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.
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.
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.)
A Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) gathering seed on a windy day.
A Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) reaches far into her nest to feed her young.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
Most of the action at Lost Lake Nature Park in the last few weeks has centered around which pair of Canada Geese control which section of the lake. These normally mild-mannered birds can act like a flock of drama queens when establishing territory and nesting. When I arrived for the first time two weeks ago, the weather was still cold, but some geese tempers were simmering!
I’d just read The Geese of Beaver Bog by Bernd Heinrich and supplemented my limited Canada Goose knowledge with Donald Stokes’ Guide to Bird Behavior, Volume 1 – so I was curious to see if I could read Canada Goose body language for the first time. Well, it was quite an exciting set of lessons from the geese themselves!
Then I went on to explore the more mellow residents of Lost Lake Nature Park and also fell in love with some wildflowers and a momentarily glamorous insect.
Drama at the Lake!
When I stepped out of my car during my first visit, a male Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) and his mate saw me and moved away from the floating dock. The female swam calmly to the west end of the lake while the male patrolled the center.
He turned his head toward me as I reached the dock and kept me in sight all the time. It was a cold day with a strong north wind, unusual for late April. As I walked along the shore toward the east, I heard the male goose honking wildly and turned to see him making a bee-line straight toward me across the pond! When he reached the dock, he took to the air and flew at me, honking wildly, his wings snapping just above my head. Needless to say, I did not raise my camera for a photo! He dropped heavily into the water behind me and gave what the Stokes guide called “the head flip,” stretching his neck high, shaking his head from side to side and giving what Stokes calls “quiet grunts” indicating that the goose is apprehensive or disturbed.
I was puzzled as to what I’d done to receive what was so clearly a threat. So after a few minutes, I moved back to the dock and finally noticed what should have been obvious before. A goose nest rested among the stalks on the island in the lake, lined with feathers from the female’s chest (a “brood patch”) and perhaps some cat-tail fluff. Silly me, I didn’t realize that the whole south side of the pond was this pair’s territory and they had started a family there!
On the far side of the pond, a second pair of geese were already nesting. Periodically the first male would venture somewhat toward the second pair and the male of that pair would stand with his neck very straight and his body tilted slightly forward. If I understand the Stokes Guide correctly, he was making an “I’m aware of you” signal to the other male, indicating that he sensed a possible confrontation. The first male circled away each time.
Later in that visit, the female goose of the first pair rejoined her mate near the nest. As she approached, they both began what Stokes calls a “greeting ceremony.” She would call softly “hink, hink” as she swam and he would respond almost simultaneously with his loud “A-honk!” When she reached him, she put her bill near his, almost tucking her head beneath his lower bill.
Then to my amusement, they both turned in my direction and seemed to be scolding me loudly for having dared to get that close to their beautiful nest! Look at the male’s eye turned right toward me and the female facing me directly! It was just a reminder….
On my next visit to the dock, it was the female who gave me the warning – a stern look as she sat on her nest. That neck position with a straight, lowered head aimed right at me is a threat pose. She remembered this possible trespasser with the camera!
On my third visit, she still kept an eye on me, but seemed more relaxed at my presence, just turning her head to let me know that I was seen. That extended wing may be creating a warm blanket for her eggs, if any, as well as for her.
A week later, I saw what I thought might be my first pair quietly feeding near the nest. Female geese leave the nest for up to an hour during incubation and these two were very close to the nest. It was a lovely warm day and the eggs, if there were any, were probably quite warm under the loose feathers and cat-tail down. I also spotted a third nest at the west end of the lake with one goose standing over it and the female of the second pair on the north side was still sitting on her nest.
But the Canada Goose treat of the day was that, on my way home, I stopped to see two adult geese down the road at a residential pond, standing guard over seven little goslings calmly munching on the fresh green grass.
Other Wildlife Around the Lake Seemed More Relaxed
On that third visit, I also got treated to a pair of very calm Hooded Mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus)floating around the bend in the island not far from the female goose. I’ve always seen photos of male Hooded Mergansers with their hoods raised dramatically, as in this photo by inaturalist.org photographer, Liam O’Brien.
The male at Lost Lake, however, seemed calm and collected. Through the veil of dry stalks, I was able to catch a quick shot of him. His relaxed crest lay in a slight droop at the back of his neck. The patterns of color on his body and head are so lovely and his bright, golden eye shone like a small gem in his velvety black head!
On the coldest days, the Ring-necked Ducks (Aythya collaris) on the far edge of the lake tucked their bills into their back feathers. I thought perhaps they were keeping a low profile against the icy north wind that drove quick, short waves across the pond. In this relaxed posture, they simply drifted with the wind.
A gathering of Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta marginata) sun-bathed on the log where I’d first seen the Mergansers. This large one looked particularly content, despite its perpetual grimace.
Nearby, I think I kept hearing the snoring call of the Northern Leopard Frog (Rana pipiens). It’s as low as the Wood Frog’s, but less continuous and truly, very much like a snore! My recording was much too distant because the Leopard Frogs quieted every time I approached! But you can listen to one at this Macaulay Library link .
I didn’t know until this year that Leopard Frogs come out of hibernation from muddy lake bottoms in very early spring. I usually see them later in the spring or summer when they move into grassy areas. Here’s a picture of one a few summers back in just such an area at Bear Creek Nature Park. Snazzy spots, eh?
Birds and Blossoms in the Wooded Areas
Lost Lake is surrounded by the high, dry hills cloaked by an Oak-Pine Barren. Birds flit in and out of the trees that surround the lake and the woods beyond. The rhythmic, insistent call of the Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) sounded from the very top of a snag near the lake one sunny afternoon.
In the photo that accompanies my recording below, you can see why he was once called the Yellow-shafted Flicker.
Nearby, in the grassy area just west of the caretakers’ house, a female Flicker was paying close attention! Male flickers have a black “mustache” on either side of their bill; females don’t.
Flickers are actually woodpeckers, though they spend a lot of time on the ground probing for their favorite food, ants. In fact, woodpeckers of several kinds busied themselves foraging on snags all over Lost Lake.That’s one of the reasons bird lovers leave dead trees standing in their woods when they can. They provide places to eat and nest for woodpeckers. Here a female Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) drills with great concentration on a dead limb, probably searching for beetle larvae.
A Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)hitched quickly from branch to branch, probably looking for a similar meal, though he may also have been establishing a territory since he periodically let forth with his kwirrrr call.
In the White Pines (Pinus strobus) near the caretakers’ house, the cheery, tweeting call of the American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) can be heard almost any day! I imagine they frequent the family’s thistle feeder all day long!
Occasionally, I’d see an Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) in the area, sometimes on a low limb or sitting on the upturned boat near the shore. It’s always darting down near the water’s edge, probably seeking out insects, since it’s a flycatcher.
On my last warm day visit, an Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) had flown in on a south wind the night before. It took off from a branch as I stepped out of my car, but then landed near the water, just as the Phoebe had. Perhaps you can just see the spot of greenery in its beak in the righthand photo? Nesting material, methinks! (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
The Eastern Kingbird on takeoff!
The Kingbird resting near the pond with a bit of nesting material in its beak.
Resilient Spring Flowers Flourish After a Prescribed Burn
The native plants of Lost Lake are a hardy bunch when it comes to fire! Shortly before a Lost Lake prescribed burn took place on April 27, I spotted two clusters of a classic spring flower, the native Round-lobed Hepatica (Hepatica americana). Some were along the trail to the Oak-Pine Barrens and the ones below were just at the edge of the grassy area west of the caretakers’ house.
The fire crew was alerted to the presence of these little beauties and did their best to avoid them, leaving the ones in the photo above completely untouched, and singeing the ones along the trail, but leaving some leaves and blossoms. The surprise was that when I came back a week after the fire, the hepatica which was untouched by fire had disappeared – perhaps finished off by warming temperatures or by a grazing deer. But the singed ones along the trail had made a comeback! These fire-adapted plants were producing new leaves and blossoms already on the blackened forest floor! The nutrients from the last year’s dry stalks had been released back into the soil by the fire and the blackened soil was nicely warmed again – so up they came for a second chance in the sun!
Hepatica flowers bloom again after the prescribed burn.
A hardy little hepatica rises from the blackened soil.
Likewise, down near the burned shore of the lake, under the trees, a huge patch of another native plant, May Apples (Podophyllum peltatum) emerged from the darkened soil. Their umbrella-like leaves were just beginning to open in the dappled light.
And of course the fire couldn’t reach the leaves of the Fragrant Water Lilies (Nymphaea odorata) rising from beneath the water near the edge of the lake. I never knew just how the lily pad took shape. Evidently they come up vertically like a wide blade of green and then eventually lay back on the water surface, as the various stages in the photo below suggest. I’m looking forward to the summer blossoms that bloom in the morning.
And One Very Cool Insect with Stars at Its Feet
A tiny Water-Strider (fam. Gerridae) rowed across the surface of a wetland at the foot of the slope in the Oak-Pine Barrens. This little creature literally walks on water! In the shadows, it was easier to see its body and legs covered in thousands of tiny hairs which keep its body dry and light enough to perch above the water as it forages. Its long, flexible, strong legs distribute its body weight evenly so it can move easily across the surface of the water – hence its irreverent other name, the Jesus bug! It steers using those long back legs and pierces its prey with the claws on the middle of its front leg!
But suddenly, when this amazing little creature moved into the sunlight, a small reflection of the sun shone like a star where each leg met the waterline. I was delighted and immediately decided that the Water Strider could be the “star-studded finale” on the blog this week!
Seeing this tiny rower motor about the surface of a wetland, listening to the snap of a goose’s wings right over my head, or coming upon little lavender flower faces peering up at me from the grass – those moments are epiphanies for me. They illuminate the reality that despite the presence of nature’s most invasive species, i.e. we humans! – nature endlessly tries to adapt and survive, even if it means walking on the water, challenging a trespasser or springing out of burned earth. Surely such skills, daring, resilience and sheer beauty deserve our loyalty, protection and thoughtful stewardship.
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: inaturalist.org;Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; maccaulaylibrary.org; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; A Guide to Bird Behavior Volume 1 by Donald W. Stokes,and other sources as cited in the text.
March in Michigan is such a tease! We had a glimpse of spring-like weather, but we knew it was too good to last, didn’t we? Winter came roaring back.
I’ve been braving the corrugated potholes of Predmore Road to visit Charles Ilsley Park to see what these back-and-forth changes have wrought – and also to check out some great new nest boxes going up there. As usual, the spring-like weather provided lots of things to see. Winter’s return meant exploring tracks crisscrossing the snow, leaving clues of who’s been out and about when I’m not there. Presence and absence – sometimes both are interesting!
February’s Big Melt Gave Us a Taste of Spring
The false spring definitely held some surprises! In the center of the park, which was prepared for prairie planting last fall, two huge melt ponds had appeared! What a sight on a clear day, as if the park had suddenly opened two big blue eyes! In the distance, what we took to be a spring when the birding group spotted it last month, was still bubbling from the ground. Our township Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, is now guessing that it’s the outlet of a tiled culvert that a farmer had dug to drain these very spots in his meadow for planting. Ben hopes to check it out when the weather’s warmer. Here’s a video of the water bubbling out of the ground on the day I first saw these very large melt ponds. (Sorry about the wind in the microphone!)
On the way into the park, we spotted a creature who, like us, had been fooled by the warmer weather. A Woolly Bear Caterpillar wended its way across the path, hoping to find some sustenance before spinning its cocoon to emerge as an Isabella Tiger Moth (Pyrrharctia isabella). The moth photo below is by Steve Jurvetson (CC BY) at inaturalist.org. (Click on the photos to enlarge them; hover your cursor for captions).
A Woolly Bear Caterpillar may have hatched a bit prematurely.
The Woolly Bear becomes an Isabella Tiger Moth. (Photo by Steve Jurvetson CC BY)
A European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) glistened in the morning sunlight in a tree at the top of the central meadow. In the autumn, starlings molt into feathers with bright white tips, which makes them look spotted all over. During the winter, the white tips wear off (called “wear molt”), leaving their feathers a glossy, iridescent bronze for the breeding season. Odd to see one all by itself when we so often see them in large flocks.
