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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.

 

This Week at Bear Creek: Small Creatures with Great Gifts

It pays to look carefully as you stroll along the paths of Bear Creek. Small creatures are sometimes the most amazing.

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino
Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino
scarlet tanager2
The Scarlet Tanager fresh from his trip from the west coast of South America

Though a friend on Gunn Road tells me she sees them in the woods behind her house, I’ve only seen the Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea) once in Bear Creek, near the northern entrance to the marsh –  but it was worth waiting for! Fresh from the northwestern edge of South America, they move high in the trees and are usually difficult to see, the female especially as she’s olive above, yellow below, matching the spring leaves. This one’s special talent is just being gorgeous!  Keep a sharp eye out and let me know if you see one!

wren - Version 3
The House Wren’s song is the essence of spring

The House Wren  (Troglodytes aedon) makes Oakland Township part of its huge range; this small vocalist sings for folks  from Northern Canada to the tip of South America.  Cornell Lab says this tiny bird weighs about the same as two quarters. Despite its small size the house wren competes fiercely with bigger birds for a preferred spot, sometimes evicting others from nests they are already using. But they also accommodate themselves to mailboxes, old boots, wren birdhouses or any nook or cranny.  Look for “Typical Voice” on the left of this link to hear his famous song:

Here’s another wee beauty , the Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia), a summer visitor to Oakland Township that Ben saw in the park last week.

yellow warbler2
The male yellow warbler sings “Sweet, sweet, I’m a little sweet.”

This tiny bird  sings a great little song that birders often hear as “Sweet, sweet, I’m a little sweet.” That’s how I spotted this little male. Yellow warblers like wet places so look for this little guy near the center pond or listen for him in the bushes near the marsh.  Here’s a link to his song.  See what you think he’s saying. We’ll discuss Brown-Headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater) another time, but they lay their eggs in other birds’ nests, particularly smaller birds like the Yellow Warbler.  Even if the warbler recognizes the interloper egg in its nest, the bird’s too small to push the egg out, so it usually just builds a nest on top of the original one, lays its eggs and ignores the cowbird’s. Pretty nifty solution, though it’s a good thing bird’s don’t have much sense of smell, eh?  I’ve never seen such a nest, but I’d love to!

American Goldfinches  (Spinus tristis)  live with us all year, though there may be some slight shift in populations from north to south during the winter.  The bright yellow of the males is a sure sign of spring, and during the Goldfinches’ second molt in late fall, the male’s return to the olive-yellow of the female presages the coming of winter. Goldfinches, one of the strictest vegetarians of the bird world, eat only seeds unless a hapless bug happens to fly into their beak during flight! While other birds are busy courting in the spring, they establish territories and wait to breed until late summer when the thistle seed they love is plentiful.  They make tiny nests (3″ across x 2.5″ high) woven together with spider silk and lined with thistle down.  Sounds pretty cozy.  Here’s a link to their cheerful song. This finch pair (note the different plumage) seems to have had a tiff: finch1

finch2
This pair of American Goldfinches looks like they’ve had a tiff.

 

Ah, and then  buzz, whirr,  click, the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) zooms into the park during the first two weeks of May.

hummer in the rain2
A rainy day dims the dazzling colors of the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird.

Though this photo taken in the rain dims him a bit, in bright sunlight the sparkling iridescence of the male’s green head and deep ruby throat dazzles the eye and his ability to fly in any direction, even backwards, beating his wings 53 times/second is really impressive. He weighs only 1/10th of an ounce and has to eat 50 times his weight in nectar daily! The plainer green females arrive later, build their half dollar-sized nests and do all the care and feeding of the young. Hummingbirds are not common in Bear Creek but Ben saw one last week, actually sitting quietly like my rainy day one.

water strider
Water striders have the unique gift of walking on water

Speaking of small talented critters, look closely at the surface of calm water anywhere in the park right now and you will see Water Striders (Gerridae). They are unique in the insect world for their ability to walk on water!  Their specially adapted legs are covered with thousands of hairs that repel water, help them distribute their weight and trap air to bring the strider to the surface if dunked. The middle legs row and the back legs steer and they can really scoot across the water!

