This Week at Bear Creek: Summer’s Door Opens – Baby Animals and Lots More Butterflies

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

June is the start of summer for me.  (I don’t wait for the equinox.) Courtship is complete and birds are nesting.  Young animals born in the early weeks of spring are old enough to begin exploring on their own.  And butterflies either arrive from far-flung locales or begin to emerge from their chrysalises or from under the bark in which they have overwintered.  Tadpoles wriggle in every pond and spring green slowly turns deeper and more lush.  Let’s open the door to the summer months at Bear Creek.

Raccoon peaking from White Oak

Raccoon peeking out from a tall tree in the western woods.

The Raccoon’s (Procyon lotor) offspring, known as “kits,”   are evidently living at a new address.  My reliable sources tell me the hole in the tree on the western side of the woods doesn’t show much activity.  However, ’tis the season for raccoon kits so they are out there somewhere!  Here’s a curious raccoon kit peeking out at me two years ago from the big hole while his siblings entertained themselves by climbing up inside the tree and sliding back down.

Raccoons are extremely clever animals.  In captivity, they can quickly learn how to open complicated latches and then “remember the solution to the task for up to three years.” (Wikipedia)  To see raccoons in the woods, it’s essential to be as quiet as possible because they have outstanding hearing.  They can hear earthworms moving underground!  With their hyper-sensitive front paws, they eat a wide range of foods – bird eggs, amphibians, fish, insects, human garbage (unfortunately) and in the fall before hibernation, acorns and walnuts.  Last year we saw an albino raccoon in the big hole so keep an eye out!

The Eastern Chipmunks (Tamias striatus) will have given birth to their first litter of four or five babies who spent about 6 weeks in the burrow under ground and now hang out with their parents for two weeks before heading off on their own.

baby chipmunk

Baby chipmunks spend 6 weeks in the burrow, two weeks outside with adults and then they’re on their own.

The adults will have another litter in the early autumn.  Like rabbits, chipmunks are an important source of food for many animals, hence the need for many offspring.  They themselves will eat bird’s eggs, small frogs, insects, worms, as well as all kinds of nuts and seeds.  We’ll talk more about them in the fall as they stuff their cheek pouches to prepare for hibernation.

adult chipmunk

Chipmunks have two litters, spring and fall, of four or five offspring each time.

Ben’s seen two wonderful birds in the park in the last few weeks, residents that will stay all summer.


The catbird does “miaow” but he also sings a complicated song composed of mimicked bits of other birdsong.

Male Gray Catbirds (Dumetella carolinensis) offer beginning “birders”  the easiest call to remember; they actually make a very distinctive “miaou” just like a small cat when courting or feeling threatened by predators.  Once you hear the mew, look in a nearby thicket for a sleek gray bird with a black cap, because catbirds generally fly low and perch in shrubs or small trees.  While establishing his territory, however, the male perches at the top of a small tree or bush (the proverbial “catbird seat”) and sings a fabulous, complicated song, stringing together mimicked song fragments of other birds’ songs. To me, it always sounds like an overheard conversation:  “No, really?” “Yes, it’s true!”  “Well, I never!”  Click on the Typical Voice link about halfway down the page on the left at this link and give it a listen.

The other beautiful bird that Ben saw is the Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor).  One of the great avian acrobats, these iridescent blue and black swallows swoop and glide over the meadows and marshes, literally swallowing insects on the fly.

Swallow flying

Tree swallows scoop up insects on the fly as they soar above the fields and marsh.

Tree swallows make nests in natural cavities or woodpecker holes in dead trees or human-provided nesting boxes, which become important as we humans cut down dead trees.  Interestingly, they line their nests with the feathers of other birds, i.e.,  they literally “feather their nests!”  Swallows compete for feathers and may snitch from other swallows or try to catch one in mid-air if it’s dropped by a careless swallow.

two swallows on house 2

A rare opportunity to see 2 tree swallows at rest on a nesting box at 7 Ponds Nature Center.

And Here Come the Butterflies! 

The number of  butterflies fluttering across the old farm field next to the eastern path increases all the time. The gorgeous Yellow Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus), also known as the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, was in the US in 1587 when it was the first drawn by a member of Sir Walter Raleigh’s third expedition to Virginia.  You can see why it caught his eye.  The male is always yellow with four tiger stripes.

Yellow swallowtail butterfly closeup on bull thistle

The male swallowtail is always yellow with 4 black tiger stripes.

The females look similar but have showy iridescent blue spots at the bottom of their hindwings. Look carefully and you’ll see them from below here.

female swallowtail

Look carefully and you’ll see the showy blue spots at the bottom of the female Yellow Swallowtail’s hindwing.

Or the female can take a black form (or morph) and then you can really see the blue spots.

black morph female swallowtail

The female Yellow Swallowtail sometimes takes on a black form, or morph.

I always thought these were Black Swallowtails, but they are a completely different butterfly!

This immigrant from the southern US is the Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta), a medium-sized butterfly with wonderfully bright colors.

Red Admiral2

The Red Admiral has striking colors on the dorsal (upper) side of his wings.

But  look how well it camouflages itself when it settles down to eat!

red admiral camouflage

The underside (ventral) of the Red Admiral’s wings provides excellent camouflage when it lights to eat or rest.

Two related but smaller, more modest butterflies have also just emerged from their chrysalises.  The Cabbage White (Pieris rapae) does love cabbage but also loves purple, blue and yellow flowers.  The males have one black spot on their wings and the females have two.  Here’s a group of males sipping at a moist spot on the path behind the center pond in order to replace the nutrients they pass to the female when they mate.

cabbage butterfly

Male cabbage butterflies sip nutrients from moist earth to nourish themselves after mating.

The cabbage butterfly’s relatives in the Pieridae family, the yellow Common or Clouded Sulphur (Colias philodice) like clover and other flowers of the legume family.


Sulphurs are yellow relatives of the Cabbage Butterflies and emerge from their chrysalises at about the same time.

And last, the tiny Pearl Cresent (Phyciodes tharos) with only about a 1.5 inch wingspan, who uses asters as host plants for its caterpillars.

Gorgon checkerspot

The Pearl Crescent is tiny, about 1.5 inches, and uses asters as host plants for its caterpillars..


– The tadpoles of the Green Frog (Lithobates clamitans) are now roiling the usually calm waters of the pond next to the playground and other ponds and pools in the park.

green frog tadpole

The tadpole of the Green Frog is roiling  waters all over the park at the moment.

A few adult Green Frogs are around, but wait for the chorus to begin!  They sound like a whole bunch of individual banjo strings being plucked at once!  

Green frog

The Green Frog’s voice sounds like a plucked banjo string.

– The female Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) are nesting comfortably, many of them on top of old muskrat “push-ups” which muskrats build from mud and vegetation to protect themselves and their young.  (By building push-ups and eating vegetation, muskrats keep open water for aquatic birds.) The two species seem to co-exist quite nicely.    So, goslings should be making an appearance any day now, if they haven’t already!

Goose nest high and dry

Geese keep high and dry by nesting on the tops of “push-ups” made by muskrats out of mud and vegetation.

Please share your discoveries in the comments section below and help me enrich the picture of summer’s grand opening  at Bear Creek Nature Park.

*Quick footnote:  My sources for information, as well as Dr. Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Stokes Nature Guides:  A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3,, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia;; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela;Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels

This Week at Bear Creek: Bear Creek Begins to Bloom

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

Look for this feature early each week! Cam Mannino shares her latest observations, photos, and inspirations from Bear Creek Nature Park. Don’t forget to check out the Preview of Coming Attractions at the bottom of the post to see what you should be looking for in the coming weeks. Thanks Cam!

April 12-18: Bear Creek Begins to Bloom

This week the earliest woodland flowers took advantage of the pale sunlight filtering through bare branches and bloomed. Please help children understand not to pick flowers in our parks; we want them to prosper, seed and keep spreading!

The first to arise, as usual, were the native Spring Beauties (Claytonia), thrusting slender, grass-like leaves through the soil beneath large trees, followed by delicate white flowers with fine pink stripes. Look for them on the western edge of the path through the western woods.

Spring beauty and moss make a wonderful green splash after a long winter

Spring beauty and moss make a wonderful green splash after a long winter

Another early riser is our native Blood Root (Sanguinaria canadensis), named for its use as a dye by native basket makers. This elegant little plant emerges wrapped in an almost circular leaf cloak, after which the small, white flower with a bright yellow center opens to the sun and the leaf unfolds. I tracked its progress over 3 days under a large tree left of the path near the Gunn Road end of the marsh. A large patch of Blood Root also appears every year among fallen trees on the western side of the long loop behind the center pond. But be quick; these very early spring flowers usually last only a few days!

Bloodroot leaves emerging

Bloodroot leaves emerging

A flower bud hides in the emerging bloodroot leaves.

A flower bud hides in the emerging bloodroot leaves.

The flower of blood root fully open.

The flower of blood root fully open.

The more odiferous and sturdy native, Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), nosed its way out of marsh mud at the southern edge of the western woods. Look down from the eastern side of the bridge built there for us by an Eagle Scout. If you get too close, whew! They do like to make a stink each spring but that’s how they attract fly pollinators and discourage would-be foragers!

Skunk cabbage leaves poke through the leaves

Skunk cabbage leaves poke through the leaves

Over in the marsh, two fighting Muskrats (Ondatra zibethicus) staged a splashing chase scene for me, but I was only able to catch a photo of one swimming away in its blue wake.

A muskrat steaming along

A muskrat steaming along

A day later it was turtle fest again. Five Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta) basked on a log in the center pond, lined up by size as if they were the VonTrapp family!

Five turtles line up on a log at Bear Creek Nature Park.

Five turtles line up on a log at Bear Creek Nature Park.

And the same day, a large Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) cruised the marsh, eating underwater plants, its long neck stretching up periodically for air. Watch for what looks like a lump of mud moving slowly in the water, with the turtle’s beak-like snout emerging separately just ahead. Like this:

A snapping turtle swims with its head just above the water

A snapping turtle swims with its head just above the water

Two days later on the large loop, I very carefully approached another snapper, which was probably seeking a place to lay eggs. She wisely sought a better location since there was no disturbed earth the next day. Don’t get too close! These big turtles are crabby on land and can quickly extend their necks which can be as long as their carapace. They snap with powerful jaws, because unlike other turtles, they are too big to pull into their shells. The snapper’s ancestors lived at the time of the dinosaurs and they look it, don’t they?

A big snapping turtle on a path. Maybe looking for a nesting site.

A big snapping turtle on a path. Maybe looking for a nesting site.

The female Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) have now joined their flashier mates in the marsh.

A female red-winged blackbird

A female red-winged blackbird

A Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus ) drummed for a mate nearby. The males are red from the nape of the neck to the bill like the one below. The females have a red nape patch that stops at the back of the head. Not to be confused with the Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus), like the cartoon Woody, whose neck and head is completely red and whose plumage is very different.

A red-bellied woodpecker perches on  a tree

A red-bellied woodpecker perches on a tree

Previews of Coming Attractions!

Let’s see if these Trout Lily leaves (Erythronium ) near the Gunn Road entrance produce any beautiful yellow flowers. It’s been years since they have, but maybe the prescribed burn will help them out this year. It bloomed after a previous burn!

Mottled trout lily leaves soak up sunlight.

Mottled trout lily leaves soak up sunlight.

This trout lily, a native flower, bloomed after a prescribed burn in 2008

This trout lily, a native flower, bloomed after a prescribed burn in 2008

A May Apple (Podophyllum) sprout and drooping unopened leaf emerged in a sunny spot next to the path. In May, a white flower will bloom shaded under the fully open umbrella leaf, to be followed by an inedible “apple.”

Mayapple leaves unfurl from the ground

Mayapple leaves unfurl from the ground

Sunday morning, a North American Raccoon (Procyon lotor) snoozed in this tree on the western-most path through the woods, only a small slice of fur visible at the bottom of the hole until my camera clicked. Keep watch here – by the end of May, baby raccoons may clamber around inside the hole as they have most years. I recommend whispering and staying on the path with binoculars or she and the young will disappear farther up inside the hole.

The racoon hole

The racoon hole

Come explore spring in Bear Creek yourself and please let us know about your discoveries in the comment section below.