Watershed Ridge Park is still more of a glorious natural area than a park, because as yet, it has no parking lots or trails. But first steps to make it one will begin before long. So on a Saturday morning in mid-July, Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide and I armed ourselves with bug repellent and headed out into the thick of it to see it in all its wild glory.
Regular readers of the Notebook will know that I like to make two or three trips to a park before posting a blog. But due to a currently tricky knee and very tall grass, I decided discretion was called for this time. So I’ll simply share the beauty we came across on one humid summer morning.
The Woods are Lovely, Dark and Deep…
It seems that nearly every time I’ve entered the woods at Watershed, I’ve heard the plaintive call of the Eastern Wood-Peewee (Contopus virens). It’s the perfect soundtrack for this rather mysterious woods full of old trees and patches of moist wetlands. Though I often hear this little bird in our parks, I couldn’t see one that morning, but here’s a shot from a couple years ago.
Deer are too plentiful at Watershed Ridge Park; few woodland wildflowers survive the deer’s constant foraging. But sedges, the ancient grass-like plants that have survived for millennia, do thrive. Ben showed me a large patch of a graceful one called Carex tuckermanii, with little barrel-shaped flowers. Sedges are one of the most diverse plant groups in Michigan, but few have common names.
A small butterfly, probably a Tawny-edged Skipper (Polites themistocles), paused in a spot of sunlight. Skippers always seem a bit stockier than other butterflies and the clubs on their antennae hook backwards at the tip, like a crochet hook. This species closely resembles the Crossline Skipper (Polites origenes), but since the Crossline prefers drier habitats, I think the one we saw was a Tawny-edged. The males can perch all day waiting for a female, so maybe this is a male who wanted to be in the spotlight.
Dr. Parsons from MSU helped me identify two different “color-forms” of the aptly-named Large Lace Border Moths (Scopula limboundata). I assume that both were spending the day dozing, since moths are nocturnal. (Click to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
The Little Wood Satyr butterfly (Megisto cymela) rested along the tree-line, just out of the bright sunlight in the meadow beyond. These little creatures bob jerkily in flight, but that flight pattern can take them high into the treetops as well as skipping from plant to plant in the meadow.
Nearby in the dappled light a Grass Veneer moth (Crambus girardellus) made a stark white contrast on a leaf. Their caterpillars feed on grass roots so you don’t want them on your lawn, but out here they’re just kind of interesting. I think the head of this one looks a bit like a tiny dragon. You can see why these veneers are often called “snout moths.”
Each year at this park, we see one of the strangest plants I’ve met since I started doing the blog, a parasitic plant called Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora). It’s a completely white plant without chlorophyll so it can’t photosynthesize. Instead it taps into the tiny mycorrhizal fungi that connect the trees underground and draws off sugars made by the photosynthesis of the tree’s leaves. Ben introduced me to this interesting plant a couple of years ago and he’s the one who spotted it along the tree line again. In the left photo below, it was just emerging from the soil when we visited this year. The right photo is a more mature version from Watershed Ridge in 2017.
Ben also spotted a solitary bee’s nest in the ground. I’d never seen one that was this obvious before – the circle of sand and the bee-sized hole. Ground-nesting solitary bees feel no need to protect their nests, so they aren’t aggressive the way, for example, colony-nesting Yellow Jacket wasps (genus Vespula) and some social bees are. According to the MSU Extension website , this might be the nest of ” mining bees, cellophane bees, digger bees, plasterer bees, sweat bees, leafcutter bees and mason bees,” all docile, essentially harmless bees who do a lot of pollinating in the spring.
You might have noticed there’s a tiny Eastern American Toad (Anaxyrus americanus) sitting calmly at the edge of the bee’s nest. I moved closer once he settled beneath an oak leaf. He’s brown like most toads, but it turns out that their skin color can change in relationship to stress or a habitat’s color, humidity, or temperature, making them vary from yellow to black and from solid-colors to speckled.
Out Into Tall Grass and Sunshine
Emerging from the woods, Ben and I waded into shoulder or waist-high grass and flowers. What abundance! And everywhere we saw butterflies rising and settling among the stems. We were lucky to see a Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) which is somewhat different than the American Painted Lady (Vanessa virginiensis) that I see more often. They look very much alike from the dorsal (upper) side. The distinguishing difference on the upper side is mainly one tiny spot on an orange section of the forewing on an American Painted Lady (left) which is missing on the Painted Lady. (Enlarge the photos by clicking on them to see the somewhat faint arrows pointing to the areas on the wings.)
The differences in the ventral (lower) sides of the wings are easier to see. The American Painted Lady has two large spots at the edge of the hindwing. The Painted Lady has a row of four spots, and I love the delicacy of the webbing in the design!
Finally, we are beginning to see Fritillaries, a group of orange butterflies that grace the fields in mid-to-late summer. The one at Watershed Ridge Park was, I think, a Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele). It’s also very similar to another butterfly, the slightly smaller Aphrodite Frittilary (Speyeria aphrodite), but Jared C. Daniels’ Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide points out that the former has a wider yellow band near the bottom of the hindwing, so I’m sticking with that. I’m glad I have photographs to use for identification. The differences in some butterflies are very subtle!
I was excited to see a Baltimore Checkerspot butterfly (Euphydryas phaeton); I hadn’t seen one in years. I understand from Butterflies of Michigan that their numbers are declining. Daniels attributes their disappearance to fragmented habitat and the disappearance of their favored host plant, Turtlehead (Chelone glabra), which unfortunately is also a favorite of deer and sawflies. The Baltimore Checkerspot prefers to lays its eggs on Turtlehead and when the caterpillars hatch, the group makes a communal web where they spend the winter. They then finish their development in the spring. Below is a photo of a Turtlehead blossom from Gallagher Creek Park. Turtlehead grows at Watershed Ridge Park, but it doesn’t flower until later in the summer so we didn’t see it that morning.
In mid-July, this native Joe Pye (Eutrochium maculatum) was barely beginning to show its dusty lavender flower head in the meadow next to the huge marsh. It has a matching purple stem, a useful field mark.
Another interesting sedge spiraled up out of the greenery, Fox Sedge (Carex vulpinoidea) with its bushy, twisting clusters of fruits. It also found its perfect habitat in the wet soil near the bushes that wall off the meadow from the large, nearly impenetrable marsh.
Ben and I also found some insect eggs on the underside of a grass stem. We had no way of knowing which little caterpillar will emerge from these tiny, pearl-white balls.
Dragonflies were foraging and seeking mates in the moist meadow. It’s an ideal place for them since the females generally lay eggs on aquatic plants very quickly after mating. I’m fairly confident that this is an adult White-faced Dragonfly (Sympetrum obtrusum), as they are common in our area. They look very similar to several other species when they’re immature, but I’ve read in Wikipedia that the white front of the face is pretty definitive in the adults of this species.
A Twelve-spotted Skimmer (Libellula pulchella) paused on a stem for a moment. I think this is an immature male because the male’s white spots between the brown on the wings are just beginning to form. Also the abdomen looks like a female’s, but has begun to develop the dusty white prunescence of the adult male at the tip of its abdomen which will eventually turn a bluish white.
A Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) played host to a Hoverfly (family Syrphidae) who will do a fine job of pollinating, second only to the bees. Though dressed in bee or wasp colors, hoverflies are readily identifiable by the two tiny antennae sticking out of the front of their heads, as opposed to a bee or wasp’s longer antennae on the sides of their heads.
Crossing Back through the Woods: A Popular Native Rose and Glimpses of Birds in the Treetops
Back in the shady coolness of the woods, we came across a native Pasture Rose (Rosa carolina) that was a popular hangout for the local inhabitants! When we first spotted it, two Long-horned Flower Beetles (Strangalia luteicornis) had chosen it as an ideal spot for a very quick mating. According to Beetles of Eastern North America, a huge compendium by Arthur V. Evans, male beetles have lots of scent receptors in those lo-o-ong antennae. They fly in a zigzag pattern until they come across the female’s scent and can use the sensors to home in on the exact location of the female. So this female was sending out mating signals even though she kept eating during the event itself! (Thanks again this week to Dr. Gary L. Parsons at MSU’s Entomology Department for providing the correct identification. What a resource he is!)
