Hawks by the thousands head out across the west end of Lake Erie each autumn. And smaller migrators wing across at night to avoid those predatory hawks that travel by day. Holiday Beach Conservation Area on Lake Erie (near Amherstburg, Ontario, an easy drive from southeast Michigan) lies on a major fly-way for migrating birds, especially hawks. Local birders from the Holiday Beach Migration Observatory (HBMO) count and keep records on the migration spectacle.
In mid-September each year, HBMO members share the fun of migration by hosting the Festival of Hawks at Holiday Beach, the third-ranked hawk watching site in North America. For the last 41 years, volunteer bird enthusiasts from HBMO have contributed to the study of migration and bird conservation for both hawks and perching birds (“passerines”). Let’s hear it for passionate citizen scientists!
This year three of us from the Oakland Township birding group made our own migration to experience this special event. At the Festival, we looked skyward from the tall observation tower, craning our necks, binoculars aloft, to watch huge, swirling flocks of hawks, known as “kettles,” as seen in the photo above and at left below.
What a sight to see roughly 200 Broad-winged Hawks (Buteo platypterus) wheeling up and over the tree line at the horizon! These forest raptors with their banded tails spiral upward on thermals, riding currents of rising, warm air to great heights with little effort. Traveling over 4,000 miles, hundreds of thousands of these hawks create a “river of raptors” (as they call it in Mexico) flowing into their winter territories in Mexico, Central and South America. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Another impressive raptor settled low in a tree right over the path to the viewing area. An Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) had caught a fish and wasn’t going anywhere until it finished its meal! Ospreys, unlike other hawks, eat only fish. They are skilled anglers and tend to carry their prey head-first for less wind resistance. This one gave me a fierce stare and then went right back to eating its lunch.
We visitors were allowed to crowd around a trained and licensed HBMO bird bander as he attached bands to several birds caught in their super-fine “mist nets.” Runners watch the nets which are stretched between poles on fly-ways near the ground. The captured birds are quickly removed from the nets and rushed to the gentleman banding birds in order to release them as quickly as possible. We began by watching the banding of a tiny Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) brought in a small cloth bag. The man gently wrapped his hand around the tiny bird. The hummer was surprisingly calm.
With a special tool, he softly clipped a tiny band (10 of them fit on a diaper pin!) on the hummer’s leg. The band will identify that specific bird and allow the club to be contacted if someone observes the hummer and reports the band. The bander weighed and measured the tiny bird, then determined its gender and approximate age (juvenile or adult).
For a small donation to Holiday Beach Migration Observatory’s work, we observers could “adopt” a banded bird. That meant having a photo taken with the bird, releasing it from your open palm and being notified where/when your “adoptee” was found by another birder. Donna, one of our birders, adopted a little Hummingbird.
Here are some other birds that got banded, or had their bands checked, while we watched. (Click on the pause button if more time is needed for captions.)
As a bonus, some individuals trained and licensed in falconry brought their owls and hawks. Though hunting with trained birds is an ancient sport, it always make me a little uncomfortable to see the jesses on their legs. But these licensed professionals did give us a chance to see magnificent birds up close. And the birds were clearly well cared for, well fed and beautifully trained.
I love the whole idea of citizen science! How wonderful that the passionate birders of HBMO gather to provide data on the birds that they admire and to educate the rest of us! This summer, here in the township, several residents volunteered to monitor bluebird boxes, providing the Cornell Ornithology Lab’s NestWatch site with plentiful data on a lovely species that may contribute to their continued survival. Some of us report amphibian and reptile sightings to the Michigan Herpetology Atlas or participate in Feeder Watch, which keeps track of winter birds at our home feeders. Some are helping post-doctoral students at the U-M’s M3 Monarch Migration Study use tiny electronic monitors to learn where individual Monarch butterflies travel. There are so many ways to contribute to what science can teach us about the natural world. What’s your passion?
The last two weeks at Bear Creek gifted me with some exciting moments – seeing previously unseen birds, witnessing unusual nesting behavior, watching a turtle struggling to bury her eggs and being surprised by a little butterfly I hadn’t seen for years. So though the blog just visited Bear Creek two weeks ago, I wanted to share the bounty I’m enjoying before the season changes much.
Unusual Birds and the Usual Ones Doing Interesting Things!
As many of you know, I’ve been walking in Bear Creek for 25 years and I’ve watched for owls all that time. They spend their days sleeping right next to tree trunks on high limbs, and despite craning my neck for years, I’d never spotted one. But on the first June bird walk, a fellow birder, Bob Bonin, spotted one high up in a tree near Bear Creek Marsh. Huge, silhouetted against the morning sky, this Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) wasn’t easy to see, much less photograph. But luckily, I got a few shots before he gave the group an annoyed look, lifted his huge body with his massive wings and flew away. Such a thrill! (Click on arrows for slideshow; use pause button for a closer look.)
A bit earlier that morning, we saw an unusual bird at the other end of the size spectrum. A male Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) perched high on a snag behind the Center Pond and turned his iridescent green back to the morning sun. We saw a quick orange flash at his throat but I missed it. The Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol. I) indicates that males’ throats look brown or black if the light doesn’t hit their necks just right. When I returned on a late afternoon, there he was on the same snag – but this time the afternoon sun caught the edge of his throat which shone gold rather than ruby red. He’s not the most glamorous hummer, but I’m glad I got to see a bit of his gleam.
Near the Center Pond, the birders also discovered the nest of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus) – with the male sitting calmly, tending the eggs or nestlings. Occasionally, he even sang his lovely tune as he waited patiently. I’d read in the Stokes Guides that male Grosbeaks sometime take on this responsibility, but I’d never seen it. On three separate visits, the male was the only one on this nest – though the female may have relieved him at other times. So, Happy Father’s Day to this dedicated Grosbeak dad!
In a willow to the right of the deck in the Center Pond is a beautiful nest. It’s cleverly attached between two vertical branches about 20 feet up, ingeniously woven and quite large – maybe 9 inches long. During my first 3 visits, only the female’s black tail cocked behind her was visible from the observation deck. Finally one afternoon, I waded into the grass at the pond’s edge and caught sight of her hindquarters as she fed her young. And then, I saw a fledgling’s head just above the edge of the nest. Ah, this nest was constructed by a female Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) – a somewhat eccentric one since Red-wings normally build close to the water and weave their nests among cat-tails or reeds. She’s quite an architect! The location of this elaborate nest makes it nearly invisible and unreachable by predators. Clever mama Red-wing!
Two nests appeared high in a tree on the Walnut Lane. The barely visible, masked eye of the female Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) peeked through the leaves that camouflaged the first nest spotted by the birders. Since she sat there quietly every time I visited, I’ve included a photo of a Waxwing from a previous year so you’ll remember how elegant this conscientious mother bird truly is!
Across the Walnut Lane, the birders also discovered the nest of a female Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) who spent several days building her gauzy, somewhat more loosely constructed nest. She proudly stood above it a few days later as it neared completion. The female Kingbird constructs the nest and keeps the male off it until the eggs hatch. Then both parents feed the nestlings. But even during the egg phase, the male stays on a branch nearby to defend the territory for his mate and young.
Another good provider, a tiny male Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia) brought a bright green caterpillar to feed his nestlings or mate. In between feeding trips, he’d let loose with his proud song, “Sweet, sweet, I’m a little sweet.” Impressive dad who can bring home the bugs, singing all the while! Bet the female warbler was as impressed as I was.
An Orchard Oriole male (Icterus spurius) serenaded us from a small tree in the middle of a meadow. His long, melodious song sounded much like the third song recorded at this link. A few Orchard Orioles seem to come to Bear Creek each year – but they migrate south by mid-July. So keep an eye out and an ear cocked soon in the meadows to the east of the Walnut Lane!
An invisible bird, high up in the tree tops, repeated its melodious warble continuously one warm morning. I’ve never seen a Warbling Vireo (Vireo gilvus); they rarely come down from the heights. But fortunately, a great photographer from the iNaturalist website, Steven Mlodinow, has seen one and generously allows others to borrow his photo. Listen for this warbler’s rich melody all summer long, but don’t be surprised if you never spot this elusive summer resident.
Little Surprises Near the Wetlands
At the northeast corner of the Center Pond, a young Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta) hurried to cover her eggs one hot afternoon. She’s found a likely spot where Ben had cleared away invasive shrubs a couple of years ago. As you’ll see in the video below, she work really hard with her back legs to get the dirt to move. She’d no doubt have preferred sandier soil! But she was determined to see the job done!
I’ve seen Northern Leopard Frogs (Lithobates pipiens)periodically at Cranberry Lake but never one at Bear Creek. But hearing their snoring call near a wetland, I waded into tall grass and found this one, hiding among the greenery. Glad to know this beautiful frog is at Bear Creek, too.
Ben noticed an Eastern American Toad (Anaxyrus americanus) toad on the path one afternoon when we went to look at nests. Normally, I only see brown toads, but Wikipedia informs me that “The color and pattern is somewhat variable, especially for the females. Skin color can change depending on habitat colors, humidity, stress, and temperature…Some toads of this subspecies have a more pervasive red and deep brown color, many with red warts on their bodies.” So this little toad is probably female and the red description fits her pretty well. I wonder if the unusually hot temperatures had an effect on her appearance? Hard to tell.
Amazing Insects: A Butterfly I’ve Missed for Years, Favorite Dragonflies and the Skills of Tiny Pollinators
Next year, I’ll be looking for the boldly patterned Baltimore Checkerspot butterflies (Euphydryas phaeton) on June 11 or 12. I’ve only seen them on those two dates, 6 years apart! This year, four of them fluttered at a spot in the trail where water runs under the path – a place I’ve often seen other small butterflies feeding on minerals left by the water. Later in the summer, watch for the communal caterpillar webs of these small butterflies (about 2.5 inches) on the host wildflower Turtlehead (Chelone glabra) where these butterflies lay their eggs during the summer and where the caterpillars first feed.
Interestingly, in the fall, Baltimore Checkerspot caterpillars wrap themselves in leaf litter, overwinter and finish developing in the spring. This seems to be a big year for them – so keep an eye out if you see a small, dark butterfly at your feet.
Different species of dragonflies seem to appear each week to dance among the budding wildflowers and over the pond. The dramatic, yet quite common Twelve-spotted Skimmer (Libellula pulchella)did indeed skim over the tops of grasses in the Eastern Meadow this week. Dragonflies often land, fly, and then come back to the same dry stalk – so if you miss one in your binoculars the first time, wait a moment and you’ll probably see it in the same place again!
A bright green Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis) dragonfly clung to a grass stem on the western slope. If it’s a male, it will gradually turn blue over the summer. If a female, it will remain green. Probably this one is newly emerged since it’s hunting in a meadow. When it’s ready to mate, it will rendezvous with others at the Center Pond.
A small Dot-tailed Whiteface (Leucorrhinia intacta) dragonfly posed for a face-on selfie at the Playground Pond before continuing its quest to consume as many mosquitoes, flies and other small insects as possible before the day is out. Love its cartoon-like face and the one yellow dot on its tail that give it its name.
Pollinators are busy all over the park, feeding and carrying the pollen that will bring us next year’s blooms. This may look like a European Honey Bee (Apis mellifera)but Honey Bees are fuzzy all over and this one just isn’t. So it’s more likely to be a Dronefly (Eristalistenax), a type of Hoverfly (family Syrphidae), which uses its pattern, slight fuzziness and loud hum to mimic male Honey Bees as a way of protecting against predators. Droneflies cannot sting, but a passing dragonfly probably doesn’t take a chance!
I noticed what looked at first like a tiny wasp on this umbel of a native Nannyberry bush (Viburnum lentago) near the Center Pond. But after a bit of research in Pollinators of Native Plantsby Heather Holm, I’m going to guess it’s a female Leaf-cutter Bee (family Megachilidae). It has a wasp-y pattern and shape and it’s collecting pollen on its abdomen and on the top of its back leg (look at those jodhpurs!). Leaf-cutters cut small, neat circles out of leaves, hence the name. They then roll up a single fertilized egg and a chunk of pollen in each circle, forming a solitary, cigar-shaped nest which is placed in a hole in the soil, wood or other structures. Such an unusual nest!
Bring a Friend – or Friends! – to Visit Your Favorite Park
I’ve always loved walking alone in the township parks. I can listen to birdsong, stop to look at something tiny like the Little Wood Satyr butterfly below, or enjoy the fresh scents of wood, greenery, the earth after a rain in silence. Solitary walks are contemplative.
But this particular blog testifies to the special pleasures of hiking with interested friends and family. First of all, they just bring more eyes! I’m always seeing things with the birders or with my husband, that I’d never have noticed with just my two eyes (in this case, the owl, the hummer, the oriole, the male grosbeak in his nest and more). But also their curiosity piques mine. They bring specialized interests and knowledge. They often patiently help me find the bird hiding in a leafy tree (“The center trunk at about 2 o’clock…). It’s a different kind of delight to walk with nature-noticing friends. So if all of this nature stuff intrigues you, take some nature-lovers with you on your next walk. Or consider joining our friendly birding group on Wednesday mornings year ’round. We’d love to have you join us! (The schedule is under “Events” at the top of the home page.)
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Pollinators of Native Plants by Heather Holm; 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.
It pays to look carefully as you stroll along the paths of Bear Creek. Small creatures are sometimes the most amazing.
Though a friend on Gunn Road tells me she sees them in the woods behind her house, I’ve only seen the Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea) once in Bear Creek, near the northern entrance to the marsh – but it was worth waiting for! Fresh from the northwestern edge of South America, they move high in the trees and are usually difficult to see, the female especially as she’s olive above, yellow below, matching the spring leaves. This one’s special talent is just being gorgeous! Keep a sharp eye out and let me know if you see one!
The House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) makes Oakland Township part of its huge range; this small vocalist sings for folks from Northern Canada to the tip of South America. Cornell Lab says this tiny bird weighs about the same as two quarters. Despite its small size the house wren competes fiercely with bigger birds for a preferred spot, sometimes evicting others from nests they are already using. But they also accommodate themselves to mailboxes, old boots, wren birdhouses or any nook or cranny. Look for “Typical Voice” on the left of this link to hear his famous song:
Here’s another wee beauty , the Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia), a summer visitor to Oakland Township that Ben saw in the park last week.
This tiny bird sings a great little song that birders often hear as “Sweet, sweet, I’m a little sweet.” That’s how I spotted this little male. Yellow warblers like wet places so look for this little guy near the center pond or listen for him in the bushes near the marsh. Here’s a link to his song. See what you think he’s saying. We’ll discuss Brown-Headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater) another time, but they lay their eggs in other birds’ nests, particularly smaller birds like the Yellow Warbler. Even if the warbler recognizes the interloper egg in its nest, the bird’s too small to push the egg out, so it usually just builds a nest on top of the original one, lays its eggs and ignores the cowbird’s. Pretty nifty solution, though it’s a good thing bird’s don’t have much sense of smell, eh? I’ve never seen such a nest, but I’d love to!
American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) live with us all year, though there may be some slight shift in populations from north to south during the winter. The bright yellow of the males is a sure sign of spring, and during the Goldfinches’ second molt in late fall, the male’s return to the olive-yellow of the female presages the coming of winter. Goldfinches, one of the strictest vegetarians of the bird world, eat only seeds unless a hapless bug happens to fly into their beak during flight! While other birds are busy courting in the spring, they establish territories and wait to breed until late summer when the thistle seed they love is plentiful. They make tiny nests (3″ across x 2.5″ high) woven together with spider silk and lined with thistle down. Sounds pretty cozy. Here’s a link to their cheerful song. This finch pair (note the different plumage) seems to have had a tiff:
Ah, and then buzz, whirr, click, the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) zooms into the park during the first two weeks of May.
Though this photo taken in the rain dims him a bit, in bright sunlight the sparkling iridescence of the male’s green head and deep ruby throat dazzles the eye and his ability to fly in any direction, even backwards, beating his wings 53 times/second is really impressive. He weighs only 1/10th of an ounce and has to eat 50 times his weight in nectar daily! The plainer green females arrive later, build their half dollar-sized nests and do all the care and feeding of the young. Hummingbirds are not common in Bear Creek but Ben saw one last week, actually sitting quietly like my rainy day one.
Speaking of small talented critters, look closely at the surface of calm water anywhere in the park right now and you will see Water Striders (Gerridae). They are unique in the insect world for their ability to walk on water! Their specially adapted legs are covered with thousands of hairs that repel water, help them distribute their weight and trap air to bring the strider to the surface if dunked. The middle legs row and the back legs steer and they can really scoot across the water!
One more interesting little insect, the Six-Spotted Tiger Beetle (Cicindela sexguttata), flits along paths near the woods through the park now. Probably his fierce name comes from the fact that the larvae burrow into the ground when they hatch where they lay in wait. When a spider or insect happens by, they spring out and attack – much like a tiger pouncing on prey. Someone with a fine imagination named this little guy!
Our native Violets peek out here and there. Aren’t they lovely with the stripes on their petals and that beard at the center? I think these are Common Blue Violets(Viola sororia)but don’t hold me to it, since there are 28 species of violets in Michigan, according to the University of Michigan Herbarium.
The Wild Strawberries (Fragaria virginiana) are in full bloom and they are everywhere! Just think, every one of those flowers is a potential berry! A feast for wildlife since they’ll probably eat them all before they are ripe enough for humans!
The May Apples (Podophyllum peltatum)are now producing their shy buds, those inedible “apples”after which they are named. Some are blooming too, in their shy way, bowing humbly beneath the leaves. Here are a bud and a blossom.
Reliable sources (Ben and my husband Reg) tell me the carpet of Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum) has finally arrived and indeed is even more beautiful after the prescribed burn! Geraniums are blooming in areas we’ve never seen them before! Here’s Ben’s photo from Monday, the 18th.
And just to give small talented mammals some due, the American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) occasionally leaves a legacy to its offspring! You’ll hear these squirrels, the smallest in the park, chattering at you as you emerge from the trees on the path from the Snell parking lot. They are very intense about their territory and you are passing through it, for heaven’s sake! They are feisty, speedy and spend part of every day creating middens, places where they store seeds and other goodies. If food is scarce, females will evidently “bequeath” one to their young, that is, give up the midden and part of her territory to her offspring. Nice little inheritance!
Watch for the somewhat elusive Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa)! They are in the park now, but by mid-June, there will be ducklings! And what ducklings they are! Wood ducks nest in holes in trees as tall as 60 feet. When the ducklings are two days old, mom leaves the nest, flies down to the water and calls her young. One by one they screw their courage to the sticking point and launch themselves into the air. Their wings are too small for flight, but they are so light they bounce on the leaf litter below. Once they are all out of the nest, they go to mom and begin to swim. Now that’s quite a gift. For a one minute video of this feat, check out this link from the PBS program, Nature. It’s just wonderful, truly. Here’s a female and a couple of ducklings in the center pond at a bit of a distance last June.
And watch for the dragonflies and damsel flies! They are just beginning to swoop and dive around the ponds and in sunny spots near the woods, but there will be all kinds of them as June and July come on.
Quick Review: Spotted Again this Week!
One Snapping Turtlein the pond near the playground, and 3 in the marsh on Sunday the 17th!
A Rose-Breasted Grosbeak(Pheucticus ludovicianus) singing in the trees near the northern entrance to the marsh also on Sunday.
A Baltimore Oriole at the center pond again this year.
Spring is so full of change and energy that it’s a great time to explore Bear Creek Nature Park. As usual, let me know if you see anything we haven’t, or if you’ve also seen and enjoyed the ones we post here – and where you saw them.
*Quick footnote: My sources for information, as well as 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; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net.; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela.