When most of us think of pollinators, the EuropeanHoney Bee (Apis mellifera) comes to mind first – and with good reason. These hive bees work industriously in agricultural fields and orchards. And we benefit from the fruits, vegetables and of course flowers they visit. According to MSU Extension, though, they are active in temperatures above 60 °F and prefer clear, sunny, placid weather. In case you haven’t noticed (or don’t live in Michigan), that’s not yet our weather here this year.
Luckily, native bees and hoverflies come to our rescue, and the rescue of countless wildflowers. Bumblebees (genus Bombus), our chunky native bees, only require temperatures above 50° and will fly in wet, dark and windy weather – the kind we’re living with this year! And along side them are other native bees and the ever-present hoverflies who look like bees but aren’t. So let’s see who’s out and about in our parks pollinating plants on these cool, damp days of early summer.
[A Disclaimer: I’m a learner when it comes to insect identification, but I’ve done my best to figure out what I’m seeing. Let me know in comments if you think I’ve erred. And if you’d like more detailed info, check out my two main sources: a fine book by Heather Holm entitled Pollinators of Native Plants and this excellent web article by Jason Gibbs from MSU Dept. of Etymology.]
Native Bees Happily Take on the Job of Spring Pollination
Female bees of all species carry most of the load when it comes to pollination, because they feed pollen to themselves and their young. Some species stash it on hairs or in pollen baskets on their hind legs. Others let it spread thickly across the stiff hairs of their abdomen. Wasps, like Yellow Jackets or Hornets, can look like bees but they don’t collect or eat pollen. (They are predators who keep insect numbers in check, including some garden pests.) So if you see lots of yellow or orange pollen on the leg or abdomen of an insect, it’s a bee! Where are these bees finding pollen now?
Native Wild Lupine (Lupine perennis) rises elegantly within the restored prairie at Charles Ilsley Park in early June. Look for them near the observation deck at Gallagher Creek Park as well. They are a popular stop on the pollen route for our native bees right now.
A Metallic Green Sweat Bee (genus Agapostemon) found the Lupine blossoms irresistible. These very small bees are solitary; they don’t live in hives. Instead, they make tunnels in bare soil and tend their young alone. Sweat bees are occasionally attracted to human sweat on hot, dry days but their sting is not as severe as a bee or wasp. They are normally docile while foraging but can be aggressive if you get near their nests. But please don’t use pesticides on them. These little bees do a lot of pollinating! Creating a spot of bare soil on your property away from your garden and house where they can nest will make both you and them feel safer.
One cool afternoon, I watched a couple of sweat bees make the proverbial “beeline” for the native Daisy Fleabane (Erigeron annuus), a close relative of asters and daisies, but a different genus. These tiny, sun-faced flowers are one of the first blooms to emerge in spring and they last all summer. So it seems that the two sweat bees heading in from the right on the photo below know a reliable source of nectar and pollen when they see one!
A native Bumblebee (genus Bombus) used its long tongue to reach inside the lavender lips of the Lupine blossoms at Gallagher Creek Park and then flew off with its pollen load tucked neatly into the pollen sacks on its legs. According to author Heather Holm, bumblebees sometimes use a technique called “buzz pollination” in which they release pollen from tight places by clinging onto a plant’s anthers (the tip of the male stamen that holds the pollen) and activating their flight muscles, making a buzz. Poof! Out comes the pollen. Neat trick. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Carpenter Bees (genus Xylocopa) shape their nests by patiently shaving off wood bit by bit to make perfectly round holes, usually on the underside of branches, or at our house, under deck railings! They lay their eggs inside, sealing each egg in separately with neat plugs of pollen to keep the young larvae fed. Later, the young bees will overwinter in these nests to emerge for mating the following spring. Here’s what I’m quite sure is an Eastern Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa virginica) nuzzling a Blackberry blossom (Rubus allegheniensis). It looks a lot like a native Bumblebee, but its abdomen is shiny black instead of fuzzy and it has a dot in the center of its yellow thorax.
The blackberry bush also hosted another bee. I believe it’s a Masked/Cellophane Bee (genus Hylaeus). These solitary bees are the only ones that transport pollen in a crop like some birds do with seed. These bees use exisiting cavities in wood for nesting, and wrap their larvae in a thin membrane that evidently gave them the name “cellophane bees” – and they also have white patches on their heads, hence the “masked” name.
Native Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea), an early summer flower, attracted the attention of another native pollinator, the solitary Leafcutter Bee (genus Megachilidae). They can be very active within blossoms, making what some sources describe as a “swimming motion.” Evidently, that also releases a lot of pollen that they carry on stiff hairs on their abdomen. Their nests are built vertically in hollow plant stems or other natural cavities. They neatly cut and then chew bits of leaves to line each cell. Entomologists suppose that the leaves may preserve the moisture in the pollen plug at the end of each cell, so it will last until the larvae hatches to eat it. The larvae then pupates, emerges for a short life of a few weeks and starts the cycle again.
And then there are the “Wannabees”
I love Jason Gibb’s term “wannabees” for the ubiquitous Hoverflies – also called flower flies – members of the genus Taxomerus (family Syrphidae). Hoverflies visit flowers frequently and are commonly mistaken for bees. Many of them mimic bees and wasps, being patterned in white, black and yellow (or orange). But they differ from bees in one important way; hoverflies do not have stingers. They just want their predators to think they do! They feed on both pollen and nectar. Though hoverflies don’t carry as much pollen on their smooth bodies as bees do on their fuzzy ones, they may make up for that by visiting flowers more often. As a result, they are considered the second most effective plant pollinators. Another great benefit of hoverflies is that their larvae eat aphids like crazy, much like ladybugs do. So they can keep plants healthy as well as do some pollinating.
Drama Unfolds on Daisy Fleabanes!
It’s not a surprise that the nodding stalks of Daisy Fleabane (Erigeron annuus) show up in every field in the spring. Hoverflies move constantly from one to the next since not many different wildflowers bloom in this cold spring! As they land, of course, they drop pollen on the waiting stigmas of the flower, just what’s needed to produce more Daisy Fleabane. From my observation, the flowers in bright sunlight get more attention from hoverflies than those in the shade. Perhaps they see in ultraviolet like bees and the flowers look much more inviting in the sunshine?
But more than just pollination is taking place on those sunny little blooms! It turns out that a Daisy Fleabane can be a stage for high drama – birth and death among the petals! One tiny fleabane flower featured the mating of two hoverflies while a third ignored them in its avid search for a good meal. The dispassionate female seems to be casually having a snack as well.
And on another Fleabane blossom, an ambush! I’ve just learned about Crab Spiders (genus Thomisidae). These crafty arachnids don’t spin webs. They simply sit on or just under the edges of flowers waiting to grab unwary insects. Those long curved front legs do look a bit crab-like!
The Bluebottle Fly (genus Calliphora) in the photo below seems to have been oblivious to a crab spider until it was grabbed around the middle by one of the long legs of its hidden predator. Those big fly eyes look vaguely shocked, don’t they? The hoverfly on the blossom above seems unconcerned, its head deep in the pollen. And what I think is the green sweatbee flying in may choose to do the same on a different bloom. I doubt they stayed around long enough to be a second and third meal for the spider!
What about the Butterflies?
Well, butterflies are arriving, or hatching or coming out from under bark after overwintering. But not many are present yet. And let’s face it; the flowers available now are not especially tempting when compared to the variety and plentitude of summer. So the butterflies that appear in the parks make do with other food sources – sweet tree sap, rotting fruits from last fall, carrion, even occasionally the nutrition left in animal scat! Here’s a selection of the butterflies I’ve seen so far and not one of them was pollinating a flower! (Click on photos to enlarge; use pause button for captions.)
I’ve also seen three different Monarchs but they didn’t stop to have photos taken. And the very tiny White-striped Black moth (Trichodezia albovittata) is a first sighting ever for me. Its miniscule black and white wings flutter so fast that when flying, it looks like a blurry signal of dots and dashes! I was so happy when it paused for a few moments!
You’ve probably noticed that I’ve used the word “larvae” several times in this piece. The common term for these squiggly young is “caterpillar.” Caterpillars (as I’ve mentioned before) are the preferred food that birds stuff down the tender throats of their hatchlings. They are great baby food for birds, full of protein and fat and easy to swallow.
So let’s be glad that our native insects are out gathering pollen for two reasons. Our bees and wannabees keep the wildflowers (and eventually fruits and vegetables) reproducing year after year. But by also feeding pollen to all those larval bees and flies, they feed the young of clever birds who winkle them out of holes and pluck them off of leaves and limbs. Yes, we may get a few cut, chewed or even defoliated leaves in our garden. But many of those caterpillars will nourish the next generation of glorious birds singing the morning chorus! Now doesn’t that make you appreciate insects just a wee bit more?
Watershed Ridge Park offers an adventurous, challenging hike on a hot summer day. No trails exist yet to lead you through Watershed, since it’s not yet developed. But you can park by the evergreen trees just east of the maintenance shed and explore from there (approximately 1664 W. Buell Rd). This park is named for a watershed boundary, a high point within the park, that causes precipitation to flow in two directions, ultimately feeding both Paint Creek and Stony Creek. The diversity of habitats is remarkable. Large areas of the park have agricultural fields that are tilled and planted by a local farmer, which helps keep invasive plants out until the area can be restored to natural habitat.
But once I step out of the farm fields, the magic begins! A forest with vernal pools, a bright meadow, a boggy swamp shaded by trees, a seasonal stream, and a hidden marsh surrounded by a nearly impenetrable circle of native shrubs. So feel free to join me as I walk through some of this wild and wonderful park on a hot summer day.
The Forest and Its Wetlands
I started down the edge of the farmer’s field to the west of the maintenance shed, walking carefully so as not to damage the Fogler’s soybeans. The field was dotted with wildflowers, like Pale-leaved Sunflowers (Helianthus strumosus) which attracted the attention of the Red-spotted Purple (Limenitis arthemis), a butterfly that seems to be plentiful this year!
Once I entered the cooler woods on the north edge of the field, I began to see blue-green wetlands shining in the dim, dappled light.
Oh yes, mosquitoes buzzed, but I patted on more insect repellent and headed for the water, because I knew that’s where I’d see the most wildlife. And sure enough, as I settled on a log near the water, a rustle behind me turned out to be a young White-tailed deer buck (Odocoileus virginianus) peering curiously at me from behind the greenery.
I could hear an Eastern Wood-Peweesinging plaintively in the distance, a nice soundtrack for my entrance into a mysterious forest. A plop! at my feet made me aware of a young Green Frog (Rana clamitans), covered in Duckweed (genus Lemno), who’d been basking on a log just moments before.
Far out in the water, two Twelve-spotted Skimmer dragonflies (Libellula pulchella) chased each other around a fallen willow until one finally settled for a moment. It was too far away for a good shot, so here’s my photo of a male in Bear Creek marsh several years ago.
The forest wetlands were a busy location for courting that afternoon. A pair of Emerald Spreadwing damselflies (Lestes elatus) had evidently mated just before I arrived. Below you can see the female grasping the stem, her abdomen curled inward, preparing to lay eggs on a plant, while the male above keeps a wary eye for predators or other males.
It was hard to see how glamorous these Emerald Spreadwings are in the dim light, so I was pleased when a male landed in the sunlight nearby.
