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.
Oakland Township is honored to have royalty stop by on their way to the north country! No entourage for this group, though the paparazzi do follow them avidly, as you’ll see below. Like many royals nowadays, they mostly look ordinary. But once in a while, if you’re lucky, each of them don their extravagant gold and ruby crowns – especially when courting their royal consorts or battling over territory.
As you may have guessed, I’m referring to two kinglets, those tiny avian migrators who, when excited, raise their brightly colored crests. In the last two weeks, both little “crowned heads” of North America paused in their northern sojourn to enjoy a brief respite among the trees of Charles Ilsley Park.
Most of the time, the Ruby-crowned Kinglet(Reguluscalendula) is an unassuming green-gray bird with a white eye-ring. It hops at a frenetic pace from limb to limb, tree to tree, twitching its wings, and moving on. Here’s a Ruby-crowned Kinglet in its humble garb at Ilsley last week.
But when agitated, this diminutive monarch pops up a bright scarlet crest. Unfortunately all of the Ruby-crowns I’ve seen have been reluctant to display their crowns for me. So, here’s a photo of one doing just that, taken by Mathesant, a talented photographer at inaturalist.org.
On a cold April morning, the birders spotted another royal migrator, the Golden-crowned Kinglet (Regulus satrapa). Since this one preferred to stay high in the treetops, taking his portrait at Ilsley on a gray day was a bit challenging – but at least we were able to admire that bright yellow head stripe from a distance.
These little birds (smaller than a chickadee!) keep a patch of orange/red feathers hidden beneath that stripe. This tiny kinglet also only flaunts his splendid crown when he’s really excited. I couldn’t find a photo of the raised crest that I could share here. But it’s pretty impressive, so catch a glimpse at this Cornell link instead.
These two aerial royals only grace our parks on their way to the dense spruce or fir forests to the north, the summer retreats where they raise their offspring. So be on the lookout right now for royalty in the tree tops!
Late April and early May are full of dramas. Birds hassle each other over territories. Some turn their brightest feathers into the sunlight or sing elaborately constructed songs to impress the ladies. Snapping turtles roil the waters of the marsh as they twist and turn with their partners, butting heads and biting as they perform their mating dance. Late spring wildflowers and smaller trees hurry to show their best blooms to attract pollinators before bigger trees cloak them in shade. It’s a bustling, slightly crazy season – and isn’t it great?
Migrating Summer Birds Busy Courting, Hassling and Scouting for Nests
Down at the Center Pond one cool spring morning, the birding group watched a Green Heron (Butorides virescens) warming itself on a log at one end of the pond. Its neck wasn’t stretched over the water, so it wasn’t seriously fishing; it just sat there peaceably. Gradually, a pair of passive-aggressive Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) noticed its presence and decided, evidently, that they wanted the pond to themselves. They cruised slowly up to the heron until one of them was nearly beak to beak with it. The heron just sat. They joined forces and approached together. The heron just sat. Finally, one goose climbed onto the heron’s log, while the other positioned itself directly in front of the hapless heron. It sat for another minute and then finally acquiesced, fluttering off to the muddy shore nearby. Conflict successfully avoided, it probably found plenty of snails, insects and amphibians to eat while waiting for the geese to depart.
Sometimes the ongoing drama is a little less obvious. Rose-breasted Grosbeaks (Pheucticus ludovicianus) are plentiful in Bear Creek this year. One morning a male turned his bright pink breast patch to the sun and trilled his elaborate spring song repeatedly for his more modestly dressed mate. (If you hear a fancy version of the robin’s song, there’s likely to be a male grosbeak nearby.)
But nearby, there’s a careful observer. The female Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater) is high in a tree listening, too.
She’s watching for a likely nest in which to lay her eggs. Maybe she’s hoping the grosbeaks will be the ones to nurture and raise her young. Fortunately, the grosbeaks aren’t great prospects. They’re big enough to push the eggs out of the nest – if they notice them. Some birds do and some don’t. The drama hasn’t reached Act II.
In the small meadow west of the pond, a male Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis)spent the morning stringing together short phrases – whistles, tweets, trills and imitations of birds, frogs, even occasionally machinery! His complicated song can go on for minutes without repetition! This male combined song with ruffling his feathers and chasing after the female who was playing hard-to-get. She’d stop to listen, fly off and then dart toward him. He’d pursue her, fluff his feathers again and sing something new. And on they went at the forest edge and among the meadow’s small trees and shrubs.
Some migrators arrive in busy flocks, just stopping over for a short while to refuel before flying north. This week, a flock of 6 or 7 White-Crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) rode in on a south wind during the night and spent the morning gobbling whatever they could find at the edge of the trails. Such a handsome little sparrow with its striped crown!
Some birds fly in for just a short time to breed and then return to southern climes. This Orchard Oriole (Icterus spurius), the smallest of the orioles, flitted quickly among the branches, nibbling on sweet leaf buds for a little quick energy. Even if he finds his yellow-green mate and nests, he’ll likely be gone by mid-July – back to his favorite haunts in Central America.
High overhead, a pair of Sandhill Cranes croaked their wild cry, sounding and looking like two prehistoric pterodactyls with their giant wings. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
The warblers, the tiniest of migrants, have begun to arrive. A week ago a fellow birder helped me spot two species – the Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata) and the Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia) – and, we think, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula.) I didn’t manage to take any decent photos since some ate high in the tree tops and others hopped madly from limb to limb nibbling on leaf buds. So here are three photos from last year just to jog your memory.
In the western meadow, an Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) paused on a stalk. Kingbirds have a crown of red, orange or yellow feathers under that black cap, but they only show when they’re attacking a predator. I’ve never seen them. According to Cornell lab, this solitary, feisty bird changes his lifestyle in the winter, traveling in flocks all along the Amazon and eating fruit instead of Michigan insects. A favorite photo below from a few years ago shows his crown just slightly raised and his red gaping mouth. Maybe he’s feeling just a wee bit aggressive?
Drama in the Wetlands as Well
Over in the marsh, a very small Snapping Turtle(Chelydra serpentina) and a MUCH larger one roiled the water at the far end of the marsh. The difference in their neck lengths will help you determine their relative size in the photos.
I assume the smaller one was the male as he attempted to mount the back of the female’s huge shell at one point. Snappers generally do a lot of face biting when they mate, sometimes injuring each other. The photo below may look like a kiss but it’s more likely that the small turtle on the left is approaching to bite some indeterminable body part of the larger on the right. It didn’t look as though things worked out too well for either of them. After some rolling and tumbling in the marsh, the smaller swam off and the larger floated calmly in the distance.
Blue-spotted Salamanders ((Ambystoma laterale) reproduce in a less excited manner. According to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, salamanders emerge from their burrows on the night of the first snow-melting rain (now that would be dramatic to witness!) and go to the nearest vernal pool After a little nudging and hugging, the male deposits a sperm-topped cone of jelly on the ground in front of the female. She takes it in to fertilize her eggs, which are laid in the water in the next day or so. By mid-summer, the hatched tadpole-like larvae develop lungs instead of gills and absorb their tail fins, taking adult form. Red-backed Salamanders (Plethodon cinereus) lay their eggs in burrows and their young hatch as miniature adults. Here are some salamander eggs and a salamander larvae/tadpole that the monitoring team found in a pool last year, plus three different species of juvenile salamanders under some wood in the park two weeks or so ago.
In the Woods, Not Much Drama, but Burgeoning Life
Again this year, a raccoon is inhabiting the giant hole in the Oak-Hickory forest. Other years this has meant a passel of playful kits by the end of May. I saw nothing until I stepped into the crunchy leaves at the trail’s edge and this curious face popped up at the edge of hole.
The Red Admiral Butterfly (Vanessa atalanta), a migrating insect who probably overwintered in southern Texas, arrived at the wood’s edge a couple of weeks ago. According to Wikipedia, Red Admirals usually have two broods here between May and October.
Under the growing canopy of bright new leaves, a carpet of Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum) is blooming. In the blossom below, a tiny bee from the Halictadae family has curled up to feed on flower nectar. These tiny bees are commonly known as “sweat bees” because they like to lick salt from us humans (luckily, their sting is very minor). This bee’s bright metallic green may mean it’s an Augochlora Sweat Bee (Augochlora pura), solitary bees who don’t live socially in hives. If you know your Michigan bees, please feel free to correct me.
The Little Dramas Keep Life Coming
The dramas of spring creatures mean life continues. The best singer, the most beautiful feathers, the best provider of a good territory get chosen and a new generation begins. Fortunately, the temporary territorial disputes of birds don’t usually result in death or destruction. One bird moves on to new territory and in many cases, joins his former competitor in a fall flock which ends up feeding calmly together on winter feeding grounds. Nature knows that both low level conflict and general cooperation keep life going, even improving, generation by generation. Maybe we humans should take a lesson from them?
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell; Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3; Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; other sites as cited in the text.
What a difference a month makes! I began a series of visits to Cranberry Lake Park on September 24 and ended on October 25. I wanted to watch the park change as fall moved toward winter. It’s as if the color slowly leaves the flowers and grasses in the earth, flows up into the trees and then disappears into the black and white of winter. So this time I’m sharing a transition – who and what is coming and going at this changeable time of year.
Late September: Flowers Change to Fruit and Seeds
In late September, the meadow was still green, but splashed with the gold of Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa). A sweeping curve of this beautiful native plant swept around the large thicket of shrubs in the center of the meadow. It was easy to imagine the path of last summer’s winds as it carried the seeds that created this graceful shape.
And a few other flowers hung on in September. Individual stems of Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis)glowed gold among the greenery and a few hardy, flat-topped Yarrow stalks(Achillea millefolium) thrust their way above the browning Canada Goldenrod. Late-blooming Sweet Everlasting (Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium) – which some call Cudweed! – appeared as well, its tightly furled white buds just beginning to open in the cool autumn air. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Wild Grapes, also known as River Bank Grapes (Vitis riparia), hung in clusters on almost bare branches offering a treat for migrating and resident birds – and a few of us humans as well! A few weeks later they had either fallen to the ground or been eaten right off the vine.
Abundant clusters of wild Riverbank Grapes adorn the branches of this shrub.
A few weeks later the wild grapes had disappeared, probably nourishing animals as they stock up for winter.
In September, the Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) leaves changed from green to scarlet and the upright plumes of deep red fruits began to form. One morning, a flock of Black-Capped Chickadees bounced among the branches, foraging either for fruits or the occasional bug. Perhaps they were the ones who stripped the fruit from some of the plumes. Sumac fruits are eaten by many game and songbirds, though normally they’re not a first choice this time of year.
Over the next few weeks, the Goldenrods began to brown and go to seed. Showy Goldenrod seems to start seeding from the top down, week by week. And eventually that golden curve of Showy Goldenrod had turned a seed-rich, but not very attractive, brown.
And despite not being a first choice fruit, the Staghorn Sumac’s seeds had either been eaten on the plant or fallen on the ground to be found by ground feeders.
Talk about cool seeds! Looks at these elaborate seed pods of Dogbane/Indian Hemp (Apocynum cannabinum)! Dogbane is related to milkweeds, and like milkweeds the seeds with tufts of hair help the plant float on the breeze to new places. On the left is this red-stemmed, white-blossomed plant in June and on the center and right, the unbelievably long, angular seed pods this week.
Of course, some seeds are actually a HUGE problem. In autumn, the invasive, tree-killing vine, Oriental/Asian Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), produces its seductively beautiful yellow and red fruits. This vine encircles the trunks of trees while climbing for the sun. In doing so, it can choke the life out of a tree. If it gets to the top, it can kill the tree by shading it out and/or by making it top heavy and more likely to fall in storms. Unfortunately, hungry birds eat the berries and spread Bittersweet readily through their droppings. PLEASE DON’T PICK THIS VINE OR MAKE WREATHS FROM IT , ETC. Contact the Parks Department if you want some strategies for getting rid of this beautiful “bad guy”!
By late October, the meadow at Cranberry Creek had turned November brown as plants continued to produce seeds.
I did, though, find a few shy Smooth Asters (Symphyotrichum laeve) tucked beneath overhanging foliage, braving the cold with the last of its lavender blossoms.
During October: A Feast for Migrating Birds!
It’s hard for us to watch the palette of spring and summer fade – but birds? They love it! Warblers and other small visitors who spent their summer raising young in the cool northern reaches of Canada sailed into the park and found a feast! As did our year ’round resident birds.
One of my favorite partakers of fruits and seeds is the tiny Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) who’s found its way here from around Hudson Bay in Canada – or even farther north. I seem to always miss seeing the ruby crown which the male shows when he’s excited. I guess the birds I’m seeing are either females or males that are just too calm!
One afternoon at Cranberry Lake, the park was filled with White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis). They whisked in and out of shrubs while dashing down into the grass in search of seeds. This one paused just long enough for me to see its yellow lores, the spots at the corner of its eyes. It may have arrived from the UP or the tip of the mitten on its way to points south – not quite as arduous a trip as some migrators have.
This “first winter” White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys) was probably born this summer. It will take on adult coloring when it molts next spring into its bright black and white crown that now is brown and gray. This one was feeding avidly ongoldenrod seed during its journey from northern Canada to somewhere south of Michigan.
One morning, far up the path in the shadow of trees, a small Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) landed quickly, picked up a bug or fallen fruit from the grass, and took off. No photo. But here’s one from a previous year with its chocolate brown back and breast smudges. Too bad the Hermit Thrush doesn’t court its mate here, because its song has 3 different phrases with a pause between each. You can hear two versions of it here.
Our birding group saw other migratory birds enjoying the rest and sustenance provided by Cranberry Lake Park, but through our binoculars. They were too far away or too restless for me to capture them with the camera. The little Nashville Warbler (Oreothlypis ruficapilla) is making its way from Canada’s far north to Mexico or Central America. The Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum) stopped by on its journey from Canada to Florida or the Caribbean. And the Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata) has a comparatively short migration from northern Michigan or Canada to just south of Michigan. So as in all of our parks, Cranberry Lake offers much needed R&R for these small seasonal visitors.
During the bird walk, a Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus) swooped into the Hickory Lane on the west side of the park, perhaps chasing a songbird. It flew straight in front of us and quickly disappeared – we think without snagging the bird. Pretty exciting! Sharp-shinned Hawks are smaller and seen less often than the similar Cooper’s Hawk. They usually appear only during migration, so it’s probably headed south by now. Here’s a link to a photo at Cornell Lab.
A summer resident, the Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) called “chewink!” from the edge of the woods one birdwalk morning. When Ben imitated his call, the male Towhee darted into a nearby bush, intending, I assume, to check out the competition. Here’s a photo of one from last spring. (Let’s just say my photo luck was not with me on that bird walk!)
So though we miss the flowers, they have done their work. They attracted the right pollinators which helped create the very seeds that feed tired and hungry migrating birds – as well as having provided bees with the makings for the honey that will feed them through the winter, too. As a compensation, color comes to us once more as the trees begin to turn.
Late October: Winter Resident from the Far North Arrives – and Color Fills the Trees
Just this week, an American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea) may have flown into Cranberry Lake Park from the edge of the Arctic tundra! This sparrow, with a spot in the middle of its gray chest and a two-tone bill, loves cold weather. During the summer, Tree Sparrows make elegant nests of ptarmigan feathers right on the ground in the Arctic in order to raise their young. Evidently for a Tree Sparrow, spending the winter in Michigan is like going to Florida! Below is the first one I’ve seen this year.
A flock of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) did a lot to brighten up the browning of the meadow last week. Most Bluebirds migrate south, but a few actually stay with us all winter, either in family groups or small flocks, as long as there are seeds and berries available. I couldn’t resist taking more than one photo. Their splashes of azure in the field were really cheering on a gray fall day.
Color, of course, is the glory of a Michigan autumn. On September 24, the Hickory Lane still looked green and lush. By October 11, the colors had changed to gold and orange. And on October 24, a single glowing Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) at the south end of the lane was still shining in the sunlight after most of the other hickory trees began to turn brown.
The maple family contributes lavishly to the beauty of autumn. On the path to the lake, a striking leaf from a Red Maple (Acer rubrum) featured some colorful geometry. And nearby, the deeply lobed greenish-white underside of a pale yellow leaf from a Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) created some contrast. At the lake’s edge, oak and maple leaves formed a scarf of fall color floating on the surface.
The lake again was filled with migrating ducks and water birds – all much too far out for any kind of shot. Female Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa), Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) and Mute Swans(Cygnus olor) were among the throng. Here are photos of those birds from locations where I can get closer to them!
But there were also Pied-Billed Grebes(Podilymbus podiceps), and American Black Ducks(Anas rubripes)on Cranberry Lake. Please click on these red Cornell Lab links if you’d like to see them up close. Let’s hope a viewing deck gets built on Cranberry Lake in the next few years so all of us can get a closer look in person at the water birds that flock to the lake in spring and fall to socialize and feed.
A Different Kind of Transition in the North of the Park
Finally, a wonderful transition is being finished on the trail at the north end of the park. The Parks and Recreation maintenance staff has spent long hours this summer improving the trail from 32 Mile Road into the park. Instead of an oft-flooded, muddy track, they have laid down a solid surface with periodic drainage pipes running beneath it to keep the new trail from flooding. You certainly can feel the difference underfoot! And I imagine equestrians, as well as hikers, will appreciate the improvement. Thanks to Maintenance Foreman Doug Caruso and Maintenance Technician Jeff Johnson for a hard job that, when completed, should be a great improvement for the park!
Autumn: Harvest Time for All of Us!
So, just as we humans harvest crops before the snow falls, birds and animals harvest the wild “crops” of the fields – seeds and fruits. Some of them, like Black-Capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus), both eat and store them, tucking the seeds into bark where they will find them when snow blankets the meadow. Others, like the Palm Warbler, use them to fuel their flight to warmer climes. Winter residents, like the Tree Sparrow, will probe the brown goldenrod for seeds all winter – as well as flocking at your feeder. So when the color drains away, when the leaves are wet and brown underfoot, it may be a comfort to think of the bounty that surrounds us in those dry, drab plants. The brown and gray seeds nourish all kinds of creatures, and guarantee next summer’s bounty of plants. Those dry leaves underfoot dropped when they completed their work of sending sugars to the trees’ roots, ready to fuel next year’s growth. Seeds and falling leaves really are another reason to be thankful as November arrives. Maybe nature deserves a rest after a job well done!
*Footnote: My sources for information, as well as Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net.; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for beetle info http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info, http://www.illinoiswildflowers.info and invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman.
Bear Creek is busy with autumn. Butterflies sip nectar from late season wildflowers. Bees store up pollen to feed the colony during the winter. Grasses, vines and other plants produce seed heads or berries for next year’s crop, providing food for bird and beast alike. Migrating birds stop by on their way south, eating and resting. Summer’s avian visitors, having raised young here, prepare for departure. Some insects hatch, munch on plants, breed and in turn, become a meal for others. And in moist areas, some life forms emerge that range from just weird-looking to gloriously creepy!
Autumn Prep: Late Season Foraging, Molting and Migrating
One sunny afternoon, a band of Clouded Sulphur butterflies (Coliasphilodice) fed and fluttered among the pale lavender blossoms of native Smooth Swamp Asters (Symphyotrichum firmum) just off the Eastern Path. What a sight to watch this small male, its golden wings with bold black edges quivering, as it approached for a sip.
Clouded Sulphurs produce many broods a year and perhaps this couple will produce a chrysalis that will overwinter and open in the spring. I’d love to see one then, since the chrysalis reportedly turns yellow with a pink “zipper” right before the butterfly emerges! The male is the one with black wing bands.
Nearby, a small Common Buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia) was sampling the aster’s nectar as well. Native autumn wildflowers provide such a feast before frost descends!
Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus) are sadly scarce this year after we saw so many at Bear Creek last year. According to the Michigan State Extension website, a severe March snowstorm in their wintering grounds in Mexico killed 50-70% of the Monarchs before they could migrate! But the birding group was lucky enough to spot a female in the western Old Field, feeding on a native New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae).
Red-legged Grasshoppers are bouncing out of the grass like popcorn along the paths of Bear Creek. They are in the process of molting five times into bigger and bigger instars. This one, retreating under a leaf, isn’t quite adult yet.
At the Center Pond one morning, a Great Egret (Ardea alba) went fishing before migrating to Florida and the Caribbean. Hikers at Bear Creek report seeing a lot of them in the park in the last few weeks, which is great to hear! (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Under a bench on the viewing platform, two male Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos ) were developing their mating colors again. They’d spent the last 6 weeks or so in their “eclipse plumage,” when they take on the brown-toned female coloring. As they preened last week, however, an iridescent band of green was developing above their greenish yellow bills. (The females’ bills are orange and black.) I wondered if their flight feathers were most affected by the molt that day, since they didn’t take to the water when I sat down on a bench.
Several days later, I saw a bit of drama featuring these males. One of them had finished molting into his full mating colors. He “got the girl” and the other didn’t. The mallard couple did a lot of synchronous head bobbing on the deck and then swam off together. The other male was left on the sidelines, I’m afraid. But he may find a mate once his molt is complete. Feathers evidently tell female Mallards something important about choosing a healthy male.
An Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) periodically sallied forth to capture insects from high above the meadow east of the pond. Here’s a photo from last year so you can see it a bit closer. This solitary bird will spend the winter in a flock, eating fruits along the Amazon River in South America. Sounds like a long trip but a pleasant escape, eh?
A twitching of leaves in the low bushes below revealed the constant tail-wagging of a small brown bird. A migrating Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum) moved among the branches with a telltale patch of yellow under its tail and a dark eyeline. It probably spent the summer raising young in Canada’s far north and is on its way to Florida or the Caribbean. In spring, a male’s courting colors are a bright yellow breast and throat and a chestnut cap.
What appeared to be a juvenile House Wren chipped and scolded from a nearby shrub as I passed. It looks like a young one, doesn’t it? It’ll be traveling to Florida and the West Indies once it leaves Bear Creek, riding on a North wind toward southern warmth.
This week the birding group saw several migrators, but I didn’t get great shots. So here are three of last year’s photos of the birds we saw through binoculars this week. You might trying bringing your binoculars when you hike here and take a close look at any small, brownish birds in the bushes. We typically don’t get to see these warblers or kinglets except when they stop in our parks on their journey north or south. They spend the summer raising young farther north.
At the edge of a wetland, a Spreadwing damselfly with huge blue eyes, which may be a Spotted Spreadwing (Lestes congener),hung onto a twig. Spreadwings always perch with their wings half open and have pincers at the end of their abdomen – but their individual species names are hard to nail down. So don’t quote me on the name of this blue-eyed, bug-eyed character!
Seeds and Berries Mean Spring Prep, too
Plants pollinated in the summer are beginning to produce the seeds and berries that will guarantee their return next year. At the edge of the woods, False Solomon Seal (Maianthemum canadense) berries are ripening from mottled pink to red. Aren’t they pretty?
An aggressive native vine, Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), has thrived this summer and seems to be climbing in dense mats over trees and shrubs all over Bear Creek. It produces berry-like “drupes” (a fruit with a pit that contains the seed/s) on bright red stems that eventually turn brown. Many migrating and year-round birds feed on these berries, along with the occasional skunk or red fox.
Wildflowers are setting seed for next spring and the birds take advantage of that as well. Here are a few native flowers and their beginnings of seed formation.
And Now for Creepy Crawlies and Other Oddities
Ben’s new Stewardship tech, Heather Herndon, spotted a spectacular creepy creature on a rotting log. It appears to be a Leopard Slug (Limax maximus), a non-native who cleans up dead plants and consumes fungi, some agricultural plants and even smaller slugs! What an odd creature it is! According to Wikipedia, it is hermaphroditic, which means it carries both eggs and sperm. It does mate, however, exchanging sperm with another slug through a reproductive pore near its right tentacle. How strange is that? Slugs, like snails, are gastropods, but unlike snails, they can’t withdraw into shells. What’s odd, though, is that this slug actually has an internal shell behind its head that seems to be an evolutionary left-over, since it has no apparent purpose. So creepily cool, this one!
