This summer, like the last, the western section of Watershed Ridge Park hums to the vibration of small winged creatures. So just as I did last summer, I headed first for the small restored wetland at the foot of a sloping field on the park’s western edge, because I knew it would be alive with fierce and fabulous dragonflies and their diminutive relations, the damselflies. As you’ll see, I was not disappointed!
But this summer, our Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, has cut some temporary trails into the dense greenery north of the fields in order to allow his crew to take on the task of taming a major invasion of non-native pest plants like Oriental Bittersweet vine, Autumn Olive, Privet and more. For now, these rough, bush-hogged trails allow me much easier access to the woods and the prairie at the heart of this part of the park. So I invite you to join me as I wade through moist meadows, pick my way carefully between wooded wetlands and stumble along the trail’s stubble to explore what warm summer mornings offer in the west of Watershed Ridge.
A Wetland Habitat Always Means Life!
I love how the trail that leads west from the parking lot passes high above the wetlands below, then curves gracefully through the hedgerow separating two fields – the one on the right still agricultural, the one on the left planted with native seed this spring.
At the foot of the green field, lies the newly restored wetland picture above. It’s just a humble, muddy little pool surrounded by native and non-native plants. The community includes non-native Cattails and Eurasian Great Hairy Willow-herb (Epilobium hirsutum , but also clusters of native plants like glorious Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata), tough little Bulrush (Scirpus atrovirens), and the wonderful spiky blooms of Hop Sedge (Carex lupulina), member of an ancient genus. Sprigs of native pink Creeping Smartweed (Persicaria longiseta) poke out of the former farm field surrounding the wetland. According to Dr. Gary Parsons at Michigan State University’s Bug House, that suits the tiny Lucerne Moth (Nomophila nearctica) since its caterpillars feed avidly on it – as well as on non-native alfalfa and clover.
I waded into a small meadow behind the wetland to the west, filled with native Daisy Fleabane (Erigeron annuus) and a variety of soft grasses. Its proximity to the water and its gently swaying stems make it a good place to look for the “dragons and damsels.”
When I first arrived in late June, dragonflies were racing around the pond and the surrounding meadow, either in pairs, or singly, in a mad dash to mate and feed. These colorful, fierce predators with their spiked legs and powerful jaws spend their extended youth underwater. They live below the water surface, first as eggs and then as gilled nymphs, crawling or swimming around to feed on everything around them. They grow by molting into larger nymphs. The process can repeat for as little as four months to an average of one to three years! Finally they attach with their claws to an upright surface – stem, rock, bridge – and a full-fledged dragonfly extracts itself from the skin of the last nymph. The thorax emerges first, then the head and legs. Once the legs harden, the new dragonfly arches backward, thrusting the entire abdomen out of its casing. The wings fill with fluid and this creature with gills transforms into an air breather. Imagine, what it must be like to emerge from a dark pond into the bright sunlight and suddenly be able to breathe air – and fly! No wonder they frequently look so frantically excited!
But emergence is a dangerous time. According to Dragonflies of the Northern Woods by Kurt Mead, while they are emerging and before they can fly, up to 90% of these “teneral” or newly-hatched dragonflies are consumed by birds and sometimes by ants or spiders. In our northern climate, adult dragonflies may live from just a week to at most a couple of months. During their brief life in the air, they must latch onto a mate and produce eggs for the following year. So the priority is to mate quickly. Local naturalist Allen Chartier and the Facebook group, “Odonata of the Eastern United States,” both identified the dragonfly below with its shiny wings as the teneral male of some species of Meadowhawk dragonfly (genus Sympetrum.) His species won’t be clear until he fully matures. Isn’t he handsome? I watched him flutter a short distance to this grass stem, so he’s already on his way to maturity. I wish him well.
Early Arrivals: Dragonflies that Appear in late May
Some dragonflies appear during the last week of May and so have an early jump on pairing up. When I arrived at the park in late June, some of these early males either stuck close to a nearby female, or rushed around, perhaps demonstrating their finer qualities to eligible females. And of course they were busy foraging for other insects.
