Tag Archives: Monarch Butterfly

The Milkweed Connection: A “Welcome Home” for Our Superhero Monarchs

Monarch on Joe Pye (Eutrochium maculatum)

Great news! Reports from the Monarch Butterfly wintering grounds in Mexico say that this will be another good year for Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus) in our area! Monarchs of the Midwest and Northeast count on us to provide a big pulse of wildflowers with nectar to sip and lots of Milkweeds (genus Asclepias) on which to lay their eggs. Monarchs are very choosy! Their caterpillars can only become butterflies by eating  the leaves of plants in the Milkweed family.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

In February, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township stewardship manager, hosted an interesting and  thorough presentation by Dr. Nate Haan of Michigan State University on the topic “Monarch Butterfly Ecology and Conservation.” So here’s  a bit of what he shared with us that might help you and I be prepared for the arrival of these beautiful pollinators. My thanks to Dr. Haan for his presentation and to the photographers cited in the captions of some photos below for helping me tell the amazing story of our “super generation” of Monarchs.

The Life of a Monarch from Egg to Adult

One end of the Monarch migration starts each late summer/ autumn here in Michigan and other Midwest and Northeastern states. Monarchs that traveled here in spring sip wildflower nectar, mate and lay eggs on the underside of milkweed  leaves. Their favorite milkweed is Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), though any milkweed in the Asclepias species will do. More about that later.

A monarch butterfly egg on the underside of a Common Milkweed leaf (Photo by Merav Vonshak (CC BY-NC) at inaturalist.org

Only about 2-10% of the Monarch eggs hatch in the fields, because they are food for a wide variety insects and spiders.  But for the lucky few, small caterpillars emerge from these eggs.  They begin by eating the egg itself and then going on to eat the leaves of the host milkweed plant. Milkweed has tiny silver hairs as a protection against predators, but over the eons Monarch caterpillars have learned to shave them off!  They then attach their hind end to the leaf and move in a half circle eating, which prevents most of them from getting stuck in the milky latex that gives milkweed its name. Then the little caterpillar molts, shedding its exoskeleton to become an increasingly more colorful and larger caterpillar. It takes them five molts to reach full size.

A Monarch caterpillar (probably a 2nd instar)  eating a milkweed leaf. Photo by permission from Tanya Harvey at http://westerncascades.com/2017/07/04/a-week-of-monarchs-and-milkweed-day-1/

The sticky, milky latex is the plant’s second defense against predators, because it can gum up a caterpillar’s mouth. But the fifth and last  molt of the Monarch caterpillar has found an even more effective way to defuse the threat than the first instar did. The large yellow and black fifth instar’s technique is to make a quick bite into the main vein of the leaf, releasing pressure and waiting until the liquid drains out.  Then they can continue to eat anywhere on the leaf. Here’s  my photo of a fifth instar eating Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) along the Paint Creek Trail.

A 5th instar Monarch caterpillar eating on Butterfly Milkweed

It takes 10-14 days for the caterpillar to complete 5 molts.  It then leaves the milkweed behind, finds a horizontal surface, attaches itself with a silk pad and molts again. This time the caterpillar creates an opaque green chrysalis with gold trim! The chrysalis hardens after a short time and the butterfly begins to develop inside. This pupal stage lasts for another 10-14 days.

A Monarch chrysalis, photo by inaturalist.org photographer Pam Kleinsasser (CC BY NC)

Finally, the chrysalis becomes transparent and the the butterfly emerges to dry its wings before taking flight.

Monarch emerging from its translucent chrysalis, photo by inaturalist.org photographer gvelazco (CC BY-SA)
A Monarch butterfly taking off on a sunny afternoon

The Super Powers of our Monarch “Super Generation”

The Monarchs fluttering over our parks in August and September are gifted with two super powers: they live much longer than other Monarchs, and they can fly over 3000 miles to overwinter in Mexico. I’ve cited this quote from National Geographic before in discussing monarchs but it bears repeating. According to Dr. Pablo Jaramillo-López, a research scientist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico “…when fall rolls around …, a special ‘super generation’ of monarchs that can live up to eight months will make use of air currents to wing all the way back to Mexico—a seemingly impossible feat for such a delicate-looking insect.”

Monarchs arriving in central Mexico for the winter. Photo by Carlos Dominguez-Rodriquez (CC BY-NC) at inaturalist.org.

It can take up to two months for our Monarchs to reach the mountains of central Mexico. They spend the winter there, protected by the micro-climate created by Oyamel, or “Sacred” Fir trees (Abies religiosa).

Monarchs wintering in Mexico, photo by Mario Castañeda-Sánchez (CC BY-NC) at iNaturalist.org

In the spring, our “super generation” monarchs then start the journey back to Michigan by flying as far north as Texas. After mating and laying eggs there, they die, and their offspring carry on the migration north. It takes four or five generations of Monarchs along the way, each living only 5-7 weeks (instead of 8 months!) for the last of our super-generation’s offspring to land with such exquisite delicacy on the wildflowers in our parks. As Dr. Pablo Jaramillo-López says in National Geographic, “This makes the migrating monarchs so unique as they are the same species but for some reason live much longer.”

