Tag Archives: Silver-Spotted Skipper

The Wet Prairie: Unusual Fall Blooms Host A Variety of Guests

I’m always cautious when I  write about the wildflowers at the Wet Prairie along the Paint Creek Trail between Gallagher and Silver Bell Roads.  Many of  the wildflowers here are very fragile and quite unusual, so this natural area needs to be treated very carefully.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

Because I’d like to help residents understand just how special the Wet Prairie is, I’m occasionally allowed to take a very careful and slow walk with my camera. Here’s the beauty – and the fascinating strangeness –  I came across on two short trips there last month.

Restoration of a Special Place Yields Special Flowers

Butterfly milkweed seeding with Smooth Blue Aster and Gray Goldenrod in bloom.

Restoration of this 10-acre natural area by Dr. Ben VanderWeide and his Parks and Recreation stewardship crew has worked wonders over the years.  Years ago when I first saw the little flower with the exotic name, Grass-of-Parnassus (Parnassia glauca), one blossom stood alone on the prairie. I loved it the moment it caught my eye. This year the prairie was covered with these striped beauties, the most I’ve ever seen!

Grass-of-Parnassus has grown increasingly abundant at the Wet Prairie with restoration continuing there.

According to the Illinois wildflower site (a favorite of mine), Grass-of-Parnassus loves moisture and chalky (calcareous) soil,  but doesn’t like a lot of competition from other plants. A high water table keeps this prairie wet for a good portion of the year. In some places, the unusual soil prevents water from draining away, pooling in the spring and drying out in summer sun. Occasional use of prescribed fire suits many of the  plants that grow here. They’re fire-adapted after growing for millennia in landscapes that burned frequently, not to mention fires in the last few hundred years started by lightning or by the trains that passed on the nearby railroad. Ben and his crew have consistently removed invasive shrubs and encroaching trees to keep the area open and sunny. Grass-of-Parnassus, no doubt a long-time denizen of the Wet Prairie, celebrated all of these unusual conditions and the restoration work this summer with an abundant bloom!

The prairie also hosts another airy fall wildflower that prefers little competition. Flowering Spurge (Euphorbia corollata) grows along the drier areas near the trail. A wide variety of native bees and butterflies find their way to its bright white showy bracts, which are modified leaves like the red bracts of poinsettias.  The white bracts of flowering spurge highlight the yellow flowers at the center. I love their simplicity; they remind of the flowers I drew as a child. Their leaves are safe from deer browsing because they contain a toxic white latex.

Flowering Spurge avoids competition and can tolerate the dryness near the trail.

Flowering Spurge is monoecious, which means separate male and female flowers are produced on the same plant.  Once pollinators do their work, the fertile female flowers are replaced by a capsule with a seed in each of its three chambers which appear right at the center of the female flowers! Below is a closeup look at their bulbous seed pods which will eventually eject the seeds when they’re mature.

Seed capsules forming on Flowering Spurge.

Tucked down among the grasses, Cylindrical Blazing-star (Liatris cylindracea) makes itself known through the whirling effect of its purple blossoms.  Each flower head is crowded with 15-20 individual tube-shaped flowers. A two-part curving “style,” emerges from each one. The style is the slender stalk that connects the stigma, the surface on which the pollen lands,  to the ovary below in the blossom. These lovely wildflowers last  about a month in late summer/early fall and tend to appear singly like many of the flowers on the Wet Prairie, preferring little competition. The name Blazing Star seems particularly appropriate in this wildflower, since the styles spin out from each flower like the stars in a Van Gogh painting.

Our long-tongued native Bumblebees can easily pollinate Cylindrical Blazing-star’s crowded flower heads.

Shrubby Cinquefoil (Dasiphora fruticosa) thrives in the moist, chalky soil of the Wet Prairie. A small, woody bush, only 1.5 to 3 feet tall, it attracts native bees, honeybees and a variety of other flying insects to its bright yellow flowers during the summer and early fall. It also benefits from being of little interest to deer.

A small bush, Shrubby Cinquefoil provides nourishment to a big variety of insects.

On the early September walk, I explored the wetter areas at the back of the prairie and came across an elegant stem of Turtlehead (Chelone glabra) with a haze of dusty lavender Joe Pye (Eutrochium maculatum) dancing in the distance. The turtlehead’s two-lipped flower performs two functions: the top lip  forms a protective hood for the flower’s stamen and pistils and the the lower serves as a landing pad for foraging insects. Like many of our native plants, it protects itself from deer – in this case by having bitter leaves.

Turtlehead blooms first at the bottom of its florescence.

On the far back slopes of the prairie, a Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) made a swirling explosion of seeds, each attached to its silky white parachute. What a delicate abstract design with its central slender pod shape!

Butterfly Milkweed going to seed in a spectacular fashion!

Early in September,  I spotted a yellow wildflower growing on the steep bank above Paint Creek across the trail from the Wet Prairie.  It turned out to be  a wildflower I rarely see, Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia), a very tall (3-8 feet) plant that often finds a home on river banks or near wetlands. Their sunbursts of raggedy yellow flowers contain a rim of “ray florets” that look like petals but are each a separate fertile flower and a disc floret filled with individual tubular flowers that together create a pin-cushion effect at the center. (Petals, as opposed to “ray florets,” are actually non-fertile modified leaf-like structures.)

Wingstem is a tall wildflower that loves river banks like the one across from the Wet Prairie.

Two stalks of a modest wildflower that  I’d never seen before stood alone above the creek. Ben identified it as White Lettuce (Prenanthes alba). The drooping blossoms are cross-pollinated by those  masterful native pollinators, the bumblebees  (genus Bombus) seeking nectar with their long tongues. I watched as two of them foraged busily, the one on the left probing for nectar vertically within the blossom, just the lower tip of its body showing, and the one on the right with a yellow “pollen basket” on its back leg.

Bumblebees buzzing quietly as they seek out the nectar of White Lettuce.

Nearby a non-native Japanese Beetle (Popillia japonica) explored the abundance of the tiny disk florets that make up a Snakeroot flowerhead (Ageratina altissima). These wildflowers thrive in disturbed soil, especially at the edges or openings of woodlands.  They spread quickly both by rhizomes  (underground stems) and by achenes lofted to new locations by small tufts of  white hair called pappus. I look forward to them, because they are often the last wildflower to bloom in the fall.

Early settlers thought this Snakeroot was good for snake bites. On the contrary, its roots and leaves are toxic to both cattle and humans!

When I arrived later in September, the Grass-of-Parnassus was fading. But the Wet Prairie was dotted with Smooth Blue Asters (Symphyotrichum laeve) – small, erect sprays of lavender sprinkled generously across the landscape. According to the Illinois Wildflowers site, this seemingly delicate wildflower is a major food source for pollinators, including at least six species of native bees, honeybees and as you’ll soon see below, butterflies. Tree Sparrows, Wild Turkeys, Ruffed Grouse and White-footed mice enjoy the seeds and the caterpillars of several moths browse on their leaves. A small plant with a big benefit to wildlife!

Smooth Blue Asters dot the prairie in the fall providing abundant food sources for wildlife.

Within the exclusion fence at the back of the prairie, New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) tossed and nodded their purple flowers in the autumn breeze. New England Asters rely on non-native honeybees, native bumblebees and other long-tongued bees to pollinate them. The short-tongued bees and hover/syrphid flies visit to collect pollen, but are generally too smooth-bodied to be effective pollinators. This aster also hosts the caterpillars of many species of moths, which feed on the leaves. Those caterpillars can provide important nutrition for adult birds and their nestlings. For those reasons and their sheer beauty, I was happy to see these purple wildflowers with their golden centers dipping and rising in the late afternoon sunlight.

New England Aster provides its pollen and leaves to insects as well as leaves that their young can eat and grow to maturity.

As September progressed, I counted on finding two favorite wildflowers on the Wet Prairie and was not disappointed. Where water seeps to the surface on the south side of the prairie, Bottle Gentians (Gentiana andrewsii) produce their strange indigo blossoms that never open.  These large bud-like flowers wait instead for the big, bustling bumblebees to force their way inside looking for nectar and pollen. Once within, the bees produce a high-pitched buzz with their flight muscles, using their legs and mouth parts to direct the vibration toward the pollen-laden anthers inside. The pollen explodes into the air within the enclosed Bottle Gentian, clinging to the bumblebee’s fuzzy bodies. Have a look and listen to this short video  of a bumblebee” buzz pollinating” some  poppies. What a clever way for the bumblebee to collect pollen and for the Bottle Gentian to be pollinated!

Bottle Gentian flowers never open and bumblebees have to force their way inside!

Another deep blue Gentian is unfurling the artfully fringed and overlapping lobes of its blossom in the short grass of the prairie. The Fringed Gentian (Gentianopsis crinita), like the Grass-of-Parnassus, thrives in the chalky (calcareous), generally moist soil of the Wet Prairie. Several species of bumblebees frequent these gentians and once fertilized, it forms pods filled with tiny seeds that are carried away by either wind or water. Can you believe that blue?

Fringed Gentian’s four-lobed blossoms spout like small purple fountains from the grass of the Wet Prairie

Beautiful Autumn Blossoms Get Plenty of Visitors

In general terms, a host plant is one that provides food and shelter for other species – in the case of wildflowers, either nectar or pollen for adult insects, or leaves and stems for their caterpillar young. Native plants are particularly effective hosts. In the autumn, the special flowers of the Wet Prairie are providing a last minute meal for bees, beetles, wasps, butterflies and other insects by day and moths by night, including one rare one! So it’s not surprising that on my two short visits, I saw a variety of “guests” drop in for a visit.

The Butterfly Guests and the Young of a Very Unusual Moth

The Orange Sulphur flies low, skimming over the tops of flowers, as this one did on my first visit.

As I mentioned earlier, butterflies seem to find plenty of nectar on the Wet Prairie’s Smooth Blue Asters.  I saw a Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele) restlessly flitting about the field on both visits, but luckily, on the second visit, one settled down for a sip on a Smooth Blue Aster. These small flowers must pack a lot of sugary punch on a cool day! Here’s a close look at this fritillary’s strange spotted eyes and its long proboscis probing the flower for nectar.

A Great Spangled Fritillary sipping from a Smooth Blue Aster

On my second visit, an Orange Sulphur (Colias eurytheme) also rose and sank repeatedly as it flitted above the greenery.  At one point, it headed straight for a Smooth Blue Aster, its proboscis curled in flight.

An Orange Sulphur on its way to sample the Smooth Blue Aster on the Wet Prairie.

Once it landed, the proboscis extended and acted as a straw to extract the sugary nectar from the disc floret at the center of the aster. The field mark for the Orange Sulphur is that orange blush on the  upper (dorsal) surface of the wing, though the female’s is a bit paler. The male has a wide brown band at the wing edge whereas the female’s brown band is punctuated by white spots. Glad this one finally stopping scurrying around the prairie and settled in for a late afternoon drink.

An Orange Sulphur settles in for a meal on the Smooth Blue Aster

The male Eastern Tailed Blue butterfly (Cupido comyntas) looks like a small  chip of blue sky bobbing along in short flights over the grass in the Wet Prairie. (The female’s wings are brown on the upper side.) The Eastern Tailed Blue normally closes its wings when stopping to feed or rest, showing only the gray undersides of its wings, featuring two orange spots and a tiny “tail” on each hindwing. Fortunately, it occasionally stops with its wings slightly open to bask in warm sunlight, like the one below. That sunlight felt soothing to both of us on a cool fall afternoon.

The Eastern Tailed Blue butterfly has a tiny tail at the bottom of its hindwing.

Out in the wet areas where the Bottle Gentian blooms, my husband spotted a male Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) far back in the greenery. When I reached him, his immobility surprised me; I was able to get remarkably close. I noticed he was periodically pulsing his wings which looked fresh and flawless. My guess is that this fellow was  one of the “super generation” of Monarchs that had just emerged from his chrysalis. Once his wings were fully functional, he would fly off to feed before beginning his long journey to Mexico. Isn’t he a beauty? I wished him well.

A newly emerged male Monarch Butterfly pulsing his absolutely perfect, undamaged wings.

A nearby Joe Pye blossom hosted the ubiquitous Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus). Its long tongue allows it to feed on many different wildflowers. Notice the hooked antennae, a field mark for all skippers. I come upon these sturdy little Silver-spotted butterflies quite often on my walks. Maybe you do, too?

A Silver-spotted Skipper drops in for a drink on Joe Pye blooms.

I’m always attracted by the bright orange blossoms of Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), and noticed a strange quivering on the leaves of one at the edge of the trail. The cause turned out to be the avid chewing of the chubby orange and black caterpillar of  the Unexpected Tiger Moth (Cycnia inopinatus). An intriguing name, eh? It certainly was unexpected for me! The Michigan Lepidoptera Facebook group identified it for me, and I confirmed their information with the huge caterpillar compendium, Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner.

The caterpillar of a moth that is ranked as “uncommon” to “rare,” the Unexpected Tiger Moth, munched on it host plant, Butterfly Milkweed, in the Wet Prairie.

After a couple hours of research, I finally found a comprehensive article on the website of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, Eastern Region. This moth is  described as “uncommon to rare and local throughout its range” due largely to habitat loss.   Our caterpillar hatched in the right area, since the adult moth seeks out high quality barrens or grasslands full of butterfly or whorled milkweed.

Adult Unexpected Tiger Moths (see the iNaturalist photo below) hatch, mate and lay eggs in 2-3 weeks, never bothering to eat during their brief lifetimes. The ones that emerge in the spring produce the August brood, which probably explains the presence of the caterpillar I saw. It will eat and then transform into a pupa whose loose cocoon will fall into the leaf litter to overwinter until spring.  So we’ll just have to hope that the orange and black caterpillar above ate enough to mature and survive the winter, so that next spring a rare moth emerges and finds a mate along the trail.  [Photo below by Chrissy McClarren and Andy Reago at iNaturalist.org]

The rare  Unexpected Tiger Moth will only travel short distances in its 2-3 week lifespan.  Photo by Chrissy McClarren and Andy Reago (CC BY-NC)

Other Insect Visitors, including a Cannibal!

An Eastern Yellow Jacket Wasp (Vespula maculifrons) seeks out nectar but doesn’t provide much pollination because its smooth body doesn’t  transport pollen to other blossoms.

I came across a trio of insects that had landed on a Stiff Goldenrod (Solidago rigida), a wonderful plant with its upright posture and filigree of fuzzy, soft green leaves hugging the stem. On the left, a jazzily striped Locust Borer Beetle (Megacyllene robiniae) fed on the goldenrod’s pollen. If it’s a mated female, she will later scurry along the bark of non-native Black Locust trees (Robinia pseudoacacia) looking for a wound in which to lay her eggs. On the right side of the plant, two Soldier Beetles (family Cantharidae) found one cluster of  yellow blossoms to be the perfect spot for quiet mating. Nice to know that one of my favorite goldenrods is such a generous host!

A Stiff Goldenrod hosts both mating soldier beetles and a foraging Locust Borer beetle

Out in the shorter grasses of the prairie, however, lurked a predator with cannibal instincts. Fortunately, it was only about 2.5 to 3.5 inches long! We spotted a non-native European Praying Mantis (Mantis religiosa) who was busily eating what appeared to another of its kind. (There are no native praying mantises in Michigan.) If you look carefully in the photo below,  you can see a long, angled brown and green leg very much like its own bending up from the green abdomen that the mantis holds between its spiked, raptor-like legs. I know, the photo’s a bit grim, but there’s no malice here. It’s just dinnertime on the prairie for a hungry insect trying to survive in its habitat. I think it’s important to keep reminding myself of that – and you too maybe?

Praying Mantis are non-native in Michigan and catch only live, preferably moving, prey, including their own kind.

I can’t confidently determine the gender of this mantis,  but females are usually larger than males with bigger eyes, so my guess is that this is a male. Now, you may know that female praying mantises are notorious for consuming their partners after mating. Actually, about 70% of the males are crafty enough to avoid becoming a quick, nourishing meal for their mates. But it turns out that mantises prey on each other even in the nymph stages, scuttling away from each other after hatching in order to survive! No doubt that’s one reason that I’ve always seen only one Praying Mantis at a time!

Filling the “Swamp” or Valuing Water and Wetlands

Beyond a sea of goldenrod, a wetland fringed with Joe Pye and cat-tails can be seen behind the woods along the trail to the Wet Prairie.

One afternoon, standing knee deep in grass and flowers, I remembered that I grew up in a time when wetlands were scorned as nasty “swamps”,  damp places “infested” with bugs, places that should be dried out in order to become “more productive.” Hence the common metaphor these days, “drain the swamp.”

Unproductive?  Ugly? There I was standing in the Wet Prairie among a colorful panoply of native wildflowers and grasses, all beautiful, some very special, even rare – and each of them serving their unusual habitat in so many complex ways. All day and all night  from spring to fall, butterflies, beetles, bees, moths and other insects find their way to the wildflowers and grasses of the Wet Prairie to find sustenance and shelter for themselves and their young. Animals seek the wetland nearby and spring pools on the prairie for drinking and bathing. And below the surface, the roots of wetland plants are cleaning the water which permeates the water table to later quench the thirst of humans who don’t always appreciate the services wetlands provide.

“Swamp” is actually a botanical term that technically means a wetland dominated by trees and shrubs.  But for some these days, it’s still a pejorative for those “nasty” wetlands of my youth. I protest! And I celebrate the restoration work that will keep the Wet Prairie blooming, beautiful, and yes, “productive” for its insect guests and for future hikers of the Paint Creek Trail.

Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park: BUTTERFLIES! Oh, and Birds and Blossoms, too…

The Northern Wetland Meadow at Stony Creek Ravine Park has no shallow pools now, but is lush with plant life.

A kaleidoscope of dancing butterflies grabbed my attention time and again as I visited Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park in August.  Oh, yes, fledgling birds also whisked about in the dense greenery, accompanied by adult supervision, learning to feed or begging to be fed. And patches of glorious orange or blue flowers emerged among the tall grass.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

But it was the butterflies that stole the show for me as they hovered, floated, sailed and finally settled on blossoms or perched on a leaf along the trail. On glamorous wings – or sometimes tattered ones –  they danced summer to a glorious finale. Come see.

The “Corps de Butterflies,” Costumed in a Rainbow of Colors, Take the Stage

Bands of colorful vegetation in the moist, northern restoration meadow attract skimming swallows, darting dragonflies and floating butterflies

Every year now I wait for the late summer arrival of the Giant Swallowtails (Papilio cresphonte), the largest butterflies in North America (6-7 inch wingspan!). This prima ballerina of the butterfly corps  used to only breed in the south. Many researchers seem to think that most Giant Swallowtails still migrate south in the autumn. However, as the climate has warmed and prevented September frosts, they have expanded their range, establishing some small populations in lower Michigan. Whether they are breeding in our area or just nectaring before heading back south, I’m always glad to see them.

A Giant Swallowtail is the lead dancer in August.

