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!
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.
Late summer wildflowers nodded and swayed in the meadows, woods, wetlands and native gardens at Bear Creek this August. Monarch butterflies paused on the blossoms, competing mostly with industrious native bumblebees. And all over the park, young birds were feeding on their own – or in a few cases, still getting fed by doting adults. In the center pond, a tiny creature foraged in disguise!
So take a wander along the trails, as goldenrod transforms the park from green to gold, and enjoy the bright beauty of summer’s last hurrah!
Like Some Human Youngsters, A Few Avian “Adolescents” Stick Close to Mom or Dad
A young Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannustyrannus) hid in a shrub in the eastern meadow, insisting loudly about being fed. No parental response was forthcoming from the adult on a shrub some distance away. So eventually, the youngster ventured out into the field, looking about with curiosity. Seemingly satisfied with this move toward independence, the adult flew in to feed the youngster. And then they shared the bush a while until the adult flew farther off again. (Click on slideshow’s pause button for captions.)
Two groups of Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) were escorting their young around the Center Pond. In one group, two males and a female floated along with a small juvenile. The males are now in their late summer “eclipse plumage” which makes them look very much like the females – except that the males have yellow bills, while females’ bills are orange and black. The males will change back to their glamorous, iridescent green head feathers later in the fall when Mallards choose their mates for next spring. I guess these two males on the right were sticking close to this female just in case she made an early decision!
Nearby, a female Mallard escorted her four youngsters with no male attention at all.
A male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)seemed remarkably calm at my approach as he concentrated on gathering seeds in his beak. Usually they dash off at the first sight of me when they’re on the ground. He wasn’t crushing the seeds, so I assume he had a nest nearby since cardinals can have up to four broods in a season. That’s a lot of parenting in just a few months.
A male American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) plucked buds from native Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) which is just beginning to bloom.He may have been feeding his young as well, since this is the nesting season for goldfinches.
While Adults Molt, Young Birds Forage on Their Own
Many bird species molt from mid-August until mid-September, including Field Sparrows, Downy Woodpeckers, House Wrens and many others. The Eastern Kingbird, featured feeding its young above, doesn’t molt until it reaches its winter territory in South America. It’s occurred to me that since birds go into hiding during the molt, perhaps their young have to be a bit more independent sooner than other birds. Just a guess. In any case, a lot of young birds are out and about, clumsily trying to forage on their own.
I saw what I think is an adult Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) just beginning its molt. The bird’s feathers looked oddly fluffed out and it was picking at its breast in a persistent way. It might be a male since they molt a bit earlier than females. Below, a group of young song sparrows hopped along the trail, seeing what they could find in the grass before flying up into small trees nearby. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Downy Woodpecker adults(Picoides pubescens)are molting now too. The Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol II) says “[Downy] Fledglings in general can be told from adults by the clearly new, white feathers on their breast. Adult have gone in and out of the nest hole hundreds of times by this stage and look very worn, with bits of black showing through their white breast feathers.” The feathers on the young female I saw looked wonderfully fresh as it tried to drill into a branch, so I’m guessing it’s a foraging juvenile.
Down at the Center Pond, a Green Heron rested calmly on a log. Since spring, I’ve repeatedly seen a Green Heron in that very place, so I’m thinking it’s a mature bird. Cornell contends that Green Herons are sometimes found in colonies. But I’ve never seen more than one of these solitary birds at a time.
Two other solitary birds could have been adults or juveniles. It’s hard to distinguish with the House Wren and the Black-capped Chickadee once they’re out on their own. The House Wren may have been a youngster since it was clearly curious, but the Chickadee appeared to be a sophisticated contortionist as it probed a stick for insects.
Glorious Wildflower Color, Exuberant Vines and a Few Pretty-but-Toxic fruits in the Woods and Shady Wetlands
Though wildflowers are not generally as numerous on the shady paths of Bear Creek, you don’t want to miss them. So keep an eye out for their exotic shapes and vivid colors shining out of the greenery as you make your way, especially near wetlands. I just learned from Wikipedia that the Jack-o’lantern mushrooms(Omphalotusolearius) below are even bio-luminescent and their gills glow faintly green in the dark when they’re fresh! Hence the name, eh?
Native Wildflowers and Grasses Bask in the Sunlight of the Meadows and Native Gardens
In the native gardens, the center of the parking lot, and scattered across the sunny meadows, native wildflowers bloom among the Canada Goldenrod and the Queen Anne’s lace. The monarchs seem to be enjoying them. A female sipped nectar from the Purple Coneflower and a male spread his beautiful wings on the Joe-Pye. (The field marks for males are bulges in the veins on their hind wings.) Here’s a sampling:
A Quarter-sized Creature Dons a Bubble Disguise
One cloudy afternoon, my husband spotted a very small clump of bubbles, green Water Meal (Wolffia coumbiana) and Duckweed (Lemna minor) moving slowly around the water of the center pond near the dock.
At first only the yellow/green striped head of a tiny Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta)peeked out of the bubbly mass.
At last, we could see this tiny creature – a turtle about the size of a quarter – who’d found a nifty disguise to wear while munching on the Water Meal and Duckweed greenery that covers the pond. I’m betting on this little one to survive to adulthood!
Perhaps when this baby gets a little bigger, it can join the Painted Turtles who hang out on this log at the east end of the pond almost every warm day. Last Saturday, this group seemed to be doing a slow motion version of the Hokey-Pokey (“You put your left leg in, you put your left leg out”), except for that one member who is not quite with the program!
The Delight is the Details
Meadows like the one shown above on the western slope are an eye-full on a summer day. The sweeps of green, yellow and white against a blue sky soothe the spirit like a cool hand on a fevered brow. Soak it in. You can feel yourself unwinding. Then look a little closer. So much of the delight in nature comes from noticing small things – like the turtle in its bubble disguise, the scarlet cardinal flower shining in a shady wetland, or a parent bird feeding its young on a leafy branch. Like any great work of art, there’s always more to see in nature’s landscapes than what comes quickly to the eye. So perhaps spend a few quiet minutes looking down into the water or into the tall grass. Scan the treetops through your binoculars. The smallest discovery can add just a little more joy to a walk in the park.
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: butterfliesathome.com;Pollinators of Native Plants by Heather Holm; 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.
For the last few weeks, our faithful winter birds have had a lot to contend with – deep snow, rain and biting wind. So like us, many of them gathered to eat together, to socialize and to seek the protection of being with their kind in the depths of winter. Flocks moved restlessly all over the park – bluebirds, crows, geese, starlings, robins, mixed flocks of tree sparrows and juncos.
The woods and wetlands were festooned with the red limbs of dogwood, mushrooms, snow and shadow designs. Some pods harbored their seeds ’til spring while others stood empty, silhouetted against the snow. A delicate insect flew past and settled on the snow crust. Despite the forbidding cold and snow, life remains undaunted – even in the harshness of winter.
Hardy Birds Brave the Cold
The Playground Pond was evidently the “place to be” for birds on Christmas Eve. At the edge of the pond, a solitary Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) mined a snag for some protein to start the day – maybe frozen insect larvae or eggs. This one was a male since it wore its red cap all the way down to its beak.
Two Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) – always a welcome splash of color on winter days – paused on the railings of the Playground Pond.
Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) whisked in and out of the bushes, as if playing tag. This male assumed an alarm pose, with his crest high and his tail flicking up and down.
This female found a good-sized seed for breakfast, but she’s on alert as well.
The White-Breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) twisted its stout body this way and that, probing the fallen log in the pond. Nuthatches know that loose bark is a good place to find frozen caterpillars or insect eggs.
Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) and Tree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea ), migratory visitors, frequently winter in the same area each year. That morning they gathered at the Playground Pond to feed and “chat,” chirping contact calls to stay connected with other members. Small birds like these have to eat about 30% of their body weight each day in winter just to survive. No wonder they flock at your feeder! (Hover cursor for captions; click on photos to enlarge.)
High in a tree along Bear Creek, an American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis), dressed in its muted winter plumage, delicately pecked at winter leaf buds.
A flock of gregarious House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) fluttered from branch to branch at the edge of a wetland. The males’ rosy red heads and breasts vary in intensity by what they find to eat. This one’s hue seemed a bit dimmed on a winter afternoon.
Nature Decorates with Snow and Mushrooms
The French pastry, Buche de Noel, was fashionable this Christmas – an elaborately decorated Yule Log cake. Not to be outdone, nature created its own Buche de Noel, using a real log, a ribbon of snow and ruffles of golden and white Polypore (or shelf) mushrooms!
Some Turkey-tail mushrooms (Polypore versicolor), tinted green by algae growing on the them, fancied up a nearby log.
Under the trees, snow melted around heaps of oak leaves, making little mandalas across the forest floor.
And look at the elegant script of this letter “E” left by the snow near the marsh. I’m not sure of the font…
Dried grasses along the Walnut Lane wrote calligraphy on the snow with shadows.
Altogether quite a festive look to the park, despite the absence of bright color or birdsong!
Seeds and Seed Pods Carry the Promise of Spring
In a small tree, the trailing stem of a long vine had produced a pale cloud of seed. Ben identified it as a native clematis plant with the surprisingly romantic name, Virgin’s Bower (Clematis virginiana). Here’s a link to its streamer of white flowers in the spring and below is the mini-cloud of seed and fluff as it finished fruiting.
A prairie native, Round-headed Bush-Clover (Lespedeza capitata) blooms on tall stalks with tiny white flowers in the late summer and early fall. Its seeds, packed with protein, provide winter food for Turkeys, Mourning Doves and Dark-eyed Juncos.
Of course, before winter arrived, some plants released their seeds to drop, fly or float away. A Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) in the native bed hosted a Meadow Fritillary butterfly (Boloria bellona) in late June. Now, having dispersed its seed to the wind, the seed pods of the same plant stands empty in the winter wind.
Now About that Winter Bug…
One cold day, a winged insect with long, fragile wings flew slowly across the path and landed delicately on the snow. What in the world? A winter insect? Yes, this little creature’s life cycle is exactly the opposite of most insects.
According to Donald Stokes’ Nature in Winter, some Stoneflies (order Plecoptera) hatch from their eggs in fall or early winter. The larvae feed under rocks at the edge of a clean, rushing stream – probably nearby Paint Creek for our bug. In mid-winter, they complete their many molts, emerge as adults and fly. They live only a few weeks, mating and dropping their eggs back into the water. Quite a surprise, this contrarian insect!
Nature Awaits Your Winter Walks
If a tiny sparrow and an intrepid stonefly can brave the cold, we can too, right? We feather-less, fur-less creatures can layer up our woollies, don our hiking boots, swath ourselves in scarves, monster mittens and maybe a pair of Yax Trax, pull our hats down over our ears and venture out! To lure us forth, nature provides so much to enjoy even in the “dead” of winter – which is actually very much alive! Sally forth with rosy noses and wind-bussed cheeks to explore, even for a short walk. And then return home for cocoa or whatever warms you best from the inside. Nothing like a winter walk to make you feel ALIVE!
Footnote: My sources for information,besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager 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 and the website www.illinoiswildflowers.info; 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.
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 NorthernBobwhites(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
Warm days don’t seem appropriate to November, but we’re happy to have them when the Old Fields darken to russet and the architecture of the trees reappears. The landscape deepens as we can see far into the underbrush to places hidden by summer foliage. The slopes and hollows of the woods are more defined as the understory thins.
The skies become even more dramatic in the slanting light of late fall when the vivid shades of autumn fade – or maybe we just notice them more. It’s all about noticing, isn’t it? I wasn’t sure I’d see enough to share this week. How wrong I was!
Birds Hold Center Stage: A Bold Raptor, Shy Visitors, and Busy Residents
An impressive Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) warmed herself in thin morning sunlight erect in a bare tree near the Center Pond on our Wednesday Bird Walk. (Female Red-tails are larger than males and this was a big hawk!) She may, as Cornell suggests, have been waiting for the air to warm, because soon she was “climbing a thermal updraft into the sky.” Off she went, probably searching for mice, voles or other small mammals to shore her up against the cold to come. Red-tails tend to stay with their mates until one of them dies, but they must be loners outside the mating season. It’s rare in my experience to see more than one at a time. We saw this one from behind at first; look at that red-tail! (Click on photos to enlarge them.)
And then she turned around to survey her domain!
When I arrived on Wednesday, Ben and the birders were watching five Rusty Blackbirds (Euphagus carolinus) at the Playground Pond. I hadn’t seen one in weeks and thought their migration was over. These secretive, shy birds spend most of their time in the shadows at the edges of wetlands, flipping over leaves to look for tiny invertebrates. They land in trees only to pause a second before diving down into the underbrush and skulking along among wet, black mud and leaves. Unable to get a good shot on Wednesday, I lucked out on Friday when I came upon a whole flock (10 or more?) in the wetland below the benches on the southern hill.
