Tag Archives: Red-winged Blackbirds

Bear Creek Nature Park: Snow, Sleet but Spring Arrived Anyway!

Red-winged Blackbirds in an April snow squall

Wow, what a tough April – for us and for wildlife! I even considered the possibility at one point that our thermometer was broken, since it seemed to be stuck at 32 degrees! The intrepid birding group went out in a snow squall the first week of the month. Despite cold and driving wind, we still came across flocks of early migrators, like the Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) pictured above,  along with more than 60 robins foraging in the meadows.

We got a couple of brief respites in which it was possible to imagine a normal spring day with birdsong, fragile leaves, turtles warming in the sun. Then it was back in the freezer. Wildlife and plant life coped with cold wind and sleet, soaked up whatever sun was available and waited for change. We humans harnessed the warmer days for stewardship projects. And then voilà, spring arrived (I hope) last weekend.

Despite the Icy Cold, Birds Arriving, Leaving, and Braving the Cold, Plus a Tough Little Willow Tree.

Experts tell us that bird migration depends more on the length of spring days, than it does on the temperature. As a result, our first summer-only birds arrived to find snowy fields rather than the first greening of spring. What could they or our year ’round residents do but cope?

This Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) hid among the grasses at the edge of the marsh as the snow fell on the birders the first Wednesday in April. She’s probably been back for a few weeks and is well-equipped to deal with the cold. Normally by this time, though, she’d be picking nest sites, but I doubt this thin spot at the edge of the marsh was being seriously considered.

A Canada Goose rested among the dead reeds at the edge of the marsh as the snow fell.

In a tree at the south end of the marsh, a male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) looked dismayed by the cold wind ruffling his crest. His staring eyes seemed to suggest that he was as stunned by the freezing temperatures as the bundled-up birders below him!

A Northern Cardinal looking a bit shocked at the snow and the icy wind ruffling his crest.

Birders spotted the silhouette of a Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) hunched in a branch near the marsh. No doubt it was hoping to have some clean-up work soon. After all, its job and its food source is seeing that all the carrion in the park is dealt with quickly and efficiently. I had to wonder if it regretted having left southern Ohio, or points even farther south.

The silhouette of a Turkey Vulture coping with an April snowstorm at Bear Marsh.

During a brief pause in the snowfall, a Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula), who may have spent his winter in southern Ohio, stared out into the white landscape. It’s likely he arrived with other males and a mixed flock of Red-wings and Brown-headed Cowbirds, frequent traveling companions this time of year.

A lone Grackle looking back  toward the south on a snowy Michigan day

Over at the Playground Pond, a shy little Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) huddled on a branch, twitching its tail over the water, as the snow fell. Having perhaps wintered in Tennessee, this little bird is usually one of the earliest flycatchers to arrive in Michigan. So it’s hardy enough to brave the cold – though maybe, like us, it have would preferred better April weather. Look closely;  it’s nicely camouflaged against the branches and behind the veil of falling snow!

An Eastern Phoebe, in its brown and white plumage, almost disappears into the branches and the snowfall.

Our sturdy, native Pussy Willow (Salix discolor) survives even in Alaska and northern Canada. So it bravely thrust forth its fuzzy white catkins in the southern part of the marsh as the snow swirled around it. The bright, bare branches of native Red Twig/Red-Osier Dogwood (Cornus sericea) added a nice dash of color to a dark morning.

Some of the winter-only visitors are still stocking up before leaving for points north. Small flocks of  American Tree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea) twitter among the bushes, getting last minute meals before heading to Hudson’s Bay or the Arctic tundra for the summer. They certainly seem to relish cold weather! I’m glad Bear Creek Nature Park seems to have provided enough winter food for this small long-distance flyer.

A Tree Sparrow stocks up on food before leaving for Hudson’s Bay in northern Canada or perhaps the Arctic tundra.

During a brief snow melt last week, the Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) also seemed busy preparing to depart northward for the summer. They foraged among the newly sprouting grass where the prescribed burn had taken place in March. They don’t travel quite as far as the Tree Sparrows, perhaps only into Ontario.

The Dark-eyed Juncos are preparing to depart to Ontario and points north.

Short, Warm Respites Meant Birdsong, Frog Song, Turtles and More

For a few short days, off and on, we had sun and some genuinely spring-like temperatures. The  Wood Frogs (Rana sylvatica) thawed out from their winter freeze. The low, chuckling call of the Wood Frogs joined the constant, rhythmic peeping of the Chorus Frogs, featured in the blog a couple of weeks ago. Here’s a photo of a Wood Frog taken last November as they began hibernation. The black patch near the eye underlined with light yellow, plus ridges down the back are the field marks for this small frog.

Last November the Wood Frog found a spot to hibernate in a log or under fallen leaves.

The clucking or chuckling sounds in the foreground of this recording from a week ago are those of the Wood Frog. The higher-pitched calls in the background are from Western Chorus frogs. Be sure to turn up your volume!

On a cold but sunny afternoon, the male Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) chirped his burbling refrain as the wind ruffled his feathers and carried his melodious tune out across the Eastern Meadow.

A Song Sparrow lets the wind carry his song into the Eastern Meadow.

On the recording below taken ten days ago, he sings loudly twice with a bit of a rest in between.

When the temperature rose to sixty degrees, all kinds of plants, animals and insects seemed to come to life at once! When Ben ventured out into the park about 8:30 pm one evening, he heard the buzzing “peent” call of the American Woodcock (Scolopax minor).  This call from the ground precedes an aerial display in which the Woodcock spirals up into the sky and then chirps on the way down, plummeting the last several feet before landing right where it began. All this happens just before dark in small open fields near wetlands at Bear Creek and Cranberry Lake Parks. For the whole sequence of sounds during this mating flight, try this link at Cornell Ornithology Lab. (Wait for the “peent!” at the end. It will surprise you!). Though I’ve heard and briefly seen the Woodcock, here’s a photo by talented photographer Jerry Oldenettel at iNaturalist.org who’s had much better luck than I at getting a good photo!

The Woodcock probes for worms with that long beak and performs an elaborate courting dance as the sun sets.

A pair of Bluebirds (Sialis sialis) seem to searching out nest sites at Bear Creek. I saw a male one snowy afternoon peering down into the grass for possible food and a female surveying the Eastern Meadow.

This male Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus) finds all kinds of good things to eat as he tap, tap, taps on a tree trunk. Though they’ll eat seeds and fruits, their preference is for insect larvae, so they’re very good stewards of trees, ridding them of bark beetles and other insects. According to Donald W. Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.1), if we hear a quick, loud, regular beat in its drumming, that’s a mating call. When the drumming is lighter and irregular, the Hairy is either feeding or starting to excavate a nest hole.

The Hairy Woodpecker has a thicker, longer beak than the similar Downy.

Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater) foraged in the fields as well. These handsome birds don’t create nests, but rather lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. Cowbirds aren’t really irresponsible parents. Having evolved to constantly follow western buffalo herds, they had no time to care for young. So the cowbirds who took advantage of the nests and care of other birds carried on the species!

A Brown-headed Cowbird pauses while foraging in the Eastern Meadow.

The Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta marginata), who’d been hibernating in the cold mud on pond bottoms all winter, climbed onto logs all over the park on the first warm day. In the photo below, nine of them were basking in a patch of  sunlight within a shady wetland, letting the sun soak into their dark shells. Aahhh, that must have felt sooo good!

Nine Painted Turtles turtles basking in the sunlight on the first warm day.

While hand sowing native seed, we discovered Eastern Garter Snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis) twisted around each other in a wriggling hug as they mated in the brown grass. The female, according to Wikipedia, is larger than the male. They may have evolved this way because garter snakes bear live young. The more little snakes they can carry, the more likely their genes will go on to another generation.

Eastern Garter Snakes mating. The male snake is much smaller than the female who needs to carry the live young.

With temperatures so low, insects are still scarce in the fields right now. But I noticed what appears to be a Sexton/Carrion Beetle (g. Nicrophorus, fam. Silphidae) clambering through grass and leaves one warm-ish afternoon. It was probably sensing a dead mouse or bird and heading to bury it as a source of food for its larvae. These small members of the “cleanup crew” are large and colorful, usually dark with red on the forewings and fancy club-shaped antennae.

A Sexton Beetle on its way to bury a carcass of a mouse or bird on which its larvae can feed.

I saw two plants making go of it in the cold April air. The perennial Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) thrust it bulbous, purple bract (spathe) up through the mud. The bract envelops a long spike (spadix) which holds the flowers. Early flies and bees are attracted by its pungent (and skunk-y, not very pleasant) odor. Interesting that the leaves on this plant show up after the flowers.

At this time last year, another of the earliest spring flowers, Spring Beauties (Claytonia virginica) had already presented their pink- and white-striped blossoms in the forest. This year, though, in the middle of April, their spindly leaves were just starting up around the roots of large trees. Perhaps the warmer weather will hurry them along, too!

Stewardship Projects Proceeded

A few cold but clear days provided suitable conditions for Dr. Ben’s VanderWeide’s park projects.  Along with the prescribed burn in March and hand-sowing the fields of Bear Creek with native seed, Ben, Alex Kriebel (stewardship specialist with Oakland Township Parks), Ian Ableson (a new stewardship employee at Six Rivers Land Conservancy), and 4 volunteers began the yearly monitoring of vernal pools. As part of a larger project of the Michigan Natural Features Inventory, Ben monitors these biodiversity hotspots three times over the summer. What a collection of unusual creatures! They wake and feed or quickly hatch, mature, mate, lay eggs and expire in these temporary ponds that dry over the summer. Great to know our vernal pools are teeming with life! (Click on pause button if you need more time for captions.)

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The Promise of Full-fledged Spring

A young girl flies her kite at Bear Creek Nature Park on a spring-like afternoon.

We humans know how to take advantage of spring-like weather, just as the wildlife does. One warm, cloudy afternoon, a small girl brought her kite to test the April winds. This youngster got her long-tailed kite flying high and kept it there. So great to see parents bringing young children out to play surrounded by nature in our parks.

Last weekend, I think most of us dared to hope that “real spring” had finally arrived. The air was softer, the temperature more normal for late April, and a brighter sun warmed our upturned faces from a blue sky. Leaf buds that have waited on branches all winter have begun to swell. Soon more of those buds will open and our world will slowly dress itself in spring’s lovely shade of green. More migrators will navigate hundreds or even thousands of miles, making use of the sun, the stars and earth’s magnetic fields to find their way back to us.  Mornings and sunsets will be filled with more chatter and birdsong. So try to keep your eyes and ears alert!  Spring’s full-fledged arrival is just beginning to burst forth in full glory.

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.

Charles Ilsley Park: Ah, It’s Spring! Oops…No, It’s Not.

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.

Blog and photos by Cam Mannino

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).

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.

A European Starling who has lost its winter spots through “wear molt” and is ready for the breeding season.

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 (Antigone canadensis) 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.

A flock of Sandhill Cranes returning from Ohio or further south.

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.

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 for American 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 (Sialia sialis) 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).

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And then Winter Staged a Comeback…

Snow and shadows surrounded the melt ponds about a week after the photo posted above at the top of the blog.

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.

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?

Coyote tracks led to this area where the snow was stirred up and bare patches showed where the snow had melted. A coyote bed?

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.

red-fox-tracks-ilsley.jpg
The small, roundish tracks may be those of a Red Fox on the eastern prairie at Ilsley
Red fox (Vulpes vulpes) on the run near my home several years ago.

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.

Two crows in flight.
Crow feet and tail prints making a straight line in the snow.

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

Looking south from Charles Ilsley Park’s northern meadow on a snowy afternoon

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.

Moon rise near sunset at Charles Ilsley Park last week.

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.