October is autumn’s transition month. Some days are warm and sunny, creating almost an illusion of late summer or early September. And on those days, a few bees and butterflies flutter across my path, caterpillars bump along through the grass and native wildflowers still bloom in the fields. A turtle in the Draper marsh basks in the thinning light.
Change is in the air. Let’s look back to see what October had to offer as we take the first cold, rainy steps into the austerity of November.
Early October: Late Season Wildflowers Host the Occasional Bee or Butterfly
One Sunday afternoon in October, a Common Buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia) fluttered down onto the trail right in front of my husband and I. In the summer, Draper Twin Lake Park hosts a rainbow of butterflies. Some mate, lay their eggs and expire, leaving caterpillars behind in their chrysalises. But this colorful little butterfly migrates south for the winter and returns in the spring. Perhaps it stopped at Draper to sample the various goldenrods, since it prefers yellow flowers. Can you see the slightly bug-eyed expression on its face? I laughed to think it was as surprised to see my husband and I as we were to see it land right in front of us!
Late October: Swaying, Russet Prairie Plants Provide a Fall Feast for Wildlife
The video above may look like a sea of dry brown stems to you. But to the birds, particularly the American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis), it looks like your heavily laden Thanksgiving table. In just the video’s 40 seconds, you are seeing hundreds of thousands of seeds: Indian Grass, Coneflowers, Black-eyed Susans, Stiff Goldenrod, Little Bluestem and many more. On the August birdwalk, we spent a happy ten minutes or so watching a flock of goldfinches swaying on bobbing stalks as they stuffed themselves with Stiff Goldenrod seed (Solidago rigida). First there were two and then suddenly there were five all scrabbling to feed on the abundant seed heads.
Relishing Autumn’s Transformation
The Draper prairie with its great looping trail really may look dry, brown and lifeless to some hikers. But not to me. At this time of year, I feel a lot like Ratty, a “country gentleman” sort of muskrat in the children’s classic Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame, a book I quoted in an earlier blog. Like me, Ratty senses the restlessness of autumn. He heads out into a farmer’s field, much as I waded out into the tall grass of Draper’s northern prairie: “…he thrust into the great realm of wheat, yellow, wavy, and murmurous, full of quiet motion and small whisperings. Here he often loved to wander through the forest of stiff strong stalks that carried their own golden sky away over his head — a sky that was always dancing, shimmering, softly talking; or swaying strongly to the passing wnd and recovering itself with a toss and a merry laugh. Here, too, he had many small friends, a society complete in itself…”
Ratty is a kindred spirit. Autumn also plunges me into the bending and tossing grasses and the whispering of dry stems where I can stand shoulder deep in the prairie and just “be” with it all. Like him, I sense a community of other creatures in the flocks of fidgety birds, the agitated butterflies searching for the last bloom, the relentless plodding of a caterpillar through the grass stems. Autumn’s restlessness urges me to celebrate the change, change and change again of every season. I appreciate that reminder.
Summer is finally taking hold. Many of the flowers, butterflies and other insects are late this year, but they’re slowly appearing. Warm days allowed fledglings to emerge from their nests and use their tiny wings to pursue their parents into the fields and marshes, begging to be fed. Many of the young birds look a bit shaky out on their own. Parent birds whisk back and forth, beaks lined with seed or bearing a drooping caterpillar. Wildflowers, long buried under invasive shrubs that were removed last fall, are emerging from the seed bank in all their glory. A time of renewal for sure!
So join me on a virtual circuit of Bear Creek Nature Park – from the meadows, to the pond, through the woods to the marsh and back to monitor the bird boxes. I’m happy to have you along!
Fledglings Venture Forth into Sunny Meadows
As I began my walk, rambling along the path through the eastern meadow, I was suddenly aware of lots of movement and noisy chattering in the bushes and small trees. Little fledglings were perching there, occasionally fluttering and calling, reminding their busy parents to bring them a meal. A little Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) struggled up onto a branch near an adult who took off immediately to look for food, leaving the youngster looking just a bit insecure!
Another youngster perched on a branch seemed on high alert as it looked out on the meadow. The striped feathers and the fact that adult Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia) were nearby makes me think that it’s their fledgling.
On a birding walk a week earlier, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Stewardship Manager, heard the high, wheezy call of the small Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea). Looking up we spotted a tiny nest near the top of a walnut tree. Two adult gnatcatchers were industriously taking turns bringing food to their young. The left photo shows what we could see of the nest and the parent bird from below, though the group did catch a glimpse at one point of a fluttering wing as a nestling leaned out to get the goodies. I’ve included an earlier photo of an adult Gnatcatcher as it forages. (Click to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Dragonflies and Damselflies Hover and Dart in the Meadows
Dragonflies maneuver across the meadows, moving up, down and forward, in their search for unwary insects or possible mates. The broken wood of the mowed invasive shrubs makes a handy resting place for them. A juvenile male Common Whitetail dragonfly (Libellula lydia) rested quite near a more adult one, perhaps learning the ropes? The white patches at the bottom of the hind wings are field marks for the juvenile. When mature, the whole abdomen is covered in a dusty white, referred to as “prunescence.”
