Tag Archives: Palm Warbler

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

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

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

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

Entering Along the “Great White Way”

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

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

A spray of New England Asters along the entrance trail.

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

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

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

A pair of mourning doves giving me the eye

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

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

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

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

The Central Meadow Will Soon Become a Prairie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prairie Plants

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

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Insects on the Prairies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Birds Enjoying the Prairies

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

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

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

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

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

 The View from the Oldest Trees

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

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

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

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: butterfliesathome.com;Pollinators of Native Plants by Heather Holm; Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3; inaturalist.org;Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela;Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels and others as cited in the text.
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OUT AND ABOUT IN OAKLAND: Shifting Toward Winter at Cranberry Lake Park

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Flock of geese flying south from Cranberry Lake Park

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

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The meadow at Cranberry Lake in late September

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.

Showy Goldenrod 2 CL
Perhaps last summer’s winds carried the seeds that created this curving swath of Showy Goldenrod in the meadow.

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.

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.

The golden swath of Showy Goldenrod turns to a brown, seed rich patch.
The golden swath of Showy Goldenrod turns to a brown, seed-rich patch.

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.

Staghorn Sumac no seeds
Staghorn Sumacs’ plumes of seed disappeared in mid-October, either eaten by birds or dropped to the ground.

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”!

Asian Bittersweet CL
A beautiful but deadly plant that kills trees by choking them, shading them out or making them topple in storms. PLEASE DON’T PICK ORIENTAL BITTERSWEET!

By late October, the meadow at Cranberry Creek had turned November brown as plants continued to produce seeds.

Field at Cranberry Late Oct
The meadow at Cranberry Lake had turned an autumnal brown by the end of October.

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.

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A small sprig of Smooth Asters braved the cold nights beneath the shelter of overhanging plants.

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!

Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-Crowned Kinglets arrived in October to feed and rest on their way south from northern Canada.

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.

White-throated Sparrow 3 CL
White-throated Sparrows have a shorter migration from northern Michigan to just southern Ohio.

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 on goldenrod seed during its journey from northern Canada to somewhere south of Michigan.

White-crowned Sparrow 1st winter eating
A “first winter” White-crowned Sparrow enjoying some goldenrod seeds after a long  flight from northern Canada.

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.

Hermit Thrush
The Hermit Thrush, with its chocolate brown back and smudges on its breast, picked up a few bugs or some  fruit on its way south.

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!)

Towhee Draper Pond2
An Eastern Towhee chipped from the forest edge at the end of the 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.

Tree sparrow
A tree sparrow rests in a bush.

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.

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A male Eastern Bluebird in the meadow at Cranberry Lake
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A male and female Eastern Bluebird shared a bush in the meadow.
3 bluebirds in bush
Three bluebirds decorating a bare bush in the meadow

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!

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Two female Wood Ducks were preparing for migration at Cranberry Lake this week. This one cruised the Playground Pond at Bear Creek earlier this year.
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Mallards, seen here at Bear Creek, gathered with other ducks and water birds at Cranberry Lake this week.
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Two Mute Swans floated in Cranberry Lake this week. This shot was taken a few years ago in a Canadian river where I could get closer.

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

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The greatly improved path entering the woods off of 32 Mile Road.

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!

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Black-capped Chickadee breaking open a seed.

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.

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Fall Beauty, Creepy Crawlies and Other Oddities

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Canada Goldenrod and New England Asters in the Old Fields of Bear Creek
Cam walking into BC
Blog and Photos by Cam Mannino

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 (Colias  philodice) 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.

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A male Clouded Sulphur about to sip the nectar from a Smooth Swamp Aster.

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.

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These male (left) and female(right) Clouded Sulphurs may still create a chrysalis from which a caterpillar will hatch in the spring.

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!

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A Common Buckeye butterfly also enjoys the nectar of fall flowers

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).

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Despite a rough year for Monarchs, we managed to see one at Bear Creek.

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.

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This young Red-legged Grasshopper probably has at least one molt (of five) left before being an adult.

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?

Eastern Kingbird
The Eastern Kingbird will join flocks along the  Amazon River  to spend the winter eating fruit in sunny climes.

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.

palm-warbler-bc-2
A migrating Palm Warbler with a yellow patch under its tail will be much more colorful when it passes through in the spring.

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.

wren-juvenile-bc-1
A juvenile House Wren will ride the north wind toward Florida and the West Indies in the next few weeks.

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.

Nashville warbler
Nashville Warbler who summers in Canada and winters in Mexico or the Caribbean.
The Ruby-crowned Kinglet
The Ruby-crowned Kinglet raise their young in tall, dense Canadian conifer forests.
The Tennessee Warbler
The Tennessee Warbler breeds south of the arctic in the boreal forests of Canada .

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!

spreadwing
A Spreadwing Damselfly with huge blue eyes!

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?

False Solomon Seal Berries BC
The berries of False Solomon Seal are ripening at the edge of the woods.

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.

virginia-creeper-2
Virginia Creeper provides lots of fruit from migrating birds and some animals, too.

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!

leopard-slug-bens-photo
A Leopard Slug, a non-native, who cleans up dead plants and is hermaphroditic!

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.

Orb Weaver spider
The large, circular web of an Orb Weaver spider

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.

white-coral-mushroom-clavulina-cristatabc-2
White Coral Mushrooms appeared on a fallen log after the recent downpours.

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.

giant-shelf-mushroom-on-tree-bc
Giant fungi formed again this year on a tree across from the playground pond.

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?

Shaggy Mane mushroom
A Shaggy Mane mushroom delighted a small girl on the playground field.

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.

Elm Oyster Mushroom Hypsizygus ulmarius
An Elm Oyster Mushroom growing out of a Box Elder on the Western Slope.

Autumn’s Bittersweetness

Black-eyed Susan seeding
Black-eyed Susan seeding across from the Playground Pond

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.

Junco closeup on ground
Ben spotted our first Dark-eyed Junco of the year while with the birding group at Bear Creek.

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.

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Migrating Streams of Small Winged Beauties

Walnut in morning sun

virginia creeper

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!

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

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!

Lane Oct. 4Other 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?

Palm Warbler 1
Palm Warblers are passing through the park. Look for their yellow underparts with streaking on the side and a rusty cap.

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.

Tennessee Warbler non-breeding male
A Tennessee Warbler forages for fruit before continuing its migration.

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.

Ruby crowned kinglet closeup
A tiny Ruby-Crowned Kinglet – see the link above for a photo with the crown flaring.

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-Crowned Kinglet (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!

Golden Crowned Kinglet
My not-so-terrific photo of a Golden-Crowned Kinglet. See the link for a much better photo!

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”!

White throated sparrow closeup
Keep an eye on sparrows! Here’s a migrating White-throated Sparrow with a bright yellow dot in front of his eyes.

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 throated Sparrow first year closeup
A White-Crowned Sparrow born this summer, readying itself for its first migration.

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?

white crowned sparrow bc
A White-crowned Sparrow looks radically different after its first year.
white crowned sparrow2
A White-Crowned Sparrow looks very different after its first year – and it breeds below the Arctic Circle!

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!

Field Sparrow
The Field Sparrow avoids suburban living so come see it in the park! It’ll migrate farther south for the winter, though it breeds here in the summer.

 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.

Phoebe Center Pond
An Eastern Phoebe flitted between the shore and water catching insects for its migration in the next week or so.

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.

Hermit thrush
A Hermit Thrush near the Center 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.

Mallard almost finished molting
This male Mallard is almost finished molting, but his iridescent green head feathers still have a little way to go.

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.

Mallard back to green
Some male Mallards have completed their fall molt and are pairing up with females, though mating won’t happen until spring.

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.

Catbird in bushes 2
A Gray Catbird ready to fly south, as far as Florida or even Mexico,  in a week or so.

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.

Cedar Waxwing juvenile
A first winter Cedar Waxwing, part of a large noisy flock eating fruits from trees and vines north of the Playground Pond.

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.

Goldfinch winter non-breeding
What appears to me to be a female Goldfinch unimpressed with her winter garb

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.

Female goldfinch winter plumage
A Goldfinch in its winter garb rode a plume of Canada Goldenrod, picking off seeds as it 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.

Chipmunk up a tree
An Eastern Chipmunk near Snell Road

In the southernmost meadow near Snell, I spotted a large patch of white plants I’d never seen before.  Dr. Ben identified them as Fragrant Cudweed.  The University of Michigan Herbarium uses that common name or 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!

Sweet Everlasting or Cudweed
Cudweed or Sweet Everlasting blooming now in the southernmost meadow near Snell.
Cudweed Sweet Everlasting closeup
They may look like they’re buds, but they are the egg-shaped blooms of the Cudweed or Sweet 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

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Winged Migrants Ride the Wind, an Angry Mom, and Learning the Oaks

Bees on NE Aster

Aaah, the crisp, cool air of autumn arrived this week!  And with it came migrating warblers from northern breeding grounds and a restlessness among the migrants that spend their summers here.  Some year ’round birds are still suffering the indignities of the molt, while others are past it and comfortable in their winter colors.  A red squirrel with the soft belly of a nursing female scolded me from a tree while I struggled to distinguish one oak tree from another. I think I’m getting it.