Tiny yellow-gilled mushrooms covered the slope as we entered the central meadow. Most mushrooms defy identification for me, so if anyone can ID this one, please leave a comment! Later Reg found an extremely light, two inch ball in the grass – an Oak Gall. A Gall Wasp(family Cynipidae) laid an egg on an oak last year, and when the larva hatched inside, it injected a chemical into the plant creating a tissue-like secretion that it can feed on until it emerges as an adult wasp. Perhaps, like the Woolly Bear, it may have misjudged its moment! Or the larva may have provided some wintertime sustenance for a bird.
High above, a flock of Sandhill Cranes(Antigonecanadensis) called from the chilly, blue sky. Theses ancient birds must have felt the pull of the warming days and ventured north from their winter feeding grounds in Ohio and further south. I love their hoarse, wild calls (click on “Listen” at the link) that sound almost prehistoric. According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, these cranes use their extra long windpipes, which extend to their sternum, in order to make that sound. Soon they’ll be performing their graceful mating dances – leaping whimsically into the air and floating back down with the partners that they choose for life.
Newly-returned Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) flashed their bright red epaulets by hunching their wings, accompanied by a buzzing call to establish their territories. Some stayed during the winter, but most moved south last fall as the weather got colder. The kwirr call of the Red-bellied Woodpeckers (Melanerpes carolinus) could also be heard in the treetops, as well as its drumming (click on “drum” at this link), another way of establishing its territory and attracting a mate.. And Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) pair up this time of year, soaring and circling lazily in the rising thermals of warmer air. I’ve read that if you’re lucky, you’ll see them drop their talons in flight, apparently an important indicator that two hawks are interested in each other. Sometimes they even lock talons and tumble together in flight! The hawks I saw were circling high in the sky – out of the reach, I’m afraid, of my longest lens, so please pardon the blur.
Last spring, the birding group saw a female Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) approaching her nest in a tree along the entrance trail. The actual basket-like nest was tough to see among the leaves. But as Reg and I left the park on that cold spring-like day, the nest was visible, sturdily attached to the tip of a branch, having braved the winter winds. She’ll weave a new one this spring from grass, grapevine bark, horsehair, wool, occasionally even recycling materials from a previous nest, according to Cornell’s allaboutbirds.org.
Spring Nest Prep Courtesy of Parks Volunteers
Out in the eastern meadow, we came across two other volunteers, Tom Korb and his nephew Alex Korb, both valued members of the Wednesday birding group. They were making last minute changes to some bluebird nest boxes that Tom’s created for the Oakland Township. Tom built several nest boxes for Charles Ilsley Park and Draper Twin Lake Park with the talented assistance of Sue Ferko. The picture on the right below shows Tom and Sue installing a nest box at Draper Twin Lake Park last week.
Left to right: The new bluebird house, volunteer Tom Korb, my husband Reg and Tom’s nephew, Alex Korb.
Volunteer bird house builder Tom Korb and Sue Ferko, his talented and enthusiastic assistant at Draper Twin Lake Park
On the advice of birder extraordinaire, Ruth Glass, Tom and Sue also built some Peterson-style bluebird nest boxes that are triangular in shape. Ruth has found that bluebirds seem to prefer the Peterson houses at Stony Creek Metropark. So Ben and Tom decided to experiment by putting up both types to see which ones the bluebirds at our parks preferred. Tom also constructed two nest boxes for forAmerican Kestrels (Falco sparverius), North America’s smallest falcons. Kestrels nest in cavities along wooded edges, so that’s where the new box in Ilsley Park was placed, in the tree line between the central and western meadows. Chickadee houses will soon be installed as well.
You’ll also note that the bluebird houses are installed in pairs. The theory is that Eastern Bluebirds(Sialiasialis) and Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor), who often compete for housing, will share space if there are two houses together. So we shall see! Bluebirds began to investigate Tom’s houses as soon as they were up, and I saw a pair every time I hiked there since. I’ve only seen an American Kestrel once from a distance after a prescribed burn at Bear Creek – so I’m hoping to see a pair at their new nest box sometime soon. (Kestrel photo by Steven Mlodinow from inaturalist.org).
And then Winter Staged a Comeback…
On my last trip to the park, everything was silent except for the occasional trill or cluck of the indomitable Red-winged Blackbird and the distant kwirr of the Red-bellied Woodpecker. When I arrived in the late afternoon, no other human had explored the park that day – probably due to that corrugated road! – so the trails were pure white, not a footprint in sight! But clearly, the wildlife enjoyed having the park to themselves after the snow fell.
I quickly spotted the first track of a Coyote (Canis latrans). Canines can’t retract their claws, so in the photo below, you’ll see the two nail marks at the top of the print. The larger pads are located outside, rather than directly below, the smaller pads, which is typical of coyotes. As usual, the prints were neatly placed in a straight line. Our well-fed dogs can afford to wander as they walk, but wild coyotes on the hunt can’t afford to waste energy, especially on cold days.
When I reached the central meadow, I spotted two separate coyote tracks heading east over the hill. One went almost straight up and over the highest park of the hill. The other took an easier route around the lower end.
The first coyote headed straight up the highest part of the hill, heading east.
The second coyote found a slightly easier route along the lower end of the hill.
As I followed the tracks, I imagined what might have occurred. When the snow storm came out of the northeast, a pair of coyotes probably trotted off to the west where perhaps the hill would break some of the wind. And then I came across a sight I’d never seen before. The tracks led to a flat area on the far western meadow beyond the tree line. There the snow had been stirred up near several medium-sized patches of bare earth where the snow had melted off the grass. The bare spots were too small for deer beds and several had clear coyote tracks that appeared to be leading to them. Could this be a group of coyote beds, I wondered?
That night I researched where coyotes sleep and found that they are known to just lay down in the open as long as there are no humans or other predators to disturb them. And I found Google images of them laying in open snowy fields. Since coyotes are the top predators in Charles Ilsley Park, and humans live a fair distance from this field, I’m guessing that the coyotes crossed the tree line, found a low spot in the field, turned around a few times in the snow the way canines often do, and settled down for the night. But who knows? If anyone has a more accurate interpretation, I’m open to it. Anyway, following the tracks and finding this curious area offered me a fun expedition late on a snowy afternoon.
Another nocturnal traveler left its tracks as well. These small, roundish canine tracks are most likely to have come from a Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) trotting along a trail on the eastern prairie on the previous night. Its tracks were quite near those of a coyote, and I saw no signs of conflict, so I doubt they ever encountered each other that night. Recently though, Tom Korb did spot the clean skull of what he believed was a Red Fox at Charles Ilsley Park, so perhaps another fox met a coyote at some point! The photo below of a running Red Fox was taken at my home several years ago, so I’m just guessing about this midnight scenario.
Daytime park residents left their marks as well. I heard but never saw the little creature who I’m thinking left these four tiny tracks – the American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus). It saw me before I reached its hideout log, so I’ve added a photo of one who popped up out of snow near my back door a few winters ago. It was looking for birdseed under the snow cover.
And American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) were strutting about in the snow as well. I saw one dive bombing a Red-tailed Hawk one morning, but it was too far off for a photo. So here’s a shot of two in flight last March and what I believe are the tracks of a crow who left prints of its feet and dragging tail feathers in the snow last week near a tree line at Charles Ilsley Park. Like wolves, crows cleverly walk in a straight line to save energy. Note the big, hooked claw on the back of the foot which indicates that its probably not a turkey track.
Such fun to think of being the only human in the park that snowy afternoon, leaving my big sloppy footprints among the precise and delicate ones of so many wild neighbors! If you’re a more experienced tracker than I am (I’m a novice!), feel free to comment and set me straight!
A New Image of Our Self-sufficient Wild Neighbors
March can be a frustrating month. One day I get to see the Sandhill Cranes bugling overhead. I kneel to watch an unlucky Woolly Bear Caterpillar wend its through wet grass. And a week later, the snow descends again, making life more difficult for the cranes, perhaps deadly for the caterpillar and sometimes less visually interesting for a park visitor with a camera around her neck and three solid months of winter under her belt.
But then I notice the coyote prints trailing up a small hill and follow them to a disturbed patch of ground. Normally, when I hear coyotes howling and yipping near my house in the middle of the night, I picture a small group sitting on its haunches in the moonlight before retiring to a snug den.
But nature has handed me a possible new image of this clever, well-adapted animal that’s moved into my territory the last few years. Now I can envision my coyote neighbors as wild creatures so sure of themselves, of their ability to handle their world, that they can just lay down with their traveling companions, sing together under the moon for a few minutes, then curl up in the snow and drift off to sleep.
That’s probably one of the reasons I spend time in nature as often as I do. It never stops teaching me to pay attention. And it never stops reminding me that human lives are embedded within the lives of a whole panoply of living beings – plants and animals that have adapted to change, survived and even thrived. Maybe we humans, so often resistant to change, can learn do do the same. And that helps me drift off to sleep.
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.
Since we seem to be heading into a warming trend, I thought I’d share the odds ‘n’ ends of what I’m calling The Big Freeze, those recent days of frigid temperatures and wind. In the interests of preserving my camera and my numb fingers, my hikes during the Big Freeze were shorter and the photos were fewer.
But as usual, I delighted in the sightings or even the signs and traces of other creatures, including other humans, who shared the bitter temperatures with me. On those frigid, silent days, I found myself appreciating the slightest visual treat that passed unnoticed in the lushness of summer – a rock, a mud puddle, snow-covered mushrooms. So here’s a sampling from Bear Creek and Charles Ilsley Parks of what can make a walk worthwhile even on the zero degree days of a challenging winter.
Wildlife Braving The Big Freeze
Birds are rarer sights for me on super cold winter walks, so what a treat to come across a flock of Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum)on two different walks at Bear Creek Nature Park. The high-pitched whistling as these winter social groups swooped and settled was quite cheering during The Big Freeze. Here are some other creatures that shared those bitter morning walks with me.
Though I heard more creatures deep in the brambles and watched birds fly overhead, I only caught a few with my camera. Some animals only left their tracks behind. On a bird walk at Charles Ilsley Park, we saw the neat tracks of two coyotes who’d trotted along in the moonlight the night before. Coyotes make straight, single tracks, placing their back feet in the tracks of their front feet to save energy. One of the birders said he’d heard that the coyote’s tail can leave a slight drag line as seen in the closeup below. I couldn’t find a source for that, but it makes sense since coyotes run with their tails down, rather than up like wolves or dogs. Click on the photos to enlarge; hover your cursor for captions. (Coyote photo below by amandaandmike at inaturalist.org)
A Meadow Vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus), aka a Meadow Mouse, must have crossed the path at Bear Creek Nature Park on a snowy night and then disappeared by burrowing into the snow. Lucky for this little creature that the coyote wasn’t around! (Meadow Vole photo by Wolfgang Siebeneich at inaturalist.org.)
Meadow Vole tracks disappear into the snow
Meadow Vole by Wolfgang Siebeneich (CC BY-NC)
I’ve never seen a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) at Bear Creek Nature Park, though others have. But I did see the hole one had recently excavated in a tree in the Oak- Hickory forest there – with this “carpenter’s” wood chips scattered below. (Woodpecker photo kindly lent by Joan Bonin, a gifted local photographer.)
Holes excavated by a Pileated Woodpecker.
The wood chips left at the foot of the tree
Pileated Woodpeckerer, photo by Joan Bonin
Evidence of Humans at Play During the Big Freeze
It’s always cheering to come upon evidence of other people using our parks to just play in the snow.
Odds ‘n’ Ends that Caught My Winter Eye
The austerity of winter reveals landscape features unnoticed in the lushness of spring and summer. The birding group marveled at a fast-running spring flowing out into the snow at Charles Ilsley Park which had been dry or hidden in the dense growth of the field the rest of the year.
At sunset one afternoon, I rounded the corner of the shed at Bear Creek Nature Park and saw a pink and blue sunset glowing in a puddle of melted snow.
The graceful “bones” of last year’s wildflowers, clusters of half-moon shelf mushrooms, even an unusual rock catch my eye when framed in white. (Use pause button if you need more time for captions.)
Beauty in the Big Freeze: Appreciating the Small Things
Sometimes it’s just the pale green and lavender of ice in a wetland or the high whistle of a swoop of Cedar Waxwings. The scarlet flash of a Cardinal or a dancing snowman can lift your heart on gray winter day. Feathery snow settling on a seed pod or the gaudy beauty of an early sunset – it’s just a matter of taking in beauty in smaller, more subtle doses that can buoy our spirits in the dark cold of a Michigan winter.
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!