Tag Archives: Monarch Butterfly

The Wet Prairie: Unusual Fall Blooms Host A Variety of Guests

I’m always cautious when I  write about the wildflowers at the Wet Prairie along the Paint Creek Trail between Gallagher and Silver Bell Roads.  Many of  the wildflowers here are very fragile and quite unusual, so this natural area needs to be treated very carefully.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

Because I’d like to help residents understand just how special the Wet Prairie is, I’m occasionally allowed to take a very careful and slow walk with my camera. Here’s the beauty – and the fascinating strangeness –  I came across on two short trips there last month.

Restoration of a Special Place Yields Special Flowers

Butterfly milkweed seeding with Smooth Blue Aster and Gray Goldenrod in bloom.

Restoration of this 10-acre natural area by Dr. Ben VanderWeide and his Parks and Recreation stewardship crew has worked wonders over the years.  Years ago when I first saw the little flower with the exotic name, Grass-of-Parnassus (Parnassia glauca), one blossom stood alone on the prairie. I loved it the moment it caught my eye. This year the prairie was covered with these striped beauties, the most I’ve ever seen!

Grass-of-Parnassus has grown increasingly abundant at the Wet Prairie with restoration continuing there.

According to the Illinois wildflower site (a favorite of mine), Grass-of-Parnassus loves moisture and chalky (calcareous) soil,  but doesn’t like a lot of competition from other plants. A high water table keeps this prairie wet for a good portion of the year. In some places, the unusual soil prevents water from draining away, pooling in the spring and drying out in summer sun. Occasional use of prescribed fire suits many of the  plants that grow here. They’re fire-adapted after growing for millennia in landscapes that burned frequently, not to mention fires in the last few hundred years started by lightning or by the trains that passed on the nearby railroad. Ben and his crew have consistently removed invasive shrubs and encroaching trees to keep the area open and sunny. Grass-of-Parnassus, no doubt a long-time denizen of the Wet Prairie, celebrated all of these unusual conditions and the restoration work this summer with an abundant bloom!

The prairie also hosts another airy fall wildflower that prefers little competition. Flowering Spurge (Euphorbia corollata) grows along the drier areas near the trail. A wide variety of native bees and butterflies find their way to its bright white showy bracts, which are modified leaves like the red bracts of poinsettias.  The white bracts of flowering spurge highlight the yellow flowers at the center. I love their simplicity; they remind of the flowers I drew as a child. Their leaves are safe from deer browsing because they contain a toxic white latex.

Flowering Spurge avoids competition and can tolerate the dryness near the trail.

Flowering Spurge is monoecious, which means separate male and female flowers are produced on the same plant.  Once pollinators do their work, the fertile female flowers are replaced by a capsule with a seed in each of its three chambers which appear right at the center of the female flowers! Below is a closeup look at their bulbous seed pods which will eventually eject the seeds when they’re mature.

Seed capsules forming on Flowering Spurge.

Tucked down among the grasses, Cylindrical Blazing-star (Liatris cylindracea) makes itself known through the whirling effect of its purple blossoms.  Each flower head is crowded with 15-20 individual tube-shaped flowers. A two-part curving “style,” emerges from each one. The style is the slender stalk that connects the stigma, the surface on which the pollen lands,  to the ovary below in the blossom. These lovely wildflowers last  about a month in late summer/early fall and tend to appear singly like many of the flowers on the Wet Prairie, preferring little competition. The name Blazing Star seems particularly appropriate in this wildflower, since the styles spin out from each flower like the stars in a Van Gogh painting.

Our long-tongued native Bumblebees can easily pollinate Cylindrical Blazing-star’s crowded flower heads.

Shrubby Cinquefoil (Dasiphora fruticosa) thrives in the moist, chalky soil of the Wet Prairie. A small, woody bush, only 1.5 to 3 feet tall, it attracts native bees, honeybees and a variety of other flying insects to its bright yellow flowers during the summer and early fall. It also benefits from being of little interest to deer.

A small bush, Shrubby Cinquefoil provides nourishment to a big variety of insects.

On the early September walk, I explored the wetter areas at the back of the prairie and came across an elegant stem of Turtlehead (Chelone glabra) with a haze of dusty lavender Joe Pye (Eutrochium maculatum) dancing in the distance. The turtlehead’s two-lipped flower performs two functions: the top lip  forms a protective hood for the flower’s stamen and pistils and the the lower serves as a landing pad for foraging insects. Like many of our native plants, it protects itself from deer – in this case by having bitter leaves.

Turtlehead blooms first at the bottom of its florescence.

On the far back slopes of the prairie, a Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) made a swirling explosion of seeds, each attached to its silky white parachute. What a delicate abstract design with its central slender pod shape!

Butterfly Milkweed going to seed in a spectacular fashion!

Early in September,  I spotted a yellow wildflower growing on the steep bank above Paint Creek across the trail from the Wet Prairie.  It turned out to be  a wildflower I rarely see, Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia), a very tall (3-8 feet) plant that often finds a home on river banks or near wetlands. Their sunbursts of raggedy yellow flowers contain a rim of “ray florets” that look like petals but are each a separate fertile flower and a disc floret filled with individual tubular flowers that together create a pin-cushion effect at the center. (Petals, as opposed to “ray florets,” are actually non-fertile modified leaf-like structures.)

Wingstem is a tall wildflower that loves river banks like the one across from the Wet Prairie.

Two stalks of a modest wildflower that  I’d never seen before stood alone above the creek. Ben identified it as White Lettuce (Prenanthes alba). The drooping blossoms are cross-pollinated by those  masterful native pollinators, the bumblebees  (genus Bombus) seeking nectar with their long tongues. I watched as two of them foraged busily, the one on the left probing for nectar vertically within the blossom, just the lower tip of its body showing, and the one on the right with a yellow “pollen basket” on its back leg.

Bumblebees buzzing quietly as they seek out the nectar of White Lettuce.

Nearby a non-native Japanese Beetle (Popillia japonica) explored the abundance of the tiny disk florets that make up a Snakeroot flowerhead (Ageratina altissima). These wildflowers thrive in disturbed soil, especially at the edges or openings of woodlands.  They spread quickly both by rhizomes  (underground stems) and by achenes lofted to new locations by small tufts of  white hair called pappus. I look forward to them, because they are often the last wildflower to bloom in the fall.

Early settlers thought this Snakeroot was good for snake bites. On the contrary, its roots and leaves are toxic to both cattle and humans!

When I arrived later in September, the Grass-of-Parnassus was fading. But the Wet Prairie was dotted with Smooth Blue Asters (Symphyotrichum laeve) – small, erect sprays of lavender sprinkled generously across the landscape. According to the Illinois Wildflowers site, this seemingly delicate wildflower is a major food source for pollinators, including at least six species of native bees, honeybees and as you’ll soon see below, butterflies. Tree Sparrows, Wild Turkeys, Ruffed Grouse and White-footed mice enjoy the seeds and the caterpillars of several moths browse on their leaves. A small plant with a big benefit to wildlife!

Smooth Blue Asters dot the prairie in the fall providing abundant food sources for wildlife.

Within the exclusion fence at the back of the prairie, New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) tossed and nodded their purple flowers in the autumn breeze. New England Asters rely on non-native honeybees, native bumblebees and other long-tongued bees to pollinate them. The short-tongued bees and hover/syrphid flies visit to collect pollen, but are generally too smooth-bodied to be effective pollinators. This aster also hosts the caterpillars of many species of moths, which feed on the leaves. Those caterpillars can provide important nutrition for adult birds and their nestlings. For those reasons and their sheer beauty, I was happy to see these purple wildflowers with their golden centers dipping and rising in the late afternoon sunlight.

New England Aster provides its pollen and leaves to insects as well as leaves that their young can eat and grow to maturity.

As September progressed, I counted on finding two favorite wildflowers on the Wet Prairie and was not disappointed. Where water seeps to the surface on the south side of the prairie, Bottle Gentians (Gentiana andrewsii) produce their strange indigo blossoms that never open.  These large bud-like flowers wait instead for the big, bustling bumblebees to force their way inside looking for nectar and pollen. Once within, the bees produce a high-pitched buzz with their flight muscles, using their legs and mouth parts to direct the vibration toward the pollen-laden anthers inside. The pollen explodes into the air within the enclosed Bottle Gentian, clinging to the bumblebee’s fuzzy bodies. Have a look and listen to this short video  of a bumblebee” buzz pollinating” some  poppies. What a clever way for the bumblebee to collect pollen and for the Bottle Gentian to be pollinated!

