Tag Archives: Panicled Aster

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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THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Small Surprises as Summer Wanes

Cam at BC1
Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

Nature is always full of great little surprises.  This week again, nature sprung a few on me – the unfamiliar appearance of a familiar bird, a sky full of dragonflies, and a park visitor who has touched the soft fuzz on a sleeping bee!

But the predictable is comforting, too. Queen Anne’s Lace has begun sharing the Old Fields with tufts of Goldenrod, all of them swaying and dancing in the wind.  Glorious days for a walk in Bear Creek!

goldenrod western path2
Queen Anne’s Lace now shares the western slope with burgeoning Goldenrod.

An Avian Surprise (at least to me…)

The molt that I discussed last week continues.   Groups of young House Wrens (Troglodytes aedon) are still hiding in bushes within the park, waiting for the fall migration.  You can hear their persistent scolding as you walk by .

wren in bushes 5
Groups of young wrens hide in bushes around the park, waiting for the fall migration.

An Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) hopped restlessly in a bare tree looking south, as if dreaming of his winter home on the Amazon.

Eastern Kingbird3
An Eastern Kingbird looking south as if dreaming of his winter home on the Amazon.

But here’s the SURPRISE!  Now does this look like a male Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) to you?

Male mallard in eclipse plumage
A male Mallard in its “eclipse plumage” after the molt.

If so, congratulations!  It didn’t to me.  This is actually what the glamorous green-headed male Mallard looks like after his mid-summer molt.  It’s called “eclipse plumage. ” The flight feathers are molted at the same time,  so during the molt, he was temporarily flightless.  Courtship for Mallards begins in the fall,  so in a few weeks the reddish- brown head feathers will be molted again into the brilliant green the male needs for attracting his mate.  The clue to gender in mallards, by the way, is the bill,  which is olive green/yellow in the male and orange with black in the female.  Eclipse plumage!  Who knew?

A Surprise in the Woods:  Green Rain!

Last Sunday, entering the Oak-Hickory woods, my husband and I began to hear what sounded like raindrops, pit-patting around us in the leaves and on the ground.  Puzzled, we finally realized that small green chunks were raining down on us. High in a Red Oak (Quercus rubra) sat a black squirrel.  Here’s one NOT at the top of a tree!

black squirrel2
This squirrel is a probably a black Fox Squirrel rather than a black Gray Squirrel since it is not pure black.

Black squirrels are just a color variant of the Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) or the Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger). Of course, the Surprise –  “green rain” –  was a  shower of green acorn pieces that lasted several minutes as the black squirrel munched high above.  It took us a minute to catch on and we had a good laugh. Here’s an un- chewed Red Oak acorn; the mature ones are nut-brown.

small green acorn
The source of the “green rain,”  pieces of Red Oak acorn, fell around us from the munching of a black squirrel high above.

Another small surprise:  According to Wikipedia, North American squirrels were mostly black before Europeans came here, because forests were huge and shady and being black offered protection against predators and the cold.  With deforestation, the gray and brown varieties flourished. Now black squirrels are appearing more often in northern areas that have colder winters.

A Surprise in the Air:  A Swarm!

A squadron of about twenty-five darners (genus Anax), large dragonflies, swooped and dove over the western Old Field on Sunday, looking like Harry Potter in a quidditch match. Quite a surprise, since we’d never before seen more than two or three darners at a time in Bear Creek.  Probably we were seeing a feeding frenzy since lots of insects were foraging on abundant wildflowers below.    I only managed to photograph  6 in this one small section of the sky.

Squadron of darners
Squadron of darner dragonflies over a field full of insects.

According to an article by Michael L. May in the Journal of Insect Conservation, some dragonflies, including some (but not all) Green Darners (Anax junius), annually migrate in huge swarms, traveling “hundreds to thousands of kilometers north to south.”   Really?  Another small surprise for me!  I wonder if this squadron will migrate with a larger swarm? See Green Darners in an earlier TWBC post.

So what was in the fields below the darner swarm?  Despite the hush from the molting birds, Bear Creek is humming with insects.  The Carolina Grasshopper (Dissosteira carolina), now full grown ( see the nymph in the July 30 blog),  makes a dry whirring sound as it flies short distances along the trail on its dark wings. It also sings, or stridulates, by rubbing  its rasp-like hind leg against its forewing .

Carolina grasshopper
The Carolina grasshopper now has its copper color and makes short flights along the trail with its dark wings.

Most of the Red-Legged Grasshoppers (Melanoplus femurrubrum) are developing a bit later than usual this summer.  So this male nymph will need to molt into an adult before we hear it singing in September.

Later instar red-legged grasshopper
This is a late summer nymph of a Red-Legged Grasshopper who probably has not starting “singing” yet.

Grasshoppers have short antennae.  Crickets and katydids have lo-o-o-ng ones!  Here’s a female Shieldback Katydid (genus Atlanticus) that may be contributing to the hum in the fields or at the edge of the woods.  Look at the length of both her antennae and that very long ovipositor with which she lays her eggs.  (Hint: it looks like a tail.)

Shieldback Katydid genus Atlanticus
A Shieldback Katydid with the long antennae of all katydids and a very long ovipositor with which she lays her eggs.

Annual Green Cicadas  (Tibicen canicularis) drone in the trees, looking like some sort of alien.   (This one, however, was handily on our garage door!)