Monarch on Grass-leaved Goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia)

The Threats that Monarchs Face

A graph showing the general decline in the number of Monarch butterflies. Data from 1994-2003 were collected by personnel of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve (MBBR) of the National Commission of Protected Natural Areas (CONANP) in Mexico. Data from 2004-2019 were collected by the WWF-Telcel Alliance, in coordination with the Directorate of the MBBR. 2000-01 population number as reported by Garcia-Serrano et. al (The Monarch Butterfly : Biology and Conservation, 2004)
The Monarch Joint Venture is a national partnership of federal and state agencies, non-governmental organizations, businesses and academic programs working together to conserve the monarch butterfly migration. The content in this article does not necessarily reflect the positions of all Monarch Joint Venture partners.

Monarch numbers go up and down but sadly, over the last two decades the trend is generally downward as you can see above. So what’s the problem?  As usual, there are multiple factors. Dr. Haan named five:

  1. Logging in their overwintering area in Mexico makes surviving in the mountains more difficult. The Mexican government and non-governmental organizations are working on finding sustainable projects that can support local economic alternatives for people living in the Monarch’s wintering grounds.
  2. Less wildflowers and more agricultural crops in the Great Plains and Midwest states. This leaves less nectar resources to feed the Monarchs and fewer milkweed stems on which to lay eggs for successive generations. Some farmers are changing their approach to their grazing and crop land to accommodate the Monarch’s need for milkweed.
  3. According to the Monarch Joint Venture website, OE (Ophryocystis elektroscirrha), a parasite can get on the wings of adult Monarchs, who then spread this parasite on the milkweed leaves when they mate or lay eggs. If caterpillars eat the leaves, they become infected with the pathogen that can cause a developing Monarch’s wings to be too weak to get out of its chrysalis and may shorten the lives of adult Monarchs. Tropical forms of milkweed sold by nurseries tend to be associated with this parasite and they should be avoided. Dr. Haan reported also that  Monarchs bred from more tropical areas, like Florida, may carry OE, too.
  4. Insecticides used on garden plants can be lethal to butterflies, as well as other beneficial insects. Perhaps the greatest problem is milkweed loss in the Midwest, which is the core breeding habitat for Monarchs.  Milkweed used to be much more common around and on farms.
  5. In the late 1990’s many farmers turned to Roundup Ready genetically modified seeds which makes their crops resistant to Roundup.  This allows farmers to spray Roundup on their crops,  which kills milkweed along with other unwanted plants without hurting their crops.   As a result, Dr. Haan said, scientists estimate that 40% of the milkweed needed by Monarchs, is gone, maybe a billion stems in the last 20 years, which coincides with the decline in Monarch populations.
MilkweedInCorn_NateHaan
Milkweed used to be a common weed in crop fields. Illustration by Nate Haan.

So How Do We Help Our Friendly Local Monarchs?

Well, we can use less insecticide and when we do use it, follow directions carefully. We can avoid growing non-native milkweeds that carry the parasite OE. We can plant milkweed to support developing caterpillars and nectar-producing native flowers to feed the adult Monarchs. Coneflowers, asters and goldenrods, and many other prairie flowers that prefer medium to dry soil and full sunlight flourish just when the super generation of Monarchs is beefing up for the long migration. Of course, lots of other butterflies, bees and other pollinators loves these flowers too!

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Varied Milkweed Species Feed Young Monarchs and Add Color to Our Fields and Gardens

Maybe the biggest  – and most beautiful – contribution we can make to the welfare of Monarch butterflies is to plant more milkweeds in our fields and gardens. Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) multiplies both by the parachuting seeds we all loved as children and by its extensive network of roots. So it can spread too quickly to be a great garden plant. But it’s perfect in big sunny fields or natural areas.

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)

If you are lucky enough to have Common Milkweed on your property, it will help, Dr. Haan told us, if you trim/mow  down about a third of the milkweed stems on your property in late June or early July. He and his associate’s research shows that Monarchs prefer to lay more eggs on the tender stems that re-grow because they are easier to eat and more nutritious .

Graph showing how monarchs laid more eggs on new growth from milkweed stems mowed in mid-July (green-shaded area) than on milkweed unmowed (orange line) or mowed in mid-June (blue shaded area). Graph by Dr. Haan.

Since most of our milkweed plants are full grown by August, their leaves are old and tough and Monarch egg predators are present in large numbers. If you can trim or mow some of your milkweed plants in mid-summer, they will re-sprout and provide the softer leaves on which Monarchs like to plant their eggs in late July or early August for the migrating “Super Generation.” Those new stems also contain less predatory insects and spiders, meaning monarch eggs may have a better chance of surviving.

Luckily, If you’d like Monarchs in your yard or garden rather than a field, there are other kinds of milkweed for those settings. Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) tends to stay in one place. It needs a dry to medium moisture level and lots of sun. And what a beautiful orange to match the Monarchs! Other butterflies and pollinators love them too, of course!

Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) with a female Monarch

Swamp Milkweed aka Rose, Pink or Red Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) also loves sun, but as the word “Swamp” implies, it likes “wet feet” or at least medium to moist soil.

Swamp Milkweed blooming in August grows best in a moist spot.

If you have a shady area with medium to dry moisture levels, try planting the graceful Poke Milkweed (Asclepias exultata) with its cascade of bluish-white blossoms.

Unlike most milkweed, Poke Milkweed can grow in fairly shady areas.

Native plant nurseries (see the list in an earlier blog) can show you other native milkweeds as well. If possible, find ones that are Michigan genotypes since they will grow most easily and serve admirably as host plants for our Michigan Monarchs.

So Rewarding to Make a Difference, Isn’t It?

A “Super Generation” Monarch feeding on New England Aster before migration

Who knew, when I was a child, that milkweed plants would begin to diminish and the Monarchs would begin to decline as a result? And now we know, according to the recent summary of a biodiversity report, that as many as a million other species worldwide are in the same situation.

It’s easy to despair, I know – but let’s not! The best antidote to despair is always doing what you can in your own corner of the world and supporting others who share your concern for nature.

And in the case of the Monarch butterfly, it can be as simple as planting milkweed! Or it’s as easy as planting native flowers, grasses, shrubs, and trees in our yards instead of exotic plants. With no recent shared history, these exotic plants don’t always feed butterfly caterpillars and other beneficial native insects.  Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, it’s changing the non-native turf of your own lawn into large gardens filled with colorful native plants with paths of mowed turf leading from one to the next. Or it’s maybe creating a native prairie out of an old agricultural field like our township stewardship crew and some nature-loving homeowners are doing.

Eastern Prairie Ilsley July
Eastern Prairie at Charles Isley Park on July 12, 2018

All it takes is just caring, learning and getting started.  I’ve begun. The township parks stewardship crew has begun. Many of you have already begun.  What we can hope is that others will join us.

 

Stewardship Talk this Thursday: Monarch Butterfly Ecology and Conservation

For our second Stewardship Talk of 2019 we are excited to host Dr. Nate Haan from Michigan State University for his talk, “Monarch Butterfly Ecology and Conservation.” The talk is free and will be this Thursday, February 7, 2019 at 6:30 pm at the Paint Creek Cider Mill, 4480 Orion Road, Rochester, MI 48306. Dr. Haan will share about monarch butterfly natural history and ecology, as well as some of the current research on their decline and what we can do to save them.

Monarch butterfly resting on a black-eyed susan.

Monarch butterflies are one of the most interesting and recognizable insects in the world. Every year they migrate thousands of miles, from our backyards in Michigan to mountains in central Mexico. They also have fascinating interactions with their toxic milkweed host plants. Unfortunately, monarchs have declined in recent decades and the overwintering population in Mexico is only around 20% of its former size.

The head of this monarch caterpillar is at the bottom as it nibbles buds of butterfly milkweed.

Hope to see you there!

Gallagher Creek Park: Young Birds and Young Humans Play as Autumn Carries On

Grownups, children and a baby-to-be playing at Gallagher Creek Park

Surprised a bit by seeing the photo above in a nature blog? Well, on my four October visits to Gallagher Creek Park, I noticed an abundance of a new species there – young humans and their watchful adults!

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

Late on autumn afternoons, this modest 15 acre park is now filled with the voices of excited little humans rocking, swinging, spinning , climbing, and sliding on the colorful new playground equipment installed in July by volunteers and staff of the Parks and Recreation Commission. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

The park’s already becoming a place for families to cross paths and get to know their neighbors in the most densely populated part of our township. And meanwhile, in the background…

Nature Goes About Its Autumnal Business

Autumn at Gallagher Creek Park

The natural areas of Gallagher Creek look a bit scruffy right now from all the construction that went on this summer to build a picnic pavilion, a restroom enclosure, expanded parking area, the playground and a paved pathway. But despite all that to-ing and fro-ing, nature survives and offers beauty and bounty when you take time to venture into the fields.

Birds in the Distance as Children Play

Birds may keep their distance when the children are playing, but as I approached the tall grass at the edge of the creek east of the busy playground, a familiar head appeared above the tall grass.

A young Blue Heron peeks above the grass at the edge of the creek.

From the absence of a white crown on its head, it seemed to be a juvenile Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) stalking along the far side of the creek. Young Blue Herons take 3 years to develop full adult plumage, according to the Stokes Guides to Bird Behavior (Vol. 3). This youngster flew off, as I crackled through the browning stalks of goldenrod and yarrow.

But just as I arrived the next morning, when the playground was empty,  a juvenile – perhaps the same one? – flew over the treetops and swooped into a tree covered in vines. I snuck slowly forward and got one shot of it standing tall before it bent its knobby knees backward, spread those magnificent wings, and took to the air once more.

The young heron stood quietly in the tree as I approached.

The young Great Blue Heron bent its knees backward to begin its flight.

While the children shouted and laughed in the afternoon sun on a different afternoon, I watched a lone European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) high in a snag staring out over the playground nearby. It paid no attention to the happy noises below. I imagined that it was waiting for its highly social companions, since starlings gather in huge flocks at this time of year. This one had completed its fall molt complete with fresh feathers tipped in white, giving it the spotted plumage that starlings wear in fall and winter. By spring, the white tips will be worn off, returning these birds to their iridescent blue/black mating colors, and its beak will lighten and even change to bright yellow if it’s a male.

A European Starling that had finished its complete fall molt leaving its iridescent feathers tipped in white.

Unnoticed by the playground youngsters, a large, rippling flock (or “murmuration”) of about 75 starlings suddenly descended on the trees east of the creek. But the lone starling just kept staring into the distance. Perhaps it just needed a break from all the cackling and whistling that goes on in a starling gathering.

Part of a large “murmuration” of swooping starlings near Gallagher Creek.

Over in a quiet corner of the park, near the cat-tail marsh along the road, three little migrating Palm Warblers (Setophaga palmarum) in their duller fall colors chirped contact calls at each other before heading further south. The most notable field mark for these little birds is the bright yellow feathers under their tails and a pale “eyebrow” which they have year ’round.

Seeds Flying, Rattling, Dropping and Providing Food for Wildlife

Autumn, of course,  is the time when plants ripen and disperse seeds for next spring’s blooming. In doing so, they also provide important nourishment for all kinds of creatures. So while the children played, I went out to see what kinds of food nature was preparing in the background.

Seemingly unaware of the hubbub on the playground, a struggling American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) fumbled about trying to extract seed from a Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) while it swayed wildly in a stiff breeze.  I wondered if it was a juvenile who hadn’t quite mastered the skills necessary to extract seeds on a windy day.

It wasn’t easy for this Goldfinch to get the seed it wanted as the stalk it was on tossed back and forth in a stiff wind.

American Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) would delight any child at this time of year with its hot pink stem and blackish purple berries. The trick would be to keep them from trying to eat the berries,  since the seeds inside are slightly toxic to humans. According to one of my favorite wildflower sites, many of our favorite song birds (Bluebirds, Cedar Waxwings and more), as well as raccoons, opposums and the gray fox, feed on pokeweed berries with no problem.  Pokeweed prefers disturbed soil, which makes Gallagher Creek Park just the right spot this year! After I took this shot, I came back a few days later to find the stem broken and picked clean.  Mission accomplished – food eaten and seeds dispersed.

American Pokeweed berries are glamorous but the seeds inside are slightly toxic.

Some seed pods are rarely seen in our township except in this park. The wispy Bladdernut shrubs (Staphylea trifolia) produce elegant lantern-like pods. The shiny brown seeds inside shake in the wind, making a sound like a baby’s rattle. Though insects feed on the blossoms, there’s little evidence I could find that the seeds provide forage for wildlife. But the trees are doing a fine job of producing more Bladdernut shrubs as the number of them along the eastern tree line seems to be increasing nicely.

The Bladdernut shrub produces these elegant pods full of shiny brown seeds that rattle in the wind.

The common Cat-tails (genus Typha) are seeding as well, making a nice repast for a hungry Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata).

The pods of Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) are splitting open to release their silky little parachutes, each containing a seed that can sail away on the wind.  Milkweed has done its job by feeding Monarch caterpillars as well as many other butterflies and insects over the summer. So its current task is to get those seeds out into the world. If the seeds succeed in sprouting, they will feed more insects next year.

Seeds and their silky parachutes spill from Swamp Milkweed pods

More Edibles for Wildlife Wait in the Grass

Mushrooms, of course, can be edible by humans, but they are frequently a meal for squirrels and deer as well. I saw two varieties while the children romped at Gallagher Creek. A giant Puffball (genus Calvatia) had been broken in half, probably by a curious human, since it seemed to have no teeth marks in it. One appeared in the same area last year. And a stump hosted some pretty Turkey-tail Mushrooms (Trametes versicolor), whose tough, rubbery surface might not please us, but probably could please a squirrel (particularly a Red Squirrel).  I see them now and again with a mushroom between their paws.

As I stepped into the deep grass, I wished I had one of those busy children in tow to enjoy the sprays of Red-legged Grasshoppers (Melanoplus femurrubrum) leaping away from my feet. It would have made them laugh as it did me. These small grasshoppers lay their eggs less than inch under the earth in the autumn, and those eggs are a food source for birds, skunks, snakes and raccoons. Nymphs and adults can also be a food source for toads, snakes and some birds, but mostly during the summer months.

A Reg-legged Grasshopper finding a niche on a log, just in case.

Beauty Underfoot Before the Frost

Even though much of Gallagher Creek is covered in brown stalks and shriveled blossoms, a few autumn wildflowers survived right up until the first frost. East of the observation deck, near the creek, the ground is covered with unusual and fragile Bottle Gentians (Gentiana andrewsii), a native wildflower that grows in only a few places in our township. Its closed blossoms never open so they are most often fertilized by bumblebees who are big enough to force their way inside and back out again. The gentians were so plentiful this year that I had to step carefully to avoid treading on one as I explored the area.

Bottle Gentian blossoms never open, so bumblebees have to push their large bodies inside to get at the pollen and then push their way out!

