At our house, we’ve just emerged from the joyful-but-somewhat-frantic bustle of the festive season. From just before Thanksgiving through the New Year, we enjoyed the noise, color and craziness of the holiday with lots of friends and family – but it feels like we just didn’t stop moving for weeks! I imagine that’s true for lots of you too.
I managed to keep some scraps of my sanity by – you guessed it – venturing out into the parks. Our home is about five minutes from Bear Creek Nature Park; that became my most frequent escape hatch. So here’s a look at the wildness nearby that (with a small nod to Will Shakespeare) knit the raveled sleeve of my cares during the last several weeks.
It All Began before Thanksgiving…
In the first half of November, before the rush of the festive season, wild visitors from farther north began to filter into Bear Creek. The birding group got a glimpse of a Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca) in the bushes. These large, chubby sparrows are usually rusty red with chevrons forming the stripes on their breasts. Since I didn’t get a good shot that day, here’s one in a very similar setting from generous iNaturalist photographer, Joseph Salmieri.
The birding group also saw a flock of Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) feeding in the grass along a path in early November. These birds make lovely black dashes against the snow on a winter day. They travel here from their breeding grounds in Canada – perhaps all the way from Hudson’s Bay! They’re often my first real sign that winter’s on its way.
The second half of November bore down on me suddenly since Thanksgiving came so late this year. Snow fell; the temperature dropped. Yikes! Time to design Christmas cards, turn my photos into a family calendar, think about gifts for special people. Out in the park, birds kept me company to soothe my jitters. One afternoon, my husband and I came across what seemed to be a friendly gathering of birds. Five species hung out together, moving about foraging and chattering in a grove of small trees near where Bear Creek runs out of the pond.
Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) caught our attention first as they chatted in a small tree. A male House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) listened in from behind a branch. The bluebirds probably moved a little farther south to escape the cold for a while, though some may return for short visits during the winter and some may be year ’round residents.
The House Finch just bears up in the cold of a Michigan winter. Like other small winter residents, he keeps warm by crunching on copious amounts of seed and fluffing his feathers into a winter jacket.
The woodpeckers, too, are a hardy crew. A Downy Woopecker male (Dryobates pubescens) tapped along a tree trunk searching for insects eggs or a frozen caterpillar, quite uninterested in the bluebirds.
A male Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) joined the gathering on a nearby Wild Black Cherry tree (Prunus serotina). He seemed to be craning his neck to hear what was going on with the bluebirds behind him! But in reality, of course, he was just demonstrating the caution that all wild birds do when feeding.
The fifth member of the bird gathering was the industrious Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor), who pretty much ignored the others, having found something very interesting at the end of a branch.
On the big loop path beyond the bird gathering, a White Oak leaf (Quercus alba) testified to the frigid temperatures. The water droplets on it had frozen and magnified the leaf’s veins in a way that always fascinates me.
Our feeders at home got busy around Thanksgiving as well, providing visual entertainment as we buzzed by the windows, working on Christmas projects. New guests arrived at the feeder this year – the Hairy Woodpeckers (Dryobates villosus). Here the female sits in an aging black oak outside the window, just beyond the feeder.
It’s sometimes hard to distinguish the Hairy from the Downy Woodpecker at a distance. But when both arrive at a feeder at the same time, the difference in size is readily apparent!
The Holiday Pace Picks up in December…
Oh, boy. Hurried wrapping of presents for family in Australia. Multiple trips to the Post Office to send calendars to friends overseas and around the States. Trips out of town for special gifts. But on the way home from the errands, a stop at Bear Creek to slow down, breathe the sharp air and redden my cheeks.
One dark, late afternoon and as I entered the park, I noted an alarming sight. A lovely but deadly Oriental Bittersweet vine (Celastrus orbiculatus) had wrapped itself around a tiny tree. This terribly invasive plant will slowly strangle this sapling if it isn’t carefully removed and its roots treated with herbicide. Sad that such a colorful vine should have such a powerfully negative impact! Birds do eat the berries at times, but unfortunately get very little nutrition from them.
Looking for more benign color, I came across lots of rich green moss (phylum Bryophyta) in the forest. Mosses, unlike plants, can actually grow very slowly in cold temperatures, if not under snow or ice. Some mosses actually survive in Antarctica! Our mosses cope with winter winds by being close to the ground and benefit from the moisture of winter rain and melting snow. They can also go dormant when moisture is low and then regenerate quickly after a rain. What a relief to the eye to come across these bright green mosses on a wintry day! [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]
A golden fungus and a bright yellow lichen appeared at various places in the park in December. These bright touches against bark or leaves always catch my attention on a gray winter day.
Reminders of summer past help me put things back in perspective during the holiday bustle. An abandoned nest of what I think was Bald-faced Hornets (Dolichovespula maculata) hung low in bush. Yellow Jacket Wasps (Vespula maculifrons) also build aerial nests occasionally, as well as using underground burrows, but theirs are usually higher up than this one. The hornets created this masterpiece with overlapping, striped scallops. Since the hornets nicely camouflaged the nest in a leafy bush, I’d missed it completely in the summer. Amazing that these tiny creatures can create such a beautiful design on the outside of their architecture and those myriad, perfect hexagons inside!
Along the path to the west of the Playground Pond, the abandoned, but still intact nest of last summer’s Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) swung gently in the winter air, but no fledglings rock within it now. Another architectural marvel, this one was woven out of plant fibers over the course of one to two weeks by a female Oriole. Such sturdy nests and they’re only used for one season!
Some summer plants still stand tall in the fields, bearing their seeds for hungry birds. The giant Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) has done its duty. It’s been picked clean, probably by the flocks of American Goldfinches in the park.
Its huge, spotted leaves that feel like sandpaper in the summer now lie crumbling beneath the stately stalks.
In December, Goldfinches had not yet devoured the seeds of this Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis). This one was so fluffy that it looked like it was dressed in a down jacket for the winter. But with winter wind and wet, heavy snow, it will bow down to the ground before spring, making way for new sprouts.
One afternoon, my husband I found a gorgeous rock embedded with quartz crystals. From its location, I’m guessing it was hidden under a vernal pool for most of the year. It shone white in the winter woods, looking like a stray snowball from a distance. Isn’t the coloring and crystal structure lovely? So rare to see such a large, white rock.
And Then the Post-Holiday Slow-down
Presents are put away. Decorations are being stored in the basement. The bevy of much beloved guests is dwindling. And the park has gone mostly silent. Perhaps you’ve noticed that birds are a bit tougher to see or hear in Bear Creek Nature Park now. Sometimes they’re present, but I wonder if their diminished numbers may be due to something good – a plentitude of winter feeders in the surrounding neighborhoods.
On our last visit, we heard a Red-bellied Woodpecker in the woods on the township hall trail and perhaps the “ank-ank-ank” of a White-breasted Nuthatch somewhere on the Big Loop. We watched a family of American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) settling into some tall trees off the western field. The adults arrived first and one began calling. When no young arrived, the calling adult looked back at its mate and they cawed until all the presumably younger members gathered with them in the tree tops. Crow families often stay together for more than one season, the young helping the adults feed the nestlings of the next generation. Such intelligent and social birds!
Down at the Center Pond, the ice had temporarily melted and a pair of Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) glided across the dark surface. They’ve evidently made their December choice of partners and will now spend the winter together before mating in the spring.
Signs of spring feel rare and welcome after Christmas and its encouraging to notice that plants have already made preparations. A fuzzy little Thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana) held onto its seeds at the edge of a woodland trail. This plant produces oblong fruits with a thimble-like shape and pattern in summer that change into cottony tufts full of seeds in the fall. It keeps its seeds right into winter and depends on the wind to spread them. But it has another couple of strategies for survival. It produces a substance that discourages other seeds around it from germinating and its tap root is accompanied by rhizomes (underground stems that sprout and make roots) that allow it to spread beneath the soil. Look how its seed tufts in the photo below just happened to form an image of a frowning human profile, something I didn’t notice until I developed the photo! What fun!
The trees produce leaf buds in the fall which sometimes have a waxy surface to help retain moisture in the winter cold. The American Dogwood (Cornus florida) makes neat, round, little flower buds that face upward at the branch tips. Separately and sometimes just below the flower buds are leaf buds. I’ve only found one American Dogwood in Bear Creek Nature Park ; it’s on the east side of the Big Loop. Each fall and winter, I look eagerly for these buds with their pointed tops turned to the sun. In spring, I enjoy the way the white bracts (modified leaves) open to reveal a small cluster of yellow flowers at the center.
I saw this lovely bud on the Big Loop but can’t identify it yet! I loved its golden glow on a gray day! If any of you know which tree produced this bud, please tell me in the comments! It almost looks as though the leaves started to break from their buds with the warmer temperatures after the holidays.
Down near the Center Pond, I spotted the cache of an American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) beneath the trunk of an old Shagbark Hickory tree (Carya ovata). I could hear the owner scolding me from deep within the tangled brush nearby, but I never got a clear look at it. Shagbark Hickory is a fine example of how productive native trees can be in their habitat. According to the Illinois Wildflower website, these big, distinctive trees provide sweet nuts for raccoons, squirrels, chipmunks and many birds. Their leaves host a wide variety of insect caterpillars and so are often sought out by birds like chickadees, vireos, warblers and others. The long shards of shaggy bark provide winter shelter for insects and even nesting sites for small birds like the Brown Creeper. And they’re deer and fire resistant! – though the saplings may be gnawed by rabbits. What a contributor to a healthy habitat!
On the way back down to the Township Hall the day after Christmas, we spotted the festive bark of another tree. Nice Christmas colors,eh?
Ben identified the tree for me as one of the tallest Sassafras trees (Sassafras albidum) that he’s ever seen. We were certainly impressed! Its bark can sheer off, leaving this red layer exposed. Sassafras is another generous host, providing food for butterfly caterpillars like the Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus), the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) and for many moths. Bobwhites, Wild Turkeys and many songbirds feed on their pitted fruits called “drupes.”
The Comforts of “Home” on a Winter Walk
“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that… wildness is a necessity.”
Sometimes I notice that I’ve become an “over-civilized” person, don’t you? I find myself feeling crabby from too many “must-do’s,” feeling hemmed in by walls and getting stale from breathing what feels like the same old air. That’s when I rediscover Muir’s insight. Wildness really is a necessity – maybe for all of us, whether we know it or not. Even in winter, I regularly need to immerse myself in the crazy quilt of a meadow full of dry grass stems and listen to the pulsing roar of wind rushing headlong through the crowns of trees. The wild language of crows backed by the drumbeat of woodpeckers tunes me to a different key. For a short time, I’m enfolded within a complex world much beyond my small human one. And somehow that allows me to rest. I pull my hat down over my ears, snug up the scarf at my neck and I’m home, at ease in a place where I’m welcomed – and so are you – as just another creature making its way through winter days.