Several butterflies showed up on summer’s stage with torn wings. I’ve wondered if that could be a result of being blown into harm’s way by the winds that accompany summer thunderstorms. Or perhaps the late bloom of goldenrods this year meant that butterflies fed more on prickly thistles. The ragged Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) below seemed to be feeding and flying reasonably well, despite its ravaged wings. I hope it had already mated since shape is important in butterfly courtship!

A badly damaged Eastern Tiger Swallowtail seemed to be feeding naturally on thistle.

Most Eastern Tiger Swallowtails  took the stage in August dressed in their best. Notice the long hairs on the abdomen of the one below. I learned recently that the scales on a butterfly’s wings are actually flattened hairs.  According to a study by Judith H. Myers at the University of British Columbia, it’s possible that the long hairs, sometimes called “scent scales,”  are used to spread pheromones in flight during the breeding season. The pheromone receptors that pick up scent are located in both male and female antennae, though scent is less important than color, shape and movement when most butterflies are courting .

This Eastern Tiger Swallowtail has long hair on its abdomen which may help distribute pheromones when attracting a mate.

Another butterfly “long hair” comes in a tiny package, the Common Checkered-Skipper (Pyrgus communis). My husband spotted this tiny male whose wingspan is only about .75 to 1.25 inches. We’ve probably missed it before because it’s so small and looks nondescript when fluttering erratically along the path. But when it stops, wow! Its thorax is dark blue-gray and the males are not only fuzzy like most skippers; they have long bluish “hairs.” A handsome little guy! Evidently the female’s thorax is a much less glamorous dark brown. According to the Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels, this tiny butterfly is  most common in the central and southern states but regularly  expands its range and is seen in our region in late summer and fall.

This male Common Checkered-skipper has long scent scales that look like hair.

I was delighted to finally see a restless Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele) as it fluttered from sunlight to shade and back again along the entrance path. What a costume! The dorsal (upper) side of its wings is patterned in orange and black, but its ventral side flashes with silver spangles! The females lays eggs even into September. Their caterpillars overwinter and start eating violet leaves in the spring, according to the Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide.  

The Great Spangled Fritillary appears in July, but lays its eggs in September.

Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus) added its dark beauty to the butterfly ballet. It’s very tricky to discern the differences between dark swallowtails. If you need help like I do, I recommend the website at this link which compares the female Black Swallowtail, the black morph of the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, the Spicebush Swallowtail and the Pipevine Swallowtail. Whew! It always takes me a while to puzzle them out! I also get help from the good folks at the Michigan Lepidoptera Facebook group.

The Spicebush Swallowtail has a blush of blue on its hindwings.
The ventral (lower) side of the Spicebush’s wings have two rows of orange spots like the Black Swallowtail, except that one spot on the inner arc is replaced by another blush of blue.

I finally got a look at how the little Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos) came by its name. If you look closely at the lower edge of the hindwing, there’s a tiny whitish crescent shape in one of the boxes there. In the photo below, I brightened the spot and created a small red marker so you could see it, too. It’s a subtle field mark, for sure!

The red marker shows the white crescent for which the Pearl Crescent is named.

And here’s how the Pearl Crescent appears from above. You’ll see these little butterflies on any walk you take in our parks from June to October. I like knowing its name; it makes a walk more companionable somehow.

The tiny Pearl Crescent skips along the paths in our parks all summer long.

Of course it’s the season for Monarchs (Danaus plexippus) and though they seem less plentiful this year than last, a goodly number still stroke a few wingbeats and glide over the fields. Here’s a sampling of three at Stony Creek Ravine Park – a male settling along the path, one in flight toward a withering Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare) and what I think was a female on Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

Another set of dancing wings joined the choreography.  With a zing, a dive and a pause in mid-air (à la Baryshnikov), a fierce and glorious dancer,  the Green-striped Darner (Aeshna verticalis) came on the scene. Darners are big, more than 2.5 inches long,  with bulky thoraxes and long abdomens. Add the helmet-like appearance of their giant eyes which meet at the top of their heads, plus their ability to hover,  and in flight they have a remarkable resemblance to a tiny helicopter! These skillful predators feed on all kinds of insects, even meadowhawk dragonflies and damselflies. The northern fields were a-buzz with them at the park last week!

A Green-striped Darner patrolled along the path as we walked north at the park.

Of course, many other insects – bees, small butterflies, and smaller dragonflies – fed and bred in Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park in August. Here are a few more modest members of the winged corps.

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While following the Spicebush Swallowtail, I glanced down at some movement in the grass and found a tiny grasshopper. A wary, or perhaps inquisitive, nymph of what may have been a Red-legged Grasshopper (Melanoplus femurrubrum) peered at me through two blades of grass! My expert resource person, Dr. Gary Parsons of the Michigan State University’s Entomology Department informed me that not only are the nymphs of this genus very similar,  but within each species the nymphs have many variations of color and pattern. Nymphs don’t have fully-formed wings,  so it will have to save its balletic leaps for a bit later in the summer finale.

This  nymph, possibly of a Red-legged Grasshopper, looked straight at me as if to say, “Verrrry interesting!”

Once it saw my camera, it twitched around the side of the grass stem and dangled there for a few minutes by its front legs. At first, the move made it difficult for me to find the nymph among the grass stems. I wondered if this was a camouflage technique; it did resemble a dangling wilted leaf as my eyes searched the ground. But eventually it must have decided I was not a threat and hopped back on the stem. A lovely few moments with a young creature.

A tiny Wood Frog (Rana sylvaticus), barely visible under a leaf, also missed the whole dance above as it made its way to high ground. As the nights cool, Wood Frogs look for leaf litter where they can produce inner anti-freeze and hibernate, frozen solid, until spring.

A tiny Wood Frog, perhaps an inch long, tried to blend into the brown grasses on the trail, keeping perfectly still.

Oh, Yes, Birds too!

My walks in our parks so often provide serendipitous moments for me. I’d been craning my neck to watch Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) swooping overhead, trailing their long, forked tails and wished aloud that one would perch for a photo. Just then, as my husband and I rounded a curve at the bottom of the Lookout Hill, we were gifted with this wonderful sight!

A selection of about 25-30 Barn Swallows perching on the fence around the southern restoration area below the Lookout Hill.

Dozens of Barn Swallows lined up on the fence with others perching on stalks in the tall plants within the fence line. What a surprise!  According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab, older siblings from earlier Barn Swallow broods often assist their parents in feeding the later broods of nestlings. The parents sometimes even get help from unrelated juvenile barn swallows. On the other hand, unmated barn swallows occasionally attack the young of a mated pair in hope of mating with the female! Nature in all species, I expect, has its good instincts and its bad ones.

One morning when I arrived, a large Pokeweed plant along the entrance path near Snell Road was aflutter with juvenile Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum). I could hear their high, piercing calls, but it took a while until one of the youngsters settled on a tree branch nearby for its portrait. Only the mask and the yellow tip of its tail identified it for me, because of its mottled breast and gray overall appearance.

A juvenile Cedar Waxwing can be identified from its mask and the yellow bar at the end of its tail.

A watchful older Waxwing perched in a nearby tree keeping an eye on the rowdy juveniles enjoying the Pokeweed berries and each other’s company. This one appears to be a first year waxwing because its upper wing is solid gray-brown and is missing its red dot; perhaps it has begun the annual molt because its mask and crest look incomplete. Its disgruntled look made me smile, thinking maybe babysitting juveniles was not its favorite assignment!

An older Cedar Waxwing keeps an eye on a troupe of rowdy youngsters.

An Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) sitting nearby looked over at the hubbub but generally ignored the Waxwings. Since Kingbirds are insectivores during the summers here, there was no need to compete for the Pokeweed berries. In the winter, however, when they fly all the way to the Amazon, they join a variety of flocks and eat only fruit.

An Eastern Kingbird watching the young Waxwings.

At the top of the Lookout Hill, a pair of House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus)- either females or juveniles which look just like their moms – were avidly scraping insects or insect eggs off the stems and leaves of a tree that clearly had already hosted a lot of caterpillars or other small bugs. The leaves were riddled with holes! I’m guessing that House Finches learn at a young age that leaves with holes mean FOOD!

These House Finches seemed to be making most of an insect-scavenged tree at the top of the Lookout Hill.

Nearby a juvenile Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus) looked a bit forlorn after it settled in a tree on the Lookout Hill. I didn’t identify this little bird as a Grosbeak until local birder extraordinaire Ruth Glass helped me out. Grosbeaks are now starting their migration to the Caribbean, so I hope this little male will soon be ready to take on his long flight across the country and the ocean beyond.

A juvenile Rose-breasted Grosbeak might mature a bit more before it begins its long migration to the Caribbean.

Our stewardship manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, mowed a path from the bottom of the Lookout Hill, going west, south, and then west again to connect to the older section of the park where the West Branch of Stony Creek runs through a beautiful ravine. As I approached the woods over the ravine, I kept hearing a plaintive Eastern Wood-Pewee (Contopus virens) in the woods but never got to see it. But I did see this little flycatcher, the Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) perching on a bare branch looking a bit rumpled. I wondered if it was a juvenile, though I can’t tell from its plumage.

An Eastern Phoebe looking a bit ruffled along the trail from the new section into the older ravine section of Stony Creek Ravine Park.

On a cool morning on my last trip to the park, a molting European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) appeared to be warming its breast high in a bare snag along the entrance trail. During the summer breeding season, these non-native birds are dressed in sleek black with iridescent blue-green overlays. Their beaks turn yellow then, too. But now, as fall arrives, they change into their winter garb. Their beaks turn dark and the feathers on their backs and breasts become covered with white spots. This one was already well along in the process.

This European Starling is in the process of molting to its spotted winter feathers and dark beak.

And Last But Certainly Not Least, the Trees and Plants that Make It All Possible!

Native Black-eyed Susans growing in a wet spot at Stony Creek Ravine Park.  Photo by Ben VanderWeide

Clearly, butterflies and birds grace our parks because these natural areas are rich in nutritious native food and abundant shelter for both adults and their young – the fledglings and the caterpillars. So let’s spend the last few minutes with perhaps an under-appreciated but vital element of any habitat – the native plants and trees that provide nesting space, nectar, pollen, seeds, nuts and most importantly, oxygen for all creatures – including us!

Wildflowers First

Begin by looking at that glorious patch of rare, native Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia fulgida) pictured above. These are not the ordinary Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) which gardeners  sometimes choose as annuals, or the native, but short-lived Rudbeckia hirtas that thrive in so many habits, including dry prairies. These bright yellow flowers at Stony Creek Ravine Park are a separate species of wildflower that prefers wetlands and is a long-lived perennial. They’re also the species used to create many varieties of cultivars used in landscaping. I’m so glad Ben shared his photo and his enthusiasm on finding these special plants – and for the photo. I was unaware that a wetland “Susan” even existed!

Ben also discovered a lovely patch of Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) growing near the edge of the woods in the north area of the park.  It too is a lovely wetland plant and often hosts our native, long-tongued Bumblebees. Though I’ve seen small patches and single stems of these blue flowers in other parks, Ben’s discovery is the biggest patch I’ve seen.

Several fields in this new section of the park are under cultivation by a local farmer until the park restoration can begin more fully there. At the edge of one of them is a lovely stand of bright pink Swamp/Rose Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata). These wetland milkweeds host Monarch butterflies, of course, as well as swallowtails, some frittilaries, native bees and skippers. But, good news, deer don’t eat milkweeds!  So if you have a moist garden, give these some thought.

I love Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) for its upright purple plumes, but it is also remarkably productive in the food web. Its nectar provides nutrition for a wide variety of native bees, small butterflies and moths. According to the Illinois Wildflowers website, the seeds also provide nutrition for many birds, including Cardinals, Swamp Sparrows, Field Sparrows, Song Sparrows and our winter visitor, the Dark-eyed Junco. Beauty for the eye and utility for the food web – a great combination!

Blue Vervain’s plume provides lots of sustenance to birds and pollinators.

Oh, and remember those young Cedar Waxwings jostling around in the greenery? What attracted them most were Pokeweed berries (Phytolacca americana). Lots of other birds love them as well, including Cardinals, the Gray Catbird and the Brown Thrasher. The fruits,  which are green now,  turn dark purple when mature. On those pink stalks, the plants look as though they should be somewhere in the tropics! Mammals however, like we humans and our pets,  should not partake of any part of this toxic plant. It looks luscious but it has evolved to be eaten by birds and not by any members of mammalia, our class of animals – which is frustrating because the fruits looks so tempting!

Here’s a quick tour of some of the other native wildflowers sprinkled throughout the meadows at Stony Creek Ravine providing sustenance to wildlife.

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And Now, A Few of the Mighty Trees at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park!

The Ravine and the West Branch of Stony Creek, for which the park is named

Though the fields of Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park are alive with pollinators, blossoms and birds, the lush woods that embrace them are equally impressive. In the park’s far western section, the West Branch of Stony Creek shines silver as it runs through the steep terrain of the heavily treed ravine for which the park is named. Along  its slopes and on the trail high above the creek, many species of trees  compete for sunlight while sharing nutrient resources through the fungal networks underground.

Some trees go to great lengths to reach the sunlight along the trail above the ravine.

One tree I look for every time I visit the ravine section of the park is a lovely American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) just over the edge of the slope near the end of the ravine trail.  Its satin-like bark makes me wish I could reach out and touch it.  According to the University of Michigan’s Michigan Flora website, a non-native scale insect (Cryptococcus fagisuga) can leave wounds in its bark that make them vulnerable to a deadly fungus (Nectria coccinea) which causes Beech Bark Disease, only recently discovered in Michigan. We need to protect these glorious native trees which provide so much food for wildlife and so much beauty for us.

A large beech tree stands precariously over the edge of the Stony Creek Ravine.

On the day the Wednesday bird group visited the park, Ben pointed out a huge Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa) next to the trail. This huge tree has merged three very large trunks. Each on their own would constitute a mighty oak!

The empty “mossy cup acorn” of a Bur Oak.

Bur Oaks make what the Michigan Flora website calls “mossy cup” acorns. This tree may live for many years to come. Not terribly shade tolerant, it is exposed to sunlight on the edge of  the woods near the trail and the long wetland along the entrance trail probably provides the amount of moisture it prefers. Ah, the stories this old tree could tell!

An old Bur Oak south of the trail that leads to the Ravine.

On the tree line between the northern restoration section and the western meadows is an old White Oak (Quercus alba) that demonstrates how location effects the growth of trees. In the open sunlight, surrounded by little competition, the oak has basked in sunlight for many years and spread it branches out instead of up, into a lush, wide crown. What a sight!

An old White Oak spreads out in the uninterrupted sunlight next to the north restoration area.

In the forest to the north last fall, Ben and I visited a huge Wild Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) that used its energy to grow tall, reaching up into the sunlight. Maybe that’s why its lovely yellow flowers only bloom high in the crown. Here’s the photo of it that I posted previously in the blog – just another example of the trees waiting to be explored in the forests beyond the fields.

A Tulip Tree growing tall to reach the sun in the shady northern forest at Stony Creek Ravine Park.

The Legacy Within Us

My husband at dusk just being with nature

I recently enjoyed an On Being Podcast interview with naturalist and environmental journalist, Michael McCarthy. He shared an insight from evolutionary psychology, namely that for 50,000 generations we humans were simply part of nature. For all that time, before we settled down to farm, we experienced all the challenges other creatures face in trying to survive in nature. Or as he put it “we were wildlife, if you like.” As a result, McCarthy contends, even now what we experienced, what we learned during those millennia is still in us, still making us feel at home in the natural world.

Maybe that explains why so many of us experience peace when we’re in places like Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park. On some level, we’re at home in natural areas in a way that even our cozy firesides cannot quite duplicate. Standing on the Lookout Hill at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park, I look out across moist wetlands and meadows to the encircling wood and just let go, become part of the scenery, embedded in its beauty. The swallows dip and rise, the butterflies float from stem to stem, the woods stands dark and mysterious, the creek at the western edge sings its songs over the rocks – and I’m just part of it all.

I imagine it’s that kinship with nature that motivates you and I to learn about and care for our badly damaged world. And it’s probably that kinship which pushes us out the door and into a park on a cold fall morning or just before dark on a summer night to once more savor our connection to the natural world. Michael McCarthy put it like this: “… there is a legacy deep within us, a legacy of instinct, a legacy of inherited feelings, which may lie very deep in the tissues…we might have left the natural world, most of us, but the natural world has not left us.”

And what a blessing that is! Our task, our calling now is to continue restoring and preserving the natural world for our children and grandchildren. By honoring that legacy within, we can hope to insure that future generations will also be able to breathe deep and feel the freedom and peace that nature so generously provides to us.

Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park: Meadows A-Flutter and a Steep Forest with… Tulip Trees!

The west branch of Stony Creek winds through the ravine

Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park is a small park with big contrasts – between the sunlit, gently rolling meadow and the forest with large trees grasping the steep slope that plunges down to the creek stippled with sunlight below. It’s a fairly short walk, just in and out, for now. Eventually, we hope this elbow of a park will be joined to 208 spectacular acres to the east, now being acquired by our Parks & Recreation Commission. So I’d suggest you see it soon, so you can say you “knew it when!”

An Undulating Path through a Meadow of Fluttering Wings

The trail begins in a grove of trees at the end of Knob Creek Drive with its single parking space. A few years ago, Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide removed walls of invasive shrubs that crowded the edges of the trail into the park, obscuring the meadow. Now when I step into the park, the landscape is open to fields filled with tall flowers and sunlight. The meadow is an exuberant, dense tangle of native and non-native wildflowers –  and a lot of thistle! But the butterflies and bees make do with what they find and they are everywhere! So I periodically ventured out as far as possible into the shoulder-high plants to get a little closer!

Cam among the incredibly tall flowers and thistles of the meadow at Stony Creek Ravine.

Ben had reported seeing lots of Giant Swallowtails (Papilio cresphontes) on thistles at the park. Having seen them there in previous years, I was excited to look for them. But after a very hot week, they had evidently moved on to greener pastures. I only saw one at an unreachable distance across the meadow on my first visit. But since I saw many of them later at Charles Ilsley Park, here’s a photo of one to refresh your memory. Pretty impressive size, eh? They are actually the largest butterfly in North America!

Giant Swallowtail butterflies seem to be coming to our area in increasing numbers.

My birding friend, Bob Bonin, also saw something at Stony Creek in August that I only saw from a distance. I had a quick glimpse of a Snowberry Clearwing Moth (Hemaris diffinis) but couldn’t wade fast enough into the greenery to catch a shot of it. Bob generously shared his beautiful shot of one feeding on the last drops of nectar from a native  Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa).  Clearwings lose some of the wing scales due to their hummingbird-style, hovering flight, leaving areas of their wings almost transparent. The yellow and black fuzziness of the  Snowberry Clearwing (Snowberry is one of its host plants) means that it’s often mistaken for a bumblebee – perhaps providing some protection from predators.

The Snowberry Clearwing Moth can be mistaken for a bumblebee. Photo at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park by Bob Bonin, used with permission

Native bee-balm also prompted a stopover by the Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus) which, according to Wikipedia, prefers to hang from the underside of leaves at night or on hot and humid days. Bee-balm, true to its name, attracts many native insects, including the ubiquitous native Bumblebees (genus Bombus).  (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

 

For the first time ever, I noticed European Honeybees (Apis mellifera) literally running around the tops of non-native Queen Anne’s Lace. I’d never before noticed this “busy bee” activity! They rush across each lacy blossom, perhaps quickly gathering nectar or pollen. Bee Culture, a beekeeping magazine, says that Queen Anne’s Lace produces the greatest amount of nectar in hot weather, so perhaps that’s what attracted them. Let me know in the comments if you have more info than I could find on this phenomenon. Here’s my amateur video of the bee race at Stony Creek Ravine.

It’s always heartening to see Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus) in our parks, especially a female one sipping on Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), its favorite host plant on which to lay eggs!

A female Monarch on Common Milkweed! Every year our parks do their part to protect this beloved species.

The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) is a generalist who can live in lots of habitats, from forests to meadows to urban areas. Its caterpillar can eat and grow on many of the trees in our parks, including Wild Black Cherry, Willows, Cottonwoods and Tulip Trees (see below!), but also on non-native plants like Lilacs. This adaptability means it’s thriving, and that made me glad as it paused so delicately to sip from the only tender part of a Plumeless Thistle (Carduus acanthoides).

An Eastern Tiger Swallowtail sips nectar from a non-native plumeless thistle.

Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele) looked a bit ragged and uncomfortable one humid afternoon. I wonder if it had landed on too many prickly, bristly plants like the Plumeless Thistle! Most of the “spangles” are on the underside of the hindwings, so I’ve included an older photo to show them, since this butterfly clearly had no attention of feeding with its wings up.

A Great Spangled Fritillary on a very uncomfortable  plant!
Most of the silver spangles on a Great Spangled Fritillary are on the underside of the hindwings.

Red-spotted Purple (Limenitis arthemis) paused on non-native Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota). It prefers rotted fruit or even dung and carrion, but occasionally it sips nectar from small white flowers like these, according to the citizen science website, butterfliesandmoths.org.  These butterflies sometimes produce two broods. The first caterpillars hatch and once half-grown, form a “hibernaculum,” an over-wintering refuge which for caterpillars usually involves a folded leaf and some spun silk to secure it. They then emerge in the spring and finish maturing.  According to Wikipedia, some of  the first larvae “are able to mature during the summer, so they emerge as the second brood [in] early fall,” but may have a tough time surviving winter cold. The prime condition of the butterfly below makes me wonder if it was from an early second hatch.

A Red-spotted Purple rests on a non-native Queen Anne’s Lace.

Some small butterflies also made the most of the late summer meadow. The  common and colorful Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos) landed repeatedly on the path in front of me, as they often do. These very small butterflies can mate many times between April and November so we’re almost bound to see one on any summer walk  in our parks. And we’re also likely to see the non-native Cabbage Butterfly (Pieris rapae). I just love the sculptural look of the ventral (underside) of the wings on the one below. I think she’s a female since I can just make out the double wing spots on the dorsal (upper side); males have only one spot.

Right now, you’ll probably see a creature along the trail that looks like a butterfly with its black wings edged in beige, but is really the Carolina Locust (Dissosteira carolina). Despite seeing them every summer, I’ve never gotten a shot of their sudden flights from under my feet. So I can only show you what they look like once they land. But I’ve borrowed with permission a photo from an iNaturalist.org photographer, Joshua G. Smith, who held one in his hand to get a photo of the wing.

The Woods, the Deer Effect and a Bubbling Creek Below

A panorama of the woods where it begins to slope toward Stony Creek

The woods at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park is full of big oaks and some beautiful native Tulip Trees (Lirodendron tulipfera)! These are not the shorter, heavy flowering cultivated trees that I grew up seeing in people’s yards. These mighty trees grow beautifully straight and tall often with few limbs once they reach 80-100 feet. In virgin habitat, they can grow to 160 feet and their girth can be as wide as 10 feet! According to Ben, there’s a huge one on the new piece of property that is planned to eventually connect with the existing 60 acre park. I hope someday I’ll be able to see it and show it to you here!

Tulip trees were once valued as timber because they grow straight and tall with few limbs until they are 80-100 feet tall.

Wild tulip trees (vs. nursery cultivated ones) only bloom at the top of the tree, so their glamorous flowers are rarely seen, but are rich with nectar. Their bark is ridged in an orderly pattern. The leaves have a unique, squared-off shape. And the graceful, seed-filled cones stay on the tree all winter only falling to the forest floor in the spring. I have never seen the flowers up close or the cones, so my thanks go to iNaturalist.org photographers kwilie and Sandy Wolkenberg for sharing the bloom and cone photos below. We’re lucky to see Tulip trees here because we are at the far north edge of their range. Can you tell I’ve found a new favorite native tree?

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The forest floor beneath the impressive trees, though, is almost barren. The shade of course is very dense. But a huge problem is that, despite a limited hunting season in this park two days each week in from October to January, the deer are plentiful. As a result, few woodland plants reach maturity on the forest floor. Deer have no front teeth, so the stems left on the plants they graze are ripped and flattened as seen below. Rabbits, for instance, with their incisors, make a neat, angular cut. But hope springs eternal! Though most tulip tree seeds don’t survive, I found a small sapling that somehow had escaped the notice of the deer -so far.

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As you hike down to the creek, more grasses appear. The creek’s moisture encourages some flowers, especially in the spring when the trees haven’t leafed out and more sunlight reaches the forest floor. In summer, the moist river bank is a  hangout for damselflies. One warm, gray afternoon,  I saw a female Ebony Jewel Wing (Calopteryx maculata) looking at me head-on from a fallen branch.

A female Ebony Jewelwing damselfly looked at me intently!

Her mate is a bit more glamorous, but I also like the elegant understatement of the female.

The west branch of Stony Creek burbles along, tumbling over rocks, slipping under fallen trees, catching glints of sunlight on its surface. And beneath the surface, small fish school in the shallows.

Small fish schooling in the clear water of Stony Creek as it runs through the ravine.

Deep in the woods on the far side of the creek, the shriek of a young Red-tailed Hawk begging to be fed grated upon my ears. Young hawks can repeat this harsh cry for 4 to 6 weeks! I know what adult hawks are dealing with, because in some years, a young hawk subjects my husband and I to their cries from the field next to our house! But hawks believe in tough love and eventually it gets hungry enough, I guess, to do its own hunting. Here’s my recording at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park.

The youngster was nowhere in sight, but here’s a photo of one taken along Predmore Road near Lost Lake Park in 2017.

Red-tailed Hawk juvenile near Lost Lake in 2017

On a later visit, I was startled by a flash of huge wings, as a young hawk (I think!) flashed across the path in front of me and stumbled into a tree much too small for its size and weight. It wobbled back and forth on a thin branch for a few seconds. But before I raised my camera, it lumbered up into the air and soared off into the woods on the far side of the meadow. As far as I could tell this “desperate escape” was caused by the harassing pursuit of a single Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) – hardly the behavior of an adult hawk!  Like a lot of adolescents, this young bird just needs a bit more time to grow up.

Back Up in the Meadow – Baby Birds and a Fun Baby Insect

It’s a steep climb out of the ravine, up through the woods to the path and the sunlit meadow. Back on the trail,  I noticed out in the meadow a few fledglings learning to make their own way in the world. A juvenile Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) still sported the fledgling’s dappled chest, a field mark common to other members of the thrush family. It had landed high on the bare branch of a snag to survey the field, looking quite confident that it could survive on its own.

A Bluebird fledgling out on its own and surveying its world.

A little Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) popped up out of the greenery, looking like a plush toy! Donald W. Stokes’ Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol. 1) points out that a good field mark for juveniles is that their tails are about half the size of an adult Song Sparrow. Next spring, this little sparrow will look for a nesting site within its “song neighborhood,” i.e. close to the the place where adult birds sing the songs that it heard and memorized as a nestling. According to this Cornell Ornithology Bird Academy website, juvenile male sparrows need to practice for several months before they can sing their repertoire perfectly – sort of like babies babbling before talking.

A Song Sparrow fledgling learns its song repertoire from neighboring adults while still in the nest.

Far out in the meadow, I saw a hard-working male American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) traveling about with a juvenile. Male Goldfinches do most of the fledgling feeding because the females are busy with a second clutch of eggs. Goldfinches wait to breed until mid-summer when thistles provide them with fluffy pappus (downy plant material) to make an almost water-tight nest lining. Then they feed their young with partially digested thistle seed. I could hear an insistent fledgling calling to be fed and could see the adult male flying to meet it. Each time, the two of them disappeared into the greenery for a meal. I moved further into the dense undergrowth, trying to see the adult feeding the youngster. Finally, the fledgling, alone again, came out onto a bare tree stem and diligently chewed at its tip. My best guess is that this behavior is a way to practice stripping hulls from the seeds that make up almost all of a goldfinch’s diet. But I’m not sure, though I’ve seen two young goldfinches do this in the last week!

A juvenile Goldfinch gnaws the end of a stem, perhaps practice for removing hulls from seeds in the future.

Out in the field, the adult male Goldfinch hopped about on a thistle, filling his beak with seed to share with the youngster. I believe the thistle he chose  is again Plumeless Thistle.  At least it appears to feed the birds and butterflies!

A Goldfinch male filling his beak with native seed from a Plumeless Thistle to share with his nearby fledgling.

The birds will be able to enjoy a treat before too long, because a big, energetic patch of  American Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) with its Dr. Seuss-style color scheme has appeared along the trail! The green berries in the photo below will gradually turn white and then deep purplish-black. When ripe, they are much beloved by birds, particularly the Gray Catbird, Brown Thrasher, Northern Cardinal and the Northern Mockingbird, according to Wikipedia. However, they are highly toxic to most mammals, including us humans! So admire them,  but no snacking, not even one!

On the way back to the car, I spotted one of the largest and  most graceful nests of Eastern Tent Caterpillars (Malacosoma americanum) I’ve ever seen. These gregarious caterpillars head out each morning to forage together and return to their tents at night. The tents are added to each day before they leave, so they have multiple layers. As a result, the caterpillars can go to different parts of the tent for heating or cooling.  Though their feeding can defoliate trees, they cause little permanent damage and the trees generally re-leaf once they’re gone.

This tent is almost empty probably because in the morning, the Tent Caterpillars leave en masse to find food together.

My forays deeper into the meadow left me with socks covered in burs and sticky seeds. So on my way back to the car, I stopped at the beautiful bench commemorating the Kezlarian’s generosity toward this park. Along with the burs, I plucked a small caterpillar from one sock and set it on the bench. To my delight, it quickly began scooting around on the granite at a rapid pace. I laughed out loud! It was an inchworm! I looked them up when I got home and discovered they are caterpillars of the large and diverse moth family, Geometridae. Here’s the 30 second video I took of it that still tickles me. (It should have some cartoon music in the background, but again, I’m a complete beginner at videography!)

By the way, after filming, I let it climb on a dry leaf, carried it to a nice green one and wished it well.

The Persistence of Nature as a Challenge to Care

Water flows around a bend in Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park.

Places like Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park strengthen my hope when life feels challenging. The intense July heat – reportedly the hottest July in history worldwide! – finished the bloom of many flowers that might have lasted longer in a normal year. But honey bees rush about on less nectar-rich blooms, trying to gather their much-needed supply of pollen to feed the young  or  the nectar for making honey to feed the over-wintering colony. Some butterflies make their way across great distances  in unpredictable weather, seeking out available nectar to feed themselves and suitable host plants for their eggs. Young birds exercise their new skills, learning within weeks how to forage on their own in a landscape shaped by the changing climate. The glimmering creek down in the shadows of the forest rises and falls with the rainfall, but, for now,  flows on.

This same persistence, I think, also challenges us to do what we can to cool our planet and return to the patterns that nature has bequeathed to us through eons of experimentation. We owe it to the wildflowers, bees, butterflies – all of the natural world that supports us – to shape our lives not just to our human needs, but the needs of all the living beings that share this little blue planet with us. The township stewardship program is working on that, I’m working on that – and I bet you are, too. Let’s press on!

Bear Creek Nature Park: Nervous Fledglings Venture Forth and Missing Native Wildflowers Reappear!

Monarch heaven! Common Milkweed flourishes in the eastern meadow at Bear Creek Nature Park, providing lots of leaves on which Monarch caterpillars can thrive.

Summer is finally taking hold. Many of the flowers, butterflies and other insects are late this year, but they’re slowly appearing. Warm days allowed fledglings to emerge from their nests and use their tiny wings to pursue their parents into the fields and marshes, begging to be fed. Many of the young birds look a bit shaky out on their own. Parent birds whisk back and forth, beaks lined with seed or bearing a drooping caterpillar.   Wildflowers, long buried under invasive shrubs that were removed last fall, are emerging from the seed bank in all their glory. A time of renewal for sure!

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

So join me on a virtual circuit of Bear Creek Nature Park – from the meadows, to the pond, through the woods to the marsh and back to monitor the bird boxes.  I’m happy to have you along!

Fledglings Venture Forth into Sunny Meadows

As I began my walk, rambling along the path through the eastern meadow,  I was suddenly aware of  lots of movement and noisy chattering in the bushes and small trees. Little fledglings were perching there, occasionally fluttering and calling, reminding their busy parents to bring them a meal. A little Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) struggled up onto a branch near an adult who took off immediately to look for food, leaving the youngster looking just a bit insecure!

A fledgling Red-winged Blackbird seems not quite ready to be alone in the world!

Another youngster perched on a branch seemed on high alert as  it looked out on the meadow.  The striped feathers and the fact that adult Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia) were nearby makes me think that it’s their fledgling.

A young Song Sparrow looks anxiously off into the distance, waiting to be fed.

On a birding walk a week earlier, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Stewardship Manager, heard the high, wheezy call of the small Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea). Looking up we spotted a tiny nest near the top of a walnut tree. Two adult gnatcatchers were industriously taking turns bringing food to their young. The left photo shows what we could see of the nest and the parent bird from below, though the group did catch a glimpse at one point of a fluttering wing as a nestling leaned out to get the goodies. I’ve included an earlier photo of an adult  Gnatcatcher as it forages. (Click to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

Dragonflies and Damselflies Hover and Dart in the Meadows

Dragonflies maneuver across the meadows, moving up, down and forward, in their search for unwary insects or possible mates. The broken wood of the mowed invasive shrubs makes a handy resting place for them.  A juvenile male Common Whitetail dragonfly (Libellula lydia) rested quite near a more adult one, perhaps learning the ropes? The white patches at the bottom of the hind wings are field marks for the juvenile. When mature, the whole abdomen is covered in  a dusty white, referred to as “prunescence.”

The male Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly (Erythemis simplicicollis) also found the woody shards a great place to lie in wait. Though the female is bright green all over, the male’s colors transition from a green face, to a blue-green thorax and a slaty blue abdomen. Quite a handsome fellow!

The Eastern Pondhawk male has a green face and blue-green thorax with a lovely blue abdomen.

Lots of orange dragonflies cling to stalks in the meadow grass. They belong to the genus Sumpetrum, but knowledgeable folk in the Facebook group “Odonata of the Eastern United States” inform me that you can only determine the species of orange dragonflies if you have one in hand with a magnifying glass! And of course, I’m never in a summer meadow, it seems, without seeing the striking Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa).

Damselflies seem more likely to prefer shady areas. But I do occasionally see them in tall meadow grass. Here’s a male Emerald Spreadwing Damselfly (Lestes dryas) I saw when wading through deep grass one warm afternoon. Like dragonflies, they consume a lot of mosquitoes, which pleases me and you too, I bet.

The Seed Bank Awakens as Restoration Begins

Perhaps the biggest thrill for me in the meadows this week, though, was the reappearance of long lost wildflowers. Evidently, beneath those invasive shrubs in the meadows near the pond, seeds and small plants of native wildflowers had been waiting for maybe decades while the fields were covered either with grazing fodder for cattle or abandoned to non-native plants. Now the sun and rain have reached the earth over them again and they are making a comeback!

Out in the meadow west of the pond,  large patches of Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) have emerged  where previously we only saw a single plant here or there.  And as you’ll see further down in the blog, the Monarch butterflies are already finding them.

Butterfly Weed and daisies BC (1)
Butterfly Milkweed spreads its brilliant orange in two big patches west of the Center Pond.

A spectacular wildflower blooming this year is one neither Ben nor I have ever seen before in Bear Creek Nature Park – the Michigan Lily (Lilium michiganense) – not to be confused with the non-native tiger lilies or the much less glamorous Orange Daylily (Hemerocallis fulva) which originated in Asia. I’d only seen this striking native with its  cup of curved petals, arching stem and showy stigma near the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail. But this beauty at Bear Creek waited patiently. Once warmth and moisture reached it, up it came just west of the Center Pond.  Michigan lilies can be tempting to hummingbirds and many butterflies. I saw one other bud, so I’m hoping for more!

The dramatic Michigan Lily reappeared in Bear Creek once invasive shrubs were removed.

Tall Meadow Rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum) and Fringed Loosestrife (Lysimachia ciliata)  have staged a comeback, too. A Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) at the edge of the path had produced its bright green berries on a wide spadix. The berries will turn a brilliant red in the fall.  Who knows what else will emerge over the summer and fall?

Butterflies Arrive – but Not Enough for Me, Yet!

As the mid-summer wildflowers finally begin to bloom, the butterflies are begging to appear.  Sun-loving Butterfly Milkweed hosted a Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) last week. Since this is a female Monarch, we can hope that it will lays its eggs either on the leaves of this milkweed or on one of the many Common Milkweeds in the eastern meadow.

With its long proboscis stuck in a blossom, it appears that this Monarch found the nectar to be just what it needed after its journey to Michigan,

Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus) took a while to show me the bright white spot on the lower (ventral) side of its hind wing. It looks quite different when the “silver spot” is out of sight!

A very tired, worn, Black Swallowtail sat quietly on the path one afternoon. According to Wikipedia, Black Swallowtails are generally longer-lived than other butterflies, unless subjected to bad weather or deprived of food. We’ve had pretty wild weather and the flowers are behind schedule, so perhaps that took its toll on this unfortunate female.

This Black Swallowtail with worn wings and a ragged swallowtail may have been ready to succumb from bad weather and an insufficient supply of nectar.

The Little Wood Satyr (Papilio polyxenes), though, seemed be just fine as it danced along in its bouncing flight from shade into the sun and back again.

Little Wood Satyrs venture into grassy areas that are near the shade of trees.

On to the Pond and Its Frog Song

White Water Crowfoot , an early summer native, is winding down at the Center Pond as the weather warms.

A few blossoms of White Water Crowfoot (Ranunculus longirostris) still peek from the background of abundant Duckweed (Lemna minor) at the Center Pond. The Northern Green Frogs (Rana clamitans) sprawl comfortably among it, floating at the surface and croaking in their banjo voices to attract mates. Since males have a tympanum (circular hearing device near the eye) bigger than their eyes and a yellow throat, this one staring at me intently was definitely a male.

A male Green Frog among the duckweed at the Center Pond

Frog “talk” this July:

I smiled at this small Midland Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta marginata) who seemed to be listening to the frogs right along with me. But more likely, it was just basking in the warm sunlight after a cold spring, and trying to ignore the frog voices. It’s decorated nicely with bits of  Duckweed.

A small Midland Painted Turtle basked in the Duckweed while the frogs croaked around it.

Into the Woods

The woods just west of Bear Creek Marsh, now more open since cleared of invasive shrubs

The woods on the east side of the park let in so much more light now that the invasive shrubs have been removed! I keep hoping I’ll see more woodland wildflowers because of it. But deer are plentiful at Bear Creek so that’s a slim hope; they love to eat native plants and young saplings. But a couple of woodland flowers escaped their notice, probably because both of them are a bit fuzzy, which puts deer off:  Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea canadensis) and Panicled Tick Trefoil (Desmodium paniculatum). Both thrive in the dappled sunlight of the woods so perhaps I will see them spread as sunlight reaches more of the forest floor.

Unfortunately for humans, native Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) is more abundant in the woods and everywhere else this year. But if you stay on the paths, you’ll be just fine. Look for a three leaved plant on which the center leaf has two “thumbs” but the right and left leaves have only one “thumb” – or look for a vine with that leaf arrangement and reddish “feet” clinging to the bark. Poison ivy isn’t poisonous for animals, though. It produces green berries that turn white in the fall just at the time when other berries are disappearing. So migrating birds gobble them up, enjoying a boost of energy and protein before heading south. Northern Flickers, Bobwhite Quail, Eastern Phoebes, Cedar Waxwings, Woodpeckers, Tufted Titmice, and American Robins all readily eat Poison Ivy berries. Raccoons and deer can eat the whole plant –  and they’re welcome to them, as far as I’m concerned.

Poison Ivy berries feed migrating birds in the fall and the whole plant is browsed by deer and eaten by raccoons!

I followed the song of an Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) high in the treetops as I entered the woods. I paused, listened, moved a little – no luck at seeing him in the high treetops. After about 10 minutes of following him from one tree to the next, I gave up and moved on. Luckily, the following week ,the birding group spotted one in the open at Cranberry Lake Park, so at least I can show you a somewhat fuzzy photo of  “the one who got away.”

An Eastern Towhee singing his “Drink your Teeeeeea” song at Cranberry Lake Park after one eluded me at Bear Creek

Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) sang one of its summer songs repeatedly, but it was also hidden in the leafy branches. It’s a classic, summer moment when this  unmistakable, ebullient call reverberates from the treetops!

Damselflies love the “spotlight effect” they get from the filtered light in the forest.  I came upon a female Ebony Jewelwing (Calopteryx maculata) who seemed to be trying to seduce an oddly unmotivated male.  Each posed on a sunlight leaf, but she would periodically fly briefly onto his leaf,  making him jump off for a few moments.  Perhaps she hoped to be pursued, but it was not happening while I was there. I’m afraid I caught her at an indiscreet moment when she paused to poop a few moments later….

A woodland moth slept soundly on a leaf at the edge of the woods one afternoon.  The caterpillar of the  White Slant-line Moth (Tetracis cachexiata) feeds on all kinds of native trees, so it’s a common moth in woods and forests all over Canada and the US. I love the simple design of its bright white wings and subtle yellow stripe.

The White Slant-line Moth’s caterpillar can feed on lots of North American trees so it’s a common sight in forests.

As I walked off the path in the woods to follow the Towhee, clouds of what I think were Hangingflies (genus Bittacidae) rose from the greenery under my feet. These harmless creatures are a relative of the also harmless Scorpion Fly (family Panorpidae) I saw last year at Bear Creek, named for the upward curve of the male’s abdomen.  Both belong to the order Mecoptera. But the delicate legs of Hangingflies cannot support their body weight! So instead they hang by their front legs beneath leaves and capture aphids, moths and other passing insects with their long back legs! Nature always finds a solution. I felt lucky to find one suspended in a spot of sunlight beneath a grass stem.

A Hangingfly can’t stand on its legs. It hunts by hanging from its front legs and catching other insects with the back ones.

Bear Creek Marsh – Wet, Green and Full of Life

A view of Marsh at Bear Creek looking incredibly lush in mid-summer.

The native Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) has round, green buds just waiting to burst into balls of white blossoms in the summer heat. It lines one half of the southern platform overlooking the Bear Creek Marsh.

Buttonbush is about to bloom around the southern platform at Bear Creek Marsh.

Here’s what each of those buds will look like shortly!

Buttonbush Blossom in bloom!

At the northern platform, my husband spotted an adult Green Heron (Butorides virescens) standing among the cat-tails and rushes across from the deck.  It probably had been probing the mud for food.  According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab, it has a wide ranging diet – from frogs to fish, snails, insects –  even rodents! This one took off and landed high in a tree overlooking the marsh.  I just learned from Cornell that Green Herons actually nest in a large fork in a shrub or tree with overhanging limbs to hide the nest from predators like snakes, crows or grackles. I’d love to see the nest or young of this handsome bird!

A Green Heron among the cattails at Bear Creek Marsh

As usual in the summer, we looked for slow-moving mounds of mud or moss in the water, a sure sign of  Common Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina).  We eventually saw four, a large one and 3 smaller ones.  It helped when the big one raised its head on that long neck.   The snappers weren’t much interested in each other at the moment and spent a lot of time munching on fresh underwater plants.

A Snapping Turtle cruising along in the marsh.

Of course, Red-winged Blackbirds dotted the marsh as well, clinging onto cat-tail stems and trilling.  On my first visit, a female scolded me continually while I sat on the bench.  Eventually, I realized that her nest was nearby when a male appeared with a worm or caterpillar in his beak.  He quickly dropped into the grasses near the water to feed his young.

A male Red-winged Blackbird with a worm or caterpillar for his nestlings and some pollen on his head!

A week later, I saw a Red-winged fledgling watching a male pick apart a cat-tail for seeds.  The little one tried to do the same but with little success since its cat-tail head had already been mostly eaten. Later the small bird landed on a cat-tail in the distance where the male obligingly stuffed some seeds into its beak, thank goodness!

A fledgling Red-winged Blackbird tries to pick apart a cat-tail like the adults do – but not as successfully.

Down below the platform, the American Bur-reed was in all stages of blooming – from buds to blossoms to fruits.  Marsh plants clean our waterways by storing nitrogen and phosphorus that would otherwise starve the water of oxygen.  And Bur-reed is one of the most effective marsh plants, storing four times more than some other aquatic plants.  Plants like Bur-reed are one of the reasons conservationists value wetlands so highly!

American Bur-reed cleans our waterways by storing the nitrogen and phosphorus in run-off.

As I headed back to the parking lot, I walked back along the boardwalk by the playground pond and noticed a sleepy, nocturnal Gray Tree Frog ( Hyla versicolor) resting peacefully on a lower railing.

The nocturnal Gray Tree Frog curled up on a railing at the playground pond.

Stewardship Fosters Nature Here – and Far Beyond the Township

Thanks for taking a virtual hike through Bear Creek with me.  I find it heartening that the stewardship crew and Dr. Ben are restoring habitat and fostering the wildlife in this park with all of its natural variety.  The invasive shrubs are removed and the seed bank brings back native flowers.  The native flowers bloom and butterflies and other insects thrive by feeding at them.  The nestlings are fed with the insects’ caterpillars and venture out of their nests and nest boxes to soar over the meadows. In the fall, some of them will travel great distances, bringing their beauty and their role in maintaining healthy habitats to places as far away as South America.

The humble bur-reed is allowed to flourish in the marsh. Because it cleans the water as it stores nutrients in its stems and leaves, Bear Creek’s water is healthier as it flows  out of the marsh, eventually reaching Paint Creek.  And the fish and other aquatic creatures and plants there benefit from cleaner water – and on it flows into the intricate, inter-locking systems of the natural world.

Stewardship is a lot of hard work but the reward is that it makes a difference not just in our township, but far beyond.  Wherever the creek’s water flows, wherever native seeds are carried by creatures, wind or water, wherever migrating birds and butterflies travel, a little bit of our township’s stewardship work has played its part in preserving our natural heritage.

Bees and “Wannabees”: Native Pollinators Tend Early Summer Blooms

European Honey Bee on Goldenrod, summer of 2015

When most of us think of pollinators, the European Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) comes to mind first – and with good reason. These hive bees work industriously in agricultural fields and orchards. And we benefit from the fruits, vegetables and of course flowers they visit.  According to MSU Extension, though, they are active in temperatures above 60 °F and prefer clear, sunny, placid weather. In case you haven’t noticed (or don’t live in Michigan), that’s not yet our weather here this year.

Luckily, native bees and hoverflies come to our rescue, and the rescue of countless wildflowers. Bumblebees (genus Bombus), our chunky native bees, only require temperatures above 50° and will fly in wet, dark and windy weather – the kind we’re living with this year! And along side them are other native bees and the ever-present hoverflies who look like bees but aren’t. So let’s see who’s out and about in our parks pollinating plants on these cool, damp days of early summer.

[A Disclaimer: I’m a learner when it comes to insect identification, but I’ve done my best to figure out what I’m seeing. Let me know in comments if you think I’ve erred. And if you’d like more detailed info, check out my two main sources: a fine book by Heather Holm entitled Pollinators of Native Plants and this excellent web article by Jason Gibbs from MSU Dept. of Etymology.]

[Warning! Corrections below!  A kind and knowledgeable reader helped me out by commenting on 3 bee species that he believed were misidentified in this blog.  I checked them with Dr. Gary Parsons from at Michigan State University and a fellow there who is a bee curator and they determined that the reader is correct.  Thanks to the reader and to Dr. Parsons!  You’ll see the corrections below and links to more information on the correct bees!  My apologies.  I will be much more careful in the future when trying to ID native bees, which it turns out can only to be positively identified as to species with a microscope and using identification keys – and not through photos!]

Native Bees Happily Take on the Job of Spring Pollination

Female bees of all species carry most of the load when it comes to pollination, because they feed pollen to themselves and their young. Some species stash it on hairs or in pollen baskets on their hind legs. Others let it spread thickly across the stiff hairs of their abdomen. Wasps, like Yellow Jackets or Hornets, can look like bees but they don’t collect or eat pollen. (They are predators who keep insect numbers in check, including some garden pests.) So if you see lots of yellow or orange pollen on the leg or abdomen of an insect, it’s a bee! Where are these bees finding pollen now?

Native Wild Lupine (Lupine perennis) rises elegantly within the restored prairie at Charles Ilsley Park in early June. Look for them near the observation deck at Gallagher Creek Park as well. They are a popular stop on the pollen route for our native bees right now.

Lupines at Charles Ilsley Park where prairies are being restored

A Metallic Green Sweat Bee (genus Agapostemon) found the Lupine blossoms irresistible. These very small bees are solitary; they don’t live in hives. Instead, they make tunnels in bare soil and tend their young alone. Sweat bees are occasionally attracted to human sweat on hot, dry days but their sting is not as severe as a bee or wasp. They are normally docile while foraging but can be aggressive if you get near their nests. But please don’t use pesticides on them. These little bees do a lot of pollinating! Creating a spot of bare soil on your property away from your garden and house where they can nest will make both you and them feel safer.

A metalic green sweat bee finds its way into a lupine blossom.

One cool afternoon, I watched a couple of sweat bees [Edit:  Correction by a reader! The two small bees below are in the genus Ceratina, family Apidae, a genus according to Wikipedia that is “often mistaken for sweat bees! For information on these small bee, use this link] make the proverbial “beeline”  for the native Daisy Fleabane (Erigeron annuus), a close relative of asters and daisies, but a different genus. These tiny, sun-faced flowers are one of the first blooms to emerge in spring and they last all summer. So it seems that the two sweat bees heading in from the right on the photo below know a reliable source of nectar and pollen when they see one!

Two metallic green[bees from the genus Ceratina]  heading for a tiny Daisy Fleabane.
A native Bumblebee (genus Bombus) used its long tongue to reach inside the lavender lips of the Lupine blossoms at Gallagher Creek Park and then flew off with its pollen load tucked neatly into the pollen sacks on its legs. According to author Heather Holm, bumblebees sometimes use a technique called “buzz pollination” in which they release pollen from tight places by clinging onto a plant’s anthers (the tip of the male stamen that holds the pollen) and activating their flight muscles, making a buzz. Poof! Out comes the pollen. Neat trick. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

 

Carpenter Bees (genus Xylocopa) shape their nests by patiently shaving off wood bit by bit to make perfectly round holes, usually on the underside of branches, or at our house, under deck railings! They lay their eggs inside, sealing each egg in separately with neat plugs of pollen to keep the young larvae fed. Later, the young bees will overwinter in these nests to emerge for mating the following spring. Here’s what I’m quite sure is an Eastern Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa virginica) nuzzling a Blackberry blossom (Rubus allegheniensis). It looks a lot like a native Bumblebee, but its abdomen is shiny black instead of fuzzy and it has a dot in the center of its yellow thorax.

A Carpenter Bee collects pollen or nectar from a blackberry blossom.

The blackberry bush also hosted another bee. I believe it’s a Masked/Cellophane Bee (genus Hylaeus).  [Edit:  Correction!  These bees are from the genus Halictidae whereas the Cellophane bee is in the genus Megachilidae.  Thanks to an expert reader for the correction! For information on Halictidae use this link]These solitary bees are the only ones that transport pollen in a crop like some birds do with seed.  These bees use exisiting cavities in wood for nesting, and wrap their larvae in a thin membrane that evidently gave them the name “cellophane bees” – and they also have white patches on their heads, hence the “masked” name.

A masked/cellophane bee carries pollen in its crop.

Native Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea), an early summer flower, attracted the attention of another native pollinator, the solitary Leafcutter Bee (genus Megachilidae). [Correction:  This is a “mining bee,” species Andrena from the genus Andrenidae.  For information on them, see this link. ]They can be very active within blossoms, making what some sources describe as a “swimming motion.” Evidently, that also releases  a lot of pollen that they carry on stiff hairs on their abdomen. Their nests are built vertically in hollow plant stems or other natural cavities. They neatly cut and then chew bits of leaves to line each cell. Entomologists suppose that the leaves may preserve the moisture in the pollen plug at the end of each cell, so it will last until the larvae hatches to eat it. The larvae then pupates, emerges for a short life of a few weeks and starts the cycle again.

A Leafcutter Bee searches for both nectar and pollen on a Golden Alexanders blossom

And then there are the “Wannabees”

I love Jason Gibb’s term “wannabees” for the ubiquitous Hoverflies – also called flower flies – members of the genus Taxomerus (family Syrphidae).  Hoverflies visit flowers frequently and are commonly mistaken for bees. Many of them mimic bees and wasps, being patterned in white, black and  yellow (or orange). But they differ from bees in one important way; hoverflies do not have stingers. They just want their predators to think they do! They feed on both pollen and nectar. Though hoverflies don’t carry as much pollen on their smooth bodies as bees do on their fuzzy ones, they may make up for that by visiting flowers more often. As a result, they are considered the second most effective plant pollinators. Another great benefit of hoverflies is that their larvae eat aphids like crazy, much like ladybugs do. So they can keep plants healthy as well as do some pollinating.

Drama Unfolds on Daisy Fleabanes!

It’s not a surprise that the nodding stalks of Daisy Fleabane (Erigeron annuus) show up in every field in the spring. Hoverflies move constantly from one to the next since not many different wildflowers bloom in this cold spring! As they land, of course, they drop pollen on the waiting stigmas of the flower, just what’s needed to produce more Daisy Fleabane. From my observation, the flowers in bright sunlight get more attention from hoverflies than those in the shade. Perhaps they see in ultraviolet like bees and the flowers look much more inviting in the sunshine?

But more than just pollination is taking place on those sunny little blooms! It turns out that a Daisy Fleabane can be a stage for high drama – birth and death among the petals! One tiny fleabane flower featured the mating of two hoverflies while a third ignored them in its avid search for a good meal. The dispassionate female seems to be casually having a snack as well.

Two hoverflies mated on a Daisy Fleabane while one ignored them in the interest of finding nectar or pollen

And on another Fleabane blossom, an ambush!  I’ve just learned about Crab Spiders (genus Thomisidae). These crafty arachnids don’t spin webs. They simply sit on or just under the edges of flowers waiting to grab unwary insects. Those long curved front legs do look a bit crab-like!

A crab spider sitting on a fleabane blossom hoping, no doubt, to snag a careless insect.

The Bluebottle Fly (genus Calliphora) in the photo below seems to have been oblivious to a crab spider until it was grabbed around the middle by one of the long legs of its hidden predator. Those big fly eyes look vaguely shocked, don’t they? The hoverfly on the blossom above  seems unconcerned, its head deep in the pollen. And what I think is the green sweatbee flying in may choose to do the same on a different bloom. I doubt they stayed around long enough to be a second and third meal for the spider!

A crab spider under the edge of a fleabane has grabbed a fly for lunch, while an uninterested hoverfly eats nearby. And what I think is  another green sweat bee speeds in on the right.

What about the Butterflies?

Well, butterflies are arriving, or hatching or coming out from under bark after overwintering. But not many are present yet. And let’s face it; the flowers available now are not especially tempting when compared to the variety and plentitude of summer. So the butterflies that appear in the parks make do with other food sources – sweet tree sap, rotting fruits from last fall, carrion, even occasionally the nutrition left in animal scat! Here’s  a selection of the butterflies I’ve seen so far and not one of them was pollinating a flower! (Click on photos to enlarge; use pause button for captions.)

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I’ve also seen three different Monarchs but they didn’t stop to have photos taken. And the very tiny White-striped Black moth (Trichodezia albovittata) is a first sighting ever for me. Its miniscule black and white wings flutter so fast that when flying, it looks like a blurry signal of dots and dashes! I was so happy when it paused for a few moments!

Native Plants + Native Insects = Caterpillars + More Well-fed Bird Hatchlings

Two-day-old Eastern Bluebird hatchlings (Sialis sialis)

You’ve probably noticed that I’ve used the word “larvae” several times in this piece. The common term for these squiggly young is “caterpillar.” Caterpillars (as I’ve mentioned before) are the preferred food that birds stuff down the tender throats of their hatchlings. They are great baby food for birds, full of protein and fat and easy to swallow.

So let’s be glad that our native insects are out gathering pollen for two reasons. Our bees and wannabees keep the wildflowers (and eventually fruits and vegetables) reproducing year after year. But by also feeding pollen to all those larval bees and flies, they feed the young of clever birds who winkle them out of holes and pluck them off of leaves and limbs. Yes, we may get a few cut, chewed or even defoliated leaves in our garden. But many of those caterpillars will nourish the next generation of glorious birds singing the morning chorus! Now doesn’t that make you appreciate insects just a wee bit more?

Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide and volunteer Stephanie Patil with hundreds of native plants purchased by township residents through the Parks and Recreation Commission.