Once mated, they flew off, but one of them returned on its own for another probe of the blossom. I wonder if it’s the female enjoying an uninterrupted feed?
But alas, whoever it was ended up competing for the goodies with the larger Bumblebee (genus Bombus). It made several attempts to edge back on, but the bumblebee, its leg sacks packed with pollen, was not to be denied. Eventually they seemed to make a truce in which the bumblebee took center stage and the beetle perched at the periphery, probing a blossom with its antennae. Perhaps it was enjoying the scent since a beetle’s antennae are its main organs for both feeling and smell – and it couldn’t get quite close enough to eat!
I’ve always had trouble identifying native from non-native roses. While in the woods, Ben found both types quite close to each other. The leaf of the Pasture Rose (Rosa carolina) on the left has a tiny, straight prickles along the stem and smooth edges to the “stipule,” the out-growth wings at the bottom of a leaf stalk. The stipule of the leaf on the right from the non-native Multiflora Rose (Rosa multiflora) has a hairy fringe along the edge its stipule, and the stems have sharp thorns that curve back instead of little prickles. Another reason to choose a native plant, eh? – at least in this case. Multiflora roses can get very large and are seriously invasive, crowding or shading out other plants. So this year for our yard, I chose to plant the native Pasture Rose which also spreads – but is welcome to do so at the edge of our woods since it contributes to recreating a native habitat .
Ben knows many more birdsongs than I do and he heard the paired notes of the male Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) high above us in the treetops. We tracked this way and that until we finally spotted him on a bare branch straight above us. According to Cornell Ornithology Lab of Ornithology, “Young Indigo Buntings learn their songs from males near where they settle to breed, and this leads to “song neighborhoods” in which all nearby males sing songs that are similar to each other and that are different from those sung more than a few hundred yards away.” Don’t you love the idea of “song neighborhoods?”
Ben also identified the song of a Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea) and eventually we saw the male high up in the leafy branches. I never got a good photo that morning, but here’s one I took earlier this year at Magee Marsh in Ohio, plus a recording I made of the one we saw briefly singing in the treetops at Watershed Ridge Park. The loudest song in the recording is the Tanager’s with a fainter whistling reply from a nearby Northern Cardinal. Two red birds singing in tandem! (You may need to turn up your volume to hear the songs more clearly.)
Exiting the woods,we found the signs of a Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) dust bath in the dry ground at the edge of the farmer’s soybean field. Turkeys make a dust wallow and then crouch into it, actively ruffling their feathers to shake dust through them. Birds do this, according to a Stanford University birds website, in order to maintain their feathers by getting rid of excess oil, dead skin or other debris. Dusting may also get rid of itchy lice or mites but as yet, there isn’t evidence to prove that.
Here’s a short video that I found on YouTube of a family of wild turkeys using a dust wallow by a soybean field in Ontario. My thanks to the videographer, Justin Hoffman, for allowing it to be shared.
For now, a Walk on the Wild Side
Watershed Ridge Park is close to where I grew up on Lake George Road. In fact, I rode my bike right past this spot many times as a child. At that time though, over 60 years ago, two families had homes within what is now the perimeter of the park, so I never got out beyond the tilled fields or lawns to explore these nearby woods and meadows. So it always feels like a forbidden treat when I get to wander among this park’s shady woodlands with its multiple wetlands and seasonal stream. Wading through meadows lush with towering grasses and wildflowers, I feel like a child again. And it was a special treat to explore this as yet undeveloped park with Dr. Ben who brings along his eagle eyes, a good auditory memory for birdsong and lots of expert knowledge.
You too can experience a nature walk with Ben, of course. Each Wednesday morning, year ’round, our birding group heads out with him on our bird walks. He and the other knowledgeable birders in the group are always willing to share what they know with newcomers and Ben will happily loan you binoculars. The bird walk schedule is available above under “Stewardship Events” at this link.
We’ll let you know on the blog when the parking lot and first trails are finally ready at Watershed Ridge. I guarantee, it will be worth the wait!