Tag Archives: Red-bellied Woodpecker

Bear Creek Nature Park: A Welcoming Refuge from the Holiday “Must-do’s!”

The meadow west of the Center Pond in December

At our house, we’ve just emerged from the joyful-but-somewhat-frantic bustle of the festive season. From just before Thanksgiving through the New Year, we enjoyed the noise, color and craziness of the holiday with lots of friends and family  – but it feels like we just didn’t stop moving for weeks!  I imagine that’s true for lots of you too.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

I managed to keep some  scraps of my sanity by – you guessed it – venturing out into the parks. Our home is about five minutes from Bear Creek Nature Park; that became my most frequent escape hatch. So here’s a look at the wildness nearby that (with a small nod to Will Shakespeare) knit the raveled sleeve of my cares during the last several weeks.

 

It All Began before Thanksgiving…

Ice forming on the Center Pond on a bitter day in November

In the first half of November, before the rush of the festive season, wild visitors from farther north began to filter into Bear Creek. The birding group got a glimpse of a Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca) in the bushes. These large, chubby sparrows are usually rusty red with chevrons forming the stripes on their breasts. Since I didn’t get a good shot that day, here’s one in a very similar setting from generous iNaturalist photographer, Joseph Salmieri.

A Fox Sparrow by Joseph Salmieri (CC BY-NC) at iNaturalist.org

The birding group also saw a flock of Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) feeding in the grass along a path in early November. These birds make lovely black dashes against the snow on a winter day. They travel here from their breeding grounds in Canada – perhaps all the way from Hudson’s Bay! They’re often my first real sign that winter’s on its way.

A Dark-eyed Junco along the trail at Bear Creek in early November

The second half of November bore down on me suddenly since Thanksgiving came so late this year. Snow fell; the temperature dropped. Yikes! Time to design Christmas cards, turn my photos into a family calendar, think about gifts for special people. Out in the park, birds kept me company to soothe my jitters. One afternoon, my husband and I came across what seemed to be a friendly gathering of birds. Five species hung out together, moving about foraging and chattering in a grove of small trees near where Bear Creek runs out of the pond.

Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) caught our attention first as they chatted in a small tree. A male House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) listened in from behind a branch. The bluebirds probably moved a little farther south to escape the cold for a while, though some may return for short visits during the winter and some may be year ’round residents.

Five bluebirds socialize before moving south while the House Finch, a year ’round resident, listens in from behind a branch.

The House Finch just bears up in the cold of a Michigan winter. Like other small winter residents, he keeps warm by crunching on copious amounts of seed and fluffing his feathers into a winter jacket.

house-finch-male-bc.jpg
A male House Finch will stay with us all winter. Love how the red shows between his wings!

The woodpeckers, too, are a hardy crew. A Downy Woopecker male (Dryobates pubescens) tapped along a tree trunk searching for insects eggs or a frozen caterpillar, quite uninterested in the bluebirds.

A male Downy Woodpecker kept up a tapping rhythm near the bluebirds.

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) joined the gathering on a nearby Wild Black Cherry tree (Prunus serotina). He seemed to be craning his neck to hear what was going on with the bluebirds behind him! But in reality, of course, he was just demonstrating the caution that all wild birds do when feeding.

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker looks about while foraging at another tree trunk.

The fifth member of the bird gathering was the industrious Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor), who pretty much ignored the others, having found something very interesting at the end of a branch.

A Tufted Titmouse sees something worth its attention at the end of a dead branch.

On the big loop path beyond the bird gathering, a White Oak leaf (Quercus alba) testified to the frigid temperatures. The water droplets on it had frozen and magnified the leaf’s veins in a way that always fascinates me.

Frozen water droplets function like a magnifying glass on a white oak leaf.

Our feeders at home got busy around Thanksgiving as well, providing visual entertainment as we buzzed by the windows, working on Christmas projects. New guests arrived at the feeder this year – the Hairy Woodpeckers (Dryobates villosus). Here the female sits in an aging black oak outside the window, just beyond the feeder.

A female Hairy Woodpecker in profile shows off her long, thick beak.

It’s sometimes hard to distinguish the Hairy from the Downy Woodpecker at a distance.  But when both arrive at a feeder at the same time, the difference in size is readily apparent!

The Hairy Woodpecker has a much heavier bill and is much larger than the Downy when seen up close at a feeder!

The Holiday Pace Picks up in December…

Eastern Meadow at Bear Creek on a later winter afternoon

Oh, boy. Hurried wrapping of presents for family in Australia. Multiple trips to the Post Office to send calendars to friends overseas and around the States. Trips out of town for special gifts. But on the way home from the errands, a stop at Bear Creek to slow down, breathe the sharp air and redden my cheeks.

One dark, late afternoon and as I entered the park, I noted an alarming sight. A lovely but deadly Oriental Bittersweet vine (Celastrus orbiculatus) had wrapped itself around a tiny tree. This terribly invasive plant will slowly strangle this sapling if it isn’t carefully removed and its roots treated with herbicide. Sad that such a colorful vine should have such a powerfully negative impact! Birds do eat the berries at times, but unfortunately get very little nutrition from them.

Vines like this invasive Oriental Bittersweet that wrap around trees can strangle them. And the berries have scant nutrition for our birds.

Looking for more benign color, I came across lots of rich green moss (phylum Bryophyta) in the forest. Mosses, unlike plants, can actually grow very slowly in cold temperatures, if not under snow or ice. Some mosses actually survive in Antarctica! Our mosses cope with winter winds by being close to the ground and benefit from the moisture of winter rain and melting snow. They can also go dormant when moisture is low and then regenerate quickly after a rain. What a relief to the eye to come across these bright green mosses on a wintry day! [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

A golden fungus and a bright yellow lichen appeared at various places in the park in December.  These bright touches against bark or leaves always catch my attention on a gray winter day.

Reminders of summer past help me put things back in perspective during the  holiday bustle. An abandoned nest of what I think was Bald-faced Hornets (Dolichovespula maculata) hung low in bush. Yellow Jacket Wasps (Vespula maculifrons) also build aerial nests occasionally, as well as using underground burrows, but theirs are usually higher up than this one. The hornets created this masterpiece with overlapping, striped scallops. Since the hornets nicely camouflaged the nest in a leafy bush, I’d missed it completely in the summer. Amazing that these tiny creatures can create such a beautiful design on the outside of their architecture and those myriad, perfect hexagons inside!

Along the path to the west of the Playground Pond, the abandoned, but still intact nest of last summer’s Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) swung gently in the winter air, but no fledglings rock within it now. Another architectural marvel, this one was woven out of plant fibers over the course of one to two weeks by a female Oriole. Such sturdy nests and they’re only used for one season!

A Baltimore Oriole nest woven last spring by a female using only her beak! And it’s sturdy enough to survive winter winds!

Some summer plants still stand tall in the fields, bearing their seeds for hungry birds. The giant Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) has done its duty. It’s  been picked clean, probably by the flocks of American Goldfinches in the park.

Prairie Dock from last summer has already offered up its seeds for hungry birds.

Its huge, spotted leaves that feel like sandpaper in the summer now lie crumbling beneath the stately stalks.

The huge, sandpaper-like leaves of Prairie Dock are now giving their nutrients back to the soil.

In December, Goldfinches had not yet devoured the seeds of this Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis). This one was so fluffy that it looked like it was dressed in a down jacket for the winter. But with winter wind and wet, heavy snow, it will bow down to the ground before spring, making way for new sprouts.

A Canada Goldenrod still stands upright, looking like its dressed for winter weather.

One afternoon, my husband I found a gorgeous rock embedded with quartz crystals. From its location, I’m guessing it was  hidden under a vernal pool for most of the year. It shone white in the winter woods, looking like a stray snowball from a distance. Isn’t the coloring and crystal structure lovely? So rare to see such a large, white rock.

A beautiful white rock, perhaps granite mixed with quartz and feldspar crystals.

And Then the Post-Holiday Slow-down

Bear Creek meanders south from Gunn Road to join Paint Creek just west of the Paint Creek Cider mill.

Presents are put away.  Decorations are being stored in the basement. The bevy of much beloved guests is dwindling. And the park has gone mostly silent. Perhaps you’ve noticed that birds are a bit tougher to see or hear in Bear Creek Nature Park now. Sometimes they’re present, but I wonder if  their diminished numbers may be due to something good – a plentitude of winter feeders in the surrounding neighborhoods.

On our last visit, we heard a Red-bellied Woodpecker in the woods on the township hall trail and perhaps the “ank-ank-ank” of a White-breasted Nuthatch somewhere on the Big Loop. We watched a family of American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) settling into some tall trees off the western field. The adults arrived first and one began calling. When no young arrived, the calling adult looked back at its mate and they cawed until all the presumably younger members gathered with them in the tree tops. Crow families often stay together for more than one season, the young helping the adults feed the nestlings of the next generation. Such intelligent and social birds!

Down at the Center Pond, the ice had temporarily melted and a pair of Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) glided across the dark surface. They’ve evidently made their December choice of partners and will now spend the winter together before mating in the spring.

A mallard couple keeping company on the pond while the ice is gone.

Signs of spring feel rare and welcome after Christmas and its encouraging to notice that plants have already made preparations. A fuzzy little Thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana) held onto its seeds at the edge of a woodland trail. This plant produces oblong fruits with a thimble-like shape and pattern in summer that change into cottony tufts full of seeds in the fall. It keeps its seeds right into winter and depends on the wind to spread them. But it has another couple of strategies for survival. It produces a substance that discourages other seeds around it from germinating and its tap root is accompanied by rhizomes (underground stems that sprout and make roots) that allow it to spread beneath the soil. Look how its seed tufts in the photo below just happened to form an image of a frowning human profile, something I didn’t notice until I developed the photo! What fun!

I call this tufted seedhead Thimbleweed Man. Do you see the profile face looking right in the top stem?

The trees produce leaf buds in the fall which sometimes have a waxy surface to help retain moisture in the winter cold. The American Dogwood (Cornus florida) makes neat, round, little flower buds that face upward at the branch tips. Separately and sometimes just below the flower buds are leaf buds. I’ve only found one American Dogwood in Bear Creek Nature Park ; it’s on the east side of the Big Loop. Each fall and winter, I look eagerly for these buds with their pointed tops turned to the sun. In spring, I enjoy the way the white bracts (modified leaves) open to reveal a small cluster of yellow flowers at the center.

I saw this lovely bud on the Big Loop but can’t identify it yet! I loved its golden glow on a gray day! If any of you know which tree produced this bud, please tell me in the comments! It almost looks as though the leaves started to break from their buds with the warmer temperatures after the holidays.

A mystery plant – but isn’t its bud a pretty color?

Down near the Center Pond, I spotted the cache of an American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) beneath the trunk of an old Shagbark Hickory tree (Carya ovata). I could hear the owner scolding me from deep within the tangled brush nearby, but I never got a clear look at it. Shagbark Hickory is a fine example of how productive native trees can be in their habitat. According to the Illinois Wildflower website, these big, distinctive trees provide sweet nuts for raccoons, squirrels, chipmunks and many birds. Their leaves host a wide variety of insect caterpillars and so are often sought out by birds like chickadees, vireos, warblers and others. The long shards of shaggy bark provide winter shelter for insects and even nesting sites for small birds like the Brown Creeper. And they’re deer and fire resistant! – though the saplings may be gnawed by rabbits. What a contributor to a healthy habitat!

The consumed cache of an American Red Squirrel at the foot of a large Shagbark Hickory which supplied most of the nuts. Hope this squirrel has other caches for the coming winter months!
Shagbark Hickory bark provides winter shelter for overwintering insects and nesting sites for birds.

On the way back down to the Township Hall the day after Christmas, we spotted the festive bark of another tree. Nice Christmas colors,eh?

The reddish bark and green moss on this Sassafras tree looked quite festive at the holiday season!

Ben identified the tree for me as one of the tallest Sassafras trees (Sassafras albidum) that he’s ever seen. We were certainly impressed! Its bark can sheer off, leaving this red layer exposed. Sassafras is another generous host, providing food for butterfly caterpillars like the Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus), the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) and for many moths. Bobwhites, Wild Turkeys and many songbirds feed on their pitted fruits called “drupes.”

A very tall, native Sassafras tree on the trail from the Township Hall

The Comforts of “Home” on a Winter Walk

A Walnut tree against a stormy sky at Bear Creek Park

Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that… wildness is a necessity.”
― John Muir, in Our National Parks

Sometimes I notice that I’ve become an “over-civilized” person, don’t you? I find myself feeling crabby from too many “must-do’s,” feeling hemmed in by walls and getting stale from breathing what feels like the same old air. That’s when I rediscover Muir’s insight.  Wildness really is a necessity – maybe for all of us, whether we know it or not. Even in winter, I regularly need to immerse myself in the crazy quilt of a meadow full of  dry grass stems and listen to the pulsing roar of wind rushing headlong through the crowns of trees. The wild language of crows backed by the drumbeat of woodpeckers tunes me to a different key. For a short time, I’m enfolded within a complex world much beyond my small human one. And somehow that allows me to rest. I pull my hat down over my ears, snug up the scarf at my neck and I’m home, at ease in a place where I’m welcomed – and so are you – as just another creature making its way through winter days.

Fellow Travelers: Colorful Companions of the Migrating Warblers

What an explosion of bird life in May! In a matter of a few weeks, the trees, fields, marshes and our yards suddenly are alive with bustle and song. Last week, I shared what I learned about the warblers, some of the  tiniest members of the northern migration.  This week, I thought we’d take a look at some of the other colorful summer visitors who are currently serenading possible mates, toting nesting material around our gardens and fields and darting in and out of our backyard feeders.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

This spring seems particularly generous with glorious birds. Up-close visits with a startling variety of color and song all around us in 2019 has made this season quite a special one for me.

The Migrators of the Last Week in April

On April 24, just as the sun was getting low, my husband alerted me to something special right outside the window. I looked up from my book to find myself staring at a rare visitor, the Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus). Twice over the years, we’d caught a quick glimpse of this impressive bird out in the trees beyond the lawn. But it only paused and moved on. Luckily this bird  returned repeatedly that night, so I finally got calm enough to get a shot through the glass – and wow!

The Red-headed Woodpecker is usually heading north to breed, but this year, quite a few passed through the area!

Since then, others have reported seeing more Red-headed Woodpeckers than usual.  We’re hoping ours may be nesting nearby since it’s returned three or four times after its first visit. Sometimes bird lovers confuse this more unusual bird (for our area) with the year ’round Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) who has a red nape but not a fully red head. Red-headed Woodpeckers have become less common in our area due to habitat loss, but maybe we lucked out this year! (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

On April 25, I remembered that the Great Blue Herons (Ardea herodias) were already nesting along the Clinton River trail, so I hurried to see them  before leaves began to obscure the view. Saucer-shaped nests topped many trees in the marsh. One heron stood alone, as if on guard, while multiple females, presumably, arranged their nests or perhaps turned over their large eggs.

That last week in April was what folks used to call a humdinger! A birding friend let me know that she’d seen a killdeer with eggs at Gallagher Creek Park. So later on the 25th, I went searching. You’ll probably find her more quickly in this photo than I did in the park. It took me a while, since she was so well camouflaged!

Play “Find the Killdeer” in this photo. She’s nicely camouflaged.

I got very close before I spotted her. She watched me a few moments but surprised me by trotting over to the rain garden so I could take a picture of her beautiful eggs. Very accommodating, though maybe not the best parenting! I’m hoping at least one fledgling survived, since  Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township stewardship manager, thought he saw a juvenile there in May. Perhaps the predators had as much trouble spotting the nest as I did!

Early May Brought More Solo Arrivals

On May 1st, the birders at Bear Creek Nature Park watched a female Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) busily constructing her nest underneath the roof of a kiosk!  Not a terribly private place, but Phoebes do that sort of thing. She’s not as glamorous as some of the other May arrivals, but I liked her placid expression and the brown suede look of her crown. The Phoebe’s two note song is an easy one for most beginning birders to remember. It does sound a bit like “Feee-beee” though it always sounds a bit more like “Feee-buuuuz” to me.

An Eastern Phoebe bringing material to her nest at Bear Creek Nature Park

On May 3, one of my favorite avian vocalists arrived in our woods, the male  Rose-Breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus). Such a handsome devil! And now, every morning in the dark just before sunrise, I’m treated to his sweet courting melody. I’m guessing he found a mate with it, though the female who arrived four days later had her pick of three males counter-singing while I worked in the yard. What a delightful form of territorial competition, as one male’s song overlaps or quickly follows the song of another!

The male Grosbeak is mellow dude who takes his turn peacefully at the feeder, but competes with other males in song for territory and a mate.
The female had 3 singing males to choose from in our yard. What a trio!

On May 5, my husband Reg and I went in pursuit of the Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna) since members of the birding group had seen them at Wolcott Mill Metropark.  And we found him. This glorious prairie bird sang his own slurry version of their 3-8 note song from atop a willow whose new yellow leaves nicely matched his bright yellow breast. Meadowlarks love to hold forth from high on a wire or exposed branch looking out over a field. I hope our prairie restorations will encourage more of these striking birds to nest in our parks.

The Eastern Meadowlark singing from atop at willow at Wolcott Mill Park.

On May 2, the male Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) arrived right on schedule at our grape jelly feeder. How can anyone resist this dramatic bird? The first male quickly established his rights to the feeder and now proceeds to whistle his song rather insistently near a window whenever the feeder is empty, which is about 3 times a day!  Or at least that’s how it seems to us. We’re happy to accommodate him and later his mate.

Mid-May Brings the Warblers’ Fellow Travelers

Lots of birds, even fairly solitary ones, join the warblers in the nighttime flow of  birds during  May, especially in the second and third weeks. Researchers have yet to solidly determine exactly how these small survivors navigate the skies. Current theories include  sighting landmarks below, orienting to the stars or sensing the earth’s magnetic field, or  all three. Ornithologists still aren’t sure. But aren’t we glad the birds mysteriously manage it?

On May 11, my sharp-eyed husband called me to the window again. And there I stayed for 20 miraculous minutes as a male Scarlet Tanager foraged  along the edge of the brickwork outside our back door.

A lucky look at the male Scarlet Tanager outside our back door.

I hoped he might stay around to nest, but no such luck. The birding group, though, saw both a male and a female with nesting material at Lost Lake Nature Park on May 29th.  Maybe I’ll see fledgling tanagers yet! Tanagers are “dimorphic,” meaning that males look different than females, in this case, though only in the breeding season. In the fall, the male changes into the yellow-green plumage of the female to travel to their wintering grounds in northern South America. Quite a trip for these small birds.

A female Scarlet Tanager at Tawas Point last year traveled right along with the warblers during migration.

A surprise for us at Magee Marsh this year was seeing a Great Crested Flycatcher (Myiarchus crinitus). I don’t get to see them much because once they settle down to breed, they hunt their insect prey high in the tree canopy. Sometimes other birders point out their distinctive call to me and I catch a glimpse of its lemon yellow belly from a distance. This time, I could get a bit closer! Cornell Lab of Ornithology says they “tend to migrate alone,” but this one was surrounded by hundreds of warblers.

The Great Crested Flycatcher actually crashes into the leaves at times in its enthusiasm for snagging insects.

I can’t say for sure when Indigo Buntings arrive in our area from Florida or the Caribbean, but I usually see them in the parks by mid-May. This year, though, we were lucky enough to see this deep azure male at our hulled seed feeder. (A popular place this year!) He came right at the end of May and for a week now has come every evening, right before sunset. I think we’re his stop for a bedtime snack. A writer at Cornell Lab described him perfectly as “a little scrap of sky with wings.”

A male Indigo Bunting that arrives at our feeder just before sunset this year.

Another latecomer to our feeder is the male Orchard Oriole (Icterus spurius) who has only been at our feeder one previous year and then only briefly. This one came to visit on May 29 and appeared daily since, eating the same grape jelly that pleases his bigger cousin, the Baltimore Oriole. Orchard Orioles migrate south again by the end of July so catch sight of one while you can. There’s often a pair at Bear Creek Nature Park.

The Orchard Oriole comes late and leaves early. They’re often seen at Bear Creek Park.

The presence of all these unusual birds at my feeder makes me wonder if a cold, wet spring has left some migrators without their usual diet of insects. So they’re settling for grain until the sun shines and more insect eggs hatch. Just a guess, of course.

Giving Our Migrators a Helping Hand

Year after year for millennia, this wave of brilliantly colored aviators find their way north to us in the spring. Long ago, the luckiest or most skillful avian navigators discovered the lake shores, forests, prairies, and wetlands that were full of the required food and shelter they needed along the way. These survivors learned to take advantage of  peninsulas to shorten the distance over water and toughed it out when they were unavailable. They followed lake shores or ocean beaches when storms blew. And at last they glided down onto fields, splashed into ponds, settled on shady branches in distant forests, fluttered down into the protection of stiff prairie grass, or poked their beaks gratefully into the mud of a fertile marsh. Somehow the young of these avian pioneers knew the paths of their ancestors and somehow that knowledge got passed through thousands of generations of Scarlet Tanagers, Indigo Buntings and all the others.

Wonder and a desire to understand and/or help these winged neighbors are, I think,  common responses to the miracle of migration each spring and fall. Some of us fill our feeders, set up and monitor nest boxes, or band birds to help ornithologists learn more.  Some learn when and when not to rescue nestlings and fledglings and how to do it safely. Some company executives agree to turn off their office lights at night, while some farmers and others pause their wind turbines when notified by experts of particularly heavy migration in the area. Some cat lovers keep their cats indoors until fledglings are strong enough to escape into the treetops. Some gardeners plant their gardens with an eye to supplying fruits and insects as well as beauty. Some simply accept the inconvenience of awkwardly located nesting sites around their yard, and decide to just sit back with a camera or a cup of coffee to admire the hard work of raising little birds.  It all makes a difference. However you express your appreciation for the presence of birds in our world, thanks for doing it.

Bare Feet and Feathers? How Do Birds Survive Winter Weather?

Tufted Titmouse in a snow fall, feathers puffed up against the cold

I’m guessing lots of us who love nature have wondered the same thing in the last few weeks. “As the temperature drops below zero, how do those small birds with bare feet survive out there?”

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

Well, it turns out that although our avian winter neighbors share a similar technique for keeping their feet from freezing, their strategies for dealing with cold, snowy days can differ.

 

First Rule:  Use Those Feathers!

Female Cardinal looking lovely in her puffed feathers on a frigid morning

We humans love down jackets on cold winter days and snuggle beneath down comforters on winter nights. Well, birds like the female Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) above, or the Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) pictured at the top of the blog, use the same technique. When birds fluff up their feathers in the cold, they trap a layer of air between the feathers. Their body temperature – in small birds more than 100˚ F –  warms the air layer just as it does in our jackets.  According to Peter Marra, head of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center at the National Zoo, “Birds’ feathers provide remarkable insulation against the cold, and the oil that coats feathers also provides waterproofing, which is important since the only thing worse than being cold, is being cold and wet.” Here are a few of birds making the most of their feathers on a recent cold morning. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

What About Those Bare Feet, Though?

A Goldfinch last summer at Lost Lake, checking out its “bare feet.”

Last summer I caught this American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) staring at its feet in a tree near Lost Lake. I laughed to think that perhaps it was worrying about how they’d feel on a snowy day! Birds really do have very cold feet in the winter. According to scientist and professor Bernd Heinrich on the Cornell website, the feet of chickadees stay just above freezing even while their body temperatures are very high. Presumably, they don’t feel it much. Their feet are mostly tendons and bones with very few muscles or nerves. If you look at those three birds with feather puffed that are pictured above, you can see they’ve hunched over their feet, covering them with their body feathers. Or sometimes birds simply tuck one leg at a time against their breast. Also, the arteries and veins in birds’ feet are close together. As Heinrich explains it, a bird’s feet are provided with continuous blood flow which keeps them from freezing.  Since the arteries pass close to the veins in a bird’s legs, the cooled blood from the feet gets warmed on the way back to the heart to keep the bird’s body warm. And the warm blood from the heart is cooled down as it moves out to the legs, reducing heat loss. Pretty efficient system!

Second Rule: Eat as Much as Possible!

A White Breasted Nuthatch preparing to tuck a seed into the bark of a tree

On cold days, small birds really need to stuff themselves every few minutes to keep warm. When you see a White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) or Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillusdashing from your feeder to nearby trees, it’s eating some seeds and storing others in the trees’ bark. Amazingly, the brains of Chickadees expand in the fall to improve their memory so that they can later find those seeds or nuts. According to Cornell’s Birdsleuth website, “neurons are added to the Chickadee’s hippocampus in the fall, increasing its volume by about 30%.”  As a result, Chickadees can remember up to a thousand places in which they’ve tucked their winter provisions! (I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before in the blog, but it’s so amazing that it bears repeating!)

But What Do They Eat in Winter?

Mourning Doves (Zenaida macroura) and American Goldfinches can be gluttonous at feeders during the winter because they are vegetarians; no insects or caterpillars for them! On most winter days, they can find seeds or fruits, but  your feeder helps to supplement the wild supply. Mourning Doves can eat 12-20% of their body weight per day! They store seed in their crops, a muscular pouch near the throat, and digest it later to help keep themselves warm at night.

Mourning Doves eat 12-20% of their body weight in seeds each day.

I’ve seen Cedar Waxwings (Bombycillia cedrorum) eating frozen vine fruits or leaf buds that overwinter on the branches of trees.

Cedar waxwings will eat leaf buds on trees during the winter as well as frozen berries.

But many local birds, including Waxwings, are omnivores who can eat a wide range of foods. The Tufted Titmouse, White-Breasted Nuthatch, Chickadees and all kinds of Woodpeckers (family Picidae) spend winter days probing loose bark or hopping along branches looking for frozen dinners;  insects, insect eggs, pupae or perhaps a frozen caterpillar will do just fine as sources of protein on a cold day.

A male downy searching for frozen bugs or larvae on a winter morning

American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos), being bigger birds, will eat almost anything to “stoke their furnaces” during the winter. In our area, the carcasses of White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) provide lots of good protein. And if a crow finds one, it notifies its family and friends to join the feast. (No fair being squeamish. We all have to eat!)

Crows find deer carcasses a great source of protein in cold weather.

Where Do Birds Spend Cold Winter Nights?

According to the Smithsonian’s Peter Marra, “Many small birds, like Black-Capped Chickadees, Eastern Bluebirds, and House Wrens, will gather in large groups at night and crowd together in a small, tight space to share body heat.” Sharing body heat keeps down fat loss during the night to preserve energy for the next day’s foraging.  In his article for Cornell’s All About Birds, Bernd Heinrich describes finding a group of tiny Golden- Crowned Kinglets (Regulus satrapa) huddled in a circle on the branch of a pine tree, beaks in, tails out, sharing their body heat on a winter night. These tiny birds, which overwinter in our area, are about half the weight of a Chickadee! This lovely winter photo of a Golden-crowned Kinglet was taken by a photographer named cedimaria at the website inaturalist.org.

A Golden-crowned Kinglet by photographer cedimaria (CC BY-NC)

Bernd Heinrich reports in his essay collection, Winter’s World, that woodpeckers provide some cozy winter housing for other birds as well as themselves. Every spring, woodpeckers make a fresh hole for raising their young, but they tend to use them for only one year. So small birds can often find an abandoned woodpecker hole to get out of the wind and snow on a winter night. In the autumn, Dr. Heinrich has also spotted both Downy Woodpeckers (Dryobates pubescens) and Hairy Woodpeckers (Dryobates villosus) constructing special overnight shelters just for winter use. I spotted a Downy doing just that in Gallagher Creek Park one November day.  Note the flying wood chips!

A Downy woodpecker in November excavating a hole, chips flying.

Special Winter Strategies Can Be Helpful…

Even though Chickadees can excavate their own holes, in extreme cold they require a few extra tricks at night. According to the Audubon society, these little birds can lower their body temperature at night by as much as 22 degrees, minimizing the difference between their body temperature and the bitterly cold air. They also keep warmer by shivering, which activates opposing muscle groups and produces heat. Luckily, they can even shiver while sleeping, which is something I can’t quite  imagine doing! And of course once settled, like many birds, they can tuck their beaks and feet into their feathers to preserve heat as well.

Though Chickadees can excavate their own holes , sometimes they explore an available cranny in a snag as a possible place to spend a cold night.

Though they don’t appear in our parks these days, Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus) survive days of light fluffy snow in a surprising way. They burrow into the snow, creating a long tunnel with a chamber on the end. These one-day burrows not only provide insulation, according to Bernd Heinrich, but they also provide protection from predators. Large dark birds are very visible against the snow! (This photo was generously shared at iNaturalist.org by photographer Brian Murphy.)

Ruffed Grouse make tunnels under the snow for insulation and protection from predators. Photo by Brian Murphy (CC BY-NC)

Thank Goodness for Our Adaptable Winter Birds!

A Chickadee plumped up and ready for a winter day.

Aren’t you glad that some birds stay with us all winter?  And that some actually arrive for an extended stay just as the snow begins to fall? The constant flutter of a busy Chickadee, the “yank yank” call of a Nuthatch as it circles a branch or the friendly chirping of a flock of foraging Tree Sparrows in dry grass are so companionable on gray winter days. And what could be more heartening on a frigid morning than the sight of scarlet Northern Cardinals or azure Blue Jays in a snowy bush? I’m so thankful that some birds have figured out how to survive the cold along with us. By taking shelter, shivering, eating heartily, and snuggling into down comforters very much like we do, they keep us company as we make our way towards spring.

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township’s Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University; Wikipedia; A Field Guide to Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, A Naturalist at Large by Bernd Heinrich and others as cited in the text.

 

Gallagher Creek Park: Young Birds and Young Humans Play as Autumn Carries On

Grownups, children and a baby-to-be playing at Gallagher Creek Park

Surprised a bit by seeing the photo above in a nature blog? Well, on my four October visits to Gallagher Creek Park, I noticed an abundance of a new species there – young humans and their watchful adults!

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

Late on autumn afternoons, this modest 15 acre park is now filled with the voices of excited little humans rocking, swinging, spinning , climbing, and sliding on the colorful new playground equipment installed in July by volunteers and staff of the Parks and Recreation Commission. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

The park’s already becoming a place for families to cross paths and get to know their neighbors in the most densely populated part of our township. And meanwhile, in the background…

Nature Goes About Its Autumnal Business

Autumn at Gallagher Creek Park

The natural areas of Gallagher Creek look a bit scruffy right now from all the construction that went on this summer to build a picnic pavilion, a restroom enclosure, expanded parking area, the playground and a paved pathway. But despite all that to-ing and fro-ing, nature survives and offers beauty and bounty when you take time to venture into the fields.

Birds in the Distance as Children Play

Birds may keep their distance when the children are playing, but as I approached the tall grass at the edge of the creek east of the busy playground, a familiar head appeared above the tall grass.

A young Blue Heron peeks above the grass at the edge of the creek.

From the absence of a white crown on its head, it seemed to be a juvenile Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) stalking along the far side of the creek. Young Blue Herons take 3 years to develop full adult plumage, according to the Stokes Guides to Bird Behavior (Vol. 3). This youngster flew off, as I crackled through the browning stalks of goldenrod and yarrow.

But just as I arrived the next morning, when the playground was empty,  a juvenile – perhaps the same one? – flew over the treetops and swooped into a tree covered in vines. I snuck slowly forward and got one shot of it standing tall before it bent its knobby knees backward, spread those magnificent wings, and took to the air once more.

The young heron stood quietly in the tree as I approached.
The young Great Blue Heron bent its knees backward to begin its flight.

While the children shouted and laughed in the afternoon sun on a different afternoon, I watched a lone European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) high in a snag staring out over the playground nearby. It paid no attention to the happy noises below. I imagined that it was waiting for its highly social companions, since starlings gather in huge flocks at this time of year. This one had completed its fall molt complete with fresh feathers tipped in white, giving it the spotted plumage that starlings wear in fall and winter. By spring, the white tips will be worn off, returning these birds to their iridescent blue/black mating colors, and its beak will lighten and even change to bright yellow if it’s a male.

A European Starling that had finished its complete fall molt leaving its iridescent feathers tipped in white.

Unnoticed by the playground youngsters, a large, rippling flock (or “murmuration”) of about 75 starlings suddenly descended on the trees east of the creek. But the lone starling just kept staring into the distance. Perhaps it just needed a break from all the cackling and whistling that goes on in a starling gathering.

Part of a large “murmuration” of swooping starlings near Gallagher Creek.

Over in a quiet corner of the park, near the cat-tail marsh along the road, three little migrating Palm Warblers (Setophaga palmarum) in their duller fall colors chirped contact calls at each other before heading further south. The most notable field mark for these little birds is the bright yellow feathers under their tails and a pale “eyebrow” which they have year ’round.

Seeds Flying, Rattling, Dropping and Providing Food for Wildlife

Autumn, of course,  is the time when plants ripen and disperse seeds for next spring’s blooming. In doing so, they also provide important nourishment for all kinds of creatures. So while the children played, I went out to see what kinds of food nature was preparing in the background.

Seemingly unaware of the hubbub on the playground, a struggling American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) fumbled about trying to extract seed from a Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) while it swayed wildly in a stiff breeze.  I wondered if it was a juvenile who hadn’t quite mastered the skills necessary to extract seeds on a windy day.

It wasn’t easy for this Goldfinch to get the seed it wanted as the stalk it was on tossed back and forth in a stiff wind.

American Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) would delight any child at this time of year with its hot pink stem and blackish purple berries. The trick would be to keep them from trying to eat the berries,  since the seeds inside are slightly toxic to humans. According to one of my favorite wildflower sites, many of our favorite song birds (Bluebirds, Cedar Waxwings and more), as well as raccoons, opposums and the gray fox, feed on pokeweed berries with no problem.  Pokeweed prefers disturbed soil, which makes Gallagher Creek Park just the right spot this year! After I took this shot, I came back a few days later to find the stem broken and picked clean.  Mission accomplished – food eaten and seeds dispersed.

American Pokeweed berries are glamorous but the seeds inside are slightly toxic.

Some seed pods are rarely seen in our township except in this park. The wispy Bladdernut shrubs (Staphylea trifolia) produce elegant lantern-like pods. The shiny brown seeds inside shake in the wind, making a sound like a baby’s rattle. Though insects feed on the blossoms, there’s little evidence I could find that the seeds provide forage for wildlife. But the trees are doing a fine job of producing more Bladdernut shrubs as the number of them along the eastern tree line seems to be increasing nicely.

The Bladdernut shrub produces these elegant pods full of shiny brown seeds that rattle in the wind.

The common Cat-tails (genus Typha) are seeding as well, making a nice repast for a hungry Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata).

The pods of Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) are splitting open to release their silky little parachutes, each containing a seed that can sail away on the wind.  Milkweed has done its job by feeding Monarch caterpillars as well as many other butterflies and insects over the summer. So its current task is to get those seeds out into the world. If the seeds succeed in sprouting, they will feed more insects next year.

Seeds and their silky parachutes spill from Swamp Milkweed pods

More Edibles for Wildlife Wait in the Grass

Mushrooms, of course, can be edible by humans, but they are frequently a meal for squirrels and deer as well. I saw two varieties while the children romped at Gallagher Creek. A giant Puffball (genus Calvatia) had been broken in half, probably by a curious human, since it seemed to have no teeth marks in it. One appeared in the same area last year. And a stump hosted some pretty Turkey-tail Mushrooms (Trametes versicolor), whose tough, rubbery surface might not please us, but probably could please a squirrel (particularly a Red Squirrel).  I see them now and again with a mushroom between their paws.

As I stepped into the deep grass, I wished I had one of those busy children in tow to enjoy the sprays of Red-legged Grasshoppers (Melanoplus femurrubrum) leaping away from my feet. It would have made them laugh as it did me. These small grasshoppers lay their eggs less than inch under the earth in the autumn, and those eggs are a food source for birds, skunks, snakes and raccoons. Nymphs and adults can also be a food source for toads, snakes and some birds, but mostly during the summer months.

A Reg-legged Grasshopper finding a niche on a log, just in case.

Beauty Underfoot Before the Frost

Even though much of Gallagher Creek is covered in brown stalks and shriveled blossoms, a few autumn wildflowers survived right up until the first frost. East of the observation deck, near the creek, the ground is covered with unusual and fragile Bottle Gentians (Gentiana andrewsii), a native wildflower that grows in only a few places in our township. Its closed blossoms never open so they are most often fertilized by bumblebees who are big enough to force their way inside and back out again. The gentians were so plentiful this year that I had to step carefully to avoid treading on one as I explored the area.

Bottle Gentian blossoms never open, so bumblebees have to push their large bodies inside to get at the pollen and then push their way out!

Nearby, a late-migrating Monarch butterfly ((Danaus plexippus) paused to sip on the last purple blossoms of New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), a classic autumn wildflower.

A Monarch sipping at New England Aster as it begin its long migration to Mexico.

Birds Everywhere on a Cold, Quiet Morning – and a Playful Young Female

On the cold morning when I saw the heron that I mentioned above, the playground was empty and quiet. The bushes and trees, though, were alive with birds busily flitting from branch to branch, or shrub to soil, in search of anything they could find to eat.

What delighted me most was a large flock of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis). They were probably gathering to move a little farther south in Michigan or to Ohio in order to reach warmer weather, though Bluebirds often return here on warm winter days and some stay all year. The males are always the flashiest and were more plentiful in this flock.

But my favorite Bluebird on that chilly morning was what I’m guessing was a juvenile female. Young Bluebirds fledge wearing spotted breasts. But according to the Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.2), they molt into adult plumage in August and September. I began to wonder if this gray-headed female was a youngster because she seemed to be practicing the grass-handling skills that she would need next spring in building her carefully woven nest. When I first spotted her, she had the head of a grass stem in her beak with the dry stalk trailing down her back.

A female Bluebird holding the head of a grass stem in her beak.

She made a couple of tries at moving the grass into a more suitable position.

Seemingly frustrated, she dropped the stem between her feet and stared intently at it for a minute.

Frustrated, she finally dropped the grass between her feet and studied it.

At last it seemed she had figured it out.  She picked it up carefully in the middle of the stalk, a much easier way to handle it.

Ah, it works better to grasp the stem in the middle!

Satisfied, she carefully set it down on the railing on which she was perched.  And then left the grass stem there and flew to nearby tree.

I loved seeing this young bird fiddle with what may have been her first attempt at handling the building material she would need in the spring to create her nest.

Besides the Bluebirds, a whole assortment of other birds made the most of the quiet park that cold morning.  I’m fairly sure that a tiny migrating Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) was among them, but it insisted on keeping only its rear in view! So I’ve added a photo of another one I saw in a previous year so you can have a better look at it. (Use the pause button if more time is needed for captions.)

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A Park Where the Young Can Learn and Play

A Milkweed seed on a windy morning at Gallagher Creek

I believe that young humans, like the young of all species, need play as a way to learn about the world.  So I loved watching children on the new playground at Gallagher Creek Park. So much is being learned as youngsters cope with siblings and strangers on the slide or the rocking “dragonfly” seesaw. Muscles grow stronger. Some learn the consequences of risk-taking and others overcome their fears.  It’s great.