Cicada
The drone of the Annual Green Cicada is part of the familiar late summer hum.

Last weekend, bees buzzed from flower to flower in the western Old Field, balancing gracefully on the stems.  Another recent surprise for me was learning that the common Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) is a non-native brought here from Europe in the 1600’s.  Here’s one with the “pollen baskets,” (corbicula) on her hind legs bulging after foraging among the goldenrod.

Honey bee with jodpurs
A Honey Bee, a non-native bee,  fills the pollen baskets on its hind legs as it forages on goldenrod.

As you’ve no doubt heard, Honey Bees have fallen on hard times, suffering from  multiple causes of  “Colony Collapse Disorder.” So it’s great to see them buzzing in the sunlight on so many late summer flowers in Bear Creek.

And speaking of bees…

Surprise Information from a Fellow Bear Creek Walker

One of the pleasures of being a Volunteer Park Steward is meeting so many other people with nature knowledge and experience.  A kindly woman named Mavis told me this week that she sometimes sees our native Bumblebees (Genus Bombus) sleeping under Goldenrod fronds or leaves at sunset.  She said she very gently reaches up the palm of her hand and touches their fuzzy bodies! Imagine what that might feel like!

I’ve read since then that a sleeping bumblebee is probably a drone, a male.  The female workers generally return to the hive at night to feed the queen, other workers and the larvae (baby bees). Males don’t even have leg baskets for gathering pollen.  They simply buzz about feeding themselves (thereby pollinating plants) and wait for a chance to mate with the queen – so they have no need to return to the hive.

So now I have another new goal – to feel the fuzz on a sleeping bumblebee.  The female Bumblebee worker below is filling her pollen basket by burying herself in a plume of Meadowsweet (Spiraea alba) in one of the native flower beds.

Meadowsweet closeup w bumblebee
A female bumblebee is almost buried in Meadowsweet as she fills the pollen baskets on her hind legs with its pale pollen.

Another Surprise:  Four Different, Very Tall Yellow Wildflowers in the Native Bed.

The native beds near the shed are full of tall yellow flowers – in fact four different ones! Thanks to Stewardship Manager, Ben VanderWeide, I’ve learned to distinguish between these giant beauties rather than seeing just “tall yellow flowers.”  It seems that these plants, like the asters,  have “composite flowers,” i.e.,  each apparent “petal” is actually a separate ray flower (or floret) and at the center are the disk flowers with a seed attached to each.

I’ve featured one of the yellow giants before, Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum). It’s super tall, up to 10 feet,  with a composite flower, ball-shaped buds on bare stalks and GIANT leaves near the ground.

prairie dock flower
Prairie Dock can grow to up to 10 feet high and features ball-shaped buds and huge leaves right at ground level.

Another I’ve mentioned before, False Sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides) also has a composite flower.  It grows about 8 feet high with leaves along the stalk. Here you can see the disk flowers in bloom.

False sunflower flowering
The disk flowers at the center of this False Sunflower are in bloom.

Then there’s the characteristic drooping ray flowers of the Cut-Leaved Coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata)  that grows 6 to 8 feet high. Here a bumblebee has its proboscis in one of the tube-shaped disk flowers.

green cone flower w insect_edited-1
Cut-leaved Coneflower with a bumblebee enjoying the disk flowers.

And rounding off the group of yellow giants is  Tall Coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris) which grows 3 to 9 feet tall.  Obviously, Honey Bees and Bumblebees love them, too!

Bees on tall coreopsis
Two bumblebees and a Honey Bee  busily  probe blossoms, pollinating the Tall Coreopsis.

While we’re discussing native giants,  have a look at  the big tufts of Big Blue Stem (Andropogon gerardii) which are now showing the pronged seed heads which gave this tall prairie grass its other name, Turkey Foot.  I remember walking through a field on Lake George Road as a child with these giants towering over my head.  So it’s great to see them back again since the prescribed burns in Bear Creek!

big blue stem1
Big Blue Stem, a native prairie grass that can grow 10 feet tall,  has reappeared in the park since prescribed burns.

Coming Attractions:  Asters!

The purples and lavenders of native Asters are beginning to appear in Bear Creek.  Here’s this year’s first glimpse of three that will be much more prolific in the coming days.  Asters, like the yellow giants above, all have composite flowers as well.

New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae)near the center pond:

New England Aster
The first dark purple New England Asters of 2015 with their composite flowers.

Smooth Asters (Symphotrichum laeve) on the western sloping path are lighter lavender and have a more delicate look than the New England Aster.

Smooth aster
The more delicate, lavender Smooth Asters have “petals” that are really individual ray flowers with disk flowers at the center.

And finally, I believe these are Panicled Asters (Symphytrichum lancelotaum) with small, white to  lavender ray flowers and yellow to lavender disk flowers.  My wildflower experts will check on this for me next week.

Panicled aster?
The small Panicled Asters have whitish lavender ray flowers (petals) and yellow or lavender disk flowers at the center.

A Fond Farewell:

The striking red Cardinal Flower is almost done for the year.  If you have time, take the path that leads north from the playground and have one last look on the southern side of the marsh boardwalk that’s on your left a short way down.

Cardinal flower end of August
The Cardinal flower is finishing its gorgeous red bloom near the marsh north of the playground.

So, if you like Surprises,  nature always obliges – especially at Bear Creek Nature Park. Literally, never a dull moment!

*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 and invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman.