Draper Twin Lake Park – East: The Stage is Set for Another Gold and Purple Autumn

Follow the Goldenrod Road … er, path into Draper Twin Lake Park – East

Walking into Draper Twin Lake Park – East in September is almost like being Dorothy on the Yellow Brick Road in The Wizard of Oz. The trails are lined with a wide variety of goldenrods and other sunny yellow wildflowers. Gold-and-black bees and beetles hum and scramble over them, making the most of late season nectar and pollen. Here and there the asters accent the gold with splashes of royal purple, lavender and white. Bronze and copper grasses dip and sway in the prairie, while summer birds finish their molts and prepare to move south or overwinter here.

Text and photos by Cam Mannino

So dodging between downpours and ensconced in my net anti-bug jacket, I ventured out into the thinning light of early autumn to enjoy early fall’s performance. Glad you’re here to join me.

Fall Flowers and Grasses Set the Stage in Early Autumn

Clouds above the golden prairie in the north of Draper Twin Lake Park – East

Here in Oakland Township, goldenrods and tall grasses create the early fall backdrop within which all the other creatures hunt, forage and fly. Over the last few years, I’ve learned to notice the variety of goldenrods that paint their particular yellow on early autumn’s canvas. So I think an introduction to just four of our most common goldenrods is called for, in case you think “you’ve seen one goldenrod, you’ve seen them all!” [Click on photos to enlarge.]

Giant Ragweed Photo
by Sam Kieschnik (CC BY)

A side note: Goldenrods do not cause “hay fever” as many fall allergy sufferers believe. Ragweed (genus Ambrosia) is the culprit! Its blooms are green and its light pollen is dispersed by the wind – right into people’s noses! Goldenrod flowers are yellow and their heavy pollen sticks to insects and can’t be carried by the wind. According to the Michigan Flora website, two kinds of ragweed grow in our county. So please let goldenrods off the hook for making you sneeze! A generous photographer from iNaturalist.org shared the ragweed photo on the left.

As the weather turns cooler, autumn adds in the late asters to complement the goldenrods. The name “aster” comes from an ancient Greek word meaning “star,” so it’s wonderfully appropriate for this colorful family of star-shaped flowers to add sprays of contrasting color within the golden landscape.

Sprinkled here and there around the prairie and the marsh, other native wildflowers make an occasional appearance, adding more variety to the fall scenery. It always intrigues me that so many are yellow! It seems to be early autumn’s favorite color. The late season, many-stemmed Brown-eyed Susans and the Common Evening Primroses were plentiful this year. Maybe more rain helped?

And the tall, graceful, native grasses created a scrim along the trail, their dance moves providing the prairie’s choreography on a breezy September day.

Every performance needs a little drama, and the Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) with its pink stems and purple berries rises to the occasion near the marsh each year.

Pokeweed berries are beloved by birds, but beware! They are toxic for us mere humans.

The Backdrop in Place, Insects Take the Stage

Even as it fades, a Stiff Goldenrod simultaneously hosts 3 European Honeybees and two mating beetles!
Locust Borer beetles

Insects act as the “supporting actors” in any landscape, taking on the essential role of pollinating plants even as the days get colder and flowers begin to fade. I hope you spotted the five black-and-gold insects on the Stiff Goldenrod in the photo above. What a generous host that plant that is!

Two of those insects were mating – or rather, the larger female was busy foraging as the mating occurred. Not much romance among Locust Borer beetles (Megacyllene robiniae), I’m afraid.

In early September, the prairie still hummed with the buzz of hundreds of European Honeybees and native Bumblebees. Later in the month, their activity seem to drop a bit; perhaps that’s because flight is more difficult for bees when temperatures fall below 50 degrees. Let me show you a small sample of the work bees were performing in September.

Butterflies, though fewer in number, were also playing their part in pollination. We saw several large Monarchs (Danaus plexippus), members of the “super generation” hatched right here in Michigan which will take on the entire 2,500 mile journey to their wintering grounds in Mexico!

Smaller butterflies made appearances as well. Butterflies don’t do as much pollination as bees, but they certainly add some fluttering color to an early autumn walk!

Every drama needs a couple of questionable characters. I met up with two of them in September at Draper Park East. The first was a non-native, the European Praying Mantis (Mantis religiousa). It may look like it’s praying, but in reality, it’s actually preying on beneficial insects as well as others. It’s a master of camouflage when vertical in tall green grass. Its triangular head can turn 180 degrees and its raptor-like front legs shoot forward in an instant to ambush unsuspecting insects. Even after my husband spotted it, I had trouble finding it in my viewfinder until it climbed up on a dying goldenrod. Quite an elegant shape on this predatory character!

