Tag Archives: Mourning Dove

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

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

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

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

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

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

Nature Goes About Its Autumnal Business

Autumn at Gallagher Creek Park

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

Birds in the Distance as Children Play

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

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

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

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

The young heron stood quietly in the tree as I approached.
The young Great Blue Heron bent its knees backward to begin its flight.

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

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

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

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

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

Seeds Flying, Rattling, Dropping and Providing Food for Wildlife

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeds and their silky parachutes spill from Swamp Milkweed pods

More Edibles for Wildlife Wait in the Grass

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

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

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

Beauty Underfoot Before the Frost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Park Where the Young Can Learn and Play

A Milkweed seed on a windy morning at Gallagher Creek

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

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

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

 

 

Draper Twin Lake Park: Dashes of Color and Ice Artistry Livened Up the January Thaw

Skaters just before the January thaw started at Draper Lake
Skaters just before the January thaw started at Draper Lake

Snow, ice, sleet, rain – all the elements of Michigan’s traditional “January thaw.” Sigh…Gray skies day after day make me crave color! On multiple jaunts at Draper Twin Lake Park  – some icy, some muddy – I sought it out.

Blog and photos by Cam Mannino
Blog and photos by
Cam Mannino

As usual, the mushrooms provided a surprising splash of color here and there. Birds in varying shades of red relieved winter’s gray. And changing ice designs added a bit of artistry to every visit. Hey, we take what we can get in beauty at this time of year, right?

Along the Path to the Eastern Marsh:  Red Birds, Yellow Mushrooms and Blue Shadows

A Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) drummed noisily on a telephone pole on the eastern side of the park. Let’s hope this male had a cozy hole to spend the  winter night; the starlings, twittering in a thicket nearby, are known for absconding with holes created by Red-Bellies. This guy’s red cap glowed against a gray sky – a good omen for someone questing for color on a dark day!

Red-belly Woodpecker Draper on telephone pole
A Red-bellied Woodpecker atop a telephone pole on the east side of Draper Twin Lake Park

On the way to the marsh, a chorus of House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) chirped from the shrubbery. These gregarious birds with their rosy males added both color and the friendly sound of their “chatting” to the gray quiet. House Finches pause to busily crush the seeds they find with quick bites, making them easier to spot and photograph.

house-finches-4
A group of House Finches chirped among the shrubs on the path to the marsh on Draper’s east end.

A male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) added a gorgeous dash of scarlet as he darted among the shrubs along the marsh edge at the bottom of the trail.

cardinal-male
The scarlet of a male Cardinal offers a welcome break from gray on a winter’s day.

While at the marsh, I was surprised to hear what I think was the call of a Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) in the distance. The birders saw one at Charles Ilsley Park the previous week but I’ve never seen one in the middle of winter. If you listen to the “Rolling rattle call” at this Cornell Lab link, you’ll hear what I heard far away on a wintry day. Here’s a flicker I saw in early spring last year.

flicker-walnut-lane-1
A Northern Flicker could be heard in Draper Park last week, but I never saw it. This photo is from the previous spring.

Out on the ice, a graceful swoop of marsh sedges turned blue and silver in the shadows.

Frosted reeds Draper Marsh
The sedges in the marsh seemed tinged with blue in the shadows of a winter afternoon.

On a log near the marsh, a bright patch of yellow polypore/shelf mushrooms glowed under the edge of a log.  One of the reasons I love wetlands is that summer and winter,  they reward any hiker with colorful birds and mushrooms.

yellow-polypore-mushroom
Yellow polypore mushrooms on a log near the eastern marsh at Draper.

Out on Draper’s Northern Prairie

The Prairie Restoration on the northeastern part of the park looked very different than it did when the trees glowed with autumn color. (Click on images to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

But birds were there too. Flocks of modestly dressed winter visitors – Dark-Eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) and American Tree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea) – hopped down from small bare trees and bushes, chattering away as they foraged on the ground.

That bit of leaf in the Junco’s beak may be result of flipping things over to look for seeds. The seeds of two native wildflowers left in the field looked as though they may have provided some sustenance. The seed pod of Wild Senna (Senna hebecarpa) on the left below and the dried inflorescence of a late-flowering Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) on the right are both native plants sown in 2015 by Ben VanderWeide, our Stewardship Manager, to restore the prairie, using a grant from the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Over the crest of a slope on the rolling prairie, a slow, lumbering Possum (Didelphis virginiana) nosed its way along the edge of the field. It appeared to be searching for seeds or earthworms on the wet earth exposed by the thaw. Possums don’t hibernate and are generally nocturnal, but there it was in morning light. Possums feign death (“playing possum”) when extremely frightened – but they’ll fight first –  so be wary of their sharp teeth. North America’s only marsupial, possums raise their infants in the female’s pouch for about two and a half months. Later, the babies, up to 13 of them, can be seen draped over their mother’s back as she goes about her business.

Possum Draper
A possum out foraging after rain on a winter morning

In a tree at the edge of the prairie one morning, a lone Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) blended its soft pinks with the gentle shades of the winter landscape.

Mourning Dove
A Mourning Dove’s colors blend with the shades of a winter morning.

Along the Western Path to Draper Lake

The western path was a bright glare of ice on my first January trip to the pond. At the edge of the parking lot, a dead branch still sported orange polypore/shelf mushrooms, just as it did  in the fall.  Amazing how hardy these fungi are in cold weather!

Orange Polypore Mushrooms Closeup Draper
The orange polypore (“shelf”) mushrooms survived the cold intact, perhaps even getting a bit more orange!

 

A stick covered in a mosaic of green and blue lichen and a nearby patch of leafy (foliose) lichen caught my eye.  Lichen are intriguing, because they are a “composite organism” made up of algae and/or cyanobacteria living among filaments of a fungus in a symbiotic relationship. The fungus provides protection for the algae and gathers moisture and nutrients.  The algae uses those nutrients and energy from the sun, and through photosynthesis produces food (carbohydrates) for both itself and the fungus. These ancient organisms occur from alpine regions to sea level in all kinds of shapes (morphologies). The more delicate forms of lichens are very sensitive to air pollution (bio-indicators), which is why you will only find flatter forms that colonize rocks and branches in areas with more air pollution. In areas with cleaner air you’ll find more delicate, branching lichens. I’m just glad they gave me some varying shades of  green and blue on a wintry day.

Near the pond during a bird walk, a bright yellow mushroom beckoned in the distance. How’s this for a bit of sunshine on a moist winter morning? I’m no expert at mushrooms, as readers know. To me, it looks like kernels of corn. But I think this one’s common name is “Witches’ Butter,” Dacrymyces palmata (Fungi get more imaginative names than plants do…). Any mycologists out there who can verify that for me?

yellow-mushroom-2
What may be “Witches Butter” mushrooms on a log near Draper Twin Lake

Lovely russet  patterns formed on the path, made  from White Pine needles (Pinus strobus) and a variety of leaves embedded in ice near the lake.

A strange ice sculpture took shape along the floating deck at the lake. I dubbed it the “Sunny Side Up” formation when I first saw it on an icy day. When I came back with the birders 10 days later, the surface ice had melted down, leaving the “yolk” standing in 3-D surrounded by icy ridges where the outline of the “egg white” once was. Wonder what created this interesting bulge in the ice?

Twice I came across ice fishermen out on the lake.  On the first visit, a man was unloading his sled full of equipment way off in the distance on the far side of the lake, while skaters glided about in the winter sunshine.

Three days after these skating scenes, the melt had begun and the rains came. The surface of the lake turned from white to gray, with inches of water standing on ice.

The lake after a thaw and rain but enough ice to support two ice fisherman (not pictured) sloshing along the surface.
The lake after a thaw and rain but enough ice to support two ice fisherman (not pictured) sloshing along the surface.

I saw (but didn’t photograph for some reason!) two fisherman walking out into that sloshing mess,  confident about the ice underneath. A strange sight! It looked like two men walking on water!

The last day I visited the park with the birders, the ice had developed a crackled surface. Quite a wonderful abstract design, but not one that would encourage venturing out onto the ice!

Crackled ice
Abstract design on ice created by Mother Nature – and a few skaters and ice fishermen

Later that week as the snow began to fall again, a Tufted Titmouse paused for a few moments in a nearby bush. One of these little birds fooled the experienced birders in our Wednesday bird group by seeming to mimic the “cheer” call of a Carolina Wren. According to the Sibley Guides website, Titmice have a wide variety of songs so maybe this is one of them.  Quite a performance, anyway.

