Since we seem to be heading into a warming trend, I thought I’d share the odds ‘n’ ends of what I’m calling The Big Freeze, those recent days of frigid temperatures and wind. In the interests of preserving my camera and my numb fingers, my hikes during the Big Freeze were shorter and the photos were fewer.
But as usual, I delighted in the sightings or even the signs and traces of other creatures, including other humans, who shared the bitter temperatures with me. On those frigid, silent days, I found myself appreciating the slightest visual treat that passed unnoticed in the lushness of summer – a rock, a mud puddle, snow-covered mushrooms. So here’s a sampling from Bear Creek and Charles Ilsley Parks of what can make a walk worthwhile even on the zero degree days of a challenging winter.
Wildlife Braving The Big Freeze
Birds are rarer sights for me on super cold winter walks, so what a treat to come across a flock of Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum)on two different walks at Bear Creek Nature Park. The high-pitched whistling as these winter social groups swooped and settled was quite cheering during The Big Freeze. Here are some other creatures that shared those bitter morning walks with me.
Though I heard more creatures deep in the brambles and watched birds fly overhead, I only caught a few with my camera. Some animals only left their tracks behind. On a bird walk at Charles Ilsley Park, we saw the neat tracks of two coyotes who’d trotted along in the moonlight the night before. Coyotes make straight, single tracks, placing their back feet in the tracks of their front feet to save energy. One of the birders said he’d heard that the coyote’s tail can leave a slight drag line as seen in the closeup below. I couldn’t find a source for that, but it makes sense since coyotes run with their tails down, rather than up like wolves or dogs. Click on the photos to enlarge; hover your cursor for captions. (Coyote photo below by amandaandmike at inaturalist.org)
A Meadow Vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus), aka a Meadow Mouse, must have crossed the path at Bear Creek Nature Park on a snowy night and then disappeared by burrowing into the snow. Lucky for this little creature that the coyote wasn’t around! (Meadow Vole photo by Wolfgang Siebeneich at inaturalist.org.)
Meadow Vole tracks disappear into the snow
Meadow Vole by Wolfgang Siebeneich (CC BY-NC)
I’ve never seen a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) at Bear Creek Nature Park, though others have. But I did see the hole one had recently excavated in a tree in the Oak- Hickory forest there – with this “carpenter’s” wood chips scattered below. (Woodpecker photo kindly lent by Joan Bonin, a gifted local photographer.)
Holes excavated by a Pileated Woodpecker.
The wood chips left at the foot of the tree
Pileated Woodpeckerer, photo by Joan Bonin
Evidence of Humans at Play During the Big Freeze
It’s always cheering to come upon evidence of other people using our parks to just play in the snow.
Odds ‘n’ Ends that Caught My Winter Eye
The austerity of winter reveals landscape features unnoticed in the lushness of spring and summer. The birding group marveled at a fast-running spring flowing out into the snow at Charles Ilsley Park which had been dry or hidden in the dense growth of the field the rest of the year.
At sunset one afternoon, I rounded the corner of the shed at Bear Creek Nature Park and saw a pink and blue sunset glowing in a puddle of melted snow.
The graceful “bones” of last year’s wildflowers, clusters of half-moon shelf mushrooms, even an unusual rock catch my eye when framed in white. (Use pause button if you need more time for captions.)
Beauty in the Big Freeze: Appreciating the Small Things
Sometimes it’s just the pale green and lavender of ice in a wetland or the high whistle of a swoop of Cedar Waxwings. The scarlet flash of a Cardinal or a dancing snowman can lift your heart on gray winter day. Feathery snow settling on a seed pod or the gaudy beauty of an early sunset – it’s just a matter of taking in beauty in smaller, more subtle doses that can buoy our spirits in the dark cold of a Michigan winter.
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!
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 (Tyrannustyrannus) 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.)
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!
Nearby, a female Mallard escorted her four youngsters with no male attention at all.
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 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.
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.
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(Omphalotusolearius) below are even bio-luminescent and their gills glow faintly green in the dark when they’re fresh! Hence the name, eh?
Native Wildflowers and Grasses Bask in the Sunlight of the Meadows and 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:
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.
At first only the yellow/green striped head of a tiny Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta)peeked out of the bubbly mass.