Common Whitetails (Plathemis lydia) call our parks home every summer. The two below were definitely visiting the wetland with serious intentions. Whitetail males will patrol a pond trying to chase off competitors and if the female on the right has chosen our small pond, the guy on the left is likely to mate with her. He was busy discouraging another male when I saw him. The female can lay up to 1,000 eggs per day and may mate every day or two according to my dragonfly guide book. No wonder the Common Whitetail is so common!
The other common early dragonfly is the Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa.) The male’s distinguishing feature are the dark wing patches next to his thorax and abdomen and white patches farther out on his wings. The female only has the dark patches near the body, plus yellow stripes down the sides of the abdomen. They lay eggs singly when alone, but the male “hover-guards” her in crowded ponds to, as the guidebook so circumspectly phrases it, “protect his ‘genetic investment.'” Had to smile when I read that….
I also saw three early dragonflies that were either “wallflowers” thus far – or I just missed seeing their mates in all the activity! They’re a colorful bunch.
Later Arrivals: Dragonflies that Show Up the Second Week in June
When I arrived on June 28, I only saw singletons among these later dragonflies that had probably appeared at the wetland a couple of weeks earlier. Perhaps they needed a bit more time to find a mate? Who knows? But I was glad to see them in any case.
The “Damsels” of Watershed Ridge, 2022
Damselflies share the order Odonata with dragonflies, but look and behave a bit differently. Unlike dragonflies, damselflies are generally smaller, less muscular and appear more delicate – hence their name which means “young mistress” in French. But they too are effective predators. They have large compound eyes like their relatives, but have “only” five to ten thousand individual lenses in them versus the maximum of 30,000 for a dragonfly. While the dragonfly’s eyes take up most of their head, damselflies’ eyes are placed at either side of the head, often giving them a hammerhead shark appearance. Dragonflies spend time high in the air and settle with their wings open. Damselflies spend more time at knee height among grasses and often fold their wings when they’ve landed.
Like dragonflies, damselflies spend a long youth underwater. In a vernal pool monitoring event in 2016, we happened to temporarily scoop one up with a couple of fingernail clams and a water beetle. They’re not quite as glamorous as they look when their adults, eh?
So here’s the selection of damselflies I encountered at the newly restored wetland on a summer morning. Many thanks again to Allen Chartier for help with the identifications.
And Now, a Quick Trip Down a Woodland Path
On every one of my five trips to Watershed Ridge Park in late June and July, I was welcomed to the temporary woodland trail by the bright, paired phrases of the Indigo Bunting’s song. His favored perch was high in a tree or snag near the trail’s eastern entrance. What a gift! Have a listen at this link. (Though their songs vary by location, the second song listed at the link is very similar to the male’s song at Watershed Ridge.) I never got an ideal shot of him, so here’s another one I took in 2019 that shows you the male’s dark wing and his two-tone beak!
The fluttering of two butterflies on both sides of the trail caught my eye. Woodland butterflies don’t sip nectar from flowers, since most woodland flowers finish once the canopy leafs out – and forest edges are the niche these butterflies fill. Instead, they seek out a generally unappealing diet (for humans) of tree sap, fermenting or rotten fruit and dung which supplies sodium, nitrogen and other nutrients. They lay their eggs on woodland grasses that their caterpillars can digest. The larger one (1.75-2.5″) with more spots, the Northern Pearly-eye (Enodia anthedon) moves about erratically even on overcast days and can fly late into the evening, according to Jaret C. Daniels’ guide, Butterflies of Michigan. The smaller one on the right below with about a one inch wingspan is the Little Wood Satyr (Megisto cymela) which often bobs at my feet at the edge of wooded trails.
Because of the dense foliage, I heard birds more than saw them. My handy Merlin app from Cornell University’s Ornithology Lab identified a sharp two-note song from deep in the woods as that of the Yellow-throated Vireo (Vireo flavirons). At Cornell’s allaboutbirds.org site, I discovered that these vireos like to stay in the interior of the canopy in deciduous woodlands, picking insects off branches. I waited several minutes but the vireo seemed content to stay right where it was. Here’s a shot of one by a generous iNaturalist photographer, Ken Butler.
A Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) kept its back to me amid the branches of a tree off the trail. I think it was female because I got a quick flash of its head when it landed and noticed that it had no black “mustache” mark near its bill. But it could have been either a female or the gray head of a juvenile. Once more I waited, hoping it would move so I could get a better look. But the best I got was a glance over its shoulder as if to inquire why I was still there. That look prompted me to give up and move on.
