Hard frost and driving winds – November asserts its presence at Bear Creek. Geese and ducks are re-thinking their presence in the ponds and marshes and gathering to move south. Most migrants have moved on.
But the winter bird crew calls to its fellow foragers as they all stock up for the coming snow. Plant pods crack open, dropping seed or sending them flying through the air with the last of the leaves. Trees have almost finished storing energy in their roots. Like us, Bear Creek’s almost ready to face another winter.
At dusk one night this week, I heard (before I saw) the cacophony of hundreds of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) as they gathered over the marsh to begin their migration. The sound of that many wings at once and their wild calls felt like the very essence of late fall. I wish I could have captured the sound of those geese but I literally was transfixed by the sheer volume, the roar, of their noise.
In the hour before, I’d seen and heard smaller groups of geese wheeling overhead near the treetops, heading southeast to join this larger flock.
Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) are still in the ponds. This shot from last fall shows a male after his molt, with a whole set of perfect new feathers, ready to find a mate and take off for the south. A new set of feathers makes flying that much easier for migrating birds.
Mallards are beginning to gather in larger flocks as well, readying themselves to move off when ice forms on the ponds and in the marsh.
The Hardy Birds of the Winter Crew
Birdsong is long gone now, but the winter birds use chips and calls to keep in touch with larger flocks as they busily forage. American Tree Sparrows (Spizella arborea) probe for fruit and seeds from bushes on the western slope. (Click on double photos to enlarge. Rest your cursor on a double photo for captions)
Here’s a link if you’d like to hear the musical tweet these travelers use to keep in contact. (Page down to “Calls” and click on the first one.)
A Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis), a bird that is usually a ground feeder, pulled industriously at a cluster of goldenrod to get at seeds which had not yet fallen.
A pair of Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis), who always brighten dark days, looked at me warily from small shrubs near the wetland below the south hill. According Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, these adult cardinals live no more than “a few miles from their place of birth.” So these Cardinals, which can live for many years, could have resided in Bear Creek for a long time. Cardinals pair up for the winter and 80% of them stay with their mates the following year.
Here’s a Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) who’d just finished vigorously attacking a seed and was apparently tipping its head up to swallow the results.
The photo above came from our back yard this week because the ones I saw in the park seemed to never stay in one spot for more than a split second. But I like the look of this one’s wings as it took off from a branch in the park!
I saw House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus ) in Bear Creek this week but, like the Downy, they were too quick for me. So instead I took these pictures of a male and female at our home, where the feeder keeps them nearby. According to Cornell Ornithology Lab, House Finches were originally western birds. ” In 1940 a small number of finches were turned loose on Long Island, New York, after failed attempts to sell them as cage birds (‘Hollywood finches’). ” In the next 50 years, they spread all over the eastern US and southern Canada. I can’t imagine these social birds in cages!!
Winter Crew Animals
Below all those migrating birds in the marsh, a new muskrat lodge is being constructed. Since Muskrats (Ondatra zibethicus) are most active at night, dawn or dusk,this lodge was probably constructed in semi- or complete darkness! This one maybe become a full-fledged winter dwelling, as large as the one in the Center Pond, or it may just be a smaller feeding platform, a place to come up through the ice during the winter to breathe and eat.
Three White-Tailed Deer does (Odocoileus virginianus) that had bedded down near the Center Pond moved slowly behind a scrim of trees near the wetland below the southern hill. Maybe they were headed to the western woods to eat some of the plentiful acorns, but this one stopped to peek around a tree at me.
And over in the western woods, an agitated Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger) stopped dead when it spotted me, but flicked its tail at top speed, its version of a threat gesture.
Hard frost may have brought the demise of many insects in the park, but seed-eaters can choose from a gigantic larder! Perhaps you remember the Wild Senna (Senna hebcarpa) growing in the native beds near the shed. They’ve now produced long pods which turn black when the seeds inside are mature. Native bumblebees seek the pollen while ants and ladybugs, that may protect the plant from predators, love the nectar. The caterpillars of Sulphur butterflies (the family of small yellow ones) feed on its foliage. The seeds in those long black pods appeal to Northern Bobwhites (Colinus virginianus), a small quail with a distinctive whistle once plentiful in Oakland Township, but now largely missing. As native plants like Wild Senna, that serve so many creatures, return to our parks through careful stewardship, we hope to see the return of birds like the Bobwhite.
Mixed in with the ubiquitous Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) last summer was the more delicate native, Grass-leaved Goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia), which looks quite lovely as it seeds. Native bumblebees, honey bees, butterflies and lots of other insects enjoyed its nectar during the summer and American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) feed on it now. Occasionally it feeds rabbits and deer as well – another important plant in the park’s native habitat.
The modest Thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana) , a favorite of small bees and hoverflies (that look like bees), is seeding into airy puffs right now.
Trees Conserving Energy for Spring
All summer, the leaves of the Park’s deciduous trees produced sugars by storing the energy of sunlight in chemical bonds (photosynthesis). By autumn, this energy in sugars is safely stored in the roots of the trees, away from the snow and cold. During summer and fall, trees also produce next year’s leaf buds, and in some cases, flower buds, for next spring. The buds are packed with miniature leaves which are covered with a waxy coating that protects them from the cold. In the spring warmer temperatures and longer days break the ends of the cold waiting period, signaling sugar-rich sap to rise. The leaves, fed by the sap, burst forth and start again to supply the tree through photosynthesis. Pretty nice arrangement, I’d say! Here are some leaf buds on Maples in Bear Creek.
Perhaps we can make peace with the changing season by knowing that the seeds of spring wildflowers are already planted and the leaves of favorite trees wait inside those leaf buds for a warm spring day. Some of us go south like the migrating birds. Others of us are like the trees who husband energy in their roots, but stand tall when snow covers their branches. We too turn our energies more inward in the winter, perhaps by a warm fire, but still sally forth, sporting cherry noses and pink cheeks , to enjoy the wintry world. Bear Creek welcomes you in any season.
*Footnote: My sources for information, as well as Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991);Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net.; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for insect info http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info; invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman; experienced birder Ruth Glass, bird walk leader at Stoney Creek Metro Park for bird identification;Birds of North American Online; Audubon.org, Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, Trees in My Forest by Bernd Heinrich, Winter World by Bernd Heinrich