Tag Archives: Red-legged Grasshopper

Cranberry Lake Park: Prepping for Winter, Sowing for Spring

One of the many spots where meadow meets woods at Cranberry Lake Park

Cranberry Lake Park, with its varied habitats, gives an autumn visitor lots of possibilities. In October, the lake hosts huge bobbing rafts of water birds, feeding and resting on their way south. The grassy trails lead you to expansive meadows covered now by the soft gray of seeding goldenrod, where migratory birds converse in the bushes while harvesting seed. Or you can choose the shady Hickory Lane to the west or the dappled light of the maple forest to the north if you’re in the mood for a woodland walk.   

Text & photos by Cam Mannino

My visits were scattered throughout the month –  unusually warm days early on, a sunset hike one breezy evening, and finally a cold, rainy morning right before first frost. Each time I rediscovered how sensibly nature prepares for a winter rest and a bountiful spring. 

 

 

Cranberry Lake Itself  – A Thwarted Kingfisher, a Remarkable Grebe, and Diving Ducks of All Kinds

The edge of Cranberry lake at the end of an eastern trail.

Cranberry Lake welcomes all kinds of water birds as they begin their long journeys to southern climes. One cold, wet morning, I watched a bird hovering vertically high above the water, head down, scanning the surface below. Suddenly, it gave a loud rattling cry and headed for a leafless tree near the shore. An agitated male Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) shouted its noisy call from a bare limb. Perhaps he was put out by not spotting prey from that perch either!

This male Belted Kingfisher had one slate blue belt on his chest. The female has a chestnut brown belt and a blue one.

A small Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) flew in to probe the edge of a mud flat, landing near a Canada Goose (Branta canadensis). Quite an odd couple!

A Killdeer shares a mud flat in the lake with a Canada Goose.

Killdeer are wading birds, being Plovers, but I’ve most often seen them in barren fields, either scurrying along scaring up insects or keening in flight to distract predators.  This one, though, looked right at home as it probed the mud for insect larvae or other aquatic prey before beginning migration.

Far out on the lake, a huge mixed flock of migrating ducks and other water birds, well over 200 of them, floated on the surface, foraged for food, or slept and preened on the mud flats in the shallower parts of the lake.

Part of a huge flock of diving ducks on Cranberry Lake

After studying the photo magnified, Ben guessed that most of the birds were Ring-necked Ducks (Aythya collaris) which are diving ducks. Unlike mallards and other dabbling ducks who simply tip upside down to feed, diving ducks have legs set far back on their bodies.  As a result, they need to run across water, wings flapping,  to get into the air and are awkward on land – but they dive, feed and swim underwater with ease!

(Since most of the Cranberry Lake flock was far from shore, the closeup photos of diving ducks below are all from inaturalist.org photographers. My thanks to all of them and to Creative Commons where they license their work.)

Ring-necked Duck by lonnyholmes CC BY NC
Ring-necked Duck by lonnyholmes (CC-BY-NC)

Two other diving ducks that Ben thinks may have been in this flock include Redhead (Aythya americana) which are so social that they’re also referred to as “rafting ducks” and  Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis). According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab, Lesser Scaup chicks “are capable of diving under water on their hatching day, but they are too buoyant to stay under for more than just a moment. By the time they are 5 to 7 weeks old they are able to…swim underwater for 15-18 meters (50-60 ft).” Here’s a wonderful closeup of a Redhead by photographer lonnyholmes and a Lesser Scaup photo by photographer Paul Sullivan. (Hover cursor for captions; click on photos to enlarge.)

Far out in the lake, through my binoculars, I also spotted Bufflehead, another diving duck,  on their way from the boreal forests of Canada and Alaska, where according to Cornell, they “nest almost exclusively in holes excavated by Northern Flickers and, on occasion, by Pileated Woodpeckers.” Unfortunately the male and three female/juvenile Bufflehead that I saw at were too far for my longest lens to reach clearly. So on the left is my distance photo from Cranberry Lake (click to enlarge) and  on the right is a closeup from a  photographer at inaturalist.org who uses the name dlbowls showing the male’s dark head iridescent in the sunlight.

Feeding alone on a rainy morning, the solitary  Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) dove repeatedly into the gray surface of the lake. Modest brown this time of year,  these grebes bills turn white with a neat black band in breeding season. Pied-billed Grebes control their buoyancy by trapping water in their feathers. According to Cornell Lab, this allows them to escape danger by doing what children might call “belly smackers” – “plunging with head and tail raised above the belly, making a splash. They can also dive head first, or simply sink quietly out of view, leaving no trace. Parents dive with young clamped under their wings … These grebes often avoid danger by submerging, crocodile-style, with just the eyes and nostrils above the surface.”

The little grebe at Cranberry Lake gave me a brief demonstration of the submerging tactic –  first trapping water in its feathers , then settling back down on the water, and finally beginning to submerge like a little submarine.  What a trick!  I’m very taken with this little bird. (Use pause button for captions.)

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Wide, Sunny Meadows Surrounded by Autumn Color

A meadow on the north end of the park

On the trails that lead toward the meadows, small brown birds dash from bush to bush or dart down into the grass.  Some are tiny migrators who might appear modest and plain until you see them through binoculars or a camera lens. Chubby White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis), with their yellow “lores” and striped heads, hung out in small flocks, keeping in contact with soft seep calls.

The White-Crowned Sparrow has yellow “lores” – spots in the corners of its eyes.

Another brown migrant paused in the bushes along the trail from the lake – the Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus). These normally solitary birds are often quite secretive – hence the name, perhaps? They’re well-dressed hermits, though, with their chocolate back, spotted breast and white eye ring. And during migration, they do sometimes forage with or near other small birds.

The chocolate back of the shy little Hermit Thrush
The Hermit Thrush poses so we can see its spotted breast

The Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) is silent now, no longer burbling its song from high in a bush as it did this spring and summer. In fact, this one glowered from the bare branches, seeming a bit put-out by my presence. Or maybe it’s just irritable about having to migrate, though  it will only travel a short distance to the south.

A Song Sparrow seems to be glowering at my presence from the branches of a vine-enshrouded bush

At the edge of a small meadow, a year-round resident, the American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) pecked delicately at the seeds of Common Evening-Primrose (Oenothera biennis) that nicely complemented its muted gold.

An American Goldfinch fed in its modest winter feathers.

And another year ’rounder, the Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) stared from the drooping vines of Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), an aggressive, invasive plant that strangles, shades out and topples trees. Two trees along the trail had fallen recently due to masses of this vine in their canopies. Those orange and red fall fruits are disastrously appealing to birds, who spread their seeds far and wide.

A Northern Cardinal in a tangle of invasive, tree-killing Oriental Bittersweet.

On my early October visits, insects were still very much in evidence. One warm October afternoon, a busy group of adult and juvenile Large Milkweed Bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus) fed eagerly on the seeds of Common Milkweed (Ascelpias syriaca) in a southern meadow. The large beetles below are adults accompanied by the mostly red juveniles. They eat milkweed seeds by injecting saliva through the seed’s surface which liquifies it so it can be sucked through their straw-like rostrums. Milkweeds produce lots of seeds, so luckily these beetles, though destructive to individual pods, don’t really do a lot of damage in a season. And they are kind of jazzy looking, don’t you think?

Juvenile and adult Milkweed Bugs on a Common Milkweed.

Red-legged Grasshoppers (Melanoplus femurrubrum) mate in the autumn and lay their eggs in the earth. The eggs won’t finish developing until spring, when the first nymphs emerge. They’ll molt 5-7 times during the summer before they are fully adult, like this pair on a grassy trail.

A female (left and larger) and male Red-legged Grasshopper will lay eggs that will hatch next spring.

As October moved on, the goldenrods – Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) and late blooming Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) – began to seed, casting a silver-brown patina over the meadows.

Despite the cooler days, the small Autumn Meadowhawk (Sympetrum vicinum) still glided along the meadow paths, stopping on a fallen Canada Goldenrod stem to warm its wings in the autumn sunlight. The yellow-orange blush on the wings near the thorax is a distinguishing field mark. Autumn Meadowhawks fly later than most other species in our area, but are usually gone by early November, having laid their eggs along the lake’s shoreline.

A small male Autumn Meadowhawk warms its wings on a cool fall morning

The Hickory Lane and Wooded Wetlands – Filtered Light, Foraging Nut Eaters, a Frog and Puffballs

The Hickory Lane at sunset

Woodland walks are magical in the early morning or just before sunset. The light filters down through a golden shimmer of falling leaves and sometimes sets a crimson leaf aglow.

A Silver Maple leaf (Acer saccharinum) in the northern forest  set aglow in morning light.

On a warm walk in early October, the bright yellow caterpillar of a Spotted Tussock Moth (Lophocampa maculata) caught my eye within the dry leaves on the Hickory Lane. Such a fancy caterpillar! Research in Caterpillars of Eastern North America seems to indicate that  it’s the middle instar of the Spotted Tussock moth because in earlier stages, the end sections of this yellow caterpillar are completely black – but I’m open to correction by more knowledgeable readers!

The caterpillar of what I think is a Spotted Tussock Moth

An Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus) on the Hickory Lane basked in the sunset, perhaps resting from a long day of ferrying nuts in its cheeks to stock its underground burrow. It won’t hibernate, but when it wakes periodically from its winter torpor, it will need a little sustenance before snoozing again.

An Eastern Chipmunk rests from its seed and nut-gathering labors before winter.

A Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) dashed quickly up a tree on the Hickory Lane (in this case, it’s the black morph). And nearby, an American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) did the same. I wondered if they had enjoyed some of the hickory nuts that were neatly opened on a fallen log not too far away.

Almost invariably, curious deer emerge at the edge of the woods, and they too are putting on weight for winter. They eat lots of nuts, including plenty of acorns, this time of year. Their love of acorns in the fall and saplings during the winter can make it harder for our oak forests to regenerate. This doe looks like she’s definitely eaten her share and is ready for cold days ahead!

A well-fed doe foraging for nuts before winter arrives.

In a pond hidden in the trees, a Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) had built a roomy “push-up” den in which it can eat above the water line. Muskrats don’t hibernate, but spend the winter cruising very slowly beneath the ice. What appears to be a hole is probably just plant matter or mud, since muskrats generally enter their push-up dens from under the water through a tunnel that leads up to a cavity at the center.  According to Wikipedia, “In snowy areas, they keep the openings to their push-ups closed by plugging them with vegetation, which they replace every day.”

Near that woodland pond in late October, a tiny masked Wood Frog (Rana sylvatica) literally sat “like a bump on a log,” staring off into the distance, partially lit by the green light of a leaf. Wood Frogs love forested wetlands like this during the summer. But this little frog may be preparing for winter. It will move upland, away from the water, burrow under leaves or a log. Then most of the water in its body will freeze solid, and its breathing and heartbeats will stop! But it will thaw in the spring and go right back to the pond to mate. Hope this little one finds a cozy spot before long.

The astonishing Wood Frog freezes solid in the winter and thaws out in the spring.

On a fallen long nearby, my husband and I came across  a colony of Puffball Mushrooms (division Basidiomycota) just as we did last year. These stalkless mushrooms would disperse spores on their own, of course, but I asked my husband to poke a couple in order to catch the brownish cloud of spores escaping through their tiny apertures. Wikipedia says falling raindrops disperse puffball spores in a similar way.

On my last visit just before first frost, under moist trees in these wooded wetlands, the Sensitive Ferns’ green, leafy, sterile fronds (Onoclea sensibilis) were already withering in the dropping temperatures. But the separate fertile fronds, covered in brown beads called “sori” that contain next year’s spores, stood erect in the grass beneath the trees.

Quietly Prepping for Winter and Another Spring

Cranberry Lake Park, like all of nature, provides testimony every autumn that the year is not “dying” as is so often said of this season. On the contrary. At every turn in the trails, nature is sensibly preparing for winter and sowing for spring. Yes, plants wither – but their seeds, stems, and roots wait within the soil for warm spring light. Gray-brown bracken will eventually fall, nourishing the soil in which those seeds can grow. Bright leaves fade and fall, of course, but only because trees are in “dormancy,” resting, slowing their metabolism, preserving themselves for next spring’s surge of growth. Some insects migrate, others winter-over under bark or within plants, while still others perish, leaving behind eggs which bide their time beneath the earth. Birds fly south, frogs burrow under logs, and animals of all sorts settle into winter quarters. Nature doesn’t resist change. It simply adapts to it, with every intention of burgeoning forth with gusto in the spring. We humans probably do best when we follow nature’s lead by just letting nature take its course –  preparing for longer nights and colder days, while confidently sowing seeds – both literally and metaphorically – for a future spring.

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner; inaturalist.org;Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela;Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels,  and others as cited in the text.
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THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Fall Beauty, Creepy Crawlies and Other Oddities

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Canada Goldenrod and New England Asters in the Old Fields of Bear Creek
Cam walking into BC
Blog and Photos by Cam Mannino

Bear Creek is busy with autumn. Butterflies sip nectar from late season wildflowers. Bees store up pollen to feed the colony during the winter. Grasses, vines and other plants produce seed heads or berries for next year’s crop, providing food for bird and beast alike. Migrating birds stop by on their way south, eating and resting. Summer’s avian visitors, having raised young here, prepare for departure. Some insects hatch, munch on plants, breed and in turn, become a meal for others. And in moist areas, some life forms emerge that range from just weird-looking to gloriously creepy!

 

Autumn Prep:  Late Season Foraging, Molting and Migrating

One sunny afternoon, a band of Clouded Sulphur butterflies (Colias  philodice) fed and fluttered among the pale lavender blossoms of native Smooth Swamp Asters (Symphyotrichum firmum) just off the Eastern Path. What a sight to watch this small male, its golden wings with bold black edges quivering, as it approached for a sip.

clouded-sulphur-flying-bc-4
A male Clouded Sulphur about to sip the nectar from a Smooth Swamp Aster.

Clouded Sulphurs produce many broods a year and perhaps this couple will produce a chrysalis that will overwinter and open in the spring. I’d love to see one then, since the chrysalis reportedly turns yellow with a pink “zipper” right before the butterfly emerges! The male is the one with black wing bands.

clouded-sulphur-male-and-female-bc-4
These male (left) and female(right) Clouded Sulphurs may still create a chrysalis from which a caterpillar will hatch in the spring.

Nearby, a small Common Buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia) was sampling the aster’s nectar as well. Native autumn wildflowers provide such a feast before frost descends!

common-buckeye-butterfly-bc-1
A Common Buckeye butterfly also enjoys the nectar of fall flowers

Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus) are sadly scarce this year after we saw so many at Bear Creek last year.  According to the Michigan State Extension website, a severe March snowstorm in their wintering grounds in Mexico killed 50-70% of the Monarchs before they could migrate! But the birding group was lucky enough to spot a female in the western Old Field, feeding on a native New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae).

monarch-on-new-england-aster-1
Despite a rough year for Monarchs, we managed to see one at Bear Creek.

Red-legged Grasshoppers are bouncing out of the grass like popcorn along the paths of Bear Creek. They are in the process of molting five times into bigger and bigger instars.  This one, retreating under a leaf,  isn’t quite adult yet.

red-legged-grasshopper-under-leaf-bc-1
This young Red-legged Grasshopper probably has at least one molt (of five) left before being an adult.

At the Center Pond one morning, a Great Egret (Ardea alba) went fishing before migrating to Florida and the Caribbean. Hikers at Bear Creek report seeing a lot of them in the park in the last few weeks, which is great to hear!  (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

Under a bench on the viewing platform, two male Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos ) were developing their mating colors again. They’d spent the last 6 weeks or so in their “eclipse plumage,” when they take on the brown-toned female coloring. As they preened last week, however, an iridescent band of green was developing above their greenish yellow bills. (The females’ bills are orange and black.) I wondered if their flight feathers were most affected by the molt that day, since they didn’t take to the water when I sat down on a bench.

Several days later, I saw a bit of drama featuring these males. One of them had  finished molting into his full mating colors. He “got the girl” and the other didn’t. The mallard couple did a lot of synchronous head bobbing on the deck and then swam off together. The other male was left on the sidelines, I’m afraid. But he may find a mate once his molt is complete. Feathers evidently tell female Mallards something important about choosing a healthy male.

An Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) periodically sallied forth to capture insects from high above the meadow east of the pond. Here’s a photo from last year so you can see it a bit closer. This solitary bird will spend the winter in a flock, eating fruits along the Amazon River in South America. Sounds like a long trip but a pleasant escape, eh?

Eastern Kingbird
The Eastern Kingbird will join flocks along the  Amazon River  to spend the winter eating fruit in sunny climes.

A twitching of leaves in the low bushes below revealed the constant tail-wagging of a small brown bird. A migrating Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum) moved among the branches with a telltale patch of yellow under its tail and a dark eyeline. It probably spent the summer raising young in Canada’s far north and is on its way to Florida or the Caribbean. In spring, a male’s courting colors are a bright yellow breast and throat and  a chestnut cap.

palm-warbler-bc-2
A migrating Palm Warbler with a yellow patch under its tail will be much more colorful when it passes through in the spring.

What appeared to be a juvenile House Wren chipped and scolded from a nearby shrub as I passed. It looks like a young one, doesn’t it? It’ll be traveling to Florida and the West Indies once it leaves Bear Creek, riding on a North wind toward southern warmth.

wren-juvenile-bc-1
A juvenile House Wren will ride the north wind toward Florida and the West Indies in the next few weeks.

This week the birding group saw several migrators, but I didn’t get great shots. So here are three of last year’s photos of the birds we saw through binoculars this week. You might trying bringing your binoculars when you hike here and take a close look at any small, brownish birds in the bushes. We typically don’t get to see these warblers or kinglets except when they stop in our parks on their  journey north or south. They spend the summer raising young farther north.

Nashville warbler
Nashville Warbler who summers in Canada and winters in Mexico or the Caribbean.
The Ruby-crowned Kinglet
The Ruby-crowned Kinglet raise their young in tall, dense Canadian conifer forests.
The Tennessee Warbler
The Tennessee Warbler breeds south of the arctic in the boreal forests of Canada .

At the edge of a wetland, a Spreadwing damselfly with huge blue eyes, which may be  a Spotted Spreadwing (Lestes congener), hung onto a twig. Spreadwings always perch with their wings half open and have pincers at the end of their abdomen – but their individual species names are hard to nail down. So don’t quote me on the name of this blue-eyed, bug-eyed character!

spreadwing
A Spreadwing Damselfly with huge blue eyes!

Seeds and Berries Mean Spring Prep, too

Plants pollinated in the summer are beginning to produce the seeds and berries that will guarantee their return next year. At the edge of the woods, False Solomon Seal (Maianthemum canadense)  berries are ripening from mottled pink to red.  Aren’t they pretty?

False Solomon Seal Berries BC
The berries of False Solomon Seal are ripening at the edge of the woods.

An aggressive native vine, Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), has thrived this summer and seems to be climbing in dense mats over trees and shrubs all over Bear Creek.  It produces berry-like “drupes” (a fruit with a pit that contains the seed/s)  on bright red stems that eventually turn brown. Many migrating and year-round birds feed on these berries, along with the occasional skunk or red fox.

virginia-creeper-2
Virginia Creeper provides lots of fruit from migrating birds and some animals, too.

Wildflowers are setting seed for next spring and the birds take advantage of that as well.  Here are a few native flowers and their beginnings of seed formation.

And Now for Creepy Crawlies and Other Oddities

Ben’s new Stewardship tech, Heather Herndon, spotted a spectacular creepy creature on a rotting log. It appears to be a Leopard Slug (Limax maximus), a non-native who cleans up dead plants and consumes fungi, some agricultural plants and even smaller slugs! What an odd creature it is!  According to Wikipedia, it is hermaphroditic, which means it carries both eggs and sperm. It does mate, however, exchanging sperm with another slug through a reproductive pore near its right tentacle. How strange is that? Slugs, like snails, are gastropods, but unlike snails, they can’t withdraw into shells. What’s odd, though, is that this slug actually has an internal shell behind its head that seems to be an evolutionary left-over, since it has no apparent purpose. So creepily cool, this one!

leopard-slug-bens-photo
A Leopard Slug, a non-native, who cleans up dead plants and is hermaphroditic!

On our Wednesday bird walk, we spotted this wonderful web of an Orb Weaver spider.  It was a big web and placed unusually high off the ground. Looks like the spider, who may be that tiny dot at the center,  caught something near the edge of the web.

Orb Weaver spider
The large, circular web of an Orb Weaver spider

Cathy Rooney, one of the Park Protector nominees, put up on Facebook a wonderful video she found.  It shows an Orb Weaver working meticulously to create a web just like this one. I found this version at YouTube so it should be accessible to any reader. Great find, Cathy!

Out in the Old Fields, the Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) pods are preparing to break open and release their seeds. But this year, the Large Milkweed Bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus) hatched in great numbers and are attacking more milkweed pods than usual. These insects inject saliva into the seed with their snout-like rostrum. The saliva dissolves the seed so the insect can vacuum it back up! Milkweeds are toxic and these insects are too once they feed. Their bright red color is believed to ward off predators by advertising that. In these two photos, early “instars” (developmental stages between molts) are on the left, and on the right are later and larger instars and one adult beetle. Thanks to the weather and this spring’s prescribed burn, the Milkweed is plentiful this year too,  so we can hope that bugs won’t wipe out next year’s  crop.

Fungi appeared here and there in Bear Creek after the heavy rainfall. Ben identified this white branching mushroom on a fallen log. It seems to be from genus Clavulina, most likely White Coral Mushroom, Clavulina cristata. Doesn’t it look like a tiny white forest? It’s believed to be mychorrizal, meaning it emerges from fungi underground that surround a tree’s roots and assist the tree in absorbing water and nutrients while the tree feeds the fungi. A beneficial symbiosis.

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White Coral Mushrooms appeared on a fallen log after the recent downpours.

Like last year, huge fungi formed on the dead tree across from the Playground Pond.  They are clearly some kind of polypore, or shelf mushroom, but I’ve been unable to nail that down. Anyone have a guess? They were so big this year that one of them collected water in which insects swam! On my last visit, though, only one was still on the tree. Either the downpours knocked them off or perhaps children did, like I saw two little boys try to do last year.

giant-shelf-mushroom-on-tree-bc
Giant fungi formed again this year on a tree across from the playground pond.

A little girl was delighted by finding a common Shaggy Mane Mushroom (Coprinus comatus) in the green grass of the playground field.  It is beautifully ruffled, isn’t it?

Shaggy Mane mushroom
A Shaggy Mane mushroom delighted a small girl on the playground field.

It took a while to identify this mushroom, but I’m pretty sure it’s called an Elm Oyster Mushroom (Hypsizygus ulmarius) because they look like this and grow out of Box Elders (Acer negundo) at this time of year, like this one on the Western Slope did.

Elm Oyster Mushroom Hypsizygus ulmarius
An Elm Oyster Mushroom growing out of a Box Elder on the Western Slope.

Autumn’s Bittersweetness

Black-eyed Susan seeding
Black-eyed Susan seeding across from the Playground Pond

I know some people experience autumn as a somewhat melancholy season – flowers missing petals, tree shedding leaves, birds departing. The park quiets down as birdsong diminishes and the cricket song replaces frog song. Others find the riotous color of fall leaves and the crisp air exciting and invigorating and they love the fall. It can strike me either way, depending on the day.

For those who feel a bit sad at summer’s end, maybe it helps to remember that autumn is just the beginning of a long rest before spring. Trees take a breather from photosynthesis and live down in their roots for several months. Seeds are finding their way to the ground where they’ll reside until sunlight summons their hidden life back to the surface. Some birds, like some humans, depart for the south. But others, like the first little Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) we saw this week, are winging their way from the north to spend the winter here where our winter weather suits them just fine.

Junco closeup on ground
Ben spotted our first Dark-eyed Junco of the year while with the birding group at Bear Creek.

If we’re curious and  take the time to look, every season here offers beautiful – and sometimes oddly fascinating – discoveries.  And that cheers me even on the grayest of autumn days.