Monet in the Meadow: A Colorful Field a-Flutter with Wings
The temporary trail made it infinitely easier for me to get to one of my favorite spots at Watershed Ridge Park. This meadow slopes down to a large marsh that currently can be glimpsed between the trees from the trail at the bottom of the meadow.
At each visit, my camera and I were teased by a fast-moving Great Spangled Fritillary butterfly (Speyeria cybele) that never landed along the trail without suddenly disappearing down into tall grass. On my fourth visit, I donned my anti-tick outfit – socks over shoes, long sleeves, white clothing, a dose of Deet, etc. – and set off determined to see it land. I suspected that my quarry would eventually settle on one of the most nectar-rich flowers currently blooming, Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa.) But the largest patches were far away from the trail.
I waded into the waist-high grass. And there it was, its proboscis sunk in one of the bright orange blossoms on its composite flowerhead. Milkweed is one of its favorites, along with Bergamot/Bee Balm and thistles. This one may be the female since the base of her wings seemed dark on the upper (dorsal) side, but I can’t tell for sure. If it is a female, she may not lay her eggs until August and may still be whisking around the meadow in September.
Another reward for being lured into the deep grass was a selection of almost inconspicuous butterflies. I’m learning to watch for these tiny wings in the meadows. They’re so wonderfully varied and have unusual colors and patterns when I can get close. But they can be a bit skittish in front of the camera!
The Chickweed Geometer (Haematopis grataria) has a wingspan of only 3/4 of inch or so and flies during the day, unlike most moths. Its caterpillar is the famous inchworm. I didn’t realize it was yellow with pink stripes and dots until my long lens caught it in the meadow! Dr. Parsons told me that its wonderful feathery antennae indicate that it’s a male; the females’, he said, were “thread-like.”
I hope you can see the delicate black pattern at the edge of this very tiny creature which is another member of the Geometridae family. Dr. Parsons at Michigan State University identified it as the Large Lace Border Moth (Scopula limboundata). Large, I thought? Its wingspan is only an inch wide, but evidently there is a Smaller Lace Border moth in Eurasia, that is even a little bit smaller! The black design along the creamy edge of its wings does create the illusion of lace, doesn’t it? Such an elegant, delicate little moth!
The Eastern Tailed-blue butterfly (Cupido comyntas) looks like a blue or brown blur when its flying and I often initially think it’s a Summer Azure (Celastrina neglecta). But once it settles, the tiny little “tails” at the bottom of its wing remind of its name. Its size varies from just under an inch to just over. The male’s upper wings are generally blue, but the female’s can vary from light blue to brown or dark gray. I’m quite sure this was a brown female, but she refused to open her wings far enough for a shot. So I’ve added photos of a brown female and a blue male from previous years so perhaps you can enjoy naming this lovely little butterfly if you come across it in your garden or field. (Click on photos to see the detail.)
The Northern Broken-Dash Skipper butterfly (Wallengrenia egeremet) looked large at 1-1.5 inches after all the tiny butterflies and moths and it’s certainly less glamorous. But I’m glad to know its name and maybe we can love it because its caterpillar eats a species of crabgrass? This female may be about to lay eggs!
My walk into the deep grass also afforded me a little insect drama taking place on two pink blossoms of native Pasture/Carolina Rose (Rosa carolina). A group of Longhorn Flower Beetles (family Cerambycidae, subfamily Lepturinae) were competing in a frenzy of activity – some were feeding, others appeared to be trying to mate. Most of my photos were blurry because of their frantic jostling which was continuous and involved 5 or 6 individuals. But Dr. Parsons could identify two species in the photo below. The ones on the left and in the middle are generally known as Banded Longhorn Beetles (Typocrus velutinus). The skinny one on the right evidently has no common name, but its scientific name is Strangalia acuminata, which ominously translates from Latin as “pointed stranglers” if the Latin Google translation is correct! I, however, didn’t witness any such nefarious behavior.
I could hear a Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) singing his “Witchedy witchedy” melody near the big marsh but as usual, he never came into the open. But I did see a young Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) exploring a branch with great curiosity.
Into the Pathless Woods on My Way Home
At the top of the meadow, one of the mowed trails dead-ends at the north edge of a moist woodland. The undergrowth is sparse here. My eyes take a minute to adjust to the dim light. I unfailingly find this woods delightfully spooky, full of greenish light, moss, and unidentified scurryings. Two sizable wetlands anchor the area, one covered in glowing green aquatic plants and the other full of fallen trees, both alive with frogs and turtles now.
The “green pond” above is always home to frogs and turtles. What I love is how the sunlight above the water is washed green, as if I’d put a green filter on my camera. It always feel mysterious and quiet, hidden away in the trees. Other years I’ve spotted Leopard frogs here, but on this visit, I only saw small Green Frogs (Lithobates clamitans). They’re often mistaken for Bullfrogs, but they’re smaller and have two ridges that run down either side of their back from behind their eyes. The “guh-loop,” plucked- banjo-string sound of its calls during the mating season is absent now. A young male posed on a moss covered log sinking slowly into the water. The circle behind his eye vibrates, functioning like an ear drum. If it’s smaller or the same size as her eye (as in the photo below), she’s a female; if it’s larger, he’s a male.
Farther away in the green pond, a Midland Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta marginata) had emerged from the pond onto a fallen log, its shell decorated with bits of duckweed – a common fashion statement for turtles.
Nearby, a pure white Shelf Mushroom (genus Polyporus) glowed in the dim light. It’s the reproductive part of a fungus living within the decaying log, doing its work of slowly recycling the carbon within the rotting wood.
As I moved toward the second wetland, a movement caught the corner of my eye, but I couldn’t quite see what it was. I approached a tree nearby and finally spotted a Northern Pearly-Eye butterfly camouflaged against the bark. I don’t often see them this far into the woods.
The water in the second wetland is more open and fallen logs surround the edges. I find Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus) in large numbers here in the spring, but on a July day, the amphibious inhabitants were a bit different.
As I approached the wetland, something jumped beside my shoe – which made me jump! I thought I might have stepped on a creature. Luckily, I hadn’t. It was a small American Toad (Anaxyrus americanus) which froze in place. It may have hatched in this forest pond and is now moving upland to feed. If it survives being bite-size, it’ll be able to breed in a couple of years. I wish I’d been there earlier in the year to hear the fast, vibrating call of a mating toad. Have a listen at this link provided by the Macauley Library which has a fine collection of animal sounds. (Be patient; it takes a few moments of listening to hear the toad!)
As I stepped between the muddy logs to reach the pond, a loud spattering of splashes told me I’d scared off a whole passel of small frogs. I waited in the shadows, seeing only concentric circles where they’d hit the water. At last, I spotted one on a log and was pleased to see it was a juvenile American Bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus), a species I don’t see as often as others, for some reason. It takes about two or three years for a bullfrog to mature enough to breed and I’m guessing this one has at least another year, maybe two, before she’ll arrive at a mating site to choose from a group of chorusing males. Notice that she has just a short ridge near her eye that encompasses her tympanum, not the long ridges that extend down the body of the Green Frog. Her typanum is about the size of her eye; the male’s would be larger than his eye.
As I left the forest and emerged into the sunny farm field beyond, I heard the cry of a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) and watched as a male Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) took on the job of keeping it far from his nest and young. He repeatedly dropped over the hawk’s back and gave it a quick peck before wheeling away. The hawk stayed in the area and the blackbird kept up his attack as I headed for the parking lot.
This July, It Was the Little Things…
Usually on a July walk, I’m looking for birds or their rambunctious fledglings. And I do delight in them during the weekly Oakland Township bird walks. But this month, I felt the need to look for even smaller winged beings, curious to see old acquaintances and eager to meet new ones. And luckily, Watershed Ridge Park shared lots of them once I started looking. Oh, a few birds flew or sang in the depths of the hedgerows and beyond the forested trails. But the moist meadows with their wetlands drew me and I waded in to explore the smallest of fluttering wings.
And I’m so glad I did. Getting close to a pastel Geometer moth to discover its feathery antennae, admiring a freshly hatched dragonfly settling after testing out his shiny new wings or grinning at the frantic scrambling of beetles on a pair of pale pink roses – those were the joys of July for me. I hope a taste of that joy reached you, too. Look for the little ones. You won’t be sorry.