Birds and butterflies flock to Cranberry Lake Park year ’round. The wide range of habitats there – a lake, wooded wetlands, huge meadows and acres of forest – provide food and shelter during the summer for a wide range of different species. And migrators make it a regular stop-over in the spring and fall, this autumn being no exception.
Last week, little warblers flitted from limb to limb, keeping the birding group busy trying to spot them all by eye or ear. And in the meadows, the special “super-generation” Monarchs that hatched in late summer sipped from and floated above the asters and goldenrods before beginning their long migration to their wintering grounds in Mexico.
Migrating Birds Ride In, While Local Fledglings Bulk Up
When a north wind blows in the dark of night, getting out to the meadows in the morning can be a rewarding experience. Warblers and other migrators from farther north fly and float in using those winds to support them. As migration begins, being partially carried by the wind on a dark night saves energy and also avoids hawks and other predators that fly in the sunlight.
The birding group heard and saw the first flush of these seasonal nomads on their September visit to Cranberry Lake Park. Our first encounter was with a busy Black-and-White Warbler tracking up, down and around tree trunks on the Hickory Lane that runs down the western edge of the park. A tiny bird moving fast in dense shade meant that none of the birders got a decent photo. But since these beautifully patterned warblers wear the same plumage fall or spring, here’s a springtime shot when foliage was less of a problem!
Unfortunately, I missed most of the warblers on the Cranberry Lake Park bird walk by suddenly feeling ill. So fellow birder and fine photographer Joan Bonin was kind enough to share a few of her photos with me! Thank you, Joan! The group spotted a Magnolia Warbler (Setophagia magnolia) in its fall plumage, which as you’ll see in my photo on the right below is a lot different from its spring courting colors! It’s headed for the Bahamas like the Black-and-White. I hope the devastating hurricane there doesn’t mean trouble for them. Best of luck, little birds! [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]
Joan got a shot of a Black-throated Green Warbler (Setophaga virens) which is also headed to the Bahamas. It too wears less flashy plumage in the non-breeding season.
Ben caught sight of a Chestnut-sided Warbler (Setophaga pensylvanica). Using his description and The Warbler Guide by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle, I think it probably was either a female in fall plumage or a first year male or female, because it had a clear breast with no chestnut streaks on its side. Since no one got a photo, I found one from a generous photographer who uses the name “thejasperpatch” at the iNaturalist.org website. Thank you!
The male Chestnut-sided is one of my favorites because of its varied color and pattern. These tiny birds are headed for Central or South America to hang out with a flock they forage with every year – much like human friends who meet up in Florida each winter! Here’s my photo of a male prepared to charm the ladies in his spring plumage.
Ben also heard the slightly rough-edged, two or three note song of the Yellow-throated Vireo (Vireo flavifrons), but the birders could never spot it in the thick foliage. Vireos often accompany warblers on migration. This one was probably planning to spend the winter in the Bahamas too, though they also winter in Cuba. The yellow “spectacles” are one of its distinguishing features. Here’s a photo by fine photographer BJ Stacey at iNaturalist.org .
Fledglings need a bit more sustenance before heading south. Before I departed on birding day, I got a quick photo of a juvenile Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus). It jumped excitedly from branch to branch, waiting for its parent, who periodically flew in to quickly stuff food in its beak. According to the Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol. 2), adult Towhees feed their fledglings for about a month after they leave the nest. At first the young stay in dense foliage, then gradually wait in more exposed places like the one in the photo below. Shortly, this young one will join with other juvenile Towhees to eat and hang out together like any adolescent. Fortunately, understanding adult towhees will allow them to cross their territories to do so.
A week earlier in the same area, my husband and I had heard a male Towhee making his territorial “wheeet” call. When we spotted him, he gave us a sharp warning glance. I wondered at the time if his young were nearby. Maybe that alert male was the hard-working parent feeding the youngster that we birders saw a week later. I’d like to think so.
On a cool, wet morning, a fledgling House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) perched on its own, looking out across a meadow. Other young wrens called to one another farther along the trail, so this one was probably waiting for an adult occupied with feeding its siblings. Before they migrate, wrens become quiet and remain hidden in the greenery frequently where they winter in the southern Gulf states and Florida. Southerners miss out on the male’s glorious spring song. Aren’t we the lucky ones?
Joan Bonin also snagged a photo of a Broad-winged Hawk (Buteo platypterus) who was probably headed south toward the tip of Florida or Cuba. In autumn, huge “kettles” of these birds with thousands of individuals make their way south together. (See photo of a “kettle” at the top of this section.) Two birder friends and I saw a huge circling flock last year at the Hawk Fest in Amherstburg, Ontario, though this year the festival was canceled at the last minute by a storm severe enough to bring down trees. All this severe weather is a serious threat to migrating birds!
Monarchs Everywhere on a Cool, Autumn Morning!
The migration of the “super-generation” Monarchs is well underway. These heroes of the insect world – the last generation of Monarchs to hatch here in the upper Midwest and Northeast – will live for 8 months, instead of the 5-7 weeks of all other Monarchs. They make the entire two-month journey of 3,000 miles to Mexico, spend the winter, and then fly back north to mate. There they lay the eggs for the first of the 4 to 5 generations of short-lived Monarchs who will successively produce their progeny, eventually ending this relay in Michigan each spring.
Alone at the park on a cool, wet morning, I saw twenty-one Monarchs in my first ten minutes! I stopped counting, took a few photos and then just enjoyed the sight of them slipping up out of wet greenery where they’d spent the night. They shivered upward, shedding dew, looking like vivid autumn leaves reversing their descent. It seemed that with every step I took, more of them rose from the moist meadow. A peaceful, quite magical sight. Here’s a short slideshow of just a few of them on the plants on which they’d rested the night before.
Monarchs were feeding close together as in this photo with two Monarchs in the foreground and one that’s just an orange blur in the background. Aren’t they just spectacular in their golden setting? What beautiful, delicate and surprisingly tough long distance athletes they are!
Other Wings Over the Meadows
The dragonflies and their slimmer relatives, the damselflies are on the wing in late summer and early autumn, too. In August, we saw a dragonfly that was new to me, the Slaty Skimmer (Libellula incesta), with a dark blue body and black head. It was above the lake trail which is lined with wooded wetlands, this dragonfly’s favorite habitat, according to the Odonata Central website. Ben got the best photo of it.
Meadowhawk dragonflies (genus Sympetrum) mate and lay eggs in July and August so they are plentiful right now. Determining a specific species in this genus is not possible unless you’re an expert with one in hand. But the males are almost always red and females and juveniles are usually yellowish brown or black and many have chevrons on their abdomens.
I was fortunate to get an identification on one Meadowhawk I saw because it had some distinctive features like yellow legs, a generally unmarked thorax and a scoop-like spatulate end to its abdomen. This is likely a female Autumn Meadowhawk (Sympetrum vicinum) as identified by people more experienced that I on the “Odonata of the Eastern United States” Facebook page.
According to the Minnesota Dragonfly Society website, “Some dragonflies…point their wings forward and down in order to reduce exposure to sunlight and, perhaps, to reflect light and heat away from their bodies.” On really hot days, they’ll point the tip of their abdomen straight up toward the sky to have as little exposure to the sun as possible. Getting warm or cooling down take some acrobatics from these cold-blooded creatures!
Damselflies, another member of the order Odonata, are always busy in the summer and early fall at Cranberry. Unlike dragonflies who generally rest with their wings spread outward, most damselflies rest with their wings closed. One family of damselfies, the Spreadwings (family Lestidae), cling to plants with their wings just slightly spread. This Spotted Spreadwing (Lestes congener) at Cranberry Lake Park in September shows this common wing position for spreadwings. How about those eyeballs!
The female Slender Spreadwing (Lestes rectangularis) can almost disappear with its clear wings and its unusually long, gray-to-black body, especially since it loves the shade.
Now admittedly, the Tussock Moth’s Caterpillar (Euchaetes egele) isn’t fluttering just now, but it plans to! Of course, it will need to chew on quite a lot of Milkweed before it builds its cocoon and waits until spring to transform. The adult moth’s chunky yellow body lined with black dots is hidden under a pair of subtly elegant beige wings. I’m still on the hunt for the moth (which you can see at this link), but for now, I’m enjoying the floppy, mop-head look of the black and orange caterpillar.
Amphibians Still Visible, but…Hibernation Awaits!
In August, I saw a lot of tiny amphibians near Cranberry Lake! The young Leopard Frog (Rana pipiens) my husband I saw will shortly be heading for the bottom of the lake to spend the winter just as the Green Frog above does – on top of mud on the lake bottom, breathing slowly through its skin.
When the temperature drops, the tiny Wood Frog (Rana sylvatica) that Ben picked up on the bird walk will travel upland to hibernate inside a log or under leaves. According to National Geographic’s website, once its body starts to freeze, its liver produces a kind of internal “anti-freeze,” a very sugary glucose solution which is then packed into the cells so they don’t collapse, like human cells do when frozen. The little frog will survive if no more than 67% of its body freezes. Its brain activity stops, its heart stops and it’s frozen solid! But in spring, it thaws and hops away! It can even tolerate our Michigan freeze-thaw-freeze cycles! By the first frost, this little one will be bigger and ready for the big adventure!
So many Eastern American Toads (Anaxyrus americanus) were springing from under our feet in August that we had to be cautious not to step on them! They often hatch simultaneously and may stay together for some time afterward. Once cold weather sets in, they can dig a hole up to 3 feet deep with their hind legs and essentially back into the hole, the dirt falling in to cover them as they get deeper. Then their metabolism slows as it does for all hibernators and they remain in torpor for the winter.
The tiny Gray Tree Frog (Hyla versicolor) is bright green when it’s young (see left below), but becomes gray, brown or green, usually with a black pattern, when it matures (right below). Though the mating season is over for them now, the males are singing in September anyway, especially when it rains. We hear one singing from an unused hood vent outside our kitchen window! Like the wood frog, it can survive when its body freezes, thaw out in the spring, and be just fine.
Fall Has a Special Kind of Excitement, Doesn’t It?
We often think of the fall as brilliantly colored falling leaves – and of course, that’s coming. But in this early part of fall, as days occasionally turn crisp and nights get chilly, so much more is going on!
Spider webs bejeweled in dew shine in the morning sun as spiders prepare to snag more insects before cold weather begins. Bright yellow goldenrods are now complemented by purple flowers, like New England Aster. Acorns and hickory nuts tumble to the ground and are quickly stored away by squirrels and chipmunks. Large hatches of tiny, late season Red-legged Grasshoppers spring from the grass below our feet as we hike the trails. They must hurry to grow, mate and lay eggs before the ground hardens.
Some birds disappear for a while to change into their winter colors. Others relinquish the territorial fierceness of breeding season to gather in huge flocks, flying in formation or whirling high overhead. Small ones fly singly through the dark, only stopping to eat and rest, before moving on.
And we humans stock our larders with summer produce – berries in the freezer, peaches in bottles, apples at the fruit stand. We repair a leak in the roof, wash the dust off the storm doors, pull jackets and sweaters from the backs of closets – or make arrangements to pack up and migrate south with the birds. All of us animals, human and otherwise, know that as day and night equal out at the equinox, preparations must be made! And so it begins….