Cornell says the population of these birds has “plunged an estimated 85-99 percent over the past forty years and scientists are completely puzzled as to what is the cause.” One theory is that they find fewer wetlands so I’m glad we have several in Oakland Township that they can poke about in before heading south.
On the same day (Thursday), a male Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) searched for a crack in tree bark in which to store what appeared to be a piece of nut.
It could well have been a Shagbark hickory nut since there are lots of them still on the trees, which is where Red-bellies prefer to find their nuts, though they’ll take them off the ground if necessary.
Since the nut photo doesn’t show the plumage, here’s a fall picture from a previous year of a male Red-belly. You can tell males from females by the fact that the red back of the head extends all the way to the bill in males but stops at the top of the head in females.
Nearby a year ’round resident, the White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) repeatedly made its loud, nasal “nyah” call (Cornell calls it a “yank call”)as it probed right-side-up and upside-down around a branch. A very distinctive call! Listen to the “Eastern Call” at this Cornell Lab link. You’ll probably recognize that you’ve heard it before!
Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata) were in a scrappy mood this week, which isn’t unusual for Blue Jays. I saw two repeatedly giving each other a hard time on the western slope earlier in the week.
A migrating Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca), with its large vivid body, smaller round head and long tail, visited the park again this week on its way south. I thought at first it was a Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) from its vivid color but Ben had it right. A handsome sparrow! We did see a Hermit Thrush but I didn’t manage to get a good photo this week.
The Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) seem much more secretive this time of year. I’ve seen both the male and female slipping silently from limb to limb down under the Button Bush in the wetland north of the playground – a great contrast to their exuberant singing from the tops of trees and bushes during spring and summer months.
More Tree Sparrows (Spizella arborea) are arriving by the day from their summer homes on the tundra. I saw only one near the marsh nearest to Snell Road but I heard what sounded like several in the dense underbrush nearby.
A Winter Lodge and Abandoned and Fiercely Defended Nests
Two weeks ago I saw a Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) diving in the Center Pond and then appearing briefly as it swam quickly into the shadows near the eastern shore. It looks as though it’s been making modifications to its lodge on the southern shore, as the sturdy heap of pond mud and dead plant material appears to have grown higher and darker recently. Muskrats don’t hibernate but are trapped under ice for months at a time. How do they breathe, find food and keep warm for all that time? We’ll explore those questions later – during a snowy winter week at Bear Creek.
Also at the eastern end of the pond, the beautiful wasp or hornet’s nest swaying at the tip of a slender limb, is fraying at the edges from wind and rain. The colony’s founding queen, workers, males and unfertilized queens have all died by now and all that’s left of that huge colony are the fertile queens who mated this fall. Back in August and September, they put on weight, being fed by the workers. Now they are snugged up for the winter under bark, leaf litter, logs or stumps near the pond where they’ll emerge and start new colonies next spring. And that amazing piece of insect architecture will slowly unravel.
On the eastern path, a tidy little nest, most likely that of the American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) , sits securely attached to three branches of a small tree. It seems destined to survive the winter, though bird nests are rarely re-used. Goldfinches like to nest in small trees and shrubs in open fields. According to Cornell Lab, “…the nest is an open cup of rootlets and plant fibers lined with plant down, often woven so tightly that it can hold water. The female lashes the foundation to supporting branches using spider silk, and makes a downy lining often using the fluffy “pappus” material taken from the same types of seedheads that goldfinches so commonly feed on.” That aptly describes this little nest both inside and out! (Rest your cursor on double photos to see captions.)
I got another ferocious scolding from an aggressive little American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus)this week, who was probably defending itself and its stockpile of nuts, seeds and mushrooms cached nearby. During the winter, they generally live inside logs, stumps or in woodpecker holes, popping out around midday to dig into their food stores cached nearby. Speedy little rodents, Red Squirrels can reach 14mph over a short distance when excited! I told Ben and the birders that if this one had been about 10 times bigger, I’d have taken off running. Look at that fierce little face!
Wildflowers: Then and Now
Native wildflowers are almost gone, having produced seed for next year and along the way, fed the honey bees and native bumble bees, caterpillars, birds, even some of the animals in Bear Creek.