A European Praying Mantis pauses on the top of Canada Goldenrod to get a better view of possible prey.

Passing by some Big Bluestem that swayed above my head, I noticed an odd lump at the end of the seedhead. I’ve look closely at odd lumps in nature ever since I saw my first elusive Spring Peeper by getting curious about a lumpy leaf years ago. I was rewarded again this time with my second questionable insect at Draper East, a One-Spotted Stinkbug (Euschistus variolarius). Dr. Gary Parsons at Michigan State University’s Bug House helped me out again by identifying this one, partly from the red tips on its protothorax.
A One-Spotted Stinkbug on a seed head of Big Blue Stem. It’s probably heading to the stem for a drink!

Dr. Parsons informs me that the One-spotted is a native stinkbug that eats by piercing the leaves, stems, seeds and fruits of herbaceous (non-woody) plants in order to siphon out some liquid. Generally though, he says, this species isn’t considered a pest. However, the invasive, non-native Brown Marmorated Stinkbugs that I occasionally see at home can be a huge problem for orchards, and stinkbugs can be pests in years in which they are abundant. If they are crushed during the harvest, their scent is not a pleasant addition to the crop!

Birds, Our Usual “Main Characters” in the Landscape, are Busy Changing Costumes for Winter or Migration

The cast of characters in our parks diminishes in the autumn. Insects either hibernate or lay their eggs for next spring’s hatch and die. Cool weather means most birds have finished raising their young just about the time the insect population begins to plummet. They stay high in the trees, often hidden among the leaves, especially if they’re molting.

Fall is a quieter season than spring. Birdsong, after all, is part of spring courtship. This September some social birds, like the Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) did whistle their high contact calls to one another as they gathered fruits in a Wild Black Cherry tree (Prunus serotina) or sallied forth to hawk into a cloud of gnats.

Juveniles may try out bits and pieces of adult songs or call plaintively to be fed long after they can feed themselves. The young Eastern Wood Pewee (Contopus virens) below, however, stared in silence out into the big, wide world. One of my fine birding mentors, Ruth Glass, pointed out that this bird had the buff wing bars of a “first fall juvenile,” rather than the adult’s white bars. That means that this little bird is about to experience its very first migration. Somehow it will have to find its way to its wintering grounds in Central America or even northern South America! Courage and bon voyage, my young friend!

According to website of the Cornell University Ornithology Lab, The Eastern Wood Pewee hawks for insects an average of 36 times per hour even now, in the non-breeding season!

A Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) surveyed the area from high on the tip of a snag. It may spend the winter here, though I see Flickers more often in the summer when they can drill the earth for their favorite food – ants! These birds used to be called “Yellow-Shafted Flickers,” because the undersides of their tail feathers (which can be seen below) as well as their wing feathers are bright yellow in flight.

The Northern Flicker can spend the winter here if it can find enough fruits – even frozen ones!

On the eastern edge of Draper Twin Lake Park – East, several summer visitors chirped and chatted in a tangle of vines and small trees. The warm yellow throat of a female Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) flashed in the greenery. She gave a sharp “chip” call as she moved restlessly from branch to branch. She’ll soon be riding a north wind during the night down to the southeastern states or on to the Caribbean.

A female Common Yellowthroat along the eastern side of the prairie at Draper Twin Lake Park

In the grass along the east path, a juvenile Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum) hopped about, pecking in a desultory manner at bits of this and that. This little bird probably hatched in the boreal forests of Canada and is now headed for Florida or the Caribbean where the insects will be much more plentiful. Many thanks to expert birder Allen Chartier for an explanatory identification of this bird. Juveniles definitely challenge my developing knowledge of fall bird plumage.

Juvenile Palm Warblers are identified by yellow under-tail feathers (or coverts), the pale line above the eye (supercillium), brownish breast streaks and buff wing bars.

I was lucky to see another migrator heading south from the boreal forest, the Lincoln’s Sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii). This nattily dressed little bird with its fine stripes and buff mustache (malar) tends to scurry into tangles as soon as it lands. I’d seen one for only the first time a week before at Charles Ilsley Park, though others spotted it in the spring from its wren-like burbling, complicated song. So imagine my surprise and delight when it hopped up on a branch to preen and stayed long enough for a portrait!

A Lincoln’s Sparrow in one of its rare moments in the open!

A Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) suddenly popped into the open too. Its “bouncing ball” trill burbled up from the prairies all summer long. This particular one looked a bit frowzy around the edges because it hadn’t quite finished its molt. It was still growing fresh feathers for its relatively short flight to Ohio and points south.

A Field Sparrow not quite finished with its molt

Becoming an Attentive “Audience” in the Natural World

The trail that leads to the prairie along the marsh at Draper Twin Lake Park East.

In this piece, I’ve had fun imagining the prairie and its inhabitants as an early fall theatrical production – but that, of course, calls for the last element – the audience. Us! I find that paying as much attention to my natural surroundings as I would to a movie, a play or a concert reaps a similar kind of pleasure. I appreciate the color, the movement and the music of a prairie as much as I enjoy the scenery, the costumes and the gestures of a dance performance. A forest or a fen can be almost as mysterious and as filled with strange inhabitants as any sci-fi adventure. The care adult birds take with fragile nestlings is often as touching and as fraught as a family drama. And the ferocity of a large green insect’s ambush of its unsuspecting victim can be as creepy as the casual violence of an elegant but lethal villain in a murder mystery.

Stepping out into a natural environment is much like losing myself in a powerful story. I leave my ordinary life behind for a few hours and enter into lives much different than my own. Stories of life and death unfold. The sets and costumes change from scene to scene. The music, the dance, the voices, the behavior, the colors are not ones made by humans; I’m in a different reality. When I leave, I come back to myself refreshed, having learned something new, experienced something different than the everydayness of my life. And the only payment I’m required to make is paying attention. What a gift!

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Migrating Streams of Small Winged Beauties

Walnut in morning sun

virginia creeper

What a glorious week for seeing migrating songbirds – and what frustration for a photographer who can’t quite manage to capture them all!  The trees, bushes and vines (like the Virginia Creeper on the right) are full of tiny, chirping birds that hop about quickly searching for sustenance before the next leg of their fall journeys.

I’ll share what I was able to photograph this week, with all the imperfections of an amateur photographer who, until this year, had almost no experience with warblers – who are very small and move very fast!

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

And then I’ll link you to better photos from Cornell Lab or Audubon.org, so you can see these little beauties up close – instead of half hidden by brush, silhouetted against the sun or at the very tops of trees!  So much color and energy in the park!  It’s a wonder how these small songbirds sail through the night and land in Bear Creek for a day’s rest and some fruits, seeds and insects to sustain them on the next leg of their journeys.

Winged Visitors : Warblers and Kinglets Everywhere!

If you’re looking for small migrating birds at Bear Creek, bring good binoculars and a lot of patience!  I learned a lot at Wednesday’s bird walk from Dr. Ben and  Ruth Glass who leads bird walks at Stoney Creek Metro Park and is a highly experienced birder.  For instance, they told us that in early morning,  it’s best to look for birds where the sun first hits the trees. (Makes sense, eh?)  So take the path into the park from Snell and once you get out in the field, look in the trees and bushes at the first large curve to the left.  Wow! Lots of birds in those bushes and trees!

Lane Oct. 4Other great places for me have been the Walnut Lane and the circuit all the way around the Playground Pond.  Walk slowly and very quietly and begin by listening to any cheeping in the bushes. Watch for twitching foliage and you’ll see them. But you need to go soon!  The migration for many songbirds peaked this week and numbers will decline until they are gone by early November.

Here’s a sampling of what you might see:

Palm Warblers (Setophaga palmarum) hopped from branch to branch again this week.  Look for their “field marks,” including a rusty cap, dark eye line,  breast streaks at the sides and yellow underparts. It’ll be leaving soon to go as far south as the Caribbean  – which could be where it got its name?

Palm Warbler 1

Palm Warblers are passing through the park. Look for their yellow underparts with streaking on the side and a rusty cap.

I caught sight of what I think is a Tennessee Warbler (Oreothlypis peregrina) going after some fruit.  It seems to be a male in its non-breeding, fall colors.  Page down to the bottom of this link for several different good views, including the non-breeding (fall) plumage.  Side note:  Last week’s Nashville Warbler (Oreothlypis ruficapilla) and this one aren’t necessarily from Tennessee.  According to Ruth Glass, they were first reported and drawn by John James Audubon who lived in Kentucky for part of his life and probably named birds for where he saw them.

