Tag Archives: Mallard

Bear Creek Nature Park: So Much to See When There’s “Nothing to See”

White Oak leaves under water at the Center Pond with tree reflection

At first glance, Bear Creek Nature Park in November doesn’t have much to recommend it.  A frequently gray sky glowers overhead. Insects don’t buzz, soar over or spring out of the fields now drained of color. Birds only occasionally call but never sing. A casual observer might say that that there’s “nothing to see.” But they’d be wrong.

Blog and photos by
Cam Mannino

It just takes a bit more attention and a dash of memory to enjoy a late autumn hike. That quick little movement in the bare shrubbery could be a group of small golden migrators wintering here with us. Leaves skate across the pond’s first skim of ice or frame a bit of brilliant green and red moss. The birds that live with us year ’round are making winter homes and energetically seeking out bits of nourishment all around us if we look. Summer creatures snooze under the bark of trees and under the soil at our feet as we walk. Life doesn’t stop, even in November. We just need a bit more care to enjoy it on a November day.

Noticing November’s Birds – Blue, Red, Golden, Even Ones with Fancy Hairdos!

All month the Center Pond has shifted from water to ice and back again – but it’s always a place to watch with a keen eye. On the first bird walk of the month, the group saw Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) as usual, calmly cruising at the far end of the pond. But then, wait! What about that bird with the bouffant crest? It seems that those sneaky Hooded Mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) may have added an egg to a Mallard or Wood Duck nest, as they occasionally do. The young female Merganser steamed up and down the bank at a snappy pace, as her Mallard companions paused to preen along the way.

That same early November day, the birders heard the “tsee, tsee” call and then saw a group of winter visitors from northern Canada, Golden-crowned Kinglets (Regulus satrapa). The flock was too quick-moving for me, so I’ve borrowed a lovely shot from iNaturalist.org’s photographer, Joanne Redwood. Though we saw these little Kinglets in bare shrubs, look for them mostly where there are lots of pines whose needles provide shelter for them on snowy days.

A Golden-crowned Kinglet photographed by Joanne Redwood (CC BY-NC)

Late in the month, a male Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) had claimed the center pond as his winter territory and found my presence quite annoying. When I spotted this guy, he was calmly gazing out across the pond with his crest lowered. But as I approached, his crest began to rise as he swooped between three trees at the eastern end of the pond, shouting his rattle-call to declare his territory. Female Belted Kingfishers usually migrate a bit south to be guaranteed some open water, which they need for fishing. But the males often stay north to protect possible nesting territory. When the pond freezes, though,  he’ll temporarily move south or to water that stays open in the dead of winter.

An agitated male Belted Kingfisher pauses for a shot as he defines his territory for me by swooping between 3 trees.

The next time I saw the mallards at the pond, the day was icy cold but the pond was still open.  Three males were “bottoms up,” feeding.

Three male Mallards go “up tails all” while feeding in the Center Pond.

On that same icy day, a large flock of Mallards on Bear Creek Marsh preened frantically, trying to keep warm by adding oil to their feathers from a gland beneath their tails. The oil helps align their feathers, providing maximum waterproofing and insulation.

On any icy day, Mallards in the marsh preen busily, adding more oil to their feathers for insulation and waterproofing.

On windy days, of which there were many this month, our year ’round birds seemed to retreat to the woods, where I suppose the tree density breaks the wind. I was surprised this week to see a female Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) in the woods. I tend to see them most in meadows or open areas; that day she was just taking a break in the woods from gusting 20 miles-per-hour winds! So nice to see these bright blue birds on a gray fall day.  (Click on photos to enlarge.)

Black-capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) scout out decaying snags, looking for a snug hole for winter nights. Sometimes they excavate one and sometimes they appropriate an old woodpecker hole. This snag  looked a little promising. The number of “dees” in a Chickadee’s call indicates how much danger is around. Fortunately, my husband and I only rated the average 3 “dees.”

The number of “dees” in the call of Black-capped Chickadee indicates how much danger it perceives.

A few minutes later, a White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) decided to take it step further – either looking for possible insect eggs or perhaps exploring the depth of a hole in the same snag for a winter retreat. In winter, Nuthatches hang out with Chickadees and Titmice for protection and to take advantage of  possible food sources other birds may find.

A White-breasted Nuthatch explores a hole in the same snag graced by the Chickadee a few minutes before.

A “kwirr” call from high above alerted us to a Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus). This male definitely seemed to be foraging.  I think I spotted little insect eggs on his beak as he concentrated his attention on one spot in the bark. He can use his summer nesting hole in a dead tree or limb on cold winter nights.

 

Imagining and Remembering: Good Tools for a November Walk

On days when birds are elusive and the parks seem quiet, I watch for reminders of summer creatures who are hidden away, spending the winter underground, under water, or under bark and leaves all around me. Here are a few that came to mind during November.

The Raccoon’s (Procyon lotor) hole is empty now, but I bet there may be one or two sleeping deep in that well-used south-facing hole.

It looks as though a Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) built this unusual “push-up” den among the trees on a small mud flat in the Center Pond.  So there will be probably be one  swimming very slowly and eating in the air space inside the den during the winter.

Of course, some of the reminders concern summer visitors. This little nest we spotted during an early snow shower could be the summer breeding home of a variety of birds.  I’m no expert on nests, but I’m imagining that it could be that of a Chipping Sparrow since Cornell describes their nests as “a loose cup of rootlets and dried grasses so flimsy you can often see through it”  But that’s just a guess.

And this fragile, scrap of nest near the pond brings back memories of the faithful father, the Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus) who patiently took his turn at the nest – an unusual behavior in male birds.  The nest was never very sturdy but autumn winds and rain have left only the base.

And this abandoned, tattered masterpiece was probably the home of some sort of Yellow Jacket species, perhaps the Bald-Faced Hornet (Dolichovespula maculata.)  The only surviving member of this once active hive would be the inseminated queen who is probably spending the winter under bark or inside a log nearby.  She’ll emerge to lay the eggs of future queens and future  workers whose infertile eggs produce the males.

Standing by a wetland pond in the park last week, I was reminded of the Salamanders (Order Urodela) who now must be hibernating under my feet. On a warm, wet night next spring, salamanders will wriggle their way to the water, lay their eggs on a stick and hide again under logs further upland. That’s where I found some of their young when the trees were green last spring.

The Mourning Cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa) which can actually overwinter as an adult under bark or in a tree cavity might be camouflaged inside or on any tree you pass on your hike. The underside of it wings imitate tree bark when folded. The upper side, however,  features a white edge and a lovely band of blue spots when it flutters forth in early April, as you can see in this photo by inaturalist.org photographer Lewnanny Richardson.

Relishing Bits of Color Among the Autumn Brown

I crave color when the leaves have fallen and my eyes are still adjusting to the austere beauty of late autumn and winter.  Luckily nature still provides a few splashes here and there before the snow covers it all.  A sampling in the slideshow below.(Use pause button for captions.)

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Or If All Else Fails…

How about placing bets on which leaf wins the race across an icy Center Pond?  Here’s a silly 10 second video with faint “play-by-play” by my husband, Reg.

The Subtle Charms of Late Autumn Hiking

And adult and child venturing out on the Walnut Lane.

The pizzazz of spring and summer is past, the colors of early fall are memory, but late autumn, too, has its charms if you give it a chance. The last leaves high in the canopy are hushing in the wind. Take a moment to watch just one leaf dance and swirl its way down to the water. Or toss a milkweed seed to the wind and then watch it sail across a meadow. Have a closer look at a plate-sized mushroom on a log. Sit on a bench out at the marsh and watch the wind ripple the water or the cat-tail seeds shining like snow as they blow across the marsh. Let your cheeks tingle in crisp air after long hours indoors. I bet you’ll come back inside refreshed and with stories to tell. You’ll see…

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner; inaturalist.org;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;Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels,  and others as cited in the text.

Bear Creek Nature Park: Young Birds, a Tiny Forager in Disguise and So Many Wildflowers!

Boneset and Joe Pye in the Eastern Meadow at Bear Creek

Late summer wildflowers nodded and swayed in the meadows, woods, wetlands and native gardens at Bear Creek this August. Monarch butterflies paused on the blossoms, competing mostly with industrious native bumblebees. And all over the park, young birds were feeding on their own – or in a few cases, still getting fed by doting adults. In the center pond, a tiny creature foraged in disguise!  

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

So take a wander along the trails, as goldenrod transforms the park from green to gold, and enjoy the bright beauty of summer’s last hurrah!

 

Like Some Human Youngsters, A Few Avian “Adolescents” Stick Close to Mom or Dad

A young Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) hid in a shrub in the eastern meadow, insisting loudly about being fed.  No parental response was forthcoming from the adult on a shrub some distance away. So eventually, the youngster ventured out into the field, looking about with curiosity. Seemingly satisfied with this move toward independence, the adult flew in to feed the youngster. And then they shared the bush a while until the adult flew farther off again. (Click on slideshow’s pause button for captions.)

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Two groups of Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) were escorting their young around the Center Pond. In one group, two males and a female floated along with a small juvenile. The males are now in their late summer “eclipse plumage” which makes them look very much like the females – except that the males have yellow bills, while females’ bills are orange and black. The males will change back to their glamorous, iridescent green head feathers later in the fall when Mallards choose their mates for next spring. I guess these two males on the right were sticking close to this female just in case she made an early decision!

A Mallard duckling accompanied by a female (orange bill) and two adult males in eclipse plumage (right with yellow bills)

Nearby, a female Mallard escorted her four youngsters with no male attention at all.

A female Mallard escorting her four ducklings with no male companionship

A male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) seemed remarkably calm at my approach as he concentrated on gathering seeds in his beak. Usually they dash off at the first sight of me when they’re on the ground. He wasn’t crushing the seeds, so I assume he had a nest nearby since cardinals can have up to four broods in a season. That’s a lot of parenting in just a few months.

A male cardinal who seemed to be gathering seeds to take to his young rather than eating them right away.

A male American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) plucked buds from native Canada Goldenrod  (Solidago canadensis) which is just beginning to bloom. He may have been feeding his young as well, since this is the nesting season for goldfinches.

An American Goldfinch plucking buds from Canada Goldenrod, perhaps feeding nearby nestlings since they breed in mid-to late summer.

While Adults Molt, Young Birds Forage on Their Own

Many bird species molt from mid-August until mid-September, including Field Sparrows, Downy Woodpeckers, House Wrens and many others.  The Eastern Kingbird, featured feeding its young above, doesn’t molt until it reaches its winter territory in South America. It’s occurred to me that since birds go into hiding during the molt, perhaps their young have to be a bit more independent sooner than other birds. Just a guess. In any case, a lot of young birds are out and about, clumsily trying to forage on their own.

I saw what I think is an adult Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) just beginning its molt. The bird’s feathers looked oddly fluffed out and it was picking at its breast in a persistent way. It might be a male since they molt a bit earlier than females. Below, a group of young song sparrows hopped along the trail, seeing what they could find in the grass before flying up into small trees nearby.  (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

Downy Woodpecker adults (Picoides pubescens) are molting now too. The Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol II) says “[Downy] Fledglings in general can be told from adults by the clearly new, white feathers on their breast. Adult have gone in and out of the nest hole hundreds of times by this stage and look very worn, with bits of black showing through their white breast feathers.” The feathers on the young female I saw looked wonderfully fresh as it tried to drill into a branch, so I’m guessing it’s a foraging juvenile.

Down at the Center Pond, a Green Heron rested calmly on a log. Since spring, I’ve repeatedly seen a Green Heron in that very place, so I’m thinking it’s a mature bird. Cornell contends that Green Herons are sometimes found in colonies. But I’ve never seen more than one of these solitary birds at a time.

A solitary Green Heron on the log where it was harassed by two geese in the spring
The same heron flew up onto a bare limb, staring into the water.

Two other solitary birds could have been adults or juveniles. It’s hard to distinguish with the House Wren and the Black-capped Chickadee once they’re out on their own. The House Wren may have been a youngster since it was clearly curious, but the Chickadee appeared to be a sophisticated contortionist as it probed a stick for insects.

Glorious Wildflower Color, Exuberant Vines and a Few Pretty-but-Toxic fruits in the Woods and Shady Wetlands

Though wildflowers are not generally as numerous on the shady paths of Bear Creek, you don’t want to miss them. So keep an eye out for their exotic shapes and vivid colors shining out of the greenery as you make your way, especially near wetlands. I just learned from Wikipedia that the Jack-o’lantern mushrooms (Omphalotus olearius) below are even bio-luminescent and their gills glow faintly green in the dark when they’re fresh! Hence the name, eh?

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Native Wildflowers and Grasses Bask in the Sunlight of the Meadows and Native Gardens

A spray of Purple Coneflowers in one of the native gardens

In the native gardens, the center of the parking lot, and scattered across the sunny meadows, native wildflowers bloom among the Canada Goldenrod and the Queen Anne’s lace. The monarchs seem to be enjoying them. A female sipped nectar from the Purple Coneflower and a male spread his beautiful wings on the Joe-Pye. (The field marks for males are bulges in the veins on their hind wings.) Here’s a sampling:

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A Quarter-sized Creature Dons a Bubble Disguise

One cloudy afternoon, my husband spotted a very small clump of bubbles, green Water Meal  (Wolffia coumbiana) and Duckweed (Lemna minor) moving slowly around the water of the center pond near the dock.

A moving patch of Water Meal, Duckweed and bubbles on the Center Pond caught our eye.

At first only the yellow/green striped head of a tiny Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta) peeked out of the bubbly mass.

The tiny head of a Painted Turtle emerged from the bubbly greenery floating in the pond.

At last, we could see this tiny creature – a turtle about the size of a quarter – who’d found a nifty disguise to wear while munching on the Water Meal and Duckweed greenery that covers the pond. I’m betting on this little one to survive to adulthood!

A Painted Turtle – about the size of quarter! – brings its head and shell into the sunlight.

Perhaps when this baby gets a little bigger, it can join the Painted Turtles who hang out on this log at the east end of the pond almost every warm day. Last Saturday, this group seemed to be doing a slow motion version of the Hokey-Pokey (“You put your left leg in, you put your left leg out”), except for that one member who is not quite with the program!

Painted Turtle line-up BC
Painted turtles line up on a log

 The Delight is the Details

Western slope of Bear Creek in mid-August

Meadows like the one shown above on the western slope are an eye-full on a summer day. The sweeps of green, yellow and white against a blue sky soothe the spirit like a cool hand on a fevered brow.  Soak it in.  You can feel yourself unwinding.  Then look a little closer.  So much of the delight in nature comes from noticing small things – like the turtle in its bubble disguise, the scarlet cardinal flower shining in a shady wetland, or a parent bird feeding its young on a leafy branch. Like any great work of art, there’s always more to see in nature’s landscapes than what comes quickly to the eye. So perhaps spend a few quiet minutes looking down into the water or into the tall grass. Scan the treetops through your binoculars. The smallest discovery can add just a little more joy to a walk in the park.

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: butterfliesathome.com;Pollinators of Native Plants by Heather Holm; 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.

Gallagher Creek Park: A Modest Little Park Shares Spring’s Exuberance

Gallagher Creek with lots of bright green algae running fast and wide after heavy rain.

Right now, no one would nominate Gallagher Creek Park for Oakland Township’s most scenic natural area. Last fall, the invasive shrubs that covered large areas of the park were bushwhacked to the ground. Native wildflower seeds were sown but haven’t had time to grow the deep roots they need to fully bloom.  And it’s muddy, gray early spring, after all!

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

 

But each time I’ve visited over the last few weeks, wow!  This homely little 15 acres is full of spring liveliness. Swimming, soaring, singing, sprouting – spring arrived with exuberance at Gallagher Creek Park.

 

A Muskrat Adult and its Child Enjoy the Creek and Its Fresh Greens

On my first visit to Gallagher Creek, an adult Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) busily pulled up what appeared to be bulbs at the base of some grasses in the stream. Though they don’t hibernate, muskrats spend most of the winter under the ice  feeding on the dead plant material of their “push-ups” (feeding platforms)  or lodges. Fresh greens must taste great after that! Two days later, I saw a young muskrat paddling at top speed toward the observation deck to take a closer look at me, like any curious youngster.  If you look towards the north, you can see their family winter lodge at the edge of some cat-tails. (Hover cursor for captions; click on photos to enlarge.)

Migrating Birds Make Gallagher Creek Their Summer Residence

All over this small park, birds are calling, singing and searching for nests. On my first visit, the chirping and liquid “thwick” of the Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) drew my eyes high into the bare branches of aging willows. Swooping and diving, these iridescent blue acrobats performed aerial feats before resting high in the treetops.

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Over on the bare ground of the hillock next to the parking lot, a pair of Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) scurried about, sometimes pecking at wet puddles, sometimes circling me with keening calls. Once the female seemed to be starting her shallow nest, her breast pressed against the bare earth. They often make several small scrapes (usually only 3 inches or so across) before settling on a nest site. Cornell Lab thinks it could be a way to mislead predators, as they do, of course, with their “injured wing” trick. Here’s the male (I assume) up on the edge of the hill, keeping an orange eye on me.

A Killdeer keeping a close eye on me. Those orange eyes are so striking!

The Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus) probably moved a bit south for the winter. But this “mustached” male is here now establishing a territory at Gallagher Creek, tapping on trees and making his “kwirr” call from the top of snags behind the creek. From below, you can clearly see the yellow undersides of his tail feathers. He has yellow under those elegant wings, too, like nearly all of the Northern Flickers in eastern North America.

You can see why the Northern Flicker is the eastern yellow-shafted race of the species!

Below the Northern Flicker, a pair of Common Grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) moved restlessly about the trees, making their clucks and  “squeaky gate” whistles. According to the Cornell Lab, “Common Grackles are resourceful foragers. They sometimes follow plows to catch invertebrates and mice, wade into water to catch small fish, pick leeches off the legs of turtles, steal worms from American Robins, raid nests, and kill and eat adult birds.” Now that’s an omnivore and a bit of a bandit as well!

Though Common Grackles look black from a distance, they are really iridescent bronze and blue with a staring, golden eye.

Of course, with all that water and a cat-tail marsh in the park, Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) take up residence there as well. This one, for some reason, chose to flip upside-down in his quest for cat-tail seeds.

A Red-winged Blackbird goes bottoms-up to pull some seeds from a cat-tail in the marsh.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about a European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) at Charles Ilsley Park who still sported its fall feathers with the light tips which give it a spotted look. But in Gallagher Creek Park, a week later, the tips had finally worn off this lone starling, so that its iridescence would shine for the mating season. It seemed to be gazing longingly on this cold spring afternoon, perhaps waiting for its compatriots to arrive.

This single starling won’t be alone for long. We usually see them gather in large flocks as the summer progresses.

Some Year ‘Rounders Used the Park as a Dating Hang-out

One cool afternoon, three American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) fluttered and cawed, perhaps showing off to a potential mate or simply playing together in a tree that seemed much too small for three large, shiny black birds. The intelligence of crows is legendary. These clever birds are part of the Corvid family, which also includes Blue Jays and Ravens. Cornell Lab describes just a few of the tools they occasionally create. “Examples include a captive crow using a cup to carry water over to a bowl of dry mash; shaping a piece of wood and then sticking it into a hole in a fence post in search of food; and breaking off pieces of pine cone to drop on tree climbers near a nest.”

Three crows play around a surprisingly small tree.

At the edge of Gallagher Creek two Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) floated along, occasionally dabbling for grasses below the surface in the quiet pools of the overflow.  These two would likely have paired up in the fall. Did you know that only the females quack? The male, according to Cornell Lab, only makes a “quieter, rasping one- or two-noted call.”

Spring Odds ‘n Ends

The wetland near the stream must be home to many crayfish (or crawdads if you prefer). Their chimneys appear every few feet if you walk east from the observation deck.  Little construction marvels, these chimneys are the openings to crayfish burrows. According to the America’s Wetland Foundation website, they build these chimneys by using their legs and mouth to form small balls of mud which they carry to the surface and arrange in rows like laying bricks! I’ve read that crayfish mostly forage at night, though the birding group saw one recently in the morning.  So despite all these burrows, I have yet to spot a crayfish itself at Gallagher Creek!

Crayfish “chimneys” above their burrows are plentiful right now at Gallagher Creek.

The little hill where the Killdeer scampered is littered with the pretty shells of what I think are Grove Snails (Cepaea nemoralis).  (I’m no mollusk expert, so if you are an expert please feel free to correct me!)  These lovely, whorled and striped shells are all empty. I’d read in a book called The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell that some birds consume snails, shell and all, in order to stock up on calcium for their eggs. But these are probably too large for most of our birds to swallow whole. I wonder why there are so many here?  Grove Snails are not native, but were evidently brought to the United States in the 19th century.

The empty shell of a Grove Snail (I think). Many birds eat small snails to increase their calcium before egg-laying.

In some areas of the park, Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) flowers are everywhere. Don’t get your hopes up though for gathering the fruit in June. In my experience, the animals eat them green before they can ripen for us humans!

Wild strawberry plants are bountiful at Gallagher Creek but animals generally eat the green fruit before they ripen.

A single Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera) produced long male catkins that are, as Ben put it, “pumping out pollen to pollinate the female flowers via the wind.”  Birches are “monoecius” which means they produce both male and female flowers. In the right photo, the red and yellow male inflorescence (a cluster of flowers on a stem) can pollinate the more erect, green female flowers.  Birches can pollinate themselves if there aren’t others of their species nearby, which is the case with this tree.

By early May, the long male inflorescences were sending out pollen on the wind, while the flowers in the smaller green female inflorescences were being pollinated.

In the old hedgerow that separates the two large sections of the park stands a wispy native shrub that makes clusters of spring flowers and then a spectacular air-filled seed capsule in the fall. It has the unfortunate name of Bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia)  but it’s a special native tree that is fairly unusual in our area. So laugh at the funny name and enjoy the fact that it’s here.

 

Like most wetland areas, Gallagher Creek has big bunches of Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) poking out of the mud at the edge of the stream.  Out in the eastern part of the park, after the invasive shrubs were eliminated, a large patch of Mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum) got stranded in the sunlight. Evidently, the invasive shrubs provided the shade these forest wildflowers generally love. But alas, they have lost their shade and may be diminished over time. Not to worry. Seeds of many sun-loving plants have no doubt been waiting for years in the soil for those pesky shrubs to disappear. We’ll soon see what appears now that sun is warming the soil.

 Such an Unassuming Little Park with So Much Life!

A stormy afternoon at Gallagher Creek Park.

This little park will someday have trails through prairie wildflowers and a children’s play area. But for now, each time I arrive, I wonder if I’ll see anything interesting. In the brown and gray of early spring a few weeks ago, it looked particularly unpromising. But then shining azure birds swooped overhead, the killdeer circled and called, and a curious little muskrat made a few quick passes by the observation deck to check out the strange animal with a camera. And then I was very glad I kept coming to this little corner of the township and its merry little creek. If you take the time to explore, you might feel that way, too.

Footnote:  My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell; 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.

 

OUT AND ABOUT IN OAKLAND: Nature and Park Stewardship Working in Harmony All Over the Township

Blog and photos by Cam Mannino
Blog and photos by
Cam Mannino

From early autumn until the first really cold weather,  nature is busy preparing for winter – and so is the Parks Commission. While plants disperse seed and mushrooms release spores for next spring’s growth,  our stewardship manager, Ben VanderWeide, is sowing native seed as well. As the trees drop leaves to prepare for spring growth, Ben and his contractors clear away invasive shrubs to provide spring sunlight  for native  grasses, bushes and wildflowers. So this week, please join me for some short visits to several parks to see how nature and the Parks Commission work together to prepare for winter snow and the spring to come.

 

Bear Creek Nature Park: Seeding, Feeding and Choosing a Mate

Bear Creek made a glorious exit from autumn. In late October, it burned with autumn gold and red.

Fall at Bear Creek
Late October at Bear Creek Nature Park

As usual, the Black Walnuts (Juglans nigra) “fell asleep” before the other trees; they “wake up” late in the spring, too. I like to think they need more rest than other trees!

Walnuts sunset BC
Bare trees on the Walnut Lane at sunset in Bear Creek

The Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) were busy with two kinds of preparation: finding a mate for the spring  and eating to store up fat for the winter. Happily, both could be accomplished at once. Males, now in courting colors, cruised the Center Pond with females, going “up tails all” while feeding below the surface.

Mallards Up Tails All BC
A small flock of upside down ducks foraging underwater at Bear Creek’s Center Pond.

Mallards choose partners in the fall and then mate in the spring. So eventually they begin to pair off like these two did as the setting sun gilded the pond.

Mallard Silhouette Sunset BC
A mated pair of Mallards float through the golden light of sunset on the Center Pond

Plants, of course, are dropping seeds and fruits. The white fruits of Gray Dogwood (Cornus foemina) have either been eaten by birds or dropped to the ground to produce a dense thicket of more dogwood next year. On the right are the bare red pedicels in November. (Click to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

At the edge of the wood, I spotted a Gilled Mushroom (order Agaricales) within a dead stump. It will drop its spores from the gills beneath the cap to produce more mushrooms next year.

Mushrooms piled in stump BC
Gilled mushrooms will drop spores from the gills beneath their caps

Lost Lake Nature Park:  Shedding Leaves and Seeds

Forest on LL 1
The forest behind the sledding hill in late autumn

Fall is a time when trees shed their summer leaves. The apparent path of the sun lowers toward the horizon from September to Winter Solstice (December 21). So,  the days grow shorter. Less daylight means that leaves lose the chlorophyll that makes them green and allows them to photosynthesize. This process of photosynthesis stores energy from sunlight in the chemical bonds of sugars. Trees use these sugars to grow during spring and summer, and many times sugars are stored for the future as starch. In the fall leaves change color as the chlorophyll recedes, their job completed for the season. Eventually lower light signals the trees to create “abscission cells” which grow between the stem and the branch, separating them.  Down come the leaves. (“Abscission,” by the way, has the same root as the word “scissors!”)

Leaf carpets are useful as well as beautiful.  As they decompose, leaves release nutrients back into the soil and provide the spongy humus that helps the soil hold water. And of course, they can act as protective mulch for the roots of forest plants and trees.   Here’s a colorful carpet of White Oak and Red Maple leaves near Lost Lake.

Bur Oak Leaf collage
A carpet of White Oak and Red Maple leaves near Lost Lake

Out in Lost Lake, the big flat leaves of Fragrant Water Lilies are fading for all the same reasons as other leaves. Their graceful simplicity against the dark water was eye-catching.

In the forest, near the top of the sledding hill, some native plants were still preparing to drop their seeds. Showy Goldenrod’s (Solidago speciosa) seeding plumes still stood tall in the forest light under the trees. And a stem of Bottlebrush Grass (Elymus hystrix) had yet to let go of  its awn-tipped seeds. The grass fruit flies through the air and lands on the ground like tiny arrows, carrying their cargo of next year’s seed.

A flock of restless American Tree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea) swooped and dove near the western edge of the lake and foraged over the grassy area near the former stable. Tree Sparrows, summer residents of the Arctic, are experienced foragers. They spend the winter here finding edible seeds, fruits, insect larvae –  whatever they can find in a snowy Michigan winter.

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A Tree Sparrow makes a good winter meal from the seeds of sedges, grasses, insect larvae and whatever else it can find.

At the end of the walk, human prep for winter becomes apparent. Jeff Johnson, the Parks Commission’s Maintenance Tech, spent about a day and a half preparing the sledding hills for winter use. He marked off the big hill, the kiddie’s hill and the boundaries of the upward trek. Just in time for the big snowfall!

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The sledding hill was prepared for winter. And the snow arrived a few days later.

Cranberry Lake Park:  Pond Ice and Puffballs

In the center of Cranberry Lake Park is a large pond where I’d seen herons and mallards feeding together one early fall afternoon. When I went back to explore in late fall, the pond was beautifully still and silent.  A light skim of ice had formed on one end.

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A skim of ice formed on the pond at the center of Cranberry Lake Park

Near the pond, a large colony of tiny Puffball Mushrooms (genus Bovista) had finished releasing their spores. These tiny puffballs tend to grow in groups like this.

Puffballs on long b. Bov.ista
Tiny puffball mushrooms cover a log near the pond in the center of Cranberry Lake Park

A few years ago, I saw these little mushrooms covering a stump at Bear Creek.  They were plump in early autumn, filled with spores. When the spores are mature and are tapped by falling raindrops, small creatures or the occasional curious human – poof! – the spores pop out of the open center to be carried on the air so more mushrooms appear the following year.

Puffballs when the spores are developing are plump and sensuous.
Puffballs when the spores are developing are plump and sensuous.

The little mushrooms at Cranberry Lake  were spent; their center holes had opened, releasing the spores.  Quite a come-down in appearance, I’m afraid.

Once the center opens and releases the spores they look quite different!
Once the center opens and releases the spores,  these tiny Puffballs look quite different!

Stewardship: Lending a Helping Hand to Nature’s Winter Prep

The Wet Prarie on the Paint Creek Trail: Birds Gather Seeds and So Do We

The Tree Sparrow at Lost Lake is not the only creature foraging for wild seed this autumn. Ben and a crew of volunteers spent a peaceful morning at the Wet Prairie off the Paint Creek Trail gathering native grass and wildflower seeds for planting in other areas of the township.

Gallagher Creek and Charles Ilsley Parks: Seeds Sown by Plants and People

While the native plants are dropping seeds to prepare for spring abundance, so our Township Stewardship Manager, Ben VanderWeide is busy sowing native seed around the township. During the first week of December, parts of two parks, Gallagher Creek  and Charles Ilsley Parks,  were planted with native seed that Ben had gotten through a US Fish and Wildlife grant. The land had earlier been prepared in Gallagher Creek’s west section by clearing invasive shrubs and plants through selective treatment, mowing, and prescribed burns. Now a no-till native seed drill, designed to handle the varying sizes of native seeds,  went to work. Discs cut a thin furrow in the ground to a pre-determined depth and simultaneously, seeds were dropped into the thin furrows.

Seeding Gallagher Creek
Planting native seed at Gallagher Creek Park

At Charles Ilsey Park, the machine sowed more native seed after last year’s more extensive prairie planting.  Here’s a YouTube video of the native seed drill at work.

Watershed Ridge Park, the Wet Prairie and Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park:  Trees and Humans Prepare for New Growth

Just as trees prepare for spring by discarding their old leaves in the autumn, Ben and his contractors are working on ridding our parks of shrubs and underbrush to encourage new native growth. After cutting invasive woody shrub sprouts on the Wet Prairie, Ben carefully treated stumps to prevent them from re-sprouting next year. Invasives are persistent,  so Ben has to be too!

At Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park, Ben brought in a contractor with a forestry mower to clear invasive shrubs from  the current entrance. What a difference! Though not taken at exactly the same place, the photo just below will give you an idea of the density of the invasive shrubs at Stony Creek Ravine before removal – and below that is the wonderfully open look it has now.  A lovely view from the beautiful stone bench in the distance.

My husband in the dense invasive shrubbery at Stony Creek Ravine
My husband in the dense invasive shrubbery at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park
The park entrance as it look after removing invasive shrubs
The park entrance as it looks after removing invasive shrubs. The Kezlarian stone bench is in the distance.

But the biggest, most impressive “clearing the decks” project this fall was the beginning of habitat restoration process at Watershed Ridge Park. Just a month ago, the rolling slopes of this park were tangled with invasive shrubs that in many places were impenetrable. However, Ben noticed sun-loving native grasses and wildflowers struggling to survive under the heavy cover of overhanging limbs and vines – plants like the delicate orchid Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes species), Large-leaved Aster (Eurybia macrophylla) and three kinds of native Goldenrod.

So the first week in December, restoration began. A contractor’s forestry mower cleared 10.5 acres of invasive shrubs from among the trees. Now the contours of the land can be seen, dotted with oak, ash, elm and cherry trees.

The land slopes down from east to west to a marsh and a pond, both fed by a stream running from the large marsh that’s to the north of the park.

Stream at Watershed Ben's photo
This un-named stream runs from a larger marsh on the north through the woods to a marsh and pond on park property.
Cleared Hillside Watershed Ridge
Looking south toward Buell Road across a newly cleared hill that slopes down to the pond.

Now the stream, the marsh and the pond, which extends as far as Lake George Road, can be approached easily without fighting through dense, invasive shrubbery and vines. Once trails are created, this will be a lovely spot to watch for water wildlife!

Pond at Watershed Ridge
The west end of the park’s pond that extends off  Lake George Road.

