J.R.R. Tolkien provided the ideal words to describe the in-between season in which we’re suspended right now: “… a morning of pale Spring still clinging to Winter’s chill.” Spring is officially here with the Spring Equinox, but mornings in the prairies and forests of the township can still feel as though we’re caught in the last weak grip of winter.
So this week, I thought I’d be on the lookout for sure signs of spring’s arrival and naturally, once I started looking, they were everywhere!
Birds Herald Longer Days with Song and Some Fancy Posturing
Arriving at Draper Twin Lake Park one cold, gray Sunday, my husband and I heard a very loud, clear rendition of the entire spring song of a Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). (Cardinals have a lot of calls. Listen to the second call listed at this Cornell link – that’s the one we heard.) This fellow seemed confident that he could woo the ladies and establish his territory at the same time with his full-throated singing! Look at that beak!
Male American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) at our feeder are changing out of their modest winter attire into their breeding feathers. In a month or so, they’ll be bright yellow in the hope of interesting a female with an eye for color. Here’s a male on the bottom right perch of our thistle feeder who started changing his wardrobe in March. Perhaps the female on the bottom left perch will be interested? (The other birds are Pine Siskins (Spinus pinus) who will migrate north before long.)
The buzzing trill of the Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaiusphoeniceus), which is accompanied by raising his red shoulder patches, is a common and beloved sign of spring here in Michigan. But last week I saw a male who was taking display to a whole new level. While calling, he also began awkwardly dancing along a branch, keeping his scarlet “epaulets” raised, occasionally fanning his tail, all in the interest of establishing a territory and showing off for some lucky female. What a guy! (Click through the slide show below to see the progression of his dance!)
Other birds establish dominance over other males with creative use of their necks! Below two newly arrived Common Grackles (Quiscalusquiscula) appear to be trying to “out-snoot” each other with their beaks tilted skyward! I think the one on the right is probably the winner here, don’t you? Or else the one the left is an uninterested female. It’s hard to tell.
Mark, a birding friend, told me that the Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula) at Stoney Creek Metropark were doing their dramatic neck displays as well. According to Cornell Lab’s All About Birds website, Goldeneyes spend December to April in courtship groups where they form mating pairs by performing a lot of energetic neck movements. The male bends his neck backwards until his head lays on his back and then he snaps it forward, splashing water with his feet at the same time! The female responds by lowering her head and swinging it forward. Pretty dramatic courtship! I wasn’t able to get to the Metropark this week, but a kindly photographer from iNaturalist, who goes by Mike B, allowed us the use of this photo of a male taken near Chicago. These diving ducks are headed to their breeding grounds in northern Canada and Alaska, just south of the Arctic.
Flocks of Birds – Large Ones and Small Ones – Fly Overhead and Forage in Our Parks
The birding group had an exciting Wednesday at Charles Ilsley Park when two huge flocks of Tundra Swans (Cygnus columbianus) flew overhead! Cornell says that these huge, all white swans with black beaks spent the winter on the Atlantic coast and are now headed to the Arctic tundra to build their nests and breed. Aren’t we lucky to be on their flyway?
Another birding friend, Mike Kent, took the photo below, because, wouldn’t you know, that was the day I decided to leave my camera at home!!! Look carefully at Mike’s photo because he caught a fascinating detail. We saw one lone Canada Goose (Brantacanadensis) traveling along with this huge flock of swans! You can just see its dark body in the upper left of the photo, third bird down. Hope this adventurous goose doesn’t plan to go all the way to the Arctic with its new-found friends!
That Wednesday was great for seeing big birds at Ilsley Park. Mike also caught for us a nice photo of a family of Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) who settled at the bottom of a slope to rest and feed. The larger, darker birds to the right are probably the adults, while the two smaller gray ones on the left are probably last year’s young ones.
At Bear Creek Nature Park, smaller flocks were chatting in trees and foraging along the paths. A noisy group of American Robins (Turdus migratorius) were snatching berries from a tree infested with invasive Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus). Some robins overwinter here and some migrate to southern Ohio and Kentucky. Some move back and forth all winter long. Though these non-native berries attract them during the winter, they unfortunately don’t provide much nutrition for the birds since thawing and freezing makes them very sugary. So migrating, in their case, might be a better choice!
On a path from the playground to the Walnut Lane at Bear Creek Nature Park, I saw my first flock of Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia). I love to listen to these tuneful birds in the spring, but have never before seen a flock of them in one area, as I did this week. They were “chicken-scratching” by scooting backwards with their feet in a ferocious attempt to get at some food beneath the surface -probably small seeds or insect eggs. The flock was so busy that the ground along the trail looked torn as they scraped their way down to the frozen surface, looking for food.
Buds are Swelling from Bare Branches – a Welcome Sign of Spring’s Arrival
Every year as spring approaches, I watch the Silver Maple (Acersaccharinum) to the right of the deck at Bear Creek’s Center Pond. It’s always one of the first trees to signal spring for me, its robust, red buds hanging gracefully from drooping branches over the water.
A small Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) near the pond has just barely thrust its leaf bud from the woody protection it had during the winter (left). In May, it will be a huge glorious bud (center), and in June, the green leaves will unfold into the sunlight (right). (Click photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Yes, It’s Muddy…but It’s S’posed to Be, Right?
It’s the end of March. Most of the ice on the surface is gone (at least for the moment!), but the ground is still frozen beneath. So rain and melting snow have nowhere to go. That makes for muddy shoes, smeared pant legs and cars decorated in various shades of brown. But hey, those signs announce that full-fledged, glorious spring is almost here! Birds are beginning to sing, dance, do a bit of neck gymnastics, don spring colors and wing their way north overhead in huge numbers. And trees are slowly waking from their roots, sending sugary sap up through their vascular systems, ripening their leaves for another summer of sun-gathering. All of nature, including us humans, have survived a very challenging, deep-freeze winter. Now’s the time to celebrate just being alive on a mudluscious walk in the pale sunshine of an early spring morning.
I’m guessing lots of us who love nature have wondered the same thing in the last few weeks. “As the temperature drops below zero, how do those small birds with bare feet survive out there?”
Well, it turns out that although our avian winter neighbors share a similar technique for keeping their feet from freezing, their strategies for dealing with cold, snowy days can differ.
First Rule: Use Those Feathers!
We humans love down jackets on cold winter days and snuggle beneath down comforters on winter nights. Well, birds like the female Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) above, or the Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) pictured at the top of the blog, use the same technique. When birds fluff up their feathers in the cold, they trap a layer of air between the feathers. Their body temperature – in small birds more than 100˚ F – warms the air layer just as it does in our jackets. According to Peter Marra, head of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center at the National Zoo, “Birds’ feathers provide remarkable insulation against the cold, and the oil that coats feathers also provides waterproofing, which is important since the only thing worse than being cold, is being cold and wet.” Here are a few of birds making the most of their feathers on a recent cold morning. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
What About Those Bare Feet, Though?
Last summer I caught this American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) staring at its feet in a tree near Lost Lake. I laughed to think that perhaps it was worrying about how they’d feel on a snowy day! Birds really do have very cold feet in the winter. According to scientist and professor Bernd Heinrich on the Cornell website, the feet of chickadees stay just above freezing even while their body temperatures are very high. Presumably, they don’t feel it much. Their feet are mostly tendons and bones with very few muscles or nerves. If you look at those three birds with feather puffed that are pictured above, you can see they’ve hunched over their feet, covering them with their body feathers. Or sometimes birds simply tuck one leg at a time against their breast. Also, the arteries and veins in birds’ feet are close together. As Heinrich explains it, a bird’s feet are provided with continuous blood flow which keeps them from freezing. Since the arteries pass close to the veins in a bird’s legs, the cooled blood from the feet gets warmed on the way back to the heart to keep the bird’s body warm. And the warm blood from the heart is cooled down as it moves out to the legs, reducing heat loss. Pretty efficient system!
Second Rule: Eat as Much as Possible!
On cold days, small birds really need to stuff themselves every few minutes to keep warm. When you see a White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) or Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) dashing from your feeder to nearby trees, it’s eating some seeds and storing others in the trees’ bark. Amazingly, the brains of Chickadees expand in the fall to improve their memory so that they can later find those seeds or nuts. According to Cornell’s Birdsleuth website, “neurons are added to the Chickadee’s hippocampus in the fall, increasing its volume by about 30%.” As a result, Chickadees can remember up to a thousand places in which they’ve tucked their winter provisions! (I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before in the blog, but it’s so amazing that it bears repeating!)
But What Do They Eat in Winter?
Mourning Doves (Zenaida macroura) and American Goldfinches can be gluttonous at feeders during the winter because they are vegetarians; no insects or caterpillars for them! On most winter days, they can find seeds or fruits, but your feeder helps to supplement the wild supply. Mourning Doves can eat 12-20% of their body weight per day! They store seed in their crops, a muscular pouch near the throat, and digest it later to help keep themselves warm at night.
I’ve seen Cedar Waxwings (Bombycillia cedrorum) eating frozen vine fruits or leaf buds that overwinter on the branches of trees.
But many local birds, including Waxwings, are omnivores who can eat a wide range of foods. The Tufted Titmouse, White-Breasted Nuthatch, Chickadees and all kinds of Woodpeckers (family Picidae) spend winter days probing loose bark or hopping along branches looking for frozen dinners; insects, insect eggs, pupae or perhaps a frozen caterpillar will do just fine as sources of protein on a cold day.
AmericanCrows (Corvus brachyrhynchos), being bigger birds, will eat almost anything to “stoke their furnaces” during the winter. In our area, the carcasses of White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) provide lots of good protein. And if a crow finds one, it notifies its family and friends to join the feast. (No fair being squeamish. We all have to eat!)
Where Do Birds Spend Cold Winter Nights?
According to the Smithsonian’s Peter Marra, “Many small birds, like Black-Capped Chickadees, Eastern Bluebirds, and House Wrens, will gather in large groups at night and crowd together in a small, tight space to share body heat.” Sharing body heat keeps down fat loss during the night to preserve energy for the next day’s foraging. In his article for Cornell’s All About Birds, Bernd Heinrich describes finding a group of tiny Golden- Crowned Kinglets (Regulus satrapa) huddled in a circle on the branch of a pine tree, beaks in, tails out, sharing their body heat on a winter night. These tiny birds, which overwinter in our area, are about half the weight of a Chickadee! This lovely winter photo of a Golden-crowned Kinglet was taken by a photographer named cedimaria at the website inaturalist.org.