Tennessee Warbler non-breeding male

A Tennessee Warbler forages for fruit before continuing its migration.

The tiny, almost constantly moving Kinglets pass through Bear Creek during the spring and fall, too.   The flitting  Ruby-Crowned Kinglet is identified by its size, irregular white eye ring and its twitching wings!  Its “ruby crown” only shows when it’s excited or courting, though one of the birders saw a Kinglet’s crown this Wednesday!  Maybe you can see the tiny red dot on the head of this bird that I saw the next day – or you can  have a look at it really flared in this Audubon link.

Ruby crowned kinglet closeup

A tiny Ruby-Crowned Kinglet – see the link above for a photo with the crown flaring.

I saw another Kinglet last weekend silhouetted in the sunlight and had no idea what it was until Ruth Glass identified it from my poor photo as a Golden-Crowned Kinglet (Regulus satrapa.)  Their field marks are a very short, thin beak perfect for winkling out insects and of course the gold on their wings and crown. Have a look at this Audubon link for a better view!

Golden Crowned Kinglet

My not-so-terrific photo of a Golden-Crowned Kinglet. See the link for a much better photo!

Winged Visitors:  Sparrows?  Yes!

I learned this year to stop ignoring small, brownish birds assuming they were all sparrows that I already knew.  That’s how I missed seeing other small migrants. Look at this beautiful White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) with the bright yellow dots(called “lores”) in front of its eyes, a striped crown and of course, a white throat marked by black stripes called “whiskers” or “malar stripes”!

White throated sparrow closeup

Keep an eye on sparrows! Here’s a migrating White-throated Sparrow with a bright yellow dot in front of his eyes.

And here’s a young White-Crowned Sparrow  (Zonotrichia leucophrys ) which needs to be  differentiated from the White-Throated Sparrow above.  It’s about to make its first migration, because it was born somewhere in the far north below the arctic circle this very summer. (Thanks again to Ruth Glass for the ID!)

White throated Sparrow first year closeup

A White-Crowned Sparrow born this summer, readying itself for its first migration.

White-Crowned Sparrows look radically different after one year.  Here’s a photo I took at Bear Creek on October 6, 2008 and then a closeup of one at my house in spring a few years later.  Hard to believe it’s the same bird as the brown “first winter” bird in the photo above, isn’t it?

white crowned sparrow bc

A White-crowned Sparrow looks radically different after its first year.

white crowned sparrow2

A White-Crowned Sparrow looks very different after its first year – and it breeds below the Arctic Circle!

Sharp-eyed Ruth also saw two Lincoln’s Sparrows (Melospiza lincolnii ) which look very much like a Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) but are smaller and daintier and have no central spot on their breasts. Unlike the courser streaking on a song sparrow, the Lincoln’s Sparrow’s black streaks are finer and on “buffy” flanks. Wikipedia says they are “quite secretive” – too much so,  for my eyes and camera!  So here’s another Cornell link to get a look.

The visiting summer sparrows that spent their summer in the park are still here too.  A Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) with its bright white eye ring and pinkish bill and feet watches other migrants hop in the trees. As their name implies,  Field Sparrows avoid suburban areas and will soon fly off to somewhere south of Michigan so keep an eye out for them soon at places like Bear Creek!

Field Sparrow

The Field Sparrow avoids suburban living so come see it in the park! It’ll migrate farther south for the winter, though it breeds here in the summer.

 Winged Migrants: a Mixture of Species

During the Wednesday bird walk, the treetops on Walnut Lane were filled with Pine Siskins (Spinus pinus).  This nomadic finch appears some years and not others as it follows the best seed crops.  My photo in morning sun in the treetops shows its streaky head and body but not the  flashes of its subdued winter yellow as they flutter or fly,  so have a look at Cornell Lab’s photo.

Down at the Center Pond, we saw an Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) darting from the shore to the water, catching a few bugs.  The most distinguishing field mark of a Phoebe is a constantly pumping tail, plus a dark head and white breast.  The males usually sing “Phee-beee” only when courting but one was trying out its song on Wednesday. It probably spent the summer here.  It will be migrating in the next couple of weeks and be gone by early November.

Phoebe Center Pond

An Eastern Phoebe flitted between the shore and water catching insects for its migration in the next week or so.

At the western edge  of the pond on Wednesday, deep in the brush, skulked a migrating Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) who probably raised its young farther north in Michigan or Canada.  These birds rummage in leaf litter looking for insects, so they can be hard to see. But the following day,  it appeared on a log near the pond.

