Tag Archives: Moss

Bear Creek Nature Park: A Welcoming Refuge from the Holiday “Must-do’s!”

The meadow west of the Center Pond in December

At our house, we’ve just emerged from the joyful-but-somewhat-frantic bustle of the festive season. From just before Thanksgiving through the New Year, we enjoyed the noise, color and craziness of the holiday with lots of friends and family  – but it feels like we just didn’t stop moving for weeks!  I imagine that’s true for lots of you too.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

I managed to keep some  scraps of my sanity by – you guessed it – venturing out into the parks. Our home is about five minutes from Bear Creek Nature Park; that became my most frequent escape hatch. So here’s a look at the wildness nearby that (with a small nod to Will Shakespeare) knit the raveled sleeve of my cares during the last several weeks.

 

It All Began before Thanksgiving…

Ice forming on the Center Pond on a bitter day in November

In the first half of November, before the rush of the festive season, wild visitors from farther north began to filter into Bear Creek. The birding group got a glimpse of a Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca) in the bushes. These large, chubby sparrows are usually rusty red with chevrons forming the stripes on their breasts. Since I didn’t get a good shot that day, here’s one in a very similar setting from generous iNaturalist photographer, Joseph Salmieri.

A Fox Sparrow by Joseph Salmieri (CC BY-NC) at iNaturalist.org

The birding group also saw a flock of Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) feeding in the grass along a path in early November. These birds make lovely black dashes against the snow on a winter day. They travel here from their breeding grounds in Canada – perhaps all the way from Hudson’s Bay! They’re often my first real sign that winter’s on its way.

A Dark-eyed Junco along the trail at Bear Creek in early November

The second half of November bore down on me suddenly since Thanksgiving came so late this year. Snow fell; the temperature dropped. Yikes! Time to design Christmas cards, turn my photos into a family calendar, think about gifts for special people. Out in the park, birds kept me company to soothe my jitters. One afternoon, my husband and I came across what seemed to be a friendly gathering of birds. Five species hung out together, moving about foraging and chattering in a grove of small trees near where Bear Creek runs out of the pond.

Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) caught our attention first as they chatted in a small tree. A male House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) listened in from behind a branch. The bluebirds probably moved a little farther south to escape the cold for a while, though some may return for short visits during the winter and some may be year ’round residents.

Five bluebirds socialize before moving south while the House Finch, a year ’round resident, listens in from behind a branch.

The House Finch just bears up in the cold of a Michigan winter. Like other small winter residents, he keeps warm by crunching on copious amounts of seed and fluffing his feathers into a winter jacket.

house-finch-male-bc.jpg
A male House Finch will stay with us all winter. Love how the red shows between his wings!

The woodpeckers, too, are a hardy crew. A Downy Woopecker male (Dryobates pubescens) tapped along a tree trunk searching for insects eggs or a frozen caterpillar, quite uninterested in the bluebirds.

A male Downy Woodpecker kept up a tapping rhythm near the bluebirds.

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) joined the gathering on a nearby Wild Black Cherry tree (Prunus serotina). He seemed to be craning his neck to hear what was going on with the bluebirds behind him! But in reality, of course, he was just demonstrating the caution that all wild birds do when feeding.

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker looks about while foraging at another tree trunk.

The fifth member of the bird gathering was the industrious Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor), who pretty much ignored the others, having found something very interesting at the end of a branch.

A Tufted Titmouse sees something worth its attention at the end of a dead branch.

On the big loop path beyond the bird gathering, a White Oak leaf (Quercus alba) testified to the frigid temperatures. The water droplets on it had frozen and magnified the leaf’s veins in a way that always fascinates me.

Frozen water droplets function like a magnifying glass on a white oak leaf.

Our feeders at home got busy around Thanksgiving as well, providing visual entertainment as we buzzed by the windows, working on Christmas projects. New guests arrived at the feeder this year – the Hairy Woodpeckers (Dryobates villosus). Here the female sits in an aging black oak outside the window, just beyond the feeder.

A female Hairy Woodpecker in profile shows off her long, thick beak.

It’s sometimes hard to distinguish the Hairy from the Downy Woodpecker at a distance.  But when both arrive at a feeder at the same time, the difference in size is readily apparent!

The Hairy Woodpecker has a much heavier bill and is much larger than the Downy when seen up close at a feeder!

The Holiday Pace Picks up in December…

Eastern Meadow at Bear Creek on a later winter afternoon

Oh, boy. Hurried wrapping of presents for family in Australia. Multiple trips to the Post Office to send calendars to friends overseas and around the States. Trips out of town for special gifts. But on the way home from the errands, a stop at Bear Creek to slow down, breathe the sharp air and redden my cheeks.

One dark, late afternoon and as I entered the park, I noted an alarming sight. A lovely but deadly Oriental Bittersweet vine (Celastrus orbiculatus) had wrapped itself around a tiny tree. This terribly invasive plant will slowly strangle this sapling if it isn’t carefully removed and its roots treated with herbicide. Sad that such a colorful vine should have such a powerfully negative impact! Birds do eat the berries at times, but unfortunately get very little nutrition from them.

Vines like this invasive Oriental Bittersweet that wrap around trees can strangle them. And the berries have scant nutrition for our birds.

Looking for more benign color, I came across lots of rich green moss (phylum Bryophyta) in the forest. Mosses, unlike plants, can actually grow very slowly in cold temperatures, if not under snow or ice. Some mosses actually survive in Antarctica! Our mosses cope with winter winds by being close to the ground and benefit from the moisture of winter rain and melting snow. They can also go dormant when moisture is low and then regenerate quickly after a rain. What a relief to the eye to come across these bright green mosses on a wintry day! [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

A golden fungus and a bright yellow lichen appeared at various places in the park in December.  These bright touches against bark or leaves always catch my attention on a gray winter day.

Reminders of summer past help me put things back in perspective during the  holiday bustle. An abandoned nest of what I think was Bald-faced Hornets (Dolichovespula maculata) hung low in bush. Yellow Jacket Wasps (Vespula maculifrons) also build aerial nests occasionally, as well as using underground burrows, but theirs are usually higher up than this one. The hornets created this masterpiece with overlapping, striped scallops. Since the hornets nicely camouflaged the nest in a leafy bush, I’d missed it completely in the summer. Amazing that these tiny creatures can create such a beautiful design on the outside of their architecture and those myriad, perfect hexagons inside!

Along the path to the west of the Playground Pond, the abandoned, but still intact nest of last summer’s Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) swung gently in the winter air, but no fledglings rock within it now. Another architectural marvel, this one was woven out of plant fibers over the course of one to two weeks by a female Oriole. Such sturdy nests and they’re only used for one season!

A Baltimore Oriole nest woven last spring by a female using only her beak! And it’s sturdy enough to survive winter winds!

Some summer plants still stand tall in the fields, bearing their seeds for hungry birds. The giant Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) has done its duty. It’s  been picked clean, probably by the flocks of American Goldfinches in the park.

Prairie Dock from last summer has already offered up its seeds for hungry birds.

Its huge, spotted leaves that feel like sandpaper in the summer now lie crumbling beneath the stately stalks.

The huge, sandpaper-like leaves of Prairie Dock are now giving their nutrients back to the soil.

In December, Goldfinches had not yet devoured the seeds of this Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis). This one was so fluffy that it looked like it was dressed in a down jacket for the winter. But with winter wind and wet, heavy snow, it will bow down to the ground before spring, making way for new sprouts.

A Canada Goldenrod still stands upright, looking like its dressed for winter weather.

One afternoon, my husband I found a gorgeous rock embedded with quartz crystals. From its location, I’m guessing it was  hidden under a vernal pool for most of the year. It shone white in the winter woods, looking like a stray snowball from a distance. Isn’t the coloring and crystal structure lovely? So rare to see such a large, white rock.

A beautiful white rock, perhaps granite mixed with quartz and feldspar crystals.

And Then the Post-Holiday Slow-down

Bear Creek meanders south from Gunn Road to join Paint Creek just west of the Paint Creek Cider mill.

Presents are put away.  Decorations are being stored in the basement. The bevy of much beloved guests is dwindling. And the park has gone mostly silent. Perhaps you’ve noticed that birds are a bit tougher to see or hear in Bear Creek Nature Park now. Sometimes they’re present, but I wonder if  their diminished numbers may be due to something good – a plentitude of winter feeders in the surrounding neighborhoods.

On our last visit, we heard a Red-bellied Woodpecker in the woods on the township hall trail and perhaps the “ank-ank-ank” of a White-breasted Nuthatch somewhere on the Big Loop. We watched a family of American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) settling into some tall trees off the western field. The adults arrived first and one began calling. When no young arrived, the calling adult looked back at its mate and they cawed until all the presumably younger members gathered with them in the tree tops. Crow families often stay together for more than one season, the young helping the adults feed the nestlings of the next generation. Such intelligent and social birds!

Down at the Center Pond, the ice had temporarily melted and a pair of Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) glided across the dark surface. They’ve evidently made their December choice of partners and will now spend the winter together before mating in the spring.

A mallard couple keeping company on the pond while the ice is gone.

Signs of spring feel rare and welcome after Christmas and its encouraging to notice that plants have already made preparations. A fuzzy little Thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana) held onto its seeds at the edge of a woodland trail. This plant produces oblong fruits with a thimble-like shape and pattern in summer that change into cottony tufts full of seeds in the fall. It keeps its seeds right into winter and depends on the wind to spread them. But it has another couple of strategies for survival. It produces a substance that discourages other seeds around it from germinating and its tap root is accompanied by rhizomes (underground stems that sprout and make roots) that allow it to spread beneath the soil. Look how its seed tufts in the photo below just happened to form an image of a frowning human profile, something I didn’t notice until I developed the photo! What fun!

I call this tufted seedhead Thimbleweed Man. Do you see the profile face looking right in the top stem?

The trees produce leaf buds in the fall which sometimes have a waxy surface to help retain moisture in the winter cold. The American Dogwood (Cornus florida) makes neat, round, little flower buds that face upward at the branch tips. Separately and sometimes just below the flower buds are leaf buds. I’ve only found one American Dogwood in Bear Creek Nature Park ; it’s on the east side of the Big Loop. Each fall and winter, I look eagerly for these buds with their pointed tops turned to the sun. In spring, I enjoy the way the white bracts (modified leaves) open to reveal a small cluster of yellow flowers at the center.

I saw this lovely bud on the Big Loop but can’t identify it yet! I loved its golden glow on a gray day! If any of you know which tree produced this bud, please tell me in the comments! It almost looks as though the leaves started to break from their buds with the warmer temperatures after the holidays.

A mystery plant – but isn’t its bud a pretty color?

Down near the Center Pond, I spotted the cache of an American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) beneath the trunk of an old Shagbark Hickory tree (Carya ovata). I could hear the owner scolding me from deep within the tangled brush nearby, but I never got a clear look at it. Shagbark Hickory is a fine example of how productive native trees can be in their habitat. According to the Illinois Wildflower website, these big, distinctive trees provide sweet nuts for raccoons, squirrels, chipmunks and many birds. Their leaves host a wide variety of insect caterpillars and so are often sought out by birds like chickadees, vireos, warblers and others. The long shards of shaggy bark provide winter shelter for insects and even nesting sites for small birds like the Brown Creeper. And they’re deer and fire resistant! – though the saplings may be gnawed by rabbits. What a contributor to a healthy habitat!

The consumed cache of an American Red Squirrel at the foot of a large Shagbark Hickory which supplied most of the nuts. Hope this squirrel has other caches for the coming winter months!
Shagbark Hickory bark provides winter shelter for overwintering insects and nesting sites for birds.

On the way back down to the Township Hall the day after Christmas, we spotted the festive bark of another tree. Nice Christmas colors,eh?

The reddish bark and green moss on this Sassafras tree looked quite festive at the holiday season!

Ben identified the tree for me as one of the tallest Sassafras trees (Sassafras albidum) that he’s ever seen. We were certainly impressed! Its bark can sheer off, leaving this red layer exposed. Sassafras is another generous host, providing food for butterfly caterpillars like the Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus), the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) and for many moths. Bobwhites, Wild Turkeys and many songbirds feed on their pitted fruits called “drupes.”

A very tall, native Sassafras tree on the trail from the Township Hall

The Comforts of “Home” on a Winter Walk

A Walnut tree against a stormy sky at Bear Creek Park

Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that… wildness is a necessity.”
― John Muir, in Our National Parks

Sometimes I notice that I’ve become an “over-civilized” person, don’t you? I find myself feeling crabby from too many “must-do’s,” feeling hemmed in by walls and getting stale from breathing what feels like the same old air. That’s when I rediscover Muir’s insight.  Wildness really is a necessity – maybe for all of us, whether we know it or not. Even in winter, I regularly need to immerse myself in the crazy quilt of a meadow full of  dry grass stems and listen to the pulsing roar of wind rushing headlong through the crowns of trees. The wild language of crows backed by the drumbeat of woodpeckers tunes me to a different key. For a short time, I’m enfolded within a complex world much beyond my small human one. And somehow that allows me to rest. I pull my hat down over my ears, snug up the scarf at my neck and I’m home, at ease in a place where I’m welcomed – and so are you – as just another creature making its way through winter days.

Bear Creek Nature Park: Color! Song! A Sensory Trip Through Early Spring

The dry stalks of native Little Bluestem grasses paint a splash of soft orange on the somber canvas of spring..

Gray clouds blanket our April skies in Michigan – but the occasional bright blue day or a beam of pale sunlight slipping between the rain clouds can lift our spirits in a giddy instant. The earth emerges from its snow cover in shades of gray and brown – but summer birds return dressed in their spring finery, ready to join others in exuberant song.

Photos and text by Cam Mannino

Hibernators poke their heads from tree holes or slip out of the leaf litter or swim up from thawing ponds, ready to nurture a new generation of young. Early spring takes its time, offering us just a few tastes here and there of the colorful bustle ahead as the days grow longer.

Visitor Birds Fly In Bearing Color and Song on Their Bright Wings

I hope you’ve been able to open a window or step out your door to listen to the birds’ dawn chorus in the last few days. Just in case, I thought I’d play a recording I made outside our home last Sunday morning. If you increase your volume,  you’ll hear the insistent call of Northern Cardinal, the buzzing call of a Red-winged Blackbird, the “kwirrr call of the Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus), the “tweeeeets” of American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) and in the background, Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) high overhead, plus a few smaller birds twittering along.  It’s a joyful noise after a cold winter.

The male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) you heard above, of course, has provided splashes of scarlet against the snow all winter.  But now some old friends are arriving for the summer, brightening up an April day. Members of our birding group heard the high pitched whistling calls of Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) and then spotted a small group that had settled into trees near a Bear Creek Nature Park wetland. The yellow tips of their tails and yellow bellies added a spot of sunshine on a blue/gray morning. Though Waxwings can stay here year ’round, I see Waxwings less often in the winter. I’m glad some of them choose to nest in Bear Creek each year.

One of a group of Cedar Waxwings seen by the birding group.

As a friend and I skirted the eastern edge of the Center Pond one afternoon, we heard a splash and looked up to see a female Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) flying up into a tree with her quarry. She swallowed it, though, before I got her picture. Her blue and rust colored belts show that she’s a female.

The male has only one blue belt. Fortunately, last Sunday, the male was at the Center Pond. When my husband and I arrived, the kingfisher was very agitated, calling as he dashed from tree to tree. These kingfishers don’t sing. At best, their fast, rat-a-tat rattle provides the other birds’ vocals with a little background percussion.

The gorgeous male Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) brought more than his share of brilliant color to the chilly waters of the Playground Pond. Together he and his mate will scout for a nesting hole high in the top of a tree near water in the woods nearby. Wood Duck nestlings are “precocial,”  meaning born ready to go – eyes open, covered in feathers and, in their case, outfitted with claws for climbing. Only days after birth, they claw their way up to the edge of their nest cavity and leap into the air, following their mother’s calls below.  They fall harmlessly into the leaf litter or water and join her in the the nearest pond to feed. Amazing feat for a baby bird! The adult birds make quite a racket when taking flight, the male’s “zeet” call is very different from the female’s “oo-eek.”

Though Wood Ducks generally choose a mate in January, this one seemed to have arrived alone. A few days later, his mate showed up.

The diminutive Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) repeatedly sang his lovely up-and-down spring song while he hopped about frenetically in a cluster of vines near the Playground Pond. Through the tangled branches, I could see the red crown raised slightly atop his head, but never got a clear shot. Luckily, gifted local photographer, Joan Bonin, got a lovely photo when a kinglet posed on a branch for her at Holland Ponds in Shelby Township. Thanks to Joan for sharing her excellent photographs for the blog!

In his brilliant iridescent green head, yellow beak and orange legs, the Mallard  (Anas platyrhynchos) seemed to be leading his more modestly dress mate around the Playground Pond one afternoon. But when the female Mallard spotted me, she turned and swam away, quacking insistently until the male looked around nervously, saw me and fled toward her, scrambling awkwardly across some submerged logs to catch up with his mate. By the way, that famous  “Quack!” is only given by Mallard females. Have a listen to it along with male’s very different call at this link.

A pair of mallards cruised the Playground Pond, keeping an eye on the Wood Duck.

Near the Walnut Lane, a wonderful ripple of song flowed down from the treetops. After a bit of peering around, high above I spotted an American Robin holding forth repeatedly with his up-and-down lilting spring song. I recorded his music and then looked up and took a photo from an angle I hadn’t noticed before. I got a worm’s eye view, you might say, of that very sharp, probing beak and felt glad it wasn’t being thrust in my direction!

Over in the marsh, the male Red-winged Blackbirds have been clucking and buzzing from atop the cat-tails for a couple of weeks as a way of establishing territory. Last week, the females began to arrive. Maybe their dark striping lets them blend safely into the shadows while they tend their nests among the stems down near the water. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

And Then the Frogs Join the Chorus!

After one warm April day, the hibernating spring frogs broke into song. Every wetland at Bear Creek trilled with the high-pitched peeping of Chorus Frogs (genus Pseudacris) and lower chuckling gurgle of the Wood Frogs. Both have been frozen all winter with no heartbeat and no brain waves but enough built-in anti-freeze in their cells to somehow stay alive. And as soon as they warm up, they’re ready to sing!

The Wood Frogs, like the one above,  are easier to spot because they croak while floating on the surface,  flexing their legs in an occasional kick. The thrust creates concentric circles in the water around them, so I look for the little masked frogs in the middle of those circles. Most Chorus frogs are harder to see, usually huddled on, against or under logs. I haven’t spotted one yet this spring, (though their piercing songs can be deafening up close! Here’s a photo, though, from a previous year.

A Chorus Frog in mid-cheep.

Some of our local Chorus Frogs, Spring Peepers, (Pseudacris crucifer) are nocturnal. I imagine that the Bear Creek Nature Park neighbors are hearing them when the sun sets, or will shortly. If you see one sleeping on a leaf during the day as I did once, you’ll see the “X” on its back just behind its head, though it’s hard to see in this shot. Isn’t it tiny?

Spring peepers are the nocturnal spring frog you’re hearing at night.

Other Hibernators Emerge…

The Raccoon (Procyon lotor) that I watch for every year in the oak-hickory forest has already given birth to four kits.  One of them is what’s sometimes called a “blond morph”; it’s not an albino, just a different morph or phenotype of the raccoon. I saw a blond adult raccoon a few years ago in the same tree so that trait must be in the local gene pool. The four kits (one is barely visible at the back right) seem to be laying across their sleeping mother’s back in order  to get a good look at me. She’s probably catching up on her sleep after hunting all night to feed these youngsters!

Four raccoon kits , three of whom were checking me out. The one on the right is a light phenotype, which is unusual but not extremely rare.

A couple other hibernators made their first appearance in the last two weeks.  An Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus), that had dozed off and on all winter in its multi-chambered den, emerged and just sat quietly in a patch of sunlight along the entrance trail. The light must take some getting used to after months underground, just waking now and then to eat stored nuts and seeds.

A quiet Chipmunk sat in the sunlight, enjoying being out its underground den after a long winter.

A pair of Midland Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta marginata) kept each other company on a log in the Playground Pond last week. The slightly warmer water must have signaled them to leave their winter torpor in the mud below and swim up into the light and air. I wondered if these two were a pair; the lower one maintained a steady stare at the higher one, who paid no attention while I was there. They both probably were just staring off into the distance, though, as turtles often do.

Painted Turtles emerged from the mud below into the light of a rainy day at the Playground Pond

Over in the marsh, a whole group of them gathered in the reeds and assumed exactly the same pose in order to soak up the sun on their dark shells.

A group of Painted Turtles bask in identical poses in the marsh.

A couple Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina) surfaced in the marsh as well. One fed with its head down as it cruised the marsh, eating vegetation. It looked just like a slowly moving green lump! But the other, much smaller, was basking with its entire body encased in vivid green Duckweed (genus Lemna). It seems very content with the look, and probably feeling, it had created, eh?

A small Snapping Turtle basking in a covering of duckweed.

Plants Begin to Bloom…and Butterflies (and others) aren’t Far Behind!

Just as spring was breaking and icy puddles were melting, I came across a little stream burbling through Bear Creek Nature Park’s eastern woods. This streams runs out of the Center Pond toward the marsh, joining Bear Creek after it leaves the march. Such a lovely spring sound!

On the north side of the Center Pond last week, the Willows (genus Salix) bloomed and (hooray!) we got our first glimpse this year of butterflies – and other pollinators.  First we saw one of the hibernating butterflies, the Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa). It looked a bit ragged from having spent the winter in a tree cavity or under loose bark on the snow-covered ground. It’s often the first butterfly I see in the spring. Mourning cloaks generally don’t pollinate much because they sip tree sap or the honeydew of aphids, rather than nectar from flowers. This one might have been displaying in order to attract a female.

Mourning Cloak on a blooming willow.

On the same plant, a migrator, the Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) posed. It does sip nectar but it also competes with other males for territory by showing off its flying skills. Perhaps that’s why this one was flitting busily from limb to limb.

A Red Admiral had migrated from the south, probably Texas, to land on this willow near the Center Pond last Sunday.

On one bloom, we saw what appeared a small Wasp (maybe suborder Apocrita). It seemed very busy enjoying the willow’s pollen.  According to Wikipedia, unlike the better known wasps, like Yellowjackets (fam. Vespidae), most wasps are solitary with each female living and breeding alone.

A solitary wasp on willow blooms.

Over in a wetland on the west side of the marsh, the strange blossom of Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) had thrust itself up out of the mud. Its purple and yellow spathe covers a tiny spike of petal-less flowers inside. The smell of skunk cabbage attracts early spring flies that pollinate this sci-fi looking blossom. It releases a skunk-like smell and a bitter taste when bruised which means most predators stay away, too. The stem of Skunk Cabbage remains beneath the ground and the green leaves rise after the flowers. Odd, how this eccentric plant with the nasty scent seems to reverse my expectations of how plants grow in the spring!

The flower of the Skunk Cabbage rises from the mud with a spike of tiny flowers protected by the purple and yellow cover of the spathe.

The brightest colors in the woods now, though, are the vivid greens of Moss (members of the Bryophytes). Spring light sifts through bare limbs providing enough sunlight to feed these interesting, ancient plants. The leafy green parts of moss are “gametophytes” that produce the gametes, sperm and ova. Once spring raindrops rinse the sperm across the surface of the moss to a waiting ovum, fertilization occurs and a tall thin “sporophyte” rises from the green surface. The sporophyte will eventually release it spores. These spores initiate thin filaments called the “protonema” out of which grow new gametophytes, starting a new patch of moss.

Here are what I’m guessing are three different stages of moss growing on the same tree near the marsh. Or maybe its three different mosses? I’m too much of an amateur naturalist to know.  I do know that I love the green glow of moss in the dappled light of the forest. (If you are knowledgeable about mosses, please feel free to correct my guesses and help me identify them! )

If mosses just don’t do it for you, don’t despair.  Thanks to last fall’s forestry mowing north of the pond, sun has already reached the sunny faces of the Blood Root (Sanguinaria canadensis). I admire its leafy cloak that rises with the flower wrapped inside.

Bloodroot bloomed early this year because sunlight reached it after the forestry mowing.

The first tender leaves and buds of the woodland wildflower, Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica) are already rising at the feet of trees in the Oak-Hickory forest.

And out in the eastern meadow, a Pussy Willow (Salix discolor) began to bud a few weeks ago, while it peacefully hosts a wide assortment of developing insects within its pine cone-shaped Willow galls. Last Sunday, it had bloomed, but the insects didn’t seem to be issuing forth yet.

Slip on Your Boots and Your Raincoat!  Spring is Singing Its Siren Song

Song sparrow (Melospiza melodia) singing.

Spring’s a great time to act like a kid again. Try heading for the park on a rainy day and let the sounds and sights of spring cheer you like they did when you were small. Slosh through a puddle.  Squelch through some mud.  Leave your earbuds at home – and pause, eyes closed,  for a short serenade by a Robin or a Song Sparrow.  Use your binoculars to scan the wetlands for tiny frogs, their throats bulging with song. Let your color-starved eyes feast on  the yellow of a Waxwing’s belly, the emerald shine of a Mallard’s head,  the exotic, multi-colored pattern of a  Wood Duck’s plumage.  Swish your palm across a soft cushion of a vivd green moss. Perhaps even get close enough to a skunk cabbage to make your nose wrinkle. Our senses need a good workout after being indoors for so long.  Treat yourself to a walk in the park. I can pretty much guarantee you’ll come home  happier than when you left.  Works for me every single time.

Photo of the Week: Green Plants on a Snowy April Day

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Spindly moss sporophytes growing out of the green gametophyte. Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park, 2017.

It was snowy this morning when I looked out the window. Yes, it was beautiful, and no, snow is not unusual in early April. But I’m getting a strong case of spring fever, so I needed to look for something green to brighten my day.

Enter mosses. They are the masters of shaking off a snowy day. One study found that Arctic mosses can ramp up photosynthesis within 332 seconds of snow removal. That’s less than 6 minutes! Mosses in southeast Michigan are equally hardy. They love the bright sunlight and moisture of early spring, ramping up photosynthesis quickly to soak up every bit of sun.

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Moss on the base of a tree at Blue Heron Environmental Area, February 2018.

With the constant change between beautiful, sunny days and wintry weather, we need to take a lesson from the playbook of mosses: catch every bit of sun possible. The forecast calls for sun this weekend, so where are my hiking boots…?

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: In the Forest – Hawks Hunting, Smaller Birds Hiding, Deer Stalking and Dabs of Color plus Important Safety Info

November rain

Cam in red winter coat BC
Blog Post and Photos by Cam Mannino

This week Bear Creek again slipped from winter to fall and back again.  The pond and marsh iced over and then melted in steady rain.  The Eastern Old Field (above) glowed russet as the rain saturated every color in the park and the combination of wind and wet earth felled a large tree.  And then heavy frost descended, edging everything in white.  Over in the woods, raptors silently slipped through the branches searching for a meal, while smaller birds found places to hide.  Mushrooms, lichens and mosses painted  the forest  with dabs of color,  and deer stalked in the distance.  A transition time at Bear Creek.

 First, Some Safety Issues – and Practicalities

If you enter the park from Snell Road, you may see caution tape across the path leading into the park.  A large tree has fallen into another on the trail and is in danger of falling across the path.  I got a quick shot to satisfy the curiosity of park visitors, so please avoid the area until our trusty OT maintenance crew can remove the danger.  Feel free to go west past the Playground Pond or north down the path behind the playground that runs to the Center Pond.

Edit:  As of Saturday, December 5, the tree was removed and the path in from Snell Road is now open!  Thanks again to the Maintenance Crew for getting this taken care of.

falling tree at BC
A large tree has fallen into another along the Snell Road entrance. Hence the caution tape that prevents entrance by that path until the maintenance crew can remove it.

And speaking of the maintenance crew, many thanks to Doug Caruso, OT Maintenance Foreman, for washing the slippery gray mud that had washed onto the deck at the Center Pond after the rain.  Doug washing deckThe deck looks better and feels safer underfoot!

And speaking of cleaning things up, can I please urge Bear Creek visitors to use the Pet Waste stations this winter?  The maintenance crew just installed a new one at the south end of the Eastern Path, New pet bag station near subso if you forget your plastic bag, please pick one up there or at the Snell Parking lot and clean up after your dog.  Dog waste on white snow is not a pretty sight, and pet waste spreads disease into our water and wildife! And remember that dog leashes keep both other dogs and other walkers safer and happier in the park.  Thanks!

 The Forest:  Raptors Hunt and Smaller Birds Hide

When I walked into the woods near the marsh early last week, I heard the high, raw cry of a young Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) and finally spotted it perched high in a tangle of branches near the water.  It flew above the treetops from there,  so here’s a photo of another young Red-Tailed Hawk on the hunt.

young redtail hawk soaring closeup
A young Red-tailed Hawk called and soared above the marsh. Young red-tails don’t have a red tail in their first year.

Nearby in the woods, a female Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) moved nervously from tree to tree.  When the hawk soared away, she quickly flew to  a branch very close to one on which the hawk had perched.  I thought that was odd until I saw her disappear into a hole on the bottom side of the branch.  In a few seconds, her head peeked out as if she was checking to see if the coast was clear!  Good hiding place, isn’t it?

Red-belly female in tree hole
A Red-bellied Woodpecker’s found a nice, safe hole on the underside of a dead branch near the marsh.

If you’re unfamiliar with the appearance of this female year ’round resident, here’s a closeup of a female Red-belly, like the one in the hole above.  The red on the her head reaches only to the crown unlike the male on which the red feathers extend from the nape to the beak.

red bellied woodpecker
A closeup of a female Red-bellied Woodpecker like the one hiding in a hole in the tree in the photo above.

Later in the week, a small, blue-gray Sharp -shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus) shot by me on the western side of the woods.  As I’d crested a rise, this little woodland hawk, the smallest hawk in North America, had spotted me from a low limb, immediately leapt into the air and flew off with consummate skill among the tree limbs.  Here’s a photo of one scoping out prey from a bush in a previous winter.  Sharp-shinned hawks often pounce on mice and, unfortunately songbirds,  from low branches.  So I may have thwarted a hungry raptor, who like all birds was trying to bulk up for the winter months.

Hawk hunting
A small woodland raptor, this juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk keeps a careful eye out for prey

With these hungry raptors hunting around the woods, the American Tree Sparrow (Spizella arborea), which seems to be the only sparrow around right now, hid within the protective branches of a bush. Pretty effective camouflage.

Tree sparrow in marsh
A Tree Sparrow hides in a bush while raptors hunt nearby.

A flock of American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) could be heard in the distance, too.  Crows frequently mob hawks, harassing them with dive-bombing and noise to drive them from their territories.  This may have been just late fall group behavior (left), but I have seen hawks and crows in conflict before in Bear Creek (right). (Rest your cursor on the photos for captions.)

The woods provided a couple of other fun moments.  A wary doe near Gunn Road stalked along behind the trees, but curiosity about the cameras always seems to seduce White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus).  They just have to turn and look.

Doe through a scrim of trees
A doe peeks through small trees, curious about my camera.

And one of the fun natural features of the park showed up nicely in the snow the week before last – what I call The Mitten Stone. I forgot to include it in last week’s blog. Now that’s Pure Michigan, isn’t it?

Mitten stone
A Michigan-shaped stone in the woods between the two entrances to the marsh.

The Forest:  Dabs of Color in the Brown-Gray Landscape

Mushrooms (the seeding parts of underground fungi), lichens and mosses did their part again this week to add bits of color here and there to the rather somber backdrop of late fall.  I’m no mushroom expert so no specific identifications here.  Does anyone know a reliable site? (Click on images to enlarge. Rest your cursor on a photo for a caption)

I’m a firm believer that there’s no bad weather for walking, just bad clothing.  Try a rainy walk at Bear Creek in a sturdy raincoat and good boots – or with an umbrella –  and see how the moisture saturates the colors.  Or let the frost prickle your nose on a super cold morning.   A long walk or a short stroll, you’re bound to discover something worth the trip.

Crabapple tree dusk
Non-native crab apples hang like ornaments in the silvery light of a rainy sunset.
*Footnote:  As well as Oakland Township Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, my sources for information are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991);Stokes Nature Guides:  A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net.; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for insect info http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info; invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman; experienced birder Ruth Glass, bird walk leader at Stoney Creek Metro Park for bird identification;Birds of North American Online; Audubon.org, Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, Trees in My Forest by Bernd Heinrich, Winter World by Bernd Heinrich

 

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: From the Sedate Colors of Late Autumn to Winter White

Cam in red winter coat BC
Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

I’ll be the first to admit that wildlife was a bit quiet this week at Bear Creek Nature Park. The early part of the week was typical of November – brown and gray.  So I went searching for bright colors or interesting shapes and found a few native plants, lichens and mushrooms adding  what designers call “visual interest” to the landscape.  And then suddenly at the end of the week, winter arrived!  I’m enough of a child to still love the first snow – and what a snowfall! Early Saturday morning, I walked through a silent Bear Creek – even my footsteps were muffled by the snow. Walking over an hour across the fields and through the woods,  I heard the twitter of one Tree Sparrow and a Chickadee’s call, a Blue Jay warning the world of my presence,  the soft “chip” of one Northern Cardinal and the inevitable low grumble of an American Red Squirrel annoyed by my passing – but I saw none of them as they huddled away from the swiftly falling snow.  So this time our weekly virtual stroll through Bear Creek travels quickly from late autumn to early winter.

Late Autumn:  A Search for Colors and Shapes

Falling bur oak leaf
Falling Oak Leaf

Late November is a tough season to love.  The vivid colors of October drain away as the sap flows down into the tree roots and the landscape turns gray and brown.  Birds are more scarce and harder to see as they twitter softly inside bushes or high in the trees. Bird nests appear in the bare branches – like this shrunken sack over the Playground Pond, the remains of the nest of a pair of Baltimore Orioles (Icterus galbula).  This spring I saw the yellow/orange female’s tail protruding from the top as she fed her young in the nest below. Her brilliant orange and black mate helped out, making frequent trips to the nest.  Look at that lively little home now!

Oriole nest abandoned
Hanging over the Center Pond, the abandoned nest of a beautiful family of Baltimore Orioles.

So I decided I’d keep my eye out for any color or interesting shapes that I could spot in the park.  Unfortunately, a lot of the color comes from invasive plants!  After all,  one of the reasons they escaped from people’s gardens is that they provided color late in the year.  But I wanted to see what our native plants could provide.

The Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) still had bright scarlet plumes on the western slope.

Sumac in Novemberr
Staghorn Sumac still red at the bottom of the western slope.

And everywhere the red leaves of Common Blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis) broke the tawny sameness of late autumn.

Common Blackberry
Common Blackberry adds a smattering of red to the brown landscape of late autumn.

All over the park, small trees bravely waved their large leaves which they’d used to soak up as much summer sunshine as possible.  This tiny Black Oak (Quercus velutina) may someday be a huge, spreading tree since it found a place in full sun on the western slope.  Its crimson leaves stood out in the field of dried Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) and Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota).

Tiny black oak tree
A tiny Black Oak at the northern end of the western slope.

A ball gall on what appeared to be another blackberry bush took on the dark reddish sheen of its host.  Galls occur when insects lay their eggs in plant stems and the plant grows around it,  providing a relatively safe place for the insect that will emerge in the spring.

Reddish gall
A ball gall on what I think is a blackberry bush houses the larva of at least one insect, possibly more, until spring.

Near one of the wetlands, the bright red and green of a moss-covered log caught my eye.  Dr. Ben VanderWeide, Oakland Township’s Stewardship Manager,  tells me, “Mosses are really cool … The green part that we always see and call “moss” is actually the “gametophyte generation” of mosses  –  the generation with one copy of DNA that produces “gametes,” sperm and egg. When it rains, the sperm swim through the film of water on the mosses to reach an egg in the tip of one of the green mosses. After fertilization of the egg, a new plant grows into the “sporophyte generation” (red filaments in the picture below), which has two copies of DNA and produces spores. The spores then spread about and germinate to grow into new carpets of green moss.”

Moss on a log green and red
Moss on a log. The green generation of moss produces next generation – the red filaments, that produce the spores which grow into more green moss.

Dr. Ben continues. “So what you see in this patch of moss is actually two generations – the green moss carpet that one has one copy of DNA, and the red filaments are the sporophyte offspring that have two copies of DNA. ”  I think that’s pretty cool, too. I’ve come to appreciate these bright red and green patches of moss in the austere seasons of the year, early spring and late fall.

Near the Marsh and in the Woods,  Some “Visual Interest”

When I entered the woods, color was even harder to find.  A rich brown acorn with its green top and rotund shape provided some visual relief among the wrinkling surfaces of fading fallen leaves.

Acorn
The rich chestnut brown of an acorn adds a bit of visual interest to fading brown leaves on the trail.

Though pale in color, I like the filigree of lichens and fungi that become more evident as the colorful flowers fade.  Lichens are sometimes confused with moss, but they are not related. In fact, lichens aren’t plants; they are a distinct form of life!  According to Wikipedia, they are composite organisms that arise when algae and/or cyanobacteria live symbiotically among fungi filaments. They don’t have roots like plants do.  Like plants, however, they produce the algae or cyanobacteria partner that produces food for the lichen through photosynthesis using sunlight, water and minerals.  Lichens may appear on plants, wood or rock, but they are not parasitic.  Pretty mysterious life form, really!  Here’s a lacy-looking one that is referred to as “foliose” because its structure looks like leaves. It’s on a railing at the southern marsh deck. And that yellow you see behind it is another lichen, a powdery one whose structure is referred to as a “leprose lichen.”

Lichen
A lichen does not have roots and is not a plant,but rather is a special composite life form that, like plants, is capable of photosynthesis. Both the white one in the foreground and the yellow spots in the background are types of lichen.

“Mushrooms,” are the fruiting bodies of  fungi that emerge from wood or soil and carry the spores for reproduction.  Fungi  form a distinct “kingdom” in nature, not related to plants, animals, bacteria, etc. I saw two forms of one broad category on this walk, the “polypores.”    Here are some polypore fungi on a snag  (standing dead tree) near the southern marsh. According to Wikipedia,  “Through decomposing tree trunks, they [fungi] recycle a major part of nutrients in forests.” They are the first step in a food chain: fungi process the wood cellulose, insects and invertebrates eat the mushrooms and birds and larger animals eat the insects and birds.  Fungi also soften up dead wood so that woodpeckers and others can make holes for nesting or winter shelter.  Nothing is wasted in a well-functioning ecosytem, eh?

Polyphore fungus
Polypore fungi on a snag, a standing dead tree.

I’m always intrigued by how Shelf Fungi, another kind of polypore, form ruffles on the edges of sawed logs.

Shelf fungi (polypores)
Shelf fungi form ruffles on sawed logs as they break down the cellulose in the wood.

So the early part of the week at Bear Creek was still brown leaves underfoot, graying blooms of summer plants dropping their spring seeds in the Old Fields and pale mushrooms and lichen taking shape on old wood throughout the Oak-Hickory forest.

And Then Suddenly, Winter!

On Saturday morning, the snow began falling fast, like rain, cloaking Bear Creek’s Eastern Old Field in white.

Eastern path first snow
First snow on the Eastern Old Field

The plumes of Canada Goldenrod began to droop a bit under the weight of the snow.

goldenrod in snow
Canada Goldenrod began to droop under the weight of the snow.

A few red bright red leaves wore a bright cap of snow near the marsh at the southern of the eastern Oak-Hickory forest.  The Common Blackberry from earlier in the week now has snowy accents.

red leaves
Common blackberry leaves in the first snow.

The woods were, as poet Robert Frost put it,  “lovely, dark and deep.” And so quiet.  Not even a squirrel moved. Only an occasional muffled bird call reached me.

Stopping by woods snowy morning
On Saturday morning, the woods were, as poet Robert Frost put it, “lovely, dark and deep.”

To borrow again from Frost, perhaps you too can bundle up and experience “stopping by woods on a snowy” morning during the hectic holiday season that begins this week. Caught up in the glitter and bustle of a busy season, the woods and fields offer serenity, quiet, beauty – a soothing space in which to breathe and find your bearings.  Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

male turkey from back 2 cr
Happy Thanksgiving!
*Footnote:  My sources for information, as well as Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991);Stokes Nature Guides:  A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net.; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for insect info http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info; invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman; experienced birder Ruth Glass, bird walk leader at Stoney Creek Metro Park for bird identification;Birds of North American Online; Audubon.org, Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, Trees in My Forest by Bernd Heinrich, Winter World by Bernd Heinrich