Autumn at Bear Creek Nature Park: A Rich Harvest for the Multitudes

The eastern end of the Center Pond at Bear Creek after a summer drought

The Center Pond at Bear Creek Nature Park was a hub of avian activity during early fall. After a very dry summer, the water level fell significantly, exposing the muddy bottom in some areas and bringing underwater prey closer to the surface. And the birds came! Summer visitors who raised young here and birds migrating south clearly saw the remaining open water and muddy edges as an oasis. After the vernal pools dried up and even Bear Creek marsh filled with plants in the dry summer heat, the Center Pond provided an ideal place to find food!

During the dry summer heat, Bear Creek Marsh’s open water disappeared as the moist center filled with cattails and flowering plants.

I, sadly, wasn’t able to use my long lens much for birds in the last few weeks after a minor fiasco with my back – but never fear!

Text by and some photos by Cam Mannino

Two of my brilliant photographer friends, Bob Bonin and Paul Birtwhistle, generously filled my inbox with glorious shots of all kinds of birds they saw there! Through their eyes, you and I can witness what Bear Creek had to offer our avian friends in early fall. And I’ll add in a few extras from my October trips through Bear Creek’s fields and its oak-hickory forest. So let’s head out together on another virtual hike, this time with two other nature-loving photographers.

Off Toward the Slopes of the Western Meadow

The sloping Western Meadow in late October.

The gardens near the parking lot on Snell Road are shedding their seed now. They currently look a bit chaotic, but all those seed heads will be a nourishing boon to birds this winter. But one hardy species, Cut-leaf Coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata), contributed its bright yellow rays to the fall colors until mid-October. What a heartening native addition to a late-summer/fall garden!

Hardy native Cut-leaf Coneflowers shine brightly in the garden nearest the Snell parking lot despite falling temperatures.

Paul Birtwhistle and I both stopped by the Playground Pond this fall. In September, Paul came across a female Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) banging away on one of the many snags (standing dead trees) in the pond. (Females have a black “mustache”; males have a red one.) At this time of year, she was probably seeking out wood-boring beetle larvae, though in general, carpenter ants are her preference.

A female Pileated Woodpecker searched for beetle larvae and other goodies on a dead snag in the Playground Pond. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle.

When I arrived at the Playground Pond in October with the Wednesday morning birding group, a gang of juvenile Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) were socializing in a dead tree. The juveniles are much less colorful than their parents – mostly gray instead of cedar brown and lemon yellow – but even at a distance, we could see the bright yellow tips on their tails and their developing black masks. (Click on photos to enlarge.)

In September, Paul ventured further west to the steeply sloping path of the western meadow where tiny migrators foraged at the edge of the woods. And what a group of golden beauties! The Magnolia Warbler (Setophaga magnolia) nests in conifers at the tip of Michigan’s “mitten,” the Upper Peninsula or in Canada. This female or immature male with its complete white eye ring, vivid yellow breast and gray head stopped by Bear Creek to rest and feed on its way to bask in Caribbean sun for the winter.

A female or immature male Magnolia Warbler paused momentarily while busily foraging for insects at the edge of the Western Meadow. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle.

Another migrator, the Nashville Warbler (Leiothlypis ruficapilla), also breeds in “up north” Michigan and in Canada. It drops by in fall and spring when it’s migrating to and from its wintering grounds in Mexico. That’s quite a trip twice a year! Paul caught it pausing as it too sought out Bear Creek’s rich supply of insects for its long journey.

The Nashville Warbler stopped by on the western slopes of Bear Creek Nature Park. For field marks, look for its gray head with a white eye ring, and all that bright yellow below. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle.

The other little bird Paul glimpsed in the west of the park was an immature male Common Yellow-throat (Geothlypis trichas). (Adult males have a white-banded black mask, and in immature males this mask is very faint; females have a warm brown head, yellow undersides, and olive back.) This young male might have hatched from an egg right at Bear Creek Nature Park since Paul and I repeatedly saw Yellowthroats or heard their “witchedy, witchedy” call near the marsh this summer. Or perhaps this one arrived from further north. In either case, he too stocked up on insects here before winging off to the southeast toward Florida or the Caribbean.

This immature male Common Yellowthroat may have fledged at Bear Creek this summer, or he might be traveling south from farther north. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle.

Strolling Along the Walnut Lane

The Walnut Lane in late October.

The Walnut Lane which runs between two meadows serves as a favorite perusing perch for birds. When Paul arrived there on October 1, he spotted migrating Palm Warblers (Setophaga palmarum) gazing out among the golden leaves along the trail. After raising young in the Upper Peninsula or even Canada’s boreal forests, these striking birds stop by each fall on their way to Florida or the Caribbean to partake of our parks’ bounty.

A Palm Warbler on the Walnut Lane. Its rusty brown cap, light “eyebrow” line and yellowish breast are good field marks for this little migrator who’s just passing through. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle.

The same day, down near north end of the Lane, Paul spotted a Chinese Praying Mantis (Tenodera sinensis). We have two species of non-native Mantises in Michigan. This larger one, at 3-5 inches, is a highly successful predator also on the hunt for insects. Its orange back with green edges is distinctive, though sometimes Chinese Mantises are solid green like the smaller species, the European Mantis (Mantis religiosa), which is no more than 3 inches long. These two may have out-competed the only native mantis in our country, the Carolina mantis (Stagmomantis carolina) which now exists only in the southeast. This one clearly focused on Paul. Maybe she was flirting?

This Chinese Praying Mantis looks seductive, doesn’t she? But she’s probably just focusing her bilateral vision so she can escape Paul if necessary. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle.

In the late summer and fall, Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) frequently perch on the Walnut Lane. I saw a pensive female there on October 2. On October 5, Paul and I both saw a pair exploring the possibilities of a snag for insects now or perhaps next year’s cavity nest. In fact, the Lane area was full of their fluttering that day! The nesting boxes placed by the stewardship crew and tended by volunteers have added a lot of bluebirds to Bear Creek – and other parks with boxes – so keep an eye out for them!

A Ruby-Crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) also flitted about within the branches along the Lane. Paul caught this tiny bird between dashes from limb to limb (left below), while I just caught the blur of another one’s flight during the bird walk.

The Center Pond Feeding the Multitudes – and a Rare Visitor

Western end of the Center Pond with mud flats forming after the summer drought.

Both of my photographer friends hung out at the Center Pond, a hub of activity in the fall at Bear Creek Nature Park. On each of his visits, Paul Birtwhistle snapped his photos quickly to catch in action two large, very successful foragers. In early September, he came upon a very excited Green Heron (Butorides virescens) with a crest that literally stood on end like a “punk” hairstyle. Maybe just the thought of all those “easy pickings” in the shallow water had a huge effect on this skillful fisher! Here’s a brief slideshow of Paul’s shots of its hunting techniques.

Paul watched a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) feed day after day at the Center Pond. The first time, on October 9, he witnessed one snagging two different prey. Its first prize was a little Largemouth Bass (Micropterus salmoides)! Some flying bird must have dropped Bass eggs into the pond earlier in the summer since this pond is spring-fed. Each prey caught, Paul reports, was dipped in the water and then shaken vigorously. Cornell University’s website explains that this process may quickly break the spine before the heron swallows it whole. Gulp!

Its second catch was a small Green Frog (Rana clamitans). The heron came back the next day for another frog. In fact, Paul’s seen a heron fishing repeatedly for two weeks! Evidently, the shallower water after the summer drought made fishing much more profitable for the water birds this year! The pond may have fewer frogs next summer but we’re sending well-fed herons south during the migration. Here’s a small sampling of Paul’s amazing photos of this impressive bird, with its 6 to 7 foot wingspan and its skillful fishing.

The Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) have also been bottoms-up feeding at the Center Pond during October. Paul got a wonderful shot of a pair surveying the pond from the edge. They’re probably here for a variety of aquatic plants, including the bright green Duckweed (aptly named!) (Lemna minor) and Common Water Meal (Wolffia columbiana) that they scoop up with their bills when they’re cruising along.

A Wood Duck couple standing amidst a nice patch of Duckweed and Water Meal, some of their favorite aquatic plants. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle.

Male Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) molt into eclipse plumage in later summer/early fall that makes them look more like the females. Later in the fall, they molt again into their breeding colors in order to attract a mate for the next season. I think this male, with its head bejeweled with water droplets, has excellent mating prospects! What a glamor shot! Thanks, Paul!

A male Mallard in his fresh breeding plumage. What a sight for a female Mallard’s eyes! Photo by Paul Birtwhistle.

Of course, not all the foraging was going on in the water at the Center Pond. An unusual migrator appeared at the Wednesday bird walk. A Rusty Blackbird (Euphagus carolinus) settled down on the muddy shoals exposed by the drought and spent several hours flipping over leaves to see what insects, seeds or fallen fruit might be hiding there. My other patient photographer buddy, Bob Bonin, stayed at the pond for hours and caught his beautiful shot (below left). Rusty Blackbirds only pass through during fall and spring migration and their numbers are rapidly declining. I last saw them in 2015 when a small flock in their breeding colors (below right) landed in a wetland near the Center Pond. Researchers think their decline is caused by the usual suspects – agriculture, logging, development, soil contamination. So I’m glad our parks provided a rich source of sustenance for even this single Rusty in its fall plumage.

Bob’s patience paid off again. In those extra hours, he also tracked the quick, short flights of a variety of small migrating birds foraging at the Center Pond. Yellow-rumped Warblers (Setophaga coronata) eat a wide variety of foods during migration – insects when they can find them, seeds, berries of all kinds, including poison ivy berries! The field mark to look for, winter or spring, is the bright yellow patch between the wings on the top of its rump, though their plumage is much more dramatic in the spring, like most birds.

White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) can be seen under my feeder during the fall and winter – maybe yours too? These hardy sparrows flooded into Bear Creek Nature Park early in October after breeding farther north. Their striped heads can sometimes be confused with the White-crowned Sparrow, but the White Throats have that nifty white patch under the beak and bright yellow spots (called “lores”) just above their eyes. Check out the pattern differences when you see a “little brown bird” pecking in the grass! It’s not “just a sparrow!” Try thinking “Which sparrow is it?” Thanks to Bob for this great identification shot!

A brush pile or tall vegetation close to your feeder lets the White-throated Sparrow feel safe enough to eat there as it pops in and out of cover during the winter. Photo by Bob Bonin.

Down on the dock, the birding group saw an Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) doing what flycatchers do best – quickly sallying out over water to snitch insects from the air. These grayish-brown songbirds sing a steeply descending “Pheeee-buzz” song in the summer and are easily identified by an almost continuous pumping or twitching of their tails when perched.

Eastern Phoebes sing, nest and raise young here in the summer but travel to the southern US for the winter since their main food source is insects.

A Short Walk Through Alice’s Woods, aka the Oak-Hickory Forest

Let’s wind up our virtual hike with a quick walk through the oak-hickory forest, which is now named “Alice’s Woods,” in honor of the incredible Alice Tomboulian who inspired, helped found and served Oakland Township Parks for so many years. Alice was an intrepid lover of the natural world who understood the importance of both preservation and the urgent requirements of restoring that land with native species. She was an inspiration to so many, including me, and is greatly missed.

The quiet of a forest always soothes me, and that’s especially true in autumn light. Fewer birds, other than woodpeckers, regularly appear for me in the woods. I come across Titmice, a summer Wood-Pewee, once a Sharp-shinned Hawk, the occasional migrating warbler, the Brown Creeper and two or three times a Great Horned Owl, among others. But this October, I felt surrounded only by what I call “leaf talk.” The spinning descent of dry leaves accompanied the tree shadows slipping across my husband’s shoulders in the dappled light. In the woods, we tried to notice the small forest details that tend to show themselves when we aren’t peering up into the canopy for birds.

First, we came across an array of fallen logs, each one heavily filigreed with Turkey-tail Mushrooms (Trametes versicolor). These polypore mushrooms help break down dead wood into sugars and carbon dioxide by loosening the bonds of lignin that made the wood and bark rigid. In other words, these fungi are gradual wood recyclers – and they’re beautiful while doing it!

The concentric geometry of a web spun by an Orb-weaver Spider (genus Araneus) caught our eye in a spot of fall sunlight. The spider may have expired on a chilly night, but she left behind evidence of her skill. According to Dr. Gary Parsons at Michigan State University’s Bug House, the mating process in this genus can be a bit fraught. “Males …usually need to perform some kind of species-specific signal (usually by plucking the web in a specific pattern) as they approach the female to let them know they are not prey and wish to mate. If the female is overly hungry or not ready to mate, she might turn on the male and eat him if he gets too close. If she is ready to mate, she probably will leave him alone during the act, after which the male beats a hasty retreat.” Don’t mess with an unwilling female Orb-weaver!

The vertical line in the Orb-weaver’s web is called a “trash-line.” It serves as a storage place for insects she’s caught and wrapped to be consumed later or a disposal site for ones she’s already sucked dry!

Emerging from the woods to head back to the car, we were greeted by the charmingly bug-eyed Spotted Spreadwing damselfly (Lestes congener). This little creature survives longer than most other damselflies, into October and even November. Its eggs overwinter and can tolerate temperatures as low as -17 degrees, according to my cherished guide, Damselflies of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan by Robert Dubois and Mike Reese. So glad this hardy little insect posed for me.

Usually the last of the damselflies each autumn – the Spotted Spreadwing with its half-blue bug eyes – stared up at us from a dry grass stem.

Red-legged Grasshoppers (Melanoplus femurrubrum) accompanied us along every path, springing away under our feet. In our colder latitudes, these grasshoppers are smaller and have to mature more quickly since this species only reproduces once in a season. Females will lay eggs in the soil to overwinter. The nymphs will dig their way out next spring and molt 5-7 times before being ready to mate.

The Red-legged Grasshopper’s back legs are not only a lovely color, but have quite a fancy design.

I hope you’ve noticed the sweet, buzzing song of crickets – and probably some katydids and grasshoppers too – this time of year. My sharp-eyed husband spotted one of the tiny Ground Crickets (family Trigonidiidae) whose males sing so wonderfully this time of year just by pulling the scraper-like edge of one forewing against the other. Dr. Parsons would have needed to have this tiny (maybe 3/4 inch?) creature in hand to identify it among the seven species in three genera in Michigan. He did tell me that they can survive quite cold temperatures down in the grass as long as they don’t freeze. So when the weather warms back up in the fall, the males “sing” again, hoping to mate before winter sets in.

In the autumn, at least hundreds, maybe thousands, of male Ground Crickets “sing” by scraping one wing against the other, hoping to attract a female in the meadows of Bear Creek Nature Park before a hard freeze comes.

Ensuring Autumn’s Richness Continues to Feed the Future

I like to think of autumn as a time of rich harvest in our parks. Yes, it’s true that the leaves are falling and flowers and grasses are withering – but that means seeds can feed hungry migrators before they fly further south on a north wind under the stars. Those dry seed heads in our parks, or left for the winter (we hope) in your drying garden, can nourish our avian neighbors who tough out the winter with us. Insects have left behind chrysalises, cocoons, and galls, where their young will gradually transform next spring into dancing butterflies, fluttering moths in a summer night, and the millions of caterpillars and adult insects needed to feed next summer’s frogs, flycatchers, soaring swallows and thousands of baby birds. It means seeds and nuts will rest on or in the cooling earth, ready to crack open and thrust out new life when the soil warms again. While we humans sip our sweet cider and bite into crisp apples, nature is serving up food for the multitudes and sowing new life in its endless cycle of abundance.

If we continue to preserve natural areas and restore them to the health that nature designed through millennia, we can hope that endless fruitful autumns stretch ahead on our planet home. Here in Oakland Township, we’re doing our best to do just that in our parks. It isn’t enough to simply preserve open land, as crucial as that is. Through the yearly cycles of restoration work performed by our stewardship crew and volunteers under Dr. VanderWeide’s expert guidance, we are continuously caring for the land. We are slowly restoring as much of its historic diversity, richness and beauty as we possibly can after years of human use or neglect. And that transformation, that commitment to nurturing the land, sustains my commitment to the future, to a healthier world for the young, even when the nights grow longer and bare trees sketch black tracery against the autumn sky. I hope it does that for you, too.

Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide and volunteers gathering native seed to enrich other township parks.