Nearby, a late-migrating Monarch butterfly ((Danaus plexippus) paused to sip on the last purple blossoms of New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), a classic autumn wildflower.

A Monarch sipping at New England Aster as it begin its long migration to Mexico.

Birds Everywhere on a Cold, Quiet Morning – and a Playful Young Female

On the cold morning when I saw the heron that I mentioned above, the playground was empty and quiet. The bushes and trees, though, were alive with birds busily flitting from branch to branch, or shrub to soil, in search of anything they could find to eat.

What delighted me most was a large flock of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis). They were probably gathering to move a little farther south in Michigan or to Ohio in order to reach warmer weather, though Bluebirds often return here on warm winter days and some stay all year. The males are always the flashiest and were more plentiful in this flock.

But my favorite Bluebird on that chilly morning was what I’m guessing was a juvenile female. Young Bluebirds fledge wearing spotted breasts. But according to the Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.2), they molt into adult plumage in August and September. I began to wonder if this gray-headed female was a youngster because she seemed to be practicing the grass-handling skills that she would need next spring in building her carefully woven nest. When I first spotted her, she had the head of a grass stem in her beak with the dry stalk trailing down her back.

A female Bluebird holding the head of a grass stem in her beak.

She made a couple of tries at moving the grass into a more suitable position.

Seemingly frustrated, she dropped the stem between her feet and stared intently at it for a minute.

Frustrated, she finally dropped the grass between her feet and studied it.

At last it seemed she had figured it out.  She picked it up carefully in the middle of the stalk, a much easier way to handle it.

Ah, it works better to grasp the stem in the middle!

Satisfied, she carefully set it down on the railing on which she was perched.  And then left the grass stem there and flew to nearby tree.

I loved seeing this young bird fiddle with what may have been her first attempt at handling the building material she would need in the spring to create her nest.

Besides the Bluebirds, a whole assortment of other birds made the most of the quiet park that cold morning.  I’m fairly sure that a tiny migrating Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) was among them, but it insisted on keeping only its rear in view! So I’ve added a photo of another one I saw in a previous year so you can have a better look at it. (Use the pause button if more time is needed for captions.)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A Park Where the Young Can Learn and Play

A Milkweed seed on a windy morning at Gallagher Creek

I believe that young humans, like the young of all species, need play as a way to learn about the world.  So I loved watching children on the new playground at Gallagher Creek Park. So much is being learned as youngsters cope with siblings and strangers on the slide or the rocking “dragonfly” seesaw. Muscles grow stronger. Some learn the consequences of risk-taking and others overcome their fears.  It’s great.

What I’m hoping is that once the trails are mowed again next spring, parents will take their children by the hand and explore this little park that offers so much – baby muskrats in the spring, a swollen creek after rain, tree swallows diving for insects in the summer, and native wildflowers in three seasons. And yes, even little birds, that like all children, are learning how to be skillful grown-ups.

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net;Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels, A Guide to Bird Behavior Vols.1-3 by Donald W and Lillian Q.Stokes, entomology.ca/uky.edu on Red-legged Grasshoppers, illinoiswildflowers.info and others as cited in the text.

 

 

Cranberry Lake Park: Golden Meadows Host Migrators…and Last Minute Mating!

The golden Eastern Meadow at Cranberry Lake Park in early September

Goldenrod! A variety of different Goldenrods gild Cranberry Lake Park in early autumn. Their bounty of nectar and pollen and the insects they attract make Cranberry Lake an ideal stopover for migrating birds and butterflies as they prepare for their long journeys. So cheer for Goldenrods as they feed wildlife, but don’t blame them for your fall allergies – blame ragweed!

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

Year ’round birds and summer residents have almost finished molting and are also stocking up energy for winter or the migration. And a surprising number of insects are also preparing by busily mating one last time, leaving behind eggs or chrysalises that can bring forth young next spring and summer. Lots going on within this carpet of gold!

Migrating Birds –  Some Stayed All Summer; Some Just Stop Briefly for Rest & Refueling

Now’s the time to train your binoculars on any shaking leaf you see. It might be a fall migrator! Colorful, tiny warblers and vireos that are just passing through on their way south are well worth a pause to look into the shrubbery, as you’ll see below! But don’t forget to wish “bon voyage” to the migrators who arrived last spring and sojourned with us all summer. Many are finishing up their molts and readying for long journeys to the southern US or even Central and South America. We saw all of the birds shown below on the bird walk last week at Cranberry Lake Park.

Migrators from Farther North:  Just Passing Through

The trees are aquiver with fall migrators, travelers that bred up north and only briefly stop to rest and refuel around our woods and meadows. The most colorful ones that we often hear but can’t see are warblers and vireos. These little birds travel on the night wind because it’s safer. Hawks, eagles, and other birds that might see these small birds as food migrate during the day so that they can ride the thermals!

My camera and I are not quite quick enough to catch a lot of these tiny, fast-moving birds. So to share them with you, I’m relying on photos of other photographers with the skills, equipment and sometimes sheer luck to capture these little beauties!

