If You Restore It, They Will Come: Water Birds Discover Our Newly Restored Wetlands

At Blue Heron Environmental Area, a Moist Patch Becomes an Impressive Pond!

Last fall, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, Oakland Township’s Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, worked with with the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to restore a wetland in the north section of Blue Heron Environmental Area along Rochester Road. Ben had noted a significant wet area in the current agricultural field and guessed that years ago, a farmer working there had drained a wetland. The hope was that building a small berm would capture and hold the water running off the field, filtering out nutrients and sediment before it entered the beautiful wet forest immediately to the west. Meri Holm, a wildlife biologist with USFWS, designed a small berm that was installed in late September 2020.

Well! On March 31, I stopped by to see what that smallish excavation at the north end of the field looked like now – and here’s what I saw!

The newly restored wetland at Blue Heron Environmental Area expanded beautifully this spring!

Needless to say, I was astonished! This graceful expanse of water now stretched far beyond the original excavation site! As my binoculars swept across this blue expanse, I thought I saw two small lumps on a log near the pond’s center. I approached slowly and discovered that the two lumps were two sleeping ducks and not only ducks, but ones I’d only seen once before, American Black Ducks (Anas rubripes). Though I stood near the road’s edge, they moved off the log to swim slowly down the pond. Once there, they tucked their heads beneath their wings and went back to sleep while floating.

Two American Black Ducks on the newly restored wetland at Blue Heron Environmental Area.
Text and photos by Cam Mannino

American Black Ducks have traveled a hard road to survive. According to local birder extraordinaire, Ruth Glass, their numbers plummeted during the 1930’s when southern Ontario, Canada converted large areas of wetlands to agriculture. These changes meant a loss of habitat for the Black Ducks but created favorable habitat for Mallards. Mallards and Black Ducks can interbreed and since Mallards evidently have the stronger genes, biologists feared that the Black Ducks would slowly become extinct. Mixing with Mallards as much as they do, Black Ducks also were taken in large numbers by duck hunters until 1982. At that time, the Maine Audubon Society and the US Humane Society sued to protect the Black Duck and as a result, today their numbers have stabilized! A victory for conservation and the American Black Duck! So here they are now enjoying the new wetland envisioned by Ben and supported by our Parks and Recreation Commission. Excellent news!

I came back several times to watch from a distance to see if the Black Ducks stuck around. A week later, they were tails-up in the water, eating greedily while being watched by a pair of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) who’d stopped by that afternoon. The ducks may ultimately search out a more secluded wetland in which to nest, though. Cornell’s All About Birds website says they prefer a “well-concealed site” and this lovely wetland is too new to have developed much cover for them this spring.

The two American Black Ducks fed enthusiastically beneath the restored wetland while two Canada Geese calmly looked on.

A few days later, I noticed some smaller shorebirds at the north end of the pond. I thought at first they were Killdeer but as I began to pull away in my car, I realized they were much taller birds. And then I saw their bright yellow legs and quickly pulled off the road to investigate. To my delight, two shorebirds had discovered this new wetland – what appeared to be a Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca), possibly accompanied by a Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes) to the left in the stubble. (It’s camouflaged quite nicely so look carefully!)

Yellowlegs in the restored wetland at Blue Heron Environmental Area.

I consulted with Ben VanderWeide and Ruth Glass and we all felt confident that the one standing on the log is a Greater Yellowlegs. It’s a larger bird with a long sturdy bill and now, in its breeding plumage, it has bars extending behind its leg. The one to the left in the stubble may be the Lesser Yellowlegs because it appears to be smaller, a bit daintier and has a slimmer bill – but we can’t be sure when so much of its body is hidden. Both birds spend the winter in marshes along the southern edge of the U.S. and pass through Michigan on their way to mosquito-rich bogs and fens in or near the boreal forests of northern Canada. They are partial to shallow wetlands in fields as they travel, so keep an eye out for them as they migrate through our area.

On each visit, I saw other water-loving birds hanging out at the new wetland as well. In the cattails near the road, a pair of Red-winged Blackbirds were doing a bit of foraging and courting. The male of course burst forth periodically in his signature trill to announce his territory. He used a lot force to do so, plumping himself up, raising his red epaulets and shouting out his call. The female listened calmly from a stalk a bit farther down the road. She looks very different from the male – richly striped in dark brown and white. [Click photos to enlarge.]

Much of the area south of this restored wetland is still being planted by a local farmer. The crops prevent the growth of invasive plants until the area can eventually be restored to prairie. But a diverse prairie seed mix with native grasses and wildflowers will be installed in the uplands around the restored wetland later this spring! Down in last year’s stubble near the pond, several Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) scooted about, probably negotiating territory, foraging and getting a look at potential mates. Killdeer prefer to nest on bare ground near a wetland, so we’ll see if they can find a suitable spot at the wetland this year. I’m fond of the Killdeer’s dapper look and its orange eye rim that matches the splash of orange over its tail in flight.

A Killdeer makes short runs through last year’s stubble as it forages and decides on mates and nest sites at the edge of the newly restored Blue Heron wetland.

I’m excited that we’re seeing waterfowl and shorebirds in this wetland during the first spring after its restoration! It looks like Ben’s idea is already bearing fruit.

Restored Wetlands at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park Become a Waterfowl Sanctuary

Back in 2019, the Oakland Township Parks and Recreation Commission used its Land Preservation Fund, with a matching grant from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund, to extend Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park by 208 acres of former agricultural fields and forests. The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) holds the wetland “conservation easements,” there. They began the project by constructing low berms and breaking the agricultural drainage tiles, allowing water to again flow to the surface. They also planted thousands of wetland shrubs grasses, sedges and wildflowers within the protective fence that they installed to protect the young plants from voracious deer and us humans. Once the wetlands emerged within the conservation easement, water-loving birds wasted no time in making use of them. When I arrived in early April this year, flocks of birds were scattered across the ponds.

The northern section of the fenced Conservation Easement at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park.

Through my binoculars, I was delighted to see at least four species of ducks in the flocks. I walked down close to the fence and thrust my 400mm lens through an opening, trying to see which species were visiting. The first ones I saw that made me grin were the Northern Shovelers (Spatula clypeata). Their large bills reveal the origin of their name. These dabbling ducks swish their heads from side to side under water to filter out seeds, tiny crustaceans and invertebrates with the comb-like edges of their very large bills. Once they rest and recharge, the Shovelers will head north to breed in Canada. It’s wonderful that these wetlands that were drained long ago have emerged again to provide these striking birds with a safe stopover on their way north.

A pair of Northern Shovelers rest at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park on their way to their breeding grounds in Canada.

Three other species of dabbling ducks cruised about the conservation ponds, but some were far off within the protected area and too small for me to take a decent photo. So I’m grateful to the generous photographers at iNaturalist.org who shared their photos with me below.

The Green-winged Teal (Anas carolinensis), the smallest duck in North America, is such a beautiful little bird. I watched a flock of these little ducks flow down to a distant pond within the fence. The small patches of florescent green on their secondary wing feathers (not visible below) sparkled brilliantly in the late afternoon sun. The vertical stripe on the “shoulder” of the male Green-winged Teal also helps identify them from a distance.

Green-winged Teal, the tiniest of North American ducks, may pass through our area to breed a bit farther north in Michigan and on into Canada. Photo by David Martin (CC BY-NC).

Blue-winged Teal (Spatula discors) also joined the the flocks of ducks exploring these restored wetlands. The males’ large, white crescents on either side of their bills make them easy to spot from a distance. Aren’t those speckled bodies amazing, too? These small ducks breed in our area before returning to the southern coasts or the Caribbean in the fall.

Two male Blue-winged Teal with the distinctive white crescents on either side of their beaks. Photo by Melainewall (CC BY-NC).

Of course, the ponds rippled with the relaxed pumping of the Mallards’ orange feet as well. Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) are larger than the Teal and the ducks that seem least worried by my presence. I couldn’t resist a quick photo as I watched a particularly glamorous pair in their fresh breeding plumage swim in my direction. What fine specimens of their species!
An elegant pair of Mallards in their fresh breeding plumage.

Out in the tall grass within the conservation easement, a flock of Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis) foraged quietly together. One lone crane stood near me in the plowed field. As it kept an eye on me, I wondered if it was a sentinel or perhaps was just a less social member of the flock. Eventually, though, it flew down to join the others. Ruth Glass thought perhaps one pair that she saw here were looking for a nesting site. I’ll keep an eye out for that! I’d love to see a young crane start its life at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park.

Recreating Lost Habitat

Restored wetland at Watershed Ridge Park with one Canada Goose resting at its edge. Its closeup photo is below.

Time after time I’ve read that the numbers of various insects, birds, native plants and animals are declining dramatically. And most often the first reason given is “loss of habitat.” Native plants are being crowded out or even actively killed by invasive species that take over their habitat. Pollinators and other insects are in severe decline worldwide partly because the native plants on which their young must feed are disappearing from their habitats. The numbers of many birds are in a nosedive and what do scientists think is the cause? Right, one of the factors, along with climate change, is habitat lost to cultivation, drained wetlands, development and the proliferation of non-native plants.

But here in our little corner of the world, we’ve begun to recreate habitat. Abandoned farm fields full of non-native flowers, trees and shrubs are being reclaimed and transformed into rolling meadows of native wildflowers.

Eastern Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park, July 12, 2018, restored from a former agricultural field.

Residents are gradually introducing more native plants into their gardens, providing crucial sustenance for caterpillars which either mature into butterflies, moths and other pollinators or provide the best of baby food for hungry little nestlings who rely on them each spring.

In the wetlands that Ben and his stewardship team are restoring in the township, land once drained of its water now hold glistening pools that provide a haven, a food supply, a safe nesting area and a cool drink on a hot day to the creatures that share our landscape with us.

Nature spent eons carefully refining complex and closely interdependent native habitats. We humans have changed them dramatically, especially in the last two hundred years. The result has not been good for thousands of the creatures and plants that live with us here. Maybe we can’t reverse all the habit destruction around us. But here in Oakland Township, thanks to our Parks and Recreation Commission, the Land Preservation Fund and stewardship efforts, we are doing what we can. If we all continue to “do what we can,” who knows what we might be able to accomplish in restoring the environments that nature designed for us.

A solitary Canada Goose enjoying the water and spring sunshine at the restored wetland at Watershed Ridge Park.

A Bevy of Migrators Discover the New Wetlands at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park

Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) are a common sight this spring at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park

While I spent late March and early April scouting out Watershed Ridge Park, the migrating birds –  and ducks especially – discovered the sparkling new wetlands at the 208 acre expansion of Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park. As part of this park’s restoration, the tiles that had drained the field while under agriculture were broken. Water began to naturally rise to the surface, recreating the wetlands that once acted as a refuge for wildlife. (For a brief description of this process, see an earlier blog on this park.) So this spring, weary migrators of all kinds began making the most of this new place to rest and forage. Some will spend the summer here raising young. Others relax for a few days and then head north on a strong south wind.

So this blog will be a bit different than others. Thanks to Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Stewardship Manager and Ruth Glass, a local expert birder of many years, I received a copious list of the ducks and other migrators that the two of them have already seen at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park this spring before I made my visits there. Though they watch and appreciate birds, they rarely take photos of them.

Some photos and all text
by Cam Mannino

A fine local photographer, Joan Bonin, who frequents this park occasionally, was kind enough to share some of her impressive photos with me. And I’ve supplemented my recent photos and hers with photos from the generous photographers at iNaturalist.org. So now, thanks to all of those helpers, I can share some of the wild life that’s visiting our newest natural area. The number of beautiful migrators and year ’round birds spotted at this park is dazzling.

[A note:  Visiting this new section of Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park is difficult right now, because there’s no parking lot and not much in the way of trails, just tire tracks encircling the fenced enclosure that contains the wetlands within the conservation easement held by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE, formerly DEQ.) But the Parks and Recreation Commission hopes to have a parking lot and some trails mowed by this summer. Meanwhile, consider exploring the original 60 acres that features the ravine itself and is accessible at the end of Knob Creek Drive. And if you visit the east expansion, please stay back from the wetlands so that you don’t flush the migrating waterfowl and shorebirds. We’ll let you know when this larger part of park is ready for prime time!]

Restore the Wetlands and They Will Come!

One of the large ponds that formed last autumn at Stony Creek Ravine when the drainage tiles installed years ago were crushed and the water rose again naturally.

It gladdens my heart to know that weary migrating ducks and shorebirds are gliding down from pale, spring skies to settle on these pools. Here are a few that Ben, Joan and Ruth saw. What a collection of special ducks!

American Wigeons floating in a restored wetland at Stony Creek Ravine Park.

The ducks floating inside the conservation easement in the photo above are American Wigeons (Mareca americana). Wigeons are dabbling ducks, as are all the ducks seen at the huge new expanse of Stony Creek Ravine this spring. I imagine that ducks must be able to gauge water depth from the air since we’ve yet to see any diving ducks, which require deeper water. Dabblers tip up, tails in the air, to forage beneath the water for grasses, mollusks, small crustaceans and insects. Unlike diving ducks, dabblers have legs positioned forward, which allows them to waddle and forage on the muddy edge and sometimes on dry land. The legs of diving ducks are positioned farther back on their bodies to provide more thrust for diving,  which means that walking on land is awkward at best for them.

American Wigeons have a short bill so they can pick grains off terrestrial plants as well as aquatic ones. Here’s a closeup shot from BJ Stacey at iNaturalist. Pretty jazzy green eye patch, eh? And I like the white bill and crown, which the Cornell Lab of Ornithology says is where they got the nickname “baldpate.” Hope I can remember that for ID purposes!

American Wigeons are dabbling ducks that can eat both under water and on land. Photo by BJ Stacey (CC BY-NC)

Ben alerted me to the presence of Green-winged Teal (Anas crecca) in the newly restored wetlands, but though I’ve visited the park several times, I’ve missed them! The bills of Green-winged Teals are edged with comb-like structures called lamellae. By dipping their beaks in the water or wet mud, they can strain out tadpoles, mollusks, crustaceans and such. Both Ben and Ruth spotted 14-16 of these small ducks in the easement ponds at various times this April.

Green-winged Teal strain food through comb-like structures on their bills. Photo by Philip Mark Osso (CC BY-NC) .  

It’s not surprising that a duck with the Latin genus name “Spatula” has a huge spoon-shaped bill! Look at the size of that bill on the Northern Shoveler (Spatula clypeata) below! They feed by swinging it from side to side in shallow water to sieve out creatures from the shallows. The male’s bill is black and the female’s orange. These migrators don’t stick around Michigan for the summer. Maps at the Cornell Lab show them heading northwest to breed in western Canada and Alaska or northeast to breed as far north as Maine or New Brunswick. Northern Shovelers may move south for the winter, but prefer cooler summers when raising young.

The Northern Shoveler is identified by its large spoon-shaped bill. Photo by Chris Butler at iNaturalist.org (CC BY-NC)

Blue-winged Teal (Anas discors) are tiny ducks that make long migrations.  Cornell Lab of Ornithology says they spend the winter either in the Caribbean, a likely destination for our Michigan population, or Central and South America for western populations. They usually arrive late in the spring and leave in early fall; Ruth saw some in mid-April at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park. Blue-winged Teal breed and rear their young in Michigan summers. The male’s white “paint stripe” behind the bill will be a field mark I’ll look for in the future, as well as sky-blue wing patches beneath their wings when they rise into the air. (Photo by Jaden at iNaturalist.org)

A tiny, long distance traveler, the Blue-winged Teal can breed in Michigan. Photo by Jaden at iNaturalist.org (CC BY-NC)

Champion bird spotter Ruth Glass also saw Gadwall (Mareca strepera) and American Black Ducks (Anas rubripes) among the flotillas at Stony Creek Ravine. Gadwall may escape notice from a distance, mistaken for your average brown female duck. But look at the beautifully intricate patterning on its breast and flank in the photo below! Cornell Lab reports that these sweet-looking ducks occasionally “snatch food from diving ducks as they surface.” Sneaky little ducks! They’ll head to northern Canada to breed. Glad they took some R&R with us!

The delicate pattern of its feathers sets the Gadwall apart from other ducks . Photo by Greg Lasley (CC BY-NC)

One of the ducks that Ruth Glass saw was not a migrator American Black Ducks  (Anas rubripes), according to the Cornell Lab, live here year ’round, but they are shy ducks and often mistaken for female mallards. They actually hybridize with Mallards so some have green patches on their heads. Hope I recognize them if I see some this summer!

American Black Ducks are often seen in the company of Mallards and are mistaken for mallard females. Photo by Joanne Redwood (CC BY-NC) at iNaturalist.org

Ruth and Ben finally spotted some shore birds in the conservation easement wetlands as well. Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes) love flooded fields so the shallow ponds are perfect for them. The feathers of  this shorebird were fashionable in the 19th century so their numbers declined. They  rebounded when hunting them was outlawed in the US and Canada in the early 20th century. Sadly though, they are in decline again because of the disappearance of wetlands. So hooray for Oakland Township’s Land Preservation Fund and the Natural Resources Trust Fund for enabling Parks and Recreation to acquire and protect this habitat that is so important to these birds!

Though tolerant of other shorebirds during migration, Lesser Yellowlegs fiercely defend their nests in northern Canada. (Photo by jdmanthey CC BY-NC)

Cornell Lab says that the Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca) is known for its strident alarm calls and will perch high in trees to keep a sharp eye out for nest predators. They migrate from Central America or the Caribbean to the boreal wetlands of northern Canada in order to breed. Its beak looks about as long as its legs! Other field marks include a longer, slightly upturned bill for foraging in deeper water and barring on the flanks that go much farther toward the tail. Pretty subtle differences, aren’t they?

The Greater Yellowlegs has a much longer bill than the Lesser Yellowlegs and wades into deeper water. (Photo by jdelaneynp CC BY-NC)

After having failed to see these two Yellowlegs several times at the park, I finally saw a lone one stalking around one of the shallow ponds near Snell Road and took a long distance shot through the fence. Ben and Ruth both guess that it’s a Greater Yellowlegs.  It’s easier to judge the two types of Yellowlegs when they are wading around together and the differences in their bill size, barring on their flanks and overall body bulk are more apparent.

A Yellowlegs foraging in a shallow wetland at Stony Creek Ravine.

And of course, the nattily-dressed Killdeer, a plover who likes a bit of mud at its feet, has taken up residence within the wetlands as well. Since these birds simply scratch out a depression in the soil to lay their eggs, the sparsely vegetated soil of the wetlands provides great habitat. I took this photo between the fence wires and the Killdeer with its large orange eyes paid me no mind.

Killdeers may be happy to nest  inside the protection of the  conservation fence near the water.

Ruth Glass’ Rare Sighting

Ruth Glass reported a rare bird in Stony Creek Ravine Park this spring – the Krider’s Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis kriderii). Some experts consider it a sub-species of the Red-tailed Hawk; the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and other experts identify it as a color morph of that more common hawk. Whatever, it is rare to see a Krider’s this far east in the United States! Ruth described its normal territory for me. “Krider’s breed on the northern Great Plains of Alaska and northwestern Canada, and winter on the southern Great Plains south to the Gulf Coast, and east into the Mississippi River Valley.” She observed it through her scope for part of an afternoon, but hasn’t seen it since, as it no doubt headed north. What a magnificent and lucky sighting! Here’s a closeup of a Krider’s by an iNaturalist photographer; Ruth said that it’s in very much the same pose and background as the one she saw.

A Krider’s Red-Tailed Hawk showed up for Ruth Glass at the park. A rare sight this far east! (Photo by Mark Greene at iNaturalist.org (CC BY-NC)

I saw two of our more common Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) riding a thermal high in the air on a sunny morning at the park. Bathed in the bright sunlight, one of them flew to the field where I was walking and  hung overhead, as if it were scoping me out. Glad I’m not a mouse or a chipmunk! Note its brown belly-band and brown head, unlike the Krider’s Red-tailed Hawk above.

“Snow Birds” of the Fields Also Find Their Way Here.

Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park also hosts a wide variety of upland birds which, like human “snow birds,” leave us behind in the autumn and return each spring. Ruth spotted a pair of  American Kestrels (Falco sparverius) hunting from atop the fence posts at the park. One afternoon, a monumental chase occurred in which one kestrel grabbed a vole in its talons and the other screamed as it chased its compatriot over the fields trying to snatch it away. Wish I had seen that. Glad Ruth did!

The American Kestrel is our country’s smallest falcon. Photo by Pablo H. Capovilla at iNaturalist.org (CC BY-NC)

The Brown Thrasher (Toxostoma rufum) also dropped in at Stony Creek Ravine Park.  Ruth loves these birds as much as I do. As she says, “They are such a fun bird! As a close cousin of the Mockingbird, the strangest noises come out of them, including: cell phone beeps and rings, car alarms, sirens, scolding noises, many other birds’ songs, etc.” She took a lovely photo of one through her scope at Stony Creek Ravine Park.

Brown Thrashers are great imitators of noises as well as other birds’ songs. Photo by Ruth Glass with permission

Ruth can identify minor differences between sparrows – and their songs! This month at Stony Creek Ravine, she came across two that are rare sightings for me. I’ve never identified the Vesper Sparrow (Pooecetes gramineus). Though it can be heard in the early morning, its name refers to its evensong at twilight. Looking through binoculars, the field marks for this little sparrow are a thin eye ring and a tiny chocolate-colored patch at the top of its wing.

The Vesper Sparrow sings even as it gets dark, hence its lovely name. Photo by Bryan Box (CC BY-NC)

The Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis) loves grassy meadows, the denser the better; they build their nests on the ground amid deep thatch left by last year’s stems. I wonder if the one Ruth saw a few weeks ago will nest at Stony Creek Ravine; a lot of the land was cleared to create the conservation area. According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Savannah Sparrows are very common – but I’ve only seen this striped sparrow with the yellow patch around its eye twice. Here’s my photo from Draper Twin Lake Park in 2018.

A field mark for the Savannah Sparrow is the yellow patch in front of the eye.

One Sunday afternoon, my husband and I watched the flight of a returning Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) who settled onto a tree limb. Herons normally nest in rookeries so I’ve no idea where this one will settle into its communal nursery. I was just glad that it had a good long look at Stony Creek Ravine from its perch at the edge of the trees north of the wetland enclosure. Amazing how such a large bird can look so tiny against that lovely dark woods!

A Great Blue Heron perched in a tree beyond the north edge of the conservation easement  

Ruth arrived high on the Outlook Point between the restored wetlands at dusk to see the mating flight of the American Woodcock (Scolopax minor). She tells me she’s seen three of these “timberdoodles!” I finally got a good look at one last year when Ben held his annual Earth Day Woodcock event, sadly cancelled this year due to the need for social distancing. At dusk, this oddly-shaped bird makes a buzzing beep, sounding  a bit like the cartoon Road Runner. Then it sails high up in the darkening sky, spirals down and lands right where it took off. Quite a courtship ritual! I’ve scared them up right from under my feet at least three times in various parks, but with no chance for a photo. Fortunately iNaturalist photographer Ty Smith was luckier than I was.

Woodcocks are known for their dramatic spiral mating dance performed high in the sky at dusk. (Photo by Ty Smith (CC BY-NC)

My trips to Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park this month have given me a chance to welcome back a couple of my favorite sparrows. The Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) with its pinkish beak and feet showed up for me about 10 days ago. The males sing their bouncing ball song all over the park right now. Maybe the shy, quiet one that my camera caught (left below)was a female. The male Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) tirelessly repeated his courting song that ends in a quick buzz or trill. And as always, he accommodated me by sitting on a perch in the open and ignoring my presence completely. [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

Here’s just a sampling of the variety of birds that the four of us – Ben, Ruth, Joan and I – have enjoyed in Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park this month. Such abundance –  and I’m sure we’ve not yet seen all there is to see!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

With Apologies to John Donne: No Creature is an Island…

Old Oak at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park

I must admit that at first it felt a bit odd using so many photos by other people in this blog. Usually the observations and photos are mostly mine. But it’s occurred to me that it’s somehow fitting to be supported by others’ efforts in this season and during this hair-raising global pandemic. In early spring, the bird world is busy with all kinds of cooperation. Migrating birds often travel in large flocks for safety and to find the habitats they need. Mating birds work cooperatively in building and protecting nests. And in the human sphere, we’ve become conscious during the virus outbreak of how much we depend on the assistance of others – all the workers in hospitals, grocery stores, police and fire departments, pharmacies, research labs as well as teachers,  journalists and parents working from home. So perhaps it’s appropriate that the observant eyes and photography skills of others are central in this week’s blog. My thanks to Ruth Glass, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, Joan Bonin and all the generous photographers who share their work on iNaturalist. And my gratitude, too, to the Oakland Township Parks and Recreation Commissioners and staff who worked for years to preserve this special natural area for the benefit of all of us – and more importantly for the wildlife and plant life that sustain us every day in so many ways.

And now to John Donne’s meditation on community written in 17th century England, another time and place of plagues:

“No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.”

Late Winter Sparkle and Early Spring Music: Charles Ilsley and Cranberry Lake Parks

Do you mind if I briefly take you back to February? I know we’re all getting itchy to  step into spring. But here in southeast Michigan, the line between the two seasons blurs a bit in late February and March.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

So I want to remember that the tail end of winter has it charms – and then spend some time relishing the early signs of spring before the Equinox.

 

 

FEBRUARY:  Sparkling with Ice, Patterned with Prints and Revealing the Shapes of Slopes and Seedheads!

Winter sparkling down the Hickory Lane at Cranberry Lake Park in February

Accompanied by our familiar year ’round birds and a few winter visitors, bundled against bitter days, I spent most of February in two parks – Cranberry Lake Park and Charles Ilsley Park. I puzzled over prints in the snow, admired ice patterns and worked at  re-identifying last year’s wildflowers by their winter architecture.

Wild Neighbors Make Brief Appearances on a Winter Day

It’s always a great comfort to me on a winter walk, when my numb fingers resist taking photos, that birds and animals keep me company. At Charles Ilsley Park, an American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) scrambled onto a branch near me with its mouth stretched around a large nut, perhaps a walnut that had lost its outer covering since dropping last fall. The squirrel was so intent on conquering its prize nut that I got a quick shot before it jumped out of sight.

An American Red Squirrel with a nut almost too big for its jaws!

On a Cranberry Lake Park walk in February, through the thicket of tree branches, the birding group caught sight of a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) on a perch near the lake, scanning for prey. It had plumped up against the cold and looked just a bit disgruntled. Perhaps that morning had brought slim pickings.

A cold, perhaps hungry Red-tailed Hawk didn’t look too happy on a cold morning near Cranberry Lake.

American Tree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea) visit us just for the winter and are everywhere now. With their gray breasts centered with a black spot and a nice chesnut cap and eyeline, they’re by far the most obvious sparrow in the parks in winter – and they make a friendly twitter when they’re flocking. On my coldest day at Cranberry, I saw one huddled in the dry stems of a field as an icy wind ruffled its feathers. It would venture out periodically to grab a few seeds and then hunker down again in the grass. But on a sunnier day, one perched quite calmly on a dry stem of non-native Common Mullein. At Ilsley, several whooshed up from the fields in small flocks and dispersed as I passed. [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

Across Ilsley’s central prairie, high up on a tall snag, I spotted a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus). If you click on the left photo, you’ll see its head peeking above a short branch in the crotch of the dead tree. I began to take a series of slow, cautious steps in its direction, but it spotted my camera raised and sailed off into the distance, the large white patches under each wing flashing in the sunlight. To the right you can see those white under wings in a fine photo by dpdawes at inaturalist.org, who got a lot closer to her/his bird than I did to mine!

Near Ilsley’s north prairie, a lengthy repetition of the “Kwirrrr” call alerted me to my constant winter companion, the Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus). Hitching along a distant tree trunk searching out insect eggs or larvae, this male multi-tasked, firmly establishing his territory with calls while continuing to forage. I clicked the shutter in a hurry when he paused to check for any threats or other males in the area.

A foraging Red-bellied Woodpecker stops foraging long enough to be sure another male isn’t in his territory!

At Ilsley, I followed a flock of American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) as they surged from one treetop to the next. Eventually one ventured close to me, as if checking my intentions. From what I learned in the Cornell crow class, this is likely an older member of a crow family since it has a few white feathers.

The white feathers on this crow make me think it could be an old one. Crows can live as long as 19 years.

And then there are creatures who just have a faulty sense of timing. Somehow, my husband and I spotted this tiny fly perched on the edge of a boot print at Charles Isley Park. Dr. Gary Parsons from Michigan State identified it for me as a Snail-eating Fly  (family Sciomyzidae, possible  genus Dictya), so named because the larval young of this fly have a preference for snails. He guessed that it probably “woke from it winter nap” prematurely, fooled by  a warm, melting winter day. I like its intricately patterned wings and legs!

A tiny Snail-eating Fly poised at the edge of a boot print at Charles Ilsley Park.  It most likely mistook a warmish winter afternoon for a spring day .

Some Wild Neighbors Leave Only Hints of their Presence

Part of the fun in a winter walk is trying to figure out a creature’s presence only from the prints they leave behind. Walking down the Hickory Lane, I saw the flash of an Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) as it dashed across the trail and into a tree hole so slim it seemed impossible that the squirrel could  fit inside! But it left its tracks behind as it approached the tree and leapt toward the trunk.

A large mammal left clues to its activity down near Cranberry Lake. I approached the lake on an icy day. I wanted to see  if the beaver I’d seen evidence of last year had come out of its den again to find some extra tree bark to chew on this winter. As I approached, bright scarlet fruits caught my attention, vivid against the silver of a frosty morning. Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Stewardship Manager, later identified them as the rose hips of a Swamp Rose (Rosa palustris). Color is such eye candy in the winter months!  And just beyond, as I prowled the frozen ground near the lake, was the evidence I sought – a tree stump recently gnawed to a point by what could only be a North American Beaver (Castor canadensis).

I cautiously stepped out onto the ice, but it held. Off in the distance, the snow lay like white satin on the lake’s surface. Around a bend in the shore, the beaver’s den loomed a bit larger this year and yes! I could see the raw end of a recently cut log protruding from its den. How the beaver stuck it in there mystifies me but the bark should make a cozy meal for the beaver/s inside on a cold day. A few other recently added sticks protruded from either side.

Pondering Snow Prints

Tracks of all kinds filigree the landscape on a winter morning. The birding group noticed the small canine tracks of what we guessed was some sort of Fox probably a Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) since it was in an open area rather than a woods. A neat line of single prints usually means a wild canine and these were rather small as they curved around the turkey breeder building at Cranberry Lake Park. The coyote’s tracks at Charles Ilsley Park have the same features but are considerably larger. Coyotes are mating now so you’ll see more of their twisty, fur-filled scat along the trails as they mark the boundaries of their territory. (I’ll spare you a scat photo….)

Lots of smaller creatures are scurrying about on the snow during the night. An indecisive White-footed Mouse (Peromyscus leucopus) left its “sewing machine” tracks in the snow as it apparently darted out into a trail twice, retreated each time and then finished dashing across to dive into a tiny hole on the far side. I’m wondering if the strange track in the center photo is that of a Meadow Vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus) that nosed about just under the surface of the snow.  I’m guessing that from the fact that Voles stay closer to the surface when they burrow in the grass, leaving larger furrows than the smaller mice. But if anyone has a better idea, I’m open to it. And by the size, I’m guessing that tidy little squirrel print on the right is probably that of a pausing American Red Squirrel.

And can anyone guess what made this pattern of polka-dots all over the snow around Cranberry Lake Park one February morning? My first guess was snow melt dripping from the limbs, but I’ve seen a lot of thawing snow and I’ve never seen this tapioca design before. Maybe air bubbles being driven up from below? Anyone have a theory on this one?

What could have made these polka-dots in the snow cover? I’m mystified.

Admiring the Stark Architecture of Last Year’s Wildflowers

One of my goals is to be as familiar  with wildflowers in winter as I’m becoming in summer. I love the linear designs they make against the sere backdrop of a winter field. Here are a few examples paired with their summer finery.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

MARCH:  The Sweet Song of Running Water,Migrators Appear, Buds Swell –  but Can It Last?

Is it spring yet, or the last hurrahs of winter? It was hard to tell on an early spring  day when snow still lay beneath the russet tapestry of dry plants on Charles Ilsley Park’s west prairie. But a brisk wind chased the cloud shadows across the field and it sure felt like spring. (Turn up your volume to hear the wind and the Blue Jay calling.)

First Bursts of Irrepressible Spring Song!

A good pre-spring sign is that male birds have already begun trilling their familiar mating songs. A male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) flew down near me and threw back his head to let forth his song. As usual, he turned 180 degrees to sing in both directions, in an effort, no doubt, to broadcast his presence as widely as possible!

A Northern Cardinal singing his spring song at Charles Ilsley Park

We’re all pretty familiar with the Black-Capped Chickadee’s call (Poecile atricapillus). After all, “Chickadee-dee-dee” is how it got its name! But oddly, in spring they sing a very simple, two note song to establish territory or attract a mate. I couldn’t get a good shot of the lothario that I watched hopping manically from limb to limb at Ilsley, so the song recording below is his, but the photo is from an early spring in 2016.

A Chickadee in Red-Twig Osier.

The Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) have been around off and on all winter. But just lately, they’ve started checking out the bluebird boxes in our parks. Here’s a female evaluating the real estate at Charles Ilsley Park.

A female Eastern Bluebird checking out a nest box at Charles Ilsley Park.

Not all spring sounds, though, are mating calls. Our township stewardship manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, heard the exquisitely high, piercing call of two Golden-crowned Kinglets (Regulus satrapa) at Cranberry Lake Park during the bird walk last week. Cornell tells us that “This is one of the first bird songs that people stop being able to hear as they age.” Ahem…that’s me, I’m afraid. I did see them quickly through my binoculars but never got a camera on them. Here’s a photo of one of these pretty little migrators taken by cedimaria, a photographer at iNaturalist.org. Sometimes these Kinglets appear during the winter in our area, but it’s more likely that the one we heard and saw was on its way north to breed at the tip of the Mitten, or in Canada.

A Golden-crowned Kinglet by photographer cedimaria (CC BY-NC)

Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) flew far over head at Ilsley, braying their prehistoric call and by the first week in March, a male Red-winged Blackbird burst forth with his buzzing trill on a thistle stalk. The females will arrive in a few weeks.

The Trickle of the Thaw and Buds!

At Ilsley, water seemed to be finding it way everywhere as the ice melted in various wetlands. Within the eastern prairie, a narrow rivulet appeared to have sculpted a beautiful little ice cave under the snow. My husband and I were mystified as how it formed.  We thought perhaps the water beneath the ice had drained away along the narrow line to the right and part of the ice had dropped, because the inside of the cave was bone dry. But we’re just guessing. Anyone have a better theory?

A little ice cave formed on the eastern edge of a wetland in the prairie at Charles  Ilsley Park.

I could envision that  a small creature might shelter overnight in this wee cave for protection, since the ground within was dry!

The ice cave looked as though it could shelter a small creature at night.

Elsewhere at Ilsley, the trickle of water signaled hope for spring. Over in the woods, one of the ice covered wetlands had melted enough that a stream ran away from it into the trees.

A melting wetland feeds a stream running through the woods on the northern side of Ilsley’s Eastern Prairie.

And nearby, a brilliant spear-shaped mound of moss took advantage of all the water and glowed in the thin sunlight.

A spear of moss near at wetland at Ilsley.

The swelling, red buds of Silver Maples (Acer saccharinum) always give me hope in March so I keep checking on them each time I explore the path into Ilsley from the west. And in Cranberry Lake Park, Ben spotted the first cottony plumes of Pussy Willow (Salix discolor) breaking into the cold spring air. I’ve loved those fuzzy signs of spring since childhood when they bloomed right outside my family’s  kitchen window.

The Best Kind of “Social Distance”

The Northern Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park in early March

As I finish this blog, the COVID-19 virus has taken hold in Michigan and we are instructed to avoid crowded places and keep a “social distance” from others for at least the rest of the month. That certainly makes perfect sense, but it can make all of us feel a bit isolated. Luckily, nature invites us out into the fields and woods where no threats exist really, except maybe wet feet and some spring mud. Wildlife has always believed in “social distance” so no problem there; they consistently respect my space by taking off when they see me  – as my camera can attest!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

So now’s the ideal moment to re-acquaint yourself and your family with the infinite variety of the natural world. Leave behind the confines of a centrally heated home and let the moist, cold air of March tickle your nose and redden your cheeks. Open a door and listen to the dawn chorus of the songbirds. (Listen for Sandhill Cranes down in the marsh at the end!)

Watch for bursting buds and catch your own reflection in a mud puddle.  Discover the joys of darkness and silence while watching the stars on a clear, moonless night.  Maybe we can rediscover all that we’ve been missing in the hubbub of a “normal” day. And that way, we can turn our “social distance” into an adventure in the wild  for ourselves and our children.

Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park: From 60 Beautiful Acres to 268 Spectacular Ones! Wow!

Looking north from E. Snell Road into new Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park expansion

Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park has always been amazing. Its original 60 acres feature open meadows full of wildflowers and butterflies and a shady woods plunging down into a deep ravine with the West Branch of Stony Creek sparkling below. Now, thanks to our township Land Preservation millage, a willing owner and a grant from the Michigan Nature Resources Trust Fund, the Parks Commission added 208 more spectacular acres to the park in late September this year.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

The first time I saw this land in 2016, I stood on the Overlook Hill and looked down on a huge, flat field encircled on three sides by deep mature forest.  I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was!

Forests surround the heart of the park on three sides

But what I didn’t appreciate then is abundantly apparent now. Long ago large ponds at the heart of this land had been tiled and drained for a farmer’s crops, a common occurrence in the 19th and 20th century. Beneath the soil, the water flowed away rather than rising to the surface. Water waited to emerge, water that could restore the wetlands that fed plants, dragonflies, frogs, turtles, butterflies, abundant bird life and thirsty mammals that once had gathered there.

SCRNP_Update_20190923_Annotated

Restoring the Land:  First Steps

Now that the purchase is complete, wetland restoration has begun. The former landowner is creating wetland mitigation banks, which are restored wetlands that help somewhat to offset wetland losses due to development in other places. The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE, formerly DEQ) holds wetland “conservation easements” on these wetland restoration areas. The folks designing the wetlands determined that they needed to fence off these areas for 5-10 years to make sure that the native trees and shrubs they plant are able to grow. Otherwise our abundant deer would kill them by browsing. As a start to restoration, low berms were created to capture and hold the water, “habitat structures” were placed throughout the fields, and the drainage tiles purposely broken so that water could once again flow to the surface. And wow! Big beautiful ponds have already begun to form in both areas!

A large pond is already forming on the north wetland where it was previously drained for farming.

Within the wetland restoration areas, 4,000 tiny wetland plants were sown this autumn. You’ll notice stumps, logs and branches left within these areas for now.  Those are the  habitat structures which allow wildlife to find cover or perch while the trees and native plants grow back.

A smaller wetland has formed on the south side of the park along E. Snell Road. The logs, brush etc provide structure for wildlife while restoration continues.

Birds Already Flock to the Renewing Wetland Areas

One of the huge benefits of this expansion’s location is that its directly across from Stony Creek Metropark. That helps create a larger “wildlife corridor” where local creatures can spread out and find more habitat in which to stay and raise their young. Migrating birds and insects will also find a larger area to rest and replenish themselves in spring and fall. On my two visits to the park in late November, birds were everywhere! Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) ratcheted out their prehistoric cries as flock after flock soared above me.

Multiple flocks of sandhills croaked out their raspy voices overhead.

Some, of course, settled to feed at the edge of the forming ponds.

A flock of sandhill cranes rest and forage at the edge of the newly re-formed wetlands.

A flock of  20-30 Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) cruised back and forth in the shallow pond forming at the north end of the field.

Mallards enjoying the newly restored wetland pond at the north end of the field.

And of course, Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) found their way to the rising waters as well!

Canada Geese make the most of the open water now at the surface in the park.

Outside the easement fence, other birds also found plenty of sustenance. A flock of winter visitors, American Tree Sparrows (Spizella arborea), had arrived from the Arctic tundra to spend the winter here. Their call-and-response twittering keeps them in contact with the group as they dash into the grass to feed and then back into the trees to look around. [Click photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

A dozen Wild Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) poked along at the outside edge of the wetland fence, their red and blue heads pumping with every step. One of them repeatedly showed off her impressive wingspan as she walked. Not quite as impressive as the male’s dramatic display of tail feathers, but still quite a show!

The Farmer’s Woodlot to the East

On the east side of the field, some wise farmer left a large tract of beautiful woods as a woodlot. Woodlots provided a source of lumber or firewood, if sensibly managed over the years. They also provided habitat for wildlife that could be hunted for sport or for the dinner table in hard times. The woodlot at the Stony Creek Ravine expansion is a beautiful example.

The Woodlot on the east side of the park was a farmer’s source for lumber and prey.

The small woodlot is different from the larger western woods. Its trees are mostly oak and maples and its understory is less tangled and bushy than the woods on the west. Perhaps that’s because for years it was managed by the farmer who left it next to the field. It’s a peaceful, open woods where you can see from the shade out into the sunlight. I like to imagine that the farmer or his wife also just enjoyed having a quiet place nearby to listen to the birds and where the children could play within earshot of the dinner bell.

Dr.Ben VanderWeide, the township Stewardship Manager in the woodlot with the field in the distance.

The sensible farmer also had the good sense to leave a beautiful old White Oak (Quercus alba) on the west edge of the field. It must have been a great place for a picnic on a warm day. Now it’s also wonderful habitat. According to Douglas Tallamy’s useful book, Bringing Nature Home, oaks are unmatched in their ability to provide food and shelter for wildlife. Blue Jays, deer, turkeys, squirrels consume large amounts of acorns. Cavities in giant oaks make nesting sites and winter shelter for chickadees, wrens, woodpeckers, bluebirds and others. They support a huge number of species of butterflies and moths, their caterpillars providing soft, nutritious food for hungry little birds all summer long. I’m glad these giants are our national tree!

An old White Oak at the western edge of the fields

The Deeper Forests on the West and North Host Some Less Familiar  Trees (to me anyway…)

I’d already seen a beautiful American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) at the edge of Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park in the original 60 acre parcel. What a beauty with its smooth gray bark that looks almost unreal! And those graceful, toothed leaves!

An American Beech stands just over the edge of the ravine on the 60 acre parcel, so you can feel you’re in the treetops! Such smooth bark, eh?

When Ben showed me the northern woods that connects to the high ridge of the in the original park, I began to see more beeches. These trees favor moist air and germinate well in the shade. They host even more species of butterflies and moths than the oak. And like oaks, beech nuts are high protein food for lots of wildlife. We came across a big one in a group with two other mighty trees. Look at the size of this one’s “foot!”

The great big “foot” of a large American Beech in the woods in the new 206 acre parcel

A tall wild Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) stood nearby, with its dry flowers still clinging to the topmost branches! Tulip Trees are fast growing and can reach 80-120 feet here in Michigan, nearly 200 feet in the South! Their yellow flowers always bask in the sunlight in the crowns of the trees, making them difficult to see for everyone but the birds!

A very tall tulip tree with the dried flowers still showing at the top of the tree.

Between the Beech and the Tulip Tree stood a big Red Oak (Quercus rubra) – three large, beautiful hardwoods standing in just one small area of the forest.  The red oaks are distinguished from the white oaks by having leaves with pointed tips with bristles, rather than the rounded lobes of the white oak. Their acorns, unfortunately, are not particularly tasty to wildlife like the ones on the white oaks are. (The yellow leaves in the foreground below are probably from small beech saplings.)

A Red Oak rounded out a trio of big, beautiful hardwoods in one small area of the forest.

The forest is full of little wetlands like the vernal pool below.  You can see that the forest floor in the woods is a bit more  wild than the woodlot;  saplings, bushes, fallen logs and snags (standing dead trees) provide a diverse habitat for all kinds of wildlife.

The  logs and standing snag in this forest wetland create habitat for wildlife.

Even though Ben and I visited in November, green plants still flourished in the forest. A trailing vine of Bristly Greenbrier (Smilax hispida) was a new plant to me. It drapes over bushes and low branches of trees in moist thickets and attaches itself with tendrils. The dark blue/black berries provide food for game birds, song birds and many mammals during fall and winter. Luckily, it’s not a killer like non-native Oriental Bittersweet; Greenbrier climbs over shrubs but doesn’t wind around trunks and choke its hosts like Bittersweet .

Greenbrier is a trailing vine whose berries provide food for birds and mammals throughout the autumn and winter.

Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) added a lovely spray of green beneath our feet. This pretty evergreen plant can be identified through its scaly stalk and its leathery leaves. It’s also a new plant for me. Who knows what else I’ll see for the first time when spring and summer arrive in this 268 acres?

Deer only nibble occasionally on Christmas Fern  during the winter, though its tender spring fronds are food for turkeys and grouse. It’s awfully pretty against the russet leaves, isn’t it?

So Much More to Explore, but Patience is Required For Now

Gazing into the treetops in the woodlot

This is just a first taste of what this new 208 acre parcel has to offer. In 2020 park staff plan to add a small parking lot and a few rustic trails following existing two-tracks that wind through the park. More investigation will be required, though, to know where to locate additional paths and other improvements without harming valuable wetlands or special stands of fragile, protected plants. Inventories of plant life will need to be taken, drainage issues dealt with, prescribed burns conducted and perhaps thousands of native plants need a chance to mature and spread without disturbance.  The Parks Commission and staff have years of work to do on any piece of land to add improvements that work with nature – and this park expansion is a huge one! Plans are in the works to restore native habitats to the remaining farm fields throughout the park.

I’m already dreaming of how magnificent this park will be when the fences come down and trails lead you and I from one spectacular habitat to the next. Imagine those ponds reflecting a blue sky surrounded by native grasses and wildflowers bowing and dancing in a summer breeze. Imagine animals slipping through the surrounding greenery at the pond’s edge for a drink, while dragonflies zip through the air and turtles bask on logs. Envision those 4000 native plants and trees becoming tall and full enough to create nesting spots for birds we now rarely see. Some day we may wander along a winding path through the beech and maple forest to the tap-tap of woodpeckers or the burbling spring song of the Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

I feel a deep sense of contentment and gratitude that this land is being restored rather than “developed.” Now, after decades of producing crops, it can return to its first assignment –  providing food, shelter and comfort for wildlife. And that restoration of our natural heritage will eventually result in a beautiful and peaceful retreat for us and future generations as well.  It’ll be worth waiting for.  I’m sure of that.

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

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

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

Photos and Text by Cam Mannino

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Wooly Bear caterpillar munching on clover.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Goldfinches eating while riding the swaying stalks of goldenrod.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sandhill Cranes flying south over Draper Twin Lake Park

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

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

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

A Black-capped Chickadee eating its fill of Canada Goldenrod

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Relishing Autumn’s Transformation

Native Indian Grass swaying in an October wind

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

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