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!
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!
The Delight is the Details
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.
Warm days don’t seem appropriate to November, but we’re happy to have them when the Old Fields darken to russet and the architecture of the trees reappears. The landscape deepens as we can see far into the underbrush to places hidden by summer foliage. The slopes and hollows of the woods are more defined as the understory thins.
The skies become even more dramatic in the slanting light of late fall when the vivid shades of autumn fade – or maybe we just notice them more. It’s all about noticing, isn’t it? I wasn’t sure I’d see enough to share this week. How wrong I was!
Birds Hold Center Stage: A Bold Raptor, Shy Visitors, and Busy Residents
An impressive Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) warmed herself in thin morning sunlight erect in a bare tree near the Center Pond on our Wednesday Bird Walk. (Female Red-tails are larger than males and this was a big hawk!) She may, as Cornell suggests, have been waiting for the air to warm, because soon she was “climbing a thermal updraft into the sky.” Off she went, probably searching for mice, voles or other small mammals to shore her up against the cold to come. Red-tails tend to stay with their mates until one of them dies, but they must be loners outside the mating season. It’s rare in my experience to see more than one at a time. We saw this one from behind at first; look at that red-tail! (Click on photos to enlarge them.)
And then she turned around to survey her domain!
When I arrived on Wednesday, Ben and the birders were watching five Rusty Blackbirds (Euphagus carolinus) at the Playground Pond. I hadn’t seen one in weeks and thought their migration was over. These secretive, shy birds spend most of their time in the shadows at the edges of wetlands, flipping over leaves to look for tiny invertebrates. They land in trees only to pause a second before diving down into the underbrush and skulking along among wet, black mud and leaves. Unable to get a good shot on Wednesday, I lucked out on Friday when I came upon a whole flock (10 or more?) in the wetland below the benches on the southern hill.
Cornell says the population of these birds has “plunged an estimated 85-99 percent over the past forty years and scientists are completely puzzled as to what is the cause.” One theory is that they find fewer wetlands so I’m glad we have several in Oakland Township that they can poke about in before heading south.
On the same day (Thursday), a male Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) searched for a crack in tree bark in which to store what appeared to be a piece of nut.
It could well have been a Shagbark hickory nut since there are lots of them still on the trees, which is where Red-bellies prefer to find their nuts, though they’ll take them off the ground if necessary.
Since the nut photo doesn’t show the plumage, here’s a fall picture from a previous year of a male Red-belly. You can tell males from females by the fact that the red back of the head extends all the way to the bill in males but stops at the top of the head in females.
Nearby a year ’round resident, the White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) repeatedly made its loud, nasal “nyah” call (Cornell calls it a “yank call”)as it probed right-side-up and upside-down around a branch. A very distinctive call! Listen to the “Eastern Call” at this Cornell Lab link. You’ll probably recognize that you’ve heard it before!
Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata) were in a scrappy mood this week, which isn’t unusual for Blue Jays. I saw two repeatedly giving each other a hard time on the western slope earlier in the week.
A migrating Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca), with its large vivid body, smaller round head and long tail, visited the park again this week on its way south. I thought at first it was a Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) from its vivid color but Ben had it right. A handsome sparrow! We did see a Hermit Thrush but I didn’t manage to get a good photo this week.
The Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) seem much more secretive this time of year. I’ve seen both the male and female slipping silently from limb to limb down under the Button Bush in the wetland north of the playground – a great contrast to their exuberant singing from the tops of trees and bushes during spring and summer months.
More Tree Sparrows (Spizella arborea) are arriving by the day from their summer homes on the tundra. I saw only one near the marsh nearest to Snell Road but I heard what sounded like several in the dense underbrush nearby.
A Winter Lodge and Abandoned and Fiercely Defended Nests
Two weeks ago I saw a Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) diving in the Center Pond and then appearing briefly as it swam quickly into the shadows near the eastern shore. It looks as though it’s been making modifications to its lodge on the southern shore, as the sturdy heap of pond mud and dead plant material appears to have grown higher and darker recently. Muskrats don’t hibernate but are trapped under ice for months at a time. How do they breathe, find food and keep warm for all that time? We’ll explore those questions later – during a snowy winter week at Bear Creek.
Also at the eastern end of the pond, the beautiful wasp or hornet’s nest swaying at the tip of a slender limb, is fraying at the edges from wind and rain. The colony’s founding queen, workers, males and unfertilized queens have all died by now and all that’s left of that huge colony are the fertile queens who mated this fall. Back in August and September, they put on weight, being fed by the workers. Now they are snugged up for the winter under bark, leaf litter, logs or stumps near the pond where they’ll emerge and start new colonies next spring. And that amazing piece of insect architecture will slowly unravel.
On the eastern path, a tidy little nest, most likely that of the American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) , sits securely attached to three branches of a small tree. It seems destined to survive the winter, though bird nests are rarely re-used. Goldfinches like to nest in small trees and shrubs in open fields. According to Cornell Lab, “…the nest is an open cup of rootlets and plant fibers lined with plant down, often woven so tightly that it can hold water. The female lashes the foundation to supporting branches using spider silk, and makes a downy lining often using the fluffy “pappus” material taken from the same types of seedheads that goldfinches so commonly feed on.” That aptly describes this little nest both inside and out! (Rest your cursor on double photos to see captions.)
I got another ferocious scolding from an aggressive little American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus)this week, who was probably defending itself and its stockpile of nuts, seeds and mushrooms cached nearby. During the winter, they generally live inside logs, stumps or in woodpecker holes, popping out around midday to dig into their food stores cached nearby. Speedy little rodents, Red Squirrels can reach 14mph over a short distance when excited! I told Ben and the birders that if this one had been about 10 times bigger, I’d have taken off running. Look at that fierce little face!
Wildflowers: Then and Now
Native wildflowers are almost gone, having produced seed for next year and along the way, fed the honey bees and native bumble bees, caterpillars, birds, even some of the animals in Bear Creek.
Up by the benches on the south hill of the park, the gigantic leaves of Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum)curl around the bare stalks of these giant wildflowers that grew from 3 to 10 feet high this summer! Prairie Dock nectar fed native bumblebees and perhaps the occasional hummingbird, while goldfinches snacked on the seeds. Now their huge brown leaves curl, reminding me of the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland.
Across the way, the Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) that turned their faces to the sun a few months ago show only those rich brown centers now. Lots of bees and other insects enjoy this native wildflower during the summer.
Meadowsweet (Spirea alba) still sports its red stalk, but the white plumes have fruited into brown seeds for next year. Bees of all kinds fed on the nectar of this lovely plant all summer. Rabbits probably nibbled on the lower leaves while deer sometimes consume the upper ones. Meadowsweet also feeds a variety of native moths, some of which, of course, are consumed by birds.
Native plants like these are an important source of nourishment for the birds, bugs and other creatures of Bear Creek. That’s one reason we try to foster them.
The Pin Oak leaves were bright red and green as they encircled the playground a week or so ago. Suddenly this week, they turned brown but held on.
A week ago, the Red Maple (Acer rubrum)near the shed blazed a brilliant red but it appears from the pattern of its now-fallen leaves, that a gust of south wind brought most of them down at once .
Down at the center pond, the giant White Oak (Quercus alba) shed its leaves this week, creating a mosaic in the water nearby.
So despite the fact that November’s fading light cues birds to move on, flowers to wither and leaves to fall, Bear Creek is still a place of beauty and surprise. November cues us too – to don heavier jackets, maybe a raincoat, some days a hat and gloves – to come take part in the changing of seasons.
*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 is always full of great little surprises. This week again, nature sprung a few on me – the unfamiliar appearance of a familiar bird, a sky full of dragonflies, and a park visitor who has touched the soft fuzz on a sleeping bee!
But the predictable is comforting, too. Queen Anne’s Lace has begun sharing the Old Fields with tufts of Goldenrod, all of them swaying and dancing in the wind. Glorious days for a walk in Bear Creek!
An Avian Surprise (at least to me…)
The molt that I discussed last week continues. Groups of young House Wrens (Troglodytes aedon) are still hiding in bushes within the park, waiting for the fall migration. You can hear their persistent scolding as you walk by .
An Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) hopped restlessly in a bare tree looking south, as if dreaming of his winter home on the Amazon.
But here’s the SURPRISE! Now does this look like a male Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) to you?
If so, congratulations! It didn’t to me. This is actually what the glamorous green-headed male Mallard looks like after his mid-summer molt. It’s called “eclipse plumage. ” The flight feathers are molted at the same time, so during the molt, he was temporarily flightless. Courtship for Mallards begins in the fall, so in a few weeks the reddish- brown head feathers will be molted again into the brilliant green the male needs for attracting his mate. The clue to gender in mallards, by the way, is the bill, which is olive green/yellow in the male and orange with black in the female. Eclipse plumage! Who knew?
A Surprise in the Woods: Green Rain!
Last Sunday, entering the Oak-Hickory woods, my husband and I began to hear what sounded like raindrops, pit-patting around us in the leaves and on the ground. Puzzled, we finally realized that small green chunks were raining down on us. High in a Red Oak (Quercus rubra) sat a black squirrel. Here’s one NOT at the top of a tree!
Black squirrels are just a color variant of the Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) or the Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger). Of course, the Surprise – “green rain” – was a shower of green acorn pieces that lasted several minutes as the black squirrel munched high above. It took us a minute to catch on and we had a good laugh. Here’s an un- chewed Red Oak acorn; the mature ones are nut-brown.
Another small surprise: According to Wikipedia, North American squirrels were mostly black before Europeans came here, because forests were huge and shady and being black offered protection against predators and the cold. With deforestation, the gray and brown varieties flourished. Now black squirrels are appearing more often in northern areas that have colder winters.
A Surprise in the Air: A Swarm!
A squadron of about twenty-five darners (genus Anax), large dragonflies, swooped and dove over the western Old Field on Sunday, looking like Harry Potter in a quidditch match. Quite a surprise, since we’d never before seen more than two or three darners at a time in Bear Creek. Probably we were seeing a feeding frenzy since lots of insects were foraging on abundant wildflowers below. I only managed to photograph 6 in this one small section of the sky.
So what was in the fields below the darner swarm? Despite the hush from the molting birds, Bear Creek is humming with insects. The Carolina Grasshopper (Dissosteira carolina), now full grown ( see the nymph in the July 30 blog), makes a dry whirring sound as it flies short distances along the trail on its dark wings. It also sings, or stridulates, by rubbing its rasp-like hind leg against its forewing .
Most of the Red-Legged Grasshoppers (Melanoplus femurrubrum) are developing a bit later than usual this summer. So this male nymph will need to molt into an adult before we hear it singing in September.
Grasshoppers have short antennae. Crickets and katydids have lo-o-o-ng ones! Here’s a female Shieldback Katydid (genus Atlanticus) that may be contributing to the hum in the fields or at the edge of the woods. Look at the length of both her antennae and that very long ovipositor with which she lays her eggs. (Hint: it looks like a tail.)
Annual Green Cicadas (Tibicen canicularis) drone in the trees, looking like some sort of alien. (This one, however, was handily on our garage door!)
Last weekend, bees buzzed from flower to flower in the western Old Field, balancing gracefully on the stems. Another recent surprise for me was learning that the common Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) is a non-native brought here from Europe in the 1600’s. Here’s one with the “pollen baskets,” (corbicula) on her hind legs bulging after foraging among the goldenrod.
Surprise Information from a Fellow Bear Creek Walker
One of the pleasures of being a Volunteer Park Steward is meeting so many other people with nature knowledge and experience. A kindly woman named Mavis told me this week that she sometimes sees our native Bumblebees (Genus Bombus) sleeping under Goldenrod fronds or leaves at sunset. She said she very gently reaches up the palm of her hand and touches their fuzzy bodies! Imagine what that might feel like!
I’ve read since then that a sleeping bumblebee is probably a drone, a male. The female workers generally return to the hive at night to feed the queen, other workers and the larvae (baby bees). Males don’t even have leg baskets for gathering pollen. They simply buzz about feeding themselves (thereby pollinating plants) and wait for a chance to mate with the queen – so they have no need to return to the hive.
So now I have another new goal – to feel the fuzz on a sleeping bumblebee. The female Bumblebee worker below is filling her pollen basket by burying herself in a plume of Meadowsweet (Spiraea alba) in one of the native flower beds.
Another Surprise: Four Different, Very Tall Yellow Wildflowers in the Native Bed.