One of the stumps in the wetland was decorated with the wheel-shaped web of an Orb Weaver Spider (family Araneidae). It glowed in a ray of sunlight. According to Wikipedia, “Many orb-weavers build a new web each day. Most orb-weavers tend to be active during the evening hours; they hide for most of the day. Generally, towards evening, the spider will consume the old web, rest for approximately an hour, then spin a new web in the same general location.” Very tidy, eh? That might explain why I never saw the spider and there was virtually no detritus in the web. I’m not sure what to think about the extensive web on the stump below. A practice run?
At the water’s edge, three “conks” of Shelf/Polypore fungi shone white against the tracks in the wood, maybe the feeding galleries of emerald ash borer larvae .
Near another shady vernal pool wetland, I spotted a tiny Wood Frog (Ranasylvatica) gazing toward the water from a small piece of wood. Perhaps it was a fond last look since this little creature will soon move uphill a bit from the forest pool in which it hatched. Finding a place to hibernate under the leaf litter, it will freeze solid until spring. No heartbeat, no breathing, no movement. This seeming miracle is made possible by a glucose anti-freeze of sorts produced by its liver. As regular readers of the blog know, this strategy for survival never fails to astonish me.
As I neared the edge of the woods, where it opens to the meadow, familiar plants were there to greet me. I could have wished for less attention from Enchanter’s Nightshade, (Circaea canadensis) which at this time of the year is producing seed within burr-like fruits. Looking high into the trees, I strayed into a large patch and my socks were covered. For the rest of my walk, I became a transportation vehicle for Enchanter’s Nightshade fruits!
Another forest edge plant, Jumpseed (Persicaria virginiana), spreads its seed in a different way. Once the seed is mature, any disturbance can send its seeds flying up to three yards!
Another native wildflower that hugs the forest edge, Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), is called Spotted Touch-Me-Not for the same reason. Its mature seeds also spring forth from the fruits when they are disturbed.
The Meadow that Slopes Down to the Marsh
Walking out into the hot, moist meadow, I found myself knee deep in dense grasses and flowers. The sunlit field was slashed with long dark shadows from the forest as I waded through the dense growth underfoot. All around me, dragonflies patrolled the flower tops, since the presence of a meadow in which to show off their colors and flying skills and a nearby marsh full of vegetation is their perfect habitat for mating and laying eggs. Widow Skimmers and Meadowhawks (genus Sympetrum) were everywhere. [I suspect the Meadowhawks were Ruby Meadowhawks (Sympetrum rubicundulum) but I’ve learned they can be confused with others unless you capture them and look closely – which I’m not at all interested in doing!)
Tiny butterflies fluttered through the flower stems adding their bit of color to scene. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
A Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus)
A tiny Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos)
As I struggled down toward the marsh, lifting my knees high to get through the lush tangle of stems, I begin to notice the plants near the marsh that love having “wet feet.” Mine, actually, were getting a bit wet, too!
Hearing sharp chipping calls behind me, I turned around to find an adult Song Sparrow (Melospizamelodia) warning its offspring to stay out of sight. This may be a female since they often begin their molt later than males do. The youngster stayed out of sight within a nearby bush.
Adult birds can be a bit scarce in late July and August because many are molting a whole new set of feathers. They’re generally not a pretty sight in the process, I can tell you! They’re not hiding out of vanity, of course; they’re just more vulnerable as wing feathers are replaced. I could hear the “witchety, witchety” call of the Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas)beyond the wall of native Gray Dogwood (Cornus foemina) which prevented me from seeing into the marsh. And a Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) “miaowed” from the Dogwood as well, making only a brief appearance. So I took the bird photos below in other parks at other times.
Ben’s Balancing Act in a Shady Swamp
Swamps are generally defined by ecologists as a forested wetland. Watershed Ridge Park has a beauty. Ben VanderWeide, our township’s Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, put on his waders one afternoon and went to explore this habitat at Watershed Ridge while working on a plant inventory of the park. What an adventure! The water may look shallow, Ben told me later, but the muck beneath it can be very, very deep! To explore the swamp, Ben tested each step and only went into the water once he found firm footing. Otherwise, he stepped or jumped from one hummock to another. Some of the hummocks were made by “windthrows,” fallen trees uprooted by the wind which had become covered by vegetation. Others were made by stumps of trees that had probably been felled years ago and were now overgrown with plant material.
While moving from hummock to hummock, Ben spotted some interesting and unusual native plants. How about Duck Potato (Sagittaria latifolia), also known as Common Arrowhead? I know I’d never heard of that one before! Ducks and other creatures love to eat its submerged tubers which store nutrients for the flower’s regrowth and/or reproduction. And since, we humans love our favorite tuber – potatoes – why not the name Duck Potato?
Ben found another unusual little beauty in the swamp, a Wild Calla (Calla palustris). Wild Calla is the only species in the genus Calla which is within the family Araceae. That family includes what are commonly called Calla Lilies (though they aren’t true lilies or in the Calla genus) and our old friend Jack-in-the-pulpit. It appears that the Wild Calla in Ben’s photo below had already been pollinated because, like Jack-in-the-Pulpit, the flowers are disappearing, replaced by green, berry-like fruits that will turn red in the autumn. Such a find!
Ben also spotted a sedge that he’d never seen in our parks before. Sedges (plants in the family Cyperaceae) are a big family of plants that look like grasses or reeds, but have triangular-shaped stems instead of flat ones. Papyrus and Water Chestnuts are in the same family. What I enjoy about sedges is that they often have such interesting spikes, like the one Ben found, Tuckerman’s Sedge (Carex tuckermanii). It also appears to have finished flowering and started producing fruits.
Along with these rewarding finds in the Watershed swamp, Ben was treated to a snack of High-bush Blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum) as he balanced precariously on top of those floating hummocks!
His treat was only fair, really, since he had to carefully avoid the abundant Poison Sumac(Toxicodendron vernix) scattered through the swamp. While he came home with a small Poison Sumac rash, it was a small price to pay for discovering cool, new plants and wild blueberries as far as Ben was concerned. Poison Sumac takes the form of a shrub or small tree and grows only in very wet places like swamps and bogs. My thanks to Ben for exploring this Watershed habitat. I don’t think I’ll be pulling on my waders anytime soon…but I’m very glad he did!
When sufficient rain falls, a small stream flows out of Watershed’s swamp and finds its way through the woods westward, eventually feeding the marsh I spoke of earlier at the foot of the big meadow. It’s not an impressive stream, but it feeds the plants in the marsh, which brings the insects, which feed the birds…you get the idea. Nature depends on connections like that.
Time to Head Home
By now, my damp feet, my tired knees and my socks decorated with Enchanter’s Nightshade made me aware that it was time to leave. So I trudged back up the meadow, through the dim woods where the Pee-wee still asked its question, “Pee-weee?”, along the Fogler’s soy beans and across the lawn to the cornfield beyond the shed. There a group of young Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) hung out on the cornstalks, moving restlessly like a bunch of rowdy teenagers, while their weary elders probably went on molting while hidden in the bushes and fields nearby.
I was standing next to a large tree stump when a juvenile House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) popped out of the vines that covered it. This young bird was a bit older than the plush-looking little Wren I’d seen at Stony Creek Ravine a few weeks ago. But it was clear that the Watershed wren had still not quite grown into its beak. Surprised at how close I was, it hopped nervously for a moment, looked away, looked back – and popped back into the leafy cover. Caution won out over curiosity.
My Watershed adventure complete, I headed home, content that I’d experienced the natural world in the same way I’d relished it as a child growing up on Lake George Road. Yes, my arm had a few itchy spots here and there, my tired knees felt wobbly and water squished in my shoes – but I’d meandered on paths of my own making, out of sight of other humans, a quiet part of something wild and much older than I – and yet close enough to the kitchen at home that I’d be there in time for dinner. Thanks for coming along.
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: inaturalist.org; Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology 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, A Guide to Bird Behavior Vols.1-3 by Donald W and Lillian Q.Stokes, and others as cited in the text.
Since this week’s blog features a variety of wildflowers along parts of the Paint Creek Trail, I thought we’d start with a little visit to the creek itself, which is currently overflowing its banks. The Swamp Buttercup certainly seems pleased with all that moisture! (If you increase your volume, you can listen to the soothing sound of flowing water and birdsong!)
Well, with summer heat settling in, native spring flowers are producing a glorious finale to the season before making room for summer blooms. Spring wildflowers love the weaker spring sun sifting through bare branches. But hot sun and the increasing number of leaves mark the end of spring blooms. Soon these wildflowers will set their fruits, send it to the ground by means of wind, water or simple gravity, and their seed-based reproductive efforts will come to an end for the season.
So before they’re all gone, here are the ones I saw last week on the Paint Creek Trail between Gallagher Road and Dutton Road. You may still be able to spy some of these native beauties as you walk or bike on a sunny afternoon for the next few days.
Discoveries on the Trail between Gallagher and Silver Bell Roads
Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea – above) should still be glowing beneath the light shade of trees near the Wet Prairie after Memorial Day. These members of the carrot family are visited by many spring pollinators, but they can also also self-pollinate. You can see them near the parking lot on Gallagher Road and at other spots along the trail as well.
In the Wet Prairie, a more unusual little wildflower is happily sprouting where the sun is full and the ground is moist. Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium) is really a wildflower, though its leaves look like grass. Best to look for these dainty flowers on a sunny day, since the flowers stay closed on cloudy days.
Another unusual little wildflower huddles under its much taller grass-like stem on the Wet Prairie. Star Grass (Hypoxis hirsuta) shines up out of prairie on a 6 inch stalk topped by a small (3/4 inch) blossom. The six stamens with their angular anthers add to its star-like appearance. Maybe the dew on the leaf in the photo will help you sense the size of this tiny jewel of a wildflower.
Near the creek, just north of the Wet Prairie, a burst of orange caught my eye and I discovered a native flower that was new to me, Golden Ragwort (Packera aurea). This plant too has multiple methods of reproduction. Each of the tiny florets that make up the protruding center of the flower will produce an achene, a winged fruit enveloping a single seed that will disperse into the wind. But ragwort also produces underground stems (rhizomes) aid its spread!
A native, fire-adapted plant which was new to me has the unusual name Bastard Toadflax (Comandra umbellata) and this is not a flax or a toadflax plant. A report on desertusa.com, claims it was named “toadflax” by the 16th century botanist, John Gerard, because the flowers “be yellow, having a mouth unto a frog’s mouth” and “bastard” because at the time meant “false,” indicating perhaps that it was not a real toadflax. This interesting prairie plant is “hemiparasitic” because it feeds through its roots, but also taps into roots of other plants to get nutrition and water using special structures called haustoria. Bastard toadflax reproduces by rhizomes and produces a small oily fruits enjoyed by birds and mice, who by eating them carry the seeds farther afield.
If you notice a splash of white far back in the Wet Prairie, it might be a patch of Robin’s Plantain (Erigeron pulchellus), a tough, little native that thrives after prescribed burns. It’s a relative of Daisy Fleabane (Erigeron annuus), a common wildflower in our parks. Unlike Daisy Fleabane, though, Robin’s Plantain more commonly produces one bloom to a stem. Like the Golden Ragwort, it reproduces by both achenes and rhizomes.
Early last week, the fluffy, white blossoms of native Choke Cherry (Prunus virginiana) hung in long clusters along single stems called racemes. After warmer sun later in the week, they had begun to turn yellow. They don’t produce edible cherries, but their bitter fruit appeals to game birds, songbirds and woodpeckers, according to one of my favorite wildflower sites, www.illinoiswildflowers.info.
All long the trail you’ll see Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) blooming. Now here’s one bloom you might love to see fading, because its ripening fruit is tiny, but delicious. Good luck getting them before the birds and beasts do, though!
Discoveries on the Trail from Silver Bell Road to Dutton Road
Despite our late spring, many different native wildflowers were blooming along this section of the trail. At the bottom of the stairs leading to the creek, just past the parking area, Swamp Marigolds (Ranunculus hispidus) shine bright despite the deep shade. As you saw in the video at the top of the blog, the wetlands along the stream are doing what they do best – soaking up the runoff after heavy rains. And Marsh Marigold is doing its part!
Farther down the trail, the lavender spikes of Wild Lupine (Lupinusperennis) are blooming. This beloved native produces seedpods open explosively, launching seeds up to seven feet from the plant. Lupine also produces colorful clones as it spreads with rhizomes. Lupines are rising toward the sun in several parks as part of the restoration work being done on our prairies. It’s so heartening to see these lavender blossoms opening up from bottom to top on their stately racemes. And I love the whimsy of its wheel-shaped leaves.
Along the berms on the western side of the trail, a perky yellow flower blossoms in bunches. The fuzzy stems and leaves give it the first part of its name, Hoary Puccoon (Lithospermumcanescens). According to Wikipedia, the second word “puccoon” comes from an ancient Native American word “poughkone,” and refers to plants formerly used for dyes by Native Americans. I wonder if its roots can turn things that vivid yellow/orange?
Near the first bridge going south, I found a whole group of native wildflowers that were just finishing their blooms. A small group of Common Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) still stood in the shade just off the trail. These flamboyant white flowers start turning pink as they age, eventually leaving only their leaves behind to gather up more sun for next years flowers. While true pink- and red-flowering trillium species exist, our Common Trillium just turn pink as they age gracefully.
A Common Trillium is pure white when it blooms.
It begins to turn pink as it fades.
Eventually, as it wilts for the season, it turns a deeper pink.
Nearby Starry False Solomon’s Seal (Maianthemum stellatum) bore only a rather disheveled version of its star-shaped blossom. After the blossoms, the plant will produce green fruits with purple/black stripes that eventually turn red. Woodland birds and mice enjoy the fruits, thereby carrying the seeds within the berries to new locations.
Native Bees and Tiny Butterflies Busy Pollinating
Many spring wildflowers depend heavily on flies and native bees (of which there are 450 Michigan species!) for their pollination, because many other butterflies and the honey bees finish migrating or emerge from hives only in warmer months. Above is what I think is a native Mining Bee (Andrenidae family) foraging for pollen and thereby pollinating one Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum) after another! I’m not knowledgeable about bees, but I learned from Pollinators of Native Plants that a particular Mining Bee, Adrena distans, is a specialist pollinator of Wild Geranium, so that’s my guess. Please feel free to correct me if you know more about bees than I do!
A few tiny butterflies were doing their part in pollinating flowers as well. If you see a fluttering wink of blue among the grass stems, it’s probably a Spring Azure butterfly (Celastrina Ladon). These 1 inch pollinators are blue when flying but once they settle, they quickly fold their wings so only the dull gray side shows. It makes them hard for hungry birds – and interested photographers! – to spot. Azures tend to pollinate Golden Alexanders, False Solomon Seal as well as other wildflowers. (Photo on the left by iNaturalist. org photographer Dan Mullen.)
Spring Azure blue upper wings by Dan Mullen (CC BY-NC-ND)
The Spring Azure is much less notable to predators when it settles to feed.
The tiny Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos) quickly fluttered by me and landed on dry grass stems in the Wet Prairie. These little butterflies produce several broods of caterpillars throughout the summer. So watch for tiny (up to 1.25 in.) flashes of orange and black rising from the grass and scurrying across trails all summer long, busily sipping nectar and inadvertently transporting pollen for the flowers.
The last little butterfly was in a perfect spot to find a mate. According to http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org, “To seek females, males perch in openings, flats or depressions near woods.” And that’s right where this one was – in the open, on a dead plant stalk near the trees just south of the Wet Prairie. He’s not glamorous but he has a glamorous name, the Dreamy Duskywing (Erynnis icelus). (Duskywings can be hard to tell apart, so again, feel free to correct me!) [Edit: A man who collects butterflies and has seen many Duskywings told me on Facebook that he believes this is a Sleepy Duskywing (Erynnis brizo) which he says are more common in this area.} He’s picked a great spot since one of his favorite nectars is the nearby wild lupine. These duskywings like to lay eggs on aspens and cottonwoods, which surround the Wet Prairie.
Migrators Building Nests and, What Else? – Singing!
Late spring is a busy time for birds. Some have just arrived and are busy singing to attract mates. A Warbling Vireo (Vireogilvus) sang over my head in one of the Quaking Aspens (Populus tremuloides) near the Wet Prairie. This vireo is rarely seen once the leaves come on the trees; they like to stay high in the treetops and search diligently for caterpillars. But hearing a quick, rolling song high above me, I spotted his vireo shape, gray/olive back and yellow-ish white belly from below. Then he disappeared into the tree canopy. So here’s a photo of one I saw at Cranberry Lake a week ago. Click here to listen to his rollicking warble!
The Warbling Vireo near the trail seemed quite frantic, singing insistently and hopping higher and higher in the tree as he did so. At first I thought another male vireo was singing across the trail from him – and I believe that he thought so too! But when I followed the other song, it was one of the great bird mimics, the GrayCatbird (Dumetellacarolinensis), doing an imitation of the Vireo’s song and, I think, driving him crazy! The Catbird was, as usual, adding a few flourishes of his own, but it seemed as though the Vireo found his call an annoying form of competition! For a sample of the Catbird’s wonderfully complex, mimicking song, click on the word “Song” at this link.
A pair of Baltimore Orioles (Icterus galbula) swooped down onto the Wet Prairie one afternoon. The female immediately disappeared into tall grass. It’s likely that she was carefully choosing grass stems out of which she could strip fibers for weaving her long, sack of a nest. Evidently, the male’s job was to stand guard while she had her head down.
Suddenly, the female oriole lifted out of the grass, followed immediately by the male, and they swooped into a tall Cottonwood (Populus deltoides) on the northern side of the prairie. She disappeared into a clump of leaves hanging high over the meadow, but I could see the branches moving as she worked and a tiny bit of the growing nest (look in the center of the photo below through the leaves). I found a great little YouTube video of the Oriole’s weaving process, which is really incredible. Imagine tying knots and twirling fibers around a branch using only your beak!
I heard a pair of Eastern Kingbirds (Tyrannus tyrannus) fluttering together from tree to tree and stopped to watch. After giving what sounded like greeting calls, they soared up into a tall tree near the Wet Meadow. The female stood at the edge of a very messy nest which she was constructing on top of what appeared to be an old squirrel nest. The male doesn’t help build the nest, so while she worked, he stood guard in a nearby tree. I read in the Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol. 1) that Kingbirds build preliminary nests before settling into a final one to lay eggs. I’m guessing this may be just a trial nest, since building on a squirrel nest seems like an iffy location! (Squirrels are known to eat bird eggs!) The fine fibers drooping down over the top of the squirrel’s dry, gray branches and leaves are the female kingbird’s doing.
Kingbirds are identifiable from a distance by their upright posture – what one member of the birding group calls their “military stance.” And note the white tips on the tail feathers.
Every Nature Walk has its Special Moments
Last week, I had to smile at this seemingly relaxed male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). He hopped slowly up and down a slope by the trail, picking up and rejecting items he found between the grass stems. With the grass taller than his head and his red crest (which is usually erect) drooping backwards, he reminded me of an avian Red Riding Hood!
It’s little things like that – and seeing the Blue-eyed Grass staring up at me – or watching the two Eastern Kingbirds near their nest – that send me home happy from every foray into the natural world. And these grant adventures only require the right clothes for the weather, water-proof shoes, a little application of bug spray at times and my undivided attention for an hour or so. I usually take my camera along, but walks without anything but my trusty binoculars are just as rewarding. If you ever feel a bit weary as the poet Wordsworth once did, “The world is too much with us, late and soon/Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers…,” try a foray into our parks with your curiosity set at high alert. I’m confident that nature will send you home refreshed and with moments to share with others. Thanks for sharing mine!
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner; 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, A Guide to Bird Behavior Vols.1-3 by Donald W and Lillian Q.Stokes, Pollinators of Native Plants by Heather Holm,and others as cited in the text.
Strolling through the old farm fields of Cranberry Lake Park in summer is an auditory feast. The canopied paths and wide open fields as well as the shady, moist wetlands celebrate summer with a full-throated chorus of birdsong – the quick sweet notes of the Yellow Warbler, the high-pitched trill of the American Redstart, the melodious song of the elusive Warbling Vireo. Ben’s birding group reports more than 50 different bird species on one spring visit, more than in any other park in the township. So you’d expect this week’s blog to be filled with bird photos, right? Uh, not quite.
Oh, I do have bird photos to share but some will come from other times and places in the township because birding in Cranberry Lake right now is more by ear than by sight. Birds dive into tangled brush or tall grass or disappear among the whispering leaves overhead to make nests, feed young, intent at the moment on propagating their species. So they’re not all inclined to pose for photos. Luckily, dragonflies, butterflies, grasshoppers – all sorts of insects – do. And of course summer flowers are very obliging when a breeze pauses for a moment. So let’s set off together with eyes and ears alert to see what this historic farm has to offer.
The lovely Cranberry Lake Farm Historic District on West Predmore Road is a township treasure and listed in the National Register of Historic Places. If you haven’t explored its beautiful grounds, I recommend you begin by taking a visual tour and learning about its history at this link. We, however, are off to explore the southern part of the 213 acre park that once was a working farm.
Out in the Sunny Old Fields
Old Fields Birdsong!
As we head off along the path from the parking lot that’s west of the historic home, we’re surrounded by knee-deep grasses and wildflowers. Tiny Yellow Warblers (Setophaga petechia) are whisking in and out of the large bushes or small trees nearby, still singing their quick “I’m a little sweet” songs as in Antonio Xeira’s recording here. This male with his rust-streaked breast actually paused long enough for a photo!
And another male Yellow Warbler nearby was busying bringing home lunch for his mate or maybe some nestlings in a distant bush.
On three different visits in the last 10 days or so, I heard or saw a male American Redstart singing in the same tree at a fork in the trail. I’m thinking he and his mate must have a nest nearby. For some reason, I’d never seen this bird before and he’s a beauty. There’s a good closeup of him here at the Cornell Ornithology Lab. His song is thin, high and ends abruptly. Cornell Lab says its sometimes described as sneeze-like! Page down at this Cornell link to hear his song.
In the same tree one morning, I saw a Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) swinging at the tip of a branch as it tried to harvest something from among the leaves. At this time of year, omnivore birds like the Titmouse are probably looking for protein for their mate or young, so perhaps he’d found a caterpillar?
As I crossed the southern old field, going north, two Common Yellowthroats (Geothlypis trichas) announced their territories, calling back and forth across this grassy meadow.
Yellowthroats have the distinction of being one of the first New World birds catalogued in 1766 by Carl Linnaeus, the famous biologist who created the Latin classification system for all life forms. My photo of the Yellowthroat is below but for a clearer photo of this masked bandit, look here on Cornell Lab’s website.
I rarely see Yellowthroats up close but you can hear their “Witchedy, witchedy” songs all over Cranberry Lake Park. Turn your volume up and you’ll hear the singing competition of two males going back and forth twice on my 25 second recording.
Out in the Old Fields: Wildflowers, Competing for Space
The old farm fields at Cranberry Lake exemplify the changes that happen over time when forage crops thrive in abandoned farm fields which are also surrounded by neighboring gardens filled with cultivated flowers.
Native plants are certainly here – native Canada Goldenrod will burnish the fields in the fall and other pre-development plants hold their own at Cranberry Lake, too. Here’s a gallery of a few of them. (Click to enlarge; hover cursor for captions)
The rosy stems of native Dogbane or Indian-Hemp(Apocynum cannabinum)will soon be topped with clusters of white flowers. This plant is toxic if eaten but I doubt you or your dog will be tempted.
The meadows are full of non-native plants that, over the years, have found their way into Michigan’s former farm fields. Many of them are good neighbors, existing side-by-side with native plants without crowding out the original inhabitants. I particularly like Orange Hawkweed (Hieracium aurantiacum), also called Devil’s Paintbrush (not to be confused with Indian Paintbrush). It can be problematic but isn’t at this point in Oakland Township parks. The Wildflowers of Michigan Field Guide explains that the name came from a mistaken belief that hawks ate it to improve their eyesight!
Other non-natives pop up here and there in the old fields at Cranberry Lake. Goat’s Beard blossoms open in the early morning and close about noon. And when its blooming season is over, it makes a huge seed head, like a giant, beige dandelion, which it is doing right now. By the way, the insect on the blossom at left is a Hover Fly (family Syrphidae) which mimics bees or wasps for protection but has no stinger.
Other non-native plants that usually appear singly are White Campion (Silene latifolia) and Rough-Fruited Cinquefoil (Potentilla recta) which is easily confused with some of our native varieties (thanks to Ben for the ID help!).
Of course, invasive non-native plants have also moved into Cranberry Lake. Here’s a native House Wren (Troglodytes aedon), singing from within one of the worst invasives, the Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata), a shrub which is native to Asia. These large bushes fix nitrogen in the soil, creating soil conditions unsuitable for native plants. Its berries are spread by birds and animals. It leafs out early and keeps its leaves late into the fall, shading out other plants. In short, it’s one problem shrub! But the Wren is a welcome summer resident and his beautiful, burbling courting song (recorded by Antonio Xeira) is much beloved even if it does emanate from an invasive bush.
Another serious invasive shrub grows abundantly in Cranberry Lake, the Multiflora Rose(Rosa multiflora). This admittedly lovely plant loses its appeal when its strong thorns catch your skin, and this gangly shrub happens to be crowding out native plants all over Michigan. That hurts both our plant and wildlife communities by making native species less plentiful and less healthy because they are less diverse. Multiflora Rose was brought to the US from Japan by horticulturists after WWII as a fencing plant and spread quickly from gardens into natural or disturbed areas. Like the Autumn Olive, it unfortunately can grow in sun or shade and has the same means of competing for space – lots of berries spread by wildlife and leaves early spring to late fall that shade out other plants.
Hairy Vetch (Vicia villosa) is beautiful, like many invasives, but has a tendency to spread. It was brought here as forage for animals. It isn’t as invasive as its relative Crown Vetch (Securigera varia), which forms dense colonies that exclude other plant species, but it does form smaller colonies and can be seen along the paths at various places in the park. Here a native Bumblebee (g. Bombus) probes the tube-like flowers with its long tongue.
And nearby, a Seven-Spotted Lady Bug(Coccinella septempunctata), a species introduced repeatedly from Europe to rid crops of aphids, looked for a meal on a fellow European, the Hairy Vetch again! At least it wasn’t the Harlequin Ladybug/Asian Lady Beetle (Harmonia axyridis) that infested homes a few years ago. Unfortunately, our native ladybugs, the Nine-Spotted Ladybug, (Coccinella novemnotata) are now rare and scientists are not sure why that happened.
Out in the Old Fields: Fancy Bugs!
The sun-drenched Old Fields at Cranberry Lake seem to attract unusually interesting insects, including – wait for it – flies! Yes, I’m aware that flies aren’t as immediately appealing as butterflies or as impressive as dragonflies, but some really are pretty cool. Here’s a photo of a Soldier Fly (Odontomyia cincta) exploring the Dogbane. Can you see the black chevrons on his green back and his red head? Pretty fancy, eh?
Or how about these mating Golden-backed Snipe Flies (Chrysopilus thoracicus)? The male is the smaller one with the much bigger eyes (“The better to find you with, my dear!”).
Of course, butterflies float above these fields as well. This weekend we saw our first Viceroy (Limenitis archippus) of the year. This one had a slightly injured forewing on one side, but was still happily fluttering about the field exploring flowers. Viceroys are often smaller than Monarch Butterflies and have a telltale bar on their hindwing that the Monarch doesn’t have.
And of course we saw the common but lovely Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos), Cabbage (Pieris rapae)and Little Wood Satyr (Megisto cymela)butterflies as well.
One afternoon I saw a quick, snapping, short flight of what looked like a big moth with yellow-ish wings. It turned out, after I saw it land, that it was a Carolina Locust in flight. The “Bug Lady” at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee website says that “In The Handy Bug Answer Book, Dr. Gilbert Waldbauer refers to these unexpected wing patterns as ‘flash colors’ which, sometimes in concert with flight noises, attract/distract a predator. When the grasshopper lands and tucks in its flying wings, the pursuing predator suddenly can’t find anything that matches its search image.” That was certainly the case for me. It took me a minute to believe that this brown creature at my feet was the one I’d seen flying. Here’s a link where you can scroll down to a photo of one in flight.
Aaah, Out of the Sunlight: The Lake, Wetlands and Shade
Birds, Amphibians and Reptiles in the Leafy Shade
Walking on shady paths and passing by wetlands, I naturally come across plants, insects, birds and other creatures that prefer that environment to sunny, open fields. Two Cedar Waxwings landed up in a leafy treetop on Sunday afternoon. My photo that day just doesn’t do justice to this lovely bird, so here’s a photo from another summer. The field marks of this elegant bird are its crest, its black mask, the yellow tip to its tail and a red dot on each wing that looks like red sealing-wax. And their color does look like cedar, doesn’t it?
Down near Cranberry Lake, three of the Wednesday birders recognized the melodious tune of the Warbling Vireo, here recorded by birder Antonio Xeira. What a lovely song flowing down from the treetops where it stays out of sight, seeking out caterpillars. I love the contrast in these two song descriptions found at the Cornell Lab website. “The early twentieth century ornithologist William Dawson described the song this way: ‘Fresh as apples and as sweet as apple blossoms comes that dear, homely song from the willows.'” The highly variable song usually ends on a high note, leading the birder Pete Dunne to describe it as sounding “like a happy drunk making a conversational point at a party.” Here’s the closeup photo at Cornell Lab.
Frogs generally love moist surroundings. In summer, though, the beautiful Northern Leopard Frog (Lithobates pipiens)often moves into grassy areas for its meals. One paused at the edge of the trail at Cranberry Lake Park, an emerald green frog with golden eyes and the spots that give it its name. Northern Leopard Frogs have very large mouths and though they usually eat worms, flies and crickets, they have also been known to swallow birds and garter snakes, according to Wikipedia!
One warm afternoon, I came upon a Painted Turtle trundling along the path toward Cranberry Lake.
I thought at first it was a male, because it had extra long nails which males use to stroke their mates. But I’m not sure, since it may have been a female coming back to the lake from laying eggs in sandy soil out in the fields. A few days later, my husband and I spotted a hole in the meadow edge where it appeared a raccoon might have dug up a batch of turtle eggs to feed its young!
Berries in the Shade
Cranberry Lake is of course important because it has a cranberry bog. At the moment, it’s not visible, but the Parks and Recreation Commission’s Master Plan includes construction of an observation deck at the lake in the next couple of years.
But other berries are forming along the shady path toward the pond. The native Bristly Blackberry bushes are blooming under the trees. In fact, their flowers are beginning to fade in the heat and the fruits, the blackberries, are forming.
And very near the lake, Ben pointed out Highbush Blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum) forming in the shade. This is the plant that Native Americans enjoyed and that was domesticated in 1907 to create the blueberries we all enjoy in July. I’m glad I got a photo, because when I went back a second time, some bird or mammal had already munched some of them. They don’t wait until their ripe the way we do! Drat…
Along the Hickory Lane on the west side of the park, I saw fruits forming on False Solomon’s Seal, a native plant that spreads by rhizomes (underground stems) under the trees.
Insects that Have It “Made in the Shade”
Dragonflies patrol along the shady paths as well as the open meadows. I saw one last week that I hadn’t seen for a long time, a female Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis). She’s emerald green all over with brown/black chevrons on her tail. According to the “Bug Lady” at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, the male gradually changes from green to blue, starting at the tip of its tail and moving up as it matures! These dragonflies stick close to animals, like us, because we stir up a cloud of biting insects they love to eat. Thanks, Pondhawks! Enjoy an all-you-can-eat feast!
Another dragonfly who seems to frequent moist areas almost exclusively is the Dot-tailed Whiteface (Leucorrhinia intacta). The male looks like he’s wearing a Mickey Mouse mask with his white face and eyes. What I think was his mate landed nearby. I couldn’t see her white face but all of her tail and wing markings and her location near the male would seem to indicate she’s the female.
Damselflies also patrol the paths as you near Cranberry Lake itself. Emerald green seems to be a popular color for creatures who want to disappear from predators in the shade. Here’s one called, appropriately enough, the Emerald Spreadwing Damselfly (Lestes sponsa).
Below the huge Shagbark Hickories (Carya ovata) on the lane at the western edge of the park, a Virginian Ctenucha Moth (Ctenucha virginica) sailed past and settled on a leaf. I was quite excited to see this moth (which caused a slight blur in the photo), since Ben had helped me identify its spiky caterpillar earlier in the spring. It’s quite common and likes goldenrod nectar. This one might have hatched a bit early in the heat, since the goldenrods won’t bloom for another month. This elegantly shaped moth with an orange head flashes its metallic blue body when it flies.
A Park for All Seasons
Improvements continue at Cranberry Lake Park. The northern most part of the central trail that connects with trails in Addison Oaks county park is being renovated this year (and possibly next) to make it less damp so that hikers, bikers and horseback riders will have an easier time accessing the park. That northern section is full of wetlands, those precious resources that clean our groundwater, store flood waters, feed our wildlife and give shelter to exhausted migrating birds – but they make for wet trails in the spring.
But most of the park is open for your enjoyment year ’round with migrating warblers in the spring, breeding birds in the summer (and summer concerts on the farmhouse porch), a bright orange glow in late summer and fall as Canada Goldenrod bloom and Monarch butterflies fill the fields traveling south. In winter, its gently rolling meadows might be a place to try out your cross-country skis. And then there’s all that history near the Flumerfelt Barn and historic home. So branch out. Try a new park this summer and see what you and your children can find to love at Cranberry Lake Park.
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.