Tag Archives: Rusty Blackbird

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: A Huge Hawk, a Rare Flock, and Birds Color the Changing Landscape

Eastern field and walnut lane late fall
Eastern Old Field looking toward the bare Walnut Lane and a late afternoon November sky

Warm days don’t seem appropriate to November, but we’re happy to have them when the Old Fields darken to russet and the architecture of the trees reappears. The landscape deepens as we can see far into the underbrush to places hidden by summer foliage. The slopes and hollows of the woods are more defined as the understory thins.

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino
Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

The skies become even more dramatic in the slanting light of late fall when the vivid shades of autumn fade – or maybe we just notice them more. It’s all about noticing, isn’t it?  I wasn’t sure I’d see enough to share this week.  How wrong I was!

Birds Hold Center Stage: A Bold Raptor, Shy Visitors, and Busy Residents

An impressive Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) warmed herself in thin morning sunlight erect in a bare tree near the Center Pond on our Wednesday Bird Walk. (Female Red-tails are larger than males and this was a big hawk!) She may, as Cornell suggests, have been waiting for the air to warm, because soon she was “climbing a thermal updraft into the sky.”   Off she went, probably searching for mice, voles or other small mammals to shore her up against the cold to come.  Red-tails tend to stay with their mates until one of them dies, but they must be loners outside the mating season.  It’s rare in my experience to see more than one at a time. We saw this one from behind at first; look at that red-tail! (Click on photos to enlarge them.)

Red-tailed hawk tail from back
The red tail of the Red-tailed Hawk

And then she turned around to survey her domain!

Red tailed Hawk
A large Red-tailed Hawk, probably a female, surveys her domain.

When I arrived on Wednesday, Ben and the birders were watching five  Rusty Blackbirds (Euphagus carolinus) at the Playground Pond.  I hadn’t seen one in weeks and thought their migration was over.  These secretive, shy birds spend most of their time in the shadows at the edges of wetlands, flipping over leaves to look for tiny invertebrates.  They land in trees only to pause a second before diving down into the underbrush and skulking along among wet, black mud and leaves.  Unable to get a good shot on Wednesday, I lucked out on Friday when I came upon a whole flock (10 or more?) in the wetland below the benches on the southern hill.

rusty blackbird female closeup
A female Rusty Blackbird posed for a few seconds on a branch in the wetland below the southern hill.

Cornell says the population of these  birds has “plunged an estimated 85-99 percent over the past forty years and scientists are completely puzzled as to what is the cause.”  One theory is that they find fewer wetlands so I’m glad we have several in Oakland Township that they can poke about in before heading south.

rusty blackbird2
A male Rusty Blackbird hiding in low bushes in a wetland last Thursday

On the same day (Thursday), a male Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) searched for a crack in tree bark in which to store what appeared to be a piece of nut.

red-bellied woodpecker with nut
A male Red-bellied Woodpecker looking for a crack in tree bark for storing his piece of (most likely) hickory nut.

Shagbark Hickory nuts

It could well have been a Shagbark hickory nut since there are lots of them still on the trees, which is where Red-bellies prefer to find their nuts, though they’ll take them off the ground if necessary.

Since the nut photo doesn’t show the plumage, here’s a fall picture from a previous year of a male Red-belly.  You can tell males from females by the fact that the red back of the head extends all the way to the bill in males but stops at the top of the head in females.

Red belly male in tree2
A male Red-bellied Woodpecker has red extending from the nape of its neck to its bill, while red on the female goes only from its nape to the top of its head.

Nearby a year ’round resident, the White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) repeatedly made its loud, nasal “nyah” call (Cornell calls it a “yank call”)as it probed right-side-up and upside-down around a branch.  A very distinctive call!  Listen to the “Eastern Call” at this Cornell Lab link.  You’ll probably recognize that you’ve heard it before!

White-breasted nuthatch
A White-breasted Nuthatch made its  “nyah” call repeatedly as it probed about on a branch.

Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata) were in a scrappy mood this week, which isn’t unusual for Blue Jays.  I saw two repeatedly giving each other a hard time on the western slope earlier in the week.

Blue jays playing
Two Blue Jays playing or fighting, not sure which, on the western slope.

A migrating Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca), with its large vivid body, smaller round head and long tail, visited the park again this week on its way south. I thought at first it was a Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) from its vivid color but Ben had it right.  A handsome sparrow! We did see a Hermit Thrush but I didn’t manage to get a good photo this week.

 

Fox sparrow morning light
The Fox Sparrow’s color clearly gave this migrant its common name.

The Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) seem much more secretive this time of year.  I’ve seen both the male and female slipping silently from limb to limb down under the Button Bush in the wetland north of the playground – a great contrast to their exuberant singing from the tops of trees and bushes during spring and summer months.

Cardinal male in swamp
This male Northern Cardinal might be a bit disturbed by the presence of us birders, since his crest is slightly raised.

More Tree Sparrows (Spizella arborea) are arriving by the day from their summer homes on the tundra.  I saw only one near the marsh nearest to Snell Road but I heard what sounded like several in the dense underbrush nearby.

Tree sparrow
Tree Sparrows continue arriving from the arctic to spend the winter here.

A Winter Lodge and Abandoned and Fiercely Defended Nests

Two weeks ago I saw a Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) diving in the Center Pond and then appearing briefly as it swam quickly into the shadows near the eastern shore.  It looks as though it’s been making modifications to its lodge on the southern shore, as the sturdy heap of pond mud and dead plant material appears to have grown higher and darker recently.  Muskrats don’t hibernate but are trapped under ice for months at a time.  How do they breathe, find food and keep warm for all that time?  We’ll explore those questions later  – during a snowy winter week at Bear Creek.

Muskrat den2
There seem to be recent additions of mud and plant material on the muskrat’s lodge at the Center Pond.

Also at the eastern end of the pond, the beautiful wasp or hornet’s nest swaying at the tip of a slender limb, is fraying at the edges from wind and rain.  The colony’s founding queen, workers, males and unfertilized queens have all died by now and all that’s left of that huge colony are the fertile queens who mated this fall.  Back in August and September, they put on weight, being fed by the workers.  Now they are snugged up for the winter under bark, leaf litter, logs or stumps near the pond where they’ll emerge and start new colonies next spring. And that amazing piece of insect architecture will slowly unravel.

wasp nest in autumn
A hornet or wasp nest frays at the edges while the only survivors, the fertile queens, hide in nearby nooks and crannies ’til spring.

On the eastern path, a tidy little nest, most likely that of the American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) , sits securely attached to three branches of a small tree.  It seems destined to survive the winter, though bird nests are rarely re-used.  Goldfinches like to nest in small trees and shrubs in open fields.  According to Cornell Lab, “…the nest is an open cup of rootlets and plant fibers lined with plant down, often woven so tightly that it can hold water. The female lashes the foundation to supporting branches using spider silk, and makes a downy lining often using the fluffy “pappus” material taken from the same types of seedheads that goldfinches so commonly feed on.”  That aptly describes this little nest both inside and out! (Rest your cursor on double photos to see captions.)

I got another ferocious scolding from an aggressive little American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) this week, who was probably defending itself and its stockpile of nuts, seeds and mushrooms cached nearby.  During the winter, they generally live inside logs, stumps or in woodpecker holes, popping out around midday to dig into their food stores cached nearby.  Speedy little rodents, Red Squirrels can reach 14mph over a short distance when excited!  I told Ben and the birders that if this one had been about 10 times bigger, I’d have taken off running.  Look at that fierce little face!

Aggressive red squirrel
An American Red Squirrel fiercely warns me to get away from its winter hole in a nearby tree or log –  or perhaps its winter food cache stored nearby.

Wildflowers: Then and Now

Native wildflowers are almost gone, having produced seed for next year and along the way, fed the honey bees and native bumble bees, caterpillars, birds, even some of the animals in Bear Creek.

Up by the benches on the south hill of the park, the gigantic leaves of Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) curl around the bare stalks of these giant wildflowers that grew from 3 to 10 feet high this summer!  Prairie Dock nectar fed native bumblebees and perhaps the occasional hummingbird, while goldfinches snacked on the seeds.  Now their huge brown leaves curl, reminding me of the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland.

Across the way, the Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) that turned their faces to the sun a few months ago show only those rich brown centers now.  Lots of bees and other insects enjoy this native wildflower during the summer.

Meadowsweet (Spirea alba) still sports its red stalk, but the white plumes have fruited into brown seeds for next year.  Bees of all kinds fed on the nectar of this lovely plant all summer.  Rabbits probably nibbled on the lower leaves while deer sometimes consume the upper ones.  Meadowsweet also feeds a variety of native moths, some of which, of course, are consumed by birds.

Native plants like these are an important source of nourishment for the birds, bugs and other creatures of Bear Creek.  That’s one reason we try to foster them.