Bottle Gentian flowers never open and bumblebees have to force their way inside!

Another deep blue Gentian is unfurling the artfully fringed and overlapping lobes of its blossom in the short grass of the prairie. The Fringed Gentian (Gentianopsis crinita), like the Grass-of-Parnassus, thrives in the chalky (calcareous), generally moist soil of the Wet Prairie. Several species of bumblebees frequent these gentians and once fertilized, it forms pods filled with tiny seeds that are carried away by either wind or water. Can you believe that blue?

Fringed Gentian’s four-lobed blossoms spout like small purple fountains from the grass of the Wet Prairie

Beautiful Autumn Blossoms Get Plenty of Visitors

In general terms, a host plant is one that provides food and shelter for other species – in the case of wildflowers, either nectar or pollen for adult insects, or leaves and stems for their caterpillar young. Native plants are particularly effective hosts. In the autumn, the special flowers of the Wet Prairie are providing a last minute meal for bees, beetles, wasps, butterflies and other insects by day and moths by night, including one rare one! So it’s not surprising that on my two short visits, I saw a variety of “guests” drop in for a visit.

The Butterfly Guests and the Young of a Very Unusual Moth

The Orange Sulphur flies low, skimming over the tops of flowers, as this one did on my first visit.

As I mentioned earlier, butterflies seem to find plenty of nectar on the Wet Prairie’s Smooth Blue Asters.  I saw a Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele) restlessly flitting about the field on both visits, but luckily, on the second visit, one settled down for a sip on a Smooth Blue Aster. These small flowers must pack a lot of sugary punch on a cool day! Here’s a close look at this fritillary’s strange spotted eyes and its long proboscis probing the flower for nectar.

A Great Spangled Fritillary sipping from a Smooth Blue Aster

On my second visit, an Orange Sulphur (Colias eurytheme) also rose and sank repeatedly as it flitted above the greenery.  At one point, it headed straight for a Smooth Blue Aster, its proboscis curled in flight.

An Orange Sulphur on its way to sample the Smooth Blue Aster on the Wet Prairie.

Once it landed, the proboscis extended and acted as a straw to extract the sugary nectar from the disc floret at the center of the aster. The field mark for the Orange Sulphur is that orange blush on the  upper (dorsal) surface of the wing, though the female’s is a bit paler. The male has a wide brown band at the wing edge whereas the female’s brown band is punctuated by white spots. Glad this one finally stopping scurrying around the prairie and settled in for a late afternoon drink.

An Orange Sulphur settles in for a meal on the Smooth Blue Aster

The male Eastern Tailed Blue butterfly (Cupido comyntas) looks like a small  chip of blue sky bobbing along in short flights over the grass in the Wet Prairie. (The female’s wings are brown on the upper side.) The Eastern Tailed Blue normally closes its wings when stopping to feed or rest, showing only the gray undersides of its wings, featuring two orange spots and a tiny “tail” on each hindwing. Fortunately, it occasionally stops with its wings slightly open to bask in warm sunlight, like the one below. That sunlight felt soothing to both of us on a cool fall afternoon.

The Eastern Tailed Blue butterfly has a tiny tail at the bottom of its hindwing.

Out in the wet areas where the Bottle Gentian blooms, my husband spotted a male Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) far back in the greenery. When I reached him, his immobility surprised me; I was able to get remarkably close. I noticed he was periodically pulsing his wings which looked fresh and flawless. My guess is that this fellow was  one of the “super generation” of Monarchs that had just emerged from his chrysalis. Once his wings were fully functional, he would fly off to feed before beginning his long journey to Mexico. Isn’t he a beauty? I wished him well.

A newly emerged male Monarch Butterfly pulsing his absolutely perfect, undamaged wings.

A nearby Joe Pye blossom hosted the ubiquitous Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus). Its long tongue allows it to feed on many different wildflowers. Notice the hooked antennae, a field mark for all skippers. I come upon these sturdy little Silver-spotted butterflies quite often on my walks. Maybe you do, too?

A Silver-spotted Skipper drops in for a drink on Joe Pye blooms.

I’m always attracted by the bright orange blossoms of Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), and noticed a strange quivering on the leaves of one at the edge of the trail. The cause turned out to be the avid chewing of the chubby orange and black caterpillar of  the Unexpected Tiger Moth (Cycnia inopinatus). An intriguing name, eh? It certainly was unexpected for me! The Michigan Lepidoptera Facebook group identified it for me, and I confirmed their information with the huge caterpillar compendium, Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner.

The caterpillar of a moth that is ranked as “uncommon” to “rare,” the Unexpected Tiger Moth, munched on it host plant, Butterfly Milkweed, in the Wet Prairie.

After a couple hours of research, I finally found a comprehensive article on the website of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, Eastern Region. This moth is  described as “uncommon to rare and local throughout its range” due largely to habitat loss.   Our caterpillar hatched in the right area, since the adult moth seeks out high quality barrens or grasslands full of butterfly or whorled milkweed.

Adult Unexpected Tiger Moths (see the iNaturalist photo below) hatch, mate and lay eggs in 2-3 weeks, never bothering to eat during their brief lifetimes. The ones that emerge in the spring produce the August brood, which probably explains the presence of the caterpillar I saw. It will eat and then transform into a pupa whose loose cocoon will fall into the leaf litter to overwinter until spring.  So we’ll just have to hope that the orange and black caterpillar above ate enough to mature and survive the winter, so that next spring a rare moth emerges and finds a mate along the trail.  [Photo below by Chrissy McClarren and Andy Reago at iNaturalist.org]

The rare  Unexpected Tiger Moth will only travel short distances in its 2-3 week lifespan.  Photo by Chrissy McClarren and Andy Reago (CC BY-NC)

Other Insect Visitors, including a Cannibal!

An Eastern Yellow Jacket Wasp (Vespula maculifrons) seeks out nectar but doesn’t provide much pollination because its smooth body doesn’t  transport pollen to other blossoms.

I came across a trio of insects that had landed on a Stiff Goldenrod (Solidago rigida), a wonderful plant with its upright posture and filigree of fuzzy, soft green leaves hugging the stem. On the left, a jazzily striped Locust Borer Beetle (Megacyllene robiniae) fed on the goldenrod’s pollen. If it’s a mated female, she will later scurry along the bark of non-native Black Locust trees (Robinia pseudoacacia) looking for a wound in which to lay her eggs. On the right side of the plant, two Soldier Beetles (family Cantharidae) found one cluster of  yellow blossoms to be the perfect spot for quiet mating. Nice to know that one of my favorite goldenrods is such a generous host!

A Stiff Goldenrod hosts both mating soldier beetles and a foraging Locust Borer beetle

Out in the shorter grasses of the prairie, however, lurked a predator with cannibal instincts. Fortunately, it was only about 2.5 to 3.5 inches long! We spotted a non-native European Praying Mantis (Mantis religiosa) who was busily eating what appeared to another of its kind. (There are no native praying mantises in Michigan.) If you look carefully in the photo below,  you can see a long, angled brown and green leg very much like its own bending up from the green abdomen that the mantis holds between its spiked, raptor-like legs. I know, the photo’s a bit grim, but there’s no malice here. It’s just dinnertime on the prairie for a hungry insect trying to survive in its habitat. I think it’s important to keep reminding myself of that – and you too maybe?

Praying Mantis are non-native in Michigan and catch only live, preferably moving, prey, including their own kind.

I can’t confidently determine the gender of this mantis,  but females are usually larger than males with bigger eyes, so my guess is that this is a male. Now, you may know that female praying mantises are notorious for consuming their partners after mating. Actually, about 70% of the males are crafty enough to avoid becoming a quick, nourishing meal for their mates. But it turns out that mantises prey on each other even in the nymph stages, scuttling away from each other after hatching in order to survive! No doubt that’s one reason that I’ve always seen only one Praying Mantis at a time!

Filling the “Swamp” or Valuing Water and Wetlands

Beyond a sea of goldenrod, a wetland fringed with Joe Pye and cat-tails can be seen behind the woods along the trail to the Wet Prairie.

One afternoon, standing knee deep in grass and flowers, I remembered that I grew up in a time when wetlands were scorned as nasty “swamps”,  damp places “infested” with bugs, places that should be dried out in order to become “more productive.” Hence the common metaphor these days, “drain the swamp.”

