Tag Archives: Northern Flicker

Charles Ilsley Park: Being Restored to Past Glories and Humming with Life

Panicled Asters line the entrance to the park
Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

We tend to think of autumn as colored leaves and crisp air. But the prairies and meadows of the township parks celebrate fall with flowers. Many asters love cooler weather and right now the restored prairies of Charles Ilsley Park are dressed in white wildflowers, dotted with splashes of gold.  Butterflies and bees still flutter and hum among the blossoms and grasshoppers still spring like popcorn out of the grass as you walk. Birds, including occasional summer visitors headed south, eat the plants’ berries and seeds or snag a few insects from bare soil or tree limbs. The frantic growth of summer is indeed ebbing, but the park still bustles with life as it awaits the first frost.

Note:  Click here for a map of the park to help in visualizing the various trails and prairies described.

Entering Along the “Great White Way”

Panicled Asters line the trail on both sides as you enter the park

Walking along the mowed trail into Charles Ilsley Park before the latest heat wave, a nodding crowd of graceful Panicled Asters (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum)  stood on either side, like a crowd at a procession. Occasionally, a spray of New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) added a little royal purple to the view.

A spray of New England Asters along the entrance trail.

Just before sunset one afternoon, several migrating Palm Warblers (Setophaga palmarum) flitted among the branches of a tree along this trail. This little bird was probably on its way from Canada to Florida or the Caribbean. Let’s hope it finds its favorite foods and perches after the terrible storms there this fall!

A migrating Palm Warbler paused in the park on its way to Florida and the Caribbean for the winter.

Among some bare branches, a couple of Mourning Doves gave me a closer look.

A pair of mourning doves giving me the eye

And below, a female Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) drilled a dead branch  for insects, looking for a snack before retiring for the night.

A female Downy Woodpecker inspecting a dead branch for insects as the sun goes down

A quick movement out of the grass onto a nearby tree turned out to be a Katydid (family Tettigoniidae) moving slowly along the trunk with its ungainly legs. Katydids are generally nocturnal and sing at night. I’m guessing this one’s a female because of what appears to be a sickle-shaped ovipositor for laying eggs. Aren’t her antennae amazing? Grasshoppers have short antennae, but katydid antennae are extravagantly long.

A female katydid came out of the field at sunset and began exploring a tree trunk.

The Central Meadow Will Soon Become a Prairie

The central meadow at Charles Ilsley Park is undergoing prairie restoration.

Don’t be dismayed by the browned surface in the central area of the park.  Like the other three sections already restored (east, north and west), the invasive shrubs and non-native plants have now been removed from this area. This fall, matted grass and leftover branches will be removed and the central area will be planted with native wildflower seed. Just as in the other three prairies, it will take 3-5 years for the native plants to fully bloom because as drought-adapted wildflowers, they need time to put down long roots before putting energy into flowering. But even now, life goes on in this brown landscape.

Blue is the first spark of color you’ll see in the restoration area – because the Eastern Bluebirds are everywhere! Many of them are using their former nesting boxes for perches as they fly down and forage in the soil and whatever grass remains.

A male bluebird perhaps contemplating being an “empty nester!”
This bluebird pair may migrate south or may choose to remain here over the winter.
A female Bluebird perusing the brown field before foraging.

Blackened stems, dead grass and bare soil make a perfect landscape for Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) who prefer to nest and forage on open ground. They are known to nest on rooftops, golf courses, even parking lots! They scuttle up and down the restoration field at Ilsley, making periodic quick stops to see if they’ve scared up anything to eat. In autumn, Killdeer gather in small groups (I saw five ) as they migrate as far as Central and South America for the winter, though many choose southern Florida as well.

A killdeer scuttles across the dry landscape trying to scare some insects out of the bracken.
This Killdeer trio may migrate to Florida or Central and South America.

When Killdeer fly, they make a keening call and the feathers on their rumps, just above their tails, flash orange in the sunlight. Look for two flying Killdeer in this quick shot.

Can you see two killdeer flying with their orange rumps ablaze?

Another ground forager is still here but will also join small groups for migration. Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus ) love ants, so they too are quite happy to forage in the newly re-sprouting grass or on the bare soil in this area of the park. You’ll often see 3 or 4 together on the ground.

In this season, Northern Flickers can often be seen looking for ants in the restoration area of the park.

Carolina Locust (Dissosteira carolina) flew up from bare earth as I approached the far end of the restoration area. I’ve never been able to catch a photo of one flying; they’re just too quick for me! So on the left is my photo of the locust on the ground, but on the right is a photo by Joshua G Smith at inaturalist.org who shows us its wing by gently holding the insect. You can see why these grasshoppers are often mistaken for butterflies when taking their short flights! (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

At the far end of the restoration area are a few bushes that form a line across the bottom of the north prairie. On all four trips to the park, an Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) rested in the low branches of a tree there – a perfect perch for a flycatcher who actually prefers ground foraging  to catching flies!

The Eastern Phoebe actually prefers ground insects to catching flies, even though it’s officially a flycatcher.

With all those birds around, this immature Northern Brown Snake (Storeria dekayi) had better be careful! These harmless, little snakes (they don’t bite!) are born with a white “collar” around their necks and are either brown or gray.  As they mature, the collar disappears and the head is darker.  So I’m guessing this one is a juvenile on its way to getting rid of that collar!

A young Northern Brown Snake who’s losing the white collar it had at birth.

Lots of Life on Three Prairies – East, North and West!

We’re gifted currently with three prairie plantings at Ilsley in various stages of restoration. The eastern and northern prairies are now in their second summer, the western prairie is in its first. All of them host a wide variety of wildflowers, butterflies, bees and birds.

Prairie Plants

Calico Asters (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum) have turned the eastern prairie white this fall.  The northern prairie, full of invasive thistles last year, is now covered with Brown-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia triloba), a species of Rudbeckia that I just learned about this year! The western prairie is cloaked in white Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota) at the south end, and golden with Black-Eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) at the north end. Natives like Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and some Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) have returned to sway in the breeze above the eastern and northern prairies, which now have mowed trails. The western prairie trail grew over during the summer, but the soft plants make it easy walking. We’re on our way to 50 acres of prairie in this park! (Click on pause button for captions.)

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Insects on the Prairies

Both Bumblebees (genus Bombus) and European Honey Bees (Apis mellifera) buzz quickly over the native blossoms, making the most of late fall nectar. One late afternoon, native bumblebees were driving honey bees off of some flowers with a quick dart toward them, while on other blossoms, honey bees were hassling butterflies.

A native Bumblebee and a European Honey Bee compete for the nectar in a non-native thistle.

Eventually, however, peace was restored and each found their own blossom on the Calico Asters.

At mid-summer,  the prairies were full of large butterflies – Monarchs and three kinds of Swallowtails. This month, though most of the larger ones are missing; only a few tardy Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) sip at blossoms. The unseasonably warm weather may have prompted  them to tarry a bit longer than other Monarchs who began moving in September. We hope they make it to Mexico before the cold sets in!

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A variety of smaller butterflies, some as small as your thumbnail, move restlessly among the blossoms on all three prairies. The Painted Lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui) is only 1.5-2.0 inches. It migrates some years and not others, but often winters in Mexico like the Monarchs. Its caterpillars eat thistle foliage and the adult butterflies love thistle nectar. This one was sipping daintily along with two other Painted Ladies on non-native Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare) on the northern prairie.

A Painted Lady sipping thistle nectar through its long proboscis (Northern Prairie)
Three Painted Ladies enjoying thistle nectar, just as their caterpillars enjoyed eating thistle leaves.

The other small butterflies seemed endlessly restless, doing much more flying right now than eating.  I managed to photograph three – but the tiny Grizzled Skipper (Pyrgus centaureae) eluded me, so I’ve borrowed a photo from inaturalist.org with the permission of the photographer, Marian Zöller.

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Birds Enjoying the Prairies

Birds of all sizes frequent these prairies during the year. Many of them, like the Tree Swallows,  have already begun their fall migration. But one evening at the far end of the eastern prairie, a solitary Sandhill Crane (Antigone canadensis) foraged, probably for just-hatched Red-legged Grasshopper nymphs (Melanoplus femurrubrum) that sprang in hundreds from the grass. Suddenly, it lifted into the air. I wonder if it, too, is beginning its migration to Florida or the Caribbean? I’m afraid I was too taken with its size, beauty and the snap of its huge wings to set my exposure accurately, but it was a lovely sight just before dark.

In an old apple tree on the edge of the western prairie, a flock of pale House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) pecked happily at the aging fruit. Usually House Finch males are much darker red, but the intensity of the color is determined by what they eat while molting. I have a feeling these were eating apples (or the bugs within them) instead of bright red berries!

A male House Finch eating bits of apple – or perhaps the bugs inside?

And a first for me in Oakland Township!  Last Sunday, a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) spiraled high into the air over the western prairie, riding upward on a rising current of warm air. What a very special moment to see this powerful bird peacefully enjoying the heat of the prairie on a quiet Sunday afternoon.

A Bald Eagle riding a current of warm air above the Western Prairie

 The View from the Oldest Trees

Two huge oaks trees seem to anchor the past firmly in the present at Charles Ilsley Park. One stands at the south end of the center area that’s being restored and the other stands at the east end of the eastern prairie. The size of these old oaks with their huge trunks and spreading crowns means they’ve been here for hundreds of years, standing watch over the land. Pausing under the eastern prairie tree one afternoon, I took a photo of that tree’s “view” of the restored prairie.

View from under the huge oak at the east end of the Eastern Prairie

It pleased me to imagine that maybe that tree is “looking out on” on a prairie that’s beginning to look a bit like the one it “saw” when it was young so many years ago. And as we watched the bald eagle float above the western prairie, I wondered if it was seeing what its eagle ancestors saw from high in the sky long ago. Humans are such forward-looking creatures, always planning and moving toward the future. It’s a marvel that here in our township, and in other townships around the country, we’ve chosen to set aside areas like Ilsley where the history of our land and its native creatures can be preserved. The trees, wildflowers, birds and butterflies – all of it connects us firmly to our past –  and if we continue to be good stewards, will sustain and delight us for years to come as we move into the future.

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; 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.
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Watershed Ridge Park: Restoration Off to a Colorful Start!

 

Wildflowers re-establish themselves in a meadow at Watershed Ridge after invasive shrubs are removed

Watershed Ridge, at the corner of Lake George and Buell Roads, is not yet an accessible park. Trails have yet to be created for exploring its forests, wetlands and meadows, though they are planned for the future. Large areas of the land are still under cultivation for agriculture; local farmer, John Fogler, rents fields within the park to plant soy beans and pumpkins. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

But last fall, our Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, Ben VanderWeide, began removing an almost impenetrable cover of invasive bushes that had taken over part of this beautiful piece of land. And suddenly, the graceful contours of the land came into view.

The slopes of Watershed Ridge after last fall’s removal of invasive shrubs

The rolling slopes looked lifeless then. But what a transformation this spring and summer as sun finally reached the native wildflowers!

The sloping landscape of Watershed Ridge Park this summer after the removal of invasive shrubs

Part of the reason Ben chose this area for restoration was that he’d noticed unusual native plants struggling to survive in the shade of invasive bushes like autumn olive, glossy buckthorn, privet, and such. Last autumn, Smooth Aster (Symphyotrichum laeveand a small orchid called Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes species) thrust their stems into the cool air. (Here’s a photo of the little orchid as it looked at the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail.)

Ladies Tresses, a small orchid, is a fall wildflower that Ben saw at Watershed Ridge last autumn.

Right now I’d advise anyone to be cautious about  walking through Watershed Ridge since it’s easy to get disoriented on 170 acres without trails (though a compass in your phone helps, I find!). Hikers need to use the edges of the farm fields so that they don’t damage the crops. The woody debris on the ground makes walking a bit tricky  and there’s a fair amount of Poison-ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) to avoid. Photos below might help those afraid of all 3-three-leaved plants. The one on the left is poison ivy.  Note the “thumb” on the leaves which is missing from other three-leaved plants like the Black Raspberry (Rubus occidentalis) on the right. Poison-ivy often has reddish “feet” when it’s climbing a tree and grows along the trunk rather than around it.

So for now, perhaps consider an easier alternative.

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

Join me on a virtual walk from the entrance area with its busy young birds, into the forest with its woodland flowers and wetlands and beyond the woods to the meadow with a riot of native wildflowers, butterflies, an exotic moth and more!

 

 

 

Birds Grace the Simple Entrance off Buell Road

The best spot to park is on Buell Road at the firewood pickup site (1650 W. Buell Road is the approximate address – click here for a map). Just to the west you’ll see a work area for Parks and Recreation staff that includes a pole barn and bulk materials storage. This work area is closed to the public, but you’re welcome to explore the rest of the park.

The old fence rows near the entrance on Buell Road have many trees, shrubs and vines, so birds nested happily around the area this summer. In mid-July, this area was full of fledglings trying out their wings and pestering their parents. A flock of young Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) settled on limbs and fence posts, begging to be fed while their beleaguered adults either surrendered or tried to escape their noisy youngsters. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

A young Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe), however, was off on its own, trying out its wings, exploring the pole barn (sheds are popular Phoebe nest sites) and flying down into the grass like any adult Phoebe might.

A young Phoebe exploring the shed at Watershed Ridge – a very typical behavior for a bird that often builds nests in human structures.
The same Phoebe in a nearby tree to provide a glimpse of how small this little flycatcher is!

A young Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) was also off on its own and looking a bit dubious about what to do next as it sat in a nearby pine. This may be a young male since it appears that its juvenile red cap is slowly receding into the red spot that a male sports on the back of its head.

A juvenile Downy Woodpecker considers what to do next.

I failed to get decent photos, but two weeks ago, a pair of Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) were still feeding their nestlings, flying back and forth between a tree on the west side of the area to a large willow on the east where they probably were foraging for insects before returning to the nest. Here are two not-so-hot photos!

From mid-July to mid-August, American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) raise their young. Unlike most native birds, they wait until mid-summer to breed, because they like to line their nests with thistle down, eat the seeds themselves and feed them to their young. Several were flitting among the thistles along Buell Road.

American Goldfinches like thistle down for their nests and the seed for feeding themselves and their young.

A male Northern Flicker with his dashing “mustache” perused the territory from the top of a snag.

A male Northern Flicker with his dashing “mustache”

A “High Quality” Woodland Sprinkled with Wildflowers that Love Moisture, Shade and Rich Humus.

When you step into the cool darkness of the woods on a warm summer afternoon, you notice that most of the plants bear modest little flowers compared to sunnier areas. Perhaps that’s because they’ve  evolved growth and reproductive strategies that are different from the large, colorful blooms of a sunny meadow or prairie.

One good example is the unusual flower of a parasitic plant (not a mushroom!) that Ben helped me find, called Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora). This small, white wildflower typically grows in forests and lives on the photosynthesis of trees – especially oaks in our area – by tapping into the  mycorrhizal fungi that connect the trees below the soil. As a result, it doesn’t use photosynthesis and contains no chlorophyll. According to the Illinois Wildflower website (a descriptive floral site), “This unusual wildflower is normally found in high quality woodlands” where there is “abundant humus.”  Hooray for Watershed Ridge, eh?

The modest blooms of summer woodland plants primarily attract small bees, like sweat or carpenter bees,  or flies,  rather than honeybees or bumblebees.  They also frequently spread by rhizomes (underground stems) and/or by making bur-like fruits that will stick to any passing animal, including you!

Wildflowers that enjoy dappled light find a home where the woods meets the now-open meadow.

Naturally, mushrooms also thrive in shady, moist places. Near the edge of the woods, I saw what I think are two kinds of highly toxic mushrooms from the genus Amanita. I believe they are either Amanita phalloides or Amanita bisporigera. In any case, Amanita mushrooms are also called “death caps” for good reason –  so admire their exotic strangeness, but leave them right where they are. The yellow one may have been nibbled by squirrels or rabbits who can eat the toxins with no problem.

Wetlands Glow Blue/Green in the Deep Shade of the Woods

One of the wetland pools within the woods at Watershed Ridge

Two wetland pools shine in the darkness on either side of a ridge within the woods at Watershed.  Near the western one, an old log is festooned with a huge number of tiny, stalked mushrooms which I can’t identify. They make quite a show against the dark, wet decaying log on which they are thriving.  (Anyone have an ID for me?)

Ben saw two snappers on a log in one of these woodland pools, but they dove in before I saw them. I did see some of my favorite frogs, though. A small female Green Frog (Rana clamitans) (left) basked on a fallen log, while a male nearby (right) did the same. In the female, the tympanum (circle behind the eye used for hearing) is about the size of her eye; the male’s tympanum is about twice the size of his eye and he has a yellow throat.

At the eastern pool, a tiny, black-masked Wood Frog (Rana sylvatica), perhaps 1/2 inch long, paused for its photo on a leaf. This one’s back and legs are bright green, perhaps from the Water Meal (Wolffia columbiana) or the algae in the pool nearby. It seemed an odd time of year  to find an early spring frog, but Wikipedia says that  occasionally Wood Frogs do breed more than once per year. Maybe the heavy rains contributed to more water and hence more breeding behavior? Just a guess.

A tiny Wood Frog pausing on an oak leaf near one of the woodland pools

At the edge of the soybean field just beyond the wood, every step scared up hundreds of small Northern Leopard Frogs (Rana pipiens). They sprang out of moist grass and huddled beneath the bean plants. These young frogs  take about 70-110 days to develop after the females lay their eggs in the water between May to June. At about 2 inches long, they’re half the size of a mature Leopard Frog. Their numbers have generally been in decline since the 1970’s so what a delight to see so many of them here in the township on a protected piece of land!

A small (about 2 inch) Leopard Frog, among hundreds that sprang out of the tall grass into the bean field a few weeks ago.

A Riot of Color as Wildflowers and Butterflies Reclaim a Wild Meadow

Black-eyed Susans and Butterfly Milkweed “take the field” after invasive shrubs are removed from Watershed Ridge

Step out of the woods and the colorful signs of restoration engulf you. Once shaded-out by invasive shrubs, native wildflowers like Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia fulgida) and Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) in the photo above sprang back into the sunlight that finally reached them.  So exciting to see these plants come back with such vigor in the first season after the invasives are removed! (Use pause button to read captions.)

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And with the wildflowers, of course, come the butterflies – but first, one glorious moth! When I first spotted this unusual creature, I thought it must be some sort of bumblebee. But no, it’s the Snowberry Clearwing Moth (Hemaris diffinis). It has fewer central scales on its wings than other butterflies or moths so the wings appear clear in places. It’s odd shape and hovering flight have also inspired the names “the hummingbird moth” (not to be confused with the European one of the same name, Wikipedia tells me!) or the “flying lobster!”  A new creature for me!

This is not a bumblebee. It’s a Snowberry Clearwing Moth mimicking one!

On my first summer visit with Ben, we saw a glorious Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) sipping from some of the bee balm which emerged in great waves of color across the restored meadow this summer. What a sight!

A female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail sips nectar from the great swath of bee balm that now flows across the restored meadow.

Having seen the Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio troilus) for the first time at Charles Ilsley Park a few weeks ago, I saw another male at Watershed Ridge.  The clue is the wash of blue scaling on the wings. A week later I saw another one near the shed which was either the female, which has a less intense wash of blue scaling, or a tattered male who had already lost some of his scales. That Spicebush continually tried to chase off a female Monarch (Danaus plexippus) who was patrolling the same patch of flowers last weekend. The scales on her wings looked quite worn as well. Perhaps they’d worn each other out with all that chasing! I saw some fritillaries dancing together at a distance but not close enough for a shot. But the little Orange Sulphur  (Colias eurytheme) was kind enough to pose for a few moments.

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The meadow slopes down to a sunny wetland that is probably fed by the creek running through the trees just east of the meadow. The stream bottom is bright orange, most likely a result of iron deposits in the soil. I loved how the sky was caught in the water’s surface as I looked upstream.

The resulting wetland at the meadow’s edge featured flowers that love “wet feet,” like Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium maculatum) and Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum).

With a wetland nearby, dragonflies, flying predators, swooped across the meadow on the hunt for other insects.

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A Meadow Under Restoration Gets Us Dreaming

Another view of the meadow that is slowly being restored at Watershed Ridge

Witnessing the dramatic renewal that takes place when invasive shrubs are removed from park land is simply inspirational. What else, who else might return to this lovely piece of land once the Parks and Recreation Commission has time and the funds to develop this 170 acres? What seeds are waiting in the seed bank for their turn in the sun – perhaps even this autumn when the asters in their varied lavender-to-purple blooms or other autumn wildflowers rise from the earth? What other exotic creatures like the Snowberry Clearwing Moth might be sipping at future flowers? What birds might return to nest here? The possibilities are endless as the Ben and the Parks Commission work to renew the diversity of life which is our township’s natural heritage. So much to look forward to as this park progresses over the next several years!

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.

Gallagher Creek Park: A Modest Little Park Shares Spring’s Exuberance

Gallagher Creek with lots of bright green algae running fast and wide after heavy rain.

Right now, no one would nominate Gallagher Creek Park for Oakland Township’s most scenic natural area. Last fall, the invasive shrubs that covered large areas of the park were bushwhacked to the ground. Native wildflower seeds were sown but haven’t had time to grow the deep roots they need to fully bloom.  And it’s muddy, gray early spring, after all!

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

 

But each time I’ve visited over the last few weeks, wow!  This homely little 15 acres is full of spring liveliness. Swimming, soaring, singing, sprouting – spring arrived with exuberance at Gallagher Creek Park.

 

A Muskrat Adult and its Child Enjoy the Creek and Its Fresh Greens

On my first visit to Gallagher Creek, an adult Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) busily pulled up what appeared to be bulbs at the base of some grasses in the stream. Though they don’t hibernate, muskrats spend most of the winter under the ice  feeding on the dead plant material of their “push-ups” (feeding platforms)  or lodges. Fresh greens must taste great after that! Two days later, I saw a young muskrat paddling at top speed toward the observation deck to take a closer look at me, like any curious youngster.  If you look towards the north, you can see their family winter lodge at the edge of some cat-tails. (Hover cursor for captions; click on photos to enlarge.)

Migrating Birds Make Gallagher Creek Their Summer Residence

All over this small park, birds are calling, singing and searching for nests. On my first visit, the chirping and liquid “thwick” of the Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) drew my eyes high into the bare branches of aging willows. Swooping and diving, these iridescent blue acrobats performed aerial feats before resting high in the treetops.

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Over on the bare ground of the hillock next to the parking lot, a pair of Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) scurried about, sometimes pecking at wet puddles, sometimes circling me with keening calls. Once the female seemed to be starting her shallow nest, her breast pressed against the bare earth. They often make several small scrapes (usually only 3 inches or so across) before settling on a nest site. Cornell Lab thinks it could be a way to mislead predators, as they do, of course, with their “injured wing” trick. Here’s the male (I assume) up on the edge of the hill, keeping an orange eye on me.

A Killdeer keeping a close eye on me. Those orange eyes are so striking!

The Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus) probably moved a bit south for the winter. But this “mustached” male is here now establishing a territory at Gallagher Creek, tapping on trees and making his “kwirr” call from the top of snags behind the creek. From below, you can clearly see the yellow undersides of his tail feathers. He has yellow under those elegant wings, too, like nearly all of the Northern Flickers in eastern North America.

You can see why the Northern Flicker is the eastern yellow-shafted race of the species!

Below the Northern Flicker, a pair of Common Grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) moved restlessly about the trees, making their clucks and  “squeaky gate” whistles. According to the Cornell Lab, “Common Grackles are resourceful foragers. They sometimes follow plows to catch invertebrates and mice, wade into water to catch small fish, pick leeches off the legs of turtles, steal worms from American Robins, raid nests, and kill and eat adult birds.” Now that’s an omnivore and a bit of a bandit as well!

Though Common Grackles look black from a distance, they are really iridescent bronze and blue with a staring, golden eye.

Of course, with all that water and a cat-tail marsh in the park, Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) take up residence there as well. This one, for some reason, chose to flip upside-down in his quest for cat-tail seeds.

A Red-winged Blackbird goes bottoms-up to pull some seeds from a cat-tail in the marsh.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about a European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) at Charles Ilsley Park who still sported its fall feathers with the light tips which give it a spotted look. But in Gallagher Creek Park, a week later, the tips had finally worn off this lone starling, so that its iridescence would shine for the mating season. It seemed to be gazing longingly on this cold spring afternoon, perhaps waiting for its compatriots to arrive.

This single starling won’t be alone for long. We usually see them gather in large flocks as the summer progresses.

Some Year ‘Rounders Used the Park as a Dating Hang-out

One cool afternoon, three American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) fluttered and cawed, perhaps showing off to a potential mate or simply playing together in a tree that seemed much too small for three large, shiny black birds. The intelligence of crows is legendary. These clever birds are part of the Corvid family, which also includes Blue Jays and Ravens. Cornell Lab describes just a few of the tools they occasionally create. “Examples include a captive crow using a cup to carry water over to a bowl of dry mash; shaping a piece of wood and then sticking it into a hole in a fence post in search of food; and breaking off pieces of pine cone to drop on tree climbers near a nest.”

Three crows play around a surprisingly small tree.

At the edge of Gallagher Creek two Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) floated along, occasionally dabbling for grasses below the surface in the quiet pools of the overflow.  These two would likely have paired up in the fall. Did you know that only the females quack? The male, according to Cornell Lab, only makes a “quieter, rasping one- or two-noted call.”

Spring Odds ‘n Ends

The wetland near the stream must be home to many crayfish (or crawdads if you prefer). Their chimneys appear every few feet if you walk east from the observation deck.  Little construction marvels, these chimneys are the openings to crayfish burrows. According to the America’s Wetland Foundation website, they build these chimneys by using their legs and mouth to form small balls of mud which they carry to the surface and arrange in rows like laying bricks! I’ve read that crayfish mostly forage at night, though the birding group saw one recently in the morning.  So despite all these burrows, I have yet to spot a crayfish itself at Gallagher Creek!

Crayfish “chimneys” above their burrows are plentiful right now at Gallagher Creek.

The little hill where the Killdeer scampered is littered with the pretty shells of what I think are Grove Snails (Cepaea nemoralis).  (I’m no mollusk expert, so if you are an expert please feel free to correct me!)  These lovely, whorled and striped shells are all empty. I’d read in a book called The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell that some birds consume snails, shell and all, in order to stock up on calcium for their eggs. But these are probably too large for most of our birds to swallow whole. I wonder why there are so many here?  Grove Snails are not native, but were evidently brought to the United States in the 19th century.

The empty shell of a Grove Snail (I think). Many birds eat small snails to increase their calcium before egg-laying.

In some areas of the park, Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) flowers are everywhere. Don’t get your hopes up though for gathering the fruit in June. In my experience, the animals eat them green before they can ripen for us humans!

Wild strawberry plants are bountiful at Gallagher Creek but animals generally eat the green fruit before they ripen.

A single Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera) produced long male catkins that are, as Ben put it, “pumping out pollen to pollinate the female flowers via the wind.”  Birches are “monoecius” which means they produce both male and female flowers. In the right photo, the red and yellow male inflorescence (a cluster of flowers on a stem) can pollinate the more erect, green female flowers.  Birches can pollinate themselves if there aren’t others of their species nearby, which is the case with this tree.

By early May, the long male inflorescences were sending out pollen on the wind, while the flowers in the smaller green female inflorescences were being pollinated.

In the old hedgerow that separates the two large sections of the park stands a wispy native shrub that makes clusters of spring flowers and then a spectacular air-filled seed capsule in the fall. It has the unfortunate name of Bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia)  but it’s a special native tree that is fairly unusual in our area. So laugh at the funny name and enjoy the fact that it’s here.

 

Like most wetland areas, Gallagher Creek has big bunches of Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) poking out of the mud at the edge of the stream.  Out in the eastern part of the park, after the invasive shrubs were eliminated, a large patch of Mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum) got stranded in the sunlight. Evidently, the invasive shrubs provided the shade these forest wildflowers generally love. But alas, they have lost their shade and may be diminished over time. Not to worry. Seeds of many sun-loving plants have no doubt been waiting for years in the soil for those pesky shrubs to disappear. We’ll soon see what appears now that sun is warming the soil.

 Such an Unassuming Little Park with So Much Life!

A stormy afternoon at Gallagher Creek Park.

This little park will someday have trails through prairie wildflowers and a children’s play area. But for now, each time I arrive, I wonder if I’ll see anything interesting. In the brown and gray of early spring a few weeks ago, it looked particularly unpromising. But then shining azure birds swooped overhead, the killdeer circled and called, and a curious little muskrat made a few quick passes by the observation deck to check out the strange animal with a camera. And then I was very glad I kept coming to this little corner of the township and its merry little creek. If you take the time to explore, you might feel that way, too.

Footnote:  My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell; Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3; Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia;  Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; other sites as cited in the text.

 

Charles Ilsley Park – Prairies Full of Spring Music

Looking west on the north prairie at Charles Ilsley Park

Charles Ilsley Park is slowly being returned to native prairie. Think of it as historic restoration. Before European farmers arrived, our township was mostly oak savanna – native grasses, wild flowers and widely spaced oaks. Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, has been working for three years to bring back some of that prairie habitat. Shrubby invasives have slowly been eliminated, some along tree lines just this spring. The sloping curves of the native prairie are appearing once again.

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

Some fields have been replanted with native grasses and wildflowers which must grow deep roots for several years before they fully prosper. More will be planted this year. The land rolls gently, surrounded by a beautiful dark forest. Birds sing from the hedgerows and scuttle across the open ground. Wood frogs chorus joyously from a nearby wetland. A spring stroll around the rolling landscape of Ilsley is an auditory as well as a visual treat. So try clicking on some of the links below (and then page down to recordings)  so you can share the sounds of spring.

Summer Birds Find Us Again

The migrators are winging their way back to us on warm south winds. The Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) again soar above the fields, gathering tiny midges in their open beaks.  Luckily, they can also eat plant foods which allows them to return early in the spring. Both males and females sing in what Cornell calls “a chirp, a whine and a gurgle.” My favorite part is the gurgle which I call a “liquid thwick.” See what you think. Aren’t these Swallows a gorgeous blue?

Tree Swallows soar with their beaks open to scoop up little flying insects – but they eat plant food more often in early spring.

In the western field, the Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) scoots among the furrows of the open field, pauses and then scoots on again. Its orange rump flashes as it flies and its piercing “kill-deer” call (under “flight call” at the link) carries a long way. Killdeers have the large eye, short beak and round head characteristic of other plovers, but unlike their shorebird relatives, they can be quite content in a sunny field.

A Killdeer scurries along a ridge in a fallow field at Charles Ilsley Park.

Killdeer are famous for distracting predators from their shallow, ground nests by faking a broken wing. Our sharp-eyed birder friend Antonio Xeira spotted a killdeer nest last year at Gallagher Creek Park. Be on the look-out! These nests are easy to miss!

A Killdeer’s nest and eggs at Gallagher Creek in late April 2016.

Of course the buzzing trill of male Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus), their red and yellow epaulets flashing, can be heard everywhere now. The brown and white striped females, perhaps reluctant to leave winter feeding grounds south of Michigan, are just beginning to arrive, while the male below may have been here for several weeks.

A male Red-winged Blackbird with just a bit of his red and yellow epaulet showing.

High in the treeline,  the drumming and the fast wik-wik-wik territorial call of the Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) echoes across the bare ground. At last I spotted a “mustached” male on the ground poking his serrated tongue  into an old ant hill. Although they’re woodpeckers, Flickers spend lots of time on the ground probing for ants, their favorite food. Stan Tekiela in the Birds of Michigan Field Guide, identifies Flickers as non-migrators or “partial migrators,” meaning they move south when food become scarce. I seem to see them only after spring arrives. Eastern North America hosts yellow-shafted Northern Flickers, while red-shafted Flickers are found in the western part of the continent.

The black mustache, called a malar, is a sign that this is a male, yellow-shafted Northern Flicker.  He’s probing for ants in an old ant mound.

Male Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia) trill all over the park. This one emerged from the brambles to perch on a stump, tilted his head back a bit (not as far as some song sparrows do) and sang his territorial song. Song Sparrows are chubby little birds and the stripes on their breasts usually gather into a central spot. Their song starts out with several short notes and then a rat-a-tat-tat kind of sewing machine trill. (Click on photos to enlarge, hover cursor for captions.)

The cleaning crew has arrived. Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) silently ride thermals high into the air or swoop lower to sniff for the scent of a carcass. These huge birds prevent disease for the rest of us by cleaning up any carrion they spot from above. According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab, their immune systems are impervious to even the worst toxins including botulism, anthrax, cholera, or salmonella! The paler feathers at the tip of their dark wings, including the “finger feathers” seen here,  let the sun shine through, giving the false impression that their wings are banded in a lighter color.

The turkey vulture soars above the prairies below, preparing to clean the park of unhealthy, unsightly carrion.

Some Not-quite-native Summer Visitors

Non-native birds, like non-native plants, most often arrive in new places because of human activity. These two species came here in rather interesting ways.

Originally a western grassland bird that followed buffalo herds, the Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater) adapted to their nomadic life by laying their eggs in other birds’ nests instead of building their own. As settlers cleared forests in eastern North America for towns and agriculture,  cowbirds expanded their range eastward. Grazing cattle and plowing probably stir up as many insects as buffalo, right? Cowbirds give more of a gurgle and squeak than a song. Here are two male cowbirds doing characteristic dominance displays – head tilt (beak skyward) and plumping the feathers. Pretty hilarious, eh? The lower one looks like a plush toy!

Two male cowbirds doing dominance displays.

Female Cowbirds establish territories and choose the most dominant male, according to Donald Stoke’s Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.2). They can lay as many as 3 dozen eggs in a summer because, though some birds accept the eggs and raise the young, others peck them or push them from their nests. Here’s a newly arrived female checking out the males.

The modestly gray female Cowbird often sits high in the tree tops watching for a good bird’s nest in which to lay her eggs. Here she’s in bush, assessing the males.

We commonly see  European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) along telephone lines or swooping together in huge flocks called “murmurations.” These birds all descend from 100 individuals brought to New York’s Central Park in the 1890s  by Shakespeare devotees who believed America should have every bird mentioned by the Bard!  Starlings can be  very aggressive about taking over favored nesting sites from other birds and now number in the millions.  This starling at Charles Ilsley Park still has some of the feathers with light tips that gave it a spotted look after the fall molt. But as spring progresses, those tips will wear off, leaving its feathers dark and iridescent. Its beak is also changing from autumn gray to summer yellow.

100 European Starlings, imported by Shakespeare enthusiasts in the 1890s, now number about 200 million from Alaska to Mexico, according to the Cornell Lab.

The Year ‘Round Avian Welcoming Committee

Many of the sturdy birds who kept us company during the winter join the spring chorus as well. Of course, I couldn’t resist another shot of an Eastern Bluebird  (Sialia sialis)!  Here’s the link to its spring song.

A male Eastern Bluebird at Charles Ilsley Park.

Some American Robins (Turdus migratorius) stay here all winter, eating berries and other frozen fruits. Others move a little south and come back intermittently depending on the weather. According to Cornell Lab, Robins tend to eat more earthworms in the morning and more fruit in the afternoon. This one probed the wet edge of a vernal pool formed at the bottom of a slope after heavy rains.  The Robin’s “cheer up” call  accompanies any walker in all township parks right now.

An alert American Robin stops to listen while probing the wet soil around the edge of a vernal pool at the bottom of a slope.

Woodpeckers provide the rhythm section as they establish their territories. Here a Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) pauses from his drumming to pose at the top of a snag (standing dead tree.) The Red-belly’s  wet-sounding “Kwir” call sounded from the trees lining the fields and from the edge of the forest.

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker stops drumming long enough to pose at the top of snag.

Speaking of Woodpeckers, look at these fresh Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) holes in a native Wild Black Cherry tree (Prunus serotina)!  Wish I’d seen this huge bird whose drumming is as loud as a jack hammer!  Its call is often confused with the Red-bellied Woodpecker who drums much more quietly. By the way, Ben says that the way to identify these black cherry trees is to look for bark that resembles burnt potato chips. Good description!

The holes of a Pileated Woodpecker in a Wild Black Cherry tree. These woodpeckers tend to make large, often rectangular holes.

The loud, nasal “ank, ank, ank” call of the White Breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) can be heard year ’round as it circles  the upper and lower sides of branches, searching for insects or stashing seeds and nuts. Cornell Lab claims that its name resulted from its habit of whacking at nuts and seeds, “hatching” them from their shells before eating or storing them.

The classic pose of the White-Breasted Nuthatch as it forages for insects. Listen for its loud “ank, ank” call.

The Other Chorus:  Wood Frogs!

Hundreds of Wood Frogs chorused in the wetland beyond this little stream at the north end of Charles Ilsley Park.

After the heavy rains of late March and early April, a swollen, muddy stream edged Ilsley Park on its north side.  Across from the old Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa) in the photo above, on the stream’s far bank, orange-tipped Willows filled a large wetland.  And below them sung hundreds of little Wood Frogs (Rana sylvatica).

Wood Frogs have a black stripe running through their eye and their song is low and sounds a bit like your thumb running over a comb.

If you turn your volume up, below you should hear some individual Wood Frogs singing in the foreground and a mighty chorus in the background that sounds like a purring engine!  I don’t think I’ve heard so many in one place before! You may need to turn up your volume to get the full effect.

Nearby, an old stump was draped in two shades of thick, intensely green Moss (div. Bryophyta).  Moss, an ancient plant,  usually dries and bleaches in winter cold but turns green and lush quickly in spring rain – long before the trees have leafed out.  David George Haskill, in The Forest Unseen, describes mosses’ gift for using and holding water. “Grooves on the surface of stems wick water from the mosses’ wet interiors to their dry tips, like tissue paper dipped in a spill.  The miniature stems are felted with water-hugging curls, and their leaves are studded with bumps that create a large surface for clinging water.  The leaves clasp the stem at just the right angle to hold a crescent of water.” They must have loved our wet spring!

A stump draped in two shades of brilliant green moss.

Curiosity about the red stalks on moss prompted me to check out moss sexual reproduction  (I know – the oddest things intrigue me). Moss sperm cells swim to the eggs by being washed along by rain. Once the eggs are fertilized at the tip of a green moss plant, a new plant begins to grow in place to form the red “sporophytes” seen in the photo below. Those red capsules at the end of the erect stalks (called setae) hold the spores. The capsule won’t open to release the ripened spores until the weather is dry enough to carry them on a breeze. If a spore falls on damp soil, voilá. A moss plant is born. They also multiply in asexual ways, like fragments breaking off to start new plants.

I’ve always loved the upside down world of mud puddle reflections. This large mud puddle, the classic sign of spring, had a surprise in store for me.

Trees reflected in a very large mud puddle in the middle of a trail.

As I skirted it, a huge Garter Snake  (g. Thamnopsis) wove its way out right between my feet and swam across the puddle. I think it’s the longest garter snake I’ve ever seen.

A large Garter Snake slid between my feet, heading for a swim across a large puddle on the trail. Good swimmer!

Charles Ilsley Park Preserves Our Past for the Future

Eastern Meadowlark photo by Greg Lasly. Some rights reserved (CC-BY-NC)

With hard work and some luck, Charles Ilsley Park will eventually offer township residents an authentic experience of this area before European migration. Its undulating fields will fill with native grasses and wildflowers. Perhaps birds not often seen here, like the Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna) in Greg Lasly’s amazing photo above, will  more frequently whistle its plaintive song over the sloping hills.  (I’ve only caught a brief glimpse once with the our birding group.) Or perhaps we’ll enjoy the Bobolink’s (Dolichonyx oryzivorus) long, bubbling song. Now declining in numbers, the  Northern Bobwhite Quail (Colinus virginianus) may once  again bring its simple two-note “Bob-white!”  to the park, a sound that meant “summer” here in my childhood. These birds and others need the open, sunny grasslands that the Dr. Ben is working hard to provide. I’m enjoying  Ilsley’s slow prairie transformation and look forward to even richer, more diverse bird serenades as the years go by.

Footnote:  My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: 
iNaturalist.org for periodic photos;; 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.

Draper Twin Lake Park: Dashes of Color and Ice Artistry Livened Up the January Thaw

Skaters just before the January thaw started at Draper Lake
Skaters just before the January thaw started at Draper Lake

Snow, ice, sleet, rain – all the elements of Michigan’s traditional “January thaw.” Sigh…Gray skies day after day make me crave color! On multiple jaunts at Draper Twin Lake Park  – some icy, some muddy – I sought it out.

Blog and photos by Cam Mannino
Blog and photos by
Cam Mannino

As usual, the mushrooms provided a surprising splash of color here and there. Birds in varying shades of red relieved winter’s gray. And changing ice designs added a bit of artistry to every visit. Hey, we take what we can get in beauty at this time of year, right?

Along the Path to the Eastern Marsh:  Red Birds, Yellow Mushrooms and Blue Shadows

A Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) drummed noisily on a telephone pole on the eastern side of the park. Let’s hope this male had a cozy hole to spend the  winter night; the starlings, twittering in a thicket nearby, are known for absconding with holes created by Red-Bellies. This guy’s red cap glowed against a gray sky – a good omen for someone questing for color on a dark day!

Red-belly Woodpecker Draper on telephone pole
A Red-bellied Woodpecker atop a telephone pole on the east side of Draper Twin Lake Park

On the way to the marsh, a chorus of House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) chirped from the shrubbery. These gregarious birds with their rosy males added both color and the friendly sound of their “chatting” to the gray quiet. House Finches pause to busily crush the seeds they find with quick bites, making them easier to spot and photograph.

house-finches-4
A group of House Finches chirped among the shrubs on the path to the marsh on Draper’s east end.

A male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) added a gorgeous dash of scarlet as he darted among the shrubs along the marsh edge at the bottom of the trail.

cardinal-male
The scarlet of a male Cardinal offers a welcome break from gray on a winter’s day.

While at the marsh, I was surprised to hear what I think was the call of a Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) in the distance. The birders saw one at Charles Ilsley Park the previous week but I’ve never seen one in the middle of winter. If you listen to the “Rolling rattle call” at this Cornell Lab link, you’ll hear what I heard far away on a wintry day. Here’s a flicker I saw in early spring last year.

flicker-walnut-lane-1
A Northern Flicker could be heard in Draper Park last week, but I never saw it. This photo is from the previous spring.

Out on the ice, a graceful swoop of marsh sedges turned blue and silver in the shadows.

Frosted reeds Draper Marsh
The sedges in the marsh seemed tinged with blue in the shadows of a winter afternoon.

On a log near the marsh, a bright patch of yellow polypore/shelf mushrooms glowed under the edge of a log.  One of the reasons I love wetlands is that summer and winter,  they reward any hiker with colorful birds and mushrooms.

yellow-polypore-mushroom
Yellow polypore mushrooms on a log near the eastern marsh at Draper.

Out on Draper’s Northern Prairie

The Prairie Restoration on the northeastern part of the park looked very different than it did when the trees glowed with autumn color. (Click on images to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

But birds were there too. Flocks of modestly dressed winter visitors – Dark-Eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) and American Tree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea) – hopped down from small bare trees and bushes, chattering away as they foraged on the ground.

That bit of leaf in the Junco’s beak may be result of flipping things over to look for seeds. The seeds of two native wildflowers left in the field looked as though they may have provided some sustenance. The seed pod of Wild Senna (Senna hebecarpa) on the left below and the dried inflorescence of a late-flowering Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) on the right are both native plants sown in 2015 by Ben VanderWeide, our Stewardship Manager, to restore the prairie, using a grant from the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Over the crest of a slope on the rolling prairie, a slow, lumbering Possum (Didelphis virginiana) nosed its way along the edge of the field. It appeared to be searching for seeds or earthworms on the wet earth exposed by the thaw. Possums don’t hibernate and are generally nocturnal, but there it was in morning light. Possums feign death (“playing possum”) when extremely frightened – but they’ll fight first –  so be wary of their sharp teeth. North America’s only marsupial, possums raise their infants in the female’s pouch for about two and a half months. Later, the babies, up to 13 of them, can be seen draped over their mother’s back as she goes about her business.

Possum Draper
A possum out foraging after rain on a winter morning

In a tree at the edge of the prairie one morning, a lone Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) blended its soft pinks with the gentle shades of the winter landscape.

Mourning Dove
A Mourning Dove’s colors blend with the shades of a winter morning.

Along the Western Path to Draper Lake

The western path was a bright glare of ice on my first January trip to the pond. At the edge of the parking lot, a dead branch still sported orange polypore/shelf mushrooms, just as it did  in the fall.  Amazing how hardy these fungi are in cold weather!

Orange Polypore Mushrooms Closeup Draper
The orange polypore (“shelf”) mushrooms survived the cold intact, perhaps even getting a bit more orange!

 

A stick covered in a mosaic of green and blue lichen and a nearby patch of leafy (foliose) lichen caught my eye.  Lichen are intriguing, because they are a “composite organism” made up of algae and/or cyanobacteria living among filaments of a fungus in a symbiotic relationship. The fungus provides protection for the algae and gathers moisture and nutrients.  The algae uses those nutrients and energy from the sun, and through photosynthesis produces food (carbohydrates) for both itself and the fungus. These ancient organisms occur from alpine regions to sea level in all kinds of shapes (morphologies). The more delicate forms of lichens are very sensitive to air pollution (bio-indicators), which is why you will only find flatter forms that colonize rocks and branches in areas with more air pollution. In areas with cleaner air you’ll find more delicate, branching lichens. I’m just glad they gave me some varying shades of  green and blue on a wintry day.

Near the pond during a bird walk, a bright yellow mushroom beckoned in the distance. How’s this for a bit of sunshine on a moist winter morning? I’m no expert at mushrooms, as readers know. To me, it looks like kernels of corn. But I think this one’s common name is “Witches’ Butter,” Dacrymyces palmata (Fungi get more imaginative names than plants do…). Any mycologists out there who can verify that for me?

yellow-mushroom-2
What may be “Witches Butter” mushrooms on a log near Draper Twin Lake

Lovely russet  patterns formed on the path, made  from White Pine needles (Pinus strobus) and a variety of leaves embedded in ice near the lake.

A strange ice sculpture took shape along the floating deck at the lake. I dubbed it the “Sunny Side Up” formation when I first saw it on an icy day. When I came back with the birders 10 days later, the surface ice had melted down, leaving the “yolk” standing in 3-D surrounded by icy ridges where the outline of the “egg white” once was. Wonder what created this interesting bulge in the ice?

Twice I came across ice fishermen out on the lake.  On the first visit, a man was unloading his sled full of equipment way off in the distance on the far side of the lake, while skaters glided about in the winter sunshine.

Three days after these skating scenes, the melt had begun and the rains came. The surface of the lake turned from white to gray, with inches of water standing on ice.

The lake after a thaw and rain but enough ice to support two ice fisherman (not pictured) sloshing along the surface.
The lake after a thaw and rain but enough ice to support two ice fisherman (not pictured) sloshing along the surface.

I saw (but didn’t photograph for some reason!) two fisherman walking out into that sloshing mess,  confident about the ice underneath. A strange sight! It looked like two men walking on water!

The last day I visited the park with the birders, the ice had developed a crackled surface. Quite a wonderful abstract design, but not one that would encourage venturing out onto the ice!

Crackled ice
Abstract design on ice created by Mother Nature – and a few skaters and ice fishermen

Later that week as the snow began to fall again, a Tufted Titmouse paused for a few moments in a nearby bush. One of these little birds fooled the experienced birders in our Wednesday bird group by seeming to mimic the “cheer” call of a Carolina Wren. According to the Sibley Guides website, Titmice have a wide variety of songs so maybe this is one of them.  Quite a performance, anyway.

Tufted titmouse as snow falls
Tufted titmouse as the snow fell

Beauty Reveals Itself When We Seek for It

Ice Design Buell and Lk George
Ice design at Buell and Lake George Roads

On my way home from Draper Twin Lake Park one morning, I stopped to admire a “modern art” ice shape in a pond at the corner of Buell and Lake George Roads.  It could almost have been a composition by Matisse or maybe Paul Klee. For much of my life, I missed the details as I hiked through a landscape. The camera encouraged me to look more closely. Now nature gifts me with surprises – the quizzical tilt of a dragonfly’s head, the spiral of seeds in a flower head and this winter, odd ice designs and strokes of color within winter’s gray and white world.

But a camera isn’t necessary.  An observant pair of curious eyes is all we really need to notice the beauty that might otherwise be missed, especially in a January thaw.

Footnote:  My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: 
Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; 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).

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Young Creatures Explore among High Summer Flowers

 

Yound doe w two fawns
A small doe with her two fawns, one nursing, on the path behind the Center Pond one hot Sunday afternoon

Take a walk down the Walnut Lane in the center of Bear Creek. Contemplate the marsh on an early July morning when the heat is building for a blistering afternoon. Laugh at the bulging yellow throats expelling frog song at the Center Pond.

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino
Blog post and photos
by Cam Mannino

You simply can’t miss summer youngsters sallying forth to explore the world. Frog eggs, fledglings, fawns, ducklings, floating, flying or running with tails in the air – young creatures are setting out to explore their world.  And the wildflowers!! The flowers that declare “IT’S SUMMER!” are spattering color across the meadows, under the trees and  along the damp shores of the wetlands. It’s a season for hot sun, cool shade, “bug juice” protection after a rain – and celebrating all the life just burgeoning forth all around you.

High Summer in the Meadows

Up on the highest point, overlooking the rolling old fields of Bear Creek, tall native flowers sway and nod in the summer sunlight. Native Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) established its giant, sandpaper-and-leather leaves (up to 1.5 feet high and 1 ft wide!) last month.

prairie dock leaf and bud
Prairie Dock’s giant leaf with the stem and bud just forming earlier in the summer

Prairie Dock thrives after fire, so this spring’s prescribed burn really encouraged this wonderful native plant. It may be that it grows tall in order to get its flowers above tall prairie grasses, like Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) which is also sprouting around the park since the burn. Naked Prairie Dock stems shoot up to 10 feet in the air topped by ball-shaped buds and bright yellow flowers. All kinds of bees probe the blossoms – and occasionally hummingbirds and as well, according to the website  www.illinoiswildflowers.info (a fave site for detailed wildflower information).

Prairie Dock
The bare stems of native Prairie Dock with ball-shaped buds and bright yellow flowers shoot up to 10 feet in the air!

Just below them, the Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) dance with every passing breeze. These prairie natives actually prefer dry soil and are easy to grow if you’re considering a native garden. Just give them plenty of sun!

Purple coneflower
Native yellow coneflower is blooming below and around the giant Prairie Dock up on the south hill.

Along the trails, Wild Bee Balm/Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) also welcomes bees, of course. In fact one small bee (Monarda dufourea) specializes in pollinating this native member of the mint family.

Bee balm, Menarda
Wild Bee Balm/Bergamot is a native that attracts all kinds of bees, even one who specializes in it!

Brilliant orange Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) dots the fields with its bright orange fireworks. This native, often mistaken for the western plant Indian Paintbrush , lives up to its name. Butterflies love it, Monarchs included. Mammals avoid it, so it also gets planted in native gardens.

Butterfly milkweed
Butterfly milkweed dots the fields with its orange fireworks and makes graceful, curved seedpods in the autumn.

Of course, the fields are full of summer birds and their young as well. A male Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) hopped from limb to limb at the far edge of the Eastern Path, busy finding insects for his young who fluttered along behind (juvenile not pictured here.)

Oriole BC
A Baltimore Oriole busily searches for insects to feed his young.

I caught a photo of what appears to be a Baltimore Oriole fledgling venturing out to find food on her own one rainy morning.

Oriole juvenile female wet
Young Baltimore Oriole exploring the world one rainy morning.

A male Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater)  postured in a tree, throwing his head back to impress a competitor who assiduously ignored him.

Cowbird males posturing
One Brown-headed Cowbird male trying, and evidently failing, to impress another.

After repeatedly seeing the flashing white patch above the tail of Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus) as they fly up from the field to the trees in Bear Creek, I finally caught one sitting in the grass near home. These elegantly colored woodpeckers most often eat on the ground, probing for ants in the soil with their long beaks and then licking them up quickly with their barbed tongues.

Flicker male in the grass
The black “mustache” means this Northern Flicker, searching for ants in the grass, is a male.

In the distance, almost any time of day, the sweet summer song of the Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus ), spills from the treetops. Some compare its intricate song to a Robin singing opera! I especially love the evening version, which to my ear, seems softer than the daytime song.

Rose breasted Grosbeak male
The Rose-breasted Grosbeak sings his lovely, intricate song off and on all day, and to my ear, a mellower version at sunset.

Male House Finches also sing cheerily in small bushes and trees. Their red feathers seem particularly intense this year which Cornell Lab says is due to the pigment in their diet during their spring molt. Something certainly livened up the color of this male!

House finch male
The bright red of this male House Finch is created by the pigments in its diet during the molt.

The female House Finch wears a more sedate outfit. Here’s one fluffing up her feathers in preparation for some serious preening.

House Finch female taking off
A female House Finch prepares for preening her wing feathers..

Butterflies also grace the meadows as they flutter among the blossoms.  Though we associate Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) with their importance to Monarchs (Danaus plexippus), this native plant  hosts myriad butterflies.  Here a male Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) sips its nectar on a hot afternoon.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail male
A male Eastern Tiger Swallowtail has blue patches with orange spots at the edge of its beautifully striped wings.

And nearby, a Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele) did the same.  It’s wonderful how native plants provide a natural food source for so much of our native wildlife.

Great spangled frittilary 2
A Great Spangled Fritillary probes for nectar on native Common Milkweed along the Eastern Path.

This fancy insect, the Red Milkweed Beetle ((Tetraopes tetrophthalmus), is munching the milkweed’s leaves.  Doesn’t it look like a cartoon bug with its  ruffled skirt and lo-o-ong, curved “horns”?

Red Milkweed Beetle (Family Cerambycidae)
The Red Milkweed Beetle is toxic from eating milkweed and its bright colors warn predators of that fact.

According to the “Bug Lady” at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, “Adult RMBs…can get away with being red and black in a green world because milkweeds are toxic, and so, therefore, are RMBs, and red and black are … aposematic (warning) colors.” If insects intrigue you, as they occasionally do me, read more about this cool bug at the Bug Lady’s link. This insect evidently “purrs,” wipes its face on a leaf if it gets too much “milk” on its mouth to prevent having it glued shut (!) and has a really interesting life cycle!

On the other side of the park, native Staghorn Sumac‘s (Rhus typhina )scarlet fruits  are already shining among deep green leaves at the edge of the Western Slope.

Sumac
The glamorous red fruits of the Staghorn Sumac on the western edge of the park.

High Summer Between the Sunny Fields and the Shade

As you stroll toward the more moist and shady areas of the park, other creatures and wildflowers greet you as you move in and out of the bright sunlight and shade. A beautiful milkweed that loves having moist “feet,” the Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) grows among the reeds and cat-tails along the Eastern Path and across the boardwalk from the Playground Pond. Ben VanderWeide, our township Stewardship Manager, tells me that it makes a better garden plant than Common Milkweed, because this pretty plant grows in well-behaved clumps.  Here’s one about to bloom.

Swamp Milkweed
A Swamp Milkweed about to bloom. Some lovers of native wildflowers are hoping to give it the more glamorous name, “Rose Milkweed.” I vote yes!

And another beautiful native member of the  milkweed family  is also about to bloom. Spotted Joe Pye (Eutrochium maculatum) now shows its blushing green leaves and soon its pink blossoms and purple stems will be ready for close viewing at the southern entrance to Bear Creek Marsh.

Joe Pye not yet blooming
Joe Pye will soon be blooming near the deck at the southern entrance to Bear Creek Marsh.

Of course non-natives add splashes of color at the moist border between field and forest, as well. Settlers brought to their gardens many plants with “wort” in their name, believing they had medicinal value.  Here are a couple non-native “wort” plants – Common St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) on the left and Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) on the right. (Hover cursor for caption; click to enlarge.)

A creature that loves dappled light,  an Ebony Jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata), pauses for a moment in bright sunlight, showing the complex color of those normally very dark wings. This seems to be a female because her abdomen is not metallic blue like the male and her wings are tipped with white dots.

Ebony jewelwing damselfly
A female  Ebony Jewelwing damselfly has a duller abdomen and white dots on the tips of her wings.

One morning while birding on the northern loop of the park, a Ctencuha Moth landed on Ben and posed for a few moments.  What a striking moth with dark wings set off by yellow and light blue on the thorax and head – and its iridescent blue body blazes forth when it takes flight!

Ctenucha Moth lands on Ben
This beautiful Ctenucha Moth has an iridescent blue body best seen when it flies.

High Summer in the Pond and the Marsh

Of course, really wet areas of Bear Creek  have high summer flora and fauna all their own. Hundreds of Green Frogs (Rana clamitans) emerged last week. And suddenly all you could see at the Center Pond were their bulging yellow throats as they produced what could literally be called “full-throated” frogsong. There were so many that they were chasing each other through the water in competition for mates.

Apparently, some Green Frogs are already laying eggs. In this photo, each dark dot is a frog embryo surrounded by protective, clear “jelly” in a mass which is called “frogspawn.”   Each female frog can lay from 1,000 to 7,000 eggs – but only about five become adult frogs. Frog eggs and tadpoles are a food source for many creatures – fish, birds, and dragonflies among others. About a week from now,  the tiny tadpoles will emerge.

Frog eggs w water strider
Frog eggs float in their gelatin just below the water surface at the Center Pond while  Water Striders (family Gerridae) move across the surface above.

It appears that the family of Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) that we birders saw earlier at the Playground Pond may have moved to the Center Pond as the fledglings became juveniles. At the far west of the pond, a female carefully supervised five youngsters as they splashed and fed.

Wood duck family
A female Wood Duck supervised her five youngsters as they fed and splashed in the Center Pond.

The Center Pond also had a dragonfly visitor that I hadn’t identified before.  The usual residents, like the Dot-tailed Whiteface Dragonfly (Leucorrhinia intacta), were accompanied by a pair of Blue Dashers (Pachydiplax longipennis) who took turns perching on a branch protruding from the water. This male had probably been nearby since hatching in May, when his abdomen would have been darker blue, but as this dragonfly ages,  it “develops a coating of waxy cells that lighten it,” according to my insect “guru,” the University of Wisconsin’s “Bug Lady.”  

Blue dasher male dragonfly Pachydiplax longipennis
The Blue Dasher dragonfly’s dark blue abdomen gets paler as the summer wears on. Its head, though, is a lively blue/green and its thorax is beautifully striped.

Before the rains came to break the long dry spell, the Bear Creek Marsh had gone dry, leaving an unhappy young Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) stranded in the drying mud. It was still moving but very slowly. It looked much happier two days later after a long, overnight rain put some water back into the marsh!

One hot Sunday afternoon, my husband and I spotted an unfamiliar bird across the water near the reeds. I didn’t get a great shot; my lens just didn’t reach far enough. I’m not sure if this is sandpiper or some other shore bird, but I’m open to suggestions. [Edit:  Expert birder Ruth Glass identifies this bird as a Solitary Sandpiper (Tringa solitaria). Thank you, Ruth!]

Common Sandpiper in the Marsh?
I saw this shore bird in the distance at the marsh. Anybody have an ID suggestion? [Edit: Expert birder Ruth Glass identified this as a Solitary Sandpiper]
The marsh, too, has its high summer blooms. Sedges of various kinds sink their roots in the mud around the northern deck. I’m getting more interested in the wide variety of these ancient plants from the genus Carex. Common Bur-Reed plants are decorated with spiky spherical fruits. Aren’t they cool shapes?

Button Bush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), a native shrub  with its Sputnik-style blooms, clusters near both entrances to the marsh. Its sputnik-like blooms decorate wetlands and attract native insects all summer and its fruits feed birds throughout the autumn and winter.

button bush bloom closeup
Closeup of a Buttonbush blossom

Fresh new Cat-tail heads are developing in the marsh. Male flowers cluster in the spike at the top of the stem, while tiny female flowers form in the thicker section below. While the native species is a beneficial wetland plant, the non-native invasive cattails are often aggressive, especially where lots of nutrients from lawns and roads drain into wetlands.

Cat-tails
Cat-tails have male flowers in the spike at the top, female flowers in the thicker section below.

And near the marsh, another summer native, Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), peeks out of the shade into the sunlight. The stems of this wildflower can reduce the effects of poison ivy if mashed and rubbed against the skin, according to the National Institutes of Health.  I just like how it looks! Bees and hummingbirds like the nectar inside.

Jewel weed
Jewelweed is also called Touch-me-not, because when mature, the seeds shoot out if touched.

A Perfect Time for Youngsters to Meet Youngsters

Patch of common milkweed
A patch of Common Milkweed on the Eastern Path

A breezy, warm afternoon is a perfect time to introduce a child you love to some of nature’s youngsters hatching, flying, swimming and leaping through Bear Creek Nature Park.  And along the way, children can sniff the flowers (no picking!), stick a finger in the frogspawn (eeww!), try to imitate birdsong, analyze the clouds – whatever suits the child’s fancy.   Nature can fill children with delight, laughter, and wonder if they’re allowed to explore like other small creatures. Hope you and your curious youngsters get acquainted with Bear Creek’s wild youngsters and both get to spread their wings and explore high summer in the park.

Footnote:  My sources for information are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991); Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for insect info; http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info; invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman; experienced birder Ruth Glass, bird walk leader at Stoney Creek Metro Park for bird identification; Birds of North America Online; Audubon.org; Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, Trees in My Forest by Bernd Heinrich, Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, Savannah River Ecology Lab (Univ of Georgia); Tortoise Trust website www.tortoisetrust.org;  An Orchard Invisible: A Natural History of Seeds by Jonathan Silvertown; The Ecology of Plants by Gurevitch, Scheiner and Fox; other sites as cited in the text.

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Shrimp, Clams?? Yes! Plus Plenty of Spring

Quite a week at Bear Creek!  It began with 3 inches of snow at  30 degrees and ended at 70 degrees and sunshine! I began the week by joining Ben and two other volunteers (Catherine Hu and Antonio Xeira) in monitoring the creatures that live in our vernal pools – the wetlands that fill in the spring and mostly or completely dry by middle or end of the summer. I’ll be sharing both my photos this week and, with his permission,  the photos of Antonio Xeira, an avid birder from Portugal and a fellow lover of the natural world.

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino
Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

It turns out that Bear Creek’s vernal pools are teeming with life!  And new life began to assert itself in the rest of the park, too,  as the weather warmed. The first woodland flowers thrust out of the earth,  a few more migratory birds rode in on the wind, butterflies spread their wings in the sunlight, turtles basked and swam while the frogs  sang and salamanders left floats of eggs in the vernal pools. Finally, on a perfect spring Saturday, humans appeared on the playground lawn enjoying the spring sunlight with their fellow creatures.  A lovely week.

Who Knew Bear Creek Hosted Shrimp and Clams?

Antonio and Catherine OT0002
Volunteers Catherine Hu and Antonio Xeira examine their finds from a vernal pool.

Michigan Natural Features Inventory is leading a project to map and monitor vernal pools, something never done in Michigan before. Since these wetlands dry up for part of the year, they are particularly vulnerable to being filled in. But scientists are finding that vernal pools are “biodiversity hotspots” of the forests. Late fall or early spring flooding of these pools stimulates dormant creatures to awake and others to hatch as the water level rises. The “indicator species,” the ones normally present in a vernal pool, are, among others,  wood frogs, fairy shrimp,and a variety of salamanders.  We sampled four ponds and found evidence of these species.

Fairy Shrimp (Order Anostraca) are .5 to 1.5 inches long, swim upside down and look like a tiny version of the shrimp sold at the seafood counter!  According to the website of the Vernal Pool Association, their sets of 11 leaf-like legs do several things – propel them through the water, gather food (algae, bacteria etc.), and take in oxygen from the water.

Fairy shrimp3 OT0019
Fairy shrimp from a vernal pool

Here’s a female with an egg sac attached, and eggs visible inside!

Fairy shrimp OT0001
A female fairy shrimp with full egg sack attached.

Of course there are other small creatures in these ponds too – tiny Fingernail Clams (family Sphaeriidae), mosquito larvae and water beetles that row around with their front legs like oars! (Click to enlarge; hover cursor for captions)

Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus) love these ponds. We found brown ones and one tiny rust-colored one underneath a log. They come in varying shades of brown and, according to Wikipedia,  some are able to change their shade! (Both photos by Antonio Xeira)

The salamanders had already mated, laid their eggs in the water and disappeared under logs or leaf litter. But their egg sacks, attached to twigs, were pretty impressive!  Ben thinks the larger egg masses are Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum), with Blue-spotted Salamanders (Ambystoma laterale) laying smaller egg masses or individual eggs.

Meanwhile in the Sunshine…Birds!

More migratory birds are passing through to cooler climes or coming to spend their summer with us. One late afternoon on the far side of the Center Pond, I watched a Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) perch, watch carefully and suddenly dip down into the water with a rattling call.  Belted Kingfishers excavate 3-6 foot bank-side tunnels for nesting which slope upward to keep out water. Fossils indicate that they have graced ponds for 600,000 years! This fellow was a male; a female has a rust-colored belt across her belly, making her one of the few female birds who are fancier than the males.

Belted Kingfisher 2
A Belted Kingfisher makes a rattling call before dipping down to eat from the Center Pond.

The Kingfisher will spend the summer with us, as will the Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus).  These beautifully spotted birds can be identified  in flight by a flash of white on their rump.  They’re high in the trees now, probably searching out nest holes. But since ants and beetles are a favorite meal, you can spot them poking their long beaks and barbed tongues into lawns or trails too.

Flicker Walnut Lane
An unusual posture for a flicker who normally uses its barbed tongue and long beak to probe the ground for ants and beetles.

A tiny migrant arrived this week too, the hyper-active Ruby-Crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula). With a constantly flicking tail, these restless birds move from branch to branch, rarely alighting for more than a few seconds. This one is just passing through on its way to breed somewhere in Canada.  Its “ruby crown” only appears when it’s excited so I guess this one felt relaxed, despite its hyper behavior.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet
This Ruby-crowned Kinglet is just stopping by on its way to spend the breeding season in Canada.

A pair of Eastern Phoebes (Sayornis phoebe) hung out near the kiosk at Gunn Road. They were clearly checking it out as a possible nest site. Once she starts laying eggs, however, the female will chase this male away from her mud-and-grass nest.

Phoebe BC
A pair of Phoebes were checking out the kiosk near Gunn Road as a possible nesting site.

I don’t often see American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) at Bear Creek during the winter, though they stay in the area.  My theory is that they’re all at neighborhood thistle feeders! But admittedly, they’re easier to spot now that the males have donned their bright yellow summer feathers.

Goldfinch BC
A male American Goldfinch has molted into its bright summer colors.

Flowers and Butterflies – It’s Definitely Spring!

Most years, I don’t see any woodland flowers until later in spring. The earliest to emerge are usually Spring Beauties (Claytonia virginica). But right now at Bear Creek, those lovely little flowers have only their leaves coming out of the ground in the dappled light of the woods.  But another of my early spring favorites, with the un-poetic name Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), is blooming along the western side of the Northern Loop. Notice how the flowers arise before the furled leaf below has opened – unusual in plants. The leaf will make a circular cloak around the flower once it’s fully open.

Blood root BC
The leaves of the Bloodroot unfurl after the flowers appear, eventually making a round cloak around the blossom.

Two butterflies fluttered over my shoulder on Saturday. Both of them spent the winter months as adult butterflies, hibernating in a frozen state under loose bark or in tree cavities. Mourning Cloaks are frequently the first butterflies out and about  in the spring which means they start the mating process earlier and have more broods than many migrating butterflies or ones that hatch in the spring. This one quickly winged its way to the Oak-Hickory forest – perhaps hoping for oak sap to rise soon and fill wells made by sapsuckers.  Sap is one of its favorite foods. Nice winter camouflage, eh? It looks like loose bark, especially with its wings closed. The Mourning Cloak has blue spots on it wings when they are open.

mourning cloak (1)
The Mourning Cloak emerges early in spring after hibernating under loose bark or in a tree hole all winter.
Winter-form Eastern Comma
Winter-form Eastern Comma

A small Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma) fluttered around me, landing on the trail. It also favors tree sap and spends the winter in frozen hibernation as an adult. The one I saw Saturday was tiny, restless and hard to photograph but it was still wearing winter colors – hindwing mostly orange with black spots (in photo at left). In the photo below, taken in a previous June, a summer-form Eastern Comma sports dark hindwings.

eastern comma butterfly
A summer-form Eastern Comma, with mostly black hindwings

Basking Feels So Good in the Spring!

A Garter Snake (genus Thamnophis) had climbed onto a small tree in one of the vernal pools we monitored last Monday and dropped into the water as Antonio, one of the volunteers, approached. No doubt it was interrupted while trying to soak up some sunlight after frigid Sunday weather.

antonios snake cropped
A snake probably basking in a small tree, dropped into a vernal pool where Antonio Xeira took its photo.

Fourteen Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta)shared logs in the Center Pond, soaking up the sun of the first really warm day. Like snakes, turtles are reptiles which can’t regulate their body heat except through activity. So most warm days turtles stick out their heads, necks and legs to capture the sun’s heat on their extremities as well as their dark shells.

14 Painted Turtles
Fourteen Painted Turtles soak up the sunlight at the Center Pond.

I saw my first Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) on Saturday as it cruised the marsh. It was feeding below the water with its long neck and then poking its head out for a breath of air. It must feel great to eat and swim after a long winter under the ice.

Snapper swimming marsh
A Snapping Turtle cruising the marsh for food and a little sunshine.

And human denizens of the park came to Bear Creek on Saturday to eat and bask in the warm sunshine, too. This family (whose name I unfortunately forgot to get!) graciously allowed a photo of their picnic on the grass with a lovely little human in a big hat to protect her from the spring sunshine.

Families picnicking BC
Families picnicking and basking at Bear Creek on Saturday afternoon.

So much life in this 107 acres, eh? Within the shady vernal pools, on logs at the Center Pond, on bare tree limbs, in the grass on the edge of trails and on the green carpet of  the playground, the park hummed with life by the end of the week. After a white-and-black, silent winter, the color and song of spring greet us like a warm smile. I hope you’ll be there, too,  smiling back.

Footnote:  My sources for information are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991); Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for insect info; http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info; invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman; experienced birder Ruth Glass, bird walk leader at Stoney Creek Metro Park for bird identification; Birds of North America Online; Audubon.org; Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, Trees in My Forest by Bernd Heinrich, Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, Savannah River Ecology Lab (Univ of Georgia); Tortoise Trust website www.tortoisetrust.org;  An Orchard Invisible: A Natural History of Seeds by Jonathan Silvertown; The Ecology of Plants by Gurevitch, Scheiner and Fox; other sites as cited in the text.

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Visit the Bear Creek Nursery, Babies Galore! and One Strange Creature…

There’s just something endearing about almost any baby creature and now is the time to go “awww” in Bear Creek (or in your backyard for that matter!)

Blog post and photos  by Cam Mannino
Blog post and photos
by Cam Mannino

Adult birds stuff the mouths of hungry fledglings, tiny frogs (and I do mean tiny!) spring across the mud and  through the grass at the edges of vernal pools, and young woodchucks and bunnies sally forth to forage in the grass.  The park is full of babies!

(Note:  Though I can venture a short way into the park now, my mobility’s still pretty limited by the accident.  So though all these baby creatures are at Bear Creek now, some of the photos were taken near my home.)

Fledglings and Others in the Nursery

On the Wednesday Bird Walk at Bear Creek this morning, Ben and other birders spotted fledglings all over the park. The fledglings are there for us to see and hear if we take the time to listen and watch.  Sometimes you can hear their squabbling when adults bring food to the nest.  At other times, you can hear the insistent peeping that accompanies their begging posture – tail up, wings down, fast flutter of the wings.  Here’s an example from home of a female House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) with her begging fledgling:

adult and fledgling house finch
A fledgling House Finch assumes the classic begging pose.

Adult birds model feeding behavior for their young – pulling worms, cracking seeds, swallowing bugs in mid-air – but it takes time for fledglings to choose independence and stop begging to be fed directly by their parents.  (Sounds like some human adolescents I’ve known…) Here’s an adult Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) on the right approaching its young with a seed…

adult and fledgling titmouse
An adult Tufted Titmouse brings a seed to a fledgling with an empty hull in its beak. Like babies, they stick crazy things in their mouths.

And then, in a rather awkward move, the adult stuffs its big seed into the fledgling’s beak.

titmouse feeding fledgling
The adult titmouse awkwardly pushes a seed into its fledgling’s beak.

The Tufted Titmouse is a relative of the Black-capped Chickadee and like them, cracks seeds open between its feet and hides some to eat later.  Tufted Titmice make their nests in tree cavities and line them with animal hair, sometimes plucked from passing animals and sometimes found in old squirrel or raccoon nests.  One of the reasons it’s good to leave dead trees in a forest is that the Titmouse can’t excavate a hole itself,  so it needs woodpeckers’ holes from the previous season.

Fledglings are trying out a lot of adult behavior and exhibit a lot of curiosity, just like all youngsters.  Here’s a female House Finch fledgling shot this week who knows she should look around carefully before feeding, but maybe is exaggerating the stance just a bit!

fledgling female house finch craning her neck
A curious fledgling House Finch trying to be cautious before feeding and maybe overdoing it.

Besides being very curious, juveniles often have different plumage from adults and their wing feathers are usually smaller.  See the short wings on this  female fledgling Rose-Breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus)?

grosbeak fledgling
Fledglings, like this female Rose-Breasted Grosbeak, still have to develop the long wing feathers they’ll need as adults.

And this thin, young Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) has the mustache of a male, but it hasn’t gone through the fall molt yet.  Males will keep that mustache.  Females will lose theirs.

fledgling flicker
This young Northern Flicker needs to go through the fall molt before we’ll know whether it keeps the male mustache or loses it because it’s a female.

Of course, the mammal babies explore Bear Creek at this time of year, too.  Here are two young Woodchucks (Marmota monax) learning to forage near our woods on July 1 last year.  Also called Groundhogs, these lowland marmots,  the largest members of the squirrel family (Sciuridae) in our region, are generally herbivorous (vegetarian) and are amazing diggers (as many of us know too well around home!).  They make large burrows, equipped with a spy hole, a nest/sleeping area, a toilet chamber and up to 45 feet of tunnels!

baby groundhogs
Young groundhogs explore the grass near the woods at my home on July 1 – but you’ll see them all over Bear Creek too!

And, of course, there are always little Cottontail Rabbits (Sylvilagus floridanus). I like this description from the Michigan DNR of the mating ritual of rabbits, something I’ve never witnessed: “This usually occurs after dark. The buck chases the doe until she eventually turns and faces him. She then spars at him with her forepaws. They crouch, facing each other, until one of the pair leaps about 2 feet in the air. This behavior is repeated by both animals before mating.”  Pretty athletic!  Rabbits have 3 or 4 litters a year on average so there are always plenty of bunnies. Here’s one sucking in a grass stem bit by bit.

bunny eating
A Cottontail bunny pulls a long stem into its mouth.

And then, of course, it had to clean up a bit after eating.

bunny washing
A Cottontail bunny grooms its face after eating.

On Tuesday of this week, the grasses around the vernal pools in the north end of the park were alive with baby Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus) of various sizes.  This tiny one was struggling to get out of a tire rut some thoughtless person had made in the pedestrian entrance on Gunn.  He’s only about 3/4 of an inch long!  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a frog this small before!

Tiny wood frog
A tiny Wood Frog with his black eye stripe struggles to get out of a tire rut left by a thoughtless person near the Gunn pedestrian entrance to Bear Creek.

About that Strange Creature…

By the way, at one of the vernal pools in the north end of the park under some wood, we found a Blue-Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma laterale).  It was about to rain and very dark in the woods,  so I apologize that the photo is not as sharp as I would like but it’s such an interesting creature, I had to share it with you anyway. 

Blue spotted salamander
The Blue-spotted Salamader hides under logs or bark in moist areas and can regenerate its tail – which detaches if attacked!

Salamanders are strange creatures.  According to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources,  “When danger is sensed, the blue-spotted salamander’s tail lashes back and forth and produces a noxious secretion from two glands at the base of its tail. Even if the predator gets by this defense, it may only end up with a small morsel. When grabbed,  the salamander’s tail will detach. While the predator is detained by the writhing tail,  the salamander zips off to safety. In time a new tail will grow to replace the lost one.”  So, uh, don’t grab one.  They’re pretty darn slippery (one is tempted to say “slimy”) anyway!

Native Plants in Bloom!

So let’s move out into the meadows and marshes and see what’s blooming!

A fun native wildflower is blooming in its own inimitable way in the northern area of the marsh. Common Bur-Reed (Sparganium eurycarpum), like  many of our native plants, can survive fire in wetlands because it spreads underground through rhizomes (root-like underground stems).  Muskrats munch on the rhizomes and water birds eat the seeds which of course helps keeps its growth under control.

bur-reed
Muskrats eat the underground stems of Common Bur-Reed and birds eat its seeds – a native contributor to marsh life.

Last year, at the edge of the woods near the intersection of the path behind the pond and the eastern arm of the Northern Loop, Whorled Loosestrife (Lysimachia quadrifolia) made its appearance.  Like many native plants in our area, it favors sandy soil and oak/hickory forests, which is exactly what Bear Creek offers.  I hadn’t noticed it until last year,  but perhaps you did?

whorled loosestrife
Whorled loosestrife (unlike Purple Loosestrife, an invasive) is a native plant that likes the sandy soil and oak/hickory environment of Bear Creek.

Probably like me, you’ve passed by another native plant for years without paying much attention.  Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)  pops up all over Bear Creek – and lots of other places around the world, actually – and doesn’t look that glamorous – until you look closely at its myriad of little white flowers. Our Yarrow may have hybridized at some point in its past.  The more light pink those little flowers are the closer it is to the native variety. I like it in any case.

yarrow
Yarrow is a modest native that looks like a wedding bouquet when you get close to its tiny disc flowers.

 Coming Attractions:

One of Ben’s and my favorite native wildflowers is budding all over Bear Creek and blooming in the southern native bed.  It’s Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) and just watch!  It will live up to its name once the warmer weather comes.  Butterflies and bees love it even more than we do!

DSCF5509
Butterfly Milkweed will justify its name when butterflies (and bees) flock to it in July.

So put on your bug juice (all this rain has unfortunately made for a bumper crop of mosquitoes) or come when it’s windy and sunny and watch for the young ‘uns.  They grow up fast, just like our children.

*Quick footnote:  My sources for information, as well as Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: 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, and invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman.

This Week at Bear Creek: A Cold Week, but Spring Keeps Coming

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino
Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

Look for this feature early each week! Cam Mannino shares her latest observations, photos, and inspirations from Bear Creek Nature Park. Don’t forget to check out the Preview of Coming Attractions at the bottom of the post to see what you should be looking for in the coming weeks. Thanks Cam!

 


 April 19 to April 25, 2015: A Cold Week, but Spring Keeps Coming

The Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus) are still singing and I thought I’d follow up last week’s swimming photo with one of this masked frog in the woodland habitat where it emerged this spring. This amazing frog migrates uphill in the fall, buries itself in the soil beneath the leaf litter where it freezes and then thaws in the spring. He’s camouflaged nicely against the leaves, isn’t he?

Frog in leaves
Wood frog in leaves

Bear Creek provides both kinds of habitats the Wood Frog needs to thrive – high, dry places for winter and nearby vernal pools for spring mating. Another reason our park is special and one of many good reasons for preserving wetlands.

Here’s a recording I made this week of frogs singing at a vernal pool. Turn up your volume and (after you hear me shuffling with the device a bit) you’ll hear frogs, the brrrrrt call of a Red-winged Blackbird and the repeated clear notes of the Northern Cardinal’s spring song. See if you can identify the frogs singing (http://www.paherps.com/herps/frogs-toads/)!

 

Blooming slowed, but persisted this week despite the cold.   Last week the American Pussy Willow (Salix discolor ) on the small loop behind the center pond looked like this:

Pussy willows
Male pussy willow catkins waiting for warmer weather.

 And here’s the same plant this week with a maturing male catkin (pollen producing flowers) turning bright yellow as it readies itself to release pollen. Pretty dramatic change, eh?

pussy willow getting ready to bloom
Pussy willow blooming. Pussy willows have male and female flowers on separate plants.

Migrating birds, seemingly undaunted by chilly temperatures, arrived this week – some to stay, some to rest for a week or so before moving farther north. I saw four, but managed to get my own photos of only two.

An Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus), back from Mexico, Central or South America, perched on a high branch to sing his famous song, “Drink your teeeeeea” followed by a click.

Eastern Towhee
Eastern Towhee

I tried, really tried, to get a photo of the Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) among the brush in the vernal pool north of the playground. But he just wouldn’t sit still and he’s tiny – smaller than a Black-capped Chickadee.   Because he was excited, however, he flashed his bright red cap against his gray-green body and we spotted him.  He’s just passing through on his way to cooler breeding grounds farther north in the US or Canada. He’ll probably depart by the end of next week. Here’s a link for a photo from a favorite website for bird study, Cornell University’s All About Birds website:

http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Ruby-crowned_Kinglet/id

At the back of the pond just west of the playground, a bright flash of yellow, black and white streaked across my binoculars, but the Yellow-Rumped Warbler never sat on a limb for more than 6 seconds. (I counted!) But I got a very lucky shot a while later as he landed suddenly on a nearby branch. The black mask means he’s male. If you look closely, he actually has a patch of yellow on the top of his tail and one on his head, too, which isn’t visible here in his about-to-take-off pose.

Yellow-rumped Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler

Two kind birders in the park pointed out a pair of Blue-winged Teals ((Anas discors) at the far end of the pond west of the playground. Though I could see these smaller ducks through binoculars, they were resting in mottled shadow, so no decent photo.  They’re probably moving through our area but can sometimes breed in southeast Michigan. Let me know if you see them in the summer! Here’s another link to Cornell University for a photo of this distinctive duck with a vertical white stripe behind his bill.

http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/blue-winged_teal/id

Normally the Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) appears poking his long, curved beak into the ground as he searches for ants. Flickers have a bright red crescent at the back of the head, a black bib and the male sports a snazzy black mustache.

Flicker on ground
Northern Flicker on the ground

But one morning this week in the same vernal pool where the Kinglet darted, a male Flicker drummed persistently on a dead tree and shouted his piercing, somewhat maniacal call as a way of establishing his territory. Here he is, a bit blurred due to the distance.

Northern Flicker drumming on a tree
Northern Flicker drumming on a tree

And here’s is a link where you can hear his call. (Click on the second sound bar.)

http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/northern_flicker/sounds

Overhead, flew one of the most beautiful predators in the park, a Red-tailed Hawk ((Buteo jamaicensis).

Red-tail Hawk in flight
Red-tail Hawk in flight

Look closely at this much smaller set of wings! It’s not a wasp; that’s a disguise to fool would-be predators. It’s a Hover Fly. Although they mimic bees or wasps, hover flies can’t sting (hooray!) and they help out by preying on pests and pollinating flowers. So maybe that insect nuzzling your flowers is just a harmless hover fly!

Hover fly, Helophilus trivittatus. If you're an entomologist and have a better guess at the ID, please let us know!
A hover fly, likely Helophilus trivittatus. Hover flies are in the insect family Syrphidae, whose members mimic bees and wasps (though without the sting as adults mostly eat nectar, pollen, and aphids).

COMING ATTRACTIONS!

The well-known Wooly Bear Caterpillar thawed after freezing solid this winter and wriggled quickly through the grass. Those beady little eyes are looking for a place to metamorphose into an yellow/orange Isabella Tiger Moth (Pyrrharctia isabella).

Wooly bear
Wooly bear

After the prescribed burn in the northeast area, the woods are greening with wild strawberry leaves that will fruit in June. (Forget it – the critters always get them first.)

Wild strawberry leaf
Wild strawberry leaf (Fragraria virginiana)

Wild geraniums (Geranium maculatum) leaves are just poking through the blackened but newly fertilized soil. By mid-May, they will carpet the woods in a lavender haze.

Wild geranium leaves
Wild geranium leaves

The Other Side of Stewardship

And lastly, my favorite park denizen, my husband, Reg. On Sunday, he waded into the mud with a hook duct-taped to an extension pole and snagged 13 cans, 7 plastic bottles and various other detritus around the southern deck of the big marsh – oh, and a baby’s shoe from the vernal pool north of the playground. My hero!

Reg helping out.
Reg helping out.

As always, please feel free to share in the comments section below so we can all be on the lookout for your discoveries in Bear Creek next week!