Well, they’re off! When the wind sails in from the north, it’s a signal to all kinds of creatures: “Time to go!” So they take wing singly and in large flocks, letting the flow of cool air support them, carrying them quickly onward as they beat wings of all sizes to make their way to warmer climes.
And of course, it’s not just birds. Above you can see our friend Nancy Isken’s photo of Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus) last week resting at Tawas Point State Park before crossing Saginaw Bay. They were beginning their long journey to Mexico where they will spend the winter. In the spring, these Monarchs will make the first leg of the journey back north, stopping in warm areas like Texas to produce a new crop of butterflies who continue heading north. These new generations will fly only a few hundred miles, stop and reproduce, completing their whole life cycle in only 5-7 weeks. So it takes several generations to complete the trip back to Michigan each summer. Sarina Jepson of the Xerces Society, which is focused on invertebrate conservation, says in a fine National Geographic article, “…when fall rolls around again, a special ‘super generation’ of monarchs that can live up to eight months will make use of air currents to wing all the way back to Mexico—a seemingly impossible feat for such a delicate-looking insect.” Imagine that! So the Monarch butterflies born here In Oakland Township each summer can potentially live for 8 months instead of 5-7 weeks and fly 3,000 miles instead of a few hundred. We are living among real, live superheroes!
And Monarchs aren’t the only insects that migrate. Green Darner Dragonflies (Anax junius) (also tracked by the Xerces Society) travel down to Texas and Mexico as well. For dragonflies, it also takes many generations of reproduction before their trip is completed, though their migration is less well understood. But again, like the Monarch generations that arrive here each summer, the dragonfly offspring seem to know how to find their way in the right direction. Citizen science and research is helping explore dragonfly migration. But for now, I love a good nature mystery, don’t you?
Painted Lady butterflies (Vanessa cardui) make multiple generation migrations all over the world. But they migrate erratically. Some years they migrate and some years they don’t. And the direction and route can vary widely. Some experts speculate that their migration routes may be affected by dramatic changes in weather and climate – another nature mystery yet to be solved.
At this time of year, the night sky begins to fill with thousands, even millions, of birds riding the wind south in the darkness, navigating by the stars or the setting sun, or by sensing the earth’s magnetic field. Some may navigate by landmarks or simply remembering good feeding grounds. And amazingly, most juvenile migrating birds, like those insects hatching during migration, somehow know how to find their way without any help from adults! Cornell’s BirdCast website is a great way to watch the flow of birds across the United States day by day throughout the fall.
Remember all those bright little warblers, unusual sparrows and other small birds that sailed up here on a south wind in May? Well, most of them have now finished breeding farther north and are beginning to make their way back to more warmth and sunshine. They’ve molted out of their bright breeding feathers so they’re a little less colorful now and their routes vary a bit depending on available food and weather. But keep a look out for these little travelers starting now. Here are a few from the autumn of previous years:
If you’re thinking you’d like to see some bird migrations in BIG numbers, you might check out the Hawk Fest featuring hawks, eagles, falcons and owls at Lake Erie Metropark on September 15 and 16. Or if you love our Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis), consider a trip to the Audubon Society’s Cranefestat Big Marsh Lake in Bellevue, Michigan (near Battle Creek) on October 13 and 14.
Of course, if you want to stay close to home, you’ll be warmly welcomed at our Oakland Township Wednesday morning bird walks. The walks rotate through our township parks each month and in September and October, they start at 8 a.m. The schedule is available year ’round if you click on the drop-down menu above for “Stewardship Events.” We’re a friendly group with some experienced birders who are glad to help beginners see their first migrators. Bring your binoculars or borrow a set from Ben, our Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, who leads the walks.
So yes, summer is waning. But I can’t help feeling celebratory as autumn air turns crisp and the skies fill with winged creatures. I recommend looking upward this fall and perhaps wishing “Bon Voyage!”, to our migrators who provide such beauty and mystery as they find their paths through the air.
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”
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.
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!
Among some bare branches, a couple of Mourning Doves gave me a closer look.