On our Wednesday bird walk, we spotted this wonderful web of an Orb Weaver spider. It was a big web and placed unusually high off the ground. Looks like the spider, who may be that tiny dot at the center, caught something near the edge of the web.
Cathy Rooney, one of the Park Protector nominees, put up on Facebook a wonderful video she found. It shows an Orb Weaver working meticulously to create a web just like this one. I found this version at YouTube so it should be accessible to any reader. Great find, Cathy!
Out in the Old Fields, the Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) pods are preparing to break open and release their seeds. But this year, the Large Milkweed Bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus) hatched in great numbers and are attacking more milkweed pods than usual. These insects inject saliva into the seed with their snout-like rostrum. The saliva dissolves the seed so the insect can vacuum it back up! Milkweeds are toxic and these insects are too once they feed. Their bright red color is believed to ward off predators by advertising that. In these two photos, early “instars” (developmental stages between molts) are on the left, and on the right are later and larger instars and one adult beetle. Thanks to the weather and this spring’s prescribed burn, the Milkweed is plentiful this year too, so we can hope that bugs won’t wipe out next year’s crop.
Fungi appeared here and there in Bear Creek after the heavy rainfall. Ben identified this white branching mushroom on a fallen log. It seems to be from genus Clavulina, most likely White Coral Mushroom, Clavulina cristata. Doesn’t it look like a tiny white forest? It’s believed to be mychorrizal, meaning it emerges from fungi underground that surround a tree’s roots and assist the tree in absorbing water and nutrients while the tree feeds the fungi. A beneficial symbiosis.
Like last year, huge fungi formed on the dead tree across from the Playground Pond. They are clearly some kind of polypore, or shelf mushroom, but I’ve been unable to nail that down. Anyone have a guess? They were so big this year that one of them collected water in which insects swam! On my last visit, though, only one was still on the tree. Either the downpours knocked them off or perhaps children did, like I saw two little boys try to do last year.
A little girl was delighted by finding a common Shaggy Mane Mushroom (Coprinus comatus)in the green grass of the playground field. It is beautifully ruffled, isn’t it?
It took a while to identify this mushroom, but I’m pretty sure it’s called an Elm Oyster Mushroom (Hypsizygus ulmarius) because they look like this and grow out of Box Elders (Acer negundo) at this time of year, like this one on the Western Slope did.
I know some people experience autumn as a somewhat melancholy season – flowers missing petals, tree shedding leaves, birds departing. The park quiets down as birdsong diminishes and the cricket song replaces frog song. Others find the riotous color of fall leaves and the crisp air exciting and invigorating and they love the fall. It can strike me either way, depending on the day.
For those who feel a bit sad at summer’s end, maybe it helps to remember that autumn is just the beginning of a long rest before spring. Trees take a breather from photosynthesis and live down in their roots for several months. Seeds are finding their way to the ground where they’ll reside until sunlight summons their hidden life back to the surface. Some birds, like some humans, depart for the south. But others, like the first little Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) we saw this week, are winging their way from the north to spend the winter here where our winter weather suits them just fine.
If we’re curious and take the time to look, every season here offers beautiful – and sometimes oddly fascinating – discoveries. And that cheers me even on the grayest of autumn days.
Footnote: My sources for information are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991); Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for insect info; http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info; invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman; experienced birder Ruth Glass, bird walk leader at Stoney Creek Metro Park for bird identification; Birds of North America Online; Audubon.org; Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, Trees in My Forest by Bernd Heinrich, Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, Savannah River Ecology Lab (Univ of Georgia); Tortoise Trust website www.tortoisetrust.org; An Orchard Invisible: A Natural History of Seeds by Jonathan Silvertown; The Ecology of Plants by Gurevitch, Scheiner and Fox; other sites as cited in the text.