Tag Archives: lichen

Bear Creek Nature Park: A Welcoming Refuge from the Holiday “Must-do’s!”

The meadow west of the Center Pond in December

At our house, we’ve just emerged from the joyful-but-somewhat-frantic bustle of the festive season. From just before Thanksgiving through the New Year, we enjoyed the noise, color and craziness of the holiday with lots of friends and family  – but it feels like we just didn’t stop moving for weeks!  I imagine that’s true for lots of you too.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

I managed to keep some  scraps of my sanity by – you guessed it – venturing out into the parks. Our home is about five minutes from Bear Creek Nature Park; that became my most frequent escape hatch. So here’s a look at the wildness nearby that (with a small nod to Will Shakespeare) knit the raveled sleeve of my cares during the last several weeks.

 

It All Began before Thanksgiving…

Ice forming on the Center Pond on a bitter day in November

In the first half of November, before the rush of the festive season, wild visitors from farther north began to filter into Bear Creek. The birding group got a glimpse of a Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca) in the bushes. These large, chubby sparrows are usually rusty red with chevrons forming the stripes on their breasts. Since I didn’t get a good shot that day, here’s one in a very similar setting from generous iNaturalist photographer, Joseph Salmieri.

A Fox Sparrow by Joseph Salmieri (CC BY-NC) at iNaturalist.org

The birding group also saw a flock of Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) feeding in the grass along a path in early November. These birds make lovely black dashes against the snow on a winter day. They travel here from their breeding grounds in Canada – perhaps all the way from Hudson’s Bay! They’re often my first real sign that winter’s on its way.

A Dark-eyed Junco along the trail at Bear Creek in early November

The second half of November bore down on me suddenly since Thanksgiving came so late this year. Snow fell; the temperature dropped. Yikes! Time to design Christmas cards, turn my photos into a family calendar, think about gifts for special people. Out in the park, birds kept me company to soothe my jitters. One afternoon, my husband and I came across what seemed to be a friendly gathering of birds. Five species hung out together, moving about foraging and chattering in a grove of small trees near where Bear Creek runs out of the pond.

Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) caught our attention first as they chatted in a small tree. A male House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) listened in from behind a branch. The bluebirds probably moved a little farther south to escape the cold for a while, though some may return for short visits during the winter and some may be year ’round residents.

Five bluebirds socialize before moving south while the House Finch, a year ’round resident, listens in from behind a branch.

The House Finch just bears up in the cold of a Michigan winter. Like other small winter residents, he keeps warm by crunching on copious amounts of seed and fluffing his feathers into a winter jacket.

house-finch-male-bc.jpg
A male House Finch will stay with us all winter. Love how the red shows between his wings!

The woodpeckers, too, are a hardy crew. A Downy Woopecker male (Dryobates pubescens) tapped along a tree trunk searching for insects eggs or a frozen caterpillar, quite uninterested in the bluebirds.

A male Downy Woodpecker kept up a tapping rhythm near the bluebirds.

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) joined the gathering on a nearby Wild Black Cherry tree (Prunus serotina). He seemed to be craning his neck to hear what was going on with the bluebirds behind him! But in reality, of course, he was just demonstrating the caution that all wild birds do when feeding.

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker looks about while foraging at another tree trunk.

The fifth member of the bird gathering was the industrious Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor), who pretty much ignored the others, having found something very interesting at the end of a branch.

A Tufted Titmouse sees something worth its attention at the end of a dead branch.

On the big loop path beyond the bird gathering, a White Oak leaf (Quercus alba) testified to the frigid temperatures. The water droplets on it had frozen and magnified the leaf’s veins in a way that always fascinates me.

Frozen water droplets function like a magnifying glass on a white oak leaf.

Our feeders at home got busy around Thanksgiving as well, providing visual entertainment as we buzzed by the windows, working on Christmas projects. New guests arrived at the feeder this year – the Hairy Woodpeckers (Dryobates villosus). Here the female sits in an aging black oak outside the window, just beyond the feeder.

A female Hairy Woodpecker in profile shows off her long, thick beak.

It’s sometimes hard to distinguish the Hairy from the Downy Woodpecker at a distance.  But when both arrive at a feeder at the same time, the difference in size is readily apparent!

The Hairy Woodpecker has a much heavier bill and is much larger than the Downy when seen up close at a feeder!

The Holiday Pace Picks up in December…

Eastern Meadow at Bear Creek on a later winter afternoon

Oh, boy. Hurried wrapping of presents for family in Australia. Multiple trips to the Post Office to send calendars to friends overseas and around the States. Trips out of town for special gifts. But on the way home from the errands, a stop at Bear Creek to slow down, breathe the sharp air and redden my cheeks.

One dark, late afternoon and as I entered the park, I noted an alarming sight. A lovely but deadly Oriental Bittersweet vine (Celastrus orbiculatus) had wrapped itself around a tiny tree. This terribly invasive plant will slowly strangle this sapling if it isn’t carefully removed and its roots treated with herbicide. Sad that such a colorful vine should have such a powerfully negative impact! Birds do eat the berries at times, but unfortunately get very little nutrition from them.

Vines like this invasive Oriental Bittersweet that wrap around trees can strangle them. And the berries have scant nutrition for our birds.

Looking for more benign color, I came across lots of rich green moss (phylum Bryophyta) in the forest. Mosses, unlike plants, can actually grow very slowly in cold temperatures, if not under snow or ice. Some mosses actually survive in Antarctica! Our mosses cope with winter winds by being close to the ground and benefit from the moisture of winter rain and melting snow. They can also go dormant when moisture is low and then regenerate quickly after a rain. What a relief to the eye to come across these bright green mosses on a wintry day! [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

A golden fungus and a bright yellow lichen appeared at various places in the park in December.  These bright touches against bark or leaves always catch my attention on a gray winter day.

Reminders of summer past help me put things back in perspective during the  holiday bustle. An abandoned nest of what I think was Bald-faced Hornets (Dolichovespula maculata) hung low in bush. Yellow Jacket Wasps (Vespula maculifrons) also build aerial nests occasionally, as well as using underground burrows, but theirs are usually higher up than this one. The hornets created this masterpiece with overlapping, striped scallops. Since the hornets nicely camouflaged the nest in a leafy bush, I’d missed it completely in the summer. Amazing that these tiny creatures can create such a beautiful design on the outside of their architecture and those myriad, perfect hexagons inside!

Along the path to the west of the Playground Pond, the abandoned, but still intact nest of last summer’s Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) swung gently in the winter air, but no fledglings rock within it now. Another architectural marvel, this one was woven out of plant fibers over the course of one to two weeks by a female Oriole. Such sturdy nests and they’re only used for one season!

A Baltimore Oriole nest woven last spring by a female using only her beak! And it’s sturdy enough to survive winter winds!

Some summer plants still stand tall in the fields, bearing their seeds for hungry birds. The giant Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) has done its duty. It’s  been picked clean, probably by the flocks of American Goldfinches in the park.

Prairie Dock from last summer has already offered up its seeds for hungry birds.

Its huge, spotted leaves that feel like sandpaper in the summer now lie crumbling beneath the stately stalks.

The huge, sandpaper-like leaves of Prairie Dock are now giving their nutrients back to the soil.

In December, Goldfinches had not yet devoured the seeds of this Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis). This one was so fluffy that it looked like it was dressed in a down jacket for the winter. But with winter wind and wet, heavy snow, it will bow down to the ground before spring, making way for new sprouts.

A Canada Goldenrod still stands upright, looking like its dressed for winter weather.

One afternoon, my husband I found a gorgeous rock embedded with quartz crystals. From its location, I’m guessing it was  hidden under a vernal pool for most of the year. It shone white in the winter woods, looking like a stray snowball from a distance. Isn’t the coloring and crystal structure lovely? So rare to see such a large, white rock.

A beautiful white rock, perhaps granite mixed with quartz and feldspar crystals.

And Then the Post-Holiday Slow-down

Bear Creek meanders south from Gunn Road to join Paint Creek just west of the Paint Creek Cider mill.

Presents are put away.  Decorations are being stored in the basement. The bevy of much beloved guests is dwindling. And the park has gone mostly silent. Perhaps you’ve noticed that birds are a bit tougher to see or hear in Bear Creek Nature Park now. Sometimes they’re present, but I wonder if  their diminished numbers may be due to something good – a plentitude of winter feeders in the surrounding neighborhoods.

On our last visit, we heard a Red-bellied Woodpecker in the woods on the township hall trail and perhaps the “ank-ank-ank” of a White-breasted Nuthatch somewhere on the Big Loop. We watched a family of American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) settling into some tall trees off the western field. The adults arrived first and one began calling. When no young arrived, the calling adult looked back at its mate and they cawed until all the presumably younger members gathered with them in the tree tops. Crow families often stay together for more than one season, the young helping the adults feed the nestlings of the next generation. Such intelligent and social birds!

Down at the Center Pond, the ice had temporarily melted and a pair of Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) glided across the dark surface. They’ve evidently made their December choice of partners and will now spend the winter together before mating in the spring.

A mallard couple keeping company on the pond while the ice is gone.

Signs of spring feel rare and welcome after Christmas and its encouraging to notice that plants have already made preparations. A fuzzy little Thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana) held onto its seeds at the edge of a woodland trail. This plant produces oblong fruits with a thimble-like shape and pattern in summer that change into cottony tufts full of seeds in the fall. It keeps its seeds right into winter and depends on the wind to spread them. But it has another couple of strategies for survival. It produces a substance that discourages other seeds around it from germinating and its tap root is accompanied by rhizomes (underground stems that sprout and make roots) that allow it to spread beneath the soil. Look how its seed tufts in the photo below just happened to form an image of a frowning human profile, something I didn’t notice until I developed the photo! What fun!

I call this tufted seedhead Thimbleweed Man. Do you see the profile face looking right in the top stem?

The trees produce leaf buds in the fall which sometimes have a waxy surface to help retain moisture in the winter cold. The American Dogwood (Cornus florida) makes neat, round, little flower buds that face upward at the branch tips. Separately and sometimes just below the flower buds are leaf buds. I’ve only found one American Dogwood in Bear Creek Nature Park ; it’s on the east side of the Big Loop. Each fall and winter, I look eagerly for these buds with their pointed tops turned to the sun. In spring, I enjoy the way the white bracts (modified leaves) open to reveal a small cluster of yellow flowers at the center.

I saw this lovely bud on the Big Loop but can’t identify it yet! I loved its golden glow on a gray day! If any of you know which tree produced this bud, please tell me in the comments! It almost looks as though the leaves started to break from their buds with the warmer temperatures after the holidays.

A mystery plant – but isn’t its bud a pretty color?

Down near the Center Pond, I spotted the cache of an American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) beneath the trunk of an old Shagbark Hickory tree (Carya ovata). I could hear the owner scolding me from deep within the tangled brush nearby, but I never got a clear look at it. Shagbark Hickory is a fine example of how productive native trees can be in their habitat. According to the Illinois Wildflower website, these big, distinctive trees provide sweet nuts for raccoons, squirrels, chipmunks and many birds. Their leaves host a wide variety of insect caterpillars and so are often sought out by birds like chickadees, vireos, warblers and others. The long shards of shaggy bark provide winter shelter for insects and even nesting sites for small birds like the Brown Creeper. And they’re deer and fire resistant! – though the saplings may be gnawed by rabbits. What a contributor to a healthy habitat!

The consumed cache of an American Red Squirrel at the foot of a large Shagbark Hickory which supplied most of the nuts. Hope this squirrel has other caches for the coming winter months!
Shagbark Hickory bark provides winter shelter for overwintering insects and nesting sites for birds.

On the way back down to the Township Hall the day after Christmas, we spotted the festive bark of another tree. Nice Christmas colors,eh?

The reddish bark and green moss on this Sassafras tree looked quite festive at the holiday season!

Ben identified the tree for me as one of the tallest Sassafras trees (Sassafras albidum) that he’s ever seen. We were certainly impressed! Its bark can sheer off, leaving this red layer exposed. Sassafras is another generous host, providing food for butterfly caterpillars like the Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus), the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) and for many moths. Bobwhites, Wild Turkeys and many songbirds feed on their pitted fruits called “drupes.”

A very tall, native Sassafras tree on the trail from the Township Hall

The Comforts of “Home” on a Winter Walk

A Walnut tree against a stormy sky at Bear Creek Park

Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that… wildness is a necessity.”
― John Muir, in Our National Parks

Sometimes I notice that I’ve become an “over-civilized” person, don’t you? I find myself feeling crabby from too many “must-do’s,” feeling hemmed in by walls and getting stale from breathing what feels like the same old air. That’s when I rediscover Muir’s insight.  Wildness really is a necessity – maybe for all of us, whether we know it or not. Even in winter, I regularly need to immerse myself in the crazy quilt of a meadow full of  dry grass stems and listen to the pulsing roar of wind rushing headlong through the crowns of trees. The wild language of crows backed by the drumbeat of woodpeckers tunes me to a different key. For a short time, I’m enfolded within a complex world much beyond my small human one. And somehow that allows me to rest. I pull my hat down over my ears, snug up the scarf at my neck and I’m home, at ease in a place where I’m welcomed – and so are you – as just another creature making its way through winter days.

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: From the Sedate Colors of Late Autumn to Winter White

Cam in red winter coat BC
Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

I’ll be the first to admit that wildlife was a bit quiet this week at Bear Creek Nature Park. The early part of the week was typical of November – brown and gray.  So I went searching for bright colors or interesting shapes and found a few native plants, lichens and mushrooms adding  what designers call “visual interest” to the landscape.  And then suddenly at the end of the week, winter arrived!  I’m enough of a child to still love the first snow – and what a snowfall! Early Saturday morning, I walked through a silent Bear Creek – even my footsteps were muffled by the snow. Walking over an hour across the fields and through the woods,  I heard the twitter of one Tree Sparrow and a Chickadee’s call, a Blue Jay warning the world of my presence,  the soft “chip” of one Northern Cardinal and the inevitable low grumble of an American Red Squirrel annoyed by my passing – but I saw none of them as they huddled away from the swiftly falling snow.  So this time our weekly virtual stroll through Bear Creek travels quickly from late autumn to early winter.

Late Autumn:  A Search for Colors and Shapes

Falling bur oak leaf
Falling Oak Leaf

Late November is a tough season to love.  The vivid colors of October drain away as the sap flows down into the tree roots and the landscape turns gray and brown.  Birds are more scarce and harder to see as they twitter softly inside bushes or high in the trees. Bird nests appear in the bare branches – like this shrunken sack over the Playground Pond, the remains of the nest of a pair of Baltimore Orioles (Icterus galbula).  This spring I saw the yellow/orange female’s tail protruding from the top as she fed her young in the nest below. Her brilliant orange and black mate helped out, making frequent trips to the nest.  Look at that lively little home now!

Oriole nest abandoned
Hanging over the Center Pond, the abandoned nest of a beautiful family of Baltimore Orioles.

So I decided I’d keep my eye out for any color or interesting shapes that I could spot in the park.  Unfortunately, a lot of the color comes from invasive plants!  After all,  one of the reasons they escaped from people’s gardens is that they provided color late in the year.  But I wanted to see what our native plants could provide.

The Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) still had bright scarlet plumes on the western slope.

Sumac in Novemberr
Staghorn Sumac still red at the bottom of the western slope.

And everywhere the red leaves of Common Blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis) broke the tawny sameness of late autumn.

Common Blackberry
Common Blackberry adds a smattering of red to the brown landscape of late autumn.

All over the park, small trees bravely waved their large leaves which they’d used to soak up as much summer sunshine as possible.  This tiny Black Oak (Quercus velutina) may someday be a huge, spreading tree since it found a place in full sun on the western slope.  Its crimson leaves stood out in the field of dried Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) and Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota).

Tiny black oak tree
A tiny Black Oak at the northern end of the western slope.

A ball gall on what appeared to be another blackberry bush took on the dark reddish sheen of its host.  Galls occur when insects lay their eggs in plant stems and the plant grows around it,  providing a relatively safe place for the insect that will emerge in the spring.

Reddish gall
A ball gall on what I think is a blackberry bush houses the larva of at least one insect, possibly more, until spring.

Near one of the wetlands, the bright red and green of a moss-covered log caught my eye.  Dr. Ben VanderWeide, Oakland Township’s Stewardship Manager,  tells me, “Mosses are really cool … The green part that we always see and call “moss” is actually the “gametophyte generation” of mosses  –  the generation with one copy of DNA that produces “gametes,” sperm and egg. When it rains, the sperm swim through the film of water on the mosses to reach an egg in the tip of one of the green mosses. After fertilization of the egg, a new plant grows into the “sporophyte generation” (red filaments in the picture below), which has two copies of DNA and produces spores. The spores then spread about and germinate to grow into new carpets of green moss.”

Moss on a log green and red
Moss on a log. The green generation of moss produces next generation – the red filaments, that produce the spores which grow into more green moss.

Dr. Ben continues. “So what you see in this patch of moss is actually two generations – the green moss carpet that one has one copy of DNA, and the red filaments are the sporophyte offspring that have two copies of DNA. ”  I think that’s pretty cool, too. I’ve come to appreciate these bright red and green patches of moss in the austere seasons of the year, early spring and late fall.

Near the Marsh and in the Woods,  Some “Visual Interest”

When I entered the woods, color was even harder to find.  A rich brown acorn with its green top and rotund shape provided some visual relief among the wrinkling surfaces of fading fallen leaves.

Acorn
The rich chestnut brown of an acorn adds a bit of visual interest to fading brown leaves on the trail.

Though pale in color, I like the filigree of lichens and fungi that become more evident as the colorful flowers fade.  Lichens are sometimes confused with moss, but they are not related. In fact, lichens aren’t plants; they are a distinct form of life!  According to Wikipedia, they are composite organisms that arise when algae and/or cyanobacteria live symbiotically among fungi filaments. They don’t have roots like plants do.  Like plants, however, they produce the algae or cyanobacteria partner that produces food for the lichen through photosynthesis using sunlight, water and minerals.  Lichens may appear on plants, wood or rock, but they are not parasitic.  Pretty mysterious life form, really!  Here’s a lacy-looking one that is referred to as “foliose” because its structure looks like leaves. It’s on a railing at the southern marsh deck. And that yellow you see behind it is another lichen, a powdery one whose structure is referred to as a “leprose lichen.”

Lichen
A lichen does not have roots and is not a plant,but rather is a special composite life form that, like plants, is capable of photosynthesis. Both the white one in the foreground and the yellow spots in the background are types of lichen.

“Mushrooms,” are the fruiting bodies of  fungi that emerge from wood or soil and carry the spores for reproduction.  Fungi  form a distinct “kingdom” in nature, not related to plants, animals, bacteria, etc. I saw two forms of one broad category on this walk, the “polypores.”    Here are some polypore fungi on a snag  (standing dead tree) near the southern marsh. According to Wikipedia,  “Through decomposing tree trunks, they [fungi] recycle a major part of nutrients in forests.” They are the first step in a food chain: fungi process the wood cellulose, insects and invertebrates eat the mushrooms and birds and larger animals eat the insects and birds.  Fungi also soften up dead wood so that woodpeckers and others can make holes for nesting or winter shelter.  Nothing is wasted in a well-functioning ecosytem, eh?

Polyphore fungus
Polypore fungi on a snag, a standing dead tree.

I’m always intrigued by how Shelf Fungi, another kind of polypore, form ruffles on the edges of sawed logs.

Shelf fungi (polypores)
Shelf fungi form ruffles on sawed logs as they break down the cellulose in the wood.

So the early part of the week at Bear Creek was still brown leaves underfoot, graying blooms of summer plants dropping their spring seeds in the Old Fields and pale mushrooms and lichen taking shape on old wood throughout the Oak-Hickory forest.

And Then Suddenly, Winter!

On Saturday morning, the snow began falling fast, like rain, cloaking Bear Creek’s Eastern Old Field in white.

Eastern path first snow
First snow on the Eastern Old Field

The plumes of Canada Goldenrod began to droop a bit under the weight of the snow.

goldenrod in snow
Canada Goldenrod began to droop under the weight of the snow.

A few red bright red leaves wore a bright cap of snow near the marsh at the southern of the eastern Oak-Hickory forest.  The Common Blackberry from earlier in the week now has snowy accents.

red leaves
Common blackberry leaves in the first snow.

The woods were, as poet Robert Frost put it,  “lovely, dark and deep.” And so quiet.  Not even a squirrel moved. Only an occasional muffled bird call reached me.

Stopping by woods snowy morning
On Saturday morning, the woods were, as poet Robert Frost put it, “lovely, dark and deep.”

To borrow again from Frost, perhaps you too can bundle up and experience “stopping by woods on a snowy” morning during the hectic holiday season that begins this week. Caught up in the glitter and bustle of a busy season, the woods and fields offer serenity, quiet, beauty – a soothing space in which to breathe and find your bearings.  Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

male turkey from back 2 cr
Happy Thanksgiving!
*Footnote:  My sources for information, as well as Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide, 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 American Online; Audubon.org, Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, Trees in My Forest by Bernd Heinrich, Winter World by Bernd Heinrich