Tufted titmouse as snow falls
Tufted titmouse as the snow fell

Beauty Reveals Itself When We Seek for It

Ice Design Buell and Lk George
Ice design at Buell and Lake George Roads

On my way home from Draper Twin Lake Park one morning, I stopped to admire a “modern art” ice shape in a pond at the corner of Buell and Lake George Roads.  It could almost have been a composition by Matisse or maybe Paul Klee. For much of my life, I missed the details as I hiked through a landscape. The camera encouraged me to look more closely. Now nature gifts me with surprises – the quizzical tilt of a dragonfly’s head, the spiral of seeds in a flower head and this winter, odd ice designs and strokes of color within winter’s gray and white world.

But a camera isn’t necessary.  An observant pair of curious eyes is all we really need to notice the beauty that might otherwise be missed, especially in a January thaw.

Footnote:  My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: 
Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; Birds of North America Online; Audubon.org; Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes; Trees in My Forest by Bernd Heinrich; Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, Savannah River Ecology Lab (Univ of Georgia).

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Giddy Flocks, Muskrats Emerging and Pools Shining in the Woods

wetland below hill winter
Wetland below the south hill
Cam in red winter coat BC
Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

Our warm winter continues.  Early last week, spring-like warmth and sun melted the snow, turning the fields and woods brown again. Though the ice in  small ponds and pools softened, most of it remained.  So as I walked the central and northern parts of the park, wetlands shone among the trees.  The one in the photo above, just below the southern hill, is a maze of green in the summer, but in winter, its architecture appears – brushed with the soft red of Red Twig Dogwood (Cornus sericea),and punctuated by drooping balls of Button Bush (Cephalanthus occidentalis).

The warmth brought muskrats out into the sunlight and seemed to make the birds giddy.  I saw multiple flocks this week calling and moving restlessly in the bare trees.  It sounded as though some males were even practicing bits of their courting songs. Short fluting notes sounded here and there – not just calls, this week, but also little musical phrases.  A mud-luscious week for mid-winter.

Flocking Birds Hoping for Spring

So many birds this week!  They flew up out of bushes or bounced on bare limbs among the treetops.  This gorgeous male House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) rested in the  Box- Elders (Acer negundo) near his mate on the trail just north of the playground.  Box-elders are a disturbance-loving member of the Maple trees, providing some food and cover for winter birds in many of our old farm fields.

Purple finch?
A male House Finch – a particularly beautiful one – joined his mate in the Box -Elder trees, which provide plentiful seeds.

I think I caught this female House Finch just as she bit down on a seed so it’s not her most flattering portrait!

Purple finch female
A female House Finch caught crunching on a seed. I’m not sure she would appreciate this photo!

Male House Finches were making lots of noise in the Eastern Old Field and they seemed to be keeping company with a male Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis)!

Male bluebird w male house finches_edited-1
A male Bluebird keeping company with a few male House Finches.

Bluebirds appeared all over the southern part of  the park this week.  Here’s a quick shot of a male who repeatedly darted down to the ground apparently finding seeds in the dry grass of the Eastern Path.

Male Bluebird fluttering down to ground
A male Bluebird darts down to the ground to feed on the Eastern Path.

The lady Bluebirds were in evidence, too, of course.  Here’s a female unfortunately feeding on the irresistibly bright red berries of  Asian Bittersweet, an invasive vine that kills many of our trees and bushes.  The female Bluebird, as you can see, has more subdued coloring with a gray head.  But she’s a beauty, too.

Bluebird bittersweet
A female Bluebird with more subdued coloring sitting in the lethal vine, Asian Bittersweet, that kills trees and bushes.

On the far western side of the park this week, a flock of American Robins (Turdus migratorius) clucked to each other  while a few tried out some spring notes as well. They were feeding off Box-Elders just like the finches.

Robin in Box Elder female?
Since the head is a bit more gray than dark black, this may be a female Robin in the Box-Elder tree.

American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) often give a contact call as they fly, a lovely sound on a winter morning  (listen to the second “Call” recording on this Cornell Lab link). Their small bodies, not as bright now as in the spring, pump up and down in flight as they beat their barred wings.  Those wings, the clear breast, a conical bill and forked tails  help identify Goldfinches when they’re dressed in drab winter garb – and half in shadow like this one!

Goldfinch in shadows
An American Goldfinch in its drab winter garb

If you hear a swoosh of wings and a high whistling sound, look for the Mourning Doves (Zenaida macroura). These birds with the gentle expressions can fly very fast, and their wings make that high whistle as they take off.  Their mournful cooing is often mistaken for the sound of an owl.  Mourning Doves are the most hunted species in North America but not currently in Michigan, according to the DNR.

Two doves near wetland
Mourning Doves fly as Cornell lab says “fast and bullet straight.” Listen for the whistling of their wings as they take flight.

Since it’s winter, flocks of Dark-eyed Juncos, who spend summers in the far north,  are now feeding in the grass in groups as well.

Junco closeup on ground
A Dark-eyed Junco searches for seeds in the grass of the Eastern Old Field.

Only the woodpeckers seemed to be singletons this week.  A quick, soft tapping alerted me to this male Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) drilling upside down on a branch. Oddly, he stayed in that position to preen for a few minutes as well, so there must have something quite tasty under that stretch of bark!

Male downy under limb
A male Downy Woodpecker finds something good on the underside of a branch.

Muskrats Above the Ice!

It must be such a treat for the Muskrats (Ondatra zibethicus) to be able to come up into the sunshine after weeks spent under the ice or inside their feeding platforms.  These mammals don’t hibernate in winter so feeding and getting oxygen is a challenge when trapped in the dark of the icy marsh.  Check out the blog from December 14 for more info on the muskrat’s quite amazing survival strategies.  One late afternoon this week, way off at the eastern edge of the marsh, the ice had melted. From the platform I saw 3 members of a muskrat family swimming and eating there.  My long lens didn’t quite reach them, but here is the largest of them, feeding.

Muskrat feeding Feb 1
A muskrat feeding in the cold winter sunshine where the ice had melted in the northern marsh.

Vernal Pools Appear After the Melt

Whenever snow melts, winter or spring,  or when rain falls,  water runs off into low-lying areas.  This creates a wetland with no fish, which is an ideal breeding ground for frogs, for example,  whose eggs would be eaten by fish and whose young grow quickly before the pools dry up in warm weather.  I’ve seen ducks mating in these more private pools as well. Normally in the winter, these pools disappear to the eye.  Either their white snow cover blends into  the white landscape around them or without snow, they blend into the dark floor of the forest.

But this week, when the snow suddenly melted in the woods, the partially melted ice left in these pools suddenly shown through the dimness.  Quite a pretty sight, really.

Here is a vernal pool near the west arm of the Big Northern Loop as it looked when dry in late summer and as it looked this week (Hover cursor over photos for captions).

For me, vernal pools are kind of magical, appearing and disappearing, and yet so important to certain creatures like wood frogs, toads and salamanders, not to mention insects and plants.  Here is the vernal pool near Gunn Road dry in early fall and then filled with wood frogs as it was last spring.

I’m continually delighted by how much life and beauty greets me on any walk at Bear Creek – even in the winter! Consider donning your most mud-tolerant shoes/boots to discover at least a bit of it when you can.  You’ll come home with your cheeks pink, your lungs full of fresh air, your muscles worked and all kinds of new experiences to nourish your mind and imagination.   Never fails for me.

Eastern big loop sunset
Eastern arm of the Big North Loop at sunset
Footnote:  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 America Online; Audubon.org, Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, Trees in My Forest by Bernd Heinrich, Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, Savannah River Ecology Lab (Univ of Georgia), Tortoise Trust website www.tortoisetrust.org, An Orchard Invisible:A Natural History of Seeds by Jonathan Silvertown and other sites as cited in the text.

 

 

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Do Winter Birds Have Cold Feet? And Who Else is Under the Pond Ice?

dramatic winter sunset2

This week dramatic winter skies loomed over the meadows.  Very little moved in the woods – a distant Fox Squirrel running across a log, a Black-capped Chickadee in a small tree.  A few birds called – the usual –  crows, woodpeckers, tree sparrows, blue jays.  As the winter solstice approached, the park felt empty – but it wasn’t, of course.  Despite shorter days, life goes on in all kinds of ways throughout the park.

 

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

Wrapping my scarf more tightly and shoving my mittened hands in the pockets of my wool coat, I wondered about my chilly wildlife companions in the park.  How can birds stand having bare feet in the winter?  And what else is under the pond ice, besides those active muskrats in last week’s blog?

Cold Feet, Warm Heart:  Birds’ Feet in Winter

Well, first, it turns out that birds’ feet don’t have many nerves, like our human feet do, so they probably don’t feel the cold the way we do.  Glad to hear that.  But they still have to keep them from freezing, right? According to Cornell Ornithology Lab, birds DO have cold feet, barely above freezing sometimes.Chickadee

But, luckily, they don’t have much fluid in the cells of their feet and their metabolism is so fast, that the blood doesn’t stay in their feet long enough to freeze.  The blood vessels in their legs are close together, too, so that warm blood going to the feet partially warms the cold blood headed for the heart – which keeps the bird’s body and organs warm despite cold feet.  And of course, on cold days, birds fluff their feathers creating  insulating air pockets which hold their body heat, just like a quilted down jacket does for us.  This Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) in one of the park’s wetlands this week may look like it’s swallowed a soccer ball – but it’s just fluffed its feathers to keep warm.

Dove in park3
A Mourning Dove near a park wetland this week fluffs its feathers to create an instant “down jacket” against the cold.

So, good news. Nature’s provided birds with effective strategies for dealing with the cold even without wool socks, boots, or down jackets.

Now, Who Else is Under the Ice? Turtles!

Remember the “Von Trapp Family” group of Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta) from a blog last spring? How do you suppose they’re coping with winter in the ice cold pond?

5 Turtle line up
The “Von Trapp Family” Painted Turtles last spring. What are they doing now in the ice cold pond?

Reptiles can’t regulate their temperature internally like last week’s muskrats can. When cold weather makes the body temperature of Painted Turtles drop, they get sluggish and stop eating .  They look for a spot at the bottom of a pond, usually close to shore but deep enough not to freeze to the bottom and then bury themselves in the mud.  The mud protects them from being easily seen by predators and shallower water means quicker warming in the spring.  Their very slow hibernating metabolism requires very little oxygen – which is good,  since they have to stop breathing through their lungs for months on end when trapped under the ice.  The turtles’ skin evidently can absorb enough oxygen from the cold water to keep them alive at this slowed rate – even when buried in mud!  If that oxygen runs out, they can live just on sugars and body fat without oxygen, and some scientists report that the “carbonate buffers” in their  shells neutralize some of the resulting build-up of lactic acid that could be harmful to them.  That may be how the turtle’s ancestors survived the global winter that scientist believe followed the extinction of the dinosaurs.

And What about Baby Painted Turtles?  Glad You Asked…

Baby turtle sunning

Incredibly, some Painted Turtle hatchlings survive even when half of the fluids in their bodies freeze solid!  As you know, turtles lay their eggs on land, buried in sand or dirt.  Painted Turtle babies that hatch in late summer sometimes stay where they are and overwinter in their underground nests together, living on body fat for a whole winter without eating.  It’s cold  down there – as low in some places as 25° F.  It’s believed that some hatchlings produce more glucose and other compounds than others, and those substances act like an anti-freeze to prevent them from completely freezing even in very cold weather. So some of those babies, after being literally half-frozen this winter,  will thaw in the spring and go on with their lives!   Nature’s ahead of us, as usual, with this reptilian version of hatchling cryonics.

The Big Guys – the Common Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina).
snapper head on_2
Common Snapping Turtle in summer.

 These normally quite solitary animals often hibernate together in the mud below the ice, occasionally forming piles on top of one another, perhaps to share body heat.   Others burrow singly into the mud under the ice in places where the water doesn’t freeze to the bottom.  Their body temperature drops to 34°, just above freezing and their hearts beat extremely slowly.  Though they stop breathing with their lungs for months at a time, they can lift their heads out of the muck , open their mouths and absorb oxygen through the membranes of their mouth and throat. They too can live on body fat ’til spring, perhaps with the help of their shells and skeleton.

Baby Snappers

The Snapper hatchlings born in the fall head straight for water,  like this little one heading for Paint Creek from the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail in September.

Snapping turtle hatchling
A hatchling Snapping Turtle heading for Paint Creek from the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail this fall.

If the weather is too cold when they hatch, these little ones may also try to overwinter in their nests.  If the ground freezes too far, however, it’s still unclear whether they can survive when half-frozen like the Painted Turtle hatchlings.