Leaf Patterns

The Pin Oak leaves were bright red and green as they encircled the playground a week or so ago.  Suddenly this week, they turned brown but held on.

Pin Oaks Playground Fall
Pin Oaks that were bright green and red last week have quickly turned brown, but held on.

A week ago, the Red Maple (Acer rubrum) near the shed blazed a brilliant red but it appears from the pattern of its now-fallen leaves,  that a gust of south wind brought most of them down at once .

Bur oak shedding leaves
From the pattern on the ground, the Red Maple appears to have lost most of its leaves to the warm south wind this week.

Down at the center pond, the giant White Oak (Quercus alba) shed its leaves this week, creating a mosaic in the water nearby.

white oak at center pond
One of the biggest White Oaks in the park, the one near the Center Pond, shed its leaves this week.
White oak leaves in the pond
A White Oak leaf pattern in the Center Pond.

So despite the fact that November’s fading light cues birds to move on, flowers to wither and leaves to fall, Bear Creek is still a place of beauty and surprise.  November cues us too – to don heavier jackets, maybe a raincoat, some days a hat and gloves – to come take part in the changing of seasons.

Gray dogwood red against yellow leaves
The red tips (pedicles) of Gray Dogwood that are left now that the white fruit (drupes) have fallen or been eaten by birds.
*Footnote:  My sources for information, as well as Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide, 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 American Online; Audubon.org

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Winter Prep, Migrants Coming and Going, Chilly Insects, Fall Leaves, and a New Native Garden

White goldenrod autumn

Autumn’s here and a bit gone, so winter prep begins in earnest at Bear Creek.  The hibernators are finding or freshening up snug housing for the winter.  Migrating birds stop for a rest and a repast before continuing their journeys, while others arrive to spend the winter with us.  A few hearty insects, who survived the migrating birds and the cold nights, hop and fly on warmer south-facing slopes. Leaves rustle underfoot and tumble past so the quest continues to learn their names, to be more familiar with the giants of the plant world.  Let’s start with a walk through the Oak-Hickory forest.

Animals Prep for Winter

Path through Oak-Hickory forest
The path from the Gunn Road entrance into the Oak-Hickory forest

One of this week’s highlights was discovering a North American Raccoon (Procyon lotor) in the same place I’ve seen them almost every spring or fall – in a huge hole in a white oak halfway down the eastern forest path. On my first walk this week, I could only see a bit of fur at the bottom of the hole, but that brought me back the next morning.  At first the hole appeared empty. Disappointed, I approached, crunching noisily through the leaves and surprise!  A raccoon was fully visible in the dark of the huge hole, staring intently at me while I took its photo.  What a treat to know that once more one of these clever bandits will spend the winter dozing in this cozy home with its ideal southern exposure.

Raccoon in hole edited 4
A raccoon returns my stare from a tree that has housed raccoons for many years

The chirping and dashing of chipmunks and squirrels will accompany your walk through our Oak-Hickory forest again this week.  They are  eating and storing acorns and other nuts for hibernation or winter meals.   Here’s an Eastern Chipmunk ((Tamias striatus) with a mouthful of leaves, evidently planning to refresh its burrow before its long sleep .  Chipmunks wake every few weeks in winter, eat  a bit from their food stores and snooze some more.

chipmunk w leaves
An Eastern Chipmunk seems to be freshening up its burrow in time for hibernation.

A scratching and scrabbling sound nearby alerted me to a  pair of Fox Squirrels (Sciurus niger) spiraling up a giant tree near the marsh.  Fox Squirrels mate between November and March and then again in the summer – so it may have been a practice mating chase.  Or perhaps just two young ones feeling their oats, or in this case, acorns!  One paused high above on a tree knot.  The other used its 180°-rotating ankles to stretch out lengthwise, head down on the trunk.  Fox Squirrels prefer winter dens within woodpecker holes, but if none are available, they will build leaf nests in the crotches of trees. They spend the winter days with us – as anyone with a bird feeder knows!

Down at the Pond, Out in the Fields: Migratory Visitors and a Couple of Hearty Insects

Center Pond in Autumn

When I reached the Center Pond this week (so clear this time of year!), I saw two migrants that I’d never seen before  busily flipping over leaves to search for insects in the muddy shadows of the southern shore – a male and female Rusty Blackbird (Euphagus carolinus).  Cornell lab calls this bird “relatively uncommon” because it is “one of North America’s most rapidly declining species.”  I hope this turns around because I was thrilled to see them on their trip from Canada’s far north to their southern destination.  My photo of the male in non-breeding plumage is below.  I didn’t get a decent shot of the female, who is gray-brown with a black stripe through the eye. This Cornell link has much better photos of both genders.