In the forest at the edges of the cleared area are Red, Black and White Oaks. Here’s an old White Oak (Quercus alba) within the cleared area. Probably because of the crowding from shrubs and small trees, it never had the chance to spread its limbs wide in the sunlight, like the White Oak we all enjoy near Bear Creek’s Center Pond.  But it’s still pretty impressive!

White Oak at Watershed Ridge
A large White Oak within the newly cleared area.

I couldn’t  resist taking a photo of the orange Turkey-tail Mushrooms (Trametes versicolor) Ben spotted sprouting from a fallen long nearby. Turkey-tails come in a wide variety of colors!

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Turkey-tail mushrooms on a fallen log

In case you’re interested, this is the contractor’s forestry mower that cleared the shrubs at Stony Creek Ravine and also at  Watershed Ridge.

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Forestry mower used at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park and Watershed Ridge Park. Thanks to the Ruffed Grouse Society for your great work!

What an exciting beginning to restoring this piece of land and creating a park that the community can enjoy! It will take time to develop trails and any other amenities that are appropriate to this beautiful land with its woods, slopes and wetlands. We’ll try to keep you posted on developments.

Nature and Parks Stewardship: Partners in Fostering Our Natural Heritage

Stony Creek Ravine late autumn SCR
Stony Creek Ravine Park in late autumn

I’ve come to see that stewardship supports nature by mimicking it in so many ways. Seeds that create new growth each year drop to the ground or sail away on the wind to take root and grow into more life. And we gather native seed and carefully sow it in narrow furrows to do the same. Trees drop their leaves to make way for new ones next spring. We too clear away invasive plants and shrubs to make way for new life. Native seed, lying dormant in the underground seed bank for years, will now sense exposure to sunlight and moisture on the earth above, crack open and begin to sprout. And with those plants, eventually will come butterflies, other insects, and birds that eat or nest in those native plants, restoring the diverse habitat that is part of our area’s natural history.  So much life from simply giving nature a helping hand!

 

Footnote:  My sources for information,besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager 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 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.

OUT AND ABOUT IN OAKLAND: Shifting Toward Winter at Cranberry Lake Park

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Flock of geese flying south from Cranberry Lake Park

What a difference a month makes!  I began a series of visits to Cranberry Lake Park on September 24 and ended on October 25.  I wanted to watch the park change as fall moved toward winter. It’s as if the color slowly leaves the flowers and grasses in the earth, flows up into the trees and then disappears into the black and white of winter. So this time I’m sharing a transition –  who and what is coming and going at this changeable time of year.

Late September:  Flowers Change to Fruit and Seeds

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The meadow at Cranberry Lake in late September

In late September, the meadow was  still green, but splashed with the gold of Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa). A sweeping curve of this beautiful native plant swept around the large thicket of shrubs in the center of the meadow. It was easy to imagine the path of last summer’s winds as it carried the seeds that created this graceful shape.

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Perhaps last summer’s winds carried the seeds that created this curving swath of Showy Goldenrod in the meadow.

And a few other flowers hung on in September.  Individual stems of Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis) glowed gold among the greenery and a few hardy, flat-topped Yarrow stalks (Achillea millefolium) thrust their way above the browning Canada Goldenrod. Late-blooming Sweet Everlasting (Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium) – which some call Cudweed! – appeared as well, its tightly furled white buds just beginning to open in the cool autumn air. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

Wild Grapes, also known as River Bank Grapes (Vitis riparia), hung in clusters on almost bare branches offering a  treat for migrating and resident birds – and a few of us humans as well! A few weeks later they had either fallen to the ground or been eaten right off the vine.

In September, the Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) leaves changed from green to scarlet and the upright plumes of deep red fruits began to form.  One morning, a flock of Black-Capped Chickadees bounced among the branches, foraging either for fruits or the occasional bug. Perhaps they were the ones who stripped the fruit from some of the plumes. Sumac fruits are eaten by many game and songbirds, though normally they’re not a first choice this time of year.

Over the next few weeks, the Goldenrods began to brown and go to seed. Showy Goldenrod seems to start seeding from the top down, week by week. And eventually that golden curve of Showy Goldenrod had turned a seed-rich, but not very attractive, brown.

The golden swath of Showy Goldenrod turns to a brown, seed rich patch.
The golden swath of Showy Goldenrod turns to a brown, seed-rich patch.

And despite not being a first choice fruit, the Staghorn Sumac’s seeds had either been eaten on the plant or fallen on the ground to be found by ground feeders.

Staghorn Sumac no seeds
Staghorn Sumacs’ plumes of seed disappeared in mid-October, either eaten by birds or dropped to the ground.

Talk about cool seeds! Looks at these elaborate seed pods of Dogbane/Indian Hemp (Apocynum cannabinum)! Dogbane is related to milkweeds, and like milkweeds the seeds with tufts of hair help the plant float on the breeze to new places. On the left is this red-stemmed, white-blossomed plant in June and on the center and right, the unbelievably long, angular seed pods this week.

Of course,  some seeds are actually a HUGE problem. In autumn, the invasive, tree-killing vine, Oriental/Asian Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), produces its seductively beautiful yellow and red fruits. This vine encircles the trunks of trees while climbing for the sun. In doing so, it can choke the life out of a tree. If it gets to the top, it can kill the tree by shading it out and/or by making it top heavy and more likely to fall in storms. Unfortunately, hungry birds eat the berries and spread Bittersweet readily through their droppings. PLEASE DON’T PICK THIS VINE OR MAKE WREATHS FROM IT , ETC. Contact the Parks Department if you want some strategies for getting rid of this beautiful “bad guy”!

Asian Bittersweet CL
A beautiful but deadly plant that kills trees by choking them, shading them out or making them topple in storms. PLEASE DON’T PICK ORIENTAL BITTERSWEET!

By late October, the meadow at Cranberry Creek had turned November brown as plants continued to produce seeds.

Field at Cranberry Late Oct
The meadow at Cranberry Lake had turned an autumnal brown by the end of October.

I did, though, find a few shy Smooth Asters (Symphyotrichum laeve) tucked beneath overhanging foliage, braving the cold with the last of its lavender blossoms.

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A small sprig of Smooth Asters braved the cold nights beneath the shelter of overhanging plants.

During  October: A Feast for Migrating Birds!

It’s hard for us to watch the palette of spring and summer fade – but birds? They love it! Warblers and other small visitors who spent their summer raising young in the cool northern reaches of Canada sailed into the park and found a feast! As did our year ’round resident birds.

One of my favorite partakers of fruits and seeds is the tiny Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) who’s found its way here from around Hudson Bay in Canada – or even farther north. I seem to always miss seeing the ruby crown which the male shows when he’s excited. I guess the birds I’m seeing are either females or males that are just too calm!

Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-Crowned Kinglets arrived in October to feed and rest on their way south from northern Canada.

One afternoon at Cranberry Lake, the park was filled with White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis). They whisked in and out of shrubs while dashing down into the grass in search of seeds. This one paused just long enough for me to see its yellow lores, the spots at the corner of its eyes. It may have arrived from the UP or the tip of the mitten on its way to points south – not quite as arduous a trip as some migrators have.

White-throated Sparrow 3 CL
White-throated Sparrows have a shorter migration from northern Michigan to just southern Ohio.

This “first winter” White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys) was probably born this summer. It will take on adult coloring when it molts next spring into its bright black and white crown that now is brown and gray. This one was feeding avidly on goldenrod seed during its journey from northern Canada to somewhere south of Michigan.

White-crowned Sparrow 1st winter eating
A “first winter” White-crowned Sparrow enjoying some goldenrod seeds after a long  flight from northern Canada.

One morning, far up the path in the shadow of trees, a small Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) landed quickly, picked up a bug or fallen fruit from the grass, and took off.  No photo. But here’s one from a previous year with its chocolate brown back and breast smudges. Too bad the Hermit Thrush doesn’t court its mate here, because its song has 3 different phrases with a pause between each. You can hear two versions of it here.

Hermit Thrush
The Hermit Thrush, with its chocolate brown back and smudges on its breast, picked up a few bugs or some  fruit on its way south.

Our birding group saw other migratory birds enjoying the rest and sustenance provided by Cranberry Lake Park, but through our binoculars. They were too far away or too restless for me to capture them with the camera. The little Nashville Warbler (Oreothlypis ruficapilla) is making its way from Canada’s far north  to Mexico or Central America. The Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum) stopped by on its journey from Canada to Florida or the Caribbean. And the Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata) has a comparatively short migration from northern Michigan or Canada to just south of Michigan. So as in all of our parks, Cranberry Lake offers much needed R&R for these small seasonal visitors.

During the bird walk, a Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus) swooped into the Hickory Lane on the west side of the park, perhaps chasing a songbird. It flew straight in front of us and quickly disappeared – we think without snagging the bird. Pretty exciting! Sharp-shinned Hawks are smaller and seen less often than the similar Cooper’s Hawk. They usually appear only during migration, so it’s probably headed south by now.  Here’s a link to a photo at Cornell Lab.

A summer resident, the Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) called “chewink!” from the edge of the woods one birdwalk morning. When Ben imitated his call,  the male Towhee darted into a nearby bush, intending, I assume,  to check out the competition. Here’s a photo of one from last spring.  (Let’s just say my photo luck was not with me on that bird walk!)

Towhee Draper Pond2
An Eastern Towhee chipped from the forest edge at the end of the bird walk.

So though we miss the flowers, they have done their work. They attracted the right pollinators which helped create the very seeds that feed tired and hungry migrating birds – as well as having provided bees with the makings for the honey that will feed them through the winter, too. As a compensation, color comes to us once more as the trees begin to turn.

Late October:  Winter Resident from the Far North Arrives – and Color Fills the Trees

Just this week, an American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea) may have flown into Cranberry Lake Park  from the edge of the Arctic tundra! This sparrow, with a spot in the middle of its gray chest and a two-tone bill, loves cold weather. During the summer, Tree Sparrows make elegant nests of ptarmigan feathers right on the ground in the Arctic in order to raise their young. Evidently for a Tree Sparrow, spending the winter in  Michigan  is like going to Florida! Below is the first one I’ve seen this year.

Tree sparrow
A tree sparrow rests in a bush.

A flock of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) did a lot to brighten up the browning of the meadow last week. Most Bluebirds migrate south, but a few actually stay with us all winter, either in family groups or small flocks, as long as there are seeds and berries available. I couldn’t resist taking more than one photo. Their splashes of azure in the field were really cheering on a gray fall day.

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A male Eastern Bluebird in the meadow at Cranberry Lake
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A male and female Eastern Bluebird shared a bush in the meadow.
3 bluebirds in bush
Three bluebirds decorating a bare bush in the meadow

Color, of course, is the glory of a Michigan autumn. On September 24, the Hickory Lane still looked green and lush. By October 11, the colors had changed to gold and orange.   And on October 24,  a single glowing Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) at the south end of the lane was still shining in the sunlight after most of the other hickory trees began to turn brown.

The maple family contributes lavishly to the beauty of autumn.  On the path to the lake,  a striking leaf from a Red Maple (Acer rubrum) featured some colorful geometry. And nearby, the deeply lobed greenish-white underside of a pale yellow leaf from a Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) created some contrast. At the lake’s edge, oak and maple leaves formed a scarf of fall color floating on the surface. 

The lake again was filled with migrating ducks and water birds – all much too far out for any kind of shot. Female Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa), Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) and Mute Swans (Cygnus olor) were among the throng. Here are photos of those birds from  locations where I can get closer to them!

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Two female Wood Ducks were preparing for migration at Cranberry Lake this week. This one cruised the Playground Pond at Bear Creek earlier this year.
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Mallards, seen here at Bear Creek, gathered with other ducks and water birds at Cranberry Lake this week.
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Two Mute Swans floated in Cranberry Lake this week. This shot was taken a few years ago in a Canadian river where I could get closer.

But there were also  Pied-Billed Grebes (Podilymbus podiceps),  and American Black Ducks (Anas rubripes)on Cranberry Lake.  Please click on these red Cornell Lab links if you’d like to see them up close. Let’s hope a viewing deck gets built on Cranberry Lake in the next few years so all of us can get a closer look in person at the water birds that flock to the lake in spring and fall to socialize and feed.

A Different Kind of Transition in the North of the Park

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The greatly improved path entering the woods off of 32 Mile Road.

Finally, a wonderful transition is being finished on the trail at the north end of the park. The Parks and Recreation maintenance staff has spent long hours this summer improving the trail from 32 Mile Road into the park.  Instead of an oft-flooded, muddy track, they have laid down a solid surface with periodic drainage pipes running beneath it to keep the new trail from flooding.  You certainly can feel the difference underfoot!  And I imagine equestrians, as well as hikers, will appreciate the improvement. Thanks to Maintenance Foreman Doug Caruso and Maintenance Technician Jeff Johnson for a hard job that, when completed,  should be a great improvement for the park!

Autumn:  Harvest Time for All of Us!

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Black-capped Chickadee breaking open a seed.

So, just as we humans harvest crops before the snow falls, birds and animals harvest the wild “crops” of the fields – seeds and fruits. Some of them, like Black-Capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus), both eat and store them, tucking the seeds into bark where they will find them when snow blankets the meadow. Others, like the Palm Warbler, use them to fuel their flight to warmer climes. Winter residents, like the Tree Sparrow,  will probe the brown goldenrod  for seeds all winter – as well as flocking at your feeder. So when the color drains away, when the leaves are wet and brown underfoot, it may be a comfort to think of the bounty that surrounds us in those dry, drab plants. The brown and gray seeds nourish all kinds of creatures, and guarantee next summer’s bounty of plants. Those dry leaves underfoot dropped when they completed their work of sending sugars to the trees’ roots, ready to fuel next year’s growth. Seeds and falling leaves really are another reason to be thankful as November arrives. Maybe nature deserves a rest after a job well done!

*Footnote:  My sources for information, as well as Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Dr. 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; 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, http://www.illinoiswildflowers.info and invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman.

NOW SHOWING: An Uncommon Shrub with Cool Seeds and Flocks with “Zugunruhe”

Cam walking into BC
Blog and photos by Cam Mannino

This week in Gallagher Creek Park, Ben discovered an uncommon shrub (or small tree) producing its unusual, papery seed capsules.  So of course, I had to buzz over and have a look.  And there it was  in the southeastern corner of the circular path off the parking lot.  As I traveled the township, I kept coming across restless, large flocks of birds, some preparing to migrate, others just gathering before cold  weather arrives.  And I learned a fun, new word for the fall jitters of birds.

A Shrub with Fascinating Seeds

This rare plant should be called Lantern Bush in my opinion.  Instead it has one of those prosaic names I always complain about – Bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia), for heaven’s sake! Anyway…there’s a scale in botany called the  “Coefficient of Conservatism.” That scale represents how tolerant a plant is to disturbances like agriculture and how faithful it is to a pre-settlement natural community. If a plant species is tolerant of disturbance and not very choosy about its habitat, the plant has a lower number on the 10-point scale.  Bladdernut, however, is typically found in high quality natural communities such as floodplains and moist woodlands, so it is harder to find, at least in Michigan. Its Coefficient of Conservatism rates a 9 out of 10. Look at these wonderful chambered seed capsules, hanging delicately from the shrub’s limbs, like Chinese  lanterns.

Bladdernut2
The lantern-like seed capsules of an uncommon shrub at Gallagher Creek Park,  Bladdernut.

The seed capsules are paper-thin. They crush easily to expose their shiny, brown seeds or they can float in water, carrying them to new locations. The inside of this cool seed capsule is as intriguing as the outside.

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Shiny Bladdernut seeds inside their chambered seed capsule.

Evidently, Bladdernut blooms for two or three weeks each spring producing drooping clusters of bell-shaped flowers. The flowers, when pollinated by a visiting variety of bees, produce these lantern-like seed capsules. Fun to see a plant I’d never noticed in all my years of outdoor exploration.

Restless Flocks Experiencing Zugunruhe

You must have noticed large flocks of busy, almost jittery, sometimes noisy birds everywhere in the township right now! This week I learned from the Cornell Lab that there’s a name for this excitement in migrating birds – zugunruhe. It’s a German word that means migratory restlessness. (Zug = migration or movement; unruhe = restlessness.) According to Wikipedia, non-migrating birds sometimes experience zugunruhe too, but at much lower levels. Scientists aren’t sure if it is a stimulus for, or a result of,  increased fall feeding.  According to Cornell’s excellent website post on bird migration,Migration can be triggered by a combination of changes in day length, lower temperatures, changes in food supplies, and genetic predisposition.” Bird species respond differently to these triggers, so some species cued strongly by shorter days moved south this fall even with the warm weather, while others are sticking around. So here are some of the restless locals, some migrating, some just flocking for winter, that I came across this week – 3  flocks of them on Buell Road west of Rochester Road.

A recently plowed field on Buell Road was covered with hundreds of feeding Canada Geese (Branta canadensis), no doubt dreaming of warmer climes as they ate.

Flock of Geese Buell Rd1
A flock of hundreds of Canada Geese eating on a recently plowed field before migration.

A flock of European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) filled the top of a small tree and also lined the crossbars of nearby power lines on Buell.

Flock of Starling Buell
A flock of European Starlings (in the bare branches of a snag

A noisy flock of American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) swooped down onto the road in front of me as I drove along Buell one afternoon. I never saw anything in the road that they were eating, so I have no idea what all the excitement was about. (Sorry for the blurriness – shot through the windshield!)

Flock of Crows Buell
A flock of American Crows on Buell Road

On Wednesday, Ben and I saw huge numbers of water birds on Cranberry Lake, though they were too far out to get a clear, much less comprehensive photo. Fortunately,  Ben identified them through binoculars. So please click on the red links to see their photos on Cornell Lab:  Ruddy Ducks (Oxyura jamaicensis), American Black Ducks (Anas rubripes), Lesser Scaup  (Aythya affinis), Pied-bill Grebes (Podilymbus podiceps) and of course, some Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos).

Ducks on CL
Some of the hundreds of mixed species of water birds on Cranberry Lake this week.

Imagining Zugunruhe

In the children’s classic, Wind in the Willows, British author Kenneth Grahame creates a wonderful conversation between the non-migrating Water Rat (what we call a Muskrat) and migrating swallows. “No, you don’t understand, naturally,” said the second swallow. “First we feel it stirring within us, a sweet unrest; then back come the recollections one by one, like homing pigeons. They flutter through our dreams at night, they fly with us in our wheelings and circlings by day….never shall I forget the blissful feeling of the hot sun again on my back as I sped down to the lakes that lay so blue and placid below me, and the taste of my first fat insect! … ‘Ah yes, the call of the South, of the South!’ twittered the other two dreamily. ‘Its songs, its hues, its radiant air! O, do you remember—-‘ and, forgetting the Rat, they slid into passionate reminiscence.”

A fine, imaginative description of zugunruhe, don’t you think?

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Fall Beauty, Creepy Crawlies and Other Oddities

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Canada Goldenrod and New England Asters in the Old Fields of Bear Creek
Cam walking into BC
Blog and Photos by Cam Mannino

Bear Creek is busy with autumn. Butterflies sip nectar from late season wildflowers. Bees store up pollen to feed the colony during the winter. Grasses, vines and other plants produce seed heads or berries for next year’s crop, providing food for bird and beast alike. Migrating birds stop by on their way south, eating and resting. Summer’s avian visitors, having raised young here, prepare for departure. Some insects hatch, munch on plants, breed and in turn, become a meal for others. And in moist areas, some life forms emerge that range from just weird-looking to gloriously creepy!

 

Autumn Prep:  Late Season Foraging, Molting and Migrating

One sunny afternoon, a band of Clouded Sulphur butterflies (Colias  philodice) fed and fluttered among the pale lavender blossoms of native Smooth Swamp Asters (Symphyotrichum firmum) just off the Eastern Path. What a sight to watch this small male, its golden wings with bold black edges quivering, as it approached for a sip.

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A male Clouded Sulphur about to sip the nectar from a Smooth Swamp Aster.

Clouded Sulphurs produce many broods a year and perhaps this couple will produce a chrysalis that will overwinter and open in the spring. I’d love to see one then, since the chrysalis reportedly turns yellow with a pink “zipper” right before the butterfly emerges! The male is the one with black wing bands.

clouded-sulphur-male-and-female-bc-4
These male (left) and female(right) Clouded Sulphurs may still create a chrysalis from which a caterpillar will hatch in the spring.

Nearby, a small Common Buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia) was sampling the aster’s nectar as well. Native autumn wildflowers provide such a feast before frost descends!

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A Common Buckeye butterfly also enjoys the nectar of fall flowers

Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus) are sadly scarce this year after we saw so many at Bear Creek last year.  According to the Michigan State Extension website, a severe March snowstorm in their wintering grounds in Mexico killed 50-70% of the Monarchs before they could migrate! But the birding group was lucky enough to spot a female in the western Old Field, feeding on a native New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae).

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Despite a rough year for Monarchs, we managed to see one at Bear Creek.

Red-legged Grasshoppers are bouncing out of the grass like popcorn along the paths of Bear Creek. They are in the process of molting five times into bigger and bigger instars.  This one, retreating under a leaf,  isn’t quite adult yet.

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This young Red-legged Grasshopper probably has at least one molt (of five) left before being an adult.

At the Center Pond one morning, a Great Egret (Ardea alba) went fishing before migrating to Florida and the Caribbean. Hikers at Bear Creek report seeing a lot of them in the park in the last few weeks, which is great to hear!  (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

Under a bench on the viewing platform, two male Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos ) were developing their mating colors again. They’d spent the last 6 weeks or so in their “eclipse plumage,” when they take on the brown-toned female coloring. As they preened last week, however, an iridescent band of green was developing above their greenish yellow bills. (The females’ bills are orange and black.) I wondered if their flight feathers were most affected by the molt that day, since they didn’t take to the water when I sat down on a bench.

