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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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?
Readers of this blog know, I hope, that I love wild creatures of all kinds. But I will admit that in August, young Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) try my patience!
Almost every year, a mated pair of Red-tails successfully raise one carefully tended youngster in the woods across the field from our home. According to the Stokes’ Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol. III), Red-tailed Hawk mates are good partners, each taking turns on the nest for the month-long incubation period. Then they spend another month feeding the nestlings, first tearing off bits of prey to feed the young directly, and later dropping off food for the young to eat on their own. (I have yet to see the nesting behavior because it seems to take place in a woods on private property nearby).
Even a couple weeks after fledgling, the adult hawks will bring food to the young who will continue begging with their “Kloo-eek” calls. But inevitably the time finally arrives when the youngster must hunt on its own. And it seems to take a while for young hawks to accept this reality. (Ring bells with any human young you know, dear reader?)
That’s when we’re treated to about a month of plaintive piercing calls coming from the electrical towers in the field next to us. I’ve counted. We hear 3-5 calls about every 15-30 seconds for hours each day! (Turn your volume up – but be prepared!)
The adults do not appear or respond. They either believe in tough love or don’t respond because they are finishing their yearly molt – probably both. As the Stokes so calmly describe it, “If red-tails have nested anywhere near your home, this constant calling of the young can be quite tiresome.” Ummm…yeah. But we grin and bear it, knowing that this striking raptor is an important – and beautiful – part of nature’s balance. And within a few weeks, thank goodness, it will fly off, seeking its own little corner of the world.
March in Michigan is such a tease! We had a glimpse of spring-like weather, but we knew it was too good to last, didn’t we? Winter came roaring back.
I’ve been braving the corrugated potholes of Predmore Road to visit Charles Ilsley Park to see what these back-and-forth changes have wrought – and also to check out some great new nest boxes going up there. As usual, the spring-like weather provided lots of things to see. Winter’s return meant exploring tracks crisscrossing the snow, leaving clues of who’s been out and about when I’m not there. Presence and absence – sometimes both are interesting!
February’s Big Melt Gave Us a Taste of Spring
The false spring definitely held some surprises! In the center of the park, which was prepared for prairie planting last fall, two huge melt ponds had appeared! What a sight on a clear day, as if the park had suddenly opened two big blue eyes! In the distance, what we took to be a spring when the birding group spotted it last month, was still bubbling from the ground. Our township Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, is now guessing that it’s the outlet of a tiled culvert that a farmer had dug to drain these very spots in his meadow for planting. Ben hopes to check it out when the weather’s warmer. Here’s a video of the water bubbling out of the ground on the day I first saw these very large melt ponds. (Sorry about the wind in the microphone!)
On the way into the park, we spotted a creature who, like us, had been fooled by the warmer weather. A Woolly Bear Caterpillar wended its way across the path, hoping to find some sustenance before spinning its cocoon to emerge as an Isabella Tiger Moth (Pyrrharctia isabella). The moth photo below is by Steve Jurvetson (CC BY) at inaturalist.org. (Click on the photos to enlarge them; hover your cursor for captions).
A Woolly Bear Caterpillar may have hatched a bit prematurely.
The Woolly Bear becomes an Isabella Tiger Moth. (Photo by Steve Jurvetson CC BY)
A European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) glistened in the morning sunlight in a tree at the top of the central meadow. In the autumn, starlings molt into feathers with bright white tips, which makes them look spotted all over. During the winter, the white tips wear off (called “wear molt”), leaving their feathers a glossy, iridescent bronze for the breeding season. Odd to see one all by itself when we so often see them in large flocks.
Tiny yellow-gilled mushrooms covered the slope as we entered the central meadow. Most mushrooms defy identification for me, so if anyone can ID this one, please leave a comment! Later Reg found an extremely light, two inch ball in the grass – an Oak Gall. A Gall Wasp(family Cynipidae) laid an egg on an oak last year, and when the larva hatched inside, it injected a chemical into the plant creating a tissue-like secretion that it can feed on until it emerges as an adult wasp. Perhaps, like the Woolly Bear, it may have misjudged its moment! Or the larva may have provided some wintertime sustenance for a bird.
High above, a flock of Sandhill Cranes(Antigonecanadensis) called from the chilly, blue sky. Theses ancient birds must have felt the pull of the warming days and ventured north from their winter feeding grounds in Ohio and further south. I love their hoarse, wild calls (click on “Listen” at the link) that sound almost prehistoric. According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, these cranes use their extra long windpipes, which extend to their sternum, in order to make that sound. Soon they’ll be performing their graceful mating dances – leaping whimsically into the air and floating back down with the partners that they choose for life.
Newly-returned Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) flashed their bright red epaulets by hunching their wings, accompanied by a buzzing call to establish their territories. Some stayed during the winter, but most moved south last fall as the weather got colder. The kwirr call of the Red-bellied Woodpeckers (Melanerpes carolinus) could also be heard in the treetops, as well as its drumming (click on “drum” at this link), another way of establishing its territory and attracting a mate.. And Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) pair up this time of year, soaring and circling lazily in the rising thermals of warmer air. I’ve read that if you’re lucky, you’ll see them drop their talons in flight, apparently an important indicator that two hawks are interested in each other. Sometimes they even lock talons and tumble together in flight! The hawks I saw were circling high in the sky – out of the reach, I’m afraid, of my longest lens, so please pardon the blur.
Last spring, the birding group saw a female Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) approaching her nest in a tree along the entrance trail. The actual basket-like nest was tough to see among the leaves. But as Reg and I left the park on that cold spring-like day, the nest was visible, sturdily attached to the tip of a branch, having braved the winter winds. She’ll weave a new one this spring from grass, grapevine bark, horsehair, wool, occasionally even recycling materials from a previous nest, according to Cornell’s allaboutbirds.org.
Spring Nest Prep Courtesy of Parks Volunteers
Out in the eastern meadow, we came across two other volunteers, Tom Korb and his nephew Alex Korb, both valued members of the Wednesday birding group. They were making last minute changes to some bluebird nest boxes that Tom’s created for the Oakland Township. Tom built several nest boxes for Charles Ilsley Park and Draper Twin Lake Park with the talented assistance of Sue Ferko. The picture on the right below shows Tom and Sue installing a nest box at Draper Twin Lake Park last week.
Left to right: The new bluebird house, volunteer Tom Korb, my husband Reg and Tom’s nephew, Alex Korb.
Volunteer bird house builder Tom Korb and Sue Ferko, his talented and enthusiastic assistant at Draper Twin Lake Park
On the advice of birder extraordinaire, Ruth Glass, Tom and Sue also built some Peterson-style bluebird nest boxes that are triangular in shape. Ruth has found that bluebirds seem to prefer the Peterson houses at Stony Creek Metropark. So Ben and Tom decided to experiment by putting up both types to see which ones the bluebirds at our parks preferred. Tom also constructed two nest boxes for forAmerican Kestrels (Falco sparverius), North America’s smallest falcons. Kestrels nest in cavities along wooded edges, so that’s where the new box in Ilsley Park was placed, in the tree line between the central and western meadows. Chickadee houses will soon be installed as well.
You’ll also note that the bluebird houses are installed in pairs. The theory is that Eastern Bluebirds(Sialiasialis) and Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor), who often compete for housing, will share space if there are two houses together. So we shall see! Bluebirds began to investigate Tom’s houses as soon as they were up, and I saw a pair every time I hiked there since. I’ve only seen an American Kestrel once from a distance after a prescribed burn at Bear Creek – so I’m hoping to see a pair at their new nest box sometime soon. (Kestrel photo by Steven Mlodinow from inaturalist.org).
And then Winter Staged a Comeback…
On my last trip to the park, everything was silent except for the occasional trill or cluck of the indomitable Red-winged Blackbird and the distant kwirr of the Red-bellied Woodpecker. When I arrived in the late afternoon, no other human had explored the park that day – probably due to that corrugated road! – so the trails were pure white, not a footprint in sight! But clearly, the wildlife enjoyed having the park to themselves after the snow fell.
I quickly spotted the first track of a Coyote (Canis latrans). Canines can’t retract their claws, so in the photo below, you’ll see the two nail marks at the top of the print. The larger pads are located outside, rather than directly below, the smaller pads, which is typical of coyotes. As usual, the prints were neatly placed in a straight line. Our well-fed dogs can afford to wander as they walk, but wild coyotes on the hunt can’t afford to waste energy, especially on cold days.
When I reached the central meadow, I spotted two separate coyote tracks heading east over the hill. One went almost straight up and over the highest park of the hill. The other took an easier route around the lower end.
The first coyote headed straight up the highest part of the hill, heading east.
The second coyote found a slightly easier route along the lower end of the hill.
As I followed the tracks, I imagined what might have occurred. When the snow storm came out of the northeast, a pair of coyotes probably trotted off to the west where perhaps the hill would break some of the wind. And then I came across a sight I’d never seen before. The tracks led to a flat area on the far western meadow beyond the tree line. There the snow had been stirred up near several medium-sized patches of bare earth where the snow had melted off the grass. The bare spots were too small for deer beds and several had clear coyote tracks that appeared to be leading to them. Could this be a group of coyote beds, I wondered?
That night I researched where coyotes sleep and found that they are known to just lay down in the open as long as there are no humans or other predators to disturb them. And I found Google images of them laying in open snowy fields. Since coyotes are the top predators in Charles Ilsley Park, and humans live a fair distance from this field, I’m guessing that the coyotes crossed the tree line, found a low spot in the field, turned around a few times in the snow the way canines often do, and settled down for the night. But who knows? If anyone has a more accurate interpretation, I’m open to it. Anyway, following the tracks and finding this curious area offered me a fun expedition late on a snowy afternoon.
Another nocturnal traveler left its tracks as well. These small, roundish canine tracks are most likely to have come from a Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) trotting along a trail on the eastern prairie on the previous night. Its tracks were quite near those of a coyote, and I saw no signs of conflict, so I doubt they ever encountered each other that night. Recently though, Tom Korb did spot the clean skull of what he believed was a Red Fox at Charles Ilsley Park, so perhaps another fox met a coyote at some point! The photo below of a running Red Fox was taken at my home several years ago, so I’m just guessing about this midnight scenario.
Daytime park residents left their marks as well. I heard but never saw the little creature who I’m thinking left these four tiny tracks – the American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus). It saw me before I reached its hideout log, so I’ve added a photo of one who popped up out of snow near my back door a few winters ago. It was looking for birdseed under the snow cover.
And American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) were strutting about in the snow as well. I saw one dive bombing a Red-tailed Hawk one morning, but it was too far off for a photo. So here’s a shot of two in flight last March and what I believe are the tracks of a crow who left prints of its feet and dragging tail feathers in the snow last week near a tree line at Charles Ilsley Park. Like wolves, crows cleverly walk in a straight line to save energy. Note the big, hooked claw on the back of the foot which indicates that its probably not a turkey track.
Such fun to think of being the only human in the park that snowy afternoon, leaving my big sloppy footprints among the precise and delicate ones of so many wild neighbors! If you’re a more experienced tracker than I am (I’m a novice!), feel free to comment and set me straight!
A New Image of Our Self-sufficient Wild Neighbors
March can be a frustrating month. One day I get to see the Sandhill Cranes bugling overhead. I kneel to watch an unlucky Woolly Bear Caterpillar wend its through wet grass. And a week later, the snow descends again, making life more difficult for the cranes, perhaps deadly for the caterpillar and sometimes less visually interesting for a park visitor with a camera around her neck and three solid months of winter under her belt.
But then I notice the coyote prints trailing up a small hill and follow them to a disturbed patch of ground. Normally, when I hear coyotes howling and yipping near my house in the middle of the night, I picture a small group sitting on its haunches in the moonlight before retiring to a snug den.
But nature has handed me a possible new image of this clever, well-adapted animal that’s moved into my territory the last few years. Now I can envision my coyote neighbors as wild creatures so sure of themselves, of their ability to handle their world, that they can just lay down with their traveling companions, sing together under the moon for a few minutes, then curl up in the snow and drift off to sleep.
That’s probably one of the reasons I spend time in nature as often as I do. It never stops teaching me to pay attention. And it never stops reminding me that human lives are embedded within the lives of a whole panoply of living beings – plants and animals that have adapted to change, survived and even thrived. Maybe we humans, so often resistant to change, can learn do do the same. And that helps me drift off to sleep.
My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner;inaturalist.org;Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net.
Since we seem to be heading into a warming trend, I thought I’d share the odds ‘n’ ends of what I’m calling The Big Freeze, those recent days of frigid temperatures and wind. In the interests of preserving my camera and my numb fingers, my hikes during the Big Freeze were shorter and the photos were fewer.
But as usual, I delighted in the sightings or even the signs and traces of other creatures, including other humans, who shared the bitter temperatures with me. On those frigid, silent days, I found myself appreciating the slightest visual treat that passed unnoticed in the lushness of summer – a rock, a mud puddle, snow-covered mushrooms. So here’s a sampling from Bear Creek and Charles Ilsley Parks of what can make a walk worthwhile even on the zero degree days of a challenging winter.
Wildlife Braving The Big Freeze
Birds are rarer sights for me on super cold winter walks, so what a treat to come across a flock of Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum)on two different walks at Bear Creek Nature Park. The high-pitched whistling as these winter social groups swooped and settled was quite cheering during The Big Freeze. Here are some other creatures that shared those bitter morning walks with me.
Though I heard more creatures deep in the brambles and watched birds fly overhead, I only caught a few with my camera. Some animals only left their tracks behind. On a bird walk at Charles Ilsley Park, we saw the neat tracks of two coyotes who’d trotted along in the moonlight the night before. Coyotes make straight, single tracks, placing their back feet in the tracks of their front feet to save energy. One of the birders said he’d heard that the coyote’s tail can leave a slight drag line as seen in the closeup below. I couldn’t find a source for that, but it makes sense since coyotes run with their tails down, rather than up like wolves or dogs. Click on the photos to enlarge; hover your cursor for captions. (Coyote photo below by amandaandmike at inaturalist.org)
A Meadow Vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus), aka a Meadow Mouse, must have crossed the path at Bear Creek Nature Park on a snowy night and then disappeared by burrowing into the snow. Lucky for this little creature that the coyote wasn’t around! (Meadow Vole photo by Wolfgang Siebeneich at inaturalist.org.)
Meadow Vole tracks disappear into the snow
Meadow Vole by Wolfgang Siebeneich (CC BY-NC)
I’ve never seen a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) at Bear Creek Nature Park, though others have. But I did see the hole one had recently excavated in a tree in the Oak- Hickory forest there – with this “carpenter’s” wood chips scattered below. (Woodpecker photo kindly lent by Joan Bonin, a gifted local photographer.)
Holes excavated by a Pileated Woodpecker.
The wood chips left at the foot of the tree
Pileated Woodpeckerer, photo by Joan Bonin
Evidence of Humans at Play During the Big Freeze
It’s always cheering to come upon evidence of other people using our parks to just play in the snow.
Odds ‘n’ Ends that Caught My Winter Eye
The austerity of winter reveals landscape features unnoticed in the lushness of spring and summer. The birding group marveled at a fast-running spring flowing out into the snow at Charles Ilsley Park which had been dry or hidden in the dense growth of the field the rest of the year.
At sunset one afternoon, I rounded the corner of the shed at Bear Creek Nature Park and saw a pink and blue sunset glowing in a puddle of melted snow.
The graceful “bones” of last year’s wildflowers, clusters of half-moon shelf mushrooms, even an unusual rock catch my eye when framed in white. (Use pause button if you need more time for captions.)
Beauty in the Big Freeze: Appreciating the Small Things
Sometimes it’s just the pale green and lavender of ice in a wetland or the high whistle of a swoop of Cedar Waxwings. The scarlet flash of a Cardinal or a dancing snowman can lift your heart on gray winter day. Feathery snow settling on a seed pod or the gaudy beauty of an early sunset – it’s just a matter of taking in beauty in smaller, more subtle doses that can buoy our spirits in the dark cold of a Michigan winter.
This Week at Bear Creek celebrated its first birthday this week. We’ve come full circle on the calendar exploring together what’s blooming, singing, buzzing and trotting through the park. I’ve had such a great time watching, asking questions of Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Stewardship Manager, reading your comments and pouring over books and blogs to research these pieces. I hope it has brought you some surprises and fresh insights, too. I’ve proposed to Ben that we widen the lens a bit this year and rather than focusing on one park, I’ll explore other parks in the township in a series we’re calling “Out and About in Oakland Township.” So watch for that coming soon!
But for now, let’s explore what’s been happening in Bear Creek for the last couple of weeks while I was reporting on Bear Creek history. Spring arrived, retreated and struggled to make a comeback, no doubt confusing the first migrating birds (one new to me!), singing frogs and emerging insects. A successful prescribed burn lit the Old Fields, returning nutrients to the earth and warming the soil with black ash. It also provided some pretty nice hunting for birds of prey, including a second bird I’d never seen before.
A Tentative Start to Spring: The Birds
Before we watch the migrators, here’s our old friend, the Black- capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) doing something fun. I learned a while ago that this little native can excavate holes in dead trees and/or trees with softer bark. And one cold morning, near the marsh closest to Snell Road, I spotted one doing just that. Notice the wood shavings on its head in the left photo and on its beak in the right photo. It was dropping the shavings on the ground as it worked diligently. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Chickadee with wood shaving on his head excavating a hole in a dead tree.
Heading in to do more excavating.
Reaching all the way to the bottom.
Emerging with wood shavings on its beak.
Back to spring arrivals. The Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia) returned, some practicing parts of their spring song, but mostly just searching in the wetlands and brush for something to eat!
One warm morning, an American Woodcock (Scolopax minor) shot out from under my feet and two days later I saw one probing with its long beak among thick vines and brambles at the edge of the wetland below the benches on the south hill. I’d never seen one in Bear Creek before! This oddly shaped bird, with its squared-off head and widely spaced eyes, stayed just out of sight in the underbrush. I’ll spare you my attempt at a photo. Here’s a much better one of the Woodcock from Cornell Lab! I hope to see this interesting bird doing its “cool aerial mating dance,” as Ben calls it, at a stewardship birding event he’s planned for Cranberry Lake on Earth Day, April 22 at 7:30 pm (Mark your calendars!).
A flock of migrators, the Grackles (Quiscalus quiscula), with their light eyes and iridescent coats, seem to have taken over the marsh just north of the playground. Their calls, akin to the sound of a rusty gate, scrape the air as these large birds begin establishing territories.
They share some wetlands with another summer visitor, the Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), who trills a sharp call while showing off his epaulets. Since the females hadn’t arrived last week, this guy seemed more focused on food one cold morning.
The Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis)are performing their spring duets, since both the male and female trill a large variety of songs. Here’s a male near the marsh and then a recording of his lovely song which he began a few minutes later. (Be sure to increase your volume.)
And of course, I couldn’t resist a pair of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis).
The Frog Serenade Begins
The spring frogs have thawed out after being frozen all winter. They are singing with abandon in every wet spot in the park, trying to attract their mates. During the day, we’re likely to hear either the Wood Frog (Lithobates sylvaticus)or the Western Chorus Frog (Pseudacris triseriata) or both. In this short sound recording, the high pitched continuous singing is the song of the Western Chorus Frog and the lower, almost conversational croaking is the song of the Wood Frogs.
Wood Frogs like to float in the water and sing, so look for concentric circles on the surface and you’ll often see the 2 – 2.5 inch male croaking. This one floated in the marsh west of the Snell entrance.
The Western Chorus Frog is smaller, only 1 – 1.5 inches, but it has a mighty bubble at its throat as it sings. I caught this one in mid-croak a year ago.
The water is deep at the Center Pond, so Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta)have emerged from winter torpor under the mud to share whatever bits of logs are available in order to bask in the thin sunlight. I’m waiting to see how many hatchlings survived the winter in their shared nests!
Plants Sprouting, A Risk-taking Caterpillar and a Very Tiny Spider!
The last week of March thick frost covered all of last year’s plants at Bear Creek, including a Goldenrod Ball Gall missing its larval inhabitant and one of last year’s Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota) dried blossoms.
But the sun came out and this year’s plants began to emerge. Each spring I look for the first fascinating but homely Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) around the marsh at the western entrance to the Oak-Hickory forest. And there it was, nosing its way out of the mud.
Nearby, on the path behind the Center Pond, a minuscule spider worked diligently on its web strung between two branches of native Pussy Willow (Salix discolor). And some sort of caterpillar appeared as well, which might be that of the striking Virginia Ctenucha Moth. The caterpillars of this moth feed on grasses and sedges and are often found in open fields in early spring and fall.
Over near Snell Road, I spotted some lovely catkins and Ben tells me I’ve found Hazelnut (Corylus americana), a plant that George Comps harvested for nuts when he lived on this piece of land in the 1940’s. The long yellow ones are male flowers and if you look closely, you’ll see small red ones that are female – both on the same plant.
Up in the new native bed near the pavilion, transplanted last fall from a generous donor, the lovely little Sharp-lobed Hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba) bloomed quietly one warm morning.
Prescribed Burn: A Boost for Native Plants
Last week Dr. Ben, township staff and 6 volunteers conducted a prescribed burn down the center of the southern part of Bear Creek, to the left and right of the Walnut Lane. Many native plants in our area are adapted to fire from natural sources and thousands of years of clearing and fertilizing with fire by local Native American communities. In fact, many native plants form buds underground that allow them to sprout vigorously after fire. Non-native plants and invasives may or may not be fire-adapted, so periodic burning can be a setback for them.
Fire also returns to the earth the nutrients in dead material from the previous year and provides a black ash surface that absorbs heat from the sun (solar radiation), giving plants a longer growing season.
Dr. Ben serves as “fire boss” for our crew and trained these volunteers during the winter. It was wonderful to see them do such a careful, well-coordinated burn, while saving the township the cost of hiring a burn crew. Thank you to volunteers Steve Powell, David Lazar, Antonio Xeira, Dioniza Toth-Reinalt, Heidi Paterson, and Jim Lloyd, plus Township staff member Jeff Johnson, and of course Dr. Ben for a stewardship job well done!
About that Hawk and its Fellow Hunter…
Avian hunters were super appreciative of the burn! A large Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) perched calmly on a limb as the smoke floated up from the fires below. As Ben pointed out, she knew it would make finding her prey so much easier!
A female American Kestrel (Falco sparvarius) found a mole after the fire and took it up into a tree on the eastern edge of the Old Field. Kestrels are the smallest North American falcons and are declining in some of their range due partly to predation by hawks and even crows – so it’s great to see one at Bear Creek. Kestrels are known to cache some of their food, but after the winter months, this one seemed very determined to have a meal! (Thanks to Ben for ID of this bird and the caterpillar above!)
From One Spring to the Next
So thank you for circling the year with me at Bear Creek. It’s difficult to choose favorite moments because every season has its joys. I know I’ll remember the bulge of the Chorus Frog’s throat in early spring, the head of a Cedar Waxwing protruding from her nest in early summer, two baby wrens taking a dust bath on the Walnut Lane, the Western Slope covered with Monarch butterflies hanging from purple New England Asters in autumn, and learning how muskrats cruise under winter ice and frogs freeze solid before resurrecting in the spring. If you have favorite moments, photos, new realizations, I’d love to hear about them in the comments below.
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.