Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide and I both got inspired by the idea of a year-end reflection on some of the remarkable sights in our parks and natural areas over the last year. Nature excels in surprising and delighting any curious observer with its ability to come back from adversity, in some cases to even thrive in difficult circumstances. That ability to keep on growing and creating in the face of any obstacle can be a great inspiration in challenging times.
So as the snow falls, please sit back in a comfortable chair with a warm drink and savor some highlights from the four seasons of 2017 here in Oakland Township.
Winter 2017: Serenity Rises as the Snow Falls
Sometimes we just need a little less hubbub after the holidays and the parks provide a peaceful escape. In general, the only sounds are the wind in bare branches, the occasional calls of the year ’round birds and the tapping of energetic woodpeckers foraging in the tree bark. And other times, when we feel a bit house-bound and crave crisp air on red cheeks, a winter walk provides little discoveries unavailable in other seasons. During one deep freeze last winter, the weekly birding group stepped out on the ice at Cranberry Lake to inspect a beaver lodge. And a few weeks later, I plopped down in the snow for a closer look at 3-D ice dendrites standing upright on a frozen puddle! Folks enjoyed the fine skating rink at Marsh View Park, but some who fancied wild surroundings skated on Twin Lake. On sunny winter days, shadows are always sharp and any spot of color, like the brilliant red of a male cardinal, catches my eye in winter’s clear, white light. Hiking in winter can be wonderful; just be sure you’re bundled up for it! (Click on pause button for longer captions.)
Spring 2017: Buds, First Blooms, Migrators Flying in by Night and the Ebullient Symphony of Courting Birds and Frogs
Ah, mud-luscious spring! The tiny Chorus and Wood Frogs thawed out after their winter freeze and sang lustily from vernal ponds. In early spring, the birders spotted a crayfish at Bear Creek who’d climbed out of her chimney with eggs under her tail and was lumbering toward the pond. Some spring avian migrators quickly passed through, and we bird watchers were lucky to spot a few special visitors. An unusual American Pipit appeared before my camera lens one afternoon at Gallagher Creek Park on its way to its breeding grounds in the far north. While others, like the Tree Swallow or the Eastern Meadowlark, settled in for the summer to raise their young. After last year’s controlled burn, native Lupines appeared along the Paint Creek Trail. And in May, Ben spotted a rare sight, a frilly spread of rare Bogbean flowers in a kettle wetland at Bald Mountain State Recreation Area off Kern Road. Snow melt and bright green buds always offer an irresistible invitation to come out and join the bustle and music of spring!
Summer 2017: Butterflies Galore as Restored Prairies Began to Bloom
Summer! The very word conjures up a coloring box assortment of butterflies hovering over prairie wildflowers. Birds constructed their nests and later wore themselves out feeding noisy, demanding fledglings. We birders particularly enjoyed close looks at a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak sharing egg-warming duties near a Bear Creek path. The birders laughed in surprise watching a passive/aggressive pair of Canada Geese successfully discourage the presence of a Green Heron by simply swimming uncomfortably close to it. A family ambled along a path at Draper Twin Lake Park, headed for a morning fishing expedition. The birding group, binoculars in hand, spotted an Indigo Bunting while walking the new paths through the prairies at Charles Ilsley Park, increasingly spangled with colorful native wildflowers as restoration proceeds. A Great Horned Owl stared at the delighted birding group through a scrim of leaves near Bear Creek marsh. Every path in the township hummed with life during the summer months. But that’s what we all expect of summer, right?
Autumn 2017: Birds Departed South, and Fall Wildflowers Bloomed
Tundra Swans flew in formation overhead, as migrators of all kinds, like the Hermit Thrush, rode the north wind down to southern climes. But as they departed, nature offered a consolation. Many native wildflowers bloomed in the cool weather as they faithfully do each year. Asters formed carpets of color everywhere, from meadow to marsh! At the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail, tiny Ladies Tresses orchids, Grass of Parnassus with its delicately striped petals, and vivid purple Fringed Gentian intrigued me again by emerging in the chill of early autumn. Native bumblebees pushed their way into Bottle Gentian flowers at Gallagher Creek Park and the Wet Prairie. Butterflies still sipped nectar from late fall blooms. The birders identified ducks of all kinds assembled in rafts on Cranberry Lake. Rattling cries alerted me to the presence of Belted Kingfishers who scouted for prey at both Bear Creek’s pond and Cranberry Lake. Ben dipped his net into a marsh at Charles Ilsley Park to show us tadpoles that overwinter on the muddy surface beneath the water. So much life as the year 2017 began to ebb!
Parks Full of Life All Year ‘Round. Aren’t We Lucky?
As a direct result of the foresight of township residents who have supported the Parks Commission and land preservation, native plants, wildlife, birds, and a beautifully diverse combination of habitats are being restored and preserved in Oakland Township. I want to share my appreciation for that foresight and for the hard work and knowledge of Ben VanderWeide (my kind and able supervisor and editor), other parks volunteers, my fellow birders and park staff. And at the end of the year, I thank all of you who read, comment on and/or follow Natural Areas Notebook. It’s wonderful to be learning more all the time about the natural world – and then to have this opportunity to share what I’m learning with all of you. On to 2018!
At first glance, Bear Creek Nature Park in November doesn’t have much to recommend it. A frequently gray sky glowers overhead. Insects don’t buzz, soar over or spring out of the fields now drained of color. Birds only occasionally call but never sing. A casual observer might say that that there’s “nothing to see.” But they’d be wrong.
It just takes a bit more attention and a dash of memory to enjoy a late autumn hike. That quick little movement in the bare shrubbery could be a group of small golden migrators wintering here with us. Leaves skate across the pond’s first skim of ice or frame a bit of brilliant green and red moss. The birds that live with us year ’round are making winter homes and energetically seeking out bits of nourishment all around us if we look. Summer creatures snooze under the bark of trees and under the soil at our feet as we walk. Life doesn’t stop, even in November. We just need a bit more care to enjoy it on a November day.
Noticing November’s Birds – Blue, Red, Golden, Even Ones with Fancy Hairdos!
All month the Center Pond has shifted from water to ice and back again – but it’s always a place to watch with a keen eye. On the first bird walk of the month, the group saw Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) as usual, calmly cruising at the far end of the pond. But then, wait! What about that bird with the bouffant crest? It seems that those sneaky Hooded Mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) may have added an egg to a Mallard or Wood Duck nest, as they occasionally do. The young female Merganser steamed up and down the bank at a snappy pace, as her Mallard companions paused to preen along the way.
That same early November day, the birders heard the “tsee, tsee” call and then saw a group of winter visitors from northern Canada, Golden-crowned Kinglets (Regulus satrapa). The flock was too quick-moving for me, so I’ve borrowed a lovely shot from iNaturalist.org’s photographer, Joanne Redwood. Though we saw these little Kinglets in bare shrubs, look for them mostly where there are lots of pines whose needles provide shelter for them on snowy days.
Late in the month, a male Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon)had claimed the center pond as his winter territory and found my presence quite annoying. When I spotted this guy, he was calmly gazing out across the pond with his crest lowered. But as I approached, his crest began to rise as he swooped between three trees at the eastern end of the pond, shouting his rattle-call to declare his territory. Female Belted Kingfishers usually migrate a bit south to be guaranteed some open water, which they need for fishing. But the males often stay north to protect possible nesting territory. When the pond freezes, though, he’ll temporarily move south or to water that stays open in the dead of winter.
The next time I saw the mallards at the pond, the day was icy cold but the pond was still open. Three males were “bottoms up,” feeding.
On that same icy day, a large flock of Mallards on Bear Creek Marsh preened frantically, trying to keep warm by adding oil to their feathers from a gland beneath their tails. The oil helps align their feathers, providing maximum waterproofing and insulation.
On windy days, of which there were many this month, our year ’round birds seemed to retreat to the woods, where I suppose the tree density breaks the wind. I was surprised this week to see a female Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) in the woods. I tend to see them most in meadows or open areas; that day she was just taking a break in the woods from gusting 20 miles-per-hour winds! So nice to see these bright blue birds on a gray fall day. (Click on photos to enlarge.)
Black-capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) scout out decaying snags, looking for a snug hole for winter nights. Sometimes they excavate one and sometimes they appropriate an old woodpecker hole. This snag looked a little promising. The number of “dees” in a Chickadee’s call indicates how much danger is around. Fortunately, my husband and I only rated the average 3 “dees.”
A few minutes later, a White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) decided to take it step further – either looking for possible insect eggs or perhaps exploring the depth of a hole in the same snag for a winter retreat. In winter, Nuthatches hang out with Chickadees and Titmice for protection and to take advantage of possible food sources other birds may find.
A “kwirr” call from high above alerted us to a Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpescarolinus). This male definitely seemed to be foraging. I think I spotted little insect eggs on his beak as he concentrated his attention on one spot in the bark. He can use his summer nesting hole in a dead tree or limb on cold winter nights.
Imagining and Remembering: Good Tools for a November Walk
On days when birds are elusive and the parks seem quiet, I watch for reminders of summer creatures who are hidden away, spending the winter underground, under water, or under bark and leaves all around me. Here are a few that came to mind during November.
The Raccoon’s (Procyon lotor) hole is empty now, but I bet there may be one or two sleeping deep in that well-used south-facing hole.
It looks as though a Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) built this unusual “push-up” den among the trees on a small mud flat in the Center Pond. So there will be probably be one swimming very slowly and eating in the air space inside the den during the winter.
Of course, some of the reminders concern summer visitors. This little nest we spotted during an early snow shower could be the summer breeding home of a variety of birds. I’m no expert on nests, but I’m imagining that it could be that of a Chipping Sparrow since Cornell describes their nests as “a loose cup of rootlets and dried grasses so flimsy you can often see through it” But that’s just a guess.
And this fragile, scrap of nest near the pond brings back memories of the faithful father, the Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus) who patiently took his turn at the nest – an unusual behavior in male birds. The nest was never very sturdy but autumn winds and rain have left only the base.
And this abandoned, tattered masterpiece was probably the home of some sort of Yellow Jacket species, perhaps the Bald-Faced Hornet (Dolichovespula maculata.) The only surviving member of this once active hive would be the inseminated queen who is probably spending the winter under bark or inside a log nearby. She’ll emerge to lay the eggs of future queens and future workers whose infertile eggs produce the males.
Standing by a wetland pond in the park last week, I was reminded of the Salamanders(Order Urodela) who now must be hibernating under my feet. On a warm, wet night next spring, salamanders will wriggle their way to the water, lay their eggs on a stick and hide again under logs further upland. That’s where I found some of their young when the trees were green last spring.
The Mourning Cloak butterfly(Nymphalis antiopa) which can actually overwinter as an adult under bark or in a tree cavity might be camouflaged inside or on any tree you pass on your hike. The underside of it wings imitate tree bark when folded. The upper side, however, features a white edge and a lovely band of blue spots when it flutters forth in early April, as you can see in this photo by inaturalist.org photographer Lewnanny Richardson.
Relishing Bits of Color Among the Autumn Brown
I crave color when the leaves have fallen and my eyes are still adjusting to the austere beauty of late autumn and winter. Luckily nature still provides a few splashes here and there before the snow covers it all. A sampling in the slideshow below.(Use pause button for captions.)
Or If All Else Fails…
How about placing bets on which leaf wins the race across an icy Center Pond? Here’s a silly 10 second video with faint “play-by-play” by my husband, Reg.
The Subtle Charms of Late Autumn Hiking
The pizzazz of spring and summer is past, the colors of early fall are memory, but late autumn, too, has its charms if you give it a chance. The last leaves high in the canopy are hushing in the wind. Take a moment to watch just one leaf dance and swirl its way down to the water. Or toss a milkweed seed to the wind and then watch it sail across a meadow. Have a closer look at a plate-sized mushroom on a log. Sit on a bench out at the marsh and watch the wind ripple the water or the cat-tail seeds shining like snow as they blow across the marsh. Let your cheeks tingle in crisp air after long hours indoors. I bet you’ll come back inside refreshed and with stories to tell. You’ll see…
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner; inaturalist.org;Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; 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, and others as cited in the text.
Cranberry Lake Park, with its varied habitats, gives an autumn visitor lots of possibilities. In October, the lake hosts huge bobbing rafts of water birds, feeding and resting on their way south. The grassy trails lead you to expansive meadows covered now by the soft gray of seeding goldenrod, where migratory birds converse in the bushes while harvesting seed. Or you can choose the shady Hickory Lane to the west or the dappled light of the maple forest to the north if you’re in the mood for a woodland walk.
My visits were scattered throughout the month – unusually warm days early on, a sunset hike one breezy evening, and finally a cold, rainy morning right before first frost. Each time I rediscovered how sensibly nature prepares for a winter rest and a bountiful spring.
Cranberry Lake Itself – A Thwarted Kingfisher, a Remarkable Grebe, and Diving Ducks of All Kinds
Cranberry Lake welcomes all kinds of water birds as they begin their long journeys to southern climes. One cold, wet morning, I watched a bird hovering vertically high above the water, head down, scanning the surface below. Suddenly, it gave a loud rattling cry and headed for a leafless tree near the shore. An agitated male Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) shouted its noisy call from a bare limb. Perhaps he was put out by not spotting prey from that perch either!
A small Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) flew in to probe the edge of a mud flat, landing near a Canada Goose (Branta canadensis). Quite an odd couple!
Killdeer are wading birds, being Plovers, but I’ve most often seen them in barren fields, either scurrying along scaring up insects or keening in flight to distract predators. This one, though, looked right at home as it probed the mud for insect larvae or other aquatic prey before beginning migration.
Far out on the lake, a huge mixed flock of migrating ducks and other water birds, well over 200 of them, floated on the surface, foraged for food, or slept and preened on the mud flats in the shallower parts of the lake.
After studying the photo magnified, Ben guessed that most of the birds were Ring-necked Ducks (Aythya collaris) which are diving ducks. Unlike mallards and other dabbling ducks who simply tip upside down to feed, diving ducks have legs set far back on their bodies. As a result, they need to run across water, wings flapping, to get into the air and are awkward on land – but they dive, feed and swim underwater with ease!
(Since most of the Cranberry Lake flock was far from shore, the closeup photos of diving ducks below are all from inaturalist.org photographers. My thanks to all of them and to Creative Commons where they license their work.)
Two other diving ducks that Ben thinks may have been in this flock include Redhead (Aythya americana) which are so social that they’re also referred to as “rafting ducks” and Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis). According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab, Lesser Scaup chicks “are capable of diving under water on their hatching day, but they are too buoyant to stay under for more than just a moment. By the time they are 5 to 7 weeks old they are able to…swim underwater for 15-18 meters (50-60 ft).” Here’s a wonderful closeup of a Redhead by photographer lonnyholmes and a Lesser Scaup photo by photographer Paul Sullivan. (Hover cursor for captions; click on photos to enlarge.)
Far out in the lake, through my binoculars, I also spotted Bufflehead, another diving duck, on their way from the boreal forests of Canada and Alaska, where according to Cornell, they “nest almost exclusively in holes excavated by Northern Flickers and, on occasion, by Pileated Woodpeckers.” Unfortunately the male and three female/juvenile Bufflehead that I saw at were too far for my longest lens to reach clearly. So on the left is my distance photo from Cranberry Lake (click to enlarge) and on the right is a closeup from a photographer at inaturalist.org who uses the name dlbowls showing the male’s dark head iridescent in the sunlight.
Feeding alone on a rainy morning, the solitary Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) dove repeatedly into the gray surface of the lake. Modest brown this time of year, these grebes bills turn white with a neat black band in breeding season. Pied-billed Grebes control their buoyancy by trapping water in their feathers. According to Cornell Lab, this allows them to escape danger by doing what children might call “belly smackers” – “plunging with head and tail raised above the belly, making a splash. They can also dive head first, or simply sink quietly out of view, leaving no trace. Parents dive with young clamped under their wings … These grebes often avoid danger by submerging, crocodile-style, with just the eyes and nostrils above the surface.”
The little grebe at Cranberry Lake gave me a brief demonstration of the submerging tactic – first trapping water in its feathers , then settling back down on the water, and finally beginning to submerge like a little submarine. What a trick! I’m very taken with this little bird. (Use pause button for captions.)
Wide, Sunny Meadows Surrounded by Autumn Color
On the trails that lead toward the meadows, small brown birds dash from bush to bush or dart down into the grass. Some are tiny migrators who might appear modest and plain until you see them through binoculars or a camera lens. Chubby White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis), with their yellow “lores” and striped heads, hung out in small flocks, keeping in contact with soft seep calls.
Another brown migrant paused in the bushes along the trail from the lake – the Hermit Thrush (Catharusguttatus). These normally solitary birds are often quite secretive – hence the name, perhaps? They’re well-dressed hermits, though, with their chocolate back, spotted breast and white eye ring. And during migration, they do sometimes forage with or near other small birds.
The Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) is silent now, no longer burbling its song from high in a bush as it did this spring and summer. In fact, this one glowered from the bare branches, seeming a bit put-out by my presence. Or maybe it’s just irritable about having to migrate, though it will only travel a short distance to the south.
At the edge of a small meadow, a year-round resident, the American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) pecked delicately at the seeds of Common Evening-Primrose (Oenothera biennis) that nicely complemented its muted gold.
And another year ’rounder, the Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) stared from the drooping vines of Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), an aggressive, invasive plant that strangles, shades out and topples trees. Two trees along the trail had fallen recently due to masses of this vine in their canopies. Those orange and red fall fruits are disastrously appealing to birds, who spread their seeds far and wide.
On my early October visits, insects were still very much in evidence. One warm October afternoon, a busy group of adult and juvenile Large Milkweed Bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus) fed eagerly on the seeds of Common Milkweed (Ascelpias syriaca) in a southern meadow. The large beetles below are adults accompanied by the mostly red juveniles. They eat milkweed seeds by injecting saliva through the seed’s surface which liquifies it so it can be sucked through their straw-like rostrums. Milkweeds produce lots of seeds, so luckily these beetles, though destructive to individual pods, don’t really do a lot of damage in a season. And they are kind of jazzy looking, don’t you think?
Red-legged Grasshoppers (Melanoplus femurrubrum) mate in the autumn and lay their eggs in the earth. The eggs won’t finish developing until spring, when the first nymphs emerge. They’ll molt 5-7 times during the summer before they are fully adult, like this pair on a grassy trail.
As October moved on, the goldenrods – Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) and late blooming Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) – began to seed, casting a silver-brown patina over the meadows.
Despite the cooler days, the small Autumn Meadowhawk(Sympetrum vicinum) still glided along the meadow paths, stopping on a fallen Canada Goldenrod stem to warm its wings in the autumn sunlight. The yellow-orange blush on the wings near the thorax is a distinguishing field mark. Autumn Meadowhawks fly later than most other species in our area, but are usually gone by early November, having laid their eggs along the lake’s shoreline.
The Hickory Lane and Wooded Wetlands – Filtered Light, Foraging Nut Eaters, a Frog and Puffballs
Woodland walks are magical in the early morning or just before sunset. The light filters down through a golden shimmer of falling leaves and sometimes sets a crimson leaf aglow.
On a warm walk in early October, the bright yellow caterpillar of a Spotted Tussock Moth (Lophocampa maculata) caught my eye within the dry leaves on the Hickory Lane. Such a fancy caterpillar! Research in Caterpillars of Eastern North America seems to indicate that it’s the middle instar of the Spotted Tussock moth because in earlier stages, the end sections of this yellow caterpillar are completely black – but I’m open to correction by more knowledgeable readers!
An Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus) on the Hickory Lane basked in the sunset, perhaps resting from a long day of ferrying nuts in its cheeks to stock its underground burrow. It won’t hibernate, but when it wakes periodically from its winter torpor, it will need a little sustenance before snoozing again.
A Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) dashed quickly up a tree on the Hickory Lane (in this case, it’s the black morph). And nearby, an American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) did the same. I wondered if they had enjoyed some of the hickory nuts that were neatly opened on a fallen log not too far away.
Almost invariably, curious deer emerge at the edge of the woods, and they too are putting on weight for winter. They eat lots of nuts, including plenty of acorns, this time of year. Their love of acorns in the fall and saplings during the winter can make it harder for our oak forests to regenerate. This doe looks like she’s definitely eaten her share and is ready for cold days ahead!
In a pond hidden in the trees, a Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) had built a roomy “push-up” den in which it can eat above the water line. Muskrats don’t hibernate, but spend the winter cruising very slowly beneath the ice. What appears to be a hole is probably just plant matter or mud, since muskrats generally enter their push-up dens from under the water through a tunnel that leads up to a cavity at the center. According to Wikipedia, “In snowy areas, they keep the openings to their push-ups closed by plugging them with vegetation, which they replace every day.”
Near that woodland pond in late October, a tiny masked Wood Frog (Rana sylvatica) literally sat “like a bump on a log,” staring off into the distance, partially lit by the green light of a leaf. Wood Frogs love forested wetlands like this during the summer. But this little frog may be preparing for winter. It will move upland, away from the water, burrow under leaves or a log. Then most of the water in its body will freeze solid, and its breathing and heartbeats will stop! But it will thaw in the spring and go right back to the pond to mate. Hope this little one finds a cozy spot before long.
On a fallen long nearby, my husband and I came across a colony of Puffball Mushrooms (division Basidiomycota) just as we did last year. These stalkless mushrooms would disperse spores on their own, of course, but I asked my husband to poke a couple in order to catch the brownish cloud of spores escaping through their tiny apertures. Wikipedia says falling raindrops disperse puffball spores in a similar way.
On my last visit just before first frost, under moist trees in these wooded wetlands, the Sensitive Ferns’ green, leafy, sterile fronds (Onoclea sensibilis) were already withering in the dropping temperatures. But the separate fertile fronds, covered in brown beads called “sori” that contain next year’s spores, stood erect in the grass beneath the trees.
Quietly Prepping for Winter and Another Spring
Cranberry Lake Park, like all of nature, provides testimony every autumn that the year is not “dying” as is so often said of this season. On the contrary. At every turn in the trails, nature is sensibly preparing for winter and sowing for spring. Yes, plants wither – but their seeds, stems, and roots wait within the soil for warm spring light. Gray-brown bracken will eventually fall, nourishing the soil in which those seeds can grow. Bright leaves fade and fall, of course, but only because trees are in “dormancy,” resting, slowing their metabolism, preserving themselves for next spring’s surge of growth. Some insects migrate, others winter-over under bark or within plants, while still others perish, leaving behind eggs which bide their time beneath the earth. Birds fly south, frogs burrow under logs, and animals of all sorts settle into winter quarters. Nature doesn’t resist change. It simply adapts to it, with every intention of burgeoning forth with gusto in the spring. We humans probably do best when we follow nature’s lead by just letting nature take its course – preparing for longer nights and colder days, while confidently sowing seeds – both literally and metaphorically – for a future spring.
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner; inaturalist.org;Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; 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, and others as cited in the text.
Right now, no one would nominate Gallagher Creek Park for Oakland Township’s most scenic natural area. Last fall, the invasive shrubs that covered large areas of the park were bushwhacked to the ground. Native wildflower seeds were sown but haven’t had time to grow the deep roots they need to fully bloom. And it’s muddy, gray early spring, after all!
But each time I’ve visited over the last few weeks, wow! This homely little 15 acres is full of spring liveliness. Swimming, soaring, singing, sprouting – spring arrived with exuberance at Gallagher Creek Park.
A Muskrat Adult and its Child Enjoy the Creek and Its Fresh Greens
On my first visit to Gallagher Creek, an adult Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) busily pulled up what appeared to be bulbs at the base of some grasses in the stream. Though they don’t hibernate, muskrats spend most of the winter under the ice feeding on the dead plant material of their “push-ups” (feeding platforms) or lodges. Fresh greens must taste great after that! Two days later, I saw a young muskrat paddling at top speed toward the observation deck to take a closer look at me, like any curious youngster. If you look towards the north, you can see their family winter lodge at the edge of some cat-tails. (Hover cursor for captions; click on photos to enlarge.)
Migrating Birds Make Gallagher Creek Their Summer Residence
All over this small park, birds are calling, singing and searching for nests. On my first visit, the chirping and liquid “thwick” of the Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) drew my eyes high into the bare branches of aging willows. Swooping and diving, these iridescent blue acrobats performed aerial feats before resting high in the treetops.
Over on the bare ground of the hillock next to the parking lot, a pair of Killdeer(Charadrius vociferus) scurried about, sometimes pecking at wet puddles, sometimes circling me with keening calls. Once the female seemed to be starting her shallow nest, her breast pressed against the bare earth. They often make several small scrapes (usually only 3 inches or so across) before settling on a nest site. Cornell Lab thinks it could be a way to mislead predators, as they do, of course, with their “injured wing” trick. Here’s the male (I assume) up on the edge of the hill, keeping an orange eye on me.
The Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus) probably moved a bit south for the winter. But this “mustached” male is here now establishing a territory at Gallagher Creek, tapping on trees and making his “kwirr” call from the top of snags behind the creek. From below, you can clearly see the yellow undersides of his tail feathers. He has yellow under those elegant wings, too, like nearly all of the Northern Flickers in eastern North America.
Below the Northern Flicker, a pair of Common Grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) moved restlessly about the trees, making their clucks and “squeaky gate” whistles. According to the Cornell Lab, “Common Grackles are resourceful foragers. They sometimes follow plows to catch invertebrates and mice, wade into water to catch small fish, pick leeches off the legs of turtles, steal worms from American Robins, raid nests, and kill and eat adult birds.” Now that’s an omnivore and a bit of a bandit as well!
Of course, with all that water and a cat-tail marsh in the park, Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) take up residence there as well. This one, for some reason, chose to flip upside-down in his quest for cat-tail seeds.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about a European Starling(Sturnus vulgaris) at Charles Ilsley Park who still sported its fall feathers with the light tips which give it a spotted look. But in Gallagher Creek Park, a week later, the tips had finally worn off this lone starling, so that its iridescence would shine for the mating season. It seemed to be gazing longingly on this cold spring afternoon, perhaps waiting for its compatriots to arrive.
Some Year ‘Rounders Used the Park as a Dating Hang-out
One cool afternoon, three American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) fluttered and cawed, perhaps showing off to a potential mate or simply playing together in a tree that seemed much too small for three large, shiny black birds. The intelligence of crows is legendary. These clever birds are part of the Corvid family, which also includes Blue Jays and Ravens. Cornell Lab describes just a few of the tools they occasionally create. “Examples include a captive crow using a cup to carry water over to a bowl of dry mash; shaping a piece of wood and then sticking it into a hole in a fence post in search of food; and breaking off pieces of pine cone to drop on tree climbers near a nest.”
At the edge of Gallagher Creek two Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) floated along, occasionally dabbling for grasses below the surface in the quiet pools of the overflow. These two would likely have paired up in the fall. Did you know that only the females quack? The male, according to Cornell Lab, only makes a “quieter, rasping one- or two-noted call.”
Spring Odds ‘n Ends
The wetland near the stream must be home to many crayfish (or crawdads if you prefer). Their chimneys appear every few feet if you walk east from the observation deck. Little construction marvels, these chimneys are the openings to crayfish burrows. According to the America’s Wetland Foundation website, they build these chimneys by using their legs and mouth to form small balls of mud which they carry to the surface and arrange in rows like laying bricks! I’ve read that crayfish mostly forage at night, though the birding group saw one recently in the morning. So despite all these burrows, I have yet to spot a crayfish itself at Gallagher Creek!
The little hill where the Killdeer scampered is littered with the pretty shells of what I think are Grove Snails (Cepaea nemoralis). (I’m no mollusk expert, so if you are an expert please feel free to correct me!) These lovely, whorled and striped shells are all empty. I’d read in a book called The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell that some birds consume snails, shell and all, in order to stock up on calcium for their eggs. But these are probably too large for most of our birds to swallow whole. I wonder why there are so many here? Grove Snails are not native, but were evidently brought to the United States in the 19th century.
In some areas of the park, Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) flowers are everywhere. Don’t get your hopes up though for gathering the fruit in June. In my experience, the animals eat them green before they can ripen for us humans!
A single Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera) produced long male catkins that are, as Ben put it, “pumping out pollen to pollinate the female flowers via the wind.” Birches are “monoecius” which means they produce both male and female flowers. In the right photo, the red and yellow male inflorescence (a cluster of flowers on a stem) can pollinate the more erect, green female flowers. Birches can pollinate themselves if there aren’t others of their species nearby, which is the case with this tree.
In the old hedgerow that separates the two large sections of the park stands a wispy native shrub that makes clusters of spring flowers and then a spectacular air-filled seed capsule in the fall. It has the unfortunate name of Bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia) but it’s a special native tree that is fairly unusual in our area. So laugh at the funny name and enjoy the fact that it’s here.
Like most wetland areas, Gallagher Creek has big bunches of Skunk Cabbage(Symplocarpus foetidus) poking out of the mud at the edge of the stream. Out in the eastern part of the park, after the invasive shrubs were eliminated, a large patch of Mayapples(Podophyllum peltatum) got stranded in the sunlight. Evidently, the invasive shrubs provided the shade these forest wildflowers generally love. But alas, they have lost their shade and may be diminished over time. Not to worry. Seeds of many sun-loving plants have no doubt been waiting for years in the soil for those pesky shrubs to disappear. We’ll soon see what appears now that sun is warming the soil.
Such an Unassuming Little Park with So Much Life!
This little park will someday have trails through prairie wildflowers and a children’s play area. But for now, each time I arrive, I wonder if I’ll see anything interesting. In the brown and gray of early spring a few weeks ago, it looked particularly unpromising. But then shining azure birds swooped overhead, the killdeer circled and called, and a curious little muskrat made a few quick passes by the observation deck to check out the strange animal with a camera. And then I was very glad I kept coming to this little corner of the township and its merry little creek. If you take the time to explore, you might feel that way, too.
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell; Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3; Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; other sites as cited in the text.
Late summer is always a time of transitions, but this year was particularly dramatic. Bear Creek’s meadows baked for weeks under a blazing sun. The marsh dried completely, stranding an over-heated young snapper that struggled through a tangled mat of exposed vegetation. Heat finished off blossoms as some wildflowers began to seed earlier than usual. And then in mid-August, the rains came – downpours, thunderstorms and off-and-on showers. You could almost hear the gulping of plants and trees swallowing the moisture through their roots. Snappers again cruised just below the shallow waters of the marsh. Life rallied. As always, nature just coped and moved on.
Life in the Hot Sun of the Old Fields
The Old Field on the western edge of Bear Creek is quieter now. Mating season has ended (except for the Goldfinches), so birdsong has diminished. But one hot, sticky morning, an Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) threw back his head and let loose his double-phrased song from the highest branch of a tree – a favorite perch for male Buntings.
An Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) seemed to be listening to its neighbor as it rested between forays over the baking meadows, trying to snatch a few unsuspecting insects.
A juvenile Yellow-bellied Flycatcher (Empidonax flaviventris) posed quietly among the branches of smaller trees on the Western Slope. Expert birder, Ruth Glass, tells me that this little bird probably arrived from Canada or northern Michigan and is now migrating down to the Caribbean. Quite an adventure for a small bird!
Near the moist bottom of the slope one steamy morning, I spotted a lump on a leaf. A newly metamorphosed Gray Tree Frog (Hyla versicolor) was sleeping on a Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). I’m afraid I woke it with my camera. The U of M’s Bio-kids website says they are “almost always bright green right after metamorphosis [from tadpole stage] and they stay this way for some time before taking on their adult coloration.” These frogs can sleep in the open during the day, using their camouflage to protect themselves; they don’t dehydrate quickly like other frogs. Isn’t it just the best little creature?
While birds foraged from the trees, the insects below braved the blazing sun to look for their own sustenance. In the grass on the Western Slope, a Common Buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia)seemed to searching the bottom of grass stems. I’ve read that they sip nectar but often look for fluids in moist earth. Perhaps it was hoping for dew on a hot morning in August.
Higher up on the western path, where the land was drier, beetles probed blossoms looking for food. On the left, a non-native Seven-spotted Ladybug (Coccinella setempunctata)searched diligently for aphids, a favorite food. In fact, these beetles were brought here to combat aphids, but as a result, they’ve outcompeted our native ladybugs whose numbers have declined. On the right, a Soldier Beetle (family Cantharidae) may also be pursuing aphids, though it also eats pollen and nectar. (Hover cursor for captions; click on photo to enlarge.)
In the trees near the top of the Western Slope, a sparrow fluffed its feathers in thin shade. It’s hard to identify juvenile sparrows but with its pink feet and bill, I’m guessing this is a juvenile Field Sparrow who hasn’t yet reached full adult plumage when it will have a more distinct eye ring and a clear breast.
American Goldfinches mate in August, much later than other birds. On one hot visit, a female repeatedly rode drying blossoms of Queen Anne’s Lace down to the ground to forage for seeds, perhaps to feed her young – or her hard-working self! Unlike many seed-eating birds, the Goldfinches don’t switch to bugs when breeding. They are strictly vegetarian.
Nestlings of other birds are transforming into curious fledglings. One afternoon, a young, female Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) perched high in a snag (standing dead tree), her spotted breast only halfway transformed into adult plumage.
Wildflowers felt the impact of the fierce sunlight. A Jewel Weed blossom near the pond dried in the heat, while others took its place in the dappled shade. And up on the top of the southern hill, the Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) dropped their petals and began the seeding process in the dry heat.
Sturdy Prairie Dock blossoms, looking like little suns themselves, began to dry out as well as they towered over the wilting Coneflowers.
A female Black Swallowtail hovered just off the sun-drenched Eastern Path, looking restlessly for just the right blossom. Folding its dark wings may help it cope with the sun’s heat.
Patrolling for food, a Ruby Meadowhawk dragonfly rested momentarily on a leaf, its clear wings shimmering in the hot sunlight.
The northeastern edge of the Old Fields evidently stayed moist despite the heat and several “wet-footed” plants took full advantage of the bright sunlight. Joe-Pye (Eutrochium maculatum) spread its dusty pink blooms out across the field instead of appearing as widely distributed single plants as it often does here.
Other native wetland plants fringed the same area. The trio below includes bright pink Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) with its green stems, Joe-Pye with dusty pink blossoms and purple stems and Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) with its white blossoms and leathery leaves.
Below center, the native Bumblebee (genus Bombus) sips nectar from the Swamp Milkweed with its long tongue and on the left, is a closer look at Boneset. Odd name, eh? Evidently early herbalists noticed the way the stem seemed to rise right through the clinging leaves reminding them of a splint around a bone. So its leaves were wrapped with bandages around broken bones. Native Flowering Spurge (Euphorbia corollata) on the right also thrives here as it does in various spots along the Paint Creek Trail.
Sheltering in the Shade
Near the wood edges, I found mammals and insects enjoying the shade. Following a shining strand hanging before our eyes, my husband and I discovered a very tiny white spider escaping the bright sunlight on the underside of a leaf. I tried but couldn’t identify it, despite that wonderful design on its abdomen. We wondered if that brown ball was an egg sack. Anyone know this tiny creature’s name?
And, as usual, damselflies moved in and out of the shade at the edge of the Oak-Hickory forest. I’m guessing, based on its bright blue head, striped thorax, and very pale abdomen, that this one may be a female Bluet (genus Enallagma) or a recently hatched one. But since there are at least 17 species of Bluets in the Midwest, I’m not sure which one this is. Again, I’m open to your ideas.
A White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) sat calmly on the shady site of a dried vernal pool, while her fawn dutifully hurried off into the bushes as I paused for the photo.
And an Eastern Cottontail paused in a shady spot along a trail one hot morning as well.
And Then the Rains Came…
What a relief when heavy rain came to refill the wetlands and ponds at Bear Creek Park! After watching that young Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) struggling through vegetation in the dry marsh, it was a relief to see two Snappers feeding and cruising just below the surface in the cooling water provided by the rain.
The bright sun and rain caused Common Duckweed (Lemna minor) and Water Meal (genus Wolffia) – often mistaken for heavy algae – to form thicker mats across wetlands around the park. At the Playground Pond, I heard a plop! one afternoon and saw just the head of a Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) moving through the juicy green surface. Luckily, its ears close when it enters the water! When swimming, it uses its tail to propel itself with the help of its webbed back feet.
Once the Muskrat dove, I noticed other denizens of the Pond nicely camouflaged in duckweed and water meal as well. Here are two turtles and a frog on a log decked out in greenery.
Quivering in the duckweed near the boardwalk made me look down to see a whole collection of small Green Frogs (Rana clamitans). Each of those individual spots on the leg of the frog below is a water meal plant! Ducks do love this plant, by the way. Sometimes they just dip their bills in and move along, scooping it up.
In the wetland just north of the Playground Pond, a particularly beautiful native plant is blooming in the moist shade, Cardinal Flower or Red Lobelia (Lobelia cardinalis). Last week when I took an out-of-town friend to the park and left my camera at home, we watched a Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) sipping at a tall stalk of this scarlet beauty. I came back for its photo the following day – but no Hummingbird then, I’m sorry to say!
We also spotted two Barn Swallowsperched quietly in nearby trees. No camera again! The next day, they were swooping madly across the meadows, their bills open, enjoying the swarms of insects that had hatched after the rain. One perched for a moment in a snag over the wetland and I got this quick photo of it from below.
As the water rose in the Center Pond, tiny Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta) appeared on nearly every log. Here’s a silver-dollar-sized one trundling along as it explores its world like any youngster.
This week, a Green Heron (Butorides virescens) dropped into the bushes at the western edge of the pond. It kept a close eye on the water, when it wasn’t actively preening with its long, extendable neck. Green Herons are expert hunters of both fish and frogs. I wondered if the absence of July’s huge number of green frogs was attributable to the drought or this multi-colored fisher. (My apologies for the slightly pixelated photos caused by aggressive cropping so we could see it up close.)
Yes, it’s been a hot, sticky and then rainy summer. But we’re all in this together – animals, birds and plants. The natural world provided a gentle reminder that change, even dramatic change, is an inherent part of being alive. Summer may be waning now but the beauty around us isn’t. Surprises await our arrival every day, no matter what the weather.
P.S. More Native Beauties Blooming along the Paint Creek Trail!
The trick about blogging during the summer is that so much happens all over the township, all at once! Keep an eye out for these special native wildflowers blooming for just a short time in the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail. The shallow water table in this meadow provides a perfect spot for these fire-adapted beauties. The field is dotted with the purple fireworks of Cylindrical Blazing Star (Liatris cylindracea), the striped elegance of Grass of Parnassus (Parnassia glauca) and the delicate, spotted petals of Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum). Don’t miss them!
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; The Ecology of Plants by Gurevitch, Scheiner and Fox; other sites as cited in the text.
Last week, we explored nature in Bear Creek when it was a working farm 75 years ago. I thought it would be interesting to continue following its history to learn how it became our first publicly protected park. And the source for that information was the “mover and shaker” who envisioned turning this abandoned farm into Bear Creek Nature Park and helped make it a reality – Parks and Recreation Commissioner Alice Tomboulian.
Many thanks to Alice and her husband Paul for sharing their knowledge of Bear Creek 45 years ago – and their photos below that I’m using with their permission! Also thanks to Parks Director Mindy Milos-Dale for great info and photos of the Grand Opening of the new park developments in 2003!
1969: Exploring an Abandoned Farm
Much had changed since the 1940’s when the Comps family lived on the farm. With no animals grazing, the grass in some Old Fields had grown tall, while rental farmers raised corn in others. The county had widened Snell Road, taking out the old sugar maples that once graced the front of the farmhouse. The county had also straightened Gunn Road, eliminating a steep curve that went around the far north of Bear Creek marsh by building a new straight crossing with a metal culvert. Sometime in the 60’s, the old farmhouse burned, leaving today only a remnant of an outdoor grill built by George Comps’ father in the 1940’s or 50’s from stones on the property. (Hover over photos for captions. Click on photos to enlarge.)
When Alice and Paul Tomboulian and their family moved to Oakland Township in 1969, the land that became Bear Creek Nature Park was abandoned farmland still owned as an investment by Mr. Devereaux of the Richard C. Devereaux Foundation in Detroit (now of Bloomfield Hills). The Tomboulians were naturalists and lived across from this lovely piece of land. Alice was a volunteer at Seven Ponds Nature Center in Dryden and Paul headed the department of Chemistry and Environmental Health at Oakland University. They recognized the importance of those 107 acres – the marsh, the wetlands, the plants and wildlife – for conservation and preservation. In those days, children and their parents exploring empty land was common and not thought at all to be trespassing. So the Tomboulian family skated on the pond near Gunn Road and explored the woods and fields.
Early 1970s to 1977: Nature Study at Bear Creek
Alice and Paul Tomboulian and their three children used the land that would become Bear Creek as a perfect spot for nature study. Even Alice’s stepmother joined in! Exploring the marsh, for example, took some gusto in those days before the docks were available for observation. So Alice and her stepmom waded in, fully dressed in old clothes, to explore the reeds for coot nests and other denizens of the marsh. Along the way, of course, they also picked up the same kind of trash my husband and I retrieve in the park from time to time to this day!
One day Alice heard a chain saw roaring across the road and hurried over to see who was cutting down trees. It turned out to be the landowner, Mr. Devereaux. Rather than questioning her interest, Mr. Devereaux was pleased that someone was watching over and protecting his land and gave his permission to explore and later, granted permission for Baldwin School field trips for nature study. Soon school children, their parents and teachers began arriving through a narrow path from Collins Road, which today is a much wider, developed path from the Township Hall. The children below and in the photo at the top of the blog, some sporting “Ranger Rick” neckerchiefs, would be in their fifties by now.
On that field trip on a sunny June day in 1969, the children did a bit of exploring around the pond, though of course no viewing from a deck was possible since none existed. Note the difference between 1969 and now. In 1969, the northern side of the Center Pond was edged only with tall grass – most of it non-native grazing grasses and native reeds. Now the north side of the pond is surrounded by thickets of some native and many non-native invasive shrubs .
Here’s another group of Baldwin school children coming down the Eastern Path in June of 1969. Then a narrow foot path wound down through the eastern Old Field where the grass planted to feed the cows was starting to grow tall.
Now a wider, developed trail follows the same path but over the years, thanks to the stewardship of the Parks and Recreation Commission, native Canada Goldenrod and other native wildflowers have made a big comeback. Black-eyed Susans, Coneflowers, Prairie Dock and Common Milkweed, beloved by Monarch butterflies, live peaceably beside non-native wildflowers like Queen Anne’s Lace and Ox-eye Daisies.
Yellow Cone Flower is a perennial native wildflower.
Queen Anne’s Lace
In 1974, an ecological survey of Oakland Township by Paul Thompson of the Cranbrook Institute of Science confirmed the importance of the land that is now Bear Creek. He briefly described the area that is now Bear Creek. as having “an excellent cattail marsh…several dozen muskrat lodges…an oak hickory woodland of moderate sized trees, and a number of small woodland ponds.”
1977 – 2003 Bear Creek Becomes a Park, Wild and Undeveloped
In the early 70’s, Alice and Paul Tomboulian and their children continued their nature study on the land that was to become Bear Creek Nature Park. Mark, the Tomboulian’s younger son, was a born naturalist. Over the years that he explored Mr. Devereaux’s land, he kept a list of every plant, animal and bird he saw. Here Alice and her three children are doing some nature study at Bear Creek marsh in the 1970’s. (Photo from an article in the Pontiac Press, now the Oakland Press.)
In the ’70s, Alice was serving on the Oakland Township Board of Trustees. Armed with her own nature study and her son Mark’s wonderful list of the wildlife and plant life in the marsh, she proposed to the Parks Commission the creation of the township’s first park by buying Mr. Devereaux’s property. And in 1977, The Oakland Township Parks Commission purchased the 107 acres of land which is now Bear Creek Nature Park using $305,000 from the Parks Millage Fund.
At the time, township residents preferred keeping the parks with access only by footpaths. But problems needed to be solved in Bear Creek Marsh. Over the years, the metal culvert under Gunn road installed in the 1940’s had rusted and partially collapsed. The drainage became blocked with runoff and debris from roadwork and development. Water flooded the marsh, creating unnaturally high water levels, “sometimes giving the appearance of a 8 acre lake,” as Paul Tomboulian puts it. The high water was drowning a very special native habitat relied on by native wildlife. (Hover cursor over photo on right for caption.)
Alice, the PRC, and the Township worked with the Oakland County Road Commission for 16 years to correct this problem. According to Paul Tomboulian, the old culvert eventually “was replaced with a new 78-foot long pipe in 2003, new water levels were set, and erosion control measures near Gunn Road were installed.” Now, the water level has returned to more normal levels and bulrushes, cattails and marsh wildlife are returning to Bear Creek Marsh.
Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis) at Bear Creek Marsh
Monarch on native Beggar-tick
September 2003 – Bear Creek Becomes a Fully Developed Nature Park
Later, when the Parks Commission became the Parks and Recreation Commission, the PRC moved to make Bear Creek Nature Park even more accessible to the public. With the approval of commission members, Parks Director Mindy Milos-Dale sought out and wrote the Township’s first grant from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund. The grant proposal was accepted and paid for 44% of the cost of facilities improvements at the park. They included ADA accessible limestone trails, wooden boardwalks, docks and overlooks in wetland areas, a picnic pavilion, a children’s play area, a gravel parking lot and restroom facilities. The remaining cost was matched from Parks Millage Funds.
After all the careful planning and financing was done, Bear Creek Nature Park had its Grand Opening on September 27, 2003. Visitors, like us today, enjoyed the Old Fields filled with the gorgeous orange and purple of fall’s Canada Goldenrod and New England Aster. They could hear Canada Geese and Sandhill Cranes crying overhead as they headed south. Visitors watched water birds from the observation deck as they do today. Muskrats and snapping turtles swam peacefully in Bear Creek Marsh.
What a journey! We owe a debt of gratitude to the vision, consistent effort and careful study of the Tomboulians, PRC commissioners over the years, Parks Director Milos-Dale and the support of many park-loving Trustees whose foresight and careful planning protected the marshes, meadows and woodlands of Bear Creek for all of us who enjoy its very special beauties today.
Ah, late winter – mud one day, snowfall the next. My first walk this week featured returning geese honking unseen among the marsh reeds, two Mallard pairs, muskrats feeding in open water, flocks of robins flitting among the trees. Later in the week, I arrived in a steady snowfall, crows calling overhead, and a titmouse leaning into the wind. Nothing that remarkable, really, just nature doing its between-season adaptations. In the snowy quiet, I began noticing details – a fancy willow gall, a strange beaded plant in the marsh, a fallen log cracked open to show the galleries created by carpenter ants. So here are bits and pieces of an late winter/early spring week at Bear Creek.
Seduced by Signs of Spring
The weather warmed in the first half of the week. A Muskrat family (Ondatra zibethicus) emerged in the marsh as soon as the ice broke. They must have been famished for both food and sunlight after swimming and eating under the ice for months. These furry marsh dwellers went bottoms-up in the icy water, pulling up vegetation, holding it between their paws and nibbling a mile a minute! Perhaps you can see that this adult has a long stem of greenery in its clawed front foot.
Two adults seemed to be accompanied by two young muskrats. One came steaming across the water, touched noses with its parent and then swam away as the adult ducked under for food.
According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, young muskrats born at the end of the summer usually spend the winter with their parents. In spring, they establish their own territories within 300 feet of the adults. A close-knit family! The small muskrat above swam off to sit at the edge of the marsh, finding food at the shore on its own.
Overhead, snow clouds gathered. A single American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) called an alarm and a small group of returning Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) winged their way high against a gray sky, calling to each other. (Click photos to enlarge; hove cursor over photos for captions.)
While I was there, the geese hidden in the marsh honked vigorously at them, but stayed out of sight among the reeds. So here’s a goose last March settling into the cold, snowy landscape.
In the trees on the way into the park, a flock of American Robins (Turdus migratorius) darted back forth and across the path, some just clucking, others trying out a few notes of spring song as snow began to fall again.
Male Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) from the marsh below our house landed in the bushes near our feeder at home again this week – but for some reason, I have yet to see them in Bear Creek’s marsh. The females haven’t arrived yet so the males at our house aren’t showing off their red epaulets much and only sing a shortened version of their well-known spring trill.
Update! As of a warm Tuesday morning, the Blackbirds were all over the southern end of Bear Creek and around the Center Pond, trilling in the trees! I didn’t go to the marsh today, but I’m betting they are there now too. So good to hear them on a beautiful morning!
Winter Moves Back In
Big, beautiful snowflakes fell quickly on my next walk at Bear Creek. The brown leaves still rustled on the Pin Oaks (Quercus palustris) that encircle the snowy playground .
When I asked Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide why their leaves didn’t drop in the fall, he explained that this phenomenon is called “marescence.” Deer (and in some regions, moose) nibble off twigs and bark from young trees during the winter. Young Oaks, particularly Pin Oaks, being closer to the ground, retain their leaves as a way of discouraging nibblers! According to Wikipedia, “Dead, dry leaves make the twigs less nutritious and less palatable” so large herbivores are less interested. Good survival strategy for young trees!
All over the park, the snow and wind had flattened last year’s Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), perhaps helping in the process of returning their nutrients to the soil.
Along the Eastern Path, an elegantly tufted Pinecone Willow Gall caught my eye. These little “pinecones” at the tips of branches, formed by the plant’s reaction to Gall Midges (Rabdophaga strobiloides) laying their eggs, can house over 30 insects eggs and larvae that are overwintering and will hatch in the spring.
According to Nature in Winter, by Donald Stokes, a study found that 23 willow galls yielded 564 insects of different species! Birds must be appreciative of such abundance in the spring!
Ben informs me that the beaded plants standing like little sentinels in the southern part of the marsh are the dark brown fertile fronds of the Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis), so called because early settlers noticed how quickly they react to frost. Those brown beads are called sori which according to Wikipedia are clusters of structures that produce and contain spores. Hence its other name, Bead Fern.
Back in the woods, birds were coping with the wind and the snow. I missed a shot in the park but here’s a shot of a Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) from home doing the same thing.
A crow took off from a tree in the snow as well. Aren’t their finger-like wings impressive?
A fallen log caught my eye because its sheared end revealed the galleries left by Carpenter Ants (Camponotus pennsylvanicus).