6 spotted tiger beetle
The Six-spotted Tiger Beetle flits along the boundary between the forest and the sunlight.

One more interesting little insect, the Six-Spotted Tiger Beetle (Cicindela sexguttata), flits along paths near the woods through the park now.  Probably his fierce name comes from the fact that the larvae burrow into the ground when they hatch where they lay in wait.  When a spider or insect happens by, they spring out and attack – much like a tiger pouncing on prey.  Someone with a fine imagination named this little guy!

violet
Michigan has 28 different varieties of violets

Our native Violets  peek out here and there.  Aren’t they lovely with the stripes on their petals and that beard at the center?  I think these are Common Blue Violets (Viola sororia) but don’t hold me to it, since there are 28 species of violets in Michigan, according to the University of Michigan Herbarium.

wild strawberry
Wild strawberries are plentiful in Bear Creek this year

The Wild Strawberries (Fragaria virginiana) are in full bloom and they are everywhere!  Just think, every one of those flowers is  a potential berry! A feast for wildlife since they’ll probably eat them all before they are ripe enough for humans!

May apple bud and blossom
The buds and flowers of the May Apples hide shyly below the leaves.

The May Apples (Podophyllum peltatum) are now producing their shy buds, those inedible “apples”after which they are named.  Some are blooming too,  in their shy way, bowing humbly beneath the leaves. Here are a bud and a blossom.

IMGP4489
Wild Geraniums are blooming in many more places after the prescribed burn.

Reliable sources (Ben and my husband Reg) tell me the carpet of Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum) has finally arrived and indeed is even more beautiful after the prescribed burn!  Geraniums are blooming in areas we’ve never seen them before!  Here’s Ben’s photo from Monday, the 18th.

Red squirrel closeup
The American Red Squirrel will chatter at you as you emerge from the woods at the Snell entrance.

And just to give small talented mammals some due, the American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) occasionally leaves a legacy to its offspring!  You’ll hear these squirrels, the smallest in the park, chattering at you as you emerge from the trees on the path from the Snell parking lot. They are very intense about their territory and you are passing through it, for heaven’s sake! They are feisty, speedy and spend part of every day creating middens, places where they store seeds and other goodies. If food is scarce, females will evidently “bequeath” one to their young, that is, give up the midden and part of her territory to her offspring. Nice little inheritance!

Coming Attractions:

wood duck and 6 ducklings
The amazing Wood Duck’s ducklings will arrive in June.

Watch for the somewhat elusive Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa)! They are in the park now, but by mid-June, there will be ducklings! And what ducklings they are! Wood ducks nest in holes in trees as tall as 60 feet. When the ducklings are two days old, mom leaves the nest, flies down to the water and calls her young.  One by one they screw their courage to the sticking point and launch themselves into the air. Their wings are too small for flight,  but they are so light they bounce on the leaf litter below. Once they are all out of the nest, they go to mom and begin to swim. Now that’s quite a gift. For a one minute video of this feat, check out this link from the PBS program, Nature. It’s just wonderful, truly. Here’s a female and a couple of ducklings in the center pond at a bit of a distance last June.

And watch for the dragonflies and damsel flies! They are just beginning to swoop and dive around the ponds and in sunny spots near the woods,  but there will be all kinds of them as June and July come on.

Quick Review:  Spotted Again this Week!

  • One Snapping Turtle in the pond near the playground, and 3 in the marsh on Sunday the 17th!
snapper
Three snappers were seen in the marsh last week.

 

  • Rose-Breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus) singing in the trees near the northern entrance to the marsh also on Sunday.
singing grosbeak
The male Rose-Breasted Grosbeak sings to his mate from treetops near the marsh.

 

  • A Baltimore Oriole at the center pond again this year.
lady oriole
Again this year, the Baltimore Oriole is whistling in the trees near the center pond.

 

Spring is so full of change and energy that it’s a great time to explore Bear Creek Nature Park.  As usual, let me know if you see anything we haven’t, or if you’ve also seen and enjoyed the ones we post here – and where you saw them.

*Quick footnote:  My sources for information, as well as 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; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net.; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela.

	

This Week at Bear Creek: Big Beautiful Birds, Blooms and Butterflies

Well, the best-laid plans, as they say…April 28, I fell and fractured my sacrum. After spending a few very painful days in hospital, I learned that there’s no repairing such a break; I just have to wait 3 months or so for it to heal.

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

I’ve missed a week of this blog and thought this accident meant a very long hiatus in “This Week at Bear Creek” since I won’t be walking in the park until sometime late this summer. But I’ve come up with a plan which I hope meets with your approval. Since I’ve walked in Bear Creek and taken photos there for so many years, I have a huge library of photos. And since the photos are dated, I know when various creatures have appeared there in the past.

So my plan is to provide you with a photo guide to what to look for every week (or two, as able), based on past Bear Creek springs and summers. And perhaps some of you, along with Dr. Ben and my husband Reg, will tell me what you saw and I can pass along that info as well. So, here we go:


 MAY 10- 16, 2015

Two glamorous birds arrived in our area this week.   Both the male and female Rose-Breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus) alighted in the park this week – and both are stunning. Since they sing from high in the treetops when leaves are just bursting forth , they’re not easy to spot. Listen for a melodious mixture of high and low notes that’s been described as “a Robin who’s had voice lessons.” Here’s one I saw at home on May 8 a few years ago.

The elegant male Rose-Breasted Grosbeak
The elegant male Rose-Breasted Grosbeak

Like the Seven Dwarves, the female grosbeak whistles while she works, building her nest, which isn’t common for female birds. With her heavily-streaked breast and the bright white line above her eye and necklacing her throat, the female grosbeak can be mistaken for a female Red-wing Blackbird. But “grosbeak” is an appropriate name; these birds have short, heavy beaks. I’ve spotted them over several years in the eastern side of the woods, near the marsh. Here’s a link to the female’s appearance:

http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/rose-breasted_grosbeak/id

And here’s another for their sweet song:

http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/rose-breasted_grosbeak/sounds

The other glamorpuss that’s just arrived is the Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula). The male’s eye-popping orange, black and white plumage is unmistakable. The females usually are more yellow than the male’s brilliant orange but they become more orange each time they molt. When they arrive from Central America, they are looking for quick energy and love fruit – but only dark red, orange or purple fruit. (Very particular birds!) That’s when they come to backyard feeders filled with grape jelly or half an orange. When raising young, they hunt insects for the protein they need for themselves and their nestlings and are less visible. So here’s one singing its melodious whistle high in the trees near the center pond and then a closeup as one horns in on our hummingbird feeder.

Female Baltimore Oriole at the center pond
Female Baltimore Oriole at the center pond
Baltimore Oriole at the hummingbird feeder
Baltimore Oriole at the hummingbird feeder

Maybe with luck, you’ll see them building their sack-like nest right at the tip of a branch very high off the ground, literally rockaby-ing their babies in the treetops.

Baltimore Oriole nest
Baltimore Oriole nest

Dr. Ben saw an amazing 35 separate species on a Bear Creek bird walk last week! And what a group! 8 different warblers and many of them were seen by sitting quietly on the boardwalk just off the playground early in the morning. Here’s one of them who graces the wet areas of the park all summer.

Common Yellowthroat among the willow leaves
Common Yellowthroat among the willow leaves

It’s the Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas), a small masked bird who usually hangs out near the center pond or marsh. If you can’t see it, you can hear its distinctive “Witchedy-witchedy-witchedy” call. Have a listen:

http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/common_yellowthroat/sounds

One of my favorite fisher birds arrived this week too, the Green Heron (Butorides verescens). Ben saw a pair posing quite calmly in a tree at the center pond. Like other herons, it’s a very patient fisher. It stares intently down into the water until it spots its prey – a small fish or frog. And then dives headfirst into the water – Gulp! – And it’s gone. I saw this one at the center pond last fall :

Green Heron spotting something.
Green Heron spotting something.
The Green Heron takes a closer look
The Green Heron takes a closer look
The Green Heron walks along the log, satisfied
The Green Heron walks along the edge of the deck, satisfied

You may notice groups of young Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata) hanging around in the bushes on the north side of the park, giving each other a hard time, jumping from limb to limb, darting through the trees, and generally acting like teenagers. I’ve just learned young blue jays don’t breed their first year but form groups and practice courtship behavior. Here’s an adult blue jay who seems to be looking a bit askance at all their silliness.

Blue Jay looking inside
Blue Jay

The strange and wonderful buds of the Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) are pushing their way through the branches. Keep an eye out for them on a tree whose distinctive bark makes it a special feature of Bear Creek.

Hickory leaves emerging from the buds
Hickory leaves emerging from the buds

The May Apples (Podophyllum peltatum ) have unfurled their umbrellas and can be found in groups underneath tall trees in wooded areas all over the park.

Mayapples under the trees
Mayapples under the trees

Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) sits proudly inside his green lectern all over the woods. Being a native plant, these little preachers should thrive after this spring’s prescribed burn.

Jack-in-the-Pulpit
Jack-in-the-Pulpit

A tiny, early butterfly is fluttering through the grass right now. Spring Azures (Celastrina ladon) are easy to spot with their lavender blue wings and whimsical black and white striped antennae. When feeding, they fold their wings upward so that the drab gray undersides will make them more inconspicuous to predators.

The blue of the open wings of spring azure butterflies
The lavender of the open wings of a spring azure butterflies
Spring azure butterfly with wings folded, hiding the bright color
Spring azure butterfly with wings folded, hiding the bright color

Coming Attractions

A native beauty, the Large-Flowered Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum), has pushed its trio of leaf-like bracts through the soil and have unfolded their showy white petals.  Look for them to the west side of the boardwalk on the eastern side of the center pond and to the west side of the Eagle Scout bridge as you enter the western woods. They usually bloom in Bear Creek a bit later than elsewhere.

A close-up of a trillium flower
A close-up of a trillium flower

Watch this coming week for the lavender carpet of Wild Geraniums (Geranium maculatum). Ben tells me that with this warm spell, they should start blooming quickly. Here’s how they looked last year in the second week of May but there may be more this year after the prescribed burn.

Wild geranium carpeting the forest floor
Wild geranium carpeting the forest floor

So I may be housebound, but we still can share the beauty of Bear Creek Park. I value your input, so please, fellow nature lovers, lend me your ears – and your eyes!

This Week at Bear Creek: Bear Creek Begins to Bloom

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

Look for this feature early each week! Cam Mannino shares her latest observations, photos, and inspirations from Bear Creek Nature Park. Don’t forget to check out the Preview of Coming Attractions at the bottom of the post to see what you should be looking for in the coming weeks. Thanks Cam!


April 12-18: Bear Creek Begins to Bloom

This week the earliest woodland flowers took advantage of the pale sunlight filtering through bare branches and bloomed. Please help children understand not to pick flowers in our parks; we want them to prosper, seed and keep spreading!

The first to arise, as usual, were the native Spring Beauties (Claytonia), thrusting slender, grass-like leaves through the soil beneath large trees, followed by delicate white flowers with fine pink stripes. Look for them on the western edge of the path through the western woods.

Spring beauty and moss make a wonderful green splash after a long winter
Spring beauty and moss make a wonderful green splash after a long winter

Another early riser is our native Blood Root (Sanguinaria canadensis), named for its use as a dye by native basket makers. This elegant little plant emerges wrapped in an almost circular leaf cloak, after which the small, white flower with a bright yellow center opens to the sun and the leaf unfolds. I tracked its progress over 3 days under a large tree left of the path near the Gunn Road end of the marsh. A large patch of Blood Root also appears every year among fallen trees on the western side of the long loop behind the center pond. But be quick; these very early spring flowers usually last only a few days!

Bloodroot leaves emerging
Bloodroot leaves emerging
A flower bud hides in the emerging bloodroot leaves.
A flower bud hides in the emerging bloodroot leaves.
The flower of blood root fully open.
The flower of blood root fully open.

The more odiferous and sturdy native, Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), nosed its way out of marsh mud at the southern edge of the western woods. Look down from the eastern side of the bridge built there for us by an Eagle Scout. If you get too close, whew! They do like to make a stink each spring but that’s how they attract fly pollinators and discourage would-be foragers!

Skunk cabbage leaves poke through the leaves
Skunk cabbage leaves poke through the leaves

Over in the marsh, two fighting Muskrats (Ondatra zibethicus) staged a splashing chase scene for me, but I was only able to catch a photo of one swimming away in its blue wake.

A muskrat steaming along
A muskrat steaming along

A day later it was turtle fest again. Five Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta) basked on a log in the center pond, lined up by size as if they were the VonTrapp family!

Five turtles line up on a log at Bear Creek Nature Park.
Five turtles line up on a log at Bear Creek Nature Park.

And the same day, a large Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) cruised the marsh, eating underwater plants, its long neck stretching up periodically for air. Watch for what looks like a lump of mud moving slowly in the water, with the turtle’s beak-like snout emerging separately just ahead. Like this:

A snapping turtle swims with its head just above the water
A snapping turtle swims with its head just above the water

Two days later on the large loop, I very carefully approached another snapper, which was probably seeking a place to lay eggs. She wisely sought a better location since there was no disturbed earth the next day. Don’t get too close! These big turtles are crabby on land and can quickly extend their necks which can be as long as their carapace. They snap with powerful jaws, because unlike other turtles, they are too big to pull into their shells. The snapper’s ancestors lived at the time of the dinosaurs and they look it, don’t they?

A big snapping turtle on a path. Maybe looking for a nesting site.
A big snapping turtle on a path. Maybe looking for a nesting site.

The female Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) have now joined their flashier mates in the marsh.

A female red-winged blackbird
A female red-winged blackbird

A Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus ) drummed for a mate nearby. The males are red from the nape of the neck to the bill like the one below. The females have a red nape patch that stops at the back of the head. Not to be confused with the Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus), like the cartoon Woody, whose neck and head is completely red and whose plumage is very different.

A red-bellied woodpecker perches on  a tree
A red-bellied woodpecker perches on a tree

Previews of Coming Attractions!

Let’s see if these Trout Lily leaves (Erythronium ) near the Gunn Road entrance produce any beautiful yellow flowers. It’s been years since they have, but maybe the prescribed burn will help them out this year. It bloomed after a previous burn!

Mottled trout lily leaves soak up sunlight.
Mottled trout lily leaves soak up sunlight.
This trout lily, a native flower, bloomed after a prescribed burn in 2008
This trout lily, a native flower, bloomed after a prescribed burn in 2008

A May Apple (Podophyllum) sprout and drooping unopened leaf emerged in a sunny spot next to the path. In May, a white flower will bloom shaded under the fully open umbrella leaf, to be followed by an inedible “apple.”

Mayapple leaves unfurl from the ground
Mayapple leaves unfurl from the ground

Sunday morning, a North American Raccoon (Procyon lotor) snoozed in this tree on the western-most path through the woods, only a small slice of fur visible at the bottom of the hole until my camera clicked. Keep watch here – by the end of May, baby raccoons may clamber around inside the hole as they have most years. I recommend whispering and staying on the path with binoculars or she and the young will disappear farther up inside the hole.

The racoon hole
The racoon hole

Come explore spring in Bear Creek yourself and please let us know about your discoveries in the comment section below.