A juvenile Common Whitetail perches, hoping to catch a passing insect.
An adult male Common Whitetail uses his white tail to establish his territory.
The male Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly (Erythemis simplicicollis) also found the woody shards a great place to lie in wait. Though the female is bright green all over, the male’s colors transition from a green face, to a blue-green thorax and a slaty blue abdomen. Quite a handsome fellow!
Lots of orange dragonflies cling to stalks in the meadow grass. They belong to the genus Sumpetrum, but knowledgeable folk in the Facebook group “Odonata of the Eastern United States” inform me that you can only determine the species of orange dragonflies if you have one in hand with a magnifying glass! And of course, I’m never in a summer meadow, it seems, without seeing the striking Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa).
Damselflies seem more likely to prefer shady areas. But I do occasionally see them in tall meadow grass. Here’s a male Emerald Spreadwing Damselfly (Lestes dryas) I saw when wading through deep grass one warm afternoon. Like dragonflies, they consume a lot of mosquitoes, which pleases me and you too, I bet.
The Seed Bank Awakens as Restoration Begins
Perhaps the biggest thrill for me in the meadows this week, though, was the reappearance of long lost wildflowers. Evidently, beneath those invasive shrubs in the meadows near the pond, seeds and small plants of native wildflowers had been waiting for maybe decades while the fields were covered either with grazing fodder for cattle or abandoned to non-native plants. Now the sun and rain have reached the earth over them again and they are making a comeback!
Out in the meadow west of the pond, large patches of Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) have emerged where previously we only saw a single plant here or there. And as you’ll see further down in the blog, the Monarch butterflies are already finding them.
A spectacular wildflower blooming this year is one neither Ben nor I have ever seen before in Bear Creek Nature Park – the Michigan Lily (Lilium michiganense) – not to be confused with the non-native tiger lilies or the much less glamorous Orange Daylily (Hemerocallis fulva) which originated in Asia. I’d only seen this striking native with its cup of curved petals, arching stem and showy stigma near the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail. But this beauty at Bear Creek waited patiently. Once warmth and moisture reached it, up it came just west of the Center Pond. Michigan lilies can be tempting to hummingbirds and many butterflies. I saw one other bud, so I’m hoping for more!
Tall Meadow Rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum) and Fringed Loosestrife (Lysimachia ciliata) have staged a comeback, too. A Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) at the edge of the path had produced its bright green berries on a wide spadix. The berries will turn a brilliant red in the fall. Who knows what else will emerge over the summer and fall?
Butterflies Arrive – but Not Enough for Me, Yet!
As the mid-summer wildflowers finally begin to bloom, the butterflies are begging to appear. Sun-loving Butterfly Milkweed hosted a Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) last week. Since this is a female Monarch, we can hope that it will lays its eggs either on the leaves of this milkweed or on one of the many Common Milkweeds in the eastern meadow.
A Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus) took a while to show me the bright white spot on the lower (ventral) side of its hind wing. It looks quite different when the “silver spot” is out of sight!
A very tired, worn, Black Swallowtail sat quietly on the path one afternoon. According to Wikipedia, Black Swallowtails are generally longer-lived than other butterflies, unless subjected to bad weather or deprived of food. We’ve had pretty wild weather and the flowers are behind schedule, so perhaps that took its toll on this unfortunate female.
The Little Wood Satyr (Papilio polyxenes), though, seemed be just fine as it danced along in its bouncing flight from shade into the sun and back again.
On to the Pond and Its Frog Song
A few blossoms of White Water Crowfoot (Ranunculus longirostris) still peek from the background of abundant Duckweed (Lemna minor) at the Center Pond. The Northern Green Frogs (Rana clamitans) sprawl comfortably among it, floating at the surface and croaking in their banjo voices to attract mates. Since males have a tympanum (circular hearing device near the eye) bigger than their eyes and a yellow throat, this one staring at me intently was definitely a male.
Frog “talk” this July:
I smiled at this small Midland Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta marginata) who seemed to be listening to the frogs right along with me. But more likely, it was just basking in the warm sunlight after a cold spring, and trying to ignore the frog voices. It’s decorated nicely with bits of Duckweed.
Into the Woods
The woods on the east side of the park let in so much more light now that the invasive shrubs have been removed! I keep hoping I’ll see more woodland wildflowers because of it. But deer are plentiful at Bear Creek so that’s a slim hope; they love to eat native plants and young saplings. But a couple of woodland flowers escaped their notice, probably because both of them are a bit fuzzy, which puts deer off: Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea canadensis) and Panicled Tick Trefoil (Desmodium paniculatum). Both thrive in the dappled sunlight of the woods so perhaps I will see them spread as sunlight reaches more of the forest floor.
Panicled Tick Trefoil has tiny hairs on the stem
In the fall, Enchanter’s Nightshade will make prickly seed pods that can be carried by passing humans or animals.
