Tag Archives: Red-backed Salamander

Bear Creek Nature Park: Little Spring Dramas Everywhere You Look

Native choke berry shrubs (Prunus virginiana) burst with blooms to attract  pollinators before the trees leaf out.
Blog and photos by Cam Mannino

Late April and early May are full of dramas. Birds hassle each other over territories. Some turn their brightest feathers into the sunlight or sing elaborately constructed songs  to impress the ladies. Snapping turtles roil the waters of the marsh as they twist and turn with their partners, butting heads and biting as they perform their mating dance. Late spring wildflowers and smaller trees hurry to show their best blooms to attract pollinators before bigger trees cloak them in shade. It’s a bustling, slightly crazy season – and isn’t it great?

 

Migrating Summer Birds Busy Courting, Hassling and Scouting for Nests

Down at the Center Pond one cool spring morning, the birding group watched a Green Heron (Butorides virescens) warming itself on a log at one end of the pond.  Its neck wasn’t stretched over the water, so it wasn’t seriously fishing; it just sat there peaceably. Gradually,  a pair of passive-aggressive Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) noticed its presence and decided, evidently, that they wanted the pond to themselves. They cruised slowly up to the heron until one of them was nearly beak to beak with it. The heron just sat. They joined forces and approached together. The heron just sat. Finally, one goose climbed onto the heron’s log, while the other positioned itself directly in front of the hapless heron. It sat for another minute and then finally acquiesced, fluttering off to the muddy shore nearby. Conflict successfully avoided, it probably found plenty of snails, insects and amphibians to eat while waiting for the geese to depart.

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Sometimes the ongoing drama is a little less obvious.  Rose-breasted Grosbeaks (Pheucticus ludovicianus) are plentiful in Bear Creek this year. One morning a male turned his bright pink breast patch to the sun and trilled his elaborate spring song repeatedly for his more modestly dressed mate. (If you hear a fancy version of the robin’s song, there’s likely to be a male grosbeak nearby.)

A male Rose-breasted Grosbeak uses his bright pink breast patch and his elaborate song to attract his mate.
A female Rose-breasted Grosbeak listens to the male’s operatic song.

But nearby, there’s a careful observer. The female Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater) is high in a tree listening, too.

A female Cowbird high in a tree watching to see if a likely bird builds a nest in which she can lay her eggs. The Grosbeak’s perhaps?

She’s watching for a likely nest in which to lay her eggs. Maybe she’s hoping  the grosbeaks will be the ones to nurture and raise her young. Fortunately, the grosbeaks aren’t great prospects. They’re big enough to push the eggs out of the nest – if they notice them. Some birds do and some don’t. The drama hasn’t reached Act II.

In the small meadow west of the pond, a male Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) spent the morning stringing together short phrases – whistles, tweets, trills and  imitations of birds, frogs, even occasionally machinery!  His complicated song can go on for minutes without repetition! This male combined song with ruffling his feathers and chasing after the female who was playing hard-to-get. She’d stop to listen, fly off and then dart toward him. He’d pursue her, fluff his feathers again and sing something new. And on they went at the forest edge and among the meadow’s small trees and shrubs.

The male catbird taking a quick pause before ruffling his feathers and breaking into elaborate song.

Some migrators arrive in busy flocks, just stopping over for a short while to refuel before flying north. This week, a flock of 6 or 7 White-Crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) rode in on a south wind during the night and spent the morning gobbling whatever they could find at the edge of the trails. Such a handsome little sparrow with its striped crown!

A small flock of White-Crowned Sparrows stopped to forage at Bear Creek on their way to cooler nesting grounds farther north.

Some birds fly in for just a short time to breed and then return to southern climes. This Orchard Oriole (Icterus spurius), the smallest of the orioles, flitted quickly among the branches, nibbling on sweet leaf buds for a little quick energy. Even if he finds his yellow-green mate and nests, he’ll likely be gone by mid-July – back to his favorite haunts in Central America.

The smaller, russet-colored Orchard Oriole may nest here, but will leave by mid-July for Central America where he spends the rest of the year.

High overhead, a pair of Sandhill Cranes croaked their wild cry, sounding and looking like two prehistoric pterodactyls with their giant wings. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

The warblers, the tiniest of migrants, have begun to arrive.  A week ago a fellow birder helped me spot two species – the Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata) and the Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia) – and, we think, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula.) I didn’t manage to take any decent photos since some ate high in the tree tops and others hopped madly from limb to limb nibbling on leaf buds. So here are three photos from last year just to jog your memory.

In the western meadow, an Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) paused on a stalk. Kingbirds have a crown of red, orange or yellow feathers under that black cap, but they only show when they’re attacking a predator. I’ve never seen them. According to Cornell lab, this solitary, feisty bird changes his lifestyle in the winter, traveling in flocks all along the Amazon and eating fruit instead of Michigan insects. A favorite photo below from a few years ago shows his crown just slightly raised and his red gaping mouth.  Maybe he’s feeling just a wee bit aggressive?

The Eastern Kingbird has colored feathers under that black cap that show when he’s aggressive toward a predator.

Drama in the Wetlands as Well

Over in the marsh, a very small Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) and a MUCH larger one roiled the water at the far end of the marsh. The difference in their neck lengths will help you determine their relative size in the photos.

I assume the smaller one was the male as he attempted to mount the back of the female’s huge shell at one point.   Snappers generally do a lot of face biting when they mate, sometimes injuring each other. The photo below may look like a kiss but it’s more likely that the small turtle on the left is approaching to bite some indeterminable body part of the larger on the right. It didn’t look as though things worked out too well for either of them. After some rolling and tumbling in the marsh, the smaller swam off and the larger floated calmly in the distance.

What looks like a turtle kiss may actually be a bite that the smaller turtle (left) is giving the larger as part of the attempted mating process.

Blue-spotted Salamanders ((Ambystoma laterale) reproduce in a less excited manner. According to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, salamanders emerge from their burrows on the night of the first snow-melting rain (now that would be dramatic to witness!) and go to the nearest vernal pool After a little nudging and hugging, the male deposits a sperm-topped cone of jelly on the ground in front of the female. She takes it in to fertilize her eggs, which are laid in the water in the next day or so. By mid-summer, the hatched tadpole-like larvae develop lungs instead of gills and absorb their tail fins, taking adult form.  Red-backed Salamanders (Plethodon cinereus) lay their eggs in burrows and their young hatch as miniature adults. Here are some salamander eggs and a salamander larvae/tadpole that the monitoring team found in a pool last year, plus three different species of juvenile salamanders under some wood in the park two weeks or so ago.

In the Woods, Not Much Drama, but Burgeoning Life

Again this year, a raccoon is inhabiting the giant hole in the Oak-Hickory forest. Other years this has meant a passel of playful kits by the end of May. I saw nothing until I stepped into the crunchy leaves at the trail’s edge and this curious face popped up at the edge of hole.

A raccoon has found the hole that is often used by females to bear and raise their young. We’ll know by the end of May.

The Red Admiral Butterfly (Vanessa atalanta), a migrating insect who probably overwintered in southern Texas, arrived at the wood’s edge a couple of weeks ago. According to Wikipedia, Red Admirals usually have two broods here between May and October.

The Red Admiral overwinters in Texas but comes here to have 2 broods between May and October.

Under the growing canopy of bright new leaves, a carpet of Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum) is blooming. In the blossom below, a tiny bee from the Halictadae family has curled up to feed on flower nectar. These tiny bees are commonly known as “sweat bees” because they like to lick salt from us humans (luckily, their sting is very minor). This bee’s bright metallic green may mean it’s an Augochlora Sweat Bee (Augochlora pura), solitary bees who don’t live socially in hives. If you know your Michigan bees, please feel free to correct me.

A solitary bee in the Halictidae family gathering nectar from a wild geranium

 The Little Dramas Keep Life Coming

Delicate early spring blossoms of the native Serviceberry (Amelanchier interior) near the eastern end of the Center Pond

The dramas of spring creatures mean life continues. The best singer, the most beautiful feathers, the best provider of a good territory get chosen and a new generation begins. Fortunately, the temporary territorial disputes of birds don’t usually result in death or destruction. One bird moves on to new territory and in many cases, joins his former competitor in a fall flock which ends up feeding calmly together on winter feeding grounds. Nature knows that both low level conflict and general cooperation keep life going, even improving, generation by generation.  Maybe we humans should take a lesson from them?

Footnote:  My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell; Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3; 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; other sites as cited in the text.

Enjoying an Evening of Turtles, Salamanders, Frogs and, oh yeah, a Rattlesnake!

Last Thursday, Ben VanderWeide, our township stewardship manager, hosted a well-attended event on rare/endangered “herps” (Herpetofauna), that is, amphibians and reptiles.

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

At this time of year, talking about snakes, turtles, salamanders and frogs may seem a bit odd to you.  Actually though,  the Herpetology expert and presenter, David Mifsud of Herpetological Resource Management (HRM), told us that he sees Spring Peepers, Eastern Garter Snakes and Red-backed Salamanders moving around in Michigan winters when temperatures warm up as they have lately.    So for starters, here are three that he says we might look for during this winter thaw:

 

Garter snake closeup GC
Eastern Garter Snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis) may be moving on warm winter days.
red-backed-salamander-1
You could see a Red-backed Salamander (Plethodon cinereus) in a vernal pool created by snow melt.
Spring Peeper largest size
Spring Peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) can occasionally be heard/seen on a warm winter day.

And even if you don’t see one of these herps “in person” this winter, it’s just pleasant to think about springtime creatures in the dead of winter, right?  So here’s a brief trip through some of the important and lively information that David shared with about 30 of us last Thursday night.

Note:  Because some of these creatures are rare, some of the photos this week are courtesy of photographers at iNaturalist.org.  Please check the captions for names of these gifted people and many thanks to Creative Commons, iNaturalist and these photographers for sharing their work!

How Important are Amphibians and Reptiles?  Let Me Count the Ways…

  • Canaries in the coal mine. Amphibians and reptiles accumulate toxins and other contaminates in their bodies and most live both in water and on land.  So they are effective gauges (bio-indicators) of what’s getting into both environments.
  • Many eat invasive species.  For example,  the very homely Mudpuppy (Necturus maculosus), an aquatic salamander, favors eating invasive Zebra Mussels (Dreissena polymorpha) and  invasive Brown Gobies (Neogobius melanostomus), both huge problems in the Great Lakes. I grant you  this much-maligned aquatic salamander is not pretty. But it’s eating these invasive species, crayfish, worms,  and insect larvae! There’s no evidence that they reduce game fish populations (see Harding 1997). So please!  Return them with care to the water if you catch them on your hooks winter or summer.
original
Mudpuppies eat invasive species not game fish. Photo by Marcus Rosten CC-BY. I lightened and cropped slightly.
  • Predator and Prey. Herps can be both predator and prey, meaning they’re important in nature’s food web.  For example, dragonflies, like the Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa) on the left below,  lay eggs in vernal pools.  The  nymphs that hatch feed on the eggs of salamanders who deposit their eggs on sticks in vernal pools, as seen in the center photo.  But when the Tiger Salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum) on the right – an inhabitant mostly of western and southern Michigan –  reaches adulthood,  it in turn eats dragonflies.  This kind of food cycle helps keep a healthy balance between predator and prey in the ecosystem and builds the ladder system of the food web.
  • Our natural heritage. And of course, these creatures deserve our care because they are native to the habitats which are our natural heritage. And just as we preserve historic homes, we need to preserve the habitats for plants and animals that share our natural inheritance.
  • Just because. These beautiful creatures deserve a place to call home too!

And the Prognosis for Michigan Herps?  Uh, Not So Good…

Unfortunately, in Michigan and the Great Lakes Region, more than half of our species of amphibians and reptiles are declining. Why?

  • Amphibians and reptiles spend time on land and in the water. So those pollutants and contaminants that they accumulate, making them bio-indicators, can also kill them. Plastic beads in beauty products, pesticides from lawns and agriculture, hormones from our medicines in waste water, and agricultural run-off can affect these creatures.
  • Many reptiles have to live a long time in order to mature and reproduce.  The Blanding’s Turtle (Emydoidea blandingii), found in our township,  is listed as a Species of Special Concern in Michigan. It takes up to 20 years for these yellow-chinned turtles to mature enough to produce young and they can live up to 90 years! This one on a road near Draper Twin Lake Park is demonstrating one of the hazards – habitat loss or disruption.  In this case, a road cut through its habitat. If you see a turtle on the road and can safely do so, be sure to move it gently in the direction it was going or it will turn head right back the way it came. Turtles are very focused on getting to and from their breeding grounds!

    Blandings Turtle near Draper
    A Blanding’s Turtle has to survive up to 20 years before it produces young!
  • Creatures with long lives like turtles especially need connected habitat corridors since they require both water and dry land, where they lay their eggs. Here a Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) is laying her eggs high on a sunny slope in Bear Creek before she returns to the pond. She demonstrates a common natural hazard. A female Snapper has a strong scent from living in marshes so it’s easy for predators – like foxes, coyotes, or raccoons – to track down her nest of eggs. And the mounds of earth she leaves behind are a big clue too!
snapper laying eggs
A Snapping Turtle leaves a strong marsh scent on her trail that lead predators, like raccoons, to her nest of eggs.
  • As cute, and as pesky,  as raccoons can be, they are serious predators of amphibians and reptiles and over-populated in some parks. Their numbers are often higher in urban areas than they would be naturally because they are “subsidized” by the food we provide unwittingly, such as our trash and the dog food we leave outside. After racoons leave the feast in your backyard, they return to a local natural area to snack on amphibian and reptile eggs, often causing over 90% nest failure. To keep park environments in balance between predators and prey, please remove food sources from around your home, and don’t transport trapped raccoons or other animals to our parks! 

 

raccoon in hole
Raccoons are efficient predators of “herp” eggs and young. So please don’t transport yours to the parks or we’ll have too many! This one peeked from a tree at Bear Creek.

Of course,  birds and other creatures prey on amphibians and reptiles as well.  This Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) is heading for quite a feast!

cr cooper's hawk with snake
A Cooper’s Hawk prepares to dine on a snake.
  • Unfortunately, salamanders and turtles are sometimes poached from the wild for pets, both by wildlife traffickers and uninformed parents and children. This has had a devastating effect, for instance,  on the very cute and tiny Spotted Turtle (Clemmys guttata) who’s only 3-5 inches long! And the same thing has happened to Box Turtles (Terrapene carolina) and even Common Snappers, which are sold overseas as well as domestically for supposed “medicinal” purposes.
spotted-turtle-cc-no-my-photo
Photo of the tiny Spotted Turtle by Todd Pierson (CC BY-NC-SA) whose numbers have declined due to treating them as pets.

The Leopard Frog (Rana pipiens), which appears in our parks, is also a Species of Special Concern in Michigan due to its declining numbers. This lovely frog with its emerald body and oval spots has unfortunately been poorly studied. So researchers still need to find the reasons for its distress.

leopard frog
The Leopard Frog’s numbers are declining and no one yet knows exactly why.

OK, but what about that Michigan rattlesnake???

emr_andrewhoffman2008_cc-by-nc-nd-3
Photo by Andrew Hoffman CC BY-NA-ND 4.0. No changes were made to the photo.

Most of us have heard of, but never seen, Michigan’s most venomous snake, the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake (Sistrurus catenatus catenatus) (a couple other snakes have weak venom that only causes irritation). This very shy, low-key snake only grows to about 2 feet long. According to Michigan DNR, it has one set of rattles at birth and develops more as it sheds its skin several times each year.  Its head is triangular like most rattlesnakes, though it is the smallest and least venomous rattler in the U.S.  Look also for a vertical eye slit and saddle-shaped spots.

The likelihood of you being bothered by this snake is low.  In 2016 it was listed as a Federally Threatened Species, which means its numbers are becoming drastically low.  And these snakes just want to avoid you. David reports having searched for this snake with a tracking device and after hearing a loud “beep” from his device, found it under the grass between his feet!  As he moved the grass aside, the snake silently slid over his shoe and away. That’s a conflict-avoiding snake! And a herpetologist with nerves of steel, I might add.

So if you do get to see one, consider yourself lucky. Don’t hurt or handle these docile snakes, since folks most often get bitten when harassing a snake that just wants to get away. Many bites are “dry,” meaning no venom. It takes lots of energy for the snake to produce the venom, and it doesn’t want to waste it! But if you get any kind of bite from this snake, see a doctor right away. Luckily, Dave informed us that no one in the US has died from such a bite in 100 years.

In spring, when these snakes are most active, they’re seen near wetlands, but they are likely to move to drier, upland areas in the summer. While they been seen recently at Stony Creek Metro Park in our area, we have no recent sighting in our township parks. Let us know if you see one!

Massasaugas overwinter for up to six months under logs, in small animal burrows and often in the “chimneys” created by crayfish, like this one.

A recently refreshed Crayfish hole among the detritus
A recently refreshed crayfish hole can hold many creatures over the winter, occasionally including Massasauga rattlesnakes.

Evidently, these burrows fill with ground water which maintains a more constant temperature in the winter than above ground – and that’s what important to an animal that can’t control its body temperature internally.  What’s amazing is that they often share these chimneys with other small creatures during the winter when all of them are in hibernation mode.  A kind of winter “condo” as David described it.  Imagine that!

Befriending Our Local Amphibians and Reptiles

Five turtles line up on a log at Bear Creek Nature Park.
The “Von Trapp Family”  Painted Turtles line up on a log at Bear Creek Nature Park.

Our parks are great places to see all kinds of “herps.”  Snappers and painted turtles cruise Bear Creek’s ponds and marshes.  Our wetlands in every park fill with a chorus of frog song every spring.  Snakes bask in sunny spots and quickly disappear into tall grass.  And in moist woodland uplands, salamanders emerge on the first warm night to make their way to vernal pools to mate and lay their eggs.  We need to care for these interesting creatures and their habitats  to be sure that they still thrive in our world when our children or grandchildren go looking for them.

Footnote:  My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: 
Harding, James H. (1997) Amphibians and Reptiles of the Great Lakes Region. iNaturalist.org for periodic photos;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 and the website www.illinoiswildflowers.info; 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.