Footnote:  My sources for information are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991); Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for insect info; http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info; invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman; experienced birder Ruth Glass, bird walk leader at Stoney Creek Metro Park for bird identification; Birds of North America Online; Audubon.org; Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, Trees in My Forest by Bernd Heinrich, Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, Savannah River Ecology Lab (Univ of Georgia); Tortoise Trust website www.tortoisetrust.org;  An Orchard Invisible: A Natural History of Seeds by Jonathan Silvertown; The Ecology of Plants by Gurevitch, Scheiner and Fox; other sites as cited in the text.

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Winter Prep, Migrants Coming and Going, Chilly Insects, Fall Leaves, and a New Native Garden

White goldenrod autumn

Autumn’s here and a bit gone, so winter prep begins in earnest at Bear Creek.  The hibernators are finding or freshening up snug housing for the winter.  Migrating birds stop for a rest and a repast before continuing their journeys, while others arrive to spend the winter with us.  A few hearty insects, who survived the migrating birds and the cold nights, hop and fly on warmer south-facing slopes. Leaves rustle underfoot and tumble past so the quest continues to learn their names, to be more familiar with the giants of the plant world.  Let’s start with a walk through the Oak-Hickory forest.

Animals Prep for Winter

Path through Oak-Hickory forest
The path from the Gunn Road entrance into the Oak-Hickory forest

One of this week’s highlights was discovering a North American Raccoon (Procyon lotor) in the same place I’ve seen them almost every spring or fall – in a huge hole in a white oak halfway down the eastern forest path. On my first walk this week, I could only see a bit of fur at the bottom of the hole, but that brought me back the next morning.  At first the hole appeared empty. Disappointed, I approached, crunching noisily through the leaves and surprise!  A raccoon was fully visible in the dark of the huge hole, staring intently at me while I took its photo.  What a treat to know that once more one of these clever bandits will spend the winter dozing in this cozy home with its ideal southern exposure.

Raccoon in hole edited 4
A raccoon returns my stare from a tree that has housed raccoons for many years

The chirping and dashing of chipmunks and squirrels will accompany your walk through our Oak-Hickory forest again this week.  They are  eating and storing acorns and other nuts for hibernation or winter meals.   Here’s an Eastern Chipmunk ((Tamias striatus) with a mouthful of leaves, evidently planning to refresh its burrow before its long sleep .  Chipmunks wake every few weeks in winter, eat  a bit from their food stores and snooze some more.

chipmunk w leaves
An Eastern Chipmunk seems to be freshening up its burrow in time for hibernation.

A scratching and scrabbling sound nearby alerted me to a  pair of Fox Squirrels (Sciurus niger) spiraling up a giant tree near the marsh.  Fox Squirrels mate between November and March and then again in the summer – so it may have been a practice mating chase.  Or perhaps just two young ones feeling their oats, or in this case, acorns!  One paused high above on a tree knot.  The other used its 180°-rotating ankles to stretch out lengthwise, head down on the trunk.  Fox Squirrels prefer winter dens within woodpecker holes, but if none are available, they will build leaf nests in the crotches of trees. They spend the winter days with us – as anyone with a bird feeder knows!

Down at the Pond, Out in the Fields: Migratory Visitors and a Couple of Hearty Insects

Center Pond in Autumn

When I reached the Center Pond this week (so clear this time of year!), I saw two migrants that I’d never seen before  busily flipping over leaves to search for insects in the muddy shadows of the southern shore – a male and female Rusty Blackbird (Euphagus carolinus).  Cornell lab calls this bird “relatively uncommon” because it is “one of North America’s most rapidly declining species.”  I hope this turns around because I was thrilled to see them on their trip from Canada’s far north to their southern destination.  My photo of the male in non-breeding plumage is below.  I didn’t get a decent shot of the female, who is gray-brown with a black stripe through the eye. This Cornell link has much better photos of both genders.

Rusty blackbird Center Pond
A quite uncommon, migrating Rusty Blackbird and his mate (not pictured) flipped over leaves, looking for insects at the Center Pond.

Up near the Playground Pond, I saw a recent arrival from Canada who’ll spend the winter with us – the Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis).  I’m sure you’ve seen flocks of them under your feeder in the winter.  Their black backs and white bellies make them look like Chinese calligraphy on white snow.

Dark-eyed Junco
A Dark-eyed Junco matched the black-and-white shadow pattern on the path west of the Playground Pond.

I’ve been posting photos of juvenile Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) for the last few weeks but this week I got a good look at a beautiful adult one.  Here you can see both the yellow tip of its tail and the bright red wing spots that evidently looked like sealing wax to the person who named this elegant bird.

Cedar Waxwing with waxwing showing
An adult Cedar Waxwing. Notice the red dots on its wings which looked like sealing wax to the person that named them.

I had an opportunity to clearly see a Swamp Sparrow after only spotting the head of one at Bear Creek last week!  It’s a handsome little bird with slightly longer legs than some sparrows so it can wade in and pull food from the water. (Thanks to Ruth Glass again for the ID!)

Swamp sparrow
A Swamp Sparrow has slightly longer legs than some sparrows so it can pull invertebrates from the water.

Likewise, on October 10, I posted a shadowy photo of a Golden-crowned Kinglet (Regulus satrapa) at Bear Creek.  Today one grazed a window at our home! I followed instructions found on the web and waited 5-10 minutes before intervening – though I had a resting box ready, just in case.  Luckily, it recovered and flew off,  but before it did, I got a slightly fuzzy photo of its golden crown taken through the window. This tiny bird, smaller than a Chickadee and not much bigger than a Hummer, has traveled all the way from the Canadian north and can survive  in -40° temperatures! So let’s hope its accident won’t prevent this hardy survivor from arriving just a bit further south where it intends to spend the winter.

IMG_3480
A Golden-crowned Kinglet who survived a glancing blow against a window in our home. They are in Bear Creek right now as well, but very quick and difficult to see.

Insects that Made It Through Very Chilly Nights!

On sunny days,  you can still hear grasshoppers in warm spots on the trail – though far fewer than before.  I think they are still Red-legged Grasshoppers (Melanoplus femurrubrum)since they usually remain in the fields through October.  The female Red-legged Grasshoppers lay their eggs in the ground during late summer or fall. Only the eggs overwinter, I believe, though some species overwinter as nymphs. (If anyone knows more, please share!) I saw a pair mating rather awkwardly on the edge of a path in October last year.  The male is the smaller, greener grasshopper.

grasshoppers mating
Mating grasshoppers.  The larger female will lay her eggs in the ground and the first nymphs will hatch next summer.

I always thought that all red dragonflies at Bear Creek were Ruby Meadowhawks.  But it seems that there are multiple red Meadowhawk dragonflies. The one I’m seeing on almost every sunny path at the moment is probably a late bloomer named the Yellow-Legged Autumn Dragonfly (Sympetrum vicinum) or at least that’s my best guess.

Yellow-legged Autumn Dragonfly
Lots of these Yellow-legged Autumn Dragonflies are darting along the paths at Bear Creek now.

Now, About those Falling Leaves…

So why the color change?  And how do leaves fall?  The shorter days cue trees to reduce the chlorophyll in their leaves, the substance which makes them green in summer and able to feed sugars to the tree through the chemical action of photosynthesis.  As the chlorophyll subsides with less light, other pigments begin to show or form in the leaves making the leaves turn yellow, orange and red.  In response to less sunlight, a layer of cells gradually forms at the base of each leaf blocking the veins that carry fluids into and out of the leaf.  When that seal is complete, the leaves detach and fall.  More detailed info at this USDA Forest Service link.

Two Members of White Oak Group, the Ones with Rounded Lobes

While in the woods, I continue to snap photos of leaves, trying to imprint their shapes in my mind.  I can now easily recognize the White Oak (Quercus alba) with its rounded lobes and light gray bark.  The fall leaves can evidently be a variety of colors, but are mostly red to brown.

The Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa) is a member of the White Oak family, too, with rounded lobes but much deeper sinuses (spaces between the lobes) than the White Oak.  The bristly acorns are a clue to its name.