And below, a female Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) drilled a dead branch for insects, looking for a snack before retiring for the night.
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.
The Central Meadow Will Soon Become a Prairie
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.
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.
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.
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.
A 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 EasternPhoebe (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!
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!
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.
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.)
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
What a difference a month makes! I began a series of visits to Cranberry Lake Park on September 24 and ended on October 25. I wanted to watch the park change as fall moved toward winter. It’s as if the color slowly leaves the flowers and grasses in the earth, flows up into the trees and then disappears into the black and white of winter. So this time I’m sharing a transition – who and what is coming and going at this changeable time of year.
Late September: Flowers Change to Fruit and Seeds
In late September, the meadow was still green, but splashed with the gold of Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa). A sweeping curve of this beautiful native plant swept around the large thicket of shrubs in the center of the meadow. It was easy to imagine the path of last summer’s winds as it carried the seeds that created this graceful shape.
And a few other flowers hung on in September. Individual stems of Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis)glowed gold among the greenery and a few hardy, flat-topped Yarrow stalks(Achillea millefolium) thrust their way above the browning Canada Goldenrod. Late-blooming Sweet Everlasting (Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium) – which some call Cudweed! – appeared as well, its tightly furled white buds just beginning to open in the cool autumn air. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Wild Grapes, also known as River Bank Grapes (Vitis riparia), hung in clusters on almost bare branches offering a treat for migrating and resident birds – and a few of us humans as well! A few weeks later they had either fallen to the ground or been eaten right off the vine.
Abundant clusters of wild Riverbank Grapes adorn the branches of this shrub.
A few weeks later the wild grapes had disappeared, probably nourishing animals as they stock up for winter.
In September, the Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) leaves changed from green to scarlet and the upright plumes of deep red fruits began to form. One morning, a flock of Black-Capped Chickadees bounced among the branches, foraging either for fruits or the occasional bug. Perhaps they were the ones who stripped the fruit from some of the plumes. Sumac fruits are eaten by many game and songbirds, though normally they’re not a first choice this time of year.
Over the next few weeks, the Goldenrods began to brown and go to seed. Showy Goldenrod seems to start seeding from the top down, week by week. And eventually that golden curve of Showy Goldenrod had turned a seed-rich, but not very attractive, brown.
And despite not being a first choice fruit, the Staghorn Sumac’s seeds had either been eaten on the plant or fallen on the ground to be found by ground feeders.
Talk about cool seeds! Looks at these elaborate seed pods of Dogbane/Indian Hemp (Apocynum cannabinum)! Dogbane is related to milkweeds, and like milkweeds the seeds with tufts of hair help the plant float on the breeze to new places. On the left is this red-stemmed, white-blossomed plant in June and on the center and right, the unbelievably long, angular seed pods this week.
Of course, some seeds are actually a HUGE problem. In autumn, the invasive, tree-killing vine, Oriental/Asian Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), produces its seductively beautiful yellow and red fruits. This vine encircles the trunks of trees while climbing for the sun. In doing so, it can choke the life out of a tree. If it gets to the top, it can kill the tree by shading it out and/or by making it top heavy and more likely to fall in storms. Unfortunately, hungry birds eat the berries and spread Bittersweet readily through their droppings. PLEASE DON’T PICK THIS VINE OR MAKE WREATHS FROM IT , ETC. Contact the Parks Department if you want some strategies for getting rid of this beautiful “bad guy”!
By late October, the meadow at Cranberry Creek had turned November brown as plants continued to produce seeds.
I did, though, find a few shy Smooth Asters (Symphyotrichum laeve) tucked beneath overhanging foliage, braving the cold with the last of its lavender blossoms.
During October: A Feast for Migrating Birds!
It’s hard for us to watch the palette of spring and summer fade – but birds? They love it! Warblers and other small visitors who spent their summer raising young in the cool northern reaches of Canada sailed into the park and found a feast! As did our year ’round resident birds.
One of my favorite partakers of fruits and seeds is the tiny Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) who’s found its way here from around Hudson Bay in Canada – or even farther north. I seem to always miss seeing the ruby crown which the male shows when he’s excited. I guess the birds I’m seeing are either females or males that are just too calm!
One afternoon at Cranberry Lake, the park was filled with White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis). They whisked in and out of shrubs while dashing down into the grass in search of seeds. This one paused just long enough for me to see its yellow lores, the spots at the corner of its eyes. It may have arrived from the UP or the tip of the mitten on its way to points south – not quite as arduous a trip as some migrators have.
This “first winter” White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys) was probably born this summer. It will take on adult coloring when it molts next spring into its bright black and white crown that now is brown and gray. This one was feeding avidly ongoldenrod seed during its journey from northern Canada to somewhere south of Michigan.
One morning, far up the path in the shadow of trees, a small Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) landed quickly, picked up a bug or fallen fruit from the grass, and took off. No photo. But here’s one from a previous year with its chocolate brown back and breast smudges. Too bad the Hermit Thrush doesn’t court its mate here, because its song has 3 different phrases with a pause between each. You can hear two versions of it here.
Our birding group saw other migratory birds enjoying the rest and sustenance provided by Cranberry Lake Park, but through our binoculars. They were too far away or too restless for me to capture them with the camera. The little Nashville Warbler (Oreothlypis ruficapilla) is making its way from Canada’s far north to Mexico or Central America. The Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum) stopped by on its journey from Canada to Florida or the Caribbean. And the Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata) has a comparatively short migration from northern Michigan or Canada to just south of Michigan. So as in all of our parks, Cranberry Lake offers much needed R&R for these small seasonal visitors.
During the bird walk, a Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus) swooped into the Hickory Lane on the west side of the park, perhaps chasing a songbird. It flew straight in front of us and quickly disappeared – we think without snagging the bird. Pretty exciting! Sharp-shinned Hawks are smaller and seen less often than the similar Cooper’s Hawk. They usually appear only during migration, so it’s probably headed south by now. Here’s a link to a photo at Cornell Lab.
A summer resident, the Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) called “chewink!” from the edge of the woods one birdwalk morning. When Ben imitated his call, the male Towhee darted into a nearby bush, intending, I assume, to check out the competition. Here’s a photo of one from last spring. (Let’s just say my photo luck was not with me on that bird walk!)
So though we miss the flowers, they have done their work. They attracted the right pollinators which helped create the very seeds that feed tired and hungry migrating birds – as well as having provided bees with the makings for the honey that will feed them through the winter, too. As a compensation, color comes to us once more as the trees begin to turn.
Late October: Winter Resident from the Far North Arrives – and Color Fills the Trees
Just this week, an American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea) may have flown into Cranberry Lake Park from the edge of the Arctic tundra! This sparrow, with a spot in the middle of its gray chest and a two-tone bill, loves cold weather. During the summer, Tree Sparrows make elegant nests of ptarmigan feathers right on the ground in the Arctic in order to raise their young. Evidently for a Tree Sparrow, spending the winter in Michigan is like going to Florida! Below is the first one I’ve seen this year.
A flock of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) did a lot to brighten up the browning of the meadow last week. Most Bluebirds migrate south, but a few actually stay with us all winter, either in family groups or small flocks, as long as there are seeds and berries available. I couldn’t resist taking more than one photo. Their splashes of azure in the field were really cheering on a gray fall day.
Color, of course, is the glory of a Michigan autumn. On September 24, the Hickory Lane still looked green and lush. By October 11, the colors had changed to gold and orange. And on October 24, a single glowing Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) at the south end of the lane was still shining in the sunlight after most of the other hickory trees began to turn brown.
The maple family contributes lavishly to the beauty of autumn. On the path to the lake, a striking leaf from a Red Maple (Acer rubrum) featured some colorful geometry. And nearby, the deeply lobed greenish-white underside of a pale yellow leaf from a Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) created some contrast. At the lake’s edge, oak and maple leaves formed a scarf of fall color floating on the surface.
The lake again was filled with migrating ducks and water birds – all much too far out for any kind of shot. Female Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa), Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) and Mute Swans(Cygnus olor) were among the throng. Here are photos of those birds from locations where I can get closer to them!