Unfortunately for humans, native Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) is more abundant in the woods and everywhere else this year. But if you stay on the paths, you’ll be just fine. Look for a three leaved plant on which the center leaf has two “thumbs” but the right and left leaves have only one “thumb” – or look for a vine with that leaf arrangement and reddish “feet” clinging to the bark. Poison ivy isn’t poisonous for animals, though. It produces green berries that turn white in the fall just at the time when other berries are disappearing. So migrating birds gobble them up, enjoying a boost of energy and protein before heading south. Northern Flickers, Bobwhite Quail, Eastern Phoebes, Cedar Waxwings, Woodpeckers, Tufted Titmice, and American Robins all readily eat Poison Ivy berries. Raccoons and deer can eat the whole plant – and they’re welcome to them, as far as I’m concerned.
I followed the song of an Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) high in the treetops as I entered the woods. I paused, listened, moved a little – no luck at seeing him in the high treetops. After about 10 minutes of following him from one tree to the next, I gave up and moved on. Luckily, the following week ,the birding group spotted one in the open at Cranberry Lake Park, so at least I can show you a somewhat fuzzy photo of “the one who got away.”
A Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) sang one of its summer songs repeatedly, but it was also hidden in the leafy branches. It’s a classic, summer moment when this unmistakable, ebullient call reverberates from the treetops!
Damselflies love the “spotlight effect” they get from the filtered light in the forest. I came upon a female Ebony Jewelwing (Calopteryx maculata) who seemed to be trying to seduce an oddly unmotivated male. Each posed on a sunlight leaf, but she would periodically fly briefly onto his leaf, making him jump off for a few moments. Perhaps she hoped to be pursued, but it was not happening while I was there. I’m afraid I caught her at an indiscreet moment when she paused to poop a few moments later….
A woodland moth slept soundly on a leaf at the edge of the woods one afternoon. The caterpillar of the White Slant-line Moth (Tetracis cachexiata) feeds on all kinds of native trees, so it’s a common moth in woods and forests all over Canada and the US. I love the simple design of its bright white wings and subtle yellow stripe.
As I walked off the path in the woods to follow the Towhee, clouds of what I think were Hangingflies (genus Bittacidae) rose from the greenery under my feet. These harmless creatures are a relative of the also harmless Scorpion Fly (family Panorpidae) I saw last year at Bear Creek, named for the upward curve of the male’s abdomen. Both belong to the order Mecoptera. But the delicate legs of Hangingflies cannot support their body weight! So instead they hang by their front legs beneath leaves and capture aphids, moths and other passing insects with their long back legs! Nature always finds a solution. I felt lucky to find one suspended in a spot of sunlight beneath a grass stem.
Bear Creek Marsh – Wet, Green and Full of Life
The native Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) has round, green buds just waiting to burst into balls of white blossoms in the summer heat. It lines one half of the southern platform overlooking the Bear Creek Marsh.
Here’s what each of those buds will look like shortly!
At the northern platform, my husband spotted an adult Green Heron (Butorides virescens) standing among the cat-tails and rushes across from the deck. It probably had been probing the mud for food. According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab, it has a wide ranging diet – from frogs to fish, snails, insects – even rodents! This one took off and landed high in a tree overlooking the marsh. I just learned from Cornell that Green Herons actually nest in a large fork in a shrub or tree with overhanging limbs to hide the nest from predators like snakes, crows or grackles. I’d love to see the nest or young of this handsome bird!
As usual in the summer, we looked for slow-moving mounds of mud or moss in the water, a sure sign of Common Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina). We eventually saw four, a large one and 3 smaller ones. It helped when the big one raised its head on that long neck. The snappers weren’t much interested in each other at the moment and spent a lot of time munching on fresh underwater plants.
Of course, Red-winged Blackbirds dotted the marsh as well, clinging onto cat-tail stems and trilling. On my first visit, a female scolded me continually while I sat on the bench. Eventually, I realized that her nest was nearby when a male appeared with a worm or caterpillar in his beak. He quickly dropped into the grasses near the water to feed his young.
A week later, I saw a Red-winged fledgling watching a male pick apart a cat-tail for seeds. The little one tried to do the same but with little success since its cat-tail head had already been mostly eaten. Later the small bird landed on a cat-tail in the distance where the male obligingly stuffed some seeds into its beak, thank goodness!
Down below the platform, the American Bur-reed was in all stages of blooming – from buds to blossoms to fruits. Marsh plants clean our waterways by storing nitrogen and phosphorus that would otherwise starve the water of oxygen. And Bur-reed is one of the most effective marsh plants, storing four times more than some other aquatic plants. Plants like Bur-reed are one of the reasons conservationists value wetlands so highly!
As I headed back to the parking lot, I walked back along the boardwalk by the playground pond and noticed a sleepy, nocturnal Gray Tree Frog ( Hyla versicolor) resting peacefully on a lower railing.
Stewardship Fosters Nature Here – and Far Beyond the Township
Thanks for taking a virtual hike through Bear Creek with me. I find it heartening that the stewardship crew and Dr. Ben are restoring habitat and fostering the wildlife in this park with all of its natural variety. The invasive shrubs are removed and the seed bank brings back native flowers. The native flowers bloom and butterflies and other insects thrive by feeding at them. The nestlings are fed with the insects’ caterpillars and venture out of their nests and nest boxes to soar over the meadows. In the fall, some of them will travel great distances, bringing their beauty and their role in maintaining healthy habitats to places as far away as South America.
The humble bur-reed is allowed to flourish in the marsh. Because it cleans the water as it stores nutrients in its stems and leaves, Bear Creek’s water is healthier as it flows out of the marsh, eventually reaching Paint Creek. And the fish and other aquatic creatures and plants there benefit from cleaner water – and on it flows into the intricate, inter-locking systems of the natural world.
Stewardship is a lot of hard work but the reward is that it makes a difference not just in our township, but far beyond. Wherever the creek’s water flows, wherever native seeds are carried by creatures, wind or water, wherever migrating birds and butterflies travel, a little bit of our township’s stewardship work has played its part in preserving our natural heritage.
I never know what I’m going to see or hear when I head into Draper Twin Lake Park. A large marsh separates the park’s two halves. If I start in the west side of the park, the shady trail is lined with moisture-loving plants and ends up at the fishing dock by the blue expanse of the lake. If I park at the maintenance building in the eastern half of the park, I ponder whether to circle left, passing a floating mat marsh, or head straight north to the beautiful restored prairie.
All the choices are good ones, so let me share what’s blooming, buzzing and singing in Draper’s quilt of habitats. And then you can do your own choosing some summer afternoon.
The Western Section: A Shady, Short Stroll to the Lake… or the Case of the Disappearing Wildlife!
I feel a bit like the fisherman with his story about the “one that got away” in describing the western side of the park this June. Whether alone or with fellow birders, I heard a lot more than I saw – though some of what I saw was wonderful. You’ll see what I mean…
The trail from the parking lot was green and cool on a hot day. My first encounter was with a small Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) as I came around a bend in the trail. The bunny took one look at me and disappeared into the grass. In a fine article by naturalist Katie McKiernan in the Seven Ponds Nature Center newsletter, I learned more about the phrase “breed like rabbits.” The Cottontail female is usually pregnant while nursing her previous litter! They mate from March to August, so I’m guessing female rabbits look forward to the autumn! Since this year’s bunny dashed off without a selfie, here’s one from a few years ago that has the morning sun shining through its ears .
High in the treetops, hidden among the leaves, I could hear the signature “Drink Your Teeeeea” song of the Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus). Here’s my recording. You may need to turn up your volume a bit.
Despite some serious neck craning, neither I nor my fellow birders could spot any of the four we heard. But here’s a photo of one singing at Draper in 2017. All this lush foliage from the heavy rain is amazing, but not always the best for bird spotting!
On a bird walk back in March of this year, the birding group was excited to see a pair of Cooper’s Hawks (Accipiter cooperii) in a bare tree near the lake. We’d seen one near a nest there in 2016 and wondered if they had returned to nest near the lake again. What an impressive bird!
However, construction on a new house near the park border was making a lot of noise that morning and we wondered if that would affect their nesting. On my June trip, I hoped to see one, but wasn’t optimistic since we hadn’t spotted them with the bird group in April or May. While looking for the elusive Towhee, I caught site of a large, saucer-shaped nest high in a White Pine. The nest was difficult to see from every direction, a choice spot from a bird’s point of view..
The nest didn’t look used; in fact it didn’t look as though it had been completed. Perhaps another missing creature? If this is the hawks’ abandoned nest, let’s hope they found a peaceful spot farther from the sounds of hammers and nails.
Luckily, other wildlife and some elegant plants did appear along the way to the lake. Lush purple native Spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis) bloomed in the dappled light under the trees. What appeared to be a Metallic Green Sweat Bee (genus Agapostemon) was gathering pollen on its hind legs. The contrast of the bright yellow pollen against the purple blossom must be a great signal to pollinators!
And nearby, I was delighted to see a bee among the drooping, elegant blooms of Tall Meadow Rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum). Since this pollinator seemed to be collecting pollen by smoothing it across its abdomen, it may have been a Leafcutter Bee (family Apocrita).
I just have to show you this whole plant. Isn’t Tall Meadow Rue striking with its drooping pom poms?
As I neared the lake, I was greeted by a stand of giants, plants 4-8 feet tall with huge leaves. It turns out to be Cow Parsnip (Heracleum maxiumum), a plant that hosts huge numbers of bees, wasps, beetles and flies over the course of the summer. It’s a biennial which means it produces leaves, stems and roots one year, then flowers and seeds the next. Cow Parsnip can cause blisters or iritation if its sap on your skin is exposed to bright sunlight. But according to Wikipedia, Native Americans found many uses for it medicinally such as poultices from the roots for swelling or bruises and mosquito repellent from crushed leaves. They even made children’s flutes from this plant after removing the outer surface. Sounds like this beautiful and statuesque plant is best seen in its natural setting, though, not in my garden!