Unproductive?  Ugly? There I was standing in the Wet Prairie among a colorful panoply of native wildflowers and grasses, all beautiful, some very special, even rare – and each of them serving their unusual habitat in so many complex ways. All day and all night  from spring to fall, butterflies, beetles, bees, moths and other insects find their way to the wildflowers and grasses of the Wet Prairie to find sustenance and shelter for themselves and their young. Animals seek the wetland nearby and spring pools on the prairie for drinking and bathing. And below the surface, the roots of wetland plants are cleaning the water which permeates the water table to later quench the thirst of humans who don’t always appreciate the services wetlands provide.

“Swamp” is actually a botanical term that technically means a wetland dominated by trees and shrubs.  But for some these days, it’s still a pejorative for those “nasty” wetlands of my youth. I protest! And I celebrate the restoration work that will keep the Wet Prairie blooming, beautiful, and yes, “productive” for its insect guests and for future hikers of the Paint Creek Trail.

Bear Creek Nature Park: Life-or-Death Drama…but Always the Persistence of Life

View through the woods to a wetland at Bear Creek

Bear Creek Nature Park is the Oakland Township Park I know best. I’ve walked there with my husband Reg for almost thirty years and brought some sort of camera with me for the last thirteen of them. As the winter ebbs each year, we watch for the appearance of the first narrow leaves of Spring Beauty or Blood Root under certain trees. Each May, we check out a huge hole in a particular oak, hoping for a glimpse of this year’s raccoon kits scrambling up and down within in the trunk. My husband has an eagle eye for the slowly moving hulk of snapping turtles gliding across the surface of the marsh and we both listen each summer for the banjo-like strum of the Green Frog’s song at the Center Pond.

But after all these years, we can still be fascinated by something we’ve never seen before, as you’ll see in the life-or-death drama of two determined foes fighting for life on the western slope last week. It’s a fresh experience to watch a trio of Eastern Bluebird fledglings sorting out their relationships in the Eastern Meadow. Amid all the comforts of the turning seasons with their eternal cycles of emerging, blossoming and subsiding, we can still be amazed by the persistence of life. Let me show you what I mean.

High Drama on the Western Slope

The Western Slope at Bear Creek Nature Park, August 2019

My husband and I headed for the western slope one perfect summer day and came upon two small creatures in a life-or-death contest. My husband spotted a large, yellowish/white  caterpillar with five spiky, black  hairs chewing avidly on a Box Elder leaf (Acer negundo). I learned later from Dr. Gary Parsons, Collection Manager and Bug House Director at Michigan State University’s Etymology Department, that it was the larva of an American Dagger Moth (Acronicta americana). When we stopped to look more closely, we saw a large, exotic-looking insect hovering nearby. Oh boy, I recognized this determined female.

An Ichneumon Wasp hovering near an American Dagger Moth caterpillar

It was an Ichneumon Wasp (family Ichneumonidae), a creature that preys on caterpillars in order to plant its eggs in or on them. When the eggs hatch, the unfortunate victim provides a plentiful source of food for the Ichneumon Wasp’s young!

This female kept her long abdomen with its ovipositor curled upward like a scorpion as she maneuvered near her target. The caterpillar clearly sensed the danger of her presence because it began to rear back its head along its body, thrashing forward each time the insect approached. The wasp first hid under a nearby leaf and then leapt forth, for all the world like a silent movie villain!

The Ichneumon Wasp appears from behind a leaf as the caterpillar begins to thrash to keep it off.

The battle went on and on in the bright sunlight. The wasp repeatedly attempted to gain  purchase on the caterpillar, but its bristled body and its constant thrashing made depositing the wasp’s eggs extremely difficult.

The Ichneumon Wasp tries to land on the caterpillar but the caterpillars bristles and its thrashing are quite a defense!

They were worthy opponents. We waited a long time but the battle continued to rage – the caterpillar eating the leaf between attacks to keep its energy up and the wasp trying desperately to deposit its eggs on a nourishing food source. Eventually, we left them both to their fate and walked on into the morning.

It was a peaceful change of scene to see male and female Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) settling on plants nearby. I hope they mated and laid eggs earlier since they were landing on Common Milkweed (Asclepia syriaca) that weren’t young and tender, but too dry and tough to provide much nutrition for their offspring. Perhaps they were some of the first Monarchs to start migrating south to Mexico. [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

In early August, we saw a female Monarch fluttering among fresh Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) in the meadow west of the Center Pond. Monarch caterpillars specialize; they only eat milkweed leaves. Perhaps this one’s young are currently nibbling their way along the leaves of this plant, intending to molt, pupate and emerge before the migration.

On August 1, we spotted a female Monarch fluttering among Butterfly Milkweed, perhaps eating, perhaps stopping to lay her eggs.  

Just a short way along the Western Slope trail, a slightly worn Viceroy Butterfly (Limenitis archippus) settled on Queen Anne’s Lace. Viceroys look very much like Monarchs and recent research indicates that both species use their color to advertise that they are unpalatable to predators. However they can be distinguished from Monarchs by the thin, black lines across the veins of the hind wings. Often, too, they tend to flutter more frequently than Monarchs which beat their wings quickly and then coast for a few moments in flight.

The black lines on its hind wings distinguish the  Viceroy Butterfly  from the Monarch.

Viceroys have another defense against predators like the Ichneumon Wasp. Their caterpillars look like bird droppings! Here’s a photo of one shared by a photographer who uses the name jdfish1 at inaturalist.org. What a strategy this butterfly evolved for protecting its young!

The Viceroy’s caterpillar looks so much like a bird dropping that predators may not even notice it.

On to the Pond:  A Stealthy Fisher and I Share Strategies

A native Michigan Lily (Lillium michiganense) blooming in a moist area just west of the Center Pond in early August

As I turned down the path that leads to the Center Pond, I was confronted by a wriggling, bristly caterpillar who appeared to be suspended in mid-air right in front of me. The Hickory Tussock Moth (Lophocampa caryae), like the Dagger Moth caterpillar, is covered with bristly hairs that can cause a skin rash if you pick either of them up. Since it pupates in leaf litter after eating on leaves, it was wriggling out an almost invisible string in order to carefully lower itself to the ground. It didn’t look fully grown to me because it hadn’t developed the long black hairs front and back of later instars. I wished it well and passed on.

A Hickory Tussock Moth in mid-air while lowering itself to the ground.

But after a few steps, I stopped again. A young Green Heron (Butorides virescens) sat preening in a branch near the dock.

A juvenile Green Heron preening in the sunlight.

I love watching these birds fish, so I approached very cautiously, repeatedly taking a few slow-motion steps each time the heron looked out toward the pond and then pausing when it looked even slightly in my direction. After checking out its feathers, it flew down to stand in the water, stretching out its long neck. It didn’t stay there long; Green Herons often prefer to hunt from a perch rather than wade like the Great Blue Herons, for example.

A juvenile heron stretches it neck after landing in the water.

I continued to stealthily approach each time the heron’s focus turned out toward the pond.  And suddenly, it flew to the dock and began to hunt in earnest. I As I watched it verrrry sloooowly step down to the edge of the dock and stretch out its neck to search for prey, a huge smile spread across my face. I almost laughed aloud. I thought, “You and I, Green Heron, have developed the same strategy, except I want a photo and you want a meal!”

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It didn’t score a meal that time. It gave up and flew to the other side of the pond. Here’s what it was probably looking for, but couldn’t quite reach – a Green Frog (Rana clamitans) immersed in duckweed, who lived to mate another day.

A Green Frog enjoying the cool duckweed and warm sun at the Center Pond.

When I reached the deck, a family of three small Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) with an adult female were feeding off the bright green Common Duckweed (Lemna minor) on the far side of the pond. Three other young wood ducks cruised around by themselves, far from the others.

I’d seen this same grouping at the bird walk a couple of days earlier. This time though, the female spotted me in the distance and disappeared into the vines at the far edge of the pond.   When she returned, she appeared to have summoned the male who’d been hiding  because he clearly was molting. His gorgeous iridescent green crest and curvy “duck tail” were being replaced by more sedate non-breeding plumage. He and the female quickly stood guard over their family group as if to put me on notice!

The male Wood Duck came out of the vines despite being in molt when summoned by the female to defend the young from that strange person with the camera on the deck.

The other three ducklings came a bit closer to the others, but again seemed to be happy on their own. I wondered if they were from her first brood, since Wood Ducks can breed twice in a summer, though the minimum number in a Wood Duck clutch is usually six. So maybe she just had three slightly more independent offspring and three who needed more protection? No way of knowing.

The male Wood Duck eventually decided I was not a threat and disappeared back into the tangle of vines to work a bit more on his molting process.

The male Wood Duck pulling on feathers during his molt.

My husband and I watched an Eastern Wood-pewee  (Contopus virens) sally forth from the shrubbery to hawk for insects. But as soon as it returned to the dead vines at the pond edge, it almost disappeared from view. See how quickly you can spot it here:

A camouflaged Wood-Pewee disappears into the landscape while foraging at the pond.

As I left the pond, walking along the eastern boardwalk, I heard the “miaou” call of a Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis). One of the birders had pointed out a catbird there earlier in the week and I’d taken a quick photo. But I told the others that I’d always wanted a good photo of the rusty undertail coverts of these birds and I’d never gotten one. Well, two days later, I heard the “miaou”  again, and there it was obliging me  by showing the part of its anatomy that I’d read about but never caught in a photo.

In the meadow west of the Center Pond, the Wednesday birding group also spotted a male Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) dropping down into the grass to feed and then quickly rising again to the nearest branch. I got a quick photo then to share with you, but didn’t see the bird again during the week. Keep an eye out when you’re there. He’s a beautiful eye-full, even when looking a bit bedraggled either from parenting duties or perhaps the beginning of his molt.

An Indigo Bunting foraged in the meadow west of the Center Pond.

Out on Bear Marsh with Snappers!

Bear Creek Marsh on a breezy summer day

In the woods on the way to the marsh, a movement at our feet caught our attention. A tiny American Toad (Anaxyrus americanus) about 3/4 of an inch long, hopped onto some leaves and froze, hoping perhaps to blend into the background and escape notice; camouflage is a basic survival strategy for toads. Though they breed in shallow water,  they spend most of their time on land. I love this little toad’s chubby legs. Small as he is, he’s off into the larger world to feed and if lucky enough to survive, produce another generation of toads.

A tiny American Toad. Juveniles like this are more active during the day than adult toads.

Along the way, some small white mushrooms stood tall along a seam in a log. Crown-tipped Coral mushrooms (Clavicorona pyxidata) are aptly named. They do resemble undersea corals and their tips are recessed and surrounded by little points. They grow only on dead wood, especially hardwood that has lost its bark. So they are helping to recycle the forest for us and creating this odd, but lovely life form in the process.

This Crown-tipped Coral mushroom is probably at bit past its prime since it’s no longer white. Or it may just not have gotten enough sunlight.

A couple of striking insects also appeared as we passed through the wood toward the marsh. A Northern Pearly Eye butterfly (Enodia anthedon) landed in a bare spot on the trail, sunlight shining through its wings. This butterfly doesn’t feed on flowers, but on tree sap, rotting fruit, decaying vegetation, even carrion – transforming death back into life. The life cycle of butterflies is full of amazing transformations, so why not one more?

The Northern Pearly Eye frequents shady wooded areas unlike many other butterflies.

Dr. Gary Parsons of MSU also helped me identify this cartoonishly cute, metallic native bee near the marsh as being from the family Halictidae. They are commonly called Sweat Bees, the ones that are attracted to your perspiration. But this tiny one was sipping from the drying blossoms of a native wildflower called Jumpseed  (Persicaria virginiana), so called because according to Michigan Flora,  if the plant is disturbed, it can propel mature seed about 9 feet, a nifty means of dispersal!

A native, solitary bee from the family Halictidae sips nectar from native Jumpseed.

At  least six Common Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina) moved slowly through the water at Bear Creek Marsh, their shells looking like moving clumps of mud. Snappers are generally shy and harmless except when bothered on land. Their plastron (the lower shell) is  small, leaving parts of its body exposed and vulnerable. They can’t completely disappear inside their shell and be safe like many turtles. So on land, their only protection is flinging out their very long necks and biting. Snappers clean our lakes and marshes of bacteria much like vultures clean our land, by consuming underwater carrion, but unlike vultures they also forage for live prey and aquatic vegetation.

A large adult snapper gliding  slowly through the water at Bear Creek marsh.

The edge of the dock at the northern entrance to the marsh is blooming with Arrowhead (Sagittaria latifolia), a lovely aquatic plant that produces white flowers sprouting from both sides of a stalk or “raceme”- and the large, vivid arrow-shaped leaves are almost more beautiful than the flowers! Dragonflies cling to them like bright baubles. What a sight on a summer morning!

The Eastern Meadow: Young Birds Out on Their Own..Sort Of

The Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) is just getting ready to turn the meadow gold. A male American Goldfinch (Spinus tristus) stood on a thistle and happily tore off some of the Goldenrod buds, possibly to feed either his mate or young. Goldfinches don’t start breeding until late summer when the thistles provide down for nests and seeds for growing broods.

A male Goldfinch stands on a thistle while feed on Goldenrod buds

Once he looked up and saw my camera, he gave me a wary glance but went right back to foraging.

A male Goldfinch giving me and my camera careful consideration before returning to eating or gathering seeds.

Joe Pye (Eutrochium maculatum) blooms in soft patches of bright pink blossoms with purple stems along the eastern trail. There’s just enough moisture to keep their “feet wet,” and the Bumblebees (genus Bombus) hum contentedly as they search for nectar from both the buds and the shaggy, open blooms.

A Bumblebee sips on Joe Pye buds
A bumblebee moves delicately through Joe Pye blossoms

A Common Wood Nymph (Ceryonis pegala) butterfly bobbed along pausing periodically in the deep grass. I mistook it at first for the Little Wood Satyr because they look similar. But the Wood Nymph is almost twice as big and frequents grassy fields while Wood Satyrs prefer shady woods or wood edges. The Wood Nymph also appears a bit later in the summer than the Wood Satyr.  Glad my source, Butterflies of Michigan by Jaret C. Daniels set me straight!

The Common Wood Nymph likes sunshine and is twice the size of the Little Wood Satyr.

When I first saw three fledgling Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) near the top of the trail, they were all sitting on a sign together. But as I approached,  two of them rose into the air and began mock fighting, banging into each other, flying away, settling for a moment, and then mock fighting again. They were too quick for me to snap a photo. Meanwhile the third little bluebird went off on its own, first looking about and then pecking quietly in the grass as it had no doubt seen its parents do.

A solitary little Bluebird fledgling left its siblings to forage in the grass.

Eventually it flew to a bare tree far off in the field and calmly surveyed the whole field. The blue on its wing tips and tail feathers was much more apparent in the full morning sunlight.

The blue tail feathers of the solitary fledgling Bluebird shone in the light.

The two more social siblings finally settled next to each other on the edge of a sign. After all that mock fighting, they snuggled up against each other – though I wonder if an ornithologist would tell me that the play fighting was dominance behavior and the positioning of the one fledgling’s head over the neck of the other meant that they had settled the pecking order between them.

Two bluebird fledglings settle together after play fighting over the field.

I later spotted two fledgling Bluebirds next to a male adult in a tree along the Walnut Lane. I wondered if the two fledglings were the scrappy pair who rested on the sign. All three seemed to be focused on the field. Maybe they were looking for the solitary fledgling who preferred to be off on its own. It was fun to imagine family dynamics among bluebirds.

An adult male Bluebird with two fledglings in a tree along the Walnut Lane.

What I think was a small Amber Snail (family Succinea) left a shining trail behind it on a milkweed leaf as I left the Eastern Meadow. Amber snails are described as land snails but they also live in moist environments. I was a bit surprised to see one out in the sunshine when we’ve had such blistering hot days this summer!

An Amber snail explores the possibility of a Common Milkweed leaf.

At the curve of the path that leads to the Walnut Lane, a busy adult Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher  (Polioptila caerulea) did its best to keep up with a very flighty fledgling that begged insistently as it bounced from branch to branch. As you can see from the slight blur in its photo below, I had some trouble keeping up with the youngster myself! Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Stewardship Manager, showed me a Gnatcatcher nest that fell near his home. So imagine how tiny that fledgling had to be at birth to fit in that lovely nest with possibly  as many as four other hatchlings! Look for the white eye ring and the white feathers on either side of  the dark tail feathers to identify these active little birds.

Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher foraging to feed its active fledgling.

A Short Trip Through More Summer Blooms

A glorious abundance of Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) below the boardwalk north of the playground.

I couldn’t detail all the wildflowers and grasses that I enjoyed at Bear Creek Nature Park in the last week, so take a short stroll through the rest of them here. Their color adds so much joy to a summer walk!

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Life Calls Us Out to Explore

Little Henry explores Bear Creek Nature Park

Reg and I met twenty-month-old Henry trotting along the path west of the Center Pond as his parents took a rest on a nearby bench. He looked content to just keep moving up the trail, seeing what he could see. It was clear he was happy to be there. Henry reminded me of the third Bluebird fledgling that I described earlier – happy to be off on his own, exploring the big beautiful world that he’s just beginning to understand.

What’s so great is that Henry’s experience is accessible to all of us, no matter our age. If we get out in the natural world with our curiosity and eyes wide open, we can’t help being surprised and delighted by it all – even two small insects determined to fight the other off to pass on their DNA to a new generation. Bird parents exhaust themselves caring for their young. Wildflowers fight their way up out of hard soil to bud, bloom and send their seeds forth into the world. Butterflies, turtles, even fungi recycle death back into life. Life in all its multifaceted glory keeps struggling to persist. And it’s our responsibility as stewards of this glory to keep working hard to make that possible. Here in Oakland Township, the residents have made a commitment to support that call to stewardship – and even in the midst of a tough 2020, I think that’s something to celebrate. Bet you do, too.

Cranberry Lake Park: Here Come the Migrators, There Go the Hibernators

 

New England Asters against a background of goldenrod at Cranberry Lake Park

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.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

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

A Sky Full of Migrating Broadwing Hawks at the Hawk Fest in Canada, 2018

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!

The Black-and-white Warbler moves around branches much like a nuthatch.

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!

A female or first year Chestnut-sided Warbler by iNaturalist photographer thejasperpatch (CC BY-NC)

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.

The Chestnut-sided Warbler spends each winter with the same group of tropical birds in Central or northern South America .

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 .

A Yellow-throated Vireo by BJ Stacy at iNaturalist.org (CC BY-NC).

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 juvenile Towhee waited anxiously for its parent to bring food.

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.

The Towhee went on alert once he spotted us.

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?

A Wren fledgling appeared to be out on its own one cool wet morning but it’s likely that its parent was nearby, feeding its siblings.

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!

A Broad-winged Hawk flew over the Cranberry Lake birders, heading toward the tip of Florida and Cuba.

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.

A Monarch, its proboscis ready for its next sip, flies above the Showy Goldenrod.

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.

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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!

Two Monarchs feeding close together on Showy Goldenrod, and one in the distance, an orange blur.

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.

This Slaty Skimmer perched in the open, probably trying to attract a mate.

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.

An Autumn Meadowhawk rests in the sunlight on a September morning.

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!

I love the big, blue eyes on this Spotted Spreadwing damselfly!

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.

Slender Spreadwings love the shade and that’s where I found this one.

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.

Milkweed Tussock Moth caterpillars will soon spin a cocoon where they’ll spend the winter until they emerge with wings in the spring.

 

Amphibians Still Visible, but…Hibernation Awaits!

A small Green Frog (Rana clamitans) at the edge of Cranberry Lake in September will soon settle on the muddy bottom and breathe through its skin throughout the winter.

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.

The Leopard Frog has been in decline since the 1980’s but can be see in several of our parks.

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!

This tiny Wood Frog will freeze solid during hibernation this winter and thaw in the spring!

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.

Eastern American Toads often return to their natal ponds year after year.

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?

A Sheet Spider’s web between Showy Goldenrod at Cranberry Lake Park

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….

Charles Isley Park: Dressed in the Gold and Black of Late Summer

Do me a favor, would you? Imagine standing in front of a huge meadow full of tall grass and wildflowers dancing in a soft breeze. You can hear crickets and cicadas singing in the deep grass. Now turn your computer’s volume to about half and click on the arrow in the image below. (You’ll hear a little of the wind in the microphone.)

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

There! That’s a bit of what it’s been like at Charles Ilsley Park in the last few glorious weeks of August.  Goldfinches sing as they swoop in their roller coaster flights across the fields that are burnished with goldenrod. Butterflies, with golden wings fluttering, sip sweet nectar from the giant thistles. And all of this gilded beauty is backed by the sounds of a summer breeze sighing in your ear and the buzz of cicadas and crickets. That’s about as close to pure glory as my life affords.

The Glow Began in July…

The eastern path through the central meadow at Charles Ilsley Park on July 15, 2019

Let’s just say the Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) got magnificently carried away in the central meadow at Ilsley. Perhaps the contractor who planted wild seed last year had a wee bit too much of them in the mix? But I didn’t hear anyone complain when the meadow was literally blanketed in black and gold. By early August, they had browned, leaving behind seeds that will provide nourishment for migrators and winter birds.

Nature Comes Back with a Second Wave of Gold

A female Monarch (Danaus plexippus) stares out at me from a Black-eyed Susan finished off from the intense heat of July. Her wings are a lovely soft gold underneath.

In their place, though not quite as abundant, came a close relative, the buttery yellow Brown-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia triloba). Instead of a single flower on each stem like their black-eyed cousins, these Susans produce branching stems with profuse, but smaller blossoms which create a similar sunny effect.

Brown-eyed Susans emerged just as the Black-eyed Susans faded, though not in quite the same profusion.

Of course, August always brings waves of different Goldenrods to keep the gold coming in late summer. Right now, I commonly see three different ones: the cascades of Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), Stiff Goldenrod  (Solidago rigida) with its ramrod stems lined with clinging oval leaves and bouquet-like sprays of Grass-leaved Goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia) which is from a different genus of the Aster family. Later in the month, we’ll begin to see the  upright, lemon yellow plumes of Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) doing its part to keep the fields golden right into September. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

The Gray-headed/Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) add their droopy charm to the fields too, though their best days are behind them for this season. And the tall spikes of Common Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis) are topped by gold blossoms that stay open from evening until early morning, and later on cloudy days as well.

I love how native plants host so many insects in an era when the insect world is suffering from plunging numbers all over the planet. Here two False Sunflowers (Heliopsis helianthoides) standing next to each other hosted a Soldier Beetle (Cantharidae family) and the nymph of a Katydid (Tettigoniida family). Have a closer look at the amazing length of the katydid’s antennae by clicking on the right photo. One of the ways you can tell a grasshopper from a katydid is that grasshoppers have much shorter antennae than the very long, fine ones you’ll see on the nymph below.

Out in the far west of the park at the edge of the woods, a tall, striking, yellow flower with very unusual blossoms caught my eye. Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Stewardship Manager, identified it for me as Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia)and indeed, its flat stem had narrow “wings” on either side. Wingstem flower heads cluster at the top of the 3′-8′ stem. Each bloom is actually a flower within a ring of flowers. The “disc florets” in this plant are the tube-shaped flowers that thrust outward from the center of the flower head. What looks like a ring of petals around the central disc is actually a ring of “ray florets” and each of them is an individual flower that has the ability to produce its own seed. In botany, “florets” are individual flowers within a flower head, whereas what we see as individual petals on ray flowers are really three petals fused together. And how about those curly little stigmas that we see whimsically protruding from the ends of the disc florets! What a fun wildflower!

Wingstem is not seen a lot in Michigan, but it’s now growing in two of our parks!

Wingstem has a limited distribution in Michigan, so we’re lucky to have them. These Charles Ilsley Park plants grew from seeds that Ben collected at the township’s Blue Heron Environmental Area, which was the only place he’s seen them in the township. It’s exciting to know that the seeds Ben planted at Ilsley have taken hold, so that we now have two parks in which this unusual native plant has found a home.

Birds Matching the Black and Gold Landscape

Let’s Start with A Goldfinch Saga!

American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) – Unlike most other birds, Goldfinches start mating around mid- to late-July when the thistles bloom, which is a source for both nesting material and food for them. Once the first broods fledge in early August, most Goldfinches mate a second time.

On August 9, Mike and Joan Kent, birding friends, took a walk at Ilsley and spotted a nest in a thistle.  Joan peeked in and saw 3 eggs. They noticed a lot of Goldfinches nearby and assumed it was probably the nest of one of them. And that was that, until…

On our Wednesday bird walk on August 21, Vinnie Morganti, another member of our bird group, spotted the same nest located within the thorny stems of a tall Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare). A Goldfinch’s cup nest  is woven from plants and root fibers and lashed to a bush or plant with spider silk. Then it’s lined with thistle down which makes it close to waterproof inside. A small masterpiece. This pair chose a location which probably deterred predators, though it may have been a bit hard on the parents’ wings while feeding!

A Goldfinch nest tucked into a thistle and lined with thistle down

Peeking into the nest, I discovered  4 baby birds. Fellow birder, Tom Korb, got a photo of the blind and slightly fuzzy hatchlings by valiantly sticking his cellphone into the thistle above them. Tom and I decided to share monitoring these little birds until they fledged and report our findings to Cornell’s Nestwatch , a citizen science site we use for our township nest boxes.

Goldfinch hatchlings, probably about four days old,  cuddled up in a cup filled with plant down. Photo by Tom Korb.

We bird monitors are trained not to go to a nest more often than every 3 – 5 days. So when I returned to the park the following day, I stood far off looking through a long lens. Imagine my delight when I saw one little head popping up above the nest! I don’t know if it could see the meadow yet. Perhaps it was just enjoying the breeze ruffling its Einstein hairdo!

The fuzzy head of a goldfinch hatchling facing out into the meadow, perhaps to catch a breeze.

I came back to monitor on August 24 hoping to get a photo inside the nest despite the thistle’s thorns. I’d brought along the fancy, black leather gloves my mother had given me years ago to wear to  the theater – but here I was using them to reach inside a thistle! I could picture my mom laughing and shaking her head – but the gloves worked beautifully! In the photo, I could see the opened eye of at least one little nestling, though the rest were snoozing in their sturdy nest cup. It appeared that the beige tips of feathers might be emerging from their dark sheaths. We think now that they were about a week old in this photo.  They’d come a long way  from those blind babies in just 3 days!

Three days after we first saw them, their eyes were opening and their yellowish-beige feathers began to emerge from their sheaths. They were about a week old.

At our August 28 bird walk in another park, Mike Kent told us about his wife seeing the nest at Charles Ilsley Park on August 9.  Good news for us monitors, because that allowed us to use the guidelines on the Nestwatch site to estimate the age of the Goldfinch hatchlings more accurately. After the bird walk, I accompanied Tom on his monitoring trip to the Ilsley nest. What a change! Little heads peered up over the nest edge – eyes and beaks open. According to the Donald W. Stokes’ Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.1), during their first week after hatching, Goldfinch nestlings are quiet but will silently reach up for food if the edge of the nest is tapped. In the second week, these nestlings begin making a lot of noise – but wisely only do so when a parent arrives with food. Tom got a great photo of the bright red mouth of a begging, but silent, youngster!

The bright red inside the nestlings mouth makes a nice target for its parent when feeding! Photo by Tom Korb

That day, all the nestlings, now about 11 days old, looked bright and alert, peeking out into the world and fully feathered. The Stokes Guide explained that those white blobs on the nest are fecal sacs, the avian equivalent of soiled diapers. Goldfinch nestlings are quite fastidious. The first week after the young hatch, adults carry the waste sacs away from the nest. But starting in the second week, little goldfinches back up to the edge of the nest and drop these little packages over the side!

A nestling peers at me from the nest at 11 days old, surrounded by the fecal sacs that  it and the others have dropped over the nest edge.

My last turn at monitoring the nest was on August 31 – and the nest was empty. The nestlings had become fledglings. Our estimate is that they fledged on their 12th or 13th day after hatching. The nest was remarkably clean inside (if not outside) which might have meant a healthier, more comfortable environment for the nestlings.  

I could hear a fledgling begging far off in a stand of thistle and through my binoculars, I thought I saw a couple of small birds fluttering among the stems. A female flew in among the thistle, perhaps feeding “our” fledglings from her second brood. A male seemed to be on sentinel duty nearby before he flew off to gather more seed. Off into the world for our Goldfinch fledglings! And the end of our nesting saga.

Hard-working Goldfinch Adults

While the females incubate a second brood, male Goldfinches  are on their own in feeding the first brood – which can be as many as seven fledglings, according to Cornell’s nestwatch.org! Begging calls of first brood youngsters could be heard a week ago as young fledglings pursued their harried parents around the park or called from the treelines to be found. This little Goldfinch fledgling seemed a bit more mellow than the rest.

A goldfinch fledgling watching for its father and no doubt hoping for a meal.

The Goldfinches’ primary food source is thistle seed so I’ve seen males all over the fields with thistle down (pappus) hanging from their beaks. They dig industriously into the seedhead, pull out the down, carefully nibble off the seeds and then let the down fly. Stokes informed me that they feed partially digested seed to their  young, as they also do for the mate during her first week on the nest. Quite a responsibility!

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More Gold and Black Birds!

In a bush in the far west meadow, I saw a flash of yellow and took a quick couple of shots as a bird perched for a moment and then flew.  I wasn’t sure what I’d seen. Local birding expert, Ruth Glass, identified it as a female Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula.) She told me that by now most of our summer orioles have left for Central or South America with their young, so the one I saw was likely a migrator from further north.

The birding group saw other birds sporting lovely yellow trim. A trio of Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) perched far above in a bare tree. Through binoculars, two clearly had the yellow bellies and yellow tail bands that identify this handsome bird. Juveniles have a fainter black mask and some brown streaking on the breast, but in this distant photo against a gray sky, it’s hard to tell if any of them were juveniles or adults .

Cedar Waxwings added their bright yellow bellies and yellow-tipped tails to a golden August morning.

Ruth Glass also helped me identify a strange looking dark bird that mystified me. She said she was “95% sure” it was a male Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) molting from his brilliant blue breeding colors  into his mostly brown non-breeding colors which are similar to the female Bunting. This mottled look is common for males during the molt. I would never have guessed! Thank you, Ruth!

A male Indigo Bunting in the midst of his molt into brownish non-breeding colors

Some large dark brown birds also added contrast to all the gold around them. A trio of Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) rested on a broken snag near the edge of the center field. Through the trees on my way into the park, I saw one of them spreading its magnificent wings to the sunlight. They do this to warm them, stretch them, or to expose any bacteria on them to air and light.

A turkey vulture spreading its wings to the sun.

Around the corner, two other vultures perched on a broken snag. This one made me smile, because it looked as though it was appealing for a little sympathy. I’m afraid vultures don’t get much appreciation, though I think their soaring flight is graceful and the cleanup services they provide are crucial. Really, though, the bird was just preparing to preen.

Another vulture looks like it’s asking for sympathy, but it’s really just starting to preen.

The first vulture suddenly flew straight up in the air and landed rather awkwardly on a branch that was much too short. It fluttered clumsily right, then left, until it finally found its footing. Is it my imagination or are the other two a bit embarrassed by the graceless landing skills of their compatriot? Probably, my imagination….  (Tap arrow to play and to pause for reading captions.)

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Butterflies Complement the Color Scheme

This August the huge, dramatic Giant Swallowtail butteflies (Papilio cresphontes) arrived in Charles Ilsley Park in large numbers. One afternoon about two weeks ago, perhaps a dozen of them landed delicately on the large purple blooms of Bull Thistle, or hovered in front of them, extending their long proboscises to sip while avoiding the thorns. I don’t know if this thistle is a favorite plant for these big butterflies or if they were just the biggest blooms with the most nectar when they arrived. They chased each other over the fields, creating a shimmer of gold and black all over the central meadow.

A Giant Swallowtail, one of many at Ilsley in August, sips nectar from a Bull Thistle.

You’ll note that the one above has a few missing pieces on its wings and that the black edges look a bit worn. I compared the very tattered dorsal (upper) side of one I saw on thistle at Charles Ilsley Park in late August with the fine specimen I saw on Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa) at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park in late July a couple of years ago. I wondered if the difference in wear and tear was due to feeding among thorny thistles or perhaps just the normal battering big wings take after an extra month of foraging and mating. I’m guessing a bit of both.

These dramatic swallowtails have expanded their range further north since about 2001 when first frosts became more uncommon in September – perhaps an effect of global warming. They lay their eggs on plants that will act as hosts for their larvae, which includes two of our abundant natives, Swamp Milkweed  and the Solidago genus of Goldenrods.

The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) made its elegant contribution to the black-and-gold meadows. These high-flyers raise 2-3 broods each summer. Their caterpillars spin a remarkable chrysalis that matches dead wood very closely. It’s held in place by a thin string of silk on one end of the chrysalis and a silk pad at the other. That’s where the caterpillar spends the winter. There’s a remarkable photo of a Tiger Swallowtail’s chrysalis at the bottom of this Wikipedia page. Be sure to click on it to enlarge so you can tell where the bark ends and the chrysalis begins! My photo below shows the tiny hairs on the swallowtail’s wings – the closest my camera has ever come to a Tiger Swallowtail, I think.

The blue spots at the bottom of her rather ragged wings tells me that this is a female Tiger Swallowtail. Perhaps sipping at thistles has taken its toll on her as well as the Giant Swallowtails?

Three small Lepidopterans played a role in the color scheme. Like the members of the Swallowtail family (Papilio),  a female Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) found Bull Thistle a good choice for nectar in this transition time just before the Goldenrods reach their full glory and other fall asters emerge. I admit I appreciate the non-native Bull Thistles more this year, having seen how much sustenance they’re providing after a torrid July brought an earlier end to the bloom of so many wildflowers. A Clouded Sulphur (Colias philodice) paused on the drying leaves of a Queen Anne’s Lace. I’ve wanted to see a chrysalis of these small butterflies ever since I read it described as “yellow with a pink zipper”! No luck yet.  And the Ctenucha Moth (Erebidae family) did a fine job of contrasting its black wings with the yellow Grass-leaved Goldrod.

So much gold!  And I didn’t even include the gold and black bumblebees, wasps and honey bees foraging among this late summer landscape! Such riches, eh?

Late Summer Serenity

Sometimes life does come full circle.  Standing at the edge of the meadows at Charles Ilsley Park with sunlight falling on a fluttering, buzzing,  golden landscape, I could feel the deep sense of calm and quiet that I relished in our township in my childhood. On just such a morning then, I would stand on the sturdy limbs of a rugged old tree overlooking a wild pond or spread my blanket in the short grass near the shore and breathe in the comforting scent of warm earth and grass. I feel so fortunate as an older woman to still experience that certainty of being part of something big and beautiful that nature offers all of us if we take the time. I wish that for you, too.

Postcript: Watch for More Ilsley Photos!

Of course, Charles Ilsley Park offered me much more than gold and black in its rich diversity:  a wet spot in a field suddenly blooming with red and blue wildflowers, a fuzzy brown House Finch fledgling peeking through the greenery,  lavender blossoms emerging from the seedbank where a moist swale was restored, a dramatic Darner dragonfly decorated in a pattern of blue and green and more. So rather than extend this blog, I’ll create a shorter photo blog later this week to fill in the rest of the color palette at Charles Ilsley Park.  Hope you can drop by!

Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park: Meadows A-Flutter and a Steep Forest with… Tulip Trees!

The west branch of Stony Creek winds through the ravine

Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park is a small park with big contrasts – between the sunlit, gently rolling meadow and the forest with large trees grasping the steep slope that plunges down to the creek stippled with sunlight below. It’s a fairly short walk, just in and out, for now. Eventually, we hope this elbow of a park will be joined to 208 spectacular acres to the east, now being acquired by our Parks & Recreation Commission. So I’d suggest you see it soon, so you can say you “knew it when!”

An Undulating Path through a Meadow of Fluttering Wings

The trail begins in a grove of trees at the end of Knob Creek Drive with its single parking space. A few years ago, Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide removed walls of invasive shrubs that crowded the edges of the trail into the park, obscuring the meadow. Now when I step into the park, the landscape is open to fields filled with tall flowers and sunlight. The meadow is an exuberant, dense tangle of native and non-native wildflowers –  and a lot of thistle! But the butterflies and bees make do with what they find and they are everywhere! So I periodically ventured out as far as possible into the shoulder-high plants to get a little closer!

Cam among the incredibly tall flowers and thistles of the meadow at Stony Creek Ravine.

Ben had reported seeing lots of Giant Swallowtails (Papilio cresphontes) on thistles at the park. Having seen them there in previous years, I was excited to look for them. But after a very hot week, they had evidently moved on to greener pastures. I only saw one at an unreachable distance across the meadow on my first visit. But since I saw many of them later at Charles Ilsley Park, here’s a photo of one to refresh your memory. Pretty impressive size, eh? They are actually the largest butterfly in North America!

Giant Swallowtail butterflies seem to be coming to our area in increasing numbers.

My birding friend, Bob Bonin, also saw something at Stony Creek in August that I only saw from a distance. I had a quick glimpse of a Snowberry Clearwing Moth (Hemaris diffinis) but couldn’t wade fast enough into the greenery to catch a shot of it. Bob generously shared his beautiful shot of one feeding on the last drops of nectar from a native  Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa).  Clearwings lose some of the wing scales due to their hummingbird-style, hovering flight, leaving areas of their wings almost transparent. The yellow and black fuzziness of the  Snowberry Clearwing (Snowberry is one of its host plants) means that it’s often mistaken for a bumblebee – perhaps providing some protection from predators.

The Snowberry Clearwing Moth can be mistaken for a bumblebee. Photo at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park by Bob Bonin, used with permission

Native bee-balm also prompted a stopover by the Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus) which, according to Wikipedia, prefers to hang from the underside of leaves at night or on hot and humid days. Bee-balm, true to its name, attracts many native insects, including the ubiquitous native Bumblebees (genus Bombus).  (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

 

For the first time ever, I noticed European Honeybees (Apis mellifera) literally running around the tops of non-native Queen Anne’s Lace. I’d never before noticed this “busy bee” activity! They rush across each lacy blossom, perhaps quickly gathering nectar or pollen. Bee Culture, a beekeeping magazine, says that Queen Anne’s Lace produces the greatest amount of nectar in hot weather, so perhaps that’s what attracted them. Let me know in the comments if you have more info than I could find on this phenomenon. Here’s my amateur video of the bee race at Stony Creek Ravine.

It’s always heartening to see Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus) in our parks, especially a female one sipping on Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), its favorite host plant on which to lay eggs!

A female Monarch on Common Milkweed! Every year our parks do their part to protect this beloved species.

The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) is a generalist who can live in lots of habitats, from forests to meadows to urban areas. Its caterpillar can eat and grow on many of the trees in our parks, including Wild Black Cherry, Willows, Cottonwoods and Tulip Trees (see below!), but also on non-native plants like Lilacs. This adaptability means it’s thriving, and that made me glad as it paused so delicately to sip from the only tender part of a Plumeless Thistle (Carduus acanthoides).

An Eastern Tiger Swallowtail sips nectar from a non-native plumeless thistle.

Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele) looked a bit ragged and uncomfortable one humid afternoon. I wonder if it had landed on too many prickly, bristly plants like the Plumeless Thistle! Most of the “spangles” are on the underside of the hindwings, so I’ve included an older photo to show them, since this butterfly clearly had no attention of feeding with its wings up.

A Great Spangled Fritillary on a very uncomfortable  plant!
Most of the silver spangles on a Great Spangled Fritillary are on the underside of the hindwings.

Red-spotted Purple (Limenitis arthemis) paused on non-native Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota). It prefers rotted fruit or even dung and carrion, but occasionally it sips nectar from small white flowers like these, according to the citizen science website, butterfliesandmoths.org.  These butterflies sometimes produce two broods. The first caterpillars hatch and once half-grown, form a “hibernaculum,” an over-wintering refuge which for caterpillars usually involves a folded leaf and some spun silk to secure it. They then emerge in the spring and finish maturing.  According to Wikipedia, some of  the first larvae “are able to mature during the summer, so they emerge as the second brood [in] early fall,” but may have a tough time surviving winter cold. The prime condition of the butterfly below makes me wonder if it was from an early second hatch.

A Red-spotted Purple rests on a non-native Queen Anne’s Lace.

Some small butterflies also made the most of the late summer meadow. The  common and colorful Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos) landed repeatedly on the path in front of me, as they often do. These very small butterflies can mate many times between April and November so we’re almost bound to see one on any summer walk  in our parks. And we’re also likely to see the non-native Cabbage Butterfly (Pieris rapae). I just love the sculptural look of the ventral (underside) of the wings on the one below. I think she’s a female since I can just make out the double wing spots on the dorsal (upper side); males have only one spot.

Right now, you’ll probably see a creature along the trail that looks like a butterfly with its black wings edged in beige, but is really the Carolina Locust (Dissosteira carolina). Despite seeing them every summer, I’ve never gotten a shot of their sudden flights from under my feet. So I can only show you what they look like once they land. But I’ve borrowed with permission a photo from an iNaturalist.org photographer, Joshua G. Smith, who held one in his hand to get a photo of the wing.

The Woods, the Deer Effect and a Bubbling Creek Below

A panorama of the woods where it begins to slope toward Stony Creek

The woods at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park is full of big oaks and some beautiful native Tulip Trees (Lirodendron tulipfera)! These are not the shorter, heavy flowering cultivated trees that I grew up seeing in people’s yards. These mighty trees grow beautifully straight and tall often with few limbs once they reach 80-100 feet. In virgin habitat, they can grow to 160 feet and their girth can be as wide as 10 feet! According to Ben, there’s a huge one on the new piece of property that is planned to eventually connect with the existing 60 acre park. I hope someday I’ll be able to see it and show it to you here!

Tulip trees were once valued as timber because they grow straight and tall with few limbs until they are 80-100 feet tall.

Wild tulip trees (vs. nursery cultivated ones) only bloom at the top of the tree, so their glamorous flowers are rarely seen, but are rich with nectar. Their bark is ridged in an orderly pattern. The leaves have a unique, squared-off shape. And the graceful, seed-filled cones stay on the tree all winter only falling to the forest floor in the spring. I have never seen the flowers up close or the cones, so my thanks go to iNaturalist.org photographers kwilie and Sandy Wolkenberg for sharing the bloom and cone photos below. We’re lucky to see Tulip trees here because we are at the far north edge of their range. Can you tell I’ve found a new favorite native tree?

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The forest floor beneath the impressive trees, though, is almost barren. The shade of course is very dense. But a huge problem is that, despite a limited hunting season in this park two days each week in from October to January, the deer are plentiful. As a result, few woodland plants reach maturity on the forest floor. Deer have no front teeth, so the stems left on the plants they graze are ripped and flattened as seen below. Rabbits, for instance, with their incisors, make a neat, angular cut. But hope springs eternal! Though most tulip tree seeds don’t survive, I found a small sapling that somehow had escaped the notice of the deer -so far.

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As you hike down to the creek, more grasses appear. The creek’s moisture encourages some flowers, especially in the spring when the trees haven’t leafed out and more sunlight reaches the forest floor. In summer, the moist river bank is a  hangout for damselflies. One warm, gray afternoon,  I saw a female Ebony Jewel Wing (Calopteryx maculata) looking at me head-on from a fallen branch.

A female Ebony Jewelwing damselfly looked at me intently!

Her mate is a bit more glamorous, but I also like the elegant understatement of the female.

The west branch of Stony Creek burbles along, tumbling over rocks, slipping under fallen trees, catching glints of sunlight on its surface. And beneath the surface, small fish school in the shallows.

Small fish schooling in the clear water of Stony Creek as it runs through the ravine.

Deep in the woods on the far side of the creek, the shriek of a young Red-tailed Hawk begging to be fed grated upon my ears. Young hawks can repeat this harsh cry for 4 to 6 weeks! I know what adult hawks are dealing with, because in some years, a young hawk subjects my husband and I to their cries from the field next to our house! But hawks believe in tough love and eventually it gets hungry enough, I guess, to do its own hunting. Here’s my recording at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park.

The youngster was nowhere in sight, but here’s a photo of one taken along Predmore Road near Lost Lake Park in 2017.

Red-tailed Hawk juvenile near Lost Lake in 2017

On a later visit, I was startled by a flash of huge wings, as a young hawk (I think!) flashed across the path in front of me and stumbled into a tree much too small for its size and weight. It wobbled back and forth on a thin branch for a few seconds. But before I raised my camera, it lumbered up into the air and soared off into the woods on the far side of the meadow. As far as I could tell this “desperate escape” was caused by the harassing pursuit of a single Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) – hardly the behavior of an adult hawk!  Like a lot of adolescents, this young bird just needs a bit more time to grow up.

Back Up in the Meadow – Baby Birds and a Fun Baby Insect

It’s a steep climb out of the ravine, up through the woods to the path and the sunlit meadow. Back on the trail,  I noticed out in the meadow a few fledglings learning to make their own way in the world. A juvenile Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) still sported the fledgling’s dappled chest, a field mark common to other members of the thrush family. It had landed high on the bare branch of a snag to survey the field, looking quite confident that it could survive on its own.

A Bluebird fledgling out on its own and surveying its world.

A little Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) popped up out of the greenery, looking like a plush toy! Donald W. Stokes’ Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol. 1) points out that a good field mark for juveniles is that their tails are about half the size of an adult Song Sparrow. Next spring, this little sparrow will look for a nesting site within its “song neighborhood,” i.e. close to the the place where adult birds sing the songs that it heard and memorized as a nestling. According to this Cornell Ornithology Bird Academy website, juvenile male sparrows need to practice for several months before they can sing their repertoire perfectly – sort of like babies babbling before talking.

A Song Sparrow fledgling learns its song repertoire from neighboring adults while still in the nest.

Far out in the meadow, I saw a hard-working male American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) traveling about with a juvenile. Male Goldfinches do most of the fledgling feeding because the females are busy with a second clutch of eggs. Goldfinches wait to breed until mid-summer when thistles provide them with fluffy pappus (downy plant material) to make an almost water-tight nest lining. Then they feed their young with partially digested thistle seed. I could hear an insistent fledgling calling to be fed and could see the adult male flying to meet it. Each time, the two of them disappeared into the greenery for a meal. I moved further into the dense undergrowth, trying to see the adult feeding the youngster. Finally, the fledgling, alone again, came out onto a bare tree stem and diligently chewed at its tip. My best guess is that this behavior is a way to practice stripping hulls from the seeds that make up almost all of a goldfinch’s diet. But I’m not sure, though I’ve seen two young goldfinches do this in the last week!

A juvenile Goldfinch gnaws the end of a stem, perhaps practice for removing hulls from seeds in the future.

Out in the field, the adult male Goldfinch hopped about on a thistle, filling his beak with seed to share with the youngster. I believe the thistle he chose  is again Plumeless Thistle.  At least it appears to feed the birds and butterflies!

A Goldfinch male filling his beak with native seed from a Plumeless Thistle to share with his nearby fledgling.

The birds will be able to enjoy a treat before too long, because a big, energetic patch of  American Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) with its Dr. Seuss-style color scheme has appeared along the trail! The green berries in the photo below will gradually turn white and then deep purplish-black. When ripe, they are much beloved by birds, particularly the Gray Catbird, Brown Thrasher, Northern Cardinal and the Northern Mockingbird, according to Wikipedia. However, they are highly toxic to most mammals, including us humans! So admire them,  but no snacking, not even one!

On the way back to the car, I spotted one of the largest and  most graceful nests of Eastern Tent Caterpillars (Malacosoma americanum) I’ve ever seen. These gregarious caterpillars head out each morning to forage together and return to their tents at night. The tents are added to each day before they leave, so they have multiple layers. As a result, the caterpillars can go to different parts of the tent for heating or cooling.  Though their feeding can defoliate trees, they cause little permanent damage and the trees generally re-leaf once they’re gone.

This tent is almost empty probably because in the morning, the Tent Caterpillars leave en masse to find food together.

My forays deeper into the meadow left me with socks covered in burs and sticky seeds. So on my way back to the car, I stopped at the beautiful bench commemorating the Kezlarian’s generosity toward this park. Along with the burs, I plucked a small caterpillar from one sock and set it on the bench. To my delight, it quickly began scooting around on the granite at a rapid pace. I laughed out loud! It was an inchworm! I looked them up when I got home and discovered they are caterpillars of the large and diverse moth family, Geometridae. Here’s the 30 second video I took of it that still tickles me. (It should have some cartoon music in the background, but again, I’m a complete beginner at videography!)

By the way, after filming, I let it climb on a dry leaf, carried it to a nice green one and wished it well.

The Persistence of Nature as a Challenge to Care

Water flows around a bend in Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park.

Places like Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park strengthen my hope when life feels challenging. The intense July heat – reportedly the hottest July in history worldwide! – finished the bloom of many flowers that might have lasted longer in a normal year. But honey bees rush about on less nectar-rich blooms, trying to gather their much-needed supply of pollen to feed the young  or  the nectar for making honey to feed the over-wintering colony. Some butterflies make their way across great distances  in unpredictable weather, seeking out available nectar to feed themselves and suitable host plants for their eggs. Young birds exercise their new skills, learning within weeks how to forage on their own in a landscape shaped by the changing climate. The glimmering creek down in the shadows of the forest rises and falls with the rainfall, but, for now,  flows on.

This same persistence, I think, also challenges us to do what we can to cool our planet and return to the patterns that nature has bequeathed to us through eons of experimentation. We owe it to the wildflowers, bees, butterflies – all of the natural world that supports us – to shape our lives not just to our human needs, but the needs of all the living beings that share this little blue planet with us. The township stewardship program is working on that, I’m working on that – and I bet you are, too. Let’s press on!