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

A few summer plants bravely sent one or two more blooms out into the cool air while the fall asters still hum with bees.  Autumn begins to take hold at Bear Creek.

Winged Migrants Riding through the Night on the North Wind

Standing in a bright, cool morning Tuesday at the weekly bird walk, I learned from Dr. Ben that migratory birds ride the wind that comes with cold fronts.   My curiosity piqued, I went to the Cornell Lab site to learn more.  Soaring birds, I learned, like hawks or vultures, who use rising warm air (thermals) to get lift for their flight, tend to migrate during the day.   However, large numbers of smaller perching birds (passerines) ride the cool, dry, north wind of a cold front during the night to make their flight easier and then settle down during the day to rest and eat.

This week I saw three warblers who’d stopped by on their way from northern breeding grounds.  On the weekend, I saw a Nashville Warbler (Oreothlypis ruficapilla).  It would have spent the summer raising young in the UP or southern Canada and is now beginning a very long trek to Central America!  Since these warblers eats insects, it’ll be on its way quickly to get to warmer areas where insects aren’t in danger of a killing frost.

Nashville warbler
A Nashville Warbler passed through the park on its way from breeding grounds in the UP or southern Canada to its winter home in Central America.

On Tuesday, after seeing many migratory birds at Charles Ilsley Park on the weekly bird walk, I hurried over to Bear Creek and found some more.

This little bird, that probably flew south on the cold front Monday night, is the Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata).  Though it’s not visible in this photo, this migrant has a bright yellow square patch on the top of its tail when it flutters its wings and a yellow blush beneath its wings.  In spring, the males are a white, gray and black with yellow patches on their heads and tails.  This immature bird was probably born this year somewhere farther north in Michigan or southern Canada.  The Yellow-rumped Warblers that stop here can winter farther north than most warblers because they can digest waxy berries that grow in colder areas. So this young bird may be going only as far as Ohio!

Yellow-rumped warbler immature 1st winter
The Yellow-rumped Warbler has a bright yellow patch on the top of its tail only visible when it flutters its wings.

In a nearby bush near the southernmost swamp near Snell Road.  a Palm Warbler rested from its nighttime ride on the north wind.  It too probably came from Canada but will makes its way to Florida or the Caribbean for the winter.

Palm Warbler2
The Palm Warbler breeds in Canada and then rides the north wind south to Florida and the Caribbean.

Summer Visitors Prepare for Migration

At the edge of the playground pond,  a single Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) was stocking up on insects, making quick darts out from its perch. Though it probably raised young here this summer, phoebes don’t hang out with other phoebes, even their mates!  This one may be getting ready for its journey to the southeast or Florida; it appears to have finished molting into its winter plumage with a white edge to its tail feathers.

Eastern phoebe
This Eastern Phoebe seems to have finished its fall molt and was stocking up on insects before heading south.

This male Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) is still molting into the eclipse plumage it wears for the winter.  It loses its white sides and sharply defined stripes but keeps its colorful eye and bill.  Though the Cornell Lab indicates that Wood Ducks can be in southeast Michigan year ’round, I’ve only seen them here during the breeding season.  This one’s mate may have nested in a hole in one of the dead trees around the Playground Pond where I saw him  – a setting favored by Wood Ducks.

Male wood duck eclipse plumage
This male Wood Duck appears to be molting into his eclipse plumage that he’ll wear during the winter.

Our old pals, the Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) start pairing up in the fall, much earlier than most birds.  Here’s a male in his eclipse  (non-breeding) plumage with his yellow beak,  and a female with her orange and black beak,  hanging out at the Center Pond.  They may be starting to pair bond or perhaps they’re just siblings from the same brood.  He’ll change into his familiar iridescent green head before courtship begins later on.  Mallards move south for the winter, some going as far as Mexico.

Female mallard male in eclipse plumage
A male Mallard with his yellow beak and eclipse or non-breeding plumage hangs out  at the Center Pond with a female with her orange and black beak.

A Local Resident Looking Just Awful!

I also spotted a pitiful sight. A female Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) was huddled in a tree with her head almost bald as she completed her fall molt.  Her beautiful brown feathers tinged with red were partially there, but her head looked like that of a small vulture with a huge orange beak!  Cardinals go bald during the molt, losing all of their head feathers at once. The photos aren’t great but you’ll get the general effect.

molting female cardinal
A female Northern Cardinal looks pretty miserable during her fall molt as she loses all her head feathers at once!
molting female cardinal2
This is a molting female Cardinal. She doesn’t look happy, does she?

