Bear Creek Nature Park: Spring Arrives on a Wing and a Song

I dropped in on Bear Creek Nature Park multiple times in April and early May, watching nature’s slow-but-steady journey into spring. After a difficult year, seeing nature renew itself felt especially reassuring – a useful antidote to the leftover doldrums of 2020.

Text and photos by Cam Mannino

This week along with my own photos, I’ll be including many by other residents who generously agreed to share their amazing photography. Regular blog readers will remember Bob and Joan Bonin who have previously lent me their amazing photos. And recently, I made a new photographer acquaintance, Paul Birtwhistle, who explores our parks with his camera and his peaceful dog Stanley. All three of these local photographers are blessed with eagle eyes and exceptional photographic skills as you’ll see below. I thank them all for their willingness to let me share their finds with all of you. Believe me, you’re in for a treat!

Nature Begins to Stir in the Cool Gray of Early April

The bare-bones beauty of Bear Creek’s Center Pond in early April

It seems that each year as I enter the park in early spring, the first song that falls from the canopy is that of the Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia.) Their song, which can vary a bit geographically, most often starts with a few short notes, followed by a melodious trill and finishes off with a buzz. A streaky, little brown male with the typical spot on his breast perched at the top of a tree, threw back his head and belted out his song to woo any willing female within range. This year’s vocalist was much too far away for a decent photo, but here’s one from an earlier spring at Bear Creek Nature Park.

Song Sparrows learn their songs from males in the area in which they’re born, so their song versions vary in different locations.

During the bird walk in the first week of April, Ben spotted a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) posing right at the tip of a snag near the park entrance. It was so high that it only made a silhouette against a gray spring sky, but I tried to take a photo anyway. I love that big red crest! These woodpeckers make their rectangular nest holes high in either snags or live trees in the spring and then make lower ones in the fall as shelter from winter winds. I’m going to keep an eye on that snag!

A Pileated Woodpecker poses against the gray of a cold, early April morning.

This Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) looked a bit chilly as it huddled against a bare branch while searching for frozen caterpillars or insect eggs.

A Downy Woodpecker felt as chilly as I did on a cold April morning.

On the way down the Walnut Lane toward the Center Pond, I spotted a Hazelnut Bush (Corylus americana) in bloom. The golden catkins are male flowers. The slightest breeze sends their pollen wafting over the tiny, pink female flowers that barely peek out from the end of the twigs. I’ll be curious to see if it produces any hazelnuts on its thin branches. [Click on photos to enlarge.]

The chuckling of Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus) in a vernal pool invariably greets me as I step into the woods in early April. These little frogs float on the surface, occasionally kicking their legs to move about as they call for a mate. Consequently, they’re much easier to spot than the tinier chorus frogs who lurk under the edges of logs or aquatic plants. After having frozen and thawed unharmed throughout the winter, these masked frogs move toward the pools in early spring. Vernal pools dry up in the summer, which means Wood Frogs can lay their eggs without fish making a meal of them. This time, a log seemed to provide a handy place for the frogs to rest between unsuccessful bouts of floating and chirping; I sympathized as a former wallflower myself!

A pair of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) cruised the far end of the vernal pool. At one point, the slightly larger male performed some amazing preening moves. Or maybe he was posing in an attempt to flirt. If so, his partner doesn’t seem too impressed.

It’s hard to tell whether the male Canada Goose is preening or flirting. The female doesn’t seem interested in either case.

On the way back from the Wednesday bird walk at Bear Creek in early May, my photographer friend, Bob Bonin, got a wonderful shot of a Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) excavating a promising nest hole. Look at that beak full of wood! Chickadees are cavity nesters and will create a nest in soft wood if they can’t find an existing hole that suits them.

A Black-capped Chickadee can create its own nest hole in soft wood if it can’t find a suitable exisiting cavity. Photo by Bob Bonin

Birds and Blossoms as the Woods Turn Green in Late April

Spring turned from brown to green in the second half of April. Unseen in the night sky, millions of birds rode the wind north and some eventually drifted down into Bear Creek Nature Park. Many came here planning to raise young in the park. For others, it was simply a rest stop on their journey farther north.

The Avian Summer Residents

My new photographer friend, Paul Birtwhistle, got an amazing shot of a rarely seen visitor, the American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus). While Paul and his dog sat quietly on the far north dock of Bear Creek marsh, the Bittern stepped quietly out of the reeds near the shore. Bitterns can breed in Michigan so we can hope this one chooses our marsh. If so, perhaps one day we will hear their booming call that sounds like a low “gulp” coming through the cattails and reeds. Cornell Ornithology’s All About Birds website says that when this birds sees a possible threat, it may choose to assume its concealment pose, its neck elongated and its bill tilted toward the sky. Sometimes it even sways, trying to blend its striped body into the moving reeds. Cornell says the posture is so ingrained that they sometimes do it even when in the open as it was in our marsh. I’m glad Paul had this exciting moment and shared it with us.

Paul also saw a Sandhill Crane (Antigone canadensis) at the marsh and a male Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) cruising in a woodland marsh on the southwestern side of the forest. These birds both tend to spend the summer here to mate and raise their young. The Sandhills toss plant material into a mound, then form a neat cup in the center lined with twigs. Wood Ducks look for cavities high in the trees near water, using the hooks at the back of their feet to navigate on the tree bark. What great guests to host for the summer!

Every year we also act as hosts for the Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) in the nest boxes built by birder Tom Korb and installed by the Stewardship Crew. These iridescent avian acrobats will soar above our fields all summer, gathering insects in their open beaks. But in late April, they are busy within our boxes creating nests out of dry grass and lining them with white feathers. Paul caught a pair claiming a nest box on April 27.

A pair of Tree Swallows on a township bird box at Bear Creek Nature Park. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle

In a tree near the nest boxes, a male Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) surveyed the territory. He appeared to be keeping an eye on his mate as she gathered grass for her nest. Bluebirds will nest in boxes near our Tree Swallows from time to time, but they won’t tolerate another bluebird pair close by. Their sky blue eggs take twelve to fourteen days to hatch. A team of trained volunteers coordinated by our township Stewardship Specialist, Grant VanderLaan, monitor the nest boxes in several parks from first egg laid until the young fledge. The data are provided to Cornell University’s NestWatch program, a citizen science project. Some bluebirds stay with us all year ’round and others seek us out as the weather warms.

A male Bluebird surveys the area near the nest boxes at Bear Creek Nature Park.

On April 24, Paul Birtwhistle spent a long time at the Center Pond listening to the kwirr call of the Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) before being able to spot it. At last, he caught sight of the red crown and nape of a male’s head peeking out from a hole on the underside of a branch on the huge White Oak at the pond’s edge. Years ago near the Bear Creek marsh, I’d seen one of these woodpeckers sticking its head out of a horizontal, upside-down nest hole in an oak branch. It seems that these male woodpeckers excavate several nest holes in hope of giving their mate a choice.

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker excavating a possible nest hole to please its mate. Note the wood chips on his red crown. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle

According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab’s All About Birds website, one of the Red-belly’s options for nest hole placement is dead limbs in a live tree, which is exactly where this bird ended up. The holes are about 9-13 inches deep (or maybe horizontal in this case?) and the circular living space is roughly 3.5 by 5.5 inches. Pretty snug fit, I would think! Once the female has chosen her preferred hole, she lays her eggs on a bed of wood chips left from the excavation accomplished by both mates. Sometimes, the pair drill holes along the branch outside the nest hole to warn off other birds, a kind of “We claim this spot!” message. I hope this hole by the pond was chosen by the female.

Katri Studtmann, one of the stewardship summer technicians, gave me a heads-up to look for a Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) that she’d seen at the Center Pond. Of course, the Kingfisher saw me first as I came to the end of the Walnut Lane and took off. I saw her dive into the water at the far end of the pond, but she came up empty. Females, by the way, have one blue and one chestnut brown stripe on their breasts while the males have only the blue stripe.

A female Belted Kingfisher dipped into the Center Pond with a splash but missed her prey.

In a grassy spot, Paul watched two Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus) do a ritualistic dance with their beaks. At first, I thought it was a mating dance – but these are two female Flickers! After reading a bit, I learned that flickers sometimes do this ritual to protect either their mate or their nesting territory. I’m guessing these two are having a quiet, non-violent disagreement about boundaries. Thanks to Paul for getting several shots so we can appreciate their dance moves!

Of course many more birds arrived at Bear Creek Nature Park last month than Paul, Bob, Joan or I happened to see, successfully record or share. But using the Cornell eBird lists created by participants on the April and early May bird walks, here’s another quick slide show of birds you might see or hear at our parks now if your binoculars can find them among the spring greenery! (The photos here are from previous years by me and others.)

All Eyes on the Warblers in May! Some Stay and Some are Just Passing Through

The big warbler migration began here in late-April with hearing or seeing the Blue-winged Warbler and the Palm Warbler. During the May bird walks at both Bear Creek Nature Park and Cranberry Lake Park, we saw many more of these tiny long-distance travelers. So keep your eyes open for small, colorful birds flitting about in trees or diving in and out of shrubs. You don’t want to miss these beauties who often arrive in the morning after riding a strong south wind during the previous night. Some choose to spend the summer here raising young. But others you’ll see below are only here for a few days as they rest up before heading north.

Under a Greening Canopy, Spring Blossoms Emerge in the Woods

As migrating birds arrive, the woodland plants seem to magically appear as the soil warms under the spare canopy of spring. Always the first to arrive are the spring ephemerals, like Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica). This spring ephemeral blooms very early to catch the sun while the trees are bare, then quickly subsides as the shade increases above it. Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) does the same, but uses its leaf cupped below the blossom to preserve some warmth on cool spring days. Bloodroot leaves remain for some time after the petals of the flower have fallen.

In late April and early May, May Apples (Podophyllum peltatum) begin to form colonies under large trees and produce their shy flowers beneath the leaves. Jack-in-the-pulpits (Arisaema triphyllum) unfold in the woodland shade.

Delicate Wood Anemone blossoms (Anemone quinquefolia) nod above their frail stems in the moist shade near vernal pools. Nearby red sporophytes rise from green gametophyte moss. When mature, the sporophyte moss will release the spores which will disperse to start new gametophyte moss colonies.

And at the forest edge of the big loop, the white blossoms of American Dogwood (Cornus florida) turn their faces upward to the sun.

Each oval Dogwood bud faces upward during the winter, so the blossoms do the same as they emerge in the spring.

Resilience, Adaptation – and Song!

In April, I stood by a vernal pool listening to the chuckling song of Wood Frogs who had frozen and thawed repeatedly during a Michigan winter. This week I paused to enjoy the rippling melody of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak that rode the wind through the night to end up singing at the edge of a greening field. Life presents all of us mortal creatures with harrowing challenges. And still the wild ones sing, the leaves thrust through tough bark, and fragile flowers open their beauty to feed the world around them.

As part of the natural world, we too have faced repeated challenges to our survival, especially in the last fifteen months, haven’t we? Most of us have learned that we are more resilient than we knew. Like the little frogs, we have adapted to repeated and sudden changes. Like the birds, by moving on through the darkness we’ve reached the light of another spring. Like the plants, we struggled to bloom where we were planted, accepting limitations but still able to share what beauty we could muster with those around us who needed our nourishment. Despite the losses we’ve had and those we know will eventually come to all of us, let’s follow nature’s example and celebrate the fact that we’re here right now. Let’s belt out our own songs to a blue spring sky and relish being alive.

Birds, Butterflies, A Few Blossoms and Basking Turtles: Circling the Eastern Side of Draper Twin Lake Park

Looking from the south side of Draper marsh toward the northern prairie.

The eastern side of Draper Twin Lake Park grows more inviting every year. Some of the former farm fields there had been abandoned for decades when Oakland Township Parks and Recreation acquired the property in 2005. Dense thickets of invasive shrubs crowded the shores of the marsh and began to spread within what had been a rolling prairie and oak savanna landscape in the centuries before European settlement.

But restoration is slowly changing this somewhat scruffy park back to its former beauty.  After forestry mowing, the trail by the marsh, once choked with stands of non-native shrubs, now provides open vistas.

The trail on the west side of the floating marsh is now cleared of invasive shrubs so that a stand of native White Pines (Pinus strobus) and other trees can be appreciated.

The dark water of the marsh sparkles between the scrim of trees and shrubs that surround its shores. The roots of grasses and shrubs form a floating mat at the heart of the marsh, creating nest sites for birds large and small. Migrating birds flit through the trees at the marsh edge singing spring songs. Some settle in to mate, nest and raise young; others simply forage, rest and move on.

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Photos and text by Cam Mannino

On warm days in the northern prairie, tiny spring butterflies dart and dance within the dry stalks of last year’s prairie wildflowers and grasses, while the shimmering blue wings of Tree Swallows soar and dip above them. By mid-summer, fresh prairie grasses will sway above fields mixed with the bright colors of native wildflowers and big beautiful butterflies. But even a cool spring day can be beguiling.

So just for a few minutes, escape with me. Muster your imagination as we explore Draper Twin Lake Park together. Listen to a brisk breeze hushing in your ears and feel warm sun on your shoulders as I take a turn around the marsh and then circle the field on the prairie trail loop on a bright spring morning.

In the  Spring, the Marsh is the Place to See and Be Seen!

DTLP_TrailMap

My Draper Twin Lake Park hiking route

Wetlands mean wildlife in every one of our parks. After parking at the building at 1181 Inwood Road, I headed left, leaving the path to enter the trees that shelter the south edge of the floating mat marsh, pictured at the top of the blog.

The clarion “wika wika” call of Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus) throbbed overhead as these elegant woodpeckers whisked back and forth in the treetops, competing for mates and territory. This mustached male and his mate will spend the summer with us, nesting in a tree cavity, but foraging on the ground, unlike other woodpeckers; ants are a favored meal for flickers.

A male Northern Flicker challenging other males with his “wika wika” call

A pudgy, green-gray bird hopped about within a tangle of vines, repeatedly flicking its wings and only pausing for a few seconds each time it jumped to a new twig. The male Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) was enjoying a bit of R&R before flying north, possibly as far as Hudson’s Bay. Imagine! On those tiny wings! There its mate can lay 5-12 eggs in a 4 inch nest woven with grasses, feathers, moss, cocoon or spider silk and lined with finer grass and fur. Never underestimate the little Kinglet!

My photo was a bit blurred by movement in a heavy wind, but bird enthusiasts and excellent photographers, Bob Bonin and his wife Joan, also visited Draper in the last two weeks. In fact, we chatted from a safe social distance when we came across each other at the park.  They generously offered to share some of the photos they took at Draper. So here’s Bob’s rare shot of an excited little male with his crown raised! Thanks for the loan, Bob!

An excited male Ruby-crowned Kinglet with his crest raised – a rare sight to see with this busy little bird. Photo by Bob Bonin with permission.

Joan shared two other migrating birds she saw on the east side of Draper. The Black-throated Green Warbler (Setophaga virens) sports such dramatic plumage! It has two versions of its song that has a lot of buzz and a smaller bit of  “tweet” in it. One song is directed at competing males and the other is used to attract females. Find an explanation of both, a video and some recordings here at Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website.

The Black-throated Green Warbler doesn’t come to feeders and breeds a bit farther north of us and farther into Canada. So it’s a treat to see one! Photo by Joan Bonin.

Joan also provided us with a lovely photo of a Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) at Draper. Cornell Lab reports that this modest little milk chocolate bird with the spotted breast utilizes “foot quivers,” when foraging, shaking its feet in the grass to stir up insects. I will watch for that the next time I see one!

Hermit Thrushes breed north of us where its flute-like call is more likely to be heard. Photo by Joan Bonin.

A pair of Palm Warblers (Setophaga palmarum) skittered around me within the low bushes at the marsh. Traveling from the Caribbean to Canada, they were hungry. Their tails wagged up and down as they grazed along the ground for insects. This one thought it might have spotted something interesting in the crevices of tree bark. Note the brown crown, yellow eyeline, throat and the yellow under its tail.

According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, ninety-eight percent of all Palm Warblers and thousands of other species breed in the boreal forests of northern Canada, an essential ecosystem!

Looking north, I spotted something large in the trees at the far north end of the marsh. For the second time this spring, I got a distant look at a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) surveying the landscape. I’m so used to seeing these birds wading at the edges of ponds. It always delights me to see them perching high up in a tree, though I know their big, flat nests are always situated at the top of high trees in their rookeries.

A Great Blue Heron looking out from the treetops at the far north end of Draper’s floating mat marsh.

As I moved to the west side of the marsh, I looked up into the frothy blossoms of one of my favorite native trees, the Serviceberry (Amelanchier interior).

The rippling petals of a Serviceberry in a spring wind.

This tree with its plumes of white blossoms in the early spring offers a native alternative to the non-native Callery/Bradford Pear trees (Pyrus calleryana) that flower at the same time. If shopping malls and housing developments bloomed with this native beauty each spring, the fields of our natural areas would not be invaded by groves of the invasive pears. We can hope for a change as the value of native plants is better understood by more landscapers.  Several stately serviceberry trees dot the early spring landscape at Draper Twin Lake Park. Aren’t these clouds of dancing white lovely in the sparseness of the spring landscape?

A native Serviceberry tree makes a perfect replacement for the invasive, non-native Callery/Bradford Pear.

In a shadowy pool beneath low branches on the west shore of the floating mat marsh, some movement caught my eye. A Swamp Sparrow (Melospiza georgiana) dipped its head into the water while balancing on stick, probably plucking insect larvae or small invertebrates  out of the dark water. Fortunately this sparrow is equipped with long legs for wading and doesn’t mind the cold water, if this sopping-wet bird is any indication!

This swamp sparrow stuck its head under water while fishing for insect larvae or tiny invertebrates.

Out at the edge of the floating mat, a pair of Midland Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta marginata) warmed their shells in faint spring sunlight. Perhaps these two will mate or perhaps they’re just basking together. These two larger turtles could be quite old; Midland Painted Turtles sometimes live over 50 years!

Our Midland Painted Turtles can mate in the spring or fall.

The “boing!” call of a Green Frog (Lithobates climatans) surprised me, so I approached to search the water until I spotted this one. Since the round ear drum or tympanum is about same size as its eye, this is a female Green frog. She may have jumped the gun a bit with the changeable spring weather. Normally, Green Frogs don’t wake from their winter somnolence until the temperature reaches 50 degrees and they don’t mate until the weather is consistently warm. So this female may need to bide her time even though there was a male singing somewhere nearby.

The skin of Green Frogs darkens on cold days so they can soak up more sun.

Back out along the trail on the west side of the marsh, I met a turtle with a ferocious visage, a snout for snorkeling air from under water and an intimidating set of claws! Here’s the steely glare of this master predator, the Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina).

This Snapper must have emerged from the mud before heading out to look for companionship.

I’m kidding really. Yes, it did look fierce, but I was being stared down by a small Snapper maybe 8 inches long who probably was just curious.

This small snapper may not yet be mature enough to mate.

I have no idea of its age or what it was doing on trail. According to Wikipedia, a snapper can take 15-20 years to reach sexual maturity and mating is usually done while tumbling about in the  water. So unless this one is older than it looks and was looking for a place to lay eggs, it may have just decided to go on walkabout. Snappers sometimes move great distances to find less crowded habitat, as well as to lay eggs. After all, that carapace, an extremely long neck, powerful jaws and claws are pretty good protection for an adventurous young snapper.

As I stood at the north end of the floating mat marsh, a Green Heron (Butorides virescens) flew swiftly back and forth across the pond. Its yellowish-orange feet trailed behind its bulky body as it landed in the vegetation around the shore. Luckily, Joan later spotted one out in the open in the southeast section of the marsh. One way to spot this colorful bird is to listen for its distinctive “skeow” call;  listen here under the first “calls” recording. That’s the Green Heron sound with which I’m most familiar.

A Green Heron at Draper Twin Lake Park. Photo by Joan Bonin.

Her husband, Bob, saw a bird that I’d never come across before – and neither had Bob.  The Northern Waterthrush (Parkesia noveboracensis) loves wetlands and according to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, will even settle for a puddle if it’s near cover. It was migrating through on its way from the Caribbean to its breeding grounds in northern Canada. Bob went back to look for it again the next day, but it never appeared. I feel lucky that it “popped out of cover,” as Bob put it, at just the right moment for him to take his photo!

A rare photo of a Northern Waterthrush at Draper Twin Lake Park taken by Bob Bonin.

When I reached the southeast corner myself, a pair of Sandhill Cranes, heads down, were calmly feeding on the floating mat, looking up once a while, and then back to feeding again

This pair of Sandhill Cranes might consider the floating mat a good place for a nest since the marsh creates a kind of moat! Sandhills have nested here before.

As my camera zoomed in on that startling orange eye beneath the crimson cap on one of these huge birds, I hoped that they would choose to nest there as Sandhills did a few years ago. I’d love to see a “colt,” as their fledglings are called, join its parents at the Draper marsh.

A closer look at one of the Sandhill Cranes

That southeast corner of the marsh is full of turtles. I know that Blanding’s Turtles (Emydoidea blandingii) live at Draper Twin Lake Park because I once helped one across the road outside of the park and Donna, the Draper bluebird monitor, has seen them, too. Last week, I thought I saw their slightly domed shells deep in the grass at the southeast corner of the marsh, but they never raised their heads. But Joan Bonin and her very long lens caught this wonderful closeup of one! Thank you, Joan!

Joan Bonin’s wonderful photo caught the yellow throat perfectly, the distinctive field mark of the Blanding’s Turtle.

As I was looking for the Blanding’s turtle,  I noticed a dark lump laying in the water behind a mud flat in the marsh. Could it be? Was that a neck stretched out to gather some sun? I think what I saw was a large Snapper, its neck partially extended along the mud flat, camouflaged as just another black lump in the landscape. Look for its pointed head and eye to the right in the grass. That looks like a large snapper to me!

A large snapper masquerading as just another lump of mud in the Draper Marsh.

Some small upland birds share the southeast corner with turtles and herons. One dark, windy day, my husband and I caught sight of a Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata) and identified it from its characteristic yellow patch above the tail. It appeared to be the more modestly dressed female. Here are the photos I got from a distance 10 days ago and a much better one from 2015.

On a snag near the edge of the trees, a House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) ignored me completely while he belted out his wonderful, bubbling trill. According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, their sharp, fizzy song sallies forth from Canada, through the West Indies, all the way to the tip of South America.

A House Wren, beak wide-open in full song.

The distinctively sweet “tweeting” of an American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) caused me to look up at this little splash of bright sunlight on a cloudy day. The males have donned their brightest colors and execute their rolling flight all over Draper.

A male American Goldfinch posed quite calmly near the southeast edge of the marsh.

On to the North Prairie!

Volunteer Donna Perkins has already found bluebird eggs in two of her boxes within the prairie!

Volunteer nest box monitors like Donna Perkins above are citizen scientists who are gathering data on which birds nest in the boxes, how many eggs they lay, how many days pass before hatching and fledging and how many little birds successfully leave the nest. Donna found six Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) eggs in two of her boxes. And along the prairie’s edge, male and female bluebirds surveyed the area, keeping an eye on their nests.

Don’t worry if you find a nest with eggs in your yard with no adult around. Birds take time off to forage and if scared off of their nest, will usually return. But most often, once the last egg has been laid, the adult will start incubating them most of the day, which helps ensure that they all hatch at the same time, making it easier to care for them.

Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) move into our township nest boxes as well. Usually, Eastern Bluebirds and Tree Swallows will live in a neighborly way when their boxes are near each other, though occasionally there’s competition for a preferred box. Neither species, however, will tolerate another member of their own species moving nearby. So right now, the Tree Swallows are beginning to construct their nests with a mixture of grasses carefully lined with feathers. What a sight to see these shining blue beauties swooping over the field, periodically opening their beaks to snag passing insects. Joan Bonin got a fabulous shot of two of them in flight over the Draper prairie – an exciting and rare shot! Congratulations and thanks to Joan for sharing it.

Tree Swallows in flight above the Draper prairie. Photo by Joan Bonin.

A clear song rippled out from the tree line to our right. So loud! What was that? We finally located the rear end of a male Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) facing out of the park to the east. In the distance, we could hear his competitor singing as well.  Establishing territory is serious business, so our Towhee in the park never budged an inch, though we waited for almost 20 minutes, listening but frustrated that he kept his back turned. So the photo below was taken last year at Draper. This year’s towhee sang his “drink your teeeeeea” song much more slowly than usual, so it took longer to identify it. Maybe the song had more emphasis that way for the male in the distance!

An Eastern Towhee singing from a snag at Draper in 2019.

We came across, though, a sad sight on the prairie – an injured Nashville Warbler (Leiothlypis ruficapilla) feeding on a path but unable to take flight. It appeared right in front of us and at first I thought it had an injured wing. But when it turned its head, its eye was swollen shut. When I asked local birding expert, Ruth Glass, she said that it had probably hit its head on a window. When that happens, the brain can swell and they lose their ability to orient themselves. It was foraging on the ground and fluttered off into the tall grass. I include this just to ask that you do what you can to prevent such window collisions. Here’s a link from Cornell to get you started.

On a happier note, some small spring butterflies floated and fluttered near the prairie trails. I always wonder what criteria make them settle on one stem rather than another; much of their frantic fluttering seems aimless, but I doubt that it really is. I clearly don’t see what they do!

An orange flash in the grass made me think I was seeing my first Pearl Crescent, a common sight on summer days in our parks. But this mid-sized butterfly was an Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma). The upper (dorsal) side of both its forewings and hindwings are tawny orange with black spots. It was born last fall and is referred to as the “winter form”; it overwintered as an adult and will now mate and lay eggs. The caterpillars from those eggs will hatch around the Summer Solstice (June 21) and the offspring from that generation (referred to as the “summer form”) will still have orange forewings, but their hindwings will be much darker than this one.

An Eastern Comma sipping on an open dandelion bloom. It wintered over and will now seek a mate!

But look at the underside of this butterfly’s wings! The winter form Eastern Comma spends the cold months under tree bark or inside logs; that mottled brown design does a nice job of camouflage while they are hibernating, I would imagine.

The pattern on the underside of the Eastern Comma’s wings camouflages it during hibernation under tree bark.

A female Cabbage Butterfly (Pieris rapae) paused to sip at a dandelion, just as the Eastern Comma did. One good reason not to remove dandelions from your lawn in early spring is that native bees and butterflies benefit from the nectar of this non-native flower when few other blossoms are available. Male Cabbage Butterflies have one spot on their forewings; females have two.

A female Cabbage Butterfly benefits from the presence of dandelions.

A flash of lavender blue appeared in the grass – a Spring Azure (Celastrina ladon)! This little insect is only as big as your thumbnail. Its host plants (the ones on which it will lay eggs) include Wild Cherry, Flowering Dogwood, Gray Dogwood and Blueberries. This one didn’t stop long enough for anything but a photo of a blurry smudge of blue. So here’s the best photo I’ve ever gotten of one – only because it made the rare move of posing for a moment! If you see a blue blur flying by during July through September, that’s the Summer Azure (Celastrina neglecta), a different species.

The blue open wings of the tiny Spring Azure butterfly in a photo from 2015.

A surprise on the prairie was a Carolina Locust (Dissosteira carolina). I’ve never seen one this early in the year! Could it have rushed the season like the Green Frog? Usually the nymphs arrive when the weather is much warmer and this one appeared to have its wings which would indicate that it’s an adult. So I’m puzzled. Normally I would send this photo  to Dr. Gary Parsons, an insect specialist as Michigan State University – but I believe the university is closed during the pandemic. So if any reader has more information than I, please leave a comment to that effect. I love its beady eyes, but wonder if it survived the cold nights that followed.

The nymph of a Carolina Locust that hatched a bit earlier than it probably should have.

Restoring Complex, Nourishing, Chaotic Beauty

Draper Marsh, looking south toward Inwood Road

Farm fields can be so lovely in spring – neat rows of green as far as the eye can see taking the shape of a field’s rolling contours. But as I’ve watched the stewardship crew recreate the natural landscapes in our parks, I’ve come to love even more the glorious chaos of wild natural areas. Here at the eastern section of Draper Twin Lake Park, the fields of last year’s stalks once again host nesting Bluebirds and Tree Swallows, looking like shining bits of sky taking up residence in our midst. Turtles safely sally forth from the marsh mud to mate and warm their chilled shells in the pale spring sunlight. The dark water around the floating marsh hosts frogs, several jousting Red-winged Blackbird couples, and those ancient and elegant cranes. Weary avian travelers find respite, nourishment and for some, a place to raise their young. As years of invasive overgrowth are cleared, the old farm fields bloom with a rich array of native trees, grasses and wildflowers. Once again the marsh and the prairies take up their ancient role of providing shelter and nourishment to a whole and healthy community of wildness.  During this difficult time, restoration comforts and delights me – and many of you, too, I believe, since new visitors have recently explored our parks. Thanks for accompanying me, even at such a great social distance.

Draper Twin Lake Park: The Restless Transitions of Mid-Autumn

A trembling aspen which leafed out in spring, and shed leaves in autumn,  despite having fallen across the Draper marsh in a storm at the end of last winter.  Rose hips from Swamp Rose (Rosa Palustris) in the foreground.

October is autumn’s transition month. Some days are warm and sunny, creating almost an illusion of late summer or early September. And on those days, a few bees and butterflies flutter across my path, caterpillars bump along through the grass and native wildflowers still bloom in the fields. A turtle in the Draper marsh basks in the thinning light.

Photos and Text by Cam Mannino

As the month moves on,  a sharpness edges the morning air and shadows slide across the landscape more quickly in the late afternoon. The birds are agitated  – snatching up as much seed as possible, drilling holes for snug winter hideaways, or pausing for an overnight respite before catching a north wind going south.

Change is in the air.  Let’s look back to see what October had to offer as we take the first cold, rainy steps into the austerity of November.

Early October: Late Season Wildflowers Host the Occasional Bee or Butterfly

One Sunday afternoon in October, a Common Buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia) fluttered down onto  the trail right in front of my husband and I. In the summer, Draper Twin Lake Park hosts a rainbow of butterflies. Some mate, lay their eggs and expire, leaving caterpillars behind in their chrysalises. But this colorful little butterfly migrates south for the winter and returns in the spring. Perhaps it stopped at Draper to sample the various goldenrods, since it prefers yellow flowers. Can you see the slightly bug-eyed expression on its face? I laughed to think it was as surprised to see my husband and I as we were to see it land right in front of us!

The Common Buckeye is a lovely little butterfly that I see most often during its migration to southern climes.

In early October, afternoons were still occasionally above 50°, warm enough for the European Honey Bees (Apis mellifera) to gather more winter stores. The nectar collected by these bees will be turned into honey for the hive to feed on in the winter. Having large stores of nourishment in the hive is crucial if honey bees are to survive the winter months, so this one paid no attention to me as it probed for some last sips of nectar.

A Honey Bee gathering nectar from an aster to feed the hive during the cold winter months.

The sturdy Heath Aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides) emerges as the summer fades and blooms heartily in the cooler temperatures. So any warm afternoon in fall, this lovely native wildflower offers itself to foraging bees in the hope of being pollinated quickly so that seeds will be ready before the snow falls.

Heath Asters make their own white snowstorm, often blooming right up until snow falls.

Brown-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia triloba) look a lot like their relative, the Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta). But Brown-eyeds tend to grow multiple stems from a single root and usually grow taller than the Black-eyed variety. I see them only in late summer or fall, whereas Black-eyeds last from June to September. Nice to have some fresh yellow wildflowers just as cool weather sets in!

Brown-eyed Susans are short-lived perennials that grow on mulitple stems.

A lone, fading Black-eyed Susan hid a tiny beetle among its petals and attracted a greenish-gray caterpillar busily nibbling off the tiny yellow flowers poking from the wildflower’s composite seed head. After pouring over the guide Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner, my best guess is that it’s the caterpillar of the Common Pug Moth (Eupithecia vulgata) whose larva has chevrons along its spine and which feeds on these flowers, among many other plants. If I’m right about the caterpillar (and remember, I’m just guessing!), the Pug Moth is a  modest gray- brown with a small dark spot on both its fore- and hindwings.

An insect caterpillar and a small beetle  as well as various windflower fibers have landed on a fading Black-eyed Susan.

In the grass, we found a Wooly Bear Caterpillar, the larva  of the Isabella Tiger Moth (Pyrrharctia isabella). If you look carefully below, you can almost discern its projecting mandibles (jaws) about to tear off the edge of a clover leaf. (Sorry for the blur. It was chewing rather vigorously!) The Farmer’s Almanac these days does a fine job of explaining the “folklore” behind the idea that the width of the color bands predict the severity of winter. A serious scientific study has never been done; it would require too many caterpillars over too many years. According to Wikipedia, however, Wooly Bears vary a lot in their color banding and the bands also tend to widen with each molt – so it’s not likely to be an ace weatherman.

A Wooly Bear caterpillar munching on clover.

In the marsh within the eastern section of the park, a Midland Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta marginata) found a sunny spot on the mud behind the dying leaf of a Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus). It closed its eyes, turned its head skyward and basked. Shortly it will sink to the muddy bottom and won’t emerge until spring. During winter, it actually stops breathing, but its slowed metabolism means it can survive on the oxygen that passes through its skin from the surrounding water. Hibernation is miraculous, isn’t it?

A Midland Painted Turtle in the Draper marsh basks in the thin sunlight of early autumn.

One birding morning on the western side of the park, Township Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide,  introduced us to a colorful shrub off one side of Draper’s fishing dock.  It turned out to be Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix)! It’s a relative of the harmless and quite beautiful Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina), and a sibling to Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans). I’d never come across this bush with its gray bark and white berries, but the familiar red leaves of other sumacs. Luckily it grows within or at the edge of bogs, fens, marshes and other very wet places where my hiking shoes don’t often carry me. Look but don’t touch and don’t inhale its smoke are the watchwords here.  Poison Sumac is more toxic than Poison Ivy.  The Michigan Flora website has a great photo of it in bloom.

Poison Sumac looks quite glamorous in the fall with its red leaves and white berries.

A more benign plant sent a spray of red leaves across the lily pads in late September and early October. Native  Whorled/Swamp Loosestrife (Decodon verticillatus) is not a problem like the non-native, invasive Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria). This native wildflower produces purple blossoms along each stem and leaves that turn red in October. In November, its seed heads make a lovely pattern against the water of the lake. [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

Late October: Swaying, Russet Prairie Plants Provide a Fall Feast for Wildlife

The video above may look like a sea of dry brown stems to you.  But to the birds, particularly the American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis), it looks like your heavily laden Thanksgiving table. In just the video’s 40 seconds, you are seeing hundreds of thousands of seeds: Indian Grass, Coneflowers, Black-eyed Susans, Stiff Goldenrod, Little Bluestem and many more. On the August birdwalk, we spent a happy ten minutes or so watching a flock of goldfinches swaying on bobbing stalks as they stuffed themselves with Stiff Goldenrod seed (Solidago rigida). First there were two and then suddenly there were five all scrabbling to feed on the abundant seed heads.

Two Goldfinches eating while riding the swaying stalks of goldenrod.

Five Goldfinches ultimately enjoyed the seeds of just one clump of Stiff Goldenrod. (The fifth bird is semi-hidden at the lower right.)

A flock of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) sailed across the path far in front of us – just a swish of blue against the morning sky. Bluebirds restlessly move south a bit in the fall, but can often be seen here in the winter, even on icy days. I never got close enough for a shot during the birding walk, but I did see a flock at Bear Creek Nature Park a couple of weeks earlier. This pair seemed to be exploring the possibilities of a winter hole in a snag at Bear Creek.

The male bluebird pays close attention as a female checks out the possibilities of a hole in a snag.

In the distance, an Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) rocked on a low branch at the far edge of the field and repeatedly darted down into the grass. At last, it found what was possibly the cocoon of a caterpillar and it rose back to the branch, tail pumping as always, with its prize in its beak.

An Eastern Phoebe with what appeared to be a caterpillar’s cocoon.

Farther down the tree line, pulses of House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) flew down into the grass to feed and then back into the trees. It seems that the red heads and chests of the males are a bit paler in the fall. I know the depth of the hue depends on what they eat, so perhaps their favorite berries or seeds are not quite as available as the season wanes.

House Finches fluttering out of a tree in the distance at Draper Twin Lake Park

High overhead a pair of Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) bugled their way across the autumn skies. They were headed south but it may have just been one of their many practice runs before migrating to Florida.

Sandhill Cranes flying south over Draper Twin Lake Park

Over in the eastern section of the park, a Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) added its “miaows” from the hedgerow one afternoon, possibly calling a mate or youngster to share some wild Summer Grapes (Vitis aestivalis). I hope it’s a nice change from their summer diet, since number the insects that they eat during the summer is diminishing with the colder weather. The catbirds will be leaving soon to winter in Florida, Cuba, the Bahamas or along the eastern seaboard.

A Gray Catbird calls to a companion from a wild grape vine.

Down near the water, I noticed a lot of twitching in the shrubbery and waited in the shade for what might appear. The first bird that emerged was a familiar year ’round bird, the Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus). This tiny acrobat hung upside down, then rightside up,  twisting this way and that, to snatch as much seed as possible from Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) near the lake.

A Black-capped Chickadee eating its fill of Canada Goldenrod

Small visiting migrators often show up around chickadees. Cornell Ornithology Lab provides a possible explanation. “Most birds that associate with chickadee flocks respond to chickadee alarm calls, even when their own species doesn’t have a similar alarm call.” Good to have a reliable sentinel! I’ve also read that visiting birds find food by hanging around local chickadees who presumably know the best foraging spots. That was certainly the case at Draper Lake. A migrating Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) popped out into the open and began stripping seeds from the goldenrod just like the local chickadee. In the fall and winter, it pays to look carefully wherever chickadees are gathering.

A Ruby-crowned Kinglet joined the Chickadee in devouring goldenrod seed. A leaf cast an interesting shadow on its tiny back.

As I turned away from the Kinglet, I heard a call that I knew was a woodpecker and looked up. A large black and white bird landed on a nearby tree and began to peck at a hole. Wow! It was the closest I’ve ever been to a Pileated Woodpecker. And as an added bonus, the afternoon sun lit its crest with a scarlet glow. It may have been looking for the right tree in which to make a new hole, one lower than its nesting hole, that will serve as winter shelter.

A Pileated Woodpecker seemed to be considering whether a hole in this tree could be further excavated for a winter storm hideaway.

Near the end of the path, a Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) hopped about, restlessly picking up and dropping bits of this and that. Theoretically these sparrows, plentiful in the summer, can spend the winter here, but I rarely seem them after the fall. This one may have migrated here from farther north and also chosen to explore where the chickadee was foraging.

The sparrow near the lake has the typical long tail of a Song Sparrow.  If you could see its breast, there’d be a dark spot in the middle of its striping, another field mark.

I saw several other birds at Draper Twin Lake Park with the birding group in the last two months, but only through my binoculars.  A quick flash of red or yellow high in the fall leaves, a recognizable song in the distance, or a sudden chasing flight over the prairie – none of that provided a chance for a photo. However, I wanted to share these birds here so that you can appreciate how many birds can be seen at Draper Twin Lake Park in autumn. So here’s a short slideshow of some of them as seen in photos I’ve taken at other times, or in photos from the generous photographers at inaturalist.org. (Use pause button for captions.)

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Relishing Autumn’s Transformation

Native Indian Grass swaying in an October wind

The Draper prairie with its great looping trail really may look dry, brown and lifeless to some hikers. But not to me. At this time of year, I feel a lot like Ratty, a “country gentleman” sort of muskrat in the children’s classic Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame, a book I quoted in an earlier blog. Like me, Ratty senses the restlessness of autumn. He heads out into a farmer’s field, much as I waded out into the tall grass of Draper’s northern prairie:   “…he thrust into the great realm of wheat, yellow, wavy, and murmurous, full of quiet motion and small whisperings. Here he often loved to wander through the forest of stiff strong stalks that carried their own golden sky away over his head — a sky that was always dancing, shimmering, softly talking; or swaying strongly to the passing wnd and recovering itself with a toss and a merry laugh. Here, too, he had many small friends, a society complete in itself…”

Ratty is a kindred spirit. Autumn also plunges me into the bending and tossing grasses and the whispering of dry stems where I can stand shoulder deep in the prairie and just “be” with it all. Like him, I sense a community of other creatures in the flocks of fidgety birds, the agitated butterflies searching for the last bloom, the relentless plodding of a caterpillar through the grass stems. Autumn’s restlessness urges me to celebrate the change, change and change again of every season.  I appreciate that reminder.

Short Walk at Gallagher Creek: Grasshoppers Galore, Winged Wayfarers, and Acres of Seeds

Canada Wild Rye rolling like waves in the fields at Gallagher Creek Park

The exuberant voices of children flow from the playground at Gallagher Creek Park. But beyond its boundaries, the park quickly feels very different on a fall day. The fields enveloping the playground are a waving sea of tall stems loaded with seeds nodding and bobbing in the wind.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

On the short path that  winds to the east, grasshoppers leap left and right under my feet, clinging to grass stems and then scurrying to the ground. And out at the edge of the creek itself, small migrators flit and bounce from branch to branch, excited by the wealth of food that trees and plants near the water provide for the next leg of their journey south.

Grasshoppers Large and Small Popping  Up Everywhere!

Grasses and sedges thriving in the cool fall air in the native gardens at Gallagher Creek Park

Children seem to love grasshoppers. They’re often the first insect that they get to know.  After all, they’re  harmless, funny looking – and they jump! I love them too and Gallagher Creek Park provided a large variety last week. I didn’t have to go far to see them. The largest ones were hopping among the lovely tufts of yellow and green grasses and sedges in the native gardens that surround the playground.

The bright green and black Differential Grasshopper (Melanoplus differentialis) probably hoped to nibble on grasses and wildflowers as it scooted along the edge of the native garden. In some years, especially in big farming states like Iowa,  when weather conditions create swarms, these grasshopppers can be a pest for grain farmers. On the other hand, one of its favorite foods is Giant Ragweed (Ambrosia trifida), so fall allergy suffers should appreciate this large, green grasshopper!

The Differential Grasshopper can be brown or green, and in the fall, the female can lay up to 200 eggs in the soil where they overwinter.

The Two-striped Grasshopper (Melanoplus bivittatus), like the Differential Grasshopper, lays its eggs in the earth where they begin development in the summer. Once cold weather comes, the eggs go into a dormant period called “diapause.” They finish developing and hatch in the spring. Notice the  lovely striping on the Two-stripe’s thorax and the bright red lower section of its back legs with tiny black pegs used for stridulation, rubbing the legs together to create the grasshopper’s chirp.

The Two-striped Grasshopper, like the Differential, does not migrate so its one season  life ends after the first hard frost.

I couldn’t get a great photo of this fast-moving, secretive grasshopper, so it’s a bit hard to see here. Dr. Parsons at the Entomology Department at Michigan State University said that as a consequence, he could only say that this one was “most likely”  the Narrow Winged Grasshopper (Melanoplus angustipennis) This grasshopper’s favorite food is asters (family Asteraceae), so it’s definitely at home in our fields, which are full of asters, especially in the autumn.

The Narrow-winged Grasshopper moved quickly down into the grass every time it hopped!

Just step outside of the playground onto the mowed path and you and your children will be treated to small grasshoppers spraying out from your feet in every direction! The trick is see one up close or catch one. They are quick little critters, these Red-legged Grasshoppers (Melanoplus femurrubrum) and very abundant! The bulbous plate at the tip of the abdomen on the one pictured below indicates that it’s a male Red-legged. Females have pointed abdomens with an ovipositor at the end for planting eggs in the soil.

Male grasshoppers, like this Red-legged Grasshopper, are normally smaller than the females.

Migrators Hang Out Near the Creek for Food, Water and Rest

Gallagher Creek runs from west to east across the park and eventually ends up in Paint Creek near the Cider Mill, near the intersection of Gallagher and Orion Roads.

Sometimes I get very lucky. I left the trail and wandered across the eastern field down toward the creek and found a place to stand under a big tree, hidden by its shade. As I’d hoped, small birds bustled among the willow branches searching for insects, spiders or their eggs. And evidently, they found a bonanza! So did I, as I spent a delightful half hour or so in the company of small, beautiful and very busy birds. Spotting them with the camera focused correctly as they flit and hop from limb to limb, moving in and out of the sunlight, can be super challenging but really fun.

My first thrill was holding my breath while a  chubby little olive brown bird with a white eye ring  dashed out of the greenery for just a few seconds and paused. It was a Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) twitching its wings while considering where to hop next. I caught it just in time! The ruby crown is hidden on the top of its head and generally only appears in spring when it’s courting.

The Ruby-crowned Kinglet travels to Canada to mate and raise young. Kinglets are now on their way to the southern US, and may go as far as central Florida.

I felt especially lucky when in the distance, across the creek in a willow, a Golden-crowned Kinglet (Regulus satrapa) darted from limb to limb. Its golden crown was visible, but can be raised into a crest during its courting season; that happens farther north in Michigan or in Canada. This kinglet may spend the winter here, since it can tolerate very cold weather. Here are two photos to show you its plump, teardrop shape and its bright yellow crest. [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

Kinglets are often seen in the company of migrating sparrows, so I was very pleased – but not surprised – when a White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) landed on a willow branch and paused. What a beauty it is with the yellow lores at the corner of its eyes and its white stripe on a black crown. White-throated Sparrows can be black and white or black and beige. Males tend to prefer the black and white females, but perversely, all the females prefer beige and black males! You may see these beauties under your feeder so look carefully at those small brown birds you might otherwise ignore!

White-throated Sparrows breed from northern Michigan all the way to Hudson’s Bay, but they winter from here to Florida.

Overhead, two Sandhill Cranes flew across the park, trumpeting their hoarse calls. According to several sources, these cranes have one of the longest fossil records of any living bird, from 2.5 to 10 million years. Imagine that! Long before modern humans walked the earth, Sandhill Cranes traveled ancient skies on their huge wings. I’m always glad to see them with their toes pointed so perfectly like prima ballerinas.

Sandhill Cranes calling in flight over Gallagher Creek Park. Soon they’ll be on their way to Florida for the winter.

The invasive European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) isn’t going anywhere this winter. They live all over North America year ’round! Yes, they are very aggressive in attacking the nests of native birds, but they do look dazzling in the winter. Here’s one on a snag at Gallagher Creek Park in its jazzy white tipped feathers. The tips will wear off in time for breeding season so that it can return to its iridescent purple-green head and breast for courting.

Starlings became a problematic invasive species once they were brought to the US in the 19th century.

Seeds, Seeds, and More Seeds as Nature Sows for Spring

Black-eyed Susan and Virginia Wildrye seed heads with crimson blackberry leaves in late afternoon sun

All kinds of plants are fruiting, the happy result of blossoms successfully pollinated by bees, butterflies and other insects. They embody the promise that life goes on despite the cold somnolence of winter. I’m trying to learn the names of at least some of my favorite  flowers, grasses and trees when the leaves have fallen and all that’s left are drying seeds and nuts. So here are three favorites from Gallagher and then a slideshow of some I’m still learning.

In 2016, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, first showed me these seed capsules at Gallagher Creek Park.  The modest, rangy Bladdernut shrub  (Staphylea trifolia) produces 3-chambered seed capsules that hang from the branches like little paper lanterns. Inside each cell is a  shiny brown seed that rattles as autumn breezes shake the capsule. Eventually the whole neat package  is carried away on wind or water and the seeds are released.

The slender, rangy Bladdernut shrub isn’t glamorous but produces drooping clusters of green and white blossoms in the spring and very cool seed pods in the summer and fall.

One of the plants in the native garden, Northern Blazing Star (Liatris scariosa) is a member of a genus (Liastris) that  I love for its bright purple blossoms that bloom from the top of the stalk down. I was so pleased to see its puffy little seedheads this week, adding an interesting texture to the scene. And look at those tidy little seed capsules at the top. I guess I’m learning that I like this plant when it blooms and when it stops blooming! I’ve got a photo of its relative, Rough Blazing Star (Liatris aspera), so you can get some idea of the plant in bloom.

The Gallagher native garden introduced me to Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis). Tall graceful stems topped by a panicle of fine seeds bend and sway in the wind, having risen from round, green tufts of leaves near the ground. Watching them dance can be mesmerizing.

The fields at Gallagher are a patchwork of  interesting shapes and textures. Here’s a quick sampling from a short walk on and off the trail – the plants as they look now, preparing to sow their seeds for next spring – and as they look in other seasons.

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Good Short Autumn Walks Require Pausing and Looking

The Chipmunk, busy storing seeds and nuts in a special chamber below ground, pauses to soak up some sunlight.

Consider the chipmunk in the photo above. As chipmunks usually do, it was scurrying about at the bottom of a tree, looking for food to store away for the winter. But, for some reason, it decided to just stop and stare out into the field for a few moments. And it occurred to me, that’s what I was doing – pausing and looking.

Binoculars swinging against your jacket are a good reminder to stop and look carefully. Those twitching stalks and stems in a field of dry wildflowers might prompt you to raise them for a better look. Little birds are very likely to appear out of the grass, pull off seeds, then drop quickly to the ground again to pick them up. Look closer through your binoculars.

That “little brown bird” on the trail ahead might turn out to be one that you’ve missed all these years. Stand quietly and let the “binos” show you its special colors or patterns. It takes some practice to develop binocular skills; I’m still working on mine. But when it works, it’s such an “aha!” to see the texture of subtly colored feathers, the barbershop stripes of an “ordinary” butterfly’s antenna, or a tiny insect sipping at the heart of a flower.

And then other little beauties only require your eyes. Consider going alone now and then, leaving even the dog behind. Open a dry seed head and and let the seeds roll into your palm. Notice the pattern that fallen needles make beneath a white pine. Marvel at the aerial maneuvers of a late season dragonfly. Capture what you’ve noticed in a photo  perhaps, so you can share what you’ve seen at home.

All it takes is just …. a pause. Move slowly, stand  and look. Breathe the cool autumn air. Just “be” for a few moments as the pale autumn light falls on you, shining through the leaves.

Bear Creek Nature Park: Color! Song! A Sensory Trip Through Early Spring

The dry stalks of native Little Bluestem grasses paint a splash of soft orange on the somber canvas of spring..

Gray clouds blanket our April skies in Michigan – but the occasional bright blue day or a beam of pale sunlight slipping between the rain clouds can lift our spirits in a giddy instant. The earth emerges from its snow cover in shades of gray and brown – but summer birds return dressed in their spring finery, ready to join others in exuberant song.

Photos and text by Cam Mannino

Hibernators poke their heads from tree holes or slip out of the leaf litter or swim up from thawing ponds, ready to nurture a new generation of young. Early spring takes its time, offering us just a few tastes here and there of the colorful bustle ahead as the days grow longer.

Visitor Birds Fly In Bearing Color and Song on Their Bright Wings

I hope you’ve been able to open a window or step out your door to listen to the birds’ dawn chorus in the last few days. Just in case, I thought I’d play a recording I made outside our home last Sunday morning. If you increase your volume,  you’ll hear the insistent call of Northern Cardinal, the buzzing call of a Red-winged Blackbird, the “kwirrr call of the Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus), the “tweeeeets” of American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) and in the background, Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) high overhead, plus a few smaller birds twittering along.  It’s a joyful noise after a cold winter.

The male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) you heard above, of course, has provided splashes of scarlet against the snow all winter.  But now some old friends are arriving for the summer, brightening up an April day. Members of our birding group heard the high pitched whistling calls of Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) and then spotted a small group that had settled into trees near a Bear Creek Nature Park wetland. The yellow tips of their tails and yellow bellies added a spot of sunshine on a blue/gray morning. Though Waxwings can stay here year ’round, I see Waxwings less often in the winter. I’m glad some of them choose to nest in Bear Creek each year.

One of a group of Cedar Waxwings seen by the birding group.

As a friend and I skirted the eastern edge of the Center Pond one afternoon, we heard a splash and looked up to see a female Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) flying up into a tree with her quarry. She swallowed it, though, before I got her picture. Her blue and rust colored belts show that she’s a female.

The male has only one blue belt. Fortunately, last Sunday, the male was at the Center Pond. When my husband and I arrived, the kingfisher was very agitated, calling as he dashed from tree to tree. These kingfishers don’t sing. At best, their fast, rat-a-tat rattle provides the other birds’ vocals with a little background percussion.

The gorgeous male Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) brought more than his share of brilliant color to the chilly waters of the Playground Pond. Together he and his mate will scout for a nesting hole high in the top of a tree near water in the woods nearby. Wood Duck nestlings are “precocial,”  meaning born ready to go – eyes open, covered in feathers and, in their case, outfitted with claws for climbing. Only days after birth, they claw their way up to the edge of their nest cavity and leap into the air, following their mother’s calls below.  They fall harmlessly into the leaf litter or water and join her in the the nearest pond to feed. Amazing feat for a baby bird! The adult birds make quite a racket when taking flight, the male’s “zeet” call is very different from the female’s “oo-eek.”

Though Wood Ducks generally choose a mate in January, this one seemed to have arrived alone. A few days later, his mate showed up.

The diminutive Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) repeatedly sang his lovely up-and-down spring song while he hopped about frenetically in a cluster of vines near the Playground Pond. Through the tangled branches, I could see the red crown raised slightly atop his head, but never got a clear shot. Luckily, gifted local photographer, Joan Bonin, got a lovely photo when a kinglet posed on a branch for her at Holland Ponds in Shelby Township. Thanks to Joan for sharing her excellent photographs for the blog!

In his brilliant iridescent green head, yellow beak and orange legs, the Mallard  (Anas platyrhynchos) seemed to be leading his more modestly dress mate around the Playground Pond one afternoon. But when the female Mallard spotted me, she turned and swam away, quacking insistently until the male looked around nervously, saw me and fled toward her, scrambling awkwardly across some submerged logs to catch up with his mate. By the way, that famous  “Quack!” is only given by Mallard females. Have a listen to it along with male’s very different call at this link.

A pair of mallards cruised the Playground Pond, keeping an eye on the Wood Duck.

Near the Walnut Lane, a wonderful ripple of song flowed down from the treetops. After a bit of peering around, high above I spotted an American Robin holding forth repeatedly with his up-and-down lilting spring song. I recorded his music and then looked up and took a photo from an angle I hadn’t noticed before. I got a worm’s eye view, you might say, of that very sharp, probing beak and felt glad it wasn’t being thrust in my direction!

Over in the marsh, the male Red-winged Blackbirds have been clucking and buzzing from atop the cat-tails for a couple of weeks as a way of establishing territory. Last week, the females began to arrive. Maybe their dark striping lets them blend safely into the shadows while they tend their nests among the stems down near the water. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

And Then the Frogs Join the Chorus!

After one warm April day, the hibernating spring frogs broke into song. Every wetland at Bear Creek trilled with the high-pitched peeping of Chorus Frogs (genus Pseudacris) and lower chuckling gurgle of the Wood Frogs. Both have been frozen all winter with no heartbeat and no brain waves but enough built-in anti-freeze in their cells to somehow stay alive. And as soon as they warm up, they’re ready to sing!

The Wood Frogs, like the one above,  are easier to spot because they croak while floating on the surface,  flexing their legs in an occasional kick. The thrust creates concentric circles in the water around them, so I look for the little masked frogs in the middle of those circles. Most Chorus frogs are harder to see, usually huddled on, against or under logs. I haven’t spotted one yet this spring, (though their piercing songs can be deafening up close! Here’s a photo, though, from a previous year.

A Chorus Frog in mid-cheep.

Some of our local Chorus Frogs, Spring Peepers, (Pseudacris crucifer) are nocturnal. I imagine that the Bear Creek Nature Park neighbors are hearing them when the sun sets, or will shortly. If you see one sleeping on a leaf during the day as I did once, you’ll see the “X” on its back just behind its head, though it’s hard to see in this shot. Isn’t it tiny?

Spring peepers are the nocturnal spring frog you’re hearing at night.

Other Hibernators Emerge…

The Raccoon (Procyon lotor) that I watch for every year in the oak-hickory forest has already given birth to four kits.  One of them is what’s sometimes called a “blond morph”; it’s not an albino, just a different morph or phenotype of the raccoon. I saw a blond adult raccoon a few years ago in the same tree so that trait must be in the local gene pool. The four kits (one is barely visible at the back right) seem to be laying across their sleeping mother’s back in order  to get a good look at me. She’s probably catching up on her sleep after hunting all night to feed these youngsters!

Four raccoon kits , three of whom were checking me out. The one on the right is a light phenotype, which is unusual but not extremely rare.

A couple other hibernators made their first appearance in the last two weeks.  An Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus), that had dozed off and on all winter in its multi-chambered den, emerged and just sat quietly in a patch of sunlight along the entrance trail. The light must take some getting used to after months underground, just waking now and then to eat stored nuts and seeds.

A quiet Chipmunk sat in the sunlight, enjoying being out its underground den after a long winter.

A pair of Midland Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta marginata) kept each other company on a log in the Playground Pond last week. The slightly warmer water must have signaled them to leave their winter torpor in the mud below and swim up into the light and air. I wondered if these two were a pair; the lower one maintained a steady stare at the higher one, who paid no attention while I was there. They both probably were just staring off into the distance, though, as turtles often do.

Painted Turtles emerged from the mud below into the light of a rainy day at the Playground Pond

Over in the marsh, a whole group of them gathered in the reeds and assumed exactly the same pose in order to soak up the sun on their dark shells.

A group of Painted Turtles bask in identical poses in the marsh.

A couple Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina) surfaced in the marsh as well. One fed with its head down as it cruised the marsh, eating vegetation. It looked just like a slowly moving green lump! But the other, much smaller, was basking with its entire body encased in vivid green Duckweed (genus Lemna). It seems very content with the look, and probably feeling, it had created, eh?

A small Snapping Turtle basking in a covering of duckweed.

Plants Begin to Bloom…and Butterflies (and others) aren’t Far Behind!

Just as spring was breaking and icy puddles were melting, I came across a little stream burbling through Bear Creek Nature Park’s eastern woods. This streams runs out of the Center Pond toward the marsh, joining Bear Creek after it leaves the march. Such a lovely spring sound!

On the north side of the Center Pond last week, the Willows (genus Salix) bloomed and (hooray!) we got our first glimpse this year of butterflies – and other pollinators.  First we saw one of the hibernating butterflies, the Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa). It looked a bit ragged from having spent the winter in a tree cavity or under loose bark on the snow-covered ground. It’s often the first butterfly I see in the spring. Mourning cloaks generally don’t pollinate much because they sip tree sap or the honeydew of aphids, rather than nectar from flowers. This one might have been displaying in order to attract a female.

Mourning Cloak on a blooming willow.

On the same plant, a migrator, the Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) posed. It does sip nectar but it also competes with other males for territory by showing off its flying skills. Perhaps that’s why this one was flitting busily from limb to limb.

A Red Admiral had migrated from the south, probably Texas, to land on this willow near the Center Pond last Sunday.

On one bloom, we saw what appeared a small Wasp (maybe suborder Apocrita). It seemed very busy enjoying the willow’s pollen.  According to Wikipedia, unlike the better known wasps, like Yellowjackets (fam. Vespidae), most wasps are solitary with each female living and breeding alone.

A solitary wasp on willow blooms.

Over in a wetland on the west side of the marsh, the strange blossom of Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) had thrust itself up out of the mud. Its purple and yellow spathe covers a tiny spike of petal-less flowers inside. The smell of skunk cabbage attracts early spring flies that pollinate this sci-fi looking blossom. It releases a skunk-like smell and a bitter taste when bruised which means most predators stay away, too. The stem of Skunk Cabbage remains beneath the ground and the green leaves rise after the flowers. Odd, how this eccentric plant with the nasty scent seems to reverse my expectations of how plants grow in the spring!

The flower of the Skunk Cabbage rises from the mud with a spike of tiny flowers protected by the purple and yellow cover of the spathe.

The brightest colors in the woods now, though, are the vivid greens of Moss (members of the Bryophytes). Spring light sifts through bare limbs providing enough sunlight to feed these interesting, ancient plants. The leafy green parts of moss are “gametophytes” that produce the gametes, sperm and ova. Once spring raindrops rinse the sperm across the surface of the moss to a waiting ovum, fertilization occurs and a tall thin “sporophyte” rises from the green surface. The sporophyte will eventually release it spores. These spores initiate thin filaments called the “protonema” out of which grow new gametophytes, starting a new patch of moss.

Here are what I’m guessing are three different stages of moss growing on the same tree near the marsh. Or maybe its three different mosses? I’m too much of an amateur naturalist to know.  I do know that I love the green glow of moss in the dappled light of the forest. (If you are knowledgeable about mosses, please feel free to correct my guesses and help me identify them! )

If mosses just don’t do it for you, don’t despair.  Thanks to last fall’s forestry mowing north of the pond, sun has already reached the sunny faces of the Blood Root (Sanguinaria canadensis). I admire its leafy cloak that rises with the flower wrapped inside.

Bloodroot bloomed early this year because sunlight reached it after the forestry mowing.

The first tender leaves and buds of the woodland wildflower, Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica) are already rising at the feet of trees in the Oak-Hickory forest.

And out in the eastern meadow, a Pussy Willow (Salix discolor) began to bud a few weeks ago, while it peacefully hosts a wide assortment of developing insects within its pine cone-shaped Willow galls. Last Sunday, it had bloomed, but the insects didn’t seem to be issuing forth yet.

Slip on Your Boots and Your Raincoat!  Spring is Singing Its Siren Song

Song sparrow (Melospiza melodia) singing.

Spring’s a great time to act like a kid again. Try heading for the park on a rainy day and let the sounds and sights of spring cheer you like they did when you were small. Slosh through a puddle.  Squelch through some mud.  Leave your earbuds at home – and pause, eyes closed,  for a short serenade by a Robin or a Song Sparrow.  Use your binoculars to scan the wetlands for tiny frogs, their throats bulging with song. Let your color-starved eyes feast on  the yellow of a Waxwing’s belly, the emerald shine of a Mallard’s head,  the exotic, multi-colored pattern of a  Wood Duck’s plumage.  Swish your palm across a soft cushion of a vivd green moss. Perhaps even get close enough to a skunk cabbage to make your nose wrinkle. Our senses need a good workout after being indoors for so long.  Treat yourself to a walk in the park. I can pretty much guarantee you’ll come home  happier than when you left.  Works for me every single time.