Cranberry Lake Park: Traveling Through Time in the “Outer Space” of Nature

The Eastern Meadow at Cranberry Lake Park on a winter day

Will you forgive me if I take you back to February for a few minutes? Today it’s 60 degrees, the snow is melting even in the shadows and longer days remind us that the spring equinox is less than a week away. But I’d like to take you back for a few minutes to those days when, for me, walking the trails meant staring downward at icy ground to keep my footing. Calf-deep in February snow, I found myself prompted to recall a summer visitor. I took a turn toward a woodland pond and discovered a hidden world. And I saw and heard the harbingers of spring. Three snowy walks at Cranberry Lake Park lured me out into another realm for a few hours, where I mentally traveled to the past, through the present, and into the near future. So I hope you’ll strap on your mental snowshoes and join me for one last winter outing.

A cross-country skier on the Hickory Lane at Cranberry Lake Park

A Warm Memory on a Snowy Day

The trail into the park in February was a bit of a trudge one afternoon, negotiating my way among the icy footprints of visitors who’d come before me. But luckily near the first trail intersection, I looked up long enough to notice an exquisite little piece of architecture. A small, sturdy nest had been securely anchored in the upright fork of several branches of a small shrub. Though the nest was about four inches long, it was only about an inch and a half deep and about two and a half inches wide inside – a nest for a very small bird! [Click photo to enlarge.]

I know that Black-capped Chickadees nest in cavities rather than in cup nests out in the open. So my mind wandered back over the small cup-nesting birds I’d seen there last summer. Consulting both Cornell Ornithology Lab’s All About Birds website and my Peterson Field Guide to Eastern Birds’ Nests, I discovered that the depth of the cup was too shallow for either the Song Sparrow or Field Sparrow, which were my first guesses. But then I remembered a small spark of sunshine that frequents that corner of the park each summer, a lemon yellow visitor who arrives from the Caribbean. This nest met all the measurements my sources listed for the nest of one of my favorite warblers. The female Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia) is my candidate for architect of this little marvel. She needs only four days to gather materials and weave her nest of plant fibers and spider webs, lining it with plant down. If this nest is hers, it’s survived a tough winter remarkably well! It probably won’t be reused, though; most birds build a fresh nest each year. But what a warming memory of last summer! Since I’m no expert at nests, I’m open to input if any of you have a different candidate for the creator of this little nest.

A female Yellow Warbler who may have built the nest I saw this winter.

Nearby on the Hickory Lane on another afternoon, my husband and I stood admiring a very shaggy Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) with long shards of bark angling off its trunk. These wonderful trees can grow as high as 100 feet and can live as long as 350 years, according to Wikipedia. Shagbark Hickories reach maturity and start producing nuts at age 10. They don’t produce large numbers of them until they are 40 years old, but can continue until the ripe old age of 100. I remembered walking the lane last autumn with the crunch of hickory shells underfoot. Getting a wild hickory nut isn’t easy for us humans. They are too favored by squirrels, chipmunks, raccoons, rabbits and birds, including wild turkeys, wood ducks and mallards.

A candidate for the shaggiest Shagbark Hickory on the lane at Cranberry Lake Park

In late winter for the last few years, I’ve ventured out to Cranberry Lake on the east side of the park to see whether the Beavers (Castor canadensis) have been restocking their food stores. Some years if they have not stockpiled quite enough leafy branches thrust down inside their lodge or in ice nearby, they come out on warm winter days to add a bit more. Beavers consume the leaves and the outer layers of bark from trees, along with some rhizomes (underground stems) and other plant material stored inside the lodge when the weather was warmer. This year I remembered those pointed stumps that I noticed a few years ago and headed out to check near the lodge. But I didn’t find any newly gnawed tree stumps near the edge of the lake. So this year, the beavers’ larder must have been stocked enough to get them through this snowy season..

A beaver lodge at the edge of Cranberry Lake with branches and tree trunks for food protruding from the lodge and on or in the ice nearby.

Wintry Adventures in the Present

The trail near three connected ponds at Cranberry Lake Park

Readers may remember my fondness for imagining how tracks get left in the snow. Noticing some at the edge of the Hickory Lane conjured a possible small drama. My husband and I came across a set of mouse prints leading to a small nook created by overhanging bark at the base of a tree. The tracks were blurry and seemed to be going in two directions. I wondered if perhaps a White-footed Mouse (Peromyscus leucopus) had scooted across the trail, turned back for a moment, spotted a potential threat and dashed toward this hiding place again. In any case, its tracks back out of the nook looked to be at a more normal pace, leaving tiny leaping footprints and tail marks in the snow. Of course this is all guesswork on my part. If you have another interpretation, please share it in the comments!

During the January walk with the birding group, a few of us ventured out onto the ice of a small pond along a trail that we take back toward the parking lot. I keep an eye on this pond in the summer because it’s frequented by Wood Ducks regularly and sometimes by Great Blue Herons as well. But on this trip, the ice was plenty thick enough to permit me to explore a bit further afield.

The northern section of the hidden pond where I look for Wood Ducks during the spring and summer

Doing what a friend calls “boot skating,” I slipped across the ice to find a vantage point from the middle of the northern part of the pond. Instead of the narrowed strip of water I’d peeked at from the forest in the summer, a second large section of the pond expanded out before me!

The second section of the hidden pond with a small outlet far at the left.

Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township stewardship manager, brought up a map of this area on his cellphone to show me that this pond actually had three sections, the farthest south connected to the others by a narrow stretch of water. I was instantly intrigued! After six years of hiking here, I was seeing something that I hadn’t know existed!

The ponds within the trail loop at Cranberry Lake Park

I couldn’t investigate that morning but my husband Reg and I returned several days later to begin exploring these unseen sections of the pond. What fun to shuffle and slip across the icy surface! Near the eastern edge of the pond, a giant tip-up loomed at the water’s edge. It turned out to be the combined roots of 3 tall trees that had been uprooted by a strong wind at some point in the past. I’d never seen a tip-up this big before!

My husband Reg near the three tree tip-up at the edge of the hidden pond’s second section.

Nearby, an old Black Willow (Salix nigra) slanted up out of the soil at a precarious angle. The roots appear to have been alive last year since a whole series of suckers protruded from the tree’s surface. But it was the amazing pattern of the aging bark that fascinated me, like the wrinkled skin of an ancient face.

An elderly Black Willow with wonderfully wrinkled bark

Moving south, we arrived at the narrow outlet that led to the third part of the pond.

The narrow outlet between the second and third sections of the pond

Stepping out of the narrow, tree-lined passageway, I felt a little thrill, as if I were entering a small, hidden world all its own. There was nothing spectacular about this shallower third pond really, except that it seemed more isolated , fringed with forest and farther from the trails that I normally take in and out of the park – a secret place ripe for discovery.

The third section of the hidden pond, surrounded by wetland and woods

We walked tentatively around the ice because it looked softer, perhaps shallower, and the edges gave way to water underfoot. I wondered if the pond would disappear in summer heat, sinking back into the wetland that lay around and beyond it. In warmer weather, it will be more challenging to reach this pond through dense trees, shrubs, tall grass and the mud that will surround it – but I hope to try.

We left by gingerly stepping from clump to clump of Tussock Sedges (Carex stricta) at the western edge of the pond. Sedges can look like grasses, but their triangular stems are different from the hollow, round stems of grasses. During the summer, the two-foot stems of Tussock Sedge produce seeds which, when carried by the wind, end up feeding Northern Cardinals, Wild Turkeys, Mallards and those Wood Ducks that I see in the spring.

Tussock Sedge produces wind-carried seeds that feed many species of birds. Photo by Frank Mayfield at inaturalist.org (CC BY-NC)

They also spread vegetatively into colonies through rhizomes. As the leaves wither, they drop onto the live plant below forming what look like plump, brown cushions during the winter.

The tall stems of Tussock Sedge fall onto the living plant below when they die, adding to the clumps that spread into colonies through underground rhizomes.

Looking Forward to Spring and Beyond

Two harbingers of spring greeted me on the way back to the parking lot last month. Despite the snow, the buds on a Silver Maple tree (Acer saccharinum) along the path were already swelling.

Silver Maple buds swelling as spring approaches

And nearby two male Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) participated in a singing competition, probably establishing their territories. One was perched off in the distance in a marsh, but the one near the trail paused his singing and posed for a moment.

One of the two cardinals announcing their territories by countersinging at Cranberry Lake Nature Park

Here’s an older recording I took of two cardinals doing the same thing.

The Tussock Sedges near the third hidden pond are host plants for the caterpillars of three butterflies: the Eyed Brown (Satyrodes eurydice), the Black Dash (Euphyes conspicua), and the Dun Skipper (Euphyes vestris). I’ll be looking for them next summer nectaring on native wetland wildflowers and shrubs like Swamp Milkweed, Button Bush or Joe Pye, though some also get nutrition from bird droppings or tree sap. Knowing who might be there makes going next summer even more inviting!

The Thrill of Discovery in Another Realm

A massive “mackerel” cloud above the Eastern Meadow at Cranberry Lake Park

My friends will tell you that I’m fascinated by the new rover that landed on Mars recently. Watching the NASA video of the Perseverance robot being lowered to the surface or listening to the recording of the wind blowing on Mars completely delights and fascinates me. But really, we have a largely unknown world available to us right outside our doors. When I step into a new environment like the hidden pond at Cranberry Lake Park, I’m in another realm, too – a wild one very different from my human habitat. And that immediately delights and engages me. I wonder “What grows here and what part does it play in this habitat? Which creatures make their homes here in the summer months? Which birds will nest in this secret wetland out of sight from the trails? Could I find an active Yellow Warbler nest near the pond next summer now that I’ve learned to recognize one? What can I discover that I’ve never before seen, or if seen, not noticed?”

Maybe the impulse that drives NASA researchers to Mars is, in some small way, the same impulse that pushes me out the door on a snowy day to see what I can discover. For a few hours, I leave behind the warm, safe, enclosed human realm to experience the wildness of the other realm that surrounds me. In this nearby “outer space,” trees, wildflowers and grasses thrust themselves out of the ground, using sun, water and earth to grow and reproduce. In the cold, heat, rain and wind, wild creatures scurry, soar, leap, run, crawl and swim day and night year ’round. And when I leave their world behind and arrive back in my human one, I feel awake and alive. Thanks for traveling to nature’s “outer space” with me. I love having you along to share what I’m learning.

Bear Creek Nature Park: A Welcoming Refuge from the Holiday “Must-do’s!”

The meadow west of the Center Pond in December

At our house, we’ve just emerged from the joyful-but-somewhat-frantic bustle of the festive season. From just before Thanksgiving through the New Year, we enjoyed the noise, color and craziness of the holiday with lots of friends and family  – but it feels like we just didn’t stop moving for weeks!  I imagine that’s true for lots of you too.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

I managed to keep some  scraps of my sanity by – you guessed it – venturing out into the parks. Our home is about five minutes from Bear Creek Nature Park; that became my most frequent escape hatch. So here’s a look at the wildness nearby that (with a small nod to Will Shakespeare) knit the raveled sleeve of my cares during the last several weeks.

 

It All Began before Thanksgiving…

Ice forming on the Center Pond on a bitter day in November

In the first half of November, before the rush of the festive season, wild visitors from farther north began to filter into Bear Creek. The birding group got a glimpse of a Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca) in the bushes. These large, chubby sparrows are usually rusty red with chevrons forming the stripes on their breasts. Since I didn’t get a good shot that day, here’s one in a very similar setting from generous iNaturalist photographer, Joseph Salmieri.

A Fox Sparrow by Joseph Salmieri (CC BY-NC) at iNaturalist.org

The birding group also saw a flock of Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) feeding in the grass along a path in early November. These birds make lovely black dashes against the snow on a winter day. They travel here from their breeding grounds in Canada – perhaps all the way from Hudson’s Bay! They’re often my first real sign that winter’s on its way.

A Dark-eyed Junco along the trail at Bear Creek in early November

The second half of November bore down on me suddenly since Thanksgiving came so late this year. Snow fell; the temperature dropped. Yikes! Time to design Christmas cards, turn my photos into a family calendar, think about gifts for special people. Out in the park, birds kept me company to soothe my jitters. One afternoon, my husband and I came across what seemed to be a friendly gathering of birds. Five species hung out together, moving about foraging and chattering in a grove of small trees near where Bear Creek runs out of the pond.

Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) caught our attention first as they chatted in a small tree. A male House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) listened in from behind a branch. The bluebirds probably moved a little farther south to escape the cold for a while, though some may return for short visits during the winter and some may be year ’round residents.

Five bluebirds socialize before moving south while the House Finch, a year ’round resident, listens in from behind a branch.

The House Finch just bears up in the cold of a Michigan winter. Like other small winter residents, he keeps warm by crunching on copious amounts of seed and fluffing his feathers into a winter jacket.

house-finch-male-bc.jpg

A male House Finch will stay with us all winter. Love how the red shows between his wings!

The woodpeckers, too, are a hardy crew. A Downy Woopecker male (Dryobates pubescens) tapped along a tree trunk searching for insects eggs or a frozen caterpillar, quite uninterested in the bluebirds.

A male Downy Woodpecker kept up a tapping rhythm near the bluebirds.

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) joined the gathering on a nearby Wild Black Cherry tree (Prunus serotina). He seemed to be craning his neck to hear what was going on with the bluebirds behind him! But in reality, of course, he was just demonstrating the caution that all wild birds do when feeding.

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker looks about while foraging at another tree trunk.

The fifth member of the bird gathering was the industrious Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor), who pretty much ignored the others, having found something very interesting at the end of a branch.

A Tufted Titmouse sees something worth its attention at the end of a dead branch.

On the big loop path beyond the bird gathering, a White Oak leaf (Quercus alba) testified to the frigid temperatures. The water droplets on it had frozen and magnified the leaf’s veins in a way that always fascinates me.

Frozen water droplets function like a magnifying glass on a white oak leaf.

Our feeders at home got busy around Thanksgiving as well, providing visual entertainment as we buzzed by the windows, working on Christmas projects. New guests arrived at the feeder this year – the Hairy Woodpeckers (Dryobates villosus). Here the female sits in an aging black oak outside the window, just beyond the feeder.

A female Hairy Woodpecker in profile shows off her long, thick beak.

It’s sometimes hard to distinguish the Hairy from the Downy Woodpecker at a distance.  But when both arrive at a feeder at the same time, the difference in size is readily apparent!

The Hairy Woodpecker has a much heavier bill and is much larger than the Downy when seen up close at a feeder!

The Holiday Pace Picks up in December…

Eastern Meadow at Bear Creek on a later winter afternoon

Oh, boy. Hurried wrapping of presents for family in Australia. Multiple trips to the Post Office to send calendars to friends overseas and around the States. Trips out of town for special gifts. But on the way home from the errands, a stop at Bear Creek to slow down, breathe the sharp air and redden my cheeks.

One dark, late afternoon and as I entered the park, I noted an alarming sight. A lovely but deadly Oriental Bittersweet vine (Celastrus orbiculatus) had wrapped itself around a tiny tree. This terribly invasive plant will slowly strangle this sapling if it isn’t carefully removed and its roots treated with herbicide. Sad that such a colorful vine should have such a powerfully negative impact! Birds do eat the berries at times, but unfortunately get very little nutrition from them.

Vines like this invasive Oriental Bittersweet that wrap around trees can strangle them. And the berries have scant nutrition for our birds.

Looking for more benign color, I came across lots of rich green moss (phylum Bryophyta) in the forest. Mosses, unlike plants, can actually grow very slowly in cold temperatures, if not under snow or ice. Some mosses actually survive in Antarctica! Our mosses cope with winter winds by being close to the ground and benefit from the moisture of winter rain and melting snow. They can also go dormant when moisture is low and then regenerate quickly after a rain. What a relief to the eye to come across these bright green mosses on a wintry day! [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

A golden fungus and a bright yellow lichen appeared at various places in the park in December.  These bright touches against bark or leaves always catch my attention on a gray winter day.

Reminders of summer past help me put things back in perspective during the  holiday bustle. An abandoned nest of what I think was Bald-faced Hornets (Dolichovespula maculata) hung low in bush. Yellow Jacket Wasps (Vespula maculifrons) also build aerial nests occasionally, as well as using underground burrows, but theirs are usually higher up than this one. The hornets created this masterpiece with overlapping, striped scallops. Since the hornets nicely camouflaged the nest in a leafy bush, I’d missed it completely in the summer. Amazing that these tiny creatures can create such a beautiful design on the outside of their architecture and those myriad, perfect hexagons inside!

Along the path to the west of the Playground Pond, the abandoned, but still intact nest of last summer’s Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) swung gently in the winter air, but no fledglings rock within it now. Another architectural marvel, this one was woven out of plant fibers over the course of one to two weeks by a female Oriole. Such sturdy nests and they’re only used for one season!

A Baltimore Oriole nest woven last spring by a female using only her beak! And it’s sturdy enough to survive winter winds!

Some summer plants still stand tall in the fields, bearing their seeds for hungry birds. The giant Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) has done its duty. It’s  been picked clean, probably by the flocks of American Goldfinches in the park.

Prairie Dock from last summer has already offered up its seeds for hungry birds.

Its huge, spotted leaves that feel like sandpaper in the summer now lie crumbling beneath the stately stalks.

The huge, sandpaper-like leaves of Prairie Dock are now giving their nutrients back to the soil.

In December, Goldfinches had not yet devoured the seeds of this Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis). This one was so fluffy that it looked like it was dressed in a down jacket for the winter. But with winter wind and wet, heavy snow, it will bow down to the ground before spring, making way for new sprouts.

A Canada Goldenrod still stands upright, looking like its dressed for winter weather.

One afternoon, my husband I found a gorgeous rock embedded with quartz crystals. From its location, I’m guessing it was  hidden under a vernal pool for most of the year. It shone white in the winter woods, looking like a stray snowball from a distance. Isn’t the coloring and crystal structure lovely? So rare to see such a large, white rock.

A beautiful white rock, perhaps granite mixed with quartz and feldspar crystals.

And Then the Post-Holiday Slow-down

Bear Creek meanders south from Gunn Road to join Paint Creek just west of the Paint Creek Cider mill.

Presents are put away.  Decorations are being stored in the basement. The bevy of much beloved guests is dwindling. And the park has gone mostly silent. Perhaps you’ve noticed that birds are a bit tougher to see or hear in Bear Creek Nature Park now. Sometimes they’re present, but I wonder if  their diminished numbers may be due to something good – a plentitude of winter feeders in the surrounding neighborhoods.

On our last visit, we heard a Red-bellied Woodpecker in the woods on the township hall trail and perhaps the “ank-ank-ank” of a White-breasted Nuthatch somewhere on the Big Loop. We watched a family of American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) settling into some tall trees off the western field. The adults arrived first and one began calling. When no young arrived, the calling adult looked back at its mate and they cawed until all the presumably younger members gathered with them in the tree tops. Crow families often stay together for more than one season, the young helping the adults feed the nestlings of the next generation. Such intelligent and social birds!

Down at the Center Pond, the ice had temporarily melted and a pair of Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) glided across the dark surface. They’ve evidently made their December choice of partners and will now spend the winter together before mating in the spring.

A mallard couple keeping company on the pond while the ice is gone.

Signs of spring feel rare and welcome after Christmas and its encouraging to notice that plants have already made preparations. A fuzzy little Thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana) held onto its seeds at the edge of a woodland trail. This plant produces oblong fruits with a thimble-like shape and pattern in summer that change into cottony tufts full of seeds in the fall. It keeps its seeds right into winter and depends on the wind to spread them. But it has another couple of strategies for survival. It produces a substance that discourages other seeds around it from germinating and its tap root is accompanied by rhizomes (underground stems that sprout and make roots) that allow it to spread beneath the soil. Look how its seed tufts in the photo below just happened to form an image of a frowning human profile, something I didn’t notice until I developed the photo! What fun!

I call this tufted seedhead Thimbleweed Man. Do you see the profile face looking right in the top stem?

The trees produce leaf buds in the fall which sometimes have a waxy surface to help retain moisture in the winter cold. The American Dogwood (Cornus florida) makes neat, round, little flower buds that face upward at the branch tips. Separately and sometimes just below the flower buds are leaf buds. I’ve only found one American Dogwood in Bear Creek Nature Park ; it’s on the east side of the Big Loop. Each fall and winter, I look eagerly for these buds with their pointed tops turned to the sun. In spring, I enjoy the way the white bracts (modified leaves) open to reveal a small cluster of yellow flowers at the center.

I saw this lovely bud on the Big Loop but can’t identify it yet! I loved its golden glow on a gray day! If any of you know which tree produced this bud, please tell me in the comments! It almost looks as though the leaves started to break from their buds with the warmer temperatures after the holidays.

A mystery plant – but isn’t its bud a pretty color?

Down near the Center Pond, I spotted the cache of an American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) beneath the trunk of an old Shagbark Hickory tree (Carya ovata). I could hear the owner scolding me from deep within the tangled brush nearby, but I never got a clear look at it. Shagbark Hickory is a fine example of how productive native trees can be in their habitat. According to the Illinois Wildflower website, these big, distinctive trees provide sweet nuts for raccoons, squirrels, chipmunks and many birds. Their leaves host a wide variety of insect caterpillars and so are often sought out by birds like chickadees, vireos, warblers and others. The long shards of shaggy bark provide winter shelter for insects and even nesting sites for small birds like the Brown Creeper. And they’re deer and fire resistant! – though the saplings may be gnawed by rabbits. What a contributor to a healthy habitat!

The consumed cache of an American Red Squirrel at the foot of a large Shagbark Hickory which supplied most of the nuts. Hope this squirrel has other caches for the coming winter months!

Shagbark Hickory bark provides winter shelter for overwintering insects and nesting sites for birds.

On the way back down to the Township Hall the day after Christmas, we spotted the festive bark of another tree. Nice Christmas colors,eh?

The reddish bark and green moss on this Sassafras tree looked quite festive at the holiday season!

Ben identified the tree for me as one of the tallest Sassafras trees (Sassafras albidum) that he’s ever seen. We were certainly impressed! Its bark can sheer off, leaving this red layer exposed. Sassafras is another generous host, providing food for butterfly caterpillars like the Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus), the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) and for many moths. Bobwhites, Wild Turkeys and many songbirds feed on their pitted fruits called “drupes.”

A very tall, native Sassafras tree on the trail from the Township Hall

The Comforts of “Home” on a Winter Walk

A Walnut tree against a stormy sky at Bear Creek Park

Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that… wildness is a necessity.”
― John Muir, in Our National Parks

Sometimes I notice that I’ve become an “over-civilized” person, don’t you? I find myself feeling crabby from too many “must-do’s,” feeling hemmed in by walls and getting stale from breathing what feels like the same old air. That’s when I rediscover Muir’s insight.  Wildness really is a necessity – maybe for all of us, whether we know it or not. Even in winter, I regularly need to immerse myself in the crazy quilt of a meadow full of  dry grass stems and listen to the pulsing roar of wind rushing headlong through the crowns of trees. The wild language of crows backed by the drumbeat of woodpeckers tunes me to a different key. For a short time, I’m enfolded within a complex world much beyond my small human one. And somehow that allows me to rest. I pull my hat down over my ears, snug up the scarf at my neck and I’m home, at ease in a place where I’m welcomed – and so are you – as just another creature making its way through winter days.

Photos of the Week: We Made It! The First Sure Signs of Spring!

Vernal pool thawing at Bear Creek

J.R.R. Tolkien provided the ideal words  to describe the in-between season in which we’re suspended right now: “… a morning of pale Spring still clinging to Winter’s chill.” Spring is officially here with the Spring Equinox, but mornings in the prairies and forests of the township can still feel as though we’re caught in the last weak grip of winter.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

So this week, I thought I’d be on the lookout for sure signs of spring’s arrival and naturally, once I started looking, they were everywhere!

Birds Herald Longer Days with Song and Some Fancy Posturing

Arriving at Draper Twin Lake Park one cold, gray Sunday, my husband and I heard a very loud, clear rendition of the entire spring song of a Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). (Cardinals have a lot of calls. Listen to the second call listed at this Cornell link – that’s the one we heard.) This fellow seemed confident that he could woo the ladies and establish his territory at the same time with his full-throated singing! Look at that beak!

A Northern Cardinal shouts out his spring song!

Male  American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) at our feeder are changing out of their modest winter attire into their breeding feathers. In a month or so, they’ll be bright yellow in the hope of interesting a female with an eye for color. Here’s a male on the bottom right perch of our thistle feeder who started changing his wardrobe in March. Perhaps the female on the bottom left perch will be interested? (The other birds are Pine Siskins (Spinus pinus) who will migrate north before long.)

The male Goldfinch on the bottom right perch is signaling spring by changing into his bright yellow breeding feathers.

The buzzing trill of the Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), which is accompanied by raising his red shoulder patches, is a common and beloved sign of spring here in Michigan. But last week I saw a male who was taking display to a whole new level. While calling, he also began awkwardly dancing along a branch, keeping his scarlet “epaulets” raised, occasionally fanning his tail, all in the interest of establishing a territory and showing off for some lucky female. What a guy! (Click through the slide show below to see the progression of his dance!)

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Other birds establish dominance over other males with creative use of their necks! Below two newly arrived Common Grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) appear to be  trying to “out-snoot” each other with their beaks tilted skyward!  I think the one on the right is probably the winner here, don’t you? Or else the one the left is an uninterested female. It’s hard to tell.

Grackles use head tilting to establish dominance over other males.

Mark, a birding friend, told me that the Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula) at Stoney Creek Metropark were doing their dramatic neck displays as well. According to Cornell Lab’s All About Birds website, Goldeneyes spend December to April in courtship groups where they form mating pairs by performing  a lot of energetic neck movements. The male bends his neck backwards until his head lays on his back and then he snaps it forward, splashing water with his feet at the same time! The female responds by lowering her head and swinging it forward. Pretty dramatic courtship! I wasn’t able to get to the Metropark this week, but a kindly photographer from iNaturalist, who goes by Mike B, allowed us the use of this photo of a male taken near Chicago. These diving ducks are headed to their breeding grounds in northern Canada and Alaska, just south of the Arctic.

A male Goldeneye doing a courtship display before heading farther north.Photo by Mike B (CC BY-SA) at iNaturalist.org

Flocks of Birds – Large Ones and Small Ones – Fly Overhead and Forage in Our Parks

The birding group had an exciting Wednesday at Charles Ilsley Park when two huge flocks of Tundra Swans (Cygnus columbianus) flew overhead! Cornell says that these huge, all white swans with black beaks spent the winter on the Atlantic coast and are now headed to the Arctic tundra to build their nests and breed. Aren’t we lucky to be on their flyway?

Another birding friend, Mike Kent, took the photo below, because, wouldn’t you know, that was the day I decided to leave my camera at home!!! Look carefully at Mike’s photo because he caught a fascinating detail. We saw one lone Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) traveling along with this huge flock of swans! You can just see its dark body in the upper left of the photo, third bird down. Hope this adventurous goose doesn’t plan to go all the way to the Arctic with its new-found friends!

A huge flock of Tundra Swans with a lone Canada Goose (upper right) traveling with them. Photo by Mike Kent.

That Wednesday was great for seeing big birds at Ilsley Park. Mike also caught for us a nice photo of a family of Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) who settled at the bottom of a slope to rest and feed. The larger, darker birds to the right are probably the adults, while the two smaller gray ones on the left are probably last year’s young ones.

A family of Sandhill Cranes at Ilsley park. Possibly adults to the right, last year’s juveniles to the left. Photo by Mike Kent.

At Bear Creek Nature Park, smaller flocks were chatting in trees and foraging along the paths. A noisy group of American Robins (Turdus migratorius) were snatching berries from a tree infested with invasive Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus). Some robins overwinter here and some migrate to southern Ohio and Kentucky. Some move back and forth all winter long. Though these non-native berries attract them during the winter, they unfortunately don’t provide much nutrition for the birds since thawing and freezing makes them very sugary. So migrating, in their case, might be a better choice!

A robin from a larger flock sits among the berries of invasive Oriental Bittersweet.

A small part of a flock of probably 20 robins at Bear Creek Nature Park this week.

On a path from the playground to the Walnut Lane at Bear Creek Nature Park, I saw my first flock of Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia). I love to listen to these tuneful birds in the spring, but have never before seen a flock of them in one area, as I did this week. They were “chicken-scratching” by scooting backwards with their feet in a ferocious attempt to get at some food beneath the surface -probably small seeds or insect eggs. The flock was so busy that the ground along the trail looked torn as they scraped their way down to the frozen surface, looking for food.

A Song Sparrow, part of a flock on the path at Bear Creek, searched for food by scratching backwards on the soil like a chicken.

Buds are Swelling from Bare Branches – a Welcome Sign of Spring’s Arrival

Every year as spring approaches, I watch the Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) to the right of the deck at Bear Creek’s Center Pond. It’s always one of the first trees to signal spring for me, its robust, red buds hanging gracefully from drooping branches over the water.

The swelling red buds of Silver Maple are an early sign of spring approaching.

A small Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) near the pond has just barely thrust its leaf bud from the woody protection it had during the winter (left). In May, it will be a huge glorious bud (center), and in June, the green leaves will unfold into the sunlight (right). (Click photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

Yes, It’s Muddy…but It’s S’posed to Be, Right?

Sky in a puddle at Bear Creek Nature Park

It’s the end of March. Most of the ice on the surface is gone (at least for the moment!), but the ground is still frozen beneath. So rain and melting snow have nowhere to go. That makes for muddy shoes, smeared pant legs and cars decorated in various shades of brown. But hey, those signs announce that full-fledged, glorious spring is almost here! Birds are beginning to sing, dance, do a bit of neck gymnastics, don spring colors and wing their way north overhead in huge numbers. And trees are slowly waking from their roots, sending sugary sap up through their vascular systems, ripening their leaves for another summer of sun-gathering. All of  nature, including us humans, have survived a very challenging, deep-freeze winter. Now’s the time to celebrate just being alive on a mudluscious walk in the pale sunshine of an early spring morning.

OUT AND ABOUT IN OAKLAND: Shifting Toward Winter at Cranberry Lake Park

Flock geese flying CL

Flock of geese flying south from Cranberry Lake Park

What a difference a month makes!  I began a series of visits to Cranberry Lake Park on September 24 and ended on October 25.  I wanted to watch the park change as fall moved toward winter. It’s as if the color slowly leaves the flowers and grasses in the earth, flows up into the trees and then disappears into the black and white of winter. So this time I’m sharing a transition –  who and what is coming and going at this changeable time of year.

Late September:  Flowers Change to Fruit and Seeds

Mackerel sky CL

The meadow at Cranberry Lake in late September

In late September, the meadow was  still green, but splashed with the gold of Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa). A sweeping curve of this beautiful native plant swept around the large thicket of shrubs in the center of the meadow. It was easy to imagine the path of last summer’s winds as it carried the seeds that created this graceful shape.

Showy Goldenrod 2 CL

Perhaps last summer’s winds carried the seeds that created this curving swath of Showy Goldenrod in the meadow.

And a few other flowers hung on in September.  Individual stems of Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis) glowed gold among the greenery and a few hardy, flat-topped Yarrow stalks (Achillea millefolium) thrust their way above the browning Canada Goldenrod. Late-blooming Sweet Everlasting (Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium) – which some call Cudweed! – appeared as well, its tightly furled white buds just beginning to open in the cool autumn air. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

Wild Grapes, also known as River Bank Grapes (Vitis riparia), hung in clusters on almost bare branches offering a  treat for migrating and resident birds – and a few of us humans as well! A few weeks later they had either fallen to the ground or been eaten right off the vine.

In September, the Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) leaves changed from green to scarlet and the upright plumes of deep red fruits began to form.  One morning, a flock of Black-Capped Chickadees bounced among the branches, foraging either for fruits or the occasional bug. Perhaps they were the ones who stripped the fruit from some of the plumes. Sumac fruits are eaten by many game and songbirds, though normally they’re not a first choice this time of year.

Over the next few weeks, the Goldenrods began to brown and go to seed. Showy Goldenrod seems to start seeding from the top down, week by week. And eventually that golden curve of Showy Goldenrod had turned a seed-rich, but not very attractive, brown.

The golden swath of Showy Goldenrod turns to a brown, seed rich patch.

The golden swath of Showy Goldenrod turns to a brown, seed-rich patch.

And despite not being a first choice fruit, the Staghorn Sumac’s seeds had either been eaten on the plant or fallen on the ground to be found by ground feeders.

Staghorn Sumac no seeds

Staghorn Sumacs’ plumes of seed disappeared in mid-October, either eaten by birds or dropped to the ground.

Talk about cool seeds! Looks at these elaborate seed pods of Dogbane/Indian Hemp (Apocynum cannabinum)! Dogbane is related to milkweeds, and like milkweeds the seeds with tufts of hair help the plant float on the breeze to new places. On the left is this red-stemmed, white-blossomed plant in June and on the center and right, the unbelievably long, angular seed pods this week.

Of course,  some seeds are actually a HUGE problem. In autumn, the invasive, tree-killing vine, Oriental/Asian Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), produces its seductively beautiful yellow and red fruits. This vine encircles the trunks of trees while climbing for the sun. In doing so, it can choke the life out of a tree. If it gets to the top, it can kill the tree by shading it out and/or by making it top heavy and more likely to fall in storms. Unfortunately, hungry birds eat the berries and spread Bittersweet readily through their droppings. PLEASE DON’T PICK THIS VINE OR MAKE WREATHS FROM IT , ETC. Contact the Parks Department if you want some strategies for getting rid of this beautiful “bad guy”!

Asian Bittersweet CL

A beautiful but deadly plant that kills trees by choking them, shading them out or making them topple in storms. PLEASE DON’T PICK ORIENTAL BITTERSWEET!

By late October, the meadow at Cranberry Creek had turned November brown as plants continued to produce seeds.

Field at Cranberry Late Oct

The meadow at Cranberry Lake had turned an autumnal brown by the end of October.

I did, though, find a few shy Smooth Asters (Symphyotrichum laeve) tucked beneath overhanging foliage, braving the cold with the last of its lavender blossoms.

Last of smooth asters CL

A small sprig of Smooth Asters braved the cold nights beneath the shelter of overhanging plants.

During  October: A Feast for Migrating Birds!

It’s hard for us to watch the palette of spring and summer fade – but birds? They love it! Warblers and other small visitors who spent their summer raising young in the cool northern reaches of Canada sailed into the park and found a feast! As did our year ’round resident birds.

One of my favorite partakers of fruits and seeds is the tiny Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) who’s found its way here from around Hudson Bay in Canada – or even farther north. I seem to always miss seeing the ruby crown which the male shows when he’s excited. I guess the birds I’m seeing are either females or males that are just too calm!

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Ruby-Crowned Kinglets arrived in October to feed and rest on their way south from northern Canada.

One afternoon at Cranberry Lake, the park was filled with White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis). They whisked in and out of shrubs while dashing down into the grass in search of seeds. This one paused just long enough for me to see its yellow lores, the spots at the corner of its eyes. It may have arrived from the UP or the tip of the mitten on its way to points south – not quite as arduous a trip as some migrators have.

White-throated Sparrow 3 CL

White-throated Sparrows have a shorter migration from northern Michigan to just southern Ohio.

This “first winter” White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys) was probably born this summer. It will take on adult coloring when it molts next spring into its bright black and white crown that now is brown and gray. This one was feeding avidly on goldenrod seed during its journey from northern Canada to somewhere south of Michigan.

White-crowned Sparrow 1st winter eating

A “first winter” White-crowned Sparrow enjoying some goldenrod seeds after a long  flight from northern Canada.

One morning, far up the path in the shadow of trees, a small Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) landed quickly, picked up a bug or fallen fruit from the grass, and took off.  No photo. But here’s one from a previous year with its chocolate brown back and breast smudges. Too bad the Hermit Thrush doesn’t court its mate here, because its song has 3 different phrases with a pause between each. You can hear two versions of it here.

Hermit Thrush

The Hermit Thrush, with its chocolate brown back and smudges on its breast, picked up a few bugs or some  fruit on its way south.

Our birding group saw other migratory birds enjoying the rest and sustenance provided by Cranberry Lake Park, but through our binoculars. They were too far away or too restless for me to capture them with the camera. The little Nashville Warbler (Oreothlypis ruficapilla) is making its way from Canada’s far north  to Mexico or Central America. The Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum) stopped by on its journey from Canada to Florida or the Caribbean. And the Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata) has a comparatively short migration from northern Michigan or Canada to just south of Michigan. So as in all of our parks, Cranberry Lake offers much needed R&R for these small seasonal visitors.

During the bird walk, a Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus) swooped into the Hickory Lane on the west side of the park, perhaps chasing a songbird. It flew straight in front of us and quickly disappeared – we think without snagging the bird. Pretty exciting! Sharp-shinned Hawks are smaller and seen less often than the similar Cooper’s Hawk. They usually appear only during migration, so it’s probably headed south by now.  Here’s a link to a photo at Cornell Lab.

A summer resident, the Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) called “chewink!” from the edge of the woods one birdwalk morning. When Ben imitated his call,  the male Towhee darted into a nearby bush, intending, I assume,  to check out the competition. Here’s a photo of one from last spring.  (Let’s just say my photo luck was not with me on that bird walk!)

Towhee Draper Pond2

An Eastern Towhee chipped from the forest edge at the end of the bird walk.

So though we miss the flowers, they have done their work. They attracted the right pollinators which helped create the very seeds that feed tired and hungry migrating birds – as well as having provided bees with the makings for the honey that will feed them through the winter, too. As a compensation, color comes to us once more as the trees begin to turn.

Late October:  Winter Resident from the Far North Arrives – and Color Fills the Trees

Just this week, an American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea) may have flown into Cranberry Lake Park  from the edge of the Arctic tundra! This sparrow, with a spot in the middle of its gray chest and a two-tone bill, loves cold weather. During the summer, Tree Sparrows make elegant nests of ptarmigan feathers right on the ground in the Arctic in order to raise their young. Evidently for a Tree Sparrow, spending the winter in  Michigan  is like going to Florida! Below is the first one I’ve seen this year.

Tree sparrow

A tree sparrow rests in a bush.

A flock of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) did a lot to brighten up the browning of the meadow last week. Most Bluebirds migrate south, but a few actually stay with us all winter, either in family groups or small flocks, as long as there are seeds and berries available. I couldn’t resist taking more than one photo. Their splashes of azure in the field were really cheering on a gray fall day.

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A male Eastern Bluebird in the meadow at Cranberry Lake

Two Bluebirds CL

A male and female Eastern Bluebird shared a bush in the meadow.

3 bluebirds in bush

Three bluebirds decorating a bare bush in the meadow

Color, of course, is the glory of a Michigan autumn. On September 24, the Hickory Lane still looked green and lush. By October 11, the colors had changed to gold and orange.   And on October 24,  a single glowing Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) at the south end of the lane was still shining in the sunlight after most of the other hickory trees began to turn brown.

The maple family contributes lavishly to the beauty of autumn.  On the path to the lake,  a striking leaf from a Red Maple (Acer rubrum) featured some colorful geometry. And nearby, the deeply lobed greenish-white underside of a pale yellow leaf from a Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) created some contrast. At the lake’s edge, oak and maple leaves formed a scarf of fall color floating on the surface. 

The lake again was filled with migrating ducks and water birds – all much too far out for any kind of shot. Female Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa), Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) and Mute Swans (Cygnus olor) were among the throng. Here are photos of those birds from  locations where I can get closer to them!

young-wood-duck

Two female Wood Ducks were preparing for migration at Cranberry Lake this week. This one cruised the Playground Pond at Bear Creek earlier this year.

mallards-playground-pond

Mallards, seen here at Bear Creek, gathered with other ducks and water birds at Cranberry Lake this week.

swan-showing-off

Two Mute Swans floated in Cranberry Lake this week. This shot was taken a few years ago in a Canadian river where I could get closer.

But there were also  Pied-Billed Grebes (Podilymbus podiceps),  and American Black Ducks (Anas rubripes)on Cranberry Lake.  Please click on these red Cornell Lab links if you’d like to see them up close. Let’s hope a viewing deck gets built on Cranberry Lake in the next few years so all of us can get a closer look in person at the water birds that flock to the lake in spring and fall to socialize and feed.

A Different Kind of Transition in the North of the Park

North path new CL

The greatly improved path entering the woods off of 32 Mile Road.

Finally, a wonderful transition is being finished on the trail at the north end of the park. The Parks and Recreation maintenance staff has spent long hours this summer improving the trail from 32 Mile Road into the park.  Instead of an oft-flooded, muddy track, they have laid down a solid surface with periodic drainage pipes running beneath it to keep the new trail from flooding.  You certainly can feel the difference underfoot!  And I imagine equestrians, as well as hikers, will appreciate the improvement. Thanks to Maintenance Foreman Doug Caruso and Maintenance Technician Jeff Johnson for a hard job that, when completed,  should be a great improvement for the park!

Autumn:  Harvest Time for All of Us!

chickadee-eating-seed

Black-capped Chickadee breaking open a seed.

So, just as we humans harvest crops before the snow falls, birds and animals harvest the wild “crops” of the fields – seeds and fruits. Some of them, like Black-Capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus), both eat and store them, tucking the seeds into bark where they will find them when snow blankets the meadow. Others, like the Palm Warbler, use them to fuel their flight to warmer climes. Winter residents, like the Tree Sparrow,  will probe the brown goldenrod  for seeds all winter – as well as flocking at your feeder. So when the color drains away, when the leaves are wet and brown underfoot, it may be a comfort to think of the bounty that surrounds us in those dry, drab plants. The brown and gray seeds nourish all kinds of creatures, and guarantee next summer’s bounty of plants. Those dry leaves underfoot dropped when they completed their work of sending sugars to the trees’ roots, ready to fuel next year’s growth. Seeds and falling leaves really are another reason to be thankful as November arrives. Maybe nature deserves a rest after a job well done!

*Footnote:  My sources for information, as well as Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Stokes Nature Guides:  A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net.; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for beetle info http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info, http://www.illinoiswildflowers.info and invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman.

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Spring Bursts into Summer – and Delicate Paint Creek Trail Surprises

Geraniums in the woods BC

A carpet of Wild Geranium in the Oak-Hickory forest

Well, what a change! Two weeks ago, we had spring flowers, leaf buds and spring courtship as birds sang and showed off in the treetops. And then came the heat and sun, and suddenly, it was early summer with leaves seeming to enlarge by the hour, spring flowers disappearing to be replaced by early summer blooms, more baby birds and the first dragonflies swooping along the paths in front of us.

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

So let’s explore just a few of the  wildflowers and creatures that shared this change with us.  (Plus some lovely post-prescribed burn surprises along the Paint Creek Trail.)

When it was still spring…

 Late Spring Birds and a Fun Insect

The male Rose-breasted Grosbeak’s  (Pheucticus ludovicianus) long, tuneful song was everywhere in Bear Creek in the last weeks of spring. Now their nests are finished and singing  has to accompany the task of raising young. Both the male and female build that nest and care for the young – a very modern couple! (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

Nearby, hopping from limb to limb, two male Yellow Warblers (Setophaga petechia) sang their seductive “Sweet, sweet, I’m a little sweet” song as they chased each other through the small trees at the edge of the woods. I never spotted the female, though she must have been nearby.  She lacks the rusty striping of the male and has a more olive back.

In the fields behind the Playground Pond, a pair of Eastern Towhees (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) were getting acquainted. The male was not singing his “Drink your Tea-a-a-a-” call, so I think the two may have been looking for a nesting sight. I’d never seen the female Towhee before and she’s quite different from the male’s coloring.

Speaking of nesting, I found this large egg under one of the walnut trees near the lane.  If one end hadn’t been missing, it would have been about 2 1/2 inches long.  And there was nothing inside.  I’m wondering if it could be the shell from the egg of a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) that I’ve seen off and on near the Center Pond. Cornell Lab describes the Red-tail’s eggs as 2.2 to 2.7 inches long and “white or buffy, blotched or speckled with buff, brown, or purple.”  What do you think?  Any bird egg experts out there?

Red-tailed Hawk egg?

What could be the hatched egg of a Red-tailed Hawk – but I can’t be sure.

A flash of iridescent green  at my feet signaled the hyper presence of the Six-spotted Tiger Beetle (Cicindela sexguttata) who frequents the forest edge. I imagine it got its name because its larva, developing in a burrow during the summer, springs up out of its hole to catch prey!  A tiny, green, stalking tiger! Cool how their antennae and legs are as green as their bodies.

Six-spotted Tiger Beetle

A Six-spotted Tiger Beetle usually scouts the forest edge at Bear Creek, looking for prey.

Late Spring Wildflowers and Leaves

Two weeks ago, the Oak-Hickory forest was filled with big, beautiful Wild Geraniums (Geranium maculatum). These lovely lavender flowers carpet the area near the marsh every year, but this year they were all over the park –  taller, more plentiful and with larger blooms than I’ve ever seen! Perhaps this year’s and last year’s prescribed burns helped.

Wild Geranium

Wild Geranium blossoms bloomed in the mottled spring light of the forest.

Each year I wait for the blossoming of the Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) that stands east of the Northern Loop.  I was intrigued to learn that the actual flowers are only the center of these blossoms.  The “petals” are actually bracts, specialized leaves that attract pollinators by glamorizing the cluster of tiny center flowers.  Here are three pictures of the buds, encased in their bracts,  opening as May progresses.

While the Flowering Dogwood buds were opening, the leaves of the Shagbark Hickory(Carya ovata) were just emerging from their amazing buds.

Hickory leaves emerge

Shagbark Hickory leaves emerge from the leaf buds.

The huge White Oaks (Quercus alba) near Snell Road were producing miniature red leaves  that, two weeks later, were green and stretching out to catch the sunlight.

Tiny Red White Oak leaves

White Oak leaves are red when they first emerge, but quickly expand and turn green.

Of course, the May Apples (Podophyllum peltatum) were producing their modest white flowers that hang hidden beneath an umbrella of leaves.

May Apple Blossom

A May Apple blossom nods below its umbrella of leaves.

Another spring favorite of mine are the little hands of Early Meadow-rue (Thalictrum dioicum) that find spots of sun in the mottled spring light of the woods.

Early Meadow-rue

Early Meadow-rue somehow looks like little green hands in the spotty sunlight of the spring forest.

Down at the pond, tiny aquatic buttercups, called White Water Crowfoot  (Ranunculus longirostris) floated in large swirls across the pond.  Once the heat arrived, the flowers disappeared and the brown stems are now making a not-so-lovely brown mat until they sink below the surface.

White water crowfoot

White Water Crowfoot, an aquatic buttercup, dies away with the heat, leaving a brown mat of stems on the Center Pond.

Heat! And Summer Rushes Forward

Summer Birds and other Creatures

Green Heron (Butorides virescens), one of our summer residents, perched in a snag (standing dead tree) at the Center Pond.  I usually see them fishing at the water’s edge.  According to Cornell Lab, “The Green Heron is one of the world’s few tool-using bird species. It creates fishing lures with bread crusts, insects, earthworms, twigs, feathers, and other objects, dropping them on the surface of the water to entice small fish.”  I will be watching now to see if I can catch one doing that!

Green Heron

A Green Heron, a tool-using bird, hunches in dead tree on the far side of the Center Pond.

Out in Bear Creek Marsh, Ben and an experienced birder, Antonio Xeira, heard the call of a seldom-seen denizen of wetlands, the Sora (Porzana carolina). This waterbird, a member of the Rail family,  with a heavy yellow beak and stock body,  stalks quietly among the cattails, looking for seeds, insects and snails. Its whinnying call is particularly dramatic. Ben and Antonio recognized its other two tone “ker-wee” call at the marsh. Click on its picture here and go halfway down this page for its song and call. I’d never even heard of Sora before!

A delightful sight greeted the Wednesday birders at the Playground Pond last week. A mother Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) was escorting her six ducklings around the pond,  as well as what appeared to be two Hooded Merganser chicks (Lophodytes cucullatus)! Ben surmised that perhaps a Merganser had laid its eggs in the nest hole of the Wood Duck and she ended up hatching them along with her own. Here’s a photo of the adult female with her own chicks and a photo of a Hooded Merganser baby that swam with them.  This Merganser duckling jumps from a tree hole when one day old and swims on its own.  It takes 3 days for the Wood Duck’s ducklings to do the same.

Down at the Center Pond, the “boing-boing” banjo sound of the Green Frog (Lithobates clamitans) creates part of the summer music at Bear Creek.  You can tell this one’s a male because its tympanum, a kind of external ear drum, is larger than its eye. I like this one’s tentative expression.

Mitch the male Green Frog

A male Green Frog with a questioning expression!

And the Common White-tail Dragonfly (Plathemis lydia) makes a soft whir-r-r as it soars by, looking for prey. This one’s a female, because the male’s abdomen is white, which accounts for its common name.

Common Whitetail Dragonfly

A female Common Whitetail Dragonfy in Bear Creek Marsh.

Summer Wildflowers

As the heat began, wildflowers started to bloom in the native beds near the parking lot.  One of the loveliest is native Wild Lupine (Lupinus perennis) glowing lavender and white in the warm sunlight.

Lupine BC native bed

Wild Lupine in warm sunlight in the native bed near the parking lot

Nearby was a plant I’d never seen until Ben VanderWeide, our stewardship manager,  made me aware of it.  It has the lovely name of Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium).  To me each tiny blossom resembles a tiny Iris.  It’s called “grass” because it has grass-like leaves and stems with parallel veins that are hard to distinguish from a grass when there aren’t any flowers. The flowers only open fully in full sunlight, so it can be easy to miss early in the morning or on a cloudy day. But isn’t it pretty in the late spring/early summer?

And another early summer favorite is spreading abundantly in the native bed north of the shed.  Canada Anemone’s (Anemone canadensis) lovely white flowers stand gracefully above its deep green foliage .

Canada anemone

Canada Anemone ‘s white and yellow blossoms stand erect above its interesting, dark green foliage in a native bed.

Sunny Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) accompany these other native plants in the wild garden in the driveway center, one of the native beds and across from the Playground Pond.  This one’s hosting a Spittle Bug or Frog Hopper, common names for the super-family of insects called  Cercopoidea.  The adult insects can hop 100 times their length!  The foam is used for protection for the nymph stage of development.  Though the nymph sucks on the plant, it generally doesn’t hurt the plant much.  Most of the liquid is used to create that evidently nasty-tasting froth that deters predators.

Golden alexander w spittle bug foam

Golden Alexanders hosting the spittlebug nymph who uses a little liquid from the stem to protect itself with foam.

Ben and his crew planted some native Prairie Phlox across from the Playground Pond, another area of Bear Creek to be slowly stocked with native plants.

Prairie phlox Playground pond native

Prairie phlox, a native wildflower planted by Dr. Ben across from the Playground Pond.

Warm weather brought out the exotic-looking blooms of native Wild Columbine in the bed just north of the shed.  These lovely native wildflowers grew down the side of a hill east of the park when it was a farm back in the 1930s and 40s.

Columbine blossoms in native bed BC

Native Wild Columbine once grew on a hillside east of the park when Bear Creek was a farm in the 1940’s.

And out in the eastern Old Field, lots of native Common Milkweed appeared once the grasses were knocked back by the prescribed burn in March.  No doubt all the nutrients that were released into the soil then, plus the longer growing season caused by the darkened earth, will give it a little boost.  Hope the Monarch Butterflies take note!

Milkweed eastern meadow

Milkweed plants take advantage of increased sun and nutrients since the prescribed burn.

And now the Paint Creek Trail surprise…

This spring, Ben VanderWeide, the Township Stewardship Manager, and volunteers did a prescribed burn along the Paint Creek Trail near the parking lot at Gallagher Road.  The purpose, as always, was to stimulate native plants and discourage non-native invasive ones.  Also prescribed fire releases nutrients from last year’s plants back into the soil.

Partly as result of this process, some lovely native plants emerged this year in greater numbers than before the burn.  Look at this lovely photo Ben took of a native Yellow Ladyslipper  orchid (Cypripedium parviflorum)  – and there were lots of them hidden within the burgeoning grass. You can certainly see where this lovely wildflower got its name – a graceful slipper with ribbons attached!

Yellow Ladyslipper - Ben

A native Yellow Ladyslipper that bloomed along the Paint Creek Trail after a prescribed burn.

The grass was also shining with Star-grass (Hypoxis hirsuta), a small yellow native that hosts small bees and other pollinators.  It’s lucky there were lots of these shining stars this year because they need other plants to cross pollinate, which of course is assisted by the bees.  Here’s Ben’s photo.

Star-grass Ben's

These bright yellow flowers called Star-grass also shone out of the grass along the PC Trail after the prescribed burn.

Along the tree line near the parking lot at Gallagher, a yellow cloud of Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) nodded in the wind.  Ben caught this one up close.

Golden Alexander Ben's

Golden Alexanders dancing in the wind near the tree line along the Paint Creek Trail

And Ben also noted a Sedge plant  (family Cyperaceae)  with its interesting bloom. As I mentioned two weeks ago, sedges are ancient plants that look something like grasses but are constructed differently. Ancient Egyptians used sedges to make papyrus.

Sedge - Ben PCT

A sedge plant along the PC Trail – a member of an ancient family of plants used by the Egyptians to make papyrus.

Ben tells me that beautiful native wildflowers like Culver’s Root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Showy Tick-trefoil (Desmodium canadense) and other prairie plants are “sprouting vigorously” along the trail north Gallagher Road – so click on the links to see them and then keep an eye out for them!

Path to the Marsh BC

The path to the Bear Creek Marsh in late afternoon sun.

So treat yourself.  Hang some binoculars around your neck and look at birds up close – both the year ’round residents and the summer visitors.  Take your time.  Stand near a patch of summer flowers and watch quietly. See what surprises you.  Maybe a bee that turns out to be a harmless hover fly.  Or the shiny glamour of the Six-spotted Tiger Beetle.  Try using your cell phone to take a shot of a single flower you’ve never noticed before and then identify it when you get home.  I promise you’ll relax.  Your breath will slow, you’ll smile a bit more, life will just get more interesting.  Nature comes alive in ways you’d never expect when you give it your undivided attention.  Let us know what you find!

Footnote:  My sources for information are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991); Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for insect info; http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info; invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman; experienced birder Ruth Glass, bird walk leader at Stoney Creek Metro Park for bird identification; Birds of North America Online; Audubon.org; Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, Trees in My Forest by Bernd Heinrich, Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, Savannah River Ecology Lab (Univ of Georgia); Tortoise Trust website www.tortoisetrust.org;  An Orchard Invisible: A Natural History of Seeds by Jonathan Silvertown; The Ecology of Plants by Gurevitch, Scheiner and Fox; other sites as cited in the text.