What I’m hoping is that once the trails are mowed again next spring, parents will take their children by the hand and explore this little park that offers so much – baby muskrats in the spring, a swollen creek after rain, tree swallows diving for insects in the summer, and native wildflowers in three seasons. And yes, even little birds, that like all children, are learning how to be skillful grown-ups.

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net;Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels, A Guide to Bird Behavior Vols.1-3 by Donald W and Lillian Q.Stokes, entomology.ca/uky.edu on Red-legged Grasshoppers, illinoiswildflowers.info and others as cited in the text.

 

 

Photos of the Week: Prepping for Change – the Fall Molt

An unidentified feather found in an earlier autumn. Anyone have a guess as to which bird? Perhaps a Downy Woodpecker? Mourning Dove? Flicker?  I’m stumped.

Maybe you’ve noticed individual feathers showing up in a nearby pond or on your lawn. Or you’ve noticed that birds and birdsong both seem a bit scarce right now. Or the birds you do see look just a bit scruffy. Well, don’t worry too much. It’s likely that nothing’s gone wrong for your avian neighbors. It’s just that lots of birds molt in late summer.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

That slightly disheveled bird you saw is probably an adult replacing frayed and worn feathers before the rigors of winter or before its fall migration. Once breeding is over, and while there’s still plenty of food to nourish them, birds systematically shed some of their feathers, replacing them before shedding others. Feathers account for 4-12% of body weight so it takes a lot of food energy to replace them! The foraging male Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) below with its feathers a bit askew is probably close to completing his molt. He will need to build up his reserves before beginning his journey to southern Ohio or points farther south.

A male Eastern Towhee almost finished with his fall molt and his foraging to restore his energy reserves.

So how does molting work? It turns out that feathers are made of keratin like our hair or fingernails, so feathers can’t repair themselves. The rigors of the breeding season can take quite a toll on feathers. Think of it  – all that to-ing and fro-ing from the nest or tree cavity, the scrabbling that occurs around an adult bird’s head as the young compete to be fed, plunging into the grass to snatch bugs, and riding down stalks to gather seeds on a windy day.  The feathers of an adult bird take quite a beating!  (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

When I saw this male Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) a week or so ago, I wondered if he was just beginning his complete molt into the dappled blue and brown plumage that he wears during the winter.

A male Indigo Bunting looking more than a bit disheveled may be heading into his complete fall molt into brown plumage dappled in blue.

The molting process begins with the bird shedding a few feathers. In their place,  “pin feathers” emerge quickly. These pin feathers are supplied with blood for growth and look like the rigid shaft of adult feathers. As they lengthen, the blood stays in the lower ends and the tips slowly encase the feathers in a waxy coating. So when you see birds preening during a molt, they are very likely pulling off that coating, allowing the adult feathers to unfurl.

The Great Egret (Ardea alba) below seems to have shed a few feathers, since some were stuck to the branches behind it and some lay below on the trunk of the snag. Perhaps it’s unfurling new feathers, or it could just be going after some persistent feather mites.

A Great Egret preening. Is it molting or just getting rid of some feather mites? I’m not sure.

I’ve read that pin feathers are more sensitive than adult feathers. I wonder if that’s why we often see birds preening so vigorously before migration. Maybe preening feels something like scratching your head when it itches!  According to Cornell’s comprehensive “Birds of North America” subscription website, Egrets molt “some to most” of their body feathers when they’re in “northern non-breeding grounds.” Since egrets nest in only a few areas in Michigan, most of Michigan is a non-breeding area suitable for molting. Maybe that’s why this Egret was preening almost continually, including stretching up its leg to scratch its cheek!

A Great Egret who could be scratching at an itchy pin feather.

Molting happens on different schedules for different bird species. Some have one molt per year, some molt into breeding colors in the spring and molt again in the fall, and some do partial molts,  head and back feathers first and tail and wing feathers later. With experience the age and sex of many birds can be identified using their plumage.

In early summer after breeding, Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) have an extra molt, a partial one. The males molt into “eclipse plumage, ” a drab plumage that makes the males look more like the brown females, though males still retain the red eye, red upper beak and double white stripe which females don’t have. Evidently male ducks do this to get the protection of being much less conspicuous during summer months. Here’s a photo of a male Wood Duck in eclipse plumage by iNaturalist photographer Heather  Pickard.

A male Wood Duck in eclipse plumage, looking a lot like a female Wood Duck. Photo by Heather Pickard  (CC BY-NC)

Like many ducks, Wood Ducks choose mates in the fall, overwinter with them and then mate in the spring. Of course the males want to look their most dazzling before courting! So they change into their breeding colors from mid-summer to early autumn, instead of in the spring like many birds. It’s a complete molt, meaning every feather is replaced, which renders them flightless for about three weeks. The female’s appearance stays the same with her new feathers. But the male recreates his elegant breeding plumage, including the iridescent green crest sloping down the back of his neck. Below are two males in a wetland near Lost Lake Nature Park two weeks ago who look like they’re about halfway between eclipse plumage and their glamorous breeding colors.

Birds don’t fight change. They simply do what’s required as the light informs them that the days are getting shorter. They molt. So when I go look for my jacket or warmer socks on a cool autumn day, I’m just part of the same process, I guess. And since my adjustment seems much less arduous than that of our feathered friends, I’ll try not to grouse about it!

[Footnote:  Information on molting was gleaned from Stokes' Guides to Bird Behavior by Charles Stokes (Volumes 1-3), this link at Wikipedia, Cornell Ornithology Lab's  subscription website www.birdsna.org. and this link at Cornell Ornithology.]