Up by the benches on the south hill of the park, the gigantic leaves of Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum)curl around the bare stalks of these giant wildflowers that grew from 3 to 10 feet high this summer! Prairie Dock nectar fed native bumblebees and perhaps the occasional hummingbird, while goldfinches snacked on the seeds. Now their huge brown leaves curl, reminding me of the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland.
Across the way, the Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) that turned their faces to the sun a few months ago show only those rich brown centers now. Lots of bees and other insects enjoy this native wildflower during the summer.
Meadowsweet (Spirea alba) still sports its red stalk, but the white plumes have fruited into brown seeds for next year. Bees of all kinds fed on the nectar of this lovely plant all summer. Rabbits probably nibbled on the lower leaves while deer sometimes consume the upper ones. Meadowsweet also feeds a variety of native moths, some of which, of course, are consumed by birds.
Native plants like these are an important source of nourishment for the birds, bugs and other creatures of Bear Creek. That’s one reason we try to foster them.
The Pin Oak leaves were bright red and green as they encircled the playground a week or so ago. Suddenly this week, they turned brown but held on.
A week ago, the Red Maple (Acer rubrum)near the shed blazed a brilliant red but it appears from the pattern of its now-fallen leaves, that a gust of south wind brought most of them down at once .
Down at the center pond, the giant White Oak (Quercus alba) shed its leaves this week, creating a mosaic in the water nearby.
So despite the fact that November’s fading light cues birds to move on, flowers to wither and leaves to fall, Bear Creek is still a place of beauty and surprise. November cues us too – to don heavier jackets, maybe a raincoat, some days a hat and gloves – to come take part in the changing of seasons.
*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
Well, we’re at the tail end of summer. The signs are there. The small yellow leaflets of Black Walnut trees are littering the path. (I always think black walnuts are sleepy trees – the first to lose their leaves in the autumn, the last to wake in the spring.) Frogs skitter across the mud at the pond, but frog song is almost gone – only an occasional croak.
Families of Canada Geese are flying again after their molt, their honking bringing a bit of the wild to our ears. Some cat-tails still wear their brown velvet, but others are seeding into white fluff. And fruit eaters, like the Cedar Waxwing, are in their glory, sampling berry-like fruits all over the park! Come savor the slightly wistful sweetness of late summer as Bear Creek gets ready for autumn.
Berries (or rather “drupes”) and the Birds that Appreciate Them!
Fruiting continues apace and this week I noticed what we commonly call “berries.” Dr. Ben VanderWeide, OT’s Stewardship Manager, informs me that “berry” is a term that refers to a specific type of fruit in botany. The botanists’ general term for fruits we would normally call “berries” is “fleshy fruits.” Many of our invasive bushes, for example, have fruits called “drupes” that are constructed like a plum or peach – thin skin, fleshy layer and then a pit that holds the seed. In botanical terms, a grape for example, is a real “berry” because the seeds are within its soft skin and flesh without a pit. Being a logophile, I’m quite taken with these new terms.
Anyway, the birds have noticed these fruits on the bushes as well! One of my favorite fruit-eating birds is the Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) and it seems as though almost every bush and vine in Bear Creek is bearing fruit for the gregarious Waxwing right now!
You may remember that I discovered a female Waxwing on her nest and later her nestling in late July. Cedar Waxwings, very social birds, are flocking wherever their favorite fruits are available. Bring your binoculars to the park because these birds are spectacular in close-up! The red tip at the edge of their wing is what gave them the name “waxwing” since it looks like it’s dipped in red wax. And I love the yellow tip on its tail and its pale yellow belly!
Cedar Waxwings like the native Gray Dogwood’s (Cornus foemina) interesting white “drupes” on their bright red stalks.
Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) eat Gray Dogwood fruits as well. You may notice you’re not seeing or hearing as much from the Cardinals lately. They molt in late summer/early fall. I saw this poor fellow during the molt a few years ago. What a look for such a glamorous bird!
A highly invasive shrub, Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata), that is aggressively displacing native plants all over Michigan, is in Bear Creek, too. Unfortunately, the birds eat its attractive red drupes, which of course is how it spreads!
Over in the woods near the marsh, our native wildflower, Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), has exchanged Jack and his pulpit for a bright red stem of berry-like fruit. Mature Jack-in-the-Pulpits have male and female parts on the same plant, like native Common Cat-tails do, in order to produce this scarlet fruit.
Though toxic to humans, livestock and pets, some birds and animals eat these fruits, including the Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo). Turkeys have recovered from severe population declines in the first half of the 20th century. According to the Cornell Lab, turkeys were brought north from Mexico in the 1500’s, but turkey fossils have been found in North America “dating from more than 5 million years ago.” Here couple of males are eating during the winter near our home.
The Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks (Pheucticus ludovicianus) are finishing their molt and sampling the fruits of Bear Creek as well. The males’ plumage now looks very different from the striking black and white and rose pink bib of their courting colors. Here’s an adult male with his winter plumage. You might see him high in the trees near the marsh where he can be spotted in the spring in his breeding colors.
One of the fruits preferred by Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks is the native bush, Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis), which produces these beautiful drupes. You can see them just north of the parking lot.
This week I heard another bird that eats Elderberry. Wednesday Ben and his birding friends helped me identify a song near the marsh below the hilltop benches. They told me I’d heard a Warbling Vireo (Vireo gilvus) but that it was doubtful I would get to see it. Evidently, one may hear vireos, but it’s rare to see one. They were right on both counts. So here is its photo at the Cornell Lab and here is its lovely warbling song at Bear Creek this week, with a buzzing backup band of grasshoppers and katydids! (Remember to turn up your volume and click on the arrow.)
Another aggressive invasive has taken over large sections of the north side of Bear Creek. Here are drupes of Glossy Buckthorn (Frangula alnus) which turn from red to black as they mature. You can see why birds find them appealing and consequently spread this invasive shrub everywhere!
Birds Who Appreciate Late Summer Insects (Good for them!)
We all have just a bit too much attention from insects in late summer. Beetles munch on our gardens, spiders spin webs in every quiet corner, Yellow Jacket wasps dive bomb our outdoor lunches and mosquitoes can be a plague at night. But some Bear Creek birds are doing their best to help us out.
This week, Ben and his frequent birding companions, Mark and Akiko, spotted a female American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla). I didn’t see one, but here’s a link to a photo at Cornell Lab. These little guys eat fruit in the winter too, but they eat more insects (including wasps) than any other warbler. According to Cornell, they flash those jazzy feathers as a way to startle their prey out into the open. Very clever use of their Halloween colors, eh? I’ll be on the lookout for this little bird!
The Redstart evidently competes with the Least Flycatcher (Empidonax minimus) for the same prey, those abundant bugs. But the modest flycatcher with his gray and white feathers must have to work harder since he can’t flash those Redstart colors. This one was low in the bushes across the pond this week.
Ben frequently sees another insect lover, Chimney Swifts (Chaetura pelagica) in Bear Creek and he and his birders spotted them this week. They continually elude me. Another social bird like the Waxwings, Chimney Swifts spend almost the whole day in the air, feeding on insects. They can’t perch like other birds; they have to hold onto a vertical surface! Here’s a link at Cornell Lab. Meanwhile, I’ll keep looking!
Early Morning Spider “Lace”
Meanwhile, down among the Goldenrod and Queen Anne’s Lace, the spiders are weaving webs of all kinds. Their lacy creations sparkle in morning light after a rain, or when there’s heavy dew. All of the webs pictured here, but one, graced the western slope path between 8 and 9 in the morning this week. (I’ve used the website of the University of Kentucky Etymology department for general identification purposes.)
First, here’s a group of webs, which include two webs of Orb Weaver Spiders (Aranaidae), who make the classic wheel-shaped spider web – and re-make them every morning (!) – and Sheet-weaving Spiders, who make a cup-shaped web with a sheet below through which they pull their prey. Notice all the superstructure of lines!
Here’s a look at this week’s web of an Orb-weaving spider. The spider is hanging head down which is typical for this family of spiders. These webs are spun afresh each morning, but this one seems to have suffered a tear.
Here, if you look closely are two webs probably made by Bowl and Doily Spiders (Frontinella pyramitela) who are members of the Sheet-weaving Spider family (Linyphiidae). The bowls are above and the sheets or “doilies” are just below each one.
And here’s a favorite photo of an Orb Weaver web after rain in Bear Creek a few years ago. Some mornings’ webs are particularly lovely, so let me know if you see a beauty!
The heat can make it feel like summer but tell-tale signs of autumn remind us to savor the color, hum and occasional birdsong of late summer mornings. Enjoy the last sweet dregs of summer!
*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). The viceroy butterfly is not a Batesian mimic; 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 beetle info http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info, and invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman.