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.
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!
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.
Relishing Autumn’s Transformation
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.
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.
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!
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 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.
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.
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.
Migrators Hang Out Near the Creek for Food, Water and Rest
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.
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.]
A Golden-crowned Kinglet in the willows by Gallagher Creek
The Golden-crowned Kinglet can stay here all winter because it can tolerate cold temperatures.
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!
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.
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.
Seeds, Seeds, and More Seeds as Nature Sows for Spring
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.
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 graceful seed heads of Prairie Dropseed dance and bob in the slightest breeze.
The leaves form a tuft at ground level.
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.
Good Short Autumn Walks Require Pausing and Looking
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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?
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!
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 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.
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 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?
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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
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.
Surprised a bit by seeing the photo above in a nature blog? Well, on my four October visits to Gallagher Creek Park, I noticed an abundance of a new species there – young humans and their watchful adults!
Late on autumn afternoons, this modest 15 acre park is now filled with the voices of excited little humans rocking, swinging, spinning , climbing, and sliding on the colorful new playground equipment installed in July by volunteers and staff of the Parks and Recreation Commission. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Girls see-sawing on the “dragonfly” at Gallagher Creek after the installation of the equipment last fall.
Playing on the “Stand ‘n’ Spin”
Two girls playing on the hollow “log” at the Gallagher Creek playground last fall after the equipment was first installed.
The park’s already becoming a place for families to cross paths and get to know their neighbors in the most densely populated part of our township. And meanwhile, in the background…
Nature Goes About Its Autumnal Business
The natural areas of Gallagher Creek look a bit scruffy right now from all the construction that went on this summer to build a picnic pavilion, a restroom enclosure, expanded parking area, the playground and a paved pathway. But despite all that to-ing and fro-ing, nature survives and offers beauty and bounty when you take time to venture into the fields.
Birds in the Distance as Children Play
Birds may keep their distance when the children are playing, but as I approached the tall grass at the edge of the creek east of the busy playground, a familiar head appeared above the tall grass.
From the absence of a white crown on its head, it seemed to be a juvenile Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) stalking along the far side of the creek. Young Blue Herons take 3 years to develop full adult plumage, according to the Stokes Guides to Bird Behavior (Vol. 3). This youngster flew off, as I crackled through the browning stalks of goldenrod and yarrow.
But just as I arrived the next morning, when the playground was empty, a juvenile – perhaps the same one? – flew over the treetops and swooped into a tree covered in vines. I snuck slowly forward and got one shot of it standing tall before it bent its knobby knees backward, spread those magnificent wings, and took to the air once more.
While the children shouted and laughed in the afternoon sun on a different afternoon, I watched a lone European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) high in a snag staring out over the playground nearby. It paid no attention to the happy noises below. I imagined that it was waiting for its highly social companions, since starlings gather in huge flocks at this time of year. This one had completed its fall molt complete with fresh feathers tipped in white, giving it the spotted plumage that starlings wear in fall and winter. By spring, the white tips will be worn off, returning these birds to their iridescent blue/black mating colors, and its beak will lighten and even change to bright yellow if it’s a male.
Unnoticed by the playground youngsters, a large, rippling flock (or “murmuration”) of about 75 starlings suddenly descended on the trees east of the creek. But the lone starling just kept staring into the distance. Perhaps it just needed a break from all the cackling and whistling that goes on in a starling gathering.
Over in a quiet corner of the park, near the cat-tail marsh along the road, three little migrating Palm Warblers (Setophaga palmarum) in their duller fall colors chirped contact calls at each other before heading further south. The most notable field mark for these little birds is the bright yellow feathers under their tails and a pale “eyebrow” which they have year ’round.
Seeds Flying, Rattling, Dropping and Providing Food for Wildlife
Autumn, of course, is the time when plants ripen and disperse seeds for next spring’s blooming. In doing so, they also provide important nourishment for all kinds of creatures. So while the children played, I went out to see what kinds of food nature was preparing in the background.
Seemingly unaware of the hubbub on the playground, a struggling American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) fumbled about trying to extract seed from a Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) while it swayed wildly in a stiff breeze. I wondered if it was a juvenile who hadn’t quite mastered the skills necessary to extract seeds on a windy day.
American Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) would delight any child at this time of year with its hot pink stem and blackish purple berries. The trick would be to keep them from trying to eat the berries, since the seeds inside are slightly toxic to humans. According to one of my favorite wildflower sites, many of our favorite song birds (Bluebirds, Cedar Waxwings and more), as well as raccoons, opposums and the gray fox, feed on pokeweed berries with no problem. Pokeweed prefers disturbed soil, which makes Gallagher Creek Park just the right spot this year! After I took this shot, I came back a few days later to find the stem broken and picked clean. Mission accomplished – food eaten and seeds dispersed.
Some seed pods are rarely seen in our township except in this park. The wispy Bladdernut shrubs (Staphylea trifolia) produce elegant lantern-like pods. The shiny brown seeds inside shake in the wind, making a sound like a baby’s rattle. Though insects feed on the blossoms, there’s little evidence I could find that the seeds provide forage for wildlife. But the trees are doing a fine job of producing more Bladdernut shrubs as the number of them along the eastern tree line seems to be increasing nicely.
The common Cat-tails (genus Typha) are seeding as well, making a nice repast for a hungry Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata).
Cat-tails are seeding in the marsh on the park’s west side.
A Blue Jay probing for cat-tail seeds.
The pods of Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) are splitting open to release their silky little parachutes, each containing a seed that can sail away on the wind. Milkweed has done its job by feeding Monarch caterpillars as well as many other butterflies and insects over the summer. So its current task is to get those seeds out into the world. If the seeds succeed in sprouting, they will feed more insects next year.
More Edibles for Wildlife Wait in the Grass
Mushrooms, of course, can be edible by humans, but they are frequently a meal for squirrels and deer as well. I saw two varieties while the children romped at Gallagher Creek. A giant Puffball (genus Calvatia) had been broken in half, probably by a curious human, since it seemed to have no teeth marks in it. One appeared in the same area last year. And a stump hosted some pretty Turkey-tail Mushrooms (Trametes versicolor), whose tough, rubbery surface might not please us, but probably could please a squirrel (particularly a Red Squirrel). I see them now and again with a mushroom between their paws.
A large puffball appeared along the treeline for the second year in a row.
Turkey-tail mushrooms on a stump at Gallagher.
As I stepped into the deep grass, I wished I had one of those busy children in tow to enjoy the sprays of Red-legged Grasshoppers (Melanoplus femurrubrum) leaping away from my feet. It would have made them laugh as it did me. These small grasshoppers lay their eggs less than inch under the earth in the autumn, and those eggs are a food source for birds, skunks, snakes and raccoons. Nymphs and adults can also be a food source for toads, snakes and some birds, but mostly during the summer months.
Beauty Underfoot Before the Frost
Even though much of Gallagher Creek is covered in brown stalks and shriveled blossoms, a few autumn wildflowers survived right up until the first frost. East of the observation deck, near the creek, the ground is covered with unusual and fragile Bottle Gentians (Gentiana andrewsii), a native wildflower that grows in only a few places in our township. Its closed blossoms never open so they are most often fertilized by bumblebees who are big enough to force their way inside and back out again. The gentians were so plentiful this year that I had to step carefully to avoid treading on one as I explored the area.
Nearby, a late-migrating Monarch butterfly ((Danaus plexippus) paused to sip on the last purple blossoms of New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), a classic autumn wildflower.
Birds Everywhere on a Cold, Quiet Morning – and a Playful Young Female
On the cold morning when I saw the heron that I mentioned above, the playground was empty and quiet. The bushes and trees, though, were alive with birds busily flitting from branch to branch, or shrub to soil, in search of anything they could find to eat.
What delighted me most was a large flock of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis). They were probably gathering to move a little farther south in Michigan or to Ohio in order to reach warmer weather, though Bluebirds often return here on warm winter days and some stay all year. The males are always the flashiest and were more plentiful in this flock.
But my favorite Bluebird on that chilly morning was what I’m guessing was a juvenile female. Young Bluebirds fledge wearing spotted breasts. But according to the Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.2), they molt into adult plumage in August and September. I began to wonder if this gray-headed female was a youngster because she seemed to be practicing the grass-handling skills that she would need next spring in building her carefully woven nest. When I first spotted her, she had the head of a grass stem in her beak with the dry stalk trailing down her back.
She made a couple of tries at moving the grass into a more suitable position.
Seemingly frustrated, she dropped the stem between her feet and stared intently at it for a minute.
At last it seemed she had figured it out. She picked it up carefully in the middle of the stalk, a much easier way to handle it.
Satisfied, she carefully set it down on the railing on which she was perched. And then left the grass stem there and flew to nearby tree.
I loved seeing this young bird fiddle with what may have been her first attempt at handling the building material she would need in the spring to create her nest.
Besides the Bluebirds, a whole assortment of other birds made the most of the quiet park that cold morning. I’m fairly sure that a tiny migrating Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) was among them, but it insisted on keeping only its rear in view! So I’ve added a photo of another one I saw in a previous year so you can have a better look at it. (Use the pause button if more time is needed for captions.)
A Park Where the Young Can Learn and Play
I believe that young humans, like the young of all species, need play as a way to learn about the world. So I loved watching children on the new playground at Gallagher Creek Park. So much is being learned as youngsters cope with siblings and strangers on the slide or the rocking “dragonfly” seesaw. Muscles grow stronger. Some learn the consequences of risk-taking and others overcome their fears. It’s great.
What I’m hoping is that once the trails are mowed again next spring, parents will take their children by the hand and explore this little park that offers so much – baby muskrats in the spring, a swollen creek after rain, tree swallows diving for insects in the summer, and native wildflowers in three seasons. And yes, even little birds, that like all children, are learning how to be skillful grown-ups.
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net;Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels, A Guide to Bird Behavior Vols.1-3 by Donald W and Lillian Q.Stokes, entomology.ca/uky.edu on Red-legged Grasshoppers, illinoiswildflowers.info and others as cited in the text.
Well, they’re off! When the wind sails in from the north, it’s a signal to all kinds of creatures: “Time to go!” So they take wing singly and in large flocks, letting the flow of cool air support them, carrying them quickly onward as they beat wings of all sizes to make their way to warmer climes.
And of course, it’s not just birds. Above you can see our friend Nancy Isken’s photo of Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus) last week resting at Tawas Point State Park before crossing Saginaw Bay. They were beginning their long journey to Mexico where they will spend the winter. In the spring, these Monarchs will make the first leg of the journey back north, stopping in warm areas like Texas to produce a new crop of butterflies who continue heading north. These new generations will fly only a few hundred miles, stop and reproduce, completing their whole life cycle in only 5-7 weeks. So it takes several generations to complete the trip back to Michigan each summer. Sarina Jepson of the Xerces Society, which is focused on invertebrate conservation, says in a fine National Geographic article, “…when fall rolls around again, a special ‘super generation’ of monarchs that can live up to eight months will make use of air currents to wing all the way back to Mexico—a seemingly impossible feat for such a delicate-looking insect.” Imagine that! So the Monarch butterflies born here In Oakland Township each summer can potentially live for 8 months instead of 5-7 weeks and fly 3,000 miles instead of a few hundred. We are living among real, live superheroes!
And Monarchs aren’t the only insects that migrate. Green Darner Dragonflies (Anax junius) (also tracked by the Xerces Society) travel down to Texas and Mexico as well. For dragonflies, it also takes many generations of reproduction before their trip is completed, though their migration is less well understood. But again, like the Monarch generations that arrive here each summer, the dragonfly offspring seem to know how to find their way in the right direction. Citizen science and research is helping explore dragonfly migration. But for now, I love a good nature mystery, don’t you?
Painted Lady butterflies (Vanessa cardui) make multiple generation migrations all over the world. But they migrate erratically. Some years they migrate and some years they don’t. And the direction and route can vary widely. Some experts speculate that their migration routes may be affected by dramatic changes in weather and climate – another nature mystery yet to be solved.
At this time of year, the night sky begins to fill with thousands, even millions, of birds riding the wind south in the darkness, navigating by the stars or the setting sun, or by sensing the earth’s magnetic field. Some may navigate by landmarks or simply remembering good feeding grounds. And amazingly, most juvenile migrating birds, like those insects hatching during migration, somehow know how to find their way without any help from adults! Cornell’s BirdCast website is a great way to watch the flow of birds across the United States day by day throughout the fall.
Remember all those bright little warblers, unusual sparrows and other small birds that sailed up here on a south wind in May? Well, most of them have now finished breeding farther north and are beginning to make their way back to more warmth and sunshine. They’ve molted out of their bright breeding feathers so they’re a little less colorful now and their routes vary a bit depending on available food and weather. But keep a look out for these little travelers starting now. Here are a few from the autumn of previous years:
If you’re thinking you’d like to see some bird migrations in BIG numbers, you might check out the Hawk Fest featuring hawks, eagles, falcons and owls at Lake Erie Metropark on September 15 and 16. Or if you love our Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis), consider a trip to the Audubon Society’s Cranefestat Big Marsh Lake in Bellevue, Michigan (near Battle Creek) on October 13 and 14.
Of course, if you want to stay close to home, you’ll be warmly welcomed at our Oakland Township Wednesday morning bird walks. The walks rotate through our township parks each month and in September and October, they start at 8 a.m. The schedule is available year ’round if you click on the drop-down menu above for “Stewardship Events.” We’re a friendly group with some experienced birders who are glad to help beginners see their first migrators. Bring your binoculars or borrow a set from Ben, our Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, who leads the walks.
So yes, summer is waning. But I can’t help feeling celebratory as autumn air turns crisp and the skies fill with winged creatures. I recommend looking upward this fall and perhaps wishing “Bon Voyage!”, to our migrators who provide such beauty and mystery as they find their paths through the air.