Three Members of the Red Oak Group, the ones with Pointed Lobes

Northern Red Oaks (Quercus rubra) have leaves with 7-11 bristle-tipped, pointed lobes.  The fall leaves can be red to brown.  I loved the deep chocolate color of this one on a deck in the marsh.

Red Oak Leaf
A Northern Red Oak leaf has 7-11 pointed, bristled lobes.

The leaves of Black Oaks (Quercus velutina), a member of the Red Oak group, have only 5-7 pointed, bristle-tipped lobes and can be yellow to brown in the autumn.

Black oak leaf brown
The Black Oak,  a member of the Red Oak group, has 5-7 pointed, bristly lobes.

Another member of the Red Oak group, the Northern Pin Oak (Quercus palustris), has deep sinuses that reach almost to the central vein between the pointed lobes .  These trees encircle the playground with color right now and they are in the woods as well.

Pin Oak
Northern Pin Oaks have deep sinuses and the pointed lobes typical of the Red Oak group.

Acorns, the nuts which contain Oak seeds, are dropping through the leaves and rolling underfoot.  Eastern Chipmunks take some of them underground to the larder chambers in their burrows.  Squirrels simply dig holes in the ground and cover the nut with earth.  They’ll find some to eat in the winter and others will be forgotten.  While feeding wildlife (some birds eat acorns too), this burying of nuts also helps replenish the forest with saplings in coming years. (Cool info on acorns at this link that two people sent to me this week! Thanks to Mary and Ben!)

Two Kinds of Maples – there are many more!

Maples are tolerant of shade, so they form part of the “understory” of our woods. They produce winged seeds that we, as kids, called “helicopter seeds,”  but that botanists call “samaras.”  There’s a photo at this link of samaras from a Silver Maple.

Red Maples (Acer rubrum)are one of the most widespread trees in Eastern North America.  I liked how the one on the left below had only partially turned when it fell, so it ended up tri-colored. The scarlet one on the right turned before it fell.

The Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) has a more delicate, deeply lobed leaf  whose pearly underside provides its name.

Silver Maple leaf
The Silver Maple is more deeply lobed and gets it name from its silver underside.
Some other Leaf Favorites

I’m particularly fond of the 3-fingered leaf of the Sassafras tree (Sassafras albidum).  According to Wikipedia, in the 19th century,  Sassafras roots were used for root beer or “sarsaparilla,” a soft drink that straight-arrow cowboys ordered at the saloon in old western movies, a source of amusement to their macho compatriots.  You can smell the root beer scent if you snap the stem of a green Sassafras leaf.  However, the roots turn out to be bad for your liver, so root beer these days is made with artificial flavorings.

Sassafras leaf
The 3-fingered leaf of a Sassafras tree, whose roots were once used to make root beer and sarsaparilla.

Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) left a lovely pattern on the path near the marsh. These native trees filled the field behind my parents’ house on Lake George Road so I have a particular fondness for the graceful shape and scarlet color of their autumn leaves.

Sumac leaves
Staghorn Sumac leaves on a path near the marsh.

A New Home for Native Plants at Bear Creek!

Staff and volunteers
A crew of volunteers and staff dug up 25 species of donated native plants and re-planted them at Bear Creek this week.  From left to right: Carol Kasprzak, Bruno Feo, Jeff Johnson, Reg Brown, Ben VanderWeide and me (behind the camera).

This week a team of six volunteers and staff caravanned to Armada to collect two beds of native plants donated to Bear Creek by Nancy Parmenter.  She’d sold her house and the new owners needed a larger play area for their children.  So we’re very grateful that she gave them a new home at Bear Creek.  The crew spent several ideal autumn hours digging up the plants and then re-planting them in a new bed near the parking lot.

The plants may not look glamorous now in late fall, but by spring  25 species of native grasses and wildflowers will be adding more color and diversity to Bear Creek.  The garden is just to the right of the pavilion and there’s a wood chip path through  it so that in spring you’ll be able to walk close to the flowers.   Thank you to everyone who dug and planted and to Nancy Parmenter for this wonderful donation!

So you have lots of reasons to visit the park on these glorious autumn days – watch for migrating birds, laugh at chipmunks during their fall eating frenzy, be escorted by late season dragonflies, spy on a hibernating raccoon or have a first look at our newest native flowerbed.  Savor the season!

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Golden Fields Full of Monarchs, a Hummer and Other Beauties and Curiosities

 

Western slope from the north2
The golden western slope of Bear Creek from the northern end – full of Monarch butterflies this week.
Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino
Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

Open fields edged by trees have always been favorite places of mine.  And this Tuesday,in the fields on either side of the park, Monarch butterflies were everywhere!  Bear Creek may be hosting fall migrators on their way to Mexico – or we’ve just had a big hatch of  these beautiful and ecologically fragile creatures.  In fact, many butterflies, bees and darners fluttered, hummed and hovered over the swaying seas of gold in Bear Creek, while grasshoppers serenaded them beneath the tall stems.

Some speculate that humans love open fields because our ancient ancestors felt safe where they could see into the distance but escape into the trees.  I just know I’m very happy in a field full of wildflowers.

First, of course: The Monarchs and the Hummer!

After only seeing the occasional Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) this summer, on Tuesday they were floating and fluttering all over the park!  Though the Joe Pye (Eutrochium maculatum) in the Eastern Old field seems to be past its peak,  its nectar drew in a Monarch (and other butterflies below) anyway.

Monarch on Joe Pye
A monarch explores the fading Joe Pye for a sip of nectar.

I considered myself lucky to get so close – but when I started down the Western Sloping Path from north to south, wow!  Monarchs surrounded me every step of the way.  I believe I saw at least a dozen there, but I’ll share just a few who were enjoying the New England Asters.

Monarch on New Englans aster
A female Monarch on a New England Aster
Monarch hanging New England Aster2
A female Monarch butterfly dangles from a clump of New England Asters.

At the very bottom of the sloping path, I watched as two Monarchs approached and fed on the same plant.

Two monarchs New England Aster
Two monarchs share a New England aster plant.

Just at that special moment, I saw the second Ruby-Throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) I’ve ever seen at Bear Creek – a female, hovering momentarily as she looked at me and then zoomed off toward the woods.  No photo, of course, but perhaps this silhouette of a hummer in mid-hover from a few years ago will help you visualize the one I saw this week.

hummer silhouette copy - Version 2
A female Ruby-throated Hummingbird paused in mid-flight at the bottom of the Western Sloping Path

Fields Full of Wildflowers and their Beautiful Visitors

Eastern Tiger Swallowtails (Papilio glaucus) fluttered quickly across the golden fields.  I just caught sight of one in the far distance on the Eastern Path on Sunday so here’s a picture from another  August, when a male landed on Spotted Knapweed, an invasive wildflower.

yellow swallowtail 2
A Tiger Swallowtail lands on Spotted Knapweed, an invasive wildflower from Eurasia.

New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) increasingly complement the Goldenrods’ glow as these vivid native flowers grow tall to reach their share of the thinning sunlight.

asters and goldenrod
Asters have grown tall this year competing with the height of Goldenrod and complementing its color.

Great Spangled Fritillary in the Eastern field paused on fading blossoms of Joe Pye to take a sip, just like the Monarch did.

Great spangled fritillary
A Great Spangled Fritillary pauses to sample the fading blossoms of Joe Pye Weed.

And the Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus) rested beneath a blossom of the same plant.

Silver-spotted skipper butterfly
A Silver-spotted Skipper explores the possibilities of the Joe Pye by hanging from a fading blossom.

About That Hum in the Old Fields…

Honey Bees (Apis mellifera), native Bumblebees (genus Bombus) and even Eastern Yellow Jacket Wasps (Vespula maculifrons ) hum among the flowers in the Old Fields.  Don’t worry; they’re much too busy gathering pollen, or in the case of wasps, eating nectar, to bother with us humans.

Bee on goldenrod2
A Honey Bee making the most of late season pollen on a Canada Goldenrod.

Always on the lookout for a quick munch, the big Canada Darner Dragonfly (Aeshna canadensis) zooms and dives over the blossoms below. This B-52 of insects consumes a lot of late summer bugs.

Canada darner in flight2
A Canada Darner flew over the reeds next to the Eastern Path, scouting for unwary insects.

Below the Darner, a modest wet-footed flower stands among the wetland reeds in the Eastern Old Field. According to Wikipedia, Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) got its name because our ancestors believed that since the leaves clasped the stem “wrapping the leaves in bandages around splints would help mend broken bones.”

Boneset
Reportedly Boneset got its name from a past belief that because the leaves clasp the stem, it would help with mending broken bones.

Down in the grass, the Red-legged Grasshoppers (Melanoplus femurrubrum) sing lustily as a backdrop to all this beauty by rubbing their rasp-like back leg against their forewing.

grasshopper on joepye1
Red-legged grasshoppers chirp in the grass, preparing to mate and lay their eggs in the soil for next year.

Bumblebee buzzed softly as it balanced carefully at the top of a stem of Canada Goldenrod

Bumblebee on goldenrod
A bumblebee balancing on the tip of a Goldenrod stem.

Yellow Jackets, like all wasps,  don’t do much pollinating because they lack the fuzzy body hair of bees.  They generally eat nectar but collect bugs for the protein they feed to their young.

Yellow jacket on hemlock
A Yellow Jacket Wasp explores a tiny blossom of Queen Anne’s Lace.

What’s That Bump on the Goldenrod, Anyway?

As you’re wandering through the Old Fields, you may have noticed some strange shapes on the stalks and tips of Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis).   Galls are growths on plant stems caused by insects who lay their eggs on the plants in the spring.  When the larva hatch, they eat into the plant, causing it to form a gall around them.  Inside, the larva eats until late summer when it forms a pupa which spends the winter inside that protective covering.  In spring, the adult insect emerges to restart the life cycle. Galls don’t kill the Goldenrod; they just look funny!

The ball gall is the most common goldenrod gall and is formed by  the small Goldenrod Gall Fly (Eurosta solidaginis).  With its hard surface, this gall seems like a decent place to spend the winter, doesn’t it?  During the summer, though, some wasps lay eggs in galls and their larvae hatch and make a meal of the gall fly’s.   And in the winter,  Downy Woodpeckers drill holes in galls to reach the pupae,  and Gray Squirrels chew on galls to do the same.  Obviously enough Gall Flies survive in these dwellings to start a new crop next spring, so nature stays in balance. I think this gall may have been invaded by a wasp.

Goldenrod gall2
A ball Goldenrod gall formed by the larva of a Goldenrod Gall Fly who turns into a pupa and spends the winter there – though the holes indicate that perhaps a wasp has invaded this gall and its larva may have eaten the gall fly’s.

Goldenrods also harbor the very tiny (.2″) Goldenrod Gall Midge (Rhopalomyia solidaginis) which causes a rosette gall.  Once the grub of this tiny creature hatches, the stem of the goldenrod generally stops growing but keeps producing leaves which bunch up and make a nice hiding place for a midge’s larva to grow – along with spiders and other midges who may move in.   Sometimes, as in this photo, the stem will continue to grow above the rosette gall, but it’s much more spindly.

Goldenrod gall_edited-1
A rosette gall on Canada Goldenrod created by a single tiny insect but potentially a hiding place for other midges and spiders as well.

For years I saw willows in the park that seemed to be producing pine cones at the end of their branches.  Turns out they’re Willow Pine Cone Galls, made by a tiny (about .2″) midge scientifically known as Rhabdophaga strobiloides.  The pine cone-shaped gall that its larva causes can harbor many species.  According to the University of Wisconscin-Milwaukee’s Field Station website, “Beetles, caterpillars, sawflies, cynipid wasps, midges, and the eggs of meadow grasshoppers have been found inside pine cone galls.”  They’re now on a willow on the west side of the Center Pond and can also be seen in the wetland area east of the Eastern Path.

gall
No, not a pinecone! A Willow Pine Cone gall that can harbor over 30 different species besides the larva of its original midge.

The Eastern Old Field rolls down to the Center Pond and the Western one slopes dramatically to the west.  The trails that wind across them are full of strange and beautiful creatures and the plants that feed on and live in them.  Walk quietly. Look closely.  Listen carefully.  And when nature shares a secret with you, please share it with the rest of us.

*Footnote:  My sources for information, as well as Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991). The viceroy butterfly is not a Batesian mimic; Stokes Nature Guides:  A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net.; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for beetle info http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info, and invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman.

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Small Surprises as Summer Wanes

Cam at BC1
Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

Nature is always full of great little surprises.  This week again, nature sprung a few on me – the unfamiliar appearance of a familiar bird, a sky full of dragonflies, and a park visitor who has touched the soft fuzz on a sleeping bee!

But the predictable is comforting, too. Queen Anne’s Lace has begun sharing the Old Fields with tufts of Goldenrod, all of them swaying and dancing in the wind.  Glorious days for a walk in Bear Creek!

goldenrod western path2
Queen Anne’s Lace now shares the western slope with burgeoning Goldenrod.

An Avian Surprise (at least to me…)

The molt that I discussed last week continues.   Groups of young House Wrens (Troglodytes aedon) are still hiding in bushes within the park, waiting for the fall migration.  You can hear their persistent scolding as you walk by .

wren in bushes 5
Groups of young wrens hide in bushes around the park, waiting for the fall migration.

An Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) hopped restlessly in a bare tree looking south, as if dreaming of his winter home on the Amazon.

Eastern Kingbird3
An Eastern Kingbird looking south as if dreaming of his winter home on the Amazon.

But here’s the SURPRISE!  Now does this look like a male Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) to you?

Male mallard in eclipse plumage
A male Mallard in its “eclipse plumage” after the molt.

If so, congratulations!  It didn’t to me.  This is actually what the glamorous green-headed male Mallard looks like after his mid-summer molt.  It’s called “eclipse plumage. ” The flight feathers are molted at the same time,  so during the molt, he was temporarily flightless.  Courtship for Mallards begins in the fall,  so in a few weeks the reddish- brown head feathers will be molted again into the brilliant green the male needs for attracting his mate.  The clue to gender in mallards, by the way, is the bill,  which is olive green/yellow in the male and orange with black in the female.  Eclipse plumage!  Who knew?

A Surprise in the Woods:  Green Rain!

Last Sunday, entering the Oak-Hickory woods, my husband and I began to hear what sounded like raindrops, pit-patting around us in the leaves and on the ground.  Puzzled, we finally realized that small green chunks were raining down on us. High in a Red Oak (Quercus rubra) sat a black squirrel.  Here’s one NOT at the top of a tree!

black squirrel2
This squirrel is a probably a black Fox Squirrel rather than a black Gray Squirrel since it is not pure black.

Black squirrels are just a color variant of the Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) or the Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger). Of course, the Surprise –  “green rain” –  was a  shower of green acorn pieces that lasted several minutes as the black squirrel munched high above.  It took us a minute to catch on and we had a good laugh. Here’s an un- chewed Red Oak acorn; the mature ones are nut-brown.

small green acorn
The source of the “green rain,”  pieces of Red Oak acorn, fell around us from the munching of a black squirrel high above.

Another small surprise:  According to Wikipedia, North American squirrels were mostly black before Europeans came here, because forests were huge and shady and being black offered protection against predators and the cold.  With deforestation, the gray and brown varieties flourished. Now black squirrels are appearing more often in northern areas that have colder winters.

A Surprise in the Air:  A Swarm!

A squadron of about twenty-five darners (genus Anax), large dragonflies, swooped and dove over the western Old Field on Sunday, looking like Harry Potter in a quidditch match. Quite a surprise, since we’d never before seen more than two or three darners at a time in Bear Creek.  Probably we were seeing a feeding frenzy since lots of insects were foraging on abundant wildflowers below.    I only managed to photograph  6 in this one small section of the sky.

Squadron of darners
Squadron of darner dragonflies over a field full of insects.

According to an article by Michael L. May in the Journal of Insect Conservation, some dragonflies, including some (but not all) Green Darners (Anax junius), annually migrate in huge swarms, traveling “hundreds to thousands of kilometers north to south.”   Really?  Another small surprise for me!  I wonder if this squadron will migrate with a larger swarm? See Green Darners in an earlier TWBC post.

So what was in the fields below the darner swarm?  Despite the hush from the molting birds, Bear Creek is humming with insects.  The Carolina Grasshopper (Dissosteira carolina), now full grown ( see the nymph in the July 30 blog),  makes a dry whirring sound as it flies short distances along the trail on its dark wings. It also sings, or stridulates, by rubbing  its rasp-like hind leg against its forewing .

Carolina grasshopper
The Carolina grasshopper now has its copper color and makes short flights along the trail with its dark wings.

Most of the Red-Legged Grasshoppers (Melanoplus femurrubrum) are developing a bit later than usual this summer.  So this male nymph will need to molt into an adult before we hear it singing in September.

Later instar red-legged grasshopper
This is a late summer nymph of a Red-Legged Grasshopper who probably has not starting “singing” yet.

Grasshoppers have short antennae.  Crickets and katydids have lo-o-o-ng ones!  Here’s a female Shieldback Katydid (genus Atlanticus) that may be contributing to the hum in the fields or at the edge of the woods.  Look at the length of both her antennae and that very long ovipositor with which she lays her eggs.  (Hint: it looks like a tail.)

Shieldback Katydid genus Atlanticus
A Shieldback Katydid with the long antennae of all katydids and a very long ovipositor with which she lays her eggs.

Annual Green Cicadas  (Tibicen canicularis) drone in the trees, looking like some sort of alien.   (This one, however, was handily on our garage door!)

Cicada
The drone of the Annual Green Cicada is part of the familiar late summer hum.

Last weekend, bees buzzed from flower to flower in the western Old Field, balancing gracefully on the stems.  Another recent surprise for me was learning that the common Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) is a non-native brought here from Europe in the 1600’s.  Here’s one with the “pollen baskets,” (corbicula) on her hind legs bulging after foraging among the goldenrod.

Honey bee with jodpurs
A Honey Bee, a non-native bee,  fills the pollen baskets on its hind legs as it forages on goldenrod.

As you’ve no doubt heard, Honey Bees have fallen on hard times, suffering from  multiple causes of  “Colony Collapse Disorder.” So it’s great to see them buzzing in the sunlight on so many late summer flowers in Bear Creek.

And speaking of bees…

Surprise Information from a Fellow Bear Creek Walker

One of the pleasures of being a Volunteer Park Steward is meeting so many other people with nature knowledge and experience.  A kindly woman named Mavis told me this week that she sometimes sees our native Bumblebees (Genus Bombus) sleeping under Goldenrod fronds or leaves at sunset.  She said she very gently reaches up the palm of her hand and touches their fuzzy bodies! Imagine what that might feel like!

I’ve read since then that a sleeping bumblebee is probably a drone, a male.  The female workers generally return to the hive at night to feed the queen, other workers and the larvae (baby bees). Males don’t even have leg baskets for gathering pollen.  They simply buzz about feeding themselves (thereby pollinating plants) and wait for a chance to mate with the queen – so they have no need to return to the hive.

So now I have another new goal – to feel the fuzz on a sleeping bumblebee.  The female Bumblebee worker below is filling her pollen basket by burying herself in a plume of Meadowsweet (Spiraea alba) in one of the native flower beds.

Meadowsweet closeup w bumblebee
A female bumblebee is almost buried in Meadowsweet as she fills the pollen baskets on her hind legs with its pale pollen.

Another Surprise:  Four Different, Very Tall Yellow Wildflowers in the Native Bed.

The native beds near the shed are full of tall yellow flowers – in fact four different ones! Thanks to Stewardship Manager, Ben VanderWeide, I’ve learned to distinguish between these giant beauties rather than seeing just “tall yellow flowers.”  It seems that these plants, like the asters,  have “composite flowers,” i.e.,  each apparent “petal” is actually a separate ray flower (or floret) and at the center are the disk flowers with a seed attached to each.

I’ve featured one of the yellow giants before, Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum). It’s super tall, up to 10 feet,  with a composite flower, ball-shaped buds on bare stalks and GIANT leaves near the ground.

prairie dock flower
Prairie Dock can grow to up to 10 feet high and features ball-shaped buds and huge leaves right at ground level.

Another I’ve mentioned before, False Sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides) also has a composite flower.  It grows about 8 feet high with leaves along the stalk. Here you can see the disk flowers in bloom.

False sunflower flowering
The disk flowers at the center of this False Sunflower are in bloom.

Then there’s the characteristic drooping ray flowers of the Cut-Leaved Coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata)  that grows 6 to 8 feet high. Here a bumblebee has its proboscis in one of the tube-shaped disk flowers.

green cone flower w insect_edited-1
Cut-leaved Coneflower with a bumblebee enjoying the disk flowers.

And rounding off the group of yellow giants is  Tall Coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris) which grows 3 to 9 feet tall.  Obviously, Honey Bees and Bumblebees love them, too!

Bees on tall coreopsis
Two bumblebees and a Honey Bee  busily  probe blossoms, pollinating the Tall Coreopsis.

While we’re discussing native giants,  have a look at  the big tufts of Big Blue Stem (Andropogon gerardii) which are now showing the pronged seed heads which gave this tall prairie grass its other name, Turkey Foot.  I remember walking through a field on Lake George Road as a child with these giants towering over my head.  So it’s great to see them back again since the prescribed burns in Bear Creek!

big blue stem1
Big Blue Stem, a native prairie grass that can grow 10 feet tall,  has reappeared in the park since prescribed burns.

Coming Attractions:  Asters!

The purples and lavenders of native Asters are beginning to appear in Bear Creek.  Here’s this year’s first glimpse of three that will be much more prolific in the coming days.  Asters, like the yellow giants above, all have composite flowers as well.

New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae)near the center pond:

New England Aster
The first dark purple New England Asters of 2015 with their composite flowers.

Smooth Asters (Symphotrichum laeve) on the western sloping path are lighter lavender and have a more delicate look than the New England Aster.

Smooth aster
The more delicate, lavender Smooth Asters have “petals” that are really individual ray flowers with disk flowers at the center.

And finally, I believe these are Panicled Asters (Symphytrichum lancelotaum) with small, white to  lavender ray flowers and yellow to lavender disk flowers.  My wildflower experts will check on this for me next week.

Panicled aster?
The small Panicled Asters have whitish lavender ray flowers (petals) and yellow or lavender disk flowers at the center.

A Fond Farewell:

The striking red Cardinal Flower is almost done for the year.  If you have time, take the path that leads north from the playground and have one last look on the southern side of the marsh boardwalk that’s on your left a short way down.

Cardinal flower end of August
The Cardinal flower is finishing its gorgeous red bloom near the marsh north of the playground.

So, if you like Surprises,  nature always obliges – especially at Bear Creek Nature Park. Literally, never a dull moment!

*Footnote:  My sources for information, as well as Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991). The viceroy butterfly is not a Batesian mimic; Stokes Nature Guides:  A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net.; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for beetle info and invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman.

 

 

 

 

 

 

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Native Wildflowers With Wet Feet – Plus Tiny Birds and Froggy Goes a-Courtin’

Well, High Summer in spades, eh?  Ninety degrees!  In the hot sun, buds are bursting all around Bear Creek, especially on plants that have made the township home for  millennia – our native wildflowers.

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

Small birds venture out in the heat – some to take dust baths and some just practicing their foraging skills.  A small adult bird sings farewell, while other small birds are just beginning to nest! The soon-to-be-grown grasshopper nymphs camouflage perfectly in the dust at our feet while frogs bulge with amorous thrums as they start their courtship percussion.  So much to see and hear if  you can take the heat!

 

It might be best to come early in the morning and take a stroll down the sloped path on the park’s western side.  After a blistering day and a cooler night, heavy dew sparkles at the tip of every plant and bejewels the elaborate webs that spiders wove the day before.

spider web dew
Heavy morning dew bejewels a spider’s web on the Park’s sloping western path.

Native “Wet-Footed” Wildflowers Love Park Wetlands

Speaking of jewels, here’s a lovely native flower that flourishes now in moist areas of the park.   It’s called Orange Jewel Weed (Impatiens capensis) and here’s one bedazzled with early morning dew.

jewel weed
Jewel Weed wearing its own jewels in morning dew.

Jewel Weed is also called Spotted Touch-Me-Not because once it’s mature, the seeds will explode from thin, green-striped pods.  Here’s a link to a 47 second YouTube  video Ben posted earlier that shows this wild flinging of seeds!  Watch to the end to see it in slow motion.

Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), a native shrub that loves wet feet, bursts with sputnik-like blooms near the southern deck in the Big Marsh and in the smaller marsh just north of the playground.  Look at all those tempting individual flowerlets for the bees and butterflies!

button bush bloom closeup
The sputnik-like bloom of a wet-footed shrub called Buttonbush.

Close by, on the opposite side of the boardwalk in the marsh north of the playground is one of my favorite native wildflowers, Cardinal Flower/Red Lobelia (Lobelia cardinalis), which always blooms in this area of the park in August.  It’s pollinated by hummingbirds who love red as much as I do.

cardinal flower
Cardinal Flowers bloom near the marsh north of the playground every August and they’re pollinated by hummingbirds!

Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium maculatum) sinks its roots in the moist ground near the deck at the southern end of the Big Marsh and this year along the eastern path as well.  There are various  legends about the origin of the name, which is purportedly connected with a Native American healer.  This plant, which I had confused with Swamp Milkweed (before Maryann Whitman set me straight!), has dark purple stems rather than the green ones of Swamp Milkweed which I posted two weeks ago as it was hosting a Monarch butterfly.  

Joe Pye Weed
Native Joe Pye Weed is identified by its dark purple stem, pink blooms and love of wet places.

Long stems of native Showy Tick Trefoil (Desmodium canadense) bloom, too, in the moist soil at the edges of wetlands in the park, though as a prairie plant it can grow in drier spots as well.  The plant has long curving stems and is a bit leggy:

Showy tick trefoil whole plant
A native plant, Showy Tick Trefoil, grows 2-6 ft. tall.

Now look up close.  It’s individual flowers are beautiful.  The details in nature are frequently worth a closer look.

Blossoms of show tick trefoil
Showy Tick Trefoil blossoms deserve the name when you stop to look closely.

I learned from Ben that, happily, the cat-tails we see growing in moist areas and marshes around Bear Creek are native ones, called Common Cat-tails (Typha latifolia).  This species grows all over the world,  from sea level to 7500 feet!  Cat-tails contribute to the cleansing effect of wetlands by absorbing pollutants in the water.   Ben tells me that the way to distinguish native cat-tails from invasive  cat-tails,  which do occur in Michigan, is that the invasives have a space between the male part of the plant (at the top) and the female part (just beneath) which is the part that turns fluffy in the autumn.  Our native ones have the male part directly above the female.

Common Cat-tail Typha latifolia
Our native cat-tails contribute to the cleansing effect of wetlands by absorbing pollutants.

Froggy is a-Courtin’ All Right!

At the Center Pond, the male Green Frogs (Rani Clamitans) are thrumming away, establishing little territories and competing for partners. Here’s a view of one of the 50 or so frogs visible on the pond surface this week – and he’s just about to croak.

frog in duckweed
A Green Frog in the Center Pond – one of about 50 visible frogs – about to croak

And now one in mid-croak!

Frog mid-croak
A Green Frog mid-croak!

The Center Pond was a peaceful spot for listening on a hot morning.  A Muskrat cruised beneath the overhanging branches at the eastern end.  The two Wood Duck siblings were still hanging out together, one standing on one leg for reasons which are never clear to me.  Bees and hover flies buzzed by, dragonflies patrolled and the occasional trill of  goldfinch song made the morning complete.   Hope you can hear some of this on my amateur recording. You might want to turn up your volume to hear the birds in the background.

Tiny Avian “Teenagers”

For some reason, the smallest birds seemed to be most evident on a hot morning.  On the Walnut Lane, two juvenile House Wrens (Troglodytes aedon) took a dust bath, no doubt trying to rid themselves of the mites that pester birds this time of year.  Wren adults often put spider egg casings in their nests so the spiders will consume the mites that bother the nestlings.   But once out of the nest, the young have to cope with them on their own.

juvenile wren dust bath3
A fledgling wren settles into the dust for a bath, trying to rid itself of pesky mites beneath its feathers.
juvenile wren dust bath2
A little wren spreads its wing as it takes a vigorous dust bath.

The male wren sings beautifully in the spring and summer when he is courting. Have a listen at this link where it says “Typical Voice.” Once the nestlings are born, his song is much softer and shorter.

Male wren singing
A male wren sings exuberantly when courting (listen at link above) but becomes softer and shorter once the nestlings are born.

During nesting, you’ll see males and females neatly carrying little fecal sacks, like diapers, out of the nest to keep it tidy as they fly back and forth to feed the young.  The adults defend the nest, scolding vigorously if an an intruder comes near.  Once the nestlings fledge, the pair stays with them and feeds them for a couple of weeks.  The female may then head off to start a second brood with her first partner or another.  The male cleans out old nests in the area as potential sites and begins singing again.  The young, like the dust bathing ones above, are generally hard to see – very quiet, huddling in the leaves in low bushes.

Another tiny fledgling , the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea) hopped in the branches along the path leading into the park from Snell.  Perhaps you can see how tentative it looks; it may be out on its own for the first time. But no doubt the adults are close by, keeping an eye on their fledgling and feeding as necessary.

juvenile blue-gray gnat catcher2
A somewhat spindly young Blue-gray Gnatcatcher may be out on its own for the first time.
blue gray gnatcatcher juvenile
In this shot, the juvenile Gnatcatcher’s white eye ring is more visible. No doubt its parents are quiet in nearby bushes either feeding siblings or waiting to see how this one does on its own.

Small, Yellow Adults Sing  – One Saying Goodbye, Another Still Nesting!

Although not a juvenile, another tiny bird is singing its farewells all over the park.  I mentioned the Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas)  in the spring when its bright yellow breast and black mask are easier to see in the bare branches.  I cannot seem to spot it among the leaves now, but I often hear its “witchety, witchety, witchety” call (hear “Typical Voice” at this link) when I ‘ve been near water in the park lately.  Listen soon, because Yellowthroats molt in early August and after that, they leave us for warmer climes.

common yellowthroat
The Common Yellowthroat isn’t easily seen now, but its “witchedy, witchedy, witchedy” song is heard in the park as it prepares to molt and leave us.

American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) are nesting now, when thistle down is available for lining the nest and thistle seed, a preferred food, is available to feed the young.  The males are singing shorter songs than they did when pairing up and establishing territory in the spring.  But surprisingly,  both male and female Goldfinches sing while flying, a rare thing in the bird world.  It pays to stop and listen when you see their  bobbing, undulating flight or watch them balancing on a thin stalk to eat seed.

goldfinch on thistle
Goldfinches have their young later in the summer than other birds, using thistle down to line nests and thistle seed as a preferred food source.

Coming Attractions:

August is the time for grasshoppers galore!  This week I think I spotted the pale instar (immature stage of metamorphosis) of a Carolina Grasshopper (Dissosteira carolina).  I only saw it because I spotted its black/brown wings in short flight at my feet.  Once it landed , it was beautifully camouflaged in the gray dust of the trail, looking like a dry stick among the pebbles and short grass.  But if I’m right, before long, it will molt again into the big cinnamon brown body it sports in August. Though I diligently perused the amazing grasshopper reference book provided by a commenter, I still cannot be sure about grasshopper ID’s – so feel free to set me straight!

Carolina grasshopper nymph  Dissosteira  carolina
The instar of a Carolina Grasshopper, looking like a pale dry stick along the path.

And what I think are the smaller instars of the Red-legged Grasshopper (Melanoplus femurrubrum) spring here and there in the grass as well.  When fully developed later in August, it will have a green head, golden abdomen and bright red legs –  if I’ve identified it correctly!

tiny grasshopper
A tiny instar (immature stage) of a Red-legged Grasshopper will metamorphose in stages into a truly red-legged adult.

So come out in the earlier morning to enjoy the dew drops or brave the heat at midday if you relish summer sun.  There’s always something to surprise and delight you at Bear Creek.

*Quick footnote:  My sources for information, as well as Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Stokes Nature Guides:  A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net.; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels, and invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman.