Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide and I both got inspired by the idea of a year-end reflection on some of the remarkable sights in our parks and natural areas over the last year. Nature excels in surprising and delighting any curious observer with its ability to come back from adversity, in some cases to even thrive in difficult circumstances. That ability to keep on growing and creating in the face of any obstacle can be a great inspiration in challenging times.
So as the snow falls, please sit back in a comfortable chair with a warm drink and savor some highlights from the four seasons of 2017 here in Oakland Township.
Winter 2017: Serenity Rises as the Snow Falls
Sometimes we just need a little less hubbub after the holidays and the parks provide a peaceful escape. In general, the only sounds are the wind in bare branches, the occasional calls of the year ’round birds and the tapping of energetic woodpeckers foraging in the tree bark. And other times, when we feel a bit house-bound and crave crisp air on red cheeks, a winter walk provides little discoveries unavailable in other seasons. During one deep freeze last winter, the weekly birding group stepped out on the ice at Cranberry Lake to inspect a beaver lodge. And a few weeks later, I plopped down in the snow for a closer look at 3-D ice dendrites standing upright on a frozen puddle! Folks enjoyed the fine skating rink at Marsh View Park, but some who fancied wild surroundings skated on Twin Lake. On sunny winter days, shadows are always sharp and any spot of color, like the brilliant red of a male cardinal, catches my eye in winter’s clear, white light. Hiking in winter can be wonderful; just be sure you’re bundled up for it! (Click on pause button for longer captions.)
Spring 2017: Buds, First Blooms, Migrators Flying in by Night and the Ebullient Symphony of Courting Birds and Frogs
Ah, mud-luscious spring! The tiny Chorus and Wood Frogs thawed out after their winter freeze and sang lustily from vernal ponds. In early spring, the birders spotted a crayfish at Bear Creek who’d climbed out of her chimney with eggs under her tail and was lumbering toward the pond. Some spring avian migrators quickly passed through, and we bird watchers were lucky to spot a few special visitors. An unusual American Pipit appeared before my camera lens one afternoon at Gallagher Creek Park on its way to its breeding grounds in the far north. While others, like the Tree Swallow or the Eastern Meadowlark, settled in for the summer to raise their young. After last year’s controlled burn, native Lupines appeared along the Paint Creek Trail. And in May, Ben spotted a rare sight, a frilly spread of rare Bogbean flowers in a kettle wetland at Bald Mountain State Recreation Area off Kern Road. Snow melt and bright green buds always offer an irresistible invitation to come out and join the bustle and music of spring!
Summer 2017: Butterflies Galore as Restored Prairies Began to Bloom
Summer! The very word conjures up a coloring box assortment of butterflies hovering over prairie wildflowers. Birds constructed their nests and later wore themselves out feeding noisy, demanding fledglings. We birders particularly enjoyed close looks at a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak sharing egg-warming duties near a Bear Creek path. The birders laughed in surprise watching a passive/aggressive pair of Canada Geese successfully discourage the presence of a Green Heron by simply swimming uncomfortably close to it. A family ambled along a path at Draper Twin Lake Park, headed for a morning fishing expedition. The birding group, binoculars in hand, spotted an Indigo Bunting while walking the new paths through the prairies at Charles Ilsley Park, increasingly spangled with colorful native wildflowers as restoration proceeds. A Great Horned Owl stared at the delighted birding group through a scrim of leaves near Bear Creek marsh. Every path in the township hummed with life during the summer months. But that’s what we all expect of summer, right?
Autumn 2017: Birds Departed South, and Fall Wildflowers Bloomed
Tundra Swans flew in formation overhead, as migrators of all kinds, like the Hermit Thrush, rode the north wind down to southern climes. But as they departed, nature offered a consolation. Many native wildflowers bloomed in the cool weather as they faithfully do each year. Asters formed carpets of color everywhere, from meadow to marsh! At the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail, tiny Ladies Tresses orchids, Grass of Parnassus with its delicately striped petals, and vivid purple Fringed Gentian intrigued me again by emerging in the chill of early autumn. Native bumblebees pushed their way into Bottle Gentian flowers at Gallagher Creek Park and the Wet Prairie. Butterflies still sipped nectar from late fall blooms. The birders identified ducks of all kinds assembled in rafts on Cranberry Lake. Rattling cries alerted me to the presence of Belted Kingfishers who scouted for prey at both Bear Creek’s pond and Cranberry Lake. Ben dipped his net into a marsh at Charles Ilsley Park to show us tadpoles that overwinter on the muddy surface beneath the water. So much life as the year 2017 began to ebb!
Parks Full of Life All Year ‘Round. Aren’t We Lucky?
As a direct result of the foresight of township residents who have supported the Parks Commission and land preservation, native plants, wildlife, birds, and a beautifully diverse combination of habitats are being restored and preserved in Oakland Township. I want to share my appreciation for that foresight and for the hard work and knowledge of Ben VanderWeide (my kind and able supervisor and editor), other parks volunteers, my fellow birders and park staff. And at the end of the year, I thank all of you who read, comment on and/or follow Natural Areas Notebook. It’s wonderful to be learning more all the time about the natural world – and then to have this opportunity to share what I’m learning with all of you. On to 2018!
At first glance, Bear Creek Nature Park in November doesn’t have much to recommend it. A frequently gray sky glowers overhead. Insects don’t buzz, soar over or spring out of the fields now drained of color. Birds only occasionally call but never sing. A casual observer might say that that there’s “nothing to see.” But they’d be wrong.
It just takes a bit more attention and a dash of memory to enjoy a late autumn hike. That quick little movement in the bare shrubbery could be a group of small golden migrators wintering here with us. Leaves skate across the pond’s first skim of ice or frame a bit of brilliant green and red moss. The birds that live with us year ’round are making winter homes and energetically seeking out bits of nourishment all around us if we look. Summer creatures snooze under the bark of trees and under the soil at our feet as we walk. Life doesn’t stop, even in November. We just need a bit more care to enjoy it on a November day.
Noticing November’s Birds – Blue, Red, Golden, Even Ones with Fancy Hairdos!
All month the Center Pond has shifted from water to ice and back again – but it’s always a place to watch with a keen eye. On the first bird walk of the month, the group saw Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) as usual, calmly cruising at the far end of the pond. But then, wait! What about that bird with the bouffant crest? It seems that those sneaky Hooded Mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) may have added an egg to a Mallard or Wood Duck nest, as they occasionally do. The young female Merganser steamed up and down the bank at a snappy pace, as her Mallard companions paused to preen along the way.
That same early November day, the birders heard the “tsee, tsee” call and then saw a group of winter visitors from northern Canada, Golden-crowned Kinglets (Regulus satrapa). The flock was too quick-moving for me, so I’ve borrowed a lovely shot from iNaturalist.org’s photographer, Joanne Redwood. Though we saw these little Kinglets in bare shrubs, look for them mostly where there are lots of pines whose needles provide shelter for them on snowy days.
Late in the month, a male Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon)had claimed the center pond as his winter territory and found my presence quite annoying. When I spotted this guy, he was calmly gazing out across the pond with his crest lowered. But as I approached, his crest began to rise as he swooped between three trees at the eastern end of the pond, shouting his rattle-call to declare his territory. Female Belted Kingfishers usually migrate a bit south to be guaranteed some open water, which they need for fishing. But the males often stay north to protect possible nesting territory. When the pond freezes, though, he’ll temporarily move south or to water that stays open in the dead of winter.
The next time I saw the mallards at the pond, the day was icy cold but the pond was still open. Three males were “bottoms up,” feeding.
On that same icy day, a large flock of Mallards on Bear Creek Marsh preened frantically, trying to keep warm by adding oil to their feathers from a gland beneath their tails. The oil helps align their feathers, providing maximum waterproofing and insulation.
On windy days, of which there were many this month, our year ’round birds seemed to retreat to the woods, where I suppose the tree density breaks the wind. I was surprised this week to see a female Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) in the woods. I tend to see them most in meadows or open areas; that day she was just taking a break in the woods from gusting 20 miles-per-hour winds! So nice to see these bright blue birds on a gray fall day. (Click on photos to enlarge.)
Black-capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) scout out decaying snags, looking for a snug hole for winter nights. Sometimes they excavate one and sometimes they appropriate an old woodpecker hole. This snag looked a little promising. The number of “dees” in a Chickadee’s call indicates how much danger is around. Fortunately, my husband and I only rated the average 3 “dees.”
A few minutes later, a White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) decided to take it step further – either looking for possible insect eggs or perhaps exploring the depth of a hole in the same snag for a winter retreat. In winter, Nuthatches hang out with Chickadees and Titmice for protection and to take advantage of possible food sources other birds may find.
A “kwirr” call from high above alerted us to a Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpescarolinus). This male definitely seemed to be foraging. I think I spotted little insect eggs on his beak as he concentrated his attention on one spot in the bark. He can use his summer nesting hole in a dead tree or limb on cold winter nights.
Imagining and Remembering: Good Tools for a November Walk
On days when birds are elusive and the parks seem quiet, I watch for reminders of summer creatures who are hidden away, spending the winter underground, under water, or under bark and leaves all around me. Here are a few that came to mind during November.
The Raccoon’s (Procyon lotor) hole is empty now, but I bet there may be one or two sleeping deep in that well-used south-facing hole.
It looks as though a Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) built this unusual “push-up” den among the trees on a small mud flat in the Center Pond. So there will be probably be one swimming very slowly and eating in the air space inside the den during the winter.
Of course, some of the reminders concern summer visitors. This little nest we spotted during an early snow shower could be the summer breeding home of a variety of birds. I’m no expert on nests, but I’m imagining that it could be that of a Chipping Sparrow since Cornell describes their nests as “a loose cup of rootlets and dried grasses so flimsy you can often see through it” But that’s just a guess.
And this fragile, scrap of nest near the pond brings back memories of the faithful father, the Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus) who patiently took his turn at the nest – an unusual behavior in male birds. The nest was never very sturdy but autumn winds and rain have left only the base.
And this abandoned, tattered masterpiece was probably the home of some sort of Yellow Jacket species, perhaps the Bald-Faced Hornet (Dolichovespula maculata.) The only surviving member of this once active hive would be the inseminated queen who is probably spending the winter under bark or inside a log nearby. She’ll emerge to lay the eggs of future queens and future workers whose infertile eggs produce the males.
Standing by a wetland pond in the park last week, I was reminded of the Salamanders(Order Urodela) who now must be hibernating under my feet. On a warm, wet night next spring, salamanders will wriggle their way to the water, lay their eggs on a stick and hide again under logs further upland. That’s where I found some of their young when the trees were green last spring.
The Mourning Cloak butterfly(Nymphalis antiopa) which can actually overwinter as an adult under bark or in a tree cavity might be camouflaged inside or on any tree you pass on your hike. The underside of it wings imitate tree bark when folded. The upper side, however, features a white edge and a lovely band of blue spots when it flutters forth in early April, as you can see in this photo by inaturalist.org photographer Lewnanny Richardson.
Relishing Bits of Color Among the Autumn Brown
I crave color when the leaves have fallen and my eyes are still adjusting to the austere beauty of late autumn and winter. Luckily nature still provides a few splashes here and there before the snow covers it all. A sampling in the slideshow below.(Use pause button for captions.)
Or If All Else Fails…
How about placing bets on which leaf wins the race across an icy Center Pond? Here’s a silly 10 second video with faint “play-by-play” by my husband, Reg.
The Subtle Charms of Late Autumn Hiking
The pizzazz of spring and summer is past, the colors of early fall are memory, but late autumn, too, has its charms if you give it a chance. The last leaves high in the canopy are hushing in the wind. Take a moment to watch just one leaf dance and swirl its way down to the water. Or toss a milkweed seed to the wind and then watch it sail across a meadow. Have a closer look at a plate-sized mushroom on a log. Sit on a bench out at the marsh and watch the wind ripple the water or the cat-tail seeds shining like snow as they blow across the marsh. Let your cheeks tingle in crisp air after long hours indoors. I bet you’ll come back inside refreshed and with stories to tell. You’ll see…
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, and others as cited in the text.
One hot fall morning, a male Red-bellied Woodpecker “kwirred” cheerfully as it hopped among drooping vines, plucking fall fruits along the Paint Creek Trail north of Silver Bell Road. Down near the ground, beneath the towering stalks of Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans) on the Wet Prairie, native wildflowers bloomed, often unseen. This special prairie is “wet” because the soil just below the surface doesn’t allow water to penetrate. That leads to very wet conditions in the spring, but droughty soil in the heat of summer. It’s a “prairie” because prairie plants, which are adapted to fire, thrived here despite repeated wildfires over the years caused by the railroad. As a result, an unusual mix of autumn wildflowers, in exotic shapes and vivid colors, flourishes on our Wet Prairie.
Charles Ilsley Park is slowly being returned to native prairie. Think of it as historic restoration. Before European farmers arrived, our township was mostly oak savanna – native grasses, wild flowers and widely spaced oaks. Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, has been working for three years to bring back some of that prairie habitat. Shrubby invasives have slowly been eliminated, some along tree lines just this spring. The sloping curves of the native prairie are appearing once again.
Some fields have been replanted with native grasses and wildflowers which must grow deep roots for several years before they fully prosper. More will be planted this year. The land rolls gently, surrounded by a beautiful dark forest. Birds sing from the hedgerows and scuttle across the open ground. Wood frogs chorus joyously from a nearby wetland. A spring stroll around the rolling landscape of Ilsley is an auditory as well as a visual treat. So try clicking on some of the links below (and then page down to recordings) so you can share the sounds of spring.
Summer Birds Find Us Again
The migrators are winging their way back to us on warm south winds. The Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) again soar above the fields, gathering tiny midges in their open beaks. Luckily, they can also eat plant foods which allows them to return early in the spring. Both males and females sing in what Cornell calls “a chirp, a whine and a gurgle.” My favorite part is the gurgle which I call a “liquid thwick.” See what you think. Aren’t these Swallows a gorgeous blue?
In the western field, the Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) scoots among the furrows of the open field, pauses and then scoots on again. Its orange rump flashes as it flies and its piercing “kill-deer” call (under “flight call” at the link) carries a long way. Killdeers have the large eye, short beak and round head characteristic of other plovers, but unlike their shorebird relatives, they can be quite content in a sunny field.
Killdeer are famous for distracting predators from their shallow, ground nests by faking a broken wing. Our sharp-eyed birder friend Antonio Xeira spotted a killdeer nest last year at Gallagher Creek Park. Be on the look-out! These nests are easy to miss!
Of course the buzzing trill of male Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus), their red and yellow epaulets flashing, can be heard everywhere now. The brown and white striped females, perhaps reluctant to leave winter feeding grounds south of Michigan, are just beginning to arrive, while the male below may have been here for several weeks.
High in the treeline, the drumming and the fast wik-wik-wik territorial call of the Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) echoes across the bare ground. At last I spotted a “mustached” male on the ground poking his serrated tongue into an old ant hill. Although they’re woodpeckers, Flickers spend lots of time on the ground probing for ants, their favorite food. Stan Tekiela in the Birds of Michigan Field Guide, identifies Flickers as non-migrators or “partial migrators,” meaning they move south when food become scarce. I seem to see them only after spring arrives. Eastern North America hosts yellow-shafted Northern Flickers, while red-shafted Flickers are found in the western part of the continent.
Male Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia) trill all over the park. This one emerged from the brambles to perch on a stump, tilted his head back a bit (not as far as some song sparrows do) and sang his territorial song. Song Sparrows are chubby little birds and the stripes on their breasts usually gather into a central spot. Their song starts out with several short notes and then a rat-a-tat-tat kind of sewing machine trill. (Click on photos to enlarge, hover cursor for captions.)
The cleaning crew has arrived. Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) silently ride thermals high into the air or swoop lower to sniff for the scent of a carcass. These huge birds prevent disease for the rest of us by cleaning up any carrion they spot from above. According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab, their immune systems are impervious to even the worst toxins including botulism, anthrax, cholera, or salmonella! The paler feathers at the tip of their dark wings, including the “finger feathers” seen here, let the sun shine through, giving the false impression that their wings are banded in a lighter color.
Some Not-quite-native Summer Visitors
Non-native birds, like non-native plants, most often arrive in new places because of human activity. These two species came here in rather interesting ways.
Originally a western grassland bird that followed buffalo herds, the Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater) adapted to their nomadic life by laying their eggs in other birds’ nests instead of building their own. As settlers cleared forests in eastern North America for towns and agriculture, cowbirds expanded their range eastward. Grazing cattle and plowing probably stir up as many insects as buffalo, right? Cowbirds give more of a gurgle and squeak than a song. Here are two male cowbirds doing characteristic dominance displays – head tilt (beak skyward) and plumping the feathers. Pretty hilarious, eh? The lower one looks like a plush toy!
Female Cowbirds establish territories and choose the most dominant male, according to Donald Stoke’s Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.2). They can lay as many as 3 dozen eggs in a summer because, though some birds accept the eggs and raise the young, others peck them or push them from their nests. Here’s a newly arrived female checking out the males.
We commonly see European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) along telephone lines or swooping together in huge flocks called “murmurations.” These birds all descend from 100 individuals brought to New York’s Central Park in the 1890s by Shakespeare devotees who believed America should have every bird mentioned by the Bard! Starlings can be very aggressive about taking over favored nesting sites from other birds and now number in the millions. This starling at Charles Ilsley Park still has some of the feathers with light tips that gave it a spotted look after the fall molt. But as spring progresses, those tips will wear off, leaving its feathers dark and iridescent. Its beak is also changing from autumn gray to summer yellow.
The Year ‘Round Avian Welcoming Committee
Many of the sturdy birds who kept us company during the winter join the spring chorus as well. Of course, I couldn’t resist another shot of an Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis)! Here’s the link to its spring song.
Some American Robins (Turdus migratorius) stay here all winter, eating berries and other frozen fruits. Others move a little south and come back intermittently depending on the weather. According to Cornell Lab, Robins tend to eat more earthworms in the morning and more fruit in the afternoon. This one probed the wet edge of a vernal pool formed at the bottom of a slope after heavy rains. The Robin’s “cheer up” call accompanies any walker in all township parks right now.
Woodpeckers provide the rhythm section as they establish their territories. Here a Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) pauses from his drumming to pose at the top of a snag (standing dead tree.) The Red-belly’s wet-sounding “Kwir” call sounded from the trees lining the fields and from the edge of the forest.
Speaking of Woodpeckers, look at these fresh Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) holes in a native Wild Black Cherry tree (Prunus serotina)! Wish I’d seen this huge bird whose drumming is as loud as a jack hammer! Its call is often confused with the Red-bellied Woodpecker who drums much more quietly. By the way, Ben says that the way to identify these black cherry trees is to look for bark that resembles burnt potato chips. Good description!
The loud, nasal “ank, ank, ank” call of the White Breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) can be heard year ’round as it circles the upper and lower sides of branches, searching for insects or stashing seeds and nuts. Cornell Lab claims that its name resulted from its habit of whacking at nuts and seeds, “hatching” them from their shells before eating or storing them.
The Other Chorus: Wood Frogs!
After the heavy rains of late March and early April, a swollen, muddy stream edged Ilsley Park on its north side. Across from the old Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa) in the photo above, on the stream’s far bank, orange-tipped Willowsfilled a large wetland. And below them sung hundreds of little Wood Frogs (Rana sylvatica).
If you turn your volume up, below you should hear some individual Wood Frogs singing in the foreground and a mighty chorus in the background that sounds like a purring engine! I don’t think I’ve heard so many in one place before! You may need to turn up your volume to get the full effect.
Nearby, an old stump was draped in two shades of thick, intensely green Moss (div. Bryophyta). Moss, an ancient plant, usually dries and bleaches in winter cold but turns green and lush quickly in spring rain – long before the trees have leafed out. David George Haskill, in The Forest Unseen, describes mosses’ gift for using and holding water. “Grooves on the surface of stems wick water from the mosses’ wet interiors to their dry tips, like tissue paper dipped in a spill. The miniature stems are felted with water-hugging curls, and their leaves are studded with bumps that create a large surface for clinging water. The leaves clasp the stem at just the right angle to hold a crescent of water.” They must have loved our wet spring!
Curiosity about the red stalks on moss prompted me to check out moss sexual reproduction (I know – the oddest things intrigue me). Moss sperm cells swim to the eggs by being washed along by rain. Once the eggs are fertilized at the tip of a green moss plant, a new plant begins to grow in place to form the red “sporophytes” seen in the photo below. Those red capsules at the end of the erect stalks (called setae) hold the spores. The capsule won’t open to release the ripened spores until the weather is dry enough to carry them on a breeze. If a spore falls on damp soil, voilá. A moss plant is born. They also multiply in asexual ways, like fragments breaking off to start new plants.
I’ve always loved the upside down world of mud puddle reflections. This large mud puddle, the classic sign of spring, had a surprise in store for me.
As I skirted it, a huge Garter Snake (g. Thamnopsis) wove its way out right between my feet and swam across the puddle. I think it’s the longest garter snake I’ve ever seen.
Charles Ilsley Park Preserves Our Past for the Future
With hard work and some luck, Charles Ilsley Park will eventually offer township residents an authentic experience of this area before European migration. Its undulating fields will fill with native grasses and wildflowers. Perhaps birds not often seen here, like the Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna) in Greg Lasly’s amazing photo above, will more frequently whistle its plaintive song over the sloping hills. (I’ve only caught a brief glimpse once with the our birding group.) Or perhaps we’ll enjoy the Bobolink’s (Dolichonyx oryzivorus)long, bubbling song. Now declining in numbers, the Northern Bobwhite Quail (Colinus virginianus) may once again bring its simple two-note “Bob-white!” to the park, a sound that meant “summer” here in my childhood. These birds and others need the open, sunny grasslands that the Dr. Ben is working hard to provide. I’m enjoying Ilsley’s slow prairie transformation and look forward to even richer, more diverse bird serenades as the years go by.
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows:
iNaturalist.org for periodic photos;; 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.
Snow, ice, sleet, rain – all the elements of Michigan’s traditional “January thaw.” Sigh…Gray skies day after day make me crave color! On multiple jaunts at Draper Twin Lake Park – some icy, some muddy – I sought it out.
As usual, the mushrooms provided a surprising splash of color here and there. Birds in varying shades of red relieved winter’s gray. And changing ice designs added a bit of artistry to every visit. Hey, we take what we can get in beauty at this time of year, right?
Along the Path to the Eastern Marsh: Red Birds, Yellow Mushrooms and Blue Shadows
A Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) drummed noisily on a telephone pole on the eastern side of the park. Let’s hope this male had a cozy hole to spend the winter night; the starlings, twittering in a thicket nearby, are known for absconding with holes created by Red-Bellies. This guy’s red cap glowed against a gray sky – a good omen for someone questing for color on a dark day!
On the way to the marsh, a chorus of House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus)chirped from the shrubbery. These gregarious birds with their rosy males added both color and the friendly sound of their “chatting” to the gray quiet. House Finches pause to busily crush the seeds they find with quick bites, making them easier to spot and photograph.
A male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) added a gorgeous dash of scarlet as he darted among the shrubs along the marsh edge at the bottom of the trail.
While at the marsh, I was surprised to hear what I think was the call of a Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) in the distance. The birders saw one at Charles Ilsley Park the previous week but I’ve never seen one in the middle of winter. If you listen to the “Rolling rattle call” at this Cornell Lab link, you’ll hear what I heard far away on a wintry day. Here’s a flicker I saw in early spring last year.
Out on the ice, a graceful swoop of marsh sedges turned blue and silver in the shadows.
On a log near the marsh, a bright patch of yellow polypore/shelf mushrooms glowed under the edge of a log. One of the reasons I love wetlands is that summer and winter, they reward any hiker with colorful birds and mushrooms.
Out on Draper’s Northern Prairie
The Prairie Restoration on the northeastern part of the park looked very different than it did when the trees glowed with autumn color. (Click on images to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
But birds were there too. Flocks of modestly dressed winter visitors – Dark-Eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) and AmericanTree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea) – hopped down from small bare trees and bushes, chattering away as they foraged on the ground.
That bit of leaf in the Junco’s beak may be result of flipping things over to look for seeds. The seeds of two native wildflowers left in the field looked as though they may have provided some sustenance. The seed pod of Wild Senna (Senna hebecarpa) on the left below and the dried inflorescence of a late-flowering Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) on the right are both native plants sown in 2015 by Ben VanderWeide, our Stewardship Manager, to restore the prairie, using a grant from the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Over the crest of a slope on the rolling prairie, a slow, lumbering Possum (Didelphis virginiana) nosed its way along the edge of the field. It appeared to be searching for seeds or earthworms on the wet earth exposed by the thaw. Possums don’t hibernate and are generally nocturnal, but there it was in morning light. Possums feign death (“playing possum”) when extremely frightened – but they’ll fight first – so be wary of their sharp teeth. North America’s only marsupial, possums raise their infants in the female’s pouch for about two and a half months. Later, the babies, up to 13 of them, can be seen draped over their mother’s back as she goes about her business.
In a tree at the edge of the prairie one morning, a lone Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) blended its soft pinks with the gentle shades of the winter landscape.
Along the Western Path to Draper Lake
The western path was a bright glare of ice on my first January trip to the pond. At the edge of the parking lot, a dead branch still sported orange polypore/shelf mushrooms, just as it did in the fall. Amazing how hardy these fungi are in cold weather!
A stick covered in a mosaic of green and blue lichen and a nearby patch of leafy (foliose) lichen caught my eye. Lichen are intriguing, because they are a “composite organism” made up of algae and/or cyanobacteria living among filaments of a fungus in a symbiotic relationship. The fungus provides protection for the algae and gathers moisture and nutrients. The algae uses those nutrients and energy from the sun, and through photosynthesis produces food (carbohydrates) for both itself and the fungus. These ancient organisms occur from alpine regions to sea level in all kinds of shapes (morphologies). The more delicate forms of lichens are very sensitive to air pollution (bio-indicators), which is why you will only find flatter forms that colonize rocks and branches in areas with more air pollution. In areas with cleaner air you’ll find more delicate, branching lichens. I’m just glad they gave me some varying shades of green and blue on a wintry day.
Near the pond during a bird walk, a bright yellow mushroom beckoned in the distance. How’s this for a bit of sunshine on a moist winter morning? I’m no expert at mushrooms, as readers know. To me, it looks like kernels of corn. But I think this one’s common name is “Witches’ Butter,” Dacrymyces palmata (Fungi get more imaginative names than plants do…). Any mycologists out there who can verify that for me?
Lovely russet patterns formed on the path, made from White Pine needles (Pinus strobus) and a variety of leaves embedded in ice near the lake.
A strange ice sculpture took shape along the floating deck at the lake. I dubbed it the “Sunny Side Up” formation when I first saw it on an icy day. When I came back with the birders 10 days later, the surface ice had melted down, leaving the “yolk” standing in 3-D surrounded by icy ridges where the outline of the “egg white” once was. Wonder what created this interesting bulge in the ice?
Twice I came across ice fishermen out on the lake. On the first visit, a man was unloading his sled full of equipment way off in the distance on the far side of the lake, while skaters glided about in the winter sunshine.