But there were also Pied-Billed Grebes(Podilymbus podiceps), and American Black Ducks(Anas rubripes)on Cranberry Lake. Please click on these red Cornell Lab links if you’d like to see them up close. Let’s hope a viewing deck gets built on Cranberry Lake in the next few years so all of us can get a closer look in person at the water birds that flock to the lake in spring and fall to socialize and feed.
A Different Kind of Transition in the North of the Park
Finally, a wonderful transition is being finished on the trail at the north end of the park. The Parks and Recreation maintenance staff has spent long hours this summer improving the trail from 32 Mile Road into the park. Instead of an oft-flooded, muddy track, they have laid down a solid surface with periodic drainage pipes running beneath it to keep the new trail from flooding. You certainly can feel the difference underfoot! And I imagine equestrians, as well as hikers, will appreciate the improvement. Thanks to Maintenance Foreman Doug Caruso and Maintenance Technician Jeff Johnson for a hard job that, when completed, should be a great improvement for the park!
Autumn: Harvest Time for All of Us!
So, just as we humans harvest crops before the snow falls, birds and animals harvest the wild “crops” of the fields – seeds and fruits. Some of them, like Black-Capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus), both eat and store them, tucking the seeds into bark where they will find them when snow blankets the meadow. Others, like the Palm Warbler, use them to fuel their flight to warmer climes. Winter residents, like the Tree Sparrow, will probe the brown goldenrod for seeds all winter – as well as flocking at your feeder. So when the color drains away, when the leaves are wet and brown underfoot, it may be a comfort to think of the bounty that surrounds us in those dry, drab plants. The brown and gray seeds nourish all kinds of creatures, and guarantee next summer’s bounty of plants. Those dry leaves underfoot dropped when they completed their work of sending sugars to the trees’ roots, ready to fuel next year’s growth. Seeds and falling leaves really are another reason to be thankful as November arrives. Maybe nature deserves a rest after a job well done!
*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; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for beetle info http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info, http://www.illinoiswildflowers.info and invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman.
Bear Creek is busy with autumn. Butterflies sip nectar from late season wildflowers. Bees store up pollen to feed the colony during the winter. Grasses, vines and other plants produce seed heads or berries for next year’s crop, providing food for bird and beast alike. Migrating birds stop by on their way south, eating and resting. Summer’s avian visitors, having raised young here, prepare for departure. Some insects hatch, munch on plants, breed and in turn, become a meal for others. And in moist areas, some life forms emerge that range from just weird-looking to gloriously creepy!
Autumn Prep: Late Season Foraging, Molting and Migrating
One sunny afternoon, a band of Clouded Sulphur butterflies (Coliasphilodice) fed and fluttered among the pale lavender blossoms of native Smooth Swamp Asters (Symphyotrichum firmum) just off the Eastern Path. What a sight to watch this small male, its golden wings with bold black edges quivering, as it approached for a sip.
Clouded Sulphurs produce many broods a year and perhaps this couple will produce a chrysalis that will overwinter and open in the spring. I’d love to see one then, since the chrysalis reportedly turns yellow with a pink “zipper” right before the butterfly emerges! The male is the one with black wing bands.
Nearby, a small Common Buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia) was sampling the aster’s nectar as well. Native autumn wildflowers provide such a feast before frost descends!
Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus) are sadly scarce this year after we saw so many at Bear Creek last year. According to the Michigan State Extension website, a severe March snowstorm in their wintering grounds in Mexico killed 50-70% of the Monarchs before they could migrate! But the birding group was lucky enough to spot a female in the western Old Field, feeding on a native New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae).
Red-legged Grasshoppers are bouncing out of the grass like popcorn along the paths of Bear Creek. They are in the process of molting five times into bigger and bigger instars. This one, retreating under a leaf, isn’t quite adult yet.
At the Center Pond one morning, a Great Egret (Ardea alba) went fishing before migrating to Florida and the Caribbean. Hikers at Bear Creek report seeing a lot of them in the park in the last few weeks, which is great to hear! (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Under a bench on the viewing platform, two male Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos ) were developing their mating colors again. They’d spent the last 6 weeks or so in their “eclipse plumage,” when they take on the brown-toned female coloring. As they preened last week, however, an iridescent band of green was developing above their greenish yellow bills. (The females’ bills are orange and black.) I wondered if their flight feathers were most affected by the molt that day, since they didn’t take to the water when I sat down on a bench.
Several days later, I saw a bit of drama featuring these males. One of them had finished molting into his full mating colors. He “got the girl” and the other didn’t. The mallard couple did a lot of synchronous head bobbing on the deck and then swam off together. The other male was left on the sidelines, I’m afraid. But he may find a mate once his molt is complete. Feathers evidently tell female Mallards something important about choosing a healthy male.
An Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) periodically sallied forth to capture insects from high above the meadow east of the pond. Here’s a photo from last year so you can see it a bit closer. This solitary bird will spend the winter in a flock, eating fruits along the Amazon River in South America. Sounds like a long trip but a pleasant escape, eh?
A twitching of leaves in the low bushes below revealed the constant tail-wagging of a small brown bird. A migrating Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum) moved among the branches with a telltale patch of yellow under its tail and a dark eyeline. It probably spent the summer raising young in Canada’s far north and is on its way to Florida or the Caribbean. In spring, a male’s courting colors are a bright yellow breast and throat and a chestnut cap.
What appeared to be a juvenile House Wren chipped and scolded from a nearby shrub as I passed. It looks like a young one, doesn’t it? It’ll be traveling to Florida and the West Indies once it leaves Bear Creek, riding on a North wind toward southern warmth.
This week the birding group saw several migrators, but I didn’t get great shots. So here are three of last year’s photos of the birds we saw through binoculars this week. You might trying bringing your binoculars when you hike here and take a close look at any small, brownish birds in the bushes. We typically don’t get to see these warblers or kinglets except when they stop in our parks on their journey north or south. They spend the summer raising young farther north.
At the edge of a wetland, a Spreadwing damselfly with huge blue eyes, which may be a Spotted Spreadwing (Lestes congener),hung onto a twig. Spreadwings always perch with their wings half open and have pincers at the end of their abdomen – but their individual species names are hard to nail down. So don’t quote me on the name of this blue-eyed, bug-eyed character!
Seeds and Berries Mean Spring Prep, too
Plants pollinated in the summer are beginning to produce the seeds and berries that will guarantee their return next year. At the edge of the woods, False Solomon Seal (Maianthemum canadense) berries are ripening from mottled pink to red. Aren’t they pretty?
An aggressive native vine, Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), has thrived this summer and seems to be climbing in dense mats over trees and shrubs all over Bear Creek. It produces berry-like “drupes” (a fruit with a pit that contains the seed/s) on bright red stems that eventually turn brown. Many migrating and year-round birds feed on these berries, along with the occasional skunk or red fox.
Wildflowers are setting seed for next spring and the birds take advantage of that as well. Here are a few native flowers and their beginnings of seed formation.
And Now for Creepy Crawlies and Other Oddities
Ben’s new Stewardship tech, Heather Herndon, spotted a spectacular creepy creature on a rotting log. It appears to be a Leopard Slug (Limax maximus), a non-native who cleans up dead plants and consumes fungi, some agricultural plants and even smaller slugs! What an odd creature it is! According to Wikipedia, it is hermaphroditic, which means it carries both eggs and sperm. It does mate, however, exchanging sperm with another slug through a reproductive pore near its right tentacle. How strange is that? Slugs, like snails, are gastropods, but unlike snails, they can’t withdraw into shells. What’s odd, though, is that this slug actually has an internal shell behind its head that seems to be an evolutionary left-over, since it has no apparent purpose. So creepily cool, this one!
On our Wednesday bird walk, we spotted this wonderful web of an Orb Weaver spider. It was a big web and placed unusually high off the ground. Looks like the spider, who may be that tiny dot at the center, caught something near the edge of the web.
Cathy Rooney, one of the Park Protector nominees, put up on Facebook a wonderful video she found. It shows an Orb Weaver working meticulously to create a web just like this one. I found this version at YouTube so it should be accessible to any reader. Great find, Cathy!
Out in the Old Fields, the Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) pods are preparing to break open and release their seeds. But this year, the Large Milkweed Bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus) hatched in great numbers and are attacking more milkweed pods than usual. These insects inject saliva into the seed with their snout-like rostrum. The saliva dissolves the seed so the insect can vacuum it back up! Milkweeds are toxic and these insects are too once they feed. Their bright red color is believed to ward off predators by advertising that. In these two photos, early “instars” (developmental stages between molts) are on the left, and on the right are later and larger instars and one adult beetle. Thanks to the weather and this spring’s prescribed burn, the Milkweed is plentiful this year too, so we can hope that bugs won’t wipe out next year’s crop.
Fungi appeared here and there in Bear Creek after the heavy rainfall. Ben identified this white branching mushroom on a fallen log. It seems to be from genus Clavulina, most likely White Coral Mushroom, Clavulina cristata. Doesn’t it look like a tiny white forest? It’s believed to be mychorrizal, meaning it emerges from fungi underground that surround a tree’s roots and assist the tree in absorbing water and nutrients while the tree feeds the fungi. A beneficial symbiosis.
Like last year, huge fungi formed on the dead tree across from the Playground Pond. They are clearly some kind of polypore, or shelf mushroom, but I’ve been unable to nail that down. Anyone have a guess? They were so big this year that one of them collected water in which insects swam! On my last visit, though, only one was still on the tree. Either the downpours knocked them off or perhaps children did, like I saw two little boys try to do last year.
A little girl was delighted by finding a common Shaggy Mane Mushroom (Coprinus comatus)in the green grass of the playground field. It is beautifully ruffled, isn’t it?
It took a while to identify this mushroom, but I’m pretty sure it’s called an Elm Oyster Mushroom (Hypsizygus ulmarius) because they look like this and grow out of Box Elders (Acer negundo) at this time of year, like this one on the Western Slope did.
I know some people experience autumn as a somewhat melancholy season – flowers missing petals, tree shedding leaves, birds departing. The park quiets down as birdsong diminishes and the cricket song replaces frog song. Others find the riotous color of fall leaves and the crisp air exciting and invigorating and they love the fall. It can strike me either way, depending on the day.
For those who feel a bit sad at summer’s end, maybe it helps to remember that autumn is just the beginning of a long rest before spring. Trees take a breather from photosynthesis and live down in their roots for several months. Seeds are finding their way to the ground where they’ll reside until sunlight summons their hidden life back to the surface. Some birds, like some humans, depart for the south. But others, like the first little Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) we saw this week, are winging their way from the north to spend the winter here where our winter weather suits them just fine.
If we’re curious and take the time to look, every season here offers beautiful – and sometimes oddly fascinating – discoveries. And that cheers me even on the grayest of autumn days.
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.
What a glorious week for seeing migrating songbirds – and what frustration for a photographer who can’t quite manage to capture them all! The trees, bushes and vines (like the Virginia Creeper on the right) are full of tiny, chirping birds that hop about quickly searching for sustenance before the next leg of their fall journeys.
I’ll share what I was able to photograph this week, with all the imperfections of an amateur photographer who, until this year, had almost no experience with warblers – who are very small and move very fast!
And then I’ll link you to better photos from Cornell Lab or Audubon.org, so you can see these little beauties up close – instead of half hidden by brush, silhouetted against the sun or at the very tops of trees! So much color and energy in the park! It’s a wonder how these small songbirds sail through the night and land in Bear Creek for a day’s rest and some fruits, seeds and insects to sustain them on the next leg of their journeys.
Winged Visitors : Warblers and Kinglets Everywhere!