The Blue-winged Warbler (Vermivora cyanoptera) breeds at Cranberry Lake Park, but the birds we’ve seen in the last week were probably moving through from further north. This fine bird shows off its black eyeline and blue wings with white wingbars in a gorgeous photo taken by gifted local photographer Joan Bonin:

Blue-winged Warbler (Vermivora cyanoptera) by Joan Bonin

This photo of the striking Black-throated Blue Warbler (Setophaga caerulescens) is by gifted iNaturalist photographer Jeff Skrent at iNaturalist.org.

A Black-throated Blue Warbler, photo by Jeff Skrent (CC BY-NC)

Yellow-throated Vireo  ( Vireo flavifronsfrom another generous iNaturalist photographer who uses the single name, paloma.

A Yellow-throated Vireo by paloma (CC BY-NC)

Nashville Warbler (Leiothlypis ruficapilla) was also too quick for me.  But here’s one I did manage to catch as it passed through in the autumn of 2016 on its way to Central America.

The Nashville Warbler on its way to Central America

Summer Visitors: The Migrators that Come Here to Raise Their Young

Some avian migrators see our parks as a great place to raise their young, so they come in the spring and stay for the summer. Having finished breeding and molting, they are now preparing to leave for points south. The male Common Yellowthroat’s  (Geothlypis trichas) “Witchedy – witchedy” song accompanied me often during the summer months as he and his mate raised their young. But you may here his “chuck” call as he hops among the branches stocking up on insect protein before leaving for Florida.

The Common Yellowthroat stops singing its “witchedy-witchedy” song in the fall and prepares to migrate.

Both the male Common Yellowthroat and his mate did a complete molt in July or August and now have fresh feathers for the trip. She’s bit more secretive than the male as she feeds on beetles, ants, bees (!), dragonflies and  grasshoppers within the golden fields. Usually she’ll leave a week or two later than the male.

The female Common Yellowthroat will be around a bit longer than her mate.

Last spring the Wednesday morning birders heard a Black-throated Green Warbler (Setophaga virens) singing its mating song along the Hickory Lane at Cranberry Lake. And this week, the birders spotted one flitting high in the trees. Perhaps it nested here to raise its young, or it could be just passing through our parks in spring and fall. Here’s  a photo I took of a male during the spring migration this year.

The Black-throated Green Warbler may have nested here this summer or he may be just passing through both in the spring and fall.

High in a snag, a Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) paused briefly to survey the golden eastern meadow one afternoon. Many waxwings go into lower Canada to breed, but I’ve seen successful nests in our parks, too, so this one may have been a summer resident. Some will move south for the winter, but many waxwings will stick around during the cold months.

his Cedar Waxwing may have spent the summer with us or could be migrating south from Canada.

House Wrens (Troglodytes aedon) become quite secretive after breeding. But this one popped out of the greenery for a minute. It appears to have completed the late summer molt and is prepared to start south between now and mid-October.

The House Wren has raised its young here, molted and will be leaving shortly for Florida and other southern states.

A curious juvenile Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) peeked at me from dense shrubbery along the trail, too.  The migration of Field Sparrows is not always predictable. Some migrate, some don’t, and some migrate one year but not the next, according to the Stokes’ Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.2). If this one does migrate, it may join a large flock with Chipping Sparrows as well as other Field Sparrows.

If this Field Sparrow chooses to migrate this year, it will probably join a larger flock. Or it may just stay put!

On one of my Cranberry walks, I spotted some Wood Ducks  (Aix sponsa) far across a well-hidden wetland. They were males who’d chosen this secluded spot to begin their molt out of the summer “eclipse plumage” into their fancy choosing-a-mate plumage. This one looked a bit rough at the moment, but well on his way to his courting colors. As I explained in last week’s molting blog, males molt earlier in the summer to camouflage themselves as females and then molt again in the fall, a time when they compete for a mate to breed with in the spring.

A male Wood Duck almost finished with the molt from his “eclipse plumage” to his courting feathers.

I often hear, but rarely see,  the vireos at Cranberry Lake. But I did get to see a Warbling Vireo (Vireo gilvus) in the spring. A rare treat, since it loves to sing high in the treetops! Its plumage is modest but its song is impressive!  The birders saw one lingering in our park for a while before departing for points south.

Warbling Vireos are often heard high in the trees, but not as commonly seen.

Occasionally I get a quick look at a Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus). But Bob Bonin, Joan’s husband and another gifted photographer, got a much better photo than I have so far! This week it too was hanging out with other migrators.

Red-eyed Vireo – photo by local photographer Bob Bonin

Butterfly Migrators

Birds, of course, are not the only creatures migrating through our parks this autumn. Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus) fluttered everywhere at Cranberry Lake Park in the last few weeks.  This “super-generation” of  fragile creatures – the ones that will fly 3,000 miles to Mexico – were swooping and diving over the meadows at Cranberry Lake, feeding on the acres of Goldenrod. So glad that we provide these master migrators with such a feast!

A female Monarch using it proboscis like a straw to sip nectar from Canada Goldenrod.

The tattered Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes) below looks lightly worn.  Let’s hope that attests to its having mated here this summer after its migration to Cranberry Lake.  These huge butterflies seem to be expanding their range north. Possibly due to climate change, Michigan now often has frost-free Septembers. So if mating was successful, the caterpillars of this very large butterfly may survive inside their chrysalises and hatch in our parks next spring.

This Giant Swallowtail looks a bit tattered at the end of a summer at Cranberry Lake Park. Due to mating? Maybe.

Last Chance for Progeny!  Insects Still Mating in the Meadows

Among the Goldenrod, insects seek out mates in a last ditch effort to leave offspring for next summer. A pair of Goldenrod Soldier Beetles (Chauliognathus pennsylvanicus) rendezvoused on a Bull Thistle  (Cirsium vulgare) – a potentially risky place to mate since a bird might think they make a tasty contrast against the blossom!

Goldenrod Soldier beetles mating on a Bull Thistle

A pair of tiny Pearl Crescent butterflies (Phyciodes tharos) also decided that a warm September afternoon provided the ideal time for mating.

A pair of Pearl Crescent butterflies mating in eastern meadow at Cranberry Lake Park.

And two Ladybugs chased around a Goldenrod stem, one frenetically holding on to the other. I couldn’t really determine whether they were mating or fighting! Clearly, one was more interested in escape and one was in hot pursuit. They were moving too fast for a great shot or a definite identification. My guess is that they were the invasive Asian Ladybugs (Harmonia axyridis). Unfortunately they are more common these days than our native Nine-spotted Ladybug (Coccinella novemnotata) and come in highly variable colors and patterns.

Two ladybugs chased each other around a Goldenrod stem – mating or aggression?

This tiny Red-legged Grasshopper (Melanoplus femurrubrum) had probably spent the night near the stalk of the Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), wisely hidden from predators among its withering leaves. It will molt multiple times before mating and leaving eggs in the soil to emerge next summer.

A Red-legged grasshopper nymph probably spent the night within this Common Milkweed plant.

The edge of a meadow, near a wetland, might be an ideal spot for a female Great Blue Skimmmer dragonfly (Libellula vibrans). She could be spreading her wings in hope of attracting a mate. If successful, the aquatic plants nearby could host her fertilized eggs. Or while waiting for a likely male, she might just have a great perch for hunting unsuspecting prey!

A female Great Blue Skimmer sunned herself on a cool morning, possibly trying to attract a mate – or just hunting for the next unwary insect!

Spider Art On a Misty Morning

Early fall mornings are an excellent time to appreciate the art of the spiders. Warm days followed by cool nights leave heavy dew on spider webs, and when the sun makes them visible, they are dazzling. How about this lovely creation of an Orb Weaver spider (family Araneidae) drooping with the weight of the dew but subtly reflecting the colors of the sun’s spectrum!

The sun reflecting on the dew in an Orb Weaver’s web.

Another intriguing web, though not as beautiful, is cleverly constructed.  The Funnel Web Spider (Circuria species) lays a sticky sheet of web across the grass, which would be difficult to see were it not for the dew. At the edge of the web, it weaves a tunnel where it lies in wait for unsuspecting prey.  Above the sheet, it weaves an irregular network of silk designed to knock flying insects into its sticky net below. You can see the funnel at the back of this web below.

The Funnel Web Spider’s trap for flying insects with a nifty funnel in which the spider can wait for its prey unseen.

Frogs Underfoot!

As I skirted the edge of wetlands one Sunday, it seemed that a frog sprang out of the grass at every step! Most of them were Northern Leopard Frogs (Rana pipiens), their emerald green backs covered with circular black dots outlined in pale gold. Their dark eyes encircled with gold add to their glamour. Pinkish dorsolateral ridges are another distinguishing field mark. They shine like cloisonné in the deep grass!

Leopard frogs big and small sprung out of the grass near wetlands.

Until last week, I’d never noticed Pickerel Frogs (Rana palustris) at Cranberry Lake. These smaller frogs have somewhat rectangular spots that line up along the frogs’ back in neat rows. They are smaller than Leopard frogs. They tend to be brown (though they are sometimes green too), so I’m fairly sure this is Pickerel frog below.

Pickerel Frogs have more rectangular spots in rows down their backs, rather than the more random round spots of Leopard Frogs. So I think this is Pickerel frog, but I’m not positive!

And Finally, the Native Plants that Make It All Possible!

The plants, though not as often noticed by hikers, provide sustenance for all these creatures as the base of the food web. Butterflies sip their nectar. Bees and wasps feed pollen to their young. Other insects munch on leaves or make winter homes in the stalks. Birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals eat all parts of plants, or the insects that live on them. So here’s a gallery of  just a few of the plants that, along with the plentiful goldenrods, have bloomed in sun and shade to sustain the beauty and life of Cranberry Lake Park in late summer. (Use pause button for captions.)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Autumn Mornings:  Not To Be Missed!

Mist rising in a meadow beyond the trees.