Turtles are vulnerable in extremely cold weather.   Sometimes hibernating turtles in shaIlow water or hatchlings in their earthen nests freeze or are found by hungry predators. But enough turtles survive, of course, to give us the pleasure of seeing them gliding through the marsh or sunbathing on a log in the Center Pond the following summer.

Frosted Red Leaf

Outside, as the longest night of the year arrives, birds tuck into tree holes, crevices or gather on limbs with feathers fluffed for insulation, oblivious (we hope) of their cold but unfrozen feet.  And turtles snooze , piled together under the ice or burrowed  in the mud or earth until spring.   And we humans?  Well, we bundle up, turn up the heat and fight off the torpor of the shortest days with brightly lit celebrations with our kin in our wooden or brick abodes . Have a delightful holiday with the people you love and This Week at Bear Creek will be back in the new year – unless, of course,  I see something so amazing that I just HAVE to share it with all of you before then!

*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 America Online; Audubon.org, Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, Trees in My Forest by Bernd Heinrich, Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, Savannah River Ecology Lab (Univ of Georgia), Tortoise Trust website www.tortoisetrust.org.

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Bluebirds, a Cacophony of Crows, a Flying Mammal, and Winter Under the Ice

 

 

Goldenrod December Mist

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

A typical, wildly variable Michigan week at Bear Creek – heavy frost with a filmy backdrop of cold fog suspended between the treetops and then sunny, almost spring-like weather at the end of the week.  Surprisingly on the very coldest mornings this week,  Eastern Bluebirds chirped on the  western slope while Crows caused a racket in pines at the park’s eastern edge.  And then the park seemed hushed when I walked through fields and woods on the sunnier, warmer days.  As winter settles in,  I thought  I’d learn more about creatures that inhabit the dark world under the ice that’s now forming and melting and forming again in Bear Creek’s ponds and marshes .

Bluebirds, Crows, Doves and a Flying Mammal

Spring is the time when we’re supposed “keep on looking for the bluebird and listening for his song” and bird guides insist that our bluebirds migrate south .  So perhaps the reason I see them in Bear Creek most Decembers is that the Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) who spend the winter in the Canadian far north migrate here for the winter season.  Or our summer bluebirds just delay their migration.

According to Stokes Nature Guides, “During cold weather, the [Bluebirds] may roost in nest boxes or other protected spots. In some cases, the birds arrange themselves side by side, with their heads pointed inward, possibly to conserve warmth.”  That would be something to see, eh? On a frosty, foggy morning this week, three Bluebirds fluttered and chirped along the western slope of the park.   This one was definitely fluffing its feathers for a bit of insulation!

Bluebird2
An Eastern Bluebird on the western edge of the park with its feather fluffed for warmth on a frosty, foggy morning this week

Bluebird populations had dropped dramatically in the 20th century due partly to competition for nest holes from non-native birds like House Sparrows and Starlings, but also as nesting sites became more scarce due to development.  Today there are just fewer snags (dead standing trees) and wooden fence posts for bluebird nests.  Fortunately, a campaign to provide bluebirds with nest boxes has brought an upswing in the populations of these lovely little birds.

Meanwhile, Bear Creek’s neighbors to the east were subjected to a flock of gregarious American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) creating quite a stir in the pines to the east of the park.  I couldn’t reach them through the heavy brush and didn’t want to trespass, so here’s one on a snowy day last December who paused long enough for a photo.

perching crow cool feet14
A crow paused briefly for a photo during December last year

Outside the nesting season, these sociable, highly intelligent birds form large flocks which separate into smaller feeding groups during the day and roost together at night.  This week, these winter flocks of crows at Bear Creek were calling, chasing each other and diving through the treetops.  Fun for the crows, no doubt but the poor neighbors!  Here’s my recording. (You may or may not want to turn up your volume this time!)

Just before full dark on Friday, I saw two park visitors that I’d somehow missed before. Though I see lots of Mourning Doves (Zenaida macroura)at home, I seldom see them at the park.  But I saw two foraging doves take off near the Snell entrance, their wings whistling as usual in the falling dark.  This abundant bird fills its crop with seed, consuming 12-20% of its body weight daily!  No wonder they flock under winter feeders!  Here’s a closeup from home so you can see its beautiful plumage.

