Curiously, many native wildflowers like a little disturbance now and then. So township natural areas manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, sees that they get just what they need! By eliminating invasive shrubs, native plants grow stronger as sunlight reaches their previously shade-suppressed leaves. Regular prescribed burns help many fire-adapted native species emerge from the seed bank and thrive. The Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) along the Paint Creek Trail (seen above) are loving all the upheaval from invasive shrub removal three years ago. Yellow Lady Slippers (Cypripedium parviflorum), and Swamp Buttercups (Ranunculus hispidus) are flourishing for the same reason at Gallagher Creek Park. Native wildflowers are emerging in greater numbers all over Cranberry Lake Park after a recent burn. Below is a small sampling of local native wildflowers which benefit from the Parks Commission’s efforts to restore our natural heritage.
Well, what a change! Two weeks ago, we had spring flowers, leaf buds and spring courtship as birds sang and showed off in the treetops. And then came the heat and sun, and suddenly, it was early summer with leaves seeming to enlarge by the hour, spring flowers disappearing to be replaced by early summer blooms, more baby birds and the first dragonflies swooping along the paths in front of us.
So let’s explore just a few of the wildflowers and creatures that shared this change with us. (Plus some lovely post-prescribed burn surprises along the Paint Creek Trail.)
When it was still spring…
Late Spring Birds and a Fun Insect
The male Rose-breasted Grosbeak’s (Pheucticus ludovicianus) long, tuneful song was everywhere in Bear Creek in the last weeks of spring. Now their nests are finished and singing has to accompany the task of raising young. Both the male and female build that nest and care for the young – a very modern couple! (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Nearby, hopping from limb to limb, two male Yellow Warblers (Setophaga petechia) sang their seductive “Sweet, sweet, I’m a little sweet” song as they chased each other through the small trees at the edge of the woods. I never spotted the female, though she must have been nearby. She lacks the rusty striping of the male and has a more olive back.
In the fields behind the Playground Pond, a pair of Eastern Towhees (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) were getting acquainted. The male was not singing his “Drink your Tea-a-a-a-” call, so I think the two may have been looking for a nesting sight. I’d never seen the female Towhee before and she’s quite different from the male’s coloring.
Speaking of nesting, I found this large egg under one of the walnut trees near the lane. If one end hadn’t been missing, it would have been about 2 1/2 inches long. And there was nothing inside. I’m wondering if it could be the shell from the egg of a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) that I’ve seen off and on near the Center Pond. Cornell Lab describes the Red-tail’s eggs as 2.2 to 2.7 inches long and “white or buffy, blotched or speckled with buff, brown, or purple.” What do you think? Any bird egg experts out there?
A flash of iridescent green at my feet signaled the hyper presence of the Six-spotted Tiger Beetle (Cicindela sexguttata)who frequents the forest edge. I imagine it got its name because its larva, developing in a burrow during the summer, springs up out of its hole to catch prey! A tiny, green, stalking tiger! Cool how their antennae and legs are as green as their bodies.
Late Spring Wildflowers and Leaves
Two weeks ago, the Oak-Hickory forest was filled with big, beautiful Wild Geraniums (Geranium maculatum). These lovely lavender flowers carpet the area near the marsh every year, but this year they were all over the park – taller, more plentiful and with larger blooms than I’ve ever seen! Perhaps this year’s and last year’s prescribed burns helped.
Each year I wait for the blossoming of the Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) that stands east of the Northern Loop. I was intrigued to learn that the actual flowers are only the center of these blossoms. The “petals” are actually bracts, specialized leaves that attract pollinators by glamorizing the cluster of tiny center flowers. Here are three pictures of the buds, encased in their bracts, opening as May progresses.
While the Flowering Dogwood buds were opening, the leaves of the Shagbark Hickory(Carya ovata)were just emerging from their amazing buds.
The huge White Oaks (Quercus alba)near Snell Road were producing miniature red leaves that, two weeks later, were green and stretching out to catch the sunlight.
Of course, the May Apples (Podophyllum peltatum) were producing their modest white flowers that hang hidden beneath an umbrella of leaves.
Another spring favorite of mine are the little hands of Early Meadow-rue (Thalictrum dioicum) that find spots of sun in the mottled spring light of the woods.
Down at the pond, tiny aquatic buttercups, called White Water Crowfoot (Ranunculus longirostris)floated in large swirls across the pond. Once the heat arrived, the flowers disappeared and the brown stems are now making a not-so-lovely brown mat until they sink below the surface.
Heat! And Summer Rushes Forward
Summer Birds and other Creatures
A Green Heron (Butorides virescens), one of our summer residents, perched in a snag (standing dead tree) at the Center Pond. I usually see them fishing at the water’s edge. According to Cornell Lab, “The Green Heron is one of the world’s few tool-using bird species. It creates fishing lures with bread crusts, insects, earthworms, twigs, feathers, and other objects, dropping them on the surface of the water to entice small fish.” I will be watching now to see if I can catch one doing that!
Out in Bear Creek Marsh, Ben and an experienced birder, Antonio Xeira, heard the call of a seldom-seen denizen of wetlands, the Sora (Porzana carolina). This waterbird, a member of the Rail family, with a heavy yellow beak and stock body, stalks quietly among the cattails, looking for seeds, insects and snails. Its whinnying call is particularly dramatic. Ben and Antonio recognized its other two tone “ker-wee” call at the marsh. Click on its picture here and go halfway down this page for its song and call. I’d never even heard of Sora before!
A delightful sight greeted the Wednesday birders at the Playground Pond last week. A mother Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) was escorting her six ducklings around the pond, as well as what appeared to be two Hooded Merganser chicks (Lophodytes cucullatus)! Ben surmised that perhaps a Merganser had laid its eggs in the nest hole of the Wood Duck and she ended up hatching them along with her own. Here’s a photo of the adult female with her own chicks and a photo of a Hooded Merganser baby that swam with them. This Merganser duckling jumps from a tree hole when one day old and swims on its own. It takes 3 days for the Wood Duck’s ducklings to do the same.
Down at the Center Pond, the “boing-boing” banjo sound of the Green Frog (Lithobates clamitans) creates part of the summer music at Bear Creek. You can tell this one’s a male because its tympanum, a kind of external ear drum, is larger than its eye. I like this one’s tentative expression.
And the Common White-tail Dragonfly (Plathemis lydia)makes a soft whir-r-r as it soars by, looking for prey. This one’s a female, because the male’s abdomen is white, which accounts for its common name.
As the heat began, wildflowers started to bloom in the native beds near the parking lot. One of the loveliest is native Wild Lupine (Lupinus perennis) glowing lavender and white in the warm sunlight.
Nearby was a plant I’d never seen until Ben VanderWeide, our stewardship manager, made me aware of it. It has the lovely name of Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium). To me each tiny blossom resembles a tiny Iris. It’s called “grass” because it has grass-like leaves and stems with parallel veins that are hard to distinguish from a grass when there aren’t any flowers. The flowers only open fully in full sunlight, so it can be easy to miss early in the morning or on a cloudy day. But isn’t it pretty in the late spring/early summer?
And another early summer favorite is spreading abundantly in the native bed north of the shed. Canada Anemone’s (Anemone canadensis) lovely white flowers stand gracefully above its deep green foliage .
Sunny Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) accompany these other native plants in the wild garden in the driveway center, one of the native beds and across from the Playground Pond. This one’s hosting a Spittle Bug or Frog Hopper, common names for the super-family of insects called Cercopoidea. The adult insects can hop 100 times their length! The foam is used for protection for the nymph stage of development. Though the nymph sucks on the plant, it generally doesn’t hurt the plant much. Most of the liquid is used to create that evidently nasty-tasting froth that deters predators.
Ben and his crew planted some native Prairie Phlox across from the Playground Pond, another area of Bear Creek to be slowly stocked with native plants.
Warm weather brought out the exotic-looking blooms of native Wild Columbine in the bed just north of the shed. These lovely native wildflowers grew down the side of a hill east of the park when it was a farm back in the 1930s and 40s.
And out in the eastern Old Field, lots of native Common Milkweed appeared once the grasses were knocked back by the prescribed burn in March. No doubt all the nutrients that were released into the soil then, plus the longer growing season caused by the darkened earth, will give it a little boost. Hope the Monarch Butterflies take note!
And now the Paint Creek Trail surprise…
This spring, Ben VanderWeide, the Township Stewardship Manager, and volunteers did a prescribed burn along the Paint Creek Trail near the parking lot at Gallagher Road. The purpose, as always, was to stimulate native plants and discourage non-native invasive ones. Also prescribed fire releases nutrients from last year’s plants back into the soil.
Partly as result of this process, some lovely native plants emerged this year in greater numbers than before the burn. Look at this lovely photo Ben took of a native Yellow Ladyslipper orchid (Cypripedium parviflorum) – and there were lots of them hidden within the burgeoning grass. You can certainly see where this lovely wildflower got its name – a graceful slipper with ribbons attached!
The grass was also shining with Star-grass (Hypoxis hirsuta), a small yellow native that hosts small bees and other pollinators. It’s lucky there were lots of these shining stars this year because they need other plants to cross pollinate, which of course is assisted by the bees. Here’s Ben’s photo.
Along the tree line near the parking lot at Gallagher, a yellow cloud of Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) nodded in the wind. Ben caught this one up close.
And Ben also noted a Sedge plant (family Cyperaceae) with its interesting bloom. As I mentioned two weeks ago, sedges are ancient plants that look something like grasses but are constructed differently. Ancient Egyptians used sedges to make papyrus.
Ben tells me that beautiful native wildflowers like Culver’s Root(Veronicastrum virginicum), Showy Tick-trefoil(Desmodium canadense) and other prairie plants are “sprouting vigorously” along the trail north Gallagher Road – so click on the links to see them and then keep an eye out for them!
So treat yourself. Hang some binoculars around your neck and look at birds up close – both the year ’round residents and the summer visitors. Take your time. Stand near a patch of summer flowers and watch quietly. See what surprises you. Maybe a bee that turns out to be a harmless hover fly. Or the shiny glamour of the Six-spotted Tiger Beetle. Try using your cell phone to take a shot of a single flower you’ve never noticed before and then identify it when you get home. I promise you’ll relax. Your breath will slow, you’ll smile a bit more, life will just get more interesting. Nature comes alive in ways you’d never expect when you give it your undivided attention. Let us know what you find!
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.