On our September bird walk at Cranberry Lake Park, we arrived on a cool fall morning. The previous day had been unseasonably warm, but a north wind sailed in overnight. The cool air had created heavy dew, leaving silver droplets that set the spider webs shining. The morning sun on the moist leaves created the fine mist you see above, rising  from a meadow beyond the Hickory Lane. What a sight! – the makings of future clouds floating like silver smoke above the wildflowers. A wave of migratory warblers and other small birds had arrived on that night wind. The birders watched, binoculars up, as these travelers hopped busily in the branches, feeding on the plenty of insects attracted by fields full of blooming fall wildflowers. And all of this beauty is gratuitous – unearned, just gifted to us if we just put on our shoes and head out the door! Consider escaping from the busy-ness of life for just an hour this week. Let these beautiful fall days lure you to the parks and savor the gifts that nature so generously offers to all of us.

PHOTOS OF THE WEEK: Amazing Migrators on the Move!

Monarch butterflies at Tawas Point State Park last weekend. Photo by Nancy Isken

Well, they’re off!  When the wind sails in from the north, it’s a signal to all kinds of creatures: “Time to go!” So they take wing singly and in large flocks, letting the flow of cool air support them, carrying them quickly onward as they beat wings of all sizes to make their way to warmer climes.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

And of course,  it’s not just birds. Above you can see our friend Nancy Isken’s photo of  Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus) last week resting at Tawas Point State Park before crossing Saginaw Bay. They were beginning their long journey to Mexico where they will spend the winter. In the spring, these Monarchs will make the first leg of the journey back north, stopping in warm areas like Texas to produce a new crop of butterflies who continue heading north. These new generations will fly only a few hundred miles, stop and reproduce, completing their whole life cycle in only  5-7 weeks. So it takes several generations to complete the trip  back to Michigan each summer. Sarina Jepson of the Xerces Society, which is focused on invertebrate conservation, says in a fine National Geographic article, “…when fall rolls around again, a special ‘super generation’ of monarchs that can live up to eight months will make use of air currents to wing all the way back to Mexico—a seemingly impossible feat for such a delicate-looking insect.” Imagine that!  So the Monarch butterflies born here In Oakland Township each summer can potentially live for 8 months instead of 5-7 weeks and fly 3,000 miles instead of a few hundred. We are living among  real, live superheroes!

A female Green Darner on the Wet Prairie along the Paint Creek Trail

And Monarchs aren’t the only insects that migrate. Green Darner Dragonflies (Anax junius) (also tracked by the  Xerces Society) travel down to Texas and Mexico as well. For dragonflies, it also takes many generations of reproduction before their trip is completed, though their migration is less well understood. But again, like the Monarch generations that arrive here each summer, the dragonfly offspring seem to know how to find their way in the right direction. Citizen science and research is helping explore dragonfly migration. But for now, I love a good nature mystery, don’t you?

Painted Lady butterflies (Vanessa cardui) make multiple generation migrations all over the world. But they migrate erratically. Some years they migrate and some years they don’t. And the direction and route can vary widely. Some experts speculate that their migration routes may be affected by dramatic changes in weather and climate – another nature mystery yet to be solved.

A Painted Lady sipping nectar during migration

At this time of year, the night sky begins to fill with thousands, even millions, of birds riding the wind south in the darkness, navigating by the stars or the setting sun, or by sensing the earth’s magnetic field. Some may navigate by landmarks or simply remembering good feeding grounds. And amazingly, most juvenile migrating birds, like those insects hatching during migration,  somehow know how to find their way without any help from adults! Cornell’s BirdCast website is a great way to watch the flow of birds across the United States day by day throughout the fall.

Remember all those bright little warblers, unusual sparrows and other small birds that sailed up here on a south wind in May?  Well, most of them have now finished breeding farther north and are beginning to make their way back to more warmth and sunshine. They’ve molted out of their bright breeding feathers so they’re a little less colorful now and their routes vary a bit depending on available food and weather. But keep a look out for these little travelers starting now.  Here are a few from the autumn of previous years:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

If you’re thinking you’d like to see some bird migrations in BIG numbers, you might check out the Hawk Fest featuring hawks, eagles, falcons and owls at Lake Erie Metropark on September 15 and 16. Or if you love our Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis), consider a trip to the Audubon Society’s  Cranefest at Big Marsh Lake in Bellevue, Michigan (near Battle Creek) on October 13 and 14.

A large flock of migrating Tundra Swans called over Cranberry Lake Park. (Photo by Bon Bonin)

Of course, if you want to stay close to home, you’ll be warmly welcomed at our Oakland Township Wednesday morning bird walks.  The walks rotate through our township parks each month and in September and October, they start at 8 a.m.  The schedule is available year ’round if you click on the drop-down menu above  for “Stewardship Events.”  We’re a friendly group with some experienced birders who are glad to help beginners see their first migrators.  Bring your binoculars or borrow a set from Ben, our Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, who leads the walks.

So yes, summer is waning.  But I can’t help feeling celebratory as autumn air turns crisp and the skies fill with winged creatures.  I recommend looking upward this fall and  perhaps wishing  “Bon Voyage!”, to our migrators who provide such beauty and mystery as they find their paths through the air.