Down by Draper Lake, the Fragrant Water Lilies were beginning to bloom. The dragonflies will find them a great courting platform in the days to come, I imagine.
And among the aquatic plants near the fishing deck, a pair of Banded Pennant dragonflies (Celithemis fasciata) were already busy mating. The male clings to the stem and holds the head of the female. She clings to him, while curving her abdomen upward to receive the sperm. According to Wikipedia, this posture is appropriately called the heart or circle shape.
Since these dragonflies are in the Skimmer family (Libelluidae), the female will lay her eggs by “tapping the surface of the water repeatedly with her abdomen, by shaking the eggs out of her abdomen as she flies along, or by placing the eggs on vegetation.”
On the way back from lake, the birders and I saw an energetic little Chipping Sparrow(Spizella passerina) moving through the small trees. These small, pert sparrows with their chestnut cap and black eyeline prefer treed areas with open, grassy spaces – so you may have some on your lawn if you look closely!
A solitary walk one hot afternoon allowed me to share a moment with a young American Robin (Turdus migratorius). Where removal of invasive shrubs last year left some damp, open ground, the youngster landed and looked around. A Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) hiding in the shrubbery nearby sang its charming conversational collection of bird noises. I could never catch the Catbird out on a limb, so the Robin and I just spent a few quiet minutes together listening intently.
I discovered a modest little summer wildflower peeking out of the grass. Lots of insects drink nectar from the tiny blooms of White Avens (Geum canadense) and the leaves are hosts for the caterpillars of many of them as well.
A Midland Painted Turtle ((Chrysemys picta marginata) sat calmly tucked within its shell in the middle of the path as I headed back to the parking lot. I’m guessing it was a female looking for bare ground in which to dig a hole and lay her eggs. Though it wasn’t an ideal spot, I kept my opinion to myself and I left her to it.
The Eastern Section: A Longer Hike Among the Winged Beauties of a Sunny, Flowering Prairie
No question about which path to take this month! One Sunday, my husband and I headed straight out to the restored prairie, excited to see what was blooming and buzzing. Again this year, what a delight! Under a bright, blue sky, the slightest breeze made the thigh-high grass and wildflowers bow and sway to the musical accompaniment of bird song. What could be better?
On the Way to the Prairie
As we walked north, the music was supplied by two bright yellow birds. A male American Goldfinch at the tip of a snag trilled his quick, syncopated song that always seems to include a couple of loud “tweets.” And farther away, near the small marsh to the west, we spotted the Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) who is more common this year than ever! The male loves to sing his “witchedy” song from shrubs or low limbs near a wetland. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
At our feet on the entrance path, a small American Painted Lady politely sat for her portrait in the short grass.
The Common Ringlet (Coenonympha tullia), an even smaller butterfly at less than an inch a half, was fluttering from one grass stem to another on the path, perhaps to thwart being snatched by a dragonfly or other predator. Finally it settled for more than a split second. Nice barbershop stripes on the antennae!
Birds of Various Sizes on the Prairie, including One Difficult Invasive Species
Reaching the prairie, I knelt among the tall grasses and wildflowers to take a shot and suddenly noticed the thin, gray neck and head of a Sandhill Crane (Antigone canadensis) just above the flower tops.
Actually, we ultimately saw three of them stalking slowly just under the crest of the flowering slope. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology informs me that in our region, juveniles stay with their parents until they nest again in April or May and then form foraging groups with other juveniles out on their own. Since these birds had adult plumage and were similar in size, I’m guessing this group may have been just such a cohort of young Sandhills.
On top of the hill, a female Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) defended her nest, perhaps from invasive House Sparrows (Passer domesticus). This Eurasian species, once called “English Sparrows,” have been ravaging some of the prairie nest boxes. Volunteer nest box monitors have found boxes with beheaded nestlings, an attack typical of House Sparrows, which compete with our native cavity nesting birds. House Sparrows can ruin the eggs or kill the young of bluebirds, tree swallows and other cavity nesters. When we find a box with eggs, Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Nestwatch program asks us to remove or addle them to help control the burgeoning House Sparrow population. Since they are so widespread and have such a harmful affect on native birds, they’re considered an invasive species and are not protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. So although it makes us more than a bit squeamish, we monitors try to comply! (Thanks to iNaturalist photographer avepel for the House Sparrow photo.)
A female Bluebird defending her nestbox from predators like the House Sparrow.
House Sparrow by avepel (CC BY-NC) at inaturalist.org
A House Sparrow egg removed from the nest by a nestbox monitor
On a happier note, a Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) found some food for its young in the tall prairie grass, snagging what appeared to be a dragonfly. In my limited experience, Field Sparrows are shy during most of the summer. But when it’s time to lay the eggs and feed the young, they’re good providers and so are a bit more visible. You won’t see Field Sparrows in an urban or suburban setting like House Sparrows; they insist on wide open spaces! As a result, their numbers are currently in decline, so I’m glad we’re preserving prairie for them!
An EasternPhoebe (Sayornis phoebe) flew to the ground and returned to a branch, its tail characteristically pumping up and down, as it also looked for insects in the tall grass. I caught it just as it prepared for takeoff.
Dramatic Dragonflies, Tiny Pollinators, and Other Unfortunate Eggs
More native summer wildflowers bloom with each passing day as the restored prairie comes to full bloom. The color and scent are attracting little pollinators and the dragonflies looking for lunch! These three native wildflowers were planted as part of the prairie restoration and are particular favorites of mine.
With my birding partners, I saw my first ever Calico Pennant dragonfly (Celithemis elisa) along the prairie loop path. Wow! We were all pretty impressed with this creature! The bright orange abdomen indicates a male and a young one, since the yellow spots near the wing tips turn red as they mature.
The elegant Widow Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula luctuosa) landed along the loop path as well. The yellow and black abdomen indicates that it’s a juvenile and the just-developing white patches beside the dark wing patch means that this one is a juvenile male. With the birders, I saw another juvenile at a similar stage and when I got home, wondered if we’d seen one who’d narrowly escaped a predator. It seemed to be managing quite nicely, though, flying with no difficulty among the stalks of prairie grasses.
The Hoverflies (family Syrphidae) were busy finding nectar and inadvertently doing their large share of pollination.
Another little Hoverfly clasped the stamen of a non-native Common St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) blossom as it drank nectar. Dr. Parsons, the entomologist who helped me with hoverflies, says that hoverfly mouthparts are not like the long sipping straws of butterflies. Instead their mouthparts are soft with a hairy tip that sponges up nectar so that the mouth at the end of tip can draw it in. Normally the mouthparts are folded under the head, but they extend them like this little one is doing to reach for food. They can also liquify pollen with their saliva and drink it up as well. No wonder they distribute so much pollen!
One of the nest monitors reported seeing a Snapping Turtle ((Chelydra serpentina) laying eggs on the west edge of the north prairie. But when my husband and I came across a turtle nest along the western side, some hungry animal – perhaps a raccoon or coyote – had dug the eggs up for a meal. I can’t be sure we saw the Snapper’s nest. The egg remains look small enough to perhaps be those of a Painted Turtle or the much rarer Blanding’s Turtle (Emys blandingii ) that one of our bird monitors has seen twice on the trails as well.
And down in the short grass, a small Amber Snail (family Succineidae) moved languidly along the path, oblivious of all the prairie drama above. Isn’t it interesting that they have eyes on the end of those translucent tentacles on their heads?
Nature Asks that We Love It, Warts and All
It’s a temptation to romanticize who and what we love, isn’t it? For me, nature’s always been full of creativity, beauty, harmony – and I’m not wrong about that. Watch a cardinal stuff a seed into its mates beak to woo her. Or see a a mother raccoon cope with a treeful of young after a long night of foraging. Or learn how trees feed their young through the miraculous network of ancient underground fungi.
But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to accept that there’s a fierceness to nature, too – not just tornadoes and floods but everyday survival fierceness: an empty turtle nest; the caterpillar that consumes its live host; an owl swooping down on a baby rabbit; a dragonfly snatched by a field sparrow.
And then there are burgeoning invasive species introduced by humans: the house sparrow’s predation, the bittersweet vine choking the life out of trees, the zebra mussels changing the environment of the Great Lakes.
Nature’s solutions to life’s endless challenges and change may not always be pretty, but they have sustained our kind and all life on this planet for millennia. Each time I venture out into the natural world, I’m being shown the importance of honoring and preserving the complex, carefully balanced, interwoven systems that nature has worked out over eons. Until recently, humans were blind to those finely tuned systems and we have unwittingly done serious harm to them in multiple ways. But now we are beginning to see and understand what we’ve done. Now we know that these delicately balanced relationships can be restored if we have the will to do so. I’m glad our small green corner of the planet has made a commitment to doing just that.
Gray clouds blanket our April skies in Michigan – but the occasional bright blue day or a beam of pale sunlight slipping between the rain clouds can lift our spirits in a giddy instant. The earth emerges from its snow cover in shades of gray and brown – but summer birds return dressed in their spring finery, ready to join others in exuberant song.
Hibernators poke their heads from tree holes or slip out of the leaf litter or swim up from thawing ponds, ready to nurture a new generation of young. Early spring takes its time, offering us just a few tastes here and there of the colorful bustle ahead as the days grow longer.
Visitor Birds Fly In Bearing Color and Song on Their Bright Wings
I hope you’ve been able to open a window or step out your door to listen to the birds’ dawn chorus in the last few days. Just in case, I thought I’d play a recording I made outside our home last Sunday morning. If you increase your volume, you’ll hear the insistent call of Northern Cardinal, the buzzing call of a Red-winged Blackbird, the “kwirrr call of the Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus), the “tweeeeets” of American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) and in the background, Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) high overhead, plus a few smaller birds twittering along. It’s a joyful noise after a cold winter.
The male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) you heard above, of course, has provided splashes of scarlet against the snow all winter. But now some old friends are arriving for the summer, brightening up an April day. Members of our birding group heard the high pitched whistling calls of Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) and then spotted a small group that had settled into trees near a Bear Creek Nature Park wetland. The yellow tips of their tails and yellow bellies added a spot of sunshine on a blue/gray morning. Though Waxwings can stay here year ’round, I see Waxwings less often in the winter. I’m glad some of them choose to nest in Bear Creek each year.
As a friend and I skirted the eastern edge of the Center Pond one afternoon, we heard a splash and looked up to see a female Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) flying up into a tree with her quarry. She swallowed it, though, before I got her picture. Her blue and rust colored belts show that she’s a female.
The male has only one blue belt. Fortunately, last Sunday, the male was at the Center Pond. When my husband and I arrived, the kingfisher was very agitated, calling as he dashed from tree to tree. These kingfishers don’t sing. At best, their fast, rat-a-tat rattle provides the other birds’ vocals with a little background percussion.
The gorgeous male Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) brought more than his share of brilliant color to the chilly waters of the Playground Pond. Together he and his mate will scout for a nesting hole high in the top of a tree near water in the woods nearby. Wood Duck nestlings are “precocial,” meaning born ready to go – eyes open, covered in feathers and, in their case, outfitted with claws for climbing. Only days after birth, they claw their way up to the edge of their nest cavity and leap into the air, following their mother’s calls below. They fall harmlessly into the leaf litter or water and join her in the the nearest pond to feed. Amazing feat for a baby bird! The adult birds make quite a racket when taking flight, the male’s “zeet” call is very different from the female’s “oo-eek.”
The diminutive Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) repeatedly sang his lovely up-and-down spring song while he hopped about frenetically in a cluster of vines near the Playground Pond. Through the tangled branches, I could see the red crown raised slightly atop his head, but never got a clear shot. Luckily, gifted local photographer, Joan Bonin, got a lovely photo when a kinglet posed on a branch for her at Holland Ponds in Shelby Township. Thanks to Joan for sharing her excellent photographs for the blog!
In his brilliant iridescent green head, yellow beak and orange legs, the Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) seemed to be leading his more modestly dress mate around the Playground Pond one afternoon. But when the female Mallard spotted me, she turned and swam away, quacking insistently until the male looked around nervously, saw me and fled toward her, scrambling awkwardly across some submerged logs to catch up with his mate. By the way, that famous “Quack!” is only given by Mallard females. Have a listen to it along with male’s very different call at this link.
Near the Walnut Lane, a wonderful ripple of song flowed down from the treetops. After a bit of peering around, high above I spotted an American Robin holding forth repeatedly with his up-and-down lilting spring song. I recorded his music and then looked up and took a photo from an angle I hadn’t noticed before. I got a worm’s eye view, you might say, of that very sharp, probing beak and felt glad it wasn’t being thrust in my direction!
Over in the marsh, the male Red-winged Blackbirds have been clucking and buzzing from atop the cat-tails for a couple of weeks as a way of establishing territory. Last week, the females began to arrive. Maybe their dark striping lets them blend safely into the shadows while they tend their nests among the stems down near the water. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
And Then the Frogs Join the Chorus!
After one warm April day, the hibernating spring frogs broke into song. Every wetland at Bear Creek trilled with the high-pitched peeping of Chorus Frogs (genus Pseudacris) and lower chuckling gurgle of the Wood Frogs. Both have been frozen all winter with no heartbeat and no brain waves but enough built-in anti-freeze in their cells to somehow stay alive. And as soon as they warm up, they’re ready to sing!
The Wood Frogs, like the one above, are easier to spot because they croak while floating on the surface, flexing their legs in an occasional kick. The thrust creates concentric circles in the water around them, so I look for the little masked frogs in the middle of those circles. Most Chorus frogs are harder to see, usually huddled on, against or under logs. I haven’t spotted one yet this spring, (though their piercing songs can be deafening up close! Here’s a photo, though, from a previous year.
Some of our local Chorus Frogs, Spring Peepers, (Pseudacris crucifer) are nocturnal. I imagine that the Bear Creek Nature Park neighbors are hearing them when the sun sets, or will shortly. If you see one sleeping on a leaf during the day as I did once, you’ll see the “X” on its back just behind its head, though it’s hard to see in this shot. Isn’t it tiny?
Other Hibernators Emerge…
The Raccoon (Procyon lotor) that I watch for every year in the oak-hickory forest has already given birth to four kits. One of them is what’s sometimes called a “blond morph”; it’s not an albino, just a different morph or phenotype of the raccoon. I saw a blond adult raccoon a few years ago in the same tree so that trait must be in the local gene pool. The four kits (one is barely visible at the back right) seem to be laying across their sleeping mother’s back in order to get a good look at me. She’s probably catching up on her sleep after hunting all night to feed these youngsters!
A couple other hibernators made their first appearance in the last two weeks. An Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus), that had dozed off and on all winter in its multi-chambered den, emerged and just sat quietly in a patch of sunlight along the entrance trail. The light must take some getting used to after months underground, just waking now and then to eat stored nuts and seeds.
A pair of Midland Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta marginata) kept each other company on a log in the Playground Pond last week. The slightly warmer water must have signaled them to leave their winter torpor in the mud below and swim up into the light and air. I wondered if these two were a pair; the lower one maintained a steady stare at the higher one, who paid no attention while I was there. They both probably were just staring off into the distance, though, as turtles often do.
Over in the marsh, a whole group of them gathered in the reeds and assumed exactly the same pose in order to soak up the sun on their dark shells.
A couple Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina) surfaced in the marsh as well. One fed with its head down as it cruised the marsh, eating vegetation. It looked just like a slowly moving green lump! But the other, much smaller, was basking with its entire body encased in vivid green Duckweed (genus Lemna). It seems very content with the look, and probably feeling, it had created, eh?
Plants Begin to Bloom…and Butterflies (and others) aren’t Far Behind!
Just as spring was breaking and icy puddles were melting, I came across a little stream burbling through Bear Creek Nature Park’s eastern woods. This streams runs out of the Center Pond toward the marsh, joining Bear Creek after it leaves the march. Such a lovely spring sound!
On the north side of the Center Pond last week, the Willows (genus Salix) bloomed and (hooray!) we got our first glimpse this year of butterflies – and other pollinators. First we saw one of the hibernating butterflies, the Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa). It looked a bit ragged from having spent the winter in a tree cavity or under loose bark on the snow-covered ground. It’s often the first butterfly I see in the spring. Mourning cloaks generally don’t pollinate much because they sip tree sap or the honeydew of aphids, rather than nectar from flowers. This one might have been displaying in order to attract a female.
On the same plant, a migrator, the Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) posed. It does sip nectar but it also competes with other males for territory by showing off its flying skills. Perhaps that’s why this one was flitting busily from limb to limb.
On one bloom, we saw what appeared a small Wasp (maybe suborder Apocrita). It seemed very busy enjoying the willow’s pollen. According to Wikipedia, unlike the better known wasps, like Yellowjackets (fam. Vespidae), most wasps are solitary with each female living and breeding alone.
Over in a wetland on the west side of the marsh, the strange blossom of Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) had thrust itself up out of the mud. Its purple and yellow spathe covers a tiny spike of petal-less flowers inside. The smell of skunk cabbage attracts early spring flies that pollinate this sci-fi looking blossom. It releases a skunk-like smell and a bitter taste when bruised which means most predators stay away, too. The stem of Skunk Cabbage remains beneath the ground and the green leaves rise after the flowers. Odd, how this eccentric plant with the nasty scent seems to reverse my expectations of how plants grow in the spring!
The brightest colors in the woods now, though, are the vivid greens of Moss (members of the Bryophytes). Spring light sifts through bare limbs providing enough sunlight to feed these interesting, ancient plants. The leafy green parts of moss are “gametophytes” that produce the gametes, sperm and ova. Once spring raindrops rinse the sperm across the surface of the moss to a waiting ovum, fertilization occurs and a tall thin “sporophyte” rises from the green surface. The sporophyte will eventually release it spores. These spores initiate thin filaments called the “protonema” out of which grow new gametophytes, starting a new patch of moss.
Here are what I’m guessing are three different stages of moss growing on the same tree near the marsh. Or maybe its three different mosses? I’m too much of an amateur naturalist to know. I do know that I love the green glow of moss in the dappled light of the forest. (If you are knowledgeable about mosses, please feel free to correct my guesses and help me identify them! )
If mosses just don’t do it for you, don’t despair. Thanks to last fall’s forestry mowing north of the pond, sun has already reached the sunny faces of the Blood Root (Sanguinaria canadensis). I admire its leafy cloak that rises with the flower wrapped inside.
The first tender leaves and buds of the woodland wildflower, Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica) are already rising at the feet of trees in the Oak-Hickory forest.
And out in the eastern meadow, a Pussy Willow (Salix discolor) began to bud a few weeks ago, while it peacefully hosts a wide assortment of developing insects within its pine cone-shaped Willow galls. Last Sunday, it had bloomed, but the insects didn’t seem to be issuing forth yet.
Slip on Your Boots and Your Raincoat! Spring is Singing Its Siren Song
Spring’s a great time to act like a kid again. Try heading for the park on a rainy day and let the sounds and sights of spring cheer you like they did when you were small. Slosh through a puddle. Squelch through some mud. Leave your earbuds at home – and pause, eyes closed, for a short serenade by a Robin or a Song Sparrow. Use your binoculars to scan the wetlands for tiny frogs, their throats bulging with song. Let your color-starved eyes feast on the yellow of a Waxwing’s belly, the emerald shine of a Mallard’s head, the exotic, multi-colored pattern of a Wood Duck’s plumage. Swish your palm across a soft cushion of a vivd green moss. Perhaps even get close enough to a skunk cabbage to make your nose wrinkle. Our senses need a good workout after being indoors for so long. Treat yourself to a walk in the park. I can pretty much guarantee you’ll come home happier than when you left. Works for me every single time.