These galleries are used to keep the ants’ eggs, larvae and pupae at the proper temperature and moisture during the summer. At the same time, they contribute to the wood’s decay which recycles the nutrients of dead trees back into the earth. According to Stokes’ book, Nature in Winter, “As winter approaches, the colony “heads for the center of a log or to the underground part of their nest in order to minimize the rigors of the winter.” Stokes says that Pileated Woodpeckers (Dryocopus pileatus) peck “huge holes in trees in order to feed on the [Carpenter]ants” during the winter.
Late in the week, after another snowfall or two, two pairs of Mallards (Anasplatyrhynchos), having found partners in the late autumn, landed near the Muskrat who was again foraging in the marsh.
Sharp Snow Shadows and then… Spring?
Who knows how many snows remain before spring really arrives? But in a month or so, the brown, white, and grey shades of winter with its sharp shadows on the snow will give way to the green haze, birdsong and trembling puddle reflections of spring. Nature brings us different kinds of beauties in different seasons. That never fails to surprise and delight me. I hope it does you too.
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,; The Ecology of Plants by Gurevitch, Scheiner and Fox; other sites as cited in the text.
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.
I think I caught this female House Finch just as she bit down on a seed so it’s not her most flattering portrait!
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)!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
I love the blue shadows that bright sun paints across winter snow. On my visits to Bear Creek this week, I spent some time with my face turned to the ground, trailing animals that had trotted along the paths to the Center Pond, perhaps on the previous moonlit night – or crossed and re-crossed the marsh nearby on a snowy morning. Trundling along, nose down, I twice caught the sound of social chirping from flocks of birds gathered in trees nearby and went to explore. Later, standing on the ice, I craned my neck skyward to peer at spring reminders hanging from overhead branches. As usual, nature had a few surprises for me. Let’s start with those birds.
Winter Flocks – A Colorful, Noisy Sight
Despite the fact that we think of American Robins (Turdus migratorius) as harbingers of spring, nearly every winter they appear in the bare trees at Bear Creek. According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab, some do migrate, but many robins stay in their breeding grounds. Evidently they can gather in huge roosts “sometimes including a quarter-million birds during winter.” Wouldn’t that be something to see? This week, a chorus of soft “cluck” sounds alerted me to a small flock of 8-10 birds who were feeding on frozen berries. Many in this flock seemed to have exceptionally dark heads like this one:
Since Cornell says that males have darker heads than females, I think there were probably more males in this group and since winter is not half over and has been fairly mild, perhaps the body feathers from their last molt are still in pretty good shape as well!
Later in the week, I heard another chorus of higher-pitched chipping calls and was expecting to find a flock of Tree Sparrows (Spizella arborea). Instead, I was treated to the rosy heads of male House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) socializing with their beige, striped females in bushes along the path just north of the playground. At my home feeder, I only see four or so at a time, but there were again 8-10 in the park, fluttering and moving too quickly for a shot as they hunted for berries. But one male graciously posed for me in the half shade for a minute.
Readers of the blog know how I love the color red, so I was delighted to see these Robins and Finches brightening up a winter day.
Following Fox Tracks
As I left the playground pond one morning, I came across the round prints of what was probably a Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes fulvus),trotting along the night before, like this one which passed outside my window at home a couple of years ago.
The tracks are so delicate – single round circles in a continuous path, as the fox sets its back foot neatly into the track made by its front foot. Their tracks never wander, as domestic dogs’ do, and they often follow human paths; wild animals, who must find their own food, need to conserve their energy by taking the easiest, most direct route. I decided to follow the fox. Nose down, I headed west and the fox prints “took me” down the western slope, the neat circles staying close to the middle of the path.
At the end of the path, near the benches at the top of the south hill, the fox turned left and I followed its tracks over the edge of the hill on the path that leads through a tunnel of small trees to the meadow west of the Center Pond. And from there, I followed this ghost fox just past the Center Pond until it turned to go along the boardwalk to the east of the pond.
I turned south to go home because I was half frozen, but I enjoyed spending the last half hour of my walk “accompanying” this wild animal as it had trotted along under a full moon.
Another day this week I found other evidence of perhaps the same fox. Here are tracks leading again to its exploration of the muskrat lodge in the Center Pond (I’d shown similar tracks in a previous blog). Its tracks clearly stopped by the lodge as it left its “calling card,” a small scat, the size of which was further evidence that this was likely a fox. And then the tracks took their neat bee-line to the other side of the pond (click on photos to enlarge, hover your cursor over a photo for a caption).
Foxes are one of the predators of muskrats. In the winter, coyotes and foxes are known to pounce on lodges and feeding platforms to prey on muskrats below. I couldn’t help wondering if that’s what happened in the marsh at the southwestern edge of the forest, where there are two collapsed muskrat feeding platforms from the summer. If so, the attempt wasn’t recent because there was no sign of bloodshed, but a clear path led to the lodge and away. The fox ate no muskrat that night.
Nearby squirrel tracks made a crossroad near the same lodge (see right photo above). One set of prints was much smaller than the other. My guess is that one set is that of The American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus); you can hear one there often during the day. And the other may have been a larger squirrel, probably a black phase/morph of the Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), a species commonly seen in the woods around this marsh. They must have crossed the marsh in the morning after the fox’s nocturnal visit. (The Gray Squirrel photo was taken under our feeder as I neglected to get a shot of one at Bear Creek!).
If anyone knows tracks better than I (I am a rank amateur) and wants to correct me on any of these tracks, please feel free!
Memories of Last Spring: Abandoned Nests
One advantage of following these tracks, too, was that I got a new perspective on two types of nests. Exploring the tracks of the muskrat lodge on the Center Pond, I was able to get a good look at the abandoned nest of the Bald-Faced Hornet (Dolichovespula maculata) that hangs over the eastern edge of the pond. It was a good way to see the amazing tiered construction of this astonishing insect architecture fashioned from chewed bark and their own saliva.
Three times this week, I spotted the hanging sack-like nests of the Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula), nests I couldn’t see until the austerity of winter revealed them swaying among bare limbs. I love these bright migrating birds who build snug nests that rock their nestlings in the treetops. They won’t be back from Florida and the Caribbean until early May.
The first nest I saw (the closeup) was hanging over the marsh at the southwest end of the forest where I saw the collapsed muskrat lodges. The second was in the trees across the field at the bottom of the Eastern Path. And the last, very high up, hung near the boardwalk over the marsh on the south end of the Walnut Lane, heading back to the parking lot. Imagine seeing three in one week!
Such a nice reminder that spring will come again!
Winter at Bear Creek makes new requirements on us visitors. First of all, the trails and ponds are icy so Yax Trax or some similar cleats on your shoes/boots are a fine idea. Second, we’re required to listen even more carefully than we do in warm weather. Birds don’t sing now, but do they do call to each other either in pairs or flocks, making it easier to see the few that keep us company in the winter. And sometimes it also requires using our imaginations – to see in the mind’s eye that Red Fox with its brown boots trotting swiftly through the park in the moonlight looking for a meal. Or a Red Squirrel bounding across the ice in the early morning to dig food from its winter cache. Or as in our last few blogs, to imagine the muskrat swimming in the darkness under the ice or the butterfly overwintering in a hollow tree. Then the quiet emptiness of the black-and-white park is filled with activity that we can hear in the treetops or see in our mind’s eye.
*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 and other sites as cited in the text.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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!
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?
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!
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