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.