Bernd Heinrich reports in his essay collection, Winter’s World, that woodpeckers provide some cozy winter housing for other birds as well as themselves. Every spring, woodpeckers make a fresh hole for raising their young, but they tend to use them for only one year. So small birds can often find an abandoned woodpecker hole to get out of the wind and snow on a winter night. In the autumn, Dr. Heinrich has also spotted both Downy Woodpeckers (Dryobates pubescens) and Hairy Woodpeckers (Dryobates villosus) constructing special overnight shelters just for winter use. I spotted a Downy doing just that in Gallagher Creek Park one November day. Note the flying wood chips!
Special Winter Strategies Can Be Helpful…
Even though Chickadees can excavate their own holes, in extreme cold they require a few extra tricks at night. According to the Audubon society, these little birds can lower their body temperature at night by as much as 22 degrees, minimizing the difference between their body temperature and the bitterly cold air. They also keep warmer by shivering, which activates opposing muscle groups and produces heat. Luckily, they can even shiver while sleeping, which is something I can’t quite imagine doing! And of course once settled, like many birds, they can tuck their beaks and feet into their feathers to preserve heat as well.
Though they don’t appear in our parks these days, Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus) survive days of light fluffy snow in a surprising way. They burrow into the snow, creating a long tunnel with a chamber on the end. These one-day burrows not only provide insulation, according to Bernd Heinrich, but they also provide protection from predators. Large dark birds are very visible against the snow! (This photo was generously shared at iNaturalist.org by photographer Brian Murphy.)
Thank Goodness for Our Adaptable Winter Birds!
Aren’t you glad that some birds stay with us all winter? And that some actually arrive for an extended stay just as the snow begins to fall? The constant flutter of a busy Chickadee, the “yank yank” call of a Nuthatch as it circles a branch or the friendly chirping of a flock of foraging Tree Sparrows in dry grass are so companionable on gray winter days. And what could be more heartening on a frigid morning than the sight of scarlet Northern Cardinals or azure Blue Jays in a snowy bush? I’m so thankful that some birds have figured out how to survive the cold along with us. By taking shelter, shivering, eating heartily, and snuggling into down comforters very much like we do, they keep us company as we make our way towards spring.
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township’s Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University; Wikipedia; A Field Guide to Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, A Naturalist at Large by Bernd Heinrich and others as cited in the text.
Since this week’s blog features a variety of wildflowers along parts of the Paint Creek Trail, I thought we’d start with a little visit to the creek itself, which is currently overflowing its banks. The Swamp Buttercup certainly seems pleased with all that moisture! (If you increase your volume, you can listen to the soothing sound of flowing water and birdsong!)
Well, with summer heat settling in, native spring flowers are producing a glorious finale to the season before making room for summer blooms. Spring wildflowers love the weaker spring sun sifting through bare branches. But hot sun and the increasing number of leaves mark the end of spring blooms. Soon these wildflowers will set their fruits, send it to the ground by means of wind, water or simple gravity, and their seed-based reproductive efforts will come to an end for the season.
So before they’re all gone, here are the ones I saw last week on the Paint Creek Trail between Gallagher Road and Dutton Road. You may still be able to spy some of these native beauties as you walk or bike on a sunny afternoon for the next few days.
Discoveries on the Trail between Gallagher and Silver Bell Roads
Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea – above) should still be glowing beneath the light shade of trees near the Wet Prairie after Memorial Day. These members of the carrot family are visited by many spring pollinators, but they can also also self-pollinate. You can see them near the parking lot on Gallagher Road and at other spots along the trail as well.
In the Wet Prairie, a more unusual little wildflower is happily sprouting where the sun is full and the ground is moist. Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium) is really a wildflower, though its leaves look like grass. Best to look for these dainty flowers on a sunny day, since the flowers stay closed on cloudy days.
Another unusual little wildflower huddles under its much taller grass-like stem on the Wet Prairie. Star Grass (Hypoxis hirsuta) shines up out of prairie on a 6 inch stalk topped by a small (3/4 inch) blossom. The six stamens with their angular anthers add to its star-like appearance. Maybe the dew on the leaf in the photo will help you sense the size of this tiny jewel of a wildflower.
Near the creek, just north of the Wet Prairie, a burst of orange caught my eye and I discovered a native flower that was new to me, Golden Ragwort (Packera aurea). This plant too has multiple methods of reproduction. Each of the tiny florets that make up the protruding center of the flower will produce an achene, a winged fruit enveloping a single seed that will disperse into the wind. But ragwort also produces underground stems (rhizomes) aid its spread!
A native, fire-adapted plant which was new to me has the unusual name Bastard Toadflax (Comandra umbellata) and this is not a flax or a toadflax plant. A report on desertusa.com, claims it was named “toadflax” by the 16th century botanist, John Gerard, because the flowers “be yellow, having a mouth unto a frog’s mouth” and “bastard” because at the time meant “false,” indicating perhaps that it was not a real toadflax. This interesting prairie plant is “hemiparasitic” because it feeds through its roots, but also taps into roots of other plants to get nutrition and water using special structures called haustoria. Bastard toadflax reproduces by rhizomes and produces a small oily fruits enjoyed by birds and mice, who by eating them carry the seeds farther afield.
If you notice a splash of white far back in the Wet Prairie, it might be a patch of Robin’s Plantain (Erigeron pulchellus), a tough, little native that thrives after prescribed burns. It’s a relative of Daisy Fleabane (Erigeron annuus), a common wildflower in our parks. Unlike Daisy Fleabane, though, Robin’s Plantain more commonly produces one bloom to a stem. Like the Golden Ragwort, it reproduces by both achenes and rhizomes.
Early last week, the fluffy, white blossoms of native Choke Cherry (Prunus virginiana) hung in long clusters along single stems called racemes. After warmer sun later in the week, they had begun to turn yellow. They don’t produce edible cherries, but their bitter fruit appeals to game birds, songbirds and woodpeckers, according to one of my favorite wildflower sites, www.illinoiswildflowers.info.
All long the trail you’ll see Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) blooming. Now here’s one bloom you might love to see fading, because its ripening fruit is tiny, but delicious. Good luck getting them before the birds and beasts do, though!
Discoveries on the Trail from Silver Bell Road to Dutton Road
Despite our late spring, many different native wildflowers were blooming along this section of the trail. At the bottom of the stairs leading to the creek, just past the parking area, Swamp Marigolds (Ranunculus hispidus) shine bright despite the deep shade. As you saw in the video at the top of the blog, the wetlands along the stream are doing what they do best – soaking up the runoff after heavy rains. And Marsh Marigold is doing its part!
Farther down the trail, the lavender spikes of Wild Lupine (Lupinusperennis) are blooming. This beloved native produces seedpods open explosively, launching seeds up to seven feet from the plant. Lupine also produces colorful clones as it spreads with rhizomes. Lupines are rising toward the sun in several parks as part of the restoration work being done on our prairies. It’s so heartening to see these lavender blossoms opening up from bottom to top on their stately racemes. And I love the whimsy of its wheel-shaped leaves.
Along the berms on the western side of the trail, a perky yellow flower blossoms in bunches. The fuzzy stems and leaves give it the first part of its name, Hoary Puccoon (Lithospermumcanescens). According to Wikipedia, the second word “puccoon” comes from an ancient Native American word “poughkone,” and refers to plants formerly used for dyes by Native Americans. I wonder if its roots can turn things that vivid yellow/orange?
Near the first bridge going south, I found a whole group of native wildflowers that were just finishing their blooms. A small group of Common Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) still stood in the shade just off the trail. These flamboyant white flowers start turning pink as they age, eventually leaving only their leaves behind to gather up more sun for next years flowers. While true pink- and red-flowering trillium species exist, our Common Trillium just turn pink as they age gracefully.
A Common Trillium is pure white when it blooms.
It begins to turn pink as it fades.
Eventually, as it wilts for the season, it turns a deeper pink.
Nearby Starry False Solomon’s Seal (Maianthemum stellatum) bore only a rather disheveled version of its star-shaped blossom. After the blossoms, the plant will produce green fruits with purple/black stripes that eventually turn red. Woodland birds and mice enjoy the fruits, thereby carrying the seeds within the berries to new locations.
Native Bees and Tiny Butterflies Busy Pollinating
Many spring wildflowers depend heavily on flies and native bees (of which there are 450 Michigan species!) for their pollination, because many other butterflies and the honey bees finish migrating or emerge from hives only in warmer months. Above is what I think is a native Mining Bee (Andrenidae family) foraging for pollen and thereby pollinating one Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum) after another! I’m not knowledgeable about bees, but I learned from Pollinators of Native Plants that a particular Mining Bee, Adrena distans, is a specialist pollinator of Wild Geranium, so that’s my guess. Please feel free to correct me if you know more about bees than I do!
A few tiny butterflies were doing their part in pollinating flowers as well. If you see a fluttering wink of blue among the grass stems, it’s probably a Spring Azure butterfly (Celastrina Ladon). These 1 inch pollinators are blue when flying but once they settle, they quickly fold their wings so only the dull gray side shows. It makes them hard for hungry birds – and interested photographers! – to spot. Azures tend to pollinate Golden Alexanders, False Solomon Seal as well as other wildflowers. (Photo on the left by iNaturalist. org photographer Dan Mullen.)
Spring Azure blue upper wings by Dan Mullen (CC BY-NC-ND)
The Spring Azure is much less notable to predators when it settles to feed.
The tiny Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos) quickly fluttered by me and landed on dry grass stems in the Wet Prairie. These little butterflies produce several broods of caterpillars throughout the summer. So watch for tiny (up to 1.25 in.) flashes of orange and black rising from the grass and scurrying across trails all summer long, busily sipping nectar and inadvertently transporting pollen for the flowers.
The last little butterfly was in a perfect spot to find a mate. According to http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org, “To seek females, males perch in openings, flats or depressions near woods.” And that’s right where this one was – in the open, on a dead plant stalk near the trees just south of the Wet Prairie. He’s not glamorous but he has a glamorous name, the Dreamy Duskywing (Erynnis icelus). (Duskywings can be hard to tell apart, so again, feel free to correct me!) [Edit: A man who collects butterflies and has seen many Duskywings told me on Facebook that he believes this is a Sleepy Duskywing (Erynnis brizo) which he says are more common in this area.} He’s picked a great spot since one of his favorite nectars is the nearby wild lupine. These duskywings like to lay eggs on aspens and cottonwoods, which surround the Wet Prairie.
Migrators Building Nests and, What Else? – Singing!
Late spring is a busy time for birds. Some have just arrived and are busy singing to attract mates. A Warbling Vireo (Vireogilvus) sang over my head in one of the Quaking Aspens (Populus tremuloides) near the Wet Prairie. This vireo is rarely seen once the leaves come on the trees; they like to stay high in the treetops and search diligently for caterpillars. But hearing a quick, rolling song high above me, I spotted his vireo shape, gray/olive back and yellow-ish white belly from below. Then he disappeared into the tree canopy. So here’s a photo of one I saw at Cranberry Lake a week ago. Click here to listen to his rollicking warble!
The Warbling Vireo near the trail seemed quite frantic, singing insistently and hopping higher and higher in the tree as he did so. At first I thought another male vireo was singing across the trail from him – and I believe that he thought so too! But when I followed the other song, it was one of the great bird mimics, the GrayCatbird (Dumetellacarolinensis), doing an imitation of the Vireo’s song and, I think, driving him crazy! The Catbird was, as usual, adding a few flourishes of his own, but it seemed as though the Vireo found his call an annoying form of competition! For a sample of the Catbird’s wonderfully complex, mimicking song, click on the word “Song” at this link.
A pair of Baltimore Orioles (Icterus galbula) swooped down onto the Wet Prairie one afternoon. The female immediately disappeared into tall grass. It’s likely that she was carefully choosing grass stems out of which she could strip fibers for weaving her long, sack of a nest. Evidently, the male’s job was to stand guard while she had her head down.
Suddenly, the female oriole lifted out of the grass, followed immediately by the male, and they swooped into a tall Cottonwood (Populus deltoides) on the northern side of the prairie. She disappeared into a clump of leaves hanging high over the meadow, but I could see the branches moving as she worked and a tiny bit of the growing nest (look in the center of the photo below through the leaves). I found a great little YouTube video of the Oriole’s weaving process, which is really incredible. Imagine tying knots and twirling fibers around a branch using only your beak!
I heard a pair of Eastern Kingbirds (Tyrannus tyrannus) fluttering together from tree to tree and stopped to watch. After giving what sounded like greeting calls, they soared up into a tall tree near the Wet Meadow. The female stood at the edge of a very messy nest which she was constructing on top of what appeared to be an old squirrel nest. The male doesn’t help build the nest, so while she worked, he stood guard in a nearby tree. I read in the Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol. 1) that Kingbirds build preliminary nests before settling into a final one to lay eggs. I’m guessing this may be just a trial nest, since building on a squirrel nest seems like an iffy location! (Squirrels are known to eat bird eggs!) The fine fibers drooping down over the top of the squirrel’s dry, gray branches and leaves are the female kingbird’s doing.
Kingbirds are identifiable from a distance by their upright posture – what one member of the birding group calls their “military stance.” And note the white tips on the tail feathers.
Every Nature Walk has its Special Moments
Last week, I had to smile at this seemingly relaxed male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). He hopped slowly up and down a slope by the trail, picking up and rejecting items he found between the grass stems. With the grass taller than his head and his red crest (which is usually erect) drooping backwards, he reminded me of an avian Red Riding Hood!
It’s little things like that – and seeing the Blue-eyed Grass staring up at me – or watching the two Eastern Kingbirds near their nest – that send me home happy from every foray into the natural world. And these grant adventures only require the right clothes for the weather, water-proof shoes, a little application of bug spray at times and my undivided attention for an hour or so. I usually take my camera along, but walks without anything but my trusty binoculars are just as rewarding. If you ever feel a bit weary as the poet Wordsworth once did, “The world is too much with us, late and soon/Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers…,” try a foray into our parks with your curiosity set at high alert. I’m confident that nature will send you home refreshed and with moments to share with others. Thanks for sharing mine!
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, A Guide to Bird Behavior Vols.1-3 by Donald W and Lillian Q.Stokes, Pollinators of Native Plants by Heather Holm,and others as cited in the text.
Wow, what a tough April – for us and for wildlife! I even considered the possibility at one point that our thermometer was broken, since it seemed to be stuck at 32 degrees! The intrepid birding group went out in a snow squall the first week of the month. Despite cold and driving wind, we still came across flocks of early migrators, like the Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) pictured above, along with more than 60 robins foraging in the meadows.
We got a couple of brief respites in which it was possible to imagine a normal spring day with birdsong, fragile leaves, turtles warming in the sun. Then it was back in the freezer. Wildlife and plant life coped with cold wind and sleet, soaked up whatever sun was available and waited for change. We humans harnessed the warmer days for stewardship projects. And then voilà, spring arrived (I hope) last weekend.
Despite the Icy Cold, Birds Arriving, Leaving, and Braving the Cold, Plus a Tough Little Willow Tree.
Experts tell us that bird migration depends more on the length of spring days, than it does on the temperature. As a result, our first summer-only birds arrived to find snowy fields rather than the first greening of spring. What could they or our year ’round residents do but cope?
This Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) hid among the grasses at the edge of the marsh as the snow fell on the birders the first Wednesday in April. She’s probably been back for a few weeks and is well-equipped to deal with the cold. Normally by this time, though, she’d be picking nest sites, but I doubt this thin spot at the edge of the marsh was being seriously considered.
In a tree at the south end of the marsh, a male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) looked dismayed by the cold wind ruffling his crest. His staring eyes seemed to suggest that he was as stunned by the freezing temperatures as the bundled-up birders below him!
Birders spotted the silhouette of a Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)hunched in a branch near the marsh. No doubt it was hoping to have some clean-up work soon. After all, its job and its food source is seeing that all the carrion in the park is dealt with quickly and efficiently. I had to wonder if it regretted having left southern Ohio, or points even farther south.
During a brief pause in the snowfall, a Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula), who may have spent his winter in southern Ohio, stared out into the white landscape. It’s likely he arrived with other males and a mixed flock of Red-wings and Brown-headed Cowbirds, frequent traveling companions this time of year.
Over at the Playground Pond, a shy little Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe)huddled on a branch, twitching its tail over the water, as the snow fell. Having perhaps wintered in Tennessee, this little bird is usually one of the earliest flycatchers to arrive in Michigan. So it’s hardy enough to brave the cold – though maybe, like us, it have would preferred better April weather. Look closely; it’s nicely camouflaged against the branches and behind the veil of falling snow!
Our sturdy, native Pussy Willow (Salix discolor) survives even in Alaska and northern Canada. So it bravely thrust forth its fuzzy white catkins in the southern part of the marsh as the snow swirled around it. The bright, bare branches of native Red Twig/Red-Osier Dogwood (Cornus sericea) added a nice dash of color to a dark morning.
Some of the winter-only visitors are still stocking up before leaving for points north. Small flocks of American Tree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea) twitter among the bushes, getting last minute meals before heading to Hudson’s Bay or the Arctic tundra for the summer. They certainly seem to relish cold weather! I’m glad Bear Creek Nature Park seems to have provided enough winter food for this small long-distance flyer.
During a brief snow melt last week, the Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis)also seemed busy preparing to depart northward for the summer. They foraged among the newly sprouting grass where the prescribed burn had taken place in March. They don’t travel quite as far as the Tree Sparrows, perhaps only into Ontario.
Short, Warm Respites Meant Birdsong, Frog Song, Turtles and More
For a few short days, off and on, we had sun and some genuinely spring-like temperatures. The Wood Frogs (Rana sylvatica)thawed out from their winter freeze. The low, chuckling call of the Wood Frogs joined the constant, rhythmic peeping of the Chorus Frogs, featured in the blog a couple of weeks ago. Here’s a photo of a Wood Frog taken last November as they began hibernation. The black patch near the eye underlined with light yellow, plus ridges down the back are the field marks for this small frog.
The clucking or chuckling sounds in the foreground of this recording from a week ago are those of the Wood Frog. The higher-pitched calls in the background are from Western Chorus frogs. Be sure to turn up your volume!
On a cold but sunny afternoon, the male Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) chirped his burbling refrain as the wind ruffled his feathers and carried his melodious tune out across the Eastern Meadow.
On the recording below taken ten days ago, he sings loudly twice with a bit of a rest in between.
When the temperature rose to sixty degrees, all kinds of plants, animals and insects seemed to come to life at once! When Ben ventured out into the park about 8:30 pm one evening, he heard the buzzing “peent” call of the American Woodcock (Scolopax minor). This call from the ground precedes an aerial display in which the Woodcock spirals up into the sky and then chirps on the way down, plummeting the last several feet before landing right where it began. All this happens just before dark in small open fields near wetlands at Bear Creek and Cranberry Lake Parks. For the whole sequence of sounds during this mating flight, try this link at Cornell Ornithology Lab. (Wait for the “peent!” at the end. It will surprise you!). Though I’ve heard and briefly seen the Woodcock, here’s a photo by talented photographer Jerry Oldenettel at iNaturalist.org who’s had much better luck than I at getting a good photo!
A pair of Bluebirds (Sialis sialis)seem to searching out nest sites at Bear Creek. I saw a male one snowy afternoon peering down into the grass for possible food and a female surveying the Eastern Meadow.
A male bluebird scanning the grass for something to eat.
A female bluebird surveying the eastern meadow
This male Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus)finds all kinds of good things to eat as he tap, tap, taps on a tree trunk. Though they’ll eat seeds and fruits, their preference is for insect larvae, so they’re very good stewards of trees, ridding them of bark beetles and other insects. According to Donald W. Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.1), if we hear a quick, loud, regular beat in its drumming, that’s a mating call. When the drumming is lighter and irregular, the Hairy is either feeding or starting to excavate a nest hole.
Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater)foraged in the fields as well. These handsome birds don’t create nests, but rather lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. Cowbirds aren’t really irresponsible parents. Having evolved to constantly follow western buffalo herds, they had no time to care for young. So the cowbirds who took advantage of the nests and care of other birds carried on the species!
The Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta marginata), who’d been hibernating in the cold mud on pond bottoms all winter, climbed onto logs all over the park on the first warm day. In the photo below, nine of them were basking in a patch of sunlight within a shady wetland, letting the sun soak into their dark shells. Aahhh, that must have felt sooo good!
While hand sowing native seed, we discovered Eastern Garter Snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis) twisted around each other in a wriggling hug as they mated in the brown grass. The female, according to Wikipedia, is larger than the male. They may have evolved this way because garter snakes bear live young. The more little snakes they can carry, the more likely their genes will go on to another generation.
With temperatures so low, insects are still scarce in the fields right now. But I noticed what appears to be a Sexton/Carrion Beetle (g. Nicrophorus, fam. Silphidae) clambering through grass and leaves one warm-ish afternoon. It was probably sensing a dead mouse or bird and heading to bury it as a source of food for its larvae. These small members of the “cleanup crew” are large and colorful, usually dark with red on the forewings and fancy club-shaped antennae.
I saw two plants making go of it in the cold April air. The perennial Skunk Cabbage(Symplocarpus foetidus) thrust it bulbous, purple bract (spathe) up through the mud. The bract envelops a long spike (spadix) which holds the flowers. Early flies and bees are attracted by its pungent (and skunk-y, not very pleasant) odor. Interesting that the leaves on this plant show up after the flowers.
The skunk cabbage’s flower within its spathe emerging from the mud on March 31.
Its leaves beginning to form by April 18.
At this time last year, another of the earliest spring flowers, Spring Beauties (Claytonia virginica) had already presented their pink- and white-striped blossoms in the forest. This year, though, in the middle of April, their spindly leaves were just starting up around the roots of large trees. Perhaps the warmer weather will hurry them along, too!
Spring Beauty is slow getting going this year.
Look for its tiny blossoms under forest trees as the sunlight increases.
Stewardship Projects Proceeded
A few cold but clear days provided suitable conditions for Dr. Ben’s VanderWeide’s park projects. Along with the prescribed burn in March and hand-sowing the fields of Bear Creek with native seed, Ben, Alex Kriebel (stewardship specialist with Oakland Township Parks), Ian Ableson (a new stewardship employee at Six Rivers Land Conservancy), and 4 volunteers began the yearly monitoring of vernal pools. As part of a larger project of the Michigan Natural Features Inventory, Ben monitors these biodiversity hotspots three times over the summer. What a collection of unusual creatures! They wake and feed or quickly hatch, mature, mate, lay eggs and expire in these temporary ponds that dry over the summer. Great to know our vernal pools are teeming with life! (Click on pause button if you need more time for captions.)
The Promise of Full-fledged Spring
We humans know how to take advantage of spring-like weather, just as the wildlife does. One warm, cloudy afternoon, a small girl brought her kite to test the April winds. This youngster got her long-tailed kite flying high and kept it there. So great to see parents bringing young children out to play surrounded by nature in our parks.
Last weekend, I think most of us dared to hope that “real spring” had finally arrived. The air was softer, the temperature more normal for late April, and a brighter sun warmed our upturned faces from a blue sky. Leaf buds that have waited on branches all winter have begun to swell. Soon more of those buds will open and our world will slowly dress itself in spring’s lovely shade of green. More migrators will navigate hundreds or even thousands of miles, making use of the sun, the stars and earth’s magnetic fields to find their way back to us. Mornings and sunsets will be filled with more chatter and birdsong. So try to keep your eyes and ears alert! Spring’s full-fledged arrival is just beginning to burst forth in full glory.
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.
The solstice has passed; the days and nights get equal time. But when I’m shivering, my fingers and ears go numb in a stiff wind, I struggle to hold on to the idea that we’re heading into spring. Until, that is, I head into the parks.
In mid-March, water birds began splashing down in Cranberry Lake, finding any narrow stretch of open water within the ice sheet. They floated and fed – until one glorious morning, the whole lake turned liquid and bright blue! Migrating flocks honked, chattered and wheeled overhead. Some stopped to rest and feed before heading further north; others explored nesting sites. Our year ’round residents tuned up their spring songs. Territories must be established! Potential mates must be impressed! Best of all, the tiny frogs thawed after their frozen winter state – and now they are singing! Can genuine spring, with its fulsome birdsong and burgeoning buds be far behind? I think not!
Water Birds Arrive Early, Despite the Ice – and the Muskrats Emerge, too!
It always impresses me that some of the first migrators to arrive in early spring are the water birds! They float, seemingly content, in the icy cracks that form as the sun begins to work on the frozen lake surface. Their cold water strategies involve body fat, oiled feathers, down insulation, and a circulation system which allows cool blood coming up from their feet to pass close to warm blood traveling down, warming it as it returns to the heart. Below a group of Common Mergansers – black-headed males and brown-headed females – glided along a thin channel of water on the far side of Cranberry Lake’s iced-over surface.
Off in the distance, the Wednesday birders spotted the hunched silhouette of a Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) perched on the edge of the ice as a goose floated nearby. It slipped in and out of the water, hungry no doubt for food but also for a meager scrap of sunlight after living under the ice all winter!
Two sunny but cold days later, the ice had disappeared and the lake was bright blue and busy with migrating ducks and geese. Two Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola)and a group of Ring-necked Ducks (Aythya collaris) – black-and-white males and brown females – dove and surfaced as they foraged near a Canada Goose (Branta canadensis).
I got a bit closer to a Bufflehead by checking from the opposite side of the lake. This lone male rocked along on the surface, bobbing under to feed every few minutes. Cornell Lab of Ornithology says Bufflehead accomplish this dive by compressing their feathers to drive out the air and then pitching forward. A few seconds later, they pop to the surface like a cork and float on.
And that same cold morning, what I think was a large muskrat came steaming across the pond toward the eastern side. At the time, I thought this bustling swimmer was a Beaver (Castor canadensis), since there is a large beaver lodge on the western side of the lake. But I’m just not sure of that, so I’m sticking with it being a large muskrat. In the water, its tail looked wide enough to be a beaver, but as it approached the shore, it just didn’t seem to be big enough to be a beaver, unless it was a yearling. And beavers tend to swim with only their heads out of the water. In any case, nice to see this furry fellow plying the pond in the sunshine. What do you think? Big muskrat or young beaver?
Hearing the ancient bugle of the Sandhill Crane (Antigone canadensis), I quickly looked up to see two in the distance, flying into the far end of the lake. Aren’t we lucky that they breed in our wetlands?
Spring Songs Signal the Beginning of the Mating Season
As I approached the park one icy afternoon, bright spring music reached my ear – Western Chorus Frogs. These tiny frogs (Pseudacris triseriata – about 1.5 inches long!) are daytime relatives of the nocturnal Spring Peepers (Pseudacris crucifer). They spent the winter frozen solid, no heartbeat, no brain activity, but protected by an anti-freeze of sorts that keeps their tissues from breaking down. Pretty amazing! They thaw out and start singing as the days lengthen. The first afternoon I scanned a wetland trying to see these tiny creatures that seemed to be singing right at my feet, but I could not spot one! So on a second try a few days later, I found a log to sit on near the wetland in the trees just east of the parking lot. After about 20 minutes with my binoculars, I finally spotted two (of the hundreds that were probably there!), the sacks beneath their chins bulging, as they tried to impress a female with their piercing calls. Have a look and a listen!
A male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)sang from the tree tops in the eastern meadow, turning every few minutes to send his territory call in a new direction. He’s a bit faint on the recording below, so you might need to turn your volume up! I got a bit closer to another male in a bush near the parking lot later on. He was doing “call and response” with another cardinal hidden in the trees nearby.
A male cardinal turns periodically to send his call in all directions.
A male cardinal sang near the parking lot. Another answered from the woods nearby.
And of course, the American Robins (Turdus migratorius) that went south to Ohio and Kentucky returned as well, joining the hardy ones that spent the winter here.
His spring call is also a bit soft. And he makes a longish pause before his second “tit whoo” call.
Woodpeckers, of course, use drumming to establish territories, rather than singing. Both male and female Downy Woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens)attract mates and protect territories with drumming. You can hear their typical drum roll in this Cornell Lab recording which was put to use by the little female Downy below.
I get a huge kick out of hearing flocks of American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) chirp in the shrubs and small trees. To my ear, they are the only bird that actually says “tweet, tweet, tweet!” Have a listen at this link and see if you agree! The males are currently molting into their bright yellow summer outfits.
On a bird walk one Wednesday, we heard the far distant, insistent drumming of a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus). Mark, one of the great spotters in the bird group, finally located it with binoculars on a very distant tree, and suddenly its mate (we assumed) dove across the trail far ahead of us before slipping up and away between the trees. No chance for a photo. But here’s an incredible closeup by talented photographer Monica Krancevic at iNaturalist.org.
The First Blooms and Some Sturdy Ferns Wait Patiently
The lovely red blossoms of the Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) brighten gray days in early spring. They emerge on bare branches before the leaves and are pollinated by the wind before butterflies or other insects emerge and start to pollinate. Those big clusters of scarlet florets are a great food source for hungry squirrels in the spring, when food is scarce, since nuts and seeds are either already eaten or beginning to crack open and sprout. Last week, I found these male (staminate) clusters fallen from the treetops onto the exposed roots of a large silver maple. I love how the red at the edge of the root echoes the red of the flowers.
Take a closer look at this cluster of florets, some still closed, others waving stamens that have already shed their pollen to wind. Once pollinated, the female florets will produce winged fruits, called samaras.
Nearby on the trail to the lake, some sturdy ferns survived the winter with fertile fronds intact. The brown beads below are the sporangia on the fertile fronds of the Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis)that carry the spores for this year’s crop of new plants. On the right, are the vegetative fronds that provide sugars through photosynthesis in the summer months.
The fertile frond of Sensitive Fern waits for warm weather to release its spores.
Sensitive Fern vegetative fronds in summer do the work of photosynthesis.
And the feathery ones below left are the fertile fronds of Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris)whose spores will be released and carried by the wind in the spring. Their vegetative fronds on the right stood tall and bright green, taking advantage of the moist soil and spotty sunshine in the forest.
The fertile fronds of Ostrich Fern wait for spring to release their spores.
Vegetative fronds of Ostrich Fern
Spring Just Peeks Out…Here and There
Behind a scrim of small trees on the way to the lake, I spotted these two Canada Geese floating serenely in a secluded wetland, away from the noisy flocks gathering on the lake. They reminded me that, at this time of year, spring has to be sought out. It appears and disappears. One day the lake is iced over, a few days later it’s rippling and blue and then the snow falls again. On some days, spring isn’t easily seen – just a few red blossom clusters floating in a vernal pool or scattered on the lifeless grass. Sometimes spring can only be heard and not seen. Frogs as tiny as your thumb sing unseen one day and the next, perch on a bit of floating grass, their throats bulging with amorous sound. Flocks twitter or honk high in a cold blue sky or male birds rehearse the first tentative versions of their mating songs. Woodpeckers tap out a seductive rhythm on the bark of trees.
Early spring isn’t flamboyant and colorful, like it will be in a few weeks. It’s hesitant, waiting to be found and enjoyed if we can only slow down enough. If we watch, we’ll see it peeking through the alternating rain or snowfall, cracking and opening in thawing ponds or hear it whistling, chirping, trilling from inside the brush or high in the treetops. So I hope you have time to delight in these subtle hints of early spring as they unfold. It won’t be long now…
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.