Several days later, I saw a bit of drama featuring these males. One of them had  finished molting into his full mating colors. He “got the girl” and the other didn’t. The mallard couple did a lot of synchronous head bobbing on the deck and then swam off together. The other male was left on the sidelines, I’m afraid. But he may find a mate once his molt is complete. Feathers evidently tell female Mallards something important about choosing a healthy male.

An Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) periodically sallied forth to capture insects from high above the meadow east of the pond. Here’s a photo from last year so you can see it a bit closer. This solitary bird will spend the winter in a flock, eating fruits along the Amazon River in South America. Sounds like a long trip but a pleasant escape, eh?

Eastern Kingbird
The Eastern Kingbird will join flocks along the  Amazon River  to spend the winter eating fruit in sunny climes.

A twitching of leaves in the low bushes below revealed the constant tail-wagging of a small brown bird. A migrating Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum) moved among the branches with a telltale patch of yellow under its tail and a dark eyeline. It probably spent the summer raising young in Canada’s far north and is on its way to Florida or the Caribbean. In spring, a male’s courting colors are a bright yellow breast and throat and  a chestnut cap.

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A migrating Palm Warbler with a yellow patch under its tail will be much more colorful when it passes through in the spring.

What appeared to be a juvenile House Wren chipped and scolded from a nearby shrub as I passed. It looks like a young one, doesn’t it? It’ll be traveling to Florida and the West Indies once it leaves Bear Creek, riding on a North wind toward southern warmth.

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A juvenile House Wren will ride the north wind toward Florida and the West Indies in the next few weeks.

This week the birding group saw several migrators, but I didn’t get great shots. So here are three of last year’s photos of the birds we saw through binoculars this week. You might trying bringing your binoculars when you hike here and take a close look at any small, brownish birds in the bushes. We typically don’t get to see these warblers or kinglets except when they stop in our parks on their  journey north or south. They spend the summer raising young farther north.

Nashville warbler
Nashville Warbler who summers in Canada and winters in Mexico or the Caribbean.
The Ruby-crowned Kinglet
The Ruby-crowned Kinglet raise their young in tall, dense Canadian conifer forests.
The Tennessee Warbler
The Tennessee Warbler breeds south of the arctic in the boreal forests of Canada .

At the edge of a wetland, a Spreadwing damselfly with huge blue eyes, which may be  a Spotted Spreadwing (Lestes congener), hung onto a twig. Spreadwings always perch with their wings half open and have pincers at the end of their abdomen – but their individual species names are hard to nail down. So don’t quote me on the name of this blue-eyed, bug-eyed character!

spreadwing
A Spreadwing Damselfly with huge blue eyes!

Seeds and Berries Mean Spring Prep, too

Plants pollinated in the summer are beginning to produce the seeds and berries that will guarantee their return next year. At the edge of the woods, False Solomon Seal (Maianthemum canadense)  berries are ripening from mottled pink to red.  Aren’t they pretty?

False Solomon Seal Berries BC
The berries of False Solomon Seal are ripening at the edge of the woods.

An aggressive native vine, Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), has thrived this summer and seems to be climbing in dense mats over trees and shrubs all over Bear Creek.  It produces berry-like “drupes” (a fruit with a pit that contains the seed/s)  on bright red stems that eventually turn brown. Many migrating and year-round birds feed on these berries, along with the occasional skunk or red fox.

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Virginia Creeper provides lots of fruit from migrating birds and some animals, too.

Wildflowers are setting seed for next spring and the birds take advantage of that as well.  Here are a few native flowers and their beginnings of seed formation.

And Now for Creepy Crawlies and Other Oddities

Ben’s new Stewardship tech, Heather Herndon, spotted a spectacular creepy creature on a rotting log. It appears to be a Leopard Slug (Limax maximus), a non-native who cleans up dead plants and consumes fungi, some agricultural plants and even smaller slugs! What an odd creature it is!  According to Wikipedia, it is hermaphroditic, which means it carries both eggs and sperm. It does mate, however, exchanging sperm with another slug through a reproductive pore near its right tentacle. How strange is that? Slugs, like snails, are gastropods, but unlike snails, they can’t withdraw into shells. What’s odd, though, is that this slug actually has an internal shell behind its head that seems to be an evolutionary left-over, since it has no apparent purpose. So creepily cool, this one!

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A Leopard Slug, a non-native, who cleans up dead plants and is hermaphroditic!

On our Wednesday bird walk, we spotted this wonderful web of an Orb Weaver spider.  It was a big web and placed unusually high off the ground. Looks like the spider, who may be that tiny dot at the center,  caught something near the edge of the web.

Orb Weaver spider
The large, circular web of an Orb Weaver spider

Cathy Rooney, one of the Park Protector nominees, put up on Facebook a wonderful video she found.  It shows an Orb Weaver working meticulously to create a web just like this one. I found this version at YouTube so it should be accessible to any reader. Great find, Cathy!

Out in the Old Fields, the Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) pods are preparing to break open and release their seeds. But this year, the Large Milkweed Bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus) hatched in great numbers and are attacking more milkweed pods than usual. These insects inject saliva into the seed with their snout-like rostrum. The saliva dissolves the seed so the insect can vacuum it back up! Milkweeds are toxic and these insects are too once they feed. Their bright red color is believed to ward off predators by advertising that. In these two photos, early “instars” (developmental stages between molts) are on the left, and on the right are later and larger instars and one adult beetle. Thanks to the weather and this spring’s prescribed burn, the Milkweed is plentiful this year too,  so we can hope that bugs won’t wipe out next year’s  crop.

Fungi appeared here and there in Bear Creek after the heavy rainfall. Ben identified this white branching mushroom on a fallen log. It seems to be from genus Clavulina, most likely White Coral Mushroom, Clavulina cristata. Doesn’t it look like a tiny white forest? It’s believed to be mychorrizal, meaning it emerges from fungi underground that surround a tree’s roots and assist the tree in absorbing water and nutrients while the tree feeds the fungi. A beneficial symbiosis.

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White Coral Mushrooms appeared on a fallen log after the recent downpours.

Like last year, huge fungi formed on the dead tree across from the Playground Pond.  They are clearly some kind of polypore, or shelf mushroom, but I’ve been unable to nail that down. Anyone have a guess? They were so big this year that one of them collected water in which insects swam! On my last visit, though, only one was still on the tree. Either the downpours knocked them off or perhaps children did, like I saw two little boys try to do last year.

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Giant fungi formed again this year on a tree across from the playground pond.

A little girl was delighted by finding a common Shaggy Mane Mushroom (Coprinus comatus) in the green grass of the playground field.  It is beautifully ruffled, isn’t it?

Shaggy Mane mushroom
A Shaggy Mane mushroom delighted a small girl on the playground field.

It took a while to identify this mushroom, but I’m pretty sure it’s called an Elm Oyster Mushroom (Hypsizygus ulmarius) because they look like this and grow out of Box Elders (Acer negundo) at this time of year, like this one on the Western Slope did.

Elm Oyster Mushroom Hypsizygus ulmarius
An Elm Oyster Mushroom growing out of a Box Elder on the Western Slope.

Autumn’s Bittersweetness

Black-eyed Susan seeding
Black-eyed Susan seeding across from the Playground Pond

I know some people experience autumn as a somewhat melancholy season – flowers missing petals, tree shedding leaves, birds departing. The park quiets down as birdsong diminishes and the cricket song replaces frog song. Others find the riotous color of fall leaves and the crisp air exciting and invigorating and they love the fall. It can strike me either way, depending on the day.

For those who feel a bit sad at summer’s end, maybe it helps to remember that autumn is just the beginning of a long rest before spring. Trees take a breather from photosynthesis and live down in their roots for several months. Seeds are finding their way to the ground where they’ll reside until sunlight summons their hidden life back to the surface. Some birds, like some humans, depart for the south. But others, like the first little Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) we saw this week, are winging their way from the north to spend the winter here where our winter weather suits them just fine.

Junco closeup on ground
Ben spotted our first Dark-eyed Junco of the year while with the birding group at Bear Creek.

If we’re curious and  take the time to look, every season here offers beautiful – and sometimes oddly fascinating – discoveries.  And that cheers me even on the grayest of autumn days.

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.

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Icy Trails and…Frozen Frogs?

Marsh colors 2winter2015

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

The red blush of Red Osier Dogwoods (Cornus sericea) at the edges of Bear Creek’s wetlands provides very welcome color in the brown, gray and white world of a Michigan winter.   The last week of the year, tiny beads of ice fell from the sky for hours,  covering the trails and making for tricky walking.  But at least you’ll never lose your way!  Though the fields are mottled brown and white, the icy trails shine bright white in the landscape.  And deer trails through the thickets are readily apparent, too.

Bare branches and ice make it possible in the winter to really see the southernmost pond in the park near Snell Road.  It’s hidden by surrounding foliage in the summer which probably is why so many warblers and other migrants spent time there in the spring and fall.

Hidden pond at BC
Bear Creek’s southernmost pond near Snell Road is most visible in the winter.

A Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) at the marsh had evidently walked across the icy slush either to or from its feeding push-up before the slush turned to ice.  Perhaps you can just make out its frozen footprints in this photo.

muskrat trail near push up marsh
A muskrat left a trail in the icy slush that led to or from its feeding push-up in the marsh and across the ice.

A group of hardy American Tree Sparrows (Spizella arborea) repeatedly darted from low bushes down onto the reeds of the marsh.  What could they be finding to eat?  Perhaps seeds, perhaps some frozen insects that mistakenly hatched in the unseasonably warm weather before the ice?  No doubt skills these little birds developed on the tundra during the summer make finding food here seem like fledgling’s play!  Aren’t they nicely camouflaged for this grey and brown time of year?

Tree sparrow in the marsh
A Tree Sparrow finding food in the frozen marsh.

Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), of course, found a small area of open water where they could feed.  Most of their compatriots have moved south a bit, but some still probe the depths at the Center Pond and the marsh.

Mallard in Center Pond2
Mallards find a small area of open water.

Ice takes so many beautiful forms this time of year.  Forming on the Playground Pond , it looked as though it were embossed on some elegant blue/gray satin.

ice on playground pond
Ice forming patterns on the Playground Pond

On grass stems, heavy frost looked granular and spiky.

Frost on grass stems
Heavy frost on grass stems

And doesn’t heavy frost also do a lovely job of tracing the shape of this Queen Anne’s Lace?

Iced queen anne's lace
Heavy frost outlining a Queen Anne’s Lace blossom

Winter is a time of ice and stark shadows so be prepared for more photos of both as the season moves on!

So with all this ice, how do frogs survive the winter?  No, not deep in the mud…

Frog in duckweed
A green frog in summer

It’s true that some frogs, like the ubiquitous Green Frogs (Rana clamitans) of the Center Pond, are spending the winter under the pond ice.

Like the turtles, their metabolism slows drastically to preserve their oxygen during hibernation.  Unlike turtles, though, they can’t bury themselves in the mud because they need to absorb oxygen from the water through their skin.  So they may have a light coating of mud or simply lay inert on the pond bottom waiting for spring. At times, they may even swim slowly through the water.  TadpoleIt can take 2-3 years for a Green Frog tadpole to develop into a frog, so some of their tadpoles are below the ice as well and are reportedly a bit more mobile than the adult frogs.

The striking Leopard Frog, less common in Bear Creek and across the state, also hibernates below the ice.

leopard frog
The Northern Leopard Frog also hibernates on the bottom of ponds at Bear Creek.
Frogs that Freeze!

Incredibly, the smallest frogs of early spring actually freeze in the winter and thaw out in the spring!

The Wood Frog (Rana sylvatica), for example, finds a crevice in wood or a rock or simply under leaves, and waits.

Wood frog
A Wood Frog burrows into leaves for the winter, freezes, stops breathing, no heartbeat – and then thaws in the spring!

According to biologist Bernd Heinrich in his book, Winter World, when ice begins to form on any part of its small body, an alarm reaction makes a Wood Frog release adrenaline which signals the glycogen in its liver to turn to glucose which functions like anti-freeze.  “In about fifteen hours, the frog is frozen solid except for the insides of its cells.  Its heart stops.  No more blood flows.  It no longer breathes.  By most definitions, it is dead.” But they thaw in the spring!  As Scientific American describes it, “…when the hibernaculum [the place where an animal hibernates] warms up above freezing, the frog’s frozen portions will thaw, and its heart and lungs resume activity–there really is such a thing as the living dead!”  How amazing is that, eh???  Spring Peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) and Chorus Frogs (genus Pseudacris) can do this as well.

frog and reflections2
A Wood Frog in a vernal pool near Gunn Road

These small frogs live mostly on land.  Once they thaw, however, they quickly go to vernal pools to breed.  Because vernal pools are created from snow and ice melt, these frogs do better after a snowy winter.  Their frozen hibernation in shallow places allows them to thaw quickly in the early spring and  mate in these temporary pools, safe from predators like fish or turtles who need permanent ponds.  The tadpoles of these early spring species become frogs much more quickly than the Green Frog’s do, in a matter of weeks or months,  since the vernal pools, like the one near Gunn Road, shrink or disappear as summer comes on.

So nature does it again!  As we tread gingerly along the icy paths of Bear Creek, we can imagine Green Frogs sprawled along the bottom of the pond and tiny spring frogs frozen under leaves or in tree bark waiting for an almost literal rebirth in the spring.  We humans use our complex brains and fire fueled by ancient plants  to survive an icy winter, while  little frogs use massive amounts of homemade antifreeze.  Ice requires a lot of different adaptations for survival and over thousands of years, nature, as always, finds a way.

*Footnote:  As well as Oakland Township Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, 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 and other sites as cited in the text.

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Departing Guests, the Winter Crew and Trees Storing Energy for Winter

 

Across the eastern old field from pond path

Hard frost and driving winds  – November asserts its presence at Bear Creek.  Geese and ducks are re-thinking their presence in the ponds and marshes and gathering to move south.  Most migrants have moved on.

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino
Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

But the winter bird crew calls to its fellow foragers as they all stock up for the coming snow.  Plant pods crack open, dropping seed or sending them flying through the air with the last of the leaves. Trees have almost finished storing energy in their roots.  Like us, Bear Creek’s almost ready to face another winter.

Departing Guests

Large flock of geese
Hundreds of Canada Geese gathered over the marsh at dusk, heading south.

At dusk one night this week, I heard (before I saw) the cacophony of hundreds of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) as they gathered over the marsh to begin their migration.  The sound of that many wings at once and their wild calls felt like the very essence of late fall.  I wish I could have captured the sound of those geese but I literally was transfixed by the sheer volume, the roar, of their noise.

In the hour before, I’d seen and heard smaller groups of geese wheeling overhead near the treetops, heading southeast to join this larger flock.

Geese at dusk

Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) are still in the ponds.  This shot from last fall shows a male after his molt, with a whole set of perfect new feathers, ready to find a mate and take off for the south.  A new set of feathers makes flying that much easier for migrating birds.

Mr. Mallards eye2
A male Mallard with a perfect set of new feathers after his molt.

Mallards are beginning to gather in larger flocks as well, readying themselves to move off  when ice forms on the ponds and in the marsh.

Flock of ducks
Ducks gather over the marsh before migrating

The Hardy Birds of the Winter Crew

Birdsong is long gone now,  but the winter birds use chips and calls to keep in touch with larger flocks as they busily forage. American Tree Sparrows (Spizella arborea) probe for fruit and seeds from bushes on the western slope. (Click on double photos to enlarge. Rest your cursor on a double photo for captions)

Here’s a link if you’d like to hear the musical tweet these travelers use to keep in contact.  (Page down to “Calls” and click on the first one.)

Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis), a bird that is usually a ground feeder, pulled industriously at a cluster of goldenrod to get at seeds which had not yet fallen.

Junco among goldenrod seeds
Dark-eyed Junco feeding on goldenrod seeds

A pair of Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis), who always brighten dark days, looked at me warily from small shrubs near the wetland below the south hill.  According Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, these adult cardinals live no more than “a few miles from their place of birth.” So  these Cardinals, which can live for many years, could have  resided in Bear Creek for a long time.  Cardinals pair up for the winter and 80% of them stay with their mates the following year.

Here’s a  Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) who’d just finished vigorously attacking a seed and was apparently tipping its head up to swallow the results.

Downy swallowing seed head up
The female Downy Woodpecker has no red spot on the back of her head, as the male does.

The photo above came from our back yard this week because the ones I saw in the park seemed to never stay in one spot for more than a split second.  But I like the look of this one’s wings as it took off from a branch in the park!

Downy woodpecker takeoff
A Downy Woodpecker taking off from a branch in Bear Creek

I saw House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus ) in Bear Creek this week but, like the Downy, they were too quick for me.  So instead I took these pictures of a male and female at our home, where the feeder keeps them nearby.  According to Cornell Ornithology Lab, House Finches were originally western birds.  ” In 1940 a small number of finches were turned loose on Long Island, New York, after failed attempts to sell them as cage birds (‘Hollywood finches’). ”   In the next 50 years, they spread all over the eastern US and southern Canada. I can’t imagine these social birds in cages!!

Winter Crew Animals

Below all those migrating birds in the marsh, a new muskrat lodge is being constructed. Since Muskrats (Ondatra zibethicus) are most active at night, dawn or dusk,this lodge was probably constructed in semi- or complete darkness!  This one maybe become a full-fledged winter dwelling, as large as the one in the Center Pond,  or it may just be a smaller feeding platform, a place to come up through the ice during the winter to breathe and eat.

muskrat lodge in marsh
A new muskrat lodge is being built in the marsh.

Three White-Tailed Deer does (Odocoileus virginianus) that had bedded down near the Center Pond moved slowly behind a scrim of trees near the wetland below the southern hill.  Maybe they were headed to the western woods to eat some of the plentiful acorns, but this one stopped to peek around a tree at me.

Doe near central wetland
A curious doe near the wetland below the southern hill.

And over in the western woods, an agitated Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger) stopped dead when it spotted me, but flicked its tail at top speed, its version of a threat gesture.

Squirrel with moving tail
An agitated Fox Squirrel, its body completely still, was waving its tail so fast that it blurred in the photo.

Seeds Everywere

Hard frost may have brought the demise of many insects in the park, but seed-eaters can choose from a gigantic larder!  Perhaps you remember the Wild Senna (Senna hebcarpa) growing in the native beds near the shed.   They’ve now produced long pods which turn black when the seeds inside are mature.  Native bumblebees seek the pollen while ants and ladybugs, that may protect the plant from predators, love the nectar.  The caterpillars of Sulphur butterflies (the family of small yellow ones) feed on its foliage.  The seeds in those long black pods appeal to Northern Bobwhites (Colinus virginianus), a small quail with a distinctive whistle once plentiful in Oakland Township,  but now largely missing.  As native plants like Wild Senna, that serve so many creatures, return to our parks through careful stewardship, we hope to see the return of birds like the Bobwhite.

Mixed in with the ubiquitous Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) last summer was the more delicate native, Grass-leaved Goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia), which looks quite lovely as it seeds. Native bumblebees, honey bees, butterflies and lots of other insects enjoyed its nectar during the summer and American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) feed on it now.  Occasionally it feeds rabbits and deer as well – another important plant in the park’s native habitat.

The modest Thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana) , a favorite of small bees and hoverflies (that look like bees), is seeding into airy puffs right now.

Trees Conserving Energy for Spring

All summer, the leaves of the Park’s deciduous trees produced sugars by storing the energy of sunlight in chemical bonds  (photosynthesis). By autumn, this energy in sugars is safely stored in the roots of the trees, away from the snow and cold.  During summer and fall, trees also produce next year’s leaf buds, and in some cases, flower buds, for next spring.  The buds are packed with miniature leaves which are covered with a waxy coating that protects them from the cold.  In the spring warmer temperatures and longer days break the ends of the cold waiting period, signaling sugar-rich sap to rise. The leaves, fed by the sap, burst forth and start again to supply the tree through photosynthesis. Pretty nice arrangement, I’d say!  Here are some leaf buds on Maples in Bear Creek.

Perhaps we can make peace with the changing season by knowing that the seeds of spring wildflowers are already planted and the leaves of favorite trees wait inside those leaf buds for a warm spring day.  Some of us go south like the migrating birds.  Others of us are like the trees who husband energy in their roots, but stand tall when snow covers their branches. We too turn our energies more inward in the winter, perhaps by a warm fire, but still sally forth, sporting cherry noses and pink cheeks , to enjoy the wintry world.   Bear Creek welcomes you in any season.

Sunset at Bear Creek

*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

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Flocking Birds, a Winter Resident from the Arctic Tundra and Some “Lovely but Lethals”

Russet trees across Eastern meadow

Winter chill showed up last week – along with sparrows arriving from the arctic tundra.   Small migrators, just passing through on their way south, huddled among bare limbs.  Fall inspires birds to flock and the skies and trees are crowded with bird society.  A few wildflowers are still sending off or dropping their last fruits and all kinds of leaves whirl down and carpet the paths.  Now is the time when the negative impact of too many deer and invasive plants becomes readily apparent – so we’ll explore “lovely but lethal” creatures and plants in the park as well.

Birds Flock Together in the Chill Winds

Evidently, wildlife experts have various theories about why birds flock in the autumn.  The most common explanation seems to be that it’s protection. More bird eyes and ears can spot predators and find food more easily.  In some species,  the young flock with adults who know more about food sources than they do.  Some experts believe birds learn from other birds about new food sources by hanging out in flocks or rookeries.  Migrating is easier in flocks in which individual birds take turns flying in front, thereby decreasing the wind resistance for the birds behind them.

long line of geese
A long line of Canada Geese straggling into “V” formation over Bear Creek this week

And then there’s the possibility that birds are just more social when they aren’t courting or raising young.  American Robins (Turdus migratorius) for instance, are chirping all over the park now in small flocks, often high in the treetops.  Many robins spend their whole winter here; we just don’t see them on the lawn because they can’t get to worms, so they eat fruits during the cold season.

American Robin on a cold day
American Robin on a cold day

Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) gather in large numbers in the marsh.  I saw a flock of over 50 last week floating and flying near the Gunn Road end of the marsh – and heard reports of hundreds near Rochester Road.  Here are about half of the ones I saw.

29 Ducks in marsh
About half of a flock of over 50 ducks restlessly eating and flying over the marsh this week.

Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura), often seen in ones or twos over the western Old Field during the summer, were soaring in groups of five or more this week.  Our “cleanup crew” with its magnificent 6 ft. wing span will soon be gone, migrating to the southeast to spend the winter.

Turkey vulture and Staghorn sumac
A Turkey Vulture soars past a Staghorn Sumac.

Lately I’ve learned that flocks of Black-Capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) are good places to look for other small birds who hang out with them when in unfamiliar areas.  Their “Chickadee-dee-dee” call ends up being a clue to look for fellow travelers like the sparrows below.  The reason?  Chickadees are great at sounding alarms that other birds heed.  The more “dee’s,” the higher the threat.  And as year ’round residents, they probably know the best, closest food sources as well.  This Chickadee mustered its impressive balancing skills to take off in the stiff winds this week.

Chickadee on a windy day
A chickadee gets ready for take-off in a stiff wind.

Snag w chickadee woodpecker holesEver wonder how a bird as small as a Chickadee survives during cold, rainy nights like we had this week or cold snowy ones? Cornell Lab says that these tiny birds can excavate their own individual holes in the rotting wood of snags (standing dead trees)  – one bird per hole!  I’m glad to hear that, since I know chickadees always face the challenge of eating enough to stay alive in cold weather. They store individual seeds everywhere and then can actually remember where they put thousands of them! Here’s how Cornell says they sort of “clear their hard drives” at this time of year: “Every autumn Black-capped Chickadees allow brain neurons containing old information to die, replacing them with new neurons so they can adapt to changes in their social flocks and environment even with their tiny brains.”  Wish I could do some of that!

Cold Weather Sparrows Arrive While Sparrow Visitors Pause and Move On.

This winter, flocks of  Tree Sparrows (Spizella arborea) will probably gather beneath your bird feeder as well as mine.   These distance travelers have spent the summer raising young on the arctic tundra and this week arrived back at Bear Creek.  See this link to their beautiful arctic nests made of ptarmigan feathers.  These small birds with their warm brown caps and black dot on a gray chest must love cold weather since they clearly think our winters are comfortably mild.

Tree sparrow at Bear Creek
Tree Sparrows arrived this week from their summer homes on the arctic tundra.

Other sparrows are still just passing through.  The large Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca) with gray above its eye and on the nape of its neck is heading for backyards and fields anywhere south of mid-Ohio.  This one looks especially red-brown because it was basking in the light of a setting sun.

Fox sparrow2?
The large Fox Sparrow basks in the light of the setting sun.

This is probably the last week that the White-Throated Sparrow will be at Bear Creek. Its yellow “lores” (spots in front of the eyes) are present at the top of the beak, a bit faint in this photo,  but it had the classic field marks of a white throat and striped head – when it would emerge for a few seconds from hiding among the branches!

Brown form of White-throated Sparrow
Tan-striped form of the White-throated Sparrow which sometimes comes in black and white.

The Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) was here last week, foraging near the Center Pond as the leaves thinned out.  With the cold north winds late in the week, it’s probably winging its way to Tennessee and points south, like the human “snow birds.”

Hermit Thrush
A Hermit Thrush who probably left on the north wind late this week for warmer climes.

Seeding for Spring Continues

3 Common Mullein
Three non-native Common Mullein plants stand like morning sentinels on the western slope of the park.

Like the tall non-native Common Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) above, many wildflowers have finished seeding for the year, but some are still dispersing seeds in a variety of ways.  The native Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), that looks like a tiny white sputnik when it flowers,  is now drooping in the marshes. (Rest your cursor on double photos like this for captions.)

But it’s been a great help to the native wildlife around it.  According to Wikipedia, “Waterfowl and other birds eat the seeds. Wood ducks utilize the plant as nest protection. Deer browse the foliage. Insects and hummingbirds take the nectar, with bees using it to make honey.”  That’s what makes many native plants good for a habitat – lots of uses for native wildlife.

Remember the loose sprays of native Water Hemlock (Cicuta maculata) that were in or near every park wetland during the summer? This plant, the most toxic in North America, is now making a delicate, brown fruit with tiny hooks that attach to animal fur –  or my cotton sweater as I wade into the plants to get a macro photo.  In that way, they spread their seeds for next spring.

Native Gray Dogwood (Cornus foemina) has fed lots of birds with its white berry-like “drupes” this fall and now leaves behind a lovely red fringe at the edge of the marsh in the center of the park.

Gray dogwood?
Gray dogwood fed the birds with its white berries and now leaves a lovely red fringe at the edge of the wetlands.

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) pods are drying and mature seeds are now being released to the wind.  If you see seed on the path or anywhere they can’t sprout, pick them up and send them flying!  The resident and migrating Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus) that feed on them next summer will thank you.

By the Way..

One Tough Dragonfly!

I was astonished on Friday, after the heavy, cold rain and high winds, to still see another Yellow-legged Autumn Dragonfly (Sympetrum vicinum) calmly sitting on the railing at the Playground Pond.  On Sunday a week ago, I’d seen the one in the photo below on a matching red leaf at Seven Ponds and thought that would be my last sighting of the year.  That is one tough insect!  At Bear Creek, a few grasshoppers were still chirping, a bit forlornly, in the tall grass as well and could still be seen springing about on southern slopes in the park.  Amazing.

Yellow legged autumn dragonfly
A Yellow-legged Autumn dragonfly matched the leaf upon which it rested on a cold, late fall afternoon.

And Just One Special Leaf this Week:

Isn’t the Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides) a lovely tree? They shimmer silvery green in the summer and shower golden leaves in the fall.  It’s a very common and short-lived tree with smooth, light bark that’s often mistaken for birch. And as Michigan Flora says, it’s “one of the few deciduous trees of the boreal forest to the north of Michigan.”  Another resident from the far north! That Tree Sparrow must have passed thousands of them on the way here.  Maybe that’s why I saw my first Tree Sparrow of the year right across from the Aspens on the park’s northern loop.  This week, in those stiff winds and rain, the Aspen’s dancing leaves went flying, leaving a carpet of gold on some paths at Bear Creek.

Aspen leaf
Golden Big-Tooth Aspen leaves littered the paths this week like gold coins.

Now for those “Lovely but Lethal” Plants and Animals

It’s tough not to love White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus).  After all, who doesn’t love to see those “doe eyes” gazing our way?

Deer
An over-abundance of the lovely White-tailed Deer can be a problem to native wildflowers and the tree canopy, especially in woodlands like our Oak-Hickory forest.

However, deer are seriously over-populating the landscape here and elsewhere.  According to the Nature Conservancy, “No native vertebrate species in the eastern United States has a more direct effect on habitat integrity than the white-tailed deer.”  The huge number of deer changes the landscape as they prefer to eat native plants, like Common Trillium, for instance. This feeding has reduced the density and height of forest wildflowers and make more room for invasive plants to spread.  Their consumption of acorns  also has an effect on the tree canopy in the woods. Deer are native to Michigan and much-beloved by both nature-lovers and hunters, so finding a solution to their over-abundance is a real challenge.

bittersweet
This invasive lovely and lethal vine that people admire in the fall chokes the life out of trees and bushes.

As we posted separately, one of the worst actual killers in our parks is Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) – which was very apparent this week in the park.  Its yellow leaves, yellow capsules and red fruit can be seen from every path twisting its way up and across trees and bushes.  Introduced as a landscape plant, this striking but lethal vine kills trees and bushes in three ways.  It  winds aggressively around the trunks of trees to get to the sunlight at the top, girdling the tree until it chokes the tree to death.

bittersweet killing small tree
Oriental Bittersweet, a beautiful invasive vine,  will eventually kill this small tree by girdling it and robbing it of nutrients and sunlight.

It also creates so much weight at the tops of trees that once they are weakened by the Bittersweet, they can be blown over in the wind.  They also climb over bushes so densely that they simply steal the sunlight and nutrients from the host plant and any plant nearby.  So please don’t pick it, don’t make or buy wreaths of it and don’t try to pull the heavy vines down yourself because you could get seriously hurt! Please see our post on how to rid our parks or your property of this beautiful killer.

Bittersweet engulfing a walnut tree
Asian Bittersweet killing a walnut tree in the lane.

Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) has been the bane of Bear Creek for a long time.  The northern end of the park is full of this invasive bush with its fragrant flowers in the spring and its red berries in the fall.  This woody shrub can literally crowd out native shrubs and plants as it has, along with other invasives , on the large loop at the north end of the park.

Now a new invasive tree is competing to be the most problematic and it too is lovely.  (Most invasives are pretty; that’s why people plant them in their landscapes!)  Friday morning I counted 16 small to medium-sized trees of this new problem for Bear Creek in one small corner near the center pond. It’s called Callery Pear (Pyrus calleryana) – another lovely, but lethal invasive plant.

Callery Pear invasive tree
A new invasive plant has found its way into Bear Creek – Callery Pear. There are 16 trees of varying sizes already at this corner near the Center Pond.

Of course, native trees can get out of hand, too, like Box Elder (Acer negundo), actually a not-so-wonderful kind of maple . Box-elder samaras seedsLook at the number of samaras (a fruit with wings attached to carry seeds)  in this one small clump on a large tree at the bottom of the western slope.  There are a lot of box elders on the western slope for that very reason!  Though the multiple trunks are often thin and the trees are short-lived, it can quickly colonize an area and crowd out other trees and plants.

 

 

Nature is remarkably resilient.  If we can give it a bit of help through careful stewardship, we can control these lovely and lethal plants and animals so the native ones can take their proper place in the landscape and the non-native ones can slowly be eliminated or at least controlled so they don’t irrevocably change the diverse native landscape that nature provided for us.  So consider joining in our stewardship events (see the Stewardship Events tab above) as we weed and plant to help Bear Creek and our other parks thrive in all their natural glory.

A note about “This Week at Bear Creek”:  My blog posts will probably slow some between November and February since late fall and winter are more static times in the park – and occasionally the weather will make it tricky to get out with my camera!  So please consider “following” Natural Areas Notebook, so that you’ll get an email when a post goes up.  I love doing this blog, so whenever I see some changes in the wildlife or something unusual in the park that I think might interest all of you this season, I’ll be here!  Thanks so much for your support and interest as we made our virtual walks together through the spring and summer!  Let’s see what late fall and winter bring!

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.