October is autumn’s transition month. Some days are warm and sunny, creating almost an illusion of late summer or early September. And on those days, a few bees and butterflies flutter across my path, caterpillars bump along through the grass and native wildflowers still bloom in the fields. A turtle in the Draper marsh basks in the thinning light.
Change is in the air. Let’s look back to see what October had to offer as we take the first cold, rainy steps into the austerity of November.
Early October: Late Season Wildflowers Host the Occasional Bee or Butterfly
One Sunday afternoon in October, a Common Buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia) fluttered down onto the trail right in front of my husband and I. In the summer, Draper Twin Lake Park hosts a rainbow of butterflies. Some mate, lay their eggs and expire, leaving caterpillars behind in their chrysalises. But this colorful little butterfly migrates south for the winter and returns in the spring. Perhaps it stopped at Draper to sample the various goldenrods, since it prefers yellow flowers. Can you see the slightly bug-eyed expression on its face? I laughed to think it was as surprised to see my husband and I as we were to see it land right in front of us!
Late October: Swaying, Russet Prairie Plants Provide a Fall Feast for Wildlife
The video above may look like a sea of dry brown stems to you. But to the birds, particularly the American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis), it looks like your heavily laden Thanksgiving table. In just the video’s 40 seconds, you are seeing hundreds of thousands of seeds: Indian Grass, Coneflowers, Black-eyed Susans, Stiff Goldenrod, Little Bluestem and many more. On the August birdwalk, we spent a happy ten minutes or so watching a flock of goldfinches swaying on bobbing stalks as they stuffed themselves with Stiff Goldenrod seed (Solidago rigida). First there were two and then suddenly there were five all scrabbling to feed on the abundant seed heads.
Relishing Autumn’s Transformation
The Draper prairie with its great looping trail really may look dry, brown and lifeless to some hikers. But not to me. At this time of year, I feel a lot like Ratty, a “country gentleman” sort of muskrat in the children’s classic Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame, a book I quoted in an earlier blog. Like me, Ratty senses the restlessness of autumn. He heads out into a farmer’s field, much as I waded out into the tall grass of Draper’s northern prairie: “…he thrust into the great realm of wheat, yellow, wavy, and murmurous, full of quiet motion and small whisperings. Here he often loved to wander through the forest of stiff strong stalks that carried their own golden sky away over his head — a sky that was always dancing, shimmering, softly talking; or swaying strongly to the passing wnd and recovering itself with a toss and a merry laugh. Here, too, he had many small friends, a society complete in itself…”
Ratty is a kindred spirit. Autumn also plunges me into the bending and tossing grasses and the whispering of dry stems where I can stand shoulder deep in the prairie and just “be” with it all. Like him, I sense a community of other creatures in the flocks of fidgety birds, the agitated butterflies searching for the last bloom, the relentless plodding of a caterpillar through the grass stems. Autumn’s restlessness urges me to celebrate the change, change and change again of every season. I appreciate that reminder.
Polish up your binocular lenses and head outside, dear readers! The trees, shrubs and marshes are filled with a rainbow of colorful birds. And though some of these visitors may choose to stay and raise young here, others are just passing through. So time’s a-wasting!
The second and third weeks of May are probably the busiest weeks of the spring for those of us who enjoy birds. New birds arrive daily at our feeders and we rush to the window. Flocks gather at birding ‘hot spots” like Tawas Point in Michigan or Magee Marsh in Ohio and we pack up the car and take off to see them. Familiar birdsong in the treetops prompts the birding group to go silent and look up.
Scientists theorize that the tiny warblers, and many other spring birds, may have made long, arduous journeys through the night ever since their ancestors in the tropics experimented with moving north in the spring. As the glaciers retreated, some of the tropical or sub-tropical birds kept pushing on a bit further north each spring, seeking more sunlit hours and different or more nourishing food. Those ancestors liked what they found – longer summer days, an abundance of blossoms and insects and plenty of nesting sites. And lucky for us, they eventually arrived here in Oakland Township and liked what they saw.
This year, I got curious about where our visiting warblers spent the winter. How far had they traveled to reach Michigan from their wintering grounds? I also wanted to be sure which birds you and I need to look for right now, before they fly off to breed further north and which ones we can relax about a bit, because they’ll spend the summer with us, raising their young in our parks and yards. The more I learn about nature, the more I feel myself embedded in the natural world – and I like that feeling.
