Some spring days have a special kind of magic, don’t they? Especially in May when the trees dance with small tender leaves, the air is cool, the sun is warm – and the birds of summer arrive in all their mating finery. Wednesday, May 17 was one of those days. (Birding friends, Aaron Carroll and Joan and Bob Bonin shared their photos with me for this blog. Thanks to them all!)
Our Oakland Township Wednesday Birding Group gathered in the parking lot, but Aaron Carroll had arrived early and walked the trails through the eastern fields. In the hedgerow between them, he’d spotted a pair of male Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus) jousting among the greenery. (Gender ID is easy with this species. Males have black “mustaches.” Females don’t.) In the first photo below, one bird has its beak straight up in the air, the very pose that author Donald Stokes (Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior, Vol. 1) describes for both male and female flickers when skirmishing over territory or potential mates in spring. Stokes adds that this position is usually followed by a chase, which seems to be what’s happening in Aaron’s second photo. Good job of catching the action, Aaron!
Once the whole group arrived, we took the northern path from the parking lot, crossed through an opening in the hedgerow and cut through the pathless forest full of dappled light. We emerged at the top of a large meadow and waded through soft grass where it sloped down toward a large marsh. At its edge, we could see and hear multiple Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia) whisking about singly and in pairs at the edge near the water. The males serenaded their lady friends and fended off the competition with songs they’d learned from nearby adult males when they were mere fledglings. I couldn’t record their songs while in the birding group, but here’s a Song Sparrow I saw and recorded at Watershed Ridge in 2018, just to refresh your memory. (Click red arrow for sound.)
Two small gray birds flitted about within the branches of a gnarly old tree at the edge of the marsh. Binoculars raised, we identified them as Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers. Then suddenly we recognized their elegant, cup-shaped nest nearby. According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds website, it’s built in flexible layers of bark strips, stems and grasses outside and softer materials inside like downy plant fibers and feathers, then decorated with lichen. And imagine this! These little birds use spider or caterpillar silk to hold it on the branch and bind it all together, which, some sources say, allows for some flexibility as the baby birds grow. Clever little artist/engineers, these tiny birds. I love Aaron Carroll’s sequence of photos below. He saw both adults taking turns on the nest, which Cornell reports as a gnatcatcher trait! Nice cooperation!
We used a handy rock for crossing a small stream beyond the marsh to explore the field and pond beyond. I enjoy cresting the small slope beyond the stream to see the small wetland below because it often hosts water birds. And sure enough, three different migrators had dropped in for a visit. A Great Egret (Ardea alba) flew up from the shore, while down below, a Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) scuttled about the muddy edges and a Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes) foraged beneath the surface with its long beak.
A Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) chattered in the thicket at the edge of the meadow. It never made an appearance for fellow birders, Ralph and Andrea Wampler and I. But if you’d like to hear a bit of Catbird conversation, here’s one from Bear Creek a few years ago.
The Big Finish!
From the meadow, we crossed back over the creek and headed up into the trees. Suddenly the people at the front of the group turned to the rest of us, gesturing with their index fingers to their lips and whispering, “ssshhh…!” We gathered quietly. About four feet off the trail, a very focused female Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) drilled furiously at a short stump. We all froze. We couldn’t quite believe our luck at being so close to such an impressive bird. As you’ll see in Aaron Carroll’s video below, she was making the wood chips fly as she drilled for insects in the rotting bark. And she went on drilling for several minutes, apparently oblivious to the presence of the birding group! All of us stood in amazement.
Finally the Pileated raised her bright red crest and flew farther into the trees. Perhaps she was annoyed at not finding the insects she sought or maybe she suddenly realized she was being watched by a group of rapt birders! We all stood there for a few seconds in disbelief after she departed and then we started exclaiming. “Amazing!” “Boy, I’m glad I was here!” “What a sight that was!” “Well that may be my most incredible bird sighting ever…” We felt a bit dazed but very pleased with the morning’s events as we started up the trail again. But it turned out that nature had one more treat in store for us.
The up-and-down ripple of paired notes of the Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) reached us from the canopy. Ben led the way and there he was – the male Bunting which Cornell ornithologists describe so beautifully as looking “like a scrap of sky with wings.” This male’s dark wings may have carried him from the Caribbean, Central America or as far away as the northwestern tip of South America. We can hope that he’s arrived to nest and breed at Watershed Ridge Park. We’d be honored to host him.
Lest You Believe That’s All We Saw….!
The birds above are just a few of the 35 species we saw and/or heard that spring morning. They’re the ones that posed nicely for my photographer friends! So here are a few of the other migrators we saw or heard that morning in photos my friends and I have taken on other days. And this slideshow doesn’t even include the “regulars,” like the cardinals, various woodpeckers, the tufted titmice and such that we see on almost every walk but which delight us with their presence too!
You Don’t Have to Be a “Birder” to Enjoy Our Birding Walks
I’m NOT your classic “birder.” I don’t keep a “life list” of birds that I’ve seen. I recognize maybe 10 bird songs from memory. I only travel relatively short distances to go to occasional bird festivals or “hotspots.” We keep feeders in our yard and dedicate a bookshelf to bird identification/ behavior books. I’ve monitored bird boxes and have Cornell Ornithology’s Merlin app on my cell phone to help me identify birds and their calls. So I guess that makes me a bird enthusiast rather than a serious “birder.”
And I just love the Wednesday Bird Walks. This congenial collection of bird fanciers has become a community for me. Our group is a mixture of men and women from late teens to late seventies with a variety of gifts to share. Younger ones bring their energy, enthusiasm, good ears, and sharp eyes, as well as info and insights they’ve gleaned recently in academic settings. Some of us older ones bring years of accumulated bird knowledge and experience. Some can accurately describe almost any plumage pattern or carry a symphony of bird songs in their heads.
We walk at a relaxed pace. Once someone spots a bird, we gather, craning our necks, peering upward through our binoculars, trying to find the bird’s location. “See those two bushes with white flowers? Look about 30 feet up at 3:00,” (which means about halfway up the tree on the right side. ) “It’s at the tip of that bare limb…Oops, it just went down in the grass – but wait. Bluebirds often come right back up.” “I’m hearing a Brown Thrasher but I can’t see it yet.” And so on.
Like me, most bird walkers just enjoy the company of birders as much as we enjoy birds. We share personal stories, laugh, commiserate, chat along the way. We’re silent when we need to be. We mute our phones and look at them only for info or the occasional bird call. We come because we like the people and we love seeing birds, hearing their songs and hanging out together for a couple of hours surrounded by nature. And our stewardship staff reports our weekly discoveries to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s citizen science website, eBird.org. That also allows our stewardship staff to keep a record of bird species in our parks each week over many years.
You’re welcome to join us if any of that sounds appealing. Just bring your curiosity and good will. Wear comfy clothes, sturdy shoes and bring binoculars, or our Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide will happily loan you a pair on the spot. The summer schedule is listed here . If you’re interested but unable to hike with us for any reason, I’m glad you’re joining us here at Natural Areas Notebook!
After all, on some delightful spring morning, YOU might get lucky and find yourself up close and personal with a glorious drama queen like the one below!
They’re coming our way. And others are bidding us farewell. The spring bird migration is under way and will really gain steam in early May. Are you curious about how many birds flew through the night over Oakland County yesterday? Here’s a great tool from Cornell University’s Ornithology Lab that can give you a data-based estimate! (Thanks to birding friend Vinnie Morganti for the link!)
The Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) and Tree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea), who nest in colder climates, are beginning to depart from the hedgerows and from under our feeders as they wing their way to their northern breeding grounds. Bufflehead dabbling ducks (Bucephala albeola) showed up on Cranberry Lake in mid-March as they made their way through Michigan to their nesting grounds that extend from Ontario to Canada’s Northwest Territories. And of course, the hoarse, ancient cries of the Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) now draw our eyes skyward. (Click on photos below to enlarge.)
I’m always impressed by the ability of birds to survive the ordeal of migration, successfully navigating their way twice each year across the country and sometimes far beyond. This spring a lot of questions bubbled up in my winter-weary mind.
How does the tiny hummingbird beat its wings thousands of times on its way to Central America without expiring from exhaustion? How do fledglings find their way when they travel without adults, which happens more often than not? How do birds flying nonstop over oceans eat and sleep? And what’s up with birds using the earth’s magnetic field to navigate? I sure can’t perceive the earth’s magnetic field!
Recently, while doing some spring cleaning, I came across an article that I’d saved which gave me some possible explanations and some resources to go further. (See references below.) So I wanted to share with you the astounding and somewhat bizarre adaptations that allow our avian neighbors to successfully make such arduous journeys.
First, a big Thank-You! My photographer friends, Paul Birtwhistle and Bob and Joan Bonin have again generously shared some of their wonderful photos for this blog. My heartfelt thanks to all three!
So How Did This Whole Migration Pattern Get Started, Anyway?
Doesn’t semi-annual migration seem a bit extreme? I mean, why don’t birds just stay in warm regions all year ’round happily eating and breeding? (I’m glad they don’t, though!) The Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes two theories: the Northern Home theory that northern bird ancestors moved south little by little as ice ages advanced, or the Southern Home theory that southern bird ancestors followed the ice north as it retreated. According to a recent University of Michigan study of the evolutionary lineage of 800 species of North American song birds, the Northern Home theory seems more likely. (Very cool detail about this subject at this link! Click on the words “Evolution of Bird Migration” at the top left.)
Birds have continued to migrate for eons because of the basics: food and breeding opportunities. Temperate zones like Michigan are very buggy places. Our inland wetlands and shorelines produce a glorious abundance of insects and their caterpillars each spring and summer. Just look at the meal this Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) found in one of our parks! Quite a haul!
So when daylight lingers in spring or shrinks in autumn, birds notice the change and start feeling restless. Even captive birds in scientific studies evidence migration restlessness, which is known among researchers by the German name zugunruhe. As the season approaches, they eat more and later into the evening. Their sleep decreases by as much as two-thirds in some species. (Sounds familiar somehow. Maybe human “snow birds” are experiencing zugunruhe?)
The other big draw is mating, of course. Favorite stopovers bring together migrating birds of the same species, which means a more diverse choice of mates. Let’s hear it for diversifying the gene pool!
And then there’s the “housing market”; early birds enjoy a greater selection of the preferred, sometimes scarce, nest sites.
OK, So How Do Birds Prepare for Migration?
It’s tough to generalize about bird migration. Consider that some travel long distances, like the Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) who flaps its tiny wings to reach Central America, or the Magnolia Warbler (Setophaga magnolia) who sets off for the Caribbean. Others travel short distances, like Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) and American Robins (Turdus migratorius) who simply move just far enough in winter to find open water and more food.
Many songbirds, like the Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus), make their way at night to avoid migrating predators like the Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii), which migrates in daylight. Also, according to the Audubon Society, “Free of daytime thermals [rising warm air], the atmosphere [at night] is more stable, making it easier to maintain a steady course, especially for smaller birds such as warblers that might fly as slowly as 15 miles per hour.”
Some migrators fly in single species flocks, like the Snow Buntings (Plectrophenax nivalis) that arrive in the fall from the Arctic to spend winters in Michigan. Their plumage is whiter in the snowy north to camouflage them while breeding. During their winter visit here, their plumage includes more brown, making them less visible in fallow farm fields and open prairie. Others, like the Greater (Tringa melanoleuca) and Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes) make their way north in mixed flocks during spring migration.
According to Scott Weidensaul, author of A World on Wings: the Global Odyssey of Migratory Birds, even if huge numbers of birds are aloft together, a migrating songbird flying at night, “does not fly in cohesive, coordinated flocks; each is migrating on it own.” House Wrens (Troglodytes aedon) and Red-eyed Vireos (Vireo olivaceus), for example are lone nighttime migrators.
Given all that that diversity, here’s what I’ve gleaned so far about how birds prepare.
They Fatten Up Big Time!
Birds really lard up for migration. Experienced naturalist and local bird bander, Allen Chartier, checks the weight of each bird he bands and gently blows the breast feathers aside to actually see the fat layer. He told me in a helpful email that our Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds, which normally weigh about 3 grams during breeding season can weigh more than 5 grams as they leave Michigan. They need to keep bulking up along the way and amazingly can double their normal weight in about a week just before heading across the Gulf of Mexico in the autumn or the Yucatan in the spring.
Blackpoll Warblers (Setophaga striata) transit across our state twice a year and Allen says they, “… undergo a long water crossing, sometimes from the mid-Atlantic coast down to Venezuela, non-stop. Normally they weigh 10-11 grams, but can put on enough fat to more than double their weight for these multi-day flights.” He reports that “in the Great Lakes, I have had Blackpoll Warblers that weigh more than 20 grams.” Fat is clearly the essential fuel for bird migration!
As author Scott Weidensaul points out, “By any typical measure, a migratory bird ready for travel ought to head to the ER, not the skies.” But he says, unlike seriously overweight humans, fattened-up migrators are not plagued by increased risk of hypertension, heart disease, diabetes or stroke. Weidensaul says that “Researchers hope that insights from avian physiology may help may help unlock new treatments and preventive approaches in people.” I hope so too!
They “Grow or Jettison their Internal Organs on an As-needed Basis!”
The quote above from Scott Weidensaul’s book just blew me away. The internal organs of birds actually shrink and expand for migration? Yes! “Internal flexibility is actually common among migrants … a thrush or catbird, feeding on the dogwood berries in a corner of the backyard, has undergone a late summer expansion of its intestines to squeeze every calorie from lipid-rich fruit.”
Migrating birds, which need to travel non-stop over oceans or deserts for long distances, shrink their digestive organs since they’re expendable when they can’t stop to feed. But their hearts, lungs and pectoral muscles grow larger, and do so without exercise! On arrival, the digestive organs make a comeback that allows them to start feeding again. Imagine! Transforming organs!
The little Chestnut-sided Warbler (Setophaga pensylvanica) below, photographed by Paul Birtwhistle in Costa Rica, may not have needed such drastic transformation for its nonstop trip across the Gulf of Mexico. I couldn’t find a definitive answer to that but it definitely burned a lot of fat! According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s subscription website, Birds of the World, a Chestnut-sided Warbler in non-breeding plumage could have weighed 10 -12 grams when it left the U.S. coast. But these birds are recorded as weighing only about 8 grams when they reach Central America, having lost most or all of their stored fat on their nonstop flights across the Gulf of Mexico.
Weidensaul also reports that both male and female birds shrink their sexual organs for fall migration. Anything to make flying lighter and easier, I guess! Allen Chartier wrote, “Ever since humans began preparing “study skins” for museums, more than 200 years ago, it was discovered that during the non-breeding season the gonads of birds shrink in size, to maybe 10% of the size that they are in the breeding season. It was figured, eventually, that this was to reduce weight for migration, and allow for more body fat to be laid on for migratory flights.” Their gonads are ballooning right now, which is why we are beginning to hear that robust morning chorus in the spring!
Once They Start Moving, How in the World Do They Navigate?
In her lively and well-researched New Yorker article, “Where the Wild Things Go: How Animals Navigate the World,” (April 5, 2021), Kathryn Schulz wrote: “A bird that migrates over long distances must maintain its trajectory by day and by night, in every kind of weather, often with no landmarks in sight. If its travels take more than a few days, it must compensate for the fact that virtually everything it could use to stay oriented will change, from the elevation of the sun to the length of the day and the constellations overhead at night. Most bewildering of all, it must know where it is going — even the first time, when it has never been there before – and it must know where that destination lies compared with its current position.” Wow.
Like humans with our much more limited ability to orient and navigate, birds use a variety of basic navigation strategies, and different species may use a combination of them. Kathryn Schulz lists as strategies: sight, sound or even scent cues, landmarks (mountain ridges, coastlines), compass orientation or vector navigation (stringing together multiple orientations (e.g. south and then southwest for a precise distance) or dead reckoning (calculating based on bearing, speed and time elapsed from a previous location). But she points out, “… to have a sense of direction, a given species might also need to have other faculties, something like a compass, something like a map, a decent memory, the ability to keep track of time, and an information-rich awareness of its environment.” And Weidensaul adds to the list: the patterns of stars around Polaris (the North Star) and the movement of “bands of polarized light that are invisible to us but easily seen by birds.” Wow, again! All that in one small skull!
According to Weidensaul, “Migratory birds grow fresh neurons before autumn migration” and scientists have correlated longer migrations with more neuron growth, presumably as an aid to navigation. The neurons also increase according to whether birds travel individually or in flocks. Warblers which generally fly alone show increases in the hippocampus which processes spatial information and memory. Birds in large migrating flocks see most of the increase in regions of the brain that may be more important for noticing and understanding the actions of other birds.
Researchers believe that a bird’s general destination may be defined by instinct, especially in young birds, many of whom make their first trip alone or with other juveniles. But learning clearly occurs during their first flight with or without adults and plays its part in perfecting the best route from then on.
But what I wanted to know was, how do some migrating birds create and use a mental map of the earth’s magnetic field? I kept finding references to their ability to do so, but no one told me how! Well, Weidensaul had an answer which he says “most experts accept.”
Imagine the little Wilson’s Warbler(Cardellina pusilla) in the photo above glancing upward at the stars as it flies through the night from Central America to where I saw it in Tawas City, Michigan. As I understand it, photons of the stars’ blue light hit specialized cells in the bird’s retina containing molecules of a protein called cryptochrome. (Love the Superman sound of that!) Those molecules react by thrusting one of their electrons into a neighboring molecule and the two become connected (“entangled” in scientific jargon) and magnetic. (That’s the quantum mechanics part which is a bit beyond me.) As light continues to stream in, multiples of these paired molecules build a map of the magnetic field within the bird’s eye. Scientists think the map may appear as a “dim shape or smudge — visible as the bird moves its head, but not opaque enough to interfere with normal vision — that shifts with the bird’s position relative to the ground and to the inclination of the magnetic field lines arcing out of the planet” (Weidensaul). Evidently, birds can orient themselves within that map to help find their way to their destination. Many of us humans have a tough time reading a road map!
If my brief summary leaves you with more questions than answers, you’re in good company. Even scientists don’t completely understand how cryptochrome works its magic and some disagree with the whole theory. But at least that little map in the eye created by starlight and quantum mechanics satisfies my curiosity for now. If you’d like a somewhat what more detailed description, I recommend Chapter Two of Weidensaul’s book, A World on the Wing.
Eating and Sleeping,: How Do They Survive Along the Way?
Eating on migrations varies according to what and how a bird eats. Most migrating birds depend on trusted stopover sites for food and rest. Allen Chartier wrote that “Migrating warblers, sparrows, and thrushes migrate at night, and put on fat to fly 200+ miles each night…” to their next stop. Eastern Kingbirds (Tyrannus tyrannus)and Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) migrate to Michigan from deep in South America during daylight hours, in order to gobble up flying insects while on the wing as well as at known rest stops.
Amazingly, some birds in other regions of the world fly nonstop for multiple days and nights without eating at all! Weidensaul describes the Bar-tailed Godwit’s “7,200-mile nonstop flight each autumn from western Alaska to New Zealand, a journey that takes them eight or nine days of uninterrupted flight — the longest nonstop migration known.” They are an impressive example of “jettisoning” organs and living on fat. I’m really glad I’m not a godwit – but I am impressed by them!
Drinking in Flight
Birds don’t sweat but they do lose moisture through breathing and excreting. That may account for so many birds migrating at night when the air is cooler and more humid, according to Weidensaul. Of course they look for freshwater wetlands as a basic source of drinking water. But on long ocean or other nonstop flights, for instance, research shows that they can still maintain a healthy amount of moisture by extracting water from their beefed-up muscles and organs while in flight.
Sleeping on the Wing
Most migrating birds do their journeys in stages, resting during the day or night depending on when they travel. Weidensaul reports that “For migratory songbirds, like White-throated Sparrows and Hermit Thrushes (Catharus guttatus,) the onset of migration seasons … decreases the amount of time they sleep by two-thirds, even in captivity, and well before they start migration. They may compensate by taking micronaps during the day.”
Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) have evolved to use unihemispheric sleep, a condition in which only half the brain sleeps at a time and one eye stays open. Neils Rattenborg directs sleep research at Germany’s Max Planck Institute and his team’s work centers around birds. According to an article from the Max Planck Society, Rattenborg documented that “in a group of sleeping ducks, those [Mallards] sitting at the edge kept their outwardly directed eye open and the corresponding brain hemisphere remained awake. The birds can thereby rest a part of their brain while keeping an eye out for potential predators.” I’m on the lookout for that phenomenon!
By outfitting birds Great Frigatebirds (Fregata minor) near the Galapagos Islands with tiny transmitters, Rattenborg also discovered something even more important about sleep. It seems these large birds take repeated unihemispheric naps averaging about 12 seconds long while foraging at sea for six days or more. Sometimes these birds’ entire brains slept while slowly gliding up or down in thermals! Talk about power napping, eh?
What Can We Humans Do to Make Life Easier for Migrating Birds?
Clearly, we’ve created big challenges for migrating birds, despite their amazing adaptations over the eons. So here are just a few of those difficulties and how we might help our beautiful migrating neighbors.
Light Pollution: Birds need a clear view of the night sky even more than we do. (Don’t you miss seeing a sky filled with stars?) So we can turn off outside lights (at home and in workplaces), make the light bulbs yellow or red instead of white, or install shades on outdoor lights that direct the light downward. Inside, we can close curtains or shades where a light is near a window in the evening during migration season. It all helps.
Reflective glass like picture windows: Birds that crash into windows may fly off but they often do so with concussions. Check out this link for options for preventing bird strikes.
Cats: Keep our beloved felines indoors. To quote Cornell Lab of Ornithology on this subject, “These are non-native predators that, even using conservative estimates, kill 1.3–4 billion birds and 6.3–22.3 billion mammals each year in the U.S. alone. Exhausted migratory birds and fledglings are particularly at risk.
Habitat Loss: Restore natural areas and plant native plants at home. Birds count on finding the adult insects, caterpillars, and seeds that make up their diet when they arrive at a stopover or their final destination. If that land is covered by concrete or invaded by non-native plants that don’t provide the nutrition or cover they need, birds suffer along with the rest of the creatures in that habitat.
Climate Change: Actively, drastically and quickly reduce our use of fossil fuels. Climate disruption effects migratory birds in so many ways. But here are at least two important ones. It causes more severe weather events which vulnerable migrators must negotiate over long distances. Also, insects and plants initiate hatching or blooming by ground temperature; as the ground warms earlier, overwintering insects hatch earlier, plants mature more quickly. Birds, however, initiate migration by the position of the sun and the length of daylight. As a result, tired migrators may arrive in the spring unable to find the insects, nectar or pollen on which they depend. Want evidence? Look here!
Birds Do It, Bees Do It, Even Whales in the Seas Do It … Let’s Do It. Let’s Start to Adapt…
Obviously, we humans need to adapt just like the migrators have – but a lot faster! We don’t have thousands of years for evolution to re-engineer our bodies and nature itself to cope with the new climate we’re creating with fossil fuels. No miracles of transforming digestive systems, cryptochrome maps in our eyes or unihemispheric sleep are on our immediate horizon. Nature already gave us our adaptive tools – our brains and our will. We already know much of what is needed; the trick is, do we find the collective will as a species to do it in time? The changes we need to make are significant, but not insurmountable. Nature is already warning us with tornadoes, floods, droughts, melting glaciers. It’s insisting “You can do this! Use the adaptation tools between your ears that you were blessed with and save us all!” I certainly hope more humans heed that desperate call – and soon!
A World on the Wing: The Global Odyssey of Migratory Birds by Scott Weidensaul, W.W. Norton and Company, New York 2021
“Where the Wild Things Go: How Animals Navigate the World,” by Kathryn Schulz, published April 5, 2021 in the New Yorker magazine
Birds of the World, a subscription-only website from Cornel Lab of Ornithology, Cornell University in collaboration with the American Ornithological Society.
“The Evolution of Bird Migration, “Adapted from the Handbook of Bird Biology, Third Edition, on Cornell University’s website “All About Birds”‘
At the end of May, spring migration wound down and the breeding season heated up. The migrators and the year-round avian residents of our parks busily set about nesting and tending their newly hatched young. Their bright wings flashed color into the pale spring sunlight, much to the delight of hikers like me and my new photographer friend, Paul Birtwhistle.
Meanwhile, in the meadows, the tiny wings of small butterflies and moths fluttered at my feet and in the tall grass at the trail edge. The wings of ant-sized solitary bees beat almost invisibly as they probed blossoms for nectar. It seemed the whole park vibrated with wings!
So come hang out with Paul and I as we wandered the meadows, wood edges and forested wetlands of Charles Ilsley Park, enjoying the company of winged creatures.
Summer’s Yearly Visitors Offer Song, Color – and New Life! – to Park Visitors
In May and early June, birdsong filters down through the fresh green leaves as birds arrive from wintering in warmer climes to enjoy the bounteous feast of insects provided by a Michigan spring. Migrators journeying farther north may pause to forage and rest like the Blue-Headed Vireo (Vireo solitarius) spotted high in the treetops by the birders pictured above.
But many birds settle here for the summer, making the most of the abundant food and shelter our parks provide. Some sweep insects out of the air. Others pluck them off bark or probe for them in the ground. While Paul and I didn’t manage a joint trek through Charles Ilsley Park, we both saw a similar rainbow of birds singing to declare their territory or carrying off caterpillars to feed mates on the nest or newly hatched nestlings.
Birds In or Around the Tall Grass of the Prairies
My visits to Charles Ilsley Park usually begin by walking along the entrance path while monitoring some of the township’s nest boxes. Two other trained volunteers and I keep records of the first egg laid, the hatch and fledge dates and any issues that develop around the nest, like predators (House Sparrows, for example). We submit the data to Cornell University’s NestWatch site as part of a citizen science project.
This year three different species have settled in the boxes that I monitor. Eastern Bluebird babies (Sialia sialis) have broken naked from their shells, begged for food and ultimately found their way into the big wide world. [Click on photos to enlarge.]
Paul and I were both lucky enough to see the adults working to make this happen. It looks like the female of both of these pairs was delivering food for her young while the male stood watch.
A House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) in one of my boxes laid her eggs in a very tidy circle. Wrens fill their boxes almost to the top with twigs, topping them off with just enough grass and feathers to cushion their young. Somehow, the female makes her way into that tight spot to incubate her tiny eggs. I imagine the crowded box discourages predators from entering. By the way, this is an extreme closeup; the wren’s eggs are just a bit larger than a dime!
Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) take up residence in our boxes as well. After building a nest of dry grass, they collect feathers, almost always white ones, to create a soft covering for the eggs. It’s amazing how many white feathers they find; I’ve read, though, that they sometimes snitch them from other Tree Swallows! Paul got a lovely photo of a male perched like a pasha on another dry Evening Primrose stalk. These striking birds glide above the meadow grass, beaks agape, collecting insects as small as gnats and as big as dragonflies.
At the end of the entrance trail, beyond the nest boxes, I’m greeted by restored prairies rolling off in all directions. In May, Ben brought in a contractor to do a major prescribed burn in Charles Ilsley Park. The low flames moved across the east and north prairies, even taking in the forests around them as part of the planned burn.
It was a dramatic sight in the first few weeks to see the blackened land begin to flourish again. The burn replenishes the soil with nutrients held in the dry plants, and the blackened surface and warmth of the fire provides a longer growing season for many native plants. Many non-native plants can be thwarted by periodic fire, unlike our fire-adapted native species.
At the entrance to the eastern prairie, an up-and-down two note call issued from the small copse of trees. Wow! I was lucky enough to see a Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus) at close range. Usually I only hear vireos because they tend to stay high in the crowns of trees. What a delight to watch this one hop about in small trees long enough to get a quick photo!
One of my favorite migrators spends the winter among the colorful birds of South American forests. Dressed elegantly in black and white with its upright posture and white tail band, the Eastern Kingbird paused for Paul while surveying its territory. Kingbirds can be aggressive toward birds near their nests, even large ones flying high overhead.
An assortment of summer sparrows make the most of our restored prairies. Once I began to pay attention to their varied songs and patterns in brown, black and white, they added interesting detail to my hikes. Ben VanderWeide, Oakland Township’s Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, helpfully compares the song of the Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) to the sound of a bouncing ping-pong ball. It starts with slow, sharp bursts that rapidly accelerate into a series of quick, rat-a-tat-tat notes. The melodies of the Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) can vary but are usually characterized by a couple of quick notes followed by a short melody that ends in either a trill or a buzz. For me, the songs of these two birds are the soundtracks of summer in all of our parks.
Birds in the Treetops and Forested Wetlands of Ilsley’s Western Trails
A large wetland runs along the northern edge of the park’s western section. It lies beyond the moist forest that edges the trail and may be missed by some hikers. Luckily, Paul willingly went off trail to get closer to the green surface of the long marsh which is covered with plants that are often mistaken for algae. Common Duckweed (Lemna minor) in my photo below is the small, leaved plant that floats on the water and Water Meal (Wolffia columbiana) is the tiny plant between the Duckweed which can multiply to form a dense mat on the water surface, as it does right now at Ilsley’s western marsh.
Evidently, a male Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) found it quite a suitable surface for exploring! I wonder if its nest is high in the trees nearby? Wood Ducks are perching ducks that use the hooks on their webbed feet to negotiate tree bark. According to the Cornell All About Birds website, their ducklings can fall fifty feet from their nest into the greenery below without injury.
Two adult Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) and their four goslings demonstrated the appeal of a nice lunch of Water Meal and Duckweed.
Exploring in the west of the park, Paul spotted the impressive Great Crested Flycatcher (Myiarchus crinitus). Inspired by his success, I spotted it later too, but it was rapidly hawking insects out of a high tree at the time. According to Cornell’s All About Birds website, this bird spends almost all of its time seeking insects high in the canopy or scooping them out of the air. Sometimes, Cornell says, it may even “crash into foliage in pursuit of leaf-crawling prey”! I want to learn their rising two note call so I can see their chocolate wings and lemon breasts more often!
On the May bird walk at Charles Ilsley Park, several brightly colored migrators decorated the treetops along the western trail. All of the colorful characters in the slideshow below can breed in our area. So during late June and early July, keep yours eyes open for the nests or fledglings of this avian rainbow when hiking in shrubby areas or at the forest edge!
Pollinators’ Danced at My Feet, Fluttering Their Small Wings Along the Grassy Trails
Since Paul kindly agreed to look upward and outward for birds, I felt free to gaze down into the grass along the trails, looking for the tiny butterflies and moths that often appear before larger insects. On the bird walk, a member spotted the small Eight-Spotted Forester Moth (Alypia octomaculata) that sports puffs of orange hair on its front and middle legs. As the Missouri Department of Conservation points out, it can easily be mistaken for a butterfly: it eats nectar, flies in the daylight and its antennae thicken at the end somewhat like butterfly attennae. This one appeared in its favorite habitat, the place where the field meets the forest. The adult moth feeds in the sunshine, then lays its eggs in the shady woods on grapevines or Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), the host plants its caterpillar loves to eat.
The birding group also watched a tattered Mourning Cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa) feed on invasive Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata.) It looks as though overwintering in a log or under tree bark took its toll on this one! Nearby, we spotted a strangely still Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes). The Butterflies of MichiganField Guide by Jaret C. Daniels informed me that their host plant is Common Prickly-Ash (Zanthoxylum americanum), a small, thorny tree on which the female can detect a citrus scent with her antennae. I wonder if this Giant Swallowtail was drying its wings after having recently emerged from its chrysalis on a nearby tree.
A few days after seeing the Eight-spotted Forester Moth, I found a very similar small moth at my feet on the trail. It too was tiny and black with white spots, but its orange patches were on the surface of its forewings. With help from the passionate moth lovers at the “Moths of Eastern North America” Facebook page, I learned its name. This thumb-sized, diurnal insect, called the White-spotted Sable Moth (Anania funebris), is referred to as “holarctic,” because it inhabits the majority of continents on the northern half of the planet! This particular Sable Moth seemed to be exclusively feeding off the clover blossoms on the trail, one after another. Though this moth must be quite abundant, I’d never noticed one before.
During several different visits, I noticed other small butterflies and moths that kept me company along the trails. The two tiny “tails” at the edge of the hindwings give the Eastern Tailed Blue its name. The Pearl Crescent is named for a small white shape on the underside of its hindwing. The caterpillar of the Peck’s Skipper chews on turf grasses but seems harmless among the wild grasses of our parks.
On my last visit, a dramatic Red-spotted Purple butterfly (Limentitis arthemis astyanax) glided by as I entered the park. I sometimes still mistake them for Spicebush Swallowtails (Papilio troilus troilus) because of the blue, iridescent blush on the top (dorsal) side of their hindwings and the orange spots on the ventral (lower) side of their hindwings. But the Purples have no “tails” and the orange spots beneath form a single line on the hindwings instead of the double line of the Spicebush Swallowtails, as you can see below.
The Beautiful and the Less So: Justifying (Maybe?) My Fascination with Less Likable Creatures
Dr. Doug Parsons, director of Michigan State University’s Bug House, helped me identify a couple of tiny insects that intrigued me. I’d watched what I thought were tiny wasps on almost every dandelion on the trail through the park’s Central Prairie. Dr. Parsons explained that these were not wasps, but Cuckoo Bees (genus Nomada).
Dr. Parsons wrote that this solitary bee “sneaks into the ground nest of the host bee,” most often a Mining Bee (g. Andrena), and “lays her eggs in the cells that the host bee has stocked with pollen for her own larva.” Since Mining Bees never return to the nest after stocking them, the Cuckoo bee’s egg hatches into a larva undisturbed, kills the host’s egg or larva and feeds on the stored pollen. The official term for a creature which does this is a “nest kryptoparasite,” a suitably creepy word for such behavior! Birds in the Cuckoo family do the same, laying their eggs in the nests of other birds – hence the name Cuckoo Bee. This native bee resembles a wasp in part because it has very little hair on its body. Dr. Parsons explained that bees are often fuzzy in order to collect sticky pollen. Since the Mining Bee collects the pollen that feeds the Cuckoo Bee’s young, this sneaky interloper doesn’t require the other bee’s hairier surface. Ah, another fine example of evolution working its magic.
Last week, I also observed a nondescript, brownish moth fly onto a grass stem, fold itself up and almost disappear. It was quite a challenge to locate it in my camera’s viewfinder! Dr. Parsons confirmed that this little moth is the Eastern Grass Veneer (Crambus laqueatellus). Evidently, some folks refer to these members of Crambidae family as “snout moths” because their long mouth structures resemble pointed noses. Dr. Parsons told me they can be “serious pests in lawns and golf courses” because their caterpillars eat turf grass roots. He isn’t sure, though, that they cause problems in our parks where their larvae may consume a variety of grasses. For me, its disappearing act, pointed “snout” and racing-striped wings were just odd enough to make it a fascinating find.
I’m sure that I puzzle some of you by including unglamorous, fiercely predatory or even destructive creatures in these nature blogs. Sometimes it puzzles me too that I want to explore them. But I guess for me, all of these creatures – from the Cuckoo Bee to the glorious Great Crested Flycatcher – play an essential role in the great drama of nature. By learning a name for these fellow players and the roles they perform on our shared stage, the whole spectacle and my role in it become clearer for me, more coherent – which in these chaotic times is a pretty good feeling! It’s my role – our role perhaps – to honor and respect nature in all its complexity during an era in which too many dishonor the natural world, ignore it or take it for granted. I know you, like me, care enough to watch, learn and share what you learn with others when you can. And that encourages me. Thanks for being here.
Hawks by the thousands head out across the west end of Lake Erie each autumn. And smaller migrators wing across at night to avoid those predatory hawks that travel by day. Holiday Beach Conservation Area on Lake Erie (near Amherstburg, Ontario, an easy drive from southeast Michigan) lies on a major fly-way for migrating birds, especially hawks. Local birders from the Holiday Beach Migration Observatory (HBMO) count and keep records on the migration spectacle.
Text and photos by Cam Mannino
In mid-September each year, HBMO members share the fun of migration by hosting the Festival of Hawks at Holiday Beach, the third-ranked hawk watching site in North America. For the last 41 years, volunteer bird enthusiasts from HBMO have contributed to the study of migration and bird conservation for both hawks and perching birds (“passerines”). Let’s hear it for passionate citizen scientists!
This year three of us from the Oakland Township birding group made our own migration to experience this special event. At the Festival, we looked skyward from the tall observation tower, craning our necks, binoculars aloft, to watch huge, swirling flocks of hawks, known as “kettles,” as seen in the photo above and at left below.
What a sight to see roughly 200 Broad-winged Hawks (Buteo platypterus) wheeling up and over the tree line at the horizon! These forest raptors with their banded tails spiral upward on thermals, riding currents of rising, warm air to great heights with little effort. Traveling over 4,000 miles, hundreds of thousands of these hawks create a “river of raptors” (as they call it in Mexico) flowing into their winter territories in Mexico, Central and South America. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Broad-winged Hawks soaring on thermals high above Holiday Beach Conservation Area.
Their light underwing feathers and black-and white striped tails stood out against a blue sky.
Another impressive raptor settled low in a tree right over the path to the viewing area. An Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) had caught a fish and wasn’t going anywhere until it finished its meal! Ospreys, unlike other hawks, eat only fish. They are skilled anglers and tend to carry their prey head-first for less wind resistance. This one gave me a fierce stare and then went right back to eating its lunch.
The Osprey gave me a fierce stare, but then went back to the fish between its feet.
The Osprey eating its fish.
We visitors were allowed to crowd around a trained and licensed HBMO bird bander as he attached bands to several birds caught in their super-fine “mist nets.” Runners watch the nets which are stretched between poles on fly-ways near the ground. The captured birds are quickly removed from the nets and rushed to the gentleman banding birds in order to release them as quickly as possible. We began by watching the banding of a tiny Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) brought in a small cloth bag. The man gently wrapped his hand around the tiny bird. The hummer was surprisingly calm.
The bird bander held a tiny hummer gently in his hand.
With a special tool, he softly clipped a tiny band (10 of them fit on a diaper pin!) on the hummer’s leg. The band will identify that specific bird and allow the club to be contacted if someone observes the hummer and reports the band. The bander weighed and measured the tiny bird, then determined its gender and approximate age (juvenile or adult).
For a small donation to Holiday Beach Migration Observatory’s work, we observers could “adopt” a banded bird. That meant having a photo taken with the bird, releasing it from your open palm and being notified where/when your “adoptee” was found by another birder. Donna, one of our birders, adopted a little Hummingbird.
The hummer is placed in the hand of the “adopter” who releases it back to the wild.
Here are some other birds that got banded, or had their bands checked, while we watched. (Click on the pause button if more time is needed for captions.)
As a bonus, some individuals trained and licensed in falconry brought their owls and hawks. Though hunting with trained birds is an ancient sport, it always make me a little uncomfortable to see the jesses on their legs. But these licensed professionals did give us a chance to see magnificent birds up close. And the birds were clearly well cared for, well fed and beautifully trained.
I love the whole idea of citizen science! How wonderful that the passionate birders of HBMO gather to provide data on the birds that they admire and to educate the rest of us! This summer, here in the township, several residents volunteered to monitor bluebird boxes, providing the Cornell Ornithology Lab’s NestWatch site with plentiful data on a lovely species that may contribute to their continued survival. Some of us report amphibian and reptile sightings to the Michigan Herpetology Atlas or participate in Feeder Watch, which keeps track of winter birds at our home feeders. Some are helping post-doctoral students at the U-M’s M3 Monarch Migration Study use tiny electronic monitors to learn where individual Monarch butterflies travel. There are so many ways to contribute to what science can teach us about the natural world. What’s your passion?
The golden Eastern Meadow at Cranberry Lake Park in early September
Goldenrod! A variety of different Goldenrods gild Cranberry Lake Park in early autumn. Their bounty of nectar and pollen and the insects they attract make Cranberry Lake an ideal stopover for migrating birds and butterflies as they prepare for their long journeys. So cheer for Goldenrods as they feed wildlife, but don’t blame them for your fall allergies – blame ragweed!
Text and photos by Cam Mannino
Year ’round birds and summer residents have almost finished molting and are also stocking up energy for winter or the migration. And a surprising number of insects are also preparing by busily mating one last time, leaving behind eggs or chrysalises that can bring forth young next spring and summer. Lots going on within this carpet of gold!
Migrating Birds – Some Stayed All Summer; Some Just Stop Briefly for Rest & Refueling
Now’s the time to train your binoculars on any shaking leaf you see. It might be a fall migrator! Colorful, tiny warblers and vireos that are just passing through on their way south are well worth a pause to look into the shrubbery, as you’ll see below! But don’t forget to wish “bon voyage” to the migrators who arrived last spring and sojourned with us all summer. Many are finishing up their molts and readying for long journeys to the southern US or even Central and South America. We saw all of the birds shown below on the bird walk last week at Cranberry Lake Park.
Migrators from Farther North: Just Passing Through
The trees are aquiver with fall migrators, travelers that bred up north and only briefly stop to rest and refuel around our woods and meadows. The most colorful ones that we often hear but can’t see are warblers and vireos. These little birds travel on the night wind because it’s safer. Hawks, eagles, and other birds that might see these small birds as food migrate during the day so that they can ride the thermals!
My camera and I are not quite quick enough to catch a lot of these tiny, fast-moving birds. So to share them with you, I’m relying on photos of other photographers with the skills, equipment and sometimes sheer luck to capture these little beauties!
The Blue-winged Warbler (Vermivora cyanoptera) breeds at Cranberry Lake Park, but the birds we’ve seen in the last week were probably moving through from further north. This fine bird shows off its black eyeline and blue wings with white wingbars in a gorgeous photo taken by gifted local photographer Joan Bonin:
Blue-winged Warbler (Vermivora cyanoptera) by Joan Bonin
This photo of the striking Black-throated Blue Warbler (Setophaga caerulescens) is by gifted iNaturalist photographer Jeff Skrent at iNaturalist.org.
A Black-throated Blue Warbler, photo by Jeff Skrent (CC BY-NC)
A Yellow-throated Vireo ( Vireo flavifrons) from another generous iNaturalist photographer who uses the single name, paloma.
A Yellow-throated Vireo by paloma (CC BY-NC)
A Nashville Warbler (Leiothlypis ruficapilla) was also too quick for me. But here’s one I did manage to catch as it passed through in the autumn of 2016 on its way to Central America.
The Nashville Warbler on its way to Central America
Summer Visitors: The Migrators that Come Here to Raise Their Young
Some avian migrators see our parks as a great place to raise their young, so they come in the spring and stay for the summer. Having finished breeding and molting, they are now preparing to leave for points south. The male Common Yellowthroat’s (Geothlypis trichas) “Witchedy – witchedy” song accompanied me often during the summer months as he and his mate raised their young. But you may here his “chuck” call as he hops among the branches stocking up on insect protein before leaving for Florida.
The Common Yellowthroat stops singing its “witchedy-witchedy” song in the fall and prepares to migrate.
Both the male Common Yellowthroat and his mate did a complete molt in July or August and now have fresh feathers for the trip. She’s bit more secretive than the male as she feeds on beetles, ants, bees (!), dragonflies and grasshoppers within the golden fields. Usually she’ll leave a week or two later than the male.
The female Common Yellowthroat will be around a bit longer than her mate.
Last spring the Wednesday morning birders heard a Black-throated Green Warbler (Setophaga virens) singing its mating song along the Hickory Lane at Cranberry Lake. And this week, the birders spotted one flitting high in the trees. Perhaps it nested here to raise its young, or it could be just passing through our parks in spring and fall. Here’s a photo I took of a male during the spring migration this year.
The Black-throated Green Warbler may have nested here this summer or he may be just passing through both in the spring and fall.
High in a snag, a Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) paused briefly to survey the golden eastern meadow one afternoon. Many waxwings go into lower Canada to breed, but I’ve seen successful nests in our parks, too, so this one may have been a summer resident. Some will move south for the winter, but many waxwings will stick around during the cold months.
his Cedar Waxwing may have spent the summer with us or could be migrating south from Canada.
House Wrens (Troglodytes aedon) become quite secretive after breeding. But this one popped out of the greenery for a minute. It appears to have completed the late summer molt and is prepared to start south between now and mid-October.
The House Wren has raised its young here, molted and will be leaving shortly for Florida and other southern states.
A curious juvenile Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) peeked at me from dense shrubbery along the trail, too. The migration of Field Sparrows is not always predictable. Some migrate, some don’t, and some migrate one year but not the next, according to the Stokes’ Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.2). If this one does migrate, it may join a large flock with Chipping Sparrows as well as other Field Sparrows.
If this Field Sparrow chooses to migrate this year, it will probably join a larger flock. Or it may just stay put!
On one of my Cranberry walks, I spotted some Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) far across a well-hidden wetland. They were males who’d chosen this secluded spot to begin their molt out of the summer “eclipse plumage” into their fancy choosing-a-mate plumage. This one looked a bit rough at the moment, but well on his way to his courting colors. As I explained in last week’s molting blog, males molt earlier in the summer to camouflage themselves as females and then molt again in the fall, a time when they compete for a mate to breed with in the spring.
A male Wood Duck almost finished with the molt from his “eclipse plumage” to his courting feathers.
I often hear, but rarely see, the vireos at Cranberry Lake. But I did get to see a Warbling Vireo (Vireo gilvus) in the spring. A rare treat, since it loves to sing high in the treetops! Its plumage is modest but its song is impressive! The birders saw one lingering in our park for a while before departing for points south.
Warbling Vireos are often heard high in the trees, but not as commonly seen.
Occasionally I get a quick look at a Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus). But Bob Bonin, Joan’s husband and another gifted photographer, got a much better photo than I have so far! This week it too was hanging out with other migrators.
Red-eyed Vireo – photo by local photographer Bob Bonin
Birds, of course, are not the only creatures migrating through our parks this autumn. Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus) fluttered everywhere at Cranberry Lake Park in the last few weeks. This “super-generation” of fragile creatures – the ones that will fly 3,000 miles to Mexico – were swooping and diving over the meadows at Cranberry Lake, feeding on the acres of Goldenrod. So glad that we provide these master migrators with such a feast!
A female Monarch using it proboscis like a straw to sip nectar from Canada Goldenrod.
The tattered Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes) below looks lightly worn. Let’s hope that attests to its having mated here this summer after its migration to Cranberry Lake. These huge butterflies seem to be expanding their range north. Possibly due to climate change, Michigan now often has frost-free Septembers. So if mating was successful, the caterpillars of this very large butterfly may survive inside their chrysalises and hatch in our parks next spring.
This Giant Swallowtail looks a bit tattered at the end of a summer at Cranberry Lake Park. Due to mating? Maybe.
Last Chance for Progeny! Insects Still Mating in the Meadows
Among the Goldenrod, insects seek out mates in a last ditch effort to leave offspring for next summer. A pair of Goldenrod Soldier Beetles (Chauliognathus pennsylvanicus) rendezvoused on a Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare) – a potentially risky place to mate since a bird might think they make a tasty contrast against the blossom!
Goldenrod Soldier beetles mating on a Bull Thistle
A pair of tiny Pearl Crescent butterflies (Phyciodes tharos) also decided that a warm September afternoon provided the ideal time for mating.
A pair of Pearl Crescent butterflies mating in eastern meadow at Cranberry Lake Park.
And two Ladybugs chased around a Goldenrod stem, one frenetically holding on to the other. I couldn’t really determine whether they were mating or fighting! Clearly, one was more interested in escape and one was in hot pursuit. They were moving too fast for a great shot or a definite identification. My guess is that they were the invasive Asian Ladybugs (Harmonia axyridis). Unfortunately they are more common these days than our native Nine-spotted Ladybug (Coccinella novemnotata) and come in highly variable colors and patterns.
Two ladybugs chased each other around a Goldenrod stem – mating or aggression?
This tiny Red-legged Grasshopper (Melanoplus femurrubrum) had probably spent the night near the stalk of the Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), wisely hidden from predators among its withering leaves. It will molt multiple times before mating and leaving eggs in the soil to emerge next summer.
A Red-legged grasshopper nymph probably spent the night within this Common Milkweed plant.
The edge of a meadow, near a wetland, might be an ideal spot for a female Great Blue Skimmmer dragonfly (Libellula vibrans). She could be spreading her wings in hope of attracting a mate. If successful, the aquatic plants nearby could host her fertilized eggs. Or while waiting for a likely male, she might just have a great perch for hunting unsuspecting prey!
A female Great Blue Skimmer sunned herself on a cool morning, possibly trying to attract a mate – or just hunting for the next unwary insect!
Spider Art On a Misty Morning
Early fall mornings are an excellent time to appreciate the art of the spiders. Warm days followed by cool nights leave heavy dew on spider webs, and when the sun makes them visible, they are dazzling. How about this lovely creation of an Orb Weaver spider (family Araneidae)drooping with the weight of the dew but subtly reflecting the colors of the sun’s spectrum!
The sun reflecting on the dew in an Orb Weaver’s web.
Another intriguing web, though not as beautiful, is cleverly constructed. The Funnel Web Spider (Circuria species) lays a sticky sheet of web across the grass, which would be difficult to see were it not for the dew. At the edge of the web, it weaves a tunnel where it lies in wait for unsuspecting prey. Above the sheet, it weaves an irregular network of silk designed to knock flying insects into its sticky net below. You can see the funnel at the back of this web below.
The Funnel Web Spider’s trap for flying insects with a nifty funnel in which the spider can wait for its prey unseen.
As I skirted the edge of wetlands one Sunday, it seemed that a frog sprang out of the grass at every step! Most of them were Northern Leopard Frogs (Rana pipiens), their emerald green backs covered with circular black dots outlined in pale gold. Their dark eyes encircled with gold add to their glamour. Pinkish dorsolateral ridges are another distinguishing field mark. They shine like cloisonné in the deep grass!
Leopard frogs big and small sprung out of the grass near wetlands.
Until last week, I’d never noticed Pickerel Frogs (Rana palustris) at Cranberry Lake. These smaller frogs have somewhat rectangular spots that line up along the frogs’ back in neat rows. They are smaller than Leopard frogs. They tend to be brown (though they are sometimes green too), so I’m fairly sure this is Pickerel frog below.
Pickerel Frogs have more rectangular spots in rows down their backs, rather than the more random round spots of Leopard Frogs. So I think this is Pickerel frog, but I’m not positive!
And Finally, the Native Plants that Make It All Possible!
The plants, though not as often noticed by hikers, provide sustenance for all these creatures as the base of the food web. Butterflies sip their nectar. Bees and wasps feed pollen to their young. Other insects munch on leaves or make winter homes in the stalks. Birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals eat all parts of plants, or the insects that live on them. So here’s a gallery of just a few of the plants that, along with the plentiful goldenrods, have bloomed in sun and shade to sustain the beauty and life of Cranberry Lake Park in late summer. (Use pause button for captions.)
Autumn Mornings: Not To Be Missed!
Mist rising in a meadow beyond the trees.
On our September bird walk at Cranberry Lake Park, we arrived on a cool fall morning. The previous day had been unseasonably warm, but a north wind sailed in overnight. The cool air had created heavy dew, leaving silver droplets that set the spider webs shining. The morning sun on the moist leaves created the fine mist you see above, rising from a meadow beyond the Hickory Lane. What a sight! – the makings of future clouds floating like silver smoke above the wildflowers. A wave of migratory warblers and other small birds had arrived on that night wind. The birders watched, binoculars up, as these travelers hopped busily in the branches, feeding on the plenty of insects attracted by fields full of blooming fall wildflowers. And all of this beauty is gratuitous – unearned, just gifted to us if we just put on our shoes and head out the door! Consider escaping from the busy-ness of life for just an hour this week. Let these beautiful fall days lure you to the parks and savor the gifts that nature so generously offers to all of us.