Tag Archives: snapping turtle

Cranberry Lake: Summer Ushers in Birds, Butterflies and Blossoms

Wild Geraniums along the Hickory Lane

 

Blog and Photos by Cam Mannino

Summer finally made its appearance all over the woods, meadows, wetlands, and forest edges of Cranberry Lake Park.  After a prescribed burn this spring, geraniums and trillium emerged under the huge Shagbark Hickories that line the park’s western edge. Summer birds, including the tiny warblers and other new arrivals, are singing lustily to establish their territories and attract interested females as they begin to build nests. Butterflies are just starting to dance above the greenery in the dry meadows. And the hibernators – like snappers, raccoons and  leopard frogs – get back in action after their winter snooze. The transformation from spring to summer has well and truly begun.

Birds and Blooms in the Large Sunny Meadows

Small Yellow Warblers (Setophaga petechia) welcome visitors from the high treetops just north of the parking lot. The male with his chestnut-striped breast sings his “sweet-sweet, I’m a little sweet” song as he darts here and there, frequently out of sight in the greenery. Luckily a female with much fainter stripes ignored me while probing for insects in some smaller trees.

A female Yellow Warbler probed the branches of a small tree near the western entrance to the park.

At the edge of the big northern meadow one afternoon, I heard the two buzz call that Ben identified on an earlier birdwalk. As I scanned the bushes with my binoculars, a lovely Blue-Winged Warbler (Vermivora cyanoptera) filled my view. By the time I raised the camera, it was gone. Joan Bonin, a gifted local photographer and birder, kindly offered her stunning photo taken a week later at Port Huron State Recreation Area.  Thank you, Joan!

This gorgeous photo of a Blue-Winged Warbler was taken by local birder and photographer extraordinaire, Joan Bonin.

Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus) made a brief appearance in a small meadow opening at the edge of a forested wetland. Evidently these little birds sing incessantly, especially on warm summer afternoons. In fact, Cornell reports that one determined male “sang 22,197 songs in the 14 hours from just before dawn to evening, singing for 10 of those hours.” I missed both his song and a photo, but another gifted local photographer and birder, Bob Bonin (Joan’s husband), kindly shared his lovely photo taken at the Tawas migration site last year. Thanks to Bob, also!

Local photographer Bob Bonin’s fine shot of a Red-eyed Vireo taken at the Tawas  migration site last May.

Steve, a fine birder that I met at Bear Creek Park, commented on the last blog that he’d seen an Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) at Cranberry Lake in the last two weeks.   Cornell ornithologists report that all blue birds actually have no blue pigment in their feathers. “Their jewel-like color comes instead from microscopic structures in the feathers that refract and reflect blue light, much like the airborne particles that cause the sky to look blue.” Since Steve saw the bird and I didn’t, here’s that  bright little piece of sky in another beautiful shot by Bob Bonin.

Indigo Buntings sing as many as 200 of their two or three phrase songs per hour at dawn according to Cornell Lab.

Butterflies dance across nearly every sunny or dappled area of Cranberry Lake. In a shady corner near the northern meadow, an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) paused for just a moment before sailing high into the treetops and away. The band of blue spots at the bottom of the hindwing (plus the orange center spots) marks this one as a female.

A female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly paused in the shade before fluttering off into the treetops.
Black Raspberry blooms

A smaller, but equally striking butterfly, the American Copper, sampled the blossoms of Common Blackberry bushes (Rubus allagheniensis) that have multiplied mightily since the recent burn.

According to Wikipedia, the male Coppers set up “small territories which they will defend vigorously against rival males or indeed any unlucky passing insect. Even the shadow of a large bird passing overhead is enough to elicit a response.”

It’s clear where this medium-sized [edit:  My memory failed me.  It’s actually very small!] butterfly  got its name, eh?

An American Copper butterfly rests on a grass stem between the multiplying Blackberry bushes.

This female Eastern Tailed-Blue butterfly (Cupido comyntas) doesn’t wear the beautiful blue that her mate flashes when he flies. But you can still see a bit of blue in her modest gray. These medium-sized butterflies almost disappear when they land and fold their wings, which are light gray underneath.

A female Eastern Tailed-blue butterfly is a more muted gray-blue than her brighter blue mate.

Along the Hickory Lane, More Bird Song and Early Summer Blossoms

On an early bird walk, a Brown Thrasher (Toxostoma rufum) belted out its complex mimicry song from the top of a tree on the Hickory Lane. If you enjoy the Gray Catbird’s mix of other birds’ calls and the odd noise,  you’ll love (as I do) the crazy mix of continuous loud song from the thrasher. That morning he was too high up for a good photo. Fortunately  a few days later, a tired thrasher, preparing for sleep on a cool spring evening at Gallagher Park, struck a pose for me.

This Brown Thrasher was preparing to sleep on a cool evening – one leg tucked up under his feathers which were fluffed for warmth

Along the lane,  a tiny mimic (listen to the second recording at this link), the Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea), busily fluttered and hopped about a tree trunk foraging for insects. How I’d love to see their nest!  Cornell Lab says they “use spiderweb and lichens to build small, neat nests, which sit on top of branches and look like tree knots.”

The Blue-gray Gnatcatcher cocks his tail with its white outer feathers this way and that as he searches for insects – but not many gnats, despite its name!

On a later visit, a male House Wren (Troglodytes aedon), bubbled with spring song. Despite their diminutive size, wrens can be fierce in asserting ownership over a preferred nesting hole, even dragging out eggs of other birds or pecking larger adult birds. Wrens need to maintain a narrow range of temperature for their eggs to hatch which might explain their fierceness over nesting sites. Perhaps this male’s insistent song was just a first salvo in the competition.

The effervescent singing of a House Wren on the Hickory Lane.

In the area between the Hickory Lane and the large marsh to the east, a strange upward sliding call made my husband and I stop and listen one afternoon. We never saw the singing male, but we did spot the female Swainson’s Thrush (Catharus ustulatus), that I originally thought was a robin from its stance.  Sorry for the slight blur of a quick photo.

A female Swainson’s thrush stopped with us to listen to the hidden male singing his ascending whistle of a song.

Below these avian songsters, early summer blossoms came burgeoning forth after a recent prescribed burn. The lane was filled on both sides with the Wild Geraniums (Geranium maculatum) you see at the top of this blog. A small white plume poked through leaves of what Ben tells me is either red or white Baneberry (g. Actaea). The actual baneberries that form later are highly toxic, so please don’t eat them! (They’re very bitter so you wouldn’t like them, but children might be tempted because they’re very colorful and shiny.)

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Two varieties of the same flower also bloomed on the lane.  Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biforum) produces its blossoms beneath the stem and its leaves are smooth below, unlike a nearly identical plant, Downy Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum pubescens) that has fuzz on the underside of the leaves.

Solomon’s Seal hangs its blossoms below the stem, as does Downy Solomon’s Seal but the undersides of leaves on Solomon’s Seal are not covered in downy fuzz.

False Solomon’s Seal (Maianthemum racemosum), on the other hand, produces its flowers on a stem that stands above the leaves. Odd name. Perhaps the name was given by someone fooled into thinking at first that it was Solomon’s Seal? Who knows….

False Solomon’s Seal carries its blossoms on a stem above the leaves.

Early Summer in the Shadowy Wetlands near Cranberry Lake

Cranberry Lake has a wonderful collection of vernal pools and woodland ponds as well as the lake itself. I’ve come to love these areas because they are always rich with wildlife, especially birds!

I heard the easily-identified “witchedy, witchedy” call of one of my favorite small migrators, the black-masked Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas). He was in a favorite location, in low bushes near a wetland. I never got to see the ones that I heard repeatedly at Cranberry Lake, but I saw this one the following week at Charles Ilsley Park.

The Common Yellowthroat sings his “witchedy-witchedy” song from low bushes, usually located near a wetland.

In a forested pool, a Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) had draped its head over the edge of a log, evidently eating plants below. At first, I thought it had been beheaded somehow! But on hearing me crunching in the twigs, it lifted its pointed snout into the air, quickly slid backwards into the water and disappeared. So all I got was this odd, headless shot.

A snapper in a forest pond with its head submerged eating plant material, no doubt.

A few minutes later, a male Common Grackle’s (Quiscalus quiscula) iridescent head shone in a ray of sunlight on the same log. Clearly frustrated at finding nothing to eat beneath it, he tossed that irritating, useless chunk of bark into the water.

A male Common Grackle tossed his chunk of bark into the water after checking and finding no edible insects underneath. At least that’s how it appeared.

One of summer’s pleasures is being escorted along a trail by dragonflies and damselflies – and then I managed to shoot one swooping over the water when I reached at Cranberry Lake.  Perhaps a mating flight?

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In April, lovely little blossoms with pink scallops and ruffled edges emerged on the native Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) near Cranberry Lake. A few weeks later, the fruit was beginning to form. I hope birds, animals and we humans leave some berries uneaten so it keeps spreading!

When I reached Cranberry Lake, I found two Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) standing on a sandbar near the shore. One of them “gave me the eye” between the old stems of purple loosestrife.

A Sandhill Crane at Cranberry Lake turns a wary eye my way

On the way back up the trail from the lake one morning, Ben spotted a weary raccoon who appeared to have made a hasty bed in the fork of a tree after a night of foraging. It opened one eye as we birders peered from below.

A weary raccoon opens one eye to look back at us from what appears to be a hastily constructed napping place.

On the edge of the path heading toward one of the large meadows, I heard the snoring rattle of the Leopard Frog’s song coming from a nearby wetland. And then, oops! – one appeared right in the path between two wet areas. Nice to have frog song along with bird song on a summer walk!

The Leopard Frog’s appearance nicely matches its name. Its song is a low, snoring sort of rattle – very distinctive.

Nature by Ear as Well as by Eye

The forest pond where the Grackle and the Snapping Turtle spent a quiet afternoon.

To truly savor the pleasures of nature in early summer requires tuning my ears as well as opening my eyes. Though I’m just learning bird songs and frog songs, every time I identify a voice in nature’s chorus, I feel more connected, more embedded in the natural world. Listening, as well as careful, patient watching, begins to turn a green landscape into an intricately woven tapestry of life in which we humans are just one colorful thread.

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3; Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia;  Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; other sites as cited in the text.

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Young Creatures Explore among High Summer Flowers

 

Yound doe w two fawns
A small doe with her two fawns, one nursing, on the path behind the Center Pond one hot Sunday afternoon

Take a walk down the Walnut Lane in the center of Bear Creek. Contemplate the marsh on an early July morning when the heat is building for a blistering afternoon. Laugh at the bulging yellow throats expelling frog song at the Center Pond.

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

You simply can’t miss summer youngsters sallying forth to explore the world. Frog eggs, fledglings, fawns, ducklings, floating, flying or running with tails in the air – young creatures are setting out to explore their world.  And the wildflowers!! The flowers that declare “IT’S SUMMER!” are spattering color across the meadows, under the trees and  along the damp shores of the wetlands. It’s a season for hot sun, cool shade, “bug juice” protection after a rain – and celebrating all the life just burgeoning forth all around you.

High Summer in the Meadows

Up on the highest point, overlooking the rolling old fields of Bear Creek, tall native flowers sway and nod in the summer sunlight. Native Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) established its giant, sandpaper-and-leather leaves (up to 1.5 feet high and 1 ft wide!) last month.

prairie dock leaf and bud
Prairie Dock’s giant leaf with the stem and bud just forming earlier in the summer

Prairie Dock thrives after fire, so this spring’s prescribed burn really encouraged this wonderful native plant. It may be that it grows tall in order to get its flowers above tall prairie grasses, like Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) which is also sprouting around the park since the burn. Naked Prairie Dock stems shoot up to 10 feet in the air topped by ball-shaped buds and bright yellow flowers. All kinds of bees probe the blossoms – and occasionally hummingbirds and as well, according to the website  www.illinoiswildflowers.info (a fave site for detailed wildflower information).

Prairie Dock
The bare stems of native Prairie Dock with ball-shaped buds and bright yellow flowers shoot up to 10 feet in the air!

Just below them, the Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) dance with every passing breeze. These prairie natives actually prefer dry soil and are easy to grow if you’re considering a native garden. Just give them plenty of sun!

Purple coneflower
Native yellow coneflower is blooming below and around the giant Prairie Dock up on the south hill.

Along the trails, Wild Bee Balm/Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) also welcomes bees, of course. In fact one small bee (Monarda dufourea) specializes in pollinating this native member of the mint family.

Bee balm, Menarda
Wild Bee Balm/Bergamot is a native that attracts all kinds of bees, even one who specializes in it!

Brilliant orange Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) dots the fields with its bright orange fireworks. This native, often mistaken for the western plant Indian Paintbrush , lives up to its name. Butterflies love it, Monarchs included. Mammals avoid it, so it also gets planted in native gardens.

Butterfly milkweed
Butterfly milkweed dots the fields with its orange fireworks and makes graceful, curved seedpods in the autumn.

Of course, the fields are full of summer birds and their young as well. A male Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) hopped from limb to limb at the far edge of the Eastern Path, busy finding insects for his young who fluttered along behind (juvenile not pictured here.)

Oriole BC
A Baltimore Oriole busily searches for insects to feed his young.

I caught a photo of what appears to be a Baltimore Oriole fledgling venturing out to find food on her own one rainy morning.

Oriole juvenile female wet
Young Baltimore Oriole exploring the world one rainy morning.

A male Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater)  postured in a tree, throwing his head back to impress a competitor who assiduously ignored him.

Cowbird males posturing
One Brown-headed Cowbird male trying, and evidently failing, to impress another.

After repeatedly seeing the flashing white patch above the tail of Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus) as they fly up from the field to the trees in Bear Creek, I finally caught one sitting in the grass near home. These elegantly colored woodpeckers most often eat on the ground, probing for ants in the soil with their long beaks and then licking them up quickly with their barbed tongues.

Flicker male in the grass
The black “mustache” means this Northern Flicker, searching for ants in the grass, is a male.

In the distance, almost any time of day, the sweet summer song of the Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus ), spills from the treetops. Some compare its intricate song to a Robin singing opera! I especially love the evening version, which to my ear, seems softer than the daytime song.

Rose breasted Grosbeak male
The Rose-breasted Grosbeak sings his lovely, intricate song off and on all day, and to my ear, a mellower version at sunset.

Male House Finches also sing cheerily in small bushes and trees. Their red feathers seem particularly intense this year which Cornell Lab says is due to the pigment in their diet during their spring molt. Something certainly livened up the color of this male!

House finch male
The bright red of this male House Finch is created by the pigments in its diet during the molt.

The female House Finch wears a more sedate outfit. Here’s one fluffing up her feathers in preparation for some serious preening.

House Finch female taking off
A female House Finch prepares for preening her wing feathers..

Butterflies also grace the meadows as they flutter among the blossoms.  Though we associate Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) with their importance to Monarchs (Danaus plexippus), this native plant  hosts myriad butterflies.  Here a male Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) sips its nectar on a hot afternoon.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail male
A male Eastern Tiger Swallowtail has blue patches with orange spots at the edge of its beautifully striped wings.

And nearby, a Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele) did the same.  It’s wonderful how native plants provide a natural food source for so much of our native wildlife.

Great spangled frittilary 2
A Great Spangled Fritillary probes for nectar on native Common Milkweed along the Eastern Path.

This fancy insect, the Red Milkweed Beetle ((Tetraopes tetrophthalmus), is munching the milkweed’s leaves.  Doesn’t it look like a cartoon bug with its  ruffled skirt and lo-o-ong, curved “horns”?

Red Milkweed Beetle (Family Cerambycidae)
The Red Milkweed Beetle is toxic from eating milkweed and its bright colors warn predators of that fact.

According to the “Bug Lady” at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, “Adult RMBs…can get away with being red and black in a green world because milkweeds are toxic, and so, therefore, are RMBs, and red and black are … aposematic (warning) colors.” If insects intrigue you, as they occasionally do me, read more about this cool bug at the Bug Lady’s link. This insect evidently “purrs,” wipes its face on a leaf if it gets too much “milk” on its mouth to prevent having it glued shut (!) and has a really interesting life cycle!

On the other side of the park, native Staghorn Sumac‘s (Rhus typhina )scarlet fruits  are already shining among deep green leaves at the edge of the Western Slope.

Sumac
The glamorous red fruits of the Staghorn Sumac on the western edge of the park.

High Summer Between the Sunny Fields and the Shade

As you stroll toward the more moist and shady areas of the park, other creatures and wildflowers greet you as you move in and out of the bright sunlight and shade. A beautiful milkweed that loves having moist “feet,” the Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) grows among the reeds and cat-tails along the Eastern Path and across the boardwalk from the Playground Pond. Ben VanderWeide, our township Stewardship Manager, tells me that it makes a better garden plant than Common Milkweed, because this pretty plant grows in well-behaved clumps.  Here’s one about to bloom.

Swamp Milkweed
A Swamp Milkweed about to bloom. Some lovers of native wildflowers are hoping to give it the more glamorous name, “Rose Milkweed.” I vote yes!

And another beautiful native member of the  milkweed family  is also about to bloom. Spotted Joe Pye (Eutrochium maculatum) now shows its blushing green leaves and soon its pink blossoms and purple stems will be ready for close viewing at the southern entrance to Bear Creek Marsh.

Joe Pye not yet blooming
Joe Pye will soon be blooming near the deck at the southern entrance to Bear Creek Marsh.

Of course non-natives add splashes of color at the moist border between field and forest, as well. Settlers brought to their gardens many plants with “wort” in their name, believing they had medicinal value.  Here are a couple non-native “wort” plants – Common St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) on the left and Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) on the right. (Hover cursor for caption; click to enlarge.)

A creature that loves dappled light,  an Ebony Jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata), pauses for a moment in bright sunlight, showing the complex color of those normally very dark wings. This seems to be a female because her abdomen is not metallic blue like the male and her wings are tipped with white dots.

Ebony jewelwing damselfly
A female  Ebony Jewelwing damselfly has a duller abdomen and white dots on the tips of her wings.

One morning while birding on the northern loop of the park, a Ctencuha Moth landed on Ben and posed for a few moments.  What a striking moth with dark wings set off by yellow and light blue on the thorax and head – and its iridescent blue body blazes forth when it takes flight!

Ctenucha Moth lands on Ben
This beautiful Ctenucha Moth has an iridescent blue body best seen when it flies.

High Summer in the Pond and the Marsh

Of course, really wet areas of Bear Creek  have high summer flora and fauna all their own. Hundreds of Green Frogs (Rana clamitans) emerged last week. And suddenly all you could see at the Center Pond were their bulging yellow throats as they produced what could literally be called “full-throated” frogsong. There were so many that they were chasing each other through the water in competition for mates.

Apparently, some Green Frogs are already laying eggs. In this photo, each dark dot is a frog embryo surrounded by protective, clear “jelly” in a mass which is called “frogspawn.”   Each female frog can lay from 1,000 to 7,000 eggs – but only about five become adult frogs. Frog eggs and tadpoles are a food source for many creatures – fish, birds, and dragonflies among others. About a week from now,  the tiny tadpoles will emerge.

Frog eggs w water strider
Frog eggs float in their gelatin just below the water surface at the Center Pond while  Water Striders (family Gerridae) move across the surface above.

It appears that the family of Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) that we birders saw earlier at the Playground Pond may have moved to the Center Pond as the fledglings became juveniles. At the far west of the pond, a female carefully supervised five youngsters as they splashed and fed.

Wood duck family
A female Wood Duck supervised her five youngsters as they fed and splashed in the Center Pond.

The Center Pond also had a dragonfly visitor that I hadn’t identified before.  The usual residents, like the Dot-tailed Whiteface Dragonfly (Leucorrhinia intacta), were accompanied by a pair of Blue Dashers (Pachydiplax longipennis) who took turns perching on a branch protruding from the water. This male had probably been nearby since hatching in May, when his abdomen would have been darker blue, but as this dragonfly ages,  it “develops a coating of waxy cells that lighten it,” according to my insect “guru,” the University of Wisconsin’s “Bug Lady.”  

Blue dasher male dragonfly Pachydiplax longipennis
The Blue Dasher dragonfly’s dark blue abdomen gets paler as the summer wears on. Its head, though, is a lively blue/green and its thorax is beautifully striped.

Before the rains came to break the long dry spell, the Bear Creek Marsh had gone dry, leaving an unhappy young Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) stranded in the drying mud. It was still moving but very slowly. It looked much happier two days later after a long, overnight rain put some water back into the marsh!

One hot Sunday afternoon, my husband and I spotted an unfamiliar bird across the water near the reeds. I didn’t get a great shot; my lens just didn’t reach far enough. I’m not sure if this is sandpiper or some other shore bird, but I’m open to suggestions. [Edit:  Expert birder Ruth Glass identifies this bird as a Solitary Sandpiper (Tringa solitaria). Thank you, Ruth!]

Common Sandpiper in the Marsh?
I saw this shore bird in the distance at the marsh. Anybody have an ID suggestion? [Edit: Expert birder Ruth Glass identified this as a Solitary Sandpiper]
The marsh, too, has its high summer blooms. Sedges of various kinds sink their roots in the mud around the northern deck. I’m getting more interested in the wide variety of these ancient plants from the genus Carex. Common Bur-Reed plants are decorated with spiky spherical fruits. Aren’t they cool shapes?

Button Bush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), a native shrub  with its Sputnik-style blooms, clusters near both entrances to the marsh. Its sputnik-like blooms decorate wetlands and attract native insects all summer and its fruits feed birds throughout the autumn and winter.

button bush bloom closeup
Closeup of a Buttonbush blossom

Fresh new Cat-tail heads are developing in the marsh. Male flowers cluster in the spike at the top of the stem, while tiny female flowers form in the thicker section below. While the native species is a beneficial wetland plant, the non-native invasive cattails are often aggressive, especially where lots of nutrients from lawns and roads drain into wetlands.

Cat-tails
Cat-tails have male flowers in the spike at the top, female flowers in the thicker section below.

And near the marsh, another summer native, Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), peeks out of the shade into the sunlight. The stems of this wildflower can reduce the effects of poison ivy if mashed and rubbed against the skin, according to the National Institutes of Health.  I just like how it looks! Bees and hummingbirds like the nectar inside.

Jewel weed
Jewelweed is also called Touch-me-not, because when mature, the seeds shoot out if touched.

A Perfect Time for Youngsters to Meet Youngsters

Patch of common milkweed
A patch of Common Milkweed on the Eastern Path

A breezy, warm afternoon is a perfect time to introduce a child you love to some of nature’s youngsters hatching, flying, swimming and leaping through Bear Creek Nature Park.  And along the way, children can sniff the flowers (no picking!), stick a finger in the frogspawn (eeww!), try to imitate birdsong, analyze the clouds – whatever suits the child’s fancy.   Nature can fill children with delight, laughter, and wonder if they’re allowed to explore like other small creatures. Hope you and your curious youngsters get acquainted with Bear Creek’s wild youngsters and both get to spread their wings and explore high summer in the park.

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

Out and About in Oakland: Draper Twin Lake Park

Welcome to a new occasional series here at Natural Areas Notebook.

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

Having spent a year writing “This Week at Bear Creek,” (which continues, but perhaps with a little longer pause between blogs), we decided it would be fun to periodically have a look at other parks in Oakland Township. So this week, please join me as I explore Draper Twin Lake Park.

 

 

Getting Acquainted with Draper

Draper Park shares some similarities with Bear Creek – marsh land, birds, wildlife, old fields and trails.  But it offers very different opportunities for exploration as well.  To me, the park seems to have three distinct parts, each with a different character.  The central section is one giant marsh, full of cattails, sedges, muskrat lodges and birds.  It stretches from Draper Twin Lake to Inwood Road (where it can be viewed from your car) and beyond.

Central Marsh Draper
The central section of Draper Twin Lake Park is one long marsh running from the lake to Inwood Road and beyond.

The east and west sections, which cannot be connected by a trail,  have attractions like hiking trails lined with summer flowers leading to a fishing platform on a lake much larger than Bear Creek’s Center Pond, trails around a “floating mat” marsh,  a newly planted prairie and as you’ll see, a lively mix of wildlife and plant life. As of April 2016, nearly 80 bird species have been observed at Draper Twin Lake Park.

Here’s a map to get oriented.  The green outline is the whole park.  You can see the western trail running down to Twin Lake on the left.   The purple section at the center is the long marsh and McClure Drain (a marshy creek) running south from the lake.  And the trail in the eastern section runs all the way from Inwood Road to Parks Road, and a loop encircles a smaller and quite unusual marsh, passes the newly planted prairie (in light green) and continues through old fields at the eastern edge of the park.

Map of Draper Twin Lake Park showing accessibility improvements and natural community types.
Map of Draper Twin Lake Park showing accessibility improvements and natural community types.

The Western Section:  A Winding Trail to the Lake

Draper signLook for this sign where Hadden and Inwood meet and you’re at the parking lot on the western end of Draper Twin Lake  Park.  Until last week, a large Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) stood there, but when a giant limb had to be removed,  it was discovered that the whole tree was too fragile to remain.  Luckily, I got there there after the limb was removed and before the cutting of the tree and got to see something quite fascinating!

Tree with Squirrel nest
A Red Squirrel’s nest within a badly damaged tree (now removed) in the Draper parking lot.

Once the limb had come off the tree, it exposed the winter nest of a Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) deep down in the trunk. It was like looking through a window into the hidden world of this chattery, hyper little squirrel! The nest was clearly visible inside, full of pine cones and nut shells.  Its winter nut cache was spread out at the bottom of the trunk. Red Squirrels don’t bury nuts like other squirrels but make piles on the surface near their nests. Have a look by clicking on these photos to enlarge them. (Hover with your cursor for captions.)

I’m sorry the tree is gone, but an arborist consulted by the PRC said the tree was too fragile for a parking lot. But at least we got to peak into the life of one squirrel before its nest disappeared! The squirrel, by the way, appears to be exploring another tree nearby.

Trail to Fishing Dock Draper
Trail to the lake at Draper with two White Pines

Along the trail to the lake in late summer,  we’ll see some lovely native wildflowers, like Obedient Plant (Physostegia virginiana) and Tall Bellflower (Campanula americana) I saw there last August.

For now, early spring butterflies danced around my feet one morning as I walked. The smallest were a pair of Spring Azures (Celastrina ladon) twirling in a mating dance above the path.  Their tiny wings created lavender-blue blurs as they spun around each other. But when they landed for a few seconds, they folded their wings and almost disappeared, matching the beautifully patterned gray undersides of their wings to the nearest twig or leaf for protection.  If you click on the leaf photo,  just between the wings you can see their lovely blue upper surface.  Faint blue stripes on the lower surface of the wings appear in the photo on the twig.

An old friend, a  Cabbage Butterfly (Pieris rapae), fluttered along the path as well.  This one’s a female since she has two spots on her forewings instead of one, as the male does.

Cabbage Butterfly Draper
A female Cabbage Butterfly has two spots on her forewings, rather than one spot as the male does.

A wee Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) hopped excitedly in the tree limbs on another morning with the birders. Though I caught a glimpse of his ruby crown through the binoculars, I never caught him showing it off for the camera!   You can see what he looks like flashing his ruby crown, though,  by clicking on this Audubon link.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet Draper
A Ruby-crowned Kinglet in the bushes on the trail to the lake at Draper.

Late last week, a male Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) on the lake trail was doing a simple “chewink” call (second entry under “calls” at the link) rather than singing like the one I’ll show you below in the eastern part of the park. These birds are particularly susceptible to the predation of cowbirds who lay eggs in their nests. Unlike many birds, they don’t seem to recognize cowbirds eggs or remove them. Cowbirds evolved to follow buffalo herds out west and so had to make use of other birds’ nests in order to move on.  But as farming replaced forests in the eastern US,  they moved here. According to the Cornell Lab, “In some areas cowbirds lay eggs in more than half of all towhee nests. ”

Towhee Draper Pond2
A male Eastern Towhee on the western trail at Draper.

As I approached the lake, I heard the unmistakable call of a pair of Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis). They were blocked from full view through the treetops so here’s a photo from an earlier year in Bear Creek.

sandhill in marsh
Two of these Sandhill Cranes, the tallest birds in Michigan, flew high over my head on the way to one of the twin lakes at Draper.

Sandhill Cranes mate for life and stay together year ’round. According to Cornell Lab, their young can leave the nest only 8 hours after they are born and are capable of swimming. Ben tells me they nested last year in the marsh on the eastern side of Draper, but I haven’t seen them there yet this year.

While birding on Wednesday, Ben’s group introduced me to a Cooper Hawk’s nest they’d seen the previous month. There appeared to be tail feathers sticking out of the nest.

Cooper's Hawk nest w tail feather
A Cooper’s Hawk nest near Draper Twin Lake

A few moments later, we were lucky enough to see the hawk itself on a branch near the nest, just carefully keeping an eye on things.

Cooper's hawk near nest
A Cooper’s Hawk near its nest at the lake

One of the special recreational features of Draper Lake is the fishing dock at the end of the trail. Fishermen tell me they catch Bluegills (Lepomis macrochirus), Crappie (genus Pomoxis), Largemouth Bass (Micropterus salmoides) and Northern Pike (Esox lucius). I just sit on the benches provided and watch for water birds.

Birders at Fishing Dock Draper
Ben and Wednesday morning birders at the fishing dock at Draper Twin Lake.

On one of my solo trips to Draper, I saw a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) standing among cattails at the far end of the pond, but my camera couldn’t quite reach it. Finally, it took off and I got a slightly blurred photo of its huge, blue wings.

Blue Heron Draper Lake
A Great Blue Heron takes off into the marsh at the far east end of the lake at Draper Park

Both Barn Swallows and Tree Swallows swooped and darted on the opposite side of the pond – visible through binoculars but not a camera. I could see two big Canada Geese near their nest – one either moving eggs or feeding young,  and the other standing guard.

Two Canada Geese at nest
Two Canada Geese across the pond, one tending the nest, the other standing guard

On Wednesday, one of the birders and I watched  Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata)apparently courting up in the trees along the trail. What was probably two males bobbed up and down on their thin legs  for a female on a nearby branch.  According to the Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.2), this bobbing “is often done in courtship flocks by more than one bird at a time.” I wonder which male’s bobbing she found most impressive?

Three Jays
It appeared that two male Blue Jays performed a bobbing courtship dance in the treetops for a nearby female.

Now let’s head off to the eastern part of Draper Twin Lake Park. The western and eastern sections aren’t connected by a trail because of the huge marsh in between. So walk or drive just a short way down the road and you’ll see a small utility building to your left.  You can park there.

The Eastern Section:  A Special Marsh, a Rolling Prairie and a Circular Path through the Old Fields

The eastern section of Draper Lake is still a “work in progress” and for me, that’s part of what makes it interesting. The trails are still being opened up and the prairie is planted on the northern side. This part of the park offers a peaceful place to hike and would be a beautiful, easy place to cross country ski in the winter.

Western loop Draper
Western arm of the circular trail on the eastern section of Draper Lake Park

I usually head off  to the west (left of the utility building) on the path pictured above which was  recently widened to eliminate woody invasive shrubs like Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata). At this time of year, it looks a bit rough since the stumps are still visible and brush is ragged from the cutting machine.  Ben plans to seed it with Little Blue Stem (Schizachrium scoparium), a native grass, and treat whatever stumps try to re-sprout. The curving sweep of this wider trail get us closer to the marsh – in fact particularly close to last year’s nesting site for Sandhill Cranes. On my first spring visit, a beautiful Great Egret (Ardea alba) rose from the marsh. I didn’t move fast enough for a great photo but here’s one during the summer at Bear Creek Marsh to give you a feel for what I saw.

Great Egret flying marsh
Great Egret flying over a marsh.

The open water areas around the edges of the marsh are now filling with various water lilies, sprouting from rhizomes deep in the muck after a long winter. The center area of the marsh has a very special floating sedge mat. The sedge mat is best viewed from the edge of the marsh since walking on it is very precarious and would damage the sensitive plants.

Draper Marsh from West
Water lilies line open water around the outside of the eastern marsh, surrounding a floating sedge mat.

Frogs leapt in as I approached the marsh on my first visit and huge round tadpoles wriggled just under the surface. But they eluded my camera. I did see a blur of blue diving into the water way over on the far side of the marsh and heard the rattling call of the Belted Kingfisher.  Glad I had an extra photo of one from Bear Creek!

Belted Kingfisher
A Belted Kingfisher (this one from Bear Creek) dove for food on the far side of the eastern marsh at Draper.

On my second trip, I came upon a young Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) who seemed to be making its way over a log.  Perhaps it was a female preparing to lay eggs, or maybe it had left the large central marsh for the relative seclusion of this smaller marsh to the east.

This week, Ben saw a Blanding’s Turtle (Emys blandingii) at Draper Lake as well. Last year my husband and I stopped along the paved part of Buell on the way home from Draper to take a photo of this one.  We helped it off the road by grabbing its shell at the back and moving it in the direction it was going, as we’ve been taught.  Blanding’s Turtles are listed as threatened in Michigan so we want to save as many as we can! Note the yellow chin and neck which is characteristic of these turtles.

Blandings Turtle on Buell Road
A Blanding’s Turtle crossing Buell Road near Draper Twin Lake Park

Ben and the birders spotted the flight of a Green Heron (Butorides virescens) at this marsh on Wednesday. These short, stocky birds sometimes lure their prey with little sticks or insects and then “zap!”   – they catch them with their spear-like bills. Here’s one hunting from a log at Bear Creek.

green heron
Ben and the birders saw the flight of a Green Heron at the marsh on the eastern side of Draper.

If you continue on the circular trail in this eastern section, you come to a beautiful sight – the rolling contours of what is about to become a native prairie. Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide has been working for two years to turn what used to be an overgrown farm field into the prairie grass and wildflowers that are native to our area. Last fall it was planted with native seed purchased with a grant from the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Maintenance mowing keeps the annual weeds under control for the first two years, so it will take about 3 or 4 summers before it looks like a full-3blown prairie. These sunny native plants like to sink their roots deep before they flower.  I can’t wait to see what comes up this spring, though.

Prairie turning green Draper
The prairie, planted with wild grasses and wildflowers, is starting to grow. It will reach its full growth in 3 or 4 yrs.

At the western edge of the prairie, eagle-eyed Ben spotted a migrating Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum) twitching its tail feathers in distant brush on the west side of the prairie. Warblers are small and elusive so we birders were happy to know one was passing through on its way to its breeding grounds in Canada.

Palm Warbler 1
Ben spotted a Palm Warbler at Draper this week. Here’s one from last fall at Bear Creek.

As you complete the circle, you find yourself in an old field overlooking the eastern edge of the marsh. The center of the marsh, Ben tells me, is  a “floating mat” which, according to an article from Loyola University “consists of tightly entangled plants and their roots, mixed with peat.” Apparently, it may look like any other marsh, but water is floating beneath it though plants and even bushes may be growing on top.

Draper marsh from east
The eastern edge of the eastern marsh at Draper Twin Lake Park is a floating mat of tangled plants and their roots with water moving underneath.
Roots of plants like Muskingum Sedge intertwine to form the floating sedge mat in the eastern marsh
Roots of plants like Muskingum Sedge intertwine to form the floating sedge mat in the eastern marsh

Right now, several Eastern Towhees (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) have begun their burbling song in the trees above the marsh. This one was throwing his head back in full courtship mode! I haven’t spotted any females yet, but I’ll keep looking, since this guy clearly expects one!

Towhee singing Draper
An Eastern Towhee singing his courting song in the eastern section of Draper Park

Here’s his version of the famous Towhee “Drink Your Te-e-e-e-ea” song.  This recording was made by my new birding friend, Antonio Xeira.

Click here to listen to the “Drink Your Tea” call of an Eastern Towhee.

Eastern Bluebirds perched and sang  (Sialia sialis) high in the trees, too high for a great shot.  So here’s a closeup of a male with either nesting material or breakfast in his beak from another spring.

bluebird with nest materials2
A Bluebird with either nesting material or breakfast in his beak.

And everywhere at Draper, you now hear the melody of the Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia).  Here’s one in a small tree  at Draper this week and another recording  of a Song Sparrow that my friend, Antonio Xeira, made with a good directional microphone.

Song sparrow Draper1
The Song Sparrows are singing all over Draper right now. His trilling can be heard below.

Trail’s End

A mighty White Pine ((Pinus strobus) stands sentinel toward the end of this circular trail around the marsh.  Draper Twin Lake Park has lots of these native trees;  their soft needles  make a soft, hushing sound in a breeze.

White Pine Draper
A large white pine that overlooks the eastern marsh from the top of a slope.

I look forward to knowing Draper Twin Lake Park better. I’ll keep visiting with Ben’s birding walks, and on my own, watching for spring and summer wildflowers, looking for fish below the dock, water birds in the lake and of course, enjoying the slow coming of that beautiful rolling prairie. Maybe I’ll meet you there some sunny morning,  perhaps fishing for bluegills, or strolling the paths, or maybe even on skis some snowy winter day!  They’re our parks, after all, so come and explore!

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

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Shrimp, Clams?? Yes! Plus Plenty of Spring

Quite a week at Bear Creek!  It began with 3 inches of snow at  30 degrees and ended at 70 degrees and sunshine! I began the week by joining Ben and two other volunteers (Catherine Hu and Antonio Xeira) in monitoring the creatures that live in our vernal pools – the wetlands that fill in the spring and mostly or completely dry by middle or end of the summer. I’ll be sharing both my photos this week and, with his permission,  the photos of Antonio Xeira, an avid birder from Portugal and a fellow lover of the natural world.

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

It turns out that Bear Creek’s vernal pools are teeming with life!  And new life began to assert itself in the rest of the park, too,  as the weather warmed. The first woodland flowers thrust out of the earth,  a few more migratory birds rode in on the wind, butterflies spread their wings in the sunlight, turtles basked and swam while the frogs  sang and salamanders left floats of eggs in the vernal pools. Finally, on a perfect spring Saturday, humans appeared on the playground lawn enjoying the spring sunlight with their fellow creatures.  A lovely week.

Who Knew Bear Creek Hosted Shrimp and Clams?

Antonio and Catherine OT0002
Volunteers Catherine Hu and Antonio Xeira examine their finds from a vernal pool.

Michigan Natural Features Inventory is leading a project to map and monitor vernal pools, something never done in Michigan before. Since these wetlands dry up for part of the year, they are particularly vulnerable to being filled in. But scientists are finding that vernal pools are “biodiversity hotspots” of the forests. Late fall or early spring flooding of these pools stimulates dormant creatures to awake and others to hatch as the water level rises. The “indicator species,” the ones normally present in a vernal pool, are, among others,  wood frogs, fairy shrimp,and a variety of salamanders.  We sampled four ponds and found evidence of these species.

Fairy Shrimp (Order Anostraca) are .5 to 1.5 inches long, swim upside down and look like a tiny version of the shrimp sold at the seafood counter!  According to the website of the Vernal Pool Association, their sets of 11 leaf-like legs do several things – propel them through the water, gather food (algae, bacteria etc.), and take in oxygen from the water.

Fairy shrimp3 OT0019
Fairy shrimp from a vernal pool

Here’s a female with an egg sac attached, and eggs visible inside!

Fairy shrimp OT0001
A female fairy shrimp with full egg sack attached.

Of course there are other small creatures in these ponds too – tiny Fingernail Clams (family Sphaeriidae), mosquito larvae and water beetles that row around with their front legs like oars! (Click to enlarge; hover cursor for captions)

Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus) love these ponds. We found brown ones and one tiny rust-colored one underneath a log. They come in varying shades of brown and, according to Wikipedia,  some are able to change their shade! (Both photos by Antonio Xeira)

The salamanders had already mated, laid their eggs in the water and disappeared under logs or leaf litter. But their egg sacks, attached to twigs, were pretty impressive!  Ben thinks the larger egg masses are Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum), with Blue-spotted Salamanders (Ambystoma laterale) laying smaller egg masses or individual eggs.

Meanwhile in the Sunshine…Birds!

More migratory birds are passing through to cooler climes or coming to spend their summer with us. One late afternoon on the far side of the Center Pond, I watched a Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) perch, watch carefully and suddenly dip down into the water with a rattling call.  Belted Kingfishers excavate 3-6 foot bank-side tunnels for nesting which slope upward to keep out water. Fossils indicate that they have graced ponds for 600,000 years! This fellow was a male; a female has a rust-colored belt across her belly, making her one of the few female birds who are fancier than the males.

Belted Kingfisher 2
A Belted Kingfisher makes a rattling call before dipping down to eat from the Center Pond.

The Kingfisher will spend the summer with us, as will the Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus).  These beautifully spotted birds can be identified  in flight by a flash of white on their rump.  They’re high in the trees now, probably searching out nest holes. But since ants and beetles are a favorite meal, you can spot them poking their long beaks and barbed tongues into lawns or trails too.

Flicker Walnut Lane
An unusual posture for a flicker who normally uses its barbed tongue and long beak to probe the ground for ants and beetles.

A tiny migrant arrived this week too, the hyper-active Ruby-Crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula). With a constantly flicking tail, these restless birds move from branch to branch, rarely alighting for more than a few seconds. This one is just passing through on its way to breed somewhere in Canada.  Its “ruby crown” only appears when it’s excited so I guess this one felt relaxed, despite its hyper behavior.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet
This Ruby-crowned Kinglet is just stopping by on its way to spend the breeding season in Canada.

A pair of Eastern Phoebes (Sayornis phoebe) hung out near the kiosk at Gunn Road. They were clearly checking it out as a possible nest site. Once she starts laying eggs, however, the female will chase this male away from her mud-and-grass nest.

Phoebe BC
A pair of Phoebes were checking out the kiosk near Gunn Road as a possible nesting site.

I don’t often see American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) at Bear Creek during the winter, though they stay in the area.  My theory is that they’re all at neighborhood thistle feeders! But admittedly, they’re easier to spot now that the males have donned their bright yellow summer feathers.

Goldfinch BC
A male American Goldfinch has molted into its bright summer colors.

Flowers and Butterflies – It’s Definitely Spring!

Most years, I don’t see any woodland flowers until later in spring. The earliest to emerge are usually Spring Beauties (Claytonia virginica). But right now at Bear Creek, those lovely little flowers have only their leaves coming out of the ground in the dappled light of the woods.  But another of my early spring favorites, with the un-poetic name Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), is blooming along the western side of the Northern Loop. Notice how the flowers arise before the furled leaf below has opened – unusual in plants. The leaf will make a circular cloak around the flower once it’s fully open.

Blood root BC
The leaves of the Bloodroot unfurl after the flowers appear, eventually making a round cloak around the blossom.

Two butterflies fluttered over my shoulder on Saturday. Both of them spent the winter months as adult butterflies, hibernating in a frozen state under loose bark or in tree cavities. Mourning Cloaks are frequently the first butterflies out and about  in the spring which means they start the mating process earlier and have more broods than many migrating butterflies or ones that hatch in the spring. This one quickly winged its way to the Oak-Hickory forest – perhaps hoping for oak sap to rise soon and fill wells made by sapsuckers.  Sap is one of its favorite foods. Nice winter camouflage, eh? It looks like loose bark, especially with its wings closed. The Mourning Cloak has blue spots on it wings when they are open.

mourning cloak (1)
The Mourning Cloak emerges early in spring after hibernating under loose bark or in a tree hole all winter.
Winter-form Eastern Comma
Winter-form Eastern Comma

A small Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma) fluttered around me, landing on the trail. It also favors tree sap and spends the winter in frozen hibernation as an adult. The one I saw Saturday was tiny, restless and hard to photograph but it was still wearing winter colors – hindwing mostly orange with black spots (in photo at left). In the photo below, taken in a previous June, a summer-form Eastern Comma sports dark hindwings.

eastern comma butterfly
A summer-form Eastern Comma, with mostly black hindwings

Basking Feels So Good in the Spring!

A Garter Snake (genus Thamnophis) had climbed onto a small tree in one of the vernal pools we monitored last Monday and dropped into the water as Antonio, one of the volunteers, approached. No doubt it was interrupted while trying to soak up some sunlight after frigid Sunday weather.

antonios snake cropped
A snake probably basking in a small tree, dropped into a vernal pool where Antonio Xeira took its photo.

Fourteen Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta)shared logs in the Center Pond, soaking up the sun of the first really warm day. Like snakes, turtles are reptiles which can’t regulate their body heat except through activity. So most warm days turtles stick out their heads, necks and legs to capture the sun’s heat on their extremities as well as their dark shells.

14 Painted Turtles
Fourteen Painted Turtles soak up the sunlight at the Center Pond.

I saw my first Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) on Saturday as it cruised the marsh. It was feeding below the water with its long neck and then poking its head out for a breath of air. It must feel great to eat and swim after a long winter under the ice.

Snapper swimming marsh
A Snapping Turtle cruising the marsh for food and a little sunshine.

And human denizens of the park came to Bear Creek on Saturday to eat and bask in the warm sunshine, too. This family (whose name I unfortunately forgot to get!) graciously allowed a photo of their picnic on the grass with a lovely little human in a big hat to protect her from the spring sunshine.

Families picnicking BC
Families picnicking and basking at Bear Creek on Saturday afternoon.

So much life in this 107 acres, eh? Within the shady vernal pools, on logs at the Center Pond, on bare tree limbs, in the grass on the edge of trails and on the green carpet of  the playground, the park hummed with life by the end of the week. After a white-and-black, silent winter, the color and song of spring greet us like a warm smile. I hope you’ll be there, too,  smiling back.

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

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: A Golden Marsh, Frogs Meditate, Squirrels Munch and Mushrooms Arise!

Foot of a tree
The foot of a wet-footed tree at the north end of Bear Creek

This week we’ll leave the sunny Old Fields and spend more time in the north of the park where there’s more water and shade.  The marsh, like so much of the park, is now full of gold as fall flowers bloom along its margins. The Canada Geese are starting to emerge from the reeds with completely new sets of feathers.  The Snapping Turtle still cruises just beneath the water’s surface while dragonflies hover and soar above it.

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

In the pond  at the edge of Gunn Road, a few frogs hop between the toes of giant wet-footed trees,  while others sit quietly contemplating the coming season.  Squirrels and chipmunks gather acorns and nibble at colorful mushrooms that  mysteriously appear and disappear in the Oak-Hickory forest.  Let’s watch how the north end of Bear Creek settles gracefully into early fall.

The Marsh – All Golden and Green

The green of the marsh – its reeds, its duckweed-covered water, the backdrop of trees – is suddenly offset by the bright yellow of Nodding Beggar-ticks (Bidens cernua), another lovely native wildflower with a singularly homely name!

Marsh in Sept_edited-1
In September, golden flowers with the strange name of Nodding Beggar-ticks surround the northern marsh.

These sunny flowers surround the water in the marsh, lining the northern dock and the edge of the reeds in the distance. Dr. Ben tells me that they are an annual that “can grow from a seed to a big flowering plant in just a few short months or weeks after the water recedes. They are really well adapted to the changing water levels of wetlands!”  Look at these flower faces which are currently full of bees!

bee on Nodding Beggar-tick marsh
Bees are constant visitors at the oddly-named Nodding Beggar-tick plants in the northern marsh.
Spray of Nodding Beggar-tick_edited-1
Nodding Beggar-tick are native flowers that nod a bit as they age.

The reeds and flowers are a great backdrop for the Canada Darner dragonfly (Aeshna canadensis), who likes to hover above the water searching for insects,  just as it does above the wildflowers in the Old Fields.

Canada darner flying marsh2
A Canada Darner finds the air above reeds and marsh flowers just as profitable for finding insects as the wildflowers in the Old Fields.

The Common Cat-tails (Typha latifolia) take on all kinds of strange shapes as they produce seed for next year. The male part at the top has fertilized the brown fuzzy female part below to produce seeds.  And cat-tails also grow by rhizomes, or underground stems.

Cat Tail seeding1 Cat tail seeding 3

Out in the water are the usual inhabitants.  If you come after a rain has cleared some of the surface plant life, you might see the ridged back (or carapace) of a Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina).  Its head  emerges several inches ahead of its body as it cruises leisurely across the marsh, stopping to dip down and feed on submerged vegetation.

snapper swimming
A Snapping Turtle moving slowly and deliberately across the marsh, stopping to eat submerged vegetation.

Of course, if you come on a hot, sunny afternoon when the duckweed and other surface plants crowd the marsh surface, you’ll have to look for  the trail of  two slowly moving blobs of green.

Snapper in the marsh2
On a sunny day with the surface plants thick and rich, look for the Snapper’s water trails to find the slowly moving green blobs of its shell and head.

If the sun is warm on a cool fall morning, you might see a small Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta) sunning itself, all four legs, head and tail extended to soak up maximum warmth.

Baby turtle sunning
A small Painted Turtle suns on a log, all four legs stretched out to catch the sun’s warmth.

Some of the Canada Geese (Branta canadensis ) have now finished their molt.  This one seemed to be waiting for other family members to emerge from the reeds.  When they do, they’ll get some practice flying with their completely new feathers, wheeling about the sky and calling noisily.

Canada Goose after molting
A Canada Goose seems to be waiting on the edge of the reeds for the rest of its family group to finish their complete molt.

I’ve noticed this plant in the marsh for a while and finally learned its name.  Ben tells me that it’s Nodding Smartweed or Willow-weed (Persicaria lapathifolia).  It’s common in moist, disturbed ground.  I quite like its graceful droop!

Nodding Smartweed or Willow-weed
Nodding Smartweed (or Willow-weed) droops gracefully in the muddy flats at the edge of the marsh.

The Pond at the North End:  Mighty Trees, Their Munched Acorns and Small Frogs

If you wander away from the marsh toward Gunn Road, you’ll end up at another much quieter pond.  It’s the one in which so many Wood Frogs (Rana sylvatica) were courting in the spring. Some of these frogs breed more than once which might explain seeing two tiny Wood Frogs near the pond at this time to year. Wood Frogs can vary their skin color from brown to green/gray but they are always in or near the trees (as their name implies) and sport a dark eye mask.

Tiny wood frog
A tiny Wood Frog in its  brown color stretches out a hind leg to cling to a log.
Tiny wood frog near Gunn
A tiny Wood Frog in its green color  on a Bur Oak leaf near Gunn Road.

Nearby, as the sun dipped low, a male Green Frog (Rana clamitans) sat quietly on the end of a log, staring steadily into the distance.  It’s rare for me to see one so still and silent.

Green frog male in evening light
In the late afternoon, a male Green Frog stares quietly into the distance from a log in the pond near Gunn Road.

An Orb Weaver Spider (family Araneidae) had rather daringly hung its web out over the water, attaching it to four different trees quite a distance away.  It looks as though it managed to snag a moth.

Orb spider web pond near Gunn
An Orb Spider web suspended between four trees over the pond near Gunn Road.

Some creature had dug a fairly large hole, with accompanying small ones, at the roots of a gigantic Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa). An Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus) perhaps?   Here you can see one hole beneath a Bur Oak leaf and the remainder of the tree’s acorn with its bristly cap laying nearby.  Bur Oaks, a member of the White Oak family,  don’t produce large acorn crops every year.  Instead, they produce huge numbers of acorns some years in the hope that the squirrels and blue jays will not be able to eat them all and a few will survive to propagate new trees.

Leaf with burr oak nutshells
Bur Oak leaf with scattered acorn pieces and the bristly Bur Oak acorn cap half-chewed on the left.

Here’s a clearer look at the acorns from a Bur Oak that’s just south of the shed near Snell Road.

Burr oak acorn and leaves
The acorns of a Bur Oak with their bristly caps

But the one at the north end is very tall – and incredibly straight – with its crown so far up that you can’t see its acorns even with binoculars!  Or at least, I couldn’t.

Huge burr oak near Gunn
A very tall Bur Oak near Gunn Road with its straight trunk and branches only at the crown.

Eastern Chipmunks (Tamias striatus) are certainly dashing about the park collecting nuts and seeds to put in the storage chambers of their burrows.  This one started filling its pouch near the Center Pond in a previous fall.

Chipmunk Bear Creek_edited-1
An Eastern Chipmunk with his cheek pouches starting to bulge with the food he will store in his underground burrow

The Oak-Hickory Forest and its Mysterious Mushrooms

Dappled sunlight in the woods

The Oak-Hickory forest is blooming – with colorful mushrooms! I learned this week that there are fungi in the earth beneath those trees year ’round. Right now we can see parts of those fungi because they’re making spores above ground in what we commonly call “mushrooms.”

Some fungi break down dead materials to obtain nutrients.  Other fungi form relationships with living plants, including trees,  which generally are mutually beneficial.  This symbiotic association between a fungus and a living plant is called a mycorrhiza.  Mycorrhizal fungi feed on sugars from tree roots and trees in turn can get more minerals and water from the soil through their fungal partner.  According to BBC Earth, some scientists have shown that trees use this system to share nutrients with other trees, including their own saplings, in what some scientists refer to as the “wood wide web!” This web may include both the fungal network and tree roots that are actually grafted together.  I love this idea. Of course,  problems can spread through this web too ( just like our internet!) which is why we published the blog on preventing the spread of Oak Wilt.

Having missed the Parks mushroom workshop last weekend, I can’t identify most of the mushrooms I’ve seen lately. (Drat!)  They look so other-worldly and fascinating. Unless accompanied by a real expert who can make an absolute identification, though, please don’t try to eat them!  Wild mushrooms are notoriously difficult to identify and many are toxic to humans. And in any case, it’s always best to leave the park just the way you found it so we can all enjoy its beauty and surprises.

This amazing mushroom, which may or may not be a Sulfur Shelf mushroom, glowed in the dappled light of the woods.

Yellow and orange fungus
This mushroom, which might or might not be a Sulfur Shelf mushroom, glowed in the dim forest light.

Several of these pale orange mushrooms emerged from the wet soil near the pond at the Gunn Road entrance.

orange mushroom near Gunn
Pale orange mushrooms like this one appeared in the moist soil near the pond by Gunn Road.

Some animal’s taken a nip out of this little one.

Brown and white mushroom
Some animal’s tried a nip of this mushroom which may or may not be a Reddening Lepiota.

Someone’s been eating these red mushrooms, too.

red mushrooms?
These unidentified mushrooms may have been eaten by some small woodland animal, perhaps the American Red Squirrel.

One of the likely consumers of mushrooms in the forest is the  American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) which can safely eat some that are toxic to humans.

Red squirrel
The American Red Squirrel can eat mushrooms that are toxic to humans.

Speaking of “fruits,”  the Pasture Rose (Rosa carolina),  seen in early summer on southern end of the western forest path, has left a lovely fruit, known as a “rose hip.”

Rose hip pasture rose
A Pasture Rose has fruited, leaving a “rose hip.”

Bear Creek offers so much variety – the buzz and sway of the meadows, the shady walnut lane, the small ponds, the big, wild marsh and the dappled light of the woods.  A niche for every mood.  Hope you find the time to sample  some of them soon!

*Footnote:  My sources for information, as well as Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991). The viceroy butterfly is not a Batesian mimic; Stokes Nature Guides:  A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net.; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for beetle info http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info, and invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman.

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Story-telling Wildflowers, Solo Fledglings and the Usual Odds ‘n’ Ends

First week of July, the launch point for what I think of as High Summer.

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

Though it’s gray and rainy as I write (again!), I’m still anticipating the dry heat of the heart of the season when the Old Fields of Bear Creek are sprinkled with color,  grasses and tall flowers bend and sway in the wind, big nectar-sipping butterflies balance on blossoms and swallows swoop and dive overhead.  Hope springs eternal that we will see more days like the 4th of July weekend, eh?

History as Told by Wildflowers

Botanists use the term “Old Fields” for the largely treeless expanses of Bear Creek when you enter from Snell Road and west of the playground pond.  I love the term because it implies a history and for me, the wildflowers express that history in different ways. Compared to native grasslands, savannas, or prairie, Old Fields typically have an abundance of non-native, often agricultural, plants and a few scattered native plants that recolonized after farming or grazing stopped.

It only makes sense to begin with Michigan’s Native Americans.  Meet Indian Hemp (Apocynum cannabinum).  During its growing season, all parts of this plant are toxic so you and that dog on your leash should leave it alone (in case either of you were tempted to eat it!) What’s historically interesting is that native people figured out that in the fall, when the toxins drained down into the roots, this plant could be harvested usefully. According to Wikipedia, Indian Hemp was  “used as a source of fiber by Native Americans to make hunting nets, fishing lines, clothing, and twine.”   Hemp is still used in similar products today.  I love its dark red stems and tiny white flowers. You’ll find it along the north side of the path that curves down around the vernal pond below the high seating area on the south side of the Park.

indian hemp 1
Native Indian Hemp had many uses for the Indians who harvested it in the fall when the toxins in the plant had drained down into its roots.

When settlers arrived in Michigan, the dry, sunny, sandy soil of these areas of Bear Creek were prairie – tall grasses, a few native trees and native flowering plants.  Those settlers probably saw our native Black-eyed Susan  (Rudbeckia hirta) when they arrived.  And they are still here,  currently growing in profusion up near the benches on the hill at the south end of the park.

Edit:  Ben tells me that many plants in the Aster family (Asteraceae), to which Black-eyed Susans belong, have two different sets of flowers – the big petals are actually individual ray flowers with reproductive parts at the base, and the black center is made of individual disc flowers (the outer ring of disc flowers are flowering in this picture).  Click here for a basic explanation, or here for a more technical explanation. So every apparent “petal,” small and large,  is actually a separate flower, producing its own seed!  Quite an amazing amount of seed production in what looks like one big flower!

black eyed susan
The bright eyes of the native Black-eyed Susan would have been here to greet early settlers.

Another beloved native, Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) could have greeted those settlers, just as today its hot pink buds burst into orange blossoms in the native bed and here and there in the field west of the Center Pond.  True to its name, last Sunday it hosted a Meadow Fritillary (Boloria bellona).

butterfly milkweed w Meadow fritllary
Native Butterfly Milkweed living up to its name by hosting a Meadow Fritillary.

According to Wikipedia, after the Civil War,  a U.S. farmer and agriculturalist, Timothy Hanson,  is said to have introduced a European grass as a source of  hay and cattle fodder. Today it’s still here and plentiful and is probably named in Mr. Hanson’s honor; it’s called Timothy (Phleum pratense). It’s a beautiful grass but as a European import, it’s less useful to our native wildlife.  Here it is  in flowering mode with showy red anthers (pollen making organs) at Bear Creek at the top of the hill near the seating area again. Like all grasses, Timothy is wind-pollinated and throws copious amounts of pollen to the wind, hoping that a few pollen grains will land on receptive stigmas of another Timothy plant (stigmas are part of the “female” reproductive structures in plants). Since grasses and other wind-pollinated plants don’t need to advertise to pollinators like insects, birds, or bats, their flowers are not very showy, and sometimes plain hard to see!

timothy Phleum pratense
Non-native Timothy, a European grass brought here to feed sheep and cattle.

After two hot days over the weekend, it had finished flowering for the season, a blessing for folks with spring allergies!

Timothy after seeding
Timothy grass finished flowering by this Monday after a warm weekend.

Timothy and other non-native grasses took the place of tall prairie grasses like Big Blue Stem which is slowly returning to Bear Creek after prescribed burns.  Many of our ground-nesting birds like Pheasants, Meadowlarks and Northern Bobwhites prefer these tall native grasses and losing them, as you’ll hear from me often, reduces the biodiversity we were blessed with here. This fall photo at Seven Ponds Nature Center will give you a feel for the height of this tall native prairie grass that  once flourished in Bear Creek and now is making a comeback .

Big blue stem
Native Big Bluestem growing at Seven Ponds Nature Center

Farmers were still farming here in the 1940’s, of course,  and like the settlers, they needed pasture, hay and silage for their animals.  These days Butterfly Milkweed has to contend with the Birdsfoot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus),a plant from Eurasia and Northern Africa,  which farmers probably seeded while creating pasture for sheep and cattle.  It’s a lovely plant up close, though this particular specimen could be a cultivar (a garden version) that snuck in among the others which aren’t quite as regular and glamorous.

birdsfoot trefoil
Invasive Birdsfoot Trefoil from Eurasia and Northern Africa crowds out native plants.

But look what happened this year to Butterfly Milkweed in the meadow west of the Center Pond.  You can barely see the orange of the Butterfly Milkweed among the yellow of Birdsfoot Trefoil!

invasive birdfoot trefoil_edited-1
Invasive Birdfoot Trefoil crowding out native Butterfly Milkweed.

Next week, along with this week’s discoveries, I hope to explore the historical “roots” (as it were) of other native and non-native species in the shady areas of Bear Creek.  I never knew how much history was blooming right under  my nose!

Fledglings and Old Friends

If you walk along the lane of Walnuts (Julgans nigra) at the center of Bear Creek early in the morning or late afternoon, you’re likely to see some very small, a bit rough-around-the-edges fledglings off on their first solo explorations, no adult nearby.  These young birds are notoriously hard to identify because their plumage is often quite different from their parent.  For example, I’m 99% sure this is a baby Bluebird (Sialia sialis) we saw on Sunday, because of its white eye ring, brown speckled breast, and most importantly, the blue feathers in its wing and tail – and also because it’s smaller, curious and has a not-quite-finished look.

baby bird ID
A fledgling Bluebird (I think) surveys a walnut tree along the center lane.

But I could be wrong – so feel free to correct me!

Here’s another fledgling high in a walnut tree.  Warblers are particularly hard to identify as fledglings,  but I’m going with a fledgling Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia).

fledgling yellow warbler?

Remember the adult version from an early spring post?

yellow warbler
Yellow Warbler posted earlier this spring.

One of our faithful birds, here summer and winter, was also hopping around the walnut trunks searching for bugs or places to store big, fat seeds.  Here’s the agile White-Breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) in an unusually upright position:

nuthatch right side up
The White-Breasted Nuthatch in a seemingly rare pose – right side up!

More often, you’ll see a Nuthatch foraging upside down like this:

upside down nuthatch
A common way of feeding and exploring for the White-Breasted Nuthatch – upside down!

And a summer visitor was farther out in the small trees just east of the Walnut lane, the russet and black Orchard Oriole (Icterus spurius) with his beautiful yellow-olive mate (not pictured).

male orchard oriole2
The male Orchard Oriole flitted through the small trees with his mate (not pictured) who is yellow and olive green.

Another faithful resident, the American Robin (Turdus migratorius) is beginning a second brood for the year so look for a female, like this one in a red oak this week,  sitting in her nest with just her head and tail showing.

Robin in nest
Robins are beginning their second broods of the season.

Those Odds ‘n’ Ends

In the north marsh, Reg spotted what looked like an upside-down Snapping Turtle  ((Chelydra serpentina), its light lower shell (plastron) exposed and its legs flopping in the air.  It was very far away and we puzzled over the sight through binoculars, until suddenly the turtle righted itself and we saw two turtles turn and swim away from each other!  Apparently we saw mating Snappers which breed between April and November.  Since the distant white blob didn’t make much of a photo, here’s a reminder of the beak-nosed appearance of this prehistoric reptile.

snapper head on_2
We saw two of these amazing Snappers mating in the marsh about a week ago.

I must admit that the Center Pond is at its most homely right now.  I hope you saw the White Water Crowfoot (Ranunculus aquatilis), an aquatic buttercup, in bloom earlier, because now it’s left mats of brown strings across the surface.  But despite that, we laughed at seeing 14 young Green Frogs (Lithobates clamitans), sitting at attention on that brown surface all over the pond, each in their own separate little territory, probably enjoying the sunlight.  The bright yellow belly and the tympanum (a frog’s eardrum) on the cheek  that’s bigger than the eye tells you this is a young male on a log near the deck.

Green frog sunbathing
The tympanum (a frog’s eardrum) that’s larger than its eye and a bright yellow belly means this is a young male Green Frog.

I marvel at the semi-precious stone appearance of the Amber Snail (genus Succineida) who lives in moist areas – like this one, found on a dewy leaf near the playground pond.

snail
The appropriately-named Amber Snail loves moisture!

Coming Attractions:

July is the month for a beloved non-native wildflower, Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota) and the first blooms and buds are beginning to show among all that tall grass.  I’m glad this is one of the non-native plants that can co-exist with our native ones!

Queen Anne blossom closed
A bud of non-native Queen Anne’s Lace which is also called Wild Carrot!

History under our feet, fledglings surveying the park from high in the walnut trees, and all the other pleasures of summer in Bear Creek await you – on the next sunny, breezy summer day that we all hope is just over the horizon!

*Quick footnote:  My sources for information, as well as Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Stokes Nature Guides:  A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net.; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels, and invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman.

 

This Week at Bear Creek: Wildflowers Galore, a Damsel in No Distress, New Birds and Very Small Frogs

This week the native wildflowers are glorious!  You can start admiring them right in the parking lot!  Since Ben and his crew burned the center circle of the driveway, native wildflowers are sprouting there like crazy! And the native beds on either side of the shed are full of blooms.

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

I’ve enjoyed learning the common names of wildflowers in the last few years.  Knowing names starts a relationship with a plant in the same way that knowing a person’s name makes them more than a casual acquaintance.

This striking,  deep violet-blue native plant with long graceful leaves has an unfortunate name,  Spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis).   (People who came up with common names seemingly had no poetry in their souls and  must have thought it cured spider bites).  Look at this beauty up close!

spiderwort with buds
Spiderwort, a native wildflower,  looks wonderfully exotic but has a pedestrian name which may refer to an earlier belief that it was a cure for spider bite.

There’s also this golden flower that I’d never seen in the circle until this year after the burn.  I love the buttery yellow glow and scalloped petals of Sand Coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata) and so does what looks like a hover fly  whose abdomen is smeared yellow with its pollen.

coreopsis w hover fly2
I believe that’s a hover fly with his abdomen and legs smeared yellow with pollen on this native Sand Coreopsis right in the center of the driveway at Bear Creek.

In the park and in the circle is a happy yellow flower called Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea). It does well after a burn because our part of Michigan used to be prairie. Prairie and other grasslands across North America have burned regularly for thousands of years. Fires were either intentionally set by Native Americans or lit naturally by lightning.  This native plant is adapted to fire and loves sandy soil and sun.

Golden alexander—Zizia aptera
Golden Alexanders, a native wildflower, is popping up around the park but can also be seen in the recently burned center of the circle drive at Bear Creek

 And look at the burgeoning overflow of beautiful Canada Anemone (Anemone canadensis) in the native flowerbed north of the shed!  Native plants can take a few years to really get going but once they do it is worth the effort. And clearly this was the year for these beauties.  Talk about ground cover!

Canada Anemone
The Canada Anemone is having a wonderful year in the native flowerbed north of the shed.
Canada anemone closeup
Here’s a closeup of a silky, white Anemone bloom.

While you’re admiring them, enjoy the many Hebard’s Green-legged Grasshopper nymphs (Melanoplus eurycercus) springing from leaf to leaf among the Anemone.  By August, they’ll have molted into much bigger grasshoppers.

spring grasshopper4
Nymphs of the Hebard’s Green-legged Grasshopper are springing here and there among the Canada Anemones.

*EDIT: thanks to reader feedback, we’ve identified this grasshopper nymph as Hebard’s Green-Legged Grasshopper instead of Green-Legged Grasshopper. Thanks for your expert critique!

Ben’s reported seeing some great birds in Bear Creek, some I have yet to see.  Cornell Ornithology Lab’s allaboutbirds.org wonderfully describes the beautiful deep blue Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) as being “like a scrap of sky with wings. ”  This amazing small bird migrates at night, navigating by a single star.  The young learn their cheerful song from nearby males in their “song neighborhood” and these local songs can last for 20 years passed on by successive generations. They are tricky to photograph (as you’ll see below!) as they sing high in the treetops near woods in shrubby areas – like the northern end of the steep sloping path on the Southwest side of the park or in the center of the big loop at the northern part of the park.

indigo bunting 1 - Version 2
Indigo buntings sing their cheery songs from the tops of trees.
Indigo buntin
Cornell Ornithology Lab describes the Indigo Bunting as looking like “a scrap of sky with wings.”

Ben saw the smaller, darker Orchard Oriole (Icterus spurius) in Bear Creek.  I have a photo of the female at Bear Creek a couple of years ago but the only decent photo of the male I have was taken at our oriole feeder.  They’re here only a short time, arriving late and leaving early, sometimes as early as mid-July, for their winter home in Central America. So look for them soon before they are gone!

orchard oriole
The male orchard oriole is smaller and more russet than the Baltimore Oriole which is more orange.
female orchard oriole
The female Orchard Oriole, like the female Baltimore Oriole,  is yellow rather than orange like its mate.

Ben also saw a bird at Bear Creek last week that I’ve never seen there – but I did hear one today at Marsh View Park.  The iris in the eye of the Red-Eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus) turns red when it matures so don’t be surprised when you click the link below and see a gray and white bird!  The amazing feature of these Vireos is that the male whistles his brief song incessantly from morning ’til night, sometimes repeating a song over 20,000 times in a day! Once you recognize it , you’ll know you’ve heard it in the woods for years.  So click here and then go down the page on the left to the “typical song.”

Those Green Frog tadpoles I mentioned last week are now very young frogs!  Look for them roiling the water in the pond near the playground.  They are still very small, their legs are not fully developed and some of them, as you’ll see in the photo below, still have stubs of tadpole tails that they haven’t yet absorbed into their bodies.  Like other creatures born in huge numbers, frogs serve as fast food for a lot of other species. Without lots of little frogs for nutrition, the predators that depend on them for food will be hungry. That’s one reason the declining numbers of amphibians is a concern in native habitats.

two froglets with partial tails
These young frogs are not fully developed yet and in fact the bottom one is still absorbing his tadpole tail into his body.

Watch for the Snapping Turtle too.  At the playground pond last Sunday, we spotted him  as a large oval patch of Duckweed moving steadily just under the surface of the water.  I imagine that he was using some young frogs as a quick snack.  Here’s a photo of one last year basking after a trip through the duckweed.

basking snapper
A snapper basks in the playground pond after hunting for lunch among the duckweed.

A sleepy little Gray Tree Frog  (Hyla versicolor), strictly nocturnal,  snoozed Sunday on one of the platform supports. Once grown it will generally stay high in the trees except when it comes down to breed. I imagine that’s why its skin looks so much like tree bark – good camouflage!

Gray tree frog
A nocturnal Gray Tree Frog snoozes on the platform supports near the playground pond.

And what about those damsels in no distress?  Well I was referring, of course, to damselflies, those slim, elegant cousins of the dragonflies in the order Odonata.  Sunday this one flashed like neon blue morse code as it rested with its wings folded near the playground pond.  I’m guessing that it’s a Marsh Bluet ((Enallagma ebrium)) but again, don’t quote me.  Bluets are a big group of dragonflies and they all have only minor differences.

blue damsel fly
This damselfly, perhaps a Marsh Bluet, shines neon blue in the sunlight.

One of the dragonflies at the playground pond is almost comic in appearance!  I swear it has a kind of Mickey Mouse face!  Its precise but unimaginative name is the Dot-tailed Whiteface (Leucorrhinia intacta)and you can’t miss them! They’ll even accompany you down the boardwalk.

closeup white-faced 1 spot dragonfly
The Dot-tailed Whiteface Dragonfly has a comical face.

QUICK REVIEW:  New sightings of  species mentioned in earlier “This Weeks”

Evidently, the Green Heron is still fishing down at the Center Pond.  If you admire patience, speed and accuracy, this bird has it all.

Green Heron
The Green Heron once again takes up fishing in the Center Pond.

Wow!  Have a look at one of the branches hanging low over the pond by the playground.  I hobbled over there with my walker last week and we spotted  the long narrow tube of an Baltimore Oriole nest among the branches.  Watch quietly and you’ll see the orange tail feathers of the female oriole as she goes head down into that tube to feed her nestlings.  She and the more colorful male foray out repeatedly gathering food, too and it’s such a close viewing spot, easily accessible for children.  Here’s a quick reminder of the nest shape, though the one at the playground pond is more hidden in the leaves.  (When I replace the camera I dunked in the marsh, I’ll try for a photo of the current one.)

oriole nest
A nest much like this one but hidden in leaves hanging over the playground pond contains Baltimore Oriole nestlings – with their mama head down feeding them.

And last week I featured the male Common Whitetail Dragonfly (Plathemis lydia).  Here’s a female Whitetail  who has settled on the rocks at the east end of the driveway circle.  She’s been there twice in the last week.  She lacks his bluish-white tail but has a lovely pattern down the edge of her rich brown abdomen.

female white tail dragonfly
A female Common Whitetail dragonfly who appears to have chosen the driveway circle at Bear Creek as her favorite spot. Look for her on the rocks at the east end.

Coming Attractions:

Bee balm/Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) will be blooming shortly in the native bed south of the shed, the circle in the driveway and out behind the center pond.  Only the leaves are out now but when they bloom, their lavender flowers will look a little like a frizzy hair dayBelieved to have medicinal properties (hence the name), native bee balm is indeed a balm to bees and butterflies who feed on it.

bee balm
Native Bee Balm/Wild Bergamot is a good source of food for bees and butterflies.

The leaves of our native Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) (which unfortunately is not as common as it needs to be) are sprouting everywhere in the park, including the driveway circle.    Before long, the leaves sprouting now will create fun landscapes like this:

milkweed bud tapestry
Milkweed leaves are sprouting around the park so their pompom-like flower balls should be showing in a few weeks.

One reason the number of Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus) is dangerously low is that we don’t have enough Common Milkweed in many places.  Unfortunately, some nurseries are selling a non-native variety which can’t act as a host plant for the Monarch’s caterpillars.  And as meadows become lawns, more of our native Milkweed disappears.  We’ll explore a bit more about milkweed later in the season.

Summer is blooming: Birds feed their young, wildflowers unfold, dragonflies and damselflies dart above the ponds.  I hope you’ll find time this week to explore and relax in Bear Creek Nature Park.

*Quick footnote:  My sources for information, as well as Dr. Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Stokes Nature Guides:  A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net.; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela;Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels, and invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman.

This Week at Bear Creek: An Appreciation of Some of Less Appreciated Species! And a Few That Are Easier on the Eye.

Last week, I shared some lovable creatures – a raccoon kit, a baby chipmunk, the majestic yellow swallowtail, the iridescent Tree Swallow.

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

This week, I thought we might explore the creatures and plants in the park that perhaps aren’t so lovable at first glance – but who make their own contributions to the rich diversity of Bear Creek Nature Park.

Unglamorous Birds that are Useful, Super Smart or Misunderstood

Well, of course, probably the homeliest bird in Bear Creek is the Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) with its bare, scrawny red head and hunched posture when perching.

vulture perched
The Turkey Vulture looks a bit menacing when perched in a tree.

Old westerns and horror stories taught us to see them as harbingers of death, circling ominously in the sky.  Actually though, in flight Turkey Vultures are majestic and impressive.  They ride the thermals rising from the warming earth,  their wings teetering right and left, with very few wingbeats.  They’re often  mistaken for hawks or eagles from a distance,  but vultures hold their wings high in a “V” when seen straight on and the undersides of their flight feathers are paler than the rest of their dark brown bodies so the light shining through them forms what  appears from below to be a pale band at the edge of each wing.

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A Turkey Vulture in the air looks majestic and powerful riding the thermals scarcely beating its wings.

Vultures are the reliable leaders of the clean-up crew in the park, because they, unlike many birds, have a keen sense of smell and detect carrion (dead animals) even under the tree canopy. With their strong, sharp beaks, they clean up carcasses one strong bite at a time.  Their bare heads mean nothing nasty gets caught in feathers and their immune system keeps them safe even from botulism, anthrax, cholera and salmonella!  If vultures didn’t scavenge, we’d be surrounded by the nasty sight and smell of lots of dead animals.  So say something nice about vultures next time people bad-mouth them, OK?

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The velvety black American Crow is one of the most intelligent of all birds, as intelligent as some apes!

The American Crow  (Corvus brachyrhynchos) is another under-appreciated bird that many people fear. Like vultures, crows do eat carrion but it’s only part of their diet.  They eat seeds, fruit, some small animals and, unhappily, occasionally the eggs or even young of other birds. But crows are also the geniuses of the bird world, outstripped only by their cousins in the Corvid family, the ravens.  Crows have huge brains with a brain/body quotient approaching that of some apes!  They use and even make tools.  They are mischievous – snitching food from river otters while other crows distract it or hauling a fisherman’s line out of the ice by pulling it up with its beak, stepping on it and hauling again in order to eat the bait (or if lucky, the fish!) on the hook and then letting the line slide innocently back through the hole.  They mimic both other birds and humans.  A famous naturalist, Jean Craighead George tells how  a crow outside her back door used to raid picnic tables in the neighborhood and one morning greeted her with “Hiya, Babe!” Children might enjoy Jean’s book A Tarantula in My Purse about her adventures with crows and other creatures or her award-winning novel of a boy learning to survive in the woods, called My Side of the Mountain.

Crows are very social birds.  Their young don’t breed until they are two and the groups of crows you see in summer are usually family groups with youngsters staying with their parents for 4 or more years.  These younger crows guard and sometimes help build the nest and even occasionally feed the nestlings!  We should all have such helpful offspring!

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The Brown-Headed Cowbird’s sneaky trick of laying eggs in other birds’ nests may be a result of its original environment.

The Brown-Headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater) is perhaps the most difficult bird to like.  The female does not build nests, but lays its eggs in other birds’ nests. This sneaky trick is often played on much smaller birds, who have more difficulty pushing out  the cowbird’s eggs.  The trick doesn’t always work.  Bigger birds may shove the eggs out and smaller birds destroy the cowbirds’ eggs or ignore them, building a second nest on top of the first in which to lay their eggs.   But once in the park, I saw a tiny sparrow stuffing food into the mouth of a baby cowbird, oblivious to the size difference – or maybe just a generous foster parent?  To add injury to insult, female cowbirds lay eggs in huge quantities – 30 or 40 a season – in order to be sure some grow to maturity.

Now why would a bird do this?  One theory that seems plausible is that since we know cowbirds originated in the Western states, they presumably followed buffalo and later cattle herds, eating the insects stirred up by the animals.  That constant movement made it impossible to stay in one place, build a nest and raise young.  So by laying their eggs in other birds’ nests, their young  survived and reproduced.  When our area was settled and cleared, cowbirds moved East and like other invasive species, they created havoc among the creatures whose land they invaded.  So I forgive the cowbird who can’t help the adaptation it found for passing on its genes.  But I still don’t love them.

And then there’s the not-so-beloved plant  – Duckweed.

Poor old duckweed is often mistaken for “pond scum” or “algae.” Some believe it’s a sign of polluted water.  But it’s actually a family of flowering plants that live in still water and sometimes along the edges of streams. Let’s look at the three water plants growing in the center pond, one of which is duckweed.  (My thanks to Maryann Whitman for her help in identification!)

white water crowfoot
The White Water Crowfoot, an aquatic buttercup, shares the pond with the green ovals of Duckweed and the smallest flowering plant on earth,  Common Water Meal.

The tiny aquatic buttercup, White Water Crowfoot (Ranunculus aquatilis), is much prettier when it’s blooming – as it is now – than when the blossoms die and leave just  a mass of brown strings on the surface.  The clumps of  plump green ovals with red spots are Greater Duckweed (Spirodela polyrhiza) which has tiny air pockets that keep it afloat.  Believe it or not, the tiny green grains in between these plants are the smallest flowering plants in the world!  They are Common Water Meal (Wolffia columbiana) and I’ve never seen their blooms since they are 1/100th of an inch wide!  These plants provide lots of food for animals, fish and amphibians.  In fact, I imagine Duckweed got its name because I’ve seen ducks swimming along the pond near the playground with their beaks open on the surface scooping up Duckweed as they go.  So perhaps we can give it some respect,  though I agree that I prefer the aesthetics of clear water.  Here’s a muskrat, though,  that seems content to be surrounded by it!

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Muskrats, ducks and others feed on duckweed, a plant that lives mostly in still water.

 And Now Let’s Get Back to Easier-on-the-Eye Species!

The Eastern Kingbird, (Tyrannus tyrannus) just back from wintering in the Amazon (!), has an  erect posture which makes him easily identifiable. His head is darker gray than his body and his long tail is tipped with white.  Despite their distinguished appearance, Eastern Kingbirds are very aggressive with bigger birds,  like crows, hawks, owls and blue jays.  If an intruder flies over them,  even 100 feet up, they fly up  and dive bomb it from above.  During these flights, they sometimes reveal a red, orange or yellow crown which is usually concealed under their dark grey feathers. Though they eat small insects on the wing, they prefer large ones that they take up into a tree, beat against a branch and eat whole!  They don’t call them Kingbirds for nothing! Did you notice their Latin name above?

Eastern Kingbird2
The Eastern Kingbird aggressively takes on much bigger birds in defending its territory.

If the vulture is the homeliest bird in the park, certainly the Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) can compete for the prettiest.  These small thrushes, the male with a royal blue back and brick red breast patch and the female in more subtle hues, grace our park year ’round.

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The male bluebird has a royal blue back and a russet breast patch. The female’s colors are similar but more subtle.

Bluebirds swoop down to pick up insects which they can spot 60 feet or more away.  Their numbers dropped in th early 20th century when introduced species like the European Starling and the House Sparrow took over old woodpecker holes in dead trees, making the Bluebirds’  preferred nesting spots harder to find. Campaigns to place bluebird nesting boxes saved the bluebird.  Here’s one checking out a possible hole for suitability.

bluebird checking out hole
Bluebirds check out holes in large trees, their favorite nesting spots.

For some strange reason, someone named this beautiful butterfly, the Red-Spotted Purple (Limenitis arthemis) although its most distinguishing feature is  iridescent blue hindwings that flash in the sunlight.  The apex of the forewings does have tiny red spots on black but often the tips of the forewings just look brushed with a russet orange. This early butterfly, like others, samples tree sap, rotting fruit, even dung and carrion but unlike the Cabbage White or Mourning Cloak, it also sips flower nectar.

red -spotted purple
The mis-named Red-spotted Purple’s most noticeable feature is bright iridescent blue hindwings flashing in the sunlight..

Dragonflies, one of the beautiful predators in Bear Creek,  are zooming over the ponds right now.  The Common Whitetail (Plathemis lydia) is best seen at noon when it’s most active.  You’ll see mostly males with their wide, flat blue-white tails and a large amber stripe in the middle of each wing.  The females with dark abdomens only visit the water for short periods.  Males perch in the same place each day and protect their territory by chasing off other males.  You can sometimes hear the clatter of clashing wings as the Whitetails  bump into intruders from underneath as they fly over.

common whitetail
The Common Whitetail male has a bluish white tail and amber bands (though the light may make them look black) in the middle of its clear wings.

The Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa), like other dragonflies, overwinters in the  water as nymphs, molting  up to 10 times  until they crawl out of the water, find a plant stem, and shed their last exoskeleton, emerging as  adult dragonflies.  They fly off to eat other insects for 2 or 3 weeks.  You can watch their huge eyes turn as they track their prey before taking off and their acrobatic flying is just incredible.  They will also accompany you along a path, hoping you will stir up some tasty insects.  Nice to be escorted through the fields by a dragonfly!

Widow Skimmer dragonfly
The Widow Skimmer has black or dark brown bands near its body with white and black bands farther out on its clear wings.

A lovely native flower should be blooming now in the garden near the shed.  This Wild Columbine  (Aquilegia canadensis) looks almost exotic enough to be found in the tropics! And hummingbirds love its red color and long yellow stamen.

columbine
The hummingbirds love our exotic-looking native Columbine.

Now every nook and cranny is sporting some pretty little Daisy Fleabane (Erigeron species). You’ll come across a lot of wildflower names with “bane” in them,  which I’ve heard simply means that the people who named them thought they repelled or poisoned something –  in this case “fleas” so I imagine they might have been mixed into straw mattresses.  But that’s just a guess.

daisy fleabane
Daisy Fleabane is a little native flower that pops up all over Bear Creek Park. Its name indicates that people once considered it a flea repellent!

 Coming Attractions:

A snapping turtle was spotted in the pond near the playground again this week.  This might be the week to see one laying eggs since I saw this one on June 1 a few years ago.  Wouldn’t it be great to see a baby snapper?

snapper laying eggs
A Snapping Turtle digs a hole with its back feet to lay its eggs in Bear Creek. Most of the eggs are dug up and eaten by raccoons and foxes among others.

Huge green leaves are appearing west of the benches at the top of the hill on the southern side of the park.  In a few weeks, one of the tallest native flowers in the park will bloom, the sunny yellow Prairie Dock on with its lo-o-o-o-ng stalk and lovely big buds.

Prairie dock
Praire Dock, a native plant, can grow as high as 9 feel tall! Look for their giant leaves already coming out of the ground west of the benches at the top of the hill in the southern part of the park.

A Correction:

Last week I mentioned seeing an “albino raccoon” in the big hole in the tree on the western path through the woods.  I’m informed by my stepson, Glenn,  that that is a “blond raccoon” or some people call them a “cinnamon raccoon.”  They are light brown and beige, rather than gray and black like most raccoons.  Evidently they have different “morphs” as I mentioned  last week with the female swallowtail butterfly. I stand corrected!  Anyway, Reg spotted the blond raccoon last Sunday in the same tree in the same big hole!  Keep a lookout!  Here’s his quick photo of a bit of its fur showing as it slept on Sunday afternoon.

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A “blond raccoon” asleep in the same hole in which we often see baby raccoons this time of year!

So I hope the vultures didn’t scare you off !  And that you’ll share in the comments section some of your Bear Creek Nature Park finds and favorites.

*Quick footnote:  My sources for information, as well as Dr. Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Stokes Nature Guides:  A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net.; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela;Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels

This Week at Bear Creek: Small Creatures with Great Gifts

It pays to look carefully as you stroll along the paths of Bear Creek. Small creatures are sometimes the most amazing.

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino
Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino
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The Scarlet Tanager fresh from his trip from the west coast of South America

Though a friend on Gunn Road tells me she sees them in the woods behind her house, I’ve only seen the Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea) once in Bear Creek, near the northern entrance to the marsh –  but it was worth waiting for! Fresh from the northwestern edge of South America, they move high in the trees and are usually difficult to see, the female especially as she’s olive above, yellow below, matching the spring leaves. This one’s special talent is just being gorgeous!  Keep a sharp eye out and let me know if you see one!

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The House Wren’s song is the essence of spring

The House Wren  (Troglodytes aedon) makes Oakland Township part of its huge range; this small vocalist sings for folks  from Northern Canada to the tip of South America.  Cornell Lab says this tiny bird weighs about the same as two quarters. Despite its small size the house wren competes fiercely with bigger birds for a preferred spot, sometimes evicting others from nests they are already using. But they also accommodate themselves to mailboxes, old boots, wren birdhouses or any nook or cranny.  Look for “Typical Voice” on the left of this link to hear his famous song:

Here’s another wee beauty , the Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia), a summer visitor to Oakland Township that Ben saw in the park last week.

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The male yellow warbler sings “Sweet, sweet, I’m a little sweet.”

This tiny bird  sings a great little song that birders often hear as “Sweet, sweet, I’m a little sweet.” That’s how I spotted this little male. Yellow warblers like wet places so look for this little guy near the center pond or listen for him in the bushes near the marsh.  Here’s a link to his song.  See what you think he’s saying. We’ll discuss Brown-Headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater) another time, but they lay their eggs in other birds’ nests, particularly smaller birds like the Yellow Warbler.  Even if the warbler recognizes the interloper egg in its nest, the bird’s too small to push the egg out, so it usually just builds a nest on top of the original one, lays its eggs and ignores the cowbird’s. Pretty nifty solution, though it’s a good thing bird’s don’t have much sense of smell, eh?  I’ve never seen such a nest, but I’d love to!

American Goldfinches  (Spinus tristis)  live with us all year, though there may be some slight shift in populations from north to south during the winter.  The bright yellow of the males is a sure sign of spring, and during the Goldfinches’ second molt in late fall, the male’s return to the olive-yellow of the female presages the coming of winter. Goldfinches, one of the strictest vegetarians of the bird world, eat only seeds unless a hapless bug happens to fly into their beak during flight! While other birds are busy courting in the spring, they establish territories and wait to breed until late summer when the thistle seed they love is plentiful.  They make tiny nests (3″ across x 2.5″ high) woven together with spider silk and lined with thistle down.  Sounds pretty cozy.  Here’s a link to their cheerful song. This finch pair (note the different plumage) seems to have had a tiff: finch1

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This pair of American Goldfinches looks like they’ve had a tiff.

 

Ah, and then  buzz, whirr,  click, the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) zooms into the park during the first two weeks of May.

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A rainy day dims the dazzling colors of the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird.

Though this photo taken in the rain dims him a bit, in bright sunlight the sparkling iridescence of the male’s green head and deep ruby throat dazzles the eye and his ability to fly in any direction, even backwards, beating his wings 53 times/second is really impressive. He weighs only 1/10th of an ounce and has to eat 50 times his weight in nectar daily! The plainer green females arrive later, build their half dollar-sized nests and do all the care and feeding of the young. Hummingbirds are not common in Bear Creek but Ben saw one last week, actually sitting quietly like my rainy day one.

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Water striders have the unique gift of walking on water

Speaking of small talented critters, look closely at the surface of calm water anywhere in the park right now and you will see Water Striders (Gerridae). They are unique in the insect world for their ability to walk on water!  Their specially adapted legs are covered with thousands of hairs that repel water, help them distribute their weight and trap air to bring the strider to the surface if dunked. The middle legs row and the back legs steer and they can really scoot across the water!

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The Six-spotted Tiger Beetle flits along the boundary between the forest and the sunlight.

One more interesting little insect, the Six-Spotted Tiger Beetle (Cicindela sexguttata), flits along paths near the woods through the park now.  Probably his fierce name comes from the fact that the larvae burrow into the ground when they hatch where they lay in wait.  When a spider or insect happens by, they spring out and attack – much like a tiger pouncing on prey.  Someone with a fine imagination named this little guy!

violet
Michigan has 28 different varieties of violets

Our native Violets  peek out here and there.  Aren’t they lovely with the stripes on their petals and that beard at the center?  I think these are Common Blue Violets (Viola sororia) but don’t hold me to it, since there are 28 species of violets in Michigan, according to the University of Michigan Herbarium.

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Wild strawberries are plentiful in Bear Creek this year

The Wild Strawberries (Fragaria virginiana) are in full bloom and they are everywhere!  Just think, every one of those flowers is  a potential berry! A feast for wildlife since they’ll probably eat them all before they are ripe enough for humans!

May apple bud and blossom
The buds and flowers of the May Apples hide shyly below the leaves.

The May Apples (Podophyllum peltatum) are now producing their shy buds, those inedible “apples”after which they are named.  Some are blooming too,  in their shy way, bowing humbly beneath the leaves. Here are a bud and a blossom.

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Wild Geraniums are blooming in many more places after the prescribed burn.

Reliable sources (Ben and my husband Reg) tell me the carpet of Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum) has finally arrived and indeed is even more beautiful after the prescribed burn!  Geraniums are blooming in areas we’ve never seen them before!  Here’s Ben’s photo from Monday, the 18th.

Red squirrel closeup
The American Red Squirrel will chatter at you as you emerge from the woods at the Snell entrance.

And just to give small talented mammals some due, the American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) occasionally leaves a legacy to its offspring!  You’ll hear these squirrels, the smallest in the park, chattering at you as you emerge from the trees on the path from the Snell parking lot. They are very intense about their territory and you are passing through it, for heaven’s sake! They are feisty, speedy and spend part of every day creating middens, places where they store seeds and other goodies. If food is scarce, females will evidently “bequeath” one to their young, that is, give up the midden and part of her territory to her offspring. Nice little inheritance!

Coming Attractions:

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The amazing Wood Duck’s ducklings will arrive in June.

Watch for the somewhat elusive Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa)! They are in the park now, but by mid-June, there will be ducklings! And what ducklings they are! Wood ducks nest in holes in trees as tall as 60 feet. When the ducklings are two days old, mom leaves the nest, flies down to the water and calls her young.  One by one they screw their courage to the sticking point and launch themselves into the air. Their wings are too small for flight,  but they are so light they bounce on the leaf litter below. Once they are all out of the nest, they go to mom and begin to swim. Now that’s quite a gift. For a one minute video of this feat, check out this link from the PBS program, Nature. It’s just wonderful, truly. Here’s a female and a couple of ducklings in the center pond at a bit of a distance last June.

And watch for the dragonflies and damsel flies! They are just beginning to swoop and dive around the ponds and in sunny spots near the woods,  but there will be all kinds of them as June and July come on.

Quick Review:  Spotted Again this Week!

  • One Snapping Turtle in the pond near the playground, and 3 in the marsh on Sunday the 17th!
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Three snappers were seen in the marsh last week.

 

  • Rose-Breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus) singing in the trees near the northern entrance to the marsh also on Sunday.
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The male Rose-Breasted Grosbeak sings to his mate from treetops near the marsh.

 

  • A Baltimore Oriole at the center pond again this year.
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Again this year, the Baltimore Oriole is whistling in the trees near the center pond.

 

Spring is so full of change and energy that it’s a great time to explore Bear Creek Nature Park.  As usual, let me know if you see anything we haven’t, or if you’ve also seen and enjoyed the ones we post here – and where you saw them.

*Quick footnote:  My sources for information, as well as Dr. Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Stokes Nature Guides:  A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net.; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela.

	

This Week at Bear Creek: Bear Creek Begins to Bloom

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

Look for this feature early each week! Cam Mannino shares her latest observations, photos, and inspirations from Bear Creek Nature Park. Don’t forget to check out the Preview of Coming Attractions at the bottom of the post to see what you should be looking for in the coming weeks. Thanks Cam!


April 12-18: Bear Creek Begins to Bloom

This week the earliest woodland flowers took advantage of the pale sunlight filtering through bare branches and bloomed. Please help children understand not to pick flowers in our parks; we want them to prosper, seed and keep spreading!

The first to arise, as usual, were the native Spring Beauties (Claytonia), thrusting slender, grass-like leaves through the soil beneath large trees, followed by delicate white flowers with fine pink stripes. Look for them on the western edge of the path through the western woods.

Spring beauty and moss make a wonderful green splash after a long winter
Spring beauty and moss make a wonderful green splash after a long winter

Another early riser is our native Blood Root (Sanguinaria canadensis), named for its use as a dye by native basket makers. This elegant little plant emerges wrapped in an almost circular leaf cloak, after which the small, white flower with a bright yellow center opens to the sun and the leaf unfolds. I tracked its progress over 3 days under a large tree left of the path near the Gunn Road end of the marsh. A large patch of Blood Root also appears every year among fallen trees on the western side of the long loop behind the center pond. But be quick; these very early spring flowers usually last only a few days!

Bloodroot leaves emerging
Bloodroot leaves emerging
A flower bud hides in the emerging bloodroot leaves.
A flower bud hides in the emerging bloodroot leaves.
The flower of blood root fully open.
The flower of blood root fully open.

The more odiferous and sturdy native, Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), nosed its way out of marsh mud at the southern edge of the western woods. Look down from the eastern side of the bridge built there for us by an Eagle Scout. If you get too close, whew! They do like to make a stink each spring but that’s how they attract fly pollinators and discourage would-be foragers!

Skunk cabbage leaves poke through the leaves
Skunk cabbage leaves poke through the leaves

Over in the marsh, two fighting Muskrats (Ondatra zibethicus) staged a splashing chase scene for me, but I was only able to catch a photo of one swimming away in its blue wake.

A muskrat steaming along
A muskrat steaming along

A day later it was turtle fest again. Five Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta) basked on a log in the center pond, lined up by size as if they were the VonTrapp family!

Five turtles line up on a log at Bear Creek Nature Park.
Five turtles line up on a log at Bear Creek Nature Park.

And the same day, a large Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) cruised the marsh, eating underwater plants, its long neck stretching up periodically for air. Watch for what looks like a lump of mud moving slowly in the water, with the turtle’s beak-like snout emerging separately just ahead. Like this:

A snapping turtle swims with its head just above the water
A snapping turtle swims with its head just above the water

Two days later on the large loop, I very carefully approached another snapper, which was probably seeking a place to lay eggs. She wisely sought a better location since there was no disturbed earth the next day. Don’t get too close! These big turtles are crabby on land and can quickly extend their necks which can be as long as their carapace. They snap with powerful jaws, because unlike other turtles, they are too big to pull into their shells. The snapper’s ancestors lived at the time of the dinosaurs and they look it, don’t they?

A big snapping turtle on a path. Maybe looking for a nesting site.
A big snapping turtle on a path. Maybe looking for a nesting site.

The female Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) have now joined their flashier mates in the marsh.

A female red-winged blackbird
A female red-winged blackbird

A Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus ) drummed for a mate nearby. The males are red from the nape of the neck to the bill like the one below. The females have a red nape patch that stops at the back of the head. Not to be confused with the Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus), like the cartoon Woody, whose neck and head is completely red and whose plumage is very different.

A red-bellied woodpecker perches on  a tree
A red-bellied woodpecker perches on a tree

Previews of Coming Attractions!

Let’s see if these Trout Lily leaves (Erythronium ) near the Gunn Road entrance produce any beautiful yellow flowers. It’s been years since they have, but maybe the prescribed burn will help them out this year. It bloomed after a previous burn!

Mottled trout lily leaves soak up sunlight.
Mottled trout lily leaves soak up sunlight.
This trout lily, a native flower, bloomed after a prescribed burn in 2008
This trout lily, a native flower, bloomed after a prescribed burn in 2008

A May Apple (Podophyllum) sprout and drooping unopened leaf emerged in a sunny spot next to the path. In May, a white flower will bloom shaded under the fully open umbrella leaf, to be followed by an inedible “apple.”

Mayapple leaves unfurl from the ground
Mayapple leaves unfurl from the ground

Sunday morning, a North American Raccoon (Procyon lotor) snoozed in this tree on the western-most path through the woods, only a small slice of fur visible at the bottom of the hole until my camera clicked. Keep watch here – by the end of May, baby raccoons may clamber around inside the hole as they have most years. I recommend whispering and staying on the path with binoculars or she and the young will disappear farther up inside the hole.

The racoon hole
The racoon hole

Come explore spring in Bear Creek yourself and please let us know about your discoveries in the comment section below.