Rusty blackbird Center Pond
A quite uncommon, migrating Rusty Blackbird and his mate (not pictured) flipped over leaves, looking for insects at the Center Pond.

Up near the Playground Pond, I saw a recent arrival from Canada who’ll spend the winter with us – the Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis).  I’m sure you’ve seen flocks of them under your feeder in the winter.  Their black backs and white bellies make them look like Chinese calligraphy on white snow.

Dark-eyed Junco
A Dark-eyed Junco matched the black-and-white shadow pattern on the path west of the Playground Pond.

I’ve been posting photos of juvenile Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) for the last few weeks but this week I got a good look at a beautiful adult one.  Here you can see both the yellow tip of its tail and the bright red wing spots that evidently looked like sealing wax to the person who named this elegant bird.

Cedar Waxwing with waxwing showing
An adult Cedar Waxwing. Notice the red dots on its wings which looked like sealing wax to the person that named them.

I had an opportunity to clearly see a Swamp Sparrow after only spotting the head of one at Bear Creek last week!  It’s a handsome little bird with slightly longer legs than some sparrows so it can wade in and pull food from the water. (Thanks to Ruth Glass again for the ID!)

Swamp sparrow
A Swamp Sparrow has slightly longer legs than some sparrows so it can pull invertebrates from the water.

Likewise, on October 10, I posted a shadowy photo of a Golden-crowned Kinglet (Regulus satrapa) at Bear Creek.  Today one grazed a window at our home! I followed instructions found on the web and waited 5-10 minutes before intervening – though I had a resting box ready, just in case.  Luckily, it recovered and flew off,  but before it did, I got a slightly fuzzy photo of its golden crown taken through the window. This tiny bird, smaller than a Chickadee and not much bigger than a Hummer, has traveled all the way from the Canadian north and can survive  in -40° temperatures! So let’s hope its accident won’t prevent this hardy survivor from arriving just a bit further south where it intends to spend the winter.

IMG_3480
A Golden-crowned Kinglet who survived a glancing blow against a window in our home. They are in Bear Creek right now as well, but very quick and difficult to see.

Insects that Made It Through Very Chilly Nights!

On sunny days,  you can still hear grasshoppers in warm spots on the trail – though far fewer than before.  I think they are still Red-legged Grasshoppers (Melanoplus femurrubrum)since they usually remain in the fields through October.  The female Red-legged Grasshoppers lay their eggs in the ground during late summer or fall. Only the eggs overwinter, I believe, though some species overwinter as nymphs. (If anyone knows more, please share!) I saw a pair mating rather awkwardly on the edge of a path in October last year.  The male is the smaller, greener grasshopper.

grasshoppers mating
Mating grasshoppers.  The larger female will lay her eggs in the ground and the first nymphs will hatch next summer.

I always thought that all red dragonflies at Bear Creek were Ruby Meadowhawks.  But it seems that there are multiple red Meadowhawk dragonflies. The one I’m seeing on almost every sunny path at the moment is probably a late bloomer named the Yellow-Legged Autumn Dragonfly (Sympetrum vicinum) or at least that’s my best guess.

Yellow-legged Autumn Dragonfly
Lots of these Yellow-legged Autumn Dragonflies are darting along the paths at Bear Creek now.

Now, About those Falling Leaves…

So why the color change?  And how do leaves fall?  The shorter days cue trees to reduce the chlorophyll in their leaves, the substance which makes them green in summer and able to feed sugars to the tree through the chemical action of photosynthesis.  As the chlorophyll subsides with less light, other pigments begin to show or form in the leaves making the leaves turn yellow, orange and red.  In response to less sunlight, a layer of cells gradually forms at the base of each leaf blocking the veins that carry fluids into and out of the leaf.  When that seal is complete, the leaves detach and fall.  More detailed info at this USDA Forest Service link.

Two Members of White Oak Group, the Ones with Rounded Lobes

While in the woods, I continue to snap photos of leaves, trying to imprint their shapes in my mind.  I can now easily recognize the White Oak (Quercus alba) with its rounded lobes and light gray bark.  The fall leaves can evidently be a variety of colors, but are mostly red to brown.

The Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa) is a member of the White Oak family, too, with rounded lobes but much deeper sinuses (spaces between the lobes) than the White Oak.  The bristly acorns are a clue to its name.

Three Members of the Red Oak Group, the ones with Pointed Lobes

Northern Red Oaks (Quercus rubra) have leaves with 7-11 bristle-tipped, pointed lobes.  The fall leaves can be red to brown.  I loved the deep chocolate color of this one on a deck in the marsh.

Red Oak Leaf
A Northern Red Oak leaf has 7-11 pointed, bristled lobes.

The leaves of Black Oaks (Quercus velutina), a member of the Red Oak group, have only 5-7 pointed, bristle-tipped lobes and can be yellow to brown in the autumn.

Black oak leaf brown
The Black Oak,  a member of the Red Oak group, has 5-7 pointed, bristly lobes.

Another member of the Red Oak group, the Northern Pin Oak (Quercus palustris), has deep sinuses that reach almost to the central vein between the pointed lobes .  These trees encircle the playground with color right now and they are in the woods as well.

Pin Oak
Northern Pin Oaks have deep sinuses and the pointed lobes typical of the Red Oak group.

Acorns, the nuts which contain Oak seeds, are dropping through the leaves and rolling underfoot.  Eastern Chipmunks take some of them underground to the larder chambers in their burrows.  Squirrels simply dig holes in the ground and cover the nut with earth.  They’ll find some to eat in the winter and others will be forgotten.  While feeding wildlife (some birds eat acorns too), this burying of nuts also helps replenish the forest with saplings in coming years. (Cool info on acorns at this link that two people sent to me this week! Thanks to Mary and Ben!)

Two Kinds of Maples – there are many more!

Maples are tolerant of shade, so they form part of the “understory” of our woods. They produce winged seeds that we, as kids, called “helicopter seeds,”  but that botanists call “samaras.”  There’s a photo at this link of samaras from a Silver Maple.

Red Maples (Acer rubrum)are one of the most widespread trees in Eastern North America.  I liked how the one on the left below had only partially turned when it fell, so it ended up tri-colored. The scarlet one on the right turned before it fell.

The Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) has a more delicate, deeply lobed leaf  whose pearly underside provides its name.

Silver Maple leaf
The Silver Maple is more deeply lobed and gets it name from its silver underside.
Some other Leaf Favorites

I’m particularly fond of the 3-fingered leaf of the Sassafras tree (Sassafras albidum).  According to Wikipedia, in the 19th century,  Sassafras roots were used for root beer or “sarsaparilla,” a soft drink that straight-arrow cowboys ordered at the saloon in old western movies, a source of amusement to their macho compatriots.  You can smell the root beer scent if you snap the stem of a green Sassafras leaf.  However, the roots turn out to be bad for your liver, so root beer these days is made with artificial flavorings.

Sassafras leaf
The 3-fingered leaf of a Sassafras tree, whose roots were once used to make root beer and sarsaparilla.

Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) left a lovely pattern on the path near the marsh. These native trees filled the field behind my parents’ house on Lake George Road so I have a particular fondness for the graceful shape and scarlet color of their autumn leaves.

Sumac leaves
Staghorn Sumac leaves on a path near the marsh.

A New Home for Native Plants at Bear Creek!

Staff and volunteers
A crew of volunteers and staff dug up 25 species of donated native plants and re-planted them at Bear Creek this week.  From left to right: Carol Kasprzak, Bruno Feo, Jeff Johnson, Reg Brown, Ben VanderWeide and me (behind the camera).

This week a team of six volunteers and staff caravanned to Armada to collect two beds of native plants donated to Bear Creek by Nancy Parmenter.  She’d sold her house and the new owners needed a larger play area for their children.  So we’re very grateful that she gave them a new home at Bear Creek.  The crew spent several ideal autumn hours digging up the plants and then re-planting them in a new bed near the parking lot.

The plants may not look glamorous now in late fall, but by spring  25 species of native grasses and wildflowers will be adding more color and diversity to Bear Creek.  The garden is just to the right of the pavilion and there’s a wood chip path through  it so that in spring you’ll be able to walk close to the flowers.   Thank you to everyone who dug and planted and to Nancy Parmenter for this wonderful donation!

So you have lots of reasons to visit the park on these glorious autumn days – watch for migrating birds, laugh at chipmunks during their fall eating frenzy, be escorted by late season dragonflies, spy on a hibernating raccoon or have a first look at our newest native flowerbed.  Savor the season!