J.R.R. Tolkien provided the ideal words to describe the in-between season in which we’re suspended right now: “… a morning of pale Spring still clinging to Winter’s chill.” Spring is officially here with the Spring Equinox, but mornings in the prairies and forests of the township can still feel as though we’re caught in the last weak grip of winter.
So this week, I thought I’d be on the lookout for sure signs of spring’s arrival and naturally, once I started looking, they were everywhere!
Birds Herald Longer Days with Song and Some Fancy Posturing
Arriving at Draper Twin Lake Park one cold, gray Sunday, my husband and I heard a very loud, clear rendition of the entire spring song of a Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). (Cardinals have a lot of calls. Listen to the second call listed at this Cornell link – that’s the one we heard.) This fellow seemed confident that he could woo the ladies and establish his territory at the same time with his full-throated singing! Look at that beak!
Male American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) at our feeder are changing out of their modest winter attire into their breeding feathers. In a month or so, they’ll be bright yellow in the hope of interesting a female with an eye for color. Here’s a male on the bottom right perch of our thistle feeder who started changing his wardrobe in March. Perhaps the female on the bottom left perch will be interested? (The other birds are Pine Siskins (Spinus pinus) who will migrate north before long.)
The buzzing trill of the Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaiusphoeniceus), which is accompanied by raising his red shoulder patches, is a common and beloved sign of spring here in Michigan. But last week I saw a male who was taking display to a whole new level. While calling, he also began awkwardly dancing along a branch, keeping his scarlet “epaulets” raised, occasionally fanning his tail, all in the interest of establishing a territory and showing off for some lucky female. What a guy! (Click through the slide show below to see the progression of his dance!)
Other birds establish dominance over other males with creative use of their necks! Below two newly arrived Common Grackles (Quiscalusquiscula) appear to be trying to “out-snoot” each other with their beaks tilted skyward! I think the one on the right is probably the winner here, don’t you? Or else the one the left is an uninterested female. It’s hard to tell.
Mark, a birding friend, told me that the Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula) at Stoney Creek Metropark were doing their dramatic neck displays as well. According to Cornell Lab’s All About Birds website, Goldeneyes spend December to April in courtship groups where they form mating pairs by performing a lot of energetic neck movements. The male bends his neck backwards until his head lays on his back and then he snaps it forward, splashing water with his feet at the same time! The female responds by lowering her head and swinging it forward. Pretty dramatic courtship! I wasn’t able to get to the Metropark this week, but a kindly photographer from iNaturalist, who goes by Mike B, allowed us the use of this photo of a male taken near Chicago. These diving ducks are headed to their breeding grounds in northern Canada and Alaska, just south of the Arctic.
Flocks of Birds – Large Ones and Small Ones – Fly Overhead and Forage in Our Parks
The birding group had an exciting Wednesday at Charles Ilsley Park when two huge flocks of Tundra Swans (Cygnus columbianus) flew overhead! Cornell says that these huge, all white swans with black beaks spent the winter on the Atlantic coast and are now headed to the Arctic tundra to build their nests and breed. Aren’t we lucky to be on their flyway?
Another birding friend, Mike Kent, took the photo below, because, wouldn’t you know, that was the day I decided to leave my camera at home!!! Look carefully at Mike’s photo because he caught a fascinating detail. We saw one lone Canada Goose (Brantacanadensis) traveling along with this huge flock of swans! You can just see its dark body in the upper left of the photo, third bird down. Hope this adventurous goose doesn’t plan to go all the way to the Arctic with its new-found friends!
That Wednesday was great for seeing big birds at Ilsley Park. Mike also caught for us a nice photo of a family of Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) who settled at the bottom of a slope to rest and feed. The larger, darker birds to the right are probably the adults, while the two smaller gray ones on the left are probably last year’s young ones.
At Bear Creek Nature Park, smaller flocks were chatting in trees and foraging along the paths. A noisy group of American Robins (Turdus migratorius) were snatching berries from a tree infested with invasive Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus). Some robins overwinter here and some migrate to southern Ohio and Kentucky. Some move back and forth all winter long. Though these non-native berries attract them during the winter, they unfortunately don’t provide much nutrition for the birds since thawing and freezing makes them very sugary. So migrating, in their case, might be a better choice!
On a path from the playground to the Walnut Lane at Bear Creek Nature Park, I saw my first flock of Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia). I love to listen to these tuneful birds in the spring, but have never before seen a flock of them in one area, as I did this week. They were “chicken-scratching” by scooting backwards with their feet in a ferocious attempt to get at some food beneath the surface -probably small seeds or insect eggs. The flock was so busy that the ground along the trail looked torn as they scraped their way down to the frozen surface, looking for food.
Buds are Swelling from Bare Branches – a Welcome Sign of Spring’s Arrival
Every year as spring approaches, I watch the Silver Maple (Acersaccharinum) to the right of the deck at Bear Creek’s Center Pond. It’s always one of the first trees to signal spring for me, its robust, red buds hanging gracefully from drooping branches over the water.
A small Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) near the pond has just barely thrust its leaf bud from the woody protection it had during the winter (left). In May, it will be a huge glorious bud (center), and in June, the green leaves will unfold into the sunlight (right). (Click photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Yes, It’s Muddy…but It’s S’posed to Be, Right?
It’s the end of March. Most of the ice on the surface is gone (at least for the moment!), but the ground is still frozen beneath. So rain and melting snow have nowhere to go. That makes for muddy shoes, smeared pant legs and cars decorated in various shades of brown. But hey, those signs announce that full-fledged, glorious spring is almost here! Birds are beginning to sing, dance, do a bit of neck gymnastics, don spring colors and wing their way north overhead in huge numbers. And trees are slowly waking from their roots, sending sugary sap up through their vascular systems, ripening their leaves for another summer of sun-gathering. All of nature, including us humans, have survived a very challenging, deep-freeze winter. Now’s the time to celebrate just being alive on a mudluscious walk in the pale sunshine of an early spring morning.
Surprised a bit by seeing the photo above in a nature blog? Well, on my four October visits to Gallagher Creek Park, I noticed an abundance of a new species there – young humans and their watchful adults!
Late on autumn afternoons, this modest 15 acre park is now filled with the voices of excited little humans rocking, swinging, spinning , climbing, and sliding on the colorful new playground equipment installed in July by volunteers and staff of the Parks and Recreation Commission. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
See-sawing on the “dragonfly” at Gallagher
Playing on the “Stand ‘n’ Spin”
Two girls playing on the hollow “log.”
The park’s already becoming a place for families to cross paths and get to know their neighbors in the most densely populated part of our township. And meanwhile, in the background…
Nature Goes About Its Autumnal Business
The natural areas of Gallagher Creek look a bit scruffy right now from all the construction that went on this summer to build a picnic pavilion, a restroom enclosure, expanded parking area, the playground and a paved pathway. But despite all that to-ing and fro-ing, nature survives and offers beauty and bounty when you take time to venture into the fields.
Birds in the Distance as Children Play
Birds may keep their distance when the children are playing, but as I approached the tall grass at the edge of the creek east of the busy playground, a familiar head appeared above the tall grass.
From the absence of a white crown on its head, it seemed to be a juvenile Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) stalking along the far side of the creek. Young Blue Herons take 3 years to develop full adult plumage, according to the Stokes Guides to Bird Behavior (Vol. 3). This youngster flew off, as I crackled through the browning stalks of goldenrod and yarrow.
But just as I arrived the next morning, when the playground was empty, a juvenile – perhaps the same one? – flew over the treetops and swooped into a tree covered in vines. I snuck slowly forward and got one shot of it standing tall before it bent its knobby knees backward, spread those magnificent wings, and took to the air once more.
While the children shouted and laughed in the afternoon sun on a different afternoon, I watched a lone European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) high in a snag staring out over the playground nearby. It paid no attention to the happy noises below. I imagined that it was waiting for its highly social companions, since starlings gather in huge flocks at this time of year. This one had completed its fall molt complete with fresh feathers tipped in white, giving it the spotted plumage that starlings wear in fall and winter. By spring, the white tips will be worn off, returning these birds to their iridescent blue/black mating colors, and its beak will lighten and even change to bright yellow if it’s a male.
Unnoticed by the playground youngsters, a large, rippling flock (or “murmuration”) of about 75 starlings suddenly descended on the trees east of the creek. But the lone starling just kept staring into the distance. Perhaps it just needed a break from all the cackling and whistling that goes on in a starling gathering.
Over in a quiet corner of the park, near the cat-tail marsh along the road, three little migrating Palm Warblers (Setophaga palmarum) in their duller fall colors chirped contact calls at each other before heading further south. The most notable field mark for these little birds is the bright yellow feathers under their tails and a pale “eyebrow” which they have year ’round.
Seeds Flying, Rattling, Dropping and Providing Food for Wildlife
Autumn, of course, is the time when plants ripen and disperse seeds for next spring’s blooming. In doing so, they also provide important nourishment for all kinds of creatures. So while the children played, I went out to see what kinds of food nature was preparing in the background.
Seemingly unaware of the hubbub on the playground, a struggling American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) fumbled about trying to extract seed from a Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) while it swayed wildly in a stiff breeze. I wondered if it was a juvenile who hadn’t quite mastered the skills necessary to extract seeds on a windy day.
American Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) would delight any child at this time of year with its hot pink stem and blackish purple berries. The trick would be to keep them from trying to eat the berries, since the seeds inside are slightly toxic to humans. According to one of my favorite wildflower sites, many of our favorite song birds (Bluebirds, Cedar Waxwings and more), as well as raccoons, opposums and the gray fox, feed on pokeweed berries with no problem. Pokeweed prefers disturbed soil, which makes Gallagher Creek Park just the right spot this year! After I took this shot, I came back a few days later to find the stem broken and picked clean. Mission accomplished – food eaten and seeds dispersed.
Some seed pods are rarely seen in our township except in this park. The wispy Bladdernut shrubs (Staphylea trifolia) produce elegant lantern-like pods. The shiny brown seeds inside shake in the wind, making a sound like a baby’s rattle. Though insects feed on the blossoms, there’s little evidence I could find that the seeds provide forage for wildlife. But the trees are doing a fine job of producing more Bladdernut shrubs as the number of them along the eastern tree line seems to be increasing nicely.
The common Cat-tails (genus Typha) are seeding as well, making a nice repast for a hungry Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata).
Cat-tails are seeding in the marsh on the park’s west side.
A Blue Jay probing for cat-tail seeds.
The pods of Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) are splitting open to release their silky little parachutes, each containing a seed that can sail away on the wind. Milkweed has done its job by feeding Monarch caterpillars as well as many other butterflies and insects over the summer. So its current task is to get those seeds out into the world. If the seeds succeed in sprouting, they will feed more insects next year.
More Edibles for Wildlife Wait in the Grass
Mushrooms, of course, can be edible by humans, but they are frequently a meal for squirrels and deer as well. I saw two varieties while the children romped at Gallagher Creek. A giant Puffball (genus Calvatia) had been broken in half, probably by a curious human, since it seemed to have no teeth marks in it. One appeared in the same area last year. And a stump hosted some pretty Turkey-tail Mushrooms (Trametes versicolor), whose tough, rubbery surface might not please us, but probably could please a squirrel (particularly a Red Squirrel). I see them now and again with a mushroom between their paws.
A large puffball appeared along the treeline for the second year in a row.
Turkey-tail mushrooms on a stump at Gallagher.
As I stepped into the deep grass, I wished I had one of those busy children in tow to enjoy the sprays of Red-legged Grasshoppers (Melanoplus femurrubrum) leaping away from my feet. It would have made them laugh as it did me. These small grasshoppers lay their eggs less than inch under the earth in the autumn, and those eggs are a food source for birds, skunks, snakes and raccoons. Nymphs and adults can also be a food source for toads, snakes and some birds, but mostly during the summer months.
Beauty Underfoot Before the Frost
Even though much of Gallagher Creek is covered in brown stalks and shriveled blossoms, a few autumn wildflowers survived right up until the first frost. East of the observation deck, near the creek, the ground is covered with unusual and fragile Bottle Gentians (Gentiana andrewsii), a native wildflower that grows in only a few places in our township. Its closed blossoms never open so they are most often fertilized by bumblebees who are big enough to force their way inside and back out again. The gentians were so plentiful this year that I had to step carefully to avoid treading on one as I explored the area.
Nearby, a late-migrating Monarch butterfly ((Danaus plexippus) paused to sip on the last purple blossoms of New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), a classic autumn wildflower.
Birds Everywhere on a Cold, Quiet Morning – and a Playful Young Female
On the cold morning when I saw the heron that I mentioned above, the playground was empty and quiet. The bushes and trees, though, were alive with birds busily flitting from branch to branch, or shrub to soil, in search of anything they could find to eat.
What delighted me most was a large flock of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis). They were probably gathering to move a little farther south in Michigan or to Ohio in order to reach warmer weather, though Bluebirds often return here on warm winter days and some stay all year. The males are always the flashiest and were more plentiful in this flock.
But my favorite Bluebird on that chilly morning was what I’m guessing was a juvenile female. Young Bluebirds fledge wearing spotted breasts. But according to the Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.2), they molt into adult plumage in August and September. I began to wonder if this gray-headed female was a youngster because she seemed to be practicing the grass-handling skills that she would need next spring in building her carefully woven nest. When I first spotted her, she had the head of a grass stem in her beak with the dry stalk trailing down her back.
She made a couple of tries at moving the grass into a more suitable position.
Seemingly frustrated, she dropped the stem between her feet and stared intently at it for a minute.
At last it seemed she had figured it out. She picked it up carefully in the middle of the stalk, a much easier way to handle it.
Satisfied, she carefully set it down on the railing on which she was perched. And then left the grass stem there and flew to nearby tree.
I loved seeing this young bird fiddle with what may have been her first attempt at handling the building material she would need in the spring to create her nest.
Besides the Bluebirds, a whole assortment of other birds made the most of the quiet park that cold morning. I’m fairly sure that a tiny migrating Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) was among them, but it insisted on keeping only its rear in view! So I’ve added a photo of another one I saw in a previous year so you can have a better look at it. (Use the pause button if more time is needed for captions.)
A Park Where the Young Can Learn and Play
I believe that young humans, like the young of all species, need play as a way to learn about the world. So I loved watching children on the new playground at Gallagher Creek Park. So much is being learned as youngsters cope with siblings and strangers on the slide or the rocking “dragonfly” seesaw. Muscles grow stronger. Some learn the consequences of risk-taking and others overcome their fears. It’s great.
What I’m hoping is that once the trails are mowed again next spring, parents will take their children by the hand and explore this little park that offers so much – baby muskrats in the spring, a swollen creek after rain, tree swallows diving for insects in the summer, and native wildflowers in three seasons. And yes, even little birds, that like all children, are learning how to be skillful grown-ups.
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net;Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels, A Guide to Bird Behavior Vols.1-3 by Donald W and Lillian Q.Stokes, entomology.ca/uky.edu on Red-legged Grasshoppers, illinoiswildflowers.info and others as cited in the text.
Watershed Ridge Park offers an adventurous, challenging hike on a hot summer day. No trails exist yet to lead you through Watershed, since it’s not yet developed. But you can park by the evergreen trees just east of the maintenance shed and explore from there (approximately 1664 W. Buell Rd). This park is named for a watershed boundary, a high point within the park, that causes precipitation to flow in two directions, ultimately feeding both Paint Creek and Stony Creek. The diversity of habitats is remarkable. Large areas of the park have agricultural fields that are tilled and planted by a local farmer, which helps keep invasive plants out until the area can be restored to natural habitat.
But once I step out of the farm fields, the magic begins! A forest with vernal pools, a bright meadow, a boggy swamp shaded by trees, a seasonal stream, and a hidden marsh surrounded by a nearly impenetrable circle of native shrubs. So feel free to join me as I walk through some of this wild and wonderful park on a hot summer day.
The Forest and Its Wetlands
I started down the edge of the farmer’s field to the west of the maintenance shed, walking carefully so as not to damage the Fogler’s soybeans. The field was dotted with wildflowers, like Pale-leaved Sunflowers (Helianthus strumosus) which attracted the attention of the Red-spotted Purple (Limenitis arthemis), a butterfly that seems to be plentiful this year!
Once I entered the cooler woods on the north edge of the field, I began to see blue-green wetlands shining in the dim, dappled light.
Oh yes, mosquitoes buzzed, but I patted on more insect repellent and headed for the water, because I knew that’s where I’d see the most wildlife. And sure enough, as I settled on a log near the water, a rustle behind me turned out to be a young White-tailed deer buck (Odocoileus virginianus) peering curiously at me from behind the greenery.
I could hear an Eastern Wood-Peweesinging plaintively in the distance, a nice soundtrack for my entrance into a mysterious forest. A plop! at my feet made me aware of a young Green Frog (Rana clamitans), covered in Duckweed (genus Lemno), who’d been basking on a log just moments before.
Far out in the water, two Twelve-spotted Skimmer dragonflies (Libellula pulchella) chased each other around a fallen willow until one finally settled for a moment. It was too far away for a good shot, so here’s my photo of a male in Bear Creek marsh several years ago.
The forest wetlands were a busy location for courting that afternoon. A pair of Emerald Spreadwing damselflies (Lestes elatus) had evidently mated just before I arrived. Below you can see the female grasping the stem, her abdomen curled inward, preparing to lay eggs on a plant, while the male above keeps a wary eye for predators or other males.
It was hard to see how glamorous these Emerald Spreadwings are in the dim light, so I was pleased when a male landed in the sunlight nearby.
One of the stumps in the wetland was decorated with the wheel-shaped web of an Orb Weaver Spider (family Araneidae). It glowed in a ray of sunlight. According to Wikipedia, “Many orb-weavers build a new web each day. Most orb-weavers tend to be active during the evening hours; they hide for most of the day. Generally, towards evening, the spider will consume the old web, rest for approximately an hour, then spin a new web in the same general location.” Very tidy, eh? That might explain why I never saw the spider and there was virtually no detritus in the web. I’m not sure what to think about the extensive web on the stump below. A practice run?
At the water’s edge, three “conks” of Shelf/Polypore fungi shone white against the tracks in the wood, maybe the feeding galleries of emerald ash borer larvae .
Near another shady vernal pool wetland, I spotted a tiny Wood Frog (Ranasylvatica) gazing toward the water from a small piece of wood. Perhaps it was a fond last look since this little creature will soon move uphill a bit from the forest pool in which it hatched. Finding a place to hibernate under the leaf litter, it will freeze solid until spring. No heartbeat, no breathing, no movement. This seeming miracle is made possible by a glucose anti-freeze of sorts produced by its liver. As regular readers of the blog know, this strategy for survival never fails to astonish me.
As I neared the edge of the woods, where it opens to the meadow, familiar plants were there to greet me. I could have wished for less attention from Enchanter’s Nightshade, (Circaea canadensis) which at this time of the year is producing seed within burr-like fruits. Looking high into the trees, I strayed into a large patch and my socks were covered. For the rest of my walk, I became a transportation vehicle for Enchanter’s Nightshade fruits!
Another forest edge plant, Jumpseed (Persicaria virginiana), spreads its seed in a different way. Once the seed is mature, any disturbance can send its seeds flying up to three yards!
Another native wildflower that hugs the forest edge, Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), is called Spotted Touch-Me-Not for the same reason. Its mature seeds also spring forth from the fruits when they are disturbed.
The Meadow that Slopes Down to the Marsh
Walking out into the hot, moist meadow, I found myself knee deep in dense grasses and flowers. The sunlit field was slashed with long dark shadows from the forest as I waded through the dense growth underfoot. All around me, dragonflies patrolled the flower tops, since the presence of a meadow in which to show off their colors and flying skills and a nearby marsh full of vegetation is their perfect habitat for mating and laying eggs. Widow Skimmers and Meadowhawks (genus Sympetrum) were everywhere. [I suspect the Meadowhawks were Ruby Meadowhawks (Sympetrum rubicundulum) but I’ve learned they can be confused with others unless you capture them and look closely – which I’m not at all interested in doing!)
Tiny butterflies fluttered through the flower stems adding their bit of color to scene. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
A Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus)
A tiny Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos)
As I struggled down toward the marsh, lifting my knees high to get through the lush tangle of stems, I begin to notice the plants near the marsh that love having “wet feet.” Mine, actually, were getting a bit wet, too!
Hearing sharp chipping calls behind me, I turned around to find an adult Song Sparrow (Melospizamelodia) warning its offspring to stay out of sight. This may be a female since they often begin their molt later than males do. The youngster stayed out of sight within a nearby bush.
Adult birds can be a bit scarce in late July and August because many are molting a whole new set of feathers. They’re generally not a pretty sight in the process, I can tell you! They’re not hiding out of vanity, of course; they’re just more vulnerable as wing feathers are replaced. I could hear the “witchety, witchety” call of the Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas)beyond the wall of native Gray Dogwood (Cornus foemina) which prevented me from seeing into the marsh. And a Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) “miaowed” from the Dogwood as well, making only a brief appearance. So I took the bird photos below in other parks at other times.
Ben’s Balancing Act in a Shady Swamp
Swamps are generally defined by ecologists as a forested wetland. Watershed Ridge Park has a beauty. Ben VanderWeide, our township’s Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, put on his waders one afternoon and went to explore this habitat at Watershed Ridge while working on a plant inventory of the park. What an adventure! The water may look shallow, Ben told me later, but the muck beneath it can be very, very deep! To explore the swamp, Ben tested each step and only went into the water once he found firm footing. Otherwise, he stepped or jumped from one hummock to another. Some of the hummocks were made by “windthrows,” fallen trees uprooted by the wind which had become covered by vegetation. Others were made by stumps of trees that had probably been felled years ago and were now overgrown with plant material.
While moving from hummock to hummock, Ben spotted some interesting and unusual native plants. How about Duck Potato (Sagittaria latifolia), also known as Common Arrowhead? I know I’d never heard of that one before! Ducks and other creatures love to eat its submerged tubers which store nutrients for the flower’s regrowth and/or reproduction. And since, we humans love our favorite tuber – potatoes – why not the name Duck Potato?
Ben found another unusual little beauty in the swamp, a Wild Calla (Calla palustris). Wild Calla is the only species in the genus Calla which is within the family Araceae. That family includes what are commonly called Calla Lilies (though they aren’t true lilies or in the Calla genus) and our old friend Jack-in-the-pulpit. It appears that the Wild Calla in Ben’s photo below had already been pollinated because, like Jack-in-the-Pulpit, the flowers are disappearing, replaced by green, berry-like fruits that will turn red in the autumn. Such a find!
Ben also spotted a sedge that he’d never seen in our parks before. Sedges (plants in the family Cyperaceae) are a big family of plants that look like grasses or reeds, but have triangular-shaped stems instead of flat ones. Papyrus and Water Chestnuts are in the same family. What I enjoy about sedges is that they often have such interesting spikes, like the one Ben found, Tuckerman’s Sedge (Carex tuckermanii). It also appears to have finished flowering and started producing fruits.
Along with these rewarding finds in the Watershed swamp, Ben was treated to a snack of High-bush Blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum) as he balanced precariously on top of those floating hummocks!
His treat was only fair, really, since he had to carefully avoid the abundant Poison Sumac(Toxicodendron vernix) scattered through the swamp. While he came home with a small Poison Sumac rash, it was a small price to pay for discovering cool, new plants and wild blueberries as far as Ben was concerned. Poison Sumac takes the form of a shrub or small tree and grows only in very wet places like swamps and bogs. My thanks to Ben for exploring this Watershed habitat. I don’t think I’ll be pulling on my waders anytime soon…but I’m very glad he did!
When sufficient rain falls, a small stream flows out of Watershed’s swamp and finds its way through the woods westward, eventually feeding the marsh I spoke of earlier at the foot of the big meadow. It’s not an impressive stream, but it feeds the plants in the marsh, which brings the insects, which feed the birds…you get the idea. Nature depends on connections like that.
Time to Head Home
By now, my damp feet, my tired knees and my socks decorated with Enchanter’s Nightshade made me aware that it was time to leave. So I trudged back up the meadow, through the dim woods where the Pee-wee still asked its question, “Pee-weee?”, along the Fogler’s soy beans and across the lawn to the cornfield beyond the shed. There a group of young Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) hung out on the cornstalks, moving restlessly like a bunch of rowdy teenagers, while their weary elders probably went on molting while hidden in the bushes and fields nearby.
I was standing next to a large tree stump when a juvenile House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) popped out of the vines that covered it. This young bird was a bit older than the plush-looking little Wren I’d seen at Stony Creek Ravine a few weeks ago. But it was clear that the Watershed wren had still not quite grown into its beak. Surprised at how close I was, it hopped nervously for a moment, looked away, looked back – and popped back into the leafy cover. Caution won out over curiosity.
My Watershed adventure complete, I headed home, content that I’d experienced the natural world in the same way I’d relished it as a child growing up on Lake George Road. Yes, my arm had a few itchy spots here and there, my tired knees felt wobbly and water squished in my shoes – but I’d meandered on paths of my own making, out of sight of other humans, a quiet part of something wild and much older than I – and yet close enough to the kitchen at home that I’d be there in time for dinner. Thanks for coming along.
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: inaturalist.org; Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology 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, A Guide to Bird Behavior Vols.1-3 by Donald W and Lillian Q.Stokes, and others as cited in the text.
Right now, no one would nominate Gallagher Creek Park for Oakland Township’s most scenic natural area. Last fall, the invasive shrubs that covered large areas of the park were bushwhacked to the ground. Native wildflower seeds were sown but haven’t had time to grow the deep roots they need to fully bloom. And it’s muddy, gray early spring, after all!
But each time I’ve visited over the last few weeks, wow! This homely little 15 acres is full of spring liveliness. Swimming, soaring, singing, sprouting – spring arrived with exuberance at Gallagher Creek Park.
A Muskrat Adult and its Child Enjoy the Creek and Its Fresh Greens
On my first visit to Gallagher Creek, an adult Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) busily pulled up what appeared to be bulbs at the base of some grasses in the stream. Though they don’t hibernate, muskrats spend most of the winter under the ice feeding on the dead plant material of their “push-ups” (feeding platforms) or lodges. Fresh greens must taste great after that! Two days later, I saw a young muskrat paddling at top speed toward the observation deck to take a closer look at me, like any curious youngster. If you look towards the north, you can see their family winter lodge at the edge of some cat-tails. (Hover cursor for captions; click on photos to enlarge.)
Migrating Birds Make Gallagher Creek Their Summer Residence
All over this small park, birds are calling, singing and searching for nests. On my first visit, the chirping and liquid “thwick” of the Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) drew my eyes high into the bare branches of aging willows. Swooping and diving, these iridescent blue acrobats performed aerial feats before resting high in the treetops.
Over on the bare ground of the hillock next to the parking lot, a pair of Killdeer(Charadrius vociferus) scurried about, sometimes pecking at wet puddles, sometimes circling me with keening calls. Once the female seemed to be starting her shallow nest, her breast pressed against the bare earth. They often make several small scrapes (usually only 3 inches or so across) before settling on a nest site. Cornell Lab thinks it could be a way to mislead predators, as they do, of course, with their “injured wing” trick. Here’s the male (I assume) up on the edge of the hill, keeping an orange eye on me.
The Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus) probably moved a bit south for the winter. But this “mustached” male is here now establishing a territory at Gallagher Creek, tapping on trees and making his “kwirr” call from the top of snags behind the creek. From below, you can clearly see the yellow undersides of his tail feathers. He has yellow under those elegant wings, too, like nearly all of the Northern Flickers in eastern North America.
Below the Northern Flicker, a pair of Common Grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) moved restlessly about the trees, making their clucks and “squeaky gate” whistles. According to the Cornell Lab, “Common Grackles are resourceful foragers. They sometimes follow plows to catch invertebrates and mice, wade into water to catch small fish, pick leeches off the legs of turtles, steal worms from American Robins, raid nests, and kill and eat adult birds.” Now that’s an omnivore and a bit of a bandit as well!
Of course, with all that water and a cat-tail marsh in the park, Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) take up residence there as well. This one, for some reason, chose to flip upside-down in his quest for cat-tail seeds.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about a European Starling(Sturnus vulgaris) at Charles Ilsley Park who still sported its fall feathers with the light tips which give it a spotted look. But in Gallagher Creek Park, a week later, the tips had finally worn off this lone starling, so that its iridescence would shine for the mating season. It seemed to be gazing longingly on this cold spring afternoon, perhaps waiting for its compatriots to arrive.
Some Year ‘Rounders Used the Park as a Dating Hang-out
One cool afternoon, three American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) fluttered and cawed, perhaps showing off to a potential mate or simply playing together in a tree that seemed much too small for three large, shiny black birds. The intelligence of crows is legendary. These clever birds are part of the Corvid family, which also includes Blue Jays and Ravens. Cornell Lab describes just a few of the tools they occasionally create. “Examples include a captive crow using a cup to carry water over to a bowl of dry mash; shaping a piece of wood and then sticking it into a hole in a fence post in search of food; and breaking off pieces of pine cone to drop on tree climbers near a nest.”
At the edge of Gallagher Creek two Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) floated along, occasionally dabbling for grasses below the surface in the quiet pools of the overflow. These two would likely have paired up in the fall. Did you know that only the females quack? The male, according to Cornell Lab, only makes a “quieter, rasping one- or two-noted call.”
Spring Odds ‘n Ends
The wetland near the stream must be home to many crayfish (or crawdads if you prefer). Their chimneys appear every few feet if you walk east from the observation deck. Little construction marvels, these chimneys are the openings to crayfish burrows. According to the America’s Wetland Foundation website, they build these chimneys by using their legs and mouth to form small balls of mud which they carry to the surface and arrange in rows like laying bricks! I’ve read that crayfish mostly forage at night, though the birding group saw one recently in the morning. So despite all these burrows, I have yet to spot a crayfish itself at Gallagher Creek!
The little hill where the Killdeer scampered is littered with the pretty shells of what I think are Grove Snails (Cepaea nemoralis). (I’m no mollusk expert, so if you are an expert please feel free to correct me!) These lovely, whorled and striped shells are all empty. I’d read in a book called The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell that some birds consume snails, shell and all, in order to stock up on calcium for their eggs. But these are probably too large for most of our birds to swallow whole. I wonder why there are so many here? Grove Snails are not native, but were evidently brought to the United States in the 19th century.
In some areas of the park, Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) flowers are everywhere. Don’t get your hopes up though for gathering the fruit in June. In my experience, the animals eat them green before they can ripen for us humans!
A single Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera) produced long male catkins that are, as Ben put it, “pumping out pollen to pollinate the female flowers via the wind.” Birches are “monoecius” which means they produce both male and female flowers. In the right photo, the red and yellow male inflorescence (a cluster of flowers on a stem) can pollinate the more erect, green female flowers. Birches can pollinate themselves if there aren’t others of their species nearby, which is the case with this tree.
In the old hedgerow that separates the two large sections of the park stands a wispy native shrub that makes clusters of spring flowers and then a spectacular air-filled seed capsule in the fall. It has the unfortunate name of Bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia) but it’s a special native tree that is fairly unusual in our area. So laugh at the funny name and enjoy the fact that it’s here.
Like most wetland areas, Gallagher Creek has big bunches of Skunk Cabbage(Symplocarpus foetidus) poking out of the mud at the edge of the stream. Out in the eastern part of the park, after the invasive shrubs were eliminated, a large patch of Mayapples(Podophyllum peltatum) got stranded in the sunlight. Evidently, the invasive shrubs provided the shade these forest wildflowers generally love. But alas, they have lost their shade and may be diminished over time. Not to worry. Seeds of many sun-loving plants have no doubt been waiting for years in the soil for those pesky shrubs to disappear. We’ll soon see what appears now that sun is warming the soil.
Such an Unassuming Little Park with So Much Life!
This little park will someday have trails through prairie wildflowers and a children’s play area. But for now, each time I arrive, I wonder if I’ll see anything interesting. In the brown and gray of early spring a few weeks ago, it looked particularly unpromising. But then shining azure birds swooped overhead, the killdeer circled and called, and a curious little muskrat made a few quick passes by the observation deck to check out the strange animal with a camera. And then I was very glad I kept coming to this little corner of the township and its merry little creek. If you take the time to explore, you might feel that way, too.
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell; Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3; 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; other sites as cited in the text.
Charles Ilsley Park is slowly being returned to native prairie. Think of it as historic restoration. Before European farmers arrived, our township was mostly oak savanna – native grasses, wild flowers and widely spaced oaks. Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, has been working for three years to bring back some of that prairie habitat. Shrubby invasives have slowly been eliminated, some along tree lines just this spring. The sloping curves of the native prairie are appearing once again.
Some fields have been replanted with native grasses and wildflowers which must grow deep roots for several years before they fully prosper. More will be planted this year. The land rolls gently, surrounded by a beautiful dark forest. Birds sing from the hedgerows and scuttle across the open ground. Wood frogs chorus joyously from a nearby wetland. A spring stroll around the rolling landscape of Ilsley is an auditory as well as a visual treat. So try clicking on some of the links below (and then page down to recordings) so you can share the sounds of spring.
Summer Birds Find Us Again
The migrators are winging their way back to us on warm south winds. The Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) again soar above the fields, gathering tiny midges in their open beaks. Luckily, they can also eat plant foods which allows them to return early in the spring. Both males and females sing in what Cornell calls “a chirp, a whine and a gurgle.” My favorite part is the gurgle which I call a “liquid thwick.” See what you think. Aren’t these Swallows a gorgeous blue?
In the western field, the Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) scoots among the furrows of the open field, pauses and then scoots on again. Its orange rump flashes as it flies and its piercing “kill-deer” call (under “flight call” at the link) carries a long way. Killdeers have the large eye, short beak and round head characteristic of other plovers, but unlike their shorebird relatives, they can be quite content in a sunny field.
Killdeer are famous for distracting predators from their shallow, ground nests by faking a broken wing. Our sharp-eyed birder friend Antonio Xeira spotted a killdeer nest last year at Gallagher Creek Park. Be on the look-out! These nests are easy to miss!
Of course the buzzing trill of male Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus), their red and yellow epaulets flashing, can be heard everywhere now. The brown and white striped females, perhaps reluctant to leave winter feeding grounds south of Michigan, are just beginning to arrive, while the male below may have been here for several weeks.
High in the treeline, the drumming and the fast wik-wik-wik territorial call of the Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) echoes across the bare ground. At last I spotted a “mustached” male on the ground poking his serrated tongue into an old ant hill. Although they’re woodpeckers, Flickers spend lots of time on the ground probing for ants, their favorite food. Stan Tekiela in the Birds of Michigan Field Guide, identifies Flickers as non-migrators or “partial migrators,” meaning they move south when food become scarce. I seem to see them only after spring arrives. Eastern North America hosts yellow-shafted Northern Flickers, while red-shafted Flickers are found in the western part of the continent.
Male Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia) trill all over the park. This one emerged from the brambles to perch on a stump, tilted his head back a bit (not as far as some song sparrows do) and sang his territorial song. Song Sparrows are chubby little birds and the stripes on their breasts usually gather into a central spot. Their song starts out with several short notes and then a rat-a-tat-tat kind of sewing machine trill. (Click on photos to enlarge, hover cursor for captions.)
The cleaning crew has arrived. Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) silently ride thermals high into the air or swoop lower to sniff for the scent of a carcass. These huge birds prevent disease for the rest of us by cleaning up any carrion they spot from above. According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab, their immune systems are impervious to even the worst toxins including botulism, anthrax, cholera, or salmonella! The paler feathers at the tip of their dark wings, including the “finger feathers” seen here, let the sun shine through, giving the false impression that their wings are banded in a lighter color.
Some Not-quite-native Summer Visitors
Non-native birds, like non-native plants, most often arrive in new places because of human activity. These two species came here in rather interesting ways.
Originally a western grassland bird that followed buffalo herds, the Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater) adapted to their nomadic life by laying their eggs in other birds’ nests instead of building their own. As settlers cleared forests in eastern North America for towns and agriculture, cowbirds expanded their range eastward. Grazing cattle and plowing probably stir up as many insects as buffalo, right? Cowbirds give more of a gurgle and squeak than a song. Here are two male cowbirds doing characteristic dominance displays – head tilt (beak skyward) and plumping the feathers. Pretty hilarious, eh? The lower one looks like a plush toy!
Female Cowbirds establish territories and choose the most dominant male, according to Donald Stoke’s Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.2). They can lay as many as 3 dozen eggs in a summer because, though some birds accept the eggs and raise the young, others peck them or push them from their nests. Here’s a newly arrived female checking out the males.
We commonly see European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) along telephone lines or swooping together in huge flocks called “murmurations.” These birds all descend from 100 individuals brought to New York’s Central Park in the 1890s by Shakespeare devotees who believed America should have every bird mentioned by the Bard! Starlings can be very aggressive about taking over favored nesting sites from other birds and now number in the millions. This starling at Charles Ilsley Park still has some of the feathers with light tips that gave it a spotted look after the fall molt. But as spring progresses, those tips will wear off, leaving its feathers dark and iridescent. Its beak is also changing from autumn gray to summer yellow.
The Year ‘Round Avian Welcoming Committee
Many of the sturdy birds who kept us company during the winter join the spring chorus as well. Of course, I couldn’t resist another shot of an Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis)! Here’s the link to its spring song.
Some American Robins (Turdus migratorius) stay here all winter, eating berries and other frozen fruits. Others move a little south and come back intermittently depending on the weather. According to Cornell Lab, Robins tend to eat more earthworms in the morning and more fruit in the afternoon. This one probed the wet edge of a vernal pool formed at the bottom of a slope after heavy rains. The Robin’s “cheer up” call accompanies any walker in all township parks right now.
Woodpeckers provide the rhythm section as they establish their territories. Here a Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) pauses from his drumming to pose at the top of a snag (standing dead tree.) The Red-belly’s wet-sounding “Kwir” call sounded from the trees lining the fields and from the edge of the forest.
Speaking of Woodpeckers, look at these fresh Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) holes in a native Wild Black Cherry tree (Prunus serotina)! Wish I’d seen this huge bird whose drumming is as loud as a jack hammer! Its call is often confused with the Red-bellied Woodpecker who drums much more quietly. By the way, Ben says that the way to identify these black cherry trees is to look for bark that resembles burnt potato chips. Good description!
The loud, nasal “ank, ank, ank” call of the White Breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) can be heard year ’round as it circles the upper and lower sides of branches, searching for insects or stashing seeds and nuts. Cornell Lab claims that its name resulted from its habit of whacking at nuts and seeds, “hatching” them from their shells before eating or storing them.
The Other Chorus: Wood Frogs!
After the heavy rains of late March and early April, a swollen, muddy stream edged Ilsley Park on its north side. Across from the old Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa) in the photo above, on the stream’s far bank, orange-tipped Willowsfilled a large wetland. And below them sung hundreds of little Wood Frogs (Rana sylvatica).
If you turn your volume up, below you should hear some individual Wood Frogs singing in the foreground and a mighty chorus in the background that sounds like a purring engine! I don’t think I’ve heard so many in one place before! You may need to turn up your volume to get the full effect.
Nearby, an old stump was draped in two shades of thick, intensely green Moss (div. Bryophyta). Moss, an ancient plant, usually dries and bleaches in winter cold but turns green and lush quickly in spring rain – long before the trees have leafed out. David George Haskill, in The Forest Unseen, describes mosses’ gift for using and holding water. “Grooves on the surface of stems wick water from the mosses’ wet interiors to their dry tips, like tissue paper dipped in a spill. The miniature stems are felted with water-hugging curls, and their leaves are studded with bumps that create a large surface for clinging water. The leaves clasp the stem at just the right angle to hold a crescent of water.” They must have loved our wet spring!
Curiosity about the red stalks on moss prompted me to check out moss sexual reproduction (I know – the oddest things intrigue me). Moss sperm cells swim to the eggs by being washed along by rain. Once the eggs are fertilized at the tip of a green moss plant, a new plant begins to grow in place to form the red “sporophytes” seen in the photo below. Those red capsules at the end of the erect stalks (called setae) hold the spores. The capsule won’t open to release the ripened spores until the weather is dry enough to carry them on a breeze. If a spore falls on damp soil, voilá. A moss plant is born. They also multiply in asexual ways, like fragments breaking off to start new plants.
I’ve always loved the upside down world of mud puddle reflections. This large mud puddle, the classic sign of spring, had a surprise in store for me.
As I skirted it, a huge Garter Snake (g. Thamnopsis) wove its way out right between my feet and swam across the puddle. I think it’s the longest garter snake I’ve ever seen.
Charles Ilsley Park Preserves Our Past for the Future
With hard work and some luck, Charles Ilsley Park will eventually offer township residents an authentic experience of this area before European migration. Its undulating fields will fill with native grasses and wildflowers. Perhaps birds not often seen here, like the Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna) in Greg Lasly’s amazing photo above, will more frequently whistle its plaintive song over the sloping hills. (I’ve only caught a brief glimpse once with the our birding group.) Or perhaps we’ll enjoy the Bobolink’s (Dolichonyx oryzivorus)long, bubbling song. Now declining in numbers, the Northern Bobwhite Quail (Colinus virginianus) may once again bring its simple two-note “Bob-white!” to the park, a sound that meant “summer” here in my childhood. These birds and others need the open, sunny grasslands that the Dr. Ben is working hard to provide. I’m enjoying Ilsley’s slow prairie transformation and look forward to even richer, more diverse bird serenades as the years go by.
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows:
iNaturalist.org for periodic photos;; Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, 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; other sites as cited in the text.