So here’s what I’ve learned about some visiting warblers so far this month. These birds are all ones I’ve seen this spring. But I’m using some of last year’s photos when they’re better than some of the ones I took during this year’s cold, rainy spring. Next week, I hope to explore the fellow travelers, other beautiful migrators that accompanied this year’s warblers and will be spending the summer with us as well.
Some Warblers are Here Only Occasionally or are Just Passing Through
Evidently for some birds, our area is a good place to get some R & R, but locations further north have charms that lure them on. Perhaps these migrators long for cooler summer temperatures, deeper forests, or a reliable food source that they need or simply prefer.
At Magee Marsh in Ohio, my husband and I saw our first male Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea), named for the bright yellow robes of Roman Catholic papal clerks. You can’t see this male’s lovely blue-gray wings in my photo because he wouldn’t stop singing his four tweet song. I think his clear golden feathers with a peachy blur are probably the prettiest yellow feathers I’ve ever seen! Prothonotary numbers are dwindling due to a lack of forested wetlands in the U.S. and the loss of mangrove forests along the Atlantic Coast of Central and northern South America, where they spend the winter. They more commonly breed in Missouri, Arkansas and the south but a few do choose to breed in our area. Some were seen along the Clinton River Trail in the last couple of years. So, enjoy a rare treat if you spot this beautiful warbler!
The male Blackpoll Warbler (Setophaga striata) below may look like an overgrown Chickadee, but Blackpolls are avian record-holders! Cornell Ornithology Lab reports that, “This long-distance athlete weighs less than half an ounce yet makes the longest overwater journey of any songbird—nearly 1,800 miles nonstop over the Atlantic Ocean to its wintering grounds.” Imagine! Now they are on their way to mate in Northern Canada; some go all the way to Hudson’s Bay! According to Cornell Lab, to accomplish their monumental autumn flights, Blackpolls have to double their weight! Talk about bulking up!
This male Magnolia Warbler with its black necklace and mask was on its way to Northern Michigan or Canada because he prefers to breed in dense conifer forests. And he’s already traveled a long way since he winters in the Caribbean or Central America.
Blackburnian Warblers (Setophaga fusca) travel super long distances, too. According to Wikipedia, they winter in the mountains from Colombia to Peru at heights of 2,000-8,000 feet. They also prefer to breed in coniferous forests, especially ones with hemlocks. So they’re heading farther north to upper Michigan and Canada. While there, they’ll spend most of their time in the high canopy, plucking moth and butterfly larvae from the treetops. So the best time to see them is during migration when they’re down at eye level.
The Northern Parula(Setophaga americana) spends its winters in Mexico, the Caribbean or Central America. Parulas raise young from Florida to the boreal forests of northern Canada, but according to Cornell, they skip Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin and some northeastern states. Why avoid us? Mosses like the southern Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides) or northern lichens like Old Man’s Beard (g. Usnea) that droop from branches are important to the Parula for nesting material and neither is common in our area. So since they breed north of us and south of us but not here, try to see them before they move on!
According to the migration map at Cornell, the Yellow-rumped Warbler just barely misses our area during the breeding season. They breed north of Michigan’s “thumb.” The reason may be that, like the Blackburnian, they prefer mature forests with more conifers in them than we have around here. Luckily, during migration, I’ve seen them many times at Bear Creek Park, either around the playground pond or in the oak-hickory forest. They can winter as far north as Indiana and Ohio (rarely in the southern edge of Michigan) because they can digest fruits that other warblers can’t, like juniper or myrtle, but also the fruits of poison ivy, poison oak and virginia creeper, for heaven’s sake! Strong stomachs, eh? This one rested at Magee Marsh this year before crossing Lake Erie.
During migration, I’ve spotted Palm Warblers (Setophagapalmarum) year after year at Bear Creek Nature Park. Their song is a rapid buzzing trill, Look for Palm Warblers on the ground, a location uncommon for most warblers. They also do a lot of tail pumping while they forage. Palm Warblers prefer to nest in the boreal (evergreen) forests of Canada. Their migration north begins in Florida or the Caribbean.
Some Warblers Spend the Summer With Us.
All summer long, we are graced with the presence of other warblers. They are small and can be difficult to see hidden in the summer greenery, though, so it’s a delight to see them before the leaves are fully grown. I have yet to see a warbler nest, but I’ve only become aware of these little beauties since I joined the birding group, so maybe you long-time birders have spotted them raising young. If so, I’d love to hear about it in the comments section below!
The Chestnut-sided Warbler (Setophaga pensylvanica), one of my favorite warblers, is shown on Cornell Lab’s migration map as nesting here in our area, but I’ve only seen them during migration. Please let me know if you see one during the summer or hear what Cornell describes as their “pleased, pleased, pleased to meetcha!” breeding song. These little birds spend their winters among tropical birds in Central and northern South America. They tend to go back to the same tropical area each autumn and hang out and feed with the same mixed group of tropical birds they hung out with the previous year. I’d love to see that reunion each year!
Happily, the Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia) is a common summer resident in our parks. These bright yellow birds are likely to be in shrubs or trees near wetlands. The male’s very quick “sweet, sweet, I’m a little sweet” call can be heard at quite a distance, so keep following that call! This tiny bird is also a long distance migrator. Yellow Warblers fly non-stop across the Gulf of Mexico to spend the winter in Central America or northern South America. Wouldn’t their tropical ancestors be proud of them? (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Some of our eastern American Redstarts (Setophaga ruticilla) only travel to Florida for the winter. But many fly on to the Greater Antilles (the large islands in the Caribbean) or to northern South America. Listen for its cheerful song since they mate in our area, as well as over a large area of the country. The Redstart is believed to startle insects out of trees by simultaneously drooping its orange-patched wings and flashing open its colorful tail. It must work, because Cornell says that they excel among the warblers at catching flying insects.
The intricately patterned Black-and-white Warblers (Mniotilta varia) hop along, around, over and under the trunks and branches of trees, much like nuthatches, looking for insects in the moss and bark. They can nest here, though I’ve only seen them during migration and don’t yet recognize their rapid, shrill trill. They build nests on the ground in forest leaf litter, so we’re more likely to see them in parks than on our tidy lawns. They are scrappy little birds that give the Redstarts and Chickadees a hard time when establishing territory. Some travel to Florida for the winter, but others fly on to northern South America where they hassle inhabitants there as well!
The birding group sees or hears Black-throated Green Warblers (Setophaga virens) during migration. The maps at Cornell Lab shows that some breed here, but they’re more likely to nest farther north in forests with mature trees. There they often feed high up in the canopy. So really, the best time to see them is when they’re migrating because they tend to stay further down in the greenery. Though they do have a mating song, we’re most likely to hear their buzzing “zzzzz” territorial song while they’re traveling. The mating song is the first recording at this Cornell link and the buzzing call is the second one. They may have migrated up from the Caribbean. Or they may have traveled from Central America and northern South America, either around or over the Gulf of Mexico.
Birds Flowing Over Us in the Dark Night Sky
Imagine standing on your lawn in the dark on a warm spring night. Though you can’t see them in the dark sky, a river of small birds, dressed in their best courtship colors, are alternately soaring and fluttering as they ride the south wind. Most of the smallest ones travel in large mixed flocks for safety. For hundreds of miles each night, they wing their way beneath the stars. They’re battered by unexpected cold fronts and rainstorms that force them down to the earth, sometimes in places unsuitable for rest or foraging. They rest, try to forage and fly on. They dodge predators like owls or suburban cats that patrol the night and hawks and other predators by day. They fly on. Some are confused by the bright lights of buildings or towers and break against unseen glass or metal, falling to their deaths by the millions each year. But luckily, others manage to tilt their wings, swerve away or over these obstacles and fly on. Driven by the need to find the optimum habitat for raising their young, these colorful small birds persist in the journey defined by their tropical ancestors thousands of year ago.
Now these lovely, hungry, weary travelers have arrived or at least have chosen to stop, rest and eat here before continuing on. It seems only right that we take a little time to appreciate them. Their bustling activity, brilliant color and cheerful song provide a welcome change after the quiet, cold, gray-and-brown landscape of winter. Now that I’ve come to know some of them, late spring is even more of a joy. I wish that for you, too.
Surprised a bit by seeing the photo above in a nature blog? Well, on my four October visits to Gallagher Creek Park, I noticed an abundance of a new species there – young humans and their watchful adults!
Late on autumn afternoons, this modest 15 acre park is now filled with the voices of excited little humans rocking, swinging, spinning , climbing, and sliding on the colorful new playground equipment installed in July by volunteers and staff of the Parks and Recreation Commission. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Girls see-sawing on the “dragonfly” at Gallagher Creek after the installation of the equipment last fall.
Playing on the “Stand ‘n’ Spin”
Two girls playing on the hollow “log” at the Gallagher Creek playground last fall after the equipment was first installed.
The park’s already becoming a place for families to cross paths and get to know their neighbors in the most densely populated part of our township. And meanwhile, in the background…
Nature Goes About Its Autumnal Business
The natural areas of Gallagher Creek look a bit scruffy right now from all the construction that went on this summer to build a picnic pavilion, a restroom enclosure, expanded parking area, the playground and a paved pathway. But despite all that to-ing and fro-ing, nature survives and offers beauty and bounty when you take time to venture into the fields.
Birds in the Distance as Children Play
Birds may keep their distance when the children are playing, but as I approached the tall grass at the edge of the creek east of the busy playground, a familiar head appeared above the tall grass.
From the absence of a white crown on its head, it seemed to be a juvenile Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) stalking along the far side of the creek. Young Blue Herons take 3 years to develop full adult plumage, according to the Stokes Guides to Bird Behavior (Vol. 3). This youngster flew off, as I crackled through the browning stalks of goldenrod and yarrow.
But just as I arrived the next morning, when the playground was empty, a juvenile – perhaps the same one? – flew over the treetops and swooped into a tree covered in vines. I snuck slowly forward and got one shot of it standing tall before it bent its knobby knees backward, spread those magnificent wings, and took to the air once more.
While the children shouted and laughed in the afternoon sun on a different afternoon, I watched a lone European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) high in a snag staring out over the playground nearby. It paid no attention to the happy noises below. I imagined that it was waiting for its highly social companions, since starlings gather in huge flocks at this time of year. This one had completed its fall molt complete with fresh feathers tipped in white, giving it the spotted plumage that starlings wear in fall and winter. By spring, the white tips will be worn off, returning these birds to their iridescent blue/black mating colors, and its beak will lighten and even change to bright yellow if it’s a male.
Unnoticed by the playground youngsters, a large, rippling flock (or “murmuration”) of about 75 starlings suddenly descended on the trees east of the creek. But the lone starling just kept staring into the distance. Perhaps it just needed a break from all the cackling and whistling that goes on in a starling gathering.
Over in a quiet corner of the park, near the cat-tail marsh along the road, three little migrating Palm Warblers (Setophaga palmarum) in their duller fall colors chirped contact calls at each other before heading further south. The most notable field mark for these little birds is the bright yellow feathers under their tails and a pale “eyebrow” which they have year ’round.
Seeds Flying, Rattling, Dropping and Providing Food for Wildlife
Autumn, of course, is the time when plants ripen and disperse seeds for next spring’s blooming. In doing so, they also provide important nourishment for all kinds of creatures. So while the children played, I went out to see what kinds of food nature was preparing in the background.
Seemingly unaware of the hubbub on the playground, a struggling American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) fumbled about trying to extract seed from a Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) while it swayed wildly in a stiff breeze. I wondered if it was a juvenile who hadn’t quite mastered the skills necessary to extract seeds on a windy day.
American Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) would delight any child at this time of year with its hot pink stem and blackish purple berries. The trick would be to keep them from trying to eat the berries, since the seeds inside are slightly toxic to humans. According to one of my favorite wildflower sites, many of our favorite song birds (Bluebirds, Cedar Waxwings and more), as well as raccoons, opposums and the gray fox, feed on pokeweed berries with no problem. Pokeweed prefers disturbed soil, which makes Gallagher Creek Park just the right spot this year! After I took this shot, I came back a few days later to find the stem broken and picked clean. Mission accomplished – food eaten and seeds dispersed.
Some seed pods are rarely seen in our township except in this park. The wispy Bladdernut shrubs (Staphylea trifolia) produce elegant lantern-like pods. The shiny brown seeds inside shake in the wind, making a sound like a baby’s rattle. Though insects feed on the blossoms, there’s little evidence I could find that the seeds provide forage for wildlife. But the trees are doing a fine job of producing more Bladdernut shrubs as the number of them along the eastern tree line seems to be increasing nicely.
The common Cat-tails (genus Typha) are seeding as well, making a nice repast for a hungry Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata).
Cat-tails are seeding in the marsh on the park’s west side.
A Blue Jay probing for cat-tail seeds.
The pods of Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) are splitting open to release their silky little parachutes, each containing a seed that can sail away on the wind. Milkweed has done its job by feeding Monarch caterpillars as well as many other butterflies and insects over the summer. So its current task is to get those seeds out into the world. If the seeds succeed in sprouting, they will feed more insects next year.
More Edibles for Wildlife Wait in the Grass
Mushrooms, of course, can be edible by humans, but they are frequently a meal for squirrels and deer as well. I saw two varieties while the children romped at Gallagher Creek. A giant Puffball (genus Calvatia) had been broken in half, probably by a curious human, since it seemed to have no teeth marks in it. One appeared in the same area last year. And a stump hosted some pretty Turkey-tail Mushrooms (Trametes versicolor), whose tough, rubbery surface might not please us, but probably could please a squirrel (particularly a Red Squirrel). I see them now and again with a mushroom between their paws.
A large puffball appeared along the treeline for the second year in a row.
Turkey-tail mushrooms on a stump at Gallagher.
As I stepped into the deep grass, I wished I had one of those busy children in tow to enjoy the sprays of Red-legged Grasshoppers (Melanoplus femurrubrum) leaping away from my feet. It would have made them laugh as it did me. These small grasshoppers lay their eggs less than inch under the earth in the autumn, and those eggs are a food source for birds, skunks, snakes and raccoons. Nymphs and adults can also be a food source for toads, snakes and some birds, but mostly during the summer months.
Beauty Underfoot Before the Frost
Even though much of Gallagher Creek is covered in brown stalks and shriveled blossoms, a few autumn wildflowers survived right up until the first frost. East of the observation deck, near the creek, the ground is covered with unusual and fragile Bottle Gentians (Gentiana andrewsii), a native wildflower that grows in only a few places in our township. Its closed blossoms never open so they are most often fertilized by bumblebees who are big enough to force their way inside and back out again. The gentians were so plentiful this year that I had to step carefully to avoid treading on one as I explored the area.
Nearby, a late-migrating Monarch butterfly ((Danaus plexippus) paused to sip on the last purple blossoms of New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), a classic autumn wildflower.
Birds Everywhere on a Cold, Quiet Morning – and a Playful Young Female
On the cold morning when I saw the heron that I mentioned above, the playground was empty and quiet. The bushes and trees, though, were alive with birds busily flitting from branch to branch, or shrub to soil, in search of anything they could find to eat.
What delighted me most was a large flock of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis). They were probably gathering to move a little farther south in Michigan or to Ohio in order to reach warmer weather, though Bluebirds often return here on warm winter days and some stay all year. The males are always the flashiest and were more plentiful in this flock.
But my favorite Bluebird on that chilly morning was what I’m guessing was a juvenile female. Young Bluebirds fledge wearing spotted breasts. But according to the Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.2), they molt into adult plumage in August and September. I began to wonder if this gray-headed female was a youngster because she seemed to be practicing the grass-handling skills that she would need next spring in building her carefully woven nest. When I first spotted her, she had the head of a grass stem in her beak with the dry stalk trailing down her back.
She made a couple of tries at moving the grass into a more suitable position.
Seemingly frustrated, she dropped the stem between her feet and stared intently at it for a minute.
At last it seemed she had figured it out. She picked it up carefully in the middle of the stalk, a much easier way to handle it.
Satisfied, she carefully set it down on the railing on which she was perched. And then left the grass stem there and flew to nearby tree.
I loved seeing this young bird fiddle with what may have been her first attempt at handling the building material she would need in the spring to create her nest.
Besides the Bluebirds, a whole assortment of other birds made the most of the quiet park that cold morning. I’m fairly sure that a tiny migrating Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) was among them, but it insisted on keeping only its rear in view! So I’ve added a photo of another one I saw in a previous year so you can have a better look at it. (Use the pause button if more time is needed for captions.)
A Park Where the Young Can Learn and Play
I believe that young humans, like the young of all species, need play as a way to learn about the world. So I loved watching children on the new playground at Gallagher Creek Park. So much is being learned as youngsters cope with siblings and strangers on the slide or the rocking “dragonfly” seesaw. Muscles grow stronger. Some learn the consequences of risk-taking and others overcome their fears. It’s great.
What I’m hoping is that once the trails are mowed again next spring, parents will take their children by the hand and explore this little park that offers so much – baby muskrats in the spring, a swollen creek after rain, tree swallows diving for insects in the summer, and native wildflowers in three seasons. And yes, even little birds, that like all children, are learning how to be skillful grown-ups.
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net;Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels, A Guide to Bird Behavior Vols.1-3 by Donald W and Lillian Q.Stokes, entomology.ca/uky.edu on Red-legged Grasshoppers, illinoiswildflowers.info and others as cited in the text.
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.