Three days after these skating scenes, the melt had begun and the rains came. The surface of the lake turned from white to gray, with inches of water standing on ice.
I saw (but didn’t photograph for some reason!) two fisherman walking out into that sloshing mess, confident about the ice underneath. A strange sight! It looked like two men walking on water!
The last day I visited the park with the birders, the ice had developed a crackled surface. Quite a wonderful abstract design, but not one that would encourage venturing out onto the ice!
Later that week as the snow began to fall again, a Tufted Titmouse paused for a few moments in a nearby bush. One of these little birds fooled the experienced birders in our Wednesday bird group by seeming to mimic the “cheer” call of a Carolina Wren.According to the Sibley Guides website, Titmice have a wide variety of songs so maybe this is one of them. Quite a performance, anyway.
Beauty Reveals Itself When We Seek for It
On my way home from Draper Twin Lake Park one morning, I stopped to admire a “modern art” ice shape in a pond at the corner of Buell and Lake George Roads. It could almost have been a composition by Matisse or maybe Paul Klee. For much of my life, I missed the details as I hiked through a landscape. The camera encouraged me to look more closely. Now nature gifts me with surprises – the quizzical tilt of a dragonfly’s head, the spiral of seeds in a flower head and this winter, odd ice designs and strokes of color within winter’s gray and white world.
But a camera isn’t necessary. An observant pair of curious eyes is all we really need to notice the beauty that might otherwise be missed, especially in a January thaw.
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows:
Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; 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).
For the last few weeks, our faithful winter birds have had a lot to contend with – deep snow, rain and biting wind. So like us, many of them gathered to eat together, to socialize and to seek the protection of being with their kind in the depths of winter. Flocks moved restlessly all over the park – bluebirds, crows, geese, starlings, robins, mixed flocks of tree sparrows and juncos.
The woods and wetlands were festooned with the red limbs of dogwood, mushrooms, snow and shadow designs. Some pods harbored their seeds ’til spring while others stood empty, silhouetted against the snow. A delicate insect flew past and settled on the snow crust. Despite the forbidding cold and snow, life remains undaunted – even in the harshness of winter.
Hardy Birds Brave the Cold
The Playground Pond was evidently the “place to be” for birds on Christmas Eve. At the edge of the pond, a solitary Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) mined a snag for some protein to start the day – maybe frozen insect larvae or eggs. This one was a male since it wore its red cap all the way down to its beak.
Two Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) – always a welcome splash of color on winter days – paused on the railings of the Playground Pond.
Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) whisked in and out of the bushes, as if playing tag. This male assumed an alarm pose, with his crest high and his tail flicking up and down.
This female found a good-sized seed for breakfast, but she’s on alert as well.
The White-Breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) twisted its stout body this way and that, probing the fallen log in the pond. Nuthatches know that loose bark is a good place to find frozen caterpillars or insect eggs.
Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) and Tree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea ), migratory visitors, frequently winter in the same area each year. That morning they gathered at the Playground Pond to feed and “chat,” chirping contact calls to stay connected with other members. Small birds like these have to eat about 30% of their body weight each day in winter just to survive. No wonder they flock at your feeder! (Hover cursor for captions; click on photos to enlarge.)
High in a tree along Bear Creek, an American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis), dressed in its muted winter plumage, delicately pecked at winter leaf buds.
A flock of gregarious House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) fluttered from branch to branch at the edge of a wetland. The males’ rosy red heads and breasts vary in intensity by what they find to eat. This one’s hue seemed a bit dimmed on a winter afternoon.
Nature Decorates with Snow and Mushrooms
The French pastry, Buche de Noel, was fashionable this Christmas – an elaborately decorated Yule Log cake. Not to be outdone, nature created its own Buche de Noel, using a real log, a ribbon of snow and ruffles of golden and white Polypore (or shelf) mushrooms!
Some Turkey-tail mushrooms (Polypore versicolor), tinted green by algae growing on the them, fancied up a nearby log.
Under the trees, snow melted around heaps of oak leaves, making little mandalas across the forest floor.
And look at the elegant script of this letter “E” left by the snow near the marsh. I’m not sure of the font…
Dried grasses along the Walnut Lane wrote calligraphy on the snow with shadows.
Altogether quite a festive look to the park, despite the absence of bright color or birdsong!
Seeds and Seed Pods Carry the Promise of Spring
In a small tree, the trailing stem of a long vine had produced a pale cloud of seed. Ben identified it as a native clematis plant with the surprisingly romantic name, Virgin’s Bower (Clematis virginiana). Here’s a link to its streamer of white flowers in the spring and below is the mini-cloud of seed and fluff as it finished fruiting.
A prairie native, Round-headed Bush-Clover (Lespedeza capitata) blooms on tall stalks with tiny white flowers in the late summer and early fall. Its seeds, packed with protein, provide winter food for Turkeys, Mourning Doves and Dark-eyed Juncos.
Of course, before winter arrived, some plants released their seeds to drop, fly or float away. A Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) in the native bed hosted a Meadow Fritillary butterfly (Boloria bellona) in late June. Now, having dispersed its seed to the wind, the seed pods of the same plant stands empty in the winter wind.
Now About that Winter Bug…
One cold day, a winged insect with long, fragile wings flew slowly across the path and landed delicately on the snow. What in the world? A winter insect? Yes, this little creature’s life cycle is exactly the opposite of most insects.
According to Donald Stokes’ Nature in Winter, some Stoneflies (order Plecoptera) hatch from their eggs in fall or early winter. The larvae feed under rocks at the edge of a clean, rushing stream – probably nearby Paint Creek for our bug. In mid-winter, they complete their many molts, emerge as adults and fly. They live only a few weeks, mating and dropping their eggs back into the water. Quite a surprise, this contrarian insect!
Nature Awaits Your Winter Walks
If a tiny sparrow and an intrepid stonefly can brave the cold, we can too, right? We feather-less, fur-less creatures can layer up our woollies, don our hiking boots, swath ourselves in scarves, monster mittens and maybe a pair of Yax Trax, pull our hats down over our ears and venture out! To lure us forth, nature provides so much to enjoy even in the “dead” of winter – which is actually very much alive! Sally forth with rosy noses and wind-bussed cheeks to explore, even for a short walk. And then return home for cocoa or whatever warms you best from the inside. Nothing like a winter walk to make you feel ALIVE!
Footnote: My sources for information,besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991); Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for 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.
What a puzzling week, eh? Was it spring or late winter? The buds on the Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) near the Center Pond seemed as confused as the rest of us. They began to emerge as the sun warmed the cold air. I was concerned about the effect of icy nights later in the week. Alas, a twisted ankle meant I couldn’t get back to the pond to check on them. But maples seem to survive unpredictable Michigan winters, so we’ll hope it pauses and waits for a few weeks. On a long walk one sunny, snowy day, I crossed the late night/early morning path of a rabbit and went on to enjoy the antics of the “usual suspects” of a late winter day at Bear Creek: a Bluebird pair, a Chickadee pursued by a stalking Titmouse, and a Red-bellied Woodpecker busily poking at bark, looking for beetles. On a sunny, mud-slushy short walk with my somewhat tenuous ankle, I came across Goldenrod duplexes and while watching squirrels, decided I’d share some new info I read about these mischievous mammals.