If you’re looking for small migrating birds at Bear Creek, bring good binoculars and a lot of patience! I learned a lot at Wednesday’s bird walk from Dr. Ben and Ruth Glass who leads bird walks at Stoney Creek Metro Park and is a highly experienced birder. For instance, they told us that in early morning, it’s best to look for birds where the sun first hits the trees. (Makes sense, eh?) So take the path into the park from Snell and once you get out in the field, look in the trees and bushes at the first large curve to the left. Wow! Lots of birds in those bushes and trees!
Other great places for me have been the Walnut Lane and the circuit all the way around the Playground Pond. Walk slowly and very quietly and begin by listening to any cheeping in the bushes. Watch for twitching foliage and you’ll see them. But you need to go soon! The migration for many songbirds peaked this week and numbers will decline until they are gone by early November.
Here’s a sampling of what you might see:
Palm Warblers (Setophaga palmarum) hopped from branch to branch again this week. Look for their “field marks,” including a rusty cap, dark eye line, breast streaks at the sides and yellow underparts. It’ll be leaving soon to go as far south as the Caribbean – which could be where it got its name?
I caught sight of what I think is a Tennessee Warbler (Oreothlypis peregrina) going after some fruit. It seems to be a male in its non-breeding, fall colors. Page down to the bottom of this link for several different good views, including the non-breeding (fall) plumage. Side note: Last week’s Nashville Warbler (Oreothlypis ruficapilla) and this one aren’t necessarily from Tennessee. According to Ruth Glass, they were first reported and drawn by John James Audubon who lived in Kentucky for part of his life and probably named birds for where he saw them.
The tiny, almost constantly moving Kinglets pass through Bear Creek during the spring and fall, too. The flitting Ruby-Crowned Kinglet is identified by its size, irregular white eye ring and its twitching wings! Its “ruby crown” only shows when it’s excited or courting, though one of the birders saw a Kinglet’s crown this Wednesday! Maybe you can see the tiny red dot on the head of this bird that I saw the next day – or you can have a look at it really flared in this Audubon link.
I saw another Kinglet last weekend silhouetted in the sunlight and had no idea what it was until Ruth Glass identified it from my poor photo as a Golden-CrownedKinglet (Regulus satrapa.)Their field marks are a very short, thin beak perfect for winkling out insects and of course the gold on their wings and crown. Have a look at this Audubon link for a better view!
Winged Visitors: Sparrows? Yes!
I learned this year to stop ignoring small, brownish birds assuming they were all sparrows that I already knew. That’s how I missed seeing other small migrants. Look at this beautiful White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) with the bright yellow dots(called “lores”) in front of its eyes, a striped crown and of course, a white throat marked by black stripes called “whiskers” or “malar stripes”!
And here’s a young White-Crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys ) which needs to be differentiated from the White-Throated Sparrow above. It’s about to make its first migration, because it was born somewhere in the far north below the arctic circle this very summer. (Thanks again to Ruth Glass for the ID!)
White-Crowned Sparrows look radically different after one year. Here’s a photo I took at Bear Creek on October 6, 2008 and then a closeup of one at my house in spring a few years later. Hard to believe it’s the same bird as the brown “first winter” bird in the photo above, isn’t it?
Sharp-eyed Ruth also saw two Lincoln’s Sparrows (Melospiza lincolnii ) which look very much like a Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) but are smaller and daintier and have no central spot on their breasts. Unlike the courser streaking on a song sparrow, the Lincoln’s Sparrow’s black streaks are finer and on “buffy” flanks. Wikipedia says they are “quite secretive” – too much so, for my eyes and camera! So here’s another Cornell link to get a look.
The visiting summer sparrows that spent their summer in the park are still here too. A Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) with its bright white eye ring and pinkish bill and feet watches other migrants hop in the trees. As their name implies, Field Sparrows avoid suburban areas and will soon fly off to somewhere south of Michigan so keep an eye out for them soon at places like Bear Creek!
Winged Migrants: a Mixture of Species
During the Wednesday bird walk, the treetops on Walnut Lane were filled with Pine Siskins (Spinus pinus). This nomadic finch appears some years and not others as it follows the best seed crops. My photo in morning sun in the treetops shows its streaky head and body but not the flashes of its subdued winter yellow as they flutter or fly, so have a look at Cornell Lab’s photo.
Down at the Center Pond, we saw an Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) darting from the shore to the water, catching a few bugs. The most distinguishing field mark of a Phoebe is a constantly pumping tail, plus a dark head and white breast. The males usually sing “Phee-beee” only when courting but one was trying out its song on Wednesday. It probably spent the summer here. It will be migrating in the next couple of weeks and be gone by early November.
At the western edge of the pond on Wednesday, deep in the brush, skulked a migrating Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) who probably raised its young farther north in Michigan or Canada. These birds rummage in leaf litter looking for insects, so they can be hard to see. But the following day, it appeared on a log near the pond.
Also at the pond, Ruth spotted a Blue-headed Vireo (Vireo solitarius) which may have spent the summer among pines farther north. It generally looks blue-gray but Ruth told us it’s more blue in direct sunlight. I love its white “spectacles.” Unfortunately, I didn’t get a shot of it but here’s the link to Cornell’s photo.
The Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) males at the Center Pond are slowly getting rid of their eclipse plumage. Here’s one whose beautiful green head feathers have almost completely molted.
He’d probably like the molt to be over, since some of the males now have their full complement of courting plumage and are already pairing up with females, though mating won’t happen until spring! They’ll move to the Gulf Coast this winter, unless they can find an area with sufficient food and open water farther north.
The Gray Catbird raised its young here this summer but will be leaving soon, too. This one in the vines and bushes north of the Playground Pond looks like it’s finished molting and is about ready to go.
Winter Residents (or Delayed Departures) Molting into Winter Garb
A flock of young Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum), who have left their fledgling feathers behind and now wear their first winter garb, jostled noisily among the fruiting vines and trees. Some of them may remain here for at least part of the winter and then head south. I saw a flock of Waxwings at Bear Creek eating in ice-glazed branches on Christmas Eve two years ago! Others have already left for warmer climes, sometimes as far south as Central America. These noisy young ones are identified by mottled chests, shorter crests, and a wider white lines around the mask – but the tips of their tails still glow bright yellow in sunlight like adult waxwings.
This female American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) looks a bit disconcerted about molting into her drab winter colors, much like the female Cardinal that I posted last week.
This winter-ready Goldfinch, though, looked as if it enjoyed its ride on a plume of Canada Goldenrod as it picked seeds from the dried blossoms as they swayed in the wind.
Odds ‘n’ Ends
A tiny Eastern Chipmunk ((Tamias striatus) dashed up a tree near Snell Road. I love how his tail was backlit by the late afternoon sun.
In the southernmost meadow near Snell, I spotted a large patch of white plants I’d never seen before. Dr. Ben identified them as FragrantCudweed. The University of Michigan Herbarium uses that common nameor the slightly less bovine Old-Field Balsam. Many internet sites call it Sweet Everlasting (my fave of the three) and look at its Latin name – Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium – !! Whatever you call this native plant, it’s interesting. According to a Minnesota Wildflower site, the clusters of what look like egg-shaped buds are actually the blooms with the yellow/brown anthers (pollen- producing flower parts) exposed at the end. And what looks like whorled petals are bracts, leaflike structures which will open and fall when the seed ripens. Nice to have fresh blooms so late in the year! As the weather gets colder, we’ll really wish they were everlasting!
Fall migration must be a restless, exhausting, but exciting time for birds. Their hormones, the shorter days, and the temperature all tell them it’s time to go south. Dangers lurk along the way, which is one of the reasons perching birds travel at night, avoiding raptors who travel by day. Severe weather, a shopping mall where a woods used to be, lighted buildings that confuse the birds’ navigation systems can all be disastrous. But the pull is strong and off these small birds go in the night, riding the wind if they can. I hope you get to see some of them off.
*Footnote: My sources for information, as well as Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991);Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net.; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for beetle info http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info, and invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman; experienced birder Ruth Glass, bird walk leader at Stoney Creek Metro Park for bird identification;Birds of North American Online; Audubon.org