Dove in snow_cropped
A Mourning Dove with its beautiful brown and black plumage

What I assume was a common Little Brown Bat (Myotis lucifugus) beat its leathery wings high in the air over the meadow just outside the woods at the Snell entrance to the park.  Their flight is so distinctive –  rapid angular wing beats to keep that heavier little body in the air.  The distance and the dimness of the light allowed me only a silhouette of this small flying mammal but here’s a link to see one up close.

Blurry bat at dusk December
Blurry photo in the early dark of what is probably a LIttle Brown Bat, one of our few flying mammals

These little mammals go into torpor in winter,  slowing down their metabolism to save body fat.  But periodically they wake if the temperature rises above 50°, as it did this week,  to get a drink or look for insects that might also have hatched on a warmer day. Since bats keep wasps, mosquitoes, gnats, midges and other insects under control for us and for the farmers, we can hope that this one has not contracted White Nose Syndrome, which is deadly to Little Brown Bats.  Bats spend the winter in hollow trees, caves if available and of course on occasion, nice, warm human attics!

A Winter Series: Who’s Under the Ice?

This Week:  The Muskrat’s Solution to Ice Overhead
First ice on the Center Pond
First snow on the Center Pond this year in November

I got curious about muskrats, air-breathing mammals who are active in the winter. How do they breathe and eat while trapped under the ice?   Muskrats can hold their breath underwater up to 15 minutes, which is impressive but doesn’t explain how they stay under the ice for months at a time.  One muskrat solution, most common in marshes,  is “push-ups.”  Not the exercise kind.  Smaller push-ups/mounds are feeding and resting platforms built by muskrats for winter survival.  They first gnaw a 4 or 5 inch hole in the ice, push plant material through the hole and then chew out the center to create a space for eating, resting and breathing.  If predators, like mink, are around, the hole is sometimes plugged with plant material each night.  Here’s one, probably constructed  on a recent icy morning by a muskrat in the northern part of our marsh.  It sits at the water surface so when the ice reforms, the muskrat should be able to break through the thinner ice again to reach the air.

Muskrat feeding platform in marsh
A Muskrat winter feeding platform has a hole in the ice beneath (melted on this warmer morning) so that the muskrat can come up inside to breathe air and eat protected from the cold.

Muskrats have  larger family homes as well, constructions built up from the marsh bottom in layers of mud, reed, cattails and other plant material.  In these lodges, three to five muskrats (adults and their second litter) snuggle together for warmth in the  winter.  Though they’re more common in marshes, here’s one currently in the Center Pond.

Muskrat den2
Muskrat lodge, a larger “push-up” in the Center Pond where a family of muskrats can huddle together in the winter cold.

In ponds and rivers, muskrats tend to reside in holes in the bank as well.  One morning a week or so ago, when thin ice had formed on the pond, I spotted what appeared to be a muskrat trail in the water.  The muskrat had evidently left its hole in the northern shore of the pond to head off to the lodge on the other side, breaking ice before it dove.  Perhaps it used its dexterous paws to gather plant roots or other vegetation along the bottom before emerging into the lodge for a breath of air fresher than the air in the family hole!

Muskrat trail?
What appears to be a muskrat trail leading from a hole  in the north bank of the pond toward the lodge on the opposite shore

Muskrats have to contend with both lack of oxygen and heat loss during the long, dark months under the ice.  Their dual-layered fur (sleek on the outside, soft beneath) sheds water and keeps an air layer close to their body for insulation.  And amazingly, according to Bernd Heinrich’s book, Winter World, they can raise their body temperature about 35° f before they dive into icy water and also store more oxygen in the winter by increasing their  number of red blood cells. He also hypothesizes that “they may exhale air bubbles that get trapped under the ice” which they later inhale.  Maybe ones like these in the Center Pond?

Air bubbles under the ice
Were these air bubbles, trapped under the ice on the Center Pond, exhaled by a muskrat to be inhaled later?

I like thinking that this sleek little mammal, propelled by its swaying tail is awake, sitting inside its push-up, breathing peacefully and eating a meal.  Nature’s provided quite ingenious survival solutions for a small mammal spending another winter under the ice!

muskrat
A muskrat approaching the edge of the marsh on a day of thin ice.

So if the dark days are getting to you, consider the muskrat who has to live under the snow and ice for months.  Or better still, look for a bluebird!  That will definitely put a smile on your face on a cold morning.

*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