Bird Antics from the “Usual Suspects”
Our Eastern Bluebird couple (Sialia sialis) seems to be sticking around despite fluctuating temperatures. A hardy pair of Bluebirds! This week I again spotted the female fluttering among the fruits of invasive Asian Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) – the vine that chokes our trees!
She will undoubtedly disperse the seeds in them in short order since birds have very quick metabolisms, if you know what I mean…
I wish she’d eat the Staghorn Sumac fruit(Rhus typhina) on the Western Slope! They’re native plants and are supposed to be on a Bluebird’s winter menu!
Her male partner sat stolidly on a nearby branch, keeping an eye out for any competitors.
On the trail that leads north from the playground, a Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) stalked a Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus), apparently trying to see where it was caching its seeds in the tree bark. No matter where the Chickadee hopped or flew, the Titmouse was right behind. Here’s the Titmouse with its crest raised. It does that when excited, in this case perhaps perturbed by my camera, or as this article suggests, by trying to snitch some seed from the Chickadee’s hiding place!
The Chickadee looked pretty annoyed when it finally paused for a moment! Was it that annoying Titmouse or my camera? Or was it just its natural expression? Who knows?
High in the trees, a Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) made its wet “Kwirr” call as it hopped about a tree trunk, getting snow on its beak as it searched for bark beetles or other small creatures.
As I approached the top of the Western Slope that, a Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) high in a distant tree spotted me and shouted its warning call, “Jay, jay, jay!!!!”, announcing my presence to all the other birds. Here’s one in an invasive Autumn Olive bush (Elaeagnus umbellata) later that day.
Signs of Other Creatures: Tracks and the Duplexes
Behind the Center Pond, my husband and I crossed the tracks of an EasternCottontail ((Sylvilagus floridanus) emerging from under a bush next to the trail. Though you can see a rabbit almost any time of day, these tracks were likely made between dusk and dawn because rabbits generally feed at night. In winter, their diet is mostly bark, buds and the twigs of woody plants. Cottontails don’t usually live underground. Though they use holes for raising young, the rest of the time, they huddle in piles of vines and brush. They will sometimes use a groundhog’s den temporarily during heavy snow – like this Wednesday’s snowstorm!
Along the path that runs just to the west of the Playground Pond, toward the benches at the top of the hill, the Canada Goldenrods (Solidago canadensis) bulge with ball galls, the round, woody little dwellings that house the Goldenrod Gall Fly’s larva (Eurosta solidagnis) for the winter. (See the blog from January 21 for more info.) Lots of them will successfully hatch out in the spring, but it looks like this one won’t. Instead it probably provided much-needed protein on a cold day – perhaps for a persistent Chickadee who had to chip away for a while to get to the larva inside.
Nearby, I found a whole patch of Gall Fly duplexes! The holes in these galls are the neat little ones usually made by a Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens). They are experts at drilling holes to find food, after all. Goldenrod Gall Flies must be a great source of sustenance for birds in the winter!
Squirrels in the Winter
This month the Seven Ponds Nature Center in Dryden had an informative newsletter piece about squirrels, written by Lois Rheaume, a naturalist on staff there. Having read it, I decided that I needed to read more about them. Bear Creek, of course, is full of squirrels, three different species that seem like four!
From top to bottom below: the American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus), the Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger), and the Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) which comes in two basic colors, gray or black – and variations of those. (No, they are not a cross with a Fox Squirrel; that’s genetically impossible.)
According to Ms. Rheaume, Fox and Red Squirrels were most common in our area when the land was heavily farmed. Red Squirrels and Fox Squirrels spend more time on the ground so open farm lands suit them. Gray Squirrels spend more time up in trees, so as trees have taken over open fields and have matured in suburban neighborhoods, more Gray Squirrels have moved in. Squirrels can move easily up and down trees because their back feet can rotate 180°!
Fox and Gray Squirrels bury nuts underground. Using excellent spatial memory and a keen sense of smell, they find about 95% of them. (The forgotten ones help trees to sprout in our forests.) The Red Squirrel, who grows a rusty strip of fur down its spine for the winter, makes a cache on top of the ground.
Ms. Rheaume’s piece informed me that squirrels assess acorns by rotating them quickly under their sensitive noses with their front paws. They tend to eat White Oak acorns (Quercus alba) right away because they have thinner shells and sprout more quickly. They’re also less nutritious for them. Squirrels are more likely to store Red Oak acorns (Quercus rubra) which contain higher amounts of tannin to preserve them and because they contain more fat and nutrition for winter months. Amazing what creatures know.
Some folks may not know that squirrels build nests in trees, nests that can be mistaken for those of hawks, for instance. Squirrels prefer a tree hole on a cold, snowy night but they are frequently unavailable. They build nests, called “dreys” in the fork of a tree or where a sturdy limb meets the trunk. These dreys can be used for young in the summer but they can also come in handy on cold days.
Dreys end up being a foot or more in diameter and start out with a platform of small branches with green leaves attached. Squirrels gnaw off these branches before autumn, so that the leaves don’t fall, but stay on for the winter. Ms. Rheaume saw one dislodged by a storm. It contained “a fluffy layer of leaves and sticks on the outside with the next ‘wall’ lined with several layers of oak leaves, making a virtual waterproof barrier for the soft grasses, shredded bark, and lichens which make up the soft bed in the center.” According to Wikipedia, dreys have one or two “entrance/exit holes…usually close to the bottom and oriented toward the trunk which keeps the rain out.” Sounds reasonably cozy on a cold night, doesn’t it?
It seems that the coming week will be as topsy-turvy as the last one – a huge snowstorm followed by a warm weekend. The dry stalks of last year’s plants, like the Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota) above, are succumbing to the weight of snow, wind and cold. But through it all, the creatures of Bear Creek find ways to keep warm, find food and keep us company as the days get noticeably longer. I heard a report of a Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis) arriving this week. We have lots of Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) in our yard and we saw an obese Raccoon (Procyon lotor) taking a hibernation break and stuffing itself beneath our bird feeder. Perhaps these springtime creatures were fooled by strangely warm winter days or perhaps they know something else we don’t! Time will tell.
Footnote: My sources for information are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991); Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for insect info; http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info; invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman; experienced birder Ruth Glass, bird walk leader at Stoney Creek Metro Park for bird identification; Birds of North America Online; Audubon.org; Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, Trees in My Forest by Bernd Heinrich, Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, Savannah River Ecology Lab (Univ of Georgia); Tortoise Trust website www.tortoisetrust.org; An Orchard Invisible: A Natural History of Seeds by Jonathan Silvertown; The Ecology of Plants by Gurevitch, Scheiner and Fox; other sites as cited in the text.
This busy week, most of my visits to Bear Creek were at sunset. As the low winter sun created long slanting shadows across the fields, birds sought places to spend the night. Some birds floated in large groups covering the trees like black leaves. Others slipped into holes and crevices. And a couple of them even duked it out over a snug retreat on a cold night. I’ve become a watcher of holes this year.
A Bluebird Couple
Though many Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) migrate south, some stay near their summer breeding grounds, eating fruits from sumac, juniper, multiflora rose, and spending the nights in tree holes. Late on the Sunday after New Year’s Day, my husband and I saw a bluebird pair. They were foraging on the ground and then flying, separately, up into small trees on our way to the western slope. This particular male is undoubtedly the bluest Bluebird I have ever seen! He definitely had a courtship advantage!
After getting a photo of the female, I learned that their gray heads identify their gender. Bluebirds often stay together for multiple seasons if they breed successfully. I’m not surprised that this female decided to stick with that gorgeous blue male!
The next day, I went alone to Bear Creek as the sun was setting and snow was falling steadily in a strong wind. I was delighted to find a pair (probably the same ones given the male’s intense blue!) near the shed, sitting together on a branch. Please forgive the slightly blurred photo – the combination of low light, extreme cold and blowing snow made getting a shot a little difficult.
A Smallish Murmuration of Starlings
European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) are famous for giant gatherings of thousands of them, creating huge, moving sky sculptures over European cities. Watch a minute or so of this beautiful video from Gretna Green, Scotland to appreciate the beauty these birds can create. According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab, these non-native imports are great mimics, who can copy the songs of “Eastern Wood-Pewee, Killdeer, Meadowlarks, Northern Bobwhite, Wood Thrush, Red-tailed Hawk, American Robin, Northern Flicker, and many others.”
In the fall, Starlings molt into feathers with white tips so in winter, their breasts are beautifully mottled in white. As the winter wears on, those tips wear off so that by spring, they are all glossy black with purple and green iridescence – what scientists term “wear molt.”
A small murmuration of starlings arrived in Bear Creek the same afternoon that the Bluebird couple waited together in the tree. Evidently, the park provided a pre-roosting spot, a place to gather a couple of hours before dark, to socialize. Our murmuration consisted of about 200 birds in five trees near the eastern edge of the park. They floated in groups up out of the fields, or across from other trees, looking like black leaves defying gravity. Periodically they chorused for several minutes and then all fell silent – until the chorus began again. Near dark, as I left the park, they had dispersed in small groups, probably to an even larger night-time roost with other flocks.
Starlings, introduced into the US in 1890s, aggressively compete for nesting sites with Bluebirds, which is one good reason for posting bluebird boxes! I didn’t see Bluebirds in Bear Creek the next day and wondered if they found all those starlings a bit off-putting!
Native Winter Birds and Their Holes, I think…
As the snow fell in the Oak-Hickory forest, a Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) flitted among the branches. They seem to never sit still for more than a few seconds! Like Chickadees, whose company they often keep, they beat on seeds with their beaks to break them open for eating, though they also store some in bark crevices to be retrieved later. (Click on the photos to enlarge. Hover over the photos for captions. The blurred one, taken as the wind blew, was so endearing, I had to include it!)
Nearby a Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) explored near what could be its hole for the night. You can see him in the background of the left photo at the edge of the tree. The second shot is of another male Red-belly probing the bark on a tree near the Center Pond as the sun catches his red nape.
Woodpeckers are everywhere in the park now, spiraling up and around trunks and branches. I saw a female Downy Woodpecker near the Playground Pond and nearby, at the wetland north of the playground, her slightly bigger relative, the female Hairy Woodpecker. They’re not easy to tell apart, but the Hairy’s beak is thicker and almost as long as its head whereas the Downy’s is more delicate and smaller, about 1/3 of its head size. Also, the Downy has black spots on its outside tail feathers when seen from underneath whereas the Hairy’s are pure white on both sides. Males of both species have red spots on the backs of their heads. Females don’t.
Late one afternoon, we saw two birds which appeared to be competing for the same hole. For a split second, a White-Breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis)and a Black-Capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) flew at each other, feet thrust forward in a flurry of wings – but the Chickadee withdrew and flew off. The Nuthatch, triumphant, disappeared into the hole. I caught only the aftermath with my camera.
As I said, I’m keeping my eye on holes. Here’s one high over the back of the Playground Pond that I’m watching. After taking this photo just before dark last week, I lightened the hole to see inside. It’s probably wishful thinking, but could that be a small bird inside this comfortable little hole? Probably not, but I’ll keep looking anyway.
A Wintering Mammal – and the Tracks of Two Others?
An American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) scurried among the branches of a brush pile near the Center Pond and finally emerged with a large nut, or perhaps a fungus, in its mouth. That probably got eaten before bedtime – or perhaps added to its winter food cache.
This week a Meadow Vole/Field Mouse (Microtus pennsylvanicus) seemed to have tunneled under the snow near a log. The tracks looked just like a more complex set in deeper snow that I saw last year.
I can’t be sure who made them. But voles are active during the day in the winter. (At night during the summer.) They scurry about feeding on seeds and grains. For a look at a Meadow Vole, one that gives you a sense of its real size, I recommend the photo at the bottom of this link. Very attractive little rodent and an important part of the food web (but can be quite a pest in one’s lawn!).
One other set of mystery tracks caught my eye. (And please – if you are a tracking expert, correct me on track photos!) Down at the pond, I saw these canine tracks making a neat line curving along the edge of the pond.
According to the website Wildernesscollege.com, both gray and red foxes place their hind foot squarely inside the print of the front foot. And unlike dogs, their tracks are very direct, not wandering off center or doubling back like dog tracks. Wild canines want to leave as few tracks as possible, I guess! So because these tracks are fairly small, I’m thinking these came from a Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) who took a shortcut across the ice at the edge of the pond while out in the moonlight. I wish I’d seen it! But here’s a photo of one who’d caught a mole at the edge of our woods a few years ago.
Winter is clearly a challenge for birds and animals. Owls need to pounce into the snow for prey. Small creatures can’t help leaving tracks to follow. Food and warmth are a constant challenge. But there they are, hopping in branches, trotting along in the moonlight, keeping us company on the grayest days of winter.
*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 and other sites as cited in the text.
Warm days don’t seem appropriate to November, but we’re happy to have them when the Old Fields darken to russet and the architecture of the trees reappears. The landscape deepens as we can see far into the underbrush to places hidden by summer foliage. The slopes and hollows of the woods are more defined as the understory thins.
The skies become even more dramatic in the slanting light of late fall when the vivid shades of autumn fade – or maybe we just notice them more. It’s all about noticing, isn’t it? I wasn’t sure I’d see enough to share this week. How wrong I was!
Birds Hold Center Stage: A Bold Raptor, Shy Visitors, and Busy Residents
An impressive Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) warmed herself in thin morning sunlight erect in a bare tree near the Center Pond on our Wednesday Bird Walk. (Female Red-tails are larger than males and this was a big hawk!) She may, as Cornell suggests, have been waiting for the air to warm, because soon she was “climbing a thermal updraft into the sky.” Off she went, probably searching for mice, voles or other small mammals to shore her up against the cold to come. Red-tails tend to stay with their mates until one of them dies, but they must be loners outside the mating season. It’s rare in my experience to see more than one at a time. We saw this one from behind at first; look at that red-tail! (Click on photos to enlarge them.)
And then she turned around to survey her domain!
When I arrived on Wednesday, Ben and the birders were watching five Rusty Blackbirds (Euphagus carolinus) at the Playground Pond. I hadn’t seen one in weeks and thought their migration was over. These secretive, shy birds spend most of their time in the shadows at the edges of wetlands, flipping over leaves to look for tiny invertebrates. They land in trees only to pause a second before diving down into the underbrush and skulking along among wet, black mud and leaves. Unable to get a good shot on Wednesday, I lucked out on Friday when I came upon a whole flock (10 or more?) in the wetland below the benches on the southern hill.
Cornell says the population of these birds has “plunged an estimated 85-99 percent over the past forty years and scientists are completely puzzled as to what is the cause.” One theory is that they find fewer wetlands so I’m glad we have several in Oakland Township that they can poke about in before heading south.
On the same day (Thursday), a male Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) searched for a crack in tree bark in which to store what appeared to be a piece of nut.
It could well have been a Shagbark hickory nut since there are lots of them still on the trees, which is where Red-bellies prefer to find their nuts, though they’ll take them off the ground if necessary.
Since the nut photo doesn’t show the plumage, here’s a fall picture from a previous year of a male Red-belly. You can tell males from females by the fact that the red back of the head extends all the way to the bill in males but stops at the top of the head in females.
Nearby a year ’round resident, the White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) repeatedly made its loud, nasal “nyah” call (Cornell calls it a “yank call”)as it probed right-side-up and upside-down around a branch. A very distinctive call! Listen to the “Eastern Call” at this Cornell Lab link. You’ll probably recognize that you’ve heard it before!
Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata) were in a scrappy mood this week, which isn’t unusual for Blue Jays. I saw two repeatedly giving each other a hard time on the western slope earlier in the week.
A migrating Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca), with its large vivid body, smaller round head and long tail, visited the park again this week on its way south. I thought at first it was a Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) from its vivid color but Ben had it right. A handsome sparrow! We did see a Hermit Thrush but I didn’t manage to get a good photo this week.
The Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) seem much more secretive this time of year. I’ve seen both the male and female slipping silently from limb to limb down under the Button Bush in the wetland north of the playground – a great contrast to their exuberant singing from the tops of trees and bushes during spring and summer months.
More Tree Sparrows (Spizella arborea) are arriving by the day from their summer homes on the tundra. I saw only one near the marsh nearest to Snell Road but I heard what sounded like several in the dense underbrush nearby.
A Winter Lodge and Abandoned and Fiercely Defended Nests
Two weeks ago I saw a Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) diving in the Center Pond and then appearing briefly as it swam quickly into the shadows near the eastern shore. It looks as though it’s been making modifications to its lodge on the southern shore, as the sturdy heap of pond mud and dead plant material appears to have grown higher and darker recently. Muskrats don’t hibernate but are trapped under ice for months at a time. How do they breathe, find food and keep warm for all that time? We’ll explore those questions later – during a snowy winter week at Bear Creek.
Also at the eastern end of the pond, the beautiful wasp or hornet’s nest swaying at the tip of a slender limb, is fraying at the edges from wind and rain. The colony’s founding queen, workers, males and unfertilized queens have all died by now and all that’s left of that huge colony are the fertile queens who mated this fall. Back in August and September, they put on weight, being fed by the workers. Now they are snugged up for the winter under bark, leaf litter, logs or stumps near the pond where they’ll emerge and start new colonies next spring. And that amazing piece of insect architecture will slowly unravel.
On the eastern path, a tidy little nest, most likely that of the American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) , sits securely attached to three branches of a small tree. It seems destined to survive the winter, though bird nests are rarely re-used. Goldfinches like to nest in small trees and shrubs in open fields. According to Cornell Lab, “…the nest is an open cup of rootlets and plant fibers lined with plant down, often woven so tightly that it can hold water. The female lashes the foundation to supporting branches using spider silk, and makes a downy lining often using the fluffy “pappus” material taken from the same types of seedheads that goldfinches so commonly feed on.” That aptly describes this little nest both inside and out! (Rest your cursor on double photos to see captions.)
I got another ferocious scolding from an aggressive little American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus)this week, who was probably defending itself and its stockpile of nuts, seeds and mushrooms cached nearby. During the winter, they generally live inside logs, stumps or in woodpecker holes, popping out around midday to dig into their food stores cached nearby. Speedy little rodents, Red Squirrels can reach 14mph over a short distance when excited! I told Ben and the birders that if this one had been about 10 times bigger, I’d have taken off running. Look at that fierce little face!
Wildflowers: Then and Now
Native wildflowers are almost gone, having produced seed for next year and along the way, fed the honey bees and native bumble bees, caterpillars, birds, even some of the animals in Bear Creek.
Up by the benches on the south hill of the park, the gigantic leaves of Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum)curl around the bare stalks of these giant wildflowers that grew from 3 to 10 feet high this summer! Prairie Dock nectar fed native bumblebees and perhaps the occasional hummingbird, while goldfinches snacked on the seeds. Now their huge brown leaves curl, reminding me of the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland.
Across the way, the Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) that turned their faces to the sun a few months ago show only those rich brown centers now. Lots of bees and other insects enjoy this native wildflower during the summer.
Meadowsweet (Spirea alba) still sports its red stalk, but the white plumes have fruited into brown seeds for next year. Bees of all kinds fed on the nectar of this lovely plant all summer. Rabbits probably nibbled on the lower leaves while deer sometimes consume the upper ones. Meadowsweet also feeds a variety of native moths, some of which, of course, are consumed by birds.
Native plants like these are an important source of nourishment for the birds, bugs and other creatures of Bear Creek. That’s one reason we try to foster them.
The Pin Oak leaves were bright red and green as they encircled the playground a week or so ago. Suddenly this week, they turned brown but held on.
A week ago, the Red Maple (Acer rubrum)near the shed blazed a brilliant red but it appears from the pattern of its now-fallen leaves, that a gust of south wind brought most of them down at once .
Down at the center pond, the giant White Oak (Quercus alba) shed its leaves this week, creating a mosaic in the water nearby.
So despite the fact that November’s fading light cues birds to move on, flowers to wither and leaves to fall, Bear Creek is still a place of beauty and surprise. November cues us too – to don heavier jackets, maybe a raincoat, some days a hat and gloves – to come take part in the changing of seasons.
*Footnote: My sources for information, as well as Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991);Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net.; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for 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 American Online; Audubon.org