One Tough Mama Defends her Fall Babies

American Red Squirrels(Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) breed twice a year.  The second litter comes in late August or September.  The babies emerge in 40 days but nurse for 70!  This week,  I met up with one frazzled mother squirrel.  As I was staring up into the tree canopy, trying to study oaks, she suddenly spotted me, came dashing across a log and scooted up a nearby trunk to a sturdy branch.  From there, she scolded me soundly for several minutes, continuing even after I took a quick photo and walked away.  You can hear a scolding Red Squirrel at this link, though I think the Bear Creek mother, with the soft belly of a nursing female, sounded quite a bit more adamant!  Her torn ear and aggressive posture would seem to indicate that she’s no pushover!

New mom red squirrel
A scolding American Red Squirrel with the soft belly of a nursing female and a torn ear is probably protecting her fall litter.

A Wild-Looking Fruit and Some Late Bloomers

The native  Wild-Cucumber vine (Echinocystis lobata) has finished for the year, leaving behind the dried surface of its weird fruit covered with spikes.  It expels its seeds out of the bottom of this fruit and then dies, because it’s an annual.  In the summer, you can see its fragrant white flowers covering bushes in the park.

Wild Cucumber fruit
The fruit of native Wild-Cucumber makes this amazing fruit and expels its seeds from the bottom of it.

I always like to see a few of the brave summer flowers producing blossoms even as fall settles in.  The 6-8 foot native Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) near the benches on the south hill are now mostly bare stalks with giant leaves near the ground – but one stalk still showed two bright yellow flowers about halfway down a stalk.

Prairie Dock late in season
Two late blooming Prairie Dock flowers near the benches at the top of the south hill.

And at the bottom of the sloping path, a single non-native Chicory (Cichorium intybus) showed its lovely blue color and its pinking shears petals.  I think there’s a tiny spider near the center of the blossom.

Chicory late in the season
A late-blooming Chicory

The yellow centers of the Calico Asters (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum), featured last week,  are changing  to rose as they age.

Calico asters in rose
The yellow centers of Calico Asters are changing to their rose color as they age.

And now for those Oaks!

We live, of course, in Oakland Township within Oakland County, so I figure I should learn more about oaks, right?

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a photo of a Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa) near Gunn Road and decided I should try to learn more about different kinds of oaks.  I’m studying the bark so I can discern them in the winter, but for now, here are 3 leaf types from 3 different kinds of oaks, in case you’d like to put a name to the trees you see.  (I always think that a name makes me notice more!)

So here is the leaf of a White Oak (Quercus alba).  Notice that the lobes are rounded and the sinuses (spaces between the lobes) are quite noticeable, the lower ones on this leaf reaching about halfway to the center vein. The acorn in this photo may or may not be a White Oak acorn; though it was under the tree, squirrels could have carried it there from Black Oaks nearby. This tree was on the path that winds upward to the park from the Township Hall – a very precious, undisturbed  Oak-Hickory forest.

White oak leaf and acorn
A White Oak leaf with rounded lobes.  The acorn may be from a Red Oak nearby rather than the White Oak.

White Oaks grow tall in a forest to reach the light and grow much wider and shorter in the open sun of a field.  These beautiful trees with light gray bark can live 200-300 years and according to Wikipedia, one specimen has been documented at 450 years.  Imagine the stories they could tell about life in Oakland Township!

The leaves on a Black Oak (Quercus velutina) have pointed lobes tipped with bristles, like other members of the Red Oak group, rather than the rounded ones of the White Oak group.  They prefer sandy soils and are a smaller relative of the much larger Red Oak which has a similar leaf  but with more lobes and a less shiny surface.

Red Oak leaf
The lobes of the Black Oak’s leaf are pointed with small bristles at the end of each point.

Down at the pond near Gunn Road, I found a sprouting threesome of Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor) leaves, probably the result of an acorn being cached by a squirrel in some previous year.  It has rounded lobes as part of the White Oak group, like the Bur Oak,  but the Swamp Oak’s lobes are shallow and the leaves get broader beyond the middle.

Swamp Oak leaf
Swamp White Oak leaf has rounded lobes as part of the White Oak family but the lobes are shallow and the leave widens at the mid-point.

So that’s a start on Oaks, though there’s so much more to know!

If you are available, come with us to the bird walk next Wednesday, October 7,  at 8:00 a.m. at Bear Creek.  If the weather is right, you may see some lovely little migrants resting and eating before heading south!  It’s the season for taking deep breaths of cool air, listening to the last rustle of wind through the leaves before they begin to fall and enjoying the bright white light of the sun as its arc lowers and shortens a bit each day.  Each daylight hour in nature becomes more precious now, so try to make the most of them!

*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). The viceroy butterfly is not a Batesian mimic; 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.