The native beds near the shed are full of tall yellow flowers – in fact four different ones! Thanks to Stewardship Manager, Ben VanderWeide, I’ve learned to distinguish between these giant beauties rather than seeing just “tall yellow flowers.” It seems that these plants, like the asters, have “composite flowers,” i.e., each apparent “petal” is actually a separate ray flower (or floret) and at the center are the disk flowers with a seed attached to each.
I’ve featured one of the yellow giants before, Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum). It’s super tall, up to 10 feet, with a composite flower, ball-shaped buds on bare stalks and GIANT leaves near the ground.
Another I’ve mentioned before, False Sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides) also has a composite flower. It grows about 8 feet high with leaves along the stalk. Here you can see the disk flowers in bloom.
Then there’s the characteristic drooping ray flowers of the Cut-Leaved Coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata) that grows 6 to 8 feet high. Here a bumblebee has its proboscis in one of the tube-shaped disk flowers.
And rounding off the group of yellow giants is Tall Coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris) which grows 3 to 9 feet tall. Obviously, Honey Bees and Bumblebees love them, too!
While we’re discussing native giants, have a look at the big tufts of Big Blue Stem (Andropogon gerardii) which are now showing the pronged seed heads which gave this tall prairie grass its other name, Turkey Foot. I remember walking through a field on Lake George Road as a child with these giants towering over my head. So it’s great to see them back again since the prescribed burns in Bear Creek!
Coming Attractions: Asters!
The purples and lavenders of native Asters are beginning to appear in Bear Creek. Here’s this year’s first glimpse of three that will be much more prolific in the coming days. Asters, like the yellow giants above, all have composite flowers as well.
New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae)near the center pond:
Smooth Asters (Symphotrichum laeve) on the western sloping path are lighter lavender and have a more delicate look than the New England Aster.
And finally, I believe these are Panicled Asters (Symphytrichum lancelotaum) with small, white to lavender ray flowers and yellow to lavender disk flowers. My wildflower experts will check on this for me next week.
A Fond Farewell:
The striking red Cardinal Flower is almost done for the year. If you have time, take the path that leads north from the playground and have one last look on the southern side of the marsh boardwalk that’s on your left a short way down.
So, if you like Surprises, nature always obliges – especially at Bear Creek Nature Park. Literally, never a dull moment!
*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). The viceroy butterfly is not a Batesian mimic; 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 and invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman.
The Walnut Lane in the center of the park is a hangout for avian adolescents this time of year. Every few feet you hear or see another fledgling sparring with siblings, practicing a song or poking about for food on their own as their tired parents retreat from constant feeding. Below I’ve provided links to Cornell Ornithology Lab photos of the adult birds so you can see how the juveniles differ from the adults in appearance.
The numbers of the most successful park predator keep growing – and no, it’s not coyotes! And native wildflowers love the second half of the summer (yes, we’re already there!) and are showing their colors everywhere you look.
Avian Adolescents – and one baby…
I have to begin with a nestling. Remember the female Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum)on a nest from last week’s post? Well, this week her nestling stuck its little half-masked head above the nest edge so I got to see a Waxwing nestling for the first time! It sure doesn’t look like the elegant bird it will be in a few weeks! It’s still mostly mouth and that beak still looks soft, doesn’t it?
Amusingly, adolescent birds have the same awkward, gawky, not-quite-put-together look of a human adolescent. And like them, they seem to hang out together – this year, in the lane of Black Walnuts. Here’s a juvenile Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis), a bird which when it matures is sleek with gray feathers and a black cap. This youngster is in shadow, but you can see he still has downy fluff that makes him look a bit like he’s wearing baggy pants!
And here’s a young Rose-Breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus). The juveniles look like their brown-and-white mothers, but I believe that little red dot under this one’s wing tells you it will eventually look like the stunning male at this link – black and white with a hot pink bib at his throat.
This young Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) looks a bit scraggly, but seemed to be finding all kinds of things to peck at or eat on a walnut tree. I’m thinking it’s just a gawky adolescent.
Look at the lovely pattern its wing made as it flew off.
And here’s a home photo of an adult Downy to show how much more “together” an adult downy can look!
By the way, if you live in a house with wood siding as we do, you may be frustrated by a male Downy drumming on your house. According to Cornell Lab, the Downy isn’t feeding, which means you don’t have bugs in the siding. This is the Downy’s way of singing; it uses percussion to attract a mate. Of course, they’re still making holes in your wood!
New Fierce but Fascinating Predators Arrive at Bear Creek!
I’m referring, of course, to Dragonflies. Right now, the BIGGESTof these drone-like insects, called “Darners” (after the large needles), are hatching out of the ponds and patrolling the fields of Bear Creek. They can be three to five inches long and have a wingspan slightly larger than their body. I’m quite confident that this is a Lance-tipped Darner (Aeshna constricta ) we saw Sunday along the western sloping path. Dragonflies are notoriously difficult to identify, however, so feel free to correct me!
I’m quite sure that I saw a Swamp Darner (Epiaeschna heros) zooming over the Old Field off the eastern path earlier this week. Here’s a photo of a non-zooming Swamp Darner from a couple of years ago.
Of course, regular dragonflies are hatching out of the ponds as well. Dragonflies successfully snatch out of the air 95% of their prey, (especially mosquitoes!) and consume them on the wing. Lions, for example, only catch their prey 25% of the time and Great White Sharks only 50%, so we’re talking about very successful predators here! How about this face?! This is a common dragonfly, the White-Faced Meadowhawk (Sympetrum obtrusum.)
On a sweeter insect note, we also were gifted with the sight of two Great Spangled Fritillaries (Speyeria cybele) mating. We couldn’t determine which gender is larger, but there is quite a size difference! Here are two photos, as they synchronized opening and closing their wings.
Native Wildflowers Assert Themselves as the Summer Warms
The second half of the summer ushers in a big bloom of native wildflowers. In the hot sunlight of high summer, prairie flowers flourish, since long ago, much of Oakland Township’s land was prairie. I recommend bringing your lunch, sitting on the hilltop benches at the south end of the park, and just enjoying the Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) as they sway in the wind.
And right across the path, another native, Black-Eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) bloom in happy profusion.
Large lavender swaths of Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), also known as Bee Balm, keep company with these other two. This wildflower is certainly a “balm” to bees since you rarely see a group of them without seeing bees busily probing the hearts of these fun, “bad hair day” flowers! Like the native plants I mentioned last week, Bergamot has been considered a medicinal plant and was used as an antiseptic by Native Americans.
CAUTIONARY NOTE FROM OAKLAND TOWNSHIP PARKS AND RECREATION: DO NOT pick or consume wild plants in our parks. In addition to being potentially poisonous, many wild plants are endangered because of over-harvesting. Oakland Township ordinances prohibit removal, destruction, and harvesting of plants within parks. Leave plants for wildlife and other park users to enjoy!
In the native flowerbed near the shed, some glorious plants are blooming for your enjoyment as well. Look at these lovely native False Sunflowers (Heliopsis helianthoides).
And tall plumes of native Meadowsweet (Spiraea alba), standing in the sunlight, hum with pollinating bumblebees.
Nearby, a native plant with an exotic flower also grows tall in the flowerbed by the shed. It’s Wild Senna (Senna hebecarpa) and with a flower like this, it should be called wild!
And look how they grow in profusion along the stalk of the plant!
And here’s one last exotic-looking native shrub that I’ve always loved. My parents backyard which backed up to the Paint Creek Cemetery used to be full of native Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) which always looked to me like it belonged in the tropics! No, it’s not poisonous. Here’s a link where you can see that Poison Sumac looks completely different and lives in wet areas, unlike this sumac that is at the edge of the woods next to the western sloping path.
One of the tallest native wildflowers is just barely starting to bloom among the Yellow Coneflowers at the top of the southern hill. Prairie Dock has HUGE leathery leaves and can reach 10 feet in height. You can see the tall stalk with its round buds towering over the other plants in the sunlit native flower bed near the shed as well.
Here’s the first beginnings of a bloom out by the benches on the southern hilltop.
So bring a lunch and/or a friend and hang out with the avian adolescents on the lane this week or simply sit on the benches at the top of the southern hill and watch the Yellow Coneflowers sway and listen to the hum of bees in the Bee Balm. You deserve to nourish yourself with a lazy afternoon at Bear Creek Nature Park!