Hermit thrush

A Hermit Thrush near the Center Pond.

Also at the pond, Ruth spotted a Blue-headed Vireo (Vireo solitarius) which may have spent the summer among pines farther north.  It generally looks blue-gray but Ruth told us it’s more blue in direct sunlight.  I love its white “spectacles.” Unfortunately, I didn’t get a shot of it but here’s the link to Cornell’s photo.

The Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) males at the Center Pond are slowly getting rid of their eclipse plumage.  Here’s one whose beautiful green head feathers have almost completely molted.

Mallard almost finished molting

This male Mallard is almost finished molting, but his iridescent green head feathers still have a little way to go.

He’d probably like the molt to be over, since some of the males now have their full complement of courting plumage and are already pairing up with females, though mating won’t happen until spring!  They’ll move to the Gulf Coast this winter, unless they can find an area with sufficient food and open water farther north.

Mallard back to green

Some male Mallards have completed their fall molt and are pairing up with females, though mating won’t happen until spring.

The Gray Catbird raised its young here this summer but will be leaving soon, too.  This one in the vines and bushes north of the Playground Pond looks like it’s finished molting and is about ready to go.

Catbird in bushes 2

A Gray Catbird ready to fly south, as far as Florida or even Mexico,  in a week or so.

Winter Residents (or Delayed Departures) Molting into Winter Garb

A flock of young Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum), who have left their fledgling feathers behind and now wear their first winter garb, jostled noisily among the fruiting vines and trees.  Some of them may remain here for at least part of the winter and then head south. I saw a flock of Waxwings at Bear Creek eating in ice-glazed branches on Christmas Eve two years ago! Others have already left for warmer climes, sometimes as far south as Central America.  These noisy young ones are identified by  mottled chests, shorter crests, and a wider white lines around the mask  – but the tips of their tails still glow bright yellow in sunlight like adult waxwings.

Cedar Waxwing juvenile

A first winter Cedar Waxwing, part of a large noisy flock eating fruits from trees and vines north of the Playground Pond.

This female American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) looks a bit disconcerted about molting into her drab winter colors, much like the female Cardinal that I posted last week.

Goldfinch winter non-breeding

What appears to me to be a female Goldfinch unimpressed with her winter garb

This winter-ready Goldfinch, though,  looked as if it enjoyed its ride on a plume of Canada Goldenrod as it picked seeds from the dried blossoms as they swayed in the wind.

Female goldfinch winter plumage

A Goldfinch in its winter garb rode a plume of Canada Goldenrod, picking off seeds as it swayed in the wind.

Odds ‘n’ Ends

A tiny Eastern Chipmunk ((Tamias striatus) dashed up a tree near Snell Road. I love how his tail was backlit by the late afternoon sun.

Chipmunk up a tree

An Eastern Chipmunk near Snell Road

In the southernmost meadow near Snell, I spotted a large patch of white plants I’d never seen before.  Dr. Ben identified them as Fragrant Cudweed.  The University of Michigan Herbarium uses that common name or the slightly less bovine Old-Field Balsam.  Many internet sites call it Sweet Everlasting (my fave of the three) and look at  its Latin name – Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium – !!  Whatever you call this native plant, it’s interesting.  According to a Minnesota Wildflower site, the clusters of what look like egg-shaped buds are actually the blooms with the yellow/brown anthers (pollen- producing flower parts) exposed at the end.   And what looks like whorled petals are bracts, leaflike structures which will open and fall when the seed ripens. Nice to have fresh blooms so late in the year!  As the weather gets colder, we’ll really wish they were everlasting!

Sweet Everlasting or Cudweed

Cudweed or Sweet Everlasting blooming now in the southernmost meadow near Snell.

Cudweed Sweet Everlasting closeup

They may look like they’re buds, but they are the egg-shaped blooms of the Cudweed or Sweet Everlasting.

Fall migration must be a restless, exhausting, but exciting time for birds.  Their hormones, the shorter days, and the temperature all tell them it’s time to go south. Dangers lurk along the way, which is one of the reasons perching birds travel at night, avoiding raptors who travel by day.  Severe weather, a shopping mall where a woods used to be, lighted buildings that confuse the birds’ navigation systems can all be disastrous.  But the pull is strong and off these small birds go in the night, riding the wind if they can.  I hope you get to see some of them off.

*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 beetle info http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info, and 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