought at first it was a male, because it had extra long nails which males use to stroke their mates. But I’m not sure, since it may have been a female coming back to the lake from laying eggs in sandy soil out in the fields. A few days later, my husband and I spotted a hole in the meadow edge where it appeared a raccoon might have dug up a batch of turtle eggs to feed its young!
Berries in the Shade
Cranberry Lake is of course important because it has a cranberry bog. At the moment, it’s not visible, but the Parks and Recreation Commission’s Master Plan includes construction of an observation deck at the lake in the next couple of years.
But other berries are forming along the shady path toward the pond. The native Bristly Blackberry bushes are blooming under the trees. In fact, their flowers are beginning to fade in the heat and the fruits, the blackberries, are forming.
And very near the lake, Ben pointed out Highbush Blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum) forming in the shade. This is the plant that Native Americans enjoyed and that was domesticated in 1907 to create the blueberries we all enjoy in July. I’m glad I got a photo, because when I went back a second time, some bird or mammal had already munched some of them. They don’t wait until their ripe the way we do! Drat…
Along the Hickory Lane on the west side of the park, I saw fruits forming on False Solomon’s Seal, a native plant that spreads by rhizomes (underground stems) under the trees.
Insects that Have It “Made in the Shade”
Dragonflies patrol along the shady paths as well as the open meadows. I saw one last week that I hadn’t seen for a long time, a female Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis). She’s emerald green all over with brown/black chevrons on her tail. According to the “Bug Lady” at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, the male gradually changes from green to blue, starting at the tip of its tail and moving up as it matures! These dragonflies stick close to animals, like us, because we stir up a cloud of biting insects they love to eat. Thanks, Pondhawks! Enjoy an all-you-can-eat feast!
Another dragonfly who seems to frequent moist areas almost exclusively is the Dot-tailed Whiteface (Leucorrhinia intacta). The male looks like he’s wearing a Mickey Mouse mask with his white face and eyes. What I think was his mate landed nearby. I couldn’t see her white face but all of her tail and wing markings and her location near the male would seem to indicate she’s the female.
Damselflies also patrol the paths as you near Cranberry Lake itself. Emerald green seems to be a popular color for creatures who want to disappear from predators in the shade. Here’s one called, appropriately enough, the Emerald Spreadwing Damselfly (Lestes sponsa).
Below the huge Shagbark Hickories (Carya ovata) on the lane at the western edge of the park, a Virginian Ctenucha Moth (Ctenucha virginica) sailed past and settled on a leaf. I was quite excited to see this moth (which caused a slight blur in the photo), since Ben had helped me identify its spiky caterpillar earlier in the spring. It’s quite common and likes goldenrod nectar. This one might have hatched a bit early in the heat, since the goldenrods won’t bloom for another month. This elegantly shaped moth with an orange head flashes its metallic blue body when it flies.
A Park for All Seasons
Improvements continue at Cranberry Lake Park. The northern most part of the central trail that connects with trails in Addison Oaks county park is being renovated this year (and possibly next) to make it less damp so that hikers, bikers and horseback riders will have an easier time accessing the park. That northern section is full of wetlands, those precious resources that clean our groundwater, store flood waters, feed our wildlife and give shelter to exhausted migrating birds – but they make for wet trails in the spring.
But most of the park is open for your enjoyment year ’round with migrating warblers in the spring, breeding birds in the summer (and summer concerts on the farmhouse porch), a bright orange glow in late summer and fall as Canada Goldenrod bloom and Monarch butterflies fill the fields traveling south. In winter, its gently rolling meadows might be a place to try out your cross-country skis. And then there’s all that history near the Flumerfelt Barn and historic home. So branch out. Try a new park this summer and see what you and your children can find to love at Cranberry Lake 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.
How can anyone resist Bear Creek Nature Park in late June?!
Flowers keep offering up more and more color. Fledglings are trying out their wings and begging their parents for food. Trees whisper back and forth as the full green leaves of summer rustle and wave, soothing the frayed edges of our lives. But if you’re in the mood for a little excitement, you can always keep an eye out for the little dramas that snakes and other fascinating predators provide. Some examples:
Find A Little Serenity…
Look at this clear invitation from what I like to call The Lane, the central path in the park lined with Black Walnut trees (Juglans nigra) that I imagine the farmer planted there years ago for nuts, beautiful wood and just their sheer magnificence.
Up near Gunn Road, there are water trails leading into the marsh where muskrats, ducks, and geese cruise into and out of the reeds in the summer sun. The curviness of this trail, caught by my husband Reg this week, makes me think it was made by a muskrat but Ben thinks its width might indicate a goose. Or maybe a family of ducks? Anyway, it makes me wish I could follow.
Frog music is part of the charm of a summer day. The Leopard Frog (Rana pipiens)is out and about now because the breeding season is past and they can wander away from the water. They are beautiful spotted frogs and for reasons not quite clear, their numbers are falling in Michigan. So keep an eye out for this emerald green, leopard-spotted frog wherever it’s moist.
The Green Frog Tadpoles (Rana clamitans)in the Center Pond are a-l-l-lmost frogs. Here’s a nice big fat tadpole with tiny legs that Reg spotted there this week. And the bigger ones in the playground pond are already making their banjo-plucking calls!
Insects add a lot of color and grace as they swoop over the meadows and ponds. Out near the marsh, you’re likely to see the elegant Widow Skimmers. Here’s a male with a black/dark brown band near his body and a white strip farther out on the wing, but this one is immature. When he’s fully grown, his abdomen will turn light blue.
The female Widow Skimmer dresses only in somber colors without the white band, though she shares gold stripes on the abdomen with the juvenile male.
A rare sight but one that occurs this time of the year is the appearance of the Baltimore Checkerspot (Euphydryas phaeton), surely the most beautiful of this family of butterflies, called the Brushfoots. I’ve seen one only once at Bear Creek, but it was in the third week of June so be on the lookout! This smaller butterfly (1.75″-2.5″) with orange-tipped antennae is eye-catching from above.
And it’s even more eye-catching on the underside! See that orange face?
More modest members of the Brushfoot family, but much more common visitors, are the fritillaries. Here is the smaller one we’re seeing now in June, which I think is the Meadow Fritillary (Boloria bellona), but again, don’t quote me. (Anyone out there a butterfly expert?)
Ben tells me that in the woods near the marsh, the fruits of the Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum) are now springing open, flinging out five seeds per plant! Go geraniums! While out in the Old Fields of Bear Creek, native and non-native flowers turn their faces to the sun. Here’s our native Old Field/Common Cinquefoil (Potentilla simplex) in one of the Native Plant Beds near the shed.
And here is its invasive cousin out in the fields, Rough-fruited Cinquefoil (Potentilla recta), a cultivated version that appears much more often, unfortunately, than our native one! You’ll see it on the way into the park from Snell Road once you leave the woods.
Rough-fruited Cinquefoil’s sharply defined, heart-shaped petals and paler color was no doubt pretty in its original garden but unfortunately, it “naturalized,” and is now taking the place of our native Old Field Cinquefoil which is only seen right now in the Native Plant Beds near the shed. Every time that happens, we lose a little of the rich diversity that nature provided us for us here in Oakland Township.
Other invasives aren’t necessarily cultivars, human-bred plants. They are plants from other natural environments that end up here and get carried away, growing aggressively. Unfortunately, this applies to the prosaically named but quite pretty Bladder Campion (Silene vulgarism). This plant which is actually eaten in certain parts of the world, originated in Eurasia and is now found in Bear Creek on what I call the “Steep Slope Path” that runs north/south on the western side of the park near Snell.
However, this little beauty, Deptford Pink (Dianthus armeria), is a Non-Native that exists quite peacefully with our native plants, peeking shyly out among the Big Guys. There’s some edging their way into the Native Plant Bed in the driveway circle but there’s some to enjoy as well on the path that runs along the west side of the playground pond.
Appreciate Nature’s Dramas!
While all this color emerges and the air is filled with bird song, frog music and “tree talk,” dramas unfold in Bear Creek as well.
Remember those Eastern RaccoonsKits (Procyon lotor) we featured in May? Well, the mother (here in a previous year) is in charge of feeding those kits until September.
This week Ben saw evidence that part of their current diet is turtle eggs which the raccoon (or perhaps a fox) dug out of the soft earth where the turtle had laid them. Here’s the evidence I saw a few years ago.
A Robin’s egg might be available too, which is one of the reasons, as reported last week, that Robins have 3 broods a year to keep their numbers up! Lovely “robin’s egg blue,” eh?
Some interesting, quite harmless snakes slide through the grass right now, so don’t let them startle you! They’re much more afraid of you than you of them, believe me! The small (9-12 inch), shy Brown Snake (Storeria dekayl) , which can be beige, brown or gray, appears now and then in the Bear Creek Old Fields, though it likes to spend most of its time under things – or underground, eating worms and slugs. I particularly like the lovely tortoise shell pattern on the top of its head and the light stripe along its body accentuated by black markings.
Another beautiful, harmless but much longer snake (2-4 feet) is the Eastern Milk Snake (Lampropeltis triangulum). The females lay their eggs right now in June. Contrary to the old farmer’s tale, they do not milk cows! They, like the Brown Snake, prefer to hide most of the time. According to the DNR’s website on Michigan snakes, they eat lots of mice and rats but are “harmless to humans though they may vibrate their tails and bite if cornered or handled.” So simply watch them glide gracefully and seemingly effortlessly away and all will be well.
Of course, sometimes it’s the snakes that are the prey! Just outside Bear Creek last June, we saw a regal but juvenile Cooper’s Hawk which had successfully caught what appeared to be an Eastern Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis).Cooper’s Hawks chase medium-sized birds, their preferred prey, through the trees and eat them if they’re successful. According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab, these chases result in a signficant number of Cooper’s Hawks fracturing their wishbones, even though they are very skillful flyers. They can also make a meal of small mammals and snakes when necessary. This young hawk is doing what Cooper’s Hawks do with prey, holding it away from its body until it’s dead. Always good to diversify your diet, I suppose.
Earlier I mentioned Native Plant Beds. When you visit the park from Snell Road, take a tour of the two Native Plant Beds to the north and south of the shed, as well as the native plants in the driveway circle. Ben’s found some very easy-to-read, attractive plant signs that will help you identify some of what you are seeing. I’m looking forward to the bloom of the Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium), delicate blue flowers balancing on grass stems!
Out in the fields, TheCommon Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) has big, beautiful buds which open into their hearty, dusty pink flowers shortly. Don’t you love how the green leaves have pink veins down the middle of them? (You can see that clearly in the bottom leaf here.)
And in the marsh and other wet areas, the native Button Bush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) is producing its perfectly round buds. By mid-July, they will burst into bigger balls covered with tiny white flowers, each shooting out a long yellow-tipped stamen, looking like exploding fireworks or the old-fashioned sputnik!
I hope you’ll find the time some quiet afternoon to let yourself rest in the soothing sounds and beautiful sights of a walk in Bear Creek on a summer day. Or get your heart pumping at the site of a hunting hawk or